memories

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.  

when july was summer

Gin and tonics in our backyard last July.

Gin and tonics in our backyard last July.

Last July, it was summer, not winter.

Our one-way tickets to Australia were booked.

London wasn’t home any more. It’s a hard feeling to describe, when life is carrying on as much as it always has, but now there is no point buying plants for the garden, or that piece of furniture, for you know now there is an end date, and soon you will leave this corner of the earth. The house you live in and love will soon be someone else’s. You will disappear. It will be as if you had never been there at all.

Here is something I wrote at the time. Just some little observations. Things I wanted to remember.

Tom and I walking up to the street fair, July 2018

Tom and I walking up to the street fair, July 2018

8 July 2018

The third weekend in a row of high temperatures, the sun beating down, unfiltered by cloud. My shoulders tanned brown. Tom and I walk up to the village Green, where there’s a street fair. They’ve closed the road by the train station so the usually car-choked streets are filled with donkey rides, Enfield for Europe protestors, gin and tonic stands, a Mini convertible we know no one will win. The smells are intoxicating - Caribbean food, curries, kebabs, Vietnamese tofu grilled on hot coals, halloumi fries piled with pomegranate seeds.

enfield-for-europe-july-2018-philippa-moore

England are playing Sweden in the World Cup in a few hours so giant television screens are set up on the green, the air full of expectation. By the time we walk home with food for lunch, the streets will have emptied significantly. A few hours later, roars, screams and cheers will signal that England have triumphed. 

I linger at the plant stall, my favourite, full of varieties of sage and mint - apple, peppermint, pineapple. Heartsease, its purple flowers shaped like little hearts. House leeks, to ward off bad spirits. Thai basil, which I’m longing to cook with having been watching Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey. All the plants I would buy if we weren’t leaving. But it’s going to pain me to part with the ones I already have. I keep my coins in my purse and move on. 

plant-stall-london-philippa-moore

For weeks now we have lived on salads, veggie burgers, dips and raw vegetables, grains that can be cooked with water from the kettle. I can’t remember the last time I made pasta, soup or a curry. We have a little rain for the first time in nearly four weeks and my thirsty plants gulp it down.

The hard cantaloupe melon we bought yesterday, barely giving off a fragrance, is already ripe and begins to perfume the house. It is beginning to dip into a smell that is less perfume and more compost heap. I suspect we must eat it today.

melon-philippa-moore

The smell of over-ripe melon will always make think of that last summer in London.

PS: The reason for the photos with captions on them is because a few days later, on 13 July - bizarrely, coinciding with Trump’s visit to London - my phone died and I hadn’t backed up any photos since May. The only way I could access these pics was through Instagram stories!




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

dumplings and change

The face of someone who had been anticipating Melbourne dumplings for some years.

The face of someone who had been anticipating Melbourne dumplings for some years.

On our first night in Melbourne, we made a pilgrimage to my old favourite haunt from the days when I lived in this city - the Shanghai Dumpling House. An unremarkable building down Tattersalls Lane but within lurked the most glorious treasures imaginable.

From September 2005 to April 2007, you would find me there at least one night a week (and maybe one lunchtime too). Such was the lure of dumplings. And I loved the rough-and-ready atmosphere, completely devoid of pretension. It was a place I sought refuge in, for the stomach and the soul.  

At age 25, I felt so alive and powerful in this city, like anything was possible. I loved Melbourne and it loved me right back. While the city changed a lot in the years since I’d been gone, the dumpling house was like a little time portal, exactly the place I remembered. The menus, the tables, the staff, the prices, the urns of tea, the vats of chilli soy sauce, the strange 90s music they played...it was all still the same, every time I returned.

But on our return this time, it had changed. Nothing bad, the food was still yummy, but just lots of those little details were different, which means it is not the place 25 year old Phil frequented any more. That place only exists in my memory now. To not want to claim this space and ritual for myself anymore means acknowledging how much time has passed. While the dumplings were still good, I realised I was now just going there out of nostalgia, nothing more. And that was a surprisingly sad revelation. I guess we’ve all been there, revisiting somewhere that meant so much to us in years past, only to find it doesn’t quite stir the same emotions in us any more. But that’s good, it means we’ve changed. And change is life. 

So, on a friend’s recommendation, the following night we tried another dumpling and noodle house...which was a divinely delicious experience. If you’ve been to the Nong Tang Noodle House and had these chilli oil dumplings, you’ll understand.

nong-tang-chilli-oil-dumplings

So, it would seem that when the time is right, it’s surprisingly easy to move on, grateful for the memories but ready for something new. Especially if it involves chilli.

from the archives: my experience on an arvon novel writing course (part 3)

Aargh - 2010 laptop! 2010 phone! 

Aargh - 2010 laptop! 2010 phone! 

This week I'm sharing the blog posts I wrote about my experience at an Arvon writing course, to mark seven years since the experience! Please see this post for background and part 2 to catch up so far.

This day, 7 April 2010, was a wonderful day on the course, and I am grateful to have had such a timely reminder of the lessons and wisdom I gleaned from Morag Joss and Andrew O'Hagan

This post originally appeared on my blog Green Ink in April 2010, and has been slightly edited.

** 

Wednesday April 7, 2010

A difficult day.

Where do I start?

Found the writing exercises difficult in this morning's group writing class. I kept hearing my own voice coming through, as opposed to Ruth's. We had to choose a partner and share our morning's work with them - the gentleman I was paired up with, after hearing my story, revealed to me that in the late 1960s he knew one of Ruth's friends from Palmers Green, whom I mention a lot in the novel as he became a famous novelist. It set me on fire. The coincidences and bizarre twists of fate never seem to stop with this story.

I then sailed through the afternoon writing about Ruth and her husband meeting their novelist friend, who I have used another name for - I've named him after my dear friend and collaborator Neil - and I was so engrossed I missed by 2.40pm appointment with my tutor Morag! I ended up coming back when Morag was free at 3.20pm. I was filled with the ecstasy of having worked, really worked, on the piece for the first time in eternity.

I had given Morag two sections of The Memory of Us to read. She had a lot to say.

She said that I wrote beautifully - there were some parts of what I'd written that were very evocative indeed. But she was confused. Was I writing a novel, or a biography? Because from where she was sitting, The Memory of Us is a biography, just written in Ruth's voice. We talked a lot about the process of turning a true story into a piece of fiction. It is inevitable that you have to make stuff up, you can't just stick rigidly to the events as they happened.

"No one's life is a plot, really, is it?" she said.

I revealed some of my fears to her about the story, and told her a bit more about the obstacles and barriers I'd encountered along the way. Morag said many things to me, all of which I already knew deep down to be true. Particularly about needing to flesh out my characters properly, as people, not just people on pedestals. "You've got to be really impertinent," Morag urged, "you've got to kick down the bedroom door and find out what's really going on with these people. At the moment, it's all a bit too....chocolate box-y."

When a piece of work is so close to you, you know its flaws, its holes and gaps. You know what the problems are. But it was still very difficult to hear. Not difficult in the sense that I didn't agree with her, I completely agreed with her! But having someone else say these things to me would mean I would have to face it, do something. It felt like when I've been to see my counsellor, and I've come away with clarity, but so much to work on. When you've shone the light on something, that's it. There's no going back. You can't kept working blindly any more.

Morag was so kind, and I could tell that she really believed in me. But having had a person who I respected confirm my worst fears about the book, I spent the rest of the afternoon filled with dread. What the hell was I going to do with myself over the next few days, if all I was going to end up doing was shoving this manuscript in a drawer?!

I mentally prepared myself for a night in the desert (NB: spelled "dessert" in my diary originally! ha ha). I thought I would have no choice but to sit with my journal for hours, writing whatever was in my head until the answer came. If it came.

I was on dinner duty, so went down to the kitchen about 4.30pm and helped cook the meal for the group with the people I was teamed up with. Their company was easy and friendly. I focused on my task of preparing the mini meringue nests with as much alacrity as I could muster.

After dinner, the novelist Andrew O'Hagan came to speak. He read from his new novel The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn MonroeI found him fascinating. One of the students whispered to me that he reminded her of a young W.B Yeats. It must have been the glasses :) He had so much wisdom to impart, and I was like a vampire, wanting to feed on it all. Morag, before I had a chance to raise my hand, asked Andrew to share his experience of turning a true story into a novel as a few students - she looked at me - had been faced with this.

As Andrew opened his mouth to speak, I had a moment where I just knew every word would be gold and I wanted to memorise everything he was saying. My pen was poised at the ready! 

He said that stories belong to everyone. Nobody's story is theirs and theirs alone. When you live in this world and die in this world, your story belongs to the world. The world can use it and take from it what it wishes.

But what stayed with me the most was when Andrew said that we should never be worried about offending people with our writing, or whether people are going to be upset with us if we write about something that actually happened that doesn't fit with their version or perception of events. He said, "you don't have to apologise for being interested in this story." So many works of literature have been based on the life/lives of real people - Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe, to name but a few....there's nothing wrong with finding a story that inspires you, and then telling it your way.

It was like a light suddenly went on in my head. All this time I've been thinking that I could only write this story a certain way, to keep other people happy. But sticking slavishly to the facts and the timeline has got me nowhere. The facts have no life, no oxygen. I must bring them to life. The potency of my work depends on my inventive power. At the moment, that power is running low. To make my novel what I want it to be, I'm going to have to dispense with getting everything right. After all I, as the writer, have ultimate sovereignty, Andrew said. 

He truly was an inspiring man. I went up to him afterwards to thank him for his insightful words - I actually hugged him! Don't know what he must have thought of that, but anyway. Andrew O'Hagan, I will build a shrine to you, you are my God.

Then I went upstairs and wrote until 2am.

And then things took another turn.