Friday, 18 August 2017 09:51

Chiron College Visits Ipswich Featured

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In January 1968, Tom Shapcott and I and our three children moved back to Ipswich from our two-and-a-half acre block on the western outskirts of Brisbane. The idea of the move was to be closer to Tom’s work and his family. His mother, Dorothy, was very supportive to me, and I needed that. Our fourth child, Isabel, was born in June that year. We moved into a hundred-year-old stone colonial house not far from the centre of the town. The front part of the house was two-storied, with iron lace clad verandas on all four sides of the upper level. Behind was a single story detached building housing a kitchen and a laundry – both big rooms. There was a covered cement-floored “breezeway” linking the two parts of the house.  The stone walls were up to two feet thick, so the house was blessedly cool in summer and cosy in winter. Beyond the buildings was a long backyard at the end of which was a large weeping fig tree, a mango tree and a big corrugated-iron shed which had once been a coach house.

Tom was entranced by the romance of the house, with its iron lace, red cedar internal fittings and three fireplaces, but I was less keen because everything inside was old and shabby and difficult to keep clean. This was well before doing up old houses became fashionable in Queensland.  However, I was soon won over, partly because we were able to engage Melita, a young girl from a migrant family as a live-in help.  The big old house comfortably accommodated our growing ménage: Tom and me, Katie, Alison, toddler Richard and baby Isabel as well as Melita. And four cats.

 ttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png Isabel & Richard ttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png Kate & Alison ttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png Melta

So this was our situation when we first met Philip Benham and John Welch in 1970.  We had settled into the house and had begun to renovate it.  Tom was working in Ipswich with his father as a public accountant, finishing an Arts degree part time at Queensland University and building his literary career.  His creative energy was truly prodigious. In the decade since we were married he had published four books of poetry and a monograph on the painter Charles Blackman and had edited an anthology of Australian verse with fellow poet Rodney Hall.  In 1970 he was working with composer Colin Brumby on a libretto for an opera for the recently formed Queensland Opera Company and editing a second anthology of Australian verse: Australian Poetry Now.  

We met Philip and John through Tom’s association with Sydney poet Bruce Beaver. Tom had first made contact with Bruce through his editorial work on the anthology New Impulses in Australian Poetry and we had met him and his wife Brenda when we went to Sydney in May 1970 to visit Charles and Barbara Blackman and go to the musical Hair. Philip was also a poet in the Sydney literary scene and a friend of Bruce and Brenda. Later that year, Philip and John drove Bruce and Brenda up to Queensland to visit us.  That winter we had completed the renovations of the kitchen come family room and converted the huge old laundry at the back of the house into guest accommodation, so there was plenty of room. From memory I think they stayed for about a week.  

That winter we had also survived the trauma of little Isabel developing meningitis as a complication of the ‘flu. Fortunately after two weeks in hospital she survived unscathed but it had been touch and go for a while. So after that very worrying time we were glad of the diversion of our guests from the south, and they were wonderful company. They brought Dr Soeus books and read them with relish to the children and they brought LPs of Odetta and Nina Simone for Tom and me. There were lots of intense conversations about what the three poets were working on at the time and much gossip about others in the Australian literary scene. I enjoyed having Brenda’s quiet company and John, who loved to cook, was a great help in the kitchen. This was a boon for me, as I had no flair for cooking and meal times came around with monotonous regularity. 

Philip and John were both school teachers, and I had gone back to part-time teaching at the local Grammar School the previous year, so that was another shared interest. It was a period when there were lots of radical ideas about education in the air, and John and I connected over our enthusiasms for innovative approaches to providing stimulating contexts for learning.  John was enthusiastic about the value of the Arts in education and this meshed well with my interests.  At that time the Queensland education system still carried the legacy of the State’s history as a frontier society.  Especially in the primary schools there was a very strong emphasis on the “three rs”: reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.  The Arts were regarded with some suspicion and referred to as “the frills”.   I was particularly critical of what I saw as the stultifying effect of the curriculum on the development of children’s imaginations.  I enjoyed observing our children as they played around the house, intrigued by their ability to enter spontaneously into wonderfully creative make believe and role play. 

Living with Tom added another dimension to my appreciation of creative processes.  When I first met him, I had completed a major in English Literature at Queensland University, but this education had encouraged me to think that art and literature were things that other, more gifted and rightly famous people created in other places, specifically the United Kingdom and Europe.  We colonials were lesser beings and could only imitate. The cultural cringe, in fact.  I was almost scandalised to discover that Tom, a mere public accountant from Ipswich of all places had the audacity to assume that he could be a published poet. Tom was a great believer in, and encourager of the home-grown artistic product. He demonstrated, and encouraged others to believe that we could all be creative, and that the stuff of our creations was our own lived world.  (I also discovered over time that this process could sometimes be problematic for those who were part of the artist’s lived world, but that is another story).  As an approach to education it was an empowering stance, and one which John was quick to pick up on and appreciate. 

