Geoffrey Bolton
The Middle Way: The Oxford History of Australia, volume 5, 1942-1988
OUP   334pp

Australian Book Review, August 1990, pp. 9-10

In 1942 an Aborigine shouted through the streets of Geraldton “The Japs will do me”. Nine years earlier his family had been stripped of its possessions and incarcerated on a reserve. That fragment typifies the best in Bolton’s contemporary history – an ear tuned to the moment when the retelling of a story will carry the greatest effect, in this case during his summary of the Pacific War.

Fewer history professors today are game to follow their prejudices by leaving out Aborigines or women. Instead, they glimpse the marginals and minorities before resuming the real business of history, namely, men talking to each other. Although Bolton includes many sections on what many of his peers deem the fashionable oppressed, he reminds us that their lives have not ceased just because he has reverted to high politics. Sharp sentences interrupt that domineering debate as when he has Dame Enid Lyons explain her appointment to the first Menzies cabinet: “They needed someone to pour the tea.”

As general editor of the Oxford series, Bolton had expressed his openness to the scholarly results of the past decades of social protest by allocating the first volume to Aboriginal Australia and by asking two women to free select on the boy’s own nineteenth century.

The two volumes already published in the series, Beverley Kingston on 1860-1900, and Stuart Macintyre on 1901-1942, offered new structures for their surveys, both building out from their own more detailed scholarship. Kingston approached her span through five themes: materialism, belief, society, culture and power. Macintrye wove topics along a loose time-line. Their series editor has not learned from their examples.

Instead, Bolton expands the list of topics to be treated without establishing any new order or identifying a dynamic much beyond that associated with the fortunes of the Commonwealth Parliament. His manner is summed up in the title “The Middle Way’ and highlighted by presenting the years 1951 to 1965 under the banner of R G Menzies. Incidents and themes are linked by little more than chronological proximity.

Bolton almost takes up the theme of shifting cohorts by mentioning the dominance during the 1950s of aged businessmen, politicians and scientists, as well as noting that the anti-Vietnam war movement challenged the rule of old, Anglo-Saxon men. Bolton had not done the research necessary to turn such incidents into a coherent explanation for the immobility of aspects of Australian life before the later 1960s. Were any benefits from compulsory retirement negated by promotion according to seniority in the public service? A revealing history of Australia awaits an adroit head-counter who can map the comings and goings of judges, shire clerks, and senior teachers. Prosopography also could be used to explore how the philosophies and reforms of the last twenty-five years have affected the writing of Australian history.

Fewer and fewer historians (Bolton quotes Ezra Pound) leave blanks when they do not know something. If Bolton’s practice is any guide, the lacunae are plugged nowadays with paraphrases of the quinquennial census. The old standby of cataloguing parliamentary politics is there too. Certain of his blanks need to be filled in, none more so than the transformation of the world economy. By skimming overseas events, Bolton is left with clichéd judgements about the origins of ANZUS, Korea’s civil war, Indonesian ambitions and the Suez crisis, though the usual pitfalls of the Coral Sea battle and the 1965 coups in Indonesia have been avoided.

Errors of detail are not confined to the overseas sections. Few of the mistakes I noticed undermined the point that Bolton was making. Historians need to draw distinctions between “true facts” and accurate truths”, with faults in the former counting as venal and only the latter as mortal offences. Bolton’s mistake about which year the emperor Showa died is an “untrue fact”, while his suggestion that the Masonic lodges did not have a parallel women’s organisation is an “untruth” because he uses that morsel of misinformation to sustain a wider claim. Typically though, he has brought the residue of sectarianism to our attention, even if his index-maker did not notice.

Bolton’s plain style keeps the most mundane of his narratives readable, always with the prospect that one damned thing after another will be enlivened by a quick turn of phrase, as in his remark that wartime factories provided women with “less onerous” jobs than domestic service, or by a personal reminiscence such as this 1967 parody picked up in a Perth beer garden:

Put another Buddhist in
In the Buddhist burning bin …

As a West Australian whose finest book is about North Queensland, Bolton’s mind is not trapped beneath the Brisbane line. And yet, by the end, there are too many other voices and not enough of the author’s.

General histories are difficult enough to bring off because no one can be expert in every area; those dealing with the very recent past suffer the added disadvantage of every reader’s knowing better about some aspect from their own lives. Manning Clark drew the line at 1935 and the final bicentennial volume confirmed Georg Lukacs’s observation that the bankruptcy of bourgeois intellectuals is revealed whenever they attempt to deal with the present as history. Bolton’s “The Middle Way” is Whiggish in style and sympathies without the confident vision of that descendency.

Social and intellectual critics of the traditional methods of writing about the past have been more successful at asserting the right of out-groups to be heard than they have been at constructing replacements for the ordering principles once provided by political chronicle and the ideal of empire. Feminist writers offer “power” in all its manifestations as a superior matrix to psephology without being better able to account for why breakouts occur. Australianists stress the local at some cost to the explanation of how we interact with the global. Bolton’s middle way demonstrates that more than goodwill will be needed to surpass the rich fare which protestors have laid before our tribe of scribblers.