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"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, August 28, 2014

Still the King


Singer Elvis Presley performing in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1977, three months before
TODAY is the 37th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. He was only 42 when he died, so pretty soon he will have been dead for longer than he was alive. Already he has receded so far from living memory that it has become hard to talk sense about him. That doesn’t mean, of course, that people have stopped talking about him altogether. Quite the reverse; the fog of chatter that envelops him keeps getting thicker. The man can hardly be discerned through the haze of impersonations, pop allusions, Andy Warhol prints, “sightings”, mash-ups, remixes. 


Do we need to talk about him more? Yes, provided we can find a way of slicing through all that image-related static and reminding ourselves there was a human being behind it. We have become strangely callous on the subject of Elvis. For a man who brought a lot of people a lot of pleasure, and whose worst sins were committed against his own body, he certainly cops a lot of posthumous stick. We joke cynically about fat Elvis, Vegas Elvis, dead-on-the-can-with-a-cheeseburger Elvis. What other man in history has taken so much flak for letting himself go? [read more]

Friday, August 15, 2014

Vodka, coke, Keith, candour

The cover of Keith Richards’s new book.The front cover of Keith Richards on Keith Richards features a photograph of the great man taken circa 1990. In one of his gnarled hands a burnt-down cigarette smoulders perilously close to the knuckles, its silver fumes mingling seamlessly with the mushroom cloud of his hairdo. On the middle finger of the same hand reposes the skull ring he started wearing in the 1970s as a memento mori – his lone concession so far to the concept of death. The middle finger of his other hand is raised directly at the camera. But the veteran eyes twinkle, as if to assure you that he flips you off out of love.

Keith is not averse to playing up to his fried image, or down to it, so that his persona has become a parody of a parody. He shambles, he croaks, he looks like Wile E. Coyote after an accident with some gunpowder. But Keith is an unusual star in many respects, and one of them is that he gets more interesting when you listen to him, not less. He is at his most engaging on the page, where his words are not obliged to pass through his ravaged face ... [read more]

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Flying low

Common sense suggests that a book about Flight MH370 produced so soon after the plane’s disappearance is unlikely to be any good. One fears, too, that anything less than a good book will be an exercise in bad taste. There are people for whom the mystery is also a tragedy, of a terribly ongoing kind. Their distress does not oblige writers to fall silent, of course, but it commands respect. If you’re going to write a book about this case, you’d better do a decent job.   

Into this daunting terrain saunters the Anglo-American writer Nigel Cawthorne. I admit I’d never heard of Cawthorne before I took delivery of this book, but how bad could he be? The back cover says nothing about him except that he is “prolific” – a slightly ominous way of describing a writer. On the web, the signs get more ominous still. It turns out that Cawthorne’s oeuvre, which is indeed uncommonly large, contains such titles as Amorous Antics of Old England and Sex Lives of the Famous Gays

Still, one was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt ... [read more] 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Beyond the Pale

A few weeks ago I needed something to read on the beach. It would have made professional sense to take this new book about Ivan Milat, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to let his spectre desecrate the sand. There are certain thoughts you don’t want to have while surrounded by sunlight, clean air, and happy young people. Milat is the man who, after murdering his victims, liked to reposition their bodies so as to put extra bullets into their skulls from different angles. Why would you want to read about that on a beach?

Why indeed would you want to read about it anywhere? No doubt there is an element of voyeurism in our taste for true-crime books. But the genre can be reassuringly moral, too. The foul transgressions of a man like Milat remind you that there is such a thing as common decency after all. We have been taught to mistrust our gut feelings about evil. Confronted with an atrocious misdeed, we know we’re meant to pause and consider the perpetrator’s abusive childhood or political grievances. But crimes like Milat’s go so far beyond the pale that nobody sane can fail to call them monstrous. These days we can’t agree about much, but we can agree about that. Even Milat himself seems to get this, in his way. To this day he feebly protests that he was framed ... [read more]