16 September 2019

The Case For a Boggo Road Cultural Hub

Boggo Road prison should be a thriving heritage/arts hub.
(This article was originally posted on another site of mine a few years ago, and is revived here because it remains very relevant.)

It it would be a more-than-worthwhile achievement to take Boggo Road - an old prison ingrained with decades of negativity and pain - and transform it into a place of positive creativity and community life. In effect, to ‘rehabilitate’ the buildings themselves.

Boggo Road is a place in need of healing, a scar in the psyche of the landscape. Some people recoil from it. There are some former officers and inmates who suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and have psychological and physical reactions to even being near the prison. I know of one old officer who had to quit his job after he couldn’t walk through the main gates anymore, and in later years he would urinate in his pants if he was accidentally driven past the place.

This is not a happy place, and it cannot be healed by simply filling it with diners and artists and tourists and schoolchildren. We must never forget or whitewash or diminish what happened there. That would be unfair on all those who experienced it when it was a prison, and unfair on those who can still learn the important lessons of that history.

The history of the place should be used as inspiration for telling stories and talking about the old prison through live performance, visual arts, oral history, exhibitions and the written word. Boggo Road should become a centre for encouraging debate and research about Boggo Road itself. A place where we invite the community in to talk about what happened there, through ‘many stories, through many voices, in many ways’.

Not every artistic event there would need to directly address that history, but it is one of those places that inevitably adds deeper layers of meaning to any performance or installation. I would like to see a binding managerial commitment to encourage an ongoing creative discourse about Boggo Road through the arts.

In this way, Boggo Road will become a truly living cultural hub, a place whose own meaning and significance is being positively transformed and challenged through an ongoing process of creative engagement with its own history.

We now have an opportunity to create something great and unique at Boggo Road. Not just another by-the-book prison museum or yuppie/hipster dining Quarter, but an award-winning, living centre of culture that draws inspiration from and engages with the profound history that is soaked into the buildings themselves. And offers some pretty fantastic dining options along the way…

Putting the philosophical aspects of a Boggo Road creative hub aside, there is also a solid commercial argument that a dynamic and varied programme of artistic and History-related events is the best way to bring in repeat customers. It is clear that the full potential of Boggo Road has not yet been realised. The prison has been badly underused in recent years, and although the buildings are the main drawcard and promote themselves[i]), it is currently dead space for most of the time. Most people do one tour and don’t come back.

A varied menu of quality arts and heritage events will get people coming back regularly to see something new. And take in a meal while they’re there. The Boggo Arts and Heritage Alliance has the ideas, talent and connections to make this concept work.

It makes financial sense, but the idea of a thriving, living cultural hub at Boggo Road also seems like a natural fit for the old prison. Let's hope the decision-makers have the vision and energy to make this happen.

[i] This was quite obvious one Sunday in 2011 when the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society volunteers started monthly clean-ups of the prison. The place had been closed for six years, was completely unadvertised, and yet we had about 20 curious visitors walk in that day, even though it was strictly members-only. We tried to keep people OUT and they kept coming in!

12 September 2019

Cleaning Up With the Guardian Angels

I am one of the organisers of the 'Guardian Angel' cleaning programme at South Brisbane Cemetery. About once a month (during April-November) we call for members of the public to come to the cemetery, arm themselves with spray bottles, buckets, brushes and gloves, and get to work cleaning some dirty old headstones. It is, without fail, a much more rewarding experience than you might imagine.

Lunchtime with the Angels, September 2019. (C. Dawson)

We are always surprised by the dedication of the attendees, and how far some of them come (30-80 km is quite normal). We usually get about 20-30 people there (sometimes more), and as you might imagine, the type of people who give up a Sunday morning to volunteer manual labour looking after a heritage place like this are always very pleasant to meet. Some have relatives interred in the cemetery, and so have a personal connection, but many others just do it of the goodness of their hearts. And they come back because they enjoy it.

Headstone cleaning itself is - as one attendee put it so well - a cathartic experience. After you have wet a dirty stone, carefully scrubbed it with a hand brush, and then sprayed it with more water, it is a great feeling seeing the gunk wash away to (hopefully) reveal the clean stone beneath. Some of the monuments have decades worth of grime and pollution on them, and not every headstone comes up as sparkling white as you might hope, but they're always a lot cleaner than they used to be!

We have regulars who all have their own styles. Some like to meticulously clean every square inch of a grave, others like to clear pathways, some just focus on the stone itself. Their combined efforts always get excellent results.

Of course Rule #1 is 'do no harm'. Not to yourself, and not to the monument. We have a team of supervisors (Marleen, Alicha, Rachael, Tracey and myself) ready to work with small groups and make sure everything is okay. What type of stone to clean, how to do it safely for yourself and the stone, where not to stand, etc. It is a system developed over time and it seems to work.

