The Search for a Culture

Ian Britain, Once an Australian: Journeys with Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes. Oxford University Press, 290 pp. No price given.

Imre Salusinszky, ed. The Oxford Book of Australian Essays. Oxford University Press, 295 pp. No price given.

At a recent public reading I was asked why I’ve chosen to live outside Australia. There is no simple answer: I move between England and Australia regularly, even though I now consider England my home. What interests me is cultural exchange, respecting the integrity of the local, while opening lines of communication between different localities. There’s no significant process of departure. There’s no going to a place that’s more energetic, less boring, more cultured and so on. It’s about movement. Each place informing the other, and valuable as an experience in itself.

But it was to experience something out of the ordinary that four prominent Australians left for the northern hemisphere. In Ian Britain’s Once An Australian: Journeys with Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes, we move with these well-known figures from their childhood in Australia towards fame, fortune, and the city lights. All left Australia between 1959 and 1964, when Australia was a land of economic growth, of the “white father” Robert Menzies, and to these Australians at least, a culturally mediocre place of limited opportunities.

This is a book that examines provincialism, fame, and where the “centre” of culture is or isn’t to be found. At its best it mixes biographical detail and the motifs of expatriatism; at its worst it wanders into failed readings of some of the most important works of the late twentieth century. In dealing with Greer, on the one hand he defends her as consistently inconsistent, while on the other hand patronising her (and indeed feminism’s) entire project, referring to feminist texts as “classics of the genre”, feminist “gospels”, and the work of “fellow propagandists”. The biographical and critical elements blend uneasily at times, though Britain is reasonably effective in conveying the interaction between the art of biography, the autobiographer (which James, Humphries, and Greer have overtly been), and “character” as seen through the media.

Be it to “escape”, as an act of “defiance”, or to connect with the traditions of Western art, ultimately their move was to broaden what was perceived as being a narrow stage. And stage is apt here. Each of them left Australia to become prominent media personalities. And each, to varying degrees, enacted an Oedipal process that allowed them to invent themselves anew. The “killing off” of the parent, the maturing of the enfant terrible, the “escape”, are all located by both Britain, and the subjects themselves, in quotes from books and interviews, as being central to their leaving Australia – “it is important to keep in mind that the other expatriates dealt with in this book also suffered various kinds of curtailment or frustration in their relationship with their fathers.” Something similar might be said about their mothers as well. And religion – atheism. And the “institution”. Clive James and Robert Hughes both lost their fathers in childhood. James’s father had been released from a Japanese prisoner of war camp and was killed in a plane crash while being transported home – “I still feel that my whole life is taking place in the light of that one event.”

Expatriatism now, we are told by Britain, may well be something of the past: “In the view of two recent historians, expatriatism has also become a less common, less urgent, subject of concern, whether for those who still do move away from their native land or for those who stay. In his Australia. A Cultural History, John Rickard argues that ‘the rise of the global village has done much to blunt the impact of expatriatism, and the decision to travel no longer carries the same connotation of escape or desertion.'”

One of the main links between the four is a refusal to be labelled. Each moves, reinvents him/herself. Probably the most fluid, and the one in which biography and autobiography merge most consciously, is the section on Barry Humphries. Britain writes these “Camberwell Tales” with “pleasure”, and the page becomes a stage. Anecdotal, allusive, it might be said of the defiant Humphries’ world view (post Bunyip Scandal in Australia), that: “With the proviso that he can duck every kind of labelling, it is best summed up as a form of cultural conservatism, rooted in selective Anglophilia.”

In his low-key and direct introduction to The Oxford Book of Australian Essays, editor Imre Salusinszky writes: “I have . . . favoured essays in which the essayist tells us something that she or he has learned, not from books but from experience.” These are mostly lively essays about the experience of being Australian, of recognising the nature of Australianness – in both positive and negative senses. There are many points of overlap with Once An Australian, including references to the “parent culture”. A look at Alister Kershaw’s “The Last Expatriate”, Patrick White’s “The Prodigal Son”, Arthur Phillips’s “The Cultural Cringe”, Charmian Clift’s “Images in Aspic” with its “aspic of overseas conception”, proves rewarding in this context.

Reading the two volumes together a third body of work is created, a kind of expat manifesto, out of the parallels and relationships between them. For a reference to Patrick White’s “Great Australian Emptiness” in the “bio pic” of Barry Humphries, see the essay by Patrick White; for a snippet of Germaine Greer being anti-the-nuclear-family see her instalment.

These essays are not difficult, and I’m sure Salusinszky would argue that the essay shouldn’t be. There is some impressive and culturally important material here. Manning Clark, Robert Dessaix, and Kerryn Goldsworthy make for essential reading. The clarity, the irony and control of an essayist like Walter Murdoch or Clive James are admirable, but it would have been nice to see a little more risk-taking in both content and style in the book as a whole.

Both volumes have their shortcomings and rewards. Above all they are user-friendly and leave lasting impressions. I am haunted by Britain’s point regarding Germaine Greer, that “[h]er abiding conviction has been that Australia is, was, and ever shall be someone else’s country.”