Mark McKenna

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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


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