Monthly Archives: August 2015

Two Australias

There’s no greater contrast in our land than between sun-bedazzled Sydney, on its harbour, to sun-blistered Broken Hill, on its slag-heaps where the bush gives way to the desert. As well, there’s also no greater contrast in our land as between the denizens who populate those two burbs. Our premier city has its fair share of suited and befrocked sophisticates as befits the cosmopolitan metropolis it has become. Contrast that to the knock-about, laconic blokes and sheilas of Silver City. And there’s no greater contrast between the pair of movies we have under the microscope here – Brendan Cowell’s ‘Ruben Guthrie’ and Jeremy Sims’ Outback road trip, ‘Last Cab to Darwin’.

last cab

Both, in this scribe’s view, have their faults But, overwhelmingly, both were highly respectable offerings in terms of quality. The cinema going punters thought otherwise, though. For an Oz effort the former wasn’t a complete disaster earning good dollars during its run – in the hundreds of thousands. But LCTD creamed it at the box-office with earnings now up above the three million mark and climbing. Although most of us reside in a coastal necklace of large cities, from ‘Dad and Dave’ to ‘Crocodile Dundee’ to ‘Last Cab’, give us a good yarn about bush yokels and we’re suckers for the taking. The Outback, don’t you know – that’s where the true-blue Australia is.

Ruben Guthrie is an ugly man, not a likeable fellow at all – and that’s perhaps the problem. Australians have adored Michael Caton ever since he added new phrases to our lingo in the magnificent Aussie battler tale of ‘The Castle’. The promise of another fine turn from him bought us to the multiplexes in our droves. We weren’t disappointed. He is superb as a guy at death’s door. He doesn’t want to do the hard yards to an unseemly, painful demise and who can blame him? In the period the movie is set the Northern Territory legislature had just introduced a law permitting us to put ourselves, legally, out of our misery – to have the same option as we would bestow on a well loved pet. For a nano-second, before Howard and his cronies decided it was their right to play god as pollies are wont, a government finally had the courage to stick its nose up at the far right and do the humane thing. It didn’t last long, did it? But it will happen, eventually.

As Rex couldn’t face a cruel death he, being a taxi driver in the Outback NSW town, took one last fare – himself. He’s off to Darwin in the hope of a gentler exit. What eventually transpires; the characters he meets en route and a stellar performance from the lead makes this such a rewarding experience – a beaut effort at the genre our local industry does best. No need to be all arty-farty. Leave that to the countries that excel in that. It won’t bring the average joe in. Stick to what we know and our film-making can be viable. This is one that’s all heart, with an ending that will make one leave with a smile – despite its subject matter. We can only hope that a few of our leaders view it and at least contemplate allowing us a choice in the way we would like out time to be bought to an end. Once upon a time we were the land of the fair go.

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There is a grim outcome for Rex, the cab driver, but there’s much joy to be had with Sim’s product here. The supporting cast are particularly fine, especially Nigali Lawford-Wolf and Mark Coles Smith. Jackie Weaver’s role, despite some critical displeasure, is okay as the euthanasia-ing, proselytising doctor. The aforementioned jack-of-all trades, Cowell, has a brief cameo and the other John Howard features. Even Bristle (Brian Taylor) gets a guernsey.

And the ‘…thirsty comedy about a man on the rocks’? It is also worth a bo-peep when it comes along on some small screen platform or other. Ruben is an A1 party animal, with Sydney’s hedonistic lifestyle giving him an immense playground in which to indulge himself in a sea of grog and other ingestibles. He possesses a palatial home, a European model as prime squeeze and he’s killing it in his advertising job. Trouble is – his life choices are also killing him. Eventually he wises up and sees the need to go on the wagon – but can he prevent himself from slipping off at the first whiff of a martini olive? It’s a journey he has to take – one that is never short of interesting as he battles his demons and as with Rex’s bull-dust adventures, there are interesting companions to meet en route. With competent performances from Robyn Nevin and Alex Dimitriades, as well as from the doyen, Jack T, who also puts in an appearance – plenty of life left in that old dog – the film is well served by its supporting cast. As is well documented about Brendan C’s own life, the film, as well as the play from which it derives it roots, is pretty much autobiographical. The question then is why didn’t he just play himself? Perhaps it was too close to home, but nonetheless Patrick Brammall is a perfectly adequate substitute – an actor starting to make a mark after his performance in ABC’s ‘Glitch’. He is initially convincing as a drunk out of control, before events conspire forcing his character to reassess himself as a person.

ruben guthrie

Worthy also of mention is the lovely work Sarah Blasko has done with the soundtrack (she must be just about due for another album). I liked ‘Ruben Guthrie’ As it was chosen to open this year’s Sydney Film Festival, I am patently not alone. But the people who really count – those lining up for tickets at the box office – well, they largely bypassed it.

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As LCTD did for euthanasia, so RG does for binge drinking. At the conclusion of the latter offering Ruben has to make a snap decision that so many in similar situation also have also had to face. Unfortunately, in the instance that Rex so poignantly highlights in his trip to the Top End, for those in similar circumstances today there is no choice now on offer. We have a bit of maturing to do as a nation.

‘Last Cab to Darwin’ website =

‘Last Cab to Darwin’ trailer =

‘Ruben Guthrie’ website =

‘Ruben Guthrie’ trailer =

New Boy – Nick Earls

I remember ‘After January’ so fondly. Back then I thought the author was a new voice in the world of YA literature. It was a voice full of sunshine and zest from up in Mangoland to warm us all down here on an island much closer to the southern pole. Of all the hundreds of books I purchased in that year of 1996 for my school library, I chose to read that. Impossible to read them all, so there must have been something, perhaps on the back blurb, that attracted me to this new writer on the block – but I’ve been in Nick Earls’ thrall ever since. I’ve devoured every example of his word-smithery ever since.

