Jim Davidson: Sue; Murray-Smith family; friends. This lecture not only commemorates Stephen Murray-Smith, who was a good friend, but will in due course have something to say about his work.
Stephen was very conscious of ambience. He was very much a public man. In his mature phase appearing on the radio, writing letters to the paper, taking up various causes. As well as Overland, he could be said to have been engaged in editing the neighbourhood. When he died he left a perceptible gap.
Australian ambiences. The word ‘milieu’ might do almost as well. There is a convergence between the dictionary definitions of the two words. But I have chosen ‘ambience’ not only because of its alliteration with ‘Australia’. In it there is also a greater element of personal agency. Somebody is doing the ambulating, moving about, giving the milieu a focus by their activity. A milieu first requires an examination of its ingredients, whereas ambience is a word that almost clamours for a biographical approach.
The present period has sometimes been called the golden age of biography. We can speculate as to why this should be so. There’s often more diligent research, leavened by a post-Freudian frankness about personal and sex lives. But there are also one or two other factors that can be overlooked. One is that academic historians have, generally speaking, renounced narrative in favour of analysis and are increasingly being prompted by managers to renounce the book in favour of a learned article. So biography has, as it were, stepped into the vacuum. Moreover, the second factor: biography has readily attracted a readership because as the lives of many seem more segmented by the various postmodern forces, there is something attractive in becoming familiar with another life in all its apparent completeness. Past lives have a roundedness and discernible shape which our own lives rarely have.
Important in following another life is the glimpses it gives of another world. A life will progress from one ambience to another and at certain points the biographer can stop and push up the periscope. Because biography particularises, it can vividly illustrate a point which normally is made at a high level of generalisation.
A good example is the anti-German feeling that swept Australia during the First World War; all the greater because the vast distance from the theatre of war. It seemed a necessary way of identifying with the cause of expressing patriotism.
In my biography of Louise Dyer I’m able to show how the world of even someone like a musical woman was affected by it. Louise’s German music teacher lost his job at the university, while she in turn worked to displace an Austrian music teacher from her old school, Presbyterian Ladies College, that’s PLC not MLC.
Jim: The school also dropped its motto, taken from Goethe. Meanwhile her husband’s singing club, the Liedertafel, kept its German name as the Sydney counterpart didn’t, but clumsily surmounted this emblematic liar with a crown to show how loyal it was. Louise probably heard too of parties being held to chop up Becksteins, German grand pianos and so on.
So biography and being concerned with the texture of a life can actualise a bigger social force, give an intricate sense of how it operated and give you a sense of what it was like.
Biographers are often attracted by an ambience, even if only implicitly when they choose a subject. This has certainly been my experience. It was my interest in classical music and also my attachment to Melbourne that led me to choose my first subject, Louise Hansen Dyer, for her career as a musical patron began in this city and then extended to promoting the most esoteric music in Paris.
Exploring the steps in this progression and the links which made it possible were initially of greater interest to me than identifying the personal qualities and interactions that powered it, although they too soon had their own fascination. Similarly I was less interested in Keith Hancock the six gun historian than aware of the fact that his life provided a rare and interesting case of how an Australian related to the late British Empire not only in England but in Africa.
And so to my current project, a double biography of Stephen Murray-Smith and Clem Christensen, centred on their role as editors. How did they set about realising their concern to build up Australian culture at a time when the country was isolated, still fragmented and, until the 1970s, still suffering from what was called the brain drain?
So I have not chosen my biographical subjects entirely for themselves. My subjects have been chosen because they epitomise a milieu, a segment of the world we have just lost sight of. They are representational figures as much as having importance for what they themselves achieved.
Here there arises a question which a biographer is often asked. Do you like Louise, or Keith, or Clem or Stephen? Stephen by the way tops these particular pops, not that the competition is keen. I wouldn’t have liked Louise, just a little too haughty and a little too self-obsessed; found Hancock a mega swat, although redeemed by an impy sense of humour and, de dem de dem, had a big fight with Clem. So it’s a question that spectacularly misses the point; no one asks a novelist whether he or she likes all their characters, and so it should be with biography. You are looking less for the things to like than for clues as to how the personality cohered, given the fact that we all present different faces to the world at different times and different places.
