waltzing with ned


There are two names redolent of late 19th-century Australia. The first is Ned. The shamelessly mythologised thief and murderer Ned Kelly is a recurring motif in Australian art and literature. As far as bits of steel and popular culture go, his helmet is an image almost as ubiquitous as Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can.

Even before the bushranger and his cohorts were the subject of the world’s first surviving feature-length movie The Story of The Kelly Gang, written and directed by Charles Tait in 1906, there was a melodrama by Arnold Denham.

Ned was muse to one of Australia’s greatest painters, Sidney Nolan, inspiring 27 paintings in his Kelly series. Later, no lesser an idol than Mick Jagger would strut forward in 1970 to portray Ned in what was then the seventh film about this Irish convict son.

In the late ’70s there was also a rock opera written about the bushranger by Reg Livermore, while Johnny Cash wrote and recorded the song Ned Kelly for his album Man In Black.

Ned was the subject of Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang and Robert Drewe’s earlier novel Our Sunshine, which was the basis of a 2003 film starring Heath Ledger.

Ned is also a recurring theme in the work of Haha, a Melbourne street artist, and even inspired the Tin Symphony in the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Now he is the subject of another musical.

Ned: An Ordinary Man, an Extraordinary Legend makes its world premiere at the new Ulumbarra Theatre in the fitting confines of the old Bendigo jail next month.

Concurrently, the celebrated Bendigo Art Gallery is running an exhibition called Imagining Ned, which features artefacts and ephemera alongside works by Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Adam Cullen and Norman Lindsay.

But if Ned is the man of the moment, then his partner, far more shy and elusive, must be Matilda.

This month marks 120 years since Banjo Paterson first publicly performed Waltzing Matilda in a small pub in outback Queensland.

While the exact etymology of the name Matilda as used to describe the swagman’s bundle is disputed, there is no doubt she’s part of the national psyche. There have been more than 700 recordings of the unofficial national anthem, ranging from classical covers to punk rock and yodelling.

In recent years it has emerged there was a love triangle behind the composition that led Paterson to jilt his long-time fiancée Sarah Riley after a scandalous flirtation with one of her best friends, Christina Macpherson. It was only in 1971, when some of her original writing was discovered, that Macpherson – great-great aunt of former Victorian premier Ted Baillieu – emerged as the co-author of Waltzing Matilda.

Now her ghost will be heard when The Man They Call The Banjo, a musical theatre production about the love story behind the song by Felix Meagher and Dennis O’Keeffe, has its world premiere at Little River this month.

So Ned and Matilda waltz on in the hearts and minds of another generation.


resurrect red pens

The car radio was tuned to an ABC station when one of those interchangeable psychologists with hyphenated names who have mastered the sound bite came on.“We have been responsible for the wussification of an entire generation,” he opined.

“Teachers aren’t even meant to use red pens to mark students’ work any more because it is considered too aggressive.”

It was a statement that resonated on many levels.

We have reached a point in our culture where we use ghastly words such as “learnings” but have become afraid to challenge and, where necessary, correct our children.

Recently I interviewed a musical theatre star who has hit her straps after years of rejection. Between gigs, she teaches and has been stunned by the number of students who unashamedly declared themselves to be triple threats.

“Triple threat” is a phrase that originated in Broadway musical theatre and refers to a performer who excels at all three key areas: singing, dancing and acting.

I got the sense that some of her “triple threat” students not only struggled to sing on key, some had two left feet and all the stage presence of a washing basket.

Yet they had reached their late teens or early 20s without anyone having dared to suggest they were anything other than stellar performers. Was it up to her to puncture the enormous balloons of their egos?

Talking to a group of students recently, I encountered a similar attitude of all-round awesomeness.

One young woman made it clear my insights were pretty much useless to her because, while I was a journo, she was going to be a writer. Seeking to find some common ground, I asked what writers she liked to read. “Oh,” she said, “I don’t like reading. I just like writing.”

Writing was her “passion” and, more than anything else, she liked writing about herself because she was, after all, so endlessly fascinating and blogged every day.

Self-confidence is one thing, but self-awareness and having a clear perception of your own individuality, including strengths and weaknesses, is every bit as important. It seems to me we have set up a generation for failure and disappointment, by sheltering and cosseting them to such a degree that they don’t know how to lose, how to compete or even board a bus alone.

