SUSAN MAGAZINE

Continuing the stationery theme from my last post…

End of financial year always has me scrabbling around for receipts and invoices. In general, they’re properly filed away but occasionally not. That’s when I go looking, and in looking find all sorts of things I wasn’t seeking. Over the weekend, it was my scrapbooks.

I started keeping scrapbooks about five years ago. Before that, it was folders filled with – well, with scraps. I could have thrown everything out – but no, I couldn’t bear to.
Instead, I chose to buy a couple of cheap stapled scrapbooks, the ones little kids used to use (maybe they still do) at school. Mine had dinosaurs on the covers, but I soon covered them over with pictures from old calendars. I went through a lot of gluesticks.

They get very bulgy, those cheap books. A couple of years ago, I switched to spiral bound Visual Diaries. I’ve got a couple of those, A4 size, and then I decided they weren’t big enough (there was a lot of folding of newspaper articles) so my current book is A3.

This assortment looked very scrappy on the shelf. The thought occurred to me that if I had a standard format, there would eventually be a whole row of beautifully matching scrapbooks. And if I indexed them – imagine, both matching AND indexed – how splendid that would be –  a shelf to be proud of. And I could be diligent, instead of slack, and keep up with the clippings and the pasting and the indexing, and print out stuff off the Internet as well…

Quite the project, eh?
That’s it, though, isn’t it? Quite the project, and do I really need any more of those? Like I need a hole in the head.

Like lots of us (women more than men? I’m not sure) I’m drawn to the lure of the new start, the perfect system; quite simply, perfection. A  new calendar, notebook, journal, diary or scrapbook signals an opportunity to be more organised, more disciplined, more systematic – in a word, better.

And how will this betterness actually improve my life – my writing life, in particular? Not all that much, really. The matchy-matchy spines on a shelf would simply please my eye. Though, come to think of it, an index would be wonderful. A grand project (like sorting the photo albums) which I will get stuck into if ever I break a leg or have to recuperate from an operation. Index-less, there is however a lucky dip quality to the scrapbooks, a happy randomness. The first few pages contain cuttings on the following:

Jacobean portraiture
peacocks
single mothers
‘late style’ in literature
losing one’s notebook
knitting blogs
creepy 19th century photographs of dead children and babies

It’s rather like reading an old copy of Susan magazine. If there was such a thing as Susan magazine. I still have folders of clippings – they’re just waiting for a session with the glue stick – however,  I’ve just bought a book on artist’s journals (pictured). It’s a fabulous trove of images and ideas and I think  – when I’ve got the time – I’ll try to make some art out of the clippings file. Another project…

 

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THE KEYS TO ORGANISATION

That’s my son, Lachie, at the top of the photograph, holding this big cardboard key and looking bewildered. It was taken 14 years ago, when he was in Grade 1. What 6-year-old even knows the meaning of ‘organisation’? Not my poor little pet, that’s for sure. I’m nearly 60 and I’m still learning.
Generally, I think I do a reasonable job – manage to pay bills on time, keep documents more or less filed and know where the passports are. But, faced with the imminent NFY (that’s New Financial Year, in case you didn’t know) and the purchase of a yet another financial year diary, I looked at last year’s and realised that I scarcely used it. Clearly, another form of organisation tool is required.
Intrigued by an article in one of the weekend magazines, I went online to find out about the Bullet Journal. I found a delightful young Asian-American woman called Wendy doing a show-and-tell. I just love stationery, and so does Wendy, so I enjoyed this every much.  She uses a special journal with dots instead of lines, however some people like squared paper, and others make do with old-school lines. You can use this one book as a journal, a diary for appointments, a goal-setter, to-do list and scrapbook. You number the pages, you make lists, you make an index. You have a little system of symbols to add to your notes – for instance, if you missed making that call to Sandro today, you can “migrate” that task to tomorrow. A useful tool indeed, and  – amazingly, in this world of so many apps – the revolutionary thing about it is that it’s ANALOG.

