Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Falling off the edge of the world

It just feels like I am falling, or rather it feels as if I am in the process of doing so. In actual fact, I am preparing to travel from the far edge of the Antipodes to the middle of the earth or at least Europe. I'm doing the Jaeckels' voyage in reverse and much faster. Whenever I get anxious about the prospect of 24 hours in a plane with a clutch of children, I think of months at sea in a creaky wooden boat with the distinct possibility of not arriving intact in body, mind and soul. I may not be intact in those areas myself by the time we arrive in Germany, but I will have been reasonably speedily and efficiently delivered by an elongated flying tin can. I may even have been fed, entertained and if the stars are aligned, have snatched some sleep.

The "to do" list is diminishing. We have passports, international driver's licenses, plane tickets, car rental, accommodation arranged and friends contacted. I catch myself chanting a little mantra while driving -- "Keep to the right unless overtaking" -- in some kind of attempt to overwrite ingrained driving habits. I'm hoping the mantra doesn't take effect till I am actually out of Australia or else I will suddenly become newsworthy in a bad sort of way.

I don't know what kind of internet access we will have while we are away but I do promise eventually photographs of Marburg, Germany. I want to walk down the street that the Jaeckels' bakery is on and imagine the smell of fresh bread in the air. I want to see if I really want to rewrite the book or what to do with it. I want to be able to see if I can see them there. If so, perhaps I can see them properly in the book. It's not as if I believe one has to go to places about which one writes -- after all who could write sci-fi then -- but that I need to sort out for myself what I want to do with the book.

I can't decide if I should just be thrilled that I managed to write an entire novel, whatever happens to it. As part of that, I've asked a couple of erudite friends (my lovely literary ladies -- sorry but I couldn't resist the alliteration) to read the manuscript and give me their frank opinion. Then I can decide what to do and when I do, I'll let you know.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The frog marks the spot

Wandering around outside with the camera the other day after taking pictures of the gloves on the washing line, I leant over to smell the yellow and white frangipanis that are the first to flower in summer. We also have a twisty old lichened pink, yellow and white frangipani and a brand new baby dark red frangipani (or so we are told as I have yet to see a flower). It was but $1 at the markets so I won't feel too cheated whatever the colour.

I admit that I moved the gloves on the washing line to get a better picture. Once you've taken this step, other little "adjustments" come more easily. So I decided to take a picture of the frangipani and removed a few wrinkly brown flowers to "improve" the image. There was a small green spot on one flower. Hand hovering over the flower I saw that it was not a spot but a tiny frog.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Preparing for change

Today in Marburg, Queensland, Australia: 30C (86F), perfect blue sky, puffy clouds, light breeze, dry grass rustling, laundry moving gently in the breeze.

Today in Stuttgart, Germany: 12C (53F), light rain, thermometer moving southwards.

Today in Salo, Italy: 9C (48F), fog, humidity 100%.

Today in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA: 7C (44.6F), overcast with a forecast for sub-zero centigrade temperatures later in the week.

Similar temperatures in Boston, New York City and Chicago -- all on our agenda.

In only three weeks I'll be explaining to the children the purpose of those odd items hanging on the washing line today. And they'll be glad of the ski jackets, beanies and scarves hanging next to the gloves. I wonder if in years to come they will think white Christmases so romantic. And yes, we are planning to visit the original Marburg. Maybe my writing life will be reinvigorated by a wealth of visual detail. At the very least it will be fun to see again the places where I've placed the Jaeckels.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Three relative instances

Yesterday I got a letter (well okay, an overdue library notice) from the Ipswich Library, beautifully stamped on the front with the logo "Ipswich 150, 1860-2010." I dumped it on my kitchen counter unopened because I knew exactly what it contained and didn't feel up to dealing with it. I saw it this morning and I thought, "Oh that's nice, 150 years old, wow." (In my defense it was 6am when I noticed this and I hadn't had coffee yet so my brain processes weren't up for anything more sophisticated.) Then I thought, "Hmmh I'm supposed to be some kind of historian - what are some sort of anecdotal comparisons I can think of?"

When Mr. Blithe was a very young teenager, 30 or so years ago, his family went to visit his mother's relatives in Germany. On coming back to Australia Mr. Blithe was asked to do one of those "what I did in my holidays" school talks with which we are all familiar. He told the class that while he had been in Kuppingen (which is just south of Stuttgart), the town had celebrated its 1000th birthday. His teacher corrected him and insisted that the town could not possibly be 1000 years old. Of course it was. When we visited 15 years ago, we saw a wonderful exhibit on the Roman ruins and artifacts of the area and indeed, the prehistorical archeology. But his teacher couldn't imagine that a town could be that old and indeed, that it had that long history of awareness and layers of time.

When I started studying Chinese history at university one of my first lecturers told me that he had decided quite early on in his career to specialise. He didn't do any Chinese history after 1000BC. If he kept a lid on his interests he was able to read everything available on the subject and be an expert. If he ventured past 1000BC, then there was just too much to know and he wasn't able to have a comprehensive grasp of everything. As a first year uni student I was overwhelmed by the amount of pre-1000BC Chinese history. Even writing this now, I had the urge to write 1000AD instead of BC because BC just couldn't be right.

Of course we now know that Australian history far predates white colonisation and that Australia is one of the oldest continents with a history to match. In that history 150 years is a very small part. When you look at the vast sweep of Australian terrain and think that for 150 years, there has been a city clinging to the edge of it, tenuously at times, it is relatively amazing. And when you place the dot of Ipswich in relation to the rest of the world, you get a sense of how far people came to get here. Sometimes you wonder how they managed to survive and why they stayed here.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Snippets of memory

26 June 1931
Mrs Mary Portley, 72 years

"She was a great reader and always a very keen student of politics even in earlier days when women were not supposed to have opinions of their own on matters of political importance.

24 July 1931

Mrs Edith Bulcock

"She was a most kindly, generous woman and an ardent worker, especially for her church."

28 October 1932

"Relic of Alexander Bradshaw Collingwood

December 19, 1942
Mrs Rose Gerber

"…was of quiet retiring disposition, and was respected by all.

For women it was about their disposition, whom they married, and their offspring. I do like Mary Portley's obituary though.

I also picked out a few names that I particularly liked: Apolonia, Queenie, Mirley and lots of Augustas. Adolf was still quite common as a name for one's son. I'm guessing it fell out of favour in the next decade or so.

For men it was about what they did, often long recitals of places been, wives married, children produced, jobs undertaken, worlds conquered. There are lots of words about men: "well-known," "highly respected," high esteem" but little about their personalities. A few hints are occasionally given. Two of my favourites are a description of a man as having a "quiet, manly disposition." And the lovely:

"Of a quiet retiring disposition, he had fine manly characteristics that are typical of those who have lived in and traversed the wide spaces of the West and North.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A world apart

It's been a funny year for computers. I am not a generally consumption-oriented person. I like to get something good and hang onto it. Hence the combined middle-agehood of the household cars, clothing from op shops, decade-old shoes, piles of books from uni (20-ouch years ago now), old furniture...the list goes on. But we have cut a swathe through computers over the last 12 months. Our back landing is piling higher and higher with casualties.

The last Mac lasted about 7 months. Admittedly it was used when we got it, but it curled up its toes and gave up right after the big dust storm. It was a G4 "windtunnel" and I guess the windtunnel sucked up a bit more dust than was optimum for operation. We now have a G5, elderly in computer terms, but it seems to work just fine.

But it does mean days, if not longer, of discombobulation, finding a new computer (thank you eBay and Mr Blithe), waiting for parts (in this case a specialised Mac cable that didn't come with the computer and had to be ordered from the Apple Store). The trusty iMac keeps the household plugging away in times like this, slow but so far reliable now that its blown-out connection to the internet has been jerry-rigged. That was a storm about 18 months ago. But you have to work out what was on which computer and what version and what needs to be done without the backup of computerised records or even a browsing history. Memory sticks are very helpful here.
I know that time is passing me by though when memory sticks have more memory than the first computer I used.

I hear people talking about the need for taking precautions and I have to tell you here that the computers are about as protected as they can be in a regular household. There are surge protectors, safety switches and backing up (perhaps not as frequently as required). I think that this is just rough terrain for computers. There's wind, dust, heat, cold, power surges, lightening strikes, storms and general wear and tear.

Early settlers didn't have computers but they faced all these things and more. And they didn't have the internet to order things delivered to one's house.

The new desktop image on the G5 is of the Brisbane River in 1870. I stare at it when I am meant to be working, trying to get an idea of what life really was like back then. It is such a world away from computer problems. Can I get my mind around it? Should I even try?

Saturday, 17 October 2009

The smell of water

Sometimes you read books of the adventuresome type, I’m thinking Wilbur Smith, Lawrence of Arabia or Hammond Innis, or diaries of early explorers and they describe how the lone adventurer, usually male, is striding across the land. They’re rugged and dusty or injured and dusty or tired and dusty and they’re looking for water. They stride or stagger or crawl over a rise in the ground and they can smell water. I always read that claim with a grain of salt, thinking it some sort of literary (or mass market) license.

Thursday night I found out that it was true. I was coming over the Tallegalla hills, driving though staggering mentally, the car full of groceries and the darkness shifting from twilight to something deeper. It was that time of night in the country where you really need high beam to see properly but you can’t because you can just see someone’s taillights in front of you and you don’t want to blind them. So you’re easing your own way through a small puddle of light and hoping that nothing too big will leap out of the darkness at the sides of the road. Usually it’s only a hare but I can tell you that they make quite a thump.

I wiped my sweaty brow. Well not really, but remember I’m channelling early explorers here – it was actually a beautiful cool evening with pockets of warmth left over from a long dusty day. I downshifted into third to turn right towards Marburg and suddenly all I could smell was water. It was the most intense amazing smell of dampness and life wrapping around me.

I know that it is because the top section of the Marburg-Rosewood Road runs alongside Black Snake Creek at a point where it spreads out into a maze of small ponds and rivulets. But I could imagine Cunningham or Sally Owen or her unnamed husband (if there was one) pushing through the heavy scrub up from the flat plains over a steep embankment, wondering what was going to be on the other side. Pausing on the ridge they would have continued downhill towards a distantly perceived valley running northwards and hit this wall of scent -- the glorious promise of water. And if they were smart they would have seen all the evidence of long-term aboriginal camping.

Me. I’ve learnt that the smell of water is not just literary license and that I’m happy to be driving home even if it’s late and I’m tired, rather than pushing through the scrub or dragging teams of oxen.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Come to the festival!

It's that time of year again, Marburg's Black Snake Creek Festival, running tonight and all day tomorrow. Come listen to music, see the art show, look at quilts, check out the Rosewood Scrub Historical Society and a myriad of market stalls and of course, buy a hamburger from the school burger stall.

There's a rumour that there will be line-dancing schoolchildren on the Saturday and a great parade.

I managed to get myself organised and put some photos into the art show. I had a quick preview of some of the entries on Wednesday and the show promises to be great. There's a art show opening reception, a poet's breakfast and music of all kinds. Our neighbour has been practicing diligently with his band. It's pretty good as far as I can tell (at least from 500m away).

Take a wander over to Marburg's blog and check out the events and timetable.

I'll see you at the festival!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Deathly interesting

I love obituaries. Does that raise eyebrows? Not the deadly dull obituaries of most people today, but the ones that tell you something about the person who died, what they did and what they considered important. The other day at the historical society, doing my open house duty, I was reading through obituaries in The Rosewood Register and Marburg Mail and the Queensland Times for 1938 and 1939. Why that period? Well firstly, it was the time period covered by the folder I pulled out and secondly, I kept reading because it was about the time period that there were many deaths of Marburg pioneer families. I read of ship voyages, shipwrecks, land selection, storms, family deaths, successes and a few failures. I'll bring you a selection over the next few weeks. Maybe you'll see the appeal.

Queensland Times
July 21st, 1939

Mr John Schulz

The death occurred on July 9 of a very old and respected resident of Marburg. Mr John Schulz at the age of 95 years and 10 months. He came to Australia with his parents, brothers and sister, at the age of 21 years, in the sailing boat La Rochele. After seven years in Australia he sent for his intended wife, Miss Caroline Barlet [Bartel?] and upon her arrival they were married in Ipswich. They had five children and in 1880 his wife died. In 1885 he married Miss Emma Windoff and they had nine children, three of whom died.

Mr Schulz took up shepherding upon arrival in Australia, then started farming at Mt. Walker, later taking a selection at Marburg, then known as the Rosewood Scrub. He remained here for the rest of his life. The funeral took place in the late Mr Schulz's private cemetery. The Baptist Minister, Pastor Evans, of Minden, officiated at the graveside. He is survived by five sons, Messrs Fritz, Bundaberg, Gustave, South Nanango, Wilhelm, Esk, Hermann and Adolf, Marburg, and six daughters, Mesdames Michael Goos, Tallegalla, W. Beduhn, Wondai, A. Schneider, Oxley, F. Kuss, Ropeley, N. Meissner, Biloela, and J. Berlin, Marburg.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Historical question of the day

Why did Ludwig Leichhardt ("The Dauntless Explorer" who disappeared mysteriously about his task in 1847) carry gelatine amongst his supplies?

Sometimes your children stump you. Blithe Girl was studying famous Australians at school (though Leichhardt like most early Australians was a migrant). She told me that Leichhardt was carrying gelatine in his supplies and that their task was to find out why. I'm not sure that the school has returned to the question but I, self-styled "Dauntless Explorer of the Internet" have.

Here's his provisions list:

"17 horses, 16 bullocks, 550 kilograms of flour, 90 kilograms of sugar, 40 kilograms of tea and 10 kilograms of gelatine."

My initial thought was that the gelatine was for photography. However, gelatin silver photography was not introduced until 1871. Instead the answer was simple and explained by the man himself.

October 18, 1844

We have regularly balanced our loads, and made up every bag of flour to the weight of 120 pounds: of these we have eight, which are to be carried by four bullocks. The chocolate and the gelatine are very acceptable at present, as so little animal food can be obtained. The country continues to be extremely boggy, though the weather has been fine, with high winds, for the last four days. Tracks of Blackfellows have been seen; but they appear rare and scattered in this part of the country. Though we meet with no game, tracks of kangaroos are very numerous, and they frequently indicate animals of great size. Emus have been seen twice.

Why would one eat gelatine? According to the Gelatin Manufacturers Institute of America, gelatin (American spelling) is 84-90% protein with 9 of the essential amino-acids. It doesn't go off though it does get sticky, it can be easily carried and though not tasty, was considered better than starving to death. Interestingly though, according to some sources, gelatine is one of the few foods that cause a nett loss of protein if eaten exclusively. There is also a link to CJD. I doubt Leichhardt was worried about any of this.

If you are interested in Australian botany,
Leichhardt's journal is fascinating for his descriptions of plants especially in what is now the Scenic Rim area. Sadly he was a better botanist than navigator.

The scrub opens more and more; a beautiful country with Bricklow groves, and a white Vitex in full blossom. The flats most richly adorned by flowers of a great variety of colours: the yellow Senecios, scarlet Vetches, the large Xeranthemums, several species of Gnaphalium, white Anthemis–like compositae: the soil is a stiff clay with concretions: melon–holes with rushes; the lagoons with reeds.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Fixing oneself

Does anyone remember The People's Home Medical Book? Published in 1922, it was a mainstay in many family houses. In Australia it came bundled with The People's Home Recipe Book and The People's Home Stock Book (animal management rather than soup-making) under the overarching title of The People's Home Library: A Library of Three Practical Books. The Rosewood Scrub Historical Society possesses a battered copy that has seen much use. It is clearly the sort of book that was in constant reference by all members of the family.

Oddly enough, Marburg is now less well supplied with medical practitioners than probably any time in the past. At one point there were two hospitals in the area, including Dr. Sirois' famous establishment. Rosewood had it's own midwife who delivered many a baby at home or in her house at the corner that now has the traffic roundabout at the top end of town. Nowadays Rosewood does have several GPs as does Lowood or people can choose to go further afield to Ipswich, Toowoomba or even Brisbane.

A lot of basic medicine took place at home though and this book was the bible of self-help. Advice was given on everything from women's health to sugar diabetes, freckles to obesity (or adiposity), drunkenness to acne and snake bites.

