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

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

History revisited - literature's window to our past

One of the big challenges faced by any historian is to break through the veil created by the present to that far country of the past.

The present determines the questions we ask of the evidence, but it does more than that. It creates an almost irresistible temptation to force the past to fit the past to present ways of interpretation. Yet the past is always with us, influencing us in sometimes unseen ways.

I referred to this in my last column when I suggested that Armidale’s history with its key interlocking threads of grazing and especially wool, government, education and politics influenced current life in ways not seen by those now living in the city.

As it happens, on Monday 5 November I am coming back to Armidale to talk to the Armidale North Rotary Club. My topic is Northern Images: landscape and literature through Northern eyes. In the promo for my talk, I said that would use a mixture of paintings, photos, film, poetry, literature and political symbols to give Club members a small taste of the changing ways in which those living in Northern NSW, the broader new state New England, have seen their world.

Last week saw the annual Maurice Kelly lecture at UNE.

Maurice, a tall, quiet and gentle man always interested in other people, founded (among other things) the Classics Museum at UNE. The annual lecture celebrates that event.

Wife Gwen who died recently was far more peppery. She was also one of Australia’s better known writers whose book The Middle-Aged Maidens,. a satirical study of life in a private girls' school created a real storm in the Armidale dovecots.

Like many writers, Gwen wrote in multiple forms and mined her own life for material.

I still remember the story that appeared in a women’s magazine about her daughter’s blond haired, blue eyed boyfriend Henry. Now the Henry in question was a particular mate of mine, and I think that she captured him to a T. “Hold this Mrs Kelly, and you will get an electric shock.” Hold it she did, and indeed she got an electric shock!

Both Maurice and Gwen were bought to Armidale through UNE, the education stream in Armidale history. Here Gwen joined a number of people connected in some way to UNE who wrote in one way or another about their Armidale experience.

Crime writer Robert Barnard began his writing career based on his experience as a lecturer in the English Department at UNE.

His first novel, Death of an Old Goat, was set in part in Dummondale University, and included the Drummondale School Head.

One later reviewer, put it:

As Police Inspector Royle (who had never actually had to solve a crime before) probes the possible motives of the motley crew of academics who drink their way through the dreary days at Drummondale and as he investigates the bizarre behaviour of some worthy locals, a hilarious, highly satirical portrait of life down under emerges.

The book is actually quite cruel. One of the funniest scenes is a group of local graziers sprung by the police doing a secret Aboriginal inspired rain dance to try to break the drought!

I have run out of space for this column. I guess that I will have to give you more in a later column on writers, painters, film makers and musicians and the way they saw Armidale and the broader New England.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 31 October 2012. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012 (Belshaw's World), 2012 (History Revisited).

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