Lyndon Megarrity interviews Graeme Davison, author of My Grandfather’s Clock: Four Centuries of a British–Australian Family, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2023.

 

Congratulations on your new book. You have now published two volumes of family history, the first on your mother’s side of the family (Lost Relations) and this current, second volume, on your father’s side of the family. What can academic historians learn from a study of family history, and, similarly, what insights might family history societies learn from an academic approach to history?

I was interested in the family history boom well before I decided, quite accidentally, to research my own family’s past. About thirty years ago I was invited to speak to the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies. I knew very little about family history so I spent several afternoons browsing in the Institute’s Library among the hundred of mostly self-published family histories. Who were these family historians? Why did people write these massive tomes? What kind of history were they? My talk became a chapter of my book The Use and Abuse of Australian History (2000). Later on, I published an article ‘Speed-relating’ in History Australia (2009) exploring the implications of the digital and DNA revolutions in family history.

Then in 2013 my sister came home from England for a big birthday and asked me to lead an expedition to my mother’s ancestral territory, the Victorian goldfields. Lost Relations (2015), the book that grew out of that expedition, is both a family history and an exploration of the fertile ground between academic and family history. It’s a kind of experiment on myself.  By bringing my questions, doubts and emotional responses to the surface of the narrative, I hoped to stimulate similar reflections among my readers. When people are asked how they feel connected to the past, they usually begin speaking about their own families. Heirlooms and photographs often mean more to them than the written word. Most family histories are likely to be of interest only to the writer’s family and sometimes not even to them. Their fatal flaw is a lack of historical context. Meanwhile academic history, including the history of the family, is often too impersonal to engage non-academic readers. By locating the little history of my own family inside the big histories of migration, war, industrial and agricultural change, I hoped to show how they could each illuminate the other. My Grandfathers’ Clock explores different questions from Lost Relations and covers a much longer period. Through family history I found an authorial voice that seemed to come naturally to me, and which readers also found engaging.

 

Much of My Grandfather’s Clock was written during the COVID pandemic when travel to archives in Australia and overseas was either not possible or practical. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being compelled to rely on digital sources for history research and writing?

Pilgrimage is the standard metaphor for ‘doing’ family history and the ancestral homeland is its natural destination. We hope that back there a more primitive version of ourselves lies waiting to be discovered. It’s a fiction, of course, born of the romantic imagination and the process of displacement that has landed us, as Australians of colonial British descent, in a land that is as yet only partially our own. Yet I was eager to experience that ‘return’ to the European homeland as much as I could. I wanted to walk the landscape, visit its village graveyards and talk to the locals. I made two expeditions to the Scottish borders before COVID prevented my return.

https://www.ancestry.com.au/

As much as I wanted to return, I realised after a while that the land of my ancestors is now more accessible through the digital record of contemporary maps, visitors’ accounts, state papers, parish registers, tax returns and the like than it is to the ‘roots tourist’. Thanks to the power of digital search engines, I can locate and follow people in the past in ways that we could only imagine twenty years ago. The historian Edward Thompson famously aspired to ‘rescue’ the unlettered people of the past from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. My own forebears, William Davidson[1], a block printer, and Richard Davidson, a shoemaker, were such people. I was able to find them amidst the millions of others in the archive, and follow them through the convulsions of the industrial revolution. A historian with a PC, a subscription to Ancestry.com and an Excel spreadsheet can do in minutes what took the pioneers of demographic history hundreds of years of painstaking transcription, coding and analysis. To be sure, there are traps for the unwary and credulous in the digital domain. Ancestry.com is both a gateway to original sources and a rubbish dump of flawed research. Family historians now need to re-engineer the old tools of source criticism for the digital age.

 

My Grandfather’s Clock demonstrates, inevitably, an historian’s fascination with time: how it is measured, how it is perceived, how it is regulated and how society and the world change through major events or in the longer term (i.e. the passing of years, decades and centuries). Has your exploration of family history over four centuries altered or confirmed your understanding of historical time?

