I am ashamed to recall that when our high-school history class in the late 1970s was set K.S. Inglis’s The Australian Colonists (1974), I – and I don’t think I was alone – didn’t quite know what to do with a text that focused on ‘ceremonies, monuments and rhetoric’, one that began as a study on 26 January 1788 but worked back as an historical enquiry from 25 April 1915.
Inglis declared his determination to challenge ‘tunnel history’, but we still felt lazily safer with a neat progression of names and dates. I remember our teacher’s disappointment as we repeatedly missed the point. Rob Wilton was fresh from his own university studies, with the aura of being the draft-deferment-card-burning son of a general who, despite his own reservations, oversaw Australia’s commitment to war in Vietnam. Wilton also gave us Russel Ward’s A Nation for a Continent (1977), Anne Summers’s Damned Whores and God’s Police (1975), and Humphrey McQueen’s A New Britannia (1970). It took me a long time to realise just what we had been offered.