Book of Me: Home is where the heart is.

Book of meThe prompt for week 20 in the 15 month series of Book of Me is “Home”: Home means different things to different people, so this week we are going to explore what it means to us: What does it feel like? How do you recognise it? What makes it home -people, place, time. This will be a long post I fear, so get comfortable with a coffee or tea.

This is something I’ve pondered generally over a long time, in the context of my own life but also for my emigrant ancestors. Were they ever truly at home in Australia or did they still think of their places of birth as home? Did they hanker for grey skies, old buildings, green fields? Of course these are answers I’ll never have since there are no diaries to read, no letters and no oral history touching on the topic.

My own sense of home is sometimes elusive. We are empty nesters and our “children” have established their own homes. They are family but they are no longer part of “home” except inasmuch they live in the same city.Peter and Springer low

The core of “home” for me is my husband, Mr Cassmob. We’ve been together so long it’s almost impossible to imagine home without him, though that will be a reality one or other of us will have to face one day, hopefully far in the future. Another part of home on a daily basis is our very indulged fluffy tabby cat, Springer. Certainly both of us felt a gap in our lives when he went missing for seven weeks last year. He has, I suppose, become a surrogate “child”: he even gracefully returns our affections – when it suits him – occasionally.

My childhood home.

My childhood home.

After spending all my younger years years in one house, , our own family has moved house eleven times, some houses being but passing phases, others being our home for long periods. While I’ve loved living in each of our houses, the house itself does not define home, except for the duration we live there. If we return for a drive-by it’s out of curiosity to see what’s changed and especially to look at the garden. So I guess we have to add the garden to a sense of home. It may be a townhouse block or a larger suburban block, but the plants and birds who visit become part of our feeling of home. And in every house, a cat has been part of our home.29 bally st 7 front

There is really only one house for which I feel nostalgic and that’s my my grandparents’ house which I visited daily as a child. I think it was the indulgence and exploration that made it so irresistable. That is perhaps the home of “time”, a special place in memory and affection.

Other than husband and cat, the constants of home are the belongings we treasure and take with us from house to house. Always a core of books, special items and “treasures” we’ve acquired wherever we’ve lived or travelled. Very little has any real commercial value, but they reflect our lives. It’s hard to imagine our home without them, though that is something that has to be considered when living with the annual risk of cyclones. Perhaps that’s why my cyclone emergency packing pays minimal attention to clothes, linen and other practicalities. It’s interesting to ponder what I would take with me to define home if we were to spend an extended time overseas.

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Is “home” a specific place for me? For a long time Brisbane was home, as I’d known no other. That changed when I went to live in Papua New Guinea after we married, the transition to a new sense of home being surprisingly speedy. Returning to PNG in 2012, there was a real sense of being home again: the familiarity of place and people. We feel the same every time our plane lands in Cairns because the density of the tropical ranges evoke PNG so clearly. Now, each place we live imprints itself on mind and emotion.

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My parents didn’t own a car until I was in my late teens so Brisbane was a series of disjointed images rather like map segments stuck together. Flying in regularly, my vision of it changed: the serpentine Brisbane River wound its way through the city; the hills enclosing the city and the red-roofed houses seemed so obvious.

Eldest daughter with her Poppy, feeding the lorikeets.

Eldest daughter with her Poppy, feeding the lorikeets.

Brisbane is kookaburras laughing, magpies warbling and lorikeets drunk on nectar. The sound of cicadas on a hot summer’s day. The different flowers and plants of this sub-tropical town: perhaps the best of both “worlds”.Billabong2

DSC_1100The Top End will remain with me for its very different geography and vegetation, and its wide open spaces. The drama of the Wet Season with its fierce electrical storms and torrential rains. The inability to swim in those magnificently turquoise waters (crocodiles, stingers, sharks etc). The tropical beauty of a bush billabong. The peep-peep of the crimson finches in our yard, the flash of colour from a rainbow bee-eater, the strangled laugh of the northern kookaburra, the speed of a whistling kite as it snatches a sausage.

All these places become part of my history of “home” as we move around.

Near Renner Springs NT

Near Renner Springs NT

What remains unchanged is my core sense of Australia as home. Whenever we return from a trip overseas it’s the wide, bright blue skies that strike me first and the vivid colours so different from the northern hemisphere. The sense of space when travelling through our much-mythologised outback. The sound of surf breaking on the vast white sands of our beaches. A huge sky emblazoned with the southern stars and the Southern Cross marking their transition through the night. Its bizarre animals and magnificent native flora. Dorothy Mackellar’s poem, My Country, though a little old-fashioned in style, sums it up well in essence.

