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It is not easy finding good second hand bookshops in regional areas – at least not in my recent experience in NSW. For me an indicator of something special is the range of local history carried – books and monographs that are specific to the area and that one might not find elsewhere.

Armidale and surrounds are an exception; almost certainly because the town has a University of long standing and high repute - the University of New England - and there have long been good researchers and writers in the Armidale and District Historical Society.

There are two good bookshops there. The first, Burnett’s Books, has been in the beautiful little town of Uralla (20 minutes south of Armidale) for at least a decade. That place is worth a visit in its own right because of the new boutique brewery, McCrossins Mill Local Museum and the Uralla Wool Room (the latter is owned by my sister – so I should add a disclaimer).

My nicest find in Burnett’s was a 1960 edition of The Australian Legend signed by the author. Russel Ward, of course, taught at the University of New England and completed that foundational study of Australian identity there in 1957/1958 when it was published. So my volume is not quite a 1st Edition but it’s signature and location give it a very nice provenance and proximity to the author.DSCN5913

Another discovery had both local associations and relevance to the Sydney Harbour history I was writing at the time. That was Nancy Keesing’s Garden Island People in mint condition published by the Wentworth Press in 1975 but signed by the author and dedicated to Russel Ward in 1983.

That trawl also produced Laurence Le Guay’s Sydney Harbour, a photographic work from 1966 (the year I arrived in Sydney Harbour as a boy in a boat!) with a great preface by Kenneth Slessor.

Burnett’s has some gems but don’t go there expecting conversation. Despite my many purchases I rarely get a hello – it is at the ‘Black Books’ end of the spectrum for those familiar with that comedy series.DSCN5914 At the friendly end is Boobooks in Armidale itself. I visited their new premises the other week fired up with a need to find out more about local history because of a couple of drives through the surrounding grazing land that left me breathless with its beauty (see my previous blog-post).

It was a fruitful visit. Sitting on top of a new acquisitions table was RB Walker’s Old New England – a 1st Edition from 1966 by Sydney University Press in mint condition. And a great read.

Down in the local history section was another 1st Edition; this one EJ Banfield's Last Leaves from Dunk Island. There is very little literature about the Australian coast before the post-war period and the poetry of John Blight and a few others. Robert Drewe and Tim Winton were pioneers of a genre as late as the 1980s.

The temptation to get this volume because of my interest in the coast increased when I saw in a child's hand the dedication to 'Daddy' followed by the names Judith, Bruce and Peter. There, too, was the original Armidale bookseller's stamp.

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The Wrights were a prominent local family. A quick consultation of the online Australian Dictionary of Biography confirmed my hunch that this was Judith Wright's Christmas present to her father - probably chosen by her and on behalf of her younger brothers. The datDSCN5911e '1925' means the gift was likely prompted by the family's recent cruise north to SE Asia, taken as a last attempt to improve her mother's health. Ethel Wright died the following year and the young Judith was devastated. Last Leaves is double the treasure because of its provenance.

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I recently spent a few days up on and around the New England plateau in northern New South Wales. It is a region so-named when the first squatters moved in back in the 1830s because of its climate rather than any physical resemblance to an English landscape. The association has stuck and been amplified by architecture – the two central grand churches are Gothic and Norman and the area’s largest house Booloominbah (1888) is a tour-de-force of architectural Anglophilia, right down to the celebration of the life and death of General Gordon, the hero of Khartoum, in a stained glass window. The old and more recent deciduous plantings in town and around outlying properties have added a natural association to Old England. The autumn colours were breathtakingly beautiful.

These reds and golds contrasted with the surrounding pastoral landscape and remnant forest which was a subdued grey green. And because New England is granite country the boulders which often lie strewn around the pastures emphasize that muted palette.

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I was struck by the effect that landscape had on me. The expanse of ground and concurrent vastness of the sky – filled with clouds that were punctured by occasional sun - was obviously dramatic. But there was a melancholy about the scenes which I had felt before but never quite so strongly. Aesthetic, rather than depressive melancholy, is prompted by contemplation. Its certainly not joyous but neither is it debilitating and corrosive. Indeed it can be seductive. The philosopher SØren Kierkegaard wrote of it as a ‘love’ - a mistress to which he kept returning. For my part I couldn’t help stopping to look and photograph what I saw in an attempt to capture the quality.

There must be some psychological basis for the connection between the emotion and aesthetic – hence the term ‘sombre’ colour I suppose.

But there is so much that is cultural – right down to the feeling of loneliness that an empty landscape can evoke. For me the cultural is always historical. Swirling around in my head when I looked around were imagined narratives of those who colonised the place – both squatter and shepherd - and those who were dispossessed. Beauty and wonderment was mixed up with sadness. There was also a wondering about a landscape transformed by clearing - though remarkably there is no consensus on what the original place was like. The explorer John Oxley likened it to parkland. Was this because of Aboriginal fire-stick farming or was it a natural open forest?

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Melancholy was a powerful theme for the writer Judith Wright whose roots were embedded in the area but who became aware that her connection to the place was still relatively recent and that her family story was one of wealth derived from dispossession and environmental transformation. She reprinted her poem ‘south of my days’ in her 1999 autobiography. The first verse is:

South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,
Rises that tableland, high delicate outline
Of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
Low trees blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite –
Clean, lean hungry country. The creek’s leaf-silenced,
Willow-choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple
Branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen,
And the old cottage lurches in for shelter…

My own family moved constantly after we arrived in Australia in 1966 so there are no roots – even recent – for me to agonise over here. But we did live for a while in a country town not too far from Armidale and Wright’s reference to an old cottage and green lichen recalls my own discoveries of empty houses and derelict orchards. Even as a boy the presence of abandonment evoked a strong melancholy - beauty and sadness merged. Its a response that goes back at least to Oliver Goldsmith's 1770 poem 'The Deserted Village'; though as a boy I was hardly aware of broader social forces that led to abandonment - central to Goldsmith's poem and no doubt underlying the places I came across. However that sense of a landscape disappearing and an economy shifting - constant centralisation and homogenisation - now adds to the historical basis of melancholy. Dispossession gives way to dispossession, disappearance to more disappearance.

Those feelings were reprised when I drove through Tyringham – a tiny place north 120 kms of Armidale named after another in Buckinghamshire but one I had always associated with poor timber mill families. Tyringham began as a series of slab huts one of which may still be there.

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I stopped to photograph that and was directed by a local to two graves a short distance away.

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Behind the grave site was a planked house on the verge of collapse, with a windmill nearby. It turns out that the headstones are those of John and Isabella Perrett who established the village and ran the local hotel and store from the mid-1800s. They died in the 1890s. A century later their plot is being overtaken by tobacco tree and ivy, and the place they created is melting away. More sadness and beauty.

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