As Ge­of­frey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Dis­tance turns 50, Gideon Haigh pays trib­ute to an en­dur­ing clas­sic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Graeme Dav­i­son will speak about The Tyranny of Dis­tance at 3.30pm on Tues­day at Monash Univer­sity Law Cham­bers, 555 Lons­dale Street, as part of Mel­bourne Rare Book Week. rarebook­

It was a hit al­most be­fore the pub­lic had read a word, re­mem­bers Brian Stonier. One evening in early 1966, Stonier, a founder of the new pa­per­back im­print Sun Books, had the task of in­tro­duc­ing his­to­rian Ge­of­frey Blainey to an au­di­ence in the li­brary at Gee­long Col­lege. He men­tioned Blainey’s seven pre­vi­ous works and pub­li­cised his next: “We’re hop­ing later this year to pub­lish a new book, which we’re think­ing of call­ing The Tyranny of Dis­tance.” The 60 school­child­ren burst into ap­plause, spon­ta­neously and por­ten­tously — the book ap­proaches its half-cen­tury as per­haps Aus­tralian his­tory’s big­gest best­seller, hav­ing never been out of print, with about 180,000 copies sold.

To­day Blainey is 86, weighed down with hon­ours. Back then, he was a rather dash­ing reader in eco­nomic his­tory at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne with a knack for reach­ing non-aca­demic au­di­ences: Monash Univer­sity’s Graeme Dav­i­son, who will present a birth­day ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Tyranny this week on a plat­form with Blainey as part of Mel­bourne’s Rare Book Week, be­lieves him the first trained his­to­rian in Aus­tralia, and still one of very few, to live by his pen.

For the lay-reader, The Tyranny reads as vi­tally as ever, with, as Don Wat­son once noted, vir­tu­ally a rev­e­la­tion a page. The pac­ing is flaw­less, the prose lean. Blainey is renowned for his fas­ci­na­tion with me­chan­i­cal in­ge­nu­ity, and the book’s com­po­nents slot to­gether with the ease of pre­ci­sion work­man­ship, like a ship cap­tain’s chronome­ter or a sur­veyor’s theodo­lite. Aged 50, it also in­vites ap­pre­ci­a­tion as an his­tor­i­cal arte­fact in its own right.

Born in 1930, Blainey was reared in a house­hold with barely a word of Aus­tralian his­tory on its book­shelves. Nor were there books to be found in the li­brary at the Bal­larat Me­chan­ics In­sti­tute when he joined it — he gorged in­stead on travel books.

There is an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal note when Blainey in The Tyranny de­scribes Aus­tralians’ staunch but obliv­i­ous An­glo­cen­tric­ity.

“School­child­ren in Aus­tralia got it sec­ond­hand,” he wrote, “and one of the cu­ri­ous ef­fects of Aus­tralia’s education sys­tem was that, as late as the late 1940s, most of those who left sec­ondary school or univer­sity car­ried away the idea that Bri­tain was still the lead­ing power. One house­hold item that had per­haps pre­served the idea of the might of Bri­tain and its em­pire was the map of the world. The splashes of deep red across the map seemed vis­ual proof of Bri­tain’s power.”

There be­ing few ob­vi­ous en­try points on a na­tional story, Blainey first came at Aus­tralia from the obliquest of an­gles. Rather than be­ing re­ab­sorbed into academe af­ter fin­ish­ing his un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree at Mel­bourne Univer­sity, he ac­cepted a com­mis­sion to write a his­tory of the Mt Lyell Min­ing and Rail­way Com­pany, which opened out into a stun­ningly orig­i­nal por­trait of a land­scape and way of life. His so­journ on Tas­ma­nia’s west coast also would shape the think­ing be­hind The Tyranny, not sim­ply be­cause of its iso­la­tion but be­cause he sub­scribed to the ro­neoed news­let­ter of the Tas­ma­nian His­tor­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion, which in 1952 pub­lished a re­mark­able, quixotic pa­per.

