Monthly Archives: October 2015

Banyule Homestead: Fit for an Ex-PM

We’re about to be invited inside Banyule Homestead for Shaun Micallef’s new 6-part series The Ex-PM, starting on ABC1 on 14 October (tonight). And a thoroughly appropriate setting, I should imagine!

My website on Banyule Homestead still floats around in the ether. Why not pop over and have a look?  It’s at https://banyulehomestead.wordpress.com/

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‘The Boyds: a family biography’ by Brenda Niall

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2002, 387p.

In this book we are in the hands of a master biographer.  Not many biographers would have the courage to take on a whole family as a unit, but Brenda Niall does here. The sprawling, artistic Boyd family has representatives in nearly every branch of the arts (literature, painting, architecture, sculpture) and its family tree is studded with seemingly endless iterations of ‘Boyd’ and ‘a’Beckett’ in their names.   Only an experienced biographer would even attempt such a complex group biography across five generations and nearly two centuries,  and she   handles it with consummate ease.

She owes much of her success to the very careful structuring that she has used to organize this unwieldy and voluminous information. She starts with four men: the emancipist-entrepreneur brewer John Mills; the wealthy pastoralist Robert Martin (of ‘Viewbank’ and ‘Banyule’ fame); William a’Beckett the Chief Justice of Victoria; and Captain Thomas Boyd, career militarist and settler. Even though the first section of the book is called ‘The Matriarch’ (referring to Emma Mills, later a’Beckett), Niall firmly embeds these four patriarchs as the founding fathers, so to speak, of the Boyd dynasty.  She takes forty pages to do so in her opening chapter, and she returns to them as touchstones throughout the book. The tainted convict source of the money that Emma a Beckett (nee Mills) brought to the family was a secret, but it  bestowed on its members the time and space to explore their artistic passions across multiple generations.

The second thematic device she uses is that of the house.  Houses were important to the Boyds. Emma’s husband W. A. C. Beckett had the ‘a Beckett coat of arms emblazoned on two houses: the first was The Grange in Berwick (since demolished for a quarry), the second was the lost manor Penleigh House in Wiltshire, England (later sold out of the family). Above the front door of the Grange he placed a stained glass window with the motto “Immemor Sepulchri Struis Domo” (Forgetful of the Tomb, You Build Houses).  Niall uses the house as an organizing device for her narrative, but it was one suggested through the family’s actions rather than the biographer’s imagination.  It works well, both as a means of organizing such an unruly venture, but also in highlighting the paradox that the Boyd family, so embedded and synonymous within Australian cultural life, were also drawn ‘home’ to an earlier ancestral myth of gentry glory. There is a string of Boyd Houses: the light-filled Grange so beautifully captured in Emma Minnie Boyd’s paintings,  the tatty, faded grand Penleigh in UK, Tralee in Sandringham, the architect’s home in Walsh St South Yarra; Open Country in Murrumbeena and Bundanong in Nowra NSW.

The focus is firmly on the Boyds, but it is just as much an exploration of Australian, and especially Melbourne, cultural life as well.  There are connections with other artists and their colonies, architectural commissions for major cultural figures, and networks branching across Melbourne society. At the same time, there is that siren call of “overseas”. Women are certainly present, even if they sometimes subjugated their role as muse behind that of wife and mother.

This is a marvellously complex but disciplined biography. This is how a group biography is done!

aww-badge-2015-200x300I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge  site.

Exhibition: Masterpieces from the Hermitage

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Well, it’s not Winter anymore but the NGV exhibition of Masterpieces from the Hermitage is on show at NGV International until 8th November 2015.

I must confess that I wasn’t particularly anxious to see this exhibition and I came away from it feeling somewhat jaded.  It evoked in me that ambivalence that Australian tourists tend to feel when you’re visiting one of the ‘big’ Art Galleries overseas. You’re all too conscious that you’re not likely to pass this way again soon so you mentally ‘tick-off’  the famous pictures that you’ve seen in books all your life. Eventually you feel deadened by the surfeit of masterpiecedom (another Rembrandt?) and you too quickly leave, thinking that you’ve “done” that gallery.  Well, that’s a bit how I felt after the Hermitage exhibition without even leaving my own home town.

