Friday, 27 March 2009

Past present

Mitsubishi has just brought its new electric car to Australia to start the required pre-marketing testing. Newspapers have been touting the i MiEV as the way of the future: an electric car that can be charged up overnight from a regular power point and can carry four people.

All other things aside, such as the fact that most electricity in Australia is generated in coal-burning power plants so that electricity is not quite the clean power source that it is marketed as, this is a car that goes 160 kilometres on one charge. After a week in which I seemed to spend a significant chunk of my time glued into the driver’s seat of my car, a 160 kilometre range seems laughable. For instance yesterday, between doctor, dentist, work for Mr. Blithe, the school run, the butcher and Blithe Girl’s after-school Italian lesson, between us, Mr Blithe and I drove over 200 kilometres. We’re only peri-urbanites, not even real country. A round trip into Brisbane is 100 kilometres. A weekend visit to my mother-in-law is 190 kilometres each way. One couldn’t do the trip in an i MiEV (at least not without pausing for an overnight stay on the way). When my mother was a child, the four-hour drive from Sydney to Canberra was a two day trip with an overnight camp on the way. It’s amusing that this great step for modernity would almost be a reversion to the past.

And we couldn’t fit the whole family into the car. This is an urban runabout aimed squarely at the average Australian, and probably the developed world family unit: one or two adults who mainly catch public transport to work and need something for shopping or daytrips. They might have a child or maybe two who need to be transported to daycare or school. I’m guessing child seats in the back would be a squeeze.

We are people who care about the environment, who drive fuel-efficient, boring four-cylinder petrol vehicles in as boring a manner as possible aiming for fuel efficicency rather than performance. We carefully plan most driving so that we can do as many things in one trip as we can. But like most country residents we are dependent on our vehicles for work, sustenance and everyday life. We have two cars because we have to. We also own land on which we regularly plant trees. One environmental group has suggested that people need to plant two trees per car per year and we are ahead of the curve on that.

What has this to do with local history or writing or this blog? Well, often I spend time thinking about how where we live affects every aspect of our everyday lives. I read articles proclaiming the end of the motor vehicle and I think about the impact of that on rural communities. I envisage a future where rural residents will either be forced to move into cities, compounding Australia’s urban population crunch or we will be anachronisms, the only people left in Australia driving vehicles powered by petroleum by-products. Perhaps we will even be sneered at as environmental vandals or protected as a vulnerable species.

Sometimes it is as interesting to speculate on the future as it is on the past.

Monday, 23 March 2009

The Queensland way

There is a certain Queensland way of looking at the world. In a quote from our ABC on the weekend's election result:

Ms Bligh is Australia's first elected female Premier but is not sure what difference that makes to her job.

"Ultimately I have to say I don't know because I've never done it as a bloke and I'm unlikely to," she said.
Something about her attitude appeals to me.

The world keeps turning

One of the first things I do each morning is to draw the curtains and fling open my bedroom window to see what kind of day awaits me. It’s one of the great joys of the new bedroom, having a bank of windows facing east (though the light was hard to adjust to until I installed thick curtains). The hills drop away below the windows down to the valley floor. A series of dams step down the gully. Each morning there are ducks on the dams, or quail scurrying from under the house, or a wallaby drinking from one of the dams. Right now the waterweeds are flowering and the surface of the water that isn’t covered with duckweed is dotted with white. The grass is thick and rustles constantly with the breeze and animal scurryings. Fist-sized dragonflies alight on the fence wire and the wagtails dart to try and catch them. Enormous grasshoppers heart-stoppingly leap up and disappear as suddenly.

Until this morning, the sun shone directly in my face as I opened the window. Today, the sunlight was oblique. The sun is heading northwards. Autumn really is here, in spite of the contradictions of continued warm days. The evenings now are cool and the mornings crisp. Still, this is Queensland in early autumn and t-shirts and shorts continue to be the order of the day even if one starts out wearing a sweatshirt.

My early mornings are now spent on the sofa rewriting the book. I get through about five pages in my fifty or so minutes of quietness. I read recently that writers are either “putter-inners” or “taker-outers.” I definitely fall into the category of putting in. I feel as though I am adding flesh to the skeleton that I have constructed. I have pages of paper covered with asterixis and arrows. I worry that my characters are too uni-dimensional or that the dialogue is bland. I try to avoid anachronisms while also trying to write in a natural conversational style. It’s hard work and who knows what will come of it, but it’s my work. I won’t spend my whole life wondering if I could write a novel.

The light moving across my page reminds me that the year is moving along. The election has been and gone. The minister relevant to my work has been re-elected, but who knows if she will retain her portfolio? Even if she does, research priorities and budgeting may change. I’m taking this time of relative quietness to recover from the renovations, organise myself and write what I can. The world keeps turning and I with it.

Friday, 20 March 2009

A thought for Friday

“Sometimes we hear it (this old continent) whisper to us in a voice only we who are part of its dust can understand. Listen in the silence and you will hear it; it sends out a message to us to humanise it, steep it in our affections, rear children on its lean soil who will cherish it, not exploit it.”

Vance Palmer, 1855-1959
Ipswich Boys Grammar alumnus, journalist and author.

See his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Some fun facts about Australian writers

Australia has a long history of cultural cringe when it comes to writing (more about that in another post). Meanwhile, I am reading a fascinating book, Susan Drury’s Writers and Writing. Published in 1979, its intention is “to serve as an excellent introduction to a wide and varied subject at a time when Australian writing is broadening its horizons.” It was recently culled from the school library and gratefully received by me as an antidote to my massive ignorance.

And now I share with you 10 fun and potentially useful facts about Australian writers (prior to 1940 which is where I am up to in the book):

1. “To achieve a high reputation in literary circles a writer must be published and read in other countries.” Susan Drury

2. There was actually a well-known Australian writer named Joseph Furphy. Do you think anyone believed anything he wrote?

3. The first “Australian made” book was convict Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton that was published in Hobart in 1830.

4. The first colonial-born novelist was John Lang. Born in Parramatta, New South Wales in 1818, his novel The Forger’s Wife or, Assigned to His Wife was published in 1855 (in England of course).

5. Early writers were as bitchy as modern writers. Furphy described the characters in fellow-novelist Henry Kingsley’s books as “slender-witted, virgin-souled, over-grown schoolboys.”

6. In the 1890s it was common to show one’s patriotism by inscribing the front of one’s novels as ‘For Australia” and signing letters “Yours for Australia.”

7. Henry Lawson was found dead (from excessive alcohol) in the backyard of a house in Abbotsford, Sydney in 1922, aged 55. His epitaph in this book? “Despite all the efforts of his friends he spent the rest of his life in misery and degradation.”

8. Frank Dalby Davison’s famous story Man Shy was only accepted by a publisher after Davison and his brother, desperate for money, printed it and sold it door to door for sixpence a copy. Beware friends when I start knocking on your door.

9. If you are a woman writer, you need a really cool name, preferably androgenous. Good examples:
Henry Handel Richardson (actual name Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson)
Aeneas Gunn (Jeannie Gunn or Mrs Aeneas James Gunn)
Miles Franklin (Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin)
Dymphna Cusack (Dymphna Cusack)

10. According to Ms. Drury: “Women writers are now usually judged simply as ‘writers’. They have the same range of topics open to the as men do and while some still choose to write ‘women’s novels’ of love and romance, many more write on serious topics of relevance to all people.”

