16 AUGUST 1957, Page 7

Australia Felix

By D. W. BROGAN s:)NRAD has celebrated the magic of the land- Ifall,, the shock of pleasure that comes to the mariner when he makes land. Airfall (if there is such a word), the making of land from the air, has been less celebrated. But it never fails to excite me even when it is so banal an event as the sight of Manhattan from the air (what you see from the incoming ship is not Manhattan, but Brooklyn. It is a pity to know this, but there it is). To make Australia after two nights' and two days' flight round the globe, to leave the hot, dirty darkness of Jakarta to arrive in the early, rain- washed morning in another hemisphere, in another climate, in the Australian winter not the Asiatic summer. That was something! And there was the added advantage that I had not the slightest idea of what Perth, Western Australia and the Swan River would look like. They would not be like Bangkok and Singapore; they might even be like Perth and the Tay. They weren't! Happy Perth, happy Australia that has no such history as Perth, Scotland, has; that has had an enemy at the gates, but not inside them; whose own history is at worst grim and cruel as in the convict settlements, disgraceful as in the treat- ment of the Aborigines; but whose soil is so innocent compared with that of Europe or even of America. The Australians, for all their heroic military record (had I not flown over the Gallipoli beaches thirty hours before?), are not forced to say with us: Nec fait indignum superis, bis sanguine nostro Emathiam et latos Halni pinguescere campos.

And that was the note of Australia in my five crowded weeks there; of ease, happiness, slightly ironical optimism, of a belief that the 'contagion of the world's slow stain' could be avoided and a free and easy civilisation built under the 'strange- eyed constellations' that were at once called to my attention. But once I had noted the Southern Cross, I stopped star-gazing and kept my eyes on this ancient earth. For the first and last Australian impression was the contrast between the immense age of the continent and the novelty of man's intrusion on it. The native flora and fauna, the gum trees, the kangaroos, the other marsupials look at home. Man doesn't. Even the 'Abos' are recent invaders with their dogs, the 'dingoes.' Ordinary mammals are out of place. The fantastic mountain shapes are not, as I first thought, vol- canic in origin like the fantastic shapes of Auvergne. They arc the result of aeons of erosion, the carvings of some immemorial Ancient of Days designing a land for non-human habitation.

Dropping by road from the high tableland of 'new England,' in western New South Wales, the road is bounded by the most extraordinary boulders and great piles of rocks, the dolmens and menhirs of a Carnac or Stonehenge built by

San Francisco giants. It is no wonder that a prosperous country town like Tamworth has the air of a recent and, possibly, very temporary intrusion on the ancient land. Only in Tasmania does one get the feeling that man is here to stay—and as everybody on each side of Bass Strait tells you, 'Tasmania isn't Australia' (each side congratulating itself on this truth).

Nor, must it be admitted, has man done much to make his presence visually agreeable. A great part of the centre of all the Australian cities was built at the worst possible time. There are depres- sing Gothic cathedrals and Tudor colleges; Flemish, flamboyant post offices; and, in Mel- bourne and Sydney, business blocks that recall sometimes downtown Glasgow and, at others, downtown Boston. Even the achievement that Australians most incline to boast of, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, is a solid, lumpy, indigestible though useful piece of engineering, not for a moment to be compared with such different masterpieces as the San Francisco bridges or the first and most magnificent of them all, the Forth Bridge, Glasgow's greatest gift to Edinburgh. It is not that the Australians are not admirable engineers; there is the marvellous concrete float- ing bridge at Hobart, rushed into existence in wartime on the plans of a local genius, but it would take something like the topless towers of Manhattan to compete with the country itself, with the lofty skies, the omnipresent gum trees, the ancient rocks.

No, the great Australian achievement that should impress and delight the tourist is a more difficult achievement, 'the Australian.; I have never visited a country where the people ,made so immediately favourable an impression. By simply asserting that I thought the Australians had the best manners in the world, I was always sure of creating a reaction of gratified incredulity —and that by telling the truth. The manners are democratic, easy, friendly, helpful; they have all the best side of American manners without that irritating suspicion that it is all an act, a part of some policy of making friends and influencing people which, alas, it sometimes is. There was an Irish amiability without the irritating suspicion that it is all `blandandhering,' as Shaw put it; a suspicion that comes especially easily to people of Irish origin. There was none (not even in Syd- ney where I was warned my kind views of Australian manners would suffer a rapid change) of that surly 'independence' that is, alas, too often found in Lowland Scotland.

