A dream place

At Home in Australia

Peter Conrad <em>Thames & Hudson, 256pp, £24.95</em>

ISBN 0500511411

I wonder what the senior curator of photography at the National Gallery of Australia had in mind when she invited Peter Conrad to write a book about the gallery's photograph collection? Conrad is a polymathic and articulate Oxford don learned in many aspects of art. Perhaps she expected a scholarly catalogue raisonne, or a glossy television-style commentary in the contemporary Oxbridge manner. What she got is, in my view, one of the most original and fascinating books ever written about Australia.

Pictures from the collection, from the earliest photographic times to the present day, are scattered through the volume, and Conrad analyses each one just as he might the pictures of a gallery exhibition. But he extrapolates from these images of Australia parallel critiques of the country itself, its landscapes, its people, its constructions and its history, to make the whole intricate device an almost encyclopaedic examination of Australianness. Conrad is himself a transplanted Tasmanian, and he draws not only on his own childhood memories but also on the inherited memories of his family. At Home in Australia is a subtle distillation of responses to a country of bewildering complexity.

First, and always in this book, comes the landscape. A recurrent presence in the book is Uluru, the haunting outcrop of the outback that we used to call - in the days before the second dreamtime - Ayers Rock. Conrad often figuratively encounters its arcane hulk as he meditates his way through Australia. The crouching form of a sunbather reminds him of it, and so does Sydney Harbour Bridge; and what he calls the "negative sublimity" of Australia seems to be embodied in its massive presence, at once sacred, peculiar and vastly impassive. Similarly, the aboriginal peoples, to whom the rock is sacred, haunt the pages of the book, whether as fugitive figures of the bush or as pitifully deracinated folk, dressed up in floral frocks and buttoned waistcoats at the hands of their self-designated civilisers.

But Conrad also buoyantly illustrates the burgeoning, multi-ethnic culture of Australia, and hardly a national icon - animate or inanimate - does not figure in these pages. Here are, to pick a few almost at random, the swagman, the two-up school, suburbia, Dame Edna Everage, the Tasmanian Devil, Bondi beach, Voss, sheep-shearers, Anzacs, the Ned Kelly gang, the Sydney Opera House, Luna Park, life-savers, D H Lawrence, Neighbours, bowls players in white skirts and lace-up shoes, Burke and Wills, gum trees and kangaroos, Germaine Greer, Australia Day, R S L clubs, Peter Carey, Crocodile Dundee and Uluru.

It is all here, in all its energy and splendour, and it is a stunning reminder of how much has been created and achieved in so short a time, upon such an unlovely slab of land, so alone among the oceans. Much of it has been brought to fruition in our own time, too. Conrad tells us that when he left his country for England in 1968 he was "running away", but that when he returned on a visit at the start of this century he found himself "looking around a country that no one could possibly want to leave".

And yet, and yet . . . While his book leaves a feeling that is far from despondent, it is insidiously melancholy. The land itself and its original people are sad, and all the gusto, merriment, bawdy and enterprise that have reached Australia from elsewhere still seem to me like impositions upon its native temperament. "Are you the lady with our memories?" an Aboriginal man once asked of a custodian of tribal photographs, and still the sense of usurpation, of encroachment, even of voyeurism, taints the most exuberant images of Australia's historic success.

This is not just the inherent vulgarity of colonialism. It is the sense one gets of one species unloading itself upon another, with all its own paraphernalia of beliefs and abilities - rather as though spacemen from earth were to confront the inhabitants of another planet and unthinkingly abase them. I always feel that, rather as those cyber-travellers might in the end fade away, at least in fiction, so the immigrant tribes of Australia are still embedded shallowly in its soil and might one day be blown off as dust in the wind. It's an irrational feeling, but then Australia is a dream place, after all.

It certainly doesn't always seem so, and this book is full of wide-awake ideas and images to raise or revive the spirits. There is plenty of humour, lots of excitement, some very beautiful images, both photographic and literary. But just as, for my tastes, Australian seafood is paradoxically flaccid and salt-less, so for me there is to the whole Australian presence something essentially laconic, a lay-about, sprawling, sunbathing sort of element. "The sun", says Conrad, "is the opium of the Australian masses", and he repeatedly contrasts the easygoing, fatalistic style of the Australian pioneers with the violently forceful optimism of Americans.

The book itself strikes me as very Australian. Its one fault, to my mind, is a very Australian one - an inability to wear its learning lightly. But its showy brilliance is Australian, too, and if I have never heard of synaestheticism before, wonder what "deliquesced" means and don't know the rules of bricolage, I can only marvel at Conrad's understanding of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, wowserism, corrugated iron, two-up, matiness, Everage, Uluru and the whole bloody bag of tricks.

Jan Morris's latest book is A Writer's World: travels 1950-2000 (Faber & Faber)