Tuesday, 8 April 2014

We need to talk about Sticky

My brother and his wife and 4 children are enjoying a week in Bussleton, WA, so as (the wonderful) Auntie Jen, I’m in charge of the house. And that includes my niece’s pet: a stick insect.

I wasn’t that interested when she was showing Sticky off and talking about what great pets they are. In fact I can’t even remember any of Sticky’s virtues, but now I have a problem.

Last night I switched on the lights in the study. There was a shot crack, the bulb blew, and then the whole house was in darkness. Fortunately my niece likes to read in bed when she should be sleeping, and I know where she keeps her torch.

After some fuse flicking and a call to their neighbour – I couldn’t even sort out the safety switch light fuse issue – I was back in light. And thought I’d just drop in and say hi to the insect.

This is the email I just sent to my brother and his wife:

So, you know how I said he was all good on Sunday night? Last night, after the lighting incident, I went in to Scout's room to borrow her lamp as the lighting's a bit dim in the study now.

I said hi to Sticky and noticed that he looked, well, he was hanging in a rather precarious and surely uncomfortable position. I flicked his branch (gently of course) and got a couple of very limp reflexes from a couple of his bits. Thought (hoped) he was just sleeping. 

But he's still the same today and I'm very worried. (About a f*@!ing stick thing, I can't believe it.)

I've done some research, and these guys do have a lifespan of 6 - 12 months apparently. But HE CAN'T DIE on my watch. I'm terrified. Is there anything in terms of maintenance that you can recommend? Help! Can we bring him back to life? 

There's still a slight reflex, but he's wrapped around a leaf with his head tilted back like that fliptop kid that used to be on the Colgate ad and I'm wandering in there every hour hoping to see he's climbed up the side of the cage and is eating through a eucalyptus leaf.

What do you do when you’ve killed your niece’s pet?

I’ve only been back in the country for 2 months, and have so far basked in praise and daily, ‘I’m so glad your homes.’ I’ve even been thinking about writing something for a Families magazine, maybe even a Parents one, about ‘Don’t underestimate aunties…we’re almost as special as grandparents.’

But that, along with possible house-sitting opportunities, seems entirely unsuitable now.

I thought about saying that I hadn’t visited him the whole time they were away. He’d been given enough fresh leaves to get through the week, and I’d been told he’d be no trouble. Imagine my surprise!

But now I really think he’s really dead.

I suggested to a friend today that he’s suffering, missing his attentive and sweet animal-loving owner. My friend, and her 3 daughters, didn’t grace this with a reply.

I’ve tried blowing gentle resuscitation breaths at him – he seems to have become a ‘he’ in the last 24 hours – and talking to him, telling him that his beloved will be home soon and all will return to normal. But he still seems to be dead.

It’s another 6 days until the family returns. Waiting for a reply to my email is more tortuous than any will-he-won’t-he date call, and though I tell myself not to go in there and check for some miraculous recovery I keep going back.

My niece and I look very alike and I’ve always thought we have a very special bond. Now I fear whenever I ask her to try something new with me, or get in the car with me, even when I cook dinner for the family, she’ll look at me with my own blue eyes, and if she gets to the point where she doesn’t say it, she’ll always be thinking, ‘You killed Sticky. Just 5 days in your care, and you killed him.’

It’s possible I’ll spend hours trawling through the neighbourhood hunting another Sticky to do a switch. But I reckon, even though it’s only a f*@!ing insect, I reckon she’d know.

I could always get on a plane back to London…

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Time Out Track - Dialogue

I've taken a long online time out, but having settled back in Melbourne I'm now settling back into a desk. Well, many desks at the moment, floating around houses and using libraries as an office.

Yesterday I joined a writing group, and during the discussion we were steered to studying Elmore Leonard for great dialogue. I've always struggled with dialogue, and therefore tend to avoid it, so will certainly take the heads up.

And then driving home this track came on the radio, and seemed a perfect way back into my Time Out Tracks - here's some NZ dialogue in song.

Friday, 21 February 2014

MELBOURNENOW - the crystal ball is broken

Earlier at NGV, as part of the Melbourne Now exhibition, Lisa Dempster chaired a panel consisting of Fiona Wood, Warren Bonnett and Connor O'Brien. We had festivals, writing, bookselling, publishing, designing, technology…basically experience and expertise on the chain of words. And our focus was the supply and demand of words from Melbourne.

There are many reasons why types (I don't want to start the genre, sub-genre classification debate) of writing are growing in popularity: science can thank the science journalists'  job losses for the improving quality of books tackling complicated and extraordinary events in the world; YA appeals to adults because it touches a time in our lives that typically was in flux as we developed our identities, and for some that is nostalgic, for others it contains regrets, but regardless it tends to be a time we love looking back at; digital developments are linking people in discussions and debates (with faces!) and showing how it really doesn't matter where you live, you can always participate in a literary event.

I've just returned to Melbourne and so enjoyed hearing two words over and over again during today's discussion: infrastructure and support.

