HOWARD JA­COB­SON ON THE LEGACY OF CUL­TURAL CRINGE

A half-decade ago, the cream of Aus­tralia’s in­tel­li­gentsia couldn’t wait to get out. A doc­u­men­tary gets to the bot­tom of the great ex­o­dus

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Graeme Blun­dell

IN the late 1950s many clever Aus­tralians en­thu­si­as­ti­cally left for Europe by the joy­ous boat­load, catch­ing the re­turn voy­age of the ships bring­ing tens of thou­sands of Greek, Ital­ian and Bri­tish im­mi­grants to th­ese shores. London be­came the des­ti­na­tion for young Aus­tralian ad­ven­tur­ers in the early 60s, all of them haunted by, and in pur­suit of, the dream of what painter Robert Jacks called “some­thing else”. Ger­maine Greer, her early life in late 50s Mel­bourne dom­i­nated by the de­sire to es­cape, wrote of rid­ing her bi­cy­cle to Port Mel­bourne “to stand watch­ing the stream­ers break­ing as lucky peo­ple sailed away”.

If life seemed to be a party that was hap­pen­ing else­where, we were pretty cer­tain that by the time the in­vi­ta­tions ar­rived down un­der it would all be over. Those vast ocean lin­ers go­ing off into the sun­set, trail­ing their fes­tive stream­ers, looked highly invit­ing as the anx­i­eties of the pe­riod ex­pressed them­selves at home in in­creas­ing lev­els of alien­ation, gloom, bore­dom and con­for­mity.

Bril­liant Crea­tures: Ger­maine, Clive, Barry and

Bob, a quite beau­ti­ful new two-part se­ries from doc­u­men­tar­ian Paul Clarke, shows how four of those young peo­ple, in­clud­ing Greer along with Clive James, Barry Humphries and Robert Hughes — all cul­tural icon­o­clasts at home (Thomas Ke­neally calls them our “bril­liant chil­dren”) — left to con­quer London and New York.

James says he was in fact banned from Aus­tralia be­cause he dared crit­i­cise our great­est cul­tural mon­u­ment in print. “I used to think the Opera House didn’t have what it took to be a sym­bol of Syd­ney,” he says, now frail but as in­ci­sive as ever. “I thought it looked like a por­ta­ble typewriter full of oys­ter shells after an of­fice party.” A still de­fi­ant Greer says, sim­ply: “I wanted to go to a place where there was beauty; I did be­lieve in the great Aus­tralian ug­li­ness.”

What makes this se­ries so dif­fer­ent from other ex­pa­tri­ate do­cos is that it’s au­thored and pre­sented by Man Booker Prize win­ner, the lo­qua­cious and vastly amus­ing Howard Ja­cob­son. Hir­sute and rather tweedy, he long has been re­garded in Bri­tain as a Jewish lit­er­ary trea­sure and con­tentiously vis­i­ble on ra­dio and tele­vi­sion there. Once asked to de­fine the na­ture of Jewish in­tel­li­gence, he said: “It’s an over-com­mit­ment to dis­pu­ta­tious­ness, the love of an ar­gu­ment, the love of ex­ag­ger­a­tion.” And it’s on be­guil­ing dis­play here; like his four sub­jects, he is a self-de­scribed “critic of lan­guage”, sting­ing, won­der­fully in­so­lent and en­gag­ingly ele­giac in tone. He also has what we call the gift of the gab.

My favourite gem is when Ja­cob­son walks by the placid wa­ters of Port Phillip Bay in San­dring­ham, where Greer grew up, and says, “It ex­udes a dreamy melan­choly, as if it’s al­ways Sun­day morn­ing.” And, both writer and pre­sen­ter, he elic­its some won­der­ful turns of phrase from his cel­e­brated sub­jects as well as their friends and ad­mir­ers such as Kathy Lette, Melvyn Bragg, Phillip Adams, Bruce Beres­ford, Rachel Grif­fiths, Eric Idle and Ke­neally.

Clarke has be­come a master of cul­tural anthropology, quirky and en­ter­tain­ing, hav­ing recorded the fin­ger­prints and bruises of decades now of Aus­tralia’s so­cial his­tory. There was

Bomb­ora: The Story of Aus­tralian Surf­ing, Aus­tralian mu­sic se­ries Long Way to the Top and

Mother of Rock, the story of rock jour­nal­ist and pi­o­neer­ing critic Lil­lian Roxon. More re­cently there was the ab­sorb­ing ABC doc­u­men­tary se­ries Wide Open Road: Aus­tralia Through the Wind­screen. And last year’s bi­o­graph­i­cal Whit­lam: The Power & the Pas­sion gave us the for­mer PM as almost a dream fig­ure, hubris per­son­i­fied and larger than life, much of it set to mu­sic.

It was a counter-in­tu­itive por­trait to what might have been ex­pected, and his new se­ries is just as lat­eral, built around a clever con­ceit. As the “bril­liant crea­tures” — the ti­tle of James’s first novel — left an Aus­tralia to es­cape what Ke­neally calls “the willed tor­por” of the place, Ja­cob­son was him­self ar­riv­ing in Aus­tralia in 1965 to re­place Greer, teach­ing lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney. For him the coun­try they left was a rev­e­la­tion, “an il­lu­mi­na­tion of the spir­its”; as his sub­jects de­parted he em­braced the sleepy back­wa­ter that be­came his brave new world.

