My 15 Minutes of Fame

Acting in a play for my Catalyst course . . . Cool!  It’s not exactly Hollywood stuff, more like the backblocks of Tasmania.  Oh well, that was Errol Flynn’s birthplace, so that’s something.

The Golden Age is a strange play, about strange people.  The strangest thing is the way the settlers talk, called argot.  This made the whole play harder to read than Shakespeare.  I needed the glossary to know what they were saying – then I had a shock!

Batsheb was an interesting character.  She grew up in the sticks, as part of the community of exiles.  However, she was the least damaged of them.  She escaped the retardation from their inbreeding.  Being young, she was the most adaptable of them. 

She could have adjusted best to the real world – had they not been committed to an asylum.  Even so she ends up the last one standing.

It’s quite a sad story, really.

Then I had to learn my lines.  Although my character was the leading lady, she actually didn’t say that much.  I was striding up and down going “rack and cat!”  Who knows what the neighbours thought?!

That wasn’t the big dilemma, which was what I was going to wear.  Something Victorian . . . my lacy skirt fitted the bill.  I had an obsession with Victorian blouses, what one of the boys called a frill-neck.  Course I couldn’t find any!  When did all the op shops turn into yuppie boutiques?

I found a shirt, something a buxom wench may have worn back then.  I bought a shawl to cover it with, useful this winter. I already had a good dress and 1930s-style shoes, for the scene where Batsheb is dressed up for the party.

I was terribly nervous that morning, but they say the greatest stars suffer from stage fright.  Eventually I arrived at Darlinghurst.

Everyone was wearing their Victorian finery, shawls and top hats.  John was directing the rehearsal.  I know him well, but have never seen him as such a drill sergeant!  That’s OK, he knows his stuff.

We ran through our lines, until I BECAME Batsheb.  Now I wasn’t nervous anymore, was actually looking forward to it.

It was surprising how many people turned up for the presentation.  I felt a twinge of nerves again . . . We went through the course, including our blogs.


I think I did OK in the role, think we all did OK.  The audience certainly liked it, judging by the applause.  That could be quite addictive. 

I might join a theatre group now.

On the day, I could do nothing but walk backstage and flop into a chair.  Rip my high heels off and put my feet up.  Find a glass of orange juice.  Then tell David:

“Thank goodness that’s over!”

Which is true.  Though I felt sad in a way, too.


Van Diemen’s Land

English: Photo of gravestones on Isle of the D...
English: Photo of gravestones on Isle of the Dead in Port Arthur’s harbor in Tasmania. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Rack and cat and goldy sow”

To us, The Golden Age may sound a little paranoid, with the remote settler family and their fear of the real world. That is because they remember through stories told through their parents, of the horrors of the convict settlement called Van Diemen’s Land.

Once we see a little of the horrors of life in these settlements, now famous tourist attractions, we can understand where they are coming from. Perhaps it’s hard for us to imagine the full horrors of those days. Marcus Clarke captured it harrowingly in For the Term of His Natural Life.

The “cat” mentioned is not a warm, soft, purring creature, but the cat of nine tails. This was a whip with 9 strands, all of which hit the victim’s back at the same time. Since the strands were often dipped in lead, the flogging did great damage to the sailor or convict’s back.

This was made even worse by the number of lashes that many prisoners received; often 50-100, sometimes even more lashes. The pain felt at the “rack” or triangles the prisoners were tied to, where blood and flesh flew a great distance, can only be imagined. Many did not survive their flogging. Those who did, and then the salting of the wounds, were permanently scarred.

The whips and chains were enough to have the biggest bondage devotee, screaming loud for mercy as much as anyone.

The settler family are still living in this time, still running from the convict days. In the real world, life has moved on. In the 1930s, people were more worried about what was happening in Germany, and whether there would be another war.

Abel Tasman (1603-59) was a Dutch mariner. In 1638 he sailed to Batavia (now Indonesia) as captain of his own flute, accompanied by his wife and daughter.

In 1642 he captained two ships on a voyage of exploration. On 24 November “we saw the first land we have met with in the South Seas. . .very high. . .and not known to any European nation”. To escape rough weather, Tasman’s ships sheltered in a harbour on the West Coast. They dropped anchor on 1 December 1642, then went ashore.

The sailors would not see any people, only smoke from the Palawa Aborigines’ campfires. They collected some plants to eat and planted the Dutch flag on the new island. Tasman named the place Van Diemen’s Land; in honour of the Governor of Batavia, Anthony van Diemen, who had ordered his voyage.

Tasman then sailed on; discovering New Zealand, Tonga and Fijian islands. He tried to sail to the Australian mainland, on another voyage in 1644. However, he was fated not to land in Queensland, where he was driven back by the Great Barrier Reef.

The Dutch took an interest in terra australis incognito, the unknown south land talked about for centuries. They called it New Holland, but were not interested enough to make settlements here.

Van Diemen’s Land would have more white men landing on her shore again in 1803. The Lady Nelson was captained by Lieutenant John Bowen and landed first in Risdon Cove. There were 49 people aboard, 21 of them convicts. In 1804 a more permanent settlement was made across the Derwent River, where the water supplies were better. It was soon called Hobart Town.

In 1825, Van Diemen’s Land became a colony in its own right.

These were to be the cruel days of Tasmania’s history, well remembered by the family in The Golden Age. The colonies were excessively brutal to convicts, as well as being genocidal. The Palawas who were not killed outright, often died of European diseases. The last full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigine was Truganini, who died in 1876.

As for the convicts, Tasmania became a place to send the worst of the worst. The settlement at Sydney Cove was becoming popular with free settlers. Here reformed convicts could get their ticket-of-leave, become emancipists and eventually settlers.

The ones who were hardened criminals, who re-offended in the colony, were often sent elsewhere. For some this would be Van Diemen’s Land. Others were sent to Norfolk Island or the new settlement in Queensland – from where comes the haunting ballad Moreton Bay.

There were many convict settlements in Van Diemen’s Land. Some are now listed with the UNESCO World Heritage List, including the infamous Port Arthur, the Coal Mines Historic Site and Cascades Female Factory. Another settlement was Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour; made more notorious by escapee Alexander Pearce, one of Australia’s first serial killers. The entry by sea was known as Hells Gates.

Women convicts were often assigned as servants, sometimes being separated from their children. The men usually did hard labour to build the new settlement, some of them permanently shackled in chain gangs. These included coal mining, cutting Huon pines, quarrying stone, making bricks, building roads and sailing ships.

Some convicts were hard working, others not so much. Other convicts were just unlucky to be under sadistic overseers. Common enough was the “red shirt” – convict slang for a flogging. Other punishments included solitary confinement and a diet of bread and water. Another one was being demoted to the chain gang.

Some convicts went on to live good lives in the new colony; others were recidivists. The worse re-offenders were sent to Port Arthur, which was a timber mill before it became a convict hell. Some of the psychological punishments were considered advanced for the day. The natural features made it almost impossible to escape from Port Arthur, long before the Americans set up Alcatraz. The only place on the peninsula that prisoners could cross was Eaglehawk Neck, which was guarded by troopers, man-traps and hungry dogs. Port Arthur stayed operational until 1877.

In 1853, transportation was abolished to Van Diemen’s Land, although it would remain a prison colony for some time. The name would be changed to Tasmania in 1856, as if shedding an old skin. It became an Australian state during Federation in 1901.

English: Convict-built church at Port Arthur, ...
English: Convict-built church at Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Auguries of Innocence

I have chosen this poem by William Blake (1757-1827) for several reasons. The first is that David Malouf was quoting him in the title of Remembering Babylon, from The Four Zoas.

Another is that he was obviously a lover of animals, as I am. Any cruelty towards our furry friends greatly upsets me, mainly because they can be so sweet and understanding.

He had a little less sympathy for the frailities of Homo Sapiens, except the ones he considered innocent.

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.
A dove-house filled with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell through all its regions.
A dog starved at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
A horse misused upon the road
Calls to heaven for human blood.

Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.
A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing.
The game-cock clipped and armed for fight
Does the rising sun affright.
Every wolf’s and lion’s howl
Raises from hell a human soul.
The wild deer wandering here and there
Keeps the human soul from care.
The lamb misused breeds public strife,
And yet forgives the butcher’s knife.
The bat that flits at close of eve
Has left the brain that won’t believe.
The owl that calls upon the night
Speaks the unbeliever’s fright.
He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be beloved by men.
He who the ox to wrath has moved
Shall never be by woman loved.
The wanton boy that kills the fly
Shall feel the spider’s enmity.
He who torments the chafer’s sprite
Weaves a bower in endless night.
The caterpillar on the leaf
Repeats to thee thy mother’s grief.
Kill not the moth nor butterfly,
For the Last Judgment draweth nigh.
He who shall train the horse to war
Shall never pass the polar bar.
The beggar’s dog and widow’s cat,
Feed them, and thou wilt grow fat.
The gnat that sings his summer’s song
Poison gets from Slander’s tongue.
The poison of the snake and newt
Is the sweat of Envy’s foot.
The poison of the honey-bee
Is the artist’s jealousy.
The prince’s robes and beggar’s rags
Are toadstools on the miser’s bags.
A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.
It is right it should be so:
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
The babe is more than swaddling bands,
Throughout all these human lands;
Tools were made and born were hands,
Every farmer understands.
Every tear from every eye
Becomes a babe in eternity;
This is caught by females bright
And returned to its own delight.
The bleat, the bark, bellow, and roar
Are waves that beat on heaven’s shore.
The babe that weeps the rod beneath
Writes Revenge! in realms of death.
The beggar’s rags fluttering in air
Does to rags the heavens tear.
The soldier armed with sword and gun
Palsied strikes the summer’s sun.
The poor man’s farthing is worth more
Than all the gold on Afric’s shore.
One mite wrung from the labourer’s hands
Shall buy and sell the miser’s lands,
Or if protected from on high
Does that whole nation sell and buy.
He who mocks the infant’s faith
Shall be mocked in age and death.
He who shall teach the child to doubt
The rotting grave shall ne’er get out.
He who respects the infant’s faith
Triumphs over hell and death.
The child’s toys and the old man’s reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.
The questioner who sits so sly
Shall never know how to reply.
He who replies to words of doubt
Doth put the light of knowledge out.
The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar’s laurel crown.
Nought can deform the human race
Like to the armour’s iron brace.
When gold and gems adorn the plough
To peaceful arts shall Envy bow.
A riddle or the cricket’s cry
Is to doubt a fit reply.
The emmet’s inch and eagle’s mile
Make lame philosophy to smile.
He who doubts from what he sees
Will ne’er believe, do what you please.
If the sun and moon should doubt,
They’d immediately go out.
To be in a passion you good may do,
But no good if a passion is in you.
The whore and gambler, by the state
Licensed, build that nation’s fate.
The harlot’s cry from street to street
Shall weave old England’s winding sheet.
The winner’s shout, the loser’s curse,
Dance before dead England’s hearse.
Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
We are led to believe a lie
When we see not through the eye
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.
God appears, and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in night,
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.


‘As exotic as a bird of paradise, still a beauty, with black dazzling eyes, a flawless cream complexion and a figure that, even in the dresses of the period, was the envy of many younger matrons’ – One commentator on Diamantina Bowen

This week we continue the story of Diamantina di Roma, Lady Bowen (1833-93).

After her husband George Bowen was appointed inaugural Governor of Queensland in 1859, the family sailed to the new colony on HMS Cordelia. They landed in Moreton Bay on 9 December. The next day they sailed up the Brisbane River, greeted by enthusiastic crowds. There was even more cheering when Bowen declared the new state of Queensland.

Diamantina’s role was mostly ceremonial; she turned the first soil at Ipswich for the first Queensland Rail in 1864, using a silver spade and cedar wheelbarrow. The first train did not run until 1865, to Grandchester (Bigges Camp). She was known as a great hostess at Government House, as is her role in the novel.

However, Diamantina did a lot more for the new colony than playing piano and singing. The high-born contessa was a caring lady who worked for charities, making her loved by most Queenslanders. One eulogy mentioned “the deep interest she took in the poor and distressed.”

Diamantina’s most valuable contribution to Queensland was her work establishing the health system. In 1863 she set up the Lady Bowen Lying-In Hospital. Three of the Bowen’s five children would be born in Queensland; she did plenty for other mothers. This hospital reduced infant mortality, a serious problem of the time. Today it is the Royal Women’s Hospital of Brisbane.

She also set up a hospice called Diamantina Home for Incurables. In 1864 she established the Diamantina Orphanage. This building would become, in 1956, the well-renowned Princess Alexandra Hospital.

In 1868 Bowen became the Governor of New Zealand. A group of women organized to give Diamantina a going away present of a diamond necklace, also a bracelet. In a farewell speech they said: “Eight years ago you came among us as a stranger and foreigner. You leave us having won the hearts of many and the goodwill of all. The poor, the destitute, the afflicted and the orphans have alike shared your sympathy”. Some accounts say that Diamantina went to the ship in tears.

They would return to Australia in 1873, when Bowen became the Governor of Victoria. By this time Diamantina had become the grande dame that her role expected. ““Her English was picturesque, her manner regal and she was the subject of mingled awe and admiration in the somewhat unsophisticated world of the colonies”, wrote one columnist.

It wasn’t all roses. In 1876, Diamantina was attacked outside the Athanaeum Club in Collins Street by a fortune teller named Esther Gray, later found insane. This kept the colony talking for years.

They would leave Australia in 1879, when Bowen was appointed the Governor of Mauritius. There was a banquet held for them at Melbourne Town Hall on 19 February 1879. Marcus Clarke wrote ‘Victoria’s Farewell to Lady Bowen’ for the occasion, sung to music by Alfred Plumpton.

Diamantina would have even more experience as the governor’s wife. They served in Mauritius up to 1882. Then he was the Governor of Hong Kong from 1882-86. Diamantina organized a club there, for ladies only. Finally he retired in 1890, the Bowens and their single daughters going “home” to London.

Here Diamantina Bowen would die on 17 November 1893, of acute bronchitis. She is buried at the family plot in Kensall Green. This obituary praises her as a pioneer: “Time has marched with such rapid strides since Queensland was formed into a separate colony that people may forget that only thirty-four years have elapsed.”

So many places and things were named in honour of her:
Roma St, Brisbane – where all roads lead to up there.
Roma – a town in Queensland.
Lady Bowen Park – in Brisbane.
Diamantina River – like Herbert, she has a river named after her.
Diamantina Shire – in the outback
Diamantina Falls – in Victoria.
Diamantina Street – in Canberra.
Diamantina Trench – in the ocean off Western Australia.
HMAS Diamantina
Lady Bowen’s Creeper – the vine bignonia venusta with orange flowers.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to her is the Diamantina Health Care Museum. In 2004 it was opened at Princess Alexandra Hospital, in the only original building. It shows how much she did to establish the Queensland Health.


CONTESSA DIAMANTINA DI ROMA, LADY BOWEN (1833-93) First Lady of Queensland

English: Lady Diamantina Roma Bowen
English: Lady Diamantina Roma Bowen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another real life character from Chapter 18 of Remembering Babylon was Diamantina Bowen. She would travel with her husband to the new colony, to become the original First Lady of Queensland. Through her eyes we will look at the role of women in the novel, as it was in Victorian times. From the humble miner’s daughter Ellen McIvor all the way up to Government House, all women were expected to become wives and mothers. The only exception is Janet, who becomes a nun. Diamantina’s conversation in Chapter 18 bears this out. She talks about trivial things like gardening, water-ices and entertaining her children. Her role is also to entertain her husband’s guests, such as Frazer, plus provide music on the piano and sing.


To that generation, it would be preposterous that a woman could be a Governor or Premier in her own right. It would have been as much of a fantasy as Frazer’s orchards full of native fruit (except the macadamia). It would be nearly a century after Diamantina’s death, that another Roma became State Governor. Roma Mitchell (1913-2000) was a barrister who broke a lot of glass ceilings in her life. She was the first woman Queen’s Council, the first Supreme Court judge and finally Governor of South Australia in 1991.

In 1992, a Canadian named Leneen Forde took over Bowen’s role, becoming the first woman Governor of Queensland. She is currently the chancellor of Griffith University.

Quentin Bryce studied law, one of the first women accepted to the Queensland bar. In 2003, she became Governor. In 2008, she was appointed the first woman Governor-General in Australia. Since then, she has been replaced as Governor of Queensland by Penelope Wensley.

In 2007, Anna Bligh became the first woman to fill Premier Herbert’s shoes. Although she was not the first woman premier in Australia, she was the first to win an election. She was best known for her leadership during the flood crisis of 2011.


