I enter the second last day of the residency. Inevitably, some thoughts of the city take hold: what will need to get done, who should be contacted. The longer the residency goes the earlier I seem to wake…this morning the monkish hour of 4.30am. I continue with Bill Gammage, write a letter, check some emails…kangaroos churn across the back paddocks and the morning light arrives saying – sleep no more. Today I’m going with Vic for an interview at ABC Riverina where we’ll talk about the project we’ll endeavour to pull off next year. Sarah, who has been tirelessly preparing my meals and being such an accommodating host leaves for Wollongong later in the day and a rehearsal room to get the band she plays drums for, Bambino Koresh, into shape. We begin to disperse. In some ways, the immediate past will be hard to go back to. In other ways, I feel some good writing progress has been made here and there’s been good news too for the playwrighting in 2013. Now, the life of Dr Lethbridge and his wife Gwen awaits to be developed further and there’ll be talk of how’ll we’ll incorporate the local choir into the monologues. I begin thinking of actors: Mark Lawrence and Lee McGlenaghan to play two roles each. The show has a long way to go but at least we’re out of the driveway.
In my search for more Narrandera biographical subjects, mention has been made a few times of a Doctor Harold Lethbridge. Yesterday I go in search of him. I return to the Parkland Museum where a collection of his books stand, photos of him are present, and some of the Aboriginal artefacts he collected are also displayed. Astonishingly, there is also a restored version of a wool cloak worn by General MaCarthur and handed down through the Lethbridge family to finally arrive in the hands of the doctor. Dr Lethbridge (1880-1944) worked hard later in his life to build a Narrandera Museum. Much of what he collected was lost after his death, when the building was pulled down, and his collection vandalized and looted in storage under the Narrandera sports grandstand. A little of what remains is in the Parkland Museum. He came to Narrandera in 1907 and worked tirelessly as the doctor in the area travelling through the night by horse and buggy to make remote house calls in some very trying weather conditions. He often accepted no pay for the poorer peole of the area, was committed to trying to help the dwindling Wiradjuri population living by The Murrumbidgee and also performed operations on animals. Married to Gwen, they had no children but he raised a friend’s boy – Bill Oliver – while Bill’s parents worked in India. Bill has written a loving biography of the man. In later life, he also learnt to read music and his love of classical music had him forming a Narrandera string enemble. He also had a dedicated interest in Aboriginal songs. It would seem he is a man I’ll be hard passed to ignore as my writing continues.
In America, on the first residency I ever did, I met an American novelist by the name of Joe Caldwell. Jo was into his early 80s, was reading Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past for the third time (extraordinary when you consider it’s 3,500 pages) and wrote his novels by hand and typewriter. His publisher would eventually take the typewritten version he’d submitted and scan the pages. Joe was not worrying about trying to use a computer. He hadn’t gone to email. While just prior to dinner, other artists might have used their own computers or the house ones, Joe would relax and just read the New York Times before the dinner bell rang. He also had some good advice about time when doing a residency. He told me on his first residency he wondered how he would fill in the day. He had never before had the open ended luxury of every moment being available for his writing. He said for the first few days he was thrown by this but gradually a groove and routine came about and it was never ever a worry again. Yesterday felt like the Joe Caldwell groove he’s referring too. It was a very satisfying day: giving feedback over email for the pieces the workshop participants gave me, more of the Bill Gammage book, continuing to write about Shirley Bliss, and some organizational work for other projects. In the evening, we listened to a friend’s instrumental album. Once a groove establishes, the amount of work acheived can be a real surprise to oneself. That’s the magic of a residency, the feeling that this is what I really want to be doing.
On a residency program such as this, I confront my urban/suburban condition and to some extent my suburban upbringing. My reading over the past week is so far from it all. Land divisions, wheat growing, irrigation methods, people fighting on through drought and floods. Bill Gammage’s book Narrandera Shire (1986) is teaching me to look at the countryside with new admiration. Neil Murray, once of The Warumpi Band, and now mostly a solo singer/songwriter wrote of how white Australians ‘live on the land, not in it’. One thing Gammage’s book will have drained out of me (for awhile anyway but hopefully forever) is the tedium I’ve often felt from car travel on familiar Victorian and NSW roads. Having said that, turning his enormous library of facts and anecdotes from the 19th and early 20th century into pieces of theatre is no easy task. Amongst this indecision, I’m reminded of attempting in the late 90s a series of poems about The Wimmera. I didn’t do very well and it was a dent to the confidence. Some years later (kind of slowly) came the realization that my writing strengths are probably in ‘human nature’ rather than landscape and nature itself. So it seems prominent people of the more recent past or fictional characters based on Narrandera’s history will inevitably be the end result of the residency, as much as I’d like to break over into rural history dating back much further. Regardless of my failings on this level, I’m thankful for Bill Gammage in opening my eyes strongly away for a time from what original Ultravox frontman and now academic John Foxx calls urban environments, that is – ‘grey nature’. Gammage and Foxx, now there’s an unlikely combination!
Seven writers congregated at the Narrandera Railway Station Arts Hub for a three hour workshop yesterday. From family memoir to poetry for children to short plays to fantasy and horror interests, the participants made it a joy to do. Roy Wade, somewhat of a local historian was also there. At the break, he told me of some other notable Australians to add to my growing list, one being the famous horse trainer Tommy Smith whose daughter Gai Waterhouse is very prominent now in the same field. Midnight Oil had a song in the mid 80s called Jimmy Sharman’s Boxers from their Red Sails In The Sunset album. It’s a harrowing tale about the travelling tent shows that moved hundreds of miles each night from small town to small town and the men who fought to make a living. Jimmy Sharman it turns out was a Narrandera boy. After the workshop, Roy took me to the house of Fr Hartigan (nee John O’Brien) who was Parish Priest of Narrandera from 1917-1944 and was also one of Australia’s most well-known poets. I have owned a record for years called My Country – Australian classic poems read by Leonard Teale and amongst the Pattersons and Lawsons is ‘Said Hanrahan’ by John O’Brien. His house has retained much of what was part of the poet’s life including the most enormous and heavy Webster dictionary I’ve ever encountered that was sitting on the top of his desk. O’Brien immortalized his maid, Josephine, in a well-known poem, and her quarters at the back of the house looked as if no-one else had entered since the end of the Second World War. An inspiring visit. Today I’ll return to finding out more about Shirley Bliss and the early lives of Sharman and Smith. At this stage I’m planning for three monologues. Hopefully by the end of this week, all three will sit comfortably with each other and be suited to the Narrandera Railway Station car-park where they will be performed in the first half of next year.
A friend of mine once said to me that if your neighbour saw you walk out to your letterbox eight times a day to check for mail…well, maybe they’d consider calling a doctor. But for the writer or any artist, a looming application decision can lead you down this potentially agitating and unconcentrated path. At my first overseas residency in late 2008, I took no computer. I wrote in notebooks and used the house computer by the dining room. No mobile phone. No Ipod. At the second residency in late 2009, I did take a computer. I did have an Ipod. I borrowed somebody’s mobile a couple of times. Now at my third residency this week I’ve got it all: a mobile handy, Wi-Fi anytime I need it, the same Ipod (classified as a great retro Ipod the last time I was in Sydney admittedly)…so inevitably more distraction than before. And I wasn’t on Facebook back then either. All of this may have made me more efficient but I do wonder if it’s making me more imaginative. Yesterday felt extremely strong dealing with the ‘business’ of writing. That has its own satisfactions but one must remember to keep the creative ball rolling. The late Sydney poet, John Forbes, once wrote: ‘If you take care of the art/your sister, life, takes care of the human part…’ Sadly for John who died in his late 40s, that second wise line was not to hold true…but they are two lines I won’t ever forget and I have to keep remembering them.
In the early 90s when I was at RMIT in Melbourne, a popular writing style was dirty realism. It was all the rage. Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Bobbie Ann Mason and many others provided valuable lessons in stripping things back without loss of emotional effect. Dirty realism was attractive to new writing students because on the surface it seemed possible to do. Even easy. But, of course, it wasn’t easy to do well. While these Americans were being widely discussed in the classroom, in the pubs of Fitzroy plenty of readings of varying styles, allegiances and quality were going on. Frank Hardy of Power Without Glory fame would occasionally drop in to the Saturday afternoon one at The Perseverance Hotel on Brunswick St. Frank was a great orator and pipe smoker. I found a book of his tall stories around this time called The Yarns of Billy Borker. Some of these yarns were made for TV by the ABC in the 60s. Billy would walk into a pub, con some poor fella into buying the beer and then reward the fellow with a very tall story. Reading about some of the droughts and floods that The Riverina has endured over the past 100 years, I was struck by the idea of a Billy Borker inspired character who, every time he comes to Narrandera, is said to be the cause of momentous and damaging weather. I begin a monologue with the character’s name being Drought’n’Rain. As he’s 114 years old, he’s seen it all beginning with dust storms during the 1914-15 drought! Throughout this week I had been thinking that my subjects would be strictly historical and biographical. The others may still turn out this way. But for now, to kick things off, the people of Narrandera have bloody had enough of my bad luck carrier – Drought’n’Rain!