Indeed rather than Manning Clark’s idea of the fatal flaw, which is a bit simplistic, I find it more helpful to look for a basic contradiction, not that it will always be there to be found. A whole personality might be structured around the need to resolve it. Hancock was on track when he called his autobiography Country and calling. Two vectors or opposing principles that shaped his life: his attachment to Australia – country – and his ambition to be a historian – calling – when all the big issues and the sources were seen to lie overseas. His whole life can be read as an attempt to reconcile the two, most satisfactorily achieved when he was helping to plan the Australian National University. Bearing in mind his experience of the exclusive Oxford College, what he was aiming at in the new institution was a kind of All Souls in the bush.
Ambience is amongst other things a number of connections, imperatives and assumptions; a configuration of the world as a prelude to action. Networking in a way is a streamline form of it.
In the case of Louise Dyer, the musical patron and publisher I wrote about in Lyrebird rising, it was the ambience that necessitated for me a representational figure to crystallise it.
When I was eighteen I discovered this marvellous brand of recordings which would lead me to Purcell and the discovery that the English language could be set to music sensitively, indeed brilliantly. Wasselier, lyrebird, trust the French I thought to choose the supreme mimic among birds; such an appropriate name for a recording company. Well yes, what I did not then know was that the records were made by an Australian, a woman who had lived half her life in Melbourne. I would hear my mother and aunt, both musicians, talk from time to time with awe in their voices of Mrs Dyer, a wealthy woman who apparently paid for music to be performed. Just another wealthy woman buzzing about, I thought.
But then one day, years later, Geoff Searle said that he was having difficulty with some entries for the ADB, Australian Dictionary of Biography: finding people to write them. He rattled off three or four names and Louise Hansen Dyer’s was among them. I volunteered to do it, for by then I knew the name if little else of the woman behind Wasselier. Imagine my surprise on finding that she was the same woman who had paid for those Melbourne concerts in the 1920s.
I now had, as it were, the pylons, the two ends of an arc that must be traced to link these two things. Those recordings, emanating from Monaco as it turned out, and those Melbourne musical evenings long before. That was what I set out to do in my biography.
It became plain that Louise’s prime concern until she was well past 40 was to improve cultural life in Melbourne. She worked first through the Alliance Française, then founded the local branch of the British Music Society and, given the fact that she also had literary interests, helped the poet John Shaw Nielson publish his poetry. She also tried to establish a professional orchestra and it was only when this venture came to grief that she decided to push off – bye bye Louise. She felt she had achieved as much as she could here. What is interesting about the subsequent career is the way that as she published first baroque music, some of which had never advanced beyond manuscript, and then medieval music which certainly had not, she was determined to make it more widely known.
And so began the recording company, originally designed to show how this early music should be performed. But it soon took on a life of its own, coming to record some of the rising stars of the day – Joan Sutherland, Janet Baker, Neville Marriner. Louise was a born publicist, even to the point of getting the music of an Elizabethan song published in the Melbourne herald. Believing unequivocally in high culture, she believed it was all simply a matter of access and education. Good music would appeal to almost everyone in the right circumstances. No one corrected her, for the culture then still had an upward thrust.
Aspiration was still a term applied to the spiritual elements of life rather than to McMansions. At most, some English people might have smiled condescendingly, remarking that Louise’s concern to reach the widest audiences possible was rather Australian. In fact, she associated Australia with everything she did. When Louise brought out the first complete edition of the works of the 18th century composer Couperin, she used the feathers of a lyrebird’s tail as the design for the flyleaf. The result was conspicuously elegant.
