FICTION IS NECESSARY

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Today I was in the process of writing a piece about my time in state high school in Tasmania in the 1950s. Then I recalled a piece I wrote for Griffith Review. It was about a very different kind of school – Miss Porter’s in Farmington Connecticut, pictured above. The picture below is of my old school, Launceston College. The story attached is an essay on a fictional version of Miss Porter’s, ‘The New Girls’ (1979) by Beth Gutcheon, compared with a non-fiction story about it in Vanity Fair, July 2009.

My conclusion to the essay is to say that fiction is not optional, but necessary.

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‘The New Girls’ is a 1979 novel by Beth Gutcheon. It relates the lives of five teenage girls, students of an expensive and exclusive girls’ boarding school in New England, USA, in the 1960s, and is not a pretty story. It is a fictional exploration and exposé of life in the school Beth Gutcheon herself attended, Miss Porter’s, in Connecticut. Among daughters of the rich and famous, the most celebrated graduate of Miss Porter’s was Jackie Kennedy.

In the July 2009 issue of Vanity Fair there is an article by Evgenia Peretz on a 2008 scandal at Miss Porter’s. A student was systematically tormented by her classmates and allegedly became so distressed that she cheated on a test and then confessed to the cheating, and was expelled. Instead of going quietly she is suing the school, something not dreamt of by the characters in ‘The New Girls’.

In a small irony, the article begins by invoking the imagery of a fiction writer: ‘It’s the perfect Edith Wharton morning at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut – brisk and snow‐covered, with icicles hanging from the porticoes of the white clapboard nineteenth‐century dormitories.’ I have read a fair bit of the work of Edith Wharton, but I would not have known what a ‘perfect Edith Wharton morning’ might be without the added description, and I am not even sure I believe it.

However, the article led me to the novel, which arrived swiftly from Amazon. That gave me the opportunity to compare the two reading experiences, the nonfiction and the fiction. There are many kinds of non‐fiction, as there are many kinds of fiction, and this was simply a lone sample. However, it was a starting point, and consisted of two standard forms: the serious feature article with photographs, and the straightforward modern novel.

The exercise was instructive. I found the two readings absorbing but very different in quality. The article was in a crisp first‐person, opening with the writer’s visit to the school (where her mother had been a student) and moving on to discuss the case of the litigious girl in the context of the school’s 166‐year history. The pictures were, in the tradition of the magazine, marvellous illustrations of the text.

The leading photograph is particularly striking and resonant. The current headmistress (sic), Kate Windsor, a handsome blonde of forty‐three, stands before the somewhat creepy portrait of the founding Miss Porter, and the faces, while unlike, come eerily forward as two versions of one. Photography can behave as fiction behaves, tweaking the viewer’s vision, disturbing the smooth surface of the facts with suggestion. Oddly, when the book came I noticed that the author portrait bore some similarity to the picture of Kate Windsor.

I was absorbed by the article, a cheerful voyeur, peering in on the place and the events. My imagination was stirred by the revelations of the facts, which for various reasons could go only so far. There was something tantalising about it all, and that, I realise, is why I immediately ordered the novel. I hoped it would take me deeper into the meaning of the place. And I was not disappointed.

The New Girls did what I expect fiction to do. It took off fearlessly, moving into the hearts and minds of five girls at Miss Pratt’s, and followed their lives from the age of fifteen to thirty. The picture of a section of American society in the lead‐up to the Vietnam War was unveiled at the same time as were the narratives of the girls’ lives. I knew that the only limits were those of the author’s imagination, and the limits the story imposed on its own world. So there could, in a sense, be more possibility here than in the non‐fiction story of Miss Porter’s. That is not to say that there is anything flawed or unsatisfactory in the Vanity Fair piece. Its non‐fiction nature binds its detail and outcomes.

I realise that fiction and non‐fiction move beyond the realm of the printed word, in particular into film, but here I am confining myself to the printed word. The boundaries between fiction and non‐fiction writing have always been elastic, and today are particularly insecure. For the sake of argument I will deal with works that can be defined fairly simply as ‘true’ or ‘made up’, since I am interested in how fiction writing appears to contribute to people’s lives, to a culture, and how a culture might be in part defined by the art of the fiction writer. I will not enter the debate about the borrowings that go on between the two, about whether there are in fact these two kinds of writing.

When I read fiction I like to be taken into a little dream where just about anything can happen, according to the frame of the particular narrative. It might be strange to say I go into a dream, but it seems to me that this may be the key to fiction. Its creation and reception involve a free giving‐over of the ordinary response to the realities of the world. The process sometimes used to be called the willing suspension of disbelief. Even fantasies and fairytales impose their own logic and work within it.

In fiction the imagination has the licence, perhaps the imperative, to invent, to take things further, to shift time and space and shape and form, in order to construct a new and different world, a different reality, a reality that can open the reader’s heart wider and deeper and afford a stronger connection with other people’s lives and situations. Reading fiction is a creative act.

One of my most beloved books as a child was a thin and unexceptional illustrated paperback called ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’. I was taken first by the language of the title, its rhythm and play, and by its mystery. Over many years I have found the phrase coming back to me, playing in my mind with sweetness and pleasure. The story is a Norse folktale, and contains some elements of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. The otherworldly title refers to a place that is nowhere and everywhere, and in the context of the story this description is acceptable, and it holds deep fascination and also a kind of breathtaking horror. Much of the action takes place as the girl rides on the back of one or other of the winds in her search for her beloved, who resides east of the sun and west of the moon. This magical journey is a mirror of the trip the young reader takes through the pages of the fiction itself, a kind of trip all readers of fiction take when they give their minds over to the pleasures of the world of everywhere and nowhere.

The delicious thing about fiction, as I see it, is that the reader knows the story is not true, that it is a game which the reader is invited to play. There is no such place; there are no such people; these things did not happen. But they just might happen, and they do happen within the world of the fiction. It is the world of possibility, a place where opportunity and chance are limitless. The world of fiction is bound only by its own rules, its own borders, which shift with every piece of fiction as it is written.

In ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’ there’s the narrative of the journey and the place it takes you to – or, more accurately, the images you see and the feelings you get. I remember the sensation of wanting to re‐read the story, to get back into it in order to envisage, through the agency of language, the white bear knocking on the window, the girl on the back of the wind, flying along in search of the imaginary, nonexistent place. I wanted to feel again the tension of the quest and the strange relief that came with moments of resolution and hope and consolation along the way.

The illustrations in the book also drew me in. They were of muted magical forests and impossibly treacherous mountain peaks. The most common picture for the cover of editions of this story is that of the girl flying along, urgent, confident, on the back of the big white bear. It is straight out of a dream. It releases in the reader’s imagination something that gives an ability to grasp the real world more securely, as a result of having followed the imaginary world. It is a kind of thrill. It is a special kind of trigger to thought and creativity.

It is not so very far from the White Rabbit, who led Alice from this world into the world of Mad Hatters and March Hares. The world Alice finds is a perfect example of the world of fiction. It resembles the real world above ground in many ways, but the details are all its own, and the logic is true to itself.

These examples are extremes of fantasy and imagination, and serve mainly to demonstrate one end of the scale of fiction. All fiction bears within itself the imaginative spark that shows up so clearly in the fairytale and in Alice. There is also a whole canvas of social history in Alice, but this is only one level – fiction deals with many levels – the descent underground or through the mirror takes the action into the other side of reality, to the dream place east of the sun and west of the moon.

If there are already so many made‐up stories from which to choose to read, why do people keep inventing new ones? Why do people keep reading the new ones as well as the old ones? I think it is because of that ability fiction has to stimulate the imagination, to thrill. The new novel promises, first of all to the writer and then to the reader: This might happen. Non‐fiction says: This did happen. Fiction pushes the imagination forward. Non‐fiction engages the imagination too, but I believe the ability of fiction to go wherever it wants to go gives it a different kind of power to inform the human mind. I do not say it is better, but different. And necessary. People need to read true stories; they also need to read speculation. It is important to be able to read a story and say: Well, life might be like this – or like this. And to be furnished by the fiction with the possibilities. Non‐fiction can say: This is what happened – here is what could happen now as a result. Fiction can pretend something happened and dramatise the outcome. It is the pretence that is so exciting. These things might happen, and the fiction offers a shape and a pattern and a way in which they can or could.

I so enjoyed reading The New Girls because it could take me into the details of the hearts and minds of the characters in a way that the Vanity Fair story about the events at Miss Porter’s could not. I knew Beth Gutcheon was in a way guessing about her characters, and I liked that. There was no place for that kind of guessing in the story about the girl who was expelled from Miss Porter’s. Yet I took pleasure in both readings.

The pleasures of reading fiction differ from the pleasures of reading non‐fiction. I think that fiction, because it has a special ability to engage the reader in its game, somehow conflates the writer and the reader and gives the reader a role in the making of the tale, and takes the reader along as the narrative tests the possibilities.

Non‐fiction can engage the emotions of readers who feel rage at injustice and tenderness in the face of beauty, feel despair and joy; it can make you laugh, make you weep. So if true stories can move you to tears, why go to all the trouble of making things up, of reading about made‐up things? It’s partly because of the magical power of fiction. Real events, real characters, real places inspire fiction, but they do not make it. Historical novels, biographical novels – these books have the ability to partake of that special quality I found as a child in the story of East of the Sun and West of the Moon. The special trigger to thought and feeling and creativity. The magic.

Imagination is one of the most rare, beautiful and important qualities of human beings. I don’t mean the ability to fantasise; I mean the ability to envisage what might be, to empathise with the situations of others, to place oneself outside oneself, to see relationships between one thing and another, to – in that strange way that only fiction knows – believe that the characters in the novels of Charles Dickens or of Thea Astley or of Patrick White are alive. The belief is possible when the imagination of the writer is powerful enough, with language and image, to engage the imagination of the reader. When levels of meaning and richness of metaphor take the reader along subtle pathways that deepen and multiply with each reading of the text. The mood and interpretation of the reader have a role in making fiction. And I return, again and again, to the importance of the imagination, not only in individuals, but in cultures.

For a culture to thrive and develop it needs to imagine itself into being, and to continue to imagine. You have to be able to imagine danger, to imagine the enemy, to imagine the good. Before Australia was colonised by Europeans, the Indigenous peoples here had developed vast and beautiful fictions that imagined the meanings of the place. In contemporary English the body of these fictions is described as the Dreamtime. This is an infinite spiritual cycle in which are embedded the values of the peoples and societies. The Dreamtime exists in a place that is different from, but parallel to, everyday reality. I hope it is not too crude to say that as I understand it, everyday reality is like non‐fiction and the Dreamtime is more like fiction. The Dreamtime is where the culture is imagined into being, and the Dreamtime is indispensable.

The imagination is central to Indigenous culture. It must be the same for any culture. The imagination must be nourished in order to fashion the identity. The stories you make up about yourself tell you who and what you are, whether you realise it or not, and tell the world who and what you are, and also afford you the chance, the space, to move forward creatively. The fiction written in this country since the arrival of Europeans demonstrates that this is so. In 1831 the forger Henry Savery published what is considered to be Australia’s first novel, Quintus Serviton. The subtitle explains that it was ‘A Tale Founded on Incidents of Real Occurrence’. It was a nice beginning, and not so very long ago, and the subtitle is actually a fair description of a lot of fiction.

Imagination is a human quality, and is not simply in the service of the country to which you belong. Yet, just as the landscape, the native plants and animals of a place so the literature of a country is coloured by its place of origin. And in turn characterises that place. My reflections turn out to be a Möbius loop: feed the imagination with fiction; make some more fiction; feed some more imagination. Fiction, written in some form, and read, is only one marker of a culture, one product, but it is the food for the imagination itself. It is the medium in which human nature is explored and revealed in all its ugliness and beauty, using only the tool of language, in all its miraculous shapes.

Robert Manne (The Monthly, July 2009) concludes a magnificently lucid analysis of the 2009 Victorian bushfires by saying: ‘The answer to the question of why we weren’t warned on 7 February requires not only the forensic capacity of a royal commission but also a sociologist with the capacity to illuminate the strange character of our postmodern world.’ He is right, yet I would add that the question also requires a fiction writer with the capacity to analyse and dramatise the characters of the people involved, and to enter once more the strange territory of the human spirit, the human heart.

Fiction is not optional. It is necessary.

 

BRINGING BACK THE DODO

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – Emily Dickenson

All this has been a very long time coming. I wish that I could speak to you from the future, a time when I will exist again in the corporeal medium. Meanwhile, consider me as the Spirit of the Species. While I am replete with hope that the attempts to manifest me will be truly successful, I acknowledge there can be no certainty in these matters. My existence is in the hands of the deities, the magicians, the technicians, the scienticians, and probably a few other categories of specialists. These beings are all devoted, diligent, and in many cases gifted with the light of what I might call genius. However, as you will realise, I am a difficult case. They say it is proving harder to resurrect me than it is to bring back the Thylacinus cynocephalus. I love the scientific names for things, my own being Raphus cucullatus. I am much better known as Dodo. I am a creature of mystery; I am an enigma. Perhaps this fact is a great part of my charm and fascination. And then there’s the matter of my non-existence. Some people have chosen to believe that I have never existed. That too is a cause for fascination. What price the unicorn?

One of the most important specialists in world-wide research into me is Dr Kenneth Rijsdijk at the University of Amsterdam. You can find Ken online at his site called Dodo Alive, which is a pretty good and optimistic name, you would agree. He and his colleagues investigate the DNA of dodo bones. Imagine! It was the Dutch, by the way, who set the Extinction Machine in motion, in my case. Long, long ago Arab and Portuguese sailors visited my island. Then, towards the end of the sixteenth century, Dutch expeditions were out and about on the briny deep, a glint in their nautical eye, seeking trade throughout the East Indies. In 1598 A.D. Dutch ships visited the island, and 1601 reports spoke of The Dodo. The sailors generally didn’t like us as meat, except for our stomachs and breasts. Apparently. They preferred eating the coo-coo turtle doves, which seems reasonable. In our stomachs they found the stones we used/use to help us digest our own food. I remember the stones. Most subsequent reports mention the difficulty people had in cooking and eating us. No problem catching us, no problem at all. And all kinds of artists simply loved to draw and paint dodos – and not always from life. And they still do. The Spirit of the Species and the Image of the Species – everywhere you look. There are many many copies of copies of copies. The truth will out when the Comeback is complete. By 1690 there were no dodos left alive on planet Earth. Sad Face.

It might be a bit of a race between me and Thyla for the Comeback, but we will both get there, or should I say here, in the end – or the beginning. Breathless Excitement! There is something timeless about the times I am discussing, so you will have to forgive me if I appear to go back and forth, or round and round in weaving wandering circles. When I say ‘I’ you must understand that this first person pronoun refers, as I have said, to the Spirit of the Species. And if you look at a map of the world you will see that Thyla and I used to be (are) separated geographically by more or less open sea. There was Thyla, sometimes known as the Tasmanian stripy tiger, roaming around Van Diemen’s Land looking for prey while I was happily marching about like some cheerful swan on Mauritius, gleefully swallowing quantities of fruits, seeds, nuts, bulbs and roots. And generally mixing with flamingos, giant tortoises, lizards and parrots and suchlike. It was a pretty sight. I had no predators. (Cue human beings.) Of course Thyla lasted longer than I did, back then, but fizzled out in the Hobart Zoo in 1936.
I imagine that you might have first encountered the idea of me in the work of Lewis Carroll, who even identified himself with me, and who showcased me as a character in his great book of 1865 A.D. He used to visit my tragic remains (a foot, a head, mummified) in the Museum of Sciences in Oxford, and these vestiges stirred his imagination, as why wouldn’t they. Accompanying these sorry scraps of the physical life of the species was a portrait of me painted in 1626 by Roelant Savery, a Dutch master of the still-life. You would almost certainly recognise his glorious bowls of flowers with their sprinklings of lovely little zippy lizards and insects. (Forgive me, won’t you, if I get carried away with the adjectives.) His picture of me was the inspiration for the later interpretation by Sir John Tenniel. It was the Tenniel image, illustrating the story by Lewis Carroll, that rocketed me to a kind of fame, and placed me as the poster-bird for the Extinction Industry. I beat Thyla to that by quite a long way, didn’t I? Thyla became the go-to extinct mammal towards the end of the twentieth century, and in a great flurry of scientifical excitement they decided to make an attempt at bringing us poor old creatures back to face the twenty-first century music. Cue crashing cymbals and groaning organs.

I will be needing gendered pronouns in a minute, and I confess I don’t know whether the Spirit of Thyla is male or female, but I can tell you I was/am (trouble with tenses again here) female – a fact that I imagine is useful to the work of the scientificators, should they truly want to crank up a new branch on my family tree. How can a spirit have a gender? Search me. Of course it may be possible, after the first Comeback of the species, for that Comeback to be cloned, and for the clone then to undergo a change of gender. I am sorry, but I don’t have all the answers, and I must trust in the skills and imaginations of the deities and magicians I mentioned earlier. They once did some funny work with sheep, and also with the ears of mice. They’re mighty clever, you know. For one thing, they grow human beings in glass dishes, I believe.

I hear that one swallow does not make a summer. That makes sense, doesn’t it. One new dodo will be thrilling, but two will be necessary if dodos are to make the full necessary Comeback to rollicking racy vitality. No glass dishes for us! Of course I am nothing like a swallow, no streamlined darting bluebird of happiness me. I should say I am the antithesis of a swallow. After a good deal of scientifical discussion and argument, it was decided that I am/was a giant flightless bird of the pigeon or dove kind, a sort of earth-bound waddling Holy Ghost. I’m a little bit afraid I might end up as a Comebackatoo or somesuch. That reminds me to tell you that dodos murmur like well-mannered pigeons. Really sweet and low and comforting.

In my corporeal manifestation I am thirty inches tall, and I weigh about fifty pounds. My head and bill are enormous, my wings minute, and my tail feathers truly splendid and nicely curly. I am very proud of my tail feathers, by the way. You can tell. My legs are short, my claws large, scaly and powerful. My colours are a lovely grey, mingled with some yellow and green. So you see, nothing like a swallow. If you must know, the colours are somewhat nondescript, or, you might say, subtle. I walk in an upright fashion, and I possibly resemble a swan. Yes? Very early on the whole island was called Swan. But it’s not that they are going to write a ballet called Dodo Lake any time soon. Or isn’t it? As you will see, this idea is not completely out of the question. For one thing, people are turning into robots as we speak. Read on.

Hope, as the great Emily Dickenson said, is the thing with feathers.

You will be wondering how the foot and the head ended up on display in Oxford. I will explain. In the early seventeenth century an Englishman called John Tradescant the Elder, collected a vast number of strange and rare objects from near and far. He opened the first public museum in England, the Musaeum Tradescantianum. Two of the rare objects were, you guessed it, the dodo head and foot, which later were displayed in Oxford, and exposed to the gaze and imagination of Lewis Carroll who advertised me to the world as the creature that said: ‘Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’ I don’t believe I ever really said that, but I might have. Perhaps I have forgotten. It’s been a while. It doesn’t really sound like me though.

You will also be wondering about where I came from, and when and how I faded out to the point where all you have are weird old scraps and the Spirit of the Species. Well, to tell you the truth, these days there are bones – even a full skeleton. However, I believe a comeback requires a bit of soft tissue. But more of that later. For now, think exploration, think sailors, think cats, rats, pigs and monkeys. Invasive species, yes. Destroying the habitat and eating the eggs and scaring us out of our feathers. Are you sitting comfortably?

