Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 2 March 2011. 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 for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.
In my 9 February column I talked about the perspectives of Indonesian students meeting Australians for the first time and what this told us about ourselves.
One of the difficulties and sometime joys for anyone interested in history lies in understanding how people thought and felt in the past period you are interested in. This might be your own family, your area or a period of history.
I say difficulties because it can be remarkably difficult to break through the way we think now to enter a different world. I say joys because sometimes, suddenly, you get a breakthrough. Now I understand!
I am a reasonably successful blogger: visits to my personal blog have just passed 100,000; visits to my main New England blog will reach 50,000 in the next few weeks; the total number of visits to all my blogs is approaching 250,000.
I also reach different audiences through this column and my other writing. In all, I do have a reasonable size audience. Yet I will never be quite main stream.
This may sound a fair bit removed from my opening remarks, but there is a link.
We are all formed by our family and experiences. We live in a world that expands from where we are in a series of circles.
I grew up in Armidale. My world was intensely local, while also being regional and global.
My circles began in the blocks around home: the fruit trees from which we stole fruit in the early morning, homes of family and friends, Mrs Beattie’s store, the places where we roamed.
My circles then expanded: places in the district, politics in Sydney or Canberra, the places where my school friends came from, the broader North itself, the distant academic centres including Oxford and Cambridge where so many Armidalians went.
From the beginning I was aware of difference.
In many ways I was a member of the dominant group in my own area, the majority if you like. Yet I quickly became conscious that my natural order was not the same as that holding in the rest of Australia. I was Country Party and new state, by definition minority groups within the broader Australia.
I also became conscious that my own life with its academic and political flavour was distinct, different, from many of those I met.
A bookish academic/townie child, I found it hard to mix with country kids. Our experiences were very different, even though I had country family. It actually took me years to properly understand their world. I had to teach myself, to try to get inside their minds.
These various experiences have affected me in many ways.
They help explain why I write so much about New England history. I am trying to take our history out of the closet, dust of the dust and spiders and present it to a broader audience. I want to show its unique value.
They explain why I will never be quite a main stream blogger. My world view is simply different.
I don’t see the world in terms of a series of circles extending from the capital cities. I have very little interest in the arcane arguments of the left and right that dominate so much of blogging. I want to argue about different things, including country issues.
Sometimes this perspective has been quite useful in my professional work. Because I see things in a different way, I have sometimes been able to present counter arguments that have had an influence.
However, probably the most important effect is that my own sense of difference, my sometimes alienation from the main stream, makes me especially conscious of the need to understand and adjust to difference.
This is actually a very good if sometimes uncomfortable thing.
It’s uncomfortable because adjustment is always difficult.
We don’t always recognise difference in Australia because of our assumptions about national uniformity. In fact, that assumption makes it hard to recognise difference.
I am not talking here about what is now called multicultural Australia. I can understand the difference between, say, Indonesian and Australian cultural attributes.
I am talking about differences in the main Australian community – Sydney vs Armidale attitudes, for example. You try arguing some of the things I argue to a Sydney audience, and you will quickly find the differences. Sometimes I just have to shut up; there is no point!
On the plus side, my sensitivity to difference is a great help in understanding not just history, but also the way societies work, including Australia.
Every group believes that its views are right. If you are going to mix across groups, you have to be sensitive and adjust to the different mores involved.