Monday, 21 October 2013




John Norwich, The Popes: A History (2011) RRP $20.00

 
Lord Norwich, famous for his epic histories of Venice and Byzantium, has taken on another daunting subject – the Papacy. The Byzantine Empire lasted, with some interruptions, about 1000 years. But there has been a Pope for twice that long – about 265 of them in direct succession from St Peter.

While lavishing 3 volumes on the rise and fall of Byzantium, Norwich limited himself to one fairly short book on an institution caught up in the main currents of Mediterranean and European history since about 60AD.

The results are somewhat modest. I expected an evocative narrative glittering with accounts of the early Christians, their rise to power under the Emperor Constantine, the hubris of the medieval popes slowly melting before the Reformation and ending with their successors’ efforts to negotiate the Enlightenment and modernism.

 But Norwich’s heart just wasn’t in it. He clearly loved Venice and was enthralled by Byzantium. But the Popes get treated like freaks in a badly-run asylum. To be fair, some of them were greedy, evil or mad. Stephen VI had the body of his predecessor, Formosus, exhumed and put on trial (they had not been on good terms). Serguis III had his two predecessors executed. John VIII was bludgeoned to death by a relative because his attempt to poison him worked too slowly. John XII ran a brothel in the Papal Palace. Pius XII did nothing about the Holocaust. But I digress.

 Norwich tells us nothing about the stability the Papacy offered at times when western Europe seemed on the brink of collapsing, the employment opportunities if offered or the communities it supported. It is true many popes appeared more interested in power and money than saving souls. But institutions cannot be run on love alone. Wielding spiritual and political power is expensive. Norwich ignores these lessons in “realpolitik” and dwells far too often on trivia. So I was disappointed. What other area history offered so much but received so little ? This book deserves an audience. But not a very big one.

 

 
 

Robert Hughes, Rome, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2011)   
(RRP $25.00)

Robert Hughes, the Australian art critic famous for his account of the convict system, The Fatal Shore, died in New York last month. Rome was his last work. Sadly, it is also his worst. Anyone who has read The Fatal Shore will be familiar with Hughes' pungent wit. The man clearly loved the sound of his own voice - but what a voice !
 
Rome, Hughes declares, was to be a history and travelogue of a city he loved. But it is clear he spent little time there and was unfamiliar with much of its history. The first section, which covers the foundation of the City by Romulus and Remus up to the fall of the Roman Empire, seems to have been cobbled together from lecture notes and is replete with errors. In one glaring example, the Emperor Augustus is described as Julius Caeser's son (he was his grand-nephew).
 
The book improves significantly when Hughes reaches the Renaissance and Baroque due to his familiarity with the great artists of the time and their works. But even then, the book drains into a thinly-connected series of biographers of one painter and sculptor after another. The City itself barely gets a look in. The following chapters on modern Italy up to Berlusconi's time are schematic and not particularly interesting.
 
Sometimes, the Great Man throws out one of his characteristic bon mots. But not often. In fairness to Hughes, he was under in significant discomfort while completing the book, having been seriously injured in a car accident. But his editors have much to answer for. If you are unfamiliar with the history of western Europe, you may benefit from reading Rome. But if you like Robert Hughes and history, you will be disappointed.

Thursday, 17 October 2013



Alan Frost,   Botany Bay: The Real Story, Black Inc (2012) (RRP $24.95)

 
As a child, my favourite story was The Emperor’s New Clothes. Rogues sell the hapless emperor, for a fabulous sum, a garment so fine it cannot be seen. He proudly models his new threads – only to have a little boy point out he’s buck naked.

In this modern re-telling of the tale, Alan Frost argues Botany Bay was not settled as a dumping ground for convicts. Instead, we are to believe, Britain went to great trouble and expense to ship about 160,000 criminals to the other side of the planet as part of Pitt the Younger’s vision for a British empire in the South Seas. Yet there’s not a scrap of direct evidence for it. Like the emperor, Frost is exposed.

Frost has done exceptional research. He has found many new documents about the plans to settle Botany Bay. But while Frost dispels some myths about those plans, he creates a new one.

The key government documents stress the benefits of transporting Britain’s criminals elsewhere as a deterrent to local crime. They also note the possibility of cultivating pine trees and flax here. At this time, Britain’s clout relied on its Navy. It needed pine wood for masts and flax for rope and sails. There were supplies in Norfolk Island and New Zealand. These resources certainly influenced the decision. But there’s not a word about grand imperial designs.

Frost admits his case is circumstantial. This is his second tilt at the mill, the first being Botany Bay Mirages, published in 1994. Since then his theory, and the sophistry used to support it, has grown more grandiose. We are told, for example, that convicts provided “the mode, but not the motive” for settling Botany Bay. But these things cannot be separated.

Worse, Frost blithely ignores later developments. By the mid-1810s, the British Government was concerned that Botany Bay was no longer a deterrent to crime. The royal commissioner it sent to investigate, John Bigge, recommended making it a more severe place of punishment. Bigge said nothing about a maritime empire, as it was never on the cards.

Frost’s patronising ‘you-must-be-stupid-to-disagree-with-me’ tone does him no favours. He is not an eloquent writer, but stamps up and down like a man whose suddenly realised something important is missing. Where’s that little boy when you need him ?

Wednesday, 11 September 2013




Andrew Tink, William Charles Wentworth: Australian’s greatest native son, Allen & Unwin, 2009


 


One of the great legends of Australian history is that we had no revolution. No Cromwell, no Robespierre, no Washington led us to liberty, equality and fraternity. Instead, democracy was handed to us on a silver platter.

Like many legends, there is some truth to it. There was no popular uprising against a bloated aristocracy, no guillotines and no war. But our little convict colony was not transformed into a liberal democracy without conflict. Occasionally, blood did run down the streets of Sydney.

William Charles Wentworth (1790-1872) was a key figure in this not-quite-a-revolution. Yet there has been no full-length biography of him for some time. Andrew Tink has leapt into the breach with his William Charles Wentworth: Australian’s greatest native son.

I worry when historians use titles like this. We’re supposed to be an objective lot and dubbing your subject the nation’s ‘greatest son’ is not a promising start. But while Tink lacks a depth of research and analysis, he provides a clear, concise account of Wentworth’s role.

Wentworth, and his father D’Arcy, were leading lights in the campaign to give the colony’s ex-convicts equal rights to free settlers and press for an elected parliament.

By the mid-1840s, democratically-elected legislatures were on the cards from many British colonies. But what sort of democracy would we get ? Would it be based on a universal franchise with fair electoral boundaries ? Or would the vote be restricted to land-owners, with gerrymandered electorates to give them a permanent majority in parliament ? Riots in Sydney over this are the closest we’ve come to Bastille Day. While a champion of democracy, Wentworth ultimately became a wealthy landowner. His interests lay in limiting the vote to the rich. Tink provides a fair account of the ironies of his position.

Occasionally, Tink descends into snide mockery. It is well-known that Governor Lachlan Macquarie, an ally of the Wentworths, had venereal disease. Do we really need to hear, once again, that Macquarie had the clap ?

Most historic figures were bundle of conflicting ideas and interests. It is important to show they were often neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but varying shades of grey. Wentworth, stuck like a man with one leg on each side of barbed wire fence, is a good example. Tink’s account of how he unstuck himself is well worth reading.



Mark McKenna, An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark, Melbourne University Press, 2011

Manning Clark, the Australian historian and cultural icon, would be happy to see a full-length biography of himself finally in print. But Clark is dead. And that, I think, is the best that can be said about McKenna’s book.

Clark taught the first course dedicated to Australian history at the University of Melbourne. He went on to write a six volume history of Australia – a work that has shaped our national identity. Away from academia, he was a chronic hoarder who shamelessly cheated on his devoted wife, Dymphna.

Having a subject who squirrels away every bit of paper about themselves is an absolute godsend. Clark went beyond this. Before he died, he scrawled helpful notes for future writers on many of his papers. Having a philanderer is also useful. It makes you wonder what else he’s cheated on.

It turns out Manning Clark occasionally cheated on history as well as his wife. He was not very good with facts. In his History, Clark has the First Fleet sail from and arrive in the wrong places. He saw Australian history as a fratricidal struggle between the forces of darkness (ie. conservatives) and light (ie. socialists and liberals). Reality is more opaque and complex, but Clark often ignored this.

Yet no-one deserves a biography quite like this. I suspect McKenna started off liking Clark, then grew to hate him. Every trivial scandal is picked at like a dried-up scab. What is lost is the scope of Clark’s achievement. Up until the late 1940s, Australian history was taught as an extension of British history. Clark changed all that. He helped show that developments that took centuries in the Old World happened over night here. He showed why that makes Australia and similar nations, such as New Zealand, Canada and the United States, unique social experiments.

Clark did not pull this out of thin air. Writing national history is an intense experience. Moments of understanding are painfully extracted from unyielding sources. There is occasion exhilaration when everything falls into place. But mostly there is doubt and despair that you will ever work out what really happened or finish what you began. You age prematurely and start drinking too much.

Clark may have been careless and annoying, but no-one else has produced an epic presentation of our past to rival his. Until someone does, I say let Clark rest in peace.
 
 
Adam Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper:The Biography (2010)


Those of us near a ‘certain age’ may remember the scandal of the Hitler Diaries, purchased at great expense by Stern (a West German news magazine) in 1983 and promptly exposed as low-quality forgeries.

In an act of uncharacteristic stupidity, Hugh Trevor-Roper, then Regius Professor of Modern History, authenticated the Diaries after a cursory examination. He never lived it down.

Academic historians usually present as earnest, perhaps absent-minded, servants of the past aloof from the ordinary cares of day-to-day life. Bedevilled by an impressive range of personal insecurities, Trevor-Roper did not match this description.

Sadly, he had the potential for brilliance. His areas of interest included the Reformation and the causes of the English Civil War. As Regius Professor, he was expected to produce the standard history of that period. The man himself dreamed of emulating his heroes, Edward Gibbon and Thomas Macaulay.

But Trevor-Roper never delivered. Instead, he devoted himself to tearing down the reputations of competitors who worked harder and more successfully at their mutual craft than he did.

Sisman gives us a vivid, beautifully written portrait of this ghastly individual as he sank deeper and deeper into a maelstrom of vindictive feuds and petty jealousies that precluded him completing his much-anticipated work.

While he never lived up to the promise many felt he had shown, Trevor-Roper is at least fortunate to have had an extra-ordinary biographer. This book is a compelling read for those interested in how history is written and those who write it.