Black Inc

The continued success and quality of the Quarterly Essay series has done much to promote the long essay as a legitimate forum for detailed, informed and accessible political discussion. That this has occurred during the Howard era suggests that all is not lost in the quest for genuine public debate. In the latest Quarterly Essay, David Marr acknowledges that, ‘[s]uppression is not systematic. There are no gulags for dissidents under Howard.’ Nevertheless, His Master’s Voice is born of, and fuelled by, exasperation. Marr makes little effort to mask his personal enmity towards John Howard. And his disgust at the manner in which the federal Coalition has governed for more than a decade is palpable: ‘Since 1996, Howard has cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the ABC, gagged scientists, silenced non-government organisations, neutered Canberra’s mandarins, curtailed parliamentary scrutiny, censored the arts, banned books, criminalised protest and prosecuted whistleblowers.’

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‘The nearest thing on earth to a Black Australian is a White Australian, and vice versa,’ observed novelist and poet Randolph Stow some years ago. Nicolas Rothwell might have pondered the idea on his more recent wanderings as northern correspondent for the Australian. His north is not simply geographical. It fans south and west from Darwin, and east as far as Arnhem Land. Its core is in the Centre, in the Aboriginal realms of the Western Deserts: not only another country, but also, in the book’s closing phrase, ‘another time’, another dimension to the Australia we think we know. In a tribute to Darwin’s fabled Foreign Correspondents’ Association (whose members are forbidden to file the crocodile stories that southern editors want), Rothwell quotes a Latin motto, ‘Austrem Servamus’ (‘We serve the South’). It’s a droll reminder of how far the correspondent’s words must travel, through a dirty and imperfect lens, to reach from one place to the other. The mediation of numinous, heavy-laden revelations from this remote other country for mainstream consumption elsewhere is the high-wire walk of this book.

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Biplane Houses by Les Murray & Collected Poems by Les Murray

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June-July 2006, no. 282

Perhaps only John Shaw Neilson and Judith Wright have brought an equal sense of place to Australian poetry: the sense of place as a fact of consciousness with geographic truth. But in his latest collection, Biplane Houses, Les Murray considers more airy habitations – flights, cliff roads and weather – and the collection has a matching airiness that is only sometimes lightness ...

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In reviewing the first half of Simon Leys’s new book, The Wreck of the Batavia, I’m tempted to regurgitate my review from these pages (ABR, June–July 2002) of Mike Dash’s history of the Batavia shipwreck Batavia’s Graveyard (2002) – especially since Leys also holds that book in high regard, rendering all other histories, his own included ...

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In a recent feature article in the Guardian Review, William Boyd proposed a new system for the classification of short stories. He constructed seven stringently categorical descriptions and ended his article with a somewhat predictable – that is to say, canonical – list of ‘ten truly great stories’, among which were James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Spring at Fialta’ and Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Funes the Memorious’. Most of the writers cited were male, and the classifications were confident demarcations in terms of genre and mode (‘modernist’, ‘biographical’). It is difficult to know, and no doubt presumptuous to speculate, what Boyd would make of Frank Moorhouse’s edited collection The Best Australian Stories 2004. Garnering them ‘at large’ by advertisement and word of mouth, Moorhouse received one thousand stories, from which he selected ‘intriguing and venturesome’ texts, many of which display ‘innovations’ of form. Of the twenty-seven included, six are by first-time published writers and twenty are by women. This is thus an open, heterodox and explorative volume, unlike its four predecessors in this series in reach and inclusiveness. It is also, perhaps, more uneven in quality: a few stories in this selection are rather slight; and the decision to include two stories by two of the writers may seem problematic, given the large number of submissions and the fact that the editor claims there were fifty works fine enough to warrant publication. A character in one of the stories favourably esteems the fiction of Frank Moorhouse over that of David Malouf: this too may be regarded as a partisan inclusion.

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Some time before the sun set on the British empire, ‘British justice’ took on an ironic meaning. In the colonies, we knew it was a charade, like that doled out to ‘Breaker’ Morant during the Boer War. The dice are loaded in favour of a prosecution that nevertheless insists on carrying out its cold-blooded retribution in an apparently value-free legalese, thus preserving the self-righteousness of the empire and tormenting the condemned. Yet, as Robert Manne and David Corlett make clear in this latest Quarterly Essay, the larrikin land of Australia can now, through its treatment of asylum seekers, fairly be said to lead the world in the practice of traditional British justice.

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The History Wars by Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark & Whitewash edited by Robert Manne

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October 2003, no. 255

Towards the end of his informative introduction, Robert Manne, the editor of Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s fabrication of Aboriginal history, outlines the collective intention of the book’s nineteen contributors. He refers to Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002), a revisionist text dealing with early colonial history and violence in nineteenth-century Tasmania, as ‘so ignorant, so polemical and so pitiless a book’ ... 

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After only four annual volumes, The Best Australian Essays has reached the point where the law of increasing expectations begins to kick in. By now the series has done so much that we want it to do everything. Speaking as an Australian who lives offshore, I would be well pleased if each volume could contain, on every major issue, a pair of essays best presenting the two most prominent opposing views. This would give me some assurance that I was hearing both sides of the national discussion on each point, despite my being deprived of access to many of the publications in which essays, under one disguise or another, nowadays originate. (I leave aside the probability that most Australians living in Australia are deprived of access, too, the time having long passed when any one person could take in all the relevant print.) But the editor, Peter Craven, could easily point out that my wish is a pipedream.

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In the ‘Author’s Prologue’ to Book III of Gargantua and Pantagruel (trans. Urquhart, pub. 1693), Rabelais considers the plight of the philosopher Diogenes the Cynic at the siege of Corinth, who, prevented from action in the battle by dint of his occupation, retired towards a little hill or promontory, took his famous tub and ‘in great vehemency of spirit, did he turn it, veer it, wheel it, frisk it, jumble it, shuffle it … ’ and so on for some hundred further verbs, thus relieving tension generated by inaction. This is the philosopher who gave cheek to Alexander the Great, who in turn said: ‘If I were not Alexander, I should wish to be Diogenes.’ One can only relish Rabelais’s irony: he must perforce use words to draw attention to the simultaneous impotence and agency of words.

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Much current debate on crucial issues facing Australia – the economy, race relations, foreign affairs, for example – is conducted in the opinion pages of metropolitan daily newspapers. And ‘opinion’ pages they now are – with a vengeance. It is a symptom of the times that opinion-page editors have less and less recourse to disinterested authorities ...

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