Death and Burial on the Goldfields of Victoria

Pennyweight Flat Cemetery Castlemaine


Mary Skillicorn died at eighteen months in Castlemaine in 1854. She is buried in a tiny rocky cemetery beneath crooked sheltering grey box gums in Pennyweight Flat where the colours are soft greys and browns, with accents of pink and purple and acid green. Around her in the leaf litter and rubble of stones are the graves of two hundred other children of the gold-rush. Most of the graves have been obliterated by time, but a few grey-green lichen-covered headstones with faded lettering mark the spot, tell a fragment of the tale. It is perhaps because these graves have almost, but not quite, returned to the earth that they are so particularly heart-breaking. Mary shares her place with Elizabeth Carbis. On one grave grows a lone wild yellow daisy, the only flower around. The stone here is lettered in Chinese.

Beneath a clear cornflower sky we met in the morning round the prehistoric, strangely horizontal trunk of a gum. We had brought chairs and rugs – an antique floral parasol – from a distance you might imagine we were twenty people maybe having a picnic. This was December 27, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and the priest from the Castlemaine Anglican parish was assembling an altar between a flaking headstone and the scarred fat friendly tree-trunk.

These faded, broken details of the few headstones are so tantalising and so poignant, and yet in their very slender way they begin to form a picture of short lives lived long ago. One simply says ‘Emil’, the rest has dissolved away. All the children died between 1852 and 1857, a time when fetid and polluted water, poor food and deadly diseases such as typhoid, diphtheria and whooping cough were everyday features of the diggings. Pennyweight Flat was so named because it was impossible to find more than a pennyweight of gold in an acre of ground in that location, so it was from the beginning a hard, grim place. In fact it seems impossible to believe that a skerrick of gold ever surfaced here. Is it too fanciful to imagine the remains of the children as a treasure buried in the ground, marked by collections and patterns of stones? The place was fenced and restored, to a degree, in 1929, by public subscription.

The scattered little graves have brought the people here today, have attracted us all to the unrecorded stories we know are here, and know will probably never be clearly told. The first child buried here was Henry Baxter, one year and nine months old, on May 28, 1852. His grave is on the highest point, and is the largest assembly of stones. A little web research tells me the name ‘Skillicorn’ was common on the Isle of Man; perhaps it would be possible to discover Mary’s family. There are no Skillicorns in the local phone book. Because Mary is named and framed by her dates, she seems to me to have an identity here under the umbrella of the gum trees. Most of the two hundred are nameless, and are consequently shady presences over whose bones we presumably are walking with our careless and sacrilegious feet.

This land was of course the home of indigenous people long before the diggers came looking for gold. It is inhabited by the ghosts of those other children too. And there is something utterly un-European in the atmosphere of the place. Parched yet pale green fields stretch away from the fenced and raised area of the graveyard, and a line of houses is visible in the near distance. But the mood and texture around the graves is quite different, is filled with a spirit all its own, filled with a hovering silence, gently broken by the words of the Prayer Book liturgy, so English and elegant and dignified. Comforting and musical, but telling today a terrible story, a story that binds itself to the stories of the cemetery babies, some of whom were, in a sense, victims of the common lust for gold.

In the days following the birth of Christ, King Herod ordered the slaughter of all newborn boys in Bethlehem, hoping to eliminate the promised Messiah by overkill. The feast on December 27, after the joys of Christmas day, remembers those innocent victims of Herod’s purge. The ceremony at Pennyweight Flat, an isolated place of peace and sorrow, far from Bethlehem, far from England, constructs an embrace that stretches across time and space to gather in the lives of all children who have died, known and unknown, near and far.

In the midst of the ritual of the service of Holy Communion, the priest invited people to speak personally of their feelings about the place, their reasons for being present. And with great spontaneous eloquence they told of their varying comprehensions of the meaning of Pennyweight Flat. One spoke of a vision of the spirits of the children being welcomed into the company of angels. One drew attention to the most recent news items of the violent deaths of children in a war zone. One woman expressed her gratitude for the health of her own four children. It was a unique and curious feeling to be in such a forlornly lovely place and to hear such a mixture of the spiritual and the terrible and the everyday. Curious indeed to hear voices there at all, for it is a lonely and a silent place. At least three of the people were quietly drawing patterns in the dust with sticks as they listened or spoke, as if in imitation of the actions of a child.

The priest, vested in a striking splash of scarlet among the muted colours of the graveyard, and wearing a neat Akubra, distributed to the congregation small prints of a picture by William Blake. It is an arresting, difficult, disturbing and unexpected image of the Baby Jesus naked and lying, not in a manger, but on a cross, a holy innocent cradled by his own future. And there was a reading of Blake’s poem ‘Holy Thursday’ from the ‘Songs of Innocence’ which ends with the line:

‘Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.’ Poetry seemed to be the right response to the occasion which was so steeped in history and sorrow, as well as being informed by great simplicity and goodness.

As I walked away I picked from the flurry of dried gum leaves on the cemetery floor a little piece of dark grey slate, a sliver of green glass, and a stump of bright orange crayon, and took them home. I am not really sure why I did this, but it seemed to be somehow a necessary gesture. The other thing I did was to return the following day to Pennyweight Flat with a bunch of herbs and marigolds from the garden. I placed them on the grave of Mary Skillicorn and Elizabeth Carbis. I did this with due reverence, but I have to confess that I was probably responding to my own fascination and delight in the odd music of Mary’s name. Maybe the herbs were for the two hundred, but it was Mary Skillicorn who accepted the posy in their name.



Trying in her small way to reduce the number of plastic bags in the oceans, the woman took to the supermarket two cloth bags intended to contain her shopping. One bag was made from several pieces of floral cotton, the other was plain unbleached calico. Printed on the flowery one was the word: Boomerang. The calico one was stamped in brown ink with the image of a mermaid and the little modern mantra: Always Be Yourself Unless You Can Be a Mermaid. The woman drove a wire trolley around the aisles. Somewhere in one of the aisles, when she was not paying attention, she never knew how it happened, the cloth bags both slipped from the trolley. So by the time she reached the checkout, she had to ask for plastic bags anyway. Across from her, at the next checkout, far away and out of reach, a woman with shiny brown curly hair and her daughter with weird brown dreadlocks handed over to the checkout chick a floral cotton bag and an unbleached calico bag bearing the faint brown outline of a mermaid. They bought a large plastic bottle of water and a lot of museli bars.

