Frank Bongiorno

Late in 1986, the Australian Bicentennial Authority took sixty celebrities off to Uluru to make the television advertisement containing the jingle ‘Celebration of a Nation’. Just as the shoot finished, a heavy storm broke, prompting the stars to run for cover. ‘Oh, darling,’ cried Jeanne Little, a popular television personality at the time. ‘The real Australia’s quite frightening, isn’t it?’

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If the London Australian expatriate community has an aristocracy of sorts – as it clearly does – then Geoffrey Robertson QC and the novelist Kathy Lette, his wife since 1990, would be among its leading nobility. Robertson and Lette mix with royalty, both real and literary (‘our daughters had been flower girls at Salman’s wedding – I can’t remember which one’). I would love to have been present when Robertson advised Diana, during her affair with James Hewitt, that the Treason Act of 1361 laid down the death penalty for any party to adultery with the wife of the heir to the throne. Did she blush or blanch?

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Tony Moore’s engaging account of Australian bohemians begins with Marcus Clarke and takes us through to Julian Assange. Along the way we encounter Australian bohemia in its diverse expressions, from the art of the Heidelberg School, writing of the Bulletin, high jinks of 1920s Sydney bohemia to the Sydney Push, Melbourne Drift, 1960s counterculture (in both its local and London expatriate manifestations), cultured larrikins of 1970s ‘new nationalism’, punk, post-punk, and much else. Here is the historian as impresario, assembling an extraordinary cast across 150 years of Australian cultural history. To bring them all together without producing an inedible stew is a major achievement in itself.

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In 1984 Carole Vance edited an important book on female sexuality entitled Pleasure and Danger.Those terms could well have provided a subtitle for Frank Bongiorno’s thorough and engaging history of sex in Australia. ‘Sexuality,’ wrote Vance, ‘is simultaneously a domain of restriction, repression and danger, as well as a domain of exploration, pleasure and agency.’ To which she might have added a domain of increasing surveillance, another theme that runs through Bongiorno’s book. From fears of unwanted pregnancy and the dangers of botched abortion, to herpes and HIV, sex has always carried threats to health and safety. At the same time, it is an arena of pleasure, even though much religious and ideological pressure has been applied to restrict and constrain the possibilities that people might find in full expression of their sexual potential. Even in the comparatively liberated 1920s: ‘Public debate about sex in Australia stressed dangers and pitfalls and gave less attention to sex as a source of pleasure.’

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A History of Australia by Mark Peel and Christina Twomey

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April 2012, no. 340

The product under consideration is Shist.’ So began New Zealand historian Keith Sinclair’s discussion of short histories in 1968. His irreverent diminutive is still occasionally heard among professional historians of a certain age. It is less often recalled that Sinclair was defending the worth of the short history against those who might think ‘Shist beneath their dignity’. After all, Sinclair was himself the author of a fine short history of New Zealand, and he was contributing to a collection of essays in honour of W.K. Hancock, who had arguably produced the most distinguished – and certainly the most influential – short history of Australia up to that time.

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Heroes & Villains by Nick Dyrenfurth & A Little History of the Australian Labor Party by Nick Dyrenfurth and Frank Bongiorno

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September 2011, no. 334

The heroes and villains in Nick Dyrenfurth’s account of the early Labor Party are the cartoon figures in the labour press that he uses to explore its political rhetoric. The heroes are sturdy working men, sometimes in bush garb, sometimes industrial labourers. The villains take various forms: serpents, harpies, bloodsucking insects, menacing aliens, but above all the Fat Man, the swollen, grotesque embodiment of capitalist greed. Dyrenfurth observes that Mr Fat is a far more ubiquitous device in Australian radical iconography than its counterparts elsewhere. British cartoons used a variety of villains: aristocratic loafers, rapacious landlords, ruthless sweaters, mendacious press barons. Those in the United States were less likely to personify capitalism with a generic capitalist villain than to depict combines and trusts.

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The Rush that Never Ended by Geoffrey Blainey & The Fuss that Never Ended edited by Deborah Gare et al.

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May 2003, no. 251

‘He looks a bit like Marty Feldman with two good eyes.’ So wrote a journalist of Geoffrey Blainey in 1977. In The Fuss That Never Ended, a collection of essays on Blainey arising out of a Melbourne symposium, Bridget Griffen-Foley no less irreverently compares the historian to a character played by Steven Seagal in a movie she saw on television – not because he shares Seagal’s ‘fake tan, ponytail, high-pitched voice, rippling muscles, kickboxing prowess or lurid, technicolour knee-length leather coat’, but because of his ‘style of investigation’ as a young historian. Blainey, she suggests, was neither bookworm nor archive rat. He went into the field, spoke to real people, visited historical sites. His work even helped his first employer, the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company, to exploit long-forgotten mineral deposits. Since producing his history of that company in his early twenties, he has been Australia’s leading mining historian, and one of that industry’s staunchest defenders. It has probably been easier for most people to swallow Blainey’s historical and economic arguments in favour of mining than Hugh Morgan’s biblical ones.

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