Yes, I am having a go. It’s a notebook. I was less than amazed (sorry, Wendy) but actually, funnily enough, inspired. Every year, for the past 10 years, I’ve bought the same Collins Vanessa diary. This year, I’ve got a spiral bound student notebook from Typo and I’m experimenting. The simple act of sitting down at the start of the week and listing the things I have to do and the things I want to do – finish the novel, buy carrots, apples and a litre of milk – is proving helpful. Crossing jobs off as I complete them is almost joyful.
I got the carrots, apples and milk. The novel…
That’s another story.

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VASILISA THE WISE

To be released in December (a Christmas gift for brave girls) is Vasilisa the Wise, with stories retold by Kate Forsyth and illustrated by Lorena Carrington, published by Serenity Press. It includes my second-favourite fairy tale (the first is Beauty and the Beast) which is The Toy Princess, a literary fairy tale by Mary de Morgan from 1877 .  The cover art looks exquisite; I have seen Lorena’s work over the years, and I am sure all the illustrations will be wonderful. Can’t wait!

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A CORPSE IN THE COPSE

Once upon a time, there were lots of really popular, really exciting tough-guy action thrillers by Robert Ludlum. Some on them were made into films, and they were really exciting and really popular too.

The titles? The Bourne Identity. The Matarese Circle. The Janson Directive. The Bourne Supremacy. The Lazarus Vendetta. The Sigma Protocol…

There’s a bit of a pattern, isn’t there?

A name – for instance, Bourne – and another word, preferably something serious and mysterious that made you think of guns and assassins and documents and top-secret plans for world domination.  I remember Howard and I fooling around one evening around making up silly titles; what if you paired the serious, mysterious word with Banana  – (why not?) – then you would have the following bestsellers:

The Banana Protocol
The Banana Inheritance
The Banana Intervention
The Banana Paradigm
The Banana Dispensation
The Banana Palimpsest
The Banana Termination
The Banana Occurrence
The Banana Conundrum
The Banana Tapes
The Banana Conspiracy….
and so on and so on and so on.
I think we had a list of about 50 titles. We probably thought it was all funnier than it was, but I remember laughing so much my jaw ached.

I’ve lost that list, but in tidying up some papers came on another. We were thinking of ‘cosies’ – those (typically) English village murder mysteries with titles like The Body in the Library. So how about these?
A Death on the Heath
A Corpse in the Copse
A Kill on the Hill
A Grave in the Grove
A Ghoul By the Pool
The End Round the Bend
Strangulation at the Station (though Howard really liked the rather more arcane Defenestration at Paddington Station)
A Stranger in the Ranges
A Beheading at Reading
Spent Shells at Tunbridge Wells
Stone Cold at the Willoughby Wold

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POSTING AGAIN

Not many posts lately  – “Blogday,” usually Sunday, has come and gone and come and gone. Time to start posting again.

I’ve been sick – just a cold, but the worst I’ve had for many years. No mucking around with sore throats or a runny nose, it went straight to the chest. And the worst thing was, it descended the minute I arrived at Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. This was a long awaited, much anticipated camping trip.  And I felt utterly miserable.
But still. Even with lungs full of phlegm, I couldn’t fail to notice the landscapes like Namatjira paintings – red soil, sage-green vegetation, white tree trunks and that combination of pale purple ranges and blue, blue sky – and the wild creatures and birds of all kinds from emus to eagles to parrots. On a six-hour drive in a very comfortable late-model car (I lolled in the back-seat like some kind of consumptive queen) I saw kangaroos, euros, wallabies, wild goats and horses; wide dry riverbeds; ghost gums and rocky outcrops like castles and algae-green pools and dramatic gorges.

Here’s a beautiful little rock wallaby.

