Petersham Thursday April 6, 2006

Up way too late last night compiling statistics for the MCA’s education programme. They hand out all these questionnaires to school groups who attend workshops, with answers on a scale of one to five. You know the sort of thing, one is agree strongly, five is disagree strongly, and you have to interpret the numbers in between as best you can. This was chronically boring work, but my boss, Justine, was nice enough to send it my way, since I obviously can’t come into the museum for work. My first experience of “telecommuting” was a bit dull. Compiling statistics made me wonder about the process of gathering information – how the technology for recording pretty much determines what results you’re going to get. I wonder what that means for this blog?

In the early evening I went down to the Petersham Town Hall, for the Heritage and Conservation awards ceremony. Apparently it’s Heritage week (or month?) and there have been bike rides and tours and talks, looking at old stuff around the area.

(Coincidentally, it’s also “Seniors Week”, but I don’t think the two are related…)

About seven projects were nominated, from various house renovations which “retain significant aesthetic and material elements from the original”; an environmental scheme to stop ammonia-infused runoff water going into the Alexandra Canal; to that big Silo apartment conversion thing down in Newtown.

The silo project won it. I guess it was the most ambitious of the proposed schemes, and it’s better to use it than let it rot. But I do know there’s plenty of people who don’t like that one. Whether the reasons for not liking it are its “modern” architectural style, and the fact that it’s “bringin’ in the yuppies,” I’m not sure, but it does raise some interesting problems about the concept of “heritage”. I’d like to know more about ways to negotiate the quicksand of heritage. The trick is to honour the aesthetic styles of the past (without fetishising them) while at the same time rewarding innovative new design; and “preserving the character” of a neighbourhood while allowing it to change and develop (and avoid stagnation). Whew, its a biggy, and at the very polite awards ceremony, nobody was really going there. At the very least, Marrickville Council doesn’t seem to be urgently gripped by development-bucks fever a-la Frank Sartor, so there’s time for these problems to be pondered.

One of my fave nominated projects was the restoration of Eliza Donnithorne’s grave in the Newtown Cemetery. Eliza, apparently, was due to get married in 1856, but her betrothed stood her up on the wedding day. She decided to wait for him, declaring that the wedding table (cake and all) would not be disturbed until he arrived to claim her. Well, he never did, and when 30 years later she died a bitter spinster, the cake was finally tidied away. Legend has it that Charles Dickens based Miss Haversham on Eliza, when he wrote Great Expectations. This story – both the wedding bit, and the Dickens influence – is pretty much unsubstantiated. On the ever-trusty web I found an account of the life of Eliza by Matt Murphy. Matt found that there may have been more than a pinch of willful mythmaking which snowballed as the story was passed along:

Much research I had done has only turned up unsourced newspaper articles giving various accounts of the story and the Dickens connection; each article seeming to be loosely based on those that preceded it.

See Matt’s webpage for all the juicy gossip and myth debunking about poor Eliza:
http://www.sydneyarchives.info/Memories/donnithorne.html

Regardless of the truth of her tragic tale, Eliza WAS buried in Newtown, where she rested in peace for over a 120 years. Last year her grave was vandalised – the tombstone pushed over and smashed onto the ground. The local community, rallied together by the St Stephen’s church rector, pulled together and got some restoration students and expert stonemasons to reassemble the grave, better than ever. I reckon it’s interesting that a somewhat dubious historical account can still inspire such “fervour to preserve”. The truth of the story is evidently much less important than the pleasure of the tale. And we love the idea that “one of our own” could be immortalised in Dicken’s landmark of English literature (even if in doing so she had to sacrifice her entire normal life).

It’s strange – this historical stuff – it’s all just stories, just “fiction” until we find some personal connection with it ourselves. At the awards ceremony, I met a feisty lady called Florence Bell, who last night won a special recognition prize for her work in digging the dirt on the Petersham plane crash. Apparently, during the second world war, a “Mosquito” plane crashed into the local school (now the Petersham West Street Tafe). Florence was there at the time, and she’s spent many years piecing together the history, tracking down the families of the pilots, and creating a memorial down at the Tafe. She told me that the families were sent a telegram saying only that the plane had been lost. They were delighted to finally have some concrete place to visit and hang their memories. I asked Florence how the plane crashed in the first place, but she said nobody ever found out. From the other end of the tale, however, there’s no limit to the disclosure – last year (or the year before?) Florence organised a function which brought a whole lot of the class of ’45 out of the woodwork, to tell what they remembered: “I was in year two, in Mrs Bloggs’ class, and all of a sudden we heard this horrible screech coming from across the way…” and so on…

Peter Dunn has a short account of the crash here: http://home.st.net.au/~dunn/ozcrashes/nsw20.htm
His most macabre snippet is this one:

Bill Fitch who was eight years old at the time of the crash, remembers hearing what he described as a petrol tank exploding. He ran into the playground and discovered one of the airmen’s body embedded in the bitumen.

