Memoir

Lopping tall poppies

I WANT TO play God Only Knows at my wedding. A weird confession perhaps, but when you write books with swear words in the title, are told you hate Baby Boomers and are introduced as though "controversial" is your first name, you take refuge where you can. Even the Beach Boys.

"Generations do exist and they matter," I wrote in the first page of Please just f* off, it's our turn now (Pluto Press, 2006). But does anyone care? For every individual inspired by my book, there are another two shaking their heads or poking a voodoo doll. For every young Australian who bought it, ninety-nine didn't. Most had never heard of it.

Yet few authors have had their books thrown at them at public lunches (thanks, Bob Ellis). Fewer still have had to decide whether it was OK for Kerri-Anne Kennerley to refuse to name their book on air. And I don't know another author who has dragged a foreign minister away from his homework the night before a Royal Commission to a debate in a grotty Adelaide pub. That was my April 2006. If nothing else, it proved generations not only exist, they make some people very angry.

My frenetic writing style, lateral thinking and machine-gun cynicism were fuel to this fire. At twenty-three – as I was when I began writing the book – you change quickly and often. You shift in one direction just as your amorphous generational target shifts in another. And worse still, you are not a neutral observer when you interview people your own age. They shape you until you can't remember what is them and what is you. It means the final product cannot be consistent. Nor should it be. That's the price of presenting a complex generation fairly, of illuminating a group which is not well understood. It also meant the final text was always going to be both a launching pad and a noose for me.

Weeks would pass as the text sat alone and unloved on my C:/ drive. If I dated someone new, my friends would know within hours. When I junked a chapter, no one was any the wiser. When I did talk about it, the conversation came in torrents – a release from my private whirlpool of conflict about the book.

Ninety thousand words were discarded in the two years from contract to launch party – each lost word an attempt to keep pace with a rapidly changing world and my evolving headspace. Blogs were hot in 2004; by 2006 they were as cutting edge as a butter knife. I was tired of Australia in 2004; by 2006 I was homesick.

And the permanent underlying fear was the idea of speaking – or being seen to be speaking – for a generation that doesn't want to be spoken for and doesn't accept labels. Why? Because its members have had to selfishly scrap for everything they've got, and share no inherent solidarity. They would never adopt me or my views simply because I was one of them. In fact, many would and did happily call even youth radio station Triple J to rant about my stupidity and demand I lay off Boomers.

But that passion is matched and beaten in more productive ways by others. Whether it's the new volunteer ethic or the ingrained sense of environmental responsibility they express daily, this generation possesses a lucrative set of values. And they know how to exploit them. With access to the world's best technology, literacy and memories of nothing but capitalist growth, they really believe there is no stopping them. Even when the reality of Australia's conservative institutions – from the mainstream media to political parties – butts up against them, they seem to simply motor around. They make their own media and turn to their dynamic friendship networks rather than the ballot box to achieve social change. But to claim even that is to risk more opprobrium for being "unresearched", as The Bulletin declared.

 

THE FIRST MONTH of writing was exciting. Then defensiveness set in. My brow furrowed and I could not explain the book in a sentence ("If I could tell you in a sentence I wouldn't need to write 60,000 words, would I?"). Friends wondered: "It must be hard, writing about something you don't really believe in."

I stand by it – this isn't simply a book about Baby Boomers. It is a book about the complacency that polyfills Australia. It critiques John Howard's Australia without blaming him for everything – or even mentioning him. It "bigs up" the quirks and achievements of my generation and to string it together it points out the absurdities and hypocrisy of our parents – the Baby Boomers.

You would not know that if you hadn't read the book or met me. Proving the very complacency I moan about, many Australians found it easier to judge a book by its cover – or title. Much easier to dismiss the punchy, blog style than actually analyse the ideas from the perspective from which they are written. The auto-script then goes: "He would tell Boomers to f* off, wouldn't he? He was born in 1980." Apparently I am also self-interested, shallow, a careerist and more interested in attention than serious thinking. All because my publishers and I weren't too keen on calling the book Generation now or When generations collide – the working titles.

For my employers, the UK Civil Service, the title wasn't the issue. Calling the Howard government a "bunch of used car salesman" was. You didn't read about it in a nasty tabloid, but according to the Cabinet Office you could have. They feared it could cause a diplomatic incident between Australia and Britain, during Tony Blair's Commonwealth Games visit. So they urged me to cancel my London launch and even sent me home from work in the middle of the day to remove a photo of a Whitehall street sign from my personal website. At the time of these delicately put ultimatums ("We don't want you to feel pushed") I lived in a grey zone midway between The Office and Yes Minister.

To say I was "sacked" would not stand up in court. Yet to deny that my writing was the cause of my sudden ejection from my lovely view of the Downing Street garden would be immoral. The galling truth is that, to the guardians of the Civil Service tradition, I simply wasn't worth the effort. They knew I had done nothing wrong, and they also knew I had the correspondence, written requests and warnings to prove it. But being right doesn't stop you being a PR risk, discarded with possibly a second, but certainly not a third, thought. Hard work and moral authority is no insurance against tabloid headlines – and in twenty-first century government, headlines win.

