Almanac Books: ‘Making Australian History’ – Anna Clark






Can the history of Australia be written without sport?

Roy Hay


I have been reading Anna Clark’s Making Australian History, which is a wonderful account of the way the discipline of history has tried to tell the story of Australia and the issues that have arisen since the late eighteenth century. Clark is the granddaughter of Manning Clark, who wrote a multi-volume history of this country and was a hugely influential figure in the interpretation of our past. Anna Clark, a brilliant historian in her own right, has spent much of her career trying to separate herself professionally and intellectually from her grandfather. She worked very closely with Stuart Macintyre at the University of Melbourne and was caught up in the History Wars as the discipline tried to find ways of coming to terms how our past should be understood and interpreted.


Anna Clark’s method is to select an aspect of our consciousness and then a historical work that provides the springboard for a deep consideration of the period when the work was written and the significance of the changes that were occurring around that time.


I had the good fortune to spend some time at Manning Clark House in Canberra when the driving force of the Footy Almanac was the director of the House. He kindly arranged for me to spend a fortnight there while researching in the National Archives and other libraries and repositories in the capital. For me it was very productive time and I sat in Manning Clark’s chair in a little eyrie in the upper floor of the house absorbing some of the ambience of his writing and working environment. Anna Clark did too and found books she had been trying to obtain on inter-library loans resting on the shelves of his study.



Robin Boyd’s Manning Clark House in Forrest, ACT. Photo: Roy Hay.



The book is brilliant—easy to read though dealing with serious and profound and sometimes highly contentious issues then and now. She has the gift of being able to ‘patiently explain’ the heart of the matter and its significance, without becoming didactic. The reader is taken into her confidence as the important elements of the story are revealed.


When it comes to ‘country’, I think the author has got into another contentious area. Australian writers and anthropologists have come to believe that the attachment to the land, environment, place from which the ancestors of today’s indigenous people sprung is part of what they are. They are unique. The understanding that people are part of and shaped by the land is common in many parts of the world. The stories they tell about the long and deep history, passed on in vibrant oral traditions exists all over the Americas and in the highlands of Scotland and on the steppes of Asia. As we discover yet more about the length of time Indigenous people have inhabited this island continent it appears that these are the oldest stories ever told, judging by the archaeological remains as well as the oral traditions.


I have only one major criticism of the book. Can you write the history of this country without considering sport? It always amazes me that even though some of our leading historians have been complete devotees of one or more of our national sports and serious barrackers for teams and individuals that played the games, they somehow managed to write their major works and seldom, if ever, mentioned the significance of sport in the national story. Recently, I suppose I have gone to the other extreme and begun to write about how sport helps to explain and amplify our understanding of our history. I have started in an area where there was little or no appreciation that sport was even played by Indigenous people because they were excluded by the gatekeepers of cricket and football from appearing at the top levels of the summer and winter games in the second half of the nineteenth century. At local level it was sometimes very different as the descendants of the original inhabitants forced their way into individual sports, like athletics or pedestrianism and boxing, and then into the main team games. From this we can see Indigenous people as agents in their own and the country’s story, not just passive victims of white oppression, though that existed and continued to plague the best of the Indigenous stars.


Can anyone explain why, if I type Making Australian History into the Penguin Random House website, it brings up only one book—Edward J. Mason and Morris West’s Dick Barton and the Firefly Adventure?


Anna Clark, Making Australian History, Vintage, Penguin Random House, various addresses, 2022, ISBN 9781760898519, RRP $34.99.


You can read more from Roy Hay Here.


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  1. Roseville Rocket says

    Thanks Roy for an excellent thoughtful review.

    Whenever I pick up a local history book I look at the index to see if football is listed, if not it loses all credibility, well, with me anyway. Haha.

    Same for books on the history of Australian football – no listing for Wagga or the Riverina, no sale!

    Enjoying your reviews Roy.

  2. Thanks Roy. Your emphasis on Anna’s engaging writing style makes it a book I will seek out. Didactic worthy tomes leave me cold. Important themes. Sport – not religion – is the opiate of the modern masses.

  3. Thanks, gentlemen. I learned a lot from the book and it was no strain to read it. I find that books and articles that find it necessary to tie themselves to the latest theoretical position leave me cold. I know all history is influenced by what we are concerned with today. Each generation has to tell its own history. One of the big issues, one which this book addresses, is how can we meld Indigenous stories and gubba ones given that their sources and methods are so different? Can we reach a common understanding? It is an interesting puzzle and I don’t think we’ve got there yet.

  4. Frank Taylor says

    Thanks for the review Roy.
    As a self-proclaimed history nut, I find worthy books on this subject irresistible. Like Peter B, I will seek this out,
    Thanks again.
    Frank Taylor

  5. You will enjoy and learn from it, I’m sure Frank. It is so well written that you hardly realise how much new information you are being presented with as you read. Each chapter is like a little detective story on its own as Anna Clark shares her pleasure in what she has discovered and teases out its significance. She is a marvellous teacher and makes learning fun. Can you ask for more?
    I’ve sent Anna Clark a copy of my review, for I was pretty certain that she would not be reading it otherwise. She tells me she enjoyed my take on the book.

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