Saturday, April 24, 2010


Some women find being confined to household tasks unendurably stifling and boring. My mother was one of these, and she had an unusual attitude to childcare, in that she solved it by leaving me, the youngest, at home by myself when I was 3 1/2.

It would be easy to say "poor me", but I can't recall feeling in any way bad about it. Not lonely, not bored, not afraid: maybe peripheral, at the worst.
As an adult, I was appalled, but she defended it valiantly, pointing out that she was accessible in the school in the photo. Our house was some distance behind the photographer: not far, but it seemed quite a trek to me.
She must have had a lot of confidence in her children.

Oh: Do let us be correct at all costs

In my final year at school our poetry book had an (unstudied) poem, called "Y Ddraig Goch", that my teenage self wistfully loved.
Y Ddraig Goch is the red Welsh dragon - that St George slew? slayed? My ignorance is immense.
The poem fundamentally has the story that I came across later in "Puff the Magic Dragon": the dragon as the friend and familiar of children, who inevitably grow and leave him. (Maybe a parable for some relationships?)
"Ho, Ddraig Goch, my pretty, pretty friend!
We were his children, knowing all his ways."

But,children grow, so, finally:
"Ho, Ddraig Goch, they tell me you are dead;
They say they heard you weeping in the hills
For all your children gone to London Town."

When I googled and found the poem again, there was something abrupt and truncated about the ending. Thinking of it, I'm fairly sure that there were two more lines, one of which said something like, "I'll bring you little boys to love."

Is that enough to have the lines censored? Oh dear.

When I drove through Wales, I thought that I could see the little dragon perched on fences everywhere. With a curly tail - rather like the dragon in "My Friend Mr Leakey", about which I remember nothing else at all.

Friday, April 23, 2010


"Is your mother picking you up?" I asked Oscar.
"No, Oma is, I think," he said, taking for granted that I knew he was speaking of his grandmama, as indeed I did. As would plenty of others.
"Oma" is the only non-Anglo word I know (in Australia_) which is used and widely understood, and is still "foreign".
Obviously, words from boomerang to zeppelin have been shanghaied into English: "Oma" is different from these. Anglo-Austs use variations of nannas and grands: when someone has an Oma, I assume that they have a Dutch heritage.
Why did "oma" survive with people who have mums, dads, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and cousins?

Oscar's Oma is a smiling, crisp, well-groomed , grey haired figure: her pleasingly round shape seems to offer grandmotherly comfort, but she has no problem with gently chiding Oscar, or his cousin Hannah, when she comes to collect them. "Hannah," she sighs, "Here I am just trying to help you to become a lady." I find it desirably old-fashioned. Oma sets the family standards. That a family member actually comes up stairs to collect these 13 year old children, rather than have them conveniently wait on a darkening pavement, seems to be a part of these standards.

This Oma was, she tells me, one of 14 siblings. She says that her mother used to sit the children down in a semicircle, after dinner, and drill them in such as the multiplication tables. 14 children! What heroines these mothers were.

My mother taught school, at one time, in a "migrant hostel" - actually a grim and dismal collection of corrugated iron huts. I recall her telling us of a Dutch mother of 12 who had just walked out and left her family. "Wasn't there even one of them that she liked enough to take with her?" my mother said.
I still find this an unsettling attitude. Still, it's easy to love and value your children equally when, like me, you have only two.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Bomen is a small industrial area in southern rural NSW.
As the train passes through Bomen, one sometimes sees shipping containers.

It is enjoyably surreal to see them, stamped Hamburg, Zeebrugge, Rotterdam, Bremen: so far from home, forlornly waiting in apparently empty, dry paddocks that roll away into distant hills.
They look lost: more like unhappy exiles than like immigrants or refugees.

Moved to folly by a train

While I was waiting at the railway station, a goods train barreled through. Three immense locomotives were hauling 73 wagons, carriages and flat beds, loaded with girders, and massive pipes and machinery. With its power and purpose, it was an oddly moving sight.
My reaction reminded me of T.E. Lawrence, (him of Arabia): "The trumpets came out brazenly with the Last Post. Our eyes smarted against our wills. A man hates to be moved to folly by a noise." What stoics they were.

Last weekend the annual "Great Train Race" was held. Three old steam locomotives race between Broadmeadow and Maitland, (about 30 km, I think), taking up the Northern and Southern Lines, as well as a coal line. That's a sight I would love to see. Trains...mmmmm. Love them.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Men of Harlech 2

Watching rugby, Wales vs Aust, with two exiled Welshmen, I was surprised that I was the only one of the three who knew the Welsh national anthem - "O Land of My Fathers" - learned at primary school, of course.
"Men of Harlech", also...but my memory has been short circuited by university songs.

Learned in primary school:
"Men of Harlech in the hollow, Do you hear the ---......ow,Wave on wave, like rushing billow? Battle's distant sound.
"Tis the sound of Saxon foemen, Saxon spearmen, Saxon bowmen. Be they knights, or hinds or yeoman, They shall bite the ground".

