Memoir

The Justice Game by Geoffrey Roberston

by
June 1998, no. 201

The memoirs of any barrister still in harness are, by definition, advertising. The mystery of The Justice Game is what on earth Geoffrey Robertson needs to sell. He is much too busy already. A queue of life’s victims wanting his help in court would stretch twice round the Temple. But drumming up business is not what the book is about. Its real purpose, I suspect, is to show that, despite a certain radical reputation, Robertson is a sound man.

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In retrospect it’s not surprising that Andrew Riemer wrote so insightfully about Shakespeare’s comedies. Those green worlds of transformation are expressive of longing and nostalgia, of social order being restored through the acceptance and reconciliation of opposing forces. That the brute, material world is partly dealt with through nostalgia, fantasy and parody is an idée fixe of Riemer’s elegantly written autobiographical books.

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Pomegranate Season by Carolyn Polizzotto & Till Apples Grow on an Orange Tree by Cassandra Pybus

by
June 1998, no. 201

Two autobiographical works, both by women historians, are presented in the elegant small format which often says ‘gift book’ and may suggest more surface charm than substance. In fact, there are at least as many contrasts as resemblances between the two, and although the mood is quietly reflective, there is no easy nostalgia.

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Phillip Knightley prefaces his book with these definitions, so which does he want to identify himself with? Surely not the first. A mere scribbler he may have been early in his career, especially when he was recycling other journalists’ stories (hacking them about, perhaps?) at the London officer of the Australian Daily Mirror. But no-one, now, could call him a poor writer.

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Snake Cradle: Autobiography of a black woman is the first published volume of a three-part life story from Australia’s renowned black rights activist Dr Roberta Sykes. In Snake Cradle, Sykes chronicles the first seventeen years of her life in Queensland and gives us a generously open story in her legendary powerful and thought-provoking style.

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It’s a clever and provocative title that Patsy Adam-Smith has chosen for her autobiography. She is a woman who has said many ‘goodbyes’ in her rich and adventurous life; and she is of an age and disposition where ‘girlie’ is heard as an endearment, not a put-down. Patsy Adam­Smith is one of Australia’s greatest writers, although you will rarely hear the literati or the academics say so in public. As an historian she has been more widely read than Manning Clark (it would be interesting to know how many of the purchasers of Clark have been able to finish each volume); and she and Wendy Lowenstein have listened to the histories of more Australians than probably the rest of us put together. But she remains insignificant in the eyes of the theorists of oral memory and historical consciousness.

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The ‘place in the city’ of Fr Edmund Campion’s latest pilgrimage into Australian Catholic life and history is St Mary’s cathedral, Sydney. Campion spent six years here as a young-priest working in the shadow of both the cathedral and the august Normal Cardinal Gilroy.

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Contemporary Aboriginal writing, like Aboriginal art, is now so diverse that is impossible to talk about any one particular style. John Muk Muk Burke, whose first novel, Bridge of Triangles, has just been published, recently told a Sydney seminar for Aboriginal writers that they were no longer writing from the viewpoint of victims. He said they were survivors rising from the ashes of the invasion like the phoenix. Burke’s own novel is multi-layered, poetic and visually strong, with a structure informed by his study of world literature.

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Literary biographies are reputedly more widely read than their subjects’ own works: more people have probably read David Marr’s biography of Patrick White than have tackled The Twyborn Affair or The Aunt’s Story. The same may perhaps can be said for autobiography, and it’s my bet that Geoffrey Dutton’s Out in the Open will attract more attention than, say, his novel, Andy (Flying Low), his collections of poetry, or even his impressive biography of Edward John Eyre.

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I came to Suzanne Chick’s book full of prejudice and cynicism. Certainly Chick was the illegitimate daughter Charmian Clift had when she was nineteen, but Chick was relinquished at two weeks to her adoptive family and Clift took her own life before Chick began to make enquiries about her natural mother. What could Chick have to say about Clift that those who knew her couldn’t? Wouldn’t this just be crass cashing-in on a famous and alluring name? A ‘Mommie Dearest’ genre from a different angle?

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