Thursday, September 08, 2022

Vale Vance

Vance the Diver (photo courtesy of Claire Bradin)

Some time in the last few days Vance Stevens left this earth. The man who coined the word ‘webheads’. Our main cat herder. The man who kept us all together - for decades. The man who showed us all how enjoyable it was to learn and grow together. The man who never tired of creating opportunities to connect us.

Several times today I’ve found myself in tears. It's really hit home just how much Vance meant to me. Absorbing the fact that he won’t be around to gather us all together anymore is unthinkable at the moment. It’s like the internet has died. For me Vance was kind of synonymous with the internet. It, he, opened so many doors for me. Because of Vance I have visited countries I would never have seen; I have met so many wonderful people that have become close friends. And what I learnt from him on a professional level would take a book to document it all.

And he was a dear friend. Vance’s legacy will be huge, but the fact that he showed how our social and professional lives could enrich each other was a stroke of genius. I loved him and learned from him. As an equal; as a peer, as a fellow traveller out there on the world’s highways. I won’t ever forget what he did for me, and I’m sure many of us here will feel the same.

Of course it was us, the Webheads, that collectively made all this magic happen. But it was Vance’s idea. He started it. And he continued weaving that magic as long as he was able.

Tears continue to fall and I’m sure they will for a few days yet. Thank you dear man. I loved you Vance. We all did. 


Some links to Vance's legacy:

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Wisdom of AI Light - Illuminate Adelaide - Review

The first 10 minutes of Wisdom of AI Light is totally bewitching. You are suddenly in the womb of a space that is shifting and swirling all around you. An exquisite soundtrack helps you centre as you drift aimlessly around trying to find where to be. You can wander, stand, sit, or turn but most people found their space quickly and remained still – mesmerised. Pictures and patterns and shapes fold and bend and soar in an ever-changing visual landscape that evokes childlike wonder. The Da Vinci segment teased with glimpses of the known – the Mona Lisa, Christ, and Vitruvian Man – before dissolving back into an abstract world of a different kind of beauty. The kind of beauty that results from artificial intelligence going to work on 20,000 of Da Vinci’s artworks. (One can’t watch this without wondering what Da Vinci may have thought of this if he were alive today!)

Occasionally in this short 30 minute show we are reminded of the raw data that is the basis of these projections and surrounded by thousands of thumbnail sketches scrolling rapidly past in multiple directions.

The Poetic AI segment churns out electronic wizardry from the text and images of great thinkers of the past. Letters, numbers, shapes form new creations that might be called a new kind of literacy – a literacy based on sensation rather than thought, on feeling rather than meaning.

The Data Monolith segment explodes the past literally as archaeological stonework bursts into fragments and spin out across the room to later reform as solid walls.

Everything is changing all of the time whichever way you look and in a strange way you start to go a bit numb and wonder about yourself in all of this. Where do I belong in this new form of expression? It’s all extraordinary; blindingly dazzling. Because we know the raw material for this production stems from history’s greatest minds and some of humanity’s greatest achievements it is hard not to dwell on what it all might mean. Or is it better to turn off your cognitive self and just immerse yourself in the wonder of it all?

Musically the show divides quite radically into two parts. The flowing, soothing score from Ludovici Einaudi is utterly compatible with Da Vinci’s time. The music for the other segments was much more abrasive, modern, mechanical – robotic even. Returning to something more ethereal for the segments connected to space and dark matter might have served to better separate them thematically and maintain the level of interest towards the end of the show.

Shakespeare’s words were probably incorporated in the Poetic segment somewhere. It was he who wrote ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The Wisdom of AI Light felt a bit like that. Like a metaphor for contemporary times, it is fast moving, seductive, random, visually astounding, and shows off incredibly impressive use of emerging technologies – it all looks and sounds so impressive. It looks and sounds as if it should all be deeply meaningful. It is immensely entertaining, but I suspect life’s mysteries are more likely to be solved sitting under a tree on a sunny day, or by the sea at sunset.

(This article also published on The Clothesline.)

Monday, July 11, 2022

Catherine Alcorn & Phil Scott – 30 Something

Catherine Alcorn in 2012



Space Theatre, Fri 10 Jun.

