A Tireless Scholar of Work, Wonder and Homeland
The prolific and popular historian charts his own peripatetic past
BY ROSS FITZGERALD
Geoffrey Blainey’s long-awaited memoir, ‘Before I Forget’, is out tomorrow.
Blainey, one of Australia’s most popular, prolific and influential historians, was born in Melbourne on March 11, 1930. He was the second eldest of five children, born to a country schoolmistress and a Methodist minister who was an ardent teetotaller.
Much of Blainey’s relatively humble childhood was spent in country Victoria, ranging from Terang to Leongatha, Newtown (a suburb of Geelong near Corio Bay) to Ballarat, where he attended the local high school. These places, to which his clergyman father had to move every few years, ignited in Blainey a deep affection for the Australian landscape and an abiding interest in our nation’s history.
The fact he attended four schools before he was 12 also gave him a lifelong sense of human nature and its diversity. Living in various homes, always surrounded by books, from an early age the hardworking Blainey thought his career as a scribe could flourish.
He has now written 40 books. These range from his first, ‘The Peaks of Lyell’, an evocative mining history set in Tasmania and published in December 1954, through his path-breaking ‘The Tyranny of Distance’ and ‘Triumph of the Nomads’ to ‘The Rush that Never Ended’, ‘A Shorter History of Australia’, and ‘A Very Short History of the World’, which became an international bestseller.
Blainey, 89, a devoted supporter of the AFL’s Geelong, has also written superbly about Australian football, including my favourite book on the subject, ‘A Game of Our Own’.
‘Before I Forget’ has all the Blainey trademarks of thoroughness, lucidity, curiosity, affection, wit and literary stamina.
As a youngster, Blainey was often adventurous. At 17, he hitchhiked to Sydney with a friend to experience the historic harbour city and to visit Botany Bay, where the First Fleet arrived on January 24, 1788.
On the way back to Melbourne they visited Parliament House in Canberra to see and hear Ben Chifley and Bob Menzies, the nation’s rival but personally friendly political leviathans. As well, they observed in action the long-serving but still energetic ex-prime minister Billy Hughes.
From 1944 until 1947, a full-fee-paying scholarship enabled Blainey to attend Wesley College in Melbourne, where he was a boarder and younger than most other students in his class.
Several schoolmasters reinforced Blainey’s love of learning. This flourished later at the University of Melbourne, where he lived in the Methodist Queen’s College at the Carlton end of the university. During his undergraduate years he was sports editor and then co-editor of the weekly student newspaper ‘Farrago’.
At the University of Melbourne, where he eventually became a professor, Blainey came under the stewardship of the historian Manning Clark.
A highlight of ‘Before I Forget’ is Blainey’s recollections of Clark, who later became famous for his six-volume ‘History of Australia’.
At university, Clark initially taught political science and then Australian history, a subject not widely available then.
As Blainey makes clear, he owes Clark a special debt for fostering his career as a historian who writes for the educated general public, not merely for specialists. However, by the mid-1980s their views on certain historical topics and key contemporary issues, in particular immigration, were moving far apart.
As Blainey summarises it, “while we rode comfortably in the same train, we got off at different stations”.
In 1984 Blainey spoke to an audience of Rotarians in Warrnambool, suggesting a shift in immigration towards unskilled Asian migrants might be too much for the country to absorb at a time of high unemployment.
‘The Age’ ran a letter from 24 members of Melbourne University’s department of history, where Blainey held the Ernest Scott chair, dissociating themselves from the Warrnambool speech, which they said would help the cause of racists.
Student protests, threats and pickets against Blainey followed, and some time later he resigned from his tenured post.
The attack on Blainey was an early example of the culture wars over activism and intellectual freedom that are still being waged in higher education today.
‘Before I Forget doesn’t cover this controversy. Blainey says he felt he had written enough about himself, and the memoir stops in the 1970s when he was in his early 40s. But it would not be surprising if he were still digging, and before long a second volume were to surface .
There is still so much to be told of his remarkable life, and he remains an astute observer of our culture and its convulsions.
From his time at high school, he was a voracious reader. While still a student, in many second-hand bookshops and especially at Melbourne’s State Library, where he pored over old newspapers, Blainey gained much by speed-reading selected books. Often he “read like a magpie, pecking here and there and chewing those morsels (he) fancied”. Later, he realised that, faced with a deadline, he could also write with speed.
As well as travelling throughout the world, Blainey saw as much of Australia as he could. This involved visiting relatively remote places where he worked hard at his research, sometimes staying there for months with his talented wife Ann.
This included Broken Hill and Mount Isa, where they spent much time yarning with the locals. Although he may not have visited every past or present mining field and ghost town, Blainey has seen most. None conveyed to him “such a sense of magic as the site of the first large gold rush in 1851, the now-deserted bed and banks of the creek at Ophir, near Orange” in NSW.
By the time Blainey entered his early 40s, the importance of history in our national life was changing rapidly. Each year, seminal books on Australian history were, he writes, “seized upon by an eager, expanding audience”.
Painters, poets and filmmakers were “illuminating our past”. Politicians appealed to history in public debates, while archeologists unearthed our prehistory claiming, rightly, that diverse indigenous clans had been occupying the continent for tens of thousands of years.
It is hard to disagree with Blainey that, in the early 70s, “few other nations were so absorbed in understanding their history, and debating it on so many fronts”. ‘Before I Forget’ makes clear how Blainey’s unique body of work was, and is, crucial to publicising the rising wave of clashing ideas throughout Australian intellectual life. As he concludes in the final sentence of this brilliant book, “Here, ‘history’ was (beginning) to grow like thunder.”
Ross Fitzgerald, emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, is the author of 40 books.
Ross Fitzgerald (‘A tireless scholar of work, wonder and homeland’. The Australian, 17/06/2019, p. 12) provided readers of The Australian with an insightful commentary and an authoritative review of Geoffrey Blainey’s memoir, “Before I Forget”. For this reader Ross has whetted my appetite to read Geoffrey’s book for myself. Thank you, Ross.and The Australian.