The Blue Mountains: A Poem by Henry Lawson

Above the ashes straight and tall,
Through ferns with moisture dripping,
I climb beneath the sandstone wall,
My feet on mosses slipping.

Like ramparts round the valley’s edge
The tinted cliffs are standing,
With many a broken wall and ledge,
And many a rocky landing.

And round about their rugged feet
Deep ferny dells are hidden
In shadowed depths, when dust and heat
Are banished and forbidden.

The stream that, crooning to itself,
Comes down a tireless rover,
Flows calmly to the rocky shelf,
And there leaps bravely over.

Now pouring down, now lost in spray
When mountain breezes sally
The water strikes the rock midway,
And leaps into the valley.

Now in the west the colours change,
The blue with crimson blending;
Behind the far Dividing Range,
The sun is fast descending.

And mellowed day comes o’er the place,
And softens ragged edges;
The rising moon’s great placid face
Looks gravely o’er the ledges.

[Photo: view from Govetts Leap, Blackheath]

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Farewell to the Godfather of Australian Crime Writing

On 30 August 2018, Peter Corris passed away. Corris is widely regarded as the godfather of Australian crime writing. His first Cliff Hardy novel came out in 1980, The Dying Trade. Corris went on to write over forty Hardy novels, along with an extensive collection of other fiction and non-fiction titles. A historian by trade, he was an academic and journalist before writing became his full-time profession.

I discovered Cliff Hardy in the last six years, enjoying his investigations which traversed Sydney and with various parts of the state and country along with occasional overseas jaunts. Hardy was an old-style private investigator with connections to police as well as darker elements in society. He had his own style of justice and it wasn’t always conventional. Hardy had a best mate in the police force as well as a number of love interests over the years. There was an ex-wife and a daughter, who Hardy was unaware of until they met when she was an adult. Their relationship, although initially awkward, was developed with realistic resonances over time. I enjoyed these books as a reader and a listener: many of the audiobooks were read by Peter Hosking, who will remain as the gruff voice of Hardy in my mind. There is a good overview of the Hardy series here, and a spotlight review of The Dying Trade here by the marvellous Margot Kinberg.

In the last few years, Corris had been a regular contributor to the Newtown Review of Books blog. Most Fridays there would be a brief but thoughtful article from Corris on all manner of things. Some that come to mind are his posts on musical influences in his life, audiobooks (his eyesight diminished significantly which impacted his ability to both read and write), places that he had lived, and gardens that his wife, Jean, had created in their various homes over the years. Sport also featured, along with people that he had met at various stages across his career.

I will not be alone in missing the writing and thoughtfulness of Peter Corris, and my Fridays won’t be quite the same without his regular presence.

[Photo: Sydney Harbour – Sydney was Hardy’s city and he knew it well]

Hambledon Cottage, Parramatta

Tucked away on the remnants of the once extensive Elizabeth Farm property is Hambledon Cottage. Elizabeth Farm is the oldest remaining European building in Sydney and was one of the major estates in the Parramatta/Rose Hill district. It was built for John and Elizabeth Macarthur in 1793 and is managed by Sydney Living Museums.

Hambledon Cottage was built in 1824 to provide accommodation for extra guests staying at Elizabeth Farm, and initially offered sleeping quarters only; the kitchen, laundry and coach house followed later. One of the most well-known residents of Hambledon Cottage was the Macarthur’s governess, Penelope Lucas.

Withdrawing Room

Withdrawing Room

Lucas arrived in the colony in 1805 with Elizabeth Macarthur, eldest daughter of John and Elizabeth. Elizabeth had travelled to England with her father and brothers but it was decided that it would be best to send her home and have her educated in the colony. A governess was sought and Lucas was the successful applicant.

With limited social circles in the small colony, it was inevitable that Elizabeth Macarthur and Penelope Lucas would be spending considerable time together, and not just in the education of the Macarthur daughters. Penelope was financially independent, or at least had her own financial means of support. In 1827, Penelope moved to the cottage upon her retirement and it was her home until her death in 1836. A small annuity and the use of the cottage had been left to Penelope in John Macarthur’s will.

