This is one of my favourite buildings in Newcastle, the Newcastle Customs House. It’s a beautiful masonry building designed by James Barnet, who as the New South Wales Colonial Architect also designed many of NSW’s most distinctive buildings, like the General Post Office in Sydney’s CBD.
I particularly love the tower; it’s 32 metres high and the clock, lantern and time ball are still intact, one of only three such examples in Australia. It must have been quite a sight in its heyday.
The building is heritage listed and known as the Customs House Hotel now and run as a popular restaurant and bar. You can still really feel the history though and they’ve done a great job of preserving the old while welcoming the new too.
I’ve tried taking photos of the building before but I’ve never been very happy with the results. It’s quite a tricky building to photograph, particularly at night. I’m happy with this one though. It feels bold and dramatic, which I think it needed to be to do the building justice.
I also like it in black and white. It feels a little more timeless and I think that suits the building too, in a different way.
I went on a group photowalk around Fort Scratchily in Newcastle yesterday afternoon. I’ve not done that many group photowalks before and I enjoyed it. It was nice being with other photographers and I think other people seemed a bit more comfortable around us as well which was nice.
The weather held off for most of the time, before absolutely bucketing down. I was well and truly soaked by the time I got back. It made for some interesting and atmospheric photos though so I can’t complain too much.
Fort Scratchley is an interesting place. It sits atop Flagstaff Hill, giving good views over the Tasman Sea and the Hunter River, and was originally built in 1882 to defend against a possible Russian attack. It’s probably best known for returning fire during the shelling of Newcastle by the Japanese on June 8, 1942.
It’s a museum now and an interesting place to spend an hour or two wandering around. It also still keeps the seafaring tradition of firing a gun in tandem with a ball drop, which happens at 1pm every day and is interesting to see.
I’ll have to go back for a proper tour at some stage, hopefully when the weather is a bit better.
Most of the photos came out quite well and the overcast sky lent itself particularly well to black and white photos. I wanted to give them more of a contrasty, filmic look and I really like how they came out.
A few of the photos had rain spots on them as well but I actually quite like the effect. It reminds me a bit of the discolouration and scratches you’d get with film sometimes which I find interesting.
So that was my Sunday. Hope you had a nice weekend too. 🙂
A Letter of Hope to Sydney Cove, near Botany Bay Erasmus Darwin (1789)
Where Sydney Cove her lucid bosom swells Courts her young navies and the storm repels, High on a rock, amid the troubled air, Hope stood sublime, and wav’d her golden hair; Calm’d with her rosy smile the tossing deep, And with sweet accents charm’d the winds to sleep; To each wild plain, she stretch’d her snowy hand, High-waving wood, and sea-encircled strand. ‘Hear me,’ she cried, ‘ye rising realms! Record Time’s opening scenes, and Truth’s unerring word. There shall broad streets their stately walls extend, The circus widen, and the crescent bend; There ray’d from cities o’er the cultur’d land, Shall bright canals, and solid roads expand. — There the proud arch, Colossus-like, bestride Yon glittering streams, and bound the chasing tide; Embellish’d villas crown the landscape scene, Farms wave with gold, and orchards blush between. — There shall tall spires, and dome-capt towers ascend, And piers and quays their massy structures blend; While with each breeze approaching vessels glide, And northern treasures dance on every tide!’ Here ceased the nymph—tumultuous echoes roar, And Joy’s loud voice was heard from shore to shore — Her graceful steps descending press’d the plain; And Peace, and Art, and Labour, join’d her train.
I took this photo during a recent trip to Taronga Zoo. I was waiting for the ferry at Circular Quay and realised that I’d been there dozens of times before but had never actually taken a photo of the Bridge, something I’d always wanted to do… I guess living in Sydney I’d always assumed there’d be some other time and had just never got round to it. So this time I made myself take a few shots.
I particularly like how this one came out. The couple looking at the Bridge were tourists and they walked into the shot by accident at the last moment but I think they add a lot to it… they almost make me feel like I’m seeing it anew through their eyes.
The poem above is one of my favourites, A Letter of Hope to Sydney Cove, near Botany Bay by Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s grandfather). He wrote it in 1789 to accompany a small number of medallions created by Josiah Wedgwood to commemorate the settlement of Sydney Cove and it’s always struck me how eerily he predicts the city that would one day rise in its place. I thought it made an interesting contrast to the photo.
This is my first post in a while. I haven’t been feeling well and to make things worse I’ve been having computer problems as well. I can barely use my computer at the moment; it makes a constant grinding noise and just crashes without warning. I even lost some of my work yesterday when it crashed. No backups. Ouch. I’ve been putting it off but I’ll have to get it looked at later this week. Hopefully it won’t be too expensive to fix.
