Jauncey unravels some strands (7 November 2013)

Sometimes the history of history is almost as vexing as history itself. One frustration of putting together a history bibliography rapidly is that you have no time to stop and read or re-read the books and articles that go into the list. So it is with Honest History.

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American Eagle model A-1 biplane VH-UHV in flight above Sydney Harbour, 19 March 1932 (source: Flickr Commons/National Library of Australia nla.pic-vn4532971; photo: EW Searle) Sydney looked like this when LC Jauncey returned to Australia just three weeks after the photo was taken.

There are more than 500 items in the Resources section of the website as launched (or more than a thousand if you count the items’ appearances under more than one heading). They are references pulled together from the publication lists of historians, recommendations, book reviews, personal libraries and other sources and there are many, many of them where the bibliographer wishes there was time to stop and read the work thoroughly.

Such a process reminds us that our expertise is fairly narrow. None of us are polymaths, so we second heartily the call made by Honest History’s President, Peter Stanley, for ‘crowd sourcing’ to help build up the material on the site. Lend Honest History your expertise and your interests.

Complete comprehensiveness will be impossible but an objective of ‘No more gaps’ gives something to strive for. If the motto that Honest History has been promoting – ‘Not only Anzac but also lots of other strands of Australian history’ – is to mean anything it will need to be reflected in the balance of material presented on the site.

(Just for the record, as the vessel Honest History slides gently into the waters of the Molonglo – that’s a river in Canberra, for big city dwellers who do not get the metaphor – roughly two-thirds of the goods in the hold are found under our headings not directly concerned with war, that is, under ‘Strands of Australian history’ and its seven sub-strands or under ‘Using and abusing history’ and ‘Teaching history’.)

To get back to the original point, though, some books and articles rise above the ruck. One that looms in a particularly distinguished fashion is Australians: A Historical Library, twelve volumes produced by Australia’s historians to mark the 1988 Bicentennial of white settlement. The volumes were Guide and Index, Events and Places, A Guide to Sources, A Historical Atlas, A Historical Dictionary, Historical Statistics, Australians to 1788, Australians 1838, Australians 1888, Australians 1938, Australians from 1939 and Australians 1988.  

The concept of the project was for a series of ‘slices’ of Australia and Australians at 50 year intervals, narratives of the periods up to 1788 and since 1939, plus reference volumes. Almost every book contains delights and surprises. There are timelines, gazetteers, maps, bibliographies, biographies – enough facts, indeed, to satisfy the most tunnel-visioned Minister for Education – plus wonderful illustrations, but most of all there are chapters on topics that anyone brought up on the myth of history being ‘about chaps’ (mostly white Anglo-Celtic chaps, at that, doing political stuff) would not have contemplated. For example, children, dying, striking, wireless, the Ashes, refugees (all in the 1938 volume) and Aborigines in the war, religion and politics, cars for the people, audiences for art, the film industry, bosses and workers, sickness cure and prevention, and psychiatric treatment (1939).

In the from 1939 volume, too, a former Minister for Immigration, Al Grassby, says, ‘The most significant event in the history of Australia since federation was undoubtedly the post-World War II migration program’. Not Anzac? Food for thought. Is he right? Do we even need to have a ‘most significant’ competition?

Topics as wide-ranging as the ones covered in Australians make ‘buckets of blood history’ look rather weird. Indeed, it might seem a little ironic, given Honest History’s concern with Anzackery (the disproportionate hyperinflation of the Anzac story, often for political purposes) that a founding father of the Australians project, Ken Inglis, has also been a distinguished chronicler of the Anzac tradition. But Inglis’s books and articles on Anzac and the Australian War Memorial (use the Search function to find them on the site) are characterised by patrician even-handedness (and perhaps a slightly puzzled air – puzzled at how we came to make of Anzac what we have made of it) rather than uberpatriotic puffery or misty-eyed nostalgia. Inglis is never guilty of Anzackery.

It is difficult, for example, to imagine Inglis writing about the men who landed at Gallipoli carrying a torch of freedom which they passed on as they fell dead, although this still seems to be the standard fare of Anzac commemoration for school children in Queensland, for example. But then, it is difficult to imagine anyone writing in that manner. (The Governor of Tasmania recently doused this particular torch.)

Anyway, the 12 weighty volumes were published late in 1987 and many people bought them, though how many read them remains debatable. Then, three years later came the 75th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing and Prime Minister Bob Hawke, having been the giggling mascot at the America’s Cup victory in 1983 and the Queen’s escort at the Bicentennial in 1988, turned up at the head of a platoon of elderly veterans to give a speech at the Dawn Service at Anzac Cove. (The speech had eerie echoes of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, even to being almost exactly the same length.) Things had changed.

The year 1990 or thereabouts did not, by any means, mark the end of searching, thoughtful, many-faceted Australian histories. They continued to be published regularly, the most recent example being The Cambridge History of Australia. But marching beside these works since around that date, in an ever swelling column, were the military histories, the often breathless accounts of often relatively insignificant incidents and people, sometimes ambitiously stretching their arguments well beyond the evidence.

This flood will continue and grow during the centenary years: there will be new books on even more obscure events and battles, many of them bearing in their title or blurb the hackneyed word ‘forgotten’. Perhaps some of these events have been forgotten until now because they were indeed insignificant. Forgetting is often good.

We in Honest History have previously used the metaphor of the military history strand, the ‘khaki thread’, strangling the other threads of our history. We might vary the simile and talk about the cuckoo in the nest. It would be great if the military history chick could move over and make room for other noisy birds. The history birds’ nest should be as noisy as every spring’s new brood of magpies. Perhaps there is even scope for a new volume of Australians – but let’s not wait until 2038 to do it.

NB: for those interested in LC Jauncey, there is new biographical information here along with a photo of Jauncey.

David Stephens

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