‘A Nautical Yarn’ is one of the nine Australian folk songs that American singer Burl Ives recorded in 1952, and which were to have such a profound effect on Australians’ perception of their own folk music heritage. The ‘yarn’ takes place on the Murray River. (Whether the adjective ‘nautical’ can be applied in the context of fresh water is arguable.) The words are credited to Keighley Goodchild. They are a play on the general notion of shipwrecks, so many of which occurred, and so tragically, in the 19th century. A paddle steamer is making its way upstream to the town of Wahgunyah (the furthest upstream port on the Murray) when a storm arises during the night. The crew fear for their lives, but the boat is grounded on a sandbar, and they all walk safely through the shallow water to shore!
According to his obituary, which was published in The Riverine Herald in 1888, Goodchild was born in London, and had a good education. He had arrived in Melbourne fifteen years earlier (1873) from New Zealand. How long he had been in New Zealand is not stated.
The Echuca Historical Society also has information about Goodchild’s life. He was born in 1851. (By way of historical comparison, Henry Lawson was born in 1867, and Ned Kelly in 1855.) Goodchild was very much a newspaperman. In Melbourne he worked for the Argus. He moved to Echuca in 1880, and stayed there until his death at the age of only 37 of ‘consumption’ (TB) in 1988. He worked for a number of newspapers, and was editor of the Echuca Advertiser. For the last two years of his life he worked as a compositor for The Riverine Herald. (It was the job of a compositor to arrange type for printing.) He also published a column under the title ‘Municipal Musings’. (Many of these can be easily accessed via Trove.)
Goodchild also wrote poetry, and in 1883 he self published a small collection of his own work with the title ‘Who Are You? : A Volume of Verse’. One of the poems in this book, ‘While the Billy Boils’, was included in the final volume of a series of poetry collections published in London. The series was titled ‘Canterbury Poets’, and the final volume, with Goodchild’s poem, ‘Australian Ballads and Rhymes: Poems inspired by Life and Scenery in Australia and New Zealand’ (1888), was edited by B. W. Sladen of Oxford. (Goodchild received his copy several days before he died.) The phrase, ‘while the billy boils’, was just beginning to gain traction in Australia and New Zealand, and this was not the first time it was used. It was also chosen as the title of Henry Lawson’s first collection of short stories, published in 1896. Lawson did not use the phrase himself, but his editor, Arthur Jose, felt it was apt. (Jose almost certainly knew of Goodchild’s poem.) Plans were afoot for a second collection of Goodchild’s verse to be published in London, but this did not eventuate, no doubt due to his premature demise.
Here is the first stanza of ‘While the Billy Boils’ by Keighley Goodchild.
While the ruby coals in the dull grey dust,
Shine bright as the daylight dies;
When into our mouths our pipes are thrust,
And we watch the moon arise;
While the leaves that crackle and hiss and sigh
Feed the flame with their scented oils,
In a calm content by the fire we lie
And watch while the billy boils.
‘A Nautical Yarn’ is included in the blog ‘An Australian Folk Song A Day’, by John Thompson. John references the source of the song as ‘Big Book of Australian Folk Songs’ by Ron Edwards, and adds this note from the book:
“…Ian Mudie in his book ‘Riverboats’ suggests that “it is so different from the rest of Goodchild’s work that it seems quite likely he heard it on the riverboats or in the pubs of Echuca – and wrote it down as his own.”
So perhaps Keighley Goodchild did not write ‘A Nautical Yarn’ after all!
To further complicate matters, there is more than one tune for the song. Goodchild’s stated tune was ‘The Dreadnought’, but Burl Ives’ folio of Australian songs used ‘Villikins and his Dinah’.
Who knows, perhaps Goodchild would have developed into a writer to rival Lawson and Paterson if he had lived longer? Then again, that can no doubt be said about a number of writers whose lives were cut short in those hard, early days.
A Nautical Yarn
I sing of a capting who’s well known to fame;
A naval commander, Bill Jinks is his name.
Who sailed where the Murray’s clear waters do flow,
Did this freshwater shellback, with his Yeo heave a yeo.
To the Port of Wahgunyah his wessel was bound
When night comes upon him and darkness around;
Not a star on the waters it clear light did throw;
But the wessel sped onward with a Yeo heave a yeo.
Oh, Capting, oh! Capting, let’s make for the shore,
For the winds they do rage and the winds they do roar!”
“Nay, nay,” said the capting, “though the fierce winds may blow
I will stick to my vessel with a Yeo heave a yeo.”
“Oh! Capting, oh! Capting, the waves sweep the deck,
Oh Capting, oh! Capting, we’ll soon be a wreck –
To the river’s deep bosom each seaman will go!
But the capting laughed loudly, with his Yeo heave a yeo.
“Farewell to the maiding – the girl I adore;
Farewell to my friends – I shall see them no more!”
The crew shrieked in terror, the capting he swore –
They had stuck on a sandbank, so the men walked ashore.
When I was a young man in the 70s, I became enthralled with Australian folk music. Bands like The Bushwackers, The Cobbers, Paradiddle and Captain Moonlight were at their peak. A particular highlight was Friday evenings at the Dan O’Connell pub in Carlton – standing room only – listening to the Bushwackers. I must have mentioned the phrase ‘folk music’ to my father at some point, and he was puzzled. (Our relationship was always rather fraught, and we struggled to connect with each other.) He asked me if I was referring to Burl Ives. I was shocked, and had no idea what he was talking about. All I knew about Burl Ives was that he was an elderly, somewhat overweight and rather boring American crooner. No progress was made in closing the gap between us.
Only in recent years have I come to understand what my father was referring to, and the role that Burl Ives played in re-introducing Australians to their own folk songs. It goes something like this.
In 1952, the Australian Broadcasting Commission invited Ives to visit Australia and perform a series of concerts. He did so, as part of a world tour.
When he arrived in Sydney on 25th May, he was mobbed by more than 150 teenagers (The Sydney Morning Herald Monday 26th May 1952, page 1). (Not quite Beatlemania, but still…) Quoting from the article,
He wore a black glengarry, short tweed jacket, black tie, grey socks, tan shoes – and a kilt.
He explained that he was made an honorary bard of the McGregor clan after he sang in London last April. He hopes to sing in Edinburgh in August.
“I like kilts,” he said. “They are warm in winter and cool in summer. I will wear them in Australia, but not on stage.”
Mr. Ives brought two guitars and a set of Northumberland pipes.
“I can’t play the pipes yet but I will practise here.”
Ives was a well-known international figure, and had the reputation at the time of being America’s principal exponent of folk songs and ballads. It was a busy and no doubt highly testing time for Ives, as he had chosen to appear as a witness at the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) earlier that month. With the commencement of the Korean War in June 1950, anti-Communist sentiment in the U.S increased greatly, and a pamphlet, ‘Red Channels’, published a list of entertainers in the television and radio broadcast industry with suspected Communist leanings. They were to be banned from all future public performances. Ives had performed for many left wing audiences and supported many left wing organisations. His name was on the list. The only way to clear one’s name was to convince the committee that you had been duped or conned into such involvement by somebody else, and naming them. The hearings lasted a number of years, and Ives did not cover himself with glory. The website of The Association of Cultural Equity (an American organisation, inspired by the work of musicologist Alan Lomax) tells us that, according to Ronald D. Cohen, author of ‘Rainbow Quest – The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940 – 1970’, Ives named four people. These included his former publicity director Arthur Meltzer and his friend, fellow performer Richard Dyer Bennet. As a result of this, Ives’ career continued to flourish, while Bennet’s stopped dead in its tracks.
Others suggest Ives named many more people, including Pete Seeger. One of those who claims that Ives named Seeger is John Simkin, author of the British website, Spartacus Educational. The website takes its name from the film of the same name. The film’s scriptwriter, Dalton Trumbo, was also a prominent victim of the HUAC hearings.
Woody Guthrie visited Burl Ives some time after the hearings. Guthrie later commented to fellow folk performer Oscar Brand that Ives was “God’s angry man.” When Brand asked who he was angry with, Guthrie replied “He’s angry with himself.”
Pete Seeger was about ten years younger than Burl Ives, and visited Australia eleven years later (1963). (My father, by the way, was a great fan of Seeger, especially ‘Little Boxes’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’.) Pete Seeger’s name had also been on the ‘Red Channels’ list. Seeger did not name anybody during the hearings and, as a result, his career suffered terribly for a long period of time. Seeger was ferocious in his criticism of Burl Ives’ behaviour. He accused him of “fingering, like any common stool pigeon, some of his radical associates of the early 1940s. He did this not because he wanted to but because he felt it was the only way to preserve his lucrative contracts.” Seeger and Ives did ‘bury the hatchet’ to some extent in later years, and the two performed “The Blue Tail Fly” in a duet at a benefit concert in 1993, in what was to be Ives’ last public performance.
In an article published in The Australian Women’s Weekly of Wednesday 7th May, 1952 (page 12), immediately prior to Ives’ visit, he calls for Australians to send him songs to perform. He makes a similar call in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 17th May (page 7), entitled ‘Our Forgotten Folk Music’, by John Dempsey. Although he subsequently claimed to have received many in the mail (The Daily Telegraph Monday 14th July 1952, page 5), the songs Ives eventually chose were given to him by an Australian Catholic priest, Percy Jones. (A detailed explanation of how this came about can be found in Keith McKenry’s fascinating book, ‘Australia’s Lost Folk Songs.’)
Ives performed a number of concerts throughout Australia. They were packed out, and received rave reviews. Not surprisingly, the many newspaper articles relating to Ives’ visit to Australia (available now on ‘Trove’) make no mention of his involvement in the HUAC hearings. Immediately prior to Ives’ departure from Australia for New Zealand on 16th July, he recorded nine Australian folk songs, accompanied by the Four Guardsmen (a quartet from Sydney) for his label, ‘Decca Records’. The songs were initially released as four singles (songs on both sides), and an album containing all nine songs followed in early 1953. These recordings were a great success, prompting the broadcast on radio of Australian folk songs in the U.S. as well as Australia. To quote from an article entitled ‘Our Folk Songs On Record’ from The (Sydney) Sunday Herald (8th March 1953, page 12):
The release last week of recorded versions of nine Australian folk sings is one of the most significant events in the record industry, and perhaps in Australian music, for many years. It shows that, for the first time, we are taking a real interest in the beginnings of music in this country, and are seeking to preserve what we can – even if it is almost too late.
A songbook, ‘Burl Ives’ Folio of Australian Folk Songs’ was also published in 1953. A presumably more considered and less rushed album, ‘Australian Folk Songs’, containing 12 songs, was released in 1959. These recordings, together with the ‘folio’, went a long way towards popularising Australian folk songs among Australian audiences.
While in Australia, Ives had spoken enthusiastically of plans to return the following year and tour the outback (The Daily Telegraph, Sydney, Monday 14th July 1942, page 5). However, I can find no record of this tour having taken place. (He did get to Broken Hill in 1952.) A further proposed tour in 1955 (Sunday Times, Perth, Sunday 1st August 1954, page 22) appears also not to have occurred. Perhaps the HUAC hearings proved an overwhelming distraction.
Thinking again of my father, he had in his collection two LP albums of Australian folk songs sung by the Australian singer and actor Lionel Long. I loved these, and played them over and over, especially ‘Songs of a Sunburnt Country’. These were released in the early 1960s, and would no doubt have been very much influenced/inspired by the performances and recordings of Burl Ives. It puzzles me therefore that my father had so much trouble understanding what I was talking about when I referred to ‘folk music.’ Perhaps he simply didn’t make the connection.
My only regret is that it was Burl Ives and not Pete Seeger who made such a massive contribution to Australians’ appreciation of their own musical history. I am probably being too tough on Ives, though. He was placed in a terrible position, and I cannot begin to imagine how I might have behaved in a similar situation. I love to think I would have responded more like Seeger than Ives, but Pete Seeger was a man of unusual courage.
Richard Dyer Bennet responded to his blacklisting by creating his own record label, using his living room as a studio. A stroke in 1972 put an end to any further public performances. He died in 1991. Only in recent years has his musical legacy begun to be fully appreciated. A video of Bennet singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in 1962 can be found on YouTube here:
A recent conversation prompted me to check out the Oral History section of the National Library website. I have always loved oral history, and I suppose I should have done this a long time ago. It appears to be dominated by two collectors, the second of which I am familiar with, especially after reading his biography by Keith McKenry: ‘More than a Life – John Meredith, and the Fight for Australian Tradition.’
What I was not familiar with, and was not certainly not expecting, was the work of a collector even more prolific than Meredith – an Australian woman by the name of Hazel de Berg. Born Hazel Holland in Deniliquin, NSW, in 1913, she married a Lithuanian Jew, Woolf de Berg, in Sydney in May 1941. Hazel originally trained as a photographer, but engaged in a multitude of activities after her children had grown up, including voluntary work for the blind. The Australian Dictionary of Biography tells the story as follows:
“Hazel de Berg first used a tape recorder in 1957, when she undertook voluntary work for the Blind Book Society. She persuaded Dame Mary Gilmore to make some introductory comments about her book ‘Old Days, Old Ways’ (1934), and this recording, lasting 1 minute 26 seconds, marked the beginning of de Berg’s extraordinary career as a recorder of life histories. In the next three years, encouraged by the writers Douglas Stewart and John Thompson, she recorded about seventy poets, as well as novelists and playwrights. In 1960 she turned to artists and…eventually recorded about 250 painters and sculptors.
“Over a period of twenty-seven years she recorded 1290 individuals.”
I was very surprised to discover this connection between Hazel de Berg and Dame Mary Gilmore. I am rather attuned to the work of Mary Gilmore at present, as my friend Maggie Somerville has recently released an album of Gilmore’s poems that she has set to music.
Hazel herself told the story this way when she was interviewed by Tom Jacobs on the occasion Mary Gilmore’s 95th birthday, 16th August, 1960.
“Well as a matter of fact, I think I’ve always loved poetry. I think all of us are rather keen on verse, but to me it has always been a very living thing, and then one day, Kenneth Bruce, blind man who started the Blind Books Society, asked me if I would read a book for them, and I thought that it would be rather nice, as I knew Dame Mary Gilmore, that I should read her ‘Old Days, Old Ways’. So I went up to her flat at Kings Cross, and I said, “Now, I think it would be rather nice if you were to say something in the front of this for the blind people, and she said, “Well, supposing you announce me,” and I said, “Oh, no. You announce yourself.” So she said, “Well, this is Mary Gilmore. I wrote ‘Old Days, Old Ways.’
“I am quite sure that, in the way that Dame Mary has helped me, you could multiply that by, I am quite sure, thousands, because everybody says that she has one very great virtue, along with her own personality and her ability, and that is that she does encourage other people…she has backed women to an extraordinary extent.”
Hazel de Berg interviewed Gilmore on four occasions. On one of these, she talked about her relationship with Henry Lawson.
“I put him on his feet.”
Gilmore quotes Lawson as having said, “If it hadn’t been for Mary Gilmore the world would never have heard of Henry Lawson.”
Gilmore again: “I gave him the information. Any number of his stories…are my stories. I told him. ‘Water Them Geraniums’…they were our geraniums…’The Drover’s Wife’..that was our story. I was the little girl that watched the baby, and my brother, next to me…I was about seven…I might have been eight, yes, the baby was born in 1870…I’d be about six, not quite seven, or perhaps seven, and my brother climbed to my mother’s skirt after the snake was killed, and he said “Mama (we always said, ‘mama’, you see), when I’m grown up, I’m not going away…I’m not going away building, and I’ll stay home and take care of you.” You see, and I told Henry Lawson that, and he turned it into a little rougha speech…what the drover’s child said, you see.”
‘The Drover’s Wife’, before we proceed any further, is one of Lawson’s two most popular short stories (the other being ‘The Loaded Dog’), and is also one of Australia’s best known and loved stories. It tells the simple tale of a woman on a small, lonely, outback station, defending her four children (and the family dog) from a large snake that has crept under the floorboards while her husband is away droving. Mary Gilmore is effectively telling us that the drover’s wife was her mother.
I don’t find this hard to believe. Many, many years ago I purchased a vinyl LP with the title “Some Arrived To Stay” (Pumphandle Productions, 1979). The album consists of a number of spoken word pieces performed by actor Beverley Dunn, outlining Australia’s early immigrant story.
The standout track for me was ‘Fire – An Outback Story’ by Mary Gilmore. It tells the story of a woman on a small, lonely, outback station defending her children from a bush fire while her husband is away. (He has travelled in to town with the horse and dray to purchases supplies – a four day journey.) For years, the story felt eerily familiar for reasons I could not put my finger on. Now that I understand Gilmore’s connection with ‘The Drover’s Wife’, it makes more sense – though Gilmore makes it clear that her story is about the family of a man who worked for her father, and is not her own family. As Gilmore also says, it was common in the early days of European settlement for women to have to defend their children and property against a range of challenges while their husbands were absent.
There are important differences between Mary Gilmore’s family and the family in ‘The Drover’s Wife’. To some extent, it would appear also that Gilmore’s memory is playing tricks on her, and she is confusing her own history with Lawson’s fictionalised version. For example, there is no mention of “the little girl that watched the baby” in ‘The Drover’s Wife.’ We are told there are four children, one of whom is a baby, but only two are named, Tommy and Jacky. A fifth has died some time earlier. Mary was the oldest child in her family. There was no older brother. It is almost as though she has been written OUT of the story.
Interestingly, mention is made in ‘The Drover’s Wife’ of an earlier episode, again while her husband is away, when she saves the family from a bush fire. In this version, she is saved at the last minute by four bushmen. There are no bushmen rushing to her assistance in ‘Fire – An Outback Story’, however. She saves the family by herself. There is a clear bias against women evident here, though this is not news to anybody, and is consistent with the standards of the day.
Mary Gimore’s father was a carpenter, and quite possibly did spend a good deal of his time working away from home. Lawson’s decision to make the father a drover rather than a builder was a wise one, of course, as it sounds much more romantic. (I am struggling to imagine an iconic Australian story with the title ‘The Builder’s Wife.’)
‘The Drover’s Wife’ does indeed finish, as Gilmore suggests, with a scene involving young Jacky and his mother.
“”Mother, I won’t never go droving’; blast me if I do”
“And she hugs him to her worn-out breast and kisses him, and they sit thus together while the sickly daylight breaks over the bush.”
Mary Gilmore’s mother, Mary Ann Beattie, was born in Australia. Her husband, Donald Cameron, was born in Inverness, Scotland. The two grew up on adjoining properties. Gilmore, once revered as the “Queen of Literature, as far as the Commonwealth is concerned” (to quote both Tom Jacobs and Hazel de Berg) is now all but forgotten. Her mother has never held a place in the sun. Perhaps it is time they were both better remembered and celebrated, especially Mary Ann Cameron…’The Drover’s Wife.’
Maggie Somerville and I were thrilled to be invited to perform at the 2020 Port Fairy Festival, as part of the Writers/Spoken Word section of the festival, organised by Jim Haynes.
We agreed to contribute an item (Maggie a song, me a poem) to the Aussie Morning Show on each of the three mornings (Saturday, Sunday and Monday). Maggie would launch her new CD (‘The Forest Prayed’ – poems of Dame Mary Gilmore set to music by Maggie), while I would contribute to a forum on ‘The Magic of Children’s Literature.’ I also agreed to participate in the Pat Glover Storytelling Award and, in the end, Maggie did too.
Our involvement got off to a bright start at the Saturday Morning Show, held in recent years in the Pavilion, rather than St. Pat’s Hall, where it was held when we last attended, in 2016. The Pavilion is a great venue, as it is right in the heart of the festival. The 9am start meant we were done and dusted by 10am, when the music shows started up, and threatened to drown us out. The Morning Show is held in the upstairs part of the Pavilion, offering great views of the festival from its balconies.
The show began with Jim briefly interviewing Maggie and me, as well as Di Jackson-Hill, who was launching her new children’s picture book, ‘Windcatcher’ (published by CSIRO Publishing), about the local bird, the short-tailed shearwater (illustrated by Craig Smith), and local writer Maya Linnell, who was launching her new ‘rural romance’ novel, ‘Wildflower Ridge.’ Jim was also launching his own very large new book, ‘The Big Book of Australia’s War Stories.’
Jim is an absolutely brilliant performer who always packs in a crowd, so we were playing to a full house every morning.
Thank you to Maggie for this photo of me. Here is Maggie strutting her stuff.
Bush poet Mick Coventry, from Kyabram, did a bracket of jokes and poems later in the show, exercising his particular brand of laconic Aussie bush humour. The crowd loved it!
Maggie and I had something of a programme clash, in that her CD launch was scheduled to begin while the panel discussion of ‘The Magic of Children’s Literature’ was still in progress, and I was keen to spend as much time as possible at her launch to support her. The situation was further complicated by the discovery of a technical hitch. Rather than employ a bevy of musicians to accompany her (a very expensive exercise), the plan was for her to sing along to the CD minus her vocal track, karaoke style. Unfortunately, however, there was a problem with getting it to play. This was eventually solved, but not without a good deal of angst all round!
There was still another problem, as we had no sound man to stop and start the track as needed. Fortunately an old friend of Maggie’s, Melanie Dorian, who was at the festival assisting her husband, instrument maker at ‘Rocky Creek Strings’, agreed to step into the breach.
The panel discussion was held at Blarney Books & Art, a relatively new (and excellent) combined bookshop and art gallery in the town.
More information about ‘Blarney Books & Art’ can be found here:
Jim suggested I kick off proceedings to allow me to spend as much time as possible at Maggie’s launch, and I was pleased to be able to talk about my journey as a writer – the decision to write poetry for children, and the subsequent long and rather tortuous, but ultimately very satisfying, path to the publication of ‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ by Walker Books in 2014. The other members of the panel were Di, Craig and Jim. Unfortunately, I was not able to hear what they had to say, but I was told that it had all gone well, with plenty of fruitful discussion towards the end.
I was pleased to find upon my arrival back at the Pavilion that Maggie’s launch had not yet begun, so I was able to watch the whole show. Melanie did a fine job as Maggie’s assistant!
Only one track could not be played, that for the accompaniment of ‘Botany Bay’, and it was probably more effective performed acapella anyway.
More information about ‘The Forest Prayed’ can be found here:
The Pat Glover Storytelling Award was great fun on the Sunday afternoon. Maggie’ poem, ‘A Deadly Weapon’ (a cautionary tale about taking Irish penny whistles to the Magistrate’s Court!), was extremely well received, but the winner was Eric Purdy, a Scotsman, who told a hilarious tale about deciding to wear a kilt one day, and ending up with one that was far too big for him. He described a garment that began high at his chest, descended to near his feet, and extended great distances both front to back and side to side, so that he felt like ‘a tartan shuttlecock.’ Congratulations Eric!
After final performances at the Monday Morning Show, it was time to wind down and head for home. First, though, we took the opportunity to go for a stroll along the beautiful beach…
All in all, it was a wonderful weekend at an amazing festival, and we both feel very privileged to have had an opportunity to contribute to the proceedings.
Last year the National Library of Australia published a handsome anthology of Australian poems for children, entitled ‘This is Home – Essential Australian Poems for Children’ (selected by Jackie French, illustrated by Tania McCartney). I was thrilled to have two poems included in the book (‘The Sash’ and ‘Dad Meets the Martians’), and to have the opportunity to recite ‘Dad Meets the Martians’ to an audience of children at the launch of the book in the foyer of the National Library. While the book is visually striking, I began to have significant reservations about it fairly soon. Nearly one year on from its publication, I feel it is reasonable to share these.
1. Far too many of the poems appear in an abridged form. These are as follows:
Botany Bay (Anonymous)
The Wild Colonial Bay (Anonymous)
The Shearer’s Wife (Louis Esson)
The Women of the West (George Essex Evans)
A Bush Christmas (C. J. Dennis)
Nine Miles from Gundagai (John ‘Jack’ Moses)
Andy’s Gone with Cattle (Henry Lawson)
Faces in the Street (Henry Lawson)
Anzac Cove (Leon Gellert)
2. The poems appear to have been written primarily by either contemporary or ‘classic’ poets, with very little in between. By ‘classic’ I include the likes of Henry Lawson, ‘Banjo’ Paterson, C. J. Dennis, Norman Lindsay, Louis Esson, Leon Gellert, Ooodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), Judith Wright and Dorothea Mackellar. There are no poems, for example, by Max Fatchen, Bill Scott or Anne Bell. One might have thought a poem from ‘Sister Madge’s Book of Nuns’ (first published in 1986) by Doug McLeod would be an automatic entry. One might also have thought that the NSW School Magazine, surely by far the most prolific publisher of Australian poems for children over the last hundred years, would have provided a valuable resource for poem selection, but there is no evidence that this was the case.
3. Many of the poems by ‘classic’ writers are poor choices, if judging by their suitability for children. The poems included by ‘Banjo’ Paterson are ‘Clancy of the Overflow’, ‘The Man From Snowy River’ and ‘Waltzing Matilda’. These are probably the works for which Paterson is best known. While they can no doubt be enjoyed by older children, they are primarily written for adults. Paterson has written some fabulous poems for children. To my mind, the top three are ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’, ‘The Man from Ironbark’ and ‘The Geebung Polo Club’. None of these are in ‘This is Home’. “The Man from Ironbark’ is probably performed in more classrooms across Australia than any other poem, because it lends itself so well to being acted out.
Henry Lawson is really not a great children’s writer. His subject matter is generally too dark. It is reasonable that he be represented in this book, but ‘Faces in the Street’ is one of his grimmest poems. Also, the illustration focuses for some reason on drought, which is not mentioned in the poem, and not urban poverty, which is its theme.
There are two poems by C. J. Dennis, ‘The Triantiwontigongolope’ and ‘A Bush Christmas.’ The first is definitely Dennis’ best poem for children, and an obvious inclusion. However, Dennis wrote an entire book for children (‘Book for Kids’, which he also illustrated), yet no other poems from this book are included. Instead, we have ‘A Bush Christmas’ (abridged), a poem which no doubt, once again, can be enjoyed by older children, but is essentially a poem for adults.
4. Many of the poems in the book are, in my opinion, simply too hard for most children. The best example, perhaps, is ‘Men in Green’ (David Campbell), about the bravado of men in wartime. In general, I think it is fair to say, there is a heavy bias towards poems for secondary rather than primary aged children, which is a pity.
5. While McCartney has done a lovely job illustrating my poem ‘The Sash’ (which tells the story of a young Ned Kelly boy rescuing an even younger boy from drowning, and being awarded in gratitude a green sash by the boy’s father), I was far less impressed with her illustration of ‘Dad Meets the Martians’. The poem begins with ‘Dad’ driving a Ford motorcar, and ‘the Martians’ driving a flying saucer. It ends, for reasons explained in the poem, with ‘Dad’ driving the flying saucer, and ‘the Martians’ driving the Ford. However, for some inexplicable reason, McCartney chose to add wheels to the flying saucer so that it still functions as a motor car, and ‘Dad’ is still Earthbound, while the Martians continue to fly in space while in the Ford (with wheels still attached). This completely undermines the point of the poem, and suggests that McCartney had not read it properly. ‘Dad Meets the Martians’ had been illustrated a number of times prior to this, and none had ever made that mistake.
There is one other illustration I have a problem with. I know the poem well, because I gave it an award when I was judging the Dorothea Mackellar poetry competition in 2016. It is about a New Guinea bird, the ‘bird of paradise’, and, with the bird acting as narrator, tells the sad tale of how the rest of its family have been shot and killed.
For some reason, the illustration is of the plant that bears the same name, ‘bird of paradise’. There is also an illustration of the plant flying like a bird, a charming enough notion in itself, but the overall impression (to this reader, at least), is that the illustrator does not know about the bird. Otherwise, why depict the bird as a plant flying like a bird? I know if I had written this poem, I would have been very disappointed with this illustration.
6. One last small point: ‘The Cross of the South’ is wrongly designated ‘Anonymous’. It was written by Kenneth Cook, author of ‘Wake in Fright’, as part of his ‘Stockade’ musical play (1971).
‘This is Home – Essential Australian Poems for Children’ is a handsome book, as I said earlier, and it is wonderful that NLA Publishing has chosen to publish a book of this nature. My only frustration is that it could have been so much better.
Maggie Somerville and I attended the National Folk Festival again this year, and it proved to be extremely busy, enjoyable and rewarding for both of us.
In contrast to previous years, I took the Thursday before Good Friday off work so that we could drive up and not miss the Friday of the festival. I know Google says it is a seven hour drive, but it always takes me eight, allowing for a couple of stops. The extra time and money devoted to preparing my old Subaru Outback for the journey paid off, as the car behaved admirably throughout.
We set up camp in what has been the traditional place for me for many years and, in more recent years, us (Maggie and me), managing to complete the erection of the tent in the dying hours of daylight. Then we caught the Opening Concert at the Budawang, before retiring to bed at a reasonable time to get plenty of sleep prior to Friday morning’s Poets’ Breakfast. I think the highlight of the Opening Concert for me was the singing of Eric Bogle (sadly, without John Munro), who had been awarded the 2019 National Folk Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. I still regard his first (studio) album, “Now I’m Easy”, as his best, and he performed two songs from it – the title track, and ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.’ I would have loved to have heard one of the two songs he wrote about his mother, ‘Leaving Nancy’ and ‘Since Nancy Died’, but you can’t have everything.
There were four Poets’ Breakfasts from Friday to Monday, each one lasting for two hours from 8.30 am – 10.30 am, each MC’d by two people – one for the first hour, one for the second – and different MCs for each Breakfast, for a total of eight. (Maggie and I shared the job for the Monday Breakfast.) The four Breakfasts quickly start to blur together in my mind, and I struggle to remember them as distinct, individual events. Suffice to say they were all excellent, and I think the general standard gradually rises every year.
The format is simple. One of the MCs seats himself at a table outside the Flute ‘N’ Fiddle tent (that’s the name of the venue) at about 8.15, armed with a pen and a piece of paper, and poets/reciters approach, with a view to having their name added to the list of performers. They are then called to the stage in the order in which their names are on the list. Having said that, many performers ask for their name to be placed later down the list. The reason for this is that audience number generally build during the first hour, and reach their peak somewhere around the middle of the show. (They often fall off a little towards the end of the show also.) I harbour no great ambitions as a reciter these days, so am generally happy to kick things off as the opening performer.
Here is a selection of photos from Friday, beginning with Maggie singing a song from her new CD, ‘The Forest Prayed’ (poems of Mary Gilmore, music by Maggie Somerville). Geoffrey Graham is seated to her left, as MC.
Some of you may be wondering, why is a song being sung at a Poets’ Breakfast? It was generally felt, as the song was based on a poem by Dame Mary Gilmore, and the guitar playing is fairly subtle, that this was quite reasonable.
You will notice that the faces are generally very overexposed. This was due to the stage lighting, which I was unable to correct for using the camera on my phone.
Three of us – John Peel (the winner of last year’s Reciters’ Award), The Rhymer from Ryde and myself were then roped into a most unusual event – a trivia quiz – to be held at 1 pm at the Majestic tent, the three teams being ‘Bush Poets, ‘All Other Poets’, and the audience itself. We were the bush poets. We came well behind the two other teams (I think the audience might have won – not surprising, as they did outnumber the poets, but not by all that much!), and would have come last if the gentleman on the keyboard playing gentle background music had not become a surprise fourth team. We beat him by half a point!
I now know that the National Folk Festival began in 1967 (not 1966, as I first suggested), and that the ACT ranks seventh out of the eight states and territories, not eighth (as I first suggested!). The Northern Territory comes last in terms of population. I also now know that the ‘golden arches’ of McDonalds are crafted in Helvetica font, and that Demos is a moon of Mars, not Jupiter (as I first suggested!). You get the idea?
Here are a couple of photos.
Maggie was programmed to co-host ‘Poetry in the Park’ with David Hallett at 2.30 pm and, as it was the first poetry event she had ever MC’d, she was feeling understandably nervous. The weather was glorious, however, and she soon found she formed an easy rapport with David. She performed her duties beautifully, and was relieved to have the first one under her belt. This is a relatively new event, and has not drawn big audiences in the past, with MCs often having to make up for a short fall of ‘walk up’ poets. This was not the case this year, however, and it was often a struggle to make sure everybody was able to perform.
The Rhymer from Ryde
Geoffrey Graham (with co-MCs David Hallett and Maggie behind him)
The final poetry event for the day was ‘Poetry in the Round’, held at 7 pm in ‘The Terrace’, a spacious, comfortable, quiet, air-conditioned, but somewhat sterile room above the Session Bar. The format is that the three featured poets (in this case, David Hallett, the Rhymer and Ryde and me) do a short bracket – about 15 minutes each – after which there is a short session for ‘walk-ups’, then another short bracket for each of the feature poets. There is no designated MC, and the task of organising the walk-ups fell by default to me, as I was the last of the three featured poets to perform. In retrospect, I should have been a little tougher in terms of restricting their numbers, as we ran over time, and each of the featured poets had to perform a truncated version of their planned second bracket. Unfortunately, the event overall was not very well attended. Perhaps this was not so surprising. It had been a busy day for poetry, with bright sunshine and good crowds generally.
The Poets’ Breakfast on Saturday was again a great success. I performed my poem “Jesus and his Yoga”, and was surprised by how good a reaction I got from the audience.
Maggie and I were next scheduled to perform in the Victorian Folk Music Club’s musical presentation by their ‘Billabong Band’ on the theme of ‘bushrangers’ at 10.30 am in the Trocadero (we had had to leave the Poets’ Breakfast early). Maggie was an integral part of the show, playing in nearly every song, and singing one of her own. I had a cameo role, performing my poem ‘Victoria Has Ned Kelly!’ towards the end. The show was very well put together, giving us a picture of Australia’s bushranging days in chronological order, beginning with the escaped convicts, and finishing with Ned Kelly. An excellent narrative, written by Bill Buttler, bound the show together. The show was a vast improvement on their presentation last year, which was a little ragged in places, and was well received. (The Trocadero, by the way, is a gorgeous venue to perform in, and tends to be feature shows with a historical bent. When in doubt, head for the Troc!)
Maggie sang a song about Ned Kelly’s lesser known sister, Margaret. She had taken a poem by Keith McKenry, and set it to music.
(Thanks to Jill Watson for these photos.)
The Billabong Band
Our official duties concluded for the day, Maggie and I were free to consult the programme. After a brief celebratory cuppa with fellow VFMC members, Maggie and I dashed off to a songwriting workshop being held by WA-based comedy acapella act ‘The Ballpoint Penguins’. I had seen their act on festival programmes for many years, but had never had a chance to see them. Besides, I always like to attend poetry writing and song writing workshops at festivals. Sadly, it looks as though I may have left it a bit late in this case, as they announced they would soon be retiring. Nevertheless, we were able to get a good taste of their very clever and entertaining songs and performance, and some insight into their ways of working.
The Ballpoint Penguins
Maggie took the opportunity on Saturday afternoon to further promote her new CD, ‘The Forest Prayed.’
The CD is available for sale at Readings bookshop in Carlton, Melbourne.
‘Poetry in the Round’ was again scheduled for 7 pm in The Terrace, this time featuring Jason Roweth, his daughter Megan, and Sandra Renew. Maggie and I attended as ‘walk-ups’. The event was a little better attended this time, and I was able to relate the errors of the previous evening. Sandra ran a ‘tight ship’ so far as ‘walk-ups’ were concerned, with the list being completed before the show even began, and the evening went well. Megan in particular struck me as a remarkably self-assured and mature performer (and poet) for her age. (She is only 11.)
The Poets’ Breakfast on Sunday was another great event. Maggie chose to perform ‘The Dead Poet’, Mary Gilmore’s tribute to Henry Lawson, in response to a bracket of Lawson poems that Jason had performed the previous evening. She was surprised and thrilled at the audience response.
However, we were now filled with excitement and anticipation, as our principal performance of the festival was looming. I am talking about the presentation of C.J. Dennis’ ‘Digger Smith’, with Geoffrey Graham, at the Trocadero at 12 midday. A final intense rehearsal took place before it was back to the camp-site for the various props and costume changes.
‘Digger Smith’, published in 1918, was the third major book about Bill, Doreen and their friends, following ‘The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’ (1915) and ‘The Moods of Ginger Mick’ (1916). (It is the fourth if you include the booklet ‘Doreen’, which contained four poems only (1917).) It tells the story of ‘Digger Smith’, an old mate of Bill and Mick from before the war, his homecoming and subsequent difficulties re-integrating into civilian society. It is also a reflection on World War One more broadly. Maggie and I performed it with members of the C.J. Dennis Society at the Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival last year to a very small audience, and again with Geoffrey Graham at Newstead Live! in January this year to a slightly larger audience. Would we attract a larger audience at the National Folk Festival this year?
Well, I am pleased to say we did! An audience of 40 – 50 stayed with us for the full 90 minute journey, and made their appreciation known in no uncertain terms at the end. It was exhausting, but went off (largely!) without a hitch.
Thank you to Jill Watson for this photo…
…and to Jan Lewis for this one.
There was no time to reflect on our success, however, as Geoffrey and I were MC’ing ‘Poetry in the Park’ at 2.30pm. It proved another well attended event, with plenty of poets, in beautiful sunshine.
Our official duties for the day once again completed, Maggie and I attended the show by John Schumann and Shane Howard at the Budawang. It was the first time I had seen these two performing together, and we heard the best of Redgum and Goanna with a couple of other great songs as well, and a large, powerful backing band. it was a very emotional show. I took a number of pictures, mostly from the screen nearest us. Perhaps this is the best of them.
The final Poets’ Breakfast awaited us on Monday morning, with Maggie and I rostered on as MCs. It was the first time Maggie had hosted a Poets’ Breakfast and, being the final Breakfast, was also the event at which the winners of the coveted awards – the ‘Blue the Shearer’ Award for best original written poem (a new award last year) and the traditional Reciters’ Award – would be announced. Maggie acted as MC for the first half of the Breakfast, and acquitted herself well. Our performance of ‘No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest’, Maggie’s musical setting of another of Mary Gilmore’s poems, including my recitation of part of a speech made by Australia’s then Prime Minister John Curtin, in 1941, was well received.
The results of the judging were then announced by John Peel, the winner of last year’s Reciters’ Award. John did an excellent job, going through the highlights of every day in some detail before making the final announcements. I was thrilled that my poem ‘Jesus and his Yoga’ cracked a mention. The presentations followed.
Irish Joe Lynch was announced as the winner of the ‘Blue the Shearer’ Award for his beautiful love poem to his wife, ‘Strawberries and Cream’, and David Hallett as the winner of the Reciter’s Award. Both were very popular and well deserved winners. Irish Joe is a very powerful performer, and a previous winner of the Reciter’s Award. He is one of the few spoken word performers who can command an audience in their own right. David Hallett is also a superb performance poet. He has been swimming against the tide to a degree in recent years, as the principal free verse poet in a sea of rhymers, and richly deserves this reward for his courageous persistence.
(Thanks again to Jan Lewis for this photo.)
Here are a few more shots of the morning’s performers.
The Rhymer from Ryde
Laurie McDonald (above) announced his retirement as Director of the Spoken Word Programme of the festival. Laurie has done a wonderful job in this role over the last 7 – 8 years, and has done much to raise the profile of spoken word events. There are now many more such shows programmed each year, there is a greater variety, and they are better attended. He is to be commended, and greatly thanked, for his efforts.
Laure announced that another Canberra-based poet, Jacqui Malins (above) will take over as Spoken Word Director for next year’s festival. I wish Jacqui every success in the role, and am sure she will perform it well.
Of course, no festival is ever complete without Campbell the Swaggie!
We had one more show to go! It wasn’t starting until 2.30 pm, and we then faced the long drive back to Melbourne, so there was time to take down the tent, pack the car and get ready to go beforehand. Fortunately, we achieved all this before the inevitable rain came down! The timing was perfect, as it held up until the festival was almost over.
Our final show, ‘Desert Island Poems’, in The Terrace, was a qualified success. I began the show three years ago as a spinoff of ‘Desert Island Discs’, a BBC radio show in which celebrities are invited into the studio to nominate the seven songs they would take with them if they had to spend the rest of their lives alone on a desert island, and why. I invite two poets (one male, one female), to nominate three such poems they would take with them. The show lasts for an hour. This year I chose as the poets Laurie McDonald and Maggie Somerville. An animated hour of discussion followed, and the small audience were well entertained, and thoroughly engaged in the discussion. Laurie chose ‘The Play’ by C.J. Dennis and ‘Sea Fever’ by John Masefield (which is interesting, because Dennis and Masefield were mutual admirers). He also chose one of his own poems, a ‘work-in-progress’ children’s picture book manuscript – though how he would arrange to submit the poem to the publisher from the desert island was never explored. Hopefully he would have a good internet connection!
Maggie chose several classic poems – ‘The King’s Breakfast’ by A.A. Milne, ‘The Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyes, and ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’ by A.B. Paterson. A well worn early edition of the poems of A.A. Milne was passed around the audience.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and it was time at last to hit the road. It had been an exhilarating but exhausting four days, and the focus was now on getting back to Melbourne in reasonable time to get some sleep, and get through a long working day on Tuesday. It was after 1 am by the time my head hit the pillow, but it had all, most definitely, been worthwhile!
The National Library (NLA Publishing) has recently released an anthology of poems for Australian children entitled “This is Home – Essential Australian Poems for Children.” I am very happy to report that two of my poems – ‘Dad Meets the Martians’ and ‘The Sash’ – are included in the collection, which is lavishly illustrated by Tania McCartney. The poems were selected by Jackie French, perhaps best known as the author of the classic children’s picture book ‘Diary of a Wombat.’
The book was launched at the National Library in Canberra last Sunday (7th April), and I received an invitation to attend and read one of my poems from the book. As I happened to be in the area with my friend Maggie Somerville, I decided to attend. My son, Thomas, and his girlfriend, Catherine, are also living in Canberra these days, so the four of us made our way to the library in the early afternoon.
It was a beautiful sunny day. I can’t remember if I have ever been to the National Library before or not, but I have to say the entrance looks quite magnificent.
Susan Hall, the publisher, welcomed the guests and introduced the afternoon’s proceedings…
Margaret Hamilton officially launched the book, but I do not have a photo of her speaking. The best I can offer is the following photo with, from left to right (in the comfy chairs) Margaret, Jackie French and Tania McCartney.
She was followed by Jackie French, who selected the poems…
and Tania McCartney, who provided the illustrations.
Both spoke with great passion about the book, and their contribution to it.
Next came the poets, a number of whom were in attendance, to read their poems.
Leo Barnard read ‘A Palace of a God’…
Jackie Hosking ‘A Dessert Sky’…
Christopher Cheng read ‘We Celebrate’…
Janeen Brian read ‘Looking’…
Libby Hathorn was the next to read, but I think I was distracted by my own imminent performance, and cannot be sure which of her three poems she read. I think it may have been ‘Cindric’s Trolley’, though.
Geoffrey Page also read ‘Silver Wind’, but unfortunately I do not have a picture of him, either.
Lastly, I performed my poem ‘Dad Meets the Martians.’ I am pleased to say it was well received.
Then it was time to say goodbye to Thomas and Catherine…
(thanks to Maggie Somerville for the photo) and skedaddle back to Melbourne in time for work at 9 am on Monday morning!
Travelling south from Crookwell in New South Wales to Canberra last Sunday morning, Maggie Somerville and I came across the gorgeous little town of Gundaroo. I had never been there before, and may never go there again, but I am so glad we stumbled upon it last Sunday.
It looked like a perfect place to stop for a break and a cuppa. We didn’t have much luck at the Literary Institute & Library, which is currently being renovated…
…and the picturesque ‘Sally Paskins’ Stores’ also didn’t seem to be offering much.
We had more luck, however, at the Old Gundaroo Police Station…
…now being operated as the Cork Street Gallery – Cafe.
The police cell was an imposing sight…
…and the paling fence looked suitably rustic.
Some friendly locals suggested we check out the Catholic Church…
…just up the hill from the war memorial…
…and we were very taken with Grazing Restaurant and Function Centre at the Royal Hotel.
Last Saturday I had the great privilege of attending (and performing at) the launch of Maggie Somerville’s new album based on the poetry of Dame Mary Gilmore, ‘The Forest Prayed’. Maggie has taken 16 poems by Mary Gilmore, written music for them, and recorded them as songs. We believe this is the first album of songs based on the poems of Dame Mary Gilmore to be recorded (but would be happy to be proved wrong).
Maggie felt the most appropriate place to launch the album would be Crookwell in New South Wales, near the place of Gilmore’s birth, and home of the Upper Lachlan Shire Mary Gilmore Society. The Society holds an annual Mary Gilmore Festival, which Maggie has attended for the last two years. The driving force behind the festival and the society is Crookwell resident Trevene Mattox, who has become a great supporter of Maggie in recent years.
Trevene enthusiastically agreed to organise the launch, to be held at the Memorial Centre, and very kindly allowed us to stay at her house.
She did an excellent job of advertising the event.
Trevene is a superb organiser, and does a wonderful job of bringing local community groups together. It is always a little nerve-racking in the minutes leading up to an event such as this. The best organisation in the world does not guarantee that an audience will turn up. Fortunately, on this occasion, they most definitely did!
The hall had been beautifully decorated, with great attention to detail.
The launch began with Elaine Delaney (left) and Trevene (right) welcoming the many groups and individuals who had attended.
The Upper Lachlan Shire Mayor John Stafford then introduced Maggie and me.
Our moment had arrived! Maggie performed “No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest’, with me joining her for the choruses, and doing my best to impersonate Prime Minister John Curtin’s 1941 ‘speech to the nation’ in response to the threat of the invasion of Australia by Japan during World War II (which features on the album).
Dame Mary Gilmore’s great great nephew, The Hon Scott Morrison PM, had been invited to launch the album, but was otherwise engaged. The local member for Hume, The Hon Angus Taylor, was also unable to attend. However, his lovely wife, Louise, did most graciously agree to launch the album, and spoke entertainingly, in great detail, and with glowing praise for ‘The Forest Prayed.’
We had been warned that the audience would be satisfied with the performance of one song only but, in fact, they were thirsty for more, so we followed with a rather impromptu (but nonetheless successful) rendition of ‘Never Admit the Pain.’
A very healthy number of CDs were sold during the course of the afternoon, and we can only express our most sincere and heartfelt thanks to Louise Taylor and Mayor John Stafford, and to Trevene Mattox and Elaine Delaney and their large team of tireless and hard working assistants. I realise I have neglected to mention the food which was both varied and delicious, and available in large quantities! All in all, it was a great event for which, I hope, Dame Mary Gilmore herself would have been very proud!
I went for a bracing walk along the road to Bathurst the following morning, and became better acquainted with some of the locals.
More information about ‘The Forest Prayed’ album, including details of future launches to be held in Melbourne, can be found here:
Book Review: “Waltzing Matilda – Australia’s Accidental Anthem” by W. Benjamin Lindner
(Published by Boolarong Press)
This is a book I have long been hoping somebody would write, but dared not believe anybody would.
There has been much written in recent years about the writing of Australia’s unofficial national anthem ‘Waltzing Matilda’. In particular, there has been a push to suggest that the words relate closely to the events surrounding the burning of the woolshed at Dagworth station in western Queensland in early September 1894, and the subsequent death of a shearer, Samuel Hoffmeister. (The two events may or may not have been related, but probably were.) Personally, I have never found this line of argument convincing.
Considerable uncertainty has also surrounded the timing of the writing of the song, with proponents of the Hoffmeister theory keen to believe, and therefore prove, that the song was written as soon as possible after these events. I have also never been convinced that this has been proven.
Part of the difficulty has been that Paterson’s travel arrangements during this time were never documented. A new book on the subject, “Waltzing Matilda – Australia’s Accidental Anthem”, by W. Benjamin Lindner, sets out to resolve this conundrum in a devastatingly simple way. It makes you wonder why nobody has ever thought of doing it before.
What is not disputed is that Paterson wrote “Waltzing Matilda” in collaberation with Christina McPherson, who provided the music (the tune ‘Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea’ that she had heard played at the Warrnambool races in April 1894), and that he was in the company of his fiancé, Sarah Riley, at the time. So, if Paterson’s travel movements cannot be nailed down, can the movements of McPherson and Riley? Turns out they can! They both travelled to Queensland from Melbourne, and both spent a large part of the journey on the ocean, travelling by steamer, First Class. These voyages are well documented, and prove beyond doubt that Waltzing Matilda could not have been written any earlier than August 1895, almost a year after the burning of the Dagworth woolshed. Furthermore, while Paterson’s travelling arrangements cannot be proven, his various sporting and social activities in Sydney most definitely can, and it turns out they line up perfectly with the movements of McPherson and Riley!
This is an extremely dense and well-researched book. There is a very large cast of characters. I read it quickly and in a somewhat feverish state of mind, as I quickly realised what a gem it was, and don’t pretend to have fully comprehended or integrated all the information it contains.
It is very clear to me, however, that Waltzing Matilda was written some months later than many would like to believe. I also think Lindner has done a very good job of demonstrating just how unlikely it is that Paterson based the words on the death of Hoffmeister. Importantly, a detailed analysis of the inquest into the death of Samuel Hoffmeister fails to make any link whatsoever with the squatter Bob McPherson, brother of Christina, and manager – with his three brothers – of Dagworth station. I can see that those events may well have fed into the lyrics, but only in a very general sense, and certainly not in the strictly literal sense that some would like to believe. (Lindner makes specific reference to Richard Magoffin and Dennis O’Keeffe in this respect.)
Lindner also makes it clear that Waltzing Matilda was almost certainly written at more than one location – possibly as many as three or four – with McPherson playing an autoharp initially, and then moving to a piano when one became available.
Lindner also points out that the evidence he has discovered means that the first public performance of the song could not have taken place in April 1895 at the North Gregory Hotel, as has been believed by many up until now, because it had not yet been written.
There are passages which could have benefitted from further editing. The text contains minor grammatical errors at times, and there is some repetition that could have been tidied up, but these are minor quibbles.
Lindner is a criminal lawyer, and calls his book a ‘forensic history’. It didn’t necessarily need a lawyer to write this book, but his methodical, persistent, extremely detailed, dispassionate approach is well suited to the task. He does concede that Trove, that invaluable National Library resource that contains so many early newspapers in digitised form, was not available to earlier researchers.
I would strongly recommend this book to anybody who is interested in the history of Australia’s unofficial national anthem, ‘Waltzing Matilda.’
I have always loved the idea of taking interesting events from Australia’s maritime history and shaping them into poems or song lyrics for contemporary audiences. Stan Rogers, the Canadian singer songwriter, is the master of this, with songs such as ‘The Mary Ellen Carter’ and ‘Barrett’s Privateers’. I can’t really think of an Australian equivalent. We have plenty of songs about shearers and drovers, but we have never mythologised our maritime history, rich as it is.
Since becoming friends with Maggie Somerville and staying at her house in Foster, I have begun to reacquaint myself with the history of South Gippsland, much of which is, of course, maritime.
It is tempting to simply write about shipwrecks, but that seems such a cheap way of approaching the subject – of course they are going to be tragic, and there is no shortage of them to choose from.
That is why the story of the ketch ‘Coquette’ struck my fancy. I first heard of the ‘Coquette’ in a book entitled ‘They Fished in Wooden Boats – A History of Port Franklin District and the Fishing Families’, by Neil Everitt, which I found in the Visitors’ Information Centre at Wilsons Prom several years ago. Pages 22 – 23 are devoted to the story of the landing of gold prospectors by boats and ships at Stockyard Creek to take them to the diggings. (Stockyard Creek was also an early name for Foster.) A number of vessels are referred to, including the ’41-ton ketch Coquette.’ I decided to see if ‘Trove’ could tell me anything about the ‘Coquette.’
Turned out it most definitely could. Yes, the ‘Coquette’ sank, but nobody was killed, and the events both preceding and following are interesting and, thanks to Trove, readily accessible in considerable detail. Of further appeal to me was that the ‘Coquette’ sank in Waratah Bay, a part of the coastline that Maggie has especially taken to heart. (She even wrote a song about it!)
The first article, published in Sydney in the Australian Town and Country Journal on Saturday 12 November 1892, tells us that the four masted ship ‘Drumblair’ has become stranded on the sand in Waratah Bay on the way from Sydney to Port Pirie in South Australia.
The second article, published in Melbourne in The Argus on Friday 23 December 1892, tells us that the Drumblair was winched off the sand with the help of anchors that were left behind, and are obviously very valuable. The ketch ‘Coquette’ has been sent from Melbourne to retrieve the anchors and related gear (presumably pulleys and ropes/cables). An anchor is successfully winched out of the sea but, unfortunately, it smashes against the bow of the ‘Coquette’, and causes sufficient damage to the hull that the ‘Coquette’ sinks within ten minutes, in about eight fathoms (48 feet) of water. The crew take to a dinghy, arrive safely on shore, and return to Melbourne overland.
The third and final article, published in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate on Wednesday 22 Feb 1893, tells us that a steamer, ‘Albatross’, has been despatched from Melbourne to raise the ‘Coquette’. Alas, the attempt was unsuccessful. All the hawsers broke before she could be brought to the surface. The ketch was ‘only slewed around’, and has been ‘abandoned to her fate.’
What was her fate? Was the ‘Coquette’ ever raised from the sea floor? Did she simply disintegrate on the seabed? Do traces of her remain? I have been unable to answer any of these questions.
Meanwhile, here is the song lyric I pieced together from these three articles.
The Poor Ketch ‘Coquette’
For the poor ketch ‘Coquette’
The saddest fate yet –
It’s sunk beneath Waratah Bay.
We all have high hopes
We can lift her with ropes.
Alas, it will not be today,
Alas it will not be today.
Through storm she sailed, but did not veer
From her task, to bring back gear
And anchors from the rescue mission grand
For that four-masted ship ‘Dumblair’
Which slowly dragged it, with great care,
From where it lay so helpless on the sand.
Alas, an anchor, swinging high
Beneath her bow went all awry.
It struck her stem, and wrenched it from its planks.
Amid the tumult and the din
The ocean quickly rushed right in.
She sank, but none were drowned – a cause for thanks.
The steamer ‘Albatross’ then sailed
Where others had so often failed
To raise the ketch ‘Coquette’ from where it sat.
It could not lift her from the ground,
But simply slew the ship around
And that it seems, at least for now, is that.
Maggie Somerville and I attended Newstead Live! again this year. We set off after I had finished work on the Friday before Australia Day, which meant we were setting up the tent in the dark. To complicate matters a little further, the performers’ camping was not available, so we had to camp at the Racecourse, which I struggled to find. Eventually we stumbled into the Railway Hotel, where we were assisted by some helpful patrons.
I made it to the Poets’ Breakfast the following morning in time to act as MC and create a list of performers. (Jim Smith has always acted as MC at these events, but decided to call it a day last year.) We had only been allocated 45 minutes on the programme, but Troubadour Manager Andrew Pattison was happy for us to run through till 10 am, which meant we got a full hour, and everybody had a chance to perform twice.
It was good to see Campbell the Swaggie once again.
Maggie and I had the rest of the day free to check out other acts.
A highlight for me was the ‘Good Girl Song Project’ at the Uniting Church, telling the rather sorry story of early female migration to the colony of New South Wales, based on research by Liz Rushen, with songs by Helen Begley, and a script taken directly from documents of the day. Maggie enjoyed it, too. I bought the CD, which is also excellent.
Later in the afternoon we caught a couple of songs from ‘The Grubby Urchins’ at Lilliput. It was good to see Daniel Bornstein again. The last time I had seen him performing at Lilliput was several years ago, when he was with my son, Thomas, in ‘The Paper Street Soap Company.’
(Daniel is on the left.)
We also spent some time relaxing in the Courtyard, where we watched Geoffrey Graham (who was due to perform ‘Digger Smith’ with us the following day.)
Geoffrey was followed by fellow Victorian Folk Music Club members Don and Ken who also did an excellent job.
On Sunday morning I did a quick poem at the Poets’ Breakfast (this time with Geoffrey Graham acting as MC) before dashing off to do a show for children at Lilliput.
Maggie and I then watched Andrew Pattison interview Broderick Smith at the Troubadour for ‘Desert Island Discs.’ Broderick was a particularly eloquent interviewee, and Andrew was a superb interviewer, as always.
(Broderick and Andrew are away in the distance in this photo, I am afraid, and Andrew’s head has been completely blocked by a speaker!)
Finally it was time for Geoffrey, Maggie and I to perform ‘Digger Smith’ by C. J. Dennis at the Anglican Church. ‘Digger Smith’, first published in 1918, was the fourth of five books written by Dennis featuring Bill and Doreen, and is set at the end of the First World War. This was only the second time Maggie and I had performed it (the first being at Toolangi last year), and the first with Geoffrey. It went well, with a small but appreciative audience. We will be performing ‘Digger Smith’ next in the Trocadero at the National Folk Festival in Canberra at Easter.
It was very difficult for Maggie to perform following the unexpected and tragic death of her son Julian only twelve days earlier. I am extremely grateful to her for doing so, and for doing it so beautifully.
I will finish this report with a photo of the Men’s Shed, which caught my fancy with its ‘Receding Airlines.’
The lead-up to the festival this year was disturbed by the very sad news that Vic Williams, co-owner of The Singing Gardens, and husband of Jan Williams, is very ill. My thoughts are with Vic, Jan and their sons at this difficult time.
This year’s festival was very enjoyable and went well, but numbers were significantly down on previous years, which is prompting some soul searching. The cold, wet weather no doubt was a contributing factor, but I am not convinced that this is the whole story.
It began, as always with the Awards Ceremony. This was one of the best attended events of the weekend. Numbers of entries were up on last year, and the standard, as always, was very high. In addition to the prize money and certificates, award winners also received a copy of the festival booklet containing all the winning poems, beautifully produced by Daan Spijer, and a copy of Jack Thompson’s CD, “The Sentimental Bloke. The Poems of C. J. Dennis”, a number of which had been kindly donated to the Society. The new category of short story (500 word limit), now in its second year, appears to be working well. It was especially gratifying to see Jan Williams win First Prize in the ‘Adults Writing for Children’ section, as judged by children, for her poem ‘Scruffy Dog’.
The ‘Open Mike’ and ‘C. J. Dennis Showcase’ followed, with great performances by Jenny Erlanger, Maggie Somerville, David Campbell, Ruth Aldridge and Daan Spijer.
At 5 pm we commenced the performance of ‘Digger Smith’, published 100 years ago, in 1918. Several rehearsals had been held, we were dressed for the part, and I think we acquitted ourselves well. Unfortunately, we played to a very small crowd, which was disappointing. That said the audience, though tiny, was highly attentive and appreciative – and complimentary! We broke after an hour or so for dinner, and then continued for another hour after dinner, completing the book. (The food, it must be said, was as superb as ever!)
(Photo by Tim Sheed)
The Poets’ Breakfast the following morning was attended by myself, Maggie Somerville, David Campbell, Christine Middleton and Tim Sheed. It was great to have Christine and Tim there. Christine is a beautiful harpist, and Tim is an excellent reciter of Australian bush verse.
Christine performed some of the melodies she plays in the course of her work as a music therapist.
Tim recited an old Dennis favourite, “An Old Master”. It was exciting to be able to inform him that he was pretty much standing on the slopes of Mt St Leonard himself as he performed the poem!
We were honoured with the attendance of the local Member of Parliament, Cindy McLeish (State Member for Eildon). I think she was expecting a larger turn-up, but she hid her disappointment well, and in the end I think she really enjoyed the performances.
Maggie Somerville had put the poem “West” from “Digger Smith” to music, and performed it after David Campbell and I had provided something of the context. It was very well received.
David took the opportunity to perform his poem “A School for Politicians”, and I then changed the mood slightly with one of my poems for children, “Yesterday’s Homework”. Maggie and Christine played “No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest” together to finish the morning show. This poem, by Dame Mary Gilmore, has been put to music by Maggie. She has recorded the song, with Christine playing the harp. However, Christine was recorded in a different studio at a different time to the other musicians, so this was the first time Maggie and Christine had performed the song together.
(Photo by Tim Sheed)
Maggie and I have worked together to create a YouTube video of the song, which can be found here:
(from left to right, David, Tim (back), Christine (front), me, Cindy and Maggie – photo by Melanie Hartnell)
The sun came out after lunch, in time for the ‘moving theatre’ and the children’s ballet. ‘C.J. Dennis’ and ‘Henry Lawson’ received a surprise visit from ‘Dame Mary Gilmore’. ‘Henry’ took the opportunity to introduce the audience to little known poems by Banjo Paterson’s younger brother Ukulele, and Henry Lawson’s younger brother Leroy.
The numbers were swelled considerably by the families and friends of the dancers without whom, once again, the audience would have been very small indeed.
We then moved inside for afternoon tea, and Jan Williams presented David with the Marian Mayne award for First Prize in the Open Poetry section.
Jim Brown was not able to attend the festival this year, and was therefore unable to perform his traditional rendition of ‘Dusk’ to close the festival. I performed it in his stead, with musical accompaniment from Maggie.
The gardens looked splendid as always. The weather was rather dismal on the Saturday, but picked up on the Sunday. Jan and her band of helpers performed admirably as they always do and, as I mentioned before, the food all weekend was delicious. The only thing missing was a good-sized audience!
It is hard to know precisely the cause(s) for this. We have an ageing membership, and are not attracting many new, younger members. The festival has been running in its current format for a number of years now, and perhaps a change is needed. Suggestions received included reducing it to a single day (probably the Sunday), or running it every second year. Further suggestions are welcome.
In summary, the festival this year was enjoyable and successful, but it would have been nicer to have had a few more people there!
Maggie and I visited the Benalla Entertainment Muster last Sunday. This is an annual event run by the Victorian Bush Poetry and Music Association, and organised primarily by Cudgewa-based Jan Lewis. It is a great fun weekend, and I have been attending it for a number of years now. It is also a good opportunity to promote the Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival, which usually follows a week or two later. (This year it is following a week later – taking place this coming weekend.) Some years I have attended on both the Saturday and the Sunday, staying overnight in Benalla, and Maggie has joined me for the two days a couple of times in recent years, but my current work commitments make it difficult for me to get there on the Saturday.
As always, it was great fun. This year, a ‘sea shanty’ theme was chosen, which lent itself to being interpreted in a number of ways. Certainly the most visually spectacular of these was the court martial of Captain Kirley by Admiral Carrington and Co.
Val Kirley’s paintings of sailing ships added to the nautical atmosphere.
Maggie (back) joins Jan Lewis (left) and Christine Boult (right) in song.
Maurie Foun (lagerphone), Jim Carlisle and Jeff Mifsud (guitar) make music together.
Just a few snippets of what was a very enjoyable day…
The Australian poet C. J. Dennis completed the writing of ‘The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’ in a tram car (strictly speaking a horse-drawn omnibus) on the property of Garry and Roberta Roberts, ‘Sunnyside’, in what was then South Sassafras, but is now known as Kallista.
The Roberts created something of an artists’ colony at ‘Sunnyside’. Robert worked for the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Company. Both he and his wife, Roberta, were keen patrons of the arts, and encouraged many writers and artists to visit their weekend retreat. When the homestead proved inadequate to accommodate them all, Roberts arranged for horse-drawn omnibuses that had been rendered obsolete by the new cable tram technology to be taken to ‘Sunnyside’ and placed in the paddocks around the house. It was here that Dennis lived – and wrote – for a period of time.
Among those who visited were Hal Gye, who illustrated most of Dennis’ books, the cartoonists David Low and Percy Leason, the sculptor Web Gilbert, the etcher John Shirlow and, amongst many others, the artists Alick McClintock and Harold Herbert.
Looking for information about ‘Sunnyside’ amongst the digitised newspapers on the National Library’s ‘Trove’ recently, I was both stunned and charmed to find this beautiful series of sketches of cathedrals, churches and schools by Herbert. They were published in a newspaper I had not heard of before, ‘The Australasian’, under the heading ‘Harold Herbert’s Corner’. They appear to have been published, on a more or less weekly basis, in the last year of his life. (Herbert was born on 16.09.1891 and died on 11.02.1945.) ‘The Australasian’ ceased publication in 1946.
All of the sketches are accompanied by a few explanatory sentences. In a few cases, there are the words only, and no sketch at all. A few were published following his death, though in these cases the headline ‘Harold Herbert’s Corner’ was not used. Herbert was best known as a watercolorist. He also became a highly acclaimed war artist. I expect that these sketches are regarded as a fairly minor part of his overall artistic output, but I thought they were fascinating in their own right. No doubt the collection I am posting here is incomplete.
St James’ Old Cathedral, Melbourne (15.04.1944)
St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne (06.05.1944)
St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne (13.05.1944)
St Peter’s College, Adelaide (20.05.1944)
St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral, Adelaide (27.05.1944)
St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney (03.06.1944)
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney (10.06.1944)
St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane (17.06.1944)
St Stephen’s Cathedral, Brisbane (24.06.1944)
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Bendigo (08.07.1944)
St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat (22.07.1944)
All Saints Church of England, Bendigo (29.07.1944)
St Mary’s Cathedral, Perth (05.08.1944)
St David’s Church of England Cathedral, Hobart (12.08.1944)
My Performer Application for the festival was unsuccessful this year, so I bought a ticket. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for ‘walk-up’ poets to perform at the festival.
I headed off with my son, Thomas, on the morning of Good Friday. It’s a long drive from Melbourne to Canberra, but fortunately I still had time to find a camping site, erect the tent, and attend “Poetry in the Round” in a new tent venue, “Festival Hall”. The MCs were Peter Mace and John Peel (see below).
In recent years, this event has been held in The Terrace, a very civilised room in the pavilion above the Sessions Bar. The great advantage of this venue is that it is very quiet and well sound-proofed. Performers in “Festival Hall” were constantly having to compete with the noise from other acts, especially the parade, heading past the front door first one way, then the other. One advantage of this year’s venue was that there is a lot more ‘passing trade’, with a greater likelihood of people dropping in casually to ‘check it out’. The tents can also get very cold at night. Fortunately, Easter in Canberra this year was quite warm.
The Poets’ Breakfast on Saturday morning was a big event, as these Breakfasts always are. There was a new award this year, the “Blue the Shearer Award” for the Best Original Poem. This is being held to honour the life of Col “Blue the Shearer” Wilson, a very popular poet and great friend of the festival, who died last year.
The “Reciter of the Year” award, which continues, is for a recitation from memory, and the reciter does not need to have written the poem. The new award can be read, but the reader must have written it. In other words, it is an award for writing, not performing.
The other new development this year was that the festival feature poets were also eligible to win the wards. The judge for both awards this year was last year’s judge, Chris McGinty, as last year’s winner of the Reciter’s Award, Len “Lenno” Martin, was unable to attend the festival.
Another opportunity to perform presented itself at “Poetry in the Park” on Saturday afternoon. The MC was John Peel (see below).
My friend, Maggie Somerville, arrived on Saturday afternoon, having left Melbourne that morning. We attended “Poetry in the Round” again together in the evening, and each performed a poem.
At the Sunday Breakfast Maggie read “A Deadly Weapon”, her poem about the hazards of trying to smuggle a tin whistle into court.
At 3.30 pm on Sunday, Maggie performed with the Billabong Band from the Victorian Folk Music Club, during their presentation of “Songs of the Victorian Goldfields” at the Trocadero. The band had been thrown into some disarray following the very sad news that the son of two of its most prominent members had died on Good Friday, and they had had to return to Melbourne. Replacements were arranged at short notice, and overall the show went well, but the situation was far from ideal.
Here is the full line-up…
(That’s Maggie in the red hat.)
A very interesting presentation took place in “Festival Hall” on Sunday night as Peter Mace and American cowboy poet Dick Warwick discussed the differences between cowboy poetry and Australian bush poetry. The takeaway message was that there are not a lot of differences, though perhaps the Americans are a little more reverential in their choice of subject matter. Then again, at least as I understand them, Ned Kelly is a far more ambiguous figure than Billy the Kid.
Here are Dick and Peter in animated conversation…
Chris McGinty announced the winners of the awards at the Monday Poets’ Breakfast. John Peel won the “Reciter of the Year” award with a poem he wrote himself, “When Elvis Came Back from the Dead”, which he performed at the Friday Poets’ Breakfast. Peter Mace won the inaugural “Blue the Shearer Award” with his poem about Kerry Stokes buying a VC medal at an auction for a million dollars to keep it in Australia, and then donating it to the National War Museum. (I haven’t found the title yet.)
Congratulations to them both!
Maggie headed back to Melbourne early on Monday morning, and Thomas and I left about midday.
Once again, the National Folk Festival had been very successful, and highly enjoyable!
It was both a joy and a privilege last Saturday afternoon (24th February) to host the launch of the new CD of original songs and tunes, ‘Baloney’, by my dear friend Maggie Somerville, at my home in Northcote.
Maggie began working on the CD two years ago, in the studios of Hugh McDonald (ex-Redgum, writer of the iconic song “The Diamantina Drover”). Sadly, Hugh died in late 2016 before completing the project. Fortunately, Hugh’s bass player, James Clark, agreed to help her finish it, first in Hugh’s studios, then in his own studios in Riddells Creek.
Maggie had been watching the long range forecast with an eagle eye for the previous two weeks, and had accepted that it was likely to rain during the event (although that turned out not to be the case!), and wet weather plans were put in place. The audience would be seated on plastic chairs in my living room, while Maggie and the band would be outside, on adjacent covered decking. Double doors allowed the audience good access to the musicians.
The launch was further complicated by the sad death of former President of the Victorian Folk Music Club Harry Gardner, with a memorial service in his honour being held in Ringwood on the morning of the launch. A number of the musicians, including Maggie, were planning to attend, which would make the timing tight.
(One of the tunes on ‘Baloney’ is titled ‘Harry’s Baking Bread’. Harry frequently hosted music rehearsals at his home, and in his later years mastered the art of baking bread, which he served for supper. Maggie was asked to play the tune at Harry’s service, and say a few words about him, which she was thrilled to have the opportunity to do.)
Catering was to be organised by Maggie’s daughters Gronya (who would also be singing) and Bridget, and two of Gronya’s friends, Suzanne and Mary-Anne.
Maggie had also printed a small number of purple T-shirts featuring the beautiful cover art of the CD, created by Hilary Jellett.
As it turned out, the day was a great success. The musicians all arrived in time (just!), the rain came prior to the event, and held off during the launch itself, the audience arrived in good time, and ideal numbers (a full house, but not over-full), and the catering was superb.
Maggie managed to perform all twenty tracks on the album, only running slightly over time, and that was in spite of a good long break for tucker at the halfway mark.
There was a great mood during the afternoon, and it was clear that everybody – audience and musicians alike – had enjoyed themselves immensely.
(Thank you to Catherine Leslie for this photo of the musicians.)
Maggie is joined by friends (and daughter Gronya, far right), in her ode to her hot water bottle…
Maggie is assaulted by a creeper in her song “The Creeper’s Curse”…
Maggie sings of the trials and tribulations of breast feeding…
Congratulations to Maggie and her large cast of musicians (see below) on a wonderful afternoon’s entertainment, and a very successful launch of ‘Baloney’.
Bill Buttler – guitar, ukulele
Maree Buttler – piano accordion, vocals
Katy Cottrill – vocals, percussion
James Clark – bass
Catherine Leslie – violin
Michael Parker – Uilleann pipes
Bryce Russell – keyboard
Ray Simpson – didgeridoo
Gronya Somerville – vocals
Bruce Watson – snare drum
Jill Watson – glockenspiel
Trevor Voake – mandolin
Gronya and Maggie.
Stephen (me) and Maggie.
(Thank you to Gronya Somerville for this photo.)
Here is a full track listing:
1. A Dog’s Life
2. A Little of Your Time
3. The Breastfeeding Blues
4. Hugh McDonald’s Lament
5. Streets of Fear
6. Koori Spirit
7. Don’t Give Up Your Name
8. Dunlewey Dream
9. One Forgotten Soldier
10. Aussie Christmas Day
11. How I Love My Hottie
12. Whiskers in the Whistle/Harry’s Baking Bread
13. Heroes of Guadalcanal
14. The Creeper’s Curse
15. Bridget’s Bicycle/Foster Market
16. Wattle Day
17. Garage Girl
18. The Weatherboard House
19. Sunset Farewell
20. Edith Oenone
A second launch of ‘Baloney’ will take place at the Ringwood Folk Club (Knaith Rd. Reserve, Knaith Rd, Ringwood East – Melway 50 B8) on Tuesday, 13th March. VFMC member Jane Bullock has choreographed a dance for ‘Harry’s Baking Bread’, which will also be performed on the evening.
Further information about the Ringwood launch can be found here:
Further information about ‘Baloney’ can be found on Maggie’s website, here:
Last weekend I travelled with Maggie Somerville to Newstead, a small town in central Victoria, for the annual “Newstead Live!” festival that straddles the Australia Day long weekend (when we have one!), and is close to Australia Day when we don’t. Usually the last weekend in January. Just before the schools go back. Something like that.
It was a scramble for me to get home from work after a long day, pack the car, head over to Maggie’s place, pack her stuff (and re-pack the car), then begin the roughly two and a half hour journey up the Calder Highway to the festival reception office and, eventually, our camp-site. It was well after 10 pm when we finally arrived, and we knew we had to be ready, bright and chirpy, for the Poets’ Breakfast at 9 am, followed by our own children’s show at 10.30 am. (Why do we do it? Because we love it!)
The Breakfast was MC’d for the umpteenth time (excellently, I might add) by veteran Melbourne-based reciter Jim Smith.
As always, the show was of a high standard. Here is a sample of the performers.
The show, as always, was well received.
This was the first year without Andrew and Heather Pattison and their small army of friendly helpers, as Andrew and Heather have now retired from the festival. They were missed – not only because of their smiling faces, but because food and drink was no longer as accessible. We were required instead to make our way to the not-too-distant pavilion where, it must be said, the service was friendly and professional.
Maggie and I had to leave early to make our way across town to “Lilliput”, the child care centre where our children’s show was being staged. It took a little while for the audience to gather, but the show – a mixture of songs written by Maggie and songs written by me, with a couple of my poems thrown in for good measure – went well.
Swinging the billy was a big hit!
We had a chance take a bit of a rest before the “Grumpy Old Poets” at the Anglican Church at 4 pm, where I was MC, and we both performed. The highlight of this ‘come all ye’ poetry event was the thunder and lightning that raged outside. We felt safe and secure inside the little stone church. Little did we know at the time just to what extent we were in fact its victims!
We had dinner at the pub (so Maggie could watch the Women’s Single Final of the Australian Open on the TV – go Caroline!), then bumped into Suzette Herft leading the community singing across the road later in the evening.
Maggie joined in on her whistle.
We returned to our camp-site tired but happy, looking forward to a good night’s sleep before doing it all again the following day.
Alas, the scene that greeted us in front of the headlights of my car gave us quite a shock…
It turns out that my casual attitude to erecting tents had finally caught up with us! The damage had obviously been done during the “Grumpy Old Poets”. The fly had been torn off the tent, and one of the tent poles, thus unsupported, had snapped in the wind. Our bedding was soaked, and puddles of water had gathered on the tent floor. (So that’s whey they attach guy-ropes and loops for pegs to tents…)
I eventually managed to prop the tent up with the shorter pole from the annexe. Searching around for bits of bedding that were merely moist rather than soaked, we managed to get a reasonable night’s sleep. (I think I slept better than Maggie did.) Fortunately, it was a warm night.
The next day was very hot, and our gear dried quickly. The tent remained a rather misshapen lump, but it was adequate for our needs.
Highlights for us after the Breakfast and our own show for children the following day were Keith McKenry and Jan Wositzky at “Lilliput”…
… and Geoffrey Graham and Carol Reffold at the Anglican Church.
(Geoffrey snuggles up to Maggie)
(Carol is joined by Christine Middleton with her beautiful harp)
A dip in the Newstead pool was a great way to wash away a few cobwebs (and beads of sweat) at festival’s end.
In no hurry to return to Melbourne, we took time out to marvel at the Malmsbury Viaduct on our way home.
Another great Newstead Live! lay behind us, but the memories (a somewhat mixed bunch, to be honest, what with the storm and all..) will remain forever.
Last Sunday (7th January, 2018), I went kayaking with Maggie Somerville at McLoughlins Beach in Gippsland. It is not a place either of us have been to before, but looked promising on the map – plenty of sheltered water – and was within striking range (approx, 70 km to the east) of Maggie’s house at Foster, where we were staying.
It turned out to be a great choice!
Firstly, there was a boat ramp. Two trips last year (Tarra River, Port Franklin) had required us to launch on a slope of deep, sticky mud, which is best avoided if at all possible.
The water generally turned out to be far shallower than it looked from the shore. First destination was the pier at McLoughlins Beach. This looked a long way off at first, but we reached it in no time.
Now it was time to head south, and cross a major body of water towards what appeared to be a long sandy beach in the direction of Bass Strait. We were constantly accompanied by bird life during the journey, especially cormorants, ibis and herons. We dislodged this flock of as we searched for a spot for lunch.
As a general rule, there was a wide stretch of soft mud between the water and the sand, but we found a section there the muddy strip was relatively narrow…
…and settled down for a feast of bread, cheese and water!
Say “bread and cheese”!
Thanks for this photo, Maggie. (Sorry about the swimming togs – bought in an emergency in Foster a year or so ago!)
Time to soak up a few UVs…
…then off on the last stage of the journey, and possibly a chance to stand before the Bass Strait breakers.
We headed off across a good stretch of deep, blue water towards a stretch of sand that looked very close to the ocean. (We could see it through a break to our left.) Suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by tiny seabirds, beautiful little terns, with their distinctive forked tails and small black heads. They were diving into the water from a great height, and at great speed, all around us. It was a truly spectacular sight to behold! (No photos, unfortunately.)
At last we made landfall. (Can you see the kayak? It doesn’t look very big, does it!)
The ocean was indeed not far away. (Again, no photos.) A sign told us that we had in fact landed on a large sandy island. 1080 had been laid to kill foxes. Dogs were banned. No wonder the terns were thriving!
Alas, it was time to make the journey home once more.
A healthy bunch of pelicans awaited us upon our return.
McLoughlins Beach – not a well known destination, but well worth a visit!
I was starting to worry that we had no photographic record of the performance of “The Glugs of Gosh” at the 2017 Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival, held to celebrate the centenary of its publication. Fortunately, C. J. Dennis Society member Will Hagon has come to the rescue!
Here we see, from left to right, Sir Stodge (David Campbell), a narrator (Maggie Somerville), King Splosh (Jim Brown), and another narrator (Ruth Aldridge), in “The Swanks of Gosh”.
Now we move on to “The Seer”, with narrators Jim Brown and Ruth Aldridge, and the Mayor of Quog (Daan Spijer).
The climax is reached in “Ogs”, with the “Og” audience throwing stones at the Glugs!
Here are Sir Stodge (David Campbell), a narrator (Maggie Somerville), Sym (Stephen Whiteside), King Splosh (Jim Brown), Queen Tush (Ruth Aldridge), and a Glug with a mole on his chin (Daan Spijer).
Alas, Sir Stodge has been stricken in the chest by a stone!
(Note the blurring of the faces due to movement – evasive action, or simply hilarity?)
And here are the stones that caused all the damage!
Early on the morning of Friday, 27th October, Maggie Somerville and I headed north up the Hume Highway to Crookwell in New South Wales for the Mary Gilmore Festival.
Maggie has put a number of Mary Gilmore’s poems to music and the Festival Director, Trevene Mattox, was keen for us to attend. (There is also ample scope for a poet at the festival.)
To get to Crookwell, you go past Yass (not through it, as we did; it is a very pretty town, but does not get you any closer to Crookwell, as we found) and leave the highway at Gunning. You then climb steadily for an hour or so through open country until you reach Crookwell, at an elevation of about a thousand metres.
After erecting our tent at the Showgrounds, we drove into town for the opening of the festival at the art gallery by the local member of parliament, The Hon Angus Taylor MP, Member for Hume.
Angus made the point that, while Dame Mary Gilmore was undoubtedly a highly admirable woman, she and he differed in their political views.
The following morning, we were invited to perform to the local market goers. Maggie sang a number of her songs to an appreciative audience.
The Reserve Bank was even in attendance showing off the new banknotes, with Dame Mary Gilmore and the opening words of “No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest” on the ten dollar note.
During the afternoon we witnessed a showcase of the local youth talent, and in the evening we were treated to a performance by a women’s choir from Wollongong. The performance took place in a pavilion with a corrugated iron domed roof. Unfortunately a short, sharp rain shower completely drowned out the first item of the evening’s concert! The choir was superbly rehearsed, with numerous lavish but highly efficient costume changes taking place over the course of the show.
The following morning was the “Poets’ and Balladeers’ Breakfast” and Maggie and I had ample opportunity to perform. Maggie sang the remainder of her Mary Gilmore songs, while I performed a newish Ned Kelly poem that went down well.
At the end of the show, Maggie was asked to draw the raffle.
(I should add that this was also Maggie’s birthday!)
Alas, now it was time to leave Crookwell and begin the long drive back to Melbourne – in time to be at work at 9 am the following morning.
Maggie and I are extremely grateful to Trevene Mattox for giving us a lovely weekend. We were looked after extremely well, and had a wonderful time.
It was also great to catch up with poet Laurie McDonald and his wife, Denise, from Canberra. (Laurie and I shared MC duties for much of the weekend.) Laurie explained that the Crookwell festival used to have more of a bush poetry focus, but in recent years the emphasis has been on Mary Gilmore, and music. That made sense to me, because I have vague memories of submitting poetry to a competition in Crookwell in years past.
It was also wonderful to meet Stephen Lindsay, a local musician who owns a studio and is doing a great job recording local musicians and personalities on CD.
These rustic dwellings caught my eye as we left town.
The tenth Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival took place at “The Singing Gardens” in Toolangi on the weekend of 21st and 22nd October, and was a great success.
This year we were celebrating the centenary of the publication of two of Dennis’ books – “The Glugs of Gosh” and “Doreen”.
The weather was cool and overcast, with some rain – nowhere near as good as the beautiful sunny weather we have had some years, but nowhere near as bad as the storms of last year.
It was wonderful to have C. J. Dennis Society Patron Ted Egan on hand to open the festival on Saturday afternoon. The festival began, as always, with the a
Awards Ceremony for the written poetry competition. A change this year was the introduction of an un-themed short story section (max. words 500), replacing the themed poetry section. It was generally felt that the theme of “The Glugs of Gosh” would just be too difficult. In spite of this, the winning entry, “Constable Og and the Bits and Bobs”, by David Campbell, was written on the theme of the Glugs, and was extremely clever and entertaining – a most deserving winner.
The Marian Mayne Prize (winner of the Open Poetry section) was won for the second successive year by Shelley Hansen with “My Name’s Doreen” – a view of Bill from Doreen’s perspective, written very much in the style of C. J. Dennis, and most fitting for the centenary of the publication of “Doreen”.
I was thrilled to win the “Adults Writing for Children” poetry section, both as judged by an adult (“The Fart from Outer Space”) and children (“The Fart from Snowy River”). Just how popular these poems really are with adults is somewhat questionable. I performed them both somewhat uneasily to the assembled throng on the day…
Another highlight of the ceremony was the success of the Williams family. Jan Williams, owner of “The Singing Gardens”, won Second Prize in the Short Story section with “Dear Mar” while her son, Michael, won Second Prize in the “Adults Writing for Children” poetry section, as judged by children, with “Lemonade Waterfall”.
Ruth Aldridge then performed “Doreen”. This is a slim booklet, comprising four poems only, published for the Christmas market in 1917. It relates a number of events in the life of Bill and Doreen, who are now married, and their young son, also “Bill”. Ruth did an excellent job, and it was a fitting tribute to the centenary of the publication of the book.
Another thrill for me was the presence of motoring journalist Will Hagon at the festival. I have been listening to Will on the ABC for many years. I have no interest at all in motor sports, except when Will is talking about them – then they suddenly sound very interesting indeed. Will has a beautiful speaking voice, and is a natural story teller. I had no idea that he is also a huge fan of C. J. Dennis! He performed “The Spoilers” on the Saturday afternoon, which was a great treat for all who were there to hear him.
The festival highlight commenced shortly after, with the performance of “The Glugs of Gosh”. We had rehearsed fairly intensely in the lead-up to the festival, but it is a long and complex work, and there were still plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong! The Glugs was the book of which Dennis himself was most proud, but it has never sold anywhere near as many copies as his most popular works, and various misgivings were expressed during rehearsals that we might struggle to hold the attention of our audience. As it turned out, we needn’t have worried. We were greeted with rapt attention, and given a standing ovation at the conclusion!
Here is a performer’s eye view.
The Glugs is a flawed masterpiece. It is primarily a satire for adults, though it began as a story for children, and retains some of those elements, which is a little confusing at times. The Glugs live in the fictional land of Gosh, where they are ruled by King Splosh and Queen Tush. The knight Sir Stodge also has a major say in affairs. An independently minded Glug by the name of Joi is eventually hanged for his treasonous thoughts, but his son, Sym, similarly independently minded but less given to rebellion – and modelled very much on Dennis himself – is alternately hailed as a prophet and reviled. No doubt this reflects in part Dennis’ own mixed feelings following the reception he received after the publication of The Sentimental Bloke and Ginger Mick.
My initial plan had been to employ a professional actor to read the book, but C. J. Dennis Society member Maggie Somerville suggested that it would work well as a play, with various actors playing the principal characters. I felt she was definitely onto something, so cast Society members for the various parts. The final performance featured Jim Brown, Ruth Aldridge, Maggie, Daan Spijer, David Campbell and myself. Colin Lee attended several rehearsals, but was very sadly prevented by illness from performing at the festival. Terry Maher also attended rehearsals, but was unable to attend the festival.
Maggie and I had planned to sleep in the tea room, in the corner where the performance of the Glugs had taken place. As we lay down at the end of the day, we had no idea that another dramatic episode was about to unfold for us! A speaker box, perched on a tripod two metres above the ground, came crashing down without warning and struck us both on the head! Maggie instantly had a large egg, while I found myself with several bleeding scalp lacerations. I felt we both needed medical attention and, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to rouse doctors closer to home, we set off on the hour long journey to the Emergency Department at Maroondah Hospital in Ringwood.
Maroondah Hospital gets pretty busy on a Saturday night, and it took an hour to drive each way. It appeared that no serious harm had been done, but it was 3 am by the time we were back in Toolangi!
The Poets’ Breakfast the following morning went well.
David Campbell, on hearing of our plight the following morning, hastily penned a poem which he read to the delight of all.
Things That Go Bump!
When the sandman comes a’creeping
in the watches of the night
and you’re very soundly sleeping,
it’s not nice to get a fright.
But at times the gods get even
for the mischief that you’ve done,
and for Maggie and for Stephen
retribution weighed a ton!
For a speaker came a’calling
as they slumbered in their bed,
and they thought the sky was falling
as it cracked them on the head.
“Bloody hell!” poor Stephen shouted.
“What in heaven’s name was that?
For it seems that we’ve been clouted…
I forgot to wear my hat!”
Meanwhile Maggie lay there, aching,
as a lump began to grow,
and she cried “My head is breaking!
What has caused this awful blow?”
And then Stephen said “I’m shattered,
but the truth we have to face
is I think that we’ve been battered
by the fart from outer space!”
The “Moving Theatre”, featuring C. J. Dennis (myself), ‘Banjo’ Paterson (Jim Brown) and Henry Lawson (David Campbell), was scheduled to take place after lunch. However, the rain and cold meant that we’d be confined to the marquee, and there wouldn’t be much moving. Fortunately, there was plenty of theatre. Another highlight featured Will Hagon as, without any warning, C. J. Dennis invited him to take centre stage and talk about the types of cars that Dennis, Paterson and Lawson might have been driving in the 1920s. Suffice to say, Will rose to the occasion splendidly! I was particularly fascinated to learn that the Holden company had been present in Australia for many decades prior to the introduction to the motor vehicle, fashioning leather for saddles, bridles, etc.
Will and I had an opportunity to continue our conversation later in the afternoon.
(Photo courtesy Maggie Somerville)
Maggie Somerville and Cathy Phelan did a beautiful job of helping the children to perform a ballet to “The Glug Quest” from “The Glugs of Gosh”. Maggie sang selected verses she had put to music, while Cathy had choreographed the dance and taught it to the children, and helped with costumes.
Jim Brown then wound up proceedings with his traditional performance of C. J. Dennis’ “Dusk”.
All in all, it was another successful and highly memorable festival!
Here is a full list of the winners of the poetry competition.
Results – Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Competition 2017
Open Poetry Award
First – “My Name’s Doreen” (Shelley Hansen)
Second – “The Busker and the Bikies” (Will Moody)
Third – “The Gravedigger” (Will Moody)
Open Short Story Award
First – “Constable Og and the Bits and Bobs” (David Campbell)
Second – “Dear Mar” (Jan Williams)
Third – “The Piano Player” (Shelley Hansen)
Honourable Mention – “Our Singing Garden” (Ruth Aldridge)
Adults Writing for Children (adult judging)
First – “The Fart from Outer Space” (Stephen Whiteside)
Second – “The Kids that Rescued Easter” (Jackie Hosking)
Third – “The Fart from Snowy River” (Stephen Whiteside)
Fourth – “The Glogs of Gush” (David Campbell)
Highly Commended – “Grandpa’s Farm” (Jenny Erlanger)
Highly Commended – “Bush Tucker” (Jenny Erlanger)
Adults Writing for Children (as judged by children)
First – “The Fart from Snowy River” Stephen Whiteside)
Second – “Lemonade Waterfall” (Michael Williams)
Third – “The Kids that Rescued Easter” (Jackie Hosking)
Poems by Students in Primary School
First – “Bushranger’s Delight” (Max Bryant)
Second – “Water from the Rain” (Megan Vo)
Third – “The Land Down Under” (Jun Bok)
Highly Commended – “How Gold Changed Australia” (Micah Foreman)
Highly Commended – “Falling” (Daria Day)
Poems by Students in Secondary School
Honourable Mention – “Spring is Here” (Taylah – Williams-Benjamin)
Congratulations to all the winners, and thanks to all those who entered.
Thanks also to the judges: David Campbell (Open Poetry), Daan Spijer (Open Short Story, Students’ Poetry), Barry Carozzi (Adults Writing for Children – adult judging), students of Millgrove Primary School (Adults Writing for Children – as judged by children)
The festival booklet, containing all the winning poems, together with judges’ comments, can be purchased for $10 by writing to:
“The Singing Gardens”
1694 Healesville-Kinglake Road
Finally, thanks also, of course, to Jan Williams, her family, and her tireless band of supporters for continuing to make the festival the great success that we have become accustomed to enjoying.
This year, 2017, marks the centenary of the publication of C. J. Dennis’ flawed masterpiece “The Glugs of Gosh”.
This is a very different book to “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” and “The Moods of Ginger Mick”, the centenaries of the publication of which have taken place over the last two years. While those books were calculate to appeal to as many people as possible, and did indeed appeal to an enormous number, they came at a personal emotional cost. “The Glugs of Gosh” was written to square the ledger – it was written for himself, and is the most autobiographical of his books. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it proved nowhere near as popular as the other two. Nevertheless, it remained the book of which Dennis himself was the most proud. Furthermore, it has attracted and retained a core following of passionately loyal supporters over the years. (I am one.)
It is a brilliant but difficult book. Part nonsense verse for children, part satire for adults, one is not always sure which is which. (Hence the ‘flawed’.) Nevertheless, it contains much that is deeply wise, extremely funny, or simply sublime. The book was begun at “Sunnyside” in Kallista, under the influence of Garry and Roberta Roberts, and finished at Toolangi.
The first poem in the book, “The Glug Quest”, invites the reader to re-enter the world of their childhood imagination in order to reach the land of Gosh.
It begins as follows:
Follow the river and cross the ford,
Follow again to the wobbly bridge,
Turn to the left at the notice board,
Climbing the cow-track over the ridge;
Tip-toe soft by the little red house,
Hold your breath if they touch the latch,
Creep to the slip-rails, still as a mouse,
Then…run like mad for the bracken patch.
The second poem, “Joi, the Glug”, begins to tell us a little about the Glugs, and their land of Gosh.
It begins as follows:
The Glugs abide in a far, far land
That is partly pebbles and stones and sand,
But mainly earth of a chocolate hue,
When it isn’t purple, or slightly blue.
And the Glugs live there with their aunts and wives,
In draught-proof tenements all their lives.
And they climb the trees when the weather is wet,
To see how high they can really get.
Pray, don’t forget,
This is chiefly done when the weather is wet.
Alec Chisholm, in his biography of C. J. Dennis, “The Life and Times of C. J. Dennis” (Angus & Robertson, 1946), quotes a conversation he had with Mrs Aeneas Gunn, author of “We of the Never Never”, and friend of Dennis.
“Yes,” said Mrs Aeneas Gunn, when I commented to her on the free-flowing nature of “The Glugs of Gosh”, “there is melody in particular in the opening verses of the book, and I think that Dennis gained much of his inspiration from the music of Sassafras Creek. Early in 1914, soon after returning from England, I used to ride frequently beside that little stream, and I was always impressed, not merely by the ferns and other fairylike foliage that festooned its banks, but by the music of the steadily-flowing water.
“The creek had many voices. They all spoke together, and in perfect harmony. They were like numerous notes of music crossing and recrossing. Especially was this so at a certain spot where a big log spanned the stream amid a riot of picturesque growth. It was there that I often used to see Mr. Dennis loitering, apparently content to gaze at the scenery and listen to the music of birds and flowing water.
“‘I suppose’, I said to him one day, ‘you are like myself: you never tire of the voices of the Sassafras?’
“‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘this stream has many voices, and all musical.’
“Now, after many years” (Mrs Gunn added), “I continue to read with pleasure portions of The Glugs of Gosh. They recall for me the beauty of the ferns and other foliage, and as I read I hear again the varied and melodious voices of Sassafras Creek.”
Yesterday I decided to attempt to follow in the footsteps of C. J. Dennis and Mrs Gunn, and visit Sassafras Creek myself.
It is indeed a beautiful and musical little stream, and no doubt in most ways little altered over the last one hundred years.
I cannot imagine, however, how one could possibly ride a horse along its banks. Walking was difficult enough. They were narrow and muddy, and often steep and very slippery.
I walked upstream from Beagleys Bridge Picnic Area, the closest point of the creek to where ‘Sunnyside’ once stood. She may well have headed downstream, where the going may become easier. It should also be noted that the biggest change to occur in the last hundred years is the dramatic increase in the foliage. Photos taken of the area at the time of C. J. Dennis and Mrs Aeneas Gunn show bare hillsides and very sparse vegetation.
Just as Mrs Gunn described, the foliage along the creek is indeed fairy-like.
It is easy to understand how Sassafras Creek inspired C. J. Dennis to write “The Glugs of Gosh”.
It is wonderful, too, to be able to walk so easily in his footsteps one hundred years later.
The property, “Carrington Hall” (formerly 107 Burke Road, now 832 – 834 Burke Road, Camberwell) is moving closer to receiving heritage protection.
This is the boarding house in which C. J. Dennis lived for most of 1915 and 1916. It was here that he wrote “The Moods of Ginger Mick”, and it was from this property that the manuscript of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” was posted to its eventual publisher, Angus & Robertson.
Interestingly, the property is still run as a boarding house. Last year it changed hands. Two similar neighbouring properties were recently removed to make way for apartments.
My application for the property to be registered with Heritage Victoria was unsuccessful. However, a letter I wrote to the Shire of Boroondara appears to be bearing fruit. A citation concerning the property, as part of a recently completed Camberwell Heritage Gap Study, has recommended that the property be given a heritage overlay, on the basis of its association with C. J. Dennis. The proposal passed through council last Monday night without amendment. The process is complex and this is just the beginning, but the early signs are promising!
The citation can be viewed in full here (pp 292 – 301):
Last Sunday I decided to do a bit of exploring in C. J. Dennis country – the Murrindindee Scenic Reserve in the forests north of Toolangi. On a previous walk in the area I had seen a sign to Wilhelmina Falls, but had not managed to get there. This time I decided to try again.
I followed the Boroondara Track, which started down by the river and wound its way up steeply through thick forest. After a few false turns and blind alleys (I’ve never been particularly good at map reading…) I eventually found them. The falls and the surrounding scenery, I have to say, were far more spectacular than I had expected. I just assumed that, because the hills are not high enough to take you above the tree-line, the views would remain extremely limited.
What I had not counted on, however, was an extraordinary wide, high, steep face of bare rock on the eastern face of the range that allowed absolutely fabulous views of the adjacent hills and valleys. The amount of water tumbling down one part of this rock face was not particularly large, but the rock itself was quite incredible. To cap it off, as I gazed into the rich blue of the sky above the falls, a wedge-tailed eagle made its leisurely way across my field of view from right to left.
I am not certain, but I am fairly sure that what we are looking at here is the western face of Mt. St. Leonard.
Almost as spectacular as the rock face itself is the track – especially the viewing platforms and steel steps and hand rails that have been secured to it. How were these constructed? Presumably the workers were in harnesses, attached to ropes. It would not have been easy!
There are also indications that this is not the first track to be built on this rock. Note these pale blue squares embedded into concrete. Presumably they were the attachment points for an earlier hand rail.
This discovery has completely changed my perspective of the area. I now see the landscape as far more dramatic than I had ever imagined. I found myself drifting back in time, imagining what the landscape must have been like a couple of hundred years ago.
I wonder, too, if C. J. Dennis ever stood on this rock face, and admired the falls and surrounding scenery. He never wrote anything about it, but I like to think he did.
With the recent death of my friend, Hugh McDonald, I have begun to look more closely at the words of his masterpiece, “The Diamantina Drover”.
It contains many puzzles.
I have heard Hugh say he wrote it when he was 24. He was born in July 1954, so this means it was written in the second half of 1978, or the first half of 1979. Hugh did not join Redgum until 1982 (and the song was first recorded in that year). Hugh’s wife, Rebecca Harris Mason, has confirmed for me that he did indeed write the song well before joining Redgum.
Hugh told me he wanted to write a ‘timeless’ song, as a reaction to the topical nature of so much of Redgum’s repertoire. (Obviously he was well aware of Redgum’s music well before joining the band, as so many of us were.) He wanted to write a song that did not relate to any specific event, political or otherwise. He certainly achieved that. The song is now regarded almost as a traditional folk song. I suspect many believe it was written a lot earlier than it was.
Hugh has also said the song is about running away from life’s troubles. What troubles was Hugh trying to run away from at the time?
The faces in the photograph have faded,
And I can’t believe he looks so much like me.
So, who is ‘he’? For a long time, I couldn’t decide if ‘he’ was father or son. I think he must have been father, but why the surprise? It suggests the narrator felt he had little in common with his own father. Is that how Hugh felt about his own father, the war hero and country doctor?
Also, why not say “I can’t believe I look so much like him”? That would make more sense to ponder the resemblance of the younger to the older. It is very poetic, though, to turn it around like this. It brings to mind the classic Dylan line: “But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
For it’s been ten years today
Since I left for Old Cork Station,
Sayin’ “I won’t be back till the drovin’s done.”
“Old Cork Station” is a real place. Had Hugh ever visited it? Not that I am aware.
I don’t think he ever visited the Diamantina, either, but he knew of it, and loved the sound of the name. (Rebecca has confirmed this for me also.)
At the time the song was released, Hugh talked about meeting a Queensland drover on a train trip, and dedicating the song to him. Towards the end of his life, however, he admitted there had been no drover, and no train. What there had been was an elderly neighbour, who told stories, when Hugh was growing up in Kerang in country Victoria. (Rebecca tells me the neighbour was actually a logger.)
For the rain never falls on the dusty Diamantina,
And a drover finds it hard to change his mind.
So the hardship of the lifestyle, rather than discouraging the drover, is actually part of the reason why he stays.
For the years have surely gone
Like the drays from Old Cork Station,
And I won’t be back till the drovin’s done.
So when will the droving be done? If it refers to an individual season, it is long done. Taken more broadly, however, it will never be done.
(A dray, by the way, is a cart without any sides.)
I find the next lines – the second verse – fascinating.
Well it seems like the sun comes up each mornin’,
Sets me up and takes it all away.
Here the sun is life-giver, but also deceptive. It appears to offer promise, but then lets you down. Daylight is the friend, night is the enemy.
Yet we see this reversed with the next line.
For the dreaming by the light
Of the camp fire at night
Ends with the burning by the day.
Now it would appear that night is the friend – the time for dreams – while the daylight – the burning – is the enemy.
So we see two opposite metaphors employed to express the same emotion – that of dreams and aspirations being nurtured, only to be taken away. The circularity underlines the general ‘dead-endedness’ – the emotional emptiness of the drover – which lies at the heart of the song.
Clearly this theme of shattered hopes was very much on the mind of the young Hugh McDonald. Yet the whole song is, of course, a metaphor. Hugh was not a drover himself. What were the dreams on his mind at the time, I wonder?
We know that he did not enjoy his time at boarding school. His university career was fairly abortive. Would he have loved to be a doctor, like his father?
Sometimes I think I’ll settle back in Sydney,
But it’s been so long it’s hard to change my mind,
For the cattle trail goes on and on
And the fences roll forever,
And I won’t be back till the drovin’s done.
Was it too late now for Hugh to turn away from his career as a musician?
I expect if Hugh was here today and asked to clarify some of these mysteries, he would shrug his shoulders nonchalantly and say, “It was a long time ago. Who cares?” (Indeed, I did try to clarify them when he was alive, and that was pretty much the response I got.)
Of course, the song is a timeless classic, and many people will continue to care for a long time.
I think it is pretty safe to say the song was penned in an inspired moment, a largely subconscious act. Hugh probably couldn’t have answered some of these questions any better at the time.
“The Diamantina Drover” is a wonderful song that could probably only have been written by a young person at the height of their imaginative powers.
My dear friend Hugh McDonald died last Friday night.
All those who knew Hugh well knew the end was near, but still it was a shock to receive the news from Rebecca this morning.
Hugh is best known as a member of the former folk-rock group Redgum, and writer of the classic Australian song, “The Diamantina Drover”, but he was, of course, so much more.
Hugh was a great admirer of Henry Lawson, and indeed created an album of songs based on Lawson’s poems. I always felt “The Diamantina Drover” was a “response” to the “call” of Lawson’s “Knocking Around”.
Hugh was one of the few people who made me feel a bit ‘special’. I can’t deny there was an element of bathing in the light of his celebrity. “What does this famous rock star want to hang out with me for?” He was always pleased to see me, ready for a cuppa and a chat.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it was my poetry that first led me to him. I spent much of the late 70s and early 80s hanging around folk/bush bands, trying to persuade them to put my poems to music. Eventually, after giving up on some of the bigger names, I turned to the smaller fry. Hugh was playing with “Moving Cloud” at the time, and I approached him one evening after a gig at the Dan O’Connell. Somewhat surprisingly, he expressed an interest in hearing my work.
We met a couple of times after that, and he started putting one of my songs – a sort of parody of the life of Captain Cook – to music. He played an unfinished version of the song to me on one occasion, but shortly after he rang to tell me he would not be able to finish the song, as he had received a call from Redgum, and they wanted him to join them.
We lost touch after that, and I followed his career, like so many others, through radio and vinyl. Many years later – long after the breakup of Redgum – we made contact again. I heard him being interviewed about his Lawson album by the Coodabeen Champions on ABC Radio one Sunday night. I wrote to the ABC, they passed my letter on to him, and soon we were back in contact again.
Hugh played at my sister’s wedding – where he was one-man juke box! – and at a close friend’s 50th birthday party.
When I was looking for a music soundtrack for a demo of my collection of poems for children, it was Hugh that I turned to.
In spite of all this, however, it is only in the last couple of years that we have become really close. When Maggie Somerville and I decided to put together a CD based on the work of C. J. Dennis, I persuaded Maggie to record it with Hugh. We recorded it over the following twelve months, and the recording sessions were highly enjoyable – occasionally riotous! – occasions. He also graciously helped us to launch “The Two Bees” at the Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival in 2015.
(Hugh was always game to try something new. Here he is playing the saucepan…)
(… and here the gourd.)
(Thanks to Margaret Voake for the last two of these photos, both taken at Toolangi.)
Hugh’s technical mastery was not confined to music instruments. He was a wizard on the computer in his studio, and was always seeking to master new skills. (He also, it must be said, gained great satisfaction from restoring discarded vacuum cleaners to good working order.) Keen to learn another new skill, he offered to make some videos for Maggie and me to help us promote the CD. Apart from the bright red music stand situated forlornly in the middle of the field of vision, he did a great job!
(Thanks to Trevor Pearson for this photo.)
More recently, he has been helping Maggie to complete her second original CD. He was really hoping to complete it before he died. Alas, this was not to be.
Hugh and I were a similar age, and both sons of doctors. (Hugh’s father was a GP in Kerang, a Victorian country town.) Our paths had been very different, however. I had become a doctor myself, while he had followed the path of musician and artist. Hugh was fascinated with science, and medical science in particular. Quackery infuriated him, and he did all he could to expose it when he encountered it. We occasionally reflected on how our lives might have been if he had become a doctor, and I had followed the path of the artist in a more committed manner. I have no doubt he would have made an excellent doctor. He followed the course of his illness and its treatment intensely, and with a degree of detachment that was quite admirable.
It is hard to believe he is gone. I know it will take me a long time to come to terms with his death. I feel a large chunk of me has gone with him. My heart goes out to Rebecca and the rest of his family. Their only consolation can be that they had the great pleasure and privilege of knowing such a wonderful fellow.
(Thanks to Margaret Voake for this photo, too – also taken at Toolangi.)
The festival this year – held last weekend, on Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd October – faced challenges like none before it. Ever since the festival began in 2008, we have had amazing fortune with the weather. Our luck was bound to fail sooner or later, and this year it failed with a capital “F”.
The trouble began two weeks earlier, with wild winds that brought down nine enormous mountain ash trees at “The Singing Gardens”. It looked for a while as though the festival might not be able to proceed at all. The principal damage occurred to the pump house (see photo below) with damage to 100 plastic chairs and a fridge as well as the pumps. Much of the piping running water from the Yea River to the pond was damaged, and the plastic and clay lining at the bottom of the pond was perforated. (The pond was originally excavated by C. J. Dennis and his wife, Biddy, who named it “Touchstone Tarn”. Iconic photos show Dennis and the English Poet Laureate John Masefield lying side by side on its banks in 1934.)
Jan Williams, owner of “The Singing Gardens” (home of the festival) believed, given the high winds experienced in the weeks leading up to the festival, it would be imprudent to erect the marquee that we have used in recent years. We would simply hold the festival inside the tea rooms. Jan booked the C. J. Dennis Hall across the road at the last minute, in the event that the tea rooms proved too small.
There was also a third exciting possibility. The Toolangi Forest Discovery Centre is being transferred to community control, and we might have been able to hold events there, too.
The weather forecast on the morning of Saturday, 22nd October, was ominous. A smaller crowd than usual (but hardly smaller than expected, given the weather) gathered in the tea rooms for the Festival Opening and Awards Ceremony. Kath Gannaway, representing our major sponsor, Bendigo Community Bank (Healesville Branch) opened the festival with eloquence and passion. She spoke of the value of the festival in keeping Australian culture alive.
The announcements of the winners of the Written Poetry Competition followed, together with the awarding of the prizes. Numbers of entries have been down the last two years. This is, of course, a concern, and the reason is not clear. Nevertheless, the winning poems maintained the high standard set in earlier years.
A full list of the results can be found here:
A new award, the Marian Mayne Prize, for the winner of the Adult Open section, was announced last year. (Marian Mayne was Jan Williams’ mother. She died two years ago, leaving a generous bequest for the Adult Open prize.) The inaugural winner was David Campbell, and the winner this year was Shelley Hansen. Unfortunately, the trophy was not ready for last year’s ceremony, but it was on hand this year.
Jim Brown, Secretary of the C. J. Dennis Society, commissioned Joseph Galloway, a practitioner of the art of pyrography, to make the trophy.
Details can be found on YouTube, here:
While Shelley was not at the festival this year, David was. Here is David, with Jim Brown and Jan Williams, being presented with the trophy.
It is a perpetual trophy, and will remain at “The Singing Gardens” with the winners’ names engraved upon it.
Here is a better look at the trophy itself.
A scrumptious afternoon tea followed, after which we returned for an hour of C. J. Dennis poetry and song, performed by myself, Maggie Somerville, Geoffrey W. Graham, Ruth Aldridge, David and Jim.
This in turn was quickly followed by Part 1 of “The Moods of Ginger Mick”, featuring Geoffrey W. Graham performing the poems, a connecting narrative provided by myself, and certain slang explanations from Maggie. There are 16 poems in Ginger Mick. While a similar show last year for the centenary of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” featured only nine of the 13 poems in the book, I thought it would be great fun (and a real challenge) to perform all 16 of the Ginger Mick poems this year. There was no way that could be achieved in a single setting, so we planned to do the first six poems in the hour before dinner, and the remaining 10 over an hour and a half after dinner.
Rain fell heavily off and on during the entire afternoon – interrupted by brief bursts of hail – and when the power went out, we realised the Forest Discovery Centre was no longer an option as a venue for part of the festival. Fortunately, the Williams were able to quickly crank up the generator, power was restored, and we were able to continue.
Part 1 was well received. The audience size was perfect, really – a snug fit for the tea rooms, but no empty chairs.
An enormous and delicious buffet dinner followed, after which the assembled gathering re-grouped for Part 2 of “The Moods of Ginger Mick”. Although the show had not been performed before (and probably will not be again), the timing worked out well. We were finished by about 9 pm. Geoffrey, I must stay, was looking pretty spent by the time we reached the home stretch!
There were various reports of the state of the roads by the end of the evening, and at least one person decided to sleep in their car rather than chance the trip back to their booked accommodation.
Nevertheless, all appeared bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the Poets’ Breakfast at 9 am the following morning. There was no shortage of performers, and a wide variety of pieces and styles were exhibited over the course of the session. We did manage to get around the room twice, but it took all morning to do so! I found myself sitting with the light in front of me rather than behind me so most of my photos that morning are far too dark, but I did catch this nice shot. From left to right we have Terry Maher, Geoffrey Graham, Jim Smith, and Christine Middleton (in profile).
Lunch (traditional roast!) was then served, after which came the “Moving Theatre”, featuring “C. J. Dennis” (myself), “Banjo Paterson” (Geoffrey) and “Henry Lawson” (David). We were also graced with a newcomer this year, in the form of “Will Ogilvie” (Jim). Sunday had dawned a much brighter day than the day before and, after we had assumed the Moving Theatre would also need to be held indoors, we began to realise that we could happily move outside after all.
The bottom half of the garden, however, was not available to us because of the fallen trees and sodden ground, so we gathered in the house garden to commence proceedings. After introductions, we moved quickly into the children’s ballet. The poem chosen for this year was “The Blue Kingfisher”. Maggie had put it to music, and sang beautifully. The children also looked wonderful. Their costumes were delightful, the choreography was challenging and imaginative, and they were well rehearsed. (This is an even greater achievement when one realises that all rehearsals had been to a recorded version of the song.) Thank you to Cathy Phelan for making the children’s ballet such a highlight of the festival once again.
The poets then commenced to saunter around the gardens. Alas, the audience were required to stand, as all the chairs had been destroyed when the pump house was hit! A highlight was “Banjo Paterson” reciting a Dennis poem, “Washing Day”, in front of Mrs. Dennis’ original wash-house!
Here is a view of the wash-house itself.
The afternoon finished with a surprise appearance from “Mary Gilmore” (Ruth Aldridge) performing her famous poem “No Foe Shall Gather our Harvest”.
Though the day was fine, it was still cold, and all were very happy at this point to retreat once more to the tea rooms for afternoon tea!
So ended another highly enjoyable and successful Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival. The challenges involved this year were far greater than in any previous years (though 2009, following the fires, was also very difficult), and I wish to especially thank Jan Williams and her hard working, dedicated family, for doing so much to ensure the festival was held this year, in spite of everything.
Join us next year, as we celebrate the centenary of the publication in 1917 of “The Glugs of Gosh” and “Doreen”. Won’t THAT be something special!
(Thank you to Maggie Somerville for this photo of the five “poets”.)
I recently spent two days in Gunnedah in New South Wales to attend the Awards Ceremony of the 2016 Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Competition.
Dorothea Mackellar, as most people will know, is an Australian poet who is best known for her iconic homage to her homeland, “My Country”.
The full text of the poem can be found here:
Mackellar was born in Sydney, but she spent much of her time in the area around Gunnedah, where her brother owned property and built a homestead.
The Poetry Competition held in her name is for school aged children. This year it attracted just shy of 12,000 entries. I believe it is the largest poetry competition for children in Australia – probably by a long way. It is administered by the Dorothea Mackellar Memorial Society, also based in Gunnedah.
I had been asked to judge the secondary school entries this year – hence my involvement with the Awards Ceremony. Internationally published novelist and writer Sophie Masson had judged the primary entries.
For me, the journey involved a flight to Sydney, where I transferred to a propellor plane for the flight to Tamworth. Gunnedah is an hour’s drive west of Tamworth, and a supporter of the Society very kindly picked me up from Tamworth Airport and drove me to my motel. Patrons, judges, the winners and their families or support crews all descended on the town at around the same time from various corners of the country.
In the afternoon, we were taken on a bus tour of the region by Whitehaven Coal. Whitehaven own several coal mines in the region, and the Mackellar homestead is on land owned by Whitehaven.
Former Deputy Prime Minister The Honourable Mark Vaile AO is a board member of Whitehaven Coal, and a patron of the Dorothea Mackellar Society. Whitehaven Coal is also a sponsor of the Society.
(The other patrons are The Honourable Margaret J White AO, former Judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland, and Peter Shergold AO, who has led a highly distinguished career as both an academic and a public servant. Margaret has recently been appointed to the Royal Commission into the Northern Territory’s youth detention system. Peter is currently the Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney.)
Unfortunately, we were not able to visit the homestead. We were, however, given a good view of the surrounding countryside – much of which is flood prone – and were also taken up Porcupine Hill for an excellent view of the township and adjacent areas.
We also visited the Dorothea Mackellar statue for some photo opportunities! (This is located adjacent to the newly-completed Mackellar Centre, located in the former Visitors’ Information Centre (V.I.C.), which was due to be opened the following day. More of that later. Meanwhile, the V.I.C. had been re-located to the Civic Centre, closer to the centre of town.)
The following morning, I was invited to an informal breakfast at a nearby restaurant. To my great joy, a senior member of the community read “Clancy of the Overflow”. This allowed me to pounce and – with the permission of the organiser, Sandra Carter, of course – recite my own parody of the poem, “Clancy of the Undertow”, written back in 1986. I am thrilled to be able to report that it was very well received!
From there it was a short walk down to the Town Hall and around the corner to the Civic Centre for the Awards Ceremony.
The Ceremony was beautifully put together, a lovely balance of speeches, music, prize presentations and poetry readings. There was an audience of about 100. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that everybody performed their roles admirably. The two highlights for me were the presentation by guest speaker, ABC journalist and presenter Heather Ewart, and Peter Shergold’s speech.
Heather gave a fascinating account of her career, especially the early years when she was very conscious of being a trailblazer for women. (She had been told at the time she set out that there was no future for women in journalism.) She also spoke about her current role with the television programme, “Back Roads”. She explained that the idea behind it had been to prove to urban audiences there was a great deal of a positive nature taking place in rural Australia, contrary to popular perception. The programme has been a great success, and a new series is now planned. Heather concluded by highlighting the critical value of literacy and communication skills in forging successful careers, whatever the field of endeavour.
Peter Shergold spoke passionately and spontaneously about Dorothea Mackellar herself, what an intelligent and courageous woman she was, but also about how sad, lonely and frustrating much of her life turned out to be. A couple of examples – her favourite brother was killed during the Boer War, and a letter she sent to England accepting a marriage proposal never arrived. She therefore never married and had children. Nor did she ever have any nieces or nephews.
A sentiment I heard repeated several times during the course of my stay was the need for a new, rigorous biography of Dorothea Mackellar.
During my own speech, I spoke of the importance – as I see it – of preserving national “sacred sites” of historical cultural importance, particularly as they relate to writers. Gunnedah has the legacy of Mackellar and the nearby homestead. Here in Victoria, we have “The Singing Gardens” at Toolangi, former home of C. J. Dennis, and now home to the annual Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival. More recently, we also have the boarding house at 832/834 Burke Road Camberwell, where Dennis wrote “The Moods of Ginger Mick”. I invited all present to attend the festival and pointed out that, with the closing date for the Toolangi poetry competition being 7th September, there was still time to enter! I also wrote a short poem for the ceremony, which was well received.
Following the Awards Ceremony, we moved up to the Mackellar Centre for its opening ceremony. It was explained to us that the artist Jean Isherwood had created a series of water colours to illustrate “My Country”. (A DVD featuring the voice of an elderly Mackellar reading her poem alongside the Isherwoold paintings had been shown during the Awards Ceremony.) The pressing need to find a space to display these paintings had driven the creation of the Mackellar Centre.
The opening ceremony was a great occasion, culminating in the formal cutting of a ribbon.
I haven’t said much about the winning poems themselves, but details will be available soon on the Dorothea Mackellar website. They were of a very high standard, as would be expected.
I had a wonderful time in Gunnedah. The experience of being a judge, though undoubtedly quite arduous, was extremely rewarding and, indeed, a source at times of great inspiration. I wish to thank most sincerely the Dorothea Mackellar Memorial Society for the privilege of being able to be a part of the process in 2016.
Recently I posed the question, “Where did C. J. Dennis write “The Moods of Ginger Mick?””
Well, it is my great pleasure to report that the mystery has finally been solved!
It has long been known that Dennis moved into a boarding house in early 1915 at 107 Burke Road, Camberwell, and that it was from there he submitted to publisher George Robertson the manuscript for “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”. More importantly, perhaps, it was also in this boarding house that he wrote the manuscript for the Bloke’s sequel, “The Moods of Ginger Mick”.
The difficulty, however, has been that the street numbering has changed substantially in the intervening century, and 107 Burke Road is no longer in Camberwell.
During a Victorian Folk Music Club (VFMC) concert night earlier in the year, I had the opportunity to invite the assembled throng to assist me in trying to answer this fascinating and significant national cultural/historic question.
Historian Louise Blake was in the audience at the time, and offered to help. She has since brought her professional research skills to the task, and solved the problem!
Here is her statement on the matter, the distillation of her research.
I am extremely grateful to Louise for her work, and wish to thank her most sincerely for her efforts on behalf of the C. J. Dennis Society.
Fortunately, the building is still standing. Indeed, I have had the opportunity to visit it on several occasions recently, and inspect both its exterior and interior. It would appear to be little changed from the days of C. J. Dennis and David Low. In fact, somewhat remarkably perhaps, it is still being run as a guest house!
You will notice some real estate hoardings outside the property. It was recently put up for auction, but did not change hands.
I am enormously excited to now know where Dennis wrote “The Moods of Ginger Mick”, and am keen to disseminate the information as widely as possible. Indeed it is fitting, is it not, that the mystery be finally solved in the year that we celebrate the centenary of its publication?
2016 marks the centenary of the publication in 1916 of “The Moods of Ginger Mick”, C. J. Dennis second most successful book. (His most successful was “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”, published in 1915, however “The Moods of Ginger Mick” was not far behind it.)
Ginger Mick was a minor character in “The Sentimental Bloke” – Bill’s best mate, and best man at his wedding to Doreen. However, he is elevated to principal character in the sequel where, after expressing some ambivalence about those involved in the war effort, he enlists, heads off to Egypt for training, and then on to Gallipoli. There he is killed in action after a brief period of feeling he has finally found his calling, and being promoted – to his great delight – to Lance Corporal. Indeed, this book had much to do with the shaping of the Anzac myth.
Most of the books for which C. J. Dennis became famous where written in or near Toolangi. (“The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” was completed at “Sunnyside” in the Dandenong Ranges.) However, “The Moods of Ginger Mick” is an important exception. It was written after “The Bloke” (naturally enough), but largely completed prior to the Bloke’s publication. Dennis had run out of money, and decided to take a job in town. It was only after the enormous and completely unexpected success of the Bloke that he was eventually able to return to Toolangi.
So “The Moods of Ginger Mick” was written in Melbourne. But where?
Dennis moved in to a boarding house where his good mate David Low was already living. Low had illustrated the cover of his first book, “Backblock Ballads and Other Verse”, published by E. W. Cole in 1913. (Low was born in New Zealand. He created a very successful book based on characterisations of the then Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Later he moved to England, where he became world famous for his depictions of Adolf Hitler.)
In his autobiography, Low writes:
“…I lived as a fellow-lodger with Den for a space and finished my cartoons by night on his wash-stand while he read proofs aloud in bed.” (“Low’s Autobiography”, Michael Joseph, London 1956, page 78)
The address I have been given for this boarding house is 107 Burke Road, Camberwell.
However, there is no 107 Burke Road Camberwell. Google Maps places 107 Burke Road in East Malvern, near Central Park, though in reality there is no 107 Burke Road at all.
Yes, of course, the numbering could have changed since then. I have asked the Shire of Boroondara for assistance, and they have very kindly offered to do all they can.
In the meantime, does anybody else have any ideas?
It is tough getting poetry published. It has been that way for a long time, and I don’t see any signs that it is going to change.
Rejection is inevitable, and it is never easy. The greatest asset that a poet can possess (apart, from talent, I suppose – whatever that is!), is persistence – persistence and patience.
Don’t be surprised if you end up submitting 20 or 30 poems before you get one accepted for publication. Mind you, there are limits. If you find you have submitted 100 poems without any luck, it might be time to at least ask yourself if you might possibly be in the wrong game, or perhaps approaching it in the wrong way.
Part of the key is to be prolific. Write heaps. Don’t worry if they are not all masterpieces, and don’t spend hours trying to convert an excellent poem into a “perfect” poem (whatever that is!). Don’t hang all your hopes on a small number of poems. Make sure you have a swathe of them, so that when the first batch is rejected (as it almost certainly will be), the next lot is ready to be submitted right away. Again, remember – don’t take rejections personally. Everyone gets rejections. The editor is not rejecting you, just your poem!
The landscape has changed a lot since I first started writing poetry for children back in 1990. Then, in addition to the excellent NSW School Magazine, we had the Pearson magazines in Victoria (Comet, Pursuit, Explore, etc.) and New Zealand School Journal. Since then, the Victorian and New Zealand magazines have fallen by the wayside, and only School Magazine endures.
Yes I know, the whole world of online publishing has opened up since then, but I don’t feel there is any substitute for seeing your poem published in a magazine or book. Besides, you don’t get paid for online publishing. Nor is there the same sense of achievement. It seems pretty well anything will be accepted – or at least, that the bar is set a lot lower. And who reads these poems, apart from the poets themselves?
I feel very privileged to have had a collection published. (My collection of rhyming verse for children, “’The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”, was published by Walker Books in 2014.)
I also feel very honoured that the book won a Golden Gumleaf for “Book of the Year” at the Australian Bush Laureate Awards during the Tamworth Country Music Festival in 2015. Indeed, this was the last year the Bush Laureate Awards were held. They were deferred this year – possibly indefinitely.
I would love to have a second collection published. I had the book very much in mind when I began writing for children in 1990, so it took 24 years to become a reality. I just hope my second book does not take another 24 years…
I do feel that I am not writing as well for children now as I once did. There are several explanations for this. There is no doubt that my own children were an inspiration, and they are now grown up. Also, of course, I am older now. Is that a valid reason, or just an excuse? I’m not sure. I do find that I am not in the right frame of mind to write for children as often now as used to be the case. I still do occasionally manage to turn out a poem I am very happy with, but it happens less often than it used to, and I also now turn out more poems that I am not really very happy with! Still, I’ll keep plugging away, because I enjoy it so much when it all goes well. Besides, it is such a big part of my life now, I would not want to stop.
Having said all that, though, it is important to maintain a balance in all things. You don’t want to become obsessed with anything. I have many other fields of writing endeavour other than writing poetry for children, and I have many further fields of endeavour that do not involve writing at all. That, surely, is how it should be!
So, go to it, all you writers of poetry for children! May you dazzle, amaze, thrill, amuse, and generally downright fill with awe at the glory of life many generations of children yet to come. And may you have one hell of time yourselves in the process!
I had a lovely few days in Canberra at the beginning of the week.
Late last year I agreed to act as judge this year for the secondary student entries in the Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards. The awards are open to all school children, and are held by the Dorothea Mackellar Society. Last year approximately 10,000 entries were received from 655 schools. Approximately one third of these were from secondary students. (Acclaimed children’s novelist Sophie Masson will judge the primary student entries.)
Dorothea Mackellar lived much of her life in Gunnedah, in rural New South Wales (not far from Tamworth), and Gunnedah is the home of the Dorothea Mackellar Society.
The awards were scheduled to be launched at Parliament House on Tuesday, 1st March, and, as one of the judges, I was invited to attend and speak. I was keen to do so, but not sure if I would be able to make it. In the end, however, it worked out well. Being somewhat budget conscious I chose the “car and tent” option ahead of the “plane and motel”. The trip fitted snugly into the three days I had between finishing work at one medical practice, and commencing work at another. (Sophie Masson was unable to attend.)
I have become fairly familiar with the drive from Melbourne to Canberra over the years as the result of having attended the National Folk Festival on a number of occasions, and the trip now feels much less daunting than it once did. Mind you, I usually have company with me. Doing it alone was going to be a new experience.
A quick Google search revealed what sounded like a great camping ground – the “Cotter Campground” – only about twenty minutes from Parliament House.
I didn’t feel in a great rush to get away on Monday morning, though I did end up paying for this somewhat, eventually erecting the tent in rapidly fading light. By the time I was in a position to report my safe arrival to friends and family back in Melbourne it was well and truly dark and, the camping ground being in a valley, there was no phone reception! Nevertheless, I quickly learned from a fellow camper that it returned quite quickly once you started to drive up the adjacent mountain. I followed his advice, and found this to be true. All the same, it was somewhat eerie in the dark, looking out over a steep tree-covered drop in the warm, humid evening, gazing at the distant lights of Canberra, and wondering what was below me.
I arrived in Canberra next morning with plenty of time to spare, and devoted an hour or so to taking in the glory of Parliament House. It must have been almost thirty years since I had last been there, and it did rather take my breath away.
I eventually joined the “DM” contingent in the foyer, and we were led to Room 1R1, where the launch was to take place. Prior to this point, my communications with the Dorothea Mackellar Society had been restricted to a couple of phone calls and a few emails. It was great to finally put some faces to the names, and also to meet some new ones! I especially enjoyed meeting Jenny Farquhar (President) and Mila Stone (Project Officer).
The launch was well attended, went very smoothly, and was well received. Jenny Farquhar made opening and closing comments, the new Federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, officially opened the awards and, somewhat surprisingly for his staff, read a poem of his own!
The three patrons introduced children who presented award winning poems from previous years, and I was asked to introduce Amanda Walker, a computer scientist from A.N.U., who read a poem she had submitted in 1994! (The poem, “Changes”, had been subsequently published, and caught the eye of Jenny Farquhar.)
I had decided, being a poet myself, that my own speech should take the form of a poem, so I wrote the first half in the car on the way up (watch out for those trucks when you pull over to the side of the road!), and the other half in the tent that night. I felt like I was going out on a bit of a limb with this strategy but, fortunately, it went down well!
It is very impressive and encouraging to see the level of support both the Society and the awards have from politicians from all points of the political compass. The C.J. Dennis Society certainly has a lot to learn from the Dorothea Mackellar Society in this regard!
After the ceremony, we were treated to a very delicious lunch in the Members’ Dining Room!
I was too weary to do much exploring in the afternoon. Besides, it was extremely hot. However, I did enjoy checking out the Old Parliament House and the National Portrait Gallery, and driving around the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.
Later that day, and the following morning, I had more opportunity to explore – and discover – the natural charms of the Cotter Campground.
Then it was time to pack up and head home for a good night’s sleep prior to commencing my new job!
It is exciting to now know a number of the members of the Dorothea Mackellar Society, together with the patrons, personally, and to know that the poems will soon start coming in! I am looking forward to reading what I know will be a large number of very high quality pieces.
The website of the Dorothea Mackeallar Poetry Awards can be found here:
The AGM of the John Shaw Neilson Society was held last Sunday, and I had accepted an invitation to be the guest speaker.
I am fond of the poetry of John Shaw Neilson, but it does not fire my passion quite like that of C.J. Dennis. Given that I do not have a great depth of knowledge about the poetry or the life of Neilson, it seemed to me a comparison of the lives of Dennis and Neilson might be a good way to put together an entertaining presentation. (I decided to also spend some time discussing a book I had enjoyed many years earlier, “The Autobiography of John Shaw Neilson”.)
The talk was well received, and I have since received a couple of requests for copies of my notes.
For this reason, I have decided to post my notes about “C.J. Dennis vs. John Shaw Neilson” here.
1. Cultural extraction
Neilson: Scottish Presbyterian
Dennis: Irish Catholic
2. Year of birth.
3. Place of birth
Neilson: South Australia (Penola)
Dennis: South Australia (Auburn)
Neilson: Left school at 14 after a total schooling period of two and a half years
Dennis: Also left school at 14, but this was after a comprehensive primary schooling, followed by a couple of good years of secondary schooling at Christian Brothers College in Adelaide
5. Earnings from poetry
Dennis: a short period of spectacular earnings, followed by a long period of solid earnings
6. Nature of poetry
Neilson: lyrical, surreal, mysterious verse – no verse novels (also some light verse and limericks)
Dennis: verse with strong rhyme and metre; strong characterisations; much humour and slang; many verse novels
7. Nature of prose
Neilson: by his own admission, not his strength: “I was about twenty two before I came to the conclusion that I could not write prose.” (Autobiography, page 34)
Dennis: superb writer of prose, though wrote considerably less of it
8. Personal life
Neilson: never married, no children
Dennis: married, but no children
9. Relationship with other poets
Neilson: close relationship with Dame Mary Gilmore:
(Speaking of her first meeting with him) “…and when I saw his work-swollen hands, with the finger-nails worn to the quick by the abrading stone, I felt a stone in my heart.” (Quote taken from “John Shaw Neilson – Australian Dictionary of Biography”)
Dennis: good friendship with Henry Lawson, who was, of course, very close to Gilmore
10. Attitudes to Nature
Both very keen observers of Nature (and both keen to avoid the city of Melbourne)
11. Attitudes to mechanical things:
Neilson: According to his brother, Frank, (Autobiography, page 18) “…he had a total lack of interest of all mechanical things. Often after we had left farming and were looking around for employment, I would obtain work, as I had a bicycle and could of course ride if necessary some miles to work. He, however, used to be compelled to walk, as he never would have the patience to be bothered even with the simplest push-bike.”
Dennis: had a love of gadgets and innovations, and was very good with his hands
Neilson: A.G. Stephens, James Devaney
Dennis: J. G. Roberts
Neilson: plagued by difficulties with eyesight – probably as a result of macular degeneration, which meant he relied very heavily on his peripheral vision – for much of his life
Dennis: suffered from asthma, exacerbated by smoking; also very heavy drinker – health deteriorated sharply during his fifties
14. Financial position
Neilson: lived a largely ‘hand to mouth’ existence through manual labour; after many years working as road builder, worked as messenger and office worker for the Victorian Country Roads Board for the last decade or so of his life. He also obtained a small pension (from the Commonwealth Literary Fund) towards the end of his life
Dennis: made a large amount of money during his life, but lost it through a combination of lavish spending and poor investments; died in debt
15. Year of death
16. Place of death
17. Place of burial
Neilson: Footscray Cemetery
Dennis: Box Hill Cemetery
18. Public acknowledgement of passing:
Neilson: very little: “…partly because poetic fashions had changed, but mainly because of the intensity of the war.” (Quote taken from “John Shaw Neilson – Australian Dictionary of Biography”)
Dennis: The Australian Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, suggested he was destined to be remembered as the “Australian Robert Burns”
19. Who is now better remembered?
It is very difficult to say. Neither poet has a high profile these days. My suspicion is that Neilson has more appeal to younger generations than Dennis.
“that he draws the old age pension” replaced “merely that he draws the pension”
Michael also sent me the title page for “An Old Master”, which appears to stand as a separate document. It is dated 24.3.10, the day after the date on the page of the manuscript itself, which would suggest that the whole poem – with revisions – was written over the course of a single day. This probably should not come as a great surprise, as we know that Dennis worked fast.
Here is the title page:
There are some minor changes between the final version of this manuscript and the poem as it appeared in “The Bulletin” later in 1910, but I’ll leave you to look those up for yourself.
Speaking for myself, it has been very exciting to have this rare glimpse into the working of the mind of that wonderful poet, C.J. Dennis!
There are a couple of pages just of cross-outs also. They don’t add anything particularly new, but I will post them here for the sake of completeness.
Thank you, David Hume, for bringing these wonderful documents to light!
Thank you also to David Campbell for reviewing my rendition of these corrections, and making a number of helpful suggestions and further corrections.
Here are verses 4 and 5 – together with the last two lines of verse 3.
There are several alternatives, as follows:
…and as Michael saw her settle
…and as he observed her settle
…Mitchell as he saw her settle
(The third version is the final version.)
“bogged for sure without a hope” replaced by “red and stiff and most tenacious”
“Struth says Mick” replaced by “Struth says I”
“lift it” and “shift it” replaced by “lift her” and “shift her”
(There is also a question mark over “in”.)
“Bill McGee” replaced by “Dad McGee”
“Who” replaced by “William”
Before proceeding to the manuscript, let us remind ourselves of the following.
There are three published versions of “An Old Master”.
The first was published in “The Bulletin” in 1910.
The second was published in “Back Block Ballads and Other Verses” by E.W. Cole in 1913.
The third, and final version, was published in “Back Block Ballads and Later Verses” by Angus & Robertson in 1918. This version, considerably shorter than the version published by “The Bulletin” in 1910, is the one best known and most often heard today.
The 1913 version is not widely accessible. It exists only in a couple of libraries. I have not seen it myself.
The pencil-written manuscript given to me by David Hume follows very closely the longer version in “The Bulletin”. It is dated 23.3.10.
Here are verses 1 and 2 of the pencil-written manuscript, together with the first two lines of verse 3.
There are not many corrections to note here, but they are as follows:
“on” replaced by “near”
“tucker bill” replaced by “tucker bag”
In the lead-up to the Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival this year, I was interviewed on ABC Radio 774 by Libbi Gorr. A number of listeners rang in with interesting stories about C.J. Dennis.
One caller was of particular interest. David Hume told me that his grandfather, Walter Hume, had been a mate of Dennis, and had received from him as a gift the original pencil-drawn manuscript of Dennis’ classic poem, “An Old Master”. This is one of Dennis’ better known poems, and is often heard recited at Poets’ Breakfasts and other poetry events these days. It is of particular interest to Victorians, as it is set in the hills around Toolangi.
David duly sent me the manuscript, which I am posting now. I have asked Dr. Philip Butterss from the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide to have a look at it, and he is in no doubt that it is authentic. (Dr. Butterss wrote the award-winning biography of C.J. Dennis, “An Unsentimental Bloke”, published by Wakefield Press last year. He has been very helpful to me in my writing of the presentation of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” that I performed with Geoffrey Graham and Jim Haynes at the festival this year.)
Walter Hume was born in Fitzroy, Melbourne, in 1873 (three years before Dennis was born). However, he moved to Adelaide in 1904, and may well have met him over there. Hume developed a cheap method of making pipes which became popular around the world, and become a very successful and wealthy businessman.
You can view his biography here:
The manuscript was given to Walter Hume in about 1936 or 1937.
It should also be noted that it would appear that this is the first time that the friendship between Walter Hume and C.J. Dennis has become public knowledge.
David also gave me a copy of a covering letter that Dennis wrote to Hume.
Here it is:
(At the top is a watermark that reads: ARDEN. TOOLANGI. VICTORIA.)
The letter reads as follows:
“10th June, 1935.
W.R. Hume Esq.,
5 Studley Avenue
You see how I hasten to break my stern rule about answering correspondence as soon as greed scents the least chance of possible material profit. Human nature is like that.
Frankly, and briefly, I am greatly attracted by your scheme, but –
Although my need at the moment be great, I can hardly see myself entering into any scheme that means certain winnings for me while others (on my behalf) put their money on a horse they know nothing or little about.
Not that I would throw cold water on your scheme – far from it. It has possibilities, provided that the difficulties and problems before you are first thouroughly understood and appreciated.
Through experience I have learned something about book publishing, and I should be glad to put those problems before you on the first occasion we are able to meet.
I have little desire to go to town just at present. Since I saw you last I have again been in and out of hospital (for the fourth time in twelve months) and I do not feel exactly in travelling humor.
However, when your return to town if you will, at your convenience, drop a line to me, or ring me I shall endeavour to get in personal touch with you to discuss matters.
Will you allow me to say that I regard it as a very great kindness that a busy man, like yourself, should devote so much valuable time to the interests of myself and my work.
You are rather at sea in regards to “The Bloke” dialect; but we will discuss that, too, when we meet.
With kind regards,
(signed in his customary green ink)
What, exactly, was the proposal that Hume was making to Dennis? We will probably never know.
My computer appears to be struggling, so I will continue this story in another post.
The Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival is over for another year, and what a festival it was this time!
It was undoubtedly the biggest and the best we have had yet, as indeed it should have been celebrating, as it was, the centenary of the publication in 1915 of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”.
The festival got a great boost about a week out with the news that The C.J. Dennis Society’s Patron, Ted Egan, would be in attendance. Ted lives in Alice Springs, so it is a long journey for him to come to Victoria. Ted has only been to the festival once before, and that was back in 2013.
The weather was kind to us – as it always seems to be – and Ted opened the festival for us in fine style. What is more, he sang his tribute to Australia’s pioneering women to the assembled throng, as an added bonus. He had to get by without his famed beer carton, but a small book served almost as well to tap the rhythm out to.
David Hill from the Bendigo Community Bank (Healesville Branch) was also in attendance. The Bendigo Bank has been our chief sponsor over the years, and this year they agreed to double their commitment. Rather than present the prizes for “Adults Writing for Children” himself, David placed a small toy under one of the chairs, with the person who first found the toy to present the prizes. This led to the somewhat unexpected outcome of Jemima Hosking presenting a prize to her mother, Jackie! (Jackie’s father, John, also performed a poem later in the day, so we had three generations of the Hosking family involved in the festival!)
The local member of Parliament, Cindy McLeish MP (Member for Eildon), also kindly offered to attend the festival and award prizes. Cindy’s support of the festival is longstanding, and very much appreciated.
The number of entries was down a little on last year, which is a bit concerning, but everybody agreed nonetheless that the standard was very high. Not all the poems that received awards were heard this year, but all the winning poets who were in attendance performed their poems, and First Prize in each category was read out whether the poet was present or not.
Here is Ted Egan opening the festival. (Thank you to Nerys Evans for the photo.)
After a break for afternoon tea, we commenced an “Open Mike” session which proved extremely popular. Indeed, not all the poets who wished to perform were able to do so, as it would have left insufficient time for the showcase concert of C.J. Dennis poems and songs that was scheduled to follow. This also needed to be shortened a little because of time constraints.
The concert kicked off with actor John Flaus from Castlemaine. The other performers were Maggie Somerville, Jim Haynes, Jim Brown, Ruth Aldridge, David Campbell and Geoffrey W. Graham.
Here is Maggie Somerville singing a C.J. Dennis poem that she has put to music.
Towards the end of the afternoon, the sun went down and a chill crept over the proceedings. The original plan had been to hold the evening’s entertainment in the marquee also, but it was generally agreed that it made much more sense to retire to the tea rooms, where a lavish buffet dinner was now waiting.
The evening meal was truly delicious, with a large range of choices on offer.
We then commenced our special presentation of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”, featuring Geoffrey Graham as performer of the poems, Jim Haynes as “slang interpreter”, and myself as narrator. I suddenly found my voice failing me, and Geoffrey was looking very much the worse for wear having been badly dumped by a wave while body surfing in Hawaii two days earlier, but the show went on nonetheless, and was very well received. (About half the audience gave us a standing ovation; Geoffrey assured me the other half would have done so also, if they had not been so tired!)
Here we are – from left to right, Jim, Geoffrey and me – looking relieved but happy after the show! (Thanks to Maggie Somerville for the photo.)
The Poets’ Breakfast kicked off right on schedule the following morning at 9.30.
Here is Ruth Aldridge reciting “Caravanning Bliss” by Bob Magor.
Shelley and Rod Hansen provided a great double act.
Jan Williams gave us a poem, but unfortunately I cannot show you a photo because my computer refuses to upload it!
The audience was large and appreciative.
We then moved back down to the marquee for the launch at 11am of the CD Maggie and I had put together, “The Two Bees”.
We were joined by three musicians – Hugh McDonald (ex-Redgum), who had recorded and produced the album for us, and Trevor Voake (mandolin) and Dieter Imberger (harmonica), friends from the Victorian Folk Music Club. (Trevor’s wife Margaret kindly acted as photographer for us.)
We performed “The Two Bees” in its entirety – eight songs and four poems, words by C.J. Dennis, music by Maggie. We did make lots of mistakes, but they were mostly small, and we all had great fun. The audience seemed to enjoy it all, too.
Here is the band line-up – from left to right, Trevor, Dieter, Maggie, me and Hugh.
Here is Maggie demonstrating the title of the poem “How to Hold a Husband”.
Hugh seemed to enjoy himself.
Then it was time for lunch. Jim Brown and David Campbell did a great job entertaining patrons in the tea rooms over the lunch break.
The traditional “moving theatre” followed, with some new faces this year – Geoffrey W. Graham as Banjo Paterson, Jim Haynes as Henry Lawson, and John Derum as the “one and only” C.J. Dennis.
A recent tradition during the moving theatre has been for some of the local children to perform a ballet to music inspired by the poetry of C.J. Dennis. (Local parent and retired dancer Cathy Phelan designs the costumes and choreographs the dancing.)
In past years, the children have danced to recorded music. This year was different. Maggie Somerville had written music to C.J. Dennis’ poem “The Satin Bower Bird” (from “The Singing Garden”), and recorded it on CD for the children to rehearse to.
Here is the audience enjoying Maggie and the children’s performance.
We next moved to the top of the gardens, where the poets were joined by Dorothea Mackellar (Ruth Aldridge).
It was then back down to the marquee to finish the show.
Afternoon tea was held in the tea rooms, then back again to the marquee for one last time to watch the festival end in the traditional way – with Jim Brown’s rendition of C.J. Dennis’ magical poem, “Dusk”.
Some festival attendees missed Jim’s performance, so he agreed to perform it a second time.
I made a video of Jim’s second performance, which can be found here:
So ended what had been a wonderful festival.
There are too many people to thank properly, but special gratitude and appreciation must be given to the Bendigo Community Bank (Healesville Branch) for their continued generous sponsorship, to Vic and Jan Williams, owners of “The Singing Gardens” (and their family), for their tireless work maintaining the gardens and helping to organise the festival, and to our illustrious Secretary Jim Brown for all his hard work.
We hope to see you at next year’s festival, when we will be celebrating the centenary of the publication in 1916 of “The Moods of Ginger Mick”!
I will add one last photo – C.J. Dennis (John Derum) addressing the throng, with the famed copper beech tree in the background and cloudless blue skies above. Could anything be better?
The Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival written poetry competition has a category for “Adults Writing for Children”. For several years now, we have also asked children to judge the poems, and published the results of their judging separately. I have been a little disappointed in recent years that I have not scored better with the children – after all, I do rather fancy myself as a children’s writer.
Last year I made a special effort to win this award, but it did not prove possible to have children acting as judges.
However, this year reciter and C.J. Dennis Society member Ruth Aldridge stepped up to the plate by agreeing to arrange for the children of her local school to judge the award, so I had another crack at it.
And what do you know?
This year, the children judged my poem, “The Sticky Fart”, as their favourite!
Yay! I’ve broken through at last!
Here it is…
The Sticky Fart
I did a big fart – not right off the chart, but it stuck to the end of my bum.
I wriggled and jiggled and joggled and squiggled and gave it a poke with my thumb.
It wouldn’t come loose, and I felt like a goose, so I sat very hard on the grass,
And I slided and slid, but I couldn’t get rid, and it stayed there, attached to my bottom.
I stood on each hand. My planning was grand. Perhaps it would flop back inside.
I walked round the yard. It was terribly hard, and didn’t do much for my pride.
Exhausted, I fell, and I gave out a yell, “Look out!”, for I felt it come loose.
It ran down my pants like a scurry of ants, along with a trickle of juice.
I was filled with relief, but alas, to my grief, I felt it beneath me go “Squelch!”
(If I’d been really smart, instead of a fart, I’d have simply pushed out a big belch!)
I’ve been badly misused, and I’m very confused. I don’t know what now I should do.
I am gloomy and glum. It is gone from my bum, but I can’t get the fart off my shoe!
Maggie Somerville and I have spent the better part of the last twelve months recording a CD of C.J. Dennis songs and poems. We are calling it “The Two Bees”. We recorded it at the studies of Hugh McDonald. Hugh also provides much of the instrumentation on the CD, and acted as our Producer. (Hugh is best known as one of the singers in the former folk rock band “Redgum”, and writer of the iconic Australian song “The Diamantina Drover”.)
I am very excited to announce that the CD is likely to be ready some time next week.
We are planning to launch it at 11am on Sunday, 18th October, at “The Singing Gardens” in Toolangi, as part of the Toolangi C.J. Dennis Poetry Festival. (This is a very special year for the festival, as we are celebrating the centenary of the publication in 1915 of Dennis’ most successful book – the most successful poetry book ever published in Australia – “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”.)
I have created a Facebook page for “The Two Bees”, which can be found here:
It is a little while now since I attended the National Folk Festival (NFF – Easter) and The Man From Snowy River Festival (MFSRF), the weekend after. Although I did not play a large role in either, I would like to record a few reflections of them both nonetheless.
I attended them both with Maggie Somerville. It was Maggie’s first National for many years, and her first MFSRF.
With all the build-up for Port Fairy, I had decided to take a very low key approach to both these festivals – simply sit back and let it wash over me, playing small roles now and then. Of course, it wasn’t quite that easy. Once you’ve had a taste of the limelight, it’s not so easy to slip back into the shadows again…
Nevertheless, I had a great time at both, and have no regrets.
The National is always fabulous – so much to see, and so many opportunities to be involved, even if only in a very minor way. It is very different to the country music festivals where bush poetry dominates. There is still a preponderance of rhyming verse, but there is still a fair bit of non-rhymed. (Is there a difference between non-rhymed and free verse? I don’t know.)
The Poets’ Breakfasts were well attended as always, though my feeling is that the audience numbers are a little down on, say, a decade ago. Certainly the merchandise table doesn’t seem to buzz as it once did.
Laurie McDonald, as Spoken Word Coordinator for the festival, has done a great job beefing up the programme for poetry and yarn spinning. There are now regular evening poetry shows as well as the Breakfasts, and the number of feature poets seems to increase every year. Five years ago things were definitely in the doldrums. My only criticism would be that all the shows are largely unthemed, and feel a bit aimless at times. I wonder if it is time to take the next step, and begin to build more ambitious, structured shows, with a clear sense of direction. Of course, this all takes time, and is difficult with a workforce (i.e. the poets) that is effectively volunteer.
The sign at the Stock Camp took my attention – very atmospheric. (Just don’t look too closely at the spelling.)
Of course, Andrew Pattison’s Troubadour has been replaced by the “Flute and Fiddle”, and is the new venue for the Poets’ Breakfasts. After a couple of years of resenting the change, I am gradually coming to accept the new arrangements.
The Man From Snowy River Festival at Corryong this year began on the Thursday after Easter. As this Thursday and Friday are not public holidays, one can only assume that the majority of those who attend are retired. Maggie and I both had work commitments, so were unable to leave Melbourne until Saturday morning. (Indeed, I was working until 11pm on the Friday night, so it was a bit of a scramble to get away even then.)
Corryong is a wonderful spot, tucked away as it in the Murray Valley in north east Victoria, with timbered hills rising all around. The drive to and from is a large part of the enjoyment of the weekend itself.
I must confess I have always been a little reluctant to attend this festival, as I feel fairly uncomfortable with the notion of perpetuating the myth of the mountain cattleman. I imagine they were heroic enough in their day, but I do feel it is time to remove cattle from the Alps. Mind you, a grizzled old mining surveyor very active in the Victorian Alps in the first half of the 20th century once said to me “There’s nowhere that the cattlemen went on a horse that I didn’t go on foot.” Perhaps that is even more heroic, yet we do not celebrate – we scarcely even remember – the rich heritage of gold mining in the Australian Alps.
Anyway, enough of that.
Corryong was the venue for the Australian Bush Poetry Championships this year. Jan Lewis and her army of volunteers did a great job of organising the festival, as always, and the shows were very well attended.
The format is a little awkward in that the shows are run as competitions, yet are also expected to be entertaining. It is a difficult line to tread. The biggest challenge is filling the dead time between acts, when the judges are writing down their comments. This is where the MC is truly tested. A good MC keeps the show rolling so that you are barely even aware that the judging is taking place. By and large the MCs this weekend did a great job, though you sensed a few times that their material ran out before the show did.
I also find it tough sometimes to listen to so much spoken word without any leavening of music. It doesn’t help that each poem is on a different subject, or telling a different story. There is just so much to take in. My trouble is that a good poem will fire my imagination, and I will find myself half way through the next poem before I remember that I should be paying attention to it, too. Some musical interludes would help to soften the intensity of it all. Having said that, though, it is difficult to imagine how that could be achieved within the current structure.
Here is the Saturday night crowd.
The Sunday Poets’ Breakfast was fun, and a great opportunity for Maggie and me to strut our stuff.
We left shortly after lunch on Sunday to face the long drive back to Melbourne and be back in time to be at work on Monday morning.
The Port Fairy Folk Festival this year was without a doubt, for me personally, the most demanding and most rewarding I have ever attended.
The key was, of course, that 2015 marks the centenary of C. J. Dennis’ classic verse novel, “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” and, as President of the C. J. Dennis Society, I felt I needed to step up to the plate to help celebrate the occasion!
It was both a pleasure and a challenge to do so.
Jim Haynes has been doing a wonderful job of running the Spoken Word programme at Port Fairy for many years now. While recent festivals have chosen ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Henry Lawson as their themes, it was felt inevitable that the focus would eventually turn to Dennis, and this was obviously the year to do it.
It was a fairly simply task for me to adapt the script from the show about the Bloke that I first developed with Mac Craig for the Sunnyside Festival, and then performed so successfully with Geoffrey Graham at the VBPMA Bush Poetry Muster in 2013, to add a further narrative, explaining the slang in the book, for Jim.
The only problem was knowing the time it would take to perform the whole show. We had 90 minutes to perform nine poems, together with explanatory narrative. Would we make it? Would we have to drop a poem? How do you factor in the time taken for audience applause? Should I develop a Plan B to drop one poem if necessary?
I couldn’t really see how to institute a Plan B, so I decided to keep the faith with my original script, and simply run with it. It was all a little nerve-wracking, but the show came in at about 88 minutes – a couple of minutes under time! How’s that for brilliant timing?
Geoffrey was absolutely superb as the “Bloke” (no surprises there), and the 200-strong crowd gave us a standing ovation, which was extremely gratifying.
I was also involved in two other C. J. Dennis related shows during the course of the weekend, all held at St. Pat’s Church.
The first, at midday on the Saturday, comprised a 90 minute concert of poems and songs by C. J. Dennis. Maggie Somerville and I had prepared a number of items, some of which we performed together, others individually. (These were a mix of poems and songs. For the songs, I chose the poems, and Maggie wrote tunes for them.) Jim Haynes also had a number of poems, as did Laurie McDonald, visiting poet from Canberra, and Geoffrey.
We didn’t make any major stuff-ups, and it was all very well received.
Following this, I gave a ‘workshop’ on the life and times of C. J. Dennis. This essentially consisted of me sitting on a chair with a microphone and talking for about an hour. About 50 hardy souls stayed to hear what I had to say, bless them, and almost all of them stayed the distance, which I appreciated very much. I was assisted by Maggie, who read “Laura Days”, a poem Dennis wrote in the twilight of his life recalling his childhood in that small town in South Australia. Jim read an excerpt from “Haggling in Filth”, an account of Dennis’ journey with Frank Roberts, oldest son of Gary and Roberta, from “Sunnyside” in the Dandenong Ranges to the Victoria Market to sell berries. Lastly, Geoffrey read excerpts from Dennis’ account of his (successful) efforts to save his property from bush fire in 1926.
The other event I was involved in over the festival – and my final show for the weekend – was my launch of my collection of poetry for children, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”. This was held on Sunday afternoon in the children’s marquee.
It was a somewhat daunting sight to see the Mik Maks in full flight on stage, and knowing that I, as a humble poet, would be required to follow them!
Here they are…
Maggie joined me, providing some moral as well as entertainment support. I set off in a fairly low key way, but the crowd seemed to be with me, and it went well. Maggie read my poem “Flies”, her own poem, “Mozzed”, inspired by “Flies”, and sang “The Sash”, the song she has written from my poem of the same name, about a young Ned Kelly’s rescue of an even younger boy, Richard Shelton, from the flooded waters of Hughes Creek in Avenel in 1865. I sold some books and received plenty of positive feedback, so the show can be fairly judged a success, I think.
After that, we hotfooted it over to the primary school to catch what we could of Geoffrey Graham’s show about the First World War. Geoffrey must have been utterly exhausted following his performance of “The Sentimental Bloke” earlier in the afternoon, but he did a great job, as always.
With the formal part of the weekend over, Maggie and I decided to summon the energy to go to the Surf Club in the evening. There we were treated to fine brackets of music by two up-and-coming young bands, “The Stray Hens” and “Oh Pep!”
Here are “The Stray Hens”.
I should not finish this report without a mention of the famous Poets’ Breakfasts that Jim led magnificently throughout the course of the weekend. The feature poets for this year were Laurie McDonald from Canberra (who I mentioned earlier in relation to the C. J. Dennis concert of poems and songs), and the redoubtable Geoffrey Graham, who barely had a chance to put his feet on the ground during the course of the festival. (It is Laurie, by the way, who puts together the Spoken Word programme for the National Folk Festival in Canberra at Easter.) It was also a great pleasure to have the opportunity to become better acquainted over the course of the weekend with Laurie’s lovely wife Denise.
What more can I say? Port Fairy Folk Festival 2015 was undoubtedly my best ever!
I have just returned from another very enjoyable Australia Day Long Weekend at Newstead Live!, a fabulous folk festival held in the town of Newstead, in central Victoria.
While it is primarily a music festival, the Festival Director, Andrew Pattison, has always been a strong supporter of the spoken word, and poetry and the spoken word therefore remains a relatively small but nonetheless important part of the programme.
There are three “Breakfast” shows held over the weekend – Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Because the numbers are smaller than at larger festivals, singers and musicians are always welcome. Newcomers to the Breakfasts this year were singer/songwriter Maggie Somerville, and poets/reciters Jim Brown, David Campbell, and Ellinor Campbell.
Here is a typical Breakfast crowd.
The weather was very kind – warm and dry without being too hot – and my impression was that crowd numbers were generally a little up on last year. Certainly the “Grumpy Old Poets” show at the Anglican Church on Saturday, and the “Poetry Workshop” at the Old Post Office on Sunday, drew the best crowds I have ever seen. Both were vibrant, highly enjoyable events.
I launched my new book, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”, at Lilliput on Saturday afternoon. The crowd was small, but highly receptive. Thank you to David Campbell, Jim Brown, Jim Smith, Ken Prato and Ellinor Campbell were performing poems from the book. Thanks also to Maggie Somerville for singing “The Sash”, the song she has created from my poem of the same name.
The “Poetry and Music” show at the Troubadour on Sunday evening, featuring Danny Spooner, Jim Brown, Maggie Somerville, David Campbell, Dingo’s Breakfast, Keith McKenry, Jim Smith and Jan Wositzky, was also well received.
So far as the solo spoken word shows were concerned, Keith McKenry was extremely happy with his launch of his new biography of Australian folklorist John Meredith, and I also heard wonderful reports of Jan Wositzky’s Gallipoli show.
My involvement with the spoken word did not leave me a lot of time to attend the many music events, but two that definitely made an impression were “Harpers Bizarre” at the Dig cafe…
…and the “Wise Women” (Louisa Wise performing with her three daughters) at the Playground. (Louisa is seated at the front playing the dulcimer. Behind her, from left to right, are Rowena, Lucy and Ruth.) Later, unable to find her spoons, Louisa improvised with a violin bow and a whiskey bottle…
I also loved watching Martyn Wyndham-Read (right) and Dave de Hugard (left) sparking off each other. (That’s Ken Prato in the middle.)
Andrew Pattison is talking of scaling down his involvement with the festival next year, and handing the reins over to the locals. Let us hope the transition takes place smoothly, and Newstead Live! retains its warm, friendly atmosphere, as well as remaining a showcase for Australia’s best musical, and spoken word, talent.
Last night I learned that “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”, published by Walker Books Australia in May 2014, has won Book of the Year” in the Australian Bush Laureate Awards. The announcement was made at the annual Bush Laureate awards ceremony at the Tamworth Town Hall, as part of the Tamworth Country Music Festival. I am especially excited, given that the “Book of the Year” award is not specifically an award for books for children.
Thank you, thank you, thank you to Sarah Foster, Nicola Robinson, Lauren Merrick, Wayne Harris, and all at Walker Books for creating such a beautiful book from my collection of poetry for children!
I was thrilled to learn this morning that my collection of poetry for children, “’The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”, has been selected as a finalist in the Australian Bush Laureate Awards in the category of “Book of the Year”.
“’The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse” is a collection of 65 poems spanning 150 pages, primarily directed at children aged 9+. It contains a number of elegant ‘paper cut-out’ illustrations by first-time illustrator Lauren Merrick, and was published by Walker Books Australia in May this year.
The “Book of the Year” award is not specifically an award for books for children, but they are eligible to enter.
The winner will be announced at an Awards ceremony commencing at 7pm on Tuesday, 20th January, 2015, at the Tamworth Town Hall.
Further information about “’The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse” can be found here:
The Yarra Riverkeepers held their second bush poetry fundraiser at Herring Island yesterday afternoon. The first was held in October last year. I was asked once again by Andrew Kelly, recently appointed as Riverkeeper, to rustle up the poets and MC the event.
I was again joined this year by reciters Dave Davies and Jim Smith, and poet Edel Wignell. Singer/songwriter Maggie Somerville provided some musical relief.
The weather was kind to us once again. There was bright sunshine for most of the afternoon, although the wind proved a bit of a challenge at times.
We had a capacity crowd, which was very exciting. Fortunately, unlike last year, the microphone behaved itself!
Here is Andrew introducing the afternoon.
A wide variety of material was on offer. The old masters – Henry Lawson, C. J. Dennis, etc. – were well represented, but there was also plenty of contemporary material, much of it original.
Dave Davies recited “The Grog and Grumble Steeplechase” by Henry Lawson.
Edel Wignell told us, amongst other things, about a dog on a trampoline, Harvey, “the bouncing, squat, Staffordshire bull terrier”.
Jim Smith recited a very moving piece – part poetry, part song – by the American writer Gordon Bok. It referred to the selkie legend – seals that change their form to become human. There is a very interesting link between Bok and the Riverkeepers. The Riverkeeper organisation began on the Hudson River in New York state, around the time that Pete Seeger was sailing up and down the Hudson in the Clearwater, also attempting to clean up the river. Jim told us that the captain of the Clearwater was none other than Gordon Bok!
The reason Jim was telling us about selkies was, as he explained, that it used to be very common for seals to be sighted in Australian waterways, including the Yarra, often many hundreds of miles from the coast. Indeed, seals are still occasionally sighted in the Yarra.
I had a chance to read some of the poems I have recently written based on the book “Ferries on the Yarra”, by Colin Jones – an absolute wealth of fascinating historic information.
Maggie sang four songs, some Yarra-related, others not. We sang “Muddy Old Yarra” by Clem Parkinson together, to round out the first half of the show. Maggie then finished the afternoon with “Our Sweet Yarra”, a song she had written based on a poem I had written for the show last year. She followed with “Waratah Bay”, a very popular song from her CD, dedicated to a beautiful part of Australia in South Gippsland. The afternoon finished with her song, “The Sash”, based on my poem of the same name, that tells the story of the child Ned Kelly receiving a green sash for saving the life of a drowning boy in the town of Avenel.
It was a very enjoyable afternoon. Thanks to the many – performers, audience, the Yarra Riverkeepers and their army of volunteers, and Parks Victoria – for making it all possible.
I have just returned from another wonderful weekend at the Maldon Folk Festival. The weather was its usual spring unpredictability. It was warm when we arrived, but turned cold and windy during the night. Rain followed, after which it became warm and sunny again.
The Poets’ Breakfasts were well attended, and very enjoyable, as always. My impression is that, after the low point of a few years ago, crowds are on the up again. The Breakfast audiences seemed larger this year than last.
A small but attentive crowd attended for the launch of my new book of poetry for children, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”, published by Walker Books in May this year. Thanks to Geoffrey Graham for launching it for me, and to Maggie Somerville for singing “The Sash”, the song she has written based on my poem of the same name.
A festival highlight for me was the performance of my poem, “In Bed With My Bedsocks”, from the book, by ten year old Tahlia Heggie, during the Sunday Poets’ Breakfast. (Her mother had bought the book at the launch the previous day.) Tahlia also performed two other poems from the book – “Tidying My Room” and “When Eating Watermelon” – over the course of the weekend. It is the ultimate accolade for any poet who writes for children to have a child perform a poem he has written, so for me this was particularly gratifying. Congratulations, too, to Tahlia’s mother for inculcating in her a love of reading!
Here I am with Tahlia (and the book!) after the Breakfast.
(Thanks to Maggie Somerville for the photo.)
The Yarn Events this year were held in the Kangaroo Hotel – a first. Unfortunately, rain forced us indoors on the Saturday afternoon. We performed in the dining room, and performers at times struggled to make themselves heard above the waitresses taking lunch orders. The Sunday afternoon was much more successful. The day was bright and sunny, and the event took place in the hotel garden. As with the Poets’ Breakfasts, audiences were very sold, especially on the Sunday.
The Monday Poets’ Breakfast was very much a return to the past. When I first began attending Maldon in 2003, a poetry event was held on Sunday afternoon in the beautiful gardens of Tucci’s, then a pizza restaurant. After several years Tucci’s closed, and remained so for a number of years. It has now re-opened as the restaurant “Wicked Temptations” (with a very smart looking new back fence at the far end of the gardens), and the Monday Poets’ Breakfast was held there. Again, it was very well attended. A highlight for me was my performance with Maggie Somerville of “The Two Bees”, a poem by C. J. Dennis that Maggie has put to music.
Of course, there were many other wonderful events. To pick a few highlights – Geoffrey Graham’s one man ‘Banjo’ Paterson show at the Neighbourhood Centre on Saturday afternoon, Fred Smith at “The Troubadour” on Saturday night, followed by Martin Pearson, and Keith McKenry’s launch of his new biography of John Meredith at the Anglican Church on Sunday afternoon.
Once again, it was a fabulous Maldon Folk Festival, very much enjoyed by all!
“I Heard it on the ABC” (Gwen Pascoe)
“Poor Joe” (Stephen Whiteside)
Adults Writing for Children
First: “The Scary Boy” (Bill Condon)
Second: “School Shoes” (Caroline Tuohey)
Third: “I Have a Cat Called CJ” (David Campbell)
“Liza O’Malley has Terrible Teeth” (Lynn Ward)
“The Useless Mutt” ( Jim Kent)
“My Granddad Came to School Last Week” (Val Wallace)
“Wild and Wonderful” (Shelley Hansen)
Vombatus ursinus (the common wombat) (Roger Gibson)
Poems by Students in Primary School
First: “The Travelling Bug” (Isabella Wallace)
Second: “The Cassowary” (Aaron Wallace)
Third: “The Outback” (Isabella Wallace)
“My Dog Fred” (Allie Weber)
“an alphabet poem” (Rupert Lausberg)
Poems by Students in Secondary School
This year there were no entries from secondary schools.
The 7th Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival, held last weekend (October 18th and 19th) was a great success, and very enjoyable.
As always, the weekend kicked off with the Awards Ceremony for the written poetry competition, held in the lead-up to the festival. Congratulations to all the winners, especially to David Campbell, who once again won the Adult Open category. (I will post a list of the winners separately on my blog.) Thanks again to the Bendigo Bank (Healesville Branch) for continuing to act as a festival sponsor.
Following the presentations, I was very excited to be able to pass around images of a new C. J. Dennis poem unearthed by a talkback caller during an interview I gave on ABC Radio 774 recently. The poem, “The Gentle Kangaroomour”, had been written especially for Eilie Ford, a young girl living in Toolangi at the time C. J. Dennis was there. The exact date of the poem remains a little uncertain, but it would appear to have most definitely been written prior to 1920.
The “open mic” session which followed was very enjoyable. Maggie Somerville and I finished the session with a duet we had put together based on the poem “The Two Bees” that Dennis had written for the Herald. It had subsequently been published posthumously by his wife, Margaret Herron, in the book “Random Verse”. The poem uses the strange weather effects prevailing at the time – frosty nights and bright sunny days – which impeded the blossoming of flowers and frustrated the usual feeding habits of bees as a metaphor for the unemployment and hunger of the Great Depression. We were commanded to perform it again on the following day, so it must have been well received!
The weather gods smiled on us once again for the whole weekend, and Jan and Vic’s new marquee proved a great success.
After a break for afternoon tea, our guest star for the festival, John Derum, then performed “The Singing Garden”, a show based on Dennis’ last book of the same name. The book primarily consists of a large number of poems, each devoted to a particular species of bird that frequently visited the gardens surrounding Dennis’ Toolangi home. Of course, it is this book that also inspired the current name of Dennis’ former home – “The Singing Gardens”.
John has done an enormous amount to popularise C. J. Dennis amongst contemporary readers. In 1976 he developed a one-man show, “More Than A Sentimental Bloke”, to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Dennis. It proved extremely popular, and many other performances have followed. (On a personal note, it was a recording based on this show, an LP published by Pumphandle Records, that first introduced me to the magic of C. J. Dennis.)
In what proved to be an inspired move, John moved the chairs out of the marquee and turned them around so that they were facing the gardens. The audience soon found themselves surrounded by the very birds – king parrots, kookaburras, etc. – upon which the poems are based. The show was pure magic.
As darkness fell, we retired into the tea rooms for dinner and the main show of the festival, “More Than A Sentimental Bloke”, by John Derum. John treated us to a fabulous exposition of the life and works of C. J. Dennis. What shone through, apart from John’s brilliant talent, was his great passion for the work.
Sunday morning began well with the “Poets’ Breakfast” (strictly speaking, a morning tea!). We held the first hour in the tea rooms, then moved back down to the marquee for another session.
It was wonderful to be able to welcome veteran reciter Jim Smith to Toolangi for the first time. Jim scored a bit hit with his performance of a classic poem by Rob Charlton, “Bloody Sheilas”.
After lunch, Banjo Paterson (aka Jim Brown), Henry Lawson (aka David Campbell) and C. J. Dennis (aka myself) took the guests once more on a tour (both geographic and historic) of the gardens.
We were once again treated to a ballet from the local school children, based on a C. J. Dennis poem. This year, it was the Firetail Finches from “The Singing Garden”.
For the second time during the history of the festival, we were treated to a surprise visit from Dorothea Mackellar (aka Maggie Somerville), who was keen to know whether her newly written poem “My Country” was good enough to submit to a publisher. (Henry suggested that the second verse would never catch on…)
We once again retired to the marquee for sponge cake, fruit juice, and more poetry and song, finally drawing the festival to a close at about 5pm.
There are so many people to thank for making the festival once again a great success. All of the performers and poets must be thanked, especially our wonderful guest star for this year, John Derum. Above all, however, our gratitude is greatest for Jan Williams and her family, together with her army of helpers, who provide vast quantities of delicious food throughout the weekend, and keep everybody relaxed and happy. (Also, of course, for maintaining the beautiful gardens throughout the year.)
Next year, we will be celebrating the centenary of the publication of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”, and it promises to be the biggest and best Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival ever!
(I must add a word of apology here. My phone is playing up at the moment, and I am very limited in the photos I can put up here. No photos of John Derum, the star of the show! Aarrgh!)
I would venture to suggest that the three most important women in the life of C. J. Dennis were his mother, Kate Dennis (nee Tobin), his wife, Margaret Herron, and Roberta Roberts (nee Dickson), who provided invaluable support at her home, “Sunnyside”, in the Dandenong Ranges, during a critical period of his life.
I would love to be able to share with you on this blog, then, six very significant dates – the dates of the birth and death of each of these three women. Sadly, though, instead of sharing six dates with you, I can only share one – the date of his mother’s death, 16th August 1890. (She died, incidentally, when Dennis was only fourteen years old.)
As seems so often to be the case, the lives of the men in Dennis’ life are much better documented then those of the women. Roberta Roberts arguably offered more emotional support than even her husband, Gary, yet she is mentioned on the internet as little more than his appendage.
Dennis returned from Sydney to Melbourne shortly after the outbreak of the First World War in pretty bad shape, mostly due to excessive drinking, and it was largely she who provided the support he needed to get back on track. Of course, it was in a tram car on the property of Gary and Roberta in South Sassafras that Dennis finished writing “The Songs Of A Sentimental Bloke”. They had both by now effectively become his alternative family, and he called them “Dad and Mum”. He also dedicated the book to them.
Dennis married Margaret Herron in 1917, a couple of years after the publication of “The Bloke”. While he was slight of build, and perhaps even a little effeminate, she was sturdy and powerful. Together they created the beautiful “Singing Gardens” that we know so well today, but it is said that she provided most of the spade work!
It must have been very tough being the wife of C. J. Dennis. There was the alcohol, of course, and also the huge financial roller coaster – the brief spell of affluence that followed his initial success, followed by long years of penury and associated anxiety – a combination of profligacy and a string of poor investments on the part of her husband. Herron lived for many years after Dennis’ death, but his financial situation upon his death forced her to sell “Arden”, their home in Toolangi, shortly after.
Herron was a writer in her own right. She published two novels, “My Dear” and “Seed and Stubble”, and a posthumous collection of her husband’s Herald writings, “Random Verse”.
I am not suggesting that it will be impossible to track these dates down, and share them with you eventually. I am sure they are all on the public record somewhere. It is frustrating, though, that I cannot find them at my fingertips when it is so easy to find so much these days.
Last weekend the Victorian Bush Poets and Music Association held its annual Muster at the Benalla Bowls Club. I attended with my dear friend Maggie Somerville, and we had a wonderful time.
The event is a little smaller and less formal than it once was, when the event also hosted the Australian Bush Poetry Association Victorian Championships. There is still some fierce competition in various categories, though (notably the two song competitions – Original and Non Original – and the Novice Poetry competition). There is plenty of scope also for the enjoyment of poetry and song in a relaxed, non-competitive environment.
The highlight of the weekend for me was…drumroll, please…Maggie Somerville’s win in the Original Song competition, with her beautiful song “Waratah Bay”. She absolutely nailed it with her performance, and the icing on the cake was her whistling, which everybody seemed to love. (“Waratah Bay”, for those who don’t know, is a lovely long stretch of untouched beach in South Gippsland, near Wilsons Promontory. Maggie has been visiting there on her holidays for many years.)
Here she is with her trophy in her hands.
Maggie also came second to Ken Prato in the Novice Poetry with her poem, “Mozzed”, inspired by my book, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”.
The weekend, as always, was a wonderful chance to catch up with many like-minded souls, and celebrate together our love of spoken word and music. We also celebrate, of course, our love of Australia and its history.
The weather was warm and sunny all weekend, and Maggie and I found time to visit the curious but extraordinary sculpture (what should it be called?) that sits on the northern bank of the Broken River, between the bridge and the museum.
The only chance to perform outside in the glorious weather came at the war tribute beside the statue of “Weary” Dunlop in the gardens.
All in all, I had a wonderful weekend, meeting old friends, and making new ones. I even sold a few books!
Thanks to Jan Lewis and her army of volunteers for making it happen once again.
This must surely be one of the very most significant dates in the life of C. J. Dennis, for it is the date of publication by Angus & Robertson – 99 years ago – of his blockbuster masterpiece, “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”.
Dennis initially had very modest hopes for the book, and was as shocked as everyone with its phenomenal success. According to Wikipedia, the first print run consisted of 2,500 copies only, but a further 5,000 were released several weeks later, on 2nd November. Another 5,000 were released on 6th December, another 5,000 on 25th January (presumably after a bit of a break over Christmas and New Year), and on it went. Within eighteen months it had sold 66,000 copies!
Indeed, the relationship between Dennis and his publisher, George Robertson, got off to a very shaky start. Robertson resented Dennis giving him details about how the book should be published. He replied, “We like your stuff, but we don’t like your letter. We are publishers, and do not take instructions from authors…” Dennis apologised (after a fashion…), and the relationship was soon on a firm footing, which it never lost.
It was Lawson who first introduced Dennis to George Robertson when Dennis had been in Sydney the year before, 1914. Indeed, it seems likely that Lawson can claim at least part of the credit for Angus & Robertson accepting “The Sentimental Bloke” after it had been rejected by several publishers.
Lawson was already very much a literary star by then and, with that in mind, Dennis asked him to write a Foreword to the book. Lawson was happy to oblige, but Dennis was uncomfortable with much of what he had written. Lawson made reference to the class struggles evident in the book, but did so in what Dennis felt was a rather sour way, and he was concerned that it might put some readers off. Lawson eventually more or less agreed to sign anything that Dennis wrote on his behalf. (Dennis eventually partially repaid this debt when he tried – unsuccessfully – to secure a pension from the government for Lawson towards the end of his life.)
“The Sentimental Bloke” outsold all of Lawson’s books, and the joke is sometimes made that the most successful thing Lawson ever wrote was the Foreword to “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” – and he didn’t even write it!
Next year – 2015 – will mark the centenary of the publication of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”.
I’ve been asking myself for a while how the sculptor Charles Web Gilbert, born in central Victoria in 1867, came to acquire an interest in Buddhism.
Specifically, he was born in Cockatoo, near Maryborough, roughly halfway between Bendigo and Ballarat, so it is reasonable to assume he had at least some contact with the Chinese community which was living on the Victorian goldfields at the time. Some friends recently convinced me that this is where his interest came from.
However, giving it some further thought over the weekend, I am not so sure.
I am now inclined to think the answer lies elsewhere.
To quote Wikipedia, on the subject of “Buddhism in Australia”:
“In 1891 the American Buddhist Henry Steel Olcott, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, came to Australia and participated in a lecture series, which led to a greater awareness of Buddhism in small circles of mainly upper-class society. One of the members of the Theosophical Society was future Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, who had spent three months in India and Sri Lanka in 1890 and wrote a book which discussed spiritual matters, including Buddhism.”
Perhaps it was a combination of the two. Either way, it seems to me highly likely that Gilbert came into contact – either directly or indirectly – with the teachings of Olcott.
1891, of course, was a seminal year in Australian history. It was the year of the first of the famous shearers’ strikes, which pitted union and non-union shearers against each other as wool prices fell with the coming of the Depression. This was the political backdrop against which Lawson and Paterson wrote, and which led ultimately to the formation of the Australian Labour Party.
