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Geoffrey Blainey

Somebody recently told me that Geoffrey Blainey wrote much of the text of this history of Victoria while travelling in aircraft. If true, Blainey has an enviable knack of finding seats with elbow room, but otherwise there’s no reason to complain. Sir Charles Oman, the great military historian of the Napoleonic wars, was said to have drafted one book during a summer spent waiting for connecting trains at French railway stations. Those fortunate enough to possess a lot of intellectual capital should make the most of it. In the central four chapters of social history, perhaps the most satisfactory part of this book, Blainey cites his evidence as ‘the accumulation of years of casual reading of old newspapers, looking at historic sites and talking with old people’. Disarmingly, he adds: ‘Most of the explanations of why change came are probably my own’.

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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.

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Who, we wondered, gets the largest Public Lending Right cheque each year – Manning Clark or Geoffrey Blainey? Probably still Manning, and he’ll still be ahead in the royalties stakes too, but the younger colt must be closing fast, and he shows no signs of tiring. Even if he did, his publishers, like Manning’s for that matter, can always do, as they have here, a recycling and packaging job.

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Yaldwyn of the Golden Spurs by J. O. Randell & Mountain Gold by John Adams

April 1981, no. 29

For any who may suffer under the delusion that the production of good histories is easy, these three books offer some valuable lessons. The first, J.0. Randell’s Yaldwyn of the Golden Spurs, is the work of a Gentleman (i.e. amateur) historian, the other two are very much the labours of mere Players. William Henry Yaldwyn (1801–66) was a Sussex squire, (in Burke’s LandedGentry by the skin of his teeth), who turned Australian squatter to boost the family’s dwindling fortunes. He was certainly ‘in’ on some of the most significant historical action in midcentury Australia – pioneering Victorian squatter, a Port Phillip Gentleman and founder of the Melbourne Club, a visitor to the gold fields in 1852, and a few years later a pioneering squatter again, this time in Queensland. It was only Queensland that amply rewarded him, both financially and personally. He served two brief terms in the Legislative Council where, Mr Randell informs us, his ancestors’ Cromwellian sympathies encouraged him to propose a motion, finally passed by both houses in 1862, which established the elective nature of the upper house at the expense of the power of the Crown. As one of the few Queensland farmer politicians to have advanced the cause of Democracy, he is indeed a raraavis.

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