Monday, June 07, 2010

Reflections on New England identity

I am not posting today in any substantive way because I spent a fair bit of time over the weekend getting the next chapter in the Drummond biography ready to post - Drummond's life 2 - Entry into politics 1907 - 1920.

I am bringing this material on now because with current interest in the revival of the new state cause, Drummond's life provides a perspective on some elements of New England history, the rise of the Movement, as well his own story. Sadly, very little has been published that can provide an entry point to this part of our collective history.

In a comment, Mark expressed surprise at the size of the Movement. This was not just a minority pressure group, a footnote in Australia's history, but a genuine movement that achieved considerable results.

Of course, my personal links mean that I can, with accuracy, be accused of bias. Still, in writing, I have tried to provide the evidence to support my conclusions.

Just at present, there is a fair bit of interest in what constitutes the New England sense of self-identity. Part of my problem is that, in growing up, I never questioned what it meant to be a New Englander, it just was, self-evident.

I might not agree, for example, with the ALP and some of the views expressed in Newcastle, but I never thought of Newcastle as being other than part of New England, our big city. It was only later when I came to do my research into Drummond and the history of the Movement that I found that there were debates and disputes about boundaries.

In the forty plus years since the defeat of the plebiscite, the concept of New England has become vaguer, more attenuated. The difference between the New England (the Tablelands) and the broader New England or North has also become an issue.

To some, New England now just means the Tablelands or perhaps Tablelands and Western Slopes. Even the very idea of the Tablelands itself has become blurred because of the way regional boundaries are drawn.

Now, when I look at some of the discussions on our sense of identity, I write because I must, to restate things that I used to take for granted.

In writing as an historian, my views are subject to challenge. Indeed, they should be. The craft of history is in part a dialectic between different ideas, a professional discourse. However, I like to think that the material I write will show people within New England something about their own past. I also like to think that my writing will make that history accessible to people outside New England, to challenge the deeply held assumption that Australia is, in some ways, a single uniform whole where variance links just to broad differences such as class, gender, party or race.

There is very little room for for regional difference in the way history is currently written. I would like to change that. We do have our own history, and need access to it.     


Greg said...

Jim, I do agree that New England identity has become vague and that this is now a problem (at least here in the Lower Hunter).

I am only just old enough to remember pounds, shillings and pence, home bread deliveries by horse and cart and the New England new state referendum. So I still retain some traces of a northern consciousness.

Anyone younger than myself would have no similar recollections and little sense of New England as anything other than as a description applied to the Tablelands north of the Hunter Valley. The "New England" brand name has become narrow in it's use over the space of my lifetime.

I must admit to being a little surprised myself to learn from other New Englanders that Newcastle still has a wider sphere of influence than just the Hunter Valley. The city itself has developed a real "second city" underdog syndrome due in no small part to NSW neglect, when it should be developing a unique identity as the city of the north.

Reviving a sense of northern identity could prove a challenge, at least in Newcastle. That needs to be reawakened.

Mark said...

People here in the Lower Hunter are influenced mainly by local government boundaries and factions in their views and attitudes on neighbouring towns/suburbs and this has been a stumbling block for years. The only way around this is another Earl Page to inspire and unite like he did to competing factions further north.

Anonymous said...

Mark, absolutely correct. The factionalism in Newcastle along LGA boundaries is something that I have also become aware of recently. I don't remember it always being that way, but it has certainly become quite noticeable of late.

Each LGA has become jealous of it's patch of turf and there is a lot of competition with neighbouring LGA's for scraps of funding for State projects. It is a distraction from wider issues of concern to all.

More evidence of the divide and conquer strategy.

Jim Belshaw said...

There is a problem further north, Greg. Among other things, people haven't forgotten the no vote,

With Newcastle, we have to sell the idea that Newcastle has something to contribute to people in Newcastle and outside. I don't have a problem with this, but we need too show it. From a purely cultural perspective, Newcastle would flourish if cut lose. Music, film etc now gets ignored and culturally cringed.

Mark, we may not have an Earl Page, but it is up to us between us to show the way. And that's what we are starting to do!