After that first visit, Philip and John visited us a number of times during school holidays over the next couple of years.  I enjoyed having visitors because they helped to break the tedium of the endless rounds of housework, and Philip and John seemed to enjoy being part of our family life which was very different from their cosmopolitan life style in Sydney. ttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png Holidays with John & Philip One evening John offered to baby sit while Philip and Tom and I were out somewhere.  We told him that the bedtime ritual included reading a story to each of the little ones, but forgot to tell him about the song.  When after the story Richard said: “Aren’t you going to sing me a song?”  a rather embarrassed John replied that he didn’t know any songs. “Don’t you even know Twinkle Twinkle Little Star?” said Richard.  So John had to oblige.  Another time I had gone off somewhere with John and forgot to pick Richard up from kindy. Philip at home took a phone call from an irate kindy teacher.  Where was Mrs Shapcott?  So Philip jumped in the car and rescued this poor stranded child.   

At the end of 1970, Philip and John met up with us at a holiday house on the Gold Coast, and then took us all back to a place they knew on the Clarence River in northern New South Wales.  It was an amazing location. We had the upper level of a house built right on the river bank and practically overhanging the water. Goodness knows what happened to it in flood times. It was there that John and I hatched the idea of bringing some of their high school students up to Ipswich as a sort of bonding experience at the end of the students’ penultimate year. I particularly remember one lazy afternoon drifting about on the river with John in a little row boat and dreaming up this crazy scheme.

The idea incubated over the following months. I can’t remember much about that process. There must have been correspondence, and I remember a trip to Sydney when I stayed with Philip and John in their flat at Kirribilli, and visited the “Metropolitan Business College” as I think it was still then called, in downtown Sydney.  The main idea was that Philip and John and some of their fellow teachers would bring some of the students to Ipswich where they would stay at our place for about a week.ttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png Margaret with Students We would put the boys in a hired marquee in the back yard, and the girls could sleep on stretchers on the upstairs verandas.ttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png Margee & Shed ttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png Boys Quarters John and I would do the catering, and we would organise educational activities, mainly involving the Arts.  And this is what happened at the end of 1971 and again in 1972.  The first year there were about six girls and twelve boys.  All aged about sixteen or seventeen.ttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png Some Students

Organising activities was not difficult.  Between us Tom and I had a lot of contacts who were poets or painters or worked in the theatre.  We hired some local halls for workshops and I recall that we used the Ipswich Little Theatre’s Burley Griffin Incinerator Theatre for poetry readings. Some things happened at our house or in the back yard. Alison, who was then nearly nine, still recalls how exciting it was to come home from school one afternoon and find all these groovy young people gathered around the mango tree in the back yard. They had decorated the tree with balloons and crepe paper and various found objects as some sort of artistic creation! 

I can’t remember all the people who gave their time and talents to these workshops and events. Certainly Judith Wright and Kath Walker (later known by her Aboriginal name, Oodgeroo  Noonuccal) were among the poetsttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png, as well as our local Ipswich poet Helen Haenkettp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png, and maybe Bruce Dawe who lived up at Toowoomba and was a good friend.  I think my friend Murray Foyttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png from the Queensland Theatre Company and a young actor colleague of his did theatre workshopsttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png and it is possible that Roy Churcher did a painting sessionttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png.  Davida Allen, a protégé of Roy and Betty Churcher who subsequently won the Archibald Prize with a portrait of her Ipswich father-in-law watering the garden was another who worked with us one year.  Then there was someone whose name I’ve forgotten who showed the students how to make musical instruments from materials at hand.  I don’t think any of these people were paid.  It was all good will, enthusiasm and voluntary. 

Then there were the outings. We hired a bus and driver from a local company, sometimes for a whole day.  On one occasion we took the bus north up the Bruce Highway. We visited a spiritual community near Caboolture we had heard about. This community, of married priests and nuns, were art conservators and had an amazing collection of art works from Europe, some by very famous artists. After that we drove on to Woodford, where our friend Billy Jones and his partner Diane lived a hippy life in an old “Queenslander” house they rented dirt cheap on what had once been a dairy farm. Billy wrote poetry and produced amazing very detailed pen and ink drawings. We had lunch there and a swim in a big creek which ran through the property and then drove home via Somerset Dam and Esk.  It was a fun day out, if a rather odd combination of people and places to visit. Goodness knows what the bus driver told his mates back at the depot!  The outings weren’t all artistic. Willis Haenke, husband of our friend the poet Helen Haenke, owned one of the Ipswich mines, so Helen arranged for the Chiron crowd to be taken down the mine!  Such things were possible in those days. No doubt whoever was in charge at the mine observed the requisite safety procedures, but I don’t think any special permission from parents was needed or sought. 

