Last Sunday I decided to do a bit of exploring in C. J. Dennis country – the Murrindindee Scenic Reserve in the forests north of Toolangi. On a previous walk in the area I had seen a sign to Wilhelmina Falls, but had not managed to get there. This time I decided to try again.
I followed the Boroondara Track, which started down by the river and wound its way up steeply through thick forest. After a few false turns and blind alleys (I’ve never been particularly good at map reading…) I eventually found them. The falls and the surrounding scenery, I have to say, were far more spectacular than I had expected. I just assumed that, because the hills are not high enough to take you above the tree-line, the views would remain extremely limited.
What I had not counted on, however, was an extraordinary wide, high, steep face of bare rock on the eastern face of the range that allowed absolutely fabulous views of the adjacent hills and valleys. The amount of water tumbling down one part of this rock face was not particularly large, but the rock itself was quite incredible. To cap it off, as I gazed into the rich blue of the sky above the falls, a wedge-tailed eagle made its leisurely way across my field of view from right to left.
I am not certain, but I am fairly sure that what we are looking at here is the western face of Mt. St. Leonard.
Almost as spectacular as the rock face itself is the track – especially the viewing platforms and steel steps and hand rails that have been secured to it. How were these constructed? Presumably the workers were in harnesses, attached to ropes. It would not have been easy!
There are also indications that this is not the first track to be built on this rock. Note these pale blue squares embedded into concrete. Presumably they were the attachment points for an earlier hand rail.
This discovery has completely changed my perspective of the area. I now see the landscape as far more dramatic than I had ever imagined. I found myself drifting back in time, imagining what the landscape must have been like a couple of hundred years ago.
I wonder, too, if C. J. Dennis ever stood on this rock face, and admired the falls and surrounding scenery. He never wrote anything about it, but I like to think he did.
My dear friend Hugh McDonald died last Friday night.
All those who knew Hugh well knew the end was near, but still it was a shock to receive the news from Rebecca this morning.
Hugh is best known as a member of the former folk-rock group Redgum, and writer of the classic Australian song, “The Diamantina Drover”, but he was, of course, so much more.
Hugh was a great admirer of Henry Lawson, and indeed created an album of songs based on Lawson’s poems. I always felt “The Diamantina Drover” was a “response” to the “call” of Lawson’s “Knocking Around”.
Hugh was one of the few people who made me feel a bit ‘special’. I can’t deny there was an element of bathing in the light of his celebrity. “What does this famous rock star want to hang out with me for?” He was always pleased to see me, ready for a cuppa and a chat.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it was my poetry that first led me to him. I spent much of the late 70s and early 80s hanging around folk/bush bands, trying to persuade them to put my poems to music. Eventually, after giving up on some of the bigger names, I turned to the smaller fry. Hugh was playing with “Moving Cloud” at the time, and I approached him one evening after a gig at the Dan O’Connell. Somewhat surprisingly, he expressed an interest in hearing my work.
We met a couple of times after that, and he started putting one of my songs – a sort of parody of the life of Captain Cook – to music. He played an unfinished version of the song to me on one occasion, but shortly after he rang to tell me he would not be able to finish the song, as he had received a call from Redgum, and they wanted him to join them.
We lost touch after that, and I followed his career, like so many others, through radio and vinyl. Many years later – long after the breakup of Redgum – we made contact again. I heard him being interviewed about his Lawson album by the Coodabeen Champions on ABC Radio one Sunday night. I wrote to the ABC, they passed my letter on to him, and soon we were back in contact again.
Hugh played at my sister’s wedding – where he was one-man juke box! – and at a close friend’s 50th birthday party.
When I was looking for a music soundtrack for a demo of my collection of poems for children, it was Hugh that I turned to.
