BOOKS: David Marr’s My Coun­try. John McPhee’s The Patch.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents - Abbi Ja­cob­son’s I Might Re­gret This.

There was a time when a se­lec­tion of es­says, sketches, reviews and speeches by David

Marr would have seemed less nec­es­sary than it does now. From his rookie days at

The Bul­letin on­wards, Marr was one of those fig­ures who seemed to speak for and to the broad and thoughtful Aus­tralian mid­dle class. He served as an or­di­nary or­a­cle for the con­sti­tu­tional lib­er­al­ism and de­cency of the ma­jor­ity. The man re­flected, though in more elegant prose than was per­haps de­served, just who we were as a peo­ple.

What hap­pened, at least on the ev­i­dence of these pages – a jour­nal­is­tic core sam­ple of na­tional life from the 1970s to to­day – was un­ex­pected. The blandly agree­able pact that held be­tween Marr and his so­ci­ety came apart. The coun­try changed; peo­ple changed. Ideas once un­ac­cept­able be­came main­stream. Frac­tures ap­peared in our self-con­cep­tion. Some­where on or about Au­gust 2001, when a Nor­we­gian freighter with 433 asy­lum seek­ers on board en­tered our waters, Aus­tralia’s char­ac­ter changed.

The main sat­is­fac­tion that at­tends a dive into the 400 pages of My Coun­try does not lie in Marr’s bran­dish­ing of a be­lea­guered hu­man­ism against those who ef­fected this dec­li­na­tion from the Aus­tralian ideal, though it’s true to say there are bit­ter plea­sures to be had in this line. It comes, rather, from a deeper and more sober­ing ac­knowl­edge­ment: such men and women have al­ways been with us.

The priv­i­leged per­spec­tive of Marr’s long ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist, bi­og­ra­pher and pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual has al­lowed him to ob­serve that xeno­pho­bia, racism, ho­mo­pho­bia, philis­tin­ism and big­otry are not ex­cep­tions to the Aus­tralian norm but its en­dur­ing rule: the dark back­ing to that ide­al­is­tic mir­ror. To know this is to be dis­avowed of a pri­mary in­no­cence. It is the pre­con­di­tion for any true, clear-eyed pa­tri­o­tism.

Cru­cially for Marr, a com­fort­able up­bring­ing on Syd­ney’s com­pla­cent, set­tled, ar­bo­real North Shore in the post­war decades was unset­tled by a grow­ing sus­pi­cion that he was gay. This made an out­sider of him – a watch­ful critic of nor­malcy in all its guises. It also made him a crim­i­nal in re­la­tion to the state and an abom­i­na­tion in the eyes of the church that he had sought to join as a young man: I in­vested a decade of my life in pur­suit of a pro­found, sin­cere, de­ter­mined and hope­less am­bi­tion not to be ho­mo­sex­ual. It’s an or­di­nary story with an or­di­nary end­ing. Christ failed

me. So did al­co­hol. So did mar­riage. What­ever dam­age I did to my­self along the way, I did worse to oth­ers I loved.

“Even­tu­ally,” he con­cludes, “the price of heaven proved too high and in my late twen­ties, with all these wasted years on my con­science, I set about do­ing what I might have done in my teens but for that prob­lem­atic en­counter with Christ over hot co­coa – I be­gan to try to live as my­self.”

All Marr’s writ­ing is in­flected by this hard-won free­dom. It makes him en­vi­ably cant-free and em­pa­thetic when it comes to oth­ers’ flaws. When he goes on the at­tack it is with the brio and dash of a man who has al­ready dodged the bul­let with his name on it. At his best, Marr man­ages to fuse flam­boy­ance and seriousness, feel­ing and wit. He welds a lawyerly re­spect for the facts to a drama­tist’s lac­er­at­ing irony. He re­vises his opinions in the light of ex­pe­ri­ence with­out los­ing his moral com­pass. He bowls a wicked goo­gly but plays a dead straight bat.

In the early years, when writ­ing about arts, pol­i­tics and the law for The Na­tional Times, you get a sense of the young bi­og­ra­pher, sketching historical per­son­ages on the fly. Whit­lam, Kerr, Fraser, Gor­ton: all of them cap­tured in a net of anec­dote, writhing in hu­man frailty. Here is Marr, sharp­en­ing his pen on John Gor­ton: Gor­ton’s face at the mi­cro­phone is the same patched-up, frac­tured face that for years was part of the po­lit­i­cal ter­rain of the coun­try: the best face in pol­i­tics since Billy Hughes, the face in the surf­boat, the face un­der the grey top hat, the face in the White House smil­ing side­ways at the Nixons.

You sense a warmth to­wards these old grandees, whether of the left or right. Marr’s piece on the night Ben Chi­fley died is a mas­ter­ful ac­count, quick with in­ci­dent. But most telling is the way he frames the civilised re­sponses of even Chi­fley’s bit­ter en­e­mies, par­tic­u­larly Men­zies. Be­neath the blus­ter and bite they are loyal, good man­nered: lead­ers.

John Howard, who fought so long and hard to as­sume Men­zies’ man­tle, does not fare so well. With Howard comes a new di­men­sion, adroitly man­aged but morally un­der­handed, of weaponised racial pol­i­tics. With his as­cen­dancy and with those who fol­lowed came a pol­i­tics that no longer ceased af­ter the ad­journ­ment speeches and in­stead be­came to­tal war: Howard won by a land­slide in ’96. Aus­tralia is a ca­sual, live-and-let-live, sec­u­lar, mod­ern so­ci­ety. But the key to power in this coun­try is en­gag­ing the sup­port of the most con­ser­va­tive, most anx­ious chunk of the elec­torate. Gather­ing these votes calls for great po­lit­i­cal skill be­cause the big par­ties have no in­ten­tion of ditch­ing the eco­nomic poli­cies that are ac­tu­ally pro­duc­ing pain out there.

“Free-mar­ket eco­nom­ics are sacro­sanct,” Marr con­cludes. “So in­stead, the ma­jor par­ties are ap­peal­ing to these un­happy elec­tor’s prej­u­dices on blacks, Asians, drugs, vi­o­lence and their gen­eral fear that the world is drift­ing out of con­trol.” These words were writ­ten in 1999. Marr caught the wild il­logic of our cur­rent po­lit­i­cal mo­ment – now su­per­charged by ter­ror­ism, off­shore de­ten­tion, cli­mate change and in­equal­ity – as it was in for­ma­tion. He was right to ex­co­ri­ate them then, but how much more so now.

There are plea­sures to be had in this vol­ume beyond the po­lit­i­cal. David Marr is a man of cul­ture, and those es­says deal­ing with lit­er­a­ture, film and theatre are more buoy­ant and fun than the ma­te­rial within which they are sand­wiched. And yet. The sheer real-world force of events keeps crowd­ing ev­ery­thing out. To hear what rea­son­able peo­ple sounded like be­fore the in­fer­nal and un­ceas­ing din of the present is what makes this col­lec­tion worth­while. To read a man who has re­mained a stal­wart of san­ity through­out is what makes it a nec­es­sary one.

Black Inc, 400pp, $39.99

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