writers

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

my favourite reads of 2018

Books should always be accompanied by tea and homemade cake where possible.

Books should always be accompanied by tea and homemade cake where possible.

In true Phil tradition, I wait until it is quite embarrassing to have a blog post with “2018” in the title to divulge my favourite reads of the last year. Also in my usual style, some of the best books were discovered and read in the final days of December, hence the long mulling over. But now I have decided and I hope you will enjoy hearing about my choices and maybe even be inspired to read them yourself. As always, I’d love to hear what your favourite reads of last year were too.

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

Full disclosure, Holly is a friend and I had been eagerly anticipating this book for years but I bought my own copy (which is the best way to support a friend who publishes a book! Buy it! Buy two! I speak from experience here) and was under no obligation to say nice things about it in public. But that is neither here nor there because I have nothing but nice things to say about it!

Lost Flowers is a read you won't forget in a hurry. Exquisitely written, this is a compelling story of grief, heartbreak, love, magic, wonder and redemption, with Australia's beautiful landscapes (bush, sea and desert) as the backdrop. Despite very dark subject matter, Holly has crafted a truly beautiful story that reads almost like a fairytale and brings it alive with luscious detail, particularly when it comes to Australia's native flowers, the vehicle through which young Alice Hart learns to communicate again after a violent family tragedy. 

But flowers can only say so much and the book's ultimate, powerful message is that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot run away from grief, from pain and from your past because it will always find you. There are some very dark times for Alice as she ignores danger signals time and time again - which is so unsettling as a reader, because you end up caring so much about her! - but Alice's story is, in the end, a hopeful one as she realises that facing pain and owning your story is the only way to move forward and claim your rightful place in the world. 

Books don't often move me in the way this one did. The storytelling is truly spectacular and the character of Alice Hart is the lost, frightened child seeking love and belonging that I think speaks to that part of all of us. Holly is a magical writer and I'd say this book is destined to become something of an Australian classic.

Someone At A Distance by Dorothy Whipple

I mentioned this book in my post about my love affair with Persephone Books which was well and truly rekindled in 2018. Someone At A Distance has probably been my favourite Persephone so far, and that is saying something, because they are yet to publish something I don’t enjoy!

Described as "a fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage", I was quite unprepared for how compelling and absorbing this tale would be. It's a novel all about relationships, how they form and also how they fall apart. Sometimes all it can take is 'someone at a distance' for that to happen. The novel follows what happens to this family when the husband/father is unfaithful, and the emotional devastation that has on everyone - there’s no great twist, per se, but the book’s genius and charm lies in how it explores the emotional lives of the characters, and how compassionately Whipple manages to do this. And I think Louise (the other woman) is by far the most repugnant character I’ve ever come across in literature. Dorothy Whipple was an extraordinary writer and I now want to read everything she ever wrote.

The Tuscan Cookbook by Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer

Stephanie’s Journal is one of my favourite books (it’s one of my mate Veggie Mama’s too!) - it is the diary Stephanie Alexander kept in the year 1997, which turned out to be a momentous one for her. She closed her famous restaurant in Melbourne, opened the Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder, and held three residential cooking schools in Tuscany with her friend Maggie Beer. I have read the journal countless times - at least once a year since I bought it off the sale table in Fullers Bookshop in 2001 sometime - but I had never read the cookbook that Stephanie and Maggie put out the year after the cooking schools, which naturally were full! Of course, it was published 20 years ago and it wasn’t easy to get a copy in the UK - but an Amazon secondhand seller came to rescue and I managed to get a copy that was signed by Stephanie herself! (I shall have to hope I run into Maggie sometime now that I’m back in Oz so she can sign it too!) It was such a treat to read this book after many years of imagining the cooking school, in the magical Tuscan countryside, and all the mouthwatering food they cooked. It has not only added to my enjoyment of one of my favourite books but it was a sumptuous read in its own right, with so many delicious recipes and ideas. So many recipes for cavolo nero, my favourite vegetable!

Home Cook by Thomasina Miers

I could not leave this book out of my favourites of the year, primarily because I cooked so much from it in 2018. Every recipe from this book that I’ve tried is an absolute winner. My favourite was the marmalade breakfast muffins, which I must have made every week for a couple of months, I just couldn’t get enough! When you’re an experienced cook it’s very rare when a book comes along that gives you new ideas and fresh energy to get into the kitchen and try some different things. Highly recommended!

The entire works of Diana Henry but particularly How To Eat A Peach and Food from Plenty

Diana Henry is fast becoming my favourite food writer. Her words are so evocative and poetic, you can practically smell what she’s cooking. This is a woman who loves food and has lived it. So many of the milestones in her life have a food story linked to it somehow, and I find this so interesting to read. Stories behind food and dishes, when they are told well, add greatly to my enjoyment of a recipe. I made quite a few dishes from How To Eat A Peach (which Tom got me for my birthday) over the long, hot summer we enjoyed in the UK last year and they were all excellent. It’s a lovely summery book, evidenced in the great variety of recipes for ice creams and sorbets (and such inventive combinations!). Perfect to sit with a cold glass of something indulgent and plan a dinner party with. Towards the end of the year, I noticed that nearly all Diana Henry’s books were 99p on Kindle for a few weeks, so I bought all of them (apart from the one entirely devoted to chicken, seeing I don’t eat it!). As with Thomasina Miers, it is rare for me to encounter a food writer that makes me want to actually cook their recipes as opposed to just soak up their exquisite prose.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E Stevenson

Also mentioned in my Persephone post and one of my favourites of theirs. Written in 1934 and hence reflecting the concerns of women at the time, without the financial security of marriage, Miss Barbara Buncle finds herself needing to supplement her already meagre income. She does what many people think will bring certain fame and fortune - write and publish a book! She writes a novel based on her village and all the people who live in it, thinking that changing names and writing it under a pseudonym will be sufficient to hide their true identities. To her huge surprise, her book (or John Smith’s book!) is a huge bestseller and her publisher wants a sequel, but lo and behold, all the villagers have read it, recognise themselves and their village immediately (which says it all, as some of it isn’t flattering!), are outraged and determined to find out who ‘John Smith’ is and make ‘him’ pay. No one suspects the dowdy and quiet Miss Buncle for a second, which is where all the hilarity ensues - but also makes an interesting observation that people often do have hidden lives and assumptions we make about others can so very often be wrong. It’s absorbing, intelligent and very charming.

84 Charing Cross Road / The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

“I used to go to English movies just to look at the streets. I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for. I said I'd go looking for the England of English Literature, and he nodded and said: ‘It's there.’” Oh, this glorious book. What a treat. I’d wanted to read it for years - and on one sunny Sunday in September last year I read it, the whole thing (my edition included the sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street), and adored it. Do you ever read a book and as you’re reading it you know you’ve found a new favourite you’ll read again and again? That was this book for me. If you love London and books, I highly recommend it. It’s as charming and delightful as everyone says.

The Fortnight in September by R.C Sheriff

Also a Persephone book and an unusual one in that it was written by a man! But this was one of the most accomplished, most finely observed novels I have ever read. The premise is so simple - we follow the Stevens family on their annual two week holiday to the seaside in Bognor Regis. They are a typical middle-class 1930s family and have been going to the same B&B run by the same people for a very long time. Their holiday is as well-planned and thought out as their daily lives in South London, Mr Stevens has thought of everything down to the packing of the suitcases, the timings of the trains and which beach hut to hire for the best perspective. The B&B isn’t quite as comfortable as it used to be - slightly shabby, the landlady a little older and dottier - but the Stevens family do what they’ve always done and make the best of things. It’s an absolutely fascinating novel and so finely and accurately observed. Like I said, such a simple premise but the novel manages to capture all the big concerns of life within it - love, hope, disappointment, home, family, the passing of the years. I also loved how the very feeling of being on holiday is captured in this book - how the arrival at one’s destination is so anticipated and exciting, and then the days begin to roll by faster and faster and before you know it, the holiday is over and it’s time to go back home, to normal life. Wonderful. Simply wonderful.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

I had been meaning to read this book for years and it felt poetic that I read it in November, during my last autumn in London. I seem to be enjoying novels that are more character studies, perhaps reflective of the direction my own writing is taking. In Quartet in Autumn, we meet four people who are colleagues sharing the same office - two men, two women, all of whom are nearing retirement age. The setting is London in the late 1970s and it’s an interesting study of loneliness and friendship, and how people’s inner and outer lives can be poles apart. Pym’s ability to write about the humdrum existences of these people without losing the reader at any point is quite incredible. I am studying her techniques intently! A writer of great tenderness and humour. I loved it.

One Day in December by Josie Silver

Instagram friends raving about this book + 99p on Kindle + 23 hours of flying from London to Melbourne = done deal! I wanted an absorbing, fun read for the London to Singapore leg of our journey home to Australia in December (ha!) and I got that and more with One Day in December. Wow. Good thing I was able to read the entire thing in one sitting because it is such a sweet, compelling and emotional story that I would have found it hard to put down otherwise.  I won't say anything about the plot - all I will say is that is it very, very rare for me to be moved to tears by a book. I cried a few times during the reading, but by the end I was a sobbing mess! Maybe it's because I was sleep deprived and emotional about returning home, who knows! But if you want a romantic and unputdownable holiday read that will really make you think about love, friendship, life and fate, I couldn't recommend this more highly.

The Empress of Australia: A Post War Memoir by Harry Leslie Smith

Harry Leslie Smith sadly passed away just as I was discovering his work late last year. I would highly recommend watching his speech at the Labour Party Conference in 2014. A man who lived through the depression of the 1930s, the Second World War and enormous social change throughout his lifetime, in his eighties and nineties Harry became a passionate political voice, speaking out about NHS cutbacks, benefits policy, political corruption, food poverty, the cost of education – and how the world his generation helped to build out of the rubble of depression, social inequality and the terror of war is slowly eroding. “Don’t let my past be your future,” he warned. This particular memoir was about life in Britain after he was demobbed from service in 1948 and attempted to make a life back in his hometown with his German wife. The attitude towards her was quite shocking (but I was also shocked to realise that it’s not dissimilar to attitudes towards immigrants and foreigners in modern day Britain! Very little has actually changed. Even the scene that takes place at peak hour in Paddington station when Harry and Friede are trying to get home from Gatwick was hauntingly similar to my experiences! But that’s a post for another day) and Harry’s valiant attempts to make a home for her are so noble and heartbreaking, but sadly it all unravels as Friede simply can’t adjust to the culture shock of post-war austerity Britain and Harry’s hopes of making a good life in working class Halifax fade rapidly. Eventually the story has a happy ending as they decide to emigrate to Canada on the ship from which this memoir derives its title. I read this as part of research for my novel, also set in 1948, and will refer to it often. What a brave, extraordinary man he was. I’m so glad he wrote his stories down.

Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

One of the first books I borrowed from the library on landing in Hobart! In this book, journalist Leigh Sales interviews several people who have suffered or been involved in high-profile tragedies such as the Thredbo landslide and Port Arthur (I found that one the hardest to read) and how they coped with the trauma and attention that followed. After all, the days that these tragedies took place were just another ordinary day, to begin with. They woke up that morning having no idea by evening their lives would be forever altered. The interviews are powerful and honest. And alongside these very courageous testimonies is Leigh exploring the idea that none of us know when something will happen that changes everything. We have no ability to control these kinds of events happening to us, or our loved ones. We are all vulnerable. And if the worst does happen, what do you do then? Any Ordinary Day is such a compelling book about human capacity for resilience, courage, kindness and endurance. I wouldn’t recommend reading it before bed (!) but any other time you need to feel reminded of the resilience of human beings, the ability of communities to rally round and support each other, or just to feel nothing but unbridled gratitude for your life’s many blessings, this is a great read.

What books did you most enjoy reading in 2018?

PS: As I mention every year, any links to Amazon are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and end up making a purchase, I get a small commission. Many thanks for your support xx

what kind of heart does it take - an evening with alison jean lester

She read. She sang (beautifully). She told us how her latest novel came to be. It was wonderful.

