James Curran replies to Stuart Macintyre
Stuart Macintyre’s response to my letter (May 2011) acknowledges that in terms of ‘composition, character and loyalty’ – that is, the basic needs of nationalism – Australia defined itself for much of last century in British race terms. But he continues to define John Curtin’s Empire Council proposal as ‘pragmatic’, thus playing down not only Curtin’s patient efforts to win his party and the people over to his ideas, but also the broader point that because Australians defined themselves as British he could expect, through such a Council, that all the British world would unite to protect equally and fully all the British peoples, including Australia’s own distinctive interests, within the postwar Empire.
It is certainly valid to ask why Australian leaders since Deakin’s time, despite one rebuff after another, kept visiting London trying to achieve the unachievable – an effective seat at the high table of imperial policy-making. It cannot be dismissed as a narrowly self-interested method of obtaining cheap defence. This begs a second, related question: namely, why did Curtin not approach the United States – which had in the Pacific war demonstrated its much superior ability to protect Australia – with a request for joint policy-making? The answer must be that they were not a British people.
Macintyre juxtaposes Curtin’s Britishness with his ‘angry’ cable battles with Churchill. He sees a similar tension between the dumping by the ABC of ‘The British Grenadiers’ in favour of ‘Advance Australia Fair’ in 1942, with Curtin rebuking Calwell in 1943 for wanting to play ‘Advance Australia Fair’ in cinemas. But Curtin had no problem with the latter being played to help ‘build morale’. In any case, ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was a hymn to Australia’s essential Britishness, with references to the country’s ‘British soul’. It would take the Labor government of Bob Hawke, in 1984, to at last remove these offending verses.
James Curran, Sydney, NSW
In his retrospective essay on Patrick White (‘Continentally Shelved’, April 2011), Charles Lock was correct to assert that ‘The present neglect of Patrick White around the world is a scandal.’ Accordingly, like me, he might have been astonished that J.G. Farrell’s Troubles was preferred to The Vivisector – a work of vastly wider artistic scope – in last year’s Lost Man Booker Prize. It is also a scandal that so many of White’s novels are not currently in print. Don’t publishers have an enduring obligation to their successful authors?
While many of Professor Lock’s observations are acute and informed, I am less convinced by his diagnosis. The fact that, probably correctly, he believes that too many Australian critics and scholars are patriotically myopic about what White attempted artistically, and the fact that there are wider aesthetic vistas to be explored in his work, do not vitiate the truth that White was an Australian artist. The real point is that he transcended locality to become universal and the real regret, therefore, is that the literary world seems to remain blind to his aspiration: this is hardly the fault of those who study or teach White’s work here.
Consider a few parallel cases in music. Elgar was unquestionably an English composer; Janáèek’s music is steeped in Moravian culture; Messiaen’s oeuvre is, in its approach and its spirit, abundantly French. However, none of them is limited to his cultural roots; all are universal artists.
Indeed, White’s familiarity with literature was international and diverse. This is reflected in his own writing and it could be argued that he repeatedly sought to rewrite huge nineteenth-century novels. In fact, Brian Kiernan argues that The Tree of Man has the subtext of the artist bringing literary culture to the antipodes, and that its first chapter is a version of the Book of Genesis.
It is, in short, possible to be both national and international as an artist, though Professor Lock seems to believe that creative people need to make a choice. That is a false dilemma.
John Carmody, Roseville, NSW
Charles Lock replies:
I am uncertain as to the grounds of disagreement that are supposed to exist between me and your correspondent. However, in the last paragraph a belief is ascribed to me, and then pronounced false, so I should respond. Let me say that any choices made by the author, whether topographical, thematic, symbolic, political, polemical, or whatever, will be only the beginning of the process by which, posthumously, her or his works will be received and evaluated; the rest is in the hands of readers and critics and, yes, publishers – though a publisher’s first obligation has always been to the market, and markets are shaped by readers and critics.
Charles Lock, Copenhagen, Denmark
CONTENTS: JUNE 2011