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Cultural cohesion, p.31
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.31

           Clive James

  Hughes is careful not to romanticize the convicts. The thief who stole a loaf of bread didn’t always steal it from someone who had a hundred loaves. He might have stolen it from someone who had one loaf. To have grown up in the prisons and the hulks was no education for anything except crime. The few literate convicts—counterfeiters, and, later on, Chartists and Irish separatists—were cut off from home by their sentence and cut off from each other by the system. Isolated, they lost heart. Yet, on the whole, the convicts represented a lot of energy going to waste, and it was necessary only to release that energy in order for them to turn their new country, which none of them had ever wanted to come to, into a place from which most of them did not want to go home. The gold rush in the middle of the nineteenth century brought the transportation system to an end, because no incipient felon could be made to fear a place that so many free men were booking their own passage to reach, often selling all they had. The bad dream was already over—for the white man, at least.

  For the black man, the disaster was unmitigated. Here again there is a parallel, but it is more with South Africa than with the United States, unless we try to keep Wounded Knee in mind and forget Harpers Ferry. The Australian Aborigines were never a casus belli between white men, not even as a pretext. Instead, the white men united against them. The revisionist who would like to pin another mass atrocity on the occupying power, however, will get no quick help from Hughes. In Van Diemen’s Land, the soldiers might have driven the Aborigines like game, but on the mainland it was the convicts who posed the greater threat to the native population. The brutalized convicts had to feel superior to someone, and the Aborigines were ideal casting. They toiled not, and were hated for it. When the Aborigines helped the troopers track escapees, the convicts hated them even more. The troopers could offer their black collaborators no reward that did not corrode their tribal ways and make them less fit to survive. What the Aborigines needed was their land, untouched. They would have had to fight for it, and for that they would have needed solidarity. But on the day in 1788 when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Harbour the tribe on the north shore spoke a language that the tribe on the south could not understand. The Aborigines were not one people. It is racism to suppose they were. There was not, and could not have been, an Aboriginal general. They would have needed an Eisenhower, and couldn’t produce even a Crazy Horse. There had never been any need to, until we got there.

  By “we” I mean Australians. All of us now feel the force of the plural personal pronoun. Some of us feel it so strongly that we move national self-consciousness to the forefront of the political agenda, often with tiresome results. Touchiness, however, is inevitable. Australian writers, painters, singers, actors, film directors, scientists, sportsmen and tycoons make a disproportionate bang in the world. The outsider could be forgiven for thinking that everything must be for export. But in all these fields there is quite a lot going on at home as well. The Australian can get a bit impatient when he hears his country judged according to what its expatriates are up to, even when the judgement is praise; and when the expatriates do the judging, especially if it is dispraise, he is likely to become inflamed.

  But, with due notice that the case is being put broadly, what has happened is this. Up until the late 1960s, Australia undervalued itself as a country, or anyway its intelligentsia thought it did, giving this alleged Cinderella complex the unlovely journalistic title “the cultural cringe.” But the vogue for self-discovery, felt in those years throughout the Western world, was a passion by the time it reached Australia, rather as the Depression in the 1930s struck harder and stayed longer there than it did anywhere else. With the advent of Gough Whitlam’s government, in the 1970s, Australia had begun to esteem itself at what its social commentators—an increasingly numerous and vociferous class—thought was a just valuation. Diffidence had turned to self-assertion. The change was welcome, but there was an obvious danger of hyped-up expectations, to which some of the country’s more stentorian promoters duly succumbed. The cringe became a snarl. Tub-thumping was heard in areas where a reasoned tone might have been more suitable. Hughes’s excellent book on Australian painting, The Art of Australia, adumbrated this new confidence but proved to be atypical in its tact. While analysing, appraising and ordering the Australian painters with an authority that no indigenous critic had achieved before, Hughes was careful not to tear his country’s heritage loose from its world context, and made it clear that it was only because he had a world view, gained during his travels, that he was able to come home and see clearly what the Australian painters had achieved.

  Australian defensiveness about the success of its expatriates was not to be allayed, and probably won’t be by The Fatal Shore, either. Here again, political zeal inevitably distorts the picture. Ardent republicans would like Australia to be self-sufficient in the arts the way that it is in minerals. The idea that any one country can be culturally self-sufficient is inherently fallacious, but in the forward rush of Australian confidence during Gough Whitlam’s period of government, when grants were handed out to anybody with enough creative imagination to ask for one, reason was thrown into the backseat. For the last fifteen years, Australian artists in all fields, supposedly free at last from the imposition of being judged by alien—i.e., British—standards, have been judged by their own standards, and almost invariably found to be the authors of significant works. The glut of self-approval has been most evident in literature, which in normal circumstances customarily produces a strong critical movement to accompany any period of sustained creativity but in Australia’s case has largely failed to do so. The undoubted fact that some very good things have been written can’t stave off the consideration that many less good things have been given the same welcome.