In spite of all this, however, it is only in the last couple of years that we have become really close. When Maggie Somerville and I decided to put together a CD based on the work of C. J. Dennis, I persuaded Maggie to record it with Hugh. We recorded it over the following twelve months, and the recording sessions were highly enjoyable – occasionally riotous! – occasions. He also graciously helped us to launch “The Two Bees” at the Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival in 2015.
(Hugh was always game to try something new. Here he is playing the saucepan…)
(… and here the gourd.)
(Thanks to Margaret Voake for the last two of these photos, both taken at Toolangi.)
Hugh’s technical mastery was not confined to music instruments. He was a wizard on the computer in his studio, and was always seeking to master new skills. (He also, it must be said, gained great satisfaction from restoring discarded vacuum cleaners to good working order.) Keen to learn another new skill, he offered to make some videos for Maggie and me to help us promote the CD. Apart from the bright red music stand situated forlornly in the middle of the field of vision, he did a great job!
(Thanks to Trevor Pearson for this photo.)
More recently, he has been helping Maggie to complete her second original CD. He was really hoping to complete it before he died. Alas, this was not to be.
Hugh and I were a similar age, and both sons of doctors. (Hugh’s father was a GP in Kerang, a Victorian country town.) Our paths had been very different, however. I had become a doctor myself, while he had followed the path of musician and artist. Hugh was fascinated with science, and medical science in particular. Quackery infuriated him, and he did all he could to expose it when he encountered it. We occasionally reflected on how our lives might have been if he had become a doctor, and I had followed the path of the artist in a more committed manner. I have no doubt he would have made an excellent doctor. He followed the course of his illness and its treatment intensely, and with a degree of detachment that was quite admirable.
It is hard to believe he is gone. I know it will take me a long time to come to terms with his death. I feel a large chunk of me has gone with him. My heart goes out to Rebecca and the rest of his family. Their only consolation can be that they had the great pleasure and privilege of knowing such a wonderful fellow.
(Thanks to Margaret Voake for this photo, too – also taken at Toolangi.)
Report: 2016 Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival
The festival this year – held last weekend, on Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd October – faced challenges like none before it. Ever since the festival began in 2008, we have had amazing fortune with the weather. Our luck was bound to fail sooner or later, and this year it failed with a capital “F”.
The trouble began two weeks earlier, with wild winds that brought down nine enormous mountain ash trees at “The Singing Gardens”. It looked for a while as though the festival might not be able to proceed at all. The principal damage occurred to the pump house (see photo below) with damage to 100 plastic chairs and a fridge as well as the pumps. Much of the piping running water from the Yea River to the pond was damaged, and the plastic and clay lining at the bottom of the pond was perforated. (The pond was originally excavated by C. J. Dennis and his wife, Biddy, who named it “Touchstone Tarn”. Iconic photos show Dennis and the English Poet Laureate John Masefield lying side by side on its banks in 1934.)
Jan Williams, owner of “The Singing Gardens” (home of the festival) believed, given the high winds experienced in the weeks leading up to the festival, it would be imprudent to erect the marquee that we have used in recent years. We would simply hold the festival inside the tea rooms. Jan booked the C. J. Dennis Hall across the road at the last minute, in the event that the tea rooms proved too small.
There was also a third exciting possibility. The Toolangi Forest Discovery Centre is being transferred to community control, and we might have been able to hold events there, too.
The weather forecast on the morning of Saturday, 22nd October, was ominous. A smaller crowd than usual (but hardly smaller than expected, given the weather) gathered in the tea rooms for the Festival Opening and Awards Ceremony. Kath Gannaway, representing our major sponsor, Bendigo Community Bank (Healesville Branch) opened the festival with eloquence and passion. She spoke of the value of the festival in keeping Australian culture alive.
The announcements of the winners of the Written Poetry Competition followed, together with the awarding of the prizes. Numbers of entries have been down the last two years. This is, of course, a concern, and the reason is not clear. Nevertheless, the winning poems maintained the high standard set in earlier years.
A new award, the Marian Mayne Prize, for the winner of the Adult Open section, was announced last year. (Marian Mayne was Jan Williams’ mother. She died two years ago, leaving a generous bequest for the Adult Open prize.) The inaugural winner was David Campbell, and the winner this year was Shelley Hansen. Unfortunately, the trophy was not ready for last year’s ceremony, but it was on hand this year.
Jim Brown, Secretary of the C. J. Dennis Society, commissioned Joseph Galloway, a practitioner of the art of pyrography, to make the trophy.
Details can be found on YouTube, here:
While Shelley was not at the festival this year, David was. Here is David, with Jim Brown and Jan Williams, being presented with the trophy.
It is a perpetual trophy, and will remain at “The Singing Gardens” with the winners’ names engraved upon it.
Here is a better look at the trophy itself.
A scrumptious afternoon tea followed, after which we returned for an hour of C. J. Dennis poetry and song, performed by myself, Maggie Somerville, Geoffrey W. Graham, Ruth Aldridge, David and Jim.
This in turn was quickly followed by Part 1 of “The Moods of Ginger Mick”, featuring Geoffrey W. Graham performing the poems, a connecting narrative provided by myself, and certain slang explanations from Maggie. There are 16 poems in Ginger Mick. While a similar show last year for the centenary of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” featured only nine of the 13 poems in the book, I thought it would be great fun (and a real challenge) to perform all 16 of the Ginger Mick poems this year. There was no way that could be achieved in a single setting, so we planned to do the first six poems in the hour before dinner, and the remaining 10 over an hour and a half after dinner.
Rain fell heavily off and on during the entire afternoon – interrupted by brief bursts of hail – and when the power went out, we realised the Forest Discovery Centre was no longer an option as a venue for part of the festival. Fortunately, the Williams were able to quickly crank up the generator, power was restored, and we were able to continue.
Part 1 was well received. The audience size was perfect, really – a snug fit for the tea rooms, but no empty chairs.
An enormous and delicious buffet dinner followed, after which the assembled gathering re-grouped for Part 2 of “The Moods of Ginger Mick”. Although the show had not been performed before (and probably will not be again), the timing worked out well. We were finished by about 9 pm. Geoffrey, I must stay, was looking pretty spent by the time we reached the home stretch!
There were various reports of the state of the roads by the end of the evening, and at least one person decided to sleep in their car rather than chance the trip back to their booked accommodation.
Nevertheless, all appeared bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the Poets’ Breakfast at 9 am the following morning. There was no shortage of performers, and a wide variety of pieces and styles were exhibited over the course of the session. We did manage to get around the room twice, but it took all morning to do so! I found myself sitting with the light in front of me rather than behind me so most of my photos that morning are far too dark, but I did catch this nice shot. From left to right we have Terry Maher, Geoffrey Graham, Jim Smith, and Christine Middleton (in profile).
Lunch (traditional roast!) was then served, after which came the “Moving Theatre”, featuring “C. J. Dennis” (myself), “Banjo Paterson” (Geoffrey) and “Henry Lawson” (David). We were also graced with a newcomer this year, in the form of “Will Ogilvie” (Jim). Sunday had dawned a much brighter day than the day before and, after we had assumed the Moving Theatre would also need to be held indoors, we began to realise that we could happily move outside after all.
The bottom half of the garden, however, was not available to us because of the fallen trees and sodden ground, so we gathered in the house garden to commence proceedings. After introductions, we moved quickly into the children’s ballet. The poem chosen for this year was “The Blue Kingfisher”. Maggie had put it to music, and sang beautifully. The children also looked wonderful. Their costumes were delightful, the choreography was challenging and imaginative, and they were well rehearsed. (This is an even greater achievement when one realises that all rehearsals had been to a recorded version of the song.) Thank you to Cathy Phelan for making the children’s ballet such a highlight of the festival once again.
