Friday, 5 January 2018

A Sense of Place

I have always believed that there's a certain time of day when you are aware of where you really belong. Not every day, just sometimes.
It happens, this feeling, at that twilight time of day, just before the sun goes down... that lurching, heart swelling feeling that grabs you when you look out the window of a car, a train, a plane and long to be home.
I'm still very attached to the Tweed Valley where I grew up and where my family members still live, including my sister and her husband, with whom I spent a week little while back.
The mountain ranges, the river, the flowering trees, the way most oncoming drivers still lift one finger off the steering wheel in greeting as they pass— all these made me glad to be back.
The Road to Mount Warning

But there's a downside too.
One morning, hastening to get to breakfast, which my brother-in-law, Des, has on the table at 7.30, I grabbed the previous day's denim shorts, stepped one leg in, went to put the other leg in, only to see a giant huntsman spider trying to crawl out from inside. Now, I don't do spiders well but neither do I smash them with a shoe, and clearly this one was in trouble.
I took him outside, shorts and all, called Des and together we freed him from the cobwebs that had bunched up and stuck like Minnie Mouse's shoes on the end of every one of his eight legs.(Lucky for me. This is what slowed him down.)
Then began the tales of other near-misses with the local critters. Des recalled how he pushed a foot into his gardening boot one morning and felt it to be unusually tight. Investigation revealed a cane toad inside, firmly ensconced up in the toe of his boot. (Have you fainted yet? I nearly did.)
So yes, there are indeed more critters up there than I'm used to in Melbourne—spiders, snakes, goannas, cane toads, ticks, to name a few—and they like to get up close and personal. The giant carpet snakes under the corrugated iron roof of their shed are spoken of with some affection.
But the views do indeed make my heart lurch and it's hard to stop taking photos of the flowering trees as well.
Illawarra Flame tree in bloom

All of which leads me to think about writers who write about place and landscape so evocatively that you feel their love for the place in every word.
Tim Winton has to be top of the list. In all of his novels he evokes a sense of place that is almost palpable.
He urges us to feel the ground beneath our feet wherever we are, to see the landscape as a living entity and to stop moving long enough to hear what it's telling us.

If I'd been listening it might have warned me about that big spider.


Tuesday, 19 December 2017

'Tis the Season (to hide bad stuff from your dog.)

I've just finished a very long phone call with my dear friend Kathy in Brisbane, during which we reminisced about bad things that our dogs had done at Christmas time. We were younger then, working mad hours, trying to fit in everything that life could provide. So maybe vigilance and care went out the window from time to time.
This conversation arose out of Kathy telling me that one of their gorgeous dogs, Buster, companion to Betsy, just stole and ate half of this year's home-made Christmas pudding. Her husband Peter, who is a bit of a chef extraordinaire, had cooked it and I don't doubt that it was divine, the result of hours, maybe days, of preparation. Buster—tall enough to reach the top of tables and benches—obviously thought so too. Hard to believe this angelic face (below) could be such an opportunistic thief...
Buster - Pudding Thief

This led to the memory of another near disaster one Christmas when Grace, a sweet and virtuous spaniel of ours, wreaked havoc with the ingredients of one of those chocolate Christmas trees that were all the rage a while back. I'd bought the ingredients on the way home - peanuts, marshmallows, icing sugar, glacé cherries and chocolate - and, after a long day at work, dumped the supermarket bags carelessly on the floor of the dining room. We awoke the next morning to the whole house decorated with swirling trails of icing sugar and torn cellophane bags strewn across the floors, spilling out the remnants of all the above ingredients. We do know by now that cocker spaniels have the guts of billy goats which must be why the beautiful Grace didn't even get sick.
However our backyard was peppered with peanut-laden dog poo for days after, with the odd undigested glacé cherry for colour.
I'm much more careful these days.

Solomon and Grace - 'It wozzn't her!'

The other memorable doggy disaster was at the hands - paws - of a later, beautiful black spaniel called Otto.
Otto was a gentleman and a scholar whose good manners and behaviour put the other two dogs to shame. He was obedient, calm, beautiful and loving but sadly—the one glitch in the glowing list of attributes—a determined thief. He too somehow accessed the Christmas pudding while we were out that day and ate half of it. However, we had no evidence of which one of the three—a golden spaniel called Tessa, a cute terrier-cross called Vince, or the angelic Otto himself—was the culprit.
I lined them all up with stern commands to 'sit' and smelt their respective breaths.
And Otto it was - no contest. He proved to be a bit queasy that day but the vet found no lasting ill-effects.
Otto, Tessa and Vince - the angelic one on the left, pudding thief.

I'm super vigilant now and count my lucky stars that none of these doggy misdemeanours ended badly, as they might have done. But as I've called this blog Reading, Writing and a Few Dog Stories, I suspect I'll never run out of material.
Happy Christmas to you and may your dog have no access to bad things during the festive season.


Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Water Diviner

Sometimes known as dowsing, the art of locating underground water with the aid of a divining rod has been subjected to scepticism, disbelief and often ridicule over the years. I listened a few years ago to some scathing Melbourne shock-jock enjoy himself on the airwaves, ridiculing the art, until I realised that someone must have accidentally bumped the dial off the ABC and then I got rid of him.
But I can understand people being sceptical. The process requires a person to walk across the ground with a divining rod - sticks or wire - until the rod of its own accord pulls unmistakably downwards, giving a clue to the diviner that there should be water in that place somewhere below ground.

My dad was a water diviner though as far as I can remember he never said the words. It was just something he did. We lived out in the country with a bank of willow trees growing down past the back stairs. (It was under these willow trees that beloved cats would be buried when their time had come and where I would weep and wail and lay flowers for weeks on end until someone inevitably found me another.)

But the first my mother would know about Dad's next assignment (he never took, nor was offered, money) was when he would come up the steps stripping bark off a forked willow stick with his pocket knife. Then the conversation would begin with something like -
'Yeah, old Bluey Traves has got hold of a new bit of land up the back of Chillingham. Wants me to see if it's got water.'

And sometimes, if I pestered long enough, I would be allowed go with him. The stripped willow stick always had a distinctive smell that I couldn't describe now but could certainly recognise. Why it had to be stripped of bark I don't know. So once on Bluey's land dad would start to walk very slowly, holding the forked stick exactly as above, pacing back and forwards across the acreage until, hopefully—not always—the stick would start to quiver then be pulled down unmistakably towards the earth. After he'd checked and double-checked he would give a nod to the men waiting away at the fence line and some time in the next few days the digging would begin.
The deep freshwater well on our own property back then was found this way shortly after my folks had bought the land but before they'd built the house. Spring water was the prize, supplementing the tank water that might be erratic in both supply and quality - wrigglers and the occasional dead frog notwithstanding.

So I get a bit tetchy with the sceptics. My dad's water divining services were taken for granted for years. It's just one of the things he was called upon to do. He was the only one I knew in the district but there could have been others. No-one made a fuss, plenty of sources of water were found as new land was bought up around the district.
It was a long time ago and my dad is long since gone. I never heard of any scepticism at the time and if he was present to hear it now he'd just shrug, grin and not waste a word in defence of this old, old art. Which is what I do too.
 I know what I know.


Saturday, 4 November 2017

Change of Plans

I'm not much of a traveller. Three weeks away and I get small niggles of wanting to come home. I occasionally have fleeting fantasies about heading off for months on end to see all of Australia but I don't think I'd last long. I'm a nester. Books, cooking for loved ones, big fat couches, open fires, a dog or two across my lap. And on a recent and wondrous jaunt around Western Australia I learnt that for me, coming home within Australia is different from coming home from overseas. The latter always seems to feature exhaustion, blocked ears and the risk of losing the will to live before you make it out of the airport. The former, like flying in across the Great Australian Bight a few weeks ago, really makes you think.
We'd seen beautiful new things, taken a zillion photos and stood in strange places that filled the soul with wonder.
Vlamingh Head Lighthouse, Exmouth, W.A.
At this place (left) we met a family who'd also gone up on the point to watch the sun set and their two little kids were alive with excitement at the prospect. Not an iPad in sight. That made me think.

The flight in from Perth is a mere 4 hours, nothing like the interminable journey from Europe. But it evoked in me feelings that might best be described by a word I discovered only a few years ago -

Sensucht - which is sometimes described as a deep and nebulous yearning for something we cannot even identify.
I had a window seat on the way home and it was daylight so I peered out the window for most of the way. Seeing the country fold away beneath me made me think about life and death, friends old and new, the future, the past and what it meant to come home. Most of all it made me think of what I wanted to do when I got there.

