John Thompson reviews 'Lost Relations' by Graeme Davison

John Thompson reviews 'Lost Relations' by Graeme Davison

Lost Relations: Fortunes of My Family in Australia's Golden Age

by Graeme Davison

Allen & Unwin, $32.99 pb, 288 pp, 9781743319468

Clear-eyed, unsentimental, but compassionate, with a nicely honed flair for story-telling, Graeme Davison is one of Australia’s master historians. Now Emeritus Professor of History at Monash University, his early training was in R.M. Crawford’s so-called Melbourne History School, where it was simply assumed that books would be written. Crawford’s department at the University of Melbourne produced a remarkable roll call of writers, including Geoffrey Blainey, Manning Clark, Ken Inglis, Margaret Kiddle, John Mulvaney, Geoffrey Serle, and F.B. (Barry) Smith (who died in Canberra on 3 March). In the years after Crawford, the Melbourne tradition of scholarship and fine historical writing has continued apace and always with distinction. Davison’s interests have been primarily in the history of cities in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Europe. His The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (1978) is regarded as a classic, while his award-winning Car Wars (2004), viewed Australia’s urban history through the windscreen, telling us how the car ‘won our hearts and conquered our cities’. Davison has also given distinguished service to his profession, not least as editor (with John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre) of the indispensable The Oxford Companion to Australian History (1998).

In the relative leisure of his post-academic career (retirement is a powerfully inappropriate term), Davison has turned his attention to the intimate world of his personal family story – its background in England and its descent in Australia from 1850, when his widowed great-great-great grandmother Jane Hewett and her eight older children landed in Melbourne. As a young man and later as an academic historian, Davison avoided family history, perhaps unconsciously minimising or denying the influence of inheritance and kin on his own life but coming to resent the genealogists that noisily crowd the reading rooms of our public libraries and archives, a daily hazard of the implied higher calling of the professional historian. But if the genealogical craze is too easily disdained, it is also easy to miss the opportunities it offers to see the ways in which ‘everyman’ stories of the daily grind and ordinary life are shaped by the currents and patterns of the larger and seemingly impersonal forces we call history. Davison makes no such mistake. At a time in his life when the temptations to reminiscence and nostalgia have grown stronger, he confesses: ‘I succumbed to the appeal of family history, not only because I wanted to better understand who I am, but also in order to think more concretely about the relationship between the familial and the communal pasts.’

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John Thompson

John Thompson

John Thompson is a historian and writer now living in Sydney after a long career at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. He holds a doctorate in history from the Australian National University and has written for various journals. He is a frequent reviewer for Australian Book Review. The author of The Patrician and the Bloke: Geoffrey Serle and the Making of Australian History (2006), he co-edited (with Brenda Niall) The Oxford Book of Australian Letters (1998). His anthology Documents that Shaped Australia was published in 2010.

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