Sunday, December 08, 2013

Wright, Newman and the nature of individual contribution

While Denis Wright's death was not unexpected, it still came as something of a shock. Meantime, there has been a race in Tamworth to recognise gravely ill local historian Dr Warren Newman as a Freeman of the city before his death. They made it, but only just

On twitter, Kate Doak wrote: "Feeling positively shattered right now…. Just heard from @SatanicBambi that my friend & Uni mentor @deniswright passed away today. :’(." The Northern Daily Leader wrote on Dr Newman

HE was gravely ill in hospital last night but his friends and civic leaders were praying the noted historian Warren Newman will be able to accept the highest honour Tamworth can bestow on a person at a special dedication ceremony this morning.

The man who has become the most recent and most dedicated custodian of our history will be made a Freeman of the City at a hospital bedside sitting today in a race against time to honour his services while he is still able to appreciate the fuss and fanfare.

Two men, both historians, whose work touched people if in different ways. The words that Shakespeare put into the mouth of Mark Antony are often quoted:

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;

Recognising the irony, I don't think that's right. The good lives on, even if we cannot always see it. Evil does too, but it is actually more likely to be interred with the bones. The scars continue, of course, but in the end, evil becomes a lesson on not what to do. Good is more subtle, less seen.P1010005 2 

This is an inscription from an Armidale monument. The plaque is already marked, damaged, starting to fade, the person to be forgotten. Still, I love those words.

Warren Newman and Denis Wright. I am not sure that they were dreamers of dreams in the grand sense, but both focused on making a contribution now, both had a broader idea, both took pleasure from what they did, from making a contribution now.

We live in a fairly self-centred world, one where success is measured (and measurable) by immediate achievement. Can I become a board member, a CEO, or just wealthy?

I'm not blind to that allure. However, one thing that I am conscious of as an historian is the enduring nature of human contribution. I am not talking of big picture stuff, but the way that individuals contribute. I suppose that I am especially conscious of this because so much of my historical research is at local or regional level. By its nature, this tends to highlight individual endeavour.

All human activity and institutions are ephemeral. The forces of entropy are strong. As the span covered by any history increases, individual contribution becomes less visible, civilisations rise and then fall, wars that tore civilisations or communities apart diminish to pages or even paragraphs. Things that appear stable, fixed, secure over generations, vanish in chaos.

Does this make individual contribution less important? I don't think so, for in the end that, love and compassion are all we have. Our attempts to create order and continuity, to contribute, must fail in the end, but they are none the less important for all that.    

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