So what is truly home for me? On a daily basis it’s Mr Cassmob, the cat, our books and belongings, the garden and its flowers and birds. The house structure is important but only while we live there. Underpinning it all is the sense of place: the affiliation with the land and landscape of Australia in all its manifestations.Birds better

N navigates North Shields, Nguiu and Nuremberg

I am participating in the A to Z 2012 blog challenge throughout April. My theme is a genealogical travelogue or a travel genealogue (I’m not sure which). Today’s places are scattered far and wide.

N is for North Shields (Northumberland)

North Shields is all about the sea, then and now. © P Cass 2010

North Shields lies between Tynemouth and Newcastle on Tyne in Northumberland. In its heyday there were busy shipyards with all the associated workers. Among the workers and residents of the nearby poorer areas, were my ancestors, the Gillespie/Gilhespy families, including my 2x great grandmother Margaret Gillespie. In the course of my research I’d read a number of references, and thought I had a pretty good idea of the layout of the town before I got there. Even so I was surprised to see how much the maps and Google Earth had helped me to understand the place. We were also impressed to see a huge slab-sided freighter come into the harbour: like a massive big box on the sea.

The wooden dolly is a feature of North Shields. © P Cass 2010

North Shields reminded me a little of Leith when I first saw it. Very much rooted in its working docks history, with hints of upcoming gentrification. Online searching had indicated that there were some very flash apartments near the river at North Shields. I’d say the Global Financial Crisis put paid to that idea for some time, as the construction site was a wasteland of inactivity. Empty shopfronts sit cheek by jowl with burgeoning quality restaurants. It will be interesting to see how it all evolves in coming years.

I enjoyed doing a tour of the area looking at their well-placed and informative historical signage. Because it covered a fair distance it became a driving tour, and the rain was driving as well. I managed to see most of what I’d hoped to, before I became soaked to the skin and had to call it quits…it was November, and cold!

N is for Nguiu (Northern Territory, Australia)

Nguiu waterfront, Tiwi Islands, Northern Territory. © P Cass 2002

Nguiu is an Aboriginal community on the Tiwi Islands and was my daughter’s first teaching posting. The Tiwi people have a rich cultural heritage and their art work, carvings and fabrics are popular collectors’ items. There are all sorts of wonderful places to visit but you require a permit to go on the island (except on Grand Final day), so you need to take a tour or have family/friends on the island. The Tiwis were our first real exposure to Indigenous Australians in their own environment and we learnt so much from our daughter’s stay there. Not much use to my distant overseas readers, but maybe some of my Aussie geneabloggers will add a visit to the Tiwi Islands to their touring wish-list.

N is for Nuremberg (Bavaria, Germany)

The Nuremberg Christkindlmarkt: a sea of striped awnings. © P Cass 1992

For a certain age bracket of readers, Nuremberg will evoke memories of the post World War II Nazi crimes tribunal, as it did for me. Putting that aside what you’ll find is a Bavarian city rich in culture.

If you visit at Christmas, as we did, your focus will be on the city’s fantastic Christmas markets. It provides a sensory overload of sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch combined. Stalls bristle with bratwurst on crispy white rolls with mustard, drunk with mulled wine to combat the chill, and decorated gingerbread for a sweet-treat or roasted chestnuts grilled over braziers.

Gorgeous horses and carriage tour Nuremberg © P Cass 1992.

Through the darkness the twinkle lights overhead mix with the coloured lights in the stalls to bring happiness and atmosphere. Stalls sell glittering Christmas decorations of all descriptions, large and small, inexpensive and pricey. A lovely nativity scene sits in sight of the ancient church in a square flanked by buildings. Beautifully groomed horses with golden manes clop by pulling old carriages for anyone who wants a sight-seeing ride. Lucky tourists may see the area dusted with snow. Truly magical!

And for anyone who is interested I’ve added Murphys Creek to my “M is for” list. I don’t know how I omitted it, given its significance to my family history.

In the A to Z challenge you might like to look at:

Coffee Lovin’ Mom on Galway

Family History Fun has a great “M is for…” post on Scottish sources.

Commemoration ceremony 19 February 2012

A huge crowd turned out this morning for the commemoration ceremonies at the Darwin Cenotaph while the families of the wharfies and merchant seamen held a separate ceremony down at the wharf (their usual tradition). The USS Peary commemorations were held earlier in the morning but although we hoped to get there in time, we didn’t make it. The powers-that-be were expecting 5000 people to attend the main event but the crowd was apparently closer to 7000.

