Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Saturday, May 29, 2010

New England's literary tradition 2 - geography

Geography has formed the New England literary view. To those living on the coast, the blue rim of the nearby mountains is nearly always in view. To many, the mountains were an entry to a new and different world. The poet Les Murray belongs to this class[1]. Murray came from the Manning Valley. The New England poet and writer Julian Croft suggests that, to Murray, the mountains are a bridge between earth and sky[2]:

a radiant season swelling through the horizons
beyond September, mortality crumbling down
till on summer mornings, a farm boy can see through the hills
the roots of pumpkin-vines knotting clear under New England.

To some more recent settlers drawn to the coast over the last two decades for retirement or life style reasons, the mountains have become a barrier, outlining the far limits of their world. Some have never even been to the upper limits of the valleys in which they now live, spending their lives in a narrow strip fronting the sea with the occasional visits to the metropolitan areas from which they fled.

The vision of those living on the Tablelands is necessarily different. The size of the Tablelands, its distinct character, gives the sense of living in a unique world juxtaposed between two very distinct worlds.

To the east, the Tablelands with its fours seasons breaks sharply at the escarpment to the subtropical world of the coast. To those living on the Tablelands, Western Slopes and Plains, the coast has been a traditional playground; a place for holidays and sometimes for retirement. The coast’s then big towns – Grafton, Lismore, Taree – were places to visit. The real heartland lay in the myriad small seaside places, each favoured by specific families and friends. Here, as an example, Armidale writer Gwen Kelly wrote of Hungry Head beach near Urunga[3]:

Here, alone, the rock cliff juts
above the wave-whorled sand,
ruts in a crumble, aeons old,
to filter through my hand.

To the west, the Tablelands drops down into the Western Slopes and Plains. Temperatures became hotter, the climate drier, the sky expands as the land flattens. We now enter the world of bush poetry. Bush poetry is not unique, of course, to this area. However, this is bush poetry country. Henry Lawson wrote:

Our Andy's gone to battle now
'Gainst Drought, the red marauder;
Our Andy's gone with cattle now
Across the Queensland border[4].

Many decades passed between the writing of this poem and the formation of the Australian Bush Poets Association in 1994[5]. However, it is really no coincidence that the Association should have been formed at Tamworth as part of the Country Music Festival. There is a great contrast between Lawson and the later bush poets and the more genteel poets of the Tablelands and North Coast.

The Hunter Valley was always a little different. This is a big valley, with a total area of around 22,000 square kilometres. It also runs north west and, shielded by rugged ranges to its north, is much drier than any other coastal region within New England. To the southern traveler, the descent from the Liverpool Ranges to Murrurundi in the Upper Hunter is sharp but short; there is not the same sense of transition as in movement from the Tablelands to the other eastern river valleys.

The Upper Hunter itself feels constrained, bound by the ranges to the west. However, these are different ranges with sharp bluffs, more like the Hawkesbury ranges to the south. As the valley broadens, the landscape feels like an extension of the Liverpool Plains. There is the same sense of heat, with the irrigation plants spaying to keep selected paddocks green. The traveller is now entering coal and wine country, two very different industries in conflict. Further south lies the self contained world of the coal and secondary industry of the Lower Hunter.

The size and diversity of the Hunter makes for a varied literary tradition[6]. Bush poetry is present, as it is further north, with a Hunter Bush Poets Group[7]. At a broader level, Patrick White, one of Australia’s best known writers, came from a Hunter Valley family. However, unlike Judith Wright further north, his writing cannot be classified as New England. There is no equivalent to South of My Days, now almost the anthem of the Tablelands:

South of my day’s circle, part of my blood’s country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under winter,

Over recent years there has been a rapid expansion in writing in the Hunter as elsewhere, in part because of the expansion of Writer’s Centres, as well as specialist presses: writers’ centres exist at Newcastle (Hunter Writers’ Centre[8]), Byron Bay (Northern Rivers Writers’ Centre[9]) and Armidale (New England Writers’ Centre[10]), while Northern Rivers Press at Lismore[11], Catchfire Press in the Hunter[12] and Kardoorair Press in Armidale[13] are examples of specialist presses. In addition, the various educational institutions have played an important role promotion and publishing

Today there is quite a diversified range of writing in both print and on-line form. Again, location and geography are important. However, that is another story.

Note to readers: This is one of a series getting basic ideas down. You will find the introductory post here.

[1] For details of Les Murray’s work and thought see his web site – http://www.lesmurray.org/bio.htm Accessed 28 May 2010. The linkages between Murray and the New England Tablelands are discussed in Julian Croft, Imagining New England, High Lean Country: Land, people and memory in New England, edited by Alan Atkinson, J S Ryan, Iain Davidson and Andrew Piper, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2006, pp 279-290.

[2] Julian Croft, 2006, p285.

[3] Gwen Kelly & A J Bennett, Fossils and Stray Cats, Selected Poems, Kardoorair Press, Armidale 1980

[4] Poem Hunter, http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/andy-s-gone-with-cattle/, accessed 28 May 2010.

[5] Australian Bush Poets Association, http://www.abpa.org.au/, accessed 28 May 2010.

[6] The Hunter material is very much work in progress, a surmise.

[7] http://www.hunterbushpoets.org.au/Home.aspx accessed 28 May 2010.

[8] http://hwcentre.com/ accessed 29 May 2010.

[9] http://www.nrwc.org.au/v1/index.php accessed 29 May 2009

[10] Web site presently offline.

[11] http://www.northernriverspress.com/index.html, accessed 28 May 2010.

[12] http://www.catchfirepress.com.au/, accessed 28 May 2010.

[13] http://www.kardoorair.com.au/Kardoorair_Press_Home.html, accessed 28 May 2010.

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