From the Archive

Obituary for Oodgeroo Noonuccal

Adam Shoemaker
Thursday, 03 September 2020

Despite the importance of her poetry and prose, Oodgeroo’s experiences were much more than a catalogue of achievements in European terms. Her life, often hard fought, was one of enjoyment as well as pain, of laughter as well as sorrow. Oodgeroo had a wonderful sense of humour; it was, like the title of Ruby Langford’s latest book, ‘real deadly’. She was always able to use this to advantage, to embarrass stuffy politicos, to get action, to explode stereotypes of Aboriginal people. At the same time, she related to young people better than anyone else I have ever met. She told stories, she entertained, she challenged and always threw down the gauntlet. I’ll never forget the day she was involved in a radio hook-up with children from all over Queensland and was coaching aspiring young poets over the phone: ‘That’s a great piece – now you keep writing! Never forget; you do what your teachers say, because knowledge is power. Now, go out and get some!’

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Somebody recently told me that Geoffrey Blainey wrote much of the text of this history of Victoria while travelling in aircraft. If true, Blainey has an enviable knack of finding seats with elbow room, but otherwise there’s no reason to complain. Sir Charles Oman, the great military historian of the Napoleonic wars, was said to have drafted one book during a summer spent waiting for connecting trains at French railway stations. Those fortunate enough to possess a lot of intellectual capital should make the most of it. In the central four chapters of social history, perhaps the most satisfactory part of this book, Blainey cites his evidence as ‘the accumulation of years of casual reading of old newspapers, looking at historic sites and talking with old people’. Disarmingly, he adds: ‘Most of the explanations of why change came are probably my own’.

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Neal Blewett reviews three books on Kevin Rudd

Neal Blewett
Friday, 10 July 2020

The political assassination of Kevin Rudd will fascinate for a long time to come. As with Duncan’s murder in Shakespeare’s play it was done, as Lady Macbeth cautioned, under ‘the blanket of the dark’, literally the night of 23–24 June 2010. The assassins heeded Macbeth’s advice: ‘if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.’ And as in Macbeth, the assassins were in the shadow of the throne. Even the old king approved: Bob Hawke, himself deposed in 1991, recognised at last that the removal of a Labor prime minister is sometimes necessary.

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Even the cover design of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s memoir gave me something to ponder. The title, which signals the father–daughter story, is linked with an engaging seaside photograph of the two of them. The father’s swimming trunks and the daughter’s bathing cap have an authentic 1940s look. Add to that a bland subtitle, Memories of an Australian Childhood, and the tough confrontations of the text may come as a surprise.

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It is 116 years since Charles Harpur, Australia’s first poet of real eminence, died with his own collection of his works unpublished. Except for a couple of small selections – the most recent of which, made by Adrian Mitchell in 1973 and containing only about 120 pages of the poetry, was the most comprehensive – and the infamously corrupt 1883 ‘collection’, it has remained so. This has been a blot on the reputation of Australian critical and academic workers and a loss not only to Australian literature but to Australian history. Now Elizabeth Perkins, of the English Department of James Cook University, has handsomely remedied a long injustice.

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The Survival of Poetry

Peter Porter
Wednesday, 03 June 2020

Some years ago I wrote a poem called ‘A Table of Coincidences’, which contained the lines: ‘the day Christopher Columbus discovered America / Was the day Piero della Francesca died.’ This is a verifiable fact, unless changes in the Western calendar have altered things. Clearly, I was being sententious and reactionary: the ancient good of the world and its new doubtfulness seemed to start on the one day. A hostile reviewer pointed out that every date in the world is the anniversary of some other date, and poured scorn on my notion by suggesting that a momentous event like the Armistice in 1918 might share a date with the invention of Coca-Cola. But we still honour anniversaries, and I am only too conscious of the 365 days that have passed since 11 September 2001.

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Apart from Abbott’s booby (the gannet Sula abbotti, which now breeds only on Christmas Island), all entries on the first two pages of the Australian National Dictionary pertain to race and white foundation. Is this mere chance, or do we here have an instance of the knack of language to trap and reticulate human experience from its very springs? Probably a spot of both. Whatever: how apt that a dictionary of Australianisms based on historical principles should start with words such as Aboriginalabolition act, abscond, and absolute pardon. Absolute pardon is followed by acacia, whose bloom is the emblem of our national besottedness.

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Are you (as I am) conscious of suffering from what they call the postmodern condition? You know, the spiritual and moral void within commodity culture, the isolation of individualism, the lack of meaning and all that. Since reading this book, I have begun to think that we should all spend time in Sparkes Creek. Havelock Ellis, who became the great British psychologist of sex, went there over a hundred years ago, as a boy of nineteen:

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A tribute to Helen Daniel

Inga Clendinnen
Friday, 06 December 2019

An occasion like this teaches us that we each have our own Helen Daniel. I met my Helen nearly ten years ago, appropriately through writing. I had written a book on the Aztecs of Mexico. It was primarily an academic book, but because it was published by a university press with a branch here, and because Aztecs are Aztecs, it was widely reviewed in this country. The material was esoteric and its interpretation involved some complicated talk about theoretical issues in anthropology and history, so I was relieved when the local reviews were kind. Nevertheless, I read them with mixed feelings: how was it possible for people to understand the same printed pages so variously?

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How Australian Is It

Ihab Hassan
Thursday, 07 November 2019

The question is probably all wrong. How can an American – well, an Egyptian-born American, if hyphenate we must – pronounce life on Australia? I came to the Antipodes late in my life, drawn to the Pacific, that great wink of eternity, Melville called it, drawn to horizons more than to origins. I made friends and became in Australia a wintry celebrant.

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