Books: Even As We Speak — Up Here from Down There |
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Up Here from Down There

When London Calls by Stephen Alomes, Cambridge

Billed as a senior lecturer in Australian Studies at Deakin University, Stephen Alomes, with his latest book When London Calls — subtitled ‘The Expatriation of Australian Creative Artists to Britain’ — has made a timely intervention in the perennially simmering local discussion about why the Australian expatriates went away and what should be thought about them by the cognoscenti who stayed put. As its provenance and panoply suggest, this is most definitely an academic work, but the reader need not fear to be dehydrated by the post­modernist jargon that threatened, until recently, to turn humanist studies in Australia into a cemetery on the moon. Instead, the reader should fear a different kind of threat altogether.

There was a time when Australian academics could be counted on for a donnish hauteur when it came to treating journalistic opinions relating to their subject. Alomes goes all the other way. Without knowing much about it, he loves the world of the media. If there is ever a Chair of Cultural Journalism at Deakin University, he could fill it the way he fills his reporter’s notebook. He gets out there on the interview trail himself. Most of the big names he wants to talk to, if not already dead, don’t want to waste any more of their lives giving soundbite answers to the kind of questions that their work exists to answer in full, but he has the professional pest’s remedy for that. He either gives them short shrift or plugs the lacunae from his clippings file, in which, it seems, any British journalist’s merest mention of an Australian expatriate’s activities — especially if the opinion is adverse — is preserved like holy writ, and in which anything that even the most uninspired Australian journalist makes of the British journalist’s opinion is carefully appended, the whole dog-eared assemblage being regarded by its assiduous compiler as a pristine Forschungsquelle out of which he may construct his own opinions by an elaborate system of cross-reference. This method seems par­ticularly Swiftian in a book which nominally devotes itself to the proposition that Australia need no longer be in thrall to how its creative efforts are perceived in the mother country. Australia is a land mass of three million square miles and geographers have long debated whether it should be called a continent or an island. The bizarre spectacle of Alomes’s self-cancelling thought processes should be enough to settle the discussion. It’s an island all right, and it’s flying like Laputa.

No doubt seeking to legitimize his gift for inaccurate precis, Andre Malraux recommended telling the kind of lies that would become true later. In Australia it is by now widely proclaimed among the intelligentsia that the era of provincialism is over. Would that it were true, but on the evidence provided by the mere existence of a book like this it isn’t yet, and later might mean never if the facts aren’t faced. One of the facts is that in Australia any discussion of the arts is likely to be bedevilled with politics. Another is that the politics are likely to be infantile. As opposed to the quality of the discussion, the quality of the arts is not the problem. With a size of population which only recently overtook that of the Ivory Coast, Australia has for some time been among the most creatively productive countries on earth. In the mortal words of Sir Les Patterson, we’ve got the arts coming out of our arseholes. Painters, poets, novelists, actors, actresses, singers, directors: our artists are all over the world like a rash, and the days are long gone when the stars who stayed away were the only ones we had.

Nobody now would be surprised to hear that the only reason Cate Blanchett left home was to get away from her more gifted sister. In Sydney a new Baz Luhrman lurks on every block, and Brisbane bristles with pret-a-porter Peter Porters. Alomeshas predicated his book on the up-to-date assumption that if Australia should happen to go on producing cultural expatriates, it won’t be provincialism that they flee from, because there no longer is any. The way he says so, however, would be enough in itself to make any current expatriate think twice before coming home for anything longer than a brief incognito visit, and might well recruit new expatriates by the plane­load.

On a world scale, the average cultural expatriate in the twentieth century took flight because if he had stayed where he was he would have faced death by violence. His average Australian equivalent has faced nothing except death from boredom. It might sound like a privileged choice until you find out how lethal the boredom can be. Try a sample sentence.

In this period groups and institutions were either offshore repli­cations of Australian support organisations or precursors of official and unofficial Australian organisations.

