‘Geoffrey Blainey’s engaging narrative of his emergence as man and historian’, 9 August 2019
Derek Abbott reviews Geoffrey Blainey’s Before I Forget: An Early Memoir
Geoffrey Blainey is one of Australia’s most highly regarded and most prolific historians. In this memoir he covers the first forty years of his life, up to the early 1970s. It is several books in one: an evocation of a childhood in the 1930s in a provincial Victoria that is now almost a foreign country; of schooling and University in the 1940s, when universities were at once much less accessible and yet, because of their size, more intimate; of the 1950s and 60s when Blainey built a reputation as a historian writing business and institutional histories and then became a university lecturer and moved beyond his early publications into more general history and commentary. Interspersed throughout the book are brief (and not so brief) and often fascinating portraits of fellow students, writers, teachers and business people who have been part of the author’s life.
Perhaps the most deeply felt portraits are of ‘ordinary’ people the author came across, as a boy, as a casual worker on farms, as a student hitch-hiking around Victoria and New South Wales, and as a budding historian drawing on the memories of old miners. What also shines through is Blainey’s delight in the practical, in hands-on experience, and the ‘exhilaration’ he got from the large industrial projects about which he wrote.
Blainey was born in 1930, the son of a Methodist preacher required by his church to move parishes every four years. He grew up in country towns and provincial centres in Victoria in a family with connections to the land and country towns, and a background in mining. The frugality of his childhood, imposed partly by his family’s meagre stipend from the church and also by the Depression, clearly bred in him respect for people who worked hard and got on with their lives uncomplainingly.
In each of Blainey’s father’s parishes, his parents were the centre of a congregation on which they depended and to which they contributed willingly. Blainey’s memories are of a family home to which people turned for social contact and support and of a community that, in turn, provided support to the family. For example, when his father required significant medical treatment it was provided free of charge by co-religionists and when his scholarship to Wesley College in Melbourne imposed costs that the family could not bear, a parishioner came to their aid. Blainey obviously regrets the passing of ‘these tightly knit communities … no longer viewed very sympathetically in the media and sections of some universities … [W]ith personal disaster and adversity they coped bravely.’
A bookish boy, Blainey won a scholarship to Melbourne’s Wesley College at the age of fourteen and became a boarder there for the rest of his school years. At Wesley, Blainey became part of a small community with good teachers who encouraged enquiring minds. He was deeply influenced by AA Phillips, his English teacher, a distinguished literary critic, promoter of Australian literature and drama (and coiner of the phrase ‘the cultural cringe’). Phillips was to have a lasting influence on Blainey’s writing style, with its emphasis on clear prose and careful argument; less so on his political outlook, where an early leaning to the left under Phillips’ tutelage had given way to more middle-of-the-road views by the time he entered university.
The shift away from schoolboy radicalism was to continue. Blainey comments that some of his schoolboy essays reveal a distrust of world views that were based on the ‘perfectibility of human nature’. Later, at Melbourne University, his extensive reading and listening and his experiences working on farms, fruit picking and hitch-hiking through Victoria and New South Wales had led him to ‘flirting with what is called economic rationalism’, to the abandonment of ‘some of my utopian ideas’, and a distrust of excessive regulation by government.
Blainey kept notes of his reading over the years and discovered, while writing this book, that as an undergraduate he had read Edmund Burke with some approval. Burke may not have been a significant conscious influence on Blainey’s thinking, but given Burke’s regard for the importance of established institutions, traditions and practices and his warnings against abstract utopian thinking and the careless discarding of the products of centuries of social and cultural development, Burke’s ‘liberal conservatism’ does seem to foreshadow Blainey’s view of the world.
Melbourne in the 1940s may have been a less cosmopolitan city than it is now. It was far from isolated, however. As Blainey comments, ‘In 1948 … great ideas were ablaze. Momentous events were argued about.’ His contemporaries included a number of European migrants, some of the Dunera boys, and ex-servicemen taking up university places as mature students. So there was great diversity of opinions and experience and a ‘tolerance that began to weaken a decade or two later in the major universities’. Melbourne University, like Wesley College, provided Blainey with excellent teachers – Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Manning Clark and Arthur Burns come in for special mention.
Having worked briefly for John La Nauze at the end of his career I particularly enjoyed Blainey’s comment that La Nauze ‘pursued standards of accuracy that were so high that his own polished sentences and their content had difficulty in passing his own inspection’. At the same time, Blainey was going his own way, particularly in developing his knowledge of Australian history through voracious and eclectic reading, especially of back numbers of local newspapers which gave him a ‘feel’ for Australian society as it was experienced by ordinary people. Blainey, still an undergraduate, published his first article in Historical Studies, somewhat precociously taking on Professor RS Parker over what had influenced voters in the Federation referenda.
At this early stage in his career Blainey had decided that he wanted to write history, not to teach, and to write for ‘a wider audience as well as specialists’. It must seem almost incomprehensible to the modern graduate that, having gained his degree, Blainey was employed by Mount Lyell Mining as a researcher into its history and briskly parlayed that opportunity into his first book, The Peaks of Lyell, published in 1954. The book was a success and for a decade or more Blainey concentrated on writing corporate and institutional history. Then, in 1961 he became a teacher almost by accident; filling in for Ken Inglis for a term in Adelaide led to a lectureship in economic history at Melbourne University.
In the later 1960s, Blainey was to move into new areas. The Tyranny of Distance, the book that was to make his reputation outside Australia, grew from yet another commission, for a short history of transport in Australia, which was transformed, as Blainey’s research into a subject about which he knew little (by his standards) took him in new directions and opened lines of inquiry far removed from the original topic. Across a Red World was the product of a train journey through China and the Soviet Union in 1966 and The Causes of War (published in 1973) a response to the debate over the Vietnam War and the desire of his students to know more about the subject.
By the end of the 1960s, Blainey had become an established figure, probably Australia’s best-known living historian and a member and later Chairman of the board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund. Yet his profession was undergoing significant change as Indigenous history, the environment, race and gender were reorienting the way we looked at our past.
The book is a delight. It provides an engaging narrative of the emergence of the man and the historian – though Blainey describes himself in the early 1970s, despite a formidable list of publications and a high reputation as a teacher, as ‘still learning to be a historian’ – and its descriptions of Melbourne and Victoria in the 1930s and 40s remind the reader of how profoundly Australia has changed over the author’s lifetime.
* Derek Abbott is a retired Senate officer. He has done reviews for Honest History on Steve Gower’s book on the Australian War Memorial, Australian volunteers, an episode of family war history, the 1942 Melbourne ‘brownout murders’, what-ifs in history, the Commonwealth today, Monash and Chauvel, Australian home defence in World War II, the Silk Roads, Victor Trumper, sport, Australian foreign policy, World War I at home, Duchene/Hargraves and the discovery of gold, Charles Todd of the Overland Telegraph, and other subjects.