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Adjunct imperialist clowns (part 1)

By Dr George Venturini

3. Adjunct imperialist clowns

“Why write a book about such a happy country?” asked Donald Horne at the beginning of The lucky country. And he proceeded systematically to explain. “One reason is that it is not so happy: one can learn something about happiness by examining Australia – its lingering puritanism, the frustrations and resentments of a triumphant mediocrity and the sheer dullness of life for many of its ordinary people.” … “Another reason is that Australia does not have a mind. … The upper levels of society give an impression of mindlessness triumphant. …” “… in Australia, where cleverness can be considered un-Australian.” (Horne, at 10-11).

“Australians like people to be ordinary. One reason might be the inability to imagine a way of life different from one’s own. For instance, talking of sport, money and motor cars takes up so much of male conversation – indeed it provides a lingua franca between income groups and gives reality to the convention of equality – that sometimes to engage in a conversation it is necessary to have mastered these topics. … To be different is considered an affectation.” (Ibid., at 24).

One would find no less than some twenty more quick, barbed expressions before coming to the final chapter, sub-headed Living on our luck, which opens with the summation: “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.” (Ibid., at 233).

These were not acid expressions of a superficial visitor, or a disaffected chronicler, or one who has no feeling for Australia. In fact, they were not even barbed, sporadic boutades but the essence of thoughts which permeated the entire work of a man who deeply loved his country. Horne said in the preface to the second edition (1965) that: “It is this special characteristic of Australia that it is a dependent, second-hand, second-rate ‘Western’ nation, that happens, strategically, to be part of Asia …” [Emphasis in original] … “That the people who run things in Australia are not much good is not news to anyone who reads books about Australia …” (Ibid., xxvii-xxviii).

“… it is the provincial nature of Australian elites that is the main reason why they are second rate … [Emphasis in original] (Ibid., xxviii-xxix).

These being the premises, it is possible to conclude that the kernel of the work is in chapters 5, Living with Asia and 6, Men at work. In the first Horne deals reflectively with Australians’ attitude to the First Nation, what was then called ‘the Aborigines’.

There “Australian society might be condemned as a while [in] that it was slow to move in granting full rights and in spending more money. This may have come from theories of race, but it has come mainly from blindness of conscience and sheer lack of imagination that did not understand that a lack of policy is itself a policy.” (Ibid., 129).

The sub-chapter on Men of business is particularly savage: “ … a look-no-brains attitude is endemic among some Australian attitudes to manufacturing. The processes of invention and innovation that are such an essential part of the Western Mind play less domestic part in Australia than in any other prosperous country. …” (Ibid., 133). “Not only do Australians not think things up: in their behavior they often show a remarkable distrust for another essential part of the Western Mind: a practicing belief in the efficacy of competition.” (Ibid., 134).

“Australian research findings are sometimes touted overseas because no Australian firm can be found that understands that research can be used to make money. There are many Australians who know how to conduct research; many of the best go overseas. The very idea of clever, expert men thinking up new things to do is one that is repulsive to many Australian businessmen: to accept the importance of research might seem to imperil their self-importance. And in such matters Australian businessmen often treat their own countrymen with the scorn that the colonialists used to treat those they exploited: you can’t expect the natives to have ideas.” (Ibid., 136).

“[Company] directors are often amateurs and there are sometimes shareouts of directorships among old school friends and fellow club members. … The racket of directorships in Australia is easy enough to organize. … Even if there is a challenge the social homogeneity of the directing classes almost always crushes it. One sees here the ossification of institutions that is sometimes a characteristic of Australia. There is a mateship, a fraternity of directors, determined to maintain things as they are in the board room. One result of this is that the interests of the oligarchies may at times override the interests of the companies they control.” (Ibid., 138).

“Into this cosy world there barged the Men of Will described by Robin Boyd” in his The great Australian ugliness (Cheshire, Melbourne 1960) wrote Horne at 139-140.

“The difficulties into which companies get themselves do not always arise from Government stop-and-go policies: they sometimes come from the fact that no one in the top management of a firm has read a book.” (Ibid., 141).

The sub-chapter concludes thus: “The social effects of Australia’s economic derivativeness may be even more important. It is likely to lead to a stupid society, a childish society that is self-confident with the familiar and uneasy with the unfamiliar, not capable of reacting to danger or making its own decisions. In such a highly commercialist society as Australia, in which commercialist standards permeate many other areas of power and decision-making, the fact that commercial success can be gained with such small inventive talents is likely to stupefy original decision-making and thinking in general.” (Ibid., 143).

Similar thoughts had been expressed by Lawrence some forty years before: “Look at these Australians – they’re awfully nice, but they ‘ve got no inside to them. They’re hollow. How are you going to build on such hollow stalks? They may well call them corn-stalks. They’re marvellous and manly and independent and all that, outside. But inside, they are not. When they’re quite alone, they don’t exist.” [Emphasis in original]

Yet, Lawrence too was in love with the country Australia. What he objected too, to the point of giving up some initial desire to take up residence, was “that peculiar emptiness that is in [Australians] … a sort of absentness …” [Emphasis in original] (D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1923, at 165). Lawrence would return to this theme in the last pages of the work: “People mattered so little. People hardly matter at all. They were there, they were friendly. But they never entered inside one. It is said that man is the chief environment of man. That, for Richard [Lawrence’s fictional name], was not true in Australia. Man was there, but unnoticeable. You said a few words to a neighbour or an acquaintance, but it was merely for the sake of making a sound of some sort, just a sound. There was nothing really to be said. The vast continent is really void of speech. Only man makes noises to man, from habit. … this speechless, aimless solitariness was in the air. It was natural to the country. The people left you alone. … You passed, and they forgot you. You came again, and they hardly saw you. You spoke, and they were friendly. But they never asked any questions, and they never encroached. They didn’t care. The profound Australian indifference … The disintegration of the social mankind back to its elements. Rudimentary individuals with no desire of communication. Speeches, just noises. A herding together like dumb cattle, a promiscuity like slovenly animals. Yet the basic indifference under everything.” (Ibid., at 379).

And yet, almost in closing, there came an emphatic admission: “Yes, I love it … I don’t love the people. But this place – it goes into my marrow, and makes me feel drunk. I love Australia.” (Ibid., at 381).

The visiting ‘traveller’ (and let him be called by that name henceforward) had read the classics for eight years and studied Latin for eleven, including the two for Roman Law in the first two years for a law degree. He grew up wanting to “rerum cognoscere causas.” Freely translated it means: “to know the reasons of things.” The original “Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas” is verse 490 of Book 2 of the Georgics (29 b.c.e.), by the Latin poet Virgil (70 – 19 b.c.e.). It is literally translated as: “Fortunate who was able to know the causes of things.”

Traveller thus went to the beginnings of Australia. Cannon-fodder for the British Empire, the able ‘settlers’ went to die fighting Māori in New Zealand (1845-1872), Russians in Crimea (1853-56), Boxers in China (1900-01), and Zulus and Boers in South Africa (1899-1902).

Traveller found that shortly after, and through an Act of the Imperial Parliament of the United Kingdom, Australia became a federation – rather a confederation? – in January 1901. At the time there were 3,7 million ‘settlers’. The Indigenous People were not to be counted, under the now repealed s. 127 of the constitution: “In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth.” They were in fact considered part of the fauna, some kind of free-for-all target and subject to ‘culling’ at pleasure or need of the ‘settlers’. The extermination which had begun soon after the invasion went on at least until August-October 1928, with the Coniston massacre – last known officially sanctioned massacre – now in the Northern Territory. From 1971 Indigenous People were included in the Census count. But the mal-treatment continues.

Before federation, Australia gained a reputation as “the working man’s paradise.” Some employers tried to undercut the unions by importing Chinese labour. This produced a reaction which led to all the colonies restricting Chinese and other Asian immigration. This was the foundation of the White Australia Policy. Organised Labour went along without pangs of conscience.

The federal government of Edmund Barton had the Immigration Restriction Act (No. 17) of 1901, drafted by the man who would become Australia’s second Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, enacted by the new parliament. Both of Barton and Deakin were Protectionist, and Deakin became a Liberal in 1909.

One had to wait until 1973, for the Whitlam Government to have laws enacted to ensure that race would be totally disregarded as a component for immigration to Australia. In 1975 the Whitlam Government had the Racial Discrimination Act approved by Parliament. The Act made racially-based selection criteria unlawful. In the decades since, Australia has maintained large-scale multi-ethnic immigration.

Traveller, at home with French, was attracted by an early work on the “working man’s paradise.” He found it in Le socialisme sans doctrines – Socialism without doctrine, written by Albert Métin and ably translated into English by a most distinguished Australian historian: Russel Ward (Chippendale, N.S.W., Alternative Publishing Co-operative, 1977). The work collects Métin’s observation of the experiments in labour and economic regulation by the non-socialist governments of Australia – and New Zealand, too. Métin described them as effectively being a form of state socialism though these policies did not contain any reference recognising socialist theory – in other words, the use of improvised measures rather than general long-term strategies: ad hockery.

The first world war broke out in the middle of the 1914 election campaign in Australia, with both sides of Parliament committing the country to the British Empire. Andrew Fisher campaigned on Labor’s record of support for an independent Australian defence force, and pledged that Australia would “stand beside the mother country to help and defend her to the last man and the last shilling.”

He was the Prime Minister ultimately responsible for the tragic adventure of Australians at Gelibolu-Gallipoli, 25 April 1915.

In October 1915 journalist Keith Murdoch reported on the situation at the bloody landing and advised Fisher: “Your fears have been justified.” He described the Dardanelles Expedition as being “a series of disastrous underestimations” and “one of the most terrible chapters in our history”, concluding: “What I want to say to you now very seriously is that the continuous and ghastly bungling over the Dardanelles enterprise was to be expected from such a general staff as the British Army possesses … the conceit and self-complacency of the red feather men are equalled only by their incapacity.” Fisher passed this report on to his deputy, Billy Hughes and to Defence Minister George Pearce, ultimately leading to the evacuation of the Australian troops in December 1915.

By the end of the war some 422,000 Australian had served in the military – with 331,781 serving overseas. Of them, over 60,000 lost their life and 137,000 were wounded. As a percentage of forces committed, this equalled a casualty rate of almost 6 per cent, one of the highest casualty rates amongst the British Empire forces. The financial cost of the war to the Australian government was £188,480,000.

This was a different Australia from what had been set up in 1901.

The population had almost reached 5 million in 1918 and would grow to 5.5 million in 1922.

At the end of April that year another illustrious visitor arrived in Australia: D. H. Lawrence. He and his wife would, after a short residence in Darlington, Western Australia, which included an encounter with local writer Ms. Mollie L. Skinner, established themselves in the small coastal town of Thirroul, New South Wales, some 70 kilometres south of Sydney.

This is what Lawrence would write to Catherine Carswell about his first impression of Australia: “If you want to know what it is to feel the ‘correct’ social world fizzle to nothing, you should go to Australia … In the established sense it is socially nil. Happy-go-lucky, don’t-you-bother we’re-in-Australia. But also there seems to be no inside life of any sort: just a long lapse and drift. A rather fascinating indifference, a physical indifference to what we call soul and spirit. It’s really a weird show. The country has an extraordinary hoary, weird attraction. As you get used to it, it seems so odd, as if it had missed all this Semite-Egyptian-Indo-European vast era of history, and was coal age, the age of great ferns and mosses. It hasn’t got the consciousness – just none – too far back. A strange effect it has on one. Often, I hate it like poison, then again it fascinates me, and the spell of its indifference gets me. I can’t quite explain it: as if one resolved back almost to the plant kingdom, before souls, spirits and minds were grown at all: only quite a live, energetic body with a weird face.” [Emphasis in original] (C. Carswell, D. H. Lawrence, The savage pilgrimage, Wordsworth Editions Ltd., London 2008, at 136-137).

From his bungalow jocosely called Wyewurk at Thirroul, during five weeks, Lawrence completed Kangaroo, a novel about local fringe politics which also revealed quite a lot about Australians. Kangaroo is an account of a visit to New South Wales by an English writer named Richard Lovat Somers – actually D.H. Lawrence, and his German wife Harriet – actually Frieda Weekley. The novel is semi-autobiographical.

In several articles in the late 1970s, and a 1981 book entitled D.H. Lawrence in Australia (Macmillan Co. of Australia, Melbourne), Robert Darroch claimed that Lawrence based Kangaroo on real people and events he witnessed in Australia. In his 1989 D. H. Lawrence at Thirroul (Collins, Sydney) Joseph Davis sympathised to the view that Kangaroo may be based on real events. On the other hand, it is impossible that Lawrence had time to meet clandestine political leaders in Sydney when he was too busy writing his novel in Thirroul. According to Davis it is more likely that a local south-coast identity associated with Thirroul might have provided some of the details of Lawrence’s political plot.

