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

Monday, November 29, 2010

Social Change in New England 1950-2000 6: introducing the writers

My last post in this series, Social Change in New England 1950-2000 5: end of local media ownership, looked at changes in the New England media. This post opens a new front, writing and cultural activities more broadly.

The following three posts all date from March this year. Each is personal, but each contains references to different aspects of social change in the period we are talking about.

By way of a general background comment, in looking at cultural activities such as writing, film and painting, my first concern has been simply documentation. In doing so, I have necessarily been drawn into questions such as the extent to which locale and life experiences affected the activity. This then draws me into the question of regional variation within New England, as well as changes in expression over time.

When I began, I doubted that there was such a thing as a New England tradition. Now I am not so sure, for I have begun to see patterns. What can be said, I think, is that our own lack of knowledge of our past rather short circuits the process because it limits the extent to which previous work feeds into new work.

What is also interesting is the growth in New England cultural activities of all types. There are just so many more New England writers or painters now than there were before. This is one of the positive sides of the changes that have taken place since 1950.

The first post, Literature, locale and license, was written following my return from Armidale in March this year. Here I want to point to three elements.

The first is the role of the University of New England including university extension in feeding local cultural activities, a theme I return to in the third post, Writing, film and New England perceptions. This is a major theme that I will return too later in this series.

Within this first post, note the role played by local offices in Aboriginal advancement.

New England has a very large Aboriginal population. The changes that that population experienced form another element in my story. The history of Aboriginal people in NSW is not just Redfern or the Block, nor is it the Sydney University student rides, although those rides form one element in the story. New England's Aboriginal peoples have their own story, as do the changing reactions of local people.

By the end of the period Aboriginal writers were beginning to present their own past. Ruby Ginibi may have left the North for Sydney at the age of 15, but many of her books are the discovery of her own Northern past. In similar vein, the Aboriginal language revival movement is a re-discovery of another element of New England's Aboriginal past.

The Aboriginal story is another major theme in the story of New England social change after 1950.

The second post, Ryan, Niland, Keneally and the New England story, looks at some of the writers. You will see my frustration at our failure to recognise our own past, a theme continued in the third post. I am less negative here than I was, simply because I think that the cumulative effect of the mass of work is growing. 

The posts follow. Again, I hope that you enjoy them with all their imperfections.      

Literature, locale and license, 23 March 2010

Back from Armidale Sunday. It was too difficult to post while I was away. Then yesterday a fair bit of wheel spinning and catching up.

I really enjoyed the trip. However, as is so often the case with research, I ended up with more questions than answers!

One difficulty of trying to write a general history of an area, in my case the broader New England, lies in the decision as to what to include, exclude. Here I complicated my life by spending some time with John Ryan.

John came to the English Department at the University of New England in 1959, and is still teaching on a part time basis. That's a very long time. It's a bit frightening to think that I have known John since 1963.

Actively involved in university extension, John has also written extensively on things Northern. Here he defines just one of his interests as New England Heritage matters, especially the writings, customs, legends and other folk materials relating to the Northern third of New South Wales.

There were two main areas in my discussion with John that drew out my own lack of knowledge.

The first was the role of he University extension offices. These were established in Lismore, Grafton, Port Macquarie and Tamworth, providing University outreach at a time when far fewer options were available. Of course I knew the story in a general sense, but I had not realised some of the local impacts.

I knew of the role that the central campus had played in Aboriginal studies, for example, but did not know of the role played at local level by people such as the Lismore based R M (Max) Praed. In early 1974, for example, the Lismore and Grafton offices combined with Federal funding to run a four day workshop     

in human relations and community organization ... open to Aboriginal people who wish to improve their leadership skills and develop an understanding of the changes taking place in Aboriginal society.

Unlike previous workshops where most participants had been men and women involved in voluntary organizations or in full-time positions in government and private agencies concerned with Aboriginal Affairs, this one made specific provision for inclusion of Aboriginal young people.