She read. She sang (beautifully). She told us how her latest novel came to be. It was wonderful.

On Thursday night at Daunt Books in Hampstead, I attended an author event by my friend Alison Jean Lester. We were greeted with shots of sake and Japanese rice crackers, and then the evening began, with an intimate and enthusiastic group of us gathered on a dark night in a gorgeous little bookshop. Alison is not only a very fine, observant and witty writer, she also used to work as a corporate communications coach so she knows how to work a room. I knew I was in for a fun evening!

sake-rice-crackers

Alison read an excerpt from her first novel Lillian on Life (one of my favourite reads of 2015) and then she sang us a Japanese folk song which she used to sing to her children, who were born in Japan. It was like a little meditation, the perfect bridge to the discussion of her latest novel, Yuki Means Happiness

A line from the song Alison sang was "what kind of heart does it take?" and she posed that as a question that fiction writers should ask themselves when starting the story they want to tell. What kind of heart does it take to endure/pursue what the story is asking? How will that heart be changed? Broken? Mended?

We talked a bit about the process of putting your real-life experiences into your fiction - something I am very familiar with (and didn't quite manage to pull off, hence why my book was a memoir in the end!). "The great thing about fiction is that you have control in a way you don't have in life," Alison said. "If someone fell under a train in real life, in fiction you can change that, you can save them. Or, you can let someone go under a train and save yourself!"

Alison also said she finds the whole "how autobiographical is this novel?" question that is often asked of women writers quite flattering - "because it means they think it really happened. It's a compliment to your writing." 

Ultimately, Alison advised us to "write about what haunts you". To ask questions of our characters that we might have asked of ourselves, once upon a time. To have a character take a path you did not. 

Me and Alison, with her two brilliant novels. 

Me and Alison, with her two brilliant novels. 

I thought deeply about this on my train home. The character in my novel is in a very similar situation to the one I found myself in 12 years ago and what she is doing to save the marriage is something I never, not for a split second, entertained - trying to have a child in the hope that it will heal the rift between them. I have been struggling with the novel lately, fearful that everything is a bit two-dimensional. I have done so much reading, so much research, and I know what I want to say and who these people are - I just haven't found the right way in yet. I have the key but it hasn't fit in any of the locks I've tried. Is this a way into the story, I wonder, to imagine an alternative future for myself, a path I might well have taken had a few things been different?

It was such an inspiring and wonderful evening, and it pumped me up in a way I hadn't realised I needed. I must make an effort to go to things like this more often because when I do, I feel like I'm among peers, among friends. I feel seen, heard and understood, even when I say very little and just listen. Writers are my people. And you can't help but feel uplifted when you're with your people. 

I'm currently reading Yuki Means Happiness and it's marvellous (as I thought it would be!). If you enjoy thoughtful and funny writing that makes you think about life, I highly recommend seeking out Alison's books!

art thrives on restrictions

“I think there’s something to be said for making movies faster, rather than slower. I think that the years that are now consumed in obtaining a green light and the funding for a movie, and the amount of rewriting that scripts undergo, overcooks them to the point where a lot of times spontaneousness and a sort-of short-order cooking is lost. Something happens that robs them of a certain spontaneity, and when we were writing at breakneck speed, and turning things around really fast there is a kind of energy and enthusiasm that I think is sometimes lost when you have too much time. Art thrives on restrictions, and it’s not just money that can be restricted to good effect, it’s also sometimes time and the fact that we didn’t have enough time to second-guess ourselves may have worked to the film’s advantage.”

- Nicholas Meyer, Writer/Director of Star Trek VI

something transformative

“I did not know what I was doing, and what I also did not know, facing my computer screen and a white wall, slowly turning pale, was that I was becoming a writer.

Becoming a writer was partly a matter of acquiring technique, but it was just as importantly a matter of the spirit and a habit of the mind.

It was the willingness to sit in that chair for thousands of hours, receiving only occasional and minor recognition, enduring the grief of writing in the belief that somehow, despite my ignorance, something transformative was taking place.”

 - Viet Thanh Nguyen in this article.