Now, I used to know the rest, as I learned it, but, as the melody changes, the memory has been totally supplanted by University songs:
"Some of us are mining. Some in Arts reclining. More and more embrace the law and revel in its method of refining.
Some are fools and some are clever, Faculties divide and sever,
Still, we all belong for ever, to our varsity."

That, in the 15th century, Harlech was beseiged by Saxons, sums up about all I know of Wesh history, so thank you to those who prescribed that song back then.

Universities have changed immeasurably since the 60s. I assume that "university songs" may be a part of history also.

Men of Harlech

In retrospect, I can see that an amount of material from the Department of Education, in my childhood, was about giving us a British cultural input.
Why else give little bush urchins such as "The Road to the Isles"? With incomprehensible words such as Cuillin, cromach, Tummel, Loch Rannock, Lochaber, Skerries, Lewes, Shiel waters, Aillort, Morrar, no wonder we used to get to the chorus and belt out in relief:
"if it's thinkin' in your inner heart, there's braggarts in my step, You've never smelled the tangle of the Isles.

As an adult, it was "aha", to visit or even read about these places, and know that one had known them before.
It's not a bad thing to get information or knowledge in childhood, that only makes sense when you've grown a bit.

In high school, I went to a Catholic "college": and everything changed, of course. The songs became very nationalistically Australian, from "The Morning Sunrise" to "No foe shall gather our harvest, or sit on our stockyard rails."

"Come, little one, and sing to me, A song a great wide land to bless", was one of 'John O'Brien's.
All this, to my mind, also wasn't A Bad Thing.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mermaids, unicorns, dragons and dodos

Once we used to have boring schoolwork, interlaced with frequent musical interludes. Robert Dessaix describes this very well.
The traditional songs, that we sang lustily, were often incomprehensible - but that didn't matter: I believe that the emotion that the songs conveyed said all.
'Vair me O, O ro van o. Vair me o oh ro van ee ; - sad I am, without thee,'

Sad am I without thee. We understood that bit.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

It's Better for Girls Now

Blanche Mitchell was the youngest child of Thomas, who surveyed the streets of my town, naming them after old compatriots from the Peninsula wars of 1809, (whatever they were).

Born about 100 years before me, she lived in the massive, impressive "Carthona", Darling Point, which her immensely successful father had built for him. Her diary records the privileges and pleasures of being an elite darling in the colony.

Unfortunately, Thomas Mitchell died prematurely, leaving his finances in disarray: Carthona was sold, and the family moved to Woolloomooloo.

Blanche knew the way the system worked. She no longer had a dowry, so she had no prospects of marriage. She and her mother were still received socially, but all the young officers and such that she met needed a wife with an income. They could not marry her, and she knew it. Her life was blighted., and again, her diary records her realistic understanding of this.

How cruel, to grow up in a life of such privilege and happiness, to not only have this all taken away from you by your father's death, when you are 12 years old, but to have the expectation and hope of a happy future sliced from you as well. Blanche died when she was only 26 years old.
I think of her like William Allingham's poem:

"They thought that she was fast asleep,
But she was dead from sorrow."

As far as I can see, none of Thomas Mitchell's six children had any living descendants.
Tragedy. It's just a word, unless it's your word.

Today is the 20th anniversary of my husband's death. He did not leave us in this position. I prefer "rest in the light" to "rest in peace." Vale Phillip: much beloved.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Elisabeth reminded me of my childhood. During my primary years we were in Sydney suburbs: a Sydney awash with immigrants. And yes, I certainly heard people grumbling about malts, balts and wogs. I don't think that I took much notice, or that people did anything more than grumble.
But what I saw were the whitest, or palest babies and young children that I had ever seen, so that their blue veins were quite noticeable. Now, I have never seen any of this pallor since: why is this so? It did not look like underprivilege, or neglect, nor was it. I assume that it is how many of us might look like if we were not sun worshippers.

The children were well cared for, and looked treasured, but I regretted the lapse in taste that allowed them to dress their little boys with inappropriately short shorts, just passing the groin, like baby pants. Why couldn't their parents see that these well groomed little boys, with their neat hair and long socks were just...wrong? I knew that even little boys needed to look tough. And, the little girls' dresses were too short also. Both costumes showed long white thighs: not a familiar look.

Similarly, at the beach, women frolicked with curly hair running unabashed from inner thigh to knees. (Admittedly, when I recounted this to Andre, he nearly wept from nostalgia and desire).

My mother took me to visit a nice German family that she had met. As I wandered the room, in boredom, I saw "Mein Kampf" in their bookcase. I didn't mention it to my mother, but years and years later I mentioned this to another post war immigrant, who erupted in a rage. Why shouldn't these people have a book that had been so precious to them? Like a bible? He told me later that his mum had worked very closely with Hitler.

Also quite common at the time were children making their painful way in calipers, a consequence of the polio epidemic. Just another part of life, one judged at the time: thankfully, this was not so.

And, sometimes forgotten: men simply did not wear deodorant. The most aware may have used a useless powder: but no, men did not use such sissy stuff anymore than they used eyeliner. It created quite a different atmosphere, literally.