Greeromania

Sylvia Lawson

  • Daddy, we hardly knew you by Germaine Greer
    Hamish Hamilton, 312 pp, £13.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 241 12538 3

Fervently hoping to be proved wrong, I think this marvellous book is all too likely to be denied the reception and the uses it deserves. Two things especially stand in its way: the celebrity status of the author, and the apparent transparency of her style, which might easily deceive you into believing the work a far less literary object than it is. And there are baying voices along its path; most current feminist writing is either highly academic and philosophically separatist, or else purplish commercial-confessional; on both registers, this specimen of personal history is decisively at odds, open, generous, crazily compendious as it is. There is another danger; I shall come to it later.

Stardom has its genres and conventions. It was an essential determinant: the publishers gave a famous feminist a very handsome advance – she never says just how much – to write a book about the parent who had persistently evaded both her curiosity and her love. The question presents itself: how much space is there really between a Greer book about her father and the next slab of, say, Maclaine or Taylor, Going Public on some hitherto neglected item of spiritual or carnal adventure? Less, it seems at times, than one might have hoped. Not so much because of the writer’s freedom to fly round the globe repeatedly and drive rented cars across continents: it is, after all, a traveller’s tale. But (the querulous critic is nagging) what about all those bits where an experience – airport mishap, roadside bird or gum-blossom – is put on record merely because it’s her experience? What about the gratuitous scathing of her mother and the lazy library assistants, people who can’t answer back? Why did the suite in the hotel in Delhi, from which she watched the mythically sumptuous wedding, have to be ‘larger than most Indian houses’ with ‘vast marble bathroom’? And what is the relevance to anything of the piteous reminiscence on coming up to Cambridge and the conferring of her degree?

Nobody photographed me, not then, not when I knelt resplendent in medieval red and black with my hands joined in prayer within those of the Vice-Chancellor, Germaine Greer Philosophiae Doctoris Cantabrigiensis. I collected my degree by myself. There was no victory supper, no champagne. I had worked all my life for love, done my best to please everybody, kept on going till I reached the top, looked about and found I was all alone ... I thanked my lucky stars it was English poetry I studied, so that I had the charms and incantations to lay upon the wound in my soul. If I had chosen to study dentistry or computer science, I might never have won through to happiness.

If the beleaguered humanities academics of the present could only share the imagination in the last ringing sentences, and push through to their further meanings, they might have better ammunition against Thatcherism. The demand for relevance would misunderstand the kind of story we’re in. So would any notion that she’s simply telling it like it was or is, that the book is unmediated ‘experience’, like a hot spring somehow bubbling up from the real stuff underneath. This is the kind of writing in which the thinking-through, living-through and writing-through of the search and its predicaments are mutually and inextricably entangled: the words come out of the centre, not from a reflective umpire’s position on the sidelines after the game’s been won. Daddy, we hardly knew you – the full, intentional dreadfulness of the title, the depth of its multiple ironies are apparent only at the end – is highly-wrought literature. It is also a risky, flamboyant, long-sustained star performance, complete with pratfalls and buffoonery, self-mockery and self-castigation. Anything she dishes out she is more than ready to take; and as a performer, she has never shirked making an idiot of herself, or washing bloody knickers in public. The querulous critic can be anwered: here stardom is subverted, precisely while it’s being used.

What is performed is an odyssey. The outcome of the wanderer’s search is nothing short of the full overturning of the hope in which it began: namely, that rigorous and exhaustive research might flush the long-elusive, prodigal father from his cover, and that once in history’s daylight he might prove worthy, after all, of the daughter’s longing. Given the commission she wanted, the writer began her pursuit soon after his death, beginning with her parents’ marriage certificate, on which her father claimed Durban as his birthplace, and a journalist called Robert Greer as his father. She sought his traces in the usual formal registers of Tasmania, where he had grown up, Victoria and South Africa. She pursued the Greers of the world backward through Griers, Griersons, Gregors and Macgregors to the kith of Scottish kings in the ninth century. She wrote to all the Greers in all the phone books she could find for Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, with the result that ‘replies are still coming, with photographs and great scrolls of family trees and kind words of acceptance and encouragement. I could hardly have made a bigger fool of myself.’ She tracked back rumours, scraps of memory and gossip; she had some terrible times in libraries and registries; and she came into accidental possession of the stories historians stumble on when, turning over slimed and mossy stones, they can’t find what they’re really looking for:

For hundreds of hours I put together the history of the Launceston Daily Telegraph. I knew the names and addresses of all the owners, managers, editors, journalists, columnists and reporters the paper had ever had. I knew the names of their wives and the composition of their households, which I studied to discover if there were any foster-children or step-children who might have been called Greer. I read the records of the Australian Journalists Association, and found that no Greer had ever been a member.

