Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The perils of literary-loike-ness

Merry Girl: “Mum, I have to write a new acrostic poem for the show.”

Self: (distractedly) “Why, Merry-Girl?”

Merry Girl: “Well, you know the one I did on the kangaroo?”

Self: “Yes, the one who ate oranges. I liked that one.”

Merry Girl: “The teacher says that it’s not true and that I have to write true poems.”

Self to Merry Girl: (calm parenty-type voice) “Well I’m sorry about that because it was a good poem. And poems are descriptions of things whether true or not. But if the teacher says that you need to do a new one, you’d better do one.”

Self to self: “What kind of stupid-arse comment is that? Haven’t they ever heard of Spike Milligan, Dr. Seuss, Edward Lear…? Who said poems had to be true? If they had to be true, there wouldn’t be any poetry in the world and no good literature either. I bet the teacher doesn’t read poetry or novels.”

Self to other self: “I’ve got to stop talking to myself like this. People are going to look at me even more oddly. And my children will roll their eyes even more.”

Several days later.

Merry Girl: “Mum, the book I’m reading is a bit scary.”

Self: “If it’s too scary, don’t read it then.”

Merry Girl: “But it’s a narrative and narratives have a problem that needs to be solved. The scary bad guy is the problem that needs to be solved. So I just tell myself that it’s all part of the narrative and I’m not scared.”

Self to self: (smugly) “ Clearly my daughter. Did I know what a narrative was when I was seven? I think not. Maybe this teacher is teaching her something. I might not have to send her custard with mustard after all.”

Monday, 27 April 2009

A winding road

I have a pair of capris that for some reason have a zip on the side of each leg. When I am wearing these and feeling jumpy, I can frighten myself walking into a room and hearing the slight jingling. I quickly look around to see what is making the rustling and if I have to do anything about it. I don’t think that I am an excessively nervous person, but with the rain and lingering warmth of the year there have been snakes and mice and rats and spiders galore everywhere. So I am a little twitchy.

I also have a bit of a thing about being under houses. The undersides of Queensland houses in particular are often festooned with an astonishing variety of eight-legged inhabitants and their webs.

On Sunday I was at the birthday party of one of Merry Girl’s friends. The party was held under her house. This was fine for the other adult guests all of whom were about 20 centimetres shorter than me. The children of course didn’t care. I had to keep stooping to avoid hitting my head and suddenly changing direction to prevent being draped in sticky webs. I didn’t want to look too closely to see what the webs contained – them being at eye level and all.

So it was all a little difficult for me. Somehow or rather though, the topic of our project on the history of local mines came up. One woman said that she had only found out a few weeks ago (via a photo in the local newspaper on the Picture Ipswich project) that there was a railway into Marburg and that coal went out on it. Another person was astonished to hear that there were coal mines in the area other than the large New Hope mine. As we were on Cochranes’ Road I asked if anyone had noticed the old mine workings beside the road? Amazement all around. And the prominent decaying mine ruins on the Krause’s property beside the Rosewood Road? Further astonishment.

Sometimes I think that people don’t really look around them. They get into their vehicles and move from point A to point B without considering the landscape through which they move. Familiarity may also breed contempt. If you’ve grown up in an area you may never question why something is so or how things came to exist in a place.

To me, the notion of place is vital. How did we come to be where we are: socially, physically, politically, economically? It’s why I am a historian. That, and my sense of curiousity. I always want to know why, how and when.

It’s good to discover that people are interested in the topic of the book. Perhaps I can write it into the grant as market research. What’s the going rate for an hour of focus group research?

Friday, 24 April 2009

A weakly summary

Current visitor tally for week: 12 if the washing machine repair people are included.

Laundry: None (see above)

Meals: Too many to count, often prepared too late and in a rush. Some visitors fussy. (What’s not to like about potatoes? Or tuna? Or pasta?)

Paid employment: Squeezed between other things.

Writing: What’s that?

Exercise: Limited to gentle walking by virtue of back/hip/advancing decrepitude.

Jars of jams made: 14

Note to self: don’t tell people you make jam or they will offload all their surplus fruit and you will feel compelled to turn it into jam. And a jam compulsion is a terrible thing.

Blog-reading/news following/general connection with world: Is there a world out there?

Promise: To try to do better next week (see the weasel word in there?).

Friday, 17 April 2009

Stupid things I have done – Part I

[I have to call this Part I because I am sure that there will be many more parts to come given my track record.]

My day started with the discovery in the chilly darkness of early morning that I had been working on different versions of my edited texts. Trying to work out how to meld the versions and indeed, where I had started going wrong was a challenge. Doing it before my morning caffeine had taken effect was my first mistake.

Taking a break to think about the problem, I made my second mistake in checking my email. I found out that the Historical Society had received their grant for writing a book on local coalmines. This was more of a fright than a thrill at this stage. Proposed by my ever-cheerful though very busy neighbour, this new project arrives at a time when the three “collaborators” are increasingly busy and lacking in time. Normally this is the type of thing I would love to do – oral local history on an interesting topic that neatly ties together industry, commerce and social history. And we’re being paid to do it or rather, the production of the book is being subsidised. Finding the time will be the issue.

