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Alex Miller: The Story of the Intimate and Private


On the 20th of April 2010, Alex Miller was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award for his novel Lovesong. It was the seventh time the literary judges regarded one of Miller’s writings worthy of an honorary mention. In 1993 and 2003 he had won the prize for The Ancestor Game and Journey to the Stone Country, while The Sitters, Conditions of Faith and Landscape of Farewell were put on the shortlist in 1996, 2001 and 2008, and Prochownik’s Dream earned a place on the longlist in 2006. The Miles Franklin was only one of the accolades Miller received during his more than twenty years as a novelist. Nominated for almost every literary prize in and even outside the country, his trophy cabinet – if he had one – would contain, amongst others, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, a Centenary Medal for Service to Australian society and Literature and the 2008 Manning Clark Award, where his oeuvre was recognised as an ‘outstanding

contribution to the quality of Australian cultural life’. Then, of course, there was the ultimate recognition, a spot in the pantheon of Australiana, the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, where two portraits of Miller by Rick Amor are on display.

All this has located Alex Miller as a quintessentially Australian writer and earned him a place in the Australian literary canon. In the context of this thesis, it is especially interesting to note that The Oxford Literary History of Australia even categorises Miller, a little mystifyingly, as a “non-migrant Australian writer” (Lever 1998, p 325). But Alex Miller did migrate and in my view this experience informs much of his work. Experience is the important word here: to Miller, migration is not

an abstract concept, as it is for many Australian-born writers (and critics), who are fascinated by the role it plays in ‘the story of the nation’. His is the actual getting-on-a-boat version: the lived, embodied event rather than the cerebral notion, informed not by an interest in a cultural phenomenon, but by the deeply rooted emotions relocation brings. It is not just a topic for Miller, but the topic, one he keeps coming back to in every book he writes, trying to find the words that describe every facet of the experience and its consequences. In doing so, Miller addresses all the quintessential migrant themes: language and silence, fragmentation and displacement, absence and difference, nostalgia and history, landscape and belonging, home and story, are at the core of all of Miller’s work.

Alex Miller was born in 1936 and raised in a poor neighbourhood in London, the son of a Scottish father and an Irish mother. In an interview I conducted with Miller on 5 and 6 June 2008, he stated that his first realisation of non-belonging came to him when he was a child. Because his parents were working class and not English, it was “made very clear” that they were not “part of the ruling culture”, and this made it difficult to find a “meaning and a purpose” to life (Miller 2008, interview, 5 June).

Miller’s father, who resurfaces in various guises in many of his books, was

traumatised by his years as an infantryman during WWII, which left him wounded and unable to work after the war. The novel Landscape of Farewell reads as a study into both the psychology of this complicated man and the difficult relationship he had with his son. The book not only addresses the matter of guilt and the silence that is the product of this, but also recalls an incident that was, as Miller only recognised after the writing, “straight autobiography, from the point of view of the emotion and the dynamics of the situation” (Miller 2008, interview, 5 June). It concerns a severe beating the boy took from his father, because he realised that the older man needed an outlet for his “reasonable” anger and the boy felt he “owed it” to him: “I have his name, I am his son, an extension of him. That makes me responsible” (Miller 2008, interview, 5 June).

Living with the consequences of poverty and a parent who “had lost faith in the human project” (Miller 2008, interview, 5 June), coupled with a desire for adventure, eventually instilled in Miller an overwhelming need to get out, preferably to a place that was “unconnected to family, past and history” (Miller 2008, interview, 5 June). In The Ancestor Game, Miller describes this yearning in an almost mythical way: “Look for something you can’t name, […] and call it Australia. A thing will

come into being […]. A land imagined and dreamed, not an actual place” (Miller 1992, p 259). “From my European perspective, Australia looked like this fantastic blank page, free of the ‘too much’ of European history. I freed myself, in a way”

