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Saturday, December 18, 2010

56. Gettin' 'itched

At 2 p.m. on Saturday, November 22, 2010 my cousin Leanne Kipping married Rod Treloar. The ceremony took place at the Wannon Falls Holiday Resort, in the shade of tall gums, on a day of 25+ degrees. It was a very laid back ceremony. Rod had asked me to be MC at the reception that evening; this also took place at the Wannon Falls resort.

Most of the guests stayed overnight, in the small cabins. It was a great function.

The poem, Gettin' 'itched, was the formal speech to the bride and groom.

Getting Hitched

I’m very proud that I’ve been asked today
To fill the role of being the MC
There’s lots of other handsome blokes around
I‘m tickled pink that they have chosen me
The groom said folk have come from near and far
Feel free to slake your thirst up at the bar.

Occasions such as this –the groom’s best man
Will normally deliver an oration
And tell home truth’s about the bride and groom
And bring to light embarrassing occasions.
The bride wasn’t too happy about this:
’bout how the best man and her handsome groom
Spent hours plotting – hours drinking piss
Out in the barbecue and drinking room
So she took action – Doreen’s lovely daughter –
Foxy can’t speak – says the restraining order.

The Bride & Groom

‘is name is Rod – a decent sort of bloke
Oo don’t pretend he’s something that he’s ain’t
Just fair and square, a lover of a joke
A devil sometimes, but at heart a Saint
He’s fond of footy, loves to puff a fag
In short, a true blue dinkum Aussie dag

‘er name’s Leanne, she’s Doreen’s little girl
But why is it that Rodney is so fond?
Is it her wealth attracts young Rod to ‘er
Or is it cos she’s such a smashing blond
Or is it, like the poet sez of old
They’re like a pair of twins, joined at the soul

It does our ‘earts much good to see ‘em wed
These two good mates who’ve been so close for years
There’s somethin’ that that gorspell feller said
[I tell you, it near moved a few to tears]
‘bout ‘ow, in stormy seas, love is the anchor
And if she holds you steady, Rod, you thank ‘er.

‘e said, “You’ll ‘ave your good times and your bad
Days when the seas are smooth, days when they’re rough
Days when your loved one drives you nearly mad
Days when you think, ‘I think I’ve had enough.’
But you can make it through – right to the end
As long as you remember to be friends.”

That’s what ‘e said. I reckon that he’s right
That’s sort of what I’ve learned from my experience
You’ll ‘ave your bright days and you’ll have dark nights
You’ll have th’excitement, and you’ll have the dreary-ance
But through it all – remember come-what-may
Your friendship and the vows yer made t’day

The Toast

And now I’d like yez all to raise your glasses
It’s time we drank a toast to Lee and Rod
So be upstanding - get up off your ...
seats please
And I am sure that you won’t find it odd
The toast is clear – it causes us no trouble
To drink our toast to this fine married couple...

Long may they live – long may joy fill their house
We wish ‘em well in all that life might bring
We thank ‘em for inviting us today
And I would like to end with one last thing:
Let’s hope that when October next begins
We’ll be singing: “When the Saints come marchin’ in.”

Friday, November 12, 2010

55. Family History: More on Lewis Bertram

The first of the items above comes from a newspaper report in 1833. The second is a photocopy of the indictment of Lewis Bartram, his brother Henry Bartram, and their friend Thomas Horn for stealing six live tame drakes of the price of nine shillings and five alive tame Ducks of the price of seven shillings of the goods of one Richard Mountford Checkley.

Their plea was 'Not Guilty', but the verdict was 'Guilty', and they were sentenced to be Transported for the term of seven years to such place or places beyond the seas as His Majesty by and with the advice of His Privy Council shall think proper to order and direct...

Lewis BARTRAM, my great great grandfather, was sent to Van Dieman's Land. His brother Henry was sent to the colony of New South Wales.

Their sister, Elizabeth, remained in Bedfordshire. And it was one of her descendants, Anita ISAACS, who discovered my blog, One Stolen Duck: A History of the BARTRAM/BERTRAM family in Australia and sent copies of the documents above.

54. My Reading Life : Peter Fitzsimon's A Simpler Time

In his recently published memoir, A Simpler Time, the one-time Australian rugby player –turned journalist and writer, Peter Fitzsimons recounts stories of his early years. He grew up on Peats Ridge near Gosford in NSW, one of six children. A Simpler Time is a great read, a loving evocation of – as the title calls it – a simpler time. (The book is sub-titled: A memoir of love, laughter, loss and billy carts.)
Born in the 1950s, Fitzsimons – nicknamed Petee or Woozle by his siblings – was the youngest of six. The book evokes a time when you only wore shoes when you had to – and that was on very formal occasions, like when you went to church on Sundays. According to Fitzsimons, most of the kids growing up at Peats Ridge in the 50s went to school bare footed. Indeed, he remembers the indignation the local kids felt when a new headmaster insisted that all children must wear shoes to school. What had been a ‘sissy’ affectation – the wearing of shoes – became an iron-clad (perhaps leather-clad) rule!
His account took me back almost 60 years to the shame I felt as a 6 or 7 year old growing up in Coburg, with its bituminised streets and cobbled back lanes. Unlike Fitzsimons, I grew up an only child and a bit of a mummy’s boy. Reynard Street, where my parents lived from 1936 until the late 1980s, was a narrow and busy thoroughfare. It ran from the Post Office Hotel, on the corner of Sydney Road for about two or three miles, to the Moonee Ponds Creek – almost to Strathmore.
I was overprotected and over mothered. My parents kept me away from the gutters, thought to be a source of polio myelitis. There had been an epidemic of the disease among Melbourne children during the Great Depression. My parents also kept me from children who were rough.
Going barefoot was one of the ways ‘normal’ boys showed they were tough. I used to watch them with envy as they ran barefoot along the footpaths and in the parks. I was a tenderfoot. Other boys – the rough Coburg boys – ran barefoot, climbed trees, chucked yonnies, explored open drains, had spitting competitions. I was the timid little kid who wore shoes and who couldn’t climb – daren’t climb – trees.
For Peter Fitzsimons – for Woozle – childhood days were much like the old song described them:
Barefoot days when we were ‘just a kid’
Barefoot days , oh boy the things we did
We’d go down to a shady nook
With a bent pin for a hook
We’d fish all day, we’d fish all night
But those darned old fish refused to bite ...

Though tall for my age – I was pretty much the tallest or second tallest kid in my year level all through primary school – I was physically timid and socially inept. I played with my Dinky cars in the back yard at home, by myself. I was ‘highly strung’ – a characteristic I shared with Woozle Fitzsimons. We both feared the bogeyman who waited in the dark to pounce on little boys.
Fitzsimons relishes and celebrates the colloquial language of his parents and grandparents. I’d forgotten Mrs Kafoops – a woman well known to everyone around Coburg, as well as at Peats Ridge. But despite being well known, non one ever actually got to meet her.
Fitzsimons brings back to my mind those omnibus words : thingamyjig and whatyamaycallit. He didn’t mention dozziewhatsits - but I bet he knew what they were.
In the Fitzsimons household, as in Carozzi household, there were the same all-purpose phrases, with slight variations:
In Woozle’s house, someone would ask: Have you seen my thingamyjig?
And the answer would invariably come: Yes – it’s up in Annie’s room behind the clock.
Around our way, it was: Up in Lizzie’s room behind the clock.
And my all time favourite:
What’s that?
It’s a wigwam for a goose’s bridle.
[Or more correctly, a whimwham for a goose’s bridal.]
They’re phrases that have all but disappeared from the everyday speech of everyday Australians, and our language is all the poorer for it.

I loved reading ‘A Simpler Time’. It’s a heart warming evocation of childhood in the 40s and 50s – a nostalgic stroll along the winding paths of memory.
There is one passage in the book that spoke to me very directly, more than any other part. On page 72 Fitzsimons describes a chance meeting ...
I met a woman who was an orphaned only child of parents who had, themselves, been only children.
‘You mean,’ I asked her incredulously, ‘that you have no family at all?!?!?! No aunts, no uncles, no siblings, no cousins, no nothing?!’
‘Yes,’ she replied, bemused at my amazement, but I was really stunned. Until I met her IU seriously hadn’t even conceived the possibility. Fancy a life with no fixed reference points in the universe to steer by! For I always knew exactly who I was, still am and forever will be – a Fitzsimons of Peats Ridge, from the Wahroonga tribe of FitzSimonses on my father’ side and Grandpa and Pollie Booth on my mother’s side. Having a defined position, sitting on a strong limb of the family tree with deep roots in the one spot makes me feel secure, full stop. Not that I ever analysed it as a child – I must have just felt it....
...this woman ... had sort of drifted, shifted and rifted around from spot to spot in Australia, as the winds and her whims took her – and she never even had anyone to tell where she was going or what she was doing...
Familiarity with my family tree starts early and, piece by piece, as I grow I come to understand just here my myriad aunts and uncles fit on it, and which of my cousins belongs to whom ... This is no small undertaking ...

This observation reminded me of James Joyce – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man. The young Stephen describes opening a school book:

He opened the geography to study the lesson; but he could not learn the names of places in America. Still they were all different places that had different names. They were all in different countries and the countries were in continents and the continents were in the world and the world was in the universe.
He turned to the flyleaf
of the geography and read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.
Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Kildare
The World
The Universe

That was in his writing: and Fleming one night for a cod
had written on the opposite page:
Stephen Dedalus is my name,
Ireland is my nation.
Clongowes is my dwelling place
And heaven my expectation.