She drove thousands of miles around eastern Australia, and probed the records for her father’s two years of war service, pursuing his few traces in Malta and India. Gluttonous for punishment, she did the equivalent of another PhD in research on British wartime intelligence activities – Reg Greer had worked on encoding and decoding in Malta. It was that stage which led her back to Cambridge. The chapter has an epigraph from Baudelaire, the lines ending on ‘luxe, calme et volupté’: there is the super-civility of senior learned men, the glow on the limed oak panelling, the conversation which goes from MI6 to leopard’s-bane and hemlock. After that, the chapters of war history are the only comparatively dull ones in the book; perhaps the telling of the quest needs all along the impress of the subject, the colours and shades of her self-questioning.

It must have been toilsome, but she didn’t waste money on research assistants: in this kind of thing, you never know what you’re looking for until you’ve found it, or failed to, yourself. Her fine-toothcombing was ruthless and rigorous, and carried out with the kind of imagination which transforms research into scholarship. War records aside, all the roads were cul-de-sacs, all the trails went cold. It was only because she caught up the tiny, seemingly irrelevant details that, at last, she ran her quarry to earth. By then

I knew Greer history from the plantation of Ulster to yesterday. And I loved them, found family resemblances among them, supplied other puzzled Greers with information for their family trees, visited the graves of dead Greers. I was a Greerologist, a Greerographer, a Greeromane. But the result of my searching bore inexorably towards one conclusion: though I might be all of the above, I was not a Greer.

There were no prizes in the truth about her father. Everything she found of him showed him more a fraud, a spiv, a phony; an amiable, exploitative show-off gifted only with a plausible tongue and a flair for appearances; the ideal PR man, Thirties model. To make it worse, out of a shallow snobbery, he disowned his valiant foster-mother and adoptive family completely. His daughter cannot come to terms with that: ‘Try as I might I cannot forgive my father this cruelty, banal and commonplace as it is, compounded of indifference and lack of imagination. Whatever confidence, charm, elegance or plausibility he had, she had made possible for him.’

The great reward is the retrieval of that foster-mother, Emma Greeney of Launceston (1867-1940). Knowledge of her is gathered mostly into the chapter called ‘The Heroine of this Story’, a stunning addition to feminist history. Emma, granddaughter of a convict, was one of 14 children of a farming household. Her marriage was childless. Between 1903 and 1931 she fostered at least twenty-five children, some of them state wards for whom she was paid; more than half were her own informal adoptions. On the emotional needs of childhood and adolescence – not least the need for escape – she appears to have known from hard work and practical intelligence all that the best books and counsellors now dispense at a price: ‘giving them physical closeness, real affection, support and unfailing loyalty’, making no distinction ‘between the dolts and the dazzlers, the industrious and the lazy ... she never gave up on a child, never rejected any of them no matter how naughty or stupid or ugly ... I should have been so proud to have inherited Emma Greeney’s genes. She had in abundance all the human characteristics I most prize.’ She also had a lifelong battle against poverty and the cruel stupidities of the bureaucracy.

With Emma’s story, the searcher also found her ramifying adoptive family, one superbly consistent with her theses on the proper workings of kin: a family bound, if not in this case by blood, then by truly elective affinities of loyalty, generosity, tolerance. ‘I blessed Australian kindness and simplicity. There was great kindness but no ceremony, nothing to make me feel more awkward than I already did ... I was glad I had them, proud of them.’ Those were the gains; but as for her father, with his succession of aliases, ‘in finding him I lost him’; he became nothing more than his props, ‘lying in my desk drawer in tatters’. She finally understands that his fear of her scrutiny was always far stronger than any need he might have had of her love: that no one really can love the one who is above all a threat. He knew she could unmask him, and her story proves him right.

Nearly twenty years after The Female Eunuch, a radically romantic, individualistic feminism still empowers Germaine Greer’s analyses of societies, families, women and men: a feminism now quite unfashionable and, from some of the perspectives obtaining now in the academy, probably direly unsound. So much the worse for sectarianism. She has the nerve to pursue the truth of her parentage without explicitly unscrambling its psychoanalytic dimension. In fact, she assumes its force, and goes on from there: she outfaces those waiting to propose that everything she’s ever done can now be reduced to Oedipal deprivation of the murkiest kind. Others will no doubt reproach her for taking up her father’s story at the apparent expense of her mother’s, although that story runs, subtextually, through all her work from The Female Eunuch on. In the contrasts between mothers displayed incidentally here, its meanings re-emerge mercilessly. Though The Caucasian Chalk Circle isn’t one of her references, Greer re-writes it in her contemplation of Emma.

The first chapter is called ‘The Quest’, and that announces both the intensity of the writer’s commitment and her sense of the perils ahead. What’s exhilarating there and throughout is the nerve it takes to appropriate the mythic dimension, to understand unwaveringly that your own story is worth it, and claim for the female warrior in these contemporary battlefields the full scope of the aspiration accorded time out of mind to the male. The grasp is above all a matter of writing; the prose is shot through with the knowledge of those ‘charms and incantations’, and the epigraphs, from Sophocles to Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva and Sylvia Plath, deepen the resonance. The Shakespeare scholar knows perfectly what she is doing in reversing the drama of the daughterless father; she had clung to the crumbs and rags of fatherly love and veracity, then has to let them blow away in the wind. The truth makes free – if you can stand it; to be free, said Auden, is often to be lonely. The narrator, ambiguous, ambivalent anti-heroine, is left shivering at the finish, and I find it admirable that she doesn’t try to make a rhetorical cloak out of that adoptive family, splendid as they were.

