The tyranny of history: Geoffrey Blainey

GEOFFREY Blainey is a more careful man these days. He edges around explosive topics such as race, wary of anything that might lead to “Blainey ignites debate” headlines. He screens his telephone callers with an answering machine and insists on being interviewed on what he calls “neutral ground”, away from his home. “Security problems,” he mutters cryptically.

He chooses the kiosk in the centre of the Fitzroy gardens and with old-world courtesy is there before the appointed time, sitting outside with the camellias and the birdsong, carrying a just-in-case umbrella for Melbourne’s spring weather. With his navy blazer, diffident manner and white-haired comb-over, he has the air of a retired country doctor or lawyer.

In fact, he is neither retired nor retiring. Australia’s most public and most controversial historian might be 70 but he has never been busier. He is chairing the national council for the centenary of Federation, writing an autobiography for Penguin, updating his classic The Tyranny of Distance and enjoying the success of his latest book, A Short History of the World, which is into its fourth reprint. Tomorrow he begins delivering the ABC’s prestigious Boyer lectures for 2001 on the theme “This land is all horizons: Australian fears and visions”.

“I think it’s a mixed blessing to give them,” he says, chuckling. “Your views may be picked up … ” And used against you? “Yes. I’m pleased to have been asked but some part of me thinks it would have been better if I hadn’t accepted them. One would like to set out one’s views in such lots as one thinks appropriate rather than in six Sundays in a row.”

The man, like his speech, is formal and reserved. He laughs, in a quiet, patrician sort of way, only when analysing how the world responds to him, like when he is asked if his lectures will be controversial: “That remains to be seen.

“I myself don’t go in for controversies. It sounds preposterous, I know, (but) I don’t go out of my way to say things that will arouse antagonism. It’s just that a lot of my views are different to other people’s views, and a lot of my views I’ve never expressed for fear of” – here comes that chuckle again – “widening the range of controversy. That’s one of the reasons I don’t talk about religion.”

There are two views on Blainey and controversy. For those who admire him as a standard-bearer of the new right, Blainey is a martyr to freedom of speech who was effectively forced out of his position as professor of history at Melbourne University in 1988 for telling unpalatable truths about race:
that multiculturalism divided and weakened society, that levels of Asian immigration were testing the limits of tolerance, that land rights for Aborigines would mean apartheid.

His critics, on the other hand, fear his remarks fueled racism and see him not as a victim of controversy but as its beneficiary. “It’s done him wonders,” says Henry Reynolds, now research professor in history at the University of Tasmania. Reynolds, who has written of the damage done to Aborigines by colonialism, holds what Blainey would call a “black armband” view of Australia’s history; Reynolds believes it better than a “white blindfold”.

Reynolds says controversy has made Blainey a household name. “He’s the darling of the right, he’s in high standing with the government, he’s been given an AC (Companion of the Order of Australia); why would anyone think it’s cost him?

“As I see it he’s highly respected and, as a member of the Melbourne Club, is a friend of many corporate leaders. He’s comfortably entrenched in the Melbourne establishment, and what better place could there be in Australia?”

Another historian, who did not wish to be named, was irritated by the suggestion that a symposium held in Blainey’s honor earlier this year could be seen as an attempt to bring him out of an intellectual gulag: “I didn’t know he was in one. He seems to me very well published, very well reviewed and to be given ample newspaper space whenever he wants it – if that’s `in the cold’…” There is no doubt, though, that in the eyes of many on the left he remains unshriven.

Blainey says that his decision to take early retirement was a good one because life on campus had become difficult and now he has more freedom to speak. Was he hurt? “I accept that if you’re standing by a hot fire you’re going to get singed.” If he had foreseen the consequences, would he have kept his mouth shut? “It’s impossible to answer, isn’t it? If I say `Yes, I wouldn’t have said anything’, you portray yourself as a coward, don’t you?”
`This land is all horizons’ is a quote from poet and journalist Mary Gilmore, who seems an unlikely hero for the conservative Blainey given that she was a socialist and a feminist. But she was also one of the most revered of the first generation of nationalist writers, and Blainey is a fervent nationalist.

He says many of the topics in his Boyer lectures, as in his books, are part-geographical. One is on the tension between conservation and earlier goals of population and national development: “In the 1950s and ’60s it was believed that we had to get a big population in order to defend the country and that the people should be widely spread to aid defence and development.

“I think the solution we’ve adopted in recent years as a nation is that large parts of tropical Australia have been almost quarantined from development by putting them as nature reserves or Aboriginal collectives. That may turn out to be a solution that the rest of the world may recognise; on the other hand, the rest of the world might say, `here’s all this space, and you’re not using it’. I’ve got another one on the divide between the city and the country … The economic grievances have been here for a long time but the cultural gap is more important. One of the gaps is that (country people) have got a different attitude to defence. The further away you live from the city the more you’re interested in defence.”

