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John Wanna

The Wran Era edited by Troy Bramston

April 2007, no. 290

Neville Wran was nothing if not sartorial. He represented the new generation of politicians – dapper, immaculately tailored, effortlessly elegant – and stood out from his Labor colleagues in their crumpled suits and gaudy ties. His dress sense was not merely a matter of personal taste but also a political statement. He once appeared on the podium of a Labor party conference perspiring uncomfortably in the glare of the arc lights. A colleague leaned over and urged him to take off his jacket. Wran retorted, ‘What! And look like a Labor politician.’ It was classic Nev.

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Major historical figures generally attract multiple biographies. Napoleon and Nelson have, reputedly, amassed more than 200 biographies each – with successive waves of interest reflecting the constant need for reinterpretation. But at some point we must strike a declining marginal utility as we tally the titles – biography as running soap opera appears a postmodern accoutrement. In Australia, we have not yet managed to produce a biography of each prime minister – then along comes another on the ‘Little Digger’ Billy Hughes (1862–1952), without doubt one of our most colourful political leaders and written-about subjects. If not 200 titles, then there is certainly a small bookshelf full of respectable studies and serious essays on him, not to mention his own books and the many cameo appearances he makes in political memoirs and other works of his generation. So, do we need another interpretation? Indeed, does this ‘short life’ of ‘King Billy’ offer a new interpretation? Why did Aneurin Hughes – his namesake but no relation, and more on that later – commit to this laborious project?

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