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

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution