Unexpected in the UK!

It is worth Googling oneself, because just occasionally, you get a nice surprise, like this unexpected review of New Guinea Moon in the UK Independent, as one of a dozen titles in Susan Elkin's wrap-up of Best books for children this Christmas. New Guinea Moon was featured in Part 1, books for 12 year olds and up.

New Guinea Moon by Kate Constable (Allen and Unwin, £6.99) is about an Australian 16-year-old, Julie, who goes alone to New Guinea to spend the summer with her charter pilot father, Tony, whom she hasn’t seen since she was three. It’s 1974 and New Guinea is about to be granted independence. She finds more than she bargained for, including a man she’s attracted to, and another she isn’t, many colourful characters (Barb is nicely sketched and so is Andy) in a world in which indigenous people are often ignored, an unexpected secret in her father’s life and, eventually, a future.


Not Quite Cold Turkey

In my never-ending quest to ramp up my writing productivity, I'm trying something new.

Like everyone else who works primarily at a keyboard, I've found myself increasingly distracted by the diversions available online. Fascinating links on Facebook, witticisms on Twitter, endless football speculation on my club forum, in depth analysis of my favourite children's books by people who love them as much as I do... There's always something to look at.

I've tried rationing, and rewards (get over the next 1,000 words and you can browse for five minutes; write 100 words and you can read one more post on WOOF). But it's still getting out of hand.

So now I've made a new rule: No Internet Between 10am and 5pm.

And my deadline is about to kick in... Gotta go, bye!


Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean!

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

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

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

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

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

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


Warriors Challenge!

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Book I Wish I'd Written

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

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

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


The Colours of Madeleine

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

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

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

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

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

Just read them!


The Drama of Football

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

It's all about the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How could anyone resist a story like that?


Streatfeild Unread!

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

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

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

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

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


Get Your Skates On!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Footscray Wins the Flag!

The VFL flag, but still!

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Parade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About books.


Landscapes of Childhood

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

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

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

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


Going to the Footy, Old Style

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

* By Corinne Malvern, according to Professor Internet


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!


Reading Retreat

I am not a sociable person. I require sustained periods of solitude to function properly. I was re-reading my diary the other day, back from the time when I used to have an office job, and reflecting on how exhausted I'd become at the end of the day. I used to blame the relentless nature of the work - it was a phone sales and data entry job, mostly - but now I suspect that a large part of my fatigue stemmed from being with people all day, and the numerous social interactions I had to undertake - a fresh round of small talk with each and every phone call! And I had to be friendly, and chatty, and sound interested! And in between phone calls, there were my fellow workers to interact with! No wonder I staggered out at the end of every Monday, practically catatonic with tiredness.

One way I can reliably win quiet, restorative time for myself is through reading. Since childhood, I've tended to hide myself inside a book. Now that my children have turned into proper people, demanding thoughtful interaction, I sometimes have to retreat from them into the peace of a book to recover my inner balance. The trouble is, they know exactly what I'm up to, and they don't like it. They insist on trying to talk to me while I'm reading, pulling my attention back to themselves. (How dare they.)

So those minutes I can steal during the busy times of the day -- at the stove, stirring dinner; at the table, scoffing lunchbox leftovers; maybe a quiet twenty minutes between putting away the washing and starting dinner preparation, while the kids are chilling after school -- become all the more precious. If I'm sprung, I have to put the book away and go back to being Mum.

But now I'm wondering, did I seek solace in books in the first place because I found people such hard work? Or have years of retreating into reading rendered me unfit for normal human interaction?


Reading Diaries: Yea or Nay?

When Alice started primary school, we had a reading diary. I say 'we', because I was the one who conscientiously filled it out every night. Every scrawled space with the date, the name of the particular excruciatingly dull reader we'd struggled through that evening, and her comments which I recorded because she couldn't (usually a noncommittal 'okay', though in fact she was more likely to shriek, 'I HATE reading! I can't do this! This is TERRIBLE!') and my dutiful signature, gave little hint of the nightly war we waged to 'get reading done.'

Filling out the diary became more desultory as she advanced up the school, paradoxically in inverse relation to her growing literacy skills. By the time it came to Evie's turn, I was exhausted. No matter, Evie was keen enough to fill out her own diary, though her enthusiasm dropped away eventually, too. 

