H IS FOR HUMBLY CHANGING MY MIND

Helen Macdonald’s memoir H Is For Hawk first came out in 2014; not only were the newspaper and online reviews uniformly positive, but copies were flying out of the door of the bookshop and customers reported back that it was fantastic. I bought it. I tried to read it. And I hated it.

I’ll admit that I didn’t try very hard – around 20 pages was enough. I couldn’t stand the intensity, the hyper-sensitivity, the misery, the self-indulgence.  It’s lucky that I kept my opinion to myself, for now I can see it was a clear case of bad timing. The wrong book at the time. The wrong time for the book.

I still found the tone initially off-putting; I had to make myself persevere. She just sounded so mad! And then I got it. Of course. She  – Helen Macdonald – was mad. For goodness sake, she said she was – never truly mad, in the sense of psychotic but like Hamlet, mad north-north west – madness that was, as she said, “quiet and very very dangerous.” It was grief, the madness of grief, and so everything she sensed and felt and thought about was saturated by that unhinged, unbalanced, perilous state.

Whatever the mood I was in at the time, I simply couldn’t bear to be with Macdonald in her grief.

But now, as I begin my year of reading from my shelves and the library, H is for Humbly Changing My Mind. What a wonderful book this is! It has so many elements that I love –  like closely observed and poetic descriptions of the natural world, of landscape and the creatures in it – history – literature and biography (in her discussion of T H White, author of The Sword in the Stone and The Goshawk). Add to these a truly poignant memoir of the sheer slog and struggle of loss and grief and depression and Macdonald’s achingly slow reconciliation with life.

The healing came about through the difficult training and taming of Mabel, a young goshawk who’d been bred in an aviary in Belfast. Macdonald purchases Mabel for 800 pounds on a Scottish quay. Their first meeting:

…amidst a chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s happening all at once, the man pulls out an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of word and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.

There’s so much more to this book than this beautiful writing. It’s an eye-opening – more accurately, mind-opening – account of a human having a relationship with a non-human; an attempt to get inside animal consciousness, to try to understand Mabel’s understanding of the world. On that Scottish quay, when the young hawk is first removed from her box, without her hood, Macdonald writes of Mabel that everything was “startling and new-stamped on her entirely astonished brain”. It was “an alien brain fizzing and fusing with terror”.

I won’t go on. If you haven’t read it, you should – when you can. If you have, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

An aside: I’ve just finished a reading copy of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari. He writes about  the mental health bible used by US doctors (and I’d say probably Australian ones as well) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). It was first published in 1952, has gone through several editions, and contains a checklist doctors use for picking up depression and anxiety in their patients. If a person shows at least five out of nine symptoms, they are diagnosed with depression. When doctors first applied this checklist to people who were grieving, those people met the clinical criteria for depression. “This made many doctors and psychiatrists feel uncomfortable. So the authors of the DSM invented a loophole, which became known as ‘the grief exception’.” Thus, it was seen as normal, or reasonable, or natural, to display this set of  symptoms when you’ve suffered a loss without being diagnosed with depression. Hari writes that in the most recent update of the DSM, ‘the grief exception’ has been removed.

 

 

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NEW YEAR

Happy New Year! We’ve just been for a picnic in our beautiful Botanical Gardens; ducks, dogs, kids on their new Christmas bikes, blankets spread on the banks of the (very small) lake in the shade of willow trees under a brilliant blue summer sky. Couples, small groups, large extended families with proper tables and chairs and full-on buffet-style lunches. These made  our thermos of tea, packet of chips, Aldi cake and sliced apple seem pretty ordinary, but who cares? We are lucky enough to live 10 minutes walk from the park, so an ordinary picnic is a readily available pleasure.

