Books

David Marr
My Country

There was a time when a selection of essays, sketches, reviews and speeches by David Marr would have seemed less necessary than it does now. From his rookie days at The Bulletin onwards, Marr was one of those figures who seemed to speak for and to the broad and thoughtful Australian middle class. He served as an ordinary oracle for the constitutional liberalism and decency of the majority. The man reflected, though in more elegant prose than was perhaps deserved, just who we were as a people.

What happened, at least on the evidence of these pages – a journalistic core sample of national life from the 1970s to today – was unexpected. The blandly agreeable pact that held between Marr and his society came apart. The country changed; people changed. Ideas once unacceptable became mainstream. Fractures appeared in our self-conception. Somewhere on or about August 2001, when a Norwegian freighter with 433 asylum seekers on board entered our waters, Australia’s character changed.

The main satisfaction that attends a dive into the 400 pages of My Country does not lie in Marr’s brandishing of a beleaguered humanism against those who effected this declination from the Australian ideal, though it’s true to say there are bitter pleasures to be had in this line. It comes, rather, from a deeper and more sobering acknowledgement: such men and women have always been with us.

The privileged perspective of Marr’s long career as a journalist, biographer and public intellectual has allowed him to observe that xenophobia, racism, homophobia, philistinism and bigotry are not exceptions to the Australian norm but its enduring rule: the dark backing to that idealistic mirror. To know this is to be disavowed of a primary innocence. It is the precondition for any true, clear-eyed patriotism.   

Crucially for Marr, a comfortable upbringing on Sydney’s complacent, settled, arboreal North Shore in the postwar decades was unsettled by a growing suspicion that he was gay. This made an outsider of him – a watchful critic of normalcy in all its guises. It also made him a criminal in relation to the state and an abomination in the eyes of the church that he had sought to join as a young man:

I invested a decade of my life in pursuit of a profound, sincere, determined and hopeless ambition not to be homosexual. It’s an ordinary story with an ordinary ending. Christ failed me. So did alcohol. So did marriage. Whatever damage I did to myself along the way, I did worse to others I loved.

“Eventually,” he concludes, “the price of heaven proved too high and in my late twenties, with all these wasted years on my conscience, I set about doing what I might have done in my teens but for that problematic encounter with Christ over hot cocoa – I began to try to live as myself.”

All Marr’s writing is inflected by this hard-won freedom. It makes him enviably cant-free and empathetic when it comes to others’ flaws. When he goes on the attack it is with the brio and dash of a man who has already dodged the bullet with his name on it. At his best, Marr manages to fuse flamboyance and seriousness, feeling and wit. He welds a lawyerly respect for the facts to a dramatist’s lacerating irony. He revises his opinions in the light of experience without losing his moral compass. He bowls a wicked googly but plays a dead straight bat.

In the early years, when writing about arts, politics and the law for The National Times, you get a sense of the young biographer, sketching historical personages on the fly. Whitlam, Kerr, Fraser, Gorton: all of them captured in a net of anecdote, writhing in human frailty. Here is Marr, sharpening his pen on John Gorton:

Gorton’s face at the microphone is the same patched-up, fractured face that for years was part of the political terrain of the country: the best face in politics since Billy Hughes, the face in the surfboat, the face under the grey top hat, the face in the White House smiling sideways at the Nixons.

You sense a warmth towards these old grandees, whether of the left or right. Marr’s piece on the night Ben Chifley died is a masterful account, quick with incident. But most telling is the way he frames the civilised responses of even Chifley’s bitter enemies, particularly Menzies. Beneath the bluster and bite they are loyal, good mannered: leaders.

John Howard, who fought so long and hard to assume Menzies’ mantle, does not fare so well. With Howard comes a new dimension, adroitly managed but morally underhanded, of weaponised racial politics. With his ascendancy and with those who followed came a politics that no longer ceased after the adjournment speeches and instead became total war:

Howard won by a landslide in ’96. Australia is a casual, live-and-let-live, secular, modern society. But the key to power in this country is engaging the support of the most conservative, most anxious chunk of the electorate. Gathering these votes calls for great political skill because the big parties have no intention of ditching the economic policies that are actually producing pain out there.

“Free-market economics are sacrosanct,” Marr concludes. “So instead, the major parties are appealing to these unhappy elector’s prejudices on blacks, Asians, drugs, violence and their general fear that the world is drifting out of control.” These words were written in 1999. Marr caught the wild illogic of our current political moment – now supercharged by terrorism, offshore detention, climate change and inequality – as it was in formation. He was right to excoriate them then, but how much more so now.

There are pleasures to be had in this volume beyond the political. David Marr is a man of culture, and those essays dealing with literature, film and theatre are more buoyant and fun than the material within which they are sandwiched. And yet. The sheer real-world force of events keeps crowding everything out. To hear what reasonable people sounded like before the infernal and unceasing din of the present is what makes this collection worthwhile. To read a man who has remained a stalwart of sanity throughout is what makes it a necessary one.  AF

Black Inc, 400pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 24, 2018 as "David Marr, My Country". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: AF