Profile of Australian author Craig McGregor
Originally published March 2016, northerly
In Craig McGregor’s open-plan living area at his home in Byron Bay, a very fine Maton guitar sits upright in its stand. There is a piece of paper stuck to it, on which are written the names of a dozen or so old folk songs. He was quite the protest singer in his time, performing anti-nuclear songs at demonstrations and proving himself a deft finger-picker.
Even if he doesn’t pick up the guitar regularly today, it’s still an appropriate ornament: now aged 82, McGregor has about him something of the air of the late American folk singer Pete Seeger. It’s the soft voice, the neat grey beard and a general and unwavering benevolence of spirit summed up by his frequent exclamation of “Very good!” when discussing things he approves of, like music (his beloved Bob Dylan in particular), poetry, travel, painting, the Australian landscape and his friends and family.
It’s a comparison McGregor would probably appreciate. Like Seeger, McGregor is a veteran of the left, who has held steadfast to his progressive, pluralist convictions throughout what has been a tumultuous but rich life in which he has observed and written about wholesale changes in Australian society as the generations have passed. His books of political and social commentary, from Profile of Australia (1966) to Class in Australia (1997), stand as seminal and still-influential texts, while he received Walkley Awards for profiles of Bob Hawke and Jill Wran.
“I would have liked to go into politics,” he says. “I decided that I had the passion for it, because of, I suppose, my left-wing views on Australia and what’s going wrong with this country, but I didn’t have the resilience. I didn’t have the character. So I’ve kept on writing about politics.”
Most recently, McGregor’s priorities have lain not with political writing, but with a new collection of short stories. Launched in December, Motel is a series of pieces composed largely within the last ten years, which he enigmatically describes as a “deconstructed novella”. In keeping with his previous works of fiction, including novels Don’t Talk To Me About Love (1971) and The See-Through Revolver (1977), Motel features its share of stylistic experimentation. On one hand, the book employs internal monologue (a device he says was initially inspired by his reading of Virginia Woolf as a young man); in other stories, such as opener ‘A Fictional Character’, there is a certain clipped rhythm to dialogue between educated characters that sometimes reads like a strange, Australian version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s plays, or even French New Wave cinema. Some of the more freewheeling passages, with their elastic interpretation of punctuation, read almost like prose poems.
The “deconstructed novella” description, he says, stems from a certain blurring of the lines between these fifteen stories. “Most of the stories are about the same characters, and they haven’t got names.”
Many of the stories are set on the New South Wales North Coast, where he has lived with his family since 2000 (having previously lived in the area in the early 1980s). Motel is therefore infused with the moods and shades of this atmospheric, ever-changing region, McGregor attempting to pick up on a complex relationship between community – a transient community at that – and land.
“I’ve tried to capture something of the landscape as a symbol for the lives of white and Aboriginal people,” he says. “A metaphor for what they’re feeling as they’re travelling through. They’re sexual travellers, contemporary travellers.
“It looks as though I’m becoming a regional or provincial writer because most of the stories are set on the North Coast,” he adds half-jokingly. “But there’s nothing wrong with that, look at William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Cormac McCarthy, Tim Winton… There’s nothing wrong with being regional.”
Motel is the follow-up to 2013’s Left Hand Drive. Subtitled ‘A Social and Political Memoir’, this was an expansive autobiographical journey through McGregor’s life to date, addressing his personal experiences and challenges as well as offering analysis of national and international affairs. In stark terms he describes domestic violence at the hands of his father, and being the victim of bullying at the elite Cranbrook School in Sydney. After working as a journalist with Fairfax as a teenager and then studying for an Arts degree, he undertook the well-trodden pilgrimage to London in the early 1960s, the first of two stints overseas that were to shape him as a writer and a person. In the United Kingdom he met his wife Jane (what he describes as his “hyper-desiring sexuality” towards her being one source of mirth in Left Hand Drive), and, impressively, befriended such significant folk musicians as Long John Baldry and particularly Davey Graham. It was in London that Profile of Australia took shape, and his life as a serious writer began.
However, it was two years in the United States that consolidated McGregor’s ideological and social priorities. Living in Harlem, New York as a result of a Harkness Fellowship between 1969 and 1971, he was exposed to the volatile political upheaval of the time, including the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the rise (and splintering) of the American New Left. Woodstock, Altamont and the Manson murders all occurred while McGregor lived in America with his young family; whilst there, he wrote long-form journalism for the New York Times and others. Mind appropriately expanded, he returned to Australia with a new sense of energy for his own writing and his role as an advocate for change.
“I came back full of fire and determined to change things in Australia,” he says. “Some of my books since then, including Class In Australia, are really attempts, and I don’t want to overstate it, to express what I felt about America and the idealism of its young people. I was so het up by America.”