  A consideration is all it is. Creativity can get along without criticism. When Pushkin—who was in the position of having to think what form a national culture might take—called for a dispassionate criticism, he wasn’t calling for help in writing poems, which he could do by himself. He was merely stating his wish to write them in a civilized atmosphere, whose absence was reducing him to isolation, and thereby damaging his individuality. The individual needs a community. In Australia, while literature is rapidly becoming a cash crop, a literary community has been slower to emerge. Criticism is too often, in the strict sense, tendentious. Scale is duly hailed, ambition lauded, but the direction of the book—does it point the way? does it give us purpose?—is usually the basis of assessment. There are not many critics detached enough to quibble over detail, and ask why so many great writers have produced so little good writing.

  This is where Hughes’s book will come in handy. It will be thoroughly read in the schools, whereas many of the new masterpieces are skimmed dreamily at the beach. When workaday books are well written, a culture starts to pick up: the best of the spoken language is fed back into itself, by way of writers whose ear for speech informs the content of their prose, and whose mastery of composition makes them selective. In this respect, Hughes is hard to fault. The Australian landscape has been captured like this by few painters and by no other writers at all, because anyone as vivid also gushed, and anyone as elegant was dull. Here is the entrance to Port Arthur:

  Both capes are of towering basalt pipes, flutes and rods, bound like faces into the living rock. Their crests are spired and crenellated. Seabirds wheel, thinly crying, across the black walls and the blacker shadows. The breaking swells throw up their veils.

  In the late 1950s, as an architecture student at Sydney University, Hughes was the artiest young man on the scene. His blond hair growing naturally in a thick layer cut, his lanky form Englishly decked out in lamb’s wool, suede and corduroy, he sloped forward on long-toed desert boots while aiming at you a cigarette whose startling length suggested that he was about to launch a poisoned dart. Instead, he drew you. He drew anything that caught his eye, which was almost everything; and he drew it with uncanny speed and accuracy. Eventually, he decided that his graphic work
was derivative, and gave it up. Although it is true that he absorbed other people’s styles one after the other, he might have arrived at this renunciation too early. When there was no one else left to absorb, the real Hughes might have emerged, as happened in his prose. In those years, you could always tell what he had been reading the day before. Even today, he is a magpie for vocables: no shimmering word he spots in any of the languages he understands, and in several more that he doesn’t, is safe from being plucked loose and flown back to his nest. Omnivorous rather than eclectic, that type of curiosity is the slowest to find coherence. But his fluency was always his own, and by persistence he has arrived at a solidity to match it: a disciplined style that controls without crippling all that early virtuosity, and blessedly also contains his keen glance, getting the whole picture into a phrase the way he once got his fellow-students’ faces into a single racing line. It is exactly right, as well as funny, to call a merino sheep “a pompous ambling peruke.” Scores of such felicities could be picked out, but only on the understanding that they are not the book’s decoration. They are its architecture.

  There are several benefits that accrue to the Australian writer who turns himself into an expatriate. The first advantage of going away is obvious: it is the wider view he brings with him if he comes home. Hughes, a member of one of the grandest Australian Catholic families, was not very provincial even before he left, but in London in the early 1960s he was in no danger of shivering rejected in an Earl’s Court bedsit. While some of his contemporaries were doing exactly that, he had rooms in Albany, the exclusive address for gentlefolk just off Piccadilly. Hughes found his true fame later on, in America, but he would not be able to say plausibly that Britain turned down what he had to offer. Before the immigration laws toughened up in the 1970s, Australian overachievers found Britain hospitable, sometimes absurdly so. The British class system, hidebound within itself, was easily penetrated by the colonial whose accent it could not place accurately in the social scale. In London, the Australian expatriates breathed dirtier air than at home but found life more interesting. The experience did not stop some of the short-stay visitors going home as convinced republicans. But for a long voyager like Hughes it became that much harder to cast Britain as the villain, either currently or in retrospect. One of the hard issues he is prepared to face in The Fatal Shore is that the growth of the penal colony into a living society can’t be interpreted as merely a liberal refutation of the mother country at her most repressive. England was also present at the spontaneous creation that grew out of the planned destruction. The ties with “home” were real. The past is not to be argued away for the sake of a political ­programme.

  The second advantage enjoyed by the expatriate Australian literary practitioner is just as obvious. Travel not only broadens the view; it sharpens the gaze. Hughes might have remained comparatively blind to the uniqueness of his native topography if he had never left it. Coming back to it, he sees it without any intervening veil of familiarity. Laudably intent on looking at what happened where it happened, he has travelled widely within his own country, to places most of his compatriots have never seen but will see now through his eyes:

  As you approach it [Macquarie Harbour, in Tasmania], sea and land curve away to port in a dazzle of white light, diffused through the haze of the incessantly beating ocean. All is sandbank and shallow; the beach that stretches to the northern horizon is dotted with wreckage, the impartial boneyard of ships and whales.

  A third advantage is less talked about but ought to become more evident, now that The Fatal Shore has given us such a conspicuous example. The Australian expatriate, the stay-away writer, loots the world for cultural references. If he can write like Hughes, he may combine these into a macaronic, coruscating prose that would be as precious as a cento or an Anacreontic odelette if it were not so robust, vivid and clearly concerned with defining the subject, rather than just displaying his erudition:

  The Norfolk Island birds had forgotten man had ever been there; one could pick them out of the bushes, like fruit. Even today, a walk along the cliffs—where the green meadow runs to the very brink of the drop and the bushes are distorted by the eternal Pacific wind into humps and clawings that resemble Hokusai’s Great Wave copied by a topiarist—is a fine cure for human adhesiveness. One sees nothing but elements: air, water, rock and the patterns wrought by their immense friction. The mornings are by Turner; the evenings, by Caspar David Friedrich, calm and beneficent, the light sifting angelically down towards the solemn horizon.

  Nothing home-grown in Australia sounds quite like that, yet it is essentially Australian writing—the product of an innocent abroad who has consciously enjoyed every stage of his growing sophistication without allowing his original barbaric gusto to be diminished. Here the vexed question of what place the expatriate has in Australia’s cultural history is answered in terms of intensity, as critical questions always must be. The best comparison is with that period of American prose when literary journalists were enjoying both the American idiom and the privilege of loading it with a cosmopolitan culture. The comparison should not be forced: American writers mostly had their Europe all around them at home, whereas Australians had to sail in search of it, or thought they did. (Even as early as the 1950s, the post-war immigration of European refugees had changed Australian culture profoundly, from the kitchen upwards, but those native Australians who sailed in the opposite direction were following a surer instinct than has subsequently been made out: they might have eaten baklava in Melbourne, but the Parthenon was still in Athens.)

  Yet the similarity is striking. That feeling transmitted by the sheer scope of James Gibbons Huneker, which rises to a fever in the style of George Jean Nathan, is the feeling you get from the Australian expatriate writers at their most exuberant: that the world is theirs, and that they are trying to pack it all in, possessing it through the naming of its names. Barry Humphries, Australia’s unchallenged genius of cabaret and intimate revue, not only wields a vast culture himself but incongruously lends it to his characters, so that his most famous creation, the housewife superstar and arch-philistine Dame Edna Everage—who by now has taken on such an independent life that she hosts talk shows in both Australia and Britain—turns out to know more than seems plausible about, say, German Expressionism. The poetry of the London-based expatriate Peter Porter, often thought of by even the most favourable British critics as being a showcase for his learning, sins less through calculation in that regard than through the lack of it. Porter just loves the adventure of creativity—anybody’s creativity. The message of his work, far from being “Look how much I’ve read,” is “Look how much there is to read.” There are lines by Porter that might be sentences by Hughes, and vice versa. Not that one suggests anything so organized as a school. (The present reviewer was at the table in the Groucho Club in London, last December, when Hughes and Porter met for the first time, Hughes having wandered the world for twenty-five years, and Porter for ten years longer than that.) But the very fact that this is not a school might be what makes it a movement: an expatriate movement in Australian writing which complements the achievement at home—without, of course, presuming to replace it.

  In fact, some of the more spectacular of the Australian cultural stay-aways don’t seem very concerned about what happens where they come from. Germaine Greer (whose polemics are at their most effective when uttered with the kind of zest I am talking about, and at their weakest when she affects to be weary of the world) turns up in Australia mainly to stun the local talk-show hosts and harangue the feminists for so slavishly clinging to ideas she gave them in the first place. Then she takes off again. The almost dementedly clever Oxford academic Peter Conrad is nowadays ready to turn aside and sum up Australian literature—having already, in his Everyman History of English Literature, dealt with the old country’s written heritage—but there is no doubt that his chief concern is with the world entire: his prose, like Greer’s, pops and fizzes with the strain of fitting in a self-assu
red opinion about absolutely everything. Australia’s itinerant literati, like its media entrepreneurs, are world-eaters. Perhaps it is revenge for isolation: the Empire (among Australian expatriates the joke is old by now) strikes back.

  In many respects the most damaging counterblow yet, The Fatal Shore is nevertheless open to criticism from several points of view. The book is dedicated to Hughes’s godson, the son of a barrister who recently had the pleasure of making one of Britain’s leading civil servants look ridiculous in an Australian court. The poor man had been sent out there in a misguided attempt to secure the Australian government’s cooperation in repressing a book about MI5; the Australian judiciary, only lately set free from the constitutional tie by which its highest court of appeal sat in Britain, made its independence felt. But republicans pleased by the dedication might not find the book that follows wholly to their liking. If they use it to condemn the past, they will have to condemn themselves along with it, Hughes having shown how serious Sartre was when he made his apparently frivolous remark about not being able to quarrel with history, because it led up to him. Still, if the trend towards republicanism proves inexorable, Hughes will at least have helped to make the transition more intelligent, by raising the level of debate.

  Professional historians will no doubt cavil about the unacademic eclecticism of Hughes’s research techniques, although if they do so they will be paying him that tacit compliment of accepting him among their number, and anyway it is hard to see how his use of correspondence, in particular, could be more fastidious. If letters by convicts have been quoted from before, the job has never been done with such sympathy, so keen an ear for the telling phrase. Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance must retain the title of the most startlingly original book of Australian history, but The Fatal Shore runs it close, and is less like a thesis.

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