Personal Reflections

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Blaxland’s Flat Girl – a tale from Aboriginal New England

I have chosen this short piece written in 2012 to introduce my section on Aboriginal New England because it is an attempt to bring alive, to personalise, an element In the history of Aboriginal New England.  
For much of the 32,000 or so years since Aboriginal peoples first settled in New England we have only  the archaeological record. It is easy to forget that those material remains represent people. That stone tool is not just an artefact used to do things, not just an example of a type, but something that someone made and left behind. That charcoal is not just fire remains that may be dated, but a place at which real people gathered around. Those food remains were actually eaten by someone. 
There is debate about the extent to which we can or should go beyond the material remains to infer, to imagine, the individuals themselves since we cannot know. Such imaginings may start from facts but then become fiction and may actually mislead, becoming embedded in cultural memory as facts, thus acquiring an evolving life of their own. I accept that this is a danger, but would argue as a story teller as well as historian that the best history comes from the effective application of imagination. It is then up to others and later work to challenge. 
Some of my Aboriginal friends may challenge my title, the application of a geographical name created by European occupation. Surely, they might argue, she should be called Gumbaynggirr Girl after the Aboriginal language group that occupied territory from the southern edge of the Clarence River south to the start of the McLeay Valley? 
To them I would say, simply, that there are no perfect answers here. my objective is to create a character that will bring an element of Aboriginal history alive. To call her Gumbaynggirr Girl is to give her a name that sounds like a song title, that submerges her into a broader whole, that reduces her unique character. At this point, I think that Blaxland’s Flat Girl works. 

Some eight hundred years ago a girl died in the area that would be later called New England.

Her family was camping in a place now known as Blaxland’s Flat some 15 miles south west of modern Grafton. This is hilly country with long deep narrow valleys running north-south between sandstone ridges down which rush creeks often turbulent after heavy rain ending in the Orara River. It was also country with a high sacred value to the people of that time.

Six miles to the north are a series of stone arrangements on the western side of Skinner’s Swamp. Nearby are artworks including a three foot long fish like figure and a large goanna. A mile to the north east, we enter rougher country. Here in the many rock shelters we find one of the largest concentrations of Aboriginal art in the Northern Rivers.

While the evidence is still uncertain, all these sites appear to belong to the same period, the centuries surrounding the death of Blaxland’s Flat girl.

We do not know why she died, although there is no evidence of foul play. We do know that she was loved. On her death, her family cut a shroud from the bark of a bloodwood tree and wrapped her in it. They then carried her to what could well have been the family deposition site.

Aboriginal people interred their dead at different ways at different times over the millennia. Sometimes, bodies were placed in trees to allow the flesh to rot for later burial. Sometimes, bodies were cremated and the bones then broken and deposited. At other times, the dead were tied up in sitting positions with their legs bent so that they could leap to the future chase. They were then buried in shallow graves, covered by brush.

In Blaxland’s Flat girl’s case, they carried her from the camp to a low hung rock shelter set back in a cliff a bit under eight feet from the ground. This height was probably intended to protect the site from predators. There they deposited her body, protected at some point by a sandstone wall.

I say that we know that this was probably a family site, for at least fifteen people were deposited there.

Blaxland’s Flat Girl rested for the next eight hundred years, although family hopes about disturbance proved illusory. It is clear that that the site was visited, probably by one of the large tree goannas found in the area. These tear the flesh with long claws, feeding on the remains. They could certainly have entered the site.

Late in 1963, dingo hunters found the site. This was reported to Isabel McBryde at the University of New England who mounted a carefully planned rescue dig. After eight hundred years, Blaxland’s Flat girl returned to the public gaze. Now after meticulous scientific research, we have a human being to fit into the often dry record revealed by archaeological remains.
Note to readers: Every Wednesday I am bringing up one draft chapter of New England Travels, the book I have been working on. Each chapter is self contained and varies in length from 500 to 3000 words. I am not including images. I will add those later. This chapter is the start of a bigger section on Aboriginal New England. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Tony Hughes-D'Aeth and Friday essay: Dark Emu and the blindness of Australian agriculture: a response

Dialogue Boxes, New England's Western Slopes Harry Pidgeon is one of a number of artists seeking to capture life and landscape in different parts of New England

My attention was drawn Tony Hughes-D'Aeth piece in The Conversation Friday essay: Dark Emu and the blindness of Australian agriculture by a tweet from  @billy_griffiths  "Nice piece by Tony Hughes-D'Aeth on the Australian environment as an actor rather than a stage".

I referred to Tony and his new book,  Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt in a piece I wrote (Musing on Geraldine Doogue's new RN radio program on new genres in Australian history) back in March.

I had not yet read the book, I still have to do that, but based on the interview I liked his approach. I also liked the idea of Geraldine's radio series itself as described::
Saturday Extra brings you in the month of March emerging and established historians who are embarking on studies of particular regions in Australia and using different means to trace the history such as literature and the environment. Eminent historian Tom Griffiths provides his take on this new genre.
I wasn't convinced about the the new genres part, but was pleased to see a renewed interest in regional history as well as a focus on using different sources to explore different aspects of life. In a comment on the program website, I expressed the hope that there would be some New England material given the long intellectual tradition in that area. In the end there was not nor was there much really on regional history itself, although the segments were quite interesting.

Oxley Highway, Julia Griffin, another of the artists seeking to capture life and landscape in different parts of New England

Following Billy's tweet, I read Tony's Conversation piece  I tweeted back: "There is a danger of a new urban theology here, Billy. The discussion is much older and deeper than is allowed at least in Northern NSW, the area I focus on. Rolls was not an accident nor, for that matter, was Isabel (McBryde). They form part of a tradition."  I then sketched some history in a subsequent set of responses. Given my reaction to Geraldine's program, I was a bit miffed that  all the back history was still being ignored.

Reading Tony's article a little later, I realised that there was less history and far more theology than I had first thought, a view confirmed by the commentary stream. It is this element that I wish to address. I will bring up more detailed historical material in a post on my history blog.

Because I am about to be very critical, I repeat the link to Tony's piece so that you can check my arguments against his. I note that Australia is a varied place and that  that I am writing especially about an area that I know very well. Experience in other areas such as the WA wheat belt may be very different. I note, too, that I am not an urbanist. In Australian parlance, I am a townie with country links who has written on and shares at least some of the ethos of the various country movements, including opposition to metro dominance whether economic. political or cultural. All this will be clear to anyone who reads my blogs and other writing.

