Saturday, December 22, 2012

Little ten cent scourer

Hello attic! Where did you get to? Or rather, where did I go? (I think I may have wandered away somewhere.) But now that you're here, I feel I must bring a book (toil, toil, up the ladder) that I've been meaning to put in the attic for some time.

Nice, eh.

Provenance: bought at Robin Downs Bookshop, Murwillumbah (now defunct, I imagine) in the 1970s for 90 cents. Previously at Higgs Bookshop Sydney for 50 cents.

A year or so ago I bought another second-hand copy at the famous (to me) Canty's bookshop in Fyshwick, Canberra ($7.50), and the words are just the same, the cover even  more tasteless:

Which is the remarkable thing about books. I mean that the words are the same ... I thought I would only ever be able to read my wonderful old copy, and it was falling apart (as books do), and then where would I be? But this new copy is just as good, words wise, though I am less attached to it as artefact.

Now, Kerouac is always being lambasted for being sexist etc etc and who am I to argue otherwise?

But I present to you this:

(Kerouac is at Ferlinghetti's cabin at Bixby Canyon, though he says it's as Big Sur: Jean Louis always made laughable attempts to fictionalise his books ...)

___ So once again I'm Ti Jean the Child, playing, sewing patches, cooking suppers, washing dishes (always kept the kettle boiling on the fire and anytime dishes needed to be washed I just pour hot water into the pan with Tide soap and soak them good and then wipe them clean after scouring with a little 5- &-10 wire scourer) --- Long nights simply thinking about the usefulness of that little wire scourer, those little yellow copper things you buy in supermarkets for 10 cents, all to me infinitely more interesting than the stupid and senseless 'Steppenwolf' novel in the shack which I read with a shrug [...]

Kerouac, Big Sur, Chapter 7

I rest my case. The poetry of kitchens, written by a man.

(And I often think of the infinite pleasure I've had from this little falling-apart book, bought for 90 cents over 30 years ago.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Moss-haired girl

Found at the Lifeline op shop in South Lismore: a copy of Michael and me and the Sun, by Barbara Hanrahan. (This shop has a marvellous book collection - huge - and most books are 3 for $2. It's possible to find many old and out-of-print books there. A real treasure house.)

Barbara Hanrahan (1939 - 1991) was an Australian print-maker and novelist, born in Adelaide, and living and working there and in London till her death at the age of 52 after a long battle with sarcoma.

Michael and Me and the Sun was written in the last year of her life, much of it while she was in hospital (the book itself makes no mention of this; I discovered it later). It's a memoir of her time in London when she first went there in the early 1960s to continue her study of printmaking.

She was so eager to get there that she went long before the term began, and worked for a while as a teacher by day, while taking classes in etching, wood-engraving, and lithography four nights a week.

I felt too shy to ask any questions, I just wanted to learn by watching what other people did. And to make myself feel safer still, I drew one of the moss-haired girls I'd drawn in Adelaide, in a flower-sprigged dress like the girls wore in my grandmother's Girl's Own Annual of 1911. She ran stilly in her buttoned boots on my piece of zinc, a leafy bough in her hand. On the next plate she was bigger - she floated among the branches of a tree with peck-beaked birds all around her. I put my head down and pressed my finger hard on the etching needle, and drew in the shivery lines of her hair, the lacing of her bodice, her billowing skirt. I lost myself in detail: dots and swirls and zig-zags. The old atmosphere lapped around me again. At the art school on the Terrace in Adelaide I'd escaped the pinprick worries of everyday as I'd worked at my prints. It happened here, too. I forgot the school and the flat in the surety of ritual - the escape from an everyday world as you went through the crazy ceremony of inking up your plate, then wiping the ink away from your hand till all that was left just filled the line of your drawing. The room was full of bustle, yet full of the stillness of concentration. For those few hours I was surrounded by my own kind of people. It didn't matter that the bearded boys in black aped Jackson Pollock, that the old ladies did their kittens and puppy-dogs, that I did my moss-haired girls - we were all part of something bigger than ourselves. Surrounded by the familiar smells - printing ink and stopping-out varnish and damp paper and turps and methylated spirits - I was content.

From Michael and Me and the Sun (UQP, 1992)

I love this moss-haired girl. And I do not think she runs 'stilly' as Hanrahan said.  There is so much strength in her, as she grasps those branches. Look at her sturdy legs in their buttoned boots - she is the very essence of defiant and independent young woman, for all her 1911 clothing - she is almost jumping into the air.

And what I love about the passage above is the description of the absorption in ones work, which surely must be the most satisfying and happy-making aspect of doing anything, whether it be print-making or gardening or baking or writing.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Dear Mr Blue,
I have been a voracious reader since childhood, devouring fiction, history, science, philosophy, like a vacuum cleaner. I'm the only person I know who's read everything by Sartre, Simeon, Dickens, Trollope, Patrick O'Brien, and Jean M. Auel.  I've read the Koran, the Buddhist canon, the C. H. Mackintosh commentaries on the Bible, Beowulf, the Icelandic sagas. And now, at the age of 48, I seem to have crashed. I have not opened a book in the past two years. It doesn't interest me. I look at the books on my coffee table and they're like bricks to me. Any ideas?


Dear Scorched, No sin to be aliterate. There's a whole world out there that writers write about that you can discover for yourself. Cooking, travel, clinical depression, exile, self-destructive behaviour, the accumulation of vast wealth, inappropriate romance, just to name seven. I'm on the other side of the canyon from you, a writer who is staring at a blank page and trying to figure out how to make a brick out of it. Someday, somebody should  bring nonwriters together with nonreaders to see what they have to say to each other.

From Love Me, by Garrison Keillor

My friend Sue blew in from Brisbane on the weekend, bearing mangoes and other gifts.
'You know I'm not a reader,' she said cheerfully, giving me a copy of Love Me, 'but I loved this.'

It's true, Sue doesn't read. Though years ago she gave me a copy of John Updike's Rabbit, Run and said fervently, 'If you read only one sentence...'

I read the whole book and saw what she meant. Updike's sentences are superb.  What a stylist.

But Garrison Keillor ... I've heard excerpts from his radio show and didn't like him. And this book ... would I be able to read it?

I was (and am) in the middle of Yukio Mishima's Forbidden Colours, about a famous nasty old Japanese writer who, to take his revenge on womankind, bribes a beautiful young homosexual man to break their hearts ...  a pretty amazing book to have been written in the early 1950s, since there is a great deal in it about homosexual beats and bars in Japan. But I find it hard to 'get' at times, the people are so strange, and well, horrible.

So I needed a 'light read' and dipped into Love Me at once. This is also about a writer, a man who had one best-selling book and then went to write for the New Yorker. His wife, a social worker, was happy living in the same old house and run-down suburb in St Paul, Minnesota, and didn't want to go with him, chasing fame and glamour in New York; she is a person for whom things are 'good enough' (you can see where this is heading at once).

And then he finds he can't write a thing, and takes on a part-time job doing an advice column for a small regional paper.

There is so much lovely bitchy stuff about writers and writing in this book. Real writers are mentioned here, and I would hazard a guess that some of the stuff about them is real and some made up. Writers like A. B. White and Updike and Salinger drift through the corridors of the New Yorker, and you want to say to them all, get a life!