Ken Dal­las was a sham­bling, ur­sine fig­ure — an avowed so­cial­ist and an in­sou­ciant, self­e­d­u­cated, se­ri­ally en­thu­si­as­tic scholar. De­liv­ered to the as­so­ci­a­tion’s an­nual meet­ing, Dal­las’s “The first set­tle­ment in Aus­tralia con­sid­ered in re­la­tion to sea-power in world pol­i­tics” dared de­part from the script that the Bri­tish had en­vi­sioned the an­tipodes sim­ply as a pe­nal sink­hole, point­ing to its strate­gic sig­nif­i­cance in the south­ern seas and the po­ten­tial of its com­modi- ties (flax and tall tim­ber) to an em­pire sinewed by sail.

Blainey was cap­ti­vated, per­haps above all by Dal­las’s het­ero­doxy. Later he would lure Dal­las to Mel­bourne Univer­sity as a guest lec­turer. “Stu­dents loved him,” says Blainey. Above all, in Tyranny’s first chap­ter, Blainey would adapt and ex­pand the idea of a mer­can­tilist im­pe­tus to Aus­tralia’s first set­tle­ment, then strongly de­fend it from crit­i­cism.

That lay ahead as Blainey re­fined his craft across the next decade in a suc­ces­sion of in­sti­tu­tional his­to­ries: a bank, an en­gi­neer­ing com­pany, a univer­sity, a sub­urb, another min­ing com­pany and, in 1963, the min­ing in­dus­try it­self, then strangely ne­glected. The ti­tle, The Rush That Never Ended, fur­ther evinced Blainey’s propen­sity for the ring­ing phrase, some of which have en­tered the ver­nac­u­lar (“black arm­band”, “na­tion of tribes”), oth­ers of which per­haps should have (such as “the pale em­pire of ideas”, Blainey’s ren­der­ing of “soft power” in 2000’s A Short His­tory of the World).

With his spe­cial­i­sa­tion in eco­nomic his­tory, Blainey had by then drifted back to his alma mater. He found it rather ease­ful: eight to 10 con­tact hours a week left am­ple writ­ing time, and in 1964 he cheer­fully ac­cepted a com­mis­sion from Stonier, who had es­tab­lished a lo­cal pub­lish­ing list at Pen­guin’s Aus­tralian out­post, to write a his­tory of trans­porta­tion in Aus­tralia.

Not, Blainey ad­mits, that he was par­tic­u­larly well qual­i­fied; he sim­ply liked the idea. “I sup­pose I was get­ting more and more con­fi­dent,” he says. “Quite will­ing to jump into a sub­ject of which I knew noth­ing.” He schooled him­self partly by school­ing his stu­dents. Some sec­tions of The Tyranny, such as a salty and reek­ing chap­ter on whal­ing, were de­liv­ered first as lec­tures, and he reg­u­larly iden­ti­fied is­sues to elab­o­rate from class ques­tions. “You often teach more in­ter­est­ingly if you’re not sure where you’re go­ing,” he adds.

The Tyranny builds on cer­tain core un­der­stand­ings with a qual­ity of hind­sight ob­vi­ous­ness, such as that Aus­tralia cleaved to those com­modi­ties, wool and gold, that were eas­i­est and most eco­nom­i­cal to move to mar­kets. Wool was for men with cap­i­tal, gold for men with­out it.

Blainey also ex­hib­ited a ca­pac­ity for re­con­sid­er­a­tion. He ex­pected, for ex­am­ple, to add his voice to the age-old crit­i­cism of the builders of Aus­tralian rail­ways, that they had short-sight­edly re­lied on dif­fer­ent gauges that fi­nally proved im­pos­si­ble to link con­ti­nen­tally. But on read­ing ac­counts of the unit­ing of rail­ways con­nect­ing Mel­bourne and Syd­ney in 1884, he was struck by no­body seem­ing to think this was a big deal.