The Theology of  Tony Hughes-D'Aeth 
Herding sheep near Armidale when Australia still rode on the sheep's back. "it (agriculture) is as much religion as it is an industry" 
Tony adopts a religious tone early on. "What if Australia were to stop farming?" he asks. There would be a big economic hit. towns that are dying would collapse, jobs would go:
 But really the scandal of this thought goes beyond economics and into the very soul of the nation. The crucial insight to emerge from such a thought-experiment is that agriculture in Australia is a religion — it is as much a religion as it is an industry. 
Hughes-D'Aeth The powerful ideological connection between Australia and agriculture, Tony suggests,  is being increasingly and diversely scrutinised and comes to the fore in Charles Massy’s iconoclastic epic, Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth (2017. This throws into question 200 years of assumptions about what it means to graze animals in Australia.
Massy’s joins a spate of recent books that seek to recast the basic assumptions on which Australian agriculture was built. They include Don Watson’s The Bush (2016), Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (2014) (which has recently been turned into dance by Bangarra) and Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2012). If agriculture is a religion in Australia, these writers are its heresiarchs. . .
The idea of the heresiarch, the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect, is deeply embedded in Tony's thought. I don't think it unfair to say that he see himself in this role.

He suggests that it is a "truism that Australia, overwhelmingly urban for most of its modern history, draws its identity disproportionately from “the land”" as evidenced in the Qantas ads.
 In this sense, Australia (the continent, the land, the soil, the bush) is imagined as a metaphysical substance which gives unity, meaning and destiny to what might otherwise seem like a collection of recently federated settler colonies, formed to extract resources for the benefit of a once powerful European nation state. The practice of agriculture is central to the belief that Australians as a people are expressive of Australia, the metaphysical ideal. Without this connection between agriculture and Australianness, we couldn’t make sense of such fashion icons as Akubra, Blundstone, Driza-Bone and R.M. Williams.. 
He goes on to state that serious questions about the way that Australia sustains people through the plants and animals that are husbanded on its ancient soils are not, of course, confined to the past several years.
The revision might be traced to Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters (1994), or even earlier to such seminal works of environmental history as Eric Rolls’ A Million Wild Acres (1981), W.K. Hancock’s Discovering Monaro (1972), and Barbara York Main’s Between Wodjil and Tor (1967) and Twice Trodden Ground (1971).
What each of these writers did, Tony argues, was to make the Australian environment, or some part of it, an actor rather than a stage.Ffor these writers the environment  was not some broadly passive, albeit resistant, thing out there that needed to be overcome, battled, tamed, brought into submission — it was a dynamic system of interrelated parts, where every action had cascading consequences and complex repercussions.
At the centre of, or just beneath, all of these books is the attempt to try and locate some kind of basic environmental baseline. There seems to be no dispute about the fact that the agricultural colonisation of Australia by Europeans has had far reaching consequences for the organisation of the continent’s biota.
Tony then briefly discusses the adverse effects of agriculture in terms of species loss, the impact of hard-hooved animals, new predators and vegetation loss. He contrasts this with Aboriginal management of the land before returning to his theme: 
What all of these books are saying, and why they are in fact getting traction now, is that something is broken. These books are not announcing that the environment is broken — they merely mention this in passing, regarding this as beyond any reasonable doubt. Instead, what these books are announcing is that agriculture is broken. 
This, in the context of our self-image, is something that is much more terrifying and it will be savagely resisted. But each book is also hopeful in its way. None more than Charles Massy, whose book’s subtitle “A New Agriculture, A New Earth” is openly salvationist and The Call of the Reed Warbler is a detailed plan for the regeneration of degraded pastoral country that allows for both agricultural production and environmental recovery.
To Tony, all these books are an attempt to remedy current blindness. 


In responding to Tony's article, I want to focus on adding a little historical depth rather than getting caught in the more theological or ideological elements.

The Aboriginal Period

Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps. As the environment stabilised at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and populations increased, the Aboriginal peoples invested in new structures and developed a sophisticated land management system  

In recent works, both Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu) and Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia) talk about Aboriginal land management. There are some problems with both books, but I don't think that anybody would challenge that the Aborigines had modified and managed their environment to meet their needs. They had also introduced Australia's first known feral pest, the dingo.

The fact that the Aboriginal peoples had sophisticated economic structures and modified their environment has been known for some time. Because memory is an imperfect beast, I went back and checked my 1966 UNE honours thesis on the economic structure of Aboriginal life in Northern NSW in the Nineteenth century. This was an ethnohistorical study attempting to analyse Aboriginal economic life at the time of European invasion.. Topics covered included the natural environment; population distribution; patterns of seasonal movement and the degree of settled life in terms of "Nomadic" society (the italics are in the original); division of labour, specialisation and and cooperation; property; trade contact and the distribution of goods; capital formation and industrial development; food production including farming and the extent to which the Aborigines were changing their environment.

While I'm quite proud that I did pick up issues that would later be important, some of my conclusions still stand, the thesis does have obvious weaknesses. However, it provides a snapshot of knowledge at the time.

The Pilliga Scrub. As Eric Rolls describes, the forest now known as the Pilliga Scrub did not exist in Aboriginal times because burning kept the country open. 
In 1966, the extent to which the Aborigines modified their environment especially by use of fire was still open to some dispute, although the general use of fire was well documented. Looking at the evidence that was available that showed that fire had considerable impact and that by 1892 some previously open areas were being claimed by vegetation, I concluded that fire kept the country open and that non-fire resistant vegetation died out to some extent.

Since then, of course, so much additional knowledge has emerged. By the late sixties or early 1970s (I can't find the exact reference) the idea that the Aborigines deliberately burnt the Liverpool Plains, for example, to maximise productivity was being argued in the UNE Botany Department. Then we have Eric Roll's detailed 1981 study of the Pilliga. Since then, knowledge has continued to accumulate.

The difficulty that arises, though, is to know just what conclusion to draw from a comparison of now with the Aboriginal period recognising variety across the country including issues associated with the rolling date of European occupation. On the surface, for example, the creation of national parks intended to preserve the natural environment was in fact creating a new environment different from that which applied at the time of European occupation. This doesn't make them wrong, just indicates a need for care in drawing conclusions.

One recent development here has been the attempt to reintroduce traditional Aboriginal burning practices. A New England example can be found in the work being done by a UNE postgraduate student and the Bainbai people.

More broadly, if we assume that Aboriginal society in 1788 was at a point of balance with the environment they had created, and this is an assumption although its one I would broadly accept, then how should this actually inform the present?

The European Period

European occupation involved two broad types of environmental changes. One was the impact of the removal of  Aboriginal land management practices, the second the impact on the environment of European land management techniques. I really struggled in this area because I thought that Tony's arguments lacked historical context. The remarks that follow focus on the broader New England because that's the area I know. They are also partial because this is an area that I am still researching.  

Poet and environmentalist Judith Wright. He love of the land and support for environment causes was strongly influence by her her father P A Wright and her life on the family property Wallamumbi.
Tony starts his story in a sense with Tim Flannery's 1994 work The Future Eaters although he then cites earlier references going back as far as 1967. The story goes back much further than that and involves many more people. It's a long and complicated story that I can only roughly sketch.

By the 1920s, there was awareness in the broader New England of the affects of erosion and declining productivity. There was also interest in the application of science to agriculture. This led to initial attempts at conservation and soil improvement.  In his Mother's Country (1988), Maslyn Williams describes concerns and conservation efforts during the 1920s on the property outside Tenterfield where he was working as a young jackaroo.. They have a very current ring.

A number of people were involved in the attempts to improve land management practices. These included P A Wright, Judith's father, and Roy Vincent. In addition to his community and agricultural activities, Wright loved the Falls country east of Armidale and pushed for the creation of a national park to protect the area.The initial park, the New England  National Park, was gazetted in 1934. For his part, Vincent was responsible (among other things) for the creation of the NSW soil conservation service and for the creation of what is now the Dorrigo National Park.  .

In 1939, Wadham and Wood published a widely read book on land utilisation that that described (among other things) the interaction between agriculture and land degradation and fed into discussion. The year before, the campaign to establish a Northern university had achieved initial success with the establishment of the New England University College.

From the beginning, its proponents wanted the College to play an active role in agricultural research as part of its broader role. This was to take time, but they had more success in encouraging an interdisciplinary approach focused on the resolution of Northern problems. By the 1960s, NEUC/UNE had generated a considerable body of work across zoology, botany, geology, geography, soil science, history, agriculture and regional studies
Colonel Harold White, Bald Blair, one of the founders of organic agriculture in Australia
Another member of this New England group was.Colonel Harold White from Bald Blair Station. 

White experimented with the application of fertiliser to pastures. This gave great initial yields which then diminished despite increased application of fertiliser. White concluded that much farming was soil mining, that healthy food required healthy soil, that monoculture was part of the problem. To his mind, action to increase the humus content in soils was central to sustainable agriculture.

White began to experiment with various techniques that might increase the humus content. This focus on practical experimentation was one of the features of the New England group as a whole.

The term organic farming was coined by Lord Northbourne, appearing first in Northbourne’s manifesto on organic farming, Look to the Land, published in London in May 1940. The book reached Australia quite quickly, and was widely and favourably reviewed. White became actively involved in the formation  of the Australian Organic Farming and Gardening Society and was a prolific contributor to its journal. In 1953, he joined with Professor C Stanton Hicks to write and publish Life from the Soil setting out his ideas in some detail. The book was a considerable success, going through three editions. 

Another in this group was Don Shand, the founder of East West Airlines, who was involved in the development of aerial crops-dusting and of hybrid seeds. The first aerial aerial spreading of super in Australia took place at Walcha using a modified tiger moth.

Just from this brief sketch, you can see the spread of interests, as well as the desire to experiment. You can also see a divergence between some of White's views and say those of Don Shand.

 The combination of pasture improvement with fertiliser led to a dramatic increase in productivity, with carrying capacity increasing in some cases from one to three plus sheep equivalents per acre, something that was critical at a time of falling prices and rising costs. However, that plus previous  tree clearing contributed to the emergence of dieback in the 1970s, a problem that would emerge in other areas a little later. Again the result was a period of research and experimentation that led to new approaches.One result, for example, was the spread of Landcare groups, an organisation that had begun in Victoria in 1986.

More recently, the broader New England has been the battlefield for a number of environmental wars, this time focused especially on the conflict between agriculture and resource development from the Northern Rivers to the Mid North Coast up the Hunter Valley and onto the Liverpool Plains.

These are outside my immediate purpose for the purposes of this post. They form part of a later story that includes the further development of sustainable agriculture as well as fights over water. For the present, I simply wanted to provide a broader context to the arguments mounted by Tony in his article, placing the issues in a broader historical context focused on the area I know best.   

Thursday, June 14, 2018

North Korea, President Trump and the Mouse that Roared

Almost five months since I last said anything on President Trump. Now we have the tentative agreement with North Korea. As Neil said, That was quite a show!

In my last comment I said that the two things that I was watching most closely now in regard to President Trump were trade and foreign policy.

On the trade side, the question was the impact of Mr Trump's approaches on free trade and on globalisation. I said in comments:
It will be clear from the way that I framed the context that I see this as a significant threat. Here I am taking the common threads in Mr Trump's remarks from the campaign through to the present, taking man as he says.
Since then we have had the US tariff actions and the emerging response including the G7 outcomes.

On the foreign policy side my focus was on global insecurity, the reshaping of the US's international role and the impact of the stances it has been adopting. There I said in part:
"For much of the time since the Second World War, Australia has operated within a relatively stable international relations and security framework. The American Alliance has been central to that. New developments such as the rise of China posed a challenge to that framework, but few Australians (me included) expected a situation where instability and uncertainty in US foreign policy itself would become a significant challenge.What do Australia and all US allies do now?"
In  comments, I noted that I ddidn't see this as necessarily a bad thing, but it was unsettling. I thought that it was  unsettling for the US too in ways that I wasn't sure were properly recognised there as yet. The US is used to doing its own thing, used to being in the lead with others following. As the US withdraws from certain activities such as the agreement on climate change or the TPP, other countries step up.

I went on that I did think that the international policy of the Trump administration had been less isolationist, more in tune with the past, than was feared. However, the pattern was still uncertain. Some of the local effects were captured in the title of Hugh White's recent Quarterly essay, "Without America: Australia in the new Asia."

Like most, I have no idea what the North Korea deal really means. Like most, I hope that it works. A lot of the commentary on social media in particular has not been especially helpful because it is so set within existing perceptions of Mr Trump. I suppose that I would say two things in response.

First, the question of whether North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un is a brutal dictator is neither here nor there in a world where realpolitik dominates. President Trump has certain objectives based on his perception of US interests and is prepared to go to some lengths to achieve them. In threatening the US mainland Kim Jong-un forced a response from a President who appeared actually prepared to use force. The result gives the North Korean regime much of what they had been seeking.

I am not the first to notice the resemblance to that classic book and film, the Mouse that Roared.

Secondly and more importantly, I think that the episode may shows not so much a US withdrawal for the Pacific but a redrawing of the lines based on new perceptions of US strategic interests.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Bogged down in growing up in New England

This is your life, Channel 9, 1977. Peter Allen, Peter's Aunt Nancy, Clare Napier-McCann, Roger Climpson
Some years ago my old  friend and blogging colleague Neil Whitfield commented that he and I seem to have grown up in different Australia’s. The trigger for the comment lay in an exchange of experiences relating (among other things) to first exposure to things Asian.

Neil was right, of course. Australia is not and never has been uniform. There are many different stories depending on location, time, ancestry and family circumstances.  I mention this now because I have been bogged down in New England Travels. The current chapter, Growing up on the New England Tablelands is due for posting here tomorrow. I doubt that I will make it.

The piece was triggered by four autobiographical books that I had been re-reading, all set on the Northern Tablelands. The age of the writers vary, although all were born before the Second World War: Maslyn Williams was born in 1911, Judith Wright in 1915  Binks Turnbull Dowling in 1923, Judith Wallace in 1932. Three of the four became writers. The fourth, Binks Turnbull Dowling, was the daughter of a writer.

Each book describes different aspects of life during formative periods in the writer’s life. They are very different, but each tells stories of personal and family change set against a backdrop of major historical change. I thought that the piece would be doable, but then I added Peter Woolnough to the mix. Peter is better known as Peter Allen, the name he would adopt.

Peter was born in Tenterfield on 10 February 1944, but moved to Armidale with his parents soon after his birth. He lived there until his father suicided in 1958, after which his mother moved to Lismore. I did not know Peter, although he was only a year ahead of me at primary school. Now, digging down, I have found some wonderful stuff. But, oh, what to do?!.

I do need to finish what I'm doing at the moment, at least in working draft so I'm sticking to target. That has to be my priority. But then I feel another series coming on!


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Karl Rove and the rejection of discernible reality

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." Remarks later attributed to US Presidential Adviser Karl Rove, North American Summer, 2002. 
The excerpt is from a New York Times Magazine piece by Ron Suskind, Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush, 17 October 2004. It came to me via a comment from Johnb on a post on my history blog, .Is technology bringing history to life or distorting it? .I found it quite chilling.

 The comment was made at a time when many in the US did believe that US power was such that they could control events and thus results. We now know that discernible reality was such and should have been seen to be such to indicate the limits of US power. It is certainly true, however, that the actions of the time taken independent of discernible reality created a new discernible reality, one that we are all trying to manage today.  

I think that is true that many of those in power and not just in the US still believe that they can and should be able to control events, to do things, independent of practical limits to their power. I suspect, too, that they believe that they can in fact substitute a new discernible reality along their desired lines.not recognising that their actions will create a new reality that they might not like.

 In his interview,  Mr Suskind refers to enlightenment principles and empiricism. I fear that both are in sad decline, their value rejected on all sides. I am not blind to the underlying difficulties of the very concept of discernible reality.

By its nature, discernible reality deals with the position at a point as seen at that point. It becomes a constraint as exemplified in the words "the reality is". Many of the best things in history as well as the worst   have come about because people have rejected an existing discernible reality and sought to create something different.

Slavery was a discernible reality. Part of that reality was that slavery had been a feature of human societies for a very long time, was indeed seen as part of the natural order of things. That is still the case in some parts of the world even today. Some of the then European colonial powers had benefited greatly from slavery. It was built into the structures of empire. And yet, reformers in the British Parliament were able to begin a process that led to the progressive abolition of slavery in the British Empire that then flowed on. It took time and sometimes violence including a bloody civil war in the United States, but the end result was freedom for many.

Unlike Mr Rove, the anti-slavery movement did not and could not ignore the the existing discernible reality. They did not control the levers of power. They recognised a reality and sought to change it using the constitutional mechanisms open to them. Their success created a new reality, one that the anti-slavery campaigners of today seek to build on. Progress comes from recognising a discernible reality and seeking change, not from denying the presence of the reality in the first place.  

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Hockey and the Armidale poets

I started watching my girls play sport in Armidale when they were very young. I still watch when I get the chance.  
This piece was written in 2009 after watching Clare play at Little Bay , a Sydney suburb. I have included it here because I like it, it brings memories back. I have included it too because it introduces the Armidale poets. 

Push, girls, push: Hockey call.

I finished Sunday Essay - obsessions with reading - wondering just what book I would select next. As it happened, I had to take Clare to hockey at Little Bay. To pass the time, I grabbed a few small books of poetry off the shelf.

No shots, girls, no shots. Don't let them in.

The three books I chose were all published in Armidale in 1980 or 1981. I read them in breaks in the hockey. It was quite an exciting match.

Slow it down, girls, slow it down.

Next hockey match I am going to take a note pad. I really need to get the cadences down. Hockey is visual, but this was poetry in action.

Talk to her girls, talk to her.

As I said, I read the poems in breaks. These are very short books. I read each a number of times.

Fuck! That was our ball.

As I did, patterns emerged. These are generally expatriate poets brought to Armidale by circumstance. Their poems reflect the circumstances of the time. There are memories of different homes, of local life, of their opposition to Sydney.
Feeling posthumous in Bondi
After tablelands' dawn and the death of poetry
Sydney existential and drear,
I decide to remember friendships
Rather than renew them here

Greg Shortis, First Ode
This was the time the Armidale poets were challenging what they saw as the intellectual dominance and pretensions of Sydney’s Balmain push. They did so through writing, readings and their own small presses.

Keep with her girls, keep with her.

You will not find an entry in Wikipedia on the Amidale poets. They were and still are. Their poems appear in anthologies. The dream of creating an alternative view still, I think, continues. Yet their presence as a collective seems lost.

The game ends. Clare has done really well as goalie in keeping it to a draw.

I come home and in the midst of lunch preparation wrote Introducing the Armidale poets, the first in a possible series. You see, I know these poets. I was there at the time these books were published. One is signed by the author.

The problem the Armidale poets face is the one that influenced some of their writing in the first instance, the difficulty in this country of providing an authentic alternative regional voice when so much is controlled by and set within cultural patterns dominated by metro cultural elites.

My own writing may not have much impact. But at least I can review their work for my own pleasure.
Note to readers: Every Wednesday I am bringing up one draft chapter of New England Travels, the book I have been working on. Each chapter is self contained and varies in length from 500 to 3000 words. I am not including images. I will add those later. This chapter forms part of a bigger section tentatively entitled writers and writing. 

Monday, June 04, 2018

Monday Forum - fin de siècle, the decadents and other such matters

fin de siècle relating to or characteristic of the end of a century, especially the 19th century.
zeitgeist - the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.
the decadent movement -a late 19th-century artistic and literary movement, centered in Western Europe, that followed an aesthetic ideology of excess and artificiality  The movement was characterized by self-disgust, sickness at the world, general skepticism, delight in perversion and employment of crude humor and a belief in the superiority of human creativity over logic and the natural world

As part of my train reading, I have been reading Holbrook Jackson's The Eighteen Nineties. First printed in 1913 and then reprinted multiple times, my copy is a 1950 Pelican reprint, the book explores art and literature at the climax of the Victorian period in England.
Aubrey Beardsley, The climax, 1893. Beardsley's art became a symbol of the decadence movement. 
Holbrook's book reminded me of how little I know or, worse perhaps, how much I had forgotten!  I had to look fin de siècle up to remind myself. I knew the English decadents such as Oscar Wilde or Aubrey Beardsley by their work, but not by their attributed school.

In some ways, both the decadents and fin de siècle reminded me of today. There is the same weariness with change, the rejection of established values without necessarily having an alternative. There is also, and this may well be different, a view that life itself becomes art. To Holbrook's mind, Wilde's distinction lies not in his writing but in his life as an art form. As Holbrook draws out, society was already striking, back re-asserting conventional norms.

Perhaps more importantly, we know and they did not ,that huge war is coming. That blew away so much.