So think long ago, think eight million years ago. Think Africa, Think ocean. Think volcano. And vroooom-whoosh-kaboom! Great disturbance of the waters. Then, there you have the island, twelve hundred miles off the south-east coast of Africa, in the Indian Ocean. My island home. Today you will know it, since 1992, as the Republic of Mauritius, famous for its beaches, lagoons, reefs and sunsets.

In the sixteenth century the Dutch ships came, and long before the sun had set on the seventeenth century, Raphus cucullatus had been removed from the island forever, removed from the face of the very earth itself. Extinct. Last seen, in fact, in 1662. In the nineteenth century, a few bits and pieces remained to be marvelled at, and also subjected to a certain amount of searching scientifical research.

But now I bring you to the Pond of Dreams. You have been very patient. And here’s a great new term for you: subfossil material. The story is hotting up! So is the planet, of course, hence bringing me and Thyla back from our extinctions might be just a luxurious and eccentric exercise of dancing in the darkest, darkest gloom-dark dark.

The Pond of Dreams is a natural storage facility in which are found the preserved bones (and sometimes even soft tissue) of animals including dodos in an anoxic medium where bacterial activity is minimal. I enjoy my borrowings from the scientificators. This is your subfossil material, as promised. The pond is more of a swamp than a pond, really, and is located close to the sea on the south east coast of Mauritius. In 1865 (the same year that John Tenniel’s picture of a dodo was published in Lewis Carroll’s book – cue coincidence) after searching for thirty years among the dreams of the pond, a Mauritian schoolmaster named George Clark finally found, in the very deepest part of the water, the preserved bones of dodos. (Quiet and meditative notes on a silver flute.) Collection of our bones from these waters has continued, and examples are now found in museums all over the world. The only known complete skeleton was assembled by Louis Etienne Thirioux, a quiet and somewhat mysterious Mauritian barber, yes, barber, who died in 1917. Quite recent, in the scheme of things. The Scheme of Things – I love that phrase. This skeleton is kept in the Natural History Museum in Port Louis, Mauritius. Nobody even knows whether the barber found the bones in the Pond of Dreams, or somewhere else. However, Kenneth Rijsdijk and his colleagues from Dodo Alive searched the waters of the pond as recently as 2006, and they found a treasure trove of bones. Subfossil. I enjoy saying that.

From the Horniman Museum in London you can download a model of a dodo to a 3D printer. Is that what you want to do? It’s a long, long way from the Pond of Dreams, a long way from the times when I wandered along through the warm wet glaucous greenery, watching the skinny flamingos, bypassing the big old turtles, catching glimpses of bright parrots on the wing. Swallowing fruit. There was a drought, you know, and, thirsty and desperate, we all crammed into the lovely waters of the Pond of Dreams where our bones have been sweetly preserved like cherries in a bottle of syrup for four thousand years.

Pause to absorb some of that information.

I have given you the faintest whispering spiderweb scintilla of an impression of the history of the species so far. It is safe to say that there is an infinity of information available in what is called ‘out there’.

The next step is the Comeback. Cockadoodlecomeback. It won’t be long now. Stay tuned. Hope is a wonderful feathered thing. I remember the pond, I remember the stones. I remember all the dreams. The parrots. The rats. Stay tuned. And I tend to imagine there is a choreographer somewhere in an upper room busily devising Dodo Lake. Oh yes. Cue the new Tchaikovsky. Dodo Lake, Pond of Dreams, Here Comes the Past. Dodo Lake, starring live onstage the Comeback Raphus cucullatus. Believe me. It’s going to happen. Oh yes, it’s going to happen. Stay. Tuned.

NAPOLEON’S ROADS

THIS IS MY REVIEW OF ‘NAPOLEON’S ROADS’ BY DAVID BROOKS (UQP 2016)
THE REVIEW APPEARED IN THE ROCHFORD STREET REVIEW

Thirty years ago, I read a most wonderful collection of short fiction. I think I reviewed it. It was The Book of Sei by David Brooks. Since then, I have read most of David’s books. Reading Napoleon’s Roads was a bit like finding that The Book of Sei had a glorious new compartment, to which I now had access.

On the last page of Napoleon’s Roads, the narrator says, that critics say the ‘writer’s’ books are “beautifully written, even haunting”, but that there is always some indefinable thing missing, an unspoken absence around which everything turns’. Note the ‘but’ in that sentence. It signifies that idea that those critics, are in some way, disappointed by, or afraid of, the ‘thing missing’. The stories of David Brooks can be read as turning on the mysterious thing, and many readers, myself included, celebrate the way the fiction is constructed around that thing. It’s death of course, un-named.

In the second, last story of the collection, ‘A Traveller’s Tale’, a narrator speaks directly to readers on the subject of how stories work. The tone is deliciously direct and instructive, and the story could be productively studied in fiction-writing courses. ‘I want you to think about that,’ says the narrator. The readers and the quiet voice are up close, as the narrator leads on to the moment when everyone must step out ‘into the wide world, the difficult terrain’ of the story which is ‘horrid, distressing, almost untellable’. Death, you see?

‘Is that what we came here for, to wander about in the shadowy streets of ourselves?’ These shadowy streets are the Dantesque internal and external pathways through which the fiction moves, the roads built by Napoleon’s men, the dreamscapes of the imagination, the ways to enter or to leave ‘the city’.
The first piece in the collection is one paragraph called, ‘Paths to Writing’. It signals the nature of what is to follow, invoking in poetic prose the hope that words can carry, and sometimes reveal, the deep information of the human heart. ‘A Traveller’s Tale’ contains a magnificent short discussion of the word ‘heart’. The heart is one of the ‘most durable organs of the body’ but the word is so often metaphoric; the centre of love, the heart that ‘in the human mind’ is ‘heart-shaped’. The narrator explains that, when the word is being used in the tale, the word ‘heart’ is an amalgam of the organ and the metaphor. So information, messages, move across the collection, holding the reader’s hand for the journey, sometimes letting go.

Threaded throughout is a signposting image of birds, those manifestations of the soul, harbingers of doom, messengers of hope. As I read, there seemed to be a lot of doves, but in fact when I counted, I found there were only four, plus one that was ‘almost dove’. That one stopped me in my tracks.
‘Lost Pages’ concerns a writer whose work constantly fragments and disappears. Here the storyteller has an idea of writing something ‘about The Language of Birds’, the medieval language of the troubadours. He doesn’t of course, but other characters in other stories see and hear birds, all kinds of birds. ‘Swan’ is a particularly elegant tale of longing, ending with the image of a man’s rumpled bed where in the morning, a ‘bird-like shape has formed itself’ among the sheets.

One of the most delicious (if I may, borrow the word from the restaurant review) stories is ‘Ten Short Pieces’. These tiny jewels flash across the reader’s mind like exquisite samplings of what might be said, or meant, or stated, or missed in the longer stories. The narrator-writer thinks of himself as ‘a man at a table in a workshop’, making a shoe, mending a watch, saying ‘over and over, what lines he has in the hope that one of these lines will run on, will spill over into something he has not yet imagined’. Now this is a description of how a writer works. Again, this little piece, consisting of only two sentences, is perfect for offering to students of writing. Not to mention, the pleasure of coming to the end of the long, second sentence, only to learn that the tools the writer finds in his cupboard might be ‘a piece of sheepsong or the end of a shower of rain, an owl.’ Note the last comma. Brilliant.

The word ‘sheepsong’ took me back to David’s 1990 collection titled, Sheep and the Diva – opening a doorway backwards into the apartment building of the work. Somehow, it does seem sometimes to be a vast building, or perhaps a city, through which the writer-narrator takes the reader by the hand. Dante again, I suppose. Sometimes, there is a burst through, into bright freedom ‘breaking through a veil of green words’, and sometimes (six times, actually) there is a dark image of a panther in a cage, pacing.

The story, ‘Napoleon’s Roads, begins with the panther, and the final story, ‘The Panther’, ends with the writer-narrator standing before a painting of a panther. Here, the collection ends:
‘I can see him there, in the shadows.
He does not look at me.’

I want to conclude by referring to the story, ‘Grief’, which is one, along with, ‘The Dead’, that is concerned, perhaps most openly, with mortality. This story ends with the effect of a man saying the Rosary at a funeral: ‘the fright and confusion become dignity, music moving through us in a kind of praise, making us instruments, wind, clay vessels, a kind of brooding bird, almost dove.’

Looting Hats in Time of Plague

 

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I have a memory of reading about a lot of women looting a warehouse full of fancy hats.

If you read a book in 1960, and then read it for the second time in 2020, is it the same book? What have memory and time and context done to your relationship with the book? I read The Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe in 1960, as part of my study of the development of the English novel. This second time round, I was completely immersed in it in a way that I was not, in my innocence, in 1960.

There they were, the looting women ‘coming across the yard with hats on their heads and under their arms’. This time I was expecting them, and the shock of recognition was thrilling.

Way back when, I had no access to any reference for the style of those hats. In fact it probably would not have occurred to me then to go looking. I could have checked out page 106 of my Cole’s Funny Picture Book. I did this today, and I think woman number 24 is probably wearing the kind of ‘high-crowned’ hat the women were stealing.

Google didn’t prove particularly helpful, but in my copy of A Concise History of Costume, published in 1969, there is a painting of Rubens and his wife from 1620 where the woman is possibly sporting the kind of hat in question. Google is, however, forthcoming with images and information about other details from the text, and can make the reading experience a particularly rich and different one. This is often possible because Defoe provides lots of London place names, and the old buildings are still there.

The high crown is the only real clue Defoe gives as to the appearance of the hats, but somehow, in active, lively, persuasive writing that tells of the narrator walking out to his brother’s house ‘one morning about eleven o’clock’ to find all this going on, the reader’s imagination can take over and colour in those women and their hats.

The anecdote of the hats comes right after an account of a boy going to a house to collect a debt for his master. A man came to the door in ‘breeches or drawers, and a yellow flannel waistcoat, no stockings, a pair of slipped-shoes, a white cap on his head’. This man instructed the boy to ‘go by at Cripplegate Church, and bid them ring the bell’. The bell would mark a plague death, and indeed, the man with no stockings went upstairs and died. The narrator says ‘This the young man told me himself, and I have no reason to believe it’. For the story is at this point explaining that there are many false tales going about. Sounds familiar. The narrator himself constantly reinforces his own credibility with his careful use of fine detail, and the occasional confession as to the truth of his own recollection. Some things happened ‘so long ago’ that he is ‘not certain’. He ‘ cannot call exactly’ to his mind.

There it is, the name of the place. St Giles Church, Cripplegate is in the book and on the internet. And so it is with so many of the place names. A reader can follow the narrator all over London as the dead carts rumble on and the bodies are tipped into mass graves. I particularly revelled in the names of inns such as The Pied Bull, The White Horse, The Angel Inn.

It is interesting, I think, that Defoe wrote the fictional journal fifty-five years after the year of the plague. He was born in 1659, the plague was in 1664-65, and the journal was published in 1722. The narrator is never named, but is known as HF, which is possibly a reference to Defoe’s cousin, Henry Foe who lived through the plague, and probably provided some of the detail.

In the hands of Defoe, the detail has a magic of its own. Yes, this time round I was transfixed. The subject is grim and horrifying; the writing is a gift. Hats off to Daniel Defoe.

BEWARE THE TASMANIAN SNIFFER DOG

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The following lecture was delivered as the Second McDermott Lecture at the University of Barcelona, December, 2001

– Growing up as a Writer in Tasmania –

At the tiny airport in my hometown of Launceston in Tasmania are large posters on which there is a picture of a rather appealing beagle. Underneath the picture are the words:

“Beware the Tasmanian Sniffer Dog.”

In the present climate of airport security, the poster takes on a newer and larger significance than it used to have. It was always very serious, but actually bore no reference to weapons or drugs. I will read you the rest of the information on the poster.

‘Tasmania has earned a reputation as one of the most hospitable places on earth. However there are certain visitors that we do not welcome to this state.

And these visitors – in the form of pests and diseases – could be your travelling companions.

To keep out these unwelcome guests, Tasmania has some of the world’s most stringent quarantine regulations. Please help us to retain Tasmania’s disease-free status by ensuring that you are not carrying any of the following items:

Fresh fruit or vegetables

Honey

Plants or plant parts

Cut flowers

Anything carrying soil

If you pass the barrier checkpoint with any of these items our trained sniffer dogs will detect them and you will be find a hundred dollars on the spot.’

So Tasmania is an island where agriculture is protected from the infections of the outside world. Tasmanians are proud of the clean air, clean water, good fishing, great cheeses, wilderness forests – the general purity and even innocence of their small and beautiful world. One time, in Launceston airport, I noticed the dog was missing. I asked about this and the official told me it was a prize-winning dog, and was currently buy competing in a local dog show, so could not be on duty in the airport.

I was born in Tasmania and I lived there for the first twenty-three years of my life. Naturally enough, in the material of those years, in that place, at that time, can be perceived the foundations of the writer of fiction I have become.

Tasmania is an island about the size of Ireland. It suffers – if that’s the word – from many of the things that islands all over the world can suffer from – and these things I will discuss as I proceed. It is located off the south eastern tip of Australia, and if you keep going south from Tasmania you come to the Antarctic. It is the smallest Australian state by far, much much smaller than the others. It is generally treated by Australians from other parts of the country with a mixture of contempt and envy – emotions which translate into various forms of humour which is repetitive and predictable. The island is envied for its physical beauty, and reviled for its history – and because it is small, and because it is different. Tasmanians themselves see the island as bearing the shape of a heart; other Australians usually see it as a tuft of female pubic hair, or a pellet of excrement. Because the outline of the map of Australia is easier to draw without including the island of Tasmania, Tasmania is frequently left off the map.

Yet people from other parts of Australia love to come to Tasmania for holidays, and it has always been a very popular destination for honeymoons. Right now there is a trend towards seeing it as a place to which to retire at the end of a working life. There is a sense in which it is seen as Paradise – for the mountains and beaches and rivers and forests and farms and orchards are beautiful and bountiful, and visitors are welcomed and celebrated. Although sometimes you can hear Tasmanians say, expressing an ambivalence – well, they like tourism, but it’s a pity the tourists have to make so much mess and clog up the roads. If only you could enjoy the gifts of tourism without the tourists.

The island is separated from the Australian mainland by a piece of water 200 miles wide. This water is called Bass Strait, and it is one of the most treacherous bits of ocean in the world. The Roaring Forties blow in, with nothing to stop them between the east coast of Africa and the west coast of Tasmania. In Bass Strait the winds meet 126 little islands, and the waters are full of strange channels, so that the bottom of the Strait is covered in the wrecks of ships. To cross Bass Strait by boat is thrilling and dangerous, and even when you cross it by air, I believe you may occasionally be conscious that you are not flying over ordinary water. It is, or at least I should say it has always been to me, not only a physical barrier between Australia and Tasmania, but also a powerful emotional barrier, and I think it works that way for many Tasmanians.

When I was a child living there, the mainland of Australia was usually referred to as ‘over the other side’. To cross Bass Strait was therefore linguistically and emotionally aligned with the journey from life on earth to life beyond the grave. Over the other side is always a better place, a desirable place, and yet the journey is unknown, and so it is, to a certain extent, to be contemplated with caution and fear. As a child I had a great interest in, and awe of, the other side.

I believe that Tasmania became cut off from the mainland about twelve thousand years ago. A race of indigenous people was then isolated on the island, and remained undisturbed by visitors until European explorers began to arrive, the first one recorded being Abel Janzen Tasman, who came in 1642. To me the date 1642 marks somehow the beginning of modern Tasmanian time – if you like – the dawn of European influence on Tasmania. Naturally to a Spaniard the date has an utterly different resonance. It falls during the reign of Philip the Fourth – and recorded Spanish history had already been going on for a very long time, so that 1642 is no big deal to a Spaniard. To a Tasmanian it is huge. Notice that it is not the date of a great battle – a great victory or a terrible defeat – but the date of a kind of small revelation – the revealing of the very existence of the place to European sensibility. Tasman named the island after Van Diemen, a high official in the Dutch East India Company, and so it became known as Van Diemen’s Land. That naming was to become so significant, and the name would resonate with a terrible darkness and horror.

The Empire of Britain expanded to occupy the part of New South Wales, which is now Sydney, in 1788. I use the term ‘occupy’ for the time being, but I will later elaborate and my language will change – you will find I refer not to ‘occupation’ but to ‘invasion’. In 1803 the Colony in New South Wales sent people south to occupy (or invade) Van Diemen’s Land. The main idea was to stop the French from claiming the land – perhaps that’s a sentiment you can sympathise with. The colonisation by the British of what I will call for convenience Australia was effected by military personnel, convicted criminals, and later by people called ‘free settlers’. The colony of Van Diemen’s Land was, the way I read it, tragic in the extreme. It quickly became, in its remoteness not only from Britain, but also from New South Wales, the location for the most difficult convicted criminals from those places, and also from Norfolk Island. Because Van Diemen’s Land was an island, it seemed to be an ideal place to abandon unwanted members of society, and to establish some kind of ownership of the land, and later to develop and use the territory.

Van Diemen’s Land was an alien place where plants and animals were strange, where the landscape itself spoke of despair, with the great unwelcoming cliffs and the dark mysterious forests. In the early years of the colony everybody nearly starved, and escapees from the prisons established a class of bandits known as bushrangers. (The most celebrated man in Australian history is probably Ned Kelly, a bushranger operating on the Australian mainland.) There was also violent conflict between the British and the Indigenous people whose land had in fact been stolen. What developed is described as Tasmania’s Black War – which was at its most intense in 1824. At one point the ‘settlers’ and the military formed a human chain, a line of people across the island, moving from north to south in an attempt to round up the Indigenous people like animals. In the end they captured only two people. The next tactic was to persuade (a verb which bears examination) the Indigenous people to go, all of them, to a small island in Bass Strait, leaving Van Diemen’s Land free for the British, leaving behind their ancestral Aboriginal places, their traditional lives. The place they went to was called Flinders Island. The result of all this was a kind of concentration camp on Flinders Island where most of the inmates died – it is often said, generally, of the loss of spirit, of a broken heart. There were official attempts to educate and assimilate the Indigenous people on Flinders Island, but these were generally dismal and insensitive. The European people of Van Dienen’s Land raped women, killed them, and killed the men and the children, brought disease, and then corralled the survivors until they died. From that time, the time of the perceived Flinders Island solution to the perceived problem of the Indigenous people – Van Diemen’s Land began to prosper, with ‘free settlers’ using convicts as slave labour to construct roads and buildings. The society of Van Diemen’s Land was brutal and violent and convulsive. Transportation of convicted criminals from Britain came to an end in 1853. (If you would like to read about these things in detail I recommend The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes.)

And as for the Indigenous people of Van Diemen’s Land – until very recently they were written up in the history books as having died out completely – the last man being William Lanne who died in 1869, the last woman being Trucanini who died in 1876. The language of this discourse is still developing, and I have seen it move in my lifetime from the sad story of the lost tribes of Aborigines to the narrative of colonial massacre and a more or less successful attempt at genocide. The genocide was almost successful, but in fact there are now many Tasmanians alive today whose ancestors were Indigenous, and those people identify themselves as First Tasmanians. I must stress that this latter fact does not mean that the campaign against the Tasmanians was not a campaign of genocide. It was genocide. The race that was is in fact no more. The blood of the Tasmanians is mixed with the blood of other races now, but it has not disappeared. I should point out that the thylacine, a kind of native tiger, along with other animals and plants, was killed off deliberately by the Europeans, and is now extinct.

