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Obituary for Christina Stead

John Barnes
Wednesday, 01 April 2020

Christina Stead was born in Sydney on 17 July 1902 and died there on 31 March 1983. She spent the greater part of her life, including her most creative years, abroad – in England, Europe, and America. She left Australia for the first time in 1928, returning only once for a few months in 1969 before she decided in 1974 to spend her last years here. Although her novels were written away from Australia and most do not have Australian settings, she never ceased to think of herself as an Australian. Nationalism simply wasn’t an issue for her: she didn’t regard herself as an expatriate, she didn’t reject her homeland, but neither did she feel any compulsion to assert an Australian identity. She was perhaps the first Australian writer to be truly cosmopolitan.

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Geoffrey Dutton reviews 'Grand Days' by Frank Moorhouse

Geoffrey Dutton
Tuesday, 31 March 2020

The faded but still brave word ‘grand’ in the title of Frank Moorhouse’s new novel gives a signal from another age, the 1920s, when after the war-to-end-all-wars there were grand ideals and grand hotels. It is also fitting that the League of Nations, the setting for the book, should in the 1920s have had its headquarters in Geneva in a former luxury hotel, while its own rather unfortunately named Palais was being built.

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In their introduction to this collection of essays, the editors state that Australia’s war experiences in Vietnam left some lasting legacies, but ones that were either unexpected or unintended: a loss of moral authority on the part of Australian conservative governments, a breakdown in the defence and foreign policy consensus about the ‘threat’ to Australia, the revival of populist politics and resistance to conscription, and increasing resistance to orthodox political views on other issues.

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Sometimes I’ve written reviews ‘because I was invited’, or felt I should. But this is a book I really want to review. And I wasn’t invited: I applied for the job. For close on thirty years I’ve been grateful to Rosemary Dobson, especially for her third book, Child with a Cockatoo (1955), the one through which I came to know her work. Her latest, despite obvious continuities, gives a rather different kind of pleasure, and new reasons for gratitude.

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Back in 1964 before I left the University of Tasmania, Amanda Howard (now Lohrey) introduced me to a serious, nondescript first-year student who, she told me, would go far. Twenty years later Peter Conrad is a Fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, and author of a number of well-regarded books on literature, opera, and television, with a reputation established on both sides of the Atlantic.

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In the penultimate chapter of his memoir, Bernard Smith describes a meeting of the Sydney Teachers College Art Club, an institution he founded and later transformed into the leftist NSW Teachers Federation Art Society. The group was addressed in 1938 by Julian Ashton, then aged eighty-seven and very much the grand old man of Sydney painting and art education. He spoke at great length on the inadequacy of the NSW Education Department’s art teaching practices. Smith adds that Ashton also ‘told his life story (as old men will)’.

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For thirty-four years Clem Christesen endured financial stringency, public apathy, political vilification, academic indifference, and institutional hostility in order to provide in the literary journal Meanjin a mirror that would provide for his fellow Australians the image of the just city.

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That Neil Warren-Smith was a magnificent singer and actor I knew from having seen him in many Trust and Australian Opera seasons, including the very first in 1956. But his proneness to appear as czars, monks, ancient sages, field marshals and similar dignified personages had concealed from me that he was also a magnificent larrikin. This is a very welcome bonus of what is, sadly, a posthumous autobiography, talked with unblushing frankness down a tape recorder and presented with what seems to have been a minimum of intervention by Frank Salter.

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On his first day at St Patrick’s, East Melbourne, Vincent Buckley was ‘flogged and flogged’ by a Jesuit priest in ‘an incompetent fury’. It is an experience that many of his readers will easily recognise, though their remembered lambastings were more likely to have been incurred at the hands of the Brothers and, unlike Buckley’s, would have been a continuing feature of school life. 

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The twelve-month period which began in February 1982 saw an unprecedented growth of interest in Aboriginal drama in English, both within Australia and overseas. In that month, Jack Davis’s second play, The Dreamers, made its début in the annual Festival of Perth and was generally well received by the critics. Five months later, Robert Merritt’s 1975 play The Cake Man was revived briefly in Sydney, in preparation for its two-week season as an Australian representative at the World Theatre Festival in Denver, Colorado. So popular was it that tickets for the entire season were sold out in advance of the first performance, thereby breaking all box-office records for the festival.

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