While I waited at the hospital yesterday to have my wisdom teeth cut out (a succession of waiting-rooms of diminishing size, each opening Russian doll-like onto the other), I read chunks of Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life.
The book was published in the 1970s, nine months before Facey died in his late eighties. As an Australian historian, I can’t quite believe I hadn’t read it before – it is, after all, one of the few iconic works of Antipodean social history. Somehow I had passed over it, however, as too hokey (or something), until a few days ago. Once I began, it was hard to stop. I kept reading it even after I woozily returned home, and finished it when I woke at 3am, in a business-as-usual bout of insomnia.
A Fortunate Life is a tonic for anyone with petty ailments and the ordinary run of minor dissatisfactions – far more profoundly so, it seems to me, than today’s self-helperama. The bodily privations and gruelling loneliess Facey endured in his early life are delivered with such a shocking lack of rancour that it is impossible not to feel chastened, reading of them. Envy, frustrated ambition, resentment, bitterness: all these emotions are stunningly absent from his story. Such feelings are so integral to contemporary sensibilities that it is hard to imagine this man not falling prey to them, whether during the course of his exploitation as a child labourer, or his sufferings after the Great War.
Stoicism is not an unmitigated good. It can lead to kind of haplessness I see in some of my older relatives, a weary fatalism (the kind of culture of consolation that Gareth Stedman Jones wrote about of the late-Victorian English working class). But Facey was never just numbly resigned to his lot. In later life he was committed to an active labour politics, and to efforts at civic improvement. Nonetheless, he had an aptitude for quiet happiness – the very best kind of stoicism, it seems to me – and this was precisely because he did not believe himself entitled to good fortune.