Newstead Live! 2018
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.
2015 Port Fairy Folk Festival
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!
2014 Maldon Folk Festival
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!
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!
National Folk Festival 2014
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!