Magazine article The Spectator

Forget That Frontier Spirit Stuff: Australians Are Neither Adventurous nor Subversive

Magazine article The Spectator

Forget That Frontier Spirit Stuff: Australians Are Neither Adventurous nor Subversive

Article excerpt

New South Wales

The name of the station seemed to ring a bell. An hour or so south of Sydney, and through the window of my double-decker Australian railway carriage, I could read the sign 'Thirroul'. Wasn't that the little seaside town where D.H. Lawrence stayed with his wife, Frieda, and where he began his novel Kangaroo! Did the couple not stay in a bungalow here close to the Pacific and where the story starts?

I did not much care for Kangaroo when I first read it. But as with Patrick White's work, I later found that having thrown the book aside, thoughts it had aroused stayed pulsing strongly in my imagination. Thirroul. I could picture the bungalow. In my mind it is not far from the beach. It is dark. There are tall eucalyptus trees almost overhanging a little track down to the sea's edge, and always the roar of the great Pacific breakers on the shore. When I last tried to find a copy of Kangaroo it was - disgracefully - out of print, but it had made its imprint on me.

I like Australia better this time than when I came here before. Then, nearly a decade ago, I visited only Western Australia and people told me that was no way to judge the whole country, that the eastern states were a world away from WA, and that, unlike Perth, Sydney was a great international city. But I haven't found New South Wales as different from the west coast as Australians suppose, and Sydney is in many ways terribly English, and nothing like San Francisco at all. It is the constant refrain both of Australians and of their visitors that the country has changed almost beyond recognition, that the umbilical chord with the Old Country has been well and truly severed, and that if you want the flavour of Australia, think Asia, think America, think Pacific Rim. Well maybe. But why, then, do those scenes and observations from Kangaroo, written nearly a century ago, still ring so true?

It is hard to conclude from Lawrence's novel either that he liked or disliked Australia. He found the continent odd, perplexing, challenging - and so do I. Meeting Australians, he remarked that one encountered an ineffable bonhomie but was afterwards unsure whether one had impinged on their consciousness at all - or whether one had sailed slap through it and out the other side 'like the Mary Celeste'. People were, he wrote, 'nice', 'really nice'. There was a kind of blankness, he said.

There still is. But I wonder whether it is Australia's absence of class distinctions - and all the myriad little layerings of contempt and respect by which in England we give bas-relief to our picture of the humanity we meet - which so threw Lawrence, and throws me? To the Englishman, Australian mateship gives their society a sort of flatness, like a photograph taken in the white, shadowless light of noontide. Lawrence was perplexed by the backslapping mateyness and equality. As a social revolutionary he ought to have approved. Yet he couldn't quite get on with it, couldn't quite like it.

I think I do. If not, then that's my problem, not Australia's. You do not need to be here long before you find yourself - without thinking - associating Britain with a kind of staleness: something damp and sour. Mould is interesting but it is still mould. Everything here has been aired, dried out and pulled into the light. Everyone is so damn friendly and helpful. That does not make Australians anything like Americans; they are not; all that 'Waltzing Matilda' frontier-spirit stuff is hot air: Australians are neither adventurous nor subversive. …

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