Personal Reflections

Monday, September 12, 2022

Family memories of Queen Elizabeth's accession to the throne and subsequent Coronation

I am of an age to remember learning to sing God Save the King at primary school, to remember books and magazine articles on the royal family including the bombing of Buckingham Palace and the role of the princesses during the Second World War.

The death of Queen Elizabeth brought many of these memories back, as well as the Coronation, the Royal Visit in 1954 and subsequent festivities and visits. At the time the Queen visited Armidale in 1970 I was already in Canberra so missed the visit there, but was invited to a gathering at the ANU Union when Charles visited there. Not that we talked. I was just in the background while he moved elsewhere in the room. 

Later I watched his wedding and also saw he and Diana pass in Sydney, My old school had links with Gordonstoun and Prince Edward, links that continue to this day.  Given all this, I thought that I would indulge myself by taking you back to the early days of Queen Elizabeth's reign where there was a family linkage. 

In 1952-1953, my grandfather David Drummond visited the UK together with Gran and Aunts Kathleen (Kay) and Margaret. Fa, I always called him Fa because I couldn't pronounce grandfather, was then Member for New England having previously been a member of the NSW Parliament and a long standing Minister for Public Instruction (Education).  

King George V1 had died in February 1952 and the new Queen while not yet crowned had already assumed ceremonial duties including on 10 June 1952 the first presentation to court of the new reign. Lady White, the wife of the High Commissioner to the UK, arranged for the Drummond girls to be presented to court. By happenstance, and as reported somewhat  breathlessly in the Armidale Express, Kay was the first deb to be presented followed by Margaret.

I was struck by the bolded reference to the elastic dress-belts as the height of fashion. They along with deb presentations were about to pass into history! Kay would teach in London, elocution and drama, at a private drama academy. 

The following photo shows the dress Kay wore at the presentation.  

On 12 July 1952, there was a garden party at Buckingham Palace. This photo shows the Drummond family arriving at the Palace for the party. 

My grandparents. Things were definitely more formal then! 

Gran with the girls after the garden party. 

And here is a family shot taken at the party.

The Drummonds were still in London at the time of the Coronation, purchasing tickets to watch.

Kay took notes and typed them up later. Her diary follows.

Page One

Page 2

Page 3 

Page 4

One week later the final event was the Derby. None of them would ever forget the the collective experience


Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Moving woes

Rusden Street, Armidale. Playing with the house.

 I hate moving. Growing up, we lived first at Rusden Street. The house no longer exists, later demolished to make was for a New England TAFE car park. I do remember the house and nearby park, although I left there when I was around four.

When I was around four, we moved to 202 Marsh Street, the place that would be home until I left for Canberra in 1967. Well, that's not quite precise. While I was away I retained my bedroom and my books and constantly came back. Much later after I married, we moved back to the old house where my girls were born. There we lived until my wife took a job in Sydney in 1996 and we all had to move. 

Bath time. Both my girls were born at Marsh Street

Since we left Armidale I have lived in seven rental properties, now moving into a house owned by my partner making an eighth move. It would be nice if this were the last.

I mention all this because I have found this last move totally disruptive, It's partly a matter of age. I can no longer lift boxes in the way I once could. I can no longer go without sleep in the way I once could. I find it harder to motivate myself yo keep going.

My books are my love, the tools of my trade. During the many moves I have been forced to reduce my book and paper collection by perhaps two thirds. Now I am still unpacking books and trying to organise myself. I got thye computer and internet set up early, but the books are still going even with reduced numbers. I guess that reduced is a relative concept. I still have thousands of books!

To most Australians, printed books have been in decline. Many Australians actually have few or no books in the house. I remember a decade or so ago on a consulting job staying with a client. With the exception of a few Reader's Digest condensed books, there was not a single book in the house. On assignment, I hadn't brought any books with me. I became frustrated at not being able to read myself to sleep!

There is a myth that today we don't need printed books. We can get everything from the internet. The reality is quite different. The internet is wonderful. I use it all the time. It gives me access to material in hours, sometimes minutes, that would have taken me weeks when I started university. This may be true, but the internet is actually very limited in scope and focus. I work in niches, areas not covered by the internet except in most peripheral ways And here I come back to my books. 

 I know that I will get though by current moving ways, that I will be able to increase my writing, but for the moments it's very hard.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

A series of unfortunate events

 While I haven't been writing here I haven't been totally distracted, just a tad preoccupied. Since I wrote Can globalisation survive current shocks? (Monday June 6 2022) the world has continued to track in unfortunate directions, reminding me of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. I hadn't thought of that series for years! Somehow, the title seemed appropriate. 

In the eight weeks since I wrote that post, omicron has extended its reach; the WHO had declared a global monkey pox emergency; foot and mouth disease has reached Bali creating Australian consternation;   the war in Ukraine grinds on through a process of bloody attrition: exports of Ukrainian wheat and oil may or may not resume; inflation has exploded round the world with most Central Banks raising interest rates; Shri Lanka has imploded with other countries possibly following the same path; general supply chain shortages continue; and global recession seems very likely.

