STRAWS IN THE WIND: by Max TeichmannNews Weekly
Where did all the culture go? / Don't cry for me, Nigeria / Water on the brain
, July 8, 2006
Where did all the culture go?
It's not often that we get, in a single newspaper issue, a clean sweep of Australia's arts world, literature, publishing and local drama, with a verdict that they're on the rocks and not nearly
enough Australians seem to want to patronise these activities - that is, those that are locally produced, and inspired.
Only the state seems still enamoured with supporting these loss-making activities. All of this information appeared in the Review
section of the Weekend Australian
, June 17-18, 2006.
We also happen to know that the Australian film industry is … well, a catastrophe. I won't talk about the local music scene, which breaks up into many parts, some of which are doing better than others; but enough is enough. Why has this happened - and can anything be done?
The normal response by industry spokesmen is to demand more money - so as to bridge the gap between receipts and expenditures; whereas one might try increasing receipts, or reining in expenditure.
All this has been tried, with varying degrees of success and failure. Increasing receipts have led to attempts to try to read the market and then produce whatever it is saying. This has led mainly to more commercialisation, supported by an increase in hyperbole.
Such commercialisation has attracted little new trade, but has driven away many old customers. Cutting expenditure has usually missed the new managerial class which rose over the last three decades, and whose salaries have driven up production costs, in many cases far more than the coal-face performers and creators have done.
These managerial blow-ins came when governments stepped in to "help". The managers are the price the industry has to pay for grants. It has been a disastrous union. Politically-correct party hacks and hangers-on, their friends and relations, swarmed in. They interfere, call the shots, and cost the earth. Could we be in communist Bulgaria?
But we seem to keep coming back to the basic cause. Australians, in the main, just don't want to read local literature or watch locally-produced films or plays - any longer
. Why not?
One reason that comes to mind is that these offerings are of poor quality - and/or of limited appeal. Alternatively, much of the potential audience has disappeared … permanently, because of the ravages of our education system.
The sustained animus displayed towards the Western canon; the stifling of free or adventurous thinking; the disappearance of history, much of geography and the classical traditions in our young peoples' education, reproduced by the innumerable tertiary institutions; the blasé acceptance of widespread semi-literacy and innumeracy as permissible themes in the mental life of our young - these just may
have aborted the emergence of new generations for whom literature, drama and films of subtlety and complexity are important. Or even comprehensible.
The New Class - teachers, academics and many a spokesperson - may have killed off the goose which was supposed to keep laying the golden eggs for their mates in the arts industry. By pulping our culture, they have also turned the clientele into pulp readers, and watchers.
Then there is the condition of the ABC - which provided such support for all the activities I've been mentioning and which had traditionally made important contributions, in its own right, to musical, literary and dramatic creations.
I don't think this is occurring very frequently nowadays, the public media having too many agendas, usually politicised, which have no time for the concerns which were once its raison d'être
and justified its existence.
Incidentally, we are not alone. The arts, literature, film and drama sub-cultures have marginalised themselves in one Western society after another.
;Don't cry for me, Nigeria
I've been reading a very good review by Neal Ascherson, in the New York Review of Books
(June 22, 2006), of the memoirs of the great Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, You Must Set Forth at Dawn
(Random House). Soyinka has spent a lot of time writing, putting on plays, running political conspiracies, denouncing injustice in Nigeria and Africa, and enduring spells of prison and exile.
Ascherson calls him a Titan, but adds: "Now Soyinka is old, and - like Auden's 'Voltaire at Ferney' - he is 'very great'." And so he is; but whether he still has the high hopes for Africa that he expressed in the days before independence I know not.
Nigeria became independent in 1960 - and had its first state of emergency in 1962. According to Ascherson:
"In the next 30 years, there were nine military coups, a genocidal civil war with Biafra, numerous rigged elections and bloody uprisings, and several abortive 'returns to democracy'.
"The presence of vast oil reserves led to ceaseless foreign manipulation and to corruption on a scale that awed the world. In spite of oil, the economy shrank by two thirds, while the city of Lagos, once handsome, became an impassable, swarming slum. The population rose from 55 million in 1963 to 134 million today."
I remember the enormous effect the 1967-70 Biafra war had upon the English - there were already many Nigerians living in England, a large proportion of whom seemed to be students and Ibos from the wealthier and more sophisticated south.