New Year’s Eve. 1939. Deep in the bosom of a Sydney speakeasy. Expectations for the future are high and our hosts Phil Scott and Catherine Alcorn are there to help us bring in the New Year with good-natured repartee, predictable puns, double entendres and a great selection of show tunes of the time.

It’s a great format that works really well. After a time apart, Phil and Catherine are very happy to be playing with each other again. Phil Scott’s hands dance deftly up and down the piano while serving up punchlines and interjections to complement Catherine’s stories. Alcorn is as vivacious as ever. She’s enjoying being back in Australia again after a tour of the US, and she serves up the expected diet of big ballads, heartfelt confessions, and tawdry humour. She belts out the big numbers with ease, and teases with quieter endings to some songs that show a more subtle side of her vocal ability.

As it always seems to be, these were also difficult times for musicians trying to make a living and we’re treated to a couple of humorous live advertisements on stage that bring back fond memories. We’re also advised about what to do if there is a police raid – the law was always hot on the trail of establishments selling illegal alcohol!

If we didn’t have retrospective knowledge about the horror that was about to be unleashed on the world in 1939 30 Something might have convinced me that 1939 was a good time to be alive – great songs, musicians who entertained, a sense of fun, eager audience interaction, and lots of dumb jokes. Just for an hour I was back there in another era that despite the bawdy nature of much the banter, felt ironically innocent.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Simply Brill - Adelaide Cabaret Festival Review

Photo credit: Claudio Raschella 

 Amelia Ryan, Michaela Burger and Michael Griffiths


Banquet Room, Adelaide Festival Centre, Sat 11 Jun.

Cabaret can be many things, but what cabaret does really well is tell stories. And if the stories are important and largely unknown, then all the better. Such is the story of New York’s Brill Building. Between 1958 and 1964 it churned out an astonishing number of smash hits that revolutionised popular music at the time. There were several reasons for this, but Simply Brill stresses one reason in particular: the fact that an extraordinary number of these hits were written by women. This show could be suitably sub-titled ‘Three Broads From Brooklyn’. Those broads being Carole King (the very same Carole King who became a megastar as a singer songwriter in the ‘70s), Cynthia Weil (The LocomotionBlame It On The Bossa Nova etc.) and Ellie Greenwich (Be My BabyLeader Of The Pack etc).

In a wonderfully slick show Michael Griffiths, Amelia Ryan, and Michaela Burger don’t miss a beat in this storytelling and nostalgic musical bonanza. Backed up with slides and a great local band, the narration is fast paced, funny, and with just enough information to set up an appreciation of the next song. Ryan and Burger take turns as the Brooklyn broads but share much of the vocal work. Griffith spends most of the show on piano adding to the storyline and occasional doo wops, and bom boms as required, but shows his front man skills in solo renditions of songs like We Gotta Get Out of This Place. Ryan and Burger groove and jive throughout in seductive harmony with the music to stunning visual effect.

All three shared the storytelling and singing duties in an intricate, seamless show of organic joy. They were clearly enjoying what they were doing, loving the songs they were singing, and revelling in each other’s company. It was indeed brill.

Kudos to the bass player who wore a smile throughout and contributed to the good vibes! And there were good vibes a plenty. You got a very real sense of the excitement of the times and thrill that those young songwriters must have felt when they landed another hit.

And just in case you had any lingering doubts about the value of the song writing teams that worked in the Brill Building, a stirring final medley of You’ve Lost That Loving FeelingRiver Deep Mountain High, and Aretha Franklin’s Natural Woman sealed the deal.

Just wonderful!

(This review also posted on The Clothesline.)

Sunday, June 05, 2022

Professional Development for the Modern Era


“The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater and the sum of expertise of the people on the stage.” (Dave Winer)

In September 2006 a group of people were invited to New Zealand to take part in the Future of Learning in a Networked World (FLNW). Sponsored by the Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin, FLNW was variously referred to as an unconference, an open space conference, a bar camp, or even a travelling elearning circus or roadshow. Invited participants mostly referred to it as an unconference - the prefix ‘un’ denoted a definitive contrast from the typical style of ‘stand and deliver’ professional development event that we were all familiar with

Was it a plane? Was it a bird? No it was...

What transpired in this 10 day event was actually a combination of unconference, open space, and bar camp. The notion of bar camp or unconference seems to have stemmed from a technological imperative. From Wikipedia: “bar camp is an international network of unconferences - open participatory workshop-events, whose content is provided by participants - focusing on early stage web applications and related open source technologies and social protocols. “

The unconference: “an unconference is a conference where the content of the sessions is driven and created by the participants, generally day by day during the course of the event, rather than by a single organiser, or small group of organisers, in advance.” FLNW was an open participatory workshop event where the content of the sessions was driven and created by participants and it employed open space technology (OST), a term that describes a process rather than the use of any particular technology:

“OST is a meeting methodology... its essential core is the invitation to take responsibility for what you have passion for. The remarkable outcome of this simple idea is that when participants do so, the needs of both the individual and the collective are met.”

So was FLNW a bar camp, unconference, or an open space conference? It had elements of all three. This paper will refer to it as an unconference that employed open space processes. It was therefore:

·         open - it was free and all interested parties were invited

·         fluid and negotiated - there was no set agenda

In the lead up to the event sponsors and location hosts did express a desire for more structure up front so they could more effectively promote the event. This created some tension in the group as some were very definite about the fact that there would be no preplanning or prepared agenda. From the sponsor's point of view one can appreciate their dilemma. They were unsure about promoting the event as merely ‘a group of visiting elearning experts will be here to talk about the future of learning’, with no timetable or session titles. This highlights a subtle difference between a conference and an unconference. One promotes a conference; one should invite people to an unconference. It needs to be explicit that all comers have equal rights of participation, and that everyone will help create the topics and organise sessions. They will be part of the show. It will in fact be their show - it's owned by those who attend.

For the most part those who favoured minimal planning had their way. However, the group may have erred in its reluctance to impose any structure on the process used to generate discussion topics. I think an agreed process would have been more effective in generating the foci of sessions, and may have resulted in more options for participants. Having to negotiate process and the range of topics at the start of group sessions was a little confounding, but this path was taken in a kind of pioneering spirit. Like ‘let's see what happens if we leave it completely open?’ The group sessions were successful. It is only in retrospect that it became clear that there is 20 years of open space theory that may have enabled FLNW to be more efficient in the use of planning time. Or unplanning time so to speak. One can devote a lot of time to debating why one should not plan!



Over the course of 10 days FLNW travelled to six separate locations in NZ and took place on campuses, in museums, community centres, private homes, schools, trains, boats, planes, bars and restaurants. Most scheduled events were located in advertised venues like campuses and community spaces that could cater for up to 100 participants per session.


What happened in these sessions?

Initially a location facilitator would welcome everyone and introduce the international speakers, who in turn spoke briefly (mostly) about their areas of interest and expertise. The invited speakers were seated around the room, each with a laptop and data projector, and after these initial introductions participants were free to join any of the invited guests for an open discussion within their broad area of knowledge and expertise.

These sessions went very smoothly. Participants self-selected their chosen focus group and floated between groups as desired. There was no compulsion to stay with anyone group for any length of time - in accordance with the core component of open space process: the Law of Two Feet. The Law of Two Feet - a foot of passion and a foot of responsibility - expresses the core idea of taking responsibility for what you love. In practical terms, the law says that if you're neither contributing nor getting value where you are, use your two feet (or available form of mobility) and go somewhere where you can.

“The phenomenon of self-organization lies at the heart of Open Space.” (Harrison Owen)

Owen compares this self-organisation phenomenon with what Kaufmann suggests happens in the natural world.  Kaufmann suggests that self-organisation will only occur if there are few prior connections between the elements; indeed he says no more than two.  In retrospect, it seems to make sense. If everything is hardwired in advance how could it self-organise?” How many of us at professional development events will automatically home in on people we know and sit with them in any group activity, rather than let the topic of the activity determine which group we should join?

Other types of events included a train ride of several hours duration where interested parties joined the touring guests for small group discussions on board, link ups with international participants via virtual classroom tools, visits to schools and colleges, and a working breakfast


The Process - An Evaluation

An event of this nature cannot help but have a profound effect on those involved. It's daring format with no set agendas or programme other than a series of chosen locations geographically disparate on set days meant that the touring party were effectively together for several days at a time without a break. Many of the party had only met virtually before this event and as happens when any group of people is thrust together for days on end there were a range of interpersonal issues that arose that needed addressing. On the plus side, this forced continual companionship meant that the unconference became a 24/7 affair where issues raised in the sessions of the day could be discussed after hours over dinner or during transport to the next port of call.

The nature of the content under review and the wired  ‘always on’ nature of the touring guests meant that there was an extraordinary amount of data recorded and posted on the web. Discrete sets of this data could be accessed via RSS feed, and in the recently released ebook and DVD. (no longer available)

Though these interpersonal dynamics and the nature and volume of content produced are worth articles in their own right, it is the intention of this paper to focus more on the process of teaching and learning that occurred, evaluate its effectiveness, and assist the potential relevance of this type of professional development for the education sector. It should be said here that the sheer impracticality of the logistics of this kind of event make it unlikely that this model would be adopted by many organisations, but there is much that can be adopted for one or two day conferences. There was general consensus among the invited group that 10 days was too long and that five days seemed an optimal amount of time. The length of the event clearly depends on the goals of the exercise. If one of the goals is to build individual capacity and confidence by drawing on group dynamics then an event of around five days may be necessary.

One of the intriguing aspects of FLNW was that it did require individual resolve to function effectively in the larger group, but this was not a stated goal of the event. It did however highlight the fact that working effectively in groups is not a given. It is a skill that needs to be learned. And not all members of the group saw working in groups as implicitly of value. Whether one sees value in working in groups, or is able to do it effectively, has enormous implications for a group of educators ordaining collective, collaborative learning as a core requirement of learning in a connected world. There was vociferous debate on the nature and worth of groups and networks during FLNW, and for several weeks online after the physical event was over.


Group Sessions

The group sessions were surprisingly efficient and free of awkward pauses or leave taking. Participants understood that they were free to change groups whenever they wished, and could join other discussions mid-stream in a free flowing movement around the room as group sizes fluctuated between small gatherings of just a few people do groups of 20 or so. Occasionally people in the shared space became aware of a particularly important or engaging discussion in one corner of the room and people would drift over to that part of the room to listen to the debate. A short movie from Derek Chirnside, our host in Christchurch from the then Christchurch College of Education (now part of the University of Canterbury) gives a glimpse of what typically happened during these concurrent smaller group sessions. Another short movie from Stephen Parker asked the questions” does the unconference model work? And interestingly, how can the unconference format be used with students in a classroom environment? (these videos no longer available)

“I think it's really important to keep in mind that you can't get students to do group work and sharing and talking together, but giving them the option to move out and get on with their own work, that's really empowering and motivating, they might take snippets from the discussion and then say, yes this is what I need and get on with their own work. It's more about enabling them to learn the material in their own way.” Yvonne Wood

On other occasions small groups would splinter off to work on a specific task. Sometimes individuals would take photographs or movies or interview onlookers or other guests about proceedings using cameras, PC media recording devices, or phones. Samples of this ad hoc on the fly content can be seen on the unconference blog

OST suggests that these sessions should be preceded by a listing of all interested topics up on a wall or similar so participants can see at a glance what topics were being covered in that session, but there is no prescriptive way of going about this. A group of staff in NSW approached the pre discussion stage by encouraging staff to state whether they wanted to share, learn, or do something, and formed groups around that process.

There was recurrent comment on the empowering aspect of the unconference format for the classroom from many teachers and discussion on the types of physical open and closed spaces that could contribute to the success. This movie illustrates a potential classroom open space that can facilitate group discussion or where individuals can just go off into a corner and get on with their own thing, separate to the group activity. (no longer available)


The Role of ‘Experts’

FLNW had at its core a group of invited experts - some with an international profile - and their presence guaranteed a basic quorum of participants as these guests had pulling power. It also served as a bargaining chip when canvassing for funding for the event. Funding bodies, largely educational institutions, were more likely to fund an event that had significant profile due to the presence of international guests.