Two of the novel chapters are particularly intriguing. Chapter 4, Jack and Jaz, contains a long conversation à trois involving Richard – that is Lawrence – and two others: Jack Calcott, who is most likely a controversial Australian military figure, Major W.J. R. (John) Scott, who had been a member of the Old Guard – a secret anti-workers, proto-fascist organisation, and Jaz, who appears as Willie Struthers, a left-wing activist who could be impersonating Willem Siebenhaar, whom Lawrence had previous met when landing in Western Australia.

Jack had been a close collaborator of Kangaroo. It will be Jack Calcott (Scott) who will introduce Richard to the real person behind the name of ‘Kangaroo’: Benjamin Cooley, a prominent ex-soldier and lawyer, who is also the leader of a secretive, fascist paramilitary organisation, the ‘Diggers Club’.

Cooley is, in fact, Major General Charles Rosenthal, a notable first world war leader and right-wing activist, most likely a leader in the Old Guard. In Chapter 6, Kangaroo-Cooley fascinates Somers, but he maintains his distance from the movement itself.

More specifically: Scott and Rosenthal had been deeply involved in the launching of the King and Empire Alliance, “very much on the lines of the Fascist movement in Italy” (‘King and Empire’, 2 November 1922) at the Sydney Town Hall ion 19 August 1920. They were responsible for the melee during May 1921, followed by a huge ‘loyalty meeting’ at the Sydney Town Hall on 6 May. A crowd of between 100 and 150 thousand gathered in the Domain on 8 May.

Some of the most indicative pages of what Lawrence thought about Australia and Australians are in Chapter 4. “The bulk of Australians don’t care about Australia – that is, you say they don’t. And why don’t thy? Because they care about nothing at all, neither in earth below nor heaven above. They just blankly don’t care about anything, and they live in defiance, a sort of slovenly defiance of care of any sort, human on inhuman, good or bad. If they’ve got one belief left, now the war’s safely over, it’s a dull, rock-bottom belief in obstinately not caring, not caring about anything. It seems to me they think it manly, the only manliness, not to care, not to think, not to attend to life at all, but just to tramp blankly on from moment to moment, and over the edge of death without caring a straw. The final manliness.’ (Kangaroo, at 72).

The ambivalence – appreciation of Australia, where he might have wanted to settle, and low opinion of Australians – continues through the work. For instance, in the same Chapter 4, Jack and Jaz one could read a series of judgements about the character of Australians: “But there aren’t many of [superior type of people] out here. And what they are go away. This place is meant for all one dead level sort of people.

[Jaz] spoke with curious sarcasm.

‘But’ said Harriet, ‘you are Australian yourself now, aren’t you? Or don’t you feel it?

‘Oh, yes, I suppose I feel it,’ he said shifting uneasily on his seat. ‘I am Australian. And I’m Australian partly because I know that in Australia there won’t be anybody any better than me. There now.’ [Italics in original].

‘How queer to hear you say so!’

‘But this isn’t the place for them (persons of quality). Here in Australia we don’t want them. We want the new-fashioned sort of people who are all dead-level as good as one another.

‘But there’s something come over me when I see Mr. Somers thinking h can live out here, and work with the Australians. I think he’s wrong – I really do. They’ll drag him down to their level, and make what uses they can of him – and – well, in my opinion you’d both be sorry for it.’

‘How strange that you should say so, you who are one of them.’

‘I am one of them, and I’m not. I’m not one of anybody. But I haven’t got only just the two eyes in my head that can tell the kettle from the teapot. I’ve got another set of eyes inside me somewhere that can tell real differences, when there are any. And that’s what these people don’t seem to have at all. They’ve only got the outside eyes.’

‘He’s making a mistake. He’s making a mistake to come out here, tell him from me. They’ll take him at their own level, not at his.’” (Kangaroo, at 82-83)

One could expect such words from a person like Jaz (Willem Siebenhaar).

Siebenhaar was born in The Hague in 1863. His early life saw him exposed to the Christian anarchist, Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis. In 1882 he graduated from Delft University, the Netherlands, and two years later he emigrated to England to become a teacher. He sailed to Western Australia in 1891, taking up a position on the staff of Perth High School – now Hale School.

Shortly afterwards, apparently suffering from poor health, he visited England. During this time he married Lydia Bruce Dixon, and may have had contact with the Russian Peter Kropotkin. His health having improved, he returned to Western Australia, apparently in late 1913.