                                     always be yourself unless you can be a mermaid 



‘All knowledge – the totality of all questions and answers – is contained in the dog.’

Franz Kafka from ‘Investigations of the Dog’.

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In the seventeenth century Cervantes wrote a story called ‘The Conversation of Dogs’. It consisted of the midnight conversation between two dogs as overheard by the narrator of the story. And long before that, in the fifth century BC the fables of Aesop recorded the wit, wisdom and character traits of the animals. In more recent times there are the tales of Beatrix Potter and the works of Lewis Carroll. The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban is a brilliant modern example of the tradition. Talking animals are most often found in stories for children, although famous examples of adult works in the genre are by Orwell, Chekov and Woolf. Recently Andrew O’Hagan published The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe which is written by a maltese belonging to the star.

The world is probably divided into two kinds of people, those who like books by dogs and those who don’t. I do. I loved the idea of O’Hagan’s book when I first heard of it, and I was utterly captivated by the reading, thrilled by the wit, energy and rhythm of the writing. The reflections of Maf are superb insights into America in the early sixties, as well as into big subjects such as literature, art, psychology, history and politics. This is philosophy at its most engaging. The view Maf gives of Marilyn is unlike any other, and is ultimately a most lucid and moving one. He can read her mind, and there is a point at which she can read his. He is so wise and wistful, she so fragile and doomed. On the one hand this book is a revelation about all the dogs in literature and art, and on the other it is a novel of profound and highly entertaining insight into the human heart.

It is this novel that has given me the courage to tell the story of

‘Raf the Dog – a Tale of Mystery, Money and the Supernatural’.


Many years ago when I was living in the city I felt the need for a companion in the form of a small white dog. My daughter is an expert at finding cats and dogs for humans, so she was on the case, preferring to give homes to rescued dogs, rather than buy brand new dogs. We investigated several shelters, but to no avail. I grew tired of the hunt and finally decided to buy a new puppy. The price of course began, back then, at around $400. This was not going to be easy. Taking a common sense approach I went to the local credit union and opened a special purpose account.

‘What is the purpose?’ asked the teller, not looking up from her keyboard.

‘I am buying a dog.’

There was a sudden burst of sunlight that radiated instantly from within the teller. Her gold bracelets jangled, her spectacles winked, her lovely teeth gleamed at me with pleasure.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘a dog! What kind of dog?’

‘A maltese.’

‘Oh yes! Yes. They are so beautiful. So sweet. So wise and wistful. You are doing the right thing.’

So I did the right thing and deposited some idiotically small amount of money in the account which was recorded as being ‘For Purchase of Dog’.

Project Dog was under way.

When I got home there was a message on the phone from my daughter.

It said:

‘I have your dog. Call me.’

This was like the message left by a dognapper. Alarming and horrible.

With pounding heart I called back and she told me she was out at the RSPCA with a sad little maltese in her arms. I rushed out to see him, and there he was, a tiny, bewildered, skin and bone creature in a blue knitted jacket staring up at me with big brown eyes. Wise? Yes. Wistful? Oh yes. Love at first sight. He had been abandoned in an outer suburb, and had somehow survived long enough to be rescued. I bought him, and two days later was able to take him home. My daughter likes to name animals, and she named him Rafael, after the Archangel. I took him to visit the lady at the credit union and she lit up all over again.

‘The Archangel!’ she cried.

He has many charming ways, but one of his rather tedious habits consists of sniffing and grubbing vigorously under scruffy bushes by the side of the road. Once he came out of the bush having divested himself of his fancy overcoat. A Superman moment. And another time, having been busily grubbing, he emerged from the bush with something in his mouth. It was a mobile phone.

I took the phone home and worked out how to contact the owner. She said she would come round in a few minutes and collect the phone. Before long she was jogging down the front path, ponytail flying, sunglasses on top of her head, pink lycra and silver trainers flashing in the sun.

‘Hi, I’m Samsara.’ She was bouncing on the spot. I kind of understood how the phone had ended up in the bush.

I said hello and held out the phone. Without a break in the bouncing, she reached out and swept the phone from my palm.

‘Thanks,’ she said, and was gone, bouncing off up the garden path and out the gate.

I never heard from her again. Her name is from Sanskrit, and Wikipedia says it ‘refers to a place, set of objects and possessions, but originally referred to a process of continuous pursuit of flow of life.’ Well, she did seem to be in continuous pursuit of that flow, down the garden path and up again. Did I receive a card, a note, an email, a text? Roses? Champagne? Right, I did not.

A few years later I decided to sell the house in the city and move to the backblocks. There would be an auction. There would be Open For Inspection. On the first day of the inspections I planned, as is proper, to be far away from the house. However that morning my computer packed up, and just before the inspectors were due to arrive, the technician came, so when the people were looking over the house, I was in the study with the tech and the computer. I was trying to pay no attention to what was going on behind me, but suddenly a voice said:

‘Hi, remember me, I’m Samsara.’

Sure enough, there she was, her ponytail intact, her clothes more sober, and in her arms a baby, at her feet a child, behind her a husband. She recalled the incident of the mobile, and then they all moved on, mingling with the other visitors. Were they serious? Well I didn’t hang around on the other Open for Inspection days, but always on the list of people the name Samara would appear.

On auction day, going, going, gone, Samsara bought the house.

No roses, no champagne, just a cheque for the deposit, balance due in sixty days.

How the spectacles of the lady at the credit union sparkled and twinkled. How she clapped her hands and rattled her bracelets.

‘What a dog!’ she said. ‘What a dog!’









MATHINNA.jpegThis essay first appeared in a collection ‘Storykeepers’ edited by Marion Halligan, published by Duffy and Snellgrove in 2001.



