Elaine Forrestal

Dryblower Murphy

Dry­blow­ers came in dif­fer­ent shapes and sizes, but were essen­tially mesh con­trap­tions. Mined rock was spread on the mesh and the whole thing shaken to sep­a­rate the gold from the dross.

Dry­blower Mur­phy was born in Vic­to­ria but fol­lowed the gold to Cool­gar­die, West­ern Aus­tralia. He had been an opera singer, with a good tenor voice, and was an excel­lent racon­teur. His lively per­son­al­ity and story telling skills made him a pop­u­lar fig­ure at the dances and sing-a-longs that were such an impor­tant part of life in the large, but iso­lated com­mu­nity that Clara Saun­ders belonged to.

Early in 1894, lit­tle over a year after Cool­gar­die had been declared a town, Billy Clare launched the first local news­pa­per, Cool­gar­die Miner, and ‘Dry­blower’ became a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor. The poems he wrote, and often per­formed, told sto­ries of the hard­ships, the dis­ap­point­ments, the tragedies and tri­umphs on the fledgeling fields. But it was Dryblower’s sense of humour that most endeared him to the locals as he cap­tured their daily lives on the page. One of his poems, ‘Mrs Finnigan’s Frock’, tells the story of the Cool­gar­die Miner run­ning out of paper with a full two weeks to go before the next camel-train was expected. With typ­i­cal out­back resource­ful­ness, Billy Clare offered to buy linen, prefer­ably in light colours, from the towns peo­ple. He then printed the news, the stock mar­ket prices, the births, deaths and mar­riages and the Test Cricket scores on these sheets of linen and nailed them to the trunks of trees around the town. All the locals came crowd­ing around to read their ‘news­pa­per’. Dry­blower Mur­phy tells the story, in verse, of Mrs Finni­gan, who was a large woman, sell­ing a cal­ico frock with a full skirt. The news was duly printed and the frock nailed to a tree. But Sal, who was acknowl­edged as queen of the gins, took a fancy to the frock, janked it off the tree and ran, pulling the gar­ment on over he head. How­ever, Sal was not used to wear­ing any sort of clothes and the skirt tripped her up. The locals then crowded around the pros­trate Sal to read their news.

And so with the War­den as ring-referee/ With eyes all alert and excitable breaths/ They read from her ner­vous neck to her knee/ Mar­riages, births, divorces and deaths/ And out where the dol­lies the spec­i­mens crush/ The tin dishes rat­tle, the dry­blow­ers rock/ Cool­gar­die men tell of the rav­en­ous rush/ For the pio­neer print — Mrs Flannigan’s Frock.

(from Mrs Flannigan’s Frock by Dry­blower Murphy)

When the journey seems impossibly long

Before wash­ing machines, wash­ing was all done by hand and boiled in a cop­per like this one.

When the jour­ney seems impos­si­bly long and we think we can’t go one step fur­ther, we stop to rest. Inevitably we look back. When we do that we see how far we have already come. Often this is just the stim­u­lus we need to set us off on the road again. Renewed energy and strength come from going back over past achieve­ments, not just per­sonal ones. As a human race we have come such a long way. We are far from pre­fect and prob­a­bly never will be, but that is no rea­son to stop trying.

Read­ing Han­nah Kent’s remark­able book, The Good Peo­ple, has had this effect on me. The story of three women, two of them tried for mur­der back in 1826, is gritty and uncom­pro­mis­ing. Times in the iso­lated Irish val­ley where they lived were incred­i­bly hard. Access to med­ical help was very lim­ited and super­sti­tions ruled people’s lives. It is hard to imag­ine how any­one man­aged to sur­vive, given the con­di­tions they faced day by day. But the human spirit is indomitable and, lit­tle by lit­tle, life changes for the bet­ter. Ire­land still exists and func­tions in the mod­ern world. Vis­it­ing that val­ley near Kil­lar­ney today reminds me of vis­it­ing the gold­fields of West­ern Australia.

From the most basic huts, with­out plumb­ing or elec­tric­ity, the peo­ple of the Irish val­leys sur­vived  freez­ing wet weather, crop fail­ures, ill­ness and hard phys­i­cal work. Just eighty years later the peo­ple of the fron­tier town of Cool­gar­die sur­vived the bar­ren red desert in tents and hump­ies. There are no rivers and crops will not grow in the rocky soil of the gold­fields. One hun­dred and sixty miles from the near­est civil­i­sa­tion, our own pio­neers were just as iso­lated as the val­ley peo­ple in Ire­land. There was plenty of gold to be found, but you can’t eat or drink that. Many of the prospec­tors came from Ire­land. They believed in the luck of the Irish, but they also knew how to sur­vive by deter­mi­na­tion and hard work.

I am inspired by Han­nah Kent’s writ­ing and can’t wait to get back to my own story of a young woman who, in spite of the hard­ships of liv­ing in the gold­fields in the 1890s, faces life with courage and determination.

