‘The characters which survive,’ wrote Hilary McPhee at seventeen in the copy of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native that she studied in her tiny matriculation class at Colac High in 1958, ‘are those who make some compromise with their surroundings.’

Twenty years later and five hundred miles away, I was given a book for my birthday. It was a hardback with a black-and-white photograph on the cover: a barefoot woman riding a bike through what you could somehow tell, maybe from the way the light fell on the cobblestones and on her hat, was a blindingly hot Australian day. The woman was wearing, a flowery, old-fashioned dress whose pattern had been colourised with the same musky, dusky colours of the cover design. McPHEE GRIBBLE, said the book at the base of its spine.

That first edition of Monkey Grip is still in excellent shape. It was and still is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen. The word ‘compromise’ has clearly not been used by anyone at any stage of its production. McPhee, recalling her first reading of Helen Garner’s manuscript in 1976, says ‘… here was an original voice saying something that hadn’t been said before under skies that were familiar from the opening lines …’

With her friend Diana Gribble, McPhee had established the Melbourne publishing company McPhee Gribble the previous year; a decade and a half later, caught up in the relentless advance of globalisation and the wake of the 1987 stock-market crash, the company was finally sold to Penguin Books. For all of the years between, McPhee Gribble had been a name to conjure with: fiercely independent, internationally respected, known for good relationships with their authors and with other publishers, characterised by their commitment to good Australian writing and beautiful books, and, most of all, driven by ideas and ideals. ‘We started out,’ says McPhee, ‘with an ethos rather than a profit-motive, an idea rather than a money-making venture … for most of our fifteen years we had the luxury of a workplace where other priorities ruled … All of us wore old clothes and drove small secondhand cars covered in dents … We earned around a schoolteacher’s wage most of the time. Everything else was re-invested in employing the people we needed in order to publish the books we wanted. It was a way of working as remote now as the moon.’


Subscribe to ABR


Other People’s Words is an intensely complex piece of writing showing that social and cultural history, autobiography and memoir really are not separable genres. As an intellectual and professional autobiography, it traces McPhee’s own progress through a liberal education to a life in publishing, but it also demonstrates in the process what sorts of obstacles a woman born in Australia in 1941 could expect to encounter by way of educational and professional training and achievement.

Given the choice, McPhee opted for matric at Colac High rather than at the ‘model school’ Tintern with its emphasis on ‘female subjects’ and its message ‘that marriage was a calling and that education was important in order to be an intelligent partner for your husband’. Her account of school and university life in the 1950s and early 1960s, of the subjects available to students and the emphases and values that were placed on different disciplines and cultures, is one of the few, and certainly one of the best, detailed accounts by an Australian (or indeed any) woman of her intellectual development that I’ve ever read.

McPhee represents her university years as exhilarating, productive, and crowded: by her own account an intellectually restless and demanding student, she also worked and performed at the Union Theatre in student productions; she travelled to the Koonalda Cave on the Nullarbor Plain in a team of assistants to an archaeologist; she and a friend started their own magazine.

And, unintentionally launching the first stage of what was to become her life’s work in the fostering and development of Australian literary culture, she went out one afternoon to an interview for a part-time job, and so began a dream apprenticeship working in the office of Meanjin with its original editor, Clem Christesen: ‘He showed me a Patrick White story, “Down at the Dump”, which had just come in, the first White had sent to the magazine.’ 

After two years at Meanjin, an Honours year studying Pacific Prehistory, an impossibly romantic boat trip in the best M.F.K. Fisher tradition, and what sounds like an idyllic year on a Greek island, McPhee moved with her first husband to London, where she went to work for a publisher and gave birth to her first child. Unlike many literary expats, and luckily for Australian writers and readers, McPhee and her husband eventually came home to Australia, and she went to work for Penguin Books Australia in Melbourne in 1969.

The story of what happened to her there, no less infuriating for being only briefly and obliquely told on tactful paddy feet, is a classic tale of gifted women in the workplace; it shows the difficulty for women not only of McPhee’s generation but of every generation that has succeeded her so far (much less those that went before) of trying to reconcile public life with private life, emotional commitments with professional goals, and family life with the right to call yourself, and to act like, an effective and autonomous citizen of the world.

The book goes on to tell the story of the McPhee Gribble partnership and the evolution of the company through the late 1970s and early 1980s into an admired and sought-after outfit with ambitions to remain an intensely localised and personalised independent publisher while at the same time valiantly attempting to change long-established patterns of international book distribution, patterns with their roots in Australia’s colonial past and mirrored by the culturally imperialist attitudes of the United States.

There are shapely, scholarly accounts of various stages in postwar Australian literary and cultural history – the ‘creative phase’ in Australian writing that Allen Lane from Penguin saw emerging in 1961; the arguments and observations in Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country; the spread of misleading misrepresentations in the 1980s of Australian culture by non-Australian artists like Werner Herzog and Bruce Chatwin – as well as of more general developments in Australian writing and publishing. These accounts, along with the episodic accounts of McPhee’s own life, provide two kinds of context for the story of McPhee Gribble Publishers; the different sections are arranged to show how inextricable from each other these three strands of narrative really are, and at moments they merge in various snapshots.

There, for instance, is McPhee reading Horne’s ‘ferocious analysis’ in The Lucky Country on a beach on a Greek island in 1964 and ‘being quite sure that Australia was a place I had left for good’. There she is in 1970, in her double role of Penguin Australia employee and the lover of its general manager, playing company hostess to visiting British directors who ‘would pretend with great dignity that they hadn’t met me and discussed new books in the office during the day. I’d light the candles and pass off Fray Bentos steak-and-kidney pies as my own and the next morning would be sent flowers like the good company wife I was after hours’.

Among her many gifts, McPhee is a legendary editor, so it comes as no surprise that this mass of material should have been arranged with such intricate clarity. But what makes this book the same kind of pleasure to read as good novels is the way that she deploys single, sharply focused images as motifs to link up different epochs in her life and different eras of cultural history, motifs positioned in the text both to herald and to echo its central concerns and themes. There’s the inscription in the Hardy novel that becomes a comment on her later life; there are the European immigrant children at primary school in the late 1940s, ‘the boys with their straight backs and red cheeks and the girls in full skirts and wooden clogs’ being encouraged to sing and dance in national dress for their classmates – an image in sharp contrast to the flattening-out of cultural differences that she finds herself fighting against forty years later.

And her image for that erosion of local difference in writing, the effect she fears globalisation has already begun to have on literature, is the glittering annual party thrown by the publishing giant Bertelsmann at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair: ‘And the food tastes of nothing at all.’ The book ends in this minor key, fearing for the future of literature in general and Australian literature in particular. It’s a wonderful book, but it’s not a happy one.

Other People’s Words is a compelling ‘rise and fall’ story. It’s an un-self-centred autobiography, written with great control and clarity, by a writer with an acute awareness of herself and her life as products of her time and place. It’s an indispensable document for anyone interested in Australian literary and cultural history. And its title – coming from one of the country’s great editors – might be an echo of the McPhee Gribble publication Other People’s Children, Helen Garner’s story of the forlorn love we have for children to whom we have no claim, but whom we might still somehow be able to help make their way through the world.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Review Article Yes
  • Show Byline Yes
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Custom Highlight Text

    ‘The characters which survive,’ wrote Hilary McPhee at seventeen in the copy of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native that she studied in her tiny matriculation class at Colac High in 1958, ‘are those who make some compromise with their surroundings ...

  • Book Title Other People’s Words
  • Book Author Hilary McPhee
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Picador, $35 hb, 312 pp, 0 330 36234 8
  • Display Review Rating No

Life and times memoirs are often lives leavened with some tangential nods to times. In Iola Mathews’s book Winning for Women: A personal story, a notable career is inextricably linked with the remarkable times she did much to shape.

It is the story of a feminist, the Australian feminist movement, and the battle for transformational political, legal, workplace, and community changes driven by her and many other committed women. The book combines detailed socioeconomic analysis: generous credit to other workers in the field; insider insights into political and workplace change; frank and touching family and personal experiences – all underpinned by Mathew’s capacity to communicate complex issues with clarity and narrative force. It also includes a detailed agenda for policies to achieve greater gender equality in the home and at work now and in the future.