Now Earls has successfully graduated to writing for adults as well. Graduated? That may imply that with the older the age-group as intended audience, the greater the skill set required. I prefer to think it operates in reverse. Not easy these days to engage with the younger brigade – but he does – and does it so well.

With ‘New Boy’, Earls is aiming at the late primary/early high school years – and he has produced a complete charmer. All the fun in it gave me much happy lol-ling.


It’s partly based on Earls’ own experiences as, recently arrived from Northern Ireland as a kid, he’s thrust into the hurl-burly world of an Australian school. There is the shock of the new for him, as well as for his classmates whom, he hopes, he’ll eventually get a handle on.

And it’s much the same with Herschelle in his book – with a name like that, even though it’s shared by a champion Protea cricketer (he’s from South Africa), he’s behind the eight ball from the get-go.

He was one of the cool kids back in Cape Town, but at this new place he’s grouped with the nerds – because he can only find a library habitue to befriend. Teachers and librarians all know these guys – invariably lovely students, but ones who also find the rough and tumble of the playground an alien experience. And Max is no exception – Earls has a most attractive character in this creation. He takes Herschelle under his wing – but soon his loyalty is sorely tested. You guessed it – there’s a bully involved.

Before he enrolled our pre-teen hero was quite gung-ho about going to school in Oz. He’d been on-line to a site detailing the subtleties of the lingo, as it’s spoken Down Under, to ensure he’d be hip. What could possibly go wrong then? Well the answer is plenty – ensuring a truckload of confusion and mirth. A kaffir lime causes all manner of outrage from the new arrivals to our shores. He resolves to rid himself of all Afrikaans-speak to become more at one with the locals – with mixed results.

Earls pushes the ‘difference’ angle for all he’s worth. The resolution of a few of scenarios the author conjures are hardly realistic in the world of teaching. This would all be over the head of the target audience so it matters little, doing little to detract from the sheer joy of the offering.

In my last years as a pedagogue I taught the age group the author has no doubt already entranced with ‘New Boy’. I know for a fact that I’d be ordering it in as a class set. It contains so many issues that one would initiate a teaching programme around – but the book never gets far away from just telling a terrific yarn to place a smile on the dials of young and old. Who knew that being asked to bring a plate along to a barbie would cause so much consternation for Herschelle’s mum – and the author’s?


Author’s website =

Those Stairs

Trite and slight – it was a little film. I daresay nobody will have it on their list of the top ten for the year. This cinema lover certainly won’t either. It was eminently predictable with the two leads just going through their paces, producing the same shtick they’re renowned for. They have been doing it for decades now. It’s ending is a cop-out, but which of us probably wouldn’t make the same decision, given the circumstances – that is, to try and put off the inevitable just a while longer. There’s the corny sub-plot of a cute dog at death’s door and creating a sense of unease, there’s a terrorist on the loose in the neighbourhood. Hopefully it’s not too much of a spoiler to mention that nothing untoward happens to shatter the slumbery pace of this light effort from director Richard Loncraine.


Respected critic Philippa Hawker recently did a puff piece to promote the film, which in truth hasn’t attracted a great deal of kindness from many of her colleagues in the print media. She describes ‘5 Flights Up’ as a ‘…love letter to New York, and to the importance of connections to place.’

Alex and Ruth have aboded in the same Brooklyn apartment for most of their married years, but are now of an age, despite their love of home and the area they live in, where a change is of the essence. They cannot imagine hauling themselves up those stairs in their elevator-less building for much longer. They must engage in the process of finding somewhere else to live before their health collapses due to the strain of it all. Enter the vicissitudes of buying and selling real estate, represented by motor-mouth agent played irritatingly (on purpose) by Cynthia Nixon. She gets on the couple’s pip, not to mention the audience’s. Alex (Morgan Freeman) knows in his heart of hearts he should move, but is in denial. Voluble Ruth (Diane Keaton), is the mover and shaker of the two, worried about her hubby’s – well-being. He’s already had a scare. Obviously their union doesn’t raise a ripple these days, but back when they hitched it was unusual to say the least – as well as frowned on by many. They came together when Alex engaged her to pose nude – he’s an artist you see – just starting out back then, but now with some repute. She wanted to know why he chose her from however they did such a thing in the pre-on-line perusal age. There were many prettier girls listed she coyly claimed. ‘Because you’re real,’ was his response. That hooked her. The younger Ruth is beautifully played by Oz actress Claire van der Boom.

5 flights

And, for my money, there are few actresses who have graced our screens more beautifully than Diane K over the years. Remember how we all fell in love with her in ‘Annie Hall’. In her close-ups now there is the obvious weathering of age on her gorgeous features, but none-the-less she’s still a stunner. Long may she remain so.

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And of course Morgan Freeman is simply irreplaceable in our world. In his next film he’s teamed with Alan Arkin, Michael Caine and Ann Margaret. Can’t wait for that.

But Ms Hawker is correct. New York, away from the Statue of Liberty, skyscrapers and street canyons, is charmingly portrayed. The city has never featured as a place pulling me to visit, but after ‘5Flights Up’ I could be tempted and I know I’d spend all my time in the land of Alex and Ruth. For all its faults, the offering is a loving homage to the real Big Apple and its real people.

