Australia and I
A British author’s complicated relationship with the island continent
When, early this year, I was invited to give an address at the Melbourne Writers Festival, I didn’t hesitate to accept – nor did I prevaricate when asked what subject I’d be tackling. Such alacrity on my part is uncommon: my writing room, at the top of my house in south London, hasn’t been cleaned since we moved there in 1997. Surveying the furred surfaces and far-off-white walls I often recall Quentin Crisp’s fine observation that “dust is peace”. It was a peace my impulsiveness put paid to; for, having said I’d be discussing my “vexed relationship” with Australia, I came to bitterly regret it. In order to explain why – why the impulsiveness, and why the regret – I’ll also have to give you a sense of how it is Australia and I have got along. Or not.
I first came to Australia 32 years ago in August 1983. My father, Peter Self, had emigrated a few years prior to this and was already well established with house, job, car, and regulation third wife. He had faced mandatory retirement at 65 from his academic post at the London School of Economics, but was offered a senior fellowship at the Australian National University with no temporal strings attached. Dad had been out in Australia for a protracted period before and unashamedly loved the country. In a way, he and his wife were proto–grey nomads, seeking a connection with the island continent through near-constant travel. They would’ve appreciated the sentiment of a bumper sticker I saw recently in Alice Springs: “Adventure before dementia”. Once he was domiciled here my father’s Australophilia only increased, and in the late 1990s – a year or so before he died – he took Australian citizenship. Perhaps this is part of what vexes me. After all, while it’s reasonable to expect someone to switch nationalities in either the morning or high noon of their lives, it seems a little perverse to do so in your mid 70s when the violet shades of evening are thronging. Besides, if my father was technically an Australian does this retroactively render me a demi-ocker?
The weather in Sydney on that first trip had been fine and sunny, but in Canberra it was distinctly chilly and – to employ a green, glistening, globe-girdling idiom – pissing down. My father was a dolmen of a man whose sartorial style had frozen around 1953. He affected the shapelessness of a vast gabardine mackintosh, equally amorphous grey flannel bags and huge brogues of antique workmanship. He drove us along rain-drenched boulevards to the suburb of Acton, which was where, he told me, he lived. I laughed like a Canberra drain – the 24-hour flight meant nothing anymore, for my father’s presence was at one with the pathetic fallacy he was piloting me through. Far from lighting out for the territory, as I stared about me at the bungalows and low-rise apartment blocks, I realised the end of my exploring took me to where I’d begun; for I’d been in Acton, west London − which looked not that dissimilar – only a day or so before.
It didn’t take me long to realise, contra this sense of déjà vu, that I would indeed be knowing Canberra for the first time. Up early the next morning I went for a jog around Lake Burley Griffin, marvelling at its consummate artificiality – and marvelling still more at the sweeping, po-mo façade of Parliament House, which was under construction at the time but yet to be injected by its own hypodermic flagstaff. In an underpass I laboured through, a sole graffito proclaimed a sentiment I was to hear oft-repeated in the months and years to come: “They took the Dreamtime and turned it into a Nightmare.”
When I got back to Acton I quipped to Dad, “What does ‘Canberra’ mean? No, no – don’t tell me, I know, it’s an ancient Aboriginal word meaning Milton Keynes.” He took this in good part; one of his specialisms was urban and regional planning, and he’d been among the theorists of Britain’s postwar new towns – indeed, part of what attracted him to Canberra was its garden city zoning. But for me, in my early and turbulent 20s, a suburb half a world away was a sort of nightmare – Sartre’s Huis Clos remade with a bureaucrat, an academic and a politician, all Australian, whiling away a hellish eternity.
Over the next couple of months my father did his best: we went walking out at Tidbinbilla, and took trips to Mudgee and Byron Bay. To a Little Englander the distortions in scale presented by the Australian landscape were more overwhelming than oddities of flora and fauna. But you know this – you’ve absorbed the unheimlich qualities of your homeland. The sense of deep familiarity and equally deep estrangement I felt, staring out over the hypertrophied Yorkshire moors you call the Blue Mountains, is surely only antipodal to what you must feel on encountering our shrunken and domesticated wilds. I recall a geographic discussion with an Australian, in Cologne of all places, which began civilly enough but ended with her near-bellowing, “No, you’re the antipodes!”
