Returning to place

Peter Conrad’s 2004 Boyer Lectures transfer beautifully to the page. His affection for puns and wordplay (which, he notes, ‘don’t work on the radio, you need to see the way the word is spelled’) may inspire some wry smiles in readers of Tales of Two Hemispheres.

Conrad, a Taswegian who went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship in 1968, now divides his time between London and New York. He has taught English literature in Christ Church, Oxford, since 1973 and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Tales of Two Hemispheres is the work of an expat with an eye that has been critical of this nation at times. It is this facility that allows criticism of Australia with depth and without malice.

Conrad doesn’t completely reject the comments of Henry Kingsley in 1865 when he called Australia ‘[a] scentless cesspool for a vast quantity of nameless rubbish’. His response to Victorian Britons who ‘saw Australia as a sphincter’ is to note that ‘the violence of such language articulated a metaphysical dread’.

It’s a dread he likens throughout the piece to his own Tasmanian experience in the 1950s and ’60s—a fear of being at the arse end of the earth. For Conrad does wonder, ‘—blushing a bit—if I entered London for the first time on bended knees’. Conrad’s experience was one of awe and worship of the northern lands.

Tales of Two Hemispheres are the tales of a man who would prefer not to choose between the two. Conrad describes the alluring smell of eucalypts that have buried their roots in foreign shores. His intellect longs for European legitimacy, but his body longs for the Australian sun and soil.

This is a collection in which the author tries to locate Australia’s position through history and in the world. You sense he is also trying to locate himself in his home country. The Australian bush holds a familiar scent, but the people and who they have become—can an expat know that? Conrad certainly applauds it.

There is a feeling of solace in the 2004 Boyer Lectures. Conrad, one senses, wishes there wasn’t the need to leave. In The Age on 16 November last year, Gerard Henderson suggests that there never was. He refers to the fact James McAuley and Gwen Harwood were teaching at the University of Tasmania when Conrad took his Rhodes Scholarship and pursued education abroad.

Henderson takes offence at Conrad’s description of Australia as ‘vacuous and vacant’ during the 1950s and ’60s. And the sentiment is probably echoed by those who were not fortunate enough to get a scholarship and catch a boat to Europe.

Yet, his criticisms of his country aside, the academic stands and delivers, using his knowledge and wit to defend his country against the derogatory comments and snide remarks from the diaries of colonisers and the media banter of Hollywood stars. In Conrad, we have a prodigal son, returning home, saying, ‘I can make it up to you.’

It is a worthwhile collection of essays in a climate where the Aussie expat community is mobilising. There are calls for a senate seat to represent the million or so Australians abroad. The development of the website is trying to link expats and create a space where they can return their knowledge and experience to Australia. While Conrad does not refer to this, it is an environment of which he would be aware.

These lectures romanticise the Australia of today, in the way only an expat can. In his fifth lecture Conrad turns to Australia’s obsession with America. He laments our involvement in American wars and the impact of American culture. Yet, he does not address the role Australians themselves play in the darker aspects of Australian social and political life: immigration policy, overwhelming levels of personal debt and rampant consumption.

The country that Conrad left behind developed into a place he now longs for, a ‘wonderland’ that is his ‘home’. He has enjoyed watching his country grow up from abroad. My fear is that his glasses are tinted with a little too much rose.

This book is a message to our country about how it should treat its future thinkers and public intellectuals. Their contribution will be greater if they are fostered on this island, connected to these ancient soils and involved in our political debate. Their bodies are not made for European winters. They ache for Australian sun.

Reading Tales of Two Hemispheres I couldn’t help but desire a little bit of ocker. A little less  Patrick White and some more Tim Winton. The experiences and stories we hear are of the Murray Bails, the Germaine Greers, and the Christopher Kochs: particular people of a particular place and time. A very different Australian experience.

We get more of an intellectual construct of our country and its journey than we do an emotive one.

Perhaps this says something about the difference between the two hemispheres: the refined European versus the passionate Antipodean.

Conrad has learnt to desire this country from afar. Lucky are those who can make this discovery without having to leave.  

Tales of Two Hemispheres, Peter Conrad. ABC Books, 2004. isbn 0 733 31515 1, rrp $22.95

Daniel Donahoo is a fellow at OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank.



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