Sunday, November 27, 2016

New England Travels - A visit to Dalwood part one

Some time ago, I started writing New England Travels, subtitled journeys through space and time. Part history, part travel, part personal reminiscences,  the book gave me an opportunity to write beyond the usual confines set by the need to record sources, to sit within boundaries. Like so many of my projects, it is only part written, but I thought that I might share some of it with you. 
Dalwood House lies on the Hunter River near Branxton.  
Dalwood House stands on a rise. From the side verandah, mown grass runs down to the old vineyard. The Hunter River lies beyond, hidden within its high banks. It was hot and still, the silence broken only by the distant sound of a crow. Even the working properties on the hills on the other side of the River were still, remote in the faint heat haze.

This was only my second visit to Dalwood House. Many years before I had read Australian writer and poet Judith Wright’s Generations of Men, the story of her grandparents and the establishment of the Wyndham and then Wright pastoral dynasties; the book gripped me. I was especially caught by the almost lyrical descriptions of Dalwood House as seen through the eyes of Charlotte May Wright nee Mackenzie, Judith’s grandmother.

By chance, I had just finished the book when I went out to dinner in Canberra. Talking about the book over dinner, my hostess, herself a member of the Wright family, said “The house is still there, you know, although it’s a ruin now.” I got directions and visited it with a friend on my next trip to Armidale.

Many parts of Australia now claim Judith Wright as their own. Up in Queensland, the State Government has expropriated her for a performing arts centre. Her New England connection is dismissed in just a few words: “Judith Wright was a Queensland resident for over thirty years. She was born in New England, in regional New South Wales, and came to Brisbane as a young woman”. Later, Canberra and Braidwood would claim her too.

In all this, Judith remained a quintessentially New England writer. That was where her views were first formed, although her later experiences and especially her relationship with the older novelist and philosopher Jack McKinney would exercise a powerful influence over her. Judith met Jack McKinney when she moved to Brisbane. He was a much older man, some twenty four years her senior, only two years younger than her father. They fell in love, moving to Mount Tamborine in 1950; daughter Meredith was born in that year. In 1962, Jack and Judith finally married. Four years later Jack died, leaving a hole in Judith’s life.

Jack McKinney was the second of three powerful men in Judith Wright’s life. The first was her father, Phillip Arundell Wright, with whom she shared a middle name. The third was H C “Nugget” Coombs, a noted Australian economist and public servant, with whom she had a twenty five year love affair. Coombs was again an older man, in this case by nine years. Both were major public figures. Judith was a widow, Coombs long separated from his wife. Both shared common interests, including Aboriginal advancement and the environment. Judith moved to Braidwood to be closer to the Canberra based Coombs, but the affair was kept secret, if open to their friends and the Canberra network within which they moved.

Each man had a powerful impact on Judith, but I think that it was the father that formed her core views. It was he that gave her that love of the environment and of the country. It was he that gave her that love, affection and unstinting support that seems to shine through in the letters between them.

I knew her father as a much older man. PA, we all spoke of him as PA, was my grandfather’s friend; my grandfather was godfather to his son who bore the same first name; my copy of Generations of Men carries my grandfather’s signature, bought in the year the book first came out. To me, PA was a somewhat remote figure. I saw him at events and at the New England New State Movement Executive meetings that he sometimes chaired. I and my fellow students at the University of New England where he was chancellor poked gentle fun at him for his sometimes mangled English. It would be a number of years before I came to properly understand his contribution to Northern life and the causes he supported.

Judith loved her father, she loved the Falls country in which she grew up, she loved the life on the family properties. Her earlier works reflect that love, and then the joy she found in her relationship with Jack McKinney. Later, there would come a darkening of spirit, an erosion in optimism, a rejection of elements of her past. “You ask me to read those poems I wrote in my thirties?” she wrote in Skins. “They dropped off several incarnations back.”

Judith had the misfortune to be born a girl in an age when men inherited. Especially after the death of PA, she became separated from the properties and life she had loved, although the family ties remained close. Towards the end of her life, she saw the end of the Wright family empire that had been carefully built by her grandparents and especially grandmother May Wright. The ABC TV Dynasties program recorded the event in this rather dramatic way:
By December 2000, he (brother David) had lost it all – his properties, his cattle and his wife to cancer. His sister, the poet Judith Wright, watched in despair and died soon after.
That’s dramatic, but the loss was a profound one. Generations of Men is dedicated to the children of May and Albert, to her father and his brothers and sisters. The phrase generations of men comes from Blake’s Milton; the verse is quoted on the book’s title page:
The generations of men run on in the tide of time
But their destn’d lineaments permanent for ever and ever.
If you look at those words, you can get a feel for Judith’s sense of loss.

Six years after Judith’s death, David, my grandfather’s namesake, died suddenly. On his death, University of New England Professor Bernie Bindon described David as one of the pioneers of the scientific research underpinning today's Australian beef industry. "I can't think of a beef industry person” Professor Bindon said, “who's made a bigger contribution to not only the growth of the beef industry but the science that underpins the beef business," The Herefords .that formed the base of the V1V and V2V Wright brands began their life at Dalwood. It was Judith’s grandparents, the core characters in Generations of Men, who began the breeding program that created the Wright cattle.

Not long before David’s. death, Aunt Helen and I revisited my grandfather’s old property, Foreglen, for the first time for many years. It was Christmas, and the family had gathered together in Armidale for what would prove to be one of our last family Christmases. I was perhaps four or five when the property was sold. My last visit had been the clearance sale. That’s a long time ago, yet I had very clear memories of the place. I remember the clearance sale in particular because I still felt that the place belonged to us. I remember playing with other kids, clambering over the machinery and playing on the ancient Model T Ford, telling my companions about the place. I don’t think that I properly realised what had happened.

After that Christmas lunch, I said let’s go out to Foreglen. Everybody groaned, too full of food and wine to want to move. However, Aunt Helen finally agreed to come with me and also acted as pilot. I couldn’t quite remember how to get there!

Foreglen was now owned by David Wright. The old homestead had been vacant, we thought that it still was, but we found it occupied by a nice Chinese couple with two young kids. They agreed to let us look round. Our host was an accountant employed by David to work on ways of restructuring the pastoral business. Both he and his wife had grown up in the crowded world of Hong Kong. This was their first exposure to the Australian countryside. At first, they found it difficult to cope with the quiet and absence of people. Now with a vegetable garden, their own chooks and with the kids settled in school, they were trying to encourage their Chinese friends in Brisbane to go bush.

David lost Foreglen with his other assets. I have always wondered about that Chinese couple. Did they go back to Brisbane? I will probably never know.

In 1959 when Generations of Men was first published, all these events lay in the distant future. They still were when I first visited Dalwood House. Then I wandered around trying to fit the now decrepit reality into the vivid images created in my mind by the book. Now I looked again with the knowledge of what was to happen fresh in my mind.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Three romantic New England restaurants

Back in October, Travel In magazine listed 5 Romantic Restaurants of Regional NSW. Three of the five are New England.

Moving north to south, we start with Tenterfield's Commercial Boutique Hotel. The renovated pub maintains its art deco features, serves craft beers as well as local ones and looks very nice indeed.

Further south, we come to Uralla's Merilba Estate.  Developed by the Cassidy family, this offers good dining again combined with cool country wines. an enchanting establishment that ticks all the right boxes when it comes to the ultimate romantic restaurant.

Further south still at Tamworth, The Pig and Tinder Box offers a more urban feel.

Three restaurants, each different, but showcasing some elements of modern New England life.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

From Africa's Great Lakes to Mingoola's Field of Dreams

For those who do not know the series, Australian Story is a weekly ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) TV production that for many years has showcased a different aspect of Australian life. The stories are personal and often inspirational. A Field of Dreams (7 November 2016) was one of the best.

The story reminds us that at times when problems seem so big, so insoluble, individual action can help at least some.

Mingoola lies 57 km  (35.4 miles) west from Tenterfield along the Bruxner Highway very near the Queensland border. This is  farming country, pretty country, some of Northern New England's best.

The Glenlyon Dam with its water sports and a tourist park lies 16km from Mingoola across the Queensland border. The Sundown National Park with spectacular sharp ridges and steep-sided gorges is 12km from Mingoola. Here the Severn River and its tributaries, woodland birds and the remains of pastoral and mining heritage can be discovered via maintained walking tracks or challenging remote walks.

Despite these attractions, Mingoola had a problem. The community was dying.
CHRISTINE DENIS, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Mingoola for lots of years has been an ageing community so we’ve got lots of older people but we don’t have many younger people and the community is poorer without them.
JULIA HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Maybe it's a bit of a sense of history, you don't wish to see a community die. And there’s a lot of rural communities dying. And the life of any community is largely tied to children. There’s not much joy in a place with no children
Population loss in New England's rural communities has been a problem for many years. In Mingoola's case, the problem was compounded by the closure of the tobacco growing industry that had stretched from Ashford to the border. You can still see signs of the industry today in the drying sheds, painted letter boxes and (I think that it still survives) a bocce court next to the Mingoola Hall.
CHRISTINE DENIS, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Lots of migrants came for seasonal work. Some of them found it very difficult to fit in. And some of the locals found it very difficult to understand why these people had come. But eventually .... an harmonious community came out of it. Everybody seemed to be prospering well. But the industry died.
Tobacco brought many Italians as workers and sharefarmers. Their children attended the Mingoola School. There were some integration problems, but things worked out. With the ending of the tobacco industry, many left although some like the Zappa family stayed, acquiring land and moving into new industries such as wine. As people left, it became harder and harder to maintain community activities, to find the seasonal labour for the farms.
BOB SOUTH, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Fifty years ago there was a dance in the hall here once a month and there was one in a wool shed up the road once a month, you know, there was a great social life. That social life has changed.  
Three years ago, the Mingoola Progress Association decided to try to turn things around. Drawing from the region's immigration past, they decided to look for refugees willing to move to the area.
JULIA HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: The Mingoola community felt very strongly that we'd welcomed people before, historically. And most people were really happy at the idea of welcoming people again.
They struck brick walls.
JULIA HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Then we started thinking we might be able to find some refugees who'd be happy to come and live in the valley. But every time I contacted any kind of refugee service they all said, oh no, you know, these people need to stay in the city.
CHRISTINE DENIS, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: They need lots of counselling, lots of language support, they needed more than we had. So we had to find families that had been in Australia for long enough to be feeling OK about perhaps moving
This business of need for adequate support services for refugees has become a major difficulty that actively impedes families moving to country areas . The need to provide adequate (ie modern) housing and support services can actually place refugees in situations where they have good housing and support services but are isolated from the surrounding community without access to work. This can be an especial problem for those from farming communities without experience of urban living.

At the end of 2015, the Mingoola position went critical. The small local school had gone into recess and would close permanently if the minimum number of students could not be found by April 2016. 
THOMAS GEORGE, LOCAL MP: The community was shattered because that’s the hub of Mingoola, the hall and their school. It really affected Julia but she wasn’t taking it lying down and she was going to lead the community in trying to have that school re-opened. I thought, ‘Well, good on you Julia’, but I didn’t know how she was going to do it.
Unknown to the Mingoola team, Sydney refugee advocate Emmanuel Musoni had a problem. He and his organisation, the Great Lakes Agency for Peace and Development International (GLAPD), were grappling with problems in the community from Central Africa displaced from Rwanda and neighbouring countries during years of bitter civil war. The majority had rural backgrounds.   
"If you ask them, 'What was your dream when you applied to come to Australia and boarded the plane,' they say, 'We hoped we were going to be put in the countryside, to connect ourselves with agricultural life and have a garden'," Mr Musoni said. 
Instead they were resettled in cities where employment prospects were few, the environment was intimidating and many became depressed and isolated.
In 2014, Musoni and his colleagues had a discussion with Minister Concetta Fravanti-Wells, then assistant minister for multicultural affairs, about improvement of settlement services for their communities. People wanted to move to regional cities and towns because their background was mostly in agriculture and farming.  The group was asked if their people "could actually live and work on farm by doing farming jobs and the answer was yes."  They were asked to prepare a policy paper which they submitted in 2015.

There matters rested for the moment. However, one of Minister Concetta Fravanti-Wells' advisers, Isobel Brown, was struck by the conversation. When Julia Harpham contacted the office of Member for New England Barnaby Joyce,  they knew of Isobel Brown's interest in resettlement and asked her if she could help the residents of Mingoola. Isobel then put Julia in contact with Emmanuel Musoni.