I loved Australia – the physical reality of it, that is. As for the people, the culture, the society … Well, to return to Huis Clos, hell is indeed other people, including one’s own alienated self. I chafed and fretted in the cloistral Canberra atmosphere. I was a faculty brat who’d only recently graduated, yet here I was, back at university again. Still, I did my reading – recommended by my father and his colleagues – and everything I imbibed (including Emu Export) convinced me that if I were to stand a chance of enlightenment I needed to encounter Australia profonde. I had a degree in economics, and my father was able, through a well-placed friend, to wangle me a job with the lands department of the Northern Territory government. So it was I boarded the scheduled Greyhound service and, like Stuart in search of Wingillpinin to the north, headed counter-intuitively south-west. A day later I staggered about Adelaide trying to get the circulation back into my legs, and marvelling at this strange simulacrum of Cheltenham, complete with its cast of blue-blazered retirees from the colonial service. A day after that the bus had emptied out – and I could understand why: there was no air-conditioning or toilet, while the suspension struggled to cope with the corrugations on the long sections of un-metalled road. Flies buzzed around my eyes – I’d never felt so acutely the physics of the sun, a hydrogen bomb ever-exploding for aeons. I sat in the fallout and sweated.
Somewhere between Coober Pedy and the Alice, two men who’d been deeply asleep for hours in the seats across the aisle from me woke up. With no fuss and apparently no sense of discombobulation, they rose and went forward. One said something to the driver and he slewed the bus off the track. The two men alighted, the door shut, and as we pulled away I watched them heading off across the fractured salt pan at a steady lope. They carried nothing – no bags, no water even. I was still trying to comprehend their behaviour when, an hour or so later, the bus slowed again and then turned onto a sidetrack beside a great pile of chucked tinnies, mangled sheets of corrugated iron and discarded engine parts. A few minutes later we pulled into a settlement, and struggling out from under humpies came people who resembled the men who’d made off into the desert. At last I was vis-à-vis with these obscure objects of desire.
Let me pause here while you’re still absorbing that last sentence – trying to figure out if it was in some way offensive, and if so, to whom. I want to do two things during this little fermata – the first is to reassure you that the narrative stops here; I’m not going to camel-drive you through all my Australian travels. Nonetheless, in what follows I am going to ask you to think about what Australia represents specifically for a writer from overseas – Australia not only as subject matter but also as potential muse.
I said I accepted the festival’s invitation with alacrity – but as much as I enjoyed my time in Melbourne, there wasn’t a sorbet’s chance in Hades I would’ve circumnavigated the Earth purely to attend a literary festival. Put bluntly: in a literary world where almost everything ever written is instantaneously available anywhere, and most of it gratis, the only remaining fungible literary properties are the writers themselves. But I didn’t attend the festival to be complicit in my own commodification or to push product – as implied above, I now believe that to be a largely futile enterprise. No, I returned to revisit the Australia profonde that entranced me as a young man, and to expose my three sons to the far stranger facts that have underpinned some of my peculiar fictions. And so we flew to Darwin then travelled overland all the way to Melbourne – and arrived happy, fulfilled and full of Australia profonde, rather than emptied out by the pressurised nowhere of high-speed intercontinental travel.
For me, fundamentally a writer of place, to come here as any other bourgeois might go on a business trip is a solecism of an order to disrupt the space-time continuum. For years now I’ve felt the claustrophobia of my own right, tight little isle radiating out to encompass the Earth. Under the current dispensation Eliot was wrong physically as much as metaphysically: We travel, yes – but only to arrive at a facsimile of the place from which we’ve recently departed, a place we “know” in only a ruthlessly pragmatic sense.
