Wednesday, 28 July 2021

I Will Not Write....


Whatever I write in future, no matter the genre, the format, I vow to never write the following unless it is integral to the plot which is highly unlikely.

I will not write:

Women who, when they are a weeny bit stressed about something, will be unable to eat, (and will fortuitously lose that stubborn pound/kilo or two.) My characters will probably definitely eat more.

Someone who orders a meal but does not eat it. Unless the restaurant has to be evacuated for some dramatic reason. Or as a statement. My main character in my almost-certainly-never-to-be-published comedy novel took such action. When a date commented that she was overweight and ‘should do something about it,’ she did. She ordered an expensive meal then walked out leaving him with the bill. As you do. She then went home and finished of a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, but still, she took action.

A character who will have a lengthy conversation with someone who is about to get in a train that is ready to leave the station. (How do directors in film and TV dramas get away with this nonsense?)

I will not use the word ‘thrum’ which as writer, editor and reviewer, Bec Blakeney pointed out on Twitter, is now ubiquitous. She wondered whether every Australian editor was secretly adding it as an in-joke but it’s been in the last three UK novels I’ve read too. I think it's been in every book I've read  that was published in the past couple of years so it's definitely in some of the books mentioned below.

 

Continuing my appreciation of Australian authors, here are my latest good reads.

Mark Brandi: Wimmera

Mark Brandi: The Rip

Sue Williams: Elizabeth and Elizabeth

Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves

Pamela Hart: Digging Up Dirt

Craig Silvey: Honeybee

Tony Birch: The White Girl

Liz Byrski: The Woman Next Door

Gary Disher: Peace

Allie Reynolds: Shiver

Helen Garner: The Spare Room

Chris Hammer: Scrublands

Molly Murn: Heart of the Grass Tree





Tuesday, 8 June 2021

The School by Brendan James Murray - a brief review

I was fortunate enough to be sent a copy of The School by the author owing to retweeting his promotional tweet. A review wasn’t part of the deal but here it is.

Like the author, I've worked with many children, although my relationships with them were usually far more fleeting than a teacher’s and I’ve worked with very many teachers. Teachers of varying age and length of time in the profession, teachers of different subjects, they had one thing in common – a voice problem! Hence my sessions with them.

As we talked about the factors contributing to their voice issues, I got to know the frustrations and the stresses that many of them encountered, whether from pupils or the system (more often the latter) but sometimes I was lucky enough to hear the joys too. The latter were nearly all from the teachers who obviously loved teaching, were passionate about their responsibility to their pupils and, it seemed to me, were the most effective teachers, good teachers. Sadly, I couldn’t say that about them all. 

Brendan James Murray is one of those passionate teachers. (Hopefully without a voice problem.) He listens to his pupils, endeavours to understand why those who demonstrate challenging behaviours do so. He aims to encourage not only an understanding of literature (his subject) or even a love of literature but learning about emotions and life. 

His writing is beautiful – often poetic prose – as he recounts the stories of some of his students and the significant lessons he has learned from them as well as those he has imparted, or tried to impart, to them. He looks back to his own schooldays to inform how he teaches. 

The reader shares the journeys some of his students made through an education system that is baffling to me (being from the UK) and frustrating in its inequalities for many of its teachers and students. Many students came from families who had their own struggles. Some students were to face difficulties most young people never even need to think about and as I read, I desperately wanted the best for all of them.

Many schools have fantastic resources but the best resource is inspired and inspiring teachers. The School has several. That some students recognised this was demonstrated by their arranging for their favourite teacher’s favourite author to phone him! (You’ll have to read the book to find out who it was.)

The School is a book I didn’t want to put down but neither did I want to race through it – as it deserved time and thought. Brendan James Murray’s writing is a joy to read. The School taught me something, made me think, made me laugh and made me cry which is about as good as a book can get.

 


Thursday, 20 May 2021

One hundred years ago...