Holbrook's own writing is of its time. Today, used as I am to short sentences, I had to stop and learn how to flow with paragraphs that themselves flow, requiring a different form of reading,. He is also opinionated, something that I like but am self-conscious about.
A Decadent Girl, by Ramón Casas, 1899. She looks just so tired or out in a drunken stupor!
I have much to absorb from Holbrook's book.Among other things, I want to extend that piece I wrote Reflections on the art of flânerie.

This is the entry point for the Monday Forum. I leave it in your hands where you go from here!

It's all a matter of zeitgeist!

Saturday, June 02, 2018

A miserably cold Saturday - start of the NSW GPS Thirds Competition

Saturday in Sydney has been windy, cold and miserable, just the day to stay at home to do some writing. Instead I went to watch school rugby, the start of the NSW GPS (Greater Public Schools) thirds competition, with TAS (the Armidale School) Firsts playing Scots College Thirds. It was good rugby, but Scots was just too strong for TAS this year.

The genesis of the the thirds competition lay the combination of the changes that have taken place in rugby and in the schools. Rugby has become more professional, with a greater weight (pun intended) placed upon big, very fast boys. On the school side, some schools have become much bigger; Scots has something like 2,000 boys, more than three times TAS's size. The composition of the student body has changed with an increase in the number of smaller frame Asian kids less suited to rugby concentrated in particular schools. Schools also now offer many more sporting options in the place of rugby as the dominant winter sport.

There are nine GPS schools, with TAS the only country school. TAS used to play against the Sydney schools from time to time, but was not part of the formal rugby competition. Then TAS had a run of strong teams and forced its way in. This had two effects. It introduced a bye that people did not like and it required each Sydney school to travel to Armidale from time to time. TAS traveled to Sydney every second weekend, while each Sydney school visited Armidale every second year. Certain of the Sydney schools, one in particular, did not like this and TAS was forced out of the rugby, reducing the competition back to eight teams.

Then two Sydney schools, High and Grammar, began to lose by very large margins and were finally forced to withdraw from the Firsts competition. This provided an opportunity for TAS. A thirds competition was created that allowed TAS to play along with High and Grammar. For the first time for many years, there was actually a GPS rugby competition that allowed all nine schools to play. Again there was a bye and travel to Armidale once every two years.

 I became involved at this point since I now had a competition to follow. I started commenting on the Green & Gold GPS rugby forum and especially the GPS forum with preseason and match reports and end season summaries. I was unashamedly promoting the thirds comp as the only full GPS competition with my support for the minnows - TAS, High and Grammar - clear but not preventing a broader view. I was sufficiently active that I acquired the nickname of Father Jim, Padre of the thirds! I'm not sure what the schools or indeed the boys would have thought of that, but I was mildly chuffed.

The thirds competition was a considerable success, but again problems emerged. Scheduling was a particular problem Your had the two top levels where six schools were playing firsts and seconds against each other and then the thirds and below where schools were playing different grades. Thus TAS, High and Grammar firsts played thirds,  their seconds played the fifths, their 16As played the 16Cs and so on. The top six rugby schools found themselves playing at different grounds for their top teams and thirds and below, a problem made worse if the games were in Armidale. There was still a problem among the six in diverging standards, while that dratted Armidale trip remained a problem.

The problem seems to have come to a head a bit over two years ago when one Sydney school reportedly said point blank that it would not send teams to Armidale. If TAS wanted to play them, then the school and its teams should come to Sydney. Otherwise, no games.

Faced with all these problems, the GPS took reasonably drastic action. The top competition was shortened to just five games with each school playing all the other six just once. Newington apparently took a hit by dropping out of the formal thirds competition, thus removing the bye, something I still don't think was fair to the boys. The thirds competition was reduced to seven rounds. Apart from Grammar and High who had existing voluntary relationships to TAS, no Sydney school was required to come to Armidale as part of the competition. TAS accepted that this would mean more travel. It also seems to be the case that the school had to reduce the number of teams sent to Sydney to play to fit in with the Sydney schools. Finally, the reduced competition was associated with a broader range of pre-season games especially with CAS (Combined Associated Schools)

This format has been continued into 2018 with pre-season games between three school groups - GPS, CAS and ISA (Independents Schools Association). This has been a considerable success, although it is no mean feat to follow such a large number of schools across multiple grades. This delayed my pre-season report, something that Crackerjack remdined me of on G&G. .
Can we send out a search party for Father Jim of the 3rds? 
We are a mere 62 hours (or thereabouts) from kick-off of the 2018 Hon. Jim Belshaw Plate/Cup, and we are all travelling ‘blind’ here without the benefit of Jim’s entomological xls. analysis of all the 3’s Season’s prospects! 
As Lleyton might say, Jim, “C’mon!!” :)
The first thirds games are now up and it should be an interesting competition. But will it be the last? The rumbles continue in this regard with no decisions apparently made about next year's format.

I know all this is just a school story, if one important to me. But lurking below it are broader issues, nevertheless.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Kitchen Garden

I was flaneuring around Mosman, one of those leafy North Shore Sydney suburbs. looking at architecture and the pattern of life. The thing I most noticed was the absence of kitchen gardens. Houses had grown and gardens shrunk to mere decoration or, at best, extensions of indoor living. My mind was cast back…..
 In January 1885, Albert Wright purchased Kangaroo Hills, now Wongwibinda, in the Falls country east of Armidale.  It had been done in a rush.

They had been living at Nulalbin outside Rockhampton. The year before eldest son Bertie had died after a lingering illness. The death came as a shock, and Albert and wife May decided that they must find a home in a more temperate climate.

They left Nulalbin in December 1884 for Bickham, a Wright family home in the Hunter Valley. In early January Albert went north, buying Kangaroo Hill on the spot. At end January, the whole family shifted to the new property.

Establishing the kitchen garden

One of Albert’s first acts was to plant a large vegetable garden near the new house being built for his family. This was a common pattern on the properties around Armidale, for the kitchen garden and associated fruit trees were critical to the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. It was a day’s ride to Armidale, so you could hardly buy there on a daily basis.

In the towns, people had more choices. Even so, most people had vegetable gardens, while much of the fruit and vegetables they might buy were grown locally. The Chinese market gardeners with their plots spread along the local creek were a common feature in most Northern towns.

Creating kitchen gardens was not always easy. The spring of 1885 was a very good one on Kangaroo Hill. Albert planted onions, cabbages, lettuces, pumpkins, beans and fruit trees. Then came that evil that those living in the New England high country know so well, a sudden frost. “It seems useless”, Albert wrote, “to try to grow anything in such a climate.”

Albert’s problems were not unusual. New England is marked by great variation in soils, temperature and rainfall from coastal subtropical to high country to semi-arid. The new settlers had to learn what would grow best, how to grow it. In many places, water had to be carefully rationed. Nevertheless, they persevered and finally succeeded. They learned how to  create micro-climates through location, wind-breaks and walls. They also learned when to plant things to best effect.

