Too much excitement (trigger warning – I don’t talk about things in detail, but I do mention potentially triggering events)

Every fortnight, I am tempted to begin with the words, “I had intended.”  I had intended to write about Women’s History Month and to introduce the guests on my blog and to take a quiet moment and think about the past. I wrote a post for Women’s History Month myself this year. It’s about debating circles in the 1970s and 80s. There is a sudden wild interest in the nature of those circles because of what may have happened in them in 1988. Our Attorney General (AG) is suing the national broadcaster (ABC) over a report on something that may or may not have happened in that year. Porter (the AG) was not named in that article and was one of three possible guilty parties according to what was reported. I have my opinion on what happened in 1988, but if the AG is suing the ABC… then I might have to keep it to myself for a bit.

This is one of the reasons Australia found itself at a pivotal point for the history of women this weekend. Another is that on Monday (yesterday!) tens of thousands (or more – no-one did a proper count that I could see) of women marched for justice. A rape was done in Parliament House and the guilty party got support where the victim was … victimised. She spoke at the rally.

The Australian government was in trouble before then. It was trying to recover from the shock of the West Australian state elections on Saturday. The vote was pretty decisive. The ALP won at least 50 seats (52 predicted, at this point in time, 30 needed to govern), the Liberal Party won 2 (and might get one more, and their allies, the Nationals, won 3 (possibly one more, too). Upper House results are not yet finalised, either, but there was a swing towards the ALP there, too.

The ALP is not in government nationally. It is not the party the current Attorney General belongs to. It is not beyond guilt, but it’s been accused of harassment in workplaces in Parliament House: the alleged rape was in an LNP (governing party’s) office.

While the Federal government was reeling over so many events, Australian women were angry. We made jokes about the march of the ides, or the Ides of March. Australia will make jokes about most things. We did not, however, make jokes about safe workplaces and abuse of position by people in power. In fact, when our Prime Minister made what I think now may have been intended to be a joke in Question Time when there were protesters outside, it was the icing on the cake of abuse.

I didn’t even realise it was intended as a joke at first, because one does not joke about not shooting demonstrators in Australia. One MP tweeted about water cannons, but deleted that tweet.

This week is impossibly big for Australia and this post is very difficult to write. There’s so much stuff. And most of that stuff is scary-uncomfortable. Our weekend began with the vote in the west then moved to human rights and raging anger.

Two days ago I would have given links to reports on this or that element, but now… Australia is changing. I don’t know where we will end up, but I live in hopes that this is the rebellion against the fearful and wildly conservative government that has been hurting many people.

Right now, though, I’m tired. Every single Australian who watches politics (which is most of us) is exhausted.

It’s not boring here, that’s one thing.

A Quiet Moment

So many people around me have found distractions help in dealing with the extraordinary times we’re living through. This post is my present to you. Big stuff happens in the US on 20 January. This is a breath. A break. A moment before everything changes.

For me this week is an anniversary. This time last year I had been evacuated to Melbourne because of the bushfires. The air in Canberra was dangerous for me. Tonight my windows are wide open and I’m up late, cooling everything down as much as I can, for we have an incoming heatwave. Earlier today, however, everything was shut, for the dust storms in NSW sent a bit of frazzled air our way. That reminded me that I’ve been mostly indoors since June 2019. Bushfires followed by pandemic. Every now and again I get out and do things and this reminds me that the world outside is real. These incidents come from that real world. I think this is also the moment to celebrate that.

The first story is from Sydney in 1956, for tonight someone reminded me about the torch carrying for the 1956 Olympics.

A group of university students didn’t like the link between the torch and Hitler. Also, they were Australian. Of course they were Australian.

They painted a chair leg silver and put a tin on the end. They filled the tin with a pair of men’s underpants and set it on fire. Two students carried that torch. One of them successfully handed it to the Lord Mayor of Sydney at the Town Hall. The Lord Mayor didn’t realise at first that this was a hoax, and the torchbearer had time to slip away into the crowd.

The second story is from Canberra, quite recently.

A writer-friend was telling us on Twitter tonight about a time… let me give you the story in her words:

“Was at a con sitting at the signing table under a poster with “K.J. TAYLOR” on it and behind a nameplate which also said “K.J. TAYLOR”. A guy came up to me and said “Is K.J. Taylor here?” I patted myself down and said “I’m pretty sure I’m here!” He looked so confused.”

My third tidbit is a bit older, and is from the US. I collect interesting stories about food history. How fast molasses can burst out of a factory on a cold day, for example, and where to buy meat pies in London in 1250. I didn’t know that, on 16 May 1902, there was a kosher beef war on the Lower East Side in New York. Some describe it as riots. Kosher beef riots. This one deserves a link.

I live in a city where there are 300 people who admit to being Jewish. I can’t see us rioting. We used to hold food fairs, where our numbers were drowned by the crowds who wanted to eat bagels and felafel and lokshen kugel and particularly tasty curry from Jewish India.

I used to cook Medieval Jewish dishes for my stall, and people would ask, “Were there really Jews in the Middle Ages?” I gave those asking morsels of history along with their plates of food. Other days I’d talk about the persecution and the murders, but not at the food fair. We all need times where we don’t bear the burdens of history. Take that time today. Tomorrow will come soon enough.

Sumer is icumen in, lhude sing “heatwave.”

Summer is here and we’re in what I like to call ‘silly season.’ Other people dignify it with more worthy names, but other people have already had Thanksgiving. Australia doesn’t do Thanksgiving, and we’re already a bit daft so… “silly season.” I’m not the only one to call December and early January by this name. I am, however, one of the most consistent.

I’m sending out short stories (three of us have joined together in this) to Australian addresses this Friday. Three writers sending out short stories to interested readers is a good thing to do in a fraught year. Also, me, I have Chanukah, so extra treats might creep into some envelopes.

Chanukah starts very soon, so I had to sort out what I was going to do this year rather early. I’m sending a very few envelopes overseas for it. Instead of doing a public call-out, I decided to surprise a few people. Those envelopes are gone. They contain nothing useful and nothing valuable. They are, however, fun.

I’ll be going to the post office again on Thursday. I’m not supposed to do messages. No-one can get blood samples for me (their blood is not my blood), however, so I’ll do the post office/library/bank/chicken run after I’ve done the bloodwork. That will take a half day and it will solve many problems.

I will wear a mask at critical times. I have very pretty masks and need to show them off (thanks, Pati!).

This means that I can send three more envelopes to less unsuspecting parties anywhere in the world. The first three people to get me their addresses (no later than Wednesday morning your time) will receive something small to remind you there’s a world out there and that you deserve time out. And stickers. This year we all deserve stickers.

For local friends, I have bowls filled with goodies. Local friends get the best of the daft presents, because they have to come and pick them up. The bowls will lurk on my letterbox, for as short a time as possible because it is warm. By ‘warm’, I mean, of course, ‘quite uncomfortable and this weather is intolerable and why is it doing this to us?’

Summer is here. We have our first bushfires to prove it. One of my friends can smell the smoke from Fraser Island. Another put up the special shutters and promptly lost electricity to the first fire of the season in the Blue Mountains. This is normal… but normal doesn’t mean nice in any way.

The return of bushfire season coincided with the US Black Friday sales. Some really-not-very-bright Australian retailers have announced ‘Black Friday’ as a sale here, too. ‘Black Friday’ in Australia normally refers to the 1939 fires and reminds us of the 2019/20 fires and a lot of Australians are annoyed at quite a few retailers. The sales are nearly done and they’ve put a blight into the shopping of those whose silly season includes 25 December.

Me, I already have all kinds of presents for all kinds of people for all kinds of seasons. The moment I earned enough money to live on, I bought books for me and presents for everyone else. I’m all shopped out. This means I can spend the next few weeks doing relaxed things while others panic, doesn’t it?

Not quite. I’m several weeks into my PhD and have a structure for it and have met all my early milestones. This means I have forty books and over two hundred articles to read before 6 January. My silly season is splendidly different to most others’, and this year I plan to enjoy the heck out of it.

 

Reading and Writing – an update on my book problem

I have so many piles of books in my living area (which is also my work area) that even I feel the clutter. The reason this post’s title includes the words ‘book problem’ is because occasionally they topple and I tripped over one yesterday and…

I love them all. It’s not a problem in any sense except the clutter. I’m not reading just one good book this month, I’m reading dozens. They are my building blocks for a three-year research project (1), and I’m already having fun. Gradually, the piles will diminish.

One pile is for putting away. “I’ve finished this – it was fun but not terribly useful. I’ve taken the notes I need from it but they’re not relevant to anything I’ll be writing. It can go away. No need to put it in the bibliography.”

Another pile is carefully marked up. Not the books themselves – I have special sticky paper that doesn’t harm books and I write on that. When I’m ready to write that book up, I go straight to the notes and lo, it’s ready to go. I know what page to refer to in my footnotes and I have my thoughts on the sticky paper. Then I put the details of the book in the bibliography, and then that book goes on the putting-away pile.

