GIDEON HAIGH ON 50 YEARS OF AN AUSTRALIAN CLASSIC
As Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance turns 50, Gideon Haigh pays tribute to an enduring classic
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.
THE BOOK’S COMPONENTS SLOT TOGETHER WITH THE EASE OF PRECISION WORKMANSHIP
Geoffrey Blainey says he was ‘willing to jump into a subject of which I knew nothing’