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I’ve just watched Hans Fjellestad’s 2012 documentary Sunset Strip – a good exploration of that famous Hollywood thoroughfare otherwise known as Sunset Boulevarde. There are plenty of rock stars reminiscing and a lot of salacious detail. One theme that emerged for me was the paradoxical relationship between change and stasis.

The Strip has changed dramatically since the first club was built. Each entertainment epoch has risen and fallen with consequences to the look of the thoroughfare. But its extraordinary role as a place transformed from a rural road to somewhere where excess was largely tolerated throughout from the speak-easies of the 1920s through to the next century. Police crackdowns in the late 1960s notwithstanding, it seemed that the Strip was a place of perpetual carnivalesque inversion.

Keanu Reeves referred to it as a ‘sacred place’ with resonances of the past still present. However, many with some regret at the people and styles that have followed their own heyday – thinking perhaps that the essence they cherished has been lost.

One event that had an impact on many was the closure of Tower Records around 2006. The building was a landmark that defined the Strip, and the music it made available was pivotal to the culture of visitors. Technology it seems had moved and people were no longer buying CDs in the volumes necessary to keep the huge outlet open.

I watched Sunset Strip on DVD rather than by download rental. The transience of that tangible technology (ie a disc rather than a digital stream) and the reality of lost places became weirdly convergent almost immediately afterwards when I popped up to the local DVD rental store, Network Video+DVD in Sydney’s inner west. The staff told me store would close in a month or so. Their whole library was being sold. People were streaming from home not coming in to borrow. Faced with that I bought some documentaries I would not find easily on-line.

Network Video at Stanmore, March 2015 photograph by Ian Hoskins
Network Video, Stanmore, March 2015, photograph by Ian Hoskins

Network is one of the only DVD rental stores left in Sydney. It has long been the best with an extraordinary stock and great staff (including the genial and knowledgeable Charlie who could pass for David Crosby’s twin). For this reason I thought it would live on indefinitely, providing a service to a niche but viable demand in a big city where such things should be possible. The apparent incontestable logic of the market has dictated otherwise.

The news was upsetting. Network Video+DVD, as the name suggests, has been there a long time – it predates the digital age and my arrival in the area. It is an institution, and its demise will sadden many, for Network disseminated culture and connected people in a way not dissimilar to the local municipal library. DVDs, like books, can be discovered on a shelf in a way they usually are not by browsing a catalogue. Were the store to be replaced by homes, it's loss would be easier to accept for Sydney is in the grip of a perpetual housing crisis. But it seems that the Network site will become another liquor outlet – evidence that the market isn’t always ‘right’, as if that wasn’t already clear.

The connection between the sense of loss and place has interested me for a long time because I feel it so often and hear it expressed by so many others. At its simplest it might be dismissed as ‘remember the good old days’ nostalgia, something I can find annoying and try to circumvent in my own reactions. There was a bit of this in the Sunset Strip memories.

As an historian I'm also aware that there is some relativity about profound feelings of loss. Change has been a part of ‘Western Society’ for a long time. The poet Henry Lawson decried the ‘brand new throng’ who were displacing his local community back in 1909 – a time we now look on as one that was surely slower and conducive to close knit community. Indeed this sense has affected people for centuries. Oliver Goldsmith’s lamentation ‘The Deserted Village’ was written in 1770.

But capitalism is dynamic – indeed ever more so since Goldsmith’s time. Places are disappearing or altered and damaged more quickly than ever. Environmental change intertwined with economics is increasing the pace. Change is now so fast it is hard to maintain orientation and perspective; so Australian academic Glenn Albrecht has identified a new malaise, ‘solastalgia’, a homesickness one feels while still at home – such is the swirl that envelopes us. It has, he argues, implications for mental health and social cohesion.

Given the profundity of the forces involved, this all seems irreversible but Glenn clings to optimism: ‘as recognition of the damage that degraded and desolated environments do to our mental health increases, it is possible that we can respond more effectively to simultaneously restore mental and ecosystem health.’ I hope so. In the meantime I guess I'll be watching fewer DVDs.

