Non Fiction

For over a decade, Peter Singer has been one of those public intellectuals we are supposed by some not to have. In the past, however, the problem with him has been that his thinking has often been about matters not seen to concern the public at large, animal liberation, for example. But events have hurried us all forward. Even a few years ago it was possible for mottoes like ‘greed is good’ or pronouncements like Mrs Thatcher’s that ‘there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals’ to seem not only provocative but hard-headed. The good life, we were, many of us, persuaded, was synonymous with goods, our heroes were experts in money-making – having and spending, ethics seemed to be a matter of preserving the appearances, not getting caught.

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Australian Galleries opened in Melbourne in June 1956. One year later, Andy Warhol established Andy Warhol Enterprises in New York. Warhol’s art of making money became an art form in itself, with the artist elaborating that ‘good business is the best art’. Gallerists Anne and Tam Purves would have agreed. This husband-and-wife team took selling art seriously and introduced a professionalism unlike anything that had existed in Melbourne. Their new modern enterprise occupied a converted front section of their Derby Street paper-pattern factory in the working-class suburb of Collingwood. While the couple had no experience in art dealership or gallery management, they were confident that the arts were ready for something different. Anne, accomplished in commercial design, had considerable artistic aspirations, while Tam merely transferred his well-established business acumen across the factory threshold into their smart new premises. As with any business venture, timing was important, and they capitalised on the leverage that the 1956 Olympic Games brought to Melbourne.

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From the Man’s horse ‘blood[ied] from hip to shoulder’ in Banjo Paterson’s ‘The Man from Snowy River’ (1890) to the kangaroos drunkenly slaughtered in Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright (1961), non-human animals have not fared well in Australian literature. Even when, as in Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals (2014), the author’s imagination is fully brought to bear on the inner lives of animals, their fate tends towards the Hobbesian – ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ – reflecting back to us our own often unexamined cruelty. The rare exceptions, such as J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003), incorporating a fictionalised series of animal-rights lectures, serve only to point up the rule.

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On Boxing Day 1962, The Australian Women’s Weekly opened with a two-page spread on a new publication, Self Help for Your Nerves, by Sydney physician Dr Claire Weekes. Her four precepts for people suffering from ‘nerves’ appeared in huge, bold type: facing, accepting, floating, and letting time pass. Positive reviews followed, including one by Max Harris in ABR’s December 1962 issue. Wary of the ‘help yourself psychiatry’ genre, Harris was quickly persuaded by its ‘particular excellence’. The book went on to become a bestseller in the US and UK markets, and Weekes followed it up with four more.

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The publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962) is widely regarded as one of the key moments in the development of the global environment movement. In the wake of Silent Spring, science fiction writer Frank Herbert published the first of the Dune series in 1965. Herbert presented complex descriptions of alternate planetary ecologies, with influential characters known as ‘planetologists’ (a new film version is due out this year). In 1972, the image of the ‘Blue Marble’ was released, a photo of Earth taken by the Apollo 17 crew on their way to the moon, also widely considered to be critical in influencing public understandings of our finite planet. Each of these developments extended a long history of exploratory research, experimentation and imagination about the deep and complex connections of Earth systems. Sarah Dry’s Waters of the World investigates six critical figures in this history.

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‘The tourist travels in his own atmosphere like a snail and stands, as it were, on his own perambulating doorstep to look at the continents of the world. But if you discard all this, and sally forth with a leisurely and blank mind, there is no knowing what may not happen to you.’ Thus, in 1928, British writer Freya Stark, an intrepid traveller, described the distinction between a traveller and a tourist. British historian Peter Furtado’s new anthology, Great Cities Through Travellers’ Eyes, is squarely aimed at the former. In it he collects the writings of a diverse group of writers about thirty-eight different cities, over a period dating from ancient times to the 1980s (more on that later). Some writers, such as Marco Polo, Hans Christian Anderson, and Simone de Beauvoir, are well known, others less so.

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Rising to the lectern amid a tightly packed crowd in the Cambridge Union’s debating hall, James Baldwin began quietly and slowly to speak. ‘I find myself, not for the first time, in the position of a kind of Jeremiah.’ It was February 1965, and Baldwin was in the United Kingdom to promote his third novel, Another Country (1962). Baldwin’s British publicist had asked the Union if they would host the author. Peter Fullerton, the Union’s president, was quick to seize this opportunity, on one condition: that Baldwin participate in a debate.

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Sometime in the early 1970s – his health poor, his country’s no better – the English composer Benjamin Britten asked his good friend and publisher Donald Mitchell to write his biography, imploring him to tell the truth about his long-term relationship with the tenor Peter Pears. In the ten years that followed Britten’s death in 1976, Mitchell amassed thoughts and notes, all the while deflecting the common query among friends and those outside the hallowed circle, ‘How’s the biography going?’

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It seems hard to imagine that we need more books on World War I after the tsunami of publications released during the recent centenary. Yet, here we have a blockbuster, a 926-page tome, Staring at God, by Simon Heffer, a British journalist turned historian in the tradition of Alistair Horne and Max Hastings.

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The centenary of World War I offered a significant opportunity to reflect on the experience and legacy of one of the world’s most devastating conflicts. In Australia such reflection was, on the whole, disappointingly one-dimensional: a four-year nationalistic and sanitised ‘memory orgy’ (to use Joan Beaumont’s wonderful phrase). It did, however, galvanise historians to produce important new studies of the war and to tackle long-standing questions about Australians’ attachment to Anzac. Many of those historians, established and early career, feature in The Great War: Aftermath and commemoration.

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