During the ceremony to mark the 2021 Premier’s Book Awards on Friday 17th June, much was made of the spectacular success of Magabala Books. And rightly so!
From the first stirrings of the idea during the KLACC Festival at Ngumpan (near Fitzroy Crossing) in 1984, WA’s own indigenous publishing house has been one of the most significant forces for good in the community. The stated aim of its founders was to ‘reclaim Aboriginal stories from European writers and tell them in our own way.’ Everyone involved in Magabala Books – writers, publishers, editors, designers, people who work in the office – all can be rightly proud of the results. They have come a long way in a relatively short time.
Let’s not forget that, back in 1825, when the first Europeans landed at King George Sound and planted the British flag to scare off the French, none of the Aboriginal languages spoken in Western Australia were written down. Aboriginal family groups were passing their stories down through the generations very effectively, but by 1984 there those in their communities who could see that Aboriginal stories needed to be circulated more widely and the way to do that was to write them down and publish them. However, without a common language among all the Aboriginal groups in WA the stories would have to be written down, first, in English.
One of the often overlooked benefits of early settlement was the introduction of written records. Documents, lists, diaries, photographs, all made it possible to store thoughts, ideas, songs and stories. A written language made it possible for the wealth of Aboriginal stories, their history and culture, could be celebrated and passed on to a vast new audience.
Congratulations Magabala Books!
Not Fitting the Boxes:
When I reached the age at which I had to fill out forms for myself, I always wondered why I never seemed to fit the boxes.
Forms tend to ask questions that require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. And all my contemporaries filled them out quickly and got on with the next exciting thing in their lives, while I was left trying to work out what to say.
Q. What is your address?
A. The first house on the left, Great Northern Highway, Pithara.
There’s no way I could fit that into the lines on the form, even with abbreviations to some of the words, and then;
Q. Which school did you go to?
I had no trouble fitting that one in, but it has now changed its name several times and the new generation of computers doesn’t recognise it.
Should I just lie? Make something up? Or go through the frustrating and time consuming task of looking for some real-live person to ask? The other alternative was to just scrawl something illegible and hand it in, knowing that they couldn’t track me down, but also that I was unlikely to get what I wanted from filling out the form in the first place.
After a while I just gave up, and accepted the fact that I didn’t fit the boxers. It made me different but, for better or worse, it made me who I am.
Last Thursday I had the first of two cataract operations. This one was on my right eye. Since I had been the chauffer for both my parents when they had their cataracts removed, I knew about the enormous improvement to overall sight it would bring, with so little fuss and inconvenience. Although when I picked my mother up after her second operation she was a bit miffed.
‘They put me under last time, but this time I had to keep myself still and they held my head very tight. I was looking forward to waking up after it was all over!’ she complained.
Of course things have changed in the intervening twenty or so years. At the Perth Eye Hospital the other day they used no anaesthetic and needed very little sedation to send me into a deep sleep. Half an hour later I woke up and it was all over. Everyone was smiling and telling me it went very well. I had a special eye shield taped over my right eye and instructions to take that one off when I got home. They provided me with a pair of sunnies with an extra layer of protection over the right eye and a second shield with a whole roll of tape so that I could wear that one to bed. They had certainly covered all the bases in terms of what might happen. However, nothing could have prepared me for the shock I felt when I first looked in the mirror the next morning.
I took off my super-efficient, medical grade eye patch and gone into the bathroom to have a shower when I glanced in the mirror. Looking back at me was this person with one eye that I thought was me, but the other must have belonged to someone ten years older! The right eye, which I must admit was not fully open, had deep wrinkles across the eyelid, and running from the outer corner of the eye across my cheek! What used to be my ‘smile lines’ had turned into the wrinkles of some really ancient creature out of a horror movie. I was shocked and distressed. Would I have to go through the rest of my life with one eye looking ten years older than the other? I had a shower and tried to work out what to do. Peter was still asleep, but I didn’t particularly want him to see me anyway. I dried myself and, out of force of habit, took out the lanolin to moisten my dry skin. When I looked in the mirror there I was! Both eyes looked back at me with a slightly foolish expression. My right eye was, by now, fully open. The fearsome wrinkles on the eyelid, hidden. The mocking ‘smile lines’ looking perfectly normal and telling me how foolish I was. The shower had improved my circulation and, just as everyone had told me, things looked a lot clearer without that cataract concealing a few home truths. Phew!