A book about his experiences, Up Against The Wall, America, was published in 1973. Indeed, perhaps driven by his time in New York, McGregor was particularly prolific during this decade, with non-fiction books, novels, journalistic profiles, television and film scripts and essays coming thick and fast. Admittedly, there was plenty to write about, Gough Whitlam and all.
Of his own books, it is Class In Australia that McGregor refers to most frequently during conversation. Indeed, this sociological treatise had a wide impact and became a set-text in schools and universities. To put it in summary terms, it made the argument that Australia was a fundamentally unfair society due to class divisions (that many still believe to be non-existent), and that culture was becoming hegemonised by the proliferation of the middle class. An obvious question for McGregor must be whether, nearly twenty years on from that argument, anything has changed.
“The middle class has become even more dominant in Australian culture, and the working class more diminished. And because of that, Australian politics reflects this middle classing of Australia. So if you look at, for instance, Turnbull and Shorten, they represent the same middle-class attitudes, which is a great shame.
“It’s made Australian society much more affluent, much more comfortable, much less egalitarian, much less concerned with the plight of minorities, including Aboriginals and migrants. It’s become a place where I’m not as comfortable as I used to be.”
This bleak outlook is tempered by his hopes for multiculturalism, or, as he has frequently put it down the years, ‘pluralism’. That is, “the sense that society is made up of many different and sometimes conflicting cultures and initiatives, and that it’s important to realise that that gives strength to our democratic structure.”
As impassioned as ever on the moral life of the nation, one wonders why politics has never made its way into his creative works in any significant or overt way. McGregor’s stories and novels are largely concerned with love, the dynamics of personal relationships and the domestic. “I’ve never tried to import politics into fiction – maybe I should have,” McGregor concedes.
“Political consciousness has spilled over into Motel’s stories, but it’s not dominant. The main characters will talk and dispute about politics, but its personalised, and always subsumed within a relationship.”
Another way a certain kind of social commentary creeps into McGregor’s fiction is his use of the Australia’s own unique spoken vernacular. Motel is rich with the coarseness of Australian idioms and slang, much of it profane. It is not so much a glorification as it is a fascination and admiration, echoing a significant influence, D.H. Lawrence. In this way, perhaps depictions of class do make their way into his stories after all.
“Sometimes I walk around Byron Bay and I hear blokes talking, and they’re bloody rough speakers. I often don’t like what they’re saying but it’s got such energy and vernacular enthusiasm to it that it brings me up short. I’d love to write a book using that language. It has a rough sort of commonplace vibrancy to it.”
He cites Australian Frank Moorhouse as among his most important influences in terms of writing such dialogue. The economy of Ernest Hemingway was another general stylistic touchstone. Interestingly, he puts Hemingway on a pedestal with Henry Lawson. “His laconic, understated style reminded me very much of Lawson. I often wondered if Lawson had read Hemingway or Hemingway had read Lawson, because the similarities between their approaches were amazing.”
The other major cultural figure that has loomed large over McGregor’s career is of course Bob Dylan. His relationship with Dylan’s music has been well-documented elsewhere, including Left Hand Drive, suffice to say he first encountered the singer in a Sydney hotel room in 1966, went on to interview him several times over the ensuing decades, and in 1978 edited the volume Bob Dylan: A Retrospective. Today, he strongly refutes any suggestion of ‘Dylan fatigue’ and still sticks to his oft-repeated line that Dylan is “the greatest song-poet since Homer”. “I’m prepared to argue the case for hours,” he says.
You don’t doubt it. In fact, McGregor is most enthusiastic and eloquent when talking about subjects, ideas and writers removed from himself. I’m put in mind of a famous Paris Review interview with Jorge Luis Borges where, with the utmost charm, he consistently bats away questions regarding his own work by manoeuvring conversation toward other writers, to the mild frustration of the awed interviewer. It’s not quite like that with McGregor, yet he does exhibit a humility that is rare among writers and artists, summed up by comments such as, “I feel blessed because I’ve had such a remarkably happy life. I doubt whether I’ve ever deserved it, but it’s kept me quite light-hearted.”
This modesty is at least in part down to a decision to put the world, rather than himself, first in his writing. The result is an eclectic career that has seen him as both a chronicler of Australia’s often-eccentric public life, and a modernism-inflected innovator in his creative works.
“Years and years ago I decided to stop trying to work out who I was. I’d had a tumultuous childhood and was quite hurt by the break-up of our family, so I was very self-protective for a long time, in terms of personal relationships. But I realised that if I went on being self-protective, I’d miss out on almost everything worthwhile in life, so I decided to open myself up to hurt and experience and disappointment.
“As part of that, I decided I was sick of myself as a subject. Identity, self-discovery, who cares? I decided to just write about things: ideas, people, music, experiences. I wasn’t just going to project myself.”