Very fine things can happen in taxis with novelists

Ian Jack's Notebook
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Thirty years ago there lived an old woman in Glasgow of whom it was sometimes said that the most famous thing to have happened to her was that the novelist John Galsworthy once kissed her in a taxi. In fact, that wasn't quite right. The woman, Margaret Morris, had been famous in her own right as a dancer, and was well enough known as the widow of the Scottish painter JD Fergusson. But whenever I saw her in the distance on the streets of Kelvinside, the time of her great beauty long past, I would think of the story that people told, of Galsworthy, the kiss and the taxi.

On Wednesday of last week, in a taxi driving down the coast of New South Wales, I remembered Ms Morris. Very fine things can happen in taxis with novelists. The best thing that has ever happened - will ever happen - to me in a taxi occurred that Wednesday on the coast of New South Wales.

It had already been a good day. A couple of nights before, I'd met the novelist Thomas Keneally in Sydney and he'd invited me to his house for lunch. We shared a cab for the 40-minute ride back to the city, where we were both to attend a party for the Sydney Writers' Festival. The driver knew Keneally, who in Australia is as well known for his republicanism and love of rugby league as for Schindler's Ark, and said that he was reading his latest book. Keneally waved his hand towards me in the back seat and said to the driver: "The gentleman in the back here is the editor of a literary magazine called Granta."

The driver turned, identified me by name, and said he'd really enjoyed the piece on Indonesia (by this newspaper's Richard Lloyd-Parry) in issue 62. A kiss by... oh, let's say Virginia Woolf, would have been a poor thing in comparison.

Here are some of the places where this will not happen in taxis: London, Manhattan, Paris, Tokyo, Rio, Cowdenbeath. I still suspect Keneally hired the driver from some department of the Australian government (the Department of Flattery for the Obscure Pom). Until proof arrives, however, I am happy to think of Sydney as the most cultured, literate, intelligent city in the entire world.

Gore Vidal once said of Sydney that it was "the city that San Francisco thinks it is". I had never been before and wasn't quite prepared for the lively beauty of its situation: the blue-water harbour which runs right through it, the confusing direction and number of its creeks, bays and beaches, the greenery of the suburbs that run down to the water's edge. It may have started its career as a penal settlement, but now it looks as innocent as an imaginary city devised and drawn by a children's author: Busytown, say, by Richard Scarry - a composite of everything a child might enjoy spotting and naming, contained in one frame. Look, there are ferryboats, yachts, freighters! Look, there's the big bridge! Can you spot the monorail? That funny building is the opera house.

Next year it will host the Millennial Olympics, which is absolutely fitting. Sydney is almost a cliche of the new global values of prosperous metropolitan life: multicultural, chilled white wine as if there were no tomorrow, fish restaurants, "boutique" hotels, a healthy outdoor life, docks converted to marinas, convention centres where freight yards used to be, wool warehouses turned into flats. Long before Frank Gehry got going with his recipe for getting a place noticed - give it a piece of strange and striking architecture - Sydney had set sail with its opera house. Murdoch has opened film studios here; young people want to be copyright and corporate lawyers, and writers in the Hollywood sense. The place seems awash with money (corruption is historic and may still be endemic). Property is expensive. One of those old docker's cottages - two up, two down with lace ironwork on the front - will set you back pounds 300,000 if it sits prettily near the sea.

I'd expected the city to be American, a piece of California towed across the Pacific (see Gore Vidal). The surprise is that so much of its British patina survives. The obvious sources of this - the Queen's head on the coinage, Union flags draped around war memorials - may disappear after 2001, if Australians vote for a republic in this September's referendum. A less obvious and more durable cause may be the media. Sydney's newspapers have a British rather than American flavour; young women publishers dress in Groucho-Club black; and watching television or listening to the radio here is in some ways a more British experience than doing either in Britain. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has a dignity and courtesy in its programming of a kind that the BBC is busily trying to replace with street cred. The result is that Britain in some ways appears the brasher place.

But not in all ways. In the Sydney Morning Herald one day I read a story which, in its stunning range of insult, could have happened only in Australia. So far as I could follow the plot of this one, it began when a 71-year- old Sydney businessman called Harley-Green got a circular letter about changes to private health insurance legislation from the Federal Health Minister, a Dr Wooldridge, which addressed Harley-Green as an "older Australian".

In reply, Harley-Green sent the Health Minister a fax: "Keep away from my letter-box in future, fart-face." The Health Minister rang the Harley- Green residence and told the woman who answered the phone to tell Harley- Green that he was a "nitwit loser".

Some days later, in the course of apologising to Mrs Harley-Green for mistaking her for Harley-Green's secretary, the Health Minister described her husband as "a puffed-up little Pom with a permed hairdo".

Ms Claire Haines, the president of the English in Australia Society, added: "If the minister had called him a puffed-up wog, he'd probably be sacked."

Of course, Sydney has a drugs problem. Last week the state government of New South Wales held a "drugs summit" (it doesn't yet have a "drugs tsar") to examine ideas about what might be done to make drugs less socially and individually harmful - nobody being crazy enough to talk in terms of "wars" and "solutions". Bob Carr, the premier of New South Wales, was reported to have taken more than a political interest; his brother died some years ago of heroin abuse.

Carr, a former journalist, seems altogether an exceptional man. He doesn't like sport much, he doesn't drink much, he's married to a woman of Asian descent, he has no children, he reads books and is a keen amateur student of American history. This could read like a list of negatives that would handicap any Australian politician. And yet Carr is tremendously popular.

I wonder whether truthfulness could have anything to do with it. At the end of his drugs summit, Carr said something that you would never hear from the lips of a British or American politician. The view he had reached, he said, was that "life is an inherently disappointing experience for most human beings". Some people couldn't cope with that. "My view is that this comprises the [drugs] problem: a propensity of human beings to compensate for the mediocrity of existence". The best that could be done, for now, was to adopt "supportive policies which will ease people through a period of maximum risk".

According to the 1996 census, there are only about 350,000 Aborigines in Australia, a country of 18 million people; but they have come to exercise a powerful grip on what might be described as the liberal Australian imagination. They are often referred to and rarely seen. During my week in Sydney I didn't meet one. But they are everywhere prominent in speeches, books and guides to the country. Of all the surprises that Australia offers a stranger (his mind a forbidding compound of Neighbours, Rupert Murdoch and Gallipoli), this for me was the biggest: that the Aboriginal question has been placed so squarely at the centre of Australia's official culture, with its emphases on Aboriginal art and ecological wisdom, its "sorry days" (when settler stock are meant to apologise to the natives) and anxiety over land rights.

There is certainly a lot to be sorry about, though Australia's prime minister, John Howard, still refuses to say the word. But that's also true of the native experience in Canada and the United States, and I would be surprised if any writers' festival in New York or Toronto were opened, as it was in Sydney, with a speech paying tribute to the "first story- tellers of this place", ie the Aborigines.

Perhaps it amounts to no more (or less) than a good and generous impulse, inspired by shame, on the part of modern Australia. But the more I talked to people about it, the more it seemed to me that the Aboriginal concern among many non-Aboriginals was perhaps also a substitute for religion. The Aborigines supply guilt, art, mystery, magic, history - and also identity, what makes Australia different, the national worry-bead.

Thomas Keneally said that when Australia had achieved his twin aims of Aboriginal reconciliation and republican status, it would have won a new and more solid identity. I'm sure that's right, but when and if it happens, Australia, perversely, might to the outsider become a less intriguing place.