I’ve got a pile of emails and comments in my inbox I haven’t been able to get to yet (sorry!) but one good thing is it’s given me more time to write. I’ve finally been able to develop a few ideas further and I also started an early draft of a new story which is going well so far.
One of the stories I’ve been working on is based on an older idea, about a man who wakes from a coma only to find that the world he knew is gone. I haven’t had much time to work on it previously but I’ve always liked the idea and wanted to develop it further. At its heart it’s about exploring our world through the eyes of a stranger and it’s still only in the early stages but already it feels quite different to anything I’ve written before. I could see it being a novel one day.
I’ve been doing some research for the story (when my computer’s been working anyway), looking at how different trends change over time, and The Commons on Flickr has been an excellent resource. If you don’t use Flickr, The Commons is a photographic archive from different institutions around the world and it’s been fascinating looking at the collections, seeing how things like architecture, fashion and hairstyles have evolved over time.
The Powerhouse Museum and the NSW State Library are both part of The Commons and some of the images of Sydney are incredible; they date back to the beginning of the 20th century, some to even earlier when the colony was still forming. Most of the buildings don’t exist anymore and it’s an incredible insight into what life was really like back then.
The photo above is one of my favourites. It dates back to around 1920 and is of Marie-Celeste de Villentroy, the daughter of a photographer in Sydney at the time. It’s a beautiful portrait, hand-coloured. It’s also one of the few times I’ve seen the Red Ensign flag used so noticeably.
I spent Australia Day looking through The Commons last week and as I haven’t posted in a while, I thought it’d be fun to post some of my favourites photos. To share a little history. Most are of common landmarks in Sydney and should be familiar to people overseas.
There are quite a few photos, so I’ve posted more after the break. Enjoy.
This photo is of Market Street in the CBD, around 1875. The buildings were made of weatherboard and sanitation was a notorious problem in the area. You can see how the plague spread so rapidly a few years later. Rent was 21 shillings.
A view of Sydney from the old General Post Office in Martin Place (1900), in the central CBD. Many of these buildings were knocked down for development during the 1900s. The GPO was privatised in 1996 and now houses shops and cafes.
Martin Place, circa 1900. Martin Place was originally Moore Street and has changed a lot in 100 years but much of it is still recognisable. It was closed to traffic in 1971 and is now a pedestrian mall.
Queen Victoria Markets (1900), now the Queen Victoria Building. The QVB is one of my favourite buildings in Sydney; it’s mostly untouched and the inside has been carefully restored with many of its original features.
Do you ever think about your family tree? About where you come from? I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot recently. The idea of learning more about my family line is something that has always interested me and I’ve often found myself looking at genealogy websites, wondering if, out of all those people, one of them might be a distant relative.
I suppose my interest is partially about accepting my own mortality. Life is such a fragile thing; we’re born, we live, we die. There’s nothing particularly special about me as a person but that I am here, alive today is part of a remarkable chain of events that stretches back through time. But why me? Why not someone else? If the lives of my parents, grandparents, ancestors had been just a little different, that chain would have been broken and I wouldn’t be here. I guess in trying to understand more about them, I hope that I may understand more about who I am as well.
Several members of my father’s family have done some research into our family tree and I’m hoping to see it soon. I’ve been thinking about trying to extend it if I can, so that it includes the family on my mother’s side as well. I thought I’d start with censuses and hopefully my research skills will come in handy.
One person I have been particularly interested in learning more about is my great great grandfather on my father’s side. His name was Isaac Levinsohn; he was born in Kovno, Russia (now Kaunas in Lithuania) in 1855 and had a remarkable life. He wrote several memoirs and religious books, one of which, his memoir of his early years and conversion to Christianity, my family recently had restored. I’ve spent the last few weeks reading and thinking about it.
I’ll probably write a longer, more detailed post about it at some stage as it’s a fascinating story and I’d like to read his other books as well, but to be honest I didn’t have the reaction to reading it that I thought I would. With the exception of myself as an atheist, most of my family is very religious and have admired Isaac for many years. I do as well but so often I’ve heard (particularly from my father) how wonderful and uplifting Isaac’s story is. Reading it, I found it very sad and lonely.
Basically Isaac’s memoir is the story of how he converted to Christianity. As a child Isaac’s family were pious Jews and Isaac felt immense pressure from his father to become a rabbi. For years Isaac studied and tried to follow his family’s wishes but from a young age, he developed an intense fear of death. He was terrified of the idea that when he died, he would be judged unworthy before God. And so when he was sixteen Isaac left Russia and his family despite their protests, trying to find peace and a way to be saved.
