SQ 25 Belfast Calling

Belfast City Hall

Entry 25: Belfast Calling-There are places of wonder, splendour, adventure and transcendence, I suppose. Most Saturday mornings, I sit on the northeast corner of our veranda and flip through the travel supplement of The Sydney Morning Herald as I sip coffee and listen to the radio. In winter, the sun is low enough to stream under the roof and warm my blood as well as that of the small lizards that bask on the red-brick wall opposite.

In summer, the sun is higher and the same corner is shaded and open to the cooling breeze. Why, then, would I want to be anywhere else? I notice that the grey dollar is avidly sought as cruise operators, glamping spruikers as well as the more traditional bus touring companies display their dream destinations in extravagant, adjective-strewn purple prose promising fulfilment of various kinds…of-a-lifetime, of course. To over-promise and under-deliver seems a feature of life today. Does “awesome” retain even a sliver of its original heft?

My dyspeptic cast of thought is not solely due to the advertising copy before me (some of it masquerading as travel writing) but the thought that I must return to the small box-room that I use as a writing post. There, I’ve left an excerpt from Letter III of a Congregationalist minister writing, in 1852, an account of his meeting with some of my forbears in a small house at the entry of a cul-de-sac in the slums of Belfast. Entitled Walks Among the Poor of Belfast…, it is one of the many printed exposés of the effects of extreme poverty in the industrial cities of the UK at the time.

slum

The Reverend W. M. O’Hanlon recounts, the first house we entered was filled with sweeps…it is seldom that even one or two of these dusky ones cross our path without exciting…pity for them…as among the semi-barbarous thralls of society…a conclave of some ten or twelve of them, all duly begrimed, and by no means ashamed to shew their colours, is not an every-day sight. My ancestors of less than two centuries ago reminded the reverend person of, a Pandemonium, only very completely shorn of its terrible sublimity and partaking largely of the burlesque. Deep ignorance is, of course, the prevailing characteristic of this class.

Hardly surprising, if the following testimony is typical, inquiring of one, about eighteen years

chimney sweeps

of age, if he had ever been at school, his reply was, that he had gone to school when a child, for a few days, but, not being able to make anything of it, he had given it up and ever since he had looked upon “the larnin’ as a mighty strange thing.” George Bernard Shaw, in Pygmalion, has Eliza Doolittle’s father make the ironic distinction between the “deserving” poor and the “undeserving” poor and I wonder if the well-meaning O’Hanlon felt he had discovered one of the former in this next extract:

In this singular group, however, we did find one lad able to read a little, and, having furnished him with the means, we set him to work, for his own benefit and that of his black brethren. What means? What work? I ask myself 163 years later, and I have a feeling there

th (8)Chimney Sweep

may be a script, poem, song or short story here. But I must put it on the long finger, to use an Irish expression from the time, because I would like to share with you the fact that the straitened circumstances in which the charitable Reverend found members of my clan were a des res in comparison to what was found in a nearby lane,

in truth, no pure breath of heaven ever enters here; it is tainted and loaded by the most noisome reeking feculence. Surely, we’ve reached the bottom of the pit? But no, there is yet a lower circle in this suburb of hell, still more narrow and wretched containing, I think, nine houses, seven of which, are the abodes of guilt…here every kind of profligacy and crime is carried on…passers of base coin, thieves and prostitutes all herd together…and sounds of blasphemy, shouts of mad debauch, and cries of quarrel and blood are frequently heard here through the livelong night to the annoyance and terror of the neighbourhood…it is the practice of these miscreants to frequent the docks, and, having caught sailors, like unwary birds, in their toils, to allure them into their pitfalls, where they are soon peeled and plundered.