(Miller 2008, interview, 5 June). The idea of Australia had been born when Miller, after leaving school at 15, worked as a farm labourer in Exmoor, an experience he wrote about in The Tivington Nott. One day an Australian migrant showed him a book on Australia, where Miller found a photograph of a group of stockmen staring into the distance, a great empty landscape in front of them. A year later he convinced his parents to let him go, and in 1952, at age 16, Miller arrived in Australia by ship. He recalls the first time he saw the land he had been dreaming about:

The sun was rising and then I saw this thin line. I clearly remember the

excitement, the ‘Christ, this is finally it!’ A magical moment. The place that is ready for me, the place I am going to inhabit, the place that will be mine. A clear, clean tabula rasa. Not theirs, not full of stuff, but mine. Ready for me to write on (Miller 2008, interview, 5 June).

To the young Miller, the first thing that struck him was the different way he, a “boy from the wrong side of the tracks” (Miller 2008, interview, 5 June), was treated in his new country. In contrast to what he had been used to in England,

Australia did not seem to mind about class distinctions, only interested in his skills as a horseman and not his background. What was apparent though, was the level of racism:

I answered an advertisement in the paper that said ‘no Yanks, Poms or Boongs need apply’. After I’d been [in that job] for a while, I finally had the courage to say I was from England. They said: ‘O really, what part?’ It didn’t matter anymore. A lot of people I knew used very racist language towards

Aborigines, although they had Aboriginal friends. But that was ‘Frank, mate, he’s all right’. They were theoretical racists, not practical ones (Miller 2008, interview, 5 June).

For a few years Miller worked as a stockman in Queensland and New Zealand, a cleaner at Myers, a spruiker for a ferris-wheel, and in the public service in Canberra, before matriculating to study at Melbourne University, graduating with a BA in English and History in 1965. Wanting to write, but not mastering the craft yet, he bought a farm in Araluen – where part of The Sitters is situated – breeding cattle, cutting wattle bark for South African tanneries, growing vegetables and organising the

local mail run. At the same time he wrote three “pre-novels” “about major issues of the day”, that had “no warmth, no heart” (Miller 2003, radio interview, 9 May). A breakthrough came with a visit to the farm by Miller’s friend Max Blatt, a Jewish refugee from Silesia. Miller admired Blatt for his brilliant mind and for what he had managed to overcome in life. As Miller tells the story, Blatt

slammed down the [latest] manuscript and said, with faint bitterness and disgust: ‘Why don’t you write about something you love?’ […] It was a bullet in the heart. It staggered me, but it taught me how to write. From then on I only wrote about my intimate secret world. Fuck the rest of it. Writing about something else is like going into a well that is empty. You go back and back and bring up buckets of dust (Miller 2003, radio interview, 9 May).

Miller’s first real work, the one that proved he was ready to be a writer, was, not surprisingly, an ode to Blatt. ‘Comrade Pawel’ was a short story, published in Meanjin in 1975, about an element of Blatt’s experiences during the war. Blatt was moved, and told a relieved Miller: “‘Alex, you could have been there’. There was a flash of joy: finally I knew I could do it” (Miller 2008, interview, 6 June). The first couple of years after the publication of ‘Comrade Pawel’, Miller mainly occupied himself with theatre. His first play was produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company and he was the inaugural writer-in-residence at the Australian Nouveau Theatre, as well as co-founder of and writer for the Anthill Theatre in Melbourne, and founding member of Melbourne’s Writers’ Theatre. In 1988, his first novel, Watching the Climbers on the Mountain, came out, followed the next year by the one he actually wrote first, The Tivington Nott.

1952, the year Alex Miller arrived in Australia, constituted something of a watershed in the history of British migration to its former colony. Between 1945 and 1952, most of the British migrants arrived with the help of Assisted Passages

Schemes, which had been negotiated between the two governments shortly after the war. The English-born dominated at around 85% (Jupp 2001, p 314), and a quarter of them came from Miller’s region of London and the South-East. More than half of them were between the ages of 15 and 44 and had a working-class background (2001, p 315). The median amount of capital they brought with them was 289 pounds (ibid).