The poets then commenced to saunter around the gardens. Alas, the audience were required to stand, as all the chairs had been destroyed when the pump house was hit! A highlight was “Banjo Paterson” reciting a Dennis poem, “Washing Day”, in front of Mrs. Dennis’ original wash-house!
Here is a view of the wash-house itself.
The afternoon finished with a surprise appearance from “Mary Gilmore” (Ruth Aldridge) performing her famous poem “No Foe Shall Gather our Harvest”.
Though the day was fine, it was still cold, and all were very happy at this point to retreat once more to the tea rooms for afternoon tea!
So ended another highly enjoyable and successful Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival. The challenges involved this year were far greater than in any previous years (though 2009, following the fires, was also very difficult), and I wish to especially thank Jan Williams and her hard working, dedicated family, for doing so much to ensure the festival was held this year, in spite of everything.
Join us next year, as we celebrate the centenary of the publication in 1917 of “The Glugs of Gosh” and “Doreen”. Won’t THAT be something special!
(Thank you to Maggie Somerville for this photo of the five “poets”.)
Mackellar was born in Sydney, but she spent much of her time in the area around Gunnedah, where her brother owned property and built a homestead.
The Poetry Competition held in her name is for school aged children. This year it attracted just shy of 12,000 entries. I believe it is the largest poetry competition for children in Australia – probably by a long way. It is administered by the Dorothea Mackellar Memorial Society, also based in Gunnedah.
I had been asked to judge the secondary school entries this year – hence my involvement with the Awards Ceremony. Internationally published novelist and writer Sophie Masson had judged the primary entries.
For me, the journey involved a flight to Sydney, where I transferred to a propellor plane for the flight to Tamworth. Gunnedah is an hour’s drive west of Tamworth, and a supporter of the Society very kindly picked me up from Tamworth Airport and drove me to my motel. Patrons, judges, the winners and their families or support crews all descended on the town at around the same time from various corners of the country.
In the afternoon, we were taken on a bus tour of the region by Whitehaven Coal. Whitehaven own several coal mines in the region, and the Mackellar homestead is on land owned by Whitehaven.
Former Deputy Prime Minister The Honourable Mark Vaile AO is a board member of Whitehaven Coal, and a patron of the Dorothea Mackellar Society. Whitehaven Coal is also a sponsor of the Society.
(The other patrons are The Honourable Margaret J White AO, former Judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland, and Peter Shergold AO, who has led a highly distinguished career as both an academic and a public servant. Margaret has recently been appointed to the Royal Commission into the Northern Territory’s youth detention system. Peter is currently the Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney.)
Unfortunately, we were not able to visit the homestead. We were, however, given a good view of the surrounding countryside – much of which is flood prone – and were also taken up Porcupine Hill for an excellent view of the township and adjacent areas.
We also visited the Dorothea Mackellar statue for some photo opportunities! (This is located adjacent to the newly-completed Mackellar Centre, located in the former Visitors’ Information Centre (V.I.C.), which was due to be opened the following day. More of that later. Meanwhile, the V.I.C. had been re-located to the Civic Centre, closer to the centre of town.)
The following morning, I was invited to an informal breakfast at a nearby restaurant. To my great joy, a senior member of the community read “Clancy of the Overflow”. This allowed me to pounce and – with the permission of the organiser, Sandra Carter, of course – recite my own parody of the poem, “Clancy of the Undertow”, written back in 1986. I am thrilled to be able to report that it was very well received!
From there it was a short walk down to the Town Hall and around the corner to the Civic Centre for the Awards Ceremony.
The Ceremony was beautifully put together, a lovely balance of speeches, music, prize presentations and poetry readings. There was an audience of about 100. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that everybody performed their roles admirably. The two highlights for me were the presentation by guest speaker, ABC journalist and presenter Heather Ewart, and Peter Shergold’s speech.