Sounds a bit like Kings Cross of a Saturday night, doesn’t it? O’Hanlon did not live much longer after his encounter with my black brethren and I honour his memory. But, out here on the veranda, as I gaze at the artfully cropped photographs of tourist destinations far and near, I ponder on the images and accounts that are not submitted for my weekend perusal but that would replicate in substance what the Reverend W. M. O’Hanlon Ireland_Belfast_ire1_largediscovered in the city that was my first abode when I left my parents and began my tentative steps as a new husband, a new father and teacher-in-waiting as I dreamt of a new life in Australia:QANTAS 707

SQ 26 Penelope’s Song

Entry 26: Penelope’s Song- In the Glens of Antrim, where I was born, the sea has been aglens powerful shaping force throughout history and, indeed, pre-history. For 10,000 years people have walked through the glens, many having arrived by sea over the millennia and just as many having left by the same means. My father and grandfather were the latest in a long line of Glensmen who sought a livelihood across the sea stretching back to the Neolithic exporters of porcellanite axe heads found the length and breadth of the British Isles and much further afield.

masefieldJohn Masefield has set out in a poem, published in 1902, the allure of the sea-faring life to many a sailor; an allure as powerful as the attractions of the girls from the Belfast brothels of the previous entry.

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,/And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,/And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,/And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.

 For most part, the womenfolk stayed at home and waited and waited; expected to emulate Penelope, spouse of the Greek hero Odysseus who warded off 108 suitors for twenty years by saying she would entertain their suit when she had finished her weaving, an appropriate wifely task. At night, she would undo what she had done the previous day. This embodiment of uxorial decorum is represented in artpenelope by her modest pose of leaning her cheek on her hand, and by her protectively crossed knees, reflecting her long chastity in Odysseus’s absence.

Her name has traditionally been associated with marital faithfulness, unlike her contemporary, Helen, who represents the fatal attraction of faithless beauty: Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? But some recent readings offer a more ambiguous interpretation of Penelope, the wifely paragon.

 As Margaret Attwood has Penelope observe in The Penelopiad, when she recognises her husband’s beggarly disguise but refrains from calling him on it: it’s always an imprudence to odysseusstep between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness.  Continuing the deflation of the legend, she further assets that Odysseus was a liar and drunkard who had fought a one-eyed bartender then boasted it was a giant, cannibalistic Cyclops he had bested through his guile and strength.

 Other, ancient sources including Duris of Samos and Servius, the Virgilian commentator, report that Penelope slept with all 108 suitors in Odysseus’ absence, and gave birth to Pan as a result. One wonders if, in fact, the song of the Sirens that tormented Odysseus was suspicious thoughts of what his wife was up to back in Ithaca.  

 In the early 7th Century, St Isidore, patron saint of the Internet, who is said to have been the last true scholar of the ancient world, asserted in his  Etomologaie that there wereisidore three Sirens…One of them sang, another played the flute, the third the lyre. They drew sailors, decoyed by song, to shipwreck… According to the truth, he asserts, they were prostitutes who led travellers down to poverty.

 In 1917, Franz Kafka writing about these creatures has this to say:  Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly kafkasuch a thing never happened, it is still conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never.

But we don’t have to put up with their silence, thankfully. In my head I hear a partial roll-call of those intrepid men who heeded the summons of the sea and helped shape modern Australia, the place where I now live and call home: Bass, Baudin, Cook, Dampier, D’Entrecasteaux, Flinders, Frecinyet, Furneaux, La Perouse, Tasman, Torres. They all undertook voyages as legendary as that of Odysseus in the Bronze Age. The age of exploration across the vastness of land and sea has passed.australia

I think, instead, of an Irish writer who took on the immense themes found in the Odyssey and presents us with one day in the life of an unremarkable Dubliner as he wanders around his city on the 16th of June, 1904; a most propitious date that is still celebrated in cities around the world as Bloomsday where readings from the text take pride of place. In Sydney, it has been celebrated in a variety of venues including Bondi Beach where Irish backpackers congregate in large numbers in order to redden their pale Celtic backs in the sun and to redden their pale Celtic faces at the pub afterwards.

molly-bloomSome of them may even take part in marking the composition of Ulysses by James Joyce where we find Molly Bloom, who represents Penelope, lying in bed with her husband Leopold Bloom, who is Odysseus. The novel concludes with Molly’s remembrance of Bloom’s marriage proposal. And her reply? …yes I said yes I will Yes.

