Thursday, 10 December 2015

On the Beach: Salisbury Review, Winter 2015

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"Land of Tomorrow" is the title of my new article for the Salisbury Review:

In Neville Shute’s 1957 classic On the Beach, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the southern parts of South America, are the remaining habitable places in a post-apocalyptic world. Radiation poisoning has enveloped the northern hemisphere in the aftermath of nuclear war making that part of the planet unfit for human habitation. The great hope, according to the supposed scientific theory Shute calls the “Jorgensen Effect”, is that radiation levels steadily decline due to weather effects and allow for human life to carry on in Australia or, at least, Antarctica.

The notion of Australia and New Zealand as a refuge for a non-American Anglosphere had a certain appeal for Brits in the post-war years. Neville Shute (1899-1960) was himself a British expat who emigrated to Australia in 1950. He was not on his own. The threat Imperial Japan posed to Australia, especially during the crucial year of 1942, had jolted the Australian government into adopting a “populate or perish” campaign after the cessation of hostilities in the Pacific War, the thinking being that a population of 7 million was way too small to defend our island continent. The original idea called for nine-out-of-ten migrants to be British; the mix, over time, proved much more eclectic. Still, of the 4.2 million immigrants who arrived here between 1945 and 1985, as many as 40 per cent came from Britain and Ireland.

The Australian government’s post-war promotional material enticed would-be migrants with depictions of Down Under as “The Land of Tomorrow”, a frontier world in which a carefree rural outlook appeared to overlap with cosy suburbia. In 1964, when my wife’s migrant family moved into the sparkling new British satellite town of Elizabeth, there really were sheep grazing on the other side of the road. Over the long haul, of course, suburbia expanded in every direction and Elizabeth became a dormitory suburb of the nearest city, the provincial capital Adelaide.

For the children of British migrants, and Australian children generally, life often possessed a paradisiacal quality. Many now speak of having been allowed to roam free with friends all day on a weekend or during school holidays, being home before the streetlights came on the only parental stipulation. The McCann family’s rules were a little stricter than that, but a stretch of untouched nature, in the form of the Sturt River, was in easy cycling distance of our suburban home, and my friends and I spent bountiful hours there. The only problem with our local watercourse, alas, was that every decade or so it flooded the local district and thousands of suburban houses were affected. In 1970, the municipal council buried our beloved river, or more accurately creek, in what might be described as a cement sepulchre. Children today no longer fish tadpoles or any manner of freshwater critter out of the Sturt River – but they have their cable television and social media to be getting on with.

Many British-born friends, those who make up the tail end of the Baby Boomer phenomenon, remember their parents falling in love with the ever-present blue sky, the peace-of-mind of full employment and those handsome stand-alone bungalows that were eminently affordable. This older generation, which experienced the horror of the Blitz and dour life of post-war austerity, knew the extent of their good fortune – although if Australia back then could be called paradise it was one that nevertheless lacked some of the finer points of sophisticated living. Adelaide, the third largest Australian city at the time, had only a small number of restaurants in the 1950s. Though blessed with a range of wine-growing regions, few Australians took much interest in the nectar of the gods, preferring beer or sherry leftover from the Christmas pudding.

This brings us to one of the drawbacks of growing up during the 1950s and 60s on the “wild frontiers” of a Pacific incarnation of Britannia. We lived at the end of the world and, to borrow from Milan Kundera, life was elsewhere. The young and ambitious, from Barry Humphries to Clive James, felt they had to make it in the Mother Country before their own outwardly brash but inwardly self-doubting compatriots would take them seriously. There was a sense, despite the endless sunshine and the pristine beaches and the absence of crime and poverty, that exciting developments – in both popular and high culture – happened elsewhere.