There is an introduction to Glenn’s ideas with specific reference to climate change at ‘The Conversation’.

http://theconversation.com/the-age-of-solastalgia-8337

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It being nearly Christmas, some may be considering things loftier than the usual splurge on gifts and food. My mind was turned to religious architecture again during a recent wander around Armidale in northern New South Wales – a country centre with two fine cathedrals (Anglican and Catholic) and a very handsome Presbyterian Church adjacent to the retail centre.

St Mary and Joseph's Catholic Cathedral Armidale NSW. Photo by Ian Hoskins
St Mary and Joseph's Catholic Cathedral Armidale NSW. Photo by Ian Hoskins

I often tell those who come on my guided walks around North Sydney that architecture provides the  most accessible way of comprehending the material culture of past generations. Unlike clothing, cars or other forms of technology, the structures of the past are still all about us.

Few buildings wear the ideological intent of the architect or owner more clearly than places of worship and their associated structures. These were literally built to express and evoke religious sentiment. And what I find especially fascinating is that, despite the apparent immutability of the truths presented in them, buildings erected by the various Christian churches in Australia reflect changing architectural fashion and thought just as non-sacred structures do.

Gothic architecture, in its various forms, was the dominant mode of sacred expression in this country through the 19th century and the first half of the twentieth. It is not surprising given that the consolidation of British occupation of the Australian colonies coincided with the revival of the Gothic in the ‘mother country’. Americans, by contrast, were far more willing to erect a church that looked like a Greek or Roman temple, something that would have appalled John Ruskin for whom classicism was synonymous with paganism.

The spiritual message of much Gothic architecture is clear. Cathedral spires and pinnacles reach for the heavens. Even in their absence the pointed arch window directs one’s gaze, and hopefully thoughts, upwards. Then, of course, in Catholic and some Anglican churches there is the obvious iconography apparent in statues and stained glass windows.

All this is very apparent with St Mary and Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral in Armidale. It was designed in 1910-11 by the firm Sherrin and Hennessey who did a huge amount of work for the Catholic Church at the time. Heavenly thoughts are conveyed to all who enter or pass by with the spire, pinnacles and pantheon of saints.

The Cathedral is built of brick rather than stone, as was the case with many Federation-era Gothic churches. In this instance the construction also shows off the characteristic local light and dark bricks and the polychromatic brickwork of the prolific local builder, GF Nott. St Mary and Joseph’s looks like it belongs in Armidale because of this localism.

The extravagant expression of Gothicism was pared back during the first half of the 20th century by the impact of Modernism, which celebrated mass production and tended to eschew ornamentation. Accordingly the celebration of the craft of the carpenter, bricklayer, and mason, so apparent in earlier Gothic structures, was muted and then lost altogether.

Cathedral Hall, built 1938, photograph by Ian Hoskins
Cathedral Hall, built 1938. Photo by Ian Hoskins

This move to austerity is so apparent in the ‘Cathedral Hall’ that was built by Armidale's Catholics near the sublime structure from which it gets its name. It is clearly a building that has been designed rather than simply erected as a functional shelter. The Gothic ancestry is referenced by the stylised battlements on the bay front. The decision to leave the grey concrete render unpainted seems to be part of the original intent of the architect or builder. There is a grimness about it that may reflect the impact of the Great Depression, just past when the place was built. Possibly cost was an issue. To me it also expresses an age when totalitarian ideas were in conflict with democracy and the Catholic Church was trying to find its place within this turmoil. But was arrival at the Cathedral Hall meant to uplift and express hope in the future through its modernity? Or was the bleakness an attempt to cower a congregation and secure their allegiance? Either way, for such as small building, it is amazingly affecting.

 

 

 

 

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Winter has ended and with it the peak season for catching Southern Blue Fin Tuna off South East Australia. And apparently it has been a bumper season. Long-lining commercial fishers are happy and so too are recreational anglers using rods and spear guns. The internet is replete with images and footage of men (they only ever seem to be men) proudly holding up their trophies or beaming over fish flapping around decks.

