Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Belshaw’s World: The Palais Royale and memories of a Newcastle past

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 12 August 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.

Didn’t I see you at the Palais last night? Pick-up line, Newcastle beach.

May saw the final demolition of Newcastle’s old Palais Royale.

Growing up in Armidale, I never visited the Palais. I was also a very bad dancer.

In a now distant past there used to be a thing called the TAS walk. Grasp the girl, stride forward a few paces, turn right a few paces, turn right a few paces, turn right once more and then begin again!

My mother always wanted me to take dancing lessons, they were offered by the school, but I really could not come at the idea of practicing with other boys.

Still, while I never visited the Palais, I walked past it many times and was always interested by it.

The loss of Palais marks another step in the progressive erosion of Newcastle’s links with its own past.

Growing up, Newcastle was New England’s big city. The place fascinated me because it was just so different.

We stayed at the old Great Northern Hotel when we were young.

Looking back, it is hard to imagine my excitement when we went to stay at this pub. This was a seriously big hotel. It had a lift!

I am not sure how long we stayed. It was a little while. Early in the morning, brother David and I would go down to the waterfront to look at the trains and ships. This was exciting stuff.

The Great Northern was a pretty posh place. When Tooths upgraded the hotel in 1938, it was the largest single hotel expansion in the company's history. When we stayed it had started to run down, but it still retained some of its previous grandeur.

Talking to Newcastle people today, few can remember the old pub or even imagine what it was like when Newcastle actually was still New England's metropolis.

In many ways, Newcastle has been its own worst enemy.

Proudly union and Labor, Newcastle never quite fitted in.

Its industrial tradition is North English, the world the Belshaws came from. With its Protestant/Anglican/English mix, Newcastle was somewhat isolated in a clannish Labor world dominated by the Irish Catholic tradition.

Always loyal, its loyalty was often poorly rewarded because it meant that Newcastle and the lower Hunter could be safely ignored.

If Newcastle did not properly fit in on the Labor side, economy, life style and political orientation created divides with other parts of the North.

For much of the colonial period, Maitland and the nearby river port at Morpeth were the major New England mercantile centres.

The building of the Great Northern Railway transferred traffic to Newcastle, making it the head of what Lazlo has called a Northern economic commonwealth.

Newcastle’s period of economic power was brief.

As soon as the line to Sydney finally crossed the Hawkesbury River in the 1890s, the New South Wales Government Railways set freight rates so as to attract traffic to Sydney. Initially, this meant that freight on the Newcastle-Sydney stretch was effectively carried for free!

In the 1967 New State plebiscite, Newcastle remained loyal to its traditions.

In polling carried out before the plebiscite, 55% of Newcastle people responded yes to this question: if New England is to gain statehood, should Newcastle be part?

The follow up question gave a very different result.

It simply asked: the Labor Party is opposed to New England self-government. Would you support a New England New State? The yes vote dropped to around a third.

The answer to this question revealed what the result would be. The plebiscite was lost on the Newcastle and lower Hunter industrial and dairy farmer vote.

Today Newcastle is simply emasculated in political terms. A once proud city is now no more than the northern extension of Greater Sydney on many Sydney Government planning maps.

Newcastle still retains its own unique character. A Newcastle writer described the city this way:

Newcastle is a contrary and perplexing social microcosm: broadminded citizens of a global village yet disconcertingly xenophobic, parochial, even naive, to foreign visitors.

I would like to think that Newcastle could once again regain its public place as a major and distinct independent Australian (and New England) centre.

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