THOMAS KENEALLY INTERVIEWED (2010): The people's historian

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THOMAS KENEALLY INTERVIEWED (2010): The people's historian

To put it bluntly, Sarah Whitelam didn't muck around. The day after John Nicol sailed off for Britain – the man with whom she'd had child and promised to remain true to in the days before his departure – she recovered from her disappointment and married the convict John Walsh.

These were very different times – the colony of Sydney in 1790, just two years after the First Fleet arrived – and Sarah, a convict transported for seven years for stealing lengths of material from a Lincolnshire shop, was simply being practical.

People were forced to make whatever living arrangements they could. There was much intercourse – often sexual – between the thousand or so inhabitants of this remote outpost, and lines of class or position so pronounced in Britain were obliterated by human need and their situation.

And they were a mixed bunch, not simply woebegone petty thieves or murderous thugs which Britain had cast to the far end of the world.

D'Arcy Wentworth, for example, was a highwayman-cum-surgeon not yet 30 and had come from a decent family in Ireland. He had become something of a cause celebre and his trial for robbery was attended by members of the royal family.

This dashing rogue – later a partner in the building of Rum Hospital in Sydney, the superintendent of police and a president of the Bank of New South Wales – arrived in the colony alongside political dissenters, criminals, the highly literate and dirt poor Irish peasants whose sense of geography was so ill-informed they thought if they escaped over the hills they would be in China and could start life anew.ken

These are the characters – Aboriginals and other explorers also – who populate Thomas Keneally's ambitious history Australians: Origins to Eureka (reviewed here), the first volume of an intended trilogy tracing the development of the country from pre-history to the present.

Keneally's title is instructive. His is a story of people and in these 600 pages they breathe and sweat, fight and fiddle the books, are heroic and hateful. We see them at their best and worst. And, 74-year old Keneally hopes, in an honest portrayal.

This personable author unashamed of a casual profanity laughs about the history texts he endured as a schoolboy (“back before the pyramids were built”) in which “the early governors were ponces in wigs and dressed in uniforms we'd never seen anywhere”.

We didn't have a sense of them as people at all, of [first Governor Arthur] Phillip sitting by his fire with his housekeeper – whom he was 'on' – and feeding his pet possum a grain of rice at a time.

But he was probably in his shirtsleeves and thinking, 'My God, if those problems with France develop [the British government] are going to forget us and these people here are going to be eating each other'.

You know, Phillip was an Enlightenment man enchanted by the Aboriginals – and was light years more advanced in his thinking than John Howard ever was.

The idea of all that is more interesting than this bloke in a strange uniform.”

In the early 60s when he began writing, Keneally (“it's Tom”) promised himself he would try to write a book every year to 18 months, and he's been largely on target. He has written dozens of novels (“In fiction you try to get to the truth by telling lies”) including The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1972 and Schindler's Ark (adapted for the film Schindler's List by Steven Spielberg, and which won the Man Booker in 82).

He has also written plays and almost two dozen works of non-fiction, notably histories of Australia including The Great Shame and A Commonwealth of Thieves, The Improbable Birth of Australia in 2005, material from which is assimilated into Australians: Origins to Eureka.

Of Irish-Catholic ancestry, Keneally is founding chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, one of his country's Living Treasures, a passionate rugby league follower (Manly Sea Eagles) and laughs about his work methods which he says lack discipline.

Unlike many authors, he sets himself no daily word-count goal, and the only ritual he observes is provided by the laptop: “It starts humming and that causes the brai to secrete chemicals which say, 'Pull your thumb out and get a move on'.”

Although he has written about American and Irish history, it is that of his own country which he finds endlessly fascinating and tries to humanise, to get its founders “off the plinth and into their shirt sleeves”.

He takes great amusement in speaking of Sir Henry Parkes (1815-96), the “Father of Federation”, who was perpetually in debt and promoted people to the Legislative Assembly who would lend him money.

That was his lifetime weakness. At 80 he was still being harried from house to house and although a consumate politician he who couldn't manage his domestic affairs. Once you know that he's no longer a ponce on a plinth.”

If the cast of Australians is colourful, the rapid pace of the country's development is due to this crucible of political dissenters which Britain had exported, many of whom had a history of social awareness and a desire for political justice.

Very early on you had people who saw themselves as political prisoners and better than those who jailed them.

Australians also shows how political developments in Britain and the revolutionary spirit in France and the United States impacted on the fledgling colony. Far from being remote and removed, with every new arrival came political ideologies.

Most societies begin with Eden and go from there, America begins with the redeemed arriving at Plymouth Rock, people too good for Britain,” he laughs. “And its all upward and onwards.

But we began at the bottom. Ours were selected not by God for a garden, but by what they called 'the best judges in Britain'.”

Yet with two decades this “criminal kingdom” was peopled by those who, as historian Alexander Harris wrote “are growing up a race by themselves; the fellowship of country has already begun to distinguish them and bind them together in a very remarkable manner. Whenever they come in contact with each other, even when considerable differ of rank exists, this sympathy operates strongly”.

One of the reasons [Australia] worked was the leavening of stroppy bastards who resisted in all manner of ways and the reason is that the dream of remote places, of more equitable places, attracts radicals. Parkes, who was a Chartist when he was young, emigrates in part because of this inherent promise in the place.”

This first volume takes the history to the strike at the goldfields of Eureka in 1960, the second volume on which Keneally is currently working will end with the fall of Singapore in 1942, both pivotal events which changed the way Australians perceived themselves and their position in the world.

I took this to 1860 because that's the beginning of representative government. Both our countries produced extraordinary institutions for their time even though they weren't perfect democracies in the absolute Hellenic sense of the word.

Even though they appointed upper houses with rich old bastards who sat on legislation, the institutions for their times were revolutionary and were largely in place by 1860. “The fall of Singapore changed the geopolitics of the world. We'd spent our entire history up till then wishing Asia wasn't there . . . when [Singapore fell] a whole new set of priorities and realities hit us.”ken1

Keneally says what fascinates him as a historian – and he acknowledges academics “not infected by literary theory” who have done social and historical research – is that because Australia and New Zealand are relieved of emperors, great captains and kings, “we are able to concentrate on humbler history, but history which nonetheless shows the contours of development of liberal democracies”.

We are often benighted people but you've got these extraordinary experiments in liberal democracy in the 19th century and whose traditions – despite the best intentions of bureaucrats and politicians – have not deserted us yet.

Our history is rich in social issues and in the question of the transplantation of culture and ideas, and how obscure people blessedly kept an indicative journal of a major contours of our development.

It sounds dull, but when you descend into the journals you see the daily squalor and endeavor and ambiguity in 19th century New Zealand or Australia.”

And in Australians the people's voices come through as the long, often brutal, arc of history unfurls.

Australia never stopped being a convict settlement,” laughs Keneally. “The Brits have this habit of sending their economic, social or academic failures to Australia.

So you blokes in New Zealand think we're rough trade, but it's incredible we can even use a knife and fork.”

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