"One of my favourite Australian writers of his generation, David Free has the rare gift of writing critical prose with a creative dimension. Whether talking about high culture, popular culture or both at once, he is the master of the line of argument that makes you hungry for what happens next. Such a knack for turning the process of thought into a dramatic narrative is given to few, but he not only has it, he seems determined to develop it to the limit. His plain, natural but invariably melodic style combines appreciation and judgment in an addictive blend, the appreciation deep and wide-ranging, the judgment precise and sane. His powers of illustration leave most poets and novelists sounding short of skill, and how they leave most other critics sounding it would be impolite for me to mention. Enough to say that he is many furrows ahead in his field." — Clive James

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The True Hooha

On March 12, 2013, James Clapper, Barack Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, appeared before the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. Asked whether America’s National Security Agency collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans,” Clapper responded: “No sir. Not wittingly.” This answer was unsurprising. If Clapper had said “yes”, he would have been convicting his agency of activities that almost certainly violated the U.S. Constitution. 

A 29-year-old NSA contractor named Edward Snowden was watching Clapper’s testimony with an especially keen eye ... [read more]

AC/DC and me

I was an aficionado of cock rock long before I ever heard it called that, and indeed well before I possessed a discernible cock of my own. At the age of nine I was an authority on KISS. At the Faulconbridge Primary School talent show in 1979, three mates and I performed a dramatic mimed rendition of “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.” We wore all the relevant face makeup, painstakingly applied by my friends’ sisters. Where appropriate, we wore capes. We wielded nylon-string guitars borrowed from teachers who used them, by day, to accompany group renditions of “Frère Jacques”. My friend Matty W., portraying Peter Criss, played fake drum rolls on the school’s minimalist kit. I was Gene Simmons: the demon. Whether I did the tongue stuff I don’t remember. Actually I do remember, but I’d prefer not to dwell on it. 

A year later, at the talent show of 1980, we put away childish things. Unmasked, dressed in decidedly more casual threads, we appeared as AC/DC ... [To read more, buy the handsome book Rock Country, edited by Christian Ryan, published by Hardie Grant.]       

Monday, November 18, 2013


Fifty years after John F. Kennedy was murdered, in broad daylight, in front of hundreds of witnesses and the most famous 8mm camera ever wielded, is it possible to say with certainty who shot him? If we hesitate before replying that it was Lee Harvey Oswald, it might not be because we have too little information. It might be because we have too much. Don de Lillo, in his formidable assassination novel Libra, called it the “data-spew” – “an incredible haul of human utterance.” November 22, 1963, must be the most documented day in history.

The deluge of paperwork started with the report of the Warren Commission, the inquiry ordered by Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson. The Commission found Oswald acted alone. From the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository he fired three shots at Kennedy’s motorcade. One bullet missed and hit a kerb. A second round, the much-scoffed-at “magic bullet”, hit Kennedy’s back and exited his throat before hitting the back, wrist and thigh of the Texan Governor John Connally, who was sitting in front of him. The bullet later turned up on Connally’s hospital gurney, in remarkably undamaged condition. Oswald’s remaining shot entered the back of Kennedy’s skull and blew out a gaping mortal wound above his ear ... [READ MORE] 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Down and out

Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink is a sobering book. We have a bad tendency to romanticise the figure of the alcohol-fuelled writer – the sodden but eloquent poet, the hard-drinking novelist holding court in the Parisian bar. Those macho myths begin to curl up and die of shame about a page into Laing’s haunting book, which omits few details about the pitiful realities of alcoholic life.  

Laing’s effort to strip away liquor’s allure begins with her title. Echo Spring sounds like an invigorating destination, possibly even a health spa. It turns out, far less salubriously, to be a brand of bourbon favoured by the messed-up Brick, hero of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. When Brick wants to forget something, he hits the liquor cabinet. He takes the trip to Echo Spring. 

Laing’s book is a journey too, of a much more salutary kind. Laing is English – she was formerly the Observer’s Deputy Books Editor, and has written a study of Virginia Woolf – but her subjects here are all American. Along with Williams, she considers four prose writers – Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, John Cheever – and the poet John Berryman ... [read more]