Good news spurred me on to write about Africa and I'm lost for words.

 I'm digging up Africa photos - there is Mike - the tall handsome one - my soulmate.  Some photos don't need many words or any translation.   We were lost and all those damn cotton fields looked exactly alike. 

I'm digging up Africa photos - there is Mike - the tall handsome one - my soulmate.  Some photos don't need many words or any translation.  
We were lost and all those damn cotton fields looked exactly alike. 

Good news spurred me on

I started my second manuscript in January when I opened the Africa letters.   I’ve been dragging my hands a bit, but last week, I got a literary agent, Brendan Fredericks, who has taken on my first manuscript - one I wrote about living in Hong Kong.  It takes me a step nearer publishing.  It's an absolute delight to have Brendan on side and it’s having a galvanising effect. I’m writing like crazy, loving it and cursing too.

It's bloody hard work

This writing is no superficial retiree diversion, it’s as challenging as any physical marathon.  Long hours hunched over the keyboard give way to long nights when words play the devil with me.  I sleep with a writing pad at my bedside.  Not so much to catch my midnight inspirations as to empty my head of words. 

By night there are too many, yet by day there are never enough.  

Only a million

There are about a million words in the English language and once you take away the chemical, technical and scientific words...

So less than a million.  I feel I’ve gone through them all and am still left wanting; I might need more…

Monolinqual or Monoglot?

Then I remembered a young Afghan friend who shook his head when talking to me one day.  “It must be awful only to speak one language.”
 
“I’m embarrassed and I wish I’d learned more,” I said truthfully, “But I get by.”  

“I can't imagine it.  Isn't it dull?  I mean there are words in Farsi that express things that you don’t have in English and words in English that Farsi lacks.  Farsi is so poetic.”

It really struck a chord with me.  Surosh was only a teenager at the time we had the conversation. 

I did feel deprived, but it was entirely my own fault.

A Polyglot

Recently I heard about a young American, another teenager.  Tim Doner, a well known polyglot.  He spoke 23 languages (probably he's added another half-dozen by now) and said Farsi was his favourite.

Both young men can quote Hafez, the 14th century Iranian poet - impressive.  Because I know they'd just as easily quote Shakespeare.

Imagine...

Imagine if polyglots had time to write books.  Picture them: chewing their pens, rubbing their temples, contemplating which word from which language best to express the required sentiment.

Mind you, they might need to self-publish…  Or to start an elite club.

So I'll just have make do, after all others have managed...

Oh well I can take some solace in the historical beginnings of English, it’s a bastard language: German, Norse, Danish, Dutch, French Latin. And I’m too busy writing to take up languages, so one million words will have to do. 

I leave you with a line by Hafez

“Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.” 

Now I’m sure a lot gets lost in translation, but I’m glad there was someone there to try.  

 

 When I read poetry, I feel the words lift of the page and spin, suddenly more flexible and closer. 

When I read poetry, I feel the words lift of the page and spin, suddenly more flexible and closer. 

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/06/14/american-who-speaks-23-languages-says-persian-is-his-favorite/

http://www.languagemonitor.com/number-of-words/no-of-words/

Vodka, Kasha and the Russian Chapter

 Two Babushka Dolls given to me by two Russian doctors almost fifty years apart, one is a peasant, the other a bit of a hussy!

Two Babushka Dolls given to me by two Russian doctors almost fifty years apart, one is a peasant, the other a bit of a hussy!

Imagine my delight  

Writing a book was a lot harder than I imagined.  I have a new-found admiration for anyone who gets their work onto the shelves.  My first memoir of two years I spent in Hong Kong got bogged down at the beginning when I wrote about my journey East from England on the Trans-Siberian railway.  I struggled, my words totally inadequate against the Russian front.

Then right in the middle of my epic battle with the Russian chapter, I hosted a Russian, an Associate Professor from Siberia.

I pestered him with questions, he looked disconcerted.  His Siberia was a vibrant spot, he enjoyed living there.

