Biography

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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Andrew Riemer reviews 'Firing' by Ninette Dutton

Andrew Riemer
Wednesday, 25 March 2020

A friend of mine remembers a reception during an Adelaide Festival of the Arts. It was a large gathering: visiting musicians, singers, actors and writers, members of the Adelaide establishment, people from the university. The hosts were Ninette and Geoffrey Dutton. My friend, a visitor from Sydney, was struck by the Duttons’ confidence and sophistication. They were a handsome couple, she recalls, entirely at ease with the famous people who had come to the Festival from many parts of the world.

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Hazel Rowley reviews 'Fishing in the Styx' by Ruth Park

Hazel Rowley
Tuesday, 24 March 2020

I discovered Ruth Park’s Companion Guide to Sydney in a Sydney second-hand bookshop in 1980. Published in 1973, it was already out of print, probably because it evokes a Sydney that no longer existed. In the early 1970s, Park writes, ‘Sydney was beginning to pull itself to pieces, the air was full of fearful noise, the sky of dust … And the terrible sound of the rock pick tirelessly pecking away at Sydney’s sandstone foundations was over all.’

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Writing to Geoffrey Dutton in 1969, Patrick White confesses: ‘All my life I have been rather bored, and I suppose in desperation I have been inclined to weave these fantasies in which I become more “involved”. Ignoble, au fond, but there have been a few results.’

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On Boxing Day 1962, The Australian Women’s Weekly opened with a two-page spread on a new publication, Self Help for Your Nerves, by Sydney physician Dr Claire Weekes. Her four precepts for people suffering from ‘nerves’ appeared in huge, bold type: facing, accepting, floating, and letting time pass. Positive reviews followed, including one by Max Harris in ABR’s December 1962 issue. Wary of the ‘help yourself psychiatry’ genre, Harris was quickly persuaded by its ‘particular excellence’. The book went on to become a bestseller in the US and UK markets, and Weekes followed it up with four more.

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Artful Histories represents that extraordinary achievement – a learned critical study, based on a thesis, which is exhilarating to read. While it covers the expected ground, with careful accounts of Australian autobiographies of various types, it also addresses a core problem of current literary debate – the relative status of different literary genres, and the interrelation between writing and life. There is no mention here of The Hand That Signed The Paper or The First Stone (they are beyond the range of the discussion) but McCooey’s elucidation of the relationship between autobiography, history, fiction, and life bears directly on the issues which have kept Australian readers arguing over the past year. At the end of his chapter on autobiography and fiction, McCooey summarises the difference in a seemingly simple statement: ‘Fictional characters die fictionally, people die in actual fact.’ The implications of this are far from simple, and McCooey argues for the maintenance of the boundary between genres on the grounds of moral responsibility.

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His minister described him as a permanent troubleshooter. And yet Charlie Perkins was surely the most trouble-prone and troublesome permanent head in Australian administrative history. Where other bureaucratics operated stealthily to preserve the outward appearance of responsible government, he engaged in calculated acts of public defiance and abuse of the governments he was meant to serve. They could no more dispense with his services, however, than he could operate without their largesse. And so for the best part of twenty year the volatile mediator orchestrated relations between the state and the modern Aboriginal movement.

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In the past we have tended either to ignore or to marginalise cultural ‘expatriates’. In today’s cosmopolitan culture, we are more used to varied career paths, but it is still possible for someone who has made most of their career abroad to be overlooked. Judith Anderson is a case in point. Born in Adelaide in 1897, Francee Anderson (her first stage name) made her professional stage début in 1915 in Sydney, but from 1918 she was, virtually for the rest of her life, based in the United States. Desley Deacon’s substantial, superbly illustrated biography rescues Anderson from obscurity and reveals the full extent of her remarkable career on stage, in film, and on television.

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