Geoff Ebbs reviews Guy Rundle’s 50 People Who Stuffed Up Australia

Alexander and Diogenes

Alexander and Diogenes –
A: Is there anything I can do for you?
D: Stand a little out of my sun.

Forty years ago, there was a fellow who stood in the middle of Melbourne’s new pedestrian mall with a sign declaring “God is Evil”. He invited argument and got plenty of it. I accused him of taking a lazy shortcut by simply plonking two opposing concepts together , thereby making it impossible to refute or support with his statement.

His reply was simple. “People can’t resist.”

Two things steer Guy Rundle’s 2013 book, 50 People Who Stuffed Up Australia, clear of such dangerous shallows.

First is the beautiful writing.

Rundle’s own style is clear, concise and authoritative. It is clear thinking at its best, a skill that has been supplanted first by creative writing and, more recently, by persuasive writing.

He compliments it though, with some of the best mimicry seen on the Australian printed page. The failings of Barry Humphrey as told by Edna Everidge, Sandy Stone and Sir Les are so rich and accurate you slip into that endless hall of mirrors thinking that the characters themselves or, at least Barry channelling them, must have penned the piece. Similarly the curse on Banjo Patterson is told in the meter, rhyme and narrative arc of the orginal Man from Snowy River while accusing the suburban lawyer who romanticised the bush and for ever furthered the distance between town and country while pretending to bring them closer together. Nino Culotta meets Christo Tsiolkas in The Schlep had me laughing out loud and wishing, for the first time, that I had not sent my copy of The Slap to the discard table with such haste.

His partner in crime, Dexter Rightwad, is less well realised. Some pieces are brilliant examples of the blunt, anti-intellectual populism that is the preferred style of the neo-liberal mouth, but others slip between Rundle and his bete noir or miss the target and so let the intended subject off the hook.

He leaves his best mimicry for the poets. Les Murray is beautifully lampooned and Ern Malley and those involved in his creation, publication and criticism are flattered by imitation, damned by faint praise and roundly torn limb from limb in the same concise, single-minded manner. Top stuff.

Second and more important, though, is a powerful and unique historical analysis that takes a scalpel to the sins of mythology, hagiography and the search for meaning with a clear eye and precise, well-reasoned argument that harks back to the Classical world.

The classical notion that the Gods were simply characters on the human stage and that while Fate, Destiny and Fortune played a role in human affairs that it was our duty and higher purpose to take full responsibility for our action runs powerfully through 50 Stuff ups. Rundle happily and accurately punctures the many myths and carefully constructed straw men on which nationalism and other entrenched political positions are founded.

Rundle may not be unique simply because he refuses to pander to his reader’s prejudices but it is certainly unusual, especially outside the realm of comedy. Even famous contrarians and academics like Robert Manne and Walid Ali are not averse to marketing techniques and courtroom histrionics to play with the sympathies of their audience.

Rundle avoids this trap with alacrity.

Here he is on Manning Clark and his belated adoption by the new left: Clark’s epic, operatic  sense of history … became an inspiration to those who wanted a more optimistic spirit pulsing through the polity, a democratic spirit, to those who wanted to see in the frontier clashes the example of a larger struggle and so on. It helped, of course, that Clark was increasingly willing to believe his own publicity, and intent on becoming an oracular, worlds-bridging figure.

The crime is that of believing and promulgating the myth, and it is a mutual, social contract.

Again, Billy Hughes sent thousands of Australians to die in Gallipoli so that Australian nationhood might be “sealed with their blood”.

Thus Gallipoli has the dubious distinction of being one of the first post-modern events – something arranged purely to guarantee the meaning of the commemoration that will be held in its honour. That was Hughes’ aim all along.

Hughes’ crime was killing his constituents for a handy bit of mythmaking that is with us still.

And finally in this lightning tour, our Cate. Dexter Rightwad bemoans the fact that high profile international guests and classic theatre have undermined the democratic traditions of State Theatres. The mix of safe avant-garde, celebs and Teutonic moaning certainly generated some great productions but is also put the STC in the same slot as opera – deadened, official, middlebrow culture, where people sat through the play in order to be seen in the foyer.

I picked up this book from the library for a light nightcap, expecting something in the order of the Wit and Wisdom of William McMahon but perusing the contents page realised I had picked up a pretty serious sideswipe at our most sacred cows. “God is Evil” I thought, expecting that such a comprehensive exercise in icon smashing would necessarily be simplistic, rushed and blunt.

Not only am I impressed by its sophistication, I enjoyed it. The humour is rich, the references multi-layered and the history, deep. I do not have the academic rigour to judge his accuracy in attacking the rigour of others, but I certainly enjoyed his vigour in puncturing the righteous, vain and pompous.

Rundle asserts that we allow the search for meaning and purpose to blind us to the harsh reality that much of life is random. Those who deny that, and especially those who preach that denial, disempower the rest of us. Taking a good hard look at ourselves and taking the mickey out of our sacred cows gives us a bit of perspective.

I want to thank Rundle (and Rightwad) for doing just that.