My Farewell Invitation

The months flew and it was time for his farewell.  I sent round the invitations.  We’d send the Professor off in Russian style: drink vodka, eat kasha and sing the Volga Boat Song.

The Professor came to me.  He had printed off my email.  “Vodka?  I prefer Australian white wine.”

“That’s OK,” I said brightly, “I’ll get wine.”  Me and the bottle of Vodka would have our own party, I thought.

“You can cook kasha?” he said doubtfully, “Do you want me to buy the cream?”

Why would I want him to buy the cream?  My kasha was from a The Pauper’s Cookbook by Jocasta Innes, and sure had no cream.  (It upset Mike when I bought that book at a time when we were financially challenged.  He had a Scarlett O’Hara moment, “As God is my witness, we’ll never be poor again … I don’t want to eat like a pauper.”)

I said to the Professor, “No, no, it’s fine, my recipe does not have cream.” 

He looked doubtful.  

Then we had an discussion

His finger moved to the last item, “What is this Vulgar Boat Song?” 

“No, Volga.  You know, ‘Yo heave ho.  Ay-da, da, ay-da.’”

“No, I don’t know this song.”

“Yes you do!”

“No I don’t!”

Thank God for You Tube

So I found the Red Army Choir on YouTube singing the Volga Boat Song.  Since every second and third line is Yo, heave ho, I thought my earlier rendition should have sufficed.

“Oh, this is a very old song.  This is about slaves!”

It was a good party nevertheless

So, the kasha was as the Professor had never tasted it, Australian wine flowed and the Professor led us through some strange song, a romantic lament of cold and snow.  It is always winter in Siberia.

A lesson in Russian history

The professor said how much he had enjoyed staying.  He was a little embarrassed at not being able to answer all my questions about Russia.  He’d attended high-school, just after the collapse of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  The Russian history curriculum was suddenly redundant and it took time to pump out a new one. 

Just as well he was going.  If only I’d known, I’d have rectified that!   What a golden opportunity wasted. 

And the Babushka?

Yes, the Prof gave me a very shiny Babushka doll.  I was truly delighted because in 1968 on the Trans-Siberian Express, another Russian doctor had given me a Babushka doll.  That doctor had liked his Vodka - very much - and I'm sure from memory, we together gave a splendid rendition of the Volga Boat Song.  Yo heave ho.

Ma Wan Then and Now - a Hong Kong memory

 The pier where I landed at Ma Wan is deserted today and junks like the one I photographed live on only in replica for the tourists. 

The pier where I landed at Ma Wan is deserted today and junks like the one I photographed live on only in replica for the tourists. 

Shards of Glass Industry

Reading an article in the South China Morning Post that traced the decline of neon factories in Hong Kong,  made me think of another little glass industry I once visited there which has totally disappeared.

All aboard the Deri-Vica

It was November 1969 when I boarded a swish motor launch at Queen’s Pier for my first jaunt on Hong Kong Harbour. 

We drank Pimm’s as the Deri-Vica, polished wood and gleaming brass, hustled with tankers, lighters and ferries along an ugly industrialised foreshore.  But once we cleared Stonecutters Island, the change was swift; a green and pleasant coastline and a seascape shared with great old wooden junks, still under sail.  These were ‘out of China’ and it was a thrill to glimpse anything from the mainland, then in the grip of the Cultural Revolution.   

Thermos Flasks on Ma Wan Island

Our destination was the little island of Ma Wan where our host, Mickey Mok, Hong Kong’s premier stockbroker, took us to visit the local thermos flask factory which kept the island going together with shrimp fishing, some farming and handicraft.

The blowing of the glass was mechanised, but each one had to be twisted off and finished by hand.  It was a family concern with the children happily engaged in the packaging shed and running errands.  

The inner and outer flasks were separated by small asbestos disks and outside sat a very old lady straddling her workbench; a huge tree stump.  She had a round punch and a hammer and moved a sheet of asbestos around cutting out each disk one by one. 

 

Shrimp paste, fish, baskets and rice paddies

Mickey Mok walked us on from the factory; there were no cars or even bicycles, just an undercurrent of dogs, cats, chickens and kids. Outside each small house was a rack of fish hanging up to dry. 

Mickey beckoned me to look in one doorway to where a grandmother was making a basket, her hands busy while her feet rested on a flexible bamboo foot pedal that joined a pole suspended between two rafters where a basket hung and rocked her grandson gently as she worked.


On the edge of the village were homes made out of old sampans raised up on stilts, mended and extended with planks from wooden packing crates disporting foreign brand names and logos.


We carried on past rice paddies and vegetable gardens to a sandy beach and then back through the second village on the Island which Mickey claimed was the oldest one left in Hong Kong.  He also said the large TV set mounted in the village square was the Government’s idea of birth control!

And Now?

It's hard to comprehend the change.  The slate is not quite wiped clean, a deserted village by the pier and some old timers attest to that but the thermos factory is long gone. Ma Wan now houses thousands and thousands of families.

The island became a pylon stop in the mid-1990s for the Tsing Ma suspension bridge to the new international airport on Lantau.  It sports a Noah’s Ark theme park and Park Island - a huge gated apartment complex. 

 Noah's Ark Theme Park, Ma Wan from the air, the Tsing Ma Bridge by night and by day from the island.      Photo credits include Ming Hong and HK Arun

Noah's Ark Theme Park, Ma Wan from the air, the Tsing Ma Bridge by night and by day from the island.      Photo credits include Ming Hong and HK Arun

A kindly host

I was only 21; Mickey Mok was a generous host, keen to show visitors around.  It was much more fun on the Deri-Vica than on the boats of foreign Taipans because of his local knowledge.  I admired his immediacy; he engaged villagers and boat dwellers with genuine curiosity, affection and respect - they would have known from the boat that he was a wealthy man, but just how wealthy, I doubt!

Lawrence, Hemingway - each pillaged at Christmas

 Samples of their writing, just so you can check - clockwise from bottom left, T E Lawrence, Lawrence in Arabia and Hemingway as a young man

Samples of their writing, just so you can check - clockwise from bottom left, T E Lawrence, Lawrence in Arabia and Hemingway as a young man

A vintage valise or a battered briefcase?

Even today, every op shop or garage sale, I look out for them.  Battered vintage hand luggage.  It’s been that way since I was a small girl. A persistent image - a dogged fixation.

One day I think, someone might… someone might find a bundle of papers and they might be… Of course the chance now is so remote its laughable, and yet…

 

It started on my mother's knee

It could have been a lesson in perseverance or about being careful, but I don’t think it was either, it was my mother’s admiration for everything Arabian - and for a contemporary hero of hers, T E Lawrence. He'd died in 1935 when my mother was twenty-two. 

It wasn't that she knew him personally, but he was up there with other Arabists she admired, Sir Richard Burton, Gertrude Bell and Wilfred Thesiger.   Lawrence had a mastery of language, a fascination with archaeology and his account of the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule in his epic Seven Pillars of Wisdom was full of thrill, pathos and daring.   And he looked pretty damn amazing in his Arab garb!

Mum owned a copy of the first trade edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom and I had to handle it carefully.  It was thick and heavy to hold as my small fingers traced its marbled end-papers, smooth to the touch, and the indent of the title and twin scimitars stamped in gold on the cover.

 

Each time the book came out, so did the story

With each outing of the book came the story of Lawrence changing trains and leaving his briefcase with the original manuscript on Reading Railway Station.  It was around Christmas 1919.  He boarded his train and as it pulled out, he realised his loss.  He telephoned as soon has he reached Oxford, not that far, but it was gone, someone had nicked it. 

In the New Year, he sat down and for the next three months rewrote his manuscript from memory.  He no longer had his notes and drafts, he'd destroyed them in his enthusiasm for finishing the manuscript the first time round.

 

Christmas time three years on...

Three years after Lawrence left his briefcase at Reading Train Station, on another winter's day, another case, also full of manuscripts, was stolen at another train station.  This time it was Paris.

Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, excited that he wanted her to join him in Switzerland, gathered up all his papers and packed them in a small case.  I can picture her dashing about their tiny apartment getting ready to set off for the railway station.  With the valise safely under her train seat, she stepped off to get a newspaper and when she came back, it was gone. 

Hemingway tried to put a brave face on it, but he'd never asked her to bring anything. 

The papers on the desk, OK; but why the ones in the drawer and off the shelves?  Surely not everything?

Poor Hemingway.  Poor Hadley. 

Yes everything, everything.

 

Similarities linked the two men

Hemingway and Lawrence were born a decade apart and both lived lives of adventure, made their names writing about war and influenced later generations.  Lawrence was frustrated when Britain contradicted promises of independence made to the Arabs and in the prelude to the next war, Hemingway seethed that the Allies would not help Loyalist Spain in its fight against the fascists.

Hemingway read Lawrence and had him in mind as he set to his famous novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, describing the Spanish landscape in much the same way as Lawrence described Jordan.

 

Misplaced Disappointment!

I wonder what the petty crooks who lifted those cases thought when they opened them?  Irritation?  Disappointment and annoyance?  I expect they barely gave it a thought as they tossed the lot, or did they…  

 

So now you know why I always look at battered briefcases!  Either would do.

It's also in my mind when I have to start all over again because I've lost a document I'm working on or messed up an art project.  Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a big thick book to write twice.  If he could do it, any of us can.

 

 

A Hong Kong character; Horace Kadoorie, looked-up in the Jewish Cemetery

 Letters, Shanghai, sign at the Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai, the Jewish Cemetery in Hong Kong where the Kadoorie brothers reside and the best hotel east of Suez.

Letters, Shanghai, sign at the Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai, the Jewish Cemetery in Hong Kong where the Kadoorie brothers reside and the best hotel east of Suez.

Before Networking

Once upon a time you were given letters of introduction when you travelled; to someone older or wiser who would smooth the way.  Quality notepaper, a signature in ink, silver salvers, kowtows and honourable obligations. 


Of course that was all bullshit by the time I set off for Hong Kong in the 1960s; instead I was given some names to ‘look-up’.  It was never going to happen.  Without the formality of a letter and before networking was a known mantra, I was in limbo without the confidence or courage to go cold turkey.

 

It's never too late!

I’ve been thinking about some people I never ‘looked-up’.


For my first night in the Hong Kong, I’d booked myself into The Peninsula Hotel.  It was 1968 and it was the hotel in Hong Kong.  Still is!

I didn’t just have delusions of grandeur, I’d been working at the Grosvenor House in London - it was terribly infra-dig to add the word 'hotel' - if someone needed to be told Grosvenor House was a hotel, they didn’t belong there.  I worked for the manager, Mr Merryweather, and he suggested I stay at The Peninsula and told me to lookup Horace Kadoorie - whose family owed it and a lot more besides. 

 

My new employer vetoed a night of luxury

It was not to be, my new Hong Kong employer, Mrs Church, vetoed it, making it quite plain that on the pittance she was going to pay me, I couldn’t afford it.  She cancelled my hotel booking and telegrammed me that I would stay at her house.


“Why on earth did you book a room at The Peninsula?” she said.


I told her about the connection.


“Oh Horace? I go to him every New Year at The Peninsula, I will ring him on Monday.”


I heard no more about it and by the time Mrs Church marched me to The Peninsula Hotel for eggnog on New Year’s Day, I knew it unlikely that any friend of hers would be a friend of mine, but in any case Horace Kadoorie didn’t join us, just a wave across the room.  In retrospect,  he gave us a wide berth.

 

It's never too later for an introduction

So it has taken me until now to look-up Horace Kadoorie who died in 1995.  I really missed out more than a free meal and a chat. By all accounts he was a fascinating, compassionate and generous man.

