“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that tell true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort.

And that is why we write.”

From Neil Gaiman’s acceptance speech for the 2009 Newbery Medal, which was awarded to The Graveyard Book.

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After finishing Square Haunting by Francesca Wade, I decided to look up some of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. I remembered Gaudy Night was one of my mother’s favourite detective novels so I decided to start there, near the end of the series and not at the beginning.

It’s the mid-1930’s, and detective novelist Harriet Vane arrives in Oxford for a ‘gaudy’ (a college feast or reunion) at Shrewsbury, her old college. Scarred by the publicity and scandal of her murder trial (see Strong Poison), she’s reluctant to go…but once she’s there, she finds herself back under its familiar spell. Harriet rediscovers Oxford; the mellow old buildings, the river, the streets and shops. She also renews her love for the university, the institution; the traditions of scholarship and learning and ‘the life of the mind’. She wonders if she could insulate herself from the worries of the world, and become a scholar…
But (since this is a detective novel) she also finds herself in the middle of a mystery. Someone in this all-female community has been sending poison pen letters and committing minor acts of vandalism. Is it a member of the staff (‘scouts’), a student, an academic?
This book was written in the 1930s, when women’s demands to participate in higher education still met with resistance. Female academics and intellectuals were commonly caricatured as unlovable and unfeminine, if not downright bitter and twisted. (Well, why not be bitter? Oxford did not admit women to full academic status until 1921 and Cambridge – can you believe it? – not until 1947!). It soon becomes clear that Shrewsbury College’s female intellectuals are the targets of an anti-feminist who wants to cause a scandal in the academic community. With the attacks becoming nastier and more frequent, Harriet is asked to investigate. Eventually, she turns to Lord Peter Wimsey, her friend and unsuccessful suitor, for assistance. In its final pages, the mystery is tragically solved and Harriet and Peter find each other at last.

Back to my mother. As I’ve aged,  I’ve come to see her in a different light (like, she was a person!). Yes, she was strong, stoic, intelligent, self-disciplined, brave – quite the feminist icon. She was also – if I read her rightly –  a raging romantic. In my youthful self absorption, I’d missed that. Gaudy Night is both a mystery and an achingly romantic love story.  It’s the book where Harriet (at last!) realises that Peter is her soul mate. And he, after years of fruitless courtship, gets his heart’s desire. The scene on the riverbank, where Harriet studies Peter’s face as he sleeps, had me reaching for my (metaphorical) fan. Hot! and yet with nothing explicitly sexual.

I can imagine that for my mother, as a fiercely intelligent young woman in the early 1940s, the fiercely intelligent Harriet might have been a heroine. Not bitter, not twisted. Successful, capable – and lovable, too.

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Last year, as part of the Castlemaine State Festival, large format posters of local artists, writers, performers and other creative types were plastered around the town. Despite rain, wind, sun and the work of random rippers and taggers, I am still there. Thank you to my lovely sister-in-law Lyndell for sending me this smile.

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This group biography explores the lives of five extraordinary women who all lived in secluded Mecklenburgh Square,  on the fringes of Bloomsbury, between the two world wars. The women are H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) a modernist poet: Dorothy Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels: Jane Ellen Harrison, classicist and translator: Eileen Power, historian, broadcaster and pacifist: and Virginia Woolf who  needs no introduction. The unusual title actually comes from Woolf; in 1925 diary entry, she wrote of the pleasures of “street sauntering and square haunting”.
Each of these women claimed, to use Woolf’s words again, “a room of one’s own”, and a life of  their own. It’s a fascinating and often moving study of five very different women who were  united in their intelligence, curiosity and creativity. It makes me sad, nearly a century on, to read how convention and male authority constrained their ambitions; how difficult it was for them to reach their potential and achieve recognition.
At the end of the book Wade writes:
…the legacy of these women’s lives lives on…in future generations’ right to talk, walk and write freely, to live invigorating lives.
I’m sad too because I know that as women we still don’t always feel that we have the right to the lives we want.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade Faber&Faber $39.95







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Recently we drove to the coast, to Port Fairy for a few days holiday, just before the full coronavirus emergency hit.

Late autumn, harvest-time, and semi-trailers loaded with hay constantly roared past. The recent rain meant that paddocks looked dry but not drought-stricken; sheep and cattle grazed; majestic river red gums – emblematic of the Western District –  stood surrounded by their ‘widow-maker’ dropped limbs; and grand houses, far from the road, could be glimpsed here and there through trees or down long drives.

