Sydney, Her City: Short Fiction

She had watched the bridge take shape. It had seemed an impossibility, an absurd idea that the sheer expanse of the harbour could be tethered by steel and iron. There had been talk of it for so long that it seemed like an intrinsic part of her childhood memories, its design a favourite topic of debate. Then suddenly whole streets and entire neighbourhoods began to vanish, houses and shops and factories that had been familiar were pulled apart and families were forced to relocate.

Ella’s family had been lucky. They had been earmarked for relocation but changes to plans meant that their street was spared. She could recall heading off to school of a morning, walking through nearby streets with her brothers and sister, then the shock of arriving home to find rubble and dust where houses had been. Her mother had complained of the dirt and the rats that seemed to be in plague proportions as buildings that had stood firm for decades were pushed over and destroyed within a day.

Her eldest brother had landed a job on one of the many construction crews that worked on the bridge. He would come home with stories about the movement of massive sandstone blocks that would form the pylons to anchor the bridge. Bert’s excitement at being part of something momentous was tangible and contagious.

But the building of the bridge took so long that Ella’s interest eventually waned. By the time it was almost complete, the magnificent arch tantalisingly close to joining, she was working at a tea shop in the city, down near Circular Quay. The bridge was visible, a looming presence in the background, but she was busy with work and stepping out of an evening on dates and going to dances.

After marriage Ella stopped working, settling quickly into domestic life. She found herself drawn to the harbour, taking the pram along the narrow city streets and steep gradients down to the foreshore. She loved to walk past the ferries, puffing out smoke, their sturdy shapes seemingly insignificant as they motored their way underneath the enormous arch of the iron coat-hanger.

When Ella and her husband moved to the suburbs, she still managed to visit the city occasionally, especially when Christmas shopping trips came up. To turn into a street and glance up at the bridge gave her a thrill that she couldn’t quite explain. The bridge became less extraordinary over time to most Sydneysiders, just a way to get from one side of the harbour to the other. But for Ella it remained one of her favourite things. Her birthday treats invariably included a trip to the city to take in the splendour of the bridge, now a constant presence against a changing city skyline. For Ella, the bridge was the essence of Sydney, her city.

Inspired by a writing prompt using a postcard painting of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Do landmarks appear in your writing?

Anzac Memorials

With Anzac Day approaching on April 25, I thought I’d share photos of some of the war memorials that I have spotted in my recent travels through Goulburn and the central west of NSW. Most towns, regardless of size, have a memorial to the lives lost and altered forever by war. The intention behind these monuments was captured at the unveiling of the South Australian National War Memorial on 25 April 1931 by His Excellency, the Governor Sir Alexander Hore-Ruthven:

It is not only for ourselves that we have erected this visible remembrance of great deeds, but rather that those who come after us and have not experienced the horrors of war, or realised the wanton destruction and utter futility of it all, may be inspired to devise some better means to settle international disputes other than by international slaughter.

Goulburn War Memorial

Goulburn Boer War Memorial

Memorials are often located in parks and public places, including this memorial to the Boer War in Goulburn.

Lithgow War Memorial

Lithgow War Memorial

Many memorials have been updated over the years to reflect recent wars and conflicts, including this one in Lithgow.

Wellington War Memorial

Wellington War Memorial

This memorial is located in Cameron Park, alongside the river in Wellington. At the centre is ‘Winged Victory‘.

Dubbo War Memorial

Dubbo War Memorial

The Dubbo War Memorial is located in the centre of the town at Victoria Park, and there is a pathway lined with statues and stories of people who served.

Bathurst War Memorial

Bathurst War Memorial

There are 35 bells in The Carillon, built in 1933 to commemorate the men who served in World War I.

Memorial at Bathurst, dedicated by Lord Kitchener in 1910

Boer War Memorial, Bathurst

Located in the same park is this memorial to the soldiers of the Boer War in Africa, dedicated by Lord Kitchener.

There is an excellent resource of war memorials across Australia here.

Let’s Get Critical

Over the years my attitude and approach to providing feedback on the work of other writers has changed considerably. This isn’t too surprising in hindsight, but after providing feedback on a handful of short stories recently, it made me think a little deeper about what has changed and why.

In my first writing group, we had the opportunity to prepare up to 300 words on a topic which was provided prior to the meeting. The work could be prose or poetry, factual or fictional, and it was brought along, sight unseen, to the gathering. Time was put aside for reading the work aloud and receiving feedback if requested. By listening to the feedback provided by others, I began to learn how to identify what worked and how to articulate constructive criticism on other people’s writing.

