Timid Minds

CAL / Meanjin Essay

‘Cringe’, wrote A.A. Phillips, is ‘a disease of the Australian mind’. This was an unpleasant enough notion in the Australia of the 1950s, then a remnant colonial monoculture with no separate language to hide behind. Now with our cosmopolitan aspirations and liberal assumptions, it seems unthinkable.

Arthur ‘Angell’ Phillips, critic and schoolmaster, had been commissioned by Clem Christesen to write ‘The Cultural Cringe’ for Meanjin in 1950. Clem did not much like the essay when it came in but ran it anyway, and eventually conceded that the reader response had been gratifying. Alliteration always helps and the phrase soon entered the language though some, like the member of the Commonwealth Literary Fund when asked to support publication of The Australian Tradition, a collection of A.A. Phillips’ essays, wanted ‘The Cultural Cringe’ dropped. Australian culture, he argued, needed bolstering not admonishing. [1]

But A.A.Phillips was no reprimander. His assessment was affectionate but very much to the point. Menzies’ Australia was an insecure, often sycophantic nation, its cultural baggage a complex mix of adulation and hostility. Intellectuals headed to Oxford or Cambridge almost as a matter of course. The centrifugal pull of the great British metropolis was irresistible and the anticipation of rejection must have guaranteed it. A.A.Phillips’ recognition of the tendency to tag along dutifully behind England instead of doing our own thing may have been a bit too close to the bone and the psychological insight uncomfortable. He knew what Australian intellectuals were up against, not only within the institutions of the day but also inside their own heads, and he named the crippling lack of self esteem which yearned for Australia’s meaty individualism to be appreciated. But by the early 1950s there were signs of real change. Returned soldiers and artists and writers among the refugees and ‘New Australians’ were making intellectual life here more complex. Debates in the pubs and at the university seem to have been increasingly about our place in our region and the distinctive shape of Australian culture. [2]

Arthur ‘Angell’ Phillips did not fit the mould. He was an Australian Jew whose bookish family had been here since the 1820s, after a short time spent in London’s Whitechapel. His father had been a president of the Australian Natives’ Association, his mother wrote pieces for the weekly papers and a novel. Except for a pre-war stint at Oxford, Arthur spent very little time in Britain and did not enjoy it much. His tastes were European, his reading wide and his eye on an emerging Australian culture perceptive and acerbic. His critical writings about the Bulletin School of the 1890s as the beginnings of an Australian tradition meant that he was typecast, somewhat reluctantly, for the rest of his life as one of Australian literature’s foremost advocates and interpreters through his regular reviews and critical essays. But first and foremost he was a schoolmaster and for over forty-five years at Wesley College generations of schoolboys were taught to comprehend that ‘finely responsive reading is primarily an act of surrender, and only secondarily an act of judgment’.

Australian poetry and fiction were always part of his curriculum, and the anthologies he produced with Ian Maxwell, from as early as 1932, meant that some Australian writing was included in the syllabus of the English Department at Melbourne University. The Australian Tradition, published by Cheshire in 1958, was an attempt to counter-balance The Great Tradition by F.R. Leavis, which had already defined the ground for the canon, and English Departments around the world had fallen into line.

From this distance, Phillips’ diagnosis of the post colonial Australian psyche probably prepared the ground for those swingeing works of history and culture of the next couple of decades, works the scale and confidence of which have rarely been attempted again, intellectual fashion and increasing cultural complexity mitigating against them – books sweeping in their scope, short on introspection, utterly sure of their ground. Fine writers, all of them, and men who for whom the Cringe was unimaginable. If any of them suffered from self-doubt, the point was to conceal it.

Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend appeared first in 1958, then, in 1960, came Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Pacific and Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness. The first of Manning Clark’s six volume History of Australia appeared in 1962, and Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country in 1964. Australian painters and composers were not cringing either. In 1961 Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, Sidney Nolan and others successfully showed at the Whitechapel Galleries in London to largely good notices. Peter Sculthorpe returned from Oxford in 1961 with ‘a sharpened awareness of things Australian’ and his great Sun Music series was composed and premiered 1965-69. In 1970 the first history of Australian culture appeared, Geoffrey Serle’s From Deserts the Prophets Come, an iconic Fred Williams’ desert landscape on the jacket.

Each in its own way was a statement of cultural confidence written with that ‘fine edge of Australian responsiveness’ to use A.A. Phillips’ phrase, and the ‘security and distinction’ that doing so gave its interpreters. Their perspective was from here, from within the damaged past and the transplanted class divides of a settler nation, recording the melancholy and the dire mistakes of displaced people. None was written with an international readership in mind, none would create a ripple anywhere else. Even when The Lucky Country was renamed for Penguin UK Australia in the Sixties, only the Australian branch office noticed. The English-speaking world wasn’t much interested and few of the books would ever be translated. But the great project of cultural self-definition had begun.


