Friday 25 October 2019

Lola Montez: Un-Victorian in Victoria (Part 2)

Lola Montez and Henry Seekamp,
depicted in
Melbourne Punch in 1856.
Courtesy of State Library of Victoria
From last post: In 1855, the notorious courtesan and entertainer Lola Montez visited the Colony of Victoria, shocking many with her saucy 'Spider Dance'. Her story continues...

Moral reaction came quickly. In Melbourne, Dr John Milton, head of the City Court Mission, appointed himself as Montez’s arch-enemy.

After her first performance of the Spider Dance, he demanded a warrant be issued for her arrest, to prevent any repetition of the affront.

He was unsuccessful, perhaps due to mayor and theatre-builder John Smith being in the chair as presiding magistrate. Worthy citizens of Geelong also tried to shut her act down, without success.

Things were easier for Montez in gold mining country.

“Bendigo and Ballarat were turning into settled towns, but their goldfields still held large migratory male populations,” says historian David Goodman. “Entertainment was very welcome, so touring companies and other entertainers quickly got onto a circuit through the area.” Ever the canny self-publicist, Lola visited Ballarat miners at their diggings, and shouted them at local bars.

Her time in Ballarat included a violent incident that was reported in newspapers around the world. After a disapproving letter to the Ballarat Times described Lola as possessing “notoriety of an unenviable kind”, she laid into the newspaper’s editor, Henry Seekamp, in the bar of the United States Hotel, with a whip she’d just won in a raffle (see cartoon above).

Seekamp had been a hero of the 1854 Eureka Stockade revolt through his support for the rebel cause, and was known for his energy and temper; so he was unlikely to take the attack lightly. He replied with his own whip, and the two had to be separated by bystanders.

With highlights like these, Victorian newspapers used up plenty of newsprint on Lola. As they do now, the media loved a controversial woman for her ability to increase sales, whether they were praising or damning her. They were also happy to exaggerate existing stories about Montez, repeat unlikely rumours, and make new ones up, in an ever-expanding game of Chinese Whispers.

It was a situation that would suit her down to the ground. Lola thrived on controversy, often stoking the fires herself via letters to the editor, twisting facts to suit her public image.

She also gave the colony’s moral guardians a clear target, though they’d rarely seen the work they were complaining of, and the varied reactions of newspaper critics suggests the Spider Dance’s impropriety was very much in the eye of the beholder. But as we see today, outbreaks of moral panic have a lot to do with expressing the ego of the complainant, via the volume of his or her moral indignation.

Despite this sporadic resistance to her tour, accompanied by unsubstantiated rumours of intoxication and other unladylike behaviour, her audiences voted with their feet. They were happy to buy a ticket to be in close proximity to fame. They may also have sided with her dismissal of accepted authorities, not unlike the audiences who applauded Madonna’s critically panned West End stage debut in 2002.

Though Montez was only in the colony for a few months, she brought an air of international glamour to this remote part of the Western world. Did her success foreshadow the cultural cringe by which Australians sought validation from imported figures and culture?

No, says Goodman. “International entertainment was welcome, but ‘cultural cringe’ is anachronistic. Most of the population had only been here a couple of years, so they’re not thinking of themselves as Australian. Gold rush Melbourne is a very cosmopolitan society; more so than an English regional city like Bristol, for example.”

How significant was her visit to our developing colony? There’s no question that Lola Montez was one of the most colourful characters to visit Victoria, in the most colourful era of its history. But on the face of it, it’s hard to see her as anything more than a footnote.

Her outspoken commitment to liberal democracy was adopted for a New World audience, and her possibilities as a feminist icon are problematic. Though she was clearly a woman with a desire for an independent life, it was driven by her own demons rather than commitment to a cause.

Whatever her importance beyond the stage, Lola Montez is remembered. Even now, many Victorians recognise her name, some from history lessons at school. There’s even been a children’s book and a musical inspired by her tour. Why is she still so fascinating to the inhabitants of a post-modern era awash with celebrity scandals?

Maybe her memory lives on because, like Oscar Wilde, Lola Montez seems a contemporary figure trapped in an unforgiving earlier age. Or possibly, despite all our advances in equality between the sexes, we’re still fascinated by a woman who could break all rules of female propriety and get away with it.