The importance of fruit and vegetables

The importance of fruit and vegetables in diet was stressed but not always complied with in a meat loving society. In 1893, Sydney doctor Philip E Muskett, one of the first Australian nutritionists, attacked Australians love of meat, tea and tobacco. Australians would be healthier, he suggested, if they ate more salads, drank more wine, substituted a small cup of coffee for tea and walked six or more miles a day. This advice was largely ignored.

The CWA (Country Women's Association) was more practical. Founded in 1922 to provide mutual support to country women often living in isolation, its long running cook book (it’s still in print) became something of a domestic bible. Home is not a Home without a garden. Plant one, and it will repay you” it stated:
Every wise housewife knows the value of the kitchen garden. It is a money saver, and a pleasure at all times. Nearly all vegetables are of easy culture. All soup vegetables should be grown at home. It is a great comfort to slip out and cut your own home requirements in your own back yard."
This advice combined an appeal to domestic values with the idea of economy and good cooking. Those CWA ladies became considerable cooks, capable of cooking for often large numbers with the sometimes limited ingredients at hand.

Masterchef has been a popular Australian cooking show in which contestants compete by cooking particular dishes for judgement by an expert panel. Back in 2010, the challenge set for contestants in one show was to cook certain recipes from the CWA cookbook - scones, lamingtons, jam, a fruit cake - and then serve to 100 CWA ladies. An experienced CWA judge critiqued their efforts.

I was watching it with my family. Now we knew the CWA pretty well and had eaten a lot of country cooking. My wife also learned to bake from her nan. I guess because of all this, we had a feel as to what might happen.

These contestants had cooked in challenge after challenge, managing often complicated dishes that I could never cook. There had been individual failures, but overall the results had been good. This time, with few exceptions, they bombed big time. It's just not as easy as it seems.

As the contest proceeded, I noticed that eldest had got out the cookbook I gave her some time ago. “I feel like scones”, she explained. Mixing bowls and ingredients appeared on the coffee table. With guidance from her mum, the process continued.

After the show finished, we discussed it over scones, blackberry jam and whipped cream. Our feeling was CWA 8, Masterchef 2.

I digress, but they were nice scones!

Managing the kitchen garden

A reasonable size home garden could be a complex operation involving all the family.. Herbs - lavender, thyme, marjoram, mint, sage, parsley and rosemary - were usually grown near the back door so that they could be easily picked for domestic purposes.

Further out were the vegetables grown in cycles depending on the growing season. Standard vegetables included onions, carrots, potatoes, peas and beans, sweet corn, pumpkins, lettuce, sometimes garlic although its use was then less common, cabbages, cauliflower, tomatoes, lettuce, silver beet, beetroot, parsnips and turnips. The compost heaps could normally be found near the vegetable garden, carefully maintained to provide a steady stream of compost to the changing beds.

The garden nearly always included vines and fruit trees, with the mix varying depending on the climate. In the case of our home garden - a cool climate garden - there was the ubiquitous grape vine, three apricot trees, a rather superb plum tree, a fig tree, gooseberries, red and black currants, strawberries and raspberries. In warmer climates, you might find passion fruit and citrus trees.

Many gardens also contained a chook (hen) yard providing fresh eggs and the sometimes fowl for dinner. Some breeding their own chicks maintained roosters whose crowing could disturb the town neighbourhood. As a child, I hated discovery an embryo in the egg. The manure from the yard was collected and used to fertilise the beds.

Even in town, many families maintained a milker to provide milk, cream and butter. Staying at Glenroy, my aunt and uncle’s property at Kentucky south of Armidale, we used to get up early to go with Uncle Ron to see the cow milked. The milk would be brought back in a bucket and then heated gently to raise the cream that would be collected and used to make butter. In Armidale, mum would sometimes send us out to get fresh milk that came from a cow a few blocks away.

Then there were the flowers grown both for decoration and to supply cut flowers to the house. At home, they would be cut and then brought into the kitchen for trimming and placement in the multiple vases that Mum had placed on the kitchen table. I have some of those vases in front of me as I write, although I fear that my use of them is now, at best, irregular.

Harvest Time

The reliance on locally produced produce created a pattern of seasonal gluts and shortages. As children we knew every fruit tree in the immediate area, knew when they were coming into fruit. We also picked and ate from the garden, new peas, tomatoes, fresh beans and little cucumbers. No problem in getting children to eat fruit or vegetables Somehow things that we picked ourselves were just that much more satisfying.

For adults, hard work was involved. When produce was plentiful, people bottled, preserved or prepared for storage in cool, dry, dark places. It wasn’t just produce from the home garden. Fruit and vegetables now in abundant supply and therefore cheap were purchased or given by relatives or friends. There was a considerable bottling ritual, a production process. The bottles were sterilised, the fruit cooked, the tomato relish made, the jams created, providing a steady stream of produce for the rest of the year. Some of the tastes were wonderful. Many of us would kill today for a jar of Aunt Kay’s tomato relish!

From a kid's perspective, one of the greatest things about the home garden was the way it provided trees to climb, places to hide, spots to dig in or to build camp fires. We were expert in fires, how to start them in the best way, how to build fireplaces. Potatoes cooked in the ashes were eaten, charcoal and all, with butter with the melting butter running down fingers. Nostalgia!

Australia’s changing diet

There is an enduring myth that Australians only discovered nice food with the arrival of new migrant groups after the Second World War. This myth compares the perceived standard meal of meat and three over-cooked vegetables with the variety in Australian diet that we now have.

Like most myths, there is a kernel of truth. Many more food options are now available. In my own case, for example, olive oil has moved from something that was a medicine when I was a child to a cooking staple. I use more garlic, a greater variety of herbs. There is far more variety in salads, we use more lentils. These are all gains. That said, the history of Australian food is far more complex than people realise.

The Australian diet has changed many times since the European occupation of the continent, It has also varied from area to area. Take, as a simple example, the decline in the calories required to support daily activities.

At the end of the nineteenth century, men humped weights as a matter of course that would now be illegal outside gyms. On the female side, too, the eighty per cent of women without servants engaged in the sheer physical drudgery of maintaining households without those labour saving devices we now take for granted. Both men and women walked long distances as a matter of course.

As life became more sedentary, the required daily calorie intake dropped. My best guess, and it is only a guess, is that it may well have halved over the twentieth century. This led to changes in food tastes.
At the start of the twentieth century, cook books were full of cake and biscuit recipes. They ran for pages. There were hundreds of local variations. Cakes were eaten at meals, served to visitors, taken in packed lunches. By the end of the twentieth century, the cake was largely vanquished. This was partly due to greater choice in sweet things including ice cream, more to the decline in calorie requirements. Even the CWA cookbook, that bastion of cakes and baking, has dropped some of its traditional recipes, replacing them with low carb options.

Now, too, we waste more food. The earlier cook-books had many recipes to take advantage of left-overs. There were good, practical, reasons for this emphasis. Food took a much higher proportion of family income than it does today for most.

The roast chook became soup, the vegetables went into bubble and squeak, the roast lamb or beef was minced for a new dish. I still miss the cast iron hand-mincer I inherited from my parents. I don’t know what happened to its innards, they went missing in one of our many moves. It was actually much more efficient (and easier to clean) than modern devices.