There were three ‘only children’ on the Kipping side (my mum’s side) of the family: my cousins Lynette and Faye, and me. We were, each of us, the ‘apple of our parents’ eyes’. Lynette was a bit of a tomboy. She played in the streets with the Worcester boys , back in the late 40s when Pascoe Vale was just being settled, when Dorset Road – where Uncle Ivan and Aunty Iris lived – was an unmade street with an earthen gutter, and when there was a tip at the end of the street where you could catch tadpoles and find all manner of treasure.
Faye and I were shy and timid; we were much less social and much more solitary; our parents were more protective.
My oldest cousin, Thelma, who is now into her 70s, was one of three children.
Your parents always doted on you,’ she tells me. ‘They gave you everything.’ And that may have been true. But as Fitzsimons notes, they were simpler times. Teenagers hadn’t been invented; they weren’t a market to be exploited. Most kids left school and were out in the world of work by the time they were 15 years old, earning a wage, contributing to the family, establishing their financial independence.
It may be true that I had things that my cousins didn’t have. Over a number of years my Christmas and birthday presents were pieces for my Hornsby train set; each year I’d add some rails or some new carriages to that most valued possession. One year I received a second engine.
And when I was 9 my mother carried the huge metal box that contained my other great treasure – a No. 2 Meccano set, the second largest set you could buy. And when I was 11 Mum and dad bought me a banjo mandolin, and I had lessons at the Victorian Banjo Club. [I had wanted a guitar, but guitars were too dear. More than 20 years would pass before I bought myself a guitar and learned to play.]
Thelma also remembers how I would often stay in my room when they visited our place.
‘You were always studying,’ is her recollection.
My own recollection is that my childhood was a time of unremitting loneliness. I used to play in the backyard with my Dinky toys; I’d sit in the chook house and cuddle my pet chook, the one I called ‘Mumma’; I tended my collections – of fossils and of bottle tops.
I think I was a very shy child. I had few friends my own age, as I recall, until late primary school and early secondary school. At least none to play with around Reynard Street and the local neighbourhood.
In the late 1970s/early 1980s I wrote a story about the first story I ever wrote. I was 6 or 7 at the time, and I wrote it at a family Christmas party. In part it reads:

I wrote my first story when I was very young. I can see the scene vividly still, even though it was 60 years ago. I am sitting on the sofa at Aunty Vonny’s house. It is Christmas, I think. All of my cousins are there, and my aunts and uncles – my father’s side of the family. The adults are sitting around Aunty Vonny’s lounge room; my cousins are outside playing. I’m on the sofa, in the lounge room, the only child among the grown ups. I have a duplicate book, with white and yellow pages, and I am writing my story on the back side of the sheet. The duplicate book is one my father has brought home from work; he is a labourer with the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works.
I think it must be the Christmas of 1949. I’ve finished grade one. I’m six and a half.
Ronnie Fitzpatrick, who lived next door, was the closest thing I had to a surrogate brother; he was 6 or 7 years older than me. My cousins Frank and Lawrence Carozzi – who lived just around the corner in Loch Street – were 20 and 17 years older than me. So I had very little to do with them.
For the most part I spent my childhood in the company of my parents, or playing by myself. Thelma is right; they doted on me. I grew up believing that my mother had had three full term pregnancies, but my older brother and younger sister had both been still born, or died soon after birth. I was special because I was the sole survivor, and my ‘sole survivor’ status explained why Linda and Garrie were so protective of me. Linda had lost two children; the thought of losing her sole surviving child was too dreadful to contemplate.

There were family picnics, occasional trips to the beach, visits to Ballarat and to Hamilton to visit aunts and uncles and cousins on the Kipping side. But in my memory these were not all that common, and so all the mere memorable because of this.

Our lives were simple then. There was school all week. In winter I’d go to the football with my dad – he followed Coburg in the VFA – the Victorian Football Association. On Sundays we’d go for a Sunday drive – to Wildwood or Konagadeera or Bulla. Sometimes Dad would take me rabbitting with him; we’d drive up to the open paddocks near Barry’s Lane – now the built up suburb of Campbellfield. Or sometimes

During the long Christmas break we’d sometimes go on camping trips: to Bairnsdale and Buchan caves, or to Warrnambool, or to Adelaide. Or we’d visit Uncle Gordon and Aunty Phoebe in Ballarat, or Uncle Arthur and Aunty Doreen in Hamilton. Or we’d visit Mum and Dad’s friends, the Kynochs. Once we went camping, up near Murchison with the Craigheads.

The little boy who sat on the couch writing The Farmer and the Crow while his cousins played Tiggy and Hide and Seek out among the fruit trees in Aunty Vonne’s back yard, and who stayed in his room, studying’ when his Kipping cousins came to call, who was doted on and spoilt by his parents, who was kept from children who were rough, and who – in the eyes of his cousins – was a bit of a show-off, a bit of a sissy, a bit of a mummy’s boy – perhaps always felt himself to be an outsider.

I think I’ve always felt like an outsider, and I have always yearned for that easy sense of belonging that comes so easy to Peter Fitzsimons: ‘having a defined position, sitting on a strong limb of the family tree with deep roots.’

As he writes: ‘It’s not that I ever analysed that as a child – I must have just felt it.’
I, on the other hand, never really felt it.

I was not like the orphaned woman that Fitzsimons met. It’s not that I had ‘no family at all!?!? No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, so siblings, no nothing.’

But I had no siblings – and I longed and yearned and begged for a brother or sister. [I recall desperately pleading with my mother to have another child so that I could have a brother or sister.]

I had aunts and uncles and cousins – but I felt like an outsider, felt that I didn’t quite fit in, didn’t quite belong. At the time I thought this feeling of difference, this outsider status, was because I was an only child. I sensed a kind of resentment. It seemed that my status as an ‘only child’ was a stain, a cause for my cousins to reject me, or more accurately, simply not include me. I certainly felt different: I was bookish, solitary, shy, lonely, and had few ‘social skills’. I don’t think I quite knew how to play with other kids, or how to relate to them.

An event that stands out in my memory is an incident with my cousin Thelma. I was maybe 7, which means she was around 12 or 13. We were walking in Loch Street, just around the corner from my house – more than 60 years later I can still picture the scene. I was probably annoying her with my attention-seeking behaviour.

Do you know what you are?’ she said. ‘You’re a show off!’

In my recollection of the scene, I flushed with embarrassment and shame. I’d been caught out, I knew it; I was a show off. I think ‘showing off’ was my way of making contact, my way of seeking attention and recognition and acceptance among people who were largely indifferent to me. I took for granted the love and attention of my parents; in a strange way it didn’t really count; they had to love me (or so I thought).

In his book, My Mothers, Michael Blumenthal describes himself as ‘always up there on the diving board, never sitting contentedly on a deck chair beside the pool.’ It’s a strange mix of needing attention and needing to prove yourself.

In The Hero Within, a discussion of the role of Jungian archetypes in our lives, Carol Pearson talks about the orphan, the wounded child, the victim in each of us. The ‘orphan’- experience emerges from the inevitable ‘disappointments’ we experience; our parents can’t be there all the time; nor can they get it right all the time. Perhaps they’re preoccupied with their own lives, or with other children, or they misread the signs. And we feel let down, we feel unloved, cast out from the paradise of unconditional, unstinting love. We feel ‘orphaned’, isolated, unloved, needful.

The English psychologist John Bowlby wrote in the 1960s about the importance of attachment to healthy growth; our first twelve months are crucial in this process of bonding, of establishing attachment, of establishing what Erick Erikson called ‘basic trust’ in the world. (And that means the social world we inhabit.)

Studies of children raised in orphanages where a strict regime of neglect was the essential philosophy – where babies and young children spent hour after hour in their cot with only minimum contact with their carers – point to the serious long-term consequences of the failure to establish ‘basic trust’, the failure to bond or to attach.

Perhaps the sense of rootedness that Peter Fitzsimons writes about – the sense of solidity that comes from being loved and accepted in the family – gives us ‘fixed reference points in the universe to steer by.’ Basic trust is perhaps the knowledge that we have our place and that we are loved. It is a deep knowing that we are part of a tribe, that we have an accepted place in our tribe.

When that is not there, we always feel that we are outsiders; and we strive for acceptance, strive to be absorbed into the group. For Woozle Fitzsimons, this acceptance was never in doubt; he always ‘knew his place’. For Blumenthal – and perhaps for me and others like me – part of the life script becomes the ongoing attempts to become worthy of membership of the tribe, by showing off our cleverness or our strength or our special skills. For Woozle, his tribal belonging was taken for granted; for others, we feel that we have to prove ourselves, we have to prove our worthiness.

The European thinker Jean Gebser writes of the two conflicting currents within us. Our current sucks us towards the tribe. This ‘tribal instinct’ is strong in us. Maybe Groucho Marx was being cynical and fussy about membership of the in-group; I recall his quip: ‘I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.’ Or maybe it was an expression of a deep sense of worthlessness – rather like the line in the Methodist Holy Communion service: ‘We do not presume to come to this, Thy table, O Lord, trusting in our own righteousness...’ [In the Christian religion, no-one is worthy to join the ‘communion of saints’ except through God’s grace, and through Christ’s sacrifice.]

This yearning in us, to be a part of the tribe, is powerful. Tribes can be of many kinds: family, the extended family, the church, work groups. The extremes of ‘allegiance behaviour’ that we observe every winter – especially as the Grand Final approaches – speaks volumes for this ‘tribal imperative’. In his novel Lord of the Flies William Golding explores the power of tribalism. Golding places a group of 30 or so boys on an island; there are no adults. Over time, rationality is swamped by the emotional power of tribalism. The tribe’s rituals provide its members with a sense of oneness, a sense of belonging.

Tribes include – but they also exclude. Tribes like extended families, or the cricket phenomenon, The Barmy Army (composed of fanatical English supporters), or the Collingwood ‘faithful’ – all such tribes are inclusive of their members. Members join in the rituals – the songs, the stories, the symbols, the tribal myths – and feel a part of the great oneness.
[It was interesting to hear the emotional response of the Collingwood Football Club president following the Grand Final win in 2010. He spoke of the joy of the Collingwood faithful; he referred to allegations that Collingwood were ‘toothless’ – a reference to both the working class origins of the club and its supporter base and the long standing doubts about the clubs ability to ‘win the big one’.]

It is the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of tribes that arouses passion. Rationality is anaesthetised.

In many ways it is the intensity of the Collingwood tribe that provokes such an intense and passionate response: football supporters in Melbourne are either Collingwood supporters, or they hate Collingwood; there is almost no middle ground.

Rationality and decency and respect for others are often deadened by the overpowering passion of the tribal urge. This is the dark side of tribalism. It is not surprising to discover that one of AFL’s most ‘celebrated’ moments emerged out of tribal excess. In 1993, the aboriginal footballer Nicky Winmar was playing for St Kilda against Collingwood. Throughout the game Winmar was subject to constant, bitter racial abuse from members of the Collingwood crowd. At the end of the game, when St Kilda won, Winmar turned to the abusive crowd; he pulled his jumper up to show his upper body - and pointed to his skin: His gesture was unmistakable: he was telling the Collingwood crowd: ‘Yes – my skin is black. And I am PROUD OF IT!’

Dominant tribes, convinced of their own superiority, find it almost impossible to grasp the destructiveness – indeed, the indecency – of their stance. Fundamentalisms of all kinds are about asserting the superiority of one tribe over all others.

[There is a joke from my religious days, when I was heavily into the Methodist Church, that focuses around this notion. It goes like this:
A Methodist dies and goes to Heaven. St Peter meets him at the pearly gates and offers to show him around. They go into one large room and there are people singing and playing instruments and praising God.
‘These are the Salvation Army members,’ says St Peter.
They move on to another area of Heaven, where people are gathered beside a river. Every few moments they duck under the water, then stand up again.
‘These are the Baptists,’ says St Peter. ‘They’re really into full immersion.’

They go a little further and approach a very high wall.
‘Now you must be VERY quiet,’ says St Peter. The two climb up a ladder and peep over the wall into the other side. There hundreds of people are going about their business, praying and talking and reading the Bible.

When St Peter and the man are back on the ground, the fellow says:
‘Who were they?’
‘Oh,’ says St Peter. ‘They’re the Catholics.’
‘Why do we have to be so quiet?’
‘Well you see,’ says St Peter, ‘they think they’re the only ones up here!’]

It’s tempting to argue that John Howard’s steadfast refusal to say ‘Sorry’ to aboriginal people stemmed from his utter commitment to his own tribe; to say ‘sorry’ would have been – in his eyes – a betrayal.

But there is another strong current within us, drawing us to the polar opposite of tribalism. Maslow called it ‘individuation’ – the self. We strive to be ourselves – unique.

Individual, that’s what I want to be
Unique and special. The one and only me...

My identity does not begin and end with my tribal associations. Indeed, I want to assert my independence and separateness from the tribe. My tribe does not define me.

But the constant interplay between these two force has been a constant throughout my life - something I will explore further, in a later blog.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

53. Intimations of mortality

‘When we are born we cry and weep; when we die we should smile.’

It’s a school day, but one with a difference. The Year 7s are at the beach – it’s Water Safety day. And some Year 10s - the VET Recreation class -is off on an excursion to Kinglake. But more significantly, today is Jacquie’s funeral. Jacquie had worked as an assistant in the school library for the last four or five years. She was quiet, shy, self-effacing, always friendly and helpful. She died of cancer a little over a week ago, and her funeral takes place today. Many of the staff are attending the funeral.

It’s now more than eight years ago that I saw the movie Where the heart is. One of the lines of that movie has remained with me, a kind of touchstone. It’s a line uttered by the central character, a girl named Novalee Nation (played by Natalie Portman) who manages to survive the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, a girl from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ who makes good, overcoming the odds to create a life that is full of meaning and integrity.
An online blurb for the film summarises its plot as follows:

Novalee Nation is a pregnant 17-year-old from Tennessee heading to California with her boyfriend Willie Jack, but is abandoned by him at a Wal-Mart store in Sequoyah, Oklahoma. Novalee has no job, no skills and only $5.55 in her pocket, so she secretly lives in the Wal-Mart until her daughter Americus is born six weeks later. Novalee decides to raise her daughter and rebuild her life in Sequoyah, with the help of eccentric but kind strangers. Based on the best-selling novel by Billie Letts.

In a memorable scene Novalee gives birth in the Wal-Mart store, where she has managed to take refuge for several weeks after her boyfriend dumped her. As I said, there is a memorable line; it comes like this: Novalee’s closest friend – Lexie - is also a battler; she is a woman who is easily abused because she is so needful for a man in her life, and too trusting of any man who pays her the least attention. One of these men molests her young daughters, and when Lexie intervenes, she is beaten up.

Lexie blames herself for what has happened to her daughters, and Novalee tries to comfort her.
‘What am Ito tell my children? How can I explain to them that their mother was so stupid – to let a man do this to them?’ Lexie asks. She is obviously filled with guilt about her own gullibility and needfulness, which have allowed this terrible thing to happen.

And in her response, Novalee talks about the reality of the human condition:
You tell them that our lives can change with every breath we take... and tell 'em to hold on like hell to what they've got: each other, and a mother who would die for them and almost did... You tell them we've all got meanness in us, but we've got goodness too. And the only thing worth living for is the good. And that's why we've got to make sure we pass it on.

Our lives can change with every breath we take...

In my recollection I changed that insight to: Our lives turn on a breath.

We live our lives as though we will live forever, and yet we know that death could be as close as the next breath we take. And that is a recognition that be depressing or uplifting. We can choose to live with the ambiguity, or pretend there is none. We can drown our sorrows, or live with constant fear, or live with constant joy.

I didn’t know Jacquie all that well. Four of her closest friends on the staff were at her side when she took her last breath. Some members of staff have been deeply upset by her death; some have soldiered on ‘as though nothing has happened’. But as our principal, Glennis observed: ‘We each grieve in our own way.’

Donne famously wrote: No man is an island ... so do not send to ask for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.
Each death is a reminder to us of our own impending death.
About which the European intellectual and poet, Jean Gebser wrote:
‘When we are born we cry and weep; when we die we should smile.’

I’ve just finished reading the Barry Jones autobiography, A Thinking Reed. It’s a door-stopper of a book, running to around 560 pages. And at a few points, his book has much to say about these matters. He begins by quoting Pascal’s Pensees (Thoughts)

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.
All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavour, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.

At first I wondered at the image of the reed. But then I realised that it’s an apt metaphor – we are like the reed, in both our multiplicity and our frailty. The Bible suggests that our tenure is ‘three score years and ten’ – but that’s a mere statistic, one that is subject to the whims of the gods – or the quantum uncertainties of the universe. Whichever way we look at it – we are weak, frail creatures, and for all of our technological achievement, the Grim Reaper continues to wait in the shadows... Shakespeare put it thus: As flies to wanton boys are we to gods; they kill us for their sport ...

He’s in his eighth decade – he’s a child of the 1930s – Barry Jones has lived an extraordinarily full live. His good friend, Phillip Adams, believes he should be declared a ‘national treasure’; he’s certainly one of our public intellectuals. His interests are passions, and his passions are catholic; he is one of the few genuine polymaths, a jack of (almost) all trades, and a master of many. Popular culture and sport are virtually the only areas of human activity that haven’t possessed him.

Knowing how tenuous our lives are; knowing that the only certainties are death and taxes; and knowing that ‘our lives turn on a breath’ – how are we to live our lives? A Thinking Reed is Barry Jones’s account of how he has lived his life, how he has chosen to occupy his time. You can’t help but be impressed by the sheer enormity of his curiosity and his capacity to ‘map reality’ within his head.

In the introductory part of the book, he writes:
I was always preoccupied with the concept of ‘time’s winged chariot’, the need to act decisively and that there may be no second chances. ‘Life is not a dress rehearsal.’

But how do we choose how to spend our time? How do we decide what is worth attending to? Jones draws on Greek mythology – on the myth of Sisyphus – to state his position on this question. Sisyphus had tricked the gods – he’d managed, for a short time, to chain Thanatos to a rock. Thanatos, the god of death, was unable to move – and so – for a short time – humans did not die. Sisyphus’s victory was short lived; Ares, the god of war, grew tired of battles in which no man could die. So he freed Thanatos. The gods were very angry with Sisyphus for having dared to trick them – indeed, for taking away their power over life and death, , and decided on a cruel punishment: each morning Sisyphus was required to carry a huge boulder up a steep hill. It would take him all day to manhandle the boulder to the top. But no sooner did Sisyphus place the boulder at the top of the hill than it would roll down the other side. [In a famous essay, the French writer Camus likened the work of the writer to the punishment of Sisyphus.]

Barry Jones widens the Sisyphus reference to the whole of humanity; he writes:
Like Sisyphus, we are all condemned to carry loads. The major difference is the value of the contents. One bag may contain empty bottles, bits of rubble and old car tyres, while the other includes maps of the universe, the teachings of Jesus, the Buddha and Mohammad, the writings of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare, music by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, art by van Eyck, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hokusai, the insights of Galileo, Darwin and Einstein, cures to terrible diseases. We must choose which baggage accompanies us through life.

Towards the end of the book, Barry Jones examines his beliefs, the sustaining beliefs that enabled him to life such a full public life. His acknowledges his own shortcomings as a politician with honesty and dignity, but as the book draws to a close, there is much sadness. Rosemary – his wife of some 40 years – died three years before the book was published. Barry is, for the most part, silent about personal matters; but the depth of his loss and of his loneliness is only too apparent.
In the final section he writes:

The optimistic note on which I hoped to end A Thinking Reed, with autumnal light glinting on the leaves and hills of the landscape ahead, has eluded me.

Part of the reason for this lack of optimism must be the loneliness he feels; that and his knowledge that Thanatos is unchained, and his recognition that our lives do indeed turn on a breath. But it is his account of the current state of political activity and debate and the appalling dearth of intellectual content in the public discussion of important issues that most disturbs him. He writes of the betrayal of reason, and of the way in which the 10 second grab and the constant spin doctoring dominate public life.
For a man who has devoted his life to the careful and ordered accumulation of knowledge and understanding, and the use of reason and the careful analysis of evidence to find what is true, the current upsurge of mindless fundamentalisms and political decision making based on populist cant and focus group findings is a source of deep distress.

Phillip Adams is right: Barry Jones should be declared a national treasure.

Friday, November 5, 2010

52. Family History: Louisa LLOYD The mother of my Great Great Grandmother

Loiusa LLOYD

Louisa Lloyd was the mother of Fanny LLOYD. Fanny married Lewis BARTRAM - the duck stealer - in 1839. Fanny Lloyd was thus my great great grandmother.

Thanks to an email from Nicole Lloyd - the wife of a descendant of Louisa Lloyd - I was alerted to the name of Fanny Lloyd's mother - Louisa. And I was able to ferret out the following information: It is drawn from the book Notorious Strumpets and Dangerous Girls: Convict Women in Van Diemans Land, 1803-1829, by Phillip Jardif (Angus & Robertson, 1990).

Loiusa LLOYD was born in England in 1790. On September 7, 1825, she was convicted for larceny at Middlesex Jail. Her Police number was 50. She was transported to Van Diemans Land on the convict ship Providence 2.
The gaol reported that she was single, and that her conduct was GOOD. Louisa was 35 at the time of her conviction. On her report, she stated that her husband had died six years earlier – in 1819. [According to Nicole, a descendant, her husbands name was William.]
Louisa and William had 3 children, and two of them – Eliza and Fanny – travelled with her to the penal colony. Eliza was 9, and Fanny 6.
According to the report of the ship’s surgeon, Eliza’s
conduct was "good and orderly. Never had occasion to be attached with the least fault, but to the contrary I found her quite agreeable and ready to attend to my directions. She is without exception quiet and well behaved and worthy of a good situation. "

Jardif lists the following information concerning Louisa:
Native Place London
Trade Can cook, wash and iron. Chairwoman.
Literacy Cannot write
Height 4 ftf 11 ¼ in
Age 36 (1826)
Hair Brown
Eyes Dark grey

1827 2 February Mr Curr Absconding from service yesterday.
Returned to factory
1827 31 October J. Burnett Improper conduct in her service. To be assigned to Country service
1831 11 June Ticket of Leave
1831 1 July Applied to marry William Elliot (No. 32) per Lord Melville. (Married at Launceston 1 August 1831)
1832 15 September Free by Servitude (Free Certificate, 1832)
1841 3 June FS Drunk. Fined 5 shillings
1841 5 June Drunk Fined 5 shillings
1846 23 February Drunk Fined 5 shillings

The Sources for this information are listed as: 1-3, 5-8, 13, 19, 21, 22

According to one of Louisa’s descendants (Nicole ?) :

Louisa was 41 when she married William ELLIOT.
Frances (Fanny) LLOYD was born on 16 March, 1820. Fanny LLOYD married Lewis BARTRAM in 1839.
Eliza LLOYD was born on 27 July, 1817. Eliza married Joseph HILL in Launceston in 1842. The
marriage was witnessed by William Elliot (who had married Louisa LLOYD in 1831) and William

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

51. From the ARCHIVES 3: I'm just a station on your way

Peter Elbow says, “If we pay more attention to the everyday, self-sponsored independent writing that ordinary people do, we build a more commodious and complex but more accurate model of writing”.

I wrote my first story …

I wrote my first story when I was very young. I can see the scene vividly still, even though it was almost 60 years ago. I am sitting on the sofa at Aunty Vonny’s house. It is Christmas, I think. all of my cousins are there, and my aunts and uncles – my father’s side of the family. The adults are sitting around Aunty Vonny’s lounge room; my cousins are outside playing. I’m on the sofa, in the lounge room, the only child among the grown ups. I have a duplicate book, with white and yellow pages, and I am writing my story on the back side of the sheet. The duplicate book is one my father has brought home from work; he is a labourer with the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works.
I think it must be the Christmas of 1949. I’ve finished grade one. I’m six and a half.
I’m asking Uncle Charlie a question. Charlie Beale has recently married my cousin Verna – Aunty Vonny’s daughter. I am vaguely aware that my mother doesn’t altogether approve of Charlie Beale. He’s older than Verna by ten years, and he’s been married before.
I ask Uncle Charlie: “How do you spell one?”
He says, “Which one?”
People laugh, and I’m embarrassed.
“There are two ones,” he explains, and he is laughing too.
“There’s WON – like in “He won the race “. That’s W …O…N. Then there ONE – like “He only had ONE leg.” That’s O …N…E.”
I bury myself in my book, in embarrassment.

The Farmer and the Crow

Wun day a crow sat on a fence.
The farmer said, “Get off my fence.”
But the crow did not move.
The farmer said, “Get off my fence or I will shoot you!”
But the crow still did not move.
So the farmer shot the crow.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
But he missed.
And the crow laughed and laughed and laughed.
Ha ha ha, he he he, ho ho ho, haw haw haw.
The End.

I do not really know how I became a writer
In an article entitled, On Being A Writer, V.S. Naipaul wrote:
I do not really know how I became a writer. I can give certain dates and certain facts about my career. But the process itself remains mysterious. It is mysterious, for instance, that the ambition should have come first – the wish to be a writer, to have that distinction, that fame – and that this ambition should have come long before I could think of anything to write about.
My experience reflects that of Naipaul. How was it that a quiet little working class boy came to imagine himself a writer at the age of six or seven. How was it that this slow reader, who did not read his first book, from cover to cover, until he was well into High school, aspired to be a writer during his adolescent years.

As Naipual says, “.I can give certain dates and certain facts about my career. But the process itself remains mysterious”. I too can give certain facts: I wrote my first story, The Farmer and the Crow, when I was 6; in form 2, in secondary school, I wrote a lengthy poem – The Malas Hunt – in the meter and rhyming pattern of the Australian classic, The Man From Snowy River.
When I was 13 or 14, I commenced work on a most ambitious project – I would write my own encyclopaedia… This was – to use Peter Elbow’s term – an entirely “self sponsored project. In Forms 4 and 5, I contributed stories to the school magazine. I recall writing a piece around that time: romanticised imaginings about being a writer in which I asserted that a writer needs only a pen, some paper and a rose. I even had a pen name: I wrote that piece under the pseudonym of Edwin Morgan.

I recall writing and performing in a play at a Methodist Boys” Camp in the summer of 1958/9. It was entitled “Operation Underpants: A Story of Down Under”. Ours was the winning performance at the camp concert. The piece was, of course, utterly derivative, and based on the Goon Show. Many of the jokes were recycled, as was the plot.

During my adolescence, the Methodist Boys” Camps, held at Ocean Grove, became the highlight of my year. I attended every year from 1955 until I completed university. Church summer schools and Easter camps became an increasingly important – and influential – part of my life.
These became a “community of discourse” for me. Through them I met an array of charismatic mentors, none more influential than Henry Gay. From the moment I met Henry, I wanted to be like him. He was immensely popular among the boys at these camps because of the rapid flow of his wit, his energy and his performance skills. He was a performer, a joke teller, a man who created puns – or so it seemed to us – at the point of utterance.

I recall two performance pieces he developed, and which he performed, at Boys Camps and also at the huge gatherings of Methodist young people that took place once a month at North Melbourne Town Hall and Melbourne Town Hall. These were a cross between university reviews and a revivalist meeting. There’d be comedy sketches, musical performance, earnest talks by Church leaders … two hours of “entertainment” and evangelism.

These were attended by up to 3000 young people from youth groups all around Melbourne.
Henry’s sketches and performances were memorable. In one, Henry mimed a popular song of the day. That’s not all that difficult, you might say. Except that Henry had rerecorded the song, disrupting its flow with repeated lines or phrases, constant jumps, both forward and back. It went for around two minutes, and its performance was extraordinary.

In the second sketch I remember, the scene was a town in the Wild West. There were two characters: a tough bully and gunslinger and a milksop, in a face off. Henry played both parts, delivering first one line, then running the length of the stage, and delivering the response.

It went as follows:
Tough Character: Hey, you! (Runs to the other end of the stage.)
Weak character: Who? Me? (Runs back)
Yeah, you! (Runs back … and so on…)
I wanna talk to you?
Yeah, you.
…. Okay

And so it went. The sketch involved enormous energy, and involved quite a few one liners, such as:
Tough Character: You been seeing too much of my girlfriend.
Weak character: Well, she shouldn’t wear that kind of bathing costume.

For a considerable time I worked on becoming like Henry. I began to collect jokes. I remember creating a Joke Book in which I recorded one liners:

That pigeon wants to buy my house?
How do you know?
He left a deposit on it.

I’ve got a little dog at home. I call him Handyman.
Why do you call him Handyman?
Because he does little odd jobs about the house.

Hey mister, what’s in he bag?
It’s manure, for me strawberries.
That’s funny. We have cream on ours.

How did they divide parliament into two houses?
They sent a petition.

From whence did this impulse to be a writer arise?Reflections on the years at secondary school
From whence did this impulse to be a writer arise, an impulse undaunted by the traditionalist English teaching of the time. I recall few of the writing tasks we were given during our years of secondary school. One that does stand out was a piece in Form 3 (Year 9):

Write a letter to a refrigerator manufacturer complaining about a faulty part.

Despite the near absence of reading during the first 15 years, I always did well in English, often topping the class. I generally did very well in Composition.

I can date the beginning of my serious reading life with some accuracy. In Form 4 – Year 10 – our English teacher was Ruby Tout. The set text that year was John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. That was the first book I read. I was a laborious reader; each page would take me three, four even five minutes. As a result,, I often gave up on books. But with Steinbeck, I persisted. I loved the book; so much so that I began reading his great work, The Grapes of Wrath – all 400+ pages of it – in the last couple of weeks of that year: 1958. I finished it midway through 1959. Those two books were the catalyst to my becoming an avid reader.
I see now that that year had a huge influence on my life as a writer and reader, and that Ruby Tout was perhaps the most influential of all of my teachers, because it was also in her class that I came to a sudden and inspirational understanding of what poetry is about.
Prior to the moment in Ruby Tout’s class, I’d seen poetry as a game of rhymes and rhythms and repetition, as something to be committed to memory, and to be later performed.

At Coburg 484 Primary School we had been required to learn poems by heart. I remember, in grade five, attempting to learn the poem The Wreck of the Hesperus. All that remains are two lines:

It was the schooner Hesperus
That sailed the wintry sea…

It was written by Longfellow. Looking at it again after all the years, I can see that it was written in the style of the border ballads. The sentimental nature of the poem becomes evident from the third and fourth lines:
And the skipper had taken his little daughter,
To bare him company
Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax
Her cheeks like the dawn of day
And purples on white as the Hawthorn buds
That ope in the month of May.

I recall memorising William Wordsworth’s Daffodils:

I wandered a lonely as a cloud
That floats on a high o’er of vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

I learned, too, the Australian poems: The Man from Snowy River, Clancy of the Overflow, and so on. I can remember enjoying the music of the language of poetry: the rollicking beat of poems like The Man from Snowy River:

There was movement at the station
For the word had passed around
That the colt from Old Regret had got away …

And poems like:
And the highwayman came riding, riding, riding …

But the rollicking beat also somehow led me to undervalue what these poems contained; I think I saw poetry as an entertaining diversion. Certainly I had some propensity for rhyme and rhythm. Among my souvenirs is a poem I wrote when I was in Form 2. We had studied the Lewis Carroll poem Jabberwocky, and had been asked to make up a nonsense poem. My efforts began:
There was movement in the village for the word had passed around
That the Malas they were going to have a hunt

What followed is too embarrassing to repeat; it consisted of made up words like zingpree. What strikes me about this is that at 13 I had such a strong sense of both rhyme and rhythm; I was able to produce a tolerable imitation of the rhythm of The Man from Snowy River.
Poetry, however, was something we didn’t take all that seriously – a mistake in those authoritarian days of the mid-50s. I made the error of talking too much during Russell Williams’ Form 2 English class, when I should have been attending to what he was telling us about the poem Mort d’Arthur. My punishment was to copy the poem out six times. Six times! And the poem itself ran for six or more pages! Enough to put you off Tennyson for life!

