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Frozen in Time: Sharing a Queensland Childhood with David Malouf

Read Sunday, 13 Apr 2014

Shakira Hussein reflects on a Queensland childhood frozen in time across several generations, under the era of Joh Bjelke-Petersen – so that David Malouf’s reflections of his childhood in the 1930s and 40s evokes memories of her own in the 1970s and 80s.

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Image courtesy of Mike Locke. Queensland sugar cane.

Back in the Bjelke-Petersen days, ‘Southerners’ used to joke about needing to turn their clocks back 50 years when they crossed the border into Queensland, even as they migrated there to enjoy the beaches and the sunshine and (so they told us) to escape from the socialists who were destroying the lifestyle down south. And it’s true that Queensland under Bjelke-Petersen seemed frozen in time, despite his government’s determination to tear down heritage buildings like the Bellevue Hotel and the Cloudland Ballroom. My mother, grandmother and I could all discuss our shared experiences of reading the same school readers (lots of stories about polite children, servants who knew their place, and terrifying encounters with wolves) and cooking the same recipes in Home Ec (porcupines and blancmange). Such fixtures had remained undisturbed for decades, and it seemed as though they would remain in place for decades to come.

Listening to Malouf in conversation with Ramona Koval at the Wheeler Centre on the eve of his 80th birthday, I reflected on the continuities between Malouf’s memories of his 1930s and 40s childhood and my own childhood memories of the 1970s and 80s. These continuities arise not only from Queensland’s frozen-in-time years, but from Malouf’s powerful sense of place. In his new collection of essays, Malouf writes eloquently about the impact of A First Place – ‘the one you had begun to grow up in, at least in the part of you that belongs to memory and to dreams’ — in shaping the way we see the world over the course of our later lives.

My own first place lay a couple of hours north of Malouf’s first place in Brisbane. For me, Brisbane was the destination for visits to relatives, school excursions, and Christmas shopping expeditions. But the topography that Malouf describes in books like Johnno and 12 Edmondstone Street was so familiar that reading them with a teenager’s self-absorption, I felt as though they had been written especially for me. Malouf’s conversation with Koval generated a similar sense of intimacy, as well as regular jolts of recognition at the scenes he described.

The Queensland summer storms, for example, which (as Malouf told his audience) would break at four o’clock every afternoon. Listening to his description of those storms, I remembered the way the humidity would build and build throughout the day until it finally became too heavy for the air to hold and poured down in torrents. The joy of running out into the rain, letting it soak your hair and clothes and skin, pressing your face against a eucalypt so that you could drink in the rainwater and the fragrance of the bark. No water in my adult life has ever tasted as sweet.

My memories of the Queensland school readers are pungent rather than fragrant. The education department had phased out the readers in the 1970s before I started school, but they remained in use at my country primary school for years afterwards. Malouf and I shared the same first stories, then, as well as neighbouring first places. Generations of Queensland schoolchildren grew up on the Queensland school readers with their selection of classic and not-so-classic poems, their moralistic fables, their introductions to famous figures from history and science.

And the wolves. Wolves chasing foolish farmers who stayed out too late, wolves menacing a father and son as they sheltered beneath a barrel, wolves tearing apart the loyal Russian servant who sacrificed himself by jumping from the sled on which he’d been travelling with his employers. Some public servant in the education department had decided that Queensland children sweltering in overheated classrooms needed to hear as much as possible about frozen landscapes teeming with wolves. Still more terrifying than the wolves was ‘Ginevra’s Box’, a poem about a beautiful young bride who went missing on her wedding day, never to be seen again by her grief-stricken family and groom. Fifty years later, a newcomer to their home opened a forgotten wooden chest. And there lay Ginevra’s skeleton, still clad in the wedding finery that she had been wearing when she playfully hid herself away in the box, only to find that she could not lift the lid to escape.

I was too traumatised by the memory of savage wolves and bridal corpses to retain any fond sentiment towards the Queensland school readers. Yet as Malouf writes in A First Place (and as my former English teacher verified when I sent her a text message in a state of PTSD during his talk), the readers were structured to provide children who were unlikely to finish secondary school with as broad an overview as possible of both European and Australian literature. And thinking back, I remember the readers introducing me to the story of Persephone (a story that I would tell to my own young daughter as we shared a pomegranate) and Henry Kendall’s Bellbirds, which I enjoyed enough to scrawl it across one of my folders while I was at university in Canberra.

And as much as I resented their high-handed tone, the readers somehow managed to instil their editors’ pedantic belief in the beneficial effects of reading. In high school, I asked my English teacher why the school couldn’t include David Malouf in our set reading alongside Alistair MacLean and John le Carre, only to be told that my reading tastes were more sophisticated than those of my classmates. Well, exactly, I thought. Reading David Malouf might civilise the little brutes.

Malouf also writes about the story of leaving home, whether we tell it as the story of Odysseus (the hero who sets out to have adventures but is destined to return home), or of the Wanderer (who remains an outcast ‘doomed to perpetual movement and exile’), or of Aeneas (the hero who flees the ruins of Troy to found the city of Rome as his new home). I left Queensland planning to be a Wanderer – movement and exile didn’t sound like doom to me. By circumstance rather than choice, I instead seem destined to be a rather cranky Aeneas, having found my new home on the ‘other shore’ of Melbourne. However, I hold fast to my resolution never to stage an Odyssean return to Queensland, where the locals are unlikely to greet me as a conquering hero.

And yet, the atoms of those afternoon subtropical rainstorms are still lodged somewhere in my bones.

Shakira Hussein is a writer and researcher at the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies, University of Melbourne.

Watch our website for the video of our event with David Malouf and Ramona Koval: coming soon.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.