Letter From Gympie 2019


After hovering on the side line, shoes tightly laced, the year is now fully activated. Thankfully, the holiday season’s brief pause offered something of a head start. Although each year seems shorter than the last, the first century philosopher Seneca argued against complaints of shortness of life. To Seneca, time was not the problem. It was the waste of it (1).

Gympie’s Deep Creek greenery flourishes in a region of rolling hills. Despite dryness, native vegetation planted there by the Council has grown swiftly. A richness of different shades of green lines both edges of this flood prone hollow. Nearby Normanby Bridge over the Mary river is recognised as the entrance to the Mary river valley (2). Completed in 1915, a railway line curves through the northern part of the valley. There were years in its history when the line was busy carrying passengers, timber, cream and fruit and vegetables. At one stage it carried quarried manganese ore (3) to be railed to BHP at Newcastle for steel(4). In later years the line went quiet and eventually stopped working before becoming a heritage railway for tourism. Its steam engine and carriages now restored, the Mary Valley Rattler travels over the Deep Creek viaduct and 14 other bridges (5).

Jack and the Beanstalk will feature in Sydney’s State Theatre during July. This should be good news for those of us who remember the giant. Egged on by a tipsy father reading the story aloud, I was to topple the titan by chopping the beanstalk. After the revelry of my imaginary effort and dad’s merriment, Jack, along with his mother and their cow, faded into memory; as did the giant, his hen and its golden coins. Instead there lingered in my mind’s eye a longing to climb a beanstalk and touch the sky. Dad suggested sending away for some magic beans on offer at the book’s back page. The beans never arrived, presumably because he never intended sending for them. Today, recalling his well-meaning smile, my guess is he did not want the dream shattered.

(1) Seneca. Translated by C.D.N.Costa. On the Shortness of Life (2004) (2) Pedley,Ian. Winds of Change One hundred years in the Widgee Shire (1979) (3)Towner, Pat. Rock ‘N’Rails The History of the Mary Valley Railway Line (1998) (4)Johnson, Murray and Saunders, Kay. Wild Heart, Bountiful Land:An Historical Overview of the Mary River Valley (2007)(5) Gymie Regional Council.The Round Up (October 2018)


When the remains of Matthew Flinders were found, a customer bought the story of Trim, the explorer’s black cat.  Trim sailed with Flinders in a total of four ships on voyages that included the circumnavigation of Australia in 1801. Flinders wrote the story during seven years’ captivity at Mauritius by the French. Spreading himself on the quarter deck, Trim obstructed the passage of ship’s officers walking on their daily rounds. By doing this he got what he wanted - their declared admiration of his white feet. Falling overboard on one occasion, the cat swam to the ship and climbed a rope thrown to him. And in the Coral Sea, the explorer and his cat were shipwrecked on Wreck Reef (1). 

The discovery of Matthew Flinders’ remains in London was announced in the week leading to the 2019 Australia Day weekend. Flinders believed his cat knew what good discipline required; but the book is evidence of a great explorer’s humanity as much as the adventures of an intelligent cat.

John Ruskin, 19th century art critic, is a man of the moment in the public domain. The occasion is the 200th anniversary of Ruskin’s birth in 1819. The significance is Ruskin’s influence as an English visionary, to be celebrated in a year of exhibitions conferences and events. Critical of Victorian industrialism, Ruskin wrote 39 books and lectured on theories of architecture, art, nature and work in society (2).

Before travelling to Venice, look for an inexpensive working copy of Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice. Condition is not important. So long as the book withstands consultation while you are inspecting buildings and artefacts, so long as the pages  (to thumb for reference and scribble notes in margins ) hold together and remain dry on Venetian waterways, it should be adequate. After returning, think about getting another copy in the best condition you can afford illustrated with Ruskin’s watercolours. 

Visiting Venice or not, if you read Ruskin’s work you might find yourself grappling with his symbolic language. If so, you are not alone. Such a uniquely styled 165 year old account of Venetian history and architecture matches the essence of the city itself. And the author’s themes relevant to today’s global society are readily identifiable (3).

(1) Flinders, Matthew. Trim ( 1977 ). (2) Reyburn, Scott. Why John Ruskin, Born 200 Years Ago, Is Having a Comeback. NY Times ( 05 02 2019).(3) Ruskin, John. The Stones of Venice (2001) The Folio Society. Preface and introduction by editor Jan Morris.


When temperatures rose, it was time to take to the verandah or deck. Many verandahs of older Queensland homes extend around the entire building. Opening up the house and sheltering it from direct sunlight and rain, they encourage a relaxed, informal existence. Gympie has its share of alluring Queensland verandahs varying in design and contrast, complex or simple, restored or deteriorating. 

An advertisement for recorded books urged making words great again. Worn out with age and overused, some old words inevitably fall into disuse. Others, still useful, are discarded in our haste to abbreviate as new words of questionable value pour into everyday language. Known for his stories for boys, English author Desmond Coke retired early from writing. Becoming a full time collector of antiques and prints, Coke immersed himself in buying works of the artist Rowlandson. By his own admission, making a collection made the former author happy. Coke believed we look inside ourselves too much and also give out far too many words for what we say. Only by solitary collecting, he claimed, can you get full relief from both. (1) 

A century on, Coke might well consider our introspection and  words as excessive as ever. But he might also find our reservoir of useful words – especially those needed for sparking ideas and elevating thinking  - drying up.  Achievable or not, the notion of making words great again is appealing. And listening to recorded books might well encourage reading. 

This morning the mist surrounded the hillside until 7.30, when the clearness of a blue autumn sky unfolded.

(1) Coke, Desmond Confessions Of An Incurable Collector (1929)

MAY 2019 NUMBER 31

Stormy afternoons of late summer ended with displays of lightning. By the time Easter and our evolving Anzac day departed, Gympie welcomed the freshness of autumn. As the temperature dropped gradually, mild evenings and warm days continued. Throughout continuously soft rain, my flowering lemon tree excelled itself. 

In one of Gympie’s steep streets I am walking uphill.The street is above the site of a reef of gold found in 1867, but neither the hill nor its history is on my mind. It is towards evening, the day is almost over and I am heading to my favourite weekly event.  On arrival I experience the tranquility of meditation in the company usually of six others.Flickering  candle - lights cast shadows as the evening light fades. After 30 minutes a gong sounds the session’s ending and this small group departs. The downhill walk is brisk and easy as Gympie’s Town Hall clock chimes 6pm in the darkness of nightfall.  Mary Street, its large trees attractively lit, is emptying out. 

As a discipline taken seriously, meditation has become for me a rewarding activity. It is something I look forward to not only with a group, but daily in private. 

Music was something my mother was paid to listen to. Mothers’ day brought with it a recollection of mum telling my brothers and myself about her radio days. As a young child she listened to crystal wireless. As a school student she enjoyed coming home daily to listen to newly commenced radio stations. As a sixteen year old her first job was to listen to music in the office of the Australian Performing Rights Association.Her job was during the economic depression years of the 1930s, when work was not easy to come by. Employed for her typing skill, she listed for their royalty payment the performer and title of each piece of music broadcast. Mum got to know the words of a lot of songs.


Some days during the last month of autumn have been somewhat wet and overcast. There were a few misty showers, but also days of blue skies and warmth in this usually mild climate. Gympie’s annual Show reported record entries and attendance, a little rain putting the Showground in top condition for showjumping. 

At primary school in fourth grade, the teacher was a demobbed Spitfire pilot. Our fiercely moustached hero drilled us to study what was then the soaring daily price of wool. Australia, we city dwellers were informed, could not live off the sheep’s back forever. Few if any of us could grasp the relationship of sheep to prosperity; some of us had no shoes. Others were preoccupied with Keith Miller’s bowling and Bradman’s batting. Or they simply wanted to get hold of Spitfire Parade and other Biggles adventure books by Captain W.E.Johns. 

We could be caned if we were disobedient or hopelessly careless in school work, but we knew this teacher’s soft spot. “Oh sir ” we begged when the going got tough, “please tell us the Spitfire stories.” Whenever he relented, the school blackboard would be covered in white chalked diagrams of hit and miss air escapades. Spellbound, we posed questions to keep him diverted from arithmetic. 

A reader of this newsletter recently flew in a Spitfire. His dad was in a second world war Spitfire squadron ground crew. Although comfortably strapped inside the 75 year old riveted metal aircraft, our reader likened the experience to flying in a tin shed. But straightaway he realised why pilots loved this aeroplane. Despite shaking and rattling, it flew like a dream, was completely manoeuvrable to turn and dive and with its constant roar, climbed powerfully .

JULY 2019 NUMBER 33 

A picturesque evening sunset commemorated the shortest day of the year before Gympie’s winter solstice rolled over. All told, the first month of winter measured up well, despite some chilly mornings and a final week of mostly wet days. And the warmth of coffee in winter is comforting. 