‘There are moments I remember all my life …'

So year 10 was the turning point for me, when I was taught by Ruby Tout. In many ways she was an old-fashioned teacher, but she was passionate about literature. Under her teaching I came to realise the poetry was about the expression of passionate feeling.

Poetry wasn”t simply: de dum de dum de dum de dum. Poetry was about the creation of stunning imagery, of word pictures that grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and made you look and feel.

Before Ruby Tout, poetry had meant rollicking rhymes or soppy sentimentality. My conversion came about as a result of a single poem: The Death of a Bird, by the Australian poet A.D Hope. It was 1958, and these many years later I still read that poem with almost reverence; it still has the power to move me.

For every bird there is this last migration;
Once more year the cooling year kindles her heart;
With a warm passage to the summer station
Love pricks the course in lights across the chart.
Year after year a place on the map divided
By a whole hemisphere, summons her to come…

Throughout the poem there are striking images; Hope captures in words the experience of the migratory bird. The poem describes the image of sands that are ”green with a mirage of valleys”, speaks of the “ghosts that haunt the heart”s possession’, and of love, pricking her “course in lights across the chart” – these struck me with great force.
I think it was the final 3 stanzas of the poem that most affected me:

Suddenly, without warning, without reason,
The guiding spark of instinct winks and dies.
The immense and complex map of hills and rivers
Mocks her small wisdom with its vast design.

I recall being deeply moved by the final stanza:

And darkness rises from the eastern valleys,
And the winds buffet her with their hungry breath,
And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice,
Receives the tiny burden of her death.

No doubt there would be those who would criticise the poem for its anthropomorphism – the ascribing of human emotions to an animal – or for its sentimentality. However, as a 15-year-old, I was deeply moved by the poem — and I still am. My ongoing attachment to it is probably sentimental itself; that poem marks a significant turning point in my relationship with literature.
A D Hope played a part a few years later in consolidating my recognition of what poetry was about. I was introduced to his poem Chorale at University. It began:

Often have I found her fair
Most when to my bed she came …
… Love me now, oh now, o long
was the burden of her song …

This was poetry of sexual passion. Such things were almost unheard of in the repressed fifties in Australia. At this time, sport on Sundays wasn’t allowed; hotels closed at 6 pm; the criterion for whether a book should be accepted or banned was: is it fit for the deputy premier’s 15 year old daughter to read? If not, the book was banned. Many books were unavailable in Australia at the time. It was a time when Graham Kennedy was banned from TV for 3 months for doing an impersonation of a crow’s call live-to-air: “Farrrrrrrrrrrrrk, farrrrrrk.” On TV programs, couples – even husbands and wives – could not be shown in bed together. (In “The Nelsons”, a popular American TV series, the parents – Ozzie and Harriet – shared a room, but had single beds! Anything more risqué would not have got past the censors.

Yet here was a poet writing openly, passionately, about the sexual act. (I had read accounts of sex before this: smutty porn, hand written and grubby and tattered, passed around furtively among boys. It was titillating stuff, yes, but sexist and degrading – dirty).
I remember one line from Chorale in particular that resonated; Hope was describing the moment immediately following orgasm:

Dancing fires descend the hill…

The poem ends with a shift with the woman … "crying for the wasted seed”, and with her grief at this lost opportunity to bear a child:

Love may not delay to long
Is the burden of her song.

Looking back it strikes me that what I was responding to was the capacity of literature to touch our hearts and minds deeply. I recognised that poetry was not simply an intellectual exercise, with the purpose of creating rhythmic, rhyming verse, a sort of smartarse playing with words. Poetry was about expressing matters of the Soul.

At 11, I decided to be a teacher, and that ambition remained paramount throughout my adolescent and early adult years. I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a minister of religion, and was a lay preacher in the Methodist church from the age of 17 till I was 23. During my mid-late adolescence, I was also an athlete, a son, a Fool, a Lover. But the Writer self was there too, not dominant, but emerging now and then, tentatively.

It might soon become an unbreakable habit
I began my writing journal in mid 1976. In the late October, the following entry appears in my diary:
I talked to R today … about the problems of keeping this journal. It was relatively easy while I was away, but now I’m back it’s harder to discipline myself. Still, I’ve kept the average up, and who knows, it might soon become an unbreakable habit.

And two weeks later:
I’m feeling better and better about writing – as though I have freed up all sorts of expressive possibilities. And I now feel writing for oneself – it is now less of a performance for others.
Increasingly in the journal, there are ideas for writing projects – a sign of a growing interest in seeing writing as not simply therapeutic and personally satisfying, but as being work, involving projects to be completed.

In mid November of 1976, the following idea is recorded:

Things that happen while you sleep – a book for children:
myself to be a real audience; I’ve at last taken the notion of Elephants sneak in and keep their trunks warm in your bed. Hippopotamuses turn on the taps in the bathroom, and lie on their backs in the water, and blow bubbles. Kookaburras sit on each side of your bed head, and tell jokes to each other. Then in the morning, they laugh.Wombats …
These are early scenes from a writer’s life, a reader/writer who was, in many ways, a “late bloomer”.

(I realised recently that what was true of my reading life was also true of my life as a musician and song writer. I had always loved songs and music, always sang in the shower, at the camp fire, in the car, walking along corridors … But I didn’t learn to play the guitar until I was 32, and I began writing songs in earnest in my mid 30s – although, as with writing, there are a couple of earlier hints that I might be a song writer.)

And so, what is this PhD about?
In part, my PhD is an attempt to unravel the emergence of a writer – to trace, in a detailed way, the course of this development, the process of this growth. As Naipaul wrote:
… the process itself remains mysterious. It is mysterious, for instance, that the ambition should have come first – the wish to be a writer …
Naipaul writes of Proust’s book, Against Sainte-Beuve. Sainte-Beuve believed that the details of the personal life of the writer can be very useful in understanding his/her work. Proust’s reply was as follows:
This method ignores what a very slight degree of self-acquaintance teaches us, that a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices… The implication (is) that there is something more superficial and empty in a writer’s authorship, something deeper and more contemplative in his private life …in fact, it is the secretion of one’s innermost life, written in solitude and for oneself alone, that one gives to the public. What one bestows on private life – in conversation, however refined it may be – is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents that world.

In this project, my interest is not in the “quite superficial self”. It is not simply dealing with “autobiographical fact”. There is a quite extraordinary book by a therapist and researcher called Robert Romanyshyn, entitled The Wounded Researcher. He argues that researchers must find the “soul” in their work; they must seek what it is in the work that touches/engages their “soul”.
My PhD is about teasing out the processes whereby “the secretion of one”s innermost life, written in solitude and for oneself alone, that one gives to the public’ take place.
Eleanor Rigby, puts on the face that she keeps in a jar by the doorbeatles, 1960s
The outer shells of the self – the personas that we present to the world – are like the mask Eleanor Rigby keeps in a jar by her door. They are the face she wants the world to see, worn “for” other people. The persona is, as Proust observes, a “quite superficial self”. The innermost self – or selves – is achieved by “putting aside” the persona.
The act of writing, of disciplining myself to record and reflect, result in a kind of peace. It is not a control over emotion and experience so much; more, simply, an awareness of it. It is the constructing of some meaning, in an evaluative way, that is happening; so that even if the drives and intentions and deep-born impulses are not under the control of my consciousness, they are at are not under scrutiny. The wild man with unkempt hair and wild sounds of fury can be seen, but cannot be cornered and/or held fast.

Journal, Nov. 21, 1976
This is an early insight, I think, into the therapeutic role of writing; writing creates/enables “a kind of peace”.

On November 26, there is a piece of thinking about experience:
We make the world in our heads, construct meanings of things, construct relations between objects, events, persons. These are “reflection”. “Objective reality” is assumed to exist because of these “constructions” or “reflections” in our minds. The meaning – the shape, texture, size, taste, “feelings” – of an object are made by us. It is Kelly: man makes a “template”; Britton; Persig; and relates to Plato’s forms. Reality is a way of looking at reality. The world is a way of looking at the world. The more primitive the society, the less willing/able to cope with clashes of reality

Naipaul quotes the poet Philip Larkin as saying: “you're finding out what to say as well as how to say it, and that takes time.’

This is, as the title suggests, very much a work in progress. It’s like the words of one of Leonard Cohen’s songs …'I'm just a station on your way/ I know I’m not your lover’. This is a station on the way. There’s quite a distance to go.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

50. Lewis BARTRAM - my great great grandfather

Since discovering last year that I was adopted at the age of 3 months, I have been involved in an obsessive search to discover as much as I can about my origins. My records of family line go back to the early 1700:
Lewis BARTRAM married Elizabeth WHISH in 1761.
Their son ROBERT BARTRAM (born in 1881) married Martha HYAM in 1809.
Their son LEWIS BARTRAM was born in 1816. He married Fanny LLOYD in 1839. After she died, he married Ann WILLIAMS - in 1850.
Their son, Joseph BARTRAM became Joseph BERTRAM - probably throug a clerical error on his marriage certificate. Joseph married Sarah LIGHT in 1886, and their son, NIGAL ARTHUR BETRAM was born in 1893; he was my grandfather. At the end of the First World war, Nigal married Lily GENTLE, and they had 15 children. Their third child,
GWENDOLINE ESTHER BERTRAM, was my mother. She was born in 1922.

The first member of the Bertram family to come to Australia was a 16 year old boy named Lewis BARTRAM. He arrived in Van Diemans Land (Tasmania) on the convict ship Emperor Alexander on August 12, 1833, having been transported to the penal colony for seven years for the crime of having stolen a duck.

Lewis had been charged at the Bedford Quarter Sessions on January 1, 1833.
Genealogical research, undertaken by Charles Rowley, has yielded a little information about Lewis BARTRAM’s background, and that of his forbears.

Lewis BARTRAM was born in Cranfield, England, on January 7, 1816. Thus far, the Bartram family line has been traced back to Lewis’s grandfather - who was also named Lewis.

The earliest record of BARTRAM

Lewis BARTRAM’s grandfather was also named Lewis BARTRAM. That Lewis married Elizabeth WHISH at Kempston, England, on December 10, 1761, which suggests that he had been born in the 1730s or 1740s. There are no details of her date or place of birth at this stage.

