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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 28-Jan-2003

Edition: Late

Section: Metropolitan


Page: 18

Wordcount: 1371

Ditch the kitsch to stay happy campers


Elizabeth Farrelly.

Aussie campgrounds have a quiet dignity beside our regulation tourist-towns, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.

Kitsch, as Clement Greenberg famously defined it, is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch is sententious, pretentious, meretricious and vulgar. And it’s not going away. Like processed food, observes British critic Roger Scruton, kitsch passes from junk to crap without an intervening spell of nourishment.

If kitsch, then, is art on holiday, you might make the humble campground last and least in the Aussie holiday hierarchy as the kitsch-fly’s most fecund breeding patch, to make free with another Scruton metaphor. There’s no mystery about why. Unyoke humanity, overfeed and overcook it, then squeeze it half-naked into a proximity 10 or 20 times the usual, with flim-flam for walls and the vagaries of Christmas weather. You’d be forgiven for expecting a flatulent revelation of unloveliness.

In fact, a twilight stroll through the campgrounds of Australia casts the species in a strangely flattering light. Sure, there’s scarcely an adult without stubbie in hand. And sure, the dauntless sexism of Australo suburbiensis is there in all its fixity, women in thongs-n-sarongs smiling the laundry small talk (half an eye on the kids) while men talk boats.

But behind it all is the undeniable fact that here in the shanties, hastily erected with few by-laws, scant public hygiene and no planning to speak of, we exhibit an openness and collective tolerance scarcely to be expected of city or suburban neighbours.

Come again? Like, uh, none of the usual comfort boxes are ticked here. Campgrounds are cramped. There are bugs. Heat. Narrow beds. Other people’s conversations. Other people. (Privacy? Forget it.) And yet, with the rules we normally fight tooth and nail to protect in tatters at our feet, we leave cars and tents unlocked. We chat in shower queues. We peel potatoes in unison. We pat each other’s dogs. Fold each other’s washing. Share, even. And here’s the thing we like doing it. It makes us happy and relaxed. We call it being on holiday.

That’s a factor, of course. Just being away from quotidian normalcy inclines us to relax. Which might by itself make you wonder why we invest so frantically in keeping normalcy normal. But there’s something else, something physical about campgrounds that seems to confirm, not slacken, our civilising fibres.

What is it, this elusive quality that hangs in the glow of the hurricane lamp and the salt dawn air? What could sustain such subversion? And what, for that matter, makes these ramshackle collocations of canvas and flywire so less ugly than your standard Australian burb?

I think it’s about pretension the lack of. Suburbia’s triple pillars are space, choice and stuff, the last acquired to fill the first. So ingrained are these precepts that we typically assume more is always better, compulsively pursuing all three well beyond anything that remotely resembles need. The surprise is that the very restriction of these benefits appears to dignify dwellingsand people alike. Just about the only status symbol you can have in a campground is the car, and most campers leave the Lamborghini at home. What pretensions remain are, broadly speaking, invisible.

This plainsong dignity once graced beachside settlements, too which only makes the latest trend more heartbreaking.

We live around the edge of a big, hot land edge being the operative word, denial the operative principle. At work and play both, it’s the littoral fringe for us. So, while the inland gets salt-pickled in its efforts to feed us all and interior towns dwindle into gaunt strip developments (town = Maccas + service station + drive-in video), our coastal settlements show all the signs (bloating, bingeing, self-harm) of forced, tourism-fed Disneyfication.

Huskisson in Jervis Bay is a typical example. A former boat-building one-horser at the mouth of the Currambene Creek, partway between Nowra and nowhere, Huskisson is about to morph into a take-out tourist special, easy on the authenticity. This is scarcely unplanned; already smothered in SEPPs, REPs, LEPs and its very own DCP (development control plan), Huskisson was lucky enough to be chosen by the NSW Planning Minister, Andrew Refshauge, in October as the launch site for his latest planette, SEPP (State Environmental Planning Policy) No. 71 Coastal Protection.

SEPP 71 vows to ensure, inter alia, that coastal cities, towns, centres and hamlets thrive by protecting the natural and cultural characteristics that attract people to the coast to live, work and recreate. Enlisting tourism in the pursuit of eco-goals (or is it vice versa?) may be a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, though it’s nothing new. But will it work?

Shoalhaven Council is seeking to amend its Husky DCP in similar vein, envisioning Huskisson as a tourist-oriented town in a unique and pristine environment, and listing tourist shopping and accommodation as the major future land uses. And the reasons for any nice little place deprived of its original raison d’e{aci}tre to call down upon itself so patently plastic a future are many and obvious money, money and money. But the consequences, no less obvious, may be less enchanting.

Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with tourism. I mean, we’re all tourists, right? But tourism is an industry dogged, like all observational endeavours, by the central irony that the observer’s presence changes the thing observed. In tourism the effect is distinctly unsubtle. So, for example, the dolphins that once frolicked freely in the bay are gone now, enticed or intimidated by the great white dolphin-watchers that throb thrice daily to secret points of prurience.

Tourism’s effects on built-form are no less insidious, good intentions notwithstanding. The DCP does everything it is expected and required to do protects heritage and vistas, sets heights and densities, regulates use. Then it drops a multi-storey car park next to the RSL and blocks mainstreet with the inevitable brick-paved plaza, complete with potted shrubs, water feature, latte-with-a-view. Chased with a massive dose of that ubiquitous urban Prozac, traffic-calming.

So what you get, no surprise, is regulation tourist town. Which brings us to tourism’s second big irony: people leave home for difference but end up pursuing sameness. They think they want nature but grizzle if they can’t get a decent shower, pad thai or boutique retail experience on demand. They (read, we) want to rough it, smoothly.

Which is the thinking behind every chain store on the planet, the sustaining force of globalism, and the end of innocence for towns like Huskisson. Heritage lists and brick paving are fine. By all means save the church, the hall, the pub and the dozen or so cute little weatherboard cottages. But when the great homogenising tide of tourism hits, that’ll be all the real Huskisson that’s left.

Already NSW’s land-tax regime has rung the death knell of the Aussie beach shack; henceforth the fibro will need to become either a permanent home or a paying proposition. At Huskisson, and the dozens of towns like it, the council writes the fibro’s elegy by zoning both town centre and hinterland for tourist units.

That’s fine, too, in its way. Higher densities restrict sprawl and protect wilderness, so towns like Huskisson, nominated as Jervis Bay’s gateway (hello?), become sacrificial offerings to the tourism god. For the towns themselves, though, as bare feet and boards give way to anxious brick and tile, the end of innocence presages a plague of global kitsch. Today, cafes and boutiques; tomorrow, sand that doesn’t stick.

As Scruton notes, the world of kitsch is the world of make-believe, of permanent childhood, in which every day is Christmas. Kitsch is an attempt to have the life of the spirit on the cheap. And this is what contemporary tourism turns on, the promise that you can have the natural experience without the effort or discomfort of nature in the raw. Kitsch is nature parboiled. Humans, it seems, love it.


TWO ILLUS: Shifting sands …

fibros like these at Callala Beach near Huskisson, above and below, may be the only authentic notes left in increasingly Disneyfied coastal towns.

Photos: Penny Bradfield


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