There remains a clear desire in many parts of Australian society to view the extinction of the First Tasmanian as a fact. And there is also a desire to view the extinction of one of the Tasmanian animals, the thylacine or tiger, as a fable. Truth be told – the First Tasmanians are not extinct; the thylacines are extinct. This latter fact is ocasionally still contested. People long to discover a living thylacine in Tasmania, and there are sometimes strange reports of sightings, but no real evidence. Some people claim to have sighted the animal far away in Western Australia. With a certain perverseness people long for the invisible thylacine and refuse to see the indegenes before their eyes.

Eleanor Dark was an Australian novelist who wrote The Timeless Land (1941). Writing within the discourse of the prevailing Australian attitude to the fate of Indigenous people, she wrote: ‘The Aboriginal race is nearly gone.’

The dark and violent events of the Tasmanian penal colony, and the saga of the defeat and murder of the Aborigines, sat very very uneasily on the conscience of a society which was cultivating a respectable face. Ashamed, deeply troubled, morally corrupted by their own actions in the recent past, the people of Van Diemen’s Land set about burying the past. In 1853, when the transportation of convicts from England ended, the island was re-named – called Tasmania after the Dutch sailor who came to it – ‘discovered’ it as history books used to say – in 1642. This re-naming was an attempt to cleanse the past, to obliterate from memory the horror and the tragedy and the violent grotesquerie of recent life, to go forward with a false confidence based on some kind of fictional innocence. Many official records of the convict and also the Indigenous past were officially destroyed, and families with blood ties to convicts and to the First Tasmanians re-wrote the family history to exclude the shameful ancestors. If your grandfather was a horse-thief from Ireland, and a bushranger in Van Diemen’s Land, and your grandmother was an Indigenous woman, then chances were, for a start, your grandfather raped your grandmother and was not joined to her in wedlock. Your family history was stained with shame. But you were now a respectable farmer who read the lesson in church every Sunday and so you certainly didn’t need those ancestors. You were constructing your dream of paradise in a little paradise island far far from the real centres of power and civilisation and as far as possible from some sort of recorded truth.

In an early history of Tasmania (published in 1852 ) John West described the island:

Its general character is mountainous, with numerous beautiful valleys, rendered fertile by numberless streams descending from the hills, and watering, in their course to the sea, large tracts of country. The south-western coast, washed by the Southern Ocean, is high and cold, but the climate of the northern and inland districts is one of the finest in the temperate zone, and produces in abundance and variety all the fruits which are found under the same latitude in Europe.

He was describing that paradise to which I referred earlier. And there grew up a perception that Tasmania and the biblical Paradise had much in common. There was even a suggestion sometimes that Tasmania was in fact the true location of the Garden of Eden. This would make the ancestors not criminals and blacks but, presumably Adam and Eve – somehow or other. From being the hell on earth of Van Diemen’s Land – Tasmania was to become that Garden of Eden. Somehow. At the expense of truth, and at the expense of a strange and complex and unconscious and on-going un-ease in the spirits of the people.

When I was at school we were taught that if we could sail the island just a few degrees to the north, it really would be the Garden of Eden. If only. Magic Realism wasn’t far away from the classrooms of my childhood. For one thing there had been that swift obliteration of the history of convicts and blacks, giving rise to the common invention of fictions. Once I was invited to write an essay about my own country – it was supposed to be submitted to a school magazine in the US. My choice of topic for my essay was Tasmania’s blood-stained past. My teacher forbade me to send the essay to America since it was not expressing the official narrative line. Censorship is sometimes a marvellous spur to interest and creativity – perhaps the killing of my essay played a part in my desire to write fiction. I like to think so.

The Tasmanian countryside is different from that of most of mainland Australia. There is a poem which all Australian children, including Tasmanian children, used to learn by heart throughout most of the twentieth century. It described Australia as a wide brown land – a sunburnt country. We learnt the poem dutifully, but it does not describe Tasmania – remember that Tasmania is off the map anyway, is too small and insignificant to figure in the larger picture. Perhaps it’s like – I suppose if you were describing Spain you wouldn’t really stop every time to take, say, Los Canarias into account. I believe that on weather maps they show up as being much closer to the Spanish mainland than in fact they are. That might not be a fair analogy – I don’t know. I do know that Tasmania is to Australia rather like what Newfoundland is to Canada. Anyway, Tasmanians traditionally identified their countryside as being different, as being as a little piece of rural England. They planted hawthorn hedges and English trees, and they built elegant little imitations of the English churches and the Georgian houses of eighteenth century England – and then they built Victorian and Edwardian houses as well. I don’t know how much these architectural terms will mean to you – just believe me when I tell you that the public buildings, farmhouses, houses of the rich, and cottages of the poor – as well as the parks and gardens in Tasmania often resemble charming toy replicas of English places. The indigenous plants were for a long long time considered to be inferior to European plants. It is a great climate for growing apples and cherries and roses.

I have ever so briefly described the history of my native land. I must now enter the scene myself and reflect on how I might have interacted with it to develop a passionate interest in – not only the place itself, but in the writing of a body of fiction which frequently locates itself in my imaginative reconstruction of the place, and which demonstrates I think, somehow, in its tone and position, some of the influences I have described.

I was born into a world in crisis, at the beginning of the Second World War. I have often tried to imagine what it must have been like for a woman bearing a child at that time. But although I know the people had only newspapers, radio newsreels, and letters to supply information, I can’t really envisage how informed they would feel, or how they would really feel. I somehow remember the radio was always on. Today people are drenched in information so that I imagine a contemporary pregnant woman must be daily bombarded with deep fears and uncertainties. Of course nature does insulate pregnant women in many ways, but I think the situations and conflicts in the world today, full as it is of news, must surely impact deeply and dramatically on the sensibilities and systems of all people, even pregnant women. There was less choice in the developed world in the forties – about having a baby – than there is now. So a woman of today in Australia can (theoretically) make more decisions about having a baby or not having a baby. But I have always wondered how my mother felt about bringing me into the world just then. Perhaps what I am really saying is that I have always been conscious of a personal, a deep and personal, temporal connection to the war. It was a turning point in the century (from my perspective) and I materialised at that turning point. Of course everyone sees their own birth as significant – and you bet it is – but anyhow, I have for some reason always been fascinated by and fixated on the war. (Along with millions of other people, I know – but I am trying to get to the colour of the influences on my own fiction here, and this feeling about the war was one of those.) My father was making optical equipment, and didn’t go to war, but much of life was dominated by the war, of course. There were men and women in uniform, and life was ruled by the disciplines of food rationing and blackouts. It sounds almost surreal – more magic realism perhaps – to describe the effects of war on Tasmania in the forties, when I think of all I have read and seen of the realities of the war as it was fought, and of the ravages of war on other countries. But we lived in the fear and shadow of war. To a child in Tasmania in the early forties, the war was an ordinary fact of life. Everywhere I looked, it seems, people were knitting balaclavas and rolling bandages to send to the troops. We were prepared in case there was an invasion by the Japanese, and so we had a fantastic air-raid shelter under the garden, and personal gas-masks which we also used as play-things. I regret very much that there are not photographs of me and my sisters as small girls in floral dresses running under the apple trees wearing our gas-masks. We had large toy wooden guns called ak-ak guns made by my father. Our attempts at art were filled with drawings and paintings of the enemy – known as Japs and Germans – they both had helmets and huge bared teeth – the Japs were small people with oriental eyes.

So my first five years were lived in the demi-paradise of Tasmania, to the distant sounds of a distant conflict. My world was coloured by the war, but not quite touched by it. I had male cousins who were in the navy, and they all came home, handsome and amazing in their uniforms, alive, experienced, different, changed. Exciting. And then it seems, in my memory, that the war receded, and as it did fascinating strangers began to arrive in Tasmania, un-English people from places like Holland and Italy. One time I was given two Dutch girls to look after at school, and that was so interesting and exciting. From this distance, from memory, I sense that the stability and prosperity which gradually came at the end of the war fell upon the world I knew like some kind of blessing.

But let’s say now that I have arrived at the age of eight, with the war a fading memory. By the age of eight I am conscious that Tasmania is dead weird – I know that I am living in a place that they don’t put on the map. And I feel that this is destabilising, that the place where I live does not exist in the same way that other places exist. England exists. France exists. America exists. At eight I have never been to England, and yet I know that it is real because everything points to its reality. I can’t explain it to myself, and yet I feel that I am nowhere, and I sometimes find this puzzling, sometimes find it uncomfortable, but I also find it very, very thrilling, like a fantastic secret. I was a sort of weird child, I think. I believe that all this – all that I have so far explored about the place, and my position in the place – has resolved itself – if that’s the word – into the making of fiction.

 

At the age of eight I am conscious – and I still can’t really explain how or why this is so – conscious that there are terrible secrets somewhere just below the surface of this place where I live, that the surface is somehow constructed of lies and half-truths. I am there but I am nowhere. The far interior of mainland Australia is known as the Never-Never – Tasmania could be – still could be – the Nowhere-Nowhere.

The history I learnt at school was the history of England. I have still, in fact, a copy of my history book. It is Book Four in a series –The Tasmanian History Readers. It is in the Royal School Series, and it is published by the Education Department of Tasmania. In the back of the book is a Summary of History With Dates. The events listed in the summary are ‘Death of Elizabeth and accession of James the First. The date is 1603. You will recall that Tasmania was discovered (as we say) in 1642. So we were already forty years short in this history book, if you were looking at it from the perspective of a Tasmanian child. We were not being written out of the history books – we had not yet gotten into the game.

