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

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Difficulties & opportunities in New England's history

I have started writing the paper I have to give in Armidale on 1 April on social change in New England, 1950-2000.

The interesting challenge just at the moment is how to balance local, regional, national and global. In reviewing John Ferry's book Colonial Armidale, Don Boadle began his review in this way:

John Ferry's stimulating study of Armidale in the making is the very antithesis of Whig history. Whigs celebrate uniqueness, institutional progress and consensus. Ferry concerns himself with similarity, with the static as well as the dynamic, with struggle, competition and division. He focuses on the social structures of a small colonial town - a town in many ways typical of other early towns along the eastern Australian highlands - and uses it as a ‘case study of colonial Australian society'.

John's book is a very good one. However, he does (as Don notes) treat Armidale as a case study of a broader society. This means that he ignores, again as Don notes, many aspects of life. If you read the book and then one on twentieth century Armidale or New England, you might wonder where later events came from. There is nothing in John's book to tell you.

I have taken a different view to John. I am writing the history of an area, not a study of what that area's history might say about broader events. I am interested in those broader events as they affect New England.

In choosing the particular area that I have, I have to show to the reader - justify, if you like -  that there is a natural unity, that the area is worthy of study as an entity. This is problem only because New England does not exist - it has no official status, while there is disagreement even as to its boundaries. I don't see this as an issue, although it does raise some technical difficulties in the way I approach the task.

A second issue is the relationship between local, regional and the broader New England. My local readers will want to know how their area fits in; they will be very critical if their area is neglected. However, in a general history I am concerned with patterns, with similarities and differences. I cannot cover everything. So there is a balance issue. 

Then there are broader NSW, Australian and international issues. Here I hope to say something new by setting New England in a context, showing how things worked out on the ground. Again, there are problems.

One of the difficulties, but also opportunities, lies in the way that current explanations are all driven by broader fashions in historiography that, in turn, rest upon historians' perceptions of of what is important.

Most historians assume that their readers are likely to have some background knowledge; many write at least in part for audiences that are specifically interested in the topic. I cannot easily do this.    

The type of topics especially relevant to New England, the history of the wool or manufacturing industries are examples, have diminished or even vanished from research over the last thirty years. Important secondary sources are now out of print. Little is on-line. I have to assume zero knowledge, very limited special interest in my topic. I have to decide how much to explain, to write in a way that will interest the general reader who has no background knowledge. I have to tell story, in other words, while meeting the canons necessary for historical research.

That's both the difficulty and the opportunity. If I can tell the story properly, if I can set New England in a context, then I have the chance of saying something new, of providing new insights.

I guess that some of this may sound pretty egotistical. Certainly I have set myself a hard task. Here I keep telling myself I just have to deliver!

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