A History Lesson

Recently I attended a talk by Grace Karskens, a noted colonial historian. Her published works include The Rocks and The Colony. Karsken’s talk was about her upcoming book, Recovering Vanished Places: Stories from the Hawkesbury/Nepean River.

History is approached by Karskens by an ethnographic focus, a wide lens which includes archaeology, ecology and geography amongst other studies. Sources range from official documents and historical texts to newspaper articles, paintings, local and family histories, letters, poetry and folklore to provides a broader context to understanding history on a deeper level.

Part of the challenge lies in what cannot be found or ascertained. Of course not everything is recorded or accessible, and sometimes all that remains is a sanitised version of real events.

Something that resonated with me was the snatches and snippets of past events that are woven into stories. As a writer I feel at times that my mind is swirling with scraps of stories, real and imagined. Some are recent, others are not my memory fragments but those of parents, grandparents and other relatives. And it isn’t just family that provide threads to weave stories from; chance conversations with friends and strangers also provide material.

Whilst some fictional scribblings require little in the way of research, unlike academic endeavours, it was interesting to hear Karskens talk of how obsessive the need to know can become. It is this attention to detail and intellectual vigour which creates work which resonates with readers. Again this has similarities in the fictional space. Research is an important aspect across many genres: as a reader few things jar more than reading something factually wrong in a story.

The talk provided a taste of what is to come, a book which promises accessible and illuminating insights into vanished places along the Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers. There is a link to a TED talk by Karskens here.

What lessons from history do you take on as a writer?

[Photo: view of Hawkesbury River near Wisemans Ferry]


Corridor of Oaks, Faulconbridge

In a pocket of land alongside the Great Western Highway at Faulconbridge there is a slowly expanding collection of oaks, planted in honour of Australian Prime Ministers. It is modestly signposted but easy to find, and on the Sunday afternoon when I visited recently, it was relatively quiet despite the nearby traffic and train line.

Whilst I’ve visited the Corridor of Oaks before, it was still quite a surprise to see the extensive planting of oak trees in honour of Prime Ministers. There have been 29 Prime Ministers to date since 1901. Several have served multiple terms such as Andrew Fisher, Billy Hughes (from 1915 to 1923 but under three separate parties) and Kevin Rudd.

Caretaker Prime Ministers are represented as well, even if their time in office was relatively fleeting, covering the period from the resignation or death of the previous office holder until the election of the next Prime Minister.

The most recent planting was by Julia Gillard on 27 July 2017, the 27th tree to be added to the Corridor. Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull are yet to plant their trees: by tradition the trees are planted by the Prime Minister or a close family member.

The Corridor is on land donated by Joseph Jackson, a member of the NSW Parliament from 1922 until 1956. Jackson owned the former home of Sir Henry Parkes, known as the Father of Federation, at Faulconbridge at the time of the bequest. Jackson had a vision of the growing avenue as a living memorial to Parkes and his role in bringing the states together into a federation. When he began the memorial in 1934, there had only been nine Prime Ministers.

The Corridor of Oaks is a fitting tribute to our country’s leaders, and is a lovely place to visit.

[Photo: Corridor of Oaks, Faulconbridge]


David Hunt’s Unauthorised History of Australia

In recent years there has been a shift in how Australian history is presented. The staid, formal prose outlining dry, dusty facts has given way to a narrative which remains factual but conveys history in an accessible manner. One of the most successful recent historians in this vein is David Hunt. His book on early Australian colonial history, Girt, has now been followed by True Girt. For those unfamiliar with the Australian national anthem, there is a line ‘our home is girt by sea’ which lends itself to the title of the books.

Recently I was fortunate enough to hear Hunt speak on Australian history. He began by quoting Mark Twain on Australian history, how it is “almost always picturesque … so curious and strange … full of surprises and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.” Emphasis was placed on the astounding efforts of the human capital – the convicts, the soldiers, the free settlers – who transformed the landscape to something vastly different from the initial concept of a remote penal settlement. The devastation this caused on Aboriginal communities and the environmental landscape is acknowledged, but it remains a remarkable feat.

The Australian history taught in high school for many years was summed up by Hunt as sheep, gold, sheep, rum and sheep. One of his aims is to shift the focus onto making history enjoyable and relevant. His first book, Girt, focused on the early years of colonisation, including the power struggles between the governors and the new squattocracy. True Girt is darker. It is about frontier country, the explorers, bushrangers and the darker side of the destruction of Aboriginal communities and ways of life.

Facts are delivered with a health dose of irony and humour. When listing some of the bushrangers he included Alexander Pearce (the cannibal convict in Tasmania), Black Mary (bushranging offered equal opportunities for employment) and the man featured on the book’s cover, Captain Moonlite. Moonlite’s story was covered in poignant detail, including the eventual reunion in death with his very good friend, James Nesbitt.

There were tales from the explorers, too. These included the bickering Hume and Hovell, who I’d now like to know more about, and the rather absurd cargo that larger expeditions took along. The Burke and Wills entourage included a stationery cabinet and Chinese dinner gong. The camels were given rum to drink and weren’t used at all for the first month or so to conserve their energy for the desert. Men carried the supplies instead. And then there’s the story of the camel who shot (and killed) an explorer. Harry wasn’t a pleasant camel.

And this is just a taste of the historical joys that await discovery. What brings history to life for you?

[Photo: Old Buttery at Bellingen, NSW]