Year of the Dog (and Bunnies)

Today is the last day of school -- the last morning, anyway, because they finish up at lunchtime. All week the girls have been lugging home the cargo of the year's achievements: exercise books, model cars, banners, posters, random maths sheets, pencil cases, empty folders, folders stuffed with worksheets, plasticine figures of obscure origin and purpose.

It's Alice's last day of primary school. This week has felt like the Festival of Graduation. The Grade 6 graduation night was on Tuesday, and (*parental boastage warning*) completely unexpectedly, Al won  the Bell Spirit award. On Wednesday, they all went off to Luna Park. Yesterday was the class party, which went more or less all day, and last night there was a disco party organised by a couple of parents. If she makes it through the final assembly today without collapsing, I'll be amazed… There was never all this fuss about finishing primary school when I was young! And next year, high school beckons. It's a whole new world… But she'll have the bunnies, Meyer and Momo, to see her through.

The big event of Evie's year was, of course, her long cherished dream coming true, and finally getting a puppy. Willow has quickly become an adored member of our family, and it's already hard to remember what life was like without her. Evie regularly asks, 'Aren't you glad I pestered you into getting a dog? Do you remember the first day she came, and she was so little and sweet?' She's already nostalgic for Willow's babyhood, clinging to a past that isn't even quite over yet.

I picked up one of those long-range horoscope books for an idle browse in a bookshop earlier this year, and checked out what the stars held for Michael and me this year and last. It was weirdly accurate, foretelling a wildly successful year for me last year, and a wildly successful year for Michael this year (we are both Virgos, born a year apart). Michael was a star at his work this year, going from strength to strength and loving it.

For me, this year has felt a bit like treading water, which is an odd thing to say when I had a book come out (New Guinea Moon, for those not paying attention!) But that was way back in March, and since then I've spent most of the year feeling loose-endy and unfocused. Maybe it was just time for a rest, after producing nearly a book a year for the past twelve years. And now I'm engrossed in a new Tremaris book -- it felt like the right time to circle back to where it all began, and finish the story of Calwyn and her loved ones.

This will probably be my last blog post of 2013, so I'll wish you all a very happy and peaceful Christmas, and a marvellous summer. See you next year.


Christmas Reading

As Christmas approaches, so does the anticipation of lots of book-shaped parcels beneath the Christmas tree. I buy myself a lot of book-type presents through the year, mostly second-hand and ex-library -- but Christmas is the time to indulge in shiny expensive newness: fresh brand-new copies of mostly recent releases. And as I don't like leaving things to chance, these are the presents I know I'm getting from my beloveds this year:

Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas - wrapped
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman - wrapped
Activate the Stickitupemizer! First Dog on the Moon (a record by the inimitable First Dog of the Western Bulldogs 2013 season in cartoon form, available here if you're interested :-)
One Day, David Nicholls (I ordered this after discovering that apparently Emma Morley is the literary character I most resemble -- we shall see)
Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (an exception to the 'new releases' rule, but I have wanted this book forever, having adored her Gilead and Home, and when I found it online I couldn't resist)

And I think I'm getting a book voucher from my sister, which I intend to spend on Sea Hearts, by Margo Lanagan, just in time for the first book group meeting of next year.

What's on your wish list this Christmas?


Drina Dances

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that my friend Suzanne had generously lent me (almost) all the Drina ballet books (I think there are 11 in the series and Suzanne was able to lend me nine). To date, I've read up to number 7, Drina Dances In Paris, though volume 6, Drina Dances in New York, is missing. The first book was published in 1957 and the series seems to have continued at the rate of one a year, though the final book was apparently written much later (I haven't been able to pin down the first publication date, and I don't have a copy).

It's been an interesting experience to read a whole series like this from the beginning, with no baggage of childhood memories or nostalgia to colour my views. I've actually enjoyed these books very much. I do find it very soothing to read what I call 'antique fiction' like this; I almost feel I can suspend my critical faculties completely and just relax into the story. I've written before about how much I relish the period details of books written so many decades ago - the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the incidental ephemera of everyday life, the social attitudes, the figures of speech - it's all fascinating, the closest I'll ever get to time travel!

The books themselves are almost completely uneventful -- I can't imagine they'd stand up to modern publishing demands for incident and action! Whole books can go by without anything more dramatic happening than Drina twisting her ankle or almost being late for a performance. In book 6 (the one I haven't got) she falls in love at the age of nearly fifteen, and she spends most of book 7 wistfully yearning; even when her beloved unexpectedly turns up in Paris, they don't even get as far as holding hands! No wonder it takes them another four books to actually get together!

Drina is an appealing character, emotional and sensitive (it's because she's half-Italian, dontcha know!), though she remains quite implausibly humble, still astonished after 7 books that the directors of the school actually know her name -- even after she's guest-starred in plays, filled in for ill dancers in Italy and played Little Clara in The Nutcracker... The cards certainly seem to fall Drina's way, and you can hardly blame her enemies/rivals at the ballet school for their jealousy. When they complain that 'Drina gets everything!' you can't help feeling that, well, actually, they do have a point...

Drina's Big Secret is that she's the daughter of prima ballerina Elizabeth Ivory, who died when Drina was only a baby. Drina's been brought up by her grandmother, who feels that ballet killed her daughter and was determined to keep Drina from dancing - but Drina gets her own way (obviously). Being Ivory's daughter is the ballet equivalent of being the Chosen One, and Drina's determination not to trade on her mother's name, but make her own way on talent alone, is very attractive.

I can't wait to see Drina Dance in Madeira, and  In Switzerland, and go On Tour... not long to go! Hm, I wonder if Drina will succeed in her ambition?? Something tells me she might!


Top 5 Things I Loved (and Still Love) About Narnia

1) portals into Narnia
There were so many different ways of getting there! The wardrobe was a stroke of genius, of course, but there was also the painting of Dawn Treader that came to life, the call of Susan's magical horn, the rings, the Wood Between the Worlds, with a different world in every pool...
This meant that Narnia could be around any corner, through any doorway. And how many children have hopefully pushed at the back of their own wardrobe, longing for snowy branches?
*Dying in a train crash was another option, slightly less appealing though...

2) glorious miscellany
The world of Narnia was peopled by a wonderful mash-up of figures from myth and fairy tale, folklore and classical gods, talking animals, Father Christmas, The White Witch rubbing shoulders with Bacchus, stars that are people too, tree-spirits and water-nymphs, as well as Aslan and the Emperor-over-the-sea. Even the demon god of the Calormenes, the fearsome Tash, turns out to be real. Nothing was forbidden, everything was up for grabs in the world of the imagination.

3) imagery and scene setting
The Chronicles of Narnia contain some of the most haunting images I've ever read:
The snowy, winter-bound world of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe;
The empty, ruined world of Charn, with its worn-out red sun, in Magician's Nephew;
The children slowly realising in Prince Caspian that the ruins they are sitting in are the remains of their own castle of Cair Paravel;
Most poignant of all, in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, gallant Reepicheep, paddling his coracle through the sweet, lily-covered sea toward the edge of the world and Aslan's country.

4) Aslan
I'm not from a religious family, but growing up in PNG, surrounded by missionaries and the children of missionaries, it's no wonder I was a fervent Christian as a child. I'm not surprised some people would rather believe in Aslan than in Jesus; the terrifying, loving, tender but stern lion is a perfect imagining of a personal redeemer. I wouldn't be surprised if Narnia is the ultimate source of the vague spiritual yearning I've been carrying around all these years.

5) love
The Narnia books have been read by thousands, perhaps millions, with love; and I think the reason is that they were written with love. CS Lewis imbues these stories with such delight and joy in creation -- everything from hot buttered toast to dancing trees, romping with Aslan, the singing of the stars, crystal pools and tumbling waterfalls -- the sounds and smells and sensations of each experience are so carefully described, it's easy to put yourself into the scene. It's written with such sincerity, such a lively, joyful imagination, and it's this that shines through for me still.


The Love of Narnia

Last night I was lucky enough to be part of a panel with Alison Croggan, Michael Pryor and CS Lewis expert and librarian Michelle Collins, as part of the Urban Conversations series, discussing the legacy of CS Lewis on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. It was remarkable to be in a room full of adults, most of whom had obviously experienced the world of Narnia and who mostly regarded their time there with great affection and delight (despite some reservations).

My contribution was a pair of lists, my Top 5 Things I Did and Didn't Like About Narnia. Today's instalment is...

 5 Things I Didn't Like About the Narnia Chronicles

1) The Last Battle (otherwise known as The-Book-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named)
I put off reading the last volume in the series as long as I could -- until I was 11. Reading it, I was shattered. Terrible things are happening in Narnia: Talking Trees are cut down, Talking Beasts enslaved, a donkey is masquerading as Aslan, everything is corrupted and spoiled. And in the end (spoiler alert) Narnia is destroyed, its sun put out, and the door locked on a dark, cold desolation. Sure, the characters all go to Heaven and find a "better" "real-er" Narnia there, but I was not convinced. I wanted my Narnia back and I wanted it to last forever. I pretended that I'd never read LB, and that it didn't even exist, until I forced myself to re-read it in preparation for last night.
Well, I cried. I cried like an eleven year old.
* Michael reminded me later that Alice had the audiobook of The Last Battle and hated it so much she put it in the freezer! I had completely blotted this out.

2) sexism and racism
CS Lewis was a middle-aged bachelor when he wrote the Narnia books, motherless from the age of nine, and had lived his whole life in male institutions. He had very conventional ideas about women and about foreigners, and that comes out in his writing, unfortunately. You can see him struggling against this in the later books, but to a modern reader, it jars and offends. Which is a pity.

3) fighting
I'm not against bloodshed, or fighting, or battles, or even murder, in children's books as such; but I'm not particularly interested in it. It's no coincidence that the books I liked least in the series (The Silver Chair, Prince Caspian, The Last Battle) all have significant amounts of fighting, and the ones I loved best (Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Magician's Nephew) have almost none.

4) flat characters
Lewis's child characters are pretty two dimensional. But I don't think this is actually a problem; sometimes it's better to have slightly flat characters in children's literature, because it make sit easier for the reader to project him- or herself into the protagonist's shoes. And no one could call Puddleglum or Reepicheep or Aslan flat.

5) The Problem of Susan
At the end of the books, Susan is declared to be 'no longer a friend of Narnia.' She has turned away from Narnia in favour of 'lipstick and nylons and invitations.' Which is kind of understandable, in a 20 year old young woman. But poor old Susan is soon to find herself the only surviving member of her family, because everyone else gets killed in a train crash so they can join Aslan in heaven. Jeez, that's a high price to pay for liking lipstick. Lewis said later that he's sure Susan will get to heaven too, in her own time; but meanwhile she has to find a way to deal with this terrible (for her) catastrophe that's wiped out her whole family! That's rough, CS, that's very rough indeed.

Next... 5 Things I Did Love About Narnia!


For Friends of Narnia

Very attentive observers of this blog may have noticed that I've been reading a lot of books by and about CS Lewis recently. This is because I am a girly swot and I have been preparing myself for an event which is taking place next Thursday, 21st November at the Melbourne City Library. (NOT the State Library. The Melbourne City Library is in Flinders Lane.)

Here are the details:

In celebration of C.S. Lewis

At this special event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death, the Melbourne Library Service, in partnership with Sophia Think Tank, will be celebrating the life and work of beloved author C.S. Lewis. Join us to hear a keynote address by Dr Greg Clarke (PhD in Literature and an expert in 'all things Lewis') after which we will hear from a panel of renowned Lewis fans, as they discuss the author's legacy and how his books have influenced their work. Our distinguished panel will include some of Australia's leading fantasy and children's authors, including Alison Croggon, Kate Constable and Michael Pryor, as well as children's librarian and Lewis academic Michelle Collins.
What better way to celebrate and honor the wonderful, imaginative and timeless books of C.S.Lewis. If you loved 'The Chronicles of Narnia', then this event is not to be missed.

6:00 pm Thursday 21/11/13 (for 6.15 start) (till about 8pm)

City Library, 253 Flinders Lane, Melbourne (CAE building)

Free event.

If you would like to attend, please book on 9658 9500, and I will see you there!



Did I mention we've been reading Harry Potter? Again? The girls have also been sharing a book called Harry Potter Should Have Died, which is a selection of questions and controversies from the website Mugglenet. They meet at recess for the handover. The news that Dumbledore was gay had not yet reached the playground of our primary school...

Well, it has now.

Last night Evie started out to draw a cat, but it turned into Dobby. So here he is:


Historical Reading

My lovely friend Suzanne from book group recently did something wonderful: she lent me almost the whole set of Drina books (there's one book missing). Nine gorgeous old-fashioned ballet books to lose myself in! So far I've read two -- I'm rationing myself -- and can't wait to get stuck into the rest.

I was asking myself this morning exactly why these kinds of books hold such an appeal for me, and I think part of the reason I enjoy them so much is because I find the incidental historical and sociological details embedded in the stories so fascinating. I love reading Agatha Christie and Noel Streatfeild for the same reason.

It's the throwaway details that are so endlessly interesting: the clothes, the meals, the minutiae of daily middle-class life. Drina's friend telephones and they have three minutes to cram in their conversation before the pips sound. A stack of newspapers arrive, each one containing a critic's review, the morning after Drina's play debuts. Noel Streatfeild's youngest children have supper on a tray -- fruit and cereal just before bed (they have to explain this to a mystified cook when they go to live in America). Antonia Forest's Marlow family have 'Mrs Bertie' from the village in to do 'the rough' -- meaning the hard physical household labour, like scrubbing floors and toilets. Drina has a cloak (!) as part of her school uniform -- admittedly, it's a ballet school!

