History

What is the value of useless knowledge? One of the by-products of the rise of artificial intelligence is that the realm of what one really needs to know to function in society is ever shrinking. Wikipedia makes learning facts completely redundant. Pub trivia competitions now seem a fundamentally anachronistic form of entertainment, like watching a jousting tournament in the age of artillery. One can appreciate the skill, but one also knows that its time has come and gone.

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It is quite an apposite time for the appearance of Nick Cook’s Fighting for Our Lives: The history of a community response to AIDS, when the world is dealing with the impact of another deadly virus. There are always lessons to be learned: where better to start than from historical experience.

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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.

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As the one hundred and sixteen years of their control of the Exhibition Building ends, its Trustees have prepared this splendid account of their stewardship. From diverse perspectives David Dunstan, who teaches public history at Monash University, and fifteen associates, demonstrate how deeply the building has entered into the everyday lives of Victorians. Dunstan b ...

Anyone interested in Aboriginal history or race relations will probably be familiar with the work of Henry Reynolds. His books include The Other Side of the Frontier (1982), Frontier (1987), and The Law of the Land (1987). This latest book is a collection of documents, ones that provided much of the source material for Reynolds’s earlier works. In this book, he tell us in the preface, ‘our forebears speak for themselves and speak in many voices’.

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What Revolution? The title’s a teaser! Echoes of Lefty/Godot? You’ll understand if I’m infected by Noel McLachlan’s prose. On page after page, sentences and semi-sentences addressing the reader informally/colloquially (even verblessly!), rich in apostrophes, italics, parentheses, sloping lines between pairs/triads, even quartets/quintets, of words, ending often with exclamation marks and (nine times on one page I’ve counted!) question marks.

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The Japanese tactics in today’s export war are identical with those they employed so successfully in 1941–42 against a bigger army than theirs in Malaya: they attack individual units ‘with surprise and with our strength concentrated’. This is one of the two leitmotifs of Russell Braddon’s book. The other is his notion of Japan’s ‘hundred years’ war’. During his years of captivity in Changi between 1942 and 1945, Braddon was told once by a Japanese officer: ‘This war will last a hundred years, Mr Braddon. I’m afraid you will never go home.’ Later, after the Japanese surrender in August 1945, when he was about to leave Changi, he passed a Japanese officer who was being escorted into the gaol. ‘In a spirit half of elation and half of spite I turned and shouted, “This war last one hundred years?” “Ninety-six years to go”, he called back; and neither of us bothered to bow.’

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On his first day at St Patrick’s, East Melbourne, Vincent Buckley was ‘flogged and flogged’ by a Jesuit priest in ‘an incompetent fury’. It is an experience that many of his readers will easily recognise, though their remembered lambastings were more likely to have been incurred at the hands of the Brothers and, unlike Buckley’s, would have been a continuing feature of school life. 

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Making the sea passage south to Flinders Island, I began reading this while off-watch, hoping book and destination might augment, but tough weather cancelled free time until after a landfall sleep. I’ve not much enjoyed histories which cast these manuka and granite islands in dismal role, they are shockingly beautiful, but the crowded cemetery wails, the old lath church is empty of joyful song, and the rule of Commandant Jeanneret recalls similar miseries of bonded Malay and Bantamese on Cocos.

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It seems hard to imagine that we need more books on World War I after the tsunami of publications released during the recent centenary. Yet, here we have a blockbuster, a 926-page tome, Staring at God, by Simon Heffer, a British journalist turned historian in the tradition of Alistair Horne and Max Hastings.

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