On Becoming a Historian

by Ross Johnston, Winner of the 2012 John Douglas Kerr Medal of Distinction

‘I want you to cast your mind back to 1956, end January/early February.  I have a clear picture, of little Rossie Johnston, standing wide-eyed, amazed, bedazzled, bemused, confused – as he surveyed his surrounds, the Great Court of The University of Sydney, that massive, magnificent, overwhelming Gothic pile.  It certainly overwhelmed him; he was but sixteen year, four months old – about to start out on his career, on his life.  The intention was to be a lawyer, since he had won an Arts/Law scholarship. His older brother Val said: ‘we need a lawyer in the family’. I am not sure why – although there has been a tradition among the Johnstons, a Lowland Scottish clan, living on the Border with England, of cattle-stealing (rustling).  Our mob, probably trouble-makers, had been sent some centuries ago to Ireland – ‘to civilise the Irish’ – ending up on border-lands (County Fermanagh, today on the border of Northern Ireland and Eire).  When the going got tough, as a result of the Great Famine in the 1840s, my forebears emigrated to Australia, and ended up in border-lands, again – in ‘Queensland Irredenta’, the upper Clarence basin (part of the Northern Rivers of New South Wales).  Cattle-stealing was not unknown in that area.

So here is little Rossie Johnston standing there in 1956, wondering ‘what is the world about?’, ‘who is he?’  I do not think he realized at that stage that such a creature as a historian existed; he certainly did not contemplate becoming a historian; indeed, lecturers at university seemed such removed, distant, unknown and unknowable individuals.  He did know, however, that he liked History.  He had a historic hero – William the Conqueror, William the Bastard.  And he liked the name William, but isn’t it odd; although his parents christened him ‘William Ross’ they always addressed him as ‘Ross’.  Yet his grand-fathers on both sides of family were called ‘William’, and on his dad’s side it was W.R. (William Robert).  He himself hated the name ‘Ross’, especially since lanky, freckledy Gay Farrell, who used to sit behind him at Mallanganee Public School, would pull his hair and call him ‘little Rossie Johnston’.  To this day he does not know how to handle Gay.  But, being one of those ‘little Aussie battlers’ he would not give in.  So, when he went to Casino High School he called himself ‘William’ – and there is his name emblazoned on Honour Boards.  But no-one else would call him ‘William’; he was still ‘Ross’.  Being a Libran, and able to compromise, he decided to sign off as ‘W. Ross’ – which he does to this day, even though it is the bane of librarians, who get publications under various names,  Ross or W. Ross or William Ross.   He was determined to identify himself, in his own way.

I have a message underlying this Reply; talks, lectures always deserve a message – it is the Wesleyan preacher in me.  I have always been impressed by the role of luck in History – the perchance, serendipity.  What a special word is serendipity: defined in the Shorter Oxford as ‘the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’, coined by Horace Walpole, the eighteenth century English author, after The three princes of Serendip (or Ceylon, Sri Lanka), a fairytale.  Let me give you an example of the operation of luck in the process of becoming a historian.

We now jump to mid-1962.  I am a new lawyer, unhappy, working in downtown Brisbane.  Perhaps to escape the drudgery of the Law, in my spare time I had become a chorus-member in Bryan Nason’s College Players, doing ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ (maybe).   I wish I had become a good historian then, keeping programmes, documentation and writing up a journal of what I was doing – the way I keep a journal now, and urge everyone to do so.   It was at one of those riotous break-up parties, lots of flagon-wine, when I got to chatting with Dr Val Vallis, poet and lecturer in English at The University of Queensland, and Dr Dick Staveley, economist, historian and philosopher at same institution.  I was expressing my dissatisfaction with the Law; and they said ‘do what you want to do, be what you want to be’ (perhaps not quite in those terms, instead with a Callas-operatic flourish).  What else could I do?  As I said, I liked History – so I applied for a post-graduate scholarship in History, and got one. Perchance – that wintry night, some McWilliam’s rough red, helpful friends.

A new world opened up; even little Rossie Johnston could become a historian.  2012 is, in fact, my Diamond Jubilee of making the decision that I wanted to be a historian.  I still had some years of study before I could say I had become a historian.  And I do remember when I enrolled for the Honours subject Theories of History I had trouble reconciling my notions on History with one of the prevalent schools of thought at that time – that History should/could be a science, with laws and rules of behaviour and thinking.  This had arisen first from the German School of History that gained pre-eminence in the later nineteenth century; it was reinforced from the middle of the twentieth century with the waves of the various Social Sciences that were sweeping into the Historical world.

I was much more romantically inclined, more individualistically minded.  I loved the concept of uniqueness in History – I am unique, you are unique, every one, every thing, every place, every time is unique.  What the historian does is try to make some sense out of these special situations, out of the welter of details, of interpretations, of versions concerning this moment, this problem, this person, whatever.  We may look for trends, for explanations, for understandings, to create meaning – but these do not amount to scientific laws or rules.

This uniqueness is expressed very much through the operation of luck, the perchance in History.  I used to tell my students that 49 – 51 % of our life, our decisions, our history is governed by luck, by factors beyond our control.  Yes, we can consciously make decisions that have some effect, yet there are so many situations where we have to fit in to whatever happens around us, we have to respond to the circumstances – the luck factor.

What you have to learn is how to grab that luck when it appears, when it is offered; you have to know what to do with that luck.  That knowledge comes through experience, through the experience of History, through being a historian.

Enjoy your History, and learn from it.