PHA NSW& ACT member Michael Williams specialises in local Australian history and heritage and in Chinese Australian and diaspora history. Here we see him in south China, on a conference tour concerning Australia’s links with villages such as this one, the world-heritage listed Kaiping.
What is your current area of historical interest?
I am researching a history of the Dictation Test using the numerous files in the National Archives related to its administration over more than 50 years. You might think a great deal has been written on this topic. In fact, much has yet to be revealed about the impact on individual lives and about the amazing twists in a test it was literally a crime to fail (and everybody failed).
I have had a lifelong love of history and its ability to help us to understand the world a little better. After a variety of careers I felt that a focus on history best allowed me to use my skills to go in-depth into a subject and to spend the time needed to really build up a body of knowledge.
Who is the audience for your history?
I range over two specialities, so guess I have two audiences. Like many in the PHA I do local work (in the Williams River Valley) for history and heritage studies. Here my audience is anyone with a local interest in history or a love of the heritage that surrounds us and is so often under threat.
My other major area is Chinese Australian history. This field interests all who wish to understand the role of this important group in Australian history, a role that has been somewhat neglected in the past but which is becoming of greater interest all the time.
What’s your favourite historical source, book, website or film?
When I was young I read a fascinating book called The Common Stream, which traced the history of an English village from Roman times. It centred on the stream that ran through its middle. The picture of change over time was one that has stayed with me all my life.
Of course Australian history gives less scope for such lengthy historical work but I was pleased to be able to write Entertaining Dungog, which traces the 100-year role of the James Theatre in the life of the village of Dungog.
If you had a time machine, where would you go?
My favourite historical era has always been classical Greece, the time of Socrates, Thucydides and Plato. To discuss the writing of his history with Thucydides himself would be an amazing use of a time machine – so long as it came with the ability to speak Attic Greek!
Why is history important today?
I would like to say because by learning from the mistakes of the past we can avoid repeating those mistakes. Unfortunately if we learn anything from history it is that very few people seem to have the capacity to learn from it, certainly not those able to affect our societies. The importance of history is very intellectual then, a solace for those who can only stand by as events take a course that seems all too tragically inevitable.