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Notable Residents: Hazel Edwards

This post is Part Five in a series on notable residents of Ashburton and its surrounds. See previous posts on guitarist Steve Connolly, conductor Denis Vaughan, foreign policy expert Allan Gyngell and his actor brother Kym, golfer Robert Allenby and education expert Professor Kwong Lee Dow.



"There's a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake" by Hazel Edwards.

At first glance, the name Hazel Edwards may not be immediately known to you. But if you had a child in your life at some point after 1980 then perhaps her book, There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake made it into your nightly reading schedule.


A whimsical story of a very unusual imaginary friend, “Hippo”, beautifully illustrated by Deborah Niland, sprung seven sequels. The books are so beloved that children write letters addressed only to “Hippo” in “Blackburn South” and they find their way to Hazel’s door via a smiling postal worker. Aside from numerous books for children and young adults, Hazel has also published on subjects ranging from managing housework to Australian history.


Hazel Edwards has lived in Blackburn South since 1974. But she grew up in Victory Boulevard, in the Alamein Housing Estate as Hazel Muir Moir.

Cover of Hazel's memoir

According to her memoir (available at Ashburton Library), Not Just a Piece of Cake: Being an Author, ‘My father was proud to own his own small home. Our garden was immaculate with flowers, vegetables and a silver fence he built. He converted the back shed into my ‘cubby’ with a window and wooden floor. The ‘cubby’ was the envy of local kids and it became play HQ. Early Sunday morning, I nearly burnt it down while illegally toasting marshmallows over a naked flame for the neighbourhood gang.’[1]


Hazel’s father David was an agnostic Scot, keen smoker and disillusioned socialist.[2] Although he spoke with a thick Glaswegian accent, he never mentioned his past in Scotland. He lived a nomadic life gold prospecting in the outback until he met Hazel’s Melbourne-born mother Grace while holidaying in the city. He was so secretive about his past that one day, when Hazel was around five, a representative from the Salvation Army turned up on the family’s doorstep. David had been listed as an international ‘missing person’. Reassured he was still alive, the Salvation Army person left. Years later Hazel discovered he had been a fiery, political activist who had gone overseas to ‘seek his fortune’. Feeling he had never really made it, he just … never talked about the past.


Hazel's childhood home on Victory Boulevard has long been demolished but the centre home is a similar style to hers.

Hazel’s parents never intended to have children. ‘My father thought it was unfair to bring a child into an unsafe world during WW2,’ wrote Hazel. Nevertheless, she was born in 1945. It must have been quite a time of upheaval for Grace. She was very risk adverse and ‘loved exaggerating potential disasters,’ Hazel wrote. ‘Her neighbours and friends were usually dependents with problems that made her feel needed.’


As both her parents worked, Hazel spent a lot of time at her grandparents house in Fakenham Road. ‘My Grandma taught me to read before I went to school,’ she told the Herald Sun in 2006. ‘Being able to read by myself meant I didn’t have to wait until my parents were free to read to me.’[3] She soon developed a voracious appetite for reading.


By age six, Hazel knew she wanted to be a writer. At Ashburton State School, ‘I can remember being disappointed with the first day at school because they wouldn’t let me take the new library books home.’[4]


Hazel as a child

‘I can also remember a Grade 2 teacher Miss Hugo yelling at me, accusing me of lying because I’d read all the beginners books in the classroom library,’ she wrote. ‘I remember her as an alarmingly large woman with a shelf of a bosom. When I was 17, I saw her on a city tram. I was taller than her and she was tiny; but still with a shelf-like bosom.’ The sighting did little to change Hazel’s childhood perception that Miss Hugo’s ample bosom hid the library books she wasn’t allowed to touch.


Incidentally, this is not the first time I’ve heard a story about Ashburton Primary’s terrifying Miss Hugo of Grade 2.

Miss Hugo’s ire did nothing to deter Hazel from reading. ‘I surreptitiously read under the bedclothes with a torch,’ she wrote. This would be the precursor to her lifelong habit of reading in the bath. In fact, the whole family read. ‘My mother read Mills and Boon romances, my father read philosophy in between the horse-racing guide. My grandfather read volumes of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and my Grandma read me Sunday School Prize books.’


Hazel was an only child. This, she determined later, ensured she made friends easily but could still use her enthusiastic imagination to entertain herself. Thanks to her father’s socialist principles, she grew up encouraged to play sport, read widely and to treat everyone from millionaires to workers equally.


Hazel’s secondary education proved volatile. She started at the now defunct Gardiner Central where she passed the entry test to the selective school MacRobertson High. But after an enjoyable term there, her father bought a general store in Carrum Downs. She started term 2 at Frankston High, ‘where everybody mucked around.’ When her father needed an operation, she moved in with her grandfather in Ashburton and attended Camberwell High before her father bought the Glengarry General Store near Traralgon.


In the close-knit small town, ‘I was considered a quiet outsider’, wrote Hazel. Fortunately, having some sporting aptitude goes a long way in an Australian school to cancel out any ‘weirdness’ floating around you, especially in a country town. Being tall, Hazel played defence in women’s basketball (netball) and this afforded her a semblance of a social life.


After a few years at Traralgon High, in 1961, the family moved back to the city. Hazel finished Year 11 back at Camberwell High. Although she wished to attend University, the expense of it was far beyond her parents’ means.


In early 1960s Melbourne, ‘author’ was not a common vocation, especially for girls. In those days, girls were expected to either marry, or become teachers or nurses until they got married. Hazel felt her limited academic options keenly. She half-heartedly took a position at a bank and paid for night school herself because the bank only subsidised the male employees. 


She proved a mediocre bank clerk but learnt the important skills of makeup, pop music, and where to ‘party’ from the other female bank clerks. Giving up on the bank, Hazel attended Toorak Teachers’ College and moved into teaching. 


Hazel with her father on her wedding day

In 1967, at age 21, Hazel Moir Muir married Garnet Edwards. The couple eventually moved to Blackburn South. Gough Whitlam’s education reforms opened University up to her. By the 1970s, social and cultural norms around women’s roles were rapidly changing and Garnet proved himself happy to embrace them. Hazel taught secondary school, lectured at teacher’s college, and studied at night. Then her first child arrived at 27.



Her writing ambitions had never died. ‘Male writers had wives to support their literary ambition and publicise their works while providing domestic back-up,’ she wrote. ‘It was acceptable for males to write as an occupation. But if you were female, how could you have a partner, a family, a job and write?’ With Garnet’s blessing and support, Hazel decided to give it a shot. 


Hazel drew on her experience in Traralgon running the store and the rich array of customers she encountered. General Store, her first novel for young people, was published in 1977 when she was 32. It tells the story of Josie, who moves from Melbourne to a small Victorian country town when her parents take over the run-down general store. The reviews were encouraging if dismissive.


‘She writes with an easy style and realistic dialogue,’ wrote Millicent Jones in the Canberra Times. ‘Her treatment of family tensions is extremely natural and convincing. Eleven- to twelve-year-old girls should enjoy the story well enough, even if it fades from memory pretty quickly.’[5] But General Store remains in print 45 years later.


The success of General Store inspired more young adult work. Then came books for younger children and in 1980, the seminal There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake.


‘Brief writing is the hardest,’ she wrote. ‘It’s only 404 words but its no piece of cake.’

With her career as an author now underway, Hazel stayed in the area over the years. In 1984 she was writer-in-residence at Alamein School then ran a children’s book writing course at Holmesglen TAFE for several years.


Hazel in 2015

These days, Hazel Edwards regularly weighs in on the public commentary surrounding cultural appropriation in literature and reading for young people.


“Her understanding of all the social distinctions that occur in schools and the community that can inhibit a child’s feeling of belonging are the strengths in her work,” wrote Carmel Dunstone of Newtown in response to one of Hazel’s articles in The Age.


“You have brought, and continue to bring, joy to all.”[6]



References


All black and white photographs courtesy of Hazel's memoir as per [1]

[1] Edwards, Hazel, Not Just a Piece of Cake: Being an Author (Melbourne: Brolga Publishing, 2015).

[2] Ibid.132

[3] "Book Mark with Author Hazel Edwards," Herald Sun, 3 June 2006.

[4] Not Just a Piece of Cake: Being an Author. 2

[5] "Nostalgic Images of Boyhood Experience," Canberra Times, 24 September 1977.

[6] "The Right to Speak for Our Own Communities: Cultural Appropriation," The Age, 13 February 2023.

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