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  • History Boy: A Memoir, and: Eighty Years On: A Further Memoir
  • Antony Reid
History Boy: A Memoir. Nicholas Tarling Wellington: Dunmore Publishing, 2009. 277 pp., ISBN: 978-1-877399-45-9
Eighty Years On: A Further Memoir. Nicholas Tarling Wellington: Dunmore Publishing, 2010. 375 pp., ISBN: 978-1-877399-55-8

Late 20th-century Auckland has found a reincarnated Pepys in this meticulous documenting of a lengthy and productive academic life. Nicholas Tarling has a legendary memory, but in addition he appears to have kept an exceptional store of correspondence of the pre-computer era, and a diary since 1976, and inherited a complete set of his own weekly letters to his mother over a 50-year period. Thus he is in a position to record exceptional detail of all the people he met, concerts he attended, theatrical roles he played (‘about 140’ in total (I: 124)), contentious committees he chaired, and reactions he had at different periods of his life.

Since the writing is dense, it will be helpful to summarize the life it charts, with the major ‘turning points’ (TP) he himself highlighted. Born in 1931 in Buckinghamshire, near London, he moved in 1937 with the upwardly mobile family to St Alban’s, in the northern suburbs of the metropolis, in order that the four children could have access to better schools. With very impressive results in the HSC he sailed into Cambridge, where he was persuaded by J. H. Plumb that an academic career beckoned if he chose history rather than his own initial preference for English (TP 1). Undergraduate Cambridge, however, was the least happy time of his life, perhaps because of over-anxiety about getting the essential double first. Without any background except the ‘Expansion of Europe’ course at Cambridge, he was persuaded to take on the exotic Malayan topic for his PhD dissertation (1952–55), which with Victor Purcell’s mediation was published later by MBRAS.

Young NT had no taste for leaving England, and indeed had only once escaped as far as Paris before finally departing in 1957 for a life in the Antipodes. But John Bastin, the comparable Australian pioneer he had met in London, had persuaded him to apply for the Queensland University position Bastin was leaving in favour of ANU (TP 2). Having been warned by Bastin how awful he would find Australia and especially Queensland, NT in fact flourished in the Antipodes. Queensland University proved ‘a rather happy time’, and his mother’s letters congratulated him on at last ‘making up for all the years you lost [End Page 117] here [in England]’ (I:108). His own admission was that ‘the relative thinness of cultural life [in Queensland] was a positive rather than a negative. If you could go a bit deeper, you could also explore more widely’ (I:107). And so his second career as an amateur actor began. He first set foot in Southeast Asia only in the 1960–1 summer break, when well embarked on his third book on the subject. This was largely to attend Ken Tregonning’s now historic Southeast Asian history conference in Singapore (January 1961), but also involved the first meetings with many of the scholarly eminences of the day. Conferences continued to be his chief contacts with the region. Finally, in a 3rd Turning Point, he accepted a more senior position at Auckland University in 1965. There he was to remain, despite various ‘half-hearted’ attempts to depart, beyond retirement in 1997. He there became in turn full Professor, Dean, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Chairman of the Northern Arts Council, in-demand actor often of comic roles, and broadcaster of a fortnightly ‘Opera hour’. In between he wrote over 30 books, with increasing frequency after retirement.

NT is famously a historian of the archives, close to his sources, and these two volumes are an extreme case, seemingly documenting a life from the unique source of the letters and diaries. For whom is the memoir written? Few will find it palatable as a cover-to-cover read. Because of the extensive quotes from letters to his mother, there is a sense in which she may still be the now-absent audience...


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pp. 117-119
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