Blainey will also speak on nationalism and heroes. His lecture on the rise of the green movement (“though green is the wrong word for a country as brown as this”) has already caused some twitches at the ABC. Blainey will argue that today’s politicised greens were preceded by Australians such as the poet Dorothea Mackellar who first attempted to create widespread affection for the landscape among its European settlers.

“Someone in the ABC expressed concern before I’ve even given the lectures about my distinction between between `dark greens’ and `light greens’,” he says, “presumably because they’re dark greens and don’t like the word. I think they would prefer to think there’s one united green movement.”

He does share some common ground with greens in that he has a sense of awe about the natural world. In his Short History, he writes more than once of what it must have been like for generations of humans who slept outside under the stars. “I think a sense of wonder about the universe is a religious feeling,” he says.

“The dark greens … believe the world is in a state of crisis and that the green issues transcend any other issue. I think the dark greens are profoundly religious, in an unorthodox way in 19th-century terms, but they’ve got a belief that there is an inner harmony, and they may or they may not believe in the creator but they see (the world) as a wonderful task completed. I’m a light green; I’ve got a strong sense of the wonder of the universe.”

When he was recently in outback WA for centenary celebrations, his train stopped at a rail station in the middle of the night to watch an Aboriginal concert. “I wanted to get away from the lights and the train to see the stars, because the stars in the desert, it’s one of the great sights in the world.”

Blainey developed his feeling for landscape and space growing up in country Victoria – Leongatha, Geelong and Ballarat – as the second of four children of a non-conformist Methodist minister. He’s still religious, he says hesitantly, “without quite knowing what to do with it. I don’t find any denomination I wish to belong to”.

As a child he would use his father’s membership card to borrow travel books from the local mechanics’ institute to study how they were written. “I had a very strong desire to write when I was very young, without knowing it.” At 13 he won a scholarship to board at Wesley College and later did his PhD in history at Melbourne University.

He becomes vague when asked about his political development but confesses to an adolescent admiration for Chifley, the train driver who managed to become a Labor prime minister, and even a passing flirtation with socialism until he was 17, when the attempt to nationalise the banks jolted him out of it.

Blainey has always been known as a private man. The forces that shaped his personal history may or may not become documented in the autobiography he has partly written – to the age of 40 – and now set aside. He has several explanations for why he put it on hold: he thought he’d done enough; he wants to come back to it later to check if his recollection of events is accurate; he finds writing his own story boring. “When you’re writing a book about something else, you’re researching all the time and finding out things you didn’t know before, and it’s exciting. Your own life – your memory has sorted it out already, hasn’t it?”
Or perhaps, for someone whose writing has been preoccupied with the verifiable external world, the more internal landscape of autobiography is difficult. He says he is surprised to recognise, in the course of this interview, how his rural background and family’s views have strongly influenced his own politics: “You’ve given me this awful realisation that I’ve just been walking around in circles all these years. There’s the headline: `Blainey runs on spot: No progress!”‘

HE does hold firmly to ideas. He has written a new chapter for The Tyranny of Distance, defending his thesis from today’s idea that the tyrant is now dead, killed off by modern communications and travel.

“You could have put that argument in 1850 when the telegraph was invented; you could have said distance was dead when aeroplanes started to move across the world. But the main reason why Sydney has jumped ahead of Melbourne as the financial capital in the last 40 years is because Sydney is three hours nearer the outside world on most plane routes. I think distance is still very important.”

Blainey believes his professional strengths include the great variety of histories he has tackled and the clarity of his writing: “In fact, I wouldn’t be in much trouble if I wrote obscurely, would I? I could say what I liked and no one would take any notice.” Tom Stannage, professor of history at Western Australia’s Curtin University, disagreed with Blainey’s views on race and land rights but says: “It’s hard to think of a major issue in Australian life that he hasn’t touched on.”

Stannage says there have been times when reactions to his outspoken views have caused concern for Blainey’s personal safety, but Blainey never held grudges himself. Stannage contributed to a book that criticised Blainey, but Blainey later cheerfully agreed to lecture Stannage’s students on the public role of the historian. “He argued the case for the historian to engage with the central issues of the day and to interpret the past as it bore on them with as much integrity and control as you can muster.”

At the end of the interview, Blainey suggests taking a particular path out of the gardens because its flower borders are in bloom. Before parting he stops before a a bunya-bunya and launches into a dissertation on the way Aborigines used to gather around it for corroborees. Ever the pedagogue; ever the sense of history.

The 2001 Boyer Lectures will be broadcast over six consecutive Sundays starting tomorrow night, November 11 at 5pm on Radio National.


Geoffrey Blainey, historian

Born: Melbourne, 1930.

Educated: Melbourne University.

Career Highlights: The books The Tyranny of Distance, Triumph of the Nomads and A Short History of the World.

Lives: Melbourne, with his wife, biographer Ann Blainey.

First published in The Age.