Guy Rundle's latest book of essays is focused firmly on the past

"Word magic like 'cerulean' should sustain a reader for a while" in Guy Rundle's latest. Picture: Shutterstock
  • Between the last oasis and the next mirage, by Guy Rundle. MUP, $39.99.

The uninformative, unfortunate title of this eclectic anthology can apparently be blamed in part on the fictitious poet, Ern Malley. Ern, may he rest in peace, seems to have been talking about a dromedary short of water.

Leaving aside oases and mirages, we have here a selection of Guy Rundle's journalism, essays and reviews over the past two decades. Because of scheduling issues, nothing current is included on the Morrison government. As the author drolly notes, "thank Christ for that". In addition to short-form writing, this work also builds on Rundle's careers as both producer and writer in television (particularly with the Gillies report) as well as his other books.

Articles of this kind might possibly dwindle over time, if they remain specific to another time or place, a forgotten scandal or dispute. Editors of anthologies might worry about what could be called the three R's: repetition, rants and self-righteousness.

Good writers easily hurdle such obstacles. Helen Garner's diaries describe an Australia even more distant from us chronologically, yet they are suffused with thinking and feeling directly relevant to us now. David Marr can look back proudly on sustained literary and intellectual achievement, especially, in this context, his extended, probing portraits of politicians.

So, too, in his own idiosyncratic way, can Guy Rundle. His anthology is consistently crisp and pungent, a bit dogmatic and occasionally didactic. As you do, I started by browsing, turning to "Abbott Recriminations at Leisure". That turned out to be a good pick, in pinning Julia Gillard's "modest centredness" or deriding one policy as "not a platform, it's a scaffold".

Reverting to the author's own order, we are introduced to jumps into the neighbour's swimming pool, drenched in "the wash of cooling cleansing, transparent cerulean over you". While some pieces might seem a tad florid, others a little too long, word magic like that "cerulean" should sustain a reader for a while.

After the swimming pool epiphany, however, Rundle immerses the reader in politics rather than nostalgia. An awful lot of Australian politics is contained between these covers. Rundle includes character profiles (from Sam Dastyari to Nick Xenophon), successive election campaigns, and travels around the country.

Australian writers may have learned from Americans about how to cover a political contest. They might have ingested the magisterial, sententious style of Teddy White, Bob Woodward's insider dope or the gonzo iconoclasm of Hunter Thompson. Rundle's work, though, is distinctively Australian - a bit cheekier, a tad more cynical, a lot less deferential to our political masters.

Rundle is especially gifted at inserting himself in unlikely settings - some out of the way, some borderline weird - then finding something memorable to say about them. He visits Dunalley's fish'n'chips shop to find "a grey day out on the bay but winter hasn't even started". Hobart's Cat and Fiddle Arcade inspires a moment of wonder: "I'm eight years old again every time I see it". The best of his vignettes is a quirky, observant appraisal of a community forum in Wodonga.

Those looking forward to the next election campaign might wish to review Rundle's assessment of 2019, "all of that for all of this". He inveighs against "piecemeal but pricey" policy options from the ALP, emphasising the need for political parties "to make a case as to what all this was for". Complacency is rightly castigated.

Looking backwards rather than forward, a fair-minded reader could ask what such detailed exhumations of campaigns past contribute to our own understanding. Cautionary tales are easy to find, patterns of unseemly egotism and ambition less easy to avoid. Nevertheless, that fair reader might question such attention to politics which has been so often petty and trite, politics from the lands of Lilliput and Brobdingnag.

Those readers could shift gears and focus on Rundle's more general appraisals. This volume includes his commentary on ANAC, Manus Island, the Murray-Darling basin and section 18C (the racial vilification issue).

Some of those essays are a lot better than others. A section on Melbourne appears towards the end, but does not yield many new insights into the city. Sisto from Pellegrini's, tragically knifed to death in Bourke Street trying to save an innocent bystander, deserves a warmer celebration. Sisto generously welcomed three generations of my family to Pellegrini's; he died a hero. Rundle notes Sisto's trademark "red kerchief and striped shirt", but only after conceding that, in decades visiting the cafe, he had not learned Sisto's name. Bob Ellis, too, might feel himself short-changed by Rundle's valedictory remarks.

Perhaps some things are beyond either gonzo satire or cogent analysis.