My take home message? To be a serious Australian writer I need: a much more interesting name; I can’t write “women’s novels”; my preferred title of Quintus Servinton was taken long ago; I have to avoid alcohol and back yards and I must be published outside Australia.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

On a distant planet

There was still a slight smoky tinge to the mist this morning. No fire but just the lingering breath of burnt grass now dampened and wreathed by fog. All was quiet except the birds who were singing at full pitch. They apparently appreciated the storm last night much more than my children. It was a biggish storm with lots of wind and rain and lightening bolts of the kind that temporarily bridge the divide between heaven and earth. One of those strikes must have lit the grass higher up the hill. There was a flash, then a huge bang then the smell of smoke. From our new vantage point in the living room we watched smoke creeping down the gully and across the fields. It was more something to keep an eye on than to worry about. There’s a newly ploughed field between us and where the smoke was eddying and shortly afterwards there was enough water lashing down from the sky to deal with most fires. I became busy mopping up the water that was inserting itself horizontally through all the southern windows. There’s a price to be paid for scenic views.

This morning Marburg basked in bright sunshine and a brisk breeze. Driving south, the Tallegalla hills were mist-bound. I motored gently around the curves softened by cloud behind an elderly gentleman in one of the earliest model Subarus. The car was working hard to maintain 60kph and I was coasting along in third gear. I think he would have preferred to be overtaken and left in peace, but I was enjoying the quietness. The forest and cemetery were caricatures of Hollywood sets waiting for actors.

Usually when the crest of the hills is reached the entire Bremer valley spreads out in front of you, displaying its wares right to the Dividing Ranges. Today, even the blotch of the local rubbish dump was discretely veiled. Rosewood was cool and grey, on a different planet from the village on the other side of the hills. The only connection was that thread of burnt scent in the air.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Eating ideas

Waiting for a meeting to start one morning last week, I was flicking idly through a book on social determinants of health (hey there weren’t any Vogues or Readers Digests lying around and I am a geek). My eye was caught by a chapter on food and health. It wasn’t about the usual “eat proper food and you’ll be okay” although it did discuss appropriate eating. What it was about was the politics of food and food production. The single thing that leapt out at me was that as far as health researchers can tell, humans need to eat on a weekly basis 20 to 30 biologically distinct kinds of food. The chapter went on to discuss why we don’t and in many cases, aren’t able to do this.

Quite often I hear nostalgia for the way things were “back then” when we all ate healthy food and worked the land. When you think about it though, being able to consume a wide range of foods is a pretty recent phenomena. Without refrigeration, transport and modern agriculture, diets could be very limited and lives were concomitantly short and in some cases, painful. Earlier this year I read the The 100 Mile Diet and was impressed at the authors’ dedication to eating locally. They did however, find it very difficult in winter when the selection of fruit and vegetables available in a 100 mile radius was extremely limited. For many weeks they lived on potatoes, cabbage and carrots. Not only were they bored, but apparently it would have affected their health (although their moral superiority would remain impeccable.)

I have family members with experiences of very limited choice in food. One lived on onions and bread even when she was pregnant. The child of that pregnancy is shorter than siblings born in later years when food was cheap and varied. Another relative lives in a part of the world where there are no green vegetables available in winter. They eat vegetables preserved in summer and anything that they can sprout inside their house. These things do have marked effects on their health.

So although I am greatly in sympathy with many of current concerns about what and how food is grown, processed and distributed, I also think that people sometimes tend to forget how difficult everyday living was even a handful of decades ago here and how little food many people around the world have. After all, it is the well-fed who have the luxury of being concerned with such things as carbon footprints, food miles, organic, biodynamic, free-range etc. We are the ones who can worry about eating for health rather than simply to stay alive.

Here in Southeast Queensland we are incredibly lucky with the range and quality of food available to us. Even if I bound myself to a 100 mile diet, I would still be able to eat mangoes, peaches, cherries, pineapples, apples, pears, seafood, grains of all kinds, exotic and less exotic vegetables of many kinds, meat, dairy products…the list goes on. For many migrants to this area it must have seemed like some kind of paradise. My mother-in-law remembers being astonished by all the food and fruit available when she arrived in Brisbane and learning for the first time that you could put on weight simply eating fruit.

