Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday Essay - a diminishing Australia?

Yesterday afternoon I took my wife and mother-in-law to the airport to meet a niece who was flying in from Noumea. She had been there on a school French language excursion. Having picked her up at the international terminal, we went across to one of the domestic terminals so that she and her grandmother could catch the plane to Brisbane. Her family has just relocated from Sydney to Brisbane.

Last night I completed a short piece that will come up later today on New England Australia on the Walcha painter Julia Griffin.

This morning I saw on What's On Sydney  that the Boy from Oz was being produced in Blacktown. This is a very popular musical, with productions also running in Gosford and Newcastle.  The Blacktown production is described in this way:

The Boy From Oz will take you on a musical journey through the Peter’s highs and low’s from his humble beginnings in a small pub in the Australian outback ('When I Get My Name In Lights'), through his brief marriage to Liza Minnelli (I'd Rather Leave While I'm In Love'), his love affair with long time companion Greg Connell ('I Honestly Love You') to his final performance in Sydney ('I Still Call Australia Home') plus many many more popular songs including the Oscar winning Arthur’s theme 'Best That You Can Do.

Three apparently disconnected things somehow connected in my mind. Rain on the Uralla Road Julia Griffin

This painting by Julia Griffin is simply called Rain on the Uralla Road. This is very familiar country for me. The road runs from Walcha through Uralla to Armidale, the university city in which I grew up.

This is high country by Australian standards, part of the self-contained world of the New England Tablelands, Australia's largest tablelands' area. The painting successfully captures the light and feel of this part of the Tablelands.

At the start of the description from the Boy from Oz, the small pub in the Australian outback is in fact the New England Hotel - the Newie - in Armidale. So I guess on this basis, Julia's painting could could be sub-titled "Outback Scene".

Modern Australian middle class young like my niece have many opportunities. They know cities and airports in many countries; they may have skied in Canada; toured the Tuscan countryside; studied French in Noumea or Paris; holidayed in Bali. Yet they also seem to live in a greatly shrunken country.

Armidale was a small city in population terms when Peter Allen lived there, a city by grace of its bishoprics. However, neither the New England Tablelands not Armidale can properly be described as the Australian outback. The Musical Society in Sydney's Blacktown can be excused their mistake, but it was not one that would have happened fifty years ago.

We all live with mental mud-maps made up, among other things, of boundaries, points and lines.

When I was growing up, the phrase "Back of Bourke" was used to describe the outback. Since then, the dotted mental line that people have in their mind to describe the outback has progressively shifted towards the coast. By the time my daughters were going to school in Sydney, the area selected by one group of their classmates for study in the Year of the Outback was, in fact, the Blue Mountains. For those who don't know Australia, these are the ranges just to the west of Sydney.

These types of mental shifts occur all the time. In Sydney, for example, the boundary of the "Eastern Suburbs"  in real estate terms has moved progressively south. The area described by my daughters as the Eastern Suburbs is not that same as the term I used when I was their age.

Geography and transport play key roles in these types of mental shifts. You can actually construct maps that look a bit like the stylised transport route maps. If you do, you will find that modern transport and communications has greatly increased the geographic scale, but also reduced the detail. Combine this with population shifts and suddenly large areas of Australia have progressively diminished in popular perception. They are now below the flight path.

There is another factor as well.

If you look at current Australian young, they like many of the same things. To some degree, there are still regional variations in things like clothing because of climate. But in pursuit of the great gods of shopping and fashion, they actually look at and buy the same type of things whether it be in Sydney, Brisbane or, for that matter, Noumea. There is a common urban life style.

It may sound strange to say this in an Australia marked by greater ethnic diversity, by apparently increased knowledge of different cultures, but I have the strong impression that actual interest in and knowledge of difference has declined.

I don't want to overstate this, and indeed I am struggling a little to capture the idea properly. It may just be that some things have been added in, others dropped out. However, I do think that there is more to it than this.

Change is inevitable. My problem is that the areas I am most interested in at a personal level are among those that have dropped below the flight path. They still exist, but are much dimished and still diminishing in Australian perception and recognition.

I find that this affects my writing and thought.

As an analyst and commentator, I try to look at what we might think of as broader issues, although my analysis is still affected by my own geographic interests. However, to the degree that I am a writer, I have become a regional writer in a way that I did not expect. The topics I select, the way I write, the people I write about, are all firmly embedded in that geographic space that I still think of as home.


The post I mentioned is now up - The paintings of Julia Griffin.  


Legal Eagle said...

This post actually reminds me of how our family used to go up to the area around Nowra for summer holidays. When we were young, the clothes and food you got at the local shops were different. As we got older, the stuff you got started to be more like the stuff you get in Melbourne, which was kind of disappointing. It's nice to have regional difference.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a good example, LE. When my kids were young, eldest said that if a town did not have just jeans, it was too small to live in! The chains are part of the effect, as are the shopping centres.