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Initially I read Andrew Riemer’s Sandstone Gothic from a wish to learn more about those ‘troubles’ in the English Department of Sydney University which are alluded to so frequently, but are rarely explained in terms which the outsider can understand. In particular, it was in the nature of the literary dispute underpinning the troubles I was interested.
Riemer’s account provides useful insight. His book is an illuminating illustration of how personalities can take over and turn academic disputes into farce. Aligning the patterns of the tale with my own experiences as an academic, gave rise in me to a smirk and a gleeful chuckle.
Now Sydney academics feel called upon to defend their Department. It is hardly worth their trouble. Similar exhibitions of academia at its worst have occurred elsewhere; rotten departments have been run by stunted and misguided individuals causing all round grief; the experience is common enough. One only needs to look to Kerryn Goldworthy’s account in the previous AHR, Needing his Signature, or the short story by Sue Martin, ‘Tenure’, in HEAT6, to find parallels. And it is not just women who cop it. The clear evidence is that the English Department at Sydney once was one such unhappy place.
But is this what Sandstone Gothic is about? Although I started the book for a different purpose, I came to read it as a migrant story: the tale of the talented boy from continental Europe who, however much he tried, failed to make it. For reasons of his own — reasons of legitimate ambition, no doubt — he wanted what he couldn’t have, first medicine, then Englishness. It is a sad story as well as a common one; that urge, that cruel struggle for acceptance, for Englishness (or now more commonly Australianness), and its inevitable failure.
It is interesting how long it took Riemer to become aware of source of his difficulty. Even towards the end, when he compares himself to Robert Hughes and Germaine Greer (one can hear him, under his breath, mumble how he is as clever as they …) and acknowledges his own comparative failure — even at this stage, he blames the failure on the ‘troubles’ at Sydney, the fateful year of 1963 when he lost his faith.
What he does not seem to recognise is that besides talent and diligence — cleverness, if you like — a something else is needed, some trait of personality, some ineffable certainty of right. This he lacked. The inherent outsider, he managed by his wit and the sharpness of his mind to gain an entry. But genuine insider status was not for him, troubled as he was by an unshakeable diffidence which found insufficient counter-balance in his mostly private arrogance. Reading the book, I felt sympathy and admiration, while also a recurrent irritation with his failure to speak up.
As a NESB migrant myself, with migrant offspring, and having worked for years with migrants, I have seen the pattern so often it is no longer funny. My own out-spokenness, arising most likely from having a fully-formed culturally deviant personality already on arrival in this country, may well bear part of the blame for my academic failure in Australia.
Retired now, and working as a literary critic, Riemer has gained the independence which should allow his spirit to flourish as I believe it has.
One lesson from Riemer’s book is that only multiculturalism (under whatever name) can provide the option of Australianness as a genuine choice for migrants.
Englishness was never a goer.
Lisbet de Castro Lopo is a writer who was born in Denmark. She studied in both Denmark and the United States of America before completing her PhD in Cultural Geography in Australia. She now lives in Newcastle.