While it might be said that some of the aspiration of her concert audiences was of a social kind, for performers it was different. Moreover, it was a time when everybody was encouraged to make their own music. Wherever a dozen people were gathered, someone could always be found to play the piano, competently. Many working-class homes had pianos. Albums were published of favourite melodies for a household singalong. They often included an operatic aria or two, for the boundaries between the different styles of music were not as strict as they are today. In the 1920s in Melbourne this impulse towards singing resulted in a community singing movement. People sang when hiking in the bush, special lunchtime sessions were organised in the Melbourne Town Hall. The organiser soon took the idea to England where community singing also caught on and for a time took place in the Albert Hall.
Looking back, one can see the era of the long-playing record from 1950 to 1983 was the high watermark of the influence of classical music. Perhaps it could be dubbed as the era of the Four seasons. That piece by Vivaldi was languishing in manuscripts until around 1950 when it was performed on the BBC and became an immediate hit. At one point in the early 1980s there were 30 different recordings of it on offer. Ten years later one of the themes actually made the pop charts in Britain. It pursued you in planes and in elevators – sorry England, lifts – but soon vanished from the shopping mall. Seismic cultural shifts explain that. One is that there is no longer much prestige in classical music, perhaps even the reverse. The railways use it as hoon repellent.
Jim: Brahms pouring forth from pre-dawn loudspeakers like a hangover, hovering above the ticket office at Frankston. I have a fantasy about one little hoon who breaks away from his mates and goes back and has a listen.
Jim: Paul Keating was one of our few prime ministers not only to own up to a liking for classical music, but to flaunt his taste for Mahler. Now we have Craig Emerson fancying himself as a performer, a bit like Dubya trying to pass himself off as a stand-up comic, and Wayne Swan’s ode to Bruce Springsteen. More importantly there has been a dramatic decline in producing music – playing a musical instrument is rare. Most people don’t, or won’t, sing; and nobody whistles anymore.
Now these things are more serious than they may seem and have a wider influence than might be first thought. A lot of prose now, when it is not clogged, is flat and lifeless. In a word: unrhythmical. There’s no aural infrastructure helping to push the sentences along. As well as short sentences, often of boringly similar length, there’s a flatness of tone. People suffer from what I call tin ear, and the flatness of tone is extending more and more into the spoken language, partly I suppose because of the influence of American speech. But [speaks with an American accent] Americans have emphatic consonants – we don’t.
Les Murray once wrote that black and white cultures here would gradually converge. Perhaps you can hear it already in the mumblings of Australian males [mumbles]. All Australian speech aspires to the condition of the didgeridoo [emulates didgeridoo sound].
Both Louise Hansen Dyer and Keith Hancock were expatriates, people who left their homeland for ‘home’ [speaks the word in an English accent], as some other Australians persisted in referring to England until the 1950s. Interestingly neither of them called it that, for relocating themselves was less a matter of sentiment than of purpose. An individual decision, expatriatism was a pattern, not a place, which again leads me back to ambience.
It was not often that expatriates could cluster, as in London or Hong Kong, to form a milieu. Traditionally, a lot of upper class Australians had looked to England for validation. At the turn of the last century, the return journey to have a daughter presented at court was the epitome of this ritual. And, as Graham McInnes pointed out a little later, the trip home itself conferred distinction, instantly marking off the homegoing body from everybody else left behind. But by the1960s, the journey had become democratised. Typists, nurses and physios joined dentists, journalists, artists and apprentice academics on the P&O ships, usually for a year since as it took a month to travel each way, and since for most it was necessary to get a job somewhere along the line, anything less seemed a bit short. Later, there was the modulation of the hippy trail through India and Afghanistan – the overland trail. But then came air travel and the Ayatollah, so the patterns were disturbed. And for a number of reasons classic expatriatism faded away.