A friend recently told me of a colleague who had finally allowed her 13-year-old son to catch the bus to school only because she had to go to an interstate conference, which meant she couldn’t drive him.

First, though, she had to have a test run. She dropped the boy at the bus stop, then followed the bus to school, where the boy’s father was waiting to ensure he alighted safely.

I don’t totally buy “the Generation Z and Gen Alpha are narcissists” trope but I do think that, while the most technologically savvy, they are also the least prepared for some of the uncomfortable realities of adult life.

By all means spend this school holiday ferrying the children to non-competitive activities and telling them they are stars.

Just do them a big favour and remind them there are at least 70 sextillion others in the universe.


a fear of felt


So I’m in a delightful shop called Habadash in Castlemaine on the weekend and the town is heaving with visitors for the biennial arts extravaganza that is the Castlemaine State Festival.

I have been here before. In fact, as I discover later, there’s even a quote from moi on the shop’s home page from an article written in 2007 likening it to being inside a button box with little lollies of colour, all competing for attention, calling out “pick me, pick me”. If anything, this description is even more accurate eight years on and why what happened next was even more surreal.

A woman in her early 40s, wearing a blue dress, walks into the shop and is welcomed by owner Sonia Collard. “Feel free to touch, open the drawers, have a rummage,” Sonia invites.

“Ooh. I won’t be doing that,” says blue dress looking frankly aghast. “I have koumpounophobia.”

“Pardon dear?” says Sonia.

“Koumpounophobia – a fear of buttons.”

You could almost see little thought bubbles with question marks rising above the half dozen other heads in the shop. We edged closer, while at the same time, collectively thinking … step away from the buttons.

“What are you doing in here then?” someone asks. “Because I forgot,” replied her friend, looking rather shame-faced.

“Goodness me, how do you do up your clothes?” asks Sonia.

“I’m not afraid of buttons that are sewn on, only the loose ones. My sister is too.”

I couldn’t help myself any longer.

“Were you tortured with buttons as a small child?”

“No not at all,” blue dress replies, “although I am now. My son sometimes puts buttons in my bed as a joke. I have to vacuum them up because I can’t touch them.”

We left the shop with a new word in the vocabulary and a profound sense of wonderment.

A quick Google reveals an estimated 11 per cent of the Australian population suffers from some kind of extreme, persistent aversion to something. The friend with whom I spent the weekend suffers from musophobia – the very presence of a mouse in the house causes her to quake and cry.

Another mutual friend suffers a fear of frogs, known as ranidaphobia, while her mother actually collects them, though what came first, the collection or the phobia, I do not know.

Until now I might have fallen into the phobophobia camp with a generalised fear of succumbing to a phobia, but I’m beginning to think I may have a borderline masklophobia (fear of masks) with leanings towards automatonophobia (fear of puppets and mannequins).

As someone who will cross a six-lane highway to avoid a Wilderness Society collection koala, I can’t begin to tell you how much I dislike doing “in-character” interviews.

For a week I have been feeling sick about a scheduled phone chat with a purple puppet: a foul-mouthed piece of felt with two eyes stuck on that’s half of the comedy double act Sammy J and Randy. Randy is fairly gentle and the “interview” ends on a conciliatory note.

“Thanks for running with the awkwardness of interviewing a non-human entity,” he says.

Baby steps, baby steps.

how’s this for openers?

CTIA VIC On the Road

As unlikely as it sounds for two veteran journalists, we recently found ourselves with a cold bottle of Redden Bridge sparkling pinot grigio with a crown cap and no bottle opener.

It was our second day in this particular caravan park and our neighbours seemed pleasant enough without being intrusive, so I sauntered over to beg the loan of an opener.

When will I ever learn!

Hi, just wondered if I could borrow your bottle opener.

Here, I’ll do it,” says he, making a grab for the bottle. “That’s a funny-looking beer.”

It’s not beer.

Right, anyway this is just like when I was in Borneo in ’64, had to wait till I got to ’Nam to lay my hands on a stubby opener.”

God, there are a lot of boring old buggers in caravan parks and this one had been lying in wait with his stubby holder clamped to the arm of a fold-up chair and now I was hooked like a trout.

Foreseeing a monologue longer than Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, I wrestled back the bottle, unclipped the bottle opener and promised to come right back with it.

It was dark before I dared set foot outside the campervan again, and snuck past the neighbour’s van to the amenities. There I found myself in a shower cubicle in between two German women who began conducting a very animated conversation over my head.

