Among the many gems found in my reading this year was David Malouf’s collection of short stories, Antipodes.
Malouf is a brilliant writer, in his economy of language, evoking so pungently the ethos and spirit of this land and its peoples.
One story, ‘A change of scene’, tells of Alec and Sylvia, and their boy Jason, who are travelling in Europe; and, as is so common in the stories of young Australians, these experiences expose what is otherwise deeply hidden and largely unspoken, in their relationships, their self-understanding, and their basic values.
Now, Sylvia is able to see her husband for the truly good man that he is. She recognizes how much these fundamental strengths are shared with his father. It’s the kind of people the they. Malouf says it so well …
"Alec had grown up on a wheat farm west of Gulgong. Learning early what it is to face bad seasons when a whole crop can fail, or bushfires, or floods, he had developed a native toughness that would, Sylvia saw from his father, last right through into old age. Failure for Alec meant a failure of nerve. This uncompromising view made him hard on occasion, but was the source as well of his golden rightness. Somewhere at the centre of him was a space where honour, fairness, hard work, the belief in a man’s responsibility at least for his own fate—and also, it seemed ,the possibility of happiness—were given free range; and at the clear centre of all there was a rock, unmoulded as yet, that might one day be an altar." (Antipodes, Penguin, 1985, p.105)
Here, in so few words, is an ethic, and the hint of a spirituality. This is what we mean by a ‘fair dinkum’ person. There is no pretence here. There is no expectation of a free ride, for anything. There is a basic acceptance of self, of ‘fate’, and also of others, so long as they too share this ethic. And, as Sylvia sees, there is a deep openness to hope: it is not ‘religious’, in the sense of formulaic belief. Nor is it overt, but is rather scarcely acknowledged, even to oneself. But it is there. It is that ‘rock’ which may yet become an altar.