Friday 18 October 2019

Lola Montez: Un-Victorian in Victoria (Part 1)

Lola Montez. Courtesy of State Library of Victoria
In 2005 I researched an article about infamous courtesan and entertainer Lola Montez, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of her tour of Victoria and other Australian colonies. As it never went online, I'd like to share it here. Enjoy!

Bendigo had never seen a night at the theatre quite like it. On the evening of 2 April 1856, residents of the thriving gold mining town had paid five shillings to see a performance of Asmodeus, or The Little Devil.

It wasn’t the play they were interested in, but its star, Lola Montez. Celebrated and condemned in the world’s media, she was a magnet for scandal and gossip.

However, she was about to be upstaged. As a thunderstorm raged outside, a bolt of lightning broke through the roof, darted toward the stage, and struck with explosive force.

Audience members screamed, actors ran wildly across the stage, and scenery smouldered in the aftermath. The Bendigo Advertiser, with a delightful sense of understatement, later described it as “a scene of real interest, not often parallelled on the stage”.

Montez remained in place throughout. After the confusion had abated, she calmed the audience and reportedly remarked that no stage effects would be required in the circumstances: “Only a little brandy”. The show went on, increasing Lola’s popularity with the punters.

Lola Montez was the original dirty dancer and bad-girl global celebrity. Although she visited Victoria before its connection to the world via telegraph, her reputation preceded her.

She was known primarily as a dancer, but not a particularly good one; so she was an early example of the celebrity who’s famous for being famous. In short, Lola Montez was the Paris Hilton of her day. Like the present-day staple of gossip mags, her fame was forever linked to sex and scandal.

She had certainly led a colourful life before her arrival here 150 years ago, in September 1855. Her 34 years had produced a biography of dishonour and outrage that would take most people a lifetime to amass.

Born Eliza Gilbert, she had grown up in India and England before eloping from a girls’ school with a young lieutenant. After a later divorce, she re-emerged as Lola Montez, an exotic performer of Spanish folk dances.

What followed was a dizzying adventure surpassing the most imaginative fiction. Careering across Europe, Lola danced before the King of Prussia and the Russian Tsar, and famously horse-whipped a Berlin policeman on horseback. She befriended composer Franz Liszt and writer Alexandre Dumas, then settled in Paris until her then lover was killed in a duel.

Arriving in Munich in search of a dancing engagement, she unexpectedly entered into the greatest role of her career: mistress to the 60 year old King of Bavaria, Ludwig I. But Lola lacked the discretion required of a courtesan.

Her flamboyance, uneven temper and young male entourage earned the hatred of the Bavarian population, though the king created her Countess of Landsfeld. After indirectly causing the fall of governments and the king’s abdication, and contracting a new husband who she soon abandoned, Lola left Europe for America.

This is where her fortunes finally started to turn. In a nation where acceptance was more contingent on money and fame than social standing, Lola was able to milk her sensational past without being fatally injured by it. After performing across the USA and settling in the west, she heard about Australia’s gold rush and decided to tour, visiting Sydney, Melbourne, Geelong, Adelaide and the goldfields over nine months.

Lola arrived in Melbourne to find the city still humming from the discovery of gold. With the influx of miners from all over the world, and with the Eureka Stockade rebellion a recent memory, Lola Montez may have expected a frontier society which would give her greater acceptance than she could hope to find in stratified Europe.

However, Melbourne University historian David Goodman says she just missed Melbourne’s wildest days.

“By 1855, Melbourne has settled down after the early gold rush years, when new arrivals were living in a tent city in South Melbourne. It’s a ‘miracle city’, in that it was built so quickly, but it’s also an established town familiar to someone from one of the newer English cities. It has all the trappings of civilisation: police, courts, churches and schools. It’s not a wild frontier town.”

So Lola did experience censure, focused on her notorious 'Spider Dance'. This was a faux Spanish folk dance which involved her energetically searching her skirts for an invisible spider, then stamping it to death. The local critics were hostile to luke-warm: The Argus described it as “utterly subversive of all ideas of public morality”; The Age was initially impressed, until a second reviewer decided the dance was “simply ridiculous”.

