Bearing in mind that history and the past are two completely different things, and that there's always a "narrative", in life as in politics and literature, this new two-volume history of Australia is a welcome addition to existing ways of telling "our story".
Necessarily different in scope and perspective from previous works such as Manning Clark's monumental six-volume A History of Australia (published between 1962 and 1986) and Thomas Keneally's more recent and more compact Australians, it will also prove an indispensable reference work, the illimitable pool of history that is the internet notwithstanding, because it orders and clarifies the minutiae and textures of cause and effect from a peculiarly 21st century worldview.
Editor Stuart Macintyre is Ernest Scott Professor of History in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne; his co-editor Alison Bashford is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sydney and has been elected Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, University of Cambridge. Together with more than 60 historians they have assembled a rich and variegated mosaic the text of which, while supported only by maps, graphs and tables, nevertheless paints a colourful picture of our history from ancient times to the present.
Volume 1 Indigenous and Colonial Australia takes the reader up to Federation in 1901. Here one finds chapters such as The past 50,000 years: an archaeological view by Peter Veth and Sue O'Connor; The early colonial presence, 1788-1822 by Grace Karskens; The gold rushes of the 1850s by David Goodman; and Empire: Australia; and 'Greater Britian', 1788-1901 by Deryck M. Schreuder. This is the picture of a nation's birth and growing pains; highlighted are the fraught relations not only between the new arrivals and the indigenous population but between humans and the environment, and between old and new ways of evaluating society, culture, politics and the economy.
Volume 2 The Commonwealth of Australia includes chapters like The Great War and its aftermath, 1914-22 by Stephen Garton and Peter Stanley; The Menzies era, 1950-66 by Judith Brett; Culture and media by David Carter and Bridget Griffen-Foley; Gender and sexuality by Katie Holmes and Sarah Pinto; and Australia in the Asia-Pacific region by Tomoko Akami and Anthony Milner. This is the story of a nation's growing maturity through challenges such as war, economic depression, multiculturalism, security, the decline in institutional religion and the explosion in information technology.
The result is a highly readable and compact yet wide-ranging work of reference ideal for school, public and domestic libraries as well as for the office.
It's also difficult, as the present reviewer can confirm, to resist simply dipping into from time to time, with no motivation other than curiosity.
The text paints a colourful picture of our history from ancient times to the present.
The Cambridge History of Australia, edited by Alison Bashford and Stuart Macintyre, is published by Cambridge University Press ($325, two volumes hardback)