To be fair, Alomes doesn’t always succeed in being as unreadable as that. There are lingering signs that the once-excellent Australian school system has not yet fully given up on its initial aim of teaching pupils to write coherent prose. Apart from the use of ‘manifest’ as an intransitive verb (‘Sayle’s happy knack of being on the spot where things were happening manifested early’) and a failure to realize that the adjectives ‘new’ and ‘innovative’ are too similar in meaning to be used as if they were different (‘The film was innovative and new’) he writes a plain enough English for someone whose ear for rhythm either never developed or was injured in an accident. There are whole paragraphs that don’t need to be read twice to yield their sense. The question remains, however, of whether they sufficiently reward being read once, except as an unintended demonstration of the very provin­cialism whose obsolescence their author would like taken for granted.

The answer to the question is yes: just. Leaving his overall inter­pretation of them aside, the raw data are of such high interest that they inspire even the author to the occasional passage of pertinent reflection, some of it his own. He names the names of those Austra­lians who came to London when that was still the thing to do. After World War II the tendency for the painters who went away to stay away became ingrained. Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and Charles Blackman all made a life in England, even when their imaginative subject matter was drawn either from their memories of Australia or from the visits home they could make more frequently as they pros­pered. Alomesgives details of which painters resettled in Australia later in their careers, or else merely appeared to while maintaining their British base, and of whether their work was regarded as Austra­lian-based or international. He occupies himself with the questions of domicile and national loyalty as if his subjects thought about these things then as hard as he does now. What seldom strikes him is the possibility that to stop thinking about such matters might have been one of the reasons they took off in the first place.

If Alomes had widened the scope of his book to include other destinations besides London, he would have had to deal, among the painters, with the problem posed by Jeffrey Smart, who, at the height of his long career, not only remains a resident of Tuscany but rarely paints an Australian subject even from memory. Smart had a clear and simple reason, freely admitted in his autobiography, for leaving Australia half a century ago. As an active homosexual, he had a good chance of being locked up. But his other reasons are of more lasting interest, and one of them was that he had no personal commitment to a national school of painting that depended on Australian subject matter. He knew everything about what the national painters had achieved, but he saw them in an international context. In short, he wasn’t interested in nationalism.

The same can be applied to the musical luminaries here listed:

Richard Bonynge, June Bronhill, Charles Mackerras, Malcolm Williamson, Yvonne Minton, Joan Sutherland and so, gloriously, on. Alomes flirts with the idea that the performing artists — the instrumentalists especially — might have hindered the development of Australian music by leaving, but he doesn’t follow up on the possibility that by raising the prestige of Australian music throughout the world they might have helped more than they hindered, simply by making a musical career seem that much more exciting to a new entrant. Postwar, the arrival of Sir Eugene Goossens raised the level of Australian orchestral music, but the departure of Joan Sutherland made Australia a planetary force in grand opera — like the extra shrimp that Paul Hogan later threw on the barbie. Our Joan’s impact on Covent Garden resonated throughout the world.

The resonance reached Australia itself: when the winner of the Sun Aria Contest set out for England, she sailed on a ship that launched a thousand sopranos. The effect that the international pres­tige of our expatriates had on aspiring artists in their homeland is a big subject for our author to pay so little attention to. But he pays no attention at all to an even bigger subject. He notes that the prima donna assoluta got a rapturous reception on her 1965 homecoming tour but neglects to mention that her every record album was received with the same enthusiasm — quietly, in thousands of middle-class households. Throughout the book, he takes it for granted that the expatriate artists ran the risk of being out of touch with an Australian audience: not even once does he consider that they might have been in touch with an Australian audience in the most intimate possible way — through their art. He is keener to treat the whole phenomenon of expatriation as if it had a terminus a quo in the old colonial feelings of inferiority and a terminus ad quem in the now-imminent attainment of independent nationhood: because the stage at home was too small, gifted people needed to leave, and now that it isn’t, they needn’t. But the Sydney Opera House was already built when Joan Sutherland repatriated herself as a resident star, and although she was congratulated by music lovers for choosing to spend the last part of her career at home, she also had to cope with the patronizing opinion that her career must have been over, or she wouldn’t have come back. She also faced persistent questioning — of whose imperti­nence Alomes seems not to be aware — about why she was not in favour of an Australian Republic. Nostalgia for Switzerland must have been hard to quell.