Cringe still had deep roots at Melbourne University by the time I arrived in the early sixties. I did not know enough to argue with those who ranked Australian literature ‘second rate’ or to challenge the Dean who discouraged me from taking Australian history because it was ‘rather thin’. Instead, I steeped myself in the Renaissance and the Reformation and in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse Literature. By the end of my second year I was in a student household where we swapped the latest Patrick White and Randolph Stow and stayed up all night writing scripts and making costumes for revues and plays. But it was not until my fourth year when I stumbled into a new subject called Australian Prehistory that I began to comprehend where I was. Led by a considerable Hungarian scholar of the Central European Paleolithic, whose qualifications were not recognized here, I joined a group heading for the Nullabor in the long vacations.  Alexander Gallus showed us how to read the land and signs of human occupation. He introduced us to Jung, and, around the campfire at night, encouraged us to imagine the people who had inhabited the sinkholes we were excavating by day, people who had left their quartz axes in the fine white sand and their intricate fingerlines on the smoke-stained walls deep in the labyrinth of the caves.

Cringe didn’t come into it.


I went to Arthur Phillip’s funeral in 1985 with its schoolboy guard of honour and its throng of elderly actors and writers, not because I knew him well but to pay homage to the man who had contributed so much to what we now took for granted. The ‘upright carriage’ he advocated of cultural confidence was by then the norm, unstoppable, a given, or so we liked to think.

This was an era of much activism and feminism, of doing your own thing. There were dozens of us, starting little theatres and film companies and publishing houses in crumbling warehouses, all of us with minute resources but galvanized by a sense of possibilities and collective ideals. We were having ideas and commissioning them, interviewing politicians about where they stood on equal pay and abortion and holding them to account in the press. We backed our own judgment about the new writers and thinkers who came with their portraits of the place, supporting and reassuring, all learning as we went. Publishers then paid tiny advances, films and plays were low budget, marketing was largely word of mouth and parties not yet about networking. But the print and broadcast media was hungry for stories of the phenomenon of it all. (Television was mostly oblivious, of course, and author profiles and ‘Australian stories’ were still years away.) We shared information across artforms and companies and saw ourselves as being in the larger cultural project, whatever it was, together.

The Cringe in its original form sometimes surfaced at Writer’s Week in Adelaide where overseas writers were still being given preferential treatment and better accommodation, and in occasional outbursts of paranoia in the pub and but it did not run very deep. Australia was where it was all happening. British publishers made overtures to our authors for British Commonwealth rights and were astonished to be turned down. The tone of the annual survey of Australian literature in the TLS made us cross, with reviewers inclined to whack writers for sounding ‘too Antipodean’, but we saw it as their problem not ours. Selling rights to the English was never easy but American agents and publishers behaved for a heady while as if they had discovered a new frontier of books waiting to be born. We sourced novels and stories for translation from our region and produced kids books in Turkish, Greek and Vietnamese for here. As I write this, it all sounds too good to be true and of course, in the end, it was. From the mid eighties on our rapid growth and expensive distribution were starting to give us sleepless nights.

We made our own creative spaces in the culture – although ‘creativity’ was not yet a buzzword and ‘spaces’ meant simply places where new work could flourish, the conditions needed for cultural production which in the case of books seemed to us to be quite simple – as much writing time as was needed, editorial support, lots of discussion face-to-face. The ghosts were not, to quote A.A. Phillips again, ‘ sitting in on the tête-à-tête between the Australian reader and writer, interrupting in the wrong accent.’   We used to joke that our books talked to each other through their threads of ideas. It still seems a better way to work.

Australian writing, if we ever bothered to define it, meant writing that was original, challenging, fully imagined and unfettered by worn out scholarly protocols. It was writing that was argued about, sought after, set on school syllabuses, even for a few short years taught in Australian universities until the new cringe to the French set in. The ‘relaxed erectness of carriage’, was now the norm, or so we liked to think. But in our little bubble at the edge of the world, we were becoming far too big for our boots, and meanwhile economic rationalism, like the cane toad, was spreading south.


This was still a time when Australian cultural activity and a political climate of big possibilities and ‘punching above our weight’ were aligned.  Policy makers listened to experts on the ground, practicing artists and writers were in positions to make decisions about arts policy and funding. The corporates were not yet running the place. But the election of the neo-conservative Howard government in 1996 ensured that the dominance of the marketplace was complete and quite rapidly an insular hard-heartedness prevailed.

