Dumping down Australian history

As before, when confronted with the failure of millennial expectations, the left retreated into a nostalgic idealisation of national traditions.

Dumping down Australian history



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k of them.

An ostensible historical narrative such as Macintyre's Concise History, which abolishes from the story such diverse and interesting people as John Norton, Paddy Crick, George Reid, the Tory free trader, Bruce Smith who opposed White Australia, Peter Bowling, Jock Garden, Eddie Ward, Lance Sharkey, Black Jack McEwan, Laurie Short, Clarrie O'Shea, Edna Ryan, John Anderson, Murial Heagney, Jack Mundey, E. G. Theodore, Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, Johnny O'Keefe and a host of others, is in my view, rather farcical.

A history that reduces the many facets of Caroline Chisholm and her activity to the spiteful cliche that she was primarily a moral policewoman, is sectarian and bigotted. A history that avoids the work of all the important traditional and popular historians mentioned in this article, possibly because they introduce too much conflict and excitement to the narrative, is both much too right-wing, and a definite obstacle to keeping the students in history classes awake.

For the time being, until someone writes a new and improved entry-level textbook, people setting texts would be well advised to continue using Russel Ward, Connell and Irving, and other such books, rather than this extraordinary new book.


Questioning Macintyre


A note to Stuart Macintyre based on a discussion with him during afternoon tea at the Labor History Conference

I am writing this after distributing my response to your book following your address at the Labor History Conference in Sydney in April 2000, participating in the discussion there, and having an exchange of views with you in the afternoon tea break.

Your first argument was that your concise history was not intended as a textbook. Your publishers must have other ideas, because the second page of the book has this statement:

This is a new series of illustrated 'concise histories' of selected individual countries, intended both as university and college textbooks and as general historical introductions for general readers, travellers and members of the business community."


Human beings have names. Australians like names


Your second argument related to the curious method of mentioning secondary historical players but not naming them. You re-emphasised the strange point made in your introduction that proper names would only confuse overseas readers, and that their use would unreasonably pad out the book. I think both of these arguments are ludicrous.

If you gave the proper name of every minor character in front of the description of them, it would probably increase the size of the book about half a page, which is hardly significant, even for the most frugal publisher.

The argument that the addition of the name of the person would confuse overseas readers is incomprehensible to me. Most, if not all, humans on the planet, have names, and human beings are quite used to names. Human beings like names. In bursts of creative cultural exhuberance, humans, particularly Australian humans, invent colourful nicknames for people, "Pig Iron Bob", "Cocky Calwell", "Black Jack McEwan", for example.

If anything, mentioning historical players without their name is likely to confuse both local and overseas readers, particularly if you assume that many overseas readers will be developing an interest in Australian history, and are very likely to read at least one more book about Australia than your book.

The absence of names in association with historical figures is likely to reduce the utility of your narrative, and incidentally contribute to making the story more difficult, dry and boring for the reader, whether local or overseas.


Which Australian history books are really out of print?


In relation to the fact that you eliminated from your references and bibliography a number of important Australian historians, particularly populist and labour historians, you argued, in the conversation at afternoon tea, that your bibliography consisted mainly of books that are in print and accessible.

Well, I have a fair amount of experience as a bookseller, both new and secondhand. I don't particularly like being the bearer of bad tidings, but going through your bibliography carefully, more than half of the books you mention are currently out of print, many of them obviously so.

If you had included the significant works from the major Australian historians that you ignore, the in-print, out-of-print ratio would, in my view, not be affected at all, as quite a few of the books you ignore are in print.

