Australia strikes back

Les Murray

  • Snakecharmers in Texas by Clive James
    Cape, 373 pp, £11.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 224 02571 6

Among Australians, there are punishments for making one’s career abroad, just as there are for living and writing at home. Few of these punishments have come Clive James’s way. His poetry used regularly to be left out of Australian anthologies, but that is an old bad habit we may have grown out of by now. Mr James’s name attracts far more affection than odium, and he gets away with astounding things on his return visits. I have, by way of the tube, witnessed his telling a whole large roomful of sleek women journalists, in Sydney, that the gulf between intellectuals and the general public is wider in Australia than in any other Western country. So it is, but this isn’t normally a permitted observation: our intellectuals by and large hold themselves to be more of the people than the people itself. However, just as Miss Greer is the Germaine of her generation, so Mr James is the Clive – and here he was in person. So stilled and luminous with sexual speculation were those Sydney journalists they didn’t seem to realise, or to mind, that he was talking about themselves.

One thing that is expected of Australians who are successful abroad is that they shall give a leg up to their fellow-countrymen. A few do so; Peter Porter has been most generous, and Clive James has come to the task more recently, but also with generosity. In this vivacious and often sumptuous new collection of his essays, he has a great deal to say in praise of fellow expatriates, and some magnanimous things to say of a few people and institutions at home. He does, however, treat what he calls his ‘homebound’ beneficiaries rather as brands plucked from the burning, and it seems to irritate him mightily that mediocre writers at home can now get as much meaningless hype on their own scene as similarly mediocre writers could hope for in London or New York. It seems almost to infuriate him that a rebarbative provincial assertiveness is supporting hosts of worthless writers high above the ground on blasts of patriotic hot air. My response to all this is that things are worse than he believes: a peculiarly durable time-warp in his thinking both helps to explain why they are so bad, and prevents his seeing the full truth of the matter.

In many ways, in his repeated sideswipes at criticism and literary life in Australia, Mr James comes close to the nub. When he says, pretty accurately, that criticism is effectively non-existent in this generation, he might have completed the paradox by adding that there’s now far more of it than ever before. Unfortunately, the coming of academic studies in Aust. Lit. has seen the categories of criticism, journalism, special pleading, publishers’ hype and artistic assassination melt down and run together. In the absence of any economic basis of personal independence for editors (Clive James calls this an absence of quality journals able to reject copy, but he is registering a result and I am identifying its cause), the whole scene is open to a takeover by any determined doctrinaire group around. Using an age-old terminology that serves to prolong the evils it imputes, he observes rightly that the Sixties often had a larger effect in the backwaters than in the mainstream of culture, and adds that Australia was particularly hard hit. We were, but the worst of it was slowest to arrive. It is only finally in this decade that our literature has come under the almost unchallenged sway of our version of the Children of Albion, since grown up and transmuted into a militant tendency indeed. Now in their forties and bearing last-minute children, these people rigorously apply the grey rubber yardstick of Ideological Soundness to every author and work, relentlessly promoting some, sending others to Siberia. What Clive James calls our ‘disinclination to go on accepting the status of a second-hand country’ has been hijacked by the second-hand, and those who might have given it balance isolated or silenced. A particularly flagrant example has been the shameful concerted hounding of Professor Geoffrey Blainey. The republican aspiration keeps mainly illiberal company now, and disapproves of most Australian realities. Our republic of letters has become pretty much a Soviet one, not precisely in its ideology – being Broad Left, the line is not clear, and we have less glasnost, since nothing is admitted – but in its methods, its tone and its professional ethics. Questions of literary quality are regularly subordinated to social and political purpose, in Australian reviewing, and absent aesthetic distinction is blandly asserted to be there post facto, on the understanding there will be penalties for any who say it isn’t. The long relegation of Australian letters by metropolitan disdain has lent force to complex codes of resentment, and the strong collectivism of one side of Australian tradition has led to the existence of a tacit deal by which eminence is permitted only in return for adherence to an agenda.

The disaster has come on gradually, like the staining of a vast crystal lattice. From day to day, it is hard to know what bastions have fallen, what streets have become no-go areas. Festivals became impossible in the early Seventies: the unapproved writer is snubbed and harassed constantly at those. Four years ago, when a leading publisher had refused to enter one of the collections of poetry on his own list for a national prize on the unadmitted but clear grounds that the author was Catholic, it was still possible to get the book into the contest at the last minute, and it won. It probably would not win now. In the same year, a State Premier’s department kept a panel of judges voting over and over for the obvious but politically unacceptable winner of that State’s major prize, until they saw the light and shifted their votes to another contender. Positional warfare goes on unceasingly. The few reliable critics, by which I mean those interested in artistic values, find they have fewer and fewer invitations to work, and fewer places to publish. Most worthwhile writing on Australian literature is now done abroad, and very often by non-Australians. If Mr James’s own distinguished contributions to this body of commentary formed a larger part of his output – and I’m not saying they should, conscription of our critics is an evil that I oppose – and if he did not carry with him the great glamour of television and world connections, he might be horrified to find himself unwelcome at home, and denounced there. He most probably could not make a living there now, if he tried to stay: as soon as his protective bubble of Weltglanz dissipated, he would be set upon.

It is likely Mr James now knows these things. The essays in which he registers his distaste for an earlier and more innocent flush of national assertiveness are now four or five years old. At home, the line on nationalism is as intricate as the DNA helix, and leads to manifold incongruities. A witty letter-writer in the Australian the other day complained that Australia seemed to be flavour of the month in many countries overseas, but not at home, and in the same week a harmlessly dim-witted television programme devoted to bush lore and songs was fiercely denounced as propaganda against the current policy of multi-culturalism. In his twitting of nationalist assertiveness, Mr James never distinguishes which of several different truncated Australias a given piece of assertiveness is asserting. It is sad, too, to see him echoing a repressive metropolitan scorn at there being a literary and publishing set-up in a ‘backwater’ at all. This is by now very old hat. The modern technique is to smile upon such a set-up, buy into it heavily and repatriate the profits you make out of the local shenanigans. It is very noticeable that the publishing-houses through whose efforts the question of literary quality and value is being shouted down in Australia are practically all British-owned. Mrs Thatcher’s new society is doing very nicely out of inflated Australian reputations, and there would be fewer of them if it were not. The Penguins aren’t angry, this time round: they merely trawl for anger and convert it into money.

If an empire can decentralise in this way – and I’m as much grinning at the disappearing act as carping at it – then surely it is possible for a critic’s standards of excellence to decentralise too. Mr James’s standards look anachronistic, and are likely to be dismissed as such, because of the bad Old Empire company they keep. To illustrate what I mean, here is a paragraph from a 1983 article on Sydney’s Opera House:

Meanwhile, in addition to its practical capacities, the Opera House admirably serves whatever symbolic functions are imposed on it. Earlier on, it symbolised local-yokel cultural pretension, which placed the order for a bobby-dazzler of an opera house without stopping to find out whether the actual operas could be put on inside it. Later on it has come to symbolise a new, confident national ability to see a dream through to reality and love the result even for its faults. On a world scale, it symbolises the belated but total rebellion against the doctrinal architectural precept that form must follow function: the shells have nothing to do with what goes on inside them, they are true only to themselves and the joy of the spirit. But finally and lastingly the Opera House symbolises the barbarian’s thirst for beauty, towards which he sails open-mouthed, breaking everything he touches but bringing a precious gift of his own – new energy.

‘Barbarian’ is a hard name to attach to a Danish architect, even at the end of a sensitive and well-written account of how Sydney got its landmark. And I am a local yokel: I come from a remote valley with dirt roads and less than a hundred residents, and I have gone back to live there. Really, though, if anyone published the second and especially the final sentence of that paragraph about a black nation, he would be crucified head downwards on a dunny door. And what is a no-no in respect of other races is becoming a no-no in respect of white folk too. It has to, or we are shown as insultingly concessive to the others. There has recently been a seismic shift in sensibility, one that may spell the end of that classical nexus of metaphors: centre versus periphery, metropole versus province, cultural mainstream versus backwater. Mr James is in danger of being caught on the wrong side of a widening historical fissure. I say ‘widening’, because no one can predict just where this change will take us. It may be the death knell of the Enlightenment itself, because it may be that tyranny is served by anything short of regarding humans as immortal souls. The old imperial kinds of aesthetic have the effect of relegating all but a few privileged places and people to the status of failures, idiots, property, cattle to be exploited and slaughtered at need. But the same is exactly true of the new conceptual empires of ideology. In the end, to use any yardstick short of the poetic experience, as delivered by others or added to perception by oneself, is to be guilty of relegation – that is, of the thing which gets intellect and art itself a bad name. Like exams, it humiliates most people, and alienates them from culture whether they admit the alienation or not. If you truly love culture, it is hard to leave it looking complicit in any act of relegation.

The opening section of Mr James’s fine new book is titled ‘Australia’s Sons’, from the older version of the first line of our national anthem; nowadays we stiffen and creak our way into that tune by way of a new phrase, ‘Australians all’. I have concentrated heavily on that section so far because it was natural that I should, and because I wanted to nail the book’s one conceptual flaw. The whole section is, like every other in the book, full of perceptiveness, verve and generosity of spirit. One very kind essay in it earned my gratitude when I first read it a few years ago, and incidentally taught me the useful term ‘bye-writing’. Another may well be the best essay ever done on Peter Porter; yet another examines and celebrates the Empire-bound art of Barry Humphries with sympathy and the right sort of disquiet about satire, that art form which prepares the way for Nazis. The two star turns of the section, though, are the sensuous ‘Dream of Zinc Cream’, on body-surfing, and Mr James’s tribute to Robert Hughes’s magnificent The Fatal Shore, the book in which the story of the convicts in Australia, related in many accounts, is finally unforgettably told. This essay is amongst other things a passionate defence of the benefits expatriation has brought to a number of Australian writers, and owes its placement at the book’s very outset to this, but Mr James awards the palms to others, and takes care to praise Hughes not only for his omnivorous mastery, but also for his balance and tact:

