Somebody recently told me that Geoffrey Blainey wrote much of the text of this history of Victoria while travelling in aircraft. If true, Blainey has an enviable knack of finding seats with elbow room, but otherwise there’s no reason to complain. Sir Charles Oman, the great military historian of the Napoleonic wars, was said to have drafted one book during a summer spent waiting for connecting trains at French railway stations. Those fortunate enough to possess a lot of intellectual capital should make the most of it. In the central four chapters of social history, perhaps the most satisfactory part of this book, Blainey cites his evidence as ‘the accumulation of years of casual reading of old newspapers, looking at historic sites and talking with old people’. Disarmingly, he adds: ‘Most of the explanations of why change came are probably my own’.
Well, yes; Blainey’s trademark is unmistakeable. And most of the strengths of this book reflect his known interests: precontact Aborigines, mining, technology, transport, Aussie rules football (Geelong makes a showing, naturally), climate, and environment. The narrative skills are as good as ever, a blend of the short sentence, the simple phrase, the enlivening touch drawn from oral history, the use of vivid detail appealing to the eye and ear. Striking stonemasons march on ‘a burning hot day’; the shearer of 1870 ‘liked to talk about racehorses and cracked his whip when exuberant’. He shows his flair for lighting on underexplored facets of our history, such as the nineteenth-century links between Melbourne and Dunedin or the work of inventors such as A.G.M. Mitchell. There are nuggets of fascinating detail: Victorians invented the word ‘lolly’, Walter Lindrum’s tombstone is shaped like a billiard table.
He is still the challenger of popular orthodoxies though he challenges less than in earlier days the orthodoxies of other historians. My eyes indeed blinked a little when I read his claim that few farmers were driven off the land by the depression. Two pages earlier he has written of the three thousand soldier settlers who forfeited their land in the 1920s ‘and the retreat widened as the world depression set in’; which sounds much more compatible with what was happening in regions of recent settlement elsewhere in Australia. In general, however, his thrusts are directed against fashionable opinions. The Aborigines, he says, inhabited a poorer environment than our own and were frequently violent in their dealings with one another. The Victorian tradition of self-help and individual responsibility has been valuable and is worth preserving. He even has his doubts about consensus. ‘Every free society has tensions. Maybe it thrives on them. Moreover most tensions are partly the result of change, of a freedom to make changes. A society without tensions is probably asleep.’
Unfortunately, tension is not a major theme here. Some of the major unpleasantnesses of Victorian history are glossed over or omitted. It is impossible to neglect the conscription split which propelled Daniel Mannix to the fore in 1916–17, but there is nothing about the police strike of 1923, the waterfront troubles of 1928, or the disgraceful retention of hanging as a punishment into the late 1960s. This may be because, like nearly all Victorians, Blainey finds more stimulus in the achievements of Marvellous Melbourne and its hinterland in the nineteenth century than in the anti-climax after the 1890s. Balance comes more readily when writing about the events of a hundred years ago, and Blainey’s words about the Victorians of that era could almost be applied to Our Side of the Country: ‘It was easy to ignore the cesspits and the gutters’.
Perhaps this is because, when it comes to writing about Victoria and nearly all his work is written from a Victorian base, even when its subject matter is the whole of Australia Blainey is both an insider and an outsider. He is of course an insider in most of the important senses. All eight great-grandparents settled in Victoria, and like Geoffrey Serie and Graeme Davidson, he has that particular Victorian sense of place, that empathy with his home country which he calls ‘positive nationalism’ and the Romans called ‘pietas’. As a Victorian, he was born with access to a system of supportive networks educational, sporting, financial, literary, and cultural at which a provincial from Western Australia or Queensland could only gaze and envy. We knew that if we produced a great footballer like Polly Farmer or a rising literary magazine like Meanjin or a major political leader like Bob Hawke, we would lose them to Victoria. But Melbourne is also the centre for ideology in Australia, and in Blainey’s formative years in the late 1940s Catholics and Communists vied demandingly for the allegiance of young intellectuals. A rational, sceptical being such as Blainey might choose to become an outsider, taking refuge in a quizzical aloofness, challenging other people’s prejudices with wit and paradox but reluctant to expose his own deeper feelings and commitments. Such a writer would seem to inhabit a different world from the younger historians and sociologists who grew up with Arena and Intervention, but he would produce gifted history for the delight of both the scholar and the common reader. It was, therefore, apt that the historian of Victoria, which was once called Australia Felix or ‘happy Australia’, should be the sunniest of our leading historians. But it may be that the storms which have broken around his head in recent months will produce a tougher and more searching Blainey.