SQ 27 Paddy Went Home Today

Entry 27: Paddy Went Home Today- In Australia, those men, who enter apprenticeships to become plumbers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics and a host of other trades that construct the protective carapaces in which we exist are designated “tradies” and theytradie have an honoured place in the pantheon of occupations in this land that was dismissively labelled a bricklayer’s paradise in the 1960s when so many found a place in the sun and started to build a new life for themselves and their families.

Even in the early 70s when I first arrived on these shores, the shortage of skilled labour ensured that anyone with a modicum of skill in any trade could walk out of one job in the morning and have another job that afternoon. Advertising reflected this by, for instance, contrasting the pasty-faced white-collar workers glumly eating a business lunch in a restaurant with young, bronzed, muscled office-drudgebuilders happily eating a meat pie outside in the cabin of their Ute. This image has persisted over the decades, even though their golden age has passed and the new economy has its own young guns slinging code and establishing start-ups which are worth millions within a year.

There are lots of paeans to those inhabiting the upper-crust of society- Kings and Queens and the like, and also to those inhabiting the base of the human pie- the peasantry and the proletariat. This entry, though, deals with those who inhabit that special place that will not see them loaded onto tumbrils on the way to the greedy guillotine or consigned to be factory-and-cannon fodder.

But we can’t comfortably categorise them as petit bourgeois either. Soren Kierkegaardkierkegaard wrote, “the petty bourgeois is spiritless…devoid of imagination… he lives within a certain orbit of trivial experiences as to how things come about, what is possible, what usually happens… this is the way the petty bourgeois has lost himself and God This scornful depiction owes more to the prejudices of the philosophical Dane’s affluent middle-class upbringing than any thoroughgoing analysis.

It seems to me that human progress has been accomplished by men and women looking at how things come about, what is possible workersand what usually happens. From pre-historic times, the work and innovation of stone-masons, carpenters, tool-makers, and metalworkers have added to the utility and aesthetics of human existence. From classical times, the ingenuity of plumbers, ship-builders, aqueduct engineers and road-makers has ensured the spread of civilisation.

Modern times owes much of its definition to electricity on demand and, now, the sparkie joins the ranks tradespeople who keep our lives on its comfortable track. Think of the last time your toilet was blocked, or there was a power outage, or the ceiling leaked or if this happened at once- as it might in thehouse aftermath of a storm. Then, you, too, would be singing paeans those who would fix the problems.

Paean is such a strange word- it means enthusiastic praise and derives from a hymn to Apollo, who was physician to the gods. I am reminded of a relatively obscure incident from the Cold War where this word was used in an interesting way. In 1968, the USS Pueblo, an American Naval spy ship, was captured after being fired upon by North Korean navy ships killing fireman Duane Hodges and wounding uss-puebloa third of the contingent. 82 officers and crew were imprisoned and tortured physically and mentally for 11 months.

As part of the conditions for release the captain and officers had to sign an admission crewof guilt. The captain gamed his tormentors, using the word paean to do so. Skip Schumacher, interviewed for the BBC program Witness in 2012, recalls with humour and pride their final act of resistance as the men walked to freedom across the “bridge of no return” at butcherPanmunjom. “Blasted on the loud speakers for all to hear came the booming voice of Commander Bucher wishing to pee on the North Korean navy and most of all pee on Premier Kim ll-sung!”

The crew members, too, were defiant as demonstrated by, on one occasion a group of eight sailors were photographed by the North Koreans to show how well the crew was being treated. In the photograph every sailor held up his middle finger – a lewd gesture that was not recognised by their captors. “We told them the finger was a Hawaiian good luck sign so they thought that was wonderful,” Lt Schumacher remembers.

So, then, what follows is a song of praise- a paean, to the tradies who work long hours for little in the way of glory. I heard about the protagonist of the song when the members of the folk band I was playing in were talking about big drinkers we had encountered duringsheetmetal-worker our working lives. Paddy is based on a sheet-metal worker from inner Sydney, during the boom times of the mid-70s.

