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10 June 2009

The Price of Survival

Robyn Archer Image: Robyn Archer  

'... thine ears do not deceive thee. It is so: the ultimate emotional crunch moment of this film, boldly entitled Australia, is scored with Elgar ... Nothing could be more culturally revealing of our own sense of nationhood than this choice', says Robyn Archer in her recent Manning Clark Lecture, delivered at the Australian National Library in March 2009. What follows is an edited extract of this 10th Manning Clark Lecture – the complete lecture can be found on the website of Manning Clark House.

Australia Day 2009

I’m in Mildura. Last night I heard Anthony Halliday play three Beethoven sonatas on the new Steinway proudly owned by the Mildura Arts Centre. Anthony says it needs to be played more – pianos are better when they are played – so a monthly series will be produced, and teachers will also be allowed to bring their students in for practice by the half-hour on the new grand.

Anthony made it sound good. It’s a kind of Fitzcarraldo moment. This town is a long way from any other major centre, it’s bloody hot, and here were two hundred people, gathered in the theatre on a Sunday evening to hear the composer’s last sonata, Opus 111, created when he could no longer hear what he wrote, the inside of his head beset by tinnitus. We are three hours drive from Adelaide, six from Melbourne, nine from Canberra, it was still in the upper 30s at 6pm and we were listening to a piano sonata composed nearly two hundred years ago.

Manning Clark described how things were in Australia in the early 1820s at the time when Beethoven was writing this piece:

‘The behaviour and values of the white men were beginning to be influenced by the climate and environment and the peculiar composition of their society, as well as by their European past, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Enlightened. Before 1830 observers in Sydney were beginning to speculate on the effect of the uniformity of the climate and scenery. They predicted that it would produce such a tameness and feebleness of character that the inhabitants would write little or no poetry and would have no impulse to rise in the scale of morals. In New South Wales, they argued, there was no long summer day or long winter night, no fall of the leaf, no sudden exuberance of flowers in the spring, no song of birds, no deep, continuing twilight, no season of absolute gloom. The imagery of English poetry was not understood by the children of New South Wales…The same flatness and dullness prevailed in its society. Men sought distraction and comfort not in art, literature, or religion, but in drinking, making money and eating. The rest of the heavy dull hours were consumed in scandal…’

Audiences in Vienna at that time recognised the greatness of Beethoven, the living artist in their midst, and all the while that irascible jaundiced devotee of the Enlightenment kept writing what he could never hear. Almost two hundred years later some things have changed in Australia: we have still not yet formally broken away from our colonisers, but on this hot night in Mildura cooks, farmers, grape and citrus–growers, academics, artists and retail salespersons all gathered to hear what he had written.

Would Beethoven have edited had he been able to hear it? The chaos of turns and trills is almost overwhelming, the calm of what sounds like an exit-strategy deeply affecting: it’s over, thank god, breathe…Wait! No, it’s not over, note by note it still has air remaining. We emerge into a hot sun still blazing at 7.30pm, and we are now reconciled to death: or at least I am. I believe that is what I understood from the piece – and a retired sage from the land (now on the Board of the Arts Centre) agrees with me.

After the concert we walked riverside to the old Woolshed where Artistic Director of the Murray River International Music Festival, Sergio di Pieri had, as is his tradition in this festival, prepared a meal for artists and supporters. The night still and warm, the sky that familiar colour of salmon (this is not mine, this is Brecht), salmon between the gums; the sound of galahs and cockatiels screeching the banks, the sight of martins dipping their buff breasts in and out of the river.

We eat tomatoes which Sergio and the Executive Director of Arts Mildura, Helen Healy have hand-picked from a local farm. They are real tomatoes, deep red, sliced, slashed with oil (his brother Stefano’s I guess) and sprinkled with basil and garlic. A long table for fifty or so, the trestles covered in green plastic, a hotchpotch of glasses and local wines – the Chalmers Vermentino gets my vote every time. Opposite Anthony and me is a couple recently retired, the husband was a chemical analyst. They’ve lived everywhere (Perth, London, China) and he really knows his music, speaking with authority to Anthony. His wife is not a fan of Wagner – they had a long house in Emerald, so he could listen to Wagner up one end, and she didn’t have to hear it.

At the other end of the table is the young woman who is a director of Chalmers Wines – Kim, an Adelaide Conservatorium graduate composer and musician who is building a house in Mildura. Her house will have a studio where she can record. She is on a mission to get young people back to Mildura. Sure it’s a place where you have to go away for a while – to study, or to work – but it’s a place to come back to, to give back to.

