Thursday, 18 February 2016

Book Review - The unknown great Australian by Max Harris

The unknown great Australian : and other psychobiographical portraits by Max Harris

Melbourne: Sun Books, 1983          ISBN 0725104244

How quickly we forget. Max Harris was, not so long ago, one of those names in the intellectual milieu of Australia who would need no explanation. I wonder if that's still the case. As the whole Angry Penguins and Ern Malley saga has reached it's apotheosis and has declined into the past, the major players - Harris, McAuley and Stewart - have faded almost into nothing.

It took a long time for Harris to regain some sort of equilibrium after being held up to the world as a fool, and by the 1980s his undoubted talent as a critic and bon vivant was back in style and his prose regularly appeared in Australian newspapers and periodicals.

The unknown great Australian is a collection of those essays. Unlike a lot of similar collections, there is a theme of sorts running through each essay: that many people are driven by unknown desires or demons, and the reasons for these drives are not always apparent to outsiders, and sometimes not even to the person themselves.

With this in mind, Harris has looked at several Australian and English lives that illustrate his point. His first essay however, celebrates the life of Bob Cugley, printer of Melbourne and supporter of lost causes. If Harris has done anything consistently throughout his life, it has been to prick the balloons of the self-important and those who take on the mantle of leadership in society. His essay on Cugley is a paen to the ordinary working Australian who actually carry the country and give it soul. Cugley, and people like him, are the true unknown great Australians.

Harris then moves onto the other side of that coin, the unknown parts of the lives of "great" Australians, where he has some balloons to prick, and some interesting observations to make. Whether it's to make the point that some have been raised higher than they should be, such as Leichardt and John Peter Russell, or that some perhaps have not been appreciated enough, such as Doc Evatt and Percy Grainger, Harris extracts an essence from each life looked at to make a point.

Leichardt was not a great explorer, or much of anything really, except in his own mind - Harris points out that very few Australian explorers were cut out for the job - being a policeman seemed to matter more than any bush or scientific experience to the 'society' that chose them.

John Peter Russell, a follower of the Impressionists, is used as a comment on the vagaries of the 'cultural cringe' - and how as an over-reaction by those who should know better mediocrity is pushed above its station, actually furthering the arguments of those who may subscribe to a 'cringe'.

The essay on Doc Evatt is a cautionary tale on how society forgets quickly, and subscribes to a narrative that only tells half the story - an idea Harris would be familiar with - and shows how Doc changed the Labor party - "if Evatt handn't existed, Bob Hawke would probably be teaching school at Carnarvon..."

Harris sees the sexual drive, or lack of it, in many of his subjects as important - he shows how the asexual or impotent have perhaps moved our understanding of sexuality forward more than the majority - insights into Christina Rossetti and Havelock Ellis provide the base for these speculations. He also believes that someone's private sexual peccadillos should not necessarily prejudice the public's view of achievement, vide Grainger and Gladstone: ironically he shows the current (this book was written in the '80s) public morality as much more prudish than the Victorian age.

Drugs were much more of a problem in Victorian society than now as well, and his essay on Francis Thompson comes to the (correct) conclusion that "the drugged mind, it seems, orginates nothing."

He writes interestingly on Errol Flynn, suggesting that what he was looking for in Hollywood was a recreation of Australian mateship. He couldn't manage it, and therefore he began the slippery slope to alcoholism and death. The essay on Adam Lindsay Gordon, on the other hand, suggests that it was Gordon's inability to move on from the mindless horse-racing set that led to his suicide.

There are other essays in this book that I haven't touched on here, all interesting, all written with Harris' usual brio. A good read.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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