I have mentioned before that Gilbert and Lawson were both born in the same year so, perhaps, while Lawson was becoming increasingly involved in the shearers’ cause, Gilbert was learning about Buddhism. Of course, Gilbert could have been concerned about the shearers’ plight also. I have no evidence about this one way or another. (C. J. Dennis, incidentally, turned 15 in September 1876. It is probably reasonably safe to assume he wasn’t particularly concerned with either the shearers or Buddhism at the time.)
So why did Gilbert choose to submit a Buddhist sculpture as his contribution to the Springthorpe Memorial for the Kew Cemetery in the late 1890s? My suspicion is that there was a touch of mischief on his mind, and that he more than half expected it to be rejected – as indeed it was.
The lyrics to “The Ballad of 1891” can be found here:
It occurred to me it might be fun to make occasional blog entries based on significant dates in the life of C. J. Dennis (now that I am President of the C. J. Dennis Society!).
The first of these would appear to be 3rd October.
In fact, it is significant for two reasons.
Firstly, it is the birthday of John Garibaldi (“Gary”) Roberts, who was born in Scarsdale, near Ballarat, in 1860. Roberts and his wife, Roberta (nee Dickson, born in New Zealand), were keen patrons of the arts. Gary and Roberta bought a hobby farm, “Sunnyside”, in what was then South Sassafras, and is now Kallista, in the Dandenong Ranges, in order that their son, Frank, who had become disenchanted with life as a bank worker, could try his hand on the land. They also ran it as an “artists’ colony”.
Roberts held a senior position in the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board, and was wealthy. He arranged for a number of the old horse-drawn tram cars that had been rendered obsolete by the new cable tram technology to be taken to “Sunnyside” as accommodation for his many visiting friends.
It was in one of these tram cars, renovated especially for him, that Dennis finished the writing of his masterpiece “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”. Indeed, the character of the Bloke himself, becoming, as he does, a berry farmer at the end of the book, is modelled partly on Frank Roberts. (It was also Frank who supervised the arrival of the tram cars, and arranged for their renovation.)
It is also worth noting that Dennis wrote “The Play” – possibly the greatest of all his poems – very shortly after his first visit to “Sunnyside”.
Dennis was largely estranged from his own family, and Gary and Roberta became, for a while at least, like an alternative family for him. Indeed, he called them “Mum” and “Dad”, and dedicated “The Sentimental Bloke” to them. (Some years later, and with some justification, Gary felt that Dennis had “dropped” them.)
The painter, Tom Roberts (no relation) was also an occasional visitor to “Sunnyside”, and he painted a portrait of Gary.
So much for the first reason why 3rd October was a significant date in the life of C. J. Dennis.
The second reason relates not to a birth, but a death – it is the date of the death of Charles Web Gilbert.
Gilbert was a sculptor – self taught – who was born at Cockatoo, near Maryborough, in 1867 (the same year as Henry Lawson). He initially worked as a cake decorator, and developed from there to eventually working in marble, and casting in bronze. Gilbert was one of the “Sunnyside” regulars so, for a time at least, he must have been reasonably close to Dennis.
While the degree of his closeness to Dennis may be debatable, he was certainly close to the Roberts. He moved to London for a time before the outbreak of World War One and later, when Frank enlisted, Frank spent time staying in London with Gilbert.
Frank was tragically killed in the Battle of Mont St. Quentin, one month before the Armistice. Gilbert was commissioned by the Australian government to make a statue to commemorate this very famous victory – engineered by Sir John Monash – and he wrote to Gary that he planned to model the soldier on Frank. (The historian Peter Stanley, however, in his book “Men of Mont. St. Quentin”, questions whether this in fact happened.)
Gilbert created more war memorials than any other Australian. Not only was he self taught, but he was very much a “one man band”. In his studio in Napier Street, Fitzroy, he did all the work himself. This included wheeling heavy barrows of clay to make the original models, the creation of plaster casts that were laid over the clay, and the ultimate pouring of the liquid bronze into the plaster. Indeed, he died while wheeling a barrow on 3rd October, 1925, at the age of 58 (three years after the death of Henry Lawson).
So Gilbert died on Gary Roberts’ birthday.
Perhaps Gilbert’s best known sculpture is that of Matthew Flinders, situated outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Swanston Street, Melbourne. It was unveiled one month after his death.
The 7th Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival will be held on the weekend of Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th October at “The Singing Gardens” in Toolangi, the site of Dennis’ original home.
Yes, we’ve been a bit slow with our publicity this year, but better late than never!
We have a special guest this year, in the form of the actor, John Derum.
It was John who first introduced me to the delights of C. J. Dennis, way back in the early 1980s.
In 1976, to mark the centenary of the birth of Dennis, he produced a one-man show, “More Than A Sentimental Bloke”. The premise, of course, was that Dennis was mostly known only for this masterpiece, but had written so much more.
Pumphandle Records, a very small label, had recorded an LP (remember them?) based on Derum’s show, and I happened to stumble upon it in a record shop in the city several years later. It looked interesting. I bought it, took it home and played it, and it changed my life.
(John has had a long and distinguished career as an actor. For example, he appeared in the first episode of “Homicide” and the final edition of “The Mavis Bramston Show”. He was also “Narrator Neville” in the first season of “The Aunty Jack Show”.)
John will be performing his show “More Than A Sentimental Bloke” at “The Singing Gardens” on Saturday evening. Late in the afternoon, just before dinner, he will also be performing a show, “The Singing Garden”, based on Dennis’ last book, of the same name. The title comes from the many different species of bird – both native and introduced – that regularly visited Dennis’ forest home. He will also be with us for the other events that will take place over the course of the weekend.
The programme, therefore, will be (roughly…) as follows.
We will kick off, as usual, with the Awards Ceremony for the Written Poetry Competition at 2pm on the Saturday afternoon. This will be followed by an ‘open mic’ session, though this may be a little truncated this year due to the fullness of the programme. (We also have a surprise musical component to the entertainment on the Saturday afternoon this year.)
John will perform “The Singing Garden” from about 4.30pm, after which dinner will be served. He will then perform “More Than A Sentimental Bloke” from around 7.30pm. The show will finish around 9pm, after which a very light supper (tea and biscuits) will be served.
Sunday will kick off with the usual Poets’ Breakfast (perhaps more appropriately called a “Morning Tea”), after which lunch will be served. C. J. Dennis, Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson will then personally take guests on a guided tour of the gardens. This will also include a ballet performance from local school children, and John will also be there, of course, to make sure we do not stray too much from the track…
Afternoon tea will then be served, during which another ‘open mic’ session will be held.
It promises to be a truly fabulous weekend!
Here is a reminder of last year’s festival, with Banjo Paterson (aka Jim Brown!) in full swing.
For further information and bookings, please contact Jan Williams at “The Singing Gardens” on 0359629282.
It was a great thrill to be interviewed by Dave O’Neil on ABC Radio 774 last Monday afternoon. It was ostensibly an opportunity to talk about my new book, but in the event we spent a great deal more time talking about the Australian poet, C. J. Dennis. Still, I can’t really complain. He is my greatest literary hero, and I always enjoy talking about him.
The ABC very kindly sent me an mp3 of the interview, which I will attach.
I spent a wonderful day yesterday at “The Singing Gardens” in Toolangi, former home of the great Australian poet C. J. Dennis, for the purposes of attending the AGM of the C. J. Dennis Society.
Secretary/Treasurer Jim Brown kicked off proceedings with his haunting rendition of Dennis’ “Dusk”.
(Seated are, from left to right, Maggie Somerville, Edel Wignell and Patsy Hohnen.)
The meeting was well attended, and highly productive. The weather was also very kind to us.
Afterwards, Maggie Somerville sang her beautiful song “Waratah Bay” to Patsy.
Before heading home, there was time to stroll once more along the banks of the Yea River.
(Terry Maher standing; seated left, Maggie and right, Patsy.)
Here are they are again…
I was thrilled to receive, and very happy to accept, a nomination to be the Society’s new President. I was duly elected to the position, and look forward to an exciting and active future for the C. J. Dennis Society.
Congratulations to David Campbell, who was once again elected to the position of Vice President, to Jim Brown (Secretary/Treasurer once more), to Daan Spijer and Jan Williams (general committee members), and to Terry Maher and Lyn Storen (new committee members).
Last Sunday, August 31st, I participated in the Wattle Day celebrations at Hurstbridge in Victoria.
I was part of the Victorian Folk Music Club’s “Billabong Band”, and my duties were largely confined to playing the lager phone and singing along on the choruses, though I did get to sing a duet on “Home Among The Gum Trees”, and sing Maggie Somerville’s anthemic “Wattle Day” song with her.
I haven’t quite yet been able to fathom the full history of Wattle Day, but Hurstbridge seems to have been intricately tied up with it for a very long time.
Maggie found this photo of the Wattle Day celebrations at Hurstbridge in 1912.
The caption reads: “Wattle Day at Hurstbridge in 1912: In the 1900s a great deal was made of Wattle Day. Crowds flocked to the station to view the magnificent wattle.”
The Hurstbridge Wattle Festival web-site also tells us that “The Hurstbridge Wattle Festival is a significant cultural event for Melbournians that has its roots firmly planted in our early rail history.”
So it would seem that Wattle Day and railway lines go together. I attended the festival with Maggie, and we parked her kombie at Eltham and took the train to Hurstbridge to avoid the inevitable parking problems that we would face there. The stop prior to Hurstbridge is “Wattle Glen”.
Nevertheless, it would appear that the practice of celebrating Wattle Day at Hurstbridge died out at some point, because the current festival began as recently as 2004. This was in response to two key events, outlined as follows on Wikipedia.
1. “In 1988 (19 August) the Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha) was officially proclaimed as Australia’s national floral emblem by the then Goveror-General, the Rt. Hon Sir Ninian M Stephen AK GCMG GCVO KBE.”
2. “Four years later, 23 June 1992, Bill Hayden, the then Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, declared that ‘1 September in each year shall be observed as “National Wattle Day” throughout Australia and in the external Territories of Australia.'”
Hurstbridge now even has its own “Wattle Cafe”.
Decorations for the day were elaborate:
Members of the audience gathered under the Wattle Tree.
The signage was also clear.
Of all the VFMC members, I think it is fair to say that Maggie’s ensemble was the most complete.
Undoubtedly, though, our President, Harry, was the most colourful.
During the course of the walk to the lighthouse, I was drawn to this beach.
I could see a large log that had washed up, and I began to salivate at the other possibilities. I am always drawn to the sight of beach debris, especially a remote ocean beach like this. It provides a link to mariners adventuring on the high seas, and makes me feel, for a short while at least, a little wilder and freer myself.
This one did not disappoint.
This rusty old drum was interesting.
Here we have some plastic bottles, a lovely length of rope, and a vast amount of netting.
The log, as I suspected it might, proved to be the jewel in the crown. It was solid and sound, with the ends rubbed round. I found that, with some difficulty, I could lift one end.
The sheep kindly made way for me – with a little protest – as I clambered back up the slope above the beach, and made my way back home.
I think perhaps the highlight of my recent holiday in Scotland was the trip with Maggie Somerville to Neist Point Lighthouse on the Isle of Skye.
After a delicious lunch at the Three Chimneys Restaurant, we needed a good long walk to shed some calories. There were no good prospects immediately to hand, so we jumped in the car and headed north. The lighthouse was as at the end of the road.
Spectacular scenery surrounded us, together with many black-faced sheep.
The lighthouse is located at the end of this dramatic headland.
It was constructed in 1909 by David Alan Stephenson, a member of the famous lighthouse-building Stevenson family, and close relative of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. It has been operating remotely since 1990, and the cottages where the lighthouse keepers once lived are now owned privately.
The lighthouse features in a photograph in the book “Harpoon at a Venture”, which tells the unlikely but fascinating tale of the attempts by Robert Maxwell (author of “Ring of Bright Water”) to establish a commercial basking shark fishing industry off the west coast of Scotland in the late 1940s.
Here is a dramatic view of the lighthouse. I can only assume that the large bell facing out to sea at the top of the cliff is a foghorn.
Once we had returned to our car, Maggie was determined to see a Highland Cow. Our quest took us to some very remote and ‘out of the way’ places until, somewhat ironically, we eventually tracked a couple down in a paddock next to the primary school in a nearby town!
I spent a wonderful day skiing at Lake Mountain yesterday. The beauty of Lake Mountain is that it is such an easy drive from Melbourne. The village centre fills with young families on toboggans, but you only have to move a short distance down the track to leave them behind.
I was joined by my son, Thomas, and his (and my) friend Jamie Blaker. It was my first trip to the snow in two years, and the first time in several years any of us had made the trek to Lake Mountain.
Part of the joy of a day such as this is the drive. It takes you through so much stunning forest scenery, including the little town of Marysville, devastated by the fires of 2009. Jamie is a frequent visitor to Marysville, as his parents own a house there. It was burnt down. Fortunately, a new house now stands in its place. Here is the view from their balcony.
The snow cover was adequate without being exceptional. Likewise the weather – foggy and windy, but essentially fine. Thomas and Jamie are both studying Law, so that formed the basis for most of the day’s conversation.
Here they are strutting their stuff.
We stopped for lunch at Lookout Rock, where we have eaten on a number of previous occasions. It’s great to be able to sit down on some snow-free ground, though the freeze starts to sink in if you stay too long.
There is always so much to photograph. I loved this snow gum.
As you can see, the trees are still mostly burnt and dead. The snow gums only regenerate from their bases.
The trunks looked fabulous against the mist.
Here is Thomas (in the red) with Jamie…
…and with me.
The day would not be complete without a photo of a snowman!
Then it was back down the mountain for a well-earned cup of coffee in Marysville!
So many scenic panoramas opened up before us from the car windows…
Here is just one.
Other highlights? Two lyrebirds, with tails fully erected, skipped across the road a short distance in front of us on the drive up. The cost – or relative lack thereof – was also something of a highlight. $53 for the car park – yes, a bit of a shock, but it also covers trail fees, and ski hire for the day was only $36, which I though was very reasonable.
It is so utterly peaceful and serene on those Lake Mountain ski trails. I always find the snow country lifts my spirits and inspires me enormously. I’m not talking so much about the hustle and bustle of downhill skiing, but the quietude of the back country.
To be able to experience such joy on a relatively undemanding day trip from Melbourne is a rare treasure indeed.
Recently I had the good fortune to spend some time in Scotland. I was staying with my friend, Maggie Somerville, whose daughter, Gronya, was a member of the Australian Badminton Team. We were living in the small town of Falkirk, midway between Glasgow (where the Games were being held), and Edinburgh.
Although not large, Falkirk has a thriving folk club, and Maggie and I were keen to get along if possible. They hold their club nights – “session nights”, as they call them – on Thursday evenings, at the Tolbooth Tavern in the middle of town.
We arrived a little late the first week, not being entirely sure where to go or what to expect. Proceedings were in full swing by the time we arrived. The weather was unseasonably hot, and they had chosen to meet in the newly-refurbished courtyard downstairs rather than the customary upstairs room which would simply have been too hot.
The courtyard was L-shaped, and it was impossible to see the performers from where we stood. I noticed one gentleman had scaled the wall for a bird’s eye view, so I decided to follow his example. It turned out to be a relatively simple matter to duck around the back, climb up onto a rubbish skip, and from there up onto the beautiful old stone wall. I did get a wonderful view from up there. I was only cursing myself for not taking my camera with me.
You will note that my hat gave a fairly firm clue to my nationality – although we were mistaken for Kiwis!
The following week we were back upstairs, and both invited to perform.
Maggie played a tune on a whistle, and sang a couple of songs.
I recited a couple of poems from my new book, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”.
There were a number of fabulous performances during the course of the evening.
This gentleman gave a very spirited rendition of Danny Boy.
And this man played the “Irish pipes” beautifully. (Note that the bag is inflated with bellows under the right arm, rather than the Scottish system of a tube from the mouth.)
Here are a couple more shots of the rest of the gang.
It was a great evening. Naturally enough, we drew comparisons between Falkirk Folk Club and our own meetings at Ringwood. I was struck by how many strong solo performers there were, mostly singers of traditional songs, accompanying themselves on guitar. On the down side, though, there were no women performing, although there were plenty in the audience. Also, the instrumentation was heavily biased in favour of the guitar. I have mentioned the pipes player already, and there was also a fiddler. However, there were no accordions, harmonicas, whistles or mandolins.
The place of poetry is an interesting one. I was certainly accepted at the club as a poet, and we were told that it is not unheard of to hear poetry at their meetings, but it was also clear that it is a fairly rare event. At Ringwood we have quite a number of reciters and poets. The tradition of poetry and recitation would appear to be stronger in Australia than in Scotland.
I have just returned from attending the National SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Conference in Sydney. These are held every second year, and is the first I have attended. It seemed appropriate to do so, now that my book is out.
Suffice to say I had a wonderful time. There were about 150 delegates in attendance in total. Most of them I have still not met. I did talk to a wide range of people, however, and it seemed that every second person had an utterly extraordinary story to tell.
Men, it should be said, were very thin on the ground. There might have been ten of us. I doubt there were any more. This is a constant feature of SCBWI functions, the cause of which remains unclear. Are men kept home by the burden of breadwinning? Do women simply place greater value on networking and mutual support?
The conference took place at the beautiful Hughenden Hotel. Some delegates were staying at the hotel, which was also used for meals and general relaxation. The sessions themselves were conducted in a large marquee erected in the gardens.
I am not going to give a full report on all the various talks and book launches that were held. This has been done elsewhere by people far more competent to do so than I. One thing that does stick in my mind, though, is the extremely impressive sales figures achieved by some self publishers.
There were very few poets in attendance, and almost no spontaneous discussion of poetry by any Australian presenters. On the other hand, there was a good deal of critical comment directed towards unsolicited picture book manuscripts written in poor rhyming verse.
Professor Ernest Bond “saved the day” to a degree, when he spoke assertively and enthusiastically about the role of poetry in the classroom. To quote from his faculty page, Ernie Bond “is a Professor in the Seidel School of Education at Salisbury University” (Maryland, USA). He read out a poem by J. Patrick Lewis which was extremely well received.
One book launch I will mention was “The Croc and the Platypus”, written by fellow rhymer Jackie Hosking, and published by the same publisher as published my book, Walker Books. Here is Jackie, second from the right, holding it up. On her right is Publishing Manager at Walker Books, Sue Whiting. Third from the left is the book’s illustrator, Marjorie Crosby-Fairall.
I discovered to my delight that the Hughenden is very close to Centennial Park, and I went for a long and memorable walk one night in this stunning environment to try to walk off some excess cake and biscuits. Needless to say, I got lost (I always get lost!), but once again my native cunning pulled me through…
The Conference was run by Susanne Gervay, Co-Regional Adviser of SCBWI Australia & NZ, and creative director of the Hughenden Boutique Hotel. Susanne did a wonderful job directing traffic, moving the show along and making sure it all ran like clockwork, while being extremely warm, witty, funny and entertaining in the process. What a woman!
Here she is (in the green top) being showered with gifts from friends and admirers in the marquee at conference end.
I must thank Susanne personally for allowing me to recite my poem “The Chinstrap Penguin” to the assembled throng to commence the final day’s proceedings.
All in all, it was a head-turning, utterly disorienting, yet totally wonderful three days. Thank you to all concerned (especially Susanne!) for putting together such an informative and entertaining programme.
My favourite Australian poet is C. J. Dennis, and one of my favourite poems of his is “A Guide For Poits”. It was first published in the Bulletin on 18th March, 1915 (nearly one hundred years ago!), and was subsequently published in “Backblock Ballads and Later Verses” (Angus & Robertson, 1918).
It is a long poem, and somewhat archaic in its expression at times, which means that this absolute gem is generally overlooked, or at least misunderstood, by most contemporary rhyming poets. This is a real shame, because the poem still has a great deal to offer contemporary practitioners of this somewhat exacting craft.
I will therefore attempt to explain – or deconstruct – the poem.
Dennis begins by outlining his general philosophy on the arts, and his reason for writing the poem. He makes the point that he does not see himself as an elitist in any way, but rather, would love to see a flourishing of community artists, so that inner city precincts such as “The Rocks” in Sydney, and Little Lonsdale Street in Melbourne, became centres of poetry and music. In a broad sense, with the development of government sponsored community arts projects, this has come to pass.
He explains that he would like to contribute to such a movement by sharing some of his poetry writing ‘tricks of the trade’. (Remember that shortly after this poem was written, his book “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” was published – easily the most successful book of poetry ever published in Australia.)
Dennis gets down to tin tacks in verse eight, instructing poets to choose a ‘swinging metre’ and ‘sling in a bit o’ slang to ev’ry line’.
The next few verses discuss various rhyming patterns. Verse nine covers the simple patterns of ABAB and AABB. Verse ten demonstrates AABA.
The next verse introduces an effect that Dennis is especially famous for – the short line. One of the common criticisms of rhyming verse is that the regular rhyme and metre can become a bit tedious – even soporific. Dennis is very sensitive to this. He often throws in a shorter line to give the reader a bit of a jolt, and grab their attention once more on the chance that it might have been waning. He also, in this verse, introduces a rhyming pattern he is once again very well known for – ABABCC.
In the following verse he demonstrates yet another rhyming pattern, this one quite unusual – ABABBA. (I wonder, though, if he has made an error here. I think he means the final line to rhyme with the first and third, but it actually doesn’t.)
He pauses in the next verse to make the point that it is very difficult to produce large volumes of such exacting rhyme unless you put in a lot of time practising!
The following verse is especially clever, explaining the added difficulty of finding triple rhymes, while also demonstrating them, with a rhyming pattern of AABABB.
He then extols in some more detail the virtue of the unexpected short line – while simultaneously providing a demonstration, once again.
The last three verses return to philosophy once more, as he laments a simple fact that all poets know – it is very hard to make money writing poetry!
These verses are worth quoting in full:
Aw, ‘Struth! It’s pretty; but you take my tip,
It gives a bloke the everlasting pip
‘Oo tries to live upon the game and gets…
Corns on ‘is brain an’ melancholy debts!
Wiv sweat an’ tears, wiv misery an’ sighs,
Yeh wring yer soul-case for one drop of bliss
To give the cold, ‘ard world; an’ it replies,
“Prompt payment will erblige. Please settle this.”
The rarest treasures of yer ‘eart yeh spend
On callous, thankless coots; an’ in the end
It comes to this: if you can’t find a muse
‘Oo takes in washin’, wot’s the flamin’ use?
The full text of the poem can be found here:
I attended “Stories by the Fire” last Saturday evening with my friend, Maggie Somerville.
“Stories by the Fire” is hosted by Storytelling Australia Victoria as part of the Newport Folk Festival which is, in turn, run by the Newport Fiddle & Folk Club. It is a two hour session of storytelling, from 6 – 8 pm, with a break in the middle for supper.
The venue, as in the past two years, was the Newport Scout Hall, which I love. It is cosy and intimate, with an open fire. Unfortunately, however, whereas in previous years performers have sat beside the fire, they were asked this year to perform near the stage. This felt like a backward step to me, as it created a stiffer, more formal atmosphere, and put a greater distance between the audience and the performers.
I feel very much out of my comfort zone as a poet among storytellers. While poetry and storytelling are both ‘spoken word’ crafts, the skills required are very different. Still, I have always enjoyed this event, and this year was no exception.
We did get off to something of a bad start, however, when the act before us was allowed to run overtime by a good ten minutes. I imagined they would finish at ten to six – five to six at the very latest – to allow the storytellers time to set up. I couldn’t believe it when, at two minutes AFTER six, the MC allowed the musicians to sing another song! You really do expect more professional behaviour from such an established festival.
The situation was compounded somewhat when a number of the storytellers also ignored the time, running well over their ten minute time limit. (To be fair, the ten minute time limit was not spelt out clearly at the beginning of proceedings, and it probably would have been helpful if it had.)
This meant that we went to intermission with a huge backlog of performers to get through in the second half of the show. When the running list was read out, with me and Maggie at the end of it, I wasn’t sure we would get on at all.
The second half had a very different feel, with a large number of performers getting on stage for a fairly brief period of time.
I had been asked to tell the story behind the title poem of my new book, “The Billy That Died With Its Boots On”, but when my turn came I was so anxious that Maggie would not have time to sing her song that I tried to simply introduce her instead. Maggie arrived on stage insisting that I did in fact tell the story – so I did, although I did not read out the poem itself, which I would have done if time had not been so short.
Maggie then rounded out proceedings with her sad but beautiful song about the tragic death of ABC employee Jill Meagher in September 2012.
After a short break, local folk legend Bruce Watson performed a very entertaining bracket of songs and stories.
All in all, it had been a great evening as always. It was just a shame, though, that the time had not been better managed. When discipline breaks down like this, it sends a ripple of anxiety through the whole crowd, and dampens the tone of the evening.
Thank you once again to Jackie Kerin who works tirelessly behind the scenes to make the show the success that it always is, including providing a very yummy (and healthy!) supper.
I had a great time yesterday as one of the guest presenters at the “New Voices Festival” at St. Margaret’s Church in Pitt Street, Eltham.
The audience appreciated my poems, and what I had to say about them. I also had a good opportunity to talk about C. J. Dennis and the Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival. I signed a number of books afterwards, which is always very gratifying.
I had a good chance to talk to Meera from the Eltham Bookshop afterwards. As well as giving me some much appreciated positive feedback, she was also able to enlighten me considerably on the ways of independent bookshop owners in these challenging times.
I was a little surprised that Meera had asked me to sign a number of unsold copies of “Billy”, as I knew she would now not be able to return them to the publisher. Meera replied that she was very confident she would be able to ‘hand sell’ them. This was a phrase I had heard before, but did not fully understand.
Meera explained that one way independent bookshop owners can enhance their own credibility is to offer certain books that are not well known to their customers, yet which they have great faith in. This specific promotion of particular books is known as ‘hand selling’. “Billy” was about to become one such book.
Meera probably does not appreciate just how much it means to a newly published author like myself to learn that a professional bookseller has so much faith in their work.
Here are a few photos from yesterday. As you can see, the event was held in a beautiful hall.
At the end of the day’s proceedings we were treated to a wonderful exhibition of harmonica and drum playing by two local musicians. (Note the promotional poster for “Billy” on the wooden door in the background.)
Many times in recent years, travelling with friends and family, I have pulled over in Holbrook for food, petrol, and a stretch of the legs. It’s a pretty town, with the added attraction, of course, of the mighty submarine in the park, H. M. A. S. Otway. Most recently, I visited Holbrook on the way to the Man From Snowy River Festival in Corryong. (Why didn’t I leave the Hume at Wodonga, you might ask? Please don’t. That’s another story.)
Anyway, Holbrook has not long ago been bypassed by the highway, and the little hamlet is threatened with Relevance Deprivation Syndrome. In an attempt to combat this, and cashing in also on the recent 50th anniversary of the Beatles tour of Australia (1964), the town has ‘yarn bombed’ the submarine with knitted yellow squares.
Further information can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/holbrookyellowsubmarine
I couldn’t resist the temptation to write my own little tribute to the town that has become a small but important part of my life over the years.
There’s a Yellow Submarine in New South Wales
There’s a yellow submarine in New South Wales
Against which any other surely pales.
It’s a long way from the sea,
Yet it’s riding handsomely.
No, you needn’t think I’ve drunk too many ales.
It’s fifty years since we heard the thunder
Of the Beatles as they sang their songs ‘down under’.
They filled a lot of halls,
Both the balconies and stalls,
Though maybe not the Holbrook band rotunda.
Holbrook’s fear of drifting off the map
Has caused the town to waken from its nap.
The Highway’s passed them by,
But there ain’t no use to cry,
And now they’re working hard to close the gap.
So they’ve knitted lots of gleaming yellow squares,
In efforts to precipitate wild stares.
Is standing out a hot way
In a plan to soothe all local business cares.
So, if you plan on racing up the Hume,
Don’t feel that you must plant your foot and zoom
All the way to Sydney town.
At the halfway point get down,
And spy this monster shining through the gloom.
Well, the launch of “‘The Billy Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse” was held on Sunday, and I’ve had time to come down to earth and reflect upon it all.
Without doubt, it was a great success. Walker Books, the publisher, and Readings bookshop, the venue, had done a great job to together put on a fine display. It was absolutely magical to see multiple copies of the book – a wall of “Billys” – in a grand crescent at the back counter.
I was thrilled that so many people turned up to support me. Members of my family were there (of course), old friends, new friends, friends from sailing, skiing and bushwalking, friends from work, children’s writers, bush poets and reciters, and others.
Geoffrey Graham did a fine job launching the book and acting as master of ceremonies, as I knew he would. He also said some very kind things about me, for which I am truly grateful.
Edel Wignell had been inspired to write a poem about the book, which she read. Edel has been a tremendous support to me in recent years, and it was wonderful to have her contributing to the launch in this way.
Another friend, songwriter and musician Maggie Somerville, had been inspired to write a melody to accompany “The Sash” (the poem that tells the story of Ned Kelly’s rescue of the drowning Richard Shelton from Hughes Creek in Avenel) which she sang to round off proceedings, accompanied by yet another friend, Marie Butler, on accordion. It was a wonderful way to finish the afternoon.
What was particularly gratifying, of course, was the number of people who wished to buy a copy of the book afterwards. No, I didn’t develop writer’s cramp but, yet, I was certainly at risk of doing so!
Thank you again to everybody involved in making the afternoon such a memorable success. This book really is the distillation of a lifetime of writing. There were many times when I doubted if it would ever happen. Dreams do come true!
One of the poems, “The Sash”, in my new book, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”, tells the story of a young Ned Kelly rescuing the life of another boy, Richard Shelton, from drowning in Hughes Creek, Avenel. Richard lived with his parents at the Royal Mail Hotel, which still stands today. The building is largely intact, although the original shingle roof has been replaced by corrugated iron. The building is now also surrounded by pepper trees which would have not been present in the 19th century.
Friend, songwriter, and fellow Ringwood Folk Club member Maggie Somerville has put the poem to music, and will sing the song at the launch of the book on Sunday, 18th May, at Readings bookshop in Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn.
I spent a lovely day with Maggie today, showing her the sights of Avenel, and walking in the (imagined) footsteps of Richard Shelton.
Here is Maggie singing “The Sash” outside the Royal Mail Hotel in Avenel.
(Avenel, by the way, is just off the Hume Highway, between Seymour and Euroa. It is a quiet town now, but back in Ned’s time it was a busy stopover point on the way to the Beechworth gold diggings. Ned moved with his mother and siblings to Greta after the death of his father, Red, in Avenel.)
I had a great time at the National Folk Festival in Canberra this Easter, as I always do.
My mission this year, of course, was to promote and sell my new book, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”. I can safely report that the book was very well received indeed!
Laurie McDonald has done a great job in recent years, as Director of the Spoken Word Programme, in getting poetry and yarn spinning back on a firm footing at the festival, after it was all beginning to look a bit dicey a few years ago.
The National is, of course, primarily a music festival, but what with the Poets’ Breakfasts every morning, “Poetry in the Park” at 3.30 in the afternoon, and “Poetry in the Round” in the evenings, plus the occasional workshop (writing and performing workshops were both on offer this year), it can be pretty hard for us poets to find time to sample much of the music!
The highlight for me this year, apart from the reception of my book, was having the opportunity to introduce Geoffrey Graham, who resurrected his one man “Banjo” Paterson show, to celebrate the 150th birthday of Australia’s most popular bard.
Here is Geoffrey holding a large audience in thrall.
I also got some great shots of Geoffrey (in the red shirt) and three time Australian Champion Bush Poet Gregory North acting out Paterson’s “The Man from Ironbark” in impromptu fashion. (The reciter is Ralph Scrivens.)
The festival is a great chance to deepen old friendships, and make new ones. There are a number of people I only ever see at the National in Canberra.
I was pleased also that I had a chance to mention at one of the Breakfasts the terribly sad and utterly unexpected passing of Bob Markwell. I know that Bob had touched the lives of many, and we shared our shock and grief in conversation afterwards.
The weather was fine and still, though very cold at night. I find it pays to think of the National as a snow trip. I take plenty of extra clothing and bedding.
My son, Thomas, and his mate, Gus, excelled themselves, building an elaborate square-rigged pirate ship for the parade!
We elected to come home via the scenic route this year – south through Cooma and Bombala to Cann River. It’s a beautiful drive, but it’s a long one!
This is the most difficult post I have had to write since creating this web-site and blog.
Reading Facebook last night I was shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the sudden and unexpected death of Bob Markwell.
Bob lived with his wife Faye and his daughter Jenny in the Hunter Valley. I first met them at the Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival several years ago.
Bob was a passionate fan of the Australian poet C. J. Dennis, and had committed many of Dennis’ poems to memory. He was a wonderful reciter. Dennis’ poems are particularly difficult to learn, because they tend to be long and wordy, and contain much slang, most of which is now outdated.
Bob told me that his love of C. J. Dennis was viewed with a certain amount of disrespect in the Hunter Valley, where poets such as Paterson and Lawson tended to very much hold sway, and it was for this reason he had chosen to seek temporary refuge down south, by attending the Toolangi Festival. I know he enjoyed the festival very much, and returned on at least one occasion.
Last year, I bumped into Bob again at the Bush Poetry Muster held in Benalla by the Victorian Bush Poetry and Music Association, headed by Jan Lewis (who also runs the Corryong Festival). He was slightly apologetic for choosing to attend Benalla rather than Toolangi, but explained that his budget was limited, and he thought it would make a nice change. I assured him there was no need to apologise on my behalf. I also only attended Benalla on the Sunday last year, but I was told that Bob had a big impact on the weekend, and was partly instrumental in it taking on a strong “C. J. Dennis” flavour.
Then I saw Bob again at Corryong last weekend. He had quite a funny story to tell.
The next book that C. J. Dennis published after “The Moods of Ginger Mick” was a slight volume for the Christmas market, “Doreen”. It picks up the story of Bill and Doreen from where “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” leaves off. Bill and Doreen now have a son.
There are only four poems in the book: “Washing Day”,”Logic and Spotted Dog”, “Vi’lits” and “Possum”.
“Washing Day” is an extremely well known poem, and often recited. Indeed, many would claim it is Australia’s greatest love poem.
The other three poems, however, are much less well known. Bob was telling me how terrific and underrated these other three are. He went on to explain that he planned to perform “Vi’lits” for competition during the weekend, in the belief that nobody would have heard it before, or be familiar with it. He was shocked indeed to learn that another of the competing reciters was also performing “Vi’lits”!
At the Poets’ Breakfast on Sunday morning Bob recited “Logic and Spotted Dog”. Unfortunately, about halfway through he lost the thread and had to stop. He was very frustrated and disappointed with himself.
I greatly admired and enjoyed what he had managed to achieve, however, and made a point of letting him know.
Bob looked an absolute picture of health last weekend – slim, sprightly, with a twinkle in the eye. It is hard to believe he is no longer with us.
Jan Lewis has written on Facebook that Bob died from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident.
Bob Markwell was a wonderful fellow – warm, gentle, passionate, sincere.
His death is a great loss to all those who love the poetry of C. J. Dennis. Bob alone did so much to keep that legacy alive. His daughter, Jenny, is also a great lover and reciter of C. J. Dennis, and I know she will continue that legacy.
