Australian historian Tom Griffiths was hiking a pilgrimage route in rural France when he met three fellow walkers, all of them French – a salesman, a nurse and a counsellor. When they discovered Griffiths was a historian there was:
… a chorus of approval, even, dare I say it, a frisson of serious regard – something unexpected for scholars in Australia. And, as proud French citizens, they were ready with their next natural question: ‘Who are your favourite French historians?’
Griffiths replied; the French engaged and the heady conversation only improved from there. But over the next few weeks as he walked, Griffiths wondered if he would – or could – ever be asked this question in Australia.
In the unlikely event that the question ever be raised, The Art of Time Travel is his comprehensive and illuminating reply, where he nominates some of his favourite historians and tries to describe how they work. ‘This book,’ writes Griffiths, ‘is a quirky, serious and personal exploration of the art and craft of history in Australia since the Second World War.’
In his modesty, Griffiths fails to mention that the book is also a wonderful gift to anyone even slightly interested in the craft of writing history.
Griffiths has selected fourteen historians, and the chapter titles give a strong clue as to the ground covered and the perspective taken:
- The Timeless Land: Eleanor Dark
- The Journey to Monaro: Keith Hancock
- Entering the Stone Circle: John Mulvaney
- The Magpie: Geoffrey Blainey
- The Cry for the Dead: Judith Wright
- The Creative Imagination: Greg Dening
- The Frontier Fallen: Henry Reynolds
- Golden Disobedience: Eric Rolls
- Voyaging South: Stephen Murray-Smith
- History as Art: Donna Merwick
- Walking the City: Graeme Davison
- History and Fiction: Inga Clendinnen
- The Feel of the Past: Grace Karskens
- Dr Deep Time: Mike Smith
Each chapter is a lyrical, stand-alone essay written with warmth and generosity. Yes, each provides a useful introduction to the writer/historian, but each is also far more interestingly an insight into their preoccupations, their methods, their imagination and their craft. Griffiths successfully walks a fine line; often clarifying but never simplifying.
A historian’s finest insights are intuitive as well as rational, holistic as well as particular – and therefore always invitations to debate. As they write, they incite; they expect disagreement and they try to furnish their readers with grounds for offering it. Footnotes are not defensive displays of pedantry; they are honest expressions of vulnerability, generous signposts to anyone who wants to retrace the path and test the insights, acknowledgements of the collective enterprise that is history. Historians feed off the power of the past, exploiting its potency just as historical novelists do, but historians also constantly discuss the ethics of doing that.
Although I read it through and enjoyed it thoroughly, this book lends itself to dipping into, and revisiting. I’ve read the works of many of the included subjects, I’ve studied under others and a few were new to me. But regardless of what I already knew of the subject’s work, I found each chapter full of insightful little gems.
But I still can’t imagine ever being asked, by an ‘ordinary’ Australian, who my favourite historian might be!
Publisher: Black Inc, 2016