When someone from the northern hemisphere tells me they’ve been to Australia, meaning any or all of the following cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane together with their environs – I groan in despair. I feel exactly the same way when I encounter young Australians in London and ask them how much they’ve travelled in their own land, only to discover the answer is rather less than those tourists who believe “Australia” to be a bridge, a rock, an opera house and a white-sand beach lined with high-rises. Of course, an ignorance of one’s own hinterland is neither exclusive to Western cultures nor to our own times, but ours is the era and society that prizes mobility – of goods, productive economic units (or “people”, as I call them) and money – above all else. And yet a mobility predicated on a consumption-driven economy forever poisons the well of its own novelty; it creates a desert of branded goods and calls it freedom of choice. And in the era of global-positioning technology, we find the spatial equivalent of our avarice, for we have come to know the location of everything, while understanding nothing about our own orientation – so it is we’re led by the nose to the next fabulous retail opportunity. We gaze upon the few vistas that still truly have the capacity to estrange us, through lenses ground by the competing pressures of time and money.
The second issue I wanted to tackle during this irenic interlude is the matter of offence itself. In William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg’s The Yage Letters, a collection of their correspondence during Burroughs’ travels in South America in the early 1950s, Burroughs writes of his relief once reaching Peru, because it was a country of sufficient size that Peruvians felt free not to be patriotic – indeed, free to slag off their homeland. Therefore I ask of you, dear reader, are you big enough? Big enough not only to critique Australia itself but also to listen to someone from overseas – and an epically whingeing Pom to boot – critiquing your motherland? Not, I hasten to add, that Australia – any more than any other nation of millions − is unique in this, for there are many Australias. Nevertheless, what seems incontestable is that no matter how fissiparous a society may be, no matter how full of conflicted groups, once a stranger starts some aggro they all rally round to repel him. Dr Johnson considered patriotism to be “the last refuge of the scoundrel” not because he thought of patriotism as scoundrelly (how could he as a high Tory?), but because he believed there was no greater profanation anyone could commit than to denigrate their own country.
I dissent from this: to me the nation-state is a lamentably necessary, territorially defined monopoly on the exercise of violence – and in Britain and Australia alike, this monopoly is accorded a spiritual significance, one annually re-sanctified by rituals designed to maintain its citizenries’ awareness of its foundational myths. For Australia, 2015 has been particularly important – the centenary of the mass sacrifice of its young men on the altar of patriotism. Paul Keating and members of the Australian left may decry Gallipolism, but the fact remains it was on the shores of the Dardanelles that the emergent Australian state secured its own monopoly on violence. In Britain, 2016 will be equally significant. But whether it was Gallipoli or the Somme that was ritually blood-soaked is beside the point – as Lieutenant General David Morrison said at a religious service held in Canberra earlier this year: “We have not forgotten and we are defined, at least in part, by that act of remembrance.” He went on to express the idea that in an uncertain future our recollection of these thousands of young men, machine-gunned to death in ignorance and fear, can remind us of what we have been and can be: “courageous and compassionate, resolute and resilient”.
A novelist can be many things, including courageous and compassionate, but I believe one thing the novelist can’t be if using the form as Stendhal intended – as a mirror held up unflinchingly to life – is a patriot, if that is understood to be anyone who uncritically accepts the values of their own state or society as innately superior to those of any other. No, the novelist must be – to borrow a phrase coined by the autistic writer Temple Grandin – an anthropologist from Mars: interrogating the most commonplace as if utterly bizarre. In my own fictive practice such hyper-objectivity goes hand-in-hand with a particular attention to place – something I find easy enough to understand. After all, if you’re not at home anywhere in the world, how much more compelling is the psychological requirement to mitigate that estrangement. When teaching at Cornell University in the 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov would commence each lecture by drawing on the blackboard, perhaps a floor plan of Austen’s Mansfield Park or a map of Proust’s “two ways” at Combray. In each case he was drawing his students’ attention to two interrelated phenomena: narrative prose is particularly well adapted to conveying a sense of place, while all fiction – no matter how otherworldly – is grounded in cold facts. You realise this when you read a story set in a given location and become insidiously aware the writer doesn’t really know the place themselves, even though you yourself have never been there.
