Sunday, November 22, 2020

Sunday Essay - Armidale: avoiding submergence in the local


Beardy Street Armidale, 1964

It's very hot in Armidale today, 28.0C as I write. I find the heat enervating. I suppose that's a sign of just how much I have acclimatised in the twelve months since my return to Armidale. 

Writing of growing up in Armidale. I said that it was an unusual experience, intensely local on one side, international on the other.

The very particular rhythms  of life in Armidale and, to a lesser degree, the North dominated life. Sydney was remote, Oxford and Cambridge closer. I was more aware of global developments than I was of events in that parochial metro centre huddled round its harbour. Even then, the city's growth had created its own urban sprawl with outlying suburbs that few visited or knew much about. 

From birth until my twentieth birthday I visited Sydney perhaps eight times. 

Three of those trips were to Manly for holidays, creating an image in my mind of central Manly, the harbour and ferries and the Sydney CBD. Childhood memories are vivid, I remember the way that pineapple crush made my nose sting with the cold. 

Two of the trips were were for sporting events, one running in the GPS athletics, one  to play rugby.against Cranbrook. Two more were transiting Sydney on the way too or from New Zealand. In all cases I stayed in what might be called the inner city or at least that area and immediate suburbs. In the remaining trips I transited Sydney, spending the day wandering around Central waiting for my next train.  

Later and especially after I moved to Canberra, I would visit Sydney many times, For the moment, I am simply trying to illustrate how remote Sydney was when I was growing up. I came from a middle class family. Many people had less money and fewer opportunities to interact with Sydney. Many had never been to Sydney at all. 

Tattersall's Hotel, Armidale, before modifications in the 1930s

Once I decided to return to Armidale to live, I started to dig back in to create and recreate links. I knew that the city had changed and had no automatic expectation that I would fit in. I had to earn my place. As it happened, I need not have worried. My newspaper columns have given me a continuing base in town. Indeed, many did not realise that I was not living in Armidale and indeed had not for twenty years.  I also found that the combination of my personal history  with the work done in rebuilding my connections had paid of in ways I could never have expected. But I also found a problem.

Armidale is a scarred city, scarred by history and present lack of vision. I find this difficult to describe. 

Arnidale as a city has been greatly affected by external decisions and especially by externally imposed changes in education, now the city's main industry. Those changes are externally imposed I find that people are focused on internal responses, on the failure of those responses, not the challenges themselves I find that people are so concerned with parry and issues divides, areas dealt in absolutes, that they cannot respond to cross-areas except in political or preferred issues framework, 

I experienced this in the context of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Authority (APVMA)  move to Armidale. In the face of virulent attack from ACM's Canberra Times, I attempted to mount a counter case based on economic and policy analysis. I struggled. 

The Armidale Express simply picked up the arguments from its fellow ACM masthead. Those opposed to Mr Joyce attacked the move. Labor's Joel Fitzgibbon said that anybody who expected the move to happen had rocks in their head. There were arguments about the procurement process, arguments picked up in detail by the Canberra Times.  In the end, APVMA did move, but Armidale did not deserve the move. It had worked very hard to stop it. 

During the APVMA discussion, Col Murray as Mayor of Tamworth attacked the  APVMA move. It was, he suggested, featherbedding Armidale. Why shouldn't Tamworth get benefits from decentralisation? While I attacked him at the time, I have to say that I have some sympathy with the Mayor. 

When both the Teachers' College (!929) and the University College (1938) were established in Armidal,e there was no opposition from the Northern Press nor from other Northern towns. Ii was seen a a logical extension that would benefit all, Today, Armidale residents and many civic leaders oppose water to the Costa tomato plant in Guyra, the extension of university education in Tamworth, on the grounds that it might damage Armidale. And then Armidale people wonder why those outside the city oppose things that might benefit Armidale! 

At the moment, I am working on a new project, the development of a new approach to UNE's Heritage Centre.   Success depends on getting people to recognise the benefits that the Centre offers to Northern NSW and beyond. Sometimes I regard Armidale as the greatest impediment to success.  

If this is seen as an Armidale focused initiative it's dead, wrecked on the rocks of dislike of Armidale. I really had no idea how great this had become until I returned. If we come up with a model that involves diminution of the Armidale role, can we sell it in Armidale?

Bluntly,  Armidale needs to ship up, to adopt a a broader Northern perspective, or it should really ship out.


Anonymous said...

Oh JDB! So sorry, but I have to say that the 4 years we spent in Armidale (immediately xtened Armihole by the boys) are probably the worst 4 years of my life. Intolerant, parochial, sexist (esp @ TAS, and esp by the old boys who went from TAS to UNE then back to TAS), and totally and completely unfriendly and unwelcoming. Armidale High was a pig's breakfast. Tim was bullied, humiliated and victimised, and repeatedly told (as were we) that he did not 'belong'. There were no facilities for special needs kids, or even just unwell ones. The only real bright spot was the couple of years I spent studying with, and working for, AK - possibly because he was also an 'outsider' who had taken a job that a couple of totally useless and unqualified nincompoops regarded as 'theirs'; their only claims to fame being that they had warmed chairs @ UNE for some time. Neither of them (and I think you know to whom I refer) had any ability, scholarship or performance skill, and certainly never published anything. Their little acolytes who gravitated to ANU showed the same lack of anything; legends in their own lunchboxes, but at least they didn't araldite the lock on the HOD's office out of vindictive spite. It's a reactive, closed minded dump -does everything still close at midday on Saturday -to protect the country town holiness of sport on Saturday and church on Sunday? I think it says much about the mindset that Barney Beetrooter is the Federal member.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi JCW. I knew that you liked Armidale! More seriously, this post morphed while I was writing it. When I began, I was thinking more of my own need to preserve a degree of objectivity, of broader vision including in my history writing, now that I was back immersed in a very local environment. It was also, I thought, a narrower environment than it had been. Then, and this is a reflection of local drag-in, it moved towards the need for Armidale residents to look more broadly.
I am well aware of your experiences and views on Armidale. Mine have been different, although I can understand your points!