Biography and Memoirs

Edward Gough Whitlam bestrode the Australian political stage like a colossus for over a generation: first as federal Opposition leader, then as prime minister, and finally as martyr. A legend in his own lifetime, this last role threatens to turn him into myth. More books have been written on aspects of his short and turbulent government than on any other in Australian history. There are already three biographies: a competent quickie by journalist Laurie Oakes in 1976; an eloquent political biography by his speechwriter Graham Freudenberg in 1977; and a psychobiography by the political scientist James Walter in 1980, which depicts Whitlam in terms of a particular personality type – the grandiose narcissist.

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The task of reading these three books together provided more than I was anticipating. Their perspectives of decades of Australian society and writing practices cover the past, the personal and the politics. The writers come from three different generations (born 1903, 1923, 1940), and represent particular writing intentions or schools, certainly different genres. The connecting thread, probably the only one, is that each of the books is written form such a particularised stance. Each is written in the first person, and flirts to varying degrees with the confessional mode. The tensions between restraint and letting it all hang out, what gets said and what comes out in the not-saying, interested me.

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In this, her fourth autobiographical volume, Naomi Mitchison takes on a difficult task – that of making travellers’ tales interesting. Her first three autobiographies dealt with childhood, youth, the between-war years. She demonstrated great literary skills in selective recall and in creating the wholly misleading impression that this was an artless narrative. In fact she gave us a brilliant account of the lives of a section of the British upper bourgeoisie, and the moving and honest story of her own growth into political radicalism.

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Following her husband’s excellent autobiography of his early years, Mucking About (1977), Alexandra Hasluck’s own life story has been eagerly awaited. And it has been worth the wait. Portrait in a Mirror is one of only a handful of good autobiographies by Australian public figures. Its 322 pages are full of colour, with some excellent passages of prose, particularly her warm, evocative descriptions of the Australian countryside. Hers is essentially a feminine, empathetic view of the world.

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This republication of Susan Magarey’s 1985 biography of Catherine Helen Spence commemorates the anniversary of her death, aged eighty-five, in April 1910. In an enlarged and attractive new paperback format, with a revised introduction, its cover sketch of Spence, with upraised hand, in mid-speech, emphasises the key subject, both actual and metaphorical, of women’s public speaking. Remarkable as a writer and as a political and social reformer, Spence’s status as one of Australia’s earliest female public intellectuals is best represented in her more immediately transgressive role as public speaker, a graphic unbridling of the female voice.

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Shane Warne is one of the greatest bowlers of all time, if not the greatest. Highly competitive and aggressive, he is one of the main factors in Australia’s prolonged dominance in world cricket. He has been involved in a series of controversies, on and off the field. He has been fined for sledging and over-aggressive appealing; and for providing, along with Mark Waugh, information to a bookie (something they both readily admitted, which the Australian Cricket Board tried to cover up). In 2003 he received a one-year ban for taking a banned substance, diuretic tablets, intended, he claimed (and this is not disputed by Barry), to help him lose weight. Off the field, like many leading sporting personalities, he is a serial womaniser

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When William Blake wrote of seeing ‘a World in a Grain of Sand’, he meant the details: their ability to evoke entire universes. So did Aldous Huxley when, experimenting with mescaline, he discovered ‘the miracle … of naked existence’ in a vase of flowers. More recently, Jenny Odell’s bestseller How To Do Nothing: Resisting the attention economy (2019) made a case for rejecting productivity in favour of active attention to the world around us.  

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John Kinsella tends to be a polarising figure, but his work has won many admirers both in Australia and across the world, and I find myself among these. The main knocks on Kinsella are that he writes too much, that what he does write is sprawling and ungainly, and that he tends to editorialise and evangelise. One might concede all of these criticisms, but then still be faced with what by any estimation is a remarkable body of work, one that is dazzling both in its extent and its amplitude, in the boldness of its conceptions and in the lyrical complexity of its moments. An element that tends to be overlooked in Kinsella, both as a writer and as a public figure, is his compassion. What it means to be compassionate, rather than simply passionate, is a question that underpins Kinsella’s memoir Displaced: A rural life.

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The voice on the car radio was not immediately recognisable, nor was the song familiar to me. There was just a smoky laid-back piano and someone singing a song that sounded as though it was from the 1940s: ‘Young lovers, young lovers …’ I thought the voice, whomever it belonged to, had a real musicality in it, a precision of pitch and phrasing in tandem with a kind of liquid sweetness.

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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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