At a certain almost mystical level Australia and Britain had seemed to merge. The British world was something bigger than just England. The vigour of left-wing critiques throughout the 50s and 60s, largely a period of Tory hegemony in England, helped to keep this link alive. As late as 1969 a pile of airmail copies of the London weekly The new statesman occupied pride of place in the Melbourne University book room. To a real degree there was a shared culture and this could work both ways. When, in the mid-1960s, the philosophy honours graduate Bill Garner found himself in Oxford, he decided to try to see Gilbert Ryle, one of the leading philosophers of the day. Ryle was quite happy to see the young Australian. Then there is the case of the brothers Heseltine. One went and did post-graduate work in New Orleans, returned home and helped create the university discipline of Australian literature. The other went to Canberra where Menzies took a shine to him and gave him a plum job in England where eventually he ended up as principal Private Secretary to the Queen. While the Heseltine father had been an English immigrant, their mother had come from an old Western Australian family. So there it is – one brother, through America, comes back and discovers Australia; the other, through Canberra, reaches Buckingham Palace. Rather than being strongly taking ideological positions, one oppositional to the other, each progression marked an intelligent response to options available at the time.
For many people through to the 1960s, particularly writers and artists, England represented opportunity. It should be remembered that until the Australian newspaper began in 1964 – with, I might say, a decided left-liberal stance at the beginning believe it or not – there was not a strong sense of Australia as a daily interactive community. Sydney was another world. ‘I don’t know who I’d talk to in Sydney,’ said a prominent Melbourne poet. The situation would change with the emergence of Sydney as the nation’s metropolis in the 1970s. Even so there were a number of writers, particularly Sydney writers I might add, who still published in London rather than in Australia: Patrick White, David Malouf and Shirley Hazzard. London was a nodal point of Australian creativity and rebelliousness. The editors of Oz ran away to London, taking the magazine with them when they were having a tough time here in the mid-1960s, only to find themselves in court there, as they had been here, on an obscenity charge. London wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and once Canada provided a precedent with the founding of a Canada Council, the model existed from a Whitlam-ite Australia Council concerned to produce high culture here. The prevailing view then was that we would not be fully a nation until we did.
Barry Humphries has said quite recently on Q&A, some of you may have seen it, that expatriates have been regarded as traitors. Indeed there was always the occasional sub-editor who had rendered the word as ‘ex-patriot’. But I doubt that ‘traitors’ was a seriously held view, certainly not now. No one thinks of Peter Carey as a traitor. But expatriates were regarded with distrust, sometimes with good reason. I remember Clive James starting a BBC talk in the early ‘70s saying that he hadn’t been near Australia for nine years, hadn’t any particular desire to go and then proceeded to give vigorous unfavourable opinions about it. In fact, expatriatism for many was a privileged existence – for one reason or another it could end at any time. Morris Lurie likened the return to Australia to a secret card one held that could only be played once.
Jim: The real ex-Australians were not those in London, for in one sense they had simply placed themselves at the other end of a continuum. Rather it was those whose repulsion from Australian suburbia propelled them into another language and culture. Proficiency and dedication could lead to French or German scholarships, and in some cases, to a new life lived outside the Anglosphere altogether.
Australians are more confident in their identity nowadays, so there has been a shift to recognising many expatriates as living Australian lives outside Australia. The fact that Christina Stead returned after more than 40 years abroad went a long way towards making this point. It was then remembered that her most famous novel, The man who loved children, which is set on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, was in fact conceived with Sydney Harbour in mind. Her American publishers persuaded her to make various American transpositions. Others came back too, despite the blandishments of establishment Britain, Bill Heseltine among them. Even Clive James eventually overcame his aversion and has been a frequent visitor. But a word about my two particular expatriates.
Louise Dyer, although she left Australia when she was past 40, did manage to return six times when it involved a major journey. Similarly Keith Hancock, after going off to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, did a stint as professor of history at Adelaide, before going to England again, returning finally in 1957 to live his last 30 years in Canberra.
Hancock’s expatriatism is of interest in that while he got on an academic escalator that eventually took him to All Souls, his allegiance was not by any means transferred. He thought of himself as being after Alfred Deakin ‘an independent Australian Briton’; and even when working in the British Cabinet Office during World War II never described himself as an Englishman. Indeed he professed not to like the English landscape much, preferring the bush he had got to know as a youth, bushwalking in his native Victoria.
