McQueen’s sketches from Australia’s past provoke questions for the present.

‘History-making is not confined to prime ministers and generals, gold medallists and prima donnas,’ writes Humphrey McQueen, and in this broad, generous and meticulously compiled book, he gives us a history of what it was actually like to live and work in Australia from the first centenary of white settlement in 1888 to 2001. The result is a fascinating overview of Australia’s past.

Organised chronologically by decade, each chapter addresses themes such as ‘Work’, ‘Life in the Country’, ‘Health’, ‘Aborigines’, ‘View of the World’, etc, in bite-sized chunks.  You could read it straight through from beginning to end or you could focus on a particular areas and follow them through the decades.  Flipping back and forth on particular subjects can be revealing.

In the 1920s milk was ‘an almost unknown quantity’ on the tables of large Australian families (most survived on a diet of white bread with dripping, jam or treacle, and tea). Several chapters later we learn that by the 1990s, half the population is overweight or obese. White Australians’ relationship with Asia moves from the European settlers’ fear of Chinese workers in the 1890s that led to the ignominious White Australia policy, to the multiculturalism of the 1970s and 1980s and Geoffrey Blainey and John Howard.

Going to work is still a dangerous business for many (ask Paul Howes), despite decades of regulation, but in the 1890s health was considered very much an individual’s responsibility. So when workers on big construction projects such as dams or railways were housed in unsanitary conditions, the contractors concerned resisted suggestions that they should address the problem. If a navvy died of typhoid, he could readily be replaced.

If employers were lax about the health of their employees, they weren’t much fussed about the public, either.  Early in the 1920s the link was established between lead paint and blindness in children, yet ‘paint manufacturers prevented a compete ban on lead-based paints … Blindness from lead poisoning remained to blight lives until well into the 1950s.’

And as for cigarette companies:

One attempt to improve health by altering lifestyle began on the north coast of New South Wales in 1978. A ‘Quit for Life’ anti-smoking campaign included newspaper, radio and television advertising … After tobacco companies complained, the advertisements were stopped for fifteen weeks.  During that time, advertising for cigarettes in one local paper, the Lismore Northern Star, increased by 260 per cent.

Humphrey McQueen is a self-described ‘freelance historian’ and for over 40 years has published books, essays and articles on Australian history. He made his name with The New Britannia in 1970 and has gone on to publish 19 books.

The acknowledgements to Social Sketches include mention of his comrades in the Socialist Alliance, and there’s no doubt that this is history with a left-wing emphasis – but it is this that gives the book much of its energy as it presents history through a fresh lens.

Whenever we hear an employer talking about ‘flexibility’ today, let us remember when bakers and butchers worked from 4 am to 10 pm, as they did in the 1890s, and barmaids worked 14 to 18 hours a day for about 15 shillings a week.

Inevitably this kind of overview history leaves the reader with questions that there simply isn’t room to answer. I would have liked to have known more about the businessmen who, in November 1930, ‘appealed to General Sir John Monash to head a movement to save Australia from Labor governments.’ (The General refused, as he saw the request as ‘High Treason’.) But who were these businessmen (New Guard? Old Guard? Bewildered?) and what, precisely, did they hope to achieve?

And who was this Minister for Defence in February 1938 who so scathingly dismissed public questioning of government decisions?

We, the Government, have vital information which we cannot disclose. It is upon this knowledge that we make our decisions. You, who are merely private citizens, have not access to this information.  Any criticism you make of our policy, any controversy about it in which you may indulge will therefore be uninformed and valueless.  If, in spite of your ignorance, you persist in questioning our policy, we can only conclude that you are disloyal.

However disloyally, Australians refused to believe everything they were told:

When nearly 200 Sydney people were asked in 1941 if they thought that news reports on the war were true, about 40 per cent said ‘No’, while an equal percentage had doubts.

Contemporary scepticism about the media and government has a long history. Indeed, there are many moments in this book where the past illuminates current debates.

Knowing that in 1934 Western Australians voted two to one to break away from the Commonwealth puts a fresh perspective on the present-day attitudes of West Australians. No wonder they hate Canberra.

And consider this in light of the current debates about limits on poker machines:

Total outlays on gambling expanded during the 1990s to exceed $11 billion, with $6.5 billion tumbling into poker machines.  State governments became addicted to gaming revenues of almost $4 billion a year. The big losers were the 300,000 problem gamblers who accounted for one-third of the turnover.  Australia’s tradition of Melbourne Cup sweeps cannot explain this explosion.  Rather, clubs and pubs had trebled their promotional spending in the three years to 1998.

The book also includes vivid vignettes of individual personalities, from the original GJ Coles, who opened Australia’s first ‘3d, 6d and 1/- store’ in 1913 and founded a retailing empire, to Australia’s first Aboriginal magistrate, Pat O’Shane, who would get up at 5 am each day to study for her law degree with pictures of her mother, Angela Davis and Ho Chi Minh pinned above her desk for inspiration. She said: ‘I have been described as a controversial figure and God forbid I should have been a milksop. I hope I shall always dare to struggle.’

This is the kind of book that invites you to revisit it again and again. McQueen’s writing is lively and the bite-size presentation makes it easy to navigate.

Not least of all, it is a book that challenges what we consider to be important in our history. For McQueen, the defeat of the conscription referenda for overseas military service in 1916 and 1917, and the defeat of the referendum to outlaw the Communist Party in 1951 are ‘three democratic triumphs [that] had done more to keep Australia an open society than had either the Federation plebiscites or the Gallipoli campaign.’

Originally published in 1978, Social Sketches of Australia has undergone a number of revisions since, the most recent in 2000 and published in 2004.  This edition is still available from University of Queensland Press. Or you could always try borrowing it from the Newtown Library.

Humphrey McQueen’s latest book, Framework of Flesh, a history of the Builders Labourers, is available for free on his website.

Humphrey McQueen Social Sketches of Australia 1888-2001 UQP 2004 418 pp  $24.95