Evocative paean to old Australia
of the mid-19th century through the familiar markers of rapid expansion and prosperity to drought and Depression, Federation, the world wars and the last decades of the 20th century, Blainey is preoccupied with two challenges: to show “how people worked and lived, played and prayed, travelled or were unable to travel”, and to answer the question that has plagued him since the 1960s: how was the continent “discovered emotionally”? As he eloquently explains, Australians have struggled to see their country as “home”. The sense of overpowering space, the isolation, the warmth of summer, the garish light, the shiny-leafed trees, the birds and insects, the smell of air filled with dust, the strange silences, and the landscapes in all their oddness had to become familiar … the physical mastering of Australia was swift and often dramatic, but the emotional conquest was slow.
Blainey’s greatest gift is his telescopic eye. His gaze constantly shifts from the entire span of the continent’s history to the minutiae of everyday existence. He is capable of moving from deep time to the “Aboriginal epoch” and the more recent European past (“only one loud tick of the clock”) within one paragraph. He sees the past as a series of waves; civilisations ebb and rise, new technologies replace old and human ingenuity inevitably finds new ways of exploiting natural resources.
He is at once the big-picture man — assessing the past through metaphors of time, balance and probability — and the village scribe. He takes his reader inside the domestic interiors of homes past, captures the sounds of Australian suburbia and the dramatic ways in which Australians’ lives have been constantly transformed by new modes of transport and communication, from television and cars to computers and mobile phones. Even the rise of the flat white coffee does not escape his attention.
When depicting the natural world, Blainey produces some of his most evocative writing. Torres Strait, he writes, is the place where “the two seas meet — the Arafura Sea from the west and the Coral Sea or Pacific Ocean from the east. Often the level of one sea is much higher than the other. In certain phases of the moon the high tide prevails in the western end while it is low tide at the eastern end.”
Elsewhere, he is animated by the discovery of “two dinosaur ants, found near the Great Australian Bight in Western Australia in 1932”. “Dark honey in colour, they were thought to resemble the very ancient ants that had slowly evolved from the wasps about 100 million years ago … a glossy earthmoving machine.”
These forensic descriptions, typically conveyed with a mixture of panoramic grandeur and childlike enthusiasm, save Blainey’s selfdescribed “Indian-file technique” of writing — in which a doggedly chronological narrative relates the nation’s inevitable “rise and rise” — from becoming humdrum. What they cannot do, however, is disguise his persistent habit of justifying the nation’s success, especially as he moves into the late 20th century and his discomfort with many of the changes in Australian society becomes palpable.
“In the last third of the century,” Blainey intones in biblical voice, “religion and its influential reign were attacked. Marriage and the family were attacked, and the dominance of men in public life. Even the concepts of civilisation and progress were confronted by the new green movement.”
In Blainey’s eyes, each of these “challenges” was linked to an “attack” on Christianity. By enthroning nature, the Greens had apparently sought to “establish a new God and replace the Garden of Eden”, thus implicitly usurping the God who had instructed his people to go forth and replenish the earth and sanctioned imperial conquest.
Many of Blainey’s “revisions” appear ideological rather than historical. Time and again, he busies himself with unnecessary comparisons between the “treatment” of Aboriginal people and the “poorest white people”, as if, in a grotesque competition for victimhood, it is untenable to speak of indigenous dispossession and disadvantage without mentioning white suffering in the same populist breath.
He repeatedly accuses unnamed others of political correctness and condemns those aspects of the past that he finds disagreeable, particularly the High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision (a “spectacular” entry into “what was essentially parliament’s domain”).
This running commentary and frequently defensive tone gets Blainey into considerable difficulty. Discussing the White Australia policy, he argues the label was partly inaccurate: “Indigenous Australians were not white and they remained part of the land.” Part of the land? Expelled from their country and families, “protected” and “managed” by governments, their lives controlled at every turn, Aboriginal people were the most obvious targets of White Australia’s racism.
Eager to stress the positive side of the “ledger”, Blainey insists that “in parliaments and public debate, in visual arts and literature, indigenous names now stand out”. Yet a brief visit to the Parliament of Australia’s website reveals only five indigenous MPs in federal parliament from a total of 150 lower house and 76 Senate seats. In the entire nation’s state and territory parliaments there are only 11 indigenous MPs, most of them in the Northern Territory.
For all his brilliance and irrepressible enthusiasm “for Australia and its civilisation”, Blainey is still circling the same themes that saw him part ways with Clark in the 80s: shame and pride, blame and guilt, darkness and light. Nostalgic for Canberra’s “simple, white painted” Old Parliament House, he sees the new people’s house as a “visual intruder rather than the palace of one of the world’s more vigorous democracies”. As he enters his seventh decade of historical writing, he remains defiantly optimistic, determined to resist any attempt to “deepen the blame on modern Australians”. new book is From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories.
A Canberra polling station, 1969, included in Blainey’s book, in which he asks how Australia was ‘discovered emotionally’