And of course there's the dialogue, the slang, the codes of behaviour. Drina's grandmother is horrified when Drina, aged 12, breaks down while they're out shopping: 'You're much too old to cry in public!' There is the casual racism, the cautious attitude to anything 'foreign' -- Drina's fragile emotional state, her temperament, is wisely sheeted home to her half-Italian heritage.

And of course there are assumptions about gender and sexuality, often unspoken. Drina declares that she will never give up dancing. Her friend Jenny points out that of course she will have to, when she gets married -- but Drina says, no, not even then... The very fact that they feel the need to have this conversation, aged twelve or thirteen, is interesting in itself.

Someone once asked me for tips on researching a historical period, and I said, read some books written at the time. Especially books like this, where all the details are taken for granted, mere background to the plot. It's amazing how much you can pick up, little clues that the author let drop, without even intending to.


Incentive Reading

There's quite a bit of begging going on at our house these days. Mostly from the puppy, who can hear the noise of a chopping board being laid on the bench from the other end of the house, and takes it as her cue to hover hopefully at my feet.

However -- this post is not about the puppy. It is about the use of reading as a bribe, an incentive, a reward for good behaviour.

My latest parenting trick is to stand in the middle of the house at about 8am, when the children are still lolling about in bed, and say loudly, 'I will be reading Harry Potter aloud in the library in fifteen minutes to people who are dressed.'

So far, it's working like (ahem) a charm.


The Many Faces of Hamlet

Not just an excuse to put up a picture of David Tennant... truly!
The theme for one of my book groups next month is -- tah-dah! -- Hamlet. By happy coincidence, I'd made sure that one of my birthday presents was the David Tennant version of the play, which I watched over a couple of sessions. I think this might have been the first time I've ever seen Hamlet all the way through, and I'm afraid for much of it, I had to concur with Alice, who said plaintively, 'I don't understand what's going on...' Not saying I was distracted by the leading man... but it's possible...

I knew I had a copy of the text somewhere in the house. Hamlet wasn't one of the Shakespeare plays I studied at school (Romeo & Juliet in Year 10, then Macbeth, then Anthony & Cleopatra for HSC) but I'd acquired a battered copy of it from somewhere. I planned to read the original, and then tackle the two YA versions we'd chosen for book group. But I couldn't face it. All those dense, impenetrable words... all those footnotes... that stern, intimidating introduction... My appetite for hard work has sadly diminished since I was eighteen.

So I skipped it, and went straight into John Marsden's novelisation (which, interestingly, I found in the adult section of the library). This goes beyond being a direct translation of the play into modern prose. Marsden adds his own descriptions of the setting and characters: the forbidding castle, the white-haired, uncanny prince and adds his own interpretations of their motivations. But in truncating many scenes and glossing much of the dialogue (though he preserves some of the most famous lines), Marsden succeeds in making the action of the play far more intelligible. Finally I could follow exactly what was going on and figure out what the hell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were up to.

Armed with my new understanding, I next turned to Nicki Greenberg's lavish, full colour graphic-novel style volume, 'staged on the page' as she puts it. I'd flipped through this book when it first came out, but had trouble 'reading' the visuals, distracted as I always am by the words, and unable to decipher what the pictures (or the words) were telling me. But this time I was captivated -- I understood the story, I had a feel for the characters and what they were saying to each other, and to us. Nicki's gorgeous illustrations added a new dimension.

At last I feel I have a (bit of a) grasp of Hamlet. And now I might just have to go back and re-watch the David Tennant DVD, and this time, I think I'll really appreciate it.


Rabbit Reading

Okay, I admit it. I was more than a little reluctant to embark on rabbit ownership so soon after taking on the responsibility of a new puppy. But Alice had worked so hard, for months, researching for hours on the internet, buying books on rabbit care, special toys and equipment out of her pocket money, and even building a palatial hutch pretty much all by herself, that we couldn't hold out any longer.

So Momo and Meyer entered our lives. (Meyer was originally christened Maya, until a visit to the vet set us straight on his gender. Now we think of him as Meyer Lansky, the small but crafty gangster from Boardwalk Empire.)

At first it all seemed to be too much. Plastic tubs full of hay and pellets and litter; daily cleaning; thrice daily food supply; the mysterious nightly noises emanating from their hutch; the sweeping up of pellets, emptying contaminated water, removal of spoiled hay; the worry that we might soon be hosting unwanted baby bunnies (at least now we know that's not going to happen)... Even though Alice is doing most of the work, it just seemed like a lot of labour for not much reward. I remembered with dread how friends had warned us that rabbits were boring. They weren't like the puppy, who barks and frisks and cuddles up to us, who is frantic with joy at the sight of us, who looks contrite when she makes a mistake, and expresses her personality every moment of the day. The rabbits just kind of... sat there.

Then I read Watership Down. Because fiction holds the answer to every problem.
And in this case, it did.

Losing myself in the story of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and the rest, I was completely caught up in their adventures, their rabbit mythology, all the careful, vivid details of the English countryside, their special language and their rabbit-centred view of the world. But most of all, Richard Adams made me care passionately about the fate of these characters -- steady Hazel, uncanny Fiver, clever Blackberry, loyal little Pipkin, desperate Strawberry, the courageous hutch rabbit Clover, the terrifying General Woundwort.

Because this is the gift of fiction: to make us empathise with people whose experiences and view of life are very different from our own. Even when those people happen to be rabbits.

And now I find that I can appreciate beautiful Momo's sweetness, and his tentative forays into the unfamiliar. I can applaud the bold leadership of Meyer, who made three daring escape bids in as many days. Watership Down has made me see that our bunnies are people, too. Not humans; but people.


Echoes of Summer

I'm reading Margaret Mahy's The Tricksters for book group. It deals with 17 year old Harry (Ariadne) and is set during a Christmas holiday at the beach, where Harry's family and their friends are visited by a trio of mysterious, powerful brothers - are they ghosts, or aspects of one long-dead man who drowned at the same beach? Or has Harry herself conjured them into being through the novel she is secretly writing?

Fittingly in a novel so charged with mystery, swirling adolescent emotion and powerful magic, I had a bit of a moment while I was reading it. One evening, Harry is left alone for once (apart from 2 year old Tibby, who she's babysitting), and she dresses in a red silk dressing-gown borrowed from her more beautiful sister and dances around the empty house to the music of 'an Australian band,' who sing of 'their own continent -- "living in the summer for a million years."'

