Saturday, May 28, 2011

People, biography & the New England tradition

In a post earlier in the week, Judith Wright, smoking, pokies, Armidale floods & policy misinformation (26 May), I said in part:

My train reading at the moment is Fiona Capp's My Blood's Country (Allen & Unwin), subtitled a journey through the landscapes that inspired Judith Wright's poetry.

Inspired by that book, I am working on a post for my New England History blog called multi-layered history. This centres in part on the way that the stories of major figures like Judith Wright actually become historical actors in their own right. From a purely personal viewpoint, there is a strange disconnect when people and areas one knows acquire an external independent life.

The post in question is simply called Writing multi-layered history. This post is a follow up muse on some elements of that post .

I am very fond of autobiography and especially biography as genres because they draw me into different worlds. I say biography first, because with autobiography the personal tone can put me off where I disagree with the person. For some reason, the life of an equally repulsive person is more palatable when told told in biographical form.

Very good biography stands on its own. You don't need to have any historical or personal knowledge of the subject to understand the book. It's a self-contained world. The skill involved in doing this is substantial. I stand in awe of the writing skills of some biographers. They are both good researchers and writers capable of creating a real story based on evidence.

While good biographies are self-contained, I do find that they draw me into wanting to know more. I start reading around the topic. I read Harrod's The Life of John Maynard Keynes while at school. This drew me into the world of Cambridge, the Bloomsbury Set and the Apostles. I maintained this interest for over ten years, then I stopped very suddenly and have taken no interest since. Almost overnight, I went from great interest to something approaching detestation.

In the end, the trigger was cumulative exposure through books and letters to what I came to think of as indulgent, self-centred and parochial little Englishness. This was too small, too narrow and too incestuous a world to maintain interest after a certain point. I suppose that I decided that they were not very nice people and I simply didn't want to know them any more.

I know that others will disagree with this perspective. I am just reporting a purely personal reaction. In a way I had become too close to them and their world, a little like living in the same village. Here you can see how local feuds begin. In my case, I had just had enough of Lytton Strachey in particular. Had we actually been living in a village, I think that I would have been very rude!

When I first became interested in Australian history there was very little around in the way of biography or autobiography. I did immerse myself in some things and especially some of the writers and painters, I read omnivorously, but there wasn't the type of depth that would give rise to the Bloomsbury style effect.

I am not saying that I didn't form views, but they were more about patterns than people. They also built on my very wide childhood reading.  I was a bookish child living in a world surrounded by books. I read anything I could get my hands-on, including children's books and popular fiction from both my grandfather's and parent's generation, as well as my own. This included a lot of Australian material, but was not limited to that. 

I was not reading critically, just for pleasure. Still, the sheer breadth of the reading provided it's own corrective. By the time I really became interested in Australian history, I knew a fair bit about differing patterns in society and life between different parts of Australia. I also slotted this into my perceptions of life and culture in other places. This was to affect my approach to Australian history in an odd way; I quickly became dissatisfied with the Australian history I did read because it didn't seem quite to fit with the immediate world I lived in, nor the patterns that had emerged in my own mind. It wasn't quite the same country, so to speak.   

I guess, too, that I just wasn't interested in emerging popular topics such as Ned Kelly or the Lawsons, mother and son.  They weren't especially relevant to the things that I was interested in. I read all of Lawson as a child, but that was Lawson the story teller or poet, not Lawson the man nor the world he lived in.

As part of my interest in Australian art and writing, I started collecting older Australian books and paintings during the 1970s. I also started my first and so far only major attempt at biography, the story of my grandfather. Both coincided with the dramatic increase in publishing on Australian topics that in some ways peaked around the 1988 Australian bicentennial. It's not that the total number of books is necessarily less, just that their range seems to have narrowed.

Writing my biography of the first part of Drummond's life meant looking at people. Now there were two problems.

The first was mechanical, simply keeping track. By the end, several hundred people were mentioned in the thesis, some many times. References to them were drawn from many sources, so there were inconsistencies. This plus things such as consistency in style, how to write per cent for example, had to be checked.

This is before modern word processing with its mechanical tools. In the final drafting stages, each person was recorded on a card to allow for checking, while an alphabetical list of styles was created.

While I have spoken of the thesis and it's aftermath before, I have never properly acknowledged the help I received. I was remarkably fortunate. We all knew that the thesis was a bit of a gamble. I was writing on a topic and about views that were even then increasingly outside the mainstream. The biographical form was seen by many as unsuitable for a PhD thesis. Then, too, I shifted the focus in part from Drummond's public life in politics and as a minister for education to Drummond in his role as a regional politician.

In retrospect, this was quite ambitious. I still had to deal with public life and to the same level of rigour, but I now had to write a regional history centred on the man and his interaction with an area he came to love.

I came back to Canberra from full time study at the start of 1983. Over the coming months, the thesis went through multiple drafts mainly written at night after my busy day as a senior public servant. Professor Colin Hughes, my Canberra supervisor, went through draft after draft with a red pen.

At home sitting in the backroom, my housemate Sue Rosly and her friend David went through the drafts, recording details of people on cards and identifying inconsistencies in detail and style. I wrote at the same time, answering queries as we went along. I cannot begin to say how important this was. The marking imbroglio that subsequently submerged the thesis, an imbroglio that still nags at me even though I know that I should put it aside, was a poor reward for their work. I remain incredibly grateful for their support.