We arrived, settled in. Before long I was relaxing on the veranda of our cottage, looking at the pictures and reading this beautiful book.

The Western District of Victoria. Even the name conjures up establishment families, history and grandeur. This area…has some of the most productive land in Australia and some of its most renowned homesteads and gardens…
Through their early histories we follow their fortunes and see the splendour of these great homes.
It is a tribute to the past, when fortunes built elaborate mansions and grand gardens, and to the present owners who have so lovingly preserved their properties’ architectural heritage.

That’s from the blurb of Great Properties of Country Victoria: The Western District’s Golden Age by Richard Allen and Kimbal Baker The Miegunyah Press 2015.

I was leafing through the beautifully illustrated pages, full of smothered envy for the lawns, the old trees, the gravelled drives and stone walls and towers and return verandahs… And suddenly, I realised. Damn. Shit. Double damn. I can’t enjoy this book in good conscience. Because? Because Aboriginal people. This is not me saying, how good am I. How woke, how virtuous. Because I’m not, I’m saying damn! I really wanted to enjoy this!

Great properties? Yes, but whose? The fact is – and it’s one I can’t any longer escape – that the beautiful gardens and stunning architectural heritage displayed in this book can only exist because of the dispossession of the local Aboriginal people. Dispossession? A sanitized word for violence, up to and including massacre. It’s the untold story of these architecturally significant mansions and the pastoralists who commissioned them. I’m surprised that a book so recent has no mention of those who were there first.

And as if to impress the lesson of history, when we went for a walk that evening, right near the Port Fairy Tourist Information Centre, the site of the old railway station, is the memorial stone pictured above.

Which brings me to another book. I read Inheritance by Carole Wilkinson earlier in the year, around the time that I read Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu. I had no intention of thematic reading, so it was just chance, but they seemed to fit together.

Carole Wilkinson, author of the award-winning Dragonkeeper series, has written a thought-provoking novel about Australia’s shameful hidden history.

Nic finds herself living with her grumpy old grandfather at the family home, Yaratgil, when her musician father goes on tour.  Her mother, Veronica, died when she was born and there are no other friends or relatives who can take her in. Yaratgil was once a magnificent Western District property, with a huge homestead and extensive gardens. Now, it’s run down and falling into disrepair.

Isolated and bored, Nic begins to explore. She finds a strange locked room. Inside it, she discovers some mysterious stones. Which have magical properties…

There are multiple meanings attached to the title, Inheritance, and one of them is that through the stones, Nic finds she has the ability to go back into the past. This gift runs in her family through the female line.  Inheritance also refers to what she finds in the past; her family’s involvement in the massacre of the local Aboriginal people.

I enjoyed Inheritance and applaud Carole Wilkinson for dealing with this confronting subject matter without lecturing. The elements of fantasy (the mysterious, plant-filled locked room, the stones, the time-travelling women in the family) and realism (Nic’s boredom and isolation at Yaratgil and at school,  her tentative friendship with local boy Thor, the conservative small town atmosphere) meld together well. My only reservation is the fluffy cover. It just doesn’t seem to do justice to what’s inside.

The drive home, back through the beautiful Western District again, took us through Lake Bolac, where some of my forebears farmed in the 1840s and 50s, before the gold rushes. My mother once told me a family story. An orphaned boy from somewhere (I’m not sure where) in my family tree was sent from Warrnambool to Lake Bolac to work as a shepherd and station hand. The local Aboriginal people had been spearing sheep and there’d been reprisals. The boy had retired for the day with the other men in a stone hut when there was some kind of an attack.  The men fired their guns out into the night until there was no more movement, and in the morning there were nine or ten bodies on the ground. So – though there’s no mansion or acres of gardens – this story is a part of my inheritance, too.


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Comfort reading. Like comfort eating, it can be addictive and feel a little shameful. Shouldn’t I be reading the latest, grimmest memoir or book on current affairs? What about that great tome of literary fiction that’s been on my shelf for months?
I know I’m not alone in this, but sometimes I just need to read something gentle and undemanding. At the suggestion of a friend, I’ve been devouring the Isabel Dalhousie novels of Alexander McCall Smith. They’ve proved both soothing and charming, though after five in a row I realise you can have too much of a good thing. And though perhaps it’s a stretch to classify books containing brutal and premeditated murders as ‘kind and gentle’, the Sarah Kelling mysteries of Charlotte McLeod are obviously meant to be parodies and I’ve found 1980s Boston just as cosy as any village in Midsomer.