I’ve never heard a station so comprehensive on weather as ABC Riverina. Weather of course means more in the country when it decides your livelihood and the ABC wisely realize this. They provide exact amounts of rain predicted for town after town. I’m not sure if I heard Barellan mentioned in the broadcast but the 55km drive to there from Narrandera provided a slow part of the road that was still sandbanked from floods earlier in the year, herds of sheep covering the road both ways, and on arrival, a rain that could soak you right through in seconds. I go out there mainly to see Barellan’s Big Tennis Racquet. Barellan was the hometown of 1971 and 1980 Wimbledon champ, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley. I still remember how thrilled Australia was when she won her second Wimbledon. Already a mother, it was an incredible acheivement. Even Molly on Countdown played the final point! Barellan with a population of only 250 has seen more active days. Don, who kindly opened the well-maintained museum for me, takes me through photos of war heroes, school classes and railway celebrations. Evonne’s in there too of course and the big racquet was unveiled at Barellan’s centenary in 2009. From the museum, I go and look at the tennis courts and imagine Evonne playing there as a child. For an Aboriginal girl of the 50s and 60s to be plucked from a town such as this by Sydney coach Vic Edwards and moulded into a seven time Grand Slam winner…well if this was an American story, you’d expect Hollywood would have already made it! Not so here – yet. Heading back to Narrandera, the library provides valuable anecdotal reading from the Jack McInnes book Riverina Ramblings. There’s lots of valuable and enterprising local histories such as these done with plenty of heart, soul and devotion. Jack’s book is interspersed with his and others bush verse. The stories I’m trying to write continue to build today thanks to him.
Searching for my play subject I visit the local barber and get him talking, visit a local hotel in the middle of the day and get no-one talking, work my way to the visitor information centre where I discover Billy ‘Bad Habits’ Field grew up around the corner, and where the once largest playable guitar is housed. Over to the local history museum, a bargain at $2, the co-ordinator is a fountain of stories. This leads me to a telephone chat with historian Jeff Sullivan. Then I visit the library where I discover the still very prominent bush poet Father Hartigan who wrote under the pseudonym ‘John ‘OBrien’ is well-represented. Father Hartigan was Parish Priest of St. Mel’s Narrandera between 1917-1944. CJ Dennis encouraged him to publish with Angus and Robertson and several of his poems sit in the Australian bush canon along Lawson, Patterson and Dennis himself. In March next year there is a John O’Brien Bush Poetry Festival where Brisbane-based performer Noel Stallard performs his work. Much to my surprise, Stallard apparently travels the country being the good priest and makes a living from it! After visiting a memorial plaque up at the church dedicated to the priest slash poet, I realize he may just be a slightly too well-known subject for my intentions. My mind then turns back to the local history museum and to a Miss Riverina who went on to become the Miss Australia of 1954. A dressmaker from Narrandera, Shirley Bliss, had a whirlwind year. 1954 was the first year the competition, which started in 1908, aligned itself with charity work via various spastic centres across Australia, providing a balance between numerous glitzy gala engagements. The search continues today for my subject but Shirley could possibly be the new play I’m looking for.
‘Gammage is king of the land’ – Gregory Day
Adelaide based historian Bill Gammage who has taken all before him in recent non-fiction literary prizes is the man providing the background story of the Narrandera Shire. A superbly detailed, eight years in the making book, Narrandera by Gammage was published in 1986. Gammage’s devoted research to the area is the lead in for me to try and find a subject for a site-specific play to be set at Narrandera Railway Station in the first half of 2013.
To be a one-man show augmented by the local Narrandera choir, the play will coincide with Narrandera’s 150th birthday celebrations. It will be a challenge. With plays in my back catologue that have titles like ‘A Fitzroy Romance’ and ‘Friday Night, In Town’ plus a lot of my work covering suburban landscapes, the concept of an historical and small town inspired work is a large departure.
For now it will be reading, some chats with locals, a visit to the history museum. Hopefully later in the week I will have hit upon my story.