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Cultural cohesion, p.30
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.30

           Clive James
 

  Stash rejects Danielle, Francesca flees with Danielle and Daisy. Stash consoles himself with his collection of jet aircraft. Mrs. Krantz has done a lot of research in this area but it is transparently research, which is not the same thing as knowledge. Calling a Junkers 88 a Junker 88 might be a misprint, but her rhapsody about Stash’s prize purchase of 1953 is a dead giveaway. “He tracked down and bought the most recent model available of the Lockheed XP-80, known as the Shooting Star, a jet which for many years could out-manoeuvre and outperform almost every other aircraft in the world.” USAF fighter aircraft carried “X” numbers only before being accepted for service. By 1953 the Shooting Star was known as the F-80, had been in service for years and was practically the slowest thing of its type in the sky. But Mrs. Krantz is too fascinated by that “X” to let it go. She deserves marks, however, for her determination to catch up on the arcane nomenclature of boys’ toys.

  Stash finally buys a farm during a flying display in 1967. An old Spitfire packs up on him. “The undercarriage of the 27-year-old plane stuck and the landing gear could not be released.” Undercarriage and landing gear are the same thing—her vocabularies have collided over the Atlantic. Also an airworthy 27-year-old Spitfire in 1967 would have been a very rare bird indeed: no wonder the undercarriage got in the road of the landing gear. But Mrs. Krantz goes some way towards capturing the excitement of machines and should not be mocked for her efforts. Francesca, incidentally, dies in a car crash, with the make of car unspecified.

  One trusts that Mrs. Krantz’s documentation of less particularly masculine activities is as meticulous as it is undoubtedly exhaustive, although even in such straightforward matters as food and drink she can sometimes be caught making the elementary mistake of piling on the fatal few details too many. Before Stash gets killed he takes Daisy to lunch every Sunday at the Connaught. After he gets killed he is forced to give up this practice, although there is no real reason why he should not have continued, since he is no more animated before his prang than after. Mrs. Krantz has researched the Connaught so heavily that she must have made herself part of the furniture. It is duly noted that the menu has a brown and gold border. It is unduly noted that the menu has the date printed at the bottom. Admittedly such a thing would not happen at the nearest branch of the Golden Egg, but it is not necessarily the mark of a great restaurant. Mrs. Krantz would probably hate to hear it said, but she gives the impression of having been included late amongst the exclusiveness she so admires. There is nothing wrong with gusto, but when easy familiarity is what you are trying to convey, gush is to be avoided.

  Full of grand meals served and consumed at chapter length, Princess Daisy reads like Buddenbrooks without the talent. Food is important to Mrs. Krantz: so important that her characters keep turning into it, when they are not turning into animals. Daisy has a half-brother called Ram, who rapes her, arouses her sexually, beats her up, rapes her again and does his best to wreck her life because she rejects his love. His passion is understandable, when you consider Daisy’s high nutritional value. “He gave up the struggle and devoured her lips with his own, kissing her as if he were dying of thirst and her mouth were a moist fruit.” A mango? Daisy fears Ram but goes for what he dishes out. “Deep within her something sounded, as if the string of a great cello had been plucked, a note of remote, mysterious but unmistakable warning.” Boing.

  Daisy heeds the warning and lights out for the U.S.A., where she becomes a producer of television commercials in order to pay Danielle’s hospital bills. She pals up with a patrician girl called Kiki, whose breasts quiver in indignation—the first breasts to have done that for a long, long time. At such moments one is reminded of Mrs. Krantz’s true literary ancestry, which stretches all the way back to Elinor Glyn, E. M. Hull and Gertrude Atherton. She is wasting a lot of her time and too much of ours trying to be John O’Hara. At the slightest surge of congested blood between her primly pressed together thighs, all Mrs. Krantz’s carefully garnered social detail gives way to eyes like twin dark stars, mouths like moist fruit and breasts quivering with indignation.