Britain had just come out of the war, rationing and food shortages were still the order of the day and people wanted to get out of Europe, partly in fear of a repeat

performance, this time with a Soviet enemy. The Australian economy, on the other hand, was growing, and desperately needed skilled workers to keep the momentum going. “Excess demand for labour exceeded 2.5 per cent […], despite the large intake of migrant labour under the assisted British and the Displaced Person schemes”

(2001, p 314). In 1952, things started to change. Australia experienced an economic recession, while things were looking up in Britain. Apart from economic reasons, Australians and Britains were also slowly altering their expectations and opinions of each other. As Andrew Hassam maintains, British migrants arriving straight after the war were met with respect, giving the example of T.G. Davies, the general-secretary of the West Australian ALP, welcoming a boat-load of British tradesmen with: “If you had the guts to go through six years of war, then you have the guts to be decent Australians” (Hassam 2005, p 79). According to Hassam, this attitude changed fairly quickly afterwards. This was caused by “the waning of the war in Europe in the Australian cultural memory”, growing “calls for an independent non-British Australia” (2005, p 80), and a stronger self-confidence of the country down under.

Another reason for the revision was that British migrants, from 1952 onwards, were starting to agitate against their living conditions. Being housed in hostels that were cramped and expensive, migrants took to the streets of NSW, Victoria and South Australia. In November 1952, this led to violent clashes, with blockades being built out of cars and stones thrown at police (2005, p 81). The new immigration minister, Harold Holt, accused the migrants of “communist-inspired” violence and compared them very unfavourably to the “New Australians”, migrants from “continental Europe, who were deemed to be less complaining about hostel conditions than the British” (2005, p 81-83). What he forgot to mention, though, was that the British, who usually arrived as families, spent on average 83.3 weeks in hostel accommodation, compared to 45.5 weeks for the more flexible Europeans, who mostly arrived individually (2005, p. 84).

Hassam asserts that all of this led to the ‘Whingeing Pom’ stereotype, that took hold around the early 1960s, with the British even being denounced for “un-Australian” behaviour (2005, p. 86). In his opinion, relations did not improve in later years, and actually deteriorated when the special position of the British was abolished under the Whitlam government in 1972. In 1977, the minister for primary industries, Ian Sinclair, blamed the British for “importing the British disease of industrial unrest”

(2005, p 88), after which a public discussion ensued on whether these remarks could

be classified as “racist” or not. The Sun newspaper felt this belonged to “the theatre of the absurd” (2005, p 88), while Tom Uren, the acting leader of the Opposition,

maintained the word was an accurate description of Sinclair’s sentiment (2005, p 88).

Hassam maintains that a 1977 letter to the Sydney Morning Herald symbolised the confused feelings amongst Australians with regard to British migrants:

Sinclair’s outburst […] shows the impossibility of Australia ever becoming a republic. The Commissioner for Community Affairs, Mr. Al Grassby, no longer allows us to be rude about foreigners, but fortunately our present Constitution ensures that the Poms are not foreigners, so we can say anything we like about them (2005, p 90).

It is interesting to note that the current (very partial) academic focus on British migration to Australia is fairly recent, and led by academics who are themselves migrants with a British background. James Jupp, Jon Stratton, Sara Wills, Andrew Hassam and James Hammerton all were born in the UK and may therefore be more receptive to the British migrant story. James Hammerton and his writing partner Alistair Thomson (also a migrant, but in the opposite direction) explain their motives for writing about this particular migrant group in Ten Pound Poms – Australia’s Invisible Migrants like this:

We are not arguing that non-British immigrants have received undue attention or unfairly favourable treatment. Australian attitudes and policies did

discriminate against immigrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds, and the struggle for a more just and multicultural society is one of the most

important chapters of contemporary Australian history. But the history of postwar immigration makes better sense if the British are included in a story which records the common and distinctive features of their migration

(Hammerton and Thomson 2005, p 12).