I find myself sucked into perusal of on-going daily, even hourly, events switching from outlet to outlet. It's very distracting. I must try to do better! 

Monday, June 06, 2022

Can globalisation survive current shocks?

Malaysia has banned the export of chicken products from 1 June 2022, Introduced to protect Malaysian domestic supply, the ban covers live poultry, whole carcasses, chilled and frozen meat, chicken parts and chicken-based products, 

Variants of Hainanese chicken rice are a popular local dish in many parts of Asia and especially in Singapore where it is a ubiquitous national dish. On June 2 2022 CNN carried a story written by Heather Chen on the impact on Singapore of the Malaysian ban. 

The Malaysian ban is the latest in a series of interconnected flow-on effects that began with covid related damage to global supply chains that were then further damaged by the Russian invasion of Ukraine which restricted supply of oils and grains from those countries and led to the application of sanctions on Russian activities that further affected trade. Then add the effects of drought in parts of the world. The end result is a perfect storm now affecting billions of people. 

Australia has not been immune from these various effects. At one level the country has benefited from record prices for agricultural products, coal and natural gas. Here I couldn't help noting the irony that the controversial Adani mine whose economics were so doubted now looks like a profitable short term bet with current thermal coal prices well above break even. At a second level, consumers are suffering from continuing supply shortages in supermarkets and along supply chains with high prices for vegetables, meat and especially energy.  

It is unclear how these various effects will work themselves out. I suppose my main longer term concern lies in the impact on globalisation. Globalisation has become a hotly contested topic. From my perspective, while globalisation has had costs it has also facilitated economic growth that has lifted millions out of poverty. Now the world risks a shift back to national autarchy not seen since the great depression. 

At a personal level, I underestimated the fragility of the interconnected global economic system. To illustrate this, consider the case of Just In Time production, more recently known as Lean Manufacturing. Central to this are interconnected production systems designed to reduce inventory costs by bringing in supplies just when needed. With time, these systems became globally complex. They also became dependent on a small number of critical suppliers for products such as computer chips. Recent supply chain disruptions have have had ripple effects along these complex chains, They have also changed price relationships disrupting the financial models built into the production processes. In Australia, for example, shortages of building materials have had disruptive supply and price effects that have dramatically slowed construction including house building, adding to problems associated with labor shortages. 

I don't think anybody knows just how global systems will adjust to current shocks. The economic outlook has certainly become darker with some commentators talking about the risk of global depression. I think (hope that) these concerns are overstated, but the risks are there. 


Saturday, June 04, 2022

Saturday Morning Musings - Labor returns to power

Like many, I did not shed tears of blood over Labor's victory in the last Federal election. I felt that the Coalition Government had become stale after nine years in office. A change in Government allows for the evolution of new approaches, something that becomes increasingly difficult as governments age. I also found myself increasingly annoyed by Prime Minister Morrison's unfortunate tendency to select words, express attitudes, that reminded me of areas where I had been in disagreement with the Government's previous approach. There was a sometimes harshness, a lack of compassion, in his words that made me distrustful, that reinforced my concerns that the Coalition Government could not be trusted on matters of individual freedom. 

The success of the "Teal" independents and, to a lesser extent, the Greens surprised me. I have spent a fair bit of time involved in or observing country (now regional) politics. There the primary political context has long been between the Country now National Party, the Liberal Party and independents or, more recently, minor parties. Labor was once strong in country NSW, but that's a long time ago. While I describe my traditional affiliation as Country Party, I have voted independent on many occasions. By contrast, I have voted Liberal once in my life. In my world, the Liberals have been the traditional enemy, Labor less so. 

While some city independents have been successful, Ted Mack comes to mind, it is much harder to run an independent campaign in the city. In the country, voting populations are in discrete pockets within electorates. The city position is very different. Go to a meeting of a local group and your will find that many attendees live outside the electorate. Hand out campaign material at a railway station and you will find that a large proportion of people do not live in your electorate. In the country, a now sadly diminished local media will still carry your material. In the city, the main media is all metro focused making it hard for a candidate from a particular locality to attract coverage, 

The "Teal" position this time was different. Their local identity was important but they campaigned on two popular issues - integrity and climate change - which attracted national media coverage giving them real coverage. And they were well funded to an extent that most independents could only dream of. The end result was a considerable electoral triumph. 

There has been a lot of rather breathless coverage over the results including "Teal" and Green success and the reduction in the vote of both Labor and the Coalition.  I would agree that the results reflect continued demographic change and as well as cultural shifts. but it will be some time before sensible judgements can be made. In the meantime, I have enjoyed watching the new Government start to settle in. 