The third pile consists of one book right now, called Putting the Science into Fiction. It’s not a scrap of use for my research project, but has some stuff in it I want to use as a reminder for world building. The world building has nothing to do with the research project. Until last Wednesday I did it full-time, but now I’m doing it as a leisure activity. The book will be put away when I talk through what it contains with my co-conspirators in world building, which could be next Monday, or it could be in three months.

The three largest piles relate to three of the core focal points of the research project. One is on fairy tales, one is on own voices, and the third is on writing about cultures that are a bit alien or foreign.

The piles I’m working through right now, however, are none of those things. Some are on writing technique, some are on genre, and some are on what makes narrative, and some are on rhetoric or critical theory. These are my reminder piles: it’s no use launching into research without checking that you know what you’re doing. It’s not enough to know this stuff as an expert or generally. I have to know exactly what elements I need for this precise project.

That’s all for this project, for now.

A proposal I put in for an academic paper was accepted yesterday. I’m about to start an extra pile (which will link into the project, but is right now just for the paper) will be about food in speculative fiction. This one is quite dangerous. Whenever I write about food, I have to cook things.

When people ask me what I love about research I am stumped. What’s not to love about reading fiction and inventing recipes to fit the food mentioned in the story? Although in this case I’ll be doing a critical analysis. Mouthfeel has to play a part. Maybe I’ll have recipes as the slides that illustrate the paper? After all, I have a nice collection of cookbooks that I can match to the foodways in the fiction. The most mouth-watering paper at an academic conference. It sounds good to me.

Writing long fiction is on the backburner for a bit, obviously, but my reasons are impeccable, as are my piles of books. Also, I did that thing that chefs do on cooking shows. There are three objects I prepared earlier, one that is out in paperback and now affordable (earlier research!) , one that is out already and the other is coming in a very, very short time. The same applies to next year – work finished a while back means that I shall research away and books will appear and everyone will think that I work 36 hours a day.

I don’t. But I do have impressive piles of books stacked everywhere they fit.

 

  1. For all of you, a footnote. For anyone wondering, yes, this research project is for a PhD. It’s not my first PhD, however, and Australian PhDs are only three years long and we start the research on Day One. Also, I’m more interested in the research itself and in working with two tremendous supervisors than I am with shouting, “Hey, I’m doing a PhD.” Because it’s all about writers and what they put in their fiction, I shall talk about the cool stuff here, from time to time. Ivory towers are a fiction, and research relates to the real world. This research relates to culture in fiction. And I am one of those people who write stuff into footnotes that people need to read. I did it for my first novel and I refuse to stop doing it unless I’m writing an academic piece. This is due to a certain warped element in my personality.

Comfort reading

The other day, we were chatting, in the usual Treeehouse way, about one of our favourite topics. The question we asked each other was not “Which books do you like?” but “Why do you like this book in particular?” We were talking about elements of a book where the author had put the finger on something so precisely that that author and that trait give us pleasure, even years after we first read it. We decided that when one of us remembers something about a favourite book, we might write about it here. We all need comfort right now, after all, and comfort reading is right up there with chocolate as something worth sharing. I’ve eaten some excellent chocolate today and I have a cup of tea at my right hand.

The book I want to share is one that’s really not very well known these days. I’m not sure it was even published outside Australia. It’s by Ray Harris The Adventures of Turkey. Boy of the Australian Plains. I have the 1960 edition, but didn’t read it until some years later. My school library had an earlier edition. I learned about space travel in that library and dreamed of becoming a science fiction writer. I learned about history in that library and dreamed of having history as part of my life. I watched the moon landing in that library, in 1969, when I was eight, and I read The Adventures of Turkey in that library.

Turkey was a schoolboy who lived outback, in an Australia I thought I visited on holidays. When I was a teenager, I was on a school exchange programme and discovered that almost everything in the novel either never existed or was in the past. Mostly in the past. I spent a lot of my early history quests trying to find out about Turkey and his life.

What is it in this book that still grips me? It’s a perfectly created world. It’s what most fantasy novels dream of being, but it chronicles the apparent everyday of school children from way out Woop Woop or from back of Burke. This is an Australian fantasy place, where the climate is tough and the people tougher, and where snakes are dealt with calmly and the real hero is a lanky boy who looks like a bush turkey.

The conversation us Treehousers (I’m now stuck in Australian English, sorry) had, was about writing techniques.

What writing techniques did Harris use that makes me dream about this non-existent Australia every time I read the book? (Do not ask how often I’ve read the book: I’ve owned this copy for about 45 years. We are talking about ultimate comfort reading.) This is not about what the book gets wrong. It’s about what it gets right.

One of my favourite openings of novels is in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. In the first paragraph we learn so much about a family that everything that happens to Will Stanton happens in that family context. The events are more startling because we know his family, intimately, from Will’s reaction to them in that first paragraph.

Ray Harris uses a similar technique.

“Turkey, me toe’s sore!”

Without speaking, the lanky fourteen year-old slid his school bag in front of him and took his small stepsister pick-a-back. He carried her easily enough. She put her perspiring cheek against his not neck, pushing his hat on one side. He made no protest.

 

It’s at once very Australian and very simple.

Everything in the novel is Australian and simple. We were just getting used to the idea that we could use our own dialect for protagonists in the 1950s and 1960s, so Harris used a voice even in that opening paragraph and that voice is what comforts me.

It’s my father’s voice.

Dad was brought up in country towns. I’m very much a big city person and I’ve never spoken the way Turkey does. I use a bit of dialect (‘Strine’ is its official name) now and again, to tease people, but I actually had to learn it from others as a child. The Adventures of Turkey was one of those others. It helped me to understand my father’s jokes. It helped me to see that there was an Australia outside my suburb and that I wanted to find out more about that Australia. It did all this by presenting the often-humorous life of Turkey, one day at a time.

While as a school story Turkey was new to me, the humour wasn’t. My father’s jokes are in it, and the entire novel lovingly embraces the narrative style of CJ Dennis (The Sentimental Bloke is another story I visit and revisit when I need comfort – it’s an Australian retelling of Romeo and Juliet) with hints (mere hints) of the adventures of Bunyip Bluegum (Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding) and the short stories of Steele Rudd about Dad and Dave.

If you find the common elements in all of these, you will see what gives me comfort in The Adventures of Turkey. Whimsy walks alongside stern practicality. There’s an acceptance that even simple prose can be used to share the reality that ordinary life is tough but still worthwhile.

All of this was communicated through a writing style that supported resigned humour. The comfort comes from Strine itself, in a way. When I first discovered it, I was reading British school stories and dance books and horse books and I was reading about Anne Shirley and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was reading science fiction and fantasy and anything that contained history. None of them gave the firm foundation that Turkey did.

It’s the sense that the everyday can be story, I think. Even if it’s an everyday that is so unlike my own that it felt ultra-real.

That opening says it all. Susan Cooper’s opening said that the everyday can be turned upside down and inside out. Harris said that the everyday didn’t have to be turned upside down and inside out to make good story. This is the comfort.

The special joy of Spring in Australia

Spring is almost here. I could wax about flowers (and hayfever), about politics (and political fatigue) about having to wear my knee rug as a toga for late night meetings because my heater doesn’t do the job. Or I could talk about magpies.

Australian magpies are scary-bright. If you feed them, they will take care of you. They will watch over you and they will attack intruders in spring. If you don’t, one in ten (or may one in a hundred, maybe fewer) will simply attack. An ornithologist told me once that it’s probably a male testosterone thing. Whether it is that or not, they’re always protecting their turf.

Attacks are not random. People are attacked strategically. If your face is a known face (if you provide minced meat to the magpie every day of your shred life), you’re safe. If you’re a cyclist, you’re not so safe. If you’re in a pram, you’re not so safe.

By ‘not so safe’, eyes have been taken out, on occasion, and there can be contusions and… you don’t leave a baby alone in the park in magpie season and have a conversation 30 metres away unless you’re certain there is no swooping.

That’s only for a few weeks a year, and it’s only one out of a great number of birds, so any American who puts magpie attacks on the list of reasons to avoid Australia is helping us avoid people who don’t understand the real dangers to tourists in Australia. Dehydration, for example, is more likely than being successfully attacked by a magpie. If you’re after birds that defeated an army, you should look up “Emu War”, not “attack magpie”.

Why have I meandered to “Australia as a dangerous place?” I wanted to talked about the intelligence of magpies, not about Australia’s secret plot to scare away US tourists.

This year we have two new signs of magpie intelligence. First, they were traumatised by the fire and there are more swoops this year and the swoops started earlier. Magpies get PTSD.

Second, if you’re wearing a mask, it doesn’t matter if you’ve fed a magpie for twenty years, you’re likely to be swooped. This made me think about the one year in my life I’ve been swooped: I’d changed my hair style and my glasses. Magpies employ facial recognition.

Also, their song is more complex than most birds, and it changes in different ways to different circumstances, but that’s not new. It is, however, extraordinarily beautiful. Magpies are one of the great song birds. Like opera singers with rapiers, really.

‘Bird-brain’ means something else entirely with Australian magpies to any other bird I know.