Notes from the Field (ii)

This year has turned out to be such a rollercoaster that the best I could do was hold onto my hair, rather than pen any blog posts about my research. However, it’s the post-Christmas lull and, in between sleeping off an exhausting year and swimming off the excesses of the festive season, I’m catching up on my posts.

In July I headed to Canberra to present on my research at the annual Association for the Study of Australian Literature association. This was a really good conference hosted by the ADFA branch of UNSW, and fittingly the theme was ‘Capital-Empire-Print-Dissent’. Also fittingly, the first speaker (for the Barry Andrews Lecture at the National Library) was Indigenous author Melissa Lucashenko, the first keynote was American Indian scholar Chadwick Allen from the University of Washington, and the first panel consisted of three excellent Indigenous scholars: Alice te Punga Somerville, Jeanine Leane and Evelyn Araluen Corr. I also went to a masterclass held by Chadwick on Allison Hedge Coke's Blood Run, about the Blood Run earthworks site and Indigenous mathematics, which totally knocked my socks off. I also ducked off to the National Gallery of Australia to look at Fiona Hall's latest exhibition. I've always loved her work because she plays around with plants.

National Gallery of Australia.

National Gallery of Australia.

When I returned to Brisbane I had to move house, which was stressful and exhausting, then I turned around and flew to Perth for some more research in the archives and also for a tour of the wheatbelt hosted by the literary journal Westerly. I was keen to expand my knowledge of things literary in WA in general, but what really compelled me to sign up was that our guide was Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, who has been doing some excellent ecocritical work.

The tour was fabulous. We began at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre and were given a guided tour of the house and gardens by an Irish woman who had lived there after the Prichards sold it. She became interested in Prichard when random people such as literary devotees or Russians (Prichard was a committed Communist) turned up on her doorstep. Her talk was entertaining and interesting and I liked listening to the sway of her voice.

Labelled shelf in Katharine Susannah Prichard's writing shack.

Labelled shelf in Katharine Susannah Prichard's writing shack.

We were then bussed off to York, where we had morning tea in the Flour Mill Cafe. The orange soil of this area was striking against the blue sky. In fact all of teh sky in WA is incredible.

Flour Mill Cafe, York.

Flour Mill Cafe, York.

Thence we went up to Mt Brown lookout, which had excellent views. On the way I chatted to UWA publisher Terri-Ann White about books on water (or the increasing lack thereof) and firestick farming in WA. After a potter around the York Wildflower Garden and some lunch, we headed to St Saviour’s Church at Katrine, where poet John Kinsella and his partner Tracy Ryan read out some of their work over a cuppa.

York Wildflower Garden

York Wildflower Garden

I also did a guided walk with volunteers at the Kings Park Botanical Gardens. These free tours are fantastic – the guides are extremely knowledgeable and tell really good stories about the plants in the park. For someone who finds reading science papers quite difficult, it’s a great way to learn about botany.

Kings Park.

Kings Park.

Back in Brisbane I led a couple of classes in poetics for a tutor who was away, and also began tutoring fora Women Writers course. I gave lectures on Keri Hulme’s The Bone People for this course, and also The Timeless Land for the Australian literature course. Teaching was pretty time consuming, although my students were the best I’ve ever taught – they were intelligent, motivated and politically savvy – and gave me much hope for our future, which we desperately need in these times of Brexit, Trump and the stale, unimaginative and faint-hearted politicians who currently lead Australia, although that verb might be generous.

I also helped the graduate students put together their Work in Progress conference, the theme of which was 'On the Edge', and organised an evening of creative writing alongside this, which went really well. And then it was time to head to Sydney, Wollongong and Fremantle for conferences and research, but more of this in another post.

Finding Maud


Two years ago, I received a grant from Arts Queensland which gave me time to revisit my research on Rosa Praed and her deaf daughter Maud. I read the Murray-Prior papers in the National Library of Australia and combed Patricia Clarke’s biography, Rosa! Rosa! for references to Maud, who had been deaf since she was small. At age 28, Maud became destabilised by the fracturing of her family had a breakdown. She was admitted to Holloway Sanatorium in Surrey, and later transferred to St Ann’s at Canford Cliffs, near Poole. Clarke had written to the Sanatorium to ask for Maud’s medical records, but was informed that these were destroyed after 20 years. However, when I checked the National Archives database in the UK (which hadn’t yet been created when Clarke was writing her book), I found that they were still extant. I realised needed to go to England to find them.

