I’m not the first to find America hard!

Nothing new about that title, what’s new is that I’ve found I’m not the first in my genetic lineage to find America hard and choose Australia instead. Meet George William Parkinson, my great-great grandfather. [I’m guessing that’s a painted back drop for the photograph, which raises the question, why roses George? Why rambling roses? Nice bow-tie and fob-watch by the way]

Gold Miner Ancestor Grannys Side George Parkinson

Despite looking kindly enough, my Grandmother, his granddaughter, said he was grumpy. She also had a story about his bowed legs, but if I told that now I would be getting ahead of myself. You’d be grumpy too if you’d had the pain in your legs that he probably had everyday since he was 11 years’ old.

George was born on the 5th of March 1838 in Bristol, Gloucestershire, to John Parkinson and Mary Anne Parkinson née Cole (pictured above), who were at the time both 18. George was followed over the next eight years by brothers Arthur and Thomas. John was an upholsterer and all seemed perhaps straightforward enough for the growing family. We will never know how they heard the news of Californian gold, or exactly what caught John’s imagination, but in 1848 he and George headed for New Orleans on the ship, The United States. John and George (aged 11) arrived in New Orleans on January 31st 1849 and headed up the Mississippi to join the overland route for California and gold. Yup, they were ’49 ers.

Here Granny’s story departs from the constraints of linear time. Her story had young George at the Battle of Little Bighorn, his life being saved only because on the day before the deaths of Col. Custer and all his men, George’s horse rolled on him breaking both his legs. Having been evacuated for medical attention he avoided the slaughter. George certainly had bowed legs, but Custer’s Last Stand, known to the Lakota and other Plains Indians as the Battle of the Greasy Grass, did not happen until 1876. By that time George was married and a proud father in Australia. Never let facts get in the way of a good story. Again we will never know, but I wonder if George’s horse did roll on him at some point on the wagon journey across to Sutter’s Creek. Accidents must have been regular. Perhaps because of his injury George and John left their fellow travellers, who were later massacred. Perhaps George’s broken legs saved their lives. Perhaps a growing lad with poor diet who rode a horse for months across America just developed bowed legs. We will never know.

I am again speculating, but forgive me, no one in my family tree has ever been rich so I suspect John was a better upholsterer than gold miner. The next we hear of John and George they are in Victoria, again chasing that most elusive metal as part of the Ballarat gold rush. The Victorian gold rush began in 1851, and father and son must have arrived in Victoria by 1853, because in May 1854 George gained a third younger brother, James Henry.

Star of the EastThis had me intrigued. How and where did the family reunite? I cannot find any passenger lists showing John or George leaving California. And why on earth did Mary Anne agree to the family joining a second gold rush? I thought perhaps she had no choice if mail arrived from California telling her that John and George had moved on, calling her to join them. But then I found record of a John Parkinson and company of 1 arriving in Melbourne on September 1852 on the Clipper Star of the East; a ship that sailed out of Liverpool. Liverpool is a long way from California.

I looked on in the Unassisted Passenger Lists, and there she is, Parkinson Mary Anne, arrived Melbourne, December 23rd 1852 onboard the Covenanter (great name for a Presbyterian). Now this advert is not for Mary Anne’s sailing it’s for Progress, a ship to be succeeded by the new Covenanter. When I read it the first time I missed the ship’s name and imagined it somehow took over six months to arrive. I bet Mary Anne’s glad I was wrong, that does seem unreasonably long. Six months in a leaky boat notwithstanding. But now we know something of the Covenanter; it was new. And it is another bit of rich context:

Covenanter 10 Jul 1852

It seems that our Mary Anne arrived in time to cook Christmas dinner 1852, just three months after John arrived. I wonder if he knew she was coming? I started to wonder, am I saying that John and George returned to Bristol to collect Mary Anne and the boys? That’s romantic dedication if you’re at a gold rush in California. Maybe George’s accident was earlier on in their journey than I had assumed and in fact the two returned to Bristol without reaching their dream of Californian gold. Thwarted by these United States, did they too return home before setting out again in 1852. Frequent sailing miles? Maybe, but I repeat my question, why on earth did Mary Anne agree to a second gold rush? I am however not at all surprised that this time she refused to be left at home. Although I am curious why they didn’t all travel together.