For some time now I have been intrigued by these colourful, house-shaped boxes that are popping up on people’s fences, or on sturdy posts outside their houses. These mini-houses have a glass door at the front and books inside! I must admit I have never seen anyone open one, but I have read about these Little Street Libraries which operate on an honour system. Anyone can open the door of the library, borrow a book and replace it when they have finished reading it. Or keep it. Or lend it to a friend. And anyone can donate a book of their own, put it on the library shelf, spine facing out, and leave it there for a neighbour, or a stranger, to borrow.
I love the idea and thought about securing one of these neat little houses. However, the task of erecting a post outside our property, sturdy enough to keep it safe, was really daunting for me. Then again, we do have a low brick wall around one of our outside garden beds. And I have an embarrassing number of books, in spite of regularly donating boxes of them to the Osborne Park Hospital. Of course the books for both the Hospital and the Little Street Library must be in good condition. But I can imagine opening up a well loved copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone which falls open at the description of the Quiddich Match, or a copy of The 39 Story Treehouse with water marks where tears of laughter have fallen on the pages.
Come to think of it, the Little Street Library may even inspire some stories of its own. The Little Street Library Mysteries has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?
After months of lockdown-type restrictions, the presentation of prizes, last Friday evening, to winners of the 2020 West Australian Premier’s Awards, was a rare chance for the writing and Illustrating community to finally come together, face to face, and celebrate with friends, colleagues and supporters. The State Library hummed with voices and lit up with smiles. The atmosphere was electric as old friends renewed contact and new acquaintances made real connections that may very well last a lifetime. Something we haven’t been able to do for so long and have missed so much.
Even with all the social distancing rules in place – chairs 1.5 metres apart, reduced overall numbers, hand sanitisers strategical placed, no one could have missed the welcome sense of relief and the almost palpable reinforcement of just what it means to be human. It is no accident that solitary confinement is the most horrendous punishment that can be inflicted on prisoners in times of war or peace. Just as ‘the rain rains on the just and the unjust alike’, covid-19 isolates the healthy as well as the sick, indiscriminately. But on Friday night, at the Premier’s Awards function, the overwhelming emotions in the room were joy and hope.
Thank you to the organisers of the WA Premier’s Awards for giving us a glimpse of daylight after such a long dark night of uncertainty.
It is frightening to think how badly mislead we could end up being if we were to stay at home in our cocoons for too long and believe only what we read, see and hear online. The best and the worst of our society is portrayed there, but sometimes we have to look much harder to see the good things that happen. The worst of the younger generation, in particular, is often emphasised, sensationalised and, if we start to dwell on it, blown out of all proportion with the result that we disregard the enormous capacity of young people for positive change. We throw up our hands in despair and say, ‘What will become of the world?’ But if we go out and actually meet some of these young people we realise just how remarkably polite, caring and hard-working some of them are. Not all, of course, but enough to reassure me that, given a little encouragement along the way, the world will probably survive after all.
I am fortunate to have met not one, but two of these inspiring young people in the last week. While very different in their goals and aspirations, they are nevertheless intelligent, thoughtful, articulate and outspoken. And they are both passionate about many of the things we older generations hold dear – respect for others, care for the environment, but independent, rational thinking, a balanced approach to the use of resources, not a blind pursuit of renewables without any thought for how other precious resources are being destroyed. Like wind farms versus bird life, irrigation versus algae clogged rivers and so on. It is heartening to find young people weighing up these important questions instead of blindly following the latest trends on social media.
Well done, guys. You know who you are, and you and your friends will really make a difference.
How often in your life have you needed a lager-phone?
When I was planning the launch of Goldfields Girl, back in March before the world went into lockdown, I thought about how Clara Saunders and her friends made their own fun at the end of a long day digging for gold in the dust and heat and flies of the new Coolgardie diggings. There was no TV, no internet, no concert hall, but there were people and they wanted to relax and have some fun. Situated 168 miles from the nearest small town, with no made road, just multiple wheel tracks across the desert, most of those first prospectors got there by walking. As well as their bed rolls they had to carry their pick, shovel, panning dish and billy. There was no way they were able to carry a musical instrument as well, except perhaps a mouth organ. But they needed music. They could sing – some better than others – and clap their hands, but they were usually a rowdy mob so they needed something louder to sing along to. They looked around for something they could make a decent sound with.
Enter the lager-phone.
Made from any tree branch that was sturdy and reasonably straight, and beer bottle tops. As you can imagine there were plenty of those lying around. The branch was smoothed down so that it was comfortable to hold and the beer bottle tops were nailed to the branch, loosely, and in pairs so that they rattled against each other when the lager-phone was shaken or banged on the floor. Could you buy such a distinctive musical instrument in a shop today? Could you buy them in shops even back in those days. I don’t know. Like the prospectors in 1892, we made our own. And we hope it won’t be too long now before before you can come and hear it being played at the outback pub when that comes to Perth for the launch of Goldfields Girl.
Get your copy of the book from bookstores or online: fremantlepress.com.au
During the interactive part of my author talk to the Booragoon Rotary Club last week, I became conscious of just how many people in Western Australia have a personal connection to the goldfields, either through their ancestors or their own experience. In spite of its isolation and the discomforts of heat, dust and flies there seems to be some sort of magnetism about the area. Certainly in the late 1890s people from all over the world flocked to the diggings in and around Coolgardie, and Kalgoorlie. Some of them moved on quite quickly, finding the work and the conditions too daunting. Others stayed forever, initially lured by the thought of striking it rich, then finding the camaraderie and the relative freedom of the outback more to their liking than city living.
My own maternal grandparents spent the first year of their married life living in a tent in Kalgoorlie. In the family archives we have a photograph of the two of them standing proudly in front of their own canvas dwelling with its white picket fence and small patch of grass out the front. That patch of grass was the only one amongst the rows of tents. My grandmother’s small, scraggly patch of grass was hard won. Determined to grow something to relieve her grim surroundings, she saved every drop of pre-used water to keep it alive. At that time tents were the only affordable dwellings. Even bush huts were few and far between. The few natural trees had already been scavenged from the surrounding countryside. Transporting building materials was slow and expensive. Only the very rich, or the official Town buildings, could afford weatherboard or stone. My grandparents survived, living in Kalgoorlie until my grandmother fell pregnant. Then they moved to Perth and bought a block in Shenton Park. My grandfather proceeded to build them a house. They camped in one room at first while he virtually built the house around them. My aunt was born and, five years later, my mother. One of her earliest memories is standing beside her father and passing him the nails as he added another bedroom to accommodate his growing family. Although they never returned to Kalgoorlie, the goldfields left an indelible mark on their lives, as it has done to so many others.
At the beginning of Kate Grenville’s new book, A Room Made of Leaves, the long awaited follow-up to The Secret River, the editor explains that ‘this book consists of recently rediscovered notes towards a memoir written by Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of John Macarthur, who is widely recognised as the founder of Australia’s wool industry.’
However, Kate Grenville’s Afterword proudly proclaims that this is a sham. ‘There is no box of secrets, found in the roof-space of Elizabeth Farm.’ Even though Mrs Macarthur spent much more time on the farm than her husband did and could easily have hidden her most personal and private diaries and letters there. The author makes no apology. In fact she seems to relish the opportunity to thumb her nose at the hide-bound historians who have failed to recognise a truth that novelists have long acknowledged: ‘That all writers are liars. Biographies, by a necessary selection of facts, may be called lies. But novels do not lie. Having other purposes, a novel can effortlessly, even unconsciously, hold the truth in its shadows’ (Jessica Anderson, Sydney Morning Herald, 30th November 1996)
I know this is a favourite hobby-horse of mine, but I want to congratulate Kate Grenville on being brave enough to make this point unashamedly, in fact almost with glee.