On the continuing problem of how a successful expatriate can make a return without being thought to have failed, Alomes could have been more searching, but at least he mentions it. The theatrical expatriates have always suffered from it most. They are all here, starting with Robert Helpmann before the war, and going on through Peter Finch, Bill Kerr, Leo McKern, Diane Cilento, Michael Blake­more, John Bluthal, Barry Humphries and Keith Michell. Michell is usefully quoted as telling a journalist ‘the trouble is, when you go home, everybody says you’re on the skids’. This is a handily short version of a Barry Humphries off-stage routine that he has been known to deliver to anyone except a journalist. Humphries relates that when he stepped off the plane on one of his early trips home, a representative of the local media asked him how long he planned to stay. When Humphries explained that he was back only for a few days, he was asked ‘Why? Aren’t we good enough for you?’ For his next trip, he armed himself with a more diplomatic answer to the same question. When he said that this time he might be back for quite a while, he was asked ‘Why? Couldn’t you make it over there?’

Perhaps Alomes might like to use this parable in a later edition, although he is unlikely to get it confirmed by Humphries himself, who has already committed suicide often enough without handing the Australian press any more ammunition. Meanwhile Alomes reports a usefully rueful comment from the distinguished theatrical producer and film director Michael Blakemore, who apparently wondered whether his film Country Life — a retelling of Uncle Vanya in an Australian setting — might not have been better received in Australia if he had launched it in America and Europe first. Blakemore was really saying that the home-based Australian journalists did him in. Alomes might have made more of that, but true to his title he is more interested in the Australian journalists who went abroad.

The list starts with Alan Moorehead, who in Europe built a justified legend as a war correspondent before moving on to write his best-selling books about the Nile. Robert Hughes has several times paid tribute to Moorehead’s influence as exemplar and mentor. Moorehead was a true heavyweight, but the pick of his many suc­cessors who took the road to glory in the Street of Shame form a by no means trivial list: Paul Brickhill, Sam White, Philip Knightley, Barbara Toner, Bruce Page, John Pilger and the explosively charis­matic swagman Murray Sayle, he whose happy knack of being on the spot when things were happening manifested early. They all had that happy knack, and they all shared the conviction that wherever the spot was, it wasn’t in the land where they were born. You would think that at least a few of the survivors might have gone home by now, if provincialism was really over, but among the big-name byliners no instance of a permanent return is here recorded. There are less illustrious figures whose sojourns in Fleet Street and subsequent repatriation are solemnly celebrated. No doubt they brought some­thing home with them, but what they took away with them in the first place seems, on this reckoning, no great shakes, and one would have thought that their inclusion stretched the term Creative Artist pretty far. Two women who turned out yellow drivel for the British tabloids (‘You can tell a man by his underpants’) have their itineraries traced in detail, in keeping with Alomes’s tendency, throughout the book, to count heads without caring about the size of hat.

A conspicuous example of that same tendency is Jill Neville, enrolled among the expatriate writers. By a rough calculation she gets three times as much space as Patrick White. No doubt she had a magnetic personal attractiveness. Unduly given to the bad journalistic practice of name-checking his way through networks as if that did something to illuminate the individuals caught up in them, Alomes makes much of Jill Neville’s role in Peter Porter’s life and in the circle that formed around Charles Blackman and Al Alvarez in Hampstead. Alvarez wasn’t Australian but he liked Australians. His recent book Where Did it All Go Right? shows how much he liked Jill Neville. If not precisely a femme fatale, she certainly had the knack of making grown male intellectuals fight like schoolboys. By the time I met her, she had been brought low by illness and the familiar cumulative effects of a career in which literary ambitions do not fulfil themselves, to an extent that makes the income from ordinary journalism matter significantly less. To be trapped in Grub Street and sick too is a hard fate. But even in the early grip of the cancer that took her away, Jill Neville still had charm. The question was whether she had any talent. My own assessment would be that she more or less did — her fiction, without being incandescent, retains something better than documen­tary value — but Alomes doesn’t say whether she did or she didn’t. He just parades her along with all the other expatriates as if she had the same rank, and pays her more attention than almost any of them because she happened to know so many of them personally.

