On a busy morning at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, three authors, all winners of the NSW Premier’s History Prize, sat down at Walsh Bay to attempt to unravel one of the most vexed questions for contemporary historians: To what extent can they really recreate the past? Is it possible to reconstruct a picture of history knowing only the facts?
In the session ‘Past Imperfect: Is History Recoverable’, Ian Hoskins, John Gascoigne and Mike Carlton agreed: the writing of history does require imagination as well as facts and evidence.
“Each generation asks different questions to the past, and imagination is linked to these questions,” said Professor Gascoigne, Scientia Professor at UNSW, a specialist on the Enlightenment and the 18th Century. Ian Hoskins is an academic and public historian. While writing his most recent book, Coast: a history of the NSW edge, he said always tried to remember where he is coming from and stay self-reflexive, because there are no more witnesses of the bygone times and in that case historians need imagination.
Mike Carlton, a journalist and broadcaster who also describes himself as a novelist writing non-fictional history, agreed. “But it is a tool that has to be used sparingly and honestly,” he said.
Mr Carlton is not a professional historian, although his book First Victory won the 2014 NSW Premier’s Prize for military history. As he described how glad he is not to be a professor, the whole room laughed. He spoke enthusiastically about his childhood dream to become a naval officer. He read The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat at the age of 11. He still finds himself fascinated by the navy and reads everything he can find on the subject. And then he asked himself a simple question, why not write such books on his own?
He has produced two books of naval history: Cruiser: the Life and Loss of HMAS Perth and Her Crew, and First Victory, set in WWI about the battle between HMAS Sydney and the German raider Emden. Mr Carlton knows how to bring the raw facts to life. A sea battle is largely incomprehensible to the most people, he said, with a lot of noise, gunfire and death. Therefore the journalist focuses on the individual, how this horrible situation affected one sailor or the captain. He tries to find out where the individual is coming from, why he is on the ship and who his girlfriend is. “By selecting the right protagonist you can tell a much bigger story in a much more focused way,” he said.
Mr Carlton had spent hours sitting in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra delving through original documents, old newspapers, ship logs and private letters sent home by sailors. “It is just an enormous tactile side as well as the pleasure of reading,” he said.
Finding stories and working with primary sources is very important for him. But the aspect of this work that he likes the most is speaking with eyewitnesses, “there are some fabulous characters and it is actually my job as a journalist,” he said. Mr Carlton spoke with veterans of both sides of WWII: “They are in their 90s and at this age they just want to tell the truth.”
Thus, Mr Carlton learns about the way people behaved, beyond the bare facts. One war veteran, who was on board the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia, described to him a sea battle in the Pacific. Mr Carlton thought it must have been absolutely awful, but the old sailor told him, “I loved it!” It was probably the highlight of his life.