Macho Aussie who mixes wit and rebellion

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The Independent Online
Many readers will remember the Monty Python crew of the 1970s raising laughs from the idea of a gang of raucous Aussie sheep-shearers who sang a learned little ditty about Kant, Spinoza and Wittgenstein. Well, you might describe Les Murray as the Philosophers' Song come to witty, erudite, in-your-face life.

Murray, who last night won the pounds 5,000 TS Eliot prize for the year's best volume of poetry, isn't afraid of picking up the brawny, macho "ocker" stereotype and converting it into a badge of honour. The prolific, crowd- pleasing Australian poet, born in 1938 on a sheep farm on the northern coast of New South Wales, entitled his most recent book Subhuman Redneck Poems. As a way of turning an insult around, that surely ranks alongside the radical rap group who called themselves Niggaz with Attitude.

Murray has Attitude in a distinctly Australian shade - touchy, argumentative, egalitarian - but his cascading verse buries the cultural cringe in a flood of generous and moving ideas and images. He is a Catholic who dedicates all his books "to the glory of God". He also combines great learning with democratic instincts.

As his British publisher, Michael Schmidt, explains, his is "a very anarchic Catholicism that translates into a hostility to all forms of coercion", whether by the state, by arts funding bodies or by liberal orthodoxy.

He is also, famously, a very big man in the physical as well as intellectual sense. The bard of the excluded, the forgotten, the humiliated, he can speak to everyone who recalls being a fat kid who was never picked for playground teams or a blushing adolescent who could never get a date. As his poem "Rock Music" asks: "The beautiful Nazis, why are they so cruel?/ Why, to castrate the aberrant, the original, the wounded who might change our species".

His lifelong empathy with the original and the wounded extends to the balance of power at home. Schmidt stresses that Murray "is very into Aboriginal art and insists on the centrality of Aboriginal culture to the Australian experience".

"Inside Ayers Rock" presents the ancient sacred site of the continent's first inhabitants as a cave of tawdry gimmicks, colonised by the banal suburban nation Australia has become.

Reading Murray, you sense above all a cornucopian talent, a writer who turn his hand and brain to any form and theme with an almost casual fertility.

England has not produced a bard-for-all-seasons of this kind since the days of Tennyson. Schmidt comments that Murray is "not really an ironist, although he's a great wit and savage satirist. That's what really sets him apart from modern British writing".


By Les Murray

Inside Ayers Rock is lit

with paired fluorescent lights

on steel pillars supporting the ceiling

of haze-blue marquee cloth

high above the non-slip pavers

Curving around the cafeteria

throughout vast inner space

is a Milky Way of plastic chairs

in foursomes around tables

all the way to the truck drivers' enclave.

Dusted coolabah trees grow to the ceiling,

TVs talk in gassy colours, and

round the walls are Outback shop fronts:

the Beehive Bookshop for brochures,

Casual Clobber, the bottled Country Kitchen

and the sheet-iron Dreamtime Experience

that is turned off at night.

A high bank of medal-ribbony

lolly jars presides over

island counters like opened crates,

one labelled White Mugs, and covered with them.

A two-dimensional policeman

discourages shoplifting of gifts

and near the entrance, where-you pay

for fuel, there stands a tribal man

in rib-paint and public tassel.

It is all gentle and kind.

In beyond the children's playworld

there are fossils, like crumpled

old drawings of creatures in rock.