SQ 28 Mountains and Trees

Entry 28: Mountains and Trees- I worked a summer job in 1970 at a fish-and-chip shop in Donaghadee, County Down in Northern Ireland. I was trying to gather a few shekels together to get married the following year. There I met an acquaintance from schooldays who was in training to accompany the Queens University Mountaineering Club for an attempt on K2, second highest mountain in the world the following summer break.k2

The Savage Mountain, as K2 is known, has the second highest fatality rate among the eight-thousanders (that is-those 14 mountains above 8,000 metres or 26,247 feet) Their summits are in the death zone which  refers to altitudes above a certain point where the amount of oxygen is deemed insufficient to sustain human life. Yet 33 people have climbed all 14 peaks without extra oxygen. Hundreds have died in the attempt, so death zone seems accurate enough.

messnerWikipedia has a great story concerning ace mountaineer, Reinhold Messner, renowned for making the first ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen and for being the first climber to ascend all fourteen “eight-thousanders: he was given the opportunity by the Chinese government to climb kailash, a mountain sacred to four religions, in the mid-1980s but he declined. In 2001 the Chinese gave permission for a Spanish team to climb the peak, but in the face of international disapproval the Chinese decided to ban all attempts to climb the mountain. Messner, referring to the Spanish plans, said, “If we conquer this mountain, then we conquer something in people’s souls … I would suggest they go and climb something a little harder. Kailash is not so high and not so hard.

Well, at almost 22,000 feet it is no mean mountain, thought by earlier mountaineers to be unclimbable, so Messner’s not so high and not so hard has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Still, it’s good to know that there is a sacred site that has not been trashed by tourists of uluru-lightingone kind or another; unlike Uluru, also known as Ayer’s Rock, in central Australia where visitors regularly ignore requests that the sacred rock is not climbed as are requests that certain sections are not photographed.

Of course, I have climbed nothing much higher than the flat-topped mountain of some eleven hundred feet which towered over my childhood home. I had always regarded it with awe as a child and I finally climbed it in the company of my to-be wife in the spring of 1968. I experienced that senselurig
of exaltation that so many of us report when at the summit of a high place. It’s something to do with being able to see for miles and miles; looking down at the insignificance of humans and their achievements.

You can also lose yourself, in a different sort of way, among the trees. Although limited theoretically to growing less than 130 metres or 430 feet tall, we feel dwarfed by these towering plants that can outlive us by thousands of years as well. Near Bulahdelah, northern NSW in the Myall Lakes National park is the aptly named the Grandis, a 400-year-old gum which soars 76 metres among the surrounding grandisforest.

This area is home, as well, to Australia’s greatest poet, Les Murray, who writes in Noonday les-murray-1Axeman, about his forbears who came here from Scotland to work the timber…my great-great grandfather here with his first sons,/who would grow old, still speaking with his Scots accent, /never having seen those highlands that they sang of. As humans we measure ourselves against just about everything we experience but to compare ourselves to trees is more comprehensible than to set a measure against the mountains of the world, large or small. A. E. Housman, does so in one of his best-known poems,

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/Is hung with bloom along the bough,/And stands about thecherry-blossom woodland ride/Wearing white for Eastertide./Now, of my threescore years and ten,/Twenty will not come again,/And take from seventy springs a score,/It only leaves me fifty more./And since to look at things in bloom/Fifty springs are little room,/About the woodlands I will go/To see the cherry hung with snow.

Compare this to Basho’s terse comment, The oak oaktree:/not interested/in cherry blossoms.

In 1972, we set up home in Wollongong, between the heavily wooded Illawarra Range and the long white beaches washed by the surf sets of the South Pacific Ocean. In 1974 we moved just across from the city’s Botanic Gardens and we would often take the kids to the duck pond or rose garden. I would, on occasion, sit under a tree, reading poetry, strumming my guitar or learning how to play the tin-whistle. During that year, apart from annoying the ducks bybotanical-garden over-blowing, I wrote the song, Mountains and Trees, there; comparing the scenes of my youth in Northern Ireland to the strange and compelling vistas around me.

