Black Inc

When did the rationale for the Iraq War – which began in 2003 and still rumbles today – go from being a mistake, to a self-deception, to an outright lie? When did it dawn on the Bush Jr administration and its key allies in London and Canberra that the ostensible reason for the invasion of Iraq had disappeared, probably literally, under the sands of Mesopotamia? By the time of the invasion, Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed no weapons of mass destruction that could threaten another country. The Iraqi dictator may have desired such weapons, but a combination of international sanctions and the mere fear of retribution thwarted his plans.

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It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to be raised in a Chinese family, especially when you are surrounded by markers of Western society. There is no such thing as talking back to your parents or refusing to do what they say. As a child, I never went to sleepovers. During my teenage and young adult years, I felt increasingly trapped in my own home. Everything I did was scrutinised; my parents never seemed to take into account my wants or needs. I found myself grasping for any scrap of independence, usually through lying or stealing or a combination of the two. As children, we are continually told that adults do things to protect us, especially when they are things we don’t particularly like. But when does protection morph into something uglier? When does it smother us, as if our agency has been stripped from us?

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It is wonderful to immerse oneself for days in the precise, elegant, passionate words of historian Inga Clendinnen (1934–2016), as this welcome collection of her writings enables one to do. Clendinnen’s distinctive voice comes through: warm, confidential, witty, and driven by a fierce intelligence. All her major writings are here – essays, articles, lectures, memoirs, and extracts from her books – deftly selected by James Boyce, a historian thirty years younger than Clendinnen and himself a highly original thinker and writer. As Boyce observes in his perceptive introduction, ‘Clendinnen’s subject was nothing less than human consciousness.’

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On Thomas Keneally by Stan Grant & With the Falling of the Dusk by Stan Grant

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June 2021, no. 432

Let’s start with a portrait. The year is 1993. The book is My Kind of People. Its author is Wayne Coolwell, a journalist. Who are Coolwell’s kind of people? Ernie Dingo, for one. Sandra Eades. Noel Pearson. Archie Roach. And there, sandwiched between opera singer Maroochy Barambah and dancer Linda Bonson is Stan Grant, aged thirty. Circa 1993, Grant is a breakthrough television presenter and journalist whose mother remembers him coming home to read the newspaper while the other kids went to play footy. ‘[T]here was a maturity and a sense of order about him,’ Coolwell writes. The order belies his parents’ life of ‘tin humpies, dirt floors, and usually only the one bed for all the kids in the family’.

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Few books blur the line between beauty and ugliness more than Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912). The novella follows the ageing writer Aschenbach, whose absurd over-refinement – born in part of repressed homosexuality – is dismantled by Tadzio, a beautiful boy he encounters on holiday in Venice. His obsession with Tadzio represents the displacement of mortality (Aschenbach will soon succumb to cholera) through a wilful surrender to decadence and decay.

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On the Line: Notes from a factory by Joseph Ponthus, translated by Stephanie Smee

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June 2021, no. 432

Few books immediately suspend time; few need no warm-up and almost demand to be read, reread, underlined. Stephanie Smee’s rendition of Joseph Ponthus’s multi-award-winning first solo book, On the Line: Notes from a factory, is one such read. It is the autobiographical story of an intellectual with a career in social work in the suburbs of Paris, who, having moved to Brittany for love, can’t find a job in his field and is forced to sell his labour as a casual worker in the local food-processing industry. Here we couldn’t be further from postcard Brittany, whose wild nature, hazy skies, mysterious language, and inhabitants inspired a Romantic generation of poets in search of an exotic fix without the hassle of leaving the Hexagon.

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Young writers may turn to the page for catharsis – for writing-as-therapy – but that’s not why we read them. The ageist view, that a writer mustn’t pen their memoirs until they are older and learned, neglects the breadth of excellent work by precocious writers who have a story to tell. Naïveté and inexperience can enchant, sometimes more so than brilliant craftsmanship or intellectual maturity.

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The distinguished historian Mark McKenna has written an elegant and hungry book about the pull of Uluru, that place of mysterious significance to Australians, black and white. Of course, in recent times, the Uluru Statement from the Heart – the heart that had a stake driven through it the moment it was entrusted to the most powerful whites in Canberra – is a complicated domain of passion and polemic. McKenna’s work, pro-Aboriginal and postcolonial in spirit, is itself an addition to the long history of romancing Uluru, albeit with a focus on a hero who seems like an anti-hero by the time this book is done.

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Disaster movies tend to follow a similar arc. Our band of heroes not only has to survive flames engulfing the skyscraper or sea water flooding the cruise liner, but must also triumph over the calculated selfishness of others who are also scrambling for salvation. The implication is that, with few exceptions, Thomas Hobbes was right. Amid the upheaval of the English Civil War, Hobbes declared that our natural human condition is a war of all against all, and that order can only be secured by a powerful ruler, a Leviathan, that keeps our naked urges in check. The social contract of considerate behaviour and thoughtfulness towards others is a thin veneer. Under pressure it peels away, and we are soon at one another’s throats in a life that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

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In the mid-1990s, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade paid me to research the year 1948. Although a little narrowly conceived for my liking, it wasn’t a bad job for a recently graduated PhD in history. I lasted a year. Most days I would head to the National Archives of Australia, then nestled among the panel beaters and porn shops of a Canberra industrial estate. My task was to work through departmental files, identifying and photocopying the most promising candidates for inclusion in a series of published foreign policy documents. The idea was that the general editor, a formidable old historian with a large corner office back in the city, would then select the documents to be included. The job itself, or at least the way it was organised, was itself redolent of an industrial world that was flourishing in 1948 and on its last legs by 1995. Indeed, I recall a demonstration in the department that very year of a newfangled thing called the World Wide Web. I took away from the demonstration that it was the internet with fancy pictures.

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