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
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