October 5th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Oil disruption could mean a sticky patch for Australia

EDITORIAL Gladys Liu controversy ignores reality of China's interference

CANBERRA OBSERVED Water emergency intensifies in Murray-Darling Basin

VICTORIAN AFFAIRS Tolerance Bill aims to 'eliminate' vilification

FUEL SECURITY As Canberra sleeps, all is well ... well ... well

EUTHANASIA An open letter from WA Faith Community Leaders to the Premier and Members of the West Australian Parliament

EUTHANASIA Unsung heroes of the last moments

YOUTH AFFAIRS Tumbler: Where vulnerable youth self-diagnose as autistic and transgender

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Inquiry into the Family Law Act: that misnamed source of misery

PHILOSOPHY The element of justice in economic practice, Part 1 of two parts

CINEMA EXTRA Unplanned: The movie they don't want you to see

OBITUARY A giant of a man has fallen: Hal G.P. Colebatch, 1945-2019

MUSIC Words as music: Bypassing the intellect, straight to the emotions

CLASSIC CINEMA The Wicker Man: Horror by reversal of expectations

BOOK REVIEW David Brooks' search for meaning

BOOK REVIEW Stabbing us in the back

BOOK REVIEW Admired historian dares his memory



Books promotion page

Admired historian dares his memory

News Weekly, October 5, 2019

BEFORE I FORGET: An Early Memoir

by Geoffrey Blainey

Hamish Hamilton, Melbourne
Hardcover: 352 pages
Price: AUD$45

Reviewed by Jeffry Babb

Some participants in the Culture Wars behave as if they had survived the Battle of the Somme. Geoffrey Blainey has few illusions about his work, but he is a great deal harder on himself than his many readers would be.

Geoffrey Blainey is one of the most influential and admired historians of his era, and one of the most prolific. Although he is known as an inspiring teacher, he is better known as a writer.

Blainey has invented phrases that have entered the Australian lexicon. One is the “Tyranny of Distance”. It helped Australians understand themselves and their place in the world. Another is “The Rush that Never Ended”, which demonstrated the influence of mining on our nation. I read this book when I was working in the Outback. It inspired me and made me feel that I was part of a great national enterprise.

Before I Forget covers the first 40 years of Blainey’s life. His father was a Methodist minister. He spent most of his early life in the Bush. By a stroke of good fortune, he won a boarding scholarship to Wesley College in Melbourne.

He was an adventurous young man. When he couldn’t afford a ticket to Sydney, or elsewhere, he hitchhiked. He also did bush work, such as fruit picking. His father was unable to afford extra cash for Blainey’s adventures, so he took whatever work was going. At Wesley, young men were cultivated who were destined for greatness, among them Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies.

His father’s parishioners were sincere believers for whom the Methodist Church was an integral part of their lives. They liked hearty singing from the Methodist Hymn Book. Those hymns still stick in his memory after 50 years.

These stories make for exciting reading. For many years the closest he approached to living in a metropolis was when he lived in Geelong. From there arose his life-long devotion to the Geelong AFL team, the Cats.

This is a good, well-written book. It is full of interest and a good read. Although it is true that it is entertaining, it is an opinion, not an evaluation. In evaluating this book, one must take account of the fact that Geoffrey Blainey is the most influential Australian historian of his age. His books are sold all over the world. A Short History of the World (Penguin, 2000) was a best-seller in Brazil.

Blainey is a writer who can inspire the man in the street to take an interest in history. The book that kick-started his career, The Peaks of Lyell (MUP, 1954), has been in print for more than 50 years.

His books are scholarly, but they are also approachable. Blainey has held a mirror to Australia, so that Australians can see themselves better. His history of the National Australia Bank (NAB), Gold and Paper, was once given to new starters at the bank.

Blainey’s books are derived from first-hand research. He tramped through the Bush, groped around in mines and talked to old timers who know the stories of Australia as it once was.

He is generous to other writers like Manning Clark, who have not been treated kindly by posterity. One could not imagine two more different writers than Geoffrey Blainey and Manning Clark. Blainey is down to earth, factually accurate, with a sympathy for the common man. Manning Clark was a fantasist whose fact-checking left much to be desired. He dined out on the fact that he taught at Australia’s most prestigious school, Geelong Grammar School.

Manning Clark, whom Blainey nicknamed “Manno”, taught Blainey at the University of Melbourne and treated him generously. Later the pair became good friends.

I think it is fair to say that few creative writers of Blainey’s youth achieved any literary longevity. He knew most prominent authors, who tended towards what would later be called the “OzNat School”.

As one of Australia’s few writers who is both a scholar and a popular writer, it should not surprise that Blainey has been enlisted as a participant in the political process. He was a member of the Commonwealth Literary Fund, the oldest of all the federal government bodies aimed at promoting the arts. In the Whitlam era, Blainey was appointed chairman of its successor, the Literature Board of the new Australia Council.

Frankly, I found this section of the book a trifle depressing. Certainly, it is far better to have Geoffrey Blainey serving on these cultural bodies rather than a timeserver who is more interested in politicking than writing; but I think that this is the weakest section of the book. I am sure many readers will be interested, but I am not one of them.

Before I Forget: An Early Memoir is a valuable book. Blainey was an adventurous fellow in his youth. This record of the first 40 years of his life is well worth reading. Let’s hope the next instalment of his autobiography appears soon.

Purchase this book at the bookshop:


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