Long ago, coffee houses were more than a rendezvous. After offering your tobacco pouch, you lit a nearby smoker’s pipe, exchanged news, talked or listened and perhaps debated. Richard Steele and his colleague, fellow 18th century essayist Joseph Addison, both frequented London coffee houses. Addison aspired to bring philosophy “out of closets, libraries and schools into clubs and assemblies, tea tables and coffee houses.”(1)  

To Richard Steele it was natural for people to delight in coffee house conversation. This suited him because he could choose between listening and talking. Customers at his favourite place differed according to time of day, rather than their state of grandness. They tended to gather in groups he described as “little communities which we express by the word neighbourhood.” 

The local haberdasher and his friends and admirers, Steele wrote, arrive at six in the morning and remain until 7.45AM. Everyone has a newspaper but talk cannot get underway until the haberdasher comments fiercely on something he has read. Those arriving next are law students in all manner of dress, their faces revealing individual attitudes; some are posturing and others are in their nightgowns. They are followed later by those with “business or good sense on their face” who come either to transact affairs or enjoy conversation. Cavalcades of people and groups continue throughout the day. (2)     

 Although today’s coffee shops are also a rendezvous, customers rarely have time for the debate and discussion enjoyed 300 years ago. But there is a welcoming coffee shop in the Sunshine Coast where conversation flows invitingly. I joked to the proprietors that should retirement ever come within my reach, I would visit them daily.  

 (1) The Spectator  No.10 Monday, March 12, 1711  (2) The Spectator No.49 Thursday, April 26, 1711 The Spectator A New Edition (1863) reprints this journal’s published 635 papers.


A day away from Gympie is a day wasted. Or so it might sometimes seem when you would rather be reading writing and contemplating comfortably at home. But not when you explore the coast line and hinterland south of Gympie. And on May 17th 2020, it will be 250 years since James Cook sailed past Moreton Bay and sighted the Glass House Mountains. 

Cook’s expedition in the Endeavour was partly funded by the Royal Society, today the world’s oldest continuing scientific academy. (1)  The bay was named by Cook after the Earl of Morton, (2) an astronomer who was the society’s president and peerage representative from1764 – 1768.(3) During those years the Endeavour’s voyage was planned and commenced in consultation between King George 111, the Society and the Admiralty. (4)  

In Cook’s opinion the protruding peaks were very remarkable hills which he named “glass houses.” In his native Yorkshire, glass houses were cone shaped brick chimneys housing furnaces and working spaces of glass foundries. Prominent in position and fascinating in structure, they are now part of the Glass House Mountains National Park. Residual cores of ancient volcanoes, they are identified by their aboriginal names: Beerwah, Tibrogargan Coonowrin and Ngungun are among the more distinctive. (5) 

Early successful and unsuccessful attempts to climb these mountains in the nineteenth and twentieth century were described by Thomas Welsby.  A businessman, politician, sailor and sportsman, Welsby was fascinated by the Brisbane River, foreshores,     waterways and inlets of Moreton Bay. (6) 

After a day away you return with widened awareness of the value of what lies between Brisbane and Gympie.  

(1) royalsociety.org (2) Parkin,Ray. H.M.Bark Endeavour (2003). James Douglas was the Earl of Morton, presumably the “Lord Morton” referred to by Ray Parkinson. Doctor Charles Morton was the Society Secretary from 1759 - 1773. The letter “e” seems to have emerged later. (3) royalsociety.org (4) Blainey Geoffrey. Sea of Dangers (2008) (5) Horton, Helen.Brisbane’s Back Door(1988)(6) Welsby,Thos.The Discoverers of the Brisbane River (1913)


Overnight mountain mists and a slight shower of rain brought August to a close. Early morning chirping birds, along with warm but dry days of mostly blue skies, accompanied Spring’s arrival. Throughout August the pleasant memory lingered of a visit by an interstate reader, a friend for almost 45 years. But the month was also one when my computer software’s thirst for updates took hold. Technology’s intricacy seemed to overrun bookselling.

It was almost as if coping with these new requirements resembled the struggle of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. To the music composed by Paul Dukas, Walt Disney’s animation (1) shows a process out of control. Throngs of brooms magically endowed with hands and arms continuously empty buckets after buckets of water. The apprentice is unable to stop the flow of water cascading down the steps and flooding the sorcerer’s house. 

Stemming the flow of life’s complications calls for more than a sorcerer’s return. And when we become too preoccupied with technology’s intrusions, we might not see the wood for the trees. Our minds can then become dulled and the direction of life obscured.

Thankfully, reading is available to those seeking relief from complexity. Joseph Addison once wrote that reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. Describing exercise as preserving strengthening and invigorating healthiness, Addison believed that reading keeps the mind alive. (2) Not only brightening our minds, but helping to think learn and teach, reading has the potential to lift us up. When it does, it just might give the perspective needed to clarify our direction. 

