Book Review: ‘Shelf Life’ by Gideon Haigh

 

Review by Roy Hay.

 

Gideon Haigh, Shelf Life: Journalism 2000–2020, Gideon Haigh, Carlton, 2020, 288, no ISBN, $40 from the author. https://www.gideonhaigh.com

 

 

If you are looking for inspiration and information in a Christmas present, then Gideon Haigh’s latest book is perfect. His good friend Russell Jackson had the bright idea of putting together a collection of Haigh’s long-form journalism that demonstrates the range and brilliance of a man perhaps best known today for his cricket writings. But if you are deterred because you think this is more on cricket, then you are going to miss a work of coruscating and catholic range.

 

I started at the back, like my newspaper reading, and immediately became engaged in the author’s love of history. Several more love stories preceded that one, but the book starts with Nevil Shute’s On the beach, which is an appropriate opening for a self-published book in the midst of a pandemic that has left Australia as the last remnant of civilisation, apart from New Zealand. It is not just a review of the book but a biography of one of the most-read Australian authors, certainly of his generation. Geoffrey Blainey and his Tyranny of Distance follow, though like Geoff, Gideon has not spotted the asymmetry of distance. It is much further from Melbourne to Geelong than it is from Geelong to Melbourne. Melbournians think we live beyond the black stump, but we can be in Melbourne before you have emerged from suburbia.

 

Every chapter in this book has taught me something I did not know or, in a few cases, I had forgotten. Nothing is prosaic. The judgments are provocative but nearly all sound, certainly all well-argued—occasionally didactic, but delivered in economical well-turned writing, whose clarity is astounding. You never doubt what Haigh is trying to get you to see and understand. His enthusiasms are always measured and he never forgets the role of the critical analyst. Gideon never gushes.

 

His account of the protracted demise of The Bulletin, for which Haigh wrote, is highly informative as Kerry Packer struggled to keep it afloat. There is even a biography of Melbourne’s first skyscraper, described by Tim Leslie as the ‘iPhone of Australian architecture’.

 

But back to history and J. H (Sir John) Plumb whose The Death of the Past engaged Haigh when he found it in State Library a few years ago. I first came across Plumb (pronounced Ploom by my Yorkshire friends) just as Geoffrey Elton (long before the wordy Hilary Mantel) began critiquing Plumb’s obsession with the Elizabethan courtier, Sir Robert Cecil, and introduced Thomas Cromwell in the Tudor Revolution in Government. This was in 1962 when I returned to study at Glasgow University determined at last to do some work after a misspent youth in the Royal Air Force and uncertificated teaching (appallingly badly) in my home town of Ayr. Plumb and Elton both wrote on the philosophy and practice of history, as did E. H. Carr, whom I found more useful, perhaps because he was more succinct and could act as a counterbalance to Edward Thompson and Eric Hobsawm in whose work I was more interested. The Tudor historians at Glasgow, Brian Dietz and Cliff Davies, made sure we read Elton, though I am not sure they were totally committed. Cliff was a particular friend to whom I owed a lot. I met my wife Frances in the first tutorial we had in his office. If a book published in 2020 can take me back to my youth and bring me right bang up to date, it must have something going for it.

 

 

 

Gideon Haigh offered his own perspective on the book HERE.

 

Roy Hay has written many books himself, and reviewed many others. To sample more, click HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Well said Roy. Started reading my copy last night and read the Blainey piece. There is something about Gideon’s style. The telling detail. The perceptive aside. The lack of frills but the lightness of touch. Remember reading “Warne” and being captivated by the prose, style and generosity to a man I found boorish beyond the oval. Critical in the sense of getting to the heart of things – but never unkind.
    Only met Gideon once in the flesh at Perth Writer’s Week a decade ago. His intellect dominated the discussion and he seemed to fill the tent. Outside he was like a sparrow carrying an elephant’s memory around. I thought “you could do with a good feed”. But he was off to his hotel room to watch an Indian test on an internet stream.
    Reminded me of Bob Hawke who was diminutive in the flesh but dominated every room with his energy and formidable grasp of any subject.

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