Archive

Few people come to Gunning, NSW, population 530, for something to read. Before 1993, people came because they couldn’t avoid it. The Hume Highway used to bring 3000 semitrailers a day along the main street. ‘At least you got to read the bumper stickers,’ one resident said when I moved here’. Because it was sure as hell impossible to talk.’

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A reviewer’s summary of this book’s first theme could be accused of political prejudice. That is one good reason for preferring its author’s summary:

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Paul Kelly is the most influential Australian political journalist of the past twenty-five years. There was a time when Kelly was merely the most perceptive chronicler of the nation’s political life, a worthy successor to Alan Reid. With the publication of his most celebrated book, The End of Certainty, he became something rather different: a highly significant player on the national stage. The End of Certainty told the story of party politics in the 1980s. More importantly, it insinuated a powerful argument in favour of the dismantling of the distinctive interventionist economic arrangements that had been established after Federation: protectionism, centralised industrial arbitration and financial regulation.

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Since the Federal Parliament moved to the house on the hill, the rose garden on the Senate side of the Old Parliament House has been neglected and uncared for. Escapism, from parliament, from Canberra, from the intensity and claustrophobia of being locked up in a remote building, has always been a secret ambition of most politicians during parliamentary sittings. The rose garden used to be a beautiful and tranquil place to enjoy a reflective half-hour. On special days, like the opening of parliament, a military band would play in a marquee, and politicians, parliamentary staff and invited guests would stroll on the lawns, enjoying the music, an atmosphere of easy-going irrelevance, and the roses. It was like a scene from the last days of the Raj, filmed by Bertolucci.

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What is the comparative of prolific? John Kinsella, in this latest extension of his ‘counter-pastoral’ project, manages a tricky balancing act between the extreme givens of the bush and the fashions of art gallery and English Department. A belligerent posturing is implicit in Kinsella’s term, while there is only so far a poet can be anti-Georgics or extra-Georgics or post-Georgics before the game becomes exhausted or obvious. Nevertheless, ‘counter-pastoral’ is an extended essay that takes the pastoral concerns and illusoriness of ancient and eighteenth-century Europe and tests them against our own realities: environmental degradation, both random and systematic destruction of nature by humans, and a seeming indifference on the part of many Australians to doing anything about them.

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A Geelong psychiatrist once asked someone very like me, ‘What’s the opposite of love?’ It was a bit like a question in a tutorial (psychiatrists and academics do have a thing or two in common). The answer, of course, couldn’t be so obvious as ‘hate’. It was ‘indifference’.

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Early on, my mind was in reverse.
I read a book the name I thought was From
White Cabin to Log House, and ever after
I knew ambition must go to cancrizans.

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To dinner as a guest at the Lotos Club, on East 66th St in New York. Named apparently after Tennyson’s Lotos Eaters’ territory – ‘In the afternoon they came unto a land in which it seemed always afternoon’, not to be confused with Robert Burton’s ‘afternoon men’, who are permanently smashed. The Latos Club’s 1870 Constitution declares its intent to promote and develop literature, art, sculpture and much else. One thing caught my ear, and one my eye. It was the first time I have heard anybody speak in virtually the same breath of ‘my ancestors’ and ‘residuals’. And I was glad to see that the Club boasted yet another painting of Tom Wolfe in (so to speak) full fig, white on white – glad partly because it reminded me that of all the worthy injunctions offered me as a young Jesuit, that against becoming a ‘clerical fop’ has been obeyed triumphantly. One has to start somewhere …

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Teresa Petersen’s study of Christina Stead’s fiction is littered with startling assertions about Stead’s sex life. Petersen suggests that Stead did not actually love her life partner, Bill Blake, in a sexual sense and that a yearning for fatherly love drove her forty-year relationship with him. She maintains that Stead struggled with her own lesbian desires throughout her life, and, unable to come to terms with her homosexuality, recreated herself in her fictional characters. While Petersen stops short of saying that Stead engaged in lesbian relationships, she contends that Stead’s novels are infused with lesbian eroticism in a displacement of Stead’s own desires onto her women characters. If Stead’s life with Bill was so happy, as Stead consistently maintained, why, Petersen asks, didn’t she portray positive heterosexual relationships between men and women?

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When John Hirst accepted the challenge of writing a history of Federation of scholarly quality but fit for a broad popular readership, he may have felt himself on a hiding to nothing. Previous historians have succeeded in convincing Australians that the story of the making of the Australian Commonwealth is at best dull.

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