Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Snow in Australia's New England

There were quite heavy snow falls at the weekend across the New England Tablelands. This photo by Bonnie Smith shows the Edwardian Langford homestead on the outskirts of Walcha.

Driving too and from Sydney I have often stopped on the road outside just to have a look. I have never been inside. That is a treat I have promised myself for a future occasion.

For people who don't know New England, the New England Tablelands is not as high as the Southern Alps, but it does have six mountains over 5,000 feet (1,524 metres), another dozen over 4,000 feet.(1,219 meters).  Walcha where this photo was taken has a height of 3,501 feet (1,067 metres).

This next shot is taken along Thunderbolt's Way, the road between Gloucester and Walcha that runs past Langford to Uralla and then on to Inverell. Some city people don't like this road because it's narrow in spots and can be a bit rough. You also have to watch for stock and kangaroos. Still, its a beautiful drive that also happens to be the quickest route to Armidale and indeed on to Brisbane.

You would think that snow would be frequent in such high country and indeed it does fall on a regular basis. However, the New England Tablelands are much further north than either the Blue Mountains or Southern Alps, tempering the climate. However, the high country is sufficiently spectacular and sometimes cold enough to form the tourism theme for the Tablelands, New England High Country (Facebook page) .

Armidale at 3,215 feet (980 metres) claims, accurately enough, to be the highest city in Australia. However, while some snow falls every winter, heavy falls are relatively uncommon. For that reason, one of the local rituals over so many years for both school and university students has been to hop into buses or cars and travel north up the highway towards Black Mountain (4,304 feet, 1,312 metres). There students, many of whom have never seen snow before, made snowmen and threw snowballs.

.The last photo is again near Walcha.

Guyra (4,364 feet, 1,330 metres) lies just to the north of Black Mountain. I used to play Rugby Union at school. I remember one match at Guyra with the temperature close to freezing and the snow sleeting in from the west. It was so cold that the tips of my fingers were blue, making it quite painful if you miss-caught the ball, hitting the finger tips.

 They breed them tough in the North. The Sydney schools coming up to play Rugby in Armidale during winter found the hard grounds and the sometimes biting westerlies something of an ordeal.

North of Guyra the road stretches on the Glen Innes (3,484 feet, 1,062 metres) though more high country. I have actually never seen snow in Glen. The road north is usually closed during those very heavy falls.

Each major snow-fall brings a stream of visitors from the sub-tropical coast up the mountain ranges to the nearest snow point. The bush goes very quiet when it snows. Sound is dampened, except for the sometimes sound of water. Even though the roads can be treacherous, there is something very calming about the experience.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Creating a New England fringe festival

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival claims to be the largest arts festival in the world. At yesterday's inaugural  meeting of the New England (Northern) new state group Sydney group ( New England New State Sydney discussion group formed) it was agreed that we should:
1 Raise the prospect of a New England Fringe Festival that may include a combination of cultural, political and intellectual events amongst our networks in order to gauge the responses and prospects of participation and support.
This post looks at some of the issues involved.

What is a fringe festival?

 The Edinburgh Festival describes itself in this way:
“Every year we think we know what it’s going to deliver, but every year it surprises, delights, amazes and inspires. The Fringe is a festival like no other. Completely open access – where artists don’t need to wait for an invitation, where anyone with a story to tell is welcome. Where there’s no curator, no vetting, no barriers. Just incredible talent from almost fifty countries all over the world"
Edinburgh is a well established and in many ways unique festival. However, the concept of openness, of letting the world come, is important.

Why a New England fringe festival? 

New England has many generally small arts festivals.It is also made up of many towns or cities, each in rivalry with each other. There is remarkably little cross-promotion. If you have an official festival, then each place will seek to maximise its gain. to sell itself against others. I know that may sound harsh, but its true. Each place has its own story, but that is lost in  the competitive cacophony.  

 If you have a structured festival that is independent of place ore indeed of event, that competition can feed into a better experience for all.

