Monday, April 09, 2018

Monday Forum - was 1950s Australia still a cultural colony of England, repressed, puritanical and suspicious of foreigners?

Coetzee praised Murnane’s “chiseled sentences,” placing him among of the last generation of Australian writers to come to maturity when the country “was still a cultural colony of England, repressed, puritanical and suspicious of foreigners.” Mark Binelli 

I bristled at these words of J M Coetzee quoted by Mark Binelli in his New York Times Magazine piece Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town? (27 March 2018). I hadn't actually heard of Gerald Murnane until kvd referred to him in a comment on The internet: algorithms, bias and the censorship of information, pointing to both the Binelli piece and also this article by Murnane himself, The Still-Breathing Author (Sydney Review of Books, 6 February 2018).

I feel a little sheepish admitting my ignorance. He is clearly an important figure, although views about his writing expressed in the comments vary. kvd thinks, he is wonderful. Neil Whitfield took a different view: "I'm sure it is my fault not his, but every time I have tried to read Murnane I have given up! To me he is almost unreadable!" Responding to kvd, marcellous adopted a somewhat related position to Neil: "It's the content which I've found unreadable when assayed before - possibly because I'm not brought up Catholic with an enthusiasm for the turf (not that I'm saying you were/are). Incidentally, what you read as early love looks to me like slightly creepy laundry-line stalking"!

In my own defence, I do read all the time. However, I really gave up reading what one might describe as "serious fiction" several decades ago. That was partly a matter of time, more that I found that my own reactions to work considered to fall within the important category at considerable variance from those telling me that it was important and that I should consequently read it. Even today, I find Patrick White almost unreadable although here I have to make another attempt because he falls within my current field of historical interest.Still, my interest in Mr Murnane has been caught and I will read him because I can see connections with my other current interests.

I said at the start that I bristled at Coetze's words, that he (Murnane) was among the last of  generation of Australian writers to come to maturity when the country “was still a cultural colony of England, repressed, puritanical and suspicious of foreigners.”

Gerald Murnane was born on 25 February 1939. Others born around this time include Robert Hughes and Les Murray (1938), Clive James and Germaine Greer (1939), Mungo MacCallum (1941).and Martin Sharp and Bob Ellis (1942) to name just a few. All spent the first part of their childhood in war conditions, completing their education during the 1950s. They all were affected by, affected and were part of a process of cultural and social change that peaked in the 1970s. This was followed by dramatic economic changes in the 1980s and 1990s. These changes were not unique to Australia.

Two questions arise. Were they growing up at a time when Australia was still a cultural colony of England, repressed, puritanical and suspicious of foreigners? If so, what has changed?

I am a member of the Armidale Families Past and Present Facebook group. It's a closed group, you have to be approved as a member, that has grown rapidly to over 1,900 members. Over half the group and a  higher proportion of regular commenters/posters, it's a very active group, no longer live in Armidale. They are remembering their time there as children or younger adults. The posts are loaded with photos - school groups, work groups, activities, old scenes of Armidale, then and now individual shots.  The comment threads run and run stretching into the hundreds covering every aspect of life.

Commenters come from every walk of life with very different experiences. Even in a small city like Armidale there are many different groups and experiences, unified by the common city and overlapping links and experiences. .

Yabbying or Craybobbing near Armidale. Which term to use was the subject of the Great Craybob War!
One common thread is the memory of freedom as children or young adults, of doing sometimes silly things, of just roaming, along with a recognition that this is no longer possible today.

Recently, ABC Radio National had a program on why children don't walk or ride to school anymore. Various suggestions were made, but then a Queensland listener threw a spanner into the works. It was, the listener suggested, now illegal in that state to let children walk or ride to school on their own if they were under twelve.

Queensland police notice  
 The ABC investigated. You will find the results of the investigation here: What the law says about letting your child walk to school on their own.

In short, this is a genuine police notice issued at a particular time in a particular place for particular reasons. However, the legal position varies between jurisdictions and is by no means clear cut. But the bottom line is that you may break the law if you let your child walk or ride to school alone depending on the interpretation placed on the law. It all depends.

We have moved into territory that I have talked about before. In many ways, Australian society is indeed more repressed, puritanical and suspicious today than it was in the 1950s. There have been advances, but the overall pattern is clear and accelerating.

