Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Lucky Country, by Donald Horne

I’ve long wanted to read Donald Horne’s classic, and now I have. I don’t know what to make of it though.

It’s written in a sophisticated, urban style, which is well enough as its 250 odd pages paints Australia as a dreadfully parochial backwater. Horne is witty too. And his elegant writing style holds up well 45 years after the book was originally published (1964).

Yet in a lot of ways this is a long opinion piece about something very broad and abstract: a whole country. True, he does break Australia down into a lot of subjects for individual dissection. I found his chapter on Menzies fascinating. But the trouble for me when reading these opinion pieces on national character is that I can’t figure out if what the author is saying is true. I have nothing to test what the author says against my own experiences.

Here is an example. I think I know what Horne means, then again I’m not so sure.

"Australians ‘learn’ their culture. They ‘learn’ it as if it described their own life and attitudes, when in part it does not, and this process seems to make the relevant in the culture they ‘learn’ also unreal. This sense of unreality can affect even those who have ‘learned’ their culture very thoroughly: they cannot detect the difference between their own society and the societies of the culture they have ‘learned’. But some of the valuable parts of the culture they ‘learn’ – its awareness of horror, failure, inadequacy can also seem unreal."

Horne goes on in this vein for a little while longer. It was doing my head in typing it up, so I’ve stopped. You get the idea though.

I remember George Orwell wrote a short book, during the second world war, which was about the national character, called The Lion and the Unicorn. Reading Orwell make all these pronouncements about English character, I thought, can this possibly apply to every Englishman and woman?

This is a curious book about Australia in the 1960s. It makes Australia sound like a pretty boring, vapid place. No wonder it drove people like Barry Humphries semi-mad and gave us characters like Dame Edna – the personification of Melbourne.

Horne said it would be inevitable that we would have much higher Asian immigration. That came to pass. And he also insisted that Australia would have to become more innovative and competitive. The Hawke-Keating era ushered that in.

However, The Lucky Country gave me a kind of creepy feeling. It has an artificial air.

Sophisticated, sharp, witty, urbane, yet kind of unreal. I don’t think I’ll be rushing to read another Donald Horne book.

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