Saturday, July 28, 2012

Sorell Council Sesquicentennial

On one of those cloud slate coming the end of winter mornings when the sun seems to be a feeble flame shining with a false light I trotted down the road to the Sorell Memorial Hall to partake in the festivities of 150 year anniversary of the foundation of Sorell City Council.

Being an old school history geek this sort of this always captures my interest. Indeed when I move to a new town or suburb I like to find out as much as possible about the history of the area. This knowledge helps to put things in perspective and helps one to learn the lay of the land. History is honesty, or at least it should be. History (from the Greek istoria, meaning enquiry) should be, like science, based in the first instance on observation. Then a hypothesis can be created, which of course must then be tested by more observation and etc. History must be seen as an iterative process. A process of continual criticism and self criticism. In this way can the science of history develop and advance.

The Memorial Hall has the numerous, obligatory monuments to the war dead that one sees in all the small towns dotted across the landscape. The saddest one being a small reminder for two local lads who drowned on the return trip from South Africa after the Second Boer War. A war which was a harbinger of the terrors of twentieth century total war. A war that gave us commandos, free fire zones, scorched earth, guerilla warfare and concentration camps. A war eagerly (and to my mind surprisingly) supported by a recently sobered up Algernon Charles Swinburne. It was passing sad to see the two names and the forlorn words buried at sea.

I arrived and was greeted by local school kids dressed in period costume, playing period games. Once in the hall I made myself a cup of tea, and had a quick look at the various artefacts on display in the room used by the local historical society. I found a place and was able to sit down and hear one of my favourite tunes, The Wild Colonial Boy played as a sound check.

Sorell pivot of the Black Line, surrounded by shallow rapidly changing ever flowing ocean waters. Home of one of the oldest continually operating schools in Australia. Mooted as a potential capital of Tasmania. Sorell once a stockyard centre of boat building, busy with ferries full of bags of wheat destined to support the struggling colony of New South Wales. Now the ferry-men are no more, the bullock drivers the wheat farmers the original inhabitants all gone into the dust of the past, moved along by the rapid changes of history. Henry Reynolds tells us how the wind carries the cries of the betrayed and the dispossessed and the murdered through the trees of windy Tasmania.

Being a great fan of folk music, it was with particular interest that I listened to the Greenhill Two. Local Peter MacFie scoured the archives to unearth the long silent tunes of Alexander Laing. Sent to Van Diemen's Land due to his getting drunk and spending the money entrusted him to help recruit for the 92nd Gordon Highlanders Regiment. Like the droogs of Alex DeLarge he worked his way from convict criminal to become police officer, to being the jailer of Sorell Gaol.

The duo played on fiddle and guitar a set of seven songs. All songs by Laing and all based around the local area. Starting with Sorell Wind Mill, with the fiddle creating the impression of the whirling arms of the wind mill. Gordon Street, Sorell, a much more rollicking number which may have been formed from the the impressions Laing had looking out the window of his 'office' in the old gaol. Miss E. E. P. Reardons' Quadrille was written to commemorate the birth of his grand daughter. Mrs Champ's Reel in honour of his second wife. Brady's Lookout 1825. Brady being a famous bush ranger who held up the town of Sorell. The duo played one more piece the name of which I did not catch.

As Pilate asked, in John 18:38, of Christ 'Ti estin aletheia'. What is truth? This question is most important in any historical reckoning. Even when the music of Laing is written down and note for note played, one is still left with the lingering doubt, is this what Laing meant? Does this sound like the tune he wrote, what he heard in his secret lonely head? 'Truth is', Kierkegaard witheringly answered, in a manner that still haunts modern thinkers, 'an objective uncertainty passionately held in an inward appropriation process.' This is even more clearly
seen in the quest for historical truth, in grand sweeping histories of countries and nations and peoples. How can any historic narrative be said to be true when talking over masses of people over many years. This can be seen most pointedly in our modern dissections of the history of race relations in Australia. Some talk of black armbands while others talk of genocide, and there seems to be no grounds of agreement between
such opposing views.

This question was again raised when the local theatre group Sorell On Stage reenacted the first meeting of the Sorell Council. On July 1 1862 the Sorell Council had their first meeting. The same day as the Battle of Malvern Hill in the American Civil War, and the marriage of one of Queens Victoria's daughters Princess. Even with the reading out of minutes of the meeting, one has to ask how much left out? Minutes are not always complete, as things may be missed, words misquoted etc. Also with the bare minutes there was no context given, no idea of body language, no ability to understand the dynamics of the relations between the various members of the committee. This is of course not a fault of the theatre group, in fact it is not a criticism at all, but rather a problem that all historical research must face.

As an aside it is worth noting with some pride that in 1862 all of the councillors where all men, but in 2012 we have a woman, Carmel Torenius, as the mayor of Sorell, Laura Giddings as the Premier of Tasmania and Julia Gillard as Prime Minister of Australia. As they used to say (in a patronising way) when advertising cigarettes way back in the 1970s, you've come a long way baby.

And then the local school kids in period dress played the games kids would have played in the 1860s. Cake was eaten, tea was drunk and the locals had a lovely forenoon taking and chatting among themselves.

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