He became heavily involved in a number of social movements, including the advancement of women’s suffrage, and the anti-conscription movement. Siebenhaar’s participating in the latter movement saw him removed from his position in the public service in 1916, with the press release condemning him as a ‘German’ in league with the notorious Industrial Workers of the World. Later, an inquiry into his politics and character exonerated him of disloyalty and reinstated his position with restitution. A writer and publisher, his various contributions to newspapers and magazines also reflected the views promulgated by the esoteric society, the Theosophical Society, of which he was a member.

Siebenhaar returned to England in 1924. In 1927 he translated Eduard Douwes Dekker‘s Max Havelaar. The preface was supplied by his friend D. H. Lawrence. He was struck by a motor car and died from injuries in 1936 at Littlehampton, West Sussex.

Similar words of criticism Lawrence devotes to his encounters with ‘Kangaroo’, whom he secretly admired – in part.

At one point, ‘Kangaroo’ – Cooley, Rosenthal – would say: “Look at the Australians – they’re awfully nice, but they’ve got no inside in them. They’re hollow. How are you going to build on such hollow stalks? They may well call them cornstalks. They’re marvellous and manly and independent and all that, outside. But inside, they are not. When they’re quite alone, they don’t exist.” (Kangaroo, Chapter 7, The battle of tongues, 146).

It may be difficult to establish whether so much philosophising can be summed up in the modern slogan: ‘to give everyone a fair go’ – a common expression foe egalitarianism. This is frequently invoked as a quintessential Australian virtue, as a defining national characteristic, on display in Australian commitment to ‘mateship’, to comradeship under adversity in war, and the much vaunted “Jack’s as good as is master” attitude to wealth and status. One must mention at this point an excellent essay by Prof. Carmen Lawrence, of the School of Psychology, University of Western Australia. Her essay is one of the many in a collection of ‘honest history’ – a vital corrective to the flimflams and taradiddles of Anzackery, and more, much more. (C. Lawrence, ‘Fair go nation? Egalitarian myth and reality in Australia’, in D. Stephens and A. Broinowski (eds.) The honest history book, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney 2017, at 181).

Whether it is so or not, slogans they are and part of that collective self-deception which may be explained in many ways: manner, mannerism, colonial slovenliness, a sense of insecurity or plain down-right stupidity.

In fact, the 1922 in Australia was no more peaceful than it was in Italy – something that Lawrence had experienced not long before his arrival to Thirroul.

‘At home’, and for their own ‘Imperial convenience’ English leaders had isolated Il Duce from the real world. He was, to start, “getting the trains run on time.” That seemed enough said about Italy – particularly by foreigners who saw it as a place of many priceless gifts, but essentially populated by illiterate peasants, manual labourers, waiters, barbers and tourist guides. Australia would in time welcome that quality of immigration: preferably illiterate and thus ‘safe’ and dependent, Christian – though nominally Catholic, humbled from the start, not ‘political’ and certainly prepared to take the place designed for them by ‘the boss’.

“Charisma’ as a source of intellectual servility, shameless adulation and not-thinking approval had not yet become a word of wide circulation. Other would do. They would be used with unbounded admiration. “Home’ journalists would write about the ‘Mussolini miracle’. To the Archbishop of Canterbury “Mussolini [would be] the only gigantic figure in Europe.” (M. Gallo, Mussolini’s Italy, Twenty years of the Fascist Era, Macmillan, Ney York 1973, at 204-05).

To Winston Churchill he was the incarnation of ‘genius in person.’ And of course, to people in Italy Mussolini was portrayed as the archetype of the universal man – at once philosopher and historian, but also lecturer, competent airplane pilot, violinist, navy commander, common labourer – a polyglot genius, confident in English, French and German, at least. (Gallo, 210-12).

Churchill’s adulation was not a passing convenient thought. In 1927 he would solemnly proclaimed to the Roman Fascists he was visiting – and not for the first time: “If I had been an Italian I am sure I should have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.” (G. Salvemini, The Fascist dictatorship in Italy, H. Fertig, New York 1967, at 9).

Questioned by Labour Opposition, the Prime Minister of the time, Stanley Baldwin, in his turn found nothing reprehensible in Churchill’s statement. (The Times, 21 January 1927).

Rebounding on Italy such misguided judgements helped further to strengthen the foundation of a murderous regime.

Australian representatives were even more solicitous.

Continued Wednesday – Adjunct imperialist clowns (part 2)

Previous instalment – Medieval combat for ‘the Palace letters’ (part 11)

Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some seventy years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reached at


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