The matter of talent becomes an embarrassment when Alomes gets to what he calls the Megastars, because if he can’t talk about what they have to offer, then he can have no reason for being interested in them apart from their celebrity. The usual four suspects are rounded up. Robert Hughes gets fleeting treatment because he settled in New York instead of London. Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries and myself are worked over at length. I wish I could say I felt flattered to be included, but flattened would be more like it. Ian Britain started this Gang of Four caper with his book Once an Australian, which at least had the merit of crediting his individual subjects with a vestigial inner life that might yet survive somewhere inside the airless perimeter of their fame, in the same way that the presence of water on Mars cannot yet be ruled out. Britain was able to contemplate that his chosen specimens might have become famous for something — if only their way of putting things — rather than just through wanting to be famous. But Alomes has gone beyond that. With his innovative and new filing system, he has no need to form a personal estimation of anything that his Megastars might have actually done. He can just trawl through the press coverage.

Let me start by getting myself out of the road as quickly as possible. I only wish our author had done the same, but it all goes on for pages. A detailed case study is built up of what Alomes calls a ‘professional Australian’, smarming his way upwards in the capital city of imperialism by shamelessly peddling his colonial identity to con the Poms. For all I know, and in spite of its plethora of factual errors, this dossier fits the culprit: it takes a saint to be sure of his own motives. All I can say in rebuttal, if not refutation, is that I can’t remember the Poms being as easy to con as all that. Even for Rolf Harris, the didgeridoo and the wobble-board weren’t enough by themselves: he had to sing. And as far as I can recall after almost forty years, I had to compose a few ordinary, unaccented English sentences before I could get anybody’s attention. My freckles were already fading fast, and putting zinc cream on my nose would have looked like frost-bite.

If it was conceited of me to expect some attempt at assessing the way I write — if only to demonstrate how I worked the scam — such an attempt was the least to expect when it came to the case of Germaine Greer. If you leave out her way of putting things, all you are left with is the things she puts. Her various attitudes have been shared at one time or another by many, and there might even be some who share them all. Perhaps somewhere, gathered around some dusty well, there is a group of women farsighted enough to perceive that clitoridectomy is a breakthrough for feminism. But it would be even more amazing if they could write. Germaine Greer can write, often amazingly. Her distinctiveness is in her style, where all she feels, observes and believes adds up to a passion. It might be better if it added up to a position, but it would take a fool to deny its power, and a dunce to ignore it. Alomes ignores it. Instead, he applies his method. What she said to the media, or what the media said she said, is sedulously quoted. The contradictions and anomalies that emerge are marvelled over, as if consistency had ever been among her virtues. Deep thoughts that various mediocrities have thought about what she thinks are duly shuffled into a heap, which you would have to set fire to if you hoped for any illumination. But at least obfuscation is not the aim. In the case of Barry Humphries I’m afraid it is. The stuff about him is a scandal.

A serious fellow even while he was alive, the avant-garde novelist

B. S. Johnson once informed a table and the people sitting around it — I was one of them, so I can vouch for this — that he did not admire Shakespeare, because real people don’t talk in verse. Showing similar powers of insight, Alomes is able to detect that Dame Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson and others among Barry Humphries’ range of stage zanies do not correspond to any actual people in our country’s now advanced state of development. He further concludes that Humphries’ international theatrical success is therefore damaging to Australia’s image abroad. When Ian Britain favourably reviewed this book for the Melbourne Age, the strictures placed on Humphries were too much even for him, and he tried to point out the obvious: that Humphries’ fantastic characters were found just as entertaining by an Australian audience as a foreign one. More could be said on those lines, but I doubt it would be enough to convince Alomes, who is too hipped on his idea of the ‘cultural cringe’ (a term he employs interminably) to let go of the possibility that large sections of the Australian audience look up to Humphries precisely because he looks down on them. Alomes wouldn’t put anything past the middle class. Like many Australian soft-option academics who fancy themselves as radical political thinkers, he resolutely refuses to grasp that a middle class is the first article a liberal democracy manufactures, and the last it can do without.