The tuna caught off NSW had already run the summer gauntlet along the South Australian coast where commercial fishers use purse seine nets to corale juvenile fish into port for fattening and then sale to Japan – the world’s biggest market for the Southern Blue Fin Tuna. South Australian Tuna Industry spokesman Brian Jeffriess was ecstatic: ‘It's not just the size but the better condition of the fish that you would have expected at this time of the year’. The Leeuwin Current was strong this season, favouring the fishers rather than the fish. As Jeffriess acknowledged 'Sometimes you get lucky and this year we did'.

Frozen Tuna at Tokyo Fish Market 2009
Most Australia-caught Southern Blue Fin Tuna is exported to Japan. Frozen Tuna at Tokyo Fish Market 2009 (Photo by Ian Hoskins)

The odd thing is that these fish are widely regarded as endangered – a result of devastating over-fishing in the post-war decades. That was the status recommended by the NSW Fisheries Scientific Committee in 2004 and it still is so classified under the NSW Fisheries Management Act. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) goes one further and lists the Southern Blue Fin Tuna as ‘critically endangered’. The population is less than 10% of its pre-fished size.

This is not surprising given the Tuna’s physiology. They are apex predators – muscular, warm blooded - quick in the water but slow to mature to reproductive age. A tuna can live as long as 40 years but doesn’t reproduce until it is at least 8. Animals with this profile are more vulnerable than most to over-fishing.

So why are we still killing them?

One part of the answer is that, like so much in science these days, the figures are contested. Because it is a migratory species harvesting of this Tuna is managed by an international body – the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Blue Fin Tuna. Quotas set by this body have fluctuated over the years but have recently gone up because monitoring has indicated a rise in population. However the migratory habits of the Tuna also make monitoring difficult. The good news is that Australia's commercial fisheries are among the best managed in the world. But that doesn't alter the differing conclusions drawn from science which are pause for thought for fish eaters.

Another part of the answer has to do, perhaps unsurprisingly, with economics. There is money to be made both in commercial fishing and recreational fishing with its ripple effects in tourism. This is not to necessarily imply a few making huge dollars - though some may well be doing very well - but rather the harvesting of tuna supports the livelihoods of commercial fishers and small communities, and is therefore supported by governments.

A third consideration relates to our peculiar attitude to marine creatures. Denizens of the deep are somehow different to those that roam the land. In Australia we have largely marginalised the hunting gun culture that is still so prevalent in the US. But fish are the last wild harvest and catching them is still widely regarded as a right – a link to something elemental and basic perhaps. We are not only far more amenable to killing fish, regardless apparently of their conservation status, but we celebrate the activity. One of the You-Tube clips I accessed through the Ulladulla Game Fishing Club website, shows recreational fishers bagging Southern Blue Fin Tuna off the south coast of New South Wales. It begins with a proud shot of a gleaming power boat, follows through with the fight and finishes with the last gasps of a bleeding fish and big smiles and thumbs up from the victors. The action is accompanied by the muscular riffs of Metallica’s 'Enter Sandman'.

All of this is, of course, quite legal. It is also pretty clearly a demonstration of humanity’s 'right' to dominate nature and take what we want, not necessarily what we need. I know that the recreational Tuna catch is far smaller than the commercial, but there is something especially problematic about killing an animal that is, at best, struggling back from the brink - simply for fun. Professional fishers may well enjoy their work but it is ultimately a livelihood. Recreational fishers have more of a choice about what they catch.

Things change and sometimes very quickly. Our casual toleration of whaling persisted up to the 1960s at least. By 1979 Australia had harpooned its last whale and over the following decades whale watching rather than killing became profitable. Our centuries’ old hatred of sharks, so spectacularly demonstrated by countless photographs of crowds surrounding the hoisted carcasses of these 'monsters', is also shifting. People are actually protesting against the culling and hunting of sharks in the wake of fatal shark attacks. The refrain ‘we enter their world at our own risk’ is the common, and remarkably humble, response.

I wonder when caution and respect will be accorded the Southern Blue Fin Tuna at least by the recreational anglers.

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Just what gives someone charisma or presence is intangible. I do know it is often bound up with some attribute or characteristic such as reputation, physical size or beauty. Sometimes it is oratorical skill that wins over in the absence of any other obvious factor.

