Monday, November 30, 2009

Dust storm over Armidale


I was quite struck by this recent photo by Gordon Smith showing a recent dust storm over the University of New England. 

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Doctor shortages across New England

I see from the Newcastle Herald that complaints continue about shortages of GPs in the Hunter.

Charlton Federal MP Greg Combet blamed 12 years of "poor workforce planning" by the former Howard government for a national shortage of general practitioners. "The Rudd Government is taking steps to turn this situation around and here in the Hunter there has been an increase in the number of GP training places this year," Mr Combet said.

The doctor shortage problem is not just a Hunter issue. With a very few exceptions in coastal areas, doctor shortages can be found across New England and seem to be getting worse.

There is some truth in Mr Combet's suggestion that poor work force planning under the Howard Government contributed to the problem.

Dr Wooldridge, federal health minister in the Howard Government from 1996 to 200,1 actually concluded that there were too many GPs and that this was leading to problems of over-servicing. The number of places at universities were cut, while it was made harder to get a full practicing certificate with access to medicare. In retrospect, this has to be one of the most stupid Government decisions on record.

My own sister-in-law who completed medicine at Newcastle during this time chose to opt out from general practice. It had become too hard. Instead, she splits her time between working as a doctor on cruise ships, then working as a casual doctor in hospitals during the other half of the year.

However, the problem is deeper than Howard Government mistakes because it links to broader systemic problems. I will write a little more on this in a later post.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Don Aitkin's What was it all for?

Those who read across my blogs will know that I have been reading Don Aitkin's What was it all for? The Reshaping of Australia. (Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005). It is one of those books that has been responsible for multiple posts.

The first post in the series was Train Reading - Don Aitkin's What was it all for? 1. Then came Decline of the professions in Australia. Sunday number two of the Train Post will appear. I also plan to do two further posts on other blogs. I do so love a book that crosses all my multiple interests!

I mention the book here because it tells the story of social change in Australia over the last fifty years in part through a prism set by the experiences of the Armidale High leaving certificate class of 1953.

At the end of the book, Don has an appendix that summarises the experiences of the class of 53. I plan to do a post on this blog on his material because it draws out one aspect of what I call the New England Diaspora. Simply put, most of us have had to leave New England. We have had no choice.

The cost to New England from this loss of talent is profound. The story of the class of 53 brings this out.   

Friday, November 27, 2009

Feeling a little sad

Izzie with books I am feeling a little sad today.

You see, I have been browsing Lynne Sanders-Braithwaite's photos on Facebook.

I am, I suppose, an old-fashioned type of person.

I don't want a modern brick venereal house that crowds out its block. I can do without a microwave, although they are helpful. I don't mind the odd draught. I object to spending multiple hours each day travelling just to preserve a "life style".

The things that I value are just those that you cannot get in Sydney. A sense of belonging, of community. A biggish house with plenty of space for books.

My family is locked into this place, rusted-on. I cannot enjoy driving to Bondi Junction to spend hours in a nondescript Westfield shopping centre looking at shops and especially clothes. The artificial light and air conditioning quickly creates a sense of oppression.

Don't get me wrong. I love the city life style. I love London and Paris and Rome, I enjoy visiting Venice, New York, Florence or Melbourne. It's just that I enjoy them as visitors. I even enjoyed Sydney when I did not live here! 

I am a fairly simple person. To me, dropping down the road and the feeling of interaction are central.

I have to accept that I can no longer have the life style that I once knew. It just is. But the sense of loss is there all the time. It hurts, sometimes as today it hurts very badly. I just don't know.          

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Newcastle, Niagara and the Greeks in Australia

Note to readers: A week since my last post! This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 18 November 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.
I have been re-reading William Claridge’s The Pommy Town Years: Memories of Mayfield and Other Tales of the Twenties.

I bought the book on a trip north through Newcastle to Armidale with my then young daughters. I wanted to buy a local history and it was the only Newcastle specific book I could find.

Before I go on, a few questions that someone may be able to answer.

I was trying to remember the Greek cafes in Armidale during the 1950s. I know that the Rologas’s had Nicks on the south eastern side of Beardy Street. A little way up on the other side of the road was, I think, the Niagara, although I cannot remember the name of the family that owned it.

In the next block on the southern side near the Richardson end was the Cominos’s IXL. In the following block across the road from the Capitol Theatre was another. I am not sure of the name (the Capri?), nor can I remember who owned it.

Can you help me with the details?

Now this may seem a long way from the opening paragraphs of this column, but there is a connection.

To write a history of the broader New England as I am presently trying to do, I need to understand the history of Newcastle, the North’s great industrial city. Always part of the North yet also separated from it by its own clannish working class culture, Newcastle was neither fish nor fowl.

Proudly trade union and Labor, yet Newcastle did not and does not quite fit in with the dominant Labor tradition and power structures. English, Anglican and Protestant, not Irish or Roman Catholic, Newcastle’s roots lie in the industrial culture of Northern England. This is the world my Belshaw grandparents came from.

In reading William Claridge’s memoirs, I am trying to understand a little more of the complicated threads in Newcastle’s history.

William Claridge was born in Bristol in 1909. He came to Australia in 1920 when his father emigrated as part of a group of John Lysaght Bristol workers recruited to set up a new Lysaght plant in Newcastle making galvanized iron. A second group of workers came from Lysaght’s Welsh plant at Newport.

By the time the Lysaght group arrived in Newcastle, that city had moved a long way from its original migrant roots. There was in fact considerable distrust among the generally local born and very clannish Newcastle workers for these new Pommy arrivals.

The attachment of the name Pommy Town to the new estate Lysaght built for its workers was quite derogatory at first. At school, young William was involved in constant playground fights. It took time for the new arrivals to be accepted.

William Claridge’s book is interesting not just as a story, but because it focuses on the detail of local and industrial life. This is where the Greek connection comes in.

I knew from Geoffrey Blainey’s Black Kettle and Full Moon that the Greeks had really introduced fine dining to Australia. It would be hard, I suspect, for modern Australians to get their minds round the fact that the heyday of Australian café society with its huge Greek eating establishments was probably the period between 1890 and 1910, a flowering that was then largely snuffed out by war.

The Greek influence was not limited to Sydney or Melbourne.

I now know from the notes to Mr Claridge’s book that the first ever Niagara café was opened in Newcastle in 1898.

Angelo Burgess (Bourzos) came to Australia from Greece via the US. There he had been impressed by two things: American novelties such as hamburgers, milkshakes and ice-creams and the Niagara Falls. The first provided the menu, the second the name.
In 1911 the Karanges brothers, one of whom was Angelo’s godson, emigrated to Newcastle. When Angelo Burgess died, Theo Karanges took over the business, while brother Michael opened his own Niagara café a few kilometres away.

Theo and Michael were followed by many more in a chain migration from their original village.

By the 1920s, the period Mr Claridge focuses on in his book, Newcastle had no less than 25 Greek owned cafes!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Belshaw's World: Nerds, Geeks and the decline of science

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 11 November 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.
Last week my wife was away. With the TV free, eldest and I watched Beauty and the Geek Australia.

I am actually a bit of a sucker for reality TV. It also gives me something to watch with my daughters. Mind you, and this will not surprise you, female tastes are somewhat different from those of us mere males. I cannot share the fascination for Project Runway!

Watching the program took me in an unexpected direction. Just what is the difference between geeks, nerds, dorks and indeed boffins?

Searching around, I found one part definition that attracted my fancy: a nerd is someone who is very intelligent, a geek is someone who is very knowledgeable, and a dork is someone who argues the difference!

This left boffins.

I actually have a very soft spot for boffins. Growing up in a university environment, I knew a fair number. They were also the people who played such a key role in wining the Second World War.

Pouring myself another glass of red wine, my thoughts continued to wander.
I don’t know whether you realise this, but in some ways we seem to have come to the end of the scientific and technological revolution that has formed the core of a lot of our thinking over the last two centuries.

This may sound an odd thing to say given the apparent current obsession with new technology. Yet I think that it’s true.

When I asked eldest just what she would rank as modern scientific advances, she listed vaccination (China or India c200 BC, Europe 18th century), key hole surgery (1910) and computers (1936 first freely programmable computer).

For my part I thought of DNA (1953), nanotechnology (term first used 1959) quantum physics (term quantum mechanics first used 1924).

Most of the major technologies that we use, and their supporting sciences, are far older than most people realise. Okay, you say, what about genetically modified crops? The first date here appears to be 1972, forty seven years ago.

Well, then, what about the internet? Even here there is a very long history, although the world wide web itself dates from 1990.

Each new scientific advance and the technology it spawns takes time for the effects to be fully felt.

Just at present, we are feeling the full impact of the digital revolution. For that reason, we still feel that we live in an age of technological change.

In some ways we do. It’s just that the really new is in decline.

Today we are good at adapting, less good at inventing something really new.
The reasons for this are complicated.

Part of the reason lies in the end of the love affair with science and technology, a love affair that in some ways peaked in the nineteenth century, but continued for decades after that.

If we take the internet and digital technology as an example, the modern young have about as much interest in this refrigeration technology. They see no romance in the technology. It just is.

Part of the reason, too, lies in our increasingly constipated and controlled approaches with their application focus.

I bear a share of the guilt here.

Actions that I took played a key role in the first decision that tied University funding to the creation of specific discipline places, in this case IT, instead of giving universities freedom in the allocation of funds.

I also played a significant role in the discussions centred on the need to make universities more focused on the commercialisation of research results.

In all this, I was seeking balance. I had no idea that the thoughts and actions that I and others were responsible for would actually destroy the “blue sky” thinking that is central to a real university and to the creation and advance of knowledge.

You see, once academic success becomes measured in the number of patents that you have been responsible for, the game is lost.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Good feedback for Belshaw's World

I am sorry for the delay in posting. Time pressures have worked against me. In this post, I just wanted to record how much I value the feedback I get, especially from Armidale readers for Belshaw's World.

Writing the column takes a fair bit of time, so feedback is nice.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Blues Across the Bay

This one sounds rather fun.

We are riding at breakneck speed towards our 8 th annual Blues Across the Bay to be held on Saturday 21 st November this year.

This small event has secured itself into our hearts and minds and is now one of the annual highlights on the Central Coast calendar. 

Although Blues Across the Bay is only a very small event by festival standards, we do manage to pack a huge show into a 4-hour time period.  There is only enough space for 600 people but those 600 always go away with great memories of a special day.

Artists include Jack Evans and his amazing band playing some very edgy blues to warm us up for the afternoon.  Next, the amazing barrel-house piano-playing  and gravel-voiced Pugsley Buzzard will delight and entertain.  And to top it all off, the multi-award winning Australian Queen of the Blues, Gail Page with the wonderful Parris Macleod Band.

You can find more details here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Belshaw's world: In memory of Bruce Mitchell

Last month, Paul Barratt carried the story of the founding of the New England University College in a post on his personal blog. It’s quite a gripping story, and Paul told it well.

In writing, Paul drew his material from Bruce Mitchell’s book, House on the Hill: Booloominbah, Home and University 1888-1988. He did not know, I had only just found out, of Bruce’s death.

Like me, Paul now lives in a world far removed from the Armidale of our childhood. Like me, he tries to carry the New England dream forward, to keep the fire alight.

It somehow seems sad but appropriate that Paul should be drawing from Bruce’s work at the time of Bruce’s death.

Paul’s post is a sign of the way Bruce’s influence extended far beyond the quiet streets of Armidale

I first met Bruce many years ago at a dinner party in Armidale. I was back from Canberra for the weekend, so this was a chance to catch up with people.

Later he became one of my supervisors. For the two years I was a full time post graduate student, he was just down the corridor.

One of Bruce’s greatest strengths was his bubbling enthusiasm. Generations of Australian honours and postgraduate historians at the University of New England will remember this. He was just very interested in what people discovered through research.

Bruce did not try to tell you what you should write. His interest lay in getting you to write well what you had discovered through research. He would challenge, but it was your work.

I saw all this at first hand.

My PhD topic was a biography of my grandfather, David Drummond. I had intended to focus on Drummond’s public life. However, as I dug into the evidence I found my approach changing.

I realised that you could not understand the man or his life without understanding the relationship between his troubled childhood on one side, his love of the North on the other. The thesis became an exploration of the relationship between the man and the region that came to form the core of Drummond’s life.

In a strange way, this transformation in my own thinking mirrored a similar shift in Bruce.

Bruce’s original work was on Labor history and especially the history of the Teachers’ Federation. He became my supervisor because David Drummond had been NSW’s longest serving Minister for Education.

After coming to Armidale, Bruce fell in love with local and regional history. This love subsumed his original interests.

Bruce was insatiably curious, always prepared to chat about my work. His glasses down on the end of his nose, wispy hair upright, face alight, he would fire questions and make suggestions.

It is often forgotten today that the foundation first of the Armidale Teachers College and then the University College were linked to a vision, self government for the North.

While parts of that vision are presently lost in the mists of time, that part linked to the role that the new institutions might play in the intellectual life of the North has been delivered in spades.

I have not attempted to map all the theses, books and articles that owe their existence in part to Bruce. I can tell you that there are an enormous number.

I guess that for most Armidale people, Bruce’s work on local history will be best remembered.

This is important. However, his real legacy lies in the way in which he showed generations of students from New England and far beyond that their interest in family, local and regional history was both legitimate and important.

Postscript: As it happened, this column appeared in the Armidale Express on the same day as Bruce's obituary. The Express piece is not on-line, but the SMH obituary can be found here.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 4 November 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.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Armidale mum and writer's million dollar book deal

Sometimes there is a story that just makes one feel happy. This is one. I won't steal Sydney Morning Herald's Janene Carey's story. But do read it. You will find it here.

You know, for a city of 22,000 people, Armidale has a quite remarkable number of writers.

After posting, I received an email from Christian, the Editor of the Armidale Express. I quote:

Saw your blog re the million dollar mum. You will be pleased to know that the dear old Express actually beat the Herald to that yarn. Janene works for me and I sent the story to the SMH after we had run with it.

Janene has also left a comment on this post. All this adds icing to an already magnificent cake. Congratulations Janene!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Wollombi Valley on-line

In Wollombi, what began as a blog has now turned into a fully fledged community web site. The blog is still there, but now lacks posts.

Wollombi Valley is also on Twitter. From my viewpoint, this is very valuable because it makes it easy for me to keep in touch. 

Friday, November 06, 2009

Gordon Smith's camp oven

Gordib Smith-top-creek--camp-oven

Gordon Smith from lookANDsee took this photo of an old camp oven while exploring the Top Creek area in the headwaters of the Macleay River.

We often forget that a fire was the main form of cooking heat over much of the long history of human occupation on this continent.

The camp oven was really valued by the European settlers in New England because it allowed a wide range of cooking from bread to stews to roasts.

Camp ovens are still made.     

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Belshaw's world: the Twittering of English

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 28 October 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.

Earlier this year Clare (youngest) failed a hieroglyphics test. This led her to complain bitterly about the failure of her school to teach her basic grammar.

Then last week, NSW Premier Nathan Rees complained about the poor standard of official English in NSW. NSW public servants are to be put under a plain-English microscope to make sure the documents they produce are clear and precise.

In the middle of these two events came another compliant from one of the main industry lobby groups about the inability of new staff to write clear English.

A frequent response to these types of problems is to call for changes to the way English is taught at school. However, there is a far more fundamental problem.

Written English has simply been twittered.

For those fortunates who are still oblivious to Twitter, it is a sort of on-line SMS system with messages limited to 140 characters.

Kevin Rudd twitters. Joe Hockey twitters. Even Malcolm Turnbull’s dog has been known to twitter!

The problem is that twittering is simply the latest in a long line of new technology that has, in combination, ripped the guts out of written English.

A remarkably small number of people, NSW public servants included, actually write very much:

They live in a world of spread-sheets, of emails, of power point presentations. This is also a world in which written forms (briefing note, memo, ministerial, Cabinet minute for example) must comply with templates and rules; a world where every word is scrutinised for message.

In this world, you can tell the old fashioned because they still treat emails as a form of written English. The modern do not.

“Could you see me please” is replaced by “cd u c me pls”.

This type of truncation damages the capacity to write. However, it is the least of the problems faced by written English.

If you look at the school English curriculum, it aims to create a form of literacy in different types of media. The focus is as much on the visual as the written.

This focus accurately reflects the realities of modern organisational life.

I grew up in a world in which there were two main types of communication, oral and written. The approach to both was affected by the purpose of the communication and by the medium used.

The modern world is far more complicated.

The range of media has exploded. In a time poor world, the focus now lies in getting a simplified message across in the most time-effective way.

Of itself, this damages the capacity to write in a stand alone fashion. However, there is a more pernicious problem.

Each form of communication has to be learned, and this takes time.

When I started working, written English was central. All I had to worry about was how best to fit my writing to purpose.

Today I write across multiple media – web sites, blogs, print, even Twitter. Each requires a different style.

I also use a variety of software in preparing and presenting material. With constant changes in software, I face a constant battle in maintaining, let alone increasing, my skills.

Then, too, I have to spend time deciding just which media or combination of media best fits the purpose. Sometimes this is dictated. More often, I find myself involved in tasks that really belong to a visual designer.

Is it any wonder in these circumstances that the actual art of written English can get lost?

There is further problem. Just as people’s ability to write English has declined, so has their capacity to actually understand the written form.

We can see this most clearly in responses to the length of written documents. Acceptable length has tended to become shorter and shorter. People no longer have the time or patience to read as they once did.

This has led to a dumbing down not just of English, but indeed of the underlying thoughts themselves.

Here I compare the written internal English that I saw when I first joined the Commonwealth Treasury with today’s equivalent.

There is no place today for the sometimes long, often complex, but beautifully lucid writing that I saw come from some of the then Public Service mandarins.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Locals continue to object to Glen Innes wind farm

The Sydney Government's has approved the construction near Glen Innes of a $150 million wind farm big enough to power 25,000 homes. Funded by Babcock and Brown Wind Power and NP Power, it is apparently   the first of several huge renewable energy plants planned for the region.

The decision has not been welcomed locally. According to local member Richard Torbay:

The State Government seemed to prefer warring with communities on wind farm developments rather than negotiating reasonable and acceptable outcomes, Member for Northern Tablelands Richard Torbay said today.

He attacked the State Planning Minister’s decision to approve a wind farm near Glen Innes where two residences would be within 800-900 metres of the giant turbines.

Another six householders would be also be affected with their homes at 1.5 - 2 kms from the 130 metre high wind sails. Mr Torbay said he had raised the issue in Parliament 10 days ago urging the government to listen to community views.

“Today’s decision is unacceptable and flies in the face of Glen Innes Severn and Inverell Council guidelines that turbines should be at least 2kms from people’s houses,” he said. “The decision is also premature because it pre-empts the recommendations of the Upper House Committee inquiry into wind farms which is still in hearings.”

The Glen Innes wind farm is just one of the environmental battles presently raging across the North. I hadn't realised just how many there were. Perhaps another post?