The Blainey View
Macmillan/ABC, 155 pp, $22.50 hb
Geoffrey Blainey must be Australia’s bestselling historian by a very long way. His audience is far wider than Manning Clark’s for instance: and far less critical. Clark is periodically savaged by packs so frenzied they often seem unable to recognise the nature of the quarry. The difference of course is a matter of both style and substance. Clark, as an early critic once said, is ‘full of great oaths and bearded like the pard’, and he has not changed his fundamental spots. Blainey’s picture is inserted in the barren landscape on the front cover of this book, all warm and friendly; not a Jeremiah, but a kindly tribal elder who will unravel your historical landscape sotto voce, and with perfect equanimity. You can step into your past with Geoffrey Blainey and know you’ll be safe. He’s just about the friendliest historian imaginable.
His accessibility is no vice. Blainey made comprehensible to countless Australians who might never have read a book of Australian history the material circumstances of their past. He gave historical significance to the lives of ordinary people. It required both imagination and courage to tackle the animal, vegetable, and mineral of society in days when Fernand Braudel was scarcely heard of, and capitalism was as unfashionable as material life. Without Blainey’s work it is hard to imagine books like David Denholm’s The Colonial Australians or Eric Rolls’s A Million Wild Acres, getting the hearing they deserved. His work gave the breath of common life to the Australian experience.