Matthew Parris

Forget that frontier spirit stuff: Australians are neither adventurous nor subversive

Forget that frontier spirit stuff: Australians are neither adventurous nor subversive

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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. When they land in aeroplanes they all wait until the ‘fasten seat-belts’ sign is extinguished before they unclip. The Holden station-wagon I have hired bleeps at you when you exceed a speed limit, then gives a piously reassuring bleep when your speed drops back. It makes a different warning sound if you drive for more than two hours without resting, and all the doors lock automatically when you put it into gear. They don’t much like their dirt roads into the interior: ‘You get bored before you run out of road,’ someone told me.

There is something of the cowboy in every American, but little of the sheep station in most Australians. No, this is Godalming led into an empty continent to go forth and multiply. In England we have little lawns, and love them. Here they have massive lawns, and live for them. Between Thirroul and Kiama my train skirted big gardens, one of which had a miniature railway running all round the perimeter of a five-acre-odd property, in a circle, little signals, sidings and all. In Bromley this householder would have had to make do with a Hornby-Dublo. There is nothing wrong with Australians that cannot be seen in their ancestors, writ small.

Except perhaps this. They are not, in the complete sense, in their country. They are round the edge of it, trying to keep it out: their bungalows ‘scattered’, wrote Lawrence, as though ‘dropped from a pantechnicon’ on a circumnavigation of a continent whose interior filled them with dread. They love to tell you of all the things that can kill you there. Lawrence describes, Patrick White describes, and to this day you will observe, the Australian gardener’s horror of ‘native’ plants. The Australian bush seems to threaten, and must be chopped back. People here have huge leaf-blowers which at the flick of a switch will blow away or suck in leaves and earth, clearing lawns and patios. Left to himself the Australian suburban gardener might wheel the machine off the lawn and on to the fringes of the bush, trying to blow that away too, or suck it up into a bag.

Near Wollangong an Aboriginal man boarded our train. The carriage was full of white Australians who looked up as he fumbled at the door. ‘Look,’ whispered a schoolgirl behind me to her friends, ‘he doesn’t know how to open the door!’ He didn’t, but finally succeeded, lurched in and sat down. He was drunk. He smelt. A sort of horror ran around the carriage. It was as if they had all seen Banquo’s ghost.

Which in a way they had. The power which the Aboriginal land-claim — though to my mind preposterous — exerts upon modern white Australians’ imagination may find its force from their own failure properly to root into their continent’s soil. Lawrence said that not enough blood had been shed there; the tremendous pride Australians still take in the blood they have shed — though not on their own soil — seems to back him up. I was here for Anzac Day, and surprised at the fervour, even among the young. It was as though there were a craving for justification by blood.

On the line from Wollangong to Bomaderry the railway passed a graveyard. It was the first I had seen in Australia, for you see few, and the thought of bodies rotting beneath the soil seemed to jar in a country which, Lawrence fretted, ‘didn’t seem to be real’. Perhaps Australia needs more graveyards.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.