Monday musings on Australian literature: Arnold Haskell’s Australia

Arnold Haskell, Waltzing MatildaWho is Arnold Haskell you are probably asking, if you are anything like me. The answer will probably surprise you: he was a British dance critic, who wrote many books on ballet, and was, in fact, involved in the development of the Royal Ballet School. But, he also visited Australia a couple of times, first in 1936, as a publicist-reporter with the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet. He returned to Australia in 1938 to research his book Waltzing Matilda: a background to Australia, which was published in England in 1940 (though not published in Australia until 1944). And guess where I found this book? Yep, in my aunt’s house.

So, he visited Australia a couple of times before the Second World War, but his book was published during the war. I find that quite fascinating – who would be interested in what is really a travel book in such  abnormal times? (I looked at the records for this book in Trove. There are several editions: most are categorised as “description and travel”, but some as “civilisation” and “history”. I think the former is better, but it just goes to show that categorisation is never easy!)

Anyhow, here is how he starts his Introduction:

I happened on Australia four years ago, at four days’ notice and by complete accident. Had I been given a week’s notice I probably would not have come at all. I was completely, even aggressively uninterested in that continent. … When I let my friends know where I was going, they said “Why?” which did not encourage me, and left me speechless for once.

His lack of interest wouldn’t surprise Australians who are aware that for the British, particularly at that time, we Australians were simply colonials, and had nothing of interest to offer, and particularly nothing for those who saw themselves as sophisticated. Haskell saw Australia, for example, as offering “hospitality, hearty but uncouth”. He says in this first paragraph that he was “bribed” to accept the trip, partly by the work (the ballet company) and partly by the opportunity to visit Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Honolulu, en route. Harrumph!

However, he “became … enchanted”, and so returned later for 6 months to see more. As there were no books that described Australia in the way he as a traveller wanted, he decided to write it himself:

Australia, in comfort at all costs, in luxury if possible; Australia, stressing the modern plumbing in the most modern hotel in Sydney rather than the lack of plumbing in the dead centre [had he visited his own counties I wonder?]; recounting the lives, thoughts and works of many eminent painters rather than the pathetic state of the rapidly dwindling aboriginal; in fact to write of Australia as one writes of Europe or America: positively and without the eternally negative point of view.

It would be easy for us to take exception to this, but it’s more interesting to read it as a reflection of (a certain segment of) the times, and as something that can provide insight into the world as it was then. And anyhow, he goes on to say that he want to trace

the evolution of a society from brutality and chaos to as perfect an expression of ordered democracy as can be found, to show the amazingly rapid transition from an unhappy group of felons, often not so bad, and their gaolers, often not so good, of overbearing petty Himmlers and dictator governors to a civilised community of amazingly tolerant people living in a country freer from crimes of violence than any other, in a continent that has never known the hatred, violence, hypocrisy and destructiveness of Europe.

Ah, it would be lovely to pat our own backs at this, except that we know that there has been violence here. It just wasn’t spoken of back then.

He goes on, completely oblivious to Australia’s long history of occupation by indigenous people, talking about how Australia’s history is still mainly a “family tradition rather than history”, one in which “I remembers” have not yet made it into “the ordered framework of text-books and university courses”. Again, although his view is myopic, I love this way of describing the “short” history as he saw it.

However, his book is not, he says, a history but a personal story which he hopes will “provide the background” that he found lacking.

I will come back to this book, I think, because as well as travelling around the states, he also did some of his own primary research checking letters, manuscripts etc to obtain his own perspective. It should make for fascinating reading … but for now, I’m tired folks, so signing off with a shorter than usual one!

13 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Arnold Haskell’s Australia

  1. LOL He was “even agressively uninterested”! I can see how this would make good reading for you, even so: enjoy!

  2. Hi Sue, I have Haskell’s book The Australians – the Anglo-Saxondom of the Southern Hemisphere, 1943. In Appendix 111, “The Original Australians”, he says “The anthropologist is doing his best to remedy the years of cruely or of mistaken kindness….he has given words to the Australian-English language, place names more suitable than the average tribute to a nincompoop minster….I have not the knowledge to discuss the scientific problem of the aboriginal, and it does not concern us here. …….but he has played his part in advancing Australian national consciousness.”

    • Oh thanks for sharing that Meg. Really interesting. And fair enough too for him to back off from more observation, on the basis of lack of knowledge. I’ll be interested to see if I find more in the text of my book but I suspect I won’t find much, given his goals

  3. What an interesting find! I look forward to hearing more from Mr Haskell as & when you get back to him.

    By the way, this is one of the joys of having a good look at the bookshelves in older homes. I found some treasures at my parents’ place, books about Australia in the 1930s & 40s which are no longer readily available & which I had never really looked at until we were going through the process of clearing everything out …

    • Yes, you’re right Francesca. It’s a real pleasure … My cousin and I really rep joyed looking at the books which belonged to my aunt and in some case our grandparents. My cousin took many of the English classics whereas I was more interested in the Aussie ones – no one else was interested in any – so no negotiation was needed.

  4. What a fascinating find showing the arrogant condescension that is such an appealing part of the British mind set! I can see why a book that is so far away from the European part of WW2 might be popular as an escape (for similar sorts of reasons there was a big vogue for Trollope in wartime). That complete silence about the fate of the indigenous is pretty chilling.

    • Haha, Ian, your comment “the arrogant condescension that is such an appealing part of the British mind set” made me laugh.

      I didn’t know there was a big vogue for Trollope during the war, but I did know there was for comedies (movies) so it makes sense. So, I guess the same would be true of a book like this.

  5. Definitely a book of its times but there is value in that since we don’t have time travel machines except the ones we call books. I wonder if the travel book was interesting during the war because it was a kind of escape to a different time and place?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s