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Saturday Morning Musings -times of turmoil

The last few years have been truly tumultuous. Drought was followed by fire and then covid and floods. Internationally, growing tensions with China were followed by the Ukraine War. The global rules based order established after the Second World War has progressively broken down. The integrated globalised trading and financial system that helped drive world economic growth lifting millions out of poverty has been fractured by the combination of covid restrictions with political and economic tensions including sanctions. The economic policy framework that emerged during the 1970s in many countries including Australia with its emphasis on freer trade, reduced government, deregulation and privatisation has been swept away as governments responded to global changes and to the need to respond at domestic level to the damage done by the covid epidemic and associated restrictions. And now we have the apparent re-emergence of 1970s style stagflation, the phenomenon that helped destroy the old concept of the welfare state.

In all this, Australia has been relatively lucky as it was during the Global Financial Crisis and for somewhat similar reasons. China's wolf diplomacy with its restrictions on Australian trade has had limited economic impact in part because other markets emerged, more because China itself has continued large scale purchases of iron ore. While our education exports have been badly hit by covid restrictions and by clumsy government policy responses, these losses have been offset by booming energy sales including coal. Our primary products have benefited from higher prices and from increased output as the big dry ended. While some shortages have emerged in supermarkets, while rising food prices have placed strains on household budgets,  Australia has been insulated from the food shortages appearing in some other parts of the world. While sometimes clumsy, Australian Government(s) policy responses have been generally effective in managing the rolling crises. 

As a policy analyst, I find it difficult to  determine the relative longer term importance of the changes that have been taking place. Like many Australians, I am a little shell-shocked by the pace of change, 

Each crisis has had different interacting elements that were seen as important at the time but were then somewhat overtaken by subsequent events. China, the drought, fires, covid, floods and the war in Ukraine were all dramatic events attracting saturation hour by hour, even minute by minute, coverage before being overtaken by the next drama. And then below the main headlines other important events were occurring that were effectively swamped, ignored. In all this, I think that we can say that a new world is emerging although the details are still unclear.      

Monday, March 14, 2022

Creating texture in writing and related matters: a note

While I claim to be a writer, my writing scope is really quite constrained, non fiction with an analytical and predominantly historical focus. I try to write with clarity, I try to be interesting, but my writing is still constrained by its form and purpose. I have also experimented with different forms with varying success including poetry (disastrous), short stories (just okay) and memoir (reasonable) as a way of varying my writing style. Because I lecture as well as write, the two forms are very different, I have acquired a certain facility in oral presentation.

I was reminded of all this listening to the ABC Radio National film critic Jason Di Rosso interviewing Italian-American film maker  Jonas Carpignano with a special focus on his latest film A Chiara. It was a good interview, but two things interested me in particular. 

The first was the way that Carpignano's three feature films all centred on different stories set in a single Calabrian town, Gioia Tauro. This is now Jonas's home town. In filming, he had to work in a way that would tell a story while being respectful of the local community. This required a degree of trust. I face something of the same problem, compounded by the fact that while  Carpignano's films are fiction, my writing often deals with living people or their families. 

The second was the discussion on film craft, the way in which Jonas's apparently free-flowing semi-documentary style concealed careful attention to detail in a structured approach designed to achieve his filmic objectives. In writing terms, I think of this as the creation of texture, the provision of the detail necessary to create a story.

In writing, in film, in plays, in art, indeed in all forms of performance, there is an interaction between the work and the audience. This is not a simple process. 

Consider a play. The playwright has an idea as to the story and the way it should be presented, but once completed it is out of the writer's hands. It will be interpreted by producer and cast in ways that may diverge from the author's intent. Then it will be interpreted again by the audience. Here there are in fact three works, the play as written, the play as presented and the play as interpreted by members of the audience. 

I sometimes call myself a public historian. By this I mean partly that I write from outside the academy, more that I am seeking to interest and involve a broader audience in the topics I select. Over the hundreds of columns that I have written, I am (if you like) trying to sell both history and the topics I am interested in. I regard my writing as successful it it gives my readers new insights, if it leads them to further reading or, perhaps most importantly, if it leads them to challenge me.  

Writing in this way I rarely use footnotes or identify sources, although in most cases I can if asked. This habit of mine appals some academic historians. They regard it as a professional breach. To some, the purists, the only genuine history is that based exclusively on primary sources. 

I really challenge this last view. I am fortunate to have a reasonable library including many older texts, most now consigned to the dustbin in our current digital age where only the most recent or most popular are regarded as worthy of  retention. Just because a book is older or in some way now old-fashioned does not prevent it offering insights in general or as an artefact of its time.     

I follow a somewhat different approach when writing as a professional historian, I am now seeking to advance knowledge of a particular topic. I still wish to interest, to explain, but I am now bound by the canons of history as a discipline. Here long ago I absorbed the simple message that knowledge is only knowledge if it is potentially refutable. If it cannot be refuted, at least in theory, it's more a matter of faith and belief. This means that I must present my evidence in ways that allow my evidence and arguments to be checked and challenged. 

 Looking back over my own writing, the type of issues referenced in this note have been a constant preoccupation of mine. Here are a few examples:

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The Sydney Wharf Review, tropes and good satire - even just humour

Cleaning the kitchen, I was listening to the Wharf Review on ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Radio National. For those who don't know it, the Wharf Review is something of a Sydney institution, a musical satirical review program on the events of the last year. It was a favourite of my little family. I used to listen with them, sometimes smiling, sometimes grimacing for my humour was nhot the same as theirs.

