Showing posts with label Grafton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Grafton. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A man and his mother

One of my earliest and dearest childhood friends in my native South Grafton is Ron Willard, son of my most unforgettable primary-school teacher. Ron was the first person I contacted when I went out to Sydney last year. And, for a long time, Ron has accepted totally and bountifully a great mission of love: taking care of his mother.

My Antipodes blog is being read by childhood Grafton friends who know the individuals of whom I'm talking. The actions of Ron—a kind of modern celibate monk—are the testimony of a beautiful and rigorous interpretation of the sense of our life on Earth, and of the adoration and celebration of our eternal Mother: an emanation of the Greek goddess Gaia, not to mention earlier Egyptian divinities.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Grafton in aeronautical history books

Towards the end of 2002, while using Google, I discovered by chance that my birthplace, Grafton, was mentioned in the French-language website of the Fédération Française de Vol Libre [display] as the place where the hang glider was invented. The author of this article was a French university lecturer named Jean-Paul Budillon in the nearby city of Grenoble. For me, this reference to Grafton was unexpected, to say the least. Initially, I imagined a misunderstanding at the origin of this story. Hang gliders usually take off from mountain slopes... and there are simply no mountain slopes in my native town. But Jean-Paul Budillon mentioned precise dates and events, and even indicated the reference of an article and photos in an October 1963 issue of Grafton's Daily Examiner. I sent off a request for enlightenment to the CRHS [Clarence River Historical Society]. Their president, Frank Mack, delved into newspaper archives and sent me back a copy of the article. I learned that the wing had been designed and created by a Grafton man named John Dickenson, and that the glider pilot, Rod Fuller, took off by being towed behind a speedboat.

Rod Fuller is shown in these pictures in the latest equipment for those who like water-skiing with a difference. It is a ski-wing, designed and made by John Dickenson for the Grafton Water Ski Club. The ski-wing is something new and its design has been registered by Mr Dickenson. The wing, about 18 feet in length, will soar to a height of 70 feet. Its construction is rather unusual and, despite the frail look of the wing, it soars like a kite. The ski-wing was made from light timber and plastic, of the type used for covering bananas. It was made in a few weeks and donated to the ski club by Mr Dickenson. It will be one of the highlights of the club's water-ski carnival next Sunday. A water-skier straps himself to the wing and is pulled behind a speedboat until air-borne. It operates in similar fashion to a kite, but is much more risky to operate than the box-type kites formerly used behind speedboats. In the top picture, the Crown Hotel forms a background.
— The Daily Examiner of 21 October 1963

I put this data up on a personal website, along with other low-quality photos and a technical drawing of John Dickenson's invention.

For several years, my website article on Grafton's "ski wing" evoked no reactions whatsoever. Then a hang-glider pilot from New Zealand, Graeme Henderson, stepped into the arena and started to publicize John Dickenson's historical role. Henderson had found a Canadian article of May 2004, published in the Cloudstreet magazine of the BCHPA [British Columbia Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association], which mentioned Dickenson's pioneering work.

The article in question [display] was written by Mark Woodhams.

My first encounter with Graeme Henderson was somewhat abrupt, in that he appeared to be criticizing the content of my innocuous web page about John Dickenson and Rod Fuller. The issues at stake were slightly technical. Since I knew little about hang-gliding, I promptly deleted my offending web page. In spite of his blustery manners, I congratulate Graeme Henderson today for having played a dynamic and efficient role in gaining recognition for Grafton's pioneers, shown in this recent photo alongside a replica of the historic wing:

The latest news is that John Dickenson's place in hang-gliding history has just been recognized officially by the highest instances, through an award from the FAI [Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world's Air Sports Federation]. Here is the citation:

FAI Hang Gliding Diploma

John Dickenson invented the modern hang glider at Grafton, Australia. It was flown on 8 September 1963. John built scale models to determine design concepts, until a full sized glider was towed behind a speedboat. He incorporated the control bar into the airframe by designing the A-frame to distribute flight, refining this further when he invented the pendulum weight-shift control system. John developed the piloting techniques, and taught all the early pilots, including Hang Gliding pioneers Bill Moyes and Bill Bennett, to fly the wing. John Dickenson’s invention has been copied by every manufacturer globally, with few minor changes for over a decade.

[Click the banner to visit the FAI website.]

This is an enormous honor for Dickenson, Fuller and Grafton. The city's Big River made it possible—through Dickenson's inventiveness and Fuller's courage—to concretize the myth of Icarus. I would like to suggest that Grafton might look into the idea of a twinning operation with the town of Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet [not far from where I live], which is the hang-gliding capital of France. Click [here] to see their website concerning the fabulous Coupe Icare. Ten minutes ago, I was talking on the phone with Jean-Paul Budillon, who suggested that his hang-glider friends of Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet would no doubt be delighted to receive John Dickenson as a guest of honor for next year's Icarus Cup...

Thursday, July 5, 2007

History of my birthplace

My Australian background is linked to a pair of bridges. One, of course, is the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The other is the double-decker road/rail bridge over the Clarence at my birthplace, Grafton.

When it was constructed in 1932, a span at the South Grafton end could be raised to allow shipping to pass. As a youth, I saw this span raised dozens of times. These days, sadly, there is no longer any river traffic on the Clarence. So, the local authorities decided to use the lower level of the bridge as a support for metal pipes, and this means that it can no longer be raised. Last year, when I walked across the lower-level footbridge, I had the impression that our once-splendid bridge was like an aged invalid, doomed to remain constrained forever to his bed. In any case, this bridge is totally antiquated, since it was designed to handle road traffic of 75 years ago. On the afternoon that my sister Jill drove me out of Grafton last year, we got blocked in a traffic jam, at the northern approach to the bridge, which was as bad as peak-hour situations in Paris. Meanwhile, I'm trying to understand why my native Australia—which is supposed to be a wealthy land—doesn't have modern bridges (and trains, too) such as the high-tech marvels we find in France, named Tancarville, Normandie, Millau...

After a lengthy and serious selection process, the municipality of Grafton has just chosen a Sydney-based researcher—described as a professional historian—to write the history of the city, and they've allocated a substantial sum of money to cover the expenses of the writing project. While wishing the winning candidate well, I must say that I've had serious doubts concerning the worthiness of this project, since I've never believed in committee-ordained creativity. Besides, the subject itself is so intrinsically uneventful [little of a profound historical nature has ever happened there since Grafton was first settled, in the middle of the 19th century] that it would take a gifted story-teller to add a little literary luster to the tale of my birthplace. Today, having seen a telling sample of the kind of writing signed by Grafton's future scribe [download], I'm convinced that my birthplace, in a couple of years' time, is going to hatch one of the most boring historical eggs that potential readers could hesitate in purchasing. It is a perfectionist mistake to imagine that a researcher can write the history of a place simply by filling in informational slots associated with a vast typology of themes. In any case, the result is sure to be dull reading.

A priori, Australian history is not however a dull subject. At the start of Australia: Her story, Kylie Tennant [1912-1988] quotes these words from the great US humorist Mark Twain [1835-1910]:

Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange that it is itself the chiefest novelty the country has to offer, and so it pushes the other novelties into second and third place. It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.

Talented story-tellers abound in Australia. Islands of Angry Ghosts by Hugh Edwards, the story of the Batavia shipwreck, is a masterpiece. In a different register, I love the style of Les Hiddins, the popular "Bush Tucker Man".

We have, of course, a great and unexpected historian in Australia: Robert Hughes. When we were together at Sydney University, at the end of the 1950s, I recall Bob above all as a talented cartoonist, allegedly studying architecture. He went on to become a Time journalist, then he blossomed magically into a splendid Australian historian. I would even say, in measuring my words, the most eloquent Australian historian ever.

It would take a writer like Hughes to capture the vital past of Grafton. I'm thinking of the pioneering epochs when there was a bustling timber industry and vast pastoral activities. I have a fascinating book here, with data compiled by Tony Morley, that lists no less than 60 pubs in Grafton and its immediate surroundings. I often wonder: Who were the folk who once stayed, dined and drank in all these hotels?

I'm particularly familiar with one of these old-fashioned hotels: an establishment in South Grafton that was purchased in 1881 by my Irish-born Catholic great-great-grandfather from County Clare, Michael O'Keeffe [1831-1910], when it was still known as the Steam Ferry Hotel, because that was how you crossed the Clarence up until the bridge was built. [And don't forget that we're talking of a community whose bridge-building capacities have not exceeded one construction per century.] A century ago, Michael O'Keeffe gave the hotel to one of his daughters, married to a Walker from Braidwood, and it was known as Walker's Hotel for half a century. Once upon a time, it was a hub of affluent society. I stayed there last year. The building still retains a lot of its former charm, but the hotel business is now downgraded [to use a euphemism].