The Wheeler Centre was at least part of the answer to most questions:
- What does it mean for Melbourne to be a City of Literature: engagement between readers and writers.
- And how dow we achieve that here? The Wheeler Centre, our range of festivals and our pool of passionate booksellers. Oh, and a talented writing community.

So what does the future look like?

As Warren reminded us, a year before the internet was 'launched', no-one predicted it's take-off. Initially IBM refrained from entering the PC market, forecasting a demand of approx. 10 per nation.

So what's the next thing in publishing? And how can you/I/we make sure we're a part of it?

The crystal ball might be broken, but right now Melbourne is a great place for readers, and writers, to be.

Our independent booksellers each have unique personalities and a place in their community, and just last week were consulted by the Melbourne City Council to talk about what council policies can do for them. So good infrastructure can get better.

The diverse calendar of literary events are all well-attended, and we're in a place that supports getting new ideas off the ground. Just look at the line-up in Connor's Digital Writers' Festival (and you'll notice The Wheeler Centre behind the scenes).

As is a trend globally, we have seen an explosion in book clubs and reading groups, but here we're also now seeing growth in volunteer programmes to help teach people to read. There's a lot of goodwill amongst readers and writers, and it's hard to imagine anything will slow that down.

Speaking for the YA market, but perhaps relevant across all Australian writing, Fiona has been asked 'what's in the water down there?' by people in the US. Our words are fresh and filled with an energy that makes them stand out.

We have some amazing publishers with international reputations that take chances locally but think globally. Innovation has deep roots here - Fiona worked on the 'Poems on Post-Its' project 25 years ago!

Who knows if we'll follow Krakow and have reserved seats on trams for readers, or if, like Paris, the literary supply chain will receive government subsidies. Who would have known there'd be a job as a bibliotherapist? A year ago the death knell for 'long form content' (ie. a book) started to ring, and then there's the success of 'The Luminaries' and 'Goldfinch'.

I don't know what's next or how it will look or who'll be leading it, but I am pretty confident that I'm in a good place to write, read, listen, learn, and have a lot of fun with the passionate people around me.

And finally, is there an iconic Melbourne text?

  • Fiona has The Getting of Wisdom (Henry Handel Richardson) for her childhood, Helen Garner in her 20s, and now the many contemporary YA writers using Melbourne as their setting.
  • Connor read Barracuda (Christos Tsiolkais) the day he moved to Melbourne, so it shed some light on society and places here.
  • Warren recommends Melbourne (Sophie Cunningham) as well as Christos and Helen.
Perhaps you've got one to share?

Thursday, 20 February 2014

On being back

I flew back to Melbourne on a one-way ticket a week ago.

Last February I visited for a month after my job 'finished'. I loved it - spending time with my family, reading, swimming - but I remember looking out the window as I drove interstate or caught the train to the other side of town to visit a friend, thinking I just couldn't see myself in Melbourne. I couldn't see where I'd live or what I'd do.

I was ready to return home to London.

Thanks to some vigorous encouragement by my good (writer) friend Amanda Saint, while she established and built-up Retreat West, I moved writing out of hobby status and got involved in the writing world. It started with this blog and Twitter (using Books for Dummies and a healthy vocabulary of swear words), as well as reading more widely, studying as I read (it was a good excuse for the time I spent doing it), and producing more and more of my own work.

By the end of 2013 I'd been to Word Factory UK and Spread The Word events, retreats by different fabulous people in Sheepwash, Exmoor and Portugal, and almost met my 25k word short story collection target.

And I'd decided it was time to move back to Melbourne.

Lots of things went into that decision, and yesterday while my dad was driving me to another appointment, I said to a friend how strange it is to look out the window and feel the thrill of being here. A sense of belonging again.

Tomorrow I'm going to listen to Lisa Dempster, Director of the Melbourne Writers' Festival, query a panel of experts on 'Writing Now.' Next week I'll be at The Wheeler Centre to hear David Vann and then I'm meeting at Writers Victoria to talk about volunteering with them.

And on Saturday I'm going down to a beach house where there's no internet. I'm going to read, write, hopefully throw away the crutches (finally) and fall into the salt water, and feel like I'm home again.

Last year was a significant one for me, and it feels now like it doesn't necessarily matter where I am, so long as I'm writing and around people who love words as much as I do. I can't wait to get involved with, and share my experience of, the writing world down here.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

I'm in London still...

In the usual nostalgia that brews when I'm approaching a big change, in this case moving back to Melbourne after 5.5 years away, I've been listening to this song that a very dear friend played to me after I got back from 12 months university-graduate-backpacking 20 years ago.

My two friends and I flew to London from Rome in July 1994, ready to activate our 2 year work visa. We'd been travelling for 5 months in Western and Mediterranean Europe. We'd wandered from a month on a Greek Island through Turkey and Israel, taken a taxi into Egypt where we'd ridden camels and a feluka. I'd been worth 500 camels one day, and depreciated to 50 a month later.

In some ways the idea of settling in one first-world place, unpacking our clothes, and going to work seemed appealing.

We rented a 2 bedroom ground floor apartment in Wood Green. The rubber hose on our bath taps burst after a few minutes, scalding a foot. Coffee was drunk from our tin travel mugs, and we had a stash of glasses we'd stolen from happy hours in bars. We had a backyard but we couldn't see through the metre-high weeds. I registered with a few temp agencies and quickly set out in my Topshop suits.

On Friday nights my friends would go to bars in Shepherd's Bush and catch up with friends we'd made on Ios and at the Oktoberfest, and I started to stay in for some quiet space. I'd buy a cheap Bulgarian red and a piece of cheese from Sainsbury's, sit in the yellow sitting room listening to music and writing letters. When it was late enough to call Melbourne, I'd go to the phone box down the street and ring my friends.

I lasted six weeks.

I suggested to my friends we hit the road again. They laughed and started packing their bags.

Twenty years later I'm surrounded by piles of books, sorting out what to donate and what to take. I've got some possessions on eBay, my relocation is booked and the seat on my long flight is reserved.

My parents were here for Christmas, and after visiting me every year they realised they might not be back here for a while, so we plotted a busy schedule for their fortnight: Christmas Eve at the Royal Albert Hall, dinner at Nopi, Barry Humphries' farewell tour, salt beef bagels in Brick Lane. I went on the tour of the Houses of Parliament. I'm going to go to the V&A museum, the Everyman cinema, and ride the cable car.

It's sad leaving friends, the writing scene I've become so much more involved in, access to Europe and foxes in the backyard. I have parents, brothers and sisters-in-law, 8 nephews and nieces, good friends, a beach house and the MCG waiting for me…so…Hello Possums!

Friday, 20 December 2013

Remembering Barreiro...

I can't account for a fortnight passing since airport chaos gave me a bonus night in Barreiro. I'd promised Will Amado a short story about my experience there. But I haven't written, at all, since getting back to London.

It was a re-entry of shocks coming back to housemates and windy nights and silence in the dark street. I live in a loft and have always loved my windows to the sky, but they seemed weak after my sun-fixed windows tracking sunrise to sunset in Portugal.

There I'd stand on my balcony and watch as children walked home from school with grandparents, men stopped for coffee, or cerveja, women left my blue-fronted bakery with bags of pastries and fresh loaves. From my London back porch I see into the backs of other houses, and in summer I'm woken very early on Sunday mornings by little children screaming and parents laughing, letting them. Since coming back from Barreiro I've stood and looked and it's vacant. Even the foxes seem to have moved on.

Other things have interfered with writing as well - washing and "administration", stocking up on food and cooking it and serving portions to freeze. Donna Tartt commandeered a fair chunk, (and dare I say a wedge more than she needed?) and now here I am, Thursday 11pm, only just getting a writing itch back.

I blame Annie Dillard. Since starting 'The Maytrees' I've had word thoughts again. Phrase ideas. I thank Annie Dillard.

Tonight a friend who recently returned to Melbourne after 13 years in London sent me this photo and said she thought of me: a 50m outdoor pool with lap signs that have approx. lap times so everyone can go at their own pace. "You don't get that kind of pool etiquette in England!"

Yesterday I found out I've won a Mslexia Diary for my submission to the Spread The Word competition - "Tell us your favourite time of year to write, and why." My response (to be posted on their website soon) starts, "Is underwater a season? For me, that's where writing strikes."

I've got my swimming bag packed for the first time in weeks. Friday lunchtime I'll be in a 25m indoor pool where people swim in any lane they like. There's the occasional fit swimmer powering down lap after lap, overtaking when it's clear, but mostly it's a mix of cruisers, bursters who stop to rest a lot, kickers, headabovewaters, even walkers. A bit like us writers really. I'll be doing bits of all of those, and lines may come and go, an idea might strike. Or not. But I'll be back.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Barreiro - BONUS DAY!

Thanks to the problems with the flight control system in UK airports and the kindness of Will Amado, I have another day in Barreiro. There was nothing in my diary until Tuesday, so I'm more than happy to "have" to stay for one more day of sunshine, and a home that has become very special.

I've been so lucky to have two fun and interesting writers staying here this week, and farewelling Pete over coffee and custard tart yesterday, well it was sad. Susanna and I went back to our apartments to work, which for me included researching. That said, I'm not sure how David Vann's "Legend Of A Suicide" relates directly to what I'm working on, but I'm sure I could find a link.

After hitting the new shopping centre and buying some random stocking-fillers and souvenirs - I now have a lovely tray (made in China) that doesn't actually fit in my suitcase that came off the plane last Saturday minus a handle - we rested up at the local tapas bar for a couple of Super Bocks, more good food, and rounded things out with a hearty glass of port.

I hadn't expected another day here so I spent a lot of time out in the sunshine today. But now I've unpacked my slippers, replenished supplies, and am so grateful for more time to take advantage of this space to think and write.