Monday, 24 November 2014


Great grandfather Lorenzo

A strange thing happened last Wednesday. In the midst of a wild late afternoon thunderstorm, lightning flashing, thunderclaps blasting, I realised that if I kept writing for another hour I might just put the final full stop on the first draft of my manuscript.

'Paradise' - the working title of my epic story of 350 peasant Italians seeking a new life in the far flung Pacific has been a labour of learning and more learning. It has been challenging, informing, frustrating, exhilerating and energising.

In the end it all happened really quickly. At times I thought I would never see that final spot on the page but this final section, set in Noumea, seemed to gather pace as I wrote it. The elements came together, in some cases in surprising ways, and I think I have resisted the temptation to tie up the loose ends too neatly.

In my process, while I have lived with these characters for two years and some of them are my relatives from 130 years ago, I never felt that I really knew what they were thinking or about to do next. They kept surprising me and in the end still have lives beyond my knowledge. That too surprised me. Wasn't I supposed to know them inside out, back to front? How could I write about people who I didn't know at that depth.

Well, now I sit here and reflect that life is a very existential experience. Does any of us really know another? I hope not. Otherwise there would be no surprises in our relationships. While I value being loved by someone who thinks they know me, I know that deep down, they will never know my world fully because a lot of it is internal and much of it is too complex to share. I know myself enough to get by, but I am still surprised at times by my responses to things which seem to come from unconscious places that I am not fully aware of.

Today I begin the second phase of this project. I will begin reviewing what I've written to date, not rewriting, but organising the 250 odd pages into a restructured draft ready for reading by a select few to help me understand what I need to do to move it from draft 1 to draft 2.


Monday, 3 November 2014

Strolling the Flood Plains of Hill End

This is a map of the Kurilpa Peninsula in the great 1893 Brisbane flood. It peaked three times in the one month. The shaded area marks the flood plains comprising the suburbs of South Brisbane, West End and the locality of Hill End.

Named Kurilpa, the aboriginal name means 'Place of the water rat'.

I've just completed a local history walking guide which covers the area, the river plains in the south west corner of this map. Hill End. It's where I live. In the most recent major flood, 2011, my house was well above the flood line but in 1893 we would have gone under. That's almost unbelievable given how high we were above the water in 2011 despite the fact that it approached our front gate.

The West End Making History Group, of which I am part, has created four walking guides to the peninsula, this one being No. 4. I'm learning more about the difference between writng a history based guide and leading a history based walking tour from this process (this is my second guide).

The publication tells a story with the river and its impact on the community and its evolution as its focus. The river is the skeleton around which the guide is built. And I would have thought that the walks we lead would simply be a translation of that guide into the spoken word. Wrong! When confronted with a group of humans standing expecting to be told a story (the same one?), it becomes clear that there is a whole back story which needs to be told to fill the gaps and turn the skeleton into a body.

So I've spent the last week (after the guide has gone to the printer) researching and revisiting every aspect of the walk to find more flesh for those bones. It's surprised me but has given me a new appreciation of those who call themselves professional historians. They read everything available, whereas I read what I need to read to create the story. It's my theatre background - tell the story, tell the story - edit! edit! Simplify, find the essence!

I'm close to understanding what I need but now I need an historian's mind to remember all the details. Oh God. I thought I had finished all the hard work.

The guide, "Strolling the Flood Plains of Hill End", gets launched this Friday 7 November at the local bookshop - Avid Reader in West End. Come along at 6:30pm and say hi if you're in the area. An electronic copy of the guide will be available on our website by the end of the week.  

Monday, 27 October 2014

Vale Don Batchelor.

Don Batchelor passed away last week after a battle with cancer. He was a beautiful man with a mind as big as the Pacific Ocean. Being a writer and theatre director and a little bit anal, Don had written his own funeral service, chosen the poetry and readings, the final song and written his own eulogy. It could have been self indulgent but it was great,

Don's sense of theatre was spot on. The only awkward moments came when his "cast" deviated from his script. The cast included John O'Toole, Rod Wissler, Christine Comans, Judith Bell, Graham Bruce and his brother Ron. Don  generously allowed his brother to write his own account of Don's life - a story full of hardship (Charleville), cheek and surprises (Don was a schoolboy sports hero - football and athletics).  Michael Billinghurst (son of Robby Nason) sang the closing song, Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. A confirmed athiest Don might have been surprised at the sound of 120 voices singing the chorus - felt like church just for a moment.

Don had a love of theatre and politics. He was the one who supported me in my time teaching at QUT when I was arguing for a community stream to be included in the Drama course. He was always interested in ideas and in stirring the pot.

As a final ironic twist (conscious or unconscious) Don had chosen St Barnabas Hall at Red Hill for the celebration. Ironic? It was the base for radical theatre company, the Popular Theatre Troupe, for a lengthy period in the 1970s. I chuckled seeing some of the conservative theatre community singing along in this space, the scene of political and community theatre and the 'democratising of theatre' movement. Most had no idea where they were. Errol O'neill and I were perhaps among the few present who had previously seen the inside of this hall.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Malta and Gozo photos - some favourites

The beach at Xlendi on Gozo.

