Brian Matthews reviews 'The Story of Australia’s People: The rise and rise of a New Australia' by Geoffrey Blainey

The seminar, as far as I can remember, took place in what was then the Melbourne Teachers’ College on Grattan Street. The late-afternoon sunlight slanting through ornate windows burnt bright on a huge World War I scene on the wall behind the speakers’ table where the names of those who had made ‘the ultimate sacrifice’ were listed with melancholy precision. I remember gazing at that painting while I waited for the seminar to start. It reminded me of the ornate, scrolled, oval frame I had inherited, from which my grandfather, No. 17051 Private Alexander Murray, looked out, slightly quizzical, puzzled, his boyish face overshadowed by the military cap. On either side of the portrait hung his medals, their ribbons faded, and between them a citation in which futility grapples with dignity. ‘He whom this scroll commemorates ... passed out of the sight of men by the path of self-sacrifice ... Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten.’

The topic of the seminar was peculiarly, if rather morbidly, appropriate – Black Armband History – of which one of the speakers, Don Watson, remarked, ‘The puerility of it has been cleverly attached to the national mood. We have to presume that is why [Prime Minister] John Howard took up the cry. None of us believes there is a single serious Australian historian whose work fits Mr Howard’s description. It is difficult to believe that the motives of the black armband school are not political, if only because their reading of history and their understanding of how it is written could not be so wrong-headed without being wilful ...’

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Published in December 2016, no. 387
Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews is the author of short stories, essays, and biographies. He was a weekly columnist for the Weekend Australian Magazine (1997–2001) and has been a monthly columnist for Eureka Street since 1997. His memoir A Fine and Private Place (2000) won the inaugural Queensland Premier’s Award for non-fiction and his Manning Clark: A Life (2008) won the National Biography Award in 2010.