My sunlit trip to the Barossa Valley was overshadowed by the discovery upon returning to Adelaide that I'd received yet another abusive e-mail from Janet Reid of Colchester. I can't recall the precise terms of her previous communication, but it concerned my one-time association with revolutionary socialism and involved the phrase "complete and utter sell-out". On this occasion Janet had chosen to be abusive about my recent column on Australia: "Your pompous account of a tourist trip rarely rose above the level of a fifth-form essay and revealed a degree of ethnocentrism which would be alarming in an African bushman."
Even though I managed to put Janet's charges to the back of my head as I spent my last day swimming in between the jellyfish at Glenelg, I was sufficiently hurt by this renewed attack upon my integrity to switch on my reading light somewhere over the Bay of Bengal and construct a reasoned reply. I began by drawing attention to the implicit racism of my correspondent's reference to "bushmen", and then went on to argue that I was not in the least insensitive to the distinctiveness of alien cultures. No doubt, I was as incapable of divorcing myself from my essential Britishness as anyone else of my generation and background, but this did not mean that I denied the "intrinsic validity of cultures other than my own".
But somewhere near Baku in the middle of the 18-hour rite of passage which marks one's transition from cosmic Australian sunlight to insular British fog, I realised this was one e-mail I could never send. Not only did it contain appalling evidence of my pomposity about which Janet complained but it was also, at least in relation to Australia, profoundly untrue. For no matter how I'd tried during my three weeks away to allow that the white Australians I'd met had a vibrant culture of their own, I'd never quite been able to dismiss the thought that it was undermined by the defensive way in which it was so recurrently asserted.
I blame Howard Jacobson's In the Land of Oz. Some travel books are so persuasive that no matter how often you blink and try to focus upon raw reality, they still wriggle their way like electrodes deep into your optic nerve. Twenty years ago I returned from Sicily without one thought about the people and the country which hadn't been informed by D H Lawrence's Sea and Sardinia, and more recently spent an entire fortnight in Venice refusing to look at a painting or monument without first clambering inside the aesthetic straitjacket provided by Ruskin's Stones of Venice.
Anyone who knows Jacobson's exceptional book will remember its thoroughgoing liberality and persistent recognition of cultural diversity and integrity. The author's observations about the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of apartheid endured by the Aborigines are as telling as his reluctant admiration for the stoicism of the Lutheran colonialists.
But there's a weasel sentence in the book which kept returning to me every time I found myself in conversation with white Australians about the glories of their country. As they told me about its beauty, climate and vitality, and I dutifully reciprocated with stories of the horrors of English urban life, these words drummed through my head: "Sometimes Australians can make you feel like a space-gaoler, responsible for leaving them marooned on some beautiful but futile star, a million light years from home." I don't imagine that my happy subservience to Jacobson's insights will do anything to placate Janet. But at least she now knows where to send her next e-mail.