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Letters

Vol. 5 No. 21 · 17 November 1983

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Awful Australians

SIR: Does Barry Humphries make Australians proud of their country, as Clive James believes? This conclusion is not warranted by the rest of his interesting article (LRB, 6 October), which rightly points out that all Humphries’s characters are unsympathetic, partly because they are mostly drawn from a past era. It is the unfairness of Humphries which now strikes many Australians, but it is not usually perceived by British audiences. When satire is wholly unfair it tends to lose its satirical value and becomes merely abuse. Satire can also help to create myths which in turn become socially-constitutive, the very opposite of the intended effect. For example, in the late Sixties and early Seventies in Australia a wave of ‘Ockerism’ (typified by Les Patterson and Barry McKenzie) swept the country, particularly in universities, consequent upon the widespread discovery of Barry McKenzie through the films about him. Far from prompting an embarrassment, those films promoted a cult. They licensed as ‘anti-establishment’ an uncouth, publicly trumpeted philistinism, which hitherto had been kept under much tighter control. It was as if Alf Garnett had given rise to and legitimised a widespread racism and jingoism in Britain. (Perhaps he did?) Fortunately, Ockerism has now considerably declined.

The Ocker phase was reminiscent of the earlier turn-of-the-century era when an urban-created legend of rural male mateship and egalitarian radicalism came to dominate, through the medium of magazines, cultural and political life, particularly on the left, to the detriment of the establishment of a more progressive and enlightened democratic socialist movement. These episodes point to the power of popular cultural media to form the very culture they are supposedly reflecting.

Barry Humphries, along with Clive James and Germaine Greer, has long had his main audience in Britain, where his shows have helped to constitute popular British attitudes towards Australia. (The fact that Humphries puts on his shows in Britain at all also indicates that his main purpose is entertainment, not satire.) These three have together produced a loosely defined but powerful set of myths about Australia which draw their power from their partly authentic but one-sided and shallow view. Humphries draws no contrasts in his stage shows between sympathetic and unsympathetic characters or between his interpretation of the present and a possible better future. All we get, as Clive James says, is one awful Australian after another. (Alf Garnett at least had some foils.) We look in vain to their work for analyses of the structure and origins of Australian society and culture, with its strengths and weaknesses, in a comparative and counterfactual mode. They have almost nothing good to say about Australia. Instead, as well as Humphries’s shows, we get such diatribes as Germaine Greer’s appallingly shallow and ignorant articles in the Observer of August last year, which, while in part masquerading as sociology, elevated the over-generalisation and cliché to new levels of heroism and completely failed to examine the reality of several pervasive myths about Australia. I am sure that I am not the only Australian who is constantly forced onto the defensive by English friends because my understanding of Australian history, society and culture is largely at odds with that presented in this country by Humphries, James and Greer. Australia has rich traditions in painting, architecture and literature (not to mention a democracy older and stronger than most). Artistic and intellectual life there is now relatively flourishing and constantly improving. But you would not know this from Humphries, James and Greer.

They are, like a great many others, essentially refugees from a despised culture, yet they cannot distance themselves from it, as most other refugees have done (e.g. Peter Porter). They proclaim their Europeanness almost as if they were the only Europeanised Australians, yet they have become professional Australians abroad – the cultured counterparts of the denizens of Kangaroo Valley who begin to act the grotesque part of ‘Australians abroad’ as soon as they arive but shed the role when they leave. The Humphries-James-Greer image of Australia has become both partly constitutive of their own roles and a source of income for them. If the word gets around too much in Britain that Australia is a different place, as it has already in Australia, then their position will be undermined. The real Australia has passed them by and they can only survive here in their present guise as long as they can maintain the niche they have constructed within those receptive parts of the declining English middle class which are eager for reassurance that there is still somewhere about which they can feel superior.

