The pleasures of the graveyard

A journey with my daughter

· musing

This quiet Dust was Gentlemen and Ladies,
And Lads and Girls;
Was laughter and ability and sighing,
And frocks and curls.

This passive place a Summer's nimble mansion,
Where Bloom and Bees
Fulfilled their Oriental Circuit,
Then ceased like these.

("A cemetery," by Emily Dickenson; the astonishing painting above attributed to the manner of Ribera, around 1630)

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A doleful angel in the cemetery at Stockton.

With my two daughters, at a dark time in my own life but when their lives seemed fresh and untroubled, they'd visit me in a darkened nest that suited the times, which I was renting in inner Sydney. It was a gloomy old house with damp sandstone walls, but I have one of the most beautiful photographs I took of Anna and Catalina, the two of them cast in a shaft of photographer's light, curled like two little Odalisques across a Persian carpet, apparently playing a zither and seemingly untroubled amidst the wreckage around them.

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At the cemetery at Bronte, with Catalina and Anna.

There were things they enjoyed to do beyond ice cream and cannoli and buckets of marshmallow hot chocolate, and when we wandered out of boredom and dampness beyond the walls of my dungeon, it was almost always to the great cemetery at Bronte where we played hide and seek, ate picnics, declaimed from piles of broken tiles, and lay exhausted in the winter sunlight, trying to warm ourselves among all that broken stone, decay, grand statuary, and the small histories carved in staccato prose on frigid rocks.

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The wreck of the schooner "Adolphe" (wrecked 1904) in a sea wall at Newcastle, and the plaques of the dead, mostly young people, many who took their own lives.

In this time of pandemic Catalina and I went in search of the restless dead. First we strolled along the Stockton seawall past the skeleton of the "Adolphe," a French schooner sucked onto Newcastle's sandy banks at the beginning of the 20th century. Although all hands were bravely rescued from her deck in the churning waves sadly, the walk along the wall today includes dozens of plaque memorials to young suicides. "I think I knew him," said my girl, pausing in front of the brass plate named Jack. "Poor Jack."

And soon, she asked to go to the nearest cemetery. Stockton, a village that lies a short ferry ride across from Newcastle, is a typical Australian settlement - low level, drab, stubbornly charmless, and cheerfully bearing the three hallmarks of Robin Boyd's famous 1960 critique of our urban planning and architecture, "The Australian Ugliness," that is, a disdain for trees that dare sprout in an urban environment; the use of cheap building materials (to wit, the Novocastrian worship of Colourbond fencing, which they would shred and eat on their Cornflakes if they could); and a thirst for building 'featurism.'

[The last attribute gave form to the lookout tower known as The Big Penis. Designed by local architects, using steel milled locally in BHP's giant steelworks, and erected to mark the visit of HM Queen Elizabeth in 1977, the eventually dismemberment (joke) of the tower prompted a Save our Schlong campaign, which fortunately failed, felling the morbid phallus that greeted ships entering harbour.]

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Robert died fighting in May 1917 at Bullecourt, France, just 18 years old. The Stockton cemetery.

To visit any Australian cemetery is a melancholy journey, not only for the ranks of infants who died like any other pre-antibiotic country, but also for the soldiers who perished far from home. In these pandemic times, there's a level of comfort that one needs to achieve with death, and we went in silent search that day, pausing carefully among the graves, no longer up to hide and seek when – the contagion, massive disruption, the smallness of our own lives – was all about us.

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Harry died in a work accident in Newcastle in 1927. The Stockton cemetery.

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Who was this magnificent Hercules W., with a named that outmatched his birthplace? The cemetery, Stockton.

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Catalina, paused, in front of the gravestone of an Emily too. The cemetery at Stockton.