On 26 January 2016,  a team of six selected from various Great Lakes communities visited Mingoola. There they met community members, the Mayor of Tenterfield Shire and local Lismore MP Thomas George. GAPD was invited to present to a meeting of Tenterfield Shire Council on 24 February. The presentation was a considerable success.

Meanwhile, time was of the essence if the school was to be saved. Agreement was reached between Mr Musoni and the Mingoola Progress Association on a timetable for settling three families by the end of April 2016. There were some reservations.

On housing:
CHRISTINE DENIS, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Around the district there were lots of small cottages that hadn’t been lived in for a long time and were crying out for somebody to do something to them.
JULIA HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: We went to look at the houses and I was totally embarrassed because the houses were in great need of repainting. There was quite a lot of work that needed to be done in the kitchens. But, they were totally unfazed by that.
Julia: We’re thinking if we put a verandah on, on the side as well. But as you can see.
Emmanuel: How about an outside kitchen?
Julia: Yeah, well they really wanted an outside kitchen.
Emmanuel: That’s an African thing, yeah. 
Julia: They love the outside kitchen
On jobs:
BOB SOUTH, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Philip and Julia went ahead and pushed this quite quickly and, you know, they’re compassionate people going at it from the heart. But a lot of people in the area were concerned about the lack of employment. I think the biggest fear we had was we would be introducing the people into a poverty trap. I know one of my neighbours has said that bringing these people in has the potential, if it falls apart, to set neighbour against neighbour and have people who’ve been friends for years opposed to each other and we don’t want that to happen.
On not going back:
THOMAS GEORGE, LOCAL MP: I was brought up in a household that didn’t speak English. I did say, look, coming from the migrant background that I’d come from, I wanna raise a few realities to you. First of all, if you don’t like it here you just can’t walk down the road and catch a bus and get away from here. You know, you’re in a remote area. They said ‘We are African. We know.’
A call was put out seeking families who might be willing to make the move; while the community began renovating the vacant cottages. Within a week, there were 50 families on the waiting list.
JULIA HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: I don’t think we ever really in our wildest dreams expected these people would really want to come so much and want to come so quickly, to get out of the city. Emmanuel came back with the first two families who put their names down. They arrived the day before Anzac Day. One family was staying with us because their house wasn’t ready. I did note that there were a lot of children in these families. I thought well there’s a good thing.
The first families who came had troubled stories:
JULIA HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Renata and Isaac had nine kids. Fainess and Jonathan have seven. 
PHILIP HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: I think that a lot of these people had a very difficult past, because of the trauma they’ve seen. So we don’t ask them. We just don’t ask. 
ISAAC ICIMPAYE: My name is Isaac, I come from Burundi.
ISAAC ICIMPAYE (SUBTITLED): My dad and my mum passed away and my brother passed away when I was already in the refugee camp. They killed him and threw him in the forest.
RENATA NTIHABOSE (SUBTITLED): Yes, that’s what happened to me too. I lost my two brothers. Yes, they got killed.
FAINESS KABURA: When they come to kill people we just hide there. If you’re hiding together with your family they can kill all the family. I was with my brother. When we are hearing people scream something. And my mother died. So yeah.
JONATHAN KANANI: Yeah, freedom. Yeah. And the peace. That’s why I think I’m excited to come and live here, yeah. 
Three families have now settled at Mingoola. They have found seasonal work in woolsheds and picking pumpkins previously done by backpackers.
PAUL MAGNER, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: We’d been using backpackers but in the last few months, we’ve been employing the couple of African refugee families with picking pumpkins and a little bit of time in the wool shed work. They’re doing a good job
THOMAS GEORGE, LOCAL MP: So there may not be long-term full-time employment, however there’s long-term seasonal employment. 
PHILIP HARHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: And these people do enjoy working. And they're very keen to see their children succeed.
And they have gardens, really close to their own small farms:
NADINE SHEMA, COMMUNITY ADVOCATE: For the families who have moved having a garden helped them to heal from their depression and all the trauma that they had. It was like, going back to their roots, I think.
EMMANUEL MUSONI, COMMUNITY ADVOCATE: Renata said that it had been more than 16 years since she had a garden.
JULIA HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Renata and Fainess have probably hoed up more than a hectare, maybe two. You know, like, it's just incredible how much garden they've managed to produce in three months.
And the school has reopened, now featuring its new pupils.

