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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Greg Sheri­dan

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.

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