Official web-site =

The Paris Wife – Paula McLain

Once upon a time I read them – the monumental names of the preceding one hundred years. Hardy, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Greene – why, I even tried to get through ‘Ulysses’. And, of course, I read him – Papa Hemingway (the book in review tells how he received that appellation). But once I started devouring the fiction of my own times, eventually realising that was far more to my taste, the classics withered. It’s been decades since I picked one up – but I keep promising myself I will read ‘Gatsby’ just one more time.

Turning the pages of ‘The Paris Wife’ put me in mind of one of Woody Allen’s better movies of his later period, ‘Midnight in Paris’. Here the Owen Wilson character travels back in time to meet all the great men and women reshapers of modern culture; those who hung out there in that burb in the twenties. They populated the boulevards and Left Bank garrets, mixing in the intellectual ferment that would hopefully extend the boundaries of their artistic talent – when they weren’t carousing on the effects of various fermented beverages. This tome has them all too – Pound, Fitzgeraldx2, Stein and Joyce – amongst others. ‘Paris Wife’ is the story of Hemingway’s rise to prominence during his first marriage to Hadley Richardson.


This product from American writer Paula McLain was a popular success in her home country, topping the NY Times best-seller list. The critics weren’t so crazy about it though – one calling it ‘…cliche-ridden…And it moves ploddingly.’

We view the great wordsmith through Hadley’s eyes, so we do not really get the answer as to why a young man about town would choose to marry an older woman, variously described as unfashionable, set in her ways, conservative, thick – in both senses of the word – and tediously dull. Perhaps it was the stipend that came with her hand? They were together for six years – the Paris years. But when the bright and flapperesquely vivacious Pauline Pfeiffer crossed Hem’s path, her days were numbered. Evidently Hemingway himself portrayed Richardson in his writings in a much more positive light than she was in reality. It would be interesting to compare the two takes. It’s so long ago that I read his memoir ‘A Moveable Feast’. Maybe I will revisit it one day. The reason for his kinder approach could be that it would be too much for his quite immense ego to have been associated by marriage with such a dullard.

hadley and hem

Anyway, as we have already ascertained, Paris was the place to be for any aspiring writer, so off the wannabe novelist and Hadley scampered to the City of Light as soon as the necessary readies became available. There are no great revelations in in McLain’s semi-imagined account and it has probably been done better elsewhere. After all, Hemingway’s personal life has been chewed over for decades. But, for this scribe, the novel was always readable – it was far from the supposed ‘plod’ ascribed to it.

The author herself has had a few collections of poetry published, as well as her own memoir (Like Family; Growing Up in Other People’s Homes’). Her freshman novel was ‘Ticket to Ride’; her latest tells the story of aviator Beryl Markham. The author had a tough upbringing, being fostered out at an early age after the early departure (thus the memoir) of her mother and the criminal activities of her dad. At age twenty-four she enrolled in a class of creative writing, was hooked, found she had talent and away she went. ‘The Paris Wife’ obviously required a fair dollop of research and the book doesn’t shy away from Hadley’s shortcomings. But it’s hard not to kinda like Hemingway’s put upon spouse and we know the outcome of it all before we start. Her second marriage, to foreign correspondent Paul Mowrer, was far more successful.

Patently she was not up to the pace of life the great writer engaged in once he started to garner some fame. She was outshone by all his new found friends as they dashed back and forth across Western Europe – sometimes with her and their child Bumby in tow, sometimes not. There was, as McLain portrayed her, a certain steadfastness to Hadley that saw her stick to her husband for as long as possible as he, incrementally, became more selfish, flighty, fragile and besotted with the feminine allure of the literary groupies that started to hang off his every utterance.

‘The Paris Wife’ is definitely worthy of consideration for any wishing to delve back into those times, but also for something that is easily digestible. Throw in ‘A Moveable Feast’ and ‘Midnight in Paris’ – that would be all you’d need to get a handle on an era that will probably never be repeated.

paula mclain

Paula McLain website =

The Songstress and the Dauber

‘I love Angus like a blood brother…’

She was doing it tough, was Abbe May. The Bunbury born singer was in trouble. Mid tour, the musician had, in her own words, ‘…a stress seizure…I went from being high functioning, calm, collected, creative, optimistic and athletic to lethargic, depressed, anxious and easily panicked.’ It hit her for six, instituting unwelcome changes, not only mentally, but physically as well. She made it through, but it took courage, the support of family, a loving partner – and Angus.

Angus McDonald, a painter residing in NSW’s stunning far northern coastline township of Lennox Head, has been plying his calling successfully for over two decades now. As an artist, he states he ‘…continually seek(s) to understand more about the world through …(his) art than I already know and use that to build a story of my practice.’


It’s no accident that his capturing of Abbe, for canvas, has gained nearly as much publicity as the magnificent painting of Michael Caton by Bruno Jean Grasswill in this year’s lead-up to the Archibald Awards. Travel through the ether to the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ website and check out the 2015 finalists – see which entrants take your eye. The Caton certainly did mine – we are probably attracted to figures we know – and it won the Packing Room Prize. But second to that it was McDonald’s take on Ms May. What a searing, revealing portrait.


Now, despite my pride in being reasonably up to date with today’s music, I’d only vaguely heard of Abbe May – proving I am perhaps deluding myself that I am in touch. But that is beside the point. Reading the singer’s back story on-line of what went awry in her world around the same time as she sat for the artist, it is easy to see that her recent struggles are reflected in his portrait.

Abbe’s affliction had seen her being admitted to hospital on several occasions as her immune system broke down. During this period she struggled to leave her house for any reason. Making eye-contact, at times, with others was beyond her.

Yet there is far more to the end-product that McDonald presented to the Archibald judges than her bout of mental illness – it doesn’t, by any means, define the picture. The singer tells ‘…, his insight and talent allowed him to see what I was feeling at the time…,I don’t find this portrait confronting…A friend could still see me and want to celebrate me. It shows in his portrait and I am eternally grateful.’


I wanted to discover exactly why McDonald chose her as a subject or whether it was the reverse that applied. I was unable to ascertain that information although May describes him as a friend, as well as one of her favourite artists. She also relates that he appeared in her life just at the right time.

The painting moved me the first time I laid eyes on it on that web page. Reading its provenance only increases it specialness. At a time when the funding of the Arts is under threat due to the machination’s of one of Abbott’s ministers – a problem when a peon gets hold of the purse strings – the painting is a reminder of the power of art. It points to how it is so essential to have a vibrant cultural hub at the heart of any civilised nation. It is so vital to our communal health and well being, just as Angus’ rendering of her was to Abbe May’s.

Angus McDonald website =

Abbe May website =

Abbe May YouTube =

House of Sticks – Peggy Frew

The recent Brendan Cowell film production, ‘Ruben Guthrie’, places the sunshine-y hedonism of the Harbour City front and central to it’s plot, almost leading to the destruction of the titular character in a sea of alcohol and drugs – and so that city does for Bonnie. She could have been a contender in the music industry, but in Frew’s ‘House of Sticks’ she has fallen in love with a tradie husband and is burdened down by three sprogs. She loves them all dearly, life rubs along okay – but she’s unfulfilled. Then a window of opportunity beckons in Emerald City, she grabs at it with both hands but Sydney’s party lifestyle and a sleazeball predator brings her undone big-time. Her trouble is, she’s honest to a fault and it all goes belly-up. Cue for the entry of an unlikely hero, staggering to her rescue.


Author Peggy Frew says of the book, ‘…it’s taking a subject that a lot of people wouldn’t think is worth writing about…Family is a key matter for a lot of writers, so how can it be not a valid subject worth writing about? But it’s the mother and baby thing that mean people put it in a pigeon hole. Now I’m a bit worried that it’s not going to be taken seriously enough because it’s ‘only’ about motherhood.’

But it was taken seriously – ‘House of Sticks’ winning a prestigious first manuscript gong, her prize being this tome hitting the shelves in 2011. But had it been just a mother, baby, struggle-town story it could have been a trite affair. Frew, though, has created Douggie, threw him into the mix and for me this is the difference. As if this business of holding it all together wasn’t tough enough for Bonnie already? Doug’s down on his luck and he and hubby Pete go way back. Doug’s a bit of a chancer – not quite to be trusted. But he has some sort of hold over Pete and works it for all he’s worth. He gives Bonnie the heebie jeebies to the max – she can’t bear to be around him. But before she knows it he’s a semi-permanent fixture in the home. Worse, the kids adore him. Then Dougie gets a nod on a sure thing at the races – and their lives are changed forever.

As well, in this Frew is quite potent with her wordsmithery. And she’s writing from a certain amount of experience. Back in the day she was once bass guitarist for prominent band Art of Fighting. Her husband is also a muso – and of course these days she has the balancing act with a family to cope with. Finding time to write in such circumstances is always at a premium. She admits she feels frustrated, like her main protagonist and yeans for the freedom her character Mickey possesses – a free-spirited vagabond in the Adalita mould. In their dreams Peggy/Bonnie wish they could spend time being Mickey.

This novel reflects the domestic challenges most of us on average wages are or have had to contend with in modern Australia. At first Bonnie and Pete have it all down pat pretty well. There’s just enough dosh to get by on as long as they are careful; they have a roof over their heads and food on the table. But Douggie makes Bonnie twitchy and the first cracks start to appear. Throw in Sydney, the nags and it all becomes an abyss.

I enjoyed this first time novel. The author doesn’t hide the fact she admires Tsolskis’ ‘The Slap’ and there’s a whiff of that about the writing – perhaps she’ll emerge as the feminine counter to his view of contemporary Oz. She does promise her sophomore effort, ‘Hope Farm’, due out this September, will be something entirely different. I’ll await its arrival with much expectation.


No Drover's Wife, She

Yes, I know Mr Twenty-first Century Man, I can see how you you might deduce we did her wrong back here in my time. From where you stand, way up there in 2015, we did treat her unfairly; didn’t recognise her true talent. But that was not the case at the start – certainly not. And some may argue she had only herself to blame for what occurred later. But I don’t concur with that notion, Mr Twenty-first Century Man – and I did try. Believe me when I tell you – I really did try. You must bear in mind, good sir, that it is a very different world when I was on the planet last century. People had different attitudes to a woman’s role in the world – but I do grant you – what that country girl did with a paintbrush, few could equal at the time. Perhaps that was part of the problem. Yes, yes, yes, you’re right Mr Twenty-first Century Man – but that was the way it was. And, given my standing, I take some of the blame myself. I can see now I should have tried somewhat harder.

And who am I to judge? I can sense you are dying to ask me that. Perhaps it will help you understand the veracity of what I am saying if I first tell you a little of my own story. Then I will relate to you what I know of her. For you see, in the end, she was no Lawson’s drover’s wife archetype. She was not thrust into the background. She refused to be. She wasn’t trampled down as many others of her gender were back in my era. And perhaps that also counted against her.