As I waited to get a photo of the Governor General (GG) walking down the carpet to the official dais, I was chatting to an American soldier who was somewhat bemused that the Prime Minister had just wandered down without any great security detail (so low key that we didn’t even see her). We may mutter and insult our pollies but we don’t usually shoot at them, though the Territory’s high-security-trained police were in evidence, and her bodyguards reminded us of the Danish TV series The Protectors. The US soldier also wanted to know why the GG took precedence over the Prime Minister so I had to explain that she represented the Queen who is our Head of State.

For me the highlight of the day was the re-enactment with machine guns blazing and heavy anti-aircraft guns firing loudly while throughout an air raid siren sounded and heavy red smoke billowed. Quite honestly the hairs on my arms stood on end…it was sobering and only the tiniest indication of the mayhem the Darwin servicemen and civilians lived through for those torrid 45 minutes on the day. I really admired the courage of the old veterans who were willing to endure that kind of reminder purely to honour their mates who didn’t survive. It took them 50 years to be awarded campaign medals from the War and they seem universally pleased that 19 February has been marked as a national day of commemoration.

The Governor General gave a balanced speech which addressed the need to be vigilant in the defence of our country while reconciling with former enemies to ensure peace. There was the merest allusion to the recently signed deal with Japanese company Inpex for a gas pipeline etc. The politicians mostly could not contain their need to score points for their parties, in terms of gaining credit for finally recognising the national significance of the Bombing of Darwin. The speech by Mrs Ada Mumford was both interesting and emotional especially as she recounted her father sending the wireless message to RAAF Parap telling them of the incoming planes.

The Ode of Remembrance was read by Shelly Bryant from Darwin High School. Interestingly the Darwin and Palmerston branches of the Returned and Services League (RSL) had agreed some years ago that this should be read by a student. A way of passing the historical baton on to the younger generation.

From all the various quotes from old veterans I especially liked the one reported in The NT News. Prime Minister Curtin in 1942 told the nation that the enemy would not  give any satisfaction at all to the enemy. Former Chief Petty Officer Tom Minto’s view was that “.. the enemy must have been very hard to please.”  It’s this mix of cynicism and laconic humour that endears these men to me.

I’ll be posting photos on my Tropical Territory blog and also on my Flickr site for anyone who wants to see them. You can find both of these in the side-bar on the right of my blog.

The Bombing of Darwin: an Awkward Truth

Last night we were in the audience for the world premiere screening of the documentary, The Bombing of Darwin, an Awkward Truth. The Darwin Entertainment Centre was filled close to capacity with old servicemen and their families, Darwinites old and new, and visitors.  We were rewarded with a very engaging and educational documentary based on a book of the same name by Peter Grose. Recurring comments are that people had known next to nothing about the bombing. You too can see it if you have cable TV as it shows on the History Channel on Sunday night in Australia and can also be bought from the Australian War Memorial after this week. I don’t have the film-reviewer skills to phrase these comments effectively but let’s see if I can give you the flavour.

Pros

  • Great archival film footage from the National Film and Sound Archives and the Australia War Memorial though little is from the day of the bombing.
  • An effective merger of the archive footage with staged reproductions – filmed in sepia or black and white ensured they blended well together.
  • The interviews with the now-aged servicemen interspersed through the doco were extremely effective: dry, and often amusing, and revealing of the poor level of preparation for a war on Australia’s soil. Their memories of the fear were clear to see.
  • The men’s youth was shown subtly with images of them in uniform occasionally shadowed behind them as they spoke – they were so young and it was interesting to see how similar they were to their youthful photos irrespective of ageing.
  • The recounting of facts like burying bodies or finding men with their skin boiled off by the burning oil, simply told.
  • It revealed the ensuing chaos, lack of leadership, and the real fear and expectation that the Japanese would now stage an invasion on Australian soil. After all “impregnable” Singapore had fallen only days before.
  • The sheer good fortune of those who survived despite the odds, including the post office worker who didn’t hide in the PO’s secure trench –which took a direct hit.
  • The “warts and all” approach of honesty in regard to looting and the ambiguity of military directions.
  • Includes references to the Indigenous people and their experiences.
  • The film will be shown to history teachers at the National History teachers upcoming conference and included in the teaching curriculum.

Cons/Questions (some of these arose from the Q&A session at the end)

  • The map which showed the spread of Japanese control to include Papua New Guinea though this never fell to the Japanese and was heavily contested in fighting with Kokoda and the Battle of Milne Bay key defensive successes. (We lived in PNG so knew the back-story to this).
  • Discussion over how much looting took place and whether it was for profit or much-needed supplies.
  • Discussion over whether some units were left in Darwin.
  • Dispute over the “Adelaide River stakes”: the mass departure of civilians from Darwin after the bombing: a wise strategy if you think you’re about to be invaded.

