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.



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.


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!



My clever younger daughter made this iPhone cover for me. She found a Youtube tutorial to give her the basic shape, but she made up the rainbow pattern all by herself. It's a fantastic cover - light, bright and flexible, and if you drop it, it bounces! (I haven't dropped it from a great height though…)

It took three days to make, and she was quite apprehensive before it came off the loom, in case it all unravelled before our eyes (we have had previous catastrophes with fancy bracelets); this was the most complicated thing she's tried to make, and the most nerve-wracking. But it was extracted from the loom without incident, and it works perfectly. She was very proud of herself, and so she should be.



I started this blog, in a nervous and tentative fashion, back in 2008. This week it registered its 100,000th visitor.

I have no idea if that's a lot or pitifully few, but it feels like a lot to me! That's a full-to-capacity MCG. If I had a dollar for every pageview... well, I'd be very happy. But I'm happy anyway, even without the dollars.

I know people say that blogs are dead, that it's all happening on Instagram and Twitter. But I don't like change, and I'm comfortable with my sporadic blog activity and my Facebook browsing. Once I'm in a groove (you could even say -- ahem! -- a rut) it take a lot to budge me out of it.

So this humble blog is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Even if no one is looking.


Books I've Bought This Week

I've bought three books in the past week.

First was Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon. I mentioned a while ago that I was craving some non-fiction and this book (recommended by my friend Kirsty) is fulfilling that need perfectly. Solomon examines the stories of parents and children who are very different from one another, where the children partake of what he calls a 'horizontal identity' -- one that, unlike ethnicity or religion, is not inherited from family. He examines ten of these horizontal identities, some innate, others acquired. So far I've read the chapters about deafness, dwarfism and Down Syndrome. It's fascinating, moving and very readable stuff.

It seems to be becoming a pattern that I'll purchase these sorts of chunky non-fiction titles on e-book -- easier to handle, physically, and much cheaper. I bought Far From the Tree for a third of the price I would have paid for the paperback version, a sixth of the price of the hardback. I do still wish I could have the physical copy on my shelf, to lend out, or to flick through; but I fear those days are gone.
Up to page -- who knows?? But about THAT much through...
 My second purchase was made on-line - via Readings, my favourite local new-books bookshop. I ordered it on Thursday, and it just arrived at my door a few minutes ago. It's a book I found out about at book group (the second, informal book group I discussed in my last post) and I'm reluctant to mention exactly what it is, because it's a birthday present for a forthcoming birthday and there's just a chance that the recipient will see it here. So mum's the word for now…

My third purchase for the week was very much an impulse buy. I'd popped into Brown and Bunting, my favourite local second-hand bookshop, on High St in Northcote, just because I was in the area and I hadn't been in for a while, and even though I didn't really have time to browse properly (or at all, actually…), I just can't walk past without doing a pop-in, however brief and token. I was in a hurry, and not looking properly, but this book did catch my eye: The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford. It's the story of two dogs and a cat who make their way home through three hundred miles of Canadian wilderness, written in 1960 and apparently made into a Disney movie a few years later (though I've never seen the film version). I remember reading this at primary school, and it wasn't really my cup of tea -- I was easily bored with animal stories -- but I thought it might be to the taste of my younger daughter, who won't read anything BUT animal stories (and Harry Potter). At $5, I thought it was worth a punt.
1964 edition -- older than me!
 It wasn't until today that I realised that none of these books was bought -- technically -- at a new-book bookshop. Once upon a time, that was the only place I would ever buy books -- from Readings in Carlton, or the Brunswick St Bookstore. But I just don't have the leisure, or the funds, any more, for hours of browsing. I have to be quickly in and out; or else I don't want to risk wads of cash on an unknown title. The way I buy books have drastically shifted in the last fifteen years.

Me, and everybody else in the world, I guess.


Books in Company

I belong to two book groups. Though both groups focus on children's and young adult literature, they are set up quite differently.

The first group I joined meets once a month, and we read three texts for each meeting: a picture book, a junior fiction title, and a young adult book. Once a year we select themes for forthcoming meetings, so from month to month we might read books on Steampunk, or Humour, or Witches, or Hamlet. Typically, our group of ten or so has a lively discussion on the merits and faults of the books we've read (one person agrees to facilitate, and guides our debate, and shares useful research they've discovered), and then we adjourn for a big chatty lunch. It's been fascinating to compare the way that the same theme is tackled in books for different age groups -- for example, the War books varied hugely in their approach, in interesting ways. Often, different members of the group will express wildly differing opinions on each book: someone loathes fantasy, someone else loved the language in this novel but disliked the storyline, another enjoyed the story but found the language pretentious. We have great arguments.

The second group I belong to is much more casual. We meet only every six weeks, and there are no set books; instead, we bring along any kids' or YA books we've read lately, and tell the others what we thought of them. Sometimes this leads to several members reading the same book, one after the other, as the volume is lent around, but usually we've all read different things. They might be brand new discoveries, or old favourites, or books that were overlooked when they were first published.

Both groups have led to my reading books I wouldn't otherwise have picked up. My knowledge and appreciation of picture books, especially, has grown immensely. I love being part of both groups, and the discipline of belonging to a group has kept me focused on my reading, and forced me to think more critically about what I read, which is a Good Thing.

 But mostly I'm just grateful to have met the wonderful, clever, generous, interesting ladies who comprise both these groups, and to be able to call them my friends. To those fabulous women (and you know who you are): thank you.


Who's the Boss?

So APPARENTLY (I haven't seen it yet) there's a scene in the latest season of Mad Men where Don and Peggy end up slow dancing together…

That's all I know. It might, or might not, be a sign of developing romance between them -- we all know that they already respect and love each other, and have done for years. They've been through a lot together, and they understand each other better than anyone else does. But does this mean they should end up together?

In the real world, hell yes. In the world of Mad Men, definitely not.

I don't care if this is what Matthew Weiner has been planning since Day 1. However much the writers, and we, the viewers, might long for an outcome where Peggy and Don walk off into the sunset hand in hand, the writers have a more important obligation - to the integrity of the story. And it would be simply wrong for Don and Peggy to get a straightforward happy ending. It would go against everything that the Mad Men universe has come to stand for. Over the last six seasons, we've learned that (inside this story world, at least) people don't get what they want; they don't want what they get; life is not easy and dreams don't come true.

Sometimes you can't just push your characters around, no matter how much you might want to. Sometimes they just stand there and shake their heads and say, no, I don't think so. You can push them and pull them and prop them into position, but they just won't cooperate; the story doesn't work. Because it isn't true. It jars with the rules of the story you've created.

I'm sorry, Peggy and Don, but this might be one of those times. And I suspect Matt Weiner knows that too.


A Break In Transmission

My hospital was not quite as gorgeous as this, but it was pretty nice. I had a room to myself, and a window, and deft and attentive nurses -- and let's face it, that's all you need, really. (And maybe some painkillers.)
Things have been quiet on this blog lately. There is a reason for this. Not long, ironically, after writing a  post about the delights of writing in bed, I found myself in hospital for a week, mostly in bed, and then recuperating quietly at home, which has also involved a lot of bed and couch time. Talk about being careful what you wish for…

It seems I'm not the only person in this position. I concur with Michelle that what you want when you're not feeling well is something fairly light to read; for me, that was the Agatha Christie compendium that I had fortunately acquired not long before I ended up in hospital. I can also recommend New Scientist magazine, kindly supplied by my friend Elizabeth, which was the perfect blend of interesting longer articles and fascinating snippets of science-y news.

Since I came home, I've been reading steampunk books in preparation for my next book group session on that theme. But I must admit to feeling a certain restlessness with my reading matter. And I think I've worked out what the problem is. You see, I like to keep my reading material in a fairly even balance of YA/kids books, adult fiction, and non-fiction books. Looking back over my reading diary, I see that I have been reading nothing but fiction for some months. Clearly I'm in need of a shot of non-fiction!

A visit to the library is clearly in order. Unfortunately I'm not allowed to drive just yet, and I don't feel quite strong enough to walk there. I'll just have to wait for someone to drive me...


Writing in Bed

Photo by Annie Leibowitz
Marcel Proust did it. So did George Orwell, and Winston Churchill, and Truman Capote. Also Edith Wharton (as recreated in the above photograph), and Nancy Mitford wrote all her letters first thing in the morning, before getting up.

