New beginnings

I’m delighted to announce the launch, on 2nd January 2016, of a new business enterprise The Lithgow Scriptorium.


This combines my interests and experience in writing, historical researching and bookbinding to offer services such as ghost-writing and book production, primarily for clients who have carried out their own family research but are stuck putting it into a narrative and presentable form.


The name was chosen with the inspiration of the jacket photograph from my 2015 books, Fiction and Non-fiction, whose texts are available as a PDF downloads on pages 6 and 7 of this website.


Looks just like me with a silly hat.

Please visit The Lithgow Scriptorium and let me know what you think.


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Major renovations

Thanks for dropping in at my website.

Please note that I have not been able to do much updating recently but that the time has come for me to do some work now.

This front page contains some of my travel writing from 2 years ago and I am trying to find some way to get these posts off and archived.

Meanwhile the pages listed in the top panel are all still available but I am trying to rewrite much of the content with the new material I have gathered since then.


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Henry and Marion – or common forebears

Those of us who have an interest in Helen because of a family connection mainly find our common meeting-point in Henry and Marion Shaw, the parents in the wonderful photoImage

My task today – and successfully done for a change – was to locate their burial place in Bristol’s Arno’s Vale Cemetery.

As found

As found


A bit more clear


Just a haircut to go




I was able to remove the overgrowth of ivy and allow the headstone to be viewed.


The headstone reads:
























BORN 21ST MAY 1834, DIED 8TH APRIL 1891.




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Close encounters……

Will this be as close as I ever get to my protagonist?


This Carrara marble bust, undated, unattributed, of Helen Lavinia Cochrane still exists. Its most likely origin is the years immediately after the building of Villa Rezzola and during the years of consolidating their position in Pugliola – say 1902-1908. Helen here looks 35-40 and everything fits to their ‘years of power’, before the War and the work and sadness that clearly took a toll on her thereafter.

This beautiful image, half-life-size, is now in the keeping of W, a grandson of her brother Edward and it was at his house that I finally ‘met’ Helen after my 6 years of researching and 4 years of travelling. In one way a triumph, but in another sense the coldness of that pure white Carrara marble, its dense immoveability, signals that my trail has also gone cold.

As I enter my last week of this journey, the hopes I had of finding some remains of Helen’s own writing have become exhausted. Beyond her wonderful and expansive legacy of painted work, Helen mainly exists now as a figure of my imagination. This very website has now become an ‘authority’, quoted by many, and I have taken that responsibility carefully – putting down only established material and keeping the hundreds of unauthenticated pieces to myself.

But my need to find something in Helen’s own voice – a diary, a letter to a beloved sister, better yet to Percy – seems likely to go unmet. I have exhausted my main hopes and only slim ones now remain.

I have a week left in which I will collect as much circumstantial material as possible – dates, places, connections, schooling, burial places of family. Then, the long flight home. And then I look forward to the comfort of home, such as it is. This whole project needs wrapping up and putting to bed – six years is enough – and I will have a new road ahead.

No inkling of what that might be! (Isn’t ‘inkling’ a nice word? Let’s all try and use it at least once a week until further notice). Quite exciting really.

Maybe I could try a biography of someone who isn’t DEAD yet!! What a doddle – Don’t know something, Just ask them!!!  TOO EASY.


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More on those Finnish Paavaans.



This photo was beamed to me recently. I remember the occasion well. The girls are obviously amused, charmed, perhaps even interested. I can’t remember whether it was just my boyish charm or their total flabbergastation as I tried to explain my theory of extraterrestrials populating Finland courtesy of a whole flock of Swedish airline hostesses (as they were called back then) all named Helga.

Or perhaps it was me trying to get my tongue around the Finnish word for “cross-fertilisation”. That was probably funny from their perspective.

Andrew’s just going along with it with a certain level of detachment.


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A beautiful word.

I am done in. Italy has rolled me like a leaf in a tsunami. Exhausted. For the first time in my life I have been sick while travelling and I have not been myself at all. But two days ago I crossed the border from Ventemiglia to Menton and now all is (comparatively) well. My illness miraculously left me – a clear sign it was emotional in origin – and I am in la belle France. It astounds me every time that crossing an imaginary line on a map makes such a difference. Of course it is obvious on deeper reflection; culture, language, ethnicity, economy all change.


Yesterday I bought a baguette. It arrived from the wood-fired oven while I was waiting in the queue. I could barely hold it, even inside a paper bag. I took it to the park across the road, intending to just try it, hot from the oven. I ate the whole bloody thing in one go – just didn’t have the will-power to stop! While doing so, I looked across the broad bay and could clearly see Ventimiglia and Bordighera, just over the border. I thought “I could go there, then drive for thousands of kilometres, all over Italy, and I would NEVER find anything as good as this baguette to eat”. It cost 95 eurocents – $1.40.

On previous trips I have likened entering France to taking a hot, salted, scented, oiled bath after a two week hike through inhospitable terrain. It causes me to question my passion for Italy and the Italians when a three-week exposure nearly kills me! I suppose it’s a bit of a mirror to how I love women, always seeking some imaginary fulfilment that is unreasonable in the first place and perhaps beyond my ability to deserve! Right now I am thinking I will never go back to Italy again. Just as I say I will never get close to a woman again. On both counts I know that my resolve will crumble at the slightest provocation – a smile, a word, a glass of wine. What a pathetic little tart I am.

For example, as I type now, I am at a table outside “Brusketteria Zino” in Menton, France. I entered just for a coffee; then the proprietor, Aldo, greeted me with “Bonjour, bongiorno” and straight away I was off in Italian in preference to French with so much delight and gusto.

Everything about France is better in a material way – no doubt about it – but somehow I am more at home in Italy and with Italians than with their easier, more cultivated neighbours.

I decided to stay for an early lunch, choosing an Atlantic Salad (I need veges) and have enjoyed all the extra entertainment of Aldo with his wife and two children (one maybe four months old) living their life publicly alongside the business of the shop. At one stage, Aldo was stacking shelves of groceries with the the four-month-old tucked under an arm while mum was busy on the telefonino. This is Italy IN France, maybe the perfect compromise for my taste.



Hotel Imperial, Menton. During the First World War it was the Hopital Militaire de l’Entente Cordiale #222.

Earlier in the day I had visited the interior of what was the Hotel Imperial, what had been Percy and Helen Cochrane’s Military Hospital in WW1. Seriously, walking up the drive to it was one of the most physically-overwhelming sensations I can remember.

The sheer scale of the building is more than one could imagine. I had seen it from the road before, but as you walk up close it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Photos just can’t capture that sort of feeling. It LOOMS as the Victorian writers would have said.

I was escorted around by Luc Lanlo and Michel Imbert, both art historians and advisors who have an office/apartment in L’Imperial. They showed me their photos, I showed them mine – a fruitful sharing that may add to the stock of knowledge of the patrimony of the building. Sadly for me, just two weeks ago there had been a Gala Celebration of 100 years of something or other. Their kindness and enthusiasm was really appreciated.


Marion Curwen, niece of Helen Cochrane, adventurer and nurse. The model for the missing sculpture.


Menton Conservatoire de la Musique. Donated to the Ville de Menton in 1934. Before that it was Percy Cochrane’s Villa La Victoire.

Then (with my guide Eric Vincette, a journalist employed by the Ville de Menton (Town Council), I visited the Menton Conservatoire de la Musique, mainly in search of a certain sculpture. I knew in my head that it was long-gone, but my heart so desperately wanted to find that bronze bust of a beautiful WW1 nurse, a symbol of the new peace, that Percy had commissioned for his beautiful new villa “La Victoire”. It was not there, no-one knew of it (in fact no-one knows the pre-1934 history at all). I took some photos of the interior and the freshly re-painted exterior. It is such a magnificent building. It was commissioned in 1919 from the local architect Abel Glena, one of his last before retiring and thus showing the fruits of a lifetime’s work. I was immensely privileged to meet and enjoy a short interview with the Director, Paul-Emmanuel Thomas, an instantly likeable and impressive young conductor and organiser of the music festivals here.


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From Lerici


It has been a long time since I last wrote here – not my intention, which was to write almost daily. Much has been happening and I have become very tired. In Italy (and this will surprise you) I can never quite seem to find the food that I need at any given time.




Six days ago, I ate two slices of a home-made salami that actually (for the first time in my travels) made me REALLY sick – no ordinary upset stomach this. I was thinking “Salmonella, Botulism, I’m going to die” I was just waiting for a fever to set in and I was seriously going to go to a hospital. Fortunately that fever never came and after a torrid six hours in which the forerunner of World War 3 was played out in my stomach and intestines, it passed. Literally.




And I am also exhausted. The endless investigating, much of it fruitless; having to conduct myself entirely in my inadequate Italian; poor diet plus my underlying diabetes; all are leaving me seriously drained of energy. Even what should have been a delight – a salon at the Contessa’s Villa last Sunday afternoon – was a huge effort as I had to interact with a large number of people, all asking me things faster than I could possibly field them with my slow response in translating from Italian to English then back to Italian. On top of that, the Contessa’s new dog Cucciolino – puppy, has taken a huge hatred to me, it even bit me once, fortunately glancingly. Very odd – dogs usually love me – not this one.