Mathews starts the story in the 1960s with the admission that back then reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex partly ‘defeated’ her; Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique ‘passed her by’; and The Female Eunuch put her off by ‘its angry-in-your-face tone’. Thirty years later, she was on the same Dublin conference program as Friedan and the inimitable Bella Abzug.


Subscribe to ABR


Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Review Article Yes
  • Show Byline Yes
  • Custom Article Title Noel Turnbull reviews 'Winning for Women: A personal story' by Iola Mathews
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title Winning for Women: A personal story
  • Book Author Iola Mathews
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Monash University Publishing, $29.95 pb, 328 pp, 9781925835151
  • Display Review Rating No

Hearing Maud begins and ends with the notion that the narrator’s life has been defined by a pharmakon, an ancient Greek term denoting something that is both poison and cure. This subtle and more complex version of the ‘gift or loss’ dilemma common in disability memoirs avoids oppositional thinking and embraces instead paradox and nuance. This is typical of Jessica White’s remarkable work of creative non-fiction, which is a sophisticated hybrid of memoir, biography, and critical disability studies.

White’s initial pharmakon is the dose of antibiotics used to treat her meningitis at age four, which leaves her with almost no hearing. Over time, White realises that deafness, too, can be both poison and cure. It takes many years, and an exploration of the history of deaf education and the life of Maud Praed, before she can understand and accept the true significance of the pharmakon motif in her life.

Maud Praed (1874–1941) was the daughter of Australian novelist Rosa Campbell Praed (1851–1935). It was during her doctoral research in London after reading Rosa Praed’s novels that White discovered in the archives that Rosa’s daughter, Maud, was born deaf. This fascinated White, who undertook more detailed research in the United Kingdom and Australia to discover all she could about the lives of both mother and daughter. White’s unfolding of their unusual lives is wonderfully done. The historical details she conveys are never boring, and she is scrupulous about indicating when she is using imaginative reconstruction. Here, for example, she imagines the scene for a séance: ‘I imagine Rosa in Dowden’s drawing room in 15 Cheyne Gardens in Chelsea. The London light, extraordinarily strong for a May afternoon, pours through the French windows.’ In such instances, White provides endnotes indicating her sources, as she does for all the factual information in the book.


Subscribe to ABR


Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Review Article Yes
  • Show Byline Yes
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Custom Highlight Text

    Hearing Maud begins and ends with the notion that the narrator’s life has been defined by a pharmakon, an ancient Greek term denoting something that is both poison and cure. This subtle and more complex version of the ‘gift or loss’ dilemma common in disability memoirs avoids oppositional thinking and embraces instead paradox and nuance ...

  • Grid Image (300px * 250px) Grid Image (300px * 250px)
  • Alt Tag (Grid Image) Rachel Robertson reviews 'Hearing Maud' by Jessica White
  • Book Title Hearing Maud
  • Book Author Jessica White
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio UWA Publishing $27.99 pb, 288 pp, 9781760800383
  • Display Review Rating No

Unlike an autobiography, which tends to be time-bound and inclusive, the memoir can wander at will in the writer’s past, searching out and shaping an idea of self. Although Geoffrey Blainey’s memoir, Before I Forget, is restricted to the first forty years of his life, its skilfully chosen episodes suggest much more. The memoir shows how Blainey set his own course as a historian and forecasts the brilliant but sometimes unexpected career that he achieved.

As a maker of memorable phrases, Blainey has few equals. As well as ‘the tyranny of distance’, which comes from one of his book titles, he has given us the ‘black armband’ view of Australia’s past and its ‘three cheers’ antithesis. His account of childhood is one of difficulties overcome without fuss. No black armbands in his private story, no regrets or complaints. He is too polite to give himself more than two cheers.

Blainey’s narrative celebrates the pleasures and challenges of growing up in rural and provincial Victoria in the 1930s and early 1940s. The second in a family of five, he was the son of a Methodist minister who earned a meagre stipend in several small towns before being moved to Geelong and Ballarat. Nurtured by loving parents, the young Geoffrey was favoured by a lucky chance that brought him to the city, and to early and dazzling success.