I had not had contact with the Review for many years so left it on while I cleaned the kitchen mess. Then I turned it off. A little later, I turned the radio on again, feeling that I should listen, only to turn it off after ten minutes. 

My problem was the constant repetition of  tropes designed to appeal to the particular audience that the Review attracts. It is relatively easy to achieve a laugh by exaggerating features that the audience knows and is opposed too, that are already a matter of common discussion among particular groups. I just found it boring. 

Perhaps I'm wrong, but I think that the measure of good satire is the extent to which it appeals to a relatively uninvolved audience.    

Monday, January 17, 2022

Personal reflections on the tent embassy


Activist and actor Bob Maza addresses a protest at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of Parliament House on July 30, 1972. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

A piece by Bronwyn Carlson and Lynda-June Coe in the Conversation, A short history of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy – an indelible reminder of unceded sovereignty, took my mind back.

The Tent Embassy began on 26 January 1972. I was working in Treasury at the time, just across from the Embassy. I frequently walked past it on my walks or when visiting Parliament House. The thing that stands out in my memory now is that I had no idea of its significance. There was a total void between me and the Embassy, a void of ignorance. 

Growing up in Armidale, there were very few Aboriginal people. The big influx began about 1956 with in-migration, leading to the creation of an Aboriginal camp on the town dump. I remember that, I remember the creation of the reserve, the last created by the old Aboriginal Welfare Board. I remember the construction of new galvanised homes leading to the application of the name Silver City. I remember some of the activities carried out through Chirch and University groups to try to improve conditions. I knew some of the older families by name. I even knew some Aboriginal history up to the European invasion and had read anthropological and historical studies. I had heard a young Charles Perkins speak to UNE students at a crowded UNE Union meeting. And yet I knew nothing about certain key aspects of Aboriginal history post 1788.

At the time, discussion on Aboriginal issues tended to be dominated on one side by Northern Australia, on the other by the emerging interest in massacres and frontier violence. I already knew a little about the second, but there was nothing on post frontier warfare Aboriginal history in NSW and especially in Northern NSW where my particular interests lay. 

In 1966 when I read Malcolm Calley's thesis on the Bandjalung I was interested and surprised by the continued existence of Aboriginal culture including language, but I had no context to set that into. 

It would be a number of years before my own research started to paint a picture, more years before I actually met a large number of Aboriginal people through my work with the NSW Aboriginal Housing Office. And yet, even now, I don't think that we have a basic foundation text on Aboriginal history at least so far as NSW is concerned. I think that's a problem.  

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Covid woes - virtual lockdowns

 My 4 January post, Covid woes - further failures in public policy, provided a personal perspective on what I saw as the growing mess that Australian covid policy had become. Two pieces in the Conversation provide a further perspective:

Last year, the term stroll-out was added to the Australian lexicon to describe the early stages of the vaccine roll-out in the country. Now we have virtual lockdown, the idea that current Government measures have created the same effect as previous physical lockdowns. Our leaders wanted to open up, but in bungling the approach they have effectively closed or at least slowed both economic and social activities. 

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Covid woes - further failures in public policy

2021 saw the lowest number of posts on this blog since it began. That downturn is reflected across across all my writing. It's not just covid, although that has been a very major factor.

One of the most difficult things about this pandemic has been the uncertainty, uncertainty accentuated by constant shifts in rules and regulations and in advice further compounded by lack of transparency. Now I feel that the wheels have come off in no uncertain fashion. Covid cases have exploded, testing systems are collapsing, our health staff at all levels are exhausted, contact tracing is overwhelmed, the need for workers to quarantine has affected production at all levels, the pressures are forcing daily changes in the interacting rules between jurisdictions, while jurisdictions have stopped providing information that we used to rely on. .

I need to write a proper policy piece on all this. For the moment, I want to make a few short comments from a personal perspective. 

The decision by the new NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet to abolish restrictions in NSW in a single swoop rather than a more staged testing way has been an unmitigated disaster, one that has actually had the opposite effects that he intended. Life including economic activity has actually become more difficult, not easier. It's not all his fault. The now abolished Queensland requirement that people must undergo PCR tests before entering Queensland added something like a third to the load of an already overstretched NSW testing system, while decisions at Federal level that rendered the supply of booster shots unprofitable for GPs and pharmacies reduced supply availability just at the time that rule changes increased demand.

Both Premier Perrottet and Prime Minister Morrison talk about individual responsibility. In fact, the interacting changes have had the opposite effect. 

I visited one of the local shopping centres the day that both masks and QR code registration ceased to be mandatory. Less than 10% of customers, perhaps 20% of staff, had masks on. I think that people just suddenly relaxed. As covid cases spread across Northern NSW including Armidale, mask wearing came back before it and QR check-ins became mandatory once more. 