Are we more suspicious of foreigners than we were in the 1950s? The answer here is less clear cut, but I suspect that it is yes. It's just that the targets have changed to some degree. The 1950s saw the progressive ending of the White Australia policy. That policy was based on the idea of cultural homogeneity, of the need to protect workers and jobs from foreign competition. It changed because the world was changing resulting in a revolution that saw Australia open its doors to mass immigration first from Europe and then the world. The revolution was led by Government, but also broadly supported by a sometimes suspicious population..

And where are we today? We live in a world where the idea of cultural homogeneity, of the need to protect workers and jobs from foreign competition, is central to immigration policy in many countries. Australian Governments have held the line to some degree, but they have also made border protection a key ideal, feeding the idea that the country must protect its borders from the risk of people smugglers and unrestrained migration. One result has been a rise in xenophobia based more on religion than the old idea of ethnicity or race, although they do overlap.

And, finally, was Australia still a cultural colony of England at the time Mr Murnane was growing up? The answer here is partially yes but primarily no. However, wimping a little because of time, that is a topic for another post.


Neil Whitfield said...

I became accustomed to Patrick White when I had to teach "The Tree of Man" for HSC in Wollongong c.1975! The breakthrough was reading passages aloud, after which I became a fan. On Murnane, all I said was that TO ME he had been almost unreadable. Maybe Marcellous put his finger on the reason.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you are absolutely right Winton - and in fact, please accept my apologies, Jim, for having mentioned Murnane in the first place.

My response to Winton's earlier comment was solely in regard to his 'unreadable' throwaway, and it is very interesting that in regard to PW, he makes the very same comment ("read aloud") that I appended to marcellous' post? As to PW himself, I've always thought he'd be a great candidate for a Readers' Digest compendium, so that you could get at the actual meat of what he says, without all the 'garnishes'.

Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. For instance, I actively dislike a couple of the composers that seem to send marcellous into raptures: it seems to me that they are famous because they are famous, or perhaps interesting because they are new - and one must always nod appreciatively towards famousness or be considered ill-bred over post-symphonic lattes.

So, strike GM from your 'must read' list Jim. By a super majority of 2 to 1, you'll be far better off :) Your loss, not mine.


Anonymous said...

Absolute apologies to Winton! I now see it was Neil's comment above that I was addressing. I am hereby self-classified as a (very!) bad reader; possibly unhinged in fact :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Laughs. I knew who you were referring too kvd. The point about reading aloud is important.Sometimes you need to do that to properly appreciate, to taste, the language.

Neil, I understood your point re GM. You phrased it very precisely. You were commenting on your personal reactions rather than the English itself.

2 tanners said...

I held this back for ages but just can't.

In the period being talked about the 'cultural cringe' was a real thing, and for the way that we treated those we termed abos, wogs, dagos, eyties, micks and chinks really does kind of meet the description. Poms got a two-faced treatment - respect to the established adults, and torture in the schoolyard and the pub.

I've never thought of it as xenophobia, fear of the outsider, though. Instead it was contempt, and if you listen to current rhetoric, still is.

kvd, those passages left me totally cold, but maybe that's different upbringings. Certainly the girl next door's undies never got such an obsessive reaction from me.

Anonymous said...

Agree with your take on the 'cultural cringe' point of Jim's post, tanners, but not so much your take on how we perceived or treated the 'other' among us. Maybe as you say, that's just different upbringings.

On Murnane, why such discomfort? Me, I can now look back at my first confused and agonised interactions with the fairer sex, and laugh at myself. And also, maybe don't buy the Wkend Oz :)


2 tanners said...


Murnane's text is quite readable (the example you provided is the only material of his I have ever read). As you say, the structure and meaning is clear and I appreciate that. Unclear, ungrammatical, gimmicky writing is a curse.

However, GM's thoughts and world view are so different to mine as to arouse nothing in me that would keep me reading. I only made it through the passage to find what your point was.

Alas, I have failed the exam of life. :)

Anonymous said...

The man flung himself down onto the grass of the steeplechase track, beside the horse. The man put his arms around the horse’s neck and pressed his face against the horse’s head. The man went on lying there. The light rain went on falling. The vet and the track attendants stood without moving. They were not embarrassed. They were merely being respectful. They were horsemen too. They went on standing patiently. They went on waiting until the old man, the timber worker and part-time owner-trainer, had spent the measure of his grief.

"the man, the man, the man, they were, they were, they were, they went, they went"

That is the last paragraph I will quote from Murnane. The remorseless, repetitive, cadence brings immediately to my mind the relentless drums of a funeral march; I can 'hear' their muffled beating, long after reading that.

tanners, in the current exam of life, I'm told everybody gets a ribbon :)