There were a large number of servicemen in the audience who had survived the bombing and it was impressive to see their general level of fitness and mental clarity as they were all very elderly.

The documentary is certainly well worth watching if you get a chance. There’s a short trailer for it here.

The Bombing of Darwin 19 February 1942: the 70th anniversary

Darwin is in a flurry of activity this week as the city commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942. Although it’s said that the event was little known in Australia’s history perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it was a good example of war-time “spin”…perhaps understandably in the sense of keeping up morale.

In the beginning the numbers of fatalities and injuries quoted were sadly underestimated and to this date, the figures remain contested by some people. The prevailing view is that “more than 243” were killed and between 300 and 400 injured.

Similarly the number of Japanese planes in the assault was also underestimated at the time: 70+ or so compared with an actual 188. Much appears to have been made of the fact that 4 enemy planes had been brought down during the two raids which occurred an hour apart, although one of the planes actually crash-landed on Bathurst Island.The USS Peary was among the naval casualties in the harbour that day, ironically having only returned the day before to refuel.

The Prime Minister of the day, John Curtin, responded to the attacks with the following comments published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 20 February 1942:

”Damage to property was considerable,” he said, “but reports so far to hand do not give precise particulars about the loss of life. The Government regards the attacks as most grave, and makes it quite clear that a severe blow has been struck on Australian soil”.

Darwin had actually had some warning that the planes were coming when Father John McGrath of Bathurst Island Catholic mission at Nguiu radioed to warn Darwin. This message was transmitted to the RAAF base. Unfortunately the message was largely ignored as they thought it was some returning American aircraft. Since that time the Tiwi people have their own commemoration of the event, with their bombing dance featuring swooping plane movements and shooting. We were lucky to see the dance for ourselves when we visited Nguiu in 1995, as it was our daughter’s first teaching post. A Tiwi Islander, Matthias Ulungura, captured the 1st Japanese prisoner of war on Australian soil, Sergeant Hajimi Toyoshima whose Zero fighter crashed near Snake Bay.

The Bombing of Darwin occurred about 10 weeks after Pearl Harbour and was masterminded by the same Japanese commander, Mitsuo Fuchida with the same squadrons and pilots taking part. It’s interesting to compare the two events, one very well known and one almost unknown. Astonishingly Darwin had 683 bombs dropped on it during that first morning compared with Pearl Harbour’s 271 though without doubt the magnitude of the bombs was smaller. At Pearl Harbour torpedo bombs were used which have a much greater impact. Based on the bombing pattern, it seems the Japanese intent was plainly not just to decimate the shipping and aircraft but to take out the infrastructure so there was no northern base from which Australia, and its Pacific ally America, could mount an offence against Japanese bases in Asia. The indicative number of civilian deaths in Darwin was around 60.

Pearl Harbour

Darwin

Japanese aircraft

353

188

Japanese aircraft carriers

6

4

Aircraft destroyed (US/Aus)

188

20

Killed (US/Aus)

2402

243+

Wounded

1282

300-400

Ships sunk

10

8

Date

7-Dec-41

19-Feb-42

Throughout the battle, the 18 anti-aircraft guns were fired constantly until their barrels were red hot. So hot in fact that when the cleaning cloths were used, they burst into flames. Famously one bloke came running from the showers in his hat and boots -with a towel   wrapped around him, that soon dropped off. Artists’ representations show him naked manning the guns.

Many of the women, children and elderly of Darwin had been evacuated to friends and family around Australia in the preceding month or so, and after the bombing most of those remaining went/were sent south. This left the men, civilian and military, and the indigenous people on the Frontline. The list of evacuees is extensive but can be seen here on the National Archives of Australia webpage (click on view digital copy on the right). Some of the evacuees were to become refugees in their own country a second time in 1974, when 33,000 people had to leave the city after it was nearly destroyed by Cyclone Tracy.

The effect of the war in Darwin is easy to ignore, yet visible everywhere. There are military installations scattered around the cliffs and parks, main streets were runways, and down the Track (the Stuart Highway) there are regular signposts to former airstrips, supply depots and the like.

The new Defence of Darwin Experience at the revamped Military Museum, which will be opened this weekend, will no doubt do much to make this part of Australia’s history far more well-known. (Update: we visited this on Saturday 18 February just after it opened, and it really is an excellent insight into the bombing. I’m pleased we’ll be able to visit it on a regular basis so there’s less risk of information overload).

Over the next few days I’ll be posting some photos that relate to Darwin’s role in World War II and to the Bombing. You can find them on my Tropical Territory blog.

And if you are in Australia and have cable TV, the history channel will be screening “The Bombing of Darwin, an Awkward Truth” on Sunday night. It premiered in Darwin tonight and was extremely interesting.