I was going to make a list of my best books of the year, but I can’t be arsed. Or is that bollixed? I have been reading the Tana French Dublin Murder Squad series and enjoying the Irish vernacular. Faithful Place, narrated by an undercover officer whose career in policing meant he’d inevitably left his inner city working class family behind, was particularly rich in swearing and slang. Reminds me of an occasion many years ago, when an Irish short story writer gave a workshop here in Castlemaine. Her speech was full of ‘feck’ this and ‘feck’ that and one dear old lady finally asked what she meant. When the writer explained, the old lady packed up her notebook and pens and left.

Anyway, no top hundred or top ten or ranking or listing or anything. I know I’ve read lots of books this year – there’s always at least two on the go – but I haven’t been keeping notes, and my memory is terrible. Two recent things bob up; Sheridan Jobbins’ laugh-out-loud memoir Wish You Were Here, and Elizabeth Strout’s quiet, moving, linked short story collection Anything Is Possible. But the year, for me, has ended in a crime wave. Australian, with Jane Harper’s The Dry and Force of Nature. And Irish, with Tana French. I haven’t got into the Scandinavians as yet, but with hot weather on the way, it’s probably the right time.

It’s funny how crime novels have gradually become my favourites for holiday reading, or insomniac nights, or as a method for riding out pain or anxiety. It’s great to find a good new writer, but good old ones are worth revisiting, too. On a recent short break at the coast, I found a Sue Grafton ‘Alphabet Murder’ B is for Burglar and an early Patricia Cornwell in seaside Op Shops. Perfect for beach reading, and Sue Grafton in particular stands up well. I’ve also recently read the latest in Ben Abromovitch Rivers of London series, The Furthest Station. It’s a novella, therefore short, but also sweet and satisfying.

New Year’s resolutions? Again, can’t be arsed. But I do have a lazy kind of plan to work my way through the unread titles on my shelves. There are heaps, and I wonder, how can that be? How did I get fired up enough to purchase a book but then neglect to read it? I have no idea. First up is H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald.

A Canadian friend sent me this photograph of my novel having a cafe outing in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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THIS WRITING LIFE

I don’t usually go all confessional in this blog. I’m a pretty reserved person and while I hope my books are interesting to others, I’m not sure that my private life is. But. Here goes. To all you writers out there – a warning. This writing life can be a health hazard.

Does that sound a bit dramatic? Isn’t writing just sitting at a desk, plus the odd thoughtful walk or session in a cafe with a notebook and a couple of lattes? Well, yes. And no. In my 20s and 30s, I could write without a break for four or five hours at a time but as I’ve got older, the back and neck and shoulders have begun to complain. I’ve learned to take breaks every hour. To vary things with a standing desk. To have regular appointments with a chiropractor or physio or masseur. I thought I was doing OK until about five months ago, when I made the acquaintance of the TMJ.
That’s the temporo-mandibular joint. Basically, it’s your jaw. Mine started clicking. And hurting. It got better. It got worse. And worse. For the past five months, it’s been mostly worse. The physio reckons the pain is referred from my neck and shoulders due to – yes, you guessed it – my posture when I’m writing. It’s bad but not severe, just – at its worst – completely unremitting. It’s meant visits to the dentist and an expensive mouth guard-ish device that, sadly, I’m not able to use. (It worked with my jaw, but sensitized my teeth. Not fair). Hours of chiropractic and physio and acupuncture (not to mention the dollars to pay for them). Anti-inflammatories (Voltaren, Nurofen) work, but I can’t take them because I feel like I’ve been kicked in the stomach. There’s been sleepless nights. Stress and tension and worry about deadlines. Smiling and laughing and talking and eating hurt. I’ve felt like my brain isn’t working. And any kind of chronic pain is so tiring.

“Something’s Gotta Give”, as the song says.

So I’m taking a break. I’ve been working on a children’s book and I’ve had to put that aside – thank goodness for understanding agents and publishers – but it’s a thing I’ve never done before in my 30 years of writing. I’ve always been able to push through and deliver a manuscript. In fact, once I wrote a Dolly Fiction title in 10 weeks from start to finish (while working three days a week as a youth worker) because another author had dropped out. I’ve found it difficult. If I’m not writing, am I still a writer?

