Category Archives: Historians

Contesting Australian History: A Festschrift for Marilyn Lake

lake

Strictly speaking, a  ‘festschrift‘ is a book of essays written by colleagues and students that is presented to an honorable person, generally an academic, during their lifetime. Well in this case, the collection of essays may come later in the form of a special edition of History Australia, because the main event here was a two-day celebration of Marilyn Lake’s career and writing at the beautiful 1888 building at the University of Melbourne. What a line-up! Even though I’ve only read a few of Lake’s works, and she wouldn’t recognize me at all, I couldn’t resist hearing such eminent historians responding to the wide range of issues upon which Marilyn Lake has written, held over two days in my own home town!

Marilyn Lake is an Australian historian whose work has spanned the homefront response to WWI (both at the time and recently), feminism and gender, and the White Australia Policy. Her book Drawing the Global Colour Line, co-written with Henry Reynolds, is a major contribution to transnational history internationally and here in Australia. She is a fearless public intellectual, most notably after the Age published an abridged version of the public lecture ‘The Myth of ANZAC’ that she delivered in 2009.  In the bitter and highly personalized response to her book, one angry male writer asked her “What have you ever done for Australia?” Well, this festschrift was a resounding answer – even if he wasn’t there to hear it.

Different speakers took various approaches to the festschrift task.  Some spoke about Marilyn herself and their own relationship with her.  Others engaged with her main academic interests and publications. Some spoke about their own research, and Marilyn’s influence on their own work. Others paid tribute to her as public historian, course convenor, research partner and supervisor. Continue reading

Vale Inga Clendinnen: Re-reading’Tiger’s Eye’

clendinnen2016

I began writing this review of Tigers Eye the other night, after re-reading it for my bookgroup. I was working on it last night, and I wondered how Inga Clendinnen was faring, knowing that she had been in poor health (but still mentally feisty) for some time.  Little did I know then that she had died that very day.  Inga Clendinnen is the historian who influenced me more than any other. I have read much of her work, all before I started writing this blog (Ambivalent Conquests;  Aztecs: an Interpretation; Reading the Holocaust;  True Stories (Boyer lectures); The History Question; Agamemnon’s Kiss and Dancing with Strangers.)  But her presence is here in my blog, in the only book of hers that I have reviewed since (In Search of the ‘Actual Man Underneath‘) and, more importantly, as the lodestar that has guided my perception of other histories written by other historians. I met her only once in recent years (and was so overcome that I was barely coherent!) but my respect for her is unbounded and my debt to her incalculable.  Vale, Inga Clendinnen.

***************

tigerseye

2001, 289 p.

 

So this is what I have been doing all this time- by courtesy of a physiological malfunction, taking a journey out, beyond and around myself, and into interior territories previously closed to me.  At the end of it, battered, possibly wiser, certainly wearier and, oddly, happier, I have returned to where I began: to history, with a deepened sense of what peculiar creatures we are, you and I, making our marks on paper, puzzling over the past and the present doings of our species, pursuing our peculiar passion for talking with strangers. (p. 289)

I first read Inga Clendinnen’s book Tiger’s Eye  in 2003 and it changed my life. I had been ill for about three years, able to only work part time, and after reading this beautifully written reflection on illness, memory and writing, I decided that I wanted to return to uni and my first academic love- history. I think that I could confidently say that you wouldn’t be reading this review on this blog if I had not read this book (oh dear, it all sounds a bit too Pauline Hansonish.) Before re-reading it for my bookgroup this month, I would have said that Tiger’s Eye was ‘about’  Clendinnen’s response to her illness.  Returning to it, I find it a much different book to that which I remembered, combining experiments in fiction, memoir and an exploration of the nature of memory.

