AUSTRALIAN EPIPHANY

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Unlike my  ancestors, I  have never thought of England as ‘home’.  However,  I did grow up confused  about my national identity. At primary school  in Tasmania we stood before the flag on Empire Day and sang God Save the Queen before being handed a packet of boiled sweets (I was  so disappointed when it became Commonwealth Day…and an apple!)  In the classroom we studied the  Battle of Hastings and the wives of Henry VIII, but very  little  Australian history.   Years later my niece asked for help on a project about Hume and Hovell  and  I had never heard of them (well except for the Hume highway).  I grew up reading Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens,  and books set in  English boarding schools.

Like many others, I ‘escaped’  as soon as I could,  heading for  Europe on a working holiday.   Later, when I began submitting articles to Australian newspapers and magazines they  were largely  stories inspired by my travels around France and Britain. As an author, my first two books were on British topics, published in London.  Finally, when my partner and I bought a holiday house, it was not  located at an Australian beach resort, but by the River Thames in Buckinghamshire.

A STIRRING OF THE SPIRIT

About ten years ago, everything  changed.  During a period of extended drought, my partner and I  drove  from Sydney  to  the Murray River   via the Central West. For the first time we saw stockmen grazing  cattle by the roadside …..known colloquially as  ‘The Long Paddock’.  We passed  dead kangaroos and dry dams, and  I  recalled Les Murray’s wonderful poem, Rainwater Tank.  Murray  compares  an empty,  corrugated  iron  tank  to  a pile of  bank  stacked coins. His  final lines conjure an image of frogs, calling from the  last  puddle of water;

The downpipe stares drought into it.

Briefly the kitchen tap turns on

then off. But the tanks says Debit, Debit.

The rainwater tank, lile a stack of banker's 'shillings'

The rainwater tank, like a stack of banker’s ‘shillings’.

 

We turned south at Goolgowi and watched with guilty relief as  the landscape changed from dust and empty dams to the   irrigated citrus orchards and vineyards around Griffith. At nearby Leeton  we called at the Visitors’ Centre, built  in 1913 for the head of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation area. A glance into the exhibition room said a lot about big-hearted  rural communities. Every surface was covered with  trays of food.  All the  old Aussie favourites were there; lamingtons, Anzac biscuits, jelly cakes, buttered  pikelets  and slices of iced, cream filled sponges.  The food had been prepared by the Leeton Breast Cancer Support Group, as part of a national charity event;  Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea.  I doubt there was a business in the town which had not ordered one.

Outside in the rose garden stands a  bronze statue of a woman peeling a peach.

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It is a touching memorial to the ladies  who worked at the Leetona Fruit Cannery.  Sadly, the factory  closed in 1994, a victim of both domestic and foreign competition.  But still going strong is the Art Deco Roxy picture theatre, opened in 1930 by the much loved Australian singer, Gladys Moncrief….affectionately known as ‘Our Glad’.

'OUR GLAD'

‘OUR GLAD’ (Wikipedia)

Roxy Theatre, Leeton

Roxy Theatre, Leeton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Around  170km further south we had our first view of the Murray river. It was alarmingly low, and there was something so vulnerable about its exposed banks that I was almost moved to tears. The  bordering red gums were full of noisy corellas, surviving by feeding on rice from a local grain depot.  Both  my partner and I were struck by the  harsh beauty of the scene.

For me, this little road trip was an epiphany.  It dawned on me  that my ‘faraway tree’, had  never  been one  of the giant beech trees along the Thames, but  the old Lucerne tree in the backyard of my childhood home in Tasmania  I remembered my father carting  water from  our farm dams in dry seasons, and  checking the levels of  the homestead rain tanks. I have been writing  almost exclusively about  ‘my country’  ever since.

The author (left) and siblings in the old Lucerne tree.

The author (left) and siblings in the old Lucerne tree.

People may think it’s a bit naff to quote Dorothea Mackellar, but  her words  (written in 1908) still hold true;

Core of my heart, my country!

Land of the rainbow gold,

For flood and fire and famine

She pays us back threefold.

