Saturday, 24 June 2017

A Misplaced Spring

Here we are, a couple of days past our Winter Solstice, and my wanderings outside have discovered a garden in a state of confusion. I thought I might share a few photos of what has been happening.

The first Daffodil has bloomed, and more buds are ready....

The Hardenbergia Violacea is in full flower....

Potato plants are thriving as if it is September, even as the Lettuce seedlings begin to unfurl....

The Lemon is flowering.....

And the Borage, normally a flower that brightens Spring and Summer days, is flowering and feeding the bees that are willing to brave the Winter breeze....

The ballerina Fuschias are flowering as well, emjoying the sunshine that reaches in beneath the outstretched limbs of Alnus Jorullensis....

And the first shoots are opening on a Mullberry that is being developed as a bonsai.  Will any of these survive the frosts and blizzards that we expect over the winter months?  Will the snow fall and the sleet fly, this year, as it so often did?  Perhaps there will be no snow or sleet, and the frosts will merely tickle and nip the edges of the leaves and petals that should have slept for a few more months.  What adjustments will I need to make to my gardens to help them flourish as the seasons change?  What adjustments will our society need to make to help its members flourish as the seasons shift, and the sea levels rise?

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Skewed points of view

I have been contemplating how my age, social and cultural backgrounds, and life experience, affect not only my point of view as I write a story, but the points of view that I inflict on my characters.

There have been occasions in writing group that some of us have attempted to write from a different pov than our natural position - different gender, for example, is a common prompt.  But there is also something I said to a friend some years ago about generation gaps.  I have really grown up in a different world to someone who is twenty or forty years younger than me.  When I am talking with someone of another generation, though we both say we are speaking English, the words have subtly changed their meanings from my time to theirs.  New words and phrases have been coined, old words have been put to new purposes, and some words have fallen from use altogether.

To some extent, I can understand my parents, because I grew up listening to them, and my children have the same experience with me - but even another half a generation later, the flow of language has swept onwards, leaving me stranded on the mud-banks of time.  Doctor Who does a remarkable job, all things considered, being able to talk to humans from so many periods of history (and pre-history, it seems)

The differences include the technology, but also significant cultural changes - my experience with the tension of the Cold War and its constant threat of nuclear war is different to the experiences of people born since 1970, but that may be changing as we speak, and another generation may be experiencing the subtle "valley of fear" effect that impacted  the lives, decisions and thought processes of so many people who grew up in the fifties and sixties.

Likewise, my parents and grandparents had direct experience of the Great Depression, and one or more of the World Wars.  My grandparents saw the great Flu Epidemic that slew so many of those who survived the First World War.  I lived in a world where vaccination, refrigeration, mains electricity, treated water on tap, and push-button sewage disposal seemed to have always existed - they knew what it was to walk to the well, or the water tank behind the house, and they knew of the need to boil the water, and they saw the children die of diseases - polio and measles - that were to my generation just a distant rumour.  The evidence of that passing world was still to be seen, in the maimed survivors of the recent World War who could be met on any suburban or city street,  in the newsreels at the cinema that discussed the final defeat of polio, or the visits to the rural relatives who still lived on dusty or muddy farms, getting their water from well or tank, and lighting their houses with kerosene lamps.

Of course, the discrepancy in viewpoints is not just caused by temporal differences - geography can have a say.  The charmed life that I and so many like me have taken for granted has never existed in many parts of the planet, including parts of Australia, and still does not exist in places where it should.  It is possible that it never will. In the seventies, we dared to hope that a Golden Age was dawning for all the world - in 2017 we wonder if the world will survive, and some of us believe that we may already lived through the best of times.  Is that why dystopian novels attract such a following?

Of course, many things don't fundamentally change, but simply adjust their clothes or hairstyles - bigotry, greed, anger, and fear still pervade society, and are still used by politicians seeking to gain power for themselves without having to present intelligent and positive policies.

Technological changes have effects beyond the obvious - someone like me, who has lived through many such changes (as well as launching into a Thoreau inspired "tree-change" for a couple of decades) is often stunned when a younger person reveals an assumption that certain services have "always been around"  Try explaining black and white television to an eight year old in the nineteen eighties, or the previous absence of mobile phones to someone born after 2005.  Technology that is now ubiquitous is considered to be something that "no one could live without"

For example, I recently heard an historian talking about the complaints made to the Council of the City of Sydney over the years.  I had never heard before that, when gas powered street lamps were introduced to Sydney, a policy designed to save money meant that the lamps were not lit on the night of the full moon, nor on several nights either side of it.  What seemed a logical cost saving measure  to an accountant who may never have been out in the streets after dark was a serious nuisance - even a danger - to the many people who needed to travel the city streets after sunset.

