August 2016

Arts & Letters

Strong boots

By Barry Hill
Tom Griffiths’ ‘The Art of Time Travel’ is a thoughtful look at some of Australia’s most prominent historians

This is not so much a history, as an epic poem; and notwithstanding, or even in consequence of this, the truest of histories.
– John Stuart Mill, ‘Carlyle’s French Revolution’


The great conversation that is history is “full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs”, as Alan Atkinson, the author of the three-volume The Europeans in Australia, has remarked. The noise from so many competing voices can be overwhelming, and those of us looking for a way through “are like half-deaf people at parties”. Think of our history wars. Yet Atkinson is right to give a Shakespearean tinge to it all. As with Hamlet, that great overhearer of himself, history is exactly so: other people’s conversations with each other, and our own with ourselves, then and now.

The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft (Black Inc.; $34.99) is beautifully written and painlessly erudite, with no murderous axe to grind. It is an invitation to join one of Australia’s most civilised historians, Tom Griffiths, as he essays on 14 of his well-known colleagues, eight of them living. Griffiths, a genial, generous man of lively, open mind, attends to the graves of those gone and does homage to the living with an eye to posterity. His spirit is curatorial and reconciliatory. He knows the history wars are just beneath our surfaces, but this is not the book about that. It is a book with a positive quest.

The professional historians included here (Keith Hancock, John Mulvaney, Geoffrey Blainey, Greg Dening, Henry Reynolds, Donna Merwick, Graeme Davison, Inga Clendinnen, Grace Karskens) have intimate links with places that have been walked across, fought over, dug up and, most of all, loved. Other essays tackle an earthy novelist (Eleanor Dark), a farmer (Eric Rolls), a nature poet and indigenous people’s advocate (Judith Wright), a radical nationalist literary editor (Stephen Murray-Smith), and two archaeologists (Mulvaney and Mike Smith). All of these writers were or are so rooted in place that you could say that this book of walking through history unites them as space travellers as much as time travellers. As the great British historian RH Tawney used to say, good historians need strong boots.

Griffiths has himself covered a lot of ground, on foot and in the archives that are so alluring to historians. He is an environmental and social historian who first made his mark with Hunters and Collectors: The antiquarian imagination in Australia (1996), an excursion into material history in the days when amateur and professional historians prospected and cogitated all over the colony. Since then he’s written a fresh, vivid study of bushfire, Forests of Ash: An environmental history (2001), and a riveting book on the Antarctic, Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica (2007). The hallmark of these prize-winning books is their grasp of habitat realities, their rendering of in situ historical experience, and their alertness to the finesse and integrity of historical methods. Griffiths, professor of history at the Australian National University, is meticulously true to his credo as an empiricist, while being musically deft with the poetic effects that revivify facts.

Essentially, then, this book of conversations and overhearings is a splendid manifestation of recent historical consciousness, and of history as it is practised inside and outside the academy. The general reader is introduced to several Australian classics, and to newer works on urban history, pre-history, family history, and history rendered as fiction. There is also history done out of extreme places (the Antarctic and the Australian deserts) as well as from civic institutions (Griffiths as well as Grace Karskens toiled as public historians before they became academics). Indeed you could not have a better guide to history as useful work: history as unavoidably civic-minded; history as essentially a matter of attending to the actuality of close-grained things; history as the discipline of grasping particulars in a way that is, as Hugh Stretton once put it, “holist, uncertain and eclectic”. History that has to demand of itself that it be fastidiously thought through and well written – for how else to select and perform its myriad notes, steps, movements?

The Art of Time Travel should be in every school and library. I would design a senior history course out of it. In fact, I’d tell all students, no matter their disciplines, that if they were to imagine “the epic poem” of Australia, “the truest of histories”, they might start with this book, which so meaningfully features “craft” and “art” in its title. After generations of fretting about history’s intellectual status and modes of understanding compared to science and the social sciences, here is a lucid account that quietly invites the reader to transcend many of history’s false dichotomies – rather in the spirit, I think, of the liberal-minded positivist John Stuart Mill, when he praised the profuse and diffuse intelligence of his Romantic contemporary, Thomas Carlyle.

The Art of Time Travel pays careful attention to the complexities, colleagueships and “late development” of each of its subjects. For example, with Keith Hancock, the distinguished imperial historian who spent most of his life poring over documentary records while living in London, the focus is on his Discovering Monaro (1972). This work was an embedded act of homecoming, a personal ecological history, where the author finally transcended his cultural cringes about his intellectual calling. With Judith Wright, the focus is on her shifting quality of remorse concerning her family’s dynastic relationship to their land and its dispossessed inhabitants. It compelled her to write not one but two books on her epic theme: The Cry for the Dead (1981) as well as The Generations of Men, which was written through the ’40s and ’50s. With Henry Reynolds, we track his movement over several publications, backwards and forwards and on both sides of the bloody frontier of Aboriginal history, reaching a point where Reynolds himself discovered that he has Aboriginal blood.