Beloved books from childhood sometimes hit the spot, too. I had a credit from a wonderful local antiquarian and second-hand book shop, Mount of Alex, so I bought a few old favourites.The first of these is The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright.

It’s 1941 in New York, and the motherless Melendy children – Mona, Rush, Randy and Oliver – decide to pool their weekly allowance money so that each Saturday, one of them can afford a really special treat. Randy chooses an exhibition of French paintings at an art gallery; Rush goes to a matinee at the opera; Mona has a haircut and manicure at a beauty salon, and Oliver, the youngest, sneaks off to the circus and is brought home by a policeman on a horse.  On each expedition the children have a mild adventure, make a friend or learn something about another person’s life and they get to explore their home city of New York. There’s always their father and the wonderful housekeeper/cook/nanny Cuffy to come home to. And like many of these older children’s books, it’s really beautifully written.

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Nothing New: A History of Second Hand is light and cheerful reading,  full of Robyn Annear’s usual sparkling anecdotes. But there is also enough substance to get me thinking very seriously and personally about waste.
Robyn makes it clear that there used to be almost no such thing. Clothes were passed on, repaired, re-cut and re-styled, used as rags, and the rags used to make paper. Food was rarely thrown away, but even bones were valuable for use as buttons and to make glue. Broken and unwanted household items of all kinds found repairers or homes or were stripped down into useful parts.
The ingenuity, thrift and hard work of those recycling folks in the past wasn’t motivated by virtue, by saving the planet or detoxing from plastic. It was just plain good economic sense.

Here’s the list of ‘wanted items’ from a London Rag, Bottle and Kitchen Stuff Warehouse in the 1850s:

‘Furniture and Lumber of every description’, bones, and bottles of all kinds (‘Eau de Cologne, Soda Water, Doctor’s Bottles, Phials & Broken Flint Glass’) as well as – 
Old Copper, Brass, Pewter, etc
Lead, Iron, Zinc, Steel, etc etc
Old Horse Hair, Mattresses, etc
Old Books, Waste Paper, etc
White Linen Rags
All Kinds of Coloured Rags.

These second-hand dealers, she writes, ‘were everywhere in an age when necessity, more than virtue, dictated there there was ‘no such thing as waste’. Lately there have been stories in the news about hazardous waste stockpiles, unusable mountains of paper and glass in recycling facilities, containers of commingled recycling turned back from their destinations in Asia because they’re disgustingly contaminated. These stories make me wonder – why haven’t we had the intelligence and imagination to see the whole life cycle of our plastic drink bottle, our cheap plastic toy, our polyester T-shirt? Where was all this disposable stuff going to go? Because it’s not going to go away on its own, given that it takes hundreds or thousands of years to break down, and even then it remains in the soil and the water. So – what were we all thinking?
I lazily thought my household was doing very well. Only one small bin for landfill rubbish, and that not filled each fortnight. A large one for virtuous recyling, mostly glass, tin and paper/cardboard. That one is rarely full, too. But with the recycling crisis in this country, I think we’d better do better. Olives in glass jars rather than plastic tubs? But what’s happening to those carefully washed and re-cycled jars? No olives? Less olives? I don’t know!

On a much cheerier note, Robyn talks about bazaars, jumble, rummage and white elephant sales, and one of my great loves –  the Australian Op Shop. Here’s how it began. In 1925, the St Vincent’s Hospital was raising funds for expansion. A soon-to-be-demolished building called the Cyclorama stood on the proposed building site. On the committee was one Lady Tallis.  Just returned from overseas travel in France and the US, she’d seen the popularity of second-hand shops run for charity. Why not try this idea in Melbourne?
Lady Tallis took charge and, in christening the enterprise, paid a nod to its continental progenitor, le magasin d’occasion. But while the French occasion here signifies ‘bargain’, it can also be used to mean ‘opportunity’.
Thus, in the Cyclorama, for three months straddling Christmas 1925, the first ever opportunity shop was born.
And hooray for that!

