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Australia's relationship with UK, US scrutini -

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Australia's relationship with UK, US scrutinised

Reporter: Kerry O'Brien

KERRY O'BRIEN: It's probably fair to say that Australian writer and academic Peter Conrad is better
known internationally than in the land of his birth.

He left Tasmania for England as a Rhodes Scholar in 1968 and Oxford has been his working base for
most of the 36 years since.

English literature is his field and he's established himself as a respected cultural historian.

His books include a sweeping cultural history of the 20th century.

He's also a reviewer and feature writer for the London Observer and has been a prolific writer for
many other publications, like the New York Times and New Yorker.

Peter Conrad has just finished recording this year's series of six Boyer lectures for the ABC's
Radio National, on invitation from the ABC Board - lectures that chart Australia's relationships
with Britain and America, not necessarily in a flattering light.

I recorded this interview with Peter Conrad in Sydney.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Peter Conrad, you've titled one of your lectures, 'Austerica'.


PETER CONRAD: A nice, ugly word for a very ugly idea.

I think this compound of Australia and America was something that worries me very much - that we
spent such a lot of time unplugging ourself from the nipple of the great mother, Britain, and we
now seem likely to vanish up the bum of big brother.

It's - all the way through our history, we've had politicians telling us that we should ape the
American model and go for the sort of economic development they had in the United States at the end
of the 19th century and it conceals the real differences between the two countries and the need for
Australia to be an independent country, to be its own sort of place, its own peculiar place.

It's not at all like the United States, I don't think.

KERRY O'BRIEN: The more we're exposed to the powerful seduction of American culture, presumably the
more we're likely to be influenced by it.

But at this stage of our histories, you still see more differences between Australia and American
than similarities.

PETER CONRAD: Yeah, the differences are psychological, spiritual and they're differences of
national character.

KERRY O'BRIEN: I wonder if you're sure about that?

PETER CONRAD: I'm absolutely positive about it, yeah, that if you ask me how I am today what I will
say is, "Oh, not too bad."

Even if I'm feeling good, that's all I'll say.

If I ask a friend of mine in New York how they are today, they say, "I'm great!"

Because they've got this kind of octane, you know, this fuel of self-belief, the desire for
self-gratification, going for their goals.

The Constitution guarantees them the right to pursue happiness.

And I think this is - I mean, it's terrible.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You quote John Updike, saying, "America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy."

You say, "It's a conspiracy because the happiness America dispenses must be purchased.

So long as you have money, you can get fast food, carbonated drinks, Prozac, cocaine, Viagra,
innumerable channels of trash beamed into your brain from a satellite and opinion blazoned over
your heart with the Stars and Stripes."

Is that really the heart and soul of America?

PETER CONRAD: Of the ideology, yes.

I spent a lot of time there and so I observed this close up.

I mean, it's a country I have a lot of affection for, or at least I have a lot of affection for -

KERRY O'BRIEN: (Laughs) You wouldn't pick it.

PETER CONRAD: I have affection for a lot of individuals.

I think the United States was a great idea, it was a perfect idea.

You know, the idea of liberating people from the historical past, all of the iniquities of
tradition and class and so on and just starting afresh in a new land.

Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out.

I would have thought Australia is a better example of the American idea, a purer, more innocent
idea of how you make a multicultural society work reasonably happily.

This is more of a melting pot, it seems to me, than the United States is.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, let me give you a few facts about modern Australia.

We're a debt-ridden society, we're a society of growing conspicuous consumption, we are
energetically upwardly mobile.

We now have a growing phenomenon identified as the aspirational voter who lives with a big mortgage
in a McMansion on the big city fringes, that is, a McDonald's mansion.

Does that sound like the Australia you remember?

PETER CONRAD: I'm sure all of those things are true.

How would I dare to disagree with you when you cite statistics.

And yet all of those people, no matter what their debts, have got access to Bondi Beach.

Our good fortune is largely the climate of these coastal cities where we all live.

I mean, there is nothing in Australia like Cleveland or the southside of Chicago or south-central
Los Angeles.

None of these sinks of horrible poverty.

KERRY O'BRIEN: So how hard is it to stay Australian, living away for as long as you have?

Do you feel you're still Australian and what is it even about yourself that you regard as
quintessentially Australian?

PETER CONRAD: Well, it was the first 20 years of my life that I lived here.

I was 20 when I went away and those really are the most important years of your life, aren't they?

They're the formative years and the experiences of that time are the ones that you draw on for good
or ill for the rest of your life.

So, to quote the song, "You can't take that away from me," no matter - and I can't take it away
from myself, no matter how long I stay away, no matter how, you know, my accent, for instance,

There are a very good couple of lines by the poet WH Auden who left England to go to the United
States in 1939 and was thinking back about what he left behind much later on and what he said was,
"England to me is my own tongue and what I did when I was young."

And that's what Australia is for me, too.

It's the language and the way the language is used and it's also what I did when I was young.

It's the wonderful experience of spending 20 years growing up in Tasmania on the edge of this
wilderness, under the shadow of Mt Wellington.

How can I not be grateful to have had that experience when the alternative might be to grow up in
some terrace house in Birmingham?

KERRY O'BRIEN: Can you think of one Australian poet, painter, author, musician, composer who has
best put their finger on the spirit or the soul of Australia?

PETER CONRAD: I hate to have to think of just one.

KERRY O'BRIEN: It's a a mosaic, isn't it?

PETER CONRAD: Yeah, because there are so many who are all so fantastic.

Patrick White, although his version of Australia is much more tormented and neurotic and crazed.

I mean, he really was still fighting this war with his mother and with the mother country.

I think if I had to choose two, I would choose the great Les Murray, who is the Homer of Australia,

I mean, this is, you know, a mass - the genius is the size of the man's body, it seems to me, and
what he is so eloquent about is the kind of demotic, sprawling exuberance and hedonism of
Australia, you know, the thing like 'The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever'.

It's just a great, great poem.

And, as I said before, my fellow Tasmanian Peter Sculthorpe, I think, has had this fantastic

He was the first one to have this, to seize this opportunity, the chance to set the whole of the
country to music as he does in a symphony called The Fifth Continent, which I talk about in one of
my lectures where you have this European orchestra with the violins and so on which is playing away
and making sweet melodious sounds and then under that orchestra you hear the droning sound of the
didgeridoo, as if the earth itself is giving voice.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Peter Conrad, thanks for talking with us.

PETER CONRAD: Thank you.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And you'll hear the Boyer lectures starting in mid-November.