Anyway. I’m thinking of it as long service leave. After all, I’ve had a project of some kind on the go, with contractual or self-imposed deadlines, for the past twenty years. For the last year or so, I worked on two books at the same time. I’ll do the odd blog. But mainly I’ll go to work in the bookshop and read and think and play in the garden and walk the dog and hopefully stop hurting. Hopefully, soon.

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COLD COMFORT

Current events  – our despicable government, the Trump circus, continuing attacks on renewable energy, our ongoing torture of refugees and the rest – have been so depressing, unsettling and generally vile that recently I decided on a short news moratorium. It wasn’t enough, so I turned to books. Comfort books.

Comfort reading, to me, has always been the re-reading of old favourites; the literary equivalent of eating grilled cheese on toast, or soup, or a big bowl of pasta. I never seem to tire of those meals. They simply work their soothing magic of carbs and fat. I feel better, and the world seems a better place.
Sadly, my old comfort reading books seem to have lost their magic.  They haven’t changed; I have. Is it that I’m getting older? Has the world moved on that bit too far? Have I read them too many times? Does familiarity breed contempt?

I started with L M Montgomery. I was able to enjoy the Anne of Green Gables books as long as Anne was a child, but she grew up and became a fairly ordinary and not very interesting girl. Perhaps, because I knew that the author simply wasn’t going to let Anne be a real writer, I didn’t care so much ab0ut her mild adventures. And racism and sexism, once seen, can’t be un-seen. I used to be able to pass over such things. Tell myself that these books were artifacts from the past. But I was unable to laugh at the old geezer who dug up skulls from the Indian cemetery and hung them on his fence-posts, or the casual denigration of Catholics, the French, Native Americans and people of colour. Not to mention the ‘n’ word.

I turned to The Pursuit of Love but could no longer find Mitford’s snobbery in the least bit funny. And Linda, the ‘heroine’ of the piece, seemed to have nothing going for her except her beauty. Her treatment of her own child was, frankly, awful. And in fact, it was this paragraph about children that turned me off completely:

So we worked hard, mending and making and washing, doing any chores for Nanny rather than actually look after the children ourselves. I have seen too many children brought up without Nannies to think this at all desirable. In Oxford, the wives of progressive dons did it often as a matter of principle; they would gradually become morons themselves, while the children looked like slum children and behaved like barbarians.

Even Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract, which is a Regency anti-romance, annoyed me. Yes, yes, I know that Heyer did an enormous amount of research, and was in fact an expert on the Napoleonic wars, but she did go on. And on and on. This wasn’t research worn lightly; it was laid on with a trowel.

I thought I’d turn to the ever-reliable Jane Austen as a salve, but I’m a bit scared to. What if I find that I’ve turned against her, too? I don’t think I could bear it.

 

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AT THE VILLA TARANTO

How about another voice?

While I was incubating How Bright Are All Things Here, I re-read my mother’s travel diaries and memoirs, and used some of her descriptions as the basis for parts of the novel. She wrote this for a Castlemaine University of the Third Age publication, As If It Were Yesterday, which was published in 2007.

Travels during 1950-52 have provided me with lasting and vivid memories of people, places and happenings in Europe. Some were amusing, others sad, frightening or illuminating but all have remained as pieces of a world that no longer exists. Travel was vastly different then. Nowadays, one can be in London in two days. Then, December 1949. I sailed on RMS Orion from Melbourne to Southhampton, England, a journey that took four weeks. Shipboard life was leisurely, ordered and governed by regular routines. Except for our rare port visits we were isolated in our floating hotel, making the transition from the New World of the South to the Old World we no longer thought of as “Home” but as a place for adventure and new experiences.

she arrived in London, she and my father married. It was late January. By Spring they were ready to take on Europe. Due to some diplomatic spat between the Australian and Spanish governments, they were denied visas for Spain – at the Spanish embassy, an official threw their passports across the room. They travelled on Eurail passes in Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, France and Italy. Here’s the story of their adventure at the Villa Taranto near Lake Maggiore in Italy.