Kitchen

Colonial Kitchen

Lucas had named the cottage ‘Hambledon’ after her former house in Hampshire. The cottage continued to be used by the Macarthur family before being sold off in the late 1800s and having various owners until it was acquired by Parramatta City Council in 1953. It has been leased to the Parramatta and District Historical Society since 1965 and is furnished with pieces from 1820-1890 to cover the Macarthur period of ownership.

The cottage itself consists of a couple of bedrooms located around the withdrawing room and dining room. The main bedroom is dominated by heavy furniture, including an Australian red cedar four poster bed. The bed had its origins in Parramatta, and after a varied life made its way to the cottage, which is beautifully maintained by the Parramatta Historical Society.

Hambledon Cottage garden

Hambledon Cottage garden

There is a study which includes several items of furniture originating from the household of Reverend Samuel Marsden. Marsden was a formidable presence in the early colony, and his reputation, like John Macarthur’s, tended to divide people into supporters or detractors. Marsden’s missionary work extended to New Zealand and in the Parramatta and Harris Park areas, there are streets named for New Zealand locations in honour of Marsden’s work and land holdings which once extended through this part of the colony.

In the study, there is also a drawing of a horse-drawn ferry, an early attempt to speed up the journey by boat from Sydney Cove to Rose Hill. It wasn’t a great success, as the horses weren’t keen on the endless looping in a circle to power the ferry.

The house is decorated with a mixture of furniture and fittings complimentary to the period in which it was built. There are many stories contained within, and the displays change throughout the year. Part of the cottage is also used as a display gallery, featuring an exhibition called HERSTORY, tracing the lives of convict women who passed through the Parramatta Female Factory.

There’s something about the word pictures created by some of the volunteer guides who provide tours around the cottage. On the most recent trip, the guide shared a vision of the retired governess and Elizabeth Macarthur walking from Elizabeth Farm to Hambledon Cottage of an evening after supper, two older ladies talking softly or sharing a companionable silence. A nice image to ponder on.

There is a lovely memorial to Penelope Lucas in St John’s Cathedral at Parramatta which you can see here.

[Photo of Hambledon Cottage from Gregory Place (side view)]

This Reading Life

I love reading. It has been a constant source of pleasure and joy in my life. From the fairy tales and fables of my childhood to reading novels, short stories and non-fiction, some of my happiest moments have been spent lost in the world of words.

These days I tend to mix my reading up a bit in terms of format. I still have many physical books, but I’m also accumulating ebooks and audiobooks. Depending on the book and the narrator, sometimes I will read a book across both formats, enjoying the simple pleasure of reading before sleep, or just for the sheer joy of it, and being able to keep the story going by listening to it whilst I’m doing other things. There are times when an accented narration makes it a bit hard for me to catch some words and I end up returning to the written format (this happened recently with Adrian McKinty’s first Sean Duffy book). It can also happen in reverse. I was finding it difficult to find the rhythm of The Sellout by Paul Beatty, but after listening to a sample of Prentice Onayemi’s narration, it suddenly felt right and I was able to enjoy the book on a level that had been missing beforehand.

Sometimes I switch back to the written word for a sense of speed too: it is possible to listen to audiobooks at a faster pace but that can sound like an old chipmunk record and it doesn’t really help convey the serious tone of the narration. I also enjoy being able to highlight passages in ebook versions, and sometimes make notes as I go which I rarely do with books.

There is always something that I want to read next, but sometimes, especially after a particularly affecting book, I like to read something lighter. Almost like a palate cleanser. This might be a thriller or detective style novel, and series seem to work well for this kind of intervention between more serious, literary novels.

I also like to peruse the online catalogues of the Blue Mountains Library, as there is usually an audiobook or ebook that has been on my peripheral which then becomes available. They are also a good source of classics; books that I might have on my shelves or have been meaning to read, and then a more mobile version is available. A recent find has been experiencing My Place by Sally Morgan as an audiobook which was excellent on many levels. And there is the added incentive of reading it within three weeks, although extensions are possible. Deadlines can be motivating for readers too.

What does your reading life look like?

