The scent of books is the scent of toffied candied peel

Today I had a rather fun cooking accident. I’m making candied peel, and the doorbell rang. This candied peel has a bit of alcohol in, and the water hadn’t boiled out of it and… it boiled over onto the stovetop while I answered the door. I cleaned up some of it immediately, because dinner was impossible without any cooking elements for my frypan (my frypan is greedy that way – it won’t heat without help), and left the rest until later. ‘Later’ was just now for some of it. It had crystallised and could be cleaned off with an egg-lifter. When wet, it took so much more work to clear away.

While I was creatively using my egg-lifter (and is egg-lifter even a word in US English?), I thought about what book I should tell you about today.

Given that the other thing I did today was clean out all my herbs and spices and check their use-by date, the obvious book is to do with herbs. Just one book? Perish the thought. The only thing perished today were some very, very, very old herbs…

Let me introduce you to my perennial favourite herbals: Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal. I’ve had my Culpeper since high school. The powers-that-were made the mistake of letting us choose our own books for school prizes, you see. My Culpeper is much-used, and it still has a little bookplate explaining why I have it. I was awarded it for the Year 12 English prize, at Camberwell High School, in 1978. My copy of Mrs Grieves wasn’t acquired until at least two years later.

I might throw the Culpeper a fiftieth birthday party in 2028. It’s earned it. Both books have. They’ve been handy to me as an historian, as a writer, as someone who loves cooking, and as someone who’s curious about how we change the way we describe things. Thee two books were part of the stack I used to refer to as ‘my external memory.’ Much of my library is borrowable, but these two books do not leave my side. They’re always in the room I work. Always. This is despite the fact that I actually use e-versions when I want to look something up.

They’re too close to me to make introductions easy. They’re not my oldest books, nor even my earliest. This doesn’t make them less part of my life. I have other books that are equally important. When I was told I was going blind, one of the first things I did was decide that 200 books needed to stay with me, even when I can’t see them. Handling them will be grounding. I’m not blind yet, and my library has 7000 books – I’d own more, but many were stolen and my flat is full. I say this to make it clear how critical to my existence is any book in that ‘must keep even if I can’t see them’ stack.

I think we all have books like this. As of today, because of the candied peel and its wonderful interaction with my stovetop, I will forever think of the smell of citrus toffee (with a faint overtone of fine liqueur) when I think of these books. If you have a moment, I’d love to know if you have books you treasure the way I treasure these.

July and books

I tell people far too frequently that some places have a bad month. I’m in the middle of Canberra’ bad month. I can’t escape it, either, and have not been able to since COVID first hit. This is one of the charming side-effects of being one of those who are vulnerable. This July is particularly nasty. It just is. It’s not the wind from the snow or the cold nights. It’s not lack of sunlight, though it might be the weak excuse for bright sunshine. It’s only partly drafts and open doors and friends forgetting promises to help. In fact, two friends are actually helping later in the week and I shall be that much less uncomfortable and I shall see them and July won’t be nearly as bad, that one day. Other friends have, these last few years, responded to my July-depression with “I can do this thing and it will help” and two thirds of them have succumbed to July before they could. This is the nature of July in Canberra. (I strongly recommend that if you have any friends who are confined for all these years, don’t make promises. It’s better not to promise than to give someone hope and then not follow through.)

What gets me through July, every year, but this horrid year in particular, is story. Only I’m grumpy and don’t want to talk about what I’ve been reading. I don’t want to drag you into my morass. Instead of telling you what I’m reading, then, I’m going to give you the names of three books that make me smile when I think of them. I’ve read them so often and I suggest them to everyone all the time. Just talking about them pulls me out of the winter gloom.

Not everywhere in Australia has winter gloom, by the way. An hour and a bit from here and you have the best snowfields in the world in July, but I cannot reach them and I cannot ski. I don’t want to ski. I want to make snow angels and drink mulled wine and eat hot chips and talk half the night with friends. This is not something that’s achievable. What is achievable is to think of novels set in that part of Australia. Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series are those novels. They have been with me since I was a child, and one of the joys of moving to Canberra, 30+ years ago, was knowing that, if I looked carefully outside in a drive towards the deep mountains, past Cooma, I might see Thowra.