Heather gave a fascinating account of her career, especially the early years when she was very conscious of being a trailblazer for women. (She had been told at the time she set out that there was no future for women in journalism.) She also spoke about her current role with the television programme, “Back Roads”. She explained that the idea behind it had been to prove to urban audiences there was a great deal of a positive nature taking place in rural Australia, contrary to popular perception. The programme has been a great success, and a new series is now planned. Heather concluded by highlighting the critical value of literacy and communication skills in forging successful careers, whatever the field of endeavour.
Peter Shergold spoke passionately and spontaneously about Dorothea Mackellar herself, what an intelligent and courageous woman she was, but also about how sad, lonely and frustrating much of her life turned out to be. A couple of examples – her favourite brother was killed during the Boer War, and a letter she sent to England accepting a marriage proposal never arrived. She therefore never married and had children. Nor did she ever have any nieces or nephews.
A sentiment I heard repeated several times during the course of my stay was the need for a new, rigorous biography of Dorothea Mackellar.
During my own speech, I spoke of the importance – as I see it – of preserving national “sacred sites” of historical cultural importance, particularly as they relate to writers. Gunnedah has the legacy of Mackellar and the nearby homestead. Here in Victoria, we have “The Singing Gardens” at Toolangi, former home of C. J. Dennis, and now home to the annual Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival. More recently, we also have the boarding house at 832/834 Burke Road Camberwell, where Dennis wrote “The Moods of Ginger Mick”. I invited all present to attend the festival and pointed out that, with the closing date for the Toolangi poetry competition being 7th September, there was still time to enter! I also wrote a short poem for the ceremony, which was well received.
Following the Awards Ceremony, we moved up to the Mackellar Centre for its opening ceremony. It was explained to us that the artist Jean Isherwood had created a series of water colours to illustrate “My Country”. (A DVD featuring the voice of an elderly Mackellar reading her poem alongside the Isherwoold paintings had been shown during the Awards Ceremony.) The pressing need to find a space to display these paintings had driven the creation of the Mackellar Centre.
The opening ceremony was a great occasion, culminating in the formal cutting of a ribbon.
I haven’t said much about the winning poems themselves, but details will be available soon on the Dorothea Mackellar website. They were of a very high standard, as would be expected.
I had a wonderful time in Gunnedah. The experience of being a judge, though undoubtedly quite arduous, was extremely rewarding and, indeed, a source at times of great inspiration. I wish to thank most sincerely the Dorothea Mackellar Memorial Society for the privilege of being able to be a part of the process in 2016.
Recently I posed the question, “Where did C. J. Dennis write “The Moods of Ginger Mick?”"
Well, it is my great pleasure to report that the mystery has finally been solved!
It has long been known that Dennis moved into a boarding house in early 1915 at 107 Burke Road, Camberwell, and that it was from there he submitted to publisher George Robertson the manuscript for “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”. More importantly, perhaps, it was also in this boarding house that he wrote the manuscript for the Bloke’s sequel, “The Moods of Ginger Mick”.
The difficulty, however, has been that the street numbering has changed substantially in the intervening century, and 107 Burke Road is no longer in Camberwell.
During a Victorian Folk Music Club (VFMC) concert night earlier in the year, I had the opportunity to invite the assembled throng to assist me in trying to answer this fascinating and significant national cultural/historic question.
Historian Louise Blake was in the audience at the time, and offered to help. She has since brought her professional research skills to the task, and solved the problem!
Here is her statement on the matter, the distillation of her research.
I am extremely grateful to Louise for her work, and wish to thank her most sincerely for her efforts on behalf of the C. J. Dennis Society.
Fortunately, the building is still standing. Indeed, I have had the opportunity to visit it on several occasions recently, and inspect both its exterior and interior. It would appear to be little changed from the days of C. J. Dennis and David Low. In fact, somewhat remarkably perhaps, it is still being run as a guest house!
You will notice some real estate hoardings outside the property. It was recently put up for auction, but did not change hands.
