A first place, p.1
A First Place,
About the Book
Topography, geography, history. Multiculturalism, referendums, the constitution and national occasions. Parental and grandparental romances, the sensual and bountiful beauty of Brisbane, the mysterious offerings of Queenslander houses, and leaving home. The idea of a nation and the heart of its people. Being Australian and Australia’s relationship to the world. Putting ourselves on the map. All these subjects, and more, are explored from the generous, questioning and original perspective of David Malouf.
At the heart of these pieces is the idea of home, where and what it is. What they illustrate is the formation of a man, an Australian and one of the best writers this country has produced.
About the Book
The Traveller’s Tale
A First Place
My Multicultural Life
As Happy As This
The North: The Exotic at Home
The House of the Dead
Putting Ourselves on the Map
The Eighties, a ‘Learning’ Experience
A Spirit of Play
The People’s Judgement
The One Day
Made in England
The States of the Nation
About the Author
Also by David Malouf
Loved the book?
To Carmen Callil
Poems, novels, short stories, as works of the imagination, are written out of inner necessity; they come to us out of who-knows-where, choosing their own time and having no existence until they are there on the page. They are entirely personal. Till we give them over to their public life in the hands of readers they are of no concern to anyone but ourselves, have nothing to do with the world of opinion, including our own, and if they have a message or purpose it is one over which we, as writers, have no control.
The pieces in this collection are of another kind altogether and have a different source. They were from the beginning someone else’s idea; I wrote them on invitation, or at someone else’s suggestion. ‘A First Place’ as the Blakelock Lecture at Sydney University in 1984, ‘As Happy As This’ at the invitation of a fellow writer, Beth Yahp, for an anthology on family, ‘My Multicultural Life’ for a conference on Australian literature in Milan, ‘The House of the Dead’ for the New York Review of Books, etc.
These pieces of writing are personal in that they have their basis in personal experience and represent personal opinions, but their purpose was from the beginning public; they belong to that part of my life that is conscious and considered rather than dreamily obscure till it demands to be expressed; to the world, that is, of analysis, and open opinion and discourse.
What the two kinds of writing, different as they may be, have in common – or ought to have – is that they are shaped by the same temperament and come to the reader in something like the same voice.
My thanks to the editors and academics who invited me to dip into my experience and write these pieces, and to Meredith Curnow and Patrick Mangan, at Knopf Australia, for their expert care in re-enlivening them, in giving them, scattered as they were across three decades, this single life as a collection.
THE TRAVELLER’S TALE
ONE OF THE OLDEST STORIES we tell is the story about leaving home. It is the story which, in reproducing one of the hardest facts of our existence, prepares us for the inevitable business of moving on from what is known to what is as yet unknown: from childhood to adulthood, from our father’s house to the house we ourselves must build, from living to whatever lies beyond. The story moves us so deeply because it touches our lives at the two extremes of our experience, the moment when we leave our mother’s body and the moment when we must leave our own, but it speaks as well for the daily business of going out into the world – to hunt or on a war party or simply to see what is there – and then the return to the homeland or hearth. It speaks, that is, for both a personal and a tribal history.
But there are really three versions of the story.
The first is essentially comic: the folk hero sets out, has adventures, answers riddles, undergoes tests and gets lost for a time, but in the end reaches home, always richer than when he left, if only in experience. This is the story of Odysseus but also of Jacob and Joseph in the Bible, and any number of seventh sons and soldiers and other clever young fellows in folk and fairy tales.
The second version is tragic: the hero never gets home. Either because of some crime he has committed or because by nature he is an outcast doomed to perpetual movement and exile. He is the Wanderer of northern mythology, and in legend the Flying Dutchman or the Wandering Jew.
But there is a third version of all this, neither comic nor tragic but with elements of both. In this version too the hero never gets home; he finds a new home elsewhere, as Aeneas does in The Iliad, and founds a new world on the ‘other shore’. It is a story of hardship and loss, but the end is open and therefore hopeful.
The vast number of such stories, and their variety in all three versions and across many cultures, suggests how necessary they may be as models for what, as humans, we are and what we must learn to bear. To hear them is healing to us. They give shape to everyday living, but suggest as well a shape for those larger ventures – war, exploration, painful but necessary migration – that make up so much of what we call history, including the history we are living now. In no other age, perhaps, have so many men and women been forced to leave the place they were born in to make a new life elsewhere.