When Diamantina was born in 1833, it was a very different world. She grew up in Zakinthos, Greece; in the Ionian Islands. Her father was the Conte Georgio Candiano di Roma, who was President of the Senate. Her family originated in 13th Century Italy; they played a big part in the Venetian invasion of Corfu, then later the Greek struggle for independence.

Later, the Greek Club of Brisbane would erect a statue of Diamantina.

As a contessa, Diamantina had a priviledged upbringing. She would meet George Ferguson Bowen (1821-99), a scholar and British government secretary. On 28 April 1856, Diamantina’s wedding to Bowen took place at the Palace of St Michael and St George.

She would have a fascinating life, travelling all over the Victorian world. She would give her name to places, which the young Greek woman could not have imagined. We will look at her role as inaugural First Lady of Queensland next week.

English: Diamantina River crossing outside Bir...
English: Diamantina River crossing outside Birdsville, Queensland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Sir Robert Herbert, First Premier of Queensland

Sir Robert George Wyndham Herbert, first Premi...
Sir Robert George Wyndham Herbert, first Premier of Queensland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is one thing for an author to write about fictional characters, much harder to write about people who really lived. The characters in Chapter 18 of Remembering Babylon combine the fictional Frazer with the real-life Sir George and Lady Bowen, after whom the town in the novel was named. Also a real historical figure was Sir Robert George Wyndham Herbert (1831-1905), the first premier of Queensland.

Herbert was born on 12 June 1831 at Brighton in England. He was educated at Eton from 1844-49. He then studied law at Oxford, graduating in 1856.

He was briefly a private secretary to later Prime Minister William Gladstone. In 1859 Sir George Bowen was appointed Governor of the new crown colony of Queensland. He appointed Herbert as Colonial Secretary (later premier) in 1859, which was approved by parliament in 1860.

Malouf describes Herbert as “a very young man with soft fair hair and a large head”. Certainly he was only 28 when appointed to this position and inexperienced. He was not a great speaker, but he became a good administrator. At this stage, there was not much opposition in local Queensland parliament, which re-elected him in 1863.

He was well liked by many people, but not popular with some in politics and also in the Courier newspaper. He encouraged secular education, taking on the Anglican Church. He also encouraged agriculture and immigration and settlement in the new colony. He also enjoyed outdoor pursuits such as swimming, boating and was an early member of the Queensland Turf Club.

Lady Bowen commented: “We are very gay when we go to Herston”. This double entendre could be the innocent Victorian meaning of “light-hearted and carefree”. However, Malouf was referring to Herbert’s private life; he was almost certainly homosexual.

Herbert lived with an Oxford friend, John Bramston (1832-1921), who became the Attorney General. They had a property called Herston House, currently the site of the Royal Brisbane Hospital and a suburb. The name is an amalgamation of Herbert and Bramston, which sounds like a modern same-sex marriage. Herbert never did walk down the aisle, which only adds to the speculation.

In Robert Herbert’s own words, from a letter to his sister: “’It does not seem to me reasonable to tell a man who is happy and content, to marry a woman who may turn out a great disappointment.”

He resigned as Premier in 1866, replaced by Arthur Macalister. Herbert would sail back to England on 20 August of that year. Although he would never return to Australia, his later career was tied in with various colonies of the British Empire.

Herbert joined the Colonial Office in 1870, the next year he was appointed Under-Secretary for the Colonies. He would work in this role until 1892. From 1893-96, he was Agent General for Tasmania.

Robert Herbert died on 6 May 1905; at Ickleton, Cambridgeshire.


Early photograph of Herston House
Early photograph of Herston House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bora Ring

Bora Ring

The song is gone; the dance
is secret with the dancers in the earth,
the ritual useless, and the tribal story
lost in an alien tale.

Only the grass stands up
to mark the dancing-ring; the apple-gums
posture and mime a past corroboree,
murmur a broken chant.

The hunter is gone; the spear
is splintered underground; the painted bodies
a dream the world breathed sleeping and forgot.
The nomad feet are still.

Only the rider’s heart
halts at a sightless shadow, an unsaid word
that fastens in the blood of the ancient curse,
the fear as old as Cain.
Judith Wright