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"Straight and Narrow Journeys: 'When London Calls: The Expatriation of Australian Creative Artists to Britain'"
When London Calls: The Expatriation of Australian Creative Artists to Britain, by Stephen Alomes; reviewed by Simon-Astley Scholfield, 13 Sep. 1999
In early 1988 I left Bicentennial-mad Australia for six months of travel across China and two years as an expatriate in then British-ruled Hong Kong. While living in that EurAsian city with the highest population density in the world, I struggled to learn two Chinese languages and teach English, acted in a major local film and lived with a Hong Kong Chinese boyfriend for a year. Hong Kong was my 'grandmother country' -- geographically close to the heart of my father's Chinese mother's ancestry -- and a place to explore those different opportunities and experiences. Although England was literally my 'mother country' (my mother having left London with her family for Australia at fifteen), the United Kingdom -- which I perceived as culturally very similar to Australia -- was a low priority destination.

However, as Stephen Alomes explains in his When London Calls, for many Australian expatriates from the end of World War II until the end of the 1960s, the ultimate choice of destination was London -- the "mecca [sic] of the English-speaking world" (13). "Going overseas" usually meant going to Britain (13-14). As the blurb on the back cover informs, "for some the journey was an extended holiday, but for many actors, painters, musicians, writers and journalists, leaving Australia seemed the only path to personal and professional fulfilment". These 'cultural refugees' fled from "a land of provincialism and mediocrity, of materialism and even egalitarian repression of the different and the talented" (5). Still, some of these 'ex-pats' feared becoming 'pommyfied' (30) or classified as 'ex-patriots' (98), while others embraced the very idea.

By the Sixties the "centre of the ex-empire" had become a 'world city' known as 'Swinging London' (166-7). While the advent of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet and cheap air travel allowed mass transit to London in the early 1970s, the Oz magazine indecency trials of 1971 signalled that the bubble of pro-British cultural idealism had burst. The new Whitlam government and Sydney Opera House symbolised the beginning of the end of Australia's status as a 'cultural backwater'. Rather than migrating to England, Australians sometimes chose London from many possible holiday destinations.

When London Calls finely traces this post-World War II history of cultural changes in Australia and Britain, with the expatriation of Australians to Asia and the United States also discussed. However, the selection of certain types of creative artists over others, and the gender imbalance among those chosen is problematic. There are two chapters on journalists included under the rubric of "expatriate creative artists" but none on dancers, or recent popular music and screen artists. Tied to this is an unfair focus on heterosexual male artists.

The continual devotion to the mostly-monogamous lifestyles of married couples seems uncalled for. There's Leo McKern and Jane Holland, Sidney and Cynthia Nolan, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd, Peter Finch and Tamara Tchinarova, Murray and Jenny Sayle, Geoffrey Robertson and Kathy Lette ad nauseum. The more intriguing personal life of say, "Irish-Chinese-Australian artist and designer" Jenny Kee, is collapsed into two phrases. Surely, Kee was more than "an intimate friend of John Lennon and later partner of Michael Ramsden from Sydney Oz" (177) who along with Germaine Greer played the "'groupie role'" (233) in Sixties London. Even so, any insight into this aspect of Kee's life would have at least offered a glimpse of the (also très gay) 'Swinging London' against which Alomes has kept the door and windows firmly shut.

Several women artists are discussed in detail. These include Germaine Greer, Jill Neville, and Marsha Rowe. Yet there is a gender imbalance, with some women (alongside Kee) seemingly included as adjuncts to male partners rather than as creative forces in their own right. Important female artists are not mentioned. For example, actor Coral Browne, who played Mercy Croft in the landmark London lesbian film, The Killing of Sister George (1969), and married Vincent Price late in life. Another notable exclusion is Maggie Kirkpatrick who played the enormously popular lesbian character, 'The Freak', both in Prisoner on Australian television and in the stage version of the series in London. Besides the description of Gillian Hanscombe as "a contributor to feminist debate and lesbian literature" (184) the only mention of lesbians is Jill Neville's perception of Sydney's 'unappealing' "ferocious ball-breaking lesbians" (112) of the 1970s. Oh, please!

In focusing on married straights, Alomes also downplays the experiences of queer male expatriates. He mentions only "theatrical designer Loudon Sainthill ... [and] his lover, the writer, art critic, and later curator of the Redfern Gallery in London, Harry Tatlock Miller" (33), "partners ... Charles Osborne and Ken Thomson" (115), and "Jim Anderson, the gay counter-culturalist" (177). There's no further discussion of the two male couples. Many important queer creative men are mentioned only in passing: Martin Boyd, Sir Robert Helpmann, Sumner Locke Elliott, Hal Porter, Donald Friend, Jeffrey Smart, Stuart Challender, Richard Wherrett, Justin O'Brien, and Patrick White. However, there is nothing to reveal their (gay or bi-) sexuality or (for those whose sexuality is known by the reader) any details of their queer relationships. Others are ignored. These include actors (Cyril Ritchard, Errol Flynn, John-Michael Howson), costume designers (Oscar winners Orry-Kelly and Tim Chappel), theatre directors (Nigel Triffitt), cultural analysts (Paul Taylor), visual artists (Roy de Maistre, David McDiarmid), all-round performers (Peter Allen, Reg Livermore), dancers (Kelvin Coe), and writers/activists (Peter Blazey, Dennis Altman, Peter Tatchell)...

