An Interesting Monday

I planned to blog on my yesterday, but the world caught up with me. It’s still Monday in the US, however, so I thought I’d talk on what caught up with me and prevented me writing on my Monday. Not everything. Honestly, you don’t need the details of a migraine and some of the more interesting (and quite unsavoury) symptoms. Just let me say that for some of us, migraines affect the stomach as much as the head and that there were many things I was unable to do yesterday.

Three big things made my Monday unforgettable. One of them would have been quite enough. Let me talk about them in chronological order.

First, a very fine meeting. I chatted with the actor doing my audiobooks. I didn’t know enough about audiobooks (and was too ill) for the actor who read Langue[dot]doc 1305. I heard the first fifteen minutes and asked if he had any questions and we had an email exchange and that was about it. I will always regret not being there for an actor who was new to this work.

This time, because the new reader-of-my-books is American and my accents are seldom US, and she’s reading the Australian settings and locals know best how to pronounce words like Garema, Manuka and even Canberra, we’re talking about my books more.

It was a wonderful meeting. It took a big chunk of my work day, but was so worth it. She had sorted out how to say Manuka and Canberra earlier, so yesterday was only Garema, which means, mostly, we talked about accent. She’s not reading my novels in an Australian accent, but a more British one.

Australian accents are kinda impossible for people from the US and not that easy for most other actors outside Australia and New Zealand. Some sounds, however, are closer to US English than to the Cockney that Australian sounds like to many, and we talked those through. Australians pronounce ‘h’, for instance.

It was a fascinating conversation. I now know a lot more about why our accent is so imponderable for so many US listeners. I also know now that my English is, in some vowel sounds, halfway between the US and the UK.

The second thing was learning of the death of Maureen Kinkaid Speller. This is a terrible thing. We needed at least two more decades with her in the midst of fandom, educating us, supporting us, and telling us of the adventures of her beautiful cats. In 2018 we talked about not being able to see each other. I’d planned to spend as much time with her as she could stomach, talking about books and both of our research. Those visits all were postponed by COVID. I have a hole in my life where those conversations should have been and a gaping maw in the place Maureen herself inhabited.

I’m not alone in this. I suspect Maureen never knew just how important she was to so many people, even those like me who she only saw from time to time.

I knew her online a little and then discovered the full wonder of her mind and her sense of humour when she interviewed me (about Life Through Cellophane/Ms Cellophane) for London fandom over a decade ago. Her kindness that day, when I’d just got off the plane from Australia and was entirely jetlagged and had no idea I was ill and… her kindness and her insights into my work meant a lot to me, and capacity to get me through that interview and make it a good one despite my condition was amazing. That was the day I planned many more long conversations.

Yesterday I discovered that I’m not the only person who found her a quiet pillar of light. So many of us…

The other death the whole world has known about for a little while, but the funeral is now done. Much pomp and ceremony. Many hours of TV. I only watched some of it, because of the migraine and because of the time – I wasn’t going to stay awake all night, even for something this historically important.

The thing is…Australia is now ruled by a king. Furthermore, that same king was the man we asked politely not to be our Governor-General decades ago. Australia is, to be blunt, both respectful and also a bit sarcastic about our head of state and about the head of the most important religious denomination here.

This raises so many questions about what kind of democracy we have and want. The last elections showed what kind we want, but the role of the Governor-General was questioned this month when Hurley did political things that he was not supposed to. He asked for (and got) $18 million to establish a leadership institute. That money has now been rescinded, but it leaves the question that we all felt in the 70s… if the Governor-General plays politics, wouldn’t we rather have a president than a queen (now a king)?

The monarchy has played a very quiet, gentle role in most of Australia’s independent history, and every time a Governor-General tries to change that, we get angsty. David Hurley established his little leadership scheme and distressed many of us. John Kerr dismissed the prime minister and distressed more of us. While most people still voted for the opposition, this didn’t mean they were happy with Kerr. He couldn’t be seen in public for most of the rest of his life without incurring some really nasty comments and at least once, thrown tomatoes.

There is a third death, but it was all over last week. The mention of Whitlam’s dismissal and John Kerr reminds me of it. Sir David Smith, the man who kept the Governor-Generalship going, despite Kerr. He was secretary to the Governor-General, and bore brutal public nicknames while still maintaining friendships with all parties. He quietly kept Australia going through that crisis in the 70s. Sir David was such a good man and so important in so many ways, that an ex-Prime Minister came to his private memorial service.

I knew him, for a number of reasons. In fact, I met Whitlam through him. Ask me and I’ll tell you that story one day. It involves a pink shirt.

So much of the critical aspects of Australian politics happen quietly. We are more like Britain than the US. When I was in training to be a policy wonk, we were given “Yes, Minister” as training material. The nature of most things political, especially these two important deaths, is the flavour of the week and yes, Maureen and I have spoken politics and I wanted to talk politics with her some more. More than any of the others we’ve lost, I shall miss Maureen Kinkaid Speller.

The Somewhat Updated Guide to Prevent Perplexity: How to avoid Gillian at Chicon8

Normal life is slowly (maybe) returning, for quite different grades of normal to those any of us expected. I may never be able to attend a big crowded event again. Fortunately, this means that it’s very easy to avoid me at events. You can go where I cannot. You can get a cuppa while attending virtually. You can train your computer system to obliterate me while listening and enjoying all other panellists, speakers. I admit, I have not worked out how to do this latter, but there must be an app for it, somewhere.

