I can’t believe that it’s nearly five years since I began thinking about a novel partly set in one of the field hospitals of the Macedonian Front. On Australia Day 2010 I did my first little field trip to scout for a family home for my main character. I walked Tyrrell and Wolfe streets that day but a month or two later decided on Mayfield, a suburb of Newcastle on the Hunter River. I barely knew a thing about the Macedonian front, that forgotten series of battlegrounds from WWI, but was determined to find out more. I skimmed through The Gardeners of Salonika by Alan Palmer, read up about the Australian nurses, orderlies and ambulance drivers who were there in Jan Bassett’s book Guns and Brooches. I also did more general reading about the war (including the excellent The Virago Book of Women and the Great War edited by Joyce Marlow) and found out details about the lives of not just Australian nurses but VADs. My research into Australian VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments – a sort of orderly, nurses’ aid and dogsbody) gave me information that turned out to be crucial to my plotting of The Grey Silk Purse. I actually had to change my storyline. In my early stages of research I decided my character Phyllis Summerville would become a VAD (her personality doesn’t lend her to the profession of nursing) and she would soon after be posted to France in the thick of all the fighting. WRONG! Australian VADs remained in Australia, working at hospitals looking after shell-shocked and disabled Australian serviceman, shipped home from the fighting. During 2010 I began interviewing residents about Mayfield after the war – obviously relying on memories their families may have passed down. Through my research I met two very dear friends who helped me bring Mayfield to life – the late Helen Marshall and Vera Deacon, who is very knowledgeable about life on the islands in the Hunter River. In 2011 I decided to keep a blog of my struggles with the immense and intricate research that was needed for The Grey Silk Purse. On 16th June I wrote in my very first blog post: “At this stage it looks like my main character may be working at one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.” I had been inspired after discovering about the amazing Olive Kelso King and decided, yep, my girl would be working at one of the field hospitals of the SWH – Miles Franklin’s field unit as it turns out. In 2012 I had a lot of research points to sort out. For instance, discovering as many Serbian words as I could that my main character would have spoken. (She was given a small Serbian phrasebook after her ambulance driver training). What was her driver’s uniform like? In which battle did my character Adrian Langley lose his leg? Would my young maid sleep at Summerville, the family home where she worked or would she go home? Were the Summervilles wealthy enough to have a chauffeur? Around this time I met John Vandenberg, a wiki adviser and user, who gave me a crash course and said that if I didn’t put the Ostrovo Unit up on Wiki, the likelihood was that no-one else would. That started the ball rolling. I added Olive Kelso King as well, Dr Mary de Garis and just recently Dr Agnes Bennett. I knew, with dismay that there was no wiki entry for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at that time. For me, it was just too big an undertaking – although by this time I had read many books on the subject. Luckily last year I discovered Alan Cumming’s website www.scottishwomenshospitals.co.uk and he has done wonders in profiling the organisation, including travelling to Serbia. He has also been involved in a short film about the SWH. Last year Alan and I were able to work on the wiki entry for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. I will be doing a biography on Kathleen Dillon soon. Although not Australian I relied quite heavily on her experience, as Head of the Transport Unit based at Yelak, for an important section in my manuscript. I am now actively seeking relatives of Australian women who worked for the SWH and will collaborate with Alan Cumming to get them up on his site. It has been a wonderful adventure discovering all about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and I hope I can do more to raise awareness of this incredible and fascinating organisation. Please don’t hesitate to contact me. See this page for more information: Australians Working with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.
From the moment I started writing in the early 80s, talking to elderly people has been a very enjoyable part of my writing life. The first person I remember interviewing was a friend of the family of my first boyfriend. I was now a married woman (not to the first boyfriend) and beginning a novel that was later abandoned. From memory she was very interesting to talk to. (Her name escapes me now.) She had grown up in an old log cabin somewhere in the sticks and as a middle aged woman had written parodies of the romantic short stories featured in the Woman’s Day and the Woman’s Weekly at that time. The stories were actually accepted much to her amusement. I can’t remember her name but after our short interview I didn’t see her again.
In late 1982 or early 1983 I interviewed two wonderful WWI soldiers living in a retirement village in Collaroy. One of them was a veritable minefield and I still have the notes I took from speaking with him. He was a sniper and told me some fascinating details not found in any history books. One interesting fact that concerned soldiers digging in under fire I actually used in my long short story The Running Lady published in Reveille in 1988.
In 2002 I was very lucky to be able to interview many elderly residents of Nelson Bay and Shoal Bay in regards to the US soldiers stationed there during WW2. At one stage I was driving up there once a fortnight to speak to someone about those fascinating times and I was always made to feel welcome. I think they enjoyed talking to me and I definitely enjoyed listening to them, including among many Mrs Blanch and Mrs Norburn.
In January 2010 I came up with the idea for a new novel and almost immediately I decided to set the novel, with the working title of The Grey Silk Purse, in Mayfield. I was unemployed for the first few weeks of that year and I spent a lot of time walking the streets and taking photos of beautiful old houses. I was also doing a lot of research on the net about the history of Mayfield. Two names repeatedly came up – Vera Deacon and Helen Marshall. I contacted Gionni di Gravio, the archivist at Newcastle University and asked him if it was okay to contact both of them. He said yes and told me where they lived.
I didn’t record the date I first rang Helen Marshall but we hit it off immediately and from May 2010 on I saw her quite regularly. I would visit her beautiful home in Elizabeth Street and mercilessly ask her questions. She loved talking about the old Mayfield and she would describe walks she went on with her father. I loved hearing about Mayfield as it was in the 30s and 40s and her memory was prodigious.
On one occasion she helped me map out a walk my character took near Platts Channel. She described in great detail a gate that led into the property of Argyle House (later the Murray Dwyer Orphanage). I explained what my character was doing. Helen described the gate for me, the latch and that there was lantana nearby. She could still remember the smell of the lantana. When I mentioned which way my heroine was walking home – up the steep slope by the side of the property to reach Bull Street – Helen told me that my heroine wouldn’t be opening the gate if she was going that way. I asked why and Helen explained that you only needed to open the gate to walk through the property if you were walking along by the channel. I was astonished that she could remember so much about a gate from around 1933 or so! I said as much and we had a good old laugh.
She also had very detailed memories of Waratah House which her father sketched before it was pulled down. On one of my visits Helen helped me mark out a map of the land near Platts Channel choosing the approximate location of Argyle House, Waratah House, the potteries, the ponds, the wheat field, a well and the dairy. (Not an easy feat with Industrial Drive and extensive industry transforming the landscape.)
Another day we actually designed the garden of the fictional house Summerville in Crebert Street. I still have the sketch in her hand. We also had some lovely talks over the Greg Ray books and an excellent book about the Middle East campaign of WWI. But apart from all this we were the best of friends. She wasn’t just an elderly lady with a fund of knowledge. She was someone that I knew I would have been life long best friends with in a parallel universe. As it was I only had less than three years to have lovely chats with Helen but I valued my time with her. I now miss her terribly. Her quick wit and her kindness were a joy to me and I know it will take me quite some time to get used to the loss of her friendship. I can still hear her saying happily: “You clever girl!” or “You are devious!” when I explained some plot intricacies in my writing. I know she enjoyed our talks and I definitely did. I’m so grateful that I knew her, if only for a short time.
Firstly, I can never feed the film on and get it started. It takes me forever. I am not very co-ordinated and as I struggle with the stupid reel I feel like I’m back at school. Secondly I need the print quite large so I spend my time going up and down each page so I don’t miss anything. And guess what? After half an hour of winding and bobbing up and down I’m suffering from motion sickness. So, not surprisingly, I only lasted an hour reading the October and November issues of the Newcastle Sun, 1917 yesterday morning but found a lot to giggle over.
One of my favourite things is something called Men and Women Personal Paragraphs with snippets of information such as: “Mr and Mrs Penny returned to Newcastle from Inverell today.” Or try this one: “Mr and Mrs P Gordon Campbell of Mayfield are spending a short holiday in Inverell.” Good to know!
And then there are strange ads for weird things like Fishers Phospherine, the Misses Tidey and Tinsley selling hats, Parisian Designed Frocks. Yes please. (Actually they didn’t look bad). There was a Mme Petrona in the movie The Panther Woman which sounds like it might give Sex and the City a run for its money and a news item entitled “Twice married woman thought husband dead.” I suppose she thought it was worth a try!
By this time I’m totally over the dreaded microfilm readers and haven’t found any ads for two cafes I know existed in Newcastle in 1922 – Tyrrells and Mitchisons. No more torturing myself on the reader. Instead next Saturday I’m going to do some research old style. I’m going to be flipping through newspaper clipping books, turning the pages leisurely and not listening to the crank of a microfilm reader.
Thank God for the snippers club at the Newcastle Family History Society at Lambton. They are a group of enterprising women who meet, chat and patiently snip out domestic and miscellaneous newspaper articles from the Newcastle Morning Herald and other local papers. Yes, I’m going there next Saturday morning and you might not hear from me again for weeks. After all I went there two years ago looking for the New Moon Dance Club who hosted the 1930 New Year’s Eve Dance Party at the Trades Hall in Newcastle and instead stumbled upon an article about a lost silver purse that inspired my current work in progress!
One of the things that drives me as a writer, my passion I suppose you could call it, is to recreate the past incorporating memories of those that were there or there through their parents’ recollections. It is very important to me to uncover these personal details that can make the past come alive – because not everything is recorded in history books.
Nine years ago I began interviewing many elderly residents of Port Stephens to help me understand what Nelson Bay was like during WWII for my novel Tomaree. This time I am writing about WWI so I am relying heavily on first hand accounts of people that of course have since died. Luckily, I have though, two helpers who are very much alive: Vera Deacon and Helen Marshall. Both have memories going back to the Thirties and Forties and as Mayfield didn’t change too much from 1920 until about 1935 or so, I am able to use a lot of those memories.
Vera Deacon is an island girl. She grew up on Dempsey and Mosquito islands – islands that no longer exist. (They have been covered in slag and turned into Kooragang Island). As a young woman she was always on the water rowing everywhere, along the channel, between the islands and to work at Mayfield. Her hands can be seen above – boatrower’s hands.
And Helen Marshall (who helped create the Mayfield walks) http://libguides.newcastle.edu.au/content.php?pid=251354&sid=2089250 has a prodigious memory going back to around 1933. Helen has been marvellous in helping me map out three walks that my main characters Miss Summerville and Adrian Langley take in my novel The Grey Silk Purse. We have had some wonderful discussions about Waratah House and Argyle House, two properties that have been demolished years ago. We have also talked about the colour of Platts Channel, the way a gate faced surrounding Argyle House, also the Black Wharf off Ingall Street and Shelly Beach (both long gone). I only hope I can do her and Vera’s memories justice.