Recently I founded a Facebook site called Australian Social History.  Anyone with an interest in our  rich  culture and colourful  past  is welcome to join. Here is the link. https://www.facebook.com/groups/1476177909360807/

One of my  stories was written in tribute to our female ancestors….pioneer gardeners and  home makers. EVE’S PARADISE

 

12 Comments
  1. I guess I had a similar schooling as you, Pauline, spending my school years in the Deloraine district. Although there was always that strong British influence I don’t believe Australian and Tasmanian history – or literature – was too neglected.
    I also read everything I could get my hands on, including our set of Arthur Mees Encyclopaedia, but it was mostly Australian or British based, and often historical.
    In 1971 we spent a year teaching in Northam, Western Australia and probably saw more of the state than most locals we knew, although we didn’t get any further north than Port Hedland.
    We met a local family who had just returned from a stint in Canada and the wife once told me how, for the first time in her life, she had experienced the four seasons and was then able to really appreciate the works of the English poets that she (like us) had learned at school.
    For me, the experience was just the opposite, like yours! I’d always appreciated English poetry because England is so similar to Tasmania, but after driving across the Nullabor Plain to Northam and then travelling further north, I could at last really appreciate Australian poetry – ‘the wide, brown land’ and ‘a sunburnt country’, etc.
    As my father and his twin brother were born in Scotland, as sons of a WW1 Tasmanian soldier and a WW1 Scottish nurse, I had always had a hankering to go to Scotland, but for various reasons didn’t have that overseas trip before marriage and children.
    It was not until after our daughter had taken off to further her own career in London that we spent 3 months in England, Scotland and Europe in 1993 – unfortunately missing Ireland. It was then that I really appreciated the British history and literature I’d been exposed to! Everything in London and other parts of the UK were so familiar; even France and other European places kindled memories from history lessons and literature.
    In Scotland, of course I was able to ‘walk in the footsteps’ of some of my more recent family ancestors, and after returning home when I’d researched more of my family history I realised I had serendipitously visited other places where some of my ancestors had lived! That’s family history, isn’t it?
    I have just relived some of our journey through my niece’s Facebook journal of her travels in UK and Europe – I’ve shared our family history with her and says she’s felt closely connected in many parts of Ireland and Scotland especially – as I did in 1993. I guess our shared family history is deeply rooted in British soil and I’m still appreciative of my British focussed education!
    One day soon I hope to return to explore Ireland where even more of my ancestors were forced to leave this emerald land for far off Van Diemen’s Land – for a better life!

    • Pauline

      Thanks for your insightful response, Lorraine. My mother’s family, the Larcombes. were from Deloraine. Was a joy to visit Lyme Regis in Devon, where they came from. Have also spent time wandering around churchyards in Hertfordshire, researching my convict Shadbolts. Here is their story. http://paulineconolly.com/2012/the-exoneration-of-solomon-shadbolt/ We too had a set of Arthur Mess Encyclopaedia, I think I read every volume from front to back.

  2. Very interesting, Pauline. Gladys Moncrief was the singer my grandmother always wanted to be but could not because of circumstances in early life. I recently found her autobiography in a little country secondhand bookshop. Thanks for this little reflection.

    • Pauline

      How lucky you are to have that autobiography Stephen. But it’s really sad that she was unable to reach her potential. She would have been very proud of your writing.

      • Thanks, Pauline. I’ve tried to carry her voice through my career in music and in writing.

        • Pauline

          Love the fact that you are celebrating Australia in your work, Stephen.

  3. The more we travel, the more Dorothea Mackellar’s poem resonates with me, so I don’t consider it ‘naff’ in the slightest. I think that she really did capture our country, ‘Her beauty and her terror’ and this is what Australia is. A land of diversity from its geography to our people, and these are some of the things that make Australia unique, and home.

  4. Another enjoyable read. I was born and bred in New Zealand and all our schooling was very British based – probably I’ve realised in more recent times because that’s where all the text books came from. When tracing my ancestry and connecting with an English cousin, she was amazed at how much I knew about British history and geography.

    I moved to Australia at aged 21 and then set about learning all about this wonderful country’s history, geography, fauna and flora.

    Oh and Arthur Mees Encyclopaedia – yet we had a set too and they were well used when doing homework.

    • Pauline

      When we were walking along the Thames Path we used to meet lots of English people who were surprised at our knowledge of English history.
      I started to teach myself French from the little ‘comic strip’ lessons in the Arthur Mees volumes.

      • I can’t believe you used to teach yourself French from the lessons in Arthur Mees. So did I!

        I loved them so much that when it came the time to start high school, I didn’t care which course I took as long as I could study French.

  5. What a beautiful way to describe the dry parched land. Gorgeous!

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