For years now I've aspired to write. Ha! Who hasn't? I've had some successes, a few large, quite a few small, but staring out the window of the plane what came to mind was a tweet that went around a while back, and I apologise for not being able to acknowledge the author. What she said was something like "My friend asked me what it was like to be a writer, so now I wake her every night at 3 am and tell her she's not good enough."
I was over the moon back in March when an email came from a reputable literary agent saying they'd read my manuscript, they loved it and they'd get back to me with "a few tiny edits" (I know the email by heart) in a week or two, then get it out to publishers. Bio provided, contract signed. Nearly 8 months later I'm still waiting. I know how busy agents get, how much reading they must to do, how many people clamouring for their services. Still - monumentally disappointing
So my plan when the plane hit the ground was to quit writing altogether: to reacquaint myself with friends I may have neglected, to reshape my big rambling garden, to revisit the many other creative pursuits I used to love before I got the writing bug. Since then I've had an offer of publication of a non-fiction piece from The Big Issue and news of a place on the Scarlet Stiletto shortlist. Great fun but is it enough? And does that question make me a quitter or a realist?
I'm aware of being a bit of an Eeyore about this and I might change my mind.

Meanwhile I'm hoping my friends & family will love me anyway. I know my dog will.


Friday, 1 September 2017

Would you read this for me please?

I'm so reluctant to ask this question. The reasons to refrain from doing so multiply the longer I wait.
"I can't ask X because...

  1. He/she is so busy 
  2. It's not ready to be seen yet
  3. What if he/she hates it and is too polite to say?
  4. He/she writes very different stuff from mine...
  5. I'd rather take my clothes off and run down Bourke Street than show this to anyone"

The worst experience of all - after all this procrastination and excuse-making - is to ask someone to read what you've written and then never hear from them again. Oh, the shame! And if you do hear from them on another matter, the thorny issue of your current manuscript is not even mentioned. Nothing. I for one don't have the courage to say 'Anyway, did you ever get around to reading the chapters I sent you?' What good could possibly come of this? The optional answers are:

  1. Yes I read it and thought it was rubbish
  2. Oh no, sorry, I forgot all about it
  3. Well yes, I started it and then sort of got sidetracked
I ran a complex plot-problem past my spouse once when we were out walking the dogs, explaining my dilemma in detail. We walked on in silence for a while and then he said "Have we got any of that white crusty bread left?" So no, family may not be the answer for everyone.

I love reading other people's work. This week I asked a friend and fellow-writer if I could read her whole manuscript - well, as far as she'd gone. I've been acquainted with random bits of it via writers' group workshopping sessions for a while now but could never get my head around who was who and where they fitted. So she sent me the lot and what a thrill it was for me to read it all. She was pleased too. It's very good. There are characters I immediately sided with, some I hated and others I was wildly curious about. I'll probably nag her a bit from now on to see where it's going. I hope I don't become a pest.

But I've totally solved the problem of who to get to read my Work-in-Progress. I get one of my best friends in the whole world who is also helplessly honest and—best of all—a voracious reader. The fact that she's as busy as a bunch of bees in a bottle doesn't deter her. She doesn't give the time of day to a misplaced semi-colon, repeated words or the odd dangling modifier. What she sees are plot-line hazards, discrepancies that I've missed and possibilities that might never have crossed my mind. And she makes suggestions fitting to a reader who's used to having her reading needs satisfied.
  1. What if X did come back in the end?
  2. Instead of Y being unable to find the stalker, what if there was no stalker?
  3. I think everyone will want to know more about Jack. 
and so on....
So here's to you K.W. I am more grateful than I can say for your conscientious input, your insight and your honesty.

I value it more than I can say and I hope one day it all pays off, for both of us.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Love the Kimberley

Love the Kimberley

* This is not about reading, writing, or dogs but it is about storytelling and it answers a question people have asked over the years about the photo attached to my Twitter site.

In Praise of Tours

Kimberley Wild tour bus on the road

A few years back we had a bit of a walkfest in various parts of the world. We walked the Cinque Terre in Italy after the heaviest rain in two hundred years had wiped out all the lower paths, forcing us up, up, up, into endless miles of rocky pathways through one teetering clifftop village after another.

Then we walked the Luberon in the south of France, ploughing through dense forests hiding bronze-age stone huts in their darkness and more rocky pathways that only the ancient Romans could have loved.

Eight days after arriving back in Oz I had (reluctantly) to fulfil a promise I'd made to an old friend to accompany her to the Kimberley, there to join a twelve day camping trip with a budget crowd called Kimberley Wild
And to cut to the chase, the Kimberley left everything else for dead. No contest.
Just the names can make you swoon: 
And yes, we took a tour.

Photo of large tourist information sign with map of the Kimberely

Now if you have all the gear—the four-wheel drive that can negotiate the massive valley-like pot-holes of the Gibb River Road for six hundred kilometres, the camper trailer that won't get stuck or break an axle in said potholes, the capacity to change tyres and fix anything else that goes wrong, on your own in this unbelievably harsh environment—then go for it.

Photo of the red dirt road to Cape Leveque
The road to Cape Leveque
Even so, what you won't get are the stories, the passing-on of knowledge that comes from living in this astounding place for years on end, researching its history, exploring its secrets, meeting its people, especially the indigenous caretakers, earning their trust and being privy to some of their secrets. This is what a Kimberley guide can do and the stories are what you take away. And they're never-to-be forgotten.

Our Kimberley Guide

Picture this.
A woman squats in the red dust, bony knees poking upwards like some elegant praying mantis. The Akubra on her head is curled up on both sides, dark and greasy from years of wear and weathering. It dips low on her brow, throwing her face into shadow but she peers up at us at intervals to see if we're following the story she is telling. Behind her the dissected domes of Purnululu stretch out like a miracle, matchless and breathtaking. Her aim is to explain to us how the Bungle Bungles were formed.

With one finger in the dust she traces arcs and lines signifying erosion by wind and water over twenty million years. She speaks first with excitement of the play of sandstone, clay, ants and blue-green algae, then, with sorrow, she declares that in another few million years it will all be gone, swept away by the ravages of time as she has now sketched it in the dust in curves and dashes, lines and dots.

Photo of Kimberley guide, Ria, against Kimberley background
Ria - Our Invincible Kimberley Guide

This is Ria. She's not Aboriginal, she's a London Pom, to coin her phrase, arrived in the Kimberley eight years ago after a long stretch as a tour guide in Africa. A tall and rangy woman in her forties,
Ria is strong and wiry and gorgeous.
Nothing frightens her. We're all in love with her, men and woman alike. She runs the whole tour solo. For the next twelve days she is responsible for us, eighteen disparate souls with not much in common but a desire to get inside the Kimberly and drink of its magic.

Within a day or two we've all had our photos taken in front of the bus with that Kimberley Wild sign writ large on the side. We all love the idea that we're setting out for the unknown, we city folk from Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, sharing water, sunscreen and lip balm with country folk from Dubbo, Lismore and Bermagui.
Author and friend on their knees rolling a swag
Swag-rolling sometimes needs an extra pair of hands.

We're on the road before 7 am each day, we get our own meals, wash up, roll our swags and pack the truck. No-one shirks their share of duties. If you want to sit around the campfire and get totally shickered at night, Ria will still pull you out of your swag at 5 am to help get breakfast.

When you tell people you're off on a bus tour the common response is 'Oh I'd never get Dave/Jill/Max (insert partner's name) to go on a tour', as if tours are for wimps or grannies. I may have been of this mind-set myself before I met Ria, before we put ourselves in her hands on this 2,642 kms round trip up the Gibb River Road, through the Savannah to the sea and back to Broome via Kununurra, Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing.

We'd all abandoned our feather doonas and heated bathrooms for canvas swags that we rolled out under stars like we'd never imagined stars could be. We were all made silent by the wonder of it all, struggled to describe it adequately, finally settled on 'life-changing'.
Now, I know that anyone can describe the wonders of the falls and gorges, the chasms, lakes and tunnels, hot springs and underground creeks, the splendour of El Questro and the magnitude of Lake Argyle.

Landscape photo of Lake Argyle between the hills
Lake Argyle
....but none of these would have been half so wondrous without Ria's presence. Her knowledge seemed boundless and her sense of humour never flagged.

'Every tree's a lav-a-tree, that's the best you'll get from me,' she sang when the inevitable questions about toilets first arose. And everyone accepted this with good grace, sidling off alone into the bushes when necessary with Ria's cry of 'Watch out for the spinifex!' putting paid to any hopes of discretion.

The Storyteller

But her greatest feat was storytelling.
The road between highlights was often long and arduous with hours between stops. But oh, the stories!

On the long, long stretches of red dirt road Ria told us—among other things— of the history of the cattle industry and the famous Kidman empire, the deals done between the station owners and the Aboriginal workers, the history of the discovery of the first Argyle diamonds, the geological history and possible future of the Bungle Bungles and every other mighty gorge we climbed into. 

Photo of Bell Gorge with reflections.
Bell Gorge

She brought to life the heart-stopping story of Jandamarra, a fearless Aboriginal freedom fighter of the 1800's, who attained mythical status by his efforts to challenge the status quo and get away with it. As we tramped through the darkness of Tunnel Creek she pointed out the ledges where he'd hidden and made real the details of his escape.

Guide, Ria, sits on rocky ledge explaining aboriginal rock painting
Ria explains Aboriginal rock art (with permission).

She told us who owns what and since when, including the history of the Durack family, the ownership saga of El Questro, how the hot springs there were formed and what happened in the floods. She covered the mysteries of the Aboriginal 'floral calendar', the protocols regarding Aboriginal rock art (she got us into places where individual travellers were denied permission to go) and was vehement about current efforts to maintain the integrity of Aboriginal culture.

Often when we set up camp several Aboriginal people would appear out of the shadows and join us for dinner, greeting Ria like a loved sister.

She never ran out of stories. Every time she began we settled back like kids on the kindergarten mat and let ourselves be immersed in her story-telling. We learned so much more than we ever could have done though books, brochures and information centres. At the end of the twelve days we were all smitten, struggling to remember it all, to take the tales home with us. As a group we didn't want to part, not from each other and certainly not from Ria. I'd love to see a Ria in every school in Australia, just to awaken in every child an awareness of the magic of this country and so make them want to head off and see it for themselves.

But maybe they're all like this, these people who spend their days and nights making The Kimberley known to the likes of us. Maybe that's the gift the Kimberley bestows of you when you commit to settle and earn your living there.
It's worth taking a tour just to find out.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Books We Leave Behind

Today, on Twitter (no, it's not all for trolls and airheads) I was alerted to this article in The Australian, an exquisitely beautiful piece by bookseller Michelle Coxall that resonated with me and got me thinking about the books that form such a crucial part of our personal history.

Those of us who love to browse secondhand bookshops get an extra thrill from finding an inscription inside the cover - "To our dear daughter, Dorothy, on the occasion of your graduation - Dec. 1964" or better still, a fading card slipped in between the pages "Dear Bruce, I hope this helps to get you better soon",  or "Fay, in memory of the good times".

The amazing Cath Crowley captured the spirit of all this in her recent, wonderful Y.A. novel Words in Deep Blue , a romance set in a bookstore where readers leave notes, poems and letters for friends, strangers and lovers. Reviewer Emily Mead described it as ' A love letter to books, bookshops and words' which just about captures its essence perfectly.
But Michelle Coxall's evocative piece brought back an early experience of mine which a psychiatrist friend assured me is now embedded in my 'residual traumata', never to be erased.

From our country high school in northern NSW, I and 18 of my classmates won commonwealth scholarships (those were the days) and were packed off on a bus to the University of New England, there to live in residence for 4 years and learn some of the things we hadn't already learned on Greenmount Beach. However, when I came home for the first term holidays it was to find that my mother had given away all my books. 'They were just kids' books,' she said, puzzled, 'what would you still want them for?'

In her defence, she was orphaned at birth, and in all our days together I never saw her put the slightest value on any material possession of any sort. Gifts that we saved up to buy her she gave away to the first person who admired them, completely unable to understand why we might be upset.

So yes, there it is, and likely to remain so, in my residual traumata, the loss of all my childhood books to someone called 'the Ebzery kids' as I recall, so I guess they at least went to a home of some sort.

There was a collection of Enid Blytons - Enid, to whom I still attribute my undying love of books and reading - a pile of Schoolgirls' Own Library magazines, the whole set of Mallory Towers adventures, another set of books by Lorna Hill, all set in Sadlers Wells (A Dream of Sadlers Wells, Veronica at Sadlers Wells) and an early pre-school favourite, Professor Pringle's Pink Powder.

Most precious of all was a very strange hard-back book unearthed from somewhere by an elderly uncle, I think, and given to me, called In the Land of the Talking Trees. I was way too young to read it or understand it but the full page colour pictures scared the living daylights out of me every time I opened it - and we know how much fun that is when you're eight.
My dear spouse, having heard the sorry tale of my lost books more than he probably needed to, set about finding a copy of it and - at great expense to the management - succeeded. I can't tell you the emotions it brought back when I opened the parcel. I pick it up now and what comes flooding back to me is the terrible shock, the emptiness, of coming home from UNE after that first term and finding my meagre little bookshelves irretrievably empty.

I love to share my books now. Read this, I say, it's sublime. Of some books we say, my friends and I, read it and pass it on; I don't want it back. Others I all but count the days until they're returned. I will always let you know which is expected.

They're an integral part of us, our own books, as essential and as loved as anything we might possess. I'm still trying to understand that if someone has never owned anything much it might be incomprehensible to hang onto things and not set them free for someone else to enjoy. Setting free someone else's possessions is something else altogether. But I'm trying to understand that as well.

No success yet, but I'm trying.