* * Don’t for­get Books from Your Back­yard, 10am to 3pm on Sat­ur­day 21st Jan­u­ary at the State Library, Mez­za­nine Floor. Inspir­ing sto­ries, fun activ­i­ties and local authors and illus­tra­tors avail­able to sign books for you.* *

Resting the manuscript

Exam­ples of home-made fur­ni­ture used on the Gold­fields in the 1890s

Clara has been rest­ing for almost three weeks! Now, with the big cel­e­bra­tions of Christ­mas and New Year behind us, I am look­ing for­ward to focus­ing on her story again.

The inten­sive work I did on the man­u­script after my research trip to Cool­gar­die in mid Novem­ber has allowed me to give the story a rounded-out shape that I can work within. There is so much to tell about Clara that it has been dif­fi­cult to decide what to focus on, and what to leave out. Once those deci­sions had been made, how­ever, it was nec­es­sary to take a step back and try to gain some objec­tiv­ity. I was lucky that Christ­mas prepa­ra­tions and fam­ily com­mit­ments inter­vened and forced me to let the man­u­script rest for those three weeks. Now I am ready to read the text with fresh eyes, as if I had never seen it before. To help with this nec­es­sary process I print out the man­u­script, still in its rough state, and carry it into another room, away from my com­puter. I try to read it straight through, like a novel. I do make notes along the way, but I try to keep them very brief so as not to inter­rupt the read­ing too much. After this period of read­ing and think­ing I go back to my com­puter and do a thor­ough, line by line, edit. When that is done the man­u­script will be ready, for the first time, to be seen by other eyes than mine. Who knows how long that will take? But it will cer­tainly be a major step towards turn­ing all those scat­tered notes, anec­dotes, para­graphs and Chap­ters into a real book.

Happy New Year

Books from Your Backyard

Details of Books from Your Back­yard event, Jan­u­ary 21st 2017

We all think we know exactly what is in our own back­yard. After all we are there every day, walk­ing around, hang­ing out the wash­ing, pick­ing up leaves. How­ever, like so many famil­iar things in our lives, it is only when a vis­i­tor comes and we see things through some­one else’s eyes that we dis­cover what is really there. On Sat­ur­day 21st jan­u­ary 2017 some of our local children’s writ­ers and illus­tra­tors from our very own SCBWI Aus­tralia West will be vis­it­ing the State Library to show you just what we have in our cre­ative backyard.

Per­son­ally it has taken me almost twenty years to see some­thing that has been right under my nose all that time. My adventure/mystery novel, Some­one Like Me, has always been dif­fi­cult to talk about with groups, because of the sur­prise end­ing. I have, over the years, skirted around the prob­lem by talk­ing about where the idea came from, and describ­ing one scene, rather than get­ting to the nitty-gritty of what the story is actu­ally about. It has taken the prepa­ra­tion for my visit to this next ver­sion of ‘Books in Our Back­yard’ to open my eyes. At last I have dis­cov­ered the obvi­ous way of pre­sent­ing this story to an audi­ence, some of whom will not have read the book. Come along to the State Library, Mez­za­nine Floor, on 21st Jan­u­ary 2017 and all will be revealed. Well, at least all the clues will be revealed and you will have the fun of dis­cov­er­ing the true story for yourself.

C U JAN 21/17

Christmas brings out the best

Clara Saun­ders

While I am totally immersed in Clara’s story I tend to for­get that the world keeps turn­ing and other things are hap­pen­ing — like Christ­mas. Two Christ­mas gath­er­ings this week have drawn me out of my bolt-hole and given me the oppor­tu­nity to talk to dif­fer­ent people.

Nat­u­rally his­tor­i­cal fic­tion involves fam­ily his­tory. Not nec­es­sar­ily mine, but other people’s. And the more peo­ple I talk to the more of them I find with fam­ily con­nec­tions to the gold­fields of  Cool­gar­die and Kal­go­or­lie. Per­haps I should not be sur­prised. The pop­u­la­tion of West­ern Aus­tralia quadru­pled in just a few years dur­ing the gold rushes of the 1890s. Gold drew peo­ple in their thou­sands from all over the world and many of them stayed to make new lives and bring up their fam­i­lies here. For me it is stim­u­lat­ing and reas­sur­ing to talk to these peo­ple. It gives me a sense of just how much inter­est there is in Clara and the world in which she lived.

Get­ting to know a char­ac­ter is a slow process, for me any­way. I need to do a lot of drafts, to go over and over all the details, to put myself into the shoes, and the minds, of my char­ac­ters. But know­ing that there are peo­ple out there wait­ing to read Clara’s story has spurred me on to greater effort. The story has a shape now and I hope that, by the end of Jan­u­ary, it will be ready for other eyes than mine.

Fin­gers crossed.