The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft
by Tom Griffiths

Mr Griffiths’ book has proved to be every bit as interesting as I had hoped.

Book Blogger, Diane Challenor of Artuccino

The minute I saw Tom Griffith‘s book description on Amazon I knew his book was a book I must read.  It was listed on Kindle Unlimited, but I wasn’t a subscriber. I’d considered joining Amazon’s eBook library previously, so I subscribed and picked up “The Art of Time Travel“.

My book-blog posts at Artuccino ((Note: My book blog, Artuccino was closed in 2020, and all my reviews were transferred to my page on GoodReads.)) showed how much I love books about the craft of writing.  Closely associated with the craft of writing is the historians’ craft.  If you combine my interest in the craft of writing, to my enthusiasm for collecting fragments of history related to Allan Cunningham, via The Allan Cunningham Project, then it may become clear that a book about historians, Australian historians, would be one that I would gobble up.

Mr Griffiths’ book has proved to be every bit as interesting as I had hoped, and has inspired me to tap out this blog post, and re-visit ideas for The Allan Cunningham Project that have been on my back-burner for a long time.  In particular the chapter about Henry Reynolds got me thinking about how we, the average Australian remembers our history, and how we continue to have a distorted historical memory. Is it OK to blame someone else? Oh good, then I blame the history curriculum for high school students in the 1960s. (I left school at 15 years of age.)  But who is to blame, for the years since then.  Well, can I keep blaming my 1960s education. Please let me! You see, whenever I thought about Australian Colonial History, I thought about it as being boring, and of little interest. Our 1960s education covered British Kings and Queens, with a very light sprinkling of Australian Colonial History, mainly about explorers and their tragedies.  There was no depth and it was silent about the truth of the way this land was “occupied” by the new British arrivals.

Here at The Allan Cunningham Project we delight in picking up fragments related to “our” botanist explorer, Allan Cunningham.  We have a massive store of fragments collected over the ten years our project has been active.  The problem we have is: our team has no formal training in historical research; we are self-taught, resulting in much of our research being left behind in our files, never to see the light of day.  We have a great respect and appreciation for historians because we understand the skills required to be a good one.  Historians are able to read and retain massive amounts of information, analyse and consider the information, and then communicate what they know to the world. They need to be passionate and tenacious about their subject, and be tough enough to debate their interpretation of historical moments, similar to scientists. Not an easy path to choose. The truth about an historical matter is always subject to the bias of, not only the historian, but the influences of current day politics and cultural appropriateness.  In the 2000s decade we are dealing with “political correctness” related to our times.  In the 1800s and 1900s the settlers survival depended on property ownership and wealth which was based on their belief in their right to buying and selling property. If the Government said it was alright, then they believed it. Turning a blind-eye to the treatment of our “First-Australian” during the British occupation of Australia was a matter of survival for the settlers.

My first experience of the truth about Australian History, in particular, the aboriginal experience, was John Pilger’s ground breaking book “The Secret Country“.  Since then I’ve read Roger Milliss’ book, “Waterloo Creek – The Australia Day massacre of 1838, George Gipps and the British Conquest of New South Wales”. Shocking!  I’ve also read a great deal about Allan Cunningham but rarely do we hear from him, in his journals, much about the aboriginal situation, nor their plight, except brief passing comments. It’s amazing how we can read about our Australian history, and skim and skip it’s bloody past. Our hero, Cunningham, was focused on plant collection (this isn’t a surprise because he was a plant explorer), he was passionate about exploration, he learned navigation, plus social interactions, his family, and his connections were often top of mind. He also expressed compassion for the indigenous population.  Value for him was being of use to his patron, recognition and respect from other scientists, and being upwardly mobile.

It was easy, in the early years of The Allan Cunningham Project, to avoid the subject of the aboriginals’ plight, and focus on Allan Cunningham’s character, the things he achieved, the people he liked, the people who liked him, the people who didn’t like him.  Being true to my 1960s education I avoided what he was really doing. The truth is, he was finding ways for the British to go further into aboriginal territory.  He, like his contemporaries, thought of Australia as uninhabited “Terra Nullius” and took possession of the land. It must have been clear to all of the people living in the colony of New South Wales, at the time, that there was a lot of naked people of dark complexion walking about the streets of Sydney and Parramatta.  They were everywhere, and they were different, and uncomprehendingly to the colonials, the indigenous population didn’t understand ownership of the land; what they did understand was guardianship of the land.

In the history of the world it is known, and understood, that one population of people, often white, have been so contemptuous of culturally different populations, often indigenous people, that they don’t even recognise them as having any value, other than to enslave them, or destroy their culture and steal their treasures.  We depend on historians, scholars, to confirm these facts. It is happening today, in 2017.  We all know it! (Cast your eyes over the history of the Middle East, and see what seeds, the contempt held for one group of people for another, have sown.)

Mr Griffiths’ book, “The Art of Time Travel” gives us an insight into the workings of several Australian historians. Studying history helps us understand the world around us and the “why” of things, added to this study, understanding the passions and biases of the people who write that history can help us read between the lines and form an opinion about what to believe and what not to believe. “The Art of Time Travel” describes how different Australian historians have approached history, how and why they’ve written down what they know, sharing it with those of us who care to know.  The book explains the different inspirations that led the various historians down the path they chose, and it also gives the reader an understanding of the difficulties of stepping-out of the “politically correct” square, and that historical truth can only be told from a personal perspective.

The book is interesting, easily accessible, and very important, assisting those interested in history to get a better well rounded understanding of how history is shared with us, and it also tells us to take-care, and not believe everything we read, taking notice of what is missing for the historical narrative. Mr Griffiths book has given me an insight into how historians hone their craft, and how they share it.  It reminds us to take note of who wrote the history and why, and that their words are their personal-perspective on history.

Mr Griffiths’ book really injected energy in the workings of  my mind, and inspired me to write this blog.  If a book provokes thought, I believe it’s a good read.

ABOUT THE BOOK (Source: Book Blurb)

No matter how practised we are at history, it always humbles us. No matter how often we visit the past, it always surprises us. The art of time travel is to maintain critical poise and grace in this dizzy space.

In this landmark book, eminent historian and award-winning author Tom Griffiths explores the craft of discipline and imagination that is history.

Through portraits of fourteen historians, including Inga Clendinnen, Judith Wright, Geoffrey Blainey and Henry Reynolds, Griffiths traces how a body of work is formed out of a lifelong dialogue between past evidence and present experience. With meticulous research and glowing prose, he shows how our understanding of the past has evolved, and what this changing history reveals about us.

Passionate and elegant, The Art of Time Travel conjures fresh insights into the history of Australia and renews our sense of the historian’s craft.

“If the pst is a foreign country, Tom Griffiths makes the perfect travelling companion. Let him be your eyes and ears on our shared history. Most of all, follow his heart.” – Clare Wright

“A rare feat of imagination and generosity. No other historian has so eloquently and powerfully conveyed history’s allure.” – Mark McKenna

“Tells an evolving, bracing story of who we are. Exhilarating and essential reading – for all of us.” Morag Fraser


Tom Griffiths is the W K Hancock Professor of History at the Australian National University. His books and essays have won prizes in literature, history, science, politics and journalism, including the Prime Mister’s Prize for Australian History, the Alfred Deakin Prize for an Essay Advancing Public Debate, and the Douglas Steward and Nettie Palmer Prizes for Non-Fiction.

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