One of my favourite scenes in the Silver Brumby itself, has wattle, and the early, early wattle has just come out around the corner from me. A cold wattle, pale yellow and, just this once (because we missed autumn storms) concentrating wildly with the glowing leaves of the maple next to it. I wanted to take a picture, but it was dusk and it was the first time I’d walked anywhere in a month and I simply could not carry my camera. My phone doesn’t like pictures in the half-light. Still, the red maple and the pale golden wattle shone, and I thought of the Silver Brumby, and I smiled.

While I’m thinking of my childhood, let me dream of the Scotland of Peter Dickinson. I was supposed to be in Scotland this week, in Glasgow, attending a conference on fantasy. My paper had been accepted and I was wildly exciting. Then COVID had its say, and I’m stuck at home.

Dreaming of Emma Tupper’s Diary is not a bad way to think of Scotland. Submarines and dinosaurs and a girl who wrote a diary I wished I could have written, when I was her age.

My third novel is not as distant. I read it for the first time quite recently. Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird is for slightly older children. It has darkness and family culture and it’s dynamic and wonderful. Sometimes a dark novel takes one by the hand and offers a way out of despair. Lisa’s novel is that one. I know where she’s coming from for some of the novel, and we’ve talked about it and so, for me, it’s not the novel alone that makes me smile, it’s knowing that I have friends who are writers who write work that’s so moving. I start thinking of all my other writer-friends, including those who hang around this Treehouse. And I realise that it doesn’t matter how bleak Canberra is in July and how alone COVID can leave me (I haven’t seen my mother since January 2019, when the bushfires caused me to evacuate to her place), I live in a rich world.

My favourite Medieval werewolf, or, Marie ai num si sui de France

I’m a few hours late today and I’m writing this with the sound of the Roman de Fauvel (a Medieval musical satire) in the background. I’m at the 2022 International Congress on Medieval Studies. If I’m going to be one of the ways writers learn about the Middle Ages, I need to maintain my knowledge and the congress is online this year. The last time I was able to go was in 1984.

Because I’m firmly fixed in the Middle Ages at this moment and because I delivered my paper at 5.15 am my time, I thought… maybe this week you’d like the text I used as a case study in my paper? It’s short and it’s cool and there are translations readily available on the internet. In fact, let me give you several of the links I referred to in my paper. I’m sorry about the formatting, but I’m sneaking this post into time I don’t really have. I’ll introduce the work itself in a moment:

Judith Shoaf, Introduction to the lais https://people.clas.ufl.edu/jshoaf/marie_lais/

Judith Shoaf, translation Bisclavret https://people.clas.ufl.edu/jshoaf/files/bisclavret.pdf

Eugene Mason translation Bisclavret 1911 translation at Project Gutenberg https://www.gutenberg.org/files/11417/11417-h/11417-h.htm#VIII

ARLIMA on Marie de France (including Bisclavret) https://www.arlima.net/mp/marie_de_france.html

Marie de France wrote in Old French, and is famous for her lais. She is, in fact, one of the most important writers in Old French, and if you love fantasy fiction and stories about the knights of Arthur, she’s more than worth visiting. The lais are long poems that tell stories. It’s that simple. Except that when I say ‘long’ I’m comparing the lais to modern short poetry. They’re not long compared to some other forms of Medieval poetry. It’s like the difference between a novella (the novella representing Marie’s work) and a big fantasy blockbuster series where each novel is long and readers seldom stop after just one novel (the chansons de geste – the French term for them is generally translated as ‘epic legend’ but… they’re not quite that.)

Bisclavret is the story of a knight-werewolf, who is tricked by his wife into remaining in wolf shape. It took the help of a good lord for him to return to his human body. (The Roman de Fauvel is satirical and so I’m full of bad puns.) I don’t want to explain the plot any more than that, because Marie’s story is so worth reading. Just remember that Medieval customs were not the same as ours. One person said happily on Goodreads, for instance “GAY WEREWOLF GAY WEREWOLF GAY WEREWOLF’ but the Medieval church would have caused much trouble for the two men if that were so. I do like this as a modern interpretation, however.

There was a Late Medieval Jewish reinterpretation of Bisclavret and it’s the strangest misogynist story. Since I write about books every Monday, if you’re interested I can introduce you to it and to some of the other stories in the volume in which it appears.

Today is short and sweet, because I have a meeting in a few minutes. I can’t think of a better way of spending the next few minutes than introducing yourself to Bisclavret.

Memories and Ruth M Arthur

Yesterday my new book was launched in the UK. There won’t be any launches elsewhere I suspect, because our lives are still vastly influenced by this interesting world we live in, but Story Matrices is out and I will talk about it whenever I have the chance. Except right now. I could spend an hour writing about my new book, but tonight I feel a little haunted, so I want to talk about the book that helped me find words for such things when I was still in primary school.

Ruth M Arthur was one of my favourite authors when I was under ten. I managed to find several of her books when libraries replaced old books with new ones in the 1990s. This means I have on my desk, reminding me of my childhood, the same edition I borrowed from the Hawthorn City Library time after time. The book is A Candle in Her Room, which was my return-to-over-and-over of Arthur’s mainly because it creeped me out, every time I read it. The illustrator was Margery Gill, and her pictures are definitely part of my memories. From the moment I could read, I read the illustrations along with the story and they were part of a whole. They still are, and I still have favourite artists. If they illustrate the internal pages of a book, then I will try to find a copy of that book for my bookshelf. When one of those artists, Kathleen Jennings, illustrated one of my own books I melted into a puddle of sparkling joy.

A Candle in Her Room is a children’s book, from the days before there were Young Adult books. I’m not sure it would be published today. It’s too dark for a children’s book these days. This is a loss for any child who sees that life has dark places and needs words to identify those feelings. A Candle in Her Room and a story about a ghost that lured children away with the promise of happiness (I don’t remember the author, which is probably a good thing – and I’ve never been able to find the book it was in – all I remember is that it was a Penguin paperback from the sixties, with a blue cover) helped me more than I can say when I discovered that the Shoah was not that far removed from me. Two of the characters join the Polish Resistance. This was the link between the book and the Shoah survivors I knew as a child. I never articulated that link, but the book was there for me, nonetheless. I want to say that it taught me that there was a way out of darkness, but it did no such thing. It let me know that other people experienced that feeling I had when I saw the picture from the day a death camp was liberated. When I knew, age 6, that not everyone survives and that the adults who knew all the answers were the ones I could not ask about the picture. When folks talk about children asking the damnedest questions they ignore the fact that some need fiction to fill the emotional holes for the questions that the child cannot ask.

A Candle in Her Room didn’t help at all with my next door neighbour, Doris. I played with her until she was eight. I was the only other child in the street that she was happy to play with. One day she had tonsillitis and went to hospital for it and never came back. I still miss her. It also didn’t help with Charles, who lived across the road and went to school with me, died in a car accident in Tasmania. Nor when… I will become a very different kind of puddle if I remember these friends.

The simple fact is that stories helped me find words to start handling the death of strangers who might be relatives and whose bodies I saw in a big pile in a picture when I was six. This was only step one in learning words and stories that helped me with the other losses and let me eventually reach the stage where I could find my own words and tell my own stories.

I tell people that I’m a sarcastic Pollyanna and the amount of loss in the first twenty years of my very ordinary suburban existence is what triggered the sarcasm. Ruth M. Arthur’s was important to me, then, and probably always will be.

I never want to own a doll called ‘Dido’. Reading Joan Aiken’s books at the same time meant that the name ‘Dido’ was totally fine. When my Pre-Classical Antiquity lecturer tried to explain what he termed a rare name when we learned about Carthage, I went to my local library and borrowed all the books that had anyone or anything called ‘Dido’ – I didn’t tell him I had disproved his ‘rare name’ theory, but I thought it, forcibly. His few thoughtless words couldn’t obliterate my childhood while I had access to books.

A Candle in Her Room now provokes nightmares, even without me reading it. This is odd, because it’s not really horrific. It’s spiced with darkness. For me it carries all that baggage and is more than the sum of its parts.

