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.




To Florence and Prato

It’s a measure of how busy and tired I’ve been this past year that I’m only just now writing up the trips that I took last year, to Prato, England and Rome. Fortunately, Christmas has given me a breathing space and I’m catching up on my belated posts.

Last year, after doing more research on Rosa and Maud Praed, I realised I needed to go back to England to look for Maud’s medical records. The European Association for the Study of Australia was holding a conference in Prato, Italy, in September. I had wanted to go to the association’s conference in France two years before but I was too broke. This time I had a bit of cash in reserve and decided to stop off on the way to England.

I caught a straightforward flight to Rome and checked into a hotel. When I woke the next morning I walked down to the Colosseum and attendant ruins. If someone had told me I’d be there again two months later, I would have laughed.

In the afternoon I wandered into Termini to catch a train to Florence. As I stood watching people using the ticket machines, trying to work out what to do, I was approached by a neatly-dressed, slightly cross-eyed young woman with blonde hair, who asked if I wanted help. ‘I need to go to Florence,’ I told her. She took me to a ticket machine and showed me how to use it. I wasn’t quite sure that what she was doing was orthodox, but she turned away when I slid my card in and put in the pin. When the machine spat out the tickets and she showed me the platform number on the screen, she said, ‘Ten euros, please.’ I felt like an idiot, I later emailed my boyfriend, who reassured me that it was par for the course to be fleeced at least once when travelling.

The last time I was at Florence train station was in 1999, when I was backpacking with friends around Europe. We’d just missed the train to Pizzo in Calabria, and it was too late to find a hotel, so we spent the night on the station’s cold floor. When we finally boarded our train the next morning, we went south through a gorgeous Tuscan sunrise of pink, layered with mist and shot through with gold. I tried to keep my eyes open to watch it, but I’d only had a few hours sleep. This time I was alert, and the view was of gorgeous, green rolling hills. I was ecstatic to be overseas again and realised how much I’d missed travelling.

In Florence, the station was crowded. I’d forgotten how many people there were in Europe. I queued in the taxi rank, and a middle-aged, balding man before asked me, ‘You are a local?’

‘No,’ I replied. ‘I’m from Australia.’

When the cab pulled up, he gestured for me to get in, and I shook my head and made for the cab coming after me. What was it with these arrogant, European men, I thought crossly, did they try it on with anyone?

My irritation subsided when I reached Ape Rosa, an 18th century villa that was located away from the centre. It was absolutely gorgeous, with high-ceilinged, airy rooms, ornate furniture and a lovely green garden.

As I signed in and was given my key, one of the owners dropped by.

‘I’m from Australia,’ I introduced myself.

‘You are the famous person?’

‘Noooo! I’m not famous. No.’

‘You have the website?’

‘Yes, I’m a writer, but I'm not famous!’

Still, she made me feel like a star. Later, she told me that Napoleon’s brother had stayed at villa, and what with the excellent coffee that was served with breakfast, I was pretty much in heaven.

There was a bus that I caught into town, which was very straightforward. My friend from England had intended to join me, but she was unwell and had to cancel. It was easy to get around the city, although in my jetlag I’d booked the wrong time slot to the Academia, where Michaelangelo’sDavid was housed. They let me in anyway, and as I stood in the queue, I watched a couple of Asian girls giggling at a nearby stall over the aprons and boxer shorts that featured David’s manhood. It was hard not to smile. I also chatted to some ladies waiting ahead of me, who were speech therapists from America.

David was quite good, but art doesn’t do a whole lot for me, despite growing up with an artist for a father. The next day I visited the Uffizi, which was also good, although these days, looking at Boticelli’s Venus doesn’t seem to be much different to looking at it on the internet. I was more impressed with frescoes stretching across the high ceilings. After that I took myself off along the river to the gardens surrounding Piazzale Michaelangelo, which had exceptional views of the city.

No overseas trip is complete without a spot of shopping if one has an addiction to frocks and the like, and the next day I caught a bus through the green hills to The Mall, a shopping outlet of designer labels which Mum had read about in the travel section of the Sydney Morning Herald. I was a bit disappointed – it was a sanitised, soulless and boxy place, but that didn’t stop me from buying some cashmere from Prada. When in Italy, after all, one must do as the Italians do.

In between my peregrinations in and around Florence, I sat before the window of my room at Ape Rosa, finishing an essay on Rosa Praed that I wasn’t able to get done before I left. I didn’t mind too much; there are worse places in which to write. That essay was published a few months ago in the Journal for the Association of Australian Studies. I also sat in the lovely, tousled gardens and read Annabel Smith’s new book, The Ark.

Then it was time for the conference, which was organised by Monash University, as it has a centre in Prato. I caught a train to the town, which was only half an hour away and checked into a hotel beside the river, just outside the city walls. The theme of the conference was ‘Encountering Australia: Transcultural Conversations’ and I spoke about the interactions between Georgiana Molloy and Noongars in south west Western Australia, as Molloy went about collecting plants. My paper has just been published in the Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology (you may have to create a login to read it).