This is why almost all my own fiction is set in London – not even greater London but the irregular triangle of city between Camden Town, Golders Green and East Finchley. My knowledge of this area expanded and transformed as I grew, from the seemingly panoptic vision of childhood, to the synoptic understanding of an adult. It’s like that, growing up, isn’t it? We dabble in the crabgrass, building mighty cities of twigs, cracking the whip over corvees of ants – and this is a world entire. And then, as we grow bigger, the wider world concertinas into our comprehension by reason of its functionality. So it is we say we “know” London, or Melbourne, or Beijing – when what we really mean is we know how to use it. Of course, while I confidently assert these things now, they were never givens – rather, I set my fiction in London because of that other stentorian warning issued to tyro writers: WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW. I have set some scenes in some fictions in other parts of Great Britain – I’ve even set a novella in Zurich. Some made-up stuff has gone down in my mother’s homeland, the United States – after all, she could reasonably claim to have given birth to what invention I possess. But after London, the location in which I’ve set most of my narratives is Australia.
I added it all up before I left home: I’ve published 16 works of fiction since 1991, and of these I estimate one and a third have been set here, so, around 9%. As for the factual underpinning, between 1983 and now I’ve spent approximately a year in Australia. For someone as determined to write about places they know as I am, this disproportion is worrying – I’ve inflated my experience by at least a factor of three. This isn’t perhaps as egregious as the late John Updike, who after a scant week lazing on Copacabana beach penned a novel adventitiously titled Brazil, but nonetheless it suggests a writer willing to exploit what he perceives as the exotic rather more than the commonplace. I stand guilty as charged: as I say, I found your homeland to be transcendently beautiful, while I also discovered its first peoples to be beautiful transcendental idealists. I came to Australia initially to visit my father – that I came back was because I, in the manner of young Westerners the world over, believed I’d encountered the noumenon in this phenomenal place. If you like, Australia was my India, and the Aboriginal people my sadhus.
First peoples, first nations, indigenous people, Aboriginals, blackfellas – what, we may ask yet again, is in a name? And the answer is, for us, the people of the book: everything. We excel in euphemising as a means of exclusion, and ironising as a way of ignoring what we ourselves mean. I cannot claim to have spent huge amounts of time with Australia’s first peoples, but I know enough to say I’ve witnessed rehearsals for the initiation of the Mudburra-Djingli, that I’ve consorted with Tiwi and Groote Islanders, that I’ve camped out in Pitjantjatjara lands, and seen the bauxite being scraped from lands of the Yolngu. I’ve been a crass idiot in many areas of my life – charging into situations armed with very little knowledge and doing some very dangerous things, but credit where credit is due, even aged 23 I wasn’t deluded enough to imagine I could connect with these people, that I could understand, let alone help, them.
I was aided in this by white Australians I met during my time in Darwin, members of the 1960s radical generation who, instead of taking a Grand Tour of Earls Court, penetrated the heart of their own Centralian darkness. They were indeed trying to help the Aboriginal people, but they drew my attention to this cosmic catch 22: to truly help, a whitefella must acquire a defined position in a tribe – but once initiated his usefulness in the balanda world declines proportionately. Writing in the Monthly in 2008, Galarrwuy Yunupingu identified the true compass of the gap between Australia’s two principal mobs: “Who in the senior levels of the commonwealth public service has lived through these things? Who in the parliament? No one speaks an Aboriginal language, let alone has the ability to sit with a young man or woman […] and find out what is really in their heart.” Twenty years ago I visited Yunupingu’s homeland for a piece I was writing on Mabo and land rights for the London Observer. A white political consultant I spoke with in Nhulunbuy, who had many years of experience, told me he believed such advances as had been achieved were the result of successive Australian politicians being taken off into the bush by tribal elders, and having “stardust sprinkled in their eyes”. But Malcolm Fraser kept his eyes tightly screwed – and John Howard wouldn’t go out into the bush with them at all, even when he visited their lands. That’s a credulous whitefella’s perspective, but Yunupingu sees it differently: so far as he was concerned they all kept their eyes wide shut, with the exception of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, who couldn’t see the future for their own tears of self-pity and remorse.
