Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Belshaw’s World: The importance of local history

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 27 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.

The recent death of Bud Tingwell marked the severing of another small link in the chain between Armidale’s present and its 20th century past. I suspect it went unrecognised.

Three to four generations is about the maximum period that the past exists in living memory.

On Dad's side, my grandfather and grandmother were born in working class England in the middle of the industrial revolution. On mum's side, my grandfather was born in Sydney at a time of depression that followed the 1880s building boom, grandmother into a free-selector farming family that had come to Rocky River during the gold rushes. My daughters live in the middle class world of Sydney's Eastern Suburbs.

This simple family history spans some 150 years marked by major change. There is obviously a huge gap between working class Wigan in Victorian England and life in Sydney today, yet my daughters retain some living access to it simply because it is still in my living memory from family stories. This will cease once I die.

Outside this living memory, a society has to rely on other mechanisms to preserve its culture and access to its past. If we look at a traditional Aboriginal community, for example, there was a complex process for maintaining and passing on the knowledge and traditions of the group starting with the education of the young.

This is equally true in Australia today, although the transmission mechanisms are different. When I look at my daughters, for example, their knowledge of Australia's history and culture comes a little from their family, more so from school, more still from friends and from exposure to the various forms of media.

Note that I haven’t included history books. I don’t think either has read any Australian history in the last few years. This is partly a matter of time, more so of interest.

If you look at the shelves of the big book stores, the Australian history that is included is issue or topic driven. There is nothing that actually attracts them in the patchy offerings on show.

The reasons why published Australian history has, as I see it, declined in influence are complicated and beyond the scope of this column. The effect is that what we can loosely call mainstream published history no longer provides an effective bridge between Australia’s past and present.

Not all is lost, however, because of the rise of interest in family and local history.

There are probably more people writing and researching history now than at any time in Australia’s history. These family and local histories play a vital role in the recreation and preservation of our memories of the Australian past.

I am very conscious of this just at present because my recent reading has been almost exclusively regional. As part of this, I must have read at least twenty local or family histories from the Lower Hunter to Stanthorpe.

Publication dates span some seventy years, while the standard of writing and research varies greatly. Yet together they paint a picture of life that you will simply not find in many of the present works with their often metro and topic biases.

There is a problem, however, and that is accessibility.

Most of the books I have read are either out of print or only available at a purely local level. I am lucky because I have quite a big collection built up over many years. Others are not so fortunate.

I have felt for a while that there must be some better way of making family, local and regional history accessible to a wider audience. I have yet to come up with a practical solution.

Oh, and what was the link between Bud Tingwell and Armidale?

He played the part of Alan Blake in Captain Thunderbolt.

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