Humphries, James and Greer are essentially anachronistic in their attitudes, their memories and perceptions of Australia and their understanding of the structure of the world’s communications. There is a theory (propounded by Louis Hartz, amongst others, which Ian Hamilton mentions in regard to accents in the same issue of LRB) that Europe’s colonies became more or less frozen in their cultural/political ideologies at the time of their birth. Thus Australia supposedly encapsulated and preserved the early-to-mid-19th-century radicalism of Europe. Could this theory be adapted to account for the ideological outlook of Humphries et al.? That is, do their perceptions and memories of Australia and its relationship to the world betray the moment of their emigration: the 1950s and early 1960s? There is some evidence for this. For example, most of Humphries’s characters, their ways of life and attitudes, are drawn from that era; Clive James talks about the unjaded appetites of the newly arrived Australians in a manner that suggests that it was hardly possible to know anything of European culture if you remained in Australia, so you had to make the great journey, which was a huge and once-only undertaking in his time. The general tone and content of their writings about Australia show a tendency to understand it as if it had not changed since the Fifties. This was shown markedly in Greer’s Observer pieces. Even though they obviously now shuttle back and forth with great ease, they seem to be unable to grasp the extent of either the recent communications revolution (TV, magazines, books, films, publishing, air travel) which has dramatically shrunk the physical and psychological space, or the rapid social and cultural change that has occurred in Australia in the past decade. Young Australians now are much more part of a wider world and no longer feel isolated, yearning after the bright lights of a foreign metropolis. London and Paris are a day and a month’s wages away. Besides, the sources of culture are no longer mainly British, or even European.

So, the game is nearly up for the self-appointed professional Australians because now increasing numbers of British journalists (e.g. John Mortimer and Simon Hoggart), visiting Australia for the first time, find that their expectations, picked up in the London of Humphries and his friends, have been mistaken. Could the currently optimistic and improving cultural scene in Australia have something to do with the fact that the best artists and thinkers have not pyschologically turned their backs? Indeed, how else could it have been improved but through their struggles and influence? James gives the impression that little of the new confidence is justified. But compare the present situation with that of twenty or even ten years ago. It is now possible to have a full film, literary and scholarly career there, with international recognition.

Of course Australian cultural life is limited and boorish in many ways (although the editors that Ian Hamilton met seven years ago were obviously not representative of the writers). But how could it have been much better, given Australia’s very short history, population size and distribution, and world location? It could certainly have been much worse. The task is to build upon, expand and improve the existing good and unique aspects of Australian life. This is something that White, Keneally, Boyd, Hope, Helpmann, Sutherland, Weir and others are doing. The new Labor Government, despite its faults, is also generally moving in the right direction, as shown by its legislative programme – something Michael Davie completely failed to mention in his article in the same issue of LRB – which in most respects is the opposite to that of the British Government. And, contra Davie, Australia is less of an American colony than it used to be and is considerably less tied to American ‘defence’ than Europe and Japan, having no American missiles or military bases, apart from three communications bases. Britain is now more of a colony than Australia in this respect.

Christopher Lloyd
Wolfson College, Oxford

Subjects

SIR: Craig Raine is right (LRB, 6 October). Subject-matter cannot be considered apart from style. What you write about is utterly dependent for its success on how you write about it. If this weren’t so then every halting piece of doggerel in the obituary columns of local newspapers could claim kinship with, say, Ben Jonson’s great poem on the death of his first son. Donald Davie says some-where that a poet may try to disarm criticism by his obvious sincerity, and he cites as an example of this Stephen Spender’s ‘I think continually of those who are truly great.’ Can you bear to be critical of a poem that starts with such a line? Well, yes, you can. In fact I can report that its sheer inanity makes me double up with laughter as soon as I think of it. (Which is not continually: I ration myself to once or twice a year, or whenever the going gets rough.)

On the other hand, I think Mr Raine is wrong when he implies that those who admire Tony Harrison’s work do so uncritically. His subject-matter appeals to the upwardly mobile, Raine says, but shouldn’t they take notice of Harrison’s flaws: shouldn’t they, for example, ‘reject that padding “all", even while they reluctantly accept the decorum of the cliché: “Your life’s all shattered into smithereens"? Not to mention the awkward rhyme, “between ’s", which boldly attempts vernacular, though the actual phrase remains maladroitly formal: “what’s still between".’ I don’t see why acceptance of the decorum of that cliché has to be ‘reluctant’. More importantly, though, I disagree that ‘all’ is padding. The word is frequently used in demotic speech as a means of adding emphasis. Two examples from my local pub, both of them overheard yesterday: ‘I was all covered in mud.’ ‘You could see she was all upset.’ In Harrison’s poem the word is so deployed as to imply the speaker’s desire to get back to a language that father and son can share, because it is the indicator of a shared emotional life. But of course books have come between them, hence the maladroit formality of the phrase ‘What’s still between’, which perfectly well suggests how difficult the speaker finds it to come to terms with his father. (Cliché intended.) The clumsinesses and hesitations of style are what the poem is about, and Craig Raine’s criticisms seem to me no more than an accurate description of certain of its effects. You can surely only object to Harrison’s tactics if you accept Yvor Winter’s view that to imitate speech rhythms and idiomatic phrases must always be wrong; and I cannot believe that Mr Raine would wish to identify with so ridiculous a notion.

Of course, the danger with my approach is that it can be a way of defending the indefensible, or of sheltering behind the absurdity of Susan Sontag’s ‘integrity of badness’. I don’t at all want to do that and I will agree that Harrison is sometimes clumsy in stylistically indefensible ways – as is Peter Porter. Yet I’m bothered by what seems to be an underlying assumption in Craig Raine’s extremely clever review: that questions of style can be referred to some kind of English equivalent of the French Academy because the nation as a whole will accept an inflexible propriety in such matters. No doubt there are those who would like us to believe that this is the case. The history of the editing of John Clare is a particularly damning example of what happens when that belief is put to the test.

John Lucas
Beeston, Notts

Craig Raine writes: I am grateful to John Lucas for his thoughtful letter. Initially, I was so convinced by its citation of local dialect (‘I was all covered in mud’ and ‘you could see she was all upset’) that I was prepared to stand corrected. Those two phrases are obviously authentic. There can be no argument about them. But is the same true of the phrase I quoted from Harrison’s poem: ‘Your life’s all shattered into smithereens’? I think not. The phrase is ‘smashed to smithereens’, isn’t it? And the line could have read: ‘Your life’s all smashed to smithereens’ or ‘Your life is smashed to smithereens.’ Either would have been authentic. Both would have been two syllables short for an iambic pentameter, though. What Harrison has written doesn’t ring true at all: ‘shattered into smithereens’ is a very decorous version of the cliché, half demotic, half literary. At the very best, it is an awkward conflation of two phrases, commonly used, though never simultaneously: ‘he was completely shattered by what happened’ and ‘it was smashed to smithereens.’ Obviously, you could attempt to justify Harrison’s procedure by saying that the upwardly mobile poet no longer has a precise grasp of dialect idiom – that he is deliberately demonstrating how rarefied he has become. But you have to be very rarefied indeed not to know a phrase which, after all, is only restricted to the entire British Isles. It is a mistake a foreigner might make. Surely Harrison has tampered with the standard phrase to fill out his iambic pentameter. Given that, the authenticity of ‘all’ as a dialect intensive is beside the point. In this context, it merely adds to one’s doubts. I feel the same way about Harrison’s ‘what’s still between’. My original description was ‘maladroitly formal’. In fact, the phrase is scarcely English at all. One might say: ‘what’s still between us is’. Harrison prefers ‘what’s still between is’ – again for metrical reasons. This time he has one syllable too many, so ‘us’ is eliminated and ‘is’ elided. And he ends with ‘what’s still between’, an absurdly stilted phrase that is required by the exigencies of his formal conceit about the book ends, but not by any requirement of the English language. Neither he, nor his father, nor anyone, would ever use it. Except in a poem.

Jewish Liberation

SIR: David Katz begins his review of two recent works on Anglo-Jewish history (LRB, 6 October) by remarking that ‘the influence exerted by Anglo-Jewry in business and at the polls has been a particularly sensitive issue.’ He ends the same piece with a ‘tribute to the English spirit of toleration’. At the very least, these comments are hard to reconcile.

Katz mentions that the leaders of the Jewish community practised a policy of repatriating thousands of East European Jewish immigrants in the 1890s. He neglects to consider the degree to which this was a response to growing hostility towards the immigrants and native Jewry. He also asks Jews to be grateful that those amongst them who converted ‘found most doors open’. What sort of ‘toleration’ is it that requires the public self-effacement of Jews as Jews? Anglo-Jewry may be grateful that it was not exposed to the worst forms of racial anti-semitism and extermination, but should this community feel gratitude when its people were forced to convert, or later felt impelled to send fellow Jews back to ‘darkest Russia’? Isn’t it time to consider critically a concept of ‘toleration’ which can encompass direct and indirect coercion as well as genuine acceptance?

David Feldman
Churchill College, Cambridge

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