Australian Notes

Australian Notes

8 December 2012

So we sat on the fence in Australia’s first vote in the UN since winning a seat on the Security Council. We abstained. To have been on the same side as Israel against the Palestinians, according to Senator Carr and Gareth Evans, would have put us ‘on the wrong side of history’. (Evans was the foreign minister best remembered for supporting Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor.) What stand will we take if, in coming weeks and in the absence of US action, Israel is compelled to ‘take out’ Iran’s nuclear bomb-making facilities before Iran is in a position to obliterate Israel and the Israelis? As the British writer David Pryce-Jones put it at a Quadrant dinner last week, if someone says he is coming to kill you, you do not open the door and proffer your throat. But what options does Israel have? It has waged cyberwar and assassinated Iranian bomber scientists. This has slowed, not stopped, the Bomb. Any Israeli attack means a 1,000-mile flight, partly through Russian anti-aircraft fire, and would have to be surgically accurate. It would set the Shia world ablaze. (Sunnis’ reaction will be mixed.) By far the best alternative is democratic regime change in Teheran and abandoning the Bomb. But when in 2009 the Iranians rose against President Ahmadinejad, the Obama administration did nothing to help. If the Israelis make a pre-emptive strike, Australia will probably not abstain again but vote against Israel. So is the Iranian Bomb ‘the right side of history’?

During his recent tour David Pryce-Jones promoted his latest book Treason of the Heart, about British traitors from Tom Paine to Kim Philby. Speaking at the Sydney Institute, he referred to the list of British Nazi agents of influence which General Walter Schellenberg had prepared for use during the planned German occupation of Britain in 1940. But whenever a historian seeks to consult it, he is told it is held in the Cabinet Office, never to be released. Maybe it is just as well. But it means the history of those years will never be comprehensively written. The same applies to the list of Soviet agents of influence eagerly waiting to collaborate in the Soviet occupation of Britain. Similar lists exist of Australian would-be collaborators with Japan, the Soviet Union and Mao’s China. But scholars may never see them.

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‘You never retire!’ declared the great painter John Olsen when he opened the annual exhibition of paintings by students of the Julian Ashton Art School. He was referring to artists, not to critics or judges. He told the inside story of how back in 1956 he and other students from the school forced a change to the judging of the Archibald Prize. The ever-popular William Dargie, who had won the prize seven times, won it for the eighth time in 1956. The students prepared placards with slogans like ‘Don’t hang Dargie, hang the Trustees’ and ‘How Much is that Dargie in the Window?’ Olsen charged through the State Gallery chanting ‘Let Art In!’ and ‘Three Cheers for Picasso!’ When the police arrived, the students bolted across the Domain. But the demo, as Olsen recalls it, led to changes in the appointment and retirement of judges. It was almost 50 years before Olsen himself won the prize — with his self-portrait in 2005: ‘It’s still a chook raffle,’ he said.

Literary prizes are also often a chook raffle. Take the Waverley Library Award for Literature ($20,000). Jamie Grant, poet, critic and chief judge, put it well in his popular annual report on the state of Australian letters. It’s easy to weed out mediocre books, he said, but when it comes to settling the shortlist, let alone the winner: ‘At heart we know all good books are equal.’ Some of the country’s most acclaimed writers did not make it to the Waverley shortlist this year. Those who did included Fiona Harari’s novel-like account of the Marcus Einfeld case and the extraordinary Teresa Brennan, A Tragedy in Two Acts; Robin de Crespigny’s The People Smuggler, about the terrible adventures of an Iraqi refugee (from Saddam Hussein’s Abu Ghraib jail) who smuggled his family to Indonesia and finally to Ashmore Reef (in the Darwin trial, the judge found his character so decent and his story so moving that he imposed a very light sentence); Kate Grenville’s novel Sarah Thornhill, about her ancestors on the Hawkesbury as told by an illiterate girl; Adrian Hyland’s Kinglake-350, about the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009; and Danielle Wood’s Housewife Superstar, about a sad, obsessive, larger-than-life Tasmanian home-maker. The winner was Jane Gleeson-White’s Double Entry, her compelling history of accountancy from the medieval Merchants of Venice to Enron in America and ABC Learning in Australia.

The NSW Premier’s Literary and History Awards were also announced last weekend at a grand dinner in the Mitchell Library. The judges made awards in 16 categories as well as a Premier’s Special Award to Clive James, ‘a great son of Sydney’. (Pity the Premier could not be there.) I missed the usual Guest Speaker — not the soporific lefties, but the likes of Peter Porter, David Malouf or Pierre Ryckmans. And is it a great idea to have as master of ceremonies a television comedian who appears to have little interest in literature or literary audiences? Waverley usually has the ebullient broadcaster and writer Richard Glover.

Writing from Sydney about the Cairo crisis for New York’s National Review, David Pryce-Jones contrasts it with the Canberra crisis over the slush fund. Australian conservatives tell him the Prime Minister cannot survive. The Left tell him there’s nothing to it. ‘Happy the nation,’ he writes, ‘with that sort of worry!’

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