NewSouth

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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I first encountered Stephen Jay Gould when I happened on one of his books in a bookshop during my late teens. Its unusual title, The Panda’s Thumb, caught my eye. The lead article channelled Charles Darwin’s approach to understanding the natural world, not through looking at perfect adaptations to the environment but ...

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Over the past few years, no term has been more ubiquitous, among political scientists and political commentators alike, than ‘populism’. The 2016 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, Donald Trump’s election later that year, and, more recently, the formation of a government mostly supported by two populist parties ...

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To complement our 2017 ‘Books of the Year’, we invited several senior publishers to nominate their favourite books – all published by other companies.

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The resurgence of the Anzac legend in the last quarter of the twentieth century took many Australians by surprise. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, it seemed that the rituals of Anzac Day would wither and fade away as the generations who fought the two world wars died. It proved not to be so. ‘Anzac’, to use the common shorthand, now dominates the national memory of war as strongly as it ever did, although it is not the same legend as it was 100 years ago. Many commentators see this ‘return’ of Anzac as a spontaneous upwelling of national sentiment, a natural and appropriate honouring of those who have died in Australia’s defence. Critics, however, discern a more deliberate orchestration of public sentiment by successive governments, which, for a variety of political purposes, have ‘militarised’ Australian history and sidelined other competing narratives of Australia’s development.

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The twenty or so elegant Georgian buildings designed by Francis Greenway that stand in Sydney today are a civilising presence. Yet these represent less than a quarter of his output. The destruction has been wanton and impoverishing.

Greenway was born in November 1777, near Bristol. His father was a stonemason and builder, as had been generations of Greenways. Nothing is known of his early years, but, judging by his knowledge of literature, he probably had a respectable education. He worked in the Greenway family’s mason’s yard and spent time in London from 1797, attached in some way – maybe as an apprentice – to the architect John Nash. By 1805, Greenway was back in Bristol working with his brothers, and by 1809 he was bankrupt.

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Hannah Forsyth, a lecturer in history at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney, begins her first chapter with the words: ‘In 1857 all of the Arts students at the University of Sydney could fit into a single photograph.’ Some neo-liberal critics of universities would argue that it has been downhill ever since. By World War II, Forsyth estimates that there were still only about 10,000 university students in Australia. Forsyth succinctly highlights the historical changes from a small élite higher education system, dominated by white male ‘god’ professors, to the current complex system, where more than one million students face major changes in higher education funding and settings.

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On 17 January 1991, Alan Atkinson wrote to fellow historian Manning Clark to express his appreciation after reading The Puzzles of Childhood (1989) and The Quest for Grace (1990), Clark’s two volumes of autobiography. While Clark had only four months to live, Atkinson would soon begin work on The Europeans in Australia, a three-volume history of his country that would occupy him over the next twenty years. ‘I enjoyed both [the autobiographies],’ he told Clark; they ‘had a kind of subjectivity about them. It’s a remarkable style you use, which seemed to relate very much to me, so that they taught me a lot.’ Atkinson later described how he was ‘profoundly influenced’ by Clark’s work. Even more than the vast scale of Clark’s six-volume A History of Australia, it was the ‘infinite variety and open-ended stillness … of the past itself’ that affected him so intensely. Clark had shown Atkinson that the historian must ‘not just reimagine the national story but also do it in ways that ask questions about humanity itself’.

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The German film The Lives of Others (2006) ends with a coda, set after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in which protagonist Georg Dreyman is finally allowed access to the volumes of secret files collected on him by the Stasi. Apart from the sheer number, what strikes Georg most is the utter banality of the information contained within. It is a familiar reaction among the contributors to Dirty Secrets, a collection of essays from prominent Australians on the receipt of their ASIO files.

Meredith Burgmann, who has edited these essays, is refreshingly honest as to her aims. ‘I wanted to look at the effect of spying on those who have been its targets,’ she says in her introduction. Delightedly she adds, ‘We are finally writing about them instead of them writing about us.’ The lingering outrage underpinning the book rarely subsides.

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It was timely that halfway through reading this book, I glanced up to see Clive Palmer on Q&A vowing to stand up to ‘the Chinese mongrels’. It was as if a columnist from the Bulletin circa 1895 had risen from the grave to thump a battered tub and warn us about the monster intent on destroying ‘our Australian way of life’. Images like these still lurk in the bedrock of White Australian consciousness, and Palmer’s outburst was a reminder of how readily they can be summoned.

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