With the recent death of my friend, Hugh McDonald, I have begun to look more closely at the words of his masterpiece, “The Diamantina Drover”.
It contains many puzzles.
I have heard Hugh say he wrote it when he was 24. He was born in July 1954, so this means it was written in the second half of 1978, or the first half of 1979. Hugh did not join Redgum until 1982 (and the song was first recorded in that year). Hugh’s wife, Rebecca Harris Mason, has confirmed for me that he did indeed write the song well before joining Redgum.
Hugh told me he wanted to write a ‘timeless’ song, as a reaction to the topical nature of so much of Redgum’s repertoire. (Obviously he was well aware of Redgum’s music well before joining the band, as so many of us were.) He wanted to write a song that did not relate to any specific event, political or otherwise. He certainly achieved that. The song is now regarded almost as a traditional folk song. I suspect many believe it was written a lot earlier than it was.
Hugh has also said the song is about running away from life’s troubles. What troubles was Hugh trying to run away from at the time?
The faces in the photograph have faded,
And I can’t believe he looks so much like me.
So, who is ‘he’? For a long time, I couldn’t decide if ‘he’ was father or son. I think he must have been father, but why the surprise? It suggests the narrator felt he had little in common with his own father. Is that how Hugh felt about his own father, the war hero and country doctor?
Also, why not say “I can’t believe I look so much like him”? That would make more sense to ponder the resemblance of the younger to the older. It is very poetic, though, to turn it around like this. It brings to mind the classic Dylan line: “But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
For it’s been ten years today
Since I left for Old Cork Station,
Sayin’ “I won’t be back till the drovin’s done.”
“Old Cork Station” is a real place. Had Hugh ever visited it? Not that I am aware.
I don’t think he ever visited the Diamantina, either, but he knew of it, and loved the sound of the name. (Rebecca has confirmed this for me also.)
At the time the song was released, Hugh talked about meeting a Queensland drover on a train trip, and dedicating the song to him. Towards the end of his life, however, he admitted there had been no drover, and no train. What there had been was an elderly neighbour, who told stories, when Hugh was growing up in Kerang in country Victoria. (Rebecca tells me the neighbour was actually a logger.)
For the rain never falls on the dusty Diamantina,
And a drover finds it hard to change his mind.
So the hardship of the lifestyle, rather than discouraging the drover, is actually part of the reason why he stays.
For the years have surely gone
Like the drays from Old Cork Station,
And I won’t be back till the drovin’s done.
So when will the droving be done? If it refers to an individual season, it is long done. Taken more broadly, however, it will never be done.
(A dray, by the way, is a cart without any sides.)
I find the next lines – the second verse – fascinating.
Well it seems like the sun comes up each mornin’,
Sets me up and takes it all away.
Here the sun is life-giver, but also deceptive. It appears to offer promise, but then lets you down. Daylight is the friend, night is the enemy.
Yet we see this reversed with the next line.
For the dreaming by the light
Of the camp fire at night
Ends with the burning by the day.
Now it would appear that night is the friend – the time for dreams – while the daylight – the burning – is the enemy.
So we see two opposite metaphors employed to express the same emotion – that of dreams and aspirations being nurtured, only to be taken away. The circularity underlines the general ‘dead-endedness’ – the emotional emptiness of the drover – which lies at the heart of the song.
Clearly this theme of shattered hopes was very much on the mind of the young Hugh McDonald. Yet the whole song is, of course, a metaphor. Hugh was not a drover himself. What were the dreams on his mind at the time, I wonder?
We know that he did not enjoy his time at boarding school. His university career was fairly abortive. Would he have loved to be a doctor, like his father?
Sometimes I think I’ll settle back in Sydney,
But it’s been so long it’s hard to change my mind,
For the cattle trail goes on and on
And the fences roll forever,
And I won’t be back till the drovin’s done.
Was it too late now for Hugh to turn away from his career as a musician?
I expect if Hugh was here today and asked to clarify some of these mysteries, he would shrug his shoulders nonchalantly and say, “It was a long time ago. Who cares?” (Indeed, I did try to clarify them when he was alive, and that was pretty much the response I got.)
Of course, the song is a timeless classic, and many people will continue to care for a long time.
I think it is pretty safe to say the song was penned in an inspired moment, a largely subconscious act. Hugh probably couldn’t have answered some of these questions any better at the time.
“The Diamantina Drover” is a wonderful song that could probably only have been written by a young person at the height of their imaginative powers.
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.
It was a great weekend.
2014 Bush Poetry fundraiser on Herring Island for Yarra Riverkeepers
The Yarra Riverkeepers held their second bush poetry fundraiser at Herring Island yesterday afternoon. The first was held in October last year. I was asked once again by Andrew Kelly, recently appointed as Riverkeeper, to rustle up the poets and MC the event.
I was again joined this year by reciters Dave Davies and Jim Smith, and poet Edel Wignell. Singer/songwriter Maggie Somerville provided some musical relief.
The weather was kind to us once again. There was bright sunshine for most of the afternoon, although the wind proved a bit of a challenge at times.
We had a capacity crowd, which was very exciting. Fortunately, unlike last year, the microphone behaved itself!
Here is Andrew introducing the afternoon.
A wide variety of material was on offer. The old masters – Henry Lawson, C. J. Dennis, etc. – were well represented, but there was also plenty of contemporary material, much of it original.
Dave Davies recited “The Grog and Grumble Steeplechase” by Henry Lawson.
Edel Wignell told us, amongst other things, about a dog on a trampoline, Harvey, “the bouncing, squat, Staffordshire bull terrier”.
Jim Smith recited a very moving piece – part poetry, part song – by the American writer Gordon Bok. It referred to the selkie legend – seals that change their form to become human. There is a very interesting link between Bok and the Riverkeepers. The Riverkeeper organisation began on the Hudson River in New York state, around the time that Pete Seeger was sailing up and down the Hudson in the Clearwater, also attempting to clean up the river. Jim told us that the captain of the Clearwater was none other than Gordon Bok!
The reason Jim was telling us about selkies was, as he explained, that it used to be very common for seals to be sighted in Australian waterways, including the Yarra, often many hundreds of miles from the coast. Indeed, seals are still occasionally sighted in the Yarra.
I had a chance to read some of the poems I have recently written based on the book “Ferries on the Yarra”, by Colin Jones – an absolute wealth of fascinating historic information.
Maggie sang four songs, some Yarra-related, others not. We sang “Muddy Old Yarra” by Clem Parkinson together, to round out the first half of the show. Maggie then finished the afternoon with “Our Sweet Yarra”, a song she had written based on a poem I had written for the show last year. She followed with “Waratah Bay”, a very popular song from her CD, dedicated to a beautiful part of Australia in South Gippsland. The afternoon finished with her song, “The Sash”, based on my poem of the same name, that tells the story of the child Ned Kelly receiving a green sash for saving the life of a drowning boy in the town of Avenel.
It was a very enjoyable afternoon. Thanks to the many – performers, audience, the Yarra Riverkeepers and their army of volunteers, and Parks Victoria – for making it all possible.
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 weekend the Victorian Bush Poets and Music Association held its annual Muster at the Benalla Bowls Club. I attended with my dear friend Maggie Somerville, and we had a wonderful time.
The event is a little smaller and less formal than it once was, when the event also hosted the Australian Bush Poetry Association Victorian Championships. There is still some fierce competition in various categories, though (notably the two song competitions – Original and Non Original – and the Novice Poetry competition). There is plenty of scope also for the enjoyment of poetry and song in a relaxed, non-competitive environment.
The highlight of the weekend for me was…drumroll, please…Maggie Somerville’s win in the Original Song competition, with her beautiful song “Waratah Bay”. She absolutely nailed it with her performance, and the icing on the cake was her whistling, which everybody seemed to love. (“Waratah Bay”, for those who don’t know, is a lovely long stretch of untouched beach in South Gippsland, near Wilsons Promontory. Maggie has been visiting there on her holidays for many years.)
Here she is with her trophy in her hands.
Maggie also came second to Ken Prato in the Novice Poetry with her poem, “Mozzed”, inspired by my book, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”.
The weekend, as always, was a wonderful chance to catch up with many like-minded souls, and celebrate together our love of spoken word and music. We also celebrate, of course, our love of Australia and its history.
The weather was warm and sunny all weekend, and Maggie and I found time to visit the curious but extraordinary sculpture (what should it be called?) that sits on the northern bank of the Broken River, between the bridge and the museum.
The only chance to perform outside in the glorious weather came at the war tribute beside the statue of “Weary” Dunlop in the gardens.
All in all, I had a wonderful weekend, meeting old friends, and making new ones. I even sold a few books!
Thanks to Jan Lewis and her army of volunteers for making it happen once again.
Significant dates in the life of C. J. Dennis: 9th October
This must surely be one of the very most significant dates in the life of C. J. Dennis, for it is the date of publication by Angus & Robertson – 99 years ago – of his blockbuster masterpiece, “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”.
Dennis initially had very modest hopes for the book, and was as shocked as everyone with its phenomenal success. According to Wikipedia, the first print run consisted of 2,500 copies only, but a further 5,000 were released several weeks later, on 2nd November. Another 5,000 were released on 6th December, another 5,000 on 25th January (presumably after a bit of a break over Christmas and New Year), and on it went. Within eighteen months it had sold 66,000 copies!
Indeed, the relationship between Dennis and his publisher, George Robertson, got off to a very shaky start. Robertson resented Dennis giving him details about how the book should be published. He replied, “We like your stuff, but we don’t like your letter. We are publishers, and do not take instructions from authors…” Dennis apologised (after a fashion…), and the relationship was soon on a firm footing, which it never lost.
It was Lawson who first introduced Dennis to George Robertson when Dennis had been in Sydney the year before, 1914. Indeed, it seems likely that Lawson can claim at least part of the credit for Angus & Robertson accepting “The Sentimental Bloke” after it had been rejected by several publishers.
Lawson was already very much a literary star by then and, with that in mind, Dennis asked him to write a Foreword to the book. Lawson was happy to oblige, but Dennis was uncomfortable with much of what he had written. Lawson made reference to the class struggles evident in the book, but did so in what Dennis felt was a rather sour way, and he was concerned that it might put some readers off. Lawson eventually more or less agreed to sign anything that Dennis wrote on his behalf. (Dennis eventually partially repaid this debt when he tried – unsuccessfully – to secure a pension from the government for Lawson towards the end of his life.)
“The Sentimental Bloke” outsold all of Lawson’s books, and the joke is sometimes made that the most successful thing Lawson ever wrote was the Foreword to “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” – and he didn’t even write it!
Next year – 2015 – will mark the centenary of the publication of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”.
I’ve been asking myself for a while how the sculptor Charles Web Gilbert, born in central Victoria in 1867, came to acquire an interest in Buddhism.
Specifically, he was born in Cockatoo, near Maryborough, roughly halfway between Bendigo and Ballarat, so it is reasonable to assume he had at least some contact with the Chinese community which was living on the Victorian goldfields at the time. Some friends recently convinced me that this is where his interest came from.
However, giving it some further thought over the weekend, I am not so sure.
I am now inclined to think the answer lies elsewhere.
To quote Wikipedia, on the subject of “Buddhism in Australia”:
“In 1891 the American Buddhist Henry Steel Olcott, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, came to Australia and participated in a lecture series, which led to a greater awareness of Buddhism in small circles of mainly upper-class society. One of the members of the Theosophical Society was future Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, who had spent three months in India and Sri Lanka in 1890 and wrote a book which discussed spiritual matters, including Buddhism.”
Perhaps it was a combination of the two. Either way, it seems to me highly likely that Gilbert came into contact – either directly or indirectly – with the teachings of Olcott.
1891, of course, was a seminal year in Australian history. It was the year of the first of the famous shearers’ strikes, which pitted union and non-union shearers against each other as wool prices fell with the coming of the Depression. This was the political backdrop against which Lawson and Paterson wrote, and which led ultimately to the formation of the Australian Labour Party.
I have mentioned before that Gilbert and Lawson were both born in the same year so, perhaps, while Lawson was becoming increasingly involved in the shearers’ cause, Gilbert was learning about Buddhism. Of course, Gilbert could have been concerned about the shearers’ plight also. I have no evidence about this one way or another. (C. J. Dennis, incidentally, turned 15 in September 1876. It is probably reasonably safe to assume he wasn’t particularly concerned with either the shearers or Buddhism at the time.)
So why did Gilbert choose to submit a Buddhist sculpture as his contribution to the Springthorpe Memorial for the Kew Cemetery in the late 1890s? My suspicion is that there was a touch of mischief on his mind, and that he more than half expected it to be rejected – as indeed it was.
The lyrics to “The Ballad of 1891” can be found here:
Significant dates in the life of C. J. Dennis: 3rd October
It occurred to me it might be fun to make occasional blog entries based on significant dates in the life of C. J. Dennis (now that I am President of the C. J. Dennis Society!).
The first of these would appear to be 3rd October.
In fact, it is significant for two reasons.
Firstly, it is the birthday of John Garibaldi (“Gary”) Roberts, who was born in Scarsdale, near Ballarat, in 1860. Roberts and his wife, Roberta (nee Dickson, born in New Zealand), were keen patrons of the arts. Gary and Roberta bought a hobby farm, “Sunnyside”, in what was then South Sassafras, and is now Kallista, in the Dandenong Ranges, in order that their son, Frank, who had become disenchanted with life as a bank worker, could try his hand on the land. They also ran it as an “artists’ colony”.
Roberts held a senior position in the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board, and was wealthy. He arranged for a number of the old horse-drawn tram cars that had been rendered obsolete by the new cable tram technology to be taken to “Sunnyside” as accommodation for his many visiting friends.
It was in one of these tram cars, renovated especially for him, that Dennis finished the writing of his masterpiece “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”. Indeed, the character of the Bloke himself, becoming, as he does, a berry farmer at the end of the book, is modelled partly on Frank Roberts. (It was also Frank who supervised the arrival of the tram cars, and arranged for their renovation.)
It is also worth noting that Dennis wrote “The Play” – possibly the greatest of all his poems – very shortly after his first visit to “Sunnyside”.
Dennis was largely estranged from his own family, and Gary and Roberta became, for a while at least, like an alternative family for him. Indeed, he called them “Mum” and “Dad”, and dedicated “The Sentimental Bloke” to them. (Some years later, and with some justification, Gary felt that Dennis had “dropped” them.)
The painter, Tom Roberts (no relation) was also an occasional visitor to “Sunnyside”, and he painted a portrait of Gary.
So much for the first reason why 3rd October was a significant date in the life of C. J. Dennis.
The second reason relates not to a birth, but a death – it is the date of the death of Charles Web Gilbert.
Gilbert was a sculptor – self taught – who was born at Cockatoo, near Maryborough, in 1867 (the same year as Henry Lawson). He initially worked as a cake decorator, and developed from there to eventually working in marble, and casting in bronze. Gilbert was one of the “Sunnyside” regulars so, for a time at least, he must have been reasonably close to Dennis.
While the degree of his closeness to Dennis may be debatable, he was certainly close to the Roberts. He moved to London for a time before the outbreak of World War One and later, when Frank enlisted, Frank spent time staying in London with Gilbert.
Frank was tragically killed in the Battle of Mont St. Quentin, one month before the Armistice. Gilbert was commissioned by the Australian government to make a statue to commemorate this very famous victory – engineered by Sir John Monash – and he wrote to Gary that he planned to model the soldier on Frank. (The historian Peter Stanley, however, in his book “Men of Mont. St. Quentin”, questions whether this in fact happened.)
Gilbert created more war memorials than any other Australian. Not only was he self taught, but he was very much a “one man band”. In his studio in Napier Street, Fitzroy, he did all the work himself. This included wheeling heavy barrows of clay to make the original models, the creation of plaster casts that were laid over the clay, and the ultimate pouring of the liquid bronze into the plaster. Indeed, he died while wheeling a barrow on 3rd October, 1925, at the age of 58 (three years after the death of Henry Lawson).
So Gilbert died on Gary Roberts’ birthday.
Perhaps Gilbert’s best known sculpture is that of Matthew Flinders, situated outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Swanston Street, Melbourne. It was unveiled one month after his death.