Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 16. Throw to Australia |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 16. Throw to Australia


After two hundred years of European settlement, Australia was understandably preoccupied with its own story. There was a momentum going that was hard to buck. The country’s most powerful television company, Kerry Packer’s Nine network, wanted an enormous Bicentennial programme that would last an entire evening. It would have three anchors. Two of them were Australian household names — Jana Wendt and Ray Martin — and the third, the ring-in, was to be me. All I had to do was say yes to a preliminary tour of inland Australia so that I might sound as if I knew what I was talking about on the big night. The tour was a wise precaution because like most expatriates of my generation I had never been out of my home state before I went to Europe. Travel within Australia was expensive when we were young. Only the rich flew interstate, and usually because they owned the airline. Fast-forward to a new era, in which Richard and I climbed out of aircraft of various sizes all over Australia for two weeks on end, under the leadership of the show’s producer. Peter Faiman had directed Crocodile Dundee and still owned a large piece of it, which was like having a tap in his kitchen that ran liquid gold. Blessed with the personal cash-flow that enabled him to do anything he wanted, he sincerely wanted to make a TV programme that would help to give Australia a sense of itself, on top of the sense of itself that it had acquired already from sending Paul Hogan abroad to charm the world out of its pants and Linda Koslowski out of her underwear. That sounded good to me and I happily allowed myself to be wound down the shaft of an opal mine in Coober Pedy by the town’s Greek mayor in person. Fifty feet above me he shouted, ‘Is beautiful?’ down the hole. It was beautiful indeed. The opal seams in the walls glowed pink and azure in the torchlight. I was in a bubble of loveliness.

In the flood plains of Kakadu I was in a puddle of danger. Being paddled in a shallow boat through a club-land for crocodiles was nasty enough but a helicopter ride along the escarpment was nastier still, because crocodiles are reasonable creatures compared with helicopter pilots, none of whom, in my experience, can be trusted. There was a whole generation of them who either pined for the great days in Vietnam or else were ashamed they never went. Making the passenger aware of danger was their mission, as if any passenger in his right mind ever doubted the danger: I mean, just look at a helicopter. If God had meant that thing to fly he would have given it wings. We shaved the escarpment so close that I saw a snake pull its head in. Hence the puddle of fear. Not that I wasn’t enchanted by the flood plains on those occasions when I wasn’t being shown off to the crocs or flown by a maniac. Kakadu reminded me of the Masai Mara. Here, surely, the African animals would be safe. Couldn’t they be flown here two by two in an airlift version of Noah’s ark? In years to come I tried the idea out on the PR representatives of several billionaires but I always got the same answer: the quarantine laws would never allow it. The quarantine laws had, however, allowed the importation of the cane toad, which was already, at the time of which we are speaking, taking over the country. The first cane toads had been brought in so that they might eat beetles inimical to sugar cane, but the cane toads quickly proved to be far keener on eating everything else, after poisoning it first. Leopards, I pointed out, wouldn’t do that. Nobody listened.

Research had revealed that there was a town in upper South Australia consisting of one house with two people in it. When we arrived by Land Cruiser at the front door, only one of the people was at home. A large, soft woman who looked comfortable to sit in, she told us that her husband had driven to the next town because a pig was going to be killed. Were she and her husband stocking up on meat for winter? ‘Nar, he just didn’t want to miss the fun.’ On the big night there would be an earth station camped in her front yard to watch her celebrate, so I gave her a firework to let off. When I asked her what she and her husband were doing out there — the desert stretched away on all sides until the world curved — she said they liked the simple life. So do I, really, but the world comes crowding in. Anywhere you set yourself up to be alone, a crew will arrive with a satellite uplink and ask you why you’re there. Death is the only escape. In that year a lot of the Australian billionaires had died of terminal cash deprivation. One of them had sold all his Sidney Nolan desert landscapes to a gallery in Alice Springs. Off on my own during an hour of downtime, I strode into the tiny gallery, stood on the colourful carpet and bought one of the Nolans straight off the wall: a potentially useful gift for a wife who was starting to notice that I was at home far less often than not. It turned out that the colourful carpet I was standing on was an unrolled totemic painting by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. Every mark on it represented something tribally important except the two footprints in the corner, which represented my size-nine desert boots. I bought it out of embarrassment but it is still in the family, growing in wonder with the years. Listen closely to it and you can hear the music, that delicious throbbing buzz that the great Aboriginal painters somehow get into the paint.