Robyn’s account brought back so many happy memories of triumphant Op Shop forays and adventures. I still have some of my finds from the early 1980s and the fantastic Oppies of Hawthorn and Richmond. These were part of my regular beat, but any country trip was sure to unearth treasures by the carload. And cheaper than city Op Shops, too. I once bought a complete, unused Fowler’s Vacola kit in Echuca. The kind old lady asked me if $11 was too much? Not at all, I said.
The best Op Shops were always staffed by these fantastic old ladies. Full of really old stuff. The spaces were crowded and even cluttered. Sometimes the shops had been organised into categories (up to a point) but lack of room usually made them somewhat chaotic. What a good sign!  Because in amongst the clutter and chaos lurked buried treasure. Like Kath (of Kath and Kim) I could feel it in my waters. Cocktail shakers, vases shaped like shells, actual shells (once, a large plastic bag full of money cowries), lamps and lampshades, costume jewellery, printed 1940’s housecoats, stilettos, smart and unworn brogues, 1930’s silk step-in undies, knitting patterns, camera cases, leather handbags, printed headscarves made of French silk with hand-stitched edging, beaded cardigans made in Hong Kong…
My trip to Daylesford last week took in a back appointment, the Vinnies and the Salvos. These Oppies now have merchandisers, who style the shops to look like boutiques. Displays of accessories and racks of clothes are often colour coded, with lots of synthetics and fast fashion items.  The crockery and homewares are all newish, often those white, made-in-China basics. Ugly (but not in a good way) decorative items abound. Nothing ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’ or even a bit old is on show. Do they hive those items off to dealers? I’m old school, I know, but I miss the Oppies of my past. Today’s can be good for utilitarian finds (a pair of never-worn runners, a rain jacket, sturdy tumblers) and also for books, though no longer for really old books and magazines. But increasingly rare is the old-style thrill of the chase.
But I keep dropping in, flipping through the hangers, fingering the material, cruising the racks and displays and shelves and bins, hoping – yes, I’m a gambler at heart! – for that  real, heart-stopping, amazing and magical find.

Thanks to Robyn Annear for this funny, informative, thought-provoking and for me, nostalgic, history.

Nothing New: A History of Second-Hand by Robyn Annear, Text, 2019


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In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals…

I read the whole of Warlight over one day on a visit to Melbourne, on V-line country trains and on city trams, in a shopping centre food courts and a little cafe and my practitioner’s waiting room, sunk deep into the book but with my experience oddly enhanced by what was going on around me.

I can’t remember when I’ve been sunk so deeply into a novel. Usually I’ll finish one book and go on to the next, but so far I haven’t been able to start any more adult fiction. I could describe Warlight as my perfect book. Note ‘my’ not ‘the’. I read a review by Andrew Motion in The Guardian (16/6/18) in which he basically said that it wasn’t the book he thought Ondaatje should have written. Too imprecise, too slow, too “shrouded in mystery”. Its beauty, for this reader, was in just those things. The pace, the indirection, the mystery didn’t detract from the ripping yarn of a 14-year old innocent caught up in a post-war shadow life he can’t comprehend or explain. Another review, again in The Guardian (Alex Preston 5/6/18) described it this way: “It’s as if GW Sebald wrote a Bond novel”.

Please note: there are spoilers ahead!
Effectively abandoned by his parents, the narrator Nathaniel and his sister Rachel are cared for by an enigmatic man they call The Moth and his colleague the Darter. Through these two, a whole cast of eccentric and slightly shady characters, men and women, become involved in Nathaniel’s life. At school by day (though less and less frequently), he develops a compelling nocturnal life. Moonlit, candle-lit, shadowy, dingy, dark – adventures and escapades follow as he works in kitchens and banqueting halls of grand hotels, smuggles greyhounds by barge, discovers passion and sensuality with the daring and vulnerable Agnes in empty flats and houses. But then Nathaniel and Rachel discover that their mother Rose has not gone to the Far East, as they supposed, to join their father. Her double life – she’s a spy –  is gradually revealed and so their life with The Moth and The Darter takes on a new and even darker perspective, culminating in a terrifying attack on the two children.
This is, after all, post-war Europe. Peace didn’t magically break out; there’s an underworld where hatred, revenge and reprisals fester on. Partisans, communists, fascists? Right or wrong? Everything is murky, including Rose’s role. As an adult, after his mother’s death, Nathaniel continues to try to piece together her story. And his own.

