Christmas is approaching fast and all the newspapers and magazines we read are publishing their Best Books of 2022. Whether the lists have come from sports people, politicians, other journalists or media personalities, Christmas seems to bring them out of the woodwork, eager to have their say. It’s a pleasant change from the rest of the year when books are largely ignored by the main stream press.
So I thought today that I would jump on that particular band wagon and recommend, as my Book of the year, Still Life by Sarah Winman; published by 4th Estate.
Winman’s characters are eccentric, but thoroughly genuine and believable. Her writing is funny, heart-warming and entertaining. So much so that I found myself going back and re-reading a phrase or even a paragraph, just to savour the sound and the emotion she packs into them.
Treat yourself this Christmas. If no one else does it for you, buy or borrow a copy of Still Life and read it.
Ever wondered how Rapunzel felt about having to deal with all that hair?
As writers we need to know these things. We need to imagine how our characters feel, what they think and how they make their way in the world. Dressing up as that character is a good way to do it. To write convincing characters we need to put on the persona of another; to feel what they feel and experience life as they do, no matter how briefly.
Dressing up gives us a chance to step out of our own comfortable shoes and walk for a while in those of a different character, trying out how it feels to be that other person. It’s one of the skills a writer develops by being observant, and by taking time to be someone else. To talk as they talk, walk as they walk, and carry their problems, struggling with a range of solutions and looking for the perfect plot lines.
Every year Children’s Book Week gives us the excuse to put aside time for that sort of research. When people accuse us of ‘playing dress-ups’ we can say ‘Oh, no. This is important work. I’m getting to know my characters, making them authentic and believable, getting inside their skin and bringing them to life.’
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