Cataloguing a history of Adelaide’s quirks and characters


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By David Sly

The colour and personality of Adelaide is projected through its people – and veteran local journalist Mike Robinson is capturing tales of our most memorable, though often unlikely characters, in a curious new website.

AdelaideAZ presents an alternative history that currently spans more than 1700 cultural identities and incidents that Michael has been compiling for the past three years, and went live at at the start of this year.

This epic labor of love, funded independently by 70-year-old Mike, ranges from the origins of Humphrey B. Bear to Adelaide’s electric light cricket competition, through to unraveling Outback legends of the Marree Man and the Nullarbor Nymph.

As Mike describes it, the website is designed to present a compendium of Adelaide identities, innovations, incidents, idiosyncrasies and issues – dissecting the point where folklore meets history.

AdelaideAZ publisher Mike Robinson showing his state allegiance.

“These are stories that are dear to us, but tend to be forgotten over time or pass into the annals of myth because they sit outside of a sober history volume,” says Mike. “I think they are important and worth recording because they are the stories of Adelaide Zeitgeists.”

While Mike has long toyed with compiling a history of this type, it only took shape about three years ago, once he began working with South Australian company JABA Multimedia and designing a flexible website platform with that company’s Adrian Adams and Atanas Athanasov that can accommodate mushrooming content growth and versatile possibilities for links between items.

“I think the links at the bottom of stories on AdelaideAZ are crucial to how this website works, because they connect vertical and horizontal threads of Adelaide and SA culture in the context of past, present and future,” says Mike.

“If you’re curious, like I am, and you like to explore, then you get rewarded by following those links.”

Young aviator Charles James Melrose, from a wealthy SA pastoral family, was called “the next (Charles) Lindbergh”. His fame, as a handsome heart throb, rivalled Errol Flynn’s. Melrose set world flying records over three years before dying in a crash at 22. The SA parliament were suspended in respect at his death and 100,000 mourners attended his state funeral procession in Melbourne. Image courtesy State Library of South Australia.

The text explores how a small city is often mistakenly perceived as a backwater, while shining a light on extraordinary content patterns running through a tapestry of 125 A-to-Z categories.

These include Outback, Regions, Sport, Education, Environment, Childhood, Television, Theatre, the wide-ranging Oddities section – and the space to include more, as Mike sees fit.

A fan of history, Mike is familiar with many of these stories through working for more than 40 years in local journalism, having risen from his cadetship at the Port Pirie Recorder to be assistant editor at Messenger newspapers.

He especially came to relish collating vignettes and anecdotes about Adelaide’s weird and wonderful, through writing several popular nom-de-plume columns as Ray Light, Aloysius O’Mahoney for The City Messenger and Bill King for The Sunday Mail.

In fact, Mike’s frustration at the lack of context explained in much modern journalism led him to create the AdelaideAZ website.

The AdelaideAZ homepage.

“All of this information is already there on the internet in some shape or form, but the threads have not been pulled together,” he says. “That’s what I’m doing – providing the links to build a complete story that embraces the whole of our culture.”

The key to his website’s appeal is tight writing. Mike limits each entry to 300 words, and is currently striving to complete about four new entries each day – from Don Dunstan’s effort to hold back a tidal wave from the balcony of the Pier Hotel at Glenelg, to a young Kamahl being hired by Rupert Murdoch to sing at an early News Limited Christmas party.

He has delved deep into the state’s origins and archives to spark ideas for AdelaideAZ inclusions, with some of Mike’s favourite characters including Vaiben Louis Solomon, who was SA Premier for only seven days in 1899; and the Birks family, famous not only for chemist’s shops and a department store (which later merged with Sydney’s David Jones stores), but also for part-funding the creation of a utopian socialist settlement in Paraguay called New Australia in 1893.

William Bragg, Nobel Prize for physics (with his son Lawrence) winner in 1915, was nurtured by, and fully involved in, his life in Adelaide (including marrying Gwen, daughter of South Australia’s polymath genius Charles Todd). His love of sports included lacrosse and he organised and captained the North Adelaide club, pictured at Victoria Park in the 1880s, with Bragg standing third from left. Image courtesy State Library of South Australia.

Mike concedes that there’s still a long way to go with the AdelaideAZ website, suggesting that he’s perhaps only a quarter way through his intended catalogue of stories.

He envisages that the website will be a work in progress for many years to come – and says he’d welcome the input of other volunteers to get this enormous task done.

However, they’d need to adopt the consistent tone of Mike’s gentle, playful humour which is at play throughout the stories, ensuring an entertaining and engaging read through this unique take on local history.

“Yes, the humour is an important part of AdelaideAZ, because being able to have a chuckle at ourselves is an undeniable South Australian characteristic,” says Mike.

“We are quirky – and proud of it.”

Born and raised in the then-bustling railways town of Terowie, J.P. McGowan became a pioneering Hollywood actor, director and occasional screenwriter and producer from 1910. He is the only Australian life member of the Screen Directors Guild (now Directors Guild of America). A feature of his prolific film output was railway-themed serial melodramas, including one that debuted a young John Wayne.

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