I wrote this about Australia's 'cultural cringe' (Mark II 1987-Present).
There have only been a few places I’ve felt the locals love their books, their poems, their films, their writers, their playwrights, their composers, their actors and singers and painters. Sitting outside the Vienna State Opera in a misty rain, watching Wagner, the wet hair (and bums), the stereophonic Rhine maidens, the Blitz-like camaraderie between viewers sharing wine and white sausage; or Paris, Rimbaud’s ‘Le Bateau ivre’ painted on a wall close to Saint Sulpice Church (a stranger telling me French kids are made to learn this and other poems at school); Dublin, anything to do with Dublin and James Joyce; walking the streets of Prague, in the shadow of the castle, or standing, head stooped, in shop 22 of the Golden Lane as Kafka stokes the fire and writes ‘A Country Doctor’. Real, visceral, warmed-air and finger-tingling (for me, at least) experiences. Back in Vienna’s Literature House, talking to Brecht in Berlin’s Dorotheenstadt cemetery, the whisky-smooth voice of the guide leading me around Stevenson’s Edinburgh.
As I return, and try to feel the same way here, in Australia, in Adelaide, in 2021. The feeling that a story, a song, can mean so much, can mean something, can mean anything to us. I’m writing because I feel we’ve entered the Cultural Cringe Mark II. I’m writing because I feel we’ve descended, again, into a haze of other people’s dreams. I’m writing because I’m worried that another generation of Australian kids are growing up along Wilshire Boulevard (now scattered with villages of the homeless, strangely enough, it’s we Australians who have become culturally dislocated). I’m writing because we don’t worry about Australian films, and they go barely watched, or unwatched, and the telly keeps flogging more American dreams because they’re flasher and louder and more colourful and some corporate goon can co-brand burgers and kiddy toys. And these stories would, will, certainly must contain people we recognise from the down the street, Uncle Harry from The Sullivans, the loner who sits on the edge of a school yard reading a book, refusing to participate in the Great Australian Frenzy (that, mostly, stands in for what other countries call a culture), all the time, an anaemic, second-rate media shifting any hint of spotlight away from outstanding actors, singers, playwrights and authors onto the usual hamstrings and variations on the Spiderman trope.
Point being, we could do something about this. We could program the plays, we could give more screens to film-makers, we (our political ‘visionaries’, our arts ministers) could read local poetry in zoos (as Donald Dunstan once did), we could subsidise small publishers that keep the fritz-smelling stories alive (instead of making them beg, like small, hairless dogs, at the table of Greater Visions). We could accept that culture needs a hand-up, that (in such a small, culturally-diverse country) the ‘make-it-pay’ model doesn’t work for plays, ballets, classical concerts, that this area needs proper support, needs funding, even if it doesn’t buy votes, even if the weariest journalists resort to the usual ‘elitist’ tags to summon the blokes to sell a few newspapers (which, in their death throes, discount the very values they once claimed to serve). Why, I wonder, does Australia luxuriate in its own indifference? Make a culture of this itself, celebrate it, steel itself against the forces of change that night make us braver, wiser, more generous, more understanding of our own history, our strengths and weaknesses, our nastiness, our glories and glimpses of humanity. We could, at last, become something our ancestors imagined – a civilisation of the first order, so proud of its own achievements it paints them on apartment walls, or broadcasts them the length of shopping malls.
Don’t believe me? Go into a typical Year 8 classroom and ask the kids what they’re reading, ask them to name a few Australian writers, ask them to name a film they’ve seen in the last year that doesn’t involve a Marvel superhero, ask them (by extension) how any of these artforms help them through their day, help them understand how people function, why their uncle and aunt don’t get along. Ask them what it means to be Australian. Or, alternatively, ask them what it’s like to live in a (pre-1960s) culture-of-other-people-and-other-places, where books were published overseas, where we needed festivals to focus attention on proper musicians and composers and poets, where there was no idea that we were unique, and could tell our own stories just as well as Ealing Studios or MGM.
Welcome to Datsunland! This is a second hand car yard of the speeches I've given, the columns I've written, the essays, micro-fiction and micro-thoughts that have passed through my small, shy brain. Also, stuff so strange no newspapers, websites or publishers want them.