The spread in cases coincided with changes to the information provided by NSW Health and by Hunter New England Health. Information on cases is now restricted to local government areas, while the previous venue information is no longer provided. Instead, we are meant to rely on notifications from Service NSW to warn us, notifications that have struggled as the contact tracing system came under increasing strain. 

I have received one such notification informing me that on 13 December I had signed into Tamworth Base Hospital on or around the same time as a covid infected person and that I should monitor for symptoms and get tested if they emerged.. Oddly, I was visiting someone in Tamworth sitting by their bed when I received the notification. Because I hadn't seen it before, I asked the doctors who were present about the notice. We discussed it briefly. Later they actually came back to see me to find out more since they had not heard about the case, but by then I had driven back to Armidale. 

The next day when I drove to Tamworth I was not allowed to enter the hospital because a code red had been declared across all NSW hospitals barring visitors, so I drove back to Armidale. I was annoyed. Apparently, it had come into effect at 5pm the night before, but communications about the matter had been poor among staff and patients. Patients had not been told, so could not alert visitors. This was happening as the mask/QR rules were relaxed. Later, a code yellow was apparently declared as the hospital struggled to manage the combined effects of covid and other workload. This included at least one covid case among staff in the ward I had been visiting. All patients were covid tested, while staff were forced into full protective equipment. 

I have not needed to have a covid test myself, which is just as well since PCR testing facilities were limited over the Christmas break, while delays in getting results increased  We have all been told to use home based rapid antigen tests (RAT) in place of or in combination with PCR tests. This came as PCR tests including those mandated by Queensland for entry to the state (negative test no later than 72 hours before entry, adding about a third to the NSW testing load) buckled. The replacement of RAT tests for PCR had the inevitable effect of exploding demand for RAT tests that could not be met from available supply. Many of the FB groups that I am a member of and not just in Armidale have been full of requests for information about availability of both PCR and RAT tests not just for people who want to travel but also to meet occupational requirements and health concerns. 

As an aside, and this bears upon the question of individual responsibility, youngest and her partner live in Lake Macquarie where case numbers are relatively high, while Adrian runs a cellar door that has stayed open. They both visited Sydney for Christmas, while Clare visited me after Christmas. They were able to obtain supplies of RAT tests earlier in December and have used them, for example, to test before going to Sydney and after coming  home. That is a case of individual responsibility, but you can only do it if you have access to the tests and can afford to buy them. PCR tests are free, but RAT tests have to be purchased. 

Much stress is now being placed upon booster shots. My second shot was 19 July. When the time requirement for booster shots was cut from six to five months, I became eligible for a booster on 19 December. However, the time requirement for boosters was then cut further from five to four months with a further cut to three months to come in later, Meantime, vaccination for kids aged 5-11 comes into effect from January. So we have a very large boost in demand, Vaccines are available, but the logistics of actually getting them to people has become a real issue. I was not able to get my booster shot before Christmas and will now have to scrabble to find a place with some places not taking bookings until early February.

I am very happy to take individual responsibility, but it's hard to do so when information is restricted, when PCR tests are under strain, when RAT tests are expensive or not available and the availability of boosters uncertain. My mood was not helped by NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard's comment that we all had to accept that we were all going to get the omicron variant. Thank you. /

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Kitchen Garden

 I was flaneuring around Mosman, one of those leafy North Shore Sydney suburbs. looking at architecture and the pattern of life. The thing I most noticed was the absence of kitchen gardens. Houses had grown and gardens shrunk to mere decoration or, at best, extensions of indoor living. My mind was cast back…..

 In January 1885, Albert Wright purchased Kangaroo Hills, now Wongwibinda, in the Falls country east of Armidale. It had all been done in a rush.

They had been living at Nulalbin outside Rockhampton. The year before eldest son Bertie had died after a lingering illness. The death came as a shock, and Albert and wife May decided that they must find a home in a more temperate climate.

They left Nulalbin in December 1884 for Bickham, a Wright family home in the Hunter Valley. In early January Albert went north, buying Kangaroo Hills on the spot. At end January, the whole family shifted to the new property.

Establishing the kitchen garden

One of Albert’s first acts was to plant a large vegetable garden near the new house being built for his family. This was a common pattern on properties, for the kitchen garden and associated fruit trees were critical to the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. It was a day’s ride to Armidale, so you could hardly buy there on a daily basis.

In town, people had more choices. Even so, most people had vegetable gardens, while much of the fruit and vegetables they might buy were grown locally. The Chinese market gardeners with their plots spread along the local creek were once a common feature in most Northern towns, part of the often unrecognised Chinese thread in the history of New England dating from the later 1840s.

There was much emphasis on the importance of the home garden for financial, health and indeed aesthetic reasons. The CWA (Country Women's Association) cookery book, long a kitchen bible, put it this way:

Home is not a Home without a garden. Plant one, and it will repay you.

Every wise housewife knows the value of the kitchen garden. It is a money saver, and a pleasure at all times. Nearly all vegetables are of easy culture. All soup vegetables should be grown at home. It is a great comfort to slip out and cut your own home requirements in your own back yard.

