Morag Fraser

Judith Brett, historian and La Trobe University emeritus professor of politics, is characteristically direct – in her questioning, her analysis, and her engagement with readers. If there is something declarative about ‘Going Public’, the title of Doing Politics’s introductory chapter, that is exactly what Brett intends: to go public, to offer a general reader her considered reflections on Australian political and cultural life. This is not an assemblage of opinion pieces, though her writings have a related journalistic conciseness and impact – they speak to the times. What distinguishes Brett’s collection of essays is their scholarly depth and habit of enquiry. They prompt thought before they invite agreement, or conclusions. Even the bad actors, the political obstructors, the wreckers in Brett’s political analysis, are psychologically intriguing. Why are our politicians like this? What’s going on? Judith Brett studied literature and philosophy as well as politics as an undergraduate. Perhaps Hamlet drills away in her consciousness: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

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Tim Bonyhady is one of Australia’s leading environmental lawyers and cultural historians. He has previously traced connections between art and national mythologies in books such as Images in Opposition (1985) and The National Picture (2018). In his latest work, Two Afternoons in the Kabul Stadium, he turns his attention to Afghanistan, unpicking the fabric of contemporary Afghan society by following closely the warp and weft of its visual culture, from women’s fashion to war rugs to photography. In today’s episode, Morag Fraser reviews Bonyhady’s book, writing in the wake of the Taliban victory and immersing herself in the ‘intriguingly tangential and complex history’ woven by one of Australia’s most scrupulous and sensitive observers of culture. Morag Fraser, a previous chairperson of ABR, has been writing for the magazine since the 1990s.

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In 1994, the Afghan mujahideen commander, Abdul Haq, rebuked the United States for forgetting about Afghanistan once the communist-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah had fallen in 1992. He predicted that Washington would rue its neglect: ‘Maybe one day they will have to send in hundreds of thousands of troops,’ he told The New York Times. ‘And if they step in, they will be stuck. We have a British grave in Afghanistan. We have a Soviet grave. And then we will have an American grave.’

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What Happens Next? edited by Emma Dawson and Janet McCalman & Upturn by Tanya Plibersek

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December 2020, no. 427

What is to be done? The question is asked whenever humankind confronts a new crisis. And the answers, whether from biblical sources, Tolstoy, or Lenin (or indeed Barry Jones in his imminent book, What Is To Be Done?), must confront universal moral quandaries at the same time as they address local needs, hopes, and aspirations.

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In a 1954 letter to his niece Pippa, artist-nomad Ian Fairweather lamented that he could not write with sufficient analytic detachment to look back at his life and ‘see a pattern in it’. (Ian Fairweather: A life in letters, Text Publishing, 2019). The irony – that one of Australian art’s most profound, intuitive pattern-makers should be ruefully unable to ‘see’ the formative structures and repetitions of his fraught life – would not be lost on Amanda Lohrey. Labyrinth, her haunting new novel, is a meditation on fundamental patterns in nature and in familial relations, and our experience of them in time. But this is a novel, not a treatise, its narrative so bracing – like salt spray stinging your face – that one is borne forward inexorably, as if caught in the coastal rip that is one of the novel’s darker motifs. It is a work to read slowly, and reread, so that its metaphorical patterns can come into focus, and the intricate knots of structure loosen and unwind.

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Sir Andrew's Messiah 

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
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10 December 2019

‘Sir Andrew’s Messiah’ it was: the conductor’s affectionate choice (Andrew Davis had soloed in Messiah as a boy), and his own orchestration, of Handel’s masterwork for his farewell concert as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor. Sir Andrew, who has caught an Australian habit, will return in 2020 as Conductor Laureate. Handel (who didn’t rate a mention on the MSO’s concert program cover) is perennial, so his return, and return, to Australian concert stages, churches, community singalongs, and recording studios is more guaranteed than rain.

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Ian Fairweather: A life in letters edited by Claire Roberts and John Thompson

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November 2019, no. 416

Artist, hermit, instinctive communicator, a nomad who built studio nests for himself all over the globe, Ian Fairweather is a consistent paradox – and an enduring one. In an art world of fragile and fluctuating reputations, his work retains the esteem with which it was received – by his peers – when he landed in Australia in 1934 and, with their help, exhibited almost immediately. His way of life – eccentric, solitary, obsessive – was extraordinary then, and continued so until his death in 1974. Success never sanded off his diffident, abrasive edges. When presented with the International Cooperation Art Award in 1973, he mused, in a letter to his niece, Helga (‘Pippa’) Macnamara:

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The poet James McAuley once told a group of Sydney university students – ‘forcefully’,  as Geoffrey Lehmann recalls – that poets should have a career unconnected with literature. Lehmann had already imbibed a related injunction from his mother:  ‘One day she told me I should become a lawyer and a writer ...

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To celebrate the best books of 2018, Australian Book Review invited nearly forty contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors include Michelle de Kretser

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On 6 March 1948 – a mere seventy years ago – the paintings that comprise this stellar exhibition of ‘Modern Art’ from St Petersburg’s great cultural repository, the State Hermitage Museum, were condemned in a decree by the Council of Ministers of the USSR as ‘the bourgeois art of ...

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