Open discussion on the evolution of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

What makes a writer - or artist - a local?

I have just been doing an update on the New England's History blog. This and its companion blog, New England Australia, are my attempt to preserve and present the life and history of a major sub-state area, one that has striven for self-government over a long period.

My updating raised in my mind the question as to when we should classify someone as a local writer or artist.

On New England Australia I put up a post on Australian painter Margaret Olley, Margaret Olley's New England connection.

Margaret Olley was born in Lismore and spent part of her early life on the Tweed. Yet while New England might claim her as its own, she is not (to my current knowledge) a New England artist in that I know of no evidence that her painting was affected by her New England experience.

Compare her to Judith Wright or Alex Buzo.

Judith Wright's work was deeply shaped by her New England Tableland's family and up-bringing. South of my day's circle, part of my blood's country, Judith wrote of her homeland.

Alex Buzo was born in Sydney and came to Armidale with his parents. Alex loved Sydney and returned there after school. His writing was informed by his sense of irony and love of the Australian idiom.

Yet his Armidale experiences - he retained his links to the city and his old school to the end -also informed his writing. One of his plays - I do not remember the name - captured his flight from Armidale back to the big smoke. Alex expected me to identify the characters, and indeed I did.

Coming to a place does not make you a local. Often, as with D H Lawrence's presentation of Australia in Kangaroo (1923), the outsider can write from a sometimes jaundiced perspective.

Robert Barnard's crime novel Death of an Old Goat, drawing from his experiences while an English lecturer at the University of New England can hardly be described as a sympathetic portrayal of Armidale. The blurb reads:

Professor Belville-Smith had bored university audiences in England with the same lecture for fifty years. Now he was crossing the Australian continent, doing precisely the same. Never before had the reaction been so extreme, however, for shortly after an undistinguished appearance at Drummondale University, the doddering old professor is found brutally murdered.

The characters, many instantly recognisable to locals, are presented with a degree of disdain, even contempt.

Patrice Newell is very different.

Born in Adelaide, Patrice (here and here) came to Gundy in the Hunter I do not think that Patrice would even recognise herself as a New England writer, yet her books capture both the local and broader New England linkages and experience.

I am not sure where I go with all this, but I find the ideas interesting.

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