Fort St Angelo early morning from Valletta.

Near the Victoria Gate, Grand Harbour, Valletta

Valletta streetscape looking towards Sliema

At rest, early morning.

Dr Who's Tardis near the Bridge Bar and above Victoria Gate
Fort St Angelo early morning.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Me Missing Malta

10 things I miss about Malta

1. The bustling street life within 100 metres of my front door day and night.
2. The sense of community that comes from living cheek by jowl with families and kids and grandparents who all look to say hello.
3. The choice of four family run taverns withing 100 metres.
4. Walking to the market to buy fresh fish from the local fishmonger
5. Being able to walk to one of three swimming spots withing five to ten minutes
6. Walking from one end of the city of Valletta to the other in 15 minutes.
7. Views of the Mediterranean and the everchanging harbour scene
8.  Cheap (E1.50 all day ticket) (sometimes unpredictable) bus services to every point on the island
9. The sense of history contained in every building and on every street corner.
10. The relaxed attitude to life. A siesta between 1
and 3pm is mandated.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Sally port - Malta Coat of arms.

Coat of arms of Malta
Coat of arms of Malta.svg
Armiger Republic of Malta
Adopted 1988
Crest A mural crown with a Sally port and five turrets or

Sally port is the entrance into the fortress.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Holy Malta! St Domenic sets the city alight.

St Dominic’s Festival (and my last post from Malta)

I was brought up Catholic. I was quite a devout young lad. Attendance at nine first Friday masses (first Friday of each month for nine consecutive months) earned me a plenary indulgence (guaranteed entry into heaven). At thirteen I seriously considered that becoming a priest or Christian brother might be my vocation - until puberty kicked in and pleasures of the flesh and guilt and more guilty pleasure made me reconsider. Incense assaulted my nasal cavities regularly; Latin masses were powerful (if unintelligible) rituals. I was confirmed and took the confirmation name of Francis which I subsequently refused to acknowledge as it seemed like such a goose of a name - why hadn't I chosen Paul or Patrick or some saint with a cool name?

I was, at that stage, definitely in the mould of the apostle who pretended he wasn't. Although my religious inclinations continued into my tertiary life (where I was the president of the Tertiary Christian Students group at UQ for a year before I had my final crisis of faith) I never went back. I now go to weddings and funerals and can't see Catholicism as anything but a cult.

All this is by way of saying that this background did not prepare me for Malta and its saints. Let's get some statistics nailed down here. Malta consists of two islands whose combined total area (316 sq km) is a little larger than Stradbroke Island off Moreton Bay in Australia. Stradbroke is a beautiful sand island with a population of 2500 and maybe five places of worship, each the size of a large matchbox. Malta has 460,000 residents, 350 churches, each built from limestone and each a majestic work of art. The largest has a dome taller than St Paul's in London. There are tens of thousands of public shrines and statues and devotional entrance niches, not to mention the household shrines and images of devotion (the lift to my apartment has two!). Malta is 97% Catholic. The crusading Knights of St John and their version of the Inquisition made sure of that.

There is an old Jewish quarter by the Jews Sally Port, the only entrance through which the Jews were permitted to enter and exit the city, but there are only a handful of Jews remaining in Malta (they were forcibly expelled by the Knights in 1492). I had understood this archway to be called the Jew's Gate (as this was the colloquial name by which it was introduced to me) but learnt that a Sallyport is a general term for a controlled entrance to a fortification or a goal. We still use the word when we talk about sallying forth for a stroll or a look around. It's actually a military term meaning that troops would sally forth - on a raid.

The Muslims/Arabs were here for 400 years; there is one mosque. The Romans were here for six hundred years and there are only a handful of  Roman ruins. There is a substantial Anglican Church which, ironically, features on many Valletta postcards. It was commissioned by Queen Adelaide in the 19th Century when she visited her island and realised that there was no place of worship for her English subjects. If she was attempting to establish a religious foothold on the island it failed miserably. The three percent non catholic population are, to all intents and purposes, invisible.

Malta is a nation of true believers. The Catholic faith arrived quite late following in the cultural footsteps of the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians (from north Africa), the Romans (600 years), the Byzantines (Constantinople based), the Arabs (400 years), the Normans (200 years), the Spanish (300 years) until, in 1523 the Knights of St John were offered Malta as a secure base after they were expelled from Rhodes by the Ottomans. They ruled the islands for almost three hundred years until Napoleon arrived. It became French for two years and then the British, at the invitation of the Maltese, liberated them and they themselves ruled until 1964.

I hope you're not finding this too tedious, it's just that as an Australian this sequence is mind boggling, almost inconceivable (and I haven't even mentioned the ancient prehistoric temples which dot the island and date from close to 5000 BC). Malta might be in the centre of the modern Mediterranean shipping lanes with regular cruise ships dropping by but, for the previous 3000 years, these were two islands in the middle of nowhere, beyond the horizon from Sicily or north Africa, barren and inhospitable.