My name is Ure Smith. No, Ure is not my Christian name, Mr Twenty-first Century Man, although you may think so as many assumed the same back in my time. You see, my father took my mother’s surname as part of his own, except, like the woman under discussion, without the hyphen. It wasn’t official. It wasn’t on paper, but it wasn’t an unknown occurrence, even then. My full name? Since you asked it’s Sydney George and no, I am not named after the city. I am a Londoner by birth. Truth be known, though, I like Ure better than my documented appellation – and most called me by it in any case. But Sydney certainly was where I have spent the most productive years of my life, immersing myself in its art and literary scene.


What bought the family out to Australia in the first place, you ask? Well, my father came to the antipodes to manage hotels – first the Menzies in Melbourne and then the Australian in its northern sister city. I went to art school after Sydney Grammar. I’d always been a pretty handy sketcher, my good man, but, although I fiddled around with being an amateur artist all my adult life, I soon became attracted to other associated fields. You see, I had no desire to be some penniless, half-starved artist down in some dingy garret in the Rocks. I wanted to make money – and make it I succeeded in doing. Early on I developed a taste for the good life, for the great wine and food Sydney admittedly came more famous for after I passed-on. In fact, that was perhaps the death of me. I went before my time in 1949. I was only fifty-two. But don’t feel sorry for me. I led life to the full while I was around.

Anyway, that is by the by. By the age of nineteen I was already charting my course for the future, taking Viola as my wife and developing my first commercial enterprise with some mates – an art studio under the moniker of Smith and Julius. Working out the technicalities of how to display a client’s art output to its best advantage soon became my forte. Some of the people we started to employ included the likes of Lloyd Rees and photographer Harold Casneaux. We linked them up with companies, such as Berlei and Dunlop, to formulate advertising campaigns. We were soon leaders in the field. When I tired of that I tried my hand at publishing, also keeping artists in gainful employment. I started a magazine called ‘The Home Monthly’. It became Australia’s version of something like Vanity Fair and it ran for over twenty years. I’m as proud as punch over that.

I admit, most of the artists who worked with me on it and the books I simultaneously put out into the market place were indeed men, Mr Twenty-first Century Man. But I did champion a few of the fairer sex too – for instance, Grace Cossington Smith – you’d know of her – and Thea Proctor too. On my rota were also the likes of William Dobell – yes, that fellow who caused a scandal at the Archibalds. They were so staid and strictured in my era before he came along to set the cat among the pigeons. There was Norman Lindsay too – another I published. Some considered Norman the devil incarnate with his penchant for voluptuous maidens, in nary a stitch, frolicking around. Rumour had it that his models, up at his property in the bush, were altogether most brazen in their disdain for any form of clothing. So scandalous! Let’s see – there were also Donald Friend, Arthur Streeton and Hans Heysen I recall. I looked after them well and they did quite nicely out of it too. For most of them I published lavish, expensive-looking volumes full of plates of their art work – coffee table books you would call them up there in your century. I did one for Margaret Preston too – tried to give her a leg up, but it seemed harder to accomplish with the women I represented. It truly was a man’s era. Women who attempted to make headway in the art world just seemed not to be taken too seriously. The perception with many was that it could only be a hobby for them – not something to make money with. That was left up to the menfolk. Look at that lady from down Mornington way in Melbourne – the one whose art trove was found in a barn somewhere and now, in 2015, where you’re coming from, her work is worth a fortune. When she was around it was dismissed as worthless. No, it was all so different for us, Mr Twenty-first Century Man.

And, as for Hilda – well she was something, she really was. She was tough, resilient and would not deviate one iota from what she thought was right and proper for her. She could ride a steed as well as any male and crack a whip, in both senses of the saying, up there with the best of them. And she could paint – my word, she could paint. But you know all that, Mr Twenty-first Century Man. What you want to know is how we came to fail her – considering the flying start she got off to. Well. good sir, I firmly believe it was simply a matter of, for better or worse, tastes changing.


She was Ballarat born and displayed an early proclivity towards artistic pursuits. I know you know all this with your instant knowledge, from what you call being on-line, up there in your century – but indulge me. I am going to tell you anyway. I think it will illustrate what I said about where the fault lay for her rejections in her later years – that I, Ure Smith and my ilk weren’t all misogynists failing to see the sheep from the goats.

Anyway, the talent was there so off to Melbourne Art School she went, once her local education was complete. Following that came the usual rite of passage for most affluent Aussies back in her day – the trip to Europe to broaden one’s mind. She used it, of course, to further enhance her skills on canvas. She went to Morocco and produced some remarkable work out of that. She also set herself up in Paris, as any self-respecting artist wanting to hit the big time would do There she could feed off the greats already trundling their easels around the boulevards and the surrounding countryside. She travelled to all the recommended places in France that supposedly produced the type of light that seduced painters. As a result of her unstinting efforts she also discovered, to her joy, that the Paris of La Belle Epoque enjoyed Miss Rix and all she produced. She exhibited and sold quite well.


But, as we know, the war clouds were gathering and in the end she fled to the safety of England as the Hun advanced. She left most of her oeuvre cached away, in her wake, on the French coast. At this stage she lost both her sister and mother, who were accompanying her in her foreign adventures, to typhoid. Shrouded in grief, she soon thought she had found her saviour. That is when George Nicholas swept her off her feet. He was serving in France when he heard rumours of a fellow Australian, a lady artist, who had escaped the war leaving her paintings behind. He sought them out, liked what he espied and communicated his admiration to her – no mean feat in the days well before the ease of your social networking, Mr Twenty-first Century Man. Taking leave, he came to London, met her and then one thing led to another, as they did during those times of conflict. All too soon he was walking her down the aisle. Her awakening from grief was fleeting though. Within six weeks the Western Front had claimed him.