Sometimes people ask me how growing up in Tasmania has affected my work as a fiction writer. I lived in Tasmania for the first twenty-three years of my life, and from the beginning I was fascinated by the short, strange, secret history of the place. I entertained myself quite a bit by reading the books in our house. I still have some of the books, and so I can refer to them in detail, not having to rely on memory.


Among the large and gloomy books which inspired me were two volumes called The Cyclopedia of Tasmania. This was a curious compendium of facts from the state’s past, published in 1900. I loved looking at these books. They consisted of page after page of photographs of people and buildings, as well as text, and they were such imposing volumes, so self-important and arresting. Most of the people in them were men with beards and wide, staring eyes. Very, very occasionally there was a picture of a woman such as Miss Marion Oldham who was the Principal of the Wattle Grove State School, but women were generally not part of the main narrative.


There is Mrs Ferrar, who appears seated beside her husband. Mrs Ferrar ‘remembers some exciting scenes in connection with the early days of the colony, when the aborigines were as thick as the proverbial bees, and as troublesome as wild beasts.’ I wonder if Mrs Ferrar spoke those words. Once Mrs Ferrar was speared and clubbed, but ‘happily with no serious results’. The phrase ‘speared and clubbed’ is one I have always found particularly arresting. It is so plain, so stark, bluntly violent, so inarguable. This prose is much more lively than is usual in The Cyclopedia. ‘As thick as the proverbial bees, and as troublesome as wild beasts.’


There is a description of ‘one of the handsomest shops in the colonies’. This is quite interesting, because the entry in The Cyclopedia begins by describing the shop itself, before explaining what Mr A.P. Miller – Chemist, Druggist, and Distiller – does. The shop is so elegant and ornamented, with its bevelled glass and embossed gold lettering, its sheoak drawers with crystal knobs, its windows decorated with designs of Tasmanian wildflowers and birds. Mr Miller was one of the first people in Tasmania to use the oil of the blue gum tree in the manufacture of creams and soaps and ointments. So The Cyclopedia is not without its glimpses of literary felicity. I really liked Mr Miller, a character who came to life among hundreds of characters who didn’t.


Mostly the prose is incredibly dull. Its very leaden nature stimulated my imagination, and the titles of institutions were enough to set me thinking. Imagine the Church of England Home of Mercy for Fallen Women. Then, there is an absence of children. In a photograph of a giant tree (Tasmania is famous for giant trees) a small girl in a white pinafore and bonnet sits at the root of the tree, while to the left, almost invisible, there sits a woman in black, wearing a stern hat. Both figures have their hands folded on their lap. To the right a man lounges against the base of the tree, his back to the other figures, his hat rather jaunty, his hand on his hip. He stares into the distance. The woman and child suggest themselves as fairy folk. Behind the tree, which reaches up into the heavens beyond the frame, all is misty, smoky, mysterious. How could I not be affected by all this? I was, of course, deeply affected.


Another notable absence from the pictures and the narrative is that of the Chinese population which was actually considerable. Even as a child I wondered about that. This is a white, generally Protestant, serious, respectable history. Yet as I will explain, it awakened and nourished my interest in the stories of indigenous Tasmanians.


The businessmen who subscribed to the publishing costs of the books were the principal characters in the narrative of The Cyclopedia. The authors, generally, are not acknowledged, so it is often impossible to know who was behind the story, responsible for the language, at any time.


One particularly fascinating section is at the back of Volume Two – ‘Curious Facts of Old Colonial Days’. It includes entries headed ‘State Morals in the Early Days’ and ‘Strong Drink in Van Diemen’s Land’. Then there are six pages titled ‘The Aborigines of Tasmania’. This part has no photographs. It seems to be a little afterthought. It is followed by a section called ‘Miscellaneous’. The section about the Aborigines begins with the information:


‘A special interest attaches to the aboriginal inhabitants of ‘the garden island’ inasmuch as they have become utterly extinct; and that too within the memory of many persons who are still in the prime of life.’ There follows a selection of notes from James Bonwick’s work Daily Life and Origin of the Tasmanians. The extinction is stated as a fact, uninformed by pathos, let alone outrage.


Now I was prepared to believe what the book said, that this race of people had ‘completely disappeared off the face of the earth’. I found the idea remarkable and horrifying, and it is not only with hindsight that I say I felt there was something really creepy about the prose itself, this smooth, confident story of what was being named ‘extinction’. ‘They have become utterly extinct.’ ‘Extinct’ was not then a word often, or ever, used in ordinary conversation. I was interested in it. It sounded like a whip.


When I was very young I went to the Hobart Museum where I saw the tiny skeleton of Truganini who was supposed to have been the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines. I had never even seen a human skeleton before, let alone the skeleton of the last member of a lost race of people. I felt awe and a dreadful, shocked sadness. I remember the skeleton as being somehow unrelated to human life, so tiny, so museumy – more like the remains of a bandicoot or something. So this was extinction.


Then there was another book I used to pore over, a cheap green-bound volume published in 1928, Tasmania’s North-East. This one is written in a much more lively and personal style, and I really liked that about it. The author, Mr A. W. Loone, invents headings such as ‘Child Shockingly Mutilated’ and ‘Experience With Grasses’ and ‘The Joke that Failed’. This was clearly a better class of story. The author also quotes James Bonwick, but the burden of his narrative is one of deep compassion and a very real sorrow. He believes the accepted version of the extinction of the race, but his regret is palpable. Other texts I read were informed with a smug congratultion that extinction had been acheived. A most curious feature of this book is that its final chapter, called a ‘Conclusion’ concerns three important Tasmanian Aborigines. It felt to me even as a child that it was a peculiar way to end a book that seemed to be about the pioneers and adventurers and early settlers of the district. It was not usual to end on this note. It is no afterthought, but rather a lament which insists on being spoken, which sits most powerfully as the final statement of the book. The last glossy illustration is a reproduction of the Thomas Bock portrait of the Aboriginal known as Jack of Cape Grim. One of the three Aborigines in the last chapter is Truganini, one is King Billy, and the third is Mathinna.


The first sentence in this chapter says: ‘The history of Mathinna is melancholy in the extreme.’


The entire hidden tragedy and mystery, lit with the flashes of what horrors I knew of the fate of Tasmanian Aborigines, exercised a fascination over my early imagination, but possibly my heart was most deeply touched by the story of this girl. Mathinna. This little girl. There was a smudgy black and white reproduction of Thomas Bock’s portrait of her in some other book belonging to my father, but I no longer have that book. I used to stare and stare at the picture, convinced somehow that the sitter was looking into my soul. Or I was looking into hers. (A portrait of the Princes in the Tower actually had a similar effect on me. I would keep returning to these sweet boys – they resembled girls – who had been murdered and disposed of, never to be found.) I can’t recall when I first saw the picture of Mathinna in colour, but I had imagined that her dress was pink. In fact it is red. The redness seems now to be somehow very significant. I recall my mother telling me that it was actually right to put red shoes on little girls, but wrong to put red shoes on little boys. In fact I really expected Mathinna should have been wearing a white dress. I would have given her a white dress, I thought. Did somebody agonise over the colour? Or was it just that there was a handy piece of red cloth? I was very attracted to portraits of children, and I had several prints of these framed on my bedroom wall, and I thought about them a lot. I am quite sentimental – I have to tell you that for me this picture of Mathinna is the saddest, sweetest, dearest image, and its meaning for me is entwined with my own early life and early reading, as a child, in Tasmania.


Let me tell you what I know about the story of Mathinna.


In 1833, two years before Mathinna was born, her people of the South West tribe were captured by George Augustus Robinson as part of his re-location program, and removed to the Aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island. This settlement was part of a failed experiment in the management of the native people of Van Diemen’s Land. Mathinna was born on Flinders Island and was separated from her family, sent to live with the school-teacher as part of a policy to educate the children in white ways as early as possible in their lives. She was in fact the second child her parents had lost to the white authorities. So from the very beginning of her life Mathinna was alienated from her own people. Her name was to begin with ‘Mary’ but was later changed by white folk to ‘Mathinna’, suggesting to me a rather complex and bewildering confusion of black and white identity.


The Governor of the colony in Van Diemen’s Land was John Franklin, and in 1838 he and his wife Jane visited the Aboriginal settlement at Wybalenna on Flinders Island. They inspected the place and were entertained by the Aborigines with song and dance, and they gave out gifts of beads, handkerchiefs, knives, and marbles. Two years later the Governor and his Lady returned to Wybalenna, and this time they arranged for the child Mary (soon to become known as Mathinna) who was now five, to live with them at Government House in Hobart Town.




Mathinna was suddenly elevated to the status of a child of colonial aristocracy. She shared a governess with Eleanor, the daughter of John Franklin, and rode in the carriage with Lady Franklin. It was at this time that Lady Franklin commissioned Thomas Bock to paint Mathinna’s portrait. Eleanor Franklin kept a diary in which she mentioned Mathinna only twice, a fact that I see as significant in what it reveals about Eleanor’s relationship or lack of it with Mathinna. I will quote these entries which I first read when I was about twelve.


Eleanor wrote: ‘The last Aborigines were caught about a fortnight ago, and sent to Flinders Island, so that our little native girl is the only one remaining here. She is improving I think, though it will be a long time before she becomes quite civilised.’


The other entry, in which Eleanor copies out a letter written by Mathinna, is, in the context of Mathinna’s life, one of the most moving and touching passages I have ever read in its simplicity and its vivid revelation of a life. It is a statement in the form of a letter to Mathinna’s step-father (her own father died when she was two). It seems to me that there is a conflation of three fathers – the step-father, Governor Franklin, and God. The letter is dated 14 November 1841, and it reads:


‘Mathinna is six years old. Her mother Eveline, father, modern name Hannibal, Cape Sorell tribe. I am good little girl. I have pen and ink cause I am good little girl. I do love my father. I have got a doll and shift and a petticoat. I read. My father I thank thee for sleep. I have got red frock. Like my father. Come here to see my father. I have got sore feet and shoes and stockings and I am very glad. All great ships. Tell my father two rooms.’


This period in Mathinna’s life, when she had her own bedroom and her pet possum, when she danced for visitors in her English clothes, did not last long. Two years in fact. Two years during which time she became the pet of the Europeans, but could no longer relate to her own people. The Franklins left Van Diemen’s Land and returned to England in 1843, leaving her behind. She was placed in the Queen’s Orphan School in Hobart where she was utterly different from and unacceptable to the other children. A year later she was back on Flinders Island living with the school master. Fanny Cochrane, an Aboriginal girl who was Mathinna’s age, and who in fact lived to be seventy, was living there as well. The Aborigines at Wybalenna were dying. Mathinna’s step-father died when Mathinna was eleven – her mother was already dead. When she was twelve Mathinna was returned to the Queen’s Orphan School.


At New Norfolk, north west of Hobart, the governor had a country house which Mathinna had visited when she was a member of the Franklin household. She was now taken there for a Christmas treat, as an orphan from the school. Governor and Lady Denison gave a big party, with plum pudding and gifts. There was a tent on the lawn for white folk and a tent for black folk. The Europeans were very interested in the Aborigines, since such people had not been seen in public in southern Van Diemen’s Land for a long time. There was a genuine desire to give the Aborigines a good time at the party, but there was also a sense in which they were a collection of freaks on show. It is so sad and poignant to imagine Mathinna as one of the Aborigines who played and danced for the European audience, she who not long before would have been among the privileged white children herself. And it was only a day outing. In the evening the carriages took the visitors back to the Orphan School.


The Orphan School was an abject Dickensian place of overcrowding, disease, hunger and punishment. The Denisons were interested in trying to improve the conditions, paying visits and taking gifts, and giving prizes for good work. By the time Mathinna left the school at the age of sixteen, she was the only Aboriginal left. She went to live at the tragic settlement at Oyster Cove where the dwindling group of Aborigines were dying of loneliness, disease and broken hearts.


By the time she was twenty-one Mathinna was trading her body for alcohol, and one night when she was drunk she fell into the water, and she drowned.


I try to match the end of this story with the image of the child in the red dress, and I fancy that in the soft hands, gentle smile, and in the intense and searching eyes of the portrait, I can feel the tragedy of the child’s future already written.


You can see that I have a special affection for and relationship with this portrait. I have carried a framed print of it round with me for a long time. Some years ago I went to live in an old house in Melbourne. I was using one of the rooms as a store-room for the time being. But for some reason I banged a nail in the wall and put up one picture, the picture of Mathinna. In the middle of the night, the ceiling of that room came crashing down. Now I realise that that ceiling was ancient and unstable, and that I had disturbed it by hammering the nail into the wall, but I choose to wonder. Would the ceiling have descended it the picture had been of my father in his cricket team?


When I was discussing this essay with Marion, the editor of the book, I told her the anecdote of the ceiling. That night, another piece of ceiling, this time in the bedroom, fell down, disturbed, I like to think, by my telling of the story. I have now had all the ceilings in the house replaced. They are superb. Growing up in Tasmania has affected my reading, my writing, and my ceilings.







Presentación de ‘Hijas de un sueño’ en la Biblioteca Provincial de Huelva (23/03/18). Ciclo: ‘La mujer cuenta en las bibliotecas’

Gerardo Rodríguez Salas

El viernes 23 de marzo a las 20 horas presentaré mi libro Hijas de un sueño en la Biblioteca Provincial de Huelva (Avd. Martín Alonso Pinzón) dentro del calendario de actividades organizadas con motivo del Día Internacional de la Mujer bajo el título ‘La mujer cuenta en las bibliotecas’. Estaré acompañado por la Profesora de Literatura Beatriz Domínguez García, de la Universidad de Huelva.

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‘ALL SOULS’ is a story from Hijas de un Sueño, a collection of short fiction by Gerardo Rodriguez Salas, published 2017 by ESDRUJULA EDICIONES. This English translation is the result of a collaboration between myself and the author.

you are alone

I am alone

but sometimes

loneliness can


a flame.


Mario Benedetti


A ray of sunlight filtered through the filmy curtain of the bedroom window. Slowly, as Maria opened her eyes, she savoured the heat of her skin. The night had startled her with dreams so that she now felt an urgency to get in the car and collect her mother and Aunt Reme to take them to the cemetery. How strange! She had never felt like this before about All Souls’ Day. Yes, of course she remembered the dead, sometimes she even talked to them, but she seldom visited the graves. Maybe because the old sepulchres oozed mourning, reeked of oblivion. What a terrible smell! Yet this day she wanted to touch the marble and feel the fire of remembrance burning on the other side.

She remembered her brother.

When she raised the blinds, her smile changed to astonishment. It was a sunny autumn day, but the wind blew like never before. The fallen leaves danced madly in flaming whirlwinds. A neighbour was running about, grabbing at the clothes on the clothes-line, raising her arms to catch a skirt that was pirouetting, it seemed, to the rhythm of her anger. A tattered piece of paper flew by, drifted, ending up spiked on a fence. A crazy acrobat was walking on a rope stretched between two trees. He lost his balance and crashed to the ground. Maria rubbed her eyes, and a sweet peal of her laughter died out on the wind.

It was them! Her mother and aunt had arrived. Dead souls howled on a wild flurry of air.

Her mother swiftly got into the car with her, and Reme, always the younger sister, followed.

―Oh, child! What a horrible wind! said her mother.

―This is so, so sad, whispered the aunt― Oh, Matilde, I left the graves perfect, gleaming yesterday, and see! This is very disturbing.  The flowers are all over the place. I can’t look!

They all stared, astonished at the havoc wrought by the wind. Meanwhile the car climbed the steep slope to the cemetery. When the two got out, leaving Maria in the car, a sudden gust took off Reme’s scarf and Matilde grabbed the door-handle to prevent herself from falling. The wind subsided for a few seconds, during which they entered the graveyard, shouting words Maria could not understand. Alone by the car, she looked up.  The sky, a delicate indigo was  splashed with cloudy chiffon, embroidered with swooping seagulls. With her eyes she could not detect movement, but her body, inspired by the lashing of the wind, felt it. The souls of the dead, like birds in flight, roared with the wind. For a moment, she became as a seagull and she rose up from the earth.

When she entered the cemetery, she was surprised there were so many people there, in spite of the wind. It was sad to see so much damage: cracked jars, sponges rolling up and down the paths, flowerpots lying broken on the ground and on the tombs. Deafened by the wind, she absorbed the colours of the chrysanthemums, lilies, roses, gladioli, daisies, irises, camellias, carnations… What did it matter anyway, if the flowers were exquisitely laid out or scattered everywhere? She opened her eyes wide and breathed in a jumbled magic.

Far away she could see, like two graces, her mother and aunt next to a grave. She and went closer, struggling against the wind.

―Oh, what a shame, Maria! ―shouted her aunt as she tidied a broken pot of bright yellow chrysanthemums― This is a total wreck. What a Day of All Souls! Ah, your grandmother loved flowers so much…

– Reme darling, I think it’s best to take the flowers home for her. If we leave them here they’ll just blow away and…

But, before ending the sentence, she had to grab her sister’s arm in order not to topple over in the wind. While they complained about the damage, Maria turned to the headstone of her brother. She stared down at it, and she shivered.

―What is not remembered is as if it didn’t ever exist ―said Matilde striking a pious, solemn pose.

Maria took in her mother’s unexpected words and, plucking a chrysanthemum from the pot, she put it quietly on her brother’s grave. But the wind whipped it up and stole it away. She ran after the flower that settled on a tiny little shrine. Kneeling, breathless, she lifted the chrysanthemum and read a name traced out in golden letters. It could not be true! She had always thought Elisa was a legend.

Once upon a time there was a small child with golden hair, sapphire eyes and angelic smile. People in Candiles imagined she was a fairy and queued to see her in her cradle. One autumn night, the mother tucked her in and sang her favourite lullaby.

Lulla-lulla-byyye, Bye,

My child is sleepy,

 Angels will bless her

 Yet this litt’l child

Does not have a cot,

But her father’s a carpenter

He will make one

For her 

 So he makes her a cot

Of caramel candy

And when she wakes up,

She can lick her sweet thumb

 Elisa fell asleep. Her mother kissed her on the forehead and turned off the light. That night someone broke into the house, stole the TV, a rifle and the baby, who never returned from that caramel night. The mother completely lost her mind, and the father locked himself away in the carpentry shop. Carving cradles. As years went by, hope faded like a candle at dawn, and the family buried an empty coffin.

 Maria cradled her brother’s tombstone in her arms and closed her eyes. She was sitting with her brother again, in the back of the car, driving with cardboard steering wheels. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye and smiled because they were wearing identical caps. Propelled by the wind, memories flew out the window and dissolved on the surface of the rear-vision mirror.

Maria placed the golden chrysanthemum down on Elisa’s grave, and she could hear faint laughter that was lost on the wind. Then the flower was lifted up, and it sailed off into the sky, up until it disappeared under the shadows of the seagulls.

Yes, the clouds were not coming to her. Towards heaven they flew free, with the roar of the wind.

The wind.


A Collection of Spanish Stories – memoir and comment

GERARDO2.jpgGerardo Rodriguez Salas – author of a recent collection of Spanish short stories:  Hijas de un Sueño at his desk in Granada

One night in December 2001 I went to a party. It was in a grand reception hall at the University of Granada, and there I met Gerardo Rodriguez Salas, a PhD student of literature in English. We were both part of a conference on writing from the British Commonwealth. When I told Gerardo I was extra keen on the work of Lorca, he arranged for me to go the next day to the Lorca museum in Fuente Vaqueros, about half an hour by car from Granada. Dr Susan Ballyn from the University of Barcelona kindly drove me to the museum. So far, a sweetly orthodox tale. It could have all ended there. But since the party, all of sixteen years ago, Gerardo and I have been having a conversation, sometimes by email, occasionally face to face in Spain or Australia. So it’s a never-ending party.

In 2017 Gerardo published his first collection of twelve stories, Hijas de un Sueño which I choose to translate as Daughters of the Dream. Each story is given an epigraph, one of them being from Lorca, two from Katherine Mansfield – also a writer for whom Gerardo and I share a great love. But there is another writer (whose work was before this unfamiliar to me – my loss) who is highly significant to the collection, and that is Angeles Mora, the 2016 winner of the Spanish National Prize for Poetry. Angeles Mora provides a Preface, and also the epigraph for the book:

‘In the labyrinthine lights of your mind

I was the guest that stayed for dinner’

So the reader realises the stories will have a strong kinship with poetry. They are set, as a splintered discontinuous narrative, in the imaginary Andalusian village of Candiles, the name of which invokes the image of an old oil lamp. On the jacket of the book, the light from such a lamp fills the interior of a snow globe, the lamp being in the hand of a small adventurous girl who resembles an illustration in a picture book from the thirties. With a wonderful understatement and subtlety, the jacket is the flat colour of a dried brown leaf, the girl and her lamp lightly sketched in a darker shade of umber.

The title story, concerning the life and death of a grandmother, and the history of a family after the Civil War, begins with a riddling sentence that sets the reader’s mind off into a labyrinth of images, characters and situations: ‘When the grandmother was born, the world began to die.’ It is local; it is universal – funny, tragic, grand and sad.

Woven deeply into the whole fabric of the collection are inter-textual references to the works of Lorca and Mansfield. ‘Leftovers’ is a delicate re-visiting of Mansfield’s ‘Miss Brill’ (one of the finest and most heart-breaking short stories ever written), and the Spanish story takes as its epigraph a quotation from ‘Miss Brill’: ‘They were all on stage. They weren’t only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting.’ This foregrounding of the theatre of lived lives is the key motif and device of ‘Retales’, and the story rings with the deep pathos that it shares with ‘Miss Brill’.

Characters from one story will speak up in another. In ‘All Souls’, where the legend of a long-lost child provides the spine of the tale, people from ‘Daughters of the Dream’ appear, and play their part in the visit to the cemetery on a very windy day. I tell you, this is beautiful, entrancing stuff to read. Experimental, playing with light and dark, language and literature.

I should say that the collection has not yet appeared in an English translation, but that’s no reason for me to conceal my pleasure and interest in it from English-speaking readers. One of the stories, ‘Mirage’ was in fact published in an English version in Meanjin a few years ago, so there is a little Australian connection. The works of Lewis Carroll and of Virginia Woolf resonate in ‘Beyond Dreams’. ‘Twelve Butterflies’ is set in rural Spain at the start of the nineteenth century when the Inquisition was in its last stages, and it is a glorious feminist re-writing of the Grimm tale ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’. Imagine that if you will.

This collection is one of the great treasures of my bookshelf, and I am so pleased I went to that party in Granada.HIJAS2.jpg




Sometimes part of the attraction a book has for a reader depends on the time and place where the reader first read the book, the circumstances surrounding the event. The ambience gets into the readers’s memory of the book, and never goes away. My father used to read Wind in the Willows to my little brother, and I used to listen in, and so the story is woven into the experience of the reading. I always think fondly of those times whenever I read or hear someone read the book. When I was about fifteen I had a crush on a boy who gave me a blue and white Penguin copy of the first volume of The Divine Comedy which I then read with a special weird fascination, a fascination coloured by thoughts about the boy himself. I used to sit on the front veranda reading The Divine Comedy and this boy would come past and we would more or less solemnly discuss the book.

In Sydney in May 1998. It was early evening. I was waiting for a cab at the wharf, going back to the hotel after a session at the Writers’ Festival. It was raining like mad and I was sharing a black umbrella with a man I had just met. It happened to Auberon Waugh. I have admired his writing since the sixties, and I’m an avid reader of The Literary Review of which he was then the editor. Under the umbrella he didn’t seem to me to resemble the cartoon of himself in the pulpit at the front of the magazine.

The cab didn’t come and didn’t come, and I begin to tell AW about the first time I read his work.

It was summer 1963 Massachussets. I was staying with friends of friends in a tall serene old house surrounded by European trees. My bedroom was an attic, and beside the bed was a low white bookcase. It was there I found The Foxglove Saga by Auberon Waugh.

