I went to Armidale last weekend for one of my now sadly rare visits.
It had been a battle getting away. I had planned to go Saturday, but in the end it was Sunday before I left. I didn't contact many people in advance; I was just too disorganised!
I arrived in Armidale quite late. I was very tired on the trip, and really had to watch my driving. I kept veering and took lots of stops.
I dropped stuff at the motel, and went down to the White Bull to get a steak, ordering a bottle of New England red.
Chatting to the waitress, I found that she was doing a B.Ed. She came from from the Northern Rivers with Kyogle family connections. I told her what I was doing in Armidale. She was a bit surprised when I started talking about the just held 50 year re-union of the 1962 Kyogle High leaving certificate class!
This is a photo of the class reunion. The black and white photo being held up is that of John Coulter. John came to the Armidale Teachers College and was a member with me of the Armidale Methodist Youth Fellowship. To come from or even go to to New England is to leave it. In John's case, he ended in Beijing. Our diaspora is spread all over the world.
To illustrate the scale, this photo shows John introducing Professor Robert Costanza to John's university class in Beijing. What a world of difference there is between the Kyogle of 1962, the White Bull of Armidale in 2012, and the packed metropolis of Beijing!
I struggle a little to explain this. My waitress was polite, even interested, but explaining difference and history is still hard. Mind you, I think I gained a reader for my column, and that's good!
Monday morning I went out to UNE. Sat in the union at my old table drinking coffee writing down descriptions of the people around me. I actually felt quite lonely, part of the past's furniture, seeing nobody that I knew. I went up the hill to the Archaeology Department to return a PhD thesis & chatted to the few people around. Then down the hill to the History Department and ditto.
Fellow New England expat Paul Barratt took great pleasure (as I did) in the recent growth in UNE student numbers. The picture from a staff perspective is a little different. Teaching loads are up, pleasure down, and the new e-systems are not yet working properly. There is a story here, for the pattern fits with the things that I have been writing about on this and my other blogs.
I went back Into town and my obligatory visit to Boo Books. There really is a wonderful collection of real books, all second hand. Armidale is lucky with two great second hand book shops in the area. This photo shows part of the collection. As Paul Barratt commented to me on Facebook, it's a dangerous place!
I didn't have a lot of money with me, this trip was done on a bit of a shoe string, but still came out with three New England books plus one on lay-by! I could have bought twenty more, but as it was I was trying to work out how to fund petrol home!
What did I buy? Aboriginal activist Kevin Blacks' 1977 work Living Black. This is not of itself a New England book, but a significant proportion of the interviews are with new England Aboriginal people. This makes it a New England book after all! Then I bought a history of the Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education and a book By Professor Noel Butlin on the economics of Aboriginal life. With books in my fields, I always check whether or not I have been quoted. And I had in the last! Aren't I an egotist?
From Boo Books I went up to the Express to meet my new editor, Lydia Roberts. I am always interested in seeing production facilities. It seems a very long time since fellow blogger Winton Bates and I were co-editors of the now defunct Neucleus, the UNE student newspaper, and indeed it is. But it does mean that I have been in at least part charge of the production of a newspaper in the pre-computer age. So I watched with interest as my column was set up for print. Then we used scissors and paste to set up pages. Now its so very different!
Lydia introduced me to Janene Carey. Now Janene and I are fellow bloggers, fellow writers, fellow Express people, who have been communication for a number of years. But we had never met. So that was a thrill! I had really wanted to meet Janene. She is a very good writer indeed.
While at the Express office, I was asked whether I had experimented with videos. Apparently Janene is practicing. I fear not. I did have a video camera, but it was stolen! I have never gone back.
Interesting watching the impact of new technology. For me, I am still struggling to master e-publishing! For the present, I will leave daughter Clare with mastery in this area.
Back to the motel to check my notes and review slides for my Monday evening presentation. I needed these for the visuals I was using - political symbols, film stills and posters, paintings, book covers etc.
The whole point of my Armidale trip was a presentation to the Armidale North Rotary Club. When my new column, History Revisited, started appearing in the Express, Mick Duncan contacted me to welcome me back and invite me to speak to the club. I have known Mick for many years. We first met in Queanbeyan when I was a community activist there and Mick was in the local Rotary Club. This drew us together in shared activities.
This is Jim from those days. Bloody hell. How we change!
The topic I had chosen to speak on was Northern Images: landscape, life and literature through New England eyes. To do this, I needed lots of visual material. But how to present this? That was why I needed to review.
The presentation itself went reasonably well. One surprise was that the Club had got phone calls from people wanting to come and hear me. Talk about balm to my ego! The second, and I should have expected this, was just how many people I knew.
As an example, the Rologas family are a very well known Cypriot Armidale family. I was told that Chris Rogas was coming and was wearing a suit because I always did. And indeed, that had been true! But not this time. When I saw Chris and his wife, he thanked me for the support that I had given through my then Express column for the renaming of the soccer fields as the Rologas fields.
Really, that was a no-brainer. Apart from the general arguments about the substantial Rologas contribution, I simply reminded Chris that the first time I had taken a girl out to dinner was at Nick's Cafe; that later when Clare was born, I had taken Denise out on a leave pass from the hospital to Seven Brothers for dinner; that later still, we as a family had all been to Seven Brothers. My girls won't remember, but I do.
As I looked at the Club members and visitors, I realised that I needed to recast my presentation. I needed to recognise the Rologas contributions. I looked at at Helen Letters that was and realised that I needed to recognise her family with stories. Helen was so kind and enthusiastic. She wanted to know when I was speaking again so that she could video the presentation!
All this made me remarkably nervous. I realised that it had been eighteen months since my last gig. Presentation is a bit like riding a bike. You don't lose the skills entirely, but you do get rusty. To think that I used to be able to speak to two hundred people in a hall without a mike! So that is something else that I need to hone.
One one the things about my writing and presentation is that I try to tell a story. I try to bring things alive.
This shot is a slide from the presentation contrasting the 2010 Newcastle film Bootmen with the 2010 Northern Rivers film Lou. Two very different worlds yet linked by geography and history.
You actually won't get any of this stuff in a world dominated by narrow slice metro media nor their associated cultural structures. They have no knowledge of history nor context.
Based on this and other feedback, I think that I might do some public speaking presentations on some of my work. Literally, the "book venue and hope that people came" variety.
After the presentation, I went back to the motel on something of a high. Next morning I was leaving for Coffs Habour on a work matter. So I tried to get an early night.
As I drove through the New England countryside in the early morning on my way to Coffs Harbour, I thought how gorgeous it was. I was angry with myself. I had my camera, but I had slept in and didn't have time to take shots. I did stop briefly in Bellingen to get Coffs directions from an internet cafe.
Bellingen really was superb, very mixed, very cosmopolitan. As I sat, I thought of Lynne Sanders-Braithwaite. You see Lynne, apart from your general connections with the place, the night before I had been asked in questions how small local groups (the questioner was concerned about disability services) might access support in a world where Government support was both totally unstable and focused on the big. In trying to answer, I used Save Bellingen Hospital as an example.
By the time I drove on to Sydney from Coffs I was very tired. Again, I had to be very careful. But as I drove, I thought that Jim the story teller was not a bad role. I can't change the world. But being able to tell the stories of people back to people, isn't bad. I can't solve the big, but if I can do small things, then I am doing something positive measured by direct contribution to particular people.