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Monday musings on Australian literature: Two Australian icons

February 28, 2011

Donald Horne (1920-2005) and Geoffrey Blainey (b. 1930) are Australian icons, not only for their body of work – which is significant – but for phrases they coined which have become part of our national consciousness. Not all Australians today will know who coined them, but most will have heard the phrases themselves.

The lucky country

The lucky country was written in 1964. The title comes from a sentence in the book:

Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.

An ironic statement, clearly! From Horne’s point of view Australia had a lot going for it – including its natural resources upon which the boom of the 1950s and 60s was primarily based – but was limited by a lack of innovative and “clever” thinking. Over the years, the phrase has been used in may ways – both ironic and literal – but for Horne the intention was clear. It was a wake-up call to Australia to grow up, throw off its colonial shackles, and start thinking for itself.

Rosa Cappiello used the phrase for the title of her book Oh lucky country. It’s still on my TBR pile, but Lisa of ANZLitLovers reviewed it in 2009. It was published in Italian in 1981, with an English translation being published by the University of Queensland Press in 1984. It is about migrant workers in Sydney … and presents an unflattering view of Australians, particularly in their (our) attitude to and acceptance of migrants. (I referred to a similar attitude in my recent review of The women in black.) Cappiello takes up the irony, albeit from a different perspective, and the book was not particularly popular (here) when it was first published! Here is the opening paragraph:

The sky here compensates for solitude. Blue-clouded. Cloudy blue. Intensely blue. It’s not the promised land. Maybe in the distant future it’ll be the last one on earth – the basis is here for the much-vaunted lucky country – but for the moment it’s neither the realisation of one’s dreams nor the land of milk and honey.

Anyhow, back to Horne. He was a prolific writer and commentator but I have only read two of his books – The lucky country (back in the 1970s) and Dying: a memoir, in which he chronicles his death from pulmonary fibrosis and passes on valuable reflections and practical information while doing so. A teacher and sharer to the end.

Mereenie Loop, Central Australia

Mereenie Loop, Central Australia

The tyranny of distance

Geoffrey Blainey’s Tyranny of distance was written two years later, in 1966, and is subtitled “how distance shaped Australia’s history”.

Australia is a big country, with a relatively small population. There’s a reason for this: much of the centre is excessively dry and barren. Consequently, the majority of the population lives on the coast – mostly in the east, but there are urban pockets and major cities in the south (Melbourne, Hobart and Adelaide), the west (Perth) and the north (Darwin). And there are thousands of kilometres between most of these. Our distance challenges are many-fold: they draw from the immense internal distances, and from geographical isolation from the world’s major centres. The latter though is gradually reducing through improved transportation, increased electronic communications, and shifts in the international balance of power (to, say, China and India).

Given the various discussions we’ve had on this blog, I’m not going to talk a lot here about distance and the Australian landscape, and how this plays out in Australian consciousness and thence in our art and literature. From the beginnings of white settlement in the late 18th century, Australians have been conscious of distance in its many forms. For example, physical distance translated into a psychological tyranny, and there is the distance between urban and rural life and culture (something I’ve touched on elsewhere).

Distance results in loneliness and alienation. It was a practical and psychological issue for pioneer women. Katharine Susannah Prichard captured that well in The pioneers (1915), particularly when the young wife is left on her own for several days while her husband goes to town for provisions:

The air was empty without the sound of Donald’s axe …

The day seemed endless …

She glanced at the child every now and then, laughing and telling him that his mother had found the wherewithal to keep her busy and gay, as a bonny baby’s mother ought to be, and that the song she was singing was a song that the women sang over their spinning wheels in the dear country that she had come from far across the sea.

Patrick White‘s Voss is an eloquent exploration of a relationship, a spiritual connection, maintained between Laura in town and Voss exploring remote regions. Its themes are not so much the tyranny of distance, but it’s under the tyranny of distance that the themes are played out. Here is Voss in a letter to Laura:

… but life and dreams of such far-reaching splendour you will surely share them in your quiet room. So we are riding together across the plains, we sit together in this black night, I reach over and touch your cheek (not for the first time). You see that separation has brought us far, far closer. Could we perhaps converse with each other at last, expressing inexpressible ideas with simple words.

In fact, for Voss and Laura distance has a freeing effect … physical absence encourages spiritual presence as it were. Distance in Australia, then, is a complex issue … it informs the foundations of our society from the mundanities of commerce to the “finest” expressions of culture. You’ve seen it already in this blog … and you’ll see it again.

