Report: 2017 Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival
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 Glugs of Gosh” and Sassafras Creek
This year, 2017, marks the centenary of the publication of C. J. Dennis’ flawed masterpiece “The Glugs of Gosh”.
This is a very different book to “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” and “The Moods of Ginger Mick”, the centenaries of the publication of which have taken place over the last two years. While those books were calculate to appeal to as many people as possible, and did indeed appeal to an enormous number, they came at a personal emotional cost. “The Glugs of Gosh” was written to square the ledger – it was written for himself, and is the most autobiographical of his books. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it proved nowhere near as popular as the other two. Nevertheless, it remained the book of which Dennis himself was the most proud. Furthermore, it has attracted and retained a core following of passionately loyal supporters over the years. (I am one.)
It is a brilliant but difficult book. Part nonsense verse for children, part satire for adults, one is not always sure which is which. (Hence the ‘flawed’.) Nevertheless, it contains much that is deeply wise, extremely funny, or simply sublime. The book was begun at “Sunnyside” in Kallista, under the influence of Garry and Roberta Roberts, and finished at Toolangi.
The first poem in the book, “The Glug Quest”, invites the reader to re-enter the world of their childhood imagination in order to reach the land of Gosh.
It begins as follows:
Follow the river and cross the ford,
Follow again to the wobbly bridge,
Turn to the left at the notice board,
Climbing the cow-track over the ridge;
Tip-toe soft by the little red house,
Hold your breath if they touch the latch,
Creep to the slip-rails, still as a mouse,
Then…run like mad for the bracken patch.
The second poem, “Joi, the Glug”, begins to tell us a little about the Glugs, and their land of Gosh.
It begins as follows:
The Glugs abide in a far, far land
That is partly pebbles and stones and sand,
But mainly earth of a chocolate hue,
When it isn’t purple, or slightly blue.
And the Glugs live there with their aunts and wives,
In draught-proof tenements all their lives.
And they climb the trees when the weather is wet,
To see how high they can really get.
Pray, don’t forget,
This is chiefly done when the weather is wet.
Alec Chisholm, in his biography of C. J. Dennis, “The Life and Times of C. J. Dennis” (Angus & Robertson, 1946), quotes a conversation he had with Mrs Aeneas Gunn, author of “We of the Never Never”, and friend of Dennis.
“Yes,” said Mrs Aeneas Gunn, when I commented to her on the free-flowing nature of “The Glugs of Gosh”, “there is melody in particular in the opening verses of the book, and I think that Dennis gained much of his inspiration from the music of Sassafras Creek. Early in 1914, soon after returning from England, I used to ride frequently beside that little stream, and I was always impressed, not merely by the ferns and other fairylike foliage that festooned its banks, but by the music of the steadily-flowing water.
“The creek had many voices. They all spoke together, and in perfect harmony. They were like numerous notes of music crossing and recrossing. Especially was this so at a certain spot where a big log spanned the stream amid a riot of picturesque growth. It was there that I often used to see Mr. Dennis loitering, apparently content to gaze at the scenery and listen to the music of birds and flowing water.
“‘I suppose’, I said to him one day, ‘you are like myself: you never tire of the voices of the Sassafras?’
“‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘this stream has many voices, and all musical.’
“Now, after many years” (Mrs Gunn added), “I continue to read with pleasure portions of The Glugs of Gosh. They recall for me the beauty of the ferns and other foliage, and as I read I hear again the varied and melodious voices of Sassafras Creek.”
Yesterday I decided to attempt to follow in the footsteps of C. J. Dennis and Mrs Gunn, and visit Sassafras Creek myself.
It is indeed a beautiful and musical little stream, and no doubt in most ways little altered over the last one hundred years.
I cannot imagine, however, how one could possibly ride a horse along its banks. Walking was difficult enough. They were narrow and muddy, and often steep and very slippery.
I walked upstream from Beagleys Bridge Picnic Area, the closest point of the creek to where ‘Sunnyside’ once stood. She may well have headed downstream, where the going may become easier. It should also be noted that the biggest change to occur in the last hundred years is the dramatic increase in the foliage. Photos taken of the area at the time of C. J. Dennis and Mrs Aeneas Gunn show bare hillsides and very sparse vegetation.
Just as Mrs Gunn described, the foliage along the creek is indeed fairy-like.
It is easy to understand how Sassafras Creek inspired C. J. Dennis to write “The Glugs of Gosh”.
It is wonderful, too, to be able to walk so easily in his footsteps one hundred years later.