The World According to Geoffrey

Controversial historian Geoffrey Blainey has just mapped the world in words -
as for his own words in the past, he regrets nothing

By Murray Waldren
JULIAN BARNES wrote A History of the World in 10 Chapters; Geoffrey Blainey has written A Short History of the World in 669 pages although he "could happily have used twice that space". Titles aside, there's little comparison between Barnes's anarchic fiction and Blainey's scholarly deposition. Just as many would hold that there's little comparison between the prolific Blainey and his fellow historians.

Tone is two-edged sword here. While many rate the leonine professor as supreme in his field, others niggle at his feats. Such is the literary life. Trouble is, the suspicion lingers that the nigglers are keener on "playing the man" than in assessing his product. Understandable perhaps, given that few historians have been as publicly contentious as the Melbourne-based academic.

The son of a nomadic Methodist minister and a mother whose "romantic disposition" instilled a sense of "the inexorable passage of time" in him, Blainey grew up in rural Victoria in an era of steam trains and Model-T Fords. He was 24 when his first book was published; an appraisal of Tasmania's mining fields, The Peaks of Lyell was a freelance assignment. Today, 46 years and another 29 books later - from ground-breaking texts like The Tyranny of Distance to histories of the AFL (he's a life-long Geelong supporter) and the AMP - he is again a freelancer. But the full circle has been one with a very wide diameter.

Certainly few academics have received more kudos or had as prominent a role on public service bodies. In 1997 he was named among the National Trust's 100 Australian "living treasures"; actor Max Gillies has impersonated him on TV (the sign of true fame or notoriety); and this year he received an AC from a grateful Government "as a leader of public debate at the forefront of fundamental social and economic issues confronting the wider community".

Therein lies the rub: for all his academic and literary achievements, Blainey is more widely known as a controversial commentator, whether through columns in newspapers (including The Australian) or through ex cathedra pronouncements on social issues. His views have been so forcefully traditionalist that his detractors - a not insignificant number - have disparaged him as a "right-wing rent-a-quote". He is a bona fide member of a rare club, those public intellectuals whose works are read by ordinary people, whose opinion the media cultivates and who seem to exercise political influence. You can number Donald Horne, Dame Leonie Kramer, Robert Manne and Henry Reynolds among other members. As, of course, was fellow historian Manning Clark.

A colleague whom Blainey once called "gloomy but compassionate", Clark was as identified with the liberal left as Blainey is with the radical right. And as Clark's interpretations aided the Keating government in recasting Australian identity, so Blainey has influenced the Howard Government. His positions on history and multiculturalism in the early '80s, when he called for a return to assimilation "partly reminiscent of the glories of English colonial ideology", bore striking similarities to those articulated in Howard's 1988 Future Directions proposal. Blainey was also linked to the HR Nicholls Society, seen as the New Right spokesman on immigration and sparked the so-called Blainey debate on Asian migration levels.

In the '90s he challenged the Mabo and Wik judgments, decrying the latter as being based on faulty historical advice and elementally racist; in his 1993 Latham Memorial Lecture he introduced the "black armband view of history" to public consciousness. His conservative credentials are impeccable, as witnessed by his non-parliamentary appointment as monarchist delegate to the Republic convention.

Much of the Left's ire is owed to the idea that "he who controls the past controls the present, and he who controls the present controls the future". Blainey himself is more sceptical of just what influence he has had. "Often if you do have influence, it's because people are already sympathetic to the arguments you put forward. You can never be sure that you convert people from one position to another."

Besides, he and Clark "got on very well as individuals even though we weren't on the same wavelength on current affairs. We also had different interpretations of history", coloured partly by intellectual premises, partly by "one's sympathies and experiences. I regard the history of Australia, despite many failures, as by and large a success story in the past 100 years. I believe most Australians share that view. But many historians, including Manning, wouldn't accept that. It's an intellectual difference on how you evaluate evidence." And when two schools of thought face each other, he says, "they are often reluctant to take the argument of their opponents as a whole - they look for a weak point and exaggerate that. Then the debate becomes one that takes place in half-darkness. That's human nature."

