On being Australian

MY FATHER, ALEX Carey, a fourth-generation Australian, was a lefty and an activist, who worked long hours as a university lecturer. But despite – or perhaps because of – being a largely absent father, he was my childhood hero. I marched with him in peace protests and listened to him address anti-war rallies; I wore a Troops Out badge to Sutherland North Primary School and showed photos of napalmed Vietnamese peasants to friends whose older brothers had been conscripted. Like my father, I exerted little influence.

‘Australians are sheep,’ Dad bleated regularly, as his earnest anti-war appeals fell on deaf ears. He had spent the first thirty years of his life on the family sheep station in Western Australia and several years as shearer; he knew a thing or two about sheep.

In 1987 my father committed suicide. He died, in large part, from a faulty belief system, one that put complete faith in politics as the means to change. As a trained psychologist, he should have known better.

My response to his sudden death was to swing wildly in the other direction, to disengage from traditional political movements, much like many of the twenty-somethings I teach today. I am interested in the personal and the anecdotal, the small frame rather than the big picture, the psychological rather than the political. We can’t attempt to talk about our social and political systems without trying to understand the frail psychology that underlies them – in particular, the Australian psyche.

Is there such a thing? Wouldn’t an examination of the Australian psyche inevitably fall into wild generalisations and stereotyping? Perhaps, but it is worth considering this observation by Anglo–Irish cultural and literary critic, Terry Eagleton: ‘If a group of people have shared roughly the same material conditions over long periods of time, it would be astonishing if they were not to manifest some cultural and psychological traits in common. Only idealist and liberal individualists find this hard to swallow. This does not mean that such people will all be clones of one another; but habits of mind, patterns of behaviour and emotional dispositions are bound up with the way we live with others.’

Habits of mind, patterns of behaviours and emotional dispositions are what interest me when discussing Australia and Australians. The following are some thoughts and observations offered as a contribution to the conversation about who we are and where we’re going, a conversation that is as uncomfortable as it is urgent.

MY PRESENT HOUSEHOLD consists of an Irishman, two half-Mexicans and me. As a result of spending my life surrounded by people from other places, I’ve developed the habit of scribbling down their impressions of Australia and the Australian character. (This is one of the ways in which I display my innate Australianness – by an over-interest in what others think of us.) Here are some of my notes:

Australians are just Brits by the beach – Irish academic, resident of five years;

Australians don’t understand the art of conversation; everything is adversarial, especially between men and women – visiting French writer;

Australians always look like they’re dressed in pyjamas – Italian tourist;

Australians are very tenacious – American architect, resident of two years;

Australians say sorry a lot – Irish backpacker;

Australians are like raw human beings – Irish resident of fifteen years.

As a writer, I also naturally scribble down notes from books. One of my current favourites is The Australian Character (Collins), a 1968 hardback of quotations illustrated by Bruce Petty, a gift from my ninety-year-old aunt. It contains many gems, such as this from Marcus Clarke in 1890: ‘The Australians will be a fretful, clever, perverse, irritable race.’

‘Fretful’, the first of Clarke’s adjectives, is the opposite of the image of the laconic and laid-back Australian and is in clear contradiction of our constant claim: ‘No worries’ or ‘No problem’. Australians are more fretful than we like to admit. If we aren’t worried, why do we bring up the word so often? And what is it exactly that we are fretting about? Are we nervous because we have realised, as economist Ross Garnaut suggests in Dog Days (Black Inc., 2013), that there is a limit to how much we can dig out of the ground, and our collective luck might be running out? Or is it something less materialistic?

In the ABC TV series Keating, the former prime minister’s final remark was: ‘The biggest issue facing Australia today is a psychological one.’ A well-known historian suggested to me recently that the deeper problem for Australians is ‘an insufficient sense of self’. But how can we even begin to think about these things if, as George Megalogenis asserts in The Australian Moment (Penguin, 2012), we ‘genuinely fear self-reflection’?

IN 1985, GEORGE Burchett, son of the journalist Wilfred, and his Bul-garian wife, Ilza, moved to Australia. George was born in Vietnam, raised in Moscow and educated in Phnom Penh and Paris. He had met Ilza in art school in Sofia. What shocked them on their arrival in Australia were the rules. ‘Everywhere we went there was a sign with rules. At the pool there was an entire list: No running, no diving, no bombing, no breaststroke in the fast lane.’

Australia is a little obsessed with rules: with imposing them, enforcing and policing them. (I was recently fined $106 for ‘not parking sufficiently within the lines’ – my Mexican friends said no one in Mexico would take such an infringement seriously.) And yet we are also obsessed with finding creative ways to transgress rules, particularly with that most Australian of concepts: the rort.

