Ian Britain

‘A voyage round my father’, to quote the title of John Mortimer’s autobiographical play of 1963, has been a popular form of personal memoir in Britain from Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) to Michael Parkinson’s just-published Like Father, Like Son. The same form produced some of the best Australian writing in the twentieth century, with two assured classics in the case of Germaine Greer’s Daddy, We Hardly Knew You (1989) and Raimond Gaita’s Romulus, My Father (1998). The tradition has continued into the present century with – to list some of the choicest plums – Richard Freadman’s Shadow of Doubt: My father and myself (2003), Sheila Fitzpatrick’s My Father’s Daughter (2010), Jim Davidson’s A Führer for a Father (2017), and Christopher Raja’s Into the Suburbs: A migrant’s story (2020). Mothers in such sagas are far from absent, and they can emerge, though not always, as the more obviously loveable or loving figures. As signalled by most of those titles, however, mothers loom less large over the unfolding narrative. Fathers may not always know or act best, but, partly because of their often tougher, commanding mien, they become irresistibly the centre of attention.

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‘Absolutely charming – slim, handsome, nice speaking voice and manner, a super-gent’: it might be a line from an old-fashioned dalliance column, but it is from one of the letters published in this volume, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, writing to one of his most regular and lustrous correspondents, Debo Devonshire, youngest of the ...

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How has David Plante managed to become as prolific a novelist as he has when so much of his time has been spent in flitting between gallery openings in New York, dinner parties and book launches in London, idyllic holidays in Italy and Greece, and teaching in Tulsa, Oklahoma? And those are just a few of the 'worlds apart' recounted in this so-called memoir – the b ...

‘He was a great bloke, a gentleman and a scholar,’ one of Scott Bevan’s interviewees says of his subject, the fêted and (at one stage) ill-fated painter, William Dobell. Like many others in the book, this interviewee got to know Dobell at Wangi Wangi, the little coastal township just south of Newcastle in New South Wales where the painter retreated for the last third of his life, following the unsuccessful but nonetheless wearing legal case mounted against him when he was awarded the Archibald Prize for portraiture in 1943. (The plaintiffs had sought to claim that the prize-winning work was a caricature.)

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Walter Spies by John Stowell & Brown Boys and Rice Queens by Eng-Beng Lim

by
October 2014, no. 365

‘Spellbinding’ is an apt word to sum up the effects created by Russian-born German artist Walter Spies in his phantasmagoric, darkly glowing landscapes and figure paintings, particularly those that he fashioned when living in Java and Bali between 1923 and 1941. Tropical luxuriance has other superlative renderers in art – Gauguin, ‘Le Douanier’ Rousseau, D ...

How lucky we were! My ‘baby boomer’ generation in Melbourne grew up on stories of the second Frank Thring (1926–94), which competed in outrageousness with the anecdotes we heard of Barry Humphries; and throughout the 1960s we had the opportunity – more so in the case of Thring, who had now settled back in Melbourne as a regular performer on stage and television, as Humphries began his lifelong commute to London – to catch both of these not-so-sacred monsters in the flesh and on their own home turf. (As I asked of the females of this species in a previous article in ABR – ‘Mordant Mots’, September 2007 – what is it about Melbourne that has produced such bizarre and brilliant creatures?)

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For some sixty years Donald Friend kept a diary, making his final entry just days before his death in 1989 at the age of seventy-four. The National Library of Australia published them in four massive volumes between 2001 and 2006. They were intractable. You needed an axe to cut through the stream of consciousness which flowed from an uncensoring pen ...

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In a review on quite another subject for ABR’s recent summer issue (‘Barry by Edna’, December 2010–January 2011), I had occasion to invoke the career of Michael Holroyd, ‘reigning, if ailing, king of English biographers’, as I dubbed him. On the basis of his well-publicised illness, I sadly but confidently declared that Holroyd’s joint biographical study of the Irving and Terry theatrical dynasties, A Strange Eventful History (2008), was ‘likely to be his last’. How delightful now to be proved wrong with the appearance of A Book of Secrets.

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On those twin Titans of the twentieth-century English stage, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, fellow-actor Simon Callow recently reflected: ‘We tell stories about them … because they filtered life through the medium of their souls to create new and rich variations on the human condition: they lived their art to the fullest extent possible. Of whom shall we be telling stories now?’

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‘A large part of the beauty of a picture,’ Matisse famously decreed, ‘arises from the struggle which an artist wages with his limited medium.’ Struggle is the dominant motif in Murray Bail’s study of Scottish-born painter Ian Fairweather, first essayed in 1981, now refashioned, updated, and handsomely repackaged.

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