Festival of Australia and NZ arts launches in London
I can't say I am much in favour of this groupy thing. Australian cultural talents do quite well abroad on their own merits and under their own steam. Emphasis on Australia as a location or a group seems more likely to revive a "cultural cringe" impression.
And that Australians often need to go abroad to optimize their careers needs no apology. The Australian population is relatively small and cultural products are very much a minority interest. So exposure to large potential audiences is needed to achieve a critical mass of income.
Why does anyone think that English theatre companies regularly tour the despised North? Because they need the money of the Northeners. And they won't get that money unless they go to where the customers are. So even the trickle of cultural interest from the North needs to be grabbed
From time to time, Australia launches little cultural assault fleets back to the mother country.
One year it might be a Leo McKern, who ruled the Old Bailey in his television portrayal of Rumpole, tying a neat bow around the whole convict saga.
Another year it might be a John Pilger or a Julian Assange, doing the journalistic equivalent of selling ice to the Eskimos: a bolder, freer, cooler brand of ice, more sharp and uncomfortable than the usual Fleet Steet sleet.
And of course there are Clive James, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer and, uh, Rolf Harris – the Gang of Four whose mega-talents allowed an allegedly indecent assault on swinging London. Indecently successful, that is, m’lud.
Some of these Aussie Vikings settled down, hung up their helmets and became part of the landscape. Others came back home, Patrick White-style, Tim Winton-style, with new perspective or homesick hearts.
Though ... it seems a little unfair. Do we really have to come cap in hand to Europe or North America seeking success and recognition, or some kind of validation stamp in the career passport?
This month Australia launches a new, full-frontal literary invasion of London.
But the aim is not a reverse colonisation. Instead, according to Jon Slack, it is to demonstrate that no matter how far or how wide our writers roam … etc etc.
"Over here people have a very narrow view of what happens in Australia – the top-level, stereotypical view," he says.
"There’s some truth to stereotypes but there's so much more - writing talent, acting talent, film - there’s so much to show off."
Slack – ex-Adelaide, now a UK resident for just over a decade - is the director of a new, ambitious summer festival in the UK.
This Way Up, the Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts, boasts some of the two nations’ biggest talents, supported by some familiar international names, in 60 events over four days.
Tim Winton will discuss his new novel, Helen Garner talks about memory and imagination, Fay Weldon chats to New Zealand writer Paula Morris, other events feature Anna Funder, Greta Scacchi, Kathy Lette and Anita Heiss.
Clive James is doing a new one-hour show about his life in writing, and the festival closes with a new composition by composer Mark Bradshaw set to the biblical poem Song of Solomon, read by actor Ben Whishaw.
I meet Slack on a sunny day in Brighton. He says the idea grew out of a touch of homesickness. "I wanted to work out a way of connecting what I was doing here [in the UK] with back home [in Australia and New Zealand]. I was getting really out of the loop on everything that was happening back in Oz.
"There are so many festivals over here but having a country-specific focus was quite unique … There’s rivalry, affection, understanding [between Australia and the UK]. The more I looked into it the more sense it made."
There is a risk of backfire in attempting this kind of showcase. Last year London’s Royal Academy, to great fanfare, opened an exhibition of some of Australia’s best and most iconic works of art, from pre-colonisation to the present day.
Reviews were mixed. While few were as scathing as those of the Sunday Times, whose critic ended up musing that in Australia the wrong people became artists, some found the whole idea old fashioned. The Guardian said an exhibition whose "aim is the broad sweep of a country, let alone a continent" risked ending up as "potted history and pop-up content".
"I am not interested in what might constitute some sort of Australian artistic identity, because I doubt there is one," the reviewer wrote.
Another critic wrote in the Independent that "more than most countries, [Australia] has carried a baggage of hyper-sensitivity about its place in the world".
Slack says the reaction to the exhibition showed there was a lot of passion about Australia’s representation in the UK. He hopes the multi-event format of his festival will immunise against such criticism.
He does believe there is a character to Australian writing that will emergeduring the festival.
"If you watch a film from Australia or read a book or even just go back home, there’s something very intangible but you can sense it," he says. "There is such diversity … [but] the person who described it the best was Tim Winton."
In a speech in London last year, Winton said he found new perspective on what his home country meant to him when he lived in Paris in his late 20s – his first trip abroad.
He thought the difference would just be language and history, but "the moment that I stepped off a plane at Charles de Gaulle [airport] I knew I was not a European," he said. "[Australia’s] geography, distance and weather have moulded my sensory palette, my imagination and my expectations."
Winton found Europe's land and the sky less beautiful, even saccharine and closed. From afar he recognised Australia as the Neverland of Peter Pan – more wild, a place "more landscape than culture" where the night sky would threaten to suck you up into the stars.
"I was calibrated differently to a European," he said. "Everything we do in our country is still overshadowed and underwritten by the seething tumult of nature."
Slack says the Australian voice can vary widely – contrast Winton with Christos Tsiolkas – but at the same time sound alike.
"It’s very direct, it’s bold, it’s just in the character. Even though there’s a lot of bullshit, there’s no bullshit. That’s what people respond to over here."
Slack says Winton is still a little "under the radar" in the UK, despite the many highlights of his long career.
There is an ongoing question as to whether Australian writers do better if they make a more permanent move to the northern hemisphere, he says. It is even being addressed during the festival, in a "big debate" on whether the cultural cringe is over.
"It’s hard to deny that if you’re based here you’ve got that ongoing presence, it’s easier to have those meetings, do those events, have those conversations you need to have," Slack says. "The tyranny of distance is still a thing.
"There are some people who still make jokes about ‘cultured Australians, oxymoron’ ...People love and respect individual Australians, in films or writers, but I think there is still quite a long way to go. There’s definitely an ignorance of what’s going on ... Unless someone has been to Australia you just don’t get past the beach and the sport. It’s really hard for people to do that."
The festival has a "shoestring budget" in proportion to its scale, but Slack says in planning it became a "controlled explosion" as more people agreed to take part. The event has been part-funded by the Australia Council – which at one stage doubled its support when the project’s ambition grew. One of the council’s aims is to establish a reputation for Australia as an "artistically ambitious nation", says Jill Eddington, director of literature funding at the council.
But the festival is there, in a nutshell, to help the authors find their market, and the market to find the authors.
"The big challenge for all writers worldwide is discoverability in a huge global online market," says Eddington. "No, [writers] don’t need to move to the northern hemisphere. The old boundaries and borders are less and less relevant. The work of great Australian writers is relevant to readers anywhere in the world."
This Way Up is at Kings College, London, from May 29 to June 1.