Constructive criticism is challenging to prepare and to give, but the benefits of being able to make suggestions which may clarify unclear points and strengthen the work are significant. By reading and thinking critically about someone else’s writing, it provides the opportunity to be exposed to a wide range of different styles and approaches, often in genres that you might not spend much time in. It stretches the mind and helps you to see what is possible.

Most of my critiquing these days is completed at my desk with a copy of the work to hand. I prefer to read the work through quite quickly, resisting the urge to mark up sections or make corrections, trying to focus instead on the story and the impression that it leaves on me. If I can, I will leave the work for a day or so before returning to read it slowly, taking my time to write comments and scribble thoughts. I will then jot down impressions of the piece, along with what worked and what might be improved. In my writing group we share feedback at regular critiquing sessions, and it is helpful to see what resonates with others along with picking up on insights from other writers. It is a great way to hone critiquing skills.

I find that bringing a critical eye and a different perspective helps me with my own work as well, reminding me that sometimes you need to step away in order to really see how a piece comes together.

There are many online critiquing groups where writers share their work and provide feedback on other people’s stories. For now I find that there is enough critiquing to be done in my existing writing circles, but I may venture into online critiquing in the future.

What is your experience in providing constructive feedback?

[Photo: bikes spotted in the small village of Marulan – offering a different viewpoint of something familiar]

Autumnal Thoughts

Autumn is a particularly beautiful time in the Blue Mountains with many trees putting on a spectacular show of colours.

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Excerpt from the poem Autumn by Kate Llewellyn:

… but autumn prefers me,

wistful,

longing for what has gone

dreading the cold to come.

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Soon the leaves will fall and the colourful carpets will crunch underfoot.

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What is autumn like in your part of the world?

Writing Prompt: A Musical Moment

One of my earliest memories of writing to music was when I was about ten years old. I can still picture the classroom and the pens poised over exercise books as we were instructed to listen to the music and to write what it brought to mind. The music was the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, and I wrote a poem about war and battle – hard not to as the canons boomed and the music built to a crescendo. The rattle of the drums and the call to arms was impossible to resist.

On a recent writing retreat, music was used as a prompt. There were three short pieces played, all exquisite and evoking surprisingly similar responses amongst the writers gathered around the table.  The first piece was a Norwegian folk song called Heiemo Og Nykkjen performed by Kirsten Braten-Berg. For me, the music was a melancholic song of farewell.

The music swirls around me, holding me close in its grasp. I want to weep, to turn back, to return to where I belong. But it is my song of farewell. My people are letting me go. I walk slowly, one heavy foot in front of the next. I know the tune so well; it is carved into my heart from so many other farewells. I have sung it myself when my brother left the valley, leaving our village behind. We were sure that he’d return, that it would only be a brief separation. But he has not returned. And now I, too, must go.

My sister’s voice lifts and as the notes tremble around me I stumble. But I cannot turn back now, as much as my heart breaks. I must continue on.

One of my fellow writing group members has written of the impact of the musical prompt session here.

Have you used music as a muse for writing?

[Photo: mural spotted in Hornsby next to second-hand bookshop The Bookplate]

Riversdale, Goulburn

This property, which includes some of the oldest colonial buildings in the town of Goulburn, is set in delightful gardens along the Wollondilly River. As a coaching inn, Riversdale was located next to the old stock route and road to Sydney. Mounted police had been stationed on land nearby.

View from back garden, Riversdale

View from back garden, Riversdale

The property was the first land grant in the area, and was given to Matthew Healey in 1830 under the condition that a dwelling be constructed within two years. A stone barn and stables were built and remain in place today. The property was used as an inn during the early colonial years as the country beyond was opened up. Hops were grown on site for ale brewed and sold from the inn.

Stables and shed at Riversdale

Stables and barn at Riversdale

When it was decided by Governor Bourke in 1832 that the growing settlement should be moved away from the banks of the river, the property remained in use.

Riversdale, Old Goulburn

Riversdale, Old Goulburn

When Healey sold up, the property known as the Old Goulburn Inn was bought by John Richards. Richards built Riversdale as a coaching inn but died before it was opened. His wife Ann took over the running of the business and she later married Benjamin Gould. The stone entrance archway to Riversdale still records the original licensees: Louis Levy and Benjamin Gould. A guide told me that the painted records of ownership were found by chance during restoration work.

