BONE MUSIC

She felt like a ghost. She woke in the night. What was that music? Some troubled beast? Some strange bird of the night? Some lost soul wandering on the moors? Just her dreams?
What wild and weird things existed here?
Sylvia got up from her narrow bed, went to the window, held open her thin curtains, dared to peep.
Nothing. Darkness everywhere.
Darkened street below, darkness of the undulating land, blackness of the forest at the village’s edge, light of a farmhouse far, far off, pale glow on the southern horizon, immensity of stars above.

Sylvia is stuck in a village in the wilds of Northumberland, a place of hills, forests and moors with appalling mobile reception. Her mother needs a break from the city, but Sylvia doesn’t want to be there. She misses her bestie Maxine, she misses her circle of friends, her city life of music, gatherings, protests.
But a different kind of life calls to her.

The first she knows about it is the music in the night, played by the strange boy Gabriel on a bone flute.

As their friendship develops, Sylvia finds herself responding to the ancient landscape as if she belongs to it. As if she can go back and become a girl of that time.
Almond shows Sylvia discovering the wildness and beauty of nature alongside the ugliness, violence and brokenness of today’s world. For some readers, passages like this may be too explicit:

She felt the closeness of the trees to herself, of the earth to herself, of the air to herself. She was not just Sylvia. She was these things too. They were her. She was the forest, she was the earth, she was the air. They gave each other life. She wanted to love them and they wanted to love her. Why did we not realise that when we do things to the earth, we do things to ourselves; when we harm the earth, we harm ourselves?
It was like a veil had fallen from her eyes.
She was seeing beauty like she’d never seen it before.

But I felt it captured the clear-eyed idealism of the young climate campaigners. A kind of sad and bewildered non-comprehension. How can we keep doing this to our world? I thought of the young girls in our hometown who organised the school strikes.

This is a beautiful YA novel. Would young adults like it? I don’t know.  Many reviewers have remarked on Almond’s singularity; his books really are like no others, written with the immediacy of poetry and a strange and otherworldly flavour all his own which may not be to everyone’s taste.  Bone Music is short, and for some readers it may also be short on story – it’s more atmosphere and feeling than plot.
I loved it.

 

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MY SENSE OF JOY PERSISTS

Poets seem to be able to capture the flash, the illuminating instant, the second when an emotion – in this case, joy – pierces the heart.

Walking yesterday to pop a note in a friends letterbox, I noticed blobs of white in the greenery along the fenceline of an empty block. I waded through the long grass to look. Turned out to be these single roses on a rampant climbing bush. And I was surprised by joy.

Not an original phrase. I looked it up – Wordsworth; “Surprised by Joy”; a poem telling of his impulse to turn to a beloved person to share something wonderful, only to be hit by the realisation that he can’t. They are dead.

Surprised by joy – impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport – Oh! with whom
But thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

Not the right joy poem, then.
Joy and William Blake go together, right?

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Not quite. I am not clutching the moment, though I did photograph it with my mobile.

I turned to one of my notebooks. I used to scribble down little scraps of poetry, though sometimes I didn’t note the details. Like the name of this poem, from which I’d excerpted a few lines

….and still and still my sense of joy persists.

Yes. That’s it. My sense of joy persists. Still.

I did note the poet’s name, however. He is Vivian Smith, born in Tasmania in 1933, for many years a professor at the University of Sydney, author of many collections of poetry and books on literature.

…and intertwined with every rooted ‘why’ 
such tenderness, such joy exists.

At present, with a “rooted ‘why'” at every turn, there are so many reasons to despair or rage. Or just be incredibly grumpy and turn to chocolate.  So it astonishes me that I am still capable of being ambushed by this feeling I call joy. It’s usually small scale. Often, a response to looking at the plants or insects or stones I see on the ground. That goes back to my earliest memory. Three? Four? Squatting on my fat little legs to study bugs in the garden. My source of joy persists, too. I thank and bless the star sign or deity or genetic happenstance – whatever it was – which  implanted in me  this capacity for finding joy in small things. May it continue in its persistence.

Thank you, Vivian Smith, and I am sorry that I did not note the name of your beautiful and appropriate poem.

 

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THE KITE AND THE STRING

Writers don’t need rules as much as we need the freedom to take risks and to make simple decisions for simple, practical reasons. If a piece of writing is a kite that the strong winds of feeling are blowing across the sky, we need a string to grasp. We need freedom above all, but we also need control

I’m reading about writing, because I’m writing again.
I’ve read a lot of books on the topic over the years. Perhaps I’ve been longing to find the holy grail, the ultimate guide to better, quicker, more efficient fiction writing. Certainly, some of the books I’ve read market themselves this way. Story engineering; nuts and bolts manuals; if you do this, and this, and this – voila! not just 65,000 words but a shapely, structured, novel. It’s seductive.
I have tried. I really have.  I love the idea of sitting at my computer for my writing session knowing exactly what’s going to happen and happily tap-tap-tapping away until it has.

Alas, my few experiments with this kind of superior planning have been notable failures. I’ve felt constricted. My characters veer off the straight and narrow plot paths into unexpected and unplanned-for directions. I had to ditch a disappointingly large chunk (around 15,000 words and many, many hours of research) of one of the Verity Sparks novels because my sub-plot didn’t work. I mean, for me. It was exciting and mysterious and dovetailed beautifully into the main story but it just wasn’t right. Disappointing, but as I always tell myself, in writing nothing’s lost. (This is the compost theory of creativity!)
I also know that outlines, timelines, story maps, story blueprints, diagrams, character arcs and all of the other planning tools can be useful to me once I’ve got started, if I’m in a mid-book slump, and especially when looking over a messy first draft. I’ll give a little shout out to Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel by Lisa Cron. I’ve found some of her pre-writing exercises really helpful, even if I’ve done them post- instead of pre-writing.

I guess that really, I know what to do – it’s bum on seat, mainly – but it’s always good to have a little wind in your sails.
This book – subtitled How to Write with Spontaneity and Control – and Live to Tell the Tale – by Alice Mattison is like having a long conversation with a kindly, calm, ‘older and wiser’ fellow writer. A mentor. She wants the reader/writer to approach their work with ‘more confidence, excitement and hope’.

 The qualities a writer primarily needs, both you and I – not just in order to sit down on the chair but to produce good work – are emotional as much as intellectual. Often the next task is not to learn a technique but to find the courage to use one you already know. New writers speak of the need to find the courage to write, but once they’ve shown up at an MFA program or a writer’s conference…they may think that the emotional work is done and they can now follow prescribed rules…if only they can find out what those rules are.
Writers must be at peace with the process, so they trust themselves when they come up with an idea for the next scene – which may well turn out to be wrong, but which may suggest something right. We need the courage to waste time, even though we have so little of it. It takes time to discern what’s obscured in the dark at the back of the mind, but it is what the piece needs…

I’ve come away from reading this book encouraged to persevere with my own process, even though it’s often messy and time-wasting. Courage, mon capitaine! as my dear old Dad used to say.
Bum on seat, Susan – you’ll get there in the end.

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DEREK JARMAN’S GARDEN

At first, people thought I was building a garden for magical purposes –  a white witch out to get the nuclear power station. It did have magic – the magic of surprise, the treasure hunt. A garden is a treasure hunt, the plants the paperchase.
I invest my stones with the power of those at Avebury. I have read all the mystical books about ley-lines and circles – I built the circles with this behind my mind. The circles make the garden perfect…

Modern Nature by Derek Jarman was a mash-up of memoir and making art, gay history and gossip  and gardening. In Jarman’s garden on the inhospitable shingle and sand of Dungeness, opposite a nuclear power station, the seasonal parade of birds and insects and flowering plants is made more poignant by the spectre of death. Not just ‘death’ in general, in the future, but imminent and awful. Jarman was himself HIV positive; friends were dying. It’s difficult now to remember that AIDS in the early 1990’s was (to most of the ones who contracted it) genuinely a death sentence. I lost a handful of beautiful friends. It’s so different now.

Derek Jarman’s Garden is his last book. He wrote the text and the photographs are by his friend Howard Sooley.  While the shadow of death is there, so is the joy of designing and planning a vision of paradise. Cobbled from found objects, driftwood, stones and shells, planted with the area’s indigenous flora – aka, in many cases, ‘weeds’ – as well as introduced plants, it looks like a magical place.

I’m finding gardening, and reading about gardening, is both soothing and addictive in these strange unsettling times.

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TEN THINGS ABOUT

I know Joanne Harris mainly as the writer of Chocolat. But she’s written heaps of books, including this one, Ten Things About Writing, which began as part of a regular Twitter hashtag series. That last should be in quotes, actually – and here it is, ‘part of a regular Twitter hashtag series’ because I’m quoting from her introduction and I have no idea what a Twitter hashtag series is. But I’m guessing it’s, like, a series. On Twitter. Anyway, without further exposing my idiocy it’s now a book. Books I can understand.

And this one is a useful guide from an experienced writer of the aforementioned heaps of books. After thirteen books published, I guess I am also an experienced writer but I can always do with a little help. Sometimes there’s just the one little gem that makes sense; sometimes it’s more that reading about writing is a way of getting back in touch with my writerly self. Sparkling away in the section on Permission was this, at #4.

Stop comparing yourself to other writers. Compare your work to the last thing you wrote. If you’re improving (and you are), you’re doing fine.

As a perennial self-doubter and second-guesser, it’s a fine piece of advice. All I need to do is my personal best.

The ‘ten things’ format means it’s succinct and structured and decimal (or do I mean metric?) so that the ten parts divide neatly into ten sections. Why ten? Why not, I say. It’s not too many and not too few. I was delving into my filing cabinet the other day and found a series from the Guardian that I copied way back in 2015. It was Ten Rules for Writing Fiction from many famous novelists, the likes of Hilary Mantel and Ian Rankin and Sarah Waters. Some were generous and serious in their approach to these ‘rules’; others, like Phillip Pullman (‘My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work’) more or less said “Nick off.”

The book also made me think about my own Ten Things and Ten Rules. I spent years teaching creative writing in community settings and dishing out the advice, which was mostly not my own but synthesised from  other sources, like that article in the Guardian. These days I’d probably say that my Things About Writing  vary from day to day, depending on how the work is going. Today, I was at my laptop editing and formatting a short story and struggling with auto-correct and footers and headers so I’d probably emphasise the sheer slog and bum-on-seat and ‘do it when you don’t feel like it’ aspect of writing. But on Saturday, I was on a roll joyfully inventing and creating and making stuff up out of thin air, scribbling cryptic notes and ideas into an exercise book. Quite a different Thing.

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THE DOG RUNNER

The Red Fungus has devastated grain crops and grasses world-wide. In Australia, drought has added to the disaster and now, with food running out, society has broken down and it’s every man, woman and child for themselves. Ella and her older half-brother Emery are faced with a world that’s scary and dangerous, so they stay holed up in their city apartment with their three big dogs. When their father – gone to find Ella’s mum – doesn’t return, Emery and Ella are faced with a decision. Stay, as the city becomes more and more violent and dangerous, or leave to travel up-country to Emery’s mother?

They go. Across the dry, barren and desolate landscape, Ella and Emery travel with their three ‘doggos’ on a dry-land sled. It’s a dangerous journey – a bit like The Road for little ones – and McDibble keeps the pace break-neck and the suspense ratcheting. The pair have to evade desperate gangs who think nothing of killing for food and supplies; they have to find sustenance for themselves and the three doggos; they have to navigate an unforgiving land. When Emery is injured, Ella must find all the courage and ingenuity she can muster. This is a kid’s book, and so it doesn’t end in death and disaster (whew!); they reach Emery’s mum and the whole family is reunited.

And they get to eat a decent meal at last. I’ve long been the butt of (affectionate!) jokes in my family for my obsession with food. There was the camping trip where we were almost at starvation point because there was only one can of baked beans and some noodles when we packed up to go home. There’s my chirpy “What will we have for dinner?” at breakfast time. And my stern disapproval of the world-building in The Lord of the Rings because  – well, where are the market gardens of Rohan?

Emery’s mum farms mushrooms in caves and grows pumpkins. Emery is of Aboriginal and Afghan heritage and – in a nod to the work of Bruce Pascoe and others in educating Australians about the Aboriginal agricultural practices – Emery’s Ba (grandfather) experimented with growing, harvesting and storing native grass seeds. The Dog Runners ends on a hopeful note.

McDibble’s earlier book, How To Bee, also had a serious message about the effect of global environmental degradation on food security (what’s going to happen to the world’s food supply without bees to pollinate plants?). It was a great read as well.

 

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AMAZING HUMANS

Want to be entertained? Sit on the edge of your seat with suspense and tension? Squeal with joy? Tear up with emotion? See some incredible bodies and some amazing humans? Simply feel really, really happy? OK, watch reality TV. No, not The Bachelor. The Paralympics.

The competition wasn’t even on our radar, but one evening in changing channels we stumbled across the wheelchair rugby and were hooked. For ten days, we looked forward to the evening and our nightly fix.

The Tokyo Paralympics ended on Sunday evening, and we even sat up and watched the closing ceremony. Those zany Japanese! No cherry-blossoms, no Zen aesthetics; there were crazy-colourful dancers and giant puppets and pop musicians and lights and magical technology – with an underlying message about accepting the diversity of our human family. Despite so many old men in dark suits handing out the gongs, this celebration was youthful and full of joy. Swimmer Ellie Cole carried out our flag, but sadly, the team could not attend.

I say ‘sadly’, and I mean sad for us – because after ten days we’d got to have our favourites among the athletes. Madi de Rozario, Isis Holt, Tiffany Thomas-Kane, Dylan Allcott, Ryley Batt, Angela Ballard, Isabella Vincent…what the hell, why choose? They’re all my favourites! In this, I can echo Kurt Fearnley, past Paralympian and – with Johanna Griggs – commentator for Channel 7’s coverage. He was such an unabashed enthusiast, brimming over with sympathetic joy like a proud parent; he just wanted to give everyone a hug. He and Johanna Griggs were perfect guides for the  newbie viewer, with insights into the broader story of the Paralympic movement as well as profiles and backstories of individual athletes.
You could feel the love.

There were so many memorable moments. Our female swimmers slithering over their lane markers to embrace at the finish like a school of lovely mermaids. Madi de Rozario, so fierce and strong, rocketing along to victory. The teary post-competition interview when tennis star Dylan Allcott said, holding his gold medal, that now he felt loved, he felt worthy.

Many of the Paralympian reflected on their journeys. Allcott spoke of how as a fat little disabled kid with no friends, last picked for everything, he was astonished to meet a group of disabled male athletes for the first time. They were having a beer with friends! They had jobs, they drove cars, they had wives or girlfriends, they had kids! All of these things, he’d thought, were not for him but the Paralympian movement changed his life.

I am sure many of the athletes could say the same thing. But as one of the sponsor’s slogans put it, you don’t have to be amazing to start, but you have to start to be amazing. And all of the Paralympians are amazing. They’ve had the courage and determination to somehow start the journey. Now, in elite competition in Tokyo, such grace and humility, such gratitude and joy.

And it’s all real; this is reality TV, but in a good way. That’s why we got hooked on the Paralympics, have become supporters of the movement and feel like we’ve been enriched and educated and inspired by these amazing human beings.

Bizarrely for me – so not a sports person – I am already thinking, Bring on Paris 2024!

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MODERN NATURE

 

Spring came in with sunshine and warmth. Yesterday in the late afternoon I stood with my husband in the courtyard at the front of our house. A grey shrike thrush flew to a blossoming plum tree, perched on the crown for all to see and sang his little heart out. We watched, thrilled, as his throat and chest vibrated with the effort; according to my bird book, The Australian Bird Guide by Peter Menkhorst et al, this little grey bird has a pure, ringing, rhythmic voice, and a liquid five-note song. All that, and more; his voice is audible joy. After broadcasting to the neighbourhood, he rushed around from bush to shrub, perching to flirt and pose and add a note or two, quite un-shy and seeming actually happy to be in our presence. Eventually we heard an answering bird – just a short, sharp single note, which the book describes as a ‘contact call’ – and our thrush flew away.

We were out there to survey the results of my recent planting spree –  violas, pink and purple and yellow; a germander bush, silvery leaved with pale lavender flowers; two different heucheras (lime green and deep purple), low and sprawling, which I hope will want to become ground covers; a hellebore or winter rose, with palest green flowers; and two plants I’ve never grown before, bought to see how they turn out, a penstemon, dark green strappy leaves and blue flowers; and a saxifrage, which looks like a tiny squashed cabbage and is supposed to erupt with little pink flowers on stems. We shall see.

That’s the great thing about gardening; you wait, and then you see.
We were seeing how unpromising looking bulbs turn into absolute stunners. My little crocus (crocuses? crocii?) are nearly finished but now it’s time for the big guns; tulips. They are trembling on the brink. After going for the deep reds, purples and nearly-blacks in the past, with a not-to-be-repeated diversion into frilly weird pinkness last year, I have gone for orange and ginger this time. Stupidly, I put the tags in the pots but they were made of card and so I have no idea what my beauties are. But it doesn’t matter. I know that some gardeners are systematic about such things, so that they can repeat a success and avoid a failure, but somehow I am trusting that next year when I’m looking at the bulb catalogue, I’ll remember. And maybe, anyway, I will choose another colour.

My last post was inspired by the traffic essay of Rachel Cusk; this one, by reading Derek Jarman’s diaries from 1989-90, Modern Nature. The book is a nice, cheap Vintage reprint with an introductory essay by Olivia Laing, who is my new girl crush. I’m not sure that many young people would know who Jarman was; he died of AIDS-related illness in 1990.  He was a writer and gay activist, an artist, stage designer and perhaps most famously, a film director. As a young art student in the late 1970’s, I went to see his angry, sad, violent Jubilee. I remember not liking it, but then I didn’t ‘get’ punk. I was more David Bowie than the Sex Pistols. What I have never forgotten was his spellbinding version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The final sequence, where a crew of uniformed sailors dance and jazz singer Elisabeth Welch sings ‘Stormy Weather’ is utterly magical.
And he was a gardener. At Prospect Cottage, his retreat on the beach at Dungeness in the shadow of the nuclear power station, the odds were stacked against him. Wind, exposure, salt, shingle and stones and sand for soil  – nevertheless, he persisted.