Always an avid reader of newspapers, Blainey discovered a scholarship that seemed made to measure for him. The winner had to be a thirteen-year-old son of a Methodist minister, living more than forty-eight kilometres from Melbourne. As well as a free place as a boarder at Wesley College, Melbourne, it offered an allowance for textbooks, weekly pocket money, and train fares home. Geoffrey’s parents were doubtful about sending their son into a less religious environment among boys from affluent homes, but they allowed him to travel to Melbourne to sit for the exam. ‘I went by myself,’ Blainey writes, as if to assert some agency in this magical windfall.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Review Article Yes
  • Show Byline Yes
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Custom Highlight Text

    Unlike an autobiography, which tends to be time-bound and inclusive, the memoir can wander at will in the writer’s past, searching out and shaping an idea of self. Although Geoffrey Blainey’s memoir, Before I Forget, is restricted to the first forty years of his life, its skilfully chosen episodes suggest much more ...

  • Grid Image (300px * 250px) Grid Image (300px * 250px)
  • Alt Tag (Grid Image) Before I Forget
  • Book Title Before I Forget: An early memoir
  • Book Author Geoffrey Blainey
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Hamish Hamilton, $45 hb, 340 pp, 9781760890339
  • Display Review Rating No

Melbourne woman Kate Holden’s memoir of being a heroin user and of working as a prostitute to fund her habit opens with a quote from Virgil: ‘To descend into hell is easy. But to return – what work, what a labour it is!’ The quote is at odds with the life story Holden constructs in this brave, explicit, and extremely well-written book. Far from being a kind of hell, Holden represents prostitution – first on the streets of St Kilda, then seven nights a week in brothels – as something she liked doing and was good at. I can’t dispute the second claim, but I did have trouble believing the first one.

Holden describes herself as a princess in her brothel, a glorious, desirable woman decked out in velvet or chiffon, waiting for the ‘rank after rank’ of men who came in to ‘compliment me, worship me, pay for my time, my presence’. Makeup concealed the lumpy scars in the crooks of the princess’s arms. Clients wanted her time, but might not have been so happy to pay for the medication she required afterwards.

Nevertheless, as the author’s sexual skills increase, she feels herself more and more adored. Indeed, the memoir suggests that prostitution was so empowering that it helped Holden to kick a heroin habit of more than half a decade. I say suggest because the book is very much about working as a prostitute rather than about how the author escaped from that grinding life. It is the story of the hard labour required for Holden to fund not only her heroin addiction but that of her boyfriend, a pathetic character who whinges that she spends too much time at the brothel and not enough with him.

The life story constructed by this gifted writer is that of the good girl turned bad, of a privileged young person (a Melbourne University arts graduate no less) who has it all and decides to throw it away. The publicity material from Text plays up the author’s middle-class upbringing in ‘the leafy suburbs of Melbourne’. The writer herself recounts, with relish, the pillow talk about French literature and history that she enjoys with her more educated clients.


Subscribe to ABR


Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Review Article Yes
  • Show Byline Yes
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Custom Highlight Text

    Melbourne woman Kate Holden’s memoir of being a heroin user and of working as a prostitute to fund her habit opens with a quote from Virgil: ‘To descend into hell is easy. But to return – what work, what a labour it is!’ The quote is at odds with the life story Holden constructs in this brave, explicit, and extremely well-written book ...

  • Book Title In My Skin: A memoir
  • Book Author Kate Holden
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing, $32 pb, 287 pp, 1920885900
  • Display Review Rating No

Clive James is a fussy A-grade mechanic of the English language, always on the lookout for grammatical misfires or sloppiness of phrasing that escape detection on publishing production lines. Us/we crashtest dummies of the written word, who drive by computer, with squiggly red and green underlinings on the screen to help us steer, should therefore expect perfection in James’s own work, and pounce with Schadenfreudian glee if disappointed. Having just finished reading his autobiographical trilogy, Always Unreliable (previously published as individual volumes between 1980 and 1991, but here crammed into the one plump tome), I can report that, apart from a couple of typos (though, if you ask me, ‘slipped’ is a more evocative word with three Ps) and one or two lazy descriptions, such as dubbing rugby league legend Reg Gasnier’s sidestep ‘a kind of poetry’, James’s prose barely has a scratch on it.

Looking under the bonnet, we find an Australian suburban childhood, a 1950s model that thousands have owned and swear by to this day. James has kept his memory of it in pristine condition. He might label the trilogy ‘unreliable’, but I don’t believe him for a minute. My late Aunty Dorothy, a goer in her youth, by all accounts, always referred to the fifties as the ‘filthies’, but would never tell me why. James isn’t so coy. Certainly, he provides his readers with cute, wholesome stories about antics in the bushes, backyards and streets – billycart races, snake confrontations, swimming, sunburn and lollies – simple elements that, if left in their crude form, would amount to sentimentality and little more. But that doesn’t happen with James’s memoir because it contains intricate psychological wiring. He is a sad, clever funny-man, an observant loner, a dreamy only child whose father died too soon, someone who suspects in early boyhood that there may be shortcomings in his nature and worries himself into a state of feyness about it. His sexual openness – there was a lot of masturbation out Kogarah way in the fifties, and bisexual crushes, and (Aunty Dorothy cover your angel eyes) participation in an adolescent group sex romp with the blankly willing town bike Laurel – also helps refine mere childish reminiscence and its generic backdrop into a tougher, nononsense, personal production.


Subscribe to ABR


Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Review Article Yes
  • Show Byline Yes
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Custom Highlight Text

    Clive James is a fussy A-grade mechanic of the English language, always on the lookout for grammatical misfires or sloppiness of phrasing that escape detection on publishing production lines. Us/we crashtest dummies of the written word, who drive by computer, with squiggly red and green underlinings ...

  • Book Title Always Unreliable: The memoirs
  • Book Author Clive James
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Picador, $30 pb, 537 pp, 0 330 48875 9
  • Display Review Rating No

Who is, or rather who was, André Gide? I ask this because a distinguished editor warned me, on hearing that I was about to review Robert Dessaix’s enticing new book, that nowadays nobody would remember who Gide was. Ah, the years, the years!

It was another story in the time of my youth. When I was playing out my student days, you couldn’t help knowing about Gide. He was part of the flavour of the time, like Woolf and Auden, Camus and Faulkner. When you were solemnly Kafking or Lorcing over coffee, he was part of the stuff of conversation. But in different ways: my closest undergraduate friend was absorbed by the lyrical Gide, by La porte étroite (1909) and La symphonie pastorale (1919), whereas I liked the hard modernism of Les caves du Vatican (1914) and Les faux-monnayeurs (1926), particularly the latter. Above all, I have been fascinated for decades by the very last sentence of that book: ‘I shall be curious to know Caloub.’ The proleptic Caloub has kept on haunting me, not least because this is such a cagey way to end a novel, looking forward to the New Wave filmmakers. After all, our appetites are not always satisfied by closure. As readers we can enjoy the sense of something still throbbing at our nerve-tips.

Another matter all this brings to mind is proper conduct with the titles of books that one has read translated into English: should we call this novel The Coiners, after all? Or even, to pick up John Hollander’s old point about the definite article, Coiners? Again, which titles are they that one feels like keeping in the parent language, rather than knowing them readily by their making over into our own tongue, Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme (1839) mainly goes that way, for example, but not Camus’s The Outsider (L’étranger, 1942).


Subscribe to ABR


Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Review Article Yes
  • Show Byline Yes
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Custom Highlight Text

    Who is, or rather who was, André Gide? I ask this because a distinguished editor warned me, on hearing that I was about to review Robert Dessaix’s enticing new book, that nowadays nobody would remember who Gide was. Ah, the years, the years! It was another story in the time of my youth ...

  • Book Title Arabesques
  • Book Author Robert Dessaix
  • Book Subtitle A tale of double lives
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Picador, $49.99 hb, 310 pp hb, 9780330424059
  • Display Review Rating No

Requiem with Yellow Butterflies begins, aptly, with a death. Sitting at his office in Brisbane, the author receives news that Gabriel García Márquez has died at his home in Mexico. Across the world, there is a mushrooming of obituaries. Garlands of yellow butterflies are draped from trees and buildings; outside Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, paper butterflies rain down like confetti. From Madrid, Elena Poniatowska eulogises: Gabo ‘gave wings to Latin America. And it is this great flight that surrounds us today and makes flowers grow in our heads.’

