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.

It is also experienced in different bodies. While Malouf enters into the child he once was – for the most part using the present tense, so that the reader feels that everything is taking place in the here and now – the perspective as far as the comments and reflections are concerned is that of the adult he now is. At the outset he points out that memory plays tricks, and at the end he stresses its limits, the fact that there is ‘a threshold we cannot cross’, since even if we could find the door to the room of the past we cannot now ‘find in ourselves the body, the experiencing mind-in-the-body to go through’. The full truth about the past can’t be reproduced, simply because that old body of childhood is out of reach, separated from the one we now have by a thousand cumulative sensations and experiences, and what moving back into it would demand would be ‘an act of un-remembering, a dismantling of the body’s experience that would be a kind of dying, a casting off, one by one, of all the tissues of perception, conscious or not, through which our very notion of body has been remade’. The poise between past and present, between truth and fiction, is in consequence perfectly maintained. There is no room in this kind of autobiography for either sentimentality or the usual kinds of distortion.

The same intimate apprehension of time and space informs ‘A Place in Tuscany’, the best of the two travel essays in the book. It is about the remote Italian village where Malouf spends part of every year. It has at its centre the arrival of an Australian camera crew in mid-winter, just managing to get through the snow and ice, in order to make a television film of his life there. Critics have spoken of Malouf’s ‘painterly eye’, which picks out dabs of light and colour from the semi-darkness of the winter village; the sea appears to him ‘a glowing band between the hills’ and, when the late sun catches it, there is ‘a flash at the corner of my eye’ as if ‘out there somewhere a match had been struck.’ Agatina, in whose house he lodges, scorns the new-fangled notion of observing summer-time, and keeps her clocks at the ‘real time’, so that in summer the Sunday midday meal coincides with the Pope’s mass on television, at full volume, while food is eaten and gossip exchanged.

In this village everybody seems to live to advanced years. But although in Agatina’s view it is a duty to live as long as possible, the dead seem every bit as alive as the living: the campo santo beyond the church, with its chapels and funerary monuments, each with its electric candles, ‘glows at night like an alternative village, which is what it is: a neighbouring, utterly ordinary and unfrightening “village of the dead” ’. Here, he says, time is either concrete, measured out by the seasons and the exigencies of daily life, or it has no meaning. As for geography, that ‘gives out at the first horizon’.

The Shakespeare Wallah takes its title from the film made by James Ivory and Ismail Merchant from a script by the novelist Ruth Jhabvala, about a troupe of Shakespearean actors travelling over the Indian sub-continent. The troupe was based on Geoffrey Kendal’s Shakespeareana Company. His book is described as ‘the autobiography of Geoffrey Kendal’, and since most of it is about the author’s peripatetic life as an actor-manager it could be said to be a travel book as well. Here the two genres are combined with perfect justification. For one thing, we are aware of a controlling preoccupation, close indeed to obsession – or rather two obsessions. There is Mr Kendal’s passion for acting, and there is India, to which he first went during the war, at the age of 30, with his actress wife Laura to work for ENSA, and where he spent most of the next thirty years, bringing his daughters Jennifer and Felicity into the company he formed. In 1985, after the tragic death of Jennifer – married to the Indian actor Shashi Kapoor – and Felicity’s launching on a West End career, he went back with his wife to tour once more with ‘two-hander’ performances from Shakespeare.

India looms so large that the earlier part of the book, in which Mr Kendal describes his apprenticeship to the stage, first as an amateur, then – his name changed from Bragg to Kendal, after his home town – as a professional and an actor-manager, reads as a run-up to it. Thereafter the book is dominated by the details of the Shakespeareana’s performances up and down the sub-continent, and beyond it to other parts of Asia. Mr Kendal’s book has no pretensions to fine writing. It is a down-to-earth account, illuminated by an affection for his family, for the often highly eccentric polyglot actors and actresses he employed, for his Indian audiences – which took to Shakespeare as ducks to water. ‘We performed St Joan at the Isabella Thorburn College [in Lucknow] at five-thirty on Thursday evening, dismantled the set, packed up and transported everything the same night to the stage of La Martinière Girls’ School, where we performed Julius Caesar and Henry V on Friday afternoon, then moved the entire equipment across the city to La Martinière Boys’ School, where we performed Macbeth and Henry V. At the end of it we were on our way again in a convoy of cycle-rickshaws to the station. We arrived in Delhi shortly after mid-morning and left for Agra that night.’ Kendal’s only comment on all this: ‘The scale of activity involved both physical and mental effort.’ At the climax of his story, he describes his initial reactions to the Ivory and Merchant film, in which Kendal and his wife were cast as ‘the ham Shakespeareans’ Mr and Mrs Buckingham, and in which both their daughters played. ‘It is clear to me now why they approached the film as they did. The actors were seen as the last of the British Raj, hanging on to a dying culture in an out-of-date medium, while the cinema, representing modern India, took over with its new and vital power.’ But he is compelled to add:

Our touring company had been a great success and had brought Shakespeare to the furthest places of India. We had hoped the film would be an affirmation of this and an illustration of what was, to us, still a wonderful way of life. But Shakespeare Wallah showed the Buckingham Players down on their luck, trying to cadge bookings from unsympathetic school bursars, and overwhelmed by the slick, rich, song-and-dance Bombay movies. It was in some ways close to our experience, yet at the same time seen through a different pair of eyes. We did not recognise ourselves ... Moreover, the actors of the company were made up of Indians who would never have been considered even by a chump like Buckingham – or Kendal for that matter ...

What hurt the Kendals most, perhaps, was the attitude of the film-makers towards the costumes which they had collected and preserved with such loving care: ‘We were allowed to use our wardrobe, but “better stuff” (meaning more old-fashioned) was to be provided. I had very set views on costumes and thought some of the costumes brought in quite awful.’ Nevertheless he co-operated loyally with Ivory and Merchant to produce a memorable film.

Generally speaking, autobiography and travel do not mix well. In many ways, indeed, the most satisfactory travel books are those dominated by a specific, even narrow purpose. In The Naturalist on the Amazons, Henry Walter Bates concentrates on the behaviour, say, of sauba ants, or marmosets, or two-toed sloths, while managing to convey not only the immediate habitat but the whole topographical and human context. It is when private material unrelated to the business in hand intrudes that the mode goes awry. A strong flavour of personality, of course, can be an asset, as in Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia – though even there some of the personal intrusions irritate. But when private anxieties, guilts and confessions (whose proper place is in autobiography) are admitted, they tend to take precedence, and if from time to time the writer becomes aware of the fact he may be tempted to over-compensate with self-conscious bursts of local colour. This is the trap into which Joseph Hone has fallen in his Children of the Country. He has some excuse, perhaps, in that he was frustrated in his original purpose, which was to cross the African continent from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, following as closely as possible the route taken by the explorer Stanley over a hundred years before, in order to collect material for a series of BBC talks. Visa problems forced him to plan his journey the other way round, and he then found himself stuck in Kinshasa (formerly Leopoldsville) in Zaire, because the river boats on which he had counted were no longer sailing, and most of the roads were unusable. When he does eventually get out it is by plane, and most of his subsequent experience of Africa is of five-star hotels and conducted tours. All the time he is worried because he is not getting to grips with ‘the real Africa’ (we meet hardly any Africans) and is decidedly not treading in the footsteps of Stanley. He is far more worried, though, about his relationship with Eleanor, the girl from the Home Counties turned hippy and alcoholic whom he met in Kinshasa and who accompanies him on his travels. Increasingly the book is given over to the love affair, and to Mr Hone’s angst over his marriage, left behind in a rocky state in England. The issue is never really in much doubt, and in the final chapter, with its embarrassing title ‘Africa of the Heart’, he ditches Eleanor and sets off home. By far the best part of the book are the early chapters about Hone’s enforced stay in Kinshasa – cut off from the outside world and sunk in an extraordinary stasis, with its million or so blacks still crammed into the old colonial native quarter, while their new-rich Westernised fellow-countrymen live in the grand villas by the river once occupied by Belgian colonial officials. The villas are now surrounded by vast, ugly walls, built not for protection or privacy but as status symbols. Meanwhile a crowd of expatriates congregate in the first-class bars and restaurants, hold lavish garden parties and receptions, and play cricket.