Biography

Melburnians above a certain age will remember Coles in Bourke Street. Unknown to most of them, it stood on the site of another Coles, Cole’s Book Arcade, for half a century probably the most famous shop in Australia. Its founder, Edward William Cole, is now the subject of an engaging biography by Richard Broinowski.

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Jane Sullivan reviews 'Max' by Alex Miller

Jane Sullivan
Thursday, 24 September 2020

When Alex Miller first thought of writing about Max Blatt, he imagined a celebration of his life. But would Max have wanted that? He was a melancholy, chainsmoking European migrant, quiet and self-effacing, who claimed nothing for himself except defeat and futility.

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Miles Franklin used to delight in relating an anecdote about a librarian friend who, when asked why a less competent colleague was paid more, replied succinctly: ‘He has the genital organs of the male; they’re not used in library work, but men are paid more for having them.’

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Sharyn Killens is no stranger to the spotlight. After a long career as an entertainer, she is used to appearing in make-up and gown, pouring out a song. She is also a veteran of interviews and media stories, with a different song: that of her own extraordinary life. In The Inconvenient Child, written with her friend Lindsay Lewis, Killens (known on the stage as Sharyn Crystal) relates a wrenching and finally satisfying story of abject misery and triumphant emotion. In the paradigm of classic Australian memoir, her tale needs no bells and whistles to ring true. It is a transfixing performance.

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Edward Sugden was the first master of Melbourne University’s Queen’s College, a position he held for forty years. One needs to provide this identification, because although in his day Sugden was regarded as one of Melbourne’s best-known citizens, his is one of those names that has dropped from view. Along with his contemporaries Alexander Leeper of Trinity College and John MacFarland of Ormond, he contributed to what Wilfrid Prest calls ‘the golden age’ of Melbourne University’s colleges.

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The best things about this book are the paintings, the photographs, and the paper. The worst thing is the prose. But does this matter, you may well ask, in a book obviously designed to travel rapidly from the coffee table to the wall – with its large size format and convenient disintegration at first read? It’s the pictures we want, not the prose.

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The question of the relationship of the biographer to their subject is a fascinating one. Kath Jordan is frank about her long and intimate friendship with Veronica Brady as she recounts the way this book came into being. In a preface, she remembers celebrating with a friend the High Court’s rejection of Western Australia’s challenge to its Mabo native title decision, in March 1995. Thinking of Brady’s active involvement in Aboriginal rights issues, the two decided that they would write her biography. Brady gave her consent to the idea – although there is no sense that she was closely involved with the project – and what became the unexpectedly long gestation of Larrikin Angel was eventually begun, with only one author.

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There seems to be an ever-growing – I almost wrote market, but think I mean obsession – these days for the family history, the personal memoir, the parading of how I spent my childhood/adolescence/ protest years/personal and economic growth decades, before-finally-contributing-to-the-joy-of-past-and-future-generations-by-listing-my-achievements. Many of these are self-published. Kristin Williamson’s biography of her playwright husband is not, but perhaps should have been.

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Tucked inside a plastic sleeve affixed to the inside front cover of this handsome, large-format book is a video disc promising ‘The Best of Graham Kennedy’. Introduced by Stuart Wagstaff, the one hour of footage offers a compilation of Kennedy’s work for Channel Nine drawn from the early days of In Melbourne Tonight (1957–69) and The Graham Kennedy Show (1972–75). Most of the sketches, dance routines, advertising segments and encounters with the audience I had seen before. Rover the Wonder Dog peeing on a camera while refusing to spruik Pal dog food has become part of the collective memory of Kennedy’s contrived mayhem, revisited whenever television (especially Channel Nine) embarks on one of those moments of self-memorialisation with which it marks each milestone.

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In December 1982, publisher Richard Walsh commissioned a ‘life and times of Miles Franklin’ from historian Jill Roe. The book ‘has been a long time coming’, says Roe, ‘due to other commitments and responsibilities, and because of the extent of previously unexamined source material.’ That source material – letters, articles, unpublished manuscripts, journals – exists in quantities that can be inferred from Roe’s comment near the end of the book, where she is describing Franklin’s final illness: that ‘from 1 January 1909 to 1 January 1954, there is some kind of record of what Miles Franklin was doing on virtually every day of her life.’

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