There was more, much more. About three million square miles more. We saw a lot of Australia. But apart from the gallery in Alice Springs, which had not been on the agenda, we saw nothing of the Australian arts, with one conspicuous exception. He was a painter called Pro Hart who was included in the schedule because of his impeccable Australian credentials. Like Crocodile Dundee, he wore a bush hat. Unlike Crocodile Dundee, he did not throw knives. But he did throw paint at the canvas in an uninhibited manner. Sometimes he fired the paint from a gun. Always ready with a few quotable banalities, he had been written up in the Women’s Weekly: still, in those days, among Australia’s most influential periodicals. Faiman and his staff regarded Pro Hart as the essence of democratic free expression. After a demonstration of his irrepressible spontaneity — he created a masterpiece in a matter of minutes, though the results made me wonder why it had taken him so long — Pro Hart was duly signed up for a satellite link on the big night. My suggestion that we ought to be including singers, writers and real painters in our purview fell on deaf ears. Peter Faiman was a nice man and a capable organizer, but he had little knowledge of the arts and cared less. His idea of an important writer was Colleen McCullough. I don’t hesitate to record this, because she had the same idea herself. It was agreed that in the programme she would read out a passage from her own prose which was meant to be a hymn to the Australian identity. Back at Faiman’s headquarters in Melbourne, before Richard and I left for England, I argued that if we could get Les Murray to write a special poem and read it to the camera at his house in the bush, we could get the whole story about Australia’s new international literary status in five minutes. It was promised that this would be considered.

Back in Cambridge I was gratified to discover that I was recognized almost instantly by my family, but they soon noticed that I was further perfecting my trick of disappearing even while I was there. My essay collection Snakecharmers in Texas came out and I had to push it in the media. Profile writers skated through the book’s themes in jig time before getting down to the business of talking about the supposed tensions of fame. It occurred to very few of them that the press profile was one of the tensions of fame. Television interviewers didn’t even pretend to be interested in anything beyond television. Even more unsettling, radio interviewers also wanted to talk about nothing beyond television. Increasingly I felt that I would have needed only a flex with a plug to turn into a television set myself. But some of the reviews, although careful to warn me that my visible presence among the massed breasts of the Playboy gatefold girls might possibly have eroded the authority of my opinions on the poetry of Eugenio Montale, were thoughtful enough to convince me that I might still be some kind of writer. This was lucky, because there were several articles due that I had had only a limited time to sketch out while banging around in the outback. On top of those, a vast amount of draft script for the Bicentennial show arrived from Australia via fax, the new world-shrinking machine which, like every technical advance nominally calculated to save labour, actually increased labour by blocking all routes of escape from incoming requirements. The links and speeches that would be expected from me were presented in draft form. Dutifully I set about injecting them with argument, historical background, rhythm, syntax and grammar. Back they went to Australia, only to return immediately with a lot of yellow markings to indicate bits deemed to be either superfluous or too abstruse. Without exception they were the bits that I considered vital. I found myself fighting to save not just phrases, but whole lines of thought. Snatching a Friday lunch with the London literati as a drowning man who had fallen off the back of a liner might snatch at a trailing rope, I bewailed my existence. It was universally concluded that I had asked for it. There was no denying that. Halfway through the main course, a limo driver walked in, tapping his watch. He had come to take me away. Some of the blokes looked sideways. I couldn’t have agreed with them more. There is a wonderful sentence in Philip Larkin’s poetry that gets the feeling exactly. ‘Something is pushing them / To the side of their own lives.’ That was the year when we, the men who were Friday, were forcibly reminded that we were lucky to have lives at all. Our beloved Mark Boxer was diagnosed with a brain tumour. The thing was inoperable, and he wasted quickly to death, but there was time to visit him. Martin Amis and Ian McEwan paid calls right up to the last minute. It bothered me, and bothers me still, that I couldn’t bring myself to go. There is a possibility that when I was very young I got a permanent overdose of whatever antibody is released into the bloodstream when we lose a loved one. Anyway, that’s what I wrote in my letter, which he sent word that he had been glad to receive.

When Richard and I flew back to Australia to do the actual programme, my idea about Les Murray writing us a poem was still being considered, but nobody at command level of the huge show could get past the idea that Colleen McCullough must be a greater writer than Les Murray because everybody had seen The Thorn Birds. I suppose there was something to it. Anyway, the amount of airtime given to Colleen McCullough’s assurance that only Australia could have given birth to her unique vision made me feel less wretched at having so much of my own prose cut from the script during rehearsals. Visiting my mother in a spare hour, I warned her that her beloved son would be making only a token appearance. She always had radar for any hint of discontent on my part. Having provided biscuits with the cup of tea, she could tell by the way I bit through a custard cream that I was ‘in strife’, but really that was too brave a term. There is such a thing as a level at which you can’t compete. Besides, all the anchors, including even the mighty Ray Martin — justly revered for his ageless hair arrangement and his mastery of the uniquely Australian media attribute which might be defined as sparkling social concern — had to be cut to the bone to make room for the ‘throws’ from which the marathon running order was largely assembled. At this point I should explain what a ‘throw’ is. Look away if you already know. If you do, you probably work in Australian television. Nobody else cares, but everyone in Australian television persists in the belief that a throw is the most exciting thing that can happen on screen, the essential technical trick that defines the medium.

In the throw, the studio anchor hands over to the roving reporter on the spot, saying something like, ‘And now, to give us a close-up of how the Prime Minister feels about these new allegations, let’s go back to Mike Treadwell at Kirribilli House. Mike?’ At which point, Mike says something like, ‘Well, Ray, the Prime Minister hasn’t come out of the house all morning but I gathered from the milkman earlier on that the general atmosphere in there is pretty subdued, pretty gloomy, pretty depressed.’ In a more elaborate version of the throw, the person who has been thrown to does not throw back to the studio at the completion of his spiel. Instead, he throws to someone else who is also out on location, perhaps standing in front of a stretch of ocean which yesterday had been lashed by a freak storm. ‘It might look calm here now, Ray, but yesterday it was a seething cauldron that spelt deadly danger to Steve Hewitt and his visually impaired brother-in-law Hugh Stewart. Yes, this is where two men and a dog met their fate.’ As the reporter turns to look at the stretch of ocean where nothing is happening except water behaving normally, we go back to Ray in the studio. ‘And we’ve just heard that those two men are still weak from exposure but ready to be interviewed. We’ll be going to them later. But for now, the dog is with me in the studio. Bluey, how did it feel when ...’ Multiply that whole rigmarole by a hundred and you will have some idea of the pace, structure and lexical ambition of the achievement in which I was now involved. The gigantic, hideously expensive, technically epoch-making and potentially identity-creating Bicentennial TV spectacular consisted almost entirely of throws. We threw to Kakadu, to Kalgoorlie, to Wagga Wagga, to Woop Woop. We threw to a hut in the Antarctic where three huddling meteorologists assured their watching countrymen that their indomitable Australian spirit was proof against snow, ice and the inability to view Neighbours on the day of transmission. There was meant to be a satellite dish parked somewhere near Uluru so that a nationally famous television correspondent — every reporter out in the field was more recognizable to the Australian viewing public than Her Majesty the Queen — could expatiate on the mood of the Aboriginals, this mood being detectable mainly by telepathy through the walls of dwellings from which the indigenous people, understandably cheesed off by the idea of celebrating two centuries of white domination, sensibly declined to emerge. The satellite dish was mounted on a truck, the truck had fallen sideways off the road, and the dish was damaged. The correspondent was there anyway so that he could report on the condition of the dish. ‘I’m afraid it’s out of action, Ray.’