Significantly too even after doing it hard in Adelaide and then heading back to Britain in 1933 he felt something of a deserter – his word – and explained to friends that he and his wife were agreed on returning one day. ‘I admire the English so much,’ said Théoden, his wife, ‘but really like so few of them.’
Jim: Interestingly, unlike most Australian expatriates, Hancock’s interest extended to the Empire, while his taste was for Italy; he spoke a perfect Etruscan Italian. The Empire engrossed him as a project because it was, as we all know, beset with problems worthy of analysis. And so he tramped around it and produced the three books of his survey. For services rendered, the British knighted him, as later did Menzies. Hancock was in a sense double-jointed, unusually reaching the pinnacle of his career after he returned to Australia with the publication of his massive biography of the South African statesman Jan Smuts.
For various reasons the classic face of expatriatism had ended by 1980, and shortly after it began again in the mid-1990s an old phenomenon was given a new name, ‘the Australian diaspora’. The assumption of a government report and of accounts in the press was that these new expatriates, let’s call them diasporants, had not deserted Australia but were extending it.
Australian influence was being projected further by the overseas activities of Australian nationals. There are a number of ways in which the diasporants are very different from the old expatriates. For one thing they are likely to go anywhere, to Mongolia or to Lesutu. They are no longer focused primarily on Britain, and when they are, they come close to taking over the place.
Some years ago Norman Lebrecht railed against the stranglehold an Australian mafia had on English musical life. Again in the techno world we now inhabit, diasporants are not concerned with completing themselves like the old expatriates, they’re after advancement, jobs, a good number of which will be teed up before they leave. Finance, management and IT are the shaping industries now and the people involved in them are far removed from the relatively laid back expatriates. They have chosen international career paths in a descended world and as a corollary they return home often; no sudden playing of Morris Lurie’s secret card ending an expatriate’s episode but frequent returns to Australia. In one sense with emails, Skype and the like compared with lightweight aerograms and expensive phone calls, they rarely leave it completely.
But now having followed two largely expatriate lives, I’ve become curious about the reverse side of the coin: those who were engaged in cultural activity at home. And this led me to my current project, a biographical study of Clem Christianson of Meanjin and Stephen Murray-Smith. Both sought to articulate and advance in Australian culture and while both went overseas a number of times, all their important work was done here. Yet despite the rootedness of their magazines they did not come to their vocations easily.
First Clem Christianson. As a kid Clem had to endure a dominating mother and an indifferent father, as well as being constantly moved from one place to another. More than most he would have to find his own voice and make it distinctive to be heard. Despite asthma and other ailments, he never enjoyed good health. Clem became a champion athlete. His intellectual interest and focus were slower to acquire definition.
For a couple of years he worked as a trained wool classer, visiting Queensland country properties. Then in his spare time he acted and did radio work. He began writing for newspapers and sub-editing. Then he became a publicist for the Queensland government, tourism, churning out booklets of flowery prose. The desire to promote another Queensland, that of arts and letters, slowly emerged alongside. Clem toyed with starting a magazine in 1938 and got as far as producing a dummy, but response was poor so he put it aside. When he went overseas the following year he took no evident interest in literary magazines, their editors or offices, but coming back his mind again began to turn in that direction.
The war helped; Clem throve on a crisis – if it didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent one. War highlighted a need to articulate at the highest cultural level, what it was Australians were defending. Clem’s own voice could be found articulating national cultural issues but given wartime conditions Meanjin emerged in 1940 tentatively at first, a mere eight pages of verse.
