Good Country: Seeking CJ Dennis in the golden north

The towns of Laura and Gladstone in South Australia’s north shed light on the early life of one of the defining writers of early 20th century Australia.

As one approaches the Flinders Ranges, the language of landscape shifts perceptibly. CJ Dennis’ formative years as a poet were spent in Gladstone and Laura, towns on the edges of the Southern Flinders Ranges. A sensitive nature-lover such as Dennis would have been attuned to what the land whispered. He took it in and later articulated his image of Australia; in doing so, he changed the nation.

When Dennis was two, his publican father had moved the family from Watervale to Gladstone. Until the age of 16, Dennis lived in Gladstone, Norwood (to attend school) and occasionally Mintaro.

Dennis would have been familiar with Gladstone’s Trend (soft) Drinks and Gladstone Gaol. Gladstone has the distinction of having hosted both the stereotypical voice of everyday Australia (through Dennis) and Australia’s stereotypical face (Bryan Brown). In 1980, Brown starred in the movie Stir, filmed in Gladstone Gaol. He may have even swaggered over to the Gladstone Hotel for a quiet frothy after a hard day’s shooting. Although currently unused, the Gladstone Hotel, which Dennis’s father ran, is the only hotel CJ lived in that has survived intact.

The Gladstone Hotel sits unoccupied
The Gladstone Hotel sits unoccupied

According to Philip Butterss’ book An Unsentimental Bloke, when growing up, Dennis was perceived as “effeminate” and was bullied for “playing mostly with girls”. His class-conscious aunts raised him as an ultra-refined gentleman, complete with Sunday walking cane; this didn’t always play out well with the tough, practical sons of wheat farmers. Dennis’s own father also couldn’t relate to Dennis’s sensitivity. Partly to distance himself from his feminine-sounding name, Clarence, Dennis assumed the pen name of CJ Dennis. So, when Dennis senior told the family they were moving to the feminine-sounding Laura, the exasperated poet may have wondered why they couldn’t be moving somewhere with a butcher moniker, such as Manly.

C.J. Dennis, 1910 (Photo: State Library of South Australia)

At any rate, Dennis later recalled with much affection his time (from the age of 16 to 21) in the very pleasant Laura. He even wrote Laura Days (1923), a tribute to the town “under scrub-clad hills”. And Laura, in turn, has not forgotten its most famous resident. Sculptures and signs dip their lids to Dennis, and the Information Centre has a fine variety of Dennis paraphernalia, including books, coffee mugs and fridge magnets.

Apart from Dennis, Laura’s other notable export is Golden North Ice Cream. Particularly in summer, the concept of ice cream makes perfect sense in dry and searing Laura heat. Golden North began producing ice cream in 1923, after Dennis had left Laura. But Trevor Pomery, director of Golden North’s marketing and export sales, reckons Dennis would have rated the company’s honey ice cream: “Being a sentimental bloke, he would’ve supported the locals. And our honey ice cream, made with fresh milk and cream from neighbouring famers and pure honey from local beekeepers, is the perfect combination of local produce.” I can confirm that the honey-flavoured Giant Twins are creamy and dreamy. And there must be some clever conspiracy theory to explain why the Giant Twins ice cream is actually a giant singleton!

Twins enjoying Giant Twins – one of Laura’s key exports

Speaking of giants, the physically slight Dennis (who once aspired to be a jockey) later became a giant (statue) in Laura’s wide main street. This is in keeping with Dennis’s superpower to re-invent himself and others. The sensitive, over-refined man re-invented Australian masculinity by producing rough yet sentimental male characters. Indeed, he created literary avatars his aloof father and the school bullies would accept and admire. He even helped generate the Anzac legend of Aussie courage and mateship through his Anzac hero, Ginger Mick. This, in turn, influenced the WWI soldiers who saw themselves differently after reading Ginger Mick and the ‘trench bible’, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, and after being quoted inspiring parts of same by army chaplains during sermons in Egypt.

Barb Brosedow, co-host of Laura’s Cherry Tree Lodge, with a lush garden to defy the dry locale, says that “the locals have a strong attachment to Dennis. They call him the Big Bloke”.

The potential jockey would have appreciated that he’d become, through the power of imagination, an icon of modern Australia: a big thing. He would also have been chuffed to have become accepted and referred to as just another bloke.

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