So who is Inga Clendinnen? After commencing her academic career at the University of Melbourne, Inga Clendinnen was a history lecturer at ‘my’ university, La Trobe, between 1969 and 1989.  I had forgotten completely, until reminded by a friend, that she was the lecturer on the Mexican Revolution in Revolutions IA, the first history subject I did as an undergraduate in 1974. Along with Greg Dening, Donna Merwick and Rhys Isaac she became known as part of a group of historians dubbed the ‘Melbourne school’ by anthropologist Clifford Geertz.  Common to this group of historians is the practice of thick description, reflexivity, a deep reading of events and individuals’ responses, and a celebration of the act of writing. It is the type of history I admire and enjoy most. Clendinnen’s specialization was Mesoamerican studies, most particularly Aztec culture, but she is probably best known  in Australia for her works Reading the Holocaust and most recently Dancing with Strangers.

“Illness made me a writer” she says at the end of this book (p. 288). I think that she’s underselling her own earlier writing, but certainly Tiger’s Eye is an exploration of writing outside the history genre, while still drawing on the historian’s skills.  Ill in hospital, feeling trapped, helpless and under surveillance, she remembered a childhood story about a wizard who looked through the eyes of various animals- wolves, jaguars, ants- to see the world from their perspective.  On hearing the rumble of a tiger from the nearby Melbourne Zoo, she adopted the tiger’s eye as her motif:

… I too was in a cage, with feeding times and washing times and bars at the sides of my cot, and people coming to stare and prod, but the kaleidoscope of the horror of helplessness ceased to turn because I withdrew my consent from it.  Thereafter, whenever I felt the threat of the violation of self, I would invoke the vision of the tiger and the freedom that vision gave me, to be at once the superb gaze, and the object of the gaze: an incident in a tiger landscape. (p. 21)

She directs her gaze towards herself as patient, telling the story of the progression of her illness, observing her fellow patients and recounting the steps towards the liver transplant that halted her decline. She spends a considerable time ( perhaps a little too much time?)  recounting the hallucinations that electrified her befuddled post-surgical consciousness.  Once their vividness had abated, she realized that the hallucinations wove together memory and sensation from her own childhood and experience.  Much of the book is devoted to unpicking these experiences, testing the robustness of memory as a factual as distinct from emotional construct, and knitting her experiences up again into fictional experiments.

More of the book than I remembered is turned over to exploring – or as she puts it- ‘reading’ her parents.  Here I find myself conflicted.  I’ve commented on several occasions recently in this blog about my discomfort with children ploughing their parents’ lives, wanting to uncover the ‘real’ man or woman inhabiting the carapace of the parent figure. Clendinnen certainly does this, particularly with her mother, and her judgment is harsh. She directly links her curiosity over her mother, in particular, with her later career as historian:

… I can see that my pursuit of her has been a lifetime activity; that my early fascination with her impenetrability, and my pleasure in that impenetrability, has a great deal to do with my long happy life as a historian spent in pursuit of other more distant,less impervious impenetrabilities. … Now, when I am not many years younger than she was when she died, I am still sifting my handfuls of sand, still trying to make them stand and hold a shape I could call ‘my mother’. And still, for all my gatherings and pattings, she continues to fall apart like a sand lady.  If she is on the beach at all she is a mirage, an eye-baffling dazzle fleeing before me, receding faster than I can run. (p. 237, 238)

I was also surprised to find, on re-reading this book, how seriously she grappled with the issue of fiction-writing versus history writing.  This was, of course, the juxtaposition that roared into life in her argument with Kate Grenville over the writing of The Secret River, and which Clendinnen explored in more detail in her Quarterly Essay The History Question. But it’s here in this book too, five years earlier, as Clendinnen experiments with the two genres, finally admitting an element of defeat:

After years of doing it I think I am beginning to understand the work of writing history- the how of it, the why of it- but I still don’t understand the work of writing fiction.  There is a Spanish saying of which I am unreasonably fond: ‘No hay reglas,.’ ‘There are no rules here.’  That is the way fiction seems to me.  If there are rules, I don’t know them.

