Saturday, March 29, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - literature, locale and license

Photo: New England's North West - drought.

As so often happens, a discussion with Neil has crystallised thought on some related issues that I have been musing about over the last few years.

The trigger was a post I wrote on the New England Australia blog, New England poet Peter Skrzynecki's Summer in the Country.

In turn, this led Neil to feature the post in his Friday poetry series, Australian poem 2008 series #10: Peter Skrzynecki "Summer in the Country" (2005), commenting that he would call Peter a Strathfield rather than New England poet. Now at one level this is right, another equally as wrong.

Peter is an interesting bloke. Quoting:
Peter Skrzynecki is of Polish/Ukrainian background and was born in 1945, in Germany, shortly before the end of World War II. He emigrated to Australia in 1949 with his parents.
After a four-week sea journey on the "General Blatchford" the family arrived in Sydney on 11 November. They lived in a migrant camp in Bathurst for two weeks before being moved on to the Parkes Migrant Centre, a former Air Force Training Base. It is this camp, in central-western New South Wales, that the poet regards as his first home in Australia.
In 1951 the family moved to Sydney, to the working-class suburb of Regents Park, where a home had been purchased at 10 Mary Street. Feliks Skrzynecki worked as a labourer for the Water Board and Kornelia as a domestic for a number of families in Strathfield. The parents worked hard and had the house paid off in four years. They grew their own vegetables and had a magnificent flower garden. Peter attended the local Catholic school, Saint Peter Chanel's and then, in 1956, began school at St Patrick's College, Strathfield, where he completed his Leaving Certificate in 1963. Brian Couch, his English teacher in those last years at school, engendered in him a love for literature.
After an unsuccessful year at Sydney University in 1964, he completed a Primary Teacher Training Course at Sydney Teachers' College in 1965-66 and began teaching in small schools in 1967. During the next three years he taught at Jeogla on the New England Tablelands, Kunghur on the Tweed River and Colo Heights in the Colo River district.
In 1968 he had recommenced his university studies as an external student at the University of New England. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1975. Postgraduate studies include a Master of Arts from the University of Sydney in 1984 and a Master of Letters from the University of New England in 1986.
From 1967 to 1987 Peter Skrzynecki taught in various primary public schools in the western suburbs of Sydney, in the inner-west and the south-west. In 1987 he started teaching at Milperra College of Advanced Education, now amalgamated into what has become the University of Western Sydney, where he is a Senior Lecturer.
Peter's very varied life experience is clearly reflected in his writing. All this means that he is first an Australian poet. He could also, because of the varying slices in his life, be claimed by various areas as one of their own.
I will discuss this in a moment But first, I need to add a post-script to the New England story.

As Neil noted in passing in our discussion thread in the comments section of his post, Summer in the Country is probably set in Parkes rather than in New England. I think that's almost certainly right and I need to make this clear. Peter is such a popular poet at school level that I do not want my post to be misread by some poor school student! I had to amend one of my posts on Judith Wright for the same reason.

To my mind, the relationship between literature and location is a complicated one.

We all read for very different reasons - to learn, for entertainment or simply because the writing speaks to us in some way. With poetry in particular, we read because the poem resonates with us.

In some cases the poem speaks to the broader human experience, in others to our individual life history, including our immediate world. As Neil said, if you look at my post, you will see that I have interpreted Peter's poem through the framework set by my own experiences.

In an earlier discussion with Neil on the decline/"decline" of Australian literature (here, here), I suggested that part of the reason for the decline (the inverted commas are Neil's response) lay in the way we had cut Australians from their past.

While this proved to be a fruitful discussion - Neil's oz lit tag was one outcome - I do not want to revisit the whole debate. Instead, I want to pose two questions: why do some things survive in history, others disappear; how does this link to culture in general, writing in particular?

Why, for example, is there such interest in fifteenth century Florence? Why has the American "west" survived? Why, by contrast, has interest in the Australian wool industry declined to the point that I felt obliged in 2006 to write a post, Why wool?, justifying some writing I had been doing?