As I read this line, I felt an electric shock of recognition, for this lyric is, of course, a quote from 'Great Southern Land' by Icehouse. When I was eighteen years old, I was obsessed with this song, and indeed the entire Primitive Man album. I spent that summer living in a tent, at the beach, with two friends from school. I remember one evening when Jayne and Liza were both out at work and I had the tent to myself for a few hours of rare and precious privacy, I played that album over and over on my tinny cassette player, hitting the pause button every minute or so, to carefully copy down every word of the lyrics in the exercise book I was using as a diary, dreaming, and hoping for love, and experimenting with extreme emotions, just as Harry does.

Primitive Man was released in 1982, The Tricksters published in 1986. Margaret Mahy could well have been writing it during that same summer when I was crouched in our communal tent, my ear pressed to the speaker and my pen poised over my exercise book, squeezing out the magic between Iva Davies' words and suffusing it through my own fevered imaginative life, in the same way that Harry briefly feels she is living her 'true life' in the pages of her secret novel.

Sadly for me, that summer, there was no glamorous and uncanny brother to appear from a parallel world, fall in love with me, and make me feel beautiful and powerful for the first time. But I suppose there are limits even to Margaret Mahy's magic.


Stalled Reading

Maybe there are some books you need to grow up with, to absorb their magic properly. I remember being so disappointed that Cheryl Klein didn't like the Narnia books, which were such a huge and resonant part of my reading childhood. When she pointed out all the problems with gender and racial stereotyping, I was like, yes, but, but, but...

I could see all those problems (things which didn't bother me as a ten year old, needless to say), but for me they were still outweighed by the sheer magic of the story and the imaginative power of the world that CS Lewis created. I was content to accept Susan being locked out of heaven for wearing nylons, if that meant I could have Reepicheep, the gallant talking mouse.

All this is a long introduction to the confession that I've never read the Billabong books by Mary Grant Bruce. For many of my friends, these books were beloved childhood favourites, though everyone I spoke to hastily added something like, 'But they're very much Of Their Era' or 'They do have some... problems.' Which is shorthand for saying that they are terribly, old-fashionedly, unreflectively, racist. And because I've never read these books before, every 'sable countenance' and 'You tellee clammee, so dly up!' feels like being flicked in the face with a wet string.

So there's that. But also, I have to confess, I'm just not finding the adventures of Norah and her chums all that enthralling. They go fishing, they have close encounters with snakes, they ride their horses. It's all jolly good fun, but there's not enough emotional journey to keep me hooked. Not yet, anyway.

It's taking me a long time to wade through this particular Billabong. I've sworn myself to read at least two volumes in the series, to judge properly. But I take it up, I skim a page, I put it down. It's been sitting on the dining table for three days now. At this rate, I won't be finished for weeks. It turns out that  reading at speed is not the only option, after all.


Speed Reading

'Stop reading all the time!' cries Alice. 'You read too much. It offends me!'
Guiltily I lay aside my book, but not for long. She's right, I'm too addicted to stop.

Crooked House is the last novel in my 1940s Agatha Christie compendium, and one I've never read, nor, unusually, seen in a TV or film adaptation. (The likely reason for this becomes apparent once I've read it, but I won't spoil it for you...)

I take it to bed on Saturday night, intending to start it before I go to sleep, but I'm besieged by children and in the end I'm too tired to open it. On Sunday morning, a quick skim disposes of the newspaper, and I start to read Crooked House over my (very) late breakfast. The first few chapters disappear. We meet the narrator, and are introduced to his fiancee's extended family, one of whom seems to have murdered the charismatic grandfather...

I hang the washing on the line, tidy the house a bit, make the bed. Alice's friend arrives, with dog, for a playdate with the puppy, which I supervise for a while until it's clear they're all fine. I make them lunch. Lying in the sun on the bed, half-listening to the Grandstand Inquisition on ABC radio, I read a few more chapters. The family members have secrets to hide...

It's a gorgeous day. I walk down to Savers and return with a shirt, my quest for thin cardigans having proved unsuccessful. The friend and her dog have gone. I take my book into the window seat and demolish a few more chapters. 'We're due for the second murder about now,' observes the precocious 12 year old, and sure enough, a few pages later, there's an attempt on her life... But who would try to kill a 12 year old, however irritating?

My children bounce onto me and force me to put the book down. We play a few rounds of the Eye Spy board game until outrageous cheating renders it pointless. Michael has offered to make dinner, and sets off for ingredients. I sneak in another few chapters while the kids are distracted. The chief suspects are arrested, but there's another murder... The lazy Sunday afternoon rolls by.

I take the puppy out to the garden, fold the washing, help the girls gather flowers, grate cheese for dinner. It's TV hour. I demolish the final chapters while I'm eating dinner -- yes, I read at the table, get over it -- and put the book down with a sigh. It hardly seems possible that I've gobbled the whole thing in one day. But isn't that what Sundays are for?


Reading On The Tram

The Tram Ride, Robert Sawyer (1942)
I leave the house in a hurry, on my way to meet an old friend for lunch at Mario's in Brunswick St (a trip down memory lane). The tram trip is not a long one, about twenty minutes in the middle of a weekday. The tram is almost empty. I choose a window seat and pull out my book, specially selected from the pile-beside-the-bed for its slimness and ease of slipping into my handbag.

The tram sways and creaks down St Georges Rd. I know this route so well, I only need an occasional glance out the window to confirm how far we've come. A man boards, sits down opposite me, and pulls out a book of his own. Instantly I'm drawn to peep at the title, upside down on the top of the page, but it's in scribbly font and impossible to read. Later, when he momentarily closes the cover, I catch a glimpse: The Apothecary's (something). House, maybe? It's a VERY fat book; I would never lug a book like that onto the tram. If I'd wanted to bring a fat book with me, I would have chosen my Agatha Christie 1940s omnibus, because I'm still halfway through Towards Zero.

Perhaps my fellow passenger can see that, in fact, I'm reading a kids' book. I don't care. It's Eight Days of Luke, by Diana Wynne Jones, which I'm reading for next month's book group. Our theme for the next meeting is Tricksters. I've read Luke before, it's a comfortable, fun read, clever and satisfying as all Wynne Jones' books are. I race through the chapters. A tram ride is a bubble in time and space, carefree, without responsibility; nothing to do but read. It feels like a little pocket of luxury.

Before I know it, we're in Brunswick St, and I have to scramble to disembark, thrusting my book back in my bag. I'm ten minutes early. Just enough time for a quick browse... in the bookshop, of course!


Reading In The Garden

It's Sunday afternoon, a sunny early spring day. I've dragged the old baby mattress onto the narrow back deck so I can read outside in comfort. I have a cup of tea beside me, and the radio is tuned to the football. I'm barracking for the Tigers to win, but I'm not really listening, and when the lead changes from Richmond being 32 points up, to the Blues ahead by two, I'm taken completely by surprise.
The house is quiet. Somewhere inside, Evie is reading on her bed. Alice has gone to a party, and Michael has taken a break from mending the fence to ferry a group of twelve year olds from one venue to another. When I switch my radio off, the distant tinny echo of Michael's transistor carries to me from the bottom of the garden.
I'm three quarters through A Visit From The Good Squad, by Jennifer Egan. It's a novel in interconnected stories, roving back and forth in time. This is one of my favourite structures when it's well done, and this is excellent. One of the stories is in the form of powerpoint slides; I resolve to show it to Evie, I think she'll get a kick out of it.
The puppy whines at the back door, and I reach over to let her outside. She snuggles up beside me, her furry warmth against my leg where I'm propped along the mattress, and sleeps. I can hear kids' voices, drifting across the laneway from the school, the murmur of leaves, the brisk chatter of birds. The air is thick with tiny insects. A small spider creeps across my radio, and I flick it away with the tip of a dry leaf. The puppy sighs, and re-settles herself. I'm reminded of long-ago afternoons, sliding away, with a sleeping baby on my lap, not daring to move in case I woke her, but secretly glad of an excuse to stay still. The pages turn. Characters meet, and part, and reconnect, in lazy loops of story.
At last I set the book aside, because I'm enjoying it so much I want to prolong the experience of being inside it. Soon Michael and Alice will come home, and Evie's and my own readers' peace will be shattered.
The puppy twitches, dreaming.


Timey-Wimey Wibbly Wobbly

Yesterday at my book group, we discussed time-slip, time travel and backwards-history books (When You Reach Me, A Wrinkle In Time and My Place), and I was surprised by the number of people who said that they didn't enjoy time-travelly stories. There were three particular books of my childhood, all timey-wimey in theme, which I think have influenced my taste as a reader and my ambitions as a writer.

A Wrinkle In Time
It was weird re-reading Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 classic, because despite its enduring reputation, especially in the US, I felt it didn't actually stand up that well. To begin with, I was annoyed by the cover blurb, which insisted on casting it as Charles Wallace's story, not Meg's -- which perhaps goes to show, the pressures of marketing to boys were around even in the 1960s! When I first read (and re-read) AWIT at about the age of ten, I was fascinated by the Big Ideas it contained - the tesseract, five dimensions, the power of faith and love to defeat the grey and banal (but still very frightening) face of evil.
I still love those ideas, and I love Meg, and her family, and her mother's science lab where she cooks stew over the bunsen burner. But some elements seemed horribly clunky -- just who the hell are the Mrses Who, Which and Whatsit anyway? Winged horses? Seriously? The giant pulsating brain? Hm...
However, this book still remains a true original -- part fantasy, part science fiction, part parable, part realistic family drama (except that Dad hasn't deserted them, he's trapped on another planet. Um, okay...)
Time-slip mechanism rating: 1/10. Loses points because no actual time travel.

Charlotte Sometimes
By contrast, Penelope Farmer's 1969 time-slip proved to be rather better, on an adult re-read, than I'd remembered it. Charlotte wakes up in her boarding-school bed to find that she's swapped places with Clare, who lived forty years before (during WWI). This deeply eerie story takes seriously the possibility that they may not succeed in swapping back, and in one disturbing section, Charlotte finds herself doubting her own identity, slipping into becoming Clare without even realising what's happening to her. This is very scary stuff, and perhaps explains why I re-read CS sparingly as a child, though it always haunted me.
It was only thanks to Penni Russon that I found out that Charlotte and her sister Emma also feature in two previous books by Farmer, both equally weird in their own ways, The Summer Birds (where children learn to fly) and Emma In Winter (where Emma enters a dreamscape which she realises is dragging her gradually backwards in time).
Time-slip mechanism rating: 8/10 (the girls share the same bed and wake up in each other's times; elegant)

Tom's Midnight Garden
I must have talked about TMG before, haven't I? I always credit this book as the single greatest inspiration behind my own Cicada Summer. Though Philippa Pearce's beautiful 1958 novel is perhaps a little wordy for modern tastes, I read it over and over again as a 10 or 11 year old, spellbound by deeply satisfying structure and its detailed exploration. Tom, sent to stay with relatives in a big old house long since converted to flats, finds that when the clock strikes thirteen, he can open the back door and enter the original, sprawling garden of the house, seventy years ago. He befriends a little girl in this other time, Hatty, and they help each other combat their respective loneliness. At the end of the book it's revealed that Hatty is in fact old Mrs Bartholomew, who lives upstairs and has spent night after night dreaming of her childhood. The final scene, where she and Tom at last recognise each other and fly into each other's arms 'as if they'd known each other for years and years' still brings a lump to my throat.
Time-slip mechanism: 10/10 (the grandfather clock, and the old woman's dreams - perfect!)


Animal Books

Charlotte's Web, Black Beauty and The Hundred and One Dalmatians are the only 'animal books' that really captured my imagination as a child. By animal books I mean books told pretty much from the animals' point of view. I'm not counting pony books, where the main characters were the aspiring pony-owners, not the horses themselves; I read a ton of those!

But stories focused on the experiences of the animals left me pretty cold, on the whole. Ring of Bright Water (otters) was recommended to me, but it didn't grab me. The Incredible Journey was a favourite of  some of my friends (from memory, two dogs and a cat cross country to get home) -- to me, giant yawnfest. I did read Watership Down (rabbits) in high school, but only once, and I think I dealt with that by forgetting that they were rabbits.

This has left me at something of a disadvantage in later life, because Evie is a voracious reader, but she really prefers her books to have non-human protagonists, and I'm a bit stuck for recommendations. Her current favourites are a seemingly endless series of books about clans of cats in the wild, called the Warrior books. The appeal seems to be the tangled set of relationships, alliances and feuds that unfold between the cats. She says that sometimes sad things happen, but it's easier to deal with sad things when they're happening to cats, not people (she is very sensitive). She's been getting through Warrior books at the rate of one every couple of days -- they are 300-odd pages each -- and I'm getting worried about what she's going to do when they run out!

What she would really love would be a similar set of sagas about a pack of wolves -- but not too tragic. Any ideas?


Puppy Panic!

Only five more sleeps until we get our puppy!

It's happening a little bit sooner than we thought, actually, so now we have gone into a frenzy of puppy-equipment-buying, puppy-proofing and name-debating (currently the favourite option is Willow).

It's quite amusing to reflect that each of us has turned to our preferred source of information collection to prepare for this momentous event in our lives. Michael likes to ask for advice from his friends and work colleagues about what to expect. Evie has turned to the internet and has done lots of research, and has practically memorised the Wonder Dogs DVD we acquired a couple of years ago (as a substitute for an actual puppy, I seem to recall -- ah, well.) When in doubt, she's decided to fall back on cuddles. Alice is full of doomful predictions about what's going to happen when the puppy chews the computer cords, or runs away, or wreaks havoc in her room because we (ie me) haven't puppy-proofed sufficiently. Also, she keeps reminding us that we've promised her rabbits at some point...

Meanwhile, I am doing what I always do when I'm faced with a big change in my life: having a baby, buying a house, dealing with a learning difficulty or a toddler behavioural issue. I'm off to the library to find a fat, reassuring BOOK by an expert!

Poor little Willow won't know what's hit her.


Look What I Got!

My dear friend Judy B is clearing out her house before she and her husband move to the country, and she offered me 'a box of old children's books you might like.'

Well, the box arrived, and I do like, very much indeed! The top layer included some gorgeous old books, including school stories, some Lorna Hill titles (I have to pass these on to Judy's daughter, once I read them), the first Billabong novel from Mary Grant Bruce and LM Montgomery's Emily of New Moon, which bizarrely I've never read, despite my enduring adoration of Anne of Green Gables

Most of these were originally given as Sunday school prizes to the young Judy, and I'm reminded that there used to be a whole category of children's books specifically written for this purpose. My mother tells me that there used to be a special shop in the city that sold books for Sunday school prizes (as well as other ecclesiastical supplies, one presumes).

But underneath these Sunday school novels was another, unexpected layer of delights -- half a dozen annuals. See how gorgeous they look on my display shelf? Here is a close up view:

The annuals are from the 1950s and they are chock full of fabulous stories, comics, nature articles, poetry and crosswords. Aren't the cover girls great -- sporty and wholesome, and not a fashion item in sight! I wonder when annuals disappeared? I remember getting an annual one Christmas in the late 70s -- it might have been Jackie, or Princess? So they were still around then. Does anybody out there know?

One thing I noticed is that the print is extremely small. Which means you can fit in more glorious content, I suppose, but it also decreases the chances of modern kids actually reading any of these lovely old books. Shame.

Thank you, Judy. They are wonderful.


Veronica and Sebastian

On our recent trip to Tasmania, I found a couple of battered Lorna Hill ballet books in a second hand shop at Salamanca, and they were two that I'd never actually read. Of course I pounced.

Well. Sometimes it turns out that there are good reasons why books end up languishing in second hand shops. I knew from reading later novels that Veronica and Sebastian (spoiler alert) end up together. (One of the things I really like about the Wells books is the sense of the baton being passed from one ballerina to another as the series progresses. Veronica is inspired by Margot Fonteyn, and goes on to inspire Jane Foster in her turn, then Jane acts as a mentor to another young dancer, and so on.)

Sebastian initially presents as quite an attractive character -- flippant and charming, but underneath it all, clearly very serious about his music, and obviously (to the reader) smitten with Veronica. So I wasn't prepared for the massive row that Veronica and Sebastian have partway through the book, in which Sebastian behaves like a complete pig.

Veronica has just received the thrilling news that she's earned a part in one of the company's ballet productions and has to rush back to London. Unfortunately this means she'll have to miss Sebastian's concert. Sebastian is not happy.
...I burst out, 'You know quite well I've got to go back. It's my career. You'd go back if it were your career, wouldn't you, Sebastian?'
'Of course. I'm a man.'
'What difference does that make?'
'Quite a lot,' Sebastian said, turning his back on me... 'Men are forced to have careers. Women just barge into them. It's just silly for a woman to give up everything -- friends, beauty sleep, peace of mind -- even marriage -- for a stupid thing like ballet.'
'It's not stupid!' I yelled, almost crying. 'It's my life!'
'Then it ought not to be,' declared Sebastian.
To her credit, Veronica sticks to her guns, despite parting with Sebastian on very bad terms, even after he flings the revelation of his love for her in her face ('I was going to kiss you... But don't worry, I shan't do it now...'). She goes back to London where her career takes off and she becomes the latest ballet sensation. However, as the rest of the book unfolds (they don't see each other for a couple of years after this), Veronica is tormented by the memory of this terrible fight. Not because it's been revealed that Sebastian is a selfish loser, but because she's worried that he won't 'forgive' her!

In the last pages, just before Veronica's ultimate triumph, they are reconciled when he sends her a big bunch of red roses with the label 'Sebastian'.
Just that! No word of apology or good luck. I gave a wry smile. How like Sebastian!... He was brilliant, and witty, and arrogant. Above all, he was proud... Still, my heart glowed. We were friends again, and he had meant me to know it.
Oh, well, that's all right then.

Okay, I admit, this was written in 1951, but still. He didn't have to be quite such a knob about it.

There is an interesting ongoing tension through all the Lorna Hill books between the protagonists' dedication to ballet (almost religious at times) and their need for lurve. More often than not, the women themselves don't seem to realise that love and romance is something they should want! They believe they're quite fulfilled by their passion for their art, and the rigorous demands it makes upon them. They have to be forced to see what they're 'lacking' by the attentions of the men who have fallen in love with them, whereupon they wake up from their dream and realise that they're just like ordinary, non-ballerina women who just want to get married and be adored and taken care of (this is the role of men in the Lorna Hill universe). Now I like a touch of romance as much as anyone, but it's a shame that it always seems to play out the same way. However, I must admit that weirdly, in later books, Sebastian seems very supportive of Veronica's career and writes music for her -- it's a creative partnership. That's what I'd like to see more of -- not the dancers having to choose between love and work, as Jane does later on.

I might keep this one on a high shelf, I think; I wouldn't want it to fall into the wrong hands!


Cricket By Night

I love the Ashes (even when Australia is playing so badly). I especially love the Ashes when they're in England, because then I can lie in bed with the radio murmuring in my ear all night and listen to the sonorous (never excitable) BBC coverage, drifting in and out of sleep and rolling over occasionally to catch the score. Michael and I first bonded over cricket, so even though it doesn't sound like it, it's actually quite romantic for us to lie there listening to Test Match Special together in the darkness.

Like everyone else in Australia, I fell in love with Ashton Agar during his marvellous innings in the First Test. He's young and dashing and good-looking, and he played with such grace and joy. You could see it on his face that he was just loving every minute at the crease, so grateful and happy to be there that it didn't matter that he was making run after run, living out every child cricketer's dream and saving the match. He came in at no. 11! He nearly made a hundred!

And then came the Second Test, and we were hopeless again.

I'm not saying it's entirely because of Agar that I picked up Netherland, which has been patiently sitting beside my bed for quite a while. And I'm not even halfway through. But so far, I'm relishing this brooding story of a cricketing Dutchman (yes, they do play cricket in the Netherlands), living in New York in the months after 9/11, who discovers the shadowy but thriving community of cricket players in the land of baseball. Invisible to most of the population, these cricketers are West Indian and Indian and Pakistani, and on tiny, unsuitable grounds all around the city, they passionately pursue their sport, inhabiting an underground, parallel world. Apparently this novel is 'in conversation' with The Great Gatsby; another exploration of American myth through an unexpected lens.

I remember being surprised when Jo and Laurie played cricket in Little Women. It's weird and wonderful to think that the spirit of cricket is still alive in America. Even if, at the moment, it's struggling in Australia.


The High Life

We are getting an attic!

To be precise, we are converting part of our roof space into a sealed room, which will hopefully be spider- and rat-proof, unlike the current creepy, gloomy space. We are also installing a skylight to let in some sun. (I say "we" but it's actually our lovely builder Mick who's doing all the hard work.) I should point out, our attic will be nothing like as big as the one in the picture! But it's still pretty cool.

Ladder access is from Alice's bedroom, the smallest room in the house, so she's looking forward to using the new attic as a bit of a hangout. She keeps urging us to throw out more stuff, to reduce the space we need for storage and free up more room for her.

I have to say I envy her. I've always craved an attic, and I once almost rented a very grotty house purely because of one unfeasibly small bedroom under the eaves. I remember Polly and Diggory crawling from house to house in The Magician's Nephew, and Sara Crewe's magically transformed garret in A Little Princess. The Marlowe sisters scored an attic dormitory for one hectic term at Kingscote, in Antonia Forest's The Attic Term (natch, as they would say). And of course, Jo always did her best scribbling up in the attic in Little Women.

When I was about Evie's age, I used to climb up into the top cupboards of built-in wardrobes and pretend I was in an attic. There was something so unspeakable romantic about the idea of that space, sandwiched between the safety of the house and the freedom of the wide sky, something secret but sheltered. It's one of those in-between hidey-holes that encourage reading and dreaming and musing, a perfect nest for creativity.

But I think you need to be twelve to really make the most of it.


Holiday At The End Of The Universe

Very lazy winter holidays happening at our house (though I'm determined to get out of the house today!)

We've had a couple of lovely idle days where we've all lounged around while I've read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to the girls (a good choice) and they've played on the computer -- mostly Minecraft, which is an oddly appropriate accompaniment to a story involving the building and destruction of planets.

Now we've started The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which I can't remember at all. Fair enough, I reckon, because it would be a good thirty years since I last read it.

The only annoying thing is that the edition we have (ex-library) is a compendium of all four books in the series, and it is absolutely riddled with typos! Which is very off-putting to the reader-aloud. Poor form.


Working Spaces

One of the most appealing features of this house when we bought it was the detached (but fully wired up) bungalow in the backyard, which the previous owners had used as an artist's studio. Low ceilinged, but with three windows, it was cosy but full of light, and I instantly claimed it as my study. We painted and carpeted the room and hung up some pictures. It was big enough to double as a spare bedroom, with a double bed, and also fit in several bookcases.

I wrote a handful of books in this room. It had drawbacks; I had to trek across to the house to make a cuppa or go to the loo, or check my emails, and it was very stuffy in summer. Also spiders loved it -- big spiders. But the room's great attraction was its separateness from the main house; even though it was only a few steps away, the psychological distance was significant. I would shut that door, and I was At Work. Not to be disturbed.

Then a few things happened. My younger daughter started school, and we built an extra living space onto the back of the house. This brought the bungalow much closer to the house (well, it brought the back door much closer to the bungalow), reducing the sense of separation. While the builders were working, I retreated to the front of the house with all the intervening doors closed to escape the noise and disruption. I started working on my bed in the front room, with my laptop on my lap. I quite enjoyed this position, in fact this is where I'm sitting right now. The front bedroom faces north and the winter sun streams gloriously through the window, and the view of the wattles in the front garden is uplifting. Also, working in bed (or on bed) feels so decadent, so Nancy Mitford.

When the back room was finished, I took my laptop to the brand new window seat and started working there. I loved the triangular cushion that propped my back at what Stephen Fry assures me is the ideal 45 degree angle. I loved staring out at the trees and the greenery, and the little birds darting down to the birdbath. I wrote most of New Guinea Moon on the window seat.

I had the whole house to myself during the school day, so there was no need to run away to the bungalow to find peace and privacy. The whole house was my workplace! But on the other hand, I missed having a dedicated space where I could dump reference books or papers and be sure that no one would move them. Also, on some days, the living room was so messy that I'd have to spend a precious hour tidying up before I could relax and start working.

So now that the novelty of the window seat has worn off, I'm finding myself craving the luxury of a separate study again. There are a couple of problems: my old table has been co-opted as the kitchen table, and I dislike the heavy, cramped desk that is currently sitting out in the bungalow. I can't wriggle my legs around under that desk, it oppresses me. But it seems wicked to buy a new one. The furniture has been rearranged so that the view from the desk is now gazing back at the house -- boring weatherboards, no glimpse of garden. We'd have to shift everything around again. And a lot more junk has found its way out there in the intervening years -- boxes and a weight bench and an uncomfortable couch. It feels crowded out there now.

But I think I want it back.


The Sound of My Own Voice

So it seems that my days of reading aloud might be almost over.

Since Alice was born, nearly twelve years ago, I have read to my children. Reading aloud was especially important to Alice because for a long time, her dyslexia denied her the books that she most wanted to consume -- books like Agatha Christie, Harry Potter, Little Women, PG Wodehouse. Audiobooks at bed-time have always been a part of our family ritual too, but the cry of 'Read to me, Mummy!' or more simply, 'Read-y!' would ring through our house several times a day. I must have spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours, reading aloud.

But now Alice's reading has improved to the point where she can read Harry Potter on her own and research websites about pet rabbits for hours on end. She still needs audiobooks, but she doesn't ask me to read to her any more. Evie has been an independent reader since she taught herself to read in kindergarten; now she ploughs intently through multi-volume sagas about clans of warrior cats in a forest, or tribes of lost dragons, and taps out her own versions on the laptop at top speed.

For a while, the girls liked me to read to them while they were in the bath. I must admit I resisted this, because, frankly, it's bloody cold and uncomfortable in our bathroom, unless you're the one sitting in waist-deep hot water. So gradually I stopped; and now they're too modest to want me in there anyway; and now the habit's broken, and it just doesn't seem to happen any more.

Perhaps the last hurrah of reading aloud was our last family holiday in WA, where I read several volumes of Ivy and Bean to both girls, in quiet moments between excursions. The other book that both girls loved and begged for was 101 Dalmatians, which I must have read to them four or five times.

Maybe reading aloud will be a holiday thing now. Maybe when the next holidays come up, I might pull out The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and give that a whirl. Maybe I could even get Michael to listen in to that one.


Back to the Well

It's weird re-reading books that you wrote yourself. Of course when you're actually working on them, you read and read again: combing through the words, rearranging plot strands, smoothing out an awkward sentence here, embroidering a metaphor there. You know the paragraphs almost by heart, you've typed and re-typed them so often. You scan the manuscript anxiously, trying to hold the wide view in your mind; you peer closely at each line when it's time to proof-read, pouncing on each word that's slipped out of place.

And then it's gone. Out of your hands. Off to the printer, and out into the world and the (hopefully) eager hands of its readers. And after that, to be brutally honest, you never look at it again. By then you're already immersed in the next project; there's no reason to look back.

I wrote the first draft of The Singer of All Songs in 1999, in an Art Deco flat in Prahran. I'd just moved in with Michael; it was before babies, before we bought a house together. It feels like a lifetime ago. By the time it was published, we were living in Thornbury and there were three of us.

I've heard snatches of the Chanters stories in the years since then, because Alice and Evie have listened to the audiobooks many times. It's always been a disconcerting experience, to hear my own words rolling out through the car stereo, in the voice of the actress reading them. One phrase became a family joke, always rendered in a heavy American accent: Come on, you miserable worms! Wriggle out and get your dinner! But apart from that, I've never gone back and actually read the whole trilogy.

It's been a very odd experience. It's so long since I worked on these books, I couldn't quite remember what happened. I'd forgotten that one climactic twist that I'd planned had disappeared in the re-write, so the actual finale came as a true surprise. I got a lump in my throat when sad things happened. I found myself barracking for Calwyn and Darrow to get over their angst and snog already! I read descriptions of Tremaris as if I'd never read them before. I made myself laugh at dialogue I'd forgotten writing. And it was kind of cool.

And I remembered how much I loved living in this world of magic and adventure and romance. I think I want to go back there. It feels as if I've never been away.


Book Buyers Anonymous

My financial advisor (aka my husband) asked me the other day, 'How much do you think you've spent on books this year?'*

'Um, dunno.' I offered the hugest sum I could imagine. '$300?'


'What? Er, that is quite a lot, isn't it.'

It's funny how quickly it adds up. A bagful of second hand books from the library book sale here; a handful from Brown and Bunting there. A visit to a literature festival and you pick up a few books by the writers you've just made friends with, because, well, now you're interested. (My publisher once said to me, it's almost a self-sustaining industry... almost!) Bought a Kindle a few months ago and it's just so easy to idly look up a book, so easy to idly click BUY. Drop into that funny remainders shop in Tooradin on our way to visit friends in the country, and buy a book each -- it's a ritual! Birthdays and Christmas require presents, and what better gift than a lovely new book? Attend a book launch, and it's only polite to buy a copy of the book. Check out that rare title on Book Depository; never seen it for a lower price, better grab it now! Got a book group meeting coming up, must get hold of that one we're reading.

And before you know it, the Books column of the expenditure spreadsheet is into four figures, and you have a Serious Habit.

As vices go, I guess it's better than smoking.

* That's this financial year; in his world, the year runs from 1st July to 30th June.


Being A Writer When You're Not Actually Writing

So this week I was on the Sunshine Coast, at the Voices on the Coast Literature Festival. This was the view from my window in the morning:
Over three days I got to hang out with some lovely authors I'd met before, and made friends with some I didn't know. I gave six talks to groups of sweet and responsive kids, several of whom bought my books afterwards and got me to sign them, and some of whom told me that they had already read one (or more) and really loved it (or them). I arrived home last night exhausted but very happy.

The weird thing is that I have done quite a few of these events now, and every time, before I leave, I get so nervous that I throw up.

It's not the public speaking. I love talking about my books! That's fun.
It's not the socializing (though I am shy and I do get anxious before meeting new people).

I thought about this really hard and I realised what I'm most nervous about before these trips is the actual travelling. What if I can't check in; will I be able to find the bus at the other end; what if I don't know when to get off? It's the same if I'm driving myself to a gig. I fret about whether I'll get lost; will I make it there on time; will I find a parking spot, and if I do, will I be able to get into it?

What this fear boils down to, is that I will get into trouble somehow and have to Ask A Stranger For Assistance. This idea sends shivers of dread down my spine. I know it doesn't make sense, but there you go.

On a related but slightly different topic, it so happens that while I was away, I was reading a book about introverts (drained by spending time with people) and extroverts (energised by spending time with people): Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won't Stop Talking. I suspect that most, but not all, authors are introverts. So at the end of a day spent talking about ourselves or giving workshops, chatting to people we don't know well or have only just met, and mingling with festival organisers and sponsors, it's no wonder that we all stagger off the bus and collapse in a catatonic heap, unable to speak or move. It's a lovely experience, but, boy, it is fatiguing.


When One Book Leads To Another

Lucy Lethbridge's Servants was every bit as fascinating and readable as I'd hoped, packed with insight and intriguing historical titbits. I'd always vaguely assumed that the advent of labour-saving technology (vacuum cleaners, washing machines) had made servants redundant, but no, it was the other way round. It wasn't until after the Second World War, when the experience of working independently made most working-class women rebel against the notion of being 'in service' with all its petty humiliations, that the shortage of domestic labour made desperate middle class women turn to the machines.

It was intriguing to discover that as early as the 1890s, there were mutterings about the 'servant problem.' Why were poor girls so reluctant to go into domestic service, where they'd be housed and fed, often in much better conditions than if they stayed at home or in a scungy rented room and worked in a factory? This baffling conundrum led to several undercover reports, with middle class female journalists posing as servants to find out what life was really like below stairs. They seemed astonished to discover how demanding was the sheer physical labour required, not to mention the long hours, the lack of privacy, and the countless reminders of your own supposed inferiority. One maid reported that her employers seemed nonplussed and oddly unsettled at the idea of her reading serious books, rather than trashy romances or lowbrow magazines.

One of the sources for Servants was Monica Dickens' One Pair of Hands (1939), which I looked up on the Kindle and was delighted to be able to purchase instantly. I vaguely remembered reading Dickens' One Pair of Feet at high school, which dealt with her time in nursing, but I'd never read the first volume. It's a hoot. Monica Dickens (grand-daughter of Charles) was an unconventional school girl and was expelled (apparently) for throwing her uniform off a bridge. Instead of following the normal upper-class career path of debutant, wedding, unhappy housewife, she decided to work as a cook-general, thereby "giving many of her employers the rather uncomfortable experience of employing someone who was further up the social scale than they were" as her biography puts it. One Pair of Hands is her account of her experiences, good and bad.

Of course, it's a very different experience working in service when you don't really have to, and Dickens several times simply runs away from situations that have become awkward or unpleasant, but her memoir is so lively and funny, and Dickens herself seems so irrepressible, that you can't help wishing that you were friends with her. She is cheerfully self-deprecating about her disasters and inadequacies as a cook and cleaner, and unashamedly fascinated by the personal lives of her employers, never letting on that when they speak French or German to keep secrets from her, she can speak far more fluently than they can...

I'm enjoying One Pair of Hands so much I might have to revisit One Pair of Feet as well, and I don't think I've ever read My Turn To Make The Tea, which is Monica Does Journalism... Oh, dear, this is where instant gratification can lead you...