February 2013

Arts & Letters

Hard truths

By James Button
‘The Words That Made Australia’

Scorn for the suburbs, gentle or fierce, is a staple of Australian cultural life. From My Brother Jack to Edna Everage and Sandy Stone, to Muriel’s Wedding and Kath and Kim, writers and artists have painted suburbia as a human desert. It’s seen as the place, writes historian Hugh Stretton, where “Mum does the dishes, Dad potters and mows, the kids pick their acne between homework and the telly”, and life shrivels. Yet, Stretton writes, most Australians choose to live there. Are they wrong?

Australian writers and cultural commentators have longed for a different kind of city, one with a “culture of assembly and conspiracy, of theatre and gallery and cafe, of great newspapers and little magazines, of chance encounters and intellectual colonies”. To achieve this, they believe cities need a crowded centre, a residential base. “The great cities are the ones the people live in.” Stretton describes a dream of Manhattan or Montmartre set against “the urban intellectual’s stereotype of suburban non-life”. Then he demolishes it.

A house on a generous-sized block can produce remarkably rich forms of life, he writes. A potentially infinite variety of indoor and outdoor areas, colour and mood, provides opportunities for self-expression, and a mix of community and privacy. People can keep animals, tinker in sheds, paint or pursue hobbies. Children have time and space to play and to dream, neither too far from their parents nor under their feet. However hard it is to measure the benefits of suburbs, “they are obviously important in the structure and spirit of Australian society”.

Reading Stretton’s gently subversive thoughts, written in 1970, inspires a heretical notion: have the suburbs helped to make Australians a happy people? If, as he suggests, the secret diversity of the suburb is a singular Australian contribution to the multitudinous forms of human life, what happens to the culture when that form is threatened? Because of population growth and environmental concerns, we can no longer sustain the suburban block for everyone. Many more Australians will live in either medium-density or high-rise dwellings, or in more uniform dormitory suburbs on the urban fringe. Will we lose something in becoming more like everyone else?

I read Stretton’s piece in The Words That Made Australia (Black Inc., $29.99), a new anthology of writing about this country over the years since Federation. Edited by Robert Manne and Chris Feik (this magazine’s associate editor), the book contains 30 extracts from works that “opened the eyes of Australians to what was peculiar or particular to one or another aspect of their society”. Through these passages – from histories, polemics, articles, novels, radio broadcasts and even a theatrical revue – “the nation came to understand itself”.

This is not the book’s only value. To know where we are going as a people, we have to know where we have been. It begins and ends with feelings for the land. In 1901 novelist Miles Franklin declares her pride at being an Australian peasant, “a child of the mighty bush”. More than a century later, academic Ghassan Hage is delighted to discover that his immigrant grandfather had planted three trees in his Bathurst backyard – a fig, an olive and a pomegranate – to bind his old life in Lebanon to the new one in Australia.

In between, the book contains historian Keith Hancock’s seminal account of how Australians can see themselves as rugged individualists yet be so reliant on a powerful state. Architect Robin Boyd explains why Australians put gaudy frills and features on their squat, functional buildings in a defeated response to the vastness of the land. The book examines the Anzac legend, Australian racism, and the place of women, migrants and Aborigines. It has Barry Humphries’ exquisite take on suburban life: Sandy and Beryl Stone worried about getting a “possie” in the car park at the shops on Saturday morning, then Sandy going to the footy, again worried about parking, while Beryl bakes. “By the time I got home it was that blowy, the Herald was all over the front lawn.”

Mildly left-leaning as a whole, the book nevertheless contains powerful challenges to left-wing viewpoints from people such as Robert Menzies, Geoffrey Blainey and Noel Pearson. Paul Keating’s Redfern address is missing, but there is the astonishing writing of anthropologist WEH Stanner, who understood as early as the 1930s how much of Aboriginal life the rest of Australia failed to see: their humour, their will to survive, and “their continued effort to come to terms with us”.

Stanner coined the term “the great Australian silence” to describe the wilful forgetting of the treatment and state of Aborigines, other than as a “melancholy footnote” in history, until the late 1960s and even beyond. The Words That Made Australia reveals the origin of a host of other phrases that also live in the national mind, even when their original meaning and context have been lost. What are the Australian legend and the Australian ugliness? Who were the forgotten people? Are we really the lucky country? What remains of the egalitarianism that led Albert Metin, a French observer at the end of the 19th century, to call Australia a workers’ paradise?

Just over a century ago, Australians embarked on a radical experiment in statehood. A White Australia policy would keep out cheap Asian labour; high tariffs would keep out cheap goods that threatened local jobs. An arbitration system to ensure decent wages for all, a belief in a powerful state and the protection of a great ally (first Britain, then the US) were the other pillars of what journalist Paul Kelly called “the Australian settlement”.

Behind these walls, Australians built one of the first, most vigorous and prosperous democracies in the world. They did so without any philosophical underpinning. “On both sides [of politics] equally, the poverty of theoretical notions is astonishing to anyone accustomed to European polemics,” Metin wrote. Or as one worker retorted when the Frenchman asked him to sum up his political program: “My program! Ten bob a day!”

The instinct of the place is “absolutely and flatly democratic”, wrote DH Lawrence in his novel Kangaroo, which he based on a fleeting visit in 1922. Whereas, Lawrence believed, the removal of class distinctions in Europe would create anarchy, in Australia there was virtually no boss and no fuss. “There was a difference of money and of ‘smartness’. But nobody felt better than anybody else, or higher; only better-off.”

Far from finding this new world invigorating, it appalled Lawrence. These “British Australians”, with “their aggressive familiarity”, were barbarians. “The more I see of democracy, the more I dislike it,” he wrote to his sister-in-law. “It just brings everything down to the mere vulgar level of wages and prices, electric light and water-closets, and nothing else … That’s what the life in a new country does to you.”

