THE ART OF TIME TRAVEL: Historians and Their Craft
by Tom Griffiths
Black Inc, Melbourne, 2016
Paperback: 336 pages
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
George Orwell, 1984
Australian history achieved academic respectability only in the second half of the 20th century. Academe scorned Australian history as lacking in intellectual depth; it was far from the great movements in culture and ideas that shaped the civilised – that is, European – world.
You can’t actually force a student at tertiary level to study a subject in which they have no interest; the abject failure of Indian history to flourish in Australian universities despite official sponsorship proved that students just weren’t interested in the Subcontient.
It is not necessary to be a postmodernist to observe that the study of history is an exercise in nation building. It just depends on the sort of nation you wish to build. Tom Griffiths investigates 14 writers with a claim to be called “historians”. The selection is, as he admits, quirky: Manning Clark is mentioned only in passing, while Geoffrey Blainey is given an entire chapter to himself.
Griffiths is complimentary about Blainey’s writing, comparing him to the magpie, which flourishes on the margins of settlement. That may seem to be damning Blainey with faint praise, but Griffith is genuinely appreciative of Blainey’s efforts to bring to centre stage the miners and bushies that other writers had ignored.
Griffiths also admires the depth of Blainey’s vision, from his first book, The Peaks of Lyell, a history of the Mount Lyell Mining Company in Tasmania, first published in 1954. The Mount Lyell copper mine was once one of the world’s richest mines. From the Mount Lyell copper mine to the Short History of the World (Penguin, 2001), Blainey has been a prolific author. He also has very good international sales.
Blainey is an expert in narrative history, His history tells a story. He has the knack of coining phrases, such as “black armband history” and the “tyranny of distance”, which he readily admits he originated without thinking that it was of much consequence.
Griffiths freely admits that he is somewhat surprised by the strong sales of his book, which is his own interpretation of Australian historians and their craft. One can clearly see an argument running through The Art of Time Travel: namely, that Australian history, up until recently, ignored the poor and dispossessed, particularly Aboriginal Australians. The “Great Man” theory of history sees human progress in terms of outstanding men (and a few women) who have propelled history towards some higher plane.
His book includes a number of authors who could not be considered historians in the conventional sense at all. Griffiths’ arc of interest ranges initially from novelist Eleanor Dark to a conclusion with archaeologist Mike Smith, both of whom are concerned with indigenous Australians. Neither of these writers could be called postmodernists, unlike Greg Dening and Donna Merwick.
The idea of anchoring the history of Australia far back in time – some 60,000 years ago – is valuable, in that it gives us a starting point for the human occupations of Australia. As Griffiths acknowledges, whatever one’s view on anthropogenic climate change, Australia has gone through ice ages which could not have been caused by humans, and which may happen again. Anchoring Australia’s history in Aboriginality is scarcely original. Rex Ingamells and his Jindyworobaks, who flourished between the wars, had similar ideas.
Facts as optional
The reason this book is more “mystery than history” is that for many of the writers Griffiths discusses, the notion of “facts” does not play a key role in their narratives. In other words, the concept of scholarship does not include adherence to ”facts” as they are generally understood.
For an older generation of historians, history was based on “the documents”. History not supported by documents was speculation. Take, for example, Emeritus Professor John Tonkin in the Department of History at the University of Western Australia (UWA). Professor Tonkin has an astonishing range of scholarly publications, mainly in Church history, specialising in the Reformation and Counter Reformation. Students studying the Counter Reformation, for example, were expected to read and absorb the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, the spiritual foundation of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits.
Manning Clark’s academic standing did not rest on his six-volume History of Australia, (MUP 1962–1987) notorious for its embroideries, omissions and inaccuracies, but on his Select Documents in Australian History 1788–1850 (Angus and Robertson, Melbourne, 1950). Similarly, Bertrand Russell’s standing as a philosopher did not rest on the books on nuclear disarmament that once infested newsagents’ shelves like a pacifist pestilence, but on his three-volume work, Principia Mathematica (1910–1913), co-authored with A.N. Whitehead. One brilliant work, or one lucky strike, can provide a living for a lifetime.