The trajectory that lead Stephen Murray-Smith to form Overland, while very different, is no less instructive. In a sense, Meanjin served to complete Clem’s personality. With Stephen, what is more striking is that his was a lifelong quest, evolving in a way Clem didn’t. With Clem there was something of an inner emptiness; with Stephen a sense of hollowness about the society he lived in. In a long autobiographical essay, Stephen describes growing up in Toorak in a large bookless house, its effective reference points, Britain and India, the source of family wealth. Stephen showed no particular interest in literature when young and certainly not Australian literature. At Geelong Grammar he published no writings but he did take part in a production of Henry V as the king – years later he would steadily grow into the role of Falstaff.
Jim: Beginning at university, law was cut short by the war and active service in New Guinea. Then he returned to university and joined the Communist Party. Revolutionary purpose might activate and energise Australian society. Shortly afterwards Stephen, with Nita, spent a couple of years in Prague as a journalist. It was in Czechoslovakia that he noticed the popularity of Katherine Susannah Prichard and other Australian writers and soon after his return, he published an anthology of Australian short stories. Stephen’s commitment to Marxism, his talents as an organiser, plus his interest in Australian literature lead to his involvement in, and then the editorship of, The realist writer. Out of its cyla-style sheets grew Overland in 1954. Its provenance lay as much in Stephen’s party activism as it did in an earlier fantasy of being a literary magazine editor.
After having ascertained the details of Stephen’s life, up goes the periscope in order to show the personality in action. There would have to be some consideration of the extraordinary move to the left in Australia and England in the 1940s, and the role of the Communist Party in this. It will be necessary to consider social-realist writing and its particular importance in Australia as the heir to the tradition of Lawson and Furphy. Given Stephen’s concerns about the shallowness of Australian life, he celebrated the way working-class writing gave him a sense of place. But for the party members of the realist writers groups, literature was an art form, quote, ‘which recreates life in its movement’. With an eye to the socialist future, pushing politics into a new dimension, Stephen, increasingly unhappy with the party over the events leading up to Hungary, was simultaneously moving towards a broader view. More immediately there was a battle for Overland which he won by liberating the subscription list.
Overland, Stephen came to believe, should be open to all comers from the left, becoming a means to uniting them rather than dividing them. Eventually he would see even the radical nationalism of the magazine simply as its prime ingredient. Overland had broadened its concerns to take in Aboriginal issues, Stephen’s old stamping ground Papua New Guinea, while by the 1970s it also accommodated the avant-garde, particularly in poetry.
Stephen had sought to carry on from where the old Bulletin had left off and to the end, his hypothetical typical reader remained the matron of the Port Hedland hospital. The magazine was always approachable, even genial, and it was not just the list of donors each issue which gave it the sense of being a community.
Meanjin in the other hand was an institution, affiliated with the University of Melbourne. In its long march from Meanjin papers to Meanjin quarterly, it gradually became more academic, although the balance of its contents was much the same as Overland’s. Nonetheless, Clem Christensen did have a real talent for clustering articles together and for running series such as the famous ‘God zone’ in the 1960s. But whereas Overland sought to bring together Australian high and popular culture, Christensen sought to place the best writing from abroad, when he could get it, alongside the best Australian writers. So successfully was this done that a Princeton survey in 1953 placed Meanjin among the half-dozen best literary magazines in the English-speaking world.
Quality was Clem’s watchword – a piece must have quality. Then it might be included, as he saw Meanjin as a meeting place. While of the left, a convinced social democrat it was questions of civil rights and censorship that exercised him most. Clem aimed at a journal of ideas centred on books, and sought to encourage intelligent criticism and discussion of broader social issues. He was aiming to build a centre of gravity for Australians here and had no time for the expatriates, I should say for those expatriates who wrote, quote ‘venomous crap’ about Australia in England. Just before the first courses in Aust Lit were set up in the universities, he sought to encourage critical writing about it in order to establish a canon. In fact, under Cold War pressures, pressures that Clem and his Russian wife Nina were to feel acutely when called up against Petrov Commission, the journal’s academic leaning was encouraged. The university had, from time to time, expressed displeasure or uneasiness about Meanjin’s contents. At the same time its financial support was infinitely less than Clem required, or the public imagined. For most of the time Clem’s drive and enthusiasm carried him forward but in his moments of despair he often felt, correctly, that he was trying to square the circle.
