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 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:
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.