Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Literature, locale and license

Back from Armidale Sunday. It was too difficult to post while I was away. Then yesterday a fair bit of wheel spinning and catching up.

I really enjoyed the trip. However, as is so often the case with research, I ended up with more questions than answers!

One difficulty of trying to write a general history of an area, in my case the broader New England, lies in the decision as to what to include, exclude. Here I complicated my life by spending some time with John Ryan.

John came to the English Department at the University of New England in 1959, and is still teaching on a part time basis. That's a very long time. It's a bit frightening to think that I have known John since 1963.

Actively involved in university extension, John has also written extensively on things Northern. Here he defines just one of his interests as New England Heritage matters, especially the writings, customs, legends and other  folk materials relating to the Northern third of New South Wales.

There were two main areas in my discussion with John that drew out my own lack of knowledge.

The first was the role of the University extension offices. These were established in Lismore, Grafton, Port Macquarie and Tamworth, providing University outreach at a time when far fewer options were available. Of course I knew the story in a general sense, but I had not realised some of the local impacts.

I knew of the role that the central campus had played in Aboriginal studies, for example, but did not know of the role played at local level by people such as the Lismore based R M (Max) Praed. In early 1974, for example, the Lismore and Grafton offices combined with Federal funding to run a four day workshop     

in human relations and community organization ... open to Aboriginal people who wish to improve their leadership skills and develop an understanding of the changes taking place in Aboriginal society.

Unlike previous workshops where most participants had been men and women involved in voluntary organizations or in full-time positions in government and private agencies concerned with Aboriginal Affairs, this one made specific provision for inclusion of Aboriginal young people.

Of itself, not such a big deal perhaps. However, if you look at the planning committee you get a feel for the spread of interests:  

  • Ted Fields, Aboriginal Field Officer, Credit
    Union League.
  • Ray Kelly, Aboriginal Research Officer, National
    Parks and Wildlife Service.
  • Bob Walford, Field Officer, Aboriginal Tutorial
    Scheme, Armidale and President Armidale
    Aboriginal Association.
  • Terry Widders, Secretary, Commission on
    Aboriginal Development, Australian Council of
  • Lilla Watson, University Student, Brisbane.
  • Frank Wigham (Workshop Director), Department
    of University Extension, University of New
    England, Grafton.
  • Dr Ned Iceton, U.N.E. Department of University
    Extension, Armidale.
  • Max Praed, U.N.E. Department of University
    Extension, Armidale.

There are two major sub-texts here: one is Aboriginal advancement, the second a broader one linked to the introduction of University education to people who had had no previous direct contact with tertiary education.

The second area where discussions with John revealed my own lack of knowledge lay in the field of writing itself. I have often commented on the number of writers with New England connections, but did not realise that I had barely scratched the surface. John pointed me towards North Coast writers and literary traditions that I was simply unaware of.

A little later I acquired a copy of His Tales From New England (2008), a series of essays on various writers with New England and especially Tablelands connections. Some I knew, some I did not. Even for those I did know, I learned new things. There is almost an embarrassment of riches.

In 1974, the publication of Death of An Old Goat in the British Collins Crime Club format launched Robert Barnard's international crime writing career. The plot deals with the attempts by a young English lecturer Bob Bascomb to assist police in solving the apparently motiveless murder of a recently arrived visitor to the Department of English at the University of Drummondale.

Drummondale is, of course, Armidale, while Bascombe is based in part on Barnard himself. Barnard arrived in Armidale early in 1961 as an English lecturer, leaving at the end of 1965 to take a post at the University of Bergen in Norway. While in Armidale, he married local girl Mary Tabor, a graduate librarian with a degree in French and English.

The book is a sometimes very funny, satirical and a somewhat cruel picture of life in Armidale and at the university in the 1960s. It is especially funny in places to those who know Armidale because of the tendency to play spot the person.

Clearly Barnard's book provides one picture of life, but it was only a partial picture and needs to be balanced with other accounts. This was, for example, the period of university out reach that I described earlier. 

I have at least read Death of an Old Goat. However, the same cannot be said for all the others discussed by John Ryan. He discusses ten writers in all, in some cases with multiple books with New England connections. In some cases I have not read the books at all, in other cases not for a long while.

As you might expect, there are links and cross-links. I will explore these properly later on my New England blogs. What I would like to show is how literature, locale and sometimes license interact with history; it is a story of writers, but also of relations between writers and their environment.  

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