Not Dark Yet - A personal history

07 March 2011

Professor David Walker's book is curious, wry, poignant and sweet!

By Professor Tom Griffiths*

David Walker has long been a significant intellectual presence in Australian Studies.  He is one of the pioneers of cultural history in Australia, and he is impressively at ease with the ambition and breadth and inter-disciplinarity of Australian Studies.  There has been some scholarly angst over the years as to what constitutes Australian Studies.  Is it a distinct intellectual field, a discipline, an area study, a convenient administrative unit?  Is it parochial or outward-looking?  Does it just describe and group a range of existing disciplines or is it genuinely something new and meaningfully interdisciplinary and creative? 

Well, if I were to make the case for the latter, i.e. that Australian Studies is indeed a fertile field of endeavour in its own right, then the first witness I would call is Professor D. Walker.  His own writing ranges across history, politics, culture, literature and science, and now also memoir.  David doesn’t just do Australian studies incidentally or when it suits – he has shown a long and deep commitment to Australian Studies as a field with its own centre of gravity, and indeed gravity.  David is one of the major figures who have shaped this field both at home and internationally.

And I think that Australian Studies has its sharpest edge in places like this – here (in Copenhagen) on the other side of the world at -5 degrees, where there is a mixture of insiders and outsiders.  Of course, many of you are both – both insiders and outsiders, pats and ex-pats, or knowledgeable sojourners of the south.  Centres of Australian Studies abroad are often seen to play a missionary role for the home culture – and of course that’s partly true – but it is often overlooked that they are also engines of ideas for Australian Studies at home.  Visitors like us are looking for ways to contribute to what you are doing, but we are also here for stimulus and to learn and to see our country and its place in the world in new ways.

David does this naturally and superbly in all his work.  His work is organically Australian but part of a world conversation.  Two of his books in particular have become landmark works: Dream and Disillusion: A Search for Australian Cultural Identity (1976) and Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia, 1850-1939 (1999).  Anxious Nation was deservedly a winner of the Ernest Scott Prize for History.  Now this remarkable book, Not Dark Yet: A personal history, extends and deepens his impressive oeuvre.  What are we to make of this charismatic and enigmatic work?

What kind of book is it?  I referred to it a moment ago as a ‘memoir’.  But that was shorthand.  Is it a memoir, a family history, a cultural history of modern Australia, a study of memory, legend and storytelling, an investigation of national character, a local and regional study, a reflection on history and the historian’s craft, an auto-ethnography (to use a term David has favoured), or is it all or none of these?  Does it even matter how we categorise it?  The main thing is that the book does challenge us to wonder at its genre, and thus to recognize an unusual and creative amalgam.  You will see that it is subtitled A personal history, which I find a happy label, a place to begin.

It was loss of sight that propelled David into the compelling and moving exploration that constitutes this book.  He begins with that moment, on a wintry Sunday afternoon, when the line of a book he was reading first wobbled.  So we are introduced simultaneously to David’s love of books and to the failure of his sight, to the exciting and wondrous world of reading and to the shocking loss of it.  But although there is obvious tragedy in that, the tone of the book is not tragic and it is never self-pitying; instead, it is curious, wry, poignant and sweet.  Anyway, David’s mother had once said to him (as he reports) ‘the tragic mode was not my strength and that I’d be better off sticking with comedy’.  One of her most approving comments to her youngest child was: ‘You’re a fool, lad.  You know that don’t you?’

So from that first chapter, David introduces us to the world of books he is losing and also to his new dependence on those other sensory worlds that sighted people often neglect and underestimate.  This is a powerful and haunting quality of the book, this feeling that we are swimming in a mysterious, murky and at times glowing world of shapes and forms that we gradually learn to discern and see more clearly.  This metaphor climaxes in the book in the final chapter called ‘Underwater Sailors’ where the fate of David’s mother is so poignantly and movingly described, as she succumbs to the netherworld of Alzheimer’s.

David writes: “When I became legally blind, I had to rethink the kind of history I was able to write.  I had to find another, more personal voice and another way of writing.  The mix of the historical and the personal seemed promising.”

 David relates how family history was not something he did.  He was a professional historian, after all.  Family history was for amateurs and antiquarians.  Circumstance made him turn to sources closer to home and to sources unwritten. 