Modern Nature takes in all of these strands. Sometimes the contrast is jarring. He makes lists of plant names that sound like incantations –  loosestrife, bugloss, buckthorn – and then, back to London, goes cruising on Hampstead Heath. This:
There is the suspicion of rain in the air, but a dry wind blows. The downy seeds of the willow herb float by. The back seed pods of the broom split with a crackling sound.
At the end of the garden the sloes are turning purple, and the blackberries are ripe. My wild pear tree wilts in the drought, and the nettles are dead and rattle in the wind.
And this:
Finding sexual partners was difficult and they were often transitory   – hardly bothered to take their pants down before buttoning up. And the police might raid, send the prettiest ones in as agents provocateurs. They had hard-ons but didn’t come. Just arrested you.
But now, halfway through the book, I’m loving the juxtaposition. Olivia Laing says in her introduction that her adult life was founded in the pages of this book.
It was here I developed a sense of what it meant to be an artist, to be political, even how to plant a garden (playfully, stubbornly, ignoring boundaries, collaborating freely).

Ignoring boundaries. Exactly. It’s what he does here. I guess that’s the beauty of the diary form. You can recount your daily life, you can reminisce and gossip. You can talk to yourself about sex and death (in those far-off days, being diagnosed as HIV-positive usually was a death sentence) and art and memory. And you can name the plants that you nurture and grow  –  wild fig, sempervivum, dead-nettle, night-scented stock – as you submit yourself to the eternal rhythm of the seasons.

www.theguardian.com/film/2020/jul/21/derek-jarman-prospect-cottage-dungeness-kent-garden-museum-london

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REAR WINDOW

I pause, waiting for the kettle to boil, standing at the kitchen window and looking out into the gathering dusk. This part of the house is set up high on stumps so that it’s almost at second storey height; I can overlook our unruly garden right to the back of our neighbour’s house. Homing birds zoom between the shrubs and trees across my line of sight but my eye is drawn to a brilliant rectangle of light within a dark frame. It’s Joe’s* kitchen window; I can see from mine into his.

And now as I pour boiling water into my cup, I see him. He’s there, maybe fifty metres away, all lit up but unaware, and he’s bobbing up and down and then twisting sideways in what could be an odd kind of dance or exercise routine but probably isn’t. I stare, fascinated. What is he doing? I have to know, I have to make sense of these movements of his – in spite of my uneasy feeling that I am about to enter voyeuristic Rear Window territory. Though I don’t know for sure, with my lifetime knowledge of kitchen floorplans I think I can safely assume the window is in front of the kitchen sink. So it’s got to be something sink-related. Or undersink-related. I keep watching. Then I see the flash of metal and he stops the weird dance and turns away. My brain works furiously and then it all falls into place. He’s been looking for an oven tray. He’s been sorting through a low cupboard, taking out non-tray items, putting them on the bench and then going back in again until he finds the right one. A kind of relief floods through me. Puzzle solved.

And I think about artificial intelligence, about robot brains. I know they can look at CCTV footage of every person who passes every camera in a city and put a name to each face. But could they interpret the data – the time of day, the weird movements, the flash of metal – and make up the story, as I did?  Creativity does not depend on rules or algorithms – it’s a leap into the dark, informed by personal, lived, felt experience. A computer can’t know what it’s like to grow increasingly more frustrated as you clash and bang through piles of irrelevant bakeware in an inconveniently low cupboard, but I do.

My neighbour Joe, leisurely now, puts something onto the tray and places it in the oven. He goes to the fridge but his back is to me, so I can’t see whether he’s reaching for a lettuce or the butter or a jar of pickled onions. Ah, yes, here he is, pouring liquid into a stemmed glass. A glass of wine is a good guess. Red or white? I’m not close enough to tell.

“And that’s enough now, Susan,” I say out loud. I’m starting to feel bad even though my neighbour has no idea he’s been spied upon. Everyone deserves to drink their pre-dinner wine in peace, I decide, drawing the blinds and reaching for my lukewarm tea.

But now, I start to wonder…what’s Joe having for dinner?

*Not his real name!

https://mindmatters.ai/2020/08/six-limitations-of-artificial-intelligence-as-we-know-it/

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SPRING

First day of Spring!

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