Australian historian John Hirst died on 5th February.
I remember seeing his name on his door in the history department when I first did undergraduate history at La Trobe in the 1970s, but I sailed through a B. A. without encountering him. It was to Dr Hirst that I had to make application, forty years later, when I decided to return to university after a prolonged period of ill-health, determined to do something that I really wanted to do instead of working in a cut-down capacity in my present job. I had addressed my email of inquiry to “Dear Dr Hirst”, and as he opened the door to his office he exclaimed “I knew you’d be a mature-aged student! None of this ‘Dear John’ stuff!” Dear John was, however, rather stringent in admitting me to the post-grad program at La Trobe, with his eagle-eye detecting the single ‘C’ mark in second-year history back in 1974 (given to me, ironically enough, by the lecturer I ended up working for as a research assistant some years later!) in amongst a CV that included good results in many other post-grad courses. He enrolled me in an honours course, just to see how I went, and had the grace to quickly waive the requirement after the first assessment task. By that time, however, I no longer wanted to leave the honours class. I had enrolled in a readings course with John, and I ‘grew up’ as a historian in the six months I sat in his tutorial room.
We read one Australian history book a week, starting with colonial history through to a range of ‘shist’ (Short History) compilations. I learned to read for the overarching argument as well as detail, to uncover assumptions, to weigh evidence, to notice structure. Some of my fellow students flagged a bit at one book per week, but I loved it.
I went on to tutor for John in his final presentation of first year Colonial History before retiring from lecturing- a subject he had taught for many years and had honed well. Each lecture was a tightly woven argument, with none of this trailing-off half finished because time had got away. You came out, not necessarily agreeing with him (in fact, I often did not agree with him), but having witnessed a historical argument being constructed, and supported, in front of your eyes. At the end of semester, I mentioned to the students how fortunate they had been to have had him, and I sat at the back of the room, proud of these 19 and 20 year-olds who spontaneously gave him a standing ovation at the end of the last lecture.
John wanted me- he wanted all his postgrad students – to write big history, and I’m afraid that I probably disappointed him in that regard. John had a long-standing interest in the Australian character, republicanism and the democracy of manners. In recent years as ‘John Hirst’, rather than ‘J. B. Hirst’, he moved out of academe into the public sphere, where he published a number of books under the Black Inc impress. Although some of his recent books combined span with brevity (e.g. The Shortest History of Europe) several of his other recent publications were compilations or reworkings of articles he had written in academic journals over the years, and were marked by his trademark punchiness in both language and logic. He argued with his brain, without rancour or oneupmanship.
I did a search of this blog under ‘Hirst’ to see how many of his books I had reviewed. There was only one, Convict Society and its Enemies, but many, many posts came up where I had referred to him by name. His own work in Australian colonial history was big history, even though in his chapter-length articles the canvas he worked on may have seemed to be small. He influenced me deeply as a historian, even though I found his politics frustratingly difficult to pigeon-hole. He was a man of the mind and generous in his attention. Vale, John.