Oxford University Press

Apart from Abbott’s booby (the gannet Sula abbotti, which now breeds only on Christmas Island), all entries on the first two pages of the Australian National Dictionary pertain to race and white foundation. Is this mere chance, or do we here have an instance of the knack of language to trap and reticulate human experience from its very springs? Probably a spot of both. Whatever: how apt that a dictionary of Australianisms based on historical principles should start with words such as Aboriginalabolition act, abscond, and absolute pardon. Absolute pardon is followed by acacia, whose bloom is the emblem of our national besottedness.

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Two women really did walk into a bar recently. Their four elbows met the bar in unison. Their two schooners were embraced by four lips with the precision of guardsmen at the palace.

There was a bit of a silence.
There was no eye contact.

By and by one enquired about the other.
‘Have you heard about Bill Hayden?’
‘What’s he reckon, now?’
‘Well, he reckons that he’s prepared to take the job of Governor-General. He reckons he’s prepared to take the cut in salary.’
‘That’s very good of him.’
‘Yeah. He reckons that if he gets Dallas to do the shopping, he’ll just about break even.’

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In the The Automatic Oracle, Peter Porter’s second book since his Collected Poems (1983), this writer is at the height of his powers as a versatile, intelligent, and provocative voice of our times. He is a resistance fighter against false prophecies by disc jockeys, bureaucrats, businessmen, lawyers, academics, politicians and others. Such utterances must be scrutinised or ridiculed because they muddy the language itself, the sources of all oracular wisdom and the hero of this book.

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‘The settlement of returned soldiers on cultivable land,’ wrote Ernest Scott in Volume XI of the Official History of Australia in the War 1914–1918 (1936), ‘is one of the most ancient policies of governments after wars.’ Soldier settlement in Australia after World War I is a major instance of a practice dating back as far as Assyria in the thirteenth-century BC. In early twentieth-century Australia, the need to raise an army entirely from volunteers, and the insatiable demands of modern war, made soldier settlement as much an inducement of recruitment as a means of calming things down afterwards, its traditional function.

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The appearance of a volume in the Oxford History of Australia would be an important event in its own right, but coming on the eve of the Bicentennial flood of historical publications it assumes special significance. The publishers and the general editor of the series had hoped to launch all five volumes in the series well before the market is awash with books, but this plan might now be shipwrecked on the rocks of misfortune.

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This book can read at times as though it were Les Murray’s revenge on Australian poetry. Of course, no anthology will please all of the people all of the time, but this one does not so much seem to represent any consistent view of what significant poems have been written in this country as Murray’s own projections about the kinds of poetry which ought to have been written here. The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse is quirky and opinionated, very ambitious in the ground it wants to cover, and yet ultimately hamstrung in its assemblage. It amounts to a quixotic attempt to see Australian poetry as a massively unified body of work, and Murray has played fast and loose with the material that was before him in order to reveal this unity.

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The Amorous Cannibal by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

by
May 1986, no. 80

As artists get older, they are supposed to mature, and commentators begin to look for the demarcations of their three periods, a nice bequest from Beethoven. One vitiating side effect of this is to misplace freshness in their art. Judging the vital middle period works, and bowing before the sublimity of the late, the critic bestows a nostalgic glance over his shoulder to the early output – ah, what freshness, what morning glory there! It may be true of Beethoven, but the experience of most of us lesser creatures is more often the opposite. We start a bit grey and elderly: only later, after much experience, do we throw off ponderousness, embrace wit and light-spiritedness and appear verdant for the public gaze. I hope Chris Wallace-Crabbe will not object to my including him in this (to me) honourable company: those who write, after thirty years on the job, with twice the élan they had at the beginning.

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In the late nineteenth century, the Sydney barrister and critic, William Bede Dalley is reported to have said: ‘I enjoy literature in all its manifestations. But if there is one class of books I prefer to another, I think it must be’ – with a flash of his teeth – ‘why, New Books!’

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When Scholars wandered across our television screens recently, palettes in hand, many were offended by the anachronisms: busts taking artists off to Sydney, or feminist polemics leading out to a car-clogged St Kilda Road. One Summer Again was an impression of Australia’s impressionists, and had the honesty to make that plain; and the more one reads about Roberts, Streeton, and Conder, the more it becomes clear that, in addition to communicating the raw energy and exuberance, the miniseries got the essentials absolutely right. Tom Roberts was as Chris Hallam, himself a onetime Englishman and art student, depicted him: confident, given to making pronouncements, a touch humourless perhaps, but a man with a high sense of purpose who easily moved among all kinds of people at all social levels.

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That Australia’s first national school of painters were ‘city bushmen’ is well documented. Tom Roberts began his career as a photographer in Collingwood, Frederick McCubbin in the family’s West Melbourne bakery and Arthur Streeton as an apprentice lithographer. Stories about their plein air painting excursions to Box Hill, Mentone, and Eaglemont are often told. The useful art historical label ‘The Heidelberg School’ first seems to have been used by a local journalist reviewing Streeton’s and Walter Withers’ work done chiefly in this attractive suburb where, with others of like inclination, they have established a summer congregation for out-of-door painting (The Australasian Critic,  l July 1891). Leigh Astbury, however, defines his use of the term Heidelberg School ‘in its current broader sense, that is, artists of a more ‘progressive tendency working in Melbourne and Sydney in the 1880s and 1890s’.

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