One hundred years ago today, my mother was born about sixty miles from where I now live. She had a happy childhood in the small market town but when she was almost ten, her parents decided to return to Britain. The following is an extract of a longer piece she wrote when she was about fifteen as a typing assignment about her trip to England. 

May 1931

Aboard SS Demosthenes 

At last the time came to say goodbye and we took the train to Melbourne. As we lived  60 miles from here, I had never seen a ship close to, so of course I was quite impressed when we came on to the dock and found the big steamer awaiting us. I went on board feeling very important and we were shown the way to our cabin by a steward. I was asked if I would like to sleep on the top bunk but refused as I was afraid it might give way in the night; I didn't seem to realise at the time that if this did happen the person sleeping beneath would have come off worse than the one on top. 

Several friends came to see us off, they were able to come on to the boat and when it was time for us to sail a bell was rung – all visitors off – and the gangway was taken up. Costers on the quay were selling rolls of streamers which people on deck threw to their friends on the quay and vice versa, the passengers holding one end, the friend on the quay the other, and as the ship drew away the roll would be unwound until it reached its full length when it would break in two, each person holding an end. It was supposed to be bad luck if the streamer was dropped. It was a very jolly to see these streamers of many hues waving in the breeze.

The gong sounded for dinner and I had my meal first meal aboard. After looking around the boat we returned to our cabin and unpacked the things we should need for the night and I had to go to bed. It was difficult getting to sleep that first night as it was terribly noisy on board while we were being towed out of the port, until we got right out to sea.

In the morning my father took me up to the deck; it was a cold dull morning and several people were taking their daily walk round and round the deck. I soon began to feel rather weak on the legs, and feeling cold and miserable crept back to the cabin where I spent the best part of the next three days, alternately tucked up in a chair with a big rug round my knees out on the lower deck, looking very green and feeling anything but well, wondering how on earth people could dash around as if they were on land. However the sea-sickness soon passed and I was running around with the rest, and when new passengers embarked at other ports I used to think how funny they looked sitting in arm chairs on deck with green faces looking pictures of misery, forgetting I had looked the same.

I soon palled up with other young people aboard and we had a lovely time exploring the ship from engine room to bridge and most of what lay in between, making friends with the various stewards and in general enjoying ourselves.

 When we had been about three days out from Fremantle my father who had gone up on deck first thing, came down to tell us that we had turned around. He had noticed the sun was rising in at the opposite end of the boat from usual. Others had noticed the same thing and we wondered what was wrong. We learned that a fire had broken out in the hold where the coal was stored. Several hundred tons of burning coal were shovelled overboard during the night. Actually the position was far more serious than they allowed the passengers to know at the time, although we saw that the life-boats were prepared and swing out on davits for lowering if required, each fitted out with a barrel of drinking water, biscuits, a baling-out can, lamp, oars and other necessary things. We were all given life-jacket drill and told to which boat we must go if the alarm sounded. Fortunately the life-boats were not required as after we had turned back for 36 hours the fire was extinguished thanks to the bravery of the stokers, some of whom volunteered to go down to fight the fire; we saw them being brought up to the ship’s hospital being overcome by fumes below. When the fire was safely out it was decided unnecessary to go back to Fremantle after all, we resumed our course to Durban arriving four days late.

We had several sorts of entertainment on board. Concerts were held in the dining room, passengers taking part, we found there was quite a bit of talent on board. We usually ended up with community singing which always went down well. Sports were also very popular. There was skipping race for the children and one girl of about 12 skipped up to 1,000 and seemed quite capable of going on but they stopped her when she reached this mark. Some evenings we used to have films up on the deck. Music was provided by a gramophone with a loudspeaker but as they had a limited number of records, there were certain songs we were absolutely sick of by the time the journey was over. Another popular entertainment was Fancy Dress Balls.  People dressed up as all sorts of things.

Sometimes there was a cry of ‘Whales, whales!’ and we rushed to the side of the boat to see them but were always informed that they were not whales but porpoises, very similar to the whale but not so large. We often saw flying fish too. They are quite small but able to leap out of the water and take long skimming flights to escape their enemies.

