Thursday, May 16, 2019

New England Travels One: Setting the Scene

This book grew out of a sense of frustration. I had been writing a history of Australia’s New England, the Northern or New England Tablelands and the surrounding rivers valleys to the north, south, east and west. The writing of history imposes its own rigours. Evidence must be analysed, ideas developed and tested, by-ways excluded no matter how fascinating because they distract from the main story. The whole work needs to be properly footnoted so that others can check, challenge and build from the story and arguments presented.

As I wrote, I became frustrated with all the fascinating things I had to put aside. Finally, I decided to write a different type of book as a break, one that would allow me freedom to wander down the many byways that interested me. The book that follows is about New England and its peoples, but is not limited to that. It is part travelogue, part history, part culture, part personal stories and reflections. Some of the chapters center on locations, others on themes, all loosely linked around the idea of journeys through space and time. There are no footnotes, but I have added some source material in an appendix at the end for those who want to follow up.

I am not an unbiased observer. It will be clear from the book that I love New England. This is where I grew up, where I studied and played, where my own children were born. For many of us, to be born in New England is to be condemned to leave it. We don’t have the jobs to hold our people. For every person living in New England now, there are perhaps three people born or educated there who now live elsewhere. Add their children, and you can see the size of the population loss. It will not surprise that the fight for Northern development forms a recurrent theme in New England’s history. This includes the 150 plus year fight for self-government, for our own state within the Federation.

For my part, I have spent more than half my life outside New England, although I have stubbornly retained my links. My New England born daughters who left Armidale at a young age to live in Sydney are different, absorbed in the lives they have built. I am happy with their choices, but feel a certain sense of loss that we have come to a generational break, a cut in our family traditions of commitment to and involvement with the North. That loss is part of a greater sense of loss at New England’s relative decline.

As a rough measure of that decline, in 1900 New England’s population was greater than Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia and not far behind Queensland. By 1960, South Australia had overtaken New England. Today, only Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory lag behind New England. As another measure of relative decline, in 1900 New England’s population was around 67 per cent of that of Sydney. By 2018, the proportion had dropped to 31 per cent and was still falling.

I have long complained about the way that metro domination affects Australian perceptions of history, culture and life. I am not alone in this view. The Armidale poets such as Anthony (AJ) Bennett, Julian Croft and Michael Sharkey saw their poetry in part as a challenge to city dominance. “We seek”, Michael Sharkey explained to me many years ago, “to challenge the dominance of the Sydney push. They listen to each other’s readings, recommend each other’s work and control publication and grant applications. We want to change that”

This type of change is not so easy. Australia is a large and varied country: “a nation for a continent”, Edmund Barton famously declared at a Federation rally in 1897. Barton would later become Australia’s first prime minister. Each part of Australia has its own stories. This applies to the big cities themselves, where growing population and geographic spread has created a constantly changing regional patchwork within each city.

The difficulty is that the combination of formal political boundaries with metro dominance tends to blur this, to impose uniformity, more precisely sets of uniformities, upon local and regional variation. This becomes a greater problem as we move away from the centres of metropolitan power. Sometimes, this can bite back. Australians are often surprised and even shocked when they find that people in other parts of Australia do not agree with them, do not accept what seems so self-evident, just right.

I have made my own biases clear. This book is a celebration of difference. My assertion is that New England has its own history and culture, its own life styles, which deserve celebration. It is now up to me to prove my point, to show you some of the special features of the area I love. So come with me as we journey through space and time, tasting some of the special features of the area that I call home.

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