The conference dinner was at the Conservatorio San Niccolò Private Catholic School, which used to be an orphanage. I sat next to a lovely Australian woman who was doing her postdoc at Cambridge on Judith Wright and a few other poets. The next evening we did a spot of shopping and drank cocktails in the piazza, which was bliss! I think this photo sums up pretty well what I thought of Florence and Prato:

Adventures in FNQ

Summer began early for H and I this year, as by September I was jack of everything and decided it was a good time to go north to do research for my third novel, The Sea Creatures.  This is set in a tropical Queensland town by the sea, although Queensland won’t be described as such in the work.  I didn’t want to go on my own and asked H if he would come too and, being good-natured, he agreed.

H & I found each other in Townsville airport, hopped into our hire car and ventured into the cane fields.  I had never seen cane before (in the novel it acts as a border to the town), and as the sun fell behind the ranges, they were drenched in golden light.  We went up into those ranges, and as we came down the ocean was on our right, filtering into the delta next to Hichinbrook Island.  In the dying light, the water reflected the pink and pale purple sky.

We drove into Cardwell, and hopped out to look at Hichinbrook and the water.  A young woman in a black floppy hat was throwing sticks to her dog.  The dog’s name was Atticus, she told us, then ordered him to shake hands, roll over, and speak with a bark.  Atticus was cute.

I’d been too busy to plan every detail of the trip the way I usually do, so we were winging it (quite against my nature).  H had at least booked accommodation for that night to keep my panic at bay, and we pulled into a very basic caravan park.

‘I wasn’t sure what your budget was,’ he said to me.

‘Ergh, I can probably afford a bit more than this,’ I replied.  I think we were both relieved.

That aside, the lady at reception was very nice, telling us about Cyclone Yasi, a huge print of which hung in the office, and in the kitchen we met a girl who swore at the oven in French.  As the light was nearly going, we walked along the shore.

‘What if the crocodiles come out of the water and eat us?’ I asked.

‘There aren’t any crocodiles, Jess.’

I remained unconvinced, and was much happier when we stepped back onto the road.

The next day we headed for Atherton, stopping first at Tully.  On the outskirts of the town, a sugar mill belched smoke over the adjacent school.  I liked the place, however, with its strip of Art Deco shops, a giant boot and wooden cassowary at one end, and the mountains at the other.  From there we detoured to Mission Beach, and the cane became claustrophobic, pressing against the road.

Mission Beach was touristy, but where there are tourists, there is usually passable coffee, so we parked at a café and ordered lattes, which passed muster for yours truly.  Behind a tangle of shady rainforest was the beach, white and flat, and then the water, turquoise and flat.  I was astonished, having only seen such views on postcards.

We travelled inland, up into bright green paddocks of tea bushes, passing various microwaves on posts that had been turned into mailboxes.  We stopped at Millaa Millaa falls, which were crowded with tourists, and the water was so cold I started hyperventilating.  However, it was nice to have a swim, and when I saw these falls in Danie Mellor’s exquisite exhibition at UQ Art Museum, I was glad that I had visited.

Next on the agenda was Mt Hypipamee National Park.  After a few wrong turns on account of the navigator (cough), we pulled up in the carpark.

‘Look, Jess, a cassowary!’ H said, pointing at a bird on the lawn.

‘That’s not a cassowary,’ I replied, ‘that’s a bush turkey.’

H looked disappointed.

The park wasn’t all that exciting.  Some French ladies heard us laughing at a joke and offered to take a picture of standing us before a tree.  The park’s feature, a crater, was filled with creamy green algae.  On the way back, we found a couple standing in the middle of the track.  They mentioned there was a cassowary up ahead, so we had better wait for it to move.

‘Are they aggressive?’ I asked.

‘Can be,’ they replied.  We chatted to them some more, and it transpired they were from WA and had moved to the area a few years before.  They then walked back up the track to find their friends. 

The cassowary decided to come our way, moving through the bush to the right of the track.  We crossed the path into the other side of the bush, but it kept moving forward, looking for food in the leaf litter.  Then it crossed the path and saw us behind a tree.  I started sweating.  The thing was as tall as I was, with feet the size of dinner plates.  It made eye contact with me, didn’t like what it saw, and made a dash for us.  I lost my marbles and ran onto the track.  When I turned, H was standing the cassowary down, his hand outstretched.  He hissed and shouted at it, and for a few tense seconds the cassowary glared at him, feathers ruffling, then it turned and walked away.

It takes quite a lot to impress me, but I was rather proud of my brother at that moment.  Then the adrenalin overload kicked in and I started shivering.

The bird traipsed back the way it had come.  More and more people arrived, including a tour group headed by an Indigenous man.  The crowd created a a bottleneck in the track.