A few snippets forthwith. First, to help your with planning for your weekend.
Symptoms: These are too well known to need description.
What to do: Produce vomiting by giving lukewarm mustard water, using from 1 to 4 teaspoons of mustard; or give one or two teaspoonfuls of alum dissolved in lukewarm water; or, give lard or salt or produce vomiting by tickling the throat. You may also give strong coffee [Ed. Before or after the vomiting?] Apply cold to the head and warmth to the arms and legs. Use artificial respiration if necessary.
And a beauty tip (one of the nine options offered so freckles must have been a serious problem):
Freckles may sometimes be removed by wetting a piece of saltpeter [sic] and rubbing the freckles two or three times daily.
Other freckle removal options included a paste of bitter almonds and barley flour; borax, sugar and lemon juice; glycerine and lemon juice; washing with buttermilk and rinsing; leaving sour buttermilk on one's face overnight; grated horseradish in very sour milk; crushed strawberries; and a long bathe in borax and lemon juice.

I think I'll put on my hat and sunscreen and stick to coffee.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Defining narrative

Many people have written, often nostalgically and full of some kind of longing for a kinder, gentler agrarian past, of how living in the country tunes your senses to the natural world. Maybe it is true of a farmer although I suspect that many may work to rule or calendar, the same as many others.

I do know that as I live longer surrounded by a natural world that insists on imposing attention on me, that times of year are defined by their point in a cycle. If I sat down and wrote it down, I couldn't say when the jacarandas flowered or the silky oak bloomed. I wouldn't be able to pinpoint when the grass stops growing and starts browning and I begin to worry about grass fires. I couldn't point to a calendar and say "here is spring and here is summer and this is when we get these kinds of clouds or those kinds of winds."

For me it is simply that I notice them. I look out the kitchen window and all of a sudden there is purple haze in the trees behind the water tanks. I look out the living room windows and the silky oak is lit up with golden candles. I hear the snake slithering and think "Oh yeah, it must be spring." Instead of my alarm pulling me out of darkness, patterns of light down the hallway wake me earlier and earlier.

And when I notice them, they slot neatly into what has become the right pattern for me. I think human beings are about making patterns and trying to make some sort of sense or order in their lives. My pattern has evolved slowly from an urban model to one more focused on the natural world. It simply surrounds me and forces me to pay attention to it in the same way that traffic and fire-engines, street lights and noises from neighbours punctuated my previous life.

I read an article in the weekend paper recently suggesting that narrative is dead because people don't live lives of patterns but disjointed, chaotic fragments. The writer couldn't understand the enduring popularity of narrative over post-modern writing and urged readers to forgo their naive attachment to story and timeline. For me it is all about making patterns. We want to know if A then B and whether that equals C or something else. And that is the definition of narrative.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Why I don't vacuum

Well actually I have no excuse other than laziness and disinclination to do housework when there are so many more interesting and compelling things to do. But if I was a better housekeeper, today's dust would be driving me to panic. As far as I can tell from the news the dust storm spreads across all of NSW, the ACT and southern Queensland. The dust that is coating us today comes from South Australia. At 11am we had lights on in the house and the windows glowed an eerie orange.

According to reports, air particle levels of 200 or higher are dangerous. The ABC says that in north-west Sydney levels are 919, south-west 1,718 and in Bathurst, 2,665. Asthmatics are urged to stay inside and keep medication and a telephone close.

Our mouths taste dusty, our hair is coated, the smell of dust hangs in the air. The wind makes the animals and children restless. Horses stand in the fields in clumps, rumps to the wind. It is not a day to extoll the glories of Queensland weather.

However, all is not lost when such as this exists to cheer up my day.

Monday, 21 September 2009

This doesn't compute

I've have been having all sorts of problems with blogger but I can't blame the platform for my woes. You may have noticed weird symbols in the posts. I haven't because the layout looks just fine in Firefox on my trusty Mac. But some people have let me know that things are Not Up To Scratch. I haven't actually worked out what the problem is, but I have worked out how to work around it. And that will have to do for the moment. Of course, please let me know if things aren't working and I will urge you to enter the light and buy a Mac or at the very least, run something other than IE.

I had a lovely quiet afternoon yesterday down at the Historical Society. I was doing my duty and getting out of a family event and getting some time to sit and think. It was all good. I've even come up with a list of subjects about which to blog. Hopefully between the list and a few extra days at home due to the school holidays will revitalise Two Tree Hill.

I'm hoping for a bit of revitalisation myself. Theoretically I am meant to be doing some work at home but on Day One I have already realised that that is not a likely scenario. I honestly think the only way to work at home is to have a dedicated sound-proofed space and a dedicated childminder -- now it's sounding like my father and his neatly isolated studies in every house we ever lived in. The appeal is tremendous.

I haven't yet had the headspace to think about what to do about
Outwanderers. The Jaeckels have been left sitting on the jetty in Brisbane for too many months now. They're probably getting bored and wandered off to who knows where. Maybe Anna is flirting with the local boys and Carl is getting into mischief on the wharves.

I haven't heard anything from the publisher so it seems as if my baby has been rejected. I plan to do something about it as soon as I work out what. And when that occurs, I will of course let you know too. I don't want this baby to wander homeless in the world.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

The scent of home

I read the other day that University of Queensland researchers have isolated and identified the substances in cut grass. Apparently these chemicals promote a sense of well-being and relieve stress. They have been packaged as a room spray and are being marketed as Serenascent.

I am curious as to their efficacy. As someone to whom cut grass usually merely provokes vigorous sneezing and sniffling, I’m not keen to spray the scent around my house. On the other hand, one of my favourite smells in the world is the smell of long dry grass that has baked in the sun all day slowly cooling in the evening. And I am feeling stressed.
Coming home on Friday night after a long week, I had all the windows in the car open. It’s spring so we’re having warm days and cool nights. It was a strange experience. I felt like I was dipping in and out of a river. One moment the air was cold and smelt clean and damp. The next, it was warm and oozing the essence of dried grass. My shoulders relaxed, my eyebrows went down, my lungs expanded. The first stars came out, the hills breathed with me. I remembered the word “gloaming” which is the time between sunset and darkness.* I rolled the word around my mouth. Gloaming…it just sounded right. That’s the smell I would bottle: dry grass, cool night, first starlight, gloaming. 

* Middle English (Scots) gloming, from Old English glōming, from glōm twilight; akin to Old English glōwan to glow. Date: before 12th century. Thanks Merriam-Webster online.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Fragments of current life

Driving two or three times a week to Logan and points south.
Negatives: a lot of time in the car, overdoses of exhaust from crawling along in first gear on the motorway, sore neck, creaky knees, having to go to Logan.
Positives: overcoming my fear of driving to unknown places. A handful of hours a week on several of the busiest roads in SE Queensland followed by weaving around the backstreets of Logan and surrounds cured that; getting to catch up on lots of music.

Hanging out in places that have:
a) red leatherette sofas in the waiting room.
b) restroom walls entirely covered in graffiti or complicated lifestyle choice information.
c) staff behind locked glass screens.
d) signs on aforementioned sofas informing me that “any person found in the act of graffiti or defacing property…will be charged with wilful damage.”

Discovering that:
a) signs regarding defacing sofas and stern instructions to “wash hands properly” make me want to do the opposite and I’m not even a troubled “youf.”
b) there are actually some nice parts of Logan though mainly bits they inherited from other places (like Beenleigh).
c) there are parts of Logan that do look like downtown LA. You know that concreted-in LA River in The Terminator? I parked next to its twin last week. I felt the urge to go motorcycle riding.
d) after driving 100km or so roundtrips, dropping off or picking up the kids and doing the errands, I have no desire to write or in fact, even stir off the sofa once I sit down at night.

Remembering that this is only a short project and life will return to something approaching normal eventually, if I remember what that is.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Things in the night

I woke the other night with heart racing. Half past midnight on a dark country night, a couple of kilometres from the nearest streetlight and someone had walked up our back stairs. I lay there undecided. Do I get up to see what they want? Do I wait for the doors to rattle? Why would anyone go to the back door? Did they need help? Thank goodness Mr. Blithe had spent a weekend fixing ill-fitting doors.

The steps receded and were followed by thumps, scratching and banging. Okay, probably not a person, but big. They don’t have bears here do they? Mr Blithe looked out the study window. Nothing. I looked out the front. Nothing. He positioned himself by a window with a torch while I turned on the outside front light.

