Saturday, March 07, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - the past is always present

It is 4am Saturday. Given the continuing computing problems I referred to in Continuing computer woes - and problems with Sydney life, I am taking the opportunity of the five hours or so before anybody else gets up to use my wife’s computer.

There is usually some connection between the things I write about and my daily life, although this may be indirect and even concealed. It is not always wise to write directly.

Just at present I am working in Parramatta. For the benefit of international readers, Parramatta is 23 kilometres (14 miles) west of the Sydney CBD. To get there I take a 7 kilometre bus trip to Central Station at the edge of the CBD, then a train trip to Parramatta. Depending on connections (last night two scheduled buses did not arrive), the trip takes between an hour fifteen and two hours. An hour and a half is about average.

In geographic terms, Parramatta lies at the centre of Sydney’s urban sprawl measured by population distribution. This is melting pot Sydney, the heart of Australia’s great multi-ethnic experiment.

In central Parramatta, the 2006 Australian census records that 57.6% of residents were born overseas, including 14.1% from India, 12.8% from China. Apart from English, the most common languages spoken at home were Mandarin (11%), Cantonese (6.5%), Arabic (5.5%), Hindi (5.1%) and Gujarati (3.2%).

Depending on the time I travel, the train starts to fill with school kids in the last few stops before Parramatta. These are all decanted at Parramatta station. The station adjoins the big Westfield Shopping Centre. These centres are heartland for the urban young, and the kids flow there to gather in large numbers.

I listen and observe.

Australia’s future depends on our capacity to meld very different groups, many with deep historical antipathies, into some form of unity. Common language and schooling is central to this.

Visually, the individual groups are distinct, if still with considerable mixing.

I had not realised the extent to which a hejab could be a fashion statement. Many of the young Muslim girls are remarkably good looking. Their hejabs are crisp white, carefully shaped to contour the head and face.

Boys appear to be boys regardless of ethnicity in the sense that they are all far more unkempt.

Shut your eyes and listen and this visual variety disappears in the common sound of Australian English. Most of these kids were born in Australia, or at least came here at a very early age. They are clearly and distinctly Australian.

The NSW Government agency where I am presently doing some contract work is a few minutes walk from the station. I now enter a very different world, the world of the first Australians.

Sixty one percent of the staff of this agency is Indigenous, mainly from regional NSW. The most senior positions are designated. That is, they can only be filled by people of Indigenous origin.

The work that I am doing is mainly number crunching and analysis connected with the Commonwealth Government’s new National Remote Indigenous Housing Partnership. Now here I am actually being paid to do the type of analysis that I used to do anyway!

The NSW Aboriginal Land Council is in the same building. We smokers gather outside the building. Again, I listen and observe.

I am very careful what I say in writing that might in any way be linked to work because of the sensitivities involved. I was reminded of the need for care here when a friend from Housing NSW sent me the Department’s daily media monitoring report, including a copy of one of my Express columns! Fortunately, this was quite innocuous.

I have not changed any of my core views on Indigenous issues, nor are my views un-representative of streams of thought within at least the NSW Indigenous community. However, I have acquired greater understanding of, and sensitivity to, particular aspects of NSW indigenous life and history, including the need for care and clarity in the way I express myself.

I said that there was a link between the things that I write about and my daily life. Now you can see where "Clean, Clad and Courteous" - Jim Fletcher's History of Aboriginal Education in New South Wales fits in.

Yes, I wanted to read the book as part of my historical reading connected with the history of New England and for family reasons. After all, my own grandfather was Minister for Education in NSW for an extended period. However, it also directly connected with work.

At the time I started reading the book, one of the things that I was doing was collecting material on what are now called discrete communities. These are the former NSW missions and reserves. They necessarily feature quite heavily in Jim Fletcher’s writing, so I was educating myself on the background to current work.

I was also comparing Jim Fletcher’s own perceptions at the time he wrote with past and current perceptions.

There are still many things that I do not understand. Still, I am certainly better informed that I was.

Jim Fletcher’s book was the second in what has become my train reading series.

My train reading began with Warren Treadgold's A History of the Byzantine State and Society. After Jim Fletcher, I read Peter Thompson’s Pacific Fury, the story of the war in the Pacific during the Second World War. In Problems of perception and unseen bias I complained about what I saw as Peter Thompson’s little Australian, anti-British attitudes.

In turn, this led me to read J H Curle’s The Face of the Earth (1937), a book that triggered a series of posts:

While Treadgold, Fletcher, Thompson and Curle are all very different, varying attitudes to race and ethnicity form a common thread.

After J H Curle, I decided to stay in the first half of the twentieth century and for a different view chose Valentine Williams’ autobiography, A World of Action (1937).

Because of computer and internet problems, I have still to write about this book. However, it re-introduced me to the sheer complexity of the world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This makes current problems and complexities look like a pussy cat.

To further flesh out my views here I then shifted to my current read, Edmond Taylor’s 1968 work The Fall of the Dynasties: the collapse of the old order 1905-1922. Again, I deliberately chose a book published some time ago because I was as much interested in the perceptions of the author and period.

The book focuses on four dynasties – Habsburg (Austria-Hungary), Hohenzollern (Germany), Osmanlis (Ottoman) and Romanov (Russian) – central to the First World War, dynasties whose collapse helped trigger the Second World War.

This is also the world of Treadgold and Williams.

Treadgold wrote about the Byzantine world of the past with references to the future, Williams wrote from the perspective of a journalist and writer about the old order, including the various wars and revolutions that dominated Austria-Hungary and the Balkans. Taylor looks at the same questions as an historian concerned with modern history.

I suppose the key point that comes through is the way that the moving present is inextricably locked into an iron past.

Mr Putin’s support of Serbia over Kosovo is not just a political response, but an action that would have made perfect sense to both Soviet and Tsarist Russia. In similar vein, the period prior to World War One bears a quite distressing resemblance to the present. Among other things, this is a world of terrorism and bombs.

I do not necessarily think that the past offers lessons to the present. However, when I look at some current developments and attitudes, I could wish that our leaders did have a greater sense of history.


Winton Bates said...

You are almost the last person that I would expect to be spending an hour and a half travelling to work (I am the last person that I would expect to do that. I have had the good fortune to have always lived close to my work. The longest time I ever had to spend commuting was about half an hour when I lived in Canberra.)

The stuff I read tells me that most people are unhappy about the time they spend commuting. But you seem to be making good use of your time and, perhaps, actually enjoying the experience.

Are you just making the best of an unavoidable situation? Is it good breeding that prevents you from just sitting on the train wishing that you in Armidale? (In case any readers wonder that question is not meant to be taken seriously - despite Jim's good breeding) Alternatively, is it actually possible to enjoy commuting?

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton and sorry for the slow response to your comment. I never expected to spend this much time travelling and it is in fact a pain in the sense that it takes time away from other things.

I do make the best of the time though. Because of the particular routes I travel on it is possible to sit, so that I can read. I would have a very different view if I had to stand up!