21.11.14

Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean!


 Just look at this gorgeous thing, will you! (This is slightly premature, as it's not out in Australia just yet...)

It is a strange and wonderful object. I can almost guarantee you've never seen anything else like it. It's a collection of speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy), a glorious bundle of collaborations between Indian and Australian writers and artists. Each of us was paired with an artist or writer from the other continent. Each pair found their own way to work together -- through email or Skype, shooting messages back and forth.

I was lucky enough to be matched up with a wonderful artist called Priya Kuriyan (you can see some of her work here) and as it happens, the cover illustration is taken from an image in the story we created together. (If you click on the link, you will see another beautiful picture from our story, Swallow the Moon.)

The only other time I've worked in collaboration was when Penni and I wrote Dear Swoosie together. (I wrote about this a little while ago.) But I've never worked with an illustrator before. What I found weirdest, but most weirdly satisfying, was that as Priya's illustrations arrived, I was able to cut back on my words -- she was expressing what I'd written so beautifully that my descriptions became simply unnecessary. I think the final word count was about 25% of the original draft!

Another unexpected effect was that my story started out as quite a murky, depressing piece; but Priya's vision transformed it into the most beautiful, uplifting story.

I can't wait until you can all see this unique, extraordinary creation for yourselves. I'll let you know when it's available!

6.11.14

Warriors Challenge!

Evie was a little bit offended when she read my last-but-one blog post and saw my reference to 'those damn cat books,' ie Erin Hunter's Warriors series, which is probably singlehandedly responsible for her literacy skills at this point. I suppose Warriors have been to Evie what the Famous Five books were to me - compulsively readable, seemingly endless, slightly despised by smug adults.

So she's set me a challenge today - to write down everything I know about Warriors (without consulting Google!), and she will correct me with her own comments later today.
(Hello! I will be in bold because I said so. Time to see how much Mum got wrong!)
What I Know About Warriors
The Warriors are a collection of warring clans of wild cats, who live in the wilderness in an English-y landscape. One group live in the woods, one by the river, one on the moor etc, and they are named accordingly eg Riverclan, Windclan...um... Treeclan?? (I know that's not right.) (ThunderClan. Not TreeClan.) They fight over territory, but they do share a common mythology based around Skyclan, (StarClan, SkyClan is the fifth clan that were banished.) which is composed of the spirits of dead cats. When you die you join Skyclan, and you stay there as long as some living cat can remember you. After that, I don't know what happens. Maybe you get reincarnated? (Sometimes, yes.) Sometimes Skyclan cats communicate with living cats through dreams.

The individual clans are structured around a strict set of roles. Kittens are called 'kits' and are raised in the nursery by their mothers, the Queens. The Warriors hunt and fight. The young cats are apprenticed to particular warriors who teach them; during their apprenticeship, their names carry the suffix '-paw.' There is a Leader, and also a Medicine cat, who doesn't produce kits but devotes their life to healing (I think they also have the magic dreams.) (That's all true, good job!)

The cats have nature names: Brackenwing, Firestar, Fernwind, (Warriors aren't supposed to have names that contain things related to clan or sacred things) that kind of thing. A cat might start out as Foxkit, become Foxpaw as an apprentice, and finally be given the full name Foxtail.

Firestar was an important cat, maybe the founder of the clans, (He was a house cat who revealed Tigerstar's wanting to be leader and he defeated him. Well, technically Scourge did, but still.) some kind of hero anyway. Brightheart was a cat who was horribly scarred (when I started reading the story of Brightheart, A. refused to let us continue because she was so upset when the other cats were mean to her.) There was a blind kitten called (I think?) Jaykit. (Jayfeather.) Otherwise the fates of individual cats and their complicated inter-relationships escape me. Sometimes the clans are joined by former pet cats, known as 'kittypets.' These cats are distinguished by only having one-part names eg Daisy. (Actually, only some kittypets didn't change their names like Millie and Daisy.)

And I think that's all I know about Warriors!
(Mum, please actually listen to what I tell you, I talk about warriors every time I read it!)

30.10.14

The Book I Wish I'd Written

Several years ago, I started to think about a book I wanted to write. I wanted to set it in the marshes, that misty halfway territory, half-land, half-water; at the edges of things, with stretches of beach and sky, and mud and water. I wanted to write about loneliness and courage, stories and spells. I was going to include a blind person, and a dog, and a girl who doesn't know how brave she is… It was going to be eerie, and magical, silvery with moonlight and dreams, with ghosts and half-forgotten songs.

Well, in the writing, my book, as books often do, has turned into something quite different from that original conception. 

But Julie Hunt has written the book that I was dreaming of, all those years ago, and she's done it so much better than I ever could have. Song For A Scarlet Runner has been short-listed for every award there is, and deservedly so. This is a wonderful, rich and rewarding children's fantasy.

23.10.14

The Colours of Madeleine


I don't do many reviews of current books on this blog. I'm self-conscious about reviewing the books of authors I know (even though they are all GENIUSES). But I just can't bring myself to stay silent on these ones. Bonus: I've never met Jaclyn Moriarty, so I can talk about how clever she is without fear.

I absolutely adored these books, the first two volumes of the Colours of Madeleine trilogy (yay! still one book to look forward to!). They are fresh and funny, sweet and serious, fantastical and moving, both unexpected and plotted tight. For me, they fell in the sweet spot between children's and YA: smart and philosophical, but also magical and filled with wonder.

In A Corner of White, we meet 14 year old Madeleine Tully, who has run away from her dysfunctional father to live in a garret with her mother in Cambridge, England. And we meet Elliot Baranski, who has also lost his father, though under very different circumstances. Elliot lives in the small town of Bonfire, The Farms, in the Kingdom of Cello.

Elliot and Madeleine discover a crack between their two worlds, a crack just large enough for a letter to slip through. They begin an illicit correspondence (contact with the World is a capital offence in Cello). Cello is a world not unlike our own in many ways. But its seasons shift about from day to day; there is a Lake of Spells in the province of Magical North, and other, dangerous magic in the province of Olde Quainte, which has an irritating dialect all its own; and the population are at risk from random attacks of   Colours -- a sixth level Purple, for instance, or third level Red. But Elliot is searching for his vanished father, and he has other things to worry about…

I'm especially grateful to Jaclyn Moriarty, because A Corner of White was the first book I could persuade Evie to read to get her away from those damn cat books, and she loved it too. We raced each other to finish The Cracks in the Kingdom (I won, she is still going). Both volumes start off slow, but be patient. Moriarty is building a careful edifice of small pieces, and at the end you can only stand back and gasp at the perfect, utterly satisfying whole. There was a twist at the end of Book 2 which I might have been dumb not to foresee, but it gave me that wonderful jolt of happy surprise that the best books give you when you're young. Maybe that was why I loved these books so much; they recaptured for me, as so few books do these days, the utter delight and wonder of immersion in a new world. And now I'm all itching for volume 3.

Just read them!

20.10.14

The Drama of Football

Photo from Maribyrnong Leader
I think it's fair to say that some of my nearest and dearest (hello Mum...) have been bemused by my growing absorption in the world of AFL, and the Western Bulldogs in particular. And even though it's now technically the off-season, and there aren't even any games going on, the events of the past week or two have illustrated the roller-coaster experience of belonging to a football club.

It's all about the story.

It's been said (by Martin Flanagan I think) that sport is the purest form of drama - the enactment of a contest where character is displayed, or found wanting; where the outcome is thrillingly unknown; where the audience is emotionally invested in the twists and turns of the 'narrative' as the game plays out.

But lately, for my Bulldogs, all the drama has been off the field, and it was just as absorbing, just as emotionally wrenching, as any game could be.

The high point of the roller-coaster was set before the end of the AFL season proper, with the victory of the new Footscray team in the VFL Grand Final. It was the first grand final victory for a team called Footscray since our single premiership win in 1954, and the Bulldog faithful spilled onto the ground in jubilation to celebrate with our boys.

Within days, three members of that victorious team had been de-listed from the club. Not long after, the voluntary exodus of senior players began -- Higgins, Jones (a hero of the VFL victory), Brownlow-medallist Cooney, all looking for new clubs. We knew that there were rumours of trouble at the Kennel, that the end of season reviews between coach and players had been pretty brutal. But we were confident that our coach, Macca, with his reputation as a patient teacher, was on the right track. If some older players were disgruntled, well, maybe it was better if they moved on, and cleared the stage for the next generation.

But then came the bombshell. Thursday afternoon: Ryan Griffen announced that he wanted to leave, too. Griff, our captain, our best player, our leader, was jumping ship. And not even to a team at the top of the ladder -- he wanted to go to GWS, the no-hoper plastic love child of the AFL. It smacked of desperation -- he wanted to be anywhere but with us. Things must be very, very wrong.

We were still reeling from that news when the second bombshell dropped. Friday morning: Macca was gone. He'd 'resigned,' apparently convinced (or having been persuaded) that he no longer had the confidence of the majority of the players. Turmoil at the Kennel! Suddenly we had gone from a calm, steady, confident club -- not achieving well at the moment, but with a course for improvement mapped out ahead -- to a total basket case! No coach, no captain, players lining up to get out… What the hell was going on down there?

It was a sombre weekend. I listened to Brendan Macartney's dignified, philosophical interview on ABC radio and cried. I read and posted on the club forum obsessively, taking comfort from the shared anger and sorrow (and even pained laughter) of fellow fans. (Someone had named their dog Griffy -- what was he going to do now??) I couldn't see where we'd go from here.

Then on Monday morning, the roller-coaster took a dramatic swing upwards. The Bulldogs slapped down the gauntlet to GWS. You want our captain? You can have him -- but only if you give us Tom Boyd, your number one pick from last year. Boyd is a young gorilla, nineteen years old, the young power forward our side has been desperately seeking for years. (Our last top-class forward recruit was Chris Grant, in 1988.) Straight swap. How about that?

The boldness of it took our breath away. Then it got even better -- Boyd declared that he wanted to come to us! Suddenly we dared to dream again. Could it actually happen? Could we land this big fish, the missing piece of the puzzle? All week we seesawed between hope and incredulity. It couldn't happen -- GWS said they'd never let him go, under any circumstances. He was a number one pick, just last year, for heaven's sake!

But by the end of the week, the deal was miraculously done. We had lost Griff, lost Macca, and a handful of other players. But we had gained Tom Boyd for the red, white and blue: the Tominator, the Six Million Dollar Man, Major Tom, our own Tommy Boy.

So here we are, breathless and dazed, but starting, tentatively, to hope again. Up and down and up again, participants in a drama with its own wounded heroes, defiant rhetoric, valiant but untried knights,   silent and probably misunderstood traitors, bluster and bluff, enormous costs and potential for huge reward, an immense gamble, a future. And us -- the supporters, because we are part of the story too. Bruised from decades of disappointment, but daring to believe that success might be just around the next corner, that this might be the gamble that pays off.

How could anyone resist a story like that?

8.10.14

Streatfeild Unread!

I know it's boring, but this is what my copy looks like!
I thought I'd read everything Noel Streatfeild had ever written. Of course I've read my copy of Ballet Shoes to pieces, but over the years I've also collected and devoured White Boots (skating), Party Dress (patriotic fundraiser), A Vicarage Family (thinly veiled autobiography), The Painted Garden (film), The Children on the Top Floor (television), Dancing Shoes, Apple Bough, Far To Go, and more.

But imagine my surprise when I was at a beer barn in Brunswick St at the weekend and I spied among the decorative shelves of second hand books, a dull-looking little volume called The Children of Primrose Lane which I had never even heard of, let alone read…

My hard-bargaining husband negotiated for me to acquire it (they gave it to me for nothing :-)) and I started to read it straight away. quickly it became clear why I hadn't come across it before. It's not one of Streatfeild's ballet/show-biz titles; it's a war-time spy adventure story, with a gang of six children chasing a German spy across the countryside. Originally published in 1941, this edition dates from 1965 and includes a foreword from the author, explaining about gas masks, curfews and the danger of enemy parachutists in these early days of the war when everyone feared an invasion was just around the corner.

This kind of story is unusual for Streatfeild, and it's not her strongest work, though there are pleasures here in the treatment of the children's relationships with each other as they work together to trick and catch their spy. There are lots of disagreements, management of each other's awkward personalities, and inner doubts, fears and guilt -- it's not all straight heroics (though there are plenty of heroics, too!) It was obviously written as a morale-boosting, patriotic tale, and it's very much of its time.

I can't see it getting a reprint today. It's spoilt by way too much talk of suspicious foreigners, dirty gypsies, evil Germans with thick necks and the like, while the plucky British children save the day. Still, I'm not sorry to have it, though it's a most misleading title. It was published in the US as The Stranger in Primrose Lane, which is better. The plot is pretty clunky, too, but it's fun to read about a gang of kids who vanish for days on end to save their nation, with no more than a single phone call home to say, don't worry, we're fine… Have to say that wouldn't quite do the trick today!