We are strict about which monuments can and can't be cleaned. We avoid sandstone, which can be easily damaged by brushing, and focus mainly on marble or granite. We use mostly just water and elbow grease, although a water/white vinegar solution can be used to try and clear some of the more stubborn staining. We don't go for perfect white results, just getting the surface grime off is good enough.

South Brisbane is a pretty big cemetery, and we have only covered a certain percentage of it over the last couple of years. There are some sections we haven't touched yet but need a serious tidying up. We will get to these in time, hopefully. Of course many hands would make light work. Details of upcoming events can be seen here.

A few random results from the Guardian Angels can be seen below, and a full list of galleries can be viewed here.

05 September 2019

My Girl Bill: A Transgender Celebrity in 1906 Brisbane

People in mid-1906 Brisbane were somewhat startled to discover that Bill Edwards, a popular young man who had been living and working among them for the previous year, was not all he seemed. Bill, as it turned out, was actually a woman named Marion... and wanted by the Victorian Police.

The Herald (Melbourne), 10 October 1906

Marion Edwards was born in 1874 at Murchison, Victoria, to a Welsh-born blacksmith and his Scottish wife. It has been suggested that her father was the role model for Marion's male 'persona'. Her own account of her early life - the memoir Life and Adventures of Marion-Bill-Edwards (Melbourne, 1907?) - is thought to be rather fanciful. According to that publication, she worked on her uncle's farm on the Goulburn River, and then as a waitress, and 'refused offers of marriage and 'made hot love' to women'. Also listed in her resumé were the jobs of French polisher, store assistant, and wool sorter.

It was around 1896 that she decided to dress and live as a male, claiming that doing so earned her more money (a move that has resonance even today). Her career after that time - if her memoir is to be believed - included entertaining troops in Africa during the Boer War as a female impersonator, and delivering horses to India.

Then she got 'married' on New Year's Day 1900 (as 'William Ernest Edwards') at St Francis's Catholic Church, Melbourne, to 30-year-old widow Lucy Minihan. Edwards later claimed this was only a marriage of convenience, and they separated soon afterwards. 

Marion fled to Brisbane in April 1905 after being arrested for burglary in Collingwood. She had been caught in the Studley Arms Hotel (dressed as a man) at 3 a.m., although she claimed she was trying to catch a prowler. She was arrested and charged as a male, but apparently was afraid that her gender would be revealed during a trial, so she left for Queensland. A woman 'claiming to be her wife' had put up bail of £50, and subsequently spent a month in prison for her alleged husband's default.

She worked at various jobs in Brisbane, including as a barman at the Ekka in August 1906. By this time, the local Criminal Investigation Branch knew that the Bill Edwards who had fled Melbourne was now working in Brisbane bars, and suspicion fell on the small man who - to the trained eye of Detective Donnelly - was wearing a disguise. He confronted 'Bill', who promptly confessed everything and was taken into custody in September.

Word soon got around, and her appearance in the courts at Elizabeth Street caused a sensation. As she arrived in a prison van, the road was lined with many curious men, women and children, while others had positioned themselves outside the courtroom. When the doors opened, there was;
"...the unusual sight... of respectably-dressed women jostling with men and boys, in their endeavour to get a glimpse of the notorious female. The corridors likewise were the scene of a surging mass of people, who maintained a constant pressure towards the courtroom doorways, through which only a fortunate few had an opportunity of witnessing the proceedings inside. On the side veranda men scrambled on to the window sills, and the railings, determined not to be baffled in their curiosity." (The Week, 12 October 1906)
Marion was called into court later:
'She came in smiling, and was dressed as on her previous appearance namely, in a neat fitting suit of navy blue serge. She carried a brown felt hat, and her short light brown hair was nicely parted. Her collar and shirt cuffs, as before, were spotlessly clean, and altogether she looked a rather attractive youth.' (The Week, 12 October 1906)

Truth (Brisbane), 30 September 1906

While she was awaiting transfer back to Melbourne, Marion spent a fortnight in Boggo Road prison where she would have been wearing the female inmate uniform and was reportedly popular with the staff there.

Even when she left Brisbane by steamer there were animated scenes at the Adelaide Steamship Company's wharf, with crowds still jostling to catch a glimpse of her;
"Amongst those who gave Marion a hearty farewell in the fore cabin of the Wollowra were several of her woman friends, These, perhaps, had a motive far greater than mere curiosity, but the same cannot be said of the majority of the men and small boys who lounged about in the expectation of being able to see her before the vessel left the wharf. Many of them forced their way into the cabin, in fact, so great was the number who streamed down the companion-way that Water-Police Constable Tuesley was stationed at the foot of the stairway in order to prevent the people blocking the entrance." (Brisbane Telegraph, 10 October 1906)
The celebrity treatment continued after her return to Melbourne, and after she was found not guilty of burglary in her November 1906 trial she took full advantage of the publicity, releasing her memoir (complete with photos of her posing in male and female clothing), and then performing appearing as a sharpshooter in an exhibition between film shows at the Fitzroy Cyclorama. A likeness of her was installed a local waxworks exhibition, billed as 'The Far-famed Male Impersonator'.