Bear with me as I inch closer to St Dominic. Back to the churches - three hundred and fifty across the two islands of which twenty five are within Valletta (population 6500, area 0.3sq mile or 0.8 sq km), each with their own saint on their own saint's street (my apartment, for example, is bordered by St Dominic, St Paul, St Ursula and St Christopher streets) and each with their own festival week. There is  some doubling up of saints, (multiple churches devoted to the same saint), a miracle of sorts, which means that there is a festival taking place somewhere in Malta every week during festival season, May to September. And there are eight religious orders resident in this 0.3 sq miles. The Maltese seem to have become addicted to invasions - they set off explosives using mortar shells each night to alert the community to the fact that there is a festival on their doorstep (as if they need any reminder). So small is the island that I have heard the noise, like rolling thunder, from across the island almost every night for the past ten weeks.

Here's a few of my favourite saints and their special intercessionary powers:

St Paul (Pawl) – a Jew, shipwrecked here in the first millennium; beheaded in 65AD in Rome, his patronage includes writers, musicians, journalists, rope makers, saddle makers and tent makers. His festival here has occurred every year since 1690.

St James - disciple of St John the Baptist, put to the sword by Herod. Patron saint of blacksmiths, equestrians, veterinarians, apothecaries and of course pilgrims. Legend has his body being transported by angles in a rudderless boat to Spain and hence the pilgrim's walk to Santiago de Compostela.

St Lucia - Sicily born. She is often depicted carrying a tray containing a pair of eyes. She gouged them and presented them to her jilted lover before being murdered by him. She  had chosen the life of a nun over him. Patron saint of the blind, writers and those suffering sore eyes and sore throats.

And skipping the other three hundred we come to St Dominic (Diminuku).

Where should I start? Born of Spanish nobility in Castile in 1170, he is a fairly recent saint. He is patron saint of astronomers, scientists, of the falsely accused and of Valletta itself. His mother may have been a little bizarre as she had a vision during her pregnancy of her unborn child as a dog carrying a torch in his mouth - which is why Dominic is often depicted accompanied by his puppy with his torch to light up the world.
St Dominic's festival filled the week leading up to the weekend of his feast day (actually August 8th). Typical of Malta's festivals it combined explosives, fireworks, incessant bell ringing, with daily/nightly parades of his statue through the streets born by eight white robed heavily sweating men with disfigured shoulders (their badge of honour after many years in the role of bearer of this weighty statue), and accompanied by a brass band which played for close on three hours each circuit. Dominican monk's wear white but are also known as Blackfriars as a reference to the black hooded cloak they wear as an over-garment.

This was not a parade to be rushed. Each outing St Dom inched his way through the narrow streets, confetti raining down on him from the balconies above until the streets were ankle deep in shredded snow. The streets themselves were lined with oversized statues of angels and other saints each on an individual plinth and framed by heraldic cloth hung along and across the streets transforming them into avenues lined with sumptuous red and gold fabric. This was accompanied by Holy Masses celebrated several times a day in the basilica which was also decked out in red. Rich red velvet hung from every flat surface - pillars, walls, window frames etc.

St Dominics also happens to be the parish which includes the Presidential Palace so, on the Saturday, the parade wound it way around the palace and at one point was greeted by the President of Malta, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, who arrived in her black limo, accompanied by her security contingent (black sunglasses, dark suits) and alighted to pay her respects to St Dominic and his devotees. She was greeted rapturously and led into the palace by a Maltese man carrying a stubby of beer. She was giving her minders hell as she kissed the babies and shook hands with all and sundry and then invited the masses to follow her into the palace courtyard where more kisses took place and a spontaneous rendering of the national anthem was sung. The parade then continued for another two hours.

Andrea, who had witnessed the Presidential moment while shopping for food, came home to share her experience and an hour later we headed out for a stroll and met the parade, still every bit as enthusiastic, returning from its two hour palace circumnavigation. Those poor brass band musicians were still blasting away on their trumpets and trombones and still in tune.

Come the final night (Sunday) and Andrea and I headed off to a concert in the Knights Hospitalier, a huge 16th Century building in our immediate vicinity which was built by the Knights as a hospital and continued as such for over 400 years including up until the end of WWII. As we left the concert we assumed that the festival had run its course but something drew us the few blocks to St Dominics for one last look.

Talk about good timing. We arrived to see St Dominic a mere fifty metres from his final destination, the front door of his basilica. The crowd was thick with passion and expectation. The brass band played, the parade inched forward, the crowd chanted, the children on their fathers’ shoulders called supplications to the saint high above their heads, church bells rang and fireworks exploded above. At one point a woman with a microphone led the crowd in the national anthem. That fifty metres took close on an hour. It was hard not to be moved, such was the emotion of the moment. I am not a believer, despite my early devotion to all things religious, but I could appreciate the power, some might say mesmerising, intoxicating power, of this experience. This annual festival (repeated many times over across the nation) is a true community celebration of a fundamental set of beliefs which may explain how these people have weathered so much adversity over hundreds of years and survived emotionally, culturally and finally become an independent self governing nation.

As I sit here writing this another salvo of explosions bursts outside my window, launched at 7am on this Friday morning from a barge in the middle of the Grand Harbour heralding the beginning of St Lawrence's Festival at Vittoriosa, across the water. Move over Saint Dominic it's Larry's turn.