Biography

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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How complex a task it is to write the biography of a writer. For writers, whose daily business is making things up, the truest experience may be one they have imagined. All biographers need to be storytellers and private detectives, but the biographer of a writer must also be a literary critic, must account for how the work relates to the life and escapes the life; beyond this, how the experience of writing it might change how the author apprehends those other parts of experience, called facts.

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At first glance, this biography does not look especially compelling. Why should we want to know about Australia’s first woman radio pioneer? But David Dufty calmly and quietly shows why Violet McKenzie is well worth celebrating. From her earliest days, Violet, born in 1890, showed great flair for practical science. She became a high school maths teacher but was determined to study electrical engineering. She qualified, but her gender meant that she was refused admission to the university course and also to a technical college diploma. Meanwhile, her elder brother Walter had become an electrical engineer and was running his own business in Sydney. This was 1912: seduced by the new moving-picture craze, Walter had ploughed all his profits into a ‘flickergraph training school’, teaching people to operate cinema projectors.

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At the end of 1910, Irving Berlin took a winter holiday in Florida. James Kaplan writes, ‘Here we must pause for a moment to consider the miracle of a twenty-two-year-old who in recent memory had sung for pennies in dives and slept in flophouses becoming a prosperous-enough business man to vacation in Palm Beach.’

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If Australia during the last century was ‘no place for a nervous lady’, this collection of women’s writings edited by Lucy Frost establishes with simple eloquence that it certainly was no place for a nervous gentleman.

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There are few people on earth I would rather read than Germaine Greer, mad or sane. Whatever reservations I might want to express about Daddy We Hardly Knew You, it is some testament to its compelling power that I read most of it strung-out with fatigue from checking proofs some time towards dawn and I still found it difficult to stop reading.

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Just before I flew to Australia to deliver this year’s HRC Seymour Lecture in Biography, I heard an ABC broadcast on the BBC World Service. The Australian commentator was talking about the centenary of the birth of Donald Bradman, the ‘great Don’ with his famous Test batting average of 99.94 runs. He said that Bradman was a peculiarly Australian role model because he was a sporting hero and because he knocked the hell out of the British bowling. Slightly carried away by the moment, he added: ‘We still need those founding fathers – we’ve had no George Washington, no Abraham Lincoln ... Don Bradman fills a biographical gap.’

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In the penultimate chapter of his memoir, Bernard Smith describes a meeting of the Sydney Teachers College Art Club, an institution he founded and later transformed into the leftist NSW Teachers Federation Art Society. The group was addressed in 1938 by Julian Ashton, then aged eighty-seven and very much the grand old man of Sydney painting and art education. He spoke at great length on the inadequacy of the NSW Education Department’s art teaching practices. Smith adds that Ashton also ‘told his life story (as old men will)’.

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Donald Thomson’s stature as a great Australian and a champion of Aboriginal rights is confirmed by this engaging compilation. Thomson was also a world leader in ethnographic field photography. Published first in 1983, this revised edition contains a gallery of eighty additional evocative, annotated images of vibrant people and their ways of living. Today’s evaluation contrasts with that around the time of Thomson’s death in 1970, when his reputation reached its nadir. Most anthropologists then disparaged his work, few appreciated the richness and complexity of his collections, while only one academic book testified to his credentials.

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Cassandra Pybus reviews 'Performances' by Greg Dening

Cassandra Pybus
Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Greg Dening was trained for the Catholic priesthood. He became an outstanding historian of the Pacific, although perhaps better described as an anthropologist-historian, in company with Clifford Geertz, Marshall Sahlins, Nathalie Zemon Davis, and his colleague Rhys Isaac, to whom this book is warmly dedicated. Yet echoes of his initial calling linger in his work, certainly as evidenced in this collection of essays.

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