Did that happen in other cities of the world as the first street lamps were introduced?  If I were writing a novel set in that time, what other such quirks might affect my characters as they go about their business??  It is hard to realistically imagine a future world in a novel, but it can be quite tricky to write about the past if we take our 21st Century assumptions with us into the novel.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Goodbye Girlie

If you have in your family people over the age of 80 years, and wonder what planet they were born on, then I can recommend this book as a window to their world, and as a way to understand where the Australia you are living in now came from.  The world we occupy is very different from their world, and this book - written by a woman who was born less than a century ago - not only shows you that world, but shows you why so much of our world is as it is.

Patsy Adam-Smith's Goodbye Girlie is a wonderful memoir - the sequel to her memories of childhood that were published in Hear the Train Blow.

It is too easy for people to paint a picture of a golden age in Australia's past - an age that really only shone for people in the upper levels of society.  The minority who lived well before and between the world wars were some of the men, and a handful of women - for the rest, life was somewhere between tough and abyssmal.  Patsy enlisted as a nurse's aid and did so to escape the boredom, poverty, and repression - social, economic, and religious - that was the life of a woman in so much of Australia.  Many other women did so for the same reasons, and more than a few of the men who enlisted also saw a brighter future for themselves if they could get into uniform and out of the grinding life allowed to "the lower classes" - if you are over 60 then you grew up listening to and interacting with older relatives who had lived that sort of life. If you are under 30, these books are an opportunity to hear stories that are otherwise being forgotten, and lost to posterity.

Such harsh conditions still exist in pockets of Australia, even today - and as for the wider world, well, I am truly glad that Australia is where I live.  Perfect we are not, but when you let Patsy's stories wash over you, you understand just how fortunate a country we are.  When you have time to sit and read for a few hours, I can recommend any of her books, just as I can recommend Ion Idriess, for anyone wanting to understand those times that were not really so long ago.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Stories lost, and found.

In the galaxy of stories that is humanity, each of us orbits among the other stars of our home constellations, spinning our yarns into the thread of our story and weaving it into the vast, complex spiral.  Some weave tightly, close to other stars, warming each other, bending each others trajectories - some soar alone through the gaps and along the rim.

When a story-teller ends, when the flame sputters to its end, the constellation changes shape, and memories begin to fade and fragment.  The once tightly ordered solar system becomes a debris field to be swept up by others - or ignored and forgotten.

Though the once bright fire has been extinguished, there are still sparks and embers to be found that can tell of the glories that were, and keep some chapters, paragraphs, or even just a few phrases of the story, alive in other orbits.

Sifting through such a debris field can be joyful and utterly melancholy in the same minutes.  A dusty hoard of old cards and letters will reveal traces of dreams and nightmares, and hopes fulfilled or dashed, or even a squirrel-cache of notes or coins. A hidden diary or box of letters may reveal a surprising, even shocking, turn of events or emotions that had never been revealed before.

Carefully ordered craft cupboards, work-benches, and garden sheds have changed from places of purposeful resources to mere piles of souvenirs, as the family archaeologists assess, evaluate, allocate, or discard.

Yet, as we sort, each object still carries faint vibrations or echoes of its original task in the long story that has now ended.   A single photograph can bring all work to a stop, as the memories awaken, and a part of the story is called forth and handed around to be savoured and cherished at least one last time.  A special cup or teapot from childhood visits, long ago, or the hand-made apron that allowed the visitor to join in the work at the kitchen table, and the searcher is back in the early days of their own story.

And so the severed threads can be woven into another part of the great tapestry, continuing a weave and weft that may have been handed on over many generations. Souvenirs are often found that tell of lives generations past - artefacts that have been gathered in other long ago expeditions to other darkened stars.  We are fortunate, who can sit with friends and family, amid the tears and the laughter, and dwell again in the golden age of childhood that such fragments evoke.

As well as nostalgia, there is the carefully preserved evidence of a world that no longer exists, and we remember how much has changed even in the course of our own lifetimes, let alone in the lives of those who came not so many decades before us. It often yields clues that allow the investigator to chart and date the beginning of the decline that precedes most ends, and offers all sorts of little lessons in ways that life can be lived, and enjoyed, and managed, and endured.  Those of us who can embark on such expeditions are fortunate, for so many stories end suddenly, catastrophically, or even intentionally, and final chapters are left unwritten, or erased.

Look around your constellation - cherish your stories and theirs; they can so easily be lost forever.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

To Believe or not to Believe.......

A big flaw in our political process is gulf between the story a politician believes, and the story they tell to get elected. They know that the story they believe and live by is one that a majority of voters will not accept.  So they tell a story they know that enough voters will accept, despite their intention to push on with their preferred story after the election.

The successful politician knows that people need a story that will seem to make sense of events, and of the decisions being made by government - they know that the story that will resonate with the electorate is the one that feels acceptable to the voters, and that objective truth does not need to be a major part of that story.  Indeed, truth often runs a very distant last in the race when the other contender is a story that fits the desires, prejudices, and beliefs of the audience.

The old adage "Truth is stranger than fiction" is particularly applicable in the field of politics.  Even a light skim of the daily news - local, national, and international - will provide stories that make you stop and exclaim "How could anyone be so stupid" or "Surely they didn't think we would believe that" or "I wonder who is paying who" or even just "That can't possibly be the real reason they are doing this - what is really going on?"

Every now and then a novelist hits the big time by asking the right "What if" question, and then turning the answer into the book that gets published - just before some real life incident that closely resembles the plot of the novel.  How many "What Ifs" have been discarded as too unrealistic, only to find reality mirroring imagination within weeks or months of the screwed up paper hitting the side of the rubbish bin?  In a flash, an idea that seemed too outlandish to publish has become a moment in the history books.  How many authors have stared at the evening news and asked themselves "How could I have tossed that idea away?" or "Why did I take so long to finish that first draft?"  I am one - are you?

Was there, in the torrent of political thrillers that have washed across the shelves and check-out counters of the world's book shops and libraries, one that presaged the Presidential actions that gave us Watergate?  Did some Italian novelist write a story that accurately predicted the awful and undignified end to which Mussolini succumbed? Apart from a possible link to an episode of The Simpsons, has any author really predicted what is happening in the USofA at the moment?

There are times when truth and fiction are equally strange and become inextricably entangled, as evidenced by the conspiracy theories that swirl about in the aftermath of great events, growing in number and complexity, and attracting supporters the way the Canberra street lights draw in the Bogong Moths. 

Did anyone in Australia (or elsewhere) predict in a novel the tumultuous days that came to a head on the steps of Parliament House in December 1975?  Conspiracy theories abound regarding that event, too, and who knows, perhaps one of them is fact rather than theory?

Our need to identify patterns and order make us a sucker for a story that suggests a conspiracy - some of us more so than others. Stories that hint at secrets and conspiracies get our attention - we expect every action to be the result of an active agent, to have a reason behind it, and for it to be part of a discernable, comprehensible narrative.  We want answers, and we want them in a shape, texture, and colour that we can accept and enjoy.

Recently, I read Lee Child's novel "Night School" - in it, an unexpected protagonist gets between the original villains and the hero, as they all pursue the acquisition or recovery of some missing weapons.  The conspiracies are manifold, and weave about each other in ever more complex patterns - yet they never discomfit the reader's willing suspension of disbelief.  As part of the plot, Child has postulated a conspiracy that sees an infiltration of German law enforcement by Neo-Nazi types, though he doesn't specifically name them as such.

Only weeks after reading the novel, and within a year of its publication, I opened the newspaper and found a story about a growing scandal in Germany - it was a serious infiltration of the country's military forces by Neo-Nazis, and the subsequent misuse and theft of weapons by those infiltrators.

Humans are basically the primates who became story tellers.  We use stories to make sense of ourselves and our world.  Our need for stories, and the way we use and abuse them, is like the proverbial box of matches - a match can light the fire that cooks a meal or warms a hearth, or start the bushfire that razes a million acres and a thousand homes.   “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Joan Didion, The White Album

We need stories to map our past, present, and future, and many of us will cling to our favourite ones in the face of an avalanche of facts that contradict the core "truths" of those favourites. “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
Philip Pullman

Filters are applied to weed out the inconvenient truths and bothersome data, and compatible facts and information are sought out to help build and strengthen the stories we prefer.  Joel Shepherd, in his Cassandra Kresnov series, coined a wonderful term to deal with this aspect of human nature, and Andrew Pollack describes it very well in his blog  here -  Compulsive NarrativeSyndrome

Enjoy your storytelling - may all your stories fall on eager ears, and sail on down the winds of time to become part of the great story that humanity has been weaving for so long.  Perhaps, one day, one of your "What if" stories will be venerated as prophecy - or at least they may say of it, as we said of our village newspaper, years ago - "Se non e vero, e molto ben trovato".

Saturday, 20 May 2017

A Yen for Writing

There is advice for writers, and then there are the essays of Ray Bradbury as set out in Zen in the Art of Writing.

Written across three decades and published in 1994, they are at once whimsical and deadly serious - full of, as he puts it, the Zest and Gusto with which every writer should approach her work.  Without zest and gusto, the writer/artist/composer is only half alive - whether the passion of the moment is love or anger, admiration or indignation, by hurling that passion at the page with zest and gusto, the writer will produce something real.

There are shelves in bookshops that groan under the weight of tomes advising the writer on the roads to success, the techniques for perfection, and the rules for marketing the finished product.  Go to the 808s on the library shelf and the same books can be borrowed at no cost.  Each of them is, in the end, the opinion of a writer or editor or literary agent.  Much of the advice they contain may be useful - but only if you have been able to summon up the anger or the joy that will give you the strength - the "Zest and Gusto" - needed to hurl the mingled contents of your memory and imagination at the page.

Bradbury's essays inspire me and make me envious - all at the same moment.  I have written, in fits and starts - for much of my life.  There were short stories and long ones, plays, screen plays, letters, diaries and journals (both personal and official), small town newspapers, business reports, official reports of various sorts, and publicity pieces for local events and organisations  There was plenty to write about, but timidity intervened too often.  I had heard about the Tall Poppy Syndrome, and wanted to keep my head.  My passion did not overpower my sense of self-preservation nearly often enough for my writing to progress to the point of publication.

The passion was there - I could be as angry or as joyful as the next man, but that old fashioned virtue of Restraint held me back.  There is a virtue in holding your counsel close, listening and watching - but there comes a time when you have to hurl back at the world all the words, the sights, the sounds, the joy, and the agony, that you have taken from it.  A time to set it out in a form that suits you, that pleases you, that says it your way - or else let it turn to dust in the silence and darkness, and die with you.

Bradbury uses his essays to offer advice on how to write, but more importantly, he offers lived experience on how and why he wrote and lived, and he does so with passion and humour.  He shows, not tells, why passion and humour are crucial to writing, to art, and to life, and he shows that whatever the art you wish to practice, it is worth practicing - never minding what anyone else thinks of it, but only minding what you yourself have to say.

And he shows that the only way to do something well is to do it - again and again and again - that an author must work until work ceases to be work and becomes relaxation.  Sounds odd, but I am beginning to understand what he means.  It is a philosophy that applies equally to any human endeavour - the athlete, the archer, the painter, the seamstress, the singer, the soldier - all will work (or a better word might be practice) again and again, aiming always to do better now than before.

Inspiration is always waiting in the wings but can do nothing for us until we begin to work.

Strangely enough, the advice at the end of the book seems to be contradicting the advice at the beginning - but it is not. By working, no matter what, we find that the zest and gusto, the passion and enthusiasm, have been there waiting for us to start.  The Muse will not write for us, but will offer us help if we are willing to pick up our pen and start tossing words at the page.  It is a circular process, the more we work, the easier it gets, the easier it gets, the more we want to work - and it stops being "working at a craft" and begins to be practicing our art.

Monday, 15 May 2017

The day I was hit by a chicken

Fossicking through my files for inspiration, I came across a story written in response to a writers group prompt from a couple of years ago.  The title of the story is the prompt as it was offered, and the story that tumbled from my pen over the next fifteen minutes is a tangle of truth and fiction.  Which parts are true, and which are untrue?  Not telling.

The day I was hit by a chicken
When I was 15, most people in their thirties or forties seemed old to me.  But not my parents - my mother was slender, with a girlish face and voice, and the same curly blonde hair I'd seen in her photos from the war years; she was "grown up" but not old.

Until one day, when I looked sideways from the sink, where my recently developed sense of responsibility had me washing dishes, to the adjacent kitchen bench where mum was preparing the Sunday baked dinner.  She was stuffing  bread, onions, and herbs into a chicken that was to be the centrepiece of the meal.

A glint in her hair, above and ahead of her ear, caught my eye.  Had I just seen silver hair amongst the blonde?  Could my mother be growing old?  As I sponged and rinsed the plates and bowls, I snuck more glances at the side of her bent head.  Images scrolled through my mind of a full head of grey curls, and blue eyes peering at me from a field of wrinkles.  Would her voice get old too?  How long would it be before she was ancient?  Until a few moments earlier, it had seemed inconceivable.

The images and thoughts swirled around my head for what seemed like ages, before distilling themselves into a sentence that just charged out of my mouth of its own accord.

"I can't imagine you as a grandmother," I said, just as she straightened and began to turn towards the baking dish.

She shrieked and jerked back around towards me, eyes wild and mouth open.  The chicken flew out of her hands and hit me in the chest.

"What are you trying to tell me? You don't even have a girlfriend" she screamed, as the slippery chook bounced off my chest and skidded across the lino floor.

I wasn't sure what I was trying to tell her, but it wasn't that I was about to become a father.  That was the first time I was ever hit with a chicken.  Turned out not to be my last – but that's a story for another day, along with the flying choko artwork, and the macaroni incident.