Category Archives: historical

The Perfect Irish Colleen

She was gorgeous in red, was Main Kelly. At fourteen she was described by her image capturer as ‘…the perfect Irish colleen.’

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Normally I would not cite one of the world’s richest men, in any era, as one of my heroes, but an Alsatian jew has become that. Albert Kahn, born in 1860, was a young man when he moved to Paris after the Germans took over the Alsace, France’s punishment for losing the Franco-Prussian War. Starting off as a lowly banking clerk, he worked his way up the finance ladder, largely because of his willingness to take audacious risks with his hard-earned; this being mostly to do with South African diamonds. But there was more to the man than lust for dough. He gave back. He was an art lover – mates with Rodin. He was also prepared to put his riches into philanthropic interests. In 1893 he acquired a large parcel of land in Boulagne-Billancourt, on the outskirts of Paris, using it to landscape magnificent gardens where he attempted to create harmony between the plants of different biomes. He entertained the greats of his era there, from royalty down. He maintained a special interest in all matters Japanese, intent on further opening up that then exotic nation to Western trade and ideas; whilst taking a few of their notions as well.

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Kahn first became fascinated with photography through his chauffeur, Alfred Dutertre, whom he paid to train in it. On a trip to Japan he observed his minion gaining expertise and was captivated. When the Autochrome process, invented by the Lumière brothers, came along in 1903, giving the world quality colour images, he started to formulate another audacious plan. He would use it, together with the brothers’ other great contribution in cinematography, to create another take on harmony. Why not use both to record the differing cultures of the world for the purposes of education to create greater understanding, particularly as Kahn feared many ways if life would soon disappear in his modern world? That would be something worthwhile to finance, would it not? He would canvas the entire planet, between 1909 and 1931, sending out his representatives to the four corners. At the end he managed to amass 72,000 Autochrome plates and 183,000 metres of moving film. It remains a one off – a truly remarkable record of human activity during early last century; the pictures all in stunning, even by today’s standards, colour.

For a very long time the archive languished in storage, but in 1986 came a systematic ordering of it and it is now on display, for one and all to view, in a new museum, established in the grounds of his famous gardens.

Australia in Colour’ was showing on SBS when I came across ‘Edwardians in Colour’ while meandering around YouTube. Thinking it would be similar, I clicked on it and was taken into the world of Kahn, discovering, in the first episode, Miss Kelly as well, or to give her her moniker in the old language, Main Ne Tuathail. I doubt that there’s the remotest possibility the two ever met, but he certainly would have espied the glorious Autochrome plate of her. The woman who bought them together was remarkable in herself – and remarkable for her time. She was Marguerite Mespoulet – the only photographer of her gender Kahn employed on his mission to to harmonise and create understanding across the cultures. Kahn was right about her subject’s lifestyle – Main’s was almost gone.

Mespoulet had been an early recipient of the banker’s travelling scholarship, taking the opportunity to also visit the Land of the Rising Sun. She received a portion of his generosity due to her brilliance as a student at the Sorbonne. Her discipline? Celtic Studies. Once she mastered the Autochrome process, she was a cinch to be employed as a travelling photographer, despite her sex. The Ireland of 1913 would be her destination. She was intrigued to find whatever traces of the ancient ways that still lingered there.

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When MM and her travelling companion, Madeline Mignon, arrived in the spring the place was in dire straits under British rule. It suffered from economic depression, outbreaks of disease such as typhus and a rising republican movement that would soon explode into the Easter Rebellion. Plus, for the camera-lugger and her pal, the weather was appalling.

But the lady was made of tough stuff. Contemporaries describe her as of ‘… strong of presence and personality.’ She soon picked up on a whisper that here remained in Galway a small village, the Claddagh; a collection of a couple of hundred small thatched cottages, in disrepair, on the outskirts of the county’s major town. Mespoulet wrote in her travel journal that the place reminded her of villages in that other Celtic outlier, Brittany. Claddagh’s citizenry lived in filth, scratching a living from the sea. The husbands went out in boats, the women did everything else and were the mainstays of the community. Ringworm was rife in the children. But under grey skies Marguerite M enticed some photographs from the populace, using bribery and cunning to convince them to sit still long enough for the process to take effect. The images currently enchant our generation and will those in the future. Without doubt the standout one is of Main, bedecked in her red cloak, the signature clothing item of her fast disappearing way of existence.

Already the Galway City Council was starting to provide these people with better housing, complete with running water rather than their traditional well, but having little notion how this would destabilise community. It did make for a healthier populace, but soon the language started to die on the ground and the red cloaks evaporated.

The two MMs spent three weeks in the Claddagh with the people as they went about their lives. They then moved on, leaving Main and their other subjects to their futures. A descendant in the documentary describes Main, fully grown, as a happy woman who bought joy to all around her.

When her photographer and partner returned to France they bought with them just a relatively small number of plates compared to other Kahn operatives, but what treasures they were. Included in their number was a rare photographic record of the use of coracles, also about to be replaced by more manoeuvrable craft. Then there was the memorable image of a fringe weaver. Her art was soon to go as well. In her journal MM described how this gaunt woman struggled to make ends meet whilst raising her seven children. We don’t know we’re alive.

FT5S Mother of seven making fringes for knitted shawelscoracles

But what of Mespoulet and Kahn? Soon after her Irish expedition the former moved to North America and embarked on an academic career as a professor of French literature. She returned to France frequently and lived to the ripe old age of 85.

The Great Depression, sadly, ruined Kahn. He ceased funding his passion in 1931 and died penniless. But what a legacy! And you can meet him, Mespoulet and Main by clicking onto YouTube’s ‘Edwardians in Colour’, Episode 1. She was/is beautiful, Main. Her like will never be seen again in Western Europe and she is very much worth a look for all lovers of stunning images from the past. Just mesmerising.

‘Edwardians in Colour’, Episode One = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpijOSSlZCI

The Teeth, Darling

Anna,

So here it is, just as I explained to and warned you of in my last missive. You agreed to be not only the owner of, but also a conduit for, the information I am about to impart. What happens to it after my demise I’ll leave in your capable hands. It’s not earth-shattering and it is as it was, for better or worse. I fear now I’ve entered my seventies that, well, let’s just say the London winters are not getting any kinder.

I have been thankful to have you by my side through the legal ordeals of these last fraught years. Without you I would have died a pauper – and how dear Bram concerned himself with my future security as he approached his own departure. All through that fearful business over ‘Nosferatu’ with the Germans, then the American studio who thought they could make a movie of his most famous book without any thought to the rights of its writer or descendant. As you are aware, there’s only Noel, but we fought hard for his inhertance. Frightful, just frightful. You stood by me as adviser and friend. In you Anna, although you came along belatedly in my life, I saw the daughter I never had. In truth I didn’t give myself the chance of having one, as you will read. I know I can confide in you with all surety that it’s confidential. In part, thanks to you, my husband’s legacy is secure due to the funds your organisation has secured for me. From their dealings with the film companies, who wanted to use his work as the basis for their projects, I am able to spend what years that remain to me in relative comfort. And now, dearest friend, to my unburdening.

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Yes, that a Prime Minister would once say that I was the most beautiful woman in London went straight to my head. He was an old dear, but I took his words to heart and I hasten to add, he was not the only prominent figure to take that view and express it publicly. I became prideful, dare I say it, wholly vain. And Anna, I wish now I could change the person all those compliments made me back then. Maybe, just maybe, Bram would still be alive to share in our successes – for I treated him most abominably. But we can’t go back. Then I placed retaining my youthful, porcelain (as many described them) looks above all else – even my marriage, or at least that part of it that people cannot see. To outward appearances nothing was amiss. I made certain of that. But behind closed doors all was not as it seemed, dearest Anna. He had much to put up with in me. Instead of making his home his safe harbour, I made it something he wished to escape from for as much as propriety would allow. That caused him to garner yet more secrets to the ones he already held. In the end, perhaps my denial of what should have been rightly his for the taking served me well. And we will come to that, but we should start where it all began – with Oscar of course. It is known how I moved on from Mr Wilde to Bram Stoker, what is not known is exactly why. The truth of the matter – it was largely about the teeth, darling.

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They were bad from the start and frankly, off putting. He knew, poor fellow. He spent so much time and money trying to fix them, but as the years passed they only became worse. At the time we were together, it wasn’t so dire, but still, the smell! Oscar tried to cover it up with potions or pastes, but nothing seemed to work. I think they only served to hasten their destruction. Back then dentistry wasn’t what it is today. It meant endless, excruciating pain for the poor man – and heavens, it is tedious and taxing enough today in my experience. As well there were all sorts of charlatans around and when it came to his deteriorating teeth, Oscar would believe anyone. He would always try and hide his mouth with his hands when speaking and rarely smiled. Why, the poor man found laughing tortuous, least it exposed the state of what his mouth enclosed. It was a nightmare – the pounds he spent before finally submitting to having them removed and dentures inserted. How he hated them too. Of course, that was well after he had moved on from me. We were courting for only two years. Mostly he was at Oxford with myself either at home in County Down or in Dublin. So the opportunities to be together were fairly rare. Honestly, I think he liked the thought of me more than the actuality and we were never intimate, just kisses and embraces, when I could bear them. So it came as a surprise to me that Christmas when he presented me with that beautiful little cross on a thin chain. You know, in our day, that usually indicated that an engagement was imminent. But his visits across the Irish Sea came less and less as his life more revolved around the university – and rumours were already circulating. He was certainly great fun when he was around, but, to tell the truth, the thought of getting up close and amorous with him frightened me. The smells, despite his scents and pomades, just repulsed me. Knowing what we know about Oscar now, what he was getting up to at Oxford and on his jaunts to London, I suspect, would have made a marriage to him a great mistake. Still, I know that when I announced my betrothal to Bram, it came as a great shock to him. Bram was a friend of his so he felt betrayed by both of us. We continued to remain on harmonious terms, Oscar and I, to keep up appearances, but Bram never felt he could trust him to be in my company without his presence. I suppose that is only as it should be.

Bram was far more solid and reliable. He didn’t shine like Oscar, but he held his own in society and found some degree of fame as well. To start with, my husband’s teeth weren’t an issue, but as time went on they started to go the same way as Oscar’s. But that wasn’t our major issue as it turned out. No, what happened within our marriage, I bought on myself. Some of it occurred when I discovered I wasn’t the love of his life. Possibly I wasn’t even in second place – for there was always Oscar, whether Bram trusted him or not. And then, once we moved to London, there was Henry.

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Little Noel was born in ‘79, the year of our move. There were to be, as you are aware, no more children. There couldn’t be Anna. What you didn’t know, nor did anybody else as Bram put such a brave face on it, was that I ceased all close proximities to the poor man, if you know what I mean. He was a dear fellow. Everybody said so, unfailingly polite and courteous to me as to everyone else who crossed his path. We made our marriage work for I had deep affection for him and he for me, despite my silliness – and it was silliness. His health was always delicate, but I cared for him when he was afflicted as I cared for him at the end. It was the least I could do. I was happy to be his nursemaid and house keeper, as well as raising our child. But, as for that other role of a wife, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t know if Bram cared so much in the end, in any case. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but his constitution wasn’t strong enough for exertion – and when he felt it was, well, he sought relief outside the home. I pretended I didn’t know – but we both tacitly reached an understanding that I wouldn’t hold it against him. As well, he had Henry. Henry Irving – the foremost actor of his day. Bram, once he had that job in the great man’s theatre, well, he was simply became infatuated. He couldn’t stop talking about him, although the man treated him as a mere lackey and refused to pay him anything like the amount Bram could get elsewhere. But husband wouldn’t hear of it. He was in thrall of the man. If there was anything else involved, I don’t know. I always had my suspicions, as I had of the days when Bram knew Oscar before I wooed him away. I am at a loss over all that. It’s not in the natural way of things, in my view, but then again, could I blame Bram for finding succour in any way he could after the way I treated him? When, on the few occasions I did broach the subject, Bram shrugged it away. He was hiding something, I was certain – and the proof, I believe, finally came in the way he left me. I believe, though, I was very, very blessed to have had Bram for a husband. It’s excruciating to think about what may have occurred had it been Oscar. Friends have imparted that Oscar never forgave Bram for snatching me away from him. It may have been the case that the reverse applied too – that I snatched Bram away from him. I’m told that charming little cross, that I returned to Oscar, remained on his person till the day the Lord took him. I also worried that Bram was frightened that Oscar would attempt vengeance one day by seeking my affections again. But he was never open with me over this, so I couldn’t allay his fears. There was no chance of it. But if he had of asked, could I have mentioned the teeth, darling Anna?

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I did wonder if the perfect teeth of Dracula, including those designed for enabling blood-sucking, could have been Bram’s way of getting back at Oscar. I don’t know, but in his later years my poor husband’s were not very attractive either. I wasn’t giving him much attention at all by this stage. No wonder he wandered out to seek comfort and release from the ladies of the night – or, at least, I assumed they were ladies. In truth, I could not blame him and it was convenient for me. And maybe that killed him, as so many of our social set were afflicted with the dreaded syphilis. The doctors would never say as much, despite my pointed questions, but I suspected. So maybe my restraint saved me from that fate as well. Even so, the lack of love, in the true way, that I failed to show this kind and loyal man does weigh on me heavily now that he’s gone.

My beauty didn’t last, of course. It never does. All those years I spent protecting my complexion and making sure I was the most alluring in the room in all our public engagements have come to nought now he is deceased. They all dried up, just like my porcelain skin.

As you are well aware, my dear, these last years have been devoted to Bram’s legacy. ‘Dracula’ has surpassed all our expectations – and to think that odious Irving once shattered our beloved author by telling him he didn’t possess an ounce of literary talent. I wonder who’ll be remembered better as the years roll on – my Bram or that man? But nothing could break his hold. At least Bram outlived his hero and had some freedom from his constant barbs in his last years.

So darling lady, my confession of imperfection is before you. I feel a little more peace in my life now. Is that unfair of me? I have often been touted as the one who won the heart of Oscar when she was a girl and Bram’s when I was a woman, but in truth, despite my limitations as a wife, my heart will always belong to Bram. More so now than ever. I hope history will treat him kindly as it has not for Oscar. They are both brilliant men and I fear, with my vanity and foibles, I served neither well. With your assistance I have tried to make it up to my husband – so thank you dear Anna for your friendship, wise judgement and future discretion

Florence

Part of the above is my imagining with a new book on Wilde on the retail shelves and a coming series on ‘Dracula’ destined for our small screens. Her marriage to Bram Stoker allowed the former Irish beauty Florence Balcombe to meet Presidents of the USA and a Prime Minister, Gladstone, became a friend, regaling her as the greatest beauty of the day. The Patti Boyd, perhaps, of her times, her association with two literary icons, as well as her own prominence as a jewel of the London social set, ensures for her a small place in history. In later life she fought tooth and nail (you punster) to protect the inheritance of Stoker. His vampiric tale has generated millions. We have moved on from the primitive dentistry of Victorian times, but with Drac it’s all about the teeth, darling.

More on Florence – http://womensmuseumofireland.ie/articles/florence-balcombe

The Walkers and the Dauber

There is a resemblance to both, isn’t there? It’s not just me, is it? You can see it too, can’t you?

Every wall of each of three rooms was covered in paintings, many of them portraits. In the first I ventured into, they were from the colonial period and my eye was immediately drawn to her. I knew that face, or so I thought. I soon realised I couldn’t have, given her provenance and lack of fame; also given she died in 1889. And this was painted decades earlier than that. I thought she was beautiful; undeniably striking. There was no descriptive tag to her on the wall, so I had to resort to something I usually abhor for her details – a centrally placed computer device that the Library of New South Wales assured would provide all the viewer could wish to know about any given item in this particular exhibition, simply called ‘Paintings from the Collection’.

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Normally I hate anything to do with digital technology and art galleries. Try as I might to use those hand held devices at Mona, I always end up giving it away in disgust. To me they ruin the experience there, to the extent that I’d rather not be in the know. But I quickly mastered the ones in Sydney and at least made a start getting to know my lady from two centuries ago. In the gen it provided I was delighted that there was a Tasmanian connection with her. I scribbled down a few of the details concerning the art work in question and resolved, as is invariably the case, to delve deeper once on home soil, for Anna Elizabeth Walker was really beginning to intrigue. And a part of that was trying to rack my memory cells as to just whom she reminded me of. Eventually the penny dropped, two fold as it turns out, but I’ll save that for later.

Now at home I wasn’t illuminated much more about her than I discovered in Harbour City, but, as one might expect from those times, of the man she devoted her life to, we could ascertain a great deal. And he seems a prickly sort of go-getting customer.

He had arrived on New Holland shores in 1818 – so quite early on. He was a Yorkshireman by birth, having entered the world in 1791 to a relatively well-to-do family. He had served his country at Waterloo and other engagements in the war against Napoleon; later remaining in service as a master of stores. This led to attachment to the good ship ‘Friendship’ (oxymoron?) which took him and a cargo of convicts to New South Wales. He spent less than a year in Sydney. He was soon sent to take charge of the infant settlement of Port Dalrymple, across Bass Strait, on Van Diemen’s Land’s Tamar River. He immediately took a shine to that scenic part of our island and started to think it may be the place to build a future. To that end he constructed himself a stone house in George Town. But, by the time it was completed, he was finding it impossible to get along with his immediate superior, one Gilbert Cimitiere. Relationships had sunk so low in the small European community that all communication was conducted via their respective clerks. When the latter became so fed up with that and complained about him to Governor Sorell in Hobart, Thomas Walker felt it was in his best interests to hightail it back to Sydney Cove. Once there he was found a position being responsible for the growing burbs of Windsor and Parramatta. He built a home in the district, calling it Rhodes, after his mother’s family pile back in the Mother Country. And around this time he began successfully courting Anna, daughter of prominent citizen and Blue Mountains conqueror Gregory Blaxland. Was it a love match? Did one T Walker see it as improving his social standing? There are indications he was that kind of guy, but we’ll never know. They wedded in 1823.

By 1825 the new groom was crook, a factor he put down to the arduous, as he saw it, work expected of him in his Sydney roles. Five years later he uprooted his family to move back to VDL, still mightily peeved that the authorities in the northern colony had not recognised his true worth. He saw there were opportunities, for him and his burgeoning family, out on the Westmoreland Plains, around Longford, so that’s where he decided to settle, constructing another Rhodes. He worked assiduously at building up a real estate portfolio with properties in the two colonies, plus around the developing Port Phillip region. He was made a magistrate in 1837 – finally some recognition.

But let’s return to the eye-catching Anna. She remained by hubby’s side till his death, in the rebranded Tasmania, in 1861, after which she returned to be closer to her family in NSW. It was, though, during an earlier visit to Sydney that artist Maurice Felton was commissioned to paint the likeness that so attracted me that Harbour City morning. For it Anna dressed in black, clearly indicating she was in mourning. During the family’s 1840 visit her brother, John suddenly passed away, causing the Walkers to extend their stay. The red shawl featured, possibly an heirloom, is used to conceal yet another pregnancy, her fourteenth in fact. Alice was born back here early 1841, giving her and Thomas four sons and ten daughters – what a brood! What does that say about their marriage? They were a productive pair, no doubt, but that wasn’t unusual for those times.

As to whom actually outlaid the funds for a portrait is unknown. Thomas certainly commissioned it, but maybe her parents paid for it. A son just gone, a daughter about to travel back to a faraway place with some of their grandchildren, they had reason. Their portraits were also commissioned from the same painter, as well as one of their eldest boy and heir.

We also know something of the artist himself. Felton arrived on Australian soil in 1839, quickly staging his first exhibition in the following year to drum up business, coinciding with the Walkers time in Sydney. Painting was, for him, initially a sideline to his main work as a surgeon, but he obviously hoped to develop it into another source of income. He also opened a shop in George Street to further advertise his gifts.

Back to the present, there was another Felton portrait on display that morning that is also worthy of mention. The sitter was a fair amount younger than Anna and I would have thought little of it till I read the tale associated with it on the computer screen. 21 year old Sophia Stratham O’Brien never sat for her likeness from Felton. We suspect his first contact with her was in his other capacity.

sophia stratham o_brien

She was part of the artist’s 1841 showing in Sydney, but the young lady herself had already been dead some six months. Perhaps Felton was the officiating doctor at her death. He then would have taken a cast of her face and with the assistance of an engraving, said to closely resemble her, put together the image we see framed today. In part, it is similar in structure to a well known painting he’d done of another young woman, Queen Victoria, which was, for a while, the talk of the town. In the days before photography became widespread, his work was the family’s lasting memory of a daughter taken well before her time. Poignant.

Death, sadly, came early to Felton too. Only four years after his arrival he passed away in unknown circumstances.

Again, returning to Anna. What of the question that exercised my mind for some time after the viewing? Just who was it she reminded me of during my time spent at the State Library of New South Wales? I thought and thought and then I twigged – Lady Edith Crawley.

edith100"The Leftovers" New York Premiere - Arrivals

Many, including myself, miss Downton – although there is a movie version, I believe, on its way, primed for release later this year. The middle daughter was always my favourite. Not as beautiful, in the customary way, as the sisters on either side, she was, for a while, quite a shrinking violet. But when she came into her own, in later seasons, she underwent, for her times, a most unorthodox transition. To me the resemblance to the actress who played her, Laura Carmichael, seemed uncanny. Then, one morning in the bath, I dismissed her, replacing her with Janel Moloney, who, as Anna Moss, had to wait to the very final episode of all those seasons of ‘The West Wing’ to get her man. Janel or Laura? I’m none the wiser now, but something about that portrait did a déjà vu on me.

Am I slightly bonkers?

Paintings from the Collection, State

Nagle and the Strumpet

Portsmouth 1804

He informs me he’s had hundreds, but you can’t tell with him. You name any port, he’s had a rumpy-tumpy there. Give me a port and I’ll tell you a fine story of an abedding, he says. He gets that silly grin on his face and you think he’s telling pork pies. But who knows? It could be true. But he tells such tales – and so many. Could he have really done all that? But I give him this. He knows how to treat a woman. He’s gentle, he is. If I am anything to go by all those poor lasses; all those whores, harlots and strumpets he’s fadoodled with, wouldn’t have had it so bad. He takes his time, tries to give pleasure as well as take. I have rightly become attached to him – and I don’t say that lightly. But he’s a restless soul, I know that for a fact.

And he’s different. He sticks out. In part it’s because he dresses like a toff – you’d be thinking he was gentry. He brags he’s just not any common seaman. His waistcoats, best britches and silk jackets – you’d believe he was a dandy in the king’s court. And you can tell he’s from far away by the way he says stuff to me; to everyone when he’s in a tavern in his cups or chatting with the girls downstairs. He has a funny way of saying it – and he looks at you all queer-like when you say you don’t get his drift. Took him a while to tell me about where he came from – almost as if he was scared of saying it. And it’s quite a story, I can tell you.

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I first laid eyes and bedded with him back in ‘94 or 5. That’s when I found out he had his letters. He’d scribe me notes to tell me when he’d be visiting my premises and have a boy deliver them. There’d be a verse or two on them most likely. But they’d make you blush, some of what he wrote with me in mind. What he planned to do with me. How good I’d feel after the business. But he was caring, caressing till he made me quiver. The others were mostly a rough and ready bunch until I worked my way up a bit, even if, in the main, they meant a girl no harm. No, you don’t meet many sailors who can put words together so tidily like him.

And now he’s here in Portsmouth. He’s took leave of his last ship a month or so ago and he’s been visiting my premises – well, in truth visiting me, a couple of times a week. He keeps me busy, he does, what with me trying to keep things orderly and making sure my girls are clean, if you know what I mean. I insist they must be fresh after each and every shaking of the sheets, ready and respectful for the next customer. And I teach them well – how to dress, with just enough showing to interest any gentleman who comes along. These days I don’t open my doors to sailors and the like. Just Jacob, for, you see, I know him from our time together in India. I run a classy establishment now, I do. The lasses I have, they’re young and very well skilled. They are very comely to the eye and most have all their teeth.

One of those girls picked him up in a tavern in the town and bought him here, fooled by the cut of his jib. Once he laid eyes on me, though, he was no longer interested in her. Not one little bit. He remembered me. He remembered me very well. He only wants me. He tells me, the devil, that there’s nobody as well versed as I. That I know his tastes to the letter. And I am happy for him to have his way with me. He is very generous – always has been. And he treats me right. Considerate-like. He says he likes my ways and it doesn’t worry him that I’m carrying a bit of lard these days. Reckons it adds to his desire for me. But he’s getting on. With a twinkle in his eye he tells me he’s only three score-something in years. He doesn’t rightly remember. But I reckon he’s more than that. I have to work on his todger a bit these days – not like back when we met up and had rumpy in India. But now the seas are free of that evil Bonaparte, he tells me he’s going back to the land of his birth. Back to what they now called the United States of America.

Can you believe he recalls when he first copped a gander at me – and I know it is no fib for he tells it right. I also well remember the day well. We’d been cooped on that wretched boat, the Lady Juliana. Bound for Botany Bay, it was nothing but a floating brothel. Most of us had been on the game one way or another before we were hauled before the assizes for our wrongdoings. Me, I stole a ring from an upper crust turd in an inn. Wasn’t even real gold, but I still got my seven years transportation. It could have been my neck I suppose, but now I count it as my lucky day as it turns out. On board that foul brig I quickly found my mark and I was on to him. He didn’t stand a chance once I gave him the eye and the smile I knew was one of my assets. I could tell he’d never met my like before and I was soon cosseted in his officer’s cabin. He was a bit of a pompous type in some ways, but he was kind. He made it clear if I gave him my favours he would look after me once we landed. I soon cottoned on that he was spoken for back home, but that didn’t matter. Where we were going was far, far away. He knew it. I knew it. But he said he could better me and we started with my letters. By the time our final Land Ho was on the horizon I had mastered them. Lieutenant William did right by me and while we were together I didn’t hussy around. I had my hopes for him in the end, I must admit, but it wasn’t to be.

lady juliana

The woebegone clods in Port Jackson the day we landed had been expecting a supply ship, not one full of wanton women on the make. Still victuals wasn’t the only thing they were starving for. Soon most of the lasses were accounted for by the men of the colony in one way or another, but Will made sure I weren’t one of them. We spent our first few nights together in a tent by the cove, but later he had a hut built, then a stone house for us. We were well set up and I thought I had enough of his heart to see us being there for quite a tidy time. But soon my soldier man reckoned he could see a life for himself in this new place with the kangaru and burning sun. But that meant bringing out his betrothed for the family honour. He was remorseful, but he had no option but to cut me loose. But he was thoughtful to the end. He was a good man. I owe him.

It was always lively reminiscing about our time in Sydney Town in the many nights Jacob and I have shared our bed. Jacob tells me he sailed to New Holland in the big fleet, landed in time to see the jack raised and he quickly made friends with the natives. He says that with that twinkle of his. I reckon he‘d be only interested in the female of those primitives. He spent time on Norfolk Island after his supply ship was wrecked on it’s shores. He saved a few lives and was rewarded with extra tots of rum for his troubles, he recalls with a chuckle.

He was there on the beach when the natives speared the guvnor. He boasts that he shot the savage that did it. The wound wasn’t fatal, but Jacob received an extra ration of grog for that deed too.

arthur-phillip

Once William had made his choice my time in the colony came to an end. Will understood himself enough to know that, while temptation awaited, he couldn’t help himself. He knew the guvnor wouldn’t turn a blind eye once he was wed. He arranged a berth on the next sailing ship out of Port Jackson, which just happened to be making a run to India for extra supplies for the commandant’s store. Why, he even shelled out for a maid, Moll, to accompany me.

Well, I only know one thing, and Molly didn’t take much to convince. We set up in Calcutta with Will’s funds. Soon we had a good passing trade with plenty of sails from foreign shores in port. We even hired some dusky locals to drop their saris as well for those who wanted a taste of the Oriental. Even then I had strict rules with the girls for I had plans of returning to England to set myself up there – but with a quality place and a quality brace of lassies better than just doxies.

It was back in Calcutta that I first laid myself out for Jacob. He was soon a regular while his ship was in port – and he always sought me out as he told me I was more his style than anyone else he had rolly-rolly with in the flesh markets of the world. Soon he was talking to me more respectfully and caressing me as well as expecting his own bits to be rubbed and cajoled. Sometimes Moll would join us and he’d need no cajoling then, but mostly it was he and me and we fitted together most satisfactorily. He would take me out on the town too. We ate in the curry houses. He always said he took as much spiciness in every which way he could.

HMS-Sirius

He loved telling tell his stories, he did, whether the audience was just me or with others crowded around, hanging off his every word. But to me and me alone, or so he said, he told how he came to have this strange way of speaking. Being raised in the Americas he was too cut off from places where you could pick up the King’s English and he’d had little schooling, just enough to know his letters and how to read them. When he was fifteen he told us that his father took him into battle against the redcoats, against us, at a place called Brandywine Creek. Just for my ears he told me he killed an Englishman too. And I could scarcely believe what he was saying. He then fought us at sea, was captured not once but twice – by us and the Frenchies. This was in the Indies. He told all who would listen about the slave girls there and how he caroused with then, but he told me alone that most of his time he was in chains until the French exchanged him for some of their own. And that’s how he ended up on a fleet of boats taking convicts like me to another new world. Taking my like to Botany Bay. What adventures! What an adventurer! All the high seas was his home. Back then I wondered what would become of him for I knew I was only a very little diversion for him.

Soon after his visit Moll and I parted ways She wanted to stay, I wanted to try my luck in Old Blighty – and my luck was top notch. It took a sweet bit of time, but money talks, so they say, even coin made by girls on their backs in India. I soon had a sponsor to share the costs and we set up here in Portsmouth – a classy place catering to the aristocracy and the snobs. And then Jacob finds his way here like a not-so-bad penny.

He’s still chirpy, but now and again there’s a sadness. He’s getting older and he’s not as twitchy as he once was; not so energetic in the boudoir. But I like that. We are not so young these days. Then one night he told me of the girl he loved – ‘a lively handsome girl in his eye’ was how he pictured her for me. They had two little ones, in Lisbon, but when he was at sea the fever took them – all three of them. He nearly lost himself, as he tells it. He said he made a vow never to allow himself to feel the same way about another lass. For the rest of his life it would be whores, harlots and strumpets. He resolved to be a free spirit, but it seemed to me he was half-hearted in saying it. It was then I saw and felt another side to Jacob. With me he ceased his boasting. He became quieter with his tales, listened to others more. He decided he would go home, home to the Americas.

May I speak freely? In truth that has hit me harder than I expected it would. These last weeks in Portsmouth he has come to mean more to me that just a regular johnny. I think he’s someone I could love, really love. I had that feeling for Will too – and look how that turned out. There’s more to our rumpy now, but tomorrow he sails back to family and god knows what. Back to where his funny words come from. But I’ll have my memories to warm the cockles. Not his boastful stories, but his gentleness in the bed chamber, his quiet words, his head pressed agin my breasts, his fingers gently stroking. He could melt my heart, Jacob Nagle. Tomorrow it will be business as usual, but I’ll go down to the docks, but I’ll have plenty of bosom showing, just to say to him that these mams and I will miss him.

*****

Jacob Nagle was an ordinary man who lived an extraordinary life.’

Combining the ‘Harlots’ of SBS tele fame, the sailor I read about at the ‘UNESCO Six’ exhibition put on by the State Library of NSW and the line from the Fellowship of First Fleeters website ‘...he voyaged to Madras and Calcutta where he met two convict women from Sydney who had established a brothel.’ came the basis for this scribing.

He, Jacob, intrigued me, but it was relatively easy to find information on him in the ether, not so the two prostitutes. There was nothing about how they made the move from the unknowns of Sydney Cove back to the relative knowns of a teeming Indian city so early in our nation’s history, so that aspect is my imagining.

Nagle wrote his memoirs in later life and historians reckon he got the details pretty accurate.

He frequented prostitutes, towards whom he acted charitably when he thought their case merited it.’

After Nagel left UK shores to return to the US he visited family members and discovered his parents had passed away. From that time he continued to serve on British and American merchantmen. He visited Central America, the West Indies again, China, Canada and other parts of his own country. He was shipwrecked once more, this time off the coast of Brazil – and he liked that country so much he remained there from 1811 till 1821. Was there another woman involved?

By 1824 he’d had enough of his nomadic lifestyle and returned back to his relatives, couch-surfing around them, often outstaying his welcome. The end came in Ohio on 1841.

During his life he had ‘…suffered severely from scurvy, felt the lash on his back, saw men killed in battle and executed, He was robbed and cheated of his money...’ An extraordinary life indeed.

journal

Jacob Nagle’s original journal

Fellowship of First Fleeters account of Jacob Nagle = http://www.fellowshipfirstfleeters.org.au/jacobnagle.

Mothers Day with Joe

Joe played his first test against the touring English and visited their shores four times. In all he played thirty-one tests against our old cricketing foe. He captained his country in eighteen of those. It took Bradman to lead the Australian XI more times to that point. He, Joe, was a thick set man in the Boon tradition and also mightily powerful with the bat. He was courageous against speed in those unhelmeted times, could defend with stoicism and build an innings by slow aggregation. He figured in some mighty stands. But, when it called for it, he could swashbuckle his way to a ton in the blink of an eye. He once held the record for the fastest century against the Poms. He also took on the South Africans once they came into the test fold.

My lovely Leigh and I, for various reasons, did not travel north this year to celebrate Mothers Day with our wonderful Mums, but nonetheless we wanted to do something to mark the day, something a little different perhaps – something we normally wouldn’t do. In the lead up to it Leigh saw an ad, I readily agreed and she made a booking.

Joe was born at Glen Ormond in South Australia, the son of a well-to-do merchant. He attended the Prince Alfred College in that state’s capital, quickly demonstrating his prowess with the willow. He once set a schoolboy record, scoring 252 against a neighbouring educational institution. He also was proficient at the native game, playing footy at a high level. After his school years he moved on to an agricultural college, before managing one of the family’s wheat farms. Later he returned to Adelaide to marry and open a sports store on Rundle Street. His father, John, saw his business potential and started to groom him to take over the family firm and was not happy when his son was selected to play his sport at the highest level for South Australia. Over time his wife, Alice, gave him ten sons and five daughters so Joe was soon to have trouble balancing his life between representative cricket, family and business. Could he make a go of it in all three arenas? Only time would tell.

The journey on that most recent of Mothers Days was only a short one, just into the nearby suburb of Claremont. The location of our repast was to be an elegant mansion that was once, before the area became built up, the most dominant feature on the landscape for miles. Now it is largely hidden from view of the major thoroughfares. A chocolate factory is now the feature most commonly associated with Claremont, but once upon a time it was this house. A recent benefactor had lovingly bought the building back to life as in previous decades it had fallen into decrepitude. It is now open to the public for tours, high teas and special occasion functions such as ours.

To start with his sporting passion won out for Joe, but the time away from family weighed heavily. Then his father pulled the mat right out from under him. John purchased a large property and informed his son he was to manage it. Joe retired from cricket and followed his old man’s orders. But his country needed him and he was soon back in whites, succumbing to pressure to take over the national side as captain. He tried to battle on in that role for a few more years, but age and weariness caught up with him. He was doing too much and had to slow down, seeing him give away the game at the highest level to return to his holdings and his ever growing family. Part of the trouble was where his father’s land was situated – almost in the middle of Tasmania, just outside Oatlands.

Claremont House was radiant in the dusk as we arrived. Entering, we were impressed by the capability of the restorers who had taken it back to something akin to how it must have looked in its heyday. On its originally prominent site it began life, around 1840, as a four-roomed Georgian home, gradually morphing into its present day form as a mansion in the Italianate style. The land it was established on was once owned by another iconic figure, one of the founders of Melbourne, John Pascoe Fawkner. He put it up for sale in 1826 for it to be purchased by another mover and shaker of those early days in the colony, Henry Bilton. He built the first structures on site, including the cottage, by 1840 transforming it into a substantial house of rendered brick. Fast forward to 1858 and Bilton had increased his land holdings around it to 350 acres. Being childless, on his death in 1889, the land was sub-divided and sold off. Parliamentarian Frank Bond became the new owner of the house itself, adding extra rooms to his Claremont edifice and constructing its tower. Twenty-one year old Kathleen Brook purchased the property in 1911and with her wealth it soon became a centre of the local social scene for the well-to-do.

Stuck in the middle of Tassie, Joe was far away from any substantial social scene, something Alice probably would have felt quite keenly. But being in that part of the world had some advantages for her husband. He found a new passion – politics, initially throwing himself into the various farming associations whose function it was to gain better deals for the man on the land. But Alice was hankering for a more urbane existence and it was her that saw an advertisement in the press for a substantial house to house a substantial family by the Derwent, not too far out of Hobart. It was also right on the road north to Stonehenge, their Midlands residence. Perfect. She quickly purchased it on Joe’s behalf and they moved in in 1920. And soon Joe started to set his sights on taking his political ambition one step further. He became the MLC for Cambridge in ’21 and served that electorate in the Legislative Council until 1941.

I wouldn’t rave about the tucker, but there was plenty of it, being a buffet – and it was palatable enough. But it was the plush surrounds, on that second Sunday in May, that really appealed. The food was being served in a large room dominated by an expansive billiard table. And on this was arranged all sorts of memorabilia that fascinated this diner, including from Joe’s tenure at the stately home. Amongst it was a plethora of photos from his time as a cricketer, including a snap of him arm in arm with the great WG, as well as one of the man he called his ‘white-haired boy’, Victor Trumper. I was so engaged I almost totally forgot about my stomach and the gorgeous date waiting for me back at our table. Also featured, from more recent times, was an image of the current owner with Dame Helen Mirren.

Along with politics the former cricketer was partial to automobiles, converting the coaching house to hold his collection of six expensive models. Sadly, though, time marches on and with his children grown up and largely dispersed, the place became too onerous for the ageing couple to manage. He sold it to the Red Cross in 1940 to be used as a convalescent home for the war wounded.

It was a delightful evening at Claremont House for Leigh and I, well worth the cost of the meal for all that history. My lady has vowed to return to partake of the tour and high tea and I would encourage any visitors to our fair city to do the same.

Joe Darling CBE saw his later years sadly mired in controversy as he dared to take on the might of the Forestry Department whose practices, back in the day, were every bit as dubious as they have been in a more recent era. He accused the minister and some officials of taking bribes and demanded a royal commission. The evidence he presented was so compelling that this was finally granted – something that did not earn him friends, but served to demonstrate the man himself hadn’t changed much from his days leading our nation on the cricketing fields of the world. He won out in the end, but did not live to see the outcome, passing on in 1946. He was the last surviving member of the soon to be federated nation’s touring party of 1896, dying only thirteen days later than fellow Tasmanian tourist of that team, mate and local parliamentarian CJ Eady. Joe is buried at Cornelian Bay. I wonder what the great man would have made of twenty/twenty, IPA and dare I say it, the current ball-tampering farce? I daresay he’d turn in his grave by the river.

Claremont House website = http://claremonthouse.com.au/

Anzac Morn

On this Anzac Day morning I think and I remember. I remember my father, long passed, who fought for his country far away from home in the war against Hitler and Japan. I think of my brother-in-law who went to an ultimately unpopular conflict and had to wait so long for the recognition he and his comrades deserved. I spend a little time considering the fact that my sister’s and his son who, in the era of Iraq, Afghanistan and terrorism, was also bravely prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice if called upon. Three courageous men I am proud to call family. And, this morning, I think back further of the two shots in anger that bought a war very close to home.

On Sunday mornings it has been my habit, of late, to venture to Northgate to collect the papers and then to mosey up to Banjos to peruse them over a flat white and date scones. The Sunday just past, in doing so, I sidetracked to a photographic display the shopping centre had set up to commemorate all those Aussies who were prepared to sail to war zones worldwide. The selection of images concentrated on, not our troops at war, but the home front. There were servicemen preparing to depart, parades and their return. It focused on the Boer War and the two great conflicts of last century and it focused on Tassie. There were men and women – soldiers, sailors and aviators.

My eyes were drawn to the World War 1 images, particularly those showing aspects of the preparatory training the men underwent at Claremont Camp, established where Cadburys is now sited. It was set up when it became clear that the regular facility at Brighton couldn’t cope with the numbers required. That is just up the road from our abode by the river and Claremont Village is where we regularly travel to for mail, groceries and newspapers. I looked at the faces of the men at this training ground and wondered if any of them had been responsible for those shots on another morning on the little island, off the coast, that Leigh and I had so recently visited.

It was a special three days Leigh treated me to on Bruny Island. There is much to attract the visitor there – it’s scenery, tucker and wildlife for example. But there also is its history. It was the latter that my mind goes to as I sit by the river this Anzac morn, looking out over the Derwent. For, on a small patch of Bruny, a war came to Southern Tasmania.

During those days, just across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel from here, we visited the remaining buildings of the old quarantine station. Built in an isolated spot, for obvious reasons, near Barnes Bay back in the 1880s. It was at its peak during the horrendous flu pandemic that swept the world immediately after the Great War. All Tasmanian troops, returning from various fronts, had to spend a week at the station to ensure that they were virus free before they could sail on up the Derwent and home. But the most interesting tale, for me, from its years of existence, occurred during he 1914 to 1918 war when perhaps the only shots fired in anger on local soil at the ‘enemy’ happened.

Now, as we know from the recent excellent ABC series on General Monash (whose forebears had been Monasch), anyone with a German sounding name or background could be interned, such was the outrage at the actions of the Hun during the early days of the call to arms. Some bright spark down here in a governmental authority decided that the station on Bruny Island would be the ideal place to house these poor souls, suspected to be aliens, given it was isolated, yet within easy sea reach from Hobart. Somewhere between 50 to 75 such men were sent to the island during this period, including 41 German seamen who had the misfortune of being docked at Port Cygnet when the news came through that Britain, therefore Australia, was at war with Germany. It’s a lovely tale that, on the journey from there to Hobart on the now commandeered SS Oberhausen, the ship’s grog supplies were liberated from a locked storeroom and by the time the city was reached, both crew and captors were right royally inebriated.

By February 1915 the Quarantine Station was housing a range of presumed unsuitables, including the now compulsorily sober sailors. They were put to such tasks as tilling the soil, building wooden huts and erecting a shop to spend their meagre allowances at. Of course ‘no ales or spirituous liquor’ were for sale. The semi-prisoners could, though, take a boat out from shore to fish to supplement rations. But overall the men were bored out of their brains in such a nothing location, as beautiful as it may look to the eye. By July they’d had enough. And when their miniscule wages failed to arrive and they had nothing to spend at the shop retailing their small luxuries, they decided to down tools and go on strike.

The head guy at the camp put in a call to his superiors in Hobart. He had witnessed the sentry on duty being pelted with rocks and the mob refusing to return to barracks. A platoon training at Claremont were transported to the docks, shoved on a ship and waved farewell to go to Bruny to face the break out.

The only record of proceedings I could find on-line reflected the material on view at the little museum where these events took place over a hundred years ago now. It was in the form of a letter from a soldier in the party, a Ray Searle, written to his mother. This account is taken from his missive.

As the troops approached landfall they were ordered to fix bayonets. In reality it was all over in minutes. As the men in uniform were landing a warning shot was ordered to demonstrate they meant business. The armed troops then located all the detainees and frog-marched them down to the beach. Six of the malcontents were arrested and the rest escorted to their cabins.

However the thought of his freedom being again restricted was too much for one of the Germans. He (Searle describes him as a big man) decided to do a runner and he took to the bush. One of the party took aim at him and fired. There is no record of whether the shot hit its target or what happened to the largish wannabe escapee. And that was the end of it.

By the end of 1915 the Federal Government at last got their act together and took over from the states the responsibility of housing all internees. Those at the small facility on North Bruny were sent off across Bass Strait to a much larger one to sit out the war. Apart from the sailors, most had lived quietly and happily in Tassie for up to thirty-five years, yet were still considered a threat – even if many similar, such as Monash, were serving and fighting their former countrymen. Their war, thought there is no doubt, was much better than for most poor sods on the Western Front – but still their fate was so ridiculous and lacking in logic, let alone humanity.

On this Anzac Day morning I awoke to birdsong on my bedside radio. I had opened my eyes and ears to the live broadcast of the dawn service from the nation’s capital; in fact, to the minute’s silence between the Last Post and Reveille (which is French for, appropriately, to wake up). Except, during that minute, it was anything but silent. It seemed all the birds of Canberra had gathered to send off their own gorgeous tribute to the fallen. I wonder if the glorious bird life of Bruny gave any comfort to the men cooped up there during those months. With its honeyeaters, robins, firetails and pardalotes; as well as its water fowl, parrots, raptors and avians of the sea, it is an ornithologist’s paradise. It certainly wasn’t that for the men there, but maybe there could have been some positive memories despite the stupidity of war.
Lest We Forget.

Anzac Ada

To be quite honest, she hadn’t thought about home. She had, on all her tours, been amazed at how the local people, though, still thought of England as home – even when most of them had never visited the place, nor were ever likely to. She wondered, as she braced herself against the ship’s rails, peering out over the grey Tasman Sea, if that tie would ever break – the tie that linked her Australians to the land of their forebears. It was only now; now that she could see an end to this latest foray to the antipodes, that she discerned the first twinge of homesickness. There was still much to do before the long and sometimes arduous ocean trip back to Britain. There were her return dates in South Africa to negotiate – but that place never seemed as far away from home and hearth as here.

Part of her loved escaping the winter to the warmer climes of these southern latitudes. And she had to be truthful and admit she was relieved to be away from the close proximity of the war. She felt safer here. The locals didn’t seem as weighed down by it all as back home. She could see the same burden of loss all about, but it seemed to settle with a lighter weight in the colonies. She still referred to them as that, although she knew she’d would never call them this in public. The war had taken too many of the Australian and New Zealand boys she championed. She supposed the conflict would eventually cease, but it was a devilishly long time in coming. She was proud to carry the moniker Anzac Ada, proud of the adulation that had followed her everywhere, on all her trips and this trip in particular.

But, she pondered, in that early morning gloom, how long would this last. Her best years, she assumed, were behind her now and her looks were fading. And she presumed with that she would have to say goodbye to fame and all the rapture she received from her devoted followers. They were mainly men, she had to admit. She knew there were women who were jealous of the hold she attained over their husbands, but really, they had nothing to fear from her.

She had seen the terrible results of the war. She had seen what the war could do to a human body, firstly in Egypt, later in hospitals all over England and even in Melbourne and Sydney. Terrible, just terrible. But seeing it all resolved her. She stiffened her back, rolled up her sleeves and searched around for a cause. She recalled her pre-war tours and the revelation came to her. So many from the Empire had given their lives for Mother England. That would be the focus. And so it had come to pass. She lost count of how much she had raised. That wasn’t the point. It was a small thing compared to their sacrifice. Donations received on her tours largely went to helping the wounded Anzac lads back in hospitals in England. She was also involved with the London Anzac Buffet; that providing warmth, companionship and food for recovering troops and those on leave. She was proud that her efforts had kept it going when it seemed as if, at one stage, it would have to close for lack of funds. She fondly drew up a memory from her last tour when there was a matinee concert for over a thousand returned boys at the Tivoli in Sydney – a triumph. How they cheered her singing and skits. The adulation knew no bounds. Even on board this very boat, on her last trip, she had also given a concert, but this time around she was being a little kinder to herself and taken it easier. She had been doing such acts for over three years now.

This time around she had included an island that seemed as far away from England as it could possibly be. Yet, if anything, it was, of all the places she’d been, perhaps the one that most reminded her of home. Maybe that was the reason for the mild melancholy that seemed to be enveloping her this morn. The island had a more variable climate than its mainland. The countryside was reminiscent, in parts, of the rural landscape she was so used to from the counties of own country. But, most particularly, it was that theatre in the little capital city that struck her. She was told it was the oldest in the Commonwealth. She almost broke down, when, after the ovation at her final performance there, she was presented with souvenirs of the occasion. A moving picture camera recorded that for posterity. Yet, even from there, the lads were dying in the trenches. She was so moved by the beauty of the place – the mountain that kept watch over the premier city, the hospitality that greeted her everywhere and the wildness of the bush, as the locals called the forested regions. She recalled her train trip to the sister city in the north, across a countryside so burnished by the sun, as it rarely was in the British Isles. She cheerily noted that, at every hamlet en route, small crowds had gathered to cheer her passing. She dwelt for a while on the stop, at the halfway point, where she took refreshment in the station’s tea rooms. The villagers were prevented from coming in to watch her and her troupe take their fill of the luscious cream scones. Instead they gawped in from the windows, jostling for a view. Now, what was it’s name? It was in the tongue of the original native inhabitants. She was sure of that, such a strange appellation – starting with a P she thought. She knew the island had its historical dark side too – the decimation of those natives and the convict-days hell holes scattered around the place, as well, the economic sufferings during the straightened decade of the ’90s.

She smiled at the memory of her reception in the big northern town when she arrived – how there was a parade of motorised and horse-drawn transport, taking herself and her fellow performers around to her hotel and later on to the National Theatre where the shows were. Excited crowds lined the thoroughfares. A brass band accompanied them every step of the way. It was glorious. In the southern city she had been taken to a small zoo and shown a very strange animal – half tiger, half wolf it seemed. She had peered into the creature’s eyes and as she did so, a great and inexplicable sadness had come over her. Recalling that moment she gave an involuntary shiver. Then she felt an arm come around her shoulder. It jolted her momentarily from her reveries, but then she settled, realising it was only dear Wilf. She was snuggling in closer to his warm body when she noticed he was pointing to the horizon. A dun smudge could be discerned – New Zealand. ‘Bear up, dear one,’ he encouraged. ‘Another country awaits. When this is over we can both think about our return to Old Blighty.’ With that Anzac Ada took his arm and returned to their cabin to prepare for taking breakfast.

Ada Reeve, in fact, did return to Australia, although I could discover no evidence that she came back to Tasmania. Contrary to the above, her career continued on through the decades, both on stage and later in movies. She appeared in her last film, ‘A Passionate Stranger’, in 1957 at age 83; her farewell to the boards some three years previous. She passed in 1966, but made a television appearance in an early version of ‘This is Your Life’ in 1957 (this can be found on-line). As far as this country is concerned, she remained revered for some time as Anzac Ada before the collective memory of her faded. Some back then even called her ‘The Mother of the Diggers’. She visited again in 1922-24, 1926 and ’29 to ’35, even making films here. One was directed by Frank Thring. Reeve’s two daughters, Bessie and Goody, settled here.

Prior to the Great War Reeve was already a strong presence on the London stage. Born to two theatrical parents, she started off at very young age and gradually made her way up cast lists until she headlined. She had two marriages, the second being to Wilfred Cotton, a fellow actor who took on the role of her manager. Her first glimpse of these shores occurred under the auspices of JC Williamson, 1897-98. And she fell in love with us, as well as with South Africa, travelling constantly to those dominions during her long career. Her life wasn’t all beer and skittles. She nearly died of typhoid fever during a tour to Germany and suffered domestic violence at the hands of her first husband. But it was on stage that she reigned supreme. She was the mistress of innuendo, a suggestive gesture and a knowing wink. Men adored her.

And she in turn adored the Anzacs. Her home on the Isle of Wight became a convalescent facility for her Aussie and Kiwi boys and she raised thousands of pounds to improve their well-being whilst they were away from the front.

YouTube will provide you with her performances and some of her film roles. I first encountered her in a vivid blue dress on a card stand at TMAG, purchasing it, then delving into the ether to discover more about Ada and her link to our city’s Theatre Royal. And now it is the centenary of her triumphant stay on our island in the southern seas. Will anyone else remember that?

Ada Reeve performs – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYO37aH66Bk

 

This Abluting Life

Breakfast television largely passes me by. It’s not that I don’t like it, it is just that I’d rather start the day in a different fashion. I know in recent times, via the New Idea (I only take it for the recipes, puzzles and to pass on to a darling daughter who claims to love to read the celebrity false news), breakfast host Karl Stefanovic has millions of my fellow Australians almost breathless with each installment of his fascinating private life. I also know that the general consensus is that Auntie’s show, around the same time, is pretty good, but certainly doesn’t drag in the ratings like the two behemoths ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Today’. And thanks to my lovely mother and my lovely lady’s equally lovely daughter, both fans of the former, that show has entered my life.

So picture this. Not so long ago I was calmly sitting at my mother’s breakfast table, possibly reading or writing or puzzling over ‘That’s Life’, when some words emanated from the screen behind me, causing me to spin around, aghast and disbelieving.

Now I had no idea what the subject matter was. I did ask said mother – Nan to all – what was going on on the Koch-helmed show, but, as she wasn’t really concentrating on it, she couldn’t help me out. When I focused on what was beaming out I espied three ladies in a row, perched on a sofa, straight-backed like three parrots in incandescent plumage. They were going at it hammer and tongs, verbally, with much laughter and eye-rolling. They seemed to be competing with each other to be heard and whatever they were on about made little sense to me, but had Mr Koch mildly bemused by their squawkings. This trio of gaudy macaws (they are probably very, very lovely, sweet-natured ladies and I know I am being just a little bit naughty with my avian references) had Kochie’s co-host in stitches over the goings-on on the sofa and the inanities being uttered by the perky cockatiels holding the floor.

And the words that one of these anything but dun-coloured peahens uttered, causing me abruptly to choke on my morning coffee? Well, they were of great personal affront to my sensitivities and all because they dissed an important part of my morning routine. That is, I always have been; hopefully will continue to be until my dying day; a bathtub person. I have written before of my total aversion to taking a shower. I have an inability to understand why masses of humanity prefer to do so. What joy is there to be had standing under spurting drops when one can be immersed in scented, warm and sudsy water for half an hour or so. Once upon a time I planned my school day while I lolled in blissful comfort. These days, well, I ruminate on my humble scribblings. So, yes folks, I bathe in perfumed waters – never in anything, I hasten to add, that would cross the line into rose, lavender or other florals. I choose the more manly ones such as certain fruits – mango, coconut, pineapple, etc. At the moment I use the Original Source range, available at any chemist or supermarket. The labeling assures me they are 100% natural fragrances. My favourite is the mint and tea-tree option. Imagine, they pack 7,927 leaves of both into each bottle! How do I know? It tells you that on the container. Yep, it’s only the masculine smells that I wallow in, which brings me back to those three shrieking galahs – very comely ones admittedly, on David K’s settee that morning whilst I was up north. The words that I heard – and I have no idea which lorikeet espoused them – if you can imagine, were, ‘I have real problems with any man who takes a bath.’ And then, the person in question, went on to say that any fellow who does so has ‘…real issues.’ Issues with what, I wanted to know – but she didn’t elaborate.

So, dear reader, you will understand why I was mortified. All these years I’ve been broadcasting to the world around me about my morning ritual, with, particularly the female cohort thereof, probably thinking to themselves, ‘Gee, poor old Steve has real issues.’ Was the wagtail in question, on the tele, casting aspersions on my manhood? Am I less of a male than those hairy-chested showerers who are, presumably, able to go forth into the world scot-free of ‘issues’ due to their preference for getting under a shower rose? Oh dear. Oh dear.

Thinking about all this later (yes, in the bath – I refused to be shamed into taking a shower by the words of some know it all, strident bustard sitting on a couch), I wonder if she, that morning, realised the fine and outstanding history of the ceramic bathtub? A past that is far more worthy than that of johnny-come-lately the shower.

Baths, dear friends, have been around since the Bronze Age, whereas artificially produced showers, as opposed to standing under a waterfall or successfully shouting, ‘Send ‘er down Hughie.’, came later on. And remember, here, with the latter, we’re talking about standing in a cubicle with water raining down on one’s body through some form of plumbing. That came much later, with the Greeks, who had spray tepidly descending from above over naked bodies, much in the same way as some communal sporting facilities provide today. But still no cubicle. They were invented by William Feetham around 1810 – for cold water only. The fortunate had been luxuriating in warm baths from well before that.

I blame the French Army. In 1872 one François Merry Delabost ordered that bathing for soldiers would have to replaced by showering as a cost cutting method – thus commencing the modern trend towards the quick dousing of one’s body. Delabost had invented a newly devised apparatus for such purposes, thereby lining his own pockets in the process. Showers replaced baths, then, in prisons, followed on by boarding schools – thus adding more to the pain involved in the atrocious habit of sending young children away from home for their schooling – and by the 1920’s were in many US homes. The English, bless them, were slow to catch on. They only became common there in the ’60s. Americans are always in such a rush so quick showers suited their frenetic lifestyle. Now the water-scrooges play around with the size of the holes in shower roses and sternly recommend how long this form of ablution should take. They leave us, who prefer the older method, largely alone.

Yes, I know some claim the shower is more hygienic, but where is the bliss factor? And, having bathed all my life, I am still around and still, touch wood, healthy. In a bath a poor man can feel he’s as rich and as spoilt as the Kardashians. In a bath he/she can let one’s mind run rampant, just wallowing in the luxuriousness of the experience. We could even imagine ourselves back in the Middle Ages where servants would ply their masters with food and alcoholic beverages whilst in the tub. Or we could wander back to Roman times when scantily clad maidens would meet all needs for those bathing – just check out the recent television series ‘Spartacus’ for some eye-popping examples of this practice.

Of course, way back in the mists, most weren’t as scrupulous with their cleanliness as we have become. When Columbus returned from the New World he bought back news of the Taino people who bathed, to the shock of his gobsmacked audiences, daily. His Queen Isabella, for instance, had only taken to her bath twice in her life. The Tudor Queen Elizabeth was much more modern – she insisted on hopping into scented waters a couple of times a month. The Spanish Inquisition completely banned bathing, preferring to go smelly than indulge in habits associated with the sweeter smelling Jews and Muslims. Henry VIII bathed in musk of civet in order to alleviate his leg ulcers which were a right royal pain in the ass. Propaganda from the Republicans claimed Versailles was a filthy place, but it had running water for tubs since the time of Louis XV (1715-1774). By 1860 plumbed water was so common that baths, for the average person, no longer had to be portable and could be made of any material – in other words, like our own household essential.

Sadly though, I admit, it is sometimes necessary to take a shower. Nowadays, with travelling, unfortunately few hotel rooms now have a bath. Oh my unalloyed joy when I find I’ve booked one that does! New houses are finished without them – and old bathrooms are renovated, doing away with much pleasure, to be replaced by flashier showering facilities. My son and daughter-in-law have recently done this – but with what they have installed the showering experience in their abode is, well, maybe just a tiny bit joyful.

But, back to my ‘Sunrise’ shock. I do apologise to all the wonderful women that have and still do inhabit my life for being a man with such obvious issues. But, come hell or high water, there is no way I’ll forsake my lifelong indulgence. I’d rather have the issues – just tell me what they are. Please!

Ditzy Jenny and Rosie

She called it her funk. Some days were better than others. She was determined she wouldn’t let it beat her; it wasn’t in her nature. Not now anyhow. But, golly-gosh, it was hard. She’d tried topping herself once and found it definitely not to her liking – so she threw herself back into her charity work as a substitute – something she hoped the kids in her native Hungary would one day thank her for. It gave her a purpose. If only she could prevent herself dwelling on all that she had lost she felt she could make it through to the inevitable that lay up ahead. Dwelling on it, well, it only made her feel funkier – and if she gave into the bleakness, god knows where it would lead her to again. No more Irving, no more Jenny, thinking back to the occasions she nearly died. Why, sometimes she even thought of Harry, gone now for almost two decades. Harry, she knew, only had eyes for Miss Jenny – but she liked Harry a lot too. More than liked him, if she was honest with herself. That, at one time, made her appallingly green-eyed towards her Jen. That girl in turn dangled herself before and flirted outrageously with the man, but, despite his most becoming entreaties, usually revolving around money – money he couldn’t afford – she just would not commit. She, herself, would have been his in an instant had she been given the same chance. And, as to her cursed funks, she knew exactly the day they first came to her.

In a small way I was proud of myself. It was only a tiny win, this victory of sorts, in a game they try to play with us for reasons beyond me. I rarely watch programming on the commercial networks, apart from the footy and cricket. The ads are enough to drive me bananas and mainstream American television doesn’t do much for me, with the exception of the exceptional ‘This is Us’. There are a few Aussie staples, as well, we regularly commit to our hard drives to watch at our leisure – ‘House Husbands’, ‘800 Words’ and ‘Offspring’ for instance. I’ve witnessed my lovely lady, until the advent of our own T-Box, being regularly frustrated trying to follow some of her favourites on Ten, Nine and Seven. Shows would disappear without notice, not adhere to the tele-guide times or turn out to be repeats when a newly minted episode is advertised. Others would be shunted off to the subsidiary channels and often, trying to find them there, was like searching for a needle in a haystack. No wonder viewers are turning away from free-to-air in droves to other platforms. Occasionally, though, on these networks there would be a Brit show I’d be particularly keen to watch – the venerable ‘Downton’ being a case in point. Not that they would have dared tamper with that behemoth. But, unfortunately, that was not the case with ‘Mr Selfridge’. I really was partial to this show – and sure, the first couple of seasons rated well enough, for whichever network it was on, to keep it stationary with a regular time slot. But once Series 3 and 4 came along, with ratings presumably dropping or the need to find room for some of their crass reality dross, ‘Mr Selfridge’ disappeared from sight. Then it suddenly reappeared on one of the additional channels. There it would chop and change time-slots and days willy-nilly. It completely disappeared for a while, mid-season, only to, you guessed it, reemerge much later to finish off the remaining episodes. My victory was that I managed not to miss an episode – I persevered to catch every one, free-to-air. Of course I stacked them up on the hard drive so I didn’t have to sit through endless inane ad-breaks. But I had my victory over those pesky programmers who seem to make it their business to take every bit of enjoyment out of viewing their particular network by endlessly playing their little sport with any less than signature show. I didn’t succumb to the temptation of rushing off to JB’s to buy the final series or ask for it from rellies proficient at downloading from various maybe not quite legal sites. Yes, it’s a trifling thing, but it gave me a degree of satisfaction.

During her later decades she took to researching the special connections that exist between twins for, you see, she’d been born one of a pair. She had now survived her twin sister by a long shot. It was hard to imagine that, once upon a time, she could not have contemplated existing without her look-alike. It seemed, too, that her sister was of the same opinion. During their time in the spotlight her sibling had countless marriage proposals. The excuse to reject them was, invariably, ‘I couldn’t marry that man, sis! Have him take me away from you. No! No! No!’ The bond between the two of them was special but, back then, she wasn’t so aware of her feelings; she had no inkling her almost second sense concerning her twin was not commonplace. But she also knew that, whilst they were together, they offered the world something that was unique and something that was in high demand. For a lengthy period of time they had the planet at their feet, slavering for more. They were the chosen pair, dancing their way into the hearts of thousands – and breaking many of those same hearts. Men fawned after them on two continents; their ‘champagne and caviar’ lifestyle being broadcast to the world in the print media. Now she watched the Marilyn Monroes and the Elizabeth Taylors of her present day take on that mantle and be fêted globally. Her most melodramatic of sighs, back then, would have male pulses racing – these days the same would be considered the hammiest of acting. Nowadays men wanted so much more. She knew this as she kept an eye on the popular entertainment in the newspapers and magazines she took. Sometimes what she read made her blanch. It was an effrontery to her sensibilities the wanton titillation that was going on – in her very own city too. Even at their height, they would be out of their depth in modern times. She smiles wistfully as she recalled their era on Broadway; of the gay abandon of their frolics in Paris, Cannes and Biaritz – or wherever the glamour set hung out. And then, of course, there was Irving, the love of her life. He left her far too soon. But as well, for a time and well hidden, or so she thought, her heart, too, had belonged to Harry.

‘Mr Selfridge’ told me the tale of the founder of the eponymous department store and tracked its ups and downs from its genesis in 1909, through the Edwardian years, the Great War and into the Jazz Age. American Jeremy Piven played Gordon Selfridge across the four seasons; Australian actress Frances O’Connor his wife, Rose. There were many other characters I particularly enjoyed – Miss Mardle (Amanda Abbington), a self- made woman attempting to break glass ceilings; Mr Crabb (Ron Cook), the fastidious accountant who gave his heart and soul to his boss; the extremely odious Lord Loxley (Aidan McArdle) who hated Selfridge to his core and Mr Grove (Tim Goodman-Hall), the store executive with a tortured personal life. It was a great show – a period soapie the Brits do so well.

Rózsika and her identical twin sister, Janka, were born in Hungary on October 25, 1892. With their parents, Julius and Margaret, they migrated to the USA in 1905. As children they trained to be dancers, getting their first gigs, for small change, in the beer halls of NYC; debuting on the vaudeville circuit in 1909. They were soon hits, making their first foray into films in 1915. At their peak, in the US, they were pulling in $2000 a week, unheard of for those times.

After the war the sisters moved to France, purchasing a chateau as a base for their tours of the Continent. Their popularity kept them in plenty of coin and their crowning moment was an invitation to perform at the Moulin Rouge. They received $1200 a night for that!

Looking back, looking back. She was always looking back. It didn’t help her funk, she considered. She was almost a septuagenarian, but despite the dangers going back to those times, contrarily, her old face now creased into a smile. Memories.

It was sunny in the apartment. A few tipples had made her feel nostalgic. She could look back at Diamond Jim, surely, without coming over all funky. He was their early champion. Diamond Jim Bundy – now there was a hell of a man. Business man, financier, philanthropist (and it has to be said, glutton). He loved jewels, once loved the great Lillian Russell, too, but the instance the twins battered their eyelids at him, he loved them as well. He was in his last years then, but he regaled them with tales of how he once owned the first automobile in New York City, bragged about the huge meals that made him legendary and of his adoration of Miss Russell. He showered her sister, in particular, with gifts; from diamond rings to a Rolls Royce, presented in ribbons and bows. They were mere slips of in those days, not fully adults, having just turned twenty. But they played to his vanities and, boy, did they stir him up – they knew which side of the bread to butter. He was their sugar daddy and wanted nothing in return apart from their company.

As for their act, they were fairly chaste. They didn’t flaunt themselves on stage like the outrageous Josephine B and her ilk – no siree. They left it all up to the imagination of their audience. She knew that a wink with a few come hither posturings and beckonings could work magic on the male gender. And as for her sister, well, she was a little more provocative – but nothing tasteless, that’s for sure. No doubt the green genie would arise in the female dates out in the audience. But the menfolk adored them. They were a class act – nothing too tawdry. That was the way to win affection. Keep ’em guessing

One of the many aspects of Mr Selfridge I savoured was the introduction of actual historical figures into the show. There was Serge de Bolotoff, the Russian Prince. Selfridge was not happy when his precious daughter, Rosalie, fell in love with this chancer. Even if he was an aviation pioneer, he was also a notorious scamp. It was all sure to end in scandal and tears – and more than likely some monetary loss for her Pa. Edward VII visited his department store, as did Louis Blériot – it was all great publicity. Antarctic explorer Shackleton had a cameo and Anna Pavlova graced the first series with her presence, taking refreshments in the store’s tea room. Rose was her hostess who, by this stage, knew of the secret premises hubby kept in the city for his dalliances. For Selfridge these icons of his age, coming to his premises, was a masterstroke. Having the famous ballerina sip tea there, for instance, why, the papers were full of it for days. Later, in the same season, came Arthur Conan Doyle, at this stage of his life deeply into seances and talking with the dead. Mack Sennett visited the retailers, as well, in Season 2. In the episodes of the fourth and final offerings we find the great shopping magnate ageing and in danger of losing control of his empire, due to his extravagant ways. Rose was long gone and he was again being seduced by other temptresses.

In the Big Apple she often wondered, usually during her battles to prevent herself being submerged in the funk, if her life may have been easier if she had not been so keen to throw money around on the gambling tables of Europe. Sometimes it was from her own funds, not always being somebody else’s dosh. Those casinos and gambling clubs had been so much fun – but she could now do with some of what she frittered away, with so much panache and so little thought to the future, back in that era.

An element of the retail tycoon’s lifestyle was getting out of hand towards the end too. It was Selfridge’s own penchant for gambling. The London clubs had a hold over him too and gleefully fleeced him of his money. Just like that old woman sitting in a NYC apartment, decades into the future, he would be also adversely affected by the Wall Street Crash; it ending the good times for both. For Selfridge a new era was dawning, the shop’s colossal profits were in the past and now it was so wildly irresponsible of him to toss away his hard earned on the roll of a dice or fall of a card. He lived to a ripe old age – but he also died in penury.

Rózsika recalled that Diamond Jim, as well as showing them a fabulous time, frequently took them to the track, encouraging her and her twin to bet on the ponies. Of course he picked the horses and they were invariably, as well as mysteriously, first past the post. On their tours for Zeigfield and whilst on the continent, their various beaux would always provide the wherewithal to have a flutter. The great casinos of Biarritz and the Riviera became their domain. She recalled a frequent companion, back then, by the name of David. He liked a good time and had a habit of bobbing up wherever they were. They became fond of him for a while. She knew there was much speculation in their circle as to whether it was all just coincidental – or was he, in fact, bedding one or the other, or both. For her part, she knew his minders never allowed him too much leeway for things to get ‘serious’, but she couldn’t vouch for her sister. She had her suspicions but kept stum. She was most taken back when, fifteen years down the track, his retinue failed to keep him away from a certain Mrs Wallis Simpson.

There were others – of course there were others. King Alfonso of Spain was always hanging around as if he didn’t have a country to rule. She remembers such gay fun with the Aga Khan and Prince Esterhazy of Hungary. She recalled the night when Janka took all comers for around half a mil – in today’s money, mind you, at chermin de fer. That was the best night, but they splurged and it was soon gone. She had a couple of great evenings at the tables too, surrounded by all the glitterati – a pretty vacuous lot, she now realises, in hindsight. They were so keen to help her spend her winnings too. Well, a girl had to be popular. But her sister had the bug worse than she did and once Harry came on the scene, the rot really started to set in.

When the two look alike sisters swept into Season 4 of ‘Mr S’ I thought that these good times gals were entirely fictional. I’d never heard of them, this pair of almost identical twins – Jenny and Rosie. But, as is usual these days with such matters, I was on-line and came across an old sepia image of a pair of showgirls and thought nothing of it until I espied the appellation underneath – ‘The Dolly Sisters’. As it turned out, from my later reading of other info in the ether on the sisters, the series followed historical fact pretty closely. Harry Selfridge – yes, everyone called him Harry – was smitten. They were marvellous creatures, these girls. They were the epitome of Roaring Twenties flappers – and so willful, so glossy. They were flirtatious; always teasing of what could, just might, happen if he wooed hard enough – but he was never able to quite grasp the nettle and push the point for fear of losing them. Or losing Jenny. She was the one. She was the one he had his eye on. She was the one, he figured, most likely to fall to his charms; his persistence; his money. But deep down he knew he was just another old man throwing away his ever decreasing resources on them, providing the means to keep the girls in the lifestyle they didn’t want to let go of. And nor did he. But at 69, though, Harry was well past it. He soon discovered he was in no physical condition to keep up. But the poor guy was in love and Jenny, the habitual gambler of other people’s wealth, had to be satisfied.

Selfridge’s owner could often be found sitting behind Jenny (in the tele series played by Zoe Richards – Emma Hamilton was Rosie), peeling off notes in large amounts each time she ran out. He bankrolled her for a decade or more, covered her in expensive jewelry and she had carte blanche in the London store. Some have even speculated it was Jenny Dolly, more than anyone else, who ruined it all for him. But despite all his largesse; despite all his entreaties; she refused to wed him.

From the tele-series Mr Selfridge’ – the Dolly Sisters

Back then, though, Jenny’s survivor, sitting in a ray of sunshine as the dust motes rose in her NYC apartment, reflected she would have had Harry in a heartbeat. Maybe she could have influenced the ultimate outcome. After all, she was capable of restraining her own extravagance – or that’s how she remembered it. But then there was Irving. He became the real love of her life. How she misses him so terribly now. Just when she thought the zing was disappearing, along he came and reinstated all her old zest for life in the fast lane. Admittedly, she’d been to the altar twice before – but those marriages hardly appeared on her radar anymore. Those men were mere triflings compared to Irving. She was initially drawn to him because, like Harry, he was a retail baron, owning a department store in Chicago. It was he who took her away from Jenny to his home in Illinois. Eventually she found her quieter life, a little way out of the Windy City, suited her.

