A Spirit of Play

David Malouf

Read January 2007

The ABC has an annual lecture series, the Boyer Lectures, delivered each year by one of the mighty and wise. This is a transcript of novelist and writer David Malouf's 1998 effort. Though I found this in book form in Australia, that was in used form, and it seems difficult to locate; fortunately the lectures are also on-line.

Malouf's contribution to the series is uneven. His central theme is that Australian settlement has been characterized by a spirit of play. It is unambiguously a story about white Australia; this is curious, as the record of their founding and survival seems to be one of struggle in a (to them) harsh terrain. Perhaps with the luxury of hindsight such a claim could be substantiated, but Malouf feels no pressure to bring to the table any historical record, whether excerpts from diaries or the observations of historians. His one shred of evidence, a record of a play in the early days of the settlement, feels like the exception that makes the (contrary) case.

There is depth and substance here, outside the main theme. This is sharp, witty prose, and it exposes the dark times of Australia, the suburban ennui that led to the modern, confident nation. It records the passage from the low of Gallipoli to the rude awakening of WW II (from Churchill's abandoning them to the Nazi's labeling them “orphans”), a necessary weaning from the mother country. He has interesting remarks about the Bennelong's challenge confronting whites, and—to justify his focus on the whites—that the whites were (he claims) the first to conceptualize Australia as an island, of being defined by the outside rather than the inside. Ultimately, however, none of this really substantiates his central idea, which I think is nothing more than a paean to multiculturalism.