Gabo’s death is a catalyst for James Halford, in many ways. ‘As I read the memorials from around the world,’ he writes, ‘a spark of curiosity kindled.’ Halford, a diligent reader of García Márquez, begins to unpick the tightly wound threads of ‘mythomania’ that envelop the writer and his magnum opus, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), ‘the great twentieth-century Latin American novel’. The result is the first of fifteen deft chapters that drift seamlessly across the genres of literary essay, travelogue, and personal memoir, opening up new dialogues between Latin America (haunted Mexico; abandoned Paraguay; the humid midriff of Venezuela and Brazil; umbilical Cuzco; ‘eternal’ Buenos Aires), the coastlines and ‘unknown towns’ of Queensland, and the red desert of Australia’s interior.

This first incendiary death also re-ignites the dormant love story folded inside Halford’s book. It was John Steinbeck, in his own travelogue Travels with Charley: In search of America (1962), who wrote that ‘a journey is like a marriage’. A book can be like a marriage, too, and Halford’s episodic piecing-together of thoughts and recollections feels like a fitting analogy for the disordering nature of love, partnership, and child rearing. Told as a series of unchronological essay-vignettes, Requiem with Yellow Butterflies collapses the distance between reader/writer, traveller/tourist, and husband/father. Despite his youthful candour, Halford is no naïf. His flair for dispelling the persistent magical-realist aura projected onto Latin America goes hand in hand with an honest interrogation of his own role in diminishing or trespassing upon something that does not belong to him. Passing through towns and ruins ‘almost wholly colonised by tourism’, he wonders if what we encounter when we travel (even when we travel in search of authenticity, with the earnest goodwill of seekers) is, inevitably, a kind of fantasy: ‘the West’s collective hallucination’. Snippets of displaced music – Brahms’s German Requiem in a Michoacán cathedral; Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries deep in the ‘jungle metropolis’ of Manaus – act as gentle reminders of the strangeness of European presence in what remains, in many parts, a wild and indomitable continent.

Many of Halford’s observations are written from the interstitial sites – the ‘neutral spaces’ of Andrés Neuman’s How to Travel Without Seeing (2016) – that comprise so much of the experience of travel. The sense of movement and displacement is suggested, rather than forcefully impressed, by a recurrence of sliding vistas: riverbanks glimpsed from the deck of a ferry; the cloud-wreathed ascent to Monte Roraima; landscapes snatched from the windows of buses, trains, hire cars – an endless stream of vehicles inching from or towards the coastlines and heartlands of Australia and America, those two immense sister continents.

Halford has a talent for understated imagery. Graceful lines emerge like mirages along the way: the road to Teotihuacán is hemmed by ‘dense green knots of cactus’; crossing the Argentine pampa, the plains scroll past ‘treeless and unrippling,’ with ‘the flatness of the sea on a still day’. Back in Australia, conference attendees leaving the Red Centre in a convoy of rented city cars are ‘a procession of identical white insects crawling across the desert’. Halford’s descriptions often invoke a sense of intrusion: his arrival at Machu Picchu feels like ‘wandering onto an abandoned film set’; on Anangu country, outsiders resemble an infestation of white ants. Just as he questions the aimless odysseys of his twenties, Halford begins to doubt his claim to the continent he grew up on. Returning to Brisbane from Uluru, he confesses: ‘I felt less confident in my use of the possessive pronoun. That smouldering, red-black plain didn’t feel like my country.’ The sensation will be unsettlingly familiar to anyone born and raised on stolen land.

There are other funerals scattered throughout the book: Halford’s grandfather, a World War II veteran, is buried at Redcliffe, north of Brisbane; Jorge Luis Borges, much to Argentina’s chagrin, is laid to rest ‘a few plots from John Calvin in Geneva’s Plainpalais cemetery’. Death, here, is not a heavy pall so much as a counterpoise to the agitation of life – death asks us to remember, to return to our roots, to our sacred sites. It brings the butterflies to rest. The sensation we are left with, at the end of Halford’s roaming, is one of homecoming. Having survived the vicissitudes of an ‘unmoored’ youth, the challenge now is to master the art of arriving. The book opens with an epigraph taken from Nietzsche’s Nachlaß: ‘To rediscover the South in oneself’ – and Halford’s South-South wanderings, his East-coast youth spent ‘gazing East’ – not to the Orient, as our Eurocentric language would have it, but towards the Pacific, and the American exotica that lies beyond it – is also an attempt to reframe his relationship with the difficult geographies of the home and the heart. In a book premised on wanderlust, the message that lingers is an unexpected one: ‘It’s good to be still.’

