Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Meander, with a special focus on Ulrich Ellis

No post yesterday. I had a part completed one, but was just too busy with other things. This morning, just a short meander.

During a chat with Noric Dilanchian about the on-line world, he made the point that the thinning out of organisations and the consequent loss of in-house knowledge made then increasingly dependent on the internet as a substitute.

A simple enough point, but it's an interesting one nevertheless. The internal knowledge domain used to be, indeed still is, central to organisational operation. But what happens if you effectively halve it? To what degree can you rely on the internet?

From time to time, I have mentioned the collective GeoCurrents blog. Now the group has started a blog within a blog, the GeoCurrents community blog, with all the entries written by student's in Martin Lewis's seminar on the history and geography of current global events at Stanford University.  As part of this, students are being asked in part to write blog posts instead of the conventional essay. So far, there is some interesting material. I like the way that both the parent and student blogs use maps.

A note to myself on my New England's history blog, Social change in New England 1950-2000 Introduction, signals my latest focus on the New England history project. I have in mind the completion of a seminar for delivery some time, some place, next year.

The segment is important to the general history, but I also think that It's likely to be interesting in fleshing out one element in the broader history of Australia through the prism set by a broader region with its own history.

For a long time, I found this particular task just too daunting. Part of the problem is that it's quite hard to be objective about events you have lived through, participated in. Part of the problem is the sheer scale. This was a time of huge change that worked itself out at local level in a variety of ways.

During the week, Max Ellis kindly sent me a copy of his father Ulrich's autobiography, A Pen in Politics.

The book was written under considerable difficulties.

I hadn't realised that Ulrich suffered from aphasia, a disease that can destroy the ability to communicate. In 1971, the year he turned sixty seven, Ulrich suffered a severe attack that left him unable to understand spoken or written words. He had to learn to speak and write again. This finally led him to write his autobiography, 500,000 words at the end, as a way of regaining control. The book was edited down to its current form by a fellow journalist, the late Elgin Reid.

As you might expect in the circumstances, the book has its patchy spots. It is also quite fascinating.

In his introduction to the book, Professor John Warhurst actually quotes me, something that I had not known. He wrote: "James Belshaw has described him colourfully, but accurately, as 'journalist, political agitator and theorist, public servant and historian'." The quote comes from the title of my obituary of Ulrich.

I was seventeen when I first met Ulrich, he was fifty seven and campaign director for the New England New State Movement. That age gap was a big one, too big for me to become close. While I knew him, knew something of his life, I had no idea of the span of his career until I came to write his obituary.    

In February of this year when I was researching the history of new state symbols, I read Andrew Moore's Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Ellis for for the first time. New England New State Symbols 1 describes my reaction. This was a put down of the first order. 

Ellis suffers because the causes he supported, many of the things he wrote about, were to later thinking on the periphery of politics. He suffers, too, because his more famous brother Malcolm was a warrior of the right. This led Professor Moore to remark: "Ellis is sometimes remembered as less reactionary than his brother Malcolm Ellis. None the less...."!

Interestingly, a third brother used his pen to support Labor. 

Anybody who reads this blog will understand that I am unlikely to support Professor Moore's views. It's not just that I knew Ulrich, but the interests that Andrew regards as peripheral were central to my life. Still, if we stand back from both views and just look at the detail of Ulrich Ellis's life, you can see that he was an interesting man.

Ulrich was seventeen when he became a cadet journalist in 1921. His career really ended with the loss of the New State plebiscite in 1967, although there were later developments including the writing of his autobiography.

In the forty six years between 1921 and 1967, Ulrich was variously a political journalist; a Canberra public servant and community activist whose activities helped establish not just basic services in the ACT but key political freedoms for public servants; private secretary to Country Party Leader and Deputy PM Earle Page; a key writer and agitator on country causes including new states and constitutional reform; and an historian whose books on the history of the Country Party formed part of the corpus of the early histories of the Australian political parties.

Ulrich's book draws some of his experiences out: we see Australian journalism as it was during the 1920s; we learn what it was like living in Canberra in the very early days; we see what it was like to be a ministerial staffer in the days when a Deputy PM warranted a single personal appointee who had to combine multiple roles that would today require a total office; we see the operations of one party from an inside perspective. These are all interesting things.

I will write more on Ulrich's life because there are snippets there that I think are interesting stories in their own right while showing aspects of the tapestry of Australian life. Like, for example, the industrial roundsman appointed for a new Melbourne daily paper established by the Victorian Country Party.

A strong communist, he knew the union movement like the back of his hand, but had very little journalistic experience. Here he relied on on the young Ulrich for advice. As part of this, he came to Ulrich with his first claim for expenses. This included a claim: liquor for strikers, five pounds. Ulrich took one look, and redistributed the five pounds to other expense categories likely to be more acceptable!  

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