Geoffrey Blainey, Australia’s beloved history elder, has written 40 books and his terms like ‘tyranny of distance’ have pervaded our culture. But what of his inner life? At 89, he’s given us Before I Forget, on his upbringing and progress to about age 40. He writes with great charm and whimsy and pens delightful portraits of old-timers and events. The angels are in the detail.
Political tragics will regret that there are asides but no further axe-grinding about black armbands and today’s culture wars, or Melbourne University, its academics and its virtuous student wolfpacks shutting him down over alleged anti-Asian remarks in 1984. In the book his tales stop around 1970.
Titles are a story themselves. As a 20 year-old undergrad he got the job to research what became The Peaks of Lyell (1954), although its hills are round not peaked. His Tyranny of Distance superseded a blah first choice ‘Distance and Destiny’. Other titles testify to his big mistake, agreeing to do too many corporate histories. ‘Instead I should have been blazing my own track,’ he laments. Thus he suffered to do two histories of Melbourne University, and had misfires with BHP and ICI ANZ –the former withheld for five years, the latter manuscript still blocked with only 6-8 readers. Contrast those with later freelance titles like The Causes of War (1973), Triumph of the Nomads (1975) , A Short History of the World (2000) and his big one, A Game of Our Own: The Origins of Australian Football (1990).
He was quite an athlete himself, coming third in a 40km Saturday hill race with wheelbarrows from Zeehan to Queenstown. For vacation money he lugged cement at Spencer Street rail yards, and biked 160km to farms to heave hay. But Australia nearly lost our lad at age five weeks, except that a surgeon managed to unblock his digestion. No fee either, in a kindly medical tradition for struggling clergy families.
Few others today are writing first-hand about Depression life in rural Victoria. The Blaineys ate toast with jam or toast with butter but never with both: ‘This frugal rule was observed in countless households.’
A blind parishioner could play chess but lacked opponents. Blainey’s father Cliff taught himself chess to keep the old chap happy – although he worked 70-hour weeks. Each church took pride in hearty hymn-singing. These tightly knit congregations… are no longer viewed very sympathetically in the media and sections of some universities, but the years will return when their merits – along with the defects – will be seen more clearly. With personal disaster and adversity they coped bravely.
Blainey was a swot, even resenting invitations to Saturday movie matinees as time-wasters. He was delighted to get from his grandfather ‘at an absurdly early age’ the 1,000-page statistics of the 1935 Commonwealth Year Book. At Wesley (on scholarship) his English teacher A. A. Phillips used the opening paragraph of an essay by the 15 year-old Blainey in one of his best-selling textbooks.
Poring over 1930s footy scores in state library newspapers helped him recover from a bout of early post-war depression over his fear of nuclear war.
While in a funk over deadlines, he realised how little time he actually spent in learning – colleagues got labelled ‘Failed (Billiards)’. With coloured crayons he mapped how he spent or dissipated his time. His reform was not to work longer but more intensively.
Humour bubbles below his prose. A Queenstown old-timer Jimmy when offered a cuppa at Blainey’s boarding room exclaimed, ‘China! China! You’re well set up here.’ He asked Blainey where he’d been on a trip. ‘Hobart!’ Jimmy replied in astonishment. ‘You certainly get around.’ Blainey himself as ‘Titus Mehaffey’ would slyly impersonate an old prospector, quavering on local radio. His best pranking came later. He’d take his own uni students on goldfields trips and at the next lecture he’d read from the country newspaper a colourful report of their visit. Those were his own inventions pasted behind the page.
At one stage Blainey set out from Queenstown with a diamond driller to find payable uranium. (They didn’t). Here’s a taste: The food we carried was the simplest. We had potatoes and onions, bacon which supplied the fat for cooking in the frying pan, and a large quantity of flour which, mixed with water and spiced with raisins, provided johnnycakes, either fried or baked over glowing coals. As a luxury, we carried a few tins of preserved peaches or apricots, and we had tea, sugar and a tin or two of condensed milk.
I could empathise with his agonising about a libellous para while Peaks of Lyell was being printed. Luckily Blainey’s rashly-named arsonist was oblivious or dead: ‘But for my first book the flow and anticipation were dimmed by the fear.’ Poor Geoff. Moreover, the company had hired him at less than a labourer’s wage, and publisher MUP gave him a puerile 3 per cent royalty.
On his later research of old National Bank files, he was ‘enthralled by the stories they told of youthful managers arriving at remote gold rushes with a revolver, an iron safe and a pile of gold sovereigns, and promptly opening a bank.’ This truth beats the US fiction: ‘Send lawyers, guns and money.’
He says the uneducated remember things better than professors. Having resolved from age 19 to write for non-academics, he declined even to accept his BA and MA degrees.
The memoir’s text can appear dated, maybe necessarily as he originally wrote a lot of it 15 years ago. Banks ‘bob up and down’ in public esteem; history and climate wars carry little heat; fellow historian and god-botherer Manning Clark gets a rare good wrap. Blainey laments that in his student era circa 1950 Melbourne University had gaps in its British, European and American courses such as medieval history. He doesn’t mention academia’s wholesale trashing of the Western canon today. He also seems faintly puzzled why green suburbanites condemn mining.
Still, the Blainey blarney is wonderful. Except for this awful last paragraph: Few other nations in the early 1970s were so absorbed in understanding their history, and debating it on so many fronts. A rising wave of clashing ideas, ‘history’ here was to grow like thunder.
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