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A cart drove between the two stringy barks and stopped. These were the dominant trees in that part of the bush, rising above the involved scrub with the simplicity of true grandeur. So the cart stopped, grazing the hairy side of a tree, and the horse, shaggy and stolid as the tree, sighed and took root.
The man who sat in the cart got down. He rubbed his hands together, because already it was cold, a curdle of cold cloud in a pale sky, and copper in the west. On the air you could smell the frost. As the man rubbed his hands, the friction of cold skin intensified the coldness of the air and the solitude of that place. Birds looked from twigs, and the eyes of animals were drawn to what was happening. The man lifting a bundle from a cart. A dog was lifting his leg on an anthill. The lip drooping on the sweaty horse.
Then the man took an axe and struck at the side of a hairy tree, more to hear the sounds than for any other reason. And the sound was cold and loud. The man struck at the tree, and struck, till several white chips had fallen. He looked at the scar in the side of the tree. The silence was immense. It was the first time anything like this had happened in that part of the bush.
More quickly then, as if deliberately breaking with a dream, he took the harness from the horse, leaving a black pattern of sweat. He hobbled the strong fetlocks of the cobby little horse and stuck the nosebag on his bald face. The man made a lean-to with bags and a few saplings. He built a fire. He sighed at last, because the lighting of his small fire had kindled in him the first warmth of content. Of being somewhere. That particular part of the bush had been made his by the entwining fire. It licked at and swallowed the loneliness…
So begins Patrick White, The Tree of Man.
I must confess that when I first read this book while studying OzLit under Professor Gerry Wilkes at Sydney University in 1964 I did not take to it. That came later when I was obliged to teach it to a Year 12 Class at Wollongong High School in the late 1970s. I had also recently read The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough around that time – a book I found then ineffably stupid and badly written – but I read with the page-turner motive of discovering whether something even more unlikely would happen next or whether the cliche count could possibly grow. I still think the book a bit of a travesty, though one day I must give McCullough’s Roman books a go. I began to read passages aloud from both books to my Wollongong students. Invariably McCullough had them rolling in the aisles.
But my and their respect for what White was doing just grew and grew, and those lessons became a talk at an HSC study day organised by the English Teachers Association – one of the best things I ever did.
See also this critique (PDF).
My Patrick White reading grew in earnest from that time on, and I devoured the earlier works and anticipated each new one. Some indeed I liked more than others, but I am looking forward to seeing at last the movie – excellent we are told – of The Eye of the Storm on ABC next Sunday night.
Yesterday marked Patrick White’s centenary.
See Why Bother With Patrick White.
Last night on QandA
BARRY HUMPHRIES: Well, David is the author of a great biography of Patrick White and I think today is a special day, isn’t it, David?
DAVID MARR: It is 100 years today since little Paddy came struggling into the world in a Knightsbridge apartment with a view of Hyde Park and about 16 indoor servants. Yes, his struggle began a century ago today.
TONY JONES: A typical Australian by the sound of it?
DAVID MARR: He was, in fact, one of those Australians – he came from one of those families who believed themselves and felt as at home in England as they did in Australia and I would just guess that you, Barry, are another of those who feel just as at home in Britain as you do here and they lived in a big world, which was absolutely Australian but it had England too and that was a very Australian experience. It wasn’t just here, it was Australia, it was, in fact, in those days the empire and they were part of they felt themselves to be part of a very big world as Australians.
TONY JONES: And now, of course, the Australian experience probably includes being part of Malaysia or Indonesia or Iraq or many other countries as well so there has been a sort of great shift in our country.