Biography

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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What would you like to know? Doc Evatt’s on-the-­spot explanation of why he wrote to Molotov? Archbishop Mannix’s response to Cardinal Spellman’s claim on the papacy? The particular pleasure derived from small boys by the headmaster of Geelong Grammar Junior School? How a knowledge of Urdu maintained the Hands off Indonesia blockade? What Malcolm Ellis said to Charles Currey when the lift opened? All those delights and more tumble out of Russel Ward’s autobiography.

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About ten years ago, I was asked to give a talk to a Sydney group of Australian writers. (Actually, they asked Leonie Kramer, but she was busy.) I decided to talk on ‘Some unknown Australian women writers of the nineteenth century’ in ‘the hope of interesting some of them in researching the lives and careers of their predecessors.

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Donald Horne, pleasantly surprised that he is now a university professor, looks back at the journalist and aspiring novelist that he was in the 1950s. This is to be the third (and final) instalment in the saga of the education of Donald.

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It seems strange to describe Diamond Jim McClelland as, really, rather an old-fashioned man. Few septuagenarians have anything like his energy, his forthrightness, his optimism, or, most of all, his receptivity to new ideas. But if there is a continuous thread in his extraordinarily full and complex life, it can probably be best summed up as a very untrendy, passionate commitment to morality. The catch is that his ideas of what constitutes morality – or at least what is the best way of achieving it – have gone from here to there and back again.

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This book has drawn comment from press gallery journalists that the author’s background as a finance writer has led to weaknesses in its political analysis. The political sections, however, strike this reader as every bit up to the standard of the press gallery contributions on the subject, and, indeed, add some useful detail on Paul Keating’s early years, which were devoted with such unswerving dedication to entering parliament at the age of twenty-five. Both the gallery and Carew agree that Keating is an outstanding politician and enormously successful treasurer. While it is not always fair to lament that a book is different from the one you might have preferred to read – the author’s task is hard enough as it is – I would have hoped that the economic issues would have been explored with a much broader brush.

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When Martin Boyd returned to Australia in 1948 after twenty-seven years in England, he set about restoring the Grange, the derelict former home of his mother’s family, the à Becketts. He had been disappointed to find how little known his novels were in Australia and he had difficulty in re-establishing himself with the Boyd family. Nevertheless he persevered with his impulsive scheme until he could draw ‘the curtains at night in the little sitting room ... [and] indulge the illusion of being in an English manor house.’ Among the à Beckett portraits and eighteenth-century furniture were his nephew Arthur’s biblical frescoes. In trying to be an English squire in the Australian countryside, surrounded by the artefacts of two continents and centuries, Boyd presents the image of a man who never quite found himself wholly at home anywhere.

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Lionel Murphy was a prominent and colourful figure in the ALP renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s, and a significant legal intellectual. The extraordinary saga of his final years, when he was hounded by political foes and the press, created a farrago of misunderstanding and innuendo that clouded his reputation. Jenny Hocking has set out to recover Murphy’s public life and to correct the record. Curiously, her emphasis on philosophy and consistency works against the interest of this story: the larrikin edge and the complexity of the man are smoothed away.

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Melba by Thérèse Radic & Bernard Heinze by Thérèse Radic

by
August 1987, no, 93

Disraeli considered that biography – in contrast to history – is life without theory, though the result of such a policy can be arid. It needs, as well, to be portrayal without betrayal, but it more often errs in the opposite direction: who is likely to write about someone for whom she or he feels an antipathy or an indifference? Yet I am inclined to think that there is a case to be made for ‘arranged biography’, analogous to the ‘arranged marriages’ of other times and cultures.

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Occasionally, there are books of literary criticism which stay in the mind’s eye, so to speak; they endure beyond the point of short-term recall: the central argument, the general impress of thought, the singular, illuminating ideas and catchments of insight. As with Dorothy Green’s massive and intense scrutiny of Henry Handel Richardson, these books have the authority of a kind of passionate clarity, even when they seem paradoxical, or odd.

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