The heat was often very great at night and some of us slept on the hatch-ways on the lower deck. We never had it very rough at sea although there were occasions when the waves swept over the sides so that anyone standing at the edge of the boat would get drenched, causing much amusement to other passengers. I recall fiddles, boards along tables to prevent crockery flying off.

The food was not terribly good on the boat although there was plenty of it and quite a variety, but we had rather too many salads, pies, rissoles made out of left overs which we did not always fancy. At dinner at night there was always a very posh sounding pudding on the menu but this would always turn out to be sponge pudding, with a different flavour or fruit in it. Sometimes we had chicken which was a treat, also ice-cream and fresh fruit as dessert.

Most of the adults nearly went mad at the sight of the White Cliffs of Dover but at that time they did not mean much to me, although I dare say I too, would be more thrilled now. We came into the Thames on Sunday and anchored there until next morning. It was a typical English day, grey skies and drizzly rain, although it was summer, the so say sunny month of June, giving us anything but a cheery welcome, and it seems to me it has been drizzling ever since. We docked at Tilbury at breakfast time the next morning. The adults were too excited to eat but I sat solidly though each course, seeing no reason why I should miss a good breakfast just because we had arrived at England. 

My siblings and I grew up with these tales and  I recall her telling us that during the fire on the boat, she was very concerned that her teddy might get burnt. She didn’t consider the rest of her parents’ belongings. She also recalled someone died on board and had a burial at sea. She was very keen to go and see what happened by her mother was quite shocked and said children would not be at the service, Afterwards she learnt that many of the children aboard did go and  was furious at having had to miss it. She celebrated her tenth birthday on board but I don't know whether this was really celebrated in any way.

My mother died just over four years ago and I greatly miss not being able to tell her about my experience of living in the country of her birth and asking her more questions about hers. So many questions. 

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

The Second Blue Dress

Back in October 2020, I posted The First Blue Dress about my story published in UK. Here is news of the second blue dress in the story that I wrote when I was staying in St Kilda  back in 2018. 

(That month in St Kilda was also the subject of a story which was shortlisted in a competition held by St Kilda Historical Society last year.)

I think most writers like some of their stories more than others, and this is one I'm particularly fond of, so I was delighted when it was accepted for publication. 

'Second Hand Rose,' is published by New Lit Salon Press in the USA in its new anthology Dress You Up edited by Brian Centrone. 

Whether, like a friend of mine, we order our clothes online in batches of several of the same thing, because we hate shopping, or we linger in department stores or tiny boutiques to find just the right garment or we make our own clothes, we all have a relationship with clothing and accessories. This collection brings these relationships to life and I enjoyed reading every single contribution.  

The anthology comprises twelve stories about a fashion item: there's a dress with hidden pockets, a jacket for wearing to heavy metal concerts, a statement bag, the wrong kind of school bag, a second hand dress, a wedding dress, a spectacular orange dress, a dress that billows like Marilyn Monroe's, a short hemline, a 19th century dress, a dress that's bought by the wrong person and a scarf that holds a special memory. 


My story was based on a real photo of my sister and me, where she (pictured seated) is wearing a dress similar to that in the story. I don't think I ever wore it, although many of my clothes were hand-me-downs, but the rest of the story is pure fiction! 

The pandemic caused some delays in the anthology coming to life, but the editor, the lovely Brian Centrone, kept the contributors in the loop with emails about its progress. It's worth the wait!


For details and sales: New Lit Salon Press


Tuesday, 16 March 2021

The Joy and Disappointment of a Short-listing.

I often enter a monthly competition, mentioned here which I understand usually attracts over a thousand entries. There is one winner who receives a cash prize, a few shortlisted entries whose stories are published online and a list of long-listers. There is no published longlist followed by the shortlist, followed by the winner; it's all announced on the same day. (Presumably the winner is notified individually.) In the nineteen times I've entered I have been longlisted twice. That felt pretty good. I was not expecting to get anywhere so those two listings were a nice surprise. 

But when I make a long-list with the short-list to be announced in a few days or weeks, I can't help feeling a smidgeon of hope that my entry will inch further up the ranks. Sometimes it does, sometimes not. But once I've hit a short-list that hope - which realistically should slide down because after all, only three will be placed - sneaks up a bit higher. Maybe, just maybe, I'll make the top three. Or even, could I even dare to think it, I might win. 

I hate that feeling of anticipation. Even though I tell myself not to get my hopes up, some tiny hope insists on lurking. Then of course it's usually dashed. Although one time when I did win a competition, I didn't even spot my name on the winning list and it wasn't until I opened my individual email from the organiser that I realized I'd won!

But a short-listing isn't bad going. In the last year I've made four shortlists. One went on to be Highly Commended. 

My most recent short-listing was with my second novel (the first remains unpublished) which I entered into the Hawkeye Publishing Manuscript Prize. This novel was started many years ago and was put away in my computer's 'Out of Sight Because It's Terrible' drawer after receiving some feedback from a peer critiquer that was so negative I lost faith in it. I wrote a post about it here. It came at a time that was difficult and I didn't have the energy to lick my wounds and get on with saying 'I don't have to listen to your opinions.'

I eventually picked the MS up and carried on faffing about with it but it was the Melbourne lockdown that made me really get on and complete it. I entered it into the competition. I will be receiving some feedback on it which I am looking forward to but also slightly dreading. 

But this little success has given me to believe that my MS isn't a complete waste of time. That although I know I like it, that others might like reading it too. That it has some merit and that I must polish it a little more and attempt to get it out into the wide world again. Whether I succeed or not is another matter.

Anyway, time to move on and get ready to welcome the box of kittens. If they'd consider bringing some chocolate with them, that would go down very well indeed.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

An Online Literary Festival.

This past week, some of it in a snap lockdown, has seen me spending a lot of time on my sofa or in my garden chair (the temperature has been hitting 30 for the past few days.) I've watched a good number of sessions offered by The Society of Women Writers Victoria in their For The Love of Writing Festival, celebrating their fiftieth year. The opening day was to be in person at The Library at The Dock, which I was looking forward to attending but the lockdown meant that too had to be wholly online. As the event was being filmed for those who couldn't attend in person, the transition to online was seamless. Except we didn't get to sample the lovely celebration cake made by one of the members!

Fifty events provided plenty of choice from early morning exercises for writers who spend hours sitting at their computers to hints and tips on getting published, bi-lingual writers talking about writing in different languages and how this affects their work, writing for young people, writing poetry, memoir, illustrating books and of course plenty of author events. 

There was even an online cookery lesson followed by a food writing (and eating) discussion. 

I couldn't attend all the events but I will be able to catch up on some I missed as they were all filmed and links will be available for a short time to ticket holders. 

For me the highlights included hearing keynote speaker Rosalie Ham talk about her writing, Kate Leeming's incredible cycling expeditions, from across Siberia, around Africa, around and into the interior of Australia and her plans to cross Antarctica. 

I enjoyed the presentation by Madwomen, Bridgette Burton and Christina Costigan, who set up an independent theatre company, Baggage Productions, and I was fascinated by Sue Smethurst's talk, Why Truth is Stranger and Better than Fiction, about her non-fiction books including The Freedom Circus, the story of her husband's grandparents death-defying act to escape the Nazis and start a new life in Australia.


Pip Williams talking about The Dictionary of Lost Words, which I read last year and nominated as one of my top reads (along with thousands of other people I suspect) was fascinating. Pip told us how, as dyslexic child, using dictionaries was a nightmare for her! Now she owns a copy of the first volume of The Oxford English Dictionary minus the famous word - bondmaiden - which is the basis of her wonderful novel. 


The talk with Lucinda Hawksley and doyenne of theatre and cinema, Miriam Margolyes, on Dickens' Women, both fictional and real, was informative and great fun with Miriam doing impromptu performances from her stage show of Sairey Gamp, Miss Havisham and Miss Wade. The audience was very disappointed to hear that Miriam would not be doing another live tour of Dickens' Women.

Susanna Fullerton, President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, gave a pre-recorded lecture on Jane Austen which was full of interesting insights. I've studied Jane Austen and her works quite a bit but learned plenty of new information. 

Jo Oliver's talk about her biography of artist, Jessie Trail, published last year was another highlight. She traced Jessie's life, career and travels from when she met artist, Tom Roberts, in Mentone, near where I live now, and also mentions when she visited him in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, near where I used to live!  

All in all, it's been a busy and stimulating week and even without the lockdown until Wednesday, I admit I wouldn't have wandered far from my sofa or garden chair!

See here for information about The Society of Women Writers Victoria


Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Furious Fiction.

On the first Friday of every month The Australia Writers Centre runs a flash fiction competition. 

Each has a set of criteria and writers have a maximum of 55 hours to write up to 500 words and submit their story. Sometimes I just can't come up with anything, other months I manage to get something in. 

This January the criteria spoke volumes to me. Reading of the appalling numbers of Covid-19 in the UK swamping the NHS including the hospital group where I worked and many of my former colleagues still do, this story almost wrote itself. The fact that the first Friday of January was also the 1st of January was significant. 

The criteria:

  • Each story had to begin at sunrise.
  • Each story had to use the words SIGNATURE, PATIENT, BICYCLE. (Longer variations were permitted.)
  • Each story had to include a character who has to make a CHOICE.
I was quite furious as I wrote my first Furious Fiction of the year.  I didn't win, or get shortlisted but did make it to the longlist, which for a competition that attracts hundreds of entries, apparently represents about the top 3% so I'm pretty happy! This story is for all those at the frontline of the NHS. 


Remember The Best Thing.

Today’s best thing will probably be the sunrise. You left home in the dark, to pedal your old bicycle to work because your partner needs the car. You left early anticipating the hill. You surprised yourself by not needing to dismount and push it. As you neared the top, breathing hard, you saw the magnificent sunrise – shepherd’s warning maybe – but beautiful none the less.

You have two critical patients in resus. Both need to transfer to Intensive Care for ventilation. There’s only one bed available.

You’re fed up with people who claim doctors think they’re God. How many times have you heard the tired old joke about the difference between God and a consultant? But it’s down to you now to choose which one gets the ventilator. And you know that later today there’ll be more who won’t even get a 50% chance.

At the end of each difficult day –there hasn’t been any other for months– you think of the best thing that happened. Sometimes it’s just that you actually got to drink a decent cup of coffee during your shift. Usually if there’s coffee at all, it’s the crap from the vending machine or a tasteless brew made from the last congealing granules in the bottom of an old jar in the staff room.

This morning, you stopped by the pond to take a breather, to gaze and admire. You revelled in the glorious feeling of freedom. London has its moments. You took a deep breath and watched it plume on the frosty air as you exhaled. You heard birdsong – there’s hardly any traffic on New Year bank holiday mornings.

As you pushed off for the last leg down the hill to the hospital, you envisaged the state of the Emergency Department. There’d be drunks sleeping it off from last night’s revels, cuts and bruises from alcohol induced falls, wounds from fights. You’ve seen it all before. But this year there’s the added factor. How many of them are now positive? If there’s a demographic that won’t be responsibly socially distancing, it’s those crowding into the centre of London to see in the New Year with the help of alcohol.

As you approached the hospital, you counted the ambulances stacking up.

And now, kitted out in full PPE – which, while vital, only impedes the normal examinations you need to make, you have to choose. An elderly, but previously fit man, tested positive, gasping for breath. Or the young reveller, with a near-lethal cocktail of drugs and alcohol in his system and severely depressed respiration. He has a history – he frequents the department. You’ve revived him on more than one occasion. He’s only alive because of your previous interventions.

You make your decisions based on clinical evidence. You are not God. But you wish you were so everybody would get what they so desperately need. You remember that one good thing happened today. Your signature on the form denotes you’ve made your choice. You trust it’s the right one..