Engagement with professional history imposes rules.  One of those rules is that we must represent our chosen people as justly and completely as we are able.  We must try to understand them, and for that we need a supple imagination, but that is imagination’s only role.  With history I am bound like Gulliver by a thousand gossamers: epistemologically to the deceitful, accidental record, morally to the dead men and women I have chosen to re-present, and to the living men and women I want to read my words and to trust them. (p.244)

Finally, in re-reading Tiger’s Eye I was stopped again and again by the sheer beauty and power of her writing.  Here’s her description of visiting her aunt’s outhouse at night:

I liked the outhouse best on moonlit nights, because then the moonlight would come slicing through the slim black gumleaves like hard silver rain. (p.59)

Here, in one of her fictional pieces, is a mother putting on lipstick to visit her sister:

…she would draw her stumpy lipstick straight across her stretched lips and rub them hard together, so that when they showed again they were red with little spikes of deeper red running out along the wrinkles…(p96)

And in the same story, an unnerving description of an aunt’s ‘little game’ that mixes sensuality, intimacy and transgression.  The mother and her daughter visited Aunt Lall, who was bed-bound:

…sooner or later my mother would say she would die without a cup of tea and she would whisk out…and while she was out of the room Auntie Lall and I would do our secret thing.  She’d give me a little nod and a wink, and I’d climb up onto the bed, carefully, so I wouldn’t joggle her legs, and she’d take my hands into her warm soft ones and lace her fingers tightly with mine so our palms pressed together and I’d feel the hard bands of her rings…Then she’d slide the rings off, the ones that could still come off, and spin them on my fingers, and give the tip of each of my fingers a little kiss.  They were marvellous rings, heavy ones, old, all of them gold, with rubies and diamonds studded all round them. She’d stack them on my thumbs, raise her pencilled eyebrows and laugh silently, and I’d trace the pencilled line along the line of bone to the puckered skin and the harsh orange-red hair at her temple, and she would lift my limp hair away from my forehead as if it were precious.  As if it were beautiful.

We would do all these things silently, listening to my mother banging about in the kitchen.  Then the kettle would scream and the boiling water would crash into the teapot and I’d slide back into my chair just as my mother came in and banged down the tray so that the milk flew out of the jug and the teaspoons trembled… Carnal knowledge.  Whenever I come across that phrase now I think of Auntie Lall, because carnal knowledge was what she taught me: that there is a special love which sleeps in the flesh, and that special fingertips can waken it. (p. 104)

And so, on re-reading Tiger’s Eye, I find it a different book to what I remembered.  I’m perhaps more critical of the ‘Reading Mr Robinson’ section which takes up a large part of the book, now that I, too, have read Mr Robinson.  I can see the emergent shape of the Kate Grenville dispute, and I am surprised that so much of this book is fictional writing. But most of all, I celebrate Clendinnen’s artistry as a writer, thinker and historian: one of the best ones I know.

aww2016

I have included this book towards my tally on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016

 

 

 

Vale John Hirst

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Australian historian John Hirst died on 5th February.

I remember seeing his name on his door in the history department when I first did undergraduate history at La Trobe in the 1970s, but I sailed through a B. A. without encountering him.  It was to Dr Hirst that I had to make application, forty years later, when I decided to return to university after a prolonged period of ill-health, determined to do something that I really wanted to do instead of working in a cut-down capacity in my present job. I had addressed my email of inquiry to “Dear Dr Hirst”, and as he opened the door to his office he exclaimed “I knew you’d be a mature-aged student! None of this ‘Dear John’ stuff!”  Dear John was, however, rather stringent in admitting me to the post-grad program at La Trobe, with his eagle-eye detecting the single ‘C’ mark in second-year history back in 1974 (given to me, ironically enough, by the lecturer I ended up working for as a research assistant some years later!) in amongst a CV that included good results in many other post-grad courses.  He enrolled me in an honours course, just to see how I went, and had the grace to quickly waive the requirement after the first assessment task.  By that time, however, I no longer wanted to leave the honours class. I had enrolled in a readings course with John, and I ‘grew up’ as a historian in the six months I sat in his tutorial room.

We read one Australian history book a week, starting with colonial history through to a range of ‘shist’ (Short History) compilations.  I learned to read for the overarching argument as well as detail, to uncover assumptions, to weigh evidence, to notice structure.  Some of my fellow students flagged a bit at one book per week, but I loved it.

I went on to tutor for John in his final presentation of first year Colonial History before retiring from lecturing- a subject he had taught for many years and had honed well.  Each lecture was a tightly woven argument, with none of this trailing-off half finished because time had got away.  You came out, not necessarily agreeing with him (in fact, I often did not agree with him), but having witnessed a historical argument being constructed, and supported, in front of your eyes. At the end of semester, I mentioned to the students how fortunate they had been to have had him, and I sat at the back of the room, proud of these 19 and 20 year-olds who spontaneously gave him a standing ovation at the end of the last lecture.

John wanted me- he wanted all his postgrad students – to write big history, and I’m afraid that I probably disappointed him in that regard.  John had a long-standing interest in the Australian character, republicanism and the democracy of manners.  In recent years as ‘John Hirst’, rather than ‘J. B. Hirst’, he moved out of academe into the public sphere, where he published a number of books under the Black Inc impress.  Although some of his recent books combined span with brevity (e.g. The Shortest History of Europe) several of his other recent publications  were compilations or reworkings of articles he had written in academic journals over the years, and were marked by his trademark punchiness in both language and logic.  He argued with his brain, without rancour or oneupmanship.

I did a search of this blog under ‘Hirst’ to see how many of his books I had reviewed. There was only one, Convict Society and its Enemies, but many, many posts came up where I had referred to him by name.  His own work in Australian colonial history was big history, even though in his chapter-length articles the canvas he worked on may have seemed to be small.  He influenced me deeply as a historian, even though I found his politics frustratingly difficult to pigeon-hole.  He was a man of the mind and  generous in his attention.  Vale, John.

‘In My Mother’s Hands’ by Biff Ward

ward_biff

2014, 288p.

Look carefully at that front cover. A well-dressed, attractive woman stands in front of a suburban house, her hair permed, in a stylish dress with white gloves.  Those gloves are important: they encase the gouged, ravaged hands of Biff Ward’s mother Margaret.  Despite the nostalgia-infused image of Margaret Ward on the cover, this is the story of a troubled and desperate woman and mother, told by her daughter.

Biff ( a childhood rendering of ‘Elizabeth’) Ward is the daughter of Russel Ward, the noted Australian historian who wrote The Australian Legend. This book was a hugely influential study of the Australian Character (the question that keeps on giving), published more than fifty years ago. Although perhaps not so well known today, The Australian Legend and its author were examined anew at a symposium in 2007 (proceedings found in the Journal of Australian Colonial History 10.2 (2008) with a summary here) and re-addressed each year through the Russel Ward Annual Lecture  (see Babette Smith’s lecture here)

Although Biff’s memoir focusses on her mother, it is just as much a study of her father and of the family dynamics that operated when dealing with mental illness, shame and fear in the context of  the 1950s and 1960s. Biff and her brother Mark had always known of the existence of an earlier child, Alison, who had died at the age of four months,but the conditions surrounding Alison’s death were murky. What was clear, though, was that their mother Margaret was a deeply disturbed woman.  Those gloved hands, torn and rubbed raw by Margaret herself, also throttled Biff as Margaret crept to her younger daughter’s bedside one night, and it was when Margaret threatened the lives of her two remaining children while her husband was absent at a conference, that Russel Ward finally had her committed. Although Biff felt that they were dealing with the nightmare of their mother’s illness in secrecy,  many people were aware of it, as Biff herself recognizes later.  In reading a short story ‘Friends in Perspective’ published by Gwen Kelly in a Meanjin article  in 1990 (available for Victorian readers through SLV), Biff realizes that  both Russel and Margaret were the topic of gossip and judgment throughout the small academic communities at ANU in Canberra and UNE in New England.  She has the maturity and grace to recognize that the academic wives may well have been reaching out to her mother as well, instead of just gossiping about her.

She captures small university-town life well, and places her father within the academic milieu of the  communist-phobic 1950s and 1960s.  She draws on Russel Ward’s own letters to his parents and sisters that documented Margaret’s progress, and to a lesser degree on Ward’s own autobiography which largely elides Alison’s death and Margaret’s illness. I found it interesting to read about the smallness of the Australian History fraternity at the time, and the intellectual isolation of local academics in a  world where international conferences and networks were luxuries.

