Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Tell England: or, In the Penal Colony |
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Tell England: or, In the Penal Colony

A funny thing happened to me on my way to the front door in a dressing-gown and a two-day stubble a couple of weeks ago. I got my very first piece of hate-mail telling me to go home. It came as a bit of a shock after spending ten years in this country: ten years is a hefty stretch of time and you’ve sort of decided by then that you are home. But this lady didn’t think so. She said that there were altogether too many fast-talking Aussies clogging up the media and that I should do the decent thing, if I was capable of it, and immediately reduce their number by one. It turned out that I had failed her. She had gleaned from my appearances in the media that I was tough on all this noisy modernism and liked things classical and cool — a critical position she approved of. Why then, was I going on Late Night Line-Up and slyly suggesting that Adrian Mitchell’s new musical might be a couple of degrees better than intolerable?

My reputation as a critic, she said, I could from now on consider to be in shreds, she said. Well, I could live with that. And then — go home, she said. I kicked aside some milk-bottles, sat down on the stairs, and processed this data through the scruffy nylon cogs of my early-morning skull. It was a bleak moment. Outside in the dawn — well, outside in the 11.30 a.m. to be precise — droves of tourist coaches were arriving in Cambridge, full of people who were taking a quick look around England before going back to where they belonged. Why hadn’t I done that? If I’d done that, about nine and three-quarter years ago, I wouldn’t have now been squatting there on the lino-covered stairs and holding in my hand the refeened, civilized, ever-so-upper-class version of ‘Go home nigger’. I tottered to the front door and opened it. There was no cross burning on the lawn. I checked the letter-box in which the missive had arrived. Not a trace of human ordure. Had my wife received any threatening phone-calls? When would they promulgate the directive that all Australians would have to wear a cut-out kangaroo on their arm? Back upstairs, I crashed into my special writer’s chair — it’s got a strobe-light to keep me awake and a time-lock seat-belt that won’t let me out at intervals of less than 1,000 words — and opened the newspaper.

Richard Neville pulls fifteen months in stir on obscenity rap: Judge speaks of deportation for Australian. Judge speaks of what for who? Deportation, boy. We’re going to send you back to Botany Bay to start all over again. You can do the whole thing da capo, or as we say in the legal trade, you can take it from the top. Twelve thousand miles in irons and you step off the boat into a swamp. Off with the irons and on with the chains. Tame forest, plough land, earn freedom, start business, get rich — working flat out, you might just about get back to England again in a couple of hundred years. A condemned man, I ate a hearty breakfast: one glass of stomach powder, shaken violently without even trying. Outside, somewhere down there in London, Richard Neville was getting his hair cut off. Not much of mine left to do that to me, but who’s to say they wouldn’t think of something else? Make reflex clutch at crotch. Look into shaving mirror: not a pretty sight. Passport number 34557775 James, C. V. L.; political sub-category, Australian; class of citizenship, minus 13: caught red-handed tolerating Adrian Mitchell in the presence of Sheridan Morley and other pure-blood Brits. It was own-up time: time to keep that long-delayed appointment with my identity crisis.

Well, not really. Australians in my line of work don’t often ask themselves what they’re doing here because the answer’s too obvious: as Captain Ahab shouted while lying strapped down by harpoon lines on the heaving flank of the submerging Moby Dick, ‘I’m here because this is where the work is’. Unless he’s a talent of truly enormous robustness, a writer is bound to head for the language centre — and for the English-speaking world the language centre is still England. The penalty for staying home is to accept provincial standards, and if you are tough-minded and refuse to listen to those, you have only your own standards to fall back on. You’d have to be more than a pretty good writer to do that and still produce good work. As Peter Porter said in the Times Literary Supplement recently, there’s nothing more debilitating than reading bad works of art produced by people whose general views of life you agree with. So you come away to where the stakes are high. Only the poor artists and a tiny few of the very, very good ones stay behind, finding their level because they know their level. None of this applies to the Americans, of course — although until recently it still applied to some of the major Americans, particularly those who felt the lack of historical depth in their national background and wanted to plug themselves back into European continuity.