Instead of these many influential queers, Alomes discusses two heterosexual males who were perceived as effeminate or homosexual. Firstly, Michael Blakemore, the 'straight poofter' (or "artistic and cultural outsider in a conservative upper middle-class milieu"), and secondly, Barry Humphries who was ridiculed as one of the "'pooftahs', i.e. gays" (218) at school. Ho hum! Thanks for the translation! What of real gay men's struggles against the (often brutal) realities of a homophobic culture?

The chapter "The Expatriate Search for Fame" neatly caps the lives of three heterosexual "Antipodean muskateers" (242): Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, and Clive James. Greer, for example, was the feminist who claimed she would "rather fuck an Australian than an Englishman any time" (234). While correctly recognising their talents, Alomes ignores the fact that the blatant heterosexuality of the trio contributed much toward their eventual fame as satirical critics of Australian culture. Their ostensible real-life heterosexuality provided an important cover for their sexually-transgressive play: Greer flirted with lesbianism, Humphries cross-dressed as Dame Edna, and James fashioned himself as a media voyeur of both beautiful women and muscular males (245).

Alomes explains that these 'megastars' visited Australia in the late 1990s to speak at public engagements, with their views of Australia read as anachronistic in a changing multicultural nation. At the launch of the 1996 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (and later in the media), returned expatriate Noel Tovey related his tale of survival as a gay Aboriginal in 1950s Australia. He had endured removal from his parents as a child, sexual abuse by foster parents, life on the streets and in jail, and publicised arrest for the then crime of private participation in consensual homosexual male acts. Ostracised by both straight and gay society, Tovey left for overseas, attended the Stonewall Riots and the first Pride march in London, and became an art collector, lecturer and acclaimed theatre director. Alongside those of privileged white middle class heterosexuals (Greer, Humphries, James et al.), Tovey's fascinating life deserved at the very least a couple of paragraphs of explanation in Alomes' book, but he wasn't even mentioned.

There is nothing wrong with Alomes providing a cultural history of famous white, heterosexual expatriate Australian creative artists, as long as he acknowledges and explains the placing of this set of limitations on his chosen subject field. If inserting "Heterosexual" before "Creative Artists" in the subtitle proved too cumbersome, Alomes should have at least had a fair go at recognising the broad scope of contributions made by gay men (and lesbians?), and of their critical importance, to his topic. It is true, as he claims in the introduction, that "the map of the Australian cultural landscape from which the expatriates departed in the 1940s to the 1960s is still more one of outline than of detail" (4). Nonetheless, a large number of historical materials have been compiled about gay men who became expatriates and about their perceptions of homophobia in Australia (and Britain). Alomes could have drawn on these texts, biographies and media reports (as he has done with the straight subjects in his text) to sketch or flag their stories.

Elliptical references are annoying. William Dobell and Sumner Locke Elliott did not simply "echo ... Albert Tucker's [parting] declaration ... 'I am a refugee from Australian culture'" (35). Unlike Tucker, Dobell and Elliott were more significantly refugees from an ultrahomophobic 'Ocker' culture. Or, have I missed reading something between the lines? What exactly were Albert Tucker's "personal reasons" (77) for leaving Australia? It is not sufficient to simply say in conclusion that some expatriates left Australia "concerned about their parents' possible views of their homosexuality" (256) without any prior specific discussion of these gay (and lesbian?) creative artists. Again, who were these queer refugees and what happened in their particular lives? Bit 13 Apart from the snap of a lone Charles Osborne ("an exotic plant in a London Garden"), the two photo essays in the book provide a visual reification of the textual Australian Who's Who of straight Caucasian families, couples and singles. When London Calls could have included the photograph from Osborne's autobiography which shows the author with his male partner outside a Brisbane nightclub in the 1970s. Without the inclusion of such 'exotic' pictures of same-sex expatriate couples, queerness is further erased.

For this creative gay part-Chinese Australian who is planning a move to London next year, When London Calls offered almost nothing about the history of the many expatriates from Australia who were non-white or non-straight (or both). Moreover, there is nothing specific about the racism and homophobia they may have left behind or encountered. With its lack of such queer scope, Alomes' study of expatriate Australian creative artists leaves a lot to be desired.


Stephen Alomes. When London Calls: The Expatriation of Australian Creative Artists to Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

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