Saturday, 9 May 2020

A year on....

Flowering gum tree.
May 9th 2019 didn’t really exist for me. I left London on the 8th and arrived in Melbourne on the 10th. The 9th passed somewhere in the sky.

I have been here in Melbourne for a year. On my arrival, none of us would have guessed how we would all be living a year on.

People have asked if I feel settled here and my answer is yes. I have my family and I have made new friends and enjoyed seeing my UK friend Claire who lives here too. I’ve yet to find my writing tribe. I joined a large writing group but its activities are more social than writing/peer reviewing. Another, nearer home, was simply writing time in a cafĂ© with no sharing or feedback which wasn’t what I was after. I’d just joined a new local group but before we could meet it had to be put on hold. Hopefully we can meet in the not too distant future and I’ll see how it works but I may need to start my own group as Rosie Canning and I did back in 2009 with Greenacre Writers.

Explorations of my new city and it environs have had to stop for a while of course and, like everyone else, my social life has ground to a halt but there have been a few compensations in this stay-at-home time.

I’ve had plenty of reading time and at last read A Suitable Boy which I started years ago but somehow got side-tracked and abandoned it having lost the thread of the story when I next picked it up. So glad I tackled it again. 

I’m still discovering Australian authors and have a (quite large) number of new books by my side – how grateful I am that we can still buy books.

My holiday in March had to be cancelled and my theatre tickets have been refunded but I’ve watched some of the National Theatre productions, streamed for all to see, and Australian productions too. I was also able to see Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights. When I heard this was to be staged I jokingly asked if he could please bring it to Australia, but I would rather it wasn’t because of a pandemic.  

I took part in a writing time session in UK’s Stay At Home Literary Festival and as a member of Writers Victoria, I join twice weekly for writing time via Zoom and recently took part in a day course led by Fiona Lowe which would have been in person but was also Zoomed. It was an excellent course which I hope to use to kickstarting a rewrite on my second novel which has been languishing in a file for ages. The upside of Zoom was that we didn’t have to venture out in the wind and rain although I was looking forward to meeting other participants in person.

My writing hasn’t been a huge success but at least I’ve been doing some. A lovely acceptance came early in the year for a short story (the first thing I wrote in Australia) but is yet to be published, and I’ve had a couple of minor non-fiction acceptances. I've been disappointed by several rejections but received an acceptance from Cabinet Of Heed’s Covid-19 Stream of Consciousness challenge the following week. 

It’s been a year of exploration and change for me in more ways than one, with the biggest here at present but I hope that this time next year we will all look back on the early months of 2020 and feel that we gained something even among the many sad losses.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

The Mysterious Case of the Invisible Boomer.

We are increasingly aware that some verbal discrimination may be unintentional. Making uninformed assumptions, some people may not realise (or even care) that what they are saying is biased and can contribute to harmful perceptions of others. It’s being called out and challenged time and time again and yet there still seems to be one form of ‘ism’ that occurrs frequently and remains largely unchallenged. Ageism.

As I grow older, I’ve become more and more aware of ageism, much of it I’m sure is unintentional, but it would seem it’s way down the list of taboos. Recently there has been a ridiculous stand-off on social media between older people moaning about so called Millennials and Millennials whining about Boomers. And perhaps by using the word moaning in relation to the older generation and whining in relation to the younger I have just displayed a form of ageism myself. (I was trying to be a good writer and not re-use a word.) A young Tweeter recently announced that ‘OK Boomer is not OK anymore.’ It never was OK! Currently there's a particulary nasty hashtag regarding Boomers  on Twitter being used by a few members of a younger generation. But far from all and neither do I assume that all Millennials do nothing but eat avocados. 

Ageism can be aimed at and disadvantage people of any age but in literature older people often find themselves totally invisible or if they do exist, depicted as the elderly eccentric or a stereotyped ‘amazing older person’ who pluckily joins in the action and surprises everyone including themselves! (Not that I’m against being bold or eccentric as I grow older but I’m not quite ready for that portrayal.) Literature’s older people are often written only as minor characters or in unflattering lights, or where there is an older main character, the content is often them recalling their youth. Their current life is of little or no interest and they are merely waiting out their last years until death like the charming Mrs Palfrey at The Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor.

Some authors have successfully bucked this trend. Harold Fry certainly took advantage of his retired years (The Unlikley Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce) as did Allan Karlsson (The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, along with his fellow Swedes featured in Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg’s The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules and its sequels, albeit in a somewhat surreal world!

Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie and Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing were poignant and had beautifully portrayed characters that showed a realistic, but nevertheless frail depiction of older age.   

Joanna Nell’s comedy The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village and Josephine’s Wilson’s Extinctions take a much more positive view, although they are realistic in that issues we may experience as we age are never far away, in these two very different books set in Australian retirement villages.

I have recently come across another Australian author, Liz Byrski, whose characters are mostly women in their 50s to 70s and are shown in positive ways, even when illness or other issues affecting older people are evident, such as bereavement after a long marriage. Their friendships grow and they overcome barriers as they take on new challenges.

Hilary Boyd’s novel Thursdays in the Park features 60-year-old grandma, Jeannie, who falls in love with a fellow grandparent after several meetings at the park with their respective grandchildren. Published in 2012, the book received some harsh criticism, presumably from younger people, because it was about people in their 60s having and enjoying sex. Apparenty that's not allowed. Someone called Lindsay Mannering on CafeMom website claims she's 'all for the elderly going at it' but I doubt she believes they do as she goes on to write:

So! All you blue hairs out there! Or you yet to be blue hairs who think you're too old to read Fifty Shades! Sounds like this gran-lit book is right up your alley. As America's baby boomers settle into retirement, maybe this book can help them visualize a sexy-time life outside of playing bridge and yelling at the news, or whatever it is that retired people do.”

It might be allowable for a few Boomers to have a moan about this Millennial's attitude. Eight years on, I hope Jeannie’s having a better sex life, none of which was explicit in the book, than this person who admits she hadn't read the book.

I've have read books with older characters, indeed I read one claiming to be a comedy that even had Boomer in the title. I thought it was dreadful, mainly because the characters all behaved like very immature 20 somethings or were the stereotype quirky eccentric. It wasn't funny either. 

Recently on Twitter a writer asked what age were the protagonists in people’s WIPs. Joanna Nell’s was the first response I saw with ‘89.’ There were 266 responses (at the time of writing this) and I jotted down the answers. I don’t know the genres of the responders’ WIPs but some were evidently fantasy and otherworld writers as characters were ranged from 130 years old to 12,000!

I guess a number of WIPs were aimed at children and YA genres as children and teens were well represented. I wasn’t surprised to learn that characters in their 20s and 30s were the most represented, 40s less so but still a fair number. I spotted only one protagonist in their 50s. Mine at 60 were alone as was the 89-year old! Now this may tell us more that the writers who happened to see that tweet were themselves the younger writers out there, which is good to see. But are older writers writing older main characters? And if we are, are we getting published? I’ve had no success with my novel about a 60-year old so far!

Let me know if you have written novels with older protagonists or have recomendations (with links to reviews, if available) about good novels with interesting characters in their 50s to 70s so I can do a follow up post.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Learning about Life from Novels

The first five questions of the quiz left me flummoxed. I had no idea which of the three named towns had the largest population or which was furthest north. (I'd come across only one of the towns!) Nor did I know the founder members of Cold Chisel or which city had a suburb called Erindale. I'd never  heard of a Hills Hoist, let alone knew when it was first maufactured.

I might have known more than a lot of people about the country in which I was soon going to live but the quiz nights I attended back in early 2018 when I was staying in Melbourne soon showed me how much I didn't know about this country. While I could answer some of the quiz's general knowledge questions, the world geography and classical literature, the local knowledge questions that most Aussies could tackle with an educated guess if nothing more left me floundering.

Since I arrived to live in Australia last May, about half of my reading material has been Australian novels and my knowledge gained from these has helped enormously. From slang to recent history, from geography to common culture, natural science to urban issues, novels have filled many gaps and helped me to feel at home. Of course my search engines have been busy too but information gained through reading novels has often been the instigator to further research.

I was having a conversation recently with a chap who reads non-fiction but was dismissive about fiction. I said I was learning a great deal from fiction but he couldn't seem to understand that fiction could be informative! Perhaps he sees the world only in facts and figures. But for me, reading about ordinary people, and one or two extraordinary ones, in realistic situations from recent history to present day, in cities, small towns or the outback have all contributed to a common culture that those who have lived in this coutry for a long time, even if not born in it, can take for granted. It's not just events or places but ways of thinking and attitudes. All have infomed my perceptions of this country and its varied people. Watching Australian dramas on TV has been informatve too.

