How history shapes national identity

Finlay Boyle

Alan Aitkinson

Alan Aitkinson

It’s a quiet afternoon in one of the many historic rooms of St Paul’s College, Sydney University, established 1856. Sunlight from the main quadrangle streams into the second story window of Professor Alan Atkinson’s office, and reflects off his large glasses.

The office is stacked with books, including both a copy of the Iliad and the Odyssey. “Don’t worry, I did make sure to read both of them. They’re not just there for show,” he says.

Professor Atkinson sits in a director’s chair in front of his desk; he is dressed in smart grey trousers and a casual shirt. His glasses magnify his kind eyes. Several copies of his recent book, The Europeans in Australia: Volume Three, are on the desk.

After winning the 2015 $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature, he simply says, “It’s nice to be done.” He says the book took a particularly long time, so much so that he felt, at times, that it would be never finished.

He says that when he first began to write this history, he never anticipated the magnitude of what he would later publish.

“When I started getting this all together in the late 1980s, it was initially only supposed to be a colonial history of New South Wales, because that’s what I was interested in and what I knew. After that, it just got bigger and bigger in terms of geography and in terms of time span.”

But Professor Atkinson could not curb his intellectual curiosity in the colonial history of Australia. He is a man with a deep passion for the humanities in its many different aspects. To him, history is as important as humanity itself.

“I think of history as a moral discipline really that exercises the human imagination, that extends an understanding of people who were very different, that allows entry into the past. It is very like travelling in that it broadens the mind and it widens one’s sense of what it is to be human.”

His engagement with this moral discipline began a long time ago on a cattle station in rural Queensland where he grew up. He says he was an avid reader and it was from reading historical books that he drew this fascination for the historical discipline.

Speaking about his upbringing, he says, “My mother read to us every night, and she quite often read Charles Dickens and things like that. So I assume that must have helped a little bit.”

His first personal endeavour in the study of history was born out of the fascination with his family history.

“When my grandmother died when I was around 10, we inherited a lot of old family bits and pieces. I was at that age when my mind was sort of ready to leap outside my own time span and start exploring these sort of more deep and meaningful things.”

His love of writing about history continued during his time as a student at St Paul’s College. He became enamoured with the writings of social historians such as E.P. Thompson who he describes as “one of the great innovators of the 1960s”.

“E.P. Thompson was a Marxist historian in the sense he was much more interested in culture, interaction and social history than he was in economics. It certainly had a Marxist drive to it, but it was much more focused on subjectivity and worldviews and things like that.

“I like the idea of history where there’s a sort of familiarity, yet still quite a difference. I like that contrast. I like finding out how people were fundamentally different from us in the sort of undercurrents history and ordinary life.”

It was while writing about the undercurrents of history that he found his biggest challenge in when producing his volumes of Australian history – structure.

“I write with a real fluidity in that I jump around all over the place, so finding a structure was probably the biggest challenge,” he says. “When you’re trying to work out what the history looks like from below, from inside people, from a subjective point of view, it’s hard to impose a pattern on it.”

Alan Atkinson lives and works in St Paul’s College. As the Senior Tutor, he says “living at St. Paul’s college is terrific in that it engages the imagination all the time. That’s what’s really unique and nice about living here.

“The only place that I can think of that’s much the same would be Venice. Venice is like a theme park. It’s like going into a time capsule.”

Alan Atkinson writes for no reason other than a pure, honest and sometimes gleeful fascination for his subject, and is not at all afraid to admit that.

“The historian is an intrinsic part of the history he or she writes, and I make no attempt to separate myself from my subject, because that would be impossible. It’s largely due to interest in my family tree that I became interested in historical study in the first place.”

Now that he has finished his three-volume work on Australian history, he says he’s going to focus on finishing the history of St Paul’s College, and delve back into his family history.

Alan Atkinson will join a discussion on how and why political climates of the past continue to shape Australia’s national identity. The Shadow of Yesterday will be on Thursday, May 21, 4.30 to 5.30, Pier 2/3, Club Stage.