  There is also the warm curve of Daisy’s neck where the jaw joins the throat. Inheriting this topographical feature from her mother, Daisy carries it around throughout the novel waiting for the right man to kiss it tutto tremante. Ram will definitely not do. A disconsolate rapist, he searches hopelessly among the eligible young English ladies—Jane ­Bonham-Carter and Sabrina Guinness are both considered—before choosing the almost inconceivably well-connected Sarah Fane. Having violated Sarah in his by now standard manner, Ram is left with nothing to do except blow Daisy’s secret and commit suicide. As Ram bites the dust, the world learns that the famous Princess Daisy, star of a multi-million-dollar perfume promotion, has a retarded sister. Will this put the kibosh on the promotion, not to mention Daisy’s love for the man in charge, the wheeler-dealer head of Supracorp, Pat Shannon (“larky bandit,” “freebooter,” etc.)?

  Daisy’s libido, dimmed at first by Ram’s rape, has already been reawakened by the director of her commercials, a ruthless but prodigiously creative character referred to as North. Yet North finally lacks what it takes to reach the warm curve of Daisy’s neck. Success in that area is reserved for Shannon. He it is who undoes all the damage and fully arouses her hot blood. “It seemed a long time before Shannon began to imprint a blizzard of tiny kisses at the point where Daisy’s jaw joined her throat, that particularly warm curve, spendthrift with beauty, that he had not allowed himself to realise had haunted him for weeks. Daisy felt fragile and warm to Shannon, as if he’d trapped a young unicorn [horses again—C.J.], some strange, mythological creature. Her hair was the most intense source of light in the room, since it reflected the moonlight creeping through the windows, and by its light he saw her eyes, open, rapt and glowing; twin dark stars.”

  Shannon might think he’s got hold of some kind of horse, but as far as Daisy’s concerned she’s a species of cetacean. “It was she who guided his hands down the length of her body, she who touched him wherever she could reach, as playfully as a dolphin, until he realised that her fragility was strength, and that she wanted him without reserve.”

  Daisy is so moved by this belated but shatteringly complete experience that she can be forgiven for what she does next. “Afterward, as they lay together, half asleep, but unwilling to drift apart into unconsciousness, Daisy farted, in a tiny series of absolutely irrepressible little pops that seemed to her to go on for a minute.” It takes bad art to teach us how good art gets done. Knowing that the dithyrambs have gone on long enough, Mrs. Krantz has tried to undercut them with something earthy. Her tone goes wrong, but her intention is worthy of respect. It is like one of those clumsy attempts at naturalism in a late-medieval painting—less pathetic than portentous, since it adumbrates the great age to come. Mrs. Krantz will never be much of an artist but she has more than a touch of the artist’s ambition.

  Princess Daisy is not to be despised. Nor should it be deplored for its concern with aristocracy, glamour, status, success and things like that. On the evidence of her prose, Mrs. Krantz has not enough humour to write tongue-in-cheek, but other people are perfectly capable of reading that way. People don’t get their morality from their reading matter: they bring their morality to it. The assumption that ordinary people’s lives could be controlled and limited by what entertained them was always too condescending to be anything but fatuous.

  Mrs. Krantz, having dined at Mark’s Club, insists that it is exclusive. There would not have been much point to her dining there if she did not think that. An even bigger snob than she is might point out that the best reason for not dining at Mark’s Club is the chance of finding Mrs. Krantz there. It takes only common sense, though, to tell you that on those terms exclusiveness is not just chimerical but plain tedious. You would keep better company eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in a launderette. But if some of this book’s readers find themselves daydreaming of the high life, let us be grateful that Mrs. Krantz exists to help
give their vague aspirations a local habitation and a name. They would dream anyway, and without Mrs. Krantz they would dream unaided.