With Daddy’s pitiable fraudulence, the Western nuclear family falls apart once more: this book works as a kind of supportive obverse to Sex and Destiny, a great polemical essay which has been much misunderstood. But it’s not the whole story. Take on family, you take on the home country and home society as well. Australia is hard on her intellectuals and writers, much as Ireland is on hers (‘she is both a bore and a bitch,’ wrote Louis MacNeice). In the same way Australia is inescapable subject-matter; and the strongest claims are not, of course, those of back-country endurance, or sentimental constructions of Edenic Aboriginality – let alone the phony stuff about ‘national identity’. They have to do with the sharpening anomalies of the country’s position in relation both to the world and to itself; the persistent, tantalising sense of possibility and hope, set against the evidence of increasing depredation and injustice, the blind, repeated political refusals to resist the greeds of the powerful and set our house in order.

At several points in Daddy ..., particularly when Germaine Greer is riding around Tasmania and lamenting its impoverishment, family and home country seem caught in dialectic, mutually symbolic. But it’s not as neat as that. The polemic on Australia’s self-destruction dominates the story as she travels. It is heavy and continuous, like wind in trees; the family story recedes, twittering away into quiet.

Some of this was foreshadowed in Sex and Destiny, where she assaults Australian resources policy, or lack of it, and the frequent unwisdom of its conservationists. (Greeney she may not be, but greenie she is, whatever her quarrels with the rest of them.) Earlier on, she sounded often like one more case of that expatriate’s syndrome which so often sends resident Australian intellectuals into fits of teeth-grinding irritation – that is, the way they have of mixing professionalised, patronising, nostalgia with shopping-lists of reasons why you couldn’t actually live there.

Here, something much more serious is going on: ‘From Roma to Cunnamulla I drove through an honour guard of dead animals, mostly kangaroos that lay like sleeping schoolgirls with their elegant heads pillowed on the edge of the tarmac and their small hands tucked under their chins ... There were some that were no more than jigsaws of whitening bones, others that were parchment, some that were blue and gleaming and wore a coronet of flies, others that had been slit open by the tusks of feral pigs, others that had been spread along the road like a carpet of fur.’ They were killed by the road-trains, the thunderous juggernauts, built for America’s wider highways, which have replaced droving in the cattle country. Jackerooing is done with four-wheel-drives and trail-bikes; horses and stockmen have gone. It is in Queensland, more than anywhere, that you feel the weight of the brief white Australian past, begin to know how much is over and finished with in this trumpeted country of the future. Germaine Greer’s experience of Queensland arose from the rumour that the young Reg Greer might have gone there jackerooing. She found the weatherbeaten cattleman, ‘game, funny and strong’, who tried to help, and ‘complimented me ironically on my bushcraft, when I didn’t get lost driving through the fenceless properties on the Darling Downs. We both smiled bitterly at the joke, for bushcraft is now map references and sign reading.’

After that there was the cattleman’s niece, who threw a party for the writer, hoping to activate the bush telegraph. Later there was Scrubbie, the battered, emaciated heroine of the ghost-town service-station. ‘She was one of my proud, independent country-women ... generous, and lively, and loving, and hardworking, and she had been beaten like a jade.’ The lively indignation on Scrubbie’s behalf is tangled with a lament for the lost lives of that territory, both black and white. ‘This is not just hard country, it is angry and alien.’

More stories, more people, more analyses follow as she moves through the back of New South Wales south and across to mountains and coast. ‘I found my Greer, the founder of a dynasty of boat-builders, fishermen and poor farmers, resting in Bombola graveyard.’ No more clues, but ‘the escapees from his wife’s flower garden had made the entire district their own ... In all the cemeteries I visited in this demented pilgrimage I saw the initial invasion re-enacted as the flowers planted on the graves escaped through the railings and took off.’ This is part of a whole chapter on the ecological murder of Australia – by non-natives species run wild, by the ghastly dead-black of pinus radiata (for the urban rich of the country, clearing bush and planting vast pine forests is a profitable tax-relief hobby), and by the ruthless depredations of grazing and mining. While she was about it, I wish she’d dealt with what’s been happening to Sydney – but then she’s a Melbourne girl.

Driving through the spectacular outback storm, dealing with living animals as well as her informants, pitying the vestigial townships, arguing in the cities, the narrator is coping with a lot more than her father. He can be put to rest: but Australia, tragical-historical-comical-pastoral, goes on. Set against its scope, the demands it makes of its writers, ‘Daddy’ is, in Hitchcock’s term, merely the McGuffin: like the secret formula or the name of the spy, the excuse and trigger for the story. That final danger I signalled for the book is that Australians will take no notice of the anger and grief in these pages, and allow Germaine Greer to join their eloquent unregarded Cassandras. Her work on the country is like Judith Wright’s in the poem which ends:

I praise the scoring drought, the flying dust,
the drying creek, the furious animal,
 that they oppose us still;
 that we are ruined by the thing we kill.