Biography

In his lifetime, Alan Rowland Chisholm was widely regarded as an Australian national treasure, and the new biography by Stanley John Scott is compelling evidence that he deserves to remain recognised as one today. This is a book that might have languished as an unpublished typescript, or indeed simply disappeared. Its author died in 2014, having twice withheld it from publication.

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It is no great coincidence that many of the best nonsense writers – Edward Lear, Mervyn Peake, Stevie Smith, Dr Seuss, Edward Gorey – were also prolific painters or illustrators. Nonsense poetry often seems like the fertile meeting point of visual and verbal languages, the place where words are stretched to dizzying new limits, used as wild brushstrokes on a canvas of imagination. It is no small irony, as well, that Lear, who virtually invented the genre with poems like ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, ‘wanted above all not to be loved for his nonsense but to be taken seriously as “Mr Lear the artist”’. In Mr Lear, a formidable biography by Jenny Uglow, he has finally got his wish.

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Stephen Bennetts reviews 'Gulpilil' by Derek Rielly

Stephen Bennetts
Monday, 16 December 2019

Australians have admired distinguished actor David Gulpilil in films like Walkabout (1971), Storm Boy (1976), The Tracker (2002), and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002). Not so many will be familiar with the details of his recent life, as related by journalist Derek Rielly. We find Gulpilil dying of lung cancer in Murray Bridge, an unprepossessing town on the lower Murray River in South Australia. He is surrounded by friends and cared for by the heroic Mary Hood, a retired nurse who has dedicated much of her life to caring for Aboriginal people in the Top End. This follows several bleak years living as a ‘long grasser’ on the fringes of Darwin and doing time in Berrimah Prison on charges of serious assault during a drunken fight.

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Australian nature writing has come a long way in recent years. Not only do we have an abundance of contemporary nature writers, but we are also rediscovering the ones we have forgotten. The neglect of Australia’s nature writing history, with its contributions to science, literature, and conservation, is happily being redressed with recent biographies of Jean Galbraith, Rica Erickson, Edith Coleman, and now a new biography of Alec Chisholm.

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The biography has long been reserved for human subjects. It is a genre largely predicated on the idea that only humans live lives sufficiently rich and complex to be worthy of sustained examination. Countless books have centred on different kinds of animals, yet few have fallen within the biographical category. Most are found in the children’s, zoology, or fiction shelves at bookstores.

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A lover of photography since childhood, by the time Olive Cotton, who was born in Sydney in 1911, was in her twenties she was already creating the pictures that were to define her as one of Australia’s foremost women photographers, although this would not be acknowledged until the 1980s. Apart from the photographs she made, Cotton left little material trace of a life that spanned nine decades (she died in 2003). This lack of physical evidence presented a challenge for biographer Helen Ennis, a former curator of photography at the National Gallery of Australia and an art historian, who has nonetheless managed to weave a compelling, if at times diaphanous, narrative.

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Just over one hundred years ago, Sydney readers were speaking in hushed tones about a shocking new book by a young woman, Zora Cross. A collection of love poems by an unknown would not normally have roused much interest, but because they came from a woman, and were frankly and emphatically erotic, the book was a sensation. It wasn’t, as a Bulletin reviewer said demurely, a set of sonnets to the beloved’s eyebrows. It was ‘well, all of him’. It broke the literary convention that restricted the expression of sexual pleasure to a male lover. Cross took Shakespeare’s sonnets as her inspiration. Her Songs of Love and Life (1917) was a long way from being Shakespearean, but it roused huge admiration. Cross was hailed as a genius, ‘an Australian Sappho’.

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Every biographer has a relationship with their subject, even if they have passed away. A real advantage for biographers of the dead is that the subject cannot say what they think about the book. The relationship between Margaret Simons and Penny Wong was fraught. That this mattered is evident from the opening sentence: ‘Penny Wong did not want this book to be written.’ Simons, a journalist, biographer, and associate professor at Monash University, uses her preface to complain about how difficult it was researching the book without Wong’s assistance and against her will. 

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Michael Sharkey reviews 'Henry Lawson: A life' by Colin Roderick

Michael Sharkey
Thursday, 31 October 2019

Henry Lawson’s death prompted a torrent of lamentation and, despite the distaste of academics and critics, the poet was soon enshrined as a National Treasure. Colin Roderick’s biography is a monument of dedication to the poet.

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Richard Holbrooke was a United States diplomat whose career began during the Vietnam War and ended during the one in Afghanistan, and whose life, according to George Packer, spanned the ‘American century’. He was an Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter and Clinton administrations, and President Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan until his sudden death in 2010. For his role in brokering the Dayton Accords in 1995, he was thought by some (not least himself) to have earned the Nobel Peace Prize. He wasn’t awarded it, nor did he achieve his aim of becoming Secretary of State; his was a life that his biographer describes as ‘almost great’.

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the end of the American century is told through a distinctive narrative voice, not Packer exactly, but a witness to Holbrooke’s story who editorialises freely in the first person. Alternately confiding and grandiloquent, Packer speaks in arresting sentences of a kind one doesn’t usually encounter in biographies of statesmen and diplomats. I happened to read this one on the Fourth of July: ‘We prefer our wars quick and decisive, concluding with a surrender ceremony, and we like firepower more than we want to admit.’ As the Afghanistan War lurched towards its eighteenth year and tanks took up their positions in Washington, D.C., for President Trump’s military parade, I thought, have Americans ever been shy about liking firepower?

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