Over the school holidays just gone, I got into the habit of staying in bed for a couple of hours and working. Daughter no. 1 was still asleep, daughter no. 2 would get herself some breakfast and happily occupy herself on the computer, so I could often count on a good two or three hours of uninterrupted time to bash out a few hundred words, or prepare a writing workshop, or even write a blog post. Then I could get up, with almost the whole day ahead of me, and the lovely virtuous feeling that I'd already been productive.

So this morning, first day back at school, I'm trying to recreate this useful habit. I'm not sure if it's going to work quite as well when I've been up for two and a half hours, showered, taken the dog for a walk and seen everyone off to work and school before I hop back into bed. I suspect part of the success of this technique depends upon the writing being the first thing I do, rather than making lunches, buttering toast, nagging about runners for PE, brushing hair, shooing the dog outside, getting dressed, etcetera, etcetera. But I'm prepared to trial the going-back-to-bed variation for a while and see how it works.

So far I've written a blog post. No progress on the novel yet. But we shall see.

I suppose the other alternative might be to wake up early, say 5.30am, haul the laptop into bed with me and work for and hour and half or so until it's time to start all the other morning stuff. But my husband might object to that. I can't find any evidence of what the above-mentioned writers' spouses might have thought of their writing-in-bed habit. Hm, now that I think about it, quite a few of them were single… I'm sure that's just a coincidence!


Girls' Stuff, Boys' Stuff *UPDATED*

We are looking at buying a bike for our soon-to-be ten year old daughter. This is the kind of option we have to choose between -- a dark, hard, 'masculine' boys' bike, or a prettified, frou-frou, pink and purple, flowery 'girls' bike. There seems to be no middle ground, no bicycle choice for a girl who might not like pink and 'girly.'

Even a dozen years ago, when my first daughter was born, things weren't this bad. Every damn thing seems to be genderfied these days. There's nothing neutral: bathers, building blocks, bicycles, guitars, are all aggressively gender-coded. I realise this is hardly an original observation but I feel increasingly exasperated every time I step into a shop. What kind of a gender panic is gripping our society, when every children's purchase has to be unambiguously labelled 'for males' or 'for females' only?

The last straw was when Evie saw a top she really wanted -- a black, long-sleeved top with a Tardis on the front. And it was in a box, labelled BOYS TOP. Not 'Child's Top' or just 'Size 12 Top.'

BOYS TOP. There were no GIRLS tops.

Fortunately Evie didn't care. She wears that top just about every day. Don't they know that girls love Dr Who, too?

Evie informs me that there are also gendered toy crossbow/bow and arrows available! Boys get a green and black 'Zombie Attack' nerf crossbow, to wipe out all those apocalyptic zombies and save the world. But girls get a pink-and-purple 'Rebelle' (nicely feminine) 'Heartbreaker' (!!) bow and arrow, so they can… break hearts? Play Cupid? Seriously, I am speechless.


Gulag Primary

We live near our primary school, about as near as we could be without actually camping in the grounds. We open the back gate into the laneway and the school is just on the other side of the fence. I'm the first to admit the convenience of this arrangement. If we're running late in the morning, a child can climb the low fence and sprint straight to class. At home time, I stand just outside out the back gate with the dog and wait for my offspring to come running across the playground. While I wait, I see the other laneway regulars -- families who live in the streets nearby, who use the alley as a shortcut. We smile and chat, and the dog runs to greet them.

Now I hear that there are plans afoot to build a new fence along the alleyway -- an eight foot high fence, impossible to climb. The neighborhood families will no longer be able to use the north fence as a handy shortcut; we will all have to walk the long way round. I could live with that, if there was a good reason for building a dirty great high security fence; but there isn't.

The reason, apparently, is 'safety.' Whose safety? Are they worried about children injuring themselves as they scramble over the fence? That doesn't seem to be the problem. No, 'safety' is, as is often the case in these situations, code for 'predators.' It seems there are concerns (whose concerns?) that the low fences of our primary school attract paedophiles, who lurk in the alleyway waiting to catch a child clambering over the fence and whisk them away. It's odd that in all the afternoons I've spent waiting for my children to come home that way, I have yet to set eyes on any suspicious characters; instead I see other parents, my neighbours, older siblings, schoolkids, walking home.

It's not huge high razor-wire fences that keep our communities safe. What keeps us safe is connections. Recognising and greeting each other every day; exchanging a few words of gossip, and a pat for the dog; holding someone's baby or their plate of cupcakes while they scramble over the fence; kids being able to say, 'That's Evie's mum,' and giving me a wave when they see me walk past.

If that fence goes up, I will not be happy. Not only is it a massive, unnecessary waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere (literacy support, anyone?)


Reading Newspapers

I love the Saturday newspaper (The Saturday Age, to be clear). I love sleepily wandering out in my dressing-gown to collect the two plastic-wrapped tubes off my garden path. I love peeling off the gladwrap. I love making my ritual Saturday morning pot of loose leaf English Breakfast tea. I love separating out the sections of the paper I'm interested in from the sections I don't care about.

I love carrying out the good bits of the paper and the pot of tea to the table on the deck (weather permitting) in the cool quiet early morning. First I read the Sports section, for football news and analysis (though as my team seems to be permanently relegated to Sunday twilight games, there's rarely anything to read about them). Next I peruse Domain, for real estate porn and architecture. Then comes Spectrum (which used to be A2). I skim the book section, so I know what I've got to look forward to, and read the publishing industry gossip column. Then I do the general knowledge crossword (with a little help from my friend Google; fifteen years ago I had an encyclopedia, a dictionary of quotations, an atlas, and sundry other reference books to assist me.)

By now I've drunk my tea and I'm ready for a short break -- hang out the washing, make some toast -- then back to Spectrum. By the time I've finished that, Michael will be up and making my coffee, and over coffee we will do the Good Weekend quiz. After that, scattered through the day, I'll read the news section, and then Insight, and by the end of the afternoon I will have finished Good Weekend.

It makes me very sad to think that in a few years, this whole weekend ritual might be a thing of the past, as newspapers migrate wholly online or disappear altogether. Because it just won't be the same. I read the paper online during the week, but nothing matches the anticipation of all the neatly folded sections piled beside my elbow, a feast of information ready to be consumed at my leisure, to the tune of birdsong and the aroma of English Breakfast tea.


Life After Harry?

We have a read-aloud crisis looming. At the moment, I'm reading Prisoner of Azkaban to the girls for the second (third?) time, having rapidly polished off Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets. But as Evie pointed out, she is currently reading Goblet of Fire to herself, and they have both been listening to Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince on audiobook in bed. Evie doesn't want to read Deathly Hallows as she deems it 'too scary.' (She cried when Dumbledore died, even though she knew from watching the film that it was coming. 'But it's so much sadder in the book...!')

So the question arises: what next? There are any number of books that I'd love to read aloud to my daughters: Seven Little Australians, Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming, the Bastable books of E. Nesbit. But it's Evie's turn to choose, and that means it's probably going to be a Warriors book. The last time I tried reading aloud a Warriors book, it didn't end well. This particular volume featured a disfigured cat called Brightheart, and after a chapter where poor Brightheart was teased by the other cats, Alice fled the room, howling that she NEVER wanted to hear this book again EVER because she felt so sorry for Brightheart. In vain, Evie has reassured her that Brightheart goes on to live a long and happy life, and becomes an Immortal (I think). No dice. The Brightheart book is off the list.

I'm just not sure if I can face 500 odd pages of cat drama...


Davey Warbeck Was Right?

"[Uncle Davey] was following a new regime for perfect health, much in vogue at that time, he assured us, on the Continent.

'The aim is to warm up your glands with a series of jolts. The worst thing in the world for the body is to settle down and live a quiet little life of regular habits; if you do that it soon resigns itself to old age and death. Shock your glands, force them to react, startle them back into youth, keep them on tiptoe so that they never know what to expect next, and they have to keep young and healthy to deal with all the surprises.'

Accordingly he ate in turns like Gandhi and like Henry VIII, went for ten mile walks or lay in bed all day, shivered in a cold bath or sweated in a hot one. Nothing in moderation..."

Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford, 1949

Apart from the stuff about the glands (unfashionable now), I wonder if Uncle Davey anticipated the 5:2 diet by 65 years? He certainly looks healthy enough, doesn't he!