In the mid 1990s the land rights movement seemed to be getting somewhere – and my Observer piece now appears hopelessly optimistic, with its serious considerations of the prospects for true Aboriginal autonomy, guaranteed under the constitution. The piece may have been optimistic, but I don’t believe I ever was. I don’t think it’s possible to fully sympathise with any other individual except those whose being-in-the-world we’re vitally connected to, by reason of birth or physical intercourse. How much harder is it to even empathise with those who have a radically different world view and equally divergent moral and spiritual values? Are these people, with their millennia-long continuous oral culture and profound immersion in a magical world, philosophical idealists or animist pragmatists? Both ways of being are profoundly different to the West’s mythic underpinning, which, for all our vaunted humanism, remains solidly Abrahamic: our destiny is a songline leading to a determinate future, while the meaning of our lives is to be sought in the history of our adaptation of the natural world. Yet for Aboriginal Australians – so far as we can determine – there is no destiny, only a duty which takes this form: a ritual rubric essential for the maintenance – in the widest possible sense – of a status quo that must forever remain ante. For us the world was made a long time ago, our purpose is merely to adapt it to our increasingly expensive tastes. But for them the world is ever-inchoate, while they are the agents of its coming-into-being.
Of course, such statements are bullshit of the first order. Who am I to descant on what people from these myriad and diverse cultures truly believe – let alone on how it might cause them to act? Moreover, even if it were possible to adequately characterise such a traditional world view, how almost infinitely complex must be the impacts of deracination. Nevertheless, I am guilty as charged: in my 2000 novel, How the Dead Live, I attempted to envisage what the experience of death might be like for an off-the-peg Western secular atheist, who, upon expiring, discovers that the afterlife – such as it is – conforms to the dictates of Tibetan Buddhism. Wandering in the bardo beyond death, her psyche disintegrating into the personifications of her basest desires, my protagonist is attended by a lithopedion (the minute calcified foetus of a baby conceived but never born), and a sorcerer, or “big man”, from one of the Centralian tribes. Yes, I wanted a suitably mystical “other” with which to contrast the naive psychological realism of my protagonist, but I wanted an “other” a little less clichéd than some enlightened rinpoche. I based my big man on a real person – because that’s what writers do. No matter how much we assure you readers of our powers of invention, when it comes to the evanescent subtleties of human beings we always draw from life. Usually the alteration of a few basic facts – sex, class, eye colour – is all that’s required to throw you off the scent; it never fails to amuse me how blind even close friends can be to the shameless use I’ve made of them. “I enjoyed the novel,” they’ll say, “but that X is an arsehole.” Clearly, they’ve never held up a Stendhalian mirror to where the sun doesn’t shine. True, I have had some comeback from characters – sorry, I mean “people” – but only when I make the criminal error of failing to change their names.
Yes, you heard me: I modelled my fictional big man on a real one, and while I was writing the novel I retained his real name. Why? Because I felt it allowed me to engage more thoroughly with the reality of a being I was in the process, in all likelihood, of travestying. My intention was always to change the name before the text went to press, but mysteriously I didn’t. When the finished copies came back what leapt off the page was this name, the name of a real big man – the real big man who’d had such an influence on my oldest Australian friend that after many years of resistance he’d finally given in and been initiated. When I asked a mutual acquaintance how this could possibly have happened, he expostulated, “He was only living bang next door to the most powerful bloody sorcerer in the Territory.” I phoned my newly Aboriginal friend and asked him what I should do. Would X be all right about being name-checked in a literary novel? A day or so later the message stick was returned to me, and the answer was unequivocal: X very much minded – whatever copies of the book were already in Australia would have to be pulped, while I’d have to pay compensation for the offence I’d caused.
When, in the late 1980s, I was making my first tentative forays into the inhospitable, over-exploited and semi-arid country known as literary London, there was a tale doing the rounds concerning VS Naipaul’s younger brother, Shiva, who’d recently died. Also a writer – I can thoroughly recommend his novel Fireflies – Naipaul Minor had penned a collection of essays, including two on matters Australian, entitled An Unfinished Journey. According to these cognoscenti – most of whom thought the Southern Cross was a pub on Kings Road – the book revealed certain taboo items of Aboriginal arcana, and for this Naipaul had been killed, the weapon employed being sympathetic magic. It was the same with Bruce Chatwin, whose offence was to suggest in The Songlines that it was absurd for Western museums to have to return sacred artefacts, such as churingas, to the descendants of their original owners – let alone for anthropologists to cease studying such lore.