European continuity was on my mind, too, when I arrived, but the nice thing about European continuity is that once you’ve got into it you can stop thinking about it. I went through phases of thinking about it, none very satisfactory. Just think, I thought one day while drinking my first pint of British bathwater in a famous hostelry in St. Martin’s Lane, I am standing in Dylan Thomas’s favourite pub. I got that mood in perspective when I found out there were fourteen other of Dylan’s favourites between there and Great Portland Street. I spent four years being broke in London and I did a lot of walking, not all of it enforced. Greenwich, the Wren churches, all the nooks and crannies: with a copy of The Waste Land in my hand I traced out the whole geography of the poem in the streets around the Bank of England. I checked up whether St. Mary Woolnoth really does keep the hours with a dead sound on the final stroke of nine. The crowds flowed over London Bridge, so many. I made a promise to myself that I would learn the whole city but gradually I ceased to keep it. People like Sir John Betjeman do it so much better. Gradually I just took it for granted. And when I went up to Cambridge to do a second degree and part of a third, the initial passion for knowing all about that beautiful city soon waned. I never stopped looking but I stopped learning — why panic, why try? I was home, and home is the place you jog along in. By the second of my winters in London — that terrible winter of 1962 — I already knew that I would never leave England. Perhaps I’m kinky for snow.

When old Australian friends on a visit finally assimilate my assurances that I’m never going back to Australia to live, they invariably ask why I don’t go home on a visit. Well, until a year ago I never had the cash for even a down-payment on the plane ticket: for some reason the aircraft on the Australia run are built out of platinum and use Arpege for fuel, and the passenger is asked to defray the cost of keeping these Byzantine beauty-parlours in the air. I could have gone by ship, of course, but only with my legs in irons and a deportation tag around my neck: I remember the trip over too well. I spent five weeks locked with a couple of rugby players in a phone-booth-sized salonette on deck Z of a Greek ship whose crew had to be replaced in Brisbane because a passenger shot an albatross. The propeller shaft was in the cabin with us and if one of us stood up to get dressed the other two had to go back to bed. On deck we all threw beer-cans into the empty swimming-pool or crowded to the rail to watch the ship being overtaken by a turtle. It was agony. But I suppose I could just about afford a round-trip by plane now: one of those semi-scheduled flights in a clapped-out old unpressurized C54 flown by a Polish Battle of Britain ace with an eye-patch — one of those wing-and-a-prayer efforts that have no trouble getting permission to take off but have to negotiate for hours before getting permission to land. So why not make the trip? you’ll be asking, especially if you’re the little lady who wrote that letter.

It’s hard to say. When I try to let Australia flash into my mind —not an easy trick, but worth trying — I first of all get the picture of all-round toxicity: an overall hostility on the part of Mother Nature. There are a lot of things out there that bite you. I often wonder why Australia House doesn’t keep a special glossy pamphlet about them, for handing to prospective immigrants whom they’re eager to discourage, like those dark people they considerately turn down on the grounds that there’s no point going out there if you’re not in a position to benefit from the ultra-violet.

I can think of three extremely interesting kinds of spider. There’s the trap-door spider, which lifts up a tiny coal-hole door with one mandible before ambling out to give you the kind of injection that cures you of everything. There’s the funnel-web, whose nest is a kind of launching tunnel in the ground, like a missile silo, from which it emerges in a savage parabola and descends on its hapless prey — sometimes a capstan-lathe operator from Wigan with a ‘Come to Sunny Australia’ brochure in his hand. Finally there is the red-back, bearing on its tiny dorsal area the crimson stripe of the Richthofen Circus: its favourite trick is to hide under the lavatory seat, from which vantage-point it delivers a bite that leaves you with the huge problem of where to put the tourniquet and only five minutes to think about it.

Above and beyond the spiders, so to speak, are the snakes. These come in several categories, in ascending order of consequence to health. First of all there are the harmless, i.e. dead. Next there are the lethal. Above these there are the totally devastating and right at the top there are the absolutely ridiculous, of which the pacesetter is called the taipan. The taipan can kill you, and your horse if you are riding one, in something under ten seconds. It is one of the few snakes in the world which will actually attack a man unprovoked. Crazed gangs of taipans have been known to steal cars and cruise up and down the Pacific Highway, looking for trouble.

