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.
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?
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!
I had a wonderful time at Port Fairy Folk Festival this year, as I always do.
Once again, however, I saw little music, spending most of my time instead soaking up the Spoken Work Programme at The Shebeen, St Pat’s Hall, the Lecture Hall, and the Surf Club.
Storyteller Jackie Kerin, three-time winner of the “Pat Glover Storytelling Award”, and now head of the judging panel, was on the programme herself this year. I really enjoyed her storytelling show at the Lecture Hall on the Saturday.
Jackie, assisted by fellow Newport Fiddle & Folk Club member and musician, Greg Jenkins, put on a great show.
Jackie is an extremely entertaining and professional performer, and is constantly refining her craft.
Two shows at St. Pat’s Hall on the Sunday were also excellent. The first was the launch of Jim Haynes’ new book, “The Best Australian Yarns”, published by Allen & Unwin. The second was the “True Blue”, where Jim (singer), Bill Kearns (poet) and Jackie (storyteller) argued which was the best way to tell a story – as a song, as a poem, or simply as a story.
I was roped in at the last minute to act as “Moderator”, though my shouted comment from the audience – pointing, as I saw it, to a weakness in one of Jim’s arguments – probably branded me as a highly ‘immoderate’ Moderator!
Carole Reffold and Jill Meehan also did a fine job presenting poetry and song at The Surf Club on the Saturday night.
I was thrilled to have an advance copy of my new book, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’, and Other Australian Verse”, to take to the festival. I lost no opportunities to show it around, and was very pleased with the universally positive feedback I received.
The frantic last minute trading in Port Fairy Festival tickets continues, as this photo attests.
Of course, the great shadow hanging over the festival this year was the illness of Dennis O’Keeffe. I was very sad to hear of his passing, and offer my very best wishes and condolences to his family and friends.