Isaac travelled through Germany, experiencing fierce anti-Semitism, and several times became so lonely and disheartened that he nearly committed suicide. Finally he settled in England in 1871. He spoke no English and had few possessions when he arrived. Eventually he befriended a converted Jew who helped Isaac and introduced him to Reverend Stern, who had a profound influence on him. Over time Isaac began to convert to Christianity and his family disowned him. With nothing left Isaac dedicated himself to Christianity, becoming a preacher and a member of Charles Spurgeon’s congregation, preaching to other Jews and converting them, often on their deathbeds.
Isaac’s story is remarkable but I didn’t find it to be quite as uplifting as the rest of my family. I fully admit that may be because I am an atheist and also because I haven’t read his other books yet, but I’d like to think I can look beyond that. Reading it, I just felt very sorry for Isaac. He wrote it in later life and much of what he remembered was filtered by his beliefs, so his perspective on Judaism and what he felt as a Jew feels somewhat tainted. In his memoir Isaac often writes of his darkest moments hopefully as they prepared him for his conversion, but at the time that couldn’t possibly have been what he felt as he was terribly conflicted. I didn’t feel like I got a genuine picture of what that time was really like for him or what he was feeling.
To be honest reading it, Isaac seemed like a scared young man, a boy terrified of death and of failing his father. He was also severely depressed, anti-social and suicidal (most likely due to bipolar) and losing his family broke his heart. That he found peace and later reconciled with some of his family and did so much good is wonderful, but in the end I found much of his story to be very sad.
But I am glad I read it. It is a remarkable story and Isaac’s leaving Russia for England is one of the major events in my family’s history. If he hadn’t left Russia, I wouldn’t be alive today. Who knows what might have happened to the family line if he had stayed? They might well have perished in the Pale of Settlement – or worse, in Auschwitz or some other terrible place. Perhaps descendents of his extended family did die there; I don’t know. That’s one reason I’d like to know more about our family tree and read Isaac’s other books, to find out more about what happened to them.
I think if I had the chance I would have liked to have met Isaac. He was an interesting man and I’m sure hearing him tell his story would have made it even more compelling. As his great great grandson, there’s a lot I’d like to ask him.
There are other people in my family I’d like to know more about as well. My grandfather on my father’s side (Isaac’s grandson) died before I was born; my father talks about him sometimes and thinks I would have got on well with him, but I don’t know as much about him as I would like to. He was my grandmother’s second husband, after her first husband whom she loved very much died. I often wonder what their lives would have been like if he had not died. Would they still be married now? Perhaps in some alternate reality they are… a reality where my father and I never existed.
I know little about my mother’s side of the family as well, except that historically it is a large Irish family which has settled in various countries. It’s something I’m looking forward to talking to my mother and grandfather about, particularly when I try to trace it back further. My uncle (my mother’s brother) and his partner recently had another child as well, my third cousin. So it looks like that side of the family tree is continuing to grow.
I don’t know whether I’ll add to it. Obviously I’m young and it’s possible I’ll start a family one day but for some reason I’ve always thought that my part of our family line will end with me. The last Levinson. I don’t plan to get married or have children; if I meet someone, great, but it’s not something I’m looking for. I don’t want my genes to live forever; I don’t believe in achieving immortality, except perhaps through writing.
I think that’s one of the reasons I am so interested in our family tree, though. Because in a way it is immortality, following that one seed as it stretches back through time. It reminds me of just how remarkable life is, that despite all the odds, we’ve all lived on this planet, if only for a short time. I think the least I can do is to try and remember.
If I find anything more about my family tree, I’ll let you know. I’m looking forward to seeing what my family has found out so far… and hopefully adding some details of my own.
What about you? Have you ever tried to trace your family tree? Found out anything that surprised you? I’d love to find out.
Update: After posting this yesterday I’ve heard from a couple of relatives we didn’t know about. Looks like there are at least five relatives we didn’t know about. Very excited, particularly as it’s happened so quickly. Hopefully we’ll be able to swap stories.
In my dreams I see a distant land
Surrounded by a vast ocean and shadows
On the sands of that desolate place
Lies the wreck of an old galleon
Tall and shattered, all that remains
Is its weathered and half-buried frame
A relic from an ancient past
That no one remembers
What brought it here I do not know
Nor what became of its prized cargo
Of gold, sandalwood and cinnamon,
And slaves taken far from their homes
It seems a sad fate; but if you listen carefully
Sometimes you can still hear its stories
Whispered on the wind
Whilst it stands sentry over the night
Far in the distance a small cemetery
Marks the last resting place of the dead,
A wooden cross beside each grave
Watching over their nameless remains
How many survived and for how long
Is something only the sands can know;
I can only imagine how it must have felt
To be destined to die alone