These days, he's calmly philosophical about the flak his statements attracted: "If you go into the kitchen," he smiles, "you have to accept that the kettle might be boiling. If you don't like the heat, you can always leave." But you didn't, I say. "Well no, although there are times when you say things that create controversy and you have to live with it." Does he now resile from his statements, or regret them? "I don't think so, although sometimes when you've been misunderstood you feel a bit upset. But as Baudelaire said, the world thrives on misunderstanding. The positions I've held that were deemed controversial I still regard as being valid at the time they were made." Are they valid today? "A lot of questions solve themselves, don't they?" he diverts quietly. "They cease to be controversial or high on the political agenda. Besides, I have spent most of the past decade writing in private rather than speaking out in public." Which segues with masterly precision into his latest publication.

He had the idea to do a world history in the late '80s; in 1990 he resolved to finish it before the decade was over. "Some people decide they'll drive around Australia, I decided to drive around the history of the world. I started to collect material magpie-fashion and visited many places to get a feel for them. Geography has had a huge influence on the history of the world - an ocean here or mountain or desert there represented obstacles."

His mission, he says, was to satisfy his own curiosity. "I'd read other world histories by the likes of H.G. Wells, Hugh Thomas and J.M. Roberts, and while I'm not saying they were not good, they never answered my needs. I used to go to China frequently but I knew little of its history or Japan's. Or early American civilisations. I just wondered how it all fitted together ... And it seemed important at a time when clearly the world is shrinking at a dramatic pace thanks to communication and travel. That became one of the book's themes, how unshrinkable the world seemed for so long and now suddenly that doesn't hold."

Hence his assertion that the most influential event in the past 100,000 years was the melting of the Ice Age. There was a period, he writes, when it was possible to walk circuitously from Java to Russia, and from there across the straits into the Americas. When the seas rose, they cut off America, Australia and Japan after they had been settled. Substantial parts of the human population became isolated, which over time had a Tower of Babel effect on languages and cultures. "One of the great themes in the past 500 years has been the rejoining of the Americas to Europe and Asia, and of Australia to South-East Asia."

His Short History is no textbook for schools or universities but is aimed at the curious general reader. Nor is it necessarily better than other world summaries "although it's certainly very different in its themes, the detail it goes into on them and the questions it asks." And it's left him seeing "the history of the world in the past 4 million years, and particularly the last 20,000 years, before me as a kind of procession or map, in a way I didn't before. Personally, that's been a great gain."

It's as well. Historians and their schools wage academic battles bitter enough to rank with those in the political forum. Which means Blainey is vulnerable in both arenas. His inclination for narrative history has seen him faint-praised by some critics for being a "fine historical writer" rather than fine historian. Again, he is sanguine. "Narrative history has fallen out of fashion," he admits, "but I do admire the skills of great English language historians of the past." And more modern exponents like Norman Davies and Barbara Tuchman ("who even if academic historians did not like her, was their equal").

How then, I ask, does an historian avoid politicisation? He dead-bats away the dual intent. Politics and history, he says, are often "almost Siamese twins ... you're always conscious you have preferences, that democracy is better than autocracy for instance, and it's hard to avoid expressing those. But you have to remember that other generations have had other preferences which deserve to be seen as the people then saw them."

Nevertheless, all historians approach history from a personal viewpoint. "It's true, isn't it? I've got a lot on geography and distance because they have always interested me. Part of the book is a return to the theme of the tyranny of distance, in a global rather than Australian sense. And I've always been interested in technology in its wider sense. But much of it is on simple things I suspect have been neglected, like the power of the moon on people's lives, or the coming of light to night ... when people ceased being prisoners of the dark."

Given his new-found overview, which era beyond ours would he most have liked to live in? That would depend, he qualifies, on his position: "If I were a slave or peasant, I wouldn't enjoy any." But then the maternal romanticism asserts itself. "Barring being killed by some fanatic, Europe about 1500 when the Reformation and Renaissance were in full flower, when the Americas were rediscovered, the sea route to India was opened and contact between east and west became much stronger would have been intensely interesting."

As we sign off, I ask whether his book will arouse controversy. "It's hard to tell, isn't it?" he asks back. "Sometimes a work convinces you but not others. Some may quite rightly criticise me for what I've left out - I decided not to have much on the 20th century for instance. If you over-emphasise the century you live in, it can put everything out of proportion. And in 500 years time people may well have an entirely diminished view of this century we think so significant." Then he undercuts himself with mischievous elan. "You know, there's a strong argument that there have been three great economic revolutions - the invention of fire, the domestication of plants and animals and the industrial revolution. And now a fourth is upon us in that nameless phenomenon embracing the internet, satellites and coaxial cable ... that could easily be one of the great changes in history."

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian, 30/10/2000

Copyright 2000 Murray Waldren


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