There. And…there! Two dogs trying to dig their way into the garage after something tasty. Foolish perhaps because it is open at the front, more of a car port than a garage. Without a sound they circled off behind the shed. Turning on the back light sent them silently off over the fields, one leaping high in short absurd bounces to see its way over the tall grass.

Back to bed, every sound keeping me awake. Lying there in the dark I understood a little perhaps of the fear of someone new to a place. I have doors, locks, windows with glass, solid walls. What if I were in a bark hut or some sort of shelter made from twigs and grass and I heard things in the night? Things that made sounds I had never heard before. Things that I had never seen or imagined.

I think that you’d have to learn to control your imagination. To only deal with real things as they happened. To react and act on a daily basis and not think too much about the future. To become in some ways a short-term thinker. And then how would you get out of that mentality? How would you shift from a mode of danger and living day to day to a more settled mode? Would you ever learn to think in a more strategic, less reactionary way? Would you be able to plan for the future? How many generations would it take to change modes of thinking and what impact would it have on society in general?

These, and adrenalin, are the thoughts that keep me awake at half past midnight on a dark country night.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Great fiction?

I have just completed one of my greatest pieces of fantasy. It is a speculative, historically-based, narrative that will weave together ideas from contemporary and historical media sources, inspiration from current policy directions and futuristic approaches to fundamental health issues. And all in only 23 pages! At least the proposal is 23 pages. The final manuscript will of course be more weighty.

It has to submitted in signed septuplicate. Yes – it is a grant application that took me approximately a month to pull together. As I proofread the final version I pondered on the fact that last year 1500 people applied for these three positions. So, if everyone’s application was approximately the same length:

1500 x 23 = 34,500
34,500 x 7 = 241,500

Any guess on how many trees 241,500 sheets of paper equals?

My other writing time has been limited to jotting ideas on notepaper while waiting between meetings. Oh the exotic life of the writer!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Linguistic gymnastics

In the Weekend Australian in an article on the possibility of the introduction of capital gains tax to the family home:
The Henry review is scheduled to release its recommendations in December. Dr Henry told a conference six weeks ago that the review was close to “putting big ideas on paper”...
For some reason that phrase just tickled my fancy. I think I’m going to go around telling people that I am close to putting big ideas on paper. Not true, but who is going to quibble? You could argue forever on the definition of “close.” As to “big ideas,” don’t get me started. But it sounds pro-active and forward-thinking and I could do with some of that.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Dance season

It must be spring – the snakes are a’ slithering. As I sit here writing, there is a constant susurration in the ceiling above my head. Although I know:

a) it’s probably a carpet python with no ill intentions towards me.
b) probably not poisonous if a)
c) unlikely to be able to get into the house
d) likely to be more scared of me than I am of it

the hairs on the back of my neck still tingle. It’s all those weasel words like probably, unlikely and likely that make me twitch.

There is something elemental about snakes. My father, the Baptist minister, would say that it all goes back to the Garden of Eden and original sin. I don’t know if he thought of it in those terms when he almost trod on one a few days ago lying in a puddle of sunshine by the water tanks (the snake, not my Dad). I do know that he described himself as feeling “extremely alert” for the rest of the day.

Last year the children called the snake in the ceiling “Langeschlange Laps.” I suspect this year it is an even more lange schlange and it definitely is doing laps. It cavorted for only a few days last year before it started venturing out over the trees and tanks. I remember that cavorting season was in September because I was in Sydney for my parent’s big party. It seems as if the schlange schedule has moved up this year. Maybe there’s a big party coming up. Other bets are on a long hot summer.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Oh starry night

I’ve not been sleeping well recently. The kids have all had some sort of flu-virus thing that left them first sick then miserable. There have been lots of late night visits and small requests coming out of the dark: “May I sleep with you for a while Mummy?” While it is sweet, it isn’t conducive to sleep, especially if it happens more than once in the night.

Last night I walked one child back to bed at 3.30am and on the way back to my own, stopped to see if I could see the Perseid meteor shower. It was a stunning night: clear with a suggestion of haze around the stars (or maybe that was just the sleep in my eyes). I watched for about five minutes, but didn’t see any meteors. I think I would have needed to be outside for a longer period of time.

Lying back in bed I started worrying about a meeting I have today and tried to focus my mind on other things. “I know,” said I to myself, “I’ll think about writing, that thing that I currently have no emotional energy or time for. That’ll help me sleep.”

I did eventually get back to sleep. I’ve been gnawing for a week or so though over the idea suggested by one Australian book publisher that a good book needs to tell or show or make you think in a way that you haven’t before. He wrote about how even though the Harry Potter and Stephanie Meyer series are hugely popular, they don’t really give you a fresh perspective on the world. I want to go back to my book and reread it in the light of whether it says anything new, fresh and thoughtful about the world. And if it doesn’t, I need to do something about it…maybe next time I’m wandering the house at 3am.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Crotchety things

I have it on good authority that it is probably the crows eating the lemonades. I’ve had to pick the ripest ones and bring them inside. I am fond enough of the fruit to enter battle with the crows. They of course get their revenge by their crack of dawn arguments in the tree outside our bedroom window.

There are few sounds more insistent and irritating than a crow in full voice when the light is still blue and the household asleep.

My battles with the crows are fairly low-key scuffles. After all, neither my livelihood nor my daily food depends on beating the predators. I often give thanks for being able to live in the country without having to be dependent on it. I’m not even a gentlewoman farmer, just a frivolous dabbler around the edges of food production. I’m thrilled when I get to eat something we’ve grown but I do not depend on it in any way.

Through a chain of events, I realised today that I have been blogging for nearly two and a half years. A friend of mine recently redesigned her website and I wondered if I should do the same. Would it actually look fresh and inviting like hers or would it look like a desperate attempt on my part to hide my lack of writing?

And lack is what it is. My mother-in-law asked how work was going and laughed when I told her that I am frightened most of the time. Mothers-in-law sometimes do that. It is all new, all difficult, all stretching me in different directions. I feel like I only have a light grasp on what I am doing and that my skill-set is mutating as I speak. This can be a good thing but it’s certainly exhausting. I wish I could say that I wasn’t writing because I was reading, or growing food, nurturing my children, whipping up delicious meals or doing something else productive. The answer is much more simple. I’m just too tired at the moment.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The quick and the hungry

Winters in the Rosewood Scrub are glories of cold, frosty nights and perfect blue and gold days. Flowers blaze. Roses, geraniums, nasturtiums, verbena, the wattles, jonquils, basil, even the citrus are flowering. Mandarins and lemons hang on trees. People leave anonymous piles of citrus in tearooms and church halls hoping for takers. I’ve clearly been here long enough though that my plaint is that it is too dry. The ground is cracking, grasses drying, trees wishing for a solid soaking.

This used to be the worst time of year for us to get up our driveway. Dust would cloak the gullies and our engines and tyres and children and bladders would protest every jolt and grind. Complaints of all this year are replaced with joy at a sweep of smooth bitumen. Well, not the complaints of all – one neighbour has complained that we removed his prime entertainment of watching people tackle the driveway but you can’t please everyone. Of course, immediately after replacing the driveway, our septic system revolted (in so many ways), but that’s another story.

A common sight at this time of year are tiny glints of light all over the hills as people hang reflectors in trees and on fences to try protect fruit crops. The weapons of choice are cds or bladders from cask wine, tied to strings. They dance in the light and sometimes frighten off the birds. We often hang them in the guava and mulberry trees but have never done so in the citrus. I’ve never had to fight the wildlife for our lemonades until this year. One day there was this:

And the next this:

I don’t even know what it was. Is there something out that that has a taste for tangy sweet citrus? Was it a crow that it was able to break through the skin? Or was it something that gnawed its way in? In these hills it's the quick and the hungry.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Accidental research (or how to waste time on the internet)

I can’t even remember what I was looking for in the online archive of the National Library of Australia. Before leaving the site I idly clicked on a search for my family on my mother’s side. You never know with her side of the family. They’ve been in Sydney for a long time by Australian standards and being practical sorts of people, have had their fingers in many pies. One of the first things that popped up was a photo that I had seen many times at my grandfather’s house. It’s really strange to see something so familiar in a public archive.

