2009, 254 p plus notes.
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for some of the concept discussions for this book, published by the University of New South Wales press. It takes a similar format to a preceding volume by the same editors which looked at Great Mistakes of Australian history. I find myself wondering whether the editors themselves pitched the idea, or whether it sprang from a marketing initiative of UNSW Press. For there is certainly an ambivalence about the whole endeavour as even the back cover blurb indicates:
This exciting and stimulating book examines turning points and crucial moments in Australian history. Rather than arguing that there have been forks on a pre-determined road, the book challenges us to think about other paths or better paths that might have led to different outcomes. It shows that a decisive event often only becomes so only in retrospect and that what seemed like a major turning point at the time often had no real impact at all.
I’m not sure that the book is as conditional and ‘if only’ or ‘what if’ as the blurb suggests. Instead, its chapters are structured as fairly straight narratives on a particular event with, except for two chapters (Chs. 1 and 13) , a specific month and year identified as the ‘turning point’.
1. 14000 BP. On Being Alone: The isolation of the Tasmanians by Iain Davidson and David Andrew Roberts
2. 26th January 1788: The Arrival of the First Fleet and the ‘Foundation of Australia’ by David Andrew Roberts
3. 19 June 1822: Creating ‘an Object of Real Terror’: The tabling of the first Bigge Report by Raymond Evans
4. 15 July 1851: Hargreaves Discovers Gold at Ophir: Australia’s ‘golden age’ by Keir Reeves
5. 16 August 1890: The Maritime Strike Begins: On upotia and ‘class war’ by Melissa Bellanta
6. 1 January 1901: Australia Federates, Australia Celebrates by Erin Ihde
7. 25 April 1915: Australian Troops Land at Gallipoli: Trial, trauma and the ‘birth of the nation’ by Martin Crotty
8. 10 June 1931: The Premiers’ Plan and the Great Depression: High politics and everyday life in an economic crisis by Erik Eklund
9. 27th December 1941: Prime Minister Curtin’s New Year Message: Australia ‘looks to America’ by David Day
10. 16 September 1956: ‘It’s here, at last!’ The introduction of television in Australia by Michelle Arrow
11. January 1961: The Release of the Pill: Contraceptive technology and the ‘sexual revolution’ by Frank Bongiorno
12. 27 May 1967: The 1967 Referendum: An uncertain consensus by Russell McGregor
13. 1970: When it Changed: The beginnings of women’s liberation in Australia by Susan Magarey
14. 26 January 1981 The Opening of the Australian Institute of Sport: The Government takes control of the national pastime by Brett Hutchins
15. I July 1983 Saving the Franklin River: The environment takes centre stage by Melissa Harper
16. 14 May 1986 Paul Keating’s ‘Banana Statement’ and the End of the ‘Golden Age’ by Ray Broomhill.
17. 26 August -11 September 2001: From Tampa to 9/11: Seventeen days that changed Australia by Robert Manne.
There’s some very familiar names amongst the historians here- they have been chosen well. But in several of the chapters you sense a real ambivalence with the whole project. The concept being written about often spills out of a chronological strait-jacket, and the selection of an arbitrary date obviously leaves several of the authors feeling quite uncomfortable. More than one author questions whether it’s really a turning point at all, or whether the concept of a turning point is even valid or useful. The editors themselves raise this question in the introduction, and in this radio segment about the book.
The chapters are fairly uniform in length, and while not formulaic, tend to follow a pattern of ‘what happened’ then some analysis of the aptness of the designation ‘turning point’ for the event in question. With the exception perhaps, of Susan Magarey’s chapter, you don’t really get a sense of the distinctive writing style or methodology of the authors’ other work. The frequent use of inverted commas (‘golden age’ ,’class war’, ‘sexual revolution’) in many of the chapter titles reflects the rebuttal of popularly-received myths, images and understandings of the events described.
The particular selection of ‘turning points’ (or not) tells us just as much about 2009 as it does about the events under consideration. I wonder if a similar book, written 50 years hence will feature the same events- I suspect not. Many of the chapters discuss parallels between current events and the ‘turning point’, which of course adds to its appeal today and its quaintness tomorrow.
I find myself wondering who the intended audience is for this book- well, me for a start, I suppose. The tenor of the book seems to have been written simultaneously to feed on, and yet resist, the ‘just stick to what happened’ continuous narrative genre that has become associated with John Howard’s attempt to rewrite the history curriculum for schools. I enjoyed it in small grabs, a chapter here and a chapter there, much as I might read essays in a magazine. I learnt things I didn’t know; I found myself curling a skeptical lip over the inclusion of some events at times (for example, on the Australian Institute of Sport chapter which, while making an interesting link with the Cold War, didn’t make a very convincing case for its inclusion as a ‘turning point’. ) It’s a bit like eavesdropping on an interesting conversation with informed, thinking people who have considered a phenomenon more deeply than you have, and are able to place an issue into a broader historical context. The research is sound; the arguments are well-put but it is a book of its time, so read it now, while it’s still fresh!