Biography and Memoirs

Donald Thomson’s stature as a great Australian and a champion of Aboriginal rights is confirmed by this engaging compilation. Thomson was also a world leader in ethnographic field photography. Published first in 1983, this revised edition contains a gallery of eighty additional evocative, annotated images of vibrant people and their ways of living. Today’s evaluation contrasts with that around the time of Thomson’s death in 1970, when his reputation reached its nadir. Most anthropologists then disparaged his work, few appreciated the richness and complexity of his collections, while only one academic book testified to his credentials.

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Cassandra Pybus reviews 'Performances' by Greg Dening

Cassandra Pybus
Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Greg Dening was trained for the Catholic priesthood. He became an outstanding historian of the Pacific, although perhaps better described as an anthropologist-historian, in company with Clifford Geertz, Marshall Sahlins, Nathalie Zemon Davis, and his colleague Rhys Isaac, to whom this book is warmly dedicated. Yet echoes of his initial calling linger in his work, certainly as evidenced in this collection of essays.

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Andrew Riemer reviews 'Firing' by Ninette Dutton

Andrew Riemer
Wednesday, 25 March 2020

A friend of mine remembers a reception during an Adelaide Festival of the Arts. It was a large gathering: visiting musicians, singers, actors and writers, members of the Adelaide establishment, people from the university. The hosts were Ninette and Geoffrey Dutton. My friend, a visitor from Sydney, was struck by the Duttons’ confidence and sophistication. They were a handsome couple, she recalls, entirely at ease with the famous people who had come to the Festival from many parts of the world.

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Hazel Rowley reviews 'Fishing in the Styx' by Ruth Park

Hazel Rowley
Tuesday, 24 March 2020

I discovered Ruth Park’s Companion Guide to Sydney in a Sydney second-hand bookshop in 1980. Published in 1973, it was already out of print, probably because it evokes a Sydney that no longer existed. In the early 1970s, Park writes, ‘Sydney was beginning to pull itself to pieces, the air was full of fearful noise, the sky of dust … And the terrible sound of the rock pick tirelessly pecking away at Sydney’s sandstone foundations was over all.’

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Writing to Geoffrey Dutton in 1969, Patrick White confesses: ‘All my life I have been rather bored, and I suppose in desperation I have been inclined to weave these fantasies in which I become more “involved”. Ignoble, au fond, but there have been a few results.’

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Artful Histories represents that extraordinary achievement – a learned critical study, based on a thesis, which is exhilarating to read. While it covers the expected ground, with careful accounts of Australian autobiographies of various types, it also addresses a core problem of current literary debate – the relative status of different literary genres, and the interrelation between writing and life. There is no mention here of The Hand That Signed The Paper or The First Stone (they are beyond the range of the discussion) but McCooey’s elucidation of the relationship between autobiography, history, fiction, and life bears directly on the issues which have kept Australian readers arguing over the past year. At the end of his chapter on autobiography and fiction, McCooey summarises the difference in a seemingly simple statement: ‘Fictional characters die fictionally, people die in actual fact.’ The implications of this are far from simple, and McCooey argues for the maintenance of the boundary between genres on the grounds of moral responsibility.

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His minister described him as a permanent troubleshooter. And yet Charlie Perkins was surely the most trouble-prone and troublesome permanent head in Australian administrative history. Where other bureaucratics operated stealthily to preserve the outward appearance of responsible government, he engaged in calculated acts of public defiance and abuse of the governments he was meant to serve. They could no more dispense with his services, however, than he could operate without their largesse. And so for the best part of twenty year the volatile mediator orchestrated relations between the state and the modern Aboriginal movement.

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It’s perhaps a dubious thought, but the life of an actor invariably triggers something prurient in the audience, some desperate need to peer past the mask, to see beyond the curtain. Books by and about actors indulge this prurience, whether or not they are intended to. Works like Konstantin Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares (1936) or Stella Adler’s The Art of Acting (2000) deal academically with the interiority and motivations of acting, but they still offer a glimpse into the process and the perceived trickery of creation. The most fun are the intentionally salacious ones, like David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon (1971) or Scotty Bowers’s Full Service (2017), which detailed the sexual proclivities of Hollywood’s closeted élite. Anything to get us closer, to get us into the inner sanctum.

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Writing trans and gender-diverse lives

Yves Rees
Monday, 24 February 2020

Six years after the ‘transgender tipping point’ proclaimed by Time magazine in 2014, the trans and gender-diverse (TGD) community continues to surge into the spotlight. From Netflix and Neighbours to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (which named ‘they’ its 2019 word of the year), transgender experience is enjoying well-deserved recognition and representation. Visibility, however, is not without its problems. Internationally, growing awareness has triggered an anti-trans backlash, with the TGD community becoming a conservative scapegoat du jour. The United States is experiencing a spate of anti-trans violence, while ‘bathroom bills’ proliferate in red states. In Australia, the 2016 moral panic over Safe Schools was followed in 2019 by The Australian’s anti-trans campaign (with sixty-eight articles, ninety-two per cent of them negative, published in six months), as well as the transphobic fearmongering of TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) over Victoria’s birth certificate reforms – not to mention Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s attacks on ‘gender whisperers’.

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In the past we have tended either to ignore or to marginalise cultural ‘expatriates’. In today’s cosmopolitan culture, we are more used to varied career paths, but it is still possible for someone who has made most of their career abroad to be overlooked. Judith Anderson is a case in point. Born in Adelaide in 1897, Francee Anderson (her first stage name) made her professional stage début in 1915 in Sydney, but from 1918 she was, virtually for the rest of her life, based in the United States. Desley Deacon’s substantial, superbly illustrated biography rescues Anderson from obscurity and reveals the full extent of her remarkable career on stage, in film, and on television.

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