In his recent essay ‘Letter from Sydney’, New Zealand writer Martin Edmond, a Sydney resident for over thirty years, observed our perverse relationship with authority: ‘For it is the case that the much vaunted larrikinism, the disrespect for authority, the cheerful insolence of many Australians, under pressure, subsides and an entirely different demeanour is revealed: anxiety in the face of the power of the law, a great fear of the consequences of the breaking of rules, a disposition to knuckle under at the least sign of official disapproval. They will laugh behind their hands so long as they are not discovered doing so; and when they are, more often than not, they tug the forelock.’

This strange, contradictory relationship with authority shows up in our offices and on our streets, and also in our creative and intellectual behaviour.

I have long been an aficionado, as well as a practitioner, of the personal essay. In 2006, when I asked publisher and literary critic Ivor Indyk why the essay does not have a strong tradition in Australia compared to the US, he responded:

The question of authority is really important in the case of the essay because an essay is like a conversation, in a sense, but the person who’s writing the essay is obviously leading the conversation. So unless you give that person the authority to record their impressions and to interpret them, and you’re willing to accept those interpretations, then it’s simply not going to work. And I think the Americans have an easier relationship to authority than we do; as the greatest power it’s easy for their intellectuals to feel that they are talking from a position of power. And for an intellectual – heaven forbid that you actually use that term in this country – you often feel that you’re whistling into the wind. So I think that’s important, the question of authority.

Our uneasy relationship with authority finds expression in our zealous commitment to egalitarianism. If all people and opinions are equal, then there is no room for giving authority to a person or allowing them to lead the conversation. Perhaps the upside to this particular habit of mind is that it allows room for an unconventional style of speaking out, as demonstrated by people such as Germaine Greer, Dennis Altman and Julian Assange. (Indeed, another adjective often levelled at Australians is ‘blunt’; George Pell was recently described by the Guardian as ‘belligerent and blunt’.)

Our relationship with authority also influences our relationship with our leaders. In a country that is obsessively anti-hierarchy, anti-class system and anti-anybody who is seen as up themselves, how can anyone lead? After five prime ministers in five years and being described by BBC correspondent Nick Bryant as the ‘coup capital of the democratic world’, can Australians be justly accused of taking a certain satisfaction in cutting down those who dare to be ‘on high’? And yet there is a paradox: our anti-authority temperament is also vulnerable to political messiahs, eager for them to take responsibility, but investing in them so much hope that we are inevitably disappointed.

Our distrust of authority and leaders means we are suspicious of experts. Like adolescents who refuse offers of advice, we only want to listen to our peers. We have no time for know-it-alls (even if they do know it all) because our egalitarian principles dictate a preference for opinions from ‘real’ people. My sister worked for years on SBS’s Insight program, which once relied on a panel of experts to discuss an issue. After much pressure, the format was converted to an audience of ordinary Australians, making it much more popular, if less insightful. Accusations of dumbing down have similarly been levelled at the ABC’s Q&A.

Our perverse relationship with authority and belief in the ideal of a flat social structure means we also take responsibility for policing each other. In my house we call it getting ‘gimletted’. A gimlet is a little spyglass that, according to folklore, wowsers used to spy on their transgressing neighbours. I think of the woman on the bus yesterday who crossly pointed out to a couple of happily holidaying children that they were sitting in the seats reserved for the infirm. Or the Australian woman in Abu Dhabi who felt compelled to publicise on Facebook her neighbour’s crime of parking in a disabled zone. Or the time, when as a teenager, the next-door neighbour reported to the police my pitiful attempt at marijuana cultivation and my mother took the rap, claiming she was growing hemp for ‘medicinal reasons’.

THE EXPATRIATE WRITER Randolph Stow was deeply formed by his Western Australian childhood, an upbringing that became the basis for three of his most quintessentially Australian novels: Tourmaline (Penguin, 1963), The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (Penguin, 1965), Midnite: The Story of a Wild Colonial Boy (Penguin, 1967). (Indeed, Tourmaline encapsulates the Australian ambivalence towards leaders and political messiahs and could be considered more relevant now than when it was first published.)

Stow also spent more than half of his life outside Australia. As an insider and an outsider, his views on the Australian character are still valuable. During his last visit to Australia in 1973, Stow gave a lecture in Melbourne entitled ‘To Fix the Identity of a Raw Democracy’. In it he observed: ‘That Australia has a character, and a strongly marked one, is obvious both to itself and outsiders… Visitors to Australia are struck by the solidity of the Australian character, its lack of doubts.’