When doing archival research from the other side of the world, you can pay a whack of money and get the archive’s employees to find documents for you, or you can pay even more money and get on a plane. It’s usually cheaper to get someone to make the copies, but then you risk not finding what you want. Control freaks with an eye for detail (and who liked collecting stamps when young) such as yours truly also prefer to do the work themselves. There is also serendipity in archival research: when you’re tootling among old papers, there’s more of a chance of making connections with pieces of information that you find on your way, and these connections throw up new ideas.

It was five and a half years since I had left England and returned to Australia after finishing my PhD. Until a few years before, I’d had nightmares about having to return to finish my thesis, and would wake with that familiar, sickening feeling of leaving my family behind yet again. So I was somewhat apprehensive about returning, but that feeling began to dissipate when I was met by my good friend C, who lived in Kent, and as I met up with other old friends in London. It was autumn, almost ten years to the day (20th September 2014) that I had boarded a plane to England for the first time to start my PhD, and the weather is rarely cruel in an English autumn.

We visited Knole, the book which inspired Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. I’d always wanted to go there with C while I was there, as she lived not far away, but we never got around to it. It was a grand but hollow building, and I wondered how they had ever kept warm.

A day later, I began my research at University College London’s Ear Institute and Action on Hearing Loss Library, located at the Royal National Ear Nose and Throat Hospital, which I’d often visited for checkups when I lived in London. I also knew the head librarian from having worked at UCL library, and that was nice too. I was specifically looking at the reports of Society for Training Teachers of the Deaf and for the Diffusion of the German System. They didn’t yield much that was interesting, although the librarian gave me a fascinating account of Benjamin St Ackers’ daughter, who had been taught to speak though she had been deaf since birth, and ended up very isolated and alone.

From London I caught a train to Leamington Spa, where some more old friends lived. One of these had been in our (predominantly Australian) bookclub, the Book Rangers. She now had two sprogs: a lively little boy who liked investigating things, and a newborn girl. The next day I caught a train to Birmingham, where the archives for the Society for Training Teachers for the Deaf (which was an amalgamation of the all teacher training colleges) were held at the Cadbury Research Library. Sadly, there was nothing in this lot, aside from some minor references to Benjamin St John Ackers.

I returned to London, and from there I went on to Woking.

‘You’re going to Woking!?’ a friend had exclaimed when I told him of my research plans over coffee at the Brisbane Writers Festival.

‘Yeah. What’s wrong with Woking?’

‘Woking’s awesome! It’s has a racing car track at a museum. Actually, it’s a Weybridge, but that’s not far away.’

‘Maybe I’ll just send you a postcard from Woking.’

He clocked the look on my face. ‘Yeah, do that. If cars aren’t your thing.’

Woking seemed a nice place, although overrun with chain stores, as are all the small towns in England, something that never failed to make me sad. I grabbed a coffee and some lunch from Pret, then caught a cab to the Surrey History Centre, which was housed in a municipal building. It was a plain, almost sterile building, at odds with the leather bound case notes which were handed to me.

I set up my camera and latptop, pulled on a pair of white cotton gloves to protect the case notes from the sweat on my skin, and opened the case notes. There was Maud, staring back at me, as well as a letter she had written to her doctor. The case notes, although not detailed, described her deterioration over about a decade.

I was beside myself, and this article I wrote for Meanjin describes why. I wandered back to the pub at which I was staying via a path beside a canal, dazed and triumphant.

A few days later, C very generously drove me to Canford Cliffs, where Maud's sanatorium was located. The building had been restored and it was beautiful, set among green lawns that slide down to the sea, but I wondered how it would have been in Maud's time. Gulls cried overhead. Maud wouldn't have been able to hear them, but she would have felt the sea breezes on her face.

I caught the train back to London and stayed with some good friends who live near Kensington Gardens, and who were also not far from one of the apartments Rosa Praed had lived in. I took myself for a walk through Holland Park to find it, stopping to marvel at the peacocks.

Then, after a gloriously sunny day in Bath with C, where we bought some dark blue suede boots from Duo Boots, it was time to leave. The Queensland election started while I was stepping onto the plane. When I flew into Brisbane, I wasn’t able to get my phone to work, so once I reached Customs I bailed up the first officer I could find.

‘Who won the election?’ I asked him.

‘They’re still counting, but it looks like it might be Labor.’

‘That’s brilliant!’ I exclaimed. Campbell Newman, an arrogant and selfish politician who, in his first act of parliament, had binned the Premier’s Literary Awards, had also squandered his majority by treating Queenslanders like trash.

He turned over my card and read my occupation. ‘So, you’re a writer. That’d be right.’

I laughed, loudly. It was good to be home.