My second problem lay in the fact that I knew or at least knew of so many of the people I was writing about. They weren't just names, but people who occupied a place in my mind based on contact and family stories.

Take Country Party politician Earle Page as an example. Page, for those who have never heard of him, was one of the founders of the Australian Country Party, Deputy Prime Minister and then Australian PM for a very brief period.

I don't remember that I ever met Page, although I almost certainly did as a child given his connections with my grandfather. But he was a figure in family conversation.

In December 1961, my grandfather fulfilled a promise and took my cousin and I on his last election campaign as member for New England. I was sixteen. In Tenterfield we received the news that Page had collapsed. My grandfather dropped everything and left for the Clarence to try to save the seat for his former mentor, while I hitchhiked back to Armidale.

When I came to write my biography, I knew Drummond's views on Page. I read them again in his letters and manuscript autobiography. I also knew some of Page's grandchildren; Australian poet Geoff Page was one, current NSW MP Don Page a second. Geoff went out with the elder sister of two of my friends, while Don and  I worked together on efforts to reform the Country Party. I knew, too, of things like the disputes over the writing of Page's autobiography, while Earle Pages' second wife Jean was good friends with one of my aunts. Then, too, I knew Ulrich Ellis, Page's long standing amanuensis.

My point in all this is that when I came to write about  my grandfather's life I had to filter my already formed views views on Page through the sieve created by the evidence. My views on Page are not the same as my grandfather's. I recognise that Page was a remarkable man, perhaps more remarkable than recognised today, but he had his major weaknesses. Drummond's idealisation of the man blinded him to them.

Now I want to link this muse back to my opening points.

Since I started writing my history of New England I have gone back in depth into the people of New England. Like the Bloomsbury Set but unlike my early experiences with Australian history, the people in my history of New England have become people, not just patterns.

Unlike Bloomsbury, this greater exposure has not alienated me. I am aware of their weaknesses, I dislike some of their views, but they are there as characters. Herein lies problems.

One problem lies in my recognition that I am dealing with people with living relatives who are still alive as people in popular consciousness. The things that I say may hurt or even have practical effects like affecting Aboriginal land claims. This does not mean that I should not be objective. After all, I try to consciously recognise my own family's weaknesses in my writing. However, it does mean (at least as I see it) that I should exercise a degree of restraint so long as this does not interfere with the history itself. I can't write just to grab attention and interest.

A second problem lies in the way that my characters have gained a life of their own in my mind and others. Judith Wright, to take an example from an earlier post, is not just a major Australian poet nor a New England figure, but is now an entity examined and counter-examined by many. You have Judith the person, Judith the historical figure, Judith the writer, Judith the symbol of causes; just so many Judith's!

In dealing with so many New Englanders like Drummond, Page or Wright and the interactions between them, I find that they become like characters in novels, people with lives of their own who dictate the story. I as writer am loosely in charge of a plot of many characters who have their own minds. This is not a problem in fiction, but is an issue in history.

Finally, and this is not really a problem from my perspective, there is the constant desire to bring a New England past alive that has in some ways become lost. I am not alone here.

As an historian, I suppose I write from a right wing perspective.

I need to be very careful in what I say here. I am not right wing in the way that term is often used today. I am not a neo-liberal, nor do I necessarily espouse current right wing nostrums. However, I do write about topics and past issues that are generally classified today as right wing. Further, I write about them from a sympathetic or at least understanding position.

All this comes about because of my role as a regional historian, someone concerned with the history and ideas of a particular area. Scratch a New Englander, and you will quickly find common attitudes that don't quite fit with "mainstream" thought.    

My blogging colleague Paul Barratt would be classified as a left winger. His support for the Greens, his pro-Palestine position, his media appearances including chairing the wikileaks session at the Sydney Writers' Festival, all place him on the left. He would, I think, classify himself as a left winger. Yet scratch Paul and he is a New Englander.

Like me, he has the same love of country. Like me, he thinks that the old Country Party was a good thing. Like me, he understands and supports Tony Windsor. Like me, he is a New England New Stater. Like me, he promotes the history and life of New England. Like me, he complains about the acceptance of currently common nostrums that prevent regional development. Yet we are very different.

People who come from our New England tradition don't easily fit in with current stereotypes. And that's part of the fascination of the writing that I, Paul, and others are now doing. We are mounting a challenge. And that's fun.                             


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Been wondering if to mention this was appropriate, and if so, where. There was a very interesting statement of the obvious about the "bush disconnect" on the radio the other day. It was ABC, I think taken from a Sunday night program.

Anyway the point (at last! he says) was that this increasingly distant relationship felt between bush and city has been contributed to by the reduction, in relative terms, of relatives in the bush attached to "city folk". My words, but couldn't resist...

Point was, in the 50's and 60's everybody knew or was related to somebody over the mountains; but nowadays not so much. One factor being immigration largely resulting in more city dwellers, themselves with few connections anywhere, let alone country Australia.

I accept I'm not advancing the knowledgebase much, but I thought that was an interesting statement.

Also, it feeds into my own cringe every year about the Royal Easter Show in Sydney - which these days seems a tokenistic, patronising sort of nod to our roots. And that really annoys me.

And I hope you're not drowned.

Jim Belshaw said...

Defintely not drowned David!

I'm sure your right about the relatives point, and it does affect attitudes in a whole variety of ways. It's actually not just city and the bush, but the broader fabric of Australian life.

I suspect that I could show it via demography. I have dealt with aspects before.