And now instead of going off to till the fields or search for my dinner, I can sit down to count my food groups and types. I wonder, do broccoli and cauliflower count as biologically distinct given that they can cross-pollinate?

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The winds blow

Coastal central and southern Queensland are on a cyclone alert. At the moment “Hamish” is slowly rotating off the coast about 150 kilometres northeast of Bundaberg and moving southwards parallel to the coast at about 10 kilometres per hour. It is big (category 4 out of 5) and slow moving. Reports are not yet in on the colour of his hair.

November through April is the cyclone season in Queensland. There is some confusion even in Australia (someone asked me yesterday) as to the difference between a cyclone, a hurricane and a typhoon. The technical definition is “non-frontal low pressure system of synoptic scale developing over warm waters having organised convection and a maximum mean wind speed of 34 knots or greater extending more than half-way around near the centre and persisting for at least six hours.” (thank you Australian Bureau of Meteorology). Again, according to the BOM, “If the sustained winds around the centre reach 118 km/h (gusts in excess 165 km/h). then the system is called a severe tropical cyclone. These are referred to as hurricanes or typhoons in other countries.”

So technically Hamish being a category 4 or Severe Tropical Cyclone, is also a typhoon (if you lived in Asia) or a hurricane (the Americas).

Having thus enlightened myself, and possibly you, I’m wondering if I need to throw in a cyclone for the Jaeckels as their ship heads down the eastern coast of Australia to Brisbane. I’ve finished the main story, but a cyclone is very alluring as a narrative device.

In real life of course, it can mean strong winds, rain and coastal flooding. We are receiving peripheral winds which means rattling windows and active trees. Much needed rain is forecast over the next few days. South-eastern Queensland rarely is badly affected by cyclones. They lose intensity rapidly once landfall is made as they draw their energy from warm ocean waters. If you look at the map of Queensland, south-eastern Queensland is astonishingly far east of central Queensland. This is what saves it and incidentally also what drives SEQ calls for daylight saving.

There have been cyclones that affected Marburg. According to local lore, our road became a dead-end when the big gully washed out during a cyclone in the 1890s. Previously it was the main route to Minden and points west. When it rains heavily this same gully funnels vast quantities of water off Two Tree Hill and I can imagine the road being washed away. I remember the sight of roads, bridges and even massive power pylons swept away or twisted beyond recognition by typhoons in Taiwan. According to news reports, this is a bad cyclone season. With a month or more to go, I’m hoping that the predictions are wrong.

I loved this picture on the BOM site of the historic paths taken by cyclones around Australia. It doesn’t say the time period of these but I imagine that it is a period of many years. As you can see, although cyclones tend to avoid land, there have been some major incursions. The “most squiggly” bits are right where many ships had to pass to reach Australia if the northern route was chosen. It was all a bit of a gamble for the ship, but then so was getting on a sailing ship and going to the other side of the world.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Friday frivolity

It has been hot for the last week. Not just hot but still, humid and temper-inducing. Reading Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens (a light-hearted lark through the possibilities of Armageddon that shouldn’t be, yet impossibly is, hilarious) a line that perfectly described this week leapt out at me: “The air had a leftover and reheated feel.” Thursday morning at approximately 4.05am autumn arrived. Spirits lifted with the drop in humidity and temperature. Even the hillsides looked cheerful. Birds sang more brightly, mosquitoes dove more desperately, suddenly aware that their time is now short.

Friday is my favourite day of the week. Not because of the imminent weekend, though that helps. It’s because all my commitments for the week are over. I usually take the older children to school, come home, catch up on chores, have a cuppa and put my feet up while reading our free local rag – the Moreton Border News. This is not investigative journalism. This is what you read when you want to know what is on in our immediate local vicinity. There are photos of schoolchildren, reports of new playgrounds, local prizes and awards, who is doing what and to whom.

My personal favourite is the several pages of “Country Classifieds.” Where else could you locate?

