‘Australia?’ There was a punishing stress on the second syllable and the tone was one of idle disbelief: ‘But why?’ This was over seven years ago. I had just been invited to a literary festival in Adelaide; no fee, but they’d pay my Qantas. It seemed to me an Opportunity Not to be Missed. In the week or so before I set off, however, almost everybody I bumped into (including at least one Australian) seemed to think that I’d gone off my head. Nobody, I was told, went to Australia just for the sake of Going to Australia. I must be mad. Or was I ‘up to something’?
I reflected at the time that ‘Australia’ was perhaps the only destination in the world that could have been viewed in this confidently ribald way. If I had been nipping off to Papua New Guinea for a few weeks I would probably have got congratulated on managing to see ‘that part of the world’. And even if I had been going to Canada, no one would actually have pitied me. After all, I would only have been two hours from NY.
Of course, it could be argued that the Aussies bring it on themselves, with their Barry McKenzies, their Ian Chappells, their self-parodying Foster ads, and so on. And there is the accent: for some reason more readily mimickable than any of our own regional twangs. Theories about the Australian accent are just as snooty as theories about Australia. Some say that it is a form of cell-block Cockney, that the Kray brothers may even now be stammering their parole appeals in infant Oz. Others contend that it must be to do with the weather: that early Australians who settled some thousand miles from each other, with no contact, and from quite different racial stocks, all began developing identical cadences and speech patterns. Snootiest of all, though, is the notion that the Australian accent is what ordinary, robust Anglo-Saxon would get to sound like if it were spoken in a whine – that the distinctive Oz rhythms have, over the years, captured the lilt of a steady, unearned injuredness. Try saying ‘Why me?’ out loud one hundred times and see what happens to your vowels.
It was, then, with many a racist slur buzzing in my ears that I set off for Adelaide. There was no cloud, though, in my Open Mind. The plane journey to Sydney (also often named – the journey, that is – as a good reason not to go) was long enough to almost convince me that I had permanently overcome my fear of flying. After you have actually lived in an on-duty jet plane for 27 hours it is hard, I reasoned, to recapture that old tingle of alarm. Indeed, having organised my bed, my books, my booze, having in fact settled in, I could very happily have muddled along up there for a quiet week or two. At Sydney, though, they made me change into a much smaller, more precarious vehicle, and by the time I reached Adelaide I had regained the lean, demented look of a survivor.
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[*] Clive James’s Poem of the Year, which appeared in instalments on this page, will be published on 24 November (Cape, 79 pp., £5.50, 0 224 02961 4).
[†] An Open Letter by Seamus Heaney. Field Day Pamphlet No 2, 14pp., Irish £2.45, 16 Setpember, 0 946755 01 9.