The answer does not, I suggest, lie in historical importance.

Looking objectively, fifteenth century Florence occupies a niche in European history. The history of the American west is more important to US history, but is still only a small part of the US experience.

By contrast, wool is central to Australian history and to the Australian experience, an importance once seen in film, literature and art as well as economic life. Yet wool is vanishing, cutting us off not just from one element of our past, but also to some degree at least invalidating past cultural experience and expression. Elements like Waltzing Matilda survive as historical artifacts.

The answer, I suggest, lies in the nature of cultural constructs. Fifteenth century Florence is a cultural construct, as is the American west. Both are reinforced, constantly refreshed, by new expression. By contrast, the romance of wool - another cultural construct - has withered in the absence of re-expression.
How on earth does all this link to Peter Skrzynecki?

On the New England, Australia blog I describe its mission in these terms:

This blog is dedicated to the history, life and culture of Australia's New England, that part of Australia stretching from the Hunter Valley through to the Queensland border and incorporating the Hunter Valley, the Mid North Coast, the Northern Rivers, the New England Tablelands, Slopes and Western Plains.
While New England has still to achieve formal political identity, it has its own character and identity and is, in the words of the Australian poet A D Hope, an ideal in the heart and mind.
Now if wool is in trouble, New England is more so and at two levels.

To begin with, the Australian system is weighted against analysis or reporting at sub-state level outside the metros themselves. This is a complaint, but also (I think) an accurate comment.

When people write of Australian intellectual life or culture, for example, they generally focus first at a national level and then on the capital cities, especially Sydney and Melbourne. Links between individuals and non-metro areas are recognised, the writers Les Murray or Judith Wright come to mind, but there is not much beyond this.

This problem becomes more acute as we drill down.

There is a fair bit of local history, some like John Ferry's "Colonial Armidale" very good. There is also some good history at the smaller regional level such as High Lean County - the story of the New England Tablelands.

From my viewpoint, these histories suffer from two problems.

The first is that they have to be fitted into, even squashed into, national historical constructs. Take, as one example, the grand story of the 1880s wool and maritime strikes and the rise of the Labor Movement, a story at the centre of ALP mythology.

As John Ferry notes, this had minor impact in the Armidale area. In fact, the wool strikes were very much a regional phenomenon linked to particular industrial structures, areas and transport modes. They became a national symbol through political and historical writing. In doing so, they acquired a historical significance independent of the actual facts. We have the actual events and then the way they came to be presented.

The depression of the 1890s is another example. This depression occupies an important place in Australian history, but did it happen? The answer is yes and no.

There was a major depression in Sydney and Melbourne because those were the cities in which the preceding asset bubble was the greatest. Elsewhere, the effects were much more variable. In many places there appears to have been no depression, although the effects of the Sydney and Melbourne crash spread in ways very similar to today's US sub-prime crisis.

In the case of both the wool strikes and the 1890s depression, local writers often feel obliged to try to fit, to explain, local events in terms of these national historical constructs instead of dealing with the facts as they were on the ground.

The second problem is a more complex one.

Both Colonial Armidale and High Lean Country have, to my mind, a weakness in that they do not adequately deal with the question of broader regional linkages.

New England, Northern NSW, is a geographic entity made up of the New England Tablelands and the river valleys that spread to the east and west from the Tablelands. This is a natural geographic entity that existed in Aboriginal times and still exists today.

It is this entity that makes New England such a fascinating historical study.

If we take Aboriginal times, we can see how the Tablelands formed a marchland area. We can see how Aboriginal groups inter-related and were affected by the geographical differences within New England.

If we take modern times, we can see how the natural structure of New England dictates structures from television aggregation areas to housing divisions.

The Northern Separation, later New England New State, movements were one of the political expressions of this natural unity. The movements wrestled with differences within New England, trying to create a unity across divisions. Those divisions, and especially that between the industrial community and culture of Newcastle and the lower Hunter and the farming and grazing communities elsewhere, form one of the central themes of New England history.

Since the decline of new state agitation following the defeat in the 1967 referendum, this broader New England has declined in the public mind.

The geographical drivers are the same, but the mental constructs have changed. Herein lies the reason why local and regional histories no longer discuss broader regional linkages. The writers no longer see the significance of the broader region, even when the evidence is around them.

The New England people are the losers in all this because they have lost access to elements of their own past. In this context, Peter Skrzynecki is a useful case study.

The New England elements of Peter Skrzynecki are clearly only a small part of the man. Yet his writing does form part of the New England experience. To my mind, the fact that this part of his writing cannot be made accessible to New Englanders in a localised way is a problem.

As I was writing this post (it has taken me a long time), Neil bought up a post on the new Dictionary of Sydney. Obviously I welcome this. Yet it reminds me that what I am trying to do in my own limited way is just what the Dictionary of Sydney is doing. I am trying to record and express the broader New England history, culture and experience.

As I write, it is now 9.40 pm, the din of another party in the back yard rages in my ears.

As with previous parties, the sound system is just behind me, making it difficult to concentrate. The things that I am writing about have little relevance to these kids. Yet I would like youngest (it is her party) to have at least some access to her own history.

I fear I must give up for the night.

The following morning

This has become a very long post, but I do want to continue to tease ideas out.

All writers, bloggers included, mine their own experiences and the world around them for ideas. The ideas they select are determined by the combination of access and interest. Access determines broad parameters, interest what is selected within those parameters.

Access is critical to interest. If you cannot see something or access it in some way, then you are unlikely to be interested in it. For that reason, one of the first things that I tried to do with New England writers was simply to record some of those with New England connections.

This left open two questions: what made a writer a local or New England writer; and was there in fact a New England literary tradition?

I discussed the first question in a preliminary way in What makes a writer - or artist - a local?, stating issues without reaching a firm conclusion.

I looked at the second question in my first post on New England writers, New England Australia - Writers . I concluded that while one could show that writers had been affected by their New England experience, I doubted that there was such a thing as a New England literary tradition as such. Here I said in part:
The absence of formal structures not only impedes the development of literary traditions, but actually makes it hard for people to access the New England experience, keeping it limited and fragmented..
Each of these (New England) writers has had a different experience depending upon location and date of birth. Our inability to put them into a context, to see the commonalities and differences with other New Englanders, is a real problem. Indeed, many New England writers who have moved on would probably not see themselves as New Englanders or be able to see things outside a local context. Point local, counterpoint Sydney or national, with nothing really in the middle.
I wrote these words back in August 2006. This post is obviously a direct descendant of that earlier post. How have my views changed?

To begin with, I think that our inability to put writers into context is a national, not just a New England, problem. At Alex Buzo's funeral I was surprised that he and Bob Ellis were such close friends. I should not have been. Armidale and Lismore are different, but both had some common experiences, culminating in flight to Sydney.

The problems are also far more interesting and complex than I had realised.

I was obviously aware of the different traditions within New England, the evolution of Newcastle intellectual and cultural life is an example, but these have an interest and depth that I was not aware of.

The interactions between different groups within New England are also more complex and interesting.

John Ferry's analysis of class structures in colonial Armidale concluded that, with one possible exception, no local belonged to NSW or Australia's top power structures. I think that a somewhat similar pattern existed elsewhere.

Grafton MP John See, for example, was clearly in the top power group as a business man and politician. However, See was a Sydney person, a Sydney resident, whose New England business and political interests were run from Sydney.

Some thirty years later Northerners, the name New England was not applied to the whole area until 1931, clearly held top positions including Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Premier. The rise and then fall of New England influence is one of the themes within twentieth century New England history.

In all this, the New England that I write about is as much a cultural construct as fifteenth century Florence. In discussing New England writers, in trying to show linkages, I am in fact trying to create a new construct within a broader whole.

The challenge I face is to demonstrate validity in an environment where the very things I write about have largely disappeared from view.

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