Thursday, May 27, 2010

Regional traditions in Australian culture

Too much serious political stuff recently on this blog, at least for me!

Just at the moment I am wrestling with one of my periodic topics, the relationship between geography and life and the way we see the world. The trigger in this case is, as is often the case, my research into New England history.

I don't think that Australian history is especially well served by its focus on national history because it ignores variation. The cultural histories of Sydney and Melbourne, for example, are not the same. Both link to different social structures and patterns of life.

Why, for example, was the left stronger in cultural terms in Melbourne rather than Sydney, whereas the right was more dominant in political terms in Melbourne?

My feeling is that this links to the structure of society. Melbourne was more rigidly stratified than Sydney, making cultural activities a more important form of alternative expression. Yes, a gross generalisation I know, but one (I think) not without merit.

To the degree that Australian historians have been concerned with regional variation in cultural activities, their focus has been on differences between the main capital cities.

Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane are very different cities, remarkably different if you stand back and consider them against a backdrop set by so much writing that presents Australia in terms of standard national trends or patterns. Still, the differences have been recognised and indeed play themselves out today in terms of, for example, tourism and city promotion. These promotional activities focus on and try to present differences.

Sydney may be ranked above Melbourne in international livability rankings, but pretty much everybody I know outside Melbourne ranks that city ahead of Sydney in lifestyle terms. It's a marketing triumph.

Outside the metros, there has been very little writing that I know of on regional cultural variation. Yet the work that I am doing on New England suggests the presence in this area at least of a distinct if varied cultural tradition.

Just to put a rough scale on this, I suspect that there are more literary works (fiction, poetry etc) being published each year by Armidale writers alone than the total Australian output of equivalent works seventy years ago.

The definition and analysis of cultural and especially literary traditions is a complicated business. It involves the identification of patterns that then themselves feed back into the tradition. The observer influences the observed.

Earlier New England historiography had a strong political, institutional and economic focus. There was very little such writing before the establishment of the New England University College in 1938. Those specifically New England histories were generally local celebrations; the jubilee of this, fifty years since that.

With the establishment of the College, local and regional histories began to expand through monographs, theses, articles and books. This writing peaked around the bicentenary and then went into decline as historical fashions shifted. By the 1990s, very little was being written.

Interest in New England cultural history first really emerged at the start of the eighties when Michael Sharkey and Julian Croft, both distinguished writers in their own right, started the basic process of documenting writers with New England connections. Both had political (ideological?) as well as literary reasons for so doing, for this was the time that the Armidale poets were attempting to establish themselves as a credible alternative voice to what they saw as the dominance in power as well as intellectual terms of the Sydney and especially Balmain push.

There was then a gap, before a renewed interest led by people such as John Ryan (Ryan had been writing throughout) and Alan Atkinson led to new writing. By 2006 when High Lean Country was published, sufficient time had passed that Julian Croft was able to reflect on the history of modern New England, especially Tablelands and Armidale, writing.

Julian pointed to two key themes.

The first was the writer in a new land. Some New England writers, Judith Wright is an example, had grown up there and in that sense wrote as an insider. To the degree that I can be classified as a writer, I do too. By contrast, many New England writers and especially those from Armidale were new arrivals. Their writing records their response to a new place.

The second was the the juxtaposition of the very different worlds of coast, tablelands and slopes and plains. Each influenced writing. However, the tablelands as what Julian calls the vestibule, a distinct world but also the point from which you could go east and west, forms a central unifying element.

I am at the stage now that I have sufficient knowledge to start capturing and building on the New England cultural tradition. I do wonder, however, just how much exists in other major regional areas that I know nothing about.

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