It’s the Easter school holidays and we’re heading into day two of a houseful of the children’s friends. I feel like I have been feeding, supervising and chasing children all week. I love the fact that my children have friends who want to come over. The reality of chaos is a bit daunting. Blithe Boy entirely eschews napping and my sanity goes on holiday without me.

We have weekend lunch guests so I set aside some time from kid wrangling to prepare. For some reason, or perhaps lack of reason, I decided that sure I could make soup from scratch including chicken stock. You know how one is always told to read the recipe all the way through before starting? Well I didn’t. What number mistake am I up to now? I didn’t realise that I would be making somewhere in the vicinity of seven litres of stock. In the middle of chopping six carrots, innumerable onions, picking 20 stalks of parsley, 15 sprigs of thyme and finding my whole peppercorns, I realised that I was outnumbered five to one by the children. I managed to avoid falling on my 24 cm chef’s knife in horror.

Four hours of simmering (the soup not me) later I ladled the first stock into a prepared container. The ladle of perfect golden brown richly scented soup contained a spider. It was only small and very well cooked. I kept going though I did remove the corpse. I also kept going when one of the containers burst over me. A burnt abdomen is simply par for the course today.

Having cooked those seven litres of stock my conclusion is that there is nothing wrong with buying stock. In convenience and price, it wins. The only hope is that this will be the single best leek and onion soup in the history of Blithe Hill. If asked, I will say that it is the special seasoning.

I realise that I am not cut out for the role of domestic goddess. And thank goodness, some of the children are leaving tomorrow, just not the noisy ones. They apparently belong to me.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

The serendipity of Indian summer

I don’t think that many people here in Queensland know the term “Indian summer.” It means that unexpected return to summer that occurs in autumn. Actually I realise that it might not be an appropriate description of our current weather because my OED defines it as “unusually dry warm weather” occurring in late autumn. We have the unusual warmth but also unusual rain. Today though is perfect – late afternoon warm sunshine and a cool breeze reminding me why exactly a person chooses to live in Queensland.

In the same vein of serendipity, I’ve recently found any number of lost items by the simple expedient of cleaning my desk and the immediately surrounding floorspace. Yes, I am expecting my parents to visit and they are the only people who audibly, volubly, profusely comment on my chaos. I believe it’s one of the prerogatives of parenthood: frank assessment of one's children well into adulthood.

I found a piece of op-art from the New York Times dated February 2006, from right around the time of all the fuss about James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces”, which if you remember was the memoir that was less-memory and more fiction. I’ve culled a few gems from it for your delectation. The piece was by Barbara Glauber, entitled “Judge a Book by Its Cover” and suggested some warning labels that could be placed on non-fiction books.

99% Fact-Free

The sequel will be fact-checked.

Fortified with white lies.

An independent analysis found only 23 pages with fabrications.

All dialogue kinda verbatim.

Our pledge: All fabrications caught by the 18th printing.

Author’s britches barely ablaze.

Some persons thanked on the acknowledgements page were no use to the author.

And my favourite:

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

History wars

Over the last decade or so in Australia there have been what has been dubbed the “history wars.” What these come down to is the clash between ideologies. One side believes that the arrival of white people in Australia started unfolding a terrible tragedy. Others subliminally (or overtly) believe in the notion of progress and inevitability. Some believe that Australian history should be taught with respect to and for, the original owners of the land. Others believe that respect is due to the “mother-country.” Still others fall somewhere in the middle and get shouted down by both sides. This war is fought in the media, in our national institutions such as parliament, in museums, in academic publications and occasionally by “regular people.” On one hand, you have to admire the fact that historical ideas are debated in the national media. On the other hand, you also have to realise that the proportion of Australians who consume such national media (such as The Australian newspaper, ABC or SBS television) is very small.

Last weekend’s Australian declared that the history wars are over, or at least old hat. The writer has clearly never visited Marburg. Regular readers are probably familiar with the fact that the name of Marburg was changed during World War One to Townshend. General Townshend was infamous for the siege of Al-Kut (160km from Baghdad) where after 143 days he surrendered his army of 12,000 Indian soldiers to the Turks. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica “This disaster became a national scandal for Britain and led to the immediate resignation of India’s secretary of state, Austin Chamberlain.” Of immediate interest to Marburg, Townshend was defeated by Wilhelm Leopold Colmar, baron von der Goltz or as he was known by his Turkish army, Goltz Pasha. Goltz was a Prussian who successfully modernised the Turkish army and was their key strategist in Mesopotamia.

Not only was Marburg forced to change its name, but to that of a disgraced general who had been captured by a Prussian. It was either a carefully calculated insult, or sheer carelessness. The tale of Marburg’s reclamation of its name has been told elsewhere. In 2009 however, the RSL Honour Board in Rosewood is being refurbished. In response to some public demand, the proposal was put forward that war dead from Marburg be listed as being from Marburg and not Townshend. The historical society was expected to support such a move.