Worldcon is coming. In Chicago, where I cannot go, due to COVID. Also on our computers, where I am definitely going and where I am on the program and… you need to know how to avoid me.

I would like to return to warning people of my incipient presence somewhere. How can you know how to avoid me if you don’t know where I am?

This is all of my program a week prior to the convention. I’ve left out times and days because you’ll need to find the location for each event and the program guide itself will contain all this critical information. I think avoiding me will be fun this time round, a computer-assisted minuet.

The Middle Ages Weren’t Actually Bad
I agree with the title, but not with the reason for it. Of course you should avoid me. I will make waves. Grumpy waves. I’m a middle-aged Medievalist, so any waves I make are grumpy and my time to make that joke is almost over, which makes me grumpier. In the context, I might even make my toilet joke. I want to say “my notorious toilet joke” but that would be giving it too much credit. Find a gizmo that hides my face and reduces my voice to nothing, and enjoy the panel. The other panellists are definitely worth hearing.
Virtual Jewish Fan Gathering
I’m co-hosting a fan gathering. I don’t know if I’m the non-American Jew in this, or the Orthodox, or…
I’m Modern Australian Orthodox, for those who wonder why I don’t act like a Chassid. I am not Chassidic, my childhood was religious, but also full of science.
If you want to come to this gathering and make me invisible without even letting me know who you are, find someone who has read The Green Children Help Out or The Wizardry of Jewish Women or The Time of the Ghosts (the novels with the highest Jewish content). Ask them to chat with me (chat function FTW!) about my writing. I will immerse myself in the world of Jewish superheroes or the world of Jewish fairies and everyone else will have a fine time.
Virtual Table Talk – Gillian Polack
This is a simple “Avoid Gillian” one. Don’t come. I can talk to myself about fairy tale retellings, the Middle Ages (France and England especially), enthohistory, my fiction, Jewishness in fiction, my research, cultural brickwork, my fiction-to-appear-in-print-soon, my world developing, Australia, new kitchens and more.
Reclaiming History Through Alternate Yesterdays
My suggestion for this panel is that you reclaim it through Alternate Gillians. It’s too good to miss, otherwise. How does one create an Alternate Gillian? Whenever I say something, you, twist what I say until it makes you laugh aloud. For instance, if I say, “My background for this panel lies in historiography adulterated with ethnohistory” you replace the ‘historiography’; with ‘haemophilia’ and in your mind make that part of an explanation for our world where vampires died out through developing haemophilia more acutely than any human can.
Your reward is the other panellists, and I become your fiction for the day.
Australian Speculative Fiction
Two perfectly excellent Australian writers (both award-winning, I believe)… and me. The approach I suggested for Reclaiming History would also work for this. Replace ‘Australian’ with ‘Aslanian’ and turn my comments into analysis of Narnia. If I talk about lost civilisations (I am prone to this) then invent your own. If I talk about German academics and their interest in Australian SFF, then take yourself to a university website and read the blog about Australian SFF whenever I speak.
Virtual Reading – Gillian Polack
This is another skip-by-not-attending one. I’m tossing up between reading from my Other Covenants story and my next novel. If you skip it, you don’t have to find out if my coin landed on heads, tails, or spun so strangely I had to read a bit from each.
Fairy Tales and Folklore in Urban Fantasy
You don’t want to miss this panel. One reason (just one, of the several) is Frances Hardinge. She’s one of the best fairytale/folklore using writers around, worldwide. I should know – this is one of my academic interests. And the other two panelists are also worth many detours to hear. Many. You’ll have to be creative then, in avoiding me. Stick a picture of a malevolent fairy over my bit of your computer screen. Hear my voice as the garbled sound heard through a mound, with no fairy door to provide clarity. You’ll be fine.
The Culinary Delights of Speculative Fiction
Use your avoidance of me in this panel to create the perfect dinner party. Invite all the best people (the remainder of the panel, for instance, because they’re worth meeting as well as listening to) and use all the foodstuffs I can’t eat. Fish and pork, seafood and nuts. If you feel vindictive, let me know the menu and invite me to enjoy it. That’ll help you get even with me for being on this otherwise-wonderful panel and making you miss some of it.
Or you could ask me to describe the making of portable soup and use those minutes to take a refreshing nap.

          The Metaverse and SF
The academic panel is two papers and a discussion. It’s worth coming for the section on the Metaverse (Ben Root “The Metaverse, from Science-Fiction to Reality.” )
My paper is on “Dangerous borders: the importance of edges and edginess in Ó Guilín’s The Call and The Invasion.” Skipping stuff about Peadar (even by me) is a sadness and should not be done. Pretend I’m someone else for twenty minutes, perhaps?

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.

Reasons to write #ownvoice, a bit of personal history

I’ve been thinking about the Jewishness in my fiction. Bettina Burger and I are working on getting a handle on Australian and NZ Jewish speculative fiction, so, this week, the books being discussed are my own.

Firstly, I need to admit (alas) that I don’t think I’m related to Joel Samuel Polack, who wrote in the nineteenth century. Right surname, right religion, right region of the world, wrong family. I’m descended from the Abraham Polack who came to Melbourne in 1858, not the rather more famous one who came to Melbourne in 1824. I think Joel Samuel is from the earlier family. There are other writers in my family, but I’m the only one with this surname.

A subject that comes up a lot in my vicinity is why there aren’t more Australian SFF writers who publicly identify as Jewish. There are so many possible reasons, but I don’t want to give simplified explanations, especially about identity. One thing I do know is that, when I speak before a large audience, I often have Australians (so far no New Zealanders) coming up to me afterwards and admitting they are Jewish and asking, “But don’t tell anyone.” Some give the reason as personal safety, while others give no reason at all. Others identify with Judaism because of Jewish parents and grandparents but are not halachically Jewish and do not wish to claim Jewishness. In other words, it’s a very personal decision. Given the number of Shoah survivor families who are in Australia and given the small number of Jews outside Melbourne and Sydney (and that I am in Canberra) the decision not to be public about one’s identity is an important one.

I have been publicly Jewish my whole life. It’s caused me many problems and lost me many opportunities, but various family members let me know how important it was to them and family culture is important to me. One Moment in my life was when my great-uncle explained to me that if no-one did this, then things would be worse for those who had no option. I was (and possibly still am) very dutiful and was on so many committees and did so much stuff in response to the need for public understanding of Jewishness in order to prevent another mass murder. I was on committees and even gave advice to government Ministers at one point, which is why a chapter of Story Matrices has a letter from a minister saying it was fine to use the material.

Eventually I realised that I was not my great-uncle or my grandmother and that Gillianishly was a proper way of living a life. I finally wrote my Australian Jewish novel. I thought the whole world would change in 2016 because there was finally an Australian Jewish fantasy novel. When The Wizardry of Jewish Women was released, I kept a very close eye on its trajectory within the Jewish community, partly because I have a history of activity in the Jewish community (that family thing!). Not many people noticed. It was world-changing for me, however, and was shortlisted for a Ditmar, and ever since then I’ve worked through my fiction.

Ironically, I’m writing this post on the weekend when Ditmar award nominations are open (see addendum, if you’re curious) and I have another Jewish-themed novel that is eligible (The Green Children Help Out). Given COVID, it’s been more visible elsewhere than Australia, so I’m appreciating the irony of writing about my Jewishness in my fiction at this precise moment.

Sorry about the diversion. Back to Wizardry. I wanted a Jewish Australian #ownvoices novel. There are so many options for Jewish Australian #ownvoices, so I chose one very precise family and had a lot of fun exploring them. I was also reacting to the invisibility of Jewish Australian culture and the misuse of the Jewish fantastic. I still have issues about all these things, and one of these issues is going to be addressed in a story I wrote for Other Covenants, where I brought out my Medieval self to address the significant differences between Christianity and Judaism and that Christian interpretations of stories are not going to be the same as Jewish. But that’s in my future. Today I’m talking about the past.

Most Jewish-Australian speculative fiction writers are, for the most part, first or second generation Australian. They bring with them backgrounds from Europe, Israel, South Africa and the USA. My family arrived in Australia between 1858 and 1918. While much of it is European, one branch is from London.

Given the strength and cultural impositions from the White Australia policy and Federation, that London origin has impacted the family culture. Yiddish and Ladino had not been family languages for over a century until Yiddish was reintroduced into the generation after mine and until I learned to read a bit of (transliterated) Ladino.

Anglo-Australian Judaism is closest to UK Modern Orthodox Judaism in culture and much of the acquisition of Yiddish folkways and even Yiddish words in English came to the family through US popular culture. I have a US Catholic friend who knows far more Yiddish than I do, because she is from New York and Yiddishisms are part of her everyday English. While the family Chanukah tradition included a sung version of Ma’otsur, the Dreidel song was not acquired until the 1990s. I still don’t think of the Dreidel song as very Chanukah-ish. I didn’t react to not being from a well-known type of Jewish culture. I built my world from the inside: I intentionally use my Anglo-Australian Jewishness in my fiction, whether directly in The Wizardry of Jewish Women, or indirectly, for example as satire in Poison and Light. (The Chelm-equivalent jokes in Poison and Light came from my mother’s neighbour, who was from Chelm and who taught me Chelm jokes ie none of these statements are universal – culture is delightfully complicated.)

Older Australian Jewish culture holds very strong family cultures of university education. For my work specifically, this means that the Jewish history I learned through stories and through books in our (very bookish) home was placed in the wider context of Western European histories from my teens. I owe being an historian to being Jewish, I suspect.

While occasional members of my family were Shoah survivors and whole branches of the family were lost to the Holocaust, the young men in my corner of the family were in the Australian and British military (army and air force) during the war, and the most significant loss for those close to me was my mother’s youngest uncle, who was a bomber pilot. When addressing issues of war and loss, my approach is still Jewish (and still replays many issues relating to the Shoah) but deals with these matters from a different angle to the work of most other writers. Where Jane Yolen wrote Briar Rose, for example, I split my sense of what was lost into several parts and addressed some of them in The Time of the Ghosts, some in Poison and Light and others in The Green Children Help Out.

There were emotional and experiential gaps between Australian Holocaust narratives and my family’s experience. These gaps are very Australian in nature. Many survivors came to Australia because it was as far from Europe as it was possible to go. My family had been here for a generation or more when they made that difficult journey. The difference between their experience and my family’s understanding led to a different set of narrative paths. This is not true of all Australian Jews. Mark Baker, for example, writes Shoah narratives based on his own family background. He does not, however, write speculative fiction.

I did a little research about Australian Jewish fiction (in general, and also in YA, and also in historical fiction and in speculative fiction) a few years ago and I was greatly perturbed to discover that novels about the Shoah or Ultra-Orthodox life were acceptable, but that secular Australian Judaism was almost impossible to find in fiction. The only aspect of Jewish folklore or magic that was written about consistently was the golem. This is the main reason I wrote The Wizardry of Jewish Women (2016) and a sequel short story (that was published long before the novel) “Impractical Magic.”

Poison and Light (2020) and Langue[dot]doc 1305 (2014) are examples of my ongoing tendency to include appropriate elements of Jewish history and culture in types of novels where they’re normally entirely neglected. In Poison and Light, Jewish characters (all minor players in the story) have a different response to everyone else when the eighteenth century is re-invented on New Ceres, while Langue[dot]doc 1305 has a minor character whose experience of Judaism is of a kind, again, that’s seldom covered in fiction. The Time of the Ghosts (2015) has a major character who is Jewish and whose personal writing about historical events and her own life again, do not follow the standard stories Australians use when writing Jewish character and culture. The Green Children Help Out (2021), stories in Mountains of the Mind, (2019) and “Why The BridgeBuilders of York Pay No Taxes” (that Other Covenants story) are all set in an alternate universe where England has a significantly higher number of Jews. Once I learned how to start creating fiction with Jewish components, I was unable to stop.

And now you know…

Addendum:

For those of you who want to know about the Ditmars (Australian SFF awards – the Hugo equivalent, really), this is the information that came by email today via Cat Sparks. These are not my words – they’re the official information.

Nominations for the 2022 Australian SF (‘Ditmar’) awards are now open and will remain open until one minute before midnight Canberra time on Sunday, 7th of August, 2022 (ie. 11.59pm, GMT+10).

The current rules, including Award categories can be found at:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/Ditmar_rules

You must include your name with any nomination. Nominations will be accepted only from natural persons active in fandom, or from full or supporting members of Conflux 16, the 2022 Australian National SF Convention (https://conflux.org.au/).

Where a nominator may not be known to the Ditmar subcommittee, the nominator should provide the name of someone known to the subcommittee who can vouch for the nominator’s eligibility. Convention attendance or membership of an SF club are among the criteria which qualify a person as ‘active in fandom’, but are not the only qualifying criteria. If in doubt, nominate and mention your qualifying criteria.

You may nominate as many times in as many Award categories as you like, although you may only nominate a particular person, work or achievement once. The Ditmar subcommittee, which is organised under the auspices of the Standing Committee of the Natcon Business Meeting, will rule on situations where eligibility is unclear. A partial and unofficial eligibility list, to which everyone is encouraged to add, can be found here:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/2022_Ditmar_eligibility_list

Online nominations are preferred

https://ditmars.sf.org.au/2022/nominations.html

Sunshine and stories

I was just explaining to a friend on Twitter that my TV watching is related to my reading. It’s all part of my research. I have this driving need to understand story and to explain it. Right now, it looks (on the outside) as if I’m doing a complete rewatch of Doctor Who. There is purpose in my rewatch.

I reached a bit of an intellectual impasse in my research on how worlds are created by writers. The impasse isn’t a big one, but it’s an important one. My analysis was restricted because there was a factor in my own development that I was skipping over. An uncomfortable one.

The love of a TV show means we accept things in it that we possibly should not. As we learn more, we start to question. I’d already questioned the roles women play and gender plays on Doctor Who, but the English centrality means that I wince, for example, when rewatching The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s offensive and I’ve known this for years and it’s far easier to wince than to learn what decisions were made that created that offence. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is one of the pivotal sequences for this understanding, because when I first saw it I had close friends who were Malaysian Chinese. My friends were handling the fallout from the representation and I learned about that alongside them… but I still winced and didn’t face what it did to world building in science fiction (or in any story, to be honest). It affected how I build my novels, but there was always a blind spot because I winced rather than pushing myself to understand.

In the late seventies, I was delighted that I had friends who spoke the dialects the Doctor spoke (I remember saying this to one of them) but was at that point where I thought that the theatrical nature of the story justified the cultural outsiderness and errors (“It’s not your culture – it’s a stage thing.” That was my explanation, but it was far more an excuse than an explanation.). I was slow to learn, I think, how far my own life was affected by being an outsider, and this affected my capacity to look into what hurt others.

My work right now is on own voices for cultures that are invisible and in plain sight, both at once. The balance between the shape of specific cultures we put into our stories and the reasons we change them from their origins or ignore origins entirely and use prefabricated culture (the stage version, for example) is that place where invisible meets plain sight. Where were have these blind spots.

I’ll talk about that in my research write-up, when I’m further along. In order to do the research, however, I need to shine the light of day on things that I didn’t like to question. I need to ask myself why it was fine for me to watch this and enjoy it with only mild wincing and talk to my friends about it, even as they faced everyday bigotry based on the same notions and we talked about that, too.

There are several sequences in the late 1970s Doctor Who that are critical to this, for me. The rest of the watching is because taking them out of context doesn’t actually help me understand which aspects of the built world are invisible and which are in plain sight. This is not a one-off analysis, either. We don’t get a simple insight and become perfect people thereafter. We need to learn, continually. The robot sequence just before The Talons of Weng-Chiang reminded me, for example, me see how status and class and relative humanity are important in all of Doctor Who.

The presentation of different aspects of humanity changes over time, just as all our narratives do. Within the world of the Doctor, culture changes and what is safe to talk about and how people are introduced changes, too. A TV series that has been shown on and off for decades is a rather good tool for checking my own blindspots. It’s doubly useful because it’s not local to me. I will have to revisit Australian stories from the same times, soon. I need to bring more of the invisible into my clear day.

Some of it I watch with awareness. Other bits I focus on very, very closely. One of the bits I’ll focus on especially closely is what I like to think of as vampires in space. It was written by Douglas Adams. Enclosing a mind as vagrant as Adams’ then comparing this to one of his novels then checking how the radio play and the television versions are different again, illustrates rather well how narrative rules push us into this bias or that.

‘Bias’ is too simple a word, really. What I’m working on now is about what world we see as a suitable environment for stories and what stories can be safely told in them.

It’s Monday and I should give you a book to read and all I can talk about is TV and my research. There are other writers who do and have done research and the novel I’m going to give you to for your “Why does Gillian give me so much reading!” list is by one of them. Suzette Haden Elgin was the writer who taught me (without ever knowing who I was) that it’s possibly to ask the big questions and to do serious research and to translate that research into totally captivating fiction. I haven’t read much of her work, because every time I read something I want to think for a while before reading more. Native Tongue is a very fine place to start. My warning is, however, that most languages in fiction read as half-baked once you are in the Suzette Haden Elgin rabbit hole. Most writers invent language without considering what it does in society and culture. It’s very hard to unsee the gaping holes once you understand what languages are and how they can work.

It’s that clear sunshine on the hidden…

Much wittering followed by some recipes

Today I have written a great deal. That great deal added up to a very short story and a few hundred words of non-fiction. It just felt like a great deal. I suspect this was because I am surrounded by autumn storms. Everything feels like a great deal when one is surrounded by storms.

Normally I walk my bookshelves to find you an interesting book to talk about. Because I have met two whole deadlines today (two!) I thought I’d take the easy way out and write about the nearest book to me. I forgot that I had six of my own books in reach because I was talking about them to someone. And yet, the weather is about to break (I have a very handy weather sense) and I need to finish writing this before then because when there is a storm literally overhead, I doubt I’ll be writing to you about interesting reading.

I’m taking the interesting route. On my computer I have – like so many of us, these days – an elibrary. I’m going to open a folder at random. The folder are labelled with the alphabet, except the historical food one, which is labelled ‘Cooking.’ Just typing about that particular heading led me straight into the Cooking folder, so let me find you a cookbook or historical food book of particular interest.

I opened the folder and was curious about one that wasn’t properly labelled at all. It proved to be a transcription of the 1596 The Good Huswifes Jewell. Just the opening is delightful, and if I find it delightful then you’re stuck with it. Let me give you that opening, in all its gorgeousness.

The Good Huswifes Jewell “Wherein is to be found most excellend and rare Deuises for conceites in
Cookery, found out by the practise of Thomas Dawson.
Wherevnto is adioyned sundry approued receits for many soueraine oyles, and the way to distill many precious waters, with diuers approued medicines for many diseases.
G.STEEVENS
Also certain approued points of husbandry, very necessary for all Husbandmen to know.
Newly set foorth with additions. 1596.
Imprinted at London for Edward White, dwelling at the litle North Doore of Paules at the signe of the Gun.”

If ‘Paules’ is St Paul’s Cathedral, then Edward White, the publisher, was in a part of London that had been book and scribe central since the Middle Ages. If you were in London in the thirteenth century and needed a notary in a hurry, the back of St Paul’s was the place.

I’m so tempted to simply let my mind rove in that district in the Middle Ages, and contemplate where I would buy parchment or commission illuminations, but this is a cookbook and my mind must remain resolute (the impending storm insists). Let me give you a recipe from the book, then. Everyone needs boiled chicken once in a while, and I’ve not made this recipe, so it’s a useful one all round:

To boile Chickins.
Straune your broth into a pipkin, & put in your Chickins, and skumme them as cleane as you can, and put in a peece of butter, and a good deale of Sorell, and so let them boyle, and put in all manner of spices, and a lyttle veriuyce pycke, and a fewe Barberies, and cutte a Lemman in pecces, and scrape a little Suger uppon them, and laye them vppon the Chickins when you serue them vp, and lay soppes vpon the dish.

I read this as using broth – I’d use chicken bouillon, because I always do when things are otherwise not clear. Boiling chicken in a broth sounds rather good, actually. Different broths would infuse it with different flavours. Butter and sorrel combined give a very smooth texture and flavour, and the verjuice might be to make it be not too unctuous. Barberries I love and have some on hand: they would add a fruitiness and also cut that unctuousness. In fact, I have most of the ingredients on hand. I’m just missing the chicken, the sorrel and the verjuice. Also, I’m missing bread. Without bread I can’t make sops. It’s just as well, really, because it’s 11.30 pm here and not the time to be making a chicken recipe.

In fact, it was a really bad idea to open that file and find you a recipe. I want to cook! Instead of cooking, let me find you another recipe from 1596. If you’re inspired to make either of these, I’d love to know how it went and, if you take pictures, it would make me very happy to see them.

Because most of you are heading for summer and the fruit is just beginning to arrive (we’re heading for winter and I’m eating persimmon and pomegranate and papaya while I can) how about a recipe that requires summer fruit? This one has fewer terms that need explaining, which is a bonus. I never know how much to translate, because it’s perfectly modern (Early Modern – I was making a bad joke) English. It all depends on how much cooking you’ve done and what kind of cooking. Stoves as we know them weren’t around in the late sixteenth century. A great deal of cooking was done over an open fire with a wonderful set of cooking equipment. This preserved fruit recipe, for example, uses the head of a pot covered by a plate, which is a very nice way of making sure the fruit stays whole.