Front entrance, Riversdale

Front entrance, Riversdale

As with many old buildings, it has been various things in its time, including an inn, a school and a private residence. The property was known as Goulburn Grammar School from 1850 – 1856 before being bought by the Fulljames family, who are credited with calling the property Riversdale. Various ownership changes followed. It was owned by the Twynam family for nearly 100 years before being sold to the National Trust in 1967. Edward Twynam was Surveyor-General of New South Wales from 1888 to 1900.

Entry to the property is through the rear of the house, and on the day I visited there was a clutch of volunteers in the courtyard and as well as a couple working away in the gardens. The large dining room was beautifully set out, and the parlour had a number of treasured possessions from the Twynam family.  Emily Twynam, Edward’s wife, was a woman of many skills and there are some beautiful needlework panels featuring local fauna and flora, as well as some of her intricate woodcarving including this chair.

Carved chair, Riversdale

Carved chair, Riversdale

Riversdale is regarded as a rarity due to its historical, social and environmental association with the establishment of Goulburn as a town. Goulburn’s first Catholic mass was held in the gardens in 1833, and there is a memorial plaque in situ. Follow the winding road back towards the town and you pass by the foreboding entrance to Goulburn Correctional Centre (designed by Colonial Architect James Barnet), and there are cemeteries perched along the top of the embankment.

A visit to Riversdale is an enjoyable step back in time.

Putting Creativity Out There

Over the last couple of years I have been writing fiction. This has mainly been in the form of short stories along with the first draft of a novel. The words have been growing slowly, building up in the background.

Some of the short stories have had an airing in my writing group, and this has been invaluable in a number of ways. Following constructive feedback, I have usually come away with a couple of areas to rework. I’ll admit that there are times when the feedback has been a bit challenging to hear, but usually once I digest the suggestions and revisit aspects which were confusing, the work feels stronger. I have been filing away the updated pieces, satisfied with the knowledge that they were as good as I could get them at this time.

There are lots of writing competitions out there, but I have been a bit reluctant to send these pieces out into the world. Late last year I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert which made me think that perhaps it was time to let some of my work go, to see if it could stand up on its own. In my writing group there was encouragement to get our work out there with a clarion call to collect rejection slips as we set our stories free.

I had been keeping an eye on competitions through a free weekly newsletter from the NSW Writers’ Centre and had printed out an entry form for a writing competition in Victoria. The form was filed and promptly forgotten until I discovered it, a day or two before the closing date. Fortunately submissions were online and I picked a story that met the competition criteria and sent it off before moving on to my next thought. When I came across the competition form a month or so later I tore it up, thinking that was the end of it but at least I’d tried.

Then I received a phone call. From Victoria. A phone message to let me know that I had won first place. I listened to the message a couple of times, stunned. The judge’s comments on the website said my story was charming and well-constructed. I felt giddy with delight. My story, inspired by a podcast about the vital role played by memorial halls in small country communities, had been good enough. You can find the story here.

So I will continue to create and dream and polish and put my work out there. I have recently come across the following in Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves. It sums up how to behave as an ambitious writer:

The ambitious writer doesn’t hide her short stories in a drawer when she completes them, she sends them out. She starts with The New Yorker and works her way down. She doesn’t hesitate to approach a successful writer and ask questions, or follow an agent into the elevator so she can give a pitch. Even if she’s shaking in her Hush Puppies, she goes after what she wants. Being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, getting lucky, a chance encounter, a fortunate happenstance – all these might play a role in getting what you always dreamed of, but the ambitious writer is the one with energy and fortitude and stick-to-itiveness that the Elmer’s folks would like to patent.

Do you let your creative work go out into the world?

[Photo: three green owls]

Challenging Assumptions: Colonial Convict Women

Recently I listened to Australian academic Carol Liston talk about a research project she is working on with Dr Kathrine Reynolds. One of the aims of the project is to better understand the lives and circumstances of women from England, Scotland and Wales who were sent to Australia as convicts from 1810 to 1835. Due to record limitations, Irish female convicts were not included.

A common perception about convicts sent to Australia from 1788 to 1868 is that many were sent for minor misdemeanours such as the theft of a loaf of bread or that ultimate fashion accessory, a handkerchief. There are instances of this, but by casting a wide net over three decades and looking at trends across the female convicts, the perception is firmly challenged. The women who were sentenced to transportation were usually repeat offenders and thefts were often significant – in many cases the financial equivalent of a year’s wage or more. Another perception about female convicts is that they were usually young, in their late teens or early twenties, and of childbearing age. The research indicates that the average age was closer to twenty-nine, and that there were many instances of women in their forties and fifties being sent across the seas.