The novel is a bit like a sharply farcical Brideshead Revisited – sly, ruthlessly subversive and very funny. I was captivated by delicious the characters and elegant turns of phrase. The action moves from a religious community and school to hospitals, madhouses, the army and various dens of iniquity. The aristocratic Martin Foxglove is matched by Kenneth Stoat, the repellent and unprepossessing son of a dentist. The ridiculously Catholic Lady Foxglove is a magnificent hypocrite whose antics and manipulations are described with a breathless glee. ‘She took out her little notebook in which she wrote her day’s good works. On each page was printed a list: Bury the Dead, Visit the Imprisoned, Clothe the Naked – goodness she must remember about Martin’s new uniform. Give Food to the Hungry – well, that’s myself, she thought humorously.’ She knows the best make-up to wear in times of disaster. She makes at least one fatal mistake when she puts two letters in the wrong envelopes. I love novels with the letter motif.

Nobody is really redeemed in The Foxglove Saga ; people start out bad and just get worse. To spite his mother Martin loses his faith. When she is slowly fading away in a nursing home he sends her a jar of gooseberry jam each Christmas. The religious Brothers are devious and spiteful, and the nurses are in fact criminal.

I loved that book, and I sometimes re-read it with great pleasure. Its principal subject is the joke of the fact of mortality, as this joke translates into character and society.


As we stood in the gloom under the umbrella, AW reached into his briefcase and pulled out a small book. He handed it to me and said he would like me to have it. It was a slightly battered uncorrected proof copy of The Foxglove Saga bound in manilla, with burnt umber type. Chapman & Hall. Lg. Crown 8vo. pp.240 Approx. price 15s. 0d. To be published September 1960.


I was amazed. Dazed. One of my favourite novels by one of my favourite authors, and here is the author handing me a rare and precious copy. An unimagined moment. I really like bound proofs, I love their spare design and simplicity. No blurbs, no guff, no cover illustration.
In the proof of The Foxglove Saga there’s a black and white line drawing on the title page. This is an unusual flourish, even for the real thing, but very odd in a proof. A sketch of a foxglove in bloom, with a stoat standing on its back legs gazing into the lowest floret, like an illustration in a children’s book.


The first time I read the novel in Massachussetts, I liked it so much my hosts said I could keep it. So for me it seems to be charmed. First the desired copy became mine; thirty-odd years later, the bound proof. Imagine. The cosy attic bedroom in Massachussetts is wrapped around me and The Foxglove Saga. Then this the long-ago bedroom is brought forward in my consciousness as I stand with the author in the rain at the wharf. And as if by magic the buff and russet book, soft, faintly ragged, vaguely discoloured at the edges, rusting at the seams, lifts from the briefcase and is put into my hands. There was something unreal and dreamlike about all this.

Auberon Waugh has since died. This makes me very sad.

Lady Foxglove died, you may like to know, as she had lived, in the odour of sanctity.

Stoat joined the order.

ASHES TO ASHES – is it cricket?

‘Crematorium’ reads the old blue street sign in Eaglehawk, Victoria, and the child assumes there is a link to ice cream somehow. I explain the meaning. He is shocked. ‘What, burnt?’ he says. I briefly explain and then hurry past the grisly thoughts and images, and tell him instead about the significance of ashes to the game of cricket. Then later I decide to investigate the background to the famous urn of ashes that is housed at Lord’s.Ashes-Urnx640.jpg

In the spring there are a few pale golden daffodils nodding in the grasses among which stand, here and there, the gravestones in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene (see the image at the head of this page). Kind of romantic. This is Cobham in Kent, and the tower of the church is one of those severe square Norman ones in weathered grey stone. One grave is that of Ivo, 8th Earl of Darnley and his ‘loving and beloved’ wife Florence. When I was doing research for my 1995 novel The White Garden, I visited by chance the church in Cobham, but I confess I paid little attention to the headstones. I must further confess that my research for this essay comes mostly from the internet. So perhaps this is not an essay after all, but a piece of deeply unreliable fiction. It seems the grave of Ivo and Florence was restored in 2011. If I ever return to Cobham I will look at it. You might wonder why the earl and his lady are buried in the churchyard, and not in some more auspicious location. Well, it so happens that the last Earl of Darnley to be buried in Westminster Abbey was the third one, who died in 1781, after which there was apparently no room there for any more Earls of Darnley. So the family built an elaborate mausoleum in the grounds of Cobham manor house, but, as my sources tell me, ‘for obscure reasons’ nobody was ever laid there to rest. So there are Ivo and Florence in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalene. I do love and obscure reason.

Keep your eye on Florence, loving and beloved wife of Ivo.

I must now turn to the matter of cricket. Florence was a key player in the narrative about the ‘Ashes’ that are kept in an urn at Lord’s, and that have given their name to the cricket series between England and Australia. In 1882 after Australia defeated England at Lord’s, there was a mock obituary in the Sporting Times lamenting the death of English cricket, and saying that its body would be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia. Legend has it that a stump from the fatal match was burned, and that the ashes were sent to Australia. The destination of these ashes seems to remain unknown. Ivo captained the English team that subsequently played in Australia in 1882 – 83 and he said he would ‘bring back the Ashes’. So far, so much metaphor.

Ivo and the team sailed from England to Australia in the company of Sir William and Lady Clarke of Rupertswood, Sunbury, Sir William being President of the Melbourne Cricket Club. Now, on board was Florence Morphy, governess to the Clarke children. Florence was the daughter of the police magistrate at Beechworth, Victoria. Ivo and Florence fell in love and were married at St Mary’s in Sunbury in 1884. There’s a nice happy ending bang in the middle of the story.