At this point I looked at Jana Wendt — never a hard task — and could tell she was thinking exactly what I was thinking. Well informed and highly cultivated, Jana is one of those beautiful women who become even more beautiful when they concentrate, and right then she was concentrating hard on the mystery of how, while not having heard from a single person of imaginative achievement in any field, we had managed to throw to every ephemeral television personality in Australia in order to be told, in most cases, next to nothing. Watching the monitors with a growing sense of dread as one fatuous episode after another swam into view, I was unable to exclude myself from the category of well-known faces with nothing to contribute. My last remaining mini-monologue, the one about Australia in war, had been reduced to a paragraph in order to make more room for Colleen McCullough’s gruff assurances that Australia’s barren interior landscapes had somehow got into the rhythm of her prose. Well, that was believable, but why were we listening to her when we could have been listening to Joan Sutherland telling Jana abut the richly sophisticated Australian musical background that had launched her on her flag-carrying international career? What was Jana doing there, she who had interviewed every prominent creative figure in Australia and was now allowed to mention none of them? And what was I doing there, saying nothing, when saying things is the only thing I know how to do? The lady in the desert let off her sparkler. That had been my idea, and the only one to have reached the screen intact. Otherwise, there was nothing of mine on view except my grimly eager face. Eventually, after several different kinds of eternity — there was a short speech from Prime Minister Bob Hawke that was a killing reminder of how a boring speaker needs only two minutes to evoke the concept of geological time — the thing was over. Respectful of my hosts, who had paid me well, I was careful never to be drawn on what I thought of the show. But now that a full twenty years have gone by I think I can risk saying that I was less than proud of having been in it. If we Australians couldn’t do better than that then we had an identity crisis indeed, but not of the kind that the intelligentsia was complaining about. Australia’s creative and scientific life was teeming with specific voices, but what was missing was the general voice to place them in context. The general voice is the historic voice, and in Australia historic voices were in thin supply, despite the fact — or perhaps because of the fact — that the whole of world history could be viewed as having taken place precisely in order to bring about a society so prosperous, multicultural, egalitarian and politically well equipped to deal with even its most intractable anomalies.

Still, there is no free country that doesn’t churn out trivia, and it might even be possible that the liberal democracies — of which Australia is among the most advanced examples — are fated never to reach a true estimation of their own stature. To do that, they would have to be fully aware of what it is like not to be free, and it is hard to reach such a harsh awareness without being born and brought up in a country that isn’t free at all. To that extent, a liberal democracy is dreamland. Most of the people engaged in public argument have no real idea of what it might be like to be officially persecuted for holding an opinion, instead of being merely vilified by those whose opinion is to the contrary. As a student of history, I had at least some idea, and was able to keep my head when I was attacked for being a monarchist. Knowing that there had been a day when you could have your head cut off for being anything else, I was able to be grateful that I had only paper darts to dodge, instead of the axe. The matter had already come to a point before I went out to Australia to make the Bicentennial programme, because Prince Charles’s staff had roped me in as one of his Australian advisers on the matter of whether his Bicentennial speech, to be delivered in Sydney, should mention the Aboriginals. The Foreign Office, with what I thought to be typical stupidity, had advised him to make no mention of the subject. I advised him to mention it. I doubt if I was alone in this. I imagine Barry Humphries, to name only one other Australian with his name in the papers, advised the same thing, and Germaine Greer certainly would have. (Charles loved Germaine: shyly aware that he could be a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, he was switched on by her coruscating fire.) But among Charles’s numerous virtues is a knack for making you feel that he is listening to you as an individual, and not just as the representative of a group. I met him and liked him. More than that, I admired him: I thought he handled his difficulties well. As yet it had not become apparent just how difficult his marriage was going to get. It was easy to be blind on the matter because the Princess of Wales was so attractive that it was hard to imagine, on slight acquaintance, how any male with red blood would not want to follow her around like a puppy. I met her when I went down to Cannes to host a black-tie dinner for Sir Alec Guinness. Charles and Diana were both there, and afterwards Diana came swerving through the crowd to park her radiant face in front of mine. (I mean her face was radiant: mine was just a face, no doubt looking more than usually sheepish.) ‘I do think it’s awful,’ she said, ‘what you do to those Japanese people in your programme.’ Even if she had called them Chinese, I still would have been enslaved. Perhaps a bell of warning should have rung. It should have been clear to me that she could do this to anyone in trousers.