This quasi-apologetic tone is revealing of the diffident manner in which the discussion about British migrants in Australia is being conducted. In a review of the study, Andrew Hassam explained why these white, British migrants became, in his words,

“invisible”. “Compared with non-English-speaking migrants, British migrants”, he contends, “were not sufficiently different from Australians”. “Especially after the introduction of multiculturalism”, Hassam reasons, “the Poms were not exotic enough to assume a multicultural ethnicity” (Hassam 2006, p 339).

Most of the British-Australian academics agree that British migrants have been largely invisible in the Australian migration story, and ‘blame’ this on the fact that in Australia, British migrants were regarded as “less migrants than transplants to British settlements overseas” (Wills 2004, p 338), “for whom talk of assimilation seemed irrelevant” (2004, p 333), because it was taken for granted. Sara Wills,

writing about Mrs. Barbara Porritt, embraced as Australia’s millionth migrant in 1955, maintains that the

most crucial ‘missing’ chapter in the story of the arrival of the millionth migrant, and of postwar British migrants to Australia more generally, is of migration as an event that profoundly affects identity and sense of place, resulting in complex changes in relationships with the ‘homeland’ and creating a transformed sense of self and community in Australia (2004, p 334).

Wills contends that Barbara Porritt’s assimilation was expected, as seen in the implications of what the media neglected to mention: “No detailed knowledge of her hometown or family is considered relevant. We are told of no family that she leaves behind, no special places or buildings, no memories, no sense of place, nothing that might tie her to Britain” (2004, p 343): hers is not a migrant story, but one of re-placement, where the subject is a blank slate, without past or identity. Her past and identity, because they are British, are considered the same as those of Australian women, given that they are both part of the Empire. Especially when compared to the waves of ‘truly Other’ migrants who arrived at the same time – Europeans who were neither English-speaking, nor part of the Empire nor, in many cases, considered

‘really’ white – the assumption that somebody like Mrs. Porritt was, in a way, story-less, is understandable. This story also echoes Ruth Park’s lament that her mother-in-law “had no interest in [my] background, family, achievements, aims or opinions. [I]

had sprung fully-fledged into her life” (Park 1993, p 70), however unwittingly exposing how New Zealand’s relationship to Australia too fell neatly in the imperial paradigm that united Britain and Australia. To many Australians, the life of a white, English-speaking, culturally similar migrant apparently only started at the moment they entered the country. Wills goes even further in suggesting that “it could be argued that in Australia, the incorporation into the story of the nation of a white woman was used to represent the values of ‘hearth’ against ‘immigrants’” (2004, p 345). White British migrants, therefore, are perceived in Australia to have no ethnicity and to be therefore ‘safe’, while Others are ethnicised and consequently deemed

dangerous. The consequence of this binary, is that “British migrants have been subject on occasion to post-imperial forgetting” (Wills 2005, p 94).

In substantiating this same proposition, Hammerton and Thomson point to a couple of categorisations used in Australian institutions. The first one consists of

“many Australian libraries, which use the index headings ‘migrant’ or ‘migration’ for memoirs by postwar migrants from non-English-speaking countries, but not for

memoirs by postwar British migrants” (2005, p 10). Then there are the historians, who

“have also neglected postwar British migrants”, with the noted exception of Reg Appleyard (2005, p 11). Lastly, Hammerton and Thomson claim that British migrants were “ignored” in the 1970s and 1980s, when large-scale projects were undertaken to

“record and publish the oral histories and written testimonies” of migrants, as “part of the agenda of multicultural politics” (2005, p 11). This seems to fit into the analysis of migrant, ethnic or multicultural writing presented in chapter 3. There we saw the categorisation change over time, and include only “cultural traditions which do not derive from either England or Ireland” (Gunew et al 1992, p viii).

Jon Stratton focuses on the idea that issues of difference and ethnicity inform the thinking about British migrants. Ethnicity, Stratton contends, is used “as a marker of incompatible cultural difference” (Stratton 1998, p 33): “Ethnic cultures are peripheral to a core culture, named these days as ‘Anglo-Celtic’” (1998, p 10).