Of all the people in the book, Humphries is the one to whom the term Australian Expatriate Creative Artist applies most, and of whom its author knows least. You would never guess from what is written here that Humphries, throughout his career, and in addition to commanding a mandarin prose that integrates the wild inventive­ness of the Australian idiom at a level beyond the reach of even his brightest critics, has devoted tireless energy to the study, rediscovery, preservation and furtherance of Australian music, literature, painting and architecture. Humphries is learned on a world scale, but his learning began at home, and always goes back there. An expatriate he might be, but a patriot he has always been. Everyone knows that, except Alomes and the dunderheads in his filing system, prominent among whom is Dan O’Neill, described as (and this is Alomes talking, not Sir Les) ‘literature scholar and radical academic at the University of Queensland: In 1983 Radical Dan apparently asked lrsquo;How much longer can this curious ritual last, a Londoner with quick uptake, retentive memory and verbal flair coming over here on a regular basis, to tear the living fang out of us for being "Australian"?’ I love that ‘verbal flair’: obviously a very compromising thing to be caught in possession of, like a bottle of anabolic steroids. Not all of the names brought in to help lynch Humphries are ciphers. One of them belongs to the gifted playwright David Williamson, whose towering presence in this shambling rank of iras­cible homunculi is enough to prove that Alomes’s book is a more serious matter than it might appear, although never in a way that its author might like to think. Williamson is quoted as calling Humphries ‘a satirist who loathes Australia and everything about it’. As it happens, Humphries is a difficult customer in real life and there are things about his stage act that some of us find difficult too. I wouldn’t like to be in the first three or four rows when Sir Les is propagating rancid zabaglione from the dilapidated cloaca of his mouth, and I have always sympathized with the country wife in the fifth row when Dame Edna asks her what she had to do to get the pearls. Without question there is an implacable animus boiling somewhere behind the personae. But to discern in Humphries ‘almost a total hatred of Australia’ (Williamson again, apparently) takes something more than a lack of humour. It takes nationalism, which is where we get down to the nitty-gritty.

For any free nation, an upsurge of nationalism is something it needs like a hole in the head. The holes are usually provided by whatever force emerges victorious from the resulting turmoil, and the heads by its innocent citizens. If the history of the previous century taught us anything, it taught us that. But one of the charms of the Australian intelligentsia is that the generality of its members aren’t bound by an historical context. Unfortunately they aren’t informed by one either, a deficiency which makes innocence less cute when it comes to politics. When the Australian Republican Movement gave itself a name, it was merely naïve in supposing that the concept of an historically predetermined Bewegung would fail to arouse bad memories. But there was nothing naïve, and much that was nasty, in the ARM’s collective fondness for wondering whether Australians who questioned its visionary mission were quite Australian enough.

Beginning with the discovery by Paul Keating that Australia’s destiny was to Stand Tall, it was suggested, with progressively increased intensity all the way to the eve of the recent referendum, that anyone who believed otherwise was guilty of standing short. Nationalist rhetoric was off and running like one of those bush fires that burn down whole states. It was too late for anyone to say, without risk of being fried to a crisp in the media, that Australia already was a nation: that it had thrown off the shackles of British imperialism even before the federation of its constituent states; and that it was much envied in a world which had seen many other nations with older names smashed to pieces and forced to start again — or, like Argentina (a country directly comparable to Australia up until the end of World War II), remaining intact only at the cost of being consumed with grief as their natural blessings, social cohesion, public benefits and civil rights were irrevocably frittered away in one constitutional crisis after another.

It was too late for anyone except the Australian public, who declined to vote for the republican proposal as it was put to them, and might well do the same again even if the proposal is different. It should be evident, indeed, that unless all the proposals are the same — i.e. unless there is an agreed republican model — then the republic will remain merely a nice idea, like a popcorn mine or the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Personally I hope that the republicans can agree on a model: firstly because we might need it — the Royal Family might decide to give up — and secondly because, during the necessary discussion, the intelligentsia will be obliged to examine what it did wrong last time, and might reach the salutary conclusion that its propensity for questioning the loyalty of its ideological enemies came home to roost.