It was to be expected at the start of the group sessions that the work of these visiting guest experts would serve as initial focal points for discussion. Although participants had turned up for the day's proceedings were invited to contribute to the initial spruikings on topics that interested them, few did. The presence of the invited experts no doubt made this a daunting task, but OST is emphatic that this opportunity be given to all participants. This enables all participants, not just those with the recognised profile, to pitch for discussions on things that interested them.

Having visiting experts meant that discussion topics tended to be formulated around their interests. Though the group discussions were sufficiently fluid to allow for addressing topics brought to bear by participants, it would have been preferable that sessions/discussions were formed around the expressed interests of participants rather than the invited experts. Given that the collective expertise of the invited speakers was very broad, it was likely that they could have led, or contributed significantly to, sessions on any topic suggested by participants anyway.


The role of media: personal and group publishing

The nature of the people invited to FLNW, and its focus on education in the networked world, meant that there was a proliferation of personal and group media created and published - that is after all how network teachers and learners network - they publish. Every minute and every day which is likely to be recorded, blogged, podcast, photographed or filmed and published to the web. It is not a criterion of OST, but for the unconference, with its origins in learning about technology via new approaches, it is a fair expectation that there be an electronic and public record.

“All conversations, whether to the entire room or one to one, unless otherwise stated, clearly and upfront, are on the record and for attribution. You do not need to ask permission to quote something you hear. Of course you may ask for permission to quote, and you may choose not to quote things you hear.”

Many conferences publish proceedings after the event, but these are subject to a peer review process. In an unconference, publishing is occurring virtually as it happens without any editorial process. As Stephen Downes remarked during the Christchurch session, this is one of the factors that distinguishes the old from the new world of learning. In the new world, any peer review or assessment of content happens after publishing, and the network or networks decide its value.

However, the constant documentation of FLNW meant that inevitably there would be a whole raft of material that was not of much value - out of focus photographs, blurred video, poor audio quality, half-baked ideas – all there in the public domain. Some FLNW participants consequently suggested that not all the media documenting the event be made public, and that some editorial discretion be used before it was published.

All professional development activities should be documented. In the spirit of an unconference this should be done as it happens. One could choose the path of BloggerCon and state up front that all activity may be ‘on the record and for attribution. ‘ An alternative option may be to let participants know that if they don't want their image, voice, or ideas on the public record it is incumbent upon them to make that request at any given time, but it would seem impractical to have participants evaluate their input into an activity as it's happening and decide that they don't want it on the record. It would be unfortunate too if any hesitation about the value of one's contribution stymied one’s input. Another core component of OST is that ‘whoever comes are the right people’, and by inference then, whatever is said is the right thing to say at the time. Part of working in a networked world is accepting that your input is part of the eventual and continually evolving body of knowledge, and that it will be adopted, modified, or discarded. It is not what you say (or how you look or sound in that blurred video) that is of primary importance - it is what the network does with the information you provided that matters more.

It is asking a lot of some people though to expect them to happily accept that their thoughts and actions go on record. Some people are private personalities; Some require time to assimilate ideas before they can respond eloquently. As one participant on the video at an unconference PD event trial inspired by FLNW says,  “it's all about getting used to being visible”.


Relevance for you and your organisation

imagine that you arrive at a one or two day conference and there is no set agenda or programme. I posed this question to a group of staff at a professional development session soon after I returned from FLNW and the response from the approximately 20 people present was overwhelmingly positive. One person did comment that they would feel cheated but others thought ‘it would be fantastic’.

If you take this approach the first hour or so of the day is taken up with a collaborative discussion designed to formulate the day's programme. The FLNW model showed that a more open approach to professional development can work. Professional development events, even those of one to three days duration, do not need invited experts or guest facilitators.

Participants knowing in advance that they are coming to address an advertised topic, or perhaps to solve a recognised problem, and knowing too that it is the reason that people will come - not to listen to experts or speakers on a prearranged agenda - is a strength based approach to professional development that promotes greater buy-in and commitment. Knowing that the success of the FLNW event would rest on the input of all of us, a group of FLNW participants spent the day before it got underway in engaged and prolonged discussion: “the learning and discussion on the future of learning had begun in earnest without a single presentation!” Such is the power of inviting people to attend an event and letting them know they will have significant input into the structure and outcome of the event, as it will build on what they know and bring to the table, and not what others deem they should know.


Workers for the knowledge era

If our educational institutions are to train their teachers to function effectively in the knowledge era, they need to offer training that reflects the new learning. Work in the knowledge era is characterised by:

·         processes and structures that are more emergent than predictable

·         tacit knowledge, which can only be shared through relationship, conversation, and interaction

·         networks: who and how you know is as important as what you know.


A knowledge worker needs to know how to collaborate

The unconference with its open space approach to professional development is a model more likely to foster the kinds of skills and attitudes suitable for the knowledge era than the deficit model. The deficit model may have outlived its usefulness as the primary means of staff development. The unconference allows for group commitment to a process that is negotiated in non-hierarchical network entities. It allows the opportunity to become familiar with the unpredictable and emergent through negotiating content as it evolves. It validates, and capitalises on, the knowledge that everyone brings to the event and assumes that the collective expertise of the rank and file is as valuable as the knowledge and opinions of export experts or those in authority.



1.       Dave Winer; What is an unconference? 

2.       Harrison Owen; Opening Space For Emerging Order       

dI    Diana and James Oblinger: Is it age or IT: firststeps towards understanding the net generation 

4.       Dave Weiner; Blogger con for newbies 

5.       Maret Staron, Robbie Weatherly,  Marie Jasinski; Life-based learning- a newframework for capability  development in vocational education and training 

6.      Shen Zhang, Yvonne Wood, Steven Parker ‘FLNW#10 The Unconference Format (video no longer available)  

7.       FLNW 06 - Professional Development Space of the Future (video no longer available)

Monday, May 09, 2022

REVIEW: A Streetcar Named Desire and the End of The Bakehouse Theatre

Bakehouse Theatre, Fri 29 Apr, 2022.

A Streetcar Named Desire had a huge impact when first performed in the late 1940s due to its no-holds barred revelation of sexual mores of the time and American society’s treatment of women. The sexual undercurrents running through the play are pretty lame and inoffensive by contemporary standards, but sadly the issue of domestic violence against women is just as prevalent as it was back then. It was shocking then and it is shocking now – some men continue to parade around as the king of their households and use the threat of potential or actual violence to get their way.

According to Stanley, he and Stella were quite happy until her sister Blanche arrived and started rocking the boat with her judgemental ways and fake upper class pretensions. Blanche considers Stanley to be sub-human and implores her sister to leave him. Stanley does a little digging into Blanche’s sordid past and decides he can indeed be sub-human with her and take her whenever he wants. Her looser moral code in relations with men means she forfeits all rights to personal safety if men like Stanley decide to have his way with her.

This was a wonderful choice as the Bakehouse Theatre’s swansong. It has reliably maintained a high level of quality theatre for decades and sadly concludes on this very high note. The cast was uniformly exceptional, but one must give special credit for Melanie Munt’s performance as Blanche. It’s a demanding role that requires dignity and madness, superiority and frailty, feigned upper class elegance and down-in the gutter trash talking and she does them all with total conviction. Paul Westbrooks’ Al Pacino-type looks aids his swagger and boorish male bravado as he struts around the house showing off his physique, while occasionally allowing a softer side to embrace his Stella. But he’s a ticking time bomb whose masculinity should never be challenged. Marc Clement as Mitch represents a softer more sentient side of men and is charmingly played but he, too, quickly reverts back to the male stereotype when confronted with the truth about Blanche.

An ironic and fitting cameo has our Bakehouse hosts join the final scene to take Blanche away to some dreadful place where she and her kind will be hidden from society.

This was a great final act from The Bakehouse – all class to the end. Thank you, Bakehouse Theatre, for providing hundreds of hours of wonderful entertainment and offering thousands of Adelaide people the joy of live theatre from both sides of the curtain. You’ll be sadly missed. Vale old friend.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Song #79 Grandfather


CC image from James Stringer


Grey rocks on green grass – a long long time ago

You walked the misty coastline – on a lonely distant shore

‘Twixt home and school and church yard – you felt the sea’s soft spray

On lonely Eriskay


Your children growing older – you think of far away

Did you ever think Australia - as you gazed out on the sea?

Could we leave this lonely isle – this land so far away?

Our windswept Eriskay


Grandfather – you never knew my name

Grandfather – you died before I came


In the church upon the hillside – you sit silently in prayer

The wind was blowing stronger – you knew you had to go

Tears of salt roll down your face – you must leave your island home

Farewell dear Eriskay


Grandfather – we never shared a dawn

Grandfather – you died before I came

Is there a part of you I might find in Eriskay?

Is there a part of you - is there a part of you in me

To take back to Eriskay?


I have long been fascinated by the story of my paternal grandparents who lived on Eriskay in the early part of the 20th century and then migrated to an equally remote place in rural South Australia. My paternal grandfather died before I was born. There is no recording of this song yet but it will come .....

Monday, April 11, 2022

Gunther Stopa


"Gunther was like a bottomless pit of empathy." (Damien Coghlan)

I guess I knew I'd never see Gunther again. I had often suggested getting together in these last few years and he’d always say ‘yes we must catch up soon’ but it never happened. In the end I stopped asking – I had the feeling that he was still quite self-conscious of how he looked and sounded after his last round of surgery. But happily I did bump into him on Semaphore Rd once a couple of years ago and had a lovely chat with him and Gail.  It was the last time we saw each other. But he always wished me well for upcoming gigs, and never failed to pass on birthday greetings. He also posted wonderful links to live music on social media. Whatever the genre – classical, jazz, folk, rock, country – you could be assured it was first class and worth listening to. His last music post to Facebook was about a performance by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Alison Krauss just two days before he left us.

So though I was no longer seeing my old friend I always felt he was there in my life somewhere. And now that he’s not there I’m quite taken aback by this feeling of immense sadness as I realise he’s gone. I knew I loved the man, but only now do I appreciate just how much I appreciated having him in my world.

I met Gunther at Marymount College and over the following five years learned to love his calm warmth. There was a stillness about him that was very comforting. We played bridge together at recess and lunch time most days over those 5 years – both of us preferred to retreat into the ritual of a card game rather than talk. Gunther in fact rarely talked. We marvelled at how this oh so peaceful man who rarely spoke could manage to teach a classroom full of rowdy 11 to 14 year-olds. But he did. And students loved him. He spoke gently and quietly and they shut up, listened and proceeded to create works of wonderful art. Students loved his art classes. He managed to get through to those kids in a way that no one else on staff could – with a gentle dignity and grace that kids respected.

One evening on a school camp the students had sort of gone to bed and it was time for some teachers’ adult time. Gunther and I both had our guitars. We had never played together but I decided to sing a song about a painter called Patrick. Some way though the song Gunther had learned the chorus well enough to join in and I heard this deep resonant vocal come in under my melody and it quite disarmed me. It was just beautiful.

Rich, warm and resonant, it just gave the song a solid base that allowed it to fly. And it occurs to me now that maybe that’s what it was about Gunther; why we all loved him. He provided a place of comfort and warmth without judgement in which we could just be ourselves. He was always supportive and encouraging. And yet often silent, and always quiet. As another teacher from those days at Marymount recently wrote, Gunther saw us all as better than we really were. He allowed us to believe that we were OK; that life was good and there was opportunity ahead.

Deep, warm, resonant – these words keep coming to mind as I contemplate the man he was – at least as I saw him. It’s also tempting to see his quiet calm as something akin to wisdom but he’d hate that. But I do know that I’ve never known anyone quite like Gunther Stopa – his deep warmth and calm was highly unusual and it was beautiful to be around.

Goodbye my dear Gunther. You were my colleague, an erstwhile singing partner, a painter, a place of refuge and above all a very dear friend. It’s a cliché to say life won’t be the same without you, but there really isn’t anyone else in my world that is anything like you.  I was fortunate to share a lot of life with you, and I will dwell for a long time on what it was about you that made me feel so good to be in your company. But it starts with warmth ….

Vale Vance

Vance the Diver (photo courtesy of Claire Bradin) Some time in the last few days Vance Stevens left this earth. The man who coined the word ...