I wanted to know if anyone knew of it. It’s not, after all, a new novel. I looked it up just now online and it’s still being read and still provoking emotions. I’ve known this book since it was first released in Australia. The edition I read and now own was the London one, from 1968, which tells you a lot about my early reading habits. And I’m devolving into dullness because I just realise that I’m writing this at bedtime. I need to find something to refresh my mind, otherwise I will have nightmares about malevolent dolls. I know this for a fact, because I have nightmares about Dido whenever I think about A Candle in Her Room late at night.

The books we read as children are important. And I shall defeat those nightmares by finding another book with that musty scent and this book shall be one that brings me good dreams.

Memories again

Last year, I read Liz Williams’ lovely novel, Comet Weather. It reminded me of one of my favourite books from my childhood, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk. It had that same sense of a rural life where history can emerge unexpectedly and where life is not predictable. A little sharp, a little edgy, but very comforting. The Midnight Folk and Comet Weather both fit this description.

Then there’s another book by John Masefield that I love to hate. A Book of Discoveries. I adored everything by him at that point. I went to my favourite secondhand bookshop with Masefield’s work in my mind. The shop was just down the road from where my grandfather’s offices had been in my early childhood. Every time I visited the bookshop, I carefully walked past the old office and waved a little ‘hello.’ This little walk was my favourite form of history emerging (my life experience related to the books I read): I could call on the emotions and remember a decade before whenever I wanted. I could leave out all the sharp edges. My childhood had more sharp edges than I enjoyed, and I had decided that books were the best place to encounter them.

In Berry’s I found my dream copy of Sheridan’s plays. I may introduce you to them one day, along with their erstwhile owner. I also found A Book of Discoveries. I don’t know anything about previous owners of A Book of Discoveries, except that one of them was called Mathieson. Given the date of the volume and the style of the handwriting, Mathieson might have owned the novel when it was new, but they didn’t give a first name, or a date. There were only sixty years between my purchase and the edition (it was from 1910) and it’s a gilded illustrated hardback edition. The book even has the protective paper on its frontispiece and I’ve owned it for about forty-five years: I don’t think it’s had many owners. I nearly gave it away, decades ago, when I felt impossibly guilty about it.

I loved the book when I first read it. It was a prized possession. It feels substantial and adventurous and contained safe adventures for young boys. It wasn’t anything like The Midnight Folk, but it had a certain feel in common with Rudyard Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies. In my mind, I classified it alongside Puck of Pook’s Hill. (That all these books were favourites, and that I read every work of Arthur Ransome I could find over and over again says a lot about my childhood, I suspect.) I spent every cent I had on buying the book, because it fitted so well into my deep desires of what books should be at that point.

A few years later, I studied first year archaeology at university. That was when I discovered the horrid truth: these adventures consisted of private destruction of landscapes. Landscapes and I have a very long association. I myself contributed to the destruction of a tiny bit of 1920s market garden when I did a test archaeological dig in my backyard. When I was eleven, you see, I wanted to be a museum curator, and for that, I needed to understand archaeology. I found some china and a child’s shoe. I was the only member of my family who was excited.

This was just before I read A Book of Discoveries. With that first reading, Masefield validated my personal exploration. I was worried about what the characters did in the novel (my mother taught geology when I was a child and rocks and where they came from coloured so much of my childhood – I was very surprised when none of the other children at school could read landscapes and when only my BFF wanted to) but it wasn’t until I was given concepts to describe how ownership works that I began to worry about the stories I read.

One day I’ll find a new home for The Book of Discoveries. It deserves an owner who covets it as much as I covet my 1967 paperback of The Midnight Folk. I bought The Midnight Folk for 60c, probably in 1969 or 1970. Since my pocket money back then was my age plus 2c, it was quite a big buy. I have never regretted owning it and it’s surprisingly untattered considering how many times I’ve read it. Just looking at the cover takes me into the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t hints of The Midnight Folk in my own writing, just as there are in Williams’. My suspicion is that these hints are in Ms Cellophane or The Art of Effective Dreaming, but that they are half-memories, nothing more.