As a writer who, albeit in a glancing way, had witnessed in the outback psychic phenomena I found inexplicable in terms of natural law, these tales had considerable impact – especially in combination with the far more plangent anxieties of the white Australians. The consultant who told me my friend had been initiated vouchsafed he was “terrified” of his Aboriginal employers for just this reason, and that when they told him to jump, he simply asked how high. In a way it doesn’t matter what we think about the efficacy or otherwise of sympathetic magic as a means of literary criticism. The important thing is such anxieties track the fault lines in our own psyches, and the way we suppress our sense of how uncanny our own consciousness is. We may well have taken the Dreamtime and turned it into a Nightmare, but then again, we too are such stuff as dreams are made of. It’s the same with the camp north of Coober Pedy, up in the desiccated country that’s the fons et origo of white Australia’s sense of manifest destiny. Here Stuart groped from waterhole to waterhole, and 120 years later I saw Aboriginal children with pot bellies and streptococcal skin infections, their eyes whited out by trachoma. The fourth-world conditions indigenous Australians still live in are a totalising phenomenon. I don’t belabour this in order to shame anyone; every modern, democratic, human-rights-supporting nation boasts its own viciously excluded groups, there are no utopias, nor will there ever be – no matter what our leaders tell us. When Stuart reached what he calculated to be the centre of Australia, he raised the Union Jack and gave a short speech to his two starving and weary companions; they gave “three cheers for the Flag, the emblem of civil and religious liberty, and may it be a sign to the natives that the dawn of liberty, civilisation and Christianity is about to break upon them”.
I paid to have the copies of How the Dead Live pulped and reprinted; I paid the compensation demanded: $5000, two hunting rifles and a set of cooking pots. I paid because I was credulous, because – as an English Protestant with a Jewish knob on me – I felt prey to collective guilt. When it came time to write a post-9/11 satire on Western liberal impotence and ethical culpability in the debacles of Afghanistan, Iraq and all the other wars of material conquest waged in the name of liberty, civilisation and, implicitly, Christianity, my own response to the otherness of Aboriginal Australia became a means of probing our world-spanning hypocrisy. My 2008 novel The Butt is set in a country that is an island continent; the overlords, who are clearly of European descent, have reached different sorts of accommodation with the various indigenous peoples. My protagonist – who’s equally clearly an American, although this is never explicitly stated – accidentally flicks a cigarette, his last before abandoning the habit, onto the head of an elderly white man who’s married to an indigenous woman. In what follows, due to the complex entwinement of indigenous distributive justice and statutory law, the offender winds up having to compensate his victim’s in-laws to the tune of … Well, you guessed it: $5000, two hunting rifles and a set of cooking pots.
That Australian reviewers couldn’t spot the satiric wood for the circumstantial trees, and so pronounced The Butt offensive took me as much by surprise as … well, as the realisation I’d failed to substitute an alias for a real person’s name in How the Dead Live. To me, the capacity to step back from the particularities of one’s situation and adopt the perspective of an anthropologist from Mars is the sine qua non of any understanding at all. I found it simultaneously amusing and deranging that a society, such as Australia’s, could institute draconian anti-smoking legislation while failing to fully acknowledge the genocide perpetrated on its indigenous peoples. However, this to me was only a particular instance of a wider Western capacity to substitute public health for civic morality, consumer rights for economic equality, and the unfettered exercise of the libidinal imagination for political freedom. Inasmuch as Australia wishes to be included in the great progressive project, so its citizens must address these still greater regressive hypocrisies.
