On the Need for Impractical People

From ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of culture,’ Katharine Brisbane, The Sydney Morning Herald, 04.01.92

We have been asked to stop thinking of ourselves as the Lucky Country and become the Clever country. Years ago, a Cambridge don commented, of a promising student: “His problem is he doesn’t know a clever idea from a good one.” To be clever is for politicians and practical men. I want to see us a Good Country, a country that thinks widely, acts resolutely and sees beyond passing fashions in economic theory or brutal solutions to financial crises. A creative country, in fact.

Our artists and thinkers have a leading role to play in this. For a start we should give up the language of business and bureaucracy, of profit margins and achievable goals, and return to the language of the mind and the heart. The pursuit of perfection, for a start. To be a writer or an actor or a dancer is hard, and the work is not done without thought, or pain, or wisdom. And it is work that depends on trust, a teamwork, and respect of every part of human life, imagination and experience. So I beg you, stand up and say what you believe, without fear or favour, so we can be the good country, a creative country, in which all our creative qualities can find a respected place and we can believe in ourselves again.

Louis Esson said all this in his play The Time is Not Yet Ripe back in 1910, in Sydney Barrett’s election speech. Sydney is a Fabian Socialist standing for the blue-ribbon seat of Wombat, and he is trying to tell the crowd what he believes. “Talk practical politics” yells a heckler.

Barrett replies: “Haven’t you had enough of practical politics? What does your practical man do? He establishes a jam factory or opens a coalmine. What is the good of that? We can do without coal, and nobody wants jam. Or he irrigates a splendid desert for the production of lucerne and dried apricots. And you applaud him for it – fools! Why, the curse of this country, and every other country, is the plain practical commonsense man with his low standards and narrow outlook. We want poets, dreamers, builders of ideals. The national need is a thoroughly unpractical man.”

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