Post-Colonial Canada and Australia #
Colonial cringe #
Comparative Canadian and Australian writing has an historical discontinuity. Originally competitive, but by the 1940’s the two countries developed into cooperative cultural exchanges, which appeared to wither by the 1990’s. Many writers lived or worked in both countries – P.K. Page, Francis Webb, Craig Powell, David Brooks, Janette Turner Hospital….. Academic exchanges were also encouraged through international writers festivals. Canadian-Australian writer awards also assisted literary exchanges, the prize being an Australian writer visiting Canada for a year and a Canadian one spending a year in Australia.
Participants include John Romeril (1976) and Les Murray (1984) from Australia and Alice Munro (1977) and Michael Ondaatje (1979) from Canada. Common ground has been the comparison of the residual effect of colonialism; the vulnerable dislocation of the settler and the trauma of the dispossession of the indigenous.
Points of convergence include: federations of continental dimensions, with sparse populations spread over vast spaces, a tyranny of distance, with strip population corridors, high concentrations of population in large cities, involved in adapting democratic parliamentary institutions into federal systems, strong economies, dealing with regional inequalities, some social problems due to uneasy relationships with dispossessed indigenous inhabitants and diverse mosaic of cultures due to mass immigrations. (ANU – 1981)
Both Canadians and Australians, from early times, felt they had to leave for Europe to be internationally recognised. Most publishing houses owned by foreigners who saw the Canadian market as too small.
Response to Indigenous Populations #
In the current climate of increased scepticism about who has the right to tell the stories of marginalised groups, us, telling their stories, risks accusations of appropriation or cultural imperialism. We are best to tell of our own lived experiences and allow them to tell theirs from their own perspectives and in their own voice. Europeans should allow indigenous story tellers to tell us their narratives as they see fit. Sally Morgan in My Place is more effective than even Patrick White or Thomas Keneally.
Both dealt with indigenous subjects so elusive and powerless, that despite all good intentions, in telling their stories, were appropriated to their own ends. Authentic stories can only be told from their perspective in their own voice as done by Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, in Canada, Sally Morgan, Stan Grant and Adam Goodes in Australia. – Final Quarter.
Both were subject to economic and cultural domination, Australia from Old world Europe, Canada from the USA.
Canada was not as monolithic due to a large French population of Quebec that continues to create a mosaic of a bilingual and bicultural nation. Margaret Atwood claims “The north is to Canada what the outback is to Australia.. It’s the place of journey or quest..the thing you go into to have the spiritual experience, a place of deeper reality of nature – a place of ordeal and vision”.
Paul Shepard, in Man in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Aesthetics of Nature writes:
- “To the desert go prophets and hermits; through desert go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality.”*
Howard Jacobsen speculates about this Australian paradox; “perhaps it was the pressures of boredom, that a stultification produced such diamonds, Exhilarating dullness, such beauty and exhilaration. He points out that Australia the contradiction that reveres its writers more than England does, yet Australians are suspicious of tall poppies”.
Colonial Australia has a larrikin nature about it. Jacobsen describes them as raw, hedonistic and bloody-minded, outlandish, hoodlums in the playground with a healthy disrespect for vaunted authority.
Ceridwen Dovey feels incapable of criticising Australia despite its shameful history of annihilation and racism, its growing intolerance of foreigners of certain kinds and colours. It is relevant that South Africa’s policy of Apartheid was influenced by Australian attitudes to its indigenous and white Australia Policy, enforced until the late 1960’s.
Our inhumane treatment of asylum seekers fits in neatly with all early atrocities.
Douglas Sladen, introducing his A Century of Australian Songs (1888): “This is the work of people who have meditated in the open air, and not, under lamp; and if its contents often want the polish of midnight oil, they are mostly a transcript from earth and air and sea and sky, and not from books.”
Both Colonies were sibling rivals competing for the attention of “parent culture”. Both attempted to ape British standards and culture hoping it ought to be interesting to Englishmen. Both responded to a frontier situation; the military garrison in Eastern Canada and the convict prison of Eastern Australia. Both, through invading expansion, trace the course of the frontier as nightmare, slowly evolving into a day dream. Canadians, perhaps because of its lack of convict status and closer proximity to England and America, saw itself as superior and more quickly advancing.
How else could you explain A.G. Stephen’s dismay when he discovered Canadians found the verse of Henry Lawson ‘disgustingly rough’?
This was soon countered by Murray Bail’s Homesickness:
“What about Canadians? Have you ever met an interesting Canadian? The comparisons, their anecdotes, Gerard pursed his lips.
“Yes, I’m not crazy about Canadians.”
“I don’t remember any,” Violet mysteriously cracked.
