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..

Monday, 28 December 2020

This Year's Reading in Lockdown.

Like many of us, my reading increased this year, eight months of which were in some degree of lockdown. When I totted up the books I'd read I was surprised to find it fewer than I'd anticipated, coming in at 70 although that includes the wonderfully mighty tome of A Suitable Boy. I'm so glad I read it before the drama series popped up on Netflix, which I loved, although I felt Lata's mother was not so large as life as in the book. 

I wasn't able to travel using my passport or, for several weeks, venture further than 5 km from my home, but reading took me to many parts of Australia, New Zealand, India, United States, UK, France, Sweden, Israel, Afghanistan, Kenya, Nigeria with brief visits to Thailand and Indonesia, Ethiopia and Brazil as well as in transit from Syria to UK. 

Most of my reading was set in recent years but I also travelled back to the early nineteenth century, late nineteenth century, the early twentieth century, 1920s, the 60s and even did a bit of time travel back and forth and into the future. 

My reading has been largely catching up with the dozens of fabulous Australian authors I'd not come across before, indeed, some of my reading being debut novels just out. Women authors far outweighed males in my choices, not because I was aiming to read women, (or avoid men,) but because their books  appealed to me. 

I've also read many more short stories and flash fiction than usual in online journals. While I read some brilliant flash fiction and short accounts of people's Covid lockdown experiences on 100wordsofsolitude and The Cabinet of Heed's stream-of-consciousness-special (and had a piece of mine published in the latter) I tended to avoid these after a while, opting for non-related themes. 

Here are the twelve books That came top in my enjoyment rating.

Vikram Seth: A Suitable Boy

Pip Williams: The Dictionary of Lost Words

Leah Kaminsky: The Hollow Bones

Leah Kaminsky: The Waiting Room

Charity Norman: The Secrets of Strangers

Christina Dalcher: Q

Delia Owens: Where The Crawdads Sing

Tara June Winch: The Yield

Leah Purcell: The Drover's Wife

Inga Simpson: Where The Trees Were

Craig Silvey: Jasper Jones

Joanna Nell: The Great Escape From Woodlands Nursing Home

And in case the worst happens and we get another lockdown, I still have War and Peace on my shelf and I was given an epic 933 pager for Christmas, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Let's hope I can read them without any constraints around me, although neither will be my first choice to read on the train as they won't fit in my bag.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

A Very Special Book - Animals Make Us Human


Leah Kaminsky, author of two excellent novels, who I follow on Twitter began tweeting about a forthcoming book Animal Make Us Human that she and fellow author, Meg Keneally were editing.  Comprising a number of essays about animal encounters accompanied by beautiful photographs, the book was conceived to raise money for the Australian Marine Conservation Society and Australian Wildlife Conservancy. 

The plight of Australian wildlife came to prominent attention almost a year when wildfires swept through much of Australia. The loss of 173 human lives was devastating. This shocking number was massively outstripped by the loss of wildlife. An estimated 3 billion mammals, reptiles, birds were decimated. Retiles and amphibians were the hardest hit.

The desire to help raise money for the important work that conservation agencies were doing to help animals injured or orphaned by the fires along side general conservation projects resulted in the idea for the book and the call went out for contributions that soon came pouring in.  

Australia's unique wildlife has been under threat since colonisation. Massive loss of habitat and introduction of non-native species as well as hunting of animals considered to be a threat to farming has wreaked havoc on Australia's fauna for over two centuries. People are increasingly urbanized and dislocated from nature. 

My own knowledge of Australian flora and fauna is limited - something I found quite hard when I first came to live here last year. Although no expert on British wildlife, I could identify a number of trees, wild flowers, birds and butterflies. Arriving in Australia I was surrounded by plants and trees new to me. Staying in a Melbourne AirB&B three years ago, I woke to some exotic birdsong. Internet research told me it was a magpie. So different from the British magpies that rattled away in my North London garden ash tree, I wasn't sure if I could believe the information, but observation soon showed me it was indeed the large Australian magpie.

The first bird I saw in the tiny garden of my new house just over a year ago was a - blackbird. I'm very pleased to hear his beautiful song as he sits in a tree-top and sings his heart out but I confess I was hoping for a uniquely Australian bird. They soon arrived. Not many, but so far the garden has hosted  red wattlebirds, a very noisy little wattlebird, butcherbirds, a pied currawong, (seen and heard only once) annoying little common mynahs (non-natives) and nearby I see and hear beautiful rainbow lorikeets, magpies, magpie-larks, galahs, sulphur crested cockatoos and, once, a sighting of a beautiful blue superb fairy wren. Venturing further with my sister, an expert birder, I saw and learned to identify a number more, although she saw far more than I did!

Back in my garden, skinks and huge woodlice hide beneath stones and golden orb spiders spin webs. A few butterflies flit around (not yet all identified as they will not keep still) and bees visit my lavender. 

Encounters with mammals have been more limited. The lettuce and tomato-seedling eating possums bouncing over my roof at night did not endear themselves to me, but now my tomatoes are flourishing in a cage and my lettuce garden lives in a hanging basket we are on better terms. Sometimes at night we examine each other through my window.

Before lockdown, I met the famous bats/flying foxes of Kew (who now have their own Twitter account after a very nasty local MP suggested exterminating them.) On our walk in Cranborne Gardens, my sister and I encountered a large wallaby, and on our trip on Puffing Billy the train stopped for an echidna to take its time to cross the line. I've encountered an Australian fur-seal having a bask in the sun on a hot day and enjoyed seeing pods of dolphins on a cold grey day while walking the Bay Trail. Now we are able to get out and about I hope my wildlife encounters will significantly increase.

Reading this beautiful book, my knowledge and appreciation of Australia's wildlife is developing rapidly. I've learned of species I'd not been aware of and am learning more about their habitat and nature but this isn't a text book. It's a book of wildlife encounters, some by experts who are studying animal behaviour, others by writers, many of whom have written books I've mentioned on previous blog posts, who have enjoyed unexpected relationships with the animals who live in their gardens or local environment. 

This important book is also a call to help make us all more aware of the plight of Australian wildlife. I for one don't want my granddaughters to read about animals that once lived in the country of their birth but are now extinct.

This is a book to dip in and out of, to savour and to come back to again and again. It's fast becoming one of my precious books.  

Animal Make Us Human, published by Penguin Life 2020 is widely available in bookshops. 


Thursday, 22 October 2020

The First Blue Dress

This week sees the publication of one of my short stories. Another is to be published in the very near future. The two stories are written in different styles and were submitted to different publications at different times and accepted at different times so it wasn't until news of their publication coincided that I realised both stories featured blue dresses. Very different dresses though. One is a dull blue with white spots, which the wearer hates. The other is a beautiful long dress, the colour of bluebells, which the wearer loves but feels might not be suitable for a midweek morning. 

A Girl Can Dream is published this week in Yours Magazine (edition 361) in the UK. 

The story, originally titled A Dress Made for Dancing was inspired by a real person I met through my work. Cathy, a wheelchair user also had dysarthria, a speech impairment, as does my story's Cathy. She also had an admirer called Alan but the rest is imaginary. One memory of the real Cathy, which isn't in my story, is how her speech would improve after a vodka and orange or two when we went for a jaunt to the pub. Sadly, it didn't prove to be an efficacious universal therapy tool for speech and language therapists. 

Both Cathy and Alan died many years ago but I deliberately used their names in their memory. I hope they would both approve of the story.  

Having said that, there have been a number of edits to my original story. One or two are fine, but many  I hate. I wasn't surprised to see it changed from my first tense to past tense but the number of clichés, including its new title, that are now dotted throughout are horrible. The final sentence too, has been changed into another cliché! My image of Cathy in her beautiful blue dress was a lot more glamorous than the illustration. I wanted my story to show a wheelchair user looking absolutely fabulous, and I think the blue cardigan (which was originally a little shrug) is more like the warm winter cardigan I've been wearing during lockdown than anything Cathy would have chosen! 

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Coping with Stage 4 lock-down.

I know I'm one of the lucky ones. Stage 4 lock-down was inevitable owing to the soaring rates of Covid-19 here in Melbourne but although I miss seeing friends and family, my income has not been impacted. My daily life has been curtailed but I have enough resources to be productive and creative. My ability to be content relies on seven things: regular conversations with my daughter; reading; writing; taking part in online events (I love Zoom;) streaming films/TV/live theatre events, my solitary walks and my little garden.

The amount of online events, many of them free, is staggering. I've listened to podcasts of author interviews, attended Zoom book launches, taken part in Zoom writing time and formal writing workshops (the downside here being, of course, not getting to chat to other participants.) As a result I've come across many more Australian authors and inevitably have bought their books. My book purchases have been - ah, rather frequent - in the past five months. (On the other hand I've bought only one tank of petrol during the same time - judging by my recent mileage I won't have to visit a petrol station until next year!)

I have been a beta reader for someone's debut novel and hope my feedback was helpful. I have a load of other events earmarked for future listening/viewing.

So what have I been reading? As usual a mix of old and new, authors from many different countries, some bought, some borrowed (I managed a trip to my local library during the brief period it was open) some downloaded. I'm continuing my Australian education so here are my books by Australian authors plus a couple of New Zealanders. Unlike my previous list these are not all set in Australia.  There are more awaiting me on my shelves!

Tabitha Bird: A Lifetime of Impossible Days
Alice Bishop: A Constant Hum
Emily Brewin: Small Blessings.
Liz Byrski: Trip of A Lifetime
Marele Day: Lambs of God
Shirley Hazard: The Transit of Venus
Sally Hepworth: The Family Next Door
Sally Hepworth: The Mother-in-Law
Leah Kaminsky: The Waiting Room
Leah Kaminsky: The Hollow Bones
Maya Linell: Wildflower Ridge
Fiona Lowe: Home Fires
Liane Moriarty: Truly, Madly, Guilty
Liane Moriarty: The Last Anniversary
Kate Morton: The Shifting Fog
Joanna Nell: The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker
Charity Norman: The Secrets of Strangers
Stephanie Parker: Josephine’s Garden
Leah Purcell: The Drover’s Wife
Angela Savage: Mother of Pearl
Graeme Simsion: The Rosie Result
Christos Tsiolkas: Damascus
Pip Williams: The Dictionary for Lost Words
Tara June Winch: The Yield
Charlotte Wood: The Weekend

One book, Kate Morton's The Shifting Fog, seemed rather familiar. I realised I had it read back in UK some years ago under a different title - The House at Riverton.  It was borrowed from my local community library, and fortunately was well worth a second read before returning it.  

There is one more book to mention, a non-fiction, Jess Hill's Stella Prize 2020 winner See What You Made Me Do, an in-depth investigation detailing domestic abuse. Not the happiest of reading, certainly but an important contribution to understanding another type of pandemic which has sadly increased world-wide during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. 

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Where the Sun Always Shines

At the beginning of the world Coronavirus pandemic, Crystal Kirkham came up with the idea of putting together a free online anthology containing a mix of feelgood poems and short stories to lighten the darkness many people were feeling.

Included is a story I submitted 'George's Letter' that is based on the story of my grandmother, that my mother told me as a child. I have added bits from my imagination and made a few tweaks but the basics are all true!

To download a free PDF copy go to: