Don Watson, master of precise pitching, has a new history book for young minds

A family
A family "watching the box" (detail, artist unknown). Picture: Supplied

If we used the adjective "lovely" in the generous, portmanteau way the Irish do, then Don Watson's The Story of Australia is a quite lovely book.

Whether as a speechwriter or author in his own right, Watson has displayed a gift for pitching his prose precisely to suit a mood, a moment or a man. Here he has written for "the young and curious", dedicating the work to "the teachers" and describing his narrative as a "first work for children". That target demographic is not broad enough. "Young adults", the elusive "general reader", newcomers and patriots alike would benefit from an afternoon with Don Watson.

Old-fashioned Whig histories depict the story of Australia as one of steady progress from the first European settlement through convict times, the gold rushes, Federation, Depression, war and migration on to modernity. In those accounts, Indigenous Australians were slighted, squatters commended, ANZAC celebrated and commitment to "a fair go" uncritically endorsed.

Watson takes a different tack altogether, starting not with 1770 or 1788 but 180 million years ago as Gondwanaland broke into continent-sized segments. That initial section sets a pattern which Watson happily follows throughout. Each illustration, to begin with of an ancient armoured tube-nosed fish, is pertinent and elegant. Familiar data is enlivened by quirky additions, starting with Australia's part in the evolution of songbirds 30 million years ago. The chronological narrative is interrupted by deeper glimpses into life in this continent; an account of Lake Mungo 2,000 generations ago leads off.

No history can ever be definitive or purport to tell the whole truth. Fortunately, historians discarded any such pretensions at least a generation ago. As a cynical Frenchman once observed, history comprises the comforting lies we agree to tell each other about what we have done together.

Watson's technique is eclectic, sometimes episodic, but always illuminating. His writing is crisp, cogent and repeatedly reveals the author's own curiosity. Watson's first judgment on Indigenous Australians typifies those virtues: "they found their lives' meaning in the land itself".

Even the index leaves clues to that measured, judicious technique. Eddie Mabo, a rolled-gold Australian hero, is given two pages. Two entries are listed for Bob Hawke, and an equal number for Paul Keating. Henry Lawson is referred to three times, Banjo Paterson only once.

The most charismatic Australian politician, architect of the first safety nets and central figure in the most dramatic episodes of the Depression, is passed over in silence. Perhaps Jack Lang deserves his own revisionist history.

In that index, Bob Menzies receives four mentions, reflecting perhaps the modest dent he actually left on Australian life. The four adjectives used to characterise Menzies are deftly deflating; he is presented as "self-assured, eloquent, shrewd and lucky". Rather more praise is accorded to Keating.

Watson's even-handedness might be construed as a flaw by some readers. He carefully and scrupulously states a case, for one side then the other, but without injecting much drama or passion into the text. The book is designed for the young, and many of its conclusions would hardly warrant a PG rating. Kids are not going to learn from tendentious polemics or dogmatic monologues, even if much of what they pick up from social media is prejudiced or blinkered.

On White Australia, for instance, Watson notes that "Australians were very much aware of being so close to Asia". He observes of Tasmanian Aboriginals that "their world ended in chaos". Of the Kanakas, we learn that "photographs of the islanders do not show happy people". The most conspicuous exception to this understatement comes with 1788, when Watson refers to "the invaders", "these savage, brutal creatures". Unhappily for us, the book ends with too rosy a prognosis about coping with Covid.

More fun is to be found in Watson's sections on social history, whether evoking a particular place at a specific time, or commemorating a notable individual. The first category includes chapters on life in the Collingwood Flats (when the Yarra was used as a drain and a dump), and the "comfortable and orderly lives" within an Edwardian family. As for the little biographies, the one on Caroline Chisholm is especially gracious, while the mixed messages in Daisy Bates' "impeccable appearance" are highlighted.

In some way, Watson's history fits into a much older tradition of informed, literate, open-minded (and opening-minded) pedagogy. Its forebears could therefore include the "Classics Illustrated " series as well as the "How and Why" books, both serious attempts to explain complicated ideas or themes without patronising the reader.

That is a worthy lineage for a writer who has so thoughtfully estimated what young Australians might need to learn about their country.

This story Teaching history to young minds first appeared on The Canberra Times.