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!
Photos of the 2017 Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival Awards Ceremony
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.
The 7th Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival, held last weekend (October 18th and 19th) was a great success, and very enjoyable.
As always, the weekend kicked off with the Awards Ceremony for the written poetry competition, held in the lead-up to the festival. Congratulations to all the winners, especially to David Campbell, who once again won the Adult Open category. (I will post a list of the winners separately on my blog.) Thanks again to the Bendigo Bank (Healesville Branch) for continuing to act as a festival sponsor.
Following the presentations, I was very excited to be able to pass around images of a new C. J. Dennis poem unearthed by a talkback caller during an interview I gave on ABC Radio 774 recently. The poem, “The Gentle Kangaroomour”, had been written especially for Eilie Ford, a young girl living in Toolangi at the time C. J. Dennis was there. The exact date of the poem remains a little uncertain, but it would appear to have most definitely been written prior to 1920.
The “open mic” session which followed was very enjoyable. Maggie Somerville and I finished the session with a duet we had put together based on the poem “The Two Bees” that Dennis had written for the Herald. It had subsequently been published posthumously by his wife, Margaret Herron, in the book “Random Verse”. The poem uses the strange weather effects prevailing at the time – frosty nights and bright sunny days – which impeded the blossoming of flowers and frustrated the usual feeding habits of bees as a metaphor for the unemployment and hunger of the Great Depression. We were commanded to perform it again on the following day, so it must have been well received!
The weather gods smiled on us once again for the whole weekend, and Jan and Vic’s new marquee proved a great success.
After a break for afternoon tea, our guest star for the festival, John Derum, then performed “The Singing Garden”, a show based on Dennis’ last book of the same name. The book primarily consists of a large number of poems, each devoted to a particular species of bird that frequently visited the gardens surrounding Dennis’ Toolangi home. Of course, it is this book that also inspired the current name of Dennis’ former home – “The Singing Gardens”.
John has done an enormous amount to popularise C. J. Dennis amongst contemporary readers. In 1976 he developed a one-man show, “More Than A Sentimental Bloke”, to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Dennis. It proved extremely popular, and many other performances have followed. (On a personal note, it was a recording based on this show, an LP published by Pumphandle Records, that first introduced me to the magic of C. J. Dennis.)
In what proved to be an inspired move, John moved the chairs out of the marquee and turned them around so that they were facing the gardens. The audience soon found themselves surrounded by the very birds – king parrots, kookaburras, etc. – upon which the poems are based. The show was pure magic.
As darkness fell, we retired into the tea rooms for dinner and the main show of the festival, “More Than A Sentimental Bloke”, by John Derum. John treated us to a fabulous exposition of the life and works of C. J. Dennis. What shone through, apart from John’s brilliant talent, was his great passion for the work.
Sunday morning began well with the “Poets’ Breakfast” (strictly speaking, a morning tea!). We held the first hour in the tea rooms, then moved back down to the marquee for another session.
It was wonderful to be able to welcome veteran reciter Jim Smith to Toolangi for the first time. Jim scored a bit hit with his performance of a classic poem by Rob Charlton, “Bloody Sheilas”.
After lunch, Banjo Paterson (aka Jim Brown), Henry Lawson (aka David Campbell) and C. J. Dennis (aka myself) took the guests once more on a tour (both geographic and historic) of the gardens.
We were once again treated to a ballet from the local school children, based on a C. J. Dennis poem. This year, it was the Firetail Finches from “The Singing Garden”.
For the second time during the history of the festival, we were treated to a surprise visit from Dorothea Mackellar (aka Maggie Somerville), who was keen to know whether her newly written poem “My Country” was good enough to submit to a publisher. (Henry suggested that the second verse would never catch on…)
We once again retired to the marquee for sponge cake, fruit juice, and more poetry and song, finally drawing the festival to a close at about 5pm.
There are so many people to thank for making the festival once again a great success. All of the performers and poets must be thanked, especially our wonderful guest star for this year, John Derum. Above all, however, our gratitude is greatest for Jan Williams and her family, together with her army of helpers, who provide vast quantities of delicious food throughout the weekend, and keep everybody relaxed and happy. (Also, of course, for maintaining the beautiful gardens throughout the year.)
Next year, we will be celebrating the centenary of the publication of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”, and it promises to be the biggest and best Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival ever!
(I must add a word of apology here. My phone is playing up at the moment, and I am very limited in the photos I can put up here. No photos of John Derum, the star of the show! Aarrgh!)