It is worth exploring a little what it means, this leaving the place where your ancestors’ bones lie in the local churchyard, the streets where you first played games of hopscotch or taws, the field you first ploughed, the food that seemed, once, to be the only food a man might have a table for since it was what the land produced, and what your mother and grandmother knew how to cook; most of all, to let go of language, the words through which the world of the senses – all you saw and heard and touched – was alive on your tongue; to leave what was familiar, what belonged to a first place and to family, for a place where all that is most immediate to your nature would be forever not just different but second-hand and questionable; where the life you live, whatever success you may have there, will always to a degree be ghostly, since it is a second life, and your first life – the one you had begun to grow up in, at least in the part of you that belongs to memory and to dreams – is still with you. No man or woman really migrates. They bring their first life with them, and that too goes on in the new land, and peoples it with shadow lives as well as real ones.
In places like Australia, or Canada, or South America or the United States, we are all voyagers of this sort, settlers; in having experienced in our bones (that is, in the lives of our fathers and grandfathers, parents and grandparents) the painful business of leaving a first place and remaking ourselves in a new one. Which is why all stories about those who leave home and do not get back, and must start again on another shore, seem like our own story, the one that belongs to history, but also has the shape of what is oldest and deepest in us.
Of course every man or woman who gives voice to it will have a different story to tell – different in its particulars – and those who have the gift for it, for telling and showing and bearing witness, speak for all of us the shape of the thing, but in the particulars speak only for themselves. It is through these particulars, unique individual details, that we enter their story and experience it as our own.
Introduction to The Journeyman, a series of
woodcuts by Salvatore Zofrea, text by
Sally McInerney, Picador 1992<
A FIRST PLACE
TO BEGIN WITH TOPOGRAPHY.
The first thing you notice about this city is the unevenness of the ground. Brisbane is hilly. Walk two hundred metres in almost any direction outside the central city (which has been levelled) and you get a view, a new view. It is all gullies and sudden vistas, not long views to the horizon – and I am thinking now of cities like Melbourne and Adelaide, or Manchester or Milan, those great flat cities where you look away down endless vistas and the mind is drawn to distance. Wherever the eye turns here it learns restlessness, and variety and possibility, as the body learns effort. Brisbane is a city that tires the legs and demands a certain sort of breath. It is not a city, I would want to say, that provokes contemplation, in which the mind moves out and loses itself in space. What it might provoke is drama and a kind of intellectual play, a delight in new and shifting views, and this because each new vista as it presents itself here is so intensely colourful.
The key colour is green, and of a particular density: the green of mangroves along the riverbanks, of Moreton Bay figs, of the big trees that are natives of this corner of Queensland, the shapely hoop-pines and bunyas that still dominate the skyline along every ridge. The Australian landscape here is not blue-grey, or grey-green, or buff as in so much of southern Australia; and the light isn’t blond or even blue. It is a rich golden pink, and in the late afternoon the western hills and the great flat expanse of water that is the Bay create an effect I have seen in other places only before or after a storm. Everything glows from within. The greens become darkly luminous. The sky produces effects of light and cloud that are, to more sober eyes, almost vulgarly picturesque. But then, these are the subtropics. You are soon made aware here of a kind of moisture in the air that makes nature a force that isn’t easily domesticated – everything grows too fast, too tall, it gets quickly out of control. Vegetation doesn’t complement the man-made, it fiercely competes with it. Gardens are always on the point of turning themselves into wilderness, hauling down fences, pushing sheds and outhouses over, making things look ramshackle and halfway to ruin. The weather, harsh sunlight, hard rain, adds to the process, stripping houses of their paint, rotting timber, making the dwellings altogether less solid and substantial, on their high stumps, than the great native trees that surround them.
I’ll come back to those houses in a moment. It is no accident that they should have invaded a paragraph that is devoted to nature, since they are, in this place, so utterly of it, both in form and substance. Open wooden affairs, they seem often like elaborated tree-houses, great grown-up cubby-houses hanging precariously above ground.
Now what you abstract from such a landscape, from its greenness, its fierce and damply sinister growth, its power compared with the flimsiness of the domestic architecture, its grandeur of colour and effect, its openness upwards to the sky – another consequence of all those hills – is something other, I would suggest, than what is abstracted from the wide, dry landscapes of southern Australia that we sometimes think of as ‘typical’. It offers a different notion of what the land might be, and relates it to all the daily business of life in a quite different way. It shapes in those who grow up there a different sensibility, a different cast of mind, creates a different sort of Australian.
So much then for the lay of the land; now for that other distinctive feature of the city, its river. Winding back and forth across Brisbane in a classic meander, making pockets and elbows with high cliffs on one side and mud-flats on the other, the river is inescapable. It cuts in and out of every suburb, can be seen from every hill. It also keeps the Bay in mind, since that, clearly, is where all its windings, its odd turns and evasions, lead. But this river does not have the same uses for the citizen as the rivers that flow through other towns.
