Unique portraits of poverty: Dempsey’s People

There’s a very charming exhibition on at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra at the moment. It’s something like a latter-day Humans of New York, because the subjects are not the fabulous, fine and famous, but the ‘umble and poor.

Dempsey’s People features water colours of English street people from the first half of the nineteenth century. Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’ work will know the kinds of people I mean – the street sweeper, the fishmonger, the beadle – even the muffin man. But neither the people nor the paintings are glossy and gentrified; they are presented in their poverty, and it’s very moving.

The genesis of the collection of 52 paintings is interesting – they were found abandoned almost – artist unknown – in 2004 in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, when the archive was being re-located. The process of researching the collection and then funding the exhibition has therefore been long.

What I like about the paintings is that they are light – I am guessing that Dempsey was doing quick studies of the subjects and completing them later on, perhaps at night? No electricity. But their clarity and detail are amazing.


And the subject matter, of course – this man is a bill poster. We know and see lots of information and portraits of the wealthy, right throughout history. But the poor are either absent or mis-represented, and while this could also be the case here, they do feel real.

They are not brilliant pieces of art, but they give voice to people from this period who really haven’t been seen much – the blind, the disabled (many of the men were returned soldiers from Napoleonic Wars), the mentally ill. There are a few women portrayed in the collection – this woman helps the bathers at the seaside to get dressed.


I particularly like this one of “Black Charley” in Norwich, apparently a freed slave set up in a shoe-making business.

Shoemaker 1 c.jpg

And Pember of Bath … and friend.

dog c

This image of the Englishman John Rutherford comes from the collection of the National Library of New Zealand, Wellington and is the only “ring in” painting. Look up his story some time …



If you are in or visiting Canberra before 22 October, take a look. It’s worthwhile. And if not, check out the images online. There’s lots of information there. They don’t know what will happen to the exhibition after it finishes in Canberra – perhaps back to Tasmania or touring if there is demand.

The copyright of these photographed images rests with the original image copyright holder.



Opening credits sumptuous scene-setter for The Night Manager

I’ve finally caught up with dramatization of John Le Carre’s novel The Night Manager on Australian free-to-air station, SBS through its On Demand platform. (There’re lots of gems hiding in plain sight there.)

The series met my expectations and more – great writing and acting; sets were lavish and seemed real – I particularly loved the Devon cottage in Episode 3; as well as the luxury villas – who lives like that? And much has been written of the performances of the lead roles. What I particularly liked was that Olivia Coleman’s long-suffering, hard-working spy character could be pregnant – in years gone by that would have precluded her being cast. So, little gains are being made.

But all throughout the watching, I have been haunted by the opening credits and the music accompanying it. There is some good information online (here and here) about how the makers approached fashioning what is often an overlooked scene-setter for any piece of film/video. And in these days of binge-watching, you can often skip through the credits. I found with The Night Manager, that watching the credits got me back into the zone each time, reminding me what I was watching, and through the emotion generated by the visuals and the music, set me up for the next instalment.

The music is composed by Victor Reyes, and there’s also discussion on-line about its similarity to the opening credits theme for Westerworld, the production of which was also done by Patrick Clair.

I can’t hear it myself, although I do agree that there are similarities, and the quality of the production values is the same. But The Night Manager theme is all ebb and flow, with minor crescendos to accompany the visuals as they change from the luxury item to an image of a weapon; each time dropping back to something safe before taking us somewhere dangerous – which follows the story-line of Pine’s journey. This matching of visuals and music is what makes the sequence so effective, to its ultimate end where everything explodes. Brilliant.

There’s talk of a second series. Here’s hoping that if it is made, it will live up to the quality of this original in every respect, including the opening credits.


Copyright of original source material is acknowledged.

Marking World Record Store Day

Yesterday I was a bit distracted by things sciency, so didn’t get to acknowledge World Record Store Day! Usually I would try to be at home and play records I haven’t played for a while. But better late than never.

World Record Store Day is of course a marketing initiative, and has been going for over ten years now – how time flies! Although I haven’t bought any new vinyl for a long time, I have happily held on to my collection across many house moves, and through the advent of CDs and iTunes, despite the derision and scoffing of others. “The recording in digital is so much better, the sound production perfect,” I was told. “Records take up so much space …” Well, yes. But so does sports gear, or children, or books.