But between the shipboard romance and the wedding, there was cricket. Before the tour began, on Christmas eve 1882, Sir William presented Ivo with a tiny urn. Was the urn silver? Was it terra cotta? What did it contain? Why ashes of course. But ashes of what? Stump, ball, bail or veil? Family legend insists they were the ashes of a veil belonging to Florence, burnt by Lady Clarke in a playful, romantic gesture. I can’t help thinking this was a weird thing to do, to burn the veil of the governess and pop them in an urn. But then, the Victorians were into memorial keepsakes. If Lady Clarke did burn the veil, she set the ball rolling for confusion ever after between ‘veil’ and ‘bail’. This confusion is perhaps compounded by the fact that after the English won the third game of the series Ivo took a bail from that match, had it made into a letter-opener, and presented it to Lady Clarke. Both the urn and the letter-opener remained at Rupertswood until Ivo came back later in 1883, and married Florence in 1884. He took the urn home to England and it now lives at Lord’s. It is made from terra cotta, and has returned to Australia only twice; the letter-opener is still in Australia.

The ultimate happy ending I suppose is embedded in the graveyard at St Mary Magdalene, Ivo having been buried there in 1927, and Florence in 1944. (Florence died on my fourth birthday – a seriously useless piece of trivia, but at least it is probably a fact.) I assume that it is the skeletons, not the ashes, of Ivo and Florence that lie in the graveyard with the daffodils. Together at last.

In a recent novel by Fay Weldon, Death of a She Devil, there are lots of old people living in an ancient lighthouse (don’t ask). When the 94 year-old man (the only man in the place) dies, there is much discussion of how to dispose of his body. Burial, cremation or something else such as liquefying him and pouring him into the sand. They do in fact crudely and illegally bury him, and he surfaces from time to time, being finally taken off to the morgue. His ultimate resting place is not recorded in the novel.

So, to bury? Or to cremate? To follow the blue street sign to the crematorium, or to meander off to the churchyard. Furnace or slow decay? Problem.

Recently a friend was saying that she and her family are thinking of taking her sister’s ashes to the sea, and scattering them in the waves not far from the old family home. Then she said she might take the ashes of her own late husband and daughter too, and scatter them, since what to do with them has never been decided. This set me off on a frequent train of thought of mine, which is that families often seem to have a problem knowing what to do with the ashes of the dead. Burial of a body is so routine and straightforward, in a way. You die, you are boxed, the box is buried, nature, merry with moisture and heat and cold, bacteria and critters, takes its course. You have a location in the graveyard. Ivo and Florence, for example, will ‘always’ be in place. Ashes in urns often lurk awkwardly about the house for years and years.

I sometimes recall the end of Wuthering Heights where Lockwood visited the graves of Edgar Linton, Cathy and Heathcliff. He: ‘lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.’

This kind of thing appeals to the romantic imagination, removing from the picture the busy and disquieting presence of a range of worms and insects, not to mention the effects of water, fungus, the interest of wild animals, bacteria and the general process of decay. But the romantic imagination is a long long way from reality; that is its function of course.

Some of my family and friends have been buried, and some have been cremated. Both are horrible. They are the two principal methods used today, although as the earth grows ever more crowded and betrayed, and as people become more urgently aware of the need to care for the planet, it is clear that both of these methods involve a most serious and dramatic waste of precious resources.

The characters in my most recent novel Family Skeleton are funeral directors, involved in making a fortune from burials and cremations. The narrator is a skeleton; a body languishes in a cellar unattended for five years; romantic gestures include releasing flocks of butterflies at funerals. There are various kinds of cemeteries in the book. Although nothing quite like the one in Wuthering Heights or the one at St Mary Magdalene. And I realise there is no discussion of cremation in my novel. It’s a burial kind of novel. Dead ad buried, buried alive.

I have no answers to the question of whether to donate the body to science, to bury, to cremate, to liquefy – or even to mummify. It’s clear that a dead body is a problem, whichever way you look at it. But now at least when I think of ashes I might think of Ivo and Florence and the ashes of the veil, the renovated grave, the empty mausoleum. It’s easy to slip from the horrors of that child’s question: ‘What, burnt?’ to the romance of moths fluttering among the heath and harebells.

Not to mention the mysterious romance of The Ashes.


New Year 2018            THE FOLIO SOCIETY DIARY


Often at Christmas I receive a beautiful diary for the coming year. I have developed a habit, or perhaps a phobia, whereby I never use them as diaries at all, because they are too precious. To write on the details of everyday life would surely be to deface them. Like some dreadful kind of graffiti. There seems to me to be an unbridgeable gap between the spirit of the pictures, the skill, the colours, the subject matter, and the facts of appointments with friends, family, dentists and hairdressers. I keep track of those on my phone, laptop, and in dreary ‘planners’ designed for the purpose. On my bookshelves I have several of the fancy diaries from past years, pristine collections of photos of the works of Gaudi, the Lady and the Unicorn, paintings of Australian birds, botanical illustrations.

This year my daughter gave me a diary from the Folio Society. Gorgeous. Small hardback. On the cover is an embossed image of a leaping stag from the Liber Bestiarum held in the Bodleian Library and made in the thirteenth century. The left hand pages show, in strangely soothing colour, on pleasing thick creamy paper stock, images from works of art made in the fifteenth century or earlier. A dreamy selection of fifty-five medieval sights from prayer books, maps, frescoes, manuscripts, herbals, music scripts. I sat down beside the Christmas tree and became lost in a sweet, slow contemplation of the pictures. A detail from the Lindisfarne Gospels, a man catching bees from a Book of Hours, a snowball fight from an Italian fresco.

When at last I closed the diary, everyone else had gone for a swim. I started to think – will I put the diary on my desk and just look at the image for the week? Will I put it on a nearby table and look at it from time to time? What if – it came to me as a revelation – what if I got a nice soft forgiving pencil and wrote appointments in it? Surely not.

On the eleventh of January 2018 I have an appointment with my hairdresser. I turned to the relevant page, where there is a facing picture of Christine de Pizan in her study, painted in the early fifteenth century. The blue of her gown echoes the blue of the cover of the book. Her hair is concealed beneath the sails of a crisp white head-dress. Her tiny white dog waits obediently at her feet. She sits on a chair that resembles what is often known as a Savonarola, in a stone archway. Her book, covered in handwriting, is open on the table. She has some sort of writing instrument in each hand, and she has almost reached the bottom of the page. Her gaze is thoughtful. What will she write next? I picked up a soft pencil, and in the narrow space provided for events scheduled for Thursday 11, I wrote: Hair 2.15.