History lost in a dull red blur

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jack Marx

New­cas­tle ing, a cat­a­logue of dates, peo­ple and places bound to­gether with the ro­mance of a street di­rec­tory. It is no book for a reader, or a history junkie, or a lover of New­cas­tle, or even the most pas­sion­ate so­cial­ist.

One of the bet­ter chap­ters, Shane Hop­kin­son and Tom Grif­fiths’s es­say about ac­tivist Neville Cun­ning­ham, be­trays a story laced with tragedy: the man who sac­ri­ficed his mar­riage and whole work­ing life to com­mu­nism con­cludes, at the end of his life, that his cause has been a lie. But the heart­break is lost in a barely eu­lo­gis­tic bi­og­ra­phy, au­thored by men who ap­pear to have known Cun­ning­ham per­son­ally.

It’s sym­bolic of this book’s blood­less ap­proach to history that we never seem to learn of how char­ac­ters we are meant to care about ended their lives: pub­lisher JJ Moloney “died sud­denly in Syd­ney”, aca­demic David Mad­di­son faced a “trag­i­cally pre­ma­ture death in 1981”. Read­ers are left to guess whether their ends came through heart at­tack, sui­cide or me­teor strike.

The big­gest dis­ap­point­ment of all is Ber­nadette Smith’s chap­ter on the Star Ho­tel riot of 1979, de­scribed in the in­tro­duc­tion as “a com­pellingly cap­tured … eye­wit­ness ac­count”. It is noth­ing of the sort, the au­thor ad­mit­ting in her es­say that she missed the riot com­pletely, show­ing up only to pho­to­graph the “last rem­nants of the crowd of on­look­ers and the scat­tered wreck­age” of a vi­o­lence that had long since punched it­self out.

It would have taken lit­tle more than a shoutout on so­cial media to find some gen­uine wit­nesses and par­tic­i­pants who could have told this re­mark­able story blow by blow. In­stead, Smith con­tents her­self with writ­ing a schol­arly trea­tise on the brawl, as seen through the rear-view mir­ror of an earnest aca­demic break­ing the speed limit on her way to a PhD. A big fight in a pub, ini­ti­ated when the cops turned off the beer, be­comes “a strug­gle for the ac­cep­tance of plu­ral­ism”. Give me a break.

There’s a rea­son why Ned Kelly is Aus­tralia’s most pop­u­lar his­tor­i­cal fig­ure, and it’s not be­cause he at­tended com­mit­tee meet­ings. A breath of fresh air among the gallery of public ser­vants who jos­tle for space in the Aus­tralian Dic­tionary of Bi­og­ra­phy, Ned was a lone wolf, wag­ing an en­tirely free­lance re­bel­lion against per­sonal poverty and the hyp­notic tedium of life un­der au­thor­ity, po­lit­i­cal or oth­er­wise, which is some­thing ev­ery Aus­tralian can un­der­stand.

So, too, were the res­i­dents of Clara Street, New­cas­tle, who phys­i­cally charged po­lice in de­fence of their homes dur­ing the evic­tion riot of 1932, and “se­rial pest” Peter Hore, whose reck­less mo­ments of cul­tural ter­ror­ism have made him world-fa­mous. Mark Richards dropped out of high school — with his par­ents’ bless­ing — to surf his way to a world ti­tle in 1979, when surf­ing was such a mar­ginal sport that a wrist­watch was his only prize, and the Ley­land broth­ers took on Get Smart and The Brady Bunch with lit­tle more than a Kombi, urg­ing Aus­tralians to love their nat­u­ral in­her­i­tance at a time when mind­less jour­neys were anath­ema to tele­vi­sion.

None of these Novo­cas­tri­ans gets a guernsey in Rad­i­cal New­cas­tle — not even Joy Cum­mings, who waded head­long into a po­lit­i­cal gen­der tsunami to be­come Aus­tralia’s first fe­male lord mayor in 1974 — and that’s be­wil­der­ing. The au­thors doubt­less feel that in pro­duc­ing a book about politi­cised no­bod­ies writ­ten in the most spar­tan aca­demic style, they of­fer us some­thing wor­thy that tran­scends the cheap ap­petites of sen­sa­tion­al­ist cul­ture.

They’re wrong. What we have here is trash, frankly, which will live next to clip jobs of Kim Kar­dashian in bar­gain bins across the coun­try. That’s a tragedy for the un­pub­lished history of New­cas­tle, for it’ll be a brave pub­lisher who’ll be pre­pared to touch the sub­ject when the sales of this tome are dock­eted.

If you think I’m be­ing un­fair, think about what this book rep­re­sents. Rad­i­cal New­cas­tle is the work of al­most the en­tire history depart­ment of one of our lead­ing univer­si­ties, edited by the head of that depart­ment, a se­nior lec­turer thereof and an “award-win­ning” alum­nus, with grad­u­ates mak­ing up more than three quar­ters of the list of con­trib­u­tors. These are peo­ple who ed­u­cate our history stu­dents. They set the bench­mark when it comes to the study and pro­lif­er­a­tion of the story of Aus­tralia, and are ap­proached by politi­cians to carve out the syl­labus for gen­er­a­tions of suf­fer­ing chil­dren, who stag­ger home from school anx­iously won­der­ing what’s wrong with them that they can’t get in­ter­ested in the gold rush or Fed­er­a­tion.

Rad­i­cal New­cas­tle may be the best ev­i­dence yet for what is wrong with how history is ap­proached in Aus­tralia, not to men­tion ed­u­ca­tion in a higher learn­ing fa­cil­ity. That these well-paid in­tel­lec­tu­als have put their heads to­gether and pro­duced a history book so de­lib­er­ately drab and po­lit­i­cally ex­clu­sive should be cause for a royal com­mis­sion, not just a lousy re­view in a na­tional news­pa­per.


is a New­cas­tle-born jour­nal­ist and

De­tail from the cover of Rad­i­cal New­cas­tle shows a strike at New­cas­tle Teach­ers Col­lege in 1951

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