The laconic historian


I cannot remember exactly when I first met Ken Inglis, and that is perhaps characteristic of the man.  Despite his towering 6 feet 5 inches frame, he never announced himself with a sense of pompous self-importance.  I am sure that he introduced himself, and I am certain that our conversation began with Ken asking the questions.  For despite his huge significance in Australian historiography, Ken Inglis was always a quiet modest man who seemed more interested in helping you to discover the truth than proclaiming his ideas.

I think our meeting must have come at some conference in the 1980s. At the time I was just discovering, to my surprise, that the study of New Zealand war memorials could be a serious and intriguing subject.  Ken was further along the same path with respect to the Australian variety.  Before long we were heads down exchanging excited ideas about inscriptions or styles or sculptors. We quickly decided to work together on a statistical study of memorials in the two countries and I copied his survey to put together a similar database for New Zealand. We eventually published a statistical comparison which was far more revealing than we had dared hope.  Soon after Ken arranged for me to present information on New Zealand war memorials at a memorable conference which he had organized with Annette Becker at Les Invalides in Paris; and subsequently he read the drafts of my writings on memorials providing sage and always supportive advice. He came and stayed in Wellington to witness Anzac Day in New Zealand and together we journeyed through the bottom of the North Island looking at memorials. So like many others I became deeply fond of Ken and his lively wife, Amirah.

It may be that it was Ken’s generosity of spirit for many many historians in this part of the world which in part explains why 150 people turned up to a conference in Melbourne last week to consider Ken Inglis’ life and work. It is of course an unusual occurrence for a conference to devote itself, not to a large theme, but to the work of one living historian.  Earlier this year there was an occasion, reportedly much-enjoyed, to celebrate the contribution of Barbara Brookes and to mark the publication of her landmark history of New Zealand womennz-women-001 But that gathering focused on a theme of ‘making women visible’ and so papers were not confined to Barbara’s own work. However last week’s conference spent the first day on Ken’s life, and the second on his work. Ken himself was sitting throughout in the front row of the audience. It had taken some convincing to persuade this notoriously modest man to allow the occasion to proceed; and typically his response to the papers was never to critique the speakers’ views but to supplement them with telling and amusing memories.

What drew the audience was not simply the man’s support for others.  His own historiographical contribution is huge.  After an MA thesis which became a book on the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and then a PhD thesis which also became a book on religion and the working class in Victorian England, he found the theme which was to shape in large part his intellectual life, ‘The Anzac tradition’.  At a time in the early 1960s when no other historians in this part of the world took the experience of Gallipoli and the Great War seriously, Inglis made it central to Australian identity.  The insight took him in a number of directions – he accompanied the diggers who returned to Anzac Cove on the fiftieth anniversary in 1965 and wrote powerfully about that strange journey.  He was the first academic historian to admit C E W Bean to the profession and wrote a book about the man.  Then seeking to explore the origins of the Anzac mythology he published a brilliant study of the development of social rituals and traditions among the Australian colonists.  It was this publications which first roused my interest in his work.  He followed this line through to his mammoth and deeply satisfying book, Sacred Places on Australian war memorials.

sacred-places-001Sacred Places won many prizes in Australia and received international recognition. His approach is never that of the jingoistic nationalist. What distinguishes his treatment is partly his sense that Anzac became a civic religion, an insight which grew out of his work on Victorian religion and his own time in the YMCA. But even more there is his own humanity.  When I first became interested in war memorials, my basic assumpotion was that memorials were primarily Imperialist propaganda.  They served to legitimise wars and provide a heroic example for young men to follow in the footseps of their predecessors by enlisting in future imperial adventures.  Ken had no time for such crude reductionism.  As Jay Winter pointed out at the conference, despite his thesis in Victorian social history, Ken did not accept the Marxist interpretations of historians like E P Thompson.  Rather he looked at war memorials in terms of their meaning to many thousands of women, children, siblings and parents, who lost young men at the front and really wanted a surrogate tomb to help them cope with the pain and loss. It was the meaning of memorials for the emotional lives of ordinary Australians which captured his imagination

That Ken Inglis was always motivated by this sense of the need to respect and empathise with powerful human emotions came through strongly at the conference. I learned that in his time at the University of Adelaide when he was a young lecturer, he had become involved in the case of an Aboriginal youth, Max Stuart, who, on the basis of a forced confession, was convicted and sentenced to be hanged.  Inglis campaigned and wrote a book, The Stuart Case, which argued that whether or not Stuart had committed the crime there was no evidence apart from the confession to establish his guilt.  Stuart was eventually saved from the gallows.  Later in he second half of the 1960s Ken and Amirah went off to Port Moresby where he was the inaugural professor of history at the University of Papa New Guinea and where he eventually became Vice-chancellor. There he worked hard to establish viable learning traditions in a developing conflicted third world environment. Today he is still involved in writing about a story of human injustice in a projected book about the expulsion of Jewish refugees from Churchill’s Britain to Australia in the early 1940s.

The other element of Ken’s contribution which echoed through the conference was his commitment to making his history meaningful for people out of doors as well as in academic halls.  From his early days as a lecturer he had been an active journalist who wrote a fortnightly column for The Nation.  It was clear that this experience helped shape his writing style and encouraged him to always conceive of his audience as that mythical type, ‘the general reader’.  The result was that thousands of Australians did indeed read his books. Later his interest in the media and intelligent communication to a broad audience was reflected in his two volume history of the ABC.

Yet one should not get this wrong.  Ken Inglis was not just a populariser.  He always engaged with tough theoretical issues and was a highly creative member of the profession.  Several contributors at the conference noted in particular his brilliant suggestion of the ‘slice’ method to underpin the 1988 bicentennial historical project.  The results were a series of brilliant jointly-authored volumes which explored Australian society and culture in 1838, 1888 and 1938.  Instead of simply honouring the bicentennial with boring surveys he was able to stimulate a new way of unpacking the past.

I am extraordinarily grateful to those fellow historians, Bill Gammage, Jay Winter, Seumas Spark and Rae Frances, who conceived of this conference while Ken was still there to hear it and engage with the contributions.  It was indeed a privilege to share in the assessment and appreciation of a great southern hemisphere historian.




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