Inside Story

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2113 words

Loving two soils

29 September 2010

In London, Frank Bongiorno ponders the life of a highly productive expatriate who eventually returned to Australia, and those who have followed him


Keith Hancock (centre) at the conclusion of the Namirembe Conference, which he chaired, in 1954. The conference created a new constitutional monarchy for Buganda. Courtesy of Rory Brocklebank

Keith Hancock (centre) at the conclusion of the Namirembe Conference, which he chaired, in 1954. The conference created a new constitutional monarchy for Buganda. Courtesy of Rory Brocklebank

CAN someone be “in love with two soils”? The question has a very old-fashioned ring about it in these days of multiple identities, global labour markets, and rapid transnational flows of people, capital and goods. Why only two? Why any?

The phrase comes from W.K. Hancock’s Australia, which was published eighty years ago. In those days, not only did such a question seem perfectly valid but its answer self-evident, to most Australians at least – and certainly to a young Australian-born, Oxford-educated professor of history. (At the time, Hancock occupied the chair of history at the University of Adelaide.)

Hancock used the phrase at the end of a chapter on “Independent Australian Britons”; and he didn’t bother with the interrogative. “A country is a jealous mistress,” he concluded, “and patriotism is commonly an exclusive passion; but it is not impossible for Australians, nourished by a glorious literature and haunted by old memories, to be in love with two soils.” In his superb biography of Keith Hancock, recently published by UNSW Press, Jim Davidson shows most vividly how these “loves” shaped Hancock’s life and career as one of the outstanding historians of his generation.

The title is itself revealing: A Three-Cornered Life: The Historian W.K. Hancock. It’s a little cumbersome but rich in meaning: it would be interesting to know, for instance, why “The Historian” needed to be dropped in there. My suspicion is that it’s because Hancock is a somewhat forgotten figure, even among those with a better-than-average knowledge of Australia’s history and historians. Brian Matthews’s recent book was called Manning Clark: A Life; there’s no need – not yet anyway – to remind the educated book-buying public about what Clark did.

Not so Hancock, despite the towering international reputation he enjoyed in his day. This is a man who won a Rhodes scholarship, a fellowship to All Souls, Oxford, and then the chair of history at Adelaide – all by his mid-twenties. By then he was already the author of a well-regarded book on nineteenth-century Italian nationalism. After resuming a career in Britain as professor of history at Birmingham in 1934, Hancock quickly established his reputation as a major historian and one of the giants of imperial history with the two volumes of his Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs. During the war he was drawn into the bureaucracy as the supervisor and editor of the “civil” histories of the British war effort. From his office in Whitehall, he organised and led a large team of historians who were embedded in various parts of the British civil service, effectively researching and writing history as it happened. Hancock himself wrote one of the synoptic volumes, on the war economy.

The list of distinctions goes on: Chichele Professor of Economic History at Oxford; member of the Academic Advisory Committee involved in setting up the Australian National University; founding director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London; head of a British government-appointed mission to Buganda in east Africa to try to resolve its constitutional crisis; director of the Research School of Social Sciences at the ANU; founder of the Australian Dictionary of Biography; author of a distinguished two-volume biography of the South African soldier and statesman, Jan Smuts; pioneering environmental historian of the Monaro; the author of memoirs and reflections on the historian’s calling.

It’s an extraordinary story of academic distinction and public service, and one surely unrivalled by any other Australian living or dead. So why the neglect?

The first part of the title of Davidson’s biography – A Three-Cornered Life – provides part of the answer. He explains in his introduction that although Hancock saw himself as “being in love with two soils,” there was really a three-way relationship: “Australia was his mother country, England his wife, and Italy his mistress... Eventually Italy was replaced by South Africa.” There was something footloose about Hancock, who rarely let the dust settle on his shoes for more than a few years. He was a historian on the move; on a trip to the antipodes in the late 1930s for a Commonwealth Relations Conference, he had every historian’s nightmare when a suitcase full of his research notes – a year’s work – went missing. But not every historian has Ernest Bevin on hand to mobilise on his behalf “the whole army of New Zealand trade unionism” to find it. And he also seems to have managed to move house more often than his professional mobility strictly required, a habit that must have further strained an already difficult marriage. (Hancock would remarry after his first wife, Theaden’s, death in 1960.)

Much but not all of this stands in contrast with the life and times of Manning Clark. Like Hancock, Clark was a product of British Australia, although he was almost a generation younger (Hancock was born in 1898, Clark in 1916). Both were Anglican clergymen’s sons. Both had a powerful attachment to a country boyhood home, Hancock to Bairnsdale in Victoria’s Gippsland, Clark to Phillip Island in Western Port Bay. Each was a product of Melbourne Grammar and the history department at the University of Melbourne; both went on to Balliol College, Oxford.

But then their paths diverge. Hancock achieves rapid academic distinction and recognition in Britain; Clark’s studies are interrupted by the war and he spent some years as a schoolmaster in England and Australia before building an academic career in Melbourne and then Canberra in the 1940s and 1950s. There were, subsequently, occasional visiting overseas appointments but Clark settled at the Canberra University College, which was later absorbed into the ANU; and into his Robin Boyd–designed home.

Clark’s A History of Australia began as an attempt to reveal how the great European traditions of Catholicism, Protestantism and the Enlightenment had found expression in Australia. He set himself apart from radical-nationalists such as Brian Fitzpatrick and Russel Ward who seemed to him less interested in Australia’s British and European roots than in the influence of local setting and popular struggle on Australian history. Hancock’s own intellectual “project” was by no means a long way from Clark’s; he, too, understood Australia – and, for that matter, the other dominions with whose experience he grappled – as European societies which, nurtured by a largely benign Empire and Commonwealth, were enabled to work out their own destiny as free and self-governing peoples belonging to a wider British community.

Clark’s History, however, became increasingly nationalist, as he sought to show – and, like the radical historians he’d once criticised, to celebrate – how Australia had diverged from the mother country. Clark’s became a post-imperial project, a contribution to the making of a specifically Australian civic culture in the wake of empire. It’s striking that Clark features prominently in James Curran and Stuart Ward’s recent book, The Unknown Nation: Australia After Empire (Melbourne University Press, 2010), in which both his writings and oracular pronouncements as public intellectual are seen to fill a “void” left by the end of British Australia in the 1960s. Borrowing from Henry Lawson, Clark called the vision of that decaying British Australia “the Old Dead Tree,” the radical-nationalist alternative “the Young Tree Green.” For him, Australia’s past – and present – resolved itself into a struggle between the two.

Hancock could never have indulged in such a crude distinction, not least because he felt in himself a much more subtle pull of loyalties. But “History” seemed to be on Manning Clark’s side rather than Keith Hancock’s. Even in the 1930s, Hancock recognised the existence of powerful forces that were undermining the Empire’s cohesion and prospects, and Davidson emphasises his quiet scepticism about some of the more ambitious imperial schemes of the Round Table movement.

When Hancock undertook the monumental task of writing a biography of Jan Smuts, it would have seemed that he was dealing with a man who was not only the greatest South African of the century but an Empire and Commonwealth statesman of enormous stature and influence. Yet, even before the first volume appeared, the Sharpeville shootings had added another tragedy to an already tragic history. And before the second volume was published Nelson Mandela had already served the first few years of what would turn out to be a very long term of imprisonment on Robben Island. As Davidson remarks, by the end of the century, Mandela – and not Smuts – would seem the country’s greatest modern statesman.

YET, in another and rather surprising way, History was indeed on Hancock’s side. While both Davidson’s biography and Hancock’s own autobiography, Country and Calling, emphasise the personal and professional costs involved in being in love with two – or perhaps even three or four – soils, it’s the skill and even ease with which Hancock found his way into the highest echelons of the British civil and official society that now seems most marked. In his life and times, Hancock anticipates the kind of transnational migration experience that scholars such as Graham Hugo have seen as especially characteristic of young Australian professionals in the early twenty-first century.

The typical twenty- or thirty-something Australian in Britain today isn’t a Bazza McKenzie, or even the backpacking bartender serving him in Earls Court: less than a fifth are taking up clerical, sales and service work. Rather, like Hancock in the mid-twentieth century, she (and, for reasons no one seems able to explain, there are 100 women to every eighty men) is a highly educated and well-paid participant in a global labour market, engaged in professional or managerial employment. These young people are moving to Britain – and indeed to the United States and elsewhere – because they see professional opportunities unavailable in Australia. But as Hancock’s career reveals, the phenomenon is not new; it’s just that these days, it all happens on a greatly expanded scale.

Typically, these young professionals don’t intend staying forever. But life sometimes intervenes, and they form a relationship with a local, or they achieve a professional standing that makes return difficult. They enjoy the cultural and intellectual stimulation of a huge international city such as London, and wonder how well they’ll settle back into life at home. When they do talk about going home, it’s usually for personal or family reasons rather than professional ones.

And even while they remain in Britain, they typically continue to identify strongly with their homeland, seeing themselves as Australians who happen to be living overseas. In a forum a couple of years ago, I asked a group of about sixty mainly young Australians in London how many thought of themselves as “expatriates”; very few raised their hands. In the age of rapid and fairly cheap jet travel and regular global criss-crossing, the “expat” identity seems almost as dated as the “Independent Australian Briton” celebrated by Hancock.

These Australians abroad search for the latest ARL or AFL results on the web and they commonly read the Australian news online most days. I’ve ceased being surprised when Australian postgraduate students based in Oxford or Cambridge tell me that they can’t let a few days pass without watching their favourite Australian news and current affairs shows on the web. I don’t do so, but on a recent visit to Australia during the election campaign was surprised at how quickly and thoroughly my own level of interest changed from indifference to absorption. An academic friend who’s lived here for over twenty years admitted to me that he found Australia’s 2007 change of government exercising a charm over him in a way that Britain’s 1997 switch had miserably failed to achieve. Even at a distance of two decades and 13,000 miles, the affairs of one’s own tribe seem, somewhat strangely, to matter a great deal.

As Hancock put it so well, a “country is a jealous mistress” – even, apparently, when she manages to hide her charms as successfully as she did during the unlovely 2010 Australian federal election. •

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Jean Rumbold/iStockphoto

Jean Rumbold/iStockphoto