The Beatles’ 1964 visit to Australia represents a case in point. Adelaide, notwithstanding a population of only 900,000 at the time, created the world record for a crowd turning up to meet the Fab Four. Three hundred thousand citizens lined the four-mile journey from the airport to the Town Hall. There are different explanations for this unlikely occurrence, not the least being British ex-pats living in satellite towns such as Elizabeth and Salisbury, cheering on four working-class lads from the Old Country, who had conquered the world with their poppy tunes and cheeky humour. Another perspective, and maybe more significant, is that The Beatles symbolised a fresh (we might say bohemian) take on life that contrasted strikingly with the conservative mores that prevailed until then.

The prime ministership of Sir Robert Menzies (1949-66) had, for instance, safeguarded Australia from the welfare excesses and fiscal irresponsibility characteristic of Clement Atlee’s governance. Moreover, the kind of “socially progressive” legislation associated with Harold Wilson’s first administration (1964-70) garnered little support in Canberra until the Australian Labor Party broke its twenty-three year electoral drought in December 1972. Australians seemed to be an old-fashioned people inhabiting a newly fashioned nation-state. A few might have been nostalgic for the glory days of the British Empire but the idea – or possibility – of trading our sovereignty for membership of a new supranational institution, such as the European Common Market, was never in the offing. We were free to be ourselves, to follow are own path; only we began to fear that our conservative way of doing things might be passé.

Helen Townsend’s iconic Baby Boomers: Growing up in Australia in the 1940s, 50s and 60s (1988) and the accompanying The Baby Boomers Picture Show (1990) captured some of the ambiguity of a generation that trashed one tradition after another only to end up feeling nostalgic for a world they did their best to destroy. Townsend was quick to mock the formal grammar lessons of yesteryear, and equate the Australian education system of the 1950s and 60s with totalitarianism. She even likened the public address speaker in every classroom during that time as “a sort of big brother spy system”, regardless of the fact it was an audio speaker, not a closed-circuit camera. The ubiquitous school marching bands of the era, not to mention Scout and Girl Guides gatherings, were “reminiscent of a Nuremberg rally”. The Baby Boomers Picture Show documentary similarly bemoaned the greyness and regimentation of the Menzies era, only to declare at the end – paradoxically enough – that abandoning old-fashioned traditions had not ushered in a new rendering of paradise but diminished the paradise we already possess: “We’re not anchored anymore. We’re not at home. We’ve lost our address.”                   

Today, to be sure, there are still reasons to believe Australia remains “the land of tomorrow” and that a sunny optimism about the place is not entirely unjustified. The breadth of our middle class, apart from New Zealand of course, has no parallel in the world. Australia, thanks to an unprecedented mining boom and the strength of China’s economy, remained mostly unaffected by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). The conservative Tony Abbott has been replaced by the less conservative Malcolm Turnbull, and yet Abbott’s greatest achievement – Operation Sovereign Borders – remains in force. The crisis of irregular maritime arrivals and the people smuggling industry in general, so prevalent during the last Labor period in government (2007-13), has been solved.
That said, the kind of modern-day bohemianism associated with – but not, of course, created by – The Beatles and the Sixties generation has taken root in this island continent, like some introduced noxious pest. Bohemian socialism, which takes the form of identity politics in Australia, advocates every kind of anti-bourgeois divisiveness imaginable, from a separate parliament for Indigenous Australians to Sharia Law for Muslims, and all in the name of “social justice”. On the education front, moreover, the so-called totalitarianism of Helen Townsend’s childhood education – that is, academic rigour in a respectful and disciplined environment – has given way to PC orthodoxy, in which (say) exposing flaws in Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming theory might be considered a crime against humanity.                                 

This brings us full circle to Nevil Shute’s “Jorgensen Effect”, the notion that, after a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere, radiation levels might steadily decline due to weather effects and so allow human life to carry on in Australia. The trouble, as both Shute’s novel and Stanley Kramer’s 1959 movie adaptation of On the Beach disclose, is that the “Jorgensen Effect” turns out to be a false hope. Radiation fallout will inevitably make Australia no less inhabitable than countries in the northern hemisphere. Optimist that I am, however, I take solace from the powerful message conveyed in a discarded street banner at the end of Kramer’s film: “There is still time…Brother.”      

Daryl McCann has a blog at