I am enormously excited to now know where Dennis wrote “The Moods of Ginger Mick”, and am keen to disseminate the information as widely as possible. Indeed it is fitting, is it not, that the mystery be finally solved in the year that we celebrate the centenary of its publication?
So where did C. J. Dennis write “The Moods of Ginger Mick”?
2016 marks the centenary of the publication in 1916 of “The Moods of Ginger Mick”, C. J. Dennis second most successful book. (His most successful was “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”, published in 1915, however “The Moods of Ginger Mick” was not far behind it.)
Ginger Mick was a minor character in “The Sentimental Bloke” – Bill’s best mate, and best man at his wedding to Doreen. However, he is elevated to principal character in the sequel where, after expressing some ambivalence about those involved in the war effort, he enlists, heads off to Egypt for training, and then on to Gallipoli. There he is killed in action after a brief period of feeling he has finally found his calling, and being promoted – to his great delight – to Lance Corporal. Indeed, this book had much to do with the shaping of the Anzac myth.
Most of the books for which C. J. Dennis became famous where written in or near Toolangi. (“The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” was completed at “Sunnyside” in the Dandenong Ranges.) However, “The Moods of Ginger Mick” is an important exception. It was written after “The Bloke” (naturally enough), but largely completed prior to the Bloke’s publication. Dennis had run out of money, and decided to take a job in town. It was only after the enormous and completely unexpected success of the Bloke that he was eventually able to return to Toolangi.
So “The Moods of Ginger Mick” was written in Melbourne. But where?
Dennis moved in to a boarding house where his good mate David Low was already living. Low had illustrated the cover of his first book, “Backblock Ballads and Other Verse”, published by E. W. Cole in 1913. (Low was born in New Zealand. He created a very successful book based on characterisations of the then Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Later he moved to England, where he became world famous for his depictions of Adolf Hitler.)
In his autobiography, Low writes:
“…I lived as a fellow-lodger with Den for a space and finished my cartoons by night on his wash-stand while he read proofs aloud in bed.” (“Low’s Autobiography”, Michael Joseph, London 1956, page 78)
The address I have been given for this boarding house is 107 Burke Road, Camberwell.
However, there is no 107 Burke Road Camberwell. Google Maps places 107 Burke Road in East Malvern, near Central Park, though in reality there is no 107 Burke Road at all.
Yes, of course, the numbering could have changed since then. I have asked the Shire of Boroondara for assistance, and they have very kindly offered to do all they can.
In the meantime, does anybody else have any ideas?
Parliament House Launch of Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards
I had a lovely few days in Canberra at the beginning of the week.
Late last year I agreed to act as judge this year for the secondary student entries in the Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards. The awards are open to all school children, and are held by the Dorothea Mackellar Society. Last year approximately 10,000 entries were received from 655 schools. Approximately one third of these were from secondary students. (Acclaimed children’s novelist Sophie Masson will judge the primary student entries.)
Dorothea Mackellar lived much of her life in Gunnedah, in rural New South Wales (not far from Tamworth), and Gunnedah is the home of the Dorothea Mackellar Society.
The awards were scheduled to be launched at Parliament House on Tuesday, 1st March, and, as one of the judges, I was invited to attend and speak. I was keen to do so, but not sure if I would be able to make it. In the end, however, it worked out well. Being somewhat budget conscious I chose the “car and tent” option ahead of the “plane and motel”. The trip fitted snugly into the three days I had between finishing work at one medical practice, and commencing work at another. (Sophie Masson was unable to attend.)
I have become fairly familiar with the drive from Melbourne to Canberra over the years as the result of having attended the National Folk Festival on a number of occasions, and the trip now feels much less daunting than it once did. Mind you, I usually have company with me. Doing it alone was going to be a new experience.
A quick Google search revealed what sounded like a great camping ground – the “Cotter Campground” – only about twenty minutes from Parliament House.
