Books: Flying Visits: Postcard from Sydney - 2 : Here Is the Noos |
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Postcard from Sydney - 2 : Here Is the Noos

‘Roasted in coconut oil and lightly salted, you'll enjoy the smooth richness, the unique flavour of this entirely Australian nut.' This masculine rubric, with its hefty pair of dangling participles, appears on the 500 gram tins of Macadamia nuts now on sale in my homeland. Firm, fleshy and sensual, the Macadamia nut (accent on the third syllable — Macadaymia) is the perfect nut. The first person to import Macadamia nuts into Britain will make a million pounds. Once you start eating them there is no way of stopping until you faint.

When I left Australia fourteen years ago, the only way of getting at the kernel of the Macadamia was with a large hammer, since the nut came equipped with a casing of the same dimensions and consistency as ball-bearing ammunition. If you swung the hammer absolutely vertically the casing fractured and the kernel rolled away. If your swing was even slightly angled, the nut disappeared with the sound of a ricocheting bullet, and you might see an old lady collapse in the street, clutching her forehead. While I have been away, someone has found a commercially practicable method of stripping the casings from the kernels. Presumably the casings are then sold as railway ballast or shrapnel. The delicious kernels go into tins, which the people may purchase, thereby enriching their lives. The sum of such small leaps forward — and there have been many — represents Cultural Advance.

Whether there has been Cultural Advance in the grander sense is another question. During the Whitlam era it was taken as axiomatic that Australia was expanding on all fronts, realising its creative potential in every direction after decades of stifling conservatism. Both economically and artistically it was supposed to be boom time. And even now, especially now that the economic on-rush has faltered, the cultural explosion is taken to be an irreversible gain. The concept of cultural advance is clung to desperately by an intelligentsia still trying to cope with the glaring fact that the same people who voted Whitlam in voted him out again when they began to fear that his liberalising policies would involve them in becoming less rich.

The intelligentsia has been so traumatised by Whitlam's fall that it has placed the blame everywhere except on the people's democratic right to be self-interested. It has tried to blame the Murdoch Press (which is indeed, in its home country, a wonderfully petty organisation), Sir John Kerr, Malcolm Fraser and — in wilder moments — the CIA. But no amount of fulminating can alter the fact that Australia's economy is in a slump for which the people are just as likely to blame Whitlam as to blame Fraser. The intellectuals have perforce gone back to their erstwhile condition of feeling ranged against, rather than with, Government. Like the JFK intellectuals after their hero's assassination, they have lost their power to influence politics directly and now must cultivate their own garden. It is no surprise that they cultivate it with hurt pride, small humour and a greater determination than ever to pronounce Australia independent of all debts to Europe.

But to a great degree, independence from Europe seems to have involved dependence on America, in the small change of culture if not in the large. And since the small change of culture indubitably affects everybody's life, whereas larger cultural matters are for the few and often putative even for them, it is Americanism that nowadays strikes you first about the quotidian tone of Australian existence. A signboard on a unisex hairdresser's shop apostrophises: 'Guys! Gals!' The Sydney traffic signs, which used to be just red, green and amber lights, now say 'WALK/DON'T WALK'. A church advertises 'the friendliest modern worship experience'. When I queried something at the reception desk of a Melbourne hotel the girl on duty said she'd 'check it out'.

Such Americanisation of the language is much more significantly pervasive than the high incidence of skate-boards and roadside fast food parlours. The Australian eastern seaboard is one long Fun City for surfers and wherever there is surf in the world there must inevitably be skate-boards. And the car-trips between towns are very long, so California-style roadside refreshment makes sense, even if the chiko roll — one of the staple fast foods to have emerged since my time — looks and tastes like something which has been slowly passed through a live dog. McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken are everywhere in Australia, but then they're everywhere in Britain too, all set to drive the Wimpy into the sea. The American invasion of the Australian stomach was always on the cards. But the invasion of the language is less easy to laugh off.

The incursion is most noticeable on television. Australian TV is so bad it is almost impossible to describe. If you have seen American television and can imagine it without its redeeming features, then Australian TV is even worse than that. On Australian TV, 'It's A Knock-Out' (retitled 'Almost Anything Goes' and deprived of even the element of literacy conferred on the British version by Stuart Hall and Eddie Waring) rates as highbrow. The locally conceived product is qualitatively shown up by a few imported British series and quantitatively overwhelmed by Americana. 'Homicide', acted with scarcely believable stiffness in front of cardboard sets and taped in black and white, is a representative home-grown series: it makes 'The Streets of San Francisco' look urgent. With the run-of-the-mill stuff so bad, there is no chance for the occasional prestige venture to be any good, since nobody — especially not the actors — is in practice.