 

I couldn’t do all the walking I’d hoped for, but as an officially sick person, I did a great deal of reading by the campfire. A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee, a lovely junior novel about a reluctant witch, whiled away the time beautifully as I coughed and hacked under a blue sky, with kangaroos investigating the campsite and groups of noisy grey birds (Apostle birds, they’re sometimes called, or CWA birds) chattering and scolding and sweeping around.

Back home, and still sick, I read Gravity Well by Melanie Joosten, How to Read a Graveyard by Peter Stanford and on the weekend finished Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education: A Biographical Novel by Sybille Bedford. Published first in 1989, shortlisted for the Booker, it’s a strange reading experience – messing, just a little, with the mind – making me think about how my feelings, my sympathy, sense of outrage, even protectiveness, are readily engaged for a real young Sybille… Does it make a difference if some of it is fiction?
Bedford describes a dislocated childhood and adolescence in the 1920s. Sybille’s German parents divorce; her father dies; she moves from Germany and then rackets between her mother and much younger Italian husband and a series of makeshift living arrangements in England, finally spending much of her time in the South of France. From the age of 15 she’s more or less on her own; she educates herself, through books and study and observation; she makes friends, falls under the spell of various strong personalities, witnesses the adults making messes of their lives.
Much of Sybille’s ‘unsentimental education’ comes from her friendship with sisters, Toni and Rosie; they’re cultured German Jews living in London; Toni is married to an Englishman and Rosie is carrying on a long-term, secret affair with a judge. Young Sybille watches their lives. Her self-appointed task is to learn from them.

The important thing, what I longed to penetrate, was what went on between this man and this woman- the perennial mystery of what there is between two people – that eluded me. How often does one not wonder what thoughts accompany the talk, what is said – thrice quicker than speech – inside the head and what  goes on beneath those thoughts, at the back of the mind: who has not strained to listen to  that composition of the said/thought/felt played inside another human being? All I seemed to be able to do was watch the surface while sounding my own feelings.

I remember having thoughts a little like this at the same age. I suppose it’s how you know that you’re going to be a writer.

 

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Verity

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WANDERLUST

Rebecca Solnit is my new literary crush. I’ve just (and I mean just, as in right now) finished Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Although she does talk about her own walks, it’s not a book about the author’s walking – like Robert MacFarlane’s – and though it is at times personal, Solnit draws on an exciting and mind-blowingly diverse range of sources and subjects. The tour takes in evolutionary theories, ancient Greek philosophers, English Romantic poets, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, the industrial cities and affluent suburbs of 19th century England, mountaineering and hiking clubs in America and Germany, ramblers in Britain, right-of-way protests, America’s car-centric, anti-pedestrian cities and suburbs, how a woman walking is a sexual provocation, strolling The Strip in Las Vegas – and more.

Her activist politics shine. Walking’s not just a means of transport – it’s a pleasure, a solace, an inspiration. You see the world (or at least, your neighbourhood), you meet people, you breathe and move and think at a human pace. All the ways of walking! Stride, hike, stroll, meander, dawdle, saunter. I walk most days, most often with my little dog Gus, and usually a 40-minute loop of our local Botanical Gardens. Gus adds multiple diversions for weeing and sniffing to my routine, but that’s OK; I’m a slow walker. I used to go bush-walking with my oldest brother and at times we’d be a couple of kilometres apart, because he’s a strider and I’m a meanderer. I like to look at things. I don’t like to hurry. I have thought about getting another bike (my ancient and very heavy mountain bike recently went to the Op Shop) but do I really need to get anywhere quicker?

The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between. New time-saving technologies make most workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be accelerating around them. Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued – the vast array of pleasures that fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window- shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more productive, or faster paced… The indeterminacy of a ramble, on which much may be discovered, is being replaced by the determinate shortest distance to be traversed with all possible speed, as well as by electronic transmissions that make real travel less necessary.