Things are never perfect. Mingoola can take just four families and there are now 150 Great Lakes families on the waitlist. Mingoola has worked because there was a local need and local commitment.
CHRISTINE DENIS, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: We were feeling a bit of pressure, a bit of responsibility that if these people were going to make their lives up here we had to make the whole project work.  
Like their predecessors, most of the new children at Mingoola School will need to leave for further study and work. But they will do so knowing that they are part of a community in a new country. That's no small thing.

Meantime, the hard graft of maintaining the Mingoola community continues.

This photo is Mingoola Hall on election day in the 1920s. Now from the Mingoola Community Facebook Page:
Vote at Mingoola on Election Day!! We have the Polling Booth back but will lose it again if it's not supported......
A little later:
74 people voted at Mingoola - good work guys!!
And so the work goes on!


In addition to the links given above, majour sources are:
I can't give you a link to the full ABC piece accessible to people outside Australia, but this YouTube news video provides a little more:

This is another YouTube video connected with this story

And a third

And yet another. I like this one because it shows the broader community.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Greyhound buses, the decline of inland New England and a challenge to Adam Marshall

The decision by Greyhound Australia to close its New England Highway bus route marked another stage in the relative decline of inland New England. It means that there is no longer an inland bus route between Sydney and Brisbane.

In a statement, the company said without the numbers the service, which runs through Tenterfield, Glen Innes, Guyra, Armidale, Uralla, Tamworth and down through the Hunter, could no longer continue.

“Despite trying multiple initiatives, in order to improve passenger volumes so we can continue to service the local communities on this route, they have proven to be unsuccessful,” National Sales Manager Dan Smith said.

“Our load volumes have been consistently under our breakeven point, which is the definitive reason for the suspension.

“So with this in mind, Greyhound Australia can no longer financially justify operating the daily inland service between Brisbane and Sydney via the New England Highway.”

I can understand the company's position. It also improves the viability of Glen Innes based New England Coaches three days a week Tamworth Brisbane service. That's not a bad thing, although its not a substitute.

Interesting on-going discussion on a Whirlpool forum about the relative speed of travelling between Sydney and Brisbane via the two routes. The Pacific route is shorter and with road improvements is now faster, if with some terrifying spots. So if it's a straight time choice, people tend to choose the Pacific. Mind you, the Thunderbolts Way route with its Pacific/New England combination is faster still, but we don't want to mention that too widely. It wouldn't be if everybody took it!

But what's really difficult is that choice has been withdrawn, that people no longer have the choice to wend their way along the New England by bus, stopping and going on. Its another blow to the tourist industry. Over the years there have been attempts to promote the the New England Highway route, but they suffer from the standard problems of Sydney governance that bedevils so much New England tourist promotion - too little, too late, too unfocused, too irregular.

A few weeks back, I persuaded a colleague to come back from Brisbane via the New England, over-nighting in Armidale. She and the children enjoyed the trip and loved Armidale. It was everything I had said. Obviously I liked that.

Responding to the Greyhound decision, Parliamentary Secretary for Northern NSW and Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall said the service loss would be felt by his electorate.

“It’s always disappointing to see the loss of services to regional NSW,” he told The Leader. “The coach service has had dwindling numbers as more people choose to drive, or fly or catch the train.

“I have no doubt constituents in my electorate will feel the effects of this.”.....Mr Marshall said he understood it was a business decision but said it was unlikely such a service would return.

“Once we lose services in regional NSW it’s very hard to get them back,” he said

That's not good enough, Adam. I know that you work hard and have achieved individual results, but you have not defined anything approaching a coherent strategy to address continuing structural decline in inland New England.

You don't have to accept my solution, self government, but you do need to offer more than a series of town by town small initiatives that at the end of the day get swamped in broader changes. What is the framework, the vision, you offer that will energise and provide a base for action? Its not going to be perfect, but we so need that base. So how about it, Adam? What have you to offer?