But it was the concept of aliteracy that struck me. It's the first time I've heard the term used.

We all know people who are aliterate. People who can read, but just don't want to. Many of these people have tertiary qualifications. They don't see the point of the exercise.

Sometimes I read myself to a standstill, so I understand what Scorched was getting at.  Enough reading! I say, and go out and garden, or cook ... but so far, after a break, I always come back to books. They don't remain bricks to me for long.

And after Love Me, I'm itching to get back to something meatier. Like that dreadful Forbidden Colours, which makes me see what the point of reading and writing is.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Writing under the influence

The young Patrick White apparently admitted that 'he was very much under the influence of Gertrude'; also that he had been 'drunk with the technique of writing' and said that he 'had gone up that cul de sac the stream of consciousness' when he wrote his first novel Happy Valley at the age of 26.

Well, so have we all been much under the influence of Gertrude or perhaps I should only speak for myself. I was so much under the influence of Gertrude while writing About a Girl that, seeing the error of my ways, I rewrote those parts, telling my publisher about the first draft, 'Ignore that; I was under the influence of Gertrude'.

Stein is very influential. To read her makes you think that all other writing is  dull and predictable. You automatically begin writing like Stein - it's infectious. I think the best thing about Gertrude is that she makes writing look like an adventure. Words only mean what you want them to mean and sentences are emotional or is that paragraphs.

"Think of a sentence not however or with a mound but just as pointed and polite and shortly." (Stein: How To Write)

Happy Valley has recently been republished by Text Publishing for the first time since 1939. White never allowed it to be reissued in his lifetime, perhaps because he thought it a juvenile and inferior work, or perhaps because he feared prosecution by the Chinese family he used as a basis for the Quongs of Happy Valley.

It's a novel of small town life. Nearly everyone wants to get out of there. With such a large cast of characters it's inevitable that some will be more appealing than others. I love the piano teacher, 27 year old Alys Browne, who lives alone:

She read too. She had started some of the Russians, Anna Karenina, and Turgeniev, but Tennyson sounded funny now, she could not read him any more. She liked to sit down at tea, and take off her shoes, and read a chapter of Anna Karenina, though sometimes she found it a bit of an effort and lapsed to the Windsor Magazine. Tolstoi was interesting though. She had spilt some tea on the seventy-second page. It gave the book a comfortable, intimate appearance, and she liked it better after that, as if she had always had it with her and had read it several times.
White, Happy Valley, page 46

This is White under the influence of no one but his own brilliant self. There is a chapter in a schoolroom where White has gone up the cul de sac and we get the consciousness of many of the people in the room - it would be heavy-going if the whole of the book was like that, but a schoolroom is the perfect place to explore that technique - all those consciousnesses wanting to be other than where they are - all that lack of focus and wandering thoughts. The very essence of schoolroom.

Happy Valley is said to be set around Adaminaby, in the desperately cold-in-winter and hot-in-summer country to the south of Canberra. I drove through it once and stopped at a park (there is a large concrete trout there: a tourist drawcard?). We saw not one soul in the place, apart from a golden labrador who seemed very interested in our sandwiches. I gave him a raw egg as we departed, cracking it onto the ground, and he lapped it up.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A luminous halo

Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little a mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not merely pleading for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it.

Virginia Woolf, 'Modern Fiction', in The Common Reader 

This is a good description what the Modernists (Woolf, Joyce, and Australia's own Patrick White) were attempting to achieve.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

It happens this way sometimes...

... you reach out for a book on your shelf that you've never read but have been meaning to for some time. What has put you off? You love reading Patrick White. Perhaps it is the oldness and the unattractive nature of a book bought at a book sale years ago for one dollar. It has actual dirt on the cover, and things have been nibbling at the edges. Well, a lot of old books end this way and old age is seldom pretty. And many books by Patrick White are only to be found in this condition - my copy of Riders in the Chariot fell apart as I read. Or was I put off this book by the cover drawing by Sidney Nolan, of an old bush shack and water tank and bare tree, which makes you think that this book The Tree of Man  is sparse and dull and dry.

It isn't. It is wonderful, full of life and people and surprises. And brilliant language.

It made me think that no one writes like this now. What I mean is that the 20th century experiment called Modernism has petered out without leaving much effect on any writers that followed apart from perhaps John Banville. I could probably think of more, but the coffee hasn't kicked in. No, even Banville doesn't quite use language with that hallucinatory effect.

Why take LSD is what I think, when you have White, and James Joyce? (Not that I've resorted to this since my early 20s in the 1970s - but at least I know what I mean by hallucinatory).

Random par from Tree of Man (1956):

Then she went back to the house; from which she had swept most of the dust blown there by the droughty winds, and which was now clean but fragile. Her circulation was not very good this morning, her bones were brittle, and she walked about nervously amongst the bright furniture. She longed for some event of immense importance to fill the house's emptiness, but it was most improbable that it would. Glittering, dusty light spilled from the mirrors. That was all.
And other modernists:

Random bit from Kerouac, On the Road (The original Scroll) (around 1951):

He wanted to test something in himself and he wanted to see what Louanne was like with another man. We were sitting on Ross Bar on Eighth Avenue when he proposed the idea; we'd spent an hour walking Times Square looking for Hunkey.

From James Joyce, Ulysses (1922):

Smells of men. His gorge rose. Spaton sawdust, sweetish warmish cigarette smoke, reek of plug, spilt beer, men's beery piss, the stale of ferment.

From Gertrude Stein, How to Write(1931):

Thank you very much. What is the difference between a verb and their altering it.

From V Woolf, To The Lighthouse (1927):

As usual, Lily thought. There was always something that had to be done at that precise moment, something that Mrs Ramsay had decided for reasons of her own to do instantly.

None of that rests my case (which is?). I only know that when I read the scene in the bar from Ulysses that I was there, and it was the language that did it.  It was the same with The Tree of Man. I don't  think that many writers care for language any more. But isn't that what literature is about? Not so much what you say as the way that you say it.

White was continuing the work begun by Joyce and Woolf, by not simply recording experience, but allowing the reader to come close to what that lived experience felt like. I've been away with White for most of the week.

 On other matters, Patrick White was rather gorgeous in his youth (or middle age, as these pictures are from) - which seems young to me.

I always like a man with a cat ...

While in this 1939 portrait by Roy de Maistre he looks positively dishy.

All these rather different images than the ones we often see of White as a grumpy old man.

Anyway, I think I'll go off now and write something other than this. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012


... but he sometimes remembered having told one or another class that the writer Flaubert had claimed, or was reported as having claimed, that he could hear the rhythms of his still unwritten sentences for pages ahead. Whenever the man had told this to a class, he had hoped to cause his students to reflect on the power of the sentence over the mind of a certain sort of writer; but he, the man, had often supposed that the claim, or the reported claim, by Flaubert was much exaggerated.

  From 'The Boy's Name was David', by Gerald Murnane, in The Best Australian Stories 2002

I found this book in the Lismore City Library last week. I went there because I was in town and I was feeling anxious. It was an almost an overwhelming compulsion to go in there, and I gave in to it.   I like the way libraries make me feel. I do like the feel of books around me; books that might be borrowed rather than bought, the surprise of what I might find.  Things are relatively calm and ordered there, as well as familiar. One library is very much like another, I've found. I've taught a lot of writing classes in libraries. On the whole, I prefer to conduct a writing class in a library - even a school library - than in a classroom. And I've spent time in libraries waiting for librarians to take me somewhere - to my motel room, or to another town, or to an airport home. I've never minded waiting like that.

I think maybe I went in there so that I would discover this particular paragraph, which reminded me that I need to get the rhythm of my sentences going - otherwise it's like getting onto a bicycle and going too slowly - you tend to wobble and fall off. 

Friday, September 7, 2012


Rising to the challenge, Kate!

I love looking at people's books, and looking at their shelves is surely a window into their soul (at least into their personality).

So here are my shelves, untouched and not rearranged for camera:

The attic shelves. Yes - this is a real attic I'm writing from. Or as we call it, 'the loft'.

Detail of attic shelves. Most of my favourites are up here.

And then there are various downstairs shelves...

Detail of my cookery books, which now I look at it, are on a really dirty shelf (see, I told you it was unedited). Some of these books need throwing out. There is a copy of Claudia Rodan's 'Middle eastern Food' held together with a rubber band, and other 40 year old books that are almost compost. But I love them and use them.

Not shown: the shelves in my workroom, which is away from the house, and I can't be bothered going down there to photograph them. But they're almost empty, as I've been culling my books drastically, due to an impending move. But if I were to show them, I would focus on the 6 volumes of Proust, lent years ago by a friend, and never read.

So show us your shelves ... No cheating, mind ...

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A mouse has a little beating heart

Don't laugh - a mouse has a little beating heart, that little mouse I let live behind the cupboard was really 'humanly' scared, and it was being stalked by a big beast with a stick and it didn't know why it was chosen to die - it looked up, around, both ways, little paws up, on hind legs, breathing heavily, hunted -

Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels

I often think of that line from Kerouac -' a mouse has a little beating heart' when I deal with mice. The episode the quotation comes from is when Kerouac is working as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak.

This morning I took another mouse far from the house  to the area beyond the workshop and let it go. Every night when I set the tunnel trap in the kitchen I get at least one, or two, the first before I go to bed; then I re-set the trap.

I take heart in thinking that there must be quite a colony down there now - at least they will find other mice there. They are just small, brown mice. I don't know how they keep getting into the house. They're so small that I've weighted the end of the trap with a one dollar coin taped to the outside, in order for it to tip.

But they always go with a full belly. I lure them in with peanut butter with rolled oats stuck on top.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Rediscovering vinyl

Underground Man has been rediscovering his records, so last night I found myself listening to
Catholic Boy, the late Jim Carroll's 1980 album. I think this track 'City Drops' is about my favourite.

 And it took me back about 15 years ago, when I was speaking to a small group of senior girls at a Catholic secondary college in a rural Victorian town. I was talking about my novel The Serpentine Belt, and mentioned the influence Jack Kerouac had on the writing of it.

 'You've probably never heard of him ...' I began.

 One of the girls said, "I have. I've read Jack Kerouac.'

 A brief quiz assured me she wasn't having me on, and our conversation continued later, after the session. She asked me if I'd read Jim Carroll, The Basketball Diaries. I said I hadn't, but that I loved his album, Catholic Boy. 'Catholic Boy!' she exclaimed. 'You have Catholic Boy!'

 Just one of those exchanges that make going into schools surprising and delightful.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Not at all feeble

This was one of the stages that would happen, just as now she was at the stage of crawling confidently, briskly, towards cigarette butts whenever they were in the park. When she sat up it was a miracle of posture, her back beautifully erect, her big round head a weightless balloon.

Emily Perkins, The Forrests (2012)

What a lovely, exact image of a baby.

As you've probably worked out, there aren't a lot of recently published books in the attic, but I like Emily Perkins, and have read every one of her books.

To my mind, this, The Forrests, is her best. It's the story of Dorothy Forrest, from childhood to death, told in a series of stories, different parts of her life.

EM Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel (A book  I studied at university and often have recourse to) says that nearly all novels are feeble in the end. This is because the characters start being manipulated by the plot, which takes over as a book nears its denouement.

I do find this, and this is why I nearly always like the beginnings of novels more than the later stages. Characters start out acting naturally, and then 'Oh No! Here comes the plot!', rolling like a juggernaut towards them, crushing them and rendering them lifeless.

This doesn't happen in this novel; it's satisfying all the way through, and especially at the end, because the 'plot' as such is life. Dorothy and her sister and brothers and parents and husband and children - and Daniel, the stray, deprived boy who attaches himself to the family as a child, and who Dorothy loves all her life.

I do think that people are inherently interesting - I'm never bored by the stories friends and family tell me of their life. And in novels, I don't demand that exciting things happen, just that the story be told in an engaging and meaningful way. There has to be a shape to a novel, and in this way they differ from life, which appears amorphous at times. And a meaning needs to emerge as well - isn't this why we like novels? That they are 'shaped and artful'.

In portraying life as worthwhile and engrossing and difficult, there is wisdom in this book; I think this is what I look for when I read. And there is art. Perkins is a sensory writer - we experience Dorothy's life in minute detail, we are there with her, and the images are poetic and true.  The only problem is that sometimes - and only sometimes - the detail takes over.  There's a boring bit where a cup of coffee is made, and sometimes the physical movements are described so exactly that I find them hard to follow, and I imagine the characters' bodies contorted in an unnatural way as in a game of Twister.

But then there is the beautiful simplicity of sentences like this :

 "In the dim bedroom, Louisa reached for Dorothy's hand."

Coming at the end of a paragraph of description, it perfectly weights it. This is what I like - language with rhythm.

This book was a friend to me. I immersed myself in it. I remember reading the passage quoted above while sitting in the sun on the balcony off our bedroom with a cup of tea, on a day when I strongly needed to relax and breathe and have time to myself.

Friday, August 10, 2012

I think I may be a little bit classic

It's come to my attention that my 1997 novel, Loving Athena, is on a list of 11 books nominated as Australian YA classics from the last 30 years by kill your darlings.

I'm chuffed, of course, though I know the book won't win - it's up against many best-selling and loved books. Athena would only have ever sold about 2,000 copies at most, and is long out of print, but it's always had its fans.

One girl wrote and told me she'd read it 19 times.

Even I haven't read it 19 times.

About a decade ago, I got hate mail about this book, from a class of students who'd been made to read it. It was vitriolic and aggressive in its tone - they wondered how on earth the book had been published, but most of all, they said why didn't I just make Keats gay, as he so obviously was. (Well, of course he's gay - he's a gentle boy who writes poetry - what else could he be?) By the way, they weren't wanting me to write a gay novel, it was the opposite of that.

 I was very low on iron at the time, had just come home from an operation after months of feeling ill, and I didn't reply to them. I simply didn't have the energy. I dropped their letter sadly into the bin. What made me sad was the intolerance of someone who was 'different'. These were the Pauline Hanson years, when Muslims and other 'unaustralian' people were being targeted with hate. It was now, obviously, quite okay to be intolerant.

What was their teacher thinking?