There is a further factor, one referred to in in passing in the meeting summary, the combination of events that spans artistic experience. New England, the broader North, has its own history and culture, but this is fragmented along particular cultural lines, fragmented between communities. Over the last four decades, our knowledge of our own history and culture, the sharing of cultural experiences, has declined. There are many reasons for this, including the decline in the separatist cause that once provided a unifying element, changes in media ownership, changes in Government structures and funding arrangements that tend to fragment. 

We want to turn this around.This doesn't mean that the festival must have a central New England focus, although some of that should be there. To dictate what should go into a fringe festival is anathema to the very concept. However, the idea of a festival that might combine the local and the regional with broader endeavours and trends is very attractive. It might both promote local cultural endeavour and skills and integrate that into the broader world.

Is there enough local endeavour to  provide the required base?

The fact that I have posed this question is itself a sign of the decline we are attempting to address. Of course there is! A fringe festival is not about artistic excellence, although that might be there. It is about sharing what we have, about encouraging others to come.

This shot comes from the Walcha. The whole of Walcha is becoming a sculpture town. It's just one example of the things to see that already exist.

How might it be organised?

It needs to start small. It shouldn't take away from other festivals or activities, but to be used to promote them.

We need a number of participating communities to provide a focus. This need not be large to begin with. Local Government support would be helpful as sponsors and to help coordinate. The regional arts and tourism bodies would also need to be involved.

There would also need to be some form of central organisation to coordinate central marketing, promotion and fund raising.. 

We would also need active support from the local media.  

What might go into the program? 

Each community would look at the things that they have already or that they might do.We need a base package of activities that could be added to a program and cross-promoted, something to build from.

 This  painting, Oxley Highway 2007 is by Walcha artist Julia Griffin. 

At least for the first few festivals, it might be desirable to have one or two key themes to provide a degree of unity. 

We are talking not just about a festival, but a fringe festival. By their nature, fringe festivals are slightly funky, edgy, involving new players and local participation. That makes them fun.

Edinburgh has a recognised brand, it is a capital city and has a large relatively close population base. The fringe also spun off an internationally recognised festival, the Edinburgh International Festival.In the Edinburgh case, fringe means on the margins of an existing festival. In the New England case, fringe means on the margin of multiple activities and attractions spread over space. That's a very different challenge. Available venues are also smaller and may lack facilities. 

 To overcome these problems while keeping the funky, edgy feel,  we would need a community focus that welcomes visitors while giving locals the chance to strut their stuff. We need a combination of main stream with new. And we must cross-promote so that people will travel. 

All this will take thought, imagination and time.

Next Steps

At this point, we are just floating the idea to get people thinking. Over the next few months we will continue to brain storm. In the meantime, we would like feedback on the things that people might like to see or do.    

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Saturday, July 04, 2015

New England New State Sydney discussion group formed

Over a very pleasant BBQ lunch at my place today, we agreed to:

1 Raise the prospect of a New England Fringe Festival that may include a combination of cultural, political and intellectual events amongst our networks in order to gauge the responses and prospects of participation and support.

2. Create a Sydney Discussion Group with Jarrod Hore and Carlo Ritchie as co-convenors in order to organise further meetings in Sydney, expand the network of those interested in a Northern State, and raise awareness of the North amongst the network of 'ex-patriates' who reside in Sydney.

3. Meet again in October at the Dock in Redfern, and each bring along someone new who might be interested in discussing and promoting aspects of Northern culture, politics, history and heritage.

The broad emphasis on Northern culture, politics, history and heritage is important for we are concerned not just with the question of self-government, but also with the protection and promotion of our own unique culture, history and sense of identity.I will write something on the fringe festival concept tomorrow.

It really was a pleasant lunch, greatly helped by Carlo's kindness in bringing along samples of the fine product of the New England Brewing Company.  

