Griffiths, Tom: on Graeme Davison’s Lost Relations

Griffiths, Tom

The story behind the story’, Inside Story, 24 July 2015

A long essay on Graeme Davison’s new book, Lost Relations: Fortunes of My Family in Australia’s Golden Age, which also provokes musings by Griffiths about the nature of history. Griffiths says Davison’s book plumbs ‘the mystery of families and of intergenerational knowledge and influence’.

Davison scrutinises his own DNA, his relations to these earlier generations. He reaches out for something as he stands at the English grave of an ancestor who died barely a century before he was born, before other ancestors travelled to Australia.

These are not great gaps of time [says Griffiths], yet so much knowledge – so much beloved, treasured knowledge of face and voice, personality and philosophy, sense of humour and way of life, and even the reason why one would cross the world – is lost! How can this be? How can families, of all social institutions, allow this to happen?

Griffiths describes how Davison explores the boundaries of family history as he traces the stories of his family moving around colonial Victoria. He goes on to say something of Davison the historian and his contribution.

It is Graeme Davison’s school of history that pioneered Australian understandings of the Victorian city, researched urban life in Britain and Australia, investigated the lives of outcasts and drifters, the predicament of the city-bred child and the work of the great social investigators, wrote about nationalist literature and the city and the bush, examined respectability, social and geographical mobility, energy and material life, and the historical contours of space and time, and reflected constantly on the nature and practice of history itself.

Griffiths notes the parallels between his own family and Davison’s – and Davison was Griffiths’ PhD supervisor – underlining the close-knit strands of the history profession in Australia. Griffiths himself is the WK Hancock Professor of History at ANU and Hancock was described some years ago by James Curran (and others) as Australia’s greatest historian.* Curran was reviewing a book by Jim Davidson about Hancock.

It is good that historians write about each other but also good that they write about their own families. Meanwhile, one suspects that the insights into the generations of men and women that historians bring may well be more profound than those provided by the authors of the Intergenerational Report, which a sociologist and a demographer say is characterised by ‘truthy untruths’.

(There are a number of items by Graeme Davison on the Honest History site and they can be accessed through the Search function. Griffiths’ article in Inside Story was based on his speech launching Davison’s book.)

David Stephens

* The present author does not recall meeting Sir Keith Hancock personally but he cohabited a corner of ANU with him in the late 1970s. He also recalls attending a conference in Wagga Wagga in 1978 at what was then the Riverina College of Advanced Education. On a very hot summer morning a fellow conferencer arrived at breakfast, remarking that an elderly naked man was swimming laps in the college pool. Another breakfaster responded, ‘don’t worry, that’s just Sir Keith Hancock’. The author has never met Graeme Davison in this or any other circumstance. Late Canberra poet, Michael Thwaites, knew Hancock well.

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