Writing History (A presentation for U3A Mordialloc)

Feb 27 2013

What is History?
Where to go but to the accessible but not so reliable Wikipedia? It says
“History is an academic study and a discipline that relates to past events as well as the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about these events. This is not what exactly I do because my histories would probably not pass the academic test.
I refer to what I do as ‘folk history’ that is stories from my time and place that belong in a particular culture. Other people might classify it as Cultural heritage.
It is based upon fact and real life experience but it is subjective rather than objective and it is sometimes embellished.
'Never let the facts get in the way of a good story!’ That is my motto.
History is always going to be blurred by the people who write it. No history is purely objective. It is always going to be told through the eyes of a particular person or group of persons.
The Australian History that I learned at school – There was not an aborigine or a woman for that matter to be spotted. If we were to believe this version of our Australian History we would believe that Australia was an empty country when Captain Cook sailed to its shores. He discovered it! In actual fact the first European landing in Australia was in 1606 by the Dutchman Willem Janszoon, 160 odd years before our good captain. Even the Portuguese and the French arrived before Cook. Never mind that the aborigines had lived here for at least forty thousand years. So the version of history I learnt at school was not a history of Australia as such, it was a history of British settlement in Australia. And a sanitized version at that!
I went to school in Gippsland where Angus McMillan was revered. He and his brave party had transversed the difficult terrain and opened up the land to settlement. The men who came with him selected land and set up farms establishing agriculture and bringing prosperity to the region. The true story is that McMillan’s party worked their way across the Great Dividing Range and through the lush forests killing every aborigine who came into the sites of their guns and taking their land from them. The haunting list of the hundreds of known massacres can be read on a tribute wall at the Highway Park in Stratford, Victoria.
My first efforts at documenting history are rather crude but quite effective and the result can be seen in this book which I published in 2009 in a bit of a flurry as I was going off to live in Ireland for twelve months. At that stage my father was an old man but he was still alive and he carried within him a history of Lakes Entrance that reached right back to settlement in the area. His maternal grandmother was a child of William Carstairs who was the first European to fish the lake system. When I retired from work I made it my first duty to document his story. And I did! But then I thought ‘Heh! Hang on his brother and his cousins are still on deck. They had a common grandmother so I gleaned their stories from them. Why let it stop there?
I am one of ten children and we all grew up in Lakes Entrance, so I had ten more stories, my cousins grew up in the town also so they were included as well. And then the next generation and the one after that! I had a book that told the story of a town through the eyes of the line of one family who had all grown up in that town.
The stories were all subjective. They had to be because they were as the teller saw things. Sometimes there was two conflicting views of the same event. But that is OK as long as the reader understands that.
The other thing to remember is that nobody was going to relate anything that they wanted kept hidden so the history is probably sanitized but that’s what happens with history and that’s OK.
One day I am going to write Our Little Town, the true story.
I wrote Our Little Town for the family but amazingly people found it interesting and the book is still turning over sales today.
At school we learned of the squatters, the bushmen and the men who made Australia great.
Where were the woman in all of this?
Not a word spoken of them, save Henry Lawson’s story of ‘Drover’s Wife.’
In fact, the drover’s wives lived in every farm house in every remote part of the country, clearing the bush with their husbands, bearing the children, caring for the men and civilizing the towns.
Reading Australian history one would think that the only women who played any part in the development of the country was Ma and Kate Kelly who were Ned Kelly's kin, and Caroline Chisholm who looked after the prostitutes.
What I am trying to say here is that history isn’t always the truth. It is the truth as seen and told by the person who tells it. Even the recent finding of the bones of Richard the Third dispelled many truths as myths. Shakespeare embellished his stories!!!
The novel 'Ma's Garden' is the story of day to day life, loves and disappointments of the men and women of a small country town on the edge of civilization in Australia at the turn of the century in 1902.
I’m a bit like Shakespheare, I too have taken considerable literary license, allowing the story to unfold without being constrained by facts. I addressed this by creating an Author’s Note at the back of "Ma's Garden" in which I noted the historical facts upon which the story is based.
Around the Kitchen Table - Short Stories and Poems
Writing a novel it can get tedious by about the tenth draft and sometimes I get bored.
To overcome this I always have a short story on my desk top that I can pull up and play with. Many of them deal with historical fact.
You see a short story is a completely different art form. It is a finely crafted work that has to be refined and reworked so that the story gets told with maximum effect and minimum words. A bit like précis writing when we went to school. It’s mental gymnastics and it’s fun.
Over the years I had notched up quite a few short stories, some of which have been successful in competitions so I set myself the task of reducing these stories even further into poems. And that was how ‘Around the Kitchen Table’ came about. I named the book for my noisy and boisterous birth family and the kitchen table at our home that was always aglow with babble.
Even though the novel, 'Lover Husband Father Monster' is set in contemporary Ireland, that in itself is historical. At the time of writing, the era of the Celtic Tiger where prosperity reigned supreme and money flowed in the streets and pubs, had ended abruptly and building sites all over the country were silent and shops were empty, people were out of work and Ireland owed more money than it could possibly repay. The story is about a relationship that goes horribly wrong, mirroring what was happening in the country at the time.
Also when we left Australia we were still in shock over the man who threw his young child over the Westgate Bridge. How could a man do such a thing? There had previously the case of the man who drove his three little boys into a dam on Fathers day and left them there to die. All to obtain revenge on women who walked out on them. Ireland was suffering shock from similar cases. Unfortunately this sort of thing happens everywhere. Did it happen in the past? I suppose it did but perhaps it is more prevalent today because women are free to leave an abusive relationship. They have more power over what they do and say and some men do not like that.
IN LHFM we told HISstory and HERstory, capturing two opinions and thoughts on the same events. By doing our research thoroughly we have captured a time and place in history and an issue that is relevant to today’s society.

Elsie Agnes Johnstone, Writer and Novelist.

Books Published
Our Little Town – Growing up in Lakes Entrance (BookPal 2009)

Lover Husband Father Monster, A Novel In Two Voices (BookPal 2010)

Ma’s Garden (Amazon 2012)

Round the Kitchen Table (Amazon 2012)
Short Stories and Poems