Inspiration

remembering valerie lester

‘Do with your writing what you’re doing with your life,’ Val advised sagely. ‘Be brave.’

- from The Latte Years

Val and I on one of her friends’ boats in Annapolis, June 2007.

Val and I on one of her friends’ boats in Annapolis, June 2007.

My beloved friend, and the wonderful writer, translator and scholar, Valerie Lester passed away in June. How grateful I am that our paths crossed when she visited Hobart nearly 20 years ago. I owe her a great deal.

She was one of my greatest and most enthusiastic cheerleaders, set many wheels in motion for me and, as per the excerpt from my book above (which she loved), always encouraged me to be resilient and brave.

“I exhort you to keep writing,” she said in her last email to me.

Bloody Mary’s (I think!) in Annapolis, July 2007.

Bloody Mary’s (I think!) in Annapolis, July 2007.

A few weeks after Val’s passing, I learned I had been accepted into my PhD program, which I’ve now begun in earnest. I would have so loved to share that news with her. My PhD project was inspired by a tiny bit of research she asked me to do for her while she was writing her book about Phiz (Dickens’ principal illustrator), so it’s been nearly 15 years in the making. I hope I will do her proud. The project so far has been thrilling and I think it's going to be a real adventure. I'm so grateful to Val for leaving the first few crumbs on the trail for me.

What a talented, generous and fascinating person she was. I have so many happy memories of her and her husband Jim when I visited them in Annapolis in 2007. Most of them involve jazz music, poetry, and gin and tonics! They were both such dear friends and I miss them both very much.

With Val and Jim, Annapolis, July 2007.

With Val and Jim, Annapolis, July 2007.


Go well, dear Val. Until we meet again.  

women in media tasmania launch

Virginia Trioli and Caroline Jones, speakers at the event.  Image credit

Virginia Trioli and Caroline Jones, speakers at the event. Image credit

Women in Media (WiM) Australia is  a nationwide initiative for women working in all facets of the media – from journalists, creatives and media advisors to those working in public relations and corporate affairs. Their mission is simple but profound: to improve the working lives of women in media by addressing fundamental inequalities in the sector - in pay, conditions and opportunities - and to empower women to achieve their professional goals.

WiM now has chapters in every state and territory of Australia, with the launch of the Tasmanian chapter at the world-renowned Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart a few Sundays ago making the initiative truly national. I was delighted and honoured to attend the launch as the guest of the Launceston Freelance Festival and spent a wonderful afternoon meeting new people, making some valuable connections and being truly inspired by some of the stories shared.

tasmanian-women-in-media-1

At a time when media freedom feels very shaky, it was a balm to be in a room bustling with energetic, passionate people who believe in the incredible power of storytelling, and the obligations we have to those who trust us with their stories to be brave and back ourselves.

The full room was testament to the generous spirit on which WiM was founded, supporting the wellbeing and advancement of women. “When I started in journalism, there was nothing like this. Women doing my job were very rare,” said Dr Caroline Jones, distinguished broadcaster, who gave the opening address. Caroline is probably best known for being the first woman to anchor the current affairs program Four Corners as well as presenting on ABC Radio National for many years. She is also one of my personal heroes!

Dr Caroline Jones

Dr Caroline Jones

“In my early years I would have loved a women in media group to belong to - to learn how to cope with information overload, how to stand my ground, how to avoid the dreaded imposter syndrome,” said Caroline as many heads nodded around the room.

And then there was the incredible Virginia Trioli, formerly of News Breakfast on the ABC and now host of Mornings of ABC Radio Melbourne, who gave a blistering, moving and powerful keynote address, sharing her experiences of being a ‘difficult’ woman in a very difficult industry. She spoke about the #metoo movement (“we keep men’s secrets, and we do it without even thinking”), about the need for support networks (or rather, escape hatches and safe rooms, as she put it) for women in journalism so it can be easier to stand up for ourselves when we have to, and about the need for truth in our stories, “even if it points out realities that might make you unpopular.”

Virginia Trioli

Virginia Trioli

I loved her honesty and courage and hung on every word (and live tweeted). “If we’re here for one thing it’s surely to be brave,” she concluded. “With others and with ourselves. In the end we can only ever make the calls we do, back ourselves and be brave...we have to be authentic and candid and let the cards fall where they may.”

Virginia Trioli’s wonderful speech was followed by a Q&A with her and Caroline Jones, and then we watched a wonderful short film from the ‘Women of the Island’ series by director Rebecca Thomson. “Everywhere you look, there is a woman with an interesting story,” Thomson said. So very true! Participating in this day really fired me up about storytelling and getting back into my own work, telling the stories I want to tell about the lives of women I’ve met through research, imagination, chance and circumstance.

The Tasmanian Women in Media committee getting some well-deserved applause!

The Tasmanian Women in Media committee getting some well-deserved applause!

It was a magnificent day - a testament to the power, talent and generosity of women in media - where I met so many interesting people and made lots of valuable connections. I even got to shake the hands of the two speakers and tell them how much their work and shining courageous examples have meant to me. “Just be yourself,” was Virginia’s Trioli’s parting advice to me as she left. Words I strive to remember every day, in my work and in life.

I can’t wait to see what the Tasmanian chapter of Women in Media does next!

I attended the day as the guest of the Launceston Freelance Festival and very much appreciate their support!

This weekend, Women in Media are holding their national conference at Bond University in Queensland.

keeping a promise

uts-creative-writing

I have wanted to do my PhD for a very long time. Apparently I even talked about it at school! In my last year of my BA I remember it being all-consuming, and being devastated when, convinced I was speeding merrily along that path, I reached a dead end after my Honours year. 

But life went on. As some things ended, I found new beginnings. I moved interstate, then overseas. This time last year, more than 15 years had passed since reaching that dead end. Tom and I were packing up our lives in London, our flights back to Australia booked, his visa safely approved. I was in a routine I’d been in for years, though admittedly at the tail end of it. The daily grind. Happy enough but wondering if this particular dream would ever see the light of day after the best part of two decades in a cupboard. 

If anyone had told me a year later I would be enrolled in my PhD and attending seminars at University of Technology Sydney, meeting my supervisor who is one of the most creative, motivating and intelligent women I’ve ever met, well....I would have wanted to believe it. But I still thought it was unlikely. 

I entered the UTS building last Thursday and thought I would explode with joy. I sat at tables with some of this country’s brightest minds, most respected historians and highly praised writers and thought.....I belong here. Not in an arrogant way, you understand. I am honoured and beyond grateful to be here, but I also know this is where I’m meant to be. These are my people. This is work I understand and want to do with all my heart.

But this isn’t happening because I was ready. I thought my PhD was still years away. I’m here and doing it because life decided I was ready. After all these years, the space suddenly opened and when it did, I didn’t question it. With encouragement from some wonderful people, I jumped. 

This feels like the biggest journey of my life. Bigger than the move to Melbourne or London, bigger than the quest to get fit and healthy, bigger than the marathon. This is the keeping of a promise to my younger self, my most essential self. I want to look back on my life and know that, despite taking the scenic route, I did not fail her. 

So if you’re reading this, wondering if your own dream - the biggest dream of your true, most authentic self - will ever happen, please take heart.

Trust yourself and the timing of life. 

And never, ever give up. 

william, an englishman: a book for its time, and ours

persephone-book-1-william-an-englishman

William, An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton was the first book published by my beloved Persephone Books in 1999, a reprint from the novel’s original publication in 1919. If you don’t know about my love affair with Persephone, do check out this post to be brought up to speed!

I stockpiled a number of Persephones before leaving London and this was among them. I read it at bedtime over the course of a few weeks, not something I’d recommend, as it’s not an escapist read to send you off into a dreamy, calm sleep. But it is an incredible book for its time - and for ours.

William and Griselda are young newlyweds, both heavily involved in various causes and social justice, extremely earnest and ready to fight for what they believe in. But they are in actual fact very impressionable, have been swept up in these various movements that were rocking the social foundations of Britain in 1914 (namely socialism and suffrage), and parrot the beliefs of the movements they support, as opposed to analysing and considering them, determining their own moral compasses rather than blindly following a crowd. They think they know what “fight” means but really, they haven’t a clue.

They honeymoon at a remote rural cottage in Belgium in August 1914. After three weeks of contentment, they are blissfully unaware of the world around them (they don't know war has been declared, let alone that Belgium has been invaded) and they don’t even speak the language so they cannot understand the warnings from the farmer's wife who cooks for them (despite everything it's amusing that William and Griselda are so oblivious).

On the day of their departure, they go to the farmhouse nearby to arrange for the boy to carry their suitcases to the train station, as he did when they arrived. Instead, they find the house deserted, with all the people and animals gone, and a lot of evidence to suggest they left in a real hurry. Bewildered, William and Griselda begin their way into the village to the train station on foot, when they are captured by the invading German troops. They finally learn what has happened and from that moment on, are caught up in the brutal, cruel horrors of war - a real one.

Cicely Hamilton spent the entire First World War on the frontline in France - she wrote this novel in a tent during the hostilities. You can tell. This is a woman who saw the horrors of that war firsthand and was unapologetic about exposing the ignorance of so many people as to what was really going on, what "war" really means when you're caught up in the middle of it. As an Australian soldier I knew, who died of his wounds in Iraq some years ago now, said, "it's not beer and skittles."

At the same time, this novel is not entirely "anti war" - Hamilton actually goes after the pacifists quite a bit too, asserting that they live in a "paradise of fools", that the things that were happening in Europe were horrific and the British war effort was actually very important and vital to fight the evil that was brewing on the European mainland.

William and Griselda are initially taken prisoner by the Germans, and separated at this point. William eventually makes an escape and finds Griselda, whose clothes are torn and spirit is crushed, she is utterly traumatised. Hamilton doesn't spell out what's happened to Griselda - we’ve already worked it out. The restraint with which she writes this scene, when they are reunited, is quite extraordinary.

Weakened from injuries and lack of food, the pair attempt to get to safety through the Belgian countryside to the French border. They are helped by travellers along the way, managing to remain out of sight of the enemy. But a road accident weakens Griselda further - and a few days later, as a kindly villager gives them a lift in their cart, she dies lying on a pile of straw.

William then mercifully finds someone who speaks English and manages to get through the trauma of burying his wife. His Good Samaritan, Edith, helps him get the train to Paris and eventually another train and boat back to England, where he arrives a broken man.

Having seen the horrors of what is happening in Europe and determined to stop it, he attempts to enlist in the Army, but he is rejected because he doesn't meet the height requirement. "Oh don't worry, in a few months they won't care about that," William's friend Faraday consoles him. And oh how true that turned out to be.

In the meantime, William attends meetings that he used to go to all the time, full of fiery speeches to motivate everyone into supporting the socialist and pacifist causes, which he loved and felt a sense of community in. But now, he is appalled. These people aren't brave - he realises - for they have sacrificed nothing. They haven't got the first clue what he's been through, what thousands are going through, of the brutality, the horror of what he's witnessed and what he's so cruelly lost. And it must be stopped. Now is not the time for pacifism, in his opinion. He is incensed, enraged and utterly broken.

Eventually he does get accepted by the Army and ends up in what one might deem a communications job - he writes letters, takes dictation, files documents. But then William moves to the third phase of his character development - utter disillusionment. What difference has he actually made? He has done his duty, yes, but what has been the point?

“He hated the war as it affected himself, was weary of the war in general; all he longed for was its ending, which meant his release from imprisonment; but neither hatred nor weariness had blinded his eyes to the folly of that other blindness which had denied that war could be.”

Eventually, as was the fate of so many, he is involved in combat, suffers massive injuries, and dies quietly in a field hospital.


It is not a happy read, but Hamilton did not intend it to be. I think she thought people had their heads far enough into the sand and they needed a reality check. This book won the Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse, the highest honour bestowed on female authors in 1919 (probably the equivalent of the Stella or the Women's Prize today) and no wonder. It’s unforgettable. And I think it's just as relevant a read now as it was then.

to the east of your own island: remembering margaret scott

This is a piece I wrote for my old blog Green Ink, about 10 years ago. As today would have been Margaret Scott’s 85th birthday, I thought I’d republish it here.

When I was sixteen years old, my school held a kind of activity day in late October in the lead up to the end of the year and the Christmas holidays, when attention levels were drooping and we were in need of some fun, with the HSC (Oz equivalent of GCSE) exams on the horizon for most of us. The day was filled with workshops in various recreational activities designed around the theme of "Let Your Lives Speak", as per the Quaker ethos.

I signed up for the creative writing workshop which was to be run by Margaret Scott. Margaret was a poet, novelist and well-known intellectual, both throughout the state and on a national scale, and at this time she was a regular on Good News Week. Students and teachers alike were abuzz with excitement about her coming to the school - I, on the other hand, almost exclusively inhabited the world of nineteenth-century literature at that time (oh, how cool I was!) and didn't really know who she was. I was just interested in doing a creative writing workshop!

She gave us a topic to write on and we were given fifteen minutes to write a piece, and then we went around the room where everyone read theirs aloud. I was surrounded by students who I think quite fancied themselves as the top dogs of the arts at the school, and most of them eagerly volunteered to go first, with Margaret offering some brief comments, but nothing along the lines of "oh my goodness, that is amazing for one so young", which I think they were expecting! (I'm sure you all went to school with people like that!)

It came to my turn and I read my piece. When I finished, no one said anything.

Margaret started saying something, but then she trailed off and looked directly at me. Her eyes were so perceptive I felt like she could see right through me.

"Would you read that again?" she asked.

Being an insecure teenager with no confidence in my abilities, my immediate thought was "why? What's wrong with it?!" I felt very stupid! But I seem to recall the rest of the people in the room looking at me with a mixture of awe and envy. So, I read it again. Of the whole group, I was the only one asked to read again. And then the piece was discussed for almost the rest of the session, until one of the teachers supervising remembered that there were a few more people to get through! I can't even remember what it was about, but I seem to recall everyone's comments on the hidden symbolism in my piece making me sound far more in command of the craft than I actually was.

I never told anyone about it at the time because as I say, my first reaction was to be embarrassed, but I look back on that episode now with pride. Sometimes in my low moments I think back to it, and think that if a piece I wrote made a fine writer and scholar such as Margaret Scott have to think twice, then maybe I do have something.

It's a memory I treasure. Thank you, Margaret.

She passed away in 2005. It was only in the last few years of her life that I got to know her through her work, not just this memory. I love her poems, particularly the housework ones (which I'm trying to find a copy of) and I recommend trying to find her novel Family Album - if you're in Australia you should be able to get a copy from most libraries. It's a lovely book.

Do you have a moment like this that you look back on, to spur you forward?

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

CASTAWAY

 

Sometimes a neighbour's look, a post-card, a telephone call

will carry you up the shore of another life

and leave you gaping amazed at sudden jungle

a world away from the dolorous desk

the spruce back-yard, the brick-and-tile in Rosebud.

This glimmering shade's cacophonous with

unfamiliar names of long-dead pets and teachers,

side-streets in distant cities and faithless lovers.

The canopy's alive with flitting shapes unknown

beyond the confines of this island.

Here is the castaway's camp, his palisade,

contrivances he's fashioned year by year,

stores he saved from the wreck of his old ship

before it sank from sight beyond the reef.

Fragments of once-proud sails now patch his roof.

A saw, a pannikin hang by the bed

where every day he wakes alone at dawn

to a view of mountains. Those peaks rise

over the trees in a blue scrawl whose message

you seem to have read from a different angle

on the wall of sky to the east of your own island.

© Margaret Scott