Bob Brown in discussion with Sophie Cunningham and Ashley Hay
Bob Brown in discussion with Sophie Cunningham and Ashley Hay (photo by Ian Hoskins)

When I met Bob Brown briefly in the book signing tent at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival last week, it was clear that presence could also be generated by serenity. Australia’s best-known environmentalist had a very palpable friendly gentleness. I had asked simply for a signature rather than a dedication but Bob enquired after my name, shook hands and said ‘nice to meet you’ - and seemed to really mean it. I was one of 30 or 40 queued for that signing. I think there was least one other. I assume all were greeted with the warmth I witnessed.

Bob's signing - the front of a long line
Bob's signing - the front of a long line (photo by Ian Hoskins)

Bob Brown was there to talk about his latest book, Optimism: Reflections on a life of action - which is essentially a memoir that runs from the young doctor’s encounter with Jimi Hendrix in his last moments at the emergency ward of a London Hospital in 1970 through an extraordinary life of political action, saving rivers and forests. But the purpose of the book’s introduction, and that of the talk I heard (the second of two that morning), was to inspire and encourage others on the ‘progressive’ side of politics to endure despite all the bad news and apparent impending environmental cataclysm.

Bob’s is the story of an activist who has experienced depression and hopelessness but found energy in being optimistic. It is a strategy that draws upon ‘learned optimism’, an influential strand of modern psychology which aims to counter depression through behaviour and without reliance on drugs.

It is ‘the intelligent’ that the Doctor appeals to, for they are ‘unsure’ and ‘weigh things up’. But ‘Mulling things over while the stupid and greedy ravage the planet’ leads to individual misery and collective disaster.

This psychological framing is not surprising given Bob Brown’s own training as a medical doctor. It also presents a counter to the faith-based lunacy of what the environmentalist calls the new religion of Growth, with its gods Materialism and Consumption and its ‘high priests’ in the Murdoch press. This new religion masquerades as ‘rational’ but has all but displaced the faiths of old.

Conversely, because it holds the key to planetary survival, environmentalism is entirely rational. That we are consuming the equivalent of 2 ½ times the Earth’s resources is stark evidence of that.

But acting upon that evidence, of course, is where clarity ends and policy, and therefore politics, begins. It is where black and white merges to grey. There was not much in Bob’s discussion or in the book that grapples with complexities such as the definition of ‘wilderness’ when Indigenous people claim pre-colonial occupation of the land. The fraught politics of the Wild Rivers Legislation in Queensland that saw Aboriginal groups ally with the conservative State Government to repeal the river protection Act earlier this year is one example of this.

The ferocity of the Marine Park debate in the lead up to the 2011 NSW election was grounded as much in culture as it was in science – a belief in the long held ‘right’ to fish versus the desire to exclude the impact of humans from some areas. It was indicative of the difficulty of convincing people to act effectively in a democracy when individual interest does not always immediately align with the collective good of all of us ‘Earthians’, to use Bob’s term. So in creeps the grey fog.

Bob Brown does not have a typical orator's voice - its actually something of a monotone. But by sticking to the black and white, and delivering that with gentle certainty, Brown kept his Festival audience enthralled and in agreement. It was admittedly a receptive and sympathetic crowd. Byron Bay is possibly unique in its politically powerful blending of Anglo-Celtic counter-culture and affluence. So somewhat ironically the atmosphere in the great tent – a most appropriate venue – was one of religious revivalism. As the place filled to capacity, those who wanted to remain within were compelled to sit or kneel towards the front. That was where I found myself, having arrived too late to claim a chair. And it was there that I came to sit next to a kneeling woman who began quietly sobbing and rocking back and forth, hands together almost in prayer.

Seeing the light inside the tent
Seeing the light inside the tent (photo by Ian Hoskins)

I admire very much the courage and conviction of people such as Bob Brown. But I do find myself often mired in the grey complexity – and sometimes in melancholy – ‘mulling things over’ trying to understand competing interests; to work out which are valid and which are mendacious, who are the ‘stupid and the greedy’ and who are simply defending their own place on the planet. I’m not sure if that means I sometimes can’t see the wood for the trees, or the trees for the wood.

