Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Australian Ugliness, by Robin Boyd

I can’t remember where I first learnt about Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness, but I’m pretty sure it was from one of Barry Humphries’ books. It has his style all over it, or perhaps I should say it appears that the book’s style must have influenced Humphries himself.

Beyond those vague speculations, I don’t know much at all about this book’s background or its place in Australian culture. It was first published in 1960. My library copy is an original first run hardback, replete with cartoon like illustrations. I don’t know if it has been re-printed since.

The book itself is written in a very dry, witty style. There are plenty of lines that made me chuckle out loud. Like when he describes the foreign embassies in Canberra, likening their style to the ‘architectural equivalent of a full-dress diplomatic levee’. In the next sentence Boyd drops this gag, ‘Unfortunately the falsity of the costumes becomes so apparent in the bright light that the effect is more like a fancy dress party.’

It was this dry, droll style, of making jokes whilst keeping a perfectly straight face, that kept me going through the whole of the book, even when there were large swathes of – to me anyway – technical architectural language. I’ve always found art books difficult to read when they are describing visual objects, like paintings or buildings. My eyes just glaze over.

The major beef of The Australian Ugliness is what Boyd calls ‘featurism’ – a rather unfortunate word, indeed an ‘ism’ that never really took off. What he means here is an excess of ornamentation, the Australian need to put on extra airs and graces to make our buildings look interesting. He says we are so uncomfortable with our natural landscape that we have to practically deny that it exists.

This horror of nature is even extended to our signage for male and female public toilets. Says Boyd, ‘The puritan movement finally expanded beyond its object of protecting family life in the suburban developments, and came to mean the public denial of every natural requirement of the human animal.’ Boyd follows this with an amazing list of the different names given for male and female toilets. For example, Romeo and Juliet; Dave and Mabel; Adam and Eve. He cites a ‘confused case’ at the Springvale Hotel in Victoria where the signs on the toilet door read, Dave and Eve.

Here is Boyd again on the subject:

‘It may be argued that these amiable idiocies are the product of suburban style, not a contributory cause of it. Yet their surrealist absurdity represents a philistinian-puritan denial of reality which is one of the wellsprings of the annihilatory approach to natural and historical facts.’

I’m no expert on the subject matter that Robin Boyd discusses in The Australian Ugliness. The book seemed to me, strangely enough, both dated and still relevant. Dated because the book must have been received as ahead of its time upon publication, due to its witty, look-down-your-nose-at-the-world style and well argued put-downs of Australian visual culture. However, The Australian Ugliness still strikes one as pertinent today, with our sprawling suburban landscapes of what are now called ‘McMansions’, using up more space than we need, surely another variation of ‘featurism’.

Kath and Kim’s home kept on coming to mind when I was reading this book, with their huge, strangely empty looking sprawls of green grass, usurping the natural landscape. Not to mention Kath and Kim’s concern with the signage for male and female on the toilets of public venues (remember the episode where they organise a hen’s night out?).

An Australian literary curio, an acquired taste.

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