Finding voices from the past

THE National Trust WA received funding last year to run its first writer in residence program. The funding came from the Department of Culture and the Arts, which in 2019 produced a Writing Sector Review aimed at encouraging excellence in writing and foster professional development.

The trust chose four writers to kick off the program; Melinda Tognini and Ros Thomas who were based at Fremantle’s Samson House cottage and the Curtin family home in Cottesloe, and Sasha Wasley and Maddie Godfrey at Peninsula Farm in Maylands, while Sasha also spent some time at Woodbridge.

The Chook thought it might make a fascinating insight into the mind of a writer to see what piqued their interest in their historic home-away-from-home and how that might make its way into their writing, so we’ll be featuring one of the writers over the next few weeks.

This is our last instalment, where we check in with MELINDA TOGNINI, who ‘met’ some fascinating characters during her Freo residency.

IN a year when so many writers I know struggled to write—myself included—it was truly a gift to be granted a National Trust Inspire Writing Residency with which to carve out time to create new work. 

The residency was for the equivalent of three weeks full-time, which I chose to undertake on a part-time basis: two days a week for six weeks at Samson House and three days at John Curtin’s home in Cottesloe. Even in a non-Covid year, it’s rare to have this concentrated time to dedicate to my writing, so I’m extremely grateful for the space to say yes to my creative practice and no to other demands and distractions.

I began the residency with the rather vague idea of exploring life on the home front during the Second World War, a fascination which began while researching my first book, Many Hearts One Voice: the story of the War Widows’ Guild in Western Australia (Fremantle Press, 2015).

I was particularly interested in finding a way to connect younger readers to this history. Yet I wanted to be open to the ways the archives might speak to me while I was at Samson House and the Curtin Family Home.

The archives certainly did speak, initially from the written and photographic material provided to me by the National Trust. 

In turn, this information sent me in the direction of Trove, the wonderful digital archive of Australian newspapers, as well as the State Library of Western Australia to track down several oral histories and the State Records Office’s Retromaps to see what land and buildings existed in previous generations. 

Through these (and other) sources, I ‘met’ Joy, a child living with her parents in the one-bedroom cottage on the grounds of Samson House; Amy, a Fremantle Prison escapee who shared her name with a famous pilot; Inez, a war bride planning to start a new life in the US; and Eddie, a teenage boy who dreamed of flying.  

Immerse

Being at Samson House and the Curtin family home enabled me to immerse myself in experiential research, not only within the buildings themselves but in the surrounding streets too. 

I regularly walked around Fremantle and Cottesloe for a sense of the proximity of places relevant to these young people and their stories. 

I wanted to know how long it took to walk from one location to another. For example, I realised that the flat Inez and her mother lived in was directly up the hill from the Ocean Beach Hotel, where US servicemen were enjoying their recreational leave. 

Perhaps this was how she met her husband-to-be. 

And Joy was living literally down the road from the prison Amy escaped from in 1943, although it’s unlikely they ever crossed paths in real life. 

The stories really are in their infancy. They’re in what I call a pre-draft stage — plenty of notes and mind maps, and a few sketched out scenes, but nothing that resembles a proper manuscript yet. 

I still have further research to do. 

There are more oral histories waiting for me in the State Library. 

There are court and prison records in the State Records Office to explore. 

I would like to have further conversations with those who were children and young adults in Perth and Fremantle during the Second World War. 

And I would especially love to chat to anyone who might remember or be related to Joy, Inez, Amy or Eddie. 

I had hoped that these stories would be non-fiction ones, and perhaps they still will be. 

At this stage though, there are too many questions left unanswered by the archives. 

With so many gaps in the historical record, the details of these lives are currently mere fragments. They provide me with a framework, an outline, but not the whole story. 

For now at least, I will need to turn to my imagination to develop these characters, discover their connections to each other and build the story that is evolving.

However, I would never have uncovered these stories at all without the residency. 

I am sure that these stories are developing not only because of the National Trust locations themselves, but also due to the dedicated time to research and the opportunity to consistently turn up to the page.  

The National Trust Inspire Writing Residency has indeed been inspiring in so many ways, not the least of which is the opportunity to recalibrate my relationship with my writing. 

I finished the residency with a determination to continue the regular writing rhythm I established over two months.

It helped to farewell 2020 and head into the new year with Joy, Inez, Amy and Eddie for company. 

I am sure they will continue nagging at me until I have faithfully transcribed their stories onto the page.

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