Bullshit and Beyond
- The Road to Botany Bay by Paul Carter
Faber, 384 pp, £14.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 571 14551 5
- The Oxford History of Australia. Vol. IV: 1901-1942 by Stuart Macintyre
Oxford, 399 pp, £22.50, October 1987, ISBN 0 19 554612 1
- The Archibald Paradox: A Strange Case of Authorship by Sylvia Lawson
Penguin Australia, 292 pp, AUS $12.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 14 009848 8
- The Lucky Country Revisited by Donald Horne
Dent, 235 pp, AUS $34.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 86770 067 X
In its short history, Australia has weathered several storms. By world standards they were minor, but at home they loomed large. The First World War was a rude awakening; the Great Depression hit harder and lasted longer than anywhere else in the developed world; and the Second World War could have been the end of everything. Australia survived all these crises and given its usual luck should also survive the Bicentenary, although it could be touch and go.
Crocodile Dundee made Australia flavour of the month. For the Bicentenary, emulsifiers and preservatives have been added so as to make the flavour of the month last a whole year. Inevitably, the result is hard to swallow. A country is not a commodity. To treat it like one, you must submit yourself to market forces, and to the eventual discovery of just how forceful those forces can be. When publicity swamps reality, it leaves tacky deposits as it withdraws. 1989 is going to be tough. Australia, however, will still be there, perhaps even with its inborn scepticism reinforced, more worldly-wise for having just been overwhelmed.
Australian prose is at its most characteristic when ready-salted. On the whole, Australian journalists have written better history, or at any rate better-written history, than the historians, among whom Geoffrey Blainey – whose The Tyranny of Distance must count as the single most original historical work about Australia – is exceptional in possessing an individual style. Manning Clark, doyen of Australian historians by virtue of his five-volume History of Australia, in scholarship towers over all his predecessors but writes no better. Here, drawn from A Short History of Australia, the indispensable one-volume condensation of his magnum opus, is a by no means atypical sentence: ‘The choir sang a Te Deum, which because of the terrible heat wafted fitfully around the arena; the flag of the new commonwealth was hoisted, and the artillery thundered and cheer after cheer ran around the great arena.’
You don’t need the stylistic scrupulousness of Turgenev to see that the use of the word ‘great’, if it was intended to offset the repetition of the word ‘arena’, had the opposite effect. But it is more likely that the perpetrator simply never noticed. Let alone re-write, he doesn’t even re-read. He leaves the reader to do that. Try this: ‘In the mean time the Australian and New Zealand expeditionary force trained for war at their camp near Cairo, and relaxed and pursued pleasure in the cafés and low dives of Cairo …’
Is this, the reader hopefully asks, a rhetorical device, an obeisance towards the cool symmetry of the Gibbonian period? The reader soon gives up asking. Tolstoy didn’t mind repeating a word, but knew he was doing it. Manning Clark doesn’t know. But he does know his own mind. He might use the word ‘bourgeois’ twenty times per chapter but he knows what he means by it. He means the capitalist society which Australia has always persisted in remaining, even when presented with the opportunity to become something else. You can object to Clark’s view – I do, and what’s more important my mother, who elects the government, does too – but you can tell exactly what he means at all times. He means business.
What Paul Carter means in The Road to Botany Bay is either something more profound or else nothing at all. Unless I am a Dutchman, he means the latter, but I should say, before hacking into it, that his book comes laden with wreaths of praise, a true triumphal car of the bicentennial celebrations. ‘The writing has a lyrical passion in argument that I found irresistible,’ says no less a judge than David Malouf. ‘I couldn’t put it down.’ Malouf being no fool, I am reluctant to suggest that the reason he couldn’t put the book down was that it is so full of hot air it kept springing back up again. Reluctant, but compelled.
Vol. 10 No. 9 · 5 May 1988
SIR: I write first to correct a mis-statement of mine. Writing of Australians: A Historical Library (LRB, 18 February), I said that Aboriginal scholars had walked out of a planning conference in 1981; this came from seemingly reliable hearsay. But in fact they didn’t: there was a considerable argument on the writing of black Australian history, and they stayed for it. An all-Aboriginal volume of the series was proposed, but did not eventuate.
In the same issue, Clive James discussed my book The Archibald Paradox. I found it uncomfortable to be praised (but also patronised) in an article which began with a dire misreading of Paul Carter’s splendid The Road to Botany Bay. The two books share in the urgent, continuing project of re-reading and re-writing Australian history, with new conceptual tools, for the present and future. Carter’s book explores the great explorations through the relations of travelling and seeing, mapping and naming a country which was unimaginably strange; mine tries to read a uniquely lively late 19th-century newspaper through its writing, editor, writers and readers. Both books proceed from the belief that the past is never finished with, that such histories need rescuing from the over-familiar versions which dull their strangeness; that we must change the working maps of the extraordinary place we inhabit, and generally demolish the dangerous myth which Clive James repeats, that Australians have ‘too little history to work on’.
