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

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Writing multi-layered history

In history as in other subjects, the form of writing depends upon purpose. In my case, I have been thinking about what I call multi-layered history, histories covering broad topics or geographic areas where the challenge is to tell a multi-faceted story in circumstances of choice in selection of topic, examples and evidence.

While this topic is not new here, it's fresh in my mind because over the weekend I read Fiona Capp's My Blood's Country (Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2010). The book is subtitled on the front cover but not elsewhere "A journey through the landscapes that inspired Judith Wright's poetry". In a way that's right, although the core of the book is really a memoir on the relationships between Judith's poetry, landscape and life.

Fiona met Judith first through her poetry and then personally late in Judith's life. This is a view looking back, seeking to discover and understand a much lover author.

I don't think that I ever met Judith, but I have known of her all my life because of connections between the Wrights and my own family. After I first read Generations of Men, I actually went and found the remains of the house that Judith referred to in that book.

There are very special issues involved in writing a history that involves people you know or know of, especially where those people are subject to multiple interpretations. The people acquire can a life of their own independent of your perceptions of them and their life; they become multiple people, separated by perception. They are there as you knew them, but then they also exist as creations in other peoples' minds. They are the same, but then they are not.

There is an odd dissonance here that I will write about in a little more detail on my personal blog. For the moment, I want to focus on Judith Wright as a figure in New England history and, more importantly, in the writing of New England history.

As a family, the Wrights form one thread in the general history of New England. Judith's father PA and brother Peter had a very direct impact on aspects of New England life, including the establishment and growth of the University of New England and the new state cause. Judith herself left New England to go to Brisbane , but her writing is a resource on aspects of New England life and fed back into New England history. The Wrights as a whole in some ways mirror the rise and fall of New England.

Because Judith Wright is such a well known literary figure, because she retained connections with New England in a way that, say, Patrick White did not, because so many people have written about her, it would be very easy to use her as major unifying figure in the history of New England in the second half of the twentieth century. Her own changes in views, her changing views on land and family, her distress at the loss of the family properties, all lend themselves to dramatic presentation.

The temptation is almost irresistible. Her own turn of phrase, the views of others including Fiona, provide a huge resource. Yet to focus on Judith would, to my mind, be an error. There is a balance question, for others had different views.

Let me link this back to the opening idea of multi-layered history.

Judith Wright's views were formed by the combination of personality and experience. They were unique to her. They provide a special perspective on New England history, and can be used to layer the New England experience. From my perspective this is very important, because one of the issues I am conscious of is the need to show that what I am writing about is important.

At one level, this shouldn't matter. History is history. To argue that New England history is in some way important beyond the simple history of an area is to risk falling into the equivalent of a regional variant of the big man in history concept. Yet we live in a world where changing fashions have effectively relegated the history of the area that I am interested in to the dust-heap of Australian history, a simple footnote in a broader story. The local sound and fury is relegated to what, nothing?, in that broader story. I can't accept that view.

In these circumstances, I am sure that you can see my temptation to, in a sense, misuse Judith. Fortunately, I have so much material that I can balance Judith with the views and experiences of others.

Now I want to make an apparently self-evident point.

We live in an internet world. The internet is a wonderful tool. I couldn't write what I do sitting in a quiet Sydney suburban street without it. The internet provides a free-lance writer like me with access to information that I could not otherwise see. Yet the internet is very much a creature of fashion. Much of the information I need is not on the internet.

Behind me as I write is a bookcase on New England history. I have been buying these books for more than thirty years. You won't find any of them on the internet.

The books vary in quality. Some are the stories of properties, others personal memoirs, some local histories, some novels or books of poetry. Between them, they are critical to me in presenting my overlays.

I do not know that I can achieve my dream of writing a properly textured history of New England. I am always behind. Still, the fascination of people, culture and landscape holds me. I strive to tell a story, to re-create a past world, to hope that I can show something of the fascination of this particular slice of Australia's past.        

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Dates for early Aboriginal settlement in the Hunter

I have bogged down in preparing New England's Aborigines stocktake May 2011. I was going to leave it as the front post until complete, but that was on the basis that I was updating it regularly. In the meantime, other things pass the blog by.

In 6500-year-old heritage junked, the Newcastle Herald reports on the results of a dig on Newcastle's Kentucky Fried Chicken site. This found carbon-dated evidence of Aboriginal occupation dating back between 6716 and 6502 years – the oldest evidence of human settlement in Newcastle.

I don't want to comment at the moment on the detail because I am leaving for Canberra in a little while, just record it for later reference.

Monday, May 09, 2011

New England's Aborigines stocktake May 2011

Over on the New England Australia blog I have started bringing up a series that looks at New England Aboriginal life and mixes past and present. The entry point for the series is here.

It is quite some time since I have done a consolidation of the various posts I have written on the history of New England's Aboriginal peoples. There are quite a few now.

Over the next week or so, I am going to use this post as a consolidation point. I will keep it as the front post until I have finished. So please drop back from time to time until I have finished.

Please note that there is some replication between the posts. That's inevitable in the blogging format.

Please note, too, that my views have changed over time. I have put the posts in date order so that you can see the changes.   


Aborigines & the Changing Environment




Sunday, May 01, 2011

Round the history blogs 11 - Australian focus

It's been over three months since my last history blog round-up! Today, I want to focus on Australian history blogs.

Springwood Historians is a new blog focusing on the local history of Springwood in the Blue Mountains. These local history blogs are very important because they give people like me a base to build from in writing broader histories.

Gordon Smith's Old News from Armidale & New England continues to provide sometimes random excerpts from old newspapers. I love the serendipity of it all. His Impersonation at Exam provides a 1943 example of alleged exam cheating that made the courts. His Death Of Mr. E. C. Sommerlad records the death of a New England pressman who had national reach.

ART and ARCHITECTURE, mainly continues to record details of the visual past. I remain of the view that this is one of Australia's best history blogs. It doesn't always deal just with Australia, and that's one of its strengths.

Looking up — Sydney's history from a new angle is a new blog from the Dictionary of Sydney. Its very good and well worth a visit. However, here I want to express a gripe.

On pure population ratio terms, the history of the area that I write about, Northern NSW or the broader New England, should get a third of the money going to support Sydney history. It doesn't. It would be lucky to get 5%. This actually distorts the writing of history.

I found the new Sydney blog through Archives Outside's April link roundup post. this, too, is worth a read.

In How I work with my material- Access, the Resident Judge of Port Phillip deals with the question of how to order research material. I must admit to feeling a sense of helplessness here. As an independent researcher, I neither know nor have access to the type of things she is talking about.

In The deployment of Allied land forces in 1942, Nigel Davies responds to criticisms about his analysis of the deployment of Allied Divisions in 1942.

I read this post quite carefully because I think that Nigel's argument is important. Essentially, he argues two things. First, you have to get your statistics right.  Secondly, in making judgements you have to look at the overall flow of the war. What might happen is really more important than what did happen in considering deployments.

Why do I say that this post of Nigel's is important? Surely his arguments are self-evident? Not so.

Here in Australia we have a very strong tendency to focus just on Australia, not Australia's position in what was a global conflict. This actually distorts judgements.

Further, war is about what ifs. What if the Germans had deployed resources south and east instead of getting sucked into street fighting in Russia? If they had seized Middle East oil supplies then the outcome of the war could well have been different. British planning had to take this into account. 

All for now.