Thursday, May 28, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Can Armidale re-earn its place?

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 20 May 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

During the week I received a letter from Armidale that disturbed me somewhat. I won’t go into the details, the letter was private, beyond saying that the writer found Armidale an unfriendly place and felt that this drove people away.

There is no doubt that Armidale can sometimes be a rum old place. The complaint that Armidale people can be unfriendly and even cliquey is not new, nor is the complaint that Armidale is resistant to change. Both have some truth.

I think that we need to be aware of this and work to counter it, because Armidale’s sometimes reputation as an unfriendly even arrogant city does the place considerable damage.

There is no doubt that Armidale people can be capable of great warmth and hospitality.

The launch of the Colombo Plan in 1950, a plan developed especially by Australian officials, brought 40,000 overseas students to Australia, many to Armidale. There was something of a culture shock on both sides.

The warmth displayed by Armidale people to the newcomers during the 1950s and 1960s was, in retrospect, quite remarkable. Armidale gained friends around the world.

How, then, do we reconcile this with the city’s reputation as an unfriendly place? Here I want to point to just a few things.

To begin with, all people mix with those they feel most comfortable with.

Armidale’s role as and educational and administrative centre means that it has a shifting population. Armidale’s own young leave to join the great New England diaspora. Students leave as their courses come to an end. Staff at the university and schools move on.

You would think that this constant stream of arrivals and departures would make Armidale welcoming to newcomers. In practice, there is a divide between those who see the place as their long term home and those here for shorter periods. Newcomers have to earn their place.

Some years ago I was good mates with the daughter of a local grazier. Her father had to bring something into town and was chatting to Dad over the back fence. “When did you come to Armidale”, he asked Dad. “1938” was the reply. “Why, you are almost a local!”

For such a small place, Armidale and district have also had a remarkably complicated social structure: Roman Catholic vs Protestant, town vs gown vs country, big grazier vs smaller grazier or farmer. And so it goes on.

Many of these divides have, thankfully, declined with time. None of us would like to go back to the sectarian divides of the past.

What is perhaps less well recognized in discussions on social class in Armidale is that the city’s divides actually represent very different world views and experiences.

Back in Armidale on one of my periodic visits, I was chatting to a friend in the History Department staff room. She complained that country people were very unfriendly, that they did not accept university people.

As it happened, I was having a drink with Uncle Ron and some of his country friends that evening at the Newie. When I mentioned the conversation, the group responded that they were happy to be friends, but the university people had no interest in their concerns. They had nothing to talk about.

Different worlds indeed.

Another complication for Armidale has been the rise of what I think of as the big fish in small pond syndrome.

In many ways, Armidale got a free-ride during the fifties, sixties and seventies as the expansion of university education drove growth. Both university and the city became soft, insular, complacent, living off past achievements. Both struggled as the world changed during the 1980s and 1990s.

When I became Chair of Tourism Armidale I was struck at the resentment towards Armidale across many parts of New England generated by the city’s perceived arrogance and insularity. This really made things hard.

My personal view is that Armidale has to re-earn its place.

This means becoming more welcoming to those who come to the city. It also means reaching out to help other New England communities achieve their objectives.

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