Prophets and their Gifts

Right now, a lot of my research is about food. Not recipes, nor food history, but how food and foodways creep into fiction. It’ll be a long time before I have research results that I’m willing to share. Right now, I change my mind from day to day as I discover new things. Still, it’s not at all fair to leave you out of my foodways entirely, so I’m going to share with you an old favourite of mine.

In 1552, two little books appeared in the French marketplace. In my perfect world, I would own an original copy of each, but they’re rare and the author is so famous that any copies that appeared would be snapped up for an impossible sum. I own a translation of the books, into English. I could read the original (historians have some handy language tools) but haven’t ever found a modern edition. I was in France in 1995 and found the English translation there. It’s not a big book, even though it rudely fits two old books into one.

Who is this well-known author? Michel Nostradamus, who is more known as a prophet and as a physician than as a cook. Whenever I’ve encountered people who get excited when they hear his name it’s because they want to argue about prophecy. Right now, though, his background as a plague doctor is more appropriate. He was one of the best known and possibly one of the most competent plague doctors in sixteenth century France.

I considered this when I was in the emergency department of the medical side of the university at Montpellier, for he studied there and I had a mysterious disease. I didn’t have plague. But I dreamed of my favourite recipe from Nostradamus’ cookbook as I rested after the appointment and slowly recovered from what turned out to be the side effects of being bitten by a tick. The doctor laughed merrily with his assistant, when they worked out I was Australian and yet had been infected by something in England. They looked up Australia on the computer and noted all the dangerous spiders here and all the snakes and then said “And she went to England for this. York, in the rain.” The actual diagnosis took maybe a minute, and they wrote out prescriptions and descriptions for treatment when they’d finished laughing. At that precise moment I wished I had less French because I could understand every joke they made at my expense.

Nostradamus’ quince recipe was my safe hiding place, I think.

I was in Montpellier researching Langue[dot]doc 1305, but I didn’t call on that incident at all for it. The illness meant I only had a few hours of research a day, because I really wasn’t that well.

I managed to complete all my work thanks to the kind help of people at desks. Two were the senior curators of museums, masquerading as sellers-of-tickets. I asked each of them where I could go in their museum to answer a couple of questions I had. We chatted a minute and they decided to talk me through everything I needed. Two hours, in each case, with people who knew more about the precise material I needed than were in any book. One also sold me a hard-to-find book I desperately needed, so I read that during my many hours of enforced rest.

Hearing the medical jokes at my expense was the downside of having enough French, but being able to talk the Middle Ages with experts was definitely the upside. It might also have helped that I knew a fair amount already: I was asking as an SF writer, but had a PhD in Medieval History backing it.

The third desk person was at the tourist office in the town I was setting the novel in. She had copies of unusual material hiding behind the desk and brought them out for me. In return, I told her how to make Nostradamus’ version of quince jelly.

I wish I had been able to go back one more time after I had digested all that material, because there are some questions I really wanted more answers to. I live on the other side of the world, and a return visit wasn’t possible. Still, Nostradamus and his recipes have an indelible link with Langue[dot]doc 1305.

I didn’t put even a single recipe for quince jelly in the novel. I regard this as neglectful, but I can tell you now, even my mother thinks that he had a very fine recipe. She tested it, some years back.

The Lessons Wombats Teach Me

This week is far too full of crises. Every time there’s a crisis, people raise money to help everyone deal. When the Australian bushfires dominated my life (aeons ago: 2109-2020 – the fires were out just after the pandemic hit Australia) books were a good fundraiser. I often contribute to such books, because they give more than I can give, personally. The anthology I was in that helped save wildlife during that particular crisis was called Oz is Burning. It contains some remarkable stories, and I’m very pleased I could contribute and be in such company.

There was one fundraising book that stood head and shoulders above all the others. Jackie French lives in rural Australia and she’s currently dealing with floods. Her part of rural Australia was very badly hit by the fires, and she handled it in a very Jackie-ish fashion. During the crisis she reported to the rest of us what was happening in her local town. She was cut off for what felt like months (I don’t know what it felt like to her, but I was worried about her for over a year) and she compiled observations and reports and made sure the rest of the world knew what was going on.

