An interview by Judy Vizzari in December 2017.
A few years ago, a colleague phoned me in his hour of need and blurted out "Hi Judy, I hear you're a bit of a wordsmith!" "A what?" I replied … so much for my reputation as a wordsmith. Well, he did need a letter written and I did write it, but the value of the incident was that it extended my vocabulary. Now, I can confidently apply 'wordsmith' to more worthy writers and that's where this story starts. Gillian Essex is an award-winning wordsmith.
"Well", you may ask, "who is Gillian Essex?"
Gillian has actually worn many hats – you may have heard of her as the Acting Nillumbik U3A President in 2016 when she took on that responsibility, following the sudden resignation, due to illness, of former President, Lyn Hatherly. Or you may have noticed that she has led the U3A Creative Writers' Group in Eltham for several years or even heard her sometimes performing with musical partner, Tony Hatters in the duo G&T which plays at, amongst other venues, Eltham Farmers' Market. Or you may have seen her name amongst those who welcomed refugees to Eltham last year. There's much to know about Gillian.
I've come to visit with her and her partner, Evan, in Eltham's Dulaiwurrong Eco-Village. We sit, looking out through high glass windows into their backyard. I'm enjoying the bush setting which meanders down towards the Diamond Creek and Gillian is knitting a very rustic looking blanket – "for the refugees", she says. She tells me that she's already knitted several and suspects that they have enough, but, "just in case", she continues to knit. I'm intrigued. I've known her for three years as the leader of our Creative Writing Group and I'm excited to have this opportunity to find out more about this fascinating woman.
Her accent is a giveaway – there's a hint of England in those well-formed vowels and "yes", she tells me, she is ineligible to stand for Parliament.
Gillian came to Australia as a 10 year old. It was something of a culture shock, she says, arriving in Elizabeth, the satellite city near Adelaide in South Australia built in the mid-1950s. It was an artificial city, set up to promote industrialisation in post-war Australia and it attracted a concentrated and needy population including many immigrants from England. Perhaps it was this experience, she suggests, that inspired her care for minority groups and the disadvantaged.
I remembered one of her stories, shared during a U3A Creative Writers' session. It was an account of a student demonstration in Adelaide in 1971, during a six week tour of Australia by the South African Rugby Team, the Springboks. The tour was beset by anti-apartheid protests and university student Gillian was vocal amongst them – even getting herself arrested. That story had provided a small insight into Gillian's character, now I was beginning to see how it fitted into her bigger picture.
She tells me that she initially struggled with the unfamiliar curriculum at her primary school in Elizabeth, having being placed in a class with many students who were several years older than her, but that she went on to become dux in her final year of secondary school, despite being the youngest in the class. She then studied at the University of Adelaide and Melbourne Teachers College, later completing a second degree in Special Education at Monash University, and – more recently – a second diploma, of Professional Writing and Editing.
She has undertaken many roles in education including being Principal of Strathewen Primary School, where her duties included writing the school newsletter. So successful was her newsletter that soon people who didn't have children at the school were requesting copies! That's where she first acquired that 'wordsmith' hat, which she continued to wear throughout her varied career.
Writing has taken Gillian down an adventurous path – she's co-authored a state-wide literacy program, written speeches for politicians, contributed non-fiction articles to magazines and newspapers, taught corporate writing to adults, edited a book and written creatively with great success. She won Nillumbik Shire's coveted Alan Marshall Short Story Award in 2015 and has collected several other awards over the years. Gillian's stories have also been included in anthologies – try a quick web search to find out more. She also writes poetry and, if you visit the Old Eltham Courthouse poetry readings at 8pm on the third Thursday of each month, you might be lucky enough to catch her reading some of them. Recommended.
Tilting at windmills
Like Don Quixote, Gillian likes to tilt at windmills although, unlike Quixote, her adversaries are real. The weapons that she employs include courage, determination, persistence and persuasive writing and her quests are prompted by her strong sense of social justice. Her results are tangible.
Gillian's list of past and present causes is formidable. It includes helping to found the Nillumbik Branch of People for Nuclear Disarmament, being the inaugural chair of the board of Social Studio, a refugee support organisation, and volunteering for SecondBite, an organisation which provides food that would otherwise be wasted to people in need. Along with partner Evan she even, through BlazeAid, helped to build fences for people burnt out by the Black Saturday fires.
Gillian has also, like Quixote, travelled far to further her causes, including voluntarily providing professional development in literacy to educational professionals in East Timor. More recently, you may have seen her name appear in local press. She is President of Welcome to Eltham, the group which supports our local Iraqi and Syrian refugees – hence the knitting.
Other 'hats' include her voluntary role as a conversational English teacher with the Australian Syrian Charity and her membership of both Grandmothers against Detention of Refugee Children and Montmorency Asylum Seekers Support Group.
There's a song in the air – a neat tune which connects two of Gillian's loves: poetry and music. What's the link?
One of Gillian's first U3A Creative Writing Group members was local musician, Tony Hatters. She read one of her poems in class and Tony liked it so much that he asked if he could turn it into a song … then he requested more. This led to the birth of the musical duo G&T, followed by the release of a CD and now a second is on the way. Gillian and Tony perform their 'alternative country' music regularly and are popular entertainers at many venues, including Eltham Farmers' Market.
G&T are launching their second CD at Bridges on 22nd April 2018.
G&T wasn't Gillian's first mix with music. She's sung and played in a variety of choirs and groups including: a choir that raises money for musical projects in East Timor; Bulgarian choirs; Georgian choirs; and ukulele, drumming and recorder groups. She has also been a long-term supporter of The Boîte, an organisation which promotes world music, and for over three years she has led the team of volunteers who run monthly concerts at St Margaret’s Anglican Church. Music has been a continuing thread throughout her life.
There’s still more to talk about. We touch on Gillian’s interests in bushwalking (she can be found leading the U3A bushwalking group some Mondays) and in travel – her love of walking, cycling and performing has taken her to many different overseas destinations. Sadly, she has found that she can no longer fit her role as Creative Writing Tutor into her busy schedule – our loss!
We're running out of time so I hurriedly ask her what, in a word, is the most important thing in her life. Her answer? "Family."
Images of families flash before me, foremost, the nuclear family, Gillian's family, then the many families that she has impacted so positively during her life, including her U3A 'family' who know and appreciate her humour, knowledge and skill and, more recently, the Syrians and Iraqis who, she says, "now feel like family to her".
Whether we see more or less of her in the future, I'm sure she'll still be out there, supporting the needy, performing for the many, wordsmithing her way through life and enjoying, above all, her own family, especially her grandchildren.