Viking

There were seven of them, as in a folk tale. The family was too poor to put shoes on their feet. They lived in a village called New. Hard though life was, they knew it would be worse without Kindly Leader, who was carrying the land into prosperity and joy. At present, however, the seven sons had little to eat.

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When Barry Humphries published his first volume of autobiography, many readers were left wanting ‘More, please’ – avid as gladdie-waving victims during one of his shows; voracious as the greedy polymath himself ...

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When Malcom Fraser was prime minister, he was generally thought of as a hard and ruthless man of the right. In part this was because of the role he played in the removal of Gough Whitlam; in part because of his fiscal prudence; in part because of his orthodox Cold War foreign policy. Following his defeat in 1983, an alternative picture of Fraser gradually emerged. Under Labor, Australia embarked upon a program of economic rationalist reform. For his failure to anticipate this programme – to be wise or, as some would say, unwise before the event – Fraser was caricatured, especially by his former political friends, as a do-nothing prime minister. His time in office was ridiculed as Seven Wasted Years. After 1996 Fraser became one of the most influential critics of John Howard’s new brand of populist conservatism. The portrait of him was once more redrawn. The left saw him as a principled humanitarian; the right as an incorrigible Wet.

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Bob Ellis is the quintessential Labour groupie, and Goodbye Babylon the latest instalment in the saga of his love affair with the ALP, which began with The Things We Did Last Summer, a slim and evocative volume, published twenty years ago. By contrast, Goodbye Babylon is a fat book; rather like Ellis himself, it is sprawling, dishevelled, undisciplined but likeable, witty, and gregarious. His prose, though prone to excess, can be rich and compelling.

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As W.H. Auden observed more than forty years ago: ‘To the man-in-the-street, who, I’m sorry to say, / Is a keen observer of life, / The word ‘Intellectual’ suggests straight away / A man who’s untrue to his wife.’ Perhaps such popular attitudes explain why intellectuals as politicians are rare in the bear pit of modern Australian parliaments ...

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The public legacy of the art patrons John and Sunday Reed endures in various ways. Their influence is a strand in the story of the notorious ‘Ern Malley’ literary hoax. They played a major role in the emergence in the 1940s of an important circle of Melbourne modernist painters, including Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, and Arthur Boyd. Against the forces of conservatism and resistance, John Reed, in particular, was a public advocate in Australia for contemporary art from the 1940s until the end of his life. Janine Burke and the curator Deborah Hart have reminded us that the friendship and hospitality of the Reeds at Heide helped give expression to the untamed talent of the young Joy Hester. In 1979, John Reed remembered Hester at twenty: ‘a funny little synthetic blonde hoyden with very naïve ideas about the world.’ But, he added, she ‘was a rare and lovely person, one of our most beautiful artists and a natural poet’. Hester’s story, important in its own right, is inextricably a part of the larger story of John and Sunday Reed.

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London 1999. I’m in a draughty slum in Hackney, the poor part of the East End, shared with a mini-UN of students, squatters, drifters and a junior investment banker. Feeding five-pound notes into the gas meter, keeping an eye out the window for the television licence detector van, we’re doing what everyone who comes to cool Britannia does most evenings – watching the BBC ‘cos we can’t afford to go to the pub. Suddenly, the screen seems to widen and there’s Sydney Harbour in all its luminescent glory, with an expert panel of worthies – Bob Hawke, Bill Hayden, Geoffrey Robertson – arrayed before it.

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This book is suspended from a question mark, and all of Australia’s history is suspended with it. Henry Reynolds has been doing it for twenty years. What happens if we try to understand the coming of the Europeans from the Aboriginal viewpoint, from the other side of the frontier? Did the European invaders really think they were occupying a country that belonged to no one, a terra nullius? If we, the white people, had a legal title, how did we acquire it? If everything was fair and above board, why then this whispering in our hearts? And if so many big questions were left unanswered, if so many black people died so that we could live in prosperous comfort, Why weren’t we told?

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Is it possible to admire a novel, to have enjoyed it on both first and second readings, yet to remain unconvinced that one can with confidence say what it is about? Isn’t that rather the complex response that poetry excites? Here it might be noted that John Scott, who subtitles The Architect not ‘a novel’ but ‘a tale’, is a poet turned novelist, as is his friend David Brooks, of whose House of Balthus something similar might be said. ‘Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully,’ as Wallace Stevens opined.

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If Gerald Stone had gone to a publisher with a proposal for a book about Channel Seven or Channel Ten, it is doubtful whether it would ever have seen the light of day. But Stone – who would have endured more than a few pitches in his time as a television executive – had the sense to propose a book about his former employer, Channel Nine, and Compulsive Viewing is the result.

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