—fromA Spirit of Play: the Making of Australian Consciousnessby David Malouf, ABC Books, 1998.
When Europeans first came to this continent they settled in the cooler, more temperate parts of it. This was where they could reproduce to some extent the world they had left, but it was also because they saw themselves as cool-climate people. The wisdom, 50 years ago, was that white men would never live and work in the north.
Well, we seem to have re-invented ourselves in these last years as warm-climate people. Not only do we live quite comfortably in the north, it is where a great many of us prefer to live. If present population trends are anything to go by, a large part of our population in the next century will have moved into the tropics, and Queensland, our fastest growing state, will be our local California.
This is a change of a peculiar kind. A change in the way we define ourselves and our relationship to the world that is also a new way of experiencing our own bodies. And the second change I have in mind is related to this. It is the change in the living habits of Australians that we can observe any night of the week in Lygon Street in Melbourne, in Rundle Street, Adelaide, in various parts of Sydney: people eating out on the pavement under the stars in a style we recognize immediately as loosely Mediterranean, a style that has become almost universal in these last years, but which fits better here that it does in Toronto or Stockholm.
It seems to me to be the discovery of a style at last that also fits the kind of people we have now become, and that fits the climate and the scene. But the attitudes it expresses, also loosely Mediterranean, make the sharpest imaginable contrast with the way we were even two decades ago, the way, in that far-off time, that we saw life and the possibilities of living.
Look at these diners. Look at what they are eating and drinking: at the little dishes of olive oil for dipping their bread, the grilled octopus, the rocket, the tagines and skordalia, the wine. Look at the eye for style—for local style—with which they are dressed and their easy acceptance of the body, their tendency to dress it up, strip it, show it off. Consider what all this suggests of a place where play seems natural, and pleasure a part of what living is for; then consider how far these ordinary Australians have come from that old distrust of the body and its pleasures that might have seemed bred in the bone in the Australians we were even 30 years ago. These people have changed, not just their minds but their psyches, and have discovered along the way a new body. They have slipped so quickly and so easily into this other style of being that they might have been living this way, deep in a tradition of physical ease, a comfortable accommodation between soul and body, for as long as grapes have grown on vines or olives on trees.
But half a lifetime ago, in the 1950s, olive oil was still a medicine and spaghetti came in tins. Eating out for most Australians was steak and chips at a Greek Café if you were on the road, or the occasional Chinese meal. We ate at home, and we ate pretty much what our grandparents had eaten, even those of us whose grandparents came from elsewhere: lamb chops, Irish stew, a roast on Sundays. It would have seemed ludicrous to take food seriously—to write about it in the newspaper, for example—or to believe that what we ate might constitute a ‘cuisine’, something new and original, a product of art as well as necessity, an expression, in the same way that ‘Waltzing Matilda’ or ‘Shearing the Ram’ might be, of a national style and of the local spirit at play.
As for those other changes—of attitude, ways of seeing ourselves in relation to one another and to the world—I shall mention only two. Both were once so deeply embedded in all our ways of thinking here they might have seemed essential to what we were. We could scarcely have imagined an Australia without them.
The first was that belief in racial superiority and exclusiveness that went under the name of the White Australia Policy, but was really, until the end of the Second World War, an exclusively British policy. As theBulletinput it with its usual brutal candour: ‘Australia for the Australians—the cheap Chinese, the cheap Nigger and the cheap European pauper to be absolutely excluded’.
These sentiments, this sort of language, which was common to theBulletinand to later popular papers likeSmith’s Weeklyright up to the early 1950s, expressed the policy of all political parties, left and right, and seemed not only acceptable but unremarkable. Both the attitudes and the language were inextricably tied in with our concept of nationhood. Or so it seemed. Yet the White Australia Policy, when it disappeared in the 1960s, did so almost without argument. This great tenet of the Australian dream, of a single superior race on the continent, had grown so weak and theoretically by the 1960s that it simply vanished as if it had never been, and, despite recent rumblings, seems to me to show no signs of revival.
So, too, amazingly, did what had been from the beginning the strongest of all divisions among us, the sectarian division between Protestants and Catholics.
And isn’t this, finally, what holds civilized societies together? The capacity to make a distinction between what belongs, in the way of loyalty, to clan or sect or family, and what to the demands of neighbourliness; what belongs to our individual and personal lives and what we owe tores publicaor Commonwealth, the life we share with others, even those who may differ from us in the most fundamental way—skin colour and ethnicity, religious and political affiliation, customary habits. It is the capacity to make and honour these distinctions, out of a common concern for the right we have, each one of us, to pursue our own interests, that is essential to the life of cities, and beyond that, to their more precarious extension as states.