Wednesday 21 Aug 2019 | 11:59 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 21 Aug 2019 | 11:59 | SYDNEY

Asian echoes in Horne masterpiece


Nick Bryant


9 July 2012 11:40

Not long after arriving in Sydney, I ran into a young Australian architect who outlined what seemed like an astonishingly heretical theory: that the best way to improve the quality of local architecture was to demolish the Sydney Opera House.

Jorn Utzon's unfinished masterpiece, he reckoned, had a paralysing effect on local design. The presence in such a prominent site of such a world-renowned building meant that Australian architects were virtually resigned to defeat when it came to producing something better. Australia's finest post-war building, for all its internal imperfections, had a dulling rather than inspirational effect.

Could it not be argued that Australia's most influential post-war book, Donald Horne's The Lucky Country, has produced a similar phenomenon? Horne's thinking was so brilliant, and his portrait of post-war Australia so bulls-eye accurate, that it was difficult to improve upon or challenge. Nor did it help that the title came to be embezzled, much to Horne's lifelong annoyance, and that his thesis is commonly misinterpreted to mean that Australia's abundance is solely due to its resources, which is not what he argued.

Sometimes I have wondered whether intellectual life in Australia, which Horne found so stultifying in the 1950s and 1960s, might have been livelier had he never written the book. Other writers would have felt a responsibility to think more deeply or with more originality. We would not have been anywhere near as beholden to Horne, whose other works are good, but not so masterful.

Then, before this blasphemy takes firm hold, I re-read Lucky Country and am reminded of its indispensability. Few books on my shelf have been defaced by such heavy marginalia: scribbles, comments, underlinings. Honorific graffiti.

In an elegant post, with a few Horne-like flourishes of his own, Graeme Dobell urged that the Lucky Country be required reading for anyone pondering Australia's relationship with Asia. Initially, I had intended to compose a feisty riposte arguing that Australia needs to break free from the intellectual shackles of Lucky Country. Its approach should be post-Horne. Take him out of the debate. Start with a cleaner slate. You get the idea.

As I warmed to my task, things looked especially promising when I retrieved my copy of The Lucky Country (it is usually close at hand) and noticed that the chapter 'Living with Asia' had hardly any notes in the margin. Could it be that Horne had little of lasting note to say on Asia?

Suffice to say, he does. Indeed, I had forgotten that his prologue begins on the terrace of the Carlton Hotel in Hong Kong, with whisky in hand, discussing the White Australia policy with his Chinese host. 'Be careful of the Chinese', his host warned.  In his chapter on Asia, phrase after phrase, now daubed with ink, leaps from the page. How about this for modern-day resonance?

Australia's problem is that it now exists in a new and dangerous power situation and its people and policies are not properly reorientated towards this fact.

Or this?

If the impressions has been given that no in Australia ever thinks of Asia, it should be pointed out that this is now far from true. There has been a huge shift in attitudes. Sensations burst into the newspapers, seminars are held, articles are written. But the interest is sometimes that of someone momentarily attracted to an idea.

He warns against viewing Asia as a monolith: 'The lumping of all Asians together can create a mindless panic.' He reminds us, with foreboding, that the 'history of Asia is a spectacle of rampaging power just like the history of any other continent. And the attitudes of modern Asians to power are those of human beings. Some of them love it.'

He identifies a strand of thought 'not widely represented in Australia outside intellectual and left-wing groups', who would have it that 'Australia will never be trusted by "Asia" unless it withdraws itself from its alliance with America and declares itself to be non-aligned.'

Horne also urged his fellow Australians to accept the reality that 'we're all Asians now.' Then comes another passage that deserves to be pondered anew:

To take our ideology of fraternalism seriously and apply it to Asians could lead to a creative awakening among Australians...And it carries obligations greater than expressions of goodwill...’We’re all Asians now,’ does not relieve one of decision-making; it simply beings to define the problem.

Substitute the word 'opportunity' for 'problem' and this 50-year old statement still sounds as if it could have been written this week.

So Horne has thwarted me, and so has Graeme Dobell. If you want to understand Australia's role in the Asian Century, heed Graeme's advice. Brush the dust from your copy of The Lucky Country, as much an adornment to Australian post-war life as Utzon's glorious shells.

Photo by Flickr user magical-world