Spending time in the company of Dorrigo resident Barbara Dowling (or ‘Binks’ as she is so affectionately known), one realises that the key to a long, interesting life is to be interested. Since a nasty fall at the end of 2019, Binks has been more confined to her ‘sitting room’ than she would like. But this confinement hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for life.
Chatting with Binks in said sitting room, I’m struck by the walls adorned with art and souvenirs from her multiple overseas trips, the pile of finished crosswords, the half completed 200 piece puzzle on the card table right next to her favourite chair, placed strategically to capture a view of her beloved garden and bird baths. “I’m now a birdwatcher. I have all my bird books right here for easy identification,” says Binks.
Binks celebrated her 97th birthday in February and what a life it has been. She was born in Port Moresby, but at the age of five was sent to live with her maternal grandmother on the 550-hectare family property ‘Kotupna’, near Ebor. “It was a very strange household. I lived there with my grandmother, her two brothers, two of my grandmother’s old aunts, one aunt, one uncle and two other young children, whose parents continued to reside in Shanghai. From the age of nine I was a border at PLC Armidale, but at 15 was sent home when my father died suddenly from pneumonia, only one year before the advent of penicillin, which meant the money had dried up.”
Being back on the family property meant farm chores. But it also meant time for exploration with drawing. “I developed a love for black and white sketching that has continued throughtout my life.” At that time Binks won a scholarship by correspondence for a commercial art role, but WW2 would provide a different path.
After losing two cousins, both pilots, during the early stages of WW2, Binks joined the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) in February 1943 at the age of 20. Her rank was Aircraftwoman and her muster was as a Recorder with the Air Defence Command in Townsville, which had experienced a number of Japanese air raids in July 1942. She served until October 1945 when she was discharged at RAAF Bankstown. For her service, she was awarded the Australian Service Medal 1939-45 and the War Medal 1939-45. “I formed such wonderful friendships during those years and we kept in touch for years. They have all gone to God now, all except me.”
An aptitude test after the war suggested nursing was Bink’s future. She began her training at the Royal Alexander Children’s Hospital in Camperdown. “I found the discipline extremely dfifficult. After wearing overalls for three years in the WAAAF, suddenly I’m being told no pants or jewellery and certainly no marriage for trainees. I chose marriage,” she giggles.
Binks and Ian settled on a farm in Musselbrook, then in 1965 shifted to a beef cattle property in Tyringham. “I felt like I had come home.” This marked the beginning of the couple’s extraordinary involvement in the Dorrigo community. “Ian was more interested in golf and the annual Dorrigo Agricultural Show. But for me it was gardening. I joined the gardening club. This was the most wonderful experience for me, meeting fellow garden enthusiasts and learning so much about flowers and garden design. I was taught flower and garden judging, which I continued for many years.” These days Binks can only tolerate short bursts in the garden, but calls these moments her therapy. “Everyone will have down moments. My suggestion is- go get gardening.”
In the 1970’s Binks had a radical mastectomy, which seems to have been the impetus to rekindle her art. “I joined an evening class in Dorrigo and loved it. The class developed together, with many tutors over the years. We would venture out into the countryside and paddocks and were taught how to capture what we saw. I’ve watch art change over the years. We were encouraged to paint what we see, now tutors encourage their students to paint what they feel.”
Binks and her fellow art students formed the very earliest incarnation of the Arts Council of the Dorrigo, and were responsible for creating the now famous Dorrigo Easter Art Show. However, despite her love affair with art, Binks put her brushes and pencils down in the mid 90’s to concentrate on a new project. “My children encouraged me to write my memoirs. They thought my life had been more interesting than the other mothers they knew.”
She joined a writers group in Armidale, who encouraged her newfound goal. “My life went from art to little notes stuck up all over my office. I couldn’t type, so my earliest drafts were scribbled by hand on large pads of paper, that I couldn’t even read. One of my sons lent me a computer and guided me by phone until I had mastered it. Another friend lent me his ‘how to touch type’ tape. Under the ruthless guidance of an English tutor at UNE, who was also a member of our writing group, I produced the final draft.”
‘For Crying Out Loud’- The Life and Times of Binks Turnbull Dowling was published in 1997. “Writing my memoir was a very emotional experience. It took me back into places I really didn’t want to go.” Interestingly, Binks has never returned to either writing or art since completing her memoirs. However, she does assure me her love of books and art has never floundered and she is still the sponsor of the Drawing Prize at the Annual Dorrigo Agricultural Show.
Binks and Ian finally retired from farming in 1998 and moved into Dorrigo. “This move allowed me to become more involved in the community.” And involved she became! She joined the Dorrigo RSL Sub Branch and has played an active part in all Sub branch activities since. She did make wreaths for every Anzac Day, is the Patron of the Sub Branch and has the honour of laying the Legacy Wreath on ANZAC Day each year. She also painted Calico wardrobe items for the Dorrigo Dramatic Club’s Shakespearean productions and continues to be a discussion leader of the Dorrigo Book Club.
Chatting with Binks, one realises that she values human connections above all else. She has maintained friendships from the many periods of her life, but these days she grieves the loss of so many. In fact it appears that loss is Bink’s stimulus for every major change in direction or interest. After the death of Ian in 2005, she became obsessed with old trains. “I have ridden all of the older trains across Australia, including the Ghan and the Indian Pacific.”
This is a life worth celebrating. A life full of intrigue, interest, achievement, commitment, service, grief and love. But most importantly, a life surrounded by her community.