The worst thing was “the bush, the grey, charred bush”. “It seemed so hoary and lost, so unapproachable.” His protagonist walks a mile alone one night. He has “just come to a clump of tall, nude, dead trees, shining almost phosphorescent with the moon”, when terror overcomes him. “The horrid thing in the bush! He laboured as to what it would be. It must be the spirit of the place.”

Lawrence’s tirades are mildly repellent, but also refreshing. They get to the point. What sort of society was being built here, free of Europe yet in many ways a European copy, without deep roots in the land itself? “Lawrence’s challenge was not easily shrugged off,” the editors write. As the country matured and nationalism grew, so did national anxiety: were we good enough?

In 1950, AA Phillips defined “the cultural cringe” as the tendency of Australians to ask themselves of any local achievement: “Yes, but what would a cultivated Englishman think of this?” Phillips introduced the phrase with hesitation because he feared that a certain type of Australian intellectual would use it as “the kind of missile which he delights to throw at the Australian mob”. This is exactly what happened. Yet intellectuals were often most guilty of the cringe, Phillips wrote, because they constantly and unflatteringly compared their country with others, and because they had estranged themselves from Australian life.

The gulf between intellectuals and ordinary people is a theme of the anthology. Robert Menzies was hardly immune to fawning on the English, but he grasped something important about Australia, too. In the early 1940s he based a new political party, the Liberal Party, on the idea that there was a sober, frugal, hard-working middle class of shop owners, salary earners and professional men and women whom Australian politics had forgotten. With this idea (which was later revived and reinterpreted by John Howard), the Liberals enjoyed 23 consecutive years of government after World War Two. Then Australia changed.

First came the 1960s and “the greatest renovation of perceptions that Australia had known”, as Donald Horne, author of the classic 1964 assessment of Australia, The Lucky Country, later described it. Then the 1980s and early ’90s, just as tumultuous, dismantled a large part of the Australian settlement.

The Hawke–Keating governments ended manufacturing protection, opened the economy to the world, and began to demolish the old arbitration system. By the 1980s, just two decades after White Australia effectively ended, Prime Minister Bob Hawke said his government planned to “enmesh” Australia in the Asia–Pacific region. It was Australia’s decade of creative destruction, Paul Kelly writes. It “saw the collapse of the ideas which Australia had embraced nearly a century before and which had shaped the condition of its people”.

What, then, is the new condition of the people? In his 1998 Boyer Lectures, novelist David Malouf remembered how Australians of the 1960s ate at home, and pretty much the same food their grandparents had eaten: lamb chops, Irish stew, a roast on Sundays. Now they go out, clothed lightly, to eat rocket, grilled octopus and tagines under the stars, dipping their bread in those little dishes of olive oil. “Consider how far these ordinary Australians have come from that old distrust of the body and its pleasures that might have seemed bred in the bone of the Australians we were even thirty years ago.”

The new Australians Malouf paints are sensuous, loosely Mediterranean, pragmatic and adaptable. Well into the 1960s the gulf between Protestants and Catholics defined Australian life. Yet in the late 1980s Catholics became the major religious group – an event some Protestants had long feared – and nobody even noticed. White Australia turned into one of the world’s multicultural success stories. A country once deeply inhospitable to homosexuals hosts the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, one of the largest festivals of its kind in the world.

“Something in the tone of Australian society has been unwelcoming of extremes,” Malouf writes. “If this makes for a certain lack of passion … there is something to be said for mildness. It leaves people the breathing space, and the energy, to get on with more important things.”

But what next? What holds the place together now? In the phrase of Nick Bryant, a Sydney-based BBC correspondent, Australia has become a “lifestyle superpower”. People from all over the world long to be part of it. Our population and global influence are likely to grow; a time of wealth and good fortune beckons. Yet there remains the uneasy note that Horne struck in The Lucky Country, nearly 50 years ago.

“A nation more concerned with styles of life than achievement has managed to achieve what may be the most evenly prosperous society in the world,” Horne wrote. Despite this success, everywhere he went, once the conversation reached a certain level, he met a sense of desperation.


Those who love their country, or (in the more restrained Australian idiom), are worried about the life their children will lead … none of these can imagine the future … There is a feeling of distrust for their own nation; a fear that responsible, clever people will just not be found … things will just go on; no one will do the job.


If “sense of desperation” is too strong a phrase to describe the current national conversation, there is nevertheless a sense that our politics is failing us; no one is thinking long-term, or can do the job. People worry about what jobs their children will have, whether our cities have stopped functioning, how the country will pay its way when the mining boom ends. In 2011 I heard Michael Wesley, then head of the Lowy Institute, say the changes of the 1980s and ’90s finally gave Australians a sense that they were shaping their own destiny. But the rise of China, in particular, might tip Australia back into an earlier state, when it relied on its raw materials and the funds and favour of great powers. Wesley worried about the national psyche: are we growing dependent again?

Understanding Australia has always been hard work. Many Australians have grown up assuming that life was more vivid elsewhere. Now the numbers of students taking Australian history and politics in Year 12 are in sharp decline; many say they would rather study other societies. The financial weakness of the media, publishing, film and television industries means that fewer Australian stories are being told. Does globalisation raise the risk of a new cultural cringe, in which we know more about other parts of the world than about our own country?

We need more journalists, historians and other writers to go into the country – the mining camps, towns, Aboriginal settlements, city towers and stretched-out suburbs – and to report and explain what they see. They would do well to take a copy of this book with them.

James Button

James Button is a former Fairfax journalist and the author of Speechless: A Year in My Father’s Business and Comeback: The Fall and Rise of Geelong.

Martin Street, East Geelong. © Ian Kenins
Cover: February 2013

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