Thursday, 30 July 2009

Accidental research (or how to waste time on the internet)

I can’t even remember what I was looking for in the online archive of the National Library of Australia. Before leaving the site I idly clicked on a search for my family on my mother’s side. You never know with her side of the family. They’ve been in Sydney for a long time by Australian standards and being practical sorts of people, have had their fingers in many pies. One of the first things that popped up was a photo that I had seen many times at my grandfather’s house. It’s really strange to see something so familiar in a public archive.

I knew the photo was my grandfather’s Uncle George and that he was an architect. I didn’t know much else about him. I think that my grandfather was an apprentice to him when he was young. We don’t have much contact with that side of the family. No rift or anything particular, just lack of contact. When I proceeded to dig further I was astonished to find a wealth of information about George. In the picture he is standing on one of the columns in front of the Sydney GPO that his firm designed and built. When I used to work in the Sydney CBD, I walked past those pillars everyday on my way down Martin Place from the train station to the office and felt a sense of possession about them.

There were other photos of George in the archive and plenty of material. Apparently George’s company was responsible for a lot of the underground telephone cable tunnels that burrow underneath Sydney. George also supervised the controversial clearing of the Rocks in 1900 after an outbreak of the plague. For this, he received a commemorative shield emblazoned “Victor of the Plague” that is in the collection of the Powerhouse Museum. Theses have been written about his role in the cleansing of the area of the poor mainly immigrants whose homes were squeezed onto the foreshore at the heart of Sydney. Many aspects of what was essentially a slum purge (officially called a “cleansing operation”) were documented by photographs, all of which are in the national archives. The old CSR factory site which is now the expensive foreshore development “Jackson’s Landing” encompasses the street named after George and his brother. There’s another street named after him in Guildford.

George was also a politician. He was mayor of Prospect in 1892 and Member of the Legislative Assembly (representative in state parliament) for Cumberland in 1893/4. He was born in 1859 in Pyrmont (of Glaswegian immigrant parents) and died in 1903 of “gastritis” at the age of 43. It was widely believed at the time that his disease was linked in some way to his work in the Rocks.

There’s a church named after him and the family home in Guildford can be visited. I have never been but I am curious to do so, especially since they are reputed to have a fine collection of my grandfather and great-aunt’s pottery.

Interestingly one source says that he ran for office on the basis of female suffrage. My Great-aunt, one of the first female architects to graduate from Sydney Uni, was employed for a short time by his firm in its fairly small Brisbane office. I’ve written about visiting one of the few extant houses that she designed. She gave up architecture for the arts and crafts.

So that’s what happens when you start browsing around in archives. It’s just dangerous.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Making lists Part A

I’m starting to make a list of things that I want to do when I resurface for air (perhaps) in a few months. One of the things that is on my list is the newish Colonial Brisbane Heritage Walk. It’s all part of the Q150 celebrations. Yes the sesquicentenary – I love that word and just don’t get to use it often enough. Clearly the state government has decided that Q150 is easier to say and write. You can go to the website, download a mp3 file and walk yourself through the CBD. You can also find the map from the above link if you are less tech-savvy or don’t have a mp3 player.

Other than the fact that it would simply be a fun family activity, I also want to do it because it takes you past many of the buildings that would have been of significance to the Jaeckels. There’s the Land Administration building, the Immigration depot, the offices of the Moreton Bay Courier that chronicled the arrival of most migrant ships, some old hotels and government buildings. I’m hoping to get a sense for how Brisbane must have appeared to the Jaeckels. I think I will have to focus hard though to tune out the traffic and plethora of modern buildings.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Writing things off

I’ve just started paid employment two days a week. It’s a totally different culture. Being at home is hard work. Being at work is a different kind of hard work. You do get a better morning tea at my paid employment but the politics are remarkably similar – who gets what, when and the fairness thereof. There’s slightly less crying and name-calling at work though.

I like it. Parts of my brain are awakening from long hibernation. You’re expected to sit quietly, think and produce rather than that occurrence being a triumph of will over circumstances. I am learning a huge amount and also discovering that I actually know how to do quite a few things. It’s all very educational albeit tiring.

I have no doubt that over the next few months I will be tearing my hair out at points. I have one intensive project that is working to a tight short deadline and a long project that needs a lot of work done with few hours allocated to it. And I’m trying to write up a grant proposal for a project for next year.

But … this second book isn’t writing itself. I know because I’ve tried letting it. Benign neglect, vicious neglect, apathy – none of them work. I’m hoping that as work-related schedule adjustments are bedded down, I’ll get back to more writing. I miss it.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

A gift of time

There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. So much talk in fact that I now know that the moon landing was on July 20, 1969: a fact that I have managed to live my entire life to this point without knowing.

Perhaps it was the depths of my ignorance or perhaps media insistence on the event (or perhaps simply encroaching dementia) but somehow or rather I became convinced that today was Thursday 23 July. I went about my daily tasks in a week filled with domestic crises small and large sure that for once I knew the date. Children back at school, tick; rearrange guitar lessons, tick; long, depressing talk with plumber, tick; research alternatives for dealing with sewage, tick; find new carer for Blithe Boy, tick; make doctor’s appointment, tick; the list went on.

And then driving between one lot of busyness and the next, I looked up and the Great Dividing Range was stretched across the horizon shouting for attention, the silvered winter grass foregrounded the dark blue and grey mountains, the wind demanded to be heard, the sun peeked at me, birds flirted in the trees, flowers were shaking their bright heads and I realised something. From the beginning of time women have worried over looking after their families, childcare, getting food on the table, keeping their mate happy, work demands (whether paid or not). My own concerns seemed fairly minor in the scale of the world and of history. Then I got home, looked at the calendar and realised that I somehow jumped a week.

The glory of it all. An extra whole week before that deadline I was worrying over, that visit to the dentist, that family wedding glooming on the horizon. I would dance and shout for joy, but Blithe Boy is asleep so I’ll settle for a quiet huzzah.

Monday, 13 July 2009

A splash of yellow

I love it when the wattle bursts into flower. All of a sudden there are splodges of fluffy yellow over the hillsides. Wattle trees often hide their glory with soft olive leaves and subdued bark. Then they blaze with sunlight and frivolity for a few weeks. On warm evenings the smell of the flowers gathers in pockets held down by the cooler night air. You’ll be walking along in the coolness and suddenly you are surrounded by warm, slightly sweet air with a tang of dust. It doesn’t sound like much. If someone walked past you wearing it as a perfume you might not notice.

One whiff of it though and I am eighteen again, at university in a new town, stunned by the ideas and people that I am meeting for the first time. People dress differently, talk differently, think differently. I’m judged mainly by my contributions to conversation and class discussions. No-one knows or cares who my parents are or really where I come from. I have no responsibilities beyond taking care of myself. The lake and creek are lined by wattle and their scent was interwoven with memory.

I can’t separate my love of wattle and these memories. Do I really like the smell or is it just an aide-de-memoir – a reminder of when I first realised that there was a life of the mind that was valued and when incidently, I met Mr Blithe?

And being unable to separate my writing self from my other self, I’m wondering what smells would transport the Jaeckels back to Germany? Were there particular flowers or trees or the smell of food cooking or something that was an intense visceral reminder of their past?

Friday, 10 July 2009

A short list

I know that it is school holidays because:

1. I am so tired.
2. My house is even messier than usual.
3. When I go to recent documents in Word, there are strange files there with my daughters’ current fictions-in-progress and nothing of mine.
4. My temper is very short and my patience very thin.
5. I have to fight for time on the computer.
6. I don’t write my blog and I don’t even read my daily blog quota every day.
7. I sleep in in the mornings instead of getting up to work or exercise.
8. Blithe Boy doesn’t nap.
9. I can’t remember all the Jaeckels’ names.
10. I can’t remember what I was going to write for #10.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Pre-existing conditions

