Monday, 15 October 2007

Letter sent on 20 May to my cousin John Bishop, a lawyer and historian, while he resided in South Australia with his mother. He replied on 27 June. Geoff Dean, my mother’s brother, now has Alzheimer’s. His daughter Clare lives near Taree.

Subsequent conversations with mum reveal that Harry Dean did not ‘turn’ when Stalin sided with the Allies but, rather, had been a committed member of the Party since the 1930s. Apparently he was wont to say that "Socialism was living Christianity" and, to prove it, he gave his entire library to the Party in his will.

Dear John,

I enjoyed talking the other day. My interest in family history is something of an embarrassment. (Because recent, not because I possess it.) As I mentioned, it began when I read some books by Jane Austen in my cousin’s library. The shared accommodation I lived in was 15 minutes’ walk from Geoff Dean’s house in Beecroft. I would walk down to see him and borrow books from Clare’s room.

It got me that a writer could be so advanced, considering she died in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Subsequently, I visited Fisher Library where, as a graduate, I retained borrowing rights. Their eighteenth-century and history holdings are very good and I was able to find a lot of books to feed my growing interest in the 18th century and, subsequently, the 17th and 16th centuries.

As a result of these readings, I have become curious about my forbears. My father, a staunch monarchist, is constitutionally unable to discuss, for example, the Commonwealth, without getting very upset.

I seek to understand events leading up to what I have come to consider the great ‘civilising’ century: the nineteenth. Dad takes things more personally, coming from a generation for whom ideas stood for more than they do nowadays. For him, 1649 was simply a disaster. For me, it represents a point of departure.

But my greatest interest has been the eighteenth century, when the ‘middle classes’ really started to come into their own. I enjoyed taking a course, last year, dealing with literary journalism, because the roots of this genre lie in the 18th century, especially with Defoe.

My mother, too, rebelled against her father’s deep-seated ideologies. As you may know, he was a member of the classis of his church (Presbyterian) until Russia entered WWII. At that point, his constitutional earnestness really kicked in and he became a Communist. His sincere gratitude made him support a regime he, like most other ‘fellow travellers’ in the West, was largely ignorant of.

She, too, would be horrified to think that her father’s ancestors were precisely the people who called most vociferously for Charles I’s beheading.

I comprehend but lament my parents’ intolerance of the ‘stages’ that led to parliamentary democracy. Some of these stages were more violent than others. But my father’s detestation of the church in any of its permutations prevents him from coming to grips with many events that contributed to the rise of the middle classes. Talk about Wycliff, Hus or other early protestant demagogues and he blocks his ears.

You must excuse my passion on this count. As children, my brother and I were endlessly regaled with stories of dead monarchs at the Sunday lunch we always had. My mother would be incapable of entering into these talks and, in any case, her stance vis a vis her father, and her lack of an advanced education (she never attended university), prevented her from positing a contrary argument.

My father is a canonical patriarch. And like John Howard, he has a ‘best of all possible worlds’ attitude toward the Westminster system. As if parliamentary democracy emerged fully-formed from the pockets of kings, like a letter patent given to a well-behaved courtier! While he sees Elizabeth I as a moderate influence (her job admittedly was hugely complex due to the effects of the humanist project initiated at the beginning of the 16th century) I cannot ignore the fact that Christopher Marlowe was most likely murdered at her behest. Dad would just say something like ‘they were tough times’ and leave it at that.

Howard’s push for more ‘narrative’ history in schools is as simplistic and bemusing, for me, as my father’s love of Elizabeth I. Does Howard want us to understand how power was devolved from the top to the bottom? If so, we must question how much he understands of this process. I suspect Julie Bishop is equally ignorant. My father certainly is, and he is in the same mould as they are. Full understanding tends to push you to the Left.

I cannot see how an understanding of Australian history can be achieved without looking back at least to the Renaissance, if not to the late Middle Ages. Australia, in my mind, owns those histories as much as the United Kingdom or the United States of America, do.

I think that ignorance of history is, indeed, a brake on progress. And on bilateral relations between nation states. If people in third-world Muslim countries understood how long it took to secure prosperity for the masses, they would be less likely simply to see the West as a decadent bully.

It is hard to blame them for their ignorance when our own citizens, whose ownership of the franchise was so hard-won, know little also. So much is taken for granted at home that it is hard for most Aussies to understand why third-world leaders treat authority as a commercial opportunity. Governments in England in the 18th century were equally corrupt.

Do you ever communicate with Julie Bishop? I find it richly ironic that I, as an ideal exponent of her vision for education (tertiary level, postgraduate student, interest in history, belief in the value of liberal democracy, full-time employed, home owner) would never vote conservative.

I hope this letter finds you in good health.


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