While I can accept the arguments, that is not what it’s about for me. This is my collection (and I use the term loosely. It’s not a regimented collection as some of my former radio station colleagues would have built, with every record ever made by an artist, 45s and 33s). I do not have every album by say Fleetwood Mac (although we do have two copies of Rumours). I do not have every Elton John album. But I have what I like – such as Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom, Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside,  Blondie’s Parallel Lines, Flowers’ Icehouse, and Hall & Oates’ Bigger than Both of Us. The opening saxophone strains of their Back Together Again transport me to the adolescent bedroom in the inner suburbs of Newcastle, where the only knowledge of Philadelphia was the cream cheese sold in blocks in the supermarket. And that is what it is about – this music, the album covers, even the plastic sleeves from the record stores where I bought them – all contribute to a memory that is somehow tangible. I was there when I heard it.

These pieces of rotating vinyl are the soundtrack of my life’s formative years, and it is not by co-incidence that when I am feeling low or disconnected, that I turn to this collection. Some have crackling and jumps (not too many), but it is those very imperfections that I like, remembering when I flogged a particular track or side, or why it jumps there. Sometimes I put a record on to be surprised by the tracks on a second side because I hadn’t ever flipped the disc.

At the Patti Smith concert in Sydney recently, they were playing the whole of the Horses album live. After playing Free Money, she quipped wryly, “And that is the end of side 1 of Horses,” knowing that a large part of the audience would understand her reference.

A 2016 YouGov study indicated that the recent resurgence in vinyl record purchasing is driven by midlife nostalgia. The research found that, “Those who have recently purchased a vinyl album are most likely to be aged between 45 and 54.” Ironically, many are re-purchasing albums they previously discarded.

While there are some albums I can see myself discarding in the future – bits and pieces that I picked up along the way – playing records is such an important part of my life, I can’t ever imagine not having them. So I am glad for World Record Store Day – it means I won’t have difficulty getting a new stylus for the turntable (it was a bit tricky for a while in the 90s) for some time yet.

Their Finest – movie review

Their Finest (and the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, from which this film is drawn) takes its title from one of three speeches given by Sir Winston Churchill after the withdrawal and evacuation of troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in France during World War II.

“Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.” 

Their Finest is a 1940s period film about the role of propaganda, set within a story of people making a propaganda film. It explores how facts are manipulated to reach the end goal of validating the British government’s decisions and shoring up the public’s support for them, while at the same time making a film that tells a good story. It shows the political pressures that arise, the financial limits (and the seeming never-ending magic pudding of Ministry of War finances), and is set against the washed-out and dreary background of a London being bombed beyond recognition.

Gemma Arterton and Sam Clafin Photo by Nicola Dove-Nicola Dove - © Nicola Dove

Sam Clafin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest (image Nicola Dove) 

Viewed through the lens of modern tenets of the role of women, the film can be viewed as feminist – the protagonist Catrin Cole (played by Gemma Artherton) has followed her socialist artist husband, Ellis (Jack Huston), to London from Wales. She walks into a screen-writing job because all of the men are off fighting. She is to write the women’s perspectives into the script, “the slop” (!), and as she settles into it, she withstands Ellis’ pressure to leave her job and follow him to his next painting location – under the guise of them needing the money, which they do. But she also has found her passion and is not going to give it up. She’s already given up too much.

There are stars aplenty in the supporting roles here – the wonderful Helen McCrory is under-used as an actor’s agent, but still looks glamorous amidst the grey restaurant and hospital scenes; and Bill Nighy, again playing a version of the naughty pop-star figure that brought him to the public eye in Love Actually, steals almost every scene. A bit too much ham, although his scenes with Catrin are moving and genuine. Richard E Grant is subdued but strategic as a senior bureaucrat, and Jeremy Irons is the Secretary for War – very Anthony Eden in prep and presentation. Catrin is supported at work by screenwriter, Buckley (Sam Claflin).

The turning point of the entrance of the United States into World War II and Churchill’s exhortation of that country’s support becomes the focus of the film being produced within Their Finest – the Ministry of War wants a US presence in this film. Catrin and her co-writer Buckley have to find a way of introducing an American “hero” in their Dunkirk-based story, despite there being no US troops in the Dunkirk evacuation.  Never let the facts get in the way and all of that …

The background stories in Their Finest help to anchor the viewer – there’s more than enough to keep us interested. And the film they make is ultimately shown to be very effective in manipulating the public’s support for the Churchill government’s actions. However, the real value of Their Finest is in reminding us how and why this is done -and should be a warning in this re-emergent age of fake news.

