Sunday, February 02, 2014

A fleeting visit to Armidale

In Queensland, the first person charged under the Newman Government's ant-bikie laws is a 40 year old librarian and mother of three. She faces a mandatory six months in prison if convicted.

Just back from Armidale after a short trip for a New England Writers' Centre Board meeting. Apart from the purpose of the trip itself, this was a very bookish two days.

Leaving for the airport, I grabbed Annabella Boswell's Journal to read on the plane. My recent reading has been dominated in part by a 246k strip of road.

It begins on the coast at the old penal colony of Port Macquarie. From Port, the Oxley highway runs up the mountain to Walcha. At Walcha, you leave the Oxley Highway to join Thunderbolt's Way for the run into Armidale.

  At one end, I have been reading two local histories on the early days at Port covering the penal and immediate post penal period. Towards the other end, I have been reading two family histories.

The first is the story of the Nivison family and Ohio Station,  Australian painter AStephen-King-Fallout-RGBngus Nivison is part of this family. 

In its own small way, Walcha is quite an artistic hub. In addition to Angus, Walcha sculptor Stephen King won this year's $60,000 Sydney Sculpture by the Sea prize, something of a Sydney institution. His partner, Julia Griffin, is a substantial painter, as is Ross Laurie. 

Next door to Ohio is Terrible Vale Station. The story of Terrible Vale and the Taylor family is the second of the family histories on my current reading list. The old wool road between Port and Walcha provides the unifying link.

When you read as intensively as I do in often narrow slices, the people become familiar friends, the links between them clear. This was why I wanted to read Annabella's journal again. It provides a picture of genteel life at a time when, on many accounts, there was no such thing in the NSW penal colony. The people and events she describes also overlap with the early days of both Ohio and Terrible Vale.

Disaster happened at Sydney airport. I left Annabella in the coffee shop. By the time I realised, it was just too late to go back and then back in through security. Sadly, I hastily purchased Bill Bryson's At Home: a short history of private life to read on the plane.

A piece of trivia for you from that book. With the start of the Second World War, stringent black-out conditions were imposed in Britain, plunging the country into a darkness never seen before. You could be fined even for lighting a match. There was no light. Full stop! Fatal accidents were common, leading the British Medical Journal to rP1010092emark dryly that the Luftwaffe was killing 600 people a week without dropping a bomb!  Ultimately, sanity dawned and the restrictions were tempered by common sense.

Even Armidale Is not immune from the bookshop rout, with the local Dymocks closing. Still, by comparison with most parts of Sydney, there are enough book buyers in Armidale to keep books on sale.

This is Boo Books, a second hand book shop. They have just taken over the old Commonwealth Bank building. With something like 50,000 titles, they kind of needed the space!

For someone like me, Boo Books is a treasure trove. Not unexpectedly, therefore, I went to visit as soon as I had dropped my bags. This first visit, I bought volumes two and three of New England Lives. A co-production of the University of New England and the Armidale and District Historical Society, the volumes contained short biographies of some seventeen New England figures.

I carried my new treasures the twenty or so paces required to get to the nearest coffee shop and sat down to read, Reading I thought, and not for the first time, thank heaven for the new state movement, They (we) wanted a university to preserve the culture and identity of the North. They got it, and it did.

After a rather ordinary lunch, I tried a new place, I wandered up to the Armidale Express to see my editor. University of New England VC Jim Barber had resigned during the morning. That was the big story of the day, for it was unexpected. From there to the NEWC Board meeting and then to the White Bull for dinner to write up my notes. 

Saturday dawned bright. Flying out and carrying things, I was somewhat restricted in what I could do. First I had breakfast at the Court House Cafe in the Mall. Lambs fry, bacon and gravy. I really love that meal. I have got to know the young waiter quite well; he also works at the White Bull. "We must stop meeting like this"< i said, before I tucked in.

inevitably, I wandered down town to visit Boo Books. There I could sit and read. However, this time I was going with a purpose. I wanted something, anything, on Newcastle and the coal fields. I love Newcastle, but the place is poorly served in comparison with places further north when it comes to the record of life. It's only recently that the University of Newcastle has started to fill the gap.

It's also a problem for me in writing my history of Northern NSW, for Newcastle and the Lower Hunter occupies a special place in that history, in part as a counterpoint for events elsewhere in the North, in part in its own right.

The problem is that for much of the time, Newcastle as its own unique industrial world fell outside the sphere of influence of events further North3024162636_d2920da8ef and was therefore neglected. It was part of the North, but also part of a different world. In that world, the story of industrialisation and the Labour Movement, the specifically local and regional elements were neglected.

Newcastle and the Northern coal fields as they were called, had a far more profound impact on Australian history than people realise. I knew a little, but on this visit I was able to find and buy A History of the Miners' Federation of Australia. I knew the background, the context, but suddenly I had real content.

I can do something about this now. Ever heard of the Vend? Almost certainly not since I hadn't! It was actually, and this will not be clear from the link I gave you, an industrial combine linking mining and shipping interests of no mean power.

All of these things overlap. The names in the Australian Agricultural Company on the pastoral side are the names I know from my property histories. I know them, I know their graves. But the AA company also had an early monopoly on coaJanene Careyl mining and is part of the industrial history of Newcastle and the coal fields.

Back to that cafe a few paces away. I was meeting fellow writer and NEWC board member Janene Carey for a coffee before catching my plane.  I have known Janene since she started working at the Express as a freelance. She is a very good writer.

We talked about the purely domestic as well as writers and writing, including the need to actually get paid! She gave me some leads to people who still pay.

I fear that I was a little obsessed about the need to recognise and get recognition for the New England writing tradition. I say obsessed, for in Socratic tradition I was firing questions at her. Which New England connected writers have won the Nobel prize for literature? That sort of thing.

Janene had to pick up her daughter from netball, so I wandered down to get a cab to the airport. Here I just report a Facebook post:

Friday to Armidale for a New England Writers' Centre - NEWC board meeting. I need to process that.

Saturday after coffee down town with a fellow board member, caught a taxi to the airport. The driver looked at me. "James", she said? I said yes.

"I have such fond memories of your family. I was nine when my father committed suicide. Your grandparents gave us their place at Urunga to stay rent free. They and your parents gave Mum work."

Of course I remembered her and her mum, although I had no memory of the tragedy itself. Just the family in their little house. I reminded her that she had baby sat us, my brother and I. She must have been fifteen.

"I always keep the fridge full, now", she said. It was important. "Perhaps we were hungry. We ate wheat bix with butter and Vegemite for lunch." "I loved that", I said.

At the airport she looked at me. "You look like a combination of your mum and dad", she said. I smiled, although I was close to tears. I thought bloody hell. If I could be remembered in that way, life would be worthwhile.

Probably time to finish, but I must add one other thing. On the way back from Armidale, I called in at the coffee place where I had lost my book. They had found it, So Annabella and I are back together again! 



Caroline Chapman said...

Boo Books is a fantastic asset to the Mall in Armidale. Lovely people who work there. So glad they have claimed that space. Glad you got Annabel back.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi CC. Boo Books really is a great place. I really was pleased re AB. She is an old friend.