Of itself, not such a big deal perhaps. However, if you look at the planning committee you get a feel for the spread of interests:  

  • Ted Fields, Aboriginal Field Officer, Credit
    Union League.
  • Ray Kelly, Aboriginal Research Officer, National
    Parks and Wildlife Service.
  • Bob Walford, Field Officer, Aboriginal Tutorial
    Scheme, Armidale and President Armidale
    Aboriginal Association.
  • Terry Widders, Secretary, Commission on
    Aboriginal Development, Australian Council of
  • Lilla Watson, University Student, Brisbane.
  • Frank Wigham (Workshop Director), Department
    of University Extension, University of New
    England, Grafton.
  • Dr Ned Iceton, U.N.E. Department of University
    Extension, Armidale.
  • Max Praed, U.N.E. Department of University
    Extension, Armidale.

There are two major sub-texts here: one is Aboriginal advancement, the second a broader one linked to the introduction of University education to people who had had no previous direct contact with tertiary education.

The second area where discussions with John revealed my own lack of knowledge lay in the field of writing itself. I have often commented on the number of writers with New England connections, but did not realise that I had barely scratched the surface. John pointed me towards North Coast writers and literary traditions that I was simply unaware of.

A little later I acquired a copy of His Tales From New England (2008), a series of essays on various writers with New England and especially Tablelands connections. Some I knew, some I did not. Even for those I did know, I learned new things. There is almost an embarrassment of riches.

In 1974, the publication of Death of An Old Goat in the British Collins Crime Club format launched Robert Barnard's international crime writing career. The plot deals with the attempts by a young English lecturer Bob Bascomb to assist police in solving the apparently motiveless murder of a recently arrived visitor to the Department of English at the University of Drummondale.

Drummondale is, of course, Armidale, while Bascombe is based in part on Barnard himself. Barnard arrived in Armidale early in 1961 as an English lecturer, leaving at the end of 1965 to take a post at the University of Bergen in Norway. While in Armidale, he married local girl Mary Tabor, a graduate librarian with a degree in French and English.

The book is a sometimes very funny, satirical and a somewhat cruel picture of life in Armidale and at the university in the 1960s. It is especially funny in places to those who know Armidale because of the tendency to play spot the person.

Clearly Barnard's book provides one picture of life, but it was only a partial picture and needs to be balanced with other accounts. This was, for example, the period of university out reach that I described earlier. 

I have at least read Death of an Old Goat. However, the same cannot be said for all the others discussed by John Ryan. He discusses ten writers in all, in some cases with multiple books with New England connections. In some cases I have not read the books at all, in other cases not for a long while.

As you might expect, there are links and cross-links. I will explore these properly later on my New England blogs. What I would like to show is how literature, locale and sometimes license interact with history; it is a story of writers, but also of relations between writers and their environment. 

Ryan, Niland, Keneally and the New England story, March 30, 2010

Sometimes there is just so much material around that I don't know where to begin.

I have been working my way through and cross-reading three books at the same time - High Lean Country, Tales from New England and A spirit of true learning. All three are recent or relatively recent publications, all three deal with aspects of New England. Two of the three are linked to the Heritage Futures Research Centre at the University of New England, a multidisciplinary group that I am now affiliated with.

  I will write more on this on the New England blogs. For the moment, I want to point to just a few features, following up on an earlier post here, Literature, locale and license.

The first is the question of identity. New England has an identity, but what is it? You see, there are multiple New Englands whose meaning and boundaries have changed. This leads to confusion unless terms are clearly specified.

The second is the way that identity is re-shaped, re-formed by presentation or the lack of it. Let me illustrate by example.

D'Arcy Niland is a well known Australian writer.  His book The Shiralee (1955), the story of a swagman or itinerant worker and his 4-year-old daughter, was made into a successful 1957 movie staring Peter Finch and then in 1987 into a very popular TV mini-series. All this is part of Australian cultural history and indeed the continued shaping of Australians' own sense of self-identity.