Peter Carey’s 1979 short story ‘Do You Love Me?’ is essentially a gloss on Jorge Luis Borges’ celebrated fragment, On Exactitude in Science. Borges writes of an empire in which the cartographers’ guild created a map of the empire itself “whose size was that of the Empire and which coincided point for point with it”. However, successive generations “saw that the vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters”. And here are the concluding lines I believe fired Carey’s imagination: “In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.” Carey’s story is set in a recognisable Australia, and told from the perspective of a son whose father was once a cartographer, but who – in common with his colleagues – has abandoned the ceaseless mapping of the giant territory. The consequences of this are that parts of the massive country have begun to disappear – starting with the remoter, infrequently mapped areas, but then quite substantial landmarks in the major cities begin winking out of existence. The tale ends – so far as I can remember – with the narrator being berated by his own father, who becomes increasingly insubstantial himself.
The tyranny of distances – both internal and external – may have shaped Australian national self-consciousness as much as Gallipoli, but in a way the most tyrannical aspect of colonisation was the tearing up of a far more ancient map, one that did indeed coincide point-for-point with the entire Australian landmass. I’ve stood on the shore of the Arafura Sea at the point where the primordial Oyster first jumped up and made landfall – and I’ve eaten its offspring at St Kilda seafood restaurants. I come from a landmass where not a single feature is without humanity’s impress – even the most isolated Scottish moors are the creation of Iron Age slash-and-burn agriculture. The job I had in Darwin in the early 1980s included preparing a report assessing the demand for building land in the Territory. Initially the necessity for this seemed unclear to me, given the vast land area and the sparse population – but of course, the granting of Crown leaseholds has been intrinsic to the development of Australia, and rests fundamentally, still to this day, on the infamous doctrine of terra nullius. I discovered soon enough that, unlike in Britain where rates of household formation based on a number of demographic factors determine demand, in the Territory there was only one determinant: the size of the federal government’s subsidy. Once again, I believe this continues to be the case.
I’m not here to berate white Australia for the genocide perpetrated on its indigenous peoples – how could I? If the sins of our fathers and mothers are to be visited on us, then, unquestionably, we’re all to blame. But what I do want to make crystal clear is that I wouldn’t have come here at all if it weren’t for the physical reality of Australia’s astonishing hinterland, and the equally remarkable complexity and sophistication of the traditional Aboriginal world view. This is not to dismiss the cultural achievements of the majority community here, but for me the narrow road to the deep north will always be the Stuart Highway. Cultural cringe is, I believe, entirely optional for white Australia – judge yourselves by the criteria of the English-speaking, globalised neoliberal world and you will always be found wanting. As you stand in relation to Britain, so we both stand vis-à-vis the US – I’m often asked if my books do well in the States, and I usually say this: Not too well, after all, they don’t need an extra Will Self – they’ve already got at least four of their own. By extension, it’s no good prosecuting a draconian policy on “illegal immigrants” while offering up “multiculturalism” as a sop – England is the native land of the hypocrite, and we enact this sort of bullshit politics far more thoroughly than you ever can. But if Australia, rather than presenting itself as just another “liberal democracy” whose relation to place is determined entirely by how it can be marketed or otherwise exploited, instead hearkens to its own unique strangeness, then I believe all Australians, no matter what their heritage, can feel at home in this unheimlich world.
I remember swimming in the pool of the Darwin hostel I first stayed in when I went to the Territory, and overhearing two white girls whose most common epithet, as they shouted and splashed, was “gammin”. Everything was gammin – what he said, what she said, what everyone said. I’ve often asked my Australian friends for the etymology of the term but it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, around a Darwin dinner table, that I dredged up the answer – and that was courtesy of a Google search. It is, of course, an Aboriginal word – although from which of the estimated 700 languages there were prior to contact it derives we have little way of knowing. Nevertheless, one of my Darwin friends, a political activist deeply involved with indigenous affairs, gave me a deeper contextualisation of the term, one I’d like to share with you in all its unvarnished, Australian directness. According to him, he and his mob had a very simple way of dividing up the people they had to deal with in order to live: there are those who are “true God” (and he further explained that this doesn’t relate to a unitary conception of Godhead, but to a collective state of spiritual grace), and those who are “gammin cunts”. Surely this harsh dichotomy gives us all something to aspire to. We may think being “true God” lies beyond us, but if the alternative is to be a gammin cunt … Well, I think it at least behoves us to make the effort, don’t you?
A version of this essay was delivered at the 2015 Melbourne Writers Festival.