History

The title of Ken Inglis’s book is a poignant irony, reflecting the transience of history itself. For its publication coincided exactly with the death of the Commission, and the birth of the Corporation, and with hindsight one can say that it should have been called That was the ABC, thus creating a pleasant symmetry with That Was the Week That Was. But Inglis did his best to defeat time by bringing the history up to the federal election of 5 March 1983, edging his way as near as possible to the date he would like to have reached.

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Valerie Lawson is a balletomane whose writing on dance encompasses newspaper articles and also articles  and editorials for numerous dance companies. Lawson’s lavishly illustrated Dancing Under the Southern Skies, like Arnold Haskell’s mid-twentieth-century popular histories of ballet, substitutes stories about ballet and ballet dancers for a cohesive historical narrative about ballet in Australia. Portraits, images of ballet dancers posing in photographers’ studios, and ephemera are reproduced in the book; but the total sum of stage photos – of dancing – can be counted on one hand.

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On the evening of 6 August 1926, Alice Anderson donned her driving goggles and gloves, waved to the cheering crowds outside Melbourne’s Lyceum Club, and got into her tiny two-seater Austin 7. With her former teacher Jessie Webb beside her, the boot packed with two guns, sleeping bags, a compass, four gallons of water, a supply of biscuits, and, strangely, two potatoes with red curly wigs, she tooted the horn and set off. Her mission? A three-week pioneering trip to the never-never. ‘There is only one main route from Adelaide to Darwin, and that is only a camel track,’ the tiny young woman behind the wheel said breezily of the 2,607-kilometre journey ahead of her. ‘We are not going to stick to the beaten track.’

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On 3 October 1962, Hugh Gaitskell rose to address the annual Labour Party Conference in Brighton. He had been Labour leader for nearly a decade and was widely tipped to win the next general election, due within two years. Gaitskell’s message was clear and vivid: Britain must never join the European Economic Community. To do so, he told delegates, would ‘mean the end of a thousand years of history’.

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On getting hold of Grace Karskens’s new book, I went straight to the colour plates of artefacts resurrected from the neighbourhood of the title, part of the historic Rocks area of inner Sydney. I love to look at salvage: pieced-together dinner plates, dolls’ heads, and brass buckles and buttons whose verdigris defies any amount of elbow grease. But the photo that really grabbed me was of a dug-up gold wedding ring, modelled on one finger of a hand neatly manicured but for a crescent of black dirt embedded deep under the thumbnail. To me, that minute trace of the Rocks neighbourhood spoke vividly – more so, somehow, than any of the scrubbed-up artefacts – of the peculiar joys of dabbling in other people’s cesspits and of the adventure into history that underlies Inside the Rocks.

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Paul Tilley classes the Treasury, now housed in Canberra, as ‘one of Australia’s great enduring institutions’. It began humbly in 1901, in a smallish stone building that still stands at the corner of Collins and Spring Streets in Melbourne. That handsome structure appears to be just about the correct size for its initial staff of five. Just across the street stands a statue of Sir William Clarke, a rich pastoralist of that era who, had he sold some of his properties and sheep, might easily have paid for all the salary cheques signed by the nation’s Treasury in its first weeks.

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When John Hirst accepted the challenge of writing a history of Federation of scholarly quality but fit for a broad popular readership, he may have felt himself on a hiding to nothing. Previous historians have succeeded in convincing Australians that the story of the making of the Australian Commonweal this at best dull. Who wants to know about a collection of hirsute, largely overweight and overdressed middle-class politicians arguing about the nexus between the Senate and the House of Representatives?

Unlike the Americans, we did not begin with a ringing declaration of independence from Mother England. Unlike the French Revolution, we offer no images of impassioned crowds storming Pentridge. ‘Advance Australia Fair’ is no substitute for the Marseillaise. Unlike the old Soviet Union, our constitution contains no mission statement of community values and aspirations, and some, such as Don Watson, argue that we are the poorer for it.

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The Somme – it is a name that still strikes dread in the ears for its carnage, ineptitude and sheer waste of life. For the English-speaking world at least, the battle of the Somme has come to symbolise all that was bad about the Great War in general, and the Western Front in particular. The 141-day battle cost the British Army alone more than 400,000 casualties, including 150,000 men killed. The first day (1 July 1916) saw the death of 20,000 soldiers – the single bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. It wasn’t quite as bad as the savage slaughter at Towton on 29 March 1461, where about 30,000 Englishmen perished in the vicious quarrel between York and Lancaster, but on the Somme the bloodshed kept going, day after day for four and a half months, and no one seemed to know how to stop it.

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Ann Curthoys’s Freedom Ride is a meticulously researched piece of Australian history, and so much more. It could sit comfortably on the required reading lists of subjects ranging from History, to Government, to Media. This ‘road story’ of peripatetic direct democracy, from people too young to assert the right to vote for change, is also an inspirational text that makes you question your own passivity to the wrongs in our world.

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Underland is English nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s longest and, by his own admission, deepest and strangest book. It took almost a decade to write. From the remote mountain peaks of his first book,