Opening Lines: Deadlier than the male
The column The female of the Australian species is independent and pioneering. No wonder then, says Howard Jacobson, that the men have all but disappeared
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 24 April 1999
You have to be careful how you say that sort of thing in Australia. Offer to be concerned for the women and they think you're either a moron or an ironist, and they like neither. I recall a breakfast-television interview I once gave when I was in the country promoting my novel Redback, the story of an artless English tenderfoot's humiliation at the hands of the Australian female. The redback is, of course, the lethal Australian spider which lies in wait for you in bush privies and attacks your private parts. But by giving the novel that title I hadn't meant to imply that Australian women were site-specifically venomous, only that you had to be careful where you sat. Reviewers took it to be misogynistic anyway, partly because misogyny is a euphonious and philosophical-sounding word which Australian reviewers, all of whom are women, like to use, and partly because Australians can never forgive you for having the temerity to write about them and want to ensure that nobody buys your books. All misogyny really means is don't read it. So it was with the intention of robustly countering the charge and showing that if anything I idolatrised Australian women that I made my appearance on breakfast TV.
Two people were interviewing me on a couch: a talked-out presenter who looked as though he wished I wasn't saying what I was saying, and a blonde piranha in spiked shoes and a suit made of razor blades who looked as though she couldn't believe that I was saying what I was saying, though God knows it was simple enough. In order to understand the peculiar flavour of relations between the sexes in Australia, I was explaining, you had to remember that for European white males the place was originally a kind of Eden. There were scarcely any women here. Yes, Adam loved Eve, but Eve was another bloke. The real serpent in the Australian paradise was womankind. This is not a value judgement, simply history: woman arrived, and at a stroke destroyed the natural harmony which man enjoyed with man. What else is that sentimental condition known as Aussie mateship (soon to be enshrined in the Constitution, by the by) but a remembrance of that happy garden state when ... But here the sabre-toothed blonde interrupted me. "Tell me," she said, in front of an audience reliably estimated at in excess of two million, "are you some sort of a dickhead?"
I have been chary, since, of explaining sexual relations in Australia to Australians, even though it is a subject which continues to fascinate me, and about which, though I say so myself, I know plenty. Had I been allowed to go on that morning, I would have pressed my contention that it is precisely that initial lack of welcome from Australian white men, and their continuing fear and suspicion of the female as an intruding and alien sex, which explains the remarkable independence and intellectual vivacity of Australian women. Outcast virtually before they even got here, they made a virtue of rejection. If the blokes insisted on clustering in one corner of the room, very well then, they would cluster in another. Now it is the men who feel unwanted. But whereas pioneer women stayed and fought it out, contemporary males have lost their nerve and done a bunk. Don't ask me where they go; I only know that they have gone.
Engaged on one of my rural rides into the Yarra Ranges north of Melbourne recently, seeking out the present condition of the national character, I came upon overwhelming evidence of the rupture I am speaking off. Wherever I looked I saw idyllic two-person businesses being run by one person, that person invariably the woman. That men had been here originally, doing the usual male thing - falling in love, protesting devotion, fleeing civilization, damming creeks and putting up fences - was apparent from the notice boards outside every business I visited. "Abbie and Danny Pargetter: Paradise Plants". "Alexandra Cox and Guy Mansfield: The Bed & Breakfast at the End of the Rainbow". "Sally Mann and Graham Curtois: Xanadu Tours in a Luxury 12-Seater Four-Wheel Drive". Well designed and optimistic notices, all of them, the poles driven deep into the soil, the paint applied with such a view to sempiternity that neither neglect nor the snows of winter could make it peel. Yes, the men had been, had dreamt, had built, and now had buggered off. Staying power was evidently the problem. They couldn't finish what they'd started. An angry red line was scored through the name of Danny Pargetter. The Bed and Breakfast at the End of the Rainbow was closed until further notice, for enquiries ring Alexandra Cox, so she was still around. When I enquired after a Xanadu Tour a bravely scintillating Sally Mann offered me scones with quince marmalade and told me the business was up for sale if I was interested, the only problem being that the Luxury 12-Seater Four-Wheel Drive had vanished with Graham Curtois in it.
"Notice what those boards had in common?" my Australian wife asked me as we drove our way back towards the city.
"The women's names came first in every instance. No man can tolerate that for long."
"Oh, come," I said. "We aren't as insecure as that."
But for answer there was only the deep outlandish laughter of the Australian female
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