“Will we soar or crash?” Hugh Oakes asked himself. He didn’t know. Nobody knew. But it was worth a try.
It was 1992.
Not long before, Hugh had had an idea.
It started out with a problem: local writers in his area – Victoria’s central north – didn’t have a forum to share their writing in. So, instead, many left their work in their sock draw, unappreciated. They needed somewhere to get a start, gain experience, or just experience the thrill of being published.
Hugh wanted to provide a means of expression for the finished work of local creative writers. He also wanted to make the writing available to as wide an audience as possible. What if he created a magazine?
He put the idea to the Goulburn Valley Writers Group which he had earlier re-established. It was met with strong enthusiasm.
However, for the idea to work, they would need money. Thankfully, the local council’s cultural committee was happy to provide funding.
Hugh couldn’t do this on his own so he enlisted the help of his daughter, Kylie. From the writers group he was able to muster four enthusiastic volunteers: Alan Mathews, Barbara Canterford, Ro Marriott and Judy Cane. This was to be Tamba’s inaugural committee.
To broaden the magazine’s audience, they decided that anybody would be allowed to contribute any style of writing, as long as it was of reasonable quality.
Naming the magazine wasn’t easy. They wanted something that represented the Goulburn Valley, the community they loved. After much deliberation, they chose the name Tamba. This was in reference to the white ibis that feeds in flocks on the dairy farms and orchards of the Goulburn Valley.
But this was just the beginning. No one knew how long Tamba would last. It was time to take a leap of faith.
An Anglican priest and a teacher, Hugh was well educated. He was a complex man. A keen poet, his writing expressed complicated ideas with multiple meanings. Reading his poetry sometimes left you a little confused. He liked it that way.
“If everybody understands you perfectly, you aren’t really trying,” he once said.
Hugh was a man who liked to question things.
Reading works from Australian authors was a favourite pastime.
“He was genuinely interested in Australian literature,” said his son, Philip. “He had a whole library full of books.”
Hugh was also known for his quirky sense of humour and trusting nature.
From loungeroom board meetings to global submissions
Tamba committee meetings were held monthly in the Oakes family loungeroom, known as the board room. In the centre of the room sat a large coffee table, which was almost always scattered with papers. The meetings, complete with coffee and chocolate biscuits, were always lively as submissions were discussed. Often the committee did not reach agreement, but they always trusted Hugh to have the final say.
Submissions started out slowly but built rapidly to the point where sorting them was, at times, an overwhelming task for Lois, who handled the task with patience and good humour. Much to Hugh’s shock, they eventually started receiving submissions from all over Australia and even overseas.
Generous with his time, Hugh graciously and lovingly provided feedback to all submissions to Tamba.
Often contributors would send pieces back and forth to him. Tirelessly, he would study their work, searching for improvements.
“The only real danger comes when you are too easily satisfied with what you have written,” was just some of his wise advice.
Philip said providing feedback was one of the most important aspects of Tamba for his father.
“That’s what Dad’s forte was, providing feedback to writers,” he said.
Hugh had a knack for recognising ability and knew good writing when he saw it.
Providing a start for new poets
Growing up on a small poultry farm near Bendigo, Lorraine Marwood always knew she wanted to be a writer. However, she never knew the steps to publication other than to read, write and dream.
In 1993, Lorraine submitted her first poem to Tamba. She waited patiently for a response. Finally, the letter arrived. Lorraine opened it and immediately felt a sense of disappointment. Her poem hadn’t made it into the latest issue of Tamba, but there was a silver lining. Attached was a note from Hugh Oakes that simply read ‘But I liked it’. Persistent and determined, it was this acknowledgement that drove her to try again.
“Often these tiny pieces are all a fledgling poet needs to send and submit more poems,” she recalled. “Often, a handwritten note is what keeps the flame of publication alive.”
One year later, her persistence paid off. She had her first poem, Park Bench, published in Tamba. But she wasn’t done there. This was only the beginning.
Death of a leader
Late on the afternoon of March 30, 1998, tragedy struck. It felt as if the world had stopped. Hugh was riding his bike when he attempted to cross Benalla Road near the Pine Lodge Hotel. He was hit by a car and died shortly afterwards.
The Writers Group decided to honour Hugh in the best way they knew how. Soon, they put out a tribute edition of Tamba, titled Leaves Of A Journal, showcasing some of Hugh’s best poetry.
But what about Tamba? Lois was determined that her husband’s dream would not die. She was a strong, determined woman, who would not accept defeat. The family knew there was only one option. Kylie, a talented writer in her own right, was appointed editor.
Like Hugh, Alan Mathews was a quiet and gentle man, yet he had a lot to say. He had a lifelong passion for music and art. He enjoyed getting other people to see the beauties of art.
In his youth, he had also studied psychology. Yet his greatest passion was writing. From an early age, he found great pleasure in writing stories and poems.
“He loved writing all his life,” said wife Bev.
Bev recalled how Alan was never happy unless he had ideas for a poem or story milling around in his head. Highly observant, he often wrote movingly about what he saw or felt. An orchardist, his writing was often inspired by the changing seasons.
He deeply valued the friendship and care that the Goulburn Valley Writers Group gave him.
Hugh and Alan had got on well and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. Alan had previously assisted Hugh as poetry editor of Tamba. Like Hugh, he knew how to pick a talented writer. He knew the decision he had to make. He agreed to support Kylie by co-editing Tamba. He would be responsible for prose, while Kylie would be in charge of poetry.
A slingshot for success
Success is never linear. Even today, one particular rejection letter from Kylie Oakes sticks in Lorraine’s mind:
“May I offer the comment that your short pieces are the most effective. In general, leaving out words such as ‘like’ and ‘the’, which are often unnecessary, gives a poem more immediate impact, with fewer distractions from what is being said. Keep writing!”
“Keep writing I certainly have,” Lorraine said.
Feedback like this drove Lorraine to continue improving her work. Branching out, she has had six collections of children’s poetry published and four verse novels. Her greatest honour was winning the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in the children’s category for her book Starjumps.
Lorraine credits Tamba with helping increase her confidence to share her work in public.
“It was an important stepping stone to continuing writing and sending work out,” she said.
Despite her lofty achievements, Lorraine never forgot where she came from. She never stopped sending work to Tamba.
Lorraine wasn’t the only one to use Tamba as a launching pad for bigger and better things. Many went on to be published in other publications. But equally, without Tamba, many would never have experienced the joy of being published. This was something that gave the Tamba committee just as much satisfaction.
Growing and finding new support
At first, the magazine was an issue-by-issue proposition. But over time, an improved format layout was set up by Suellen Drysdale, who had a marketing degree. This was a lightbulb moment. The improved quality of the publication meant that the quality of the work also increased. At this point, it was clear for all to see that Tamba could be a long-term proposition. Finally, Hugh’s vision had been realised. But that didn’t mean the challenges were over.
Times were never easy for Tamba. Finances were always tight. From the beginning, the magazine had always relied solely on its loyal subscriber base. Originally, Hugh had hoped to pay contributors, but this was never feasible. To keep the magazine afloat, the committee had to pay for subscriptions to the magazine. The decision was made to publish two editions a year instead of three, reducing costs. But it still wasn’t quite enough. Tamba’s future hung by a thread.
Roger Furphy’s family had always been passionate about writing. As a longtime member of the Goulburn Valley Writers Group, he couldn’t bear the thought of Tamba dying. A well-connected man, Roger rang up everybody he knew and was able to obtain a number of sponsorships which helped to cement the future of Tamba. Lyn Farren was also able to secure some sponsorship for Tamba. Slowly but surely, Tamba’s future was beginning to look more secure. Hugh’s legacy lived on.
In 2001, Kylie moved on to pursue new opportunities.
Alan continued on, inspired by the continued loyalty of Lois.
By 2006, Alan felt the time was right to step back as editor of Tamba. But he needed someone capable of assuming the role.
Robyn Black nervously agreed to step up. “I was terrified,” she recalled.
The enormity of following Hugh, Kylie and Alan sat uncomfortably with her.
“I thought who on earth am I to judge other people’s work to the standard of the previous Tamba editors?” she said.
Loyal and determined, Robyn gave Tamba her all. Her dedication and hard work ensured that Tamba continued to succeed.
Relishing the role, Robyn learnt a lot from editing Tamba. Being exposed to so many talented writers allowed her to improve her writing.
Sadly, just two years later, Robyn was forced to move on from the role she adored. Work commitments had meant she was forced to move away. Once again, Tamba was in limbo.
But as always, somebody was ready to step up. In this case it was Pat Patt. Pat had been on the Tamba committee for a couple of years and really enjoyed the process. Editing was a new experience for Pat and a big learning curve. However, she was ready for the challenge.
A pharmacist by trade, Pat was a kind and generous Englishwoman. She valued everybody’s input and enjoyed discussing the submitted work at committee meetings. Her gentle and reassuring nature put everyone at ease.
Providing a fresh vision and new ideas, she helped Tamba flourish.
Looking for a career change, Pat was able to use her experience with Tamba to help her obtain a job as a feature writer at the Shepparton News. She also credits Tamba with improving her organisation skills.
Editing Tamba was a role Pat cherished, a responsibility she never took for granted.
“I absolutely loved it,” she said. “It’s like you’re a part of the bigger writing community.”
In 2012, Tamba marked its 50th edition. As she sent it off to the printers, Pat couldn’t help but wonder what Hugh would have made of the achievement.
Despite Pat’s successes, finances remained an issue for Tamba. In 2015, its future once again looked bleak. It was not keeping up with expenses.
“We didn’t have any money,” said Robyn, who later returned to Shepparton and assumed the role of president of the writers group.
Every issue printed they feared could be the last. “We had to hold our breath and hope we had enough money for the next issue,” she explained.
Then came an exciting development. An anonymous donor contributed $1000.
Only after her death two years later would this donor’s identity be revealed. A warm and welcoming figure, Tricia Veale had been a passionate writer for many years. A dedicated member of The Goulburn Valley Writers Group, she would travel from Benalla for meetings and had long been a passionate advocate for Tamba.
Shortly after this, Lois Oakes died.
As they mourned her passing, the Tamba committee received some shocking news. Her family had decided that some of her inheritance should be left to Tamba.
“It was just a tribute to Dad and Mum,” explained Philip. “It (Tamba) was Dad’s baby.”
The family knew it is what Lois would’ve wanted, for her dedication to Tamba had never wavered.
“She was a fierce Tamba advocate,” recalled Robyn. “She was the heart of Tamba.”
Tamba’s future was secure. Finally, it’s financial troubles had melted away. It was the ultimate legacy to Hugh and Lois.
For the next seven years, Tamba prospered. But it still relied on the dedication of hard-working volunteers.
The final edition
Come 2022, the group knew it had a difficult choice to make. The enormity of the decision weighed heavily on them.
Editing Tamba was a lot of work, a labour of love. Finding enough volunteers to produce each edition was an increasing challenge.
With the group wanting to move on to new things, they knew the time was right. Issue number 70 of Tamba would be the last.
What would Hugh have made of Tamba’s longevity?
“I think he’d be very proud it lasted as long as it did,” said Philip.
The reaction was incredible. Messages gradually began filtering into the writers’ group, all expressing their sadness at Tamba’s end. Then, amazingly, they got a message from a man in Ireland, Noel King. Noel expressed his disappointment as he had only just discovered the magazine.
As they read Noel’s message, they could feel Hugh beaming down on them.