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.