But for the long voyager like Hughes it became that much harder to cast Britain as the villain, either currently or in retrospect. One of the hardest issues he is prepared to face in The Fatal Shore is that the growth of the penal colony into a living society can’t be interpreted as merely a liberal refutation of the mother country at her most repressive. England was also present at the spontaneous creation that grew out of the planned destruction. The ties with ‘home’ were real. The past is not to be argued away for the sake of a political programme.

Mr James pays frequent tribute to a quality of Australian expatriate authors which exhilarates him, their confident, world-eating curiosity; he does not hypocritically disclaim this in his own case, and he is right in seeing it as essentially innocent. The first things Clive James and I talked about, all those years ago at Sydney University, were the exact details of the US Marine training and the qualities of Allied and Japanese military aircraft, the Brewster Buffalo and F4U Corsair, the lumbering Mavis flying-boat and the wonderful Ryan-designed Mitsubishi Zero-Sen fighter the Imperial Army and Navy stayed content with for too long. The same fascination with fact and performance is present throughout Mr James’s writing, and coruscates in these essays. For a delightfully literal sample, take this passage about the Statue of Liberty:

If a skyscraper is defined as a building whose steel frame carries the load and whose curtain walls bear only their own weight, then Liberty fills the bill exactly ... Bolted to these ribs, each section of the copper sheeting carries only its own weight. The copper sheeting is only 3/32 in. thick. The lady is practically transparent. Weight for weight and height for height, she has a skin like Meryl Streep ... Like a dolphin adapting its epidermis to the speed of the passing sea, she ripples and flexes in the wind, redistributing the air pressure so that it can never push her over. Only the Park Service personnel are allowed up her right arm into the torch, which they say is the best place to experience how she can shimmy like your sister Kate.

With its love of edge and high-speed elegance, this is the style that was already forming in the late Fifties, when Clive James was a young student but also an intellectual presence at our university, and I was renowned there only for my imitations of crazed laughter. That style has stayed youthful, even as the erudition has piled up dizzyingly behind it. Few things turn it hushed, though matters of heavy connoisseurship such as pre-war Phaidon art books and Munich cabaret of the same period come close; the sheer glory of knowing all about something so out of the way can make the syntax linger, though not falter, and the otherwise ubiquitous slight air of the burlesque may vanish. Slowness in Mr James’s writing is an infallible mark of respect. Speed, which always goes with his jokiness, is more complex. It may be seen as being of a piece with the High Culture approach to aesthetics, a spark playing between affection and dismissal – and yet it is hard not to sense that his heart is closer to themes Culture might quite recently have dismissed, before it began playing democratic games. At times, jocular speed may gather into a gesture expressing a disdain that is allowed no nearer the surface, as when he is describing a book called A Century of Japanese Photography: ‘The level of violence in the book is made all the more terrifying by the degree of delicacy. You feel that you are at a tea ceremony with Mishima and that he might behead you and disembowel himself at any moment and in either order.’ Whish!

The range of subject-matters in the book is dizzyingly wide. There is an essay which shows me just how fine a poet Lord Rochester is and at the same time relieves me from having to read more of him, and a stunner on the Adelaide Formula One car races. The numen of the Second World War, which won’t leave even those who were small children during those years, gets a number of moving evocations, notably in a fine essay on the ghosts of the Munich Zepplinsfeld. A fascinating study of Bob Geldof ends with a silly-cynical bromide I’ll bet Mr James wouldn’t repeat to Mother Teresa, and a clutch of essays on notable Englishwomen of our time (they are also English women, but somehow the compound form of the word seems requisite) comes out as genuinely chivalrous, a rare quality in our decades. One or two of the essays are slight, and the last approaches the footling, but it is compensated for by the intelligent introduction, one which identified for me three references I should have known before. Few other essayists alive have so unitary a style as Mr James, you never feel he would have to follow his revered Montale in calling journalism his secondo mestiere, the quotidian thing that keeps him from poetry. The real distinction of Clive James’s style, for me, is that his poetry is continuous with it, just a matter of smooth, barely-noticed lift-off. Take, for example, his poem on Johnny Weissmuller dead in Acapulco:

And if you ever want to see a true king you
                should watch Weissmuller
In Tarzan Escapes cavorting underwater with Boy
In the clear river with networks of light on the shelving sand
Over which they fly weightless to hide from
                  each other behind the log
While Jane wonders where they are.
You will wonder too and be shy of the answer
Because it is Paradise.