In a lovely se­quence he re-cre­ates the mo­ment on a cruise liner where he, in a wild flight of fancy, passes a ship go­ing in the other di­rec­tion. He catches a glimpse of Ger­maine, Clive, Barry and Bob call­ing to him from this ship of his imag­i­na­tion. “You’re go­ing the wrong way, mate,” they shout. “They were wrong, for me any­way, but why were they sail­ing away? Why did they ex­ile them­selves from such beauty and ex­hil­a­ra­tion?”

So who bet­ter to serve as our tour guide to both sides of the cul­tural world, to de­scribe and dis­sect their in­di­vid­ual jour­neys, than an English­man who first recog­nised them as such a pow­er­ful force 50 years ago?

Clarke un­der­stands TV bet­ter than many doc­u­men­tary-mak­ers: it’s the per­fect place for al­low­ing the imag­i­na­tion to ex­pand and run wild, and again his method is built on bril­liantly sourced archival and home-movie footage, in­te­grated talk­ing heads, recorded with a cineaste’s flour­ish, and a thump­ing sound­track. Clarke is as ac­com­plished in nar­ra­tive jour­nal­ism as he is at film­mak­ing, able to take ideas and give them visual life.

Ja­cob­son is a mar­vel­lous host and in­ter­locu­tor, and as an in­ter­viewer has a rare abil­ity to con­vey authenticity and sin­cer­ity, to per­form th­ese qual­i­ties, along with a cer­tain or­di­nar­i­ness along­side a tow­er­ing lit­er­ary in­tel­lect. JOHN Banville is another Man Booker Prizewin­ner and, like Ja­cob­son, also has mar­ried down for the money — not as a TV pre­sen­ter, al­beit one of the medium’s most ac­com­plished and so­cia­ble, but into the crime writer’s tawdry world. He has done it pseudony­mously but ac­com­plished it with a startling orig­i­nal­ity and with no sense that he is slum­ming it or merely sat­is­fy­ing some slat­ternly lit­er­ary de­sire. A few years ago he emerged re­branded and rein­vented as Ben­jamin Black with his de­but de­tec­tive novel, Chris­tine Falls, fea­tur­ing mo­rose, epony­mous pathol­o­gist Quirke (we never get to know his first name). And noir Banville is as Black, lead­ing us into dark hearts, murky hypocrisies and repro­bate sin­ful­ness with un­par­al­leled style and a won­der­ful mourn­ful el­e­gance.

The TV se­ries based on his nov­els started last week with An­drew Davies’s adap­ta­tion of Chris­tine Falls, star­ring Gabriel Byrne as the tit­u­lar pathol­o­gist, Michael Gam­bon as his adop­tive fa­ther, the Machi­avel­lian judge Gar­ret Grif­fin, and Geral­dine Somerville is the sis­ter-in-law with whom he shares a dark past. And it’s still cy­cling around on Fox­tel’s BBC First chan­nel, an episode not to be missed. Set in rainy Dublin, it tells of the in­iq­ui­tous ab­duc­tion of a Dublin baby to the US in the 1950s as part of a plot to cre­ate re­cruits for the priest­hood. The mo­rose pathol­o­gist also stum­bled into the hor­rors and hu­mil­i­a­tions at the cen­tre of his adop­tive fam­ily, un­rav­el­ling a web of aw­ful se­crets when he poked at things bet­ter left alone.

This week Davies and di­rec­tor Diar­muid Lawrence adapt the sec­ond Quirke novel, The Dy­ing Swan, in which Quirke’s “old itch to cut into the quick of things, to delve into the dark of what was hid­den”, con­sumes him again. A body van­ishes from his mor­tu­ary one night, set­ting off a new string of haz­ards and de­cep­tions.

Banville as Black works the his­tor­i­cal novel field as well as the mys­tery genre, his Quirke books suc­cess­fully en­gulf­ing the reader in post­war Dublin’s crushed hopes, fu­til­ity and moral des­per­a­tion. It’s a city with a vague but press­ing sense of im­mi­nent dis­as­ter, like many of Black’s char­ac­ters. Its streets are shabby, ill-lit and smoky, and large, vague men loom along them.

The sense of verisimil­i­tude is so im­me­di­ate in th­ese adap­ta­tions you feel you can, through the barely breath­able air, catch that smell, hot, raw and salty, that Quirke recog­nises as the whiff of the re­cently be­reaved. The plot­ting is dense but it’s a se­ries that’s more about character and the end of an era in Dublin; the sexy, tur­bu­lent 60s are just around the next foggy cor­ner. Some read­ers find Black too lit­er­ary and his style too in­tru­sive as it com­petes with plot. But I love the sense of func­tion­al­ity, melody, rhythm and eu­phony he or­gan­ises with such flu­id­ity and ap­pro­pri­ate­ness, and this se­duc­tive, stylised se­ries gets it just right. Bril­liant Crea­tures: Ger­maine, Clive, Barry and Bob, ABC, Tues­day, 8.30pm

Quirke, Thurs­day, BBC First, 8.30pm

Howard Ja­cob­son and two of Aus­tralia’s most cel­e­brated ex­pats, Barry Humphries, above, and Ger­maine Greer, be­low, from the Bril­liant Crea­tures doc­u­men­tary

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