The following books are just a random selection from your bibliography, from the majority of the 300 books listed there, which are out of print: Gavin Souter, Lion and Kangaroo. Australia: 1901-1919, The Rise of a Nation (Sydney, William Collins, 1976); Bill Gammage, The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War (Ringwood, Vic, Penguin, 1975); Lesley Johnson, The Unseen Voice: A Cultural Study of Early Australian Radio (London, Routledge, 1988); Avner Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989); Robin Gerster and Jan Bassett, Seizures of Youth: The Sixties and Australia (Melbourne, Hyland House, 1991); Jill Julius Matthews, Good and Mad Women: The Historical Construction of Femininity in Twentieth-Century Australia (North Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1984); Greg Whitwell, Making the Market: The Rise of Consumer Society (Fitzroy, Vic, McPhee Gribble, 1989); Philip Ayres, Malcolm Fraser (Richmond, Vic, William Heinemann, 1987).

After listing the out-of-print books above and more than 100 others similar, it seems striking to me that you don't list any of the books of Shirley Fitzgerald, any of the books of Patrick O'Farrell, any of the books of Russel Ward, any of the books of Michael Cannon, any of the books of Robert Murray, any of the books of Vance Palmer, any of the books of Kylie Tennant, any of the books of Humphrey McQueen, Greg Patmore's book on labour history, Connell and Irving on class structure in Australia, Jack Hutson's important source books on the arbitration system.

Despite his infuriating, excessive use of current academic literary-theoretical devices in his narrative, in the matter of sources, Macintyre is absurdly conservative and narrow.

The only trade union histories mentioned, out of the 50 or 60 that now exist, are a couple of books about the AWU. No books such as those by Mark Hearn on the Australian Railways Union, Braden Ellem on the Clothing Trades Union, Mary Dickinson on the NSW Nurses Union, Brad Bowden on the Transport Workers Union or Margo Beasley on the Waterside Workers Federation, etc. etc.

In the past 30 years there has been an explosion of major works about the history of various ethnic groups in Australia. While I don't go quite so far as to suggest that Macintyre should mention such culturally significant, but possibly exotic books as Sea, Gold and Sugarcane. Finns in Australia 1851-1947 by Olavi Koivukangas, or Edward Duyker's book on Mauritians in Australia, one would have thought that Macintyre might have used as sources, say, some major books on Greeks, Italians, Germans, Maltese and Asians in Australia. But nothing like this for our Stuart.

Macintyre mentions little sporting history, almost no music history, almost no art history, little religious history, no history of Australian films or television, very little history of Australian literature after the 19th century, and no books pertaining to the history of the Communist movement in Australia except the one written by Stuart Macintyre.

I would have thought that Robin Gollan's book on the Communist Party might rate a mention, or Ed Campion's book, Australian Catholics, or Michael Hogan's Sectarianism, or Bede Nairn's book on Lang, or Lang's own ghostwritten autobiographies, or even slight little books like Elwyn Spratt on Eddie Ward or Colm Kiernan on Mannix, or, for that matter, major biographies by Bob Santamaria or Niall Brennan on Archbishop Mannix.

Despite the Concise History's emphasis on Aboriginal affairs, Macintyre neglects to even note the important, ground-breaking three-volume epic about Aboriginal anthropology, by Charles Rowley, which did so much to bring the question to the attention of the Australian public in the 1970s. I could go on and on in this vein, but it would get boring.


Stuart Macintyre's narrow, academic range of source books


Many of the books that Macintyre lists are far less accessible than the Australian ones he ignores. Closer examination of the bibliography tends to sharpen the above conclusions.

Drawing on my experience as a bookseller, a thing that strikes me forcibly is that many of the books listed in Macintyre's bibliography are drawn from a narrow range of academic publishers, such as Oxford and Cambridge, which publish short runs at highish prices, and Allen and Unwin, which publishes slightly longer runs at somewhat lower prices.

Whether in print or out of print, these books are often fairly inaccessible to people other than academics, particularly now that, in these times of extreme economic rationalism, libraries ruthlessly weed their collections very fast.

The older books, the more leftist and popular books, and other books that were published by general publishers as popular history, even if they are out of print, are almost always reasonably widely available secondhand, because of their ini

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