Author: Sheryl Gwyther ... author

I'm an Australian children's author writing novels, short stories and plays. My new historical adventure for Middle Grade readers is with HarperCollins Publishers Australia. SWEET ADVERSITY is available now.

The search for Caterina … Vivaldi, Venice, and a novel of hope

Who’d have thought writing an historical adventure for younger YA readers would turn into a 10-year long adventure for this author.

Did I mention passion as well?

Yep, I had no idea when I first wrote a short story about Antonio Vivaldi and his all-female choir at a 1700’s Venice’s home for abandoned children that this manuscript would lead me to Venice, to the 18thC Baroque era and beyond. A decade later, I’m on the final rewrite before sending to publishers.

Best news of all … I have found my 15-year-old protagonist, Caterina, and I can’t wait for you to meet her.

Caterina, aka l’Artiglio, the Claw, to be exact. But this feisty young street singer, the foster daughter of a family of thieves isn’t about to let her burn-scarred hand stop her finding what she truly wants and needs in the labyrinth of 18thC Venice, the water-bound city of obscene wealth and desperate poverty.

One of Canaletto’s large, wonderful oil paintings of 1700s Venice. One of Vivaldi’s contemporaries, the artist depicted the city, its weather, its inhabitants and their doings, including the dogs and clothes. A valuable visual tool for a writer.

A story of resilience, courage and hope for a musically-gifted young orphan with a shadowy past. Of course, if I was being honest, this story probably settled into my imagination many years ago when I first heard Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos.

Click for an extra treat Winter’s three movements including his descriptive Winter sonnet’s words to accompany the music. I guess Antonio intended people really understood how he was depicting the seasons via the instruments.

Back then, like most people, I enjoyed the music of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, but I had no idea this almost heard-everywhere composition (Coles supermarket’s background music; tv ads) had such an amazing history – both for its composer and for anyone who appreciates classical music and history.

This famous composition was almost lost to history after Vivaldi died at 63 in poverty to lie in an unmarked grave in Vienna, far away from Venice and all that he loved. I’ll keep that sad part of his history until another time. It is fascinating too, I promise.

Ten years ago, I discovered the inspiring part of this marvellous musician and composer, this son of Venice. And it’s when I became what is called a ‘studioso della vita e della musica di Antonio Vivaldi‘ – student of the life and music of Antonio Vivaldi.

Vivaldi was the music master at the Ospedale della Pietà, Venice’s home for abandoned babies. Those babies grew up behind the Ospedale walls. Some stayed all their lives. Some, the most musically talented became the choir and orchestra of the Pietà. Their Maestro Vivaldi composted over 500 pieces for them to sing and play.

Caterina, my novel’s protagonist, is at the heart of this story, its life and soul.

Vivaldi is at its musical heart.

Venice is at its core. And once this city called La Serenissima is in your blood, she will never leave.

September 19 … history repeats itself

The Miners Memorial Day Service is held on 19 September every year – a date marking the anniversary of Queensland’s worst mining disaster in 1921 when 75 miners lost their lives in a coal dust explosion at Mount Mulligan in Far North Qld – a day to honour the memory of the many hundreds of mine workers who’ve lost their lives in Queensland mines, and in many other mines across Australia.

The Moranbah Miner’s Memorial opens – Australasian Mine Safety Journal

Mining accidents and disasters are preventable. But lessons from previous accidents and disasters are forgotten or ignored. And history repeats itself.

Multinational companies and shareholders want profits – but profits often means cutting back on health and safety for the mine workers. Accidents increase. Union strikes threaten. People die. And history repeats itself.

A memorial service held at the Box Flat Mine, Qld, on 31 July 1972. Image: Courier-Mail.

Side note: There’ve been unionists in my railway family since Queensland’s General Strike of 1912 when after a mass protest meeting of 10,000 people held in Market Square, the Tram Workers’ strike spread throughout Queensland with wide support. When Railway workers joined the strike, the government acted to break it up. With force.

Female supporters led by Emma Miller, well known suffragette, marched in solidarity with the strikers. And the protest turned violent. Folk lore tells of tiny, frail Emma sticking her hat pin in the Police Commissioner’s horse’s rump, causing him to be thrown from his mount.

Women unionists marching towards the north entrance to the Victoria Bridge during the General Strike of 1912.

‘The riding down and batoning of peaceful people, many of them being elderly and women and children on the footpath, was widely condemned, not only in union papers such as the Worker, but also in the more conservative papers such as Truth. It was initially called Baton Friday, but later came to be popularly known as Black Friday.’

The savagery against the strikers on Black Friday created a bitterness and hatred of the police, lasting for several decades. The strike also reinforced solidarity and collective identity of the Australian labour movement in Queensland.

And history repeats itself.

A few days ago, a miner lost his life in an underground mine outside Emerald in Qld, when the roof collapsed in on two workers installing an underground support structure at the Sojitz Gregory Crinum Mine. Mine safety experts are investigating.