I always get a thrill from visting places I've seen illustrated and read about in books and when I see a place I've been to in a film or on TV it's always 'Ooh, I've been there!' The same with books; if a book has real place settings and mentions specific locations I can see the character in the places I know and now I'm finding I can sometimes do that with books set in Melbourne and even, to a lesser extent, Sydney!

For those interested in the Australia stories I've read, here they are in alphabetical order. Some I've loved, some not so much but all have given me useful information and insights, food for thought and, of course, hours of enjoyment. Here's to the next 25.

J D Barrett: The Secret Recipe for Second Chances
Tony Birch: The Promise
Tony Birch: Common People
Liz Byrski: A Month of Sundays
Liz Byrski: Belly Dancing for Beginners
Nicholas Drayson: Love and The Platypus
Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection
Jane Harper: The Lost Man
Jane Harper: The Dry
Robert Hillman: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted
Catherine Jinks: Shepherd
Toni Jordan: Nine Days
Manfred Jurgensen: The Last Australia Day
Janet Lee: The Killing of Louisa
Eleanor Limprecht: The Passengers
Liane Moriarty: Big Little Lies
Joanna Nell: The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village
Peter Polites: The Pillars
Lisa Reece-Lane: Milk Fever
Holly Ringland: The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart
Kate Richards: Fusion
Inga Simpson: Where The Trees Were
M.L. Steadman: The Light Between the Oceans
Josephine Wilson: Extinctions
Tim Winton: Dirt Music

Monday, 6 January 2020

Australia is on Fire: how people are responding.

Sylvan Dam (1931) by Arthur Streeton.
This morning I attended a writers' get together at a cafe about 10 minutes drive from my home. As I drove home through the drizzly and smoky air, I wondered whether there was enough rain to help where it is needed in East Gippsland.

I reached home and looked about my little house that I bought 4 months ago. Smaller than I would like, still needing some finishing touches, it is nevertheless, home. How grateful I am to have it. Many people have lost theirs in Australia's rampaging fires. Everything gone. Seeing some of the TV footage, people talking about their experiences with smouldering, collasped buildings behind them is heartbreaking. Some people were clearly disorientated and traumatised, some unbearably sad and others angry. I have never been impressed by outbursts of hysterical weeping or by those who rant, but these people all moved me beyond words because each was in their own way incredibly dignified.

People are angry at the Prime Minister's poor response. I am too but this post isn't about that. It's about other people - those who are doing something. Every locality, it seems, has a facebook or other social media page for donations for the Emergency Relief Groups. These seem chaotic at first glance but my local one is well organised. All groups need to liaise with official authorities such as the State Control Centre (SCC) to ensure the right things get to the right places at the right time. Transporting items has to be done without hampering rescue vehicles or those needing to evacuate from endangered areas.

From food and clothing for those who have lost everything, supplies of snacks, drinks and toiletries for the fire-fighters - known here as fireys, suitable supplies for the vets and animal shelter staff helping the injured and orphaned animals, wildfood balls - made to specified recipes for wild animals and fabric joey pouches or woollen nests for injured animals and birds, the response has been incredible.

Centres have been inundated with goods and many have now put out pleas for no further donations, other than cash which goes directly to the various official accounts via one of the banks or directly to the County Fire Authority.

Authors have joined in with an auction on Twitter #AuthorsForFireys which is happening all this week until 11th January. See how it works here. (Many of the fireys who are fighting these fires are volunteers. Highly trained, but still volunteers, who have other jobs. Many, of course, have been released from those jobs during the emergency.) From signed books to feedback on manuscripts, there are all sorts of things up for bidding. I've made bids, but much as I would like to win my items, I'm very happy if I'm outbid too. Many, although not all, items can take bids from outside Australia, so hoping my UK friends might be interested in taking part too.

Friday, 27 December 2019

My favourite books this year.

I often read writers' blog posts about their book reccomendations because it's a great way to discover new books and authors but I tend to avoid those written by very well known writers because I'm sure some pick books they think they should pick rather than the ones that they really enjoyed.

I don't read only books that have just been published because my bookshelves and those at my library contain books published over the last 200+ years.

Neither do I read only books that have been listed for a literary prize, choosing anything that takes my fancy. Sometimes I'm delighted, sometimes disappointed. Here are the ones I particularly enjoyed in the order I read them.