As for a theme, the only interpretation of Griffiths’ book one can draw is that he provides a road map for an Australian polity whose ideology is not unlike that of Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend (OUP, Melbourne 1958). While Ward’s book saw the itinerant white, male bushman as the apotheosis of the Australian legend, Griffiths pushes the boundary for his Australia far, far back into prehistory. “Deep time” goes back beyond the bounds of human occupation of any sort.
The nature of “being Australian” is in Griffiths’ hands a pliable entity. This is not by any means the first occasion Australia’s intellectual elite has sought to make a nation in their own image. One could count among these elites Manning Clark, sitting in the stand at Princes Park, home ground of the Carlton Football Club, wearing his Akubra.
The notion of our Original Sin, Australia’s occupation by European settlers and the dispossession of the indigenous population, is explored in Kate Grenville’s bestseller, The Secret River. This novel is loosely based on her family history in the Hunter region of New South Wales.
Grenville did not wish to prove, despite extensive research, that these atrocities actually happened, but that things “like this” really did happen. The idea of the intimacy of contact between settlers and indigenes on the frontier is a good one. Grenville’s intention is to show what it felt like to be in this environment. The feeling is more important than the facts.
The idea of nation building through history is not at all new, but the nation to be built is porous. Take, for instance, The British People in the Making (Whitcombe and Tombs, Melbourne and Sydney, 1942). The Vivid History Reader (Grade V) tells the story of the Mother Country – Britain – from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages. The obvious intention is to cement Australia as an integral part of the British Empire.
Britain, and therefore Australia too, were locked in an existential conflict with Germany and Japan. World War II would not break the bonds of Empire; the intention was that this book would bind Australia and Britain together in the Mother Country’s darkest hour. The book is not history in the accepted scholarly sense of the word, but it is telling a story of nationhood. The nation was, however, not Australia.
This primary-school textbook predates, in style, a modernist treatment of Australian history by half a century. Its aim is to teach history by telling a story, similar to the first and last chapters of The Art of Time Travel. These chapters of Griffiths’ book are about Australia’s indigenous population. The continuity of occupation of the Australian continent by the indigenous peoples provides the leitmotiv for this book.
His point – which is that we have for too long considered Aboriginal society to be incapable of adaptation – is well made. Where beneficial contact was made, for example, at the Hermannsburg mission, the results could be fruitful. The Hermannsburg School of artists, most notably Albert Namatjira, prospered from the interaction of Aboriginal and European sensibilities. Hermannsburg School artists included water colourists and potters, who were mainly women.
The Art of Time Travel is not all history. In fact, much of it is not history at all in the sense most educated people would understand the term. Eleanor Dark was a novelist, as is Kate Grenville. You don’t become Aboriginal by putting on a new set of clothes. The book is, however, almost entirely free of the academic plague called “theory”, as propounded by mainly French philosophes such as Claude Levi-Strauss and Michel Foucault.
The book is frequently very interesting, such as the chapters on Grace Karskens and public history. The chapter on Graeme Davidson researching the history of Richmond, the Melbourne inner-city suburb, by visually peeling off the layers of buildings as if he were peeling an onion, is intriguing.
Much of this book will be new even to those readers who have a background in history. The book is certainly valuable. Griffiths is a good stylist. The consistent theme is the continuity of indigenous culture in Australia and the fact that the Aboriginal peoples have been adapting to change for millennia. As Kate Grenville freely admits, her novel The Secret River is not about history-as-fact but history-as-feeling. The Secret River has produced some interesting insights on the first contact between black and white, but it is not history.
As far as the representation of indigenous society is concerned in The Art of Time Travel, it is true that Europe was settled by modern humans “out of Africa” about 30,000 years ago. The Aboriginals have been in Australia for around 60,000 years, as far as can be determined, as outlined in Dr Deep Time: Mike Smith. Griffiths’ main proposal – that we should embrace our indigenous people as the core of the Australian nation – is unlikely to find favour except among an opinionated elite.
Jeffry Babb studied Aboriginal culture and religions under Professor Ronald Berndt and Catherine Berndt at UWA.