At a Distance

By Ross, Bruce Clunies | Australian Literary Studies, May 1999 | Go to article overview

At a Distance


Ross, Bruce Clunies, Australian Literary Studies


AS I sailed out of Sydney Harbour aboard the Castel Felice on Christmas Day, 1963, I had no idea that I would never again live in Australia long enough to call it home, but I had no regrets. Had I been in the habit of examining my sentimental attitudes or prejudices I might have realised that I was pleased to be leaving a world in which I had grown up to feel out of place. Less than a year later, intoxicated by a taste of Oxford, I was saying such things and, amongst friends, airily dismissing Australia for `militant philistinism' (which I've observed and managed to survive in other places since I left Australia behind). Yet the first book I read as the Castel Felice threaded the islands on the route to Singapore was Randolph Stow's Tourmaline which remains my favourite novel, and after swearing not to kindle fire in the Bodleian Library, the first book I ordered from the stacks was Stow's A Haunted Land, which had gone out of print before I became aware of it. I also discovered that Bodley's broadminded librarian permitted me to examine the Fanfrolico Press Lysistrata, translated by Jack Lindsay and illustrated by his father. Any attempt to gain access to books such as that in the Barr Smith or Adelaide Public Library before 1963 would have been futile except as a means of earning a sadly undeserved reputation as a debauchee.

I know that there were others of my generation who shared my discontent with Australia, including a few who have never returned since the day they left thirty years ago. My fellow passengers on the Castel Felice included Jeffrey Smart, already a well-known painter, heading for Tuscany from which his fame would spread, and Bruce Beresford, then an unknown young film buff, yet as I remember, already the object of flattering attention. Now he is famous perhaps everyone on that voyage recalls with pride that for five and a half weeks they moved in his orbit. Whether Jeffrey Smart or Bruce Beresford shared anything like my inchoate attitudes and prejudices I do not know, as I was too shy to address them (even though Jeffrey Smart had once been a guest at the flat I shared in North Adelaide). It is possible that they were not the only ones bound for fame on that voyage, but fortunately, perhaps, the passenger list did not include my illustrious contemporaries, Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer and Clive James who like numerous others of our generation moved to Europe about the same time.

Many of my fellow passengers were young women (whom I was also too shy to address) beginning their overseas trip, the event which motivates Duty Free. Australian Women Abroad by Ros Pesman. But by 1963 she was in the midst of her own overseas adventure, having departed from Australia a couple of years before on a sister ship to the Castel Felice. I had been familiar with these vessels for years. One of them had already taken a beautiful young woman of my acquaintance out of my orbit, leaving me the recipient of occasional tormenting post-cards which represented her gallivanting around the continent in an open-top car with an elegant European male companion. About that time, I resolved never to leave Australia just to go `overseas' (which had, in any case, become a mainly feminine practice) nor for anything other than a specific goal. By the time I embarked on the Castel Felice, I had come to depise the `overseas trip' and was quite rude to a couple of young women with whom I shared a dining table because they seemed to have no better reason for being on the voyage. Ros Pesman's interesting discussion of young women travelling abroad in the fifties and sixties does not speculate unduly about the men left behind. It may be that young women went `overseas' to escape generations of Australian male boorishness and in some cases even to wreak revenge upon it, but though it handed an initiative to women of a certain class it sustained and possibly amplified the rift between the sexes in Australia. Perhaps this was a necessary prelude to improvements -- if any have occurred -- in the quality, or equality, of Australian sexual relations since 1963. …

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