Four sold-out shows over two days in January’s haunted summer: I’m glad to report that Four Shadows was a great success, with all four one-act plays on the program (Ghost Hunting; Sweet Dreams Baby; Underground; If The Moon) going down a treat.

To lay the Ghost of Stage-Plays Past to rest, here are some pictures from Ghost Hunting. Some were taken by our official photographer Kylie Blakemore during the final performance; others I snapped during dress rehearsal.

The four cast members all did a sterling job of turning a community hall into a haunted house.

Myriam Besso played Adelaide Swift, President of the Ladies’ Ghost Society of New South Wales. Daisy Levell enacted Adelaide’s junior ghost huntress, Beatrice Starling. Josephine Pennicott was Clarissa Peacock, clairvoyant of ‘no society whatsoever’, and Olive Blakemore brought the mysterious Harriet Hawke to life.

I wrote and directed, and our superlative sound and lighting chap – so crucial for the overall effect – was Mike Hamilton.

Ian Batty’s ingenuity with essential props was vital.

Furthermore, three cheers for the Four Shadows Productions organising committee of Brian Twomey (guru), Paulina Kelly (artistic director), Nettie Sladden and Ian Batty (production/stage managers), and David Hobbs (font of wisdom), without whom etc, etc, etc…. Grateful thanks too, to Christine Watts for her magnificently mood-setting gothic foyer diorama (plus catering!) and Alan Cory for riding shotgun front-of-house.

Thanks too, to the audiences who came along for the show. I enjoyed talking to the people who approached me afterwards, especially those young children who confirmed that our ghost was indeed scary. Now that was particularly gratifying to hear!

December’s Reader’s Digest has surfaced early, its cover story my account of the amazing recent discovery of the Southern Hemisphere’s largest orca aggregation, as told by its discoverer, wildlife filmmaker Dave Riggs.

Orcas or killer whales were thought of as occasional, rarely seen visitors to Australian coastal waters. The idea they were hiding in plain sight in the midst of a busy shipping lane seemed too outrageous to be true.

Dave’s story is a cracking good one, a real mystery of the sea, with plenty of twists and turns – check it out!

TODAY IN BUSHRANGING: November 20, 1863. The ashes have settled at Goimbla station, the home of David and Amelia Campbell near Eugowra, central western NSW. Policemen and passers-by converge on the farm to see the corpse of John O’Meally, shot through the neck the night before while attacking Goimbla with his partners-in-crime Ben Hall and John Gilbert. The lawless trio bombarded the house with gunfire and set fire to the barn, burning horse to death and destroying over a thousand pounds of property. It was pure luck no-one was murdered. O’Meally, called ‘as ruthless and reckless a criminal as ever infested the territory’, had been on the rampage all year with Hall and Gilbert. All year they had been among Australia’s most wanted men. All this and more in my upcoming (I hope!) book.

Bushrangers Attacking Goimbla Station by P.W. Marony (1894)

TODAY IN BUSHRANGING: July 28, 1862. Police chief Frederick Pottinger brings five prisoners into Forbes on the western NSW goldfields. He arrested them the day before on suspicion of Australia’s biggest ever armed holdup, the ambush of the gold escort coach at Eugowra Rocks. Three are guilty – Ben Hall and Dan Charters as participants, and John Maguire as an accessory – but none will be convicted, and for three very different reasons.

Pottinger had been tirelessly hunting the escort robbers for over a month. Earlier in July he was escorting two other suspects along a bush road when his police party was ambushed by others in the gang, who rescued their accomplices after a very one-sided gunfight.

The controversial and flamboyant Pottinger was the most famous policeman of his day. Strangely, these days he’s best known for something he did not do – inspire the proverbial ‘Blind Freddy’. It was never his nickname and the misconception dates only to the late 20th century.

All this and more in my upcoming book.

Painting of Eugowra Rocks holdup by P.W. Morony, 1894.

  • Alas, alack, GHOST HUNTING has been temporarily exorcised by the Greater Sydney Covid Lockdown! The July-August season of OUT OF THE BLUEGhost Hunting was one of the short plays making up the program – has been delayed until October. The new dates are October 7-10 at Blackheath Community Hall, atop the Blue Mountains. Ticketing details should be available on the Blackheath Theatre Company website.

Rehearsals are well underway for GHOST HUNTING, which I’ve written for the Blackheath Theatre Company’s upcoming OUT OF THE BLUE show of “one-act plays of the unexpected”. I’m also directing.

Set in a haunted room in the 19th century, Ghost Hunting follows the Ladies’ Ghost Society of NSW as they investigate supernatural disturbances at troubled Renfield House…

Abercrombie House near Bathurst (below) played some part in inspiring the setting. I’m sure it has ghosts of its own…

Out Of The Blue runs for five shows between Thursday July 29 and Sunday August 1 (Thur, Fri, Sat 7.30pm and two 2pm weekend matinees). Tickets available via Trybooking and more info at Blackheath Theatre Company

The full program is:

GHOST HUNTING written and directed by David Levell

THE GHOST WRITER by Stephen Measday (Elizabeth de Koster, director)

IF THE MOON by John Shand (Elizabeth de Koster, director)

IT’S THE WAY THAT YOU DO IT by Ted Markstein (Paulina Kelly, director)

SWEET DREAMS, BABY by Brian Twomey (Arwyn Karmudian, director)

UNDERGROUND written and directed by Iain Fraser

TODAY IN BUSHRANGING: June 18, 1862. Camped atop Mount Wheogo in the wild west of New South Wales, Frank Gardiner’s gang of bushrangers hide out after ambushing the gold escort coach at Eugowra Rocks three days before.

The gold and cash stolen added up to about $5 million in today’s money – to this day, the largest haul of any armed holdup in Australia. Alongside Gardiner, the eight-man gang included some of bushranging’s biggest names such as Ben Hall, John Gilbert and John O’Meally.

Eugowra Rocks, NSW, where bushrangers ambushed the Forbes Gold Escort in June 1862.

As they shared out the takings and relaxed on Mount Wheogo, sitting out some heavy rain, they had no idea Sergeant Sanderson of the Forbes police, guided by tracker Charley Hastings, was closing in fast.

The holdup went well enough for them but the getaway would soon prove problematic…

Today in bushranging (May 5, 1865): Ben Hall, surprised at first light by police in his bush camp 12 miles from Forbes, is shot dead while evading arrest. His death ended a three-year criminal career described in its day as a ‘reign of terror’.

So bad were his depredations, and so unstoppable did he seem, that the government eventually fixed on outlawing him so he could be shot on sight. However, he was killed just a few days before this could take effect.

The shooting – he was riddled by many bullets – is controversial to this day, with the police party’s actions still coming under scrutiny. There were conspiracy theories, even in the 1860s. Did they act illegally, as if he was already an outlaw? Was he given a chance to surrender? Why did they fire so many times? More on this soon (in book form, I intend).

Death Of Ben Hall (1894) by Patrick Maroney is a fairly accurate depiction, although the police were not in uniform (standard practice for bush patrol work back then).

A million years of homo sapiens and only 24 of us have left low Earth orbit and gone to another world.

Michael Collins, who died on April 28, was one of that elite two dozen, all of them Apollo astronauts who flew nine Moon missions between 1968 and 1972.

As Apollo 11 command module pilot, Collins orbited the Moon thirty times while his crewmates Armstrong and Aldrin made the famous ‘giant leap for mankind’, taking our first steps on the lunar surface. Meanwhile Collins travelled further from our planet than anyone had gone before. And he was alone; no one had ever been so apart from the rest of the human race. He enjoyed the experience and reflected on it deeply.

Five years later, Collins followed his stellar NASA career with the surprise revelation that he was also an excellent writer. His memoir Carrying The Fire (1974) is by far the best firsthand account of what it was like to be ‘out there’ on an Apollo mission. You’d expect an astronaut autobiography to be ghost-written or ‘as told to’, but this one isn’t, and is much better for it.

If Shakespeare was the bard of Avon, Collins was the bard of Apollo!

How lucky for posterity that a USAF test pilot should uncover a latent gift for conveying so many aspects of his remarkable journey in such a thoughtful and lyrical manner. And he achieves this without ever losing the down-to-earthiness that necessarily dominated the most ambitious, complex and risky technical endeavour of all time.

And how fitting for the Moon to light his way out of this world with a magnificent ‘pink supermoon’.

Here are some random quotes from Carrying The Fire.

Back on Earth:
I can now lift my mind out into space and look back at a midget Earth. I can see it hanging there, surrounded by blackness, turning slowly in the relentless sunlight.

On writing the book:
[I tried] to convey in words the magic of carrying the fire, just as the god Apollo carried the sun across the sky in his chariot. For magic is assuredly there: changing urine particles into angels is magic; tumbling end over end with velvet smoothness is magic.

…how would you carry fire? Carefully, that’s how, with lots of planning and at considerable risk. It is a delicate cargo, as valuable as moon rocks, and the carrier must always be on his toes lest it spill. I carried the fire for six years, and now I would like to tell you about it, simply and directly as a test pilot must, for the trip deserves the telling.

It is perhaps a pity that my eyes have seen more than my brain has been able to assimilate or evaluate, but like the Druids of Stonehenge, I have attempted to bring order out of what I have observed, even if I have not understood it fully.

On his future plans:
I am also planning to leave a lot of things undone. Part of life’s mystery depends on future possibilities, and mystery is an elusive quality which evaporates when sampled frequently.

On our world’s future:
The Earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied.

Today in bushranging: on April 23, 1862, colourful colonial police chief Frederick Pottinger (below) astonished the western NSW goldfields town of Forbes with the very public arrest of Ben Hall at the local races. It was Hall’s first – but far from last – brush with the law.

Although popular and well-known locally as a grazier, Hall had a secret sideline in armed robbery, which now lay exposed. Nine days before, he was recognised while sticking up road travellers with Frank Gardiner, who was then Australia’s most notorious bushranger.

Hall (above) was refused bail and committed to trial. The case against him seemed watertight and it looked as if a bushranging career had been nipped in the bud. But this was the beginning of a life of crime, not the end – the beginning, in fact, of the most extensive outbreak of armed holdup in Australian history.

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