17 July 2020

A letter to Goulburn from Melbourne, for Eternity

| John Thistleton
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The cover of Roy Williams's book, Mr Eternity: The Story of Arthur Stace.

The cover of Roy Williams’s book, Mr Eternity: The Story of Arthur Stace. Photo: Supplied.

We are under the same sun, but in different worlds.

I’m in Melbourne, where the sun will set at around 5:14 pm this afternoon, about three minutes later than in Goulburn. Why do I care? Because I can’t come home to Goulburn.

As some of you know, my wife Franki and I left our hometown in February 2018. We came to Melbourne to be closer to our daughter, Rebecca, who lives in the epicentre of the current COVID-19 hotspot of North Melbourne with her husband, Jimmy, and their son, Tommy, who is almost three.

We can’t even visit them, and are confined to our townhouse on the city’s south side for another soul-destroying six weeks.

You, dear reader, are my company right now. And you are my link back to Goulburn, which looms in the distance like forbidden fruit. Can I tell you something a little weird? I’d just settled into my walk last week, listening to ABC Radio’s Conversations podcast, when the topic of Goulburn came up in Richard Fidler’s chat with author Roy Williams.

Williams has written the story of Mr Eternity, Arthur Stace, with co-author Elizabeth Myers, who knew Stace personally. Now deceased, Stace wrote Eternity in chalk on footpaths in inner Sydney so often that the word remains embedded in the national psyche.

The son of alcoholic parents, he stole food to help his family survive. His father deserted them in 1892 and his mother put her four eldest children up for adoption. Arthur was just seven years old.

“He was sent to Goulburn to a middle-aged widow who took him in on the outskirts of Goulburn,” Williams told Fidler.

“He was there for seven years on his own. We don’t know much about that period other than he almost certainly learned to write. So it is likely the Goulburn Public School, in the 1890s, taught him that copperplate script.”

I contacted Williams who says the 57-year-old widow, Catherine Campbell, had 11 children of her own. Most had grown up when she took in Arthur.

“Before he went to Goulburn, his family was dysfunctional and it was highly probable he hadn’t gone to school properly, or at all,” says Williams.

The author found another reference to Stace much later, on 30 June 1950, in the Goulburn Evening Post. Stace was the guest speaker at the Baptist Church’s cottage meeting in the home of Mr C Hooper.

“A special meeting will be held for the young people on Sunday,” the Evening Post reported. “The juniors’ meeting and the morning worship will be addressed by Mr Arthur Stace, who will relate the story of his life.”

Maybe that history is not so weird. But this is …

Remember Eternity lit up on the Sydney Harbour Bridge to celebrate the new year in 2000, and that magic moment being repeated for the Sydney Olympic Games during the same year? Who could forget it? Eternity’s distinctively looping letters in lights blazing across the bridge, reflected in the harbour and beamed around the world.

And so did the Olympic Rings, which were, of course, designed and made in a workshop at Kermac Welding & Engineering in North Goulburn.

So perhaps the two endearing and enduring features of the Sydney Olympics both began with pencil on paper in Goulburn. Perhaps it’s not so weird but it doesn’t take much these days to turn my mind to the graceful old town full of Australian history, a source of wonder for eternity.

Postscript: Roy Williams is working on a documentary film about Eternity with Australian TV & Media Group. It’s due for release later this year.

Original Article published by John Thistleton on The RiotACT.

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The timing of this piece is remarkable, in that one of Arthur’s “Eternity” was found written up inside a set of bells that are being cleaned restored, just last week. I can’t remember the details but it should be Googleable.

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