Well, yes, Blainey re­flected — the lay­ing of rail­ways had be­gun a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions ear­lier, to open in­te­ri­ors not served by wa­ter­ways and to suit lo­cal ter­rains rather than to mo­bilise the min­i­mal traf­fic be­tween colonies al­ready cheaply served by sea. Blainey en­com­passed the ini­tially re­laxed at­ti­tude to border changes of lo­co­mo­tives in a char­ac­ter­is­tic para­graph, con­clud­ing with a play­ful as­per­ity. Men who were ac­cus­tomed to trav­el­ling long dis­tances in horse-drawn coaches liked to leave a train to stretch their legs. As trains had no din­ing cars pas­sen­gers had to leave the train to buy a meal; at the border, more­over, their lug­gage had to be checked by cus­toms of­fi­cials, so that some de­lay was in­evitable even if they did not want a pie and tea. Even the car­ry­ing of their per­sonal lug­gage from the Vic­to­rian to the NSW train at Al­bury was not an­noy­ing, be­cause most pas­sen­gers were wealthy enough to hire a porter. The break of gauge lost its plea­sures much later, when the cus­toms in­spec­tion was abol­ished, when din­ing cars were cou­pled to pas­sen­ger trains, the lug­gage porters’ carts dwin­dled, the long train trip be­came a fast overnight jour­ney … and when we have all be­come lazier.

Such pas­sages, some­times al­most sen­sual, lend The Tyranny its per­son­al­ity. Blainey is some­times deemed a bet­ter his­to­rian of things than of peo­ple, but things in The Tyranny are im­bued with rare char­ac­ter, whether whale­bones on a beach at Port Fairy or Chilean flow­ers grow­ing among dis­carded bal­last on the New­cas­tle shore­line.

Blainey evokes the soft pad of a night-time camel train, de­scribes the greasy smell from the prior cargo of wool and tal­low greet­ing im­mi­grants de­scend­ing into ship­board sleep­ing

quar­ters. He sketches rail­way work­ers throw­ing to­gether a tem­po­rary town, notes the changed ur­ban or­der and odour when the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine eclipsed the horse (“Horses were as detri­men­tal to pub­lic health as the ex­haust fumes which re­placed them as the dis­tinc­tive scent of cities”).

Through­out, Blainey’s is a strong au­tho­rial voice, mea­sured and epi­gram­matic. Eschew­ing quo­ta­tion and sta­tis­tics for the pur­poses of nar­ra­tive pace, he can be jolt­ingly suc­cinct, no­tably when he ex­presses race re­la­tions as a cal­cu­lus: “The coloured pop­u­la­tion which in­hab­ited Aus­tralia be­fore the white con­quest was rel­a­tively sparse, and made sparser by the guns and dis­eases which English­men car­ried. The con­flict be­tween abo­rig­i­nals and Euro­pean in­vaders was costly for the abo­rig­i­nals but not for the in­vaders.” Such un­self­con­scious use of “con­quest” and “in­vaders” might to­day in­vite a rep­ri­mand from The Daily Tele­graph. But in what he called his “sort of his­tory of Aus­tralia”, Blainey ar­guably ex­hib­ited both the strengths and the lim­i­ta­tions of the dis­ci­pline of eco­nomic his­tory.

Where Blainey suc­ceeded, per­haps for all time, was in writ­ing so invit­ingly, even ex­cit­ingly.

The Tyranny is con­comi­tantly spa­cious, de­light­ing in star­tling facts, un­afraid of con­fi­dent as­ser­tions — Aus­tralians’ em­brace of sport, for ex­am­ple, is baldly yet con­vinc­ingly ex­plained as a phe­nom­e­non of colonial gen­der im­bal­ance, “to be ex­pected in a so­ci­ety dom­i­nated by young men”. Not for Blainey the ten­ta­tive mode of many mod­ern his­to­ri­ans, con­tent to “pose ques­tions”; he quested for an­swers by ev­i­dence and rea­son­ing.

De­spite this, the the­sis came late. As Blainey ex­plains, the book was writ­ten back-tofront, what was even­tu­ally the sec­ond half, called The Taming of Dis­tance, came first. It was work­ing his way back­wards to James Cook’s ex­plo­rations that en­cour­aged his see­ing trans­porta­tion through its chal­lenges rather than its tech­nolo­gies.