[Photo:  box of books at preloved book fair]

Gladesville Bridge, Sydney

By chance, I was near the banks of the Parramatta River at Henley, near Gladesville. The road curves down to the ferry wharf and near the ferry terminal there was a small pocket of grass, surrounded on three sides by sandstone blocks. In the middle was a plaque outlining the original location of the first Gladesville Bridge. Across the river at Chiswick/Abbotsford, it is possible to see the abutment where the bridge joined the land.

Sign about Gladesville bridge at Henley

Sign about Gladesville Bridge at Henley

The concrete span of the Gladesville Bridge is iconic and is recognised internationally as a significant engineering achievement. Depending on the angle, it seems to curve up and over the river, the high arch ready to accommodate the largest shipping vessels. A couple of years ago there were an estimated 81,000 cars crossing the bridge each day; a figure that will only increase. Ruth Park described the bridge as follows:

One is somewhat comforted by the lean elegance of the Gladesville Bridge. It gives the agreeable illusion that the road rushes up to the water’s edge and takes off in a 305 metre leap with Olympic ease, landing like a butterfly and whisking away in a harmonious curve over Huntleys Point. (Ruth Park’s Sydney, p. 190).

Photos of the original bridge, opened in 1881, provide a clear indication of the burgeoning growth of Sydney, and of road traffic in particular. The original bridge accommodated two lanes of traffic and a tram line, installed later. It had five spans with iron pylons and the centre span was a swing span, used to open up the bridge for the passing water traffic. This provided two channels for shipping to pass through, including ferries and the colliers travelling from Newcastle to the Mortlake Gas Works. The channels were relatively narrow and were often knocked about by ship masts and at times the swing bridge could not be closed or could be closed but the tram lines required realignment. There was no pedestrian access on the bridge: pedestrians were given free passage on buses and trams in order to cross the river.

The two Gladesville Bridges, old (middle) and new (left)

The two Gladesville bridges, old (middle) and new (left): sourced on Trove

By the early decades of the twentieth century, the bridge was not coping with the increased demands of traffic. A browse of letters to newspaper editors in Trove includes regular complaints about the inconvenience caused when the bridge was opened for ferry access (disproportionate when the number of ferry passengers was compared to the road traffic that had to wait whilst the bridge was opened and closed). There were also functional issues. When the weather was very hot, parts of the bridge would swell and the expanding metal needed to be sprayed by tugboats in order to contract. As Sydney traffic increased, access to the bridge was limited to the city-bound traffic of a morning for blocks of time. A new bridge was desperately needed.

In 1957 the tender for the bridge design from G Maunsell & Partners (Engineers, London) was accepted and work commenced in 1960. The location of the bridge was carefully considered based on the local topography. Another consideration was the bridge clearance height: heavy industrial shipping was expected and the bridge height in the centre was set at forty metres above mean high tide.

Gladesville Bridge from Putney

Gladesville Bridge from Putney

The bridge was originally planned to be part of a north-western expressway along with Tarban Creek Bridge and Fig Tree Bridge for the northern suburbs of Sydney. This project was abandoned in the 1970s due to protests about the projected freeway route through inner city suburbs including Annandale and Glebe. The construction of the Gladesville Bridge had a significant impact on the local area, including Hunters Hill which had approximately 100 houses and public buildings compulsory resumed and destroyed. There is an excellent article on the attempt to save one of the historic houses, St Malo, here.

The original arch span for the new bridge was extended slightly to 1,000 feet: there were aesthetic and prestigious reasons for doing this. At the time of its construction, the bridge was the longest single span concrete arch ever constructed. Its design was simple yet the scale of the arch was extraordinary at the time.

Taking inspiration from the Roman method of building arches using segmented units built over a temporary formwork, the engineers used hollow, precast concrete blocks which were moved into position via a railway on top of the formwork. (Source: Engineers Australia)

Under the Gladesville Bridge

Under the Gladesville Bridge

In 2015, the Gladesville Bridge was declared an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers. At the time, it shared this honour with three other Australian landmarks: the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Western Goldfields and the Snowy Mountain scheme. When the plaque was unveiled at NSW Parliament, the original engineer, Tony Gee was in attendance. Gee was 22 years old when he was given the task of designing this extraordinary bridge.