(1) “Fantasia” (1940 )  (2)   Addison, Joseph. The Tatler  Number 147 Saturday March 18, 1709.


Preferring to dream, architect Frank Lloyd Wright's circumstances forced him to think. And he was determined to search for qualities in all things (1). Wright seems never to have been afraid of high adventure. Neither was his client Alice Millard afraid when he unfolded an idea to meet her extensive requirements and limited budget. It would be a frameless house of concrete block walls. Patterned concrete blocks moulded on site would be linked in their interior joints by thin steel rods. Named La Miniatura by the client, the house was built alongside a diverted ravine on an inexpensive Pasadena allotment. Californian climate and indigenous American civilisation inspired the design.

Twelve pages of Wright’s autobiography recount events surrounding the building of La Miniatura during the year 1923. It was the first of four houses to be built from his idea. In Wright’s imaginative estimation, drawing board work and attention to this project represented what was required of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City.  Despite so many trying circumstances, La Miniatura finally emerged triumphant. Famously concluding he would rather have built this little house than St Peter’s in Rome, Wright declared it was his client’s home in more than an ordinary sense. Alice said she would have no other house she had ever seen. (2) Those 12 pages constitute an essay in translating idea into reality. 

(1) Wright, Frank Lloyd.The Natural House ( 1954 ) (2) An Autobiography  (1977)


By the third day of October,the purple of  jacarandas emerged. Brief as it was, a light overnight shower lasted long enough to create a sparkle at sunrise next morning. It was a day to savour the final month of spring. By October twentieth, jacarandas were in full bloom. Despite dryness and exceptionally warm days, there was a feeling it was good to be in Gympie. So much so that the Mayor suggested a month long Jacaranda festival. 

A shop front in George Street Sydney once housed a magnificent printing machine. To those who enjoyed what this mechanism produced, the building accommodating it represented a virtual cornerstone of Australian civilisation. From the footpath a small crowd of us would stand watching a uniquely Australian publication, the Bulletin, roll off its printing press. Streams of pages surged incessantly. Along with other aspiring writers, pressing close to the window we wondered whether our work was being published. Some other onlookers simply stood and stared, fascinated by the power and efficiency of the machinery. Purchasers queuing inside the building sniffed the fresh print aroma of the journal’s pink wrapped covers. 

The writing experience of many Australians started with stories articles and paragraphs in the Bulletin. Contributors mailed their published paragraphs to the Bulletin office pasted onto a signed sheet of paper with their address. A money order came by return mail. As a fourteen year old , puffed up by the sight of my work in print, it seemed to me they paid well. 

Founded in 1880, the Bulletin was selling 10000 copies weekly within five months. It soon evolved to influence and represent Australian life politics and culture. That some of the paper’s earliest cartoons are shockers is something addressed by the author of the Bulletin’s history. “It was” Patricia Rolfe wrote, “a more robust age than ours, but one can speculate about which of today’s attitudes those who will come after us may find just as repellant and ugly”. (1) 

(1) Rolfe, Patricia. The Journalistic Javelin An Illustrated History of the Bulletin (1979)


Summer in Gympie arrived prematurely. Evenings remained mostly cool, but during some of the days of October and November, bushfires arose nearby and in adjoining regions. By the last week of November, purple Jacaranda had given way to red Poinciana. The first official day of summer was welcomed in by a brief overnight shower of rain.

Televised A League football proved good to watch as each Saturday afternoon ended. Later in the evening, even the Good Karma Hospital was charming in its simplicity. But above all, for seven weeks, at 7.30pm, Saturday’s television morphed into something fascinating:  the latest adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair, first published in 1840. 

Vanity Fair’s cavalcades of characters were described in a 19th century essay by Anthony Trollope. Of them all, Sir Pitt Crawley was an eccentric whose stretch of audacity Trollope was unable to understand. (1) But almost 150 years later, Sir Pitt’s audacity was convincingly stretched by Martin Clunes - none other than the former Doc Martin. 

The reader of Vanity Fair, Trollope concluded, will have the strongest conviction of George as weak, Dobbin as noble, Amelia as true and Becky as vile as any then encountered in literature. For sound reasons Trollope singled out Becky and Rawdon. He identified them as two people readers are called upon to be interested in and think of when reading the book. 

To Trollope, every page of Vanity Fair was of interest and without padding. He believed readers who think of it will find that the lesson taught in every page has been good. And each televised episode’s opening quotation by actor Michael Palin - “Vanity Fair, where everyone is striving for what is not worth having” -  summed it all up.

(1)  Trollope Anthony, Vanity Fair  (1870) Chapter Three.

 ©Barry Long 2019