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.
As a former Early Childhood teacher I am very comfortable with talking about my work to young audiences. Speaking to adult audiences is a bit more challenging for me. I have been asked to talk about Goldfields Girl, for 30 minutes, to the members of a Rotary Club. The question, ‘What will I say?’ springs immediately to mind. ‘What will my audience want to hear?’
Having done the research and worked through countless drafts of the book I have plenty to say. But what will my audience want to hear? How will I keep them interested and engaged for 30 minutes? I can tell them snatches of the story, but it is 240 odd pages long, and in any case they can read all that for themselves in the book. What they will want to know is why, when and how I wrote about Clara Saunders.
I have already put together the mandatory Powerpoint – pictures only so that I can adjust the length of my presentation. Skip over bits that don’t seem relevant to this particular audience, dwell on the parts that interest them most, the parts they ask the most questions about. But how do I get started? In this case I have thought about my audience and decided that I will introduce myself, then ask them a question to break the ice. I will ask them to tell me, by a show of hands, how many of them have family members who lived in the Coolgardie/Kalgoorlie goldfields area? It seems that everywhere I go at the moment people come up to me and tell me about their relatives who were prospectors, so the ice-breaker question should lead to lots of interaction from the audience – I hope. Ahead of time I will write down and rehearse a sentence to follow the ice-breaker. Probably something about how Clara, at 14 years of age, travelled for three days out into the desert to live and work among a fluctuating crowd of rough and ready prospectors. After that I will have to let Clara’s story tell itself, being aware as I do of the atmosphere in the room and the interest level of my audience. In other words wing it, and hope for the best, always being able to adjust the length, to dwell on some parts and skip over others, as time dictates. Of course I will be slightly nervous, but I will tell myself to relax and enjoy the company of interested people. Wish me luck!
I was staring blankly out of my office window, thinking about everything and nothing, and feeling like a kid in school again. Remembering that feeling of despair when the teacher has set your class the task of writing a story by the end of the period. ‘But Miss, I don’t know what to write about,’ I complain. ‘Of course you do,’ she tells me. ‘Everyone has a story to tell.’
I’m still gazing out of the window and suddenly there it is – a tiny toadstool. I’m sure it wasn’t there an hour ago. Or perhaps it was. Has it just pushed itself up, pristine white and shiny, out of the soil of my chaotic forest of a back garden? Or has that heavy shower of rain we’ve had washed it so clean that it’s just caught my eye? That single toadstool standing perfectly straight, all alone amongst the leaf litter and wood violets, sends me off on a fairytale journey. There are so many questions in my head now. Like who lives in this single toadstool in the middle of a wilderness? Is it a tiny elf or wizard? Is it a crusader beetle setting off to do battle with a whole army of snails who are invading his territory? Perhaps one of those snails is on an impossible quest to find the perfect green leaf. Will it shelter for the night under the pure white roof of the toadstool. Or is that roof gleaming so brightly really a trap for weary travellers, luring all unsuspecting creatures into the poisonous interior of the toadstool?
So many ideas come from simple moments of surprise, if you let your imagination roam for a while and you are willing to try out the possibilities. The Tim Winton Awards for young writers are a great place to experiment with ideas. The annual competition is open for entries from Monday 20th July to Friday 14th August, 2020, at 5.30pm. For more information go to: http://www.subiaco.wa.gov.au
In these strange and unpredictable times a week can easily turn into a month and a celebration can look very different from the one the organisers had imagined. Love to Read Local Week was originally planned to celebrate the work of authors on WritingWA’s Literati List. The team at WritingWA had lots of hands on and face to face activities in mind to highlight the depth of talent we have in our writing community. But, ‘The best laid plans of mice and men …’ as Rabbie Burns would have said if he had been here, ‘ … must surely gang a’wry.’ In marched covid-19 and took over the known world. However, always innovative, WritingWA pressed on with their week of celebration and it blossomed – even expanded – into a whole month.
So check out the fantastic books of all the WA authors on the Literati List at WritingWA.org. including my new historical fiction, Goldfields Girl. In it you will find, among other things, the true and verifiable story of how 14 year old Clara Saunders gave up her own room, at a time when the Exchange Hotel in Coolgardie was already full, to an ailing Paddy Hannan. She could see that he needed somewhere to rest while he battled the deadly typhoid disease that had already killed so many of the prospectors in the town, which was itself barely clinging to life on the edge of the desert. This was in April 1893, before Paddy Hannan had made the most significant discovery of his life. The whole story is too long to tell here, but imagine how different the history of Western Australia would have been without the discovery of the Golden Mile.
Explore the Literati List, including Goldfields Girl, (Fremantle Press, 2020) and all the other fantastic stories by WA authors at: ltrl.writingwa.org
In a battle of the acronyms, MYOSB and TWA have defied covid-19 and are both hale and hearty, up and running and ready to support our young writers and illustrators. Their 2020 programs are delayed, but not defeated, and talented West Australians of school age have the chance to get their creative juices flowing again and enter both the Make Your Own Story Book competition and the Tim Winton Awards for young writers.
And bring out the cheer squad for all those dedicated professionals who will once again, in spite of exceptionally difficult circumstances, run these two important competitions. Make Your Own Story Book entries involve both writers and illustrators. Illustrations for your book can be made by painting, drawing, collage and even photographs, as long as they are taken by the author or illustrator of course. Books must be complete with sturdy cover, blurb and author biog. Over the years that this competition has been running the judges have been amazed by the skills, the innovation and diversity these young people have shown in producing unique handmade books – works of art in their own right. The Tim Winton Awards are perhaps better known, but in that case only the quality of the writing is judged. Of course the presentation of the short story entries also has to be of good quality. Surface features such as spelling, punctuation, grammar and neatness need to be of a standard that makes them easy to read and does not distract too much from the impact of the ideas.
So get out those pens, pencils, paint brushes and computers kids. There are prizes to be won and perhaps careers to be had. Shaun Tan famously won the MYOSB Award when he was 11 years old. And if you are a prize winner you will get to meet another world famous WA author; Tim Winton who is the patron of the Awards that bear his name. He presents the prizes to all of the successful entrants each year.
And, hot off the press, congratulations to Shaun Tan! He has just won the Kate Greenaway Medal for his picture book, Tales from the Inner City. This is one of the most prestigious children’s book awards in the world!You do us proud, Shaun!