2015 Port Fairy Folk Festival

March 17th, 2015 | C. J. Dennis, Festivals, Poems for adults, Poems for children, Stories for adults, Stories for children, Sunnyside, Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry 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 areā€¦

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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.

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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”.

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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!

Interview on ABC Radio 774

September 28th, 2014 | 'Banjo' Paterson, C. J. Dennis, Festivals, Henry Lawson, Poems for children, Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival

It was a great thrill to be interviewed by Dave O’Neil on ABC Radio 774 last Monday afternoon. It was ostensibly an opportunity to talk about my new book, but in the event we spent a great deal more time talking about the Australian poet, C. J. Dennis. Still, I can’t really complain. He is my greatest literary hero, and I always enjoy talking about him.

The ABC very kindly sent me an mp3 of the interview, which I will attach.

Stephen Whiteside with Dave O’Neil

The Launch!

May 19th, 2014 | 'Banjo' Paterson, C. J. Dennis, Camping, Family holidays, Photos, Poems for children, Sailing, Snow, Songs

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!