The Story of Australia’s People by Geoffrey Blainey, Penguin Random House, 2016, ISBN 978 0 6700 7802 8, 486pp
The Story of Australia's People by Geoffrey Blainey.
I rarely read the Preface to a book on the basis that it may contain a spoiler. In this case my failure to read the Preface meant that it was not until after about 200 pages that I realised that the book is the second volume of a two-volume set. The previous volume, which I have added to my reading list, covers the period from about 50,000 years ago, when the first Australians discovered this land to 1851 with the discovery of gold. This volume picks up the story from 1851 and concludes with the present day and it does not depend upon having read the first volume.
Blainey, who is well known for his 2000 “A Short History of the World”, writes well; he tells a good story. His aim in this second volume is less to tell the tale of the political history of Australia than it is to tell the tale of “how people lived and worked, played and prayed, travelled or were unable to travel.” He admits in his Preface that the space allocated to events after about 1990 is rationed and, perhaps as a consequence, I found the pace of the latter parts of the book a trifle frenetic. I wondered whether the second volume might have stopped in 1945 with a third volume covering the post-war years.
As an Englishman who arrived in Australia 20 years ago in his mid-forties, I knew almost nothing of Australia’s history. I was quite surprised (though my wife, who is a genuine Australian, was not) by the growth in population since 1945. In 1945 the population of Australia was just over 7 million. Today it is just over 24 million. A more measured tale of that growth and how it was (or perhaps was not) managed would be interesting. That tale is told in this volume but it is covered at more of a scamper than I should have liked.
In knew nothing about Federation. From reading Blainey I learned what a close run thing it was. I knew nothing of Parkes who might be described as the Father of Federation, except that whoever he was, he had given his name to a suburb of Canberra. But I did not know why. He was a remarkable fellow. He came to Australia in 1839 as a subsidised migrant. He was a bone-and-ivory turner. Blainey tells us that his first surviving son was born on the voyage out and his last surviving son died in 1978 “so that this one generation of Parkes’ children covered three-quarters of the European history of Australia up to that time.”
I cannot say that this book would be as interesting and enjoyable to someone who was born and brought here as it was to me who was not. I hope it would be. I mentioned several things, surprising to me, to my wife to find that they were not surprising to her. To anyone like me, however, who was not taught and Australian history at school, I would regard this book as useful if not essential reading to get a handle on the recent history of the country. It is an even-handed account of the successes and failures of those who created the country we live in today.