Category Archives: Rural Childhood

The greening of Deepwater Country

“Artists sometimes whisper to one another about the new palette that emerges when the rains stay away”

I TEND to blend into the landscape wherever I am living. The hues of the Blue Mountains were wrought on my vision for three decades, and I lived on Moreton Bay long enough for its marine palette to become second nature; but I was born in the New England, this vast cluster of upland valleys known as ‘tablelands’ after the plateaus and mesas that rise in their midst.

The Blue Mountains are draped with scrub and fern. Moreton Bay might be at sea level, but its islands are the leftover pinnacles of ridges and peaks that once rose above river valleys, their crowns layered with red earth and sand. The New England’s surface is blanketed with remnant wood- and grass-lands, now tucked in by pastures as varied as patchwork quilts.

DELUNGRA DAZE: The head of the driveway where I waited for the school bus

My first view from our settler’s homestead was of the distant chalky-blue hills running north from Bingara to Warialda, sometimes lit like rich strips of indigo against the gold of crops. The shapes of these tree-studded hills, mottled with dusty greens, came leaping out of me in a series of works I executed within months of returning to live in the Deepwater region in 2017.

The green ridges of Tenterfield, stooped under mist, became a theme in early 2018. By the time I was throwing paint around on canvas regularly, some of the high country around Glen Innes had started to brown off. We assumed it was the usual wintering of grass crisped by frosts, but when the spring rain drizzled instead of pelted, the ‘D-word’ crept into conversation.

It is harsh, there’s no arguing with the reality, but even drought doesn’t dampen the creative spirit. Artists sometimes whisper to one another about the new palette that emerges when the rains stay away… the pinks, yellows and apricots keep the landscape alive while the crops and cattle fail.

It’s not something to crow about, but as my brush kept at it though 2018, I noticed how the perennial blue of the sky started to offset land gilded by drought. 

The result was a small collection of works that told the story of local woman Ada Bezzant, who drowned herself in the Deepwater River in 1927.

The Choices of Ada Bezzant

Her reasons seemed as clear as Virginia Woolf’s, to me: a decade of loss that started with a young son blown apart on the Western Front, and ended with an ailing husband dead in faraway Newcastle.

Ada and her family ran a sawmill further along the road that still bears their name, situated just metres from the river she chose to end her life in.

CHOICES: ‘Ada and the Dam’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2018. Private collection)

Creating art about suicide encouraged me to make works of sufficient beauty that the pain of loss runs seamlessly into the landscape, so it was gratifying when a judge at the 2018 Frost Over Barraba Art Show commented in his notes that awarded ‘Ada and the Dam’ a painting prize, that the bittersweet feeling of loss and regret shone through.

DROUGHT: ‘Drowning Without Water’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2018. Private collection)

‘Drowning Without Water’ is the work that told me I was capturing the colours of a parched landscape. Perhaps that’s why I wanted to express the presence of water in the title and the blatant droplets of paint? Here is Ada, her clothes rightly just out of style for 1927, walking to an unseen river.

I spent a year thinking of her, even found her grave off to the to the side at Deepwater’s cemetery. I understand the challenges of country living, how they can wreak havoc on families when death makes its inevitable call. With apologies to Ada’s surviving relatives, some of whom we have met since moving here, I borrowed her tale for a while for this series of ‘New England Gothic’.

Creative Juices

By 2019 even my brushed dried up… bushfires are hardly inspiring, and adrenalin drains creative juices almost completely.

GREENING: ‘Torrington Plateau from Deepwater’ (pastel on paper by Michael Burge, 2020)

Almost… when the green tinge returned I could barely contain my desire to capture it, and a series of works emerged with greens so impossible that no-one would believe such bright hues, captured not with liquid paint but dirt-dry chalk pastels.

The drought is not over for everyone, but the rains have stayed for us, and the Deepwater River is flowing again. I saw the plain of Dundee so water-soaked the pools reflected rays of light. I saw hillsides with verdant green at their feet, while the seed heads of the grasslands tinged the sloped with a new dry gold. I saw weather where for so long there had really been nothing but dry skies. I saw change that seemed like it was never going to come again.

GOLD: ‘Hill above Yoongan Creek, Deepwater’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2020)

The Deepwater Country collection bleeds from greens and greys, to a fool’s gold, and then back to a surreal burst of colour that I’ve heard some locals confess to being desperate for. I know I was.

Deepwater Country runs until the end of August at The Makers Shed.

Cultivating storytellers in the rural heartland

LOCAL FANS OF good writing have every reason to celebrate, with a season of literary initiatives and acclaimed broadcaster Mary Moody — coming to the New England region between October 25th and December 1st for the High Country Writers Festival. As an author and journalist who learned to use the written word at Delungra Public School, I’m thrilled to be bringing wordsmiths together in a region that has always fostered storytellers.

RURAL HEARTLAND: Waterloo Station, Glen Innes.

Writers will have a unique opportunity to prime their skills and draw inspiration at iconic Waterloo Station between Glen Innes and Inverell when the festival kicks off at the High Country Writers Retreat from October 25th to 27th. Inverell resident Virginia Eddy (the force behind Boorama, her business strategy outfit, pictured above) is partnering with The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, to assist writers in adopting a micro-business approach.

Returning to the region after four decades has been huge for Virginia. “When I left my Melbourne world, a friend told me: ‘Don’t ever forget that there is a reason you are returning. Look and listen for it’,” she says. “Even though I’ve been here for six years, every time I drive out the Yetman Road north of Inverell, I’m imbued with the deep sense that I’m going home. Our family left the region when I was ten.”

Virginia believes that being a writer and being in business can be a comfortable coexistence. “Regardless of whether writers are published independently or by traditional means, business knowledge and acumen underpins their capacity for independence,” she says. “Micro-businesses should be built on the same primary foundations and frameworks as major corporations, except scaled accordingly”.

“I urge writers to imagine they are weaving potent little miracles of business around their output. These don’t happen with templates, or overnight. They’re a lifelong practice.”

TOUCH OF LUXURY: Waterloo Station Shearers Lodgings.

Despite one of the worst droughts we’ve seen in the New England, Virginia encourages writers to share Waterloo Station as a home-away-from-home during the retreat. “Whether they’re from the bush, the city, or both, it’s a chance to pause, absorb the landscape, the built environment, the past and evolving social history,” she says. “I believe the Station’s restorations (under the stewardship of Deborah and Don Anderson) will speak for themselves; but as a writer working on one of my own manuscripts, I look forward to hearing others’ perspectives.”

Being a regional-returner myself, I know what it’s like to seek a sense of place in a rural community. Growing up on a property out of Delungra prepared me for the profound tranquility of rural life, but living and working across the world has allowed me to bring home a host of skills.

I began mentoring writers after my independently-published memoir Questionable Deeds was selected for the Brisbane Writers Festival. I was so swamped by queries about how I managed it that I wrote the process into a short, accessible guidebook. Participants at the High Country Writers Retreat will be mentored on adapting these principles to their writing and publishing practices.

But there’ll also be plenty of writing time, one-to-one sessions and inspirational experiences at Waterloo Station. Virginia is well underway with transitioning into a literary writer, and I am always up for fresh insights into business and marketing, so we’ll be attending each other’s sessions at the retreat. Come and join us!

From the heart

The High Country Writers Festival continues on Saturday November 30th and Sunday December 1st at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, when Mary Moody, one of Australia’s most beloved and bestselling authors, launches her first book in a decade: The Accidental Tour Guide. She spoke with me about what inspired her to return to autobiography.

Mary Moody

“Memoir forces people to reflect on the events of their lives and to gain an understanding of how they reacted to those moments,” she says. “I have found that writing down difficult events somehow crystallizes them. The Accidental Tour Guide contrasts the highs of exploration and adventure against the lows of death and loss.”

Since the publication of a string of bestselling memoirs, bridging her life in rural France and regional Australia, Mary has relocated from the farm she shared with her late husband, filmmaker David Hannay.

“I now live with my youngest son and his family in the Blue Mountains. This supportive environment makes it possible for me to continue my adventure travels, knowing I have a safe haven to return to, every time,” she says.

Mary will also hold her popular ‘Writing from the Heart’ workshop at The Makers Shed during the festival. “I never cease to be amazed and delighted at the stories people tell me of their amazing lives. It’s just knowing where to start and how to keep those stories flowing. Often people want to write the stories of their parents or grandparents and these are equally as inspiring. I believe we will never tire of reading about other people’s lives. It helps us to make sense of our own.”

The tussle between nesting and migrating is a constant theme in Mary’s work, giving insights into the fortunes of regional communities in many countries. “It’s always the people that create a community, and it makes me sad to see regions where failing economics makes it impossible for people to live where they were born,” she says. “We need to encourage more young families to live in rural areas – the benefits of this lifestyle are many and varied.”

Described as Eat, Pray, Love meets The Year of Magical Thinking, Mary’s new memoir is an inner and outer journey through uncharted territory. “I’m really looking forward to touring with this new book. I particularly love small independent bookshops and places where there are active and enthusiastic book clubs. Australians are great readers – they devour good books and it’s wonderful to know that here we have such a vibrant and viable publishing industry. At the end of the day I just love meeting people and talking.”

The High Country Writers Festival is an initiative of The Makers Shed. This article was first published in New England Living magazine.

Peter Allen: the jazziest bush poet

WHEN he returned to Australia in 1971, Peter Allen would have been forgiven for wondering if his career in show business was over. But an unexpected piece of family history became the inspiration this boy from the bush needed to succeed on the world stage.

It had been a very long journey home for the ‘Boy From Oz’. Work offers were getting scarce for Peter Allen by the early 1970s. His mentor Judy Garland, who’d opened doors on both sides of the Atlantic for the young performer, was dead. His wife, Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli, had asked for a divorce.

Allen had been performing for two decades and was at the age when many former child stars find themselves washed up.

His first self-titled album had bombed and gigs to promote it had been hosted by a Manhattan venue known as The Bitter End, which would have seemed terribly ironic to the man who’d been introduced to enormous audiences in the company of iconic musicians throughout the late 1960s.

BOY’S BIOG The definitive biography of Peter Allen.

According to Allen’s biographer, journalist Stephen Maclean (author of The Boy From Oz) it was an offer to perform in Australia that led Peter to “look his past in the eye”.

Ensconced at his mother Marion’s Bondi unit in that 1971 winter, Allen spent hours writing on the rooftop overlooking the ocean.

“One day, while Marion was out at work,” Maclean wrote, “Peter found himself fossicking about the flat. In the course of this he came upon an aged newspaper clipping from his near-forgotten birthplace of Tenterfield.”

The snippet recorded that Peter’s grandfather George Woolnough, whose High Street saddlery was already renowned, had a library at the University of New England named after him.

Memories came rushing at the 27-year-old performer. Key to his life experience to that point was the shooting suicide of his father and the grief that led to his immediate family’s gradual departure from the Australian bush. The fast-paced city had been Peter’s home since the mid 1960s, but his country roots held the seeds of an idea for this budding songwriter.

Emboldened by his modest start in New York, Peter Allen took this family history up to that Bondi rooftop and penned a new song.

‘Tenterfield Saddler’ was the result, a ballad that has bridged Australian bush poetry and international show-business ever since he recorded it in 1972.

‘Applause rolled on and on’

Mixing lyrical rhymes in a tale about long journeys down a country track replete with kangaroos and cockatoos, ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ is every inch a bush ballad in the tradition of Banjo Paterson.

It brings to the fore a lesser-known character in the cast of bush legends: the saddler, responsible for the safety and comfort of your ride, but also a storyteller.

Like all the best bush yarns, ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ has a dark side. In his grandson’s lyrics, the saddler holds the key to everyday life in a country town, but what the George Woolnough couldn’t give were the reasons his son had died at his own hand.

It is the suicide at the heart of ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ that gives it a place alongside one of Australia’s most enduring ballads ‘Waltzing Matilda’. In that song’s climax, the hero of the story, a swagman, drowns himself to avoid capture for sheep rustling.

When Allen recorded his song for the 1972 album of the same name, it made a small splash in the American music industry. But what this quirky ballad did, according to Stephen Maclean, was get Peter Allen noticed as a songwriter.

After a move to California in the early 1970s, despite having the barest of credentials, Peter Allen kept penning songs. He worked hard at his craft with other emerging writers and allowed his work to be recorded by artists on the brink of bigger singing careers.

In 1974, he eventually landed a hit when Olivia Newton-John released ‘I Honestly Love You’, co-written with Jeff Barry.

GOLDEN BOY Peter Allen (right) with co-writers Burt Bacharach, Carol Bayer Sager and Christopher Cross at the 1982 Oscar ceremony.

When he first performed the song live, long before Newton-John’s international number one single, Peter Allen recalled: “Everything stopped. Even the waiters didn’t move. The air was still and when I finished you could have heard a pin drop. Then they all began to applaud and the applause rolled on and on.”

Peter Allen went on to write with a range of collaborators, including Carol Bayer Sager. The two were part of the team that won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Original Song with ‘Arthur’s Theme’ from the soundtrack of the Dudley Moore film Arthur.

But Allen’s bush ballad ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ eventually took its place in the annals of songwriting. As Peter Allen’s fame saw him tour internationally, it became an audience favourite and graced the Australian charts multiple times. Bette Midler famously requested it every time she saw him perform.

And songs about travelling became a Peter Allen hallmark. By the time of his enduring 1980 ballad ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ the boy from the bush was embraced by a nation.

Tenterfield celebrates

A quiet country town took its place in popular culture when the song ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ hit the world stage. Now, this northern NSW destination is set to celebrate its Oscar-winning son at an annual festival, starting this September.

According to festival co-directors Josh Moylan and Matt Sing, the idea of celebrating the life and music of Peter Allen and the town of his birth has always been of interest to Tenterfield locals.

“There have previously been a couple of concerts and tributes to the great man, but never a festival dedicated to him,” Mr Moylan said.

“A couple of years ago during a community discussion, there was a push for a regional arts festival in Peter’s name as a gift to the iconic entertainer.”

The new event has taken approximately 18 months of collaboration between the Tenterfield Chamber of Tourism, Industry and Business, the Tenterfield Shire Council and the Tenterfield community, Moylan and Sing said.

The pair also report that support for the event is widespread. “The response and feedback from the locals has been fantastic!” Mr Moylan said.

“We already have a few motels booked out for the weekend, with many other rooms disappearing quickly! There are also many businesses and groups hard at work preparing for how they can add to the celebration.

“This is our inaugural festival, so we want visitors to be blown away by the events, activities and our unique town.”

A Peter Allen tribute concert will headline the event. ‘Tenterfield to Rio’ is written and performed by award-winning entertainer Danny Elliott.

“We are also hosting the ‘Tenterfield Jam Session’, a concert showcasing the amazing talent of Tenterfield musicians, celebrating all-Australian music,” Mr Moylan said.

On Saturday, September 8, the main strip of Tenterfield will be closed and re-named Peter Allen Boulevard for a street party with markets, food stalls, family activities and entertainment. There will also be many satellite events including breakfasts, dinners and tours.

“Visitors in 2018 will be able to join us for what will be the first year of a spectacular regional arts festival.

“They will get a taste of Tenterfield, our arts and music scene,” Mr Moylan said.

Incredible life story

PETER ALLEN PIANO
PIANO MAN Singer-songwriter Peter Allen was known for his high-energy live performances.

According to the festival co-directors, visitors will also gain insight into the town that impacted the life and music of one of Australia’s greatest performers, and sense what it was like for a young boy with grand ambitions in entertainment to walk the streets of a small country town.

In addition, one of the major aims of the Peter Allen Festival is to platform the work of new talent.

“A young local performer might realise that they too can have ambition to take on the whole world,” Mr Sing said.

Moylan and Sing are keen to underline that Peter Allen’s story encompassed both his major life achievements and his ability to overcome trying circumstances, something that was reflected in his songs.

“What persists throughout Peter’s struggles and successes is that happy, bubbly, energetic and kind demeanour,” Mr Sing said.

“His closest friends and people who knew him or worked with him describe his two traits that never changed: his incredible energy and enthusiasm; and his genuine, kind and loving personality.

“The greatest reason that Peter is known to us, both then and now, is his incredible ability to write great, meaningful and well-loved songs.

“Peter had great skills in encapsulating a story. Each line in his songs had meaning. He would write wonderfully complex and catchy melodies, and would weave the lyrics and melody together to create art.

“He would then deliver it onstage with all his energy and enthusiasm, which would move audiences all over the world,” Mr Sing said.

“To this day his songs remain icons. One of the great examples of this is ‘Tenterfield Saddler’, a song full of meaning that was a gift from Peter to the town where he shared so many childhood memories.”

The Peter Allen Festival is already planning events beyond 2018, with the aim of fostering existing local groups and industries.

“The 2019 festival will build on this year’s event, introducing workshops held all year in craft, music and entertainment, event organising, sound and lighting,” Mr Moylan said.

“A flagship festival is planned for 2020. We aim to bring a major headline act with a connection to Peter Allen to Tenterfield.”

The Peter Allen Festival September 7-9, 2018.