I would have liked to spend more time with Florence, but she was a popular lady, and had many folks to attend to. Who else was there? Tom Uren was the guest of honour, he launched the night with a great speech about how everything in the world was connected. It was a pretty new-school concept for an old-school Labor politician. His presence might have had something to do with the fact that Marrickville (our local council) now has a Green mayor, a fella called Sam Byrne. The story goes that as soon as Sam was elected, he relinquished his mayoral Fairlane for a bicycle. I must contact him and ask him about that one…

* * * * *

Good news on the dog-front. I have located a pooch to be my surrogate walking pardner. Wolfie, his name is, and he lives next door. Here is the correspondence which led to this breakthrough. The background is that my neighbours, Rachelle and Rob, have a couple of kids who look pretty promising as artists, and I recommended that they take em down to the MCA for school holiday workshops. I followed this up with the dog request…

hi there rachelle

seems odd sending you an email from next door, but here you go!

here is a link to the MCA for their art workshops. its seems there will be some happening during the easter hols’ – if you book in, talk to melina, and tell her youre my next door neighbour. she’ll get a kick out of it…
http://www.mca.com.au/default.asp?page_id=55

hey, i was wondering if i can ask you guys a favour?
you know how i am doing this petersham project where i dont leave the suburb for 2 months? well, in a way, its about meeting more neighbours and locals. i am writing up each day in a blog (at the moment its here – http://bilateral.blog-city.com- but i will be moving it to its own location soon…)

anyway, it seems like a good way to bump into folks is while walking a dog. so, maybe, if its alright with you guys, could i take woofy for walks? i know im not exactly the best dog person in the world (unlike bec for instance), but i think i would do ok. in fact, maybe i could take
bec with me too.
what do you think of this crazy idea? would it work out? if so, when is a good time to do it? in the mornings early? (seems lotsa folks walk dogs then before work…) if not, any time would be fine at your convenience!!

i hope this request isnt too odd…

cheerio
lucas

—–

lucas
Yes it does seem a bit weird. Thanks for the info I think the kids will be very interested and I love the café!

The request is not so weird. Everyone comes to talk to you when you have a dog. Wolfie would love to go for walks. Most times of the day there is somebody with a dog although morning and afternoon are peak times. Maudrell Park and Petersham park are hot favourites but have seen a few dogs at the park off Livingstone road (is that still in Petersham I wonder?) Wolfie has some friends that he sees sometimes in the afternoon. Whatever suits you – for me you would be doing a huge favour particularly on days that I work. The guy across the road walks most days. We always walk to school and home on Mondays (if I am not working) so you are welcome to join us. Let me know what you think. Or call across the fence!

Rachelle

—–

thanks rachelle
i think i missed you over the back fence tonight, i went out to a heritage awareds ceremony at the petersham town hall. what a bewdiful building.
well that great news re wolfie, sorry for emasculating him with the moniker woofie, i just assumed that was his name cos thats what he does!!

ok, well thursday’d be great, i’d love to take him out. i can do any time, except at 530pm the real estate agent is coming around so we can bother him about security issues. maybe i’ll catch you in the morning before you leave for work, and you can give me the low down on the poo picking up and things like that. i really am a bit ignorant about canines.

x lucas

1 thought on “Petersham Thursday April 6, 2006

  1. infra dig

    Well, things are certainly hotting up for you in Petersham, un-earthing the past seems to make the present more vibrant somehow. Speaking of Seniors week, it is also Youth week in NSW, which seems mad. There are another 51 weeks in the year, you think that the virtues of ‘youth’ and seniority could be celebrated in different weeks. It does conjure, however, great images of dance parties with mixed crowds of under 25’s and the over 60’s- no middle dwellers. Happy dog walking!

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