Before I Forget – Geoffrey Blainey

  • Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, 2019
  • ISBN: 9781760890339
  • RRP: $45

Reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald

As the Kenny Rogers country song says, you’ve got to know when to hold them and when to fold them. Here Rogers is talking about playing cards as a metaphor for life.

Historian and author Geoffrey Blainey certainly knows when to fold them, although he may have done so too early in the piece. Hence his wryly-titled memoir Before I Forget, tells the story of only the first half of his remarkable and often controversial life.  This captivating book comes to a halt when he reaches his early forties. This is for the simple reason that Blainey thought that he had written enough about himself. Either that or he wanted us to be left wanting more and that’s certainly the case.

This is an edifying and entertaining book about one of Australia’s most popular, prolific and influential historians.

Blainey was born in Melbourne on 11 March, 1930.

He was the second eldest of five children, born to a lively country schoolmistress and a Methodist minister who was an ardent teetotaler and much of Blainey’s relatively humble childhood was spent in rural and regional Victoria. Ranging from Terang to Leongatha, Newtown – a suburb of Geelong near Corio Bay – to Ballarat, where he attended the local high school.  These places to which his clergyman father had to move every few years, ignited in Blainey a deep affection for the Australian landscape, and an abiding interest in our nation’s history.

The fact that he attended four different schools, before he was twelve, also gave him a lifelong sense of human nature and its diversity. As befits being a highly literate and often dutiful son, one of young Blainey’s special songs was the Methodist hymn Jesus Is My Shepherd, Wiping Every Tear. As he writes somewhat wistfully in “That Gippsland Town” – an early chapter in this brilliant book: “I have not heard it for fifty years”.

Living in various homes, always surrounded by books, from an early age the hard-working Blainey believed that his career as a scribe could flourish.

He has now written 40 books. These range from his first, The Peaks of Lyell –an evocative mining history set in Tasmania and published in December 1954, through his path-breaking The Tyranny of Distance and Triumph of the Nomads to The Rush that Never Ended, A Short History of Australia, and A Very Short History of the World, which became an international best seller.

A devoted Geelong supporter, Blainey has also written superbly about Australian Rules football, including my favorite book on the subject, A Game of Our Own.

Although the 89 year old Blainey acknowledges that “memory is not a skilled worker”, Before I Forget has all the Blainey trademarks of thoroughness, lucidity, curiosity, affection, wit, and literary stamina.

In this fascinating early memoir Blainey expresses his indebtedness to his friend John Day, with whom he discusses his books at almost every stage of writing. Blainey also acknowledges the longstanding intellectual and emotional input of his wife Ann and his daughter Anna – both of whom, as I know full well, are extremely talented biographers and historians.

As a youngster Blainey was often adventurous. For example, as a 17 year old, Blainey hitchhiked to Sydney with a friend to experience the historic harbour city and to visit Botany Bay where the First Fleet arrived on January 24 1788. On the way back to Melbourne they visited Parliament House in Canberra to see and hear the nation’s rival, but personally friendly, political leviathans Joseph Benedict (Ben) Chifley and Robert Gordon (Bob) Menzies. As well, they observed in action the extremely long-serving, but still energetic, ex-prime minister W.M. (Billy) Hughes.

From 1944 until 1947 a full-fee paying scholarship enabled Blainey to attend Wesley College, where he was a boarder and younger than most other students in his class. A number of sometimes intensely idiosyncratic schoolmasters reinforced Blainey’s love of learning. This flourished later at the University of Melbourne where from 1949 on he lived in the Methodist Queen’s College at the Carlton end of the university grounds. During his undergraduate years he was sports editor and then co-editor of the prestigious weekly student newspaper Farrago. Importantly, at Melbourne University, where he eventually became a professor, Blainey came under the stewardship of the innovative, and stylish, Australian historian, Manning Clark.

Indeed a highlight of Before I Forget is Blainey’s recollections of Manno – who later became famous for his six-volume History of Australia, and who, in Blainey’s second year, began his lectures just after 5.15pm, “so that part-time students, having finished work, could arrive by tram from the heart of the city.”

At Melbourne University, Clark initially taught political science and then Australian history – a subject not available at most Australian universities.  As Blainey makes clear, he owes Clark a special debt for fostering his career as an historian who writes for the educated general public, not merely for specialists.

Manning Clark certainly showed him great kindness. Years later, Blainey arranged for Clark to be invited to join the Whitlam Government’s new Literature Board, of which Blainey was chairman.  Their personal friendship blossomed and he “continued to admire (Clark) as a distinguished exponent of the craft of history writing”.

However, by the mid-1980s their views on certain historical topics and key contemporary issues were moving far apart. As Blainey summarises their later relationship, “while we rode comfortably in the same train we got off at different stations.” Blainey reveals that, “at two hours’ notice”, he wrote an obituary about his mentor which The Age published on May 24 1991, the day after Manning Clark died.

From his time at Ballarat High School and Wesley College, Blainey was always a voracious reader. While still a school and tertiary student, in many second hand bookshops and especially at Melbourne’s State Library, where he poured over old newspapers, Blainey gained much by speed-reading selected books.  Often he “read like a magpie, pecking here and there and chewing those morsels (he) fancied.” As Blainey puts it, “It is no way to treat an author but I do not apologise to them.” Later, he realised that, faced with a deadline, he could also write with speed.

Throughout his adult life, as well as travelling widely throughout the world, Blainey also saw as much of Australia as he could. This involved visiting some relatively remote places where he worked hard at his research, sometimes staying there for months with Ann. This especially included the “silver city”, Broken Hill and the Queensland mining town of Mount Isa, where they spent considerable time yarning with the locals. Although he has not visited every past or present mining field and ghost town in Australia, Blainey has seen most. None conveyed to him “such a sense of magic as the site of the first large (gold) rush in 1851, the now-deserted bed and banks of the creek at Ophir, near Orange in New South Wales”.

By the time Blainey entered his early forties and while he was still honing his skills, history and its importance in our national life was changing rapidly. Each year, seminal books on Australian history were, he writes, “seized upon by an eager, expanding audience”. Painters, poets and filmmakers were “illuminating our past”. At the same time, politicians appealed to it in often-controversial public debates, while archaeologists unearthed our pre-history claiming, rightly, that diverse indigenous clans had been occupying our continent for tens of thousands of years.

It is hard to disagree with Blainey that, in the early 1970s, “few other nations, were so absorbed in understanding their history, and debating it on so many fronts”.

Written in lucid and captivating prose, Before I Forget makes it crystal clear how Blainey’s unique body of work was, and is, crucial to publicizing the rising wave of clashing ideas redolent throughout Australian intellectual life. As he concludes in a tantalising final sentence of this wonderful memoir, “Here, ‘history’ was (beginning) to grow like thunder.”

We are indeed fortunate that, in the continuing debates about Australia’s past and present, Geoffrey Blainey continues to play a pivotal part. Here’s hoping that he can produce another volume, focusing on the second half of his profoundly captivating life. If there was a book in the first half of his life there’s certainly one in the second half, which, judging by the title of this one, he best get to soon.

Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 40 books. His most recent publications are the political/sexual satires, ‘So Far, So Good: An Entertainment’ and ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure’, both published by Hybrid in Melbourne.