Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Writing, film and New England perceptions

Ryan, Niland, Keneally and the New England story on my personal blog looks at some threads in the New England literary and film tradition.

I wrote the story there because I was exploring ideas from a personal perspective. I want to extend the argument here along two dimensions: first, the importance as I see it for all those in New England to have access to their own culture and past; second, the need to redress what I see as an imbalance towards the Tablelands in general and Armidale in particular.

  Take as an example of the first the 1977 Australian movie the Picture Show Man. As I said, when I saw it, I thought that it was familiar. Yet I didn't properly realise that it was shot on the Liverpool Plains and the Clarence. Had I known that, I would have watched the detail much more closely.

When you don't see your world reflected back, it takes much longer to form and refine the iconic images that help define our own worlds. One of the reasons that Harry Pidgeon's paintings so appealed to me is that they live in and capture the world especially of the western slopes. I saw them as iconic in Liverpool Plains terms, capturing too the transition between tablelands and plains.

The colours of New England was part inspired by Harry's paintings. In it, I tried to capture the variations in colour across the broader New England, to write in a way that would make this accessible not just to New Englanders, but also to those beyond.

I think that this remains important. I cannot paint or express things via music. The only instrument I have to show New Englanders their world is my capacity to write, however imperfectly.

This brings me to my second point.

In 1920 the first New State manifesto, Australia Subdivided, put a key problem facing the North in this way: In Northern New South Wales, a few high schools, no technical schools, no universities exist to retain the intelligence and culture of the area[1].

The manifesto was dead right. One outcome of the subsequent campaigns was the establishment of the University of New England. UNE has delivered in spades in terms of the plaint of the authors of Australia Subdivided, yet I remain dissatisfied.

The establishment first of the Armidale Teacher's College in 1928 and then the University College in Armidale in 1938 supported growth in the arts of all types. One element of this was a growth in writing and in writing about writing. Part of this was connected with the Northern mission, part simply reflected the increasing presence in Armidale of an educated group who wanted to write or saw writing as a weapon.

With time, this led to a very substantial volume of work across many fields. Yet a problem has emerged.

For a number of reasons that lie beyond the scope of this post, UNE's regional focus narrowed. As a simple example to illustrate this point, the last book on New England prehistory was published in 1974. Increasingly, too, the regional work that has been published focused on the Tablelands and Western Slopes.

Before going on, I would love to be corrected in the argument that I am now about to mount. I accept that my knowledge is imperfect. If I am wrong, please correct me.

I grew up in an expansive Northern or New England world. I am Tablelands, but also knew the North Coast, the Western Slopes, the Hunter and a little late but less perfectly the Plains. I saw all this as, if you like, my world.        

To my mind, the partial withdrawal of the University of New England from its original and broader mission as the Sydney University of the North has created a gap. When I look at writing about writing or Northern or New England culture, for example, I now find a fair bit about just one area of the North, very little about the rest.

I find this very frustrating. As I said, it may be that I simply don't know what is there, yet I think that there is a real gap. I know enough in some ways to write a broad brush descriptions of similarities and links across New England, yet the material I have seen suggests that I barely understand.

[1] E Page and others (eds), Australia Subdivided, The First New State, Examiner Printing Works, Glen Innes, 1920, p10.

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