A depiction of Marion in the Truth (Brisbane)
newspaper, 4 March 1951.

The 1910s proved to be the peak of Marion's fame, and over the following decades she seemed to work in a variety of situations. A 1927 newspaper article referred to her as a pony trainer at Port Melbourne, while during the 1930s she was living in West Melbourne, still wearing male clothing, and at different times working in hotels, factories, iron foundries, and as a starting price bookmaker. She was listed on electoral rolls as a dyer.

In her old age she was placed in the Mount Royal Geriatric Home, where the staff forced her to dress in women's clothes. Marion died in March 1956 at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. It was incorrectly stated on her death certificate that she was Sarah Isobel, also known as Marion Edwards, an actress. It was perhaps a sad ending to a life she had determinedly lived on her own terms. Her experiences as an object of frenzied attention in Brisbane certainly say a lot about the social norms of the times, as she wouldn't have raised an eyebrow today. She was something of a pioneer, and her life was the subject of the play In Male Attire, performed in Melbourne in 1984.

02 September 2019

1966 and All That

Was 1966 one of the greatest years in music history? The website nineteen sixty six: a classic year in 365 songs makes the case.

It was the best of times, it was...

Like most Englishmen of a certain age I have a certain fond regard for the year 1966, with its iconic image of Bobby Moore sitting atop the shoulders of his England team-mates, lifting the Jules Rimet trophy to the sky on a sun-drenched London afternoon in July. Fifty+ years of footballing pain later, this remains the high point in the entirety of English sporting history.

The website nineteen sixty six: a classic year in 365 songs, however, is more concerned with the kind of cultural highpoint provided by another bunch of working-class heroes in London just six days later. The Beatles released 'Revolver', an album regarded by many critics as one of the greatest ever made, maybe the greatest.

The World Cup and Revolver. That was the week that was, but I was one week old at the time.

Opinions are just opinions, of course, but there is no doubt that this was a time when many of the best acts in music were at the top of their game. 1966 was in the centre of the most enduring, creative, and transformative three-year period in pop/rock history. There is no point in trying to make the case for a single 'best' year, as both 1965 and 1967 were as full of landmark musical moments as 1966 was, and taken together these years provided a disproportionate amount of enduring classics.

A simple roll-call of the artists active at that time should be enough to make the case for the greatness of 1966. Undisputed music legends such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Elvis and Sinatra were together in the charts, and still had some of their best recordings ahead of them. Young unknowns David Bowie; Aretha Franklin and Bob Marley were also recording and learning their craft. Rarely was so much music royalty active at the same time.

R&B was on the ascendant, and Motown had the Supremes, Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Temptations, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye churning out hits, while Otis Redding, Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett were at their peak.

British Invasion acts such as the Who, the Kinks, Dusty Springfield, the Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Yardbirds, Manfred Mann and the Hollies were still filling the charts alongside American artists including Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Walker Brothers and the Righteous Brothers.

Emerging acts included the Monkees, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Velvet Underground, the Mamas and the Papas, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Aretha Franklin, and Neil Diamond.

There were many moments of greatness, but even then the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. This was because there was a sense of a movement, and rising optimism that a radically better world was being shaped. Broadly speaking, the first half of the century had been dominated by world wars and crippling economic depression. The second half began with Cold War and the threat of atomic warfare, but by the 1960s there had been years of relative economic prosperity, the US Civil Rights movement had made historic gains, the peace movement was growing in strength, the voice of youth was being heard louder than ever before, the ‘Summer of Love’ was just around the corner and it seemed that a profound cultural revolution was possible.

Of course, it wasn't all paisley shirts, moptops and flowers. ‘Swinging London’ and the West-coast scene were confined sub-cultures, and most people still lived in the conservative reality of a black-and-white world. Racism, sexism and homophobia were endemic, social mobility was limited, and young working-class people still faced rigid cultural expectations of work, marriage and family. And their parents still bought records, which meant that the charts included such acts as Val Doonican, Ken Dodd, and even 1940s crooner Donald Peers. Indeed, two of the biggest-selling singles of the year were Sgt Barry Sadler's 'Ballad of the Green Berets' and Jim Reeve's 'Distant Drums'.

nineteen sixty six: a classic year in 365 songs covers the whole range of music from that year (including some obscure gems) to bring a fuller picture of what people were actually listening to back then. Musically, it was a great year, and we shall not look upon its like again.