I didn’t feel in a great rush to get away on Monday morning, though I did end up paying for this somewhat, eventually erecting the tent in rapidly fading light. By the time I was in a position to report my safe arrival to friends and family back in Melbourne it was well and truly dark and, the camping ground being in a valley, there was no phone reception! Nevertheless, I quickly learned from a fellow camper that it returned quite quickly once you started to drive up the adjacent mountain. I followed his advice, and found this to be true. All the same, it was somewhat eerie in the dark, looking out over a steep tree-covered drop in the warm, humid evening, gazing at the distant lights of Canberra, and wondering what was below me.
I arrived in Canberra next morning with plenty of time to spare, and devoted an hour or so to taking in the glory of Parliament House. It must have been almost thirty years since I had last been there, and it did rather take my breath away.
I eventually joined the “DM” contingent in the foyer, and we were led to Room 1R1, where the launch was to take place. Prior to this point, my communications with the Dorothea Mackellar Society had been restricted to a couple of phone calls and a few emails. It was great to finally put some faces to the names, and also to meet some new ones! I especially enjoyed meeting Jenny Farquhar (President) and Mila Stone (Project Officer).
The launch was well attended, went very smoothly, and was well received. Jenny Farquhar made opening and closing comments, the new Federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, officially opened the awards and, somewhat surprisingly for his staff, read a poem of his own!
The three patrons introduced children who presented award winning poems from previous years, and I was asked to introduce Amanda Walker, a computer scientist from A.N.U., who read a poem she had submitted in 1994! (The poem, “Changes”, had been subsequently published, and caught the eye of Jenny Farquhar.)
I had decided, being a poet myself, that my own speech should take the form of a poem, so I wrote the first half in the car on the way up (watch out for those trucks when you pull over to the side of the road!), and the other half in the tent that night. I felt like I was going out on a bit of a limb with this strategy but, fortunately, it went down well!
It is very impressive and encouraging to see the level of support both the Society and the awards have from politicians from all points of the political compass. The C.J. Dennis Society certainly has a lot to learn from the Dorothea Mackellar Society in this regard!
After the ceremony, we were treated to a very delicious lunch in the Members’ Dining Room!
I was too weary to do much exploring in the afternoon. Besides, it was extremely hot. However, I did enjoy checking out the Old Parliament House and the National Portrait Gallery, and driving around the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.
Later that day, and the following morning, I had more opportunity to explore – and discover – the natural charms of the Cotter Campground.
Then it was time to pack up and head home for a good night’s sleep prior to commencing my new job!
It is exciting to now know a number of the members of the Dorothea Mackellar Society, together with the patrons, personally, and to know that the poems will soon start coming in! I am looking forward to reading what I know will be a large number of very high quality pieces.
The website of the Dorothea Mackeallar Poetry Awards can be found here:
The AGM of the John Shaw Neilson Society was held last Sunday, and I had accepted an invitation to be the guest speaker.
I am fond of the poetry of John Shaw Neilson, but it does not fire my passion quite like that of C.J. Dennis. Given that I do not have a great depth of knowledge about the poetry or the life of Neilson, it seemed to me a comparison of the lives of Dennis and Neilson might be a good way to put together an entertaining presentation. (I decided to also spend some time discussing a book I had enjoyed many years earlier, “The Autobiography of John Shaw Neilson”.)
The talk was well received, and I have since received a couple of requests for copies of my notes.
For this reason, I have decided to post my notes about “C.J. Dennis vs. John Shaw Neilson” here.