A brand new mincer and sausage maker.
A complete nursery in beige, maroon and green for only $500.
A 17 ‘ wood boat with an outboard.
An 800 watt car amplifier.
Size 10 high-heeled dress sandals, copper colour.
A Mazda 626, engine corked up, unreg. $500.
A 26” chisel plough tyne.
A jet-black yearling colt.
A 23’ windmill, needs some repairs.
1955 International McCormick tractor.
Give-away assorted used garden pots.
A military saddle.
1600 acre lifestyle farm, 200 acres cleared with income potential.
30 Brahman heifers.
Figs, suitable for jam.
Craft ostrich eggs.
A breeding pair of rats.
Chook yard to be dismantled, 14 backyard chooks, one tame friendly rooster.
An ex-army generator.
22 Pokemon videos.
A blacksmith’s gate-leg vice.

And that’s just a selection of this week’s offers. Can you wonder at my fascination?

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Westward ho!

It has been suggested to me that I might be a little less cranky if I read less science fiction and listened to more country music. I gather that the science fiction gives me a jaundiced view of the future and if I listened to country music I would realise how well off I really am. After all, my husband hasn’t left me, I don’t have a dog to die on me and I don’t depend on the land or weather for my livelihood.

All these are good things of course, but I suspect a little Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn is more likely to drive me to increased despair than to cheer me up. On the other hand, my daughters have introduced me recently to a lot of music that I would have previously classified as country, but which are according to iTunes, “alternative”, “roots” or even “pop.” It just makes me feel a little old.

However, never wanting to turn down good advice (actually I often turn down good advice but I’m trying to be a better person), I’m reading Joanna Hershon’s The German Bride which is the fictional account of a German Jewish woman in the 1870s who migrates with her entrepreneur husband to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is a fascinating read mainly for the descriptions of the emotions of this sophisticated Berlin girl who ends up in the rough edges of frontier America. I picked it up at our wonderful mobile library service and borrowed it on the basis that it was endorsed by Maria Doria Russell (yes another scifi writer). It’s probably a bit literary for some tastes (see the review in the New York Times Sunday Review of Books), but it also provides a strong plot line and galloping narrative which can be missing in some of the more literary-loike/boring novels.

Reading this novel hopefully will serve the dual purpose of background information for my own writing and de-crankification. I’ll let you know how it works. Given its characterisation in the publisher’s blurb as “gripping and gritty portrayal of urban European immigrants struggling with New World frontier life in the mid-nineteenth century” it may not provide much cheer. I may yet have to rely on country music.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Making it real

How do you write about the past in an interesting way, full of rich historical detail without sounding didactic? Dorothy Dunnett managed it, Georgette Heyer managed it, Kate Grenville manages it, Jean Auel didn’t really. Lili Wilkinson did it brilliantly for young adult readers.

Scholastic has a fantastic range of historical books for children written as “contemporaneous” diaries. I’ve read several of them and found them fascinating and well written.

I have to find my own voice. Mr Blithe was concerned that the early part of the book that he read tended a bit to the didactic. It was only towards the end of the book that I found a more comfortable style and really got to know my characters so that I could make them speak in realistic ways.

I have a few loose narrative ends to tie up then the first draft is finished. My next task is to go back over the whole book and smooth out the rough bits. Make it more real and less teacherly. I’ve been looking at historical pictures of ships and Brisbane in the 1870s so that I can build up a mental picture that I can in turn transform into words and show through the eyes of the Jaeckels. This wonderful picture of the Lammershagen reminded me how relatively small and dangerous were these ships that crossed the world. Something about the picture simply engenders a feeling of excitement and adventure. I want to bottle that somehow and sprinkle it throughout my book.

Image courtesy of the Queensland State Library

I’ve even had an excuse for playing with Google Earth, sending myself flying around Cape Moreton, through the Bay Islands and up the Brisbane River. I’m telling myself that it’s all only in the interests of research.