Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Fully conjugated and declined

A long time ago, I was trying to decide if I was going to put the Jaeckels on a real boat that came to Australia on a real voyage, a real boat on a voyage at a time more convenient to my narrative or a totally fictitious ship and voyage. I’ve decided to go for the latter as it just makes things simpler all around. And no-one can accuse me of historical inaccuracies regarding the ship and voyage which has to be a plus given my current grumpiness.

In a gloomy, dank-feeling but rainless dawn I was pouring over my German dictionary trying to work out a name for the ship. I generally try to stay away from early morning decision-making owing to lack of decisiveness at that hour but the Jaeckels were hanging around on the dock looking at the ship so I had to come up with a name. I decided on whatever the German version of “Swift Voyager” would be and looked it up in the dictionary. I came up with “Schnelle Reisender.”

Dropping the children at school, I noticed that the LOTE teacher (Languages Other Than English, in this case, German), was in the classroom so I ran the name past him. He’s been really helpful with translating various bits and pieces for me. I have no idea what he thinks I am doing, but he always answers my questions, no matter how peculiar, with equanimity. He told me that “Schnelle Reise” is more correct because, and I quote, “German is a fully conjugated and declined language unlike English.” Sadly this isn’t as much fun as it might sound.

So I have a ship and a name and the Jaeckels can stop hanging around on the jetty and get on board as soon as the Schnelle Reise is loaded and provisioned.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Disgruntlement

There seems to be a strong relationship between my blogging and my other writing. When I manage to blog, it usually means that I am not writing. When I am writing steadily, I don’t have the energy to blog as well. So please take it as a good sign that I haven’t been posting much recently.

There is also a relationship between progress on my writing and my ability to do Sudoku. I just can’t work them out at the moment, even the medium ones. I am happy with how things are going with my book, but I am feeling generally out of sorts with the world.

The renovations seem to be on temporary hiatus. The electricians were here for a couple of days last week and disappeared leaving wiring hanging under the house, but no electricity to or fixtures in the house yet. They were supposed to call to let me know when they were coming back. I rang today and they may be here tomorrow or maybe the day after. The builder seems to have things other than our project on his mind. The tilers who need to do the laundry so that we can get our council plumbing “wet area” certification called today to tell me that we need extra sheeting after we’ve already had the whole area sheeted in structural plywood.

The good news is that Mr. Blithe and our neighbour (remember the delightful one?) managed to lift the major beam in the living area and remove the ceiling joists so that we can continue our quixotic restoration of the ceiling in that area. Many years ago, a dropped ceiling was installed and we’ve decided to raise it back to the original eleven foot ceiling to match the rest of the house. The first task was sliding the beam up about 30 centimetres and bolting it to a smaller, higher roof beam to make sure that the whole thing is secure. Actually the first task was removing the dropped ceiling: something that involved much crashing, huge amounts of dust and so far our only injury on the job – a heavily cut and bruised ankle for Mr Blithe. On removal of the plasterboard ceiling, you could see the tongue and groove (VJ) walls going up the full height of the room. It looks great and I promise photos later.

Making me even more cranky, FIFA has banned Iraq from World Cup soccer competition for 12 months following the Iraqi government’s disbanding of the Iraqi Olympic Committee and affiliated sporting committees. Why should I care? Well Iraq and Australia were to play a qualifying match at Suncorp Stadium this Sunday – the first World Cup qualifier to be played in Brisbane for almost two decades. We are not habitu├ęs of such events, but Mr. Blithe and Blithe Girl were going for her birthday treat. She has been counting the days since we bought the tickets within hours of them going on sale. Unless FIFA receives a letter from the Iraqi government before 10pm on Thursday, the match is cancelled. FIFA stands to lose about $3 million. We might have to severely disappoint a little girl. I think we have the worst of the deal. Even the Iraqi government seems determined to get me offside. You’d think they would have other things on their mind.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Obsessions big and small

Do you ever feel like you just don’t want to talk to people? That another conversation or question or anything, perhaps even one of those “she’s looking at me” things that so irritates children, will just drive you over the edge? That’s pretty much how I am feeling now. Definitely out of sorts and it is 85% due to this whole renovation project and 15% due to not getting enough sleep.

I’m still getting up early to write and that is the one thing that I am satisfied about at the moment. I feel as if I have two lives that are totally separate from each other. One is a quiet life with the Jaeckels – writing rugged in up several layers in the quiet, cold morning light. The other is my manic everyday life of children, school activities, builders, plumbers, electricians and council regulations.

I am however, having problems getting those Jaeckels onto the boat. It’s as if they just want to hang around in Germany. I’m working on the principle that I need to write as much as and whatever I can now and the editing, tightening of prose and pacing of the plot can take place later. At a couple of pages a day it’s no wonder the Jaeckels aren’t moving very fast, but they are moving.

And so is the renovation. It’s at the stage right now of that last moment in cross-country, when your lungs are bursting and your legs burning and you know that you’re going fall flat on your face this side of the finish line. Or the first 10 minutes on the treadmill when you just want to die, but you push through it and start running smoothly. Mr Blithe and I sat down last night and wrote a list of what still needs to be done by the builder. In the grand scheme of things, it isn’t a great deal. In the financial and emotional schemes it’s the penultimate push. I find myself waking up in those quiet dark moments of deep early morning, knowing that I will need to get out of bed all too soon and yet worrying about the house. I talked to the builder today and asked him to think about how much of the list he can finish for how much. Decisions have already been made on things that will have to wait and what absolutely needs to be done.

Compounding it all is my ambivalence about being so bound up in house renovation when there are many much greater things in the world, both to worry about and in which to be immersed. I don’t want to be one of those people who can only focus on their house. And yet, it is a major project, one in which I am intimately involved and one whose successful outcome is important to my life. So I’m going to obsess a little bit and try not to feel too guilty about doing so.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

J.C. Heussler: Entrepreneur, Go-getter, Survivor

Johann Christian Heussler was an interesting man. He was born in Bockenheim, Germany (near Frankfurt-am-Main) in 1820 and he died in Brisbane, Queensland in 1907. In between, he reinvented himself over and over: as a wine merchant, an importer-exporter, a labour bureau, a diplomat, a migration agent, a bankrupt (several times), a successful businessman, a new migrant, a respectable citizen, sugar planter, a member of parliament, an agitator for pastoralists and farmers…the list goes on.

I’ve been reading the self-published story of Heussler written by his great grandson, Robert. As an academic it makes me cringe with much interpretation and reading between the lines – of the “he must have been thinking this” or “intending that” style. As a writer and historian, even one interested in the subject, it makes for heavy reading. As a person subject to my own biases and interpretations, I don’t think I would have got on very well with the historical Mr. Heussler.

He reminds me very much of people I have met, whom I might kindly label as “entrepreneurs.” That is, those indefatigably energetic people who have a thousand ideas, of which two or three work some of the time. But they have so many ideas and so much chutzpah that they make an impression on the world. Take his campaign to be appointed as an immigration officer. Writing to the Colonial Secretary in 1861, he graciously stated that: “if the Government think well of it and resolve to create the office I shall have much honour in accepting the same.” It is of the “build it and people will come” model of behaviour.

Heussler is credited with bringing 2000 German migrants to Queensland, many from Hesse. The port of Hamburg was convenient for these migrants and shipping firms in Hamburg were not already tied up in lucrative shipping contracts elsewhere. One of his achievements was spending time in Germany refuting the articles circulating in the press about the semi-slavery endured by bonded migrants travelling to Australia. As a businessman, he saw it as a simple exchange of commodities – migrants who didn’t have the passage money could simply contract to work for a certain period on arrival for an employer who would advance the money for passage. In fact he campaigned actively for land orders to be transferable so that migrants could use these to pay for passage. One of his earlier businesses had been as a labour bureau placing newly arrived migrants with employers.

He seemed to like conspicuous consumption. While he was based in Brisbane, he moved his business as soon as possible to Queen Street. He had several business incarnations at various points along this prominent street. After returning to Queensland from his stint in Germany, he had a magnificent house built, Fernberg, which is now the official residence of Queensland’s governor. He lost the house to creditors in 1872. This did not seem to impede him politically as he became a member of the Legislative Assembly in 1866 and continued until 1905. Above all things Heussler was a survivor.

I still don’t think I would have liked him, but like many survivors, he left a wealth of historical information, personal records and photographs. Conspicuous consumers are often kind to the historian especially those with an idea of their own significance. So I can’t really cavil at such things.

Monday, 19 May 2008

The best intentions

I was going to tell you about the Ipswich area heritage fair that was held at Woodlands on Sunday. Publicity for it promised to address the questions “Who came, why we came, how we got here and what Queenslanders did when they got here?” It was an impressive list that I wanted to see answered. I was also going to tell you about the antique plough and tractor demonstrations held near Gatton on Saturday. Mr. Blithe’s bus driver is a keen collector of antique tractors and promised him a drive. I would tell you about all of these things except that I did none of them,

Last week was a crazy whirl of builders, plumbers, various community writing projects, Blithe and Merry Girl’s annual cross country attempts (they kept up the Blithe family tradition and came last and last respectively), scouts, guitar lessons and everything else. The plumbers did a wonderful job – ultra efficient, polite and extremely expensive. They finished completely on Friday, we had our first decent rain on Saturday to test the new downpipes and water collection (I could almost believe that they had arranged the rain) and the bill was hand-delivered on Sunday when the boss checked on the job. The builders are meticulous perfectionists whom I admire greatly, but my frugal soul could hear the cash registers ticking over all week. Mr Blithe was at a conference in Canberra and it all seemed a bit too much.

On the weekend it was as if a switch had been flicked. I did absolutely nothing. I didn’t even defend myself when someone commented on how my bulbs should all be planted and that her’s were already growing. I did very little work on the house. I just spent time with my family. So you will have to learn about the area’s historical commemorations from some more diligent person or possess your soul in ignorance.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Tempting fate

It was an act of hubris to lay claim to being a writer. I have not had a moment to think about the Jaeckels and getting them on that boat in the last 40 or so hours. I am skulking behind the curtain trying to ignore the noise and action going on outside my window. The builder only comes a few days a week as he has other commitments. Today he is here with his sidekick and the plumbers have turned up to start work. There are four people hammering, drilling and banging things around outside. On the plus side it is progress albeit expensive. On the minus side, concentration is difficult and Blithe Boy definitely is eschewing napping.

I’ve squeezed my car into a gap between the ute, trailer and van and am already wondering how I am going to turn it around to go pick up the kids from school. Almost all of our land is hill, usuable but not parkable (not even for canons) so space is at a premium.

I am required to skulk because I am flat out trying to get the resident’s website up and running and wrapping up the editing for the Tidy Towns materials. Everyone else has done their work and now I am supposed to be pulling it all together. Blithe Boy has taken to grabbing my hand as it rests on the mouse and pulling me away from the computer. Merry Girl couldn’t find me the other day then sighed “I don’t know why I didn’t just look at the computer.”

I’m comforting myself with the notion that even Greek gods have off days. Read Dan Simmons or “gasp” the classics themselves to see how bad things can get. My life barely rates on their scale, which I guess is the point.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Bold claims

Outside our front door the snowflake bushes are in full flower. Last year one of the pair was very small and unimpressive, but with the rain earlier this year, both are magnificent. Even the dry current weather hasn’t slowed down the flowers. Usually the bushes are alive with bees and other insects. You can hear the humming and activity from anywhere on top of the hill. This year the bushes are almost empty of insects and I have yet to find out why. My neighbour tells me that like everything, flowers have good and bad years. Maybe it is just a bad year for pollen. Our other neighbour has been spraying his fields recently, trying to revive paddocks long neglected and overtaken by weeds of all kinds. I wondered if that has affected the insects. It certainly hasn’t slowed down the mosquitoes.

While I was looking at the bushes, almost fluorescing whitely against the blue sky and the dry golden grass, I remembered that last year I had posted photographs of them. And this means that I have now been writing this blog for more than a year. For some reason, I hadn’t realised this. I started writing it to motivate myself to write and it is still serving that purpose. I also realised this week that I am thinking of myself more as a writer. Perhaps my early morning writing is reminding me of that. It’s going well in spite of the fact that I still stumble out of bed, and don’t fully wake up until I am halfway through the first cup of coffee. I don’t even get to appreciate much of the glory of the mornings because I make myself sit straight down and start writing. I haven’t even been turning on the computer as I don’t want to disturb anyone. I value that time of quietness and writing too much. I just make coffee, grab my favourite pen which I store securely way from the depredations of family members and my notebook and sit down at the dining table to write.

Blithe Girl is our only other early riser and she already knows not to disturb me at this time. Sometimes she sleeps through but mostly she comes out to say good morning then climbs back in bed with a book. I wonder how different it will be when the house is larger? Will it be easier to sneak out of bed and work or will I be more tempted to sleep in?

Last week I had to go to the bank to fill in some forms. There was the usual array of questions and required identification. Then there was the question of occupation. I calmly took a breath and firmly penned “writer.” I’ve been waiting for the phone to ring with someone saying at the other end “and what do you really do?” On the other hand, it is what I really do. I just don’t get paid for it. But we’ve already dismissed the time-money-value equation elsewhere. I’m going to stick with my claim.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Value-adding

I have a pile of thoughts swirling around in my tired brain, but I’m not sure whether any of them make any sense. I wanted to write today about rural decline and may yet get to it. Strangely linked in my mind are a couple of the projects I’m working on and I’m trying to tease out for myself how writing projects and rural decline are linked. I think it’s partly because most of the writing I get asked to do is promotional materials for various community organisations. My former colleagues would laugh to see my cheerful abandonment of my ideological purity and disdain for the PR industry to churn out pieces for this and that group.

Part of the urgency though comes from the competition that exists for scarce resources. The school needs students, or rather parents, to choose them. The local Scout group needs parents and children to perceive its value. The local community organisation needs people to choose to come live in and visit Marburg (but not too many). Each group has its own agenda and they all have accepted the idea that raising one’s profile is the pathway to success.

I wonder though if that is really the case. There is really only one local, local newspaper and everyone feels that their organisation needs to be mentioned in it. It is at the point where the paid journalist only sometimes write articles, and instead edits and arranges material submitted by local groups. So it is some kind of extended advertorial, albeit with a local flavour and easy to read because it is a folded A3 sheet on regular paper.

Maybe I’m just tired or cynical or both. I’ve had a small part to play in Marburg’s entry materials for the Tidy Towns award and I’m wondering what the benefit to the town may be. In purely economic terms, a lot of time has been put in by many people to gather the relevant information and produce promotional materials. But what is the end result?

If we win, I presume we can hang a sign at the entrance to Marburg. I know I have never stopped in a town on my travels simply because it is a designated “Tidy Town.” In fact, one town in Tasmania was so tidy and officious in its signage that I remember my family moving on. We were instructed not to walk on the beach after or before certain hours, not to use the playground, not to do this and that and we left before we caused certain offence.

On the other hand, the local council has contributed much-needed funds and committed resources to the community. So in financial terms, Marburg may come out ahead. And the township has come together for various functions in a way that hasn’t happened before. None of the people who have committed time to the project are currently in paid employment as far as I know, so thinking of the time-money equation doesn’t really work here.

I think in the end that you can’t simply think of these things in economic terms. Yes there are all these competing needs, yes there are limited resources in a rural or peri-urban area, yes people put a lot of time and effort into various projects that may or may not have intrinsic value. But part of the value is simply the process of working together towards a common goal. If you can get a community to think of itself as such by creating an identity that people value, that is worth more than any PR. As someone said in a meeting last week, we are all people who choose to live here and have a firm commitment to the area. And that is worth something.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Killing time

I dithered this morning. Should I get out of bed and write or take advantage of the public (well Ipswich area) holiday and sneak in a lie-in? Deciding that it would be truly pitiful to surrender on only day two of the new strategy, I forced myself out of bed. It actually was a really successful morning because the children did sleep in and I got about 90 solid minutes of writing.

What did I do with that time? Well I killed off one of my characters. It was surprisingly traumatic, perhaps because I haven’t murdered any of my characters before. The death was accidental in the book, but very purposeful on my part. I’ve been mulling over the best way to get the Jaeckels really motivated to leave Marburg and seek a new life. The privilege of writing means that I can have absolute control over my character’s lives. Perhaps that is why writing is so appealing – it’s one of the few things that I do absolutely control. So I deliberated, selected, did the deed, wiped away a tear or two and away galloped the storyline. It’s a marvellous thing this writing gig.

I’ve spent the last few days trying to decide whom to kill off – working out whose death would have the most impact and work best in the context of the story. Here were my characters going about their lives while I went about mine. A meeting here, plumbing issues there, building and banking and all the while, ruminating under the surface about who to knock off. No wonder I missed the start of the meeting and spent the day in an abstracted state.

So far I’ve written more in the last 48 hours than I have in the last few months. Now I just need to keep up the hours and the caffeine. I’m not planning on killing off anyone else right now, but I didn’t set out on this story with the idea of killing any of my cherished characters so you never know. As they (you know, them, the ones who know things and probably get out of bed early too) say, “the plot thickens…”

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Oh what a beautiful morning

I love early mornings. I love the look of the pale sunshine streaking over the now-golden grass. I love the birds singing and the fresh look of everything outlined against the new sky. I love the idea much more than the reality. I am really not a morning person. I have a body clock is attuned to getting things done at night. Well, at least I did before I had children. Now I think that there’s not really any time that I’m at my best and brightest. My father blames it on “rusticating” in the country. I think that playing family grand marshal is probably more to blame.

I’ve always imagined that so-called “morning people” are the real movers and shakers in the world. You know them -- those people who leap out of bed shiny-eyed and enthusiastic and complete a day’s work before the rest of us turn off our alarms and turn over for a few more minutes. Occasionally I’ve speculated on what I might have achieved had I been one of these mythic beings. One reads about them in the newspaper, CEO of this or that, international athlete, all-round good person who not only gets up early, but usually only needs four to six hours of sleep a night.

Today is day one of my attempt to reset my body clock or at least to try to squeeze a few more things into my day. Instead of gratefully burrowing back into my pillow when Mr. Blithe’s alarm clock went off at a disgustingly early hour, I staggered out of bed, found my way to the kettle and managed (I think) to not disrupt his “getting out of the house in time to catch the bus” routine too much. I then sat down and worked on my book for 45 minutes before having to wake, feed and harass the children schoolwards.

45 minutes doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but if I can manage to do it every day then I might finally make some progress. Life has been really frantic recently. I find myself at the end of the day breathless and running over in my mind the things I have yet to complete. I was even cranky over the weekend because the winter darkness fell before I was finished with what I wanted to do. When you find yourself frustrated with nature, that is when you need to take action.

I’ll have to see how adding some time to the beginning of my day works. If I get even more disorganised and bad-tempered, it might not be worth it. But if the satisfaction of achievement outweighs the rest, it might be.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Show season metaphors

It’s the day before the start of the Marburg Show and excitement is in the air. The showgrounds are looking busier every day. Porta-loos have popped up like mushrooms, flags are fluttering and sideshows are beginning to arrive. We drive past the showground to and from school and the children lean eagerly to that side of the car to see what has changed overnight or during the day. Blithe Girl told me that the Marburg Show is her favourite and that it is even better than the Ekka (the Queensland Agricultural Show in Brisbane).

The school children have been working on their show displays for weeks. Every year, the local schools each do a display that is judged as part of the schools competition. Then there are individual age-level competitions like handwriting, poetry, posters etc. There has been some tension over the last few years as Marburg’s display has been tucked away in a corner, (usually partially behind the display of the Hibiscus Society) but we have been told that we have a better position this year. I don’t know if the administrations of the schools take the competition very seriously, but the kids always rush to see which school won and what their displays look like.

As we drove past the showground one day this week Blithe Girl told me that reading is a lot like going to the show. Some people pay their entry fee and race across the show, taking a bite of something here, checking out the displays quickly then heading off to do something else. In contrast, when she reads it’s like getting into the show, riding every ride, slowly eating everything, looking at every display, wondering and playing then finally leaving reluctantly and slowly with many lingering backwards looks.

One of the things that makes me happiest in the world is that my children also love books and words and talking about books and ideas. As I go to the show this year, I’ll have this image in my mind of words and ideas swirling around the food stalls, enjoying every taste, sight and sensation in the same way as I savour reading and writing.