It’s Saturday, and I’ve been for my long walk with Cheeseboy and the dogs, and Rigby has had his swim. A steamy morning has become a wet afternoon, ideal for taking it easy and relaxing with an old movie. That’s what I’ve done.
The movie is not so old – 1986 – but it’s a movie I’ve been thinking about watching since I discovered it on Prime a month or so again. It’s an Australian movie – Kangaroo.
I think I’d seen the movie before, in the nineties perhaps, but it’s the book I remembered better. It’s perhaps one of D. H. Lawrence’s less known works, however, it’s an interesting novel, especially for an Australian reading about his country through the eyes of a famous English novelist. When did I read it? I’m not sure. The mid-eighties, maybe. I can picture the paperback in my mind – I have it somewhere – an old Penguin edition in white.
I read the book with the fascination of a young Australian male wanting to discover something of the identity I belonged to. Much of the history I knew – Sydney in the years after WW1 – we had studied it at high school. I knew about the New Guard, which is reflected in this piece, knew of the history to come in a period after the novel – de Groot slashing at the ribbon on the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the colossal figure of Jack Lang, the premier of NSW when the depression came along.
I read it with the fervour of a young man wanting to soak up and learn as much as I could. This was an era when I also read many of the existentialist novelists like Sartre and Camus when I searched through the words and works of great authors for something I could believe in. Kangaroo was more personal because it spoke to the place I had come from.
There was much I recognised in the novel, though not all of it pleased me. It’s in the movie, too, though with less articulation and none of Lawrences’ intense mental ramblings.
The book’s main character is Richard Somers, transparently a proxy for Lawrence himself – a controversial writer with a German wife who exiles himself from England, coming to Australia for a new start. All this Lawrence did also. In the book, Somers encounters a neo-fascist organisation of ex-diggers led by a charismatic former general code-named Kangaroo.
They seek to draw him in. They intend to re-make Australia, do away with the unions and the socialists, and make a world something loosely based on mateship and sacrifice.
There is something in Somers that is drawn towards this. Kangaroo demands love from him, and there’s something seductive in such an entreaty. In the end, he can’t, as we know he cannot, and nor does he join forces with the union movement on the other side. Ultimately he departs the land.
The politics of this I found less interesting than the human elements. The world at that time was rife with such movements – fascists in Germany and Italy and other places doing battle against socialism and those who had betrayed them. There was the New Guard in Australia, though it never amounted to much; the spin on it in this version is that it was based on brotherly love.
More interesting to me was the coming together of Somers with his Australian neighbours. He rejects the country on an intellectual level but is drawn to it sensually by fascination and desire. It’s the vitality that captures him, a sun-bronzed physicality that is essentially practical; a sensual, unassuming masculinity. Like many who live in their mind, he is attracted by those who act – and the Australian men he portrays in this are all of that type. They’re canny, robust characters with blunt natures, though capable of sophistry. To do comes easily to them, to act and be, even if it comes down to violence. They are raw spirits, as seen through his cultivated eyes. (Jack Calcott, as played very well by John Walton in the movie, embodies this).
Reading all those years ago, I recognised the type, and it made for a conflict in me. Much is admirable in that character, and it’s a character the world has come to love – easy and amiable. It’s what is lacking from it that dismayed me.
I share some of those attributes being an Australian, and I’m glad of many of them – the directness and honesty, the casual masculinity, I think. But, very clearly, I’m someone for whom the life of the mind is precious.
It’s all very well to be peopled by men of action, but it’s the thinkers that take us forward. It’s what fails Somers in the end – there needs to be more to it than this. We need more than instinct – there needs must be thought and reflection also, and imagination. I read it back in the eighties and recognised then the suspicion of anything fancy or intellectual – as if they were a bit dodgy, a bit soft.
We have moved on from then, and it’s not as pronounced now perhaps, but it still dismays. How I wish we had an intellectually curious culture like France or Germany. I’d love for us to engage with ideas and make the discussion of them a public affair. I yearn for that personally, and I believe it’s what we need as a nation at a cultural and intellectual level.
This movie triggered me for those reasons, but mostly because it got me thinking of our government. It has been a deliberate ploy from the day that Howard assumed power in 1997 to discourage that kind of curiosity. I think John Howard, a very stiff and proper type, felt uncomfortable with such things, but there were also excellent political reasons for it.
If people don’t think they won’t question. If we pander to their appetites and speak in their language, they won’t stir to make trouble. If we give them someone to vent their fear and hostility against, they won’t turn it on us.
With this current government, we have reached the apogee of this. It feels like a betrayal of what we could be and should be, and Morrison ultimately a subversive who is prepared to pander to our baser selves to the detriment of our cultural soul. He cares nothing for that, perhaps because he is without qualities himself – a shallow, opportunistic man who seeks only power, not justice. Like many, like Cheeseboy today, I hate him. I hate him because he is mediocre and selfish and without a skerrick of true patriotism.
I hate him because he is deliberately anti-intellectual and is happy to mock such pretensions as if they were unworthy. He plays to the simple mentality, and it suits him if we aspire to nothing more ambitious or worthy than a comfortable living. Our leader should be seeking to elevate us, as a nation and as a people, but such a nation would have nothing of such a superficial nonentity as him (and much of his party), and so instead, he manipulates opinion to his own ends. He is deplorable, as so many recently have been.
We deserve better leaders than this. We deserve to think and wonder for ourselves. We deserve to live in a country enlarged by possibility and the excitement of becoming more as a people. A true leader would encourage us to become bigger, not smaller.
I think ultimately, the likes of Morrison will be found out. I think we live in a time when many established attitudes are being challenged and turned on their head, despite the likes of Morrison. Bit by bit, old ways of being and thinking are being chipped away at, as they must be. We live in a time when leadership has come from below because there’s such a lack of it at the top.
As an Australian and someone who always wanted to be proudly known as an Australian, I hope this movement catches here as well, as there are signs that it will. In the end, we need the leadership from above to seize the moment to allow for all of us to be better. Right now, that’s just hope, but I live for it.
Funny, I started off writing about an old book and movie and turned it into a diatribe. Everything is political these days.