1.10.14

Get Your Skates On!

Yesterday, because it's school holidays, we went ice skating at Docklands. It's the first time I've travelled through the Docklands by tram, and I was startled by how huge the area is. How did this whole massive section of the city spring up without my knowledge or consent? It wasn't a great place to be yesterday, with its howling winds, swirling dust and empty plazas. But the skating was fun! Someone in my family thinks she might like to take up lessons… someone used to love rollerblading (before she grew out of her rollerblades) and she flew across the ice with immense confidence, while others (me) inched around the edge, with grim determination rather than grace.

But it got me thinking about skating in literature, and here, in no particular order, are my favourite books with skating in them.


1. Winter Holiday, Arthur Ransome
My favourite Swallows and Amazons book involves no sailing at all. The Blacketts and Walkers, and new nerdy friends Dot and Dick, find themselves on an extended winter holiday due to the great good fortune of one of their number contracting mumps, which means none of them can go back to school. So, as you do, they mount an expedition to the North Pole… This requires lots of skating across the frozen lake, as well as igloo-building, fur hat and mitten-making, and sledging. The Ds gain entry to the expedition purely on the strength of their skating, because they are endearingly hopeless at just about everything else, which was a relief to me after the brisk competence of the Swallows and Amazons in the other books.

2. Tom's Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce
Though most of the book takes place in summer, the last section features a particularly cold winter, where the river freezes over, and Tom and Hatty skate home by moonlight together. This part of the novel haunted me, and the way in which Tom gets hold of skates to use gives us the biggest clue about the truth of the midnight garden, and Hatty's identity.

3. White Boots, Noel Streatfeild
From the author of Ballet Shoes comes another 'showbiz' story, with Streatfeild's characteristic eye for technical detail and shrewd psychological insights. It's the story of a friendship between rich Lalla, daughter of skating champions, whose aunt is determined she will follow in their footsteps… (skate tracks?); and the timid, poorer Harriet, who is instructed to take up skating to strengthen her after a long illness (hm, I wonder if any doctor today would issue the same prescription!) The see-sawing relationships between the girls, as Harriet at first idolises Lalla's skill, then matches, and at last overtakes her, are beautifully handled.

4. On the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder
Okay, it's not actually skating, because Laura and Carrie are just sliding on the frozen lake by moonlight (what is it about moonlight and skating? it's such a magical combination). They slide almost right across the lake before they notice, on the far bank, watching them in the moonlight, an enormous wolf… The girls turn and skate for their lives.

Now, that's an incentive to not fall over.

22.9.14

Footscray Wins the Flag!

The VFL flag, but still!

By First Dog On The Moon
The Footscray faithful turned out in force yesterday for the 2014 VFL Grand Final at Etihad between Footscray and the Box Hill Hawks. The crowd of 23, 816 (I think) was the largest for a VFL game in 25 years; it was 9,000 greater than last year's Grand Final between the Box Hill Hawks and Geelong, and I would estimate that 90% of the crowd were there for the Bulldogs.

Points to note:
1. This was Footscray's first year in the VFL competition with a stand-alone side. That's right, it was a first year team. All year, they had emphasised that the Footscray VFL side was there to promote the development of the AFL side, a place to play the youngsters and train them up; winning games was secondary. But we won 15 out of our last 16 games, finished the season second on the ladder, and now we are VFL Premiers! What an extraordinary achievement.

2. Western Bulldogs/Footscray haven't won a premiership of any kind since 1954. There's been one other reserves victory, and the pre-season comp a few years ago, but otherwise the cupboard is bare. Most of the supporters in the crowd yesterday have never seen their team in a Grand Final, let alone winning one. Is it any wonder that people were crying? (Not me. Well, maybe just a little bit.)

3. It was a great game of football. The Hawks were three goals up at one stage; the lead kept changing hands. But the final quarter was a blinder. The Hawks were hamstrung by injuries to a couple of players (no subs at VFL!) and Cyril Rioli, their superstar, was pulled off at three quarter time in case Hawthorn want to play him next week in the Really Big Final. And the Footscray boys went beserk! We kicked three goals in three minutes to draw level, then three more to seal the victory. (Liam Jones, we never doubted you!) The crowd were on their feet, pushing Footscray home by sheer force of will and rowdy noise.

