Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Belshaw's World - experience, just like a photo, is worth a thousand words

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 6 July 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.

Gordon Smith’s lookANDsee ( with its wonderful photos of Armidale and the Tablelands is my favourite photo blog. With Gordon’s permission, I have reproduced his photos many times where I want to capture the look and feel of aspects of life in New England.

Unlike most photo blogs with their coastal focus, Gordon is (as am I) an inland person. Now he has just started posting photographs of his latest outback tour. They are wonderful photos and I recommend them to you.

The first photo of a very large tree near Bingara brought out the child in me. I wanted to build a camp under its roots!

Wikipedia reports that the term outback was first used in print in 1869 to refer to country west of Wagga Wagga. Earlier the term back country, land beyond the settled regions, was used. This term was in existence in at least 1800 when it applied to the Blue Mountains and beyond.

The line marking the outback moved as European settlement spread. We speak, for example, of back of Bourke signifying that the outback began there.

The outback exercised a powerful fascination on the Australian imagination, featuring in yarns, films, poetry, writing, Fortunes were made from mining and pastoral activities, but for every success there were many heartbreaks.

The world changes. One indicator of this has been the expansion in coverage of the term outback. Modern Australia has turned to the coast, looking out to the sea just as the first European settlers had done all those years ago.

As the links between the big cities and the inland became more attenuated, the outback line moved east past Wagga Wagga until today some Sydney kids think that the outback begins at the Blue Mountains, exactly the same point at which the back country began in 1800!

This attenuation is part of something that I have often spoken about, the growing disconnect between modern urban Australians and the country. It’s not just rural Australia, but pretty much everything outside the metro centres.

I do wonder how we turn this around. I try in my own way, of course, through my writing and advisory work, but it’s a slow process.

One of the most effective if difficult ways lies in the direct exposure of city people, and especially kids from new migrant backgrounds, to life outside the metros.

I say effective because experience is worth a thousand words. I focus on kids from migrant backgrounds because they are least likely to have the country family connections that will give them an understanding through family.

Neil Whitfield is one of my blogging friends. Retired now, Neil taught for a long period at Sydney Boys High School. Incidentally, he also taught at Illawarra Grammar with John Traas who older Armidale residents may remember as the French master at TAS.

Poor Mr Traas. I was not one of his success stories!

On his blog Neil provided some fascinating stats about the proportion of students at our selective high schools from non English speaking backgrounds. The proportion this year at Sydney Boys High School is 91 per cent. That’s a remarkable number!

Recently, the Express carried stories about the annual visit of Sydney High to TAS. I think that some four hundred boys came. The paper reported on it as a news story. My thought was that there were four hundred students who have had some country exposure that they would otherwise not get.

Recently, the paper also reported on the welcome given in Armidale to refugees. I thought that it was a nice story, but again looked at it in a different way.

By their nature, migrant communities tend to stick together.

A welcome given means that those people and their children will remember Armidale as they go their various ways. Importantly, they will also carry the story beyond into the broader migrant communities.

To my mind, that’s how we turn things around, by a series of individual actions.

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