Whether a wise expatriate should come home to roost is another question, especially if he has been tagged as a conservative. But it probably wouldn’t matter much if he stayed away. I called Alomes’s book ‘timely’ because in the debacle of the lost referendum it should teach his fellow savants, simply by its grotesque example, that the nationalist line of thought, especially when applied to culture, is a busted flush. But I fear it could still take many other books to teach them that the ideal of cultural autarky has always been a pipe­dream, in whatever country the pipe is smoked. Heine, without whom German poetry would be cut in half, spent two thirds of his life in Paris. He was sheltering from repression and prejudice, but Thomas Mann, even after Hitler’s death, never came home to Germany, because he doubted whether Germany was ready to come home to him. Stravinsky operated on the principle that Russia went with him wherever he went, which was everywhere except the Soviet Union. Picasso was Spain in spite of Spain, and for James Joyce the condition for returning eternally to Ireland in the circulating river of his work was never to set foot there again.

An artist is the incarnation of his country, wherever he might happen to hang his hat. And as for those countries that have never had direct experience of what tyranny, repression or officially imposed obscurantism are, they have always exported cultural figures as copi­ously as they have taken them in. Why William James stayed in the United States and his brother Henry never came home is a question open to a hundred answers, but sensibly the Americans long ago gave up on wondering which of them did their country the bigger favour, because it became evident that they both belonged to their country only in the sense that their country belonged to the world.

A nation’s culture either joins it to the world or it is not a culture. Although Australians should try to be less impressed with the size of their country on the map, and remember that it contains far fewer people than Mexico City, they are right to be proud of how large their little nation looms in the world’s consciousness. The expatriates have played a part in that. It might not be the biggest part, or even a necessary one — Les Murray got the whole of the modern world into his marvellous verse novel Fredy Neptune without ever leaving home for long — but they have certainly played a part. Which is not to say that a nation’s expatriate Creative Artists need always be thought of as ambassadors, or think of themselves that way. The place they came from, even if it is the first thing in their hearts, might be the last thing on their minds, and they might remain convinced that they came away only to commit what Françoise Sagan once called the crime of solitude. But if they commit it with sufficient grace, their homeland will claim them anyway, in the course of time.

(TLS, 26 January, 2000)


I could write a book about Australian nationalism, and have recently been plagued by a nightmare in which I actually have to. In the nightmare I occupy a cell in the old Long Bay gaol, an institution now happily disestablished, but which in my youth was still playing host to the most hard-to-hold recidivists in New South Wales, including, off and on, the notoriously elusive Darcy Dugan. A small man who could make himself smaller to wriggle between iron bars, Dugan got himself into the language by getting himself out of any form of incarceration the screws could devise. There was a prison tram, a windowless steel box on wheels, which used to take criminals back and forth from Long Bay to the court in Paddington. It once left Long Bay with Dugan inside it and arrived in Paddington with­out him. He was next seen in Queensland. From the top of the hill near my house I could look across Botany Bay to Long Bay gaol and wonder whether Dugan was still there. He made me feel better about school, but I was well aware even then that I lacked his talent. In my nightmare, there is no getting out of the cell. (Scratched into the wall about five feet from the floor is the rubric ‘D. Dugan was hear breefly’.) The screws want to see a fresh thousand words at the end of each day or they won’t feed me. No outside exercise is permitted.

On the other hand, any visitor is allowed in. Gough Whitlam shows up. He demands to see my references to him. I show him the one about his habit of quoting verbatim from the Almanach de Gotha being somewhat anomalous for a professed Republican. He replies with a long exposition of the Bowes-Lyon family tree. Representatives of the Australian intelligentsia arrive. They tell me how shameful it was that our diplomats once had difficulty explaining to President Suharto of Indonesia why our Head of State did not live in Australia. They do not tell me if the Indonesians had any difficulty explaining why every occupant of their administrative structure above the level of receptionist was called Suharto and half the economy was in Switzerland. Paul Keating arrives to read the bits about him. He calls me a maggot for suggesting that he lowered the tone of parliamentary discourse by calling anyone who questioned his Republican policies a maggot. My cell is full. So is the corridor. I will never get my book finished, but I am not allowed to stop writing it. Stephen Alomes arrives, wanting to know why I tried to nuke his book before it could get out of the silo. I tell him this is why: because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life here, compelled to make sense of a subject with the same ontological status as the man who shagged O’Reilley’s daughter.

Darcy Dugan arrives, weighed down with chains. An Australian journalist recognized him in Vancouver.