SQ 29 Home

Entry 29: Home- Let’s start big. We are star-stuff. The heavy elements that make us possible started in stellar furnaces and were blasted across the universe by super-novae and here we are. Our home is the universe. But I wonder how consoling that thought is tosupernova the 100 million plus people on this planet who are categorised as homeless or the 1.6 billion who are inadequately housed according to standards established by the UN?

 Some people live in the one spot, the one dwelling, their whole lives as have their parents and grandparents before them and they, in turn, expect to hand on the home to one or more of their children- but such instances must be rare today. For instance, in the first 45 years of my life, I had lived in twenty different places on three continents. However, for the past twenty years I have lived at the same address.

On those desk calendars with a quote-a-day you will find sentiments such as, home attributed to Pliny the Elder. The Germans have a word for it- Heimat. Wikipedia says, People are bound to their heimat by their birth and their childhood, their language, their earliest experiences or acquired affinity. Heimat as a trinity of descendance, community and tradition highly affects a person’s identity. Historically, it found strength as an instrument of self-assurance and orientation in an increasingly alienating world. It was a reaction to the onset of modernity, loss of individuality and intimate community.

 Heimat is also the overall title of several series of films in 32 episodes written and directed by Edgar Reitz which view life in Germany between 1919 and 2000 through the eyes of a family from the Hunsruck area of the Rhineland. Personal and domestic life is set againstheimaat glimpses of wider social and political events. The combined length of the 32 films is 53 hours and 25 minutes, making it one of the longest series of feature-length films in cinema history.

 A related concept, Heimweh or homesickness, has deep roots and is an ancient phenomenon, mentioned in both Homer’s The Odyssey, where we find Athena arguing with Zeus to bring Odysseus home because he is homesick. “…longing for his wife and his homecoming…” and the Old Testament (Exodus and Psalm 137) “By the rivers of Babylon, babylonthere we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

 But if I started big, I’d like to modulate to something smaller now by taking us to a modest homestead in New England in the opening years of the 20th Century, where a woman, Mary, is waiting for her husband, Warren. She has taken in an old man, Silas, who used to work for them but left over a dispute about money. Warren says bitterly, at one point, Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in. This is from a long, conversational poem byfarmhouse Robert Frost- a wonderful exploration of the concept of home. It touches upon several other themes including family, power, justice, mercy, age, death, friendship, redemption, guilt and belonging. Warren wants to know why Silas didn’t just walk the extra thirteen miles to his well-heeled brother’s place. Mary replies, Worthless though he is,/He won’t be made ashamed to please his brother.

As with all Robert Frost’s long conversational poems, this one is deceptively simple in its structure and language. Warren is reluctant to take his former worker back, and not just because Silas left him at an inopportune time. Mary knows her husband well and she says to him, ‘Warren,’ she said, ‘he has come home to die:/You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.’/‘Home,’ he mocked gently./‘Yes, what else but home? Mary persuades her husband to go and see Silas whom she had left resting on a chair by the stove.

clouds-and-moonI’ll sit and see if that small sailing cloud/Will hit or miss the moon.’ /It hit the moon./Then there were three there, making a dim row,/The moon, the little silver cloud, and she.

 Now, isn’t that breathtaking! The way in which a real poet moves from the mundane to the sublime in an instant and then back again Warren returned—too soon, it seemed to her, /Slipped to her side, caught up her hand and waited./‘Warren,’ she questioned. /‘Dead,’ was all he answered. Dear Listener, please read the complete poem, The Death of the Hired Man where you will experience it in its proper order and complexity.

 On New Year’s Eve, 1999, I was relaxing in my backyard with a beer in my hand and my guitar by my side. My family were all in residence and the sun was shining. The heat of the Australian summer was tempered by a cool breeze. I realised that, for the first time in overbackyard thirty years, I was in a place that I could call home without demur. Usually I wouldn’t have registered the thought but, that day, I wandered inside, collected a pen and notebook and, calling for another beer, I wrote this song:

SQ 30 Perfect (as you can be)

a-chineses-imageEntry 30: Perfect (as you can be)- Sometime in the middle of the 17th Century, somewhere in China, after the fall of the Ming Dynasty, a former mandarin official, Zha Shibiao, found something else to do with his life. He became one of the Four Masters of Anhui and one of the few capable of attaining the three perfections. This title goes back to the 8th Century when the Emperor Xuanzong, delighted by a painting given him, inscribed
xuanzong the words “three perfections” on it.