I saw the first movie and indeed the mini-series. However, at no stage did I connect either with New England, yet the book is a New England story. Does this matter? Well, no and yes.

At national level, perhaps not. At New England level, certainly, for D'Arcy Niland is part of New England's cultural and social history.

According to Bruce Moore's Australian Dictionary of Biography entry (link above), D'Arcy Niland was born on 20 October 1917 at Glen Innes, eldest of six children of native-born parents Francis Augustus Niland, a cooper who became a woolclasser, and his wife Barbara Lucy, née Egan. The family was of Irish-Catholic ancestry, a background which was to feed into much of Niland's writing. He was named after the boxer Les Darcy, but later spelt his Christian name 'D'Arcy'.

Now already in terms of New England social history we can place Niland in a particular social context, but there is more.

Niland was educated at the convent of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Glen Innes.

What the ADB entry does not say is that the Sisters of St Joseph, the order found by Mary McKillop, played a major role in the development of the Roman Catholic education system within New England. Many years later, the Sisters were to be one of my consulting clients, something that was invaluable in giving me a feel for the order, the emotional content and texture if you like. This has been very helpful in my writing in a general sense, for I come from a Protestant background.

The ADB entry also fails to mention that it was the Sisters, one in particular, who encouraged Niland's interest in writing. Again, this is important in the context of New England's social and cultural history.

I am not criticising Bruce Moore's ADB entry, by the way, in saying all this. By their nature, these entries are always summaries.        

The ADB entry notes that Niland left school at the age of 14, hoping to become a writer. For two years he accompanied his father around the local shearing sheds and had first-hand experience of the effects of the Depression in rural areas. At 16 he gained the position of copy-boy at the Sydney Sun newspaper, a potential stepping-stone to a career as a journalist, but he was retrenched after a year. He returned to the country, taking up whatever work was available. By the late 1930s he was back in Sydney, earning his living as a railway porter. He was rejected for military service in World War II because of a cardiac condition. Under the orders of the Directorate of Manpower, he worked in the shearing sheds of north-west New South Wales.

This potted history is quite important for The Shiralee. In 1952, Niland was awarded £600 by the Commonwealth Literary Fund to write a novel. He again took to the road for research, leading to The Shiralee. Yet, and as I think John Ryan has proved quite conclusively, the picture of life in the novel is not in fact a picture of rural life in New England in the early 1950s, but an amalgam of far earlier experiences. 

Before going on, in 1942 Niland married married Ruth Park, a 23-year-old journalist from New Zealand. As I remember it, they had originally started corresponding while Niland was a student at St Joseph's. The couple decided to pursue professional writing careers with considerable success.

Kilmeny (and here), one of their twin daughters, also became a successful writer and illustrator. Kilmeny married Rafe Champion, among other things now a well known Australian blogger, in 1979. Later, Rafe would collaborate with Ruth Park using D'Arcy Niland's earlier extensive research to produce a biography of Les Darcy, Home Before Dark (Melbourne, 1995).      

I seem to have side-tracked a little.

D'Arcy Niland is clearly an important relevant to any history of New England. But is the New England experience relevant to broader Australian history? I would argue yes.

My failure to connect The Shiralee to my own experience and area is in part a reflection of the fact that I had not read the book. However, it also reflects that fact that there was nothing in my environment to tell me that it was relevant. This is what I mean when I say that identity is re-shaped, re-formed by presentation or the lack of it.

The Shiralee case is not an isolated example.

When I saw the 1977 Australian movie the Picture Show Man I thought that some of the scenes looked familiar. I had no idea until yesterday that the film was filmed in New England, nor that the story was based in part on the story of a Tamworth family.