Recognising that we clearly have more variety in food today, it is less clear that we eat better. The opposite may in fact be the case as preparation is replaced by convenience. Now we obsess about diet and dieting.

The emphasis on proper nutrition is not new. At least from the time of Philip Muskett in 1893 through the first CWA cookbook to the domestic science lessons, official pronouncements and cookbooks of the 1930s, the need for a balanced diet was recognised and emphasised. One result was a focus on the dreaded meat and three vegetables since that was an easy way to prepare standard balanced meal. Today we have gone further: we search for miracle diets that will somehow reduce our weight, avoid allergies and improve our overall health and longevity. And all with minimum effort!.

The many changes in Australian diet over the years partially reflects changing fashions and the availability of food stuffs, but also the tools available for cooking. Cooks have to match what they do to the available equipment. Thus the open fire and camp oven was replaced by the fuel stove and then the generally smaller gas or electric stoves better suited to the smaller kitchens in the growing urban areas. These had advantages, but also limited what could be cooked. Today, bigger kitchens are back along with a new range of BBQ equipment.

In our case, we had a substantial fuel stove that not only provided constant hot water but a substantial range of cooking options. It could be a bit cranky; you had to be able to judge the temperature, but that came with experience. The firebox was on the right. The temperature  of the whole stove could be controlled by varying the intensity of the fire through a combination of fuel and dampers. The hot air from the fuel box ran along the top of the stove to the chimney on the left.

A hot plate ran the length of the stove with heat gradually diminishing towards the chimney. This allowed food to be cooked and then moved to a cooler place to set or stay warm. The ever present kettle could be moved from the left of the stove to the hotter right where it quickly boiled. The oven was on the left with a warming oven below. This allowed food to be kept warm or plates to be warmed before serving. Later, my mother acquired an electric fry pan, a useful supplement when time was pressing.

The food we ate was influenced by what we had in the garden, what had already been harvested and stored. The standard main meal was two courses, three for bigger meals. The main dish consisted of a meat dish presented in different ways, usually with two to three vegetables drawn from the garden. Growing up in sheep country, sheep meat was a staple. Beef, the major meat across Australia was less common because it was more expensive.

This main meal; was followed by a desert often of bottled fruit, sometimes with fresh cream or (more rarely) ice cream. In some cases soup preceded the main meal.

The exact mix of main meals depended on what was available. Soups, stews, roasts and casseroles were common because these made best use of available produce. I still love the taste of fresh field mushrooms, of rich casserole sauce.

There was great variety in home made soups. Some soups like chicken, often made from the remains of a bird previously killed, were relatively light, as were the broths served to invalids. Some soups were major meals in their own right, served with crusty bread.

The pattern with other meals was a little different. Breakfast was generally a bigger meal than it is today. As children, we normally had porridge or wheat bix with hot milk followed by a hot meal, often bacon or some form of eggs. Later when things were busier, I would go outside and pick raspberries to bring back and crush with cream and sugar. Alternatively, I would pick a jar of preserves of the shelf or from the fridge and have it with cream.

Lunch, by contrast, was far more pedestrian depending on just what we were doing. In fact, lunch did not have a clear pattern because it varied so much. On Sundays then as indeed now, lunch was often a roast dinner. The Sunday roast remains an enduring tradition in many Australian households. Where, as in this case, lunch was actually dinner, tea was a relatively light meal.

There were then no school canteens, nor were there the bars and other convenience snacks that now dominate the supermarket shelves. School lunches were sandwiches, a piece of fruit, often a piece of cake, and a drink. Looking back at some of the reminiscences from the 1950s, the memory of soggy tomato sandwiches seems to be a constant theme!

There were other meals and snacks, of course. The pattern here varied from family to family depending on income and taste.

Then as now, busy parents sometimes resorted to the very quick and easy. This was where tinned food came in handy. Tinned spaghetti or baked beans on buttered toast or tinned soups with bread fingers.

The kitchen garden’s decline

The kitchen garden that used to be common in both city and country has been in sad decline. The gardening folk memories that we used to absorb from our parents have also declined as a consequence. The decline began slowly and then accelerated during the busy 1980s.

Walking around Armidale or Queanbeyan during the 1970s you would still see kitchen gardens everywhere. Queanbeyan, the NSW town just across the border from the Australian Capital Territory where I was then living, was a fascinating place with a large immigrant community that had come to work on the Snowy Hydroelectric Scheme or on the building of Canberra. They brought with them farming and gardening techniques from Eastern and Southern Europe where the home garden had been a way of life. This was industrial scale kitchen gardening where the garden and associated livestock provided much of the food over the year.

It also provided the base for a range of home made alcohols that could be a real trap if you were involved in local politics as I was at the time. That one drink for hospitality purposes could extend and be repeated on calls elsewhere, creating a degree of unsteadiness by the end of that day’s visits.

By 2000, the decline in the kitchen garden was largely complete. Many things contributed to that collapse. Neighbours and councils began to object to the noise and smells associated with the garden, including the omnipresent hens. Blocks became smaller, flats or townhouses more common. More people rented.. The supermarkets brought a wider range of cheaper foodstuffs, reducing the incentive to garden. Time became more precious as two income families tried to balance the demands of more complex lives.

Can the kitchen garden come back? I think not, although the increased interest in sustainability and the rise in community gardens does hold out some hope. The difficulty is that these things appeal to particular niche views and lifestyles whereas the old kitchen garden was an integral element in normal life. 
Note to readers: Every Wednesday I am going to bring up one draft chapter of New England Travels, the book I have been working on. Each chapter is self contained and varies in length from 500 to 3000 words. I am not including images. I will add those later. This chapter forms part of a bigger section entitled family life.   

Monday, May 28, 2018

Monday Forum - Science Magazine: What’s really behind ‘gluten sensitivity’?

Kelly Servick in Science had a really fascinating piece, What’s really behind ‘gluten sensitivity’?  I mention it in part because it really is interesting as an example of the complexity involved in establishing not just what reactions are real, but also because its shows the difficulty in analysis where there may be multiple causative factors including the influence of fashion and news.

A week or so back on the Armidale Families Past and Present site someone listed a whole set of current medical conditions and asked how many people remembered from their child hood. Many of the members of the site are older, while it's a big group with over 2,100 members. So it's a reasonably representative sample.

Few members could, although a a retired teacher noted that ADHD might explain difficult children that she had to deal with. Still, I was left with an impression (one that I already had) that children (and adults) suffered from far more ailments now than in the past? I might be wrong, but I simply do not remember things like the range of allergies that are now around.

Are we becoming sicker or is it simply a matter of awareness and reporting? What were the main diseases or conditions when you were a child?

This is the Monday Forum post. As always, go where you want.      

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Section 44 imbroglio - fight over the 28 July by-election dates

The imbroglio over citizenship and Section 44 of the Australian Constitution is a gift that keeps on giving.

