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!
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 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!)
The 7th Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival will be held on the weekend of Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th October at “The Singing Gardens” in Toolangi, the site of Dennis’ original home.
Yes, we’ve been a bit slow with our publicity this year, but better late than never!
We have a special guest this year, in the form of the actor, John Derum.
It was John who first introduced me to the delights of C. J. Dennis, way back in the early 1980s.
In 1976, to mark the centenary of the birth of Dennis, he produced a one-man show, “More Than A Sentimental Bloke”. The premise, of course, was that Dennis was mostly known only for this masterpiece, but had written so much more.
Pumphandle Records, a very small label, had recorded an LP (remember them?) based on Derum’s show, and I happened to stumble upon it in a record shop in the city several years later. It looked interesting. I bought it, took it home and played it, and it changed my life.
(John has had a long and distinguished career as an actor. For example, he appeared in the first episode of “Homicide” and the final edition of “The Mavis Bramston Show”. He was also “Narrator Neville” in the first season of “The Aunty Jack Show”.)
John will be performing his show “More Than A Sentimental Bloke” at “The Singing Gardens” on Saturday evening. Late in the afternoon, just before dinner, he will also be performing a show, “The Singing Garden”, based on Dennis’ last book, of the same name. The title comes from the many different species of bird – both native and introduced – that regularly visited Dennis’ forest home. He will also be with us for the other events that will take place over the course of the weekend.
The programme, therefore, will be (roughly…) as follows.
We will kick off, as usual, with the Awards Ceremony for the Written Poetry Competition at 2pm on the Saturday afternoon. This will be followed by an ‘open mic’ session, though this may be a little truncated this year due to the fullness of the programme. (We also have a surprise musical component to the entertainment on the Saturday afternoon this year.)
John will perform “The Singing Garden” from about 4.30pm, after which dinner will be served. He will then perform “More Than A Sentimental Bloke” from around 7.30pm. The show will finish around 9pm, after which a very light supper (tea and biscuits) will be served.
Sunday will kick off with the usual Poets’ Breakfast (perhaps more appropriately called a “Morning Tea”), after which lunch will be served. C. J. Dennis, Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson will then personally take guests on a guided tour of the gardens. This will also include a ballet performance from local school children, and John will also be there, of course, to make sure we do not stray too much from the track…
Afternoon tea will then be served, during which another ‘open mic’ session will be held.
It promises to be a truly fabulous weekend!
Here is a reminder of last year’s festival, with Banjo Paterson (aka Jim Brown!) in full swing.
For further information and bookings, please contact Jan Williams at “The Singing Gardens” on 0359629282.
I spent a wonderful day yesterday at “The Singing Gardens” in Toolangi, former home of the great Australian poet C. J. Dennis, for the purposes of attending the AGM of the C. J. Dennis Society.
Secretary/Treasurer Jim Brown kicked off proceedings with his haunting rendition of Dennis’ “Dusk”.
(Seated are, from left to right, Maggie Somerville, Edel Wignell and Patsy Hohnen.)
The meeting was well attended, and highly productive. The weather was also very kind to us.
Afterwards, Maggie Somerville sang her beautiful song “Waratah Bay” to Patsy.
Before heading home, there was time to stroll once more along the banks of the Yea River.
(Terry Maher standing; seated left, Maggie and right, Patsy.)
Here are they are again…
I was thrilled to receive, and very happy to accept, a nomination to be the Society’s new President. I was duly elected to the position, and look forward to an exciting and active future for the C. J. Dennis Society.
Congratulations to David Campbell, who was once again elected to the position of Vice President, to Jim Brown (Secretary/Treasurer once more), to Daan Spijer and Jan Williams (general committee members), and to Terry Maher and Lyn Storen (new committee members).
The 2013 Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival, held over the weekend of October 26 – 27 was, to my mind, the most successful ever.
The festival began in 2008 to celebrate the arrival of C. J. Dennis in Toolangi in 1908, one hundred years earlier. It has become an annual event, with this being the sixth festival. Even the bush fires of 2009 did not stop the festival from proceeding!
