Australia continues to undersell its own culture

An exhibition at the Royal Academy challenges the old Australian narrative of misunderstanding and wilful blindness.

Australia
Royal Academy, London W1

“They call her a young country, but they lie,” wrote the poet A D Hope. You’ve probably never heard of Hope, or worried away at the problems in his vicious, fabulous poem “Australia”. Is Australia young? If you check the history books, or rock up at the Royal Academy’s current exhibition, you’d have to say so: a mere 225-year-old whippersnapper. Ask any of the Aboriginal people whose ancestors were dispossessed after 1788 and you start to understand why Hope writes of liars. But it must be said that they aren’t the only sidelined Australians: why, given his fierce, beautiful writing and status as one of Australia’s foremost 20th-century poets, does Hope remain unknown to you?

This is the Australian narrative, a chain of misunderstanding and wilful blindness, from the original inhabitants failing to comprehend doom dropping anchor to the sailors who saw nothing in their destination save its emptiness and potential as a prison. Then there are the English, far away, who may or may not have called it a young country, because the fact is, they didn’t call her much at all, and still don’t. Australia’s ambiguous status, as both Europe’s last cultural outpost and a place with hardly anything at all in common with Europe, has made her maturation slow and difficult.

The RA is celebrating this process and the peculiar difficulties Australia is still trying to overcome. It is hard to be a great nation, artistically speaking, when your cities aren’t quite Rome or Paris. And Australia is both the most urban of countries – city-dwellers make up 85 per cent of its population, one of the highest proportions of urbanites of any country anywhere – and the least so, because, let’s face it, her cities are burrs on the beast.

Yet aggravation and ambiguity can be inspirational. Even William Westall, the artist on Matthew Flinders’s 1801 exploratory expedition, was nourished by his hatred of this new country. Light pours on to his canvases like a visitation. Westall left but plenty stayed, and their problems simply grew more complex. The attraction that mid-20th-century modernists such as Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan felt to Europe, and their struggle with that influence, are part of what is Australian about their art. It is indifference that makes for mediocrity and Australia is not an easy place to be indifferent to.

It can, however, be a hard place to translate. The scale is different and so are the preoccupations. The cattle-killing droughts in Judith Wright’s poem “South of My Days”, or the swagman in Banjo Paterson’s “Waltzing Matilda”, are utterly Australian; so are the dreamings in Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s and Uta Uta Tjangala’s paintings, or the “vast astonishment” of which Rickety Kate wrote, referring to the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Australia has done herself no favours by refusing to acknowledge her differences. In Melbourne in 1889, the legendary (in Australia only) “9 by 5 Impression Exhibition” featured nearly 200 tiny paintings, many on cigar-box lids; the avowed aim of their creators was to capture light, as Whistler had done half a world away with his Nocturnes. Some of those works, by Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton, are on display at the RA. Trying to fit this hulking continent on top of a cigar box is insane: angels and pinheads spring to mind. Yet Aussies continued to measure their work by European standards and, generally, find it wanting. “Above our writers – and other artists – looms the intimidating mass of Anglo-Saxon culture,” wrote the critic A A Phillips glumly in 1950, christening the problem “the Cultural Cringe”. The Royal Academy has certainly underestimated Australia, similarly trying to fit the continent into too small a space. The gallery has form on this kind of sweeping treatment – its 1995 “Africa” show triggered outrage – but the curators are also responding to Australian self-deprecation, not to mention the internal incoherence of a nation founded on theft by people who were there mostly as punishment for stealing.

Theft is the theme I would have chosen for this show. From Nolan’s terrific images of the outlaw Ned Kelly to Tracey Moffatt’s photography and Robert Campbell Jr’s cartoonish 1988 painting Abo history (facts), there’s plenty great material that fits.

It is no revelation to suggest that Australia needs to come to terms with its past if it wants a prouder future, but it seems possible that one day, the kind of Englishman who prides himself on knowing something about German expressionism or French surrealism would feel a touch sheepish (pun intended) never to have heard of Australian modernism. Hope was writing in 1939: this talk of white and black, young and old, north and south won’t do any more. Terra Australis is closer than we thought. Europe must screw up its ageing eyes against that bright sunlight and take a better look.

“Australia” runs until 8 December. Details: royalacademy.org.uk

Beyond indifference: a scene from Wim Wenders's 1991 film Until The End of The World. Image: Getty

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

Getty
Show Hide image

Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism