One of the odder, happier antiphons of this past summer was David Malouf’s essay and its rippling, comic echo in the cricket commentary of Harsha Bogle and Kerry O’Keeffe. In the intervals between play you could read the one in all its reasoned complexity, and then, with the batsmen back at the crease, listen to the anarchic balancing of the other, and marvel at an accident of collaboration.
The conceit of the inspired pairing of the Indian Bogle and the Australian O’Keeffe was that they would not understand one another. Different cultures, different styles, the Subcontinental gentleman set up by the larrikin leg break bowler. But of course both knew exactly how to play the game, and the “chemistry” that made them such good listening, in part personal flair, was in equal part a shared, complex, colonial and post-colonial history. Their common ground – for all the linguistic sledging – was language, and the common bond, reason – the English (or Scottish) Enlightenment rationality which Malouf convincingly argues is our distinguishing inheritance.
And what hay they made with it! O’Keeffe, in Falstaffian mode, would test the civilised, rational limits, and Bogle would play along in mock (or sometimes genuine?) shock. But both kept the commentary flowing. Both understood the rules, written and tacit. They also understood how much lethal passion is displaced in play, and what cathartic fun is to be had in experimenting, in mucking around, in playing games. Word games, food games – lamingtons for tea – cricket games. “It is small things that make up the real fabric of a relationship;” writes Malouf, “things that ‘history’ may not know about or miss. But then sport is just the sort of area where to make too much of a good thing would be to miss the real thing altogether.”
Exactly. It is that lightness about being Australian that Malouf’s essay so profoundly catches, and expresses – a condition of lightness that acknowledges the experiential rather than the essential nature of who we are. “It keeps us on our toes, as curious observers of ourselves,” Malouf writes. Indeed, it does. And how flat-footed it makes most of our entrenched conflicts seem, how leaden and unimaginative our dualisms, current or historical. White Australia/coloured Australia; new Australian/old Australian; black armband history/white armband history. If only we would learn to live with richness, with complexity, instead of trying, for motives malign, political or simply anxious, to tie everything down, ourselves included. If only this, or Malouf’s Boyer lectures that preceded it, could have been the preamble to the reductive republican debate we had, and the equally polarised ones – about the republic, about race relations, about international alliances – we seem doomed to have in future. If only our press, electronic media and politics would take a few minutes to go into the detail that dignifies most human intercourse.
Then we could debate in a fruitful way the current transformation of some of the institutions that Malouf adduces as the underpinning of Australia’s exceptional peace and prosperity. We could look at the Westminster tradition of a disinterested, committed public service that he lauds and ask if we still have it. We could examine our strategic alliances in the light of the complicated history he explores, without banal, reflex accusations of anti-Americanism. We could debate our place in the Asia-Pacific region without prejudice or lies. We could take up words like “reconciliation” again without tasting ash in our mouths.
We might look further, and profitably, at the Scottish as well as the Irish inheritance in Australia (as does Don Watson in Caledonia Australis, or Les Murray in his 1980 essay “The Bonnie Disproportion”). We might think about the Scots’ almost obsessive emphasis on education – for all the people – and ask whether, like Robert Menzies, we still share that obsession. We might even talk more about language and its long reach. We might ponder the lightness of the complex, ironic poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer who, even before Shakespeare, so anchored his verse and his quicksilver, searching mind in the concrete stuff of everyday life that he turned around a French occupation and gave his people back a language large enough to answer to their most extravagant imaginings.
Essays have a much longer shelf life than daily news. So perhaps we shall do all these things. It can’t hurt to hope.
Morag Fraser is an adjunct professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University. From 1991 until 2003 she was editor of Eureka Street.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 13, Sending Them Home.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY