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The true quiet Australians: 10 of the best of Brian Matthews

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Brian Matthews, academic, award-winning columnist and biographer, and Australia's foremost scholar on Henry Lawson and his mother Louisa, died last Thursday 2 June following complications related to lymphoma, at the age of 86. Brian first wrote for Eureka Street in February, 2002 and continued to contribute his monthly column for 20 years. Despite the sheer volume of work, here we present, in no particular order, a collection of some of Brian’s best pieces from the past 20 years.

 

  1. Dad’s army

It was Christmas morning of... many years ago. The small hours. I was awake, wound to a pitch of excitement that produced somewhere in my chest of exquisite tension and made breathing difficult. I was about eight years old but, despite my advanced age, I remained a dogged believer in Father Christmas (as my family called him). This belief was maintained in the face of cynicism and derision from the youthful toughs I consorted with and despite my own unspoken qualms in moments of inconvenient rationality. Anyway, that Christmas morning, armed with my fragile faith, curled up in bed in the darkness of my room to which the skylight in the passage just outside the door lent a ghostly luminescence, I sensed his immanence.

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  1. Burke, Wills and ... Rudd?

Getting the whole outfit together was no small task. The 500 yards long caravanserai comprised 19 men, 26 camels, 23 horses, and various wagons carrying 20 tons of supplies and equipment. Arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp at Cooper's Creek, Sunday evening, 21 April 1861. Painting by John LongstaffAmong the 'equipment' were cedar-topped dining tables, 12 dandruff brushes, four enema kits and assorted items of sartorial finery belonging to the leader of the troop, including the top hat which he wore as, astride his charger, 'Billy', he led the Victorian Exploring Expedition out of Royal Park, on to Flemington Road and thence to Mount Alexander Road heading for Essendon and distant parts north.

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  1. Illness and the indescribable

When I was a mere toddler, I was diagnosed with diphtheria — a deadly infectious disease at that time but treatable by vaccine. I was rushed to Melbourne’s Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital in an ambulance. I think my attempts to anchor myself in my father’s cradling arms and my cries of ‘Don’t let them take me away’ might be among my earliest memories, though undoubtedly embellished by subsequent lore and anecdote. But I’m certain I remember being in a bed surrounded by a sort of wire cage which kept visitors — parents only — at a distance: the rough equivalent of today’s stipulated four square metres.

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  1. An Orwellian view of climate change

A few years ago, there was a spike in the sales of George Orwell's 1984. One of the reasons cited was Kellyanne Conway's infamous interpretation of 'falsehoods' as 'alternative facts'. As Orwell scholar, Professor Stefan Collini, explained, 'That kind of unreality that is propagated as reality [in the world of 1984] is what people feel reminded of'. What Orwell's reaction might have been to the Trump regime is a fascinating if rather pointless speculation. But it occurred to me at the time of Conway's mind boggling 'logical' leaps that, if we are going to insist on imagining Orwell facing the complexities of 21st century populism, it might be equally fascinating to wonder about Orwell and climate change. For this there is extensive and persuasive evidence throughout his works.

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  1. Tweeting our way back to the Middle Ages

When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now.' So begins Johan Huizinga's magnificent The Autumn of The Middle Ages which was first published in 1919. A second edition in 1921 became the basis for an outstanding translation published in 1996. Huizinga's evocation of the medieval world has a cinematic immediacy reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal but exceeding even that masterpiece in its portrait of what Huizinga calls the 'passionate intensity' of the day-to-day medieval world.

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  1. Dawn of Australian domestic violence

Interviewed on the ABC's The Drum before the screening of Hitting Home, her scarifying program on domestic violence, Sarah Ferguson pointed out that the statistics arising from this home-front scourge had scarcely altered in a couple of decades. Is it just that we are paying more attention now that makes it seems so much worse than before? For various reasons, including the courageous efforts of people like Rosie Batty and the brilliant investigative journalism of Ferguson, it has attained a visibility beyond denial.

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  1. Aboriginal footballers' MCG dreaming

In the recent AFL Grand Final, the performance of Aboriginal footballer Cyril Rioli seemed to be not much short of magic. Well, perhaps the spirit world did make a contribution ... The MCG from its very beginnings became one of those places that helped define its city and that city's people in much the same way Notre Dame is emblematic of Paris and Parisians; the way San Marco and Santa Maria della Salute are laid claim to by even the most irreverent of Venetians; the way St Paul's transcends class and denomination to be all things to all Londoners; the way the winged silhouette of the Opera House has replaced the bridge as the emblem for Sydney. It is in this same way that the MCG is quintessentially Melbourne.

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  1. Teaching literature to rock stars

He was tall, loose-limbed and dark-haired, with a blue-eyed gaze whose piercing intensity was mitigated by the amiable, good humoured look to him, and a generous smile that softened his Heathcliff-like mien. He appeared in the doorway of my Flinders University study one day in early February 1971 and asked if I was the one who was starting a course in Australian literature. His voice was soft and melodic, his accent beautifully Irish. I told him yes, I was the one and invited him in.

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  1. The romance of the song

‘They tell me you know something about Henry Lawson’. The speaker was perhaps six feet tall, a ‘Collingwood six footer’ according to the vernacular of those times, handsome, tousle-haired, unsmiling but with a pleasantly ironic way to him. He was standing just outside the open doorway to my office in Flinders University’s School of Language and Literature, as it was then known. He didn’t realize it but he was in fact my very first visitor: I had been appointed as a lecturer in the English Department at the end of the previous year but a bout of appendicitis evolving into peritonitis meant that I didn’t arrive, so we were meeting in the first days of the new academic year.

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  1. Standing room only (Brian’s final piece in Eureka Street)

The time: Queen’s Birthday Monday 1992. The place: outside the Great Southern Stand of the MCG. The occasion: St Kilda versus Collingwood. One word, belonging to the world we all now live in, brings the scene vividly back to me … because the gathering throng is clearly going to be huge — much bigger than forecast — and because one section of the G, at least as I remember it, is closed off for some local temporary reason, a very large crowd will require more than routine management.

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Editor's note: It was a daunting task reading through 20 years of Brian's column and selecting those to feature in this list. If we have missed any of your favourites, please share them in the comments below.

 


 

Brian Matthews was honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Main image: Brian Matthews. (Goodreads)

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Best of, Column, By the Way

 

 

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Existing comments

So sad to hear this. I always looked forward to Brian's articles, as much as I looked forward to those of the other Brian: Brian Doyle. Whimsical, erudite yet down to earth, sweet. Vale, Brian.


Erik Hoekstra | 09 June 2022  

Very sad news. Brian was a gifted academic, a talented writer, and a comic genius. He was also a very kind man, one of Nature's gentlemen, really.His death is a great loss to Australian letters and to the world.


Gillian | 10 June 2022  

Brian was a courteous, talented, wise and witty man who possessed curiosity and kindness.

I fondly remember his extensive knowledge of sport and Australians when I interviewed him about his book on the MCG - he was a pleasure to speak to, and a pleasure to read.


Barry Gittins | 11 June 2022  

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