March 12, 2016
COLIN Waring recalls his first meeting with Bernadette Miles in 2006 when he arrived at Wonthaggi Library to take up the post of Bass Coast principal librarian. He’d been warned that she could be intimidating.
“She asked me what I was reading. Now that’s a very leading question for a librarian. I’d lived in Japan for a while and I happened to be reading a book by a Japanese author called Haruki Murakami.
“'Oh,’ she said, ‘Murakami’s my favourite author!’.
“We were friends from that moment,” Colin says.
Bernadette worked at the Wonthaggi library, in all its guises, for 25 years. Many borrowers have memories of similarly esoteric conversations. My first conversation with her was in 2001. I have no idea how we ended up talking about Beau Travail, Claire Denis’s dreamlike film about a foreign legionnaire.
Michael Whelan’s tribute to his long-time colleague Bernadette Miles, which hangs in the Wonthaggi Library. The setting is Harmers Haven, where she lived for the past 30 years, and walked on the beach most days, rain or shine. The book is by Haruki Murakami, one of her favourite authors. Michael says it is the hardest image he’s been asked to take. “It required going to Harmers daily until I got the shot. Driving past Bern's house and walking the beach she walked daily.”
She was impossible to miss in the library. Colleagues and borrowers alike looked forward to each day’s extraordinary outfit. She wore anything from Lisa Ho to Target but she always made it her own. In her younger days, she had looked like Cher; in later years, she grew to look more and more like Edith Sitwell: serene, stylish and ethereal. Even at home in her gardening clothes, a long-sleeved, white men’s shirt and Blundstones, she looked as if she’d just stepped out of the pages of Vogue.
Her interests stretched from films, fine arts, literature and modern dance to architecture, fashion, photography and music. You might find common ground with her on Akira Isogawa, Pina Bausch or Hundertwasser, but you could also find yourself talking about Valentino Rossi because she loved motorbike racing.
She was the eldest of six children of Wilma and Tom Gannon, the second-generation editor of The Wonthaggi Express. Being a child of Tom was not always easy. Most small-town editors learn to go with the flow, but he was stubbornly true to his calling and managed to offend just about every person and organisation of any importance in Wonthaggi: the Catholic church; the Miners Union; the local police, who sued him for defamation; the Inverloch football club, which first gave him life membership then rescinded it; the local branch of the CWA, which blackballed him; and the many respectable citizens who unsuccessfully pleaded special circumstances for keeping their children’s court cases out of the Express.
“If any of us had got into trouble, Dad would have made sure it was on the front page just to prove a point,” Bernadette said.
Born in 1950, she recalled few if any story books in the house when she was growing up, nor was there a school or town library. She did recall one of her teachers at St Joseph’s Primary School reading the class a story, a magic moment when the world of books opened to her with all its possibilities.
Strangely, for someone who was to build her life around books, Bernadette had trouble with reading. She believed she was dyslexic. Her handwriting was child-like, her spelling sometimes approximate. Even as an adult, she read with her Collins dictionary by her side, looking up and noting down each unfamiliar word.
Too cool for school: Bernadette, on the right, in the late 1960s with fellow students from Prahran Art College.
Dispatched to the Academy of Mary Immaculate in Fitzroy when she finished primary school, she lasted just two miserable weeks before homesickness drove her home again, and she finished her schooling at Wonthaggi High School.
Her real education started when she enrolled at Prahran College of Art and found a community of like-minded people excited by arts, fashion and politics. A photo from the time shows her in a group of ultra-cool kids who look like they’ve walked off the set of a movie about the Bader Meinhof gang. Any small-town provincialism was gone, although she never quite lost the unworldiness.
At art school she specialised in photography. Conrad Miles, a fellow student who became her husband, recalls she was an exceptional photographer, although lacking the talent for self-promotion of many others. “Her work was elegant, precise and very correct. She didn’t fit the art student mould.”
They married in 1972 and spent much of the next few years travelling, hitchhiking more than 5000 miles, driving to Marrakesh, and overland from Istanbul to Kathmandu. “Bernadette’s willingness to see places sometimes overtook the sense of risk,” Conrad recalls. “It was part of that naive quality she had.” Years later, with their children Dominic and Amara, they bought a car in the US and spent four months touring.
After art school, Bernadette worked as a photographer and in film, including several years at Film House, the production company of celebrated director Fred Schepisi. She and Conrad had bought a weekender at Harmers Haven and in the early 1980s they moved down from the city full-time. She spent several years working as a wedding photographer, a fraught job in the pre-digital age, and waitressing, before she got a casual job at the Wonthaggi library (then in the arts centre) in 1990.
Quite by chance, she had found her calling. Working in a public library combined her respect for knowledge, her love of books and her inclination for order and precision. Like many librarians, she could be imperious with anyone who wrecked the serenity of the library, but she forgave anyone who displayed the slightest interest in reading or learning. She waived overdue fines for people she knew were struggling and possibly doubled them for people who were rude and obnoxious. She guided people towards books and DVDs she thought might interest them, and delivered books after hours to borrowers who were ill.
She formed two formidable library partnerships, first with Janice Coldebella from 1993 to 2004, when the library was in the old post office in Watt Street, and then with Colin Waring from 2006 to 2015.
Bernadette was delighted when the library shifted to its current home in Murray Street at the end of 2013. She was even more delighted at the way membership and usage has boomed and the library is now the busy hub of the town, filled not just with old codgers taking out books but with travellers, families and young people listening, laughing and learning in a multitude of ways.
In her 60s, she mused sometimes about giving up work but realised she would miss her colleagues and the borrowers, even the annoying ones, so rearranged her working life to make more time for three grand-daughters and travelling. In recent years she travelled solo to Japan, the US, Malaysia, Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. She seemed to be working her way through the “stans” before illness cut her short.
When Bernadette was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer last May, she declined all but palliative treatment, made little fuss and continued to find the world a fascinating place. She had so many hospital visitors that it was only after visiting hours that she could turn her attention to the pile of books, DVDs and CDs beside her bed.
Shortly before she died, she remarked to friends, “Wouldn’t it be good if we just got smaller and smaller until we disappeared.”
She disappeared from our view on September 11.
March 14, 2016
Brilliant story, thanks! (As ever!) I was delighted to find Bernadette was Tom Gannon’s daughter. I never met either, but he wrote the most touching obituaries in the Times-Sentinel (maybe not exact name) in the late 1970s - early 1980s. My work included reading South Gippsland local papers of the era, and I loved his work.
Rob Youl, South Melbourne
Thank you Catherine Watson. A beautiful story about a beautiful woman. The sadness may diminish with time but will never end.
Bob Middleton, Jeetho West
Such a beautiful telling, Catherine. You have done Bernadette and her library proud. This is two degrees of separation - when I was a fill-in journalist for the ABC newsroom in Sale, Tom Gannon was a great support and generous provider of stories for our news bulletins. A remarkable family.
John Gascoigne, St Kilda
Thank you Catherine for a sketch of Bernadette's full life. It made me regret that her no-nonsense presence in the library made me afraid to get to know her better. Sounds as if I have missed much.
Felicia Di Stefano, Glen Alvie