 

SO, AS THE dark cloud of impropriety swirled around my workday head in February, and the four o'clock London "sunsets" numbed life out of me, I found it hard to enjoy my new role as "controversial author" or "wouldbe generational spokesman". Throw in an ill-judged offer for readers of my website to contact me with feedback of any kind and the first weeks of the book's release were not pretty, especially when there's no one to hug after the last awful midnight email. I would go to bed at two or three o'clock reciting the hate mail and wake in the dark cursing the city of dirty streets and pale freaks I mistakenly called home.

Having the book extracted in several daily papers was a welcome surprise, but the reviews were not. In the course of one weekend, they ranged from The Australian's "Savvy believable, thought-provoking and entertaining ... it is an achievement." to The Sunday Age urging its readers not to buy the book because reading it would mean "they will never take anyone under thirty seriously. Ever again."

As a sub-plot, I was waging my own generational war with my publicist, Brendan O'Dwyer. While we ultimately learnt much from each other, I was in no mood to be told by a sixty-something bloke that "it simply wasn't possible" to organise a series of debates and launch events in Australia with just six weeks' notice. It had taken me a year to be convinced that he knew much more about the ABC than I did, but I was obviously yet to convince him that when I said I would do "whatever it took" to make the book work, I meant it. I would do five launch parties if it killed me.

 

IT WAS IN this frame of mind that i entered blog-land with a temper twinned with Courtney Love's. One PhD compared me with Adolf Hitler on the New Matilda website. I cut him off at the knees. Phil Scott wrote: "If he thinks baby boomers have all the jobs. Just try getting work as an underwear model when you're sixty." I replied "Ouch. Damn. There goes my whole thesis." Priscilla Stone was told: "Frankly that's a really stupid comment Priscilla ... I don't feel the slightest guilt in making such a harsh comment ..." Respected academic John Quiggin was soon to learn about his "lazy academic twenty-six-weeks-of-holidays-a-year arse".

None of it was dignified; much of it was misspelt. And yet I felt at the time that it was the only way to stay afloat at the end of a project that I had nearly abandoned in July 2004. I had drafted an email to my commissioning editor, Tony Moore, explaining why I wanted to withdraw the manuscript I had rushed to complete in three months. It was no good. The best thing for it was to make some cash from the effort via newspaper articles. I never sent it because he broke his silence the next day with encouraging words.

And, as I assured my publisher, Tracey Ellery, as she gripped my forearm after one of her delicious home-cooked barbecues, I'm glad I didn't.

There were only two things that genuinely hurt me in the process. The first was Diana Bagnall – a writer I respected – calling my book "the biggest dummy spit ever" in The Bulletin. The other was my boss, Sir Gus O'Donnell, the head of the UK Civil Service, pointedly leaving me out of a thank-you speech at a reception to mark his first six months in office.

Just as I was clearly worn down by it all, and unable to maintain a smile, a female friend bluntly asked me: "Well, what did you expect?" I expected more sympathy. And I realised I didn't deserve it.

Discretion may be the better part of valour, but it's not much use in the generation game. I bought the deal, and I paid the price. Frustration, passion and dismissal all work. But they are two-way streets. Or maybe roundabouts?

There is a bit of me that resents their flamboyance and timing. They did "it" so simply and with such cool. It's not so much the scale of achievement that awes – it's the ease. Armed with optimism, they reshaped their world in a way we can't. Too many facts and consequences get in the way in today's more accountable grind. Too many developing economies want their turn. Too many ecosystems can't take any more pressure. Too many of their spoilt brat kids now want a piece of the pie. Too much, too bad, too late.

 

BUT IF THE jealousy simmered and the anger boiled on the page, it was positively frozen in real life by the time of my book tour. "Reasonable Ryan comes to town" could have been the strapline. Anti-climax, the review.

Even Stan Zemanek, after a warm-up of white wine, vodka and lefty friends who thought him truly vile, could not bait me. Fat jokes seemed unfair; he sent me roses and a dinner voucher – but not the late-night hug I had been looking for the month before. While Stan Zemanek surprised, it was Hugh Mackay who humbled. To even appear on the same stage was an honour and challenge, and there was a definite "wow" factor when he told a Sydney book crowd that he really thought I "was trying to increase understanding between the generations". Closer to home, being able to dedicate my Sydney launch to my parents made me proud to be their son.

While some commentators may not feel the need to defer to reality, individuals from my generation challenging their history and demography ignore them.

My generation may not want spokespeople (Natasha Stott-Despoja in 1999 aspic, the last image of a generational spokesperson). But no generation of Australians has been happy to go without owning its homes. There has never been a more educated generation. Every employer above the minimum wage demands technology skills today. And Baby Boomers enjoy the good life too much to keep their good jobs forever. So they might hold on long enough to squeeze Generation X, but for those of us born later, life is not going to be tough forever.

As they say, though, you're only young once – so history can wait a while. I've slotted back into generation expat and have a summer of mini-breaks to take. The only question is how I will manage to fit my Masters swimming club and Friday nights at Rollerdisco around them. 

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