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.

Lyrically passionate writing should always be resisted, especially by the writer. A real idea slows you down, by demanding that you make yourself as plain as possible. A big idea – the nice name for a hazy notion – speeds you up. You try to find out what you mean by examining the words in which you say it, by mixing one abstract concept into another as if two kinds of sand could make cement, by suddenly switching to italics as if a breakthrough into clear country had been achieved by hard sweat. Mr Carter’s big idea is that most of the history written about Australia up to now has been imperial history. He has invented a better version, called spatial history. The word ‘spatial’ recurs in Mr Carter’s prose the way ‘bourgeois’ does in Manning Clark’s, with the difference that whereas Professor Clark’s favourite word is gravid with dull significance, Mr Carter’s is as brightly hollow as a Christmas bauble. Here he is, at the start of his book, announcing that Manning Clark’s kind of history,

which reduces space to a stage, that pays attention to events unfolding in time alone, might be called imperial history. The governor erects a tent here rather than there, the soldier blazes a trail in that direction rather than this: but, rather than focus on the intentional world of historical individuals, the world of active, spatial choices, empirical history of this kind has as its focus facts which, in a sense, come after the event. The primary object is not to understand or to interpret: it is to legitimate. This is why this history is associated with imperialism …

Mr Carter well knows that to call Manning Clark an imperialist historian is like saying that Bertolt Brecht had a crush on the Duchess of Windsor. But big ideas go beyond what the mind that hatches them knows: they fly into the realm where thought is pure. Mr Carter has got himself convinced that even though a historian might be a radical, the history the historian writes is imperial, because it not only sees the past in terms of what happened next, it sees a space in terms of how it turned into a place. To combat imperial history, and turn the places back into spaces, spatial history will be required. ‘Such spatial history – history that discovers and explores the lacuna left by imperial history – begins and ends in language.’ The reader can’t say that he hasn’t been warned.

Imperial history, ‘the selective blandnesses of cultural discourse’, has apparently been going on since the Enlightenment. If it has, then Mr Carter is in the uncomfortable position of holding himself superior to some pretty formidable minds. He doesn’t say how it came about that his own viewpoint should be so uniquely privileged, although, judging from his vocabulary, structuralism, semiotics and similar fashions must have had a good deal to do with it. The phrase ‘ways of seeing’ crops up, reminding us of John Berger and his allegedly penetrating double squint. The authorial assumption which remains unquestioned at the end of the book – after 350 pages in which the word ‘spatial’ appears rarely fewer than three times per paragraph and sometimes twice in the same sentence – is that an alternative to imperial history, namely spatial history, is not just possible but mandatory, in order to right age-old wrongs. Spatial history would, for example, have the virtue of being fair to the Aborigines.

A spatial history of this kind would stand in a metaphorical relationship to the history the Aborigines tell themselves. It would be a comparable reflection on different historical content. And, naturally, since the medium of white history is writing, it would not simply be a book about the language of recollection. If it were to avoid the kind of passive associationism Husserl refers to, it would have to enact the language of recollection. Such a history, giving back to metaphor its ontological role and recovering its historical space, would inevitably and properly be a poetic history.

I wouldn’t bet on it, unless the historian could write plain English in the first place. A few weeks ago in Sydney I had a drink with an Aboriginal actor called Ernie Dingo, who talked more poetry in five minutes that Mr Carter looks like achieving in the rest of his life, unless Husserl is forcibly withheld from him. The sad thing is that in real life Mr Carter is a literary journalist of some repute. As Robert Haupt’s successor to the editorship of the Age Monthly Review, he inhabits a milieu, or space, in which the standards of plain speaking were set by the redoubtable Michael Davie, who really should get back there and sort out his errant protégés as soon as possible.

Good journalists should not waste time producing bad PhD theses. In the academic context there is some reason for the success of pseudo-scientific guff: emptying the humanities of their true significance is a way of attaining tenure without talent. But a journalist who tries to join in is just talking his way into the madhouse. There are signs that Mr Carter might know this, deep down. It must have been some vestigial attack of sanity that led him, on page 294, to attempt a definition of the word ‘bullshit’. ‘Bullshit is the result of chewing the cud, the repetitive detritus of trying too hard to conjure oneself from the ground.’ Ipse dixit.