'This seems less a conscious attempt to preserve European society, than just the way it is evolving in the more compassionate and world-welcoming Australia which has at last greeted the new century.'This is the Australia I encounter on Australia Day January 2009.

Manning Clark asked ‘Would the price of survival as a people be the shedding of that attempt to preserve a European society?’

On this day in Mildura there was plenty of Europe afoot – German music, Italian food, but all absorbed into a twenty-first century Australia in which traditional owners at Mungo National Park an hour away debate the future of their land (and incidentally find their land on the cover of the Qantas in-flight magazine all over the world this month). It is also a country where Muslim sits alongside Sikh, Lutheran and non-believer - and all are thirsty.

This seems less a conscious attempt to preserve European society, than just the way it is evolving in the more compassionate and world-welcoming Australia which has at last greeted the new century. And the fact is - this is now also not so far from the reality of Europe.


One of the most interesting moments, for me, at the 2020 Summit, was to hear Wesley Enoch’s response to the Euro-American socio-economic-style questing for models which would place arts at the centre of society ( where they truly belong) instead of where they often sit in the minds of Australians and others now, at the dispensable fringe. Wesley rightly commented that Australian Aboriginal cultures for tens of thousands of years have had culture sitting dead centre and indivisible from the rest of life. You need look no further for effective models. Yet looking at precisely what we are standing on, and have stood on so heavily for so long, feels too hard for some as comments like Wesley’s are dismissed as appealing but impractical. We regularly miss the pointers to survival.

And survival has many guises: there are many aids to accessing them, if you care to look. Economic survival is on our minds at present; it’s part of the conundrum of global dependency which the current crisis makes all too evident. It was a matter of sadness, I think for many of us, that despite well-regulated financial institutions and a buoyant economy, our dollar and our investment wealth were the mere playthings of global speculation. America fell, but we fell just as hard and continue to struggle.

Manning Clark felt of the 1960s that:
‘the decline of faith begat nihilism, and nihilism begat hedonism; the pleas of the followers of the Enlightenment with their faith in human perfectibility, had all dropped from a roar to a whisper. Mammon had won… the dreams of humanity had ended in an age of ruins’.

What might he have thought, then, of the noughties? I imagine that given he saw glimmers of hope to follow the 1960s, he would have ranted at the greed, carelessness and lack of control which brought about the current crisis, but perhaps have welcomed the opportunity offered to humanity because of this crisis, to look beyond money and materialism to other more sustaining values and a more robust spirituality, whatever its core.

'Greed and the quest for profit resulted in more grapes than we can make wine from, more citrus than we can sell, rice and cotton up-river still expanding despite talk of federal control.'Large in our hopes and fears for survival is the land. This harsh and fragile place which Aboriginal Australia had managed to use, inhabit and preserve for 50,000 years has in just over 200 years been brutalised into its own crisis. We need more people here, but can we quench their thirst? The vision splendid of Deakin and the Chaffeys for Los Angeles in the Riverland deserts was shared by many: irrigation was the answer. That magnificent dream lasted about one hundred years, just long enough and cruel enough for people in places like Mildura now, to feel as if their families had always been on this land, and feel deep grief at somehow having failed it, and their kin, as they are forced to walk away.

Greed and the quest for profit resulted in more grapes than we can make wine from, more citrus than we can sell, rice and cotton up-river still expanding despite talk of federal control.

My connection to the Murray is of the blood – not intravenously as it is with my mother, but through her, still of the blood. Not Mildura, but down river a bit in Cadell and Morgan. It’s one river, says Kim, as she plots a collaboration with another composer who wants to do a concert at the Murray Mouth, at the Coorong. It’s for the environment but it needs to be about reconciliation too, she says. There’s tension: down at the Coorong they blame the fruit irrigators. Up in the Riverland, they blame the rice growers in Queensland. But it’s just one river and we need to work together.


Two weeks prior to Australia Day I had been addressing participants of the 3,000-strong conference of Arts Presenters America in New York. There was a lot of talk about the new administration, and I felt a distinct pang of gratitude for Nugget Coombes and the late Jean Battersby et al. The USA doesn’t have a department of the arts and culture, and has never had the equivalent of an arts minister. We offer all kinds of suggestions about how well it could work, but this mob is gloomy about the prospects for any such thing, despite their excitement about a new president. ‘They’ll just never create a new bureaucracy in this climate’ a Washington insider says.