Literary magazines have always done it hard and new developments have made it still harder for them. Meanjin in particular depended on the liberal assumption that the well-educated man – it was always a man then – should be as well-informed as possible on as many subjects as possible. But the liberation movements and more personal politics that emerged in the 1970s, plus the knowledge explosion, soon put paid to that. Now noone feels any such obligation, which deconstructs the context which held many literary magazines together.
A second problem in Australia is the consequence of the cultural development over the past generation. Once Meanjin and Overland functioned, amongst other things, as a kind of local supplement to concerns raised internationally. The quarterly rhythm seemed bright; now it is a little too leisurely. The pulse now, as set by a trim magazine like the Monthly, is monthly. Then there is the challenge of the new technology. Magazines will have to negotiate a new niche for themselves on the net, initially as an adjunct, eventually perhaps as the main game.
It is all too easy to assume that because the hard-copy literary quarterly may be outmoded, so too may be its contents and concerns. Nothing could be further from the truth. We need the magazines, or venues like them, as never before. The old expatriates tended to assume that the real world and the real issues, even real life, lay elsewhere. Those assumptions have been more or less turned inside-out by the diasporans. So things should be coming into focus for us as a national community as never before. But there seem to be a number of obstacles to this happening.
First, we live in a time when there is an assault on intelligent discussion. Once there was the belief that everybody had the right to have an opinion – surely the case. Now there seems to be the view that every opinion is of equal value – clearly not. The internet has gone a long way to validate all opinion, any opinion. What particularly makes this damaging is the primacy of marketing. Indeed the appeal to the market, so-called economic rationalism, has become an absolute. Eco-rats, a new term for you meaning economic rationalists, eco-rats attacking the ABC for example saying nothing about its broader role authorised by its charter, but see it as fit only for the chopping block because it represents the latte-sipping ‘loveys’, the inner-suburban elites. They are despised not only for their ideas and politics, but are disenfranchised; when it comes to marketing they, we, haven’t got the numbers. In some quarters that in itself becomes an argument for the ABC’s abolition or radical reformulation. The mantra of the market thinly disguises a political purpose. We will hear it more should an Abbott government sweep to power.
Secondly, there has been the impact of globalisation. Things that are primarily Australian in their appeal are often felt to be a bit daggy. Australia, like any post-colonial society, has always had a weak sense of its own traditions. Each generation has tended to mark off from overseas afresh. What we lacked, as Clem and Stephen recognised, was an awareness of Australian tradition. Judith Wright said to Stephen, quite sensibly, that she didn’t want any of her lines included in his dictionary of quotations, as Australians did not go about quoting their poets. Actually that wasn’t quite right – when I was a boy people still quoted lines or phrases from Banjo Patterson, but that withered away and was replaced for a time by the film The man from Snowy River. But now there’s nothing. Our culture, strong on the laterality of globalism, lacks verticality, depth. As WH Chong remarked a week or so ago, we seem to be, quote, ‘discarding our dreaming’.
The universities, thirdly, rather than acting as repositories of cultural memory as they did in Hancock’s time, have been complicit in this. The teaching of Australian literature has been utterly eclipsed by creative writing courses: instead of ‘us’, me’. Every so often we read of some new blow to humane culture in Australia – Melbourne deciding to abolish its Australian Centre, La Trobe cutting courses and finally abolishing its visual arts department, a decision which proceeded regardless of the fact that it was paying its way. Visual arts at La Trobe had been particularly strong in Australian painting. If one were being optimistic, one could say that Australian culture is in a transitional phase, from the old Anglocentric to the new multicultural; from a high stream to a broader populist one; from individual art forms to multimedia, possibly. Or we could be witnessing a glorious fireworks display before it all disappears.
So that’s the ambience in which an Australian biographer currently works – St John’s ambience.
[Audience laughter and applause]