Jim Brown founded the C. J. Dennis Society following the 2010 festival, and invited songwriter, storyteller, entertainer, and all-round Australian legend Ted Egan to be the Society’s Patron. Ted very kindly agreed to attend this year’s festival.
The festival got off to a bright start with the Awards Ceremony on the Saturday afternoon. This was held in the tearoom this year, rather than outside under the marquee as it was last year, because the weather was rather less inviting.
Many winners were on hand to read their winning poems. The standard was once again very high.
Fortunately, there was an hour remaining at the end of the ceremony for ‘walk ups’, and a very pleasant hour was spent listening to various performances, including a wonderful song by Ted.
In previous years, the crowd has dissipated at this point, as there has been no scheduled activity on the Saturday evening, and the tearoom does not normally serve evening meals.
However, this year a poetry and music show was programmed to commence at the nearby C. J. Dennis Hall at 7.30, and a vast smorgasbord was on offer at “The Singing Gardens” from about 6.
The evening show proved a great success. A ‘warm-up’ act was provided by myself, David Campbell, Jim Brown, and Vince Brophy – a wonderful singer, and friend of Jim who had very kindly allowed us to use his PA system, but also consented to sing a song in his beautifully resonant voice.
After a short interval, Ted Egan entertained us all with a set of his classic songs, together with some wonderful stories relating to his life in central and northern Australia.
A sumptuous supper was also served.
The only slightly disappointing feature of the evening was the somewhat smaller than hoped for audience. Of course, there can be many explanations for this. We are very limited in the amount of publicity we are able to arrange, Toolangi is a reasonable distance from Melbourne – and not well known – and accommodation options in and around Toolangi are also very restricted. Hopefully we will be able to build on this in future festivals.
A “Poets’ Breakfast” was scheduled for 10.30 the following morning. At previous festivals, this has been a very small event, with a handful of poets essentially performing to themselves. Imagine my surprise, then, to find an audience, sitting on a line of chairs, waiting for us when we arrived! This proved to be an excellent session, with poetry forced at times to give way to animated discussion on a range of related and relevant subjects. Ted led much of this, for which I am very grateful.
The usual sumptuous roast dinner was served shortly after midday, and then it was time for the “Moving Theatre” at 1.45. This is the third time this event has been held, and the audience grows every year. Fortunately, the weather has been kind to us on each occasion, allowing us to move comfortably around the gardens, followed by a posse carrying chairs.
Ted joined us for a spirited rendition of C. J. Dennis’ “The Bridge Across the Crick” (appropriately stationed beside a couple of fallen logs that spanned the adjacent Yea River), as Dennis, Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson entertained the crowd for the next ninety minutes or so.
The conversation was wide and varied, spanning such subjects as David Low (Dennis’ first illustrator), platypuses, hydraulic water rams, Shakespeare, John Masefield and the copper beech tree, the inimitable Noel Watson and his AFL Grand Final rendition of “Waltzing Matilda”, Paterson’s and Lawson’s ‘city versus the bush’ debate, maritime poetry, and Mrs Dennis’ wash-house (where Ruth Aldridge gave an excellent performance of “Washing Day” from “Doreen”). Jim Brown also gave his now traditional performance of “Dusk”.
The show finished in the front garden of Jan and Vic’s home, as local children, led by ballet teacher Cathy Phelan, danced to Mozart, dressed as the ‘blue wrens and yellow tails’ from Dennis’ poem “Dawn Dance” (Book for Kids). With this performance they inspired a bleary-eyed and tousled-haired C. J. Dennis, clad in dressing gown, to write the poem.
It was then time to retire for ‘high tea’, while Strathvea guest house owner Toby, his accordion, and his sons, entertained us further with some old folk songs.
In summary, then, I think it can fairly be said that this was the largest, most varied, best attended, and most enjoyable Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival yet. Fasten your seat belts for next year!