1 February 2009

Six days later, I’m on a plane to Perth. I’ve come home from Mildura and arrived on Monday night. It’s hot and getting hotter. By Wednesday in Adelaide it reaches 45.7°C. For a long time, the thought of weeklong old-fashioned 100-plus heat terrified me. The prospect rose up against me like the fire in Ron Howard’s Backdraft, or the storm in The Perfect Storm – a monster with a voice and a personality. But recently it hasn’t been like that. It’s an effort to think, but I can, and I do keep working in that dry Adelaide heat. It isn’t sexy like Sydney or South East Asia, but doesn’t drain you either – a lengthy partnership versus a passionate affair.


A day and a half later …I’m back in the Qantas Lounge – it’s less than six days since I saw Anthony play and now I’m on my way to Perth. I’m bumped up to Business Class – 1A. Good, I get a decent Neil Perry feed, and I can work.

I’ve been re-reading the Clark Short History – the words at the end stick in my mind: ‘The giant of British philistinism in Australia has received a mortal blow… Australians have liberated themselves from the fate of being second-rate Europeans...’

Then I hear: ‘ Ladies and gentlemen, once we have reached our cruising altitude we’ll be serving you lunch – and we will screen a movie today. Today’s movie is ... Australia.’

I ... am ... delighted. This is simply perfect. I have been resisting seeing Baz Luhrmann’s epic. I saw trailers on Qantas flights for months. I didn’t like the look of it. Then indifferent or bad reviews and friends who hated it and some pretty ugly Nicole-bashing by the Poms. I thought of Brian Mathews’ introduction to Manning Clark: a life when he quotes Manning’s response to The Bulletin’s September 1962 review of The History:

‘I wonder whether it is worth it to publish a book in Australia. One exposes oneself to such hostilities. I doubt whether I could endure it again’

I guess the difference with cinema superstars is that they are wealthy enough to be able to endure those blows – both Baz and Nic are on to their next projects, as the Academy Awards Ceremony showed. But somewhere it has to hurt, and I don’t hold with hitting below the belt.

This was the right place and the right time to see this film. No investment – passive. I took the first officer’s advice, and settled back.

'You can’t really bash up a fillum for doing what it says it intended to.'The retro intention of Australia is obvious from the opening titles – the motto in English and the kitsch coat of arms. You can’t really bash up a fillum for doing what it says it intended to. You can criticise the director’s intent, and you can perhaps debate the use of gigantic public funding (Tourism in this case) for a folly - but that’s something different.

Of all the things I want to say about this film, I want to go to the very end first; because the greatest surprise in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia is the final moment, when the film wants to play on the heart strings and force our emotional response.

The beautiful Aboriginal boy is about to run slomo after ‘King’ George, his Aboriginal elder or spirit. Lady Ashley can’t bear to let him go, Hugh’s chest heaves in sympathy but knows it must be so… ok, ok it’s kitsch and cliché – Baz stated this clearly at the start. But, lo, what do I hear ? It can’t be true. But yes, thine ears do not deceive thee. It is so: the ultimate emotional crunch moment of this film boldly entitled Australia is scored with Elgar – the Enigma Variation we all know so well, Number 9, 'Nimrod'.

I am gobsmacked by this more than anything else in the film, I suppose because I didn’t see it coming, no-one wrote about it, no-one warned me. I am infinitely more surprised by this than by the much discussed wobble board which is featured for all of ten seconds. Elgar! Elgar who himself was so dismayed that his pomp and circumstance had been usurped through official channels to become the ultimate jingoistic jingle of the Empire – Land of Hope and Glory.

Here his Enigma was a million miles away from being enigmatic. In order to bring the film to an emotional ending, Baz needed the heart and soul of Empire. Despite more than a hundred years of splendid music from Australian composers, despite a legion of them working in Australia and throughout the world today, the makers of this film resorted to the heart and soul of Empire. If ever there were a reason to move towards an Australian Republic then this is it.

Nothing could be more culturally revealing of our own sense of nationhood than this choice. Even if I give those responsible for the soundtrack the benefit of the doubt, this one is hard to reason. It is for me one of the queerest and kitschest films of recent years – and the caricatures are as much in the music as they are in the vision. The ten seconds of wobble board are no different from the echoes of Big Country, the Marlborough Man, The Magnificent Seven: we get a mouth organ, some dubbed lyricism meant to be the kid’s dreaming leitmotif, a bopping dance band at Gov house, Waltzing Matilda, and of course – 'Somewhere over the Rainbow' in multiple versions. This film is a queer creation. The bulging beefcake of Hugh Jackman’s chest, Nic’s androgynous form in contrast to those of the Aboriginal women, the beautiful and beautifully groomed young ‘creamy’ boy – and Judy. Actually, this film is as camp as a row of tents. The ‘China man’ (reference The Hawaiians) plays 'Rainbow' on a ukelele (reference the Israeli uke version which references the Tiny Tim version) and we hear this just creep in again at the end as we roll to end credits.