Soon we left the main line to take a local train that decanted up at the station that served the small town of Pallanza on the shores of Lake Maggiore. We had stopped there to present a letter of introduction given to Douglas by a kindly old gentleman, a friend of Captain Neil McEacharn, a Scotsman with Australian connections, who lived in the Villa Taranto, famous for its magnificent gardens. The writer of the letter, who was a friend of Douglas, had explained that Captain McEacharn was a collector of Australian paintings and that he would welcome any Australian friend of his.

We found accommodation for the night in a small trattoria, clean and inexpensive. The proprietor’s wife, a little plump nut-brown woman, was worried by our ignorance of the Italian language. She took it upon herself to remedy this, bustling in and out of the dining room with various objects. At one time it was a lemon. ‘Lemoni’, she said, and we repeated the word. So it was with bread, milk, meat, knife, fork, cup, plate. She pointed to the furniture, table, chair, cupboard. When she took us upstairs to our room, she pointed to the large double bed. ‘Letto matrimoniale,’ she said proudly. With her help, we gained a useful vocabulary.

Next morning after breakfast and another language lesson, we set out to explore the town and eventually made our way to the Villa Taranto. Though the open gates we could see a well kept but modest house. We walked towards it and were met by a woman who asked what we wanted. We told her and she said, ‘The Captain is not here but at the Villa.” This was the lodge-keeper’s house. She took us up the very long drive bordered by well-kept garden beds. When we came to the Villa she said, ‘The Captain is a very important man. People come from many places to see him. The Princess Margaretta stayed here last week. You must not expect the Captain himself to speak to you. He may send his secretary.’ When we reached the Villa, she gave us into the care of a servant who took our letter, motioned to us to wait and disappeared.

Sitting on a garden bench nearby were two people, also waiting. They were, we learned, an English bank manager and his wife, also with a letter of introduction. By this time we had decided that we would wait until the servant reappeared and then leave. But almost immediately a very superior servant came to take us to where a car was waiting. A man attended by several servants in black and yellow livery came out of the Villa and he too moved to the car. He greeted us warmly. It was the Captain. He was, he said, delighted to hear from his old friend, and wished to learn more. He added that unfortunately he had to leave now but would be back in the late afternoon. And of course we would stay over night with him. We demurred, saying we had made arrangements in the town. ‘That will be taken care of. I have given instructions – and Donald will entertain you.’ Then he was driven away.

And we were taken care of, driven to our little trattoria where the proprietress was over come that her guests, the ones she had looked after, were to stay at the Villa. We were farewelled with tears and blessings, almost I thought, with instructions on how to behave and with the neighbours ranged on the pavement.

Back at the Villa, Donald Friend took care of us. Douglas and he knew each other. Donald explained he was there to paint a rare Chinese plant that was about to bloom. The afternoon passed pleasantly, walking in the garden and talking. There was more conversation when the Captain returned and then we all retired to dress for dinner. With our limited resources our preparations were simple. Douglas changed his socks and I brushed my hair. Dinner was formal –  a line of servants against one wall; a servant behind each chair. the food was superbly cooked and presented. ‘Everything,’ said the Captain, ‘was produced on the estate, even the liqueur.’ Conversation flowed – gardens, paintings, politics, the future of the garden, which was to be a gift to the Italian people.

At last after more talk we retired to our room, where we broke into hysterical laughter. A carved bed, a 16th century Madonna and Child and an antique crucifix on the walls; heavy antique furniture, curtains pulled against the night air, a balcony giving a view over the gardens. There was a knock at the door. A yellow and black liveried servant required Signor’s pantaloons – to brush and press – and asked us to put our shoes outside the door so they could be collected and cleaned. We slept well and comfortably that night. Next morning, after breakfast and a detailed tour of the garden we were driven well on the way to Milan, to a station where, without delay, we caught a mainline train to our next destination.

