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'If students can't learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn' (Ignacio Estrada, via Tomlinson)

HTAA Conference: Day 3 Keynote Speaker, Peter Cochrane

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 5, 2008

Peter Cochrane is the author of Colonial Ambitions: Foundations of Australian Democracy and his address was most interesting.  He pointed out that most Australians learn their history from writers like Peter Carey, Kate Grenville and Tom Keneally, not from scholars, and that he wrote his history by attending to similar narrative skills: a plot, composition that delights in language (and sometimes poetry), and character. 

Cochrane wanted to write a biographical narrative with an interesting ‘leading man’ – he chose William Wentworth, our first ‘great Australian’.  He was fascinating because he was flawed, and because his private life was so different to his public life.  To find a way into the ‘boring’ story of our early history he examined the revealed v. the concealed self, drawing on the private life of this man to illuminate the past.

Wentworth sounds intriguing.  Cochrane begins Colonial Ambitions with the story of his wedding to Sarah – a small wedding because Wentworth e was ostracised over his ‘convict blood’. He felt humiliated by being treated as a social pariah and this was influential in his behaviour – he was full of vindictive rage about it and wanted revenge because the Wentworth family was never included in Sydney society.  This complex man went on to become a key figure in the story of our peaceful evolution of colonial autocracy into a self-governing colony.

Cochrane also talked about the structure of his book, and explored some of the recent controversies about historical writing.  Simon Schama is worried about storytelling not being ‘serious’ and the risk of ‘dumbing down’, and Inga Clendinnen’s spat with Kate Grenville is well known.  Cochrane acknowledges that narratives run on historical time, but chronology doesn’t rule life and nor should it rule a book.  There can be patterns of impulse, and links between childhood and adult life, and these can be treated using flashbacks, retrospectives and glimpses of the future.  (All very useful ideas for the history that I am writing about the Draft Resisters Union! ) Cochrane believes that in writing accessible history, a writer can include analysis ‘by stealth’ and that it’s ok to fill in the gaps in the sense that one can imagine what something might have been like in the historical context (e.g. being ill with a stomach complaint and therefore unable to travel in the days when facilities were primitive) or to evoke the spatial dimension (e.g. what were the places of relevance? how did the city operate in those days?)

I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read this book.  I remember picking it up in a bookshop (and this must have been on one of those rare days when I was trying to restrain my book buying obsession) and dismissing it as ‘just about NSW history’.  (Yes, how parochial of me!)  The first thing I did back in Melbourne was to order it from Readers Feast, to pick up this coming Tuesday when I go in after work for the launch of Kate Grenville’s new historical novel, The Lieutenant.

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