During the period in question, over 5,000 women were transported to the Australian colonies. The sheer volume of women, although significantly lower than the number of men transported over this period, means that the ability to focus on individual stories is limited. As genealogists know, tracing female convicts can be challenging as there can be various name changes for marriage and other reasons, making it difficult to have a clear or continuous record. Sources used to assist with the research include trial documents, newspapers, correspondence, surgeon journals and petitions.

Evidence confirms that in many instances the women were organised, risk-taking innovators; in some cases there were networks of criminals fencing stolen goods or acting in groups to lure victims and steal from them. Part of the challenge for the successful criminal, male or female, was the limited ways in which to spend their ill-gotten gains. The property market was controlled by the aristocracy so money was spent on food, alcohol, clothes and travel – ‘flash’ criminals would be seen travelling around in carriages above their station and attract suspicion.

To be sentenced to transportation was a life-changing event. Part of the consideration of the research project is the impact this had on the women. There are stories of successful female convicts – ask any descendant and they can usually confirm the success in the simple fact that they are here, the maternal line survived – but what of those who struggled with the upheaval and psychological impact of being sent to other side of the world with very limited chance of return? To be leaving behind family and friends and in some cases, their children and husbands? Children were allowed to be transported in some instances, and there are a few examples of husbands and children following the convicted women but these are the exception. How did the convict system take care of those who didn’t cope?

Prior to transportation there were some measures put in place in an attempt to ensure that convicts were fit to travel before they boarded the ship. Various strategies were employed by some women to try to defer or cancel their departure, including pregnancy (which might delay the inevitable for up to a year) or pouring boiling water over their feet. During the trip, some convicts became so upset as to die on the voyage or arrive in a state of distress. Some deaths on the trips were put down to broken hearts, the toll of being sent away simply too much to bear. An example was given of a French governess who was transported to the colonies. The records show that she went from being an English-speaking woman, able to take care of her appearance and manage herself prior to departure to becoming so distressed during the voyage that she was able to communicate only in French, with six convicts being assigned to take care of her during the voyage as she could no longer manage to feed or take care of herself.

In some cases, women who were unable to cope with the life in the colonies ended up self-harming, struggling with alcoholism or committing suicide. Some ended up in colonial hospitals and asylums. But the records also show the spirit of resilience and acceptance. One woman, convicted for theft, applied to have some of her property including cash that had been her own but confiscated by the local sheriffs following her conviction returned to her so that she might be able to purchase provisions for the long and arduous trip as well as goods to set herself up in the colony.

Have you had any of your historical perceptions challenged recently?

Carol Liston is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Western Sydney, and I listened to her talk at a meeting of the Fellowship of the First Fleeters – Eastern Farms Chapter. 

[Photo taken at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Tasmania: Through this gate passed thousands of women and children. Lest we forget.]

Spinning Yarns: Creative Collaboration

Recently I attended a talk by Marilla North, author of Yarn Spinners. This is the first instalment of a trilogy focusing on the life and times of Australian writer Dymphna Cusack. Creative endeavours between women, and in particular the weaving and creation of stories through collaboration, is illustrated through letters between Cusack and Florence James, as well as correspondence with their contemporaries. The novel written by Cusack and James, Come In Spinner, won a Daily Telegraph manuscript competition. The competition was during the period of the broadsheet circulation wars of the 1940s with a prize of £1,000 on offer.

But the Cusack/James novel was much larger than the newspaper expected: the intention was to print the winning entry in two weekly instalments – an incentive to further drive circulation numbers. Attempts to reduce the novel size, initially submitted at 120,000 words, were not agreed to by the authors, and it ended up being printed through a London publisher when the manuscript was released by the Daily Telegraph three years later. The size of the manuscript wasn’t the only issue: its portrayal of abortion, war-profiteering, prostitution, black marketeering and the role of women during wartime was regarded as extremely controversial at the time.

Cusack and James lived in the Blue Mountains for a spell, moving towards the end of the Second World War to a cottage in Hazelbrook. North gave an overview of the household of two women and a clutch of children with regular visitors from the city and further afield. This included Miles Franklin bringing up bantam chickens for their mountain garden. Cusack had collaborated with Franklin previously to write Pioneers on Parade. The hallway in the house was used to assist with managing the book structure: newspaper articles from the week in which the novel was set were pasted to the butcher’s paper lined along the hallway, the real events forming a backdrop for the  novel.

