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March 2011: Richard White

Richard White
Professor of History, University of Sydney

1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?

I have been taken aback, thinking about this question, because my primary interest is Australian history. Yet in looking over my erratic career, British history has been a surprisingly potent presence – even without thinking of Australia simply as a segment of ‘the British World’.

Growing up in suburban Sydney, I saw British history, I now realise, as a means of imaginative escape, though escape was neither necessary nor particularly desired. In primary school in the fifties and sixties, I was part of a baby-boomer generation where neither the cultural Anglophilia of an older generation nor the taken-for-granted national culture of a younger came naturally. We did British history and read English books, but not so obsessively that London or Oxbridge was a goal, as it was for so many older Australians. We also did Australian history of an old-fashioned sort: I enjoyed drawing maps of explorers and the boy’s-own adventure comic book treatment of their journeys. And I was always pleasantly surprised when a children’s book – The Crooked Snake by Patricia Wrightson or Brian James’ school novels – had Australian settings. It was an exciting discovery that Australia could have an imaginative life in history and literature too. But it had to be a discovery: it was not taken as read.

Nevertheless my two favourite authors, borrowed constantly from the local library, were very English, perhaps betraying a middlebrow schoolboy taste. In Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books, the appeal for me lay in the life not of the English boarding school but of the nearby English village. The world of ‘Chas Lumley – Homemade Cakes and Bicycles Repaired’ was so exotic and un-Australian, yet also seemingly so natural, so connected to the rest of my imaginative world in which England was the norm. The other great favourite was Ronald Welch, whose series of novels about the fictional Carey family dynasty provided an extended grounding in British history. My devotion to these writers was escapist, but there was none of the desperation about it that Barry Humphries and Clive James conjure up: Britain – and a historical Britain at that – was a default world where the imagination wandered when it wasn’t at home.

It helped that my family didn’t have television for a long time after it arrived in Australia in 1956. Australian television was much more American in content, as was the occasional trip to the ‘pictures’: Australian popular culture had embraced America in the 1920s while middle-brow culture was more British. By the time we had a television, I imagined myself too old or too sophisticated for the Australian content – SkippyNeighbours etc. – that a later generation took for granted, though I thrived on the new Australian current affairs programming. So it was a curious world growing up – certainly a colonial culture but not nearly as stolidly British as some now paint it. I was never desperate to escape a cultural desert, nor to assert a new nationhood. [Though even aged 8, nationalism had seeped in somehow: I remember wondering why there was such fuss about Shakespeare when Australia had a perfectly good poet in Banjo Paterson.] As I came of age Australia underwent one of its many ‘comings of age’ – the revival of the Australian film industry (it was a pleasant shock to hear natural Australian accents on the screen), the Whitlam Labor Government, Patrick White’s Nobel Prize, the opening of the Sydney Opera House.

I dearly wanted to travel outside Australia but again that was not inspired by any rejection of Australia itself as a setting for an imaginative life: I was perfectly happy living in Australia. At university my main interest was English literature initially – I had revised my assessment of the relative merits of William Shakespeare and Banjo Paterson – but I was increasingly drawn towards History. I studied both British and Australian history, though I also discovered the unexpected richness of past Australian literature: Joseph Furphy, Martin Boyd, Henry Handel Richardson. I arrived at university just as History was taking its cultural turn and English at Sydney was determinedly Leavisite, so I found History offered more scope for my interests than English. For my Honours thesis I had been thinking about an Australian topic but then in a flash of inspiration decided to study Britain’s ‘Angry Young Men’, a topic which provided precisely the mix of literary text and social context I was interested in: and Raymond Williams was something of a hero. Only after I began tutoring – first in, surprisingly, British and Russian history – did I finally make the decisive turn to Australian History. But even then one continuing interest was the extent to which Australian History – even its national identity, the subject of my first book, Inventing Australia – was framed within patterns of European and above all British norms.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

Raymond Williams – as above. But more directly, the two biggest influences were Ken Cable, a historian of religion who taught both 17th century British and (mainly 19th century) Australian history. The other was Ian Turner, the radical professor at Monash University, where I tutored in the 1970s, who was moving to an interest in popular culture. Though worlds apart, both brought the sort of combination of the social and the cultural that excited me. Cable drew on an older conservative tradition – he introduced me to Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History, a revelation – and Turner a more Marxist position via E. P. Thompson. Both were great historians but possibly greater in their teaching than their writing: they valued nuance, had an eye for the unexpected, were alive to other possibilities and wanted to reveal the richness and the ironies of life. Both are sorely missed.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

Apart from flirtations with being a fireman or a postman, I was always determined on being a teacher – a very predictable route for a shabby genteel, lower middle class family. Three of my four siblings became teachers, as did most of their spouses. And I still find teaching the more fulfilling side of an academic career: research is simply good fun.

4. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

The first child – Inventing Australia – always gets a special place and it (so far!) has had the most impact, but especially fulfilling was the project that resulted in On Holidays: a History of Getting Away in Australia, where I was able to combine teaching with writing in, I think, an original way. And of course the youngest, Symbols of Australia, which appeared last year. But then also the next is more fulfilling right now: I’m itching to write the book on my current Australian Research Council project – a study of how Australia’s past came to be a tourist attraction – but more research needs to come first.

5. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

Historians are hopeless at predicting the future but a reasonable bet would be that the ‘new political history’, extending cultural history to the study of political power, will keep quite a few historians occupied. The ‘transnational turn’ too has not yet worked itself out. This ‘turn’ is an interesting product of globalisation both as a theoretical construct (leading for example to the new interest in cosmopolitanism) and a matter of the practical realpolitik of academia: the claim to a ‘global’ reputation as distinct from a national one suddenly becoming an academic requirement. In Australia this has seen surprisingly a new ‘cultural cringe’ and a return to a focus on the colonial experience within the framework of empire. In Britain I imagine the transnational will continue to play out in three directions: towards a greater integration of British history with Europe; a further consolidation of the study of the ‘Atlantic world’; and thirdly, a continuation of interest in the British diaspora moving beyond the frameworks of the old ‘Commonwealth history’ tradition and postcolonialism.

6. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

Be guided above all by your own interests and enthusiasms: don’t try to second guess the next big thing. An academic career is often something of a lottery and while waiting for your number to come up you might as well be enjoying yourself. And of course that enthusiasm – for finding out new stuff you actually have an interest in finding out and for asking questions you don’t know the answers to – is going to show in your work.

Also remember the excitement and creativity of the writing process. If writing becomes a mechanical ‘writing up’ of research then there is something wrong. Think of the challenge the cubists posed: to represent three dimensions in two. The historian needs to represent four dimensions – a three dimensional world that changes over time – in just one, a single line of text that the reader will follow from beginning to (one hopes) end. That’s an enormous challenge: but it is also hugely liberating to recognise how artificial the process of writing is, and precisely because of that, how creative it can be. On the other hand it’s always possible to follow the advice of the odious Irwin in Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys:

Notoriously he would one day demonstrate on television that those who had been genuinely caught napping by the attack on Pearl Harbour were the Japanese and that the real culprit was President Roosevelt. Find a proposition, invert it, then look around for proofs. This was the technique and it was as formal in its way as the disciplines of the medieval schoolmen.

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