Anyway, I'm amazed that this book, of all of mine, has been chosen. Mahalia and Secret Scribbled Notebooks, are far better known, have sold many more copies, and been published overseas.

So to celebrate, I'm putting a little bit of Athena into the attic.

The novel is about a young man named Keats, who writes poetry. He lives with an old man, a potter, on a commune called Elysian Farm near Lismore. There is a real Elysian Farm near Lismore; I've never been there - I just liked the name (just as there was a real Hope Springs bookshop in Lismore - I put it in Secret Scribbled Notebooks - I have been there many times (it's now defunct), and it was very as I described).

As my Keats wrote poetry, I interleaved each chapter with one of 'his' poems.

This is one that a lot of people have told me they liked:

Street Kid

I'm sick of poems
that are shy,
ready to run
if you look at them,
that want to be wooed,
yearned after
and adored.

I want a poem that stands aggressively on street corners,
cigarette in mouth,
loitering with intent.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

I fell to thinking

Going up a mountain track, I fell to thinking.

How can you resist a novel that begins this way?

Natsume Soseki's (1867-1916) The Three-Cornered World (or in Japanese, Kusa Makura, or 'The Grass Pillow') is a novel about a traveller, an artist. It is gentle, meandering, philosophical ... everything I like a novel to be. There is a woman in it who is possibly mad, and an artist who wants to paint her. It ends at the point where he thinks he may be able to.

Thank heaven for all those who in devious ways by their art, bring tranquility to the world, and enrich men's hearts.

Amen, says I.

And then there's this delicious bit:

... and because I am an artist I find any passage of a novel interesting even when it is out of context. I find it interesting talking to you - so much so in fact that I'd like to talk with you every day while I'm here. I'll even fall in love with you if you like; that would be particularly interesting. But however deeply I were to fall in love with you it would not mean that we would have to get married. If you think that marriage is the logical conclusion to falling in love, then it becomes necessary to read novels through from beginning to end.

So here's to not reading novels through from beginning to end. Here's to novels with little incident and rich with imagery that allow you to reflect and enjoy without rushing or reaching towards a conclusion. 

Friday, June 22, 2012


Canty's secondhand bookstore, Fyshwick, Canberra.

Asleep, by Banana Yoshimoto. Have I read this?

I ask the former potter. Is this the book? Is this the book where the girl goes to visit a sick girl living in a remote house. It's near a lake. And the girl foretells the future or something. She's taken there by a boy, the girl's brother. And there's something about their mother?

Is that a banana book? Or a Murakami?

He shakes his head. He doesn't know.

The trouble is, I have trouble remembering what I've read. And I don't retain things - just the atmosphere, and one or two things. Makes rereading an adventure.

I buy the Banana book.

The National Library, Canberra: The Life of Patrick White.

Born 1912. Died 1990. Exactly the same as my father. I remember noting this at the time.

 Little Paddy's letters to the fairies, and to Santa. He wants a heap of things, including 'a little mouse that runs across the floor'. He hopes Santa won't think him greedy, but he does want these things so badly. I start to laugh - I want to laugh right out loud but people would look at me. (Since when have I worried about this?)

Paddy dressed at The Mad Hatter. Side on, striding: a formal shot.

Paddy's asthma improved so much when he went to the Blue Mountains that his mother bought a house at Winmalee.

Patrick White's manuscripts, in a loose, flowing hand. Plays he wrote.

Portraits of Patrick.

Photos of Patrick and Manoly. During the war, when they met. With their dogs.

His black knitted beanie with a pom pom on top. A photo of him in the beanie.

A re-creation of his study in London. His desk with long drawers. His typewriter, though he wrote in longhand.

Typed letters from Patrick.

The letter where he de-friends Geoffrey Dutton. 'I've had enough of Duttonry.'

Patrick with actors and actresses.

First editions of his books. Happy Valley, soon to be reprinted for the first time. I want a copy of this.

Patrick and Manoly in their kitchen in Centennial Park.

Patrick's Nobel Prize medal, and the certificate.

I pick up free postcards at the exit/entrance. Paddy as Mad Hatter. I recall that Roky Erickson also fancy- dressed as the mad hatter as a child. There's a picture of him in the cd booklet and on the cd of True Love Casts Out all Evil. 

A bookmark. Patrick White's glasses. How apt.

He saw things differently. He makes us see differently. That's what a great writer does. He didn't like people much. He loved them so much he thought some were transcendent.

The National Portrait Gallery, Canberra:

More portraits of Patrick White. Nick Cave. The original of the William Dargie portrait of Elizabeth 11 that hung in every school.

The original picture for the Nimrod poster of Mo Rene by Martin Sharp. Martin Sharp by Gary Shead.

A photo of Lee Lin Chin, from SBS. Aboriginal Australians well represented.

Many of portraits of notable Australians. Princess Mary of Denmark. Just marry a Danish Prince. Or write nobel prize-winning books.

The former potter as we go out: That's a big building to house a few pictures.

We walk in mist around the lake. 11 degrees, and gloomy. It's not too bad. The carillon chimes. And now we're getting damp. Go into the National Gallery.

We walk around briskly.  Indoor walking track. In case of wet weather. We know this place like the backs of our hands, as they say.  Matisse. Waterlilies. The haystack. That sculpture by Modigliani. The Ballets Russes costumes. That collage by Picasso. The Asian art. The decorative arts.

Near the loos, photographs of early expeditions to Antarctica. Horses and dogs on board the ship. The huskies curled up, asleep. The animals suffered dreadfully on the long trip.

We head down the escalator. It comes to me what the book was. The Lake, I say. That book was The Lake, by Banana Yoshimoto. The one with the brother and sister, and the girl who knows them. The house was beside a lake.

I haven't read that one, says the former potter.

Last night, back at home, 1000 km or so to the north of Canberra, I started Asleep, by Banana Yoshimoto. After a few pages, I went to sleep.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

faking it

My first poems were experiments; I built them on borrowed rhythms; I was a dedicated tinkerer, putting together the shapes and ideas which I shoplifted. And images. Like people who excel at crossword puzzles, I found that I could, with a little jiggling, produce images of quite startling vividness. My first poems (pomes) were lit with a whistling blue clarity (emptiness) and they were accepted by the first magazine I sent them to. Only I knew what paste-up jobs they were, only I acknowledged my debt to a good thesaurus, a stimulating dictionary and a daily injection, administered like Vitamin B, of early Eliot.
I, who manufactured the giddy dark-edged metaphors, knew the facile secret of their creation. Like piecework I rolled them off. Never, never, never did I soar on the winds of inspiration; the lines I wrote, hunched over the card table in that grubby, poorly ventilated apartment, were painstakingly assembled, an artificial montage of poetic parts. I was a literary con-man, a quack, and the size of my early success was amazing, thrilling and frightening.

But after Watson left us, after he walked out on Seth and me, poetry became the means by which I saved my life. I stopped assembling; I discovered that I could bury in my writing the greater part of my pain and humiliation. The usefulness of poetry was revealed to me; all those poets had been telling the truth after all; anguish could be scooped up and dealt with. My loneliness could, by my secret gift of alchemy, be shaped into a less frightening form. I was going to survive - I soon saw that - and my survival was hooked into my quirky, accidental ability to put words into agreeable arrangements. I could even remake my childhood, that great void in which nothing had happened but years and years of shrivelling dependence. I wrote constantly, and I wrote, as one critic said, "from the floor of a bitter heart."

And the irony, the treachery really, was that those who wrote critical articles on my books of poetry never- not one of them- distinguished between those poems I had written earlier and those that came later.

Carol Shields, The Box Garden, 1977

This is a book I return to again and again (bit of a theme in the attic, really) and it's this passage that I remember the most, that I turn to because of what it says about writing, the beauty and the pity of it. I love the narrator of this book, Charleen Forrest, dignified, poverty-stricken poet and brilliant mother, with her unruly dark hair and twisted toe, and the certainty that she will never be brave. I love her gentle, accommodating son Seth.

(An aside: Sister Book

There is a companion book to this, Small Ceremonies, where the narrator is Charleen's sister Judith Gill, successful biographer and failed novelist. This book is also about writing, a comedy of errors and cross-purposes, about the deviousness and desperation of writers, the stealing of plots (or perhaps not), the using of other people's lives as material.)

"Soaring on the wings of inspiration"

I have soared (I have also struggled - more on that later) - and it's an exhilarating feeling, page after page rolling out effortlessly under your fingers. "Don't stop to think of words" advised Jack Kerouac, and it's true, when you know what you're writing, there is no need to stop, and the words come, unbidden almost, not separate to your thoughts, but part of them.

Mathematicians say that they know when an equation is right because of the beauty of it, and writing is the same: there's a rightness to the expression - it flows, therefore it is.

I remember soaring when I wrote parts of Little Wing - the episode where Emmy leaves Matt and the baby behind, and goes on a bus to Sydney. Also the part where on Christmas day she finds herself in a park alone and a creepy man sits down near her, and follows her - she comes to a Catholic church, and imagines going inside. But then she thinks, Enough! and tells him to stop following her, and leaves.

When these parts of the book were edited I remember page after page without an editor's mark on them, they were so sure of themselves.

(Interestingly, Little Wing is the only one of my books not nominated for a single award, when all the others have had several.)  So do people notice when you soar?

1952 Vincent Black Lightning

I can also remember trudging, one painful word after another, unable to get going, unable to think what I want to say.

At times like these I resort to games. I came to a part of My Candlelight Novel where I couldn't move it forward, however I tried. It was like taking a horse to a jump, and it refusing.

There was a song I was listening to at the time: Richard Thompson's '1952 Vincent Black Lightning', a song about a man, a woman, and a motorbike.

James says to Red Molly:

"... and I've seen you in the cafes and on corners, it seems/ Red hair and black leather, my favourite colour scheme."

I took some of these words and started sentences with them, or used them in some way.

This resulted:

She came in barefoot, and padded softly around the room with her hands in the back pockets of her trousers. Finally, she perched on the windowsill. Black sky stood out behind her. Hair as red as hers was a perfect foil for the black. And the short cut suited her, even if she had done it herself. Red walls, red hair, black sky. Perfect.
"Marjorie in leather pants," I said. "Who'd have thought it?"

Waste not, want not 

A novel is such a voracious beast. It can swallow everything your imagination can come up with and then demand more; I sometimes find myself asking people about their lives and writing it down in an effort of get material. I'm shameless about this.

And sometimes you write something that goes nowhere. Seems such a waste. A whole novel, abandoned. Nice bits in it though.

So a part of it - just a part - might be good material for something you're working on now. It's like taking an old, outmoded dress with fabric you like, unpicking it, and making it into something else.

Waste not, want not.

Carol Shields is right. Writers can be devious and desperate. They'll use anything they can get their hands on. They soar on the wings of inspiration, and they shoplift and cobble things together. Some work is written from experience and emotion that mean something essential to the writer (even if they don't know why they are writing it), some is manufactured as product.

And critics can never (rarely?) tell the difference.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

This compost

When I was a child I used to be filled with envy when adults recalled the events of twelve or fifteen years before. I would think it must be marvellous, to issue these proclamations of experience - 'It was at least ten years ago', or 'I hadn't seen him for twenty years'. But chronological prestige is tenacious: once attained, it can't be shed; it increases moment by moment, day by day, pressing its honours on you until you are lavishly, overly endowed with them. Until you literally sink under them.
A centenarian has told me that memory protects one from this burden of experience. Whole segments of time dropped out, she said: 'Of five or six years, say, around the turn of the century, all I can remember is the dress someone wore, or the colour of a curtain.' And I would be pleased, rather than otherwise, at the prospect of remembering Naples in similar terms - a lilac dress Gioconda wore one morning driving to Caserta, or the Siena-coloured curtains of the apartment in San Biagio dei Librai.
Shirley Hazzard, The Bay of Noon, 1970

Do you realise that we've achieved this 'chronological prestige'? It's almost thirty two years since you handed this book on to me. I was 28, and so you must have been 20. I wonder if many young women these days read Shirley Hazzard.

Do you remember? It was in Campbelltown in late 1980 - I remember because T and I were staying with your parents before heading overseas.

And I think you did just 'hand it on'. You'd bought it second-hand and read it - I can't remember you saying anything about it, you just gave it to me quite casually and quietly - but I diligently wrote your name in the front, in pencil (I'm very good at giving books back).

Though I never did with this one. I like it too much - and I like this particular copy, which I've just pulled out from the shelves yet again.

I seldom read it cover to cover now - just read all my favourite bits - such as when Jenny first goes to Gioconda's house in the street of the booksellers, and when she moves into her apartment overlooking the Bay of Naples. This is my preferred method of reading - perhaps it's why I'm so bad at chronology and plot in my own writing. I'd like to simply write down scenes, put them in a box and let the reader read the book in whatever order they choose.

I've written about this novel before, and gave my copy to Sophie in My Candlelight Novel.

On that trip to Europe we planned to go to Naples, but it was hit by an earthquake while we were still in London and we changed our plans. So the only part of Italy I've ever been to was my one day in Venice (half a day really) while we waited for our train to Athens. It doesn't seem to matter - I doubt if the real Naples would have measured up to the Naples in this book.

And now the book itself has gained a considerable chronological prestige. Pages are coming loose, the spine is peeling away, and this time when I got it from the shelves I found that wasps had built nests all the way along one edge of the pages. I had to blow the dirt from those nests away as I read.

If you forgot this book and left it under a tree, it would very soon return to the earth: would gently and quietly revert to its vegetable state. But I won't be doing that with it.  I think this book and I have a few more years in us yet.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Enjoy with red wine

In Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, the editor of a highbrow literary magazine and a poet are meeting on a park bench in Moscow when they are approached by a mysterious foreigner who predicts their demise and tells them a story about Pontius Pilate, whom he says he knew. Within a short time, the editor is decapitated by a freak road accident and the poet is in a lunatic asylum.

Thus starts a novel which depicts a world full of magical happenings, deceit, punishment, banishment and madness, a capricious world where nothing is certain and fear is everywhere. It was written in Stalinist Russia in 1938; its author died in 1940, and the novel didn't appear in full till 1973.

It would be to oversimplify it to say that it is about the battle of good and evil, between the forces of repression and freedom. It is, like all good novels, about us, the human animal, with all our flaws and ambiguities. And though it's obviously a satire on Russian society (as relevant now, as then, I would say, from what little I know about Putin's Russia), like all great literature it transcends country and culture and speaks to us all.

I'm writing about it now even though I haven't finished it yet, and this post isn't really a review of the book. I've been thinking lately how books are mass produced and yet each one, over time weathers (as it were) into individuality. I think this is why I will never read e books. I like the physicality of the book too much.

The copy I have is a library copy (Lismore City Library), almost new (the Vintage Classics edition, shown above), and covered in plastic.

This is a pity, as I like to run my hands over the cover of a book from time to time while I think about what I've been reading, and the plastic spoils the cover feel. But what is nice about this almost new copy is that someone has spilled what I think must be red wine over the corner of the final 30 pages of the book.

See how the wine has bled to a curious yellow colour at the edges?

I have a feeling of affinity with the red wine spiller, as I've been enjoying this book in the evenings before dinner. It's dark outside and the wood stove is on and dinner is simmering on it, and I can't resist a wee glass while I'm reading.

What is so pleasurable about this book, in which, believe me, few of us come off well, is the sheer well-doneness of it. There is no sloppy writing here, and everything to be savoured.

To wit:

The poet had wasted his night while others had spent it enjoying themselves and now he realised it was lost forever. He had only to lift his head up from the lamp and look at the sky to see that the night had gone beyond return. Waiters were hurriedly jerking the cloths off the tables. The cats pacing the verandah had a morning look about them. Day broke inexorably over the poet.

Cats with a morning look  about them. Day breaking inexorably.

Best sipped in small appreciative doses. With red wine.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Katherine and Virginia

Sunday 13 may: The Channon Craft Market:

We're there selling pots (you know pots: the things you eat and drink out of). 'Are they keramic?' asks a bearded man from Leichardt, Sydney, using a hard k. Yes, keramic, we assure him. Saw him a few moments later at the bread board stall next door (asking if they were made of wood, perhaps?)

It can be wearying at the market. A bright spot - Trev's Books was there.

Trev has good taste in books, and his stall is like going to a good second hand bookshop. Bought from Trev over the years: Riders in the Chariot, by Patrick White, Novel on Yellow Paper, by Stevie Smith, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott ...

On Sunday I saw a book by moi there (A Charm of Powerful Trouble). It's funny how distant I feel from it. And how I don't feel like a writer. Oh, I wrote that, I think idly, and pass by.

Bought from Trev for $5 on Sunday: Virginia Woolf :Women and Writing, (The Women's Press 1979), which is a collection of various of her essays and reviews on that subject.  It's nice to dip into Virginia, oblivious of the people wandering into the stall. I take a leaf from our friend Jean, also a potter, and read and ignore them. If they want something they'll let you know.

From a review of The Journal of Katherine Mansfield, 1914-1922, which appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on 18 September 1927:

Virginia quotes Katherine:

There is so much to do and I do so little. Life would be almost perfect here if only when I was pretending to work I always was working. Look at the stories that wait and wait just at the threshold ... Next day. Yet take this morning, for instance. I don't want to write anything. It's gray; it's heavy and dull. And short stories seem unreal and not worth doing. I don't want to write. I want to live.

For me, it was like that thing you can do with a favourite book: open a page at random, put your finger on a passage, and it says something relevant to your life.

And yet, as Woolf comments, "No one felt more seriously the importance of writing than she did."

Friday, May 4, 2012

And it's into the attic with you, Franz!

Snail mail: you have to love it. Especially when it brings Franz Kafka

who was 'all alone in the bargain bin of the co-op bookshop at Newcastle Uni' (perhaps too gloomy for them there?)

Anyway, here he is,  dropping in on the likes of Djuana Barnes, Stevie Smith, Gertrude Stein and Eve Langley. I think they'll all rub along all right.

He's a writer I'm unsure I've read. But I'm all for a bit of metamorphosis. And I like it that most of his work was published after he was dead - I'm sure that pleased him.

But I have read Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami. That counts, doesn't it?

He bore a quotation: "I have the true feeling of myself only when I am unbearably unhappy."

As a card-carrying melancholic, I can only agree.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

This Compost by Walt Whitman

I'm upset because I can't find my copy of 'Leaves of Grass'. *   It's always in a shelf in the attic, but I can't find it there. I'm worried that in my enthusiasm to reduce the number of my books I may have inadvertently thrown it out. But almost everything is on the net - even someone reciting Walt Whitman's poems. And a new copy of his poetry is available at the click of a mouse - not that I've clicked yet. I may find it in a real bookshop. I'm not particularly attached to my university copy anyway.

 I do like compost. I hate it when I'm somewhere without a compost heap and I have to throw out good vegetable matter into a bin when it could be going into the soil.

 I love our composting toilet, too. When we first got it, I considered making a copy of this Whitman poem to put on the wall.

 To explain my loo: it's called a Clivis Multrum, designed in Sweden, I think, in about the 1930s. When you go to the toilet, you put a handful of wood shavings in afterwards to balance the carbon and nitrogen, in order for good composting to take place. There's a composting chamber where it all takes place, a small electric fan and a vent to extract the smells, and the pedestal looks pretty much like a normal toilet without the U bend or a water holder at the back.

 Simple and efficient! And easy to clean. I just use a squirt of white vinegar over everything about once a week (harsh chemicals will kill the microbes), wipe it down with paper kitchen towels and throw the towels down afterwards. I use a toilet brush if it needs it. It's a waterless system, but you can throw a bucket of water down once in a while to help clean the chute. In fact, sometimes you need to add water if it looks too dry down below - or more shavings if it looks too wet. You shouldn't use it for other compost - don't throw down vegetable scraps. Rake down the poo pile once in a while. Dig it out once a year, put it around trees (not on vegetables).

The resulting compost is rich and odour-free. Good, pure, beautiful organic matter from something we find corrupt and offensive.

 I think Walt would have enjoyed my toilet.

* (added later): Happiness! I have located my Whitman in the Blue Room.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Day in the Life of a Snarling Woman

There was once this woman. She was in her thirties. She was quite famous, in a way. She hadn't really meant to be famous; it had just happened to her, without very much effort on her part.

So begins Margaret Drabble's story, 'A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman', in the story collection of the same name (2011). The stories were written between 1967 and 2000, and are a representation of her short fiction written over the years (I, like many people assumed she was only a novelist).

You probably know women like Jenny Jamieson, the protagonist of 'Smiling Woman'. Perhaps you are one. A woman with an interesting job, who sits on committees, looks after her family, and has no time to look after herself. She does too much. She's efficient at multi-tasking. A list-maker.

...she read the lists of things to be done that lay on her bedside table. There were several lists, old and new, and it was never safe to read the newest one only. Some of the words on the lists were about shopping: haricot beans, it said at one point; Polish sausage, at another; then vitamin pills; shoelaces for Mark; raw carrots(?); Clive Jenkins; look up octroi. It would be hard to tell whether these notes were a sign of extreme organisation or of panic. She could not tell herself.

She is woman who spends too much energy smiling and being pleasant to people.

Then one night she snaps, and the next morning things do not seem the same. She sees people differently.

There used to be, till yesterday, a little knob that one twisted until these people came into focus as nice, harmless, well meaning people. And it's broken, it won't twist any more.

An 'exceptionally healthy woman', she's been having unexplained bleeds, and that day she finds herself at her hospital appointment. She faces the prospect of death ( but we are told that she didn't, after all,  die from this), and fears for her children's lives without her. But despite this  spiritual crisis she carries on regardless, taking herself dutifully to a school where she is an honoured guest speaker. She gets up and makes a confident, optimistic speech as her boots gradually fill with blood.

For twenty minutes, she spoke and bled.

What Drabble is particularly good at is in observing the ambiguity in people's lives; the accommodations they make in order to make life bearable. And how appropriate is it that Jenny's body is making known its discomfort in a way only a woman's body can, by a disruption of the hormonal system.

This story was written in 1973, in the early days of the women's movement. Even now in my opinion women smile too much, make themselves amenable. It is expected of us. We expect it of ourselves. Would it hurt you just to be nice?

Sometimes instead of being a smiling woman I become a snarling woman - that's a trap as well. Smiling too much or snarling too much - you're letting other people set your agenda.

You need to be a thoughtful woman; an aware woman, a woman who won't be pushed around.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

William Carlos Williams

I love William Carlos Williams. I think his adage 'no ideas but in things' taught me the most I know about writing. Be specific. Observe. Notice the small things.

I also like plums.

Yesterday I cooked some plums, and had them cold with home-made yoghurt and custard.

They were quite sour, but very delicious.

The best plum jam I've ever made wasn't very pretty, as the pale, mottled skins didn't colour the mix, so the jam was a muddy yellow. But it tasted delicious - which shows that you can't just go by appearances alone.
I've been looking for plums like those ever since, and failed to find them.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Why I like men

I have trouble concentrating on reading novels lately - too much going on in my life and head.

And even music I don't sit down and listen to much any more. But listening in the car is good.

Yesterday when coming back from the coast we put on The National's High Violet, and it was exactly what I needed to listen to. Melodic, unemphatic, almost diffident music at times, very thoughtful and reflective and full of emotion. It's kind of muted, yet strong. And I thought, as the car went up the hill at St Helena, just past Byron Bay, how nice it is that men make music like this. And how much I like (some) men.

Which led me to think of Edith Speers' poem, 'Why I Like Men'.

Why I Like Men

mainly i like men because they're different
they're the opposite sex
no matter how much you pretend they're ordinary
human beings you don't really believe it

they have a whole different language and geography
so they're almost as good
as a trip overseas when life gets dull
and you start looking for a thrill

next i like men because they're all so different
one from the other
and unpredictable so you can never really know
what will happen from
looks alone

like anyone else i have my own taste with regard
to size and shape and colour
but the kind of style that has nothing to do
with money can make you bet
on an outsider

lastly i guess i like men because they are the other
half of the human race
and you've got to start somewhere
learning to live and let live
with strangers

maybe it's because if you can leave your options open
ready to consider love
with such an out and out foreigner
it makes other people seem
so much easier

Edith Speers (b 1949)

From The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets, ed Susan Hampton & Kate Llewellyn

Friday, March 2, 2012

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant 
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied.  It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, February 17, 2012

Thinking about underwear

"I didn't get much sleep last night
thinking about underwear
Have you ever stopped to consider
underwear in the abstract ..."

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 'Underwear', in Penguin Modern Poets 5 (1963)

This was one of my favourite poems when I was in my late teens in the late 60s. My original copy is falling apart (has fallen, actually, with very little glue holding this slim volume together.)

I have another, less-falling-apart copy. I had a bit of a thing about this book, and used to buy up copies I saw, so that I'd always have one. My third copy, bought guiltily after the second-hand bookshop owner told me that the beats were very popular with young people, was eventually given away to a Young Person.

So: Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg are the poets in this book. I'm not so keen on the Ferlinghetti now. Ginsberg remains my favourite, and I have a book of his poems as well.

What the beats did was write frankly, colloquially and personally about things that people didn't think were fit subjects for poems.  Rimbaud did this more than a hundred years earlier, and Walt Whitman was a forerunner of the beats as well ...  hence Ginsberg's  'A Supermarket in California':

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon

and later:

I saw you Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.

 And underwear? I frequently think about it as well. I think I should go through my underwear drawers and throw out all the exhausted bras I never wear, and the knickers the elastic has gone in. I think how I like my purple knickers with small pink spots so much that I should have bought more than two pairs of them. I think nostalgically of the ones with purple moons and stars of more than 15 years ago and wish I could find more like them. I wonder if there are many women like me who like their underwear and yet keep it all tangled up and untidy in drawers for years and years, hardly ever throwing any out, so there is virtually a history of their underwear there.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The book I carry around in my head

This is my favourite book from my early childhood.

Growing up in a post WW2 world, most of my books were hand-me-downs, and some of them weren't great literature (but I loved them at the time anyway). But this one, which was in the Little Golden Book imprint (I'm sure it was, though it didn't remain with that publisher) was brought home for me by my teenage sister along with a LGB version of the Twelve Dancing Princesses when I was sick in bed. (In those days mothers believed in keeping children in bed when they were sick, and I was sick a fair bit. The Robert Louis Stevenson syndrome of sick children becoming writers?)

Somehow, it got lost, or at least, didn't survive my childhood. But after I left school I bought myself another copy. By that time, in the early-mid 1970s, Madeline was one of the books approved by the women's liberation movement, and it was available at a radical bookshop, in a cheaply-produced paper covered copy that didn't age well. I still have it somewhere.

But I don't need it, because I carry this book around in my head:

In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines
In two straight lines they broke their bread
And brushed their teeth, and went to bed.

The youngest one was Madeline...

I certainly found Madeline herself an intriguing character, because of her bravery ( 'She was not afraid of mice, She loved winter, snow, and ice, And to the tiger in the zoo, Madeline just said, Pooh! Pooh!.')

and her individuality. ('And nobody knew quite so well/How to frighten Miss Clavell.')

which shows Madeline walking along the parapet of a bridge over the Seine.

To a child in 1950s Australia, who had never before heard of Paris, much of it was mystifying. The teachers (Miss Clavell) looked like nuns. And the idea of living in what was obviously a boarding school seemed strange.

Which just goes to show how much mystery and exoticism children can accommodate and accept in the books they read. And perhaps Madeline was one of the reasons I grew up to become a feminist.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Women get madder as they get older

Nothing much happens to me now, nor ever will again. But that should not prevent me from trying to write about it. I cannot help but feel that there is something important about this nothingness. It should represent lack of hope, and yet I think that, somewhere, hope may yet be with me. This nothingness is significant. If I immerse myself in it, perhaps it will turn itself into something else. Into something terrible, into something transformed. I cast myself upon its waste of waters. It is not for myself alone that I write this. I hope I may find some general purpose as I write. I will have faith that something or someone is waiting for me on the far shore.
Margaret Drabble, The Seven Sisters

So writes Candida Wilton on the first page of Drabble's novel, writing on her 'modern laptop machine'.

(Candida: I love it that her name is also that of that scourge of womanhood, thrush, whose cure was almost an obsession with me and my friends in our student days).