The ‘minatory ghost’ has been at the levers of the global market machine for decades and we have all been snagged in the workings. The corporatization of the universities and cultural institutions meant larger salaries and career paths for some but for many short term contracts meant insecurity. People inevitably took fewer risks. Research corralled in profit centres encourages the promotion of the complicit not the brave and cannot suit the slow build needed for creative and intellectual work.  The sums don’t work, nor do the spaces. The business model with its emphasis on predictable outcomes and competition encourages over-claiming and is a dead weight for individual artists and companies competing for public funding. It almost always guarantees that the work, whatever it is will be under-cooked.

Political correctness, once a source of jokes, had now become a straightjacket, used by both sides of politics – by conservatives as a way of short-circuiting discussion of injustice and inequity, and by ideologues on the left and those seeking the security of high-minded ethical processes. It is more than fifteen years since it all unraveled. First there was the self-righteous uproar over Helen Garner’s The First Stone.  Then the eagerness to find a new young multicultural writer which produced and rewarded a ‘Demidenko’, a series of identity witch-hunts followed, and then the inevitable and understandable ‘new generationalism’ crying discrimination against youth and popular culture. The blaming left its scars: for those who woke up one day and found themselves in the firing line for saying the unacceptable or just for being in the way, the vehemence was divisive and dismaying. And despite the books that poured forth and the frequent debates, many of the so-called gatekeepers are still with us.

A long period of cultural navel-gazing followed – the endless, sometimes myopic Culture Wars, the polarising History Wars, and the ever-widening gulf between public policy and cultural concerns. We, the ‘enlightened liberal élites’ were seen to be talking only to ourselves about our own concerns. Only rarely were the divides fearlessly examined between the affluent with their rapidly rising levels of consumption, the concerns of Howard’s battlers, or the rural poor everywhere. The increasingly frequent local outbreaks of xenophobia and racism were deplored and the government blamed, but there were few attempts to comprehend them as symptoms of a growing global malaise – and in any case neither side of politics was listening.


A.A. Phillips identified a species he called ‘the denaturalized intellectual’ as the Cringe’s unhappiest victim – and cursed him down to ‘his indifferent eyebrows’. The eyebrows may not be indifferent, but  twelve years of a Howard Government followed by three years of Rudd and Gillard, has ensured that the old Cringe, which A. A. Phillips saw as a form of estrangement of the intellectual, has morphed into a kind of stylish but timid conformity. The timid intellectual holds politicians in contempt and feels free to lecture them occasionally, but fails to hold them to account – and imagine new mechanisms that might start them listening again.

We are the only Western democracy with no bill of rights; there has been no equivalent of the Hutton enquiry in the UK, no serious public investigation into the increase of corruption in our globalised economy, no exploration of the likely impact effect of climate change in our region and our responsibility to peoples displaced. It is a long time between books of fearless reportage by writers with time and resources to dig as deep as they must dig into Australia’s relationship with the rest of the world. Journalists who can write fast, tell a good story, sniff out a scandal and do a professional interview now write almost all the local works of social and political commentary and we import the rest. Some of them are great reads but only rarely are they works that will change anything.  Despite more hard-hitting essays being published, more forums for debate existing than ever before, more thinktanks probing the issues that define us and will shape the future, the capacity for intellectuals with expertise to influence public policy is at an all time low.[3]

There are many impediments to those intellectuals re-entering the public debate and contributing to policy-making in the way they once did. Much needs to be confronted – including self-censorship. Australia doesn’t score well on Freedom of Speech indices. Our print media are contracting. Newspapers and journals here are more tightly controlled for content than those of most other western countries. Owners call the shots and are rarely challenged. One of our best magazines that promotes itself as a journal of ideas does not provide any coverage at all of Middle East politics or of Afghanistan or the aftermath of the war in Iraq – but its silence may well be preferable to the misinformation peddled elsewhere.

Our commentators and politicians seem to suggest that globalisation will save us in our island continent. How similar we are in outlook to each other, how confidently we can appeal to a homogenous liberal readership and Western state of mind. There’s comfort in waiting for others to act and being interminably ‘in conversation’ on panels at festivals all over the world. Since 9/11 the big questions been turned into global questions and, inevitably, we cannot find answers to these questions alone.

We welcome international speakers – the celebrity intellectual – who tell us what we want to hear: that Islam is all evil, that the rise of China can only be malevolent, that a military presence in Afghanistan is the best we can do, that the rest of the world is clamouring to come here, that our form of democracy and economy is the only benign and enlightened model. Only rarely do we challenge or contextualise what these speakers say and journalists leave the audience to do the research in order to ‘make up their own mind’  – as an ABC spokesperson said recently about what now passes for the new balanced rerporting. While the issues needing informed analysis and humane and lateral solutions proliferate, we are often exposed to something rather close to propaganda, or so it seems to me.

Festivals of Big Ideas and Big Ideas for the Next Generation (which, wisely, stays away), have proliferated around the English-speaking world as if in response to the fear that grips us all in the dead of night – a security blanket of like minds, international intellectuals joining local experts mocking those who seek the consolation of religion, bemoaning the absence of social democracy and feeding our prejudices. We bask in a semblance of cosmopolitanism and being in the club.

