David Malouf, A First Place (Knopf 2014)
There isn’t just one Australian story. Even as a child I had my doubts about grand unifying versions of what it is to be Australian. Even though my family were white and English-speaking, and enjoyed meat pies and Vegemite as much as anyone, we lived in coastal north Queensland, where Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘land of sweeping plains’ might as well have been on another planet. The much talked-about monoculture of Australia before the 1950s may have been a reality in Sydney, but my grandfather, a magistrate in Queensland in the 30s and 40s, learned Italian in order to deal with the people who appeared before him and my sugar-farmer father played poker with a Greek and a Korean, and placed bets with a Chinese SP bookie.
David Malouf hails from Brisbane, which we in Innisfail referred to as ‘Down South’ or even ‘The Big Smoke’, but the essays and occasional writings collected in A First Place provide eloquent solace to my inner tropical child. This is from ‘A First Place’, a lecture from 1984:
We have tended, when thinking as ‘Australians’, to turn away from difference, even to assume that difference does not exist, and fix our attention on what is common to us; to assume that some general quality of Australianness exists, a national identity that derives from our history in the place and from the place itself. But Australians have had different histories. The states have produces very different social forms, different political forms as well, and so far as landscape and climate are concerned, Australia is not one place
Following his own advice Malouf writes beautifully in that lecture and throughout the book about his home city of Brisbane, about Queensland architecture, both domestic and public, about his culturally diverse family (‘My Multicultural Life’, also written in 1984, and ‘As Happy as This’ written for a collection of family memoirs a decade later, are joys to read), about the Bicentenary, Anzac Day, the Republican movement. He is always urbane, humane, nuanced, always drawing on a deep and broad knowledge of Western art and literature.
In 1988 he wrote a piece on the Bicentenary for the Age, ‘Putting Ourselves on the Map’. Like many of us, he was uneasy at the fanfare and pomp, but he was able to get past bald political catch-cries, writing that
this celebration of a great event goes against the grain with me because it goes against the grain of our real experience as Australians. Anniversaries are not what this particular enterprise is about. The anniversaries of the real events that made us, the millions of small ones – axe blows, blows with the pick and crowbar, childbirths, first cries, the squeak of chalk across a blackboard – do not need celebrating, or are celebrated already, by repetition each day. This particular event [the arrival of the ‘First Fleet’] is too ambiguous – and its repetition in fancy dress is ridiculous. It is too blackened with sorrow for some of us … and with shame for the rest: too loaded with despair, courage, the slow triumph of surviving and creating, for its re-enactment to be any more than a tawdry farce.
The longest piece in the book at 110 pages is ‘A Spirit of Play’, which comprises Malouf’s 1998 Boyer Lectures, a masterly meditation on ‘The Making of Australian Consciousness’. In these essays Malouf brings a poet’s sensibility to a subject we’re used to hearing about from journalistsor politicians. He draws on deep knowledge of history, poetry, architecture, to tell a story that is at once his own and persuasively ours.
It’s interesting to think about who that ‘ours’ refers to: it shifts around, sometimes seeming to exclude, for example, Aboriginal people, or Communists, or committed homophobes, but these exclusions aren’t rigid. Roughly speaking, ‘we’ are people who participate in mainstream Australian culture. What Malouf has to say about an audience is relevant:
An audience comes together of its own volition, unlike a rally, for example, where there is always some element of compulsion, if only a moral one of commitment or duty. An audience simply appears, as the 700 000 or so people do who turn out each year for the gay Mardi Gras procession in Sydney. They have no reason for being there other than interest, curiosity, pleasure, and they are an audience, not simply a crowd; an audience that has been created and shaped by the society it draws from, and in which the faculty of watching, listening and judging has been to an extraordinary degree sharpened.
He has more to say about that particular audience, but I think it’s fair to say that his general notion of an audience relates in some way to the ‘us’ he talks about in these essays: ‘we’ are the people who of our own volition do our watching, listening and judging in this society, and also our creating, living and relating to one another. Both the people who wrapped themselves in the flag at Cronulla ten years ago (nearly a decade after these lectures were given) and the people attacked by them are part of ‘us’, though each might not be part of some accounts of who ‘we’ are. Malouf certainly doesn’t deny the existence of brutality and narrowness in our history: his account of the 1950s as on the one hand ‘comfortable, secure, cosy’ and on the other mean-spirited, defensive, embattled ‘against life itself’ is brilliant, and then followed up by his compassionate account of the series of blows that closed down the open-hearted confidence of the start of the century – which I will leave you to read. (It turns out the original lectures are still online at the ABC’s website. The description of the 50s is in the fifth lecture, ‘The Orphan in the Pacific‘.)
There’s a lot more. These essays were written over three decades for vastly different readers and audiences. They build on each other, occasionally almost contradict each other, rarely outright repeat each other. They don’t demand that the reader agree with them, but ask us to engage thoughtfully, and often to have another look at received ways of seeing the world. Taken together, they are a beautiful example of what Malouf calls ‘the real work of culture’:
This business of making accessible the richness of the world we are in, of bringing density to ordinary, day-to-day living in a place, is the real work of culture. It is a matter for the most part of enriching our consciousness – in both senses of that word: increasing our awareness of what exists around us, making it register on our senses in the most vivid way, but also of taking all that into our consciousness and of giving it a second life there so that we possess the world we inhabit imaginatively as well as in fact.
As a bookish child in north Queensland, I felt the absence of that work, perhaps not acutely but as a dragging background ache. Seeing cane-cutters on stage in The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll when I was nine was a revelation, though even then the North was a long way from the real, felt action of the play. David Malouf’s essays are a wonderful gift to that child, who is still here, hoping to have density brought to his life in that place.
I read A First Place in August last year. I think I’ve delayed blogging about it because I didn’t want to be finished with it. It’s been sitting on my desk, like a talisman. It’s been good to go back to it to write this. I will go back to it again.