After much discussion, the historical society has decided not to support a name change on the honour board. Instead they are proposing that a plaque be placed to inform the public about the former name of Marburg, the reason for the change to Townshend and the reason for the change back to Marburg when so few towns reverted to their original names. To members of the society, this is an important story about pride of community, the ability of committed people to work for change and indeed, historical veracity. The fact that in 2009 we see the name change as the wrong thing to do does not change the fact that it took place. What is important is educating people about what happened and why. It says important things about the wartime experiences of local German migrants and the realities of xenophobia in the Rosewood Scrub.

Some people are not happy. Rosewood’s honour board has allegedly been left out of an upcoming publication on Ipswich area war memorials until this issue is resolved. Phone calls are being made. Presentations and arguments put forward. Politicians are being lobbied. Skirmishes are taking place. Our history wars are not over.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Chasing the weather

By April 25th last year, the kids were sleeping in winter pyjamas and we wore jackets to the ANZAC service. I remember the wind blowing and how cold my hands were as the flag flapped above us. This year, it is still warm and muggy. ANZAC Day may well dawn bright and cold, but we have a way to go to get there. Today is 27C with overnight humidity in the 90 percent range. Our usual April dryness was in March and it has been raining for the last few days. Last night driving home from Rosewood in the dark, the rain was slashing towards us in the headlights and wreaths of mist were twining off the Tallegalla Road. Halfway down the Rosewood-Marburg Road, the road was dry. The chasing rain reached us just after we all got into the house and shut the windows.

All of our water tanks are full to overflowing. When it rains, you can hear the water flowing over the side of the tanks. We’re learning the ins and outs of the new part of the house – which windows let in water, where there are walls that need a bit of extra work, which direction wind rattles which windows. It’s like a new language. And there are parts of the old house that creak differently now that it has been twinned. I love the language of old wooden houses, but I also understand why some people don’t.

Mr Blithe pointed out that it’s been two years since I started the blog. This is exciting in one way and a bit frightening in another because I still am working on the book. I’m still “putting things in” which is one reason I spend so much time thinking about weather. How was it when the Jaeckels left Hamburg? When would the temperature have turned warmer on the trip? What was it like in Batavia? What was it like when they got to Brisbane? They left Hamburg right around this time of year and arrived in Brisbane four months later. In a normal year the temperatures would be about the same or a little warmer in a Hamburg spring as a Brisbane winter. Given the way the weather is fluctuating at the moment though, I have plenty of leeway to make the temperatures whatever I want. Or I could go for historical accuracy and do a bit of research.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Running writing

I have never taken any formal writing classes other than the required English classes in high school. The schools that I went to emphasised content over form or function. Creative writing was viewed as either something suspect or something that produced material that needed to be learned and critiqued in suitably serious and boring essays. I actually did pretty poorly in English in senior high school, not helped by a personality clash with one teacher who pronounced my writing “too slick.”

As an undergraduate at university, writing was simply something that one did to fulfil requirements. It needed to be clear, logical, well-footnoted and preferably showing the wide range of one’s library research and reading. I was seen as somewhat artsy/odd for prefacing many of my history and politics essays with literary quotes. In the interval between graduation and post-graduate study I was busy trying to earn a living and realising that working 9 to 5 and some evenings was hard work

Grad school was a swirling chaos of classes, always-unfinished reading, assignments due, a new marriage, part-time work, new country and culture. I had neither the energy nor the inclination to write. This would have been a great time though to get involved in writing classes -- time when my focus was almost entirely on things of the mind. The Twin Cities offered many opportunities for classes and writing groups and I didn’t take any of them.

I came home to Australia with 1 ½ children, no home and no job. Within a few months we had moved to a new city, had two children and Mr. Blithe was working. For about a year I lost myself somewhere in nappy-strewn, toddler angst-ridden suburbia. I slowly emerged when we bought a house in Marburg and started embedding ourselves into a new life.

Out of this rose my desire to write. Admittedly my writing, like my blogging and my housekeeping, is of the slow variety. It’s sandwiched into my everyday life, but I am wondering if now is the time to concentrate more on the technical side of writing. In every other thing that I do, I have had to learn how to do it. I usually learn by reading, researching and doing. Writing this novel is one of the few things I have simply done – no books on plot or dialogue or the mechanics of writing.

I see other writers who are part of supportive writing groups, or who thank a wide range of people in their acknowledgements who have helped them with their writing. There is a writing group in Rosewood albeit one that meets at an inconvenient time. There is a library full of books on writing and books on books. Our library even has mp3 books on “How to write.”

I was contemplating downloading one of those and listening to it when I run on the treadmill in the mornings. That way I could multi-task and I might even learn something. On the other hand it might not be particularly motivating to hear someone talking about writing while running. Something with a bit more rhythmic bass might do the trick. But then the children might wake up and I’d be neither running nor writing.