It was the book’s first half, ac­tu­ally writ­ten sec­ond, that orig­i­nally was called The Tyranny of Dis­tance, while the book’s work­ing ti­tle was Dis­tance and Des­tiny. It was only just be­fore the night at Gee­long Col­lege that the ti­tles of the first half of the book and of the book it­self were trans­posed. Stonier cred­its the de­ci­sion to a boozy lunch in Carl­ton. While not re­call­ing it, Blainey agrees it’s a story that should be true.

About the ti­tle, Blainey is mod­est. He is amused by its ubiq­uity — that it is the name of a cafe in Wind­sor, for ex­am­ple, and was quoted by Split Enz in Six Months in a Leaky Boat (“The tyranny of dis­tance didn’t stop the cav­a­lier”). But he is sur­prised at its lit­eral in­ter­pre­ta­tion: “It’s a loose phrase. Some­thing you’d put on a ban­ner for a foot­ball team to run through.” No tyrant, he ob­serves, ever went un­re­sisted. There is a cu­ri­ous link, mean­while, be­tween

The Tyranny and two works of com­pa­ra­ble stature and res­o­nance pre­ced­ing it: Robin Boyd’s

The Aus­tralian Ug­li­ness (1960) and Don­ald Horne’s The Lucky Coun­try (1964).

Boyd’s and Horne’s books were pub­lished by the newly ex­panded Aus­tralian out­post of Pen­guin yet se­verely ag­gra­vated ten­sions be­tween the tweedy par­ent com­pany and its con­fi­dent young rep­re­sen­ta­tives Down Un­der — Stonier, Ge­of­frey Dut­ton and Max Har­ris. Pen­guin had re­fused to pub­lish Boyd in Bri­tain and agreed to take The Lucky Coun­try only with mis­giv­ings and un­der the banal ti­tle Aus­tralia in the Six­ties.

Stonier signed Blainey for Pen­guin, too, but by the time the man­u­script was com­plete had walked out to es­tab­lish Sun Books with Dut­ton and Har­ris in June 1965.

Blainey re­calls: “I said to Brian: ‘Well, I have to of­fer it to Pen­guin first’. Brian said: ‘ You must’.” When Blainey re­ceived a terse re­jec­tion let­ter from Pen­guin — never ex­plained — Ston- ier pre­dictably was over­joyed. Sun matched Blainey in bold­ness. For a se­ri­ous work of Aus­tralian his­tory to be re­leased first in pa­per­back, and at $1.95 in the new­fan­gled dec­i­mal cur­rency to boot, was un­heard of. A cool mod­ernist cover by J. Wal­ter Thomp­son art di­rec­tor Bryan Sad­grove tilted The Tyranny fur­ther to­ward a pop­u­lar au­di­ence.

“I can say it was bril­liant be­cause I had no part in it,” says Blainey.

Some dis­ori­ented his­to­ri­ans marked it down as a “quickie” on the ba­sis of its bind­ings; most wel­comed it warmly. “Writ­ten in a de­light­fully lu­cid style, it will con­found the sever­est critic of the present stan­dard of Aus­tralian his­to­ri­og­ra­phy,” the Univer­sity of NSW’s Frank Crow­ley wrote in The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald. As well they might have: in some re­spects,

The Tyranny rep­re­sents the apoth­e­o­sis of a cer­tain kind of his­tor­i­cal writ­ing, ahead of a drift away from it. A read­er­ship, and a stu­dent body, were about to start talk­ing back and among them­selves. Blainey’s in­stinc­tual gen­er­al­ism also would run counter to trends of spe­cial­i­sa­tion in the hu­man­i­ties — to the writ­ing, as Monash’s Dav­i­son puts it, of more and more about less and less.

Yet, as Dav­i­son notes, la longue duree has made a sub­tle come­back in re­cent times, in the trend to in­dis­ci­plinary “big his­tory” ad­vo­cated by Amer­i­can his­tory pro­fes­sors Jo Guldi and David Ar­mitage in their mono­graph The His

tory Man­i­festo (2014). In ex­plor­ing the open­ing of new ex­panses of ter­ri­tory, The Tyranny of

Dis­tance also opened new vis­tas of his­tory. That first burst of ap­plause de­serves re­newal.


Ge­of­frey Blainey says he was ‘will­ing to jump into a sub­ject of which I knew noth­ing’

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