The Monogah Mining Disaster, West Virginia. December 6, 1907 – over 360 deaths. “Worst mining disaster in American History”. 1,000 children lost their fathers.
Thought to have been caused by a coal-dust explosion – like in Mt Mulligan’s mine disaster.

The mountain … the history and the people

The circus comes to Mt Mulligan circa 1930-1940

The mountain has seen many changes over its 400,000 million year old history.

A sacred monolith, known for centuries by the custodians, the local Djungan people, as Ngarrabullgan, it’s one of two Dreamtime rock formations in far north Queensland – pushed up as the gigantic Rainbow Serpent passed by.

Implacable to human intrusion, this immense, sandstone monolith rising from the Hodgkinson plateau in the outback west of Cairns.

It stretches 18 klms long by 6.5 klms wide – making it almost 10 times the size of Uluru. Ngarrabullgan is formidable, beautiful and memorable.

Never-before-seen slide images from the top of Ngarrabullgan and below – taken in the early 1950s by a miner and keen photographer, Mr Collins; and given to my uncle, Patrick O’Neill, Mt Mulligan’s station-master.

The monolith’s origins were the coral seabeds 400 million years ago, and its multi-million year old history evident in the layers of its strata. Cave paintings on the mountain’s top prove the continual 37,000 year existence of the first indigenous inhabitants.

When the Irish explorer (and prospector), Venture Mulligan first sighted the mountain in the late 1800s, he said it was ‘a mountain once seen, never to be forgotten‘. Then he found traces of gold, and that was it for the millions of years of peaceful existence between the mountain and humans. And Ngarrabullgan watched on those who sought to exploit its scant reserves of gold failed – then they found a lode of coal.

The coal miners and their families came to Mt Mulligan, living in its shadow and tunneling two miles beneath it. Until one Monday morning in September 1921, exactly one hundred years ago, the mountain upended human lives with catastrophic shrug.

A quarter of the tiny mining town’s citizens died in an instant when the coal dust ignited and exploded – 75 miners; two of them only boys – affecting almost every family in town.

Only the graveyard remains today of Mt Mulligan’s town – except for a few house stumps, and the old hospital, now a homestead. The mine’s chimney is still in situ, as well as the Mining Union’s memorial that lists the names of all those killed in the explosion.

Another change has come to Ngarrabullgan these days – a luxury Eco-lodge built down by the weir, the most pretty part of the area. Sadly, out of my price range, it is tastefully done. They knocked out the stumps of the school house and many other dwellings to build the lodges.

But at least the management insists the mountain, Ngarrabullgan is still shown respect – nobody is allowed to climb to the top. So, there is hope humans will no longer negatively impact upon Ngarrabullgan.

This Sunday, 19th September, 2021 at 9.30 am, people will gather for the 100 year Memorial Service at Mt Mulligan. I can’t be at the site sadly, but I will see it via Facebook Live Stream.

All images on this page are protected under copyright.

The girl … another time, another passion

Every time I write a novel, I don’t plan to add something I’m passionate about – like art, music, history, theatre, politics, or even digging up fossils. It enters a story because it’s what my protagonist demands. This thing, this passion, then becomes the story’s narrative device, or icon.

With Secrets of Eromanga, it was a longtime interest in fossils, Australian dinosaurs and geology. With Sweet Adversity, it was a love of Shakespeare’s plays and stage drama in general (perhaps inherited from my grandmother, Gracie O’Neill, who produced theatre and variety musical shows in the far northern town of Innisfail, back in the 1950s. She deserves a post all on her own!!)

My other work-in-progress novel has classical music. Set in 18th Century Venice – with the Baroque era’s tremendous surge of innovative music. Of course, the city’s most famous son, composer and virtuoso violinist, Antonio Vivaldi is there with his all-female choir of orphans, and street-urchin, Caterina.

With my 2022 historical adventure work-in-progress, the icon is the camera. I didn’t plan it. My protagonist needed it – for her spirit’s survival.

A powerful visual aid for this young Welsh Romani immigrant to see the world? Absolutely.

It’s the right era to use photography as a narrative tool. The early 20th century saw the Kodak company develop small, affordable cameras that ordinary people could use. And they sure did!

This was a novel of discovery for both Lela and me – the Kale Romani, culture, history, language, discrimination / the White Australia Policy / bigotry, racism / immigration / coalmine disasters / early photography and cameras.

Photography has been in my life since I was 7 years old. My father gave me his old Box Brownie camera (like the one in the image above). I remember looking down at the view finder and seeing my family upside-down. But magically, the photos printed the right way up.

Finally, at 25, I learned to develop black and white images in a bathroom ‘dark-room’ – hot and dark with windows covered in black-out curtains, trying to avoid breathing in the fumes drifting off trays of chemicals. And then, printing the photographs.

I’ve owned many cameras since those days – learning through books and experience what makes a good image. I also discovered the magic of photography. Very much like my 13 year old protagonist.

NEWS! I won a bid on a 1915 Kodak #1 Autographic Junior camera. It’s from France and likely was used during WW1, when these cameras because the tools for those who recorded the battlefields in film.

Image: Princess Ileana of Romania with her mother’s camera, circa 1919