In the middle of all this, family life went on. Tom went off to work each day, clothes got washed and floors got swept. For Katie and Alison, aged 11 and 9 in December 1971 and just of an age to idolise teenagers, it was all one big party. They loved having the girls from Chiron sleeping on the verandas outside their bedrooms upstairs like glamorous big sisters.  Richard and Isabel, at three and five, coped pretty well with mum being so distracted, so long as they got fed and put to bed with a story, a song and a cuddle at the end of each day.   

At the end of the 1972 visit, we had arranged an outing to the home of our friends John and Barbie Roe, who lived with their four children in a large ranch style house on the top of a mountain range at Brookfield on the western outskirts of Brisbane. ttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png Barbara Roe & John Welch It was a social event to celebrate the end of the visit before they all boarded the plane back to Sydney next day. Once again, we hired a bus and driver who was to stay with us all day and into the evening.  Tom drove our Holden station wagon with me and Richard and Isabel, and Kate and Alison elected to go in the bus.  

The track from the road up to the house was very steep so the bus parked on the road and the students walked up the hill.  Barbie put on lots of food and there was music and spaces for dancing and some alcohol and big comfortable sofas for relaxing on.  As the afternoon progressed it began to rain but this just made for a nice cosy atmosphere.  Just on dusk there was a cloudburst of very heavy rain which then set in for the evening, but we were all having such a good time, no-one was bothered.  Except, fortunately, for John Roe, who took a trip down to the road and came back with the news that the creek at the bottom of the hill between us and the road was rising fast, and we had better get out while we could.  So John Roe in his four wheel drive and Tom in the station wagon shuttled back and forth up and down the by now very slippery track until everyone was evacuated.  Tom’s last trip was for me and the children.  I remember sitting very tight in the front seat with my arms round Richard and Isabel (no seat belts in those days) as we slid down the hill and charged through the creek.  When we pulled up beside the bus we discovered that Kerry, one of the teachers, had lost her footing in the rush of water on the little bridge and fallen into the creek. Fortunately she wasn’t injured, only shocked and soaked. 

We headed back to Ipswich, and John tells me that in the bus they sang all the way home to keep everybody’s spirits up. When we got there we found that the boys’ tent in the back yard had collapsed and everything was soaking wet.  The first thing was to get a badly shaken Kerry to bed with a hot drink and then find places in the house for everyone else to sleep and dry out their damp gear. Fortunately next morning everyone was OK. I came downstairs to find lots of tousled headed young people and breakfast happening in the kitchen.  Then it was time to pack up and head back to the airport with our faithful if rather bemused bus driver.  

But the adventure of the previous evening was a bit of a wake-up call for me.  I realised that I had gone into this enterprise of hosting the school in a rather gung-ho manner without thinking much about sensible things like insurance and safety. This was long before the days when everyone was so pre-occupied with workplace health and safety issues and fears of being sued. 

So for the 1973 visit I organised for then all to stay at a place at Marburg in the country about ten miles outside Ipswich.  This was another big old colonial house  which had been used as a headquarters by General Macarthur during the second world war and was now owned by the Catholic Church.ttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png Main Building  It had once been a seminary but in the ‘70s with a dearth of applicants for the priesthood was converted into a conference centre. There was plenty of suitable accommodation and a swimming pool.ttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png Swimming Pool It stood on a hill with lovely views down the valley.  This worked quite well for me as I could still be involved but there was less disturbance to family life.  Not that having so many teenagers to stay had been a problem. They were very respectful of us and our house. There were no breakages or terrible messes to clean up after they left.ttp://new.chironplus.com/images/Camera_smallest.png 1973 return to Sydney But  there were now some changes happening on the home front. I had gone back to doing some courses at Queensland University, Melita had got a job as a nurse’s aid and left us, and Tom had been away overseas for three months on a Churchill Scholarship.  

When I reflect on all this now forty years on in 2014, it all seems quite amazing and extraordinary. Maybe that’s the right expression: extra-ordinary. It certainly wasn’t the sort of thing that happened in Ipswich every day.  But then I remember that extraordinary changes were happening around the world and in other parts of Australia, if not yet so much in suburban Ipswich. The Whitlam Labor Government which was elected in 1972 gave precedence to the arts, the environment and to women. It was an exciting and expansive time. All sorts of things began to seem possible and we responded enthusiastically. Our lives, and lives of some young people were enriched.  What a wonderfully crazy and creative thing to have done!  

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