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Geoffrey Dutton reviews 'A Body of Water' by Beverley Farmer

Geoffrey Dutton
Monday, 16 November 2020

In this new book, Beverley Farmer quotes George Steiner: ‘In modernism collage has been the representative device.’ The blurb calls A Body of Water a montage. Well, it’s a difficult book to describe. It’s not a pasting together, there’s no smell of glue about it. Nor is it put together, plonk, thunk, like stones. It’s rather, in her own words, an interweaving.

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‘Even when there’s simultaneity,’ as one of Michael Wilding’s characters says, there’s still linearity that needs to be found, and linearity is difficult to find in this group of books. So, it is better, as Wilding’s book also suggests, to let the books perform and then see the pattern they make. Pacific Highway, in fact, is a kind of haiku novel, which coheres into a single expressive emblem, the emblem of the dance its narrator offers us at the end.

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Gerard Henderson takes as the subject of this important book the relations between the bishops of the Catholic Church and its lay organisation, the Catholic Social Studies Movement during the period from 1940 to the 1960s. The study is particularly welcome as neither Church nor Movement were given to public self-exposure. Henderson, by using the files of the National Civic Council and the minutes of relevant episcopal committees, has given us an insight into the conflicts within the church over its role in political activity in this period

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My Blue-Checker Corker and Me probably has enough strengths to make one forget, eventually, most of its irritating features. Paul Radley’s story of ‘a small mellow world’ is unashamedly emotional. and Radley is clearly fascinated with the possibilities of language. This is the story of a twelve-year-old boy and his relationship with his grandfather, his mates and his pigeons.

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At the time that I was asked to review Rosemary Lancaster’s Je Suis Australienne: Remarkable Women in France, 1880–1945, I was reading American writer Helen Barolini’s Their Other Side: Six American Women and the Lure of Italy (2006). The books are similar: five of Lancaster’s six chapters are devoted to individual women whose lives and experience, like those in Barolini, cover the period from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth. Both books are very much of the transnational moment, with its preoccupations with movement, connections and experience across borders, and premises that the identities of individuals and nations are formed abroad in contact and collision with others, as well as at home. The number of studies of overseas lives continues to grow but is surpassed by transcultural life writing, including Australian, in what has been described as ‘villa/ge’ books, travel writing that is about the destination not the voyaging, about living abroad rather than touring, about subject in situ rather than ‘situ’.

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‘I never thought Australia needed culture of any kind,’ drawls Barry Humphries in Not Quite Hollywood, Mark Hartley’s recent documentary on Australian ‘trash’ cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. Perverse aesthete that he is, Humphries cannot resist the idea that lack of refinement might be a sign of vitality: ‘Culture is yoghurt, isn’t it, or mould? It grows on decaying things.’

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‘I could give ’em / enough social comment to fill a car park’ proffers the narrator in ‘Busking’, halfway through Tim Thorne’s I Con. In many ways, this book delivers on that promise. Thorne’s targets include war, colonisation, inequality, political deception, capitalism and celebrity. One moment he juxtaposes Dannii Minogue’s career with descriptions of police brutality; the next he bowls a bouncer at former Australian cricket captain Kim Hughes for touring South Africa during the apartheid era.

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What might pique the interest of even the most casual observer, consumer or critic of country music, popular culture or celebrity, or all three, is the title of Jeff Apter’s ‘unauthorised’ biography, Fortunate Son: The Unlikely Rise of Keith Urban. The commercially catchy title parallels and mimics the musical style of its famous subject, while also striking an odd, even humorous note in its backhanded recognition of ‘our Keith’s’ American success. That Apter also markets his biography as ‘unauthorised’ provides another selling point. Knowing that the book is not commissioned by Urban suggests that it may deliver an edgy ‘tell all’ account of Nicole Kidman’s husband. One might be forgiven for thinking that such a work will take risks, since it is under no obligation to provide a flattering portrayal of its subject. It doesn’t. In fact, its very lack of risk is clear even without undertaking a close reading.

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One of the first books I read about news and politics was a lively British volume edited by Richard Boston, called The Press We Deserve (1970). In it, he quoted a recent speech by the Duke of Edinburgh reciting all the standard clichés about the role a free press played in sustaining democracy. On the contrary, Boston argued, a newspaper such as the News of the World is about as helpful to democracy as an outbreak of typhoid. It may, he said, be the price of democracy, but that was a rather different proposition.

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Theatregoers with long memories may well hug to themselves the ‘golden years’ of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s tenancy of the Russell Street Theatre in the 1960s, a time in which plays as varied as Hochhuth’s The Representative, Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s infallible matinee version of Henry James’s The Heiress, and many others jostled for attention. It was the time when an actor called Clive Winmill stepped on stage in the swinging London comedy The Knack and, instead of saying his lines, treated the audience to a passionate anti-Vietnam involvement speech. It was a time when the provocative new and the venerated classic made equal claims on a theatrical ensemble which achieved real importance in Melbourne’s cultural life.

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