Alexander Schimmeck (via Unsplash)

In 1994 I published a short history of time-telling in Australia, The Unforgiving Minute. When I later discovered that the grandfather clock I inherited from my great aunt had been in our family for about seven generations, I began to think about the history of time in a more personal way. Clocks, I realised, were not only instruments of industrial work-discipline but tools for personal self-improvement and symbols of personal worth and status. They enabled people to take charge of their own time as well as subjecting them to the temporal demands of others. Clock time, of course, is only one dimension of historical time, and in my book I also attempt to reconstruct the Davisons’ life in a ‘time before clocks’ and, coming closer to the present, to explore the shifts in time consciousness that preceded and followed the ‘great acceleration’ after the Second World War. I hoped to weave the idea of time and time-consciousness through the narrative subtly and organically, like a leitmotif, rather than as a fully coherent argument. Perhaps I was too subtle, for few reviewers, other than you, have picked up this aspect of the book so far.

 

 

Prior to the nineteenth century, the gaps in the historical record for British families are greater than in subsequent decades. To some extent a family historian is able to glimpse the world their ancestors lived in through the secondary sources which provide historical context: but are there hidden rabbit-holes even in this approach?

Most family historians succeed in tracing their forebears through the standard genealogical sources back to the late eighteenth century but give up as the paper trail becomes fainter. Back beyond about 1700 we enter the realm of supposition and myth. My uncle Frank once told me that we Davisons were descended from ‘cattle thieves on the Scottish border’. He was alluding to the reivers, the notorious bandits who terrorised the Borders in the sixteenth century. I could easily have dismissed this as a romantic myth but, in the spirit of adventure, I decided to see if I could find evidence to support it.

It was an excuse to return to a historical period I had always loved. As a first year student at Melbourne University I had been entranced by Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s lectures on Tudor and Stuart history. As an English student I fell in love with the Border Ballads. The Davisons seldom rate a mention in standard histories of the Borders. But I found them amidst the millions of words now stored in the digital archive. I could plot where they lived, how they moved, who they robbed and murdered, and how eventually they were driven from the land and began the long journey that ended with my grandparents’ migration to Australia in 1912. Part of the attraction was the romantic desire to find my ancestral origins but I was also fascinated by the challenge of connecting the family of myth to the family of history.

You ask whether there are traps in my approach. Yes, it’s true that I rely heavily on secondary sources to contextualise the exiguous primary record but I try to read the secondary literature critically, bearing in mind the risks of generalisation and staying alert to the beautiful unpredictability of human nature. I relish those occasions when my forebears defied contemporary mores, like the moment in 1851 when my great-great-grandfather Richard declared himself a teetotaller. Because I want my readers to share the risks of my journey I often pause to explain what I’m doing and why. So in a non-didactic way, I hope to communicate something of the thrill of historical inquiry.

 

Family folklore provides some of the glue which holds a family together, and the romance and wonderment of times long past are often what attracts a young girl or boy to study history. As an evidence-based historian, did you feel any ambivalence about potentially challenging your own long-held assumptions about the Davison family history?

In My Grandfather’s Clock I write: ‘In searching for my ancestors, I bring my scepticism as well as my romanticism along for the ride’. I think history as a discipline draws on both the scientific or sceptical and the imaginative or romantic impulses. As a young historian, I think I leant to the scientific side whereas now I yield more easily to the romantic side. Do I feel ambivalent about this? Not really, and nor, interestingly, do most family historians. There was a time when members of old Tasmanian families took razor blades into the archives to excise the names of their ancestors from the convict indents. Convict blood was incompatible with family honour.  Now many, if not all, family historians are happy to have a convict, or even a prostitute, in their lineage. We once looked to the past for ancestors who were better than we were. But now we are more likely to seek people of flesh and blood who share our frailty. We want a history that sustains our common humanity as much as one that transcends it.

 

A notable feature of the Davison family story is the importance of Methodism as a way of seeing the world and developing and maintaining community links. In reflecting upon your family history, do you think more emphasis needs to be placed on religion in understanding Australia’s past?

