Last week I went to the Tuross Head Community Hall to Meet the Candidates. I couldn’t vote being registered in Canberra, but I like to see democracy in action and it’s a special pleasure for me having a happy holiday house in the electorate of Gilmore. As I looked around the crowd I thought, I bet I am the only one here who has actually MET the legendary Dame Mary Gilmore herself!
It was long ago- about 1950- and I was 9. We lived in Temora in NSW where my father was a Stock and Station Agent and also a successful contributor of poetry to THE BULLETIN magazine. He received a letter of praise from Dame Mary who invited him to visit her in Sydney.
What a thrill that letter must have been for him. I have learned since that she spent much of her youth in the Riverina so that was an extra bond. We went to Sydney twice a year to visit the grandparents in Chatswood. It took 7 hours in a car filled with kids, bags and squashed food.
I, the oldest child, was allowed to go with Mum and Dad to visit the famous poet in Kings Cross. You can imagine the excitement of a small town kid walking through The Cross for the first time - the crowds, the exotic clothes, the smells, the music coming from dark places, the neon lights. My parents probably felt the same thrill and they had heard about the SIN that was going on around them!
They must have been nervous too. We were looking for numbers and stopped outside a Florist Shop. Tin buckets overflowing with amazing blooms spilled out over the footpath and then …horror! Dad kicked a bucket and yellow and white jonquils flew up into the air and water splashed everywhere. There was much consternation and flapping around with handkerchiefs trying to dry his trouser bottoms and I jumped out of the way so my new shiny black patent leather shoes would not get wet. This incident I remember with complete clarity.
Then we went up some narrow wooden stairs between shops, Dad knocked on the door and I remember being shocked at how old she was - even older than my grandmother! (Dame Mary was about 85 then). I vaguely recall going into a room that smelt musty and dusty like Nana’s lounge room and I sat quietly like a good girl in a big, cold chair - leather I suppose - and ate shortbread biscuits and admired a huge green egg covered with white squiggles.
Image: Dame Mary Gilmore in 1948 State Library of NSW
Then we were back out into the noise and bustle of the street which was all MUCH more interesting.
Over the next forty years I could have quizzed my parents for all the details of that momentous visit but I didn’t. It’s only after your parents are gone that you realise how much you needed to know and didn’t ask.
In the Tuross Hall, the Gilmore candidates were droning on about the paucity of medical facilities. I thought about when I saw Dame Mary again ten years later. This time it was her portrait hanging then in the Great Hall of Sydney University. It was painted by William Dobell and she looked stern and angular with a long, long neck and I am sure she must have hated that picture! I thought about her amazing life ; right up until she died at 97 in 1962, she was writing her articles and poetry – always true to her socialist ideals, always championing the underdog and underprivileged - the workers, the women, the Aborigines. She was even concerned about the environment.
Now the six candidates were going on about the perils of the Princes Highway. I had heard enough and thought of some lines she had written about the frailty of humans and they seemed perfect to sum up the political scene:
“He said he was true. His truth was but
A door, that winds could open and shut.”
I was glad that she had a Canberra suburb named in her honour and a South Coast Electorate and I thought if she had known she was on a $10 note she would have laughed. She would have been less than thrilled to learn the philosophy of her great grand nephew – the present Prime Minister. In fact, I left the meeting knowing that Dame Mary Gilmore and I - given the chance - would vote for exactly the same candidate.