Bullshit and Beyond

Clive James

  • 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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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