The Story of Australia’s People: The Rise and Rise of a New Australia By Geoffrey Blainey Viking, 496pp, $49.99 (HB)
In 1978, recalling his undergraduate years at the University of Melbourne in the late 1940s, Geoffrey Blainey wrote to Manning Clark to express his gratitude for the wonder and curiosity he had instilled in his students: “We had learned so much when you taught in Melbourne, how you threw so many bold and original ideas among us, how you mesmerised us without tethering us.”
The student and his teacher would become Australia’s most prolific and successful historians of the postwar era. As Blainey felt eternally indebted to Clark, so Clark retained enormous affection and respect for Blainey, describing him in 1967 as the historian who had singlehandedly “lifted distance and isolation from the realm of the unmentionable into exciting and revealing subjects”. Both men were sons of clergymen. Both were narrative historians of singular distinction and both were inclined to controversial public interventions. In powerful but startlingly different ways, their lecture podiums became their pulpits.
Like Clark, Blainey believed historians held a “special role in society”. It was incumbent upon them to use history “as a searchlight” not only to interpret the past but to divine the future. They should not be “cautious and timid”. They should have the courage to speak out. This was part of the historian’s civilising mission.
As the idea of Australia as a “British society” began to collapse in the 60s, Clark emerged as the champion of a new multicultural, republican Australia that would finally cast off the “last vestiges of colonialism”.
Eschewing Clark’s embrace of progressive politics, Blainey chose the opposite course. He remained profoundly sceptical of multiculturalism — his notorious intervention in 1984 perhaps the most glaring example — and became a prominent defender of constitutional monarchy, advocating the maintenance of traditional “values” that were tied closely to “the English language, law and institutions”.
As their politics and public stances diverged, so their views of one another’s work became more critical. By the early 80s, Blainey had come to believe that Clark’s histories were “too gloomy” and in 1993, two years after Clark’s death, he identified Clark as one of the main architects of “black armband” history, a label that came to epitomise the polarities of the history wars for the next two decades.
By the end of his life, Clark was equally disillusioned with his former student. In 1988, after attending a public tribute to late writer Stephen Murray-Smith in Melbourne, he reflected in his diary, “Geoffrey Blainey was the boy with a NOSTALGIA for old Australia — rather sad.”
Reading The Story of Australia’s People: The Rise and Rise of a New Australia — the second volume of Blainey’s history of Australia from ancient times to the present — it quickly becomes apparent that the historian’s proselytising zeal remains intact. If anything, it has become more strident with the passing of the years. Few writers publish over more than six decades — Blainey’s first book ( The Peaks of Lyell) was published in 1954 — and of those who do, even fewer retain their verve and originality or avoid lapsing into repetition.
Yet all the qualities of Blainey’s work that were inspired by Clark 60 years ago remain on graphic display: the narrative sweep, the grand generalisations, the eye for telling detail and the penchant for speaking to and for the nation. Blainey’s latest book, essentially a revision of sections of The Land Half Won (1980) combined with “new” work on the 19th and 20th centuries, is a paean to the “old Australia” he has defended so vigorously throughout his public life.
As he moves effortlessly from the gold rushes
THE HISTORIAN’S PROSELYTISING ZEAL REMAINS INTACT. IF ANYTHING, IT HAS BECOME MORE STRIDENT