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

New states, history and the sense of New England identity

Senator Matt Canavan has again raised the new state cause. This led to a small media flurry. In discussion, Mitchell wrote: Unfortunately aussies hate change. The attitudes in the comment threads from news posts is really disheartening. I responded:
Don't be disheartened, Mitchell Nicholas Ophir. We have been going for almost 160 years and have always failed. Out of that failure we have created national parks, teachers colleges, universities, books schools, political traditions, intellectual traditions. We have influenced politics and thought. We are playing a long game. The institutional barriers are such that without physical insurrection, success is hard. But we are fighting for our own history and the things that we have achieved. That's not all bad.
In this short post, I want to reflect on what I said to Mitchell. 

A lot of the discussion on constitutional reform in Australia is phrased in abstract terms set within the frame defined by the current constitution.

Some argue for the abolition of the states with, in some cases, their replacement by regional councils. This is extremely difficult for it requires a fundamental change to the existing constitution, Others argue for a restatement of relations within the current constitution to return powers to the states. That does not affect the constitution, but is extremely difficult because Federal governments of any persuasion are reluctant to give up real powers, the states suspicious of change in circumstances where final financial control rests with the Commonwealth.  

At this level, the new state movements are a little different because they argue for smaller units related to geography within the existing constitution. That constitution provides for the creation of new states. The impediment is not the constitution, but the unwillingness of existing states to see their territories subdivided.The problem is political, not constitutional. However, because of the nature of the political opposition, the new state movements have argued over time that the constitution should be amended to allow the inhabitants of particular areas to gain self government through some form of popular expression that would override the opposition of the state in question. This is a difficult ask for it requires constitutional change that would, effectively, be opposed by all existing interests.   

The nature of the problems involved leads to depression. Why bother when the cards are stacked against you?  However, it's not quite as clear-cut as that. 

Since the separatist cause first emerged in the lead up to the separation of the Moreton Bay Colony, now Queensland, it has been riven by divisions. At the beginning, it was the division between squatters and small farmers and towns' people, between those saw either joining with Moreton Bay or the creation of a new colony as a way of meeting labour shortages through continued convict importation and those who were opposed. A little later, it was the towns' people who became the separatists because they saw the return from land sales in their area all spent in Sydney. 

As the decades passed. as the agitation rose and fell, the composition of those opposed and those supporting shifted depending on the circumstances of the time.In 1967 when the question was put to plebiscite, the vote was lost 53% to 47% with the no vote concentrated in the Newcastle and coal fields electorates, in the southern dairy farming electorates. The first group feared Country Party domination in the new Parliament, the second loss of preferential access to the Sydney milk market. Economics and party politics are always important.

Two things happened in the midst of shifting agitation and alliances. The first was the creation of a sense of Northern identity, a recognition that the North had its own history and interests. The separatists campaigned for the North, stated that the North was different, an entity. The North did indeed have its own identity based on history and geography, but the campaigns emphasized that  separateness. The second was the establishment of a clear relationship between the rise and fall of new state agitation and the public and political recognition of New England as an entity that had to be taken into account, that could not be ignored, that had to be satisfied in some way. 

Since the plebiscite loss, that sense of New England identity has declined. Further and unlike North Queensland where distance from Brisbane has maintained the sense of separation, New England has become increasingly fragmented between the growing metros of Sydney and Brisbane. And yet, history and geography have both ensured a continuation of that sense of Northernness.        

In my comment to Mitchell, I said that we were fighting for our own history. Many, even in the North, would deny that we have our own unique history or would say that it's just not important in the changing sweep of Australian history. Each region of New England has its own history, but sitting on top of this, integrating it, is a Northern history. 

I write the weekly history column for the Armidale Express. I know from talking to people that the sense of Northern history, even New England Tablelands' history, has declined relative to local history. The sense of identity, of interconnection, has diminished. 

When we talk about the fight for self-government we are not just talking about a constitutional battle, we are not just talking about the fight for political and economic recognition, we are actually fighting for the continued recognition of our story as something important and worthwhile. This holds for the North in general and for the different parts of the North. We have our own narrative and that's worth preserving.

New England's Aboriginal peoples talk about sense of country, of the importance of linkages between present and past. They have very particular reasons for emphasising that, but it's true for the rest of us as well. That is what we are fighting for, not just for self-government as such.