Additional Info

  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title Alice Whitmore reviews Requiem with Yellow Butterflies by James Halford
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Custom Highlight Text

    Requiem with Yellow Butterflies begins, aptly, with a death. Sitting at his office in Brisbane, the author receives news that Gabriel García Márquez has died at his home in Mexico. Across the world, there is a mushrooming of obituaries. Garlands of yellow butterflies are draped from trees and buildings; outside Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes ...

  • Book Title Requiem with Yellow Butterflies
  • Book Author James Halford
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio UWA Publishing, $26.99 pb, 264 pp, 9781760800130

Although you might not guess it from media comment, The Latham Diaries (MUP, $39.95 hb, 429 pp, 0522852157) is the most important book yet published on Labor’s wilderness years. It provides a pungent characterisation of Labor’s post-1996 history; conveys a profound understanding of the challenges facing a social democratic party in contemporary Australia; and its damning account of Labor’s feuds, machinations, and toxic culture suggests why the party is incapable of meeting those challenges. It is also the most rancorous and at times rancid memoir ever penned by an Australian politician. For someone so sensitive to invasions of his own privacy, Latham throws around personal slurs and innuendoes with much abandon. Yet his effective use of a larrikin argot lends the book a gritty authenticity rare in such writing. Much black humour and some telling stories move the book along with a compelling pace until it is finally overwhelmed by self-pity, blustering defiance, and denial.

The diaries are not a set of regular daily entries but rather occasional jottings that appear to have undergone a degree of stylistic polishing. Sporadic in the early years, by 1998 they average about one a week. Although the entries are supposedly uncut, it is unclear whether any have been omitted. Some report the events of a single day; others cover a week or more. There are also hints throughout the diary of a greater degree of retrospectivity.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Neal Blewett reviews 'Losing It' by Annabel Crabb, 'Loner: Inside a Labor tragedy' by Bernard Lagan, and 'The Latham Diaries' by Mark Latham
  • Contents Category Politics
  • Custom Highlight Text

    Although you might not guess it from media comment, The Latham Diaries (MUP, $39.95 hb, 429 pp, 0522852157) is the most important book yet published on Labor’s wilderness years. It provides a pungent characterisation of Labor’s post-1996 history; conveys a profound understanding of the challenges facing a social democratic party in contemporary Australia ... 

A laughing man, according to Flaubert, is stronger than a suffering one. But as Craig Sherborne’s extraordinary new memoir of childhood and youth shows, the distinction isn’t that simple. There is much to laugh at in Hoi Polloi, but this is also a book suffused with pain and suffering. Sherborne is both a powerful satirist and a poet of vulnerability. The poems by Sherborne included in The Best Australian Poems 2003 show something comparable. Those tightly controlled and acidic poems explored similar ground to that covered in Hoi Polloi. But this prose account of childhood is even more attuned to the doubleness of life, to its mix of farce and tragedy.

Hoi Polloi opens with the narrator and his parents living in New Zealand in the late 1960s. The family hotel (not a ‘pub’, according to the narrator’s mother) is the setting for the narrator’s early experiences. The memoir opens: ‘The first time I see drunks beat up my father I’m six and standing at the bend in the stairs.’ What follows sets the tone for the rest of the work: prose that illustrates an unsettling, almost clinical, ability to describe painful events, matched with a capacity to evoke an empathetic pain in the reader.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title David McCooey reviews 'Hoi Polloi' by Craig Sherborne
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Custom Highlight Text

    A laughing man, according to Flaubert, is stronger than a suffering one. But as Craig Sherborne’s extraordinary new memoir of childhood and youth shows, the distinction isn’t that simple. There is much to laugh at in Hoi Polloi, but this is also a book suffused with pain and suffering ... 

  • Book Title Hoi Polloi
  • Book Author Craig Sherborne
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Black Inc., $27.95 pb, 197 pp, 1863952217