1. Cultural extraction
Neilson: Scottish Presbyterian
Dennis: Irish Catholic
2. Year of birth.
3. Place of birth
Neilson: South Australia (Penola)
Dennis: South Australia (Auburn)
Neilson: Left school at 14 after a total schooling period of two and a half years
Dennis: Also left school at 14, but this was after a comprehensive primary schooling, followed by a couple of good years of secondary schooling at Christian Brothers College in Adelaide
5. Earnings from poetry
Dennis: a short period of spectacular earnings, followed by a long period of solid earnings
6. Nature of poetry
Neilson: lyrical, surreal, mysterious verse – no verse novels (also some light verse and limericks)
Dennis: verse with strong rhyme and metre; strong characterisations; much humour and slang; many verse novels
7. Nature of prose
Neilson: by his own admission, not his strength: “I was about twenty two before I came to the conclusion that I could not write prose.” (Autobiography, page 34)
Dennis: superb writer of prose, though wrote considerably less of it
8. Personal life
Neilson: never married, no children
Dennis: married, but no children
9. Relationship with other poets
Neilson: close relationship with Dame Mary Gilmore:
(Speaking of her first meeting with him) “…and when I saw his work-swollen hands, with the finger-nails worn to the quick by the abrading stone, I felt a stone in my heart.” (Quote taken from “John Shaw Neilson – Australian Dictionary of Biography”)
Dennis: good friendship with Henry Lawson, who was, of course, very close to Gilmore
10. Attitudes to Nature
Both very keen observers of Nature (and both keen to avoid the city of Melbourne)
11. Attitudes to mechanical things:
Neilson: According to his brother, Frank, (Autobiography, page 18) “…he had a total lack of interest of all mechanical things. Often after we had left farming and were looking around for employment, I would obtain work, as I had a bicycle and could of course ride if necessary some miles to work. He, however, used to be compelled to walk, as he never would have the patience to be bothered even with the simplest push-bike.”
Dennis: had a love of gadgets and innovations, and was very good with his hands
Neilson: A.G. Stephens, James Devaney
Dennis: J. G. Roberts
Neilson: plagued by difficulties with eyesight – probably as a result of macular degeneration, which meant he relied very heavily on his peripheral vision – for much of his life
Dennis: suffered from asthma, exacerbated by smoking; also very heavy drinker – health deteriorated sharply during his fifties
14. Financial position
Neilson: lived a largely ‘hand to mouth’ existence through manual labour; after many years working as road builder, worked as messenger and office worker for the Victorian Country Roads Board for the last decade or so of his life. He also obtained a small pension (from the Commonwealth Literary Fund) towards the end of his life
Dennis: made a large amount of money during his life, but lost it through a combination of lavish spending and poor investments; died in debt
15. Year of death
16. Place of death
17. Place of burial
Neilson: Footscray Cemetery
Dennis: Box Hill Cemetery
18. Public acknowledgement of passing:
Neilson: very little: “…partly because poetic fashions had changed, but mainly because of the intensity of the war.” (Quote taken from “John Shaw Neilson – Australian Dictionary of Biography”)
Dennis: The Australian Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, suggested he was destined to be remembered as the “Australian Robert Burns”
19. Who is now better remembered?
It is very difficult to say. Neither poet has a high profile these days. My suspicion is that Neilson has more appeal to younger generations than Dennis.
“that he draws the old age pension” replaced “merely that he draws the pension”
Michael also sent me the title page for “An Old Master”, which appears to stand as a separate document. It is dated 24.3.10, the day after the date on the page of the manuscript itself, which would suggest that the whole poem – with revisions – was written over the course of a single day. This probably should not come as a great surprise, as we know that Dennis worked fast.
Here is the title page:
There are some minor changes between the final version of this manuscript and the poem as it appeared in “The Bulletin” later in 1910, but I’ll leave you to look those up for yourself.
Speaking for myself, it has been very exciting to have this rare glimpse into the working of the mind of that wonderful poet, C.J. Dennis!
There are a couple of pages just of cross-outs also. They don’t add anything particularly new, but I will post them here for the sake of completeness.
Thank you, David Hume, for bringing these wonderful documents to light!
Thank you also to David Campbell for reviewing my rendition of these corrections, and making a number of helpful suggestions and further corrections.