They were mainly Christians or animists, or so we were told. They suffered greatly at the hands of the northern states which were poor and militantly Muslim. Some of these states now practise Sharia law.
The English were shocked at the Biafran slaughter - two million died. They were remembering their
Nigeria - the Nigeria depicted in the 1935 film, Sanders Of the River
, with Leslie Banks and Paul Robeson. They were appalled at the savagery of the fighting. The fighting was about territory, power and, I suppose, religion. But it was also over the oil wealth and who got to dispose of it.
Unless my memory misleads me, the then master of Balliol College, Oxford, Christopher Hill, was so moved that he and the fellows sold off the magnificent collection of silver plate, accumulated over centuries, for the suffering people of Biafra.I
was horrified - at them. But that was, and is, the grandstanding, tokenistic Oxbridge-Hampstead Left. After all, Suez had come and gone; CND and the Bomb were off the menu - so what next? Decolonisation, black power, and the opening of cultural hostilities against the evil West. Communist states weren't imperialist or colonialist, and neither were the newly emerging Muslim leaderships … they thought. So they
were okay as well. That has been the deal, more or less, ever since.
But I don't think many Oxford colleges would auction off their plate to help the oppressed, nowadays. No point. The problems of African countries such as Nigeria or South Africa aren't only, or in some cases, about money. Rather, it's about who gets it, and has the power.
Biafra now seems small beer. There is the Congo, with its death toll running at four million, and the 20-year civil war in the Sudan, Darfur and the Horn of Africa. Then there is the history of Zimbabwe and Uganda, since independence.
Writing of how happy he was as a young man exploring Nigeria by road, Soyinka says:
"In the road's later decay … is recorded a nation's retreat from a humanism that I had imbibed, quite unconsciously, from childhood. I was fated to watch the nation turn both carrion and scavenger as it killed and consumed its kind." Water on the brain
What is going to happen to Australia's water - especially that hitherto reserved for the use by our farmers? This, and the question of whether there is enough water in Australia to underwrite a large population increase (presumably in the cities), are all matters frequently discussed in News Weekly
. An important debate is taking place among our elites and their publicists, and we could be in for some nasty changes.
One group is saying we can support 50 million people here. There is enough water, but it's either in the wrong place, or in the wrong hands.
The wrong place, as always, is in the north, from whence it must be brought down to the cities and the coast, without evaporating on the way. The wrong hands used
to be wasteful suburbanites, and then, the factories - but now
it's the farmers who have to cut back. They
waste water in their open channels, so … pipe it.
But that means the farmers stay in business. Not for long, if one argument is accepted. There are too many farmers on the land - too many are virtually mining it. We have the driest continent on earth, but refuse to live within our means. This is the Jared Diamond thesis.
A lot of marginal land should be taken out of use, and farmers paid to leave. Their water can then go to cities to support an even bigger urban population, complete with high-rise apartment blocks, supermarkets and shopping malls, just so that the freeways boom can keep going, along with more cars.
This new drive to push farmers off the land fits in with Australia's free-trade agreements, whereby we may be asked to admit a flood of agricultural products (subsidised, or the product of cheap labour), as earlier we were expected to push our manufacturing industries into a contest they couldn't win.
One can see how pleased our miners, gas and oil exporters, and investment bankers, with their eyes firmly fixed on overseas, would be, if we got rid of Australian firms and farmers still defending their home turf.
But why should we want to please this
kind of Big Business? Aren't they powerful and rich enough already? And certainly one can't see any of our oligarchs giving away their fortunes as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet just have. More likely, they'd open a casino in Russia.
But to return to water. A young friend of mine, an electrical and computer engineer, is speaking of the value of nuclear energy in desalinating salt-water, on a large scale. This would be an important development, if feasible; and presumably the larger the scale of the operation, the lower the unit cost.
But the debate on nuclear energy, which Prime Minister Howard invited all interested parties to join, is not going to happen. Those with a vested interest in the status quo - i.e., not venturing beyond oil, coal and tokenistic wind farms - are already trying to choke off debate, as they are trying with respect to alternative fuels for motor vehicles.
Naturally, the Greens are involved in these alliances, all their early strictures about the burning of coal and oil forgotten. The thing - indeed, the only thing - is to frustrate "John Howard".
One can only hope that at least the government's announced inquiry is going to do its work. We could all do with a lot of new information and, hopefully, some new knowledgeable actors entering the public sphere.