Reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald
A Historian For All Seasons: Essays for Geoffrey Bolton, Edited by Stuart Macintyre, Lenore Layman and Jenny Gregory,
- Publisher: Monash University Publishing 2017
- ISBN (paperback): 978-1-925495-60-7
- ISBN (e-book): 978-1-925495-61-4
- RRP $39.95
When our daughter Emerald was little, the only person she called by their full name was Geoffrey Bolton. She was obviously impressed by him and why wouldn’t she have been? After all Bolton, my friend and intellectual mentor, was tall and full-bearded and looked like an Old Testament prophet. He cut a striking figure.
In 1963, when his ground-breaking history of early north Queensland, A Thousand Miles Away, was first published, Bolton was teaching me history at Monash University, where, unforgettably, he lectured entirely without notes.
As he was to many other aspiring academics, Geoffrey Bolton was extremely encouraging to me, personally and professionally. After I took a position at Griffith University in Brisbane in 1977, he was especially helpful in regard to my two-volume history of Queensland and my biography of ex-Queensland premier and federal treasurer, E. G. (“Red Ted”) Theodore, all published by UQP. Then, as is documented in this intriguing book of essays in his honour, in 1993 Geoffrey wrote a revealingly original piece on “Hypocrisy” in my edited collection The Eleven Deadly Sins.
In between times, as is mentioned twice in A Historian For All Seasons, I unsuccessfully tried to broker a peace between Geoffrey and my friend Barry Humphries. The trouble between them occurred because, shortly before he became foundation head of the Centre for Australian Studies in Russell Square in London in 1982, Geoffrey told The Australian that one of his tasks would be to dispel the impression of brash vulgarity evoked by Rolf Harris and Barry Humphries.
While Harris took no offence, Humphries did. Soon afterwards, in the guise of Professor Les Patterson, Humphries appeared on the doorsteps of the Australian Studies Centre and recorded a television interview with David Frost. It was, according to a reliable source, “venomous in its caricature”.
In their useful essay “Spoils and Spoilers”, Andrea Gaynor and Tom Griffiths argue that “Geoff’s mission was seriously in tension with that of the comedian.” In September 1982 Australian Studies specialist, Jim Davidson, wrote to Bolton: “If you manage to bury Sir Les Patterson you’ll have done a good job.” As Gaynor and Griffiths explain, ten years later in his 1992 ABC Radio Boyer Lectures, Bolton continued to ask: “So why do we so often succumb to self-hatred and self-mockery, why do we accept Les Patterson and (the TV show) Sylvania Waters as icons of Australia?”
In many ways A Historian For All Seasons is a revealing and satisfying book.
This tribute to Geoffrey Bolton is edited by three former colleagues – Stuart Macintyre, Lenore Layman and Jenny Gregory – all of whom also contribute to this collection of 12 essays that have been written especially for the book.
Taken as a whole, A Historian For All Seasons reveals the essence of Geoffrey Bolton as a person and polymath who often wrote from and about the periphery of our nation. Thus, despite his eminence, Geoffrey was in many ways on the margins, and on the geographical and intellectual periphery of the continent.
In mid-1958, while in London, Bolton married his sometimes long-suffering partner Carol who is still alive and living in Western Australia where Geoffrey was born, in Claremont, on Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) 1931 and where he spent most of his academic career. (He played a pivotal role at the University of Western Australia, and then at Murdoch and Edith Cowan universities). Carol Bolton has written a particularly fine piece for this well-produced book – a candid reminiscence of her relationship with her erudite husband entitled “History at Home, or How Do You Know That’s True?”
One of the most revealing essays in A Historian For All Seasons is “A Lifetime of History” by the Melbourne-based Macintyre, who early in his career had been recruited by Bolton to teach at Murdoch University. Macintyre demonstrates how Bolton’s prodigious memory, command of detail and facility of expression, which was first on view at Monash, became his hallmark as a university teacher and a regular broadcaster on the ABC.
For all his positive qualities, Bolton definitely had great difficulty in saying no to the vast number of requests he received. This weakness, which is mentioned by a number of contributors, often placed him in rather distressing situations with those to whom he had made promises that were difficult, and sometimes impossible, to keep.
As well as finding university administration in the age of corporate government increasingly distasteful, Geoffrey remained ill at ease with theoretical incursions into the writing and construction of history. In this he was at one with his arguably more successful rival, Professor Geoffrey Blainey. They were both narrative historians who specialised in telling stories, although Blainey had, and has, the advantage of being situated in the more influential southeast corner of Australia.
In a widely read article, published in 1999, Bolton declared, “I have practised history largely as a provincial”. As the editors rightly state in their thorough and detailed Introduction, Geoffrey saw that location “as allowing an independent perspective, (but) at the cost of greater recognition.”
As well as having written ninety-one entries in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Bolton published almost a score of books. For me, the academic highpoints are his history of the Depression in Western Australia, A Fine Country to Starve In; his pioneering environmental study of Australia from 1788 to 1980, Spoils and Spoilers and a charmingly idiosyncratic account of the place where he was raised, Daphne Street. Perhaps his most impressive work was his magisterial biography of Australia’s first prime minister, Edmund (“Toby Toss Pot”) Barton – who, as this nickname implies, was a notoriously heavy drinker.
Bolton’s last book, released by UWA Publishing in 2014, was an engaging life of another multitalented Western Australian – the ex-federal Liberal Party minister and Governor-General, Sir Paul Hasluck.
Despite suffering for years with emphysema, a hereditary complaint, the uncomplaining Geoffrey Bolton died in Perth on 4 September 2015, at the age of 83.
Fortunately, Bolton’s multifaceted historical and intellectual legacy remains.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, and the author of 39 books.