It’s worth repeating. A British Prime Minister (the Earl of Derby) to Queen Victoria: ‘The definition of an Independent Member of Parliament is one who can never be depended on.’
Take a moment to consider the miserable life of a literary judge. It’s one thing to draw up a short-list of the best books of the year. But it is another thing altogether to pick the best of the best. (‘All good books are equal’, as one experienced if disenchanted judge observed.) Sometimes the criteria are defined in ways to make judgment a little easier. Take, for example, the annual $20,000 Waverley Library Award for Literature (‘The Nib’) of which Clare Wright is this year’s winner for her freethinking The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. The Nib is an acclaimed prize not simply because it is the only significant literary award in Australia that is sponsored by a municipal council but because of the very high standard of the entries it has attracted in its 13 years. Writers who are shortlisted receive an Alex Buzo award, named after the famous dramatist who was one of the founders of the Waverley prizes, as well a cheque for $1000. The judges are required to consider three criteria: literary merit, excellence in research, and value to the community. There is no problem with literary merit. (Some think it should be the only criterion.) But excellence in research raises problems especially if you apply it to poetry. (No one has yet won the Nib for poetry, although Les Murray’s well researched Fredy Neptune would have been a strong contender had it not been published in 1998 before the Waverley awards began in 2002.) The third criterion – value to the community – can also be difficult. In his report on this year’s awards the chairman of the judges, the poet and critic Jamie Grant, noted that ‘perhaps the most impressive’ of the biographies considered – they included studies of C.J. Dennis, Bert Hinkler, Douglas Mawson, Henry Parkes and Ned Kelly – was Philip Dwyer’s Citizen Emperor, a study of Napoleon as a feared dictator. But its lack of Australian content led the unhappy judges to question its ‘value to the community.’ Perhaps value to mankind would be a better test. (The judges had no problem with the value to the community of Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister. It contributed to the rise in the sale of steel-cut oats!)
But the criteria have proved generally serviceable. They have honoured respected writers. They have sometimes as Grant put it, led to the winner being a deserving writer who has been neglected. The first winner, David Low, is an example. So at the time of his award was Robert Gray. So too was Geoffrey Blainey who had long been boycotted for political incorrectness. When this happens, it is a ‘pleasing outcome’, Grant said, ‘for why should we heap further riches on the recipients of other, more generously endowed prizes?’
But the possibility of announcing an undiscovered or neglected ‘gem’ was limited this year by the number of frequent prizewinners among the 144 entries. (Jackie French, author of the short-listed Let the Land Speak, a highly personal history of Australia, has won some sixty prizes.) This made it harder for an unknown writer to break through. But the winner Clare Wright could not brandish a long list of prizes because she has not yet written many books. Eureka may have been a minor incident in Australian history but Professor Wright has corrected the omission of women from most received accounts. We all know about Peter Lalor but who had heard of Mrs McLister? Wright narrates the story, Grant says, in a style as racy and readable as any novel. Other short-listed entries were Tim Low’s Where Song Began, Iain McCalman’s The Reef, Louis Nowra’s Kings Cross, and Pamela Williams’s Killing Fairfax. So it has been another good year for the Waverleys. But spare a thought for the judges – and for the struggling writer who does not enjoy an academic’s or journalist’s salary.
At a launching last week of his new book The Menzies Era John Howard surprised his young, professional audience by putting in a good word for ‘Red Ted’ Theodore, the Labor premier of Queensland and later federal Treasurer in the opening years of the Great Depression. Theodore was, Howard said, one of the enormous characters of Parliament – a man of limited education, high intelligence, charisma and entrepreneurial flair who, after losing his federal seat in 1931, went into business with Frank Packer. They launched the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1933 and then relaunched the Daily Telegraph. ‘Red Ted’ became chairman of Australian Consolidated Press and held that position for the 1949 election which brought R.G. Menzies to power. When Ross Fitzgerald wrote his sympathetic biography Red Ted twenty years ago, Howard sent him a letter of congratulation.
About a hundred years back the great English satirist Max Beerbohm was doing a stint as a theatre critic in London. On one occasion he politely avoided commenting on a play from which he had walked out. As he explained to his readers, he had left the theatre at interval for a breath of fresh air and so much enjoyed strolling in the evening air that the next thing he knew he was back home. I am not so foolish as to compare myself with Beerbohm but something similar happened to me in Sydney at a performance of an agitprop play about Rupert Murdoch by a usually brilliant Australian dramatist David Williamson. On this occasion the less said the better. But if you are in Sydney, don’t miss Cyrano de Bergerac.
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