So, it is not the Tiny Tim recording – which at least we can understand in Australian terms of The Yellow House and Martin Sharp and his encouragement of Tiny Tim’s memorable marathons years later whence that version arose – it is the Israeli one. And it just happens to be that version which gave us one of the strangest moments of the 20:20 summit. No sooner had we arrived and sat down in the Great Hall in Parliament House, all of us primed and ready to think and give of our best ideas, than we were asked to sit and receive for a moment. The first feed was a video report on the Youth Summit which had preceded us. What was the soundtrack to that video? Louis Armstrong singing ‘What A Wonderful World’ and that Israeli version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’.

Where was any single person involved in that video, or signing off on it, who might have asked ‘why wouldn’t we use an Australian song here?’ The following day someone spontaneously sang Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly’s ‘From little things big things grow’ – why not that?

There are literally hundreds of songs that could have been used – just as there are for the ending of the film Australia – but no. The choice was music which is not only stirring (we all know that – we can all just about say where we were when and how we first heard the Enigma Variations) but goes much deeper. It is English – it sings England – and somewhere we all know that.

'There are literally hundreds of songs that could have been used – just as there are for the ending of the film Australia – but no. The choice was music which is not only stirring... but goes much deeper. It is English – it sings England...'It is peculiar how often Australian composers and composition are ignored. Music, past and present, of every kind and at every level is one of our greatest artistic endeavours and accomplishments. Why is it so left out of the conversation?

The soundtrack of Australia is pastiche – saccharine strings, thumping timpani – just as the director ordered, and in line with his stated intent. Hugh’s sculpted chest is a dead ringer for that of Charlton Heston in one of my very favourite films The Naked Jungle in which a mail order bride (Eleanor Parker) fetches up in the Amazonian jungle to be a planter’s wife.

In fact it is she who stares down his apparent coldness saying ‘an instrument is better when it is played’.

The opening sequences of Australia are pure Blue Lagoon. Indochine makes an appearance, as does Out of Africa ( the adventurer who just has to be off and away regularly and leaves the little lady to struggle with nature at home), as well as Gone with the Wind and its copy Tap Roots, starring Susan Hayward and Van Hefflin in lieu of Vivien and Clark.

All this is well done in terms of pastiche, and for a fan of the genre, which I am, enjoyable.

Now, if it had only been called Lust in the Bulldust, or Top End Tales, Sunburnt Country or Wide Brown Land, even Darwin, fewer bright folk might have been less upset. Despite the odd ‘below the belt’ she also gives now and then, I’m usually happy when Germaine (Greer) dares to give something a walloping: she often says things that everyone else is too timid to dare. But I also understood Marcia’s (Langton) defence: the attempt to include a stolen generation story in this matinee movie tribute may well be genuine, and if you accept the pure camp milieu, then Germaine’s objection to scrubbed clean Aboriginal people is beside the point – everything in this film is airbrushed.

And as offensive as many have found it, there are just as many people in Kazakhstan offended by Sasha Barron Cohen, and I expect a number of Vietnam Vets by Tropic Thunder. If Robert Downey Junior can be not only praised, but also nominated, for blacking up – then why shouldn’t Ursula Yovich for Baz? Well – I’m being flippant, and to tell you truth even I was a bit taken aback by that use of what was once known as Max Factor Egyptian Number Nine. But, if the retro thing is consistent, there are precedents from Joan Collins to Debra Paget, Ava Gardner to Sir Larry and even, in the very flesh, Frank Thring - the very last word in colonial camp.
But we know why it offended: because this film was not promoted or anticipated as kitsch campery and airbrushed fantasy. The title Australia, and the endless promos on Qantas and elsewhere else had us believe this would be something we, as Australians, could be proud of – an emblematic clarion call to the landscape we adore. Instead, we suddenly started seeing the trailers and felt a bit like that poor sod on Lesbos – ‘I’ve got nothing against gay women, he says, and they’re very good for our tourism, but I can’t call myself a Lesbian, yet that’s what I am – give me back the title of my identity.’

What the film Australia does is demonstrate just how strong, how subterranean, our ties to our colonisers remain. They are terrifyingly deep, as this cinematic moment proves. Deciding at the last moment that what would define the film’s soundtrack would be Rolf Harris’s wobble board, was in the end just another kitsch effect. The Enigma is England.