Candida's awful marriage is over and she buys a small flat in London, where she ekes out her days in little bits of shopping, going to her health club, and in meetings of her Virgil reading group.

I find this book almost unbearably delicious, and read bits of it (which is the way I often re-read, going over just the parts I like, which incidentally, I've heard, is the way a lot of children read) quite often.

There's a bit where Candida asks to lunch a woman she knew in her old life and whom she doesn't particularly like. The first time I read this I thought, 'No man could have written this' (a thought I often have when reading women writers) - and probably no man would find this incident interesting. Reading it is like hearing a piece of gossip from a friend - the gorgeous sense of anticipation, the appalling delight in bitchiness.

And then there are sentences like this these:

Julia arrived at the dot of our appointed hour. For a wicked woman she is always surprisingly punctual.

In an interview I read years ago Margaret Drabble said, 'Women get madder as they get older.' Perhaps she was talking about this book, or perhaps she was talking about The Witch of Exmoor, in which Frieda Haxby retires to a crumbling house on the coast to write her memoirs, to the horror of her children.

In any case, I can only second her opinion. I've been thinking about what she said a bit lately, which is probably why I've dragged her book up to put in the attic on this hot summer night.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Corrugated Iron

it transcends spaces;
dented by cricket balls in back yards everywhere,
rusted red as the sands of inland loneliness,
it flourishes alike in urban lanes
and the frayed edges of country towns.

it is roof and walls,
shed and shelter,
making tip-tilted dog kennels,
tipsy stables,
cow yards and churches,
homes and hopes.

And it's always the weather's instrument,
shrill penny-whistle for the wind
that swings like a boy on corner gutterings,
nags loose sheets into marking insistent time,
and runs glissando along roof-ridges,
playing wash-board and skiffle.
And it is xylophone for the rain's fingers,
when farmers tap arpeggios on the rungs of water tanks,
longing for a resonant answer,
sleeping easier when it comes.

Migrant once,
you could be forgiven for thinking it indigenous,
it has become as much part of landscape and legend
as ironbark, gidgee
myall and coolibah -
an enduring harmony of constant image
and endless song.


Anne Bell (b 1927) is an Australian poet I'm lucky to have befriended - we've known each other  since I worked on the NSW Department of Education's 'School Magazine' in the 1970s.  If you were a child at that time, and afterwards, it's likely you know some of Anne's poems. She's also a print-maker and painter - a nuggety country woman who is as practical as she is poetic.

I asked her to send me this poem on corrugated iron. I especially love the verse about its being 'the weather's instrument'. You perhaps need to have lived in the country (as I do) with a rainwater tank to know about tapping arpeggios on the rungs of water tanks, but anyone who has made an instrument with glasses of water knows that the sound changes with the level of the water.

I sometimes ask students in writing workshops to write about ordinary things they consider beautiful, that other people might consider ugly - corrugated iron is one of those things for me - and obviously for Anne.

(The 'pictures' on this corrugated iron wall have a clay 'frame' and contain wasps nests that were inadvertently fired in the kiln, and a piece of broken crockery that was found in the creek.)

There's so much corrugated iron at our place, I thought I'd show you some.

Top:  the wall outside our composting loo on the verandah, just above the sink.

Middle: The inside of the door in our workshop.

Bottom:  the walls of our compost heap

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The art of drystone walling and the Russian novel

We readers for whom books are almost everything think of books as one of the central foundations of our culture. Which culture? All cultures, as some books seem almost universal in their appeal and transcend time and place. They will always be relevant.

But what if civilisation has ended, and there is almost no connection between the world of the book and the world as we know it? What would we make of books then?

In Tatyana Tolstaya's The Slynx, civilisation ended 200 years before in an event known as The Blast, and Benedikt has a job transcribing old books so that they may be presented as the words of the new leader, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe.

And Benedikt loves books; they are sacred, precious objects, even though he's puzzled about what some of the things in them may be.

...he knew that a book is a delicate friend, a white bird, an exquisite being, afraid of water.
Darling things! Afraid of water, of fire, they shiver in the wind. Clumsy, crude human fingers leave bruises on them that'll never fade! Never!
Some people touch books without washing their hands!
Some underline things in ink!
Some even tear pages out!

Books are only one aspect of this novel that is peppered with quotations from Russian writers, but they are a thread running all the way through. Words, and their staying power, their effect on people, are one of the few optimistic aspects of the dystopia Benedikt is living in, in a world that is pretty well bereft of beauty.

A rich man - that's who he was. Rich as rich could be! Benedikt thought about himself. I'm rich, he thought, and he laughed. He even yelped. I'm my own Murza! My own Sultan! Everyone's in the palm of my hand, in little letters: the bounty of boundless nature and the lives of countless people! Old-timers, youngsters, and indescribable beauties!

There was another good thing about books, he thought. The beauties rustling their dresses between the pages, peering from behind shutters and from under lace curtains, the beauties wringing their white hands and throwing themselves with loosened hair under the hooves of steeds, their eyes sparking fiercely - she's crying and her waist is the size of an hourglass - beauties who lounge on divans with pounding hearts, and leap up to cast a wild gaze around the room; who step fearfully, lowering their dark blue eyes; who dance fiery dances with roses in their hair - these beauties never have to answer nature's call, they never have to bend over to pick things up, they never get gas, no pimples pop up on their faces, and their backs never hurt. Their golden hair never has any dandruff and lice never nest or lay eggs in it, they leave them alone. And those golden curls - they curl for days on end, and no one ever says anything about these beauties spending half the day with bobbins in their hair. They don't chomp, sneeze or snore. Their cheeks don't squelch; no Isabelle or Caroline ever wakes up puffy with sleep; their jaws don't clack when they yawn, they wake refreshed and toss back the curtains.

What I love most about Tolstaya are her words. They remind me of bricks, each one set firmly and surely in its place. Some writers strew words like confetti; they land anywhere. Each one is nebulous - you feel they might easily have chosen another word. There's a sense of inexactitude.

No, Tolstaya's words are not like bricks, they're more like rocks in a drystone wall; each one different from the others, but selected with a sure hand that knows exactly where it will fit.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Portrait of the artist as an old woman

I don't know why, but I've been thinking about Gertrude Stein. Perhaps because, now that my hair is entirely grey, I'm thinking of cutting it really short.

Perhaps I might look like Gertrude Stein in old age. She strikes me as someone who looked her best as an old woman, as though this was the way she was meant to look.

She was born at the wrong time (1874)  to look right as a young woman. Those Victorian dresses and long hair didn't suit her.

Unlike Virginia Woolf (born 1882), for whom Victorian clothes (if not ideas) suited very well.

And then there's the famous portrait of Stein by Picasso.

The painting of this portrait is described in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

"Spring was coming and the sittings were coming to an end. All of a sudden one day Picasso painted out the whole head. I can't see you any longer when I look, he said irritably. And so the picture was left like that."

But later on he painted in the head very quickly, from memory.

And not long after, Stein cut off her long hair, so she no longer had the characteristic topknot.  I read somewhere that someone (Who? Stein herself?) said it didn't really look like her.

But it will, said Picasso.

He was obviously confident of his power as an image-maker.