Perspective is vital if we are to make balanced assessments of anything and the past in particular. The Australia which the likes of Greer, James and co., left was a very, very different Australia to the one in which I grew up not so long after – the sixties.
Since the sixties Australia has changed even more and now, having lived in more than half a dozen countries around the world, including the UK, North America, Europe, India and Africa, I can say that Australia stands today as one of the best places to live, intellectually and otherwise.
In some ways this misplaced adulation of a few Australians of that time, has encouraged many to see with jaundiced eye , when the fact is that what they left behind no longer exists and has not existed for more than half a century. It is also worth noting that many Australians of the same generation of ‘those who left and found fame,’ did not leave an also found ‘fame’ or achieved immeasurably in their chosen fields.
Were, or are, James, Greer, Hughes and Humphries really so exceptional or are they more exceptional because we still wear the intellectual hair-shirt of imagined colonial inferiority? There are writers as great, if not greater than Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes who never left the country and there are comedians as good as Humphries, who, has become famous as much as anything because he has played to the ‘gallery of bigotry’ of the British in particular and the international community, in regard to stereotypical images of Australians, rendered as humour. Much of what has been feted about Barry Humphries humour is, to younger generations dated and not even mildly humorous.
I would question that they are as great as they are often said to be or the best that Australia produced of their generation. Unless of course ‘best’ is defined by an international community who likes to believe any Australian talent is exceptional and therefore remarkable.
A careful reading of history and some detailed ancestry research into their generation does not reveal a smugly complacent pre-Whitlam stasis. And did they really believe that ‘life in Australia was squandered or at best narrowed,’ or is that what they said with hindsight, in a bid to defend their rejection of their homeland?
None of them have lived again in Australia for long enough to know enough about the country of their birth or even to understand what being Australian now is. They all gave their allegiance to a foreign country and there is nothing wrong with that, except they all continued to pontificate on an Australia which no longer existed and an Australia they did not know, as often as not to pander to the audience of their new homeland.
And what a pretentious comment:
“There was almost a willed torpor about Australia which these brilliant children wanted to escape.” Thomas Kenneally.
This says of course that they were all so brilliant, so exceptional, so above everyone else that they had to leave to be recognised. It also says they had such huge egos they were never going to get the adulation they craved in a egalitarian society like Australia which had no time for pompous, self-obsessed, elitist and intellectually arrogant snobs.
Let’s remember, they left in a way that countless young Australians have left since the 1950’s, and still do, in a bid to see the world, because they could afford to do so in ways that many British and American kids could not and still cannot, and to have adventures. Most came back. Some did not. A few of those who stayed away were successful, most were not.
One could ask if these expat Australians were really so novel, so exceptional, so brilliant, or, if they merely ‘stood out’ in the cultures where they chose to make their homes. Of course they were and are talented but more so than others who stayed? I doubt it. And using them to stereotype Australians and Australians of today and of generations which came after them is more of the same tedious, old-fashioned, colonial self-hatred which most Australians no longer feel and which is kept alive by fantasies about our famous expats and self-indulgent academics and those who write pompous prose like this article.
Australia did not lose when the likes of our ‘famous expats’ decided to settle in other countries, but I suspect they did and I also suspect that a few of them know it which is why they work so hard at inventing non-existent ties with their long-lost homeland and remain desperate to be seen as Australians and experts on Australia when they are in fact neither.