So, I am eight – I am a bright and inquisitive and active child with many interests and skills, but I am also creepily determined to walk back into the darkness of the terrible shadows I half sense in the streets and stones and waters around me. There are signs, and pieces of evidence of strange unspoken events – bricks marked by the broad arrow of the convict builders, a few places with the musical names of bushrangers or of First Peoples – just stories with no connection with the present, or even with the realities of the history I learn. The history book I mentioned has a section of British poems for readers to learn, and they have in them such lines as ‘So far I live to the northward, No man lives north of me, To the east are the wild mountain chains, To the westward all is sea.’ Well the last bit was right. I am not meaning to suggest that everything a child is told must feed in to a sense of personal nationalism, but in my case there was no official acknowledgment of even the reality of my own country. Australia did not come into the story in those days (it is different now) and if Australia didn’t figure in the history of the British, then Tasmania did not even figure in the story of Australia. So to me there was a sense that I was living and breathing in a place which for some reason did not really exist. You may think that all of this is being explored and explained in hindsight, that it is fanciful nonsense. Some of it must be the explanation of hindsight, but I do in fact recall much of this from childhood, much of the feeling, the suspicion, the sense of dislocation. I knew I was living in a haunted land, a land very recently haunted, a land where everybody seemed to deny the existence of the ghosts, and even to deny the reality of the real in a strange deference to the mainland of Australia, and the great and beautiful homeland of Great Britain, and also of Ireland.

As a child I had two ongoing projects which went against the grain of normal everyday life. One was seeking information about what happened to the First Tasmanians (oras I would then say ‘the Aborigines’), and the other was to find out everything I could about the convict past of Van Diemen’s Land. I do believe that these interests were related to my feeling that Tasmania itself was a kind of myth. I used to – well I still do – collect references to Tasmania in unexpected places – passing references in literature for instance – like in Nabokov or Virginia Woolf. It is often used as a kind of amusing reference to somewhere a bit exotic, a bit funny, a long way away, of no real significance. Of course these references didn’t re-assure me of the firm existence of Tasmania – they just added to the air of weird quaint unreality. The most recent one of these I found was in the New Yorker (in 2001), in a short story: A man in Denver, Colorado, ‘considered selling the factory, removing himself to Tasmania or Kuala Lumpur.’

It is probably much too simple to explain it all like that. And please remember that I am exploring all this only for the purpose of examining some of the springs of my own identification as a writer of fiction, as a writer born at a certain time in a certain place, writing in a certain way. Writers are sometimes quite interested in visiting Tasmania nowadays, and even in the past writers such as Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Jack London, Agatha Christie – they visited the island and wrote a little about it. But my imagination constantly returns to the feeling I had that I was a girl in the middle of a lovely hidden nowhere which was whispering with horrible horrible secrets.

I believe that the apparent problematic nature, and even non-existence of my early home, had a significant effect on the way I looked at the world, and had the effect of shaping my desire to write, and on shaping the nature of the writing. The first years of my life were spent walking on the pathways of this non-existent island, climbing the hills of nowhere, swimming in a sea which washed onto the shores of nothing.

I remember something I used to do some days when I came home from school, and as I reflect on the idea of living in nowhere-land, this action of mine, I realise, could be linked, maybe, to my experience of the nothing of nowhere. Instead of entering the house in the normal way, which was to walk down a wide driveway on the right and go round to the back door, I would approach the left side of the house. The sinister side? The strip of land between the house and the fence is too narrow to get the sun. There is a raised garden bed filled with greenery that can survive in shade. At either end of the pathway is a tall green fence and gate, both made from slim slats of timber crossing each other to form lace-work. The whole area is therefore enclosed – by the house, the side fence, the two gates. The light was always different between the gates. It was a world of its own, an enclosure, a sacred space.

I get to the first gate, put down my school case, undo the bolt on the gate, pick up my case, go through the gate, close the gate behind me. I am in. I take as long as possible to walk the short distance from one gate to the other, to go the length of the house. I feel nothing, think nothing, am nothing. I am nowhere. I cease to exist, I merge with the nothingness, I drift. I am somehow obedient to a higher force. I am permitted to sit down on the edge of the flower-bed, but only in order to stare at the flowers and leaves, to sniff them, and taste them. There was a dense bed of catmint. I am not permitted to read or to draw or to sing. I may not do anything that is not connected with the place itself. I may only be.

 There was no act of imagination. It was more an act of negation, an exercise in disappearing. Having disappeared, I possessed the place, possessed myself, was possessed by the place. It is hard to describe what I was doing, because the act itself was against words and images. Perhaps it was something like meditation or hypnosis, but I don’t like to say so because these words give a false impression. There was a feeling of going in, being trapped, fulfilling the requirements of nothingness, giving in to nowhere. Then getting out. I knew I would emerge, would take up the real world again, be a schoolgirl with hat and gloves. I would go into the house, open the case, get out my books and pencils.

But in the time between the green lattice gates I was gone, I was nowhere, I was not. The place had no name, no language, no essential characteristics. It was a piece of time and place sliced off for me where nothing happened. I did not feel safe there, it was not a refuge, it was a trap, a zone to be negotiated, navigated, where internal rules must be obeyed. It was tense and dangerous.

Go slow, said the rules, take as long as possible.

I now realise I was creating a split in my real world, trying to find a way out of reality, a way that was not dreams and imaginings. I think this desire for getting into nothingness between the gates is probably linked to my desire to write fiction. And is also linked to the fact that I found myself to be in Tasmania. I am not even sure how it is linked to these matters, but I see the person who went into the special slice of nowhere after school as being closely related to the person who now writes stories. When you write fiction you go somewhere – but you know it is really nowhere.

Some of the narratives of my fiction are supposed to be located in Tasmania, and I believe that all of them are affected in some way be the tales I have told you of my early perceptions. If I have time to read you a little, I will read to you a section from my novel The Bluebird Café. (page 148) This novel is set in Tasmania. I think the narrative bears out much of what I have just said. The central problem of the narrative is the disappearance from her bedroom in the middle of the night of a small girl. This is a very recognisable Australian narrative. White Australians, the descendants of the ones who ‘colonised’ or invaded the land only two hundred years ago, have a deep terror that the weird wild inhospitable land itself is going to snatch their children and swallow them up, or that a stranger or a wild animal will take them and kill them and eat them. Australian literature and art frequently returns to the location of this fear. In writing fiction I am in part giving a geography to the Hills of Nowhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Group Notes – ‘Field of Poppies’

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ABOUT THE BOOK

The Big Picture:

Early in the twenty-first century, the world appears to be on the brink of catastrophe. Political and environmental changes and disasters are colluding in the destruction of the planet.

The Comfortable Life:

At the same time many human beings are able to turn a blind eye to the problems, to continue on their merry way, seemingly capable of ignoring the signs of disaster, incapable of action. They are not evil or immoral people (necessarily), but many are overwhelmed by the clear signs of the coming disasters, the probable extinction of life on earth.

The Novel

Field of Poppies begins by briefly drawing the reader’s attention to the bleak facts of the Big Picture, then turns its focus to the finer details of lives in an ordinary rural Australian town. The town itself is perhaps the central ‘character’ in the narrative, which is told by a tree-changing woman, Marsali (rhymes with parsley).

The mood and texture of these two approaches to the world of the novel are presented in sharply contrasting ways, reflected in the design of the text. The realities of the world at large edge their way into Marsali’s consciousness, mostly in regular formal words of wisdom offered by her husband, William. But it is evident that Marsali (and for that matter William and their friends) is unable to deal with the facts and implications of that Big Picture.

Art and Literature are lenses through which Marsali and William try to view the truth, and sometimes the pair seem to glimpse reality, but more often than not it eludes them. Early in the novel their attention is focused on the disappearance and murder of a neighbour, Alice. With this grim reality, come even more hideous revelations. The fate of Alice is ultimately revealed, the lives of Marsali and William are changed, but even so, the pair still appears to be blindly and helplessly sleepwalking into total darkness, living the good life, ignoring every warning sign of doom.

The couple recognise the sinister implications of the arrival in the town of a mining company from China. The town they have grown to love will be changed forever. They don’t see the complex irony in the fact that their new home is the Eureka Tower in Melbourne, a tall and glamorous apartment building owing its name to the celebration of gold-mining and miners in the very area from which they have fled. They persevere in the fantasy of their everyday lives, flying off to Paris for a wedding, seemingly ignorant of the damage the airline industry is doing to the planet.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carmel Bird grew up in Tasmania, and much of her writing reflects this fact. In 2016 she received the Patrick White Literary Award. Carmel is the author of ten novels and eight collections of short fiction. Her books on writing, Dear Writer Revisited and Writing the Story of Your Life are widely used, as is her anthology of writing from the Stolen Generations, The Stolen Children – Their Stories. She published an anthology of a hundred Australian stories written from 1900 to 2000, titled The Penguin Century of Australian Stories. She has also published children’s books, memoir, and several other anthologies.

www.carmelbird.com

https://carmelbird.wordpress.com

 

COMMENTS on the TEXT


How to describe Field of Poppies? A lush feast of wit and wisdom? Writing so rich you simply want to devour it?  A forensic examination of an Australian country town?

Literary tour de force will have to do. Robert Drewe

***

All the Bird trademark strands – beauty, shock and horror, a genuine story based in the reality of the world, complex imagery, elegant irony and compelling prose.   Gabrielle Lord

***

Field of Poppies is an absolute feast of wit and wisdom. Carmel Bird embroiders a seemingly simple story with the most wonderful observations and colourful mischief. This novel resonates with a long list of contemporary problems. It does so using humour, not anger. It is fun – wry, intelligent, searching, poised and astute. It showcases the human catastrophe with grace and charm. It takes years of experience for a writer to be able to pull off this kind of sorcery. It is wonderful to see Carmel Bird working with such zest and verve. Michael McGirr

***

Sharp yet sensitive, wildly imaginative, and layered with allusion and allegory. Bird’s vivid characters weave together local legend, small-town speculation, art, literature and science in their narration of their selves and lives, all but ignoring the social and ecological destruction taking place around them.

