Thursday, July 7, 2011

Q & A: Professor Geoffrey Bolton

It's not often you get the chance to have a coffee with one Western Australia’s most celebrated historians. In 1954, Professor Geoffrey Bolton completed his masters thesis in history at the University of Western Australia. This year I am working on my own and I'm keen to hear about his experiences. When he meets me at a university cafe, he has just come from the library where he has been researching his latest book.

During our chat, Bolton expresses an infectious enthusiasm when describing the thrill of finding ways back into the past using archives and oral histories. It is this challenge, I think, that has sustained him throughout a dynamic career that has included numerous books and academic papers as well as teaching and leadership in public history. Through his arresting and accessible prose, Bolton has helped uncover countless hidden Australian histories.

How did you get started in history?
The right kind of teacher at the right time is important. Professor Fred Alexander (the founding Head of the Department of History at UWA) was quite influential. We were both fascinated by the opening up of the American west. When I commenced by masters, he found 100 pounds from somewhere - told me not to ask for a penny more - and sent me up north to write a history of the Kimberley pastoral industry. At the time it was very isolated and it was an incredible experience. When I finished the thesis I got a Hackett scholarship to Oxford University. I wanted to shift because Australian history is good and there is a lot to do, but it is important to have a global perspective. So all of that went into developing a historical imagination.

How do you work?
I was taught that you have to get hold of the evidence, get hold of the documents. Also, because of the work I had been doing in the Kimberly, I needed to come to grips with oral history early on. I’ve always thought oral history was a useful way to access the past. The thing about oral history is that often it concerns feelings and emotions about something rather than facts. People make mistakes about facts, but that doesn’t mean you have to discount what they are talking about. It’s a way in. For example, when I wrote ‘A Fine Country to Starve In’ we did lots of interviews. What we found was that, for people who had a hard time, the wives wanted to talk the ways they had managed, innovated and economized however the men didn’t want to talk about it as they were ashamed.

A certain level of empathy is central to good history. I remember seeing a colleague and noticing he was looking unusually haggard. I asked him why and he said it was because of a history he was writing about a notorious employer in the early coal industry. He said;
“Geoff, I’ve been trying for the last fortnight to put myself in his shoes. I’m not going to change my views but until I understand what made the bastard tick I’m not going to write anything worthwhile!”

What are your thoughts about Australian history writing in the 21st century?
I think people often look at history as a series of milestones rather than a process of continuity. For example, the 1988 Bicentennial and the 2015 Anzac Centenary. We need to be careful of that. If you limit focus to the big moments, people can slip out of immediate memory and things get lost in between. Someone who is 100 years old has a valuable story to tell, however so does someone who is 50 years old. We shouldn't wait until it becomes urgent to preserve these stories.

I can now see, what I couldn’t see when I was writing history 50 years ago, how memory places an increasingly important role in society. People are constructing myths 50 years later. Sometimes it wasn’t like that.

People like Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds have talked about the Anzac legend and militarization of Australian history but you need to remember that people are fascinated by it. When I taught European history the French Revolution and Hitler's Germany were always most popular with students as there was such a lot of action.


What drives you as a historian?
It is a lifetime profession. I suppose there is that thing that you just might just make the next project a little better than the others. There is always that challenge. Early on you have models (other historians) that you follow however I always enjoyed it as a form of writing. It is a narrative and it should be directed at the general reader. It’s important to write clearly and lucidly. It’s important to bridge academic and public audiences and the more you do it, the better you get at it.

If anything my writing style has relaxed. Early on in my career I can see examples when I was trying to write with conscious elegance. I don’t necessarily do that now. You’ll never have perfection, the most you can do is avoid deliberate error.

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