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A pencil flashlight on the past

Shining a pencil flashlight into an enormous dark barn. That’s how I once heard searching the internet described. It’s also how I feel when I think about historical blog posts for this website. The past is vast and poorly illuminated, and writing about bits and pieces of it – chosen near-randomly – makes me feel like I’m just flashing a pencil torch into the darkness, hoping to see something interesting to describe.

Author L.P. Hartley famously observed in the 1953 book, The Go-Between, that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. And like all foreign countries, the way they do things there keeps changing. Or it seems, from the point of view somebody living here and now. Historians are constantly rediscovering, reinterpreting, revising and even removing bits and pieces of the past. A person from the country of the past may be considered a hero to one succeeding generation, then a villain to the next as their actions are reconsidered through a new lens of changed social mores.

The past is always being plundered and recycled – sometimes sensitively, sometimes brutally. Ideas are shamelessly filched and re-badged. I can’t keep track of the stream of historical and cultural references that pepper the works of modern creators, sometimes used deliberately and sometimes purely by accident. The past is like a huge open-cut quarry to which our modern minds go seeking inspiration.

The past, as a foreign country, is a place I like to visit and from which I tend compulsively to bring back souvenirs of many kinds. Like all souvenirs the relics I retrieve can only convey a faint idea of the reality of the place and time they came from – exaggerating and highlighting some aspects and glossing over others, like a postcard snapshot that frames a glorious scene, conveniently cropping out the garbage dump or ugly apartment block next-door.

I used to think that the past was so much safer than the unpredictable present or future. After all, the events of the past are already finished, aren’t they? Done, dusted and resolved . . . Except they never are really finished. We only have to consider the nature of a nation-state – like Australia – to realise that the past is with us always, shaping who and what we are, how we think, what we want to believe, what we regard as possible and impossible, what is revered and what is despised, what is loudly sung and what is buried deep in shame and silence. Individuals can overcome the sequelae of past traumas by facing them, analysing them, discussing them and processing them. The same, perhaps, may be true of communities and nations. If so, then visiting the past is a valuable thing to do.

To be honest, most of the souvenirs from my visits to the past, as displayed in the little museum of this website, are hardly the stuff of deep soul-searching. Mostly my flashlight flickers lightly over the odd pieces of redundant clutter I find in whatever corner of the dark barn I find myself in from time to time. If other people find them mildly diverting then I’m happy with that. I know that even little bits of odd detail can sometimes be surprisingly helpful, and perhaps some of my recycled oddities might prompt some readers to deeper and more useful investigation.

Without apology then, and with thanks to those supporters and sponsors whose assistance lets me keep mounting my little expeditions into times gone by, here is a short list of some highlights from the year 2022 – a year that for much of my life seemed so ludicrously far into the future as to merit no contemplation – which has now migrated incredibly into the foreign country of the past.

Rediscovering the work of forgotten photographers is always gratifying. This blog post highlighted some of the work of former senior BHP employee John Jobson.

Old newspapers and magazines often bring interesting material to light. This wonderful first person account of a scientific expedition to Port Stephens in the 1880s was a good find.

Documents unearthed from a Newcastle deceased estate added helpful detail to the interesting story of the Australasian Society of Patriots.

We were deeply saddened this year to lose our old friend and mentor, Ron Morrison.

Art Mawson was once a household name in Newcastle, and for a time the suburb of Caves Beach bore his name. Today he is practically forgotten.

If not for the Great Depression, perhaps Newcastle might have hosted the most important airport in NSW.

Memories . . . of the “old days” of Hunter Street as I knew it.

Thanks to Samantha Pearl for sharing an amazing collection of images taken by her late relative, Wilfred Hayler.

The death of Queen Elizabeth provided an excuse to share a big collection of material relating to her visit to Newcastle in 1977.

The fascinating evergreen yarn about Dora Creek’s “monkey gland doctor” turns out to have quite a dark side.

A tribute to prolific local historian Ed Tonks.

An old letter dug up by a Sydney dealer in memorabilia led to this sporting story.

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