Wallahs and Wallabies

Gilbert Phelps

  • 12 Edmondstone Street by David Malouf
    Chatto, 134 pp, £9.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 7011 3970 6
  • The Shakespeare Wallah by Geoffrey Kendal and Clare Colvin
    Sidgwick, 186 pp, £12.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 283 99230 1
  • Children of the Country: Coast to Coast across Africa by Joseph Hone
    Hamish Hamilton, 258 pp, £12.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 241 11742 9

On the face of it, autobiography and travel should be the simplest forms of literature to write: the facts are there, there is a life or a country to be crossed. Yet they have their own special difficulties of tone and approach, and of all forms they are perhaps the most subject to the fictionality of truth, while paradoxically demanding a core of inner truth if they are to become literature. Of these three books, in which the two genres are combined, that label can properly be applied only to David Malouf’s 12 Edmondstone Street. An intimate apprehension of time and place informs the long title essay, which probes into the remembered experience of a child’s association with the house in Brisbane where he was born. As such it is a genuine journey into the interior: ‘Each house has its own topography, its own lore: negotiable borders, spaces open or closed, the salient features – not Capes and Bays in this case but the Side Door, the Brass Jardinière – whose names make up a daily litany. A complex history comes down to us, through household jokes and anecdotes, odd habits, irrational superstitions.’

Malouf re-explores every corner, practically every inch, of this topography: the back yard where his grandfather, the Lebanese Maronite Christian immigrant, tries to turn ‘a bit of suburban Brisbane into a Mediterranean garden’ and holds court for his fellow-countrymen, helping them write their letters home and telling them stories, in their own language, of the Old Country; the verandah where travelling salesmen display their goods, and where Malouf and his sister have to sleep; his parents’ ‘forbidden’ bedroom; the Piano Room where an aunt plays and where his English-born mother sits darning socks while Cassie the servant reads aloud from the Victorian classics; the Front Room ‘carefully composed and grandly furnished’, with the door always left open so that all may see the whisky set, the sherry decanter and glasses, the cocktail-shaker, the three smokers’ stands, all of them wedding presents whose display is obligatory but which, since the Malouf parents don’t drink or smoke, are meant as ‘a warning, richly put, against easy pleasures and the dangers of the “social life” ’.

In this world of memory, normal measurements have no meaning and the house becomes as big as any Africa or India: the space under it, for example, where the washing-tubs and discarded articles of furniture are stowed and where, at one end, Malouf’s father has his tool shed, is ‘a forest that stretches for miles, as dark as anything in Grimm and belonging to the geography of the body’s hot experience of it rather than to Australia or South Brisbane’. Each separate object in the house is also a miniature continent in itself. The brass jardinière, where all kinds of odds and ends are crammed in the hope that one day they will come in useful, is, for the child, when he tumbles the contents on the floor, a measure of his belief ‘in the world’s infinite plentitude, its capacity to reproduce itself in a multitude of forms’. And time undergoes the same giddy telescopings and extensions. In childhood, Malouf says, it has a different consistency and we move through it at a different pace, because it is measured by quite other co-efficients: the hours are so densely packed with experiences and events that time appears a viscous fluid which rolls rather than flows, and which is controlled by different images from those of adult life.

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