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 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!
Report: 2017 Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival
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.
“Carrington Hall” moves towards heritage protection…
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.
Lastly, I ask myself, who was Wilhelmina?
So where did C. J. Dennis write “The Moods of Ginger Mick”?
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?
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.
“An Old Master” by C.J. Dennis – original pencil-drawn manuscript
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?