She reported on wildlife as part of this. Also, as someone who knows wombats particularly well.

One of the wombats she helped had a particular story. She talked about this wombat on social media and we all wanted a happy outcome… but we weren’t sure that the wombat would survive.

Later in 2020, she turned the wombat’s experience into a book for children. The Fire Wombat became an instant classic (though not as classic as her earlier book, The Diary of a Wombat ) and raised money to help wombats. It talks children through the crisis and how those rare animals who survived were helped. It gave children a path to understanding the impossible and, at the same time, raised money to help wombats.

I have my copy in front of me now and have re-read it. The floods in Australia right now are hurting the same regions as the fires did just over two years ago. Jackie’s work reminds me that wombats need help, too.

When we’re both allowed to travel again, and when it’s safe (fire and pandemic and now floods) I’m going to feed her dinner and ask her to sign her book. Her work has helped me remember how to get through crises and how to look outside my small environment and see what I can do. I may not be able to do much, but if Jackie can write this amazing book when she’s confined to a very small piece of land for over two years then that opens the door for me. I just need to consider what I’m capable of. Step One is to not let the fear developed by over 30 months of sequential crises decide my actions.

PS Jackie writes about so much more than wombats. She’s one of Australia’s best writers. I wrote this piece because wombats bring me comfort.

Comfort reading and food for the stressed soul

There are so many sayings that apply to weeks like this. They involve hope, sacrifice and cute concepts like the way the tough are expected to handle life. The trouble is that life can be too big to handle. This doesn’t mean I escape all the time. I don’t and I can’t. It does mean that I have certain types of comfort reading to remind me of what life can be like on other days. Or maybe in other decades.

Different types of crises require different types of comfort reading. When my father died, I re-read every Swallows and Amazons book – I was only 7 years removed from my teens and I needed to remind myself of who I had been as a child. When I was unable to type or do housework for 18 months, I read Regency romances. I would walk back from the library carrying as many as I could, and reading as I walked, to distract myself from the pain. When the bushfires dominated my life and then the pandemic began, I put up a list of (sometimes supportive and sometimes quite edgy) comfort reads for people who needed them . I have so many types of comfort reading and they all match my needs at a given time.

Today, with the war and the pandemic and Too Much Stuff Altogether, I wanted to find one single book that exemplified the kind of writing I am looking for right now. I thought that if I did this, maybe you would also find those single perfect volumes and we could share our comfort reading. If I get a big enough list, I’ll put up a 2022 comfort reading page on Bookshop.com.

It wasn’t that hard to find two perfect books, both by the same writer. I live in one of the world cities that’s plagued by demonstrators. Those demonstrators tell us to be kind to them and then proceed to hurt our lives. I was just getting out of lockdown and their careless for the health of others means that I can’t do quite a few things. They’re ensuring that this city is not COVID-safe for people like me, no matter how much care everyone else takes.

This means I needed quiet suburban joy. Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City and Tales from Outer Suburbia are that. My mind lives in a strange universe and Tan sees it and paints it and writes about it and I feel comfort. So much comfort.

Finding comfort in reading

Today I want to write about something reassuring, comforting or even cheering. The last few weeks have been isolated and the solution has meant much sleep and a bit too much discomfort and pain. This is more than somewhat typical of the lives of far too many of us right now.

I explored my library for comfort reading. Normally, when in crisis or misery, I’d take a large stack of books off the shelves and pile them to be read until life improves. Tonight I discovered I’ve already done that. None of the books I most needed were there. I couldn’t find the stack I’d put them into and so I thought, “I have around 7000 books. I can find another comfort read to talk about.”

I did better than that. I found my copy of Van Loon’s Lives (written and Illustrated by Hendrik Van Loon). My copy is from 1957, and has the same cover as the one I found in the local library. I first discovered it when I was teen recovering from whooping cough. Or maybe I’m simply linking the two, because I had a vaccination and am full of some of the aches that went with whooping cough. I re-read it again soon after, when I was confined to bed for two very slow weeks because something was wrong with my back.

I thought then, “Why is this like What Katy Did, and yet… not?” One reasons is that Katy addressed her illness by moralising. If she turned into the right kind of person, then she would be fine. By the end of her ordeal, she was over her illness and had become of the centre of the family. Perfect outcome. I got over my illness much faster (and, to be honest, it wasn’t severe, just a shock to not be able to get out of bed without help and to be unable to do most things) but I haven’t been and never will be a central point for my family.

Also, two weeks is not a long time. It feels like a long time for a teenager, but, in the absolute scheme of things, two weeks passes.

All of this meant that What Katy Did is not comfort reading right now. But Van Loon’s Lives is, despite the fact that Van Loon invites Torquemada for dinner but has a lack of interest in fascinating Jews. Even if I were one of the great people of history, I’d not have been invited.

Why?

It’s a book that’s full of historical dreams. Each chapter is a dinner party with famous guests from Van Loon’s sense of the past. I could read a chapter back then and that chapter would lead me to memories of other books and thoughts of what I wanted to learn about history. The first Queen Elizabeth makes an appearance, and, while my body was recumbent, my mind argued for hours about the Elizabethan material Van Loon invented and that Alison Uttley used in A Traveller in Time. That’s the special magic of Van Loon’s Lives. It’s a fantasy novel. The food is wrong, the history is not the history I know today and, even as a teen I as wondering about it, but, back then, it brought famous historical figures to life and made that enforced bedrest less intolerable.

Van Loon’s most interesting historical figures matched mine when I was a teenager. We were taught, in Australia in the 1970s, that there was nothing interesting in Jewish history but that European Christian history was magic. I wanted to meet almost all the people he wrote about. Some I knew about already (Elizabeth, for instance, and Voltaire – Voltaire is someone I’ve read a lot, but cannot like as a person), while others were my newfound lands, and I began to explore who they were and what they did (Erasmus and Descartes, always come to mind). This fantasy book triggered a whole new path of independent learning, a couple of years before university offered me formal tracks. I remember feeling so pleased that I worked out how to cook Van Loon’s own speculaas from his description in the book. It wasn’t the first bit of food decoding I’ve done from literature, but it was one of the most satisfying.

It’s been so long since I first read it that I suspect that I’ve forgotten most of what I discovered back then and really ought to begin again.

A few years ago, when I finally found my own copy of the book, I realised I had changed and with my changes came a new interpretation. As an historian, each chapter and its meal and guests told me much more about Van Loon and the way he saw the past than it told me about the history of any other period. I realised that I had learned to discount myself and my own history. It wasn’t just family I would never be central to. It was part of a reconsideration of what I knew and why I knew it and who I was. This is part of the trail that led me to write The Wizardry of Jewish Women, The Time of the Ghosts, and The Green Children Help Out. Instead of arguing from my sick bed, I argued using my own fantasies.

And now, why is it comfort reading again? Van Loon’s Lives was first published in 1943. Hendrick Van Loon wrote his book under a kind of lockdown. He was in exile from his homeland, which was under Nazi occupation. Nothing like our COVID lockdowns. In its way, this set of dinner parties is an emotional safety net for the war that was then raging. Van Loon himself doesn’t leave the war out of the volume, and the epilogue that one can’t know without investigating his life is that he wrote the book when in exile and died before the Nazis were defeated. He never went home.

It’s a comfort book right now because it’s a reminder that other writers have handled the impossibilities of life. We talk a lot about Camus, because he wrote about plague and we know plague. But the isolation of great change and the memory of how very welcoming and magic life was just a few years before the world turned upside down is just as important. It provides a way to evaluate the world that contains some emotional safety. Hendrik Van Loon sets the novel in the 1930s, when his world was safer and it was fine to invite famous guests from different times and different places.

I wonder if it’s time for another fantasy dinner party book to be written for our own comfort? Who would it include? Who should we leave out? One thing’s for certain, all the food history I’ve done in the last forty years would be useful. I know what to feed Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth I and, yes, even Erasmus. I don’t know if I’d invite Jefferson or Elizabeth or Erasmus. Time for a new set of thoughts triggered by this single volume.

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.