Black Inc

Exit Right by Judith Brett & Poll Dancing by Mungo MacCallum

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February 2008, no. 298

Since the November federal election, kicking John Howard while he’s down has become something of a national pastime. While Howard’s take no-prisoners-except-on-Nauru behaviour has now exposed him to gleeful mass taunting, the idea that the end of his resilient political career has instantly created a noble Australia, its citizens and institutions cleansed and renew ed, is wishful thinking. In this context, Judith Brett’s new Quarterly Essay injects some welcome clear-headedness. Brett rains blows on Howard, but she is not a Howard-hater in the counterproductive and grandiose style of, say, Phillip Adams. Instead, she takes aim at the former prime minister in a characteristically nuanced and astute way. She bridges a gap – too often in Australia, a gulf – between scholars and interested laypeople, offering prose that is accessible and lively but that avoids dumbing down complex issues.

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Back in 1981, Richard White, in his seminal study Inventing Australia, dubbed the Australian concern with defining national identity ‘a national obsession’. It was a time when ‘the new nationalism’ associated with John Gorton and Gough Whitlam had reignited debate about anthems, flags and the paraphernalia of nationhood. The converse of this fixation has been the recurrent fear that the ‘cultural cringe’ has still not been laid to rest.

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What can we make of the fact that, of the forty-seven stories selected by Robert Drewe for this year’s The Best Australian Stories collection, thirty-three are written in the first person? The influence of Creative Writing classes has to figure in any stab at an answer. It would be interesting to do the rounds of the universities to discover whether the teachers of such courses actively encourage the use of ‘I’, or if it happens obliquely, resulting from the way that writing exercises are structured. One wonders, too, if that old saw, ‘write what you know’, is discussed in the first week of these courses, and if such a practice contributes to the writer’s feeling more comfortable and secure when deploying the first person.

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Muck by Craig Sherborne

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October 2007, no. 295

If the central, not-made-much-of miracle in Craig Sherborne’s remarkable memoir Hoi Polloi (2005) is the disappearance of the narrator’s childhood stutter after a blow to the head, then the equivalent motif in Muck, Hoi Polloi’s equally fine sequel, is his voice.

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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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