It sounded interesting in a Swedish chef kind of way: “hausen, rausen, mausen”.

Excuse me ladies, can you please tell me what you are talking about – I was in the middle of it after all.

Ah,” says one, “I was just saying how sad it is for the nice people who run this park that things keep getting stolen.”

The next morning, I went to drop back the key and asked the woman in the office about the “thefts”.

Oh it’s endless,” she said.

We stopped putting hand towels in the men’s bathroom altogether because they never last more than a minute.

We had individual pump soaps at every basin but had to go for wall dispensers because they were always swiped. In the cabins, the jacks between the TV and DVD routinely disappear and people even replace our nice new pillows with their manky ones.”

While they don’t like to talk about it, all accommodation providers from caravan parks to luxury hotels have to deal with light-fingered guests.

While it’s difficult to find hard statistics on what petty theft costs the accommodation industry, more than a third of hotel guests admitted in one international survey to having hotel property in their luggage when they checked out.

This was not the shampoos and toiletries, mind, but books, magazines, towels, bathrobes, bedsheets, dressing gowns, pillows, cushions, shower heads, plus ornamental knick-knacks, cutlery and utensils.

Basically anything not screwed down is at risk, and sometimes even if it is that’s no help. I got into a lift in one Melbourne hotel recently with a repairman who reported he was replacing a stolen light fitting.

But now we’re on the road again, I’ve just realised I’ve at least left our neighbour in the van park with a new story … about the day his bottle opener was swiped.




heirloom plants


The headline flashed before my eyes as I jumped back.

Woman killed by family plant,” it read in 144 point.

Just my luck that it all should all end in a bizarre gardening accident.

My father had asked me to “fill the small saucepan, dear, and put some water on the hoya.”

With so many people coming and going at the house these days I wasn’t sure if the hoya in fact needed water.

So I reached into the pot to test the soil with my finger and a spider sporting a blaze of red ran up my arm.

I flicked it away, trying frantically at the same to physically put the furthest possible distance between myself and my own arm.

The spider landed on the ground where the red dash on its upper abdomen looked for all the world like a pictogram of a dead person before I whacked it so hard with the saucepan there was no coming back for either of them.

Now, I’ve never before seen a real live redback, but it was the first of the many creatures on my mother’s roll call of things to be wary of whenever we left the house which grew thanks to encyclopaedic research as our family moved almost triennially to a new town, state or country.

Only just now I’ve learned that the last recorded death from redback spider bite was in 1956, coincidentally when the anti-venom first became available.

Not only is human fatality apparently highly unlikely from this kind of spider bite, but the chief victim of the redback spider is the male redback spider, it being one of the few arachnids that actually practises sexual cannibalism when mating.

While this doesn’t mean for a minute that you should go out of your way to get bitten, it does make you wonder how the creature has become so enshrined in mythology that the mere sight of one can make an adult hyperventilate.

In fact I’m starting to think I should be more afraid of the hoya.

From my earliest memory there has been a hoya.

Rene, my grandmother, had one in a concrete pot against a trellis at the front door of her and pop’s fibro majestic at Rosebud.

I now understand it to be a tropical plant which is why she would cover it each evening with a swathe of thick grey fabric dotted with multicoloured flowers that was like the curtain version of the carpets of the day to protect it from the cold.

Very early on sunny mornings the flowers would glisten with big blobs of sweet perfumed nectar like tears that I’d sometimes harvest and savour with no ill effect.

My grandmother died in the mid 1980s.

I don’t recall exactly when mum first cultivated her own hoya.

Perhaps it was a cutting of the original. I was never consciously aware of it after dad retired and he and mum moved to Nowra on the south coast of NSW.

Then, when they relocated to Castlemaine, the hoya came too.

In recent years and particularly in the 11 months since my mum died the plant has been a neglected part of our own peculiar tribal law.

But as we all prepare for another death, I feel it wrapping and twining around my heart.

My own personal triffid, spiders begone.

one good night


And so go gentle into that good night.

Do not rage, rage against the dying of the light.

This should be recast as a lilting lullaby rather than an angry torrent of lament, for Dylan Thomas was wrong about how good men and wise men should go.

Death is stealthily shrouding my dad and I believe he welcomes its embrace.

For a time after mum died it seemed he might beat the odds on old folk who swiftly follow their partners to the grave.