In the mid twentieth century, Australian history and literature were disdained as shallow and trivial and inferior.  And if Australian history was hardly worth attention, then South Australian history was even worse.  And as David puts it: “If South Australian history was dull I was in no doubt that the history of my family was sure to be worse than dull.”

But we discover alongside David, that family history, when it is not just dates and trees and formal lineages, and when it is connected to universal human themes, is fascinating.  In family history you come face to face, intimately and confrontingly, with a culture’s secrets and sensitivities.  David probes them, gathering scraps like a detective.  There is an archaeology of memories and stories here, and occasionally the sedimentary order is disrupted by seismic shifts as family experience re-inhabits the depths, and the past we thought was past is made poignantly present again. The uncertainty, the serendipity, the entrancing magic of research – archaeological, archival, oral – is resonant on every page.  This is an ethnography; everything is sifted for meaning: words, phrases, stories, the looks on adults’ faces, memories, legends, silences, letters, photos, artefacts. 

Like every good history this book is also a story of the process of discovery, of the chance and circumstance – even occasionally the rationality – of research.  An incidental mention of a name here, an impromptu phone call there, a stray document preserved, a memory stirred – and suddenly there is an insight, a revelation, or just a full understanding of loss.  David thinks about how he might have talked to some of these people before they died.  But then he reflects: “The sorry truth is that I did not know enough to ask a worthwhile question.”

That is the galling truth of family history, even the family history of professional historians.  It is astonishing what we don’t know.  People separated from us by just a generation or two are lost, gone, only tiny fragments of their rich full lives left. 

People who were beloved, known intimately, who had distinctive senses of humour, who nurtured hopes and visions both great and small, fail to be memorialized even and especially by their own loved ones.  David’s book is written in defiance of this forgetting.

It becomes a sustained meditation on memory, dreaming and storytelling.  We see, for example, the way the war years haunt and throttle the Australian psyche, such that grown-up boys in dusty inland Australian towns live the hours of darkness in tropical nightmares.

You can read this book as David Walker illuminating a poorly documented family history with his rich national historical imagination, filling in the enigmatic gaps with well-researched understandings of the Australian experience.  And you can also read the book the other way round, as an elucidation of national themes through the evocation of particular, personal stories.  Whatever way you see it, the two dimensions are always there: personal and national.  And the great themes of David’s professional research are there, too, woven into the tapestry of his family and personal stories.  Race, climate and eugenics, national literature and identity, the literariness of everyday life, nervous moderns and modern nerves, body culture, Australia’s relationship with Asia – they are all there, illuminated and illuminating.

One of the subjects of David’s PhD research makes an appearance.  Vance Palmer was a key figure in Melbourne’s radical nationalist literary establishment, and a subject to David’s book Dream and Disillusion, and David writes: “I was somewhat disconcerted to discover that, according to Palmer, the lives, values and preoccupations of most of my forebears had no place in the national story, their impressive rabbit-shooting abilities notwithstanding.”

Well David puts them back in the national story.  He writes of his elderly father: “He had become the living embodiment of a fading cultural heritage, a reminder of the quiet decencies attributed to an earlier, hat-wearing age”. 

David writes those quiet decencies, those privatised, unassumed suburban values back into Australian history.

Now, it needs to be said – and this will be no surprise to those of us who know David – it needs to be said that this is a very funny book.  As well as being poignant and sad and sometimes joyous, it is constantly and delightfully witty, and sometimes outright hilarious.  How does he manage this?  How does he manage to be funny without ever undermining the gravity of his own material?  It is an art, a high-wire circus balancing act of vertiginous proportions. 

The book is barely minted, but I’ve already read delicious slabs to my nearest and dearest.  There is a very appealing sensibility embedded in every sentence, every luminous paragraph.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry or cheer when I read it.

Congratulations, David!  Thank you for giving us this remarkable book.  Thank you for discovering and releasing this new kind of writing into Australian Studies.  We look forward very much to watching its impact as it finds delighted readers and starts new and important conversations.

*Professor Tom Griffiths is Professor of History and Director, Centre for Environmental History, ANU;Chair, Editorial Board, Australian Dictionary of Biography; Adjunct Professor of Climate Research, University of Copenhagen and a Professorial Affiliate, Centre for Historical Research, National Museum of Australia. This is an edited version of his address at the launch of Not Dark Yet: A personal history (Giramondo publishing) at the University of Copenhagen last month.

More like this

Research news