The Godfather: Peter Corris on history
I wrote in a previous column about my love of historical novels but, while scanning the History channel in search of something to watch, I realised with a new clarity that my passion has always been for the subject of history itself – the events and people of the past. It was far and away my best subject at school and university, and researching and teaching it was my profession at one time. I still prefer to read history to any other non-fiction subject; I’d rather read about the Opium Wars than the war on drugs.
And the passion started very early, triggered by a couple of books I’d long forgotten about until my mind started to run on these lines. These were The Cave Twins (1916) and The Spartan Twins (1918) both written by Lucy Finch Perkins (1865–1937) and published by the Riverside Press in Cambridge Massachusetts. At this distance in time – I must have read them when I was seven or eight – I retain only a vague memory of the life of early humans in the wild and the ritual harshness of Spartan life, but I know that I was fascinated. I would have got the books from the Footscray City Library where my mother took me at an early age. Why I didn’t read the others in the series – featuring twins in different countries and at different times – I don’t know. Perhaps the library had only those two.
With these memories flowing I turned to the web and to my surprise found The Twins Homepage – a site devoted to the ‘Twins series’. A 19-year-old college student in the US had gone far further than me and read and collected the more than 20 books which the author had written at a rate of more than one a year between 1911 and 1928.
This most useful and well set-out site tells me that The Cave Twins was pitched at eight-year-olds and The Spartan Twins at ten-year-olds, so I was probably in the right age bracket for one and a little ahead for the other. A synopsis is included for each book and I learn that the homo sapiens twins witnessed hunting techniques, early boat building and encounters with more primitive humans. The young Spartans were the children of farmers and had to go to Athens to have a rural omen interpreted. There they encountered Athenian civilisation and the heroic Pericles.
Clearly here were the elements – the lifestyles, the customs, the conflicts and dangers faced by people of the past – that captivated and have held me ever since, particularly, perhaps, the dangers and conflicts, for I was never anything but a narrative historian.
Here is a list of some of the books I admired and learned from in my ten years of historical studies as an undergraduate and postgraduate:
Christopher Hill The English Revolution 1640 (1940)
Asa Briggs The Age of Improvement, 1783–1867 (1959)
Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher Africa and the Victorians: The official mind of imperialism (1961)
Nathan A Pelcovits Old China Hands and the Foreign Office (1948)
GC Bolton A Thousand Miles Away: A history of North Queensland to 1920 (1963)
Henry Reynolds The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal resistance to the invasion of Australia (1981)
I’d have been proud to have written any one of them.