  To pour abuse on a book like this makes no more sense than to kick a powder puff. Princess Daisy is not even reprehensible for the three million dollars its author was paid for it in advance. It would probably have made most of the money back without a dime spent on publicity. The only bad thing is the effect on Mrs. Krantz’s personality. Until lately she was a nice Jewish lady harbouring the usual bourgeois fancies about the aristocracy. But now she gives interviews extolling her own hard head. “Like so many of us,” she told the Daily Mail on 28 April, “I happen to believe that being young, beautiful and rich is more desirable than being old, ugly and destitute.” Mrs. Krantz is fifty years old, but to judge from the photograph on the back of the book she is engaged in a series of hard-fought delaying actions against time. This, I believe, is one dream that intelligent people ought not to connive at, since the inevitable result of any attempt to prolong youth is a graceless old age.

  London Review of Books, 1980; later included in

  From the Land of Shadows, 1982

  POSTSCRIPT

  John Gross did me the honour of reprinting this piece in the closing pages of his Oxford Book of Essays. Some of the reviewers of that excellent anthology thought that it tailed off pretty sharply when it got to me, not so much because my prose was ill-behaved as because my subject was inherently trivial. But there were ample precedents. A good proportion of the most pertinent criticism in the language has been written in the form of book reviews that attack a supposed success in defence of a value. My only shame is that in all such cases, the destructive piece was made constructive because something had been taken too seriously, and needed to be demoted. Nobody except her investment bankers had ever taken Judith Krantz seriously. But there had still been a false estimation that needed to be opposed: a false estimation not about her book’s place in culture—which was transparently the same as the place of a garbage scow in a yacht club—but about culture itself. Princess Daisy’s gargantuan commercial success had been condemned as meretricious. I thought we had more important cultural distortions to worry about than that. I also thought—why not admit it?—that Judith Krantz had turned out a masterpiece of unintentional humour, and that there were possibilities for intentional humour in analysing how she did it. The challenge was to be as funny when I tried as she was without trying at all. But if there had not been a serious point to be made, it wouldn’t have been worth the effort.

  2003

  20

  A DEATH IN LIFE

  The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes

  For the longest part of its short history, Australia preferred to forget that it began as a penal colony. Australian historians born under the British Empire would accentuate the positive. When, in recent years, a new stamp of historians, usually harbouring no great love for Australia’s constitutional ties with Britain, began to tell the real story of what the formative years of the white man’s Australia had been like, it became apparent why forgetfulness had been so nearly complete. The story was horrible. Luckily, few of them were able to tell it with more than a modicum of evocative power, or the result would have been hard to bear. Now, in The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes, an Australian-born critical writer of pronounced literary gifts, has summed up all previous efforts, exceeded them in force of expression and brought the whole deadly business back to life. The result is hard to bear—or would be, if it were not so clearly one of those rare achievements in the writing of history by which the unimaginably inhumane is brought to book without making us give up on humanity. Such redemptive work can’t be done without artistry: there are degrees of anguish which only style can make us contemplate, since merely to recount them would leave us cold.

  Hughes might have attempted this book in his youth, and got the story out of proportion, even if he had not skimped it. Fortunately, he has made The Fatal Shore the magnum opus of his maturity. By now his sense of historical scale is sound, as for this task it needed to be. It would have been easy to call the Australian system of penal settlements a Gulag Archipelago before the fact. The term “concentration camp,” in its full modern sense, would not have been out of place: at least one of the system’s satellites, Norfolk Island, was, if not an out-and-out extermination camp, certainly designed to make its victims long for death, like Dachau in those awful years before the war when the idea was not so much to kill people as to see how much they could suffer and still want to stay alive. And, indeed, Hughes draws these parallels. The analogies are inescapable. But he doesn’t let them do his thinking for him. He is able to bring out the full dimensions of the tragedy while keeping it in perspective. The penal colony surely prefigured the modern totalitarian catastrophe. Equally surely it did not. It was a unique event, with unique consequences: the chief consequence being Australia itself, which has come a long way in 200 years—a point sufficiently proved by its ability to produce a book like this. The literature of the totalitarian dystopias emerged in spite of them, and could reach only one conclusion. Australia is a more difficult subject, however damning the raw evidence.

