‘A WRITER,’ DECLARED the novelist Thomas Mann, ‘is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people.’ University-based historians working in Australian history are fast learning the truth of Mann’s little dictum. In schools and universities and in the community’s general knowledge, history has lost a lot of ground. ‘History has contrived somehow to end up in its own dustbin,’ writes Don Watson, ‘yet history is nothing less than the whole human drama and it is pretty well anything we want it to be. To make it boring and irrelevant is a phenomenal achievement and one for which the history profession has to take a lot of the credit.’
Watson was aware of the inhospitable climate – a marketplace where a ‘million other stories furiously compete’, an education sphere where ‘narrow vocationalism rules the roost’, and a ‘postmodern world in which the past seems increasingly irrelevant’. His emphasis on the discipline’s own failure seems right to me, but begs the question – how has this happened? Here’s one answer – the first sentence of Tom Keneally’s Commonwealth of Thieves (Doubleday, 2005), visualising the journey of the First Fleet: ‘If, in the New Year of 1788, the eye of God had strayed from the main games of Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa, and idled over the huge vacancy of sea to the south-east of Africa, it would have been surprised in this empty zone to see not one, but all of eleven ships being driven east on the screaming band of westerlies.’ The narrator on God’s own cloud, imperial dramas, a vast emptiness, eleven specks upon the sea, the caprice, thrill and threat of the screaming westerlies, the beginning (we know) of a considerable story with serial invitations to our own imagining – perhaps not the most original trope, but all in one eminently readable sentence. In short, one reason history is in its own dustbin is the lack of narrative skill. But this is not the main problem – that precedes the writing.
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