Martin Thomas

Australia is not the science-fiction capital of the world; in fact we are probably not even on the map. This unfortunate fact would change if we could produce more writers like Paul Collins.

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Patrick White, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, has long been considered Australia’s finest novelist. And yet, the thirtieth anniversary of his death in 2020 passed by with barely a murmur. Was this merely a consequence of the pandemic, or are there larger cultural forces at play? In today's episode, historian and ABR Calibre prize-winning essayist Martin Thomas considers the posthumous neglect of the great Australian writer, who once described himself as a ‘Londoner at heart’ and who continues to challenge jingoistic and complacent forms of nationalism.

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‘Your sense of permanence is perverted,’ said Holstius to Theodora Goodman in The Aunt’s Story (1948). ‘True permanence is a state of multiplication and division.’ The words are prescient, for Patrick White, who wrote them, has done rather well at dissolving into the impermanence of post-mortem obscurity. Perhaps unsurprisingly in view of the pandemic, the thirtieth anniversary of his death in 2020 left little imprint. No literary festival honoured the occasion, and no journal did a special issue. If White is looking down at us from some gumtree in the sky, he will be bathing in the lack of glory. He despised the hacks of the ‘Oz Lit’ industry as much as he loathed the ‘academic turds from Canberra’.

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To complement our coverage of new books on the subject, we invited a number of writers, scholars, and environmentalists to nominate the books that have had the greatest effect on them from an environmental point of view.

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In 2013 we published Martin Thomas's Calibre Prize-winning essay ‘“Because it’s your country”: Bringing Back the Bones to West Arnhem Land'. This powerful story of the repatriation of Aboriginal bones soon became the best read article on our website and we are delighted to be able to launch the ABR podcast with it.

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Jennifer Maiden's The Fox Petition: New Poems (Giramondo) conjures foxes 'whose eyes were ghosts with pity' and foxes of language that transform the world's headlines

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There was something of the alchemist in Albert Namatjira. Using the most liquescent of media, he created impressions of the driest terrain. Painting in watercolour involves the fluid dispersal of pigment. Yet in Namatjira we find colours distilled in such a way that each landscape glows with a quiet intensity. This evocation of light reveals the influence of Rex Battarbee, who, long before he began to tutor his famous protégé, voiced dissatisfaction with ‘traditional methods’. He developed a painting technique of his own, specifically designed to ‘achieve luminosity’. Like many an inventor, he was cautious about sharing his discovery, in part because he believed that artists should develop on their own terms. But Namatjira was so keen an observer of his then master that he would have realised if Battarbee had withheld information. So Rex decided to teach him everything he knew, both for the sake of Namatjira, whom he clearly adored, and more generally and altruistically ‘for the sake of the Aborigines’.

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Books of the Year is always one our most popular features. Find out what our 41 contributors liked most this year – and why.

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Among all the myriad characters, brilliant and brutish, fraudulent and fabulous, who lobbed into New South Wales in the mid-nineteenth century, Ludwig Leichhardt, born in rural Prussia 200 years ago, was in a class of his own.

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The morgue in Gunbalanya holds no more than half a dozen corpses – and, as usual, it was full. When the Old Man died in the wet season of 2012, they had to fly him to Darwin, only to discover that the morgue there was already overcrowded. So they moved him again, this time to Katherine, where they put him on ice until the funeral. The hot climate notwithstanding, things can move at glacial speed in the Northern Territory, where the wags tell you that NT stands for ‘Not today, not tomorrow’. The big departure had stalked and yet eluded the Old Man in recent years. Now he would wait six months for his burial. Only then would he be properly ‘finished up’, as they say in Gunbalanya, a place rich in many things: poverty, and euphemisms for death, among them.

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