Works: written (distractions from reality)



In 1973 the Australian writer, Patrick White, won the Nobel Prize in Literature for, as the citation reads, ‘an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature’ — a continent (or its culture) that White was always forthright in his opinions on.

Paul Murphy, in an interview on the program, Nationwide, ABC TV, 1981:
Mr White, if you had to sum up what’s wrong with the Australian scene today, what points would you make?

Patrick White:
Everything is done today to distract us from reality — through royal weddings, through advertising, through the advertising of unnecessary goods, through expensive cars, that soporific thud of the cricket ball and gladiatorial displays by steak-fed footballers… Australia could sink through sport. There are so few of us that have anything else on their minds I feel. Reality, really, is the rape of this country for its material wealth, regardless of the shambles we’ll be in when we’ve appeased foreign interests and the dollars are blown. Whereas, reality as it could and ought to be is justice—moral and material—for all classes in an independent democracy where we have learned to defend ourselves through manpower and armaments only when necessary. But what is more essential—through sharpened minds.

This was in 1981. White died in 1990. Now, in 2012, the relentless same-making of the branding industry, corporatised sport, vapid television programming, flag-wagging nationalism and big money city development practices have blunted the senses and sidetracked reality to a low point he may not have pictured even in one of his most vitriolic moods. The material wealth is still flowing too, with the current mining boom feeding, and feeding off, China’s growth, allowing Australians a hard to believe respite, albeit fleeting we fear, from the global financial crisis.

White did not like Sydney but had decided to stay.

I can’t see much improvement in Sydney I must say but I shall continue to live here because I feel one has to fight certain elements in the place… political, social, the development of Sydney. I think Sydney has been developed in the wrong way.

Through forces I don’t understand, Sydney began taking on some of the more undesirable aspects of the North American city model: one central business district, tall buildings at the centre surrounded by a flat, suburban pancake, shopping malls, franchises; and lovely sandstone-built founding districts gutted then quartered by concrete expressways, Victorian arcades and lanes refilled with bland food courts and retail diversity killed off by the chain stores.

Of course, Sydney also has these beautiful little bays, marinas full of halyards tinkling against the masts of bobbing yachts, hundreds of big and little reserves of natural bushland butting up to suburban blocks, sunshine, possums and cockatoos, a casual attitude and generally happy people.

But there are bits — the constructed, installed, service-related bits we think of as typically ‘city’—that have a crushing sameness and appear to have been put together with an arrogant disregard for the feelings of the individual. Much of the diversity has been planned out of Sydney. This didn’t just happen randomly, it was planned, if you call planning the down and dirty deals that result from the intersecting agendas of developers, corporations, government and commercial lobbyists (like the Australian Hotels Association, which obstructed the opening of small bars for many years). Most of the bits of Sydney thus created are not nearly as easily engaged with as the parrots and beaches and sparkling harbour.

Exactly what it is, that makes some aspects of city living engaging, beautiful, thought-provoking, delightful, fascinating, unpredictable, astonishing, sexy, whacko—whatever it is you consider to be good—and what makes it bad, are not as obvious as we think. More trees? Better shops? Brilliant architecture? Better childcare? Good coffee? Is it just a list of more stuff to make people happy? I’m certain that for White, with his view of a dulled over, dumbed down and greedy Australia, happiness would have been a flimsy measure of success. Given the right stimulants, health, safety, money and entertainments, happiness is not so hard to get. While the whole of the city of Kabul probably needs a massive infusion of happiness, the affluent parts of Sydney need to lose some of theirs and possibly profit from some mind sharpening melancholy.


Photo, Patrick White 1973
Photo source, Dutch National Archives. Author unknown

This was written in 2012. The mining boom is over and the dollars have been blown.