This was the second project that Cusack and James had worked together on: the first had been a children’s book called Four Winds and a Family. James later recalled that they each contributed chapters, ‘did some editing patchwork’ and realised that their writing matched well enough. The same approach was used for the novel. Cusack, who suffered from health issues (neuralgia, later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis) would dictate as James typed, and James would edit and write when Cusack rested. The arrival of a dictaphone for Cusack speeded up the project.

There is a link to the website for Yarn Spinners here, and The Australian Collection: Australia’s Greatest Books by Geoffrey Dutton also provided interesting background on the creative collaboration between Cusack and James. There is an excellent post by Michael Burge providing further insight into the time James and Cusack spent in the mountains here.

Have you ever collaborated on a creative project?

One Man; Over 1300 Public Buildings: James Barnet

Scottish born James Barnet was the Colonial Architect of New South Wales from 1862 to 1890. Under his guidance, the architectural and civic landscape of the state changed and developed a confidence and character that is still evident today. These were boom years for the colony with the upgrade and replacement of early infrastructure as well as new buildings to meet the demands of a growing population.

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Goulburn Court House

The length of tenure contributed to the sheer volume of buildings that were designed and constructed during these years. Many public buildings remain with alterations and in some instances perform a different purpose to their initial intention. But there is a style to these buildings which, once recognised, can be found in various city suburbs as well as many towns in regional parts of the state.

Bathurst Court House

Bathurst Court House

Barnet was a classical, revivalist architect. Born in Scotland, he trained as a builder and stonemason before attending night school in London in order to attain his qualifications as an architect. Encouraged by a mentor, Barnet decided to migrate to one of the colonial outposts as there was an oversupply of architects in England at the time. In 1854 he migrated to Sydney with his wife, Amy.

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Lithgow Court House

Similar to Scottish bridge-builder Lennox decades before, Barnet’s potential was recognised whilst he was working on a building site as a stonemason. After a series of commissions he joined the Colonial Architect’s Office in 1860. Two years later he was acting in the position of Colonial Architect, a position he held until 1890.

Katoomba Court House

Katoomba Court House

The scope of work was wide and the quantity of buildings constructed was considerable. This included 169 post offices, 130 court houses, 110 goals and lockups, 155 police stations, 20 lighthouses, an extension to the Australian Museum, the Colonial Secretary’s Office and the Lands Department building. These examples provide an insight into what was of importance at the time: communication, justice, transport and administration. Military defence and naval infrastructure were included in Barnet’s remit, along with the maintenance of other public buildings.

Dubbo Court House

Dubbo Court House

Barnet also designed the psychiatric hospital at Callan Park which opened in 1883 as the Hospital for the Insane. It consisted of 20 neoclassical buildings for the care of over 600 patients, male and female. The design was influenced by theories of the time which recommended high ceilings in a park like atmosphere.

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Callan Park building

One of Barnet’s most extravagant buildings was short-lived: the Sydney International Exhibition Building. Located adjacent to the Sydney Botanical Gardens on 5 acres, it was constructed in the spirit of the international exhibitions of the northern hemisphere and when complete was the largest exhibition space in the southern hemisphere – Melbourne was also striving for this title. The first electric light in Sydney was used to speed the building’s completion as work continued around the clock. Over a million people came to the ‘Garden Palace’ to see the exhibition, quite amazing as the population at the time was just over two million. The building cost over three times its initial estimate and unfortunately was destroyed in a huge fire. Only a set of gates remain, located in Macquarie Street opposite History House.

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Goulburn Post Office

Over his long career, Barnet served 16 ministers and oversaw the construction of over a thousand buildings. Despite similarities between buildings, templates as such were not used. Local materials and resources were used where possible. There were various parliamentary enquiries during his career and when he was finally forced to resign it was an ignominious professional end. Barnet was the last Colonial Architect as the office was restructured following his departure.

Many of his buildings remain today and as I travel about I like to keep an eye out for Barnet’s touch in public buildings as I go.

Sources

  • Inspired by an excellent talk given by Emeritus Professor Don Napper.
  • Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on James Johnstone Barnet.
  • There is an extensive post about the prolific buildings designed by Barnet, particularly across the central west of NSW here.

[Photo: detail from Dubbo Court House]