That said, the focus in this exhibition is not so much on the paintings (famous and masterpieces though they may be) but on the act of collecting itself.  Catherine was a patron of the arts, but was not an artist herself. Her buyers sourced collections that in many cases had been collated by others and bought them as a job-lot,  if that’s not too crude a term to use for such magnificence. The first room contains her collection of cameo gems, architectural drawings and her 797-piece Sevres dinner set. Thereafter the exhibition rooms are organized by country of origin: the Italian Room, the French Room, the Flemish Room.  There is a beautiful website that follows the layout of the exhibition and features particular objects under the ‘Themes’ heading on the exhibition website: http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/masterpieces-from-the-hermitage/

My favourite pieces were found in the China room, most particularly the silver filigree work in (one of) her dressing table sets.

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The label said that Catherine had ordered that diamonds and pearls be added to it. Were they real diamonds on it? It felt strange to catch sight of my own reflection in the mirror and to realize that Catherine would have seen herself in it too.  Of course, this was just one of her dressing-table sets. Such wealth; such excess.

You can download Virginia Trioli’s commentary on the website. It’s not particularly closely tied in with the exhibition, focussing more on Catherine herself and her collecting habits.  It’s an engaging podcast nonetheless.

‘The Happiest Refugee’ by Ahn Do

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2010, 240 p.

This was a bookgroup selection, which I would never have chosen for myself.  Comedians’ autobiographies are not a must-read for me: I’ve read Judith Lucy and um…… surely Clive James is more than a comedian?  So let’s just say that I’m drawing from a very small puddle of familiarity with the genre.

Ahn Do is a young Australian comedian of Vietnamese heritage. I must confess that while I know who he is, I can’t remember actually seeing him perform, as he tends to work on commercial channels and aimed at a younger demographic than I.

The book reads like a series of stand-up routines, with very few of them extending beyond two pages (and sometimes much shorter) often with a rather inflated hook sentence to draw you in, and a soft punchline at the end.   I must say that it’s not a structure that particularly satisfied me because it left you skating across the topic without tunnelling very deep. The book was organized chronologically as Ahn Do told his story of travelling to Australia from Vietnam as a ‘boat-person’, his family’s striving for financial security, the break-up of his parents’ marriage, the progress of his own career and marriage, and his reconciliation with his estranged father.

The story was far better than the telling of it. At a time when our government has twisted the language to conflate ‘asylum’ and ‘illegal’, it was instructive to read of the fear and precariousness of their trip by sea to Australia, and their deep gratitude to the then-government for offering a new life to the family. In many ways the family acted in the ways that most evoke fear and disdain for the Australian population- the extended family living in crowded conditions in a factory, the domestic sweating of female family members, the buying up of property- but all these activities made complete sense within the cultural world-view and history of this Vietnamese family.

What shines through is Ahn Do’s love for his family, and his gratitude for his mother in particular who worked so hard when the family broke up.

There’s so much we don’t know when we sit in the back seat of a taxi, wary perhaps of the driver; when we scowl at large family groups at auctions ‘taking over’ the suburb; or when we see veiled mothers and children at shopping centres. I, at least, feel shy about asking and yet there is probably so much that I could learn, and this book is such an experience.

That said though, Ahn Do should probably stick to stand-up comedy.

Celebrating a new public holiday

I bet that Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, was watching the weather forecasts rather anxiously this week. After all, I don’t think that the weather gods favour the Labor Party. I only need think back to the election day in 2010 that brought the Liberal Party’s Ted Baillieu into power.  The rain absolutely bucketed down, breaking the long drought that had dessicated the nation for about fifteen years, and gifting to the Liberal Party an endless source of much glee about the desalination plant that the Labor government had urgently commissioned. (Mind you, I am positive that there will be summers ahead when we all say “Thank God for the desalination plant”)

But the weather gods were kinder on this inaugural Grand Final Public Holiday.  Had it rained, or been one of the bitterly cold days that spring can buffet us with,  it might have been an absolute flop. Certainly the employer groups were grumbling about it and Prime Minister Mal was gloating about the lack of crowds early in the morning.   But instead, the skies were blue, the sun shone, the crowds came out after a sleep-in and a new tradition has started, I suspect.  It was lovely to see so many Dads with their kids on this day, whether they went to the parade or not.

As for us, we caught the train to the ‘other side’ to Williamstown. I felt like quite the tourist, noticing the benighted Melbourne Star ferris wheel (was it working or not?) which can’t be seen from the northern suburbs; marvelling at the size of the cranes on the docks, and wondering which old factories or stockyards had been levelled to yield all this new housing.

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I was surprised that the train carriage still had the configuration of 3-across seats. On the Hurstbridge line (my line) they have removed the third seat so that more people can stand.

Williamstown is only 8km from the centre of Melbourne but somehow it feels like a completely different place, with Melbourne visible across the water.

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When Governor Bourke came down to the embryonic Melbourne village in 1837, he ordered surveyors to lay out two towns: Melbourne after the British Prime Minister and Williamstown (or Williams Town) after King William IV. With its deep harbour, it became the centre of maritime activity. The Alfred Graving Dock and State shipbuilding yard was completed there in 1874, one of the most expensive infrastructure projects undertaken by the Victorian colonial government. Prison hulks were stationed at Williamstown and this was the site of the murder of the infamous John Price, Inspector General of Penal Establishments.

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This is the bluestone morgue, now in Ann Street, moved from its original position on Gem Wharf. It was constructed in 1859, only a short time after the first morgue was fully completed in Melbourne, possibly at the Western end of Flinders Street (an earlier morgue started near Princes Bridge in Melbourne in 1853-4 was never completed). The Williamstown morgue was built using convict labour from the hulks and it was sited on the wharf where the tidal waters could wash away the…um…waste.

Many hotels (many now disused) catered for the port labourers. However, it was notable as we walked around, reading the plaques attached by the Williamstown Historical Society and the Hobsons Bay Council, that many of these pubs were built from the 1860s onwards, replacing earlier buildings.  There’s a lot of new development happening down there again, and I posted earlier about an old house that didn’t survive.

Hotel tricked up to reference the Titanic. I guess someone thought it was a good idea at the time.

Hotel tricked up to reference the Titanic. I guess someone thought it was a good idea at the time.

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The first hotel on this site was the Royal Oak, built in 1852 but it was replaced in 1893 with this rather grand edifice. It has been used as a boarding house for many years.

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This hotel had a picture of the Shenandoah, a Confederate ship which arrived at Williamstown in January 1865 for repairs after damage received while chasing Union whaling ships. The Confederate sailors were feted by the citizens of Melbourne, and protected from arrest by Governor Darling. There’s been quite a bit of interest in the ship for the 150th anniversary of its arrival

No sign of the Shenandoah,  but there was another controversial ship- the Steve Irwin, part of the  Sea Shepherd fleet.

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The Williamstown Tower was built in 1849, originally as a lighthouse, then after it was taken over by the Williamstown Observatory, a timeball was fitted and  it served as a timeball tower between 1861-1926. At precisely 1.00 p.m. each day the timeball would descend, marking the time exactly for ships anchored out in the bay so that they could adjust their chronometers.  Wikipedia tells me that it’s the second oldest lighthouse in Victoria.

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We had a very good lunch at Tick Tock Cafe, followed by an ice-cream sitting in the park, then headed for home.  The train was filled with people who’d been in at the Grand Final parade and good feeling abounded.  The first Grand Final Public Holiday has been a resounding success, I should imagine.

And Hawthorn won.

Movie: Mr Holmes

I’ve been taking advantage of the cheap day to go to the movies but  I didn’t pay any price at all for this movie because I received two free tickets as a prize in a Council of Adult Education competition.

It’s good. It’s worth going to see for Ian McKellan alone, who is just brilliant with that wrinkled, earnest face registering a flood of emotions at times, and taking on the blankness of old age at other times.  The young boy, Milo Parker, is excellent as well and looks the quintessential Edwardian schoolboy. It’s beautifully filmed, with evocative music.

Shall I channel Margaret Pomerantz? 4.5 stars for mine.