Sunday, September 22, 2019

Reflections on my first three weeks in Armidale

I have been enjoying my return to Armidale, although the internet is still not functioning properly. That’s not the NBN’s fault, just problems with my ISP.

Apart from the increase in my standard of living (my rent has dropped $215 per week for a much better house compared the increasingly grungy two bedroom semi), I’m enjoying the reduced travel time.

In Sydney it took me two way travel time of an hour thirty to go to the State Library which made it a significant excursion. Here things are much closer.

One day last week I drove into town for coffee then went to the industrial area to buy some wood. I have a wood stove and while I haven’t used it a lot (it’s been warm) I have really enjoyed it. From the hardware store I drove to the Family History Centre to pay my subscription and to do a quick scan of their collection. I also answered some queries from family researchers who called in. From there I popped over to the Heritage Centre and Regional Archives to talk to archivist Bill Oates about a possible UNESCO listing for some of the material. I then went to Coles to buy a few things for the house and then home. All this took two hours thirty.

I have also enjoyed doing some things that I used to do, but which were more difficult in Sydney.

Tuesday evening I went to the Armidale & District Historical Society meeting to hear Bill Crocker talk on “Working on the railroad; memories of a young teacher.”  Having finished Teachers’ College, the 19 year old Bill’s first posting in 1947 was to the provisional school at Kinalung, a small railway settlement near Broken Hill on the line between Menindee and Broken Hill. There were two gangs there, each responsible for maintaining a portion of the line. Their children plus a few from neighboring properties who came in by horseback provided the pupils.

Bill is a skilled raconteur, telling a string of stories that brought railway life in that small community and in Broken Hill and Menindee vividly alive. I was going to take notes, I wish I had, but the bloody pen ran out as soon as Bill started talking. Looking later, I found one nice story on Kinalung and school, if earlier than Bill’s time. I also found that Kinalung was probably a composite element in Tiboonda, a small town that appears in Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel, Wake in Fright. I filed some thoughts away for later reference.

Friday I went to a humanities seminar at the University presented by Professor Graham Maddox, “Rome as a model of Republican Liberty?” Graham focused on the constitutional views of Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner including their views on liberty. Both claim linkages back to republican Rome. There were, he suggested inconsistencies within their views and between their views and the realities of Roman history and political and constitutional expression.

This one stretched me because while I have a reasonable knowledge of Roman history, I lacked the background knowledge on certain political theories. That, of course, was partly why I went, to expand my own knowledge.

As Graham talked about their views, I was struck by the similarities between those views and some of the libertarian views I have seen expounded. I had also noticed a tendency among some libertarians to hark back to Ancient Rome. I also started seeing similarities between the arguments and those set out by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged. In the end, I asked a question about possible linkages. This was so badly worded (I was trying to articulate a very ill-formed impression) that it left both Graham and I confused!

Dissatisfied, I came home, did some quick research and put the results in the form of a draft email to Graham. I may or may not send this, I don’t want to bother him, but it has given me a possible post as well.

The next day, Saturday, I went to the official opening of Boobooks’ new sci-fi, fantasy room. They had all dressed up in costumes and had prepared a cake. They also announced new writing prizes to go to younger writers (school age, up to 28) in the New England North West area.  

You can see that I am having quite a social time, if one that fits within my particular intellectual interests. In so doing, I have met or re-met quite a few people. At the end of three weeks, I seem to have slotted right back in even though it is 23 years since we moved to Sydney.

One thing I really like is the availability of resource material linked to my particular interests. I still have my State Library reader’s card which gives me on-line access. I am a member of both the City and University libraries which have some particular collections that I am interested in. I also have access to the big collection at the heritage centre including state records and the smaller collections at the history and family history societies.

So many of the references and the source material I am interested in are not available on-line. I have already found much that I had not seen, that compliments my own collection.

On the negative side, one thing I have noticed is the aging of Armidale combined with an increase in poverty. This is partially a matter of demographics linked to structural and cultural change.

The city grew very rapidly during the fifties, sixties and seventies. Local school numbers exploded with the influx of new families. Then came the changes associated with the Dawkins education reforms, changes that in combination with centralisation of service delivery cost the city a thousand jobs in a short period. Growth went into reverse. The city hollowed out as families left.

Those in permanent positions appointed during the growth phase who have strong connections with the city have now entered retirement. They were replaced to some degree by new arrivals, although these are much more mobile with changes in tenure. The city has attracted retirees (retirement homes are a growth business) and also people with disabilities or on low incomes attracted by services and the relative availability of social housing.

These changes are very visible in the street or in the shopping centres. In Sydney I lived in Daceyville with its aging social housing and retirement populations. Here I have seen more disability chairs, more walkers, in a morning than I saw in Daceyville/Kingsford in a week or even a month.

The effect is just as pronounced in my areas of interest such as history. I find that I know all those interested, the most active. Most were history staff at UNE or the Armidale College of Advanced Education when I was a post grad student in 1981 or 82. Then there were more Australianists than the total number of history staff at UNE today. The Australian history postgrad students from Litt B up outnumber the total number of history postgrads today.

Armidale is growing again. The population has finally passed the previous peak set during the eighties. There is a vibrant cultural life, a proliferation of writers, artists, of small publishing or production houses. There are new start-ups once more. Interestingly, and this is just a perception, the growth is more city, less university focused than in the past.

I suspect that this growth has come just in time to save the place from a severe shock.  


Winton Bates said...

It was good to read this, Jim. It sounds as though your move back to Armidale has been a great success.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton and thanks. The move has been a success, although it will be clear from this blog that I am only just getting myself (well, starting to get myself!) back into gear.