Since that time the three elements: painting, poetry and calligraphy have been appreciated as the ultimate expression of the visual arts. The calligraphy, in itself of the highest aesthetic value, is further enhanced by the formal beauty of the poem, which comments of the subject-matter of the painting. The complex interplay of these elements, as mediated in the informed mind of the observer of the art-work, results in an increasingly sophisticated appreciation of the composition upon repeated viewings.zha-shibiao

On the western fringe of Sydney, hanging on a wall of the box-room I use for writing, above the printer, is a reproduction of an exemplar of the three perfections. The original: a hanging scroll, ink on paper, measuring 97 inches tall by 28.5 inches wide. The sheer verticality of the format lends itself to the steep cliffs, distant mountains and forest trees depicted. A solitary figure, surrounded by tall trees and standing at the edge of a stream, looks out across the water and up the steep rock face. As we follow his gaze, our eyes are drawn along the gully to a temple which peeks out from behind a vertiginous bluff, one of several, which are surmounted by stands of trees. Our eyes travel ever upwards to view the conical mountains in the distance.

Zha Shibiao, signing himself, The Taoist of Plum Gully, composed the following poem for the landscape (maybe he painted the scene after writing the poem):

A clear stream at the gully’s mouth,/On the stone path I enter the cold forest./It is late as I approach the front of the mountain,/The stream flows off into the distance.

There is a sort of perfection found near running water under trees which are sighing in the breeze, surrounded by steep, wooded slopes flooded by summer sunlight. There’s another sort of perfection found in numbers. Mathematicians claim that beauty, similar to that to be found in painting or literature or music, resides in the rarefied upper reaches of their discipline.

numbersUnable as I am, to ascend even the foothills of that discipline, I content myself with finding nuggets such as, six is the perfect number- Pythagoras and St Augustine agree, though for different reasons. Greek mathematicians regarded as perfect those numbers which equal the sum of their divisors that are smaller than themselves. Such a number is 6, for 1 + 2 + 3 = 6. Similarly, 28, which is 1+2+4+7+14=28. The Bishop of Hippo cited the number of days it took God to create the world as the reason for 6’s perfection.

Other claimants to be considered the perfect number among the single digits include, each and every one! Zero and one can encode the universe in binary form. Two is the smallest prime. Three is the Trinity, four, the points on the Compass, five the fingers of the hand, seven days in a week, the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing started at 8 seconds and 8 minutes past 8 pm on 8 August 2008. There are nine muses in Greek mythology- don’t get me started on the whole nine yards!

What, I wonder, would a perfect person be like? Michelangelo’s David? Perhaps one of Themr-perfect Stepford Wives?? Or what about the perfect society? Calvin’s Geneva? Pol Pot’s Cambodia? In yearning for perfection, like so many other things in life, it is wise to remember the admonition to be careful what you wish for. In Australia, to call any achievement or attainment pretty ordinary is, in fact, a comprehensive put-down.

But what about the situation so many find themselves in where to achieve the merely ordinary would be a blessing, if not a miracle? It was in the mid-70s, living in Wollongong, that I read Thomas Shapcott’s poem, Near the school for child-crossing-roadhandicapped children.  It struck a chord then and that dissonant stack of notes has sounded again and again over the decades since, striking closer to home. This compelling poem gets it right: I am hurt by my wholeness, the poet says when he spots the disabled child whose freckled face reminds him of nephews and how his limbs remind me of how straight/is my own spine and that I take my fingers/for granted. Love blazes out in the simple line, he has been dressed carefully.