More briefly, bullshit is empty depth. Mr Carter feels obliged to deploy his chic vocabulary not because his big idea is new but because it is a truism. Gibbon was well aware that Rome was a space before it was a place, and got the idea for writing his history when he saw the space re-emerging through the place’s ruins. Those who do not think originally enough to be interesting when they write plainly will always be tempted to seek refuge in obscurantism, but a journalist, if he can do nothing else, should resist that temptation. After The Road to Botany Bay, Australian history might as well be left to the historians.

Stuart Macintyre, author of the fourth volume of the Oxford History of Australia, covers the years 1901-1942 in good plain style, with words like ‘bourgeois’ kept well in check and words like ‘spatial’ nowhere to be seen. Aiming to get at the truth, which is always more complicated than any use that can be made of it, he delivers the sort of factual account which ideologists of either wing find awkward. He mentions that the British lost three times as many soldiers killed at Gallipoli as the Australians did – a fact left out of the celebrated Australian film Gallipoli, in which the British appear only as cynical manipulators of Australian cannon-fodder. He mentions, on the other hand, that the Australians came out of the Dardanelles with a deep, well-founded disbelief in British military competence.

Even in his grave, Robert Gordon Menzies is regularly vilified as the Australian prime minister who would do anything for the British, including offering up his young compatriots as a blood sacrifice. Dr Macintyre is able to show that Menzies, though his bump of reverence was undoubtedly overdeveloped, was properly suspicious of Churchill and patriotically concerned that Australian troops should not be frittered away far from home. The book ends at what is seen, surely correctly, as a decisive historical moment. Succeeding Menzies as prime minister, John Curtin proclaimed the alliance with the United States to be the one that mattered militarily. At the battle of he Coral Sea the Americans stopped the Japanese from getting under New Guinea. In the Owen Stanley ranges the Australians stopped the Japanese from getting across it. The two events were interdependent.

The Australians can be proud of how their soldiers fought, but without the American effort the game would have been up. British protection was a myth that evaporated with the fall of Singapore. Dr Macintyre faithfully repeats the hoary story about Singapore’s big guns facing the wrong way. Actually they could traverse through 360 degrees. The trouble with them was their ammunition, which was armour-piercing for use against ships, and which therefore, when fired against targets on the soft ground of the mainland, went off plop among the mangroves. We had plenty of other guns, but their ammunition was rationed, by strict order of General Percival. See, as Dr Macintyre evidently hasn’t seen, Timothy Hall’s journalistic but competent account The Fall of Singapore, 1942.

British military ineptitude in Malaya was almost total. Dr Macintyre is within his rights to say that the Australian general staff were not much better, but he should have mentioned that we had some good officers up near the fighting. Some of the greener troops behaved badly on the Singapore docks, but on the mainland – at Parit Sulong bridge, for example – our soldiers slowed the Japanese down to a degree that could have been exploited if there had been any kind of strategic grasp at command level. All of that, however, belonged to General Yamashita, whose Imperial Guards, had they ever got ashore in Australia, might well have turned it back from a place into a space, as a preparation for its being transformed into another kind of place altogether.

The last chapter of Dr Macintyre’s book is disproportionate through being only the same length as all the others. In actuality, two years of war weighed the same as twenty years of peace, because the war changed everything. In this way, history really is like space: tumultuous events set apart from each other, and connected by gravity. Responding to its rhythm is not easy. A metronomic beat won’t do. Rubato is required.

Some of the best Australian history is cultural history, not just because better written, but because the culturati, eternally anxious to place themselves in a context, try hard to evoke it. Sylvia Lawson, a descendant of Henry Lawson, was a pioneer –the pioneer – Australian woman literary journalist in the Fifties. In the editorial office of Tom Fitzgerald’s Nation magazine in George Street, Sydney, she would elegantly sip the wine provided while the rest of us tried to mention a book she hadn’t read. It wasn’t easy, and writing as well as she did was no less of a challenge. Thirty years on, her new book The Archibald Paradox is disturbingly flecked throughout with words like ‘text’ and ‘discourse’, but on close examination this proves to be more of a light peppering than a full attack of the plague. Underneath, she is still a tough-minded writer, and this book springs from a real, as opposed to a big, idea.

The idea is that the famous Sydney weekly magazine the Bulletin was, in the twenty or so years leading up to Federation, even more interesting in the totality of its content – letters column included – than it was for its individual literary contributions. The Archibald of the title was the magazine’s editor, Jules François Archibald, the embodiment of a paradox which Ms Lawson usefully defines: ‘To know enough of the metropolitan world, colonials must, in limited ways at least, move and think internationally; to resist it strongly enough for the colony to cease to be colonial and become its own place, they must become nationalists.’

Archibald lived out this paradox through the pages of his magazine. Within the accepted racist limits (‘Australia for the White Man,’ screamed the masthead, ‘and China for the Chows’) the Bulletin was a true community of voices. Every shade of white was represented. Archibald’s appointee as literary editor, Alfred George Stephens, was an erudite critic who brought a full range of Europeanised refinement to the task of assessing raw native talent. The whole of the country came alive in the Bulletin and the whole of its history in that period comes alive in Ms Lawson’s book. So solid an achievement didn’t need to make the slightest gesture towards academic respectability.

When Donald Horne took over the Bulletin in 1961, he killed off the slogan ‘Australia for the White Man.’ Self-assurance was, and remains, his strong suit. Horne’s writing about Australian cultural history and current affairs is a cut above journalism in a country whose journalism, at its best, has always had the virtue of being willing to get above itself. The Lucky Country Revisited expands on and continues the story told in his The Lucky Country, a book which remains essential but can only gain through being supplemented by this new volume, which includes many photographs with appropriately extended captions, along with much judicious hindsight tartly expressed.

All over again it becomes clear that Australian cultural history is the best way into Australian history, and that the best way into Australian cultural history, in modern times at any rate, is through Horne’s books. His autobiographical volumes, in particular, should be high on the reading list of any foreign observer who wants to take the measure of what has been going on in Australia since World War Two. Horne’s second volume of autobiography, Confessions of a New Boy, was on my draft list of Books of the Year for the Observer the year before last, but I was made to remove it because it had not been published here. Peeved at the time, I subsequently arrived at the conclusion that a good Australian book no longer needs to be legitimised by being published all over again in the UK. Horne has resolved the Archibald paradox as well as anyone can. Bringing a world view to bear on his native land, he hammers its provincialism, but always as a patriot. His kind of sceptical intelligence is exactly what the Australians fancy themselves to possess as a national characteristic, but what makes them uncomfortable when they hear it propound a connected argument.

In the field of arts, letters and the petit bonheur, Horne is well pleased by the giant strides Australia has made away from its erstwhile diffidence and wowserism, but the vaunted energy and imagination of its entrepreneurs leave him unimpressed. In The Lucky Country Revisited his perennial dim view of the Australian managerial élite is brought up to date and reinforced. Horne’s argument will ring a bell for those of us who have always wondered why someone who buys a brewery with money made out of lousy newspapers is called a financial genius. But Horne is not pandering to the highbrow who despises industry. Horne thinks that if the entrepreneurs are living in a dream, the intellectuals are doing too little to dispel it.

I wish Horne wasn’t right about this, because Australia would be a blissful place in which to inhabit an ivory tower – you could see the beach for miles. Dreaming, however, might do for us in the end, and needs more discouragement than it is getting now. The cure is realism. Australian historians suffer from having too little history to work on. But there is plenty more coming up, and although we can’t be sure what will happen, we can be sure we won’t like it, unless those who take on the task of putting the past in perspective are thoughtful and disciplined enough to give us a reasonably clear account of how we got this far.