The picture that adorns almost every obituary of Geoffrey Bolton fits his description as the wise old man of West Australian history. Bald with a long beard, his genial stare is the image of a nurturer and teacher, a kindly servant of WA’s vaunted past.
Before all that Geoffrey Bolton was the precocious, fresh-faced sixteen-year-old who became the youngest ever Pelican Editor. In 2015, at the time of his sudden death, he was Western Australia’s most famous historian.
Bolton undertook an undergraduate degree in Arts at UWA before receiving both an Honours and a Masters in history, writing a biography of Alexander Forrest and a history of the Kimberly Pastoral District respectively. In 1953 he moved to Oxford’s Balliol College where he completed a PhD on the Irish Act of Union.
Bolton returned to Australia in 1956, first as a research fellow at ANU and lecturer at Monash before returning to UWA in 1966. By that time his theses had received publication and his nascent career as an historian of note was taking shape.
It was while working as a lecturer and tutor at UWA that he conceived what is still his most notorious work, A Fine Country to Starve In. Released in 1972, his book on the political and social circumstances that surrounded the depression in Western Australia and the secessionist movement in the early 1930s remains arguably his crowning achievement. Significantly, it pioneered the use of oral histories to elevate non-official voices to the centre of historical research in WA.
It remains a marginally controversial work, and received middling reviews at the time of its release. In particular younger class theorists disagreed with Bolton’s belief that class conflict was not as significant a motivator of Western Australian society in the 1930s as anti-Eastern parochialism. His theory that Perth was a society based around the formation of consensus has also been criticised over time. Bolton himself partially regretted the writing style of the work. Its reliance on irony made it unpalatable to readers who couldn’t interpret his humour.
However, A Fine Country to Starve In also proved the best example of his light, ironic prose, a style which made him popular and allowed him to translate the density of WA’s history to the masses.
Perhaps the best example of this is his sparkling description of Premier James Mitchell in 1932. Describing the year in a Shakespearean flourish as “the winter of Western Australia’s discontent” he wrote:
“The once-optimistic Mitchell was reduced to a harassed mendicant who seemed to spend half his time on the train commuting between Perth and Canberra to haggle for funds from the Commonwealth.”
Bolton left UWA in 1973 to be an inaugural professor at Murdoch University, an institution he helped establish. He cemented his status as one of Australia’s top historians as editor of the four volume Oxford History of Australia series. While he wrote the book covering the period from 1942-1988, it was the curation of work by emerging historians Stuart McIntyre and Beverly Kingston in the series that may have proved his greatest contribution to the set.
Bolton worked at the University of Queensland and ECU late in his academic career, retiring in the 1990s before becoming Chancellor of Murdoch from 2002-2006. He continued to make appearances as one of Australia’s top public intellectuals and publish new books. His final work, a biography of Governor-General, politician and historian Sir Paul Hasluck was released by UWA Press late last year.
Bolton in Pelican
That Bolton deeply wanted to write is evidenced by the sharpness of his participation in the Pelican. Arriving at university barely past his sixteenth birthday, he was already a staff reporter by the second edition of 1948. Ambitious, deliberate and precocious, by June he had somehow manoeuvred his way to the position of assistant editor, from which he became a public and abrasive figure, using his column inches to take aim at student politicians of every description.
His chief opponents were the self-serious members of the University Labor Club, who opposed his ramblings by critiquing his use of inexact language to describe the clientelism and pedantry of their group. Bolton’s response invoked the language of Pelican founder Griff Richards – as a student of history Bolton had taken it upon himself to read magazines from 1931 – in suggesting that his opponents take a less serious approach to his use of metaphor and irony to cover the student political process, an arena that dear god still needs 100% more levity today.
In September of that year editor Athol Thomas graduated after the second trimester – back in the 1940s there were three periods, rather than two. Thomas himself passed in 2012 following a battle with Parkinson’s Disease, leaving Bolton to take his place. At the age of sixteen a vacuum had allowed Bolton to take on his first editorial role.
At the time the Pelican was in a state of near constant disarray. Hopelessly underfunded, struggling for writing staff and still sold to students by the copy, the Pelicans of the era were almost uniformly bad. They also have the now odious distinction of having been illustrated by a young Rolf Harris.
Over the course of 1949 and 1950 Bolton courted controversy as editor, largely in an attempt to stimulate interest in the newspaper. One of these attempts was an editorial on May 5th 1950 expressing open support for the Communist Party Dissolution Act.
“Well we did that and then I thought it went too far and changed my mind”, Bolton said in an oral history taken in 1994.
“In fact what may have shocked me into changing my mind was the unwillingness of the Young Libs to give a hearing to the people that they didn’t agree with.”
Another editorial from 1949, titled “The Boong”, which sought to ironise the plight of the Indigenous community in the north similarly missed its mark. More commonly the young Bolton took aim at the disease of “student apathy”, giving his editorials a self-serious air.
While his editorship often displayed his teenage immaturity, expressing opinions he wouldn’t touch in his later life, his precocious spirit also re-introduced humour to the newspaper after a long period under the strict auspices of an editorial policy going back to the Sruss-Sruss scandal that marked the start of Prosh in 1931.
His best work was probably as the pseudonymous Sir Toby Belch. Parodying university life by writing “the serious aims of life are getting drunk, getting engaged, getting through exams, and developing a layer of worldly-wise cynicism”, Bolton used the Belch persona to break the shackles imposed by the style of student journalism at the time. Through the Belch persona Bolton even parodied his own obsession with the theme of “student apathy”.
As editor he was also involved in the famous M. Jean Leps prank. Publicising a talk by a fictional visual artist that was attended and admired by 450 people, including numerous humanities staff-members, Bolton published the “scoop” in Pelican three days later that it was in fact a college hoax. The prank is one of the brightest memories of UWA for those still alive from the time.
Bolton died as both a towering name and a modest man who will be indelibly linked with the history of Western Australia. Regardless of his teething problems as Pelican editor he provided a new direction for a struggling publication, and began to develop the writing style that would win him both admiration and criticism in his later career. Geoffrey, Pelican cries for you.
Words by Josh Chiat