We think of the Thames, or the Seine or the Tiber or the Arno, and it is clear how they are related to the cities that have grown up on their banks. They divide them, north and south. They offer themselves as a means of orientation. But the river in Brisbane is a disorienting factor. Impossible to know which side of it you are on, north or south, or to use it for settling in your mind how any place or suburb is related to any other.
So the topography of Brisbane, broken up as it is by hills and by the endless switching back and forth upon itself of the river, offers no clear map for the mind to move in, and this really is unusual – I know of no other city like it. Only one thing saves you here from being completely mapless, and that is the net – the purely conceptual net – that was laid down over the city with the tramline system.
Ideally it is a great wheel, with the business centre as the hub and a set of radial spokes that push out into the suburbs. The city is conceived of in the minds of its citizens in terms of radial opposites that allow them to establish limits, and these are the old tram termini: Ascot/Balmoral, Clayfield/Salisbury, Toowong/Grange, West End/New Farm Park, to mention only a few; and this sense of radial opposites has persisted, and continues to be worked with, though the actual tramlines have long since been replaced with ‘invisible’ (as it were) bus routes. The old tramline system is now the invisible principle that holds the city together and gives it a shape in people’s minds.
But that wheel shape, as I said at the beginning, was ideal, not actual. I lived at Ascot. I have always thought of Balmoral as being at the other end of the city geographically – say, an hour’s tram journey or twelve to fifteen miles away. But when I looked at a map recently I discovered that it is, in fact, only half a mile away on the other side of the river.
Space, in this city, is unreadable. Geography and its features offer no help in the making of a mental map. What you have to do here is create a conceptual one. I ask myself again what habits of mind such a city may encourage in its citizens, and how, though taken for granted in this place, they may differ from the habits of places where geography declares itself at every point as helpful, reliable, being itself a map.
I have already referred briefly to the Brisbane house, setting its insubstantiality for a moment against the solidity of the big local trees, and evoking the oddness with which it places itself, reared high on tree-stumps on the side of a hill.
The houses are of timber, that is the essence of the thing, and to live with timber is to live with a material that yields at every step. The house is a living presence as a stone house never can be, responding to temperature in all its joists and floorboards, creaking, allowing you to follow every step sometimes, in every room. Imagine an old staircase and magnify its physical presence till it becomes a whole dwelling.
Children discover, among their first sensual experiences in the world of touch, the feel of tongue-and-groove boards: the soft places where they have rotted, the way paint flakes and the wood underneath will release sometimes, if you press it, a trickle of spicy reddish dust. In earlier days they often made themselves sick by licking those walls and poisoning themselves with lead.
You learn in such houses to listen. You build up a map of the house in sound that allows you to know exactly where everyone is and to predict approaches. You also learn what not to hear, what is not-to-be-heard; because it is a condition of such houses that everything can be heard. Strict conventions exist about what should be listened to and these soon become habits of not-listening, not-hearing. So too, habits grow up of not-seeing.
Wooden houses in Brisbane are open. That is, they often have no doors, and one of the conventions of the place (how it came about might be a study in itself) is that doors, for the most part, are not closed. Maybe it is a result of the weather. Maybe it has something to do with the insistence that life as it is lived up here has no secrets – or should have none. Though it does of course.
Whatever the reason, bedroom doors in a Brisbane house are kept open – you get used to that. Even bathroom doors have no locks and are seldom closed. The proximities are dealt with, and privacy maintained, by just those subtle habits of not-seeing, not-hearing that growing up in such a house creates in you as a kind
So there it is, this odd timber structure, often decorated with wooden fretwork and scrolls of great fantasy, raised on tree-stumps to leaf level and still having about it some quality of the tree – a kind of tree-house expanded. At the centre a nest of rooms, all opening on to a hallway that as often as not runs straight through from front to back, so that you can see right through it to trees or sky. Around the nest of rooms, verandahs, mostly with crossed openwork below and lattice or rolled venetians above; an intermediary space between the house proper, which is itself only half closed in, and the world outside – garden, street, weather.
Verandahs have their own life, their own conventions, but serve for the most part to make the too-open interior seem closed, therefore safe and protected. Weather beats in on the verandah and the house stays dry. Hawkers and other callers may be allowed up the front steps on to the verandah, but the house, utterly visible and open right through, remains inviolate. There are conventions about this too. You develop a keen sense, from early on, if you grow up in such a house, of what is inside and safe and what is out there at the edge, a boundary area, domestic but exposed.
Inside and out – that is one aspect of the thing: the nest of rooms at the centre and the open verandah. But there is also upstairs and down, and this doesn’t mean the same thing here as in the two-storeyed terrace, where upstairs means sleeping and downstairs is public life. Upstairs in the Brisbane house is everything: the division between night and day might at the very least be established as one side or the other of a hall. Downstairs here means under-the-house and that is in many ways the most interesting place of all.