How Australian is Germaine Greer? It may not be a question she herself would give much houseroom (beyond the passing mention of the fact that the most brilliant of Australian journalists fade into dullness if they work for an Australian newspaper. Too true). But one cannot help being struck, in this collection of her articles, by her quite aggressively Antipodean qualities: her suppleness, her speediness, her whackiness. It is a sporting collection, strong on stamina, large-hearted. In the giving out of places in the feminist lacrosse team Germaine Greer would certainly be out on attack wing.
These occasional writings straddle the whole period between Volume Pills Redux (1970) and Semenax and Destiny (1984). They show Germaine Greer to be that rarest of performers, as effective in the New York Times as on the magnum opus. This has a lot to do with her intellectual view of things, her passionate reversal of accepted scales of value, her conviction that, say, the vaginal deodorant is as interesting and as serious a concept as resettlement in Ethiopia, women and power in Cuba, refugees in West Bengal. She is an enormous showoff, and although her whole world view is almost totally depressing, she writes with an uplifting kind of swankiness. She works it so that you can have your sex and your destiny as well.
Her publishers have rather perversely, I think, chosen to market this book with the 'Germaine Greer Cares' slogan. No one doubts Germaine Greer cares. But there is a quite essential sense in which she could not care less, and never has done. From the very early pieces in this book, a memory lane book if ever there has been one for radical women now on the verge of menopause, it is possible to push through the psychedelic prose to glimpse Germaine Greer already getting going on her monumental life's work of offending and objecting. At the Wet Dream Film Festival, representing Suck (the first non-sado-masochist sex paper, short lived), she is unimpressed enough to sit behind the screen, rudely taking off her clothes and undressing those around her. Not, in these circumstances, that it really made much difference since half the films were being put on backwards.
She has had a healthy horror of signing up for anything. Professional relationships have always been short-lived, as is proved by the number of publications cited and the implied battalions of editors left groaning in her wake. The liveliness and fervor of her journalism springs I think from its occasionalism: from the fact that she has written it because just then she wanted to. It is not the sort of journalism that has been coerced. The only signs of strain that I detect are in her Sunday Times columns of the early Seventies where for a while they alternated her with Jilly Cooper. Absurdly ironic fate. Could anyone invent her a more ironic fate?
Her restlessness makes her a very good reviewer, unsettled and unsettling in her judgements, rushing in and making straight for the major, central issue almost everybody else had been sidestepping or forgetting. She has the innate ruthlessness of the born amateur. Her review of Jan Morris's Conundrum in exemplary, addressing itself to that underlying question most people at the time had been a bit too nice to mention.
One of the book's recurring themes, enchantingly amusing, concerns the world's misjudged attempts to pin down Germaine Greer. She is much in demand as the pontificating female. It is very often women themselves who get her wrong, urging her into the role of a rangier Claire Rayner or more bossy Irma Kurtz. Thank God she will have none of it. In her huge and doomy view of the world's progress, no certainties are feasible, no agony aunt answers. She turns up now and then at the great conferences of women; denounces the general level of the fashions; files a very fast report, well documented and well written; turns a blind eye to the chairperson; grimaces; runs away.
It is all extremely mischievous, and in severer days she would no doubt have been burnt as a witch. She is a trickster, leading on the plodding people, shifting ground, and leaving them bewildered. People knowing of her views on the family and children assume she is opposed to abortion. She supports it. In the vagina v. clitoris debate, she speaks for the vagina, not precisely as imagined. She is anti-PMS, thinking it a little silly. She used to be pro-masturbation but no longer. Her unexpected championing of external ejaculation put her erstwhile adherents in a very anxious state. This book puts over with delirious success Germaine Greer's anarchic tendency, which men find so appalling because it undermines their image of the woman as the ironer of shirts, the smoother out of problems. What women are not meant to do is muddle people up.
She is a great believer of the power of paradox. In a way she is its personification, its advertisement. The best thing in this book is its introduction, a fragment of autobiography describing a summer she spent long ago living in Calabria amongst the peasants, a time which she delineates as 'the beginning of an apostasy'. What she got from it was her sense of the collective, a vision of women as adults, as workers, of woman as female as opposed to merely feminine. After this, what an awakening in academic Warwick.
Germaine Greer is now in what appears to be her Gwen John period:
The quality of daily life is what matters, the taste of the food on the table, the light in the room, the peace and wholeness of the moment.
If this wistful little vision of domestic quietude further mystifies her devotees so much the better. She cannot do with people who depend upon consistency. Women's volatility is what she likes and lives on. How women can be patient, boring, dignified, maternal, but also lewd and feckless and excessive and insulting. She once left all her knickers, twenty four-pairs, in a farmhouse in Sicily. What the peasants made of them she will never know.