I am presently reading Patrice Newell's book the River (Penguin, 2003).
The book is the story of the Pages River, a short Upper Hunter Stream that rises in the mountains near the Capuchin Hermitage, flows south through Murrurundi, Blandford, to the west of Scone and then through Gundy before joining the main Hunter River.
I bought the book at an airport because it looked interesting. At that point, and I admit this is a gap on my part, I had no idea that Patrice Newell had been born in Adelaide, that she and partner Phillip Adams (the Australian writer and commentator) had purchased Elmswood Farms at Gundy to establish a biodynamic farm, that she had already written a best seller, The Olive Grove, on the treachange experience.
This knowledge gap reminded me of one of my long standing hobby horses, the way in which the absence of any formal structures for New England prevents people recognising the existence of New England writers and other creative people. And there have been a remarkable number of New England writers including both those who were born there, Judith Wright is an example, and those such as Patrice who came to live there.
There are two quite different aspects to this problem.
Can we in any meaningful sense talk about a unique New England literary tradition?
I am not sure that we can.
The writers who grew up in New England were certainly influenced by the experience to greater or lesser extent.
The Australian playwright and writer Alex Buzo was born in Sydney in 1944 and came to Armidale as a boy when his dad was appointed by Thiess as engineer on the Oakey Hydro Electric Scheme. His first play, Norm and Ahmed was produced in, I think, 1968. Alex loved Sydney life and escaped back as soon as he could, but his Armidale experience including his time at The Armidale School had an enduring influence on him and he retained his links to New England.
Some writers also tried to create unique literature in the face of what they saw as dominance by narrow Sydney intellectual elites such as the Balmain school.
In 1979 Kardoorair Press was established primarily as an outlet for poets based on the Northern Tablelands region of New England or with an affiliation with the region. Kardoorair's first publication was released in January 1980 and has been followed by sixty more.
Kardoorair along with Fat Possum Press provided an outlet for New England poets and writers such as Michael Sharkey and Julian Croft. Have they been succesful in creating a unique tradition? Perhaps they have, although I am not aware of any studies on the issue.
This brings me to the second aspect of the problem I referred to. The absence of formal structures not only impedes the development of literary traditions, but actually makes it hard for people to access the New England experience, keeping it limited and fragmented.
The poet Les Murray was born at Bunyah on the North Coast and has now returned there. His early life and influences have had a significant impact on his poetry. The writer Bob Ellis was born in Lismore. Again, area and family experiences have had a significant impact on his attitudes and writing. The writer and academic Donald Horne was born at Muswellbrook in the Hunter Valley. Ditto. Judith Wright was born in Armidale into a wealthy squatting family.
Each of these writers has had a different experience depending upon location and date of birth. Our inability to put them into a context, to see the commonalities and differences with other New Englanders, is a real problem. Indeed, many New England writers who have moved on would probably not see themselves as New Englanders or be able to see things outside a local context. Point local, counterpoint Sydney or national, with nothing really in the middle.
I will return to the history of New England in my next post.
RMWB kindly provided this update: