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.