Good Reading : July 2015
As self-descr ibed seekers of ‘the highest truth’, the theosophists struck a chord in Australia when the Indian-born, Cambridge-educated Mrs Isabel Cooper-Oakley visited Melbourne in the 1890s. The nation was in the grip of drought and economic depression. For those lucky enough to secure work, conditions were tough. The more fortunate workers had Wednesday after noons and Sundays off. Museums and galler ies were closed on Sundays, so there was little entertainment or distraction from the daily slog. For the average needlewoman or shop girl there wasn’t much to do except ‘walk out’ – go for a leisurely or social stroll – or take her weekly bath. Why wouldn’t they want to hear about brighter, fairer worlds? Char ismatic Sunday lecture halls filled the gap. Crowds flocked to hear orators offering deliverance, sure-fire cures or contact with the dead. Theosophy was also revolutionary in that women were at the helm. One of its founders, Madame Blavatsky, attracted praise and der ision, and seemed to possess a magnetic pull. Was she really the runaway daughter of a Russian ar istocrat? Had she been tutored by ‘Ancient Masters’ who had materialised in her Tibetan cave? Madame Blavatsky’s colleague, social activist Mrs Annie Besant, later visited Australia, where she went on lecture tours and attracted followers from the social elite, including Alfred Deakin. In the 1920s, theosophy was still going The bridge was completed in 1932. This poster celebrates the opening. Trams and motor vehicles on nearby George Street north in 1931 with the arch of the bridge just visible in the murky background of sky. GOODREADINGMAGAZINE.COM.AU GOOD READING JULY 2015 32 strong. Unfortunately nothing remains of the glistening white temple that the theosophists built in the harbourside suburb of Balmoral to await the Second Coming in 1925. And few remember that the theosophists had their own radio station, 2GB. I couldn’t resist spinning these r ich threads through Ellis’s and Rennie’s backstor ies. The Floating Garden was always going to be a work of fiction. Inspired by a suitcase full of flowers carried by a woman I had barely glimpsed, and anchored by some startling facts, I wanted to get inside other people’s skin. To taste the dust. To feel my hair shake with every excavation blast. To take others by the hand and stumble through the rubble. To conjure up how it might have felt to lose everything dear and familiar. And to bring into shar p focus the kind of people often blurred by history’s lens. A postscript: When The Floating Garden was almost finished, my friend remembered a fourth fact. Her grandmother had sculpted elaborate pieces of garden furniture from the sandstone cliffs of her Lane Cove flower plot. Really? How could I resist? The Floating Garden by Emma Ashmere is published by Spinifex Press, rrp $26.95. BEHIND THE BOOK Trams and motor vehicles on nearby derision, and seemed to possess stumble through the rubble. To felt to lose everything dear shar p focus the kind of people remembered a fourth fact. Her grandmother had sculpted Madame Blavatsky, Saatchi Gallery Harbour Bridge construction To taste the dust. To feel my hair shake with every excavation blast. To take others by the hand and stumble through the rubble.