To say that Geoffrey Blainey is Australia’s most prolific and eminent historian is to utter the merest commonplace. But with a career spanning almost seventy years – and an oeuvre now so large that Ranke himself would have cause to blush – he has turned his attention to a different subject: the story of his own life.
In this long-awaited memoir, Blainey attempts to draw the strands of his early life together, tracing his childhood in regional Victoria to his most innovative decades as an historian, when he produced a series of classics which included The Rush that Never Ended (1963), The Causes of War (1973), The Triumph of the Nomads (1975) and his undisputed masterpiece, The Tyranny of Distance (1966). His account ends just as the convulsions of the 1980s begin to foment in the background.
The second of five children, Blainey was born in Melbourne in 1930. His father, a Methodist minister, was moved to a new parish every four years, and so the Blaineys maintained an unusually pious and peripatetic lifestyle. By the age of thirteen he had lived in more than four country towns across regional Victoria. “The mental pictures of my childhood,” Blainey writes, are mainly in “black and white”, but his memoir offers vivid and often nostalgic scenes which seem vibrant and multicoloured. Vast panoramas of a rustic and earthy Australia are rendered in a limpid and piquant prose. And we hear rollicking yarns about local legends, larrikins and eccentrics who either visited the Blainey household or who were well known to the family.
The sodality of rural life hastened Blainey’s sense of place, so that even before his formal interest in history arose, he was deeply immersed in the past. He devoured snippets of fact from every town he briefly called his home. Stories from the Ballarat goldfields or quaint tales spoken from the tongues of shopkeepers, miners and labourers helped to fashion his early anthropology. When the great French historian Marc Bloch lamented the decline in historical thinking at the beginning of the 1940s, he was describing how the collapse of agrarian society had severed the link newer generations had with the past. Whereas an older generation could convey their histories through anecdote and other oral traditions, those who lived in rapidly urbanising societies no longer had the means to understand their own history. Blainey’s youth epitomised that earlier period – before the severing – when the past and its history was always present, commonly discussed and rarely foreign. His memoir hums and pulses to the sounds of an old and vanished Australia.
The landscape never failed to mesmerise and enchant the young Blainey. From each vantage he gleaned something new and curious. Of his childhood in Ballarat he writes, “I used to climb onto the high iron roof of our weatherboard house and sit on the topmost ridge. I could see the timbered Great Dividing Range, on the other side of which were the plains that led all the way to those northern shores of the continent … ” Compelled almost by a sense of pilgrimage, he longed to explore a hidden Australia which he had not yet seen. A succession of tours through city and outback duly followed: one to Sydney and another to Bourke. In 1956, his journeying culminated in an expedition to Fromm’s Landing with John Mulvaney, where he participated in an archaeological dig that was to have enormous implications in our understanding of Aboriginal and indeed world history.
Blainey’s scholarship to Wesley College was an early watershed. Leaving Ballarat High behind, his new school demanded higher academic standards and a “quite ambition permeated many [of the] boys”. But he soon flourished. He began to read voraciously. H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw were early favourites. But it was the Victorian giants, Thomas Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle, who fired his imagination most. Wide-eyed and curious, the young Blainey imbibed long passages from Macaulay’s essay on Goldsmith and impressive chunks of Carlyle’s epic, The French Revolution.
At Wesley and then Melbourne University, Blainey was taught by an impressive coterie of teachers, which included the likes of A.A. Philips (coiner of the “Cultural Cringe”), Kathleen Fitzpatrick, John La Nauze and Max Crawford. We are also introduced to a young and presumably hatless Manning Clark, who he affectionately refers to as “Manno”. Blainey’s portrait of Clark is pithy and gracious. He acknowledges him as an historian of great depth, erudition and insight. But by the mid-1980s their views were drawing farther apart. He concludes his description of Clark with a characteristic aperçu: “while we rode comfortable in the same train we got off at different stations.”
If Blainey was fortunate in his pedagogues, he was to prove even more fortunate in his peers. Along with Mulvaney, he befriended and studied with Ken Inglis, George Nadel, John Bastin and Herb Feith, all of whom went on to leading scholars in their own fields of study. At Queen’s, Blainey was as an energetic and socially absorbed student. He tells us of his days editing the Farrago and long hours spent in the reading room of the State Library. His disciplined nature and prodigious industry owed almost everything to his Methodist upbringing. Indeed, it is impossible to read this memoir, especially its latter half (when we see Blainey effectively pioneer the fields of Australian business and mining history alone) without admiring his unwavering devotion to work.
Blainey’s political development is occasionally mentioned, though its consideration is often perfunctory. He confesses a passing, school-boy flirtation with the left and subsequent sympathies for the right, particularly for Burkean notions of economic rationalism and civic responsibility. But we never really get the sense that his views are evolving towards any fixed or coherent position: his affinities remain opaque, scattered across the length of the political spectrum. While there is a tendency amongst some commentators to label Blainey a nationalist-conservative, this seems a crude and proscriptive rendering. Blainey’s individualism resists any presentence to dogmatism. In an effort to evade the question of political allegiance, Les Murray once quipped that he “belonged to the mystical wing of the Country Party”. Perhaps Blainey’s own brand of politics places him in a similar camp.
Towards the end of his life Manning Clark confessed that he could not understand Australia’s history after 1945. He was, he insisted, too close to its past and yet too estranged from its present to draw serious judgement, occupying what Hobsbawm famously called “the twilight zone”. For Clark, the owl of Minera was yet to take flight, and the historian’s gaze is seldom improved by propinquity to their subject.
A similar fate has befallen Blainey, whose views of contemporary Australia have grown increasingly mixed and hesitant since the 1990s. Though he applauds, in characteristically Whiggish form, the achievements of modern Australia, he remains suspicious of its political culture, criticising the way in which crucial subjects – namely, climate change and multiculturalism – have been (and continue to be) debated. His clumsy distinction between society’s so-called “soft greens” and “hard greens” is surely a sign of a historian trying to impose order on a world he no longer fully understands.
While the memoir does not reach these later years, Blainey’s distaste for today’s public debate is thinly veiled. He laments a more cordial time when rhetoric and argument were valued more for their ideas and less for their polarity and fissiparousness. Blainey recalls his early experiences as a senior lecturer at Melbourne University and then as a member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, where he rubbed shoulders and kept happy company with well-known communists and leftists, including Vance and Nettie Palmer, F.D. Davison, Rohan Rivett and the historian Brian Fitzpatrick. “At that time,” Blainey writes, “there was far more willingness than exists today to allow opposing views to be heard or even fostered.”
The pace and chronology of the memoir rests chiefly on Blainey’s professional career and the historical events which surrounded and shaped his early life. It is a sensible and compelling framework. And for a historian celebrated for his panoptical powers and sense of the Braudelian longue durée, it is interesting to see how his memoir demonstrates how change can occur quickly, often over very short historical periods.
But there are shortcomings to this approach. We rarely glimpse, for instance, his later personal or family life, and there are key moments when you find yourself wanting him to dig deeper and examine further. One criticism of Before I Forget, then, is that it is too often synoptic when it might be more self-reflective and self-critical. Here the substance of events almost always surpasses any impulse for solipsism, self-assessment or critical interiority. Yet this early memoir rumbles and flashes along, never failing to shimmer in its lucidity and charm in its telling. Blainey’s voice is genial and avuncular, never bitter or jaded.
Now entering his ninth decade, let us hope that the old master of Australian letters has a little more left in the tank: enough, in the very least, to bring us the final instalment in his truly remarkable life.