My Irish-born Protestant great-grandfather from County Fermanagh, Isaac Kennedy [1844-1934], used a bullock team on his property named Riverstone, further up the Clarence. This anonymous hand-colored postcard shows the kind of setting in which my Braidwood-born great-grandfather Charles Walker [1851-1918] worked on the Kennedy property as a so-called boy in charge of the bullock team.

Isaac Kennedy was a prosperous pioneer, and his commercial operations often brought him down to South Grafton, where he would stay at the Steam Ferry Hotel. Isaac had five unmarried daughters—one of whom, Mary Jane Kennedy [1888-1966], would become my maternal grandmother—and he never lost a moment in doing his best to find them husbands. At the bar of the Steam Ferry Hotel, after a drink too many, Isaac was capable of taking a handful of golden coins from his coat pocket and spreading them out on the bar for everybody to see, while declaring: "There's a lot more gold of that kind waiting for any eligible young man who wishes to be betrothed to one of my five lovely daughters." A wag responded: "Isaac, if you give me a fair price in gold, I'll take the whole five." If local history is to be readable, I believe it should include authentic anecdotes of that kind.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Illustrious Graftonian

The latest issue of the newsletter of the Clarence River Historical Society [click here to see their website] presents a drawing of a member of the state parliament of New South Wales whom I knew and admired: William Weiley [1901-1989].

Bill Weiley [father of my friend John, the celebrated Australian cineast] was a friend of my parents and grandparents. Around 1960, John took me along to Sydney's Parliament House for a luncheon with his father, and this encounter made a great impact upon me. It was neither the food nor the parliamentary splendor that impressed me, but rather Bill Weiley's enthusiasm for a theme he had just discovered: the Dead Sea Scrolls. I've never forgotten his words:

"Take a Sydney phone directory. Tear it in half. Reduce it to confetti, and mix it up. Now throw away two-thirds of your confetti. What you've got left is akin to the state of the Dead Sea Scrolls."

I was terribly impressed by this didactic demonstration, no doubt exaggerated, of the precariousness of our Biblical past.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Traces of the past

As a child, I often used to accompany my father, of a weekend, to his bush paddock near South Grafton, at a place called Deep Creek, where Dad would leave the Jeep and wander around on foot, inspecting the cattle. Although it was not a particularly wild or remote setting, I always liked to nurture the absurd thought that we were surely the first human beings, since the dawn of Creation, to stroll over this virgin land. It was fairly easy to cling to this illusion, in spite of the fact that this land had no doubt been exploited by previous proprietors for beef grazing. Except for my father's barbed-wire fences, there were no visible traces of human intervention in that dull environment.

Here at Gamone, the situation is totally different. I often have the impression that I'm a usurper on a territory that belongs to hordes of more or less ancient phantoms. Yesterday, Natacha sent me a paper written at the end of World War I concerning agricultural activity in the Bourne Valley. The author points out, not surprisingly, that the male work force was decimated, here as elsewhere in France, by the ravages of war. But he adds: "From Rencurel to Pont, no land is abandoned. Women, old people and children make sure of that." That's where Choranche is located: between Rencurel and Pont-en-Royans. Today, alas, there is no longer much agricultural activity here. In emptying the French countryside of its rural families, the economic attraction of urban areas has been even more effective than warfare.

The soil nevertheless remains a vast storage house full of traces of the past. After reading Natacha's paper, I was out in the yard digging up a plot of earth to plant tomatoes, and my hoe unearthed this curious iron object (which I've cleaned up and painted with anti-rust liquid).

It's a bullock shoe, which must be quite old. I would imagine that a Gamone farmer once used a pair of bullocks to drag a plow on the slopes. When I think of the effort involved in planting a tiny plot of tomatoes, I realize that it must have been incredibly difficult for these individuals to survive in such a place. In any case, I look upon trivial traces of the past such as this old piece of metal as small treasures. I have a tremendous respect for the hordes of phantoms.