When the lights change to green, the child skips across the road like a skimming tambourine/brittle with music, the telling simile with which the poem ends. The light, signalling the ordinary, will be stuck on red forever.tambourine

SQ 31 The Cycle of Love

Entry 31: The Cycle of Love- Gulgong is a memorable spot. Situated ingulgong-panorama-on4_38955r the Central Tablelands of New South Wales about 300 kilometres north-west of Sydney, it afforded the indigenous Wiradjuri people plentiful game and sweet water before white settlement. In the 1820s, conflict between white settlers and the aboriginal inhabitants intensified, with martial law being decreed in 1824. Shooting parties, freed to roam at will, killing the tribespeople on sight, ensured that, within a generation, very few survivors remained. One William Cox, who, according to some abor-conflictsources made a significant contribution to their extermination, claimed the last local black died in 1876. 

By this time, a gold rush had been in full swing for six years, with the population of the area swelling to over 20,000. But by 1881, it was all over, with the population subsiding to a little over twelve hundred souls. In its hey-day, though, Gulgong swanked it with the best of hergoldrush larger metropolitan sisters what, with dancing girls having nuggets of gold thrown in their laps and crowds of rowdy fortune seekers surging through the narrow streets.

Henry Lawson sets the tone in The Roaring Days, So let us fill our glasses/ And toast the Days of Gold;/ When finds of wondrous treasure/ Set all the South ablaze. Between 1870 and 1880, the fabled Cobb and Co coaches took away 483,170 cobb-and-coounces of gold from Gulgong and nearby fieldsAnd the poet captures the excitement of the time with Behind six foaming horses,/And lit by flashing lamps,/Old Cobb and Co., in royal state,/Went dashing past the camps.

Henry would have been somewhat bemused to find himself on the first ten-dollar note, given his lack ofarticle-lead-wide10086lawson luck with money during his lifetime. Almost always desperately poor, he spent time in Darlinghurst Gaol for drunkenness and non-payment of child support. The tone of One Hundred and Three, his prison number, and the title of a sombre poem, published in 1908, is far removed from The Roaring Days, The brute is a brute and a kind man kind and the strong heart does not fail-/A crawler’s a crawler everywhere but a man is a man in gaol!

australia_10dollar_note_1968But I like to think that he would have laughed out loud to find that Francis Greenaway, a convict transported for the crime of forgery, is depicted on the obverse of the note. In 1989 a white VG Valiant drove slowly up to the Ten Dollar Motel as the sun was rising on New Year’s Eve. The back of the 2000 kdancingm  journey between North Queensland and Sydney was broken and that’s how my spine felt as we settled into our rooms.

My wife and daughter were excited by the buzz in the streets, surging again with people, as revellers got set for a night’s dancing and drinking as singers in the town’s pubs revisited the region’s past in varying displays of competency at bush balladeering. The 19th Century streetscape is one of the attractions of the town and it was featured as a backdrop to Lawson’s image on the new decimal currency paper note. We had a fine old time dancing up and down the street as the bush band bashed out old favourites such as The Heel and Toe Polka and before we knew it, a new decade had ticked over.

sydneyReturning to Sydney at the end of 1994, we flew over the sunlit landscape below where a little over four years previously I had managed to take a wrong turn during the night drive down from Queensland and found the redoubtable Valiant bouncing down a dry creek-bed where the big, lazy, Detroit six cylinder, displacing 245 cubic inches, shrugged off the sucking sand and rounded river stones to shoulder past whipping branches as the headlights made crazy patterns in thecreek-bed darkness while my passengers made comments on my sanity and prowess as a driver. When, somehow, I regained a passable dirt road without ripping out the sump, I told my captive audience that I had merely taken a scenic detour to enliven their journey.

I have been back to Gulgong to two more occasions since then, in ’96 and ’97 to take in the Folk Festival at the turn of the year. I would have liked to have played a few sessions in the pubs with the group I helped get started in Sydney, but family circumstances and work commitments made it impossible. However, carting my second-best guitar, I strolled into a pub and, waiting my opportunity, I sang a song I had composed earlier in the year to a small crowd who had done nothing at all to provoke me.

The stimulus for composition was reports in the media about abuse of various kinds that got me thinking that there were more cycles that those of abuse. Standing in the pub that afternoon, what prompted me to unsling the instrument was the sight of an elderly, smiling woman who reminded me of my mother, who had died five years previously.

 As I say, Gulgong is a memorable spot.