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Travel

This is a tale of a farm boy who grew up in ‘the world of the rural poor, [which] remained what it had been for generations; a day’s walk in radius, a tight, well-trodden loop between home, field, church, and, finally, a crowded family grave plot’. It is the story of James Cook’s dramatic escape from that loop, told by another equally restless soul, American journalist Tony Horwitz, who spent eighteenth months travelling the Pacific in the wake of Cook’s three great voyages of discovery.

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Last year, escaping the Olympics in Europe, I was amazed at the media coverage overseas, which always included Australian Indigenous motifs, art, dance and music. It seemed that, beyond Australia, its Indigenous people have a prominence and clout never realised at home. I hope that, in addition to the earnest German and Japanese backpackers who might use it, many Australians will read and employ this bargain of a book to discover some of the cultural wealth it encompasses.

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Roger McDonald seems never to do things twice in the same way. To be solemn about it, he has a mind which is both capacious and vivacious: events, experiences, things at large flood in to stock its territory, and become the livelier from their environment. Refreshed himself by Australia, he refreshes some of it in return.

The Tree in Changing Light is a case in point. This is a meditative work whose attention moves easily from the world’s physicalities and fluctuations to the appraising mind itself and back again. It is fluently, but not trivially, dialectical – an example of well-schooled attention which is itself a kind of schooling. Here, for instance, is an early passage:

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Aged twenty-two, I set out for Mexico, with, like Rousseau in Italy, a ‘heart full of young desires, alluring hopes and brilliant prospects’. I was determined to leave the confines of the sleepy metropolis that is Canberra, much as Isabella Bird, though infinitely more adventurous and literate, desired to escape her cloistered Victorian world. This ‘inner compulsion’, as Robyn Davidson describes it in her introduction to The Picador Book of Journeys (something her own books attest to powerfully), is a factor which gives travelogues ‘the power to reconnect us with the essential’. And if, by essential, one means illuminating the human condition in the way that any literature worth the name achieves, Davidson’s anthology gives us a sizeable sample.

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A white-haired, white-bearded Captain George Bayly peers benignly out at us from the 1885 photograph frontispiece of A Life on the Ocean Wave. With epaulettes to his black uniform jacket, braided sleeves, a sword at his side and a ceremonial captain’s head-piece on the table beside him, Bayly looks the quintessential retired man of the sea. He looks like a man Charles Dickens should have been describing. We should be meeting him in some sea-side parlour, in some sailortown tea-palace. He looks as if he has a story to tell.

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As John Sligo spent thirteen years in Rome up to 1982, he experienced vita when life was still dolce in Hollywood-by-the-Tiber where he was one of those expatriates who hobnobbed with both exiled royal families and political refugees. Now a Sydney resident and prize-winning novelist, Sligo worked in Rome for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation and also taught in English-language schools, but these tales mainly show him as a bon vivant, not only in the Italian capital but on excursions to Greece and India.

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After twenty-five years of political exile, Doris Lessing returns to her homeland – once Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe – following the 1980 Marxist revolution. African Laughter documents four visits spanning the first decade of black majority rule, providing an intimate view of the birth, progress, and growing pains of a comparatively successful modern African nation. African Laughter also chronicles Lessing’s personal journey, a search for the landmarks of her memories.

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Douglas Kennedy is one of that group of travel writers who are annoyingly good at getting an angle on a story but never really making a point. He whisks us around the world, in this case around the money markets of the world, observing, picking up quotable quotes, telling tidy anecdotes, and in the end, back home, he snaps the lid on his collected experience and calls it a day. Easy listening, but perhaps a bit too easy.

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In the mid-1980s, Paul Carter and I used to meet and talk from time to time. On a hot day just before the Ash Wednesday fires, I mentioned to Paul that I was becoming disappointed with the book of fiction that I was then writing. Paul said much in reply to this, but all I remembered afterwards was his opening sentence: ‘The only material any writer has is his thoughts and feelings.’ What Paul Carter said was not new to me, but I have often felt grateful to him for having said it to me just at that time.

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In the opening pages of Jewels and Ashes a man of eighty stands on a chair, his arms outstretched, describing the tree he remembers from his childhood. How beautiful and tall and wide it was, as it stood in the forest called Zwierziniec, on the outskirts of Bialystok, Poland. How strong his family was, how it branched and grew and prospered, in those years before 1939!

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