When Alice went on her big Harry Potter binge, and when Evie plunged into the world of Warriors, we  didn't keep records. Now Alice is in high school, where they don't expect you to keep a journal of what you read, and Evie is in Grade 4, and she can read basically anything.

Evie is still expected to read for 'twenty minutes every night' and keep a record of what she's read -- how many pages, did she like it, etcetera. And I'm supposed to ask her comprehension questions to make sure she understands what she's reading. I'm not a naturally rebellious person, but this year, I've decided not to cooperate. I'm not going to make Evie keep a record of what she reads. I'm not going to set the timer to make sure she does her statutory 20 minutes. And I'm not going to cross-question her about the content either. I trust her to use her own judgment about whether this is a 'just-right' book, without totting up how many words she can't quite understand per page. Sometimes you have to encounter a word a lot of times before its meaning drops into place. I want her to read books that are just a little bit too hard, as well as old favourites that she knows by heart. And I want her to think of reading as a pleasure, a joy, not just another homework chore to tick off the list, not another square to fill up in the bloody diary. If that means that some nights, she doesn't read anything, that's fine. And if she wants to spend all day immersed in Half-Blood Prince, that's fine too.


Harry Potter Charades

The girls had a friend over at the weekend, and they invented a game that kept them occupied for HOURS. Watching TV in the next room, we would hear someone stomp into the library, announcing in a pompous voice: Hello everybody, I work for the Ministry of Magic... or a little shrill voice saying, Boo-hoo, I'm a sad House Elf, I got the sack...

It turns out they were playing 'What Harry Potter Character Am I?' (catchy name, I know). They'd found a list of every character in the Harry Potter universe, printed it out (see above), and numbered each sheet and character. Then they'd choose, unseen, a number combination (say, 5-18), look it up, and then perform it for the others to guess.

For example, if I had chosen 5-18, I'd be a Gryffindor Quidditch player... a Chaser... future wife of George Weasley...

Can you guess who I am?


Friends Reading

We watch a lot of Friends at our house. I was a fan the first time around (I especially got into the Chandler/Monica secret affair storyline, because at the time I was having a secret affair with my future husband, and I am a little bit Monica and he is a little bit Chandler.)

But Alice is a massive fan, and we have watched it on a loop approximately 4,782 times (seasons 3 -10 anyway, Gem doesn't seem to have the rights to the first two seasons, which is okay, cos they were not that great). There are many episodes we can almost quote by heart.

But recently I noticed something odd. In seasons 3 and 4, the Friends do quite a bit of reading. You often see Rachel or Monica in the coffee shop with a book. Rachel read Joan Didion at the beach. There were books lying around the apartments. Chandler bought a first edition of The Velveteen Rabbit for Joey's girlfriend (what a declaration of love!) One of my favourite episodes is the one where Rachel persuades Joey to read Little Women, then terrifies him, in the middle of an argument, by revealing, 'Beth dies!' She then takes it back, so he'll keep reading. But towards the end of the episode, Joey comes in, clutching the book. 'Beth's really sick... Jo's there, but I don't think there's much she can do...' Rachel hugs him, and says, 'Do you want me to put the book in the freezer?' (That's where Joey keeps the things that really frighten him.) I love that episode, and the fact that Beth doesn't actually die until Good Wives is neither here not there...

But something happens after season 4. The reading stops. Now you see the cast flipping through fashion magazines. The books disappear. The only appearance of a book after season 4 is when Joey discovers an erotic novel in Rachel's bed. ('Is the vicar coming over?' he asks her, leering.
'Joey!' she says sternly. 'Where did you learn that word?')

Why did the Friends stop reading?


Bluffer's Guide to the Western Bulldogs (2014 Edition)

It's been a long time since I posted anything about the Western Bulldogs; frankly, it was too depressing. We finished fifteenth out of eighteen teams last year. That's not very good, even I have to admit that.

BUT... there are some grounds for cautious optimism. I don't think we'll play finals this year, but I have reason to believe we'll be better than we have been for the last few seasons. Here's why:

1) The hoops are back
See the jumper in the picture above? Them's the hoops. Goodbye Robodog, welcome back to a sensible, proper, stylish football jumper. Anyone would play better in a great jumper like that. (The hoops actually came back last year, it's just taken a little while to start working...)

2) Footscray Football Club is back
This year, the Bulldogs have their very own VFL team. This means that our young players can play the positions we want them to play, not what might suit our affiliate club, who are only interested in winning the VFL finals, not the long-term development of OUR club. Also, FFC will play some games at the Whitten Oval. This is a victory for nostalgic fans who miss the old ground, our spiritual home. Can't wait.

3) We finished well last year
Yes, I know we ended up fifteenth, but it's also true that we won five games in the second half of the year, and had closer-than-expected finishes to a few more. Things seemed to be on the up; even in the games we lost, we were a lot more competitive.

4) How good do those kids look?
Libba is already elite, and should have been All Australian last year. Wallis is coming good. Jordan Roughead has quickly become a stalwart down back. But also keep an eye on Macrae (silky skills, and grew an extra 3cm over the summer!), Stringer (a beast!), Hunter (sooo smart), Hrovat (pronounced ROVE-at), Talia (maturing in the backline).
The most satisfying part of watching the kids is that quite a few of them are father-sons (Libba, Wallis, Hunter) which means we got them for a steal. Bonus: Talia is a grandfather-grandson! His grandpa played in the 1954 premiership!
Prediction: Tom and Tony Liberatore will be the first father-son Brownlow medallists. Yes, Libba jr is really that good.

It's still a development year, but hopefully, hopefully, we will start to see some signs that it's all coming together. Believe in Macca. He's got a plan.


Did JK Rowling Read This Book?

I have spoken before of my love for Monica Dickens, so I couldn't resist this first edition (1948), though I was pleased and surprised to discover today that Joy and Josephine is still in print. It's a lively, delightful version of the swapped-at-birth story; adopted at birth by the Abingers, grocers on the Portobello Rd, Joy/Jo might be the foundling daughter of a poor Irish girl, or she might be the niece of wealthy, titled, Sir Rodney Cope. She gets to taste the possibilities of both identities, and decides (or at least I think she'll decide -- I haven't quite finished it yet) to live out her life as herself.

But that's not what caught my eye! I offer for your consideration page 151:
"You'd have been captain of Second Netball this year, wouldn't you? I wonder who they -- gosh! Tonks will be it, I suppose." ... (S)he sped away to break the glad news to Tonks Tonkinson...
And then p 153:
There was nothing unusual about a girl of nearly fifteen starting regular work... Joan Lupin (was) already earning good money at the button factory...

Tonks AND Lupin?? In the space of two pages? Coincidence? Or -- is it witchcraft?



What's happening to me? I seem to have lost my hunger for kids' books at the moment. All I want to read is adult fiction; it's only grown up novels catching my eye. Is it a reaction to spending the holidays in the company of my children? Is it a subconscious longing for the company of adults, albeit in fictional form?

Look at that list over there to the right: hardly a kids or YA title among them, and the ones that are there are mostly book group assignments. Meanwhile, I have a still higher stack beside my bed, waiting -- books like Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, Margaret Drabble's The Pure Gold Baby, and Sumner Locke Elliott's Careful He Might Hear You.

I suppose at least the last one does have a child protagonist.

Or am I just turning into a grumpy old lady reader?


What We Pass On

It's stating the obvious, but we try to give our children what we value the most in our own lives.

I have some friends who have made certain that their children are getting music lessons -- one is learning violin, another has started flute, another studies trumpet. Each of these friends (at the very least) had music lessons themselves as a child; and for two of them, music has remained an important, even a defining, experience in their lives. Me, I never learned an instrument; I remain largely indifferent to the joys and benefits of music. So it's no coincidence that I haven't pushed music lessons on either of my children. Evie is still doing keyboard, but I'm lax about enforcing practice, and when Alice chose to give up last year, I didn't try to argue her out of it.

Other friends have made sure that their children take part in organised sporting activities: netball, football, tennis. Again, these are people who enjoy and value physical activity and team sports in their own lives. Michael has admitted that if he had sons, he would have tried harder to enrol them in cricket or football; as it is, we haven't tried too hard (ahem).

So what the hell have I given my children, I ask myself, since I'm obviously such a crap and lazy mother? No surprises here: the one thing I have persisted with is books. I still regularly read aloud to my children, even though they are now both capable of reading for themselves (and do). My idea of a fun excursion is "let's go to the library!" or "let's check out the second hand bookshop!" I am more inclined to buy a spontaneous book-present than take my girls clothes shopping.

I'm not saying that my other friends don't value books, or read aloud to their children: they do. But it's interesting to me that, even when other things can seem too hard, I will never stop pushing the words.