In each case, what Griffiths is subtly pursuing is the exact quality of the historian’s relocation or arrival on their home ground – their long story, if you like, of their late acts of belonging. In addition (and this must be added quickly because I don’t mean to imply that he aims to highlight solo acts of self-realisation or anything as soppy as that), Griffiths includes other contributors to these various intellectual endeavours. Hancock was a contemporary of George Seddon, another pioneer of environmental history; Bernard Smith, WEH Stanner and Noel Pearson rode the boundaries of the Henry Reynolds frontier. Griffiths is affirming what he calls “the collaborative and filial character of [his] craft”.

He rather has his own epic poem whispering to the reader. Thomas Carlyle thought the French Revolution the “grand Poem of [his] Time”. Griffiths is moved by the three pillars of our history: Deep Time, the First People and the First Settlement (of Europeans). The visionary arc of the book is indicative. It starts with his essay on Eleanor Dark’s 1941 novel of early Sydney, The Timeless Land, where the “timeless” of the title seemed to take as much from the First People as it sought to give back. It ends with awed praise for the research of Mike Smith, whose work on The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts (2013) supplemented The Prehistory of Australia (1969) written by his colleague John Mulvaney, for both scholars located the First People in their true times and places. Now we – the non-indigenous ones with mechanical timepieces – have a better chance of locating ourselves in the larger scheme of things. Of course, we must do so via the Empire story, the invasion/frontier story, and the democracy/gender/social-justice stories. But how wondrous the fruits of our own intellectual culture, of Australian history itself, for which we can be grateful! This is the epic poem (even if some prefer to write it in prose).

The Art of Time Travel also serves as an introduction to the intellectual pedigree of historians. Six of Griffiths’ subjects cut their teeth in history at the University of Melbourne in the ’60s, by which time it was gentrified and insular under the old regime of Max Crawford, professor of history from 1937 to 1970. Greg Dening was Griffiths’ teacher there. Dening, a Catholic priest in Australia before he trained in anthropology at Harvard, arrived determined to inculcate an ethnology that would broaden history along with a poetic sense of history’s actors. He was a “priestly” presence, encouraging young historians to know their own minds by engaging with Loyola’s spiritual exercises as a template to self-development. This was mind/heart training for historians – an adventure, but not of the kind that informed the earlier era of doing a history that aspired to uncover those much-vaunted “laws” of history.

What this book lacks, perhaps, is a historian who has been shaped by Marxism. Stephen Murray-Smith might well have been so explored, but we attend instead to Sitting on Penguins (1998), his book on Australian Antarctica. Nor is there a Labor historian, the urban history of Graeme Davison’s studies of the Melbourne suburb of Richmond, and the convict archaeology of Grace Karskens in the Rocks and the Blue Mountains, notwithstanding. A pity, too, that such a formidable and brooding Lutheran/Miltonic intelligence as the history-trained Noel Pearson did not have a chapter to himself. Nor did Marcia Langton, a dissenting student of John Mulvaney, whose lack of political correctness with regard to Aboriginal material history was a landmark event.

Yet The Art of Time Travel never aspired to be representative. Griffiths wanted to essay upon admired friends – some “key thinkers in history” – without pitting them against each other. It’s a book without raised voices, you might say. In the chapter on Graeme Davison (who praised Australia as “the first suburban nation”), Griffiths tells us that he himself is from Balwyn in Melbourne’s east, which has never had its Barry Humphries. It’s this kind of wry self-consciousness, not eclipsing critical theory, which adds to the charm of the book, even as it mutes its politics.

The ‘History and Fiction’ chapter revisits, however, the daggers that were drawn when Inga Clendinnen took issue with Kate Grenville’s 2005 novel, The Secret River. False dichotomies fly about. At the heart of the combat was a novelist’s slapdash attitude to what was in the archives, and a historian’s strangely strident rejection of the novelist’s faith in empathy. Nonsense was made of the idea that fiction and history need not compete but might complement each other in the truth stakes. Griffiths points this out, naturally, but I would go further and say that the epistemology of Clendinnen’s hard line on Grenville is one thing, and the stance she takes in her brash late work Reading the Holocaust (1998) is another. Still, “uncompromising complexity” is what Griffiths calls “[history’s] greatest virtue”.

It’s exhilarating, actually, to know that there can be no end to the themes of The Art of Time Travel.

Barry Hill
Barry Hill is a poet and historian. His book Naked Clay: Drawing from Lucian Freud was short-listed for the UK’s 2012 Forward Prize.

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August 2016

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