This may well help to explain why Australians are reluctant to self-reflect, or at least reluctant to admit to self-reflection. If you don’t doubt yourself, you don’t need to ruminate or self-speculate. Self-reflecting involves a flexibility and openness that is the opposite of Stow’s ‘solidity’. Whereas Australians typically boast of a physical fearlessness, when it comes to the intellectual we are curiously self-conscious and timid. The ‘archetypal Australian’, Stow said, is ‘a self-proclaimed adventurer who shies away from any adventure of the mind’.

As a people, we are still profoundly suspicious of anything metaphysical – of theorisers, philosophers and other intellectuals, despite having produced influential contemporary thinkers, such as Peter Singer and Inga Clendinnen. Anyone disposed to navel-gazing or self-scrutiny is at risk of falling into that most reviled of categories: the wanker. There is no worse sin than being accused of being pretentious.

It is perhaps a truism that we pride ourselves on being pragmatic rather than philosophical – presumably because pragmatism has concrete outcomes whereas philosophy is all talk. As if talk, in itself, was essentially useless. Doing is what really matters. And preferably doing in silence. The ideal man in Australia, says Stow, is the ‘tight-lipped horseman’.

‘It is not unusual in frontier-style communities to make a virtue of the strong, silent stoicism of the male,’ poet Fay Zwicky says in her essay ‘Speeches and Silences’,[i] ‘leaving the female to flounder without the longed-for verbal signposts needed for the articulation of feelings.’ DH Lawrence described the style of Australian communication in his novel Kangaroo: ‘Each [man] knows in silence, reciprocates in silence and the talk as a rule just babbles on, on the surface.’ But the problem is that the silent man, by continually ‘holding most of himself aside’ eventually goes ‘blank in his withheld self’. And Zwicky believes that ‘We have developed a rhetoric that stands for human speech, but the deepest issues – metaphysical, psychological, spiritual and moral – are put aside.’

Our scorn for talkers and preference for doers is even evident in our satires. In Utopia, ABC TV’s send-up of nation building, the villains are the talkers and the good guys are the doers (or at least, those trying to get things done). We laugh every time Rob Sitch’s character addresses his colleagues as ‘nation builders’, as though the very essence of the joke is that we can’t take seriously the concept of building a nation.

‘BUT WHAT IS it, this Australian character?’ asked Randolph Stow back in 1973. ‘It may have a strong flavour, yet its nature remains elusive. We may already have a character which foreigners notice. But that deeper thing, an identity, that is only half-formed.’

According to Stow, this is partly because ‘in spite of convicts, gold rushes, bushrangers and genocidal onslaughts, [Australia] has always been what Douglas Pike called it: the Quiet Continent… It is a country which has never been “convulsed” by anything, except the thought of quick money.’

Money, and how we manage it, is exactly what George Megalogenis believes brought us to ‘the Australian moment’.[ii] ‘We tested and perfected our pragmatic version of deregulation a generation before the rest of the world awoke to the dangers of placing too much faith in the zeroes that globalisation can temporarily add to national income. For the first time in our history, we didn’t want to be anyone or anywhere else.’ A moment, then, for asserting a stronger sense of national selfhood?

Stow uses the philosopher Ernest Renan’s definition of a nation: ‘The consciousness of nationality lies in this: having done great things together, wanting to do more.’ Then he adds: ‘I wonder if we quite qualify as having such a thing.’

What Megalogenis refers to as our ‘great escape’ from the global financial crisis might have constituted ‘such a thing’, but apparently we didn’t seize this opportunity to celebrate Renan-style. Megalogenis’s book ends thus: ‘[Rudd] couldn’t convince his own side, let alone the Australian people, that they had achieved something special together.’

Stow’s vision, almost half a century ago, was that artists and intellectuals – rather than politicians and economists – would lead the country to a stronger sense of self. ‘It is from this strongly marked, enigmatic and (I emphasise) incomplete character that Australian artists and intellectuals in general are creating and will create the evolved Australian identity of the future… In the evolution of that identity, artists, historians and intellectuals have and will have a very large part to play.’

More than forty years later, Stow’s prophesy is yet to eventuate. ‘Tight-lipped horsemen’ are still celebrated over any artist, historian or intellectual. The recent death of horse trainer Bart Cummings, one of our ‘national treasures’, caused an outpouring of grief and admiration. On the other hand, when Randolph Stow died – one of Australia’s greatest writers and poets, and also, I might add, a competent horseman – it took the Sydney Morning Herald three weeks to print an obituary. It is difficult to remember the last time a writer merited the honour of a state funeral.

In fact, if George Brandis’s National Program for Excellence in the Arts was a measure of the Abbott government’s respect for artists, it is instructive that writers and poets appear to be unworthy of support. The initial guidelines made no mention of literature and will not fund individuals, so writers are out of the picture. One well-known novelist called this ‘a pernicious marginalisation and humiliation and degradation of our art and our profession. A slow and gradual and terrible silencing is taking place.’