But she was doing it to me, and I was immediately on her team. In mitigation, I can say that she and Charles still had, or appeared to have, a team going too, and it still looked as if their team were playing for Britain at world-championship level. On that basis, I thought that the future for the monarchy looked secure for a couple of generations at least. But even with a less promising couple waiting in the wings, I would have been in favour of the monarchy anyway, because of my conviction that the United Kingdom — and, by extension, my homeland — benefited from having a head of state from a family which had no interests beyond preserving its own continuity. Charles was going to be that head of state one day; he had few disqualifications beyond an excess of thoughtfulness and concern; and I was for him. It was an opinion shared, tacitly at least, by a great majority of the British people, but there were penalties to be paid for endorsing it. At some awards ceremony or other, when I followed Charles to the microphone and complimented him on what he had just said — he had indeed said it well, but he seldom gets high marks for doing that, especially from professional commentators who would say it worse — Auberon Waugh was in the audience and immediately decided, doubtless prompted by a gift for mind-reading, that I was a raw colonial truckling for honours. He went into print with this opinion as often as possible and included me on his list of Australians who should be sent home. Bron (everyone called him that, even his victims) either didn’t see the historical irony involved in recommending that a miscreant should be forcibly transported from England to Australia, or else he did, and promoted the idea in order to further his reputation for outrage. He was a fluent, original and funny journalist but the shadow of his great father Evelyn might have frozen him into a mental condition of self-contempt by which he thought it didn’t matter what he said because it was only him saying it. Certainly he was not one of those journalists who, lacking the means to make reasonable opinions interesting, must resort to unreasonable opinions in order to get the reader’s attention. He was more talented than that, so it must have been from some reservoir of anger that he wrote articles attacking the author rather than the work. My friend Lorna Sage — dead before her time, alas — suffered for years from his calumnies. It could be said that she should have known how to defend herself in print, but there was no prospect of self-defence for the British and Australian prisoners of war who had suffered so cruelly in Japanese hands during World War II. Bron said, in cold print, that their sufferings had been exaggerated, and that the survivors, and the families of the dead, had been making capital out of stoking the memory of an event that had been largely the creation of Allied propaganda. As the son of an imprisoned soldier I found it hard to forgive Bron for that. But after his death I met one of his charming children and realized that he couldn’t have been all bad, if he had brought up his progeny so well: the failings of Evelyn Waugh as a father had not been echoed by the son, possibly because the painful memory was so acute. Anyway, to harbour a literary grudge is time wasted. Your opponent isn’t going to kill you, because he isn’t allowed to. He can write all the denunciations he likes and you will suffer nothing except the strain of raised hackles. In a society without laws he needs to write only a single denunciation, and you are a gone goose. Literary figures who question the value of a free society should try to spend some time in one that isn’t, in their imaginations if not in reality.