A truly remarkable achievement from a novelist at the height of her powers. Fiona Wright

***

Bold and playful, sharply funny and humane, Carmel Bird’s timely social satire shimmers with layers. She has a gift for distilling the essence of her characters and locations and bringing them together in wonderfully unexpected ways. Her distinctive voice and lightness of touch shine in this penetrating and evocative novel. Michael Sala

***

Highly engaging storytelling that blends and layers reality and extravaganza with ingenious irony, wit and subtlety.

Gerardo Rodriguez Salas

 

 

 

POINTS FOR DISCUSSION

* 1 Tree-changers are often people with the freedom to seek out their own personal ‘lifestyle’. Briefly explain how this all works out for Marsali and William.

* 2 The third section of the novel is titled ‘The Mine’. What is the significance and role of gold throughout the text?

* 3 So many elements of this novel are steeped in irony. Discuss.

* 4 Marsali tells the story in an informal, memoirist tone. She is articulate, privileged, judgmental, sociable, likeable. Moral. Yet her view of the world is skewed, and much of what she says reveals an inability to face reality. Discuss

* 5 In which ways is William the novel’s centre of wisdom and goodness?

* 6 The title of the novel references World War One (as well as a reference to a painting by Monet). The wars of the 20th Century are part of the background fabric of the novel, which frequently descends into moments of ugly violence. The reader doesn’t see the wars, but they form part of the founding fabric of life in the twenty-first century, part of the history of the town of Muckleton. Discuss

* 7 History, geography, mining – discuss the roles of these within the narrative.

* 8 The town of Muckleton is central to the story, as is the general area of the old goldfields. Discuss.

* 9 In contrast to the more or less charmed lives of Marsali and William, are the dysfunctional lives of Saffron and Tonto. Discuss.

* 10 The churches of Muckleton play a key role in the life of the community. Discuss.

* 11 Generally speaking, the people of Muckleton are of good will, and some of their antics give rise to comedy. Discuss.

* 12 The murder of Alice is a grotesque, careless, mindless, alcohol-fuelled act. It is also emblematic, within the novel’s fabric, of human stupidity, and inattention to the plight of the other human beings, the plight of planet itself. Discuss.

* 13 How do the various literary works discussed in the text contribute to the central concerns of the novel?

* 14 What is the role of Monet’s painting ‘Field of Poppies’ in the text?

* 15 What does Marsali’s obsession with and analysis of Monet’s painting tell you about Marsali herself?

* 16 Consider the epigraphs at the beginning of the novel. Discuss these in relation to your reading of the text.

* 17 The poppy as a signifier of sleep is foregrounded in the novel, while the scarlet poppy of Flanders flags the bloodshed and tragedy of human conflict. Consider how the novel plays with these two meanings of the poppy.

* 18 Do you think that the couple, with their baby, who set up their b&b in the house vacated by Marsali and William, are a marker of some sort of hope for humanity?

* 19 Do you think the novel suggests that Marsali and William will ever be punished in some way for their wealthy, careless, carefree lives?

* 20 Marsali and William both belong to reading groups. These are quite different from each other. Discuss.

 

 

 

FURTHER READING

The White Garden – Carmel Bird

Red Shoes – Carmel Bird

Cape Grimm – Carmel Bird

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

Jacob’s Room – Virginia Woolf

The Dry – Jane Harper

Soon – Lois Murphy

 

A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR

A friend went to a gallery where she bought a fancy hair clip, which she gave to me. The image on the hair clip was ‘Woman with a Parasol’, one of Claude Monet’s many depictions of his wife.

I went on a little Monet spree, and naturally I came to ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil’. Sometimes it is easy enough to explain how and why an event is the inspiration for a piece of fiction, however I can’t really say why ‘Poppies’ set my imagination in motion, but it did.

Suddenly I had a character who loved, not just that painting, but a faithful copy of it, created by her aunt. The main figure of the woman in ‘Poppies’ is probably the same woman as the one with the parasol. For that matter, she’s carrying a parasol in ‘Poppies’ too. Before I knew it, I was writing about the poppies in Flanders, about the waste and horror of war, leading me on to meditate on the ravages that humans have visited upon the planet itself. Yet as I descended into the bewildering darkness of wars, refugees, climate, disease, overcrowding, starvation, thirst, extinctions – I saw all around me people who lead cheerful, comfortable Australian lives, playing sport, going to the opera, the café, the art gallery, flying to Paris, decorating their hair with fancy clips. My own life is fairly comfortable, for one thing. The novel was beginning to take shape.

I am daily reminded of the urgency needed to attend to looming global disaster. Marsali and William are intended to foreground the dangers inherent in blithely living in a kind of fairyland. At one level, they know everything is spinning out of control; at another level they are powerless to act. The ground beneath their feet is rich in gold that will betray them, and is also seeded with the bones of historic tragedies and massacres. And such things are still happening around them.

It’s ironic (rather horrible actually) that something as apparently innocent and sweet, something so inconsequential, as the fancy hairclip should have set all this in motion.

 

 

CHRISTMAS IN TASMANIA 1943

 

IMG_7304.jpgMy whole attention is on the little angels flittering through the vegetable patch. It’s Christmas Eve in my maternal grandmother’s garden in Tasmania. Cypress hedge, coral roses flushing and blushing, red fish darting in the enigmatic waters of a bottomless pond. But my whole attention is really on those little angels – that’s what I call the cabbage white butterflies – as they perform their dances in search of Christmas nectar. On gravel paths, I run on my two year-old legs, my arms outstretched, fingers splayed, as I proceed in the sure and certain hope that I will catch an angel. My dress is new, blue with white trims, knitted by my grandmother, a gift for Christmas. Her other gift is the shiny shilling she gives to every grandchild every Christmas. I never caught my angel in the veggie garden.

My recollections of that Christmas eve are in fact my earliest memories, and they are sharp and sweet and also sad. For that night was my grandmother’s last. She died on Christmas eve. Her name was Ellen Margaret. So ever after, Christmas eve for me has been tinged with the sorrow of loss. Was it her heart? A stroke? The history of all that has disappeared in the swirl of the mists of time, and what remains are the magic lantern moments with the little angels in the garden.

I can record no memory of what followed. Memory being the apparently whimsical creature that it is, the melancholy that must have filled Christmas Day has been erased. I have a space where there must have been a Christmas tree. Were there gifts? We must have gone church. I would like to be able to say that I saw a flock of angels on the ceiling, heard them singing in the choir. Hark those herald angels. What became of the pudding?

We always spent the long Christmas holidays at the beach with caravans and cousins. But before we left for Bicheno with its penguins and red rocks, or Port Arthur with its stark old prison cells and seagulls, we would go to the cemetery at Carr Villa in Launceston to put a vase of roses, sometimes they were coral, on Ellen Margaret’s grave. We went on the tram, just me and my mother. On the white gravel surface of the grave there was a bloodless porcelain collection of flowers and birds, and a pair of tiny white hands in that sentimental handshake of farewell. There was something about these two right hands, severed as they were from their body of origin, that reminded me of wings. These memorial objects, still and silent, were protected by a glass dome.

My mother ritually cleans the surface of the dome with a damp cloth impregnated with a few drops of methylated spirit, and the birds and flowers come into clearer view. For a while, the air in the cemetery no longer smells of decay and rosemary, but is lashed with the sting of metho. I fill the cheap vase with water that gurgles from a crooked tap. Mother arranges the roses in the vase, titivating the petals with the tips of her fingers. She stands back to admire her work. Titivates a bit more. And we whisper and mumble some prayers. One of these is to the archangel Michael – a warlike fellow with wings and a great spear – a separate species that is a million light years from those little angels among the veggies.

Well, years and light years have now passed by, and with them a merry-go-round variety of Christmas Eves and Christmas Days. Some of them I remember and some of them I forget. However, wrapped in a linen doily, accompanied by a sprig of rosemary, on a shelf, in a cupboard in my house, I have the small white porcelain hands that once lay under the glass dome on Ellen Margaret’s grave.

So what kind of merciless grave-robber am I? Ten years ago I visited the grave at Carr Villa. Some force – the branch of a tree, the pleasures of vandalism, a bolt of lighting? – had smashed the glass dome. Flowers and birds lay in a tragic, monstrous shattered clutter of shards. Twigs and leaves lay everywhere in mushing clumps. Twisted rusty wires poked out from the base of petal and wing. Lying alone, unharmed except for dirt and rust were the voiceless little hands. I tidied up the broken pieces, and pocketed the hands. There was no vase. I left some flowers – I don’t remember what they were – on the surface of snow white pebbles.

When I got home I searched through the collection of embroidered doilys that came to me from my mother. Some of these were done by Ellen Margaret. To my great joy, one of these was a square of white linen worked in shiny white and shades of vermilion. I had always thought there was something bloody about that doily. Now it seemed to be the perfect shroud for the farewell hands. The thumb of the hand on the left is still indelibly stained with rust. A hateful spike of darkly rusted, tormented wire protrudes from the back on which is printed a number ‘5048’, resembling the mark on the back of the neck of an antique porcelain doll. It looks rather like part of a long lost phone number.

These days, on the low table where I always put a Christmas tree, I place the doily, and on it, the hands. Although they are, I have to say, rather creepy, they seem to blend in with the general theme of the red and white of tinsel and baubles and candy canes. I know I am fanciful, but the hands, freighted as they are with meaning and memory, seem to me to carry distinct echoes of the cabbage moths, those little angels that flew about their business in Ellen Margaret’s garden on Christmas Eve, long, long ago.