You can imagine, good sir, what that did to her state of mind. But she had backbone. She resolved to return to Australia and throw herself into the one love that remained to her – her art. Almost unheard of back then, she decided to buy a car and by herself, travel the byways of Australia Felix, painting what she found en route. Her mode of transport had to be modified to be up to the task. She took a gamble and it bore success. Australia was still in the grip of post-Impressionism and she soon found there was a market for what she sent back to her dealers. Then, in her travels around the Southern Tablelands, she met a returned soldier, Edgar Wright. Suddenly the world was a better place for her. He removed all her burdens, took her to his property, Knockalong, near Delegate, then wedded her, Mr Twenty-first Century Man. She took to the lifestyle of a grazier’s wife like a duck to water. He built her a fine studio for her art, but she was just as happy out mustering and bringing in the sheep on horseback as she was with brush in hand.

All was tickety-boo for a time, Mr Twenty-first Century Man, but then came the Depression and the bottom fell out of the art market. It also seemed, to many, that the gains made by women became more muted in the thirties. The jobs weren’t there any more and often there was little choice but to knuckle down and just do what it took to survive. Hilda was fine out in the country, but there was little appetite for her paintings with the public in those straightened times. And when the country emerged from the tough years there was another war. By that stage, a new type of artist had emerged. Modernism took hold and all of a sudden daubers like our subject were very much old school, were passe, if you will. She kept on producing and of course, after our mutual demises – hers way after mine in ’61 – she became searched out again. But in her last years she became quite bitter about her, if you like, forgottenness. Her son, Rix, wrote about it at the time so all knew how she felt. The fact remains the market had just moved on and she refused to move with it. Am I to blame for that? She hated the new vogue for painters like Drysdale and Dobell.


But, my dear man, it is good that so many have come back into their own during your time – my old chum Lindsay, John Russell and so on. But I am particularly pleased about the ladies. There’s not just Hilda, but as well that woman, Clarice Beckett – you know, the one I mentioned earlier.

But, anyway Mr Twenty-first Century Man, I remember Mrs Rix Nicholas fondly. She was a stunning woman in her earlier years. Use that internet machine you have and take a look at some of the photos that captured her in her prime and you will see what I mean. And her art – well some of her paintings really stand out – are timeless. I am particularly fond of the ‘The Pink Scarf’. She produced that delight just before the Great War while she was still overseas. It now hangs in the Art Gallery of South Australia and lights up the room. I know you value that one too. Close to where she lived, ‘Bringing in the Sheep’ is housed in a Bega gallery. I’m told that’s her up on the steed doing the mustering. It’s a self-portrait of sorts then. There’s also the rendering, ‘In Australia’, of a Wright family member that has, I feel, so much of the character of the landowners who inhabited the bush in those days.

At one stage though, she became furious when a work of hers didn’t win a prize she was aiming for to reassert herself. That really had her dander up. She knew it was more technically stronger than the eventual winner – it ticked far more boxes, as it is said in your time, as far as the guidelines went. But, of course, she was up against it because she was female – or at least that’s the way she saw it. The winner was male – and I believe is now quite obscure up there in 2015. The whole farrago bought out Hilda’s pugnacious side, Mr Twenty-first Century Man. The judges never heard the end of it for months. But it didn’t help her cause at all – it just served to get those pulling the strings off-side. She could be a bit of a spitfire when it wasn’t going her way and they didn’t take too kindly to that.


I feel, my friend up there looking back, she would be pretty chuffed to know the regard in which your generation of art-lovers hold her. From what you tell me, she now has her rightful place in the pantheon of artists who have enhanced your time’s understanding of what it was like back in my years – particularly out in the bush. I’m pleased that in 2015 she is seen as a pioneer, a true modern breaker of boundaries. She was a woman from the back blocks who refused to be pigeon-holed. Now, rightfully and finally, she has made a name for herself out in the light, away from the shadows we placed her in back in our day. You tell me that gender matters far less in your new century. I cannot but applaud those who made it so. Ergo thank you, Mr Twenty-first Century Man. Hilda, I now know, is one of those.

Sherlock Without Watson

The trove that are the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle give and give anew for each generation. They’ve been adapted for moving pictures; added to by other wordsmiths – some are up to the mark, others pale by comparison. A recent addition has now come to the big screen, based on the novel ‘A Slight Trick of the Mind’ by American writer Mitch Cullin. This movie certainly doesn’t fall short of the mark.

In it there are none of the idiosyncrasies and embellishments of the Hollywood franchise, based on the crowd pulling power of Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law – the first of these put me to sleep in Gold Class. Much better is the television series helmed by Benedict Cumberbatch. Presently on our small screens, as well, is an American update with Johnny Lee Miller as the great sleuth. But the production in question, ‘Mr Holmes’ is an entirely different kettle of red herrings to these – and all the better for it. There are no bells and whistles – just straight old-fashioned yarn-spinning.


In this take on the tales the famous detective is presented as a nonagenarian, nutting out his last case through the powers of deduction (his and a young lad’s), before his mind deserts him completely. The film, in my view, is as much a vehicle for the remarkable doyen of Brit cinema, Sir Ian McKellen, as anything else. The audience is riveted to his face whenever he is in view. In all this he needs nothing from the gee-whiz merchants of Tinsel Town, except for some make-up to even more advance his already redoubtable age. To me the back story of the offering – one that caused the old man such a heavy heart – is a filler. It would have been enough to concentrate on his relationship with the boy (an excellent Milo Parker), house-keeper (Laura Linney) and his bees. Roger is the house-keeper/carer’s son, on the verge of teenagerdom and starting to show signs of wanting to wriggle out from under the thumb of parental control. As the film progresses, so the bond between Holmes and this intelligent young man increases. Some critics have used this to riff on the possible homosexual undercurrents here, something they assert exists in all the classic Holmes stories. Maybe I’m naive, but sitting there that day, in my comfortable seat at the State, that consideration never entered my head. Maybe I missed something. McKellen is gay, Sherlock is unmarried – so what?


I also found it puzzling that an American thesp was chosen to play the role of his carer. Looking after Holmes, now retired to a stunning coastal Sussex, is not an easy task given his increasingly curmudgeonly ways, but Mrs Munro does a sterling job. And Linney is sterling in her efforts with an English accent, even if it jars on occasions. She is solid in the role, but I cannot help but wonder why some home grown actress was not selected? Who knows? Perhaps they were all busy or demurred for some reason.

In ‘Mr Holmes’, another product from capable director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters – the latter also featuring McKellen), the literary icon has outlived two world wars. He’s recently been to Japan in search of a mysterious, if plain-labelled, elixir to prolong life. He found it in the ruins of Hiroshima. Alongside all this are his attempts to place together the final pieces in the puzzle that was his final shattered commission. And there’s a beautiful lady (Hattie Morahan) at its core. He is anguished that he rejected, out of hand, her advances – of a sort. At the end of the tale, what happens to the boy further increases his pain. And, if all of the above is not enough of a homily to reflect on, his bees are dying off. That is another conundrum to come to grips with, requiring all his faculties in full working order.


It is a lovely effort, this movie, taking us deep into the soul of a man – one initially appearing to be tiring of earthly existence, without too many of the deeper feelings for his fellow beings. But as the film peels away his outer layers, we find a humanity that most modern takes on Sherlock Holmes lack and therefore this leaves them well in its wake. It was a little tedious around its narrative edge – but at no stage was I in any danger of falling asleep.

Official website =

Potato Starch Miracles

The unknown girl in red still haunts many. It’s been deduced she wasn’t his daughter, so exactly who could she have been – a relative, a friend’s daughter or just some damsel he found with a group of others on the shingle of Ludworth Cove, Dorset? For some reason it’s been passed down that her name was Kristina. But whoever she was, Kristina has become a potato starch mystery.

christina6-19113 o'gorman

Around the same time as she was captured for eternity, in the year before the Great War, Etheldreda Laing was also using the same relatively new process to take photos of her two girls, Janet and Iris. She did so in the gardens and on the rolling lawns of her family home near Oxford – Bury Knowle House. Between the two photographers, we have some of our earliest surviving colour photographs – they are potato starch miracles.

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The two photographers concerned were both amateurs, but like many throughout the history of the art/hobby, they became obsessed by it. Both were fortunate to be well off enough to service their passion in days when it wasn’t as cheap or as ubiquitous as it is now. A couple of plates for this challenging process would equal a day’s average wage. But with it photography pushed the envelope into territory that was difficult to master, but one that produced stunning results. Amazingly though, the key ingredient in the ability to take and make these surprising images was something very humble and everyday – potato starch. A microscopic amount of the root vegetable was stained red-orange, green and blue- violet. Then this was used to provide a filter for light to pass through. When a photographic plate was inserted the light would react with the plate’s chemical emulsion to make images appear naturally coloured. Not simple by a long shot and thus it took skilled practitioners. They are ethereal, the results, redolent of days gone by, but exquisitely still exhibiting the eerie freshness of just having been taken yesterday. The process was called Autochrome Lumière, invented, as the second part of the name would indicate, by the same two French brothers responsible for giving us moving pictures.

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Audrie, as Etheldreda was known to family and friends, must have given birth to two very patient daughters, given the time needed to be still for a successful picture to be created. She had been playing around with the colour process since ’08, but it took her years to get the hang of it. The use of it had virtually died out by the twenties, given its complexity. Colour film itself, as we who were born before the digital age would be familiar with, only came into being in the mid-thirties. Gone then was the necessity for the earlier unwieldy means. But potato starch had its place in the history of the art form – what amazing and intriguing photos it made possible!

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Laing was a trained artist before photography took hold of her. She married lawyer Charles in 1895 and moved to the nineteen acre property appearing in the images. In 1898 the first of her two children entered the world, followed by number two in 1903. So enamoured was Audrie of her camera that she had a dark room constructed on site for her hobby. She took to the autochrome method early and is now recognised as one of its greatest success stories.

Originally photography was thought to be an unsuitable pastime for genteel womenfolk because of all the messy chemicals involved. But by the turn of the century it was considered ‘developed’ enough to to be respectable for the fairer gender. But for women it was still not the done thing to go wandering around with camera in hand snapping willy-nilly, so subjects were normally family members – thus Janet and Iris were constantly prevailed upon to satisfy their parent’s fixation. Take a gander at the photographs on-line – to my mind they are remarkable, given their provenance.


Audrie later became a noted painter and developed a new fascination with miniatures when that became fashionable. But she still continued camera-smithing throughout her life as a side-interest. She passed away in 1960, aged eighty-eight.