Talking is not doing: a talkfest dominated culture cannot be a courageous one, or one that can effectively inform public policy. Crucial debates packaged as entertainment don’t create change.  Audiences are consumers rather than citizens, booking the sessions out, asking their questions, getting their books signed and going away until next year. The emphasis is all wrong, the effort misplaced.


The times don’t suit those who want to produce the kind of work that needs time and deep thought and courage. They suit best those who have the stamina and personality to perform. Those whose work needs the freedom to take risks and speak truth to power have much to lose – and the culture is the poorer for it. Despite our cultural confidence and easy gait through the festivals and airports of the world, we still rely on many of the same filters that A.A. Phillips would recognize.

The great British metropolis, as it always has, sieves for us the world’s writing in languages other than English. The selection of books for translation into English is largely made in the United Kingdom. Most of them are works of fiction. Few are works of cultural, philosophical, political analysis or cross-cultural theory that might better reflect our particular concerns and help us to understand the divides we must learn to straddle – between the West where we still belong and our region of India, the Middle East and Asia. The number of books read in translation in Australia, as in the United States, is low and the amount of actual translation done in this country infinitesimal despite our having, as we always have, fine translators and scholars in our midst.

Imagine encouraging communities here who produce their own intellectuals and poets to participate in our thinking through our ‘big ideas’, to help select works for translation. Many have come from countries where local publishing is damaged or censored or is in a similar emerging state not unlike this country’s publishing was thirty years ago but publication on the internet is leaping ahead. Stories of the recent past are being written. Issues of modernity and the rise of fundamentalisms are being widely debated – and lived out – in Europe and the Middle East in ways we rarely hear about. Dissemination of ideas from non-Western parts of the world is not encouraged. Language barriers and ‘security concerns’ mean that the wider public’s awareness of them is negligible and their response to both the international propagandists and to well-meaning cultural relativists is ignored. Contemporary writing in Farsi or Arabic or any of the other languages in our region is rare in public libraries, which, if anything, confine themselves to the classics. Are there any book groups and creative writing courses in languages other than English? Instead immigrants are encouraged to study Business English while keeping their poets and their perceptions to themselves.

There is a great deal we can and must do in this country in our own name. ‘Australia’ does have a point of view and a mix of peoples that is unique. Self-definition is still the great unfinished cultural project and always will be – but without contributions from our changing population we are talking only to those who share the same perspective and who are invited into our privileged and privatised cultural spaces. Collective purpose has to be rediscovered and celebrated as an opportunity rather than a threat. The safety of like minds is a delusion.

Australian culture has not been monolithic for a long time. Writers and intellectuals who are wrestling consciously or unconsciously with identity, authenticity, compassion and cultural difference, know this. The times demand deep thinking and deep writing and places to do it.

There are reasons for optimism; there always are. In 2009 the estate of the former Minister for Industry, John Button, created a most significant prize for the best piece of writing on politics or public policy. This year it was awarded to anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton for The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus, a scathing and despairing account of the failure of progressivist Aboriginal politics since the seventies and upholding the principle of Intervention. Sutton writes out of a lifetime’s experience in the field and directly into the sphere of public policy.

Then in the last couple of years the remarkable Renew Newcastle project has taken off, with its basis in DIY and its emphasis on physical space and dynamic experimentation rather than capital, making defunct industrial buildings available to local artists, musicians and craftspeople linked into the rest of the world on the web. The tired old newspaper model is being challenged by several new magazines using a mix of print and online and the Emerging Writers Festival is often more of a lift to the spirits than the mainstream versions.

And then there is the next generation of students – young nomads skilled with keyboards and rapid responses and their own relaxed way of cross-cultural engagement with each other and the world. A few months before he died in August 2010, intellectual and historian Tony Judt dictated a book for this generation who will inherit the whirlwind. Ill Fares the Land [4] comes closest to what I construct in my head as essential reading – a book of great lucidity and urgency about posing the questions which frighten us and to which we, like Judt, do not have the answers. Finding ways to help frame them is the crucial next step and the very least we can do.

Hilary McPhee was a publisher and chair of the Australia Council, more recently she worked in the Middle East. Her anthology, Wordlines, was published by Five Mile Press in July 2010.

[1] I am indebted to Jim Davidson’s forthcoming entry on A. A. Phillips for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and his Sideways from the Page, Fontana Books, 1983, p34.

[2] See Tim Burstall, The Burstall Diaries 1953-6, forthcoming.

[3] Let us hope that Hugh White’s recent Quarterly Essay 39, Power Shift :Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing is the exception, coming at a time when the new government must be redefining its foreign policy.

[4] Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin, 2010