I am as always enjoying the basics of Italian life. Coffee and a chat at Bar Bellavista, glasses of rough red wine and conversations with ordinary blokes at the circolo most evenings, my deeper conversations with the Contessa every second day, walking around Lerici and San Terenzo, gelato in hand, wanting to go for a swim but not quite having the energy to actually do it. I am missing Shirl. I feel a bit lost.




Speaking of the Powergirl; it is only a month until she leaves for her great adventure. For those who aren’t familiar, she is doing a combined adventure / fundraiser walk along the Salkantay Track to Macchu Picchu. She is close to her fundraising target (for World Vision) but needs a little more to get her over the line. Please have a look at her page at


and please make a contribution if you can and have not done so already.




Yesterday I went to La Spezia, the provincial capital and had three appointments. The first with Pier Luigi Scardigli, a lawyer who is also a historian of the region with a beautiful book to his credit. The I visited the Civic Library (biblioteca civica Umberto Mazzini) which is a beautiful old palazzo populated by grumpy female librarians who had no interest in assisting my enquiries at all (one relented and gave me a website – which I already had – I think she was embarrassed by her colleagues and felt sorry for me). But THEN I went to the State Archives (Archivi dello Stato della Spezia). That was hilarious, but more importantly Fruitful – at last. Anyone who complains about paperwork and red tape in Australia has ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA. I think I had to sign at least 7 times, one after another as I progressed through the system. But Antonino Faro, the archivista, who mercifully speaks English (yay! A first!) came up with GOLD for me.




In 1930, at the age of 70 and having been absent from the area for at least 10 years, Percy Cochrane, Knight of the Crown of Italy, was denounced to the Fascist regime as a British spy and there was a subsequent investigation and (I think) a trial. I am getting a copy of the full file on Tuesday. This promises to be a serious breakthrough as I assume there will be testimony of what Percy ACTUALLY WAS UP TO during all those years.

The photo below is of the gulf from Pugliola last night at about 8, with me walking home from Circolo Arci, slightly drunk, and enormously buzzy.Image



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Little-known facts about Finland.


It’s only now, a week-and-a-half after leaving Helsinki, that I have put two-and-two together to come up to seven.


I was having a brief chat with Erich von Daniken last week, and we both agreed that Finns are actually Extraterrestrials. No doubt about it. For a start, their language. It is clearly not of this world. The breakthrough came with the discovery that their word for ‘day’, Paivaa, was eerily similar to Paavaa, the third planet orbiting the star Huomanta, which is nearly the same as the Finnish word for ‘morning’!


We can also posit an arrival date for a small fleet of intergalactic rockets to the year 1274. Before this, there was never any mention of a Finnish people; but in August of that year, a Viking dragonship on its way to rape, loot and pillage the town which is now St Petersburg, first heard the word ‘Finland’.


What they heard was that word repeated – a total of four – which they took to be a barbershop quartet singing a national anthem “Finland – Finland – Finland – Finland!”, but it is almost certain that this was the commanders of four rocketships communicating to each other that their rockets’ fins had touched down on dry land. Using English, of course.


Another, unrelated, piece of research was also found in the course of this study. The Viking dragonship on its way to St Petersburg was pivotal in that town being the first ever to introduce a system of alternating one-way streets into town planning. This was to ensure that the town’s merchants fleeing with all their worldly goods from the dock area (in response to the peril of looting and pillaging) did not have to encounter their wives rushing pell-mell down to the dock area in response to the Viking arrival and their inevitable fate.

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Checking in from Sarzana.

But first, some music tips.   If you read my earlier posts from Finland you will remember my new-found adoration of Sibelius, the Lahti orchestra and the Sibelius Hall. To give you an idea, there is a good clip on Youtube from the 2012 Festival

It must be said that this is a ‘lightweight’ piece, but that is NOT a criticism. I think it is utterly delightful, very varied and very skilfully written. It ends with a version of ‘Finlandia’, the Finnish national anthem. If you don’t get goosebumps somewhere through this piece, please see your doctor; you might be dead.

While I am thinking music, please also watch my new “died and gone to heaven” phenomenon, the English trumpeter Alison Balsom with the Scottish Ensemble (Italian concerto transcriptions)  and the English Concert (Purcell and Handel)

You’ll be glad you did. Unless, as before, you happen to have atrophied. Yes I know, she is VERY pretty, but it’s not JUST that.

Now.   Has it really been a week since I last wrote?  That wasn’t the intention. I guess I’ve either been flat out (doing stuff) or flat out (exhausted). Just briefly, the Sibelius Festival last night was wonderful, Helsinki the next day was very much a reconnaissance exercise – with the result that, while it was all fine, it’s not a destination in itself, you need a reason to go there. I flew to Rome, with a wonderful feeling of striding out from Fiumicino with supreme confidence that “Italy, I’m back, let me at you”. Train to Civitavecchia, ferry to Olbia, Sardinia. The whole travelling from a bed in Helsinki to a seat on board the ferry was accomplished seamlessly and totally without glitch. Then came the sort of ferry trip that puts people off travel. A substitute, ancient, slow ferry which left two hours late into a headwind turned a 5 hour crossing into a 10 hour ordeal. Anyway I eventually got into my hotel in Olbia at 1:30 and went to sleep before I got into bed. I cannot remember feeling so physically battered.

Two days in Sardinia – there are stories, but not tonight – ferry to Livorno, where I was delighted to be able to spend a day with an old school friend, Garreth. he was there at the same time, visiting friends after a wonderful 10 day (I think) residential workshop in

Tranquility and style


Perugia with La Mama Theatre. Garreth is an actor and playwright in Sydney. It was a great day together  (it’s amazing how our shared formative days have made us molto simpatici. We were blessed with a totally unexpected (and unexpectable) surprise being able to explore the Old English Cemetery. An absolutely moving place.


So I’ve had my first day in Sarzana, a rest day to regather my strength before going on to Pugliola tomorrow. I feel a change here from a year ago, and a huge change from 4 years ago. I keep reminding myself that it is I that have changed (ha! understatement of the year), but I really think Sarzana has too.

I don’t feel my previous utter enrapturement here today. There are now refugees here as a noticeable presence beyond the occasional Senegalese street hawker – Eastern Europeans, and I witnessed conflict on the street (admittedly not major, but it was not what Sarzana was). The teenagers seem more aggressive than I remember, more assertive of their presence. Cafe Laurina, my home away from home, is still not open in the mornings and, when I went for my aperitivo at about 6:00, it was buried under a crowd of very scuzzy teens. When I looked inside, there was not the previous aura of clean, elegant style. I immediately knew that Patrizia and Michaela, my principezze del caffe, are no longer there. I just hope they are still in la Spezia, or I will be very sad indeed.

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Depression, beer, gambling and existential angst in Lahti – ah! Just like home.

I did a little sightseeing yesterday. Not the museums or churches or shops, just the streets, the parks and the people. As I have noted earlier, Finns love their parks. Now my first observation of Lahti is that there is no “historic quarter”, that this is a modern city almost entirely of apartment-dwellers. I haven’t ventured out into any suburbs that may exist, or to the surrounding villages (and I won’t have time to), but certainly in the central areas there are no free-standing houses. And it is all modern, it looks like Lahti is a new town.


The amazing thing is that this is not a problem. Town planners and architects have ensured that this urban environment is really pleasing to the eye and the senses. And open, public space is the key. ‘Residential socialism’ comes to mind as a concept. Instead of every family having their own little patch to tend and enjoy, everyone can enjoy a variety of large, beautiful open spaces, contributing to their maintenance (and creating employment) by probably a fraction of the outlay in taxes that they would spend each looking after their own plot. It wouldn’t surprise me that there are communal vegetable gardens around.


In my wanderings I found a statue on a street corner. It touched me immensely, I knew it and what it was doing. It was a cross between Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ and Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream”. Except that the screaming had stopped and the Imagedespair had won. The figure is deeply touching. Part of me inside identified immediately with this suffering creature, regressing to ape-hood, the soul ebbing out of it, its humanity dimming. We have all at least glimpsed this part of human existence; some of us live with it to as much as we can bear, and then some of us have to end it when the last drop of hope drips away.

I wondered what it was doing there, on an unremarkable street corner slightly out of the Business District. But it was across the road from Lahti’s main church. And the Thinker-Screamer-Despairer sits with his back to that church. This is the message that I at least read into it.












I earlier noted that Finns FEEL LIKE Aussies (no! I haven’t be fondling them!). They look like us, they walk like us, they are similarly taciturn and distant then unexpectedly become charming and hospitable. They do not seem a particularly religious or thoughtful lot. As I walk through the streets, I feel at home. (Note: PLUS – wearing bicycle helmets is not compulsory. MINUS – they ALL wait for Green Men at pedestrian crossings!)

I have heard that Scandinavians, and Finns in particular, have particularly high levels of depression and alcoholism. I probably need to check this factually (anyone out there know? – I would welcome your comments). This could be down to lack of Vitamin D, long periods of really crappy weather or maybe a loss of Viking heritage now that rape, slaughter, pillaging and institutionalised cruelty are no longer socially acceptable.

And gambling! The railway stations have poker machine rooms. The shopping centres have poker machines. And all that I have seen have been fully in use, whenever I have noticed. Now there’s a good idea for the Walgett IGA.

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