John Thompson

For many undergraduate students of Australian history in the 1960s (when there were still plenty of them), the set text was not a narrative history but Manning Clark’s Select Documents in Australian History (1950, 1955). Dry but fascinating, the documents covered the period from 1788–1900. First published more than a decade before the opening volume of Clark’s A History of Australia, here were the bones of the research for that work. In his introduction to Documents That Shaped Australia: Records of a Nation’s Heritage, John Thompson acknowledges Clark and Frank Crowley’s Modern Australia in Documents (1973). He has, however, done something different. This book has a smaller number of items than its predecessors, but it is attractively and extensively illustrated (usually, but not always, with photographs of the documents). No doubt Thompson’s publisher, Pier 9, thought of school library sales for the book. It is a hope that deserves to be rewarded.

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Late in 2005, after months of delicate negotiations, the National Library of Australia announced a remarkable coup: the purchase of a previously unknown collection of fifty-six watercolours of botanical and ornithological subjects drawn and painted in Sydney in the years 1788–90, the cradle period of European settlement in Port Jackson. The significance of these paintings, unsigned and undated, had for many years gone unrecognised. The watercolours, apparently acquired as early as 1792, had been held in England over several generations by the Moreton family, the Earls of Ducie. Over several generations, their significance had apparently been overlooked or simply not understood; in time, the portfolio, though safely held, had been forgotten. It came to light in 2004 during a routine valuation of the estate of Basil Moreton, sixth Earl of Ducie. The eventual sale was negotiated with representatives of the present and seventh Earl, David Moreton, who was committed to honouring his family’s long connection with Australia on properties in Queensland. But before that, it was necessary to identify the works more definitively beyond their (then) presumed Australian subject matter.

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At the age of twenty, Peter Conrad slammed his Australian door shut behind him. He was travelling into the ‘wider world’, away from his native Tasmania to take up his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford; he went with barely a backwards glance. Growing up as an omnivorous reader of English literature in the years of what he has called his ‘colonial childhood’, the young Conrad had become increasingly resentful at the perverse randomness of his exile. What he could only think of as an administrative error had relegated him to an Australia that seemed vacant and vacuous. When his time came, he ruthlessly withdrew his affection from parents and country. This snake-like shedding of skin was his liberation. Crossing Waterloo Bridge in August 1968, he had – like Wordsworth before him – a moment of epiphany. As the bridge ‘ran out into the Aldwych in a sunny crux of blue dust’, the young Conrad passed innocuously through the door by which he stepped into life. In confessional mode, he later celebrated this as the exact moment of his birth. That was when the years of his Australian youth were cancelled out, relegated to a phase of mere ‘pre-existence’.

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