Biff did not write this memoir until both her parents had died. She is well aware that she is exposing her mother, and perhaps from a sense of moral even-handedness, she exposes her father’s sexual addiction as well. Even writing as an adult, as Biff does, it is impossible to tease out cause and effect in this addiction, but it does raise the issue of omission in memoir. Is there more? or less? of an imperative to reveal the flaws of a public figure, as distinct from someone unknown? (I’m reminded here of journalist Laurie Oakes’ exposure of politican Cheryl Kernot’s extramarital affair when she omitted it in her own autobiography).  Although Ward’s revelations about both parents are startling, the tone is wistful rather than vindictive, and while she censures both parents at times, her compassion shines through.

There’s a fairly lengthy extract from the book here, which will give you a taste of the easy  narrative that, at the same time, reveals so much darkness and pain. You’ll spend quite some time turning to that image on the front cover.

Other reviews:

Sue at Whispering Gums and Jonathan at Me Fail? I Fly! have written sensitive reviews of this book

aww2016 I’ve reviewed this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2016.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book . Read in one sitting on an international flight!

 

‘When it Rains’ by Maggie Mackellar

Whenitrains

2010, 223 p

Right at the end of this book the author, Maggie Mackellar, tells us what she has set out to do:

At times I feel like a voyeur in my own life.  What right do I have to portray these events, to try to place them in a frame I might understand?  I return to the question asked by Anne Carson of Euripides’ tragedies: why is tragedy so important as an art form?  Her answer brings me up against my own terrible truth. Tragedy is important because it enables us to imagine our own reactions in a dark well of horror.  It lets us watch others suffer.  By watching, we are prepared. By watching, we place a frame around our world and pace its boundaries.  We guard against unknown horrors that call to us from beyond our walls.  I watch so that I might know, and write so I might be understood. But my terrible truth is that no matter how carefully I place that frame, no matter how deeply I dive under the sea, I will never really understand why. (p216)

As readers, we have been watching a tragedy unfold as this young widow, historian, mother, daughter packs up her Sydney life and academic career to return to her grandmother’s home in a small outbook town with her two young children. She has come undone with grief.  Her husband  had committed suicide, four years earlier, leaving her with a five year old daughter and an unborn son.  Her husband (for this is how she refers to him throughout)  had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, when he absconded and killed himself. She had been many miles away, unable to reach him in the depths of his illness and frightened by his violence. Her mother was there for the birth of now father-less child, and it was her mother who taught her to love her new baby:

It was my mother’s hands that received my baby boy as he slipped from my body. She held him and sang to him, her hands firm around him, swaddled him, patted him, learnt him…. It was a relief to let her hold him.  To watch her loving him. I followed her lead.  This baby, whom I’d sheltered and who’d grown stronger within me even as his father’s mind was splintering; this baby, who was my constant companion through trauma and despair, had finally arrived. I didn’t fall for him as instantly as I did for Lottie…. In the end it was my mother who taught me to love him.  She held him high, she held him to her.  (p. 17)

Then suddenly her mother died, struck down by a fast-moving cancer.  Her grief for her mother’s death was not alloyed by anger and a sense of betrayal as her response to her husband’s death had been.  Her mother’s presence and assistance had been the rope that tethered her to the semblance of a career and single motherhood, and with the cutting of that connection, it just all became too hard: the child-care, the teaching, the marking, the academic hamster-wheel. She took leave of absence from her job and eventually resigned, knowing the significance of turning her back on a job as an early-career researcher and lecturer at Sydney Uni.

She returns to her grandparent’s pastoral property in Central Western New South Wales, her mother’s childhood home and a place that has happy memories for her.  Her aunt and uncle have taken over the farm, and she knits herself into small-town country life with the  primary school, the Tuesday Ladies tennis club, sheep, tractors, horses, dogs, chooks and snakes.  In many ways she is fortunate: she steps back into an extended family network; she has the financial resources to take the children to Europe for seven weeks for a holiday (brave lady!) and academic projects seem to come to her, instead of having to seek them out.

Her outback country life is juxtaposed against her memories of a six-month trip she and her husband took to Alaska when she was twenty-three years old and unexpectedly pregnant.  They had rock-climbed and kayaked in the wilderness, then lived for three months in a tiny shack outside a small Alaskan town. It had been a “shape-altering” trip that underscored her husband’s physicality as they talked about the future, study, life with a small child.  And now, as she watches their children fit into their new life in the red dust of the NSW outback, without him there, Alaska seems very far away.

The blurb on the back of the book describes her as “a brilliant new talent”, but I’d met her on the page before and even blogged unwittingly about her here.  She talks about her academic work, and I know the SLV manuscript room that she describes and, because I’m a historian of the Port Phillip district, I know of the people she’s researching.  She brings her skills as historian and academic to this memoir as well.  She tells us that

After he died, I sought clarity by writing in strict chronological order the events that led to his death.  I took each day, sketched its beginnings and end, recalled each mood, read into every silence some sort of message.  I wanted to trace the trajectory of his breakdown, to look for clues about spaces into which I could have stepped and saved him.  I wanted his past to speak to me.  As I wrote, what emerged was not clarity, nor understanding, nor peace; what was left was a chaotic scrawl filled with pain- and, looking back, an inevitable end (p. 5)

In this book, she has left strict chronological order behind and instead spirals around her story. The book is written as a series of short chapters, mostly in the present tense, that read a bit like newspaper columns in that each one seems self-contained with apparent closure in the final paragraph of each one.  But you turn the page, and still it goes on – just as she must.  As one chapter follows another chapter, she is still circling warily around her pain but gradually stepping away from it as well.  The academic is always there, making connections with other writers and literature, and her observation that she is a “voyeur in her own life” is apt.  There is much pain here, but there’s a detachment and abstraction as well.  A memoir is a construction, and I was very aware of the layers in this beautifully written, honest, intelligent book.

awwbadge_2014 I guess I’m still doing this Challenge although I’ve probably reached my target by now.  Nonetheless, I’ll still post my review to the Australian Women’s Writing Challenge.

Looking back at a historian looking forward

I had reason today to winkle out a reference drawing parallels between convictism and slavery.  It wasn’t difficult: several historians have written on the topic, and one of them was K. M. Dallas.

The name sounded familiar.  Then I remembered that  in The Tyranny of Distance Geoffrey Blainey had cited a lecture given to “a small, sceptical audience in Hobart in 1952”  by K. M. Dallas that “brilliantly probed” the mystery of why England decided to send convicts to the other side of the world. Dallas argued that Botany Bay had been intended as a maritime base for four promising trades: tea from China  via the Cape of Good Hope (thereby avoiding the pirate-infested straits near Sumatra); otter pelts from north-west America; whaling in the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, and a bit of quiet dabbling in smuggling and privateering in the Spanish trade that linked the Phillipines, Mexico and South America.  A fifth potential prize might have been the disruption of the Dutch monopoly of trade in the East Indies.   It’s an argument that appeals to me in its scope, and certainly Geoffrey Blainey took it up in his widely-published book.

So, having remembered who K. M. Dallas was,  I looked more closely at the article I downloaded today “Slavery in Australia – convicts, emigrants, Aborigines” from 1968.  It, too, is a wide-ranging article that explores different aspects of forced labour across the British Empire: the hulks moored in the Thames and sent to Bermuda to provide labour for naval improvements; pauper emigration to Canada, Newfoundland and New South Wales, and the forced labour of Aboriginal women by sealers (a view challenged recently by Lynette Russell- my review here) and Aboriginal men under a scheme of pastoral employment bounty.  It struck me that this is transnational history, decades before its time.

So who was K. M. Dallas?  His ADB entry tells me that his name was Kenneth McKenzie Dallas, and that he was born in Tasmania in 1902.  He became a teacher and taught in one-teacher schools while studying a commerce degree. He became a tutor for the Workers Educational Association, which was at that time associated with the University of Tasmania.  His ADB entry notes that

Dallas embodied the ideal WEA type: while of an intellectual cast, he focused on the action of social and economic forces. His discourse was always positive and informed, often enthralling, sometimes overbearing.

