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.

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