Gladesville Bridge arch with Sydney Harbour Bridge in background

Gladesville Bridge arch with Sydney Harbour Bridge in background

There is a wonderful oral history available on the background and construction of the Gladesville Bridge. The history was compiled by the Roads & Traffic Authority Environment and Policy branch in December 2000 by Martha Ansara and Frank Heimans. It includes recollections from people involved in the bridge design and construction, as well as locals who watched the bridge come into existence. It recalls the excitement of the bridge opening on 2 October 1964 by Her Royal Highness Princess Marina. There are interviews with some of the characters who worked on the bridge, including insights into health and safety at the time. One interviewee estimated the lifespan of the bridge at 100-200 years.

When was the last time a chance encounter triggered a fresh look at something familiar for you?

[Photo: Gladesville Bridge viewed from Henley]

Dr Elizabeth

I am lucky that in my job I often get to meet interesting people. It isn’t that my job is special or unique; I think it is more a matter of being in a position where I can ask questions, even in the form of small talk, which often reveals different stories and experiences. There is no underlying motive or salacious interest in personal details; it is a genuine curiosity about people and their experiences which is the trigger here.

There are some people that I get to know quite well through regular meetings, and others that are more of a one-time crossing of paths. It is surprising what people reveal, and I know that I too have been more likely at times to confide in strangers at points in my life. There is something almost of the confessional about sharing something which you might hesitate in telling a friend or loved one.

There are some remarkable stories that I have been told. There have been moments shared of betrayal or bewilderment at the actions of others, along with times of great joy and sorrow. Lots of laughs too as people enjoy sharing moments of humour and the random circumstances of life.

Lately, I have been thinking of one lady in particular who I knew in a professional capacity for about five years. A retired doctor, she would come in occasionally with some questions or seeking advice on one matter or another. We would get to talking and she told me many wonderful stories.

During one visit, she told me about an uncle of hers that had died whilst in his local bank. It wasn’t anything untoward; he died of natural causes. His wife had been waiting outside for him and she had wondered at what was taking so long. It was only when the ambulance officers wheeled him outside and she caught a glimpse of his socks that she realised what had happened.

I must confess that this played on my mind for a while and I ended up writing a short story – a work of fiction, apart from the identification from the socks peeping out on the stretcher.

I was saddened recently to learn that the good doctor had passed away. I will miss her wisdom, wit and generosity, and am grateful that for a while our paths crossed and that we were able to share some of our stories.

[Photo: camellias]

On Waratahs

Waratah, My Mountain Queen

Waratah, my Mountain Queen,
Grandest flower ever seen,
Glorious in shade or sun,
Where our rocky gullies run.
There is nothing, near or far,
Like our Mountain Waratah.

Henry Lawson

As the floral emblem of New South Wales, waratahs appear all over the place in a stylised format. From buses and road signs to state government signage, these red flowers are a constant background presence.

Waratah after rain

Waratah after rain

From September to November, waratahs are in flower in the Blue Mountains, and nothing quite compares to going for a wander early of a morning and coming across waratahs in bloom. In the photo above, it had rained the night before and there were still raindrops captured like tiny jewels in the petals.

There are several waratah trees in my neighbourhood. These are heavy with blooms, a thick collection of red flowers. I like the ones by the side of the road, or along walking tracks. They are usually more modest in the number of blooms but somehow more striking for their simplicity.

Waratahs along the Great Western Highway, Blackheath

Waratahs along the Great Western Highway, Blackheath

There is a wonderful link here to a page about waratahs by Waratah Software. I particularly like the staggered photos of how a waratah grows and develops over time.

Coming across a waratah in bloom in the bush is a special kind of delight.

[Photo: a waratah spotted along the Fairfax Heritage Walking track at Blackheath]

Writing Prompt: Dr Who on the Highway

Walter had his foot flat to the floor but still the car behind him beeped. Short, staccato slaps on the horn to register disapproval at his driving speed. He pressed down on the accelerator again but it made no difference. If anything, the speedo was slipping backwards. Now the horn behind him was continuous, a whimpering wail of displeasure. Walter watched cars speeding past; all four lanes were chockers. Damn Sydney traffic. There was no such thing as a quiet Sunday drive anymore.

