Biography

Grimmish by Michael Winkler

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April 2021, no. 430

Have you ever noticed how boxing matches invariably deflate into two breathless people hugging each other? In pugilistic parlance, this is called a clinch. It is a defensive tactic, a way for fighters besieged by their opponent’s assault to create a pause and regain their equilibrium. And while it is beyond cliché for books to be hailed as knockouts or haymakers or other emptied expressions of victory, Michael Winkler’s Grimmish is the best literary clinch you’ll ever read. It is the honest account of a writer overmatched by his subject matter and left clinging on for dear life.

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Here’s a story about a spy with a wooden leg, another spy who liked to sit around with his penis exposed, and a spy’s daughter who spent decades refusing to believe her father was dead. If this tale of an everyday family of secret agents were a novel or a Netflix drama, we’d laugh, frown, and admire it as a surreal fantasy. But it is real, the children are still alive, and their recollections are proof that truth is nuttier than fiction.

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Sir Ninian Stephen: A tribute edited by Timothy L.K. McCormack and Cheryl Saunders

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April 2007, no. 290

The plans for this book were announced at the time of Ninian Stephen’s eightieth birthday, almost four years ago. Each of the ten contributors focuses on one of his public roles in the last thirty-five years – five of them in Australia, and five on the international stage. The last of the Australian positions, ambassador for the environment, is a bridge between the two. Kenneth Keith’s chapter finds another bridge: in Koowarta v Bjelke-Petersen (1982), on Stephen’s last day as a High Court judge, his judgment decisively transformed the issue of racial discrimination in Queensland by recognising its international potency.

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The subtitle of Janet Malcolm’s new book (published in Australia by Melbourne University Press) is Gertrude and Alice. Few names of literary couples can be so confidently trimmed. Scott and Zelda, Ted and Sylvia, George and Martha … all those happy couples. Gertrude and Alice has been used before, as the main title of Diana Souyhami’s joint study (1991), and will doubtless be used again. Their fame is an achieved and bankable thing, notwithstanding the fact that Gertrude Stein (1874– 1946) – whose books included Three Lives (1909), The Making of Americans (1925) and the wonderfully titled A Long Gay Book (1932) – remains perhaps the least read of the modernists.

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Soldier. Draftsman. Massacre survivor. Prisoner of war. Veteran. Son. Brother. Uncle. RSL Secretary. Indigenous Man. Activist. Black Scotsman. Celebrity. These are just some of the words used to describe Douglas Grant, an individual who embodied the contradictions of assimilation and the challenges facing Aboriginal people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Famous during his lifetime, Grant’s reputation has faded since the 1950s but in recent years has attracted the attention of Indigenous Australians and historians of World War I.

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David Frith’s slim biography of Archie Jackson reflects his subject’s tragically short life. When Jackson made his Test match début for Australia at Adelaide in the 1928–29 Ashes series, scoring an eye-catching 164, it was he, rather than the young Don Bradman, who instilled the most excitement in this country’s cricket-loving public. When Jackson was included in the 1930 tour of England, one ex-cricketer, Cecil Parkin, remarked that he was ‘a better bat than Bradman’, who had débuted in the same series as Jackson. This is but one example of the lavish praise that the gifted, though inconsistent, young cricketer received during his lifetime.

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At one point in Boy on Fire, music critic Mark Mordue’s strange, hybrid biography and social history of the early years and musical development of singer–songwriter Nick Cave, Mordue describes his subject as ‘the nominal ship’s captain, a drug-spun Ahab running amok on stage and off’. It is a typically sharp image, but it may reveal more than was intended; for all that Cave is Mordue’s Ahab, he is far more like the white whale itself: a great and receding mythical creature that will swallow the world before giving up any of its secrets. For a long while, the reader is cajoled into thinking this work might be the first in an exhaustive series on the artist, but by the end the truth is revealed: the subject simply got the better of his biographer, who languishes still in the belly of the whale. After an unnaturally long gestation, it seems to have become a case of publish or go mad.

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In Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (2002), Don Watson wrote that Lowitja O’Donoghue ‘seemed then and has seemed ever since to be a person of such transcendent warmth, if Australians ever got to know her they would want her as their Queen’. Robert Manne, in the first-ever Quarterly Essay (2001), portrayed her as ‘a woman of scrupulous honesty and great beauty of soul’. These qualities gleam in Stuart Rintoul’s handsomely produced biography.

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Here we have the first intimations of the coming flowering of the Donald Friend diaries, which are to be published by the National Library with support from Morris West’s benefaction. Friendliness was not always the same as ugliness or cleanliness when he was alive. So, it is somehow comforting that two Australian artists, so different from each other in lifestyle, should after their deaths find common cause.

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To start with the broadest of generalisations, artists’ biographies can be divided into three types: those that concentrate on the work; those that take the life as their focus; and the ‘life and times’ volumes that attempt to place the artist in her social and political context.

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