Michael Holroyd: A Book of Secrets

Ian Britain
Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Grand follies

Ian Britain


A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers
by Michael Holroyd
Chatto & Windus, $46.95 hb, 270 pp, 9780701185343


In a review on quite another subject for ABR’s recent summer issue (‘Barry by ...

Shirley Walker reviews 'Nine Lives'

Shirley Walker
Wednesday, 04 May 2011

Susan Sheridan’s Nine Lives, a ‘group biography’, analyses the life stories and literary achievements of nine Australian women writers. The purpose, according to Sheridan, is not only to rediscover the life story of each, but also, by exploring their publishing and aesthetic context, to create a ‘fresh configuration’ of our literary history.


Grace Moore reviews 'Charles Dickens' by Michael Slater

Grace Moore
Thursday, 01 April 2010

Writing a matter of hours after Charles Dickens’s death on 9 June 1870, an obituarist for The Times of London remarked, ‘The story of his life is soon told’. The publication of Dickens’s friend John Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens between 1871 and 1874 soon gave the lie to these words, revealing a far more complex and damaged Dickens than the reading public had ever suspected this novelist, journalist, actor, social reformer and bon viveur to be. Since the 1870s thousands of pages have been devoted to scrutinising the life of the self-styled ‘sparkler of Albion’, including G.K. Chesterton’s Charles Dickens: A critical study (1906), Edgar Johnson’s magisterial Charles Dickens: His tragedy and triumph (1952) and Claire Tomalin’s superbly readable account of Dickens’s infatuation with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, The Invisible Woman (1991).

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It is usually sports fans and politicians who are uncharitably accused of being biased. The new British prime minister, Gordon Brown, is literally one-eyed. He was blinded in both eyes in his youth as a result of an accident playing rugby. Part of the treatment for his blindness required him to lie still in a darkened room for six months. It half worked, and he recovered his sight in one eye. Asked about this experience some years later, Brown said that he had felt ashamed, lying there doing nothing, when the only thing he had wrong with him was that he had lost his sight. This sounds Scottish Presbyterian (which he was) and stoical, which he must be to have survived eleven years as heir apparent to the ebullient Tony Blair. Brown and his predecessor are very different kinds of men. The Conservative MP Boris Johnson captured some of these differences in an article in the Spectator, in which he referred to Blair’s humour and ‘passion with a sense of optimism’. With the arrival of Gordon Brown, ‘a gloomy Scotch mist has descended on Westminster’.

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These are parallel careers, and Antonio Buti’s biography of Ronald Wilson (1922–2005) is much concerned with the connections and contradictions between them. The book blazes into life whenever it touches on Aborigines: its framing device is the 1997 Reconciliation Conference in Melbourne, when delegates turned their backs on John Howard and what the Herald Sun called his ‘hectoring rant’. Wilson regretted their incivility, yet wondered whether Howard’s behaviour gave it justification. In 1969 a speech by ‘Nugget’ Coombs inspired Wilson to join the New Era Aboriginal Fellowship, and later to help establish the WA Aboriginal Legal Service. In 1985 he worked for three weeks as a builder’s labourer on an Aboriginal community centre. Four years later, he visited communities in Arnhem Land. Then there are the apology stories: Wilson’s ‘pilgrimage to Mapoon’ in 1990, to apologise for church acquiescence when the settlement was dispersed in 1963 to make way for bauxite mining, and his joinder with Dorothy McMahon in apologising for her momentary brusqueness towards Aborigines at a World Council of Churches assembly in 1991.

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Those who would have us believe that William Shakespeare was not the author of the poems and plays that bear his name – J. Thomas Looney and Sherwood Silliman come to mind – like to encourage the idea that almost nothing is known about his life. In fact, we have quite a lot of information about Shakespeare’s life, career and the cultural environment in which he wrote. What we do lack is any direct testimony from the man himself. His opinions are lost to us. There are no letters or journals that might illuminate his private thoughts and feelings. The basic facts of Shakespeare’s life (1564–1616) are largely set out in official documents recording births, deaths, marriages and legal transactions. If we must inquire into the nature of his personal relationships, the options are either to try and extrapolate his views from his poetry and dramatic works (an impossibly compromised practice), or else turn to circumstantial evidence and weigh up possibilities.

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Peter Rose reviews 'Sunrise West' by Jacob G. Rosenberg

Peter Rose
Monday, 01 October 2007

Gunther Grass, in his suave and controversial memoirs, Peeling the Onion (Harvill Secker, 2007, trans. Michael Henry Heim), rehearses many of the modern autobiographer’s qualms about the biddability of memory. Grass, with his long history of attacking other Germans’ wartime activities while concealing his own service in the Tenth SS Armoured Division, has every incentive to question the memoirist’s primary tool. ‘When pestered with questions,’ Grass writes, ‘memory is like an onion that wishes to be peeled so we can read what is laid bare letter by letter. It is seldom unambiguous and often in mirror-writing or otherwise disguised.’ Changing metaphors, Grass contends with memory’s caprices and slippages: ‘Memory likes to play hide-and-seek, to crawl away. It tends to hold forth, to dress up, often needlessly. Memory contradicts itself; pedant that it is, it will have its way.’

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Jaynie Anderson reviews 'Albert Tucker' by Gavin Fry

Jaynie Anderson
Monday, 01 October 2007

Handsomely illustrated, beautifully produced and authoritatively written, Gavin Fry’s monograph on Albert Tucker aims to establish him as an important artist within the Australian twentieth-century canon. Fry begins his introduction with the statement that Tucker ‘was a man who inspired strong feelings and his work likewise required the viewer to make a stand. Many found his work difficult, some even repellent, but the artist and his art demanded attention. Equally gifted as a painter, and possibly more so as a draughtsman than his contemporaries Nolan, Boyd and Perceval, Tucker belongs with this élite who revolutionised Australian painting in Melbourne in the 1940s.’ But is this really so? Was Tucker really so much better than his contemporaries, or even as good as them?

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One of the hazards of election years these days is the quickie biography of the latest Opposition leader. As Simon Crean missed out on an election, so he missed out on a quickie. On the other hand, in 2004 his successor Mark Latham scored two – or three if we include Michael Duffy’s comparative study of the two political bruisers Latham and Abbott. Not that it did Latham, or probably the reputation of the authors, much good.

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At about the time that he was preparing the final drafts of The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot was preoccupied by a separate, but no less overwhelming question: when to sell his shares in the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company. In October 1922, the month the poem was published in the periodical he edited, the Criterion, Eliot wrote to his brother, Henry: ‘For myself, the important point is that Hydraulic should rise and give me an opportunity to sell when Sterling is low: it looks as if Sterling might fall a few points before very long. Do you think that Hydraulic will continue to pay dividends for the next year or so?’

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