In Paris, I saw Mitterrand at his last public meeting before the 1981 French presidential election: he won. All I understood was the clenched fist and red rose on the posters. Before he moved into the Élysée Palace I was back in Sydney. In six years Australia had changed: I had changed. I had missed the Dismissal, and the sexual revolution. Women had changed from good companions to feminists. I was out of touch, there was a blank in my memory for the years away. When I renewed my passport at the Algiers embassy they spoke fearfully of razor gangs in Canberra—I imagined a Sweeney Todd crime wave. The passport they gave me was handwritten: border police always found it interesting.
I wanted to reconnect. I found a job. Places I remembered had disappeared. I met Margaret Whitlam, sort of. At a performance of the Sydney Dance Company’s Poppy (it seemed dated) I headed at interval for the bar. Diving into the crowd I surfaced in the middle of a circle of queens and a Large Person as one queen said, “Margaret, I’d like you to meet …” and gestured in my direction. Mrs Whitlam looked at i: i looked at Mrs Whitlam. The circle opened, I bravely dog-paddled onwards to my drink—which restored my capitalisation. Later her husband was at an art opening in Woolloomooloo. It was a hot night and the gallery was packed. The great man, there to do the opening, was sitting at the end of the room and we all shoved forward to get a view. No one bothered with the paintings. He was red-cheeked (very) and looking peevish (very). I saw the homo-erotic Gallipoli that year. No one talked about Vietnam any more or was concerned we had helped a communist terror regime into power. In my quest for connection, I read Manning Clark. If I had also read Ernest Renan I would have asked, “What is our nation?”
This essay appears in Quadrant‘s November edition.
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Bad history is infectious: I sickened myself with Clark. I believed the hype and believed he was the country’s leading historian—academics at the time would have laughed. I too might have thought otherwise if I had gone on to read Claudio Veliz on the fourth volume of his history in Quadrant (May 1982)—it’s titled “Bad History”. Much later I read the essay that caused all the trouble, “Manning Clark” by Peter Ryan (Quadrant, September 1993). But when I opened Clark I didn’t read his books but a slim ABC publication called A Discovery of Australia. It was the text of the Boyer Lectures he gave in 1976. At the time you found copies in all bookshops. Manning Clark was, in the words of Joseph Fouché on the Marquis de Lafayette, “a monument in search of a pedestal”. Today his Canberra house may remain but his memory is ghostly and the great work is unopened on library shelves. In volume one of Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History he has one index entry, seemingly one more than he has received in the collected works of Henry Reynolds. At the time I read his lectures I was deeply influenced.
What I picked up from the historian, and carried around for some years, was not his narrative of people and events but a flawed and quite false sensibility or impression of our past and our country. From Clark, who likes the phrase “fatal flaw”, I learnt our forebears drafted “a constitution which moored us all securely in the past”. At the time I probably did not understand this reference when he wrote, “To me it was rather depressing that in December 1949 when one third of the world was marching forwards we chose to stand still.” Only later did I realise he was praising the unfortunate third of the world being forced under guard into the hell of Mao’s China while denigrating us who, while standing still, were entering a period of stability and economic progress as Menzies defeated Chifley at the ballot box. His Whitlam love was much clearer to understand: “It was even more depressing in December 1975 when we showed the world that we did not mind very much if someone turned the clock back.”
I was being infected with a very contemporary form of cultural deconstruction. A negative statement like this lodged in my mind: “From the coming of the First Fleet in January 1788 to the middle of the nineteenth century, most men of sensibility were dismayed when they first saw Australia.” This also stayed with me: “The attitude of the Europeans to the appearance of our country has a very long history. It begins with that first cry of horror and disappointment of the Dutch seamen.”
If I had read Watkin Tench describing his first view of New South Wales in 1788 my recovery might have come sooner:
The wind was now fair, the sky serene, though a little hazy, and the temperature of the air delightfully pleasant: joy sparkled in every countenance, and congratulations issued from every mouth. Ithaca itself was scarcely more longed for by Ulysses, than Botany Bay by the adventurers who had traversed so many thousand miles to take possession of it.
Back then I did not notice the inconsistencies in Clark’s short text, such as the return of those same horrified Dutch navigators when he first had the idea of writing a history of Australia: “Then, for a brief moment there was a wave of ecstasy as the idea leapt into the mind: there must have been a similar moment of excitement when those Dutch and English sailors first saw Australia.” Sources are tortured to tell Clark’s special history:
The English naturalist Charles Darwin was so appalled in January 1836 by the “useless sterility” of the country, the “extreme uniformity in the character of the vegetation” and the bark of the trees hanging dead in long shreds which swung about in the wind, making the woods so desolate and untidy, that when he left our country he wrote in his diary that he did so “without sorrow or regret”.
Selectively quoting from Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, he was careful not to fully quote the departing naturalist:
Farewell, Australia! you are a rising child, and doubtless some day will reign a great princess in the South: but you are too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect. I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.
Explorer Charles Sturt also suffered: “The gallant captain, it seemed, was nursing some private hell in his heart.” Clark decided it was wife trouble:
I was reading Sturt’s journal of his overland expedition from New South Wales to South Australia, and suddenly amongst the descriptions of the dreary country through which he was passing came across another reference to the wife—that desperate hope that this time he might win her approval.
Consulting a photo of lady Sturt, taken after her husband’s death, the historian decided it captured “that expression of the woman who allowed a husband to go on and on trying to prove something to himself about himself, while she grew sadder, and sadder and sadder”. At the time of Sturt’s second expedition he wasn’t married and, of course, there is no journal reference to a waiting wife either sad or un-sad.
Reading Clark’s little book I assumed that the history he told was accurate and fact-based, but read today the following paragraph is astonishing:
By the 1870s the behaviour of both sides [black and white] sank to a new low in human callousness and brutality. Near the Palmer goldfield in Queensland in June 1875, the Aborigines butchered all members of the Fraser family. The white men took this as evidence that no matter with what unvarying kindness you treated them, you never kindled one spark of gratitude in their bosoms. The young Fraser, shattered by the murder of his mother with a tomahawk, took the old Aboriginal woman who had lived with them for some time out to the verandah, outraged her there and then dashed out her brains against the verandah post. Terrible things happened in our country.
It is Clark who has done a terrible thing to our country, and the same account appears in the fourth volume of his History. Of course, there are superficial errors. The year he gives is wrong: the massacre of the Fraser family occurred on October 27, 1857. The location is wrong: Hornet Bank, the family station, is not near the Palmer goldfield but much further south on the Upper Dawson River. He probably placed the event in June 1875 because a paragraph from the Queensland Times (June 19, 1875) recounting what had occurred almost eighteen years before is the source of his account.
Far more seriously, he has turned an Aboriginal rapist and murderer into a homicidal fourteen-year-old white boy. This is the newspaper paragraph he used; the last two sentences are the ones he has completely misrepresented:
The sooner Government makes some arrangement for blacks the better. Let an establishment be provided for them as in other colonies; otherwise we shall soon hear of massacres like the FRASERS’ or the WILLS’S. To attempt their civilisation were a childish folly, as everyone knows who has been much among them. No matter with what unvarying kindness you may treat them, you cannot kindle in their fierce bosoms one spark of gratitude. They will turn and rend you when they have the power. The young FRASER [a fourteen-year-old boy] who escaped by hiding behind a couch whilst his family were being butchered, heard the black who had been living with them for years cry out to one who was about to tomahawk Mrs FRASER, “Baal! baal! Mammy for me!” The concealed youth, of course, thought their old servant was about to save his mother, but he took the elderly matron out to the verandah, outraged her there, and dashed out her brains!
WHEN I left Australia in early 1975 I was a naive traveller. I carried with me an absolutely firm belief that I came from a good country peopled by good friendly people. When I returned something had broken and much had changed. I also found my fellow Australians naive about the world outside Australia. I had lived in Algeria, which was conquered and created by France. I had lived in buildings deserted by the population who had been French citizens living in a French département and been forced to flee and abandon everything in 1962. One million French people paid their fares to cross the Mediterranean to an unwelcoming land where they received a hateful welcome and were disdained as “colonists”. Clark seemed to be wishing the same fate upon us and all these years later the sentiments seem to be shared by our educated elites who now would answer the questions he raises with very clear responses of “Yes, yes, go away”:
I was also interested to trace whether we Europeans ever overcame the feeling of the first white invaders of this continent that they were intruders here—that between them and the spirit of the place there was never complete harmony. The Europeans came here as conquerors and subduers; in the words of the psalmists they were “but sojourners”, who would one day be sent back to the place from whence they came. The Europeans had been robbers. Would they perhaps one day be fleers? Would that be the punishment for the sins of the fathers against the first tenants of the soil in Australia—the Aborigines?
The country I lived in was not his fiction built of prejudice (his) and errors (his). I was influenced by one little book which for a time shadowed my idea of my country and our history. But I could also see that what he described was not what I saw around me.
That was a long time ago. “What is our nation?” After the Voice referendum with its crudely manipulated emotionalism and the cynical use and abuse of bad history, racial hatred and lies in an attempt to break us apart, that is a question the young are going to have to answer before the haters destroy our good country. I was an adult influenced by one bad short book. My individual recovery was painful but simple; their path is much more difficult.