Evoca­tive paean to old Aus­tralia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mark McKenna’s

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’

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