Thursday, November 18, 2010

Coping with New England's decline

I mentioned yesterday that my next focus in the New England history project was an examination of social change in New England during the second half of the twentieth century.

My main post today, Social Change in New England 1950-2000 2: Don Aitkin's What was it all for?, is on the history blog. This post is a consolidation and slight extension of two earlier posts on this blog where I reviewed the book, an examination of social change in Australia through the prism set by the Armidale High School Class Leaving Certificate class of 1953. From my viewpoint, the book has been something of a godsend because it deals with broader trends while retaining a New England flavour.

I realised as I was writing, that I really need to do some broad brush stuff on the patterns of structural change in Australia. I have actually written quite a bit on this topic for other reasons, but haven't consolidated the material.

New England is quite an interesting case study because its major industries in 1950 - agriculture, manufacturing, forestry and mining - were all affected in different ways. The closure of the BHP steel works in 1997, for example, signposted the end of an Australian era. The BHP as it was known in Newcastle had cast a very long shadow.

New England proved to be especially vulnerable to structural change because it had old industries and lacked head office jobs. In 1950, new state New England was larger in both population and economic terms than Tasmania, South Australia and West Australia, and was not far behind Queensland. Over the next fifty years, its position slipped inexorably.

Its relative economic decline was greater than its decline in the population rankings because of the rush to the coast, another part of the pattern of social change. The rise in the coastal population created jobs in areas such as hospitality, retailing and health services, but these were generally lower paid jobs. By 2000, coastal New England contained some of the poorest areas in Australia measured by average incomes.

As a commentator, I rail against these changes. As an historian, I have to track the changes independent of my personal views. I may not like it, but what was is what was.

I still find this hard. I don't like writing about failure where I am emotionally involved. I constantly want to move from analysis to comment.

A little of this is not a bad thing. When I finish, I want a readable book. Giving some emotional content to New England can help here, even if it's a sad story.

In a way, the poet and writer Judith Wright is a microcosm of the changes that took place and at many different levels.

She was born in 1915 into the then stratified world of New England's pastoral dynasties.  She died on 26 June 2000, right at the end of my period.

Her relationship with her father, a significant figure in New England's history, and with the land itself, forms a key theme in her life, letters and writing. Her views on issues shifted over her life, but the land remained constant. As a woman, she could not inherit in a world where properties generally went to the oldest son. Her distress at the end of her life when the main station was lost was quite palpable.

I cannot pretend to be totally objective. While I did not know Judith, I did know her father, brothers and nephews. I grew up at the end of the stratified world she was born into. There were elements in that I did not like, yet I cannot help but find it, overall, a good thing. I, too, share her sense of loss.

I sometimes wonder if I will ever finish this book. It's just such a big task.

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