Tom Griffiths’ recently published The Art of Time Travel is a delight. For anyone remotely interested in Australian history it is an absorbing read. In part, it is an elegant and insightful survey of Australian historiography since World War II. It also aims to show ‘that writing history is a highly creative act and that its artistic aspirations are perfectly consistent with the quest to represent the past truthfully’. At another level it is simply a collection of inspiring stories about fourteen of our most interesting practitioners.
Griffiths is a fine writer who is not afraid to expose his feelings in areas that often get a very dry treatment. I was some way into the book before the power of his prose reminded me that I have regularly quoted his beautiful paean to footnotes to bemused students in History Extension lectures:
Footnotes are not defensive displays of pedantry, they are honest expressions of vulnerability, they are generous signposts to anyone who wants to retrace the path and test the insights, they are an acknowledgement of the collective enterprise that is history.
I began reading the 15 page Prologue with an intention to highlight the important bits but soon gave up when I realised it was all highlights. It is a brilliant discussion about the nature and purpose of history, with the sometimes soaring prose leaving the reader in no doubt about the author’s passion for the craft of history or conviction about its important place in our lives. Griffiths asserts that the ‘past is our only anchorage and our chief source of meaning’. He notes David Christian’s approach to Big History and the belief that historians need ‘to reclaim their traditional role as global story tellers’. And he places the craft of history in the context of time travel:
Historians tend to be dedicated, passionate citizens who seek to make a difference by telling true stories. They scour their own societies for vestiges of past worlds, for cracks and fissures in the pavements of the present, and for the shimmers and hauntings of history in everyday action. They begin their enquiries in a deeply felt present. But as time travellers they have to forsake their own world for a period – and then, somehow, find their way back.
Each of the following chapters focuses on one historian and their work, with ‘historian’ being interpreted broadly to include a novelist, a poet, archaeologists, academic historians and public historians. For each one, Griffiths establishes the context in which they worked, describes their approach, highlights their major works and assesses their achievements. Except that the chapters do not really unfold according to a strict template. Instead, they meander and digress, drawing in all sorts of incidental detail, to create an intriguing portrait within a deftly drawn vignette of a period in Australian historiography.
Some of those who are the main subject of a chapter, such as Geoffrey Blainey, Henry Reynolds or Eleanor Dark, are very well known. At first glance, others may seem more obscure and their reason for inclusion, as opposed to more eminent historians who did not make the cut, less obvious. However, there is no suggestion that Griffiths is presenting us with his rank order. His selection is much more quirky and bound up with his views about creativity and diversity. In any case, each chapter is richly populated with many more historians than the one featured in the chapter title.
One of the great attractions of the book and its discursive style is the surprising range of discussion and insight that can come up in any chapter. In Entering the Stone Circle, about John Mulvaney, there is the observation that the ‘scientific search for antiquity’ can be problematic for Aboriginal people – while the scientific discovery of Australia’s antiquity was politically useful for Aboriginal people, time ‘still seemed to be the “gift” of the invaders’. In The Creative Imagination (Greg Dening) Griffiths refers to Greg Dening’s impatience with ‘the culture of envy’ and the ‘blood sport’ of debunking in academia. In The Frontier Fallen (Henry Reynolds) Griffiths contrasts the ‘proud oral culture of rural Australia’ with local suspicion of official records that have been taken to the city and institutionalised.
I read the chapters based on historians whose work I was familiar with first. While this was very satisfying, in the end I was most drawn to chapters whose subject and their work were less familiar or entirely unknown. For example, I loved History as Art, dealing with Donna Marwick, which ranged across the University of Melbourne’s Crawford School, Postmodernism and Merwick’s own work on Dutch North America. Griffiths employed a wonderful quote from Stuart Macintyre to evoke the Crawford School: ‘a lost world of fountain-pens and exercise books, twinsets and Fletcher Jones slacks’. And I was fascinated by The Feel of the Past and its account of how Grace Karskens successfully navigated various divisions – between oral and written evidence, between history and archaeology and between public and academic history – to produce important stories about the past.
One outcome of reading this book is that I now have a list of historic sites that need to be visited and a list of books that need to be read or, with the exception of A Million Wild Acres, re-read.
The Art of Time Travel offers easy access to a long period of Australian historiography. And, as well as being a thoughtful meditation on the craft of history, it is a tribute to the craftsmanship and truly diverse achievements of a range of individuals who have practised history in Australia. The relevance for History Extension teachers is obvious. But this is more than a teaching resource for a particular course. It is itself a work of history that will be welcomed by anyone with an interest in Australia’s past and those who have shaped our understanding of it.