To return to Blainey, he too has a significant oeuvre including, as Gideon Haigh said in that radio program I blogged about, several works of business literature. He is also known for another well-known phrase in Australian culture, the black armband view of history, but that is a story for another day.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2011 6:09 pm

    Gosh, Sue, are you going to tackle the History Wars??

    • February 28, 2011 6:33 pm

      Probably not! I nearly added after “for another day” ” … and probably not here”! Whilst I’ve read some of the historians, and bits and pieces, I’m not sure I’m really up to an authoritative post on history, particularly from an analytical point of view. Maybe our Resident Judge will take it up!

      • February 28, 2011 9:56 pm

        Actually, it’s been rather nice to have a break from all that nastiness in the media…

        • February 28, 2011 10:02 pm

          Yes, and hopefully we’ve moved on to something more sophisticated. Maybe it was the black armband we had to have! Certainly, we did need to rebalance the history most of us grew up with…

  2. March 1, 2011 7:33 am

    Very interesting stuff! I don’t think distance played much of a part in early American literature other than in emphasizing how one needed to be self-reliant, pull yourself up by your boot straps and all that. Have I mentioned how much I love your Australian lit posts? 🙂

    • March 1, 2011 8:18 am

      I think you have, but I’m glad you still are. I’m enjoying writing them though sometimes worry about what the next one’s going to be! Something usually presents itself though.

      As I wrote this I was thinking about the US and my experience of it. I couldn’t recollect distance in particular being seen quite the same way, though your pioneers certainly had to cope with remoteness and loneliness, didn’t they? These days, I think you have so much population in such a similarly sized physical area to us that distance probably doesn’t have the some connotation and impact?

      • March 1, 2011 1:13 pm

        I saw a show on ABC or SBS just last week about how the vast divide was conquered in the US. It seemed to be solved rather quickly after trains were introduced.

        • March 1, 2011 3:30 pm

          Yes, I think because of their greater population – more fertile centre – the divide was overcome. One of the issues is the economics isn’t it … more population means more and cheaper transportation; and more fertile centre means people spread out and less distance between them. Wish I’d seen that show – sounds interesting.

      • March 2, 2011 2:39 am

        Oh yes, there was much loneliness and remoteness in the early days of the U.S. as people began moving west. Thus the emphasis on self-reliance. But you and Deliliah are right, the population here is much more spread out even if there are high concentrations on both the east and west coasts. The middle of the country is fertile land and host to several major economic hubs. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, still very early in the country’s history, had a huge impact and there has been no looking back ever since.

        • March 2, 2011 8:45 am

          Thanks Stefanie for confirming … and for giving that date. I think if I’d been asked I’d have guessed a couple of decades later. It was still a long train trip from east to west wasn’t it … but at least it could be done in relative ease and comfort, unlike here.

          The Australian transcontinental railway wasn’t completed until 1917 – and suffered from multiple gauges meaning lots of train changes. There were three gauges, but in fact 5 gauge changed in the trip. I think that was all finally standardised around the 1970s.

  3. March 1, 2011 1:41 pm

    Fascinating; I’d never thought about where those phrases might’ve come from or what they meant in their original contexts. Lovely piecing-together of concepts and literature, Mum!

  4. antipodeanowl permalink
    March 1, 2011 11:05 pm

    Thinking about distance and isolation in Aussie lit invariably seems to lead my train of thought back to Barbara Baynton’s ‘Bush Studies’. When I first read these stories at University, I was struck by their visceral portrayal of the grim experiences of those women trying to build a life in a country so alien and isolated, and by how far removed these experiences and lives were from the popular romanticised ‘land of plenty’ characterisations of the landscape.

    I’m really enjoying thinking about the ideas you raise in these posts. 🙂

    • March 2, 2011 8:35 am

      Thanks Owl … I appreciate it when readers here tell me they enjoy this series (though it certainly keeps me on my toes). And it’s great when people chime in with their perspectives. Bush studies is on my TBR … it’s not long is it, so I really should try to fit it in sooner rather than later. Women did bear much of the brunt of the isolation didn’t they?

  5. Antipodeanowl permalink
    March 2, 2011 11:39 am

    No, its a very slim collection of stories. I will be very interested to hear what you think.

  6. March 3, 2011 1:26 am

    1917 for Australia’s railroad? Wow, that’s late! Once the U.S. Line was complete it only took something like 5 days to cross the country as opposed to the five or so months it used to take by wagon. Big difference!

    • March 3, 2011 8:32 am

      Yes … it’s interesting just what difference this sort of thing can make not just practically but to a national consciousness. We can of course now fly to the other coast in a few hours but it still feels almost like another country. In fact, those of us in east can get to New Zealand faster and, usually, for less cost.

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