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?
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?
It is a little while now since I attended the National Folk Festival (NFF – Easter) and The Man From Snowy River Festival (MFSRF), the weekend after. Although I did not play a large role in either, I would like to record a few reflections of them both nonetheless.
I attended them both with Maggie Somerville. It was Maggie’s first National for many years, and her first MFSRF.
With all the build-up for Port Fairy, I had decided to take a very low key approach to both these festivals – simply sit back and let it wash over me, playing small roles now and then. Of course, it wasn’t quite that easy. Once you’ve had a taste of the limelight, it’s not so easy to slip back into the shadows again…
Nevertheless, I had a great time at both, and have no regrets.
The National is always fabulous – so much to see, and so many opportunities to be involved, even if only in a very minor way. It is very different to the country music festivals where bush poetry dominates. There is still a preponderance of rhyming verse, but there is still a fair bit of non-rhymed. (Is there a difference between non-rhymed and free verse? I don’t know.)
The Poets’ Breakfasts were well attended as always, though my feeling is that the audience numbers are a little down on, say, a decade ago. Certainly the merchandise table doesn’t seem to buzz as it once did.
Laurie McDonald, as Spoken Word Coordinator for the festival, has done a great job beefing up the programme for poetry and yarn spinning. There are now regular evening poetry shows as well as the Breakfasts, and the number of feature poets seems to increase every year. Five years ago things were definitely in the doldrums. My only criticism would be that all the shows are largely unthemed, and feel a bit aimless at times. I wonder if it is time to take the next step, and begin to build more ambitious, structured shows, with a clear sense of direction. Of course, this all takes time, and is difficult with a workforce (i.e. the poets) that is effectively volunteer.
The sign at the Stock Camp took my attention – very atmospheric. (Just don’t look too closely at the spelling.)
Of course, Andrew Pattison’s Troubadour has been replaced by the “Flute and Fiddle”, and is the new venue for the Poets’ Breakfasts. After a couple of years of resenting the change, I am gradually coming to accept the new arrangements.
The Man From Snowy River Festival at Corryong this year began on the Thursday after Easter. As this Thursday and Friday are not public holidays, one can only assume that the majority of those who attend are retired. Maggie and I both had work commitments, so were unable to leave Melbourne until Saturday morning. (Indeed, I was working until 11pm on the Friday night, so it was a bit of a scramble to get away even then.)
Corryong is a wonderful spot, tucked away as it in the Murray Valley in north east Victoria, with timbered hills rising all around. The drive to and from is a large part of the enjoyment of the weekend itself.
I must confess I have always been a little reluctant to attend this festival, as I feel fairly uncomfortable with the notion of perpetuating the myth of the mountain cattleman. I imagine they were heroic enough in their day, but I do feel it is time to remove cattle from the Alps. Mind you, a grizzled old mining surveyor very active in the Victorian Alps in the first half of the 20th century once said to me “There’s nowhere that the cattlemen went on a horse that I didn’t go on foot.” Perhaps that is even more heroic, yet we do not celebrate – we scarcely even remember – the rich heritage of gold mining in the Australian Alps.
Anyway, enough of that.
Corryong was the venue for the Australian Bush Poetry Championships this year. Jan Lewis and her army of volunteers did a great job of organising the festival, as always, and the shows were very well attended.
The format is a little awkward in that the shows are run as competitions, yet are also expected to be entertaining. It is a difficult line to tread. The biggest challenge is filling the dead time between acts, when the judges are writing down their comments. This is where the MC is truly tested. A good MC keeps the show rolling so that you are barely even aware that the judging is taking place. By and large the MCs this weekend did a great job, though you sensed a few times that their material ran out before the show did.
I also find it tough sometimes to listen to so much spoken word without any leavening of music. It doesn’t help that each poem is on a different subject, or telling a different story. There is just so much to take in. My trouble is that a good poem will fire my imagination, and I will find myself half way through the next poem before I remember that I should be paying attention to it, too. Some musical interludes would help to soften the intensity of it all. Having said that, though, it is difficult to imagine how that could be achieved within the current structure.
Here is the Saturday night crowd.
The Sunday Poets’ Breakfast was fun, and a great opportunity for Maggie and me to strut our stuff.
We left shortly after lunch on Sunday to face the long drive back to Melbourne and be back in time to be at work on Monday morning.
I have just returned from another wonderful weekend at the Maldon Folk Festival. The weather was its usual spring unpredictability. It was warm when we arrived, but turned cold and windy during the night. Rain followed, after which it became warm and sunny again.
The Poets’ Breakfasts were well attended, and very enjoyable, as always. My impression is that, after the low point of a few years ago, crowds are on the up again. The Breakfast audiences seemed larger this year than last.
A small but attentive crowd attended for the launch of my new book of poetry for children, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”, published by Walker Books in May this year. Thanks to Geoffrey Graham for launching it for me, and to Maggie Somerville for singing “The Sash”, the song she has written based on my poem of the same name.
A festival highlight for me was the performance of my poem, “In Bed With My Bedsocks”, from the book, by ten year old Tahlia Heggie, during the Sunday Poets’ Breakfast. (Her mother had bought the book at the launch the previous day.) Tahlia also performed two other poems from the book – “Tidying My Room” and “When Eating Watermelon” – over the course of the weekend. It is the ultimate accolade for any poet who writes for children to have a child perform a poem he has written, so for me this was particularly gratifying. Congratulations, too, to Tahlia’s mother for inculcating in her a love of reading!
Here I am with Tahlia (and the book!) after the Breakfast.
(Thanks to Maggie Somerville for the photo.)
The Yarn Events this year were held in the Kangaroo Hotel – a first. Unfortunately, rain forced us indoors on the Saturday afternoon. We performed in the dining room, and performers at times struggled to make themselves heard above the waitresses taking lunch orders. The Sunday afternoon was much more successful. The day was bright and sunny, and the event took place in the hotel garden. As with the Poets’ Breakfasts, audiences were very sold, especially on the Sunday.
The Monday Poets’ Breakfast was very much a return to the past. When I first began attending Maldon in 2003, a poetry event was held on Sunday afternoon in the beautiful gardens of Tucci’s, then a pizza restaurant. After several years Tucci’s closed, and remained so for a number of years. It has now re-opened as the restaurant “Wicked Temptations” (with a very smart looking new back fence at the far end of the gardens), and the Monday Poets’ Breakfast was held there. Again, it was very well attended. A highlight for me was my performance with Maggie Somerville of “The Two Bees”, a poem by C. J. Dennis that Maggie has put to music.
Of course, there were many other wonderful events. To pick a few highlights – Geoffrey Graham’s one man ‘Banjo’ Paterson show at the Neighbourhood Centre on Saturday afternoon, Fred Smith at “The Troubadour” on Saturday night, followed by Martin Pearson, and Keith McKenry’s launch of his new biography of John Meredith at the Anglican Church on Sunday afternoon.
Once again, it was a fabulous Maldon Folk Festival, very much enjoyed by all!
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!)
Last Sunday, August 31st, I participated in the Wattle Day celebrations at Hurstbridge in Victoria.
I was part of the Victorian Folk Music Club’s “Billabong Band”, and my duties were largely confined to playing the lager phone and singing along on the choruses, though I did get to sing a duet on “Home Among The Gum Trees”, and sing Maggie Somerville’s anthemic “Wattle Day” song with her.
I haven’t quite yet been able to fathom the full history of Wattle Day, but Hurstbridge seems to have been intricately tied up with it for a very long time.
Maggie found this photo of the Wattle Day celebrations at Hurstbridge in 1912.
The caption reads: “Wattle Day at Hurstbridge in 1912: In the 1900s a great deal was made of Wattle Day. Crowds flocked to the station to view the magnificent wattle.”
The Hurstbridge Wattle Festival web-site also tells us that “The Hurstbridge Wattle Festival is a significant cultural event for Melbournians that has its roots firmly planted in our early rail history.”
So it would seem that Wattle Day and railway lines go together. I attended the festival with Maggie, and we parked her kombie at Eltham and took the train to Hurstbridge to avoid the inevitable parking problems that we would face there. The stop prior to Hurstbridge is “Wattle Glen”.
Nevertheless, it would appear that the practice of celebrating Wattle Day at Hurstbridge died out at some point, because the current festival began as recently as 2004. This was in response to two key events, outlined as follows on Wikipedia.
1. “In 1988 (19 August) the Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha) was officially proclaimed as Australia’s national floral emblem by the then Goveror-General, the Rt. Hon Sir Ninian M Stephen AK GCMG GCVO KBE.”
2. “Four years later, 23 June 1992, Bill Hayden, the then Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, declared that ’1 September in each year shall be observed as “National Wattle Day” throughout Australia and in the external Territories of Australia.’”
Hurstbridge now even has its own “Wattle Cafe”.
Decorations for the day were elaborate:
Members of the audience gathered under the Wattle Tree.
The signage was also clear.
Of all the VFMC members, I think it is fair to say that Maggie’s ensemble was the most complete.
Undoubtedly, though, our President, Harry, was the most colourful.