  To the penal colony, the cat-o’-nine-tails was a tool more basic than the hoe. On Norfolk Island, where the camp was commanded by a succession of sadists, there were other forms of torture as well, some of them as vile as could be conceived before the age of electricity. But flogging provided the steady rhythm of torment. What made the whipping on Norfolk Island unique was that it so often got out of hand. At Port Arthur, in Van Diemen’s Land—now called Tasmania—there was less chance of the flagellator’s ecstasy releasing his victim to a premature death. The idea was to impress the subject with the mechanical inexorability of his fate, even when he was being punished for nothing except the dementia or paralysis induced by previous punishment. Norfolk Island was the personal expression of whichever maniac was running the place. Port Arthur was impersonal, a research establishment where the machine that ruined you was run by technicians whose only concern was for its perfection: Kafka’s penal colony, so often thought of as a harbinger, now turns out to have harked back.

  But there are echoes of these things throughout history, in which the only reliable constant is the form taken by extreme cruelty when it is given absolute licence. Hughes, while aware of the general considerations, declines to lose himself among them. He keeps it specific. Enough to say that Norfolk Island and Port Arthur were there to inspire terror even in those convicts who were so recalcitrant that they were not terrified already by everyday life in the penal colony proper. The outlying camps were dumps for those who were held to be unassimilable elements in the main camp, where the city of Sydney now stands. But the main camp was itself a dump. Every convict sent there was held to be unassimilable in England. Whether he had stolen a thimble or forged £1,000 was immaterial. There was no notion that poverty might have created thieves: only that thieves might create revolution. They had to go. The colony was a way of getting rid of them without hanging them. It is a nice question whether transportation was intended as an alternative more humane than hanging, or less. Everyone knew what hanging looked like. But Australia was an unknown terror. So far away that no solid news ever came out of it, it was a black hole for facts. Dreadful stories percolated back to England of what went on out there, and there was always pressure from home to ensure that what went on remained so unattractive that any potential miscreant in the British Isles would fear it more than the rope and the hulks, and think twice before breaking the law, lest the law be obliged to break him, or her. There was thus a constant dispute between the liberal persuasion, which wanted Australia to rehabilitate criminals, and the illiberal persuasion, which wanted it to scare them. The first persuasion eventually won out, but not before the second had done its worst.

  There was no need to give the place a bad name. It did that well enough by itself. Female convicts were forced into concubinage on the voyage out. Their sluttishness having been thus establ
ished, on arrival they were sorted like cattle, with officers taking the first pick. There were never enough women, so sodomy was rife among the men. Boys were initiated by rape, but to become an adult convict’s punk at least ensured some protection against the others. Nothing except unquestioning docility could protect anyone against the lash. Male convicts on the chain gangs, flogged perpetually as they did one-tenth of the work they might have done willingly for a pittance, could have been excused for wondering if Norfolk Island could be worse. It was, because there the work was entirely pointless. Around Port Jackson and the country opening up westward towards the Blue Mountains, the road cutting and stump grubbing had some purpose, no matter how inefficiently it was done. Despite itself, the slave-labour camp grew into something better than that. Most of the convicts were put out to assigned labour, with the prospect of working their way to rehabilitation; the chance of freedom proved to be a carrot more powerful than the stick.

  One of Hughes’s best gifts is his ability to analyse the way a social order arose out of a disciplinary regime. It wasn’t much of a social order to start with, because even the free settlers were not the most imaginative of people, and the convicts, far from being instinctive exemplars of the democratic spirit, were mostly so ignorant of where Australia was that they thought China was next door; escapees would set out to walk there, and eat each other on the way. Students of the American Revolution, accustomed to the mental capacities of the nascent superpower’s founding citizens, will search Australia’s early history in vain for a comparable group of visionaries. The Rum Corps, a cabal within the garrison, deposed the governor only because they wanted the free exercise of their monopoly in booze; it was scarcely the Boston Tea Party. Hughes is well aware that the resemblance ends almost as soon as it starts. Nevertheless, a nation emerged, and did so partly because men like Governor Macquarie—no Thomas Jefferson but no fool, either—were determined that it should.

 
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