Nicki Gemmell: Why You Are Australian — a letter to my children. Fourth Estate, $29,95

“I’ve become weak from pouring whole bags of sugar into my tea,” a Pintubi elder told me in the Central Desert …

Oh God, I thought, here we go. Twenty pages into Nicki Gemmell’s mid-market stocking filler about bringing her children back to Australia, we’re invoking the spirituality of Aborigines to explain the feelings of an echt anglo-suburban globetrotter. Aborigines make other appearances to — leaving Notting Hill to get on a plane is like “the Aboriginal woman who washed her Christianity off at the river”, the only time in history that a visit to Heathrow  has been constructed as refreshing and cleansing. What’s next — a smoking ceremony at the Radisson? Is it all going to be this self-parodically bad?

Well, yes and no is the answer. Gemmell is an Australian journalist and novelist based in London, who found fame with a s-xual/marital memoir The Bride Stripped Bare, initially published under the credit of “anonymous”, with Gemmell then shockingly, surprisingly revealed as the author when the first wave of sales began to flatten out. The Bride was bourgeois to the hilt, a Bed Bath and Beyond of baseness — marital oral s-x is boring, a chore like doing the vacuuming etc — Emmanuelle as written by a Lauriston girl. WYAA is a shorter book — 190 pages of big print and wide leading — its ostensible motive being a need by Gemmell to explain to her children why they have been given Australian citizenship despite being born in the UK, and why they are being dragged out of their comfortable London lifestyle to brave a country, tales of whose floral and fauna lethality have littered their childhood.

But, of course, the real impetus for the book is the Christmas list. Short, apparently quickly written, WYAA has the feel of a manuscript tailored to a fixed deadline by a writer needing to get back in the lists. It takes us a good 30 pages to get on the plane in London, and a lot of the observation seems to occur in transport hubs — an old trick we should all do less of, in which differing customs regimens, taxi lore and snackbar selections provide the objective correlative for piercing apercus about national character. This is less to do with their transitional and microcosmic nature, than it is with delayed flights and long-battery-life laptops. A couple of hours layover at gate 57 and you can get your 2000 for the day done. The whole book has this provisional and thrown together character, which renders it commonplace now and most likely unreadable in five years’ time.

Nevertheless, The Bride Stripped Bare was a sprightly read, and Gemmell is an experienced journalist. Barring the occasional Aboriginal ambush, it’ll be aright, right? Sadly, no. When I read Gemmell’s paean to the particularities of Australia — “where you know what a rash shirt is and a nipper, a Paddle Pop and a Boogie Board” — I was briefly heartened. Perhaps this would be a corrective to the elitist, statist manipulative patriotism being spruiked by Tim Soutphommasane and others, people for whom the longing for a Paddle Pop is “sentimental mush”. Well, to a degree it is in that Gemmell is willing to summon sights, smells and sounds and has a talent for brief word pictures in a way alien to Soutphommasane’s strangely unattached idea of country love. Unfortunately it is surrounded by the worst sort of middlebrow colour-supplement drivel , of which this is by no means the ickiest example:

My love for you children, you darling children, is greedy, wild, voluptuous; since you’ve been with me it’s like God has breathed life into the bellows of my days and everything has become warm, sparky, alive … my longed-for career as a novelist has softened as I try gleaning preciously selfish writing time around full-time motherhood …

Excuse me while I, in our colourful argot, take a technicolour yawn. The first part of that quote is simply boilerplate of a distinctly purplish tincture; the latter is just bad writing and non-editing, a misapplication of the adjective “selfish”. The fact that the chapter in question is concluded with a quote from French philosopher/p-rnographer Georges Bataille is the kiss of the whip for me.

If there’s a rhetorical strategy to Gemmell’s book, it could be called late luvvie Keatingism — every unthinking cliche and narcissistic self-congratulation of the media sub-class who felt that Keating best represented their hopes and ideals for the country is expressed in this short volume. For British readers who will form a large part of this book’s intended market, this is accomplished by essentially identifying the sensuous particularity of contemporary Australian life — the beach, the light, the salt tang of the Bondi air — with an innate spirituality that is projected on to Aboriginal people, and constructed as shared by all Australians (despite some opting out caveats).

We Australians — indigenous and non- — share one thing, Gemmell’s argument runs, and that is our closeness to nature, that Britons lack. Like Robyn Davidson, Gemmell has no problem anchoring her global-Airbus lifestyle by co-opting another, and different, people’s traditions and values to her own life path. I have no doubt Gemmell really believes it, too — a narcissism almost worse than if it was simply a sleazy co-option to tantalise jaded London readers with a bit of new-age mutant message oogie-boogie.

And, of course, in line with that self-conception there is the usual comparison of Australia with Britain on questions of race, based around Cronulla. The British National Party in the UK is a worry, Gemmell argues, but there is nothing like the jingoism of the Cronulla riots. Well, in fact the BNP has a foothold in many local councils, a base in East London, and an MEP. Cronulla was a media event, which led to nothing, and the organised far-right in Australia was smashed, defeated and has not risen again. It would be as unwise to overstate the BNP’s power as it would to underestimate how One Nation reshaped the coalition’s politics, but the idea that Australia is more racist than, say, South London, is laughable. Though WYAA is mercifully mostly free of attempts to portray Australia’s likeable qualities as some essential expression of values a la the new “progressive patriotism” and can occasionally strike a true or moving descriptive note, ultimately it’s like a meal of Tim Tams — not too healthy for anyone, and you aren’t too far in before you’re wondering why you ever started in the first place.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW