Cultivating storytellers in the rural heartland

Story by Michael Burge

LOCAL FANS OF good writing have every reason to celebrate, with a season of literary initiatives and acclaimed broadcaster Mary Moody — coming to the New England region between October 25th and December 1st for the High Country Writers Festival. As an author and journalist who learned to use the written word at Delungra Public School, I’m thrilled to be bringing wordsmiths together in a region that has always fostered storytellers.

RURAL HEARTLAND: Waterloo Station, Glen Innes.

Writers will have a unique opportunity to prime their skills and draw inspiration at iconic Waterloo Station between Glen Innes and Inverell when the festival kicks off at the High Country Writers Retreat from October 25th to 27th. Inverell resident Virginia Eddy (the force behind Boorama, her business strategy outfit, pictured above) is partnering with The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, to assist writers in adopting a micro-business approach.

Returning to the region after four decades has been huge for Virginia. “When I left my Melbourne world, a friend told me: ‘Don’t ever forget that there is a reason you are returning. Look and listen for it’,” she says. “Even though I’ve been here for six years, every time I drive out the Yetman Road north of Inverell, I’m imbued with the deep sense that I’m going home. Our family left the region when I was ten.”

Virginia believes that being a writer and being in business can be a comfortable coexistence. “Regardless of whether writers are published independently or by traditional means, business knowledge and acumen underpins their capacity for independence,” she says. “Micro-businesses should be built on the same primary foundations and frameworks as major corporations, except scaled accordingly”.

“I urge writers to imagine they are weaving potent little miracles of business around their output. These don’t happen with templates, or overnight. They’re a lifelong practice.”

TOUCH OF LUXURY: Waterloo Station Shearers Lodgings.

Despite one of the worst droughts we’ve seen in the New England, Virginia encourages writers to share Waterloo Station as a home-away-from-home during the retreat. “Whether they’re from the bush, the city, or both, it’s a chance to pause, absorb the landscape, the built environment, the past and evolving social history,” she says. “I believe the Station’s restorations (under the stewardship of Deborah and Don Anderson) will speak for themselves; but as a writer working on one of my own manuscripts, I look forward to hearing others’ perspectives.”

Being a regional-returner myself, I know what it’s like to seek a sense of place in a rural community. Growing up on a property out of Delungra prepared me for the profound tranquility of rural life, but living and working across the world has allowed me to bring home a host of skills.

I began mentoring writers after my independently-published memoir Questionable Deeds was selected for the Brisbane Writers Festival. I was so swamped by queries about how I managed it that I wrote the process into a short, accessible guidebook. Participants at the High Country Writers Retreat will be mentored on adapting these principles to their writing and publishing practices.

But there’ll also be plenty of writing time, one-to-one sessions and inspirational experiences at Waterloo Station. Virginia is well underway with transitioning into a literary writer, and I am always up for fresh insights into business and marketing, so we’ll be attending each other’s sessions at the retreat. Come and join us!

From the heart

The High Country Writers Festival continues on Saturday November 30th and Sunday December 1st at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, when Mary Moody, one of Australia’s most beloved and bestselling authors, launches her first book in a decade: The Accidental Tour Guide. She spoke with me about what inspired her to return to autobiography.

Mary Moody

“Memoir forces people to reflect on the events of their lives and to gain an understanding of how they reacted to those moments,” she says. “I have found that writing down difficult events somehow crystallizes them. The Accidental Tour Guide contrasts the highs of exploration and adventure against the lows of death and loss.”

Since the publication of a string of bestselling memoirs, bridging her life in rural France and regional Australia, Mary has relocated from the farm she shared with her late husband, filmmaker David Hannay.

“I now live with my youngest son and his family in the Blue Mountains. This supportive environment makes it possible for me to continue my adventure travels, knowing I have a safe haven to return to, every time,” she says.

Mary will also hold her popular ‘Writing from the Heart’ workshop at The Makers Shed during the festival. “I never cease to be amazed and delighted at the stories people tell me of their amazing lives. It’s just knowing where to start and how to keep those stories flowing. Often people want to write the stories of their parents or grandparents and these are equally as inspiring. I believe we will never tire of reading about other people’s lives. It helps us to make sense of our own.”

The tussle between nesting and migrating is a constant theme in Mary’s work, giving insights into the fortunes of regional communities in many countries. “It’s always the people that create a community, and it makes me sad to see regions where failing economics makes it impossible for people to live where they were born,” she says. “We need to encourage more young families to live in rural areas – the benefits of this lifestyle are many and varied.”

Described as Eat, Pray, Love meets The Year of Magical Thinking, Mary’s new memoir is an inner and outer journey through uncharted territory. “I’m really looking forward to touring with this new book. I particularly love small independent bookshops and places where there are active and enthusiastic book clubs. Australians are great readers – they devour good books and it’s wonderful to know that here we have such a vibrant and viable publishing industry. At the end of the day I just love meeting people and talking.”

The High Country Writers Festival is an initiative of The Makers Shed. This article was first published in New England Living magazine.

Carol’s commonsense campaign

“That’s what women are facing all over the nation, and women are leaving politics in their droves.”

CAROL Sparks describes herself as an unlikely candidate for local government, but a desire for change in her community drove this former nurse into a political career that’s already made history in Glen Innes.

It was while co-ordinating state and federal elections for New England Greens candidate Mercurius Goldstein that Carol got a close-up look at public life.

“I went on the campaign trail and I spoke to lots of people,” she recalls.

“I realised I had a bit of a passion for it, to try and bring climate change to their attention, the problems with our waterways, and the environmental damage that was happening on the Barrier Reef.

“Then the council elections were coming up and I thought well, I could just keep talking to the people.”

Carol’s campaign for the Glen Innes Severn Council (GISC) elections in 2016 was conducted over a fortnight in a very grassroots manner.

“I just stood out on the street and said: ‘Vote me in for council’ and people liked that,” she says.

“There had been campaigning in this region in the past, but it had always been done in the newspaper.

“It was quite exciting and people were enthusiastic towards me. The community was feeling a little bit frustrated, they said we needed a change.”

A major driver for Carol was the under-representation of women in local government.

“There was a majority of men on the council and I really felt that women needed to have a decision-making presence,” she says.

“Dianne Newman was a councillor and she was feeling a bit isolated.

“I campaigned on health, women, water, and potholes. Unfortunately there’s still some potholes around, but we’re working hard on that,” she says.

Raised at Tathra on the far south coast of New South Wales, Carol’s mother’s family were dairy farmers and her painter father a Second World World veteran.

“I left school at fourteen and worked in a grocery store, before starting my nursing training at Bega,” she says.

“I went to the Keppel Islands on holiday and that’s where I met my husband, Badja.

“We sailed around the Whitsundays, got married, and lived in England for eight years where our children were born.”

After moving to the Glen Innes region in 1980, Carol and Badja established a local antiques and collectable business and a second-hand bookshop. The couple’s son Joe now owns The Book Market in central Glen Innes.

When asked about what sparked her political ambitions, Carol admits to having an internal drive that shocks a few people.

“I’m an old woman,’ she says, laughing. “And I wanted to have a change.”

“I was a registered nurse and working in palliative care here in Glen Innes for twenty years.

“There were needs in the community. We’ve got doctors on call, but it’s very different when you have a doctor right there when you present at a hospital.

“Towns in the bush tend to get poor services.”

Trial by fire

Carol served as deputy mayor from 2016 until September, 2018, when a majority of councillors elected her into the mayoral office. Looking back at her first years as a local representative, she describes the experience as a “trial by fire”.

“It still is,” she says.

“We had another lady who was president of Severn Shire Council,” Carol adds, referring to councillor Alice Clifford, who served prior to the amalgamation with Glen Innes Council.

“But we’ve never had a female mayor of the municipal council.

“That’s what women are facing all over the nation, and women are leaving politics in their droves. I suppose that’s writ small here.

“But I’ve tended to be a person who goes against the grain, and it’s been very inspiring to look at Dianne, who is now deputy mayor, and notice the changes that have happened for her whilst I’ve been on council.

“We could do with a couple more women, I reckon, just to balance it up a bit.”

When asked what she imagines her legacy will be, beyond bringing more gender equality, Carol is very clear.

“I think renewable energy, happy kids, more community gardens, and more sustainable businesses,” she says.

“We do have a tendency to be a bit old-fashioned. I’d love to bring the rail trail here, for example, with lots of backpackers coming from overseas,” she adds, referring to a proposal to alter the use of the closed rail corridor that runs from Armidale to Wallangarra.

“Volunteering is also a big thing in Glen Innes. We cannot survive without our volunteers and of course they’re all getting older, so encouraging younger volunteers is something I’ll be looking to do.”

On the issues that divide country towns along political lines, Carol is firm.

“If we care for our waterways and our creeks, we should create biodiversity and plant trees instead of cutting them down,” she says.

“To have healthy waterways is where we find most in common with farmers. They need water too, so we need to look after the environment.

“We come together though common sense.”

This article first appeared in New England Living magazine.

Music as medicine for the soul

A chance meeting between two old friends led to the formation of Armidale-based band Pantor. Glen Innes audiences get another chance to experience the vibe of this diverse group at The High Country Handmade Showcase at The Makers Shed on Sunday June 2.

“We love playing eclectic covers of happy tunes with a Latin-Spanish twist,” guitarist and singer Jon Anderson said of the group.

“Peter Georkas (guitar, bouzouki, voice) and Massiel Barros-Torning (guitar, voice) have been playing together for some time.

Massiel Barros-Torning. Photo: Peter Torning

“I knew Massiel and her music from the distant past but a chance meeting brought us together, and from the first jam session we knew we had something that was enjoyable and unique.”

According to Anderson, Pantor (which includes John Kellett on percussion and vocals) loves to play to an engaged audience and selects its performances carefully.

“We don’t play mainstream shows, we ensure that each show we do is an enjoyable experience for both ourselves and the audience,” he said.

“We are flexible enough to play as a two-piece duo or the full band with extra members.

“As we are all well-respected local musicians, it is not uncommon for other musicians to join us on stage for a song. We also mentor and include young music students at our rehearsals and can sometimes offer a guest spot in selected performances.”

The group has performed at The Makers Shed at Glen Innes before, at the first two High Country Handmade Showcase events that take place in the sunny, grassy yard of the venue on the first Sunday of each season.

“Visitors to the event had such an incredible response to Pantor,” Michael Burge of The Makers Shed said.

“The High Country Handmade Showcase is a marketplace for artisans and independent creators to get in front of discerning shoppers and audiences, and the musicians we showcase are an integral part of these events.

“Pantor’s music is uplifting and incredibly diverse. If you haven’t had the chance to experience them yet, come along to our free event on Sunday, June 2. Pantor will be performing from 11am in the yard,” Burge said.

“There’s gourmet brunch on offer, so grab your spot and enjoy the performance.”

Tailor-made music

The four members of Pantor are regularly joined by special guest performers, sometimes at the last moment.

“Angelo Saavedra often joins us to add Zamporias (pan pipes) and Charango (stringed banjo-like instrument) to the Latin Spanish theme,” Anderson said.

“Because we tailor each set list to suit the dynamics of each show, and communicate with and involve listeners, we generally have an engaged and entertained audience.

“Our theme is music as medicine for the soul.”

According to Anderson, Pantor is very much a group-led project.

“We generally get together weekly and almost always add a new song to our list,” he said.

“All of the members contribute to the ideas of our performance.

“If it feels good we keep it, if not we move on. Each live performance is different and as we are all multi-instrumentalists we can swap instruments and include our other talents in our performances.

“Peter plays bouzouki, Massiel plays blues harp, I have my trumpet, John has multiple percussion instruments, and we all sing.”

A less-is-more approach seems to inform the choices of this Armidale-based group, which wowed audiences at the 2018 Black Gully Music Festival.

“Our rehearsals and jams are just as valuable an experience to us as the performances we do,” Anderson said.

“We only do stuff that we enjoy, so with that in mind we’ll continue performing selected shows in 2019, including the Thunderbolt Festival at Uralla in October, 2019.”

Pantor will perform at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, during the High Country Handmade Showcase, Sunday June 2. Free entry.

Main photo: Armidale-based band Pantor performing at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes. L-R: John Kellet, Jon Anderson, Massiel Barros-Torning, guest artist Angelo Saavedra, and Peter Georkas. Photo: Peter Torning

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