Is it paranoia to suspect a government is attempting to diminish our voices – voices that are already so muffled as to be barely audible? Or are our fellow Australians unwilling to listen?

‘No artist can work without an audience willing to co-operate,’ wrote Bill Pearson in his 1952 essay ‘Fretful Sleepers: A Sketch of New Zealand Behaviour and its Implications for the Artist’, his enquiry into the Kiwi psyche. ‘If he is to be honest his audience must be honest; they must be prepared to speculate about themselves. This is something New Zealanders will not do.’

Pearson’s compatriot, Martin Edmond, observes a similar tendency: ‘I think of Australia as a nation of men in shorts, who generally refer to each other as “boys” – as if no one ever really grew up and no one ever really wanted to either. A nation of Peter Pans and the poor constricted Wendys, who look after the lost boys. The desire to avoid taking responsibility runs deep here, as do the strategies to avoid self-knowledge.’[iii]

WHILE WALKING ALONG St George’s Terrace in downtown Perth last year, I stopped and read the pavement plaques installed as part of Western Australia’s sesquicentennial commemoration of European settlement. There was Lang Hancock (Miner); Graham Farmer (Footballer); I even stepped on my great-great-grandfather Dr John Ferguson (Vigneron). But there was no plaque for Randolph Stow or any other poet. (Although Stow is mostly known for his novels, he wanted to be remembered for his poetry.) The only gesture towards the arts I found was Rolf Harris (Entertainer). That plaque has since been removed.

My father and Randolph Stow were born in Geraldton, Western Australia, and left for similar reasons. Although both were the only sons of families from farming backgrounds, they rejected the life of the wide, open landscape – that cliché of Australianness – for the life of the open mind.

My father exchanged White Peak, his family’s three-thousand-acre sheep station, for a cramped office on the fourteenth floor of the UNSW School of Psychology; Stow preferred his tiny, cramped terrace on the damp Essex coast to the perpetually sunny shores of Geraldton. Both spent their lives dedicated to the internal and the intellectual. As Australians at that time, this was a hugely difficult decision and cost them dearly, both personally and professionally. My father not only gave up the sheep station that his father had worked his entire life to establish, he also refused the offer of my mother’s inheritance – a little vineyard in the Swan Valley known as Houghton. In those days, such choices were almost unthinkable. As Stow wrote to me in 2009: ‘Of course, Alex’s abandonment of White Peak caused a bit of a sensation. The idea that an only son could walk out of a place like White Peak was incomprehensible in our district.’

PERHAPS HAVING A half-formed identity isn’t altogether a negative. Perhaps this gives us space to move. Maybe an ‘insufficient sense of self’, particularly in an immigrant nation, provides the freedom to create a fuller self of the future. The amorphous and liberating character of the shape-shifter might be the identity that fits.

‘Australianness is changing, transcendent, impossible to capture, like a genie who’s escaped from her bottle and won’t be put back,’ says author and historian Anna Lanyon. ‘This is our greatest strength. We need to dispute those (usually politicians) who still flog the old tight-lipped horseman image on Anzac Day each year… Indefinable is best, and long may it be so.’[iv]

I work with undergraduates, the young Australians who will shape the future. In them I can see a consciousness that is slowly shifting, that no longer believes in the old myths and no longer feels so constricted by geography, by the mateship gospel or by the oppressive Anglo attitudes that I felt so keenly while growing up in the Sutherland Shire, and to some extent still exhibit. ‘You’re so white!’ my twenty-seven-year-old daughter complains, and she doesn’t mean the colour of my skin. Being brown and biracial, she feels as at home in Bangkok or Mexico as she does in Sydney. And although her great grandfather was an accomplished horseman who was wounded at Gallipoli, her travel plans don’t include a trip to Anzac Cove.

At my university we have recently been trialling a few different approaches with the first-year students because they are the ones most likely to drop out. One of the problems identified was that our young undergrads struggle to imagine their future selves. I have since introduced some creative-writing exercises including ‘A Letter to My Younger Self’ and ‘A Letter to my Future Self’. The latter has proved much harder than it sounds. And yet it might be something we can learn from. If we were going to write ‘A Letter to our Future Nation’, what would it say?

[i] In the book The Lyre in the Pawnshop: Essays on Literature and Survival 1974-1984, UWAP, 1986.

[ii] The Australian Moment – and I don’t want to say it again as that will make three ‘moment’s in one paragraph. It is in the chapter ‘ The Last Rich Standing’, p. 345.

[iii] Email exchange, with permission.

[iv] Email exchange, with permission.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review