Inside Story

Time’s quiet pulse

Historian Graeme Davison explores powerful forces below history’s horizon

Penny Russell Books 29 September 2023 1702 words

Path to survival: Cissie Davison, centre, newly arrived in Australia with the clock, shown with her brother John, sister-in-law Ada, right, and niece Grace in February 1934.

“Clocks and watches have always fascinated me,” writes Graeme Davison. “I love their precision, their delicate self-regulation and their astonishing craftsmanship.” In My Grandfather’s Clock: Four Centuries of a British-Australian Family, he writes with deep affection of the clock of his title, with its “steady rocking gait and its cheerful metallic ring.” Since it came into his house its quiet pulse, slower than a heartbeat, has provided a mesmeric and “reassuring aural backdrop” to his daily life.

As a historian Davison has long been interested both in material culture and “commonplace objects,” and — as he showed in his earlier book, The Unforgiving Minute — in the history of time-telling itself. The scholars who shaped his vision of history were “preoccupied by the mystery of time and change.” Small wonder that when a grandfather clock, a family heirloom, came into his possession, it should have inspired him to commence an investigation of its place in history and heritage, and a meditation on “the nature of time in both its personal and historical dimensions.”

Notwithstanding the book’s evocative title, it was never really Davison’s grandfather’s clock. His great-aunt “Cissie” (Elizabeth Anne Davison) brought the clock with her to Australia in 1934, twenty-two years after his grandfather emigrated and only a few months before he died. The clock had passed from father to son for generations, but for years it stood in Elizabeth’s crowded bedroom, among other relics of her former life that she had brought with her from England. On her death she bequeathed it to Davison’s father, with instructions that it should pass, eventually, to Graeme himself. Women, Davison acknowledges, “are often the great keepers of family memory,” although patriarchal society and patriarchal sources tend to obscure their role.

The search for the longer history of the clock’s place in the family sent Davison along the path of his ancestors to the moment of its acquisition — and then further still. Digging into his ancestral past, he followed the male line into deep time where “conventional genealogy loses its footing.” He found the misty origins of his family story in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when Davisons and Davidsons were caught up in the blood feuds that convulsed the borderlands between Scotland and England.

Any sense of connection to those Davisons of yore can exist only in imagination; but Davison’s surrender to the romantic myth itself belongs to the pattern of history. The impulse that draws us to such places, he suggests, has its origins in the discontents of modernity. In our “mobile, globalised, urban world,” the family history trail seems to promise the possibility of return to an ancestral homeland and a “more primitive, unspoiled version of ourselves.”

Here, as throughout the book, Davison unostentatiously weaves reflection on his feelings and methods into the account of his findings. The social, cultural and emotional impulses of genealogical research are shown to be themselves a product of the history of modernisation he relates.

For all that, he insists, the possibility remains that “some part of us is indeed a relic of things below the horizon of history.” With that conviction, he peers into “that dark space where heredity and nurture, memory and history combine to make us who we are.”

The Davison surname provides the unbroken thread the historian can follow through multiple generations, up to and even beyond the point where parish records peter out. Davison acknowledges that this is a selective path, albeit one balanced somewhat by his earlier exploration of his mother’s forebears in Lost Relations (2015). But the profound implications of his choice are worth pondering for a moment — precisely because they are so easy to forget.

Little in our society owes more to social convention than surnames, which inherently claim patrilineal descent as the primary defining relationship. To say nothing of the possibility of error in any attribution of paternity, the thread that follows the male line is just one among the thousands, or millions, that make up the spreading fan of our ancestry. When we follow a single line, as sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel points out, we consign to oblivion three out of four grandparents, or sixty-three out of sixty-four great-great-great-great-grandparents.

To come at this from the other side: the most we can inherit from the four times great-grandfather whose surname we may bear is something less than 0.05 per cent of our genetic material. In the “inherently boundless community” of family, argues Zerubavel, the traditions of classification that determine kin recognition are matters of convention, not genetics. Genealogies do not passively document who our ancestors were; they are “the narratives we construct to actually make them our ancestors.” Such narratives exclude far more than they include, and not always with benign intent. So it behoves us to remember how tenuous is their basis in fact, and scrutinise the cultural assumptions they perpetuate.