The good Oils

I am standing in a dark cupboard – about the size, shape and build of a polling booth. A black curtain is pulled closed behind me. On either side of me at waist height are two plastic arms, elbows sticking out, attached to the wall.  Apparently they are meant to move and jostle me around, as if we were standing in the audience of The Antler hotel in Narrabeen in the late 1970s. But the elbows remain static in the dark, inversed Vs, props in some weird Halloween party. In front of me is a largish screen playing a video of a Midnight Oil gig, circa 1982 – and the elbows are irrelevant because I don’t need reminding what a Midnight Oil gig is like. I do remember.

The Making of Midnight Oil retrospective exhibition is in Canberra at the moment at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre and is well worth the hour or so spent down memory lane. First mounted by the Manly Art Gallery and Museum in close consultation with Oils band members, the exhibits cover the life of this iconic Australian band, from its genesis as Farm, through to the early 2000s when they wound up shop. There is plenty of video content to see, as well as clothing, tshirts, album covers, 45s (!), and a stage set up complete with drum kit. The height of Peter Garrett’s microphone stand gives an idea of the size of the man but I suspect they would have needed more room on a real stage to accommodate him, his movement and dance style, and three guitarists as well.

Midnight Oil image 3 stage

Stage set up

The first time I saw Midnight Oil was at The Ambassador nightclub in Newcastle. I was 16 (checking ID wasn’t much of a thing in 1979) in year 12, and had convinced my friend Melanie to come with me. I didn’t see much of her that night, but she knew where I was if she needed me. I didn’t move from my perch on a stool at stage right, mesmerised by the driving energy of the sound and, if I am honest, Rob Hirst’s biceps. Yes, Garrett’s presence was overpowering too, but it was the music that stayed (and stays) with me, and I straight away ordered Head Injuries from the CBS record club – a well-loved piece of vinyl that I retain today. By the time I moved to Sydney the following year (and eventually to North Bondi the following year ), they had taken off and were playing all over the place.

Midnight oil image 2 Ambassador

Poster from gigs at The Ambassador nightclub in Newcastle, complete with surfing and steel-making visual references

The exhibition is very comprehensive – it tracks through the key pinch points of their career – the Oils on Water Triple J concert on Sydney Harbour (somewhere in the garage I have a cassette tape of this, recorded from the radio), endless tours in the US, travelling and touring through the Australian outback – unheard of in the 1980s, the Sydney Olympics and the Sorry suits – politics was never far away and it’s fair to say that it was not the sole province of Garrett. He’d have been given short shrift if the agenda were only his and this comes out in lyrics written by all of the band members.

The high points of the exhibit for me are the personal items on display – the guitars and drum sticks, the Casio keyboard used for song composition, and a tattered set list left over from a gig – perhaps kept by chance but encapsulating the band’s life-time output. And the handwritten lyric sheets – complete with copyright tags – are fabulous to see.

Midnight oil image lyrics

Handwritten lyrics for Run by Night

The film of the making of the 10-1 album is also running on a loop, and features interviews with the brilliant Jim Moginie and producer Nick Launay and illustrates the technical brilliance and musical knowledge that sits behind the unique Oils sound.

The exhibit will be touring elsewhere in regional locations, which is great, but if you are in or around Canberra, I can recommend it.

The Making of Midnight Oil exhibition  is free and runs in Canberra until 14 May – http://www.tuggeranongarts.com/the-making-of-midnight-oil-2/


Freckles are us

Life's like that!

I had put the appointment off for ages. It wasn’t until a work colleague came back from her recent dermatologist appointment with news of 2 basal cell carcinomas (BCC) on her face that I picked up the phone and booked myself an appointment.

The Skin Clinic. I was able to get in the next day so I took the appointment.

Being a fair and very freckly redhead growing up in Australia wasn’t an ideal combination. This fair colouring due to my Scottish and German grandparents. The redhead jokes at school were nothing compared to the sunburns and blisters on my shoulders and back that I had as a child. I remember every Summer would start the same with that first bad sunburn and after that the subsequent ones didn’t hurt as much. We did wear sunscreen but it was such a low sun protection rating, I think SPF 12 from…

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