John McLaren

The federal government’s proposal for a multicultural television network has sparked off once more a row about the nature of the Australian national identity.

The opponents of the network seem to fear that it will cause all kinds of divisions in our community by emphasising the different places and cultures to which we owe our origins. They would like to restore the myth of a single nation, bounded and defended by a single shoreline (plus, of course, Tasmania), giving allegiance to a single flag and monarch and united by a single tongue. The myth is glorious in its simplicity, and marred only by the fact that it corresponds to no historical truth.

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While the art of the ghost writer has a long and honorable history, the court case concerning the extent of Graham Yallop’s responsibility for the book on the recent test series raises a number of general issues apart from the outcome of this particular dispute. At its best, the practice of ghost writing enables the general public to share the experiences of people who have had interesting lives but do not command the verbal skills necessary to constructing a book. Yet the ghost writer may also be the unacknowledged creator of the characters who figure in his work. Few politicians now will risk either the off-the-cuff remark or even the considered epistle, so that the contest of political leadership can degenerate to a trial of speechwriters’ skills. The most proficient comedians are, of course, creatures of their scriptwriters, but they at least exact nothing from us but our laughs. As our sportsmen and women become media figures there is a danger that the players as well as the game will be taken over by the media barons, with the ghost writer acting as puppet master. Fortunately, cricket, a sport which seems able to elicit passions altogether out of proportions with the leisurely pace of the game, has always had players who are as much at home with words as with bat and ball. One of these, Jack Fingleton, was the subject of a review last month; another, Frank Tyson, is a regular contributor to our pages. Their individuality provides some security that the age of the manufactured human is not yet quite triumphant. It would seem, however, that in a world of instant media heroes, publishers have a responsibility to their readers to tell them whether the words they are reading belong to the ostensible author or to an unseen ghost.

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A Nation Apart edited by John McLaren

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September 1983, no. 54

A Nation Apart is the title of this book of essays on contemporary Australia and it’s a good title because it summarises the fragmentation, the sense of disparateness, which characterizes this nation at the moment – and characterises the book itself.

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Like every one of his previous novels, Patrick White’s latest work is both utterly characteristic and completely unpredictable. With the third line, we know we are in for another of White’s dissections of human behavior. ‘“Bit rough, isn’t it?” her chauffeur ventured.’ The verb almost parodies White’s careful placing of human acts any other writer would – perhaps rightly – consider insignificant. It is also characteristic of his more recent novels that the first people we meet are peripheral, people who serve both to comment on the action and to offer a commentary just by their presence. They are the reverse of the chorus of a Greek tragedy in that they are the problem to which the central characters address themselves rather than the passive victims of this address.

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Just Relations by Rodney Hall & North Wind by John Morrison

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August 1982, no. 43

These two works of fiction at first seem to offer only a contrast in literary style and method. John Morrison’s book is a collection of stories ranging from the title story, published in his first collection, Sailors Belong Ships (1947), to four not previously published in book form ...

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John McLaren, who died peacefully in St Vincent's Private Hospital on 4 December 2015, was a man of many fine attributes and talents, not the least of which was his capacity for friendship. John had many close friends towards whom he showed great loyalty, affection, and generosity. They, in their turn, recognised the strength and quality of the quite precious bond h ...

To judge by John McLaren’s thought-provoking survey of 200 years of writing about Melbourne, the city’s most insidious negative feature for many observers – wrong-headed though they may be – is dullness. In George Johnston’s My Brother Jack (1964), the narrator David Meredith rails against the suburbs as ‘worse than slums. They betrayed nothing of anger or revolt or resentment; they lacked the grim adventure of true poverty; they had no suffering, because they had mortgaged this right to secure a sad acceptance of suburban respectability that ranked them a step or two higher than the true, dangerous slums of Fitzroy or Collingwood.’ In affluent suburbs like Malvern, Graham McInnes in The Road to Gundagai, a memoir first published in 1965, saw ‘immense deserts of brick and terracotta, or wood and galvanised iron [that] induce a sense of overpowering dullness, a stupefying sameness, a worthy, plodding, pedestrian middle-class, low church conformity’.

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Vincent Buckley edited by Chris Wallace-Crabbe & Journey Without Arrival by John McLaren

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July-August 2009, no. 313

Amnesia about writers of the past, even the not too distant past, is one of the besetting ills of our culture. How many readers of poetry under forty have more than a nodding acquaintance with the work of A.D. Hope, Francis Webb, Douglas Stewart or Vincent Buckley? All are fine poets, remembered now (if at all) through a handful of anthology pieces, partly because their published volumes usually disappear from print within a few years. Poets are particularly susceptible to the culture of forgetting, but the malaise extends to novelists and others who have made major contributions to our cultural, political and social life.

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In one sense, the publisher’s blurb on this novel says it all.

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John Docker

Mark Davis’ Voltairean Gangland is one of those rare books that prise open a space for revaluation of the direction of a culture. Like The Dunciad’s evocation of the Grub Street hacks of its time, Gangland exposes tentacular networks of chummy patronage, mutual puffery, and cultural power. Gangland is especially enjoyable on the clown-like behaviour of the ex-Scripsi diaspora – in a curious sexual division of labour, a B-team of male critics, captained by the felicitously named P. Craven, has successfully promoted a coterie of writers like Jolley, Garner, and Modjeska. Compared to those I analyse in Australian Cultural Elites (1974) and In A Critical Condition (1984), this new élite is the most intellectually thin in Australian cultural history. Assisted by a passive, grovelling middle-class readership, it both creates such writers as canonical and then tries desperately to shield their texts from critique and challenge.

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