Or take the case of the 1978 film The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. This film is part set in and part filmed in New England. It is, in fact, based on one of no less than three books by Australian writer Thomas Keneally set at least in part in New England and influenced by his time at the University of New England (1968-70) as well as the experiences of cousins there. Internationally, Keneally is best known for the book and film Schindler's List, but the New England experience and focus is still interesting.

Again, I had no idea of the depth of the Keneally connection.

The books that I am reading are important, I think, because their regional focus documents and presents the regional story, but in a frame that provides broader national context. They tell a story that is relevant to me as a New Englander, but also a story that is relevant to me as an Australian or, sometimes, a Kiwi!

They also provide a spur to my writing, for I am not alone, but part of a writing tradition. 

Writing, film and New England perceptions, March 30, 2010

Ryan, Niland, Keneally and the New England story on my personal blog looks at some threads in the New England literary and film tradition.

I wrote the story there because I was exploring ideas from a personal perspective. I want to extend the argument here along two dimensions: first, the importance as I see it for all those in New England to have access to their own culture and past; second, the need to redress what I see as an imbalance towards the Tablelands in general and Armidale in particular.

  Take as an example of the first the 1977 Australian movie the Picture Show Man. As I said, when I saw it, I thought that it was familiar. Yet I didn't properly realise that it was shot on the Liverpool Plains and the Clarence. Had I known that, I would have watched the detail much more closely.

When you don't see your world reflected back, it takes much longer to form and refine the iconic images that help define our own worlds. One of the reasons that Harry Pidgeon's paintings so appealed to me is that they live in and capture the world especially of the western slopes. I saw them as iconic in Liverpool Plains terms, capturing too the transition between tablelands and plains.

The colours of New England was part inspired by Harry's paintings. In it, I tried to capture the variations in colour across the broader New England, to write in a way that would make this accessible not just to New Englanders, but also to those beyond.

I think that this remains important. I cannot paint or express things via music. The only instrument I have to show New Englanders their world is my capacity to write, however imperfectly.

This brings me to my second point.

In 1920 the first New State manifesto, Australia Subdivided, put a key problem facing the North in this way: In Northern New South Wales, a few high schools, no technical schools, no universities exist to retain the intelligence and culture of the area[1].

The manifesto was dead right. One outcome of the subsequent campaigns was the establishment of the University of New England. UNE has delivered in spades in terms of the plaint of the authors of Australia Subdivided, yet I remain dissatisfied.

The establishment first of the Armidale Teacher's College in 1928 and then the University College in Armidale in 1938 supported growth in the arts of all types. One element of this was a growth in writing and in writing about writing. Part of this was connected with the Northern mission, part simply reflected the increasing presence in Armidale of an educated group who wanted to write or saw writing as a weapon.

With time, this led to a very substantial volume of work across many fields. Yet a problem has emerged.

For a number of reasons that lie beyond the scope of this post, UNE's regional focus narrowed. As a simple example to illustrate this point, the last book on New England prehistory was published in 1974. Increasingly, too, the regional work that has been published focused on the Tablelands and Western Slopes.

Before going on, I would love to be corrected in the argument that I am now about to mount. I accept that my knowledge is imperfect. If I am wrong, please correct me.

I grew up in an expansive Northern or New England world. I am Tablelands, but also knew the North Coast, the Western Slopes, the Hunter and a little late but less perfectly the Plains. I saw all this as, if you like, my world.        

To my mind, the partial withdrawal of the University of New England from its original and broader mission as the Sydney University of the North has created a gap. When I look at writing about writing or Northern or New England culture, for example, I now find a fair bit about just one area of the North, very little about the rest.

I find this very frustrating. As I said, it may be that I simply don't know what is there, yet I think that there is a real gap. I know enough in some ways to write a broad brush descriptions of similarities and links across New England, yet the material I have seen suggests that I barely understand.

[1] E Page and others (eds), Australia Subdivided, The First New State, Examiner Printing Works, Glen Innes, 1920, p10.

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