The trouble with history

HISTORY OR LIES? The ‘Father of History’, Greek Historian Herodotus (Photograph by Konstantinos Stampoulis).

A Writer’s first lesson in the politics of publishing.

WRITING about the past is dangerous. Spare a thought for Greek historian Herodotus (c.484-425BC), known as both the ‘Father of History’ and ‘The Father of Lies’ depending on who you believe.

Here in Australia we’ve become so outraged by historical exploration of our nation’s journey that there is now a term for the debate – The History Wars.

I came to realise how controversial history writing is during my second foray into getting published.

As I embarked on a simple local history book (written to mark the centenary of Coorah, a Victorian-era house), I was full of a heady naiveté, thinking it would be a cinch. But nothing prepared me for the fuss this seemingly innocent publication would cause.

Equipped with a dose of academic detachment (for how I developed this trait, read my previous post on academic writing), I set off to follow a few leads – various people living in my town had worked at this home before the Second World War. Surely they’d be happy to speak about their time in this historic home?

But while recording a series of interviews, the great material I anticipated was not forthcoming. Some of the subjects raised an eyebrow at why anyone was remotely interested in their lives. Trying to explain how first-hand accounts are invaluable in fleshing-out history, I glossed over the grumbles and complaints and put it all down to old age.

Then came the primary evidence. In those pre-internet days, research for this kind of material was laborious, based on luck and generous contacts. Nevertheless, I spent many happy hours in the State Library making brilliant discoveries using processes of deduction, and when I found material related to others’ research, I made copies and duly passed it on.

Since the old house had been an Anglican hostel for children, church records were also of interest. A kind administrator from Sydney’s Anglican records office found plenty of references to the lives of the kids who’d lived in the home in the 1940s and quickly sent them for use in the book. Perhaps a little too quickly…

Eventually there was enough original material to start writing the book, but then the trouble really began.

The descendants of the family who’d built the house were contacted. Their awkward reactions to my queries left me with the distinct feeling I was treading on the toes of the ‘official family historian’.

I put this aside because word had gotten around about our book, and we were getting offers of assistance, extra historical material, and photographs.

Sometimes these came with a great spirit of generosity – after all, we weren’t about to make a fortune for voluntarily writing this book.

More often, the ‘gatekeepers’ for much of the material were difficult characters, heavy with their reminders that they were ‘experts’ in various fields, that we were somehow lacking in experience and the same commitment to the past as they. Plenty of head-nodding and patience were required to extract necessary archives from the hands of collectors.

Foremost in our minds was the earliest known image of the home, boasted-about by the executive who’d been given it after news about our book got out, and now stored in his office on the same site as this 100-year-old home. Of course we were very keen to include it in the publication.

No amount of queries, by letter or by phone, could get that image into the light of day. We never received an outright ‘no’, but the delay caused by his dissembling was putting pressure on our deadline. The home’s centenary was fast approaching, and we’d planned, understandably, to have our book available for sale on the very day.

CAPTIVE PHOTOGRAPH The earliest known image of Coorah, in Wentworth Falls.

So the manuscript was duly presented to the publisher, in the same office as the photograph-concealer. We waited, and waited, and waited. Why? Again, we were met with mysterious dissembling.

Our deadline came and went. The centenary was celebrated, but with no book. It was printed six weeks later, without any opportunity given to its writers for proof-reading. The brand new title languished in boxes, its target audience long gone.

More than a little disappointed, I got back to my drama school coursework and waitering job, and tried to make history of what had turned out to be a deflating experience.

“It was little wonder there were no copies of our book hanging around as pesky reminders of the historical truth.”

Six years later, a meeting with a woman who’d been housed at this old building while it was a church hostel revived the home’s story. Her account shed new light on the experiences recorded in the ecclesiastical records. Far from the ‘happy times’ which Anglican subscribers were fed in the 1940s, this place had actually been a source of fear to many of the resident children. At this time, generations of stolen, abused and neglected children in Australia were just starting to surface and tell their stories.

The house itself had been given a timely facelift, and the force behind the transformation proved to be the very same guardian of the earliest photograph of the building. Unfortunately, he never got around to reading our book, or even having a copy of it on display. Misinformation about the building was rife – basic facts, like dates, which the book had recorded from primary sources, were not being communicated.

The cause of that was a little harder to discover, but it also revealed itself, in time.

The photograph-concealer headed-up a push to adapt the old house into a public space, very far removed from the building’s core purpose. Our historical research showed that half a century before, the man who built the house had donated it for charitable purposes, for ‘use amongst children’.

Childrens’ homes and a school were undoubtedly fitting uses under that extremely generous gift, but what about a use which had less to do with the needs of children and more to do with the vested interests of adults? With this yawning gap between the original owner’s intentions, and the home’s new life, it was little wonder there were no copies of our book hanging around as pesky reminders of the historical truth.

Over two decades have passed since the home’s centenary. There is now a whole new generation of family historians amongst the descendants of the man who built it, and they hosted their first family reunion there a few years ago. I attended and was taken by surprise when one of them held out a copy of our little book on the house, asking me for my signature in it. A flattering, poignant moment for me.

Around that time I started writing again.

The avoidance of history has now become far more fascinating to me than history itself, and has become integral to my work. I know that when I write something about the past, based on events which actually happened, it’s going to get me in trouble, somewhere, sometime…

And what of that elusive photograph? Well, thanks to the internet, I publish it here with this post, just because I can.

And what of my first full-length publication? Well, after two decades, all those once-languishing copies have become as rare as hen’s teeth, and our research has contributed to the record.

And what of the house? Well, after two decades masquerading as something it was never intended to be, I hear its current residents are looking for another home. History has a strange way of coming back to bite, after all.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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