Non Fiction

No Document begins with a description of the opening sequence of Georges Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949) in which a horse is led to slaughter – a significant misremembering that Anwen Crawford rectifies later. Franju’s black-and-white documentary actually begins with a collage of scenes shot on the outskirts of Paris; surreal juxtapositions of objects abandoned in a landscape devastated by war and reconstruction.

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The China Journals: Ideology and intrigue in the 1960s by Hugh Trevor-Roper, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines

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November 2020, no. 426

When the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) invited Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford, to visit China in 1965, he jumped at the chance. It was a decision that all parties concerned came to regret. The eminent historian had a terrible time in China, ‘that land of bigots and parrots’. He didn’t meet the right people. He found no intellectual equals. The interpreters and guides assigned to the group weren’t up to the job. He nicknamed them Cement-head, Duckbottom, Smooth-face, and the Presbyterian.

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Grace Karskens’s previous book, The Colony (2009), which dealt with Sydney and the Cumberland Plain during the first years of invasion, was one of the great books about the early colonial period in Australia. People of the River is just as important but more profound and risky. In both, Karskens has found ways, brilliantly original ways, of taking in entire populations, and she is particularly good with webs of human connection and patterns of movement. Her focus on multi-centred relationship belongs to the twenty-first century, an age which is beginning to rethink the human individual as an interlinked being, a creature shaped by circumstance and by connection.

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Ben Bland, a Financial Times correspondent in Indonesia in 2012–15 and currently director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute, had a ringside seat to watch the rise of Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (also known as Jokowi). By his own account, Bland has met him more than a dozen times. Jokowi was a furniture-maker and -exporter, mayor of Solo, and governor of Jakarta before being elected president in 2014. Bland has written a good introduction to the Jokowi era that will appeal to the general reader but may leave the serious student of Indonesia unsatisfied.

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‘Our age,’ begins the epigraph to Anne Applebaum’s book Twilight of Democracy, ‘is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds.’ This disarming quote from French writer Julien Benda dates back to 1927; how little has changed in a century. Just one generation after the triumphant ‘end of history’ – and notwithstanding the impact of Covid-19, fleetingly referenced here – Western democratic societies are prey to institutional decline, increasing distrust, violence, and hatred.

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With the possible exception of Jean Baudrillard or Anthony Giddens, it is difficult to think of a contemporary sociologist who has rivalled the international intellectual standing, as well as global fame, of the late Zygmunt Bauman. In his subtle, worldly intelligence, his interdisciplinary engagement, and his poetic cast of mind, Bauman stands out as one of the most influential social thinkers of our time. A distinguished heir to the tradition of radical Marxist criticism, his writings tracked the political contradictions, cultural pressures, and emotional torments of modernity with a uniquely agile understanding. With his scathing critical pen and brilliant socio logical investigations, Bauman unearthed major institutional transformations in capitalism, culture, and communication in a language that disdained all academic boundaries, crossing effortlessly from Marx to mobile phones, from Gramsci to globalisation, and from postmodernism to the privatisation of prisons.

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On the July afternoon when I first read Intimations, novelist and prolific essayist Zadie Smith’s new book of essays, Melbourne registered its highest number of Covid-19 cases – 484 positives, with two deaths. Since then the daily tolls have risen alarmingly. Midway through the city’s second week of Lockdown 2.0, there is a nebulous feeling of dispiritedness. We mark time as belonging to a pre-Covid era or the present reality. Within the present there exist further subdivisions of pasts and presents marked by social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing, hopefulness.

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To an older generation of Australian poetry readers, David Campbell (1915–79) was perhaps the best-loved poet of Douglas Stewart’s post-World War II ‘Red Page’, appearing there with what would become iconic poems of the new Bulletin school like ‘Windy Gap’, ‘Who Points the Swallow’, and ‘Men in Green’. Despite his frequent publication in that heritage venue, Campbell published his first collection, Speak with the Sun (1949), in England with Chatto & Windus, through the good offices of his Cambridge mentor E.M.W. Tillyard. After that, he joined the ancien A&R régime of poets like Rosemary Dobson, R.D. FitzGerald, Francis Webb, James McAuley, and Judith Wright, who took up much of the middle ground of Australian poetry in the 1950s and 1960s. A lifelong friend and supporter of Campbell, Stewart was also influential in this group’s prominence, along with Beatrice Davis, his editorial co-adviser at Angus & Robertson.

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In 2016, Hillary Clinton received nearly three million more votes for president of the United States than Donald Trump. Despite this sizeable margin, Clinton was not elected. The reason was the electoral college, a method for picking presidents that emerged as an ‘eleventh-hour compromise’ at the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787 and that has never been abolished.

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The Road by John Martinkus & Too Close to Ignore edited by Mark Moran and Jodie Curth-Bibb

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September 2020, no. 424

It is a damning – if not altogether surprising – indictment on our public discourse that the average Australian knows far more about political and social developments on the other side of the world than about those occurring in our ‘near abroad’. It takes just fifteen minutes to travel in a dinghy from the northern most island in the Torres Strait to Papua New Guinea. The flight from Darwin to Timor-Leste lasts barely an hour. If visitors were permitted in Indonesian-controlled West Papua, the trip from Australia to Merauke, by plane from Darwin or boat from the Torres Strait, would not take much longer. Yet judging by the sparse coverage these regions receive in our press and by their minimal prominence in our politics, they might as well be on Mars.

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