And then there are the sharks: nature’s Nazis, the irrational bent stormtroopers of the deep. Like most inhabitants of Sydney I spent three-quarters of my time out of my depth in the Pacific Ocean and I can honestly say that the little darlings were never out of my mind for a moment. The greatest loneliness I have ever known was hearing the shark bell ring when I was out body-surfing at the third line of breakers. The bell went off and everybody sprinted like mad to catch the next wave. I was the only one who missed it, I think: it doesn’t matter if there were others, because when you do miss that wave, you’re the only one. So there you are treading water —very quietly and yet very rapidly, so as to get as far out of the water as possible — and waiting for the secret police to knock. And somewhere down there it is, or usually, they are: jet-propelled bags of razor-blades with black crosses on their sides and the personalities of homicidal maniacs. There are sharks in Sydney Harbour that actually come out of the water and get people — nobody shakes Rocky’s mob. None of this is exaggerated, or anyway not much — taipans don’t steal cars, they rent them — but of course it’s not the whole picture. There’s the sun and the wealth and all the other things the pamphlets tell you, and it really is a wonderful country to be young in. The trouble, as far as I’m concerned, is that it’s also a wonderful country to stay young in. Intellectually, Australians tend to mature late, if at all: for example, the country as a whole still hasn’t woken up to the fact that the arts are not commodities. This slowness to mature goes on affecting you long after you’ve come away: when I went up to Cambridge I was about seven years older than most of the freshmen but felt about two years younger, and it’s only now that I feel I have caught up with the Englishmen of my generation. I’ve learned to relax a bit, and I don’t just mean in the sense that I no longer feel required to roll up a newspaper and hold it poised while I lift up the lavatory seat to check for lurking spiders: I just lift up the seat and give it a casual glance. Nor is it a matter of having learned which fork to use — a problem I solve by eating everything with a bowie-knife. No, I mean that ten years of England have at last softened the harsh illusion Australia offers you that the whole world is there to be begun again: that fatal fancy that the world can be made over in your own image.

Australia seems set on repeating in little the American dream of infinite possibilities — which means in effect that it is condemning itself to unlimited banalities. It is not a good place to be interested in ideas for their own sake: people will always be asking you what use they are. For example, there is an illusion that the whole population knows what freedom is and nobody needs to write it down or even work it out — and yet there are freedoms of speech and freedoms of behaviour which are repressed in Australia in a way which suggests that not only the repressive agencies, but the ordinary people, have simply no idea of what freedom is. The assumption that everyone is heading in the one direction — onwards —leads to the rule of everyone over anyone. What England has given me is the realization of a greater complexity in the body politic, of a lot of separate liberties managing to accommodate to one another. Things can happen to make dents in this realization — the Oz verdict was just one of them — but by and large England is a very advanced country politically, far more advanced than an advanced country like Australia even fancies itself to be. Here you can turn your hand to almost anything legal and still feel part of the country’s daily life. For any kind of artist this is a very desirable condition to be in: it keeps the ego trimmed to size and makes sure that not too much energy is wasted on setting the stage for posthumous fame. Australia continues to drive away most of its best artists because it does not want them for their art, it wants them for their lustre — it wants to keep the prestige and throw away the thing itself. Here it is easier to just get on with your work. Which, having said my piece, is what I now propose to do. I’m not going home, because I am home, in the country I was born to live in and doing the work that such powers as I have fit me to do. A delectable situation, although that letter-writing lady would probably not agree. Incidentally, dear, the green ink was the final touch.

(BBC radio and Listener, 1971)


Writing for radio, I had to lay out my sentences in a linear fashion, and the immediate result, against my expectations, was an increase in clarity and pace. Having done enough scripted broadcasts for the technique to become habitual, I later transferred it to television, where I reaped the benefit of the widespread but erroneous belief that the medium can’t tolerate a complicated thought. It can. What it can’t tolerate is a complicated sentence.

Young Australians reading this piece will be annoyed by my glib willingness to sell their homeland short. All I can say now is that until the early 1970s Australian expatriates quite commonly believed that they were in flight from Philistia. The Whitlam government, with its attendant cultural efflorescence, changed the mood. After that I would have written such a piece differently because I would have felt differently. Years later, with The Metropolitan Critic safely hull-down over the horizon on its journey to oblivion, I cannibalized the best phrases from this broadcast for a different book that I had had in mind since my first winter in London: Unreliable Memoirs. Drawing on much deeper and truer feelings than cultural alienation — drawing, indeed, on the blessed up-bringing which had enabled me to enjoy the luxury of such posturings — the book registered not only my affection for Australia but also, I was gratified to discover, the same affection in a lot of other people, many of whom had never even been there. The result was the kind of commercially successful book which condemns an author for ever afterwards to hearing it called ‘your first book’ or, even worse, ‘your book’. In fact it was my fifth book and there were more to come, but there’s no point complaining. Since it is a statistical probability, however, that nobody will read this book who hasn’t read that one, honour demands that I own up to the inevitable effect of déjà lu. Here was the rehearsal for the later spontaneity. After Unreliable Memoirs I was much more careful never to repeat myself, but that was only because there was a bigger chance of getting caught.