Digressing, Masterchef has been a popular Australian cooking show in which contestants compete by cooking particular dishes for judgement by an expert panel. Back in 2010, the challenge set for contestants in one show was to cook certain recipes from the CWA cookbook - scones, lamingtons, jam, a fruit cake - and then serve to 100 CWA ladies. An experienced CWA judge critiqued their efforts.

I was watching it with my family. Now we knew the CWA pretty well and had eaten a lot of country cooking. My then wife also learned to bake from her nan. I guess because of all this, we had a feel as to what might happen.

These contestants had cooked in challenge after challenge, managing often complicated dishes that I could never cook. There had been individual failures, but overall the results had been good. This time, with few exceptions, they bombed. It's just not as easy as it seems.

As the contest proceeded, I noticed that eldest had got out the cookbook I had given her. “I feel like scones”, she explained. Mixing bowls and ingredients appeared on the coffee table. With guidance from her mum, the process continued.

After the show finished, we discussed it over scones, blackberry jam and whipped cream. Our feeling was CWA 8, Masterchef 2. I digressed, but they were nice scones!

Developing a proper home garden was not always an easy task. At Kangaroo Hills, the spring of 1885 was a very good one. Albert planted onions, cabbages, lettuces, pumpkins, beans and fruit trees. Then came a sudden frost: “It seems useless”, a dispirited Albert wrote, “to try to grow anything in such a climate.” Nevertheless, he persevered, learning from experience.

Albert’s problems were not unusual. New England is marked by great variation in soils, temperature and rainfall from coastal subtropical to high country to semi-arid. The new settlers had to learn what would grow best, how to grow it. In many places, water had to be carefully rationed. Nevertheless, they persevered and finally succeeded. They learned how to create micro-climates through location, wind-breaks and walls. They also learned when to plant things to best effect..

Managing the kitchen garden

A reasonable size home garden could be a complex operation involving all the family. Herbs - lavender, thyme, marjoram, mint, sage, parsley and rosemary - were usually grown near the back door so that they could be easily picked for domestic purposes.

Further out were the vegetables grown in cycles depending on the growing season. Standard vegetables included onions, carrots, potatoes, peas and beans, sweet corn, pumpkins, lettuce, sometimes garlic although its use was then less common, cabbages, cauliflower, tomatoes, lettuce, silver beet, beetroot, parsnips and turnips. The compost heaps could normally be found near the vegetable garden, carefully maintained to provide a steady stream of compost to the changing beds.

The garden nearly always included vines and fruit trees. And then there were the flowers grown for decoration and to supply cut flowers to the house. Mum loved her flowers. She would go out with a basket and secateurs, bringing flowers back to the kitchen table (the working centre of the house) for shaping to fit the vases.

The exact mix of garden plants varied across New England depending on the soil and climate. In the case of our home garden - a large cool climate garden - there were the ubiquitous grape vines, three apricot trees, a rather superb plum tree, an apple tree, a fig tree, gooseberries, red and black currants, strawberries and raspberries as well as flowers and lots of vegetables. Sometimes In the mornings I would go outside and pick raspberries to bring back and crush with cream and sugar. Alternatively, I would pick a jar of preserves off the shelf made with the Fowlers Vacola outfit. This was stored in the garage for use during the flush times for various local fruits. I loved the black cherries.

 Many gardens also contained a chook (poultry) yard providing fresh eggs and the sometimes fowl for dinner. In our case, the chook yard had high wire fences enclosing a properly constructed hen house with laying boxes plus a large area for the hens to roam.

Even in town, many families maintained a milker to provide milk, cream and butter. Staying at Glenroy, my aunt and uncle’s property at Kentucky south of Armidale, we used to get up early to go with Uncle Ron to see the cow milked. The milk would be brought back in a bucket and then heated gently to raise the cream that would be collected and used to make butter. In Armidale, mum would sometimes send us out to get fresh milk that came from a cow a few blocks away.

There was a clear division of labour within the garden. Prof (we all called him Prof when talking about and sometimes to him; earlier he had been called Doc by locals) was in charge of the main garden, digging the beds, planting, clearing weeds and collecting produce for the kitchen, mowing the lawns and splitting wood to feed the fires, In these roles he was assisted by old Mr Wallace who came in one morning a week.

 As children we were fascinated by Mr Wallace. He told us stories about clearing the Dorrigo scrub for timber and to open the way for farms; he told us about bank crashes and showed us an old bank note from a now defunct bank; he also explained the evils of the papacy.

Mr Wallace believed that there was a papist plot to take over the world. While leaning on his shovel, he discoursed on the wickedness of Rome, the Pope and his cardinals. We had no idea what a papist was and only a vague idea of Rome’s location. Today, it is difficult for Australians to understand the depth of the sectarian divisions that marked much of Australia’s history, although conspiracy theories remain well entrenched.

Prof’s garden duties also included collecting the manure from the chook yard and distributing it across the garden beds or to feed multiple compost heaps. He was also responsible for trimming the hens’ wings to stop them flying, for collecting eggs and for preparation of the older birds for the table. This involved catching the bird and then chopping its head off on a chopping block kept for the purpose. This led the bird to run round in circles, something captured in the Australian phrase to run round like a headless chook (or chicken) meaning activity carried out in an uncontrolled or disorganised way without purpose. The bird was then plucked and its innards removed before it was ready for cooking.

This was not the only time that we saw animals killed for food. Apart from rabbits shot or trapped, some of my friends made their pocket money from trapping rabbits for supply to the local freezer, we also watched sheep being slaughtered for house meat on Glenroy, An older ewe near the end of its wool growing life was selected. This was then killed by a knife through the mouth into the brain. The animal was then gutted and skinned before being hung up for butchering.

As children, we took all this for granted. Today when I think of killing hens, sheep or the goats I I would quite like to keep, I feel a little squeamish. Our meat now comes neatly packaged. The actual act of killing seems remote, far removed, sanitised. I have to remind myself that it is part of life.

With the passage of time, maintenance of the chook yard became too time-consuming for our father. The chooks were removed, leaving the yard as part of our playground.

Harvest Time

The reliance on locally produced produce created a pattern of seasonal gluts and shortages. As children we knew every fruit tree in the immediate area, knew when they were coming into fruit. We also picked and ate from the garden, new peas, tomatoes, fresh beans and little cucumbers. No problem in getting children to eat fruit or vegetables.  Somehow things that we picked ourselves were just that much more satisfying.

For adults, hard work was involved. When produce was plentiful, people bottled, preserved or prepared for storage in cool, dry, dark places. It wasn’t just produce from the home garden. Fruit and vegetables now in abundant supply and therefore cheap were also purchased or given by relatives or friends. There was a considerable bottling ritual, a production process. The bottles were sterilised, the fruit cooked, the tomato relish made, the jams created, providing a steady stream of produce for the rest of the year. Some of the tastes were wonderful. Many of us would kill today for a jar of Aunt Kay’s tomato relish!

There have been many changes in Australian diet over the decades, changes that partially reflect changing fashions and the availability of food stuffs but also the tools available for cooking. Cooks have always had to match what they can do to the available equipment.

In our case, we had a substantial fuel stove that not only provided constant hot water but a substantial range of cooking options. It could be a bit cranky; you had to be able to judge the temperature, but that came with experience. The firebox was on the right. The temperature of the whole stove could be controlled by varying the intensity of the fire through a combination of fuel and dampers. The hot air from the fuel box ran along the top of the stove to the chimney on the left.

A hot plate ran the length of the stove with heat gradually diminishing towards the chimney. This allowed food to be cooked and then moved to a cooler place to set or stay warm. The ever present kettle could be moved from the left of the stove to the hotter right where it quickly boiled. The oven was on the left with a warming oven below, allowing food to be kept warm or plates to be warmed before serving.

Armidale can be warm in summer, cold in winter, In summer, the kitchen could be warm indeed with the stove adding to outside heat, leaving mum hot and sweaty. In winter, the stove came into its own drawing people into the kitchen warmth. This gave rise to the New England flick as the girls stood with their back to the stove, flicking up their skirts to allow the heat to circulate.  

Having harvested, we ate. The food we ate was influenced by what we had in the garden, what had already been harvested and stored, the more limited foods available locally in the grocery stores, butchers and greengrocers.

The standard main meal was two courses, three for bigger meals. The central dish was a meat dish presented in different ways usually with two to three vegetables drawn from the garden. Growing up in sheep country, sheep meat was a staple. Beef, the major meat across Australia, was less common because it was more expensive, chicken less common still. This was followed by a desert often of bottled fruit, sometimes with fresh cream. In some cases soup preceded the main meal.

The exact mix of meals depended on what was available. Soups, stews and casseroles were common because these made best use of available produce. I still love the taste of fresh field mushrooms, of rich casserole sauces.

There was great variety in homemade soups. Some soups like chicken, often made from the remains of a bird previously killed, were relatively light, as were the beef broths served to invalids. Some soups were major meals in their own right, served with crusty bread.

Today we waste much food. The earlier cook-books had many recipes to take advantage of left-overs. There were good, practical, reasons for this. Food took a much higher proportion of family income than it does today.

The roast chook became soup, the vegetables went into bubble and squeak, the roast lamb or beef was minced for a new dish. I still miss the cast iron hand-mincer I inherited from my parents. I don’t know what happened to its innards, they went missing in one of our many moves. It was actually much more efficient (and easier to clean) than modern devices.

The pattern with other meals was a little different. Breakfast was generally a bigger meal than it is today. As children, we normally had porridge or wheat bix with hot milk followed by a hot dish, often bacon or some form of eggs or, more rarely steak. For a period modelling my Scottish grandfather,  I ate my porridge with salt and cream. Later when things were busier, I would go outside and pick raspberries to bring back and crush with cream and sugar. Alternatively, I would pick a jar of preserves of the shelf or from the fridge and have it with cream.

