Monday, July 02, 2007

Australia's Regions - are they really different?

Over on the Regional Living Australia blog I was complaining about the failure of regional areas in Australia to properly capture and present their special features, always trying instead to measure themselves against some external model. "The difficulty in all this, I suggested, "is that we get a sort of metro blandness and uniformity imposed across the whole country, one that catches everyone in the same mental trap."
This drew the following comment:

Hi, I'm an American. I was surfing the Internet, trying to learn something about Australia's diverse regions from a cultural perspective as opposed to a merely geographical one. All I turned up was information on Aborigines. Where's the Australian Paul Bunyan? Where's the Johnny Appleseed? Where are the pictures of Eskimos contrasted with lumberjacks, miners, farmers and fishermen? You are right. I almost had to conclude that Australia has no regional flavor at all. (Search for "regional flavor" and you will turn up many websites on wine, but none that pay more than lip service to culture.)
I will respond properly on the Regional Living blog, but could not resist a short opening comment here.
I know from my own experience that Australia's regions are different.In fact, they are becoming more so. Why, then, do we not recognise this?

When I first started reading Australian history at school I found it all incredibly dull.

There was lots about convicts, explorers, squatters, the doings of the Sydney and later Sydney/Canberra Governments, very little about the world in which I lived. Here I was reliant on the occasional local newspaper supplement.

I knew that Judith Wright was a local writer, but only because my mother had known her and we knew the family. When I did come to read her earlier poetry as well as books such as Generations of Men I found real resonance. This was my country talking too me.

Later as pursued my reading and research, as I became involved in political and community activities in different parts of Australia, I discovered and came to know and understand to some degree the fascinating nature of regional variation across Australia. Yet somehow this was and continues to be suppressed.

To avoid the charge that I am just beating my usual parochial, regional drum, take Sydney.

Growing up, it was the case that Sydney was different from New England with its multiple regions linked by geography. But even in Sydney there were variations between the Inner, Eastern, Northern and Western Suburbs. As an outsider, I explored and enjoyed those differences.

Today, Sydney is fragmenting into a series of zones or regions that are very different from each other. Increasingly, or so it seems to me, people seem to stick within those zones, rarely moving out unless there is a very specific reason to do so.

Everybody in Sydney knows that this is the case. There is even some recognition of this, as in the popular parodies of the "Westies". My wife and daughters laugh at these. I just cringe. Perhaps I have lost my sense of humour or, perhaps, I wish I had the literary ability to apply the same blow torch to the Eastern Suburbs. Or the Inner West.

This has become a somewhat meandering post. My point is that as we track forward in Australia, we need to recognise and celebrate our differences, not just the official uniform pap served up to us by our thought leaders and their various institutional manifestations.


Anonymous said...

This is a tangential comment, Jim, but during my undergrad degree I sat in on an ancient history seminar in which the tutor recollected another seminar, many years ago, in which an argument erupted between two students, both self-avowed Marxists. It transpired that one Marxist claimed that he was more "authentic" than the other because he was from the working-class western suburbs of Sydney, while the other was from the affluent north shore. Apparently, the argument got pretty ugly!

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Adrian. I can imagine! It all comes back to the question of who best represents the true faith.

It's interesting, for this is also another example of cultural and political change in Australia. I hadn't thought about it, but the particular class divides, more accurately perceived class divides, that form the base of this story have largely vanished.

Anonymous said...

Hear hear, Jim - I got totally bored by Australian history at school. Then when I was an adult, my mother did some genealogical research and discovered convicts on both sides of the family.

One forebear also brought Merinos to Australia along with Macarthur, but my forebear ate his, which explains why he is not in the history books. I am reliably informed by a friend with a rural farming background that Merinos are delicious...

He also had positive relationships with indigenous people, such that one or two indigenous men around Sydney renamed themselves after him. Seems to have been the one nice member of the Rum Corps, and accordingly he didn't prosper as much as others...

Anyway, the point of this meandering comment is that this history was all tremendously interesting, but I'd never seen it at school. Why is Australian history at school so boring?

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, LE. Nice comment. I am going to use your comment as an entry point for another post. Jim