Archive

Brenda Walker reviews 'Company of Images' by Janine Burke

Brenda Walker
Friday, 20 December 2019

Janine Burke’s Company of Images is a funny and socially astute book about painters and their promoters in contemporary Melbourne. The humour comes from sharp observations and deft characterisations. Burke’s minor figures are like good caricatures, but her major characters are a complex blend of impulses and emotions, which can be funny or sad. She takes the opportunity to send up predictably vulnerable members of her artistic community: the painter running to seed who often feels ‘small, helpless and angry’ and seduces or denounces his students according to the state of his ego; the curator with his eyes on New York and whose ambition is ‘to have friends he was unable to frighten’; the Professor of Fine Arts who roams his Department ‘inciting suspicion and acting out his own’; and the wealthy, titled collector who brings in a curator from the State Gallery to hang a painting in her toilet.

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On getting hold of Grace Karskens’s new book, I went straight to the colour plates of artefacts resurrected from the neighbourhood of the title, part of the historic Rocks area of inner Sydney. I love to look at salvage: pieced-together dinner plates, dolls’ heads, and brass buckles and buttons whose verdigris defies any amount of elbow grease. But the photo that really grabbed me was of a dug-up gold wedding ring, modelled on one finger of a hand neatly manicured but for a crescent of black dirt embedded deep under the thumbnail. To me, that minute trace of the Rocks neighbourhood spoke vividly – more so, somehow, than any of the scrubbed-up artefacts – of the peculiar joys of dabbling in other people’s cesspits and of the adventure into history that underlies Inside the Rocks.

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When Geraldine Brooks went through her father’s possessions after his death, she found the bundles of letters which prompted her to write Foreign Correspondence. Lawrie Brooks had been in the habit of writing to politicians and intellectuals with ideas and questions, and he had kept all their replies. Each letter, Brooks reflects, is ‘a small piece of the mosaic of his restless mind’. Because her father hoarded his past in photographs and newspaper clippings as well as letters, she had the makings of an intimate portrait of a reserved and unhappy man.

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‘When Australians run away, they always run to the coast.’ Robert Drewe has already debunked the myth of the bush as Australia’s heartland, and in The Bodysurfers pictured us living and loving on the very rim of the continent, precariously perched in salty, sweaty, and essentially temporary hedonistic bliss between the threat of the empty outback, the incendiary bush, and the menace of the ocean with its sharp­toothed predators and secret stingers.

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Con the Fruiterer bears the same relation to Australia’s Greek community as the Melbourne Moomba procession does the Eight-Hour Day. Doubtless, there are Hellenic-Australians who relish the performance of whatever WASP funny-man plays him; some Australians are known to approve lovingly of Sir Les Patterson, but at least Barry Humphries always belongs to the nationality he portrays. What really propels Con is that Aussies feel he talks (and therefore thinks and probably acts) funny. It’s all an Edwardian ‘Coon Show’, with Mr Bones and Mr Interlocutor, 1980s style. The kind of society which tolerates this phenomenon with yawn-inspiring regularity (and terms it comedy) might be the subject for any number of sociology essays. Let’s hope that poets never attain the status of Con and his kind, though it’s a fair bet that poets find people far funnier than any comedian.

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Peter Craven reviews 'The Clean Dark' by Robert Adamson

Peter Craven
Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Robert Adamson has as secure a reputation as any poet in this country apart from Les Murray. He rose to prominence in the latter part of the 1960s at the same time as John Tranter, but his affinity was not with the New York poets like John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, but with the poets of Black Mountain: Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, and, most particularly, with the late Robert Duncan.

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Jill Kitson reviews 'The Road from Coorain' by Jill Ker Conway

Jill Kitson
Wednesday, 11 December 2019

In September 1960, Jill Ker, aged twenty-six, left Australia for good. She was off to study history at Harvard and, as it turned out, to make a career as a high-flying academic administrator in the States. The ties she was breaking were those that bound her to her widowed mother and, above all, to Coorain, the thirty-thousand-acre property her father had acquired in 1929 as a soldier settler and where she had spent the first eleven years of her life. The Road from Coorain is her account – all the more moving for being carefully neutral in tone – of how those ties were formed as she grew up and how she reached her decision to break them.

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Peter Craven reviews 'The Puzzles of Childhood' by Manning Clark

Peter Craven
Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Manning Clark will be remembered as a historian long after the last jot and tittle of the facts he amassed have been disputed and every revisionism has had its day, proving for those with the needful faith that he made it all up, that he was a waffler, that the diorama he presented as the history of Australia was nothing but an allegory of the inside of his head, and that it was all vanity and a striving after wind.

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Campaigning during the 1912 US presidential election, the great labour leader and socialist Eugene Debs used to tell his supporters that he could not lead them into the Promised Land because if they were trusting enough to be led in they would be trusting enough to be led out again. In other words, he was counselling his voters to resist the easy certitude that zealotry brings; to reject a politics that trades on blind faith rather than the critical power of reason.

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The memoirs of any barrister still in harness are, by definition, advertising. The mystery of The Justice Game is what on earth Geoffrey Robertson needs to sell. He is much too busy already. A queue of life’s victims wanting his help in court would stretch twice round the Temple. But drumming up business is not what the book is about. Its real purpose, I suspect, is to show that, despite a certain radical reputation, Robertson is a sound man.

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