Non Fiction

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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Richard Walsh – former OZ co-editor, A&R, ACP and PBL director – has proven again that he has keen eye for what fixates Australians. To be remembered is of course an enduring human obsession, while the ability to send off (or send up) a friend or family member is more often an afterthought, a stepping into the breach.

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Even the name is confusing: think of it as Belgian Congo/Zaire/Congo DRC to avoid confusing it with the Republic of Congo/Congo Brazzaville across the river. Officially, the name is Democratic Republic of Congo – DRC – so you could roll out the usually accurate cliché that any country with ‘Democratic’ in the name definitely isn’t that. In fact, the DRC had an election a few years back which was reasonably democratic and certainly inspired an impressive voter rollout.

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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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The question of the relationship of the biographer to their subject is a fascinating one. Kath Jordan is frank about her long and intimate friendship with Veronica Brady as she recounts the way this book came into being. In a preface, she remembers celebrating with a friend the High Court’s rejection of Western Australia’s challenge to its Mabo native title decision, in March 1995. Thinking of Brady’s active involvement in Aboriginal rights issues, the two decided that they would write her biography. Brady gave her consent to the idea – although there is no sense that she was closely involved with the project – and what became the unexpectedly long gestation of Larrikin Angel was eventually begun, with only one author.

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Scarcely a week passes without reference in the media to Aboriginal land rights. The tone of the reporting varies from the outraged indignation of those who see their rights to exploit and control land being curtailed, through eloquent pleas for simple justice, to forceful demands for the return of land which was illegally acquired. Comment is not confined to Australia: the rights of indigenous peoples are matters for comment in international forums such as the United Nations and the World Council for Indigenous Peoples. Yet despite this coverage ignorance, prejudice and paternalism abound. For this reason, a comprehensive volume on land rights Australia-wide is welcome.

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When Malcom Fraser was prime minister, he was generally thought of as a hard and ruthless man of the right. In part this was because of the role he played in the removal of Gough Whitlam; in part because of his fiscal prudence; in part because of his orthodox Cold War foreign policy. Following his defeat in 1983, an alternative picture of Fraser gradually emerged. Under Labor, Australia embarked upon a program of economic rationalist reform. For his failure to anticipate this programme – to be wise or, as some would say, unwise before the event – Fraser was caricatured, especially by his former political friends, as a do-nothing prime minister. His time in office was ridiculed as Seven Wasted Years. After 1996 Fraser became one of the most influential critics of John Howard’s new brand of populist conservatism. The portrait of him was once more redrawn. The left saw him as a principled humanitarian; the right as an incorrigible Wet.

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It is hard to imagine that any reader of the text of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be unmoved by the nobility of its aspirations. Born of the determination that human beings would never again have to suffer the oppressions and indignities that reached so hideous a climax in the events of World War II, it promises a world in which all people can enjoy a range of fundamental freedoms in peace and harmony. To observe that the promise has not been kept is a patent under-statement. Even in the most advanced democracies, where notions of universal human rights are foundational, there is a sense of crisis. Here in Australia, as the Victorian government moves to institute a bill of rights, people of responsibility and integrity are forced to confront what appears to be a systemic disregard for human rights by the federal government in its treatment of asylum seekers.

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