More importantly, though, the world has lost a wonderful man with the death of Bob Markwell. My heart goes out to his wife, Faye, and Jenny, and I wish them all strength for the difficult times ahead.
Last weekend, for the first time, I attended the “Man From Snowy River Festival” at Corryong.
Although this festival has long been one of the ‘blue ribbon’ events on the bush poetry calendar, I have for many years been wary of attending.
Corryong, a beautiful town in north-east Victoria, sees itself as the home of “The Man From Snowy River”. It was the home of Jack Riley, said by many to be the model for the leading character in Banjo Paterson’s classic poem.
I have read that Riley himself was no fan of the town of Corryong. He was gaoled there for six months after being found guilty of stealing cattle. He maintained his innocence throughout, and left Corryong immediately upon his release. He lived in a small hut in the nearby mountains for the rest of his life, only returning to Corryong to be buried.
Anyway, that is ‘by the by’.
The festival is as much about horsemanship as it is about bush poetry – probably more so – and, traditionally, the main reason for horses to be in the high country if for the purposes of moving and mustering cattle. I have long believed that the grazing of cattle in the high country is an outmoded and environmentally damaging practice, and this is why I have been reluctant to attend the festival.
With my book being published this year, I was planning on attending the festival for the first time. I suppose we all make rationalisations where commerce is concerned, and mine went along the following lines.
1. From all reports, the festival is really good, with many purveyors and fans of bush poetry in attendance.
2. The scenery is beautiful, and the facilities excellent.
3. There is undoubtedly a place for the celebration of Australia’s rich heritage of high country horsemanship. (I have always loved the poetry of Banjo Paterson, and he mostly writes about horses!)
4. The battle to keep cattle grazing out of the high country is very close to having been won already.
However, a delay in the printing of the book meant I decided to cancel my plans to attend.
Then two things happened. First, I managed to acquire a supply of books in April, rather than having to wait until the release date in May. Second, a friend, poet and reciter Ken Prato, rang last Thursday evening to ask if I was going to Corryong.
I had lost track of the calendar, and did not realise it was on that weekend. I suddenly realised that, with a bit of a last minute scramble, I probably could attend.
I had commitments in town most of Saturday, and was required at work on Monday morning, but there was no reason why I could not head up on Saturday afternoon, and return on Sunday evening.
So that is what I did.
My timing proved exquisite. It rained heavily in Corryong on Friday and Saturday, but Sunday was fine and sunny!
Needless to say, I had a great time. I won’t go into all the details, but I met many friends, and sold many books. Indeed, it is thrilling to see just how well the book is being received.
I arrived halfway through the Saturday evening concert.
The fine weather allowed the Poets’ Breakfast on Sunday morning to be held outside for the first time for the weekend. There was a large and very appreciative crowd. I performed “The Chinstrap Penguin”, and received plenty of positive feedback afterwards.
Thank you to Jan Lewis for allowing me to throw down my swag in the hall on Saturday night. It saved me the inconvenience of pitching my tent in the dark.
Congratulations to all concerned for creating a wonderful weekend of bush poetry and warm human fellowship!
I was thrilled to learn last night that I had won first prize in the poetry section of the Bush Music Club Song, Tunes & Poetry competition.
This is the first time I have entered. Indeed, I would not have been aware of its existence if Maggie Somerville, singer, mandolin player, and songwriter from Ringwood Folk Club, had not drawn it to my attention.
Congratulations, too, to Maggie, for winning the Tune section, as well as being runner-up in both the Song and Tune sections.
Here is my winning poem.
You talk of old Australia, with the flooding rain and drought;
Of the shearer, of the drover; of the cook, the rouseabout;
You talk of paddle steamer, or of bullock team and dray;
It’s the noisy, smoggy city where we congregate today.
You talk of red Australia, and the hulking Uluru;
Of the emu and the brolga, of the bounding kangaroo;
You talk of Kata Tjuta, like a buried monster’s spine.
It’s in the boutique restaurants we like to meet and dine.
You talk of white Australia, and the mountains capped with snow,
Where only hardy currawongs and wombats care to go;
Or hibernating possums fast asleep beneath a drift.
We like a bright skyscraper with a fast ascending lift.
You talk of blue Australia, with its narrow rim of sand,
Where breaching humpback whales provide performances so grand;
Whale sharks up at Ningaloo, or dolphins in the surf.
The bitumen and footpath offer more familiar turf.
You talk of green Australia, with the moss, the ferns, the trees;
The dew drops in the morning, and the cool and healing breeze;
The nesting cassowaries, or the stealthy thylacine,
But we prefer the steady purr of petrol-fuelled machine.
We don’t think of Australia as we make our busy way
Through the surging hordes and traffic of another hectic day.
“No room for sentiment,” we say, but all’s not as it seems.
Australia comes, with scented gums, and greets us in our dreams.
I had a wonderful time at Port Fairy Folk Festival this year, as I always do.
Once again, however, I saw little music, spending most of my time instead soaking up the Spoken Work Programme at The Shebeen, St Pat’s Hall, the Lecture Hall, and the Surf Club.
Storyteller Jackie Kerin, three-time winner of the “Pat Glover Storytelling Award”, and now head of the judging panel, was on the programme herself this year. I really enjoyed her storytelling show at the Lecture Hall on the Saturday.
Jackie, assisted by fellow Newport Fiddle & Folk Club member and musician, Greg Jenkins, put on a great show.
Jackie is an extremely entertaining and professional performer, and is constantly refining her craft.
Two shows at St. Pat’s Hall on the Sunday were also excellent. The first was the launch of Jim Haynes’ new book, “The Best Australian Yarns”, published by Allen & Unwin. The second was the “True Blue”, where Jim (singer), Bill Kearns (poet) and Jackie (storyteller) argued which was the best way to tell a story – as a song, as a poem, or simply as a story.
I was roped in at the last minute to act as “Moderator”, though my shouted comment from the audience – pointing, as I saw it, to a weakness in one of Jim’s arguments – probably branded me as a highly ‘immoderate’ Moderator!
Carole Reffold and Jill Meehan also did a fine job presenting poetry and song at The Surf Club on the Saturday night.
I was thrilled to have an advance copy of my new book, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’, and Other Australian Verse”, to take to the festival. I lost no opportunities to show it around, and was very pleased with the universally positive feedback I received.
The frantic last minute trading in Port Fairy Festival tickets continues, as this photo attests.
Of course, the great shadow hanging over the festival this year was the illness of Dennis O’Keeffe. I was very sad to hear of his passing, and offer my very best wishes and condolences to his family and friends.
I’ve just returned from a wonderful three day sojourn in the Bogong High Plains – near Falls Creek – with my daughter, Lenore.
My principal purpose in going was to visit Cope Hut. I’ve never got to Cope Hut before because it is so close to the road, and I’ve always planned much more ambitious walks. I didn’t mind if the holiday was a little less strenuous this time around, though.
The following information is taken from the Falls Creek web-site:
“Proposed by the Ski Club of Victoria as a ski refuge and funded by the State Tourist Committee, Cope Hut was built in 1929.”
In its time, Cope Hut was regarded as the peak of luxury by ski tourers. It earned the nickname “The Menzies of the Plains”, after the Hotel Menzies, Melbourne’s premier luxury hotel of the day.
My interest in Cope Hut stems from my research into the life of Mt. Hotham-based gold prospector, Bill Spargo (discoverer of the Red Robin Reef), a project that has now been running for many years.
Some time ago I had the good fortune to interview retired mountain cattleman Charlie McNamara. Charlie told me about a brief conversation he had had with Bill Spargo about Cope Hut a long time earlier, when he had encountered him on the road one day.
I asked him to recount it for me.
“Well, I asked him about the hut. I said “Who picked the site for it?” He says, “I did.” And I said, “It’s a wonder, Bill, as you never picked a decent place.” He said, “What’s wrong with it?” He said, “It’s a nice scene, nice view.” I said, “Yes, the view is beautiful.” He says,”There’s a spring there, running water.” I says, “Yes, that’s good, too.” “Well,” he said, “what’s wrong?” “Well,” I said, “Why didn’t you build it down where the wood is?” I said, “No wood. It’s the main thing, the wood.” I says, “Christ,” I says, “It’s a wonder you didn’t wake up to (the) wood.” “Well,” he said, “I won’t pick any more spots.” I was a bit sorry after that, you know.”
Here is Cope Hut today.
As you can see, there is plenty of wood around the hut now. If what Charlie McNamara says is true, all of these trees must have grown since 1929.
The walk to Cope Hut from the car took about 45 seconds. We weren’t looking for a long walk, but we did want something longer than that!
So we decided to head for Wallace’s Hut, past the Rover Scouts’ Hut. All of these huts were new to me.
The Rovers’ Hut, I must admit, took me quite by surprise. I had no idea it was so large. What it reminded me of more than anything was Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece “The Shining”.
Wallace’s Hut is very picturesque, as you would expect from the oldest hut on the High Plains. The hut itself is very dark inside, and rather inhospitable, but the surrounding camping area is very comfortable and pretty.
It rained on and off during the night, but we were quite cosy in our little tent.
A thick mist came through the following morning, transforming the scene.
The mist vanished as quickly as it arrived, and we followed the snow poles of the Alpine Walking Track back to the car.
I decided it would be fun to spend the next night at Edmondson’s Hut, another hut I had not visited before, so we moved the car from the Cope Hut parking area to Watchbed Creek.
This is a considerably more demanding hike, and takes you well up above the tree-line.
The hut itself, again originally a cattleman’s hut, is not as attractive as Wallace’s, but it is much more inviting. It is better lit, more modern, and generally much better equipped. Again, the surrounding camp-site is quite beautiful.
The hut stands in a small area of unburnt snow gums, surrounded by trees that were well and truly burnt in the 2003 fires that swept through the area. I can only assume that a timely dump of water from a passing helicopter saved both the hut and the adjacent trees.
The snow gums only regenerate from their bases.
The night spent at Edmondson’s was dry, but a little colder nonetheless. I was cursing myself for not having brought my long johns! Still, we got through OK. The following day was clear and warm, with a blue sky, and it was lovely walking back across the High Plains to the car. From there it was down to the Mount Beauty Bakery for a cup of coffee and a bite to eat before returning to Melbourne.
All in all, it was a very enjoyable few days up in the Bogong High Plains – as indeed it always is.
Before finishing, I want to make special mention of the modern composting toilets, which were in absolutely fabulous condition at both huts. I counted eight toilet rolls at Edmondson’s Hut! It’s a far cry from the 70s, let me tell you.
I will finish with a little poem I wrote at Wallace’s Hut. It has nothing to do with the High Plains, but I had developed the idea for it the previous week, and Wallace’s Hut was a lovely peaceful place to write it. I had not heard of Pyalong until hearing it mentioned as one of a number of towns threatened by the recent fires north of Melbourne. I hope I am right in saying I believe it was not badly burnt.
A Pie Along To Pyalong
As I was walking down the road
I met a chap I hardly knowed.
“To Pyalong,” he said, “I’m bound,
And you can join me. How’s that sound?
I’ve fruit and cheese and fresh baked rolls,
And Boston buns, and coffee scrolls,
But you can bring a pie along to Pyalong.”
I said I thought perhaps I might
Walk down the road and out of sight
To go and meet this fellow’s mates,
And feast on apples, figs and dates;
To talk of sport and share the news
And hear a range of diverse views,
And also take a pie along to Pyalong.
This bloke and me are now good friends.
It’s funny how this story ends.
There’s many twists and turns in life.
His lovely daughter is my wife.
All because I said I’d go
And meet some blokes I didn’t know,
And take a little pie along to Pyalong.
Since the death of Pete Seeger I’ve been listening to him more and more – and the most satisfying examples of his work are coming from the episodes of his TV show “The Rainbow Quest” on YouTube. I’d stumbled on these in a haphazard way in the past, never giving them too much thought, but now I realise just what utter treasures they are, and am viewing them – and the show itself – in a much more considered way.
Here is my little poetic tribute to “The Rainbow Quest” (with some thanks to Wikipedia, too).
The Rainbow Quest
Pete Seeger had many a musical guest
On his little TV show,”The Rainbow Quest”.
They came from all over, with banjos in tow,
To jump on the set, and be part of the show.
Few people saw it. The budget was slight
(Thirty-nine episodes, all black and white),
But Seeger was having the time of his life,
Ably assisted by Toshi, his wife.
Folk, old-timey, bluegrass, blues,
They came on board to spread the news
That musical talent was everywhere,
Though many were troubled, and worn with care.
They carried the message that music brings
Hope to the plucker, the person that sings;
That it opens your lungs, that it fills your heart,
That it brings fresh hope of a bright new start.
These weren’t the tunes of expensive schools.
They were ordinary folk with handmade tools,
Yet ‘ordinary’ doesn’t describe them well.
They were gifted maestros with tales to tell;
Tales of hardship, tales of pain,
Tales of falling again and again,
Tales of trouble, tales of strife,
Triumphant tales through difficult life.
Seeger’s childhood wasn’t that tough,
A white boy’s romp through bubble and fluff,
Yet he formed a rapport with these women and men
Through the bonds of strumming, and pencil or pen.
He formed a bridge that is all too rare
‘Tween the world of wealth, and the world of care;
‘Tween black and white, and Indian, too
(While Toshi directed the camera crew).
He’s gone now. No new notes will come
From his throat. No strumming of finger or thumb.
Yet I believe that his legacy
Will only grow – well, it will for me.
There’s live recordings of concerts grand
Where he’s backed by a talented, jaunty band,
But perhaps the record that captures him best
Is that little TV show, “The Rainbow Quest”.
Back in 2008, after I had published my first little collection of poetry, “Poems of 2007”, I decided to send a copy to Pete Seeger. I had always enjoyed his singing and his songs enormously, and I thought now I would try to return the favour.
At the last minute I also popped into the envelope a photocopy of my most popular poem, “Dad Meets the Martians”, as it had appeared in America’s “Cricket” magazine for children.
Imagine my surprise and joy when, some time later, I received a letter in the mail from the man himself!
He had written on the poem:
thanks for poems
What a thrill!
Here it is.
(Thank you to Lars Leetaru for very kindly giving me permission to reproduce his beautiful artwork here.)
Last night I returned from a fabulous holiday sailing and camping in the Gippsland Lakes with my son, Thomas, and two of his mates, Alex and Daniel.
We established a base camp at Emu Bight in The Lakes National Park, east of Lochsport, on Sperm Whale Head.
The plan was to head off to the Mitchell River silt jetties. These are an amazing geographical phenomenon, whereby the Mitchell River, over countless years, has carried silt into deep out into Lake King, creating so-called ‘jetties’ that create the effect of river banks in the middle of the lank. (If you go to Google Images and search for “Mitchell River silt jetties” you will see some great aerial views.) I had visited them very briefly many years ago, and thought they would be a great place to camp. (Little did I know…)
The day got off to a wonderful start. It was hot and still, and a pod – perhaps eight – of the local dolphins swam past the calm waters of Emu Bight. They were a fair way off – perhaps a couple of hundred yards – yet because of the quietness of the bay, and no doubt due in some way to how sound travels over water – we could hear their blows as they surfaced. Then they put on a stunning aerial display for us, leaping repeatedly out of the water. It was utter magic.
Eventually they moved on, and we got down to the serious business of rigging and packing the boat, and setting sail. We set off with a light breeze, which soon dropped, leaving us becalmed in the middle of Lake Victoria. It didn’t take long for the gang to realise this was a golden opportunity for a swim. Eventually Thomas returned to the boat, and I decided to have a dip myself. There is nothing like having a whole lake to yourself – especially when it is about 10km long!
Eventually the wind picked up a little, and we continued on our travels. The only real navigational decision to make was whether to go the long way around Raymond Island, or take the short cut through the very narrow McMillan Strait that separates the island from Paynesville. There was no particularly strong argument one way or another, so I made the executive the decision that we would take the long way round. I think I just liked the idea of sailing in open water.
It was indeed a long way, but eventually we rounded Point King, at the north of Raymond Island, and could just sight the silt jetties on the horizon. As we approached them, we heard thunder and saw rain clouds behind them. It was a little unnerving, and we briefly toyed with the idea of heading west to the mainland. The situation seemed to improve a little, though, so we plugged on when, suddenly (“out of the blue”, so to speak), we were hit by a massive northwester that we really didn’t see coming.
It was one of the strongest winds I have ever sailed in. There was no way we could beat into it. The best I could manage was a broad reach, with all four of us hiking out hard. We were literally being driven before the gale! I quickly realised we had no hope of making the silt jetties, and would eventually have to make a landfall in Tambo Bay, to the east. Unfortunately, this was not close, which meant a long and nail-biting ride trying to make sure the mast kept pointing towards the sky as we rode the tempest.
The next cheerful little discovery was that most of the coast seemed to be lined with rocks, but eventually I spotted a small stretch of sand, and made for that. Finally, with a huge sense of relief, we made landfall.
Tambo Bay, just to the south of the mouth of the Tambo River, is a particularly cheerless stretch of coastline. It has a very wild, abandoned, unloved feel to it. It looks like a dumping ground of sorts, as though we are by no means the first to have been washed up on its shores. It also looks very flood prone, and as though it might have once been cleared for farming, but ultimately abandoned.
We couldn’t resist this opportunity for a shot of the boys watching ‘local tele’ (Thomas left, Alex middle, Daniel right).
We had a bite to eat while the wind died down, and then decided to make the final push for the silt jetties. We reached them without great difficulty, but they turned out to be a huge disappointment. The main problem was that rocks had been placed all around their shores to stabilise them. This made it very difficult to find a place to launch our boat. Eventually I found a muddy bank inside the mouth of the Mitchell River itself, but by this time the boys had decided the whole area looked thoroughly uninviting. We eventually resolved, therefore, to try to make a dash for Duck Arm before daylight failed us. We had spent a lovely day beside this beautiful patch of water at the end of the Banksia Peninsula in Lake Victoria the previous year, and it seemed to make perfect sense to spend the night there again. But did we have time?
Duck Arm is south west of Paynesville and Raymond Island, so the island needed to be negotiated once more. This time, however, there was no real option other than facing the shorter route through McMillan Strait.
Unfortunately, we reached it to find the wind was pretty much on the nose, so we would have to tack all the way up it. It was hard work in a brisk breeze and narrow water, but we very nearly made it. Alas, however, another huge gust of wind towards the end forced us to make for shore once more. This time, the shore was very close but again, it was mostly rocks. Once more, I spotted a patch of sand, and we made another safe landfall.
As you can see, the environment was essentially suburban, with no obvious camping options on offer.
Fortunately, a very kind local gentleman gave us permission to camp on the nature strip beside his back gate. Here we are, tucked in cosily out of the wind.
The wind continued to rage throughout the night, and we wondered if we would have to spend the next day holed up on Raymond Island. Fortunately the next morning, though cold and grey, brought a much more gentle breeze, and we woke early, packed and headed off as soon as possible, before the wind had a chance to build once more.
Here we are packing once more.
We passed through the remainder of McMillan Strait without incident, then struck out across Lake Victoria to the passage of water that runs between Banksia Peninsula and Sperm Whale Head. Once through here we were becalmed once more for an hour or so – which allowed for another swim in the lake – before at last returning to Emu Bight at about midday.
It had been a fabulous twenty four hours – dolphins, swimming in calm waters, running before gales, and simply enjoying sailing the lovely waterways of the Gippsland Lakes. Next year, though, we might make life a bit easier, and simply head for Duck Arm in the first place!
I have been very distressed following the news that Pete Seeger, aged 94, has died.
I was talking about it to a friend last night, and he quite reasonably made the point that you can’t be too sad about anybody dying at the age of 94. He’s right, of course. Pete Seeger lived a long and fruitful life, and nobody lives forever.
But it seemed as though Pete was going to live forever. He just went on and on, and I came to think of him as almost immortal.
I could never take Pete’s politics too seriously. They had a fairytale quality that never squared with my reality. But that wasn’t really at the heart of Pete, I always felt – or perhaps I simply approached him from another direction.
What I truly loved about him was that when listening to him talk and sing, I felt as though he was talking to me, and I felt as though I really mattered. Listening to Pete Seeger, all my hopes and dreams came alive in a way that didn’t quite happen when I was listening to anybody else.
The recordings with Arlo Guthrie were especially magical. I discovered the 2CD set “Precious Friend” many years after its original release, but it became a household staple, particularly for long car trips. There is a simplicity, a beauty, an innocence in these recordings that is rare indeed. And to hear Pete talk about his early days with Woody Guthrie was to make you feel you could almost reach out and touch the man. Suddenly, I felt as though I was part of the story.
I will miss you, Pete, though I never met you. I liked to picture you up there on the Hudson River chopping wood. Even my wood chopping was inspired by you!
I like to think, also, that the little bush poetry show we put on last year at Herring Island to raise funds for the Yarra Riverkeepers was, ultimately, inspired by you, and your efforts to clean up the Hudson River.
Pete, I will never forget you. Thank you for everything.
I’ve just returned from the annual Newstead Live! Festival, held in the picturesque little town of Newstead in central Victoria, near Castlemaine, on the Australia Day long weekend every year.
This is the sixth consecutive Newstead Live! I have attended, and I think it was the biggest, and the best.
The weather was kind to us. It was hot, but not overwhelmingly, suffocatingly hot, as it has been the last couple of years.
It is primarily a music festival, but the Director, Andrew Pattison, is a long time supporter of the spoken word, and this year, as last year, he asked me to put together the spoken word programme for the festival.
The highlight for me was the C. J. Dennis show that I put together, “‘Er Name’s (Still!) Doreen!”. The template is simple. I ask various talented reciters and actors to recite or read poems written by C. J. Dennis, and I write an introduction to each poem – which I read – with the intention of giving a context for the poem, and telling the C. J. Dennis story.
The line-up this year was:
The show was well attended, and well received.
Here are Ben and Ruth Aldridge at one of the “Poets’ Breakfasts”.
And here is Ken Prato.
Jim Smith, a veteran reciter on the folk scene, and traditionally the MC for the Newstead Poets’ Breakfasts, took a bad fall on the Saturday, and is currently recovering in hospital. Together with all who know him, I wish him a speedy recovery.
Here is Jim earlier on the Saturday.
And here is the man without whom none of it would be possible, Festival Director Andrew Pattison, in his customary position at the Troubadour sound system.
The poetry writing workshop was also great fun, with a small but spirited group of people putting their views on a wide range of subjects, such as free verse vs. rhyming verse, poetry vs. song lyrics, parody vs. plagiarism, commerce vs. art, and American vs. Australian culture. It was particularly interesting to hear Keith McKenry talk about his role as an expert witness in the “Down Under” (Men At Work) court case.
I was thrilled that some teachers attended my poetry show for children. I am very keen to find a way to involve myself in the professional development of teachers who wish to teach poetry for children, and was given some very valuable insights as to how I might go about doing this.
The community singing, led by Suzette Herft, Chris Lazzaro and Patrick Evans, was also a highlight for me. There was a wide range of excellent material presented, and I got a chance to wheel out a few of my old songs also, which was great fun.
Here are Chris (left), Suzette (middle) and Patrick (right).
I will finish with a photo of the ubiquitous Michael (the “Balloonologist”) Crichton, who does such a great job of enlivening the street scene of so many festivals.
Thanks to Andrew Pattison and the festival committee for another great Newstead Live!
The 2013 Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival, held over the weekend of October 26 – 27 was, to my mind, the most successful ever.
The festival began in 2008 to celebrate the arrival of C. J. Dennis in Toolangi in 1908, one hundred years earlier. It has become an annual event, with this being the sixth festival. Even the bush fires of 2009 did not stop the festival from proceeding!
Jim Brown founded the C. J. Dennis Society following the 2010 festival, and invited songwriter, storyteller, entertainer, and all-round Australian legend Ted Egan to be the Society’s Patron. Ted very kindly agreed to attend this year’s festival.
The festival got off to a bright start with the Awards Ceremony on the Saturday afternoon. This was held in the tearoom this year, rather than outside under the marquee as it was last year, because the weather was rather less inviting.
Many winners were on hand to read their winning poems. The standard was once again very high.
Fortunately, there was an hour remaining at the end of the ceremony for ‘walk ups’, and a very pleasant hour was spent listening to various performances, including a wonderful song by Ted.
In previous years, the crowd has dissipated at this point, as there has been no scheduled activity on the Saturday evening, and the tearoom does not normally serve evening meals.
However, this year a poetry and music show was programmed to commence at the nearby C. J. Dennis Hall at 7.30, and a vast smorgasbord was on offer at “The Singing Gardens” from about 6.
The evening show proved a great success. A ‘warm-up’ act was provided by myself, David Campbell, Jim Brown, and Vince Brophy – a wonderful singer, and friend of Jim who had very kindly allowed us to use his PA system, but also consented to sing a song in his beautifully resonant voice.
After a short interval, Ted Egan entertained us all with a set of his classic songs, together with some wonderful stories relating to his life in central and northern Australia.
A sumptuous supper was also served.
The only slightly disappointing feature of the evening was the somewhat smaller than hoped for audience. Of course, there can be many explanations for this. We are very limited in the amount of publicity we are able to arrange, Toolangi is a reasonable distance from Melbourne – and not well known – and accommodation options in and around Toolangi are also very restricted. Hopefully we will be able to build on this in future festivals.
A “Poets’ Breakfast” was scheduled for 10.30 the following morning. At previous festivals, this has been a very small event, with a handful of poets essentially performing to themselves. Imagine my surprise, then, to find an audience, sitting on a line of chairs, waiting for us when we arrived! This proved to be an excellent session, with poetry forced at times to give way to animated discussion on a range of related and relevant subjects. Ted led much of this, for which I am very grateful.
The usual sumptuous roast dinner was served shortly after midday, and then it was time for the “Moving Theatre” at 1.45. This is the third time this event has been held, and the audience grows every year. Fortunately, the weather has been kind to us on each occasion, allowing us to move comfortably around the gardens, followed by a posse carrying chairs.
Ted joined us for a spirited rendition of C. J. Dennis’ “The Bridge Across the Crick” (appropriately stationed beside a couple of fallen logs that spanned the adjacent Yea River), as Dennis, Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson entertained the crowd for the next ninety minutes or so.
The conversation was wide and varied, spanning such subjects as David Low (Dennis’ first illustrator), platypuses, hydraulic water rams, Shakespeare, John Masefield and the copper beech tree, the inimitable Noel Watson and his AFL Grand Final rendition of “Waltzing Matilda”, Paterson’s and Lawson’s ‘city versus the bush’ debate, maritime poetry, and Mrs Dennis’ wash-house (where Ruth Aldridge gave an excellent performance of “Washing Day” from “Doreen”). Jim Brown also gave his now traditional performance of “Dusk”.
The show finished in the front garden of Jan and Vic’s home, as local children, led by ballet teacher Cathy Phelan, danced to Mozart, dressed as the ‘blue wrens and yellow tails’ from Dennis’ poem “Dawn Dance” (Book for Kids). With this performance they inspired a bleary-eyed and tousled-haired C. J. Dennis, clad in dressing gown, to write the poem.
It was then time to retire for ‘high tea’, while Strathvea guest house owner Toby, his accordion, and his sons, entertained us further with some old folk songs.
In summary, then, I think it can fairly be said that this was the largest, most varied, best attended, and most enjoyable Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival yet. Fasten your seat belts for next year!
On Monday morning I discovered that Learning Media Ltd., which publishes New Zealand School Journal, is winding down, and that NZ School Journal is no longer accepting submissions.
Upon further enquiry, I discovered that Learning Media Ltd. is being privatised by the New Zealand government.
It is possible that NZ School Journal will continue to be published, but it will no longer be available free of charge to all schools. Presumably, if this is so, it will be most easily accessed by the schools that need it least.
NZ School Journal has been an important part of my own journey as a children’s poet. They have published two of my poems, including one – “The Dinosaur Climbers’ Kit” – that has not been published elsewhere. They also published my most successful poem – “Dad Meets the Martians” – and then turned it into a song, with my permission, and recorded it on CD.
Fortunately, a campaign has been mounted to try to save NZ School Journal. A petition can now be signed online. Not only did I sign it myself, but I also asked a number of my friends to do so. I am pleased to say that over twenty of them responded positively, which gives the petition some more momentum to move towards the 5,000 signatures that are being sought. I am sure the campaigners will be heartened also to learn they have plenty of support on the other side of the Tasman Sea.
The bad news did not stop there, however. The following day I discovered that the Australian Bush Laureate Awards have dropped the category of “Children’s Poem of the Year” for next year’s awards, due to low numbers of entries in recent years.
I find this very frustrating, because I do not think the Bush Laureate Awards have made much effort to publicise or promote this category. The unfortunate reality is that very few members of the bush poetry community write for children.
However, many children’s writers write rhyming verse, much of which is published in the form of picture books. I am sure many of these are set in the bush, or at least in a sufficiently Australian setting to earn the approval of the Bush Laureate judges. I feel confident that, if the Bush Laureate Awards were publicised through the children’ writing community (SCBWI, PIO, Buzz Words, etc.), many high quality entries would have been received.
I have passed on my concerns to the relevant authorities. Hopefully they will re-introduce the category of “Children’s Poem of the Year” next year.
In the meantime, I can only concur with the sentiments of Jackie Hosking, who wrote “Thank goodness for Walker Books!”.
It’s official! Ted Egan has been in touch with me to confirm he will be appearing at the Sixth Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival this year!
Ted, Patron of the C. J. Dennis Society, will be the feature artist at a special show to take place on the evening of Saturday, 26th October, at the C. J. Dennis Hall in Toolangi.
Other festival events will continue at “The Singing Gardens” as in previous years – the Awards Ceremony for the written poetry competition on the Saturday afternoon, the Poets’ Breakfast on the Sunday morning, and the ‘travelling theatre’ – featuring no lesser personages than C. J. Dennis, ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Henry Lawson – on the Sunday afternoon.
Meals will be served at “The Singing Gardens”, including an evening meal on the Saturday.
Accommodation is not available in Toolangi itself, but is freely available a short distance away.
A very good option would be the Strathvea Guest House:
Contact Jan Williams at “The Singing Gardens” (PH: 03.5962.9282) for festival bookings and further information.
A pretty little possum with a black stripe down its back,
It darts throughout the forest tops through depths of darkest night.
It forages for sugars, grabbing insects for a snack,
Then slips back to its hollow with arrival of the light.
It was named ‘Leadbeater’s Possum’ for a past museum worker,
A famous taxidermist (little creatures he would stuff),
But the story of this possum is a genuine tear jerker.
Oh, life has not been easy for this precious ball of fluff.
It thrives, you see, on forests, but its habitat is narrow.
From Marysville to Baw Baw, thereabouts, denotes its range.
It’s Victoria’s state emblem so, in part, we push its barrow,
But we challenge without mercy its capacity for change.
For we chopped and hacked the forest lands that were its sole dominion.
We plundered and we butchered and we put it on the run.
We reached the point where scientists were of the broad opinion
It was done for. Then it re-emerged in 1961.
Though we scarcely did deserve it, we’d been granted a reprieve,
A chance to right a wrong, to mend the errors of our ways
But, alas, we mended nothing, so we’re forced once more to grieve,
And face the harsh reality that crime just never pays.
A crime? Am I mistaken? You can check the regulations
And the statutes in the law books on the dim and dusty shelves.
You will never find it mentioned, though you search through many nations.
It’s a crime against sweet Nature. It’s a crime against ourselves.
For it seems we’ve missed our moment. It would seem Leadbeater’s Possum
Is living now on borrowed time, it’s fate forever sealed.
We could have ceased all logging and allowed the beast to blossom,
But a vision such as this, alas, shall never be revealed.
Then let us throw the dice once more. The odds, it’s true, aren’t pretty.
Let us do at last what’s right, and put an end to crime.
The human soul needs more than just the bright lights of the city.
Let us let the forests stand, and leave the rest to time.
Who knows what magic beckons if we put aside our blunders,
If we down the screaming chainsaws and revert to Nature’s dance?
What panoply awaits us, what array of shining wonders?
Perhaps Leadbeater’s Possum, too, still has a fighting chance!
I watch a lot of YouTube. It’s a concert in your home.
I can sit in my pyjamas, with my hair that needs a comb.
I can see the world’s best musos strut their stuff upon the stage.
I can trawl through any genre, any singer, any age.
It’s the live stuff I like best, as the band belts out a song
To a happy, cheering, waving, swaying, joyful, loving throng,
For I feel that I am with them – at that venue, in that club;
On that oval, in that parkland, in that ‘smoke and whiskey’ pub.
But you know what I like best? Though I love the singer’s face,
And the close-ups of the blokes who play the drum-kit and the bass,
And the sheila on the banjo, and her cousin on the pipes,
And the concertina player with his suit of fancy stripes,
It’s the audience that gets me. It’s their look of simple joy;
It’s the grins on man and woman, and on teenage girl and boy;
It’s that happy rapt, distraction, it’s the wrinkled, smiling eyes,
As though all of them, just briefly, have become so very wise.
Yet what I love still more is when the camera comes to rest
On a single face, enchanted, for a moment. Yes, that’s best.
When they don’t know someone’s watching, and a deep emotion’s caught.
That’s a prize of rarest value that cannot be sold or bought.
They might be looking happy, or they might look slightly sad;
They might just look reflective. Someone’s mum, or someone’s dad,
Someone’s son or someone’s daughter, and you know you’ll never know,
But it’s honest, and it’s truthful. It’s the best part of the show.
Yes, I watch a lot of YouTube, and it takes me to a sphere
Where I can write a poem, like as how I’ve writ one here.
I enjoy the great throng thrilling, but for me the sweetest part
Is when I watch one person…and I gaze into their heart.
Sometimes I wake up with a desperate urgency that it must be resolved immediately. Other times, though, this glorious mood of acceptance washes over me, and I feel it really doesn’t matter if it is never solved at all.
There are times when I feel it is my responsibility to solve it entirely on my own, yet other times I really feel it should be a team effort, that we should strive for a consensus.
Sometimes it feels like a black problem. Sometimes it feels like a white problem. Other times, I’m sure it’s grey, but I can’t decide what shade.
Sometimes I feel it can only be solved by a huge injection of funds, yet other times I feel it is not really a financial problem at all.
I’m often grateful for the internet age, believing that cyberspace will come to our rescue, but then I think we’d probably manage just as well with a lump of charcoal and a sheet of bark.
Billy or kettle? Microwave or campfire? Central heating or extra blankets? There are no easy answers.
Will our descendants judge us harshly or kindly? Have we done too little, or too much? Or too little in the wrong direction and too much in the right direction? But how can that be?
And who are our descendants, anyway? Those that come ten years after? Or those that come a hundred? Or a thousand, even?
Perhaps the next generation will judge us harshly, but the following generation will reverse that judgement?
And what is a generation anyway? If I have my kids at 20, and they have kids at 20, and you have kids at 40, have my kids skipped a generation?
Sometimes I think it’s absolutely critical, but other times I think it really doesn’t matter at all.
Our packs are big and heavy, but we’re feeling fit and strong.
We’re marching into Dibbins, and it shouldn’t take too long.
It’s a great yet simple method to escape the city’s throng,
And we’re marching into Dibbins in the great Australian bush.
The Dibbins brought their cattle to the mountains long ago.
