Friday, December 17, 2010

Ogilvies, Wrights, social change

I am not posting today in any substantive way because my writing obsessions are elsewhere directed.

In 1923: Classical Greek in the New England countryside I mentioned in passing that I was investigating one branch of the Ogilvie Family. The trigger here was Judith Wallaces' Memories of a Country Childhood (Queensland University Press, St Lucia, 1977).

I first mentioned this book back in May 2008 in Judith Wallace's "Memories of a Country Child-hood". In February 2009, an overseas blogger (Elise) started her review of the book in this way:

This was an absolutely enchanting book. It was lent to me by a friend, who thought I might like it. I am so glad she did! Otherwise I might never have discovered it.

The basic premise of the book is summed up in the title. Judith Wallace grew up on a sheep and cattle station near Glen Innes, in New England, New South Wales. (That's New England in Australia, very different to the American one!)

I'm really struggling for words right now - it's hard to find the right words to get across the haunting, sad, but magical atmosphere contained within the pages of this book.

In his Artful Histories: Modern Australian Autobiography (University of Cambridge Press, Melbourne 1996), David McCooey uses Judith Wallace’s book as one example in his study of Australian autobiography. He writes well, capturing the key elements of the book to place them in a broader context; ideas of place and time; the elegiac nature of accounts of place; the way time weaves itself through the narrative.

McCooey also makes the point that that “Australia’s geographical and geological immensity means that the term ‘Australia’ is at best a political claim and a cultural shorthand which stands for unity, but it is a unity best expressed by the topographical beauty of the map.” To his writers, regions become little Australias.

McCooey's point is one that I have made before. Australia's sheer size and diversity means that Australians' views of their own country are varied and partial, formed by the areas they know best. This becomes concealed under national generalities, constructs that are in fact artificial because they fail to recognise regional difference. This holds in public policy as well as history.

In my present writing, I am using Judith's book to illustrate social change in New England in the period 1950-2000. To do this, I have to place her in an Ogilvie family context.

For those reading this post in isolation from my other writing, the Ogilvies were one of New England's great pastoral dynasties. I spoke a little of their background in Saturday Morning Musings - New England's Ogilvie dynasty.

As with Australian writer Judith Wright, a member of a second New England pastoral dynasty (writer Patrick White was a member of a third), the loss of the family home and property was a devastating blow. Judith Wallaces' book ends this way:

The new owners (Ilparran had been sold) never homesteaded on Ilparran and the great house, still standing in spite of the sunken foundations, stares with blind eyes over the ravaged garden.

To the Ogilvies and the Wrights, their land was central. Beyond that, they followed different paths.

The Ogilvies looked to Sydney, England and beyond that Europe. Judith Wallace's mother created an English world in a New England environment. The house itself and the surrounding gardens created a self-contained world separate from the Australian bush.

This is not a criticism. I have little sympathy, less interest, in those whose obsession with the idea of Australian identify leads them to constantly juxtapose a sense of Australianess with England and Englishness. Things were as they were.     

The Wrights were far more localised.They identified with their local area. This I do find a good thing because it meant that the Wrights contributed directly to local development in a way that the Ogilvies did not. Again, this is not a criticism of the  Ogilvie family, simply a judgement on relative regional contribution.

I will finish there. This has become a somewhat more substantive post than I had intended!

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