‘What should we do?’ someone asked the Indigenous man.  

‘Don’t go into its territory and don’t turn your back.’

A tourist hurried to the front of the group to take a photo, then ran back and hid behind the Indigenous man.  A bloke without a shirt on, flanked by two sheilas, appeared and walked through the crowd.  No one said a word, which I thought highly entertaining, but he passed unharrassed.

Finally, the bird wandered off a way and sat down and we could all go our ways with relief.  As H & I reached the car, we saw the bush turkey again.  

‘Do you still think it looks like a cassowary?’ I asked, and we laughed.

That night we ate at the Barron Valley hotel in Atherton.  I was beside myself, because it was a beautiful Art Deco building with matching furniture and lofty bedrooms upstairs.  Aside from it being gorgeous, I needed such a place for one of my characters to stay in when he leaves his wife.  

Sadly, I couldn’t write Atherton’s wonderful Chinese temple made out of a tin shed into my book.  It was unfortunately closed, but H opened the gate at the adjacent dog park and we had a look that way.  The red of the painted eaves, and the rust on the tin against the blue sky, was stunning.

After caffeinating in Yungaburra, we discovered another lovely Art Deco pub, which was open and airy.  Yunguburra was a sweet and quiet town, and from there we drove to the crater lakes, Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham.  We swam in the latter, and the water was warm on top, but bitterly cold beneath.  There were also turtles floating about.

‘What if they bite me on the foot?’ I asked H.

‘They won’t bite you, Jess.’

We lunched on the lawn by the river, then checked out the Curtain Fig and Cathedral Fig trees, which were astonishing, and made us feel like we were in The Lord of the Rings.  This sort of tangled rainforest is also a feature of Danie Mellor’s gorgeous art.  The next stop after that was Jacques’ Coffee Plantation near Mareeba, graced by a mannequin in a dried-out trenchcoat at the cattle grid.  They did at least have good coffee and a nice garden to sit in among those flat, dry plains.

We checked out Mossman Gorge, which was a bit underwhelming, although I liked that it was a successful business run by Indigenous people.

As we walked through the rainforest, H overhead a conversation between a father and his small son, which he then relayed to me.

‘Daddy, where are we going next?’ the boy asked.

‘Palm Cove.’

‘Why, Daddy, what’s at Palm Cove?’

‘I don’t know, son, but you try saying “no” to your mother.’

I burst out laughing.  We ventured on, up to Cape Tribulation.  In the caravan park, the girl at reception recognised H (what a small world), who had gone to school with her fiancé. 

There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Cape Trib, except relax.  I’d been having visions of hotels with infinity pools but I realised that’s not the point of the place; it’s underdeveloped, and they want to keep it that way to look after their environment.  We read novels, lay on the sand, swam a bit (by that point we’d found out it wasn’t croc season), and watched a monitor lizard poke through someone’s belongings at their campsite.

H got up early the next morning to watch the sunrise, but sleep was more important for yours truly, so I passed on that option.  When he came back he announced, ‘Jess, something without opposable thumbs was desperate to get to the peanut butter last night.’

I went outside and found the peanut butter missing most of its blue lid.  It was pretty funny, but I hope the critter didn’t get a blue bellyache.

The snorkelling wasn’t until the afternoon, so we wandered around (coffee was pointless), then decided to visit the insect house, home to an entomologist.  However, it didn’t open till 10.  ‘Honestly, these people have no idea of commerce!’ H said, exasperated.  After he pretended to be a spider stuck to the gates, we read our books until someone drove up and let us in.

The insect house was full of beetles, butterflies and moths, some the length of my forearm, pinned inside glass cases, although there was a plant being eaten by live praying mantises (mantisii for plural??).  Some of these the lady at the desk put into boxes and put in the post for whoever had bought them.  

The snorkelling was cool.  It was a small group of no more than 20, run by Ocean Safari, who took us out on a boat to some small cays (islands of coral).  In the water, which was bitterly cold, we saw big turtles, blue starfish, clouds of tiny fish (forgotten their names) and a giant angelfish, which reminded me of the little angelfish I’d kept in London, and I followed it around for a bit.

The reef and rainforest were beautiful, and I was absolutely heartbroken by the decision a few days ago to dredge Abbott Point.  I had protested with Getup on a march around Brisbane, signed petitions, rang the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority who are supposed to be protecting the place (on their website they exhort people to use Responsible Reef Practices), and left a message on their Facebook page, but they caved to greed, never mind the fact that what has taken a millennia to build will be gone in virtually an instant.  A legal challenge is in the offing, thank God and if, like me, you still want to keep fighting, you can donate to the fund here.  

The Sea Creatures is about a number of issues, the most prominent of which, as in all my works, is the question of belonging.  However it also details the degradation of our environment.  I was raised in the country and taught to appreciate nature, and it depresses me that people don’t care about their surroundings, but rather than give up hope, I would like to think I can effect some change through my writing.