Davison is rightly sceptical of the idea of genetic affinity with distant ancestors. While he surrenders willingly to the gravitational pull of the male line, he does so out of a combination of sentiment and pragmatism. The Davison name is the most “stable marker of personal identity” available to establish ancestry, while the records of women’s lives — the wives and mothers who might expand the picture — are even more scarce than those for men. Taking the ancestral line on which he can rely with greatest certainty, he uses it to ponder not genetic continuity but cultural continuity in the midst of social change.

The “things below the horizon of history” that form part of our identity, his book ultimately suggests, are not genes so much as elements of culture, beliefs, skills and aspirations that have passed quietly from one generation to the next. Untold generations of Davisons belonged to the “middling sort,” who struggled for life on the margins on whatever terms society offered them. Such experiences form family character in stubbornly enduring ways. The Davisons of whom he can write with personal knowledge “were modest, practical, plain-speaking folk, their manner abraded by the grit of their industrial origins. There was something uptight as well as upright about them; an effect, I suppose, of the hard school in which they had grown up.”

More than a mystical search for origins, this is a historian’s account of the place of the individual, or the family, in history. Davison’s ancestors come dimly into view in the context of great, if gradual, social transformation. Step by step, one decision at a time, sons moved away from fathers to establish new homes and learn new occupations: from a precarious existence in ancestral homelands to the acquisition of craft skills in a farming village, a port town, a factory suburb, and an industrial metropolis — until early in the twentieth century John Davison moved with his wife and children to the other side of the world.

The perspective of family offers a corrective to the generalisations of academic history, Davison suggests. Through the eyes of the people who lived through it, the industrial revolution can be seen as an evolution, the making of the modern world “more like a series of small adjustments than a leap from one way of life to another.” Each step, he argues, “was a one-off response to the map of opportunity at the time, but seen over the longue durée the moves fall into a pattern that suggests the operation of powerful unseen forces.”

In this story the grandfather clock, that accurate keeper of family time, becomes a powerful symbol tying the individual to the historical moment. Measured time, says Davison, was the foundation of modern life: when another John, six generations back, acquired the clock around the turn of the nineteenth century, “my family were joining a very large project indeed.”

For John the clock may have been chiefly a marker of growing prosperity and social status. For his son William, a skilled block printer paid on piece rates for what he and his sons could produce, it had an added utility, regulating the daily activities of his industrious household. Superseded by newer technology in the late twentieth century, it lost much of its earlier importance and stood idle for years, until rescued and repaired by a sentimental historian who likes to think, when winding the clock, of the “foggy fingers” of the ancestors who have wound it before him.

Pondering generational change, Davison offers a persuasive and thought-provoking account of the relationship between the agency of the individual (man) and the impersonal forces of modernisation. Yet I wondered at times whether a more expansive exploration of family within each generation — of the horizontal, as well as the vertical, structures of kinship — might have brought into view more of the “invisible” factors that enabled or constrained their choices.

Let us not forget, for example, how the clock made its way to Melbourne and eventually to Davison himself. Not by direct transmission through the male line, but through the agency of great-aunt Cissie, whose “map of opportunity” after her father’s death in 1930 showed only one path to survival, in her brother’s household on the other side of the world. While her journey and her bequest eventually restored the clock to its traditional path from father to son, her story has deeper significance, as a reminder that for some family members, women especially, survival has often depended on more complex webs of kinship. Though their stories may rarely be preserved, they too imprint a ghostly presence on the family tree, for those who care to look. Their imprint on family culture was profound.

But any account of family origins must leave out far more than it can ever tell. Each journey through family history is as selective as it is idiosyncratic. Though he doesn’t dwell on their implications, Davison doesn’t hide the choices he has made. His gentle, reflective, beguiling narrative invites us to travel at his side as he pursues his individual quest, and to surrender to the charm of the knotted threads of sentiment, imagination and hard-edged research that bind him to his forebears and to history.

My Grandfather’s Clock: Four Centuries of a British-Australian Family
By Graeme Davison | The Miegunyah Press | $50 | 319 pages