The title of this book is dishonest. There is little pretence to this being a comprehensive history of Australia. Instead, its focus is almost exclusively on the British colonists' policies and attitudes towards the indigenous inhabitants, and towards migrants of non-British background. On its own terms, it is very well written. The writing style is by far the most engaging that I've ever encountered in an historical text - and this very fact betrays what is really going on here: David Day has written a polemical argument, rather than a history.
The tone of the narrator borders on the humorous - it is angry, in a sneering and critical way, so much so that it reminded me of the work of the Austrian (not Australian) novelist, Thomas Bernhard. Like Bernhard, Day does not shy away from repetition. His argument is one of insistence. Facts are shaped to fit his purposes, and then deployed effectively. For those figures whose actions he dislikes, he feels entitled to make ad hominem attacks; thus Prime Minister Menzies is described as 'rotund' and 'stout', his bodily habitus being fair game for Day; relatedly, Day feels comfortable offering cursory psychological analyses of political figures - thus Menzies' and PM John Howards' attitudes are 'explained' by their childhood circumstances in country Victoria and suburban Sydney respectively - this is more the stuff of politcal satire than of history.
It is also not accurate to dub this a thoroughgoing revisionist history. Its scope is just too limited. For instance, there is a glaring neglect of women's roles - Day has perpetuated this neglect, rather than questioning it. He mentions various racial groups, but does nothing to tell their history - they are only important in their being the target of racist British colonial attitudes.
There is a frustrating lack of clarity in the presentation of basic chronology. Even on facts central to Day's argument, such as the size of the Australian population, both migrant and indigenous, he refrains from providing tables or summaries. Extracting the factual basis upon which to build an argument, be this his or one's own, is very difficult.
His biased perspective at times leaves him looking a little silly in the face of events. Thus, for several hundred pages he carps against the Colonialists' fears of the "Asian hordes", virtually laughing at them rather than seriously analysing the source of their fears - when the Japanese do begin their expansion in WWII, Day is embarassed; he is left to pull up his trousers with claims such as that Japan never intended to invade Australia, this claim being justified in cursory fashion. Worse still, changes in Australian attitudes and policies are left without an explanation. Day admits, and tacitly praises, the change in policy regarding the origins of migrants after WWII; but he is unable to enter a discussion as to why this change occurred. Having branded Australians as predominantly racist, Day simply recounts this change as an uncharacteristic, if welcome, deviation from the norm - it is left to PM John Howard to re-establish Day's argument. As a history, this is very weak - rather than exploring causes for events, Day gives up, implicitly saying, "Well, this just happened". For me, this is one of the most disappointing aspects of this text - the condemnation of racism, and the acknowledgemnt of atrocities, is stirring and vital, but Day gives little clue as to the forces which mollified such detestable inclinations.
Similarly, in regard the issue of how ownership/proprietorship is established over a territory is conceptually barren. Day circles around this issue, establishing its prominence in Australian history, problematizes it, but then fails to offer any conceptual machinery with which to clarify matters. He does not draw analogies with other countries. He does not invoke legal distinctions, nor their conceptual basis. In the end, he merely states the problem. The discussion remains at the level of - the indigenous people say that they were here first, and that they were using the land; the British colonialists say that for land to be claimed it need be worked and permanently settled - Colonial courts have upheld this argument up until the last few decades, when the Mabo and Wik judgements have called it into question. Of course, this is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go very far considering how central this issue is to the structure of Day's entire book.
I would certainly not recommend this book as an history, revisionist or otherwise. As an historian Day is not very insightful. However, I would encourage this work to be read as a polemic. Day adopts a position contrary to that implicit is some older historical texts, and he writes with verve and a cynical edge. The manipulative tone is a worthy counter to that spouted by current Australian politicians.
- Paperback: 360 pages
- Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd; 2nd Revised edition edition (7 February 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0732269768
- ISBN-13: 978-0732269760
- Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.5 x 22.9 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 476 g
- Customer Reviews: 2 customer ratings