She’d had her near death experience in ’28, spending a great deal of time in hospital until recovery. At one stage they were packing ice around her to keep her going, so high was her fever. Appendicitis it was – a terrible, terrible time for her. She knew she’d never return to the stage after that. And around that time she also received word that her sister’s behaviour was becoming more and more erratic. Jenny had adopted two homeless orphans from Budapest, but really her sister was in no condition to adequately look after them. Rosie guessed their sole purpose was to keep her company – that she was incredibly lonely. The ’29 crash hit her twin hard, then, on top of it all, she got herself into trouble with the French authorities over some jewelry. Rosie felt great remorse over her own actions, or lack of them, on behalf of her sister. She was so smitten with Irving, so comfortable in her own existence and still not entirely well, so she didn’t speed to the rescue. She was too blinkered to see how Jenny was struggling. Then the silly girl became mixed up with that gangster fellow. He was seven years younger and saw Jen as a ticket to something or other. Her unsettled sister should have known better. The ravages of time were catching up with Jen, with some assistance. Her face, her once beautiful face! It was that that took Jenny to the brink more than any other factor Rosie, looking back, assumed. The losing of her looks. It was enough that she was getting old – but it must have been so tough to do so with a shredded face from that shocking accident. That idiot man was driving too fast. Rosie shook with sobs over her guilt – but decided she had better set to and pull herself together or the funk would settle back in and she’d be down in the abyss for days. She shouldn’t think of her sister’s final days, but as the light dimmed in her abode, it was difficult not to. It was that invitation, or lack of it, that was the final nail in the coffin for Jenny. That long ago holiday weekend, with war looming, back in ’41, Jenny should have been with her and Irving. She could picture her sister waiting and waiting to be invited across to them in the Mid-west, but she waited in vain. Rosie never sent it. But then they had other matters on their mind. Irving’s business was starting to appear if it would go the same way as Harry’s, so just looking at that face would be so hard to take at a time when Rosie needed to be carefree and loving for her man. Oh dear! Oh dear! When it was obvious Rosie had now disowned her dear Jenny took the sash from her dressing gown and hung herself in her own living room. Her poor Janka. Her poor, poor Jenny……

Rosie always attributed her attacks of the funk to her sister’s unimaginable demise on that day as another great conflict loomed. Irving died in 1943 of a heart attack – he was only 53. They were together for only eleven years. After that Rosie sank from public view. She devoted her remaining years to her charitable work, mainly to do with the children of her native land. She too, when she was at her wit’s end due to the funk, attempted suicide, but she lived on till 1970 when she passed, aged 77. Of course the television series in which, for a while, she was a character, was still decades ahead. But she did live to see the Dolly Sisters come to the big screen in an eponymous 1945 movie. The soldiers’ sweetheart, Betty Grable played her sister, June Haver was Rosie. It played out as a musical comedy and was quite forgettable.

The old lady collected up her memories on this day as the sun was about to set on her own existence. Razzle dazzle, she ruminated, can only count for so much. Now she was at last aligned with her sister’s dark thoughts as she battled away against the funk in her own living quarters. She’d beaten them off each time though. They didn’t completely overwhelm her. But the thoughts of Harry, of Irving and the good she would still do will keep her going for a little while yet. Good thoughts and doing good. If it were only so simple. Jenny often said, ‘Pinch me, I’m dreaming.’ during those good times when they were the toast of New York, London and Paris. Maybe that was all it was – just a dream.

Rosie and Irving

YouTube trailer for ‘Mr Selfridge = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHt3Xi2rkfE

Bill and the Two Hoofers

In another age I loved Jerry Jeff Walker – firstly because of his music and secondly, the fact he was the man who drove Jimmy Buffett to Key West to commence my favourite songster’s climb to fame. But that, my friends. is another story – stay tuned for ‘Jimmy and Jerry’ perhaps. This one is a tale of connections, real and presumed. I love connections.

If Jerry Jeff is known at all it is usually on the back of a single song he put together, ‘Mr Bojangles’. Now this tune is presumed to be the tale of a legendary dancer, but really it’s genesis is much more complicated than that – a saga again for another time. But we’re getting closer to the nub of this one.

As with Jerry Jeff, for most Bill ‘Mr Bojangles’ Robinson has only one major claim to fame, although he is deserving of being remembered for so much more. He is the black tap-dancer who shared equal billing with Shirley Temple in a dance routine for a film, ‘The Little Colonel’ (1935). Fewer would know how ground-breaking this was. With this movie he became the first black American to share the lead in an inter-racial dance scene for a Hollywood film. But Bill Robinson was ahead of the times in so many more ways than just that and is worth checking out for his whole story, easily available in the ether, if you have the time.

Bill, though, is only the connector in this piece which began life when my beautiful, writerly daughter sent me a link to a site with the appellation of ‘The Most Influential Women You’ve Never Heard Of”. One so listed, in particular, caught my attention and gave me the start to find these interconnections, real or possible.

She was born in 1880. She died this year.

The first ‘she’ was the woman on that list Katie pointed in my direction – Aida Overton Walker. So what link did she have with Mr Robinson? Well, nothing that I could directly discern through research, but logically, for reasons that will become clear, there would have been something. To start with, they were both black and vaudevillian performers. Bill R commenced his career in in 1886, when he was a mere stripling of nine. He toured constantly from that point on, achieving ever increasing fame for his dancing skills as he went, at least with Afro-American audiences. It would seem unlikely that their paths did not cross. Bill lived a long life, dying in 1949, Aida was sadly not so fortunate. She was, though, the most famous performer of her race in the fist decades of the last century. Bill would have certainly known of her, perhaps even been inspired by her breaking of glass ceilings back in their day. And, it pleases me to think they may have trodden the boards together too.

Aida Overton entered the world in 1880. She was Virginian, but grew up in NYC and just like Bill, commenced her career young, touring with Black Patti’s Troubadours in the chorus line. She soon teamed up with a pair of comedians, Bert Williams and George Walker. She married the latter in 1899. By this stage the two men were moving into the production side of the vaudeville circuit, an entertainment form starting to enter a golden period in the States. Walker saw to it that Aida quickly became their star attraction and greatest asset, especially once her skill as a choreographer came to the fore.

In 1900 came her first smash hit – yes, they also had them back then – with the ditty ‘Miss Hannah from Savannah’. She was also prominent in the duo’s productions such as ‘Sons of Ham’, ‘In Dahomey’ and ‘Bandana Land’ – snappy titles, aren’t they? But husband George took ill in 1909, passing two years later. At that time the Boston Globe described George, Bert and Aida as ‘…the most popular trio of coloured actors in the world.’

But, after her hubby’s demise she, as an independent woman, continued her climb into the stratosphere of popular entertainment. By now she was even performing to white audiences, previously unheard of – particularly with her take on ‘Salome’. In other hands this was a very risque dance. White hoofers had even morphed it into the more notorious ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’. But, for Walker, there were no scanty costumes or hints of the nudity that lay beneath. She knew, in the eyes of whites, that would confirm their regard of negro women as being ‘immoral and over-sexed’. To ape the erotic interpretations of ‘Salome’ would only encourage that notion. In the years leading up to World War One she was now sharing the stage with Caucasian dancers and the punters flocked to see her do so, despite the lack of titillation on her part. She became the first black dancer to be invited to perform at many a theatre with a whites only audience.

Due to her prominence, Aida found herself able to advance the cause of the downtrodden of her race, performing many benefits for her people, still treated as little better than slaves. But the constant touring was taking its toll and she died suddenly, in New York, of kidney failure in 1914. Laudatory obituaries appeared across the country, a tribute to the stature she had attained. She was known to many as the ‘Queen of the Cakewalk’, after a popular dance form with its origins in the plantations. Since those times her name had all but disappeared from history. Under a President with another amazing black woman by his side, she is again starting to emerge from obscurity.

So then, who was the other ‘she’? Now we have Alice. In contrast to Aida’s short time on the planet, Alice’s lasted more than a century. As a dancer, she wasn’t the huge star that her predecessor was – she being unable to make the transition from chorus to front of stage. Her moment of fame came late, largely as a result of her longevity. But still, hers is a wonderful story – and its culmination can be watched on YouTube. And one factor we do know for sure, as we have the evidence. Alice shared a stage with Mister Bojangles himself.

Alice Barker was born in Chicago, but like Aida moved to the Big Apple to further her career as a dancer. She related, late in life, that there was never anything else she wanted to do. Practically as soon as she walked she felt the urge to dance. Her earliest memory was, as a toddler, prancing around for her mother as her bath was being run. But fame at her chosen vocation eluded her for, on stage, she was forever in the background. Prior to WW2 she kicked up her legs in legendary clubs, such as the Apollo and Cotton, as part of the Zanzibeauts troupe. Out front of her would be the stars, such as Robinson and later on, Sinatra and Gene Kelly. Alice married twice but had no children – and after she retired she kept in contact with many of her dancing buddies. But sadly, as time went on, she became far too frail to maintain an independent lifestyle and spent the last couple of decades of her life in a nursing home – by which time all of her pals from her heyday had passed on. With her long life narrowing down to a single room, she let go most of her memorabilia, so in the last years had little to remind herself of her days mixing with Broadway celebrities, making movies and appearing in ads in the early days of television. She vaguely recalled seeing herself in a few of the latter and in the background of scenes in films, but there was nothing from the many ‘soundies’ she knew she had appeared in. That is, until one man decided to make it his goal to change all that. In doing so, he gave her a modicum of fame.

As to the soundies – well they were the equivalent of music video clips today, short films of the hot songs from the popular performers of the day. They were played on special machines in bars, clubs and at racetracks back in the thirties and forties. Some of them carried Alice as part of background choruses and dancers. Cameramen would lug their heavy equipment around to various venues to make them in the nightclubs of the day. It was one of the ways the masses could get a taste of the real thing, of the lifestyle they could never have.

David Shuff owned a beloved therapy dog and he would do the rounds, with his canine mate, of his local nursing homes to bring joy to the elderly residing there. One day he happened on the centurion, got to chatting with her and discovered her back story – particularly the bit about the soundies. With David Alice was in luck. David’s main calling was his work as a film music archivist, so he set himself the task of seeing if he could track down any evidence of Alice in those soundies that remained in existence. And in an on-line file marked Barker, he eventually found what he was looking for. Together, with his partner Mark Cantor, he seamed together all the bits that featured a good view of her to make a visual collage of her past career and took it to her room to show her. She was delighted with the result, exclaiming it made her ‘...wish that I could get out of this bed and do it all over again.‘ Of course, being the digital age, we can see the results on YouTube where it went viral.

Thanks to that medium, Alice Barker developed a devoted fan club, many of whom wrote her letters that bought her immense pleasure in her final months, Some were descendants of those troupers who were with her on the stages she hoofed her stuff on for several decades, way back when. Her followers even included the Obamas who also graciously sent a missive off to her expressing their appreciation of her contribution. For her final birthday a group of dancers performed some of her old routines in her room to her joy. Soon after that 103rd celebration, Alice Barker passed away in her sleep, happy in the knowledge that she was no longer a forgotten relic of a golden age.

But unlike many I didn’t discover her through the YouTube clip, but as a by-product of researching the life of another – and to link them together I had Bill ‘Mr Bojangles’ Robinson. Both are belatedly having their moment in the sun – one once forgotten and now remembered; one who never amounted to enough to be forgotten, with now her legacy burning brightly. Thank you Katie.

She has never before seen herself on film – the YouTube video is shown to Alice Barker in her room = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bktozJWbLQg