Next post: Backlash (and a horse-whipping!)

Friday 11 October 2019

The Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki, New Zealand

On this trip I was hosted by Tourism New Zealand.

The day after I arrived at Greymouth on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, I was taken to the Pancake Rocks. This geological feature in tiny coastal Punakaiki is a standard feature on the local sightseeing list. As it was a wet and windy day, I hoped it would be worth the trip and not deserve Dr Samuel Johnson’s infamous line about the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland: “Worth seeing, but not worth going to see.”

Luckily, it was worth visiting. At first glimpse I assumed it was simply a set of eroded rock formations, a sort of scaled-down version of Victoria’s Twelve Apostles:

But once we left the vehicle and started walking along the circular track which grants views of the rocks, I started to see what the fuss was about. Not only do the rocks present interesting craggy shapes, but they’re constructed of multiple horizontal layers (hence ‘pancakes’):

It’s an intriguing feature. Even better, according to signage along the path, scientists have no clear idea how the rocks happened to form in this very specific way. It’s nice to think there are still wonders in the world.

The path winds in such a way that new views are regularly revealed as it twists and turns above the ocean. At one point, looking back, it appeared as if the ruins of a great ancient city were standing above the water: 

In addition to the formations, there’s the attraction of the turbulent ocean which sloshes around them, forced up through blowholes, and crashing powerfully through surge pools such as the one below:

The Kiwi sense of humour is never far away, even in the midst of such natural grandeur. This set of formations was given extra meaning by the sign in the foreground, ascribing animals to each rocky outline:

Once you’ve seen that rodent on the right, you can never go back.

Friday 4 October 2019

Wine on Waiheke Island, New Zealand

On this trip I’m being hosted by Tourism New Zealand.

On our first afternoon of this New Zealand trip, Narrelle and I hopped on a ferry from the Auckland CBD to Waiheke Island. This pleasant spot is about 30 minutes away across the water to the northeast, which makes it a perfect spot for a) commuters to escape the stresses of city living; b) travellers to get a taste of island life.

“Taste” is a well-chosen noun here, as Waiheke is well known for its wine. We were meeting the Wine of Waiheke tour at the dock, which would take us to three wineries over 3.5 hours.

We were picked up by minibus by guide Jill, who’s lived on the island for many years. Aboard we had 15 tour members from a wide variety of places: Australia, the UK, the USA, Canada, the Philippines, South Africa and Colombia. I like that friendly “temporary community” vibe you get on a tour with a good crowd, and that was happening here. As the afternoon wore on and we sampled more wine, we swapped stories and learnt everyone’s back stories.

First stop was Mudbrick, one of the first wineries on the island. The name came from its original mudbrick buildings, but the place has developed greatly since then and is now a complex involving a cellar door, restaurants and a rooftop terrace with views. That’s where we had one of our wines, a tasty syrah, which we enjoyed as the wind whipped up.

Next stop was Cable Bay, a winery named for the nearby body of water which connected the island’s communications cable with the mainland. The wine I liked best here was their viognier, and our wines were accompanied by an excellent spread of cheeses. At the end of the tasting session we had a look at the atmospheric cellars and their barrels. 

The weather was getting dicey as we headed across the island to our last winery, Te Motu. As she drove, Jill told us some background on the island’s history. 

I was curious as to why one of its towns is called Ostend; it was obviously a link with Belgium, but was it named after an early settler from that country? In fact, as Jill explained, a group of New Zealander ex-soldiers who had fought in World War One had been given land to settle on the island, and it had been named Ostend in memory of those who had suffered on the Belgian front in that conflict.

At Te Motu, we were met by the winery’s “concierge” Skipper, a friendly dog who stayed with us for pats as we were enjoying the tastings. My favourite here was a rosé.

By now we tour members were on thoroughly chatty terms and knew almost everything about each other; but as always on these occasions, it was time to part. A quick drive back to the ferry terminal, and we were on a boat back to Auckland. 

It was a brief introduction to Waiheke but I’d like to come back on a more leisurely schedule; maybe stay over for a few days and use its hop-on-hop-off tourist bus service to see the sights. And to sample more wine.

For details and bookings for the Wine on Waiheke tour, visit its website.