Some Incomplete Thoughts on the Scale of History – Part 1

‘The Scale of History’ is the theme of this year’s Australian Historical Association conference which is taking place this week in Canberra. It was the theme of the conference which enticed me to take time off work to come to chilly Canberra. Half-way through the conference it is time to take time to consider what I have heard about the ‘scale of history’ this week.

I have deliberately titled this post ‘some incomplete thoughts’ as what follows is merely a glimpse of a couple of keynote presentations. In this post I have selected a very small portion of the ideas presented and added my own personal reflections. Thus what follows cannot be said to be a report of the presentations as it does not present the fully formed and meticulously argued views of the presenters.

All good conference themes can be explored in myriad ways. ‘Scale’ in history does not just refer to time. President of the Australian Historical Association, Lynette Russell started the conference by raising a variety of questions regarding scale, such as the interdisciplinary reach of historians and the diversity of historians practising in Australia today. On both counts, she pointed to the need for improvement by the profession. You can read a more in-depth overview of her talk in an earlier post I wrote about the conference.

‘The Right Scale for Our Times’ was the keynote panel the next morning. The chair of the panel, ANU’s Professor Ann McGrath framed the topic.

“To address living in the Anthropocene and to ensure the discipline’s future relevance various historians have called for a history that is grand in scale – whether this be wide, big or deep.”

Yet it is not that simple. McGrath asked how we are going to ensure that gender, culture and individuals will not be smothered by a broad brush stroke form of history. “Can micro and macro ever join hands?”, she asked.

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War, Masculinity and Belief – day 2, Australian Historical Association Conference

Banner of Australian Historical Association

2018 Australian Historical Association conference, 2nd to 6th July.

At the end of the day I sat down to write up a post about the sessions I had listened to at the Australian Historical Association conference but I struggled to find a common theme in all of them on which I could develop a coherent post. But of course, I chose these sessions because they all said something about my current interests in war, masculinity and belief.

I heard some great papers yesterday. Both Rosalie Triolo’s paper on ‘Statehood, Strength and sorrow in Australian and German school Songs, 1870-1918’ and Michael Gladwin’s, ‘Preaching Australia: Sermons, emotions and religious sensory practice in Australian history’ examined different historical aural experiences – one secular and the other religious. Triolo drew on the fact that singing was compulsory in early 20th century Victorian school classrooms. “Rote learning through rhythm”, was the advice of educational experts. Through careful examination of the Department of Education’s regular publication for schools, The School Paper, Triolo analysed the songs that were published for use in schools. She noted that before the Great War, the songs were British in origin, but with the onset of war, songs were also drawn from outside the Empire. La Marseillaise, the Belgian and Russsian national anthems were published as sentiment towards the suffering of those countries developed during the War. Triolo noted that no songs were published in 1917, but publication of songs resumed in 1918. She did not speculate on the reason for this. I wonder if this was reflective of the depressed state of Australia as the casualties mounted and no end was in sight? It was also the year of horrendous strikes and the divisive referendum on conscription.

Pianos were an important technology in the early 20th century classroom.

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The 2018 Australian Historical Association Conference Begins!

Hundreds of historians have gathered in Canberra for the 2018 Australian conference. During this week over 350 papers will be delivered. I am in Canberra attending the conference and will be tweeting and blogging from here all week.

The welcome to country for this conference was delivered by Matilda House, an elder from the Ngambri-Ngunnawal people of the Canberra region. “You can’t change yesterday, but you can sure try and make a difference tomorrow,” she observed.

The President of the Australian Historical Association, Professor Lynette Russell delivered the opening keynote address. She traversed a wide range of issues in a thought-provoking speech.

The Acknowledgement of Country is given by event organisers if a First Nations elder is not present to give a Welcome to Country. Professor Russell noted that the Acknowledgement of Country is too often mumbled and speakers struggle with unfamiliar Aboriginal words. She urged people to make an effort to pronounce Aboriginal words correctly.

Professor Russell urged us to consider that 2000 generations of people have lived on this land. History did not just start with the arrival of Europeans. She observed that the Australian Historical Association conferences are no longer the “pale, stale, male” events that they used to be, but she noted the lack of Aboriginal historians. “Our association currently has 5 Aboriginal historians but if we think in terms of population parity, we should have almost 5 times that number,” she observed. “We need to ask why”. Continue reading

War, Business and Orchids – the Smith Story


We did it! I was part of an international research project that has led to the publication of this book. No Substitute for Kindness: The Story of May and Stanley Smith (May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust, 2017).

Stanley Smith was an Australian businessman, WWII operative in China and expert horticulturalist. His life took him from a comfortable Brisbane upbringing to the danger of war and finally to a life half-way across the world. His Chinese-born wife, May Wong, grew up during the civil war in China and the fighting against Japanese occupation. May and Stanley met through their work for British propaganda and intelligence in the Chinese wartime capital of the city then known as Chungking (Chongqing).

Together the lives of Stanley and May Smith make a gripping read in the newly published book, No Substitute for Kindness. Commissioned by one of the philanthropic funds established by the couple, a team of researchers and writers from the United States, England and Australia have pieced together a fascinating biography.

I was one of the historians who worked on the book. My principal task was to research the early years of Stanley Smith’s life. He was born in Brisbane in 1907 and was a student at Eagle Junction State School. Stanley then won a state scholarship to the Church of England Grammar School or ‘Churchie’ as it is commonly known. Continue reading

Review: The Art of Time Travel by Tom Griffiths

Book Cover

The Art of Time Travel by Tom Griffiths (Black Inc, 2016).

The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their craft is a very readable exploration of the writing of history in Australia since World War II. Written by highly respected historian, Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel examines the work of fourteen influential historical writers who have developed the way we understand history in Australia.

Each chapter focuses on a different writer and their most influential work. Griffiths starts with Eleanor Dark’s, The Timeless Land written by the novelist, in 1941. This work of historical fiction is about the Aboriginal man, Bennelong and his first encounter with white settlers in Sydney. The history of first encounters, and particularly the story of Bennelong is a thread that runs through the book.

Griffiths’ has a professional connection with each writer featured. Most of the writers Griffiths highlights are historians, but historians are not the only people who write histories. Included in his list are a novelist, a farmer, a poet and an archaeologist. Tom Griffiths does not merely recount the contribution of these writers, he also weaves in delightful anecdotes about his personal relationship with them and their writing. We read about the experiences of Griffiths as a student of Greg Dening at the University of Melbourne and his later experiences participating in Dening’s guest workshops at the Australian National University. We see some glimpses of Griffiths’ childhood in the Melbourne suburb of Balwyn while reading his chapter about the historian of the suburbs – Graeme Davison. Griffiths’ anecdotes throughout the book are carefully chosen and always relevant to Griffiths’ discussion of his chosen writer. Continue reading