Oxford University Press

In the aftermath of horrendous acts of lethal violence, such as the murder by Brenton Tarrant of fifty-one people in two Christchurch mosques in 2019, and other vicious acts of torture and sadistic cruelty, it is not at all uncommon for public commentators to invoke the language of evil – that there is evil in our midst. Perhaps the most well-known contemporary example of this was George W. Bush’s description of the 9/11 attacks as despicable evil acts that demonstrated the worst of human nature. 

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‘Those bastards at Oxford,’ Barry Andrews fulminated ten years ago (he had in mind one or two in particular) ‘are trying to make us cut 200,000 words from the book!’ The ‘book’ was the first edition of the estimable The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. The ‘bastards’ had miscounted and the text survived more or less in full. Now, nine years after its first publication, the Companion has appeared in a revised edition with an extra 200,000 words, not there by way of compensation, but rather to cope with the brilliantly successful publicity campaign for Australian writing during the last decade. Bill Wilde and Joy Hooton remain as editors, Barry having died in 1987.

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One of the first books I read about news and politics was a lively British volume edited by Richard Boston, called The Press We Deserve (1970). In it, he quoted a recent speech by the Duke of Edinburgh reciting all the standard clichés about the role a free press played in sustaining democracy. On the contrary, Boston argued, a newspaper such as the News of the World is about as helpful to democracy as an outbreak of typhoid. It may, he said, be the price of democracy, but that was a rather different proposition.

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Apologists for torture often defend their walk on the dark side by invoking putative imperatives, such as protecting their communities from great evils. The paradigm is the ‘ticking bomb’ situation, where pre-empting catastrophe hangs on extracting information from uncooperative terrorists. The merging of combatants and innocents in modern warfare has highlighted the terrible dilemmas of ‘collateral damage’: how much intended or foreseen material destruction and killing of innocents can be justified in engaging your enemy? Then there are the ‘noble’ lies that politicians seem obliged to tell in protecting the larger interests of the nation.

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A new book by the most learned, original and witty historian now living and writing in England – conceivably in English – is a rare treat. Because Keith Thomas’s academic career commenced in 1950s Oxford, it scarcely mattered that his first monograph – the prizewinning, much-acclaimed Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) – only appeared when its author was in his late thirties. For ‘publish or perish’ still then seemed little more than a joke, except across the Atlantic, where some of my senior colleagues in the history department at Johns Hopkins had doubts about inviting an apparently ‘unpublished’ Mr Thomas to read a paper early in 1971. (Not all knew his historiographical essays in the TLS and elsewhere, let alone his pioneering forays into gender history).

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Twenty-five or thirty years ago, when it was still fashionable to speak of the Great Australian Emptiness, we took this image of the geographical dead heart of Australia as implying a cultural emptiness as well, a suggestion that too little had happened or been made here to give the mind, the civilised mind, anything to hang on to, identify with or make its own.

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In his famous but tendentious 1989 essay ‘The End of History’, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that ‘we may be witnessing ... not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history’. A similar proposition might well have been made about Australian military history. By 1989 the great era of Australian military history seemed to have passed. The centrepieces of this era were the two world wars, which were so large, bloody and traumatic that they seemed destined to dominate the subject for many decades to come. What came before – the New Zealand Wars, Sudan, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Boer War – were seen as preliminary or preparatory episodes, or, as the title of one book on Sudan put it, ‘The Rehearsal’. The conflicts that followed World War II were postscripts. The performances and sacrifices of Australians in Korea, Malaya, Borneo, and Vietnam were measured against the earlier experiences of the world wars. All of Australia’s senior commanders in Vietnam had served in World War II, while most of the younger fighters there were the sons of World War II veterans.

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I have sat on these books longer than is reasonable for a review, yet have to confess that I am not satisfied with the readiness of what follows. I got the Porter first, but receiving the Johnston thought that they in some ways offered similar difficulties, perhaps similar rewards, to the reader, and that it might be neat to review them together.

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Following her husband’s excellent autobiography of his early years, Mucking About (1977), Alexandra Hasluck’s own life story has been eagerly awaited. And it has been worth the wait. Portrait in a Mirror is one of only a handful of good autobiographies by Australian public figures. Its 322 pages are full of colour, with some excellent passages of prose, particularly her warm, evocative descriptions of the Australian countryside. Hers is essentially a feminine, empathetic view of the world.

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Alastair Blanshard reviews 'The Spartans' by Andrew J. Bayliss

Alastair Blanshard
Monday, 24 August 2020

When the Abbé Michel Fourmont travelled to Sparta in the 1730s, he thought he was going to make his fortune and academic reputation. The depths of Ottoman Greece were largely unknown territory to European travellers at this time. What fabulous discoveries lay in store for him, wondered the Abbé. What treasures had been left behind by this one of the greatest powers that the Greek world had ever known? One can imagine his anguish when, after braving numerous perils to reach Sparta, he discovered that barely anything remained of this great city-state. Indeed, the paucity of material was such that it seems to have driven Fourmont slightly mad. Rather than admit that nothing existed, he invented in his account of Sparta a series of fabulous, non-existent monuments – altars for human sacrifice, elaborate records of treaties between Sparta and Jerusalem, lists of priestesses and kings that stretched back to antiquity. To disguise his act of forgery, lest any later traveller try to find these monuments, he even pretended to have destroyed them, protesting that as a decent Christian he couldn’t allow such pagan works to survive. It would take scholars decades before they could unravel the extent of Fourmont’s deceit.

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