To preserue all kinde of fruites, that they shall not breake in the preseruing of them.
Take a platter that is playne in the bottome, and laye suger in the bottome, then cherries or any other fruite, and so between euerie rowe you lay, throw suger and set it vpon a pots heade, and couer it with a dish, and so let it boyle.

Now I’m dreaming of apricots cooked this way and eaten with clotted cream.

I need to sign off before I start cooking. I so often do this I open an historical cookbook and then end up making something and not finishing my work. I shall leave you with one last recipe and no explanation whatsoever, and then I’ll finish all that must be done before this impending storm ceases to impend. Then I shall sleep and dream of preserved apricots served with clotted cream.

This last recipe is not quite a trifle as we know it today, but it is, nevertheless, kind of an ancestor to the Queen’s Jubilee dish that so many of my British friends have been making. Only kind of. I know its 18th century descendants and they’re all drinks. I am only missing the cream for this trifling dish. I would turn into something strange if I eat this at midnight, which is the precise time it would be ready, so I’m lucky I’m missing that cream (when you make it yourself, remember than thick cream has no gelatine or other thickener – it should dollop when you spoon it into the dish and must be at least 45% fat):

To make a Trifle.
Take a pinte of thicke Creame, and season it with Suger and Ginger, and Rosewater, so stirre it as you would then haue it, and make it luke warme in a dish on a Chafingdishe and coales, and after put it into a siluer peece or a bowle, and so serue it to the boorde.

 

PS While there is a place called West Wittering in the UK, and also one called East Wittering, alas, there does not appear to be one called Much Wittering. I might have to invent a fictional town, in Australia but with English tendencies.

When the world changes, stories help

Our election is over. Peculiarly and wonderfully so.

There are many, many reasons why the result is what it is. Those reasons include social justice, concern about climate change, fear of the Morrison government, loss of the centre-right part of the Liberal Party (the independent ‘teal’ candidates filled the hole left by the party’s shift right). One part of the equation, however, is very Australian. We see the world in our way, after all, and not through the eyes of any other country.

I don’t want to give an explanation. It would turn something light into something ponderous. Instead, I’m going to suggest you read some short stories. They’re all from over a century ago and they all demonstrate that the peculiarity and wonder come from somewhere very Australian.

If you want to read just one short story, try Henry Lawson’s “The Loaded Dog.” I’ve found you a link to the 1901 volume it appeared in, with a glossary.

If you see the specially Australian approach to life, the story will resonate and be very funny. If you don’t, it won’t. This saves me 500 words of weighty and possibly futile explanation.

If you want more along these lines, we have a whole literature. Steele Rudd’s stories about farming are good (Dad and Dave, On Our Selection), because colonisation was a bit different here to elsewhere. Just as wrong-headed, but we didn’t only celebrate the big and glorious. We also told stories about the small farmers who really had no idea what they were doing. Australia has always looked to small people and their lives and our literature celebrates it. And we celebrate that literature.

Decades ago, I was at a camp for university students. John Bluthal (the actor) talked to us about working with Spike Milligan. Then he moved onto a radio play of Rudd’s work. He told us how, as Dave in a dramatisation of Dad and Dave, he had no time to read the script beforehand. He was on live radio, reading straight into the microphone. Dave was famously slow of speech.

“Dad,” Bluthal drawled into the microphone, recreating the radio play. “Dad, you need to know…” He turned the page. “The shed is burning!”

Looking to small people and their lives, being aware of how foolish the whole of politics was becoming, needing to mock and put everyone back in their place: these factors changed the votes of many last weekend. My favourite example is how a conservative region of a conservative state voted Labor for the first time ever, because they wanted to bring a family home and Morrison said he never would allow it.

Now I’m wondering about my own fiction and about that of quite a number of other writers. We focus on the small, because in the small, implicit in the everyday, lies the whole universe. Those Australian writers who follow different paths to me may write to explore isolation and our challenging land, or to deal with baggage many of us bring here when we settle, or to look bullies in the eye and show where we go wrong. Some, however, write for an international market. In the nineteenth century and right through to the 1960s, that international market was the UK. Now, it’s more likely to be the US. When you can’t tell that the writer is Australian, when they lack that sensibility that marks the work as uniquely and bizarrely Antipodean, then that writer is probably writing for a different audience and marching to a different drum.

The Australian drum that resounded on Saturday occasionally skipped a beat or took a few polka steps. Marching? That’s not our way.

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.

Children’s books can play mind games

I’m writing late today, because it’s my birthday. In fact, I’m writing so late that my birthday is already finished in Australia. My birthday is on a public holiday. In a normal year, I’d probably introduce you to a book that tells the history of that public holiday, but the history of that public holiday is very military and there is enough of that in our everyday right now. If you’re curious, the day is ANZAC Day and the history is the landing at Gallipoli in 1915.

‘ANZAC’ stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, so I’ll give you one of my favourite Australian novels written by a New Zealand writer, as a compromise. Ruth Park moved to Sydney in 1942, where she married another writer of classic Australian books, D’Arcy Niland. I’ll introduce his The Shiralee one day.

I have several favourite books by Park: The Harp in the South, Poor Man’s Orange, and, of course all the stories of the Muddle-Headed Wombat. I suspect The Muddle-Headed Wombat was one of the first books I read outside school textbooks, in fact. I obtained my own copy of it in my teens and have never let anyone borrow it. My copy of The Muddle-Headed Wombat is pristine, however, compared to my copy of Playing Beatie Bow. I have maybe half a dozen books read so often that they cannot hold together, and this is one of them.

It’s set in Sydney, and is a time slip novel and… it’s almost impossible for me to describe. It’s been filmed and the film is charming but slight and the book is far more haunting and simply one of the best time slip novels out there.

Some books I read and re-read because they remind me of things I ought never forget. Playing Beatie Bow came out when I was an undergraduate, studying history. It became an instant reminder to me that history can happen as a narrative, as a spiral, as layers in time and more: history is not a simple thing.

I had only been to Sydney very briefly when I first read the novel. It suggested a society that was very different to the one I knew. More poor and urban and complex than the suburban I knew. Park’s two Sydneys brought the place to life in a way that made me rethink my own Melbourne. I wasn’t specialising in Australian history, but I attended every public lecture about Marvellous Melbourne by John Lack and I started to shape the stories of the streets I knew and I began to see the relationship between the stories we tell, the stories we lead.

When I myself moved to Sydney, in 1983, I walked down George Street and ventured down to The Rocks and found that the district was nothing like the novel. I had to learn another kind of history, or maybe another layer. Since then, The Rocks has been rebuilt and a museum established and it’s easier to see how the different moments of the past link, but then, I studied a street corner and tried to work out how it fitted and failed. I stopped trying and instead learned about the influenza pandemic and how it changed that tiny corner of Australia.

I suspect that this is the other reason I’m thinking of Playing Beatie Bow. The Rocks are indelibly linked in my mind with that pandemic, and, of course, now we are living through our own pandemic.

I can’t review Playing Beatie Bow. I can’t even analyse its history. This is unlike me. There is another timeslip novel whose history I analyse perfectly well, and that has an even more battered cover, Allison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time. I suspect that Park’s novel is too linked to that big change in my life, becoming an historian and, in order to do so, moving from Melbourne to Sydney. I may never be able to pull it to pieces in the same I way I pull most novels to pieces. All I can suggest, then, is that you read it for yourself.

Why the Aussie elections are so important this year: an introduction for the unwary

It’s one of those Mondays. I say this with much care and I’m drinking much coffee. Normally I would give you a book post on a Monday, but Australia’s much-awaited (by us, anyhow) election was called yesterday. This is not just any election. It’s our last opportunity to move away from rabid and corrupt politics. It matters. I asked if that meant I should post about it and Nancy Jane Moore said, “Yes, please.”

I’m doing two posts. The first one is on my Monday and the second is will be posted when Monday finally hits the US. One is about our parties, and the other will talk you through our electoral system. All the cool stuff is in this post, and I introduce the parties. I’m not hiding my opinions – you can see where my vote is likely to go if you read carefully.

First, you need to know that, in Australian popular opinion, our current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, belongs in the same crowd as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. When Trump was US President, the two acted as if they were best friends. Morrison is a fundamentalist Christian of the prosperity theology variety and, until a few weeks ago, was publicly a close friend of Brian Houston, the Hillsong leader who is currently on trial.

Until a few years ago, Australia was on various lists as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. Right now we’re not even considered close to achieving such an honour. In the last ten years, international influence and local decisions by the ruling party and their allies have pushed us away from our cultural standard.

How did this happen?

Just one example will explain it. In the last three years we’ve not had a week without a disaster of enormous magnitude. The Federal government put money aside to help and didn’t spend the vast bulk of it. In fact, a few weeks ago, the newspapers told us that the government had earned $800,000 on interest on unspent disaster relief. State governments have taken the brunt of getting people through disasters such as bushfires, floods, and the pandemic. Because they were promised Federal help and only a tiny fraction of the promised help came, we still have people who are living in caravans because they received none of the promised help when the 2019-20 bushfires ripped through territory the size of Syria. Some of these people have been evacuated (or even died) when the floods hit their town this year.

This is unheard of for Australia. We used to be outstanding at getting people through natural disasters with ridiculously low death tolls. We now don’t even have proper Federal policies to handle the natural disasters, and the government keeps cutting back support of the scientists who predict them and all the various bodies who normally find ways of dealing.

That’s just a small part of a complex picture. Australia is moving from being a laid-back country that really tries to do its bit, to a somewhat corrupt oligarchy. We still have our base culture, but I don’t think we can handle three more years of this culture being intentionally ground underfoot.

May 21, as you can see, is an important election. It will decide who we are and whether we care about people, about the land… about anything other than a small group of individuals making much money. The current deputy leader, theoretically representing rural Australians, has said quite clearly that money is more important than anything else. Farmers are one of his chief voting blocs, and he makes it clear he doesn’t care.

How we got this way has an interesting and sad history. It follows the same path as the changes in the US Republicans, and some of the same factors are at play. I don’t want to talk about that here. Instead, let me introduce you to who is standing for election. Our parties are not what they look like to non-Australians: their names are, to be honest, not that intuitive.

 

LNP – Liberal National Party, or the Coalition. This is the party currently in power. They are most definitely right wing.

‘Liberal’ in Australia has always referred to the small government (or smaller government) party, but these days it is the party that supports the coal and gas industries and is, to be fair, well-supported by those industries in return. In the sixties and seventies they supported cheap or free education. The free education was brought into play by the Labor party, and is the reason no-one my age ever suffered from university debts. The Liberals kept it when the Labor party was voted out. It was a Liberal leader (Malcolm Fraser) who was in charge when I was an undergraduate, and made sure that I paid no tuition fees. I paid student union fees (less than $100 a year) and for books, and anyone without income got Austudy , which was not quite enough to live on, but Austudy and a part-time job got most students through university with no debt at all. These days students emerge from undergraduate degrees between $20,000 and $100,000 in debt (or even higher) – it’s a choice between education and owning a house, even for most people who come from comfortable backgrounds.

These days the Liberals are, as I said earlier, quite right wing for the most part, despite the name. Even for a right wing party, they are light on addressing climate change, which is why Australia is labelled as bad on climate change – if you poll people’s opinions, dealing with it is important to us. It is not, however, important to our current leaders.

How does the LNP act in Parliament? One of my favourite clips (my least favourite clips make me want to weep): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7UCSpZB5Bo

 

Labor – currently the Opposition. Labor started off from the union movement. Unions are still much bigger in Australia than in the US, and considerably more powerful, though less than they used to be. It was, originally, definitely left wing but has drifted towards the right in recent years. Let me be clear, though – right wing in Australia is not the same as the US right.

The spelling of the name is due to one of their early leaders, King O’Malley. He was very important in the days when Australia became independent and he founded a party and… he was American. This is why the name of the party uses US spelling. Canberra (our national capital, where I live) reacts to this naming in its own way. O’Malley was a teetotaller, so a pub was named after him. I have met friends at King O’Malley’s many times and each and every time someone makes a joke about the spelling of Labor.

The party is now centre left (mostly) and centre right (increasingly often). It’s not a left wing party. If someone from the US were describing it, however, they might call it ‘left wing’, because of the same factors that made the old-fashioned Liberals strong on education and social welfare. Education, health, social welfare, and owning a home are four dreams that a large number of Australians agree on. Almost all of us also agree on doing far more to prevent climate change than we currently attempt. State Labor parties have a (mostly) good record on this.

Federally, Labor haven’t been in power since September 2013, so their record on all issues at the federal level is tangled with the strange politics and voting patterns of Opposition. Labor has a history, in Parliament, of not shouting loudly against things they can’t change ie by voting agreement where nothing can be done, and saving the arguments for places they can make a change. They may be not-good on climate change, then, or they may just be biding their time.

Labor has the electoral advantage of everyone’s favourite politician (OK, maybe not everyone, but a surprising number of us). Penny Wong is wildly popular. She refuses to move to the House of Representatives and become leader and every few months people say, “But why???” She’s probably right on not trying for leadership. Most leaders have come from NSW, Victoria or Western Australia and she’s from South Australia. What’s more, the bigoted parts of Australia hate her as much as the rest of Australia loves her: she’s Malaysian Chinese Australian and gay. She is targeted by many, many bigots and the way she handles these people is one of the reasons she is so popular.

She is also popular because of how she handles difficult issues. We watch her for her facial expressions as much as her words and her attitude. When she looks at someone in Senate Estimates and waits a moment before saying something, a clip will be sent around social media, to illustrate a moment where someone not doing their job was forced to explain. Her ethics matter to us. Clips of Wong are always circulated when Senate Estimates (one of our methods for ensuring government accountability) is at work. Let me show you. First, something very everyday (and actually Senate Estimates, where Wong is seeking answers from a minister for things done): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ein2OPaX4GI It’s not the most colourful of the clips, but it shows the everyday work she does and why she’s liked. It also helps that she does things like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5pxE4RXpjc

 

Greens – the next largest party (mostly). Until recently they were a bit gentler than the Greens in other countries, but these days they are fixed in their policies and have very strong views. They still get a lot of the left wing vote, but some of us would really like it if they listened and were a bit more adaptable.

Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer and other leaders of small right wing parties. We have them in abundance. They get up to 15% of the vote in some states and some elections. They’re a story in and of themselves. They’re important politically, but can also be problematic. The old White Australia is best represented in these parties.

 

Independents: not new at all, but a particular type of independent candidate, based on grass roots decisions in a given electorate, is gaining a bigger voice than previously. These candidates are the main reason this election is impossible to call. Their colour is teal and many of them get backing from groups such as Climate 200 – addressing  climate change is one of the few policies they all totally agree on. Much of this voice belongs to the centre-right and their supporters used to be the core voters of the Liberal Party. This election is going to be one to watch, because if these independents do well, then several ministers are in danger of losing their seats.

The Liberals are so worried about them that two Liberal candidates have shifted the blue of the party in all their advertising to a shade closer to teal and one took his party’s name off some of his corflutes. The Liberals are not just fighting Labor for a majority: an interesting number of them are fighting for previously secure seats. In the 2019 election Zali Steggall (an ex-Olympic skier) defeated the previous prime minister in his own seat. Several of the “Voices of…” (the official term for the new grassroots candidates) are ex-journalists or sportspeople.

In Canberra, I don’t know yet if there are any standing for the lower house (the election was only called yesterday), but there are independents standing for the Senate, and one of them is, indeed an ex-sportsman, David Pocock. He’s not part of the teal people, but he is the leading candidate to challenge our Liberal senator (whose name is Zed, which isn’t nearly as funny in US English as it is in Australian English – for us ‘zed’ is the final letter of the alphabet) and the moment a particular picture of him was circulated, his vote increased enough to make people start to pay attention to him. He now has an audience for his policies, but for such an Australian reason.

This is not a complete introduction, but I’ve run out of time. When I meet a couple of deadlines, I will write you the next post, and you can see why the election is so soon and some of the mechanics behind our system. In some ways it’s very different to the system is the vast majority of democracies. Almost every vote counts here. And we have democracy sausages.

Watch this space.