Stratton wonders “what meaning Anglo-Celtic culture [has] for the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish migrants” (1998, p 81), seeing that they are both a migrant (and therefore outside of the national story) and British (and as such “neither ethnicised nor hyphenated”, forming “the backbone of ‘Anglo-Celtic’ Australia” (1998, p 83). In

‘Not Just Another Multicultural Story’, Stratton further explores this ambivalence of

“being both included and excluded in the dominant culture” (1998, p 88). Stratton maintains that British migrants are not considered “‘foreign’ like the new white migrants”, but they are also not Australian, because they are viewed as inferior,

“‘identified as Pommies’, negatively compared to Australian stock and Australian culture” (Stratton 2000, p 30). British migrants, according to Stratton, are thus not only “simultaneously denigrated and silenced” (2000, p 31), but if they do not assimilate immediately they are also seen as a “challenge to the legitimacy of the ideology” of multiculturalism (2000, p 32). It is a complicated Catch 22, that leads to a categorisation dilemma for the writers in this group.

I want to return here to one of the very few British-Australian writers usually included in the migrant, ethnic, multicultural writers subset: Elizabeth Jolley. As noted above, this is not because Jolley was born in Birmingham, but on account of her mother being Austrian, with German one of the languages spoken in the family home.

However, in 2002 Alistair Thomson wrote ‘Landscapes of Memory’ for Meanjin, charting the ‘Migrations of Elizabeth Jolley’. In it, he argues that

The experience of migration was, for Elizabeth Jolley as for so many other migrants, a time of dramatic disjuncture in which time and place – past, present and future – were wrenched out of established patterns and certainties.

The voyage to Australia evoked deep, powerful memories and ‘remains a physical and emotional experience which cannot be erased’: ‘At some point in the journey the migrant is hit by the irrevocable nature of his decision. Even if he starts back as soon as he reaches his destination he will never be the same again’ (Thomson 2002, p 89).

The themes Thomson points to in Jolley’s work are classic migrant themes: exile, alienation, loss, making “sense of new places” by “articulating and controlling them through writing”, place and landscape, belonging and memory. “Like many migrants, the Jolleys created physical and imaginative spaces in Australia that threaded together in strange new patterns the warp and weft of past and present places”, Thomson argues (2002, p 90). Similarly, Brian Dibble – who migrated to Australia from America –, and who wrote Jolley’s biography in 2008, calls this an “internal exile”

(Dibble 2008, p 158):

The dislocation of Jolley’s migration to Australia was amplified by her earlier British experiences of displacement, and her writings can be read as a species of migrant literature that articulates a longing for belonging and negotiates a resolution in writing to the experience of exile (2008, p 158).

In his biography, Dibble makes sure that Jolley’s readers understand that “Although the term ‘migrant’ is not usually used for Australian writers who have come from English-speaking countries, especially England, nonetheless Jolley was a migrant writer” (2008, p 158). Caroline Lurie agrees, maintaining in the introduction to her second book about Jolley, Learning to Dance – Elizabeth Jolley, Her Life and Work (2006), that “Homesickness and exile combined to inform much of Elizabeth’s writing” (2006, p 3). In what follows, I will show that, as is the case in the work of

Elizabeth Jolley, migrancy is a central component in Alex Miller’s writing. Another similarity between these two writers is that critics have some difficulties in making the connection between the work and the migrant experience of its creator.

The first book Alex Miller wrote was The Tivington Nott. It is the story of a young boy from London, who goes to work as a farm labourer in what the English call the West Country, a landscape of moors, hills and valleys. In a short non-fiction article Miller wrote for The Age, called ‘My First Love’, Miller’s first sentence reads like this: “When I was 15, I left school in south London and got a job as farm labourer on Exmoor” (Miller 1995, p 3). In the story, Miller marks the experience as his “first cross-cultural journey”, and says that he was considered by the people in Exmoor to be “a lunatic, a weirdo, an outsider”. Miller makes a direct connection between that experience and The Tivington Nott: “The novel turned out to be a parable of the stranger, a meditation on the power the stranger has to negotiate to find a way into a settled community and to change the community forever” (1995, p 3). In the book Miller sets up the dichotomy between the stranger and the community from the very first page. Miller’s first-person narrator locates himself as “an alien”, and realises quickly that “A local’s always got something extra on you. They can feel the shape of the country in their bones. And they can afford to wait for outsiders to make a

mistake. Saying nothing. Being there and waiting” (2005 [1989], p 14). This tension pervades the novel: the outsider always alert for the moment the insiders will lash out, the insiders always suspicious of the outsider’s motives and even of his presence. The Tivington Nott is about the power of the stranger, as Miller wrote, but at the same time it narrates the resistance of the community to that stranger and the difficulties the stranger encounters in his quest to be (temporarily) accepted, let alone fit in. Even language is used to keep him at bay: “You can never be quite sure what they mean.

Nothing clear-cut and final about their answers. […] Ask them a straight question and they’ll spit and cough and look over their shoulder, then say something you can’t understand and move away” (2005 [1989], p 43-4). Sometimes the resentment even turns into dimly veiled hatred: “She feels in her bones that people like me […]

shouldn’t be allowed. We ought to be banned if governments did their job properly”

(2005 [1989], p 67). “I don’t fit and it is obvious. There’s no covering it up by

keeping busy. I’m a stranger in the middle of what’s going on. An irritation. Irksome.

Spoiling everybody’s fun” (2005 [1989], p 47). The narrator’s response to this

dislocation, is to prove that he is worthy of their respect, by doing something dangerous and potentially life-threatening. He joins a stag-hunt on one of the most unpredictable horses in the county, owned by another outsider in the village, an Australian called Alsop. Like its owner and rider, the stallion is “the wrong horse for this place” (2005 [1989], p 19). Miller calls the animal Kabara, without explaining that this is an Aboriginal name for ‘home’ or ‘place to rest’. On this ‘home’, the narrator almost dies trying to establish his worth, but in the end it does not get him any closer to the insider-ship he was after. “Kabara and I are intruders. We’ll always be intruders here, no matter what we do and no matter how long we stay. And if we were to stay, I’m sure the forest would move away from us and establish itself elsewhere” (2005 [1989], p 114).

The Tivington Nott was not extensively reviewed in Australia. Most of the critics took the story at face value and viewed it as a book about hunting. In the Australian Book Review, Jennifer Dabbs calls it “the definitive deer-hunting tale”, talking about “Miller’s unique style, which is not literary” [sic], but nonetheless the book has “wonderful writing, imaginative, evocative and [is] totally accessible”

(Dabbs 1989, p 47). Dabbs acknowledges that there is a “sub-theme of the outsider searching for meaning and identity in a society firmly entrenched in a rigid and outdated class system”, a theme she calls “universal” (1989, p 47), but she does not connect Miller’s position as a migrant writer to this theme, or explore it further. A year later, in a speech he gave when he accepted the Braille Book of the Year Award for The Tivington Nott, Miller himself said that he considered the book his “first excavation”, “the first feature to be uncovered”, “part of a buried city of great complexity” that has “a confessional nature” to it (Miller 1990-1991, p 30). Since then, in the introduction to the 2005 publication of the book and during our 2008 interview, Miller has elaborated further, saying that not only were the migrant themes of “home, belonging, outsidership and exile” (Miller 2008, interview, 5 June) a major part of that excavation, but they were very much connected to his personal

experiences as a migrant. Another observation he made during our conversation, was that although he “planted” (Miller 2008, 5 June) the horse’s name in the book as a crucial sign of the importance of these migrant themes – “What about this entire [sic]

with the strange Australian name? Kabara? Why give a horse a name like that? What can it possibly mean?” (Miller 2005 [1989], p 94) –, nobody had picked up on it before.