Wanderlust: A History of Walking Rebecca Solnit, Granta, London, 2014 (first published in 2001)

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PICKING WINNERS

We went away to Port Fairy for five days after Easter. Both of us tired, neither of us intending to do much. Nothing much actually involved a great deal of eating (having breakfast late, out, going to the pub for tea, buying those packs of posh ice-creams from the supermarket) and walking (there’s a whole other post on walking to be written, especially as I’m currently reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, which is about just that) and reading.

I never know quite what reading mood I’ll be in when I’m on holidays. It can be crime thrillers or bestsellers-of-yesteryear or that classic I always meant to read or the latest in heavy-reading literature… I have taken a mixed half-dozen good, interesting, well-reviewed novels and non-fiction books away with me for a four-day bush retreat… and in the end, resorted to the tatty and ancient mass-market paperbacks other guests had left on the shelves. It’s hard to tell. But this time I picked four winners.

Here’s one of them:

I only know Paula Fox as a children’s author – The Slave Dancer is the book that comes to mind – and I didn’t know she also wrote for adults. This is very adult.
The Brentwoods, a wealthy, cultured New York couple – Otto is a lawyer and Sophie is a translator – seem to be living the perfect life in their elegant apartment. And then the stray cat she’s been feeding bites her – and everything goes downhill from there. Small but unsettling events pile up. Rubbish, vomit and excrement threaten to engulf their street. Friendships waver, fray, fracture. Violence seems to simmer under the surface. Their Long Island holiday house is vandalised and Sophie is obsessed with the fear that she may have contracted rabies. Sounds weird? It is. Odd, funny, frightening, and elegant.

It was published in 1970. The social disorder and disruption of the 1960s forms the ominous background to the novel. Here’s what one character – he’s Otto’s only just ex-partner in the law firm; unlike Otto, he’s wanted to represent the blacks, the underprivileged, minorities, the poor –  says to Sophie:

“You don’t know what’s going on,” he said at last. “You are out of the world, tangled in personal life. You won’t survive this…what’s happening now. People like you…stubborn and stupid and drearily enslaved by introspection while the foundations of their privilege is being blasted out from under them…”

My other great picks were:

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READING AT THE RIGHT TIME

Empathy, the way that we can place ourselves, imaginatively, in the position of the other person, is at the heart of what we do as readers, as people striving for a generous understanding of one another.
Reading by Moonlight
Brenda Walker, Penguin, 2010

Sometimes it’s the right book at the right time. And sometimes it’s not.  I picked up Brenda Walker’s Reading by Moonlight when it first came out, in 2010, and for some reason I didn’t get on with it. In fact, I took a set against it – that I remember – but I can’t remember why. In some circumstances, forgetting is an enjoyable quirk of getting older, so I was able to approach the book – my third for reading group this year – without prejudice. And laugh at myself for being so wrong.

I loved it. It is at the same time the story of Brenda’s cancer – from diagnosis to treatment to recovery and beyond –  and the story of how, for her, stories reassured, guided, solaced and healed. All the praise on the covers is merited. It’s rich, generous, graceful and uplifting. As Jennifer Byrne says, “A graceful and moving hymn of praise to the power of reading”.

Moonlight is a measured, beautiful, elegant book. First We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson is raw and messy and more powerful because of it. I haven’t got it here with me; I sent my copy to a friend who is in the middle of an ‘anxiety spiral’ (Wilson’s phrase) hoping that it might act as first aid. I wish I’d had something like this to read a couple of years ago, when stress and insomnia combined to make a Frankenstein’s monster of  overwhelming anxiety that ran my life. I might not have felt so alone; and I might have understood that the ‘beast’ was only trying to keep me safe.

I’ve only ever known Sarah Wilson from those vibrant photos in her “I Quit Sugar” books and…well…actually, ‘vibrant’ is a bit of an irritant for me. So, again, I can laugh at myself for being so very, very wrong. Smiley, glowing, vibrant Wilson actually struggles with major mental health challenges – not just anxiety, but bipolar disorder as well.  I’m full of admiration for her courage in exposing herself like this.
It’s not a self-help book, but I am convinced that it will be enormously helpful to the anxious and the overwhelmed. In fact, when a man came into the bookshop last week to place an order (we’d sold out!) he told me that his psychologist had recommended it. Bibliotherapy.

