Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The point of history

I see from Living in the Seventies that Neil Whitfield (Ninglun) enjoyed Paper Giants : The Birth of Cleo as much as I did. In my piece I provided a little bit of history because I thought that it might help interpret. I hadn't seen the second part which canvasses more years.

Talking to Sam at work today who enjoyed the mini-series as much as I, I found that while her school age daughter enjoyed the film, she did not know who Gough Whitlam was. The turbulent politics of the period have indeed receded into the mists of the past.

Sam was surprised at her daughter's lack of knowledge and asked her what she learned in Australian history at school. Apparently all about the Aborigines to the point that she felt that it was thrust down her throat. I think that's a pity. 

In another of his posts, This may well be the best Australian history book I have EVER read!, Neil reviews Grace Karskens’ The Colony: A History of Early Sydney (Allen & Unwin, 2009).  I haven't read the book and normally I wouldn't. I don't have a special interest in early Sydney, I was out Sydneyed a long time ago! Neil's comment  on his first post, "Jim will be pleased to know I had a New England visa in those days…", rather neatly captures my present historical focus. However, after Neil's review I will do so. It is clearly a very good book because of the way that it tells a broad story interweaving a variety of material.

In his review, Neil said in part: 

The history itself is a thing of beauty too.  It breaks free of many straitjackets: more than perhaps any other history of Australia that I have read it interweaves Aboriginal history, archaeology, women and environmental history throughout the book.  Not content with the almost obligatory “before” chapter dealing and then dispensing with “the aborigines”, she asserts that Sydney remained an Eora town- that Eora people continued to live within Sydney on their own terms, with their own geography and in resistance to christianizing impulses, into the 1830s and 40s. Indeed, they have never left…

Neil is, of course right. I guess my point in all this is one I have tried to make before, that in our focus on what was done to to the Aborigines we have actually lost sight of the Aborigines themselves.

This not meant to be a heavy post, nor is it another post on the Aborigines. Really, my point is that history doesn't need to be written or taught to prove a point.

Honestly written, history is the point, because it brings out the good as well as the bad in the human experience. The weighting placed upon elements in the story - the writing of history obviously involves selection - is always affected by the historian's perception and focus.

The thunderers and fulminators - Neil mentions Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore - may have their place, but to my mind the best historians are those who have the delicacy of touch to allow the evidence as well as the analysis to touch the hearts as well as the minds of their readers.

The historical posts that I have written that I enjoy most, posts such as Problems with literature & locale, are ones where I am using a variety of material to try to bring a story alive in the reader's minds. The problems that I face in doing so and that I referred to in that post are just those that Grace Karskens appears to have mastered. 


In a comment, Neil pointed out that while he agreed with it, the quote was not from him but from an earlier review, ‘The Colony’ by Grace Karskens, by the Resident Judge of Port Phillip. Although I do follow this blog, I hadn't seen the review because it was back in November 2009.


Neil said...

Thanks, Jim, but I should clarify that while I agree with what you quote from my post on the Karskens book, I didn't write that bit. "The Resident Judge of Port Phillip" wrote it at http://residentjudge.wordpress.com/2009/11/07/the-colony-by-grace-karskens/

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Neil. I will make the corection the post.

nina boik said...

i also enjoyed the book