Both colonies acquired a “cultural cringe” introspection. Both became highly self-critical. Irving Layton’s From Colony to Nation: (Canadian)
A dull people without charm/ideas, a culture wanting comparison, capable of being ignored”.
A D. Hope: Australia:
The river of her immense stupidity
Whose boast is not: ‘we live’ but ‘we survive’,
Where second-hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.
Ronald Conway wrote books called The Great Australian Stupor (1971) and The Land of the Long Weekend 1978 ..that seared into the Australian psyche of self-examination re-enforcing Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country (1966). This earlier title sold nearly 70,000 copies, astonishing for a book of its type and as a work of social criticism was second in sales only to Horne’s better-known work.
Conway sought to diagnose what was wrong with the Australian mindset. Even the sacred cow of mateship copped a blast, along with feminism, which he said had gone too far, with the children the victims. He also attacked mindless materialism, and the public obsession with sexuality.
Describing the Australian society of the time in his autobiography, he wrote: “Men usually drank too much (and) fraternised awkwardly. Meanwhile, the women had to respond to domestic circumstances where both fullness of purse and largesse of feeling were usually in short supply."
The Land of the Long Weekend is a snapshot of Australia at a time when the economic and social changes were beginning to shape the society we have today.
“So many feckless young gods still need their Conway. This philosopher of human frailty was indeed a prophet that should be honoured in his own country." By GEOFF STRONG
Bogan Australians feature strongly on television and movies. Here is a partial list: #96, Roy and HG, Kath and Kim, The Castle, Struggle Street, Frayed
New Criticism #
New approaches to criticism upended ideas of uniformity and centralism reflecting the collapse of empires in order to discover their own languages, voice and context appropriate to post-colonial conditions. This fragmentation of monolithic thinking lead to the emergence of more independent thinking. No longer did critical interpretations have to conform to single systematic readings. We now have to deal with the multiplicity of views, words with nuanced, ambiguous and multifaceted meanings. As Eliot put it: “The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better. There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “
In 1989 a new book by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin entitled “The Empire Writes Back…1^(st) attributed to Salmon Rushdie” analysing the effects of decolonisation; the disintegration of these empires and the ramifications
When the Bulletin magazine first started in 1880, a sort of national character emerged from its pages and was celebrated: this was the “colourful” character, anti-authoritarian, self-sufficient, stoical, humorous and with a strong strain of anti-elitism. Think of CJ Dennis’s creation Ginger Mick in its pages – a “likeable rogue” and frequenter of slums and racetracks who was later killed at Gallipoli.
Both Nations eventually acquire a more wholesome and optimistic self- image through state intervention of government literature boards, the Canada Council or by Whitlam’s commitment to national unity through the Australia Council. Support for the Arts is seriously diminished by Liberal governments.
It appears that Labor governments place more values on cultural capital, while the Liberals display philistine values. As the riddle goes: “what’s the difference between Australia and Yoghurt? A: Yoghurt has culture”.
Post Colonialism in Australia #
Early composers were imitative and derivative. This means they depicted Australia in British terms. Painters portrayed Australian scenes as they were in England while writers modelled their descriptions of the landscape using the styles and language of English Writers.
For more info on Australian painters go to: http://www.cultureandrecreation.gov.au/articles/painters/
In Literature, Charles Harpur (1813 – 1868) who born in Windsor, grew up near the foothills of the Blue Mountains and then later settled on the South Coast
Henry Lawson was one of the first to write popularly about Australia using the Australian vernacular (language, idioms, slang…) and to describe the bush in realistic terms.
In Poetry early forms were copied from English poets and sensitive to English judgement. It was not until the 1890’s that Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson gave the Australian voice an airing in their bush ballads assisting us to express ourselves in our own terms. This early Australian writing is characterised by its “larrikin” energy, laconic style, sardonic humour, focus on life on the land and nationalist self promotion.
The ravages of the First World caused a retreat to more inward looking, insular or parochial concerns of our heroic past.
The first play, written, published and staged, by a native born playwright was **Charles Harpur’s The Bushranger, a verse play in five acts in 1853.
Advance Australia was staged at the Princess Theatre in Bendigo on Saturday 3 July 1920. It was written by a local Catholic priest, John Joseph Kennedy. The play was strongly anti-imperialist and intensely Australian, and the performance created a national furore. The drama follows a family’s experience during the First World War. The mother has lost her husband in the Boer War. She asks her sons *“Why should you offer yourselves as cannon fodder because Imperial megalomaniacs quarrel?” * Her sons, though, volunteer for service and one is killed.
A lengthy and positive review, highlighting pieces of dialogue, was published in the Bendigo Advertiser on Monday 5 July 1920. This precipitated a hastily organised protest meeting at the Bendigo Beehive Exchange that evening.
A larger ‘indignation’ meeting at the Bendigo Town Hall, carried a motion expressing “detestation and abhorrence of the disloyal sentiments uttered in the play… [and].. emphatic disapproval of the mendacious and dastardly reflections on the English soldiers.
One speaker, Chaplain Captain Dorman, attacked the play for depicting the English as degenerate and effeminate. Another speaker challenged the playwright’s view that the British looked upon Australians as an inferior class. A message was read from the Prime Minister Billy Hughes condemning the play as thinly disguised Sinn Fein propaganda. None of the speakers had seen the play and relied for their views on the newspaper report.
Meanwhile, outside the Town Hall, a large group of supporters of the play gathered and gave three cheers for Melbourne’s Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix, for Father Kennedy, for Home Rule and for Ireland.
The author, Father Kennedy, had himself served as a chaplain during the war and had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1916 for conspicuous gallantry in action at the Battle of Fromelles. He had repeatedly returned to the frontline trenches under heavy shell fire to rescue the wounded.
The Battle of Fromelles was a disaster, with 5,533 Australian casualties in a single night. Father Kennedy’s experiences of this futile carnage formed the basis of his play.
In the aftermath of the failed Irish Easter Rising of 1916, and the subsequent battle for Irish independence, it was a particularly volatile time in relations between the British Government and Irish republicans, and this was mirrored in Australia.
Robert Dixon writing on: Tim Winton, Cloudstreet and the field of Australian Literature in the Journal: Westerly, Imprint: 2005, Volume 50, November, Pages 240-260 has this to say:
In Australia it was not until 1950s that the universities began to teach Australian literature and to shape its values. In the case of the secondary school classroom, it was not until the 1960s or even 1970s that Australian novels, poems and plays made their appearance alongside Shakespeare, Dickens and TS Eliot. Prior to this time — roughly the mid-twentieth century — it was more likely to be the journalists and free-lance public intellectuals who had the greatest influence.
This was the situation Patrick White wrote about in 1968, recalling his return to Australia from London in 1947:
In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is.
As recently as 1958, then, Patrick White was lamenting precisely the absence of a complex and mature literary system. Ironically, it could be argued that academics today are once again losing ground as arbiters of literary taste, as general readers look to other sources such as newspaper reviews, radio and reading groups. (Today it is web blogs.)
The first chair of Australian Literature was established by public subscription, in 1962, with the appointment of Leonie Kramer. It is now in danger of not being funded. Ken Gelder of Melbourne University’s Australian Centre as well as the University of Queensland’s literature and cultural studies are also in doubt of continued support. The Arts decline as technocrats abound. Our shared heritage of Australian literature is in danger of being lost.
Manning Clark, that eminent monumental teller of tales, is forgotten. A highly controversial figure, Clark’s perspective was transcendental. Derided for his mythmaking, he delineated the tensions between Christian faith and the secular philosophy of the enlightenment. As Don Watson put it: the clash between the upright Englishman and the Irish larrikin and saint. “the collapse of social purpose”.
Peter Munz perceptively wrote in 1979, Clark’s work demonstrated that Australian history was “but a variation on the universal themes of life and death, greed and hope, curse and vengeance” - he had effectively created Australia’s past as “a series of myths”. Despite the brutalising history of convictism, frontier violence and a harsh environment, Clark showed, as Humphrey McQueen claimed in 1987, that Australia could still be “a mythopoeic site”. Certainly, Clark’s work is literary in its imaginative scope, its field of reference and its depth of feeling. In positive reviews, A History of Australia is described as a literary masterpiece. In critical reviews, it is condemned for being clichéd, derivative and repetitive. Still, as Michael Cathcart noted in 1995, for all the references to Clark’s literary imagination, “no one has really managed to articulate the translucent quality in [his] work … or quite identified how his literary imagination works, or why it gives the history a value which is not undermined by its idiosyncrasies and inaccuracies."
Clark maintained history is “the struggle between the organised rich and the organised poor”. “This history is necessarily biased” (Humphrey McQueen, in the introduction to A New Britannia, 1970); “This history is critical not celebratory. It rejects myths of national progress and unity. It starts from a recognition that Australian settler society was built on invasion and dispossession” (Verity Burgmann and Jenny Lee’s introduction to A People’s History of Australia, 1988).
Clark earned the ire of conservatives not only because his history cast the Labor Party as the engine of Australia’s national progress, but because his public statements characterised the non-Labor parties as little more than moneychangers and philistines.
Patrick White is another neglected treasure. Though difficult, White’s sharp observations, careful evaluations and meticulous detailings are invaluable. We fail to attend to our own literature, culture and history at our own peril.