Lunch, by contrast, was far more pedestrian depending on just what we were doing. In fact, lunch did not have a clear pattern because it varied so much depending on the main mea.. On Sundays then, as indeed now, lunch was often a roast dinner. The Sunday roast remains an enduring tradition in many Australian households. Where, as in this case, lunch was actually dinner, tea was a relatively light meal.

There were then no school canteens, nor were there the bars and other convenience snacks that today dominate the supermarket shelves. School lunches were sandwiches, a piece of fruit, often a piece of cake, and a drink. Looking back at some of the reminiscences from the 1950s, the memory of soggy tomato sandwiches seems to be a constant theme!

There were other meals and snacks, of course. The pattern here varied from family to family depending on income and taste.Then, as now, busy parents sometimes resorted to the very quick and easy. This was where tinned food came in handy. Tinned spaghetti or baked beans on buttered toast or tinned soups with bread fingers were common choices.

A Child’s playground

From a kid's perspective, one of the greatest things about the home garden was the way it provided trees to climb, places to hide, spots to dig in or to build camp fires. We were expert in fires, how to start them in the best way, how to build fireplaces. Potatoes cooked in the ashes were eaten, charcoal and all, with butter with the melting butter running down fingers. Nostalgia!

Beyond home, we also had access to our grand parents’ garden just a block away at 89 Mann Street, a large Federation style house. This was a much bigger garden.

Mann Street is one of Armidale’s grander streets, As the small city expanded, local businessmen, professionals and graziers started to build bigger houses on South Hill, first in Barney, then Brown and finally Mann Street. These houses were on big blocks looking north down to the shopping centre and then Dumaresq Creek, the small creek wandering through the centre of the town.

The blocks were large, often including stables, servant’s quarters, chook pens and cow byres for the milking cows, These features have disappeared now with subdivision, but Barney, Brown and Mann Street remain the heart of the Victorian city that is still one of Armidale’s architectural treasures.

Unusually, 89 was built from weatherboard rather than the more normal Armidale blue brick. The front of the house with its sweeping steps faced Dumaresq Creek. The back of the house with its formal garden and pine trees faced Mann Street. With time, this original distinction between back and front became confused. To us and indeed all visitors, the old back was now the front, the old front the back. It would be years before I discovered the reason

There were two garages facing Mann Street, one on each side of the block. At the Northern back (front!) of the house’ a hedge divided the main garden from the back yard. Beyond the hedge lay the tennis court, the kitchen garden and the old cow byre now incorporated in the chook yard. Our kelpie Rover used to love herding the chooks. He would divide them into two groups based on breed and then sit panting in the middle between the groups, satisfied with his efforts. For a period, there were also a few sheep really kept for sentimental purposes.

With the exception of the tennis court, we rarely went beyond the dividing hedge because this part of the garden was less interesting. From a young age, our grandfather and aunts taught us to play tennis using wooden rackets dating back to the 1930s. I have dreadful hand-eye coordination, but with practice became a reasonably competent player.

Mann Street was especially good for hide and seek because of its sheer size. The pedestals at the base of the front stairs acted as home base. The objective was to get there before the person who was in and then count 1.2,3 home. My favourite hiding spot was the roof of one of the garages where I could see the whole yard and thus sneak down to get to home first.

Our particular friends were the Halpin twins who lived half a block away. Father Bruce was a director of Richardson’s, the local departmental store, while mother Vee was a long standing friend of mum’s. We spent much time with them in our respective gardens and roaming the streets.

Growing up, my daughters loved the story of the three morning teas. We would start at 202 Marsh Street for the first, then to the Halpins for our second, finishing up at Mann Street for the third. 

The kitchen garden’s decline

The kitchen garden has been in sad decline. The gardening folk memories that we used to absorb from our parents have also declined as a consequence. The decline began slowly and then accelerated during the busy 1980s.

Walking around Armidale or Queanbeyan during the 1970s,you would still see kitchen gardens everywhere. Queanbeyan, the NSW town just across the border from the Australian Capital Territory where I was then living, was a fascinating place with a large immigrant community that had come to work on the Snowy Hydroelectric Scheme or on the building of Canberra. They brought with them farming and gardening techniques from Eastern and Southern Europe where the home garden had been a way of life. This was industrial scale kitchen gardening where the garden and associated livestock provided much of the food over the year.

It also provided the base for a range of home-made alcohols that could be a real trap if you were involved in local politics as I was at the time. That one drink for hospitality purposes could extend and be repeated on calls elsewhere, creating a degree of unsteadiness by the end of that day’s visits.

By 2000, the decline in the kitchen garden was largely complete. Many things contributed to that collapse. Neighbours and councils began to object to the noise and smells associated with the garden, including the omnipresent hens. Blocks became smaller, flats or townhouses more common. More people rented. The supermarkets brought a wider range of cheaper foodstuffs, reducing the incentive to garden. Time became more precious as two income families tried to balance the demands of more complex lives.

Can the kitchen garden come back? I think not, although the increased interest in sustainability and the rise in community gardens do hold out some hope. The difficulty is that these things appeal to particular niche views and lifestyles whereas the old kitchen garden was an integral element in normal life.