Hanna's Daughters  Mariane Fredriksson. This Swedish novel has been on my bookshelf for ages. It spans 150 years and 3 generations of a family from rural Sweden to modern urban.

Burnt Shadows Kamila Shamsie. Another novel of family links spanning a time frame from the dropping of the Nagaski bomb to post 9/11.

The Killing of Louisa Janet Lee. A reimagined take on the true story of Louisa Collins, the last woman to be hanged in New South Wales. Convicted of murdering her husband there is doubt about her guilt. The first three of four trials failed to convict her. A great find in my local library.

Milk Fever Lisa Reece-Lane. Mentioned in my previous post. Another gem in my library.

Shepherd Catherine Jinks. Also mentioned in my last post and borrowed from my library.

Extinctions Josephine Wilson. Also borrowed from the library and mentioned in my last post.

The Far Field Madhuri Vijay. Another library book, this one set in India is the story of Shalini who travels from her city of Bangalore to find the salesman from Kashmir who regularly visited her home as a child and became a friend. She learns of the tribulations suffered by both Muslim and Hindu Kashhmiris.

The Passengers Eleanor Limprecht. I spotted this one in one of my local bookshops. Hannah travels from the US to Australia with her Australian born grandmother and learns about her life as a war bride.

Nine Days Toni Jordan. Set in Richmond, Melbourne another story told by members of 4 generations of a family from WWII to the 2010s. Yet another library book.

Love and the Platypus Nicholas Drayson. A fictitious take on the real scientist, William Caldwell, who was awarded a fellowship in 1833 to determine whether the platypus, a mammal, did or did not lay eggs. A library book that has taught me quite a lot about platypuses. (NB: Not platipi because the word is not of Latin origin.)

Looking at my list I see there tends to be a theme of family stories and history which was not intentional. Of the 58 books I read, 45 were by women which wasn't intentional either, I simply pick books that appeal. Just under a third were Australian authors, but they made up 70% of my best reads.

I did check out  a couple of library books including the Booker winner Milkman and within the first page abandonned them. It might well be brilliant but it struck me as pretentious writing and I can't just be bothered to read sentences that ramble on forever.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Guest post for Cath Barton's blog: Mining for Australian Literature.

I haven't been doing a lot of writing lately but I have been busy reading. I was pleased when Cath Barton asked me to write a guest blog post on my latest finds. Read it here.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

When you feel you've achieved nothing.

Since I relocated to Melbourne just over three months ago, I've hardly written a thing and the outcome of submissions just before I came here or the couple made since have unfortunately come to nothing, so I'm at something of a writing dead end. I had suitable pieces to submit to two competitions that I found online until I read the T&Cs and found they were limited to UK residents so I'm no longer eligible!

Inwardly berating my lack of achivement, a timely email came from the Australian Writers Centre on this very subject and suggested subsribers write down what they have achieved in the past 6 months, not limited to writing but anything new and different.

I made a list. It took a while.

I sold a home in London with all that entails, packed up my belongings, had them shipped. I relocated to Australia, been on endless house hunts and bought a small house. I registered with a new medical system, a new tax system, a new driving licence, dealt with the delivery of my belongings and organised their storage and then moving everything (all 81 boxes and packages) into my new place as well as organising services and buying new items to replace those I left behind - trying to work out which of the unfamiliar companies offered the best deals. I bought a car, and am learning my way round - it would help if the satnav wasn't having intermittent problems (yes, another thing to sort out!)

I don't want to know how much time I've spent on the phone (that, too, had to be set up!) emailing and making visits to the various authorities and retailers to achieve this! Needless to say there have been several phone calls to UK too to chase up things I organised before I left! Even worse to think about is all the bills that have had to be paid!

My list also included visiting a number of new local places, including my nearest library, joining several new groups and meeting lots of new people in order to get myself established here.

My experience may be no different from others who migrate, and I've had great support from my daughter and son-in-law in negotiating the systems of officialdom, to say nothing of furniture and box moving - a luxury many have to manage without, but it's still something to put in the tick box and I don't feel so bad about not having any significant writing under my belt.

It's wonderful to have my own front door keys once more, but there are still a number jobs to do before 'organise chaos' and 'start writing.' My reward will be refilling my bookshelves with books old and new. Although I'm still not sure yet where my bookcases are all going to fit.