Hazel de Berg, Dame Mary Gilmore and ‘The Drover’s Wife’

March 22nd, 2020 | Henry Lawson, Mary Ann Cameron, Mary Gilmore, The Drover's Wife, Uncategorized

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.

The Forest Prayed

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.

https://www.discogs.com/Beverley-Dunn-Some-Arrived-To-Stay/release/10696133

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.’

(Photo courtesy the National Library of Australia)

Australian Bush Laureate Awards finalist: “Book of the Year”

December 16th, 2014 | 'Banjo' Paterson, C. J. Dennis, News, Poems for children, Uncategorized

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:
http://www.walkerbooks.com.au/…/The-Billy-That-Died-With-It…

and here:

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C. J. Dennis Society AGM

September 15th, 2014 | C. J. Dennis, Poems for adults, Poems for children, Songs, Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival, Uncategorized

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.)

Jim

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.

Maggie and Patsy

Before heading home, there was time to stroll once more along the banks of the Yea River.

Yea River

(Terry Maher standing; seated left, Maggie and right, Patsy.)

Here are they are again…

Terry, Maggie and Patsy

…and again.

Maggie, Patsy and Terry

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).

Wattle Day

September 1st, 2014 | Festivals, Folk clubs, Photos, Songs, Uncategorized

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.

Group shot

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.

Wattle Day 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”.

Wattle Cafe

Decorations for the day were elaborate:

Wattle balls

Members of the audience gathered under the Wattle Tree.

Around the wattle tree

The signage was also clear.

Poster

Of all the VFMC members, I think it is fair to say that Maggie’s ensemble was the most complete.

Maggie

Undoubtedly, though, our President, Harry, was the most colourful.

Harry

Greg sang with great feeling.

GregGreat weather 1

Great weather 2

Port Fairy Folk Festival 2014

March 16th, 2014 | Festivals, News, Photos, Stories for adults, Stories for children, Uncategorized

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 and Greg

Jackie is an extremely entertaining and professional performer, and is constantly refining her craft.

Jackie 1

Jackie 2

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.

PF ticket office 2014

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.