But, an odd thing in a new country, where servants in private houses are almost unknown and where employment in the service industries is more than full, I never once .ran into a case of sulks. (There was one exception, a peevish and stupid young Scotswoman showing her indepen- dence and incompetence in an only too familiar way.) Everybody in shops and hotels and taxis and on buses was amiably anxious to help. Quite often they didn't know how to help. But they at least meant well. I never encountered, in an Australian post office, the haughty attitude that at home and in France makes one want to sing `Come down, come down from that ivory tower.' Willingness was often all they had to offer, for the young women, even the young men, were sometimes comically incompetent. (I have had two totally different sets of postal charges quoted to me in the same post office two hours apart. But the spirit was willing if the head was weak.) But usually the head was strong. The aeroplane has transformed Australian life, has created some- thing like an Australian nation. And the Australians claim that they have the best air lines in the world. In my experience, which is now large, they have. Qantas is the best and most helpfully run great international line and the interior lines are just as good. When I contrast the mere incompetence of the office staffs in air- line offices in this much admired city of San Francisco, with the unfussed, competent, con- siderate service I got in the Qantas offices in Lon- don and Sydney, when I think of the terrors and horrors of some local 'Li, Abner' lines in these United States, I am all in favour of an American `know-how' mission being sent to Australia to learn how for a change. Australian railways, everybody told me, are terrible; but then I not only never made a train journey; I only once saw a train and that was a comic enough affair crawl- ing into Brisbane. I was forced to the conclusion that what the Australians care about—horse- racing, cricket, tennis, swimming, steelmaking, aircraft—they do as well as or better than anything else in the world. The things they don't care, or know about, they treat with a casualness and lack of fuss that may be morally admirable but is hard on the traveller, as among these despised arts are hotel-keeping and cooking.

Australia has the worst hotels I have ever en- countered, made only tolerable by the genuine good nature of the managers and staff, whose only weakness is that they know far too little about their business. They don't know about shower curtains; about rests for luggage; about adequate towels; about making a bedroom habitable by having more than one chair, by having a writing table or a mirror you can shave by. In fact, they know no more than%British hotel-keepers used to know and far less than they know now. They could learn a lot from the British Railways Hotel Executive, for instance.

And they don't know hOw to cook. Food in public places in Australia would shock a traveller used to Ireland or the Deep South. Even dealing with a potato is beyond the culinary resources of the Australian hotel. The only exception I encountered was in Sydney, in an admirable hostelry, like a very good French provincial hotel, but it is run by 'New Australians,' Swiss, with the art in their blood. There are good 'New Australian' restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney, but I should like to suggest to a great country, rightly proud of its achievements in plant and animal genetics, to devote a little research into the cooking of the potato and the cooking of meat without scorching it and without hiding the burnt offering under a horrible congealing axle-grease gravy. I have an almost perfect diges- tion. It survived Balliol, but Australia almost languished it And could something be done about the failure to utilise another great national asset : the looks, amiability, spontaneous charm of the Australian woman? That the raw materials are there the perfect hostesses of the air lines show. I am told that, in the summer, the beach at Bondi would restore my faith in what is under the horrible accumulation of woollies which hide the Australian woman in winter. The absence of central or of any heating may justify some of this armour. But it cannot justify the neglect of the law that asserts that not all colours suit all women, not all combinations of colours suit all women, and that some colours, notably a violent arsenical green, don't suit any women. Dior sends shows to Sydney; Miss Sybil Connelly has sent a landing party from Dublin, but an army of occupation is needed. The underwear, from which I averted my eyes, in shop windows and on counters in every Australian city would cause laughter or even mutiny in a female reformatory or Cheltenham Ladies' College. I read in a Mel- bourne paper fashion instructions for a forth- coming race meeting in which, on woollen foundations, a tweedy exterior was to be imposed. It may be cold in Melbourne in August but it is not as cold, as in New Haven or Cambridge (Mass.) in November and (I am told; I have no first-hand knowledge) the number of Ameri- can young women at a Harvard-Yale football game who are wearing woollies is nil. They rely on furs outside and whisky (and love) inside to keep them warm. The result is, esthetically, superior to the coats, scarves and pullovers that make the Australian woman in winter a cocoon. And woman's crowning glory is neglected.

I am told that one of the greatest needs in Australia is good hairdressers. Alas, I can believe it. As I look at the American smart cookies with their hair carefully dishevelled after being first shevelled who adorn the streets of San Francisco, I think they could be sent in exchange for the air-line mission. Of course, I, won't want the Australian woman of a certain age to forget time in the distressing habit of American 'girls' of forty and over. I have just averted my eyes from a local matron tottering up Powell Street in shoes suitable for the first concubine of a mandarin of the first class, her spread illustrating Donne's law : 'No girdle shall abate that Fall's increase.'

But if Australians could learn to cook, run hotels and dress their, women, their country would be half as wonderful as they think it is and that would be quite wonderful enough.