Apart from such fitful indigenous efforts, everything and everybody on television is American-derived, including most of the link-men. I remember when Australian TV got started in the Fifties, all the radio newscasters who wanted to get into it raced off to Hawaii and came back a week later with names like Chuck Faulkner and accents to match. 'Here is the noos.' All that still goes on, only more so. During my visit the big TV event was the filming (and, after a two-week editing session in California, the screening) of an episode of 'McCloud' set in Sydney. Less substantial even than usual — the presence of Australian actors ensuring an extra level of awkwardness — the episode used Sydney locations. The heavies threw someone to the sharks and McCloud threw one of the heavies off the hotel at King's Cross. Inevitably the final shoot-out was at the Opera House. From the accompanying hoo-ha of publicity it was hard to escape the impression that Sydney was at last rating as a world-class metropolis, now that McCloud had been there.

English writers of my acquaintance who were at the Adelaide Festival at the same time as I was in Sydney have since told me that they were continually struck by the way the Australian assertion of independence was undermined by an anxiety about being recognised by the rest of the world. It's an ambivalent, confused attitude: to proclaim Sydney a great city but never quite believe it yourself until McCloud agrees with you. The conflict is partly resolved by appealing to internationalism.

'International' is a vogue word in Australia, like 'situation' in Britain. Some Australian cabaret artistes still bill themselves as 'London-based', but it is more common for them to describe themselves as 'international'. Billboards show Dennis Lillee fiercely endorsing dozens of different products, his John Newcombe moustache unashamedly Aussie. But on the billboard next door the Benson & Hedges advertisement will feature George Lazenby, 'a well-known Australian international'. A newspaper ad will inform you that people with 'international tastes' buy their shirts in Parramatta Road, Annandale. The anxiety is all-pervasive — even where it is unnecessary, since in things like men's clothes Australia has more than caught up with the rest of the world. At the time I left Sydney an ordinary Marks and Sparks pullover would still be displayed individually on a chromium stand in the window of a George Street shop. Today it would take Alan Whicker about an hour to duplicate his entire wardrobe of snazzy schmutter, right down to the Gucci accessories — all without leaving the Wentworth Hotel. And in the simple matter of drinking hours Sydney has transformed itself, so that it is now as rare to see a drunk on the streets as it once was common.

But in other matters there is not just plenty of room for anxiety, there is plenty of reason. The Ocker cult is a natural consequence of the attempt to achieve an Australian identity by sheer force of assertion. The Ocker is Barry McKenzie without his creator's controlling irony — a monster who has broken out of Frankenstein's laboratory and run wild. The idea, apparently, is to identify dinkum forthrightness with beer-swilling, prawn-chundering aggression. Barry McKenzie was intended to convey the disturbed naivety behind the Australian male's parade of male chauvinism, but by the time he has been transformed into the Ocker the intended self-revelations have been forgotten, although the unintended ones are more self-revealing than ever.

For a mercy, Ockerism is derided by the educated young, who buy the post-Woodstock package in its entirety and are by now immune to the cruder forms of populism: their own conformity is more benign. The Ocker is strictly a mass media event — but then Australia is pre-eminently a mass society. Ockerism's most famous incarnation is Paul Hogan, a stand-up comic who rivals even Dennis Lillee as an advertiser's idea of irresistible consumer-bait.

I went to the St George Leagues Club to catch Hogan's act. The Leagues Club, which has doubled in size since my time, more than lived up to its reputation as the biggest thing of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere — although it is difficult to think of any other place in the Southern Hemisphere which might conceivably want to emulate it. Built as a reinforced concrete hymn to the St George Rugby League team (they won the championship for eleven years straight from 1956-66 and there was a time when I could recite the names of the whole side, including the reserves), the place has 40,000 members and looks like an aquarium full of slot machines. Kitsch portraits of front-row forwards with necks wider than their heads are spot-lit in the stairwells. Yet as a believer in art deriving its power from a primitive impulse, I expected to find Hogan vulgar but hoped he would be inventive.

Alas, he was trouncingly boring, with no idea of how to work his material. His earthiness was sheer hard-hat invective. His best line was reminiscence. Like Barry Humphries' character Sandy Stone, Hogan went in search of time past. He was quite good on, if inadvisedly proud of, the awfulness of the Australian male's sexual education, which has been such bad news for the men of my generation and even worse news for the women.

He recalled accurately how you bought your best girl scorched almonds at the pictures but fobbed off your second best with conversation lollies (they were shapes of toothbreaking candy with messages in pink ink). Unfortunately he lacked the discrimination necessary to organise such resonant subject-matter. The linguistic fastidiousness of Humphries he just couldn't match. Hardly any Australian can match it, since it is linked to the consciously European richness of Humphries' personal culture. Humphries' internationalism, unlike George Lazenby's, is not an ad-man's shibboleth but a condition of mind. The force of intellect Humphries brings to the seemingly worthless minutiae of everyday Australian life depends on his studious immersion in European culture and his readiness to measure his work by its standards.

Look through the collections of Australian paintings in the Sydney and Melbourne galleries and you quickly see that for Australian artists the price of losing touch with the rest of the world is to be forced into copying the rest of the world, and that this has never been more true than recently, when arrogant self-sufficiency has resulted in the most abject plagiarism of international fashions. The strong periods of Australian painting have always depended on painters recognising the necessity for educating themselves abroad. Any Australian painter could apply European techniques to Australian subjects. What counted was applying European standards.

The pre-First World War painters did that, and to a certain extent the post-Second World War painters did too, with Sidney Nolan the most famous example. The creative self-confidence of both schools was humble at the core — the ideal order of events in an artistic personality, whatever the medium. But the young artists who received the largesse of the Whitlam regime seem to me to represent a return to insularity.

The ideology of nationalist self-sufficiency — the Australian 'renaissance' — has mainly acted as licence for provincialism, not just in painting but in films, drama and literature as well. The Australian cinema, if it can produce a few more films as good as Picnic at Hanging Rock, will actually be getting somewhere, after years of doing nothing except bombard British film magazines with meaningless advertisements announcing: 'Suddenly the Australians are taking over.' But it must be emphasised that Picnic at Hanging Rock is the exception. Scores of feature films have been made in Australia since the Whitlam Government introduced subsidies, but the average among them is unsaleable abroad and unwatchable at home. Bruce Beresford's Barry McKenzie, the first feature to be made under the new system, was a strong father which has had some weak progeny. Most of them have been showered with critical praise but the accolades are worthless, since they are composed by journalists devoid of standards. (Peter Weir, director of both Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Cars That Ate Paris, is the first to insist that premature canonisation is the biggest threat facing the young Australian film director today.)

It was the critical journalism which finally got me down, making me realise that my birthplace would probably have no place for me even if I decided to go back. Australia has its equivalents of the weekly magazines and posh papers which I read and write for here both as a way of life and a means to pay for it. But they are equivalent only in their format. There is plenty of good will and vigour and even talent in them but there are no consistent standards. It is not so much a lack of writing as a lack of editing. Punctilious editing is the real secret behind most of the good literary journalism done in London. Even the best of the Australian publications are full of copy which in London would be regarded as unpublishable. The literary journalist who has never been strictly blue-pencilled will never develop. And although it might be said that whether or not its literary journalism is any good is not of much importance to a young and rich country, it is of importance to me.

So one had had good reasons for sailing away, even though they did not become apparent until years later. But as I got ready to leave again, there was no mistaking the attractiveness of what was being left behind. On the last day of my trip I lunched with my family at Doyle's, the superb fish restaurant at Watson's Bay on Sydney Harbour. Sitting shirtless in the bright sun with the ultra-violet eating into my skin which had once never been white and now would never again be really brown, I ate feathery prawn cutlets and succulent whiting fillets while the children played naked amongst the beached boats and under the wharves. The fish — caught on a hand line and iced in the boat — were symphonic. Looking up-harbour towards the Bridge, you could see yachts and hydrofoils racing on the crushed diamond water, while container ships being tugged for the sea were giant cut-outs in the dazzle. Life seemed very close to God.

Perhaps that's the real reason for leaving: that Paradise on Earth leaves you nothing to achieve. But it's possible to make too much of artistic self-exile. Twenty-four hours after leaving Sydney I was back in London. The journey which once took me five weeks and felt irreversible now takes a day and feels like nothing except a bad night's sleep.

— June 27, 1976

Footnote 1984 : Eight years later I would have tried to sound more grateful for the hearteningly many high-grade Australian films. But the general point remains true: the average Australian film is not The Getting of Wisdom but Goodbye Paradise.

Postscript 2007 : I failed to predict that Australia would have a big influence on television throughout the old empire, not so much with its home-grown product as with off-shore efforts such as Neighbours. Later still, Australian domestic television could put to air a drama series as compulsively viewable as The Secret Life of Us. But on the whole it remains true that American formats, and indeed directly imported American programmes, overwhelm the Australian schedules, with the notable and commendable exception of the ABC. Paul Hogan later became world famous as Crocodile Dundee and as the man who threw the extra shrimp on the barbecue in the commercial promoting Australia's image abroad. But the later Crocodile Dundee movies proved, I think, that he never really got in control of his material. It could be said that he didn't have to: he had limitless charm. On the theme of painting, the connection between the Australian effort and the world heritage later became one of my subjects, and I know a lot more about it now, although I can say on my own behalf that I had already got the point of the Australian post-war effort when I saw a private collection of Boyds and Drysdales in London.