Biography

In 2002 the English filmmaker John Bridcut visited The Red House in Aldeburgh, the archive housing the papers of Benjamin Britten and his long-time partner, Peter Pears. Bridcut was early in his research for a project he would realise two years later as the documentary film Britten’s Children, and then, after another two years, as a book of the same name. I was then head of music at the Aldeburgh Festival, with a few books of my own on Britten under my belt. Partly because the topic interested me and partly because I was soon to leave Aldeburgh, I sidestepped the archive’s historical rectitude regarding Britten’s sexuality and told John that he really needed to track down and interview Wulff Scherchen, Britten’s lover in 1938, who had moved to Australia and was now known as John Woolford. I dug up the last address we had on file for him and left Bridcut to it.

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What meaning can be drawn from an individual life? Most of us will disappear without much trace, forgotten by all but friends and family. Writers may hope for more, leaving their art behind for posterity. Performance artists, though, live their art in the moment.

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In 2011, Bernadette Brennan convened a symposium on ‘Narrative and Healing’ at the University of Sydney, an opportunity for specialists in medicine and bereavement to meet writers with comparable interests. Helen Garner, for example, spoke about Joe Cinque’s Consolation. The day included an audiovisual piece about death as a kind of homecoming, with reference to the prodigal son, and exquisite photographs, including a picture of an elderly Irishman wheeling a bicycle with a coffin balanced on the seat and handlebars: austere and moving, a vision of austere and careful final transportation. Since 2011, Bernadette Brennan has written two literary biographies: A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her work (2017); and the wonderfully titled Leaping into Waterfalls: The enigmatic Gillian Mears. As with the Symposium, each biography is a genuine enquiry, a gathering of unexpected elements, and an invitation to later conversation. Brennan writes of Leaping into Waterfalls as an extension of a conversation she had with Mears in 2012. The Mears biography is certain to be a talking point for years to come.

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The name of Yorta Yorta elder William Cooper shines bright in the history of Aboriginal activism in Australia between the two world wars. It is linked with the formation of the Australian Aborigines’ League, of which he was the founding secretary; the Day of Mourning on the anniversary of white settlement in 1938; and a petition intended for George V, signed by almost 2,000 Aboriginal people and demanding Aboriginal representation in parliament. This last was perhaps Cooper’s most cherished project. He spent years gathering signatures and waiting for the most opportune moment to present it; his disappointment at the indifferent response of the Australian government darkened his final years.

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Christine Wallace’s book, in twelve chapters, is actually two books. Chapters 1-7 deal with Greer’s childhood and family, secondary and university education including MA and PhD theses, her sexual history and engagement with the counterculture in Britain which pivots around writing for Oz, her career as a groupie and membership of the Suck editorial team. Events are arranged chronologically but it’s often hard to work out the date (and thus Greer’s age), whether she’s in Melbourne or Sydney and, since the chapters are of very different lengths, how much has been included or omitted.

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There were divas before Nellie Melba and, given that nowadays any young woman who can hold her career together for a few years while screeching into a microphone has the title bestowed on her, there have been many genuine and ersatz ones since. But Dame Nellie (1861–1931) remains the ne plus ultra, the gold standard of opera divas. Essential attributes include an instantly recognisable voice, an unshakeable faith in one’s ability, and position in the world, and an equally unshakeable determination that no rival will intrude upon one’s limelight. Nellie Mitchell showed these traits from an early age.

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When the leukaemia with which he had been diagnosed in 1991 claimed his life twelve years later, Edward W. Said left behind more than the usual testaments to a successful academic career: landmark studies, bountiful citations, bereft colleagues, and the cadres of pupils whose intellectual maturation he had overseen. More importantly, he embodied a many-sided ideal of intellectual and civic engagement that combined the vita contemplativa with the vita activa. A professor in Columbia University’s Department of English and Comparative Literature for forty years, Said was a member of the exiled Palestinian National Council and arguably the most visible advocate for the Palestinian cause throughout his later life.

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Scott Morrison has now been prime minister longer than any of his four predecessors: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, or Malcolm Turnbull. He has won one election by the skin of his teeth and faces another by May next year. So what sort of man is he and how good a prime minister? These three publications give us slightly different takes on these questions.

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Contemporary Australian parliamentarians tend to be focused firmly on the present. Speechwriters may liberally sprinkle the speeches of politicians with references to a political party’s golden past, but an MP’s sincerest interest in history often emerges when he or she gets around to publishing a memoir of their time in office. A politician’s autobiography is an exercise that encourages selective, rather than frank, reflection on how history will portray them, their enemies and friends. Some politicians, thankfully, embrace a broader, less self-interested view of the importance of history. Labor Opposition frontbencher Chris Bowen is the latest serving politician to display a commendable fascination with historical research. His new book tells the stories of six relatively forgotten figures who made a strong contribution to the Australian Labor Party.

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Constantin Brâncuşi famously said that making a work of art is not in itself a difficult thing: the hard part is putting oneself in the necessary state of mind. Eleanor Clayton’s new biography of English sculptor Barbara Hepworth is in its own way a celebration of just how devoted Hepworth was to maintaining that elusive state of mind to which Brâncuşi referred. Unlike Sally Festing’s Hepworth biography, A Life of Forms (1995), Clayton eschews any attempt to narrate or analyse Hepworth’s private feelings or emotional make-up. Instead she narrows her focus most austerely to the practice of the working sculptor, her aesthetic philosophies, and the compelling yet subtle variations of her output.

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