Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sunday essay - a new Akubra

Back in February 2008 in Birthday shopping with my girls - moleskins and double pocketed shirts, I described the joy of being taken shopping by my daughters to buy some new cloths.

Well, yesterday I took delivery of a new hat they had purchased for me for Christmas. My old hat had been getting very tight. It's not that my head has swelled, heaven forbid, just that with exposure to the elements the hat has shrunk.

The hat is once again, of course, an Akubra. I spoke a little of my clothing tastes in that earlier post on shopping with my girls. These hats have become something of a fashion item in recent years because of their iconic status. All APEC leaders were expected to wear one in one of those obligatory fashion shots during the APEC Australian summit.

From my viewpoint they are simply practical in hot sun.

Since I am so determined to wear Australian style clothes, my daughters tried to persuade me to buy a pair of riding boots as well. There I had to draw the line. I might feel obliged to get back onto a horse!

If you look at the attached photo from cousin Jamie's collection, I am in the Kids on horsemiddle with brother David just behind. Note the direction of my eyes, down! Even now, it's still a long way to the ground.

My maternal grandparents rode, as did Aunt Kay. However, my grandfather sold Forglen when I was still very young.

From that point, I really didn't get on a horse again until youngest (Clare) decided that she wanted to learn to ride. I quite enjoyed it, but I will never be a horse person.

Appropriately, the hat arrived just as I was trying to finish a story on the Kempsey floods of 1949 for my weekly Express column. You see the Akubra is made in Kempsey

I was writing on Kempsey because Bruce Hoy, a friend from my Armidale Demonstration School days, had kindly sent me during the week a copy of a page from the Armidale Express, Wednesday 31 August 1949.

We had been discussing the vexed question of verandah posts, why the Armidale City Council and civic leaders were so keen to have them removed from commercial buildings to the somewhat distress of later generations.

The relevant page did contain a Council discussion on the posts. However, it also include a range of other stories, including the Mayor's Appeal for Kempsey Flood victims. These were seriously bad floods. Six people died, including a thirteen year old boy who went out on horseback to try to rescue cattle, only to drown himself.

I have been experimenting with different ways of telling stories from Australia and especially New England's past to try to make them gripping. It's not just a writing issue, although I do want to improve my own control over the craft. It also reflects my continuing concern over the way Australian history is taught.

Friday night saw a family gathering at a local restaurant. Chatting to a young niece, I found out that history was her favourite subject, just not Australian history.

This is a seriously bright kid. When I asked her why, she simply said that it was boring, rather neatly summarising twentieth century Australia history as two wars and a depression! More broadly, the history she has had to do can be summarised as convicts, Aboriginal dispossession, a gold rush, two wars and a depression. No doubt Federation fits in there somewhere, it wasn't mentioned, but that's about it.

Her attitudes to Aboriginal dispossession, I hope that I am capturing this accurately and not superimposing my own perceptions, were acceptance that wrong had been done combined with rejection of a fair bit of the wrapping usually put around this. In speaking of stories from the convict or the gold rush periods, she  compared them disparagingly in terms of interest to the story of an English girl who went to work as a maid at the French court at Versailles.  

I think that we forget sometimes the world that middle class Australian kids now live in.

To the kids on the back of that horse, Australia and indeed one part of Australia was the centre of the world. To even privileged children, and it is clear that my brother and I were, scenes and events in other countries were something that you read about.

The position today is very different.

Modern Australian middle class young have often been overseas more times than I had travelled to Sydney at their age. When you have stayed in a villa in Tuscany, visited Greece, are familiar with Paris, have been skiing in Canada to take just a few examples, then Australia is just part of a bigger picture. While the modern middle class Australian young are often quite nationalistic, uncomfortably so from my perspective, their actual knowledge of the detail of their own country is less, their knowledge of the broader world greater.

This creates a real challenge in preserving and presenting the Australian past so far as the formal channels are concerned.

At one level I console myself with the thought that it is interest in history that is important, not the form of history. Indeed, I would go further. I don't think that you can understand Australian history without understanding the broader historical context. Faced with a choice between an Australian history narrow and devoid of broader context and other history, I would go with other history. You can always pick up Australian later on.  

This marks a shift in my own position and is in fact a final personal outcome of what are known in this country as the history wars. However, it leaves me with a real problem. As someone who is interested in and does write on Australian history, how do I get my story across? Will anyone come to the party I am trying to throw?   

Here I come back to my experiments in the craft of writing. How do I tell a story in such a way that people will want to read and then continue reading? 

There is, I think, a deep need especially among older Australians for writing that reflects their own past back to them and puts it in a context. My own stories that have drawn the greatest response, and have also given me the greatest personal satisfaction, have been those that were in some way personalised.

My wife, children and indeed broader family sometimes laugh at the way I keep finding personal connections with strangers in the strangest places. They are not being critical, just empathetic and sometimes surprised.

I do try to write as a professional historian should, but more and more I find that my real role is that of historical story teller.     

No comments: