The Ouse is a small English river, only 84 kilometres long (and for comparison, the Thames is 346 kilometres and here in Australia, the Murray is 2,508 kilometres long). To those who are interested in literary lives, it is most famous as the river into which Virginia Woolf waded, with stones in the pocket of her coat, and drowned. One midsummer day in 2009,  in the aftermath of losing  her job and her relationship with the man she loved, Olivia Laing set out to walk the length of the Ouse.

I wanted to clear out, in all senses of the phrase, and I felt somewhere deep inside me that the river was where I needed to be. I began to buy maps compulsively, though I’ve always been map-shy. Some I pinned on my wall; one, a geological chart of the underlying ground, was so beautiful I kept it by my bed. What I had in mind was a survey or sounding, a way of catching and logging what a little patch of England looked like one midsummer week at the beginning of the twenty-first century. That’s what I told people, anyway. The truth was less easy to explain. I wanted somehow to get beneath the surface of the daily world, as a sleeper shrugs off the ordinary air and crests towards dreams.

So, here is another woman walking, along a meandering path beside the Ouse, from its rising-place in a muddy paddock to its exit at the coast. There is nothing spectacular in this journey, no sublime landscapes or scary wild creatures or blizzards or floods.  She doesn’t sleep rough – she spends her nights sleeping at inns along the way, or in the houses of friends – and nothing is more gruelling, really, than the occasional hot day. But that’s not the point; Laing hasn’t set out to challenge herself to feats of physical endurance; she is walking and thinking and feeling and looking and  –  I imagine  – writing, if only in her head.

And the writing is the thing. Poetic, attentive, hypnotic in its accumulation of detail.

It was just after sunset and everything had stilled, the sky shot faintly with rose. The reflections in the lake seemed sunk very deep. The water pleated as carp sank and climbed, occasionally breaking the water as shivers. Beneath them, the clouds made their way east. At the far side of the lake the trees were reflected in sooty green and when the fish jumped there the ripples ran in white concentric circles. On the near side, where there was only pale sky on the skin of the water, the ripples flashed dark, a trick of the light I’d never seen before.

Her sensitivity to landscape, to the details of birds and plants and animals that inhabit the landscape, make this a slow and meditative summer journey, with the writing and the structure of the book as meandering as its subject. Subjects, plural. For Laing weaves in all sorts of topics; biography, literature, mythology, science, history.  Neolithic settlers, Saxon villages, Norman castles, Tudor sewage works; farmers and fossil-hunters and medieval soldiery. Other writers apart from Woolf make an appearance on her journey. There’s Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, and Iris Murdoch.

A book like this is probably not for every reader, but then what book is? It doesn’t fit neatly into a category (memoir? biography? nature?); it’s not a self-help book exhorting us to get out into nature, nor is it inspirational (challenges overcome!) or spill-your guts confessional. I’m not really sure what it is. Beautiful, I suppose.


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It’s a thing, a genre. It’s my new obsession. Women, walking. Women thinking while walking. Women walking while looking backward and forwards, moving between their pasts and their futures and meditating on nature. Human nature seems to come into stark contrast with the other kind, whether wild and tamed, whether animal, mineral or vegetable. Something about walking, putting one foot in front of the other no matter the weather or the terrain or the state of your feet, seems to work some kind of magic, seems to restore bodies, hearts and minds – if not to health and happiness, at least to some kind of workable balance.

The first of the genre to pop into my consciousness was the American writer Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. It was published 2012 and describes her gruelling 1770 kilometre trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. I often found myself wincing as I read. Not just from her descriptions of the skin peeling from her blistered feet, but from the lacerating unsparing inventory of her life she took along the way. Her journey of self discovery was often brutal.

Now, more books have popped up. This year, I’ve read Sarah Wilson’s This One Wild and Precious Life, Katherine May’s The Electricity of Every Living Thing, To the River by my new literary girl crush, Olivia Laing and Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path,

Raynor Winn and her husband Moth have lost their farm due to a legal dispute; it’s their own incompetence and inexperience with the law that’s tipped them into homelessness. I mean, really; they have no home, and the government benefits provide very little money. Added to this, Moth has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. So they decide, seemingly on a whim, to walk the South West Coast Path, over a thousand kilometres from Somerset to Dorset. Though Winn competently describes the beautiful landscape of cliffs and beaches and sea in Devon and Cornwall, where her writing comes alive for me is in the difficulties of the walk.  The bad weather, the nights spent illegally in car parks or in farmer’s paddocks, waking to the sound of farting cows; the al fresco toileting, the feeling of  unwashed hair and body and clothes. She and Moth struggle with hunger and exhaustion, with sore feet and encroaching illness, but she’s matter of fact. They get on with it.

We left Bude with enough twenty-pence packs of noodles to last a week and a lot of water. Walking out of the genteel holiday spot, past the retired ladies tennis club, past the strangely folded rocks and the tower on the headland. The path felt remote now. Without money, we had moved into a world apart. It was nearly dark when we found a corner in a field of thistles, ate noodles and slept.

They make miserable mistakes with money and Winn writes movingly of her feeling of exclusion by virtue of their poverty and homelessness. She is a thoughtful writer but it’s not a lyrical or literary book, rather a gritty tale of love and endurance and redemption. Because in the course of the walk, Moth goes into a kind of remission, their 32-year marriage grows even stronger… and Winn finds her voice as a writer.


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I’m a writer, but like most writers, I need a day job. And I have a new one.

My old job was as a bookseller. Two days a week, 9 to 5.30. I  spent my days answering phones, taking orders, helping customers and organising returns. Bookstores aren’t generally high pressure work environments, but they can be busy – and I easily tracked 10,000 steps a day around the shop. When it was quieter, I dusted and shelved and read the back cover blurbs. It was part of the job to keep up with the latest publishing news; I knew all about the hot new releases, the up-and-coming authors, the latest fads and fashions in the various genres; I picked over the piles of reading copies provided by our reps and discussed them eagerly with my colleagues and our customers. As well, I sold books at book launches and events and for three years, wearing my bookseller’s hat, I presented ‘Green’s Guide to Good Books’ at the school’s day for the Bendigo Writer’s Festival.

On the days when I wasn’t at the shop, I wrote. Eight books – two unpublished –  in twenty four years, which seems like a reasonable strike rate when you factor in home making and  child rearing and caring for aged parents and life. For 24 years I enjoyed being ‘Susan from the Bookroom’. A dream job for a writer.

Then came  that first Victorian lockdown in late March 2020. A covid epiphany. I knew I had to have a change. I needed to do something different and here was my chance. I enrolled in the Cert III in Aged Care at our local TAFE…and I still don’t really know why. Perhaps it didn’t really matter what I did, as long as I did something new. Perhaps I wanted to do something meaningful in my last few years in the paid workforce. Or maybe it was because I had cared for my parents and saw how essential it was that older people should be supported to stay in their own homes. Then there was the example of my old bookshop colleague and friend the wonderful Liz – now lost to ovarian cancer  – who retired from the shop only to reinvent herself in aged care.  I completed my coursework – via the dreaded Zoom meeting – and found it harder than I’d imagined. Now, I didn’t think it would be a doddle, but the three days a week class time really did translate into full time study. There was a hold up with the 3 week practical placement, and in the end the whole lot took a frustrating nine months instead of four due to Victoria’s ongoing lockdowns and ensuing restrictions on students going into facilities.

And now – starting five weeks ago –  I am a direct care worker for the local council. I sometimes work from 8am until 5 pm. It is exhausting – but new jobs always are. At times it’s gruelling (physically, emotionally) and at other times joyous and fun and rewarding.
For three days a week instead of swanning about among books, I am to be found driving around town and out into the surrounding country, providing personal care and home care to aged clients in their own homes. Translated, that means assisting people to shower and dress. Sometimes I apply compression stockings, a tortuous process of persuading a very, very tight and very, very unwilling elasticated tube to go onto my client’s foot and lower leg. Oh, and I clean their houses, too – vac, mop, do the bathrooms and toilets. There’s a lot of cleaning. And a lot of chatting. I have discovered that chatting is my super-power.

But what about the writing? Do I have the time, the energy, the willpower, the desire?
There’s a novel for adults on the back burner. I finished a rough and shitty first draft before I began my TAFE course, did some revision in the gap before placement, and now – as of my last day off, when I completed my daily target of 1000 words – I am back to the book again. Winter is prime writing time, after all. There’s no fire in the belly any more, but perhaps I don’t need it. After 13 books published, and a few more orphan manuscripts that sit unloved in the filing cabinet, I should know what I’m doing.

We shall see.


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Elinor Cleghorn, an English scholar, researcher and writer, has written a must-read book about how Western medicine has failed women…but it’s almost unreadable. For me, anyway. Not because it’s badly written – not at all – but because the subject is just so damned upsetting and infuriating!

It starts badly in ancient Greece.  The male body was the standard and thus women’s bodies (and it follows that women themselves) were defective. Especially when the poor things were defined and dominated by their wombs, which bizarrely the ancients believed could wander all over the body wreaking havoc on a woman’s health.
It got worse over the centuries, with normal women’s bodies seen as dangerous to themselves and to men. If you weren’t properly submissive and docile you were likely to be punished. Witches were burned, ‘hysterics’ confined to madhouses,  menstruation and menopause defined as illnesses and an excuse for denying women education and political rights, the control of their own destinies, property and bodies. The sections detailing surgery to remove the ovaries or clitorises for troublesome women and girls were so shocking that I had to skip over the details.
The 20th century saw many advances in science and medicine, but for women, not such a great improvement. The myth of the ‘wandering womb’ faded away, but ‘hormones’ as a catch-all diagnosis meant women’s pain and suffering was still too often not listened to or properly investigated. Even into the 21st century, a male-centred medicine lets women down in so many ways. The average time for a woman to get a diagnosis of endometriosis is seven years and women with chronic pain are still prescribed anti-depressants instead of pain relief. It’s unfair, infuriating and deeply frustrating to be patronised, fobbed off and disbelieved. I know, I’ve been there, and so has Cleghorn. After many awful years of struggling to have her symptoms recognised, she was finally diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder.
The book is full of stories not just of suffering females, but of the many brave and revolutionary women who have fought and succeeded in challenging Western medicine to change.

Cleghorn writes, “Medicine must hear unwell women when they speak – not as females, weighed down by the myths of the man-made world, but as human beings. Medicine must listen to and believe our testimonies about our own bodies, and ultimately turn its energies, time and money towards finally solving our medical mysteries. The answers reside in our bodies, and in the histories our bodies have been writing.”

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I chose this one at random from the library shelves because I liked the main title, not stopping to read the sub-title.
Writers and drinking?
Not really interested; and if I had clocked the fact that they are all American, and male, I probably wouldn’t have borrowed it.
After all that, I couldn’t put it down and read it in a day. Which just goes to show.

Olivia Laing’s book is a beautiful hybrid. It’s got elements of memoir, travelogue, biography and literary criticism, as well as a serious investigation of alcoholism. Laing, an English writer, criss-crosses America, often on trains, in search of F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Tennessee Williams and John Berryman. She visits cities and towns, houses, neighbourhoods, landscapes. She does the Tennessee Williams tour of New Orleans and travels all the way up to the wild country near Port Angeles in Washington State, just over the water from Vancouver Island, to Cheever’s grave. These famous men, all with blazing talent, led harrowing lives; two committed suicide and the rest of them died sooner than they should have. Not to mention the collateral damage to lovers, wives, children and friends. Which sounds gloomy, but in her hands it’s fascinating. With curiosity and compassion she shows the vulnerable, fragile, complex human being beneath the genius. The link between dysfunctional families, disturbed, unhappy childhoods and addiction is tragically clear. When eventually Laing reveals her own experience of living with her mother’s alcoholic partner, the end – where she travels with her mother in Washington State – gains depth and creates a kind of resolution.

One mystery. Where, exactly, is Echo Spring?
In Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, ‘a trip to Echo Spring’ is Brick’s visit to the liquor cabinet. It’s his favoured brand of bourbon.

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Two beautiful books by James Rebanks.

Rebanks is a farmer in the Lake District of England, grazing sheep and cattle and working the land in an area where his family have done much the same for over six hundred years. Yes, six centuries. The Shepherd’s Life came out in 2015. It was a memoir, a diary of Rebanks’s farming year, a meditation on farming and landscape and community and belonging. English Pastoral is also beautiful to read, but angrier and more political. Having read the first book, and now this, I think rightly so. He says:

The last forty years on the land were revolutionary and disrupted all that had gone before for thousands of years –  a radical and ill thought-through experiment that was conducted in our fields.
I lived thought those years. I was a witness.

Both books are serious and lyrical, descriptive and closely observed, a delight to read if you enjoy what’s called ‘nature writing’; at the same time, they are unsentimental about the brutal realities of farm families and farm life. Rebanks is incandescent with rage about the ongoing and seemingly unstoppable degradation of soil and land and living creatures great and small when all these are simply inputs in the ledgers of some giant agribusiness. He’s all about connection to his land and community and way of life

(Grandad)… stopped the tractor, climbed off slowly, cursing his stiff old legs as they planted themselves in the freshly tilled soil. He strode across the ground, eyes fixed on the spot. I wondered what he had seen. He bent down and picked something up from a scratch in the ground and put it in his flat cap. Then he climbed back in and set the cap on my knee. I looked down at the eggs and held one in my hand. It was warm, and the mottled colour of the boiled imitation-pebble sweets you could buy at the seaside. They are curlew eggs, he told me. They nest in these fields. We bounced on. When we had come full circle, he took the cap full of eggs, climbed out and placed them back on the ground where they were, recreating something like a nest with the back of his knuckles. I asked him if the parent birds would come back to them, and he said, ‘Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t…but this is the best you can do.’
When we came around the field ten minutes later, the mother curlew was nestled in the dusty seedbed like nothing had happened, and my grandfather grinned. That night I told Dad proudly about Grandad and the curlew eggs. He said Grandad was a ‘soppy old bugger’ and no wonder we had taken so long to get the work done.

All right. Maybe that does come across as sentimental. But later, Rebanks talks about the disappearance of bird species from British farmland. With the improvements in farm machinery and methods have come catastrophic loss of habitat. No hedges or turning circles or rough patches left for nesting birds; no Grandad in a tractor to see the nest in the furrow and ‘do the best he can do’.


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Book? Cover? You’re not supposed to judge, but of course I do. The Maisie Dobbs novels by Jacqueline Winspear have cover art that’s so evocative of 1920s and 30s graphic design that they could have been lifted from posters or postcards or – yes – books.  I did a bit of Googling and found that the designers used artist, illustrator and printmaker Andrew Davidson to create the distinctive look over the whole series of – so far – 16 books.
16 Maisie Dobbs mysteries! This is good news for me – a whole new series to enjoy.

Maisie Dobbs introduces a new kind of  detective for her era – a woman and unusually, an “investigator and psychologist” – based in London in 1929. The mystery in this  novel is intriguing but slight, because there’s a lot of backstory covered in this first of the series. Dobbs’ rise from teenage housemaid to gifted university student to battlefield nurse shows the dislocation wrought by WWI and the profound changes in society in its aftermath. This initial case draws on the experiences of bereaved and grieving families and the damaged men and women who returned.

The second book, Birds of a Feather, is not as weighed down by chunks of Maisie’s biography and her life experiences and relationships emerge more organically in the telling of the tale. It’s a cracking mystery and an insight into  the concept of patriotism during those terrible years.

Book 3, Pardonable Lies takes Maisie back to the battlefields of France, now apparently quiet and overgrown but still hiding their deadly secrets. We’re introduced to more of the important people in her life as she faces some moral dilemmas of the aftermath of war.

You can probably tell I’m trying not to give too much away…

A detective series, where you get to know the protagonist and their world, is my go-to reading for dark times, bad weather, fatigue and bad temper and restlessness (murder seems to make me sleep especially well).  I’m so pleased to have Maisie join Kinsey Milhone and the other intrepid female investigators on my shelf.

And I simply liked the cover.

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I always think that here in Central Victoria, the weather turns after Easter. With daylight savings ended, the daylight dwindles and we begin the slide from autumn into winter. Today, Easter Sunday, it’s seriously hot and the local swimming spot – the Golden Point reservoir – will probably be crowded. But the weather forecast tells of a ten degree dip in the temperature on Monday, and a cooler week. No more swimming, except for the hardy few who swim all year round. I’ve seen them, even in winter, bobbing around in the grey water under grey skies.

I always thought they were a bit crazy, but I’ve just read Wintering by English writer Katherine May, and one of her many insights is the joy (and possible therapeutic benefits to people with inflammatory and mental health disorders) of swimming in the cold. By coincidence, a friend – a long term regular swimmer –  has switched from heated pool and laps and lanes to swimming at the reservoir. Every day. It’s deep and very cold, she says, but she sees dragonflies and aquatic insects among the reeds, and swallows darting and swooping overhead. Birds call from the surrounding bush. She thought she saw a kingfisher. It’s beautiful. I am wondering about giving it a try, just once.

But back to Wintering. It’s an exploration of the dark times, the fallow times, the times when we need to stop and… Well,  just stop. Wintering, through May’s eyes, is a process of retreating, repairing, and renewing. She begins her descent into the dark with her husband’s sudden collapse and hospitalisation – a burst appendix – and then her own mystery illness. She takes sick leave, she quits her job as a university lecturer, she begins to home school her child, she bakes and preserves, she begins the practice of swimming in the cold English sea. She reflects on her travels to the parts of the world where winter lasts half the year; on ice and snow; on saunas and thermal pools and layer upon layer upon layer of clothing; on the children’s books like The Box of Delights where the action takes place in the depths of winter.  She slows down. She meditates and reads and writes. And she heals.

Wintering is beautifully written and warming and consoling. But also an aspirational fantasy. There are many people who aren’t writers and university lecturers who desperately need a season of wintering. Need to stop (paid work, unpaid caring) and rest and repair. And for whom the very idea is ridiculous. I think most readers would agree that this book is written from a position of great privilege. But I don’t know that necessarily negates her message. Wintering is part of the natural cycle of life; don’t fight it. Even if you can’t enjoy it, embrace it. Renewal will follow.