The announcement that the by-elections for the five vacant House of Representatives seats would be held on 28 July has created something of a political storm (here, here for example) because this date coincides with the ALP national conference. This date was recommended by  the Australian Electoral Commission in part because the new requirements to provide detailed citizenship and family genealogical information would disadvantage independent candidates and those from the minor parties compared to the major parties.

The date seemed to blindside Labor. The Government was fairly sniffy about this on the grounds that the problem - the resignations - was one of Labor's own making, thus continuing the relative blame game between parties over the whole matter. I do think, however, that Tony Smith as Speaker of the House of Representatives should have provided Labor with the courtesy of consultation before the announcement of the date.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Reflections on the art of flânerie

Note to readers: Every Wednesday I am going to bring up one draft chapter of New England Travels, the book I have been working on. Each chapter is self contained and varies in length from 500 to 3000 words. I am not including images. I will add those later.This chapter marks the start of a bigger section entitled people and place.   
Flâneur – the stroller, lounger, saunterer
Flânerie – the act of strolling with all its associations
To be a flâneur is to idle without purpose, interested in what you find.
When practicing the art of flânerie, it is important to stop and observe. The pleasure lies in the discovery of the unexpected
 John Baxter’s book The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A pedestrian in Paris introduced me to the concept of flânerie. Baxter, an Australian born writer, journalist and film maker, has lived in Paris since 1989. There, by accident, he became a guide taking walking parties on literary tours through the streets of a city that he had come to love. The book describes his experiences in that role.

I enjoyed it in part because I have been to Paris several times and so knew many of the places and some of the stories he wrote about. It’s a well written easy to read book. I was also interested in a professional sense since I see part of my role as a story teller.

Baxter used the concept of the flâneur to introduce his view of the pedestrian in Paris. I had not heard the term, although I later found it to be in widespread and growing use, especially in a travel context.

Wikipedia records that flâneur comes from the Old Norse verb flana “to wander with no purpose”. The term flânerie, strolling or idling, dates to 16th or 17th century France. However, it was in 19th century Paris that the flâneur became a cultural icon, someone who wanders the streets as an observer and philosopher, an urban explorer, a connoisseur of the street. The concept spread to related activities such as photography, was applied in other fields including literature and became wrapped in social analysis and theories. It also spread to other places, including England and Germany.

In Germany, for example, the writer and translator Franz Hessel became one of the first exponents of the idea of flânerie, culminating in his 1929 collection of essays Walking in Berlin. Most essays describe a walk or an outing centred on a theme or part of Berlin. Hessel weaves history into his observations of people and place, capturing the rhythm of Weimar Berlin at a time of profound shifts in life and culture.

Today Hessel is probably best known as the inspiration for the character of Jules in Henri-Pierre Roche's 1953 semi-autobiographical novel Jules et Jim. This novel inspired the famous 1962 French New Wave romantic drama film of the same name directed, produced and written by François Truffaut. The 2016 release by Scribe of a new English translation of Walking in Berlin subtitled a flaneur in the capital may redress the balance by bringing Hessel to a wider audience.

Reading Baxter, I was immediately attracted to the idea of flânerie. It provided a perfect justification for my habit of just wandering, following my nose to see what I could find. It justified a sometimes insatiable curiosity that could verge on sticky-beaking. I was now engaged in a respected cultural practice! Most of all, I liked the idea of combining history with current observation.  However, I faced a problem in adopting the art.

The concept of idling, of strolling, of sauntering, of observing without fixed purpose or destination runs against a deeply held Australian cultural trait, the need to do something, to achieve something.

This need is embedded in us from childhood. We go to school to learn things, to meet required standards, to achieve and help the school achieve targets. Out of school, we engage in organised activities; our lives are a series of activities carried out at particular times for particular purposes. In adulthood, we try to practice the seven habits of effective people, we are told that we must practise continuous improvement, that we have to learn new skills, that we have to adjust to an ever changing world. At national level, governments constantly tell us that we and our children must work harder, must do better so that the country can do better.

.I am not immune to all this. The idea that I should go sauntering to see what I could find with no objective other than interest conflicted with my deep conditioning that I should be doing something productive. I knew that that view was silly, but I could not help myself. And yet, despite all this, for a time I became a most dedicated flâneur, wandering the streets with a camera looking for detail and stories. .

I think I was helped by the fact that I was doing it with a friend who shared my interests. Then with time I drifted away, although I introduced a remarkable number of people to the concept.

One of the reasons for my drift is that I started walking for exercise, itself a modern target oriented approach. This came about in part because work had a health program. I was given my own little step counter and was expected to enter my steps into a web site that tracked my path across the world.

This may be healthy, but it tends to defeat the point, the discoveries that can come from random idling. I find that when walking for exercise I have in mind distance and time, two things in direct conflict with the art of flânerie. What's worse, I tend to get very bored and thus stop walking! Even the desire to achieve a minimum number of paces (10,000 per day appears to have become an almost universal target) provides insufficient incentive. The irony, of course, is that I actually walked more as a flâneur than as an exerciser because I was simply more interested, was inclined to keep moving.

I really rediscovered the art of flânerie on my second trip to Copenhagen where eldest had moved for work. I was really on my own, had no things that I had to do and had lots of time. I knew the bones of the city quite well after the first trip . Now I decided to flesh out the details.

There is something enormously relaxing about heading out with only a rough idea of direction and time scope. I wandered almost at random, looking a the buildings and shops. Sometimes, I would find myself back at a familiar place and then wander around working out just how I had got there. Finally, I would head for home by the shortest route.

Suitable rewards add to the enjoyment of flâneuring. I found Copenhagen's Cafe Sommersko by accident. I had been wandering for well over an hour and felt like a coffee.

I was fascinated by the place. Obviously moderately posh, a restaurant at night, it was starting to fill with casually if well dressed young Danes. They knew each other, and hugged or kissed as they unfolded their outer street-ware to reveal the plumage underneath, ordering coffee and drinks.

Investigating later, I found that the Cafe Sommersko. was opened in 1976 to provide a place for the city's artists to meet, introducing a new cafe concept to the city. I must say they struck me as very well dressed artists!

I had enjoyed my coffee reward. It was time to move on to the next step in my exploration of Copenhagen, its life and people.

Since returning from Copenhagen, I have tried to maintain the practice of flânerie for practical as well as personal reasons.

As an historian, I know just how important it is to walk the ground. I studied ancient Greek history at school and university, but had no idea on key underpinnings until our 2010 visit to the Greek Islands. I was surprised at their small size, I had not properly realised the importance of water nor the importance of trade. The same holds with my studies on New England history. You cannot understand relationships or patterns unless you actually know the geography.

At a personal level, flânerie has given me many unexpected pleasures. It remains hard sometimes to actually stop and look, especially when travelling. I still find it hard to break from the need to do something, to achieve something, to get to a destination or objective. To just wander without defined purpose remains hard. I guess that I will have to keep working on that.