October 2006

Arts & Letters

The first XI

By John Hirst
The best Australian history books

Are the finest guides to Australian history always those written by historians? Asked to name the best history books on Australia, I find my mind wanders to works that are not history proper. Is this because our historians have been poor, or because Australia doesn't yield its secrets when the usual methods are applied?

At the recent "summit" called by the federal government to discuss the teaching of Australian history in schools, I signed up to the proposition that children should, among other things, know "significant public events and developments". But is knowing them the way one comes to know Australia? In the US or England, the public events of the past still definitely shape the nation's sense of itself. Americans are, as their Declaration of Independence avers, committed to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The English are proud of creating the mother of parliaments and the protections of the common law. And in France, for a long time, a person's attitude to the Revolution determined which of the town's chess clubs they would join. Our history hasn't worked like this.

Two days after the history summit, I went to see my football team play at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. I rode by escalator up to a seat in the newest stand. In large handwriting on the walls surrounding me were the first rules of the Australian game, drawn up by the Melbourne Club in 1859. It was, of course, not the original document; I am not sure even whether the handwriting was a blown-up version of the original, but I felt that frisson of awe and attachment which sustains museums and which Americans feel when they look at the original Declaration of Independence under glass.

It might not be history, but there is a sporting lore in this country: names, dates, records, rules, triumphs and near misses. Remember Wayne Harmes sliding across the wet ground to keep the ball in play in the 1979 grand final, giving Carlton the opportunity to kick the goal that defeated Collingwood? And is it true that the boundary umpire who did not call the ball out of bounds was Harmes's cousin? We have no equivalent lore of our public life. Everyone knows that Don Bradman kept up the nation's spirits during the great Depression, but how many know the name of Joe Lyons, who left the Labor Party during the Depression and became prime minister on the other side? If children are to be taught "public events and developments", they will be learning what their elders do not know and seemingly don't need to know.


So let us begin privately, in a small dining room in an English county town. The guests have just left and the host and hostess are quarrelling. The hostess is about to utter the Australian declaration of independence. The talk of these two was created by the novelist Henry Handel Richardson in The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1930). Richard Mahony had made money as a doctor in gold-rush Ballarat; his wife Mary had only very reluctantly gone "Home" with him to Buddlecombe. Her first supper party there was a disaster, for she had put on a slap-up Australian spread and her guests had no more than toyed with it. She should have served just biscuits and sherry.

Her husband upbraids her for this terrible faux pas, to which she responds with a denunciation of the restrictions of English social life:

To remember I mustn't shake hands here or even bow there. That in some quarters I must only say "Good afternoon" and not "How do you do?" - and then the other way around as well. That nice Mrs Perkes is not the thing and ought to be cold-shouldered; and when I have company I am not to give them anything to eat. Oh, Richard, it all seems to me such 'fudge'! How grown-up people can spend their lives being so silly, I don't know. Out 'there', you had to forget what a person's outside was like - I mean his table-manners and whether he could say his aitches - as long as he was capable ... or rich. But here it's always: "'Who' is he? How far back can he trace his pedigree?"

The Fortunes becomes a somewhat turgid saga, but its description of society out there, of Victoria after the gold rush, has not been bettered.


Politics, which must be a large part of "public events and developments", scarcely appears in the books of Geoffrey Blainey, the most prolific and popular of our historians. He is an economic historian, though of a unique sort: he is interested in "all trades, their gear and tackle and trim", and the tradesmen, too; in the economy, that is, close to the ground as well as in the broad. Economic historians used to think that they could ignore politics, but they are now more aware of the importance of political stability for economic growth, and they may be interested even in culture as the matrix in which economic life occurs. Blainey can take as given political stability in Australia, since government has never broken down and had to be reconstituted. No one criticises Blainey for ignoring politics, and he goes on capturing much of the life of the country without it.

I limit myself to naming one of his books, confident that readers who try it won't need my recommendation to read more. The title of The Tyranny of Distance (1966) has passed into the language, despite my own efforts to argue that the book does not justify its title. What the book does do is to give, in a very palatable form, an account of the development of the Australian economy with, as always, some shrewd comments about social life as well. It is a tribute to the vividness of Blainey's imagination and the magic of his simple prose that he can make economic life so interesting.


David Denholm had a sense of the reclusive nature of Australian history. In the preface to The Colonial Australians (1979), he offers a mild rebuke to the established historians who have asked "large questions", to which they have given "large answers". He announces that he will deal with small questions, mere trifles, and he immediately takes the reader deeper into Australian society than the usual histories. He is interested in how quickly guns fired, why surveyors were so attached to straight lines, how many people rode horses, how church architecture related to belief, the fate of the gentry who were meant to have disappeared. Though starting small, he also links Australia most tellingly to the civilisation from which it came.

In the gem of the book, an essay prompted by Francis Greenway's church at Windsor, he identifies the origins of the building in this way:

The church that rose on the knoll at Windsor came from the ancient Greeks and their command of straight-line geometry; from the fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance which captured the Greek feeling for proportion in the shaping of things; from the seventeenth-century civilisation of Holland (brought into England by William of Orange) with its Flemish technique of securing bricks one upon another; from eighteenth-century Georgian England's love of functional simplicity, order, symmetry and restraint; and from the early nineteenth-century provincial training of the ex-convict who put it altogether. St Matthews came, through Greenway's mind, from all the ages of the West.


Politics and economics are central in the classic short history Australia (1930), written by Keith Hancock. He traces how the concern for "fair and reasonable" conditions led to a distinctive Australian political economy, with its ever-widening controls on wages, imports and prices and ever-growing subsidies through the provision of government services. So powerful were these impulses that Hancock feared they would strangle the economy and hence the opportunity to provide a good living for all. Australia is a bold and brilliant characterisation, and Hancock's deft and witty formulations have been landmarks for all subsequent scholars.

The book is now very dated, since the old controls and supports have been de-regulated away - except that Hancock finds the origins of the country's political economy in the character of the Australian people; in their generous, perhaps naive commitment to "fair and reasonable" conditions for all. This formulation cannot be caught by the usual categories of political philosophy. Its modern manifestation is the belief in the "fair go". Whether it has any residual force against the disciplines of a global economy, we will soon discover.


If character is what must be understood, we cannot go past The Broken Years (1974), Bill Gammage's account of soldiers in World War I. Gammage is a worthy successor to the great Charles Bean, the official historian of Australia's part in the war, and follows him in believing that the character of the soldiers was important for their battlefield success, and that a distinctive Australian character was distilled in its soldiers.

Gammage uses the soldiers' diaries and letters to trace how their attitudes changed as the war progressed. His description of their mindset during the last campaigns in France is almost as eloquent as Bean's famous words at the close of his Gallipoli volumes in the Official History. Gammage writes:

They lived in a world apart, a new world, scarcely remembering their homes and country, and grieving little at the deaths of mates they loved more than anything on this earth, because they knew that only time kept them from the "great majority" who had already died ... So they continued, grim, mocking, defiant, brave, and careless, free from common toils and woes, into a perpetual present ...


Keith Hancock controversially described the Labor Party as the creative initiating force in politics (against the evidence of much of his book). There have been many books written on the Labor Party, mostly by people who take this view of it. The one which best conveys the spirit of the early party and the devotion of its supporters was written by Billy Hughes, whom the Labor faithful consider a rat. Crusts and Crusades (1947) is series of reminiscences, not a history proper. I have lectured to students on the Labor Party with most success when I have merely read extracts from it.

Hughes's vivid account of his own preselection in 1894 shows that branch-stacking was present at the party's birth. The oddity of the Labor Party in NSW - so different from the British model - was its ability to win seats in the country. The first steps, however, were not always encouraging. Hughes describes how he was refused all service in a country town where he hoped to found a branch. There was no sign of the shearer whom he had enlisted outback, who was meant to chair his meeting. Outside the meeting hall, the minuscule Labor blow-in got into an argument with the town blacksmith, who was about to annihilate him when a band of shearers rode up. Their leader knocked out the blacksmith, took the stage still dripping with blood, and opened the meeting thus:

"Look here, us blokes have organised this 'ere meeting to 'ear this bloke - and by cripes we're going to 'ear him. The first one of you Rockley blokes as opens his mouth will get it in the neck. Now then," he said, turning to me, "Let 'er go."


Richmond, the industrial inner suburb of Melbourne, was pure Labor, but in Janet McCalman's Struggletown (1984) the Party is somewhat distant; she deals with houses, marriages, family and work, and gives the best account we have of working-class life and particularly of the gap between the respectable and the rough. The book deals with Richmond in the first half of the twentieth century and is based on interviews with old Richmond people, whose words are given plenty of space. We get to know them as characters.

The book runs against feminist orthodoxy in discovering that within the home, the wives were commonly in charge: they were strong and determined individuals who often barely tolerated their feckless husbands. As far as I know, this claim of domestic matriarchy has simply been ignored by those who take a contrary view of women's place in Australian history. History writing does not always proceed by careful assessment of new evidence; sometimes it simply proceeds.


Women received little attention in Hancock's Australia; they feature prominently in the best modern successor to Hancock, John Rickard's Australia: A Cultural History (1988). He uses "cultural" in the anthropological sense, to mean the whole way of life of a people. As a good modern he does not have Hancock's confidence that a single Australian character can be identified; he highlights the differences between men and women, Catholics and Protestants (totally ignored by Hancock), bosses and workers, Anglos and the ‘inferior' races. But unlike so many moderns, he does not think his work is complete when he has divided society by race, class and gender. What makes the place distinctive? His answer lies in establishing an Australian style of dealing with or accommodating difference. This is a very fruitful notion.


When Hancock wrote of the pursuit of the fair and reasonable, there was another, very different society on Australian soil, one cruel, chaotic and exploitative. Xavier Herbert's historical novel Capricornia (1938) gives us the other Australia of the Northern Territory, of white Australia lording it over the Aborigines and fucking them as well. The savagery of Herbert's depictions makes this an "unbalanced" history - Ann McGrath has given us a different view of Aborigines in the cattle industry - but the power of this portrait is irresistible, and the book can be treated as history-making in itself, a shouting of what had been hidden.


If you prefer a calmer tone and the economy of Greek tragedy to a saga's sprawl, read Katharine Prichard's novel Coonardoo (1929). Like Capricornia, it deals with the taboo of sex across the racial divide, in this case on a cattle station in northern Western Australia. That the decent white man will not have sex with the Aboriginal woman whom he loves, which leads to the undoing of them both: this is the myth that reconciliation needs. Coonardoo should be taught in schools, if we followed John Carroll's advice and gave schoolchildren myths rather than history. Certainly no historian has brought the land itself and the two peoples who have inhabited it so powerfully together.


So far the most recent history book I have cited was published in 1988. Is this because our historians have been poor? It is not a pleasant thought. We can set it aside, because in 2003 Inga Clendinnen published Dancing with Strangers, and revealed new capacities in the craft of history. As an ethnographic historian, her skill is in deciphering cultures that have left few, if any, records. She finds meaning by interpreting action as it was described by outsiders hostile to or puzzled by what they were seeing. In Dancing, she brings these skills to the study of the encounters between Aborigines and Europeans in the first settlement at Sydney Cove. She develops startlingly new views of the spearing of Governor Phillip and his ordering of the first punitive expedition against the Aborigines. She calls her reinterpretations hypotheses or even guesses, but they are so dazzling that we are left groping to offer alternatives. All previous accounts are now in question.

Her book opens with Aborigines and Europeans dancing together. It ends with two peoples moving apart into indifference and hostility, and concludes with these words:

There remains a final mystery. Despite our long alienation, despite our merely adjacent histories, and through processes I do not yet understand, we are now more like each other than we are like any other people. We even share something of the same style of humour, which is a subtle but far-reaching affinity.

Here, we are at the opposite pole from "significant public events and developments". If Clendinnen plans to crack this mystery, she will serve us well.

John Hirst

John Hirst is a historian, social commentator and emiritus scholar in the history program at La Trobe University. His books include The Australians: Insiders and outsiders on the national character since 1770, Freedom on the Fatal Shore: Australia’s first colony and The Shortest History of Europe.

Cover: October 2006

October 2006

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