 

Dad told me that he felt very insecure with his pantaloons gone – they were his only pair! This visit to the Villa Taranto seems an extraordinarily rich experience for young people from the Melbourne suburbs. Unusually for a young middle-class married couple at the time, my parents were back-packing. They travelled by train and bus, occasionally hitched, but mostly walked. They stayed in Youth Hostels and cheap hotels and guest houses; a few times they slept in stations and under bridges –  and even once or twice in cemeteries.

 

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STUDENT WORK

This is me in front of one of Douglas Green’s – my father’s –  student paintings. It’s a nude – the back of a naked woman – and I posed tactfully in front of her bottom. My son, when small, called it ‘the bum painting’. And now it features in my new novel, How Bright Are All Things Here.
Bliss is looking back on her marriage to artist Gerald Grady, remembering when she used to model for him.

The Artist’s Wife. My naked self on a wall, in public.
People talked about me. ‘Good draughtsmanship: he really can draw, can’t he? And an almost sculptural quality of form.’
‘It’s nothing new, of course, but it’s rather lovely all the same. Picasso in his “neo-classical” period…’
Piero della Francesca.’
‘Didn’t Grady study with Bernard Meninsky?’
‘That beautiful line, the shoulders and neck…’
No, it was Gerald’s hand on my shoulders and neck. His eyes, his brush. In that first year of marriage, knowing that he was sitting a few feet away tracing me with his brush was powerfully exciting – God, it was practically foreplay – and by the time he’d washed up and come to join me in bed, things were so erotically charged that we both went off like firecrackers. Something the National Gallery of Victoria’s London advisor could not have known when he bought The Artist’s Wife by Gerald Grady and wrote that it was ‘especially suitable for a public collection’.

 

 

 

 

 

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QUICKSANDS

I have just read another book by Sybille Bedford – earlier this year, it was her novel, “Jigsaw”. This one “Quicksands: A Memoir” covered much of the same territory. Same, but different. Vivid and personal, even confessional. It is not so much in the details – she is very circumspect about her own adult relationships – but in the exposure of the intense and passionate emotions of a young person, growing up and learning how to feel and to love.

And a young  – and not so young – writer, learning how to write.

She keeps coming back to that mother lode, childhood. A particularly tangled family situation, with parents drastically unsuited and divorced, father a recluse, mother looking for love and finding it eventually with a much younger man, half-sister similarly restless; and then there was the second world war, and her family was German…

Perhaps it was all a gift for a writer? Though probably like one from a fairy tale, a gift and a curse at the same time.

She wrote this in the week after September 11th 2001. I seems to apply, even more, to us all right now. I am having a break from reading the papers and those updates from the Age, the Guardian, the Monthly, the Saturday Paper that obligingly appear in my inbox daily.

Another turning of the screws of horror, suffering and pity, of man’s inhumanity to man, has occurred. How will it end? Very little has changed in our nature since we first set out from the caves, stones and cudgels in hand; infinitely much has changed about the means by which we are able physically and spiritually to torment and kill. And there are more and more of us, more to envy, more to disagree with, more to hate, fear destroy. We have overrun the earth, disregarded other forms of life.
Now more than ever we exist in the world of Matthew Arnold’s closing lines of ‘Dover Beach’, the world

…which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
No certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Quicksands: A Memoir by Sybille Bedford, Hamish Hamilton, London, 2005

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SPOTTED

Spotted in Readings, Carlton and in the bookstore at Cairns airport.

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HOW BRIGHT

My new book, How Bright Are All Things Here, had its launch on Sunday. After feeling that I was about to face the guillotine for the past couple of weeks, my distress reached peak intensity just before the speeches began.
But, of course, all went well. Professor Charles Green in the Art History program in the University of Melbourne gave an excellent speech, saying things about my book that made me blush. The show pony in me took over as soon as I began to speak. People clapped.
And it was over!
The sun shone; more than 80 friends and well-wishers were there; there was too much food but not quite enough wine (must remember that!); people bought books and I signed them; noble friends and family took over the kitchen after other arrangements fell through; there was talk and laughter and meeting and greeting for a couple of hours in the lovely courtyard of Buda, a historic house and garden. Pre-launch, I wondered (frequently!) why I was doing this thing that makes me almost catatonic with nerves. The answer is, that really, it’s a celebration. It was a lovely launch. In retrospect, I had a great time.
And in the evening, after everyone had gone, we split a bottle of champagne (a gift), ate leftover crackers and dips, and I tottered off to bed, shattered with exhaustion and very happy.

