This weekend it is Australia Day down under. For some, our national holiday means BBQs, beaches and surfing carnivals, for others it’s a day of tragedy and mourning. For me it’s always HWB’s birthday and a time for having fun with family and friends. Except for last year.
The plan for escaping and writing my book had been burgeoning in my brain for some time and, filled with new year inspiration and good intentions, I decided that I’d better follow some of the advice on writing I’d been imbibing. Without exception all the advice says that in order to be a writer – and wait for it – you actually have to write!
As previously noted, I have a peculiarly persistent procrastination perception (OK, maybe a little too much alliteration there …) that I can’t write while working. In my head this definitely applies to novel writing. You can’t just pop one of those out over the weekend. However, what if I were to write something shorter? Something achievable in a briefer period of literary exertion? Something like a poem?
I wrote my first poem at age 7. Here it is:
I am Catherine,
Catherine with a C
I am Catherine,
Catherine that’s me.
The C/K thing is very important to us C/Katherines. I could go on about it at length. Suffice it to say, my muse was clearly dwelling on existential matters stimulated by the fact that I had found myself in a class with no less than four like-named little girls. We had a Kathryn, a Katherine and a Kathy. Evidently, my C-ness had struck me as something distinctive and deserving of poetic exploration.
I loved making words rhyme. It seemed a magical thing to me then, and it still does. Over the years I’ve penned many, many poems, pretty much all of them in traditional rhyming format. Though they don’t strictly adhere to the technical specifications of the genre, I call them all odes. I’ve written odes for weddings, birthdays, farewells and parties of just about all descriptions. Such was my penchant, that as a young journalist at The Advertiser I was dubbed the Official Oder by the Sports Wine and Grub Club (a fine institution, led by the Grand Gourmet (Sports Editor) and Vice Victualer (Senior Sports Writer), which convened in the sports department each Friday night after the paper was put to bed).
Anyhoo, last year I came across a mob called the Australian Bush Poet’s Association. This band of merry rhymesters are dedicated to sustaining the grand Australian tradition of Banjo Patterson-style poetry and they hold a number of events and competitions around Australia each year. On Australia Day, the big daddy of them all is held – the Golden Damper Awards (for international readers, damper is a simple flour and water bread cooked in the coals of a fire). My interest was piqued – I wanted that trophy!
So, what to write? It had to be on a specifically Australian theme, completely original, and complying with some very strict specifications.
After quite a bit of pondering, I decided that I would endeavour to tell the tale of how my grandfather got his name. It’s a bit of a legendary story in our family and something that I would love to write for posterity, Golden Damper or no Golden Damper. So, one weekend I felt the creative urge coursing through my veins and I bashed out ‘Charlemagne’, survived some vicious editing from my friend Rachel, and sent off my entry form for the competition.
Immediately I was struck with the horrors. What had I done? I was going to have to memorise this thing, and perform it in front of true officiandos, competing against seasoned poets from around Australia. I, who had never even entered a poetry competition before!
Then HWB stepped up. He became my trainer, coach and cheer squad and drilled me for weeks until I was word perfect. He critiqued each gesture and intonation and repeatedly assured me I was going to be great. My desperate need for reassurance surged to increasing heights once we had actually made the five-hour drive to Tamworth and I was gibbering with fear and literally shaking in my RM Williams boots.
Well, I somehow survived the experience, and was thrilled when I was awarded second place. I was officially recognised as a proper poet 🙂 My medal has pride of place in my study and reminds me of what I can achieve when I put my heart and mind into it. Courage is not about being fearless, it’s about feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Do I fear that my novel will be a failure? Of course, but I’m going to do it anyway.
And for those of you who may be interested, I give you Charlemagne.
“What’s in a name?” old Shakespeare asked – well, names have a tale to tell.
As the Bard also said “come lend me your ears” and I’ll tell you what befell
a bookie, a mother, a jockey, a log, and a horse called Charlemagne
whose fates came together one Monday – a refrain of joy and pain.
‘Twas Easter nineteen-eleven, in Adelaide’s rolling hills
Down valleys and up gum-lined roads, past farms and trundling mills
came a crowd of holiday revellers – by foot, by buggy, by train –
to the pretty Oakbank Racecourse, quaint Sport of Kings’ domain.
Carts lined the track-side railings, children dashed here and there,
families laid out blankets and strolled the picnic fair.
Across in the Members’ Grandstand gentlemen nodded and bowed
while flocks of flower-decked ladies eyed fashions among the crowd.
Round by the stables no ladies were seen, Akubras abounding.
Here punters and trainers lounged, amid cries of the bookies resounding.
Backs were slapped, rollies lit, cash passed from hand to hand,
while beer was downed in the bar to the tunes of the Balhannah band.
Now, Bill Boomer was a bookie, a straight man so they say,
and he stood with his board and betting bag among the crowd that day.
He called the odds with gusto and a twinkle in his eye
and a line of engaging banter that lured the passer-by.
The money was all on Charlemagne, the favourite that day
for the tough Great Eastern Steeplechase – renowned equestrian fray! –
where the hardiest of horses go three miles round the track
and leap a fallen gum tree on the hill around the back.
Charlemagne had won at Flemington only the month before.
He was worth four hundred pounds they said, classy to his core.
He wasn’t much to look at, but by golly that horse could jump, so
Bill Boomer called him at ten to eight from his perch on an old gum stump.
At two o’clock the trumpet blew, the horses took to the track
with Cosgrove riding Charlemagne, in white with a cap of black.
Thirteen riders bowed and waved to the roaring assembled host,
but only four would return that day past the winning post.
Starter’s orders: they all lined up, at the shot they dashed away,
with Charlemagne leading the pack leaping hurdles along the way.
Steelbit, Barnesby, Matchlock, Vanguard, Carrington, Valour, Bright,
all dogged the heels of Charlemagne but none could match his flight.
Hooves thundering on the turf they galloped up the hill
towards the fallen log where many have had a spill.
Charlemagne leapt a mighty leap! The crowd let out a cheer
split suddenly by ladies’ screams and indrawn gasps of fear.
Charlemagne was down and thrashing, the jockey lay still as death.
Seven more fell in the turmoil, the meeting held its breath.
Mothers shielded children’s eyes as a whisper went round the crowd:
“Broken neck”, “No hope at all”, hats doffed and heads were bowed.
Matchlock won but no-one watched, their eyes were on the hill
where Miller, the manager, tore his hair and gave the command to kill.
Cosgrove was stretchered from the field, the punters watched aghast.
Over the valley a shot rang out. Charlemagne had breathed his last.
Bill Boomer made a fortune on the back of the favourite’s fall,
his betting bag was bulging, and he was standing tall.
He whistled as he slapped the reins and trotted through the dim,
home to a beloved wife, who was waiting there for him.
All was quiet in the house, Bill called out Caroline’s name.
Her voice came from the bedroom where, lit by candleflame,
he found her pale and glowing with a baby by her side
born while Charlemagne was making his last and fated ride.
Big chestnut eyes gazed up at Bill’s, the baby gave a wink.
His mother smiled fondly and asked: “Well, what do you think?”
Bill looked down in wonder and thought of his log-gotten gain,
then grinned and said: “He’s perfect. His name is Charlemagne.”
For my grandfather, Charlemagne Carlyle Guilford Boomer – born 18 April 1911 – who, for many years, was legendary for picking the winner of the Great Easter Steeplechase each Easter Monday at Oakbank.