But in recent weeks he had become thinner, paler, weaker, to the point that he seems, some days, to have lost all appetite for living.

The death of his last surviving brother before Christmas and then last month of his Aunt Shirley – the youngest and last of his own mother’s sprawling range of 14 siblings – has left him with no one with who he shares early memories.

People talk of the importance of leaving elderly people in their own homes for as long as possible, but what they don’t say is that this too becomes a prison.

He no longer leaves the house for anything other than medical appointments.

The paper lies in the drive until someone arrives to bring it in.

Bathroom, chair, bathroom, chair, bathroom, chair, bathroom, bed is his range as his failing body heaps yet more indignities upon him.

Little tufts of carpet wool mark his passage as, unable to lift his feet, he scuffs across the floor on his walking frame. Every trip – and there might be 10 to the bathroom in the morning – takes so much effort it’s like he’s skiing uphill through treacle.

I know he longs to slip away in his sleep – the quiet, modest, neat man he has always been – untroubled by the nightmares that have frequently plagued him since his life became governed by a Webster pack of medications, his body tormented by all manner of ills.

He was … no is, and always will be, quite something you know.

I recently unearthed a photo of him with Sally Ride – the first American woman in space.

People talk about Parkes Radio Telescope being used to receive live televised images from the Apollo 11 moon landing.

But my dear old dad’s dish in Moree was a vital part of the relay of the signal, part of the Overseas Telecommunications network it also helped relay Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon from NASA’s Honeysuckle Tracking Station.

All dad’s life was about communication. First Morse, telegraph, wireless, cable radio and then satellite. But now none of us know what to say.

When mum was dying I felt closer to her than ever before even though we were physically separated because I’d taken myself off interstate: too gutless to stand by in those final days.

With Dad I’m here but I feel him moving further and further away from me, away from the living.

Last night he wanted whisky, but there was none in the house so I bought him a bottle of Glenfiddich.

He also managed a little chocolate icecream with his favourite topping of chicory syrup.

This morning I rang and he sounded quite bright.

I’m Ok dear, I had a good night.”

hatching ideas


It’s a funny business writing a weekly column. I would say I envied those who effortlessly churn out coherent, comic and clever pieces each week, except I know that, for the most part, it is far from effortless.

Column writing is a little bit like childbirth; no one talks about the really icky bits, like the stitches after you’ve been split from there to breakfast.

Not that I would know, mind. This is just one of the things I do not share with many of my fellow columnists – children.

In many ways, I’m the anti-columnist’s columnist. Not only do I not have children whose little lives provide delicious fodder and familiar touchstones through every stage of development, but I’m also about the least political person on earth.

Starting with the premise that any politician who answers to party and/or factions cannot be considered entirely their own man or woman or therefore completely relied on to keep their word and uphold espoused philosophy, my attitude toward modern governance is equally pragmatic.

Unlike many of my more polemic columnistic colleagues (dare I mention Andrew Bolt?), it takes an awful lot for me to work up a head of steam.

When I do it usually blows up in my face because a decimal point or decade is misplaced in fury and everyone of the opposing view seizes on this small error as proof of my argument’s absolute incompetence.

If I should say, for example, that refugees and asylum seekers – most specifically, mothers and children – should not be held in detention, this has no credibility and is just bleeding heart, small “l” liberal sookiness.

Then I lose the desire to argue further because I don’t even much like children … unless they are nicely contained behind razor wire fences.

Now, of course, I am being flippant … maybe even sarcastic.


It’s weird this column started like another recent column, with my thinking about chickens.

I was musing on how column ideas kind of hatch out and my thoughts returned to Big Red, Little Red and Collingwood and what comes first, the chicken or the egg; the topic or the tale.

Some stories unfold themselves quickly and naturally, but others kick around in your brain forever and it’s only an unformed vignette of 50 words and not a fully-fledged story of 550, but still the idea for the story – like children in detention – keeps crying out for release.

One such column seed came to me when Julie Andrews last came to Australia way back in 2013. I kept thinking I would love to rewrite the lyrics of My Favourite Things for an Australian audience.

But as time has gone on now I really want to write them for a non-sexist, non-gender-specific, non-ageist, all inclusive multicultural audience so children behind razor wire might understand why their parents risked their lives to come here but, you know what? I’m stuck.

I have never got beyond “Bull-nosed verandahs and Grafton jacarandas”.

Thoughts, anyone?