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Sneer tactics

Dear Editor,

Perhaps you will allow me to reveal that this is the second letter I have written to ABR in response to Richard King’s review in the November 2001 issue under the heading ‘One Long Giving Away’. The first letter was rejected because it was too long, because it quoted two short poems from the poets under attack, because of references to an earlier article I had written, and because of a comment about the review’s tone.

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I first encountered the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia long before I heard its name. Readers who  were at primary school in the late 1960s or early 1970s will know what I’m talking about — those illustrated booklets (a treasure trove for school projects) on Australian history, put out by the Bank of New South Wales, with pompous, triumphalist titles such as ‘Endeavour and Achievement’.

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J.M. Coetzee’s Stranger Shores is a collection of twenty-nine primarily literary essays dating from 1986 to 1999. It offers an impressive range of subjects, including a reappraisal of T.S. Eliot’s famous quest for the definition of a classic, a tracking down of Daniel Defoe’s game of autobiographical impersonations, and a biographical evaluation of ...

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Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines by David Unaipon, edited and introduced by Stephen Muecke and Adam Shoemaker

by
December 2001–January 2002, no. 237

Most of us are familiar with an image of David Unaipon, clean-shaven, neatly dressed, gazing steadily beyond the spatial dimensions of our $50 note. He wears a tie, and the collar of his shirt is evenly turned. Over his right shoulder is the little church at Raukkan; floating over his left are three of his inventions, including the shearing handpiece that no one would lend him the money to patent. And there is his signature, underneath the words: ‘As a full-blooded member of my race I think I may claim to be the first – but I hope, not the last – to produce an enduring record of our customs, beliefs and imaginings.’

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By the time I arrived in Canberra in the late 1970s, Mungo MacCallum was already a legend in his own lunchtime, which, as he admits in this latest book, ‘frequently dragged on towards sunset’. He was famed for introducing a new style of political journalism into Australia: irreverent, opinionated, witty, at times scurrilous. He was impatient of cant, and punctured pomposity. These qualities are all apparent in Mungo: The Man Who Laughs. It is avowedly neither autobiography nor history. It is an odd hybrid, divided distinctly into two parts: a set of autobiographical sketches devoted to his early life, laced with politics and laughter; and a personalised chronicle of the age of Gough Whitlam.

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Last year, escaping the Olympics in Europe, I was amazed at the media coverage overseas, which always included Australian Indigenous motifs, art, dance and music. It seemed that, beyond Australia, its Indigenous people have a prominence and clout never realised at home. I hope that, in addition to the earnest German and Japanese backpackers who might use it, many Australians will read and employ this bargain of a book to discover some of the cultural wealth it encompasses.

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When did Australia grow up? Australian historians have accepted, almost as an obligation of their trade, that they must declare the moment when the child reached mature adulthood. Was it, as Justice Murphy proclaimed in splendid isolation on the High Court bench, at the moment of the adoption of the Commonwealth Constitution in 1901? He was, admittedly, an amateur historian. Was it with the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, when the Dominions were given the right to have their own defence and foreign policies? Or in 1942, when Prime Minister Curtin looked to the United States ‘free of any pangs as to our traditional links and kinship with the United Kingdom’? Or with the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951? Or is the safest thing to stick with the election of the Whitlam government in 1972?

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The public legacy of the art patrons John and Sunday Reed endures in various ways. Their influence is a strand in the story of the notorious ‘Ern Malley’ literary hoax. They played a major role in the emergence in the 1940s of an important circle of Melbourne modernist painters, including Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, and Arthur Boyd. Against the forces of conservatism and resistance, John Reed, in particular, was a public advocate in Australia for contemporary art from the 1940s until the end of his life. Janine Burke and the curator Deborah Hart have reminded us that the friendship and hospitality of the Reeds at Heide helped give expression to the untamed talent of the young Joy Hester. In 1979, John Reed remembered Hester at twenty: ‘a funny little synthetic blonde hoyden with very naïve ideas about the world.’ But, he added, she ‘was a rare and lovely person, one of our most beautiful artists and a natural poet’. Hester’s story, important in its own right, is inextricably a part of the larger story of John and Sunday Reed.

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Talk about unlikely associations. My first response to the opening chapter of Tim Winton’s latest novel was how its sense of a life at a standstill, awaiting some new impulse, reminded me of Jane Austen’s Emma. Winton’s protagonist, Georgie Jutland, with a string of unsatisfactory relationships behind her ...

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From a small island, messages in a bottle floating out to sea. That was Gwen Harwood’s image for the poems she sent out during her early years in Tasmania, long before she had due recognition. Her letters, by contrast, knew their destination; they were treasured for decades by her friends, and they now make up the remarkable collection A Steady Storm of Correspondence ... ... (read more)