 

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WALKING

I have just come back from walking in the hills above Chewton, a township to the east of  Castlemaine. Our walk took us from the ruins of the Garfield Wheel (once a massive water wheel that was used to power a quartz crushing mill) along a small portion of the Goldfields Track.
It is so lonely now that it’s hard to believe that once it was a hive of activity. A sea of tents, thousands of miners; there must have been incessant noise where now it’s just wind and bird-calls and silence. Mine shafts and diggings were everywhere,  and you can still see their remains, where soil and rock are heaped in the valleys and gullies and on hillsides. A water race, which fed the wheel, runs through the landscape.
I was thinking to myself as we neared the end of our walk, what have I seen today? I seem to look at the ground quite a lot so of course I saw the path, which was at times made of red clayey soil and quite badly eroded, and then in other places seamed with rock and even areas of exposed reef. Some bush tracks are soft to the foot, with a kind and even springy surface and covered over with leaf litter. Not this track, though there was plenty of debris from the trees all around us; we’ve had some high winds lately, so there were snapped stems with the leaves still fresh and green on them, as well as twigs and branches and the brown sickle shapes of dry eucalyptus leaves. But it was the stone I was more aware of; pieces of slate, flat and grey, and quartz, and sandstone, and rocks that look as if they’re made of iron.
No wildlife to speak of – we heard birds but didn’t see them. My husband spotted a golden orb weaver, a spider with long stripey legs and a  body the size of one of the Greek Colossal olives that we can buy in our local deli. She had a fine larder in the web.
I also noticed a few wattle bushes flowering – it is acacia paradoxa, and that is one of the very few wattles I can recognise – what’s the paradox, I often wonder. Perhaps it’s the contrast between the pale, soft, fluffy lemon balls and the harshly prickled foliage.

I came home, happy, thinking of all the things that I’d seen. There was nothing spectacular, or special, just the things we ordinarily see on any short walk through the bush around here. I was thinking of writing a short piece, describing these things. But the most I’ve been able to do, really, is name names – those that I know – coming up with the words slate, quartz, sandstone; the words twig, leaf, branch. Perhaps those words are enough.
I looked in my bookshelves for something to read, something to quote perhaps. I picked out Selected Poems by Seamus Heaney, but Ireland’s too wet. And then the amazing and wonderful book-length poem Wimmera by Homer Rieth** (read it!). Even Rieth’s Wimmera has more water than we do in the Chewton hills, but I will quote all the same.

…place of silences
sounding
of water soughing over rocks
of reeds returning the purl and lap of water
down to the last trickle
rock water reed
each remaining calmly within the confines of its own nature
leaving the scrawl of their signature
on creek beds on windrows on sandy stretches
holding out for the slake and quench
of trunk bole branch leaf
shade…

Names of things – trunk, bole, branch, leaf  – perfect words.

And then I reached out something I hadn’t looked at for years. Back in the early 90’s, when I regularly wrote poetry, I contributed to a couple of collections and public readings by Castlemaine Writers during the State Festival (which, by the way, finished with a bang of joyous activity in the park last Sunday). And here’s an appropriate little quote, by me, from me.

My country is of scruffy trees
Prickly growth
Bark litter, stones and melancholy…

Not all that melancholy, actually; not today. We chatted happily when we weren’t walking in companionable silence, and on the way home we stopped at the Bold Cafe, a little place in Wesley Hill (between Chewton and Castlemaine) for Massaman chicken curry, spicy eggplant with tofu and a glass each of excellent cab sav. Something the miners didn’t even know to dream about.

**Wimmera by Homer Rieth: Black Pepper, Melbourne 2009

 

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