I knew the photo was my grandfather’s Uncle George and that he was an architect. I didn’t know much else about him. I think that my grandfather was an apprentice to him when he was young. We don’t have much contact with that side of the family. No rift or anything particular, just lack of contact. When I proceeded to dig further I was astonished to find a wealth of information about George. In the picture he is standing on one of the columns in front of the Sydney GPO that his firm designed and built. When I used to work in the Sydney CBD, I walked past those pillars everyday on my way down Martin Place from the train station to the office and felt a sense of possession about them.

There were other photos of George in the archive and plenty of material. Apparently George’s company was responsible for a lot of the underground telephone cable tunnels that burrow underneath Sydney. George also supervised the controversial clearing of the Rocks in 1900 after an outbreak of the plague. For this, he received a commemorative shield emblazoned “Victor of the Plague” that is in the collection of the Powerhouse Museum. Theses have been written about his role in the cleansing of the area of the poor mainly immigrants whose homes were squeezed onto the foreshore at the heart of Sydney. Many aspects of what was essentially a slum purge (officially called a “cleansing operation”) were documented by photographs, all of which are in the national archives. The old CSR factory site which is now the expensive foreshore development “Jackson’s Landing” encompasses the street named after George and his brother. There’s another street named after him in Guildford.

George was also a politician. He was mayor of Prospect in 1892 and Member of the Legislative Assembly (representative in state parliament) for Cumberland in 1893/4. He was born in 1859 in Pyrmont (of Glaswegian immigrant parents) and died in 1903 of “gastritis” at the age of 43. It was widely believed at the time that his disease was linked in some way to his work in the Rocks.

There’s a church named after him and the family home in Guildford can be visited. I have never been but I am curious to do so, especially since they are reputed to have a fine collection of my grandfather and great-aunt’s pottery.

Interestingly one source says that he ran for office on the basis of female suffrage. My Great-aunt, one of the first female architects to graduate from Sydney Uni, was employed for a short time by his firm in its fairly small Brisbane office. I’ve written about visiting one of the few extant houses that she designed. She gave up architecture for the arts and crafts.

So that’s what happens when you start browsing around in archives. It’s just dangerous.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Making lists Part A

I’m starting to make a list of things that I want to do when I resurface for air (perhaps) in a few months. One of the things that is on my list is the newish Colonial Brisbane Heritage Walk. It’s all part of the Q150 celebrations. Yes the sesquicentenary – I love that word and just don’t get to use it often enough. Clearly the state government has decided that Q150 is easier to say and write. You can go to the website, download a mp3 file and walk yourself through the CBD. You can also find the map from the above link if you are less tech-savvy or don’t have a mp3 player.

Other than the fact that it would simply be a fun family activity, I also want to do it because it takes you past many of the buildings that would have been of significance to the Jaeckels. There’s the Land Administration building, the Immigration depot, the offices of the Moreton Bay Courier that chronicled the arrival of most migrant ships, some old hotels and government buildings. I’m hoping to get a sense for how Brisbane must have appeared to the Jaeckels. I think I will have to focus hard though to tune out the traffic and plethora of modern buildings.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Writing things off

I’ve just started paid employment two days a week. It’s a totally different culture. Being at home is hard work. Being at work is a different kind of hard work. You do get a better morning tea at my paid employment but the politics are remarkably similar – who gets what, when and the fairness thereof. There’s slightly less crying and name-calling at work though.

I like it. Parts of my brain are awakening from long hibernation. You’re expected to sit quietly, think and produce rather than that occurrence being a triumph of will over circumstances. I am learning a huge amount and also discovering that I actually know how to do quite a few things. It’s all very educational albeit tiring.

I have no doubt that over the next few months I will be tearing my hair out at points. I have one intensive project that is working to a tight short deadline and a long project that needs a lot of work done with few hours allocated to it. And I’m trying to write up a grant proposal for a project for next year.

But … this second book isn’t writing itself. I know because I’ve tried letting it. Benign neglect, vicious neglect, apathy – none of them work. I’m hoping that as work-related schedule adjustments are bedded down, I’ll get back to more writing. I miss it.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

A gift of time

There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. So much talk in fact that I now know that the moon landing was on July 20, 1969: a fact that I have managed to live my entire life to this point without knowing.

Perhaps it was the depths of my ignorance or perhaps media insistence on the event (or perhaps simply encroaching dementia) but somehow or rather I became convinced that today was Thursday 23 July. I went about my daily tasks in a week filled with domestic crises small and large sure that for once I knew the date. Children back at school, tick; rearrange guitar lessons, tick; long, depressing talk with plumber, tick; research alternatives for dealing with sewage, tick; find new carer for Blithe Boy, tick; make doctor’s appointment, tick; the list went on.

And then driving between one lot of busyness and the next, I looked up and the Great Dividing Range was stretched across the horizon shouting for attention, the silvered winter grass foregrounded the dark blue and grey mountains, the wind demanded to be heard, the sun peeked at me, birds flirted in the trees, flowers were shaking their bright heads and I realised something. From the beginning of time women have worried over looking after their families, childcare, getting food on the table, keeping their mate happy, work demands (whether paid or not). My own concerns seemed fairly minor in the scale of the world and of history. Then I got home, looked at the calendar and realised that I somehow jumped a week.

The glory of it all. An extra whole week before that deadline I was worrying over, that visit to the dentist, that family wedding glooming on the horizon. I would dance and shout for joy, but Blithe Boy is asleep so I’ll settle for a quiet huzzah.

Monday, 13 July 2009

A splash of yellow

I love it when the wattle bursts into flower. All of a sudden there are splodges of fluffy yellow over the hillsides. Wattle trees often hide their glory with soft olive leaves and subdued bark. Then they blaze with sunlight and frivolity for a few weeks. On warm evenings the smell of the flowers gathers in pockets held down by the cooler night air. You’ll be walking along in the coolness and suddenly you are surrounded by warm, slightly sweet air with a tang of dust. It doesn’t sound like much. If someone walked past you wearing it as a perfume you might not notice.

One whiff of it though and I am eighteen again, at university in a new town, stunned by the ideas and people that I am meeting for the first time. People dress differently, talk differently, think differently. I’m judged mainly by my contributions to conversation and class discussions. No-one knows or cares who my parents are or really where I come from. I have no responsibilities beyond taking care of myself. The lake and creek are lined by wattle and their scent was interwoven with memory.

I can’t separate my love of wattle and these memories. Do I really like the smell or is it just an aide-de-memoir – a reminder of when I first realised that there was a life of the mind that was valued and when incidently, I met Mr Blithe?

And being unable to separate my writing self from my other self, I’m wondering what smells would transport the Jaeckels back to Germany? Were there particular flowers or trees or the smell of food cooking or something that was an intense visceral reminder of their past?

Friday, 10 July 2009

A short list

I know that it is school holidays because:

1. I am so tired.
2. My house is even messier than usual.
3. When I go to recent documents in Word, there are strange files there with my daughters’ current fictions-in-progress and nothing of mine.
4. My temper is very short and my patience very thin.
5. I have to fight for time on the computer.
6. I don’t write my blog and I don’t even read my daily blog quota every day.
7. I sleep in in the mornings instead of getting up to work or exercise.
8. Blithe Boy doesn’t nap.
9. I can’t remember all the Jaeckels’ names.
10. I can’t remember what I was going to write for #10.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Pre-existing conditions

I was bringing in some wood for the fire on Saturday night and noticed a peculiar smell. Mr Blithe assured me that I was correct in assuming that brown foam emanating from the septic tank was indeed “not normal.” Any potential problem with the septic system is anxiety-inducing. We are only allowed to have a septic tank so close to the house and indeed a septic tank at all, because it was “pre-existing.” And herein lies the problem. No-one knows exactly how long the tank has been there. It certainly looks elderly with a weathered concrete lid. But it probably is not as old as the house because it was connected to the toilet in the laundry which was a lean-to addition to the house sometime after the house was constructed. We assume that there was originally a dunny (an outside toilet) and that sometime in the last 80 - 90 years the innovation of an inside toilet was introduced.

One of the first things we did to the house when we bought it was to have a toilet put in the bathroom of the main part of the house. With small children, the last thing you want to do is to have them traipsing down a flight of open-riser stairs to use the facilities at night although we did this for a year. And all of the light switches were well above child level. The plumber simply cut a hole in the bathroom floor and suspended the pipework under the house to the existing septic tank. The only problem then was that we had to move the bathroom door around the corner because health regulations don’t allow a bathroom with a toilet to open onto a kitchen. See what troubles you start getting into when you change things?

About 18 months ago now, we demolished the lean-to laundry, jack-hammered out the immensely thick concrete slab and positioned the new part of the house in that location. We took out the bathroom of the removal house to make the wide hallway that connects the two houses but we kept the toilet which was in a separate room. We did have to replace the toilet so that it was a model suitable for septic tanks instead of a “town sewage” model. I had never known that there were different standards for fittings based on type of sewerage. The things you learn.

So here we are on Saturday night – worried that after everything, something has gone wrong with the septic tank. The 24 hour septic tank bloke assured me that it was probably the trench and that he would be there first thing on Monday. Around midday on Monday, the truck arrived. Pretty soon he started making harrumphing noises that I know mean trouble. He couldn’t get the eel into the outlet pipe so he decided to dig down the side of the tank to find the inspection access point. I could have guessed that there wouldn’t be one. As he dug the hole started filling with liquid. A few more harrumphs and he quietly shovelled the dirt back in. His taciturnity turned to verbosity.
“You need a plumber. The seal has gone. And you need to show the plumber the diagram that you have of the property that shows where the trench and the connections are so he can make a new connection to the trench. Then he can get the eel in and find out what is wrong with the drainage. I’ll drain the tank while you call the plumber and tell him that it’s an emergency. Won’t get them out here within a month otherwise and you’ve got two weeks, depending on your deposit rate.”
I don’t know if it was the prospect of dealing with an empty tank or the fact that I can see the plumber’s house from ours, but he’s coming on Wednesday morning. He’s not cheap but he does a great job and is totally unfazed by the fact that there are no diagrams and in fact no actual knowledge of where the trench may be. We have our suspicions. There’s a patch of grass that stays green in the driest months but it might just be an outlet and not a trench at all.

I’m hoping for the sweet smell of success rather than…well you can imagine the rest.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

An answered question

28 December, 1869

Free passages
To single women (domestic servants), married couples (farm laborers or shepherds), with not more than one child, and under 12 years of age.
Persons receiving free and assisted passages, except female domestic servants, have to undertake to repay the Queensland Government, in the case of assisted passengers, the balance of the cost of their passage within twelve months after their arrival in the colony, and, in the case of free passengers, the cost of their passage within two years after arrival in the colony, and on the fulfilment of the undertaking they will receive a land order entitling them to select 40 acres of agricultural land for each adult, and 20 acres for each child between twelve months and twelve years.”
Other than noting and emulating the amazing run-on sentence above (didn’t the government of the day have editors?); the fact that the government was apparently signing legislation at the end of December (no modern bureaucrat would be caught anywhere near the office at that time); and the fact that spelling in 1869 was closer to what we today would call “American” i.e. laborer rather than labourer, the above extract admirably answers my question of what regulatory conditions would apply to obtain the release of a free passenger from their contract.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

A multiplicity of books

I was at a meeting yesterday, well not really at a meeting as it was held in my home, but there was a meeting. It’s the school holidays and sometimes it’s simply easier to bring work home. And during the meeting I was ribbed for my “lack of recent blogging.” This was a bit rich given that I was in the meeting rather than blogging. The good news is that there is progress on the mining book. We’re trying to come up with a better title than “Coal Mining in the Rosewood Scrub,” but it works as an interim descriptive title. We have a proposed outline for the book, lists of people to interview, research to do. After every meeting we are emailed with lists of tasks by our militant/efficient sergeant.

The funny thing now is that people often ask me “How’s the book going?” and I have to ask them “Er, which book?” At this point, they in turn get all confused, because most of the people asking don’t know about my “secret” life as a children’s novelist. I say “secret” because it’s hard for me to imagine anything is secret that is the subject of a blog. But in a world where some people don’t read blogs, other people don’t really like computers and others are simply too busy, it’s quite easy to have such an open secret. On the other hand, the mining project got a write up (with a photo!) in the local newspaper, so it is relatively prominent.

It’s an interesting question (though not one I’m going to pursue now) – the relative penetration of electronic media versus traditional print media in a rural area. I tend to mix with people for whom the use of computers is part of life. My children and their classmates are normalised into the digital world, but their parents often are not. And some of the older generation are actively scared or dismissive of computers and the internet. Talking to the check-out lady at the local supermarket about my reusable produce bags, she was amazed that I had bought them on the internet, “wasn’t that unsafe?” Well, yes and no, but there were people behind me in the line who probably wouldn’t want me expounding on safe internet use while their ice-cream melted.

I also found out at this meeting that reports of me doing research while wearing my dressing gown and fluffy slippers are traumatising the readership. So I will abstain although I am glad that people are at least paying attention.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Editing for my supper

I am a compulsive editor. Sometimes I have to stop myself especially in situations where it would not be tactful or politically wise to point out errors. Point of enquiry: should one say anything to one’s child’s teacher if they have a spelling error on the blackboard? What about egregious misspellings or mis-pronunciation by a boss?

The hardest thing about the NLA’s online database of newspapers is that they are digital copies that have been scanned into the database. On the right hand side of the webpage is the image of the original printed page and on the left, is the digital “translation.” Users of the system can compare the two and edit the digital version. I have to fight every urge in my body not to simply sit and edit. For example, the scanning software routinely substitutes o’s for e’s or o’s for a’s or vice versa. Or puts in random letters when there are blobs of ink on the original.

I’ve had to make a policy decision so that my time is not entirely consumed by editing. I see on the NLA’s homepage that there are some hero editors whose edits number in the hundreds of thousands. I could become one of those or I could actually research my book and get closer to starting to write it. I’ve decided that I will edit anything that I use for my research – singing for my supper as it were and also out of gratitude that such an amazing resource is available. The rest I will do my best to close my eyes to.

Since it is Friday, I’ll leave you with a news report that tickled my fancy this morning. Stay safe this weekend and watch out for flying missiles of the domestic sort.

The Brisbane Courier
Saturday 8 September 1866

A DISTURBANCE arose in the Immigration
Depôt yesterday evening amongst the immi-
grants by the ship Rockhampton, who came up
during the day. It was caused principally by
some of the married men, who objected to leave
the females' department at the hour appointed
by the regulations of the depot. At about 8
o'clock there was a sort of free fight, which
lasted until a detachment of police came in,
and during which missiles, such as teapots and
other kitchen utensils, were diligently used.
The police, after some trouble, succeeded in
securing two of the ringleaders, and marched
them off to the station. This appeared to have
a quieting effect upon the remainder, and com-
parative order was restored.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Newspapers in pyjamas

I sat down and read a newspaper the other morning from cover to cover. Given, it was only four pages, but I sat there in my pyjamas and fluffy slippers with my coffee at six o’clock on a rainy morning in the year 2009 reading the Brisbane Courier for the 3 September 1866.

I found out that the temperature was mild (18°C/64.7°F) and the day forecast to be cloudy. I read that the Queensland Club was forthwith going to be destroying any goats found loose on their property. I discovered that several companies offered berths to settlers heading to Ipswich from Brisbane. In fact, between two different services, you could sail to Ipswich every day of the week except for Sunday. I found out what houses were for rent and that you could purchase a confectionary store and bakery in Ipswich for a mere £500 including all stock, equipment, cart and horses. I read that there was a busy trade in land allotments and that C. Heussler and Co. offered land-orders for purchase in small or large lots. I read of mortgagee sales, insurance schemes, lending libraries and goods of every description for sale. Of the meetings of the Brisbane Philharmonic Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society (Queensland Auxillary), the Queensland Turf Club, the School of Arts, the Oxford Music Society and the Choral Union. I saw architects, stationers, doctors, hotels and commission agents advertising for business.

I read that 2000 Chileans had landed in Cuba to aid their troops in revolt and that the “harvest in California is the largest ever known” while new mines had been discovered in Nevada. This news arrived via the Anglo-Indian telegraphs and beat the SS Kaikoura with its delivery of mail and news from England. I read of shipping arrivals and departures and goods received and loaded to whose accounts.

In brief, I read about the everyday life of a thriving city 143 years ago. It was fascinating and exactly what I need to write about the Jaeckel’s arrival in Brisbane and travel to Ipswich.

The wonder of it all is that this is available online from the National Library of Australia. Take a look. You can even assist by correcting the text of scanned newspapers for the years 1803 to 1954. And you don’t even need to get out of your pyjamas.

Friday, 19 June 2009

A sense of place

I’ve been intermittently watching a series on television called “Around the World in Eighty Gardens.” In it, the charming and eccentric (and English of course) Monty Don travels around the world looking at gardens. The series has been panned by some critics for not being about the plants, or rather about gardening. This misses the point that it is a show about garden design.

One of Don’s overarching themes is the idea of gardens having a sense of place. He adores gardens that draw from a local vernacular and abhors gardens that simply replicate ideas from other places in the world. He feels very strongly that a garden should arise out of a local culture and understanding of place rather than be about themes and ideas fashionable on the international circuit. As a result, he has visited some fascinating gardens: some delightful, some outrageous (to my perspective) but the best ones firmly grounded in their own history and culture.

While in Australia, he visited a garden in the Southern Highlands of NSW that pretended to be an English garden. High hedges of English plants were structured to block out vistas of gum trees and dry grass. Inside the hedges was a lush, but formally controlled English garden. While it was beautiful in a formal sort of way, it is entirely alien to our continent. Other gardens he visited here were much more attuned to our dry, difficult land through embracing native plants, grasses, rocks, and strong lines.

The series has really resonated with me for two reasons. One is that our garden is a work-in-progress and I love thinking of new ideas for it. The other is that this second book is about how people develop a sense of place. I’m interested in what helps such a sense grow and what can undermine it. Given that most people in this area were farmers, some of the ideas that Don talks about are relevant.

This book is about the Jaeckel’s new life in Australia and the inevitable steps forward and backward to feeling like they are Queenslanders. I want the third book to be about how migrants can have a strong sense of place and ownership and for this to be disputed. By the third book, World War One is in progress and the Germans of Marburg are being made to feel very German and very alien, rather than welcomed and valued migrants.

As always, everything is grist to the mill of my imagination. Or is it simply self-justification for why I’m sitting down and watching television?

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Writing oneself into a corner

A few months ago I unwisely made the comment that the thing I like about writing is that I control the characters’ lives in a way that I don’t really have control over my own life. I say unwisely, because I have written myself into a corner. Not an inescapable corner, but nonetheless, one that I will need to wriggle to get out of. On the one hand, it is an odd situation. On the other, it gives the plot interest.

I blithely married off two of my passengers, forgetting, or rather not paying attention to, the fact that one is a free settler while the other is a bonded passenger. The bonded passenger is required to pay off their passage by a set period of labour once the colony is reached. The free settler can do whatever they want when the colony is reached.

It brings up some interesting issues. There’s a new relationship that will be complicated whatever option is chosen. One option is separation until the bonded period is over while the bonded passenger works out their time with an employer who might or might not be in the same area as the free settler. Another would be for the free settler to buy out the bond or to employ the bonded passenger. Employing your new partner, or even worse, purchasing their labour, is not always the best basis for starting marriage. I’m mulling over options.

It looks as if the first few chapters of book two will be spent working out colonial bureaucracy – an universal theme that should appeal to, or at least resonate with, modern readers.

Monday, 15 June 2009

German Station

A lot of Germans arriving in Brisbane in the early 1800s would have travelled from the port to the German mission at what is now Nundah before moving to their eventual homes. I assumed, and several people told me, that this was the norm for German migrants. Like all things historical though, it has to be examined. And yes, I am writing fiction, but I would like it to be reasonably accurate in the historical facts.

One of my first questions was what was German Station like and would the Jaeckels have gone there?

German Station was set up as a mission station by German Lutheran missionaries in 1838. It was originally called Zion Hill (now the area of Walkers Way in Toombul) and was on a hilltop about eight kilometres north of what is now the Brisbane CBD. The missionaries were attempting to convert the local Turrbul aborigines to Christianity. In their zeal, the Reverends Carl Wilhelm Schmidt and Christoph Eipper managed to establish the first free white settlement in Queensland with 19 adults and 11 children.

Sadly for them, the mission wasn’t a huge success and the government of the day asked for it to be closed in 1846. Apparently their evangelical targets kept moving around and were hard to locate. In 1839 the penal colony closed down and the settlers lost government backup. However, they were self-sufficient farmers by that stage and were able to continue until 1846 with the formal closure of the mission.

Schmidt went to England on the closure of the mission and joined the London Missionary Society. He then worked in Samoa until his death in 1864. Eipper joined an exploratory trip to the Wide Bay area to find a new location for the mission before moving to Braidwood in NSW where he remained until his death in 1894. I don’t know what happened to the other missionaries, perhaps they simply stayed on, having established homes and farms. Or perhaps they moved up to Wide Bay.

Zion Hill rapidly became German Station and then became Nundah in approximately 1882. A railway station was built in 1882 and called “German” (apparently so that it wasn’t called German Station Station) but the name of the station was changed within six weeks to Nundah. The post office followed suit but the name of the state school was not changed until 1896. For many years any mention of the area referred to “Nundah (formerly German Station).”

Lots of German migrants went to German Station on arrival because they could be sure of German speakers, hospitality and advice. Even after the mission closed, there were many German settlers in the area, those who hadn’t wanted to venture too far from a relative comfort zone.

So the answer to my question is that the Jaeckels might have gone there, but that it wasn’t a necessary step. The actual mission had closed down by the time the Jaeckels would have arrived (1866) but there were German-speaking support services available. Some German migrants started out there, others didn’t. If people were confident free settlers who wanted to immediately take up land, they could pick a direction and set out.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Starting with questions, finishing with…?

Having sent off the first book with trepidation, I’ve started work on the second. When I say started work, I don’t mean writing. Like any task there’s a vast amount of preparation to be done before the actual act of writing (and a lot of work afterwards, but that’s another story).

I was inspired to go back and look at the questions that I had thought of right at the beginning of the first book. This was way back in March 2007. It seems a long time ago. Now I’m sitting here on our first sub-zero Celsius morning in years, trying to type clearly. It’s harder than you think.

When I started out, I wanted to know things about what my protagonists would have known in advance about Queensland, what they brought with them, what the journey was like, and the all important one, if they were tempted to give up, what their options were. I also wanted to know how they selected a claim, what they would have seen on arrival and on the way to Ipswich, what they would have seen when they got to their claim and what everyday life was like.

The first set of questions were immensely relevant to the first book. The second set of questions were bumped to this second book. I had originally planned to get the Jaeckels all the way to their new home in one book. This was when I thought I was writing a nice single clean stand-alone book. When it messily morphed in my head into a trilogy, I decided just to get them to Brisbane and make the second book about the whole process of settling into Queensland. In addition to the original questions, I now want to know:

* What the German mission in Nundah (or German Station) was like and if they went there?
* What were Brisbane/Ipswich/Frederick like in 1866?
* What paperwork would they have had to do to get land?
* Would they have travelled on their own or with others?
* Was their movement entirely free of restriction once they were in Queensland?
* If a bonded passenger had joined their group, how would things work with their government contract, ie, would the Jaeckels have to take up the contract on this person to keep them with the family?

Rather than keeping on referring to the first book, I should tell you that it has a title: “Outwanderers” from the German word for migrants. My spellchecker does not like this word at all. I don’t have a title for book two yet. I suspect, like the first book, it will eventually acquire a name somewhere towards the end of the writing. It seems like some kind of slow process: osmosis or growing a plant from seed (or having a child). One day after much agonising, a name suddenly seems to fall into place. It’ll be interesting to see what happens second time round.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

First fire of the season

Today I tidied off the top of the wood heater. All summer it acts as a black metal shelving unit in our kitchen. Books, knickknacks, bits of paper, coins, dust all accumulate. Then it starts getting cold and I start looking at it and thinking about cleaning it up. It’s a big job. First there’s all that stuff. Then sweeping the dust and removing cobwebs followed by wiping down with a damp cloth. Well-read newspaper must be located, the kindling pile raided, wood heap replenished, matches found, the fire laid. Clearly mine is not a Zen household of order and calm.

Finally the first flames flicker behind the glass. I watch anxiously to see if the chimney is drawing. This year you can stand on the new back landing and look straight up at it outside. Last time the fire was lit, I had to go down a flight of stairs, through the laundry, out the back door and crane my neck to see the roof.

The measure of success of the preparation is how strong the smell of dust burning is when the fire is finally lit. That and the wonderful warmth thrown into the kitchen. Tonight we’ll test how it copes with heating the new part of the house or if we simply have to accept that as a cold zone.

Today was a good day: warmth and very little odour. We might not have order and calm, but we will be warm as temperatures dip low and winds rise.

Friday, 5 June 2009

A slice of farming

Yesterday I saw a pair of plump grey wallabies lolloping over the dam wall behind our house. It isn’t our dam, but it is in the gully behind our house. Birds paddle and dive in it, cows used to drink from it and almost every evening at dusk, the wallabies come out.

There have been flocks of glossy black crows cawing endlessly at first and last light.

Mr Blithe saw a bandicoot scampering across our scoured and rutted driveway. We’ve never seen them in this area before.

Nature is thriving and I suspect that one reason is that the hillside behind the dam is being cultivated for the first time in thirty years (plus all the rainfall). Our new neighbour (friendly but quiet) is growing a crop of zucchinis (also friendly and fairly quiet). When I get out of bed, he is out there and when I am heading for bed, I see the headlights of his ute sweeping across the hillside. We’re not used to seeing headlights out our windows.

When he planted the seeds the mice were thrilled. He spent weeks spraying the crop twice daily with chilli and mustard spray. Most of the plants seemed to have survived.

This week we could see yellow splotches of flowers across the hillside. Every day the zucchinis are handpicked into big red buckets. The crows and wallabies are feeding well too.

I’m reminded of the old sayings about the wallabies eating out the settlers and the descriptions of every field being enclosed by four-foot high paling fences to “stop the wallabies, bandicoots and cattle.” Now I am beginning to understand the necessity. I’m also developing an appreciation of the hard work that goes into growing organic vegetables. I do hope that the return is good. Next time you buy organic vegetables, think of the work (and yes the epic battle) it took the farmer to get them into your hands and try to smile at the price.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009


Last night I submitted my manuscript to my first publisher. On their website, they say that it can take “from half an hour to half a day to reject a manuscript and a lot longer to accept one.” On their automated acknowledgement email they politely suggest you assume that you haven’t succeeded if you hear nothing after three months. I’m taking this to mean that if I hear in the next week, it won’t be good news, nor would it be if I never heard anything. [I’m really not sure of the grammar in that sentence but I’m too tired to work it out and the grammar check is letting it through, so…]

Perhaps I was being unduly superstitious, but I put in a huge effort to get the submission sent off yesterday. Mr Blithe was away in Canberra, I am deep in planning and preparing for Blithe Girl’s birthday party on Saturday, all of the family are either actively unwell or under the weather and I was running a sideline of interviews and questionnaires for work. It really wasn’t the best day to be working on my submission. But I have to get it done and yesterday was my self-imposed deadline. I managed to send it off in the tiny amount of time between putting one lot of children to bed, the return of another child from her evening activities and Mr Blithe’s return from the airport.

I felt like I had run a marathon. Several writers have suggested that first novels are rarely published and that every writer has one in their desk drawers. I didn’t want to leave mine lying there. Whatever happens, I’ve given it a go.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Pretending to be a food blog

Instead of telling you about such gory country things as the beheaded mouse my mechanic found in my car engine yesterday (he declined to search for the head and told me that I might notice the smell of bbq soon), or how busy my week is, or even the great deluge of last week that resulted in Mr. Blithe taking five hours to get home, I am going to pretend this is a food blog.

According to a local source, people in this area aren’t interested in history (by which she means boring things), but they are interested in exotic snippets from the past. Every time I make rosella jam, someone tells me that “My grandmother used to make it and I loved it. I didn’t think anyone made it anymore.” So forthwith, here is the lowdown on rosella jam complete with boring historical details.

Rosellas are:
a) a native bird in Australia.
b) The name of the mother of my best friend in primary school.
c) The fruit of a small shrub brought to Australia by Chinese miners in the gold rush of the 1800s.
d) All of the above.

Of course, the answer is d). Rosella jam though is made with c) the fruit of the Hibiscus sabdariffa which is a native of West Africa that is widely used in Asia as an ingredient in fruity flavoured teas and as a source of vitamin C in herbal medicines. The shrub grows to about 1.5 metres tall and has small yellow/cream flowers with a dark red centre that look exactly like a classic hibiscus flower in miniature. The fruit grow along the branches and can be quite hard to pick (garden clippers or heavy duty scissors are useful). One place in Australia that has seeds is here.

Some people call rosellas “Queensland jam fruit” which implies that it is a regional speciality. However, my Sydney-born and bred mother used to make rosella jam in Taiwan out of dried rosellas that could be purchased in large packets from the preserved fruit vendors in the market. She would reconstitute the fruit by boiling them gently before proceeding with the jam recipe. She was perhaps a regional anomaly.

We obtained our rosellas from a holidaying neighbour who asked us to pop in and pick over the bushes in their absence. From two bushes we picked a large plastic bagful. If you pick the fruit regularly, the plant can fruit for up to nine months in temperate climates.

To make jam, the calyx (calyces/calyxes/calices) need to be separated from the seeds. This is simple to do, but needs to be done with caution as insects love to shelter inside the calyx. We removed a multitude of ladybirds and a few spiders in the process. Our family looked like the perfect pioneer family sitting around the kitchen table picking over the rosellas. This lasted approximately three minutes till the Blithelings were disgusted by the insects, the hairiness of the seeds and the monotony. They also found that handling the fruit made them itchy although it doesn’t bother me.

After the calyxes and seeds are separated, the seeds need to be covered in water and simmered for about 40 minutes. This liquid is then strained into the saucepan containing the calyxes. The seeds looking like tiny boiled brains are discarded now.

At this stage I usually add additional water so that the fruit is well covered.

Bring this big pan to the boil and boil until the fruit is tender. The liquid should then be measured and sugar added in a 1:1 ratio (one litre of liquid to one kilo of sugar). If you are me, you eyeball it at this stage, adding sugar gradually while tasting until the right flavour is reached. Also if you are me, you might not have checked how much sugar you had before starting, and end up without enough to achieve the proper ratio anyway. Having used up all my regular sugar, the caster sugar and scraped the sugar bowl into the pan, I decided that it was sweet enough (2.2 kgs of sugar to about 3 litres of liquid). Some people add lemon juice to the jam, but I think the fruit is tangy enough and the pectin from the seeds adequate without this. If you like a softer, “brighter” jam i.e, one that is cooked for less time, you might want to add a couple of juiced lemons. I personally like dark, rich jam so I cook it long enough to set firmly.

After adding the sugar, bring the mixture to a rolling boil. It will foam up a lot at this stage so make sure that you have a large enough pan. Keep the jam boiling until a spoonful of liquid placed on a chilled saucer wrinkles when you push your finger through it (about 40 minutes in my case). Turn off heat and let it sit for five minutes to let the fruit redistribute evenly.

Bottle as usual. Everyone has their preferred bottling method. I run the jars through the dishwasher, pop them in the oven to dry out if they aren’t totally dry inside, ladle in the jam, making sure that it is only about one centimetre from the top, wipe around the top of the jars, put on the lids, tighten carefully and let them cool. Jars whose lid “pops” get stored and the one or two jars that don’t seal properly, get eaten immediately.

Rosella jam is wonderful on toast with lots of butter or stirred through a bowl of greek yogurt. Make plenty of small jars as everyone wants some, historical artifact or not.

Monday, 25 May 2009

It’s official now

I had no idea of today’s date. That should have been a sign. The word of the day on my email account was “depredation” as in “the cold’s depredation of her immune system.” All I wanted to do after exercising this morning was go back to bed. The cawing of crows at daybreak left me nauseous.

The literary competition that launched the careers of such luminaries as Tim Winton and Kate Grenville (The Australian/Vogel Award) is only open to writers with unpublished manuscripts born after 1974.

I look at people driving by and wonder if they really are old enough to be driving a car. I think that women over twenty should abandon crop tops and babydoll dresses. I speculate on what someone’s tattooes will look like when they have had several children or are in a nursing home. I have to write notes to myself on my calendar about basic things. I went to a concert and thought that the music was too loud. I fall asleep watching television in the evening. I can no longer drink coffee after about eight pm.

It’s official: I am no longer a BYT (Bright Young Thing).