LITERARY INSPIRATION

From Sebastopol to Muckleton:

An examination of the long history of the inspiration for my novel FIELD OF POPPIES

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IMAGE: Cannon from the war in Crimea 1854 – 56monet.jpg

Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873  by  Claude Monet

 

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Photo of my mother, Laura Power, in the Conservatory, City Park, Launceston Tasmania in the early 1930s

Claude Monet painted ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil in 1873’. Argenteuil, where the people of ancient Gaul mined for silver, is on the Seine, about twelve kilometres from the centre of Paris. There is, I fancy, a silvery haze drifting across the field. The painting is now in the Musée d’Orsay which is a treasure house of Impressionism. I have never seen the original of this painting, and I am aware that my experience and understanding of the work is therefore flawed. However, this picture was the direct inspiration for my 2019 novel Field of Poppies, which is set in a fictional Australian town called Muckleton.

I chanced upon an image of the painting when I was checking out (on the web) a picture of a Monet woman with a parasol that was reproduced on a large hairclip given to me by a friend. My search led me to other Monets with similar motifs, and suddenly, on my screen, there was ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873’. What was it that stopped me in my tracks? What was it that drew me into this particular scene, this impression of a moment, real or imagined, in Argenteuil in 1873?

I am no longer sure what I saw first – was it the great sweep of scarlet poppy petals across the hillside, occupying almost half of the canvas? Perhaps. Because I have now studied this picture in almost endless detail, I can in truth only speculate on the sequence of my reactions. Before I could have known it, I would have been responding to the two sets of human figures, and to the house in the centre of the horizon. And then before I knew it the whole experience of looking would have linked automatically to my memories, my ideas, my desires. Do I love poppies? I do. Do I love French provincial farm houses? I do. Do I love images of nineteenth century women with children and parasols? I do. Do I love the work of Monet, his astonishing way of making the scene shift, of sending a breeze rippling across the landscape? Oh yes. My vision of all this was almost instantaneous. A shock. Was it like having a ‘vision’, being visited by something supernatural? I think it was. Bear with me.

My response to the picture is a reaction to images arranged in a certain geometry, and applied with the specific Monet technique of feathery light and shade. First the response was emotional and sentimental, but before long, as I ‘studied’ the scene, it altered, becoming intellectual, and probing memory and meaning. I had somehow entered the picture, knowing, at some point, that I was being led to construct a narrative involving ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873’. As an easy answer to the question: what was the inspiration for the novel Field of Poppies? I say: Monet’s painting.

I propose now to examine what I might mean there by the term ‘inspiration’. Readers sometimes wonder where a writer’s ideas for fiction come from. It’s easy enough to say they come from experience, memory, or a phrase overheard on a bus. I suppose every case is different. This essay is an attempt to explain where the ideas for my novel originated, what set my thoughts going until I ended up with Field of Poppies. What made this picture, for me, a source of grace, of dangerous knowledge, of inspiration for a whole complicated narrative that had apparently nothing to do with that first woman with her parasol, on the hairclip?

I sometimes wonder how it would have been if my first careful examination of the picture had been when I was standing at eye-level to it as it hung on the wall of the gallery. Would the painting have had the same mysterious impact? I think I know that, as I gazed at it, backlit as it was on the screen, my first reaction was to the joy that seems to me to be mixed with the very paint from Monet’s brush. But next I think my focus went to the house that is central, although it is in the distance. A blunt, ideal three-storey place with regular windows and a pale terra cotta roof. There is only the faintest blurry suggestion of a chimney. Then to the woman with the parasol and child at the bottom right. Then swiftly up to the distant woman with parasol and child high up at the top left. My gaze swept back and forth between the women, across the hillside splashed with the blood of a thousand poppies. The horizon where the house sits is a busy ragged line of trees, one of which is tall and bulky, and is definitely dancing on the skyline. The sky is sweetly blue, but densely fluffed with puffs of whitish clouds. Snuggling into a slight dip in the horizon, where one hill-slope folds into another, is the house. I have come back to the house. In the novel, the large house built on the goldfields by an Irish family in the nineteenth century, is at the heart of the lives of the central characters.

I imagine that for the artist this was just another ‘scene’, an impression of the landscape he loved, punctuated by images of two separate women with parasol and child. The inspiration and model for his pictures of women was often his first wife Camille who died in 1879, when she was thirty-two. Claude and Camille had been disowned by each of their families when their first child, Jean, was born out of wedlock in 1867. When Monet did this painting, the sun was still shining in his life. Perhaps the most curious feature of it is the presence of the distant second woman and child as they come over the hill. One of my interpretations is that they are a premonition of Monet’s second marriage. He married Alice Hoschede in 1892, the year following her husband Ernest’s death. In 1877, Ernest Hoschede, a wealthy art collector, had gone bankrupt. Ernest, with Alice and their six children, had moved in with Claude and Camille Monet in Vetheuil. Soon after, Ernest had moved to Belguim, leaving Alice and the children behind. After, it is speculated, and probably even before Camille died, Claude and Alice were having a love affair. This is only the briefest sketch of marital matters in the Monet household. But I think it is worth noting that Jean Monet (1867 – 1914) married Blanche Hoschede (1865 – 1947), the daughter of Alice and Ernest. Hence Blanche was both Monet’s step-daughter and his daughter-in-law. She was also a painter whose work reflects the influence of Monet. So I think I can see why I was intrigued by the meaning of the two women with their parasols in ‘Field of Poppies’.

As I studied the picture very closely on my screen, I allowed my imagination to go to work on the significances of its parts. I felt that the great sweep and splash of the poppies suggested the dead bodies of soldiers killed in Flanders in war, a war that was far in the future when Monet painted the picture. I felt that the arrival of the second woman coming over the horizon was a premonition of the troops coming up over the hill. Something very sinister had inserted itself into the whole picture. A narrative began to form in which the multiple global problems of the present day were in a sense set in motion by the First World War. The words of Herbert Asquith, British Secretary of State for War: ‘We are within measurable, or imaginable distance of real Armageddon. Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators.’ These words, written the day before Britain entered the First World War, kept playing in my head, suggesting to me the blindness, carelessness, misguidedness, sleepiness of human beings, as matters to be explored. I set the story in a pleasant rural Australian village today, and I niggled away at contemporary complacency, working with satire and very broad metaphor. Monet’s ‘Field of Poppies’ is a key object in the life of the main character, Marsali Swift (whose surname is intended as a reference to Jonathan Swift).

An odd thing was that when I magnified the picture, bit by bit, I discovered a tiny detail about the central house. It is actually visible without magnification. On the top storey there are clearly three windows. There is probably another window obscured by the foliage of a tree. Just where that window would be, there is a tiny black spot with a minute white mark in the centre. As part of the dark atmosphere aroused by the imaginary dead soldiers beneath the poppies, I figured there might be someone with a powerful firearm up there. The gun is trained on the woman in the foreground. She is doomed, and when the second woman moves forward, she also will be shot.

In the novel these things are ‘only’ in Marsali’s imagination, but in this fact lies an aspect of the technique of this particular novel. I didn’t want to present actual historical scenes – everything is mediated through Marsali’s thoughts in her journal. So my encounter with ‘Field of Poppies’ is translated into her lifelong knowledge of it, her great fondness for it, and the narrative is set in motion by her shock response at the loss of the painting during the robbery. She has a much more profound reason for being so connected to the picture than I do. I have puzzled over why this particular painting obsessed me to the extent that it gave rise to a novel. I kept examining the women with their parasols, particularly the larger one in the foreground. I even thought I could envisage, in the folds of her greyish skirt, the sketch of a little horse. Fanciful, yes.

Now, something I often observe about students of fiction writing is that sooner or later many of them seem to write about their mothers, in one way or another. This is really no surprise, since writing fiction (I believe) is an activity by which people try to make sense of their own lives, and such sense-making will frequently take you back to where you began, and who else was there. So one time, when I was staring at the horse-skirted woman in the foreground of the painting, I had an inkling of a photograph of my mother. The woman in the painting is elegant and French; my mother was neither of these things. However, I searched for the photo in question, and I realised the link was probably the hat. So here she is, in the conservatory in the City Park in Launceston Tasmania is the early 1930s. Even the hat – so jaunty in Argenteuil, so practical, if tilted, in the conservatory – can hardly be held responsible for the fact that the image of Camille Monet took me back to my mother. But I think it did. She is accompanied by a child. Could that child be me in my straw hat, carrying a bunch of poppies? There are no poppies in the photo of my mother. I think the great puffs of black and white blooms in the conservatory are begonias. Baskets of Begonias – a title for a novel? Maybe not.

There is a wealth of emotion, for me, in the picture in the conservatory. It was taken years before I was born, but I remember we used to have picnics in the City Park, gaze at the begonias, visit the cages of rabbits and monkeys, marvel at the intricate stone memorial of the Boer War, climb on the Russian Sebastopol gun from the war in the Crimea. Oh, suddenly there are thoughts of war.

That war lasted from 1854 to 1856, so it was over before Monet, who was born in 1840, painted his ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873’. Another clear memory from the joyful times in the City Park is of the horrible smell of gas from the nearby gasworks. And then there was the fact that along the side of the park ran a street with a fascinating French name – it was Cimitière Street, because it once led to a cemetery. These days it leads to the Launceston Entertainment Centre. Times change.

So there you have it – in my somewhat fanciful way, I believe I can trace the genesis of Field of Poppies from the Sebastopol gun to the flowers of Argenteuil.

 

 

Resurrection Plant

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This week I am giving a workshop on writing memoir. I have asked the students to bring some objects that will inspire them, will stimulate their memories. When I was looking for something of my own to take to the workshop, I found a lovely thing that used to be kept in a glass-fronted cabinet in my childhood home. It was a carved pepper pot containing, instead of pepper, an old twig. This twig had been brought to Australia from the Middle East after the First World War. It’s called the Rose of Jericho, or the Resurrection Plant. When you immerse the ancient twig in water for about twenty minutes, the gnarled little claw unfolds, opens out, breathes, and it takes the form of a strange brown twiggy flower on a stalk. Bubbles of oxygen form along the fronds. Above are pictures of the pepper pot and the plant. The apparently dead twig is lying there alone. Maybe one day soon I will post a picture of it as it floats in water, resurrected.