In all, Lewis and Elizabeth had nine children.

William September 22, 1762
Married Rebecca WARREN, September 13, 1787.
They had one child: Elizabeth BARTRAM, who married Daniel KNIGHT on January 17, 1811

Mary June 25, 1764
Mary married John FALLDOR on December 8, 1791

Lewis June 9, 1766
Lewis married Elizabeth BERRY on January 31, 1793. They had one son, also named LEWIS BARTRAM, on April 22, 1794.
Lewis was married for a second time, on January 6, 1801. His second wife was Ann THOMPSON. They had one child, a daughter named Martha, born January 1, 1805.

Martha February 3, 1768

Elizabeth June 9, 1771

Samuel May 7, 1773

John November 10, 1776

Richard April 23, 1779

ROBERT October 14, 1781
ROBERT BARTRAM married Martha HYAM on October 3, 1809, at Cranfield. So Robert was 11 days short of his 18th birthday when he married.

Robert BARTRAM, the last-born son of Lewis and Elizabeth, was born in Wooton, England, on October 14, 1781. Robert BARTRAM married Martha HYAM, at Cranfield, on October 3, 1809; he was 18 at the time. There are no details about Martha’s birth date or place of birth.

Lewis BARTRAM’s parents

Robert and Martha BARTRAM were married on October 3, 1809. In all they had six children:

January 6, 1811
Henry BARTRAM married Mary COLE on October 9, 1831. So he was just 20 years of age.

July 4, 1813

January 7, 1816
Lewis married Fanny LLOYD on July 7, 1839, in Launceston, Tasmania. They had one child – a son named John BARTRAM, who was born on April 7, 1849. He was just 5 months old when his mother died. Fanny died of asthma on September 8, 1849.

Lewis married Joanna SHEHAN on April 2, 1850 – seven months after Fanny’s death. Joanna had also been married previously. She was born Ann WILLIAMS.

Lewis died on December 19, 1900.
Joanna died on June 14, 1905.

They had 9 children together.

January 24, 1819

June 30, 1827

October 25, 1829

Lewis BARTRAM – the first BARTRAM in Australia

At this stage we have only tantalising glimpses of Lewis BARTRAM’s life. He was born on January 7, 1816. He was still just 16 years of age when he was charged with having stolen ducks. The law at that time made no allowances for his relative youth – a crime was a crime and he was punished for it. Initially he spent time in goal, where he was described as being of ‘indifferent character, bad’.

He also spent time on a hulk – a prison ship, moored on a river. At this time in England the gaols were severely overcrowded, and old ships – ships that were no longer sea worthy - were used to house criminals. A report on his behaviour on the hulk indicated that he was ‘orderly’ and ‘single’.

The ship’s surgeon on the long voyage on the Emperor Alexander from England to Van Diemans Land indicates that his behaviour was ‘very good’ – he was not reported for any breach of discipline during the long voyage to the penal colony. His trade is recorded as ‘ploughman’. He was 17 at the time, and stood 5 foot. 7 inches. The record indicate that he was of fair complexion, had a round face, fair hair, but no whiskers. He had hazel eyes, a small nose, and freckled arms and face.

Over the next six or seven years he managed to keep out of trouble. However, he was admonished for ‘disorderly conduct’ in June 1839.

On April 18, 1839, Lewis applied for permission to marry Fanny Lloyd. Fanny’s age is uncertain. At the inquest held into her death she was recorded as being either 26 or 29, and was born in 1820 or 1823. Thus when she married she was either 19 or 22. She had come to Van Diemans’ land as a free settler.

Lewis was still serving his sentence. He applied for a Ticket of Leave on June 3, 1839, but at the time of his marriage it may not have yet been granted a Ticket of Leave. Thus he needed the governor’s permission to marry. The pair were married at St. John’s Church of England ‘by consent of the government.’ The marriage was witnessed by William Elliot and William Jones.
[As Clark explains it, a Ticket of Leave could be granted to a convict; it ‘meant they were free to work for wages and to find their own board and lodgings, free in all ways except that they could not move out of their police district, return to any part of the United Kingdom ... or exercise any legal rights in the law courts.’ Nor could they marry without permission.
(History of Australia, Volume 1, p. 241.)]

Lewis and Fanny had one child: John BARTRAM was born on April 7, 1849 – almost ten years after they married. The child was baptised at the Launceston Methodist Church on May 24, 1848. Fanny died of asthma when her baby was just 5 months old. Lewis and Fanny had been married for a little over ten years.

Lewis remarried on April 2, 1850 – seven months after Fanny’s death. His new wife was Ann WILLIAMS. Like Lewis, she had also been married previously. Her birth name was Joanne – or Johanna – SHEEHAN (variously spelt SHEHAN and SHEEHAN). Ann ‘used her mark’ when signing the marriage register – which indicates that she was in all likelihood illiterate, and ‘signed’ by placing an X as her signature. The wedding took place at the Independent Chapel (Congregational Church), in Tamar Street, Launceston, and was witnessed by Richard and Eliza GOUGH. Rowley records that Eliza also ‘made her mark’.

According to Rowley’s genealogical notes, Ann WILLIAMS had two children when she married Lewis in 1850. One of these children was named Mary Ann WILLIAMS; the other was George WILLIAMS. Mary Ann WILLIAMS married Henry KERRISON – and there are extensive records of the KERRISON family.

By this time, Lewis was recorded as being a farmer. In 1867-8, he is listed as owning property in the Supply River area, West Tamar. He lived near the present day town of Winkleigh, north-west of Launceston. In 1861, Lewis BARTRAM and two other men – Mr KERRRISON (The father-in-law of both Mary Ann and Martha) and a Mr Brown – built a church at Supply River. According to Rowley’s Notes, the church is still standing today. In the cemetery at the church there is a gravestone erected to the memory of Martha KERRISON (nee BARTRAM).

Lewis BARTRAM died in Launceston on December 19, 1900, at the age of 84. The official cause of death was recorded as ‘old age’. Johannah BARTRAM died of heart disease on June 14, 1905.

The children of Lewis BARTRAM:

i. The children of Lewis BARTRAM and Fanny LLOYD
April 7, 1849
Mother: Fanny LLOYD
John married Amanda BRADBURY in Launceston on October 29, 1884.

ii. The children of Ann WILLIAMS

Mother: Ann Williams
Father: ?
July 4, 1813
Mary Ann married Henry KERRISON. They had 11 sons and one daughter.

George WILLIAMS Unknown Unknown

iii. The children of Lewis BARTRAM and Ann (SHEEHAN / WILLIAMS) BARTRAM

June 2, 1851
Martha also married into the KERRISON family. She married Solomon KERRISON, and they had 14 children. One of their descendants was Neil Blewitt, the Federal Minister for Health in the 1990s.

March 8, 1853
Elizabeth married Edward FOLEY. They had two children:
Joseph Ernest: born 1882

born 1887

August 19, 1854
Remained single. She died in Launceston on March 17, 1910. She was 56 years old.

May 15, 1856
Rachael (or Rachel) married James Albert MONAGHAN. They had three children:
James Albert: born 1874
Mabel Florence: born 1877
James Claud born 1883
Rachael kept her maiden name, BARTRAM, and her three bore the name BARTRAM.
Rachel died of tuberculosis on November 23, 1884; she was 28.

July 17, 1858
Joseph left Tasmania at some stage in the 1880s. On March 20, 1886, Joseph married Sarah LIGHT – the grand daughter of William LIGHT, a founder of the city of Adelaide – in the Gippsland town of Stratford. Joseph and Sarah
It is believed that the spelling of BERTRAM dates from the wedding ceremony.

August 20, 1860 Unknown

Susannah 1861
Susannah’s married name is unknown. She had one daughter: Theresa

Margaret Anna (Hannah)
December 23, 1863
In 1879 she married Archibald Joseph GRAHAM. They had 8 children. Archibald is listed as a shoemaker, and Margaret is recorded as being a ‘farmer’s daughter’. Margaret died on May 14, 1945, aged 82.

March 23, 1865
Lewis married Mary Jane THOMPSON in 1891, and they had two children:
Cyril: born July 18, 1892
Lewis Russell: ... born April 23, 1894

Monday, October 11, 2010

49. Great teaching and great learning: The Lake Cullulleraine Writers' Camp, 1995-201?

It’s been going since 1995 – the annual Irymple Secondary College Writers’ Camp. Irymple is a 7 – 10 secondary college, with around 600 students. The Writers’ Camp began, all those years ago, as an attempt to lift the profile of writing in the school. It’s now an “institution”. For 16 years, groups of kids from Irymple SC have participated. In the first year, there were just 25 kids. For ten years, the numbers were pretty stable – around 35 – 40. In the past few years, the numbers have sky rocketed. In 2008 more than 90 attended; in fact, over the past 5 years, the numbers around 60- or more.

Bill Sauer has taught English at the school for 20 or more years, and has been the ‘school-end’ organiser of the camp for 15 of its 16 years. He participates in every workshop, and writes stories and poems and songs himself throughout each camp.

Many of the students who attend the Writers’ Camp come back year after year. For me, as a teacher and writer, it is a site of ‘great teaching and great learning’.

Erin Wookey is one attended for 4 years consecutive years. She says of the experience that ‘ ... the energy and passion of the staff’ were in part what kept bringing her back. But it was more than that: ‘… for me it meant finding a place where being ‘bright’, slightly hyperactive and creative was applauded by staff and fellow students rather than being something that had to be contained to fit in with the rest of the class!’

What is the Writers Camp like?

Ten thirty, a.m., on a warm day in May.2007. A bus pulls up in front of the RSL Camp at Lake Cullulleraine. Sixty students are soon off the bus, collecting their sleeping bags and paraphernalia, and then establishing their territory in one of the spacious dorms.

The Camp is not exactly ‘five star’. There are two large dorms on either side of a large mess hall. Each dorm – one for boys, the other for girls - can hold up to about 60 students; they sleep on double bunks. The floor rises and falls, and creaks when you walk on it, and the carpet has seen better days. The old piano in the corner of the Mess Hall is seriously out of tune.

In no time flat, it seems, the dorms resemble what they in fact will be for the next three days: the bedrooms of adolescents. There are mobile phones, guitars, CD players, I-pods, clothes, dressing gowns, towels, toiletries …

There are some familiar faces, kids who were at the Writers’ Camp in the previous year. For us – the workshop presenters – there’s the inevitable feeling of excitement and of apprehension: first day jitters, all the stronger because neither Lena nor Phong have run workshops before. Both are ex-students of mine, from a TAFE Writing course in which I used to teach. (Lena is an emerging writer, a mature-age student in a Writing and Editing course a terrific writer, and she has teenagers of her own. Phong is 26. He’s a graphic artist and animator, and is also a student in the writing course, where he’s wanting to develop his writing skills to complement his outstanding artistic skills; but he’s very quiet and shy – almost withdrawn. He’s nervous about running workshops with teenagers.)

The other two workshop leaders know their stuff. For Sarah, this is her fifth Lake Cullulleraine Writers’ Camp, and she and I have run dozens of song writing workshops, both together and separately. For Myron Lysenko, a professional poet since 1989, this is his tenth Irymple Writers’ Camp. He’s run more poetry workshop than he’s had hot dinners.

At 11a.m. they’re seated in the Mess hall. I introduce myself.

‘Good morning. I’m Barry. It’s great to see so many of you here. How many of you were here last year?’ I ask.

Hands go up; I count 24. We had 36 kids at the camp last year; 24 of them are back – that’s a great return rate, considering that last year’s 36 included quite a few year 10 students who will now be at the Senior College. And we have 25 Year 7 kids. A couple of the students are at their fourth Writers’ Camp – they’ve attended each year, from year 7 till year 10. When I first began to run the camp the participants were almost exclusively girls; this year 14 boys are taking part.

‘Welcome to the 16th Annual Irymple SC Writers’ Camp. You are now part of a unique tradition. This is the 16th year that this school has conducted this camp – and I’m proud to have attended every one of them. Many of you weren’t even born when the first Writers’ Camp took place. I don’t think there’s another school in Victoria that has established and maintained an annual writers’ camp over so many years. There may not be another school in Australia that has such a long-running and successful writers’ camp. Indeed, it may be unique in the world.

‘I know that all of you are here because you enjoy writing. Writers’ Camp gives you the chance to really focus on your writing. For the next three days you’ll be given the chance to write poems, stories, songs and sketches for performance.’

We distribute copies of the program, and a 64 page exercise book to each participant. The workshop leaders then strut their stuff. Sarah sings one of her award-winning songs: ‘Men’. Phong shows the kids some of his art work. They gasp when he holds up his portrait of Yoda. ‘Wow!’ I hear from several places around the room. ‘Cool!’ Lena reads a short story, an autobiographical piece, drawn from her childhood. She reads beautifully; the kids are utterly silent, and their applause when she finishes is strong: they like the piece immensely - they identify with it. Myron reads a quirky rap poem about being a writer, and then sings his song ‘Beauty Spots:

Some people are beautiful
and some have beauty spots.
Most people are handsome
but I am one who’s not!

I round off the introductory performances, singing ‘At Lake Cullulleraine’, a song I composed the day before the camp:

At Lake Cullulleraine

At Lake Cullulleraine, everybody’s busy writing stories
At Lake Cullulleraine, everybody’s busy writing songs
Down by the lake Myron’s teaching people to write haiku
And in the hall people are exploring ways of drawing well with Phong

At Lake Cullulleraine, everybody’s playing ukulele
At Lake Cullulleraine, we have formed a ukulele band
It’s such a thrill to listen as they practice playing daily
You seem to hear the sound of lapping water upon Polynesian sand

At Lake Cullulleraine, they’re driving me insane
I’m going of my brain, at Lake Cullulleraine
Oh they make us suffer pain, at Lake Cullulleraine

Getting down to work

We divide the kids into working groups: six groups, ten students per group. Each group contains a mix of kids from year 7 to year 10, with boys and girls in each group. Each group has 5 minutes to come up with its own name; each year I’m surprised at their comedic ingenuity: Ya Mum, Nothing, The Popes, SBS (which I discover means ‘Slap Barry Senseless’).

Then it’s straight into workshops. The workshop groups consist of 20 kids. They cycle through the four workshops: song writing, drawing, poetry and autobiographical writing. Each workshop is around 90 – 120 minutes. It’s intensive, but engaging. There’s a break of 15 – 20 minutes between workshops.

There are electives, too. These give the kids the opportunity to follow through on the activities that really interest them: Song writing, Drawing, Poetry, Life writing, Learning Ukulele, Lake Cullulleraine Not So Big Band …

During free time, the kids mainly sit on the grass at the lake-side. Most of them work on revising a poem, a story, a song; some rehearse for the concert. The workshop leaders are available during this free time to give feedback to the kids, either encouraging their efforts or pushing them to improve on their work. Lena roams from student to student giving advice: “Show, don’t tell.” … “Good writing often comes from using vivid details, not overt expressions of feelings.” …Myron does the same: “This poem can be about everybody, and so it’s not really about anyone.”

On the first night we have a literary quiz. This year it’s called the The Great Myron Lesmurrayenko Poetry Challenge Cup.

After camp – driving home and reading the evaluations

It’s Friday afternoon, and we’re driving home. We have the kids’ evaluations of the camp. As we drive, Sarah reads aloud what the kids have written. We laugh, we draw breath, we are excited.

Lena’s workshop was fantastic. I think I wrote a really good autobiography… Before Lena’s workshop I didn’t even know what autobiography meant…

I liked this because it let us all express our feelings. Lena’s stories were really inspirational.

Overall this workshop was my favourite. I thought that Lena really brought out the story in me, and helped me put it on paper.

The writing workshop was brilliant. She taught me a lot about writing great work.

I loved it x 50!

It’s the same for all of the workshops – and electives. One boy writes that the camp was ‘Good’. It’s the least enthusiastic response in the whole group. The others write things like:

The Drawing class was awesome. Phong is a master at drawing. He taught me how to draw from simple shapes. Phong’s Yoda picture was awesome!

I loved the drawing class. He is a great drawer, and some of the work his students produced was just amazing.

I will always remember just how much fun it is to write all of your thoughts, feelings, past experiences – anything – just writing down by the lake…

I loved the song writing … I never really thought that you could just grab words and make them into a song. I thought it was pretty cool and I’d love to do it again.

The concert was the best part of writers’ camp. It lets everyone hear your work … there’s songs, dances, poems, stories and more …

I loved the concert. I got to learn more about each person. And it was great how everybody co-operated with each other. I’m glad I presented my poem.

I think the concert is a great idea. We got to produce poetry and songs and boost our confidence in writing and reading them. I loved having a concert.

Myron’s poetry class really gets me going. He explains so clearly what we have to do, and because I’m into poetry more than anything, it’s what I look forward to …

For one student, the highlight of the camp was … the two poems I wrote and read out at the concert. I wrote them from the deepest inside of me

So what is going on? Why such a positive response? Why do kids keep coming back, year after year in some cases?

The reasons are hinted at in the evaluations. Lake Cullulleraine is a place of calm; many of the kids love – dare I write it – the serenity - just writing down by the lake…

Others value the chance to express their confusions and fears and loves and hates – the chance to write… from the deepest inside of me …

In many schools, writing isn’t seen as being all that ‘cool’. Not every kid is like the one who liked Myron’s class because … he explains so clearly what we have to do, and because I’m into poetry more than anything, it’s what I look forward to …

The Writers’ Camp provides a place of safety, a place where kids who enjoy writing and self expression can write and express themselves without fear of being teased or put down or regarded as nerds.

The Writers’ Camp is a part of the Irymple SC culture. The logistics are invariably difficult. The school’s program is dynamic, and very full; the demands on teachers are great; it’s not always easy to find enough staff to provide the required levels of supervision. But each year the school does it.

Last year, Jess and Erin came back for a visit. Erin is now in the third year of her degree in Medicine at Monash. She attended 4 Writers’ camps. Each of her sisters – Stacey, Chelsea and Cassie also attended 4 camps. There was a ten year period during which there was at least one of that family of girls at Writers’ Camp.

This year – and last year - Dan and Ryan came back. They’d first come when they were in Year 9. At that time, they were into rap. Ryan is currently doing year 12 while Dan is studying at TAFE and they are into song-writing and poetry. Both had to get special permission from the senior college to attend last year; it took quite a bit of negotiation on their part, but their persistence won out.

Toward the end of the 2006 camp, Myron and I were chatting to Dan and Ryan about the future, and we mentioned that we’d been thinking about ending our involvement in the camp.
‘After all,’ I explained. ‘I’ll be turning 64 next year … And Myron’s not getting any younger.’

A few days later, Daniel wrote to Myron; what follows are excerpts from his email:

Yet another exciting and highly successful Writer's Camp! There is certainly a lot of new blood in the creative arts world, young kids with lots of talent...

Every Writer's Camp makes memories that are still entertaining to talk about until the next one rolls around.

When other people hear my concert performances from Writer's, I realize they hear dodgy sound, ordinary singing and sluggish timing, but when I hear them... I realise that with focus, practice, and passion, I can achieve what I have wanted ever since I started writing, to bring my songs to life. I have the Writer's Camp to thank for this. All it took for this kid to realise he's not as far away from his goals as he thought is a few modern-day magicians like yourselves. I realise the Writer's Camp won't last forever... But it will live on forever inside my heart.

If I'm ever famous enough for people to care about my life, I'll write an autobiography and dedicate the biggest chapter to you guys... This event has been the turning point and motivation in my life 3 years in a row now. It seems to come along just as I fall into a rut and the whole thing pulls me right out and sets me back on track.

The following year Dan and Ryan came back as workshop leaders, and offered an alternative music workshop at next year’s camp.

So we return each year. After their first Writers’ Camp, Lena Pasqua and Phong Lam are on a high, buoyed up and surging on the wave of positive responses to their workshops. Sarah Cowan is still in awe of the powerful emotions that the camp generates, the commitment and enthusiasm of the kids, and their willingness to have a go.

I’ll let a student have the all-but-final word:

The most satisfying piece of work was the ‘I Remember’ piece I did with Lena … I got to write about something I have never told about or explained to anyone. And that just felt like a huge relief to write it down.

For many kids, the Writers’ Camp is good fun, and they get to try their hands at song writing, drawing, writing poetry and stories. For some, it is deeply moving, and they write from the deepest inside of me. For some, it’s a source of motivation – can even be a turning point in their lives. To be part of all of that is very special: a privilege.

It is great teaching and great learning.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

48. MY READING LIFE 6: How many wives DID Henry VIII have?

How many wives DID Henry VIII have?
How certain can we be about what we know?

