‘The Europeans in Australia A History Vol 2: Democracy’ by Alan Atkinson

2004 , 339 p. & notes.

I’d been looking forward to reading this book for some time.  I bought Volume 1: The Beginning some time ago at an incredibly cheap price, courtesy no doubt of some intricate global book industry policy structure, and was instantly engrossed by such a different way of telling.  So- what to do?  Relish the series and honour its author’s vision by reading it in its intended order starting with Volume 1?  Or jump ahead into Volume 2, which after all, is the period that I am more interested in, and go back to Volume 1 later? In the end the exigencies of library renewal periods and the imperative to actually write this section of my thesis (as distinct from doodling around reading it)  won out, and so Volume 2 it was.

I was reassured in reading the Foreword that perhaps I would not be too hampered by not having read Volume 1.  He reprises some of the main themes, and speaks of how he is going to pick them up and introduce new themes in this second volume. The series, he says, is meant as “a history of common imagination in Australia” (p.xii)- not identity, but imagination- not just through the views of powerful individual men, but the imagination of large numbers of people considered together.  The change over the decades 1820s-1870 was in part generational, and also a product of the revolutions in communications, literacy and ‘systems thinking’.   He identifies the broad argument of the book and how the chapters contribute to its larger themes.

Which is a good thing, because I have to admit that during the reading of the book, I kept berating myself for not “getting it”.  Despite the title, which suggests a political text, this is a book about imagination, experience and ideas- all intangible entities that are best seen through their expression in individuals’ actions.  I enjoyed his vignettes and careful interweaving of the experiences of men and women, convicts and intellectuals, but I kept feeling as if the bigger themes were running through my fingers like sand.  In a review of the book, Ged Martin observes that

The reviewer too must soar to catch the author’s winged heels: this is a pointillist history…Atkinson’s meaning flows subliminally and is not easily pinned down. As he enigmatically puts it: ‘ vivid things are to be glimpsed merely on their passing our window.’ (p. 286)

I’m relieved to read this: I was beginning to think that perhaps I was being particularly thick. Within the parameters of his large, important themes, the detail is written almost as a stream of consciousness that meanders between ideas.  An example- Chapter 13 Railway Dreaming, which was perhaps my favourite chapter.  I’m not alone in focussing on this chapter- other reviewers (see below) seem to have been attracted to this chapter too.  Why, I wonder? Is it because, like me, they shook themselves and sat up straight and ordered themselves to “Start concentrating!”?  Or was it because, over half way through, suddenly you become aware of how Atkinson is working through his argument?  Is it the writing, or the reader?  He starts this chapter speaking of the democratic settlement- a three sided concept with politics on one side, commerce and enterprise on the other, and the way government worked as the third section.  He talks about systems, which are exemplified by gynaecology as a form of objective tenderness, and studies of inner-urban slum life and disease where disease was  often caused by water supply. Australia was now a richer place; chemistry and consumerism led to the development of glass bottles; glass and iron was used in London’s Crystal Palace and also in railways- Dickens wrote of ‘railway dreaming’ and the Moonians.  Railway dreaming in Australia included ideas of federal co-operation; there was thrill and terror in train-travelling; and Australia’s first serious train accident occured in 1858.  Mrs de Courcey, a travelling piano-teacher was injured in it.  She needed to work because her husband was ‘deranged’, and she said that she herself became ‘deranged, almost, for a time’ from the injuries she sustained.  Lunatic asylums were developed; a leading physician was Frederick Norton Manning, who was an apostle among the lunatics of Queensland. Queensland itself was a kind of hallucination; and then follows a potted history of the development of Queensland.

I found myself just letting go,  swept along by this assured and insistent whirlpool of ideas, but often found myself gasping for air, wondering where on earth I was going. It was with almost a sense of relief that at I turned to the Afterword and discovered that, really, I had understood the direction after all.  Turning back to the Foreword at the start of the book again, I  found that, yes,  he had done all that he had promised and more and that yes, there was an argument there had I had followed, almost without realizing it.

This series is written after Atkinson has spent thirty years reading, study and talking.  The period of time covered in this book (from about 1820s to about 1870s) is very much Atkinson’s ‘patch’, given his work on Push from the Bush which accompanied the 1838 volume of the Australians series. It has been likened to Manning Clark’s opus in its vision, and as with Clark  it is a creative,  idiosyncratic and personalised sweep that tells much, but certainly doesn’t give you “what happened and when”.  It is not a book for novices.

The book itself is divided into three sections, each prefaced by a description of insects in Australia to highlight a theme:  a locust swarm “Still they Kept Coming”;  the noise of cicadas “Their Method of Utterance”; and the disturbance of tightly packed insects in a decayed log of wood “The Masses Unpacked.”  The final image of the book is of a log that contained two ant nests: the first forming a thick crust, which when broken open revealed a complex labyrinth of ant-architecture.

The two ant-nests, old and new, might be taken to stand for the two generations that are described in this volume- the generation that coloured life around the 1830s and that of the goldrush years and after.  The notion of an intricate way of life given over and replaced by something new certainly matches what I say here.  At length, the habits of earlier days seemed to be, in the minds of the young, as dried up and useless as Moore’s “great city”. The Europeans in Australia made for themselves another mental habitation, like the ants.  Like the ants, moreover, they were gatherers from the world beyond, living by traffic and communication.  In rehousing themselves they drew their main materials, all that coloured glass, all those entrancing ideas, from Britain and the United States. (p. 339)

The poetry of his narrative, the bravery of his history-writing, the aurality of his perspective (because this is a ‘noisy’ history) are all breath-taking in their novelty and audacity.  I did enjoy the book once I reached the end of it, a bit like reaching the end of a water slide.  It was a long climb up; I wondered on the way down whether I was going to go over the edge; and probably- probably- I’d like to climb up and do it again.

Some other reviews:

Ged Martin review-  I can’t get the link to work but it’s a PDF document that should download at  http://www.nla.gov.au/openpublish/index.php/ras/article/download/288/346

Marion Snell’s review at Politicalreviewnet at


Paul Pickering http://www.api-network.com/main/index.php?apply=reviews&webpage=api_reviews&flexedit=&flex_password=&menu_label=&menuID=&menubox=&Review=4493

3 responses to “‘The Europeans in Australia A History Vol 2: Democracy’ by Alan Atkinson

  1. Pingback: Reflection: Europeans in Australia – Vol III | Stumbling Through the Past

  2. Been looking for this one. Where did you pick up your copy? I can’t find a single one, used or otherwise. Printing batch must have been seriously small. Nice review. Cheers.

    • I borrowed it from a university library. I think you’re right. I was able to pick up a remaindered paperback copy of Volume 1, but didn’t ever see a similar one for volume 2. Must read volume 3 one of these days. Thanks for commenting

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s