Biography

Primitive accumulation was a brutal process often performed by gentlemen. Not all pastoralists were brutes – unless they had to be. Not all Aboriginals were murdered – unless they had to be. Facades of normality were hurriedly erected to confound Karl Marx. For a moment the Australian pastoralists could build oases of sophistication on the Australian landscape. For a generation or so they managed to impose a uniquely Australian gentility around the waterholes and rivers. That the phenomenon was a passing one is symbolised by the life and death of James Bourke in the Riverina. A secondary pioneer, he died at the age of twenty-four. His brother Thomas, ‘a fine athletic man’ died of the booze aged twenty-six. The body of his step-uncle, James Peter, was found in the river a few days later: he had been in ‘a severe fit of the horrors’. All sorts of disasters of a man-made kind – from fatal flaws to death duties – combined with the elements to wash away the billabong dynasties.

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Ben Bland, a Financial Times correspondent in Indonesia in 2012–15 and currently director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute, had a ringside seat to watch the rise of Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (also known as Jokowi). By his own account, Bland has met him more than a dozen times. Jokowi was a furniture-maker and -exporter, mayor of Solo, and governor of Jakarta before being elected president in 2014. Bland has written a good introduction to the Jokowi era that will appeal to the general reader but may leave the serious student of Indonesia unsatisfied.

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On May Day 1955, two years after his death, a colossal memorial to Joseph Stalin was unveiled on a prominent site north of central. Towering above the city and containing 14,000 tons of granite, it was the largest statue of the dictator ever created. Stalin was depicted at the head of a representative group of citizens, dubbed by some as a bread queue. Otakar Švec, a prominent Czech sculptor, had won the commission in 1949. After the work’s stressful gestation, he killed himself shortly before the work was unveiled; there had been constant interference and police surveillance, and his wife committed suicide in 1954.

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Melburnians above a certain age will remember Coles in Bourke Street. Unknown to most of them, it stood on the site of another Coles, Cole’s Book Arcade, for half a century probably the most famous shop in Australia. Its founder, Edward William Cole, is now the subject of an engaging biography by Richard Broinowski.

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Jane Sullivan reviews 'Max' by Alex Miller

Jane Sullivan
Thursday, 24 September 2020

When Alex Miller first thought of writing about Max Blatt, he imagined a celebration of his life. But would Max have wanted that? He was a melancholy, chainsmoking European migrant, quiet and self-effacing, who claimed nothing for himself except defeat and futility.

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Miles Franklin used to delight in relating an anecdote about a librarian friend who, when asked why a less competent colleague was paid more, replied succinctly: ‘He has the genital organs of the male; they’re not used in library work, but men are paid more for having them.’

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Sharyn Killens is no stranger to the spotlight. After a long career as an entertainer, she is used to appearing in make-up and gown, pouring out a song. She is also a veteran of interviews and media stories, with a different song: that of her own extraordinary life. In The Inconvenient Child, written with her friend Lindsay Lewis, Killens (known on the stage as Sharyn Crystal) relates a wrenching and finally satisfying story of abject misery and triumphant emotion. In the paradigm of classic Australian memoir, her tale needs no bells and whistles to ring true. It is a transfixing performance.

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Edward Sugden was the first master of Melbourne University’s Queen’s College, a position he held for forty years. One needs to provide this identification, because although in his day Sugden was regarded as one of Melbourne’s best-known citizens, his is one of those names that has dropped from view. Along with his contemporaries Alexander Leeper of Trinity College and John MacFarland of Ormond, he contributed to what Wilfrid Prest calls ‘the golden age’ of Melbourne University’s colleges.

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The best things about this book are the paintings, the photographs, and the paper. The worst thing is the prose. But does this matter, you may well ask, in a book obviously designed to travel rapidly from the coffee table to the wall – with its large size format and convenient disintegration at first read? It’s the pictures we want, not the prose.

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The question of the relationship of the biographer to their subject is a fascinating one. Kath Jordan is frank about her long and intimate friendship with Veronica Brady as she recounts the way this book came into being. In a preface, she remembers celebrating with a friend the High Court’s rejection of Western Australia’s challenge to its Mabo native title decision, in March 1995. Thinking of Brady’s active involvement in Aboriginal rights issues, the two decided that they would write her biography. Brady gave her consent to the idea – although there is no sense that she was closely involved with the project – and what became the unexpectedly long gestation of Larrikin Angel was eventually begun, with only one author.

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