A glimpse in the rearview mirror showed the empurpled face of the driver behind him. In the interests of self-preservation, Walter flicked his blinker on and limped onto the next shoulder on the highway. He was barely off the road when a half-eaten carton of fast food landed with a thump on his bonnet, along with a stream of vindictive comments about his parentage as the car that had been behind him finally passed by.

Walter shut his eyes and folded himself around the steering wheel. He only just resisted the temptation to rock himself back and forth. He had to pull himself together. He was a doctor, a respected academic. He shouldn’t be so bothered by a little light road rage.

After a minute or two, he felt calmer. He turned the car off, listening to the ticking of the engine as traffic hurtled past. He wound down a window then opened the door, climbing out into the hot summer morning. He walked around his old dark green Toyota Corona. He loved his car. Every scratch and scrape had a story. So what if it couldn’t speed along like the more modern cars?

His kids mocked his attachment to Betty, as he called her. Every now and then they’d badger him to upgrade, to get something with air conditioning that worked all year round rather than intermittent heat in winter. And power steering. Imagine! When he said he couldn’t afford it they laughed at him. A Professor of Business Finance should drive something better. He’d respond with a detailed treatise on depreciation and asset values until they gave it up as a lost cause.

He headed over to a scrap of shade. He’d wait a minute or two before getting back on the road with Betty. It was his usual Sunday pilgrimage to visit Mother. Years ago the kids would join him for the drive, but as they’d gotten older they were less interested in visiting their grandmother. At times he didn’t blame them. Even he could see she was hard work.

A loud, shrill sound carried over the traffic noise and Walter stepped back to the car to grab the phone from the car door. Was he late? Mother called if he was less than punctual.

‘Hello?’

‘Is that Doctor Who?’

‘Yes.’

‘Really?’

Walter sighed. This old chestnut. ‘This is Doctor Walter Who speaking. Who is calling?’

‘Sorry, Doctor. We weren’t sure if it was a real name. Sometimes people are a little, well, creative when they fill out their entries.’

‘Entries? What’s this all about?’ Walter frowned, glancing at his watch. He needed to get back on the road or he’d be late.

‘Beg your pardon. My name is Ellie Fraser, and I’m calling on behalf of the Red Cape Fundraising Committee. I have some good news for you.’

‘The what? I don’t know anything about a fundraiser.’

‘But you bought a winning ticket, Dr Who. In our fundraising lottery. You’ve won a brand new car!’

‘What?’ Walter dragged a hand through his receding hair.

‘You’ve won a Kia Picanto. It’s the first prize in our lottery.’

Walter shook his head. He rarely bought lottery tickets, knowing what he did about the statistical chance of winning anything. But there were some tickets that his mother had asked him to buy. Funds were being raised for a new bus for outings in her retirement village. He’d paid scant attention to the prizes and had paid for a book of tickets simply to please her.

And now, with all of this kerfuffle, he’d be late. Mother would never forgive him.

This piece was written as part of a writing group activity. We each selected cards at random for setting (a busy highway), time (a hot summer morning), character (Dr Who), situation (a lottery win) and theme (forgiveness). It was challenging but fun to try and incorporate these elements in a writing prompt activity with the timer ticking away.

[Photo: writing workbook]

Zoos: No Longer Something For Me

I can’t recall the last time that I went to a zoo. It’s been a while. I think the last time was a visit to the Taronga Western Plains Zoo. This is an open style zoo: barriers are in place to keep the animals and the humans safe, but they are largely unobtrusive, and give the impression of relative freedom, even if this is on a limited scale.

Spotted tail quoll

Spotted-tail quoll

During a visit to Launceston, I had a wander through the Tasmania Zoo. It is home to many varieties of animals that I wouldn’t expect to see in the middle of a small island, such as camels, lions and tigers. It was a bit of a hike to get there, and I travelled there through the aptly named Meander Valley. As I got out of the car, I could hear sulphur-crested cockatoos swirling above, along with a mixed medley of other bird and animal calls. I paid my entry fee and had a wander about.