Always leftish in his politics, he moved further left with the burgeoning of fascism. His historical prescience deserted him in 1937 when he conducted the opening meeting at the New Norfolk Workers Educational Association.   There’s an article titled ‘Is War Coming? Not Inevitable says K. M. Dallas‘ in the Hobart Mercury of 23 June 1937

Mr. Dallas said that he was not sufficiently pessimistic to feel that another world war was inevitable. Imperialism had undergone a great change in the past 50 years. He felt that the Imperialistic spirit was passing, and that war would pass with it.

Among the forces making for war at present was the assumption that war was inevitable. There were also the war objectives of the Fascist Powers, which were backed by official announcements. Against the forces of war were the development of an organised will to peace, and the building up of peace as a political policy. People would enter the next war with their eyes open. He believed that, even assuming that the German and Italian Governments provoked war, they were not in a position to go to war at present. From the material point of view, those nations likely to provoke war were least equipped for that purpose, and in the circumstances he felt that a world war was most unlikely.

How tragically wrong he was.  He joined the Royal Australian Navy, saw action in the Mediterranean and took part in the first wave at Normandy.  On his return to Australia, he resumed his academic career as a lecturer in economics, encouraging and forming friendships with socially conscious undergraduates including Polish migrants and Asian students.   He was a member of the Australasian Book Society, and he enjoyed European films (surely a rarified taste in 1950s & 60s Tasmania?). He supported the Labor club at the university and the Australian Peace Council, but despite an adverse ASIO assessment  that refused him a passport (quickly overturned by Menzies), he was not a member of the Communist Party.

However, this did not prevent an exchange of letters in July-August 1950  in the Tasmanian Mercury where, after a funeral,  he was publicly challenged by a ‘Lesley Murdoch’ to declare whether he was a communist or not.  The resultant kerfuffle (here , here , here  and here) was prodded along by Dallas’ rather provocatively timed letter to the editor about the Korean War.  The interchange carried out in the columns of the Tasmanian Mercury reminds us of the perils of politically contentious views in a small community, even in the days of a less ubiquitous social media.

Unlike many other academics, he did not support Sydney Sparkes Orr, the professor of philosophy, when he was dismissed from the University of Tasmania.  This stance isolated him from many of his colleagues, but perhaps time has vindicated him in this too, with the publication of Cassandra Pybus’ Gross Moral Turpitude in 1999

I’m a bit put off by the description of him as “overbearing”, but I think that he wouldn’t be out of place at a history conference today.  Transnationalism, networks, environmentalism (he wrote a book on water)- he’d have plenty to say. Certainly, his ideas are interesting, and must have come (literally) from left field fifty years ago.

References:

[You may need to login to  a State or university library to access the articles]

Dallas, K. M. The first settlement in Australia considered in relation to sea-power in world politics [online]. Papers and Proceedings: Tasmanian Historical Research Association No. 3, 1952: 4-12.

Dallas, K. M. Slavery in Australia – convicts, emigrants, Aborigines [online]. Papers and Proceedings: Tasmanian Historical Research Association , Vol. 16, No. 2, Sept 1968: 61-76.

Dallas, K. M. The Origins of White Australia The Australian Quarterly  Vol 27, No 1 (March 1955) 43-55

Geoffrey Blainey The Tyranny of Distance  Sydney, Macmillan, 2001 p. 23-4

‘Connecting’ at the masterclass

Well, now I can tell you what happens at a masterclass!  There were about eighteen or so participants, drawn from universities across Australia, but the majority were from the University of Tasmania. The masterclass was hosted by Penny Edmonds from the University of Tasmania,  and several Uni of Tasmania academics attended including Anna Johnston (who wrote The Paper Wars which I reviewed here), Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Kristyn Harman, whose book Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles recently won the Kay Daniels award.

But the major drawcard, for me at least, was the presence of  Dr. Zoe Laidlaw, Reader in British Imperial and Colonial History at Royal Holloway, University of London. Continue reading