At forty-two Mervyn O’Gorman was considered a bit of a dandy. He was also, undoubtedly, a person of stature. When he died in 1958, at age eighty-seven, it was written of him that he was ‘…a man of agile mind and Hibernian eloquence.’ In 1913 he was married and one year on would be serving in Flanders Fields, reaching the rank of lieutenant-colonel. We know a great deal about him, but little about the strawberry blonde posing afore his camera in that cove before awfulness took over the world. What was Kristina to Merv we wonder? He and his much older wife produced no offspring.

The determined souls who have sought to solve this riddle can only point to one census record of a Kristina O’Gorman around the time – the 1911 count registers an eleven year old Irish lass by that name. A relative perhaps visiting England? She was photographed in a group, so she was no lone random he picked up on that day. It could all point to the fact she was known to him – especially as she also posed for his camera at other locations. That she was in a group on a beach suggests rejecting the notion she was a hired model.

christina3-girl in red 1913 mervyn o'gorman

The muted tones of her surrounds in the images allows the reds of her various items of clothing to really stand out, to be incredibly distinctive. O’Gorman’s portraits of her possess a timelessness that ensnares your eye – and you cannot but wonder about her, although some dismiss the need to find out her story. They maintain that we should be satisfied that the reproductions of her have found their way down through time for us to marvel at. She has been described as the true embodiment of the pre-Raphaelite ideal. – and I’d like to think that O’Gorman, for that reason, saw her potential in that group out for a day by the briny. Assessing her suitability, he asked her guardians permission, under supervision, to capture her for posterity.

christina7-1913 o'gorman

As to the other questions about her, part of me would like to know more, but another hopes she will always remain a mystery to tantalise lovers of beautiful images down through time. And to think that her youth will remain eternal is the result of adding to a mixture just a minute smudge of potato starch.

The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and his Ex' – Gabrielle Williams

Poor Race. Race Matthews that is. They called him the ‘Minister for Plod’, ‘…a tiresome old bag of swamp gas’ and a ‘…pompous fathead’ – they being a group calling themselves the Australian Cultural Terrorists (ACT). Race, being a pollie, had a thick skin and had possibly been called much worse – and we are, all these years on, still no closer to knowing who those rude guys were. But they managed to perpetrate one of the most audacious of art heists in our history – and on Race’s watch. This event Gabrielle Williams has woven very deftly into her latest novel for the savvy YA crowd, ‘The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and his Ex’


Mr Matthews was Minister for the Arts in the Sate Government, back in 1986, when a Picasso, ‘The Weeping Woman’, mysteriously disappeared from the National Gallery of Victoria. The thieves left a calling card on the wall in its lieu, imposed with the acronym – ACT. For some time the staff at the gallery assumed the prize painting had been taken to the Australian Capital Territory for some form of restoration – then the reality dawned on them. Whilst it was missing, all sorts of rumour mongering and innuendo went on as to what had happened the valuable stolen item. Eventually it, equally mysteriously, turned up in a railway concourse locker. The canvas had been expertly wrapped and was in good health. Therefore it was surmised it was no amateur job – maybe even an inside job, given the specialist tools required to remove the painting from its location and then to release it undamaged from its frame.


Ms Williams, on given the task of describing herself as a writer, in a few words, for an on-line forum operated by teen readers, offered up that she is ‘…original, quirky, interesting, different, unique, funny, pacey, literary and relatable.’ After reading ‘Guy/Girl/Artist/Ex’, I would concur. It was certainly an original approach to append a range of diverse, innocent characters around those fictionally doing the stealing of the great man’s work. A quirky guy, Guy, is the hero of the piece – someone who initially spends most of his time figuring out ways to prevent his olds from discovering how entirely slack he was being at school, but later becoming far less shallow. The novel is truly interesting in its recreation of the eighties and it is certainly different, having a bunch of characters of Latin American origin as major participants in the goings-on. I could continue, but you get the gist that I like this novel. It also possesses a structure that must have been no mean feat to figure out in the author’s head. As well, the tale hit all the right notes for her audience with the coming together of the Guy and Girl. Their intimate scene is handled with just the right amount of tact. For its readers, it gives out positive messages in the escape of Ex from Artist – he being an out-and-out drop-kick, the type of boyfriend to be avoided at all costs. The author has alluded to the fact that Ex is her most autobiographical creation. The parallels include the fact she is also single mum who has been involved, in her time, with several plonkers decidedly lacking in sensitivity. Ex also shares Ms William’s tastes in music and fashion.

The book, in part, is based around the premise that the Spanish for ‘weeping woman’ is ‘llorona’ – that and a couple of admittedly unlikely coincidences. In the hands of a less skilled wordsmith I would find the latter detracting from my pleasure in the product, but not so much here. I have no doubt the age-group this novel would appeal most would accept these occurrences in their stride – and that is not intended to be disparaging in any way. I particularly enjoyed Raffi as a protagonist – a new arrival in Oz from Columbia, thus part of the Spanish connection. Gabrielle W reports she is working on a sequel to this terrific yarn. Hopefully in it Rafi and Guy will continue their adventures as a team – and perhaps more.


This promising writer first came to the attention of lovers of YA with her well-gonged ‘Beatle meets Destiny’. She has been praised by critic Graeme Wood of the Age as ‘…one of the funniest young adult fiction authors around.’ For me, I trust she goes around many more times in the future, giving us more unique takes on young people on the verge of adulthood.