Wombat

Wombat

The extensive collection of caged birds began at the entrance. There was the element of novelty initially – how wonderful to see birds that to date I have only seen in books, such as zebra and Gouldian finches. But this novelty soon wore off. Seeing the glorious red-tailed black cockatoos clinging to the chicken wire netting was unsettling. By the time I saw the galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos and long-billed corellas, I’d had enough. Seeing the beautiful Australian king parrots in cages nearly made me cry. They are a gloriously frequent sight in the Blue Mountains and other parts of the mainland: bright, bold and cheeky.

Carnaby's black cockatoo

Carnaby’s black cockatoo

There was a camel, just the one, on site. I passed by the growling, hissing, spitting, fussing and fighting Tasmanian devils, who had just been fed and were busy crunching on something feathered (it really was time for me to leave). A highlight was a pair of wombats, very sweet to look at in their lumbering kind of way. And I detoured to see a short-beaked echidna snuffling with great intent before raising its beak. I was surprised to see a red panda moving about an enclosure. Apparently, they were discovered before the black and white pandas that we usually think of these days.

Tasmanian devil

Tasmanian devil

There were small family groups walking around the park, and I’m sure it’s a great way for kids to learn about animals and birds and the like, but I found the whole experience unsettling.

It may be a reflection of the changes within me more than anything else as the birds and animals were cared for. I feel such pleasure in spotting birds in the wild, watching them in adaptive capacities in areas filled with people, and seeing them go about their own thing. Seeing them caged along with animals was just too much for me on the day.

Red panda

Red panda

Zoos have an important role to play in conservation and education, but I won’t be heading back to one anytime soon.

When was the last time you visited a zoo?

[Photo: short-beaked echidna]

NaNoWriMo Learnings

I decided in mid-October to join in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November. It was time to do something about some of my longer writing ideas, and NaNoWriMo seemed like perfect timing.

Due to other commitments, I didn’t have time to plot out the idea that I was intending to write about. I had some vague thoughts about character development and some of the key characters involved, but not a definite idea as to how it might all play out. But I put these concerns aside and decided that it would be good to write and see where the story took me.

I kept my preparation simple. I watched a couple of videos about NaNoWriMo, specifically around time management. Advice that I adopted included turning off banner notifications on social media and hiding the apps that I tend to go to for a quick distraction fix.

I made sure that I had writing software Scrivener synchronised across my devices. I needed to be flexible and to be able to write wherever I was. For part of NaNoWriMo, I was travelling about and didn’t always have great mobile or WiFi reception. I was able to keep working on my phone or tablet as I went from place to place, and even in areas of indifferent reception, I was able to synchronise my work so I could pick it up again when needed. I found that I was writing in really small time slots. Waiting for a couple of minutes? Time enough to tap out a line or two, or make a note as to where the next thread of the story was to go. It helped to keep me connected to the story and feel that no time was wasted.

One of the things that made the biggest impact was using the Pomodoro Technique. This involves working for 25-minute blocks with short breaks. This can be repeated for a set number of cycles before there is a longer break. I started using this on a Sunday afternoon when I really wanted to nap rather than write. But I could sit for 25 minutes and write a word or two, surely? When the ideas were flowing, I was surprised to see that I could type about 1200 words in a 25-minute block. Over time this averaged out around 1000 words and it showed me that I could write effectively in short blocks. This tapped into writing under time pressure, and knowing that I only expected myself to concentrate and ignore everything else for less than half an hour made it much easier to adopt this approach.

From the outset, I knew that whether I hit the word target or not, I would have written more by the end of the November than if I hadn’t participated in NaNoWriMo. This was certainly the case. What I didn’t expect was to be able to sharpen my writing approach in ways that provide confidence for the future. I can use some of these learnings to maintain my writing practice, and many of my preconceived notions of obstacles to writing have been satisfactorily undermined. It was well worth the effort to discover this!

When did you last participate in a creative challenge, and what surprised you?

[Photo: old typewriter]