As ever, Ondaatje’s writing is beautiful, luminous, poetic and arresting, full of a deep understanding of the sheer mysteriousness of being a person. Of knowing, or trying to know, another person. Of trying to enter or understand a life other than your own.
And wonderful characters. Olive Lawrence, ethnographer, meteorologist and – yes – spy, takes Nathaniel and Agnes walking at night. The air is full of the sound of mating crickets, loud and insistent. Olive says,
Their cries seem to fall on you from above, don’t they? It feels like an important night for them. Remember that. Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principal thing.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, Jonathan Cape, 2018.

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It’s a new year – it has been for a couple of weeks now – but with the pall of smoke reaching here all the way from the fire grounds in Victoria and New South Wales, thousands of homes lost, people injured and dead, animal and plant life devastated…well, I haven’t felt that “Happy New Year” is the appropriate greeting.

I was back at work this week. One of the new releases was a thing called Stop Reading the News: a Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life by Rolf Dobelli. Maybe I should read it. Actually, I’m thinking of another short news detox (I do this from time to time). Not just the stories and images of destruction, but the responses of our inadequate Prime Minister and the idiot commentators from the Murdoch press have me in a state of mixed sadness and simmering rage. My inbox this morning contained an email from Environment Victoria about dealing with climate anxiety!  Not that I was reading to a theme, but this end-of-year book neatly fits with current conversations around fire and land and our nation’s desperate need to learn from Indigenous wisdom.

I think that every Australian should read Dark Emu. At school! Because when I think back to my own education, I could weep.  In 1966, at Campbell’s Creek PS, with members of a local Aboriginal family in the school community and with one of them actually sitting next to me, I was told by the teacher that “Aborigines are primitive stone age people”. We copied pictures of boomerangs and bark shelters and got the idea that Aboriginal people just wandered haplessly about, spear or dilly-bag in hand, waiting for something (a kangaroo, a tuber) to turn up. Luckily, white people came along!

Bruce Pascoe has done something very clever. He’s studied the records of explorers and colonists at the time of first contact and shown what was in plain sight but scarcely acknowledged – there are numerous first-hand accounts that give the lie to the colonial view that Aboriginal people lived in small groups as hunter-gatherers.
What my primary school teachers did not tell me – because they did not know – was that in some areas the earliest explorers and colonists saw large Aboriginal populations (into the thousands) living in permanent villages and settlements. Agriculture thrived. They witnessed cultivation of grasses and roots, the harvesting and storage of foodstuffs, the diverting and damming of rivers for extensive fish traps and weirs. Pascoe’s explorers admired the ‘park-like’ appearance of the country. While some colonists wanted to think this landscape was natural, others witnessed the Aboriginal people burning (“fire-stick farming”) to maintain a mosaic of alternate lightly and densely wooded terrain. Temporary barriers (‘battues’) were at times erected to keep animals encircled, but there was no permanent fencing. Within a few decades of colonization, what these earliest white people saw was forgotten, perhaps deliberately.  Aboriginal people were killed, denied access or moved from their lands. Then the introduction of hoofed animals, along with farming practices such as fencing, land clearing and ploughing, changed everything.

That precis is my understanding of Pascoe’s story. The revelation for me is that a larger population than I’d known existed here for tens of thousands of years, with a kind of pan-Australian peaceful and co-operative management of land and resources. None of our huge dams for cotton-growing in Queensland and no flow down into South Australia. Each group knew what they needed to do to maintain the health of the entire system for their own benefit and the benefit of all the other groups. There were meetings for great sharing of resources – an example is the Bogong moth celebrations in the high plains of Victoria – which strengthened ties and kept the systems coherent. Through stories and above all law, these disparate groups of people did their smaller parts to keep the whole well.

The other revelation is about progress. Truly, I’ve heard people say that Aboriginal people should have no rights to the land (or even, ‘don’t deserve to have rights’) because they did nothing with it. That’s been the rationale for dispossession. In the West we tend to think that all people should be on the same trajectory as us. Progress is civilization. It is ploughs, wheels, machines, foundries, quarries, roads, cities, factories, armies. It is warfare and conquest and an ever growing desire for more and more and more stuff.
To many of us here and around the world, this Australian bush-fire summer demonstrates the utter madness of this growth and progress mindset. We are destroying our own home. Pascoe’s book asks us to think another way. Aboriginal societies did change, but slowly and in ways suited to the land. We can’t reverse completely, but we can learn to be content with what we have and to live within our means.

Also read in January:



Field of Poppies by Carmel Bird
In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers
Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively
Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship by Andy Friend






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