The white explorers who first penetrated the interior of this continent were exceptional men. White Australians of the time considered them heroes, performing an essential role in identifying opportunities for exploitation, settlement, and commerce. Mostly, the explorers were heroic – determined, tough, single-minded, and stoic in the face of enormous hardship. They also needed bushcraft, that elusive ability to ‘read’ the landscape, the weather, vegetation communities, and animal behaviour, so as to improve the quality of the daily judgements needed for survival. Success under these conditions requires a clear vision and a strong, intelligent, and organised leader. John McDouall Stuart and Augustus Gregory come to mind as examples; Robert O’Hara Burke does not.
I heard Manning Clark lecture just once. It was in 1981. He was addressing a hall packed with school students who were attending a history camp at the Australian National University. That night, Clark demonstrated two qualities which distinguish most good lecturers: he played a character who was an enlarged version of himself, and he convinced the gathering that his topic was central to any understanding of the human condition. He told his young audience that they were faced with a great choice. With their help, Australia might one day become millennial Eden – a land where men and women were blessed with riches of the body and of the spirit. But if they were neglectful, he warned, their country would remain oppressed by a great dullness: Australia would continue to languish as a Kingdom of Nothingness. (This speech, it should be noted, was delivered in the middle of that bitter decade which followed the dismissal.)
Like Manning Clark, Blainey sees history as a story of progress in which Western civilisation develops from a kind of primal baseline. But the dynamic force which drives events in Blainey’s history is more tangible-more material-than in Clark’s. As Blainey himself explains, he regards technology and economics as being far more important agents of change than politics. He locates the origins of modem industrial culture in the Middle East, at that moment when hunter-gatherers first settled in villages and began systematic farming. This neolithic revolution, says Blainey, was more significant to human development than the beginning of the industrial revolution: ‘It led to the collection of taxes, the rise of powerful rulers and priests, to the creation of armies larger than any previously known.’ As this revolution gradually spread into Europe, America and Asia, new societies ‘blossomed and bloomed’ because an increasing proportion of their populations was freed from food production to pursue other activities. They were free to write, think, scheme and invent things.
First a confession. I’ve never been excited by the idea of reading a book of documents. Such collections come in useful if you’re a teacher or a historian (exactly what did Menzies say in his ‘melancholy duty’ speech at the outbreak of the Second World War?). But the material always seems to me decontextualised, reduced to a display of meaningless, numbered fragments, remnants from an unknowable void. And I can’t help wondering what’s been left out or how I’m being manipulated. A traditional history text proclaims its arguments. But in a book of documents the organising intelligence is all but silent. And so I’ve developed this prejudice: I think of books of documents as both dodgy and dull.
Donald Horne, pleasantly surprised that he is now a university professor, looks back at the journalist and aspiring novelist that he was in the 1950s. This is to be the third (and final) instalment in the saga of the education of Donald.