Enlightenments – Little Demon by Michael Wilding

ENLIGHTENMENTS

Little Demon, Michael Wilding, Melbourne: Arcadia, 2018, 260 pages, $29.95

Captain Cook named Cape Byron for ‘Foul-Weather Jack’ Byron, the adventuring Vice-Admiral who sailed past the easternmost point of the Southern Land in 1764, part of that endless English outpouring that shaped today’s topography. The weatherbeaten Enlightenment navigator, for whom beaches were only important insofar as they might provide shelter, would have been surprised by the shire that bears his name – where beaches mean ‘lifestyle’ rather than lee shore, and the aimlessly affluent have replaced both aborigines and landfalling Jack Tars. The landmark lighthouse shines out over nothingness, coda to a continent – and warning of hidden hazards. Private eye Plant blinks at it lugubriously in the opening pages of Little Demon, and at the sleek local resident briefing him, this man in expensive shoes who feels he owns this view, with the lighthouse its ‘iconic seal’ of having arrived. 

This is Plant’s sixth outing, the experienced, jaded, subtle, tolerant, well-read ex-novelist a sometime stand-in for the novelist. The country Plant constantly revisits is also the land of Wilding’s lost content, during what Plant/Wilding sees as ‘the best of times’ – cannabis-hazed, countercultural, idealistic, a place of horizons as big as Byron’s, where ‘new writing’ just might have altered everything. 

But Wilding believes much of this meretricious newness was in effect old reality repackaged, authorities exchanged rather than discarded. In his 2017 memoir Growing Wild, the author enumerated some of the multiple paradoxes of the Sixties and Seventies, such as how ‘liberalism’ and ‘tolerance’ were enforced, or how un-ironic academics told everyone that ‘there should be no shoulds’. The outcome of these decades-old delusions may be seen in today’s lovely but echoing littoral, a Byron Shire  – an Australia, a West – ‘without hope, without destination, without comprehensibility’, where raddled ex-hippies hobble along, ‘wasted, wizened…their eyes as blank and glazed as in the best of times.’ Post-postmodern miasmas keep sweeping in across everything like a chill mist off the Pacific. 

Wilding, like his demi-avatar, finds himself adrift, loathing political correctness even more than old ‘anti-communist’ excesses. ‘Even the 1950s’, Plant ruminates, ‘looked more liberal, more progressive, more committed to free speech and open debate than the twenty-first century’. Wilding is a staunch supporter of poetry professor Barry Spurr, with a rare ability to view such imbroglios in context, having written expertly on Johns Dee and Milton, in their lifetimes likewise objects of misrepresentation, suspicion and vitriol, punching-bags on which their respective ages worked out raging insecurities. Beneath the swirling surfaces and tidal races of twenty-first century Australia, Wilding spies shoals – social barrier reefs, all politics somehow ensuring that America will always rule, and the poor shall always be with us, product of neoliberal economics, cultural commodification, neurotic pluralism, and digitalisation designed by and for cognitive elites. 

Plant’s client is similar to him in age, but little else – Rock Richmond, a journalist and expert surfer of trends, who has parlayed middling talent into prosperity, and a timeshare in East Coast alternative culture. Richmond’s computer and storage device have been stolen. He has been writing a history of the alternative culture, he informs the underwhelmed investigator, which contains ‘things…no-one has ever dreamed of…revelations. World-shattering stuff.’ He does not want Plant to retrieve the devices (all material is backed up), but instead to use his contacts to alert editors or publishers who might be approached by the thieves. He claims not to be interested in the identity of the perpetrators, or whoever employed them, so long as the material is not published by anyone else. Plant does as he has been bid, but remains perplexed – especially as Richmond is clearly a lightweight, not the kind likely to unearth ‘world-shattering stuff’. And if he had a back-up, why did he need Plant at all – could it have been to put about the idea that he did not have a back-up, to outfox enemies? 

Puzzlement turns darker when Plant’s placid rural existence is invaded by an old interlocutor, Fullalove, a paranoid, pasty ‘eternal inner urbanite’ who has come to stay indefinitely, ‘just till things blow over’. Plant knows that nothing ever blows over for Fullalove – but nevertheless tolerates this unhygienic imposition, with all his fussy demands and infectious fears of almost everything. Pace Pascal, “Fullalove contemplated the night sky in unfeigned terror”, and like the Frenchman is determined to fill up all emptiness with theories. Plant finds himself often unable to answer Fullalove’s unquenchable questions, but bats them mostly away as just part of his guest’s emotional armature – until Richmond is shot dead at the lighthouse. 

Richmond, Fullalove decides, must have been writing about still-sensitive Cold War secrets – 1960s communes ‘really’ CIA-run, drug-funded military experiments into post-nuclear survivalism. Like all conspiratologists, he takes little-known facts – such as that L.S.D. research was once funded by the U.S. Navy – and links them in ever longer chains of reasoning, some links of which are sound, but which taken as a whole become progressively weaker. This could pall, except there is much humour – such as in Fullalove’s lazy reluctance actually to seek out arms dumps in that hot and insect-haunted landscape. He ‘knows’ they are there, and that is enough for him. ‘This is the age of virtual reality’ he says, exuding clammy self-interest as well as self-satisfaction. ‘Let’s keep it that way.’ The ever-easygoing Plant agrees, content to let questions float away or hover in the air as pregnant possibilities. 

Equally suggestive are the frequent literary allusions, of a kind rarely found in noir – Australia, Plant, Wilding, and all the rest of us entangled in ancienter European culture, and unthinkable without it, Wilding one of too few writers determined to keep the flame alive in battering winds. Plant’s case may have started out as a simple criminal investigation, but it swiftly, and unforgettably, shines bright lights onto the way we live, and some of the reasons why. 

This review first appeared in the May 2018 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission 

Growing Wild by Michael Wilding

MW-image

Class-Observation

Growing Wild, Michael Wilding, 2016, Melbourne: Arcadia, pb., 302pp., Aus$39.95

A hoicked-up small boy sits astride a yoked-up heavy horse, while three sun-stained men smile at posterity. Hairy hooves press good grass, lush trees shade old ridges, and though the cover is black-and-white we feel the burden of that 1940s sun, the texture of that workwear, conjure the sleepy scents of horse and soil, hear the muted afternoon. It could be a tableau from Cider With Rosie, or an image from Mass-Observation, the social research organisation founded in 1937 to document British working-class life. The latter is apposite, because that meadow was in Worcestershire, and that bare-legged boy would become Michael Wilding, class campaigner, radical and “proto-post-modernist”, progenitor of “new writing” in an outpost of old empire.

Growing Wild tells of Wilding’s peregrination from puritanical, proletarian English provinces to intellectual eminence in Australia. It also constitutes a mini-cultural history of the 1940s-1980s, enlightening about both England and Australia as seen by an unusually cultured and self-aware observer. The Oz adult was partly prefigured in the British boy – “Did I spend my whole childhood in fuming and resentment? Sometimes when I look back on it it seems so.” He portrays 1950s suburban Worcester as an edgeland – “…the margin of the Marches, the border of the borderland, the second degree of peripherality.” This sounds over-complicated, but certainly his childhood was convoluted with cross-cutting class gradations, all setting themselves apart and allotting others by accent, clothes, demeanour, occupation, politics, sexual morality, or the tidiness of their gardens.

His dour, frustrated, foundryman father (who had yearned to go to university) was often at contrariety with his cheery, conservative, musical mother, “as if cavalier and roundhead coexisted in the same family”, and may have resented his son’s easier path to fulfilment. His father’s case fed Wilding’s later politics, but in the short term he turned snob, hating cultivating the family vegetable plot and ‘correcting’ his father’s speech. Their parlour was sometimes another “battlefield of the class war, fought with words rather than deeds” – a humdrum continuation of Hudibras, Worcester writer Samuel Butler’s mock epic of the Civil War, whose hero is held back by his “dialect and discourse”. But not all of childhood was a combat zone, nor was all Worcester waste. Wilding looks back from the far side of the world, and falls under an enchantment of old names, while the Severn still swells with secret meanings in his dreams.

He worked as postman, farm labourer and deliveryman, but also sold a story to BBC radio at 18. Oxford offered opportunity, but he fretted even under those somnolent spires, and no amount of acceptance proved enough. He edited Isis, but felt always on sufferance, prisoner of proletarianism. He festered, devoured Jude the Obscure, refused to alter his accent, but also avoided “unstylish” contemporaries of comparable class, his itchiness emblematised by his ill-cut academic gown (shades of Widmerpool’s overcoat), which he believed accentuated rather than elided his origins. Then came real escape – English lectureship at the University of Sydney.

Carrying his cargo of small resentments, he fell in with local leftists, then campaigning against censorship, drugs laws, Western foreign policy, imperialism, racism and sexism. To that coterie there were clear linkages between political constraints and cultural traditions, made more plausible because anti-communists were sponsoring high-end journals like Encounter, and Leavisites operating at the sharpest end of metapolitics. Australia looked like a universe, and Wilding expanded into its well-fed wideness, its endless evenings of fine food and thrown-open windows, horizon-altering drugs, easy sex, open-ended discussions about everything, “the systematic deregulation of the senses mandatory for the followers of Rimbaud and the enthusiasts for Brautigan.” He talked and published tirelessly, striving to push boundaries, erase differences, usher in a shibboleth-less world. To him, narratives narrowed possibilities, and were in any case inapplicable to modern life – “Our lives, our careers, our aspirations no longer seemed expressible by the traditional narratives. Or maybe we just hoped not”.

But if lives, careers and aspirations really were no longer expressible, they could be controlled, and like many others in the perfervid Seventies Wilding voiced bleak suspicions about society, producing a regular Nation Review column called “Wilding’s Paranoia”. He started sceptical, but “the extreme speculations proved to be true”, and increasingly he saw Western societies as stamping-grounds for self-aware socioeconomic forces seeking to cozen populations into buying product along with their “conservative, reactionary” worldview. (The conservative reactionaries would seem to have been spectacularly unsuccessful.)

One of Wilding’s manifold merits is candour about his cohort. While Sydney’s Push was “unrelenting in its refusal to recognise the validity of any authority, it had its well-defined pecking order”, and was “committed to pluralism with all the fervour of fanatical monotheists”, while litterateurs opined oxymoronically “there should be no ‘shoulds’”. The Aquarian ideas have aged badly, and some of the erstwhile avant-garde are now excoriated as ists and phobes, while the conscious uncoupling of Westerners from their heritage has led to “the denial, rejection, surrender of history”, a “de-humanising and de-politicising, or at any rate de-radicalising, agenda”, an existence “without hope, without destination, without comprehensibility”, “suspicion, disillusion, and nihilism”.

At 75, Wilding remains admirably open to ideas, an honest liberal as critical of PC idiocy as of conservative complacency, and is manifestly determined to persist ploughing his personal furrow. He notes, boyishly defiant, “I thought being a writer you could say excessive things, troublesome things, even outrageous things, and get away with them. And even when I found out you couldn’t get away with them, it still seemed worth saying them.” Indeed, it was.

This review first appeared in the Spectator Australia on 3 June 2017, and is reproduced with acknowledgements