Biography

A lesser writer than Jon Faine would have found many more cheap laughs in this extraordinary story. One of the two central characters, Paul Alexander McPherson Anderson, was better known as The Mighty Apollo. In what feels like a bygone age, he was the proprietor of The Mighty Apollo Martial Arts centre in West Melbourne. He lived there in spartan quarters, above a panel beater.

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The great age of sail – of European exploration and colonisation – is typically depicted as trenchantly masculine, with the only ‘women’ being unpredictable ships and the sea itself. Women have traditionally been considered bad luck, distracting, or not tough enough for life at sea. Nonetheless, historical research is increasingly revealing that many women played active roles at sea, as commanders, companions, and crew – from the gundecks of Trafalgar, to the topmasts of the American merchant navy, to the French voyages of discovery to the Indo-Pacific and Australia.

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Ten years ago, as I prepared to leave for three months in New York, an Australian friend resident in the USA sent a brochure about a new kind of portable typewriter which she said might be worth my buying. The machine could memorise a whole line of type which could be corrected by being viewed in sections through a panel capable of displaying sixteen letters or spaces. When I reached New York, she warned me off that model. An even better version would be available before I left town, one able to memorise an entire page.

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Katharine Susannah Prichard is one of those mid-century Australian literary figures like Vance Palmer whose name is mentioned in literary histories more often than her books are read. As it happens, she was a schoolfriend of Vance’s future wife, Nettie, née Higgins, who became a distinguished literary critic, as well as of the pioneering woman lawyer Christian Jollie Smith, and Hilda Bull, later married to the playwright Louis Esson. All were politically on the left as adults, and Prichard and Jollie Smith joined the Communist Party. It was the distant Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 that converted Katharine to the communist cause; she was a communist in Western Australia before there was a party there for her to belong to.

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Ann-Marie Priest’s My Tongue Is My Own, published by La Trobe University Press and reviewed in our June issue, is the first authorised biography of the Australian poet Gwen Harwood (1920–1995). Unsurprisingly, this was not the first attempt to record the life of one of Australia’s most loved and admired poets. In an exclusive feature for ABR, John Harwood reflects on the conflicting motives behind his literary executorship of his mother’s estate – an estate holding the secrets to an at-times fractious marriage between two opposing temperaments.

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Bob Hawke by Robert Pullan & Hawke by John Hurst

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October 1980, no. 25

Success may not always have come easy to Robert James Lee Hawke, but it has come often. In 1969 he became President of the ACTU without ever having been a shop steward or a union organiser or secretary; he had never taken part in or led a strike. His experience at grass roots or branch level in the ALP had not been extensive when he was elected Federal President of the party in 1973. Now, untested in parliament and government, his jaw is firmly pointed towards achieving what has always been his ultimate ambition – the prime ministership.

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Maria Theresa: The Habsburg empress in her time by Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, translated by Robert Savage

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June 2022, no. 443

Few Australians today will have heard of the Empress Maria Theresa (1717–80). And yet this queen of Hungary and Bohemia, archduchess of Austria, ruler of Mantua and Milan, who was also grand duchess of Tuscany and Holy Roman Empress by marriage, bestrode the eighteenth-century stage like a dumpy colossus. The mother of some sixteen children, she styled herself as matriarch for a nation, while the marriages she arranged for her children saw her emerge as a Queen Victoria-like figure: the central node in contemporary Europe’s game of thrones. 

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The Red Queen’s impossible rule offers a striking allegory of the biographer’s dilemma. While your subject is still alive, it seems reasonable to get to know them and build a relationship of trust with them. In this way you might be better able to understand their private and intimate worlds. If your subject is a writer, you might become more confident in your ability to weave closer correspondences between their life and work. But if you then become privy to their secrets, and perhaps even come to love them as a dear friend, it becomes almost impossible to write about them dispassionately: to ‘cut’ them with your knife and fork.

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Sir John Richardson published the first volume of his monumental A Life of Picasso: The prodigy, 1881–1906, in 1991. The second volume, The painter of modern life, 1907–1917 illuminating the Cubist years, followed in 1996. The next volume, The triumphant years, 1917–1932, appeared eleven years later and gave rise to speculation as to how Richardson, then seventy-three, could complete his ambitious task with nearly thirty years of prodigious production on the artist’s part still to be covered. Now we have the fourth and final volume, The minotaur years, published posthumously – Richardson died in 2019 – with a lot of assistance. It’s the shortest, least compelling volume of the series.

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When the offer came to review this book, I accepted enthusiastically, and unthinkingly added, ‘That sounds fun!’. Upon reflection, I deleted that last sentence: what would it say about me, I wondered, that I should expect the account of a hangman and his work to be entertaining? I thought better of the sentence, but the anticipation remained.

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