Memoir

Manning Clark will be remembered as a historian long after the last jot and tittle of the facts he amassed have been disputed and every revisionism has had its day, proving for those with the needful faith that he made it all up, that he was a waffler, that the diorama he presented as the history of Australia was nothing but an allegory of the inside of his head, and that it was all vanity and a striving after wind.

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There’s nothing wrong with the idea of an affectionate look at Melbourne through the eyes of a drunken, literate, old member of its Establishment. There should, theoretically, be nothing wrong with the countless surreal situations which this takes us through in an effort to elucidate the soul of Australia’s most endearing city. There’s nothing wrong with a lost daughter sub-plot. There probably is something wrong with dragging in literati under such pseudonyms as F. Rank Morguehouse, Halloween Gurner, and Bob L. Arse – especially to those and of who believe Australian literature to be masturbatory enough already. But this element is merely a grain of sand against the reader’s neck. It is the whole uncomfortable yoke we must examine.

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Many of our strongest writers are also numbered among our most commanding critics; and in some cases – Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, and Eliot – it is not easy to tell whether their greater contribution is to literature or literary criticism. Part of the problem, of course, is that at this high level the distinction tends to break down: criticism becomes literature in its own right and often on its own terms.

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My Place by Sally Morgan

by
August 1987, no, 93

Reading My Place by Sally Morgan reminds one of how powerful a book can be when there is an urgent story to be told. This book, let me say at the outset, is wonderful.

Sally Morgan and her four brothers and sisters grew up in Perth in the 1950s and 1960s. They are part Aboriginal, but didn’t know it then. They knew they were darker, different, perhaps they were Greek; their mother and grandmother told them they were Indian and this answer satisfied the kids at school, and them for a time.

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The autobiographer faces a real problem: the self. ‘Which self?’ may also be the reader’s question and it may also be the question of the autobiographer. Should one write about the known self, the self vaunted or scorned by others, the public one, parts of which can be found in archives, on record, in the books and conversations of friends and enemies? Or should it be the private self, the self-protected and defended by jokes, chiack and taciturnity, hinted at here or there, but never accepted as real when defined by others?

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Welcome again to Morris Lurie’s global village: Melbourne, Paris, New York, London, Tangier, Tel Aviv, Melbourne again, London. Lurie is one of our most reliable entertainers, but he is also, in the recesses of his stories, a chronicler of inner loneliness. The round world for him is signposted with stories; as one of his characters says, ‘everything is a story, or a prelude to a story, or the aftermath of one.’ The sheer variety of narrative incidents and locales in this collection is, as usual with him, impressive in itself. His characters play hard with experience in those bright or familiar places, a Tangier of easy living and surprising acquaintances, a London of the sixties fierce with contrasts. Yet finally they are always partly detached from it all and able to set themselves free, curiously able to resume the role of spectator of life. Many of Lurie’s characters give the initially disconcerting impression of possessing that ultimate detachment of a certain kind of writer, even when, as is usually the case, they are not actually cast as a writer or artist.

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S
unday 26 October 1969 ... This evening I went to evensong at Christ Church to give thanks for the election result.’

For the men born to rule – and Peter Howson was a finely preserved specimen of the tribe in his generation – God was not only a Liberal, but a highly discriminating one at that. After all, the 1969 election for which Howson gave thanks at South Yarra slashed the Liberal Government’s majority by seventeen, to seven, and made John Gorton’s replacement as Prime Minister virtually inevitable.

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Kathleen Fitzpatrick wanted to be an actress. Instead, she became a famous lecturer and teacher in the History Department at the University of Melbourne, and in one of the frequent revealing asides in her memoir implies that perhaps this fact explained her ability as an inspiring lecturer.

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I first met Fabinyi in November, 1963 – he had offered me an editorial job sight-unseen at F.W. Cheshire while I was living in London. On my first day in the basement in Little Collins Street, Melbourne, I shook hands formally with a handsome, greying man in his early fifties with a slight stoop and a thick European accent. Within a week or two of my arrival, my new acquaintances warned me about him: he was ambitious, and he was circuitous. Then followed the tired, old (and to me, offensive) joke about the Hungarian in the revolving door. I shall comment on these accusations later.

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One heady day in the mid I920s, sculptor and Lindsayite recruit Guy Lynch (brother of the elegaic subject of Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’), held forth in a pub at Circular Quay on his plan for Sydney to become an Hellenic city. The Quay itself he saw as a magnificent ampitheatre for the incarnation of the Lindsay group’s Nietzschean dream of Dionysian joy, as revealed in the vital art affirmed as the salvation from the twin vices of bourgeois philistinism and modernistic decadence, the canon that ran from Shakespeare, Rubens and Beethoven, to Norman Lindsay and Hugh McCrae. He-men would lean against pillars, girls would stroll about, and grand opera would be played amongst forests of statues.

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