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Last month marked the first anniversary of agent Sheila Drummond’s passing. And I realised that since then I’d had a quiet, lingering sense of absence whenever I thought about my writing life. For over a decade, Sheila had been an abiding presence just down the tracks in Woodend; for good counsel and advice, she was a wise owl – I hope she’d not be offended to be likened to a bird – it would be a very elegant, articulate, silvery owl…

I first met Sheila more than thirteen years ago. My Castlemaine writer friend Lee Fox had often spoken to me about her agent, and suggested I contact her. So I sent Sheila some picture story book manuscripts and a massive doorstop of a fantasy novel. Sheila told me that though she didn’t “get” fantasy (fair enough!) she could be happy to read anything further I cared to send her.

In 2009, I sent her “The Truth About Verity Sparks’ and she saw commercial potential. “But it’s going to be hard to sell,” she told me. And it was, but she didn’t give up on it. She didn’t tell me until later how many rejections there’d been. It was published in 2011 and was awarded a CBCA Honour Book prize. Sheila negotiated the contracts for two more Verity books and the series proved a success. I remember her small, upright, elegant figure and her satisfied smile at the book launches.

So right there in that little story you have ‘my’ Sheila in a nutshell. Tenacious, shrewd, expressing her opinions with clarity and honesty, getting the business done. None of this is code for uncaring. Indeed, I always found Sheila very kind. When I chose to end my relationship with a publisher, she was supportive even though it wasn’t a great business decision for either of us. She checked in to make sure I was OK. We met up in Castlemaine and in Woodend for coffee and she gave me sympathetic and at times bracing counsel. Which is precisely what this particular writer – given to the typical bouts of doubt and lack of confidence – needed.

Though children’s books were where I’d made my name, Sheila encouraged me with my adult novel. More than encouraged… She loved it, she really believed in it, she kept on rallying me after the numerous rejections, she suggested a freelance editor… and she gained a wonderful contract with a major publisher. In 2017, shortly before publication, Sheila and I shared a railway journey home from a ‘meet and greet’ at Pan Macmillan’s new offices in Melbourne. For the first time I had a very long personal conversation with her. She talked about her family, her childhood and her early life. Rocking along in the cold and dark on bumpy V-Line tracks, I felt warmed to be shown this different side of Sheila.

Sheila passed away on 19th February 2020 aged 80. At her funeral, I learned more about her love of family, her political and community engagement, her eventful and adventurous professional and personal life. Too short! But with her vitality, her charm, her intelligence and generosity, it seemed she’d lived it to the full. As my agent, and as an admired friend, I will continue to miss her.


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Weird British contrasts.

Screens rather than pages last weekend. Because I’ve been so tired. Do I really have to make excuses? I’m a reader, but sometimes it’s so relaxing to just watch. Last Saturday, I worked 6 hours in a 14 hour day, so in the time between shifts it was The Crown on Netflix. Claire Foy impersonating the Queen; the cut-glass accents, mystifying protocol and stifled emotions; the storms in gilded teacups and the political kerfuffles.
When I finished at 9.30, I wound down with No Offence on ABC iView. Actually ‘wound down’ isn’t quite the phrase.  The series is a gritty, often hilarious and usually violent UK cop show set in Manchester, so fast paced and suspenseful that my stomach began to hurt from tension. My brain certainly ached from trying to understand the accents. Two Britains, separated not just by time but by…well, almost everything else. Worlds apart, and if you lived in a palace surrounded by flunkies and protected by minders, you’d have no idea.
During the week I found The Diamond Queen in the Op Shop. I’d been wondering just how fictional Peter Morgan’s The Crown scripts are. ‘Based on true events’ would probably cover it. Nothing sensational or gossipy here; just a solid account of what she actually does, with an emphasis on politics and service and duty. How that woman works!

Earlier in March I read   Hollow Places by Christopher Hadley. Yet another Britain, this one strange, surprising and unknowably archaic. With his starting point the felling of an old yew tree in a Hertfordshire field, Hadley follows the legend of local hero Piers Shonks through 800 years of history. Geology, paleontology, Church architecture, tombs and monuments and masonry, Norman law and land rights, ancient manuscripts, heraldry, bestiaries, dragons, giants and devils in a landscape of lonely fields and hedges and tracks…a wonderful detective story, packed with memorable stories and images. I carried away particularly the crippled medieval squire who refused to give the required tithe to the church and lived in squalor in his manor house with an assertive pack of dogs and serving maids.

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