A few years ago Stuart Macintyre and Alison Bashford asked me to comment on the table of contents for their projected two-volume Cambridge History of Australia. I noticed that while the nineteenth century volume included a chapter on religion, there was no corresponding chapter in the twentieth century volume. Was this an oversight or an implied judgement? Had religion somehow ceased to be a significant force in the recent Australian past? Their answer came in the form of an invitation: ‘If you think there should be a chapter on religion, why not write it yourself’? So I did. I explore the subtle changes in what Australians have called religion. Religion, I contend, has receded from public recognition while remaining a powerful influence below the surface. Methodism is a striking example of my point. As a denomination it disappeared from view when it merged into the Uniting Church of Australia in the mid-1970s, yet many of the traits it inculcated, including its time-thrift, survived in the outlook of those who attended Methodist Sunday Schools and churches in the 1950s and 60s. One of my aims in writing My Grandfather’s Clock was to show how Methodism looked from the inside. Attitudes and practices that look bizarre to us, like the Methodist attitudes to alcohol and Sunday observance, make more sense if we comprehend the world-view they were designed to support. I don’t want to justify the Methodists– theirs was a religion of its time– but I insist on taking their beliefs seriously.

 

One of the best aspects of the book in my view is your affectionate portrait of your father George, who became an adult during the 1930s. You express some concern that “The Depression” of the 1930s in our current historical imagination overly influences our understanding of the life experience of people like George. Can you expand upon this for our readers?

In a famous essay, ‘The Eight Ages of Man’, the psychologist Erik Erikson wisely remarks that in old age we come to ‘a new and different love of our parents’. If I had written about my father George Davison in my twenties, before I became a father myself, perhaps I would have written a less affectionate portrait of him. I kept Erikson’s remark in mind as I wrote. Had I allowed filial devotion to colour my portrait too much? Maybe; although I am not alone in believing that he was a good father.

George was a man of his times but I’m wary of making him into a representative of ‘The Depression Generation’ or some other general type. I don’t want to minimize the impact of economic events, but in warning against phrases like ‘The Depression Generation’ I’m reminding myself that not everything in the lives of those who lived through those difficult years was about the depression. The 1930s was also the decade when my father fell in love, became a scout leader, worked out his religious and political convictions, and saw more of the world. So I guess I’m just sounding a cautionary note about how we frame the questions we ask of the past.

Growing up in postwar Essendon as the son of a self-employed tradesman I was conscious of the complexities of class affiliation. My father was a plumber, a trade that many people looked down on. He was an employer, but of just one workman, who he nevertheless regarded as his mate. Were we working class or middle class? Were we Liberal or Labor? One of the reasons I didn’t write more about my father’s politics is that, as a boy, they were quite opaque to me. Later on I realised that he was well to the left of me on foreign policy. He was an internationalist with pacifist inclinations while I thought of myself as a realist. But he was to the right of me on domestic social policy where his small business outlook came to the fore.

 

There is a general consensus that the period between the end of World War II and the early 1970s was a Long Boom, an unprecedented ‘Golden Age’ of prosperity, especially for Europe, the USA and Australasia. What impact did this period have on the Davison family story?

The further we get away from the postwar boom the more exceptional it seems. For my parents and for me it was utterly transformative. For a while we thought the good times would go on forever, so that our children would enjoy more of the remarkable good fortune we enjoyed. Now we know it won’t. One of the effects of taking a long view of my family’s history is to throw that period into sharp relief. For two centuries, and perhaps more, the Davisons had been skilled handworkers, not among the very poorest in society but well below secure prosperity. I was born during the Second World War, a time of relative austerity compared with the more affluent childhoods of those born after the war, the babyboomers. We caught the wave just as it broke and got an even easier ride than the babyboomers who followed. I was the beneficiary of an age of widening educational opportunity and rapid social mobility. In My Grandfather’s Clock I ponder the effects of these changes on the outlook, as well as the life-chances, of my generation, measuring them against the more constrained choices of our parents and children. I’m tapping into a lively conversation among people of my generation as they seek to reconcile the world they inherited and made with the one they will leave to their children and grandchildren.

 

Many Australian historians have argued that Australians of British descent and the governments that represented them had a ‘crisis of identity’ in the 1960s and early 1970s as Britain shifted its interests away from the British Commonwealth and embraced (at least for several decades) a closer economic relationship with the European continent. In My Grandfather’s Clock you suggest that, at least in your experience, this was far from the case. Reflecting on your own family history, can you offer an alternative view of Australia’s sense of itself during this era?

One of the challenges of blending history and memoir, as I do in the later chapters of My Grandfather’s Clock, is distinguishing individual experience from that of the wider society. The ‘crisis of identity’ that some historians detect in Australian attitudes to Britain and the Empire in the 1960s is a case in point. I have followed the writing of the historians, such as Stuart Ward and James Curran, who diagnose a ‘crisis of identity’ among Australian policymakers in the 1960s when Britain relinquished its forces east of Suez and looked to enter the European Common Market. I was in Britain at the time, yet when I consult my memories, and re-read the letters I wrote to my parents and girlfriend I search in vain for such a sense of crisis. So far from feeling abandoned by Mother England I felt emancipated from an imperial tie that I perceived as restrictive and outworn. Had I forgotten what others experienced as a crisis? Was I complacently overlooking a real threat to Australia’s interests and identity? Or was there a generational difference between the middle-aged and elderly politicians whose responses dominated the official archives and the feelings of my own generation who confidently – perhaps too confidently– expected Australia to find its destiny in Asia? I haven’t attempted to resolve this puzzle but I thought it was worth noting.

 

Towards the end of the book, you write that ‘The liberationist movements of the 1970s and 1980s, and the educational ideals that grew out of them, challenged the old Protestant ethic of intense self-regulation … I wonder if the pendulum … swung too far.’ Taking into account your deep dive into your own family history, what do you mean by this?

Gosh, I obviously trailed my coat there! I guess I’m admitting that I still feel more a child of the moral reform movements of the 1960s than of the liberationist movements of the 1970s. When some of the radicals of the 1970s swung hard right in the 1980s, embracing the free market ideologies of Milton Friedman and Co, it seemed to confirm a feeling that the pendulum had swung too far towards self-indulgence and greed. I admit to a similar reserve about the excesses of identity politics. I’m a social democrat with equal emphasis on the social and the democratic.

 

To end on a brighter note: what’s your next historical project? 

I have a couple of unfinished projects: a history of the Australian suburb and a short book expanding my 2011 Menzies Lecture on ‘Narrating the Nation in Australia’. At 83, I hope to finish at least one of them.

 

 

[1] The spelling of “Davidson” and “Davison” appear interchangeably and almost at random in archival sources—that is, until Graeme Davison’s ancestor Thomas sought to standardise the spelling of his family to “Davison”, as the author explains p. 94.

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Graeme Davison
Graeme Davison

Graeme Davison is Emeritus Sir John Monash Professor of History at Monash University. He has written widely on Australian history, and his publications include The Rise and Fall of Marvellous MelbourneThe Unforgiving Minute: How Australia Learned to Tell the TimeCar Wars: How the Car Won Our Hearts and Conquered our CitiesCity Dreamers: The Urban Imagination in Australia and, as editor, The Oxford Companion to Australian History. His previous family history, Lost Relations: Fortunes of My Family in Australia’s Golden Age, won a Judges’ Special Prize in the Victorian Community History Awards.

Lyndon Megarrity
Lyndon Megarrity

Dr Lyndon Megarrity completed his PhD at the University of New England (Armidale), which was awarded in 2002. In recent years, Lyndon has been a lecturer and tutor, teaching history and political science subjects. He was the inaugural history lecturer at the Springfield Campus at the University of Southern Queensland (2012-13) and since taught at James Cook University in Townsville, where he is currently an adjunct lecturer. His latest book is Robert Philp and the Politics of Development (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2022).