Peter Pierce

The Sleep of a Learning Man is the sixth verse collection from the gifted and exacting Anthony Lawrence. He has also written a novel. The epigraph to this book gives some hint as to where the poet stands, and where he intends to go. It is from Antonio Porcia: ‘I am chained to the earth to pay for the freedom of my eyes.’ But looking is only one means to find his way, a dilemma that a number of the forty-two poems gathered here confronts.

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One Fourteenth of an Elephant by Ian Denys Peek & If This Should Be Farewell edited by Adrian Wood

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April 2003, no. 250

These two unusual books reflect on aspects of the prisoner-of-war experience in Singapore, Thailand and Burma during World War II that have not been much canvassed in Australia. One Fourteenth of an Elephant, Ian Denys Peek’s sometimes irascible ‘memoir of life and death on the Burma-Thailand Railway’, relates the experiences of a member of the Singapore Volunteer Armoured Car Company. Peek was British and had grown up in Shanghai, but was not taken into captivity there as was novelist J.G. Ballard (who recalled the experience in Empire of the Sun). Peek and his brother Ron were at the fall of Singapore. Soon afterwards began their movements between a series of hospital and labour camps along the railway. Peek’s story – his first book, published sixty years after his capture and told in the first person – gives a British perspective on a fate that he shared with thousands of Australians.

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Writing novels, he’s Tom Keneally. Works of history – such as The Great Shame (1998) about the Irish diaspora to the USA and Australian in the nineteenth century, and this year’s American Scoundrel, concerned with the adventures of politician, general and amorist Dan Sickles – are by Thomas Keneally. There is more doubling in Keneally’s most recent novel, for he uses two titles. In this country, we have An Angel in Australia; in Britain, The Office of Innocence. Each suggests a different line of approach to a novel that seems in some ways old-fashioned, so instinct is it with his earlier work. By the way, Keneally’s novel count is now twenty-six, including two under the pseudonym ‘William Coyle’.

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In Alex Miller’s latest novel, Journey to the Stone Country, we are not in Carlton for long before being taken far to the north, to Townsville, and then inland to country that few Australians know. The short first scene is handled with dispassionateness and economy. Melbourne history lecturer Annabelle Beck comes home to ...

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Dilemma by John Cleary & Fetish by Tara Moss

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April 2000, no. 219

Let us start with the similarities: two thrillers, set mainly in Sydney, each with a would-be snappy but jaded one word tide. On each a stiletto-heeled shoe is part of the cover design. There the ways seem to part. Dilemma is John Cleary’s forty-ninth novel in a career of six decades and marks the sixteenth appearance of Detective Scobie Malone. For Canadian-born, former model Tara Moss, Fetish is her first novel. HarperCollins is loyal to the old, supportive of the new. Or supportive up to a point. Both books needed much stricter editing, not only for typos (‘eluded’ for ‘alluded’ in Fetish, for instance: one hopes that is a typo), but to tighten structures that let suspense amble away.

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Peter Pierce’s concern in this critical study is with two periods – from the second half of the nineteenth century, when most of the myths of the lost child began to appear, and the second half of this century, when a quite different kind of narrative emerges. The period in between he regards as largely a consolidation of the late nineteenth-century examples. Ranging widely over not only literature but pictorial art and contemporary factual accounts, he shows the striking changes that take place in the forms in which the legend appears.

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The title is not provocative: The Brisbane Line Controversy, but Paul Burns’s subtitle flags the partisanship that will mark his study. This is a case, he contends, of ‘Political Partisanship versus National Security 1942–45’. His conclusion is unobjectionable: ‘belief in a “Brisbane Line” was our barometer of fear about the vulnerability of our own continent which no Australian Army could negate’. In political demonology, the Brisbane Line signifies the intention of the Menzies–Fadden conservative governments of 1939–41 to abandon all but the south-east corner of Australia to the Japanese, should an invasion come. Burns is keen to absolve Menzies and his colleagues of blame and to find where, and with whom, the notion of the Line originated. In the process he indicts Labor front-bencher Eddie Ward, whose allegations about a Brisbane Line led to a Royal Commission in the election year of 1943.

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A nation at war is a less than gripping tide, although it is suggestively ambiguous. Australia was at war in Vietnam for most of the decade covered in Peter Edwards’s book. In senses chiefly, but not wholly, metaphorical, it was also a society ‘at war’, divided over conscription and the commitment of troops to Vietnam. The excellent cover photograph illuminates the latter implication of Edwards’s title, as well as the importance of media coverage of both overseas conflict and domestic protest against it. A newsreel photographer looks back into another camera, and away from the policeman who is struggling to shift an inert demonstrator.

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As Tim Bowden would well remember, the ties of Hobart to the Antarctic have been visible long before the transfer of the Antarctic Division from Melbourne to Kingston, south of Hobart, in 1982, and the establishment of the Institute of Antarctic and Oceanic Studies at the University of Tasmania six years later. From the 1950s, the chartered Scandinavian vessels that carried members of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions, Nella, Kista, Magga and other Dans, set out from Hobart early each summer. To look south down the Derwent was to know that one was truly at the end of the inhabited world. Yet if no permanent settlement has ever been created in Antarctica, thousands of Australians have worked and wintered there. The Silence Calling is Tim Bowden’s exemplary record of their achievements in this, the golden jubilee year of the ANARE.

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Tom Roberts by Humphrey McQueen

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May 1996, no. 180

Almost at the end of his very long biography, Tom Roberts, Humphrey McQueen wonders why – if Australian landscape painting had so much need of a father – ‘no-one thought to install Margaret Preston as the mother’ of the genre? He has a suggestive answer to a question which needed to be posed:

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