‘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.
On the plane (the second, wobbly one) I had read in a local paper that I was indeed ‘flying in’ that day, so it was no big surprise when I was greeted at the terminal by an eager-eyed young pressman. He grabbed my suitcase with one hand and my elbow with the other and guided me off to the Press Room. Therein, dead-centre, was a small stage flooded with television lights, and on the stage a couple of black leatherette TV armchairs. An airport interview! Reluctantly, I marched towards the lights: ‘Where do I sit?’ The pressman was not in the least embarrassed when he explained to me that the lights were actually for Roy Orbison and that we would be having our ‘little chat’ in the far, dark corner of the room to which he was now leading me. Our little chat consisted of him asking me exactly who I was, and even this thin line of inquiry petered out when the Big O, plus entourage, made his appearance. My pressman sat agog throughout the pop singer’s interview and as soon as it was over he thanked me ‘for everything’ and shot off to watch Roy and his aides climb aboard their waiting limos.
Explaining exactly who I was took up quite a slice of my ensuing two weeks in Australia, but I could hardly complain about that, since I didn’t know who any of them were. The Adelaide Festival was prefaced by a ‘forum’ of little magazine editors (that is to say, editors of so-called Little Magazines). I was then editing the New Review and was thus the foreign guest who was supposed to give the Australians an idea of how we handled these things here. Once the event got going, though, it swiftly became clear that how we handled these things here was of no interest whatever to the dozen or so tense figures round the table. Each of them had something on his mind, something very local and very specific, and each was determined to be heard. The Gough Whitlam spirit was still alive, and much of the talk was therefore about cash: about how much more of it each magazine felt that it deserved. This was more or less to be expected. What made the thing somewhat eerie was the general air of rancour, of scores being settled, long-held grievances off-loaded. With one or two exceptions, they did not seem to like each other much, and none of the dislike was secret. In theory, very bracing – but it wasn’t. I kept trying to work out who was on who’s side, and to identify ideological blocs, artistic differences: with so much hostility in the air, there had to be a pattern. In the end, though, none of it fell into place.
When I described all this later to an Australian non-editor, he was much amused. Australia, he patiently explained, is a big country. The editor of Sperm from Melbourne had never before met the editor of Blaze from Perth, and it was well-known that Sperm’s grant was cut because the editor of Blaze was having a really sick affair with a poetess whose last book Sperm had dumped on; the editor of Blaze, as everyone knows, was a big friend of X on the Queensland Arts Council ... and so on. It may be a big country, I suggested, but it’s a small world. No, no, he said, the distances do matter. Hardly any of the people at that forum had ever met before, and they had probably been slagging each other off in print for years. It was usual enough for the ‘established’ literary figures to meet each other and adjust their literary politics accordingly, but the smaller fry’s sense of exclusion, and hence their integrity, was bolstered by geography. If I had been there longer, he consoled me, I’d have known the score.
Well, thanks. It had to be confessed, though, that the score I did know was the wrong one. The only Australian literary magazines I was familiar with were the Meanjin Quarterly and Overland. When I announced this to the forum I was heckled with what sounded like genuine contempt: even though the editor of one of these publications was seated at the same table. During the course of the next week, I was to make several similar errors. Names like Patrick White and A.D. Hope were greeted with candid derision, and nobody had heard of Clive James.[*] When, at one of the actual Festival’s talk-ins, I said that it was odd to find Peter Porter missing from various standard anthologies of Australian verse, I was given the clear impression that P.P. had simply got what he deserved. Among poets there was much talk of an ‘Australian identity’; one way of asserting this identity was to be indifferent to anything that was going on in London. A rather specialised branch of the ‘identity’ lobby spoke of the new affinity it felt with Californian poets like Robert Duncan. Again, the word ‘geography’ was used: it made geographical sense for Australians to cosy up with San Francisco.
To balance the provincial angst, there were also a number of sneering cosmopolitans, but they tended not to sit on platforms. They were to be found hanging around in the bar and, once they found out you were from ‘Europe’ they would tell you about the year they spent in Florence, and how they couldn’t wait to get back there, or to Paris or to London, for some real culture. Look at them all, they would say, gesturing towards the marquee where some fiercely local debate was in progress, and they would look seriously cheated when one said (not quite truthfully) that it was much the same in London.
I was not the only non-Australian at the Festival. Indeed, some of the fortnight’s more amusing moments were provided by my foreign colleagues. Two days after I arrived in Adelaide, Ted Hughes and Adrian Mitchell were scheduled to arrive from London, and there was a slight panic among the organisers when neither of them showed up at his hotel at the appointed hour. News finally arrived that, yes, they had in fact arrived at the airport but that each had been hijacked by a group of fans. Hughes had been transported to a cattle ranch (or was it a pig farm?) to check out the I local livestock, and Mitchell had been met by a small band of anarchists who had whisked him off for an inspection of a nearby penitentiary. It’s tough work, being true to one’s own subject-matter, and the pair of them looked distinctly drained by the time they were released into the hands of their official welcomers. Mitchell, however, recovered pretty smartly. He was soon to be heard reciting an indignant poem about prison conditions in South Australia. Another comedy lay in the rampagings of the local Women’s Libbers. Hughes was an early target – it appeared that he had not been nice enough to Sylvia Plath. When I quizzed one of the harpies on this score, it turned out that she was getting all her facts direct from the poem ‘Daddy’. ‘That’s good enough for me,’ she squeaked. ‘And anyway, you just have to look at him. Macho bastard.’ Hughes himself stayed cool.
So too did Robie Macauley, the American delegate – so cool, in fact, that it took the sisters all of a week to discover that he was not just a mild-mannered US author. He was also, they learned, the fiction editor of Playboy! The anti-Hughes campaign was dropped instantly, and poor Macauley (who was only there to grab some sun) became hate-object number one. Every time he appeared on a platform they would barrack him, and at question time at least six amazons would leap up to grill him about sexist centrefolds. Macauley would blink at them, then try to mumble something about the relatively high quality of Playboy’s fiction, or about how for him it was all a way of getting good money into the pockets of good writers. It was no use. In his opponents’ eyes, he had become Hugh Hefner. I advised that there must surely be a way in which he could turn this error to his advantage. Neither of us could quite think of how.
All this was in 1976, and I suppose it’s different now. I wonder, though. Leafing through the catalogue for ‘Australian Publishing – A Decade of Achievement’, I kept coming across turns of phrase that jolted me back to that marquee in Adelaide. Even the exhibition’s subtitle had something of this same effect. And I was stirred to near-affection by the blurb for an anthology of Australian SF: ‘This collection of Australian Science Fiction mirrors the nation’s apprehensive fascination with its own unexplored emptiness, and its fear of forfeiting its never-too-clear racial identity.’
A postscript on the matter of ‘racial identity’: the Irish poet Seamus Heaney has been anguishing about his inclusion in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry.[†] Heaney decently admits the problem is a sticky one, that to some extent his Irish authoritativeness requires him to be heavily visible in Britain, that the career-machinery is London-based, and so on. All the same, poets – like the things that poets write of – ought to be precisely named. And Heaney, he will have us know, once and for all, has a green passport. Fair enough, but what happens now – is his name to be scrubbed from the syllabuses, the British Council files, the Longman anthologies etc? Something ought to happen. The tone of Heaney’s letter (not to mention its ponderous versification) is chummy enough to suggest that, point now made, he’ll carry on permitting us to get it wrong.
[*] 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.