Mary Anne is a very interesting woman; one of several I’m proud to list among my ancestresses. We guessed didn’t we that she and John were not affluent in 1848, perhaps John wasn’t the greatest upholsterer or perhaps his dreams were just bigger than his abilities. But whatever the reason, when he and George headed off in search of fortune in California, Arthur was sent to his grandparents while Mary Anne and Thomas went to the Stapleton Poor Asylum. Interestingly they weren’t admitted, they went at the instigation of their church, who arranged that Mary Anne would be trained as a nurse and midwife in return for board and lodging. That’s right, in 1848, Mary Anne was a single mother, separated from two of her children, working in an asylum and workhouse, training as a midwife and nurse. She does look capable doesn’t she. That photo up the top of this post is Mary Anne. And whether travelling with John and George or without, in 1852 she travelled with two small children to Victoria.

Mary Anne and John had a total of six children over 23 years. She died of pneumonia in 1879 at the age of 59 (women in my family don’t make old bones), in Auckland New Zealand. Of course they didn’t stay in Victoria, I mean there was a perfectly good gold rush south east of Auckland in the 1860s. I am only surprised John didn’t drag her over the Pacific to Chile.

Our George of the bowed legs, who was not at the Battle of the Greasy Grass, married Susannah Elizabeth Norris in 1866 in Fitzroy, Victoria. Poor Susannah died the next year and George then married Emily Browell and they had six children together. He died on 17 May 1920 in Footscray, Victoria, at the age of 82 and was buried with Masonic rites. George’s eldest son, Frederick Arthur Parkinson was my great-grandfather. My Poppa. To my knowledge he never left Victoria, but perhaps there’s something poetic in the fact that in this photograph he appears to be wearing moccasins. Or am I imagining…

Poppa Parkinson

 

A more Classy type of Tourist

Soundtrack: The Sound of White
Missy Higgins

IMG_2112Today was a really good day. Starting with a walk to a Farmer’s Market, finding a Compost Club, sharing a warm drink and ideas in a stimulating space, before heading off to the Art Institute of Chicago where I became a member. So happy. On the bus on the way in I heard a somewhat pretentious man declaring his love for John Singer Sargent, the feature artist of the exhibition I was going to see. The thing this gentlemen declared as breathtaking about Sargent’s work is his use of white. I therefore made a mental note to attend to the use of white in the exhibition.

Those of you who’ve seen my posts about other exhibitions know that rather than reproducing each painting in full I mostly tend to post images of fragments of the works that speak to me. On the way in, my first taste of white was a marble where Zeus turned himself into a goose (swan, but goose works for me) to seduce this Queen of Sparta.

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Anyway goose neck distractions resisted, when I eventually entered the Sargent exhibition I aimed to capture what to me is The Sound and smell and taste of White in Sargent’s work, the richness of his palette, the fullness and emptiness of White which must be the hardest tone to paint.

 

Oh, and before we go to Sargent, one of his influences was a gentleman who should always be indulged for his atmospheric use of white and light, Merci Claude.

Monet Train

 

Like a freeze-dried rose, you will never be, 
What you were, what you were to me in memory.

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I deliberately photographed this Street in Venice from the side, adopting a position of leaning on the wall, and like the men allowing this determined young woman to walk on, her thoughts uninterrupted.

I love the strength about these women that Sargent manages to embrace.

If things get real for me down here…

This lovely child was described as an Italian or Spanish beggar girl in Paris. So exposed and real for her down there, begging dressed like a virgin, a world apart from the high class portraits he went on to complete.

And if I listen to, the sound of white, 
Sometimes I hear your smile, and breath your light. 

That clear white skin, and the incredible detail, all accentuated with tones of white. Sadly the only woman of colour in the exhibition was also the only nude: in coloniality white is pure, black skin is always licentious.

But if I listen to the dark, 
You’ll embrace me like a star
Envelope me, envelope me

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This incredibly self-possessed woman is not a Sargent, this work is by Giovanni Boldini. Love Miss Clark, Actress.

Sargent did have an en plein air phase which for my taste could be skipped over with one exception.

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And of course Claude was an influence on this phase of Sargent’s career too. Love Claude.

Thankfully Sargent returned to portraits and for a while also painted some men, where the detail in the White on White is exquisite.

At that time he also painted this stunning watercolour in Florida.

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Of course as I wandered out from Sargent’s White I discovered my favourite elephant god looking on the reflected white of the Chicago skyline, and thought my day complete.

But a trip to any excellent gallery can include an unexpected twist, and in this case I embraced the fact that no one does White like a Japanese artist.

And so coming complete circle with Missy Higgins, I found this incredible work by Japanese artist Mineo Mizuno, whose father died in WWII before the artist was born. Called Water Drop, the gouged empty centre speaks physically to the silent sound of the characters repeated over the surface that mean “null”, “void” or “nothingness”.

My silence solidifies, 
Until that hollow void erases you, 
Erases you so I can’t feel at all. 
But if I never feel again, at least that nothingness 
Will end the painful dream, of you and me. 
If things get real for me down here, promise to take me to 
Before you went away, if only for a day. 
If things get real for me down here, promise to take me back to 
The tune we played before you went away.

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And if I listen to, the sound of white,
Sometimes I hear your smile, and breath your light.
Yeah if I listen to, the sound of white
You’re my mystery. One mystery. My mystery. One mystery..

Binti, a woman of earth and stars

Binti and Binti: Home, by  Nnedi Okorafor
The above incredible image was sourced from DestinAsian 

I really want to write you a review of the novellas Binti, and Binti: Home, it’s a long time since I read such real science fiction. But I find I’m not sure where to begin. Instead of finding words or images to share with you, a story line to attract you, instead my brain is still and I can feel earth, coarse damp earth, rough wet clay on my skin. I want to smear it, rub it onto myself. This is unusual for me, I am a woman of water. But the scent of living soil is in my nostrils, minerals seeping into my blood. Enervating. I feel grounded. Real. Growing, alive, but still and stopped. I want to go outside and bury my hands in the soil, feel its pulsing life. To stand on rock and earth. I don’t want to appropriate her culture, to claim for myself otjize, the culture of the Himba women of Namibia. I just want to inhale that grounded life. Maybe I want to reach out and touch that warm supple skin. To taste transcendence in immanent earth. That is the gift of Binti.

Binti is a young woman of colour, the first of her people to be accepted into university on a far planet. She leaves alone in the early morning. By leaving she is exiled. She is the sole survivor of a massacre. She is a harmoniser, a woman who weaves mathematical patterns of meaning and peace. She is powerful. Transcendent and deliberately immanent. Woman.

I don’t think Binti asked me any profound questions, other than why she should be the first woman of colour to have a science fiction series of her own. I love that this is a book written by a woman, about a woman. A book about a woman who dared to defy social strictures that would have held her at home, told her who to be, how to be a good woman. Instead she journeyed away, redefined the meaning of being a good woman. Took the earth from which she came and healed others. Created earth with the power of womanhood and healing and home, although the distances of space ached between. Returned to find change for all life is change. To find something new of herself and her people and her universe. To find echoes of time.

Not since my earliest readings of Ursula Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World some thirty years ago have I felt so connected to a science fiction culture, a science fiction character. And I love science fiction. So that is the highest praise I can offer. Neither Binti or Binti: Home are long, they leave you aching for more. And to be honest, I don’t think I liked the end of Binti: Home. But I desire, long for the next instalment Binti: The Night Masquerade. I’m holding a deep hope that Okorafor doesn’t fly Binti away into unreality, when she has been so grounded, so real to date. And so sniffing earth, tasting ground, smelling stardust with our toes, we wait.

 

 

Last stop before home

I said earlier today that it feels like I’ve been travelling since June when I headed off for Montreal. And I know I was home in November, and a bit of December, but wow what an 8 months. No wonder I looked tired when I reached Thailand. This afternoon in Singapore I’m glad to be on my way home. In Inhaling colour, tasting light I promised you some more of Melaka outside the home of Tham Siew Inn so here’s my final post before home.

On Saturday we drove from KL to Melaka and found ourselves in the midst of celebrations of the end of Chinese New Year. Oh what fun. We passed the procession on the way into town and as they circled and wove their way toward their temple goal, we seemed to keep crossing each other’s paths, twisting and twirling. So much colour and vibrant life, energy. It was the celebration of the Emperor that falls at the end of Chinese New Year and brings prosperity and life. Lucky us.

In between bits of march passing us we managed to fit in one of many fabulous and huge feasts, this one in a large old home, building, warehouse that has been renovated. I was to discover a few of those over the weekend. Continue reading “Last stop before home”

Inhaling colour, tasting light

Soundtrack: Beethoven: Piano Sonata#14 in C Sharp Minor Op. 27/2
Moonlight, First Movement

Tham Siew Inn

I have been so privileged this trip to stay with families, to be welcomed into people’s homes, invited to share food, to sit. One of the truly great privileges of this trip was being taken by a dear friend and her family to Melaka, and then invited into the home of artist Tham Siew Inn. Such an honour to quietly spend time inhaling the atmosphere of the artist’s residence, imbibing the green of their gardens. Drinking tea. Sitting us women, peeling pomelo. Talking with family members, two sons creative artists themselves and the oh so real, material, tangible woman-wife-foundation, herself a teacher and creative floral artist. There were times sitting with the art, wandering the rooms, up and down the stairs, when I caught myself almost wondering what we were doing next, but not following the thought as time had slowed, the lime infused walls cooled the heat of stress and haste, and I wanted to just be, to be breathing, to just be. The colour breathed calm into the empty places in my soul. And of course sharing together much much wonderful local food breathed companionship into the empty places in all our bellies.

When you look out from the first floor gallery through the open windows, the old green glass with its patina of the ripples of time, you see into Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, one of the oldest streets in UNESCO listed Melaka. That’s the street where you find the artist’s gallery, and it’s a street of contrasts. From the most hip art coffee house The Baboon House, to a museum with original shoes for Chinese women’s bound feet, to a UNESCO restored house showing original architecture and building styles. The atmosphere of creativity, grounded in history, twisting and tasting and reinventing identity and vision and place. Continue reading “Inhaling colour, tasting light”

To Hellfire Pass and Back, Hallelujah

Soundtrack, a very broken Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen,
performed by  Jeff Buckley

img_7472I’ve never been one for war memorials, I’ve been to one Dawn Service, never felt I wanted to go to Gallipoli. But something in me jumped at the chance to take a trip to the River Kwai, it just seemed right somehow. I didn’t really even think about what it would be, just knew I had to go. It seemed like a good reason for having found myself in Thailand.

You might question my soundtrack recommendation for this post, but it seems so right to me, the rough, broken emptiness of the empty Hallelujah of Cohen crying for meaning. And performed by Jeff Buckley, the spaces between the guitar strings become the spaces in a disillusioned heart full of longing. For me, the sun-baked jungle mountains reached out to sons of a sun-burnt country whose faith was formed in suffering in a sun-parched Judea, until it resonated with a very hot agonised human thirst for meaning. I hope you’ll come to agree that the Hallelujah respects the spirit of those men, who, although broken, dying, tortured in body, mind and soul, even in death, still remained human, remained Australian, and endured.

Now, I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah

Our journey to Hellfire Pass started at the War Cemetery in Kanchanaburi where almost 7,000 graves attest to the 15,000 total POW deaths, and signal the some 100,000 Asian civilian deaths, lives that were lost building the infamous Thai-Burma railway between 1942 and 1943. Such a short time for so much death.

Standing among the graves of unknown soldiers I felt moved to sing Amazing Grace. Wandering I saw a crocheted poppy, symbol from last Remembrance Day. A friend of mine made several of those and here I was seeing one in Thailand. How far our simple acts of love and compassion can reach.

Hallelujah
Hallelujah

People from our group found the graves of some for whom they had come to pay respects. Already moved, we moved on to the site of the Bridge over the River Kwai. Bombed and destroyed and rebuilt it doesn’t seem to meet the size of David Niven, but the agony is bigger, somehow in every rail, in every sleeper, every rivet.

I had to go and look at the locomotives, two original rails re-laid, somehow they made it more real.

I love that in South East Asia there seems to be this habit of building temples near sites of suffering and death. As though prayer and stillness could ease the souls, the grief, the pain. I like it at the very least as a sign of respect and reverence.

Hallelujah
Hallelujah

I’m not even sure now how much I knew about Hellfire Pass before yesterday. We got to the museum, which is so fitting, and the thing that struck me most… a sign that said: there are no artefacts in this museum. The men who suffered and died here brought nothing with them to leave behind.

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah

Warned about the number of stairs (121) and the “rough” track I headed off down the path to Hellfire Pass.

The rail bed is immediately impressive. Yes it’s been cleared and maintained as a memorial, but the engineer in me says this was a well built railway line. Cut into rock with blood. And the scenery is so gut-wrenchingly beautiful.

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

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I was walking along thinking how impressive it was, how incredible the feat of construction. The roughness of the cliff, cut back in to make the railway line level along the mountain side. It’s rough going even now but what stopped me, brought me up short, were the occasional sleepers still buried in the path. And I remembered again that this was built by men, POWs, by hand. Men brutalised. Feed starvation rations of plain rice, eating insects for protein. Digging through granite at the point of a gun.

And it is impressive. But then I came around a bend and saw the actual Hellfire Pass. And my immediate thought, “It’s an empty tomb.”

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It was called Hellfire Pass because the Japanese forced work 24 hours a day. And as the pass was dug, the conditions and the flames of the fires that lit their work by night, were as close to hell on earth as the men could imagine. And it wasn’t imagination, they were living and dying it.

At that point I started to understand how it was that the war in the Pacific came to a place where it could only end in the otherwise unthinkable use of nuclear bombs.

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken hallelujah

It seemed kind of kitsch, but I felt I had no option but to take my hat off in awe, in horror, and in wonder. Awe and wonder, at the brokenness of hell, at the empty tomb filled with gut wrenching despair and loss and suffering.

And Mary stood alone outside the empty tomb and wept

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah

I was humbled in the presence of such great spirit.

img_7619Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

After the mist this morning we went to Saiyoknoi Waterfall, where there is no water. But the fallen leaves were being burned and created an eerie, supernatural sense of not being alone in these mountains even today. The tree roots, reaching out like some kind of skeletal being, one still shackled. Still reaching for god and home and meaning. Poppies and flower offerings for peace, on a Japanese loco, in the smoke and the sun and the drought.

Hallelujah

But I was still despairing about humanity. How can people have a future in a world of so much reckless hate? How can we have a future if it’s all happening again? Do we even deserve a future? I wandered off alone, unable to cope with other people.

But inevitably it was back in the van and we were off again to another rock cut railway with wooden trestles and I despaired.

The POWs working this section were herded each night into a cave so they couldn’t escape. And in that cave today: Buddha, incense, prayers for peace. I don’t know why, but it made me pause and wonder, maybe, maybe, maybe, is there some hope for humanity?

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

Going West from Bangkok

So after the market on the railway line, and around the most important thing I did in Thailand there were these “other” bits, that I want to show you before I wrench your hearts with the most important thing I’ve done in terms of being an Australian for a long long while. But more about that later.

I’ve not yet been to a so-called floating market that bore any resemblance whatsoever to the advertised images, so as you may see, along with my highly camouflaged companion I was suspicious. I was right. The lengthy, smelly (the fumes of outboard motors is a theme of this post), uncomfortable, knee breaking journey that went no-where, was less than fabulous, and apart from a great view of a temple and Buddha, was not resembling the advertising materials.

Gorgeous bougainvillea. Continue reading “Going West from Bangkok”

The Market on the Line

We walked the line… Today’s (well yesterday’s but I started this yesterday) first stop, after a 5am pickup, was a local market that sets up on an operating railway track. When the train comes through at 830 am everyone rushes their produce off the line and pulls silly tourists to safety. The main thing wasn’t so much about the train, although trains did form a pretty special overarching theme to the day, but I do love a good Asian food market. Mostly for the characters and the faces, but also the quite amazing produce.

Aren’t they just brilliant? Such a wonderful, alive, vibrant, human Thailand compared to what I’m seeing around here. Continue reading “The Market on the Line”

Time out in Thailand 

After months on the go it’s time for a rest, thankfully I was invited here just outside Pattya in Thailand for 10 days. I’m supposed to be doing nothing and I guess a massage a day is kind of doing nothing. It’s nice. But we all know I’m still writing papers for that Canadian woman in secret.

In between working, blogging and sleeping here are some sights. Maybe I should get out more, but I’m just chilling, staying around about.  Haven’t been brave enough to try the prawns at the street food stalls yet, but they look great.

There are little shrines everywhere, some tiny and cute others more elaborate, all special and cared for. Apparently even the crocodile is for good luck. I’m a bit concerned about the God’s non-communicable diseases risk as they seem to receive a lot of sugar sweetened beverages and cigarettes, but maybe the God’s are grown up enough and can look after themselves. Have to confess to having a few sugar sweetened alcoholic beverages myself. Continue reading “Time out in Thailand “

Prologue February 2014

We are driving back from Chennai beach through the slum. Ok to be accurate, we are crawling through the fish market on the edge of the slum on the edge of the beach on the edge of Chennai. Even in the locked car with a/c on full recirculation the smell of the fish is penetrating. The fish lie there eyes all milky, guts smeared on the ground below. The flies covering them are like a heaving pepper crust. Stall holders are pushing trolleys laden with more buckets of fish to hawk to the evening throng, the madding crowd. Down by the water’s edge, looking away from the market’s filth there’s a film crew with a press of onlookers and extras filming – on some level I wonder if it’s drama, reality or both? Children press against the car windows begging. Shoppers and commuters patiently wend their way through, each occupied in their own drama, threading between waves and cameras and stalls and traffic and road works. It’s a chaotic whirl, but it’s a whirl that’s outside the secure insulated bubble of the car. And inside my bubble I’m starting to realise I’ve lost my heart.

Karthik is pattering a monologue on change in India, loss of moral values, the concentration of wealth in the upper and middle classes. While some things change, caste is still very bad. Progress isn’t helping the ordinary family who lives and works outside IT. He’s just a poor man who wants to make enough money to go back to the country and live with his kids. He so rarely says much, so rarely opens up about his thoughts, and I’m not listening. Well I’m listening but not processing.

My heart is somewhere back behind us on the beach.

Home is where your heart is, but tomorrow even though I’m on a plane going home, I’m leaving mine here.

All India is change…

Chennai Beach