Light up the sky

It’s approaching year-end and the subject of fireworks is back in the news. Should we? Shouldn’t we? With the pandemic still raging around the globe, we are asking the question if it’s appropriate to see in the New Year with a fireworks celebration. After all, what is there to celebrate except for the passing of a terrible year that has been marked by tragedy for so many?

Photo by Anthony Roberts

Fireworks have long been used to celebrate important events. Invented by the Chinese, they’ve been lighting up the sky since the Song Dynasty in 960 AD. To celebrate festivals such as the Chinese New Year, ordinary folks could purchase paper tubes filled with gunpowder, stringing them together to form clusters of explosions. Official firework displays were held to mark events using rockets to explode like flowers in the night sky. Over a thousand years later and we’re still doing the same. Fireworks are used for all kinds of celebrations in every part of the world. My family and I experienced our first truly spectacular display on the shores of Georgian Bay after emigrating to Canada. We had never seen such fireworks as we celebrated our first Canada Day in our new country. Years late after moving to Australia, we were blown away by the Sydney Harbour extravaganza. A far cry from the backyard pops and sizzles that my father set out in the days of my youth and before we left old England’s shores.

Festivities at Windsor Castle 1776

Earlier this month, the United Kingdom celebrated Guy Fawkes Night, sometimes known as Bonfire Night or simply Fireworks Night. It’s an occasion I remember fondly from my childhood. November 5th commemorates the attempted assassination of King James the First in a gunpowder plot designed to blow up the Houses of Parliament. After being discovered beneath the House of Lords with a cache of explosives, Guy Fawkes was arrested and sentenced to be hanged for his treason. In celebration, bonfires were lit across the country and the date marked on the annual calendar. Children built effigies of Guy Fawkes and took them door to door begging for money before burning them on the bonfires each year.

Photo by Nir Design

As the years passed, fireworks were added to the celebrations and the money raised by children went to buy a range of bangers and rockets, available freely at local stores for pennies. I recall with great pride how we cleared out the Girl Guides hut each year with a volley of crackers, running from the scene of the crime with giggles of satisfaction as girls screamed wildly from within. A penny would buy two small bangers while three pence would buy an impressive little Atom Bomb or a Rip Rap with multiple explosions.

Photo by Jeff Rivera

As a child, I was always looking for ways to push the boundaries. Bangers were great, but they were limited when it came to putting on a real show. I had always wanted a chemistry set but Mum, knowing what that could mean in the hands of a mischievous boy, was having nothing of it. It never stopped me from experimenting and I would purchase little tubes of chemicals from a shop in Liverpool where they had no qualms about selling to children. All in the name of education of course. I wanted an improved Guy Fawkes event, featuring a bang that would leave everyone singing my praises. How hard could it be to make a firework, right? I set to work using my vast scientific knowledge, gathering household ingredients along with my stock of regular chemicals, a bit of fertilizer here, some chlorine there. It’s amazing what you can find that could help with a big bang.

Photo by Thomas Staub

With firework night fast approaching, it was imperative to hold a dress rehearsal. After all, it would be so embarrassing to light the fuse with the whole neighbourhood watching only for it to fizz and fizzle in a puff of wimpy smoke. So, enlisting the help of my brother, Mike, we headed for the garden at nightfall. Mike held the torch while I carefully set my “Grand Boomer” on the ground and lit the fuse. Whoosh! In one incredible flash, I saw the light of my error, literally. Note to self: next time let Mike light the fuse. I staggered around the garden, hands outstretched before me, feeling the air like a zombie. It was a scene from the Return of the Living Dead. “Don’t tell Mum,” was all I could say as the skin peeled from my face. “What do you mean don’t tell Mum?” says Mike. “You have no eyebrows or hair and you’re blind. You don’t think she’ll notice?” Needless to say, she did notice. After some medical treatment and a short recovery, I was grounded, my chemical stores removed for safekeeping. Thankfully my sight slowly returned and so did my eyebrows. My venture into pyrotechnic production had ended in a flash. Pity there were no smartphones around to record what must have been a spectacular display. I certainly saw fireworks.

Next time let Mike light fuse

Back to the question of fireworks and the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Thankfully, (touch wood) we are in pretty good shape here in Australia and the virus is currently under control. People are free to get together for Christmas and New Year. Nevertheless, it just doesn’t seem right to be celebrating extravagantly while our friends and family around the world are in the thick of this awful battle. We had the same discussion last year when bushfires raged all around us, and there were arguments both for and against. They went ahead anyway and Sydney put on the usual magnificent display over the harbour, but for those of us who were impacted by the fires, it felt a little insensitive and only served to remind us that not everyone shared our pain.

Photo by David Julien

Our Premier has decided that this year’s show will go ahead as usual, but this year it will be muted. There will be a short event at midnight, an official show of thanks to our front-line workers who have helped us through this traumatic year. I like to think that the fireworks will be an exhibition of hope and optimism, a turning point in our fortunes as the world looks to the future and light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. When we look to the skies, we’ll take a break for a few minutes from the emotional strain and see the prospect of a new day, a brighter New Year, and we’ll think of those less fortunate and wish them well.

Many thanks to all those who have bought Black Bones, Red Earth. It’s now available for those who haven’t from Amazon as well as bookstores worldwide. Give it as a gift this Christmas.

A Special Kind Of Lady

When Gundungurra Aboriginal Elder, Aunty Val Mulcahy, describes her life growing up on a mission reserve, she’s not complaining, she’s merely telling it how it was. And neither will you find her feeling sorry for herself; she’s a fiercely independent and proud Australian woman.

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Velma (Aunty Val) Mulcahy at the Order of Australia Awards

I first met Aunty Val after seeking help with the cultural aspects of my new novel, Black Bones, Red Earth. Set in 1950s rural Australia, the story follows the life of Katherine, an English child migrant and her relationships with Aboriginal station hands. I never intended this novel to be about black Australia; it is, after all, the story of an English orphan. But I soon found similarities between Katherine’s story and those of the Aboriginal stolen generation, and that led me to learn more. As the writing progressed and characters emerged, I found it impossible to overlook the hardships suffered by Aboriginals as a result of government policies. As a result, the novel delves into a traumatic period in the lives of First Australians who were taken from their families and separated from their ancestral homes by British and Australian governments.

Aunty Val and Family
Aunty Val (right) with family at La Perouse mission

Eighty-four-year-old Aunty Val was born and raised under protection law on the Aboriginal mission at La Perouse, south of Sydney. After being taken to live on the mission, the Protection Board separated Aunty Val’s mother, Ida, and her children from her husband, Reg. He was arrested and beaten every time he tried to see his family. Val saw her brother ejected from the mission when he reached 18 years of age. Life on the mission was difficult, and racial prejudice rampant when the residents strayed beyond the reserve.

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La Perouse mission reserve south of Sydney

‘We had different rules to white Australians,’ Aunty Val told me. ‘We didn’t have freedom of movement. We didn’t have a vote. We weren’t allowed to go to see a doctor or go to the hospital until Thursday. If you were very sick and it wasn’t Thursday, you died.’

If you were sick and it wasn’t Thursday, you died

Aunty Val says that babies died in numbers on the reserve because of gastroenteritis. ‘Women were not allowed to breast-feed on the mission. Instead, they were given bottles of milk to feed their babies. But they didn’t teach them how to sterilise the bottles, so babies got sick and died. Schooling was inadequate. We got to paint pictures, listen to bible stories, and sing hymns. There was no reading or writing, and we were not allowed to talk our own language or talk about traditional ways.’

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Aunty Val’s parents Ida Amatto and Reginald Russell in the 1930s.

Aunty Val had no idea why she and her family had to live on the mission. ‘My mum told me we had to stay because we were special. It was only when I was older that I learned the truth and that we had been forced onto the mission. I was sent out to work when I was thirteen, and that’s when I discovered we were treated differently to white kids. Even at work, we had different rules; we had to give all our wages to the mission, and they gave us sixpence back.’

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An early photo of the La Perouse mission house

Despite coming out of the mission, ill-equipped for the world, Aunty Val vowed to gain a university education. She was fifty years old when she achieved her dream, studying at the University of Sydney for her degree. Aunty Val worked in Aboriginal health and services and is passionate about educating others. ‘Education is the key for our people if they are going to thrive. If you’re not getting children educated, they will always be disadvantaged.’ Aunty Val has seen too many kids coming out of school, unable to read or write. ‘They need jobs, but they don’t stand a chance if they’re not getting educated.’

My mum said I was special

Aunty Val was awarded the Order of Australia for her work in the community, but she says there’s so much more to be done. I asked her if she was bitter about the treatment she and other First Australians have suffered. ‘I’m not bitter,’ she says. ‘but I get angry at governments that refuse to move the country forward. We can’t change the past; what’s done is done. We’re not stupid; we know we can’t turn the clock back. But Australia needs to recognise the truth and admit what happened in the past. This land was not empty when the whitefellas came. It was our country and had been for thousands of years. What happened was an invasion, followed by genocidal attacks on our race, segregation and outright discrimination. The protection laws were brought in to breed out our Aboriginal blood. Until Australian history recognises what really happened, and until we start teaching it in schools, we can’t move on, and our people will continue to suffer. We need a treaty, and we need to be recognised in the constitution. Then, maybe, we can have a chance at reconciliation and start to heal.’

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Having a yarn with Aunty Val at the community centre she helped create

Aunty Val would be the first to say her story is unremarkable; she’ll tell you that every Indigenous Australian has a story to pass on and that there were a lot worse off than her. But after listening to her tales, and learning of her past and her accomplishments, I can say without a doubt that her mother was right, Aunty Val is indeed very special.