They built a hut to shield them from the wind, the rain and snow.
It’s nestled in a valley deep where crystal waters flow,
And we’re marching into Dibbins in the great Australian bush.
The Dibbins now have all passed on. No Dibbins yet remain.
Their hut was old and shabby, but it’s been re-built again.
It stands beside the river on a small and grassy plain,
And we’re marching into Dibbins in the great Australian bush.
Once we’re there, we’ll pitch our tent, our little nylon dome.
We will not brush our teeth tonight. Our hair we will not comb.
Tomorrow when the sun comes up, we’ll pack, and head for home.
We’ll be marching OUT from Dibbins in the great Australian bush.
Living in the city there are times, alas, one finds
That the ugly traffic noise intrudes beyond the window’s blinds,
And, if not in the strictest sense, at least inside our minds,
We’ll be marching into Dibbins in the great Australian bush!
If you’ve ever been camping, you will know there is nothing worse than a cold sleeping bag!
When Your Sleeping Bag is Cold
I love to go out hiking in the great Australian bush.
Your backpack can be heavy, and your body you must push.
You’re tired, and aching, too,
And you sleep the whole night through,
But you tend to wake up early when your sleeping bag is cold.
Night-time when you’re hiking is an extra special treat.
You feel so warm and cosy from your head down to your feet.
You hit the deck and crash,
And nights pass in a flash,
But they seem to take forever when your sleeping bag is cold.
Your clothes become your pillow when you’re sleeping far from town.
All the warmth you need’s provided by your bag of down;
But if you’re cold you wear them.
You simply cannot spare them.
You find you have no pillow when your sleeping bag is cold.
There’s a moral to this story, a lesson to this tale,
And if you do not heed it, then your pleasures, they will pale.
You’ll find that going hiking
Is not quite to your liking,
And you stay home in the city…when your sleeping bag is cold.
Web Gilbert created nine war memorial sculptures – more than any other Australian.
Here is another, “The Helping Hand”, which is at Shepparton, in central Victoria.
It depicts a soldier, having just climbed up and out of a trench on the field of battle, turning to help a comrade out.
Like so many of Gilbert’s sculptures, it is shrouded in mystery.
The best article I have read about Gilbert is “Web Gilbert’s War Sculptures”, in the Victorian Historical Journal, Volume 70, No. 1, June 1999.
It has this to say about “The Helping Hand”.
“…it is scarcely believable, in spite of what he (Gilbert) says in his letter of 24 June 1922, that it depicts a real event. A charging man having just gone “over the top” would risk being shot in the back if he turned to help a comrade up. And a soldier unable to hoist himself out of the trench would likely not be much use as a fighter. Veterans would have known this – but Gilbert was not a veteran. The concept came, no doubt, from Gilbert’s creative imagination – which, of course, does nothing to detract from its value.”
Personally, I am not convinced that such an event could not have happened. Even my own limited reading about the First World War has taught me that far less likely things than this did indeed occur. Presumably, if the soldier had not turned around, he would have been shot in the chest. Does it really make that much difference?
To further boost Gilbert’s case, the following words are engraved upon a bronze plaque beneath the statue.
“The statue depicts…Pte John Raws reaching to help his brother Robert from trenches at St Quentin. Both were from Adelaide, and later killed in action at Pozieres.”
On the way back from our holiday, we got a puncture. While dad was changing the tyre by the side of the road, he was hit by a passing truck. Talk about a mess! Bits of him were scattered all over the place. Eventually we retrieved them all and pushed them back together again – more or less. There was blood everywhere. Dad would have loved it. He loves blood and guts – especially his own.
He started to groan when we pushed the last bit back into place. He wasn’t up to driving us home, though, so mum took the driver’s seat, and we propped him up in mum’s seat.
He’s a pretty tough guy, dad. We figure’d he’d be OK after a couple of good nights’ sleep – or bad nights’ sleep. He’s a bit of an insomniac, actually. He looked pretty pale, though. He’d lost a lot of blood. We scooped a fair bit up and poured it back into him, but we had to leave a lot by the side of the road. Mum wants to come back for it next week, but I don’t reckon it’ll be much good by then. It’ll be all dry and dusty, and I’ve noticed it turns black after it’s been out of the body for too long, which is discouraging. I know it’s good to be an optimist, but sometimes mum’s just ridiculous! She feels it’s such a waste to leave it there. I suppose it is, too, but sometimes you just have to let these things go.
He’ll be OK once he gets his fangs into some red meat. I mean his teeth. He hasn’t got fangs. It’s not like he’s a vampire or anything – though you would wonder to look at him at the moment. He does look pale!
You know, I half suspect he threw himself in front of the truck, just for the thrill if it. He’s a bit like that, dad. You can’t always trust him. And none of us exactly saw what happened. We were all sitting along the edge of the road, on the other side of the car. Suddenly, Splat! Blood everywhere!
The poor truck driver got a hell of a fright. He pulled up down the road and ran back to see if he could help. We assured him everything was OK. This had happened to dad before,
￼￼￼and he’d been fine. The driver looked at us a bit oddly, but I think he was just too upset to argue. He walked back to his truck muttering and shaking his head.
I don’t know why everybody has to make such a BIG DEAL about everything. God, you’d think it was a matter of life and death sometimes, the way people carry on.
We had been planning to stop for an ice cream, but mum thought that, under the circumstances, we should press on and get dad into bed as soon as possible. I had to admit he was starting to develop a rather lop-sided grin. I bound his face up tightly with a tea towel, and he looked a lot better. He stopped dribbling, too.
An hour or so later I noticed he seemed to have wet his pants. Mum reckoned this was a good sign. It showed his vital organs were starting to function again. By the time we pulled into our driveway he even had a feeble pulse. He was still unconscious, though, so we had to carry him into the house. Unfortunately, this attracted the attention of our pesky neighbour, Mrs Johnson. She’s always interfering.
“Has your dad been run over again?”
We just ignored her. I reckon she’s a witch. The last time she tried to help she nearly killed poor dad. Mrs Johnson kept coming closer, muttering in some strange language. I got such a fright I dropped my bit of dad on the front verandah. Eventually, we bundled him inside the house, and slammed the door on crazy Mrs Johnson.
You know, sometimes I get quite annoyed with dad. Most dads are just happy to go the footy or go fishing for relaxation, but not ours. If he doesn’t jump in front of a truck every now and then and get himself smashed into a thousand pieces, he’s not happy. It’s a bit selfish, really. I mean, does he even think of us? It’s not that much fun to scrape pieces of your dad off the road, and then have to fend off busybody neighbours. To say nothing of the extra driving mum had to do!
I mean, maybe mum would like to throw herself in front of a truck, too, sometimes, but she knows somebody has to hold the fort together. It’d be a lot easier if he could just do it while we were driving to the shops or something, but no, he always has to do it when we’re on family holidays, and a million miles from home!
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Maybe that’s the point. Maybe he has to relax a bit before he can ‘let himself go’, so to speak. Still, it’s tiring for us. I wouldn’t say it ruins our holiday, but it certainly does take the edge off things.
I mean, once we’d got dad inside, we still had to carry in all the suitcases and everything. Normally dad would have done most of that. And then he would have got us some take- away. Fish and chips, or something like that. Instead he just lay in bed, pale as a ghost. Mum didn’t have the energy to go out again, so we ended up having tomato soup and hot buttered toast – not terribly exciting.
We weren’t sure what to do with dad during the night. Mum didn’t really want to get into bed with him, because he was still oozing a fair bit. Sometimes if he gets too warm when he’s been like this he starts bleeding again wherever he’s been pushed back together, so it’s often better to keep him a bit cooler. Eventually we decided to put him out on the back verandah. It wasn’t a very cold night, and we figured he’d be fine with a light blanket over him.
The next morning, though, I was worried. Normally by now he’d be sitting up smiling and sipping a cup of tea. Instead, he was still unconscious. His breathing was shallow, his pulse thready. He was covered in a light sweat.
“Maybe he’s got an infection,” I said to mum. “That stretch of road didn’t look very clean.”
“We’d better call Mrs Johnson,” said mum.
I rolled my eyes. “That old witch! What is she going to do? Last time she only made things worse!”
“I’m not so sure about that,” said mum. “Let’s get her anyway.”
It wasn’t hard to find her. I could see her yellow eye peeking through a knot-hole in the fence.
“Don’t pretend you didn’t hear us, you old bag!” I shouted out.
Mum frowned and shook her head, urging me not to provoke her unnecessarily.
The eye quickly disappeared from the knot-hole, and soon we could hear the distinctive shuffling limp of Mrs Johnson coming up our path. She stopped briefly at the foot of the verandah before limping up the steps, peering over dad, and starting to mutter again.
“I can’t stand this!” I shouted, and stormed inside, slamming the door behind me.
I want to add some short stories. With the footy finals approaching, this seems like a good one to begin with.
I’ve written a couple stories imagining myself with Henry Lawson in various situations. Here, I have taken him to his first footy match. Lucky for him, it’s a final!
I took Henry Lawson to the footy over the weekend. It wasn’t my idea. I got a phone call from Archibald.
“Henry’s in town”, he says. “We want him to write about Melbourne, and you can’t write about Melbourne without writing about the footy – especially during finals time”.
“But you know Henry,” I protest. “He’s not interested in competitive sport. It bores him witless.”
He’s a hard man to say no to, Archibald. I roll my eyes, and mutter acquiescence down the line.
Things started bad, and got worse.
He insisted on having his face painted before we’d even entered the arena. I always think it’s a bad look, a grown man with his face painted. Great for kids. Even certain types of women can get away with it. But men? No. Then he caught the eye of somebody handing out those stupid signs designed for the TV cameras – “Great mark!”, or something like that. He thought it was an enormous hoot. He wouldn’t even know what a mark was! Before I knew it, we were carting one of them in as well!
I wanted to get a seat up on the balcony, where you get a good view of the whole field, but Henry insisted on sitting right down near the boundary rail.
“You won’t get to see anything there!” I protested! But he just shrugged his shoulders.
“Looks like more fun” was all he could come up with.
I tried to explain some of the rules, but I could tell he wasn’t interested. There was a little girl on the other side of him, and they started giggling together. When they started playing ‘rock paper scissors’, I knew the game was up.
Of course, when people around started waving their signs in the air to try to catch the attention of the TV, he had to be in that too.
There was one saving grace. I was sure I’d lose him to the bar at half time and never see him again, but the Little League came on, and he was entranced! He didn’t have a drink all day – except for a few slugs of the girl next door’s Fanta.
Ah well, I suppose I should be grateful. I got him home in one piece, and stone cold sober. No mean achievement, that! Archibald was amazed.
Of course, Henry told me later that he had forgotten to wash his face paint off that night, and had woken up with it smeared all over his pillow. But I figured that was his problem. I’m not a friggen’ baby sitter.
In 1921, the Victorian Branch of the British Medical Association commissioned Web Gilbert to create “some moveable artistic work by an Australian now in Melbourne” in association with an honour roll. The Committee wished the sculpture to demonstrate “…a medical officer doing his duty to the fallen”. Initially, the request had come from the Returned Medical Officers’ Association. The sculpture was erected in 1923.
It was initially displayed at the Association’s offices in East Melbourne, but is now situated in a courtyard adjacent to the front entrance of the Australian Medical Association in Royal Parade, Parkville.
In preparing these notes, I am extremely indebted to an article, “Web Gilbert’s War Sculptures”, written by Donald Richardson, and published in the Victorian Historical Journal, Volume 70, No. 1, June 1999, pp 21 – 35.
I am also very grateful to the Australian Medical Association for allowing me to photograph this very moving sculpture.
It is hard to believe sometimes that these sculptures are modelled from clay, but this signature makes it very clear, and feels very immediate. It almost looks as though Gilbert has signed his name in the clay with a piece of stick.
These photos were all taken at Mount Hotham. It is a very photogenic place, especially on a bright, sunny day in the middle of winter.
Here is the road into the Hotham village, coming from Harrietville.
Here is one of the access tracks, looking from above. Doesn’t it form a lovely sinuous curve?
Probably the most famous ski run at Mount Hotham is Mary’s Slide. It is steep and dangerous. Fortunately, it is out of the way, and there is no tow to take you back to the top, so it is only attempted by fairly experienced skiers. This is just as well. Not only it is steep, but it is narrow, and it becomes steeper and narrower the lower you go. Eventually it drops off sharply into the icy water of Swindlers Creek.
The “Mary” of “Mary’s Slide” is a real person, Mary James. She was a champion skier, and a regular at Hotham during the early years. I spoke to her briefly once, and eventually wrote a poem about her, and her famous ski run. I will put it at the end of this post.
This is the top of Mary’s Slide…
…and this is the view looking down.
Here is a little bridge that spans Swindlers Creek not far from the bottom of Mary’s Slide.
The Story Of Mary’s Slide
There’s a ski slope near Mount Hotham that is known as Mary’s Slide.
A little off the beaten track, it makes the strong feel weak.
It’s steep and very icy. At its tops its smooth and wide.
Then it narrows to a funnel, and it drops to Swindler’s Creek.
I often used to ski it, and I often used to wonder,
Who on Earth was Mary, and just what was her slide?
Down the left, or down the middle did she make her famous blunder?
(I was sure I would have heard if she’d been injured, or she’d died.)
Did she slide down on her belly? Did she slide down on her back?
Which, her head or feet, was travelling first?
Or did she slide down sideways? Or did she slowly spin?
And what exactly happened at the bottom?
Well, I now know who was Mary. We have spoken on the phone,
And she told me, very sweetly, that she didn’t slide at all!
She often used to ski this slope. (I tell you, I was thrown!)
Not only did she fail to slide, she didn’t even fall!
For in her younger days she’d been a very able skier.
A regular at Hotham, she had skied with skill and pride,
And she told me how, one day, while skiing homewards, in good cheer,
Her confabulating colleague had dreamed up this fabled slide!
Well. If ever any ski-slope spawned a slide, then this was it!
Accuse me, if you like, of opting out of life’s dull grind,
Of not accepting facts. I tell you, I don’t mind a bit!
For I much prefer the version I have pictured in my mind!
I always used to think of the town of Harrietville as nothing more than the last stop-off before the climb to Mount Hotham.
In recent years, though, I have come to appreciate the town for itself. Not only is it exquisitely beautiful, but it has a fascinating history. The surrounding hills are littered with abandoned gold mines – as well as the occasional one that is still working.
It strikes me as odd that we now hail the mountain cattlemen as cultural icons, yet the mining history of the Victorian alps is all but forgotten.
As an old mining surveyor, O. C. Smith, said to me many years ago, “There’s nowhere that the cattlemen went on a horse that I didn’t go on foot!”
I took these photos while strolling around Harrietville one Sunday morning a couple of years ago.
This is definitely the prettiest house in Harrietville.
I love the colours in this photo.
This is pretty good, too.
Harrietville has a great museum, curated by the legendary Ian Stapleton. It was Ian who founded the children’s adventure camps Mittagundi and Wollangarra. More recently, he has written and published a series of books based on his interviews with high country old-timers and pioneers.
This poem about Mick Dougherty, who drove the coach between Bright and Omeo (and over Mount Hotham) in the 19th century, is based on information taken from Ian Stapleton’s book “Hairy-chested History”.
Mick Dougherty rode the coach from Bright to Omeo.
He laughed and smiled when the sun was warm, he shivered in the snow.
Mick Dougherty rode the coach from Omeo to Bright.
Either way, he stayed at Mt. St. Bernard’s for the night.
At 9am on a Tuesday morn he’d head for Omeo.
At 7am on a Thursday morn back home to Bright he’d go.
In the days when forty shillings a week was all that a man could earn,
It was thirty five shillings to go one way, or sixty shillings return.
Mick Dougherty told a joke as only the Irish can,
And always, if anything seemed to go wrong, it was simply a part of his plan.
With his clear blue eyes, and his fund of yarns, he always took great pains
To maintain his reputation as the driver that entertains!
Mick Dougherty knew that road as well as the back of his hand.
He trained his horses expertly to answer his every command.
He never had an accident, he knew the route so well.
He knew just when to slow right down…and when to race like hell.
Mick looked after the ladies well. Whenever a bend was tight,
He’d crack a joke, or tell a yarn, to keep them feeling right.
He knew a day inside a coach would test endurance powers.
They couldn’t powder their noses, but they could pick lots of flowers.
Mick moved to Mt. Buffalo, to service the new Chalet.
It meant a bright new uniform, and probably more pay.
Alas, he broke his ankle. It left him in great pain,
And Mick Dougherty, coachman, never drove a coach again.
Mick looked after the donkeys. Some said it was a shame
To see him peter out like this, when he’d been at the top of the game,
But Dougherty loved the donkeys. His work he did endorse.
He said he liked them better than he’d ever liked a horse.
Mick died down in Melbourne. He had been to see the Cup.
He’d owned a horse called “Nightgown”. It was easy to pull up.
Mick Dougherty drove the coach. He mastered every trick.
When you drive past Blowhard next, spare a thought for Mick.
Skiers understand full well the impact of global warming.
My father introduced me to skiing. His first snow trip was Mount Hotham in 1964. It was a bumper year. He told me how, at the end of the season, when the snow melted, cars were found to have been parked on top of other cars. Caused a lot of damage.
So, how much snow do you need before you don’t realise there is another car under you when you park? At least two metres, I would have thought.
These days, you are very happy to get one metre of snow. When I checked the Hotham web-site last week, there was about 30cm of natural snow, and 60 cm of man-made snow. There was no need for snow making in the 60s!
My first year of skiing was Mount Buller in 1968. It was another bumper year. I was in Year 8, and staying in the Scotch College lodge, Koomerang.
A long flight of steps had been dug down through the snow to gain access to the front door. We skied off the back balcony every morning. Shelves dug into the solid wall of compacted snow that greeted you when you opened the lodge door downstairs served as a second fridge.
Here are a few photos I’ve taken up in the snow country over the years.
This would have to be the best photo I have ever taken in the snow. I was skiing from Mount Loch across to Spargo’s Hut. I looked up to my left, and could not believe how beautiful the view was. I snapped it quickly. Blue sky. Virgin snow. As close to perfection as I’m every likely to see.
Mount Feathertop would have to be Victoria’s most beautiful mountain. (It is also the state’s second highest mountain, after Mount Bogong.) This photo was taken with a telescopic lens from Hotham.
The currawongs are your constant companions up in the snow.
Mount Buller is also a great place to ski. My favourite place to eat there is Koflers Restaurant, shown here. Don’t forget to try the Chocolate Rip-off Cake or the Apricot Mogul – preferably both!
This photo, with the Bluff in the background, shows just how isolated Koflers is. No wonder the food is not cheap!
Here is a great shot of the Bluff!
At Hotham, the surrounding mountains are generally also above the snow-line. At Buller, they are mostly below. It makes for a very different view, but it is also very beautiful.
Gilbert created a marble statue called “The Wheel of Life”. It depicts a Buddhist lama sitting beside a stream. “The Wheel of Life” has just fallen from his hands. Presumably, it is a metaphor for the folly of believing one can control one’s own destiny. It proved especially true in Gilbert’s case. The First World War came along and de-railed all his plans. That’s not the story I want to tell now, though.
And before I proceed further with the story I do want to tell, I have a question to ask. How did Web Gilbert, living in Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, become familiar with Buddhism? I have read that the sculpture recalls Kipling’s Kim, but I am not sure in what way. (Admittedly, I have not read Kim. Perhaps if I had, it would be clear to me.)
Apparently, the sculpture was commissioned for the Springthorpe memorial in the Boroondara cemetery, but was considered “too eastern”.
John William Springthorpe was born in England in 1855 (the same year as Ned Kelly). He came out to Australia as a young child, and was educated here. He completed his medical degree at the University of Melbourne in 1879 (the same year that Ned Kelly wrote the Jerilderie Letter).
Springthorpe’s wife died in childbirth in 1897. He was stricken with grief, and created a mausoleum for her. Gilbert was commissioned to contribute to this. Why did Springthorpe choose Gilbert? And why did Gilbert think a statue featuring Buddhism would be appropriate?
Somehow, the statue found its way into the hands of three brothers, R. A., W. M., and A. S. Cudmore, nephews of Dr. Lilian Alexander. Dr. Alexander was one of the first women to graduate in Medicine in Australia. Upon her death, her nephews donated “The Wheel of Life” to the University of Melbourne as a mark of respect and gratitude for their aunt, who had acted as their friend and mentor.
So why was the statue acceptable to the Cudmores but not Dr. Springthorpe? And what did the university make of it? Apparently, it has been moved around several times during its life at The University of Melbourne. It is currently on display in the main foyer of the medical school building in Grattan Street. That is where I took these photos. (Being a graduate of Medicine at the University of Melbourne myself, this building is very familiar to me!)
In preparing this blog post, I have drawn heavily from three articles, as follows:
To recap briefly, my interest in the sculptor Web Gilbert stems from my fascination with the life and works of the Australian poet C. J. Dennis. Both Dennis and Gilbert were beneficiaries of the extensive largesse of Garry and Roberta Roberts, renowned patrons of the arts, and both spent time at the Roberts’ “Sunnyside” retreat in the Dandenong Ranges. It can be assumed they were good friends – at least for a time.
This online biography of Web Gilbert is extremely helpful:
Amongst many other things, it tells us that Gilbert was responsible for the marble sculpture at the Malvern Town Hall.
However, you will not find Gilbert’s name mentioned on this sculpture. Instead, there stands the name of Paul Montford, an English born sculptor.
Gilbert died suddenly in 1925. At the time of his death, he was working on an Anzac memorial to be erected at Port Said, Egypt. It was completed by Paul Montford. Can we assume, then, that the Malvern Town Hall statue was also completed by Montford after his death? To support this theory, the statue is dated 1930, well after Gilbert’s death.
Towards the end of WW1 the Roberts’ oldest son, Frank, enlisted in the AIF. Frank was the live-in manager of “Sunnyside”, and was married at the time, to Ruby. Furthermore, Ruby was pregnant. Eventually, she would give birth to a girl, Nancy.
There was no pressure on Frank Roberts to volunteer for service. Single men were expected to enlist, but not married men. Nevertheless, he felt it to be his patriotic duty.
Web Gilbert was by now living in London, and Frank spent some time staying with him before heading off to the Western Front.
Tragically, Frank Roberts was killed at the Battle of Mont St. Quentin, about a month before the signing of the Armistice. He never got to see his daughter.
This battle was one of General Sir John Monash’s most famous victories, and the sculptor, Web Gilbert, was commissioned to make a statue to commemorate it. Gilbert wrote to Frank’s father, Garry, telling him that he planned to model the soldier in the statue on Frank. However, the historian Peter Stanley has suggested that, for whatever reason, this may not in fact have actually happened.
The statue at the Malvern Town Hall is very interesting. On the left a young mother sits cradling a baby. On the right, a soldier stands, in full uniform, with face down. Am I drawing too long a bow to suggest that the figures on the left are Ruby and Nancy, and that on the right Frank?
Or is the sculpture really by Paul Montford after all?
We meet on the first Sunday of the month, from 2 – 5 pm, so we are the “Sunday ARVOs”.
We gather at the Scout Hall at the Jack O’Toole Reserve (yes, him of woodchopping fame) in Kew. There might be 20 of us, or there might be only six. In winter we gather around an open fire (Jim and Peter bring the wood), or on hot summer days we sit beneath the big old gum tree out the back.
Our names go up on the whiteboard in the order that we arrive, and we take it in turns to recite or read, for about five minutes or so – all the rules are very loose. We usually get around the circle three times – sometimes only two. Some of us write, and some of us don’t. Some of us recite, and some of us just read. I do a bit of both, though I have to confess I mostly read these days. We break in the middle for afternoon tea – or coffee.
I have to confess I don’t get to all the ARVOs meetings, by a long shot, but I do my best.
I have included the ARVOs on my “Links” page, but I’ll put it here again also:
These photos were taken at the September 2012 meeting.
Riversdale Road is one of Hawthorn’s major thoroughfares. Just as an aside, Garry and Roberta Roberts, who owned “Sunnyside”, and did so much for C. J. Dennis, lived in Hastings Road, which runs off Riversdale Road.
I was walking past these large houses (mansions?) recently and, although I have driven down the street many times, suddenly felt I was seeing them for the first time.
The Stately Old Mansions of Riversdale Road
This morning I ambled along in the sun;
No hassle, no hurry, no pressure to run.
I took in the scene, and my racing mind slowed –
The stately old mansions of Riversdale Road.
How bright, still, the colours – the red of the bricks,
The gloss of the paint in a myriad licks.
Something inside of me heated and glowed
As I gazed at the mansions of Riversdale Road.
The windows so pretty, the balconies high,
The angles the roofs made against the blue sky.
Through my thin veins a rich energy flowed,
From the stately old mansions of Riversdale Road.
I know what you’re thinking. They hark to a time
When divisions of class and religion were prime.
Above the rough surge a minority rode
In the stately old mansions of Riversdale Road.
Yet the buildings bring vigour. The architects’ view
Stands through the ages, and paints the world new
Each time the sun rises. They never corrode,
The stately old mansions of Riversdale Road.
At last I moved on, but I carried the thread
Of the lives that my ancestors once might have led
In my heart and my soul, and I think that it showed…
I’d been touched by the mansions of Riversdale Road.
Williamstown, a very old suburb of Melbourne, would have to be one of my favourite places. It combines two of my greatest passions – history, and the sea.
I love this photo – the broad swathe of green bottom right to match the broad swathe of blue top left, and the forest of masts from small recreational vessels beside the bulk of the mighty ship of war.
Here, with a slight change of angle, the masts lie now immediately before the ship.
Who doesn’t love the Williamstown Timeball Tower? The timeball was dropped at 1pm every day, to allow shipmasters to adjust their chronometers. What devices will we use to tell the time one hundred years from now?
Just a tiny slice of Williamstown history. You could take a hundred photos that would be just as interesting.
Strictly speaking, this is Newport, the suburb immediately to the north, not Williamstown. Wouldn’t be a bad place to live, eh?
I went on a great drive with my son Thomas earlier this year through some of the most remote towns in Victoria. Woods Point, the A1 Mining Settlement, and Gaffney’s Creek are all old gold mining towns set deep in the heart of the forest.
We drove from Melbourne to Marysville. Shortly after leaving Marysville, on the road to Lake Mountain, we had to pull over briefly while a car rally was finishing. We had only resumed our journey for a few minutes, when we found this lying on the road.
This dead lyrebird had clearly been hit and killed by a car. It was still warm and soft. It had signs of severe bruising, and a broken leg. I carried it to the side of the road. The surrounding bushland was part of the Yarra Ranges National Park. You do surely have to question the wisdom of allowing cars to race through areas like this.
Shortly after, we found evidence of a different kind of carnage on the road.
This Toyota Hi-Lux was also still warm, but the driver was nowhere to be seen. Presumably he had come around the corner too fast, skidded and flipped. No doubt he had been picked up by a passing vehicle and taken back to the nearest civilisation.
Yet more carnage awaited us.
This dead wombat was being eaten by a dog as we came around the corner. Our vehicle scared the dog off. It was still soft, though not warm, and very possibly also a victim of the recent car rally. Again, I dragged it to the side of the road.
At last we were able to put the violence behind us, however, and we arrived at the beautiful little hamlet of Woods Point.
The original plan had been to buy Thomas some late breakfast at Woods Point, but the shops were closed at Woods Point, Gaffneys Creek and Kevington (there weren’t even closed shops at the A1 Mining Settlement!) and it was about 5 pm before he got his breakfast, a hot pie at Jamieson.
The storekeeper at Jamieson explained that the local pie rep was an old school friend, which is why Jamieson, some distance off the Mansfield-Mt.Buller road, was stocked with pies. I asked if pies were also available at Kevington, but was told it was ‘too far down the road’ – hence this little poem.
You Can’t Get Pies at Kevington
You can’t get pies at Kevington.
It’s too far down the road.
You can buy pies at Jamieson.
They get a constant load,
And also at Mt. Buller
They frequently are stowed,
But you can’t get pies at Kevington.
It’s too far down the road.
Woods Point doesn’t get them.
Nor does Gaffneys Creek.
Both these tiny mining towns
Must turn the other cheek.
The outlook at the A1
Is exceptionally bleak,
And you can’t get pies at Kevington.
It’s too far down the road.
Mansfield gets a ton of pies –
As many as they need.
They truck them up the highway
With efficiency and speed.
Bonnie Doon and Yarck and Yea
From pielessness are freed,
But you can’t get pies at Kevington.
It’s too far down the road.
I recently discovered a direct link between two artists’ communities, the little known “Sunnyside”, and the much better known Montsalvat.
I have already mentioned that frequent visitors to Sunnyside were C. J. Dennis and the sculptor Web Gilbert. Another regular member of the Sunnyside circle was the artist Percy Leason. He is perhaps best remembered these days as the artist who painted the Carlton & United Brewery advertising poster of the bearded prospector standing beside the bar with a glass of beer, with the caption: “I allus has wan at eleven”.
This photo was taken about twenty years ago in Walhalla, another old gold mining town in Victoria. The picture on the right is the Leason poster.
Percy Leason was at Sunnyside before the First World War, but after the War he and his wife built a house in Eltham. As you can imagine, there were not many people living in Eltham in those days.
It was the Leasons’ house that inspired Justus Jorgensen to also build at Eltham.
Here are some photos of Montsalvat that I took during a recent visit.
Gilbert was a sculptor, but perhaps I should go back to the beginning.
My favourite poet of all time is C. J. Dennis. Dennis was very much influenced by a small artists’ colony that was beginning to take shape in Kallista in the Dandenong Ranges. (It wasn’t called Kallista then, though. It was known as South Sassafras.)
John Garibaldi Roberts and his wife Roberta owned a hobby farm, called “Sunnyside”. Roberts worked in various senior positions for the Melbourne Tramways Company, and was wealthy. He and his wife were also very enthusiastic and active patrons of the arts.
The Roberts invited many of their artist friends so stay with them at “Sunnyside”. When the house proved too small, they arrange for their son, Frank, who was managing the property, to tow a number of the horse-drawn omnibuses that had been rendered obsolete by the new cable tram technology up to “Sunnyside”, to be placed in the paddocks around the house.
C. J. Dennis was given his own omnibus, and it was here that he completed writing his masterpiece, “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”.
Another frequent visitor to “Sunnyside” was Web Gilbert. Gilbert’s life ran in a rough parallel to Henry Lawson’s. They were both born in the same year. Gilbert died three years after Lawson, but they were both very young – Lawson 55, Gilbert 58.
Gilbert actually began as a cake decorator, but moved from there to sculpting. Initially he used marble, but later he discovered the wonders of bronze. Gilbert did everything himself, a real one man band. This meant carting his own clay in wheelbarrows to make the moulds to eventually pour the bronze into. I have read that he dropped dead suddenly one day while wheeling his barrow. He had a studio in Gore Street, Fitzroy.
I will talk more about Gilbert later, but the sculpture that he is best known for his the Matthew Flinders statue outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne.
How many people walk past this statue every day without giving it a second thought? I know I did for many years.
I still know very little about it. I rang the Melbourne City Council one day to find out more information, and they very apologetically explained that they also know very little. They pointed me to the Public Records Office. I haven’t had a chance to get there yet, but hopefully I will one day.
Sadly, Gilbert died before the Flinders statue was installed.
from a distance…
from a greater distance…(love the blue bike thingeys)
from upstairs window of McDonalds, across the road
I had a wonderful day yesterday, attending the opening of the boardwalk for the Kalatha Giant – a huge, ancient mountain ash in the forests north of Toolangi. (Toolangi, by the way, is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘tall trees’.) We were told the tree is 400 years old.
Many people do not know this, but mountain ash are the tallest trees in the world, and the forests of Victoria are as tall as any in the world.
Karena Goldfinch has posted some photos of the occasion on Facebook.
I wrote this poem this morning.
The Kalatha Giant and the Mossy Stump
I went for a walk in the bush today, with a bevy of like-minded souls.
We all want to rescue the bush from the loggers, all have quite similar goals.
We were seeking a very large eucalypt tree – they say it’s four hundred years old.
It goes by the name “The Kalatha Giant”, and we were drawn into its fold.
There’s a walkway that leads in a circuit around this example of Nature’s wonders;
A monument, too, to the forest we’ve lost, to the endless succession of blunders
We’ve made as we’ve struggled to fashion this land, to turn it to fit to our ends;
A reminder, as well, that it’s still not too late if we want to now make some amends.
Yet it wasn’t the giant that reached to the sky that struck the most deep at my heart,
Though I’m sure, with its girth, and its fire-blackened base it played, in its way, its own part,
But there by the path stood a moss-covered stump, three – perhaps four – metres high,
A monument, too – to an era of logging that time’s well and truly passed by.
There stood the slots for the planks for the men who stood there to swing a broad axe.
That was the way in the era before that we carried out all our attacks;
A man and a tree, a handle and head, in work that was honest and pure,
And needless to say, the percentage of trees that were felled in the forest was fewer.
And there, to one side, there was even a plank, all rotten, and covered with moss.
It spoke to a whole way of life that is gone. Surely, in this, there’s a loss?
For mighty machines fell a tree now in minutes, and where is the drama in that?
Could anyone gaze at this symbol of old and not feel dejected and flat?
I marvel at men who could raze such a tree with only the sweat of their hands.
It seems, though we walk the same earth, they are travellers, coming from far distant lands.
They are stronger than me. They are purer than me. They are stouter of limb and of heart.
Felling a tree now’s a matter of science, but then it was craft – it was art.
The giant Kalatha stands mighty and proud. I hope it stands many years yet,
And I trust, with its seeds, in the fullness of time, it will many young saplings beget,
But the tree that struck deep in my heart as we walked, with its fungus, its moss and its mould,
Was that ragged old stump, with its slots, and its planks, that spoke of the axemen of old.
Prior to the boardwalk opening, Taungurung elder Uncle Roy Patterson performed a smoking ceremony at the Tanglefoot car park.
The Federal Minister for the Environment, Mr. Hon Mark Butler MP, opens the boardwalk, cutting green tape with green scissors. Standing beside him are Steve Meacher, local environmentalist, and Cindy McLeish MP, Member for Seymour.
Here is the stump that I wrote the poem about. You can see the plank on the right of the upper photo, and the slots in the lower photo.
So what is all the red stuff, you ask? Well, unfortunately I opened the back of the camera to remove the film before re-winding it. This is a trap with film. The red colouration is due to UV exposure. Fortunately, most of the photos were still OK, but a few were completely ruined – including the photos of the Kalatha Giant itself, which were at the very end of the film!
I know it’s popular to bag the Yarra – “the river that flows upside down” – but I think it is absolutely beautiful. There is a particularly lovely stretch near where I am living. There is now a walking/bicycle track along much of its length, which makes it very accessible.
As is usually the case with rivers, it is at its best at dawn and dusk.
I have been especially surprised at the variety of bird life. There is even a family of darters (“snake birds”) nearby. I watched one for quite a while standing on a log, waving its wings back and forth – presumably to dry them.
Closer to the city, there are egrets. Then there are cormorants (heaps of them), ducks and swans. I saw a large group of cormorants paddling away. They look not unlike ducks, but they seem to sit quite a lot lower in the water.
There are also some truly massive trees at the water’s edge, and the various water craft and landing platforms are fascinating, too.