Black Inc

John Hirst is a distinctive figure in Australian intellectual life. As an academic, he has had a distinguished career at La Trobe University in teaching, supervision, and research. He developed new subjects and methodologies with which to teach them. In addition to those concerning Australian history, there was his pioneering subject designed to inform students about Australia’s European cultural heritage, with some of the lectures recently published as The Shortest History of Europe (2009).

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Neal Blewett reviews three books on Kevin Rudd

Neal Blewett
Friday, 10 July 2020

The political assassination of Kevin Rudd will fascinate for a long time to come. As with Duncan’s murder in Shakespeare’s play it was done, as Lady Macbeth cautioned, under ‘the blanket of the dark’, literally the night of 23–24 June 2010. The assassins heeded Macbeth’s advice: ‘if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.’ And as in Macbeth, the assassins were in the shadow of the throne. Even the old king approved: Bob Hawke, himself deposed in 1991, recognised at last that the removal of a Labor prime minister is sometimes necessary.

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From a clutch of novels including the award-winning Camille’s Bread (1996), Amanda Lohrey has now turned to shorter literary forms, notably two Quarterly Essays (2002, 2006), a novella (Vertigo, 2008) and this new collection of short stories. At the 2009 Sydney Writers’ Festival she publicly confessed her new leaning, arguing the benefits of genres more easily completed by both writer and reader and less likely to produce guilt if cast aside unfinished.

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Not for forty years have Australians had real arguments with their governments about international relations. Many marched in 2003 against the Iraq invasion, but were ignored. Now, if the national obesity rate is any guide, Australians spend more time eating, partying and sleeping than having the earnest pre-breakfast discussions about foreign relations that Fukuzawa recommended.

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The women that Robyn Davidson had a powerful effect on, Richard Cooke tells us, include author Anna Krien, adventurer Esther Nunn, and his wife. ‘I watched as the power of this book and its author, their energy and weight, worked an entrainment across cultures and generations,’ writes Cooke. In some ways his essay charts his struggle with that power. How not to fall into the trap that others who have tackled Davidson have fallen into? ‘I lagged decades of writers and pilgrims, interlopers and fans. Reading interviews to try to chicane through the questions already asked was pointless. They most often sought answers about the same thing – her first book, now published forty years ago.’

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The American writer Jack Matthews had no time for what he called ‘a discontent’ with the brevity of the short story. ‘Ask a coral snake,’ he declared, ‘which is as deadly as it is small.’ The claim for ‘deadliness’ certainly applies to four recent début collections; in the tight spaces of the short story, each one presents confronting ideas about contemporary Australia.

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Some time before the sun set on the British empire, ‘British justice’ took on an ironic meaning. In the colonies, we knew it was a charade, like that doled out to ‘Breaker’ Morant during the Boer War. The dice are loaded in favour of a prosecution that nevertheless insists on carrying out its cold-blooded retribution in an apparently value-free legalese, thus preserving the self-righteousness of the empire and tormenting the condemned. Yet, as Robert Manne and David Corlett make clear in this latest Quarterly Essay, the larrikin land of Australia can now, through its treatment of asylum seekers, fairly be said to lead the world in the practice of traditional British justice.

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Three débuts about female experience

Susan Midalia
Monday, 24 February 2020

Three recent début novels employ the genre of the Bildungsroman to explore the complexities of female experience in the recent historical past. Anna Goldsworthy, widely known and admired as a memoirist, essayist, and musician, has now added a novel, Melting Moments (Black Inc., $29.99 pb, 240 pp), to her list of achievements.

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You didn’t have to be Antony Green to know that by seven o’clock on election night things were looking very bad for Bill Shorten. The problem itself wasn’t complicated. While all the available polling suggested that Labor would gain support, the majority of booth results said that Labor was going backwards. Numbers were breaking for Scott Morrison, with the Liberal National Party driving a bulldozer through Queensland, while expected Labor gains in Melbourne remaining stubbornly out of reach. Echoes of Don’s Party were hard to ignore.

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Bruce Pascoe’s Salt is a wonderfully eclectic collection of new works and earlier short fiction, literary non-fiction, and essays written over twenty years. Structured thematically across six themes – Country, Lament, Seawolves, Embrasure, Tracks, and Culture Lines – Salt moves between the past and the present with Pascoe’s distinctively poetic voice. Readers of Dark Emu (2014) and Convincing Ground (2007) will be familiar with the style and subject matter but will discover newly released or reworked gems.

The title speaks to memories and ghosts triggered by the smell of salt; its ability to clean, to render flesh and skin from bone, to preserve evidence, to signal cumulative impacts on Country. The prevalence of salt speaks to the power and closeness of sea Country and our dwindling salty river systems, increasingly threatened by human intervention. Pascoe’s characters are richly drawn from this salted earth and exposed to the light and the elements. Whether presented as fiction or the voices of shared histories, his characters are grounded within the seasons and Country. So, too, in Pascoe’s view, are their possibilities of reviving this salted earth through heeding Indigenous knowledge and experience.

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