All mates in a place of marvels

<i>Australia: a biography of a nation</i> by Phillip Knightley (Jonathan Cape, &pound;20, 373pp)
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The Independent Culture

This book is a grand encapsulation of all Australia, past and present. It evokes in me just the emotions Australia itself evokes. It astonishes me, it shocks me, it entertains me, it saddens me, it bewilders me, it makes me think there's rather too much of it and it makes me proud - for who could not be proud for Australia, who has seen the Southern Cross flying floodlit at midnight on Sydney Harbour Bridge?

This book is a grand encapsulation of all Australia, past and present. It evokes in me just the emotions Australia itself evokes. It astonishes me, it shocks me, it entertains me, it saddens me, it bewilders me, it makes me think there's rather too much of it and it makes me proud - for who could not be proud for Australia, who has seen the Southern Cross flying floodlit at midnight on Sydney Harbour Bridge?

This book could only have been written by an Australian journalist who has spent much of his life abroad - an Australian, because no outsider could write about the country with the same wry affection, a journalist because the book is sharp, racy and irreverent, and an expatriate because there is nothing insular to it. Phillip Knightley was born for the job. This book is the crown of a distinguished career, and its sub-title is apt: it really is the intimate life-story of a community, from squalling birth to charismatic middle-age, by way of many ambivalences.

There is nowhere like Australia. Its place on the map, its history, its flora and fauna, its landscapes, all are peculiar to itself, and everyone's first response must surely be astonishment. Knightley loves its astonishments, and is excellent at enumerating them (though he is wrong to declare Perth the most isolated of all big cities; Honolulu is much lonelier).

Did you know, for example, that Australia's dingo fence, running clean across the country to keep the wild dogs checked, is two and half times as long as the Great Wall of China? Or that cattle drives sometimes took three years to get from one place to another? Or that crocodiles have two muscles to open their mouths, but 40 to close them? Or that cockatoos like the electric tingle they get from pecking microwave dishes? Or that Don Bradman had a lifetime test-match batting average of 99.44? Or that Australians eat (or used to eat) cold spaghetti sandwiches?

The scale and nature of everything is phenomenal, but all too often the affairs of Australia have been mean and petty, and Knightley pulls no punches. He spares us most of the all-too-familiar flogging-and-manacles stuff; in fact, he tells us that when in 1787 a couple of convicts on the First Fleet found their baggage had been lost en voyage, they sued the ship's captain and got £15 damages. But he relentlessly exposes the later scams and squalors of Australian history.

It may be the Luckiest Country now, but it has got there the hard way. We read of vicious political feuds and conspiracies, of Irish shenanigans and English snobberies, of sordid poverty and endemic corruption. We learn that before the first world war a Dr John Gilruth planned to make the Northern Territory an independent British colony, with himself as Viceroy, and that in the 1950s the Federal Government had a contingency plan to send all Communist sympathisers into internment camps. Twice at least Australia has nearly come to civil war, and there is a theory that Harold Holt, the PM who vanished for ever in 1967, was whisked away on a submarine by his Chinese spy-masters.

It took Australia many years to get over the depression of the 1930s. There, as in Britain, scabs and strikes and means tests entered the national consciousness, and even now many of the Lucky People still live poorly enough, In some city districts the night-cart went its stinking round of outdoor lavatories until 1998 ("although I called very early in the morning", says a sewage collector, "I still surprised some people on the throne... they were all very nice about it and apologised for keeping me waiting"). Spies, crooked policemen, greedy capitalists, bent politicians and drug rings all figure in this book and, squalidly, there runs through its pages a miserable leitmotif: Australia's treatment of its Aborigines.

Knightley deals skilfully and generously with all the great issues his country has faced: two world wars, the weakening of the British link, relations with America and Asia, the transformation of society by multi-ethnic immigration. The greatest of Australian themes, though - the nation's tragedy and we hope its triumph - has been the national attitude towards the indigenes. By now most of us know the awful story of their persecution - there were murderous punitive expeditions even in the 1920s - but Australians themselves may be taken aback to be reminded here, in unforgiving detail, of the thousands of half-caste children officially kidnapped in the pursuit of generic purity.

Thank God, the book can also record the noble stirring of national conscience that has occurred in our own time. It will necessarily be a slow process. White Australia has been a principle ingrained in the national psyche, and the just sorting-out of land rights demands Solomonic wisdom.

But enlightenment has undoubtedly set in. Knightley sees the great change beginning in 1975, when the Gough Whitlam the Prime Minister restored 2,000 square kilometres of land to the Gurundji tribespeople of the north - "to you and your children for ever".

The Gurundji leader responded historically. "We are all right now", he told the PM, and the nation. "We are all friendly. We are all mates". Australia is a marvellous place, brave and big and funny and clever, but if there is one thing it has traditionally seemed to lack, it is kindness. I would far rather have a stroke in the streets of Manhattan than on Circular Quay in Sydney and, well into our own times, an Australian Aborigine was not much better off than a Jew in Nazi Germany.

It is a new Australia now, though, peopled by another generation, more ready to listen to the wise simplicity of a Gurundji. If in its maturity it can add public kindness to the brilliant roster of its national characteristics, that flag on Sydney Harbour Bridge will make the whole world proud indeed.

Jan Morris's new novella, 'Our First Leader', is published by Gomer

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