Correctly understanding that my book was meant for the general reader as well as for students of cultural history, James rebukes me for the occasional use of words like ‘text’ and ‘discourse’. The latter comes up only twice in a book some 115,000 words long; both times, it was irreplaceable. Surely ‘text’ is no longer academic, when ‘subtexts’ litter the languages of advertising, smart journalism and politics? Without a bit of help from modern literary theory, and especially from Barthesian concepts of textuality and writing, I couldn’t have solved a problem which at first seemed insuperable – how to read a newspaper historically, gathering a sense of how it worked on and for its world, while at the same time knowing your distance, knowing you can’t sit in the armchairs and train-seats of its readers in their day.
When it comes to disentangling cultural and political histories, the work of Raymond Williams is even more important, for me as for countless others; and – much as he wrote for that wider audience, as Patrick Parrinder noted in his tribute in the same issue of your paper – we all found him first in seminar-rooms and on formal reading-lists. The point is that ideas developed within the academy have their uses well beyond it; I was intent, not on ‘academic respectability’, but on problem-solving.
Clive James might have checked some facts. The Bulletin of which I wrote lasted from 1880 to c. 1903; it did not carry the slogan ‘Australia for the White Man’ – such fanatical crudities came later. I am not a ‘descendant’ of Henry Lawson, though more remotely kin; in any case, no writer should suffer being identified by her antecedents. And in recalling the invaluable Nation (1958-72), Clive does me too much honour: whoever the ‘pioneer Australian woman literary journalist of the Fifties’ might have been, it certainly wasn’t me. Like other young writers of the time and place, utterly thwarted by the available outlets, I supported Nation eagerly, and wrote a few book reviews; my main task for the journal, from 1961, was regular writing on cinema. I remember Clive visiting the office, and it’s nice that he thinks I’m ‘still a tough-minded writer’. Cheer up, Clive: a few others did survive those frightful Australian Fifties. Being patronised by professional expatriates has been a minor hazard on the way.
Vol. 11 No. 3 · 2 February 1989
Like a number of other Australian readers, I enjoy the London Review greatly. Like a fair few, I suspect, my pleasure that the journal has found space for Australian publications and Australian writers is tempered by concern at the rather narrow range of those writers and especially the heavy reliance on some of the expats. I admire Peter Porter, Clive James, et al: but somehow they sustain the impression that intellectual life in this country has to be seen through issues that burned brightly on their departure but have since dwindled to near-irrelevance. While I disagree strongly with a fair proportion of what Les Murray has to say, I am an unabashed admirer of his verse and his prose: but he, too, manages to perpetuate alternatives that mean much to him and Clive James but are simply tangential to what concerns writers and readers here.
Let me give a personal example. Clive James wrote a generous review of my volume of the Oxford History of Australia (all the more generous given the treatment meted out to others) when it was published in Britain: but a reader of his comments would imagine that the book was a war history, since he concentrated overwhelmingly on the imperial issue as it affected the two world wars. At the same time, to make the personal example a little larger, he and Peter Porter both wrote extraordinarily hostile reviews of The Road to Botany Bay (which is the work of an English expatriate, though that fact bothers him as little as it bothered his Australian readers). Now Paul Carter’s writing is no more immune from criticism than any other ambitious and adventurous piece of writing, but I can’t help feeling that its reception in the LRB and TLS tells us more about the fixed preconceptions of the two reviewers about the land they left than it does about the book. One of the most widely read pieces over the past couple of years was the Sylvia Lawson appraisal of the Bicentennial history project in the London Review. It was the best sort of conjuncture of an Australian subject and a wider audience. Could we have more like it?
I also think that there is a difficulty in writing about certain sorts of Australian book for non-Australian audiences. While our fiction is more or less accessible, some of the more interesting work is non-fictional and is less in touch with comparable genres outside this country. Our current political climate, for example, is regarded far more critically within Australia than it is by visitors or outside observers, who use the predicaments of British Labour as a point of comparison, and an explication of that difference involves explaining a number of local peculiarities that make up the Australian context: but these peculiarities, in turn, strike the outside observer as fairly unsurprising products of settler colonialism. A book like The Road to Botany Bay can strike a reviewer outside Australia as derivative, whereas someone working inside appreciates its substance and originality.
University of Melbourne