 

 

 

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Two things have got me thinking again about the meaning of trees. The first was the trip to New England NSW I have mentioned in the previous two blogs. There trees are hard to ignore. They stand in stark lines across sheep pastures. They clump around dwellings. They form avenues, glow with autumn colour or dot the grassland as contorted grey trunks, ringbarked years ago or killed by die-back.

Poplars and willows north of Armidale
Poplars and willows north of Armidale. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2014

The second was re-reading Michael Pembroke’s really beautiful book Trees of History and Romance: Essays from a Mount Wilson Garden, in which the horticulture and cultural history of 21 types of exotic trees – those that grow in the author’s mountain garden – are outlined.

This small conifer with tree guard seems to be marking a significant hill or place
This small conifer with tree guard seems to be marking a significant hill or place just south of Armidale. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2014

My postgraduate work on public parks and the symbolism of flora, twenty or so years ago, made me very aware of the historical ambivalence of many non-indigenous Australians to the vegetation of the country they took from the first people. ‘The invaders hated trees’ was WK Hancock’s unequivocal summation. Writing in 1930, he was responding to more than a century of de-afforestation. By then, the Big Scrub, that once covered 75,000 hectares around the northern rivers of NSW, had all but disappeared. Such was its size and so sanguine were newcomers that they estimated the forest would last 600 years. Hancock saw it all as the hollow triumph of the ‘greed’ and ‘ignorance’ of a ‘transplanted’ people. (WK Hancock, Australia, [1930], 1945, pp.30-33)

Of course the ‘transplanted’ did not hate all trees. In time, they actually came to celebrate the endemic flora.  The golden wattle, for instance, would be embraced as a symbol of a nation – albeit a golden-haired, white one. Painter Hans Heysen and photographer Harold Cazneaux both elevated the maligned Eucalypt to the status of icon emblematic of the tenacious pioneer.

And the ‘transplanted’ people brought with them attitudes to trees that were deeply ‘rooted’ (the puns are telling and intentional) in British and wider European culture. They transplanted exotic species out of affection and practical familiarity.

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The Elm avenue at Gostwyk station, Photograph by Ian Hoskins 2014

It is interesting to wonder then what prompted the Dangar family, owners of Gostwyck sheep station on the New England plateau, to plant 200 English Elm trees (Ulmus procera) to create a grand avenue that would impress visitors coming to their big home. They were almost certainly aware of the use of Elms on coffins and ships’ hulls. But more so through English verse and painting, the Elm was synonymous with the working countryside – an association that a landed family of ‘improvers’ in ‘New England’ would be keen to promote. The Elms were planted sometime after the family felt it had consolidated its holding in the wake of the 1861 Selection Act which threatened to break up the vast properties taken up by squatters in earlier years. Gostwyck was established in 1836.

Elsewhere on the plateau there are stands of Radiata Pine (Pinus radiata) – huge trees at least 100 years old planted obviously as wind-breaks in pastures and around dwellings because their needles so effectively block moving air. These are North American trees but in the England of the late 18th and 19th centuries, conifers were increasingly planted on estates because they could flourish in the thin soil of moors that were being enclosed and thereby acquired by the landed. They were, then, widely known among the newcomers and were as emblematic as the Elm or Oak. In Australia, also, the shape and colouring of the pine was easily distinguished from that of the native flora. I think they must also have served as landmarks for those returning to home after working in the bush or pasture.

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A stand of Radiata Pines around a building site, near Gostwyk station, Armidale. Photograph by Ian Hoskins, 2014

So when I see a stand of Pines, as opposed to a wind-breaking line, I wonder whether they once enclosed a home. Their presence in such formations is so clearly part of a cultural landscape. Like Gostwyck’s avenue of Elms, these Pines are evidence of the shaping intent of newcomers. But where the former speak of the permanence of the occupiers, empty Pine groves indicate their departure. Sometimes those stories can be recovered, often we can only imagine.

 

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