EVEN in so splendid, readable and reliable a book as Running the War in Iraq, by Major General Jim Molan, there is, I think, a revealing mistake. Molan, for whom I have the greatest admiration, reflects on Australia’s military sacrifice in World War I, and remarks that our war dead came from our ‘‘ tiny, basically rural, population of four million’’. Problem is, I’m pretty sure that by 1914 we were no longer a ‘‘ basically rural’’ population. We were already urban and suburban.
Australian life, it strikes me, is very American; more American in a sense than the Americans themselves, in the almost universal nature of its suburbanism. We are a nation of suburbs. (There is nothing wrong with suburban life. It is not the enemy of the arts or creativity or anything else. Kenneth Slessor and Les Murray both lived in Sydney’s Chatswood.)
We are just beginning to have large, inner-city Manhattan-style apartment conurbations that can generate a true inner-city life. Michael Danby, the redoubtable Labor Member for Melbourne Ports, once told me he wasn’t absolutely sure that in his electorate, which covers St Kilda, people had kitchens at all as they were always to be found in cafes, from early morning breakfast through to late-night supper.
I suspect that in the course of a generation we have gone from a predominantly pub culture to a cafe culture. But there is a strange lacuna in our national creative arts. And that is the question of small towns. Are our small towns just suburbs that are a bit isolated from each other? Is there anything at all distinctive in growing up and living in a small town in Australia, as opposed to a suburb in any of our big cities?
Small towns remain remarkably unexplored in Australian literature. They have done much better on TV, from Country Practice through Blue Heelers to Sea Change: perfect settings for sitcoms and family dramas. There is a fixed and plausibly prominent cast of locals — the doctor, the policeman, the magistrate — all quite reasonably involved in the town’s regular traumas, whatever they may be, from week to week. There’s a vague hinterland from which new characters can be introduced, and there is always the mysterious visitor. But these shows seldom give you much real sense of the country town itself.
I have very little direct experience of Australian small country towns and so they remain a disturbing mystery to me. I blame this partly on our failure, certainly compared with Britain or Ireland, at bed and breakfaststyle accommodation. Again, rather like the Americans, our small town casual accommodation is dominated by motels, often perfectly fine in their way, but much less sociable, inviting and revealing than a B&B.
A few years ago my wife and I stayed at a perfect B&B in the Cotswolds, chosen, as opposed to a self-catering cottage, because we wanted to socialise with people over breakfast. The B&B owners were remnants of that splendid British politeness and literate, understated friendliness. He was a retired English literature teacher and lecturer, she a retired science teacher, the guest lounge a sumptuous library. Every morning began with a friendly (and useful) chat. We met the other guests, including a magnificent and ancient colonel, who had attended Oxford as a World War II veteran, and his almost equally ancient wife, who was doing the driving in their twilight tour of Britain.
Recently we drove from Sydney to Melbourne, for the first time along the coast road, and stayed overnight at the far south coast town of Eden. The town was pretty as a peach. The motel — perfectly clean, spacious, the TV working and so forth — nonetheless offered a soulless experience compared with the Cotswolds B&B. Our fellow motel guests may have been infinitely interesting, but there was no natural way of getting to know them, or our motel hosts.
As we drove through the south coast towns — Kiama, Batemans Bay, Merimbula — I marvelled at their physical beauty. I had never before been south of Huskisson on the south coast and it strikes me as one of the most naturally breathtaking drives in Australia, if not the planet.
But each of the towns remained a complete mystery. I could see, of course, their cafes and antique shops, their little bits of local industry, dairy the further south you got, professional fishing, even a touch of manufacturing. But is living in Kiama any different from living in Bateman’s Bay? Is either any different from living in a coastal suburb of Sydney or Melbourne?
This is for me a secret at the heart of our nation. I have no idea of the answer. And our literature doesn’t help much.