I was bringing in some wood for the fire on Saturday night and noticed a peculiar smell. Mr Blithe assured me that I was correct in assuming that brown foam emanating from the septic tank was indeed “not normal.” Any potential problem with the septic system is anxiety-inducing. We are only allowed to have a septic tank so close to the house and indeed a septic tank at all, because it was “pre-existing.” And herein lies the problem. No-one knows exactly how long the tank has been there. It certainly looks elderly with a weathered concrete lid. But it probably is not as old as the house because it was connected to the toilet in the laundry which was a lean-to addition to the house sometime after the house was constructed. We assume that there was originally a dunny (an outside toilet) and that sometime in the last 80 - 90 years the innovation of an inside toilet was introduced.

One of the first things we did to the house when we bought it was to have a toilet put in the bathroom of the main part of the house. With small children, the last thing you want to do is to have them traipsing down a flight of open-riser stairs to use the facilities at night although we did this for a year. And all of the light switches were well above child level. The plumber simply cut a hole in the bathroom floor and suspended the pipework under the house to the existing septic tank. The only problem then was that we had to move the bathroom door around the corner because health regulations don’t allow a bathroom with a toilet to open onto a kitchen. See what troubles you start getting into when you change things?

About 18 months ago now, we demolished the lean-to laundry, jack-hammered out the immensely thick concrete slab and positioned the new part of the house in that location. We took out the bathroom of the removal house to make the wide hallway that connects the two houses but we kept the toilet which was in a separate room. We did have to replace the toilet so that it was a model suitable for septic tanks instead of a “town sewage” model. I had never known that there were different standards for fittings based on type of sewerage. The things you learn.

So here we are on Saturday night – worried that after everything, something has gone wrong with the septic tank. The 24 hour septic tank bloke assured me that it was probably the trench and that he would be there first thing on Monday. Around midday on Monday, the truck arrived. Pretty soon he started making harrumphing noises that I know mean trouble. He couldn’t get the eel into the outlet pipe so he decided to dig down the side of the tank to find the inspection access point. I could have guessed that there wouldn’t be one. As he dug the hole started filling with liquid. A few more harrumphs and he quietly shovelled the dirt back in. His taciturnity turned to verbosity.
“You need a plumber. The seal has gone. And you need to show the plumber the diagram that you have of the property that shows where the trench and the connections are so he can make a new connection to the trench. Then he can get the eel in and find out what is wrong with the drainage. I’ll drain the tank while you call the plumber and tell him that it’s an emergency. Won’t get them out here within a month otherwise and you’ve got two weeks, depending on your deposit rate.”
I don’t know if it was the prospect of dealing with an empty tank or the fact that I can see the plumber’s house from ours, but he’s coming on Wednesday morning. He’s not cheap but he does a great job and is totally unfazed by the fact that there are no diagrams and in fact no actual knowledge of where the trench may be. We have our suspicions. There’s a patch of grass that stays green in the driest months but it might just be an outlet and not a trench at all.

I’m hoping for the sweet smell of success rather than…well you can imagine the rest.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

An answered question

28 December, 1869

Free passages
To single women (domestic servants), married couples (farm laborers or shepherds), with not more than one child, and under 12 years of age.
Persons receiving free and assisted passages, except female domestic servants, have to undertake to repay the Queensland Government, in the case of assisted passengers, the balance of the cost of their passage within twelve months after their arrival in the colony, and, in the case of free passengers, the cost of their passage within two years after arrival in the colony, and on the fulfilment of the undertaking they will receive a land order entitling them to select 40 acres of agricultural land for each adult, and 20 acres for each child between twelve months and twelve years.”
Other than noting and emulating the amazing run-on sentence above (didn’t the government of the day have editors?); the fact that the government was apparently signing legislation at the end of December (no modern bureaucrat would be caught anywhere near the office at that time); and the fact that spelling in 1869 was closer to what we today would call “American” i.e. laborer rather than labourer, the above extract admirably answers my question of what regulatory conditions would apply to obtain the release of a free passenger from their contract.