There is countless evidence that colonisation has made palace monkeys out of us – from wastefully ignoring the precious resource of first nations, to still eating Christmas hot roast when the thermometer hits 40, to managing to forget when we joined the US in a war against Iraq, that our nearest neighbour is a country of 220 million Muslim people. And would our nation-building have been different had we fought an early battle of independence, as did the Americans? Which decisions might have been different had Englishness and an unconscious longing for the old country not still remained unchallenged, untested by the pain of going it alone.


If we are to grow, we need our artists to sing with authentic voices. The early colonial painters’ eyes were often betrayed by their cultural backgrounds – they painted Aboriginal people with European features, the trees were not the right kind of green. By the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, though artists may still have needed the authority of European education and experiences, their eyes told them something different – the Heidelberg mob quite literally ‘saw the light’ and we started to have an authentic visual record of Australia.

Same with the composers – tell me that Sculthorpe, Meale, Plush and Edwards could have written what they did anywhere else in quite the same way? The twentieth-century case is strong for literature and film, and eventually our playwrights adopted an authentic vernacular: we’ve had the benefit of all that for a good while now.
Authenticity is important, and I think one of the problems many have had with the film Australia is that it lacks authenticity. Not just that it starts with documentary newsreel, leading the audience to think this will be factual, and then proceeds with pure fiction, but that many have come away saying ‘this is not Australia and I don’t want the global cinematic audience to think so.’ Unlike Indians who perhaps are saying of Slumdog Millionaire –‘yes, this is India – joy and colour and warts and all – this is India’

You see, I still claim Anna Kokkinos’s Head On as one of the greatest Australian films ever. Why? Authenticity – about Melbourne, about its youth, about the complexities of ethnicity, about the texture of our inner cities, about the music, about the performances- especially the Greek Australians Alex Dimitriades and Paul Capsis.

Yet authenticity is still often mysteriously held at arm's length.

Does authenticity have anything to do with survival? I think so. Too much under the rug, too much clinging to the past and ignorance of the present surely undermines the spirit. It has something to do Pascal Mercier’s ‘You’re not really awake when you don’t write. And you have no idea who you are. Not to mention who you aren’t’ (Pascal Mercier, The Night Train to Lisbon).

But we don’t have to pretend any longer that that’s all there is, or that what the old country valued is the best that there is. We can claim food for the soul from the works and the artists who are 100% of this land – the Aboriginal people of Australia – and those who have no connection whatsoever to Britain, or to Europe. If this understanding were deeply inside us for a few more generations, then I would hope that a film-maker doesn’t reach unconsciously for Elgar to make his emotional point.


Instead of talking so incessantly about the Aussie spirit and the great nation, we would do better 'Instead of talking so incessantly about the Aussie spirit and the great nation, we would do better to take hard and heroic action.'to take hard and heroic action. We live in an inhospitable land and there are some things we will never be able to control – ‘droughts and flooding plains’ are two of them. We have found antidotes to most of the snakes and spiders, but no matter how genuinely we grieve the dead, there’s no antidote to a shark if you swim in his territory, nor to fire if you forget its awesome power and settle in its inevitable path.


It’s a fact of cultural values – if arts and culture are not valued as essentials of life, essential food for the soul of the nation and its people, then when times are tough of course their creators and interpreters will not be considered in the same way as health, education, defence etc. Yet paradoxically, the first thing people turn to in crisis, as was evidenced in the bushfire telethons and services, is music – singing – playing - stories Alas, in times of economic crisis people do understandably look to hospitals, schools pensioners and workers who’ve lost their jobs, but exactly at the time it is most needed, food for the soul is often deemed expendable.

Yet it’s a mistake to cut away or neglect artists in disproportion – your town, city or nation’s artists can keep the spirit alive, and if your artists are encouraged towards authenticity – real responses to life as it really is in the here and now, then that helps too. Thinking and talking about reality helps – as does the mere inchoate experience of great beauty. If meditation in prayer to a deity is deemed helpful, then surely meditation in front of the visual splendour of Emily Kangewarre or the aural inspiration of Ross Edwards is also not just helpful- but essential.


Robyn Archer
Mildura, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne January/February 2009

The complete 10th Manning Clark lecture can be found on the website of Manning Clark House.


Further links

Manning Clark House

Robyn Archer is a singer, writer and Artistic Director who has performed throughout Australia and the world. She is an exponent and a champion of music theatre and the classic European cabaret tradition, and is always writing in various forms, from songs to shows to essays, articles, speeches and verse. Her many assignments as Artistic Director have included the Adelaide Festival in 1998 and 2000 and the Melbourne International Arts Festival 2002, 2003  and 2004. For full career details and current activities, go to The depArcher Lounge.


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