I forgot to ask anyone to take pictures, so I’ll just have to keep it in my memory.

 

 

 

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ASK SIRI

I’ve just finished a couple of Siri Hustvedt books; a novel and a collection of essays.
I’ve had Sorrows of an American for ages, but never read it. And within a few minutes, I was so absorbed that I knocked it over in a day and a night.
It’s on one level a kind of family mystery where after the death of a parent, another version emerges. So it is when Erik Davidsen sorts through his father’s papers. He finds a cryptic letter from an unknown woman, which starts him on a search for deeper understanding of the man he loved and respected, but didn’t really know. There are other questions, too, around his dead brother-in-law and his new tenant, a young single mother and artist. And then there are all other mysteries – love and life and art and relationships and death and trauma and memory… You know the drill.

I’ve found that people can have strong opinions Hustvedt’s  books. I have one friend who just loves them – her favourite book is What I Loved. And another who just can’t see it. “All those descriptions of imaginary art works and dreams! Boring.” Actually, I have a dirty little (not-so) secret. I’m a great skipper. I rarely read every word. So the imaginary artworks just blur in my imagination. “Here’s the art,” I say to myself. And move on. (Though my greatest crime, according to my husband, is that I’ll often read the end first).

I also had this recent collection of essays, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women.

This is my second or even third reading of some of these essays. Despite my abiding interest in the brain/mind story, neither philosophy or science are really my strong suit, and I’ve had the funny experience of reading about the workings of the brain whilst aware that my own brain, sitting there on top of my neck, is itself working so hard that I can almost feel it. This isn’t to say that I’ve not enjoyed these essays. Or perhaps ‘enjoy’ isn’t the right word. This kind of reading is not for entertainment, but for education, enlightenment, growth. I’ll have a binge on this kind of book and then dive into a murder mystery.

(And as an aside, isn’t it an odd feeling when you realise that you’re turning into your mother? Well, not quite, but turning towards her. My mother was a voracious reader of crime and murder –  she had a collection of around 2,000 novels. Since she was by training and temperament a historian, it traced the history of the crime novel. I sold them after she died -and now I really wish I hadn’t!)

Also hard work was a complementary book, The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough. It’s subtitled The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves. Mystics, prophets, poets, artists, writers, schizophrenia sufferers, trauma victims, athletes, inventors and many other people hear voices. It’s difficult to research, as you can imagine.  One project involves people wearing a beeper that interrupts them a few times a day. They’re asked then to write down their self-talk as exactly as they can. One subject even did this in a CT scanner, so that researchers could study which areas of the brain were active. Another project involved investigating writers and their literary process. Fernyhough quotes David Mitchell, who describes fiction writing as ‘a kind of controlled personality disorder…to make it work you have to concentrate on the voices in your head and get them talking to each other.’ p94

Siri Hustvedt hears voices, too.

As a novelist, I spend a lot of time imagining that I am other people. I have written from the points of view of women and men with different personalities and backgrounds and troubles and sympathies. Once I hear and feel the imaginary person, even if he or she is unlike me, I can write the character. I do not calculate my way into these people. i do not make lists of their qualities and decide consciously how someone will speak. They take up residence inside me and begin to speak. Rhythm is important, essential. Different characters have different cadences. Where does that come from? p310

 

The Sorrows of an American Siri Hustvedt, Sceptre 2008
A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women Siri Hustvedt,  Sceptre 2016
The Voices Within Charles Fernyhough, Profile Books 2016.

 

 

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