Patrick White and Buttocks

Patrick White by David Marr, cover image for the book, photo by William Yang.
Patrick White by David Marr, cover image for the book, photo by William Yang.
Patrick White, brilliant grumpy novelist and the winner of Australia’s first Nobel Prize for Literature, spent part of his youth in Australia, but went to English schools and to Cambridge University and spent WWII in Europe and North Africa. His essay «The Prodigal Son» was written ten years after he had returned to Australia from Europe in 1948. This excerpt is often quoted:

“Returning sentimentally to a country I had left in my youth, what had I really found? Was there anything to prevent me packing my bag and leaving like Alister Kershaw and so many other artists? Bitterly I had to admit, no. In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes, in which human teeth fall like autumn leaves, the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak, muscles prevail, and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves.”

There are two points that strike me. The first I sadly agree with, the observation that in Australia “the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is”.

My father was a much-loved schoolmaster, and my brother Peter Hellier a talented journalist, but neither of them would have set themselves up as intellectual and cultural arbiters. For a writer, to have a book set on a school course for study by students, or gushingly reviewed in the local newspapers, can bring a transient fame and a bloated ego. Some writers, I fear, when they first read White’s diatribe, said to themselves “Hmmm… so it’s schoolmasters and journalists I shall need to impress,” and proceeded to befriend a journalist, and phone the English Teachers’ Association.

The other claim, that “the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier”, is a common complaint from colonial snobs who think that everything elegant and restrained comes from Europe, and everything bloated and greedy comes from the United States. Compare a bottle of Chateau Margaux to a bottle of Coke, they cry. Compare a Stradivarius violin to a Stratocaster electric guitar!

Give me a break!

Weren’t they watching the Germans and the French and the Americans during World War Two? Tens of thousands of young Americans and young French people gave their lives to save the rotten culture of Europe.

Let’s turn from this sad spectacle and ponder the two of the most beautiful mechanical objects built by man. They are both automobiles. The first is the 1957 Ferrari Testa Rossa sports car. One recently sold for more than sixteen million dollars, a ridiculous sum, but then it was a unique prototype model, and when the goddess of beauty strikes, no man is immune from the fit of madness that follows. The car’s designer Sergio Scaglietti died in late 2011, at the age of ninety-one.

Ferrari 250 "Testa Rossa" Scaglietti Spyder 500w
Ferrari 250 "Testa Rossa" Scaglietti Spyder 500w

Most of his body design work was for Enzo Ferrari. The journalist Sam Smith said on Scaglietti’s death that “Ferraris do not look like normal cars. Some of them barely look like machines, period – stand next to a 250 Testa Rossa or a 250 GT Lusso and you might as well be rubbing elbows with a living, breathing thing.” Then he added “Scaglietti’s stuff, when he was given a free hand, just looked like functional sex.” That’s how Scaglietti’s thrilling designs affect people – well, men and boys, mainly; let’s be frank.

Scaglietti has a dry story about how the name Testa Rossa was chosen, and not by a marketing committee. It was given its name more or less by accident. “The chief of production came to Mr. Ferrari and said, ‘We have to stop production because we have no black paint to paint the engines,’ he said. Mr. Ferrari asked what color paint they did have. The answer was red. Mr. Ferrari said, ‘Paint the engines red and we’ll call it the Testa Rossa’.” [‘Testa Rossa’ means ‘redhead’ in Italian]. (Douglas Martin, The New York Times, 2011-11-26)

PRR-S1 with designer Raymond Loewy
PRR-S1 with designer Raymond Loewy

The other car that still makes me feel faint with lust was not European, though it was largely designed by a European. It was instead defiantly and essentially American, and like the Testa Rossa was also built in 1957. The design studio was RLA, Raymond Loewy Associates. Loewy was the first industrial designer to be featured on the cover of «Time» magazine, in 1949. Born in France, he spent most of his professional career in the United States. Among his work were the Shell and former BP logos, the Greyhound bus, the Coca-Cola bottle, the Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 and S-1 streamlined locomotives (see Raymond and one of his Pennsylvania RailRoad creations in the photo), the Lucky Strike package, Coldspot refrigerators, the Studebaker Avanti (where he went a little too far, in my humble opinion, but then, why not?) and the Studebaker Champion, and the Air Force One livery.

Studebaker Golden Hawk, front view
Studebaker Golden Hawk

His career spanned seven decades. At Studebaker he guided the design team that created the Packard-Studebakers that led up to the Golden Hawk in 1956 (through to 1964), the car I want to marry. He left the firm before the car was finalised, leaving it to his associate Bob Bourke to finish the designs.

You can see a clunky video commercial (which spells out the car’s European and Continental styling origins) for the car’s flashy forerunner the 1953 Studebaker, here:

And one for the 1957 Golden Hawk here:

Studebaker Golden Hawk, rear view
Studebaker Golden Hawk

Of course both cars, the Ferrari and the Studebaker, have glassy buttocks: glassy and classy, in my view. It’s a pity that Patrick White was unmoved by the splendour of these ravishing machines. But then, his tastes were formed in the upper levels of society in Australia and England in the 1930s, when cars had dangerously tiny rear windows, and he never owned a car, as far as I know. Though he was a gifted novelist and a great literary stylist, he was blind to many things.

Thanks to sharp-eyed Carl Harrison-Ford for kicking my shins to remind me that Patrick White was definitely not “Australia’s only Nobel Prize winner”, as I originally wrote. There were at least nine others, all for science or medicine, and then there is John Coetzee, who was born in 1940 in South Africa, lived in South Africa, the UK and the USA, and moved to Australia on his retirement in 2002. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003, and in 2006 became an Australian citizen.

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