Few could equal the quiz king Barry Jones in terms of general knowledge. When Bob and Dolly Dyer were radio royalty, back in the 1950s, with their hugely popular quiz program Pick- a-Box, Barry Jones was the unchallenged champion. His appetite for detailed information seemed unquenchable; no matter what the topic Barry not only had all the answers, he could explain - sometimes at astonishing length - the background, the details, the nuances.

Dickens’ famous teacher, Thomas Gradgrind [has there ever been a better name than that for a pedantic pedagogue?] saw his students a row upon row of little pitchers into which he would pour knowledge. ‘Facts, facts, facts’ was his catch-cry. And Barry Jones had them, in abundance.

It seemed that Barry Jones knew almost everything. But he was never a ”know –all”. Know-alls pretend that they know it all – they lack humility; they force their “knowledge” on you; indeed, they rub your nose in your ignorance. What impressed you about Barry Jones was the absence of hubris.

I detect a similar quality in the American writer Bill Bryson. What impressed me about his Short History of Almost Everything was not just the breadth of his research and the clarity of his account; it was the sense that here was mind that was simply enthralled by what it was discovering about the world. It was the sense of curiosity about and deep interest in whatever topic or idea or scientist or finding that he was currently exploring. Like a little awe-struck kid saying, ‘Hey – look at THIS!’

Bryson is also terrific at finding the fascinating detail, the telling fact, the clarifying analogy.

Know-alls, smart arses, clever dicks – as I’ve suggested – are not like this at all. It is Bryson’s style is to say, ‘Look at THIS’; the smartarse’s script is , ‘Look at ME. Look at what I know.’
And, by implication, 'And look at what YOU don't know!'

There’s a comedy sketch embedded in my memory that featured English comedian Kenneth Williams as a man full of facts. He sits on a park bench and tries engages the Straight man in conversation.

‘Did you know there are more than 80 mkiles of tubing in your body?’
‘No, I didn’t know that,’ says the Straight Man.
‘Oh yes – 80 miles .. It’s hard to credit, isn’t it. But it’s true. If you laid out all the tubing in your body in a line, it would be 80 miles long.’
And so he goes on, telling the increasingly uncomfortable Straight man more and more “fascinating” facts. The Straight Man tries to leave, but the Williams character is insistent.
‘Did you know …’

Eventually, in his efforts to keep the Straight Man’s attention, Williams tells the story of how, during the war, he was to be England’s secret weapon. They were going to parachute him in, behind enemy lines, where he would bore the Germans to death….
The story is ‘the end’ for the Straight Man, and he walks off, saying, ‘Well – I’m not surprised! You are the most boring person I’ve ever met!’ and leaving Williams by himself, calling after him …
‘It was a joke … It’s not true … it’s only a joke …’
I always recall the deep sadness in William’s voice as The Straight Man walked away, and the plaintiveness of this lonely human being, desperate for somebody’s attention, anybody’s…
“It’s not true … it’s only a joke … only a joke.’

There’s a sizable lexicon for that unpopular condition of being a smartarse – that is, a conceited person, somebody who makes an annoying show of knowing something or of being cleverer than others.

The lexicon: Know-it-all, smartarse, clever Dick, smarty, big head, know all, smarty pants, clever clogs, smart Alec, clever drawers, wise-acre, wise guy, big noter, smarty boots, clever shins.

The Danes word for it is bezzerwizzer; they’ve even invented a variation of the game Trivial Pursuit especially for bezzerwizzers (or smartarses).

So, as you can see, it doesn’t pay to be too sure of your own cleverness; it’s not cool to be a person who is regarded as being arrogant or ostentatiously clever. As the old saying goes: ‘Nobody likes a smartarse’; so make sure you don’t get ‘too big for your boots’. I felt more than a tinge of national pride when I discovered that the word smartarse had its origins in Australia, in the late 19th or early 20th century. Proud but not surprised. We’ve never had much time for bulldust – or for bullshit artists!

[Aside: Q. What do you call a man with no arms and no legs who can swim 100 metres?
A. Clever Dick.]

All of this arose out of a purchase I made just this week, of a book entitled The Book of General Ignorance, by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, published by Faber & Faber, and selling for a just under $20. The blurb suggests that this is a book designed for the smartarse market. It reads, in part: ‘Carry it everywhere to impress your friends, frustrate your enemies and win every argument.’

Its subtitle is perhaps a little grandiose: ‘Everything you think you know is wrong’. And the book sets out to prove this contention. It is (again quoting the blurb) a ‘ comprehensive catalogue of all the misconceptions, mistakes and misunderstandings in “common knowledge”. But grandiose or not
Test yourself on the following. What is the first answer that comes into your head?

1. Henry VIII had SIX wives
2. What is the tallest mountain in the world?
3. What is the biggest thing a blue whale can swallow: a large mushroom, a small car, a grapefruit, a sailor?
4. For how long can a chicken live without its head?
5. How many galaxies are visible to the naked eye?
6. What man-made artifact can be seen from the moon?
7. Who introduced tobacco and potatoes to England?
8. Who invented champagne?
9. Where and when was the guillotine invented?
10. Which of the following are Chinese inventions: glass, rickshaws, chop suey, fortune cookies?

If you are like me, and responded with what common sense dictates, or according to what we usually call common knowledge, your answers would have been as follows:

1. Henry VIII had SIX wives Six
2. What is the tallest mountain in the world? Mt Everest
3. What is the biggest thing a blue whale can swallow: a large mushroom, a small car, a grapefruit, a sailor? A sailor
4. For how long can a chicken live without its head? A few seconds, or a few minutes
5. How many galaxies are visible to the naked eye? Uncountable there are so many
6. What man-made artifact can be seen from the moon? The Great Wall of China
7. Who introduced tobacco and potatoes to England? Sir Walter Raleigh
8. Who invented champagne? The French
9. Where and when was the guillotine invented? The French at the time of the Revolution – i.e. the 1790s.
10. Which of the following are Chinese inventions: glass, rickshaws, chop suey, fortune cookies?
All of them

If you agreed with my ‘off top of the head’ answers, you – like me – would have scored ZERO – nil – nought – not a sausage!
How come?

Well, for starters: If a marriage is annulled, the slate is wiped clean – the marriage is regarded as never having happened. Two of Henry’s marriages were annulled, so we’re down to four. The Pope refused to recognize his marriage to Ann Boleyn … The score at this stage is: Smartarses 1, the Rest of the World (that’s you and me) zero.

Mt Everest is the tallest mountain measure from sea level; but Mt Mauna Kea is 10.2 kilometres from seabed to summit, and is around 1.3 kilometres taller than Everest.

Whales can swallow a grapefruit, but not a human. All you Fundamentalists out there –don’t be dismayed. I know it looks like a whale COULDN’T have swallowed Jonah. But you guys are so good at ignore the findings of Science, you’re sure to come up with some explanation that will prove that it COULD happen. What about: God can perform any miracle he chooses. Yeah, that should do the trick!

When I was a kid I saw – with my own eyes – the spectacle of a beheaded chicken running around the back yard, splashing blood everywhere, before collapsing to the ground. But two years? Can it be true? According to Lloyd and Mitchinson, it IS true! If you don’t believe me, go read pages 9-10!

Now – about galaxies. I’ve always thought that a lot of those blurry lights were either stars or galaxies. Turns out folk in the Southern Hemisphere can see only TWO. But with telescopes … we can see back to almost the beginning of time …

By this stage the Smartarses have established an almost unassailable lead: Five to NIL. I’m beginning to recognize that I have taken a lot of what passes for common knowledge on trust.

I must admit, I AM gullible. A friend sent me an email recently, telling me to watch the night sky on Aug. 28. On that date, the planet Mars would be the closest its orbit ever brings it to the earth. Why, at 11.40 pm that night, I would see two objects – the moon and Mars – side by side. Mars would be only slightly the smaller of the two, and would have a pinkish tinge. I told my Year 9 class to watch. Many of them did. The next day, they were not happy campers. Turns out it was a hoax. Not only that, it was a hoax on its second or third cycle.

What man-made artifact can be seen from the moon? I know that one: it’s the Great Wall of China – I was almost certain. But no, I was wrong again. From the moon, no man made ‘artifacts’ can be observed. The Great wall CAN be seem from 100 kilometres up – outside our atmosphere, and IN space. But NOT, definitely NOT from the moon!

Tobacco was smoked by English sailors four years before Raleigh was born. Potatoes were introduced from Spain long before Raleigh planted some in his garden.

The English, not the French, invented champagne; in addition they beat the French to the invention of the guillotine by about 400 or so years.

[As an interesting aside: when was the guillotine last used for an execution in France? Please choose one of the following: 1799 1826 1854 1911 1977.

The trick is: choose the LEAST likely answer, the one that you think can’t possibly be true. I’ll let that one slosh around in that warm-wet-grey computer/cluster of cells called your brain for a little.]

As to rickshaws, chop suey, fortune cookies and glass … I knew the answer to this, I was sure. China. What could more Chinese than the rickshaw – or the fortune cookie. I’ve eaten Yum Chas – they always have fortune cookies at a Yum Cha! Had to be China. So – all of them were invented in China. That’s my answer.

Once again the Smartarses came out on top. I was right about Chop Suey – it IS a Chinese invention. But the Egyptians beat the Chinese by about a thousand years to the invention of glass. An American missionary named Jonathan Scobie invented the rickshaw; he used it to wheel his invalid wife around the streets of Yokahama in Japan in 1869. And a Japanese- American created the fortune cookie.

It seems that so much that we regard as common knowledge isn’t quite as solidly based as we thought. And at one level, does it matter? Does it matter that our trust in THE FACTS may not be as firmly based as we imagine it to be? Probably not. But there’s no harm in being reminded that we can be wrong. It may cure us of our tendency toward dogmatism. It may make us a little more critical, a little more questioning of what is put before us as ‘truth’ or as ‘facts’.

We are surrounded by ‘misconceptions, mistakes and misunderstandings’. And when I think about it, it DOES matter. I’m grateful to Lloyd and Mitchinson for straightening me out and correcting me. It’s good for my soul to be proven wrong. Or worse – proven to be too uncritical, to ready to accept whatever I am told, whatever passes as ‘common knowledge’. If I’m going to know stuff, we’re all better off if what I know is true – and not just someone’s misconception.

And just to round things off: the answer is 1977. Yes, the last execution in France using Madame la Guillotine took place in 1977. The death penalty was abolished in France in 1981.

Makes you think, doesn’t it.