4. At the end of the game, the crowd spilled onto the ground. It's safe to say that they were a pretty happy bunch. It was wonderful to part of such a big, joyful mass of people.

5. I don't give a rats who wins next week. That's my year in football over. But wow, what a way to end it.

11.9.14

Book Parade

It's not as if we didn't have plenty of notice. The newsletter came home weeks ago, advising us about the Writers' Festival, and the date of the Book Parade.

-- So, who do you think you might dress up as?
-- Leafpool, from Warriors.
-- Which one is Leafpool, again? Is she the healer cat?
-- Medicine cat. She's a brown tabby.
-- Couldn't you be a grey cat? We have loads of grey clothes, that would be easy. You've got those grey tracksuit pants.
-- No, Mum. Leafpool is brown.
-- But couldn't you be a different cat? Aren't there any grey cats in Warriors?
-- I don't want to be one of the grey cats! I want to be Leafpool!
-- Okay, okay.

Weeks pass.
-- We should start thinking about your costume. Book Parade is next week.
-- Yes, you need to buy me some brown tracksuit pants and a brown top.
-- Well, I'd rather not buy new stuff if possible. Anyway, brown is out of fashion, it'll be hard to get... Why don't you be one of the grey cats? Or a wolf? You could wear your wolf hat.
-- I'm sick of wearing my wolf hat. I want to be Leafpool from Warriors.
-- But we don't have any brown clothes. Couldn't you be a human book character? Let's try and think of someone. Ramona? Laura Ingalls? Matilda?
-- I hate Matilda. Maybe I could be Camilla, from Life in Outer Space. I like her, she's nice, she's cool.
-- Oh, good. Be Camilla. Great.

-- Book Parade is in two days, have you organised your costume yet? What does Camilla wear?
-- I don't want to be Camilla any more.
-- Oh, no!... I mean, really? Who do you want to be then?
-- I don't know.
-- Let's get the dress-ups down from the attic and see if that gives us any ideas.

-- No. Nothing here. None of these.
-- A gypsy skirt? A white cat? A detective?
-- No. I've decided. I definitely want to be Leafpool.
-- But we don't have any brown clothes! It's too late to run around and buy stuff now! Why don't we we pretend that Leafpool is grey.
-- No. I've told loads of people I'm going to be Leafpool, and Leafpool is brown.
-- But no one else knows what colour the Warrior cats are!
-- Sarah knows! Felix knows! Leafpool is a BROWN TABBY.
-- But you don't have anything brown... Okay, don't have a meltdown. I'll go to Savers today and look for brown clothes there. Oh! I just remembered! Look, here's my brown hoodie, you can borrow that.
-- Thank you, Mum. And if there's nothing at Savers, we'll go to Northland.
-- Hm. We'll see. I'd rather not. Let's see what's at Savers first.

-- Okay, I found these lovely brown cord pants at Savers, the only brown kids pants in the whole of Savers. And this scarf, I can make that into a tail. And I spent all day cutting out bits of cardboard and gluing on scraps of brown cloth out the rag bag and trying to stick them to this headband, for ears.
-- These pants are too small. I'm not going! I don't want to go, I never wanted to go, I'm not going!
-- You have to go! You're giving a speech at the opening! And it's TOMORROW.
-- I don't care, I'm not going!
-- Here's my old brown skirt, why don't you wear that instead?
-- Cats don't wear skirts!
-- But Leafpool is a girl cat... and we don't have anything else...
-- I don't care, I'm NOT GOING.
-- Okay, get in the car, we're going to Northland.

There are no brown pants at Best & Less. No brown pants at Target. No brown pants at KMart. No brown pants in the whole of Northland.
-- When I grow up, I'm going to open a shop that has just brown clothes.
-- Brown is out of fashion at the moment. I did warn you...
-- What about people who like brown? There must be brown somewhere.
-- Fashion doesn't work like that. They don't give people what they want, they give you what they want to sell you...
-- Can you ask?
-- If there were any brown clothes, we would have found them by now.
-- Just ask, Mum!
-- Excuse me, do you have any brown clothes?
--
-- It's for a costume...
--
-- No brown clothes.

-- Okay, I guess I'll have to wear the skirt. With white leggings and white socks, because Leafpool has white paws.
-- Okay. Here's your tail, I've sewn up that scarf for you.
-- Thanks, Mum.

-- Mum, these ears won't stick to the headband! Mum, can you plait my hair in a fancy way like Elsa from Frozen? Mum, this hoodie is HUGE. Mum, the skirt is falling down! Mum, how can I tie the tail on? Mum, help! Mum...
-- School starts in half an hour! I don't have time for this! There's the doorbell, your friend is here.

The friend has dressed as... a school girl. Shirt, tie, skirt, tights. Simple.
They go off to the parade together, chatting.

About books.

18.8.14

Landscapes of Childhood

Recently I read The Cartographer, by Peter Twohig, a kind of Boys' Own adventure set in (and under!) the streets of Richmond in the late 1950s. The eponymous 11 year old hero makes maps of his world: dangerous houses, enticing warehouses, mysterious tunnels, haunted parks. I tried to match up his maps to satellite maps of present-day Richmond, without much luck; but a 1977 Melways directory provided more clues. I found the power station, the factories and tram depots that the Cartographer described -- all gone now.

Coincidentally, one of the next books off my pile happened to be Deborah Forster's The Book of Emmett, and while the tone this time is darker and more adult, the decade the 1970s, and the suburb Footscray, the theme of a remembered Melbourne childhood continued. Perhaps because the setting was more recent, I recognised more landmarks: the Western Oval, the narrow streets of Footscray, the Chinese restaurant Poons where I've had lunch.

Last week Michael went for a wander around Cheltenham, the suburb of his 1970s childhood, and found lots of changes. The old tip is now a housing estate, the sprawling streets were he played cricket with neighboring kids seemed shorter, the shops he remembered had merged into each other or disappeared.

And then yesterday we drove through the Melbourne University precinct and I didn't recognise it. All these big new buildings, the Business School and the blocks of student apartments -- the shabby streets of my university days have all but gone. It doesn't take long for an urban landscape to alter utterly. And then the only places we can find those landscapes in is our memories and our dreams; or in the pages of other people's books.

7.8.14

Going to the Footy, Old Style

There are many ways of experiencing a football match. In the few brief years that I've been a Western Bulldogs member, I've seen our team play many times in a half-empty, roofed stadium. Sometimes I've been in a big group of extended family; once or twice, I've sat alone. It's not always a soul-less, depressing experience; a few weeks ago, I was perched above an astonishing goal from wunderkind Marcus Bontempelli, and the whole crowd rose to their feet as one, cheering. Late last year I was present during a regrettable (ahem) melee when a spine-tingling chant slowly growled from the crowd: Bull...dogs...Bull...dogs... We don't do that a lot; it was spontaneous, thrilling, tribal.

I've also seen the Doggies play in the tropical warmth of the Gold Coast, the bitter chill of a Canberra winter, and at the icy Hawks fortress of the Launceston ground. I've seen footy at the MCG (not often, and a long time ago, when we still played finals occasionally), and even, in ancient days, once, at Waverley (my first footy game, St Kilda versus someone, and mist hid the play on the other side of the ground). I've watched matches on TV, in the comfort of my lounge room, where I can swear and pace up and down and even run to another room if the strain proves too much. I've listened to games on the radio, busily scrubbing down the kitchen cupboards to calm my nerves. I've hunched over games on the tiny screen of the iPad, sitting in bed, squinting at the poor resolution and hoping my fellow spectator won't lose his temper and hurl the device across the room.

But I have a new favourite way to watch football: the old-fashioned way. This year the Western Bulldogs have started their own VFL team, and they play some of their games at the Bulldogs home, the Whitten Oval in the heart of Footscray (the team is called Footscray, too). Last Sunday we went along. The sun was shining; we took a picnic rug and sat on the grass in the forward pocket (see above). We ate gourmet hot dogs and chips, bursting out of a paper bag -- twice the amount and half the price you'd pay at Etihad. At half time, kids and parents rushed onto the oval and footies flew in all directions. We took the dog, and walked her around the ground, and she made friends with other dogs. There were two or three thousand people there -- enough to hear a decent roar when a goal went through, not so many that you felt cramped or overwhelmed. An injured Bulldogs player hobbled up the hill on crutches and sat on the grass behind us (he signed our football). It was intimate and friendly, relaxed and fun.

And suddenly I understood: this is what football used to be like, before the corporates got hold of it. This is what everyone is nostalgic for! But you don't have to be nostalgic: because it's still there.

NOTE: I planned to write this post all week. But quite coincidentally, last night I started to read The Book of Emmett by Deborah Forster. And lo, it's set in Footscray. The very first scene takes place in the shadow of the Whitten Oval! Synchronicity strikes again.

1.8.14

Heidi

Inspired by my fellow book group member, Judy, who was exuberant about her recent re-reading of Heidi, I dug out the copy I acquired years ago and I've started re-reading it myself, simultaneously reading it aloud to my older daughter (she seems to like it so far).

Sometimes it feels as if my reading diet consists of torrid YA, pretentious literary fiction and ponderous non-fiction. Reading Heidi is like taking a draught from a refreshing Alpine stream, or a nourishing bowl of fresh goat's milk.

But I have to confess that my love of Heidi originates from a less-than-pure source. I didn't read the original (in translation) until I was an adult. The Heidi I adored was actually a Little Golden Book, which I think might have been based on the Shirley Temple movie version -- looking at Heidi's very inauthentic golden curls in the illustrations*, I suspect this may have been the case! The Heidi of the Johanna Spyri book is dark-haired and lively, while Clara is fair and languid.
There were two elements of the LGB version of Heidi that particularly appealed to me, and perhaps this   shows what a sedentary child I was. The first thing was Heidi's dear little bed in the hayloft; the other was Clara's couch (Clara being too feeble to walk). By a happy chance, my grandmother had a chaise longue in her house which was exactly the same shape as Clara's. One of my favourite games was to drape a blanket over my legs and pretend to be Clara. Ah, bliss, to lie on a couch all day and read!
The absolute simplicity of Heidi's life with the Alm-Uncle, their sparse possessions, and the beauty of their mountain home, is still wonderfully appealing. There is part of me (the part that goes to yoga camp) that loves the idea of living in a cottage halfway up a mountain, with only wildflowers and goats and the wind for company.

But I bet I wouldn't like it much when it snowed.

* By Corinne Malvern, according to Professor Internet

24.7.14

The End of Orange?

We went to Smiggle yesterday, and all the orange product was shunted away into a corner, and it was 60% off. Call me suspicious, but my first thought was, I hope they're not phasing out orange...

My second thought was, oh, good, we can stock up on some cheap orange stuff for someone in our house whose favourite colour is orange.

IF it's true, and Smiggle are planning to stock orange product no more, then I'm sad. The orange range, adorned with lions (and sometimes robots) was relatively gender-neutral, bright and cheery. Removing the orange product entrenches the stark gender division in the rest of the store, with pink/purple/pale blue on the girly side, and stark black and green on the boys' side (just in case you're a girl who likes green, the green range has been coded "not for girls" by the inclusion of tough skull-and-crossbone motifs, soccer balls, and boys playing guitars).

Why are there no yellow or red ranges in Smiggle? Too hard to code as "male" or "female"? Why not put animals on them, or fruit, or balloons?

I'm sure Smiggle would say (IF it's true) that the orange range probably sold less than the traditional "girly" colours. Maybe it was seen as too boyish for most girls, and too girly for most boys. But its removal just takes away another option for those kids who aren't that interested in stark gender signals -- and kids, like mine, who just like orange.

17.7.14

Collaboration

As far as my writing is concerned, I've always been a bit of a lone wolf. I'm shy about sharing my work in progress. I've never belonged to a writing group. I feel slightly baffled by those acknowledgments in the backs of novels that thank people for reading first drafts. Huh? You showed a first draft to an actual reader? Before it was a real book? Crazy, man!

So I was pretty nervous, as well as excited, at the idea of co-writing a YA novel with someone else, even if that someone else was a good friend and someone whose writing I love and respect enormously. Actually, that's probably exactly why I was so nervous! But the Girlfriend Fiction series needed a title at short notice, and Penni Russon and I offered to step into the breach.

We ended up producing Dear Swoosie at record speed. We sat at my dining table and threw around some ideas, then refined them with lots of emails and phone calls, until we'd nutted out a proper chapter outline and worked out our respective characters: flaky, self-proclaimed psychic India for me; smart, brittle Poppy for Penni. We'd agreed early that the story would be written in two voices, in alternating chapters; but we didn't realise we'd end up with four voices, because the middle chunk of the book is an exchange of letters between the girls' two mothers, Sarah and Mandy, which we wrote parallel with the main story.

But of course, if you're writing about two characters who are thrown together and gradually become friends, you can't just write your own person. It wasn't till I sat down to actually write the first India chapter that it dawned on me that I'd have to write dialogue for Poppy too. Yikes! I was a bit scared of Poppy. It was daunting to put words into her mouth, and then offer up those words to Poppy's creator… Penni and I gave each other editorial control over each other's characters, in case we didn't feel comfortable with words or actions that the other writer had given them; but I don't think we ever needed to exercise it. Penni did chide me once (deservedly) because I had accidentally left Poppy out of a crucial conversation toward the end, and I corrected some minor technical errors in a tarot reading, performed by India but described by Poppy. But otherwise the process was very smooth.

I wrote the first chapter in a google document, and emailed Penni to tell her when it was ready. Then she would get back to me with any comments or questions, and then a few days later, there would be an email from her to say that her chapter was up. We wrote fast, because we knew that the other person was waiting; but we couldn't prepare too far ahead, even sticking to our chapter outline, because there were always little details about the way the other had resolved a situation, lines of unexpected dialogue, unanticipated poignant moments, that would affect how the next installment unfolded. It was a perfect mixture of surprise and security, knowing where the story was headed, but never knowing what the scenery would look like along the way (or what might jump out of the bushes!) In retrospect, it kept the writing very fresh; it kept us on our toes. It was almost like living out the story while we were writing it.

In keeping with that feeling, we found that we had to sort of stay in character during our dealings with each other. We almost stopped talking or emailing, except for Swoosie stuff. One day we went op-shopping together, and Penni pointed out that the clothes I'd bought really belonged to India (eg a long purple velvet skirt… now in the dress-up box! Oh well…) When Mandy and Sarah had their big falling-out, and we had to write each other emotional letters explaining why we couldn't be friends any more, Penni and I upset ourselves so much we had to jump on the phone to check: 'We're okay, aren't we?' My stomach churned; I didn't sleep well for a few days. It had all become a bit too real…

But overwhelming, my memories of writing Dear Swoosie are of how much fun it was to share the creation of the story, the making-up-ness, with someone else. I would check my emails twenty times a day to see if Penni had sent the next chapter yet, and when it came I would read it and double up laughing. When the whole novel was done, Penni and I feverishly planned a whole series of Swoosie sequels: India going in search of her long-lost father, Poppy and India travelling overseas, Poppy and India starting university, moving into a share-house…

Maybe we will still write them one day.

10.7.14

Writing Blackadder

Not long ago, we bought the final series, Blackadder Goes Forth, the one set during the First World War, having realised that neither Michael nor I had ever seen the whole thing, despite Michael being such a WWI buff and me being such a Brit-com addict. Also, we reasoned, it would be educational for the girls… (And at least one of them loved it, and caught up with seasons two and three on iView, or maybe it was Youtube.)

So having been reminded how clever and funny Blackadder was, when I saw this book at the library I couldn't resist it. And it was, on the whole, an interesting read, though slightly burdened in places with a weight of crushing detail about the careers and relationships and true histories of everyone who ever walked onto the Blackadder set. (It was sad, and disconcerting, to read about the late lamented Rik Mayall in the present tense.)

But there was heaps to enjoy. I liked the story about the day that Rowan Atkinson stepped out of the dressing-room in full Elizabethan regalia for the first time, and the women in the studio were taken aback, and murmured to each other, 'Wow… he's actually quite, you know, sexy…' which was exactly the way I felt about Elizabethan Blackadder, too! Something about the combination of the ruff, the pearl earring and the curled lip just worked for Rowan Atkinson the way nothing else ever quite has…

And there were juicy details about the writing process. Just about every actor in the ensemble was also a writer, and they all felt they had something helpful to contribute to the script, which could be agonising. Apparently the character of Captain Darling was originally a colourless, flat character called Cartwright and Tim Mcinnerny complained that even his name was boring; it was someone's suggestion, during rehearsals, that he should be called 'Darling' which brought the character to full, twitching, resentful life.

It was a reminder of how much fun, and how productive, collaborative writing can be. Hm, perhaps there's a blog post in that!