From the grave he took me back to the Spanish Inquisition and on a journey with the Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula to Constantinople and Baghdad, India and Shanghai where the Kadoorie family eventually settled in the 1800s.

 

Wartime Shanghai and a clever rabbi

The Kadoorie family was well established in Shanghai when an influx of European Jews arrived fleeing the Nazi horror - mostly by Italian ship but some via the Trans-Siberian Railway. 

With twenty thousand Jews in Shanghai, Germany put pressure on Japan to hand them over.  The Japanese Military Governor of the city sent for the Jewish community leaders and asked why the Germans hated them. 

The rabbi was nobody’s fool.  He said it was because the Germans regarded Jews as oriental, short and dark. 

The Jews stayed put and the Kadoorie family were able to help the new arrivals survive the war, albeit in the Shanghai Ghetto, and when refugees were funnelled through Hong Kong for resettlement, Horace and his brother threw open the doors of The Peninsula Hotel and turned the ballroom into dormitories.

And you?

Have you anyone you could have met but didn’t? 

Why didn’t you look them up?  Do you regret not looking them up?

Can you look them up now?  Do the Chinese thing - talk to them in the grave!

 

Further Reading:

I really enjoyed this article by Hong Kong journalist Sarah Lazarus

http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1661441/role-jews-making-hong-kong

Fabergé’s Very Unusual Egg

 The Fabergé Trans-Siberian Egg   Easter 1900

The Fabergé Trans-Siberian Egg   Easter 1900

It's nearly Easter for some of us

I live in Sydney and it's nearly Easter.  In Orthodox Russia, it'll be another month before they celebrate and exchange their eggs.  It was the same gap in the calendar in 1894 when young Nicholas, destined to be the last Russian Tsar, was visiting Germany, and couldn't join the earlier festivities.  He wrote in his diary:  "It is not very convenient to keep Lent abroad and I had to refuse many things." 

A short-lived tradition

The most famous Easter eggs of all time were those first ordered by Nicholas's father, Tsar Alexander III, from the court jeweller, Carl Fabergé.  The first order, in 1885, established an imperial tradition that lasted only thirty-two years, yet, a century on,  Fabergé’s eggs still captivate our imagination with their decadence, extravagant charm and ingenuity.

The Imperial Eggs

When Nicholas succeeded his father, he continued to order eggs each year from Fabergé, one for his wife and one for his mother.  Each told a story revealed by a surprise nested within.

A secret ...

Fabergé conceived and developed his designs in secret, not even disclosing his patterns to the Tsar.

Perhaps not ...

But perhaps in the year 1900, Tsar Nicholas II had had an inkling of what Fabergé had in store for his wife, Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna, when he took delivery of the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg. 

Easter fell on the 9th April and a week later, came the opening of the Paris Exposition Universelle with countries from around the world displaying their art and inventions.  The Russian Pavillion’s pièce de résistance was a display of carriages from the new Trans-Siberian Railway line, inaugurating an era of luxury passenger service that would revolutionise travel from Europe to the Far East and symbolised the growing industrial power of Russia. 

  Poster from the Paris Exposition Universelle promoting the Trans-Siberian                                             

Poster from the Paris Exposition Universelle promoting the Trans-Siberian                                             

 
A present for the Tsarina, but was it really to impress the Tsar?

Fabergé’s Trans-Siberian Egg was crowned with the Romanov eagle asserting the Tsar’s special connection with the railway project he had grown up with.  His first official position was as President of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and as a young man returning from a grand world tour, he had laid the foundation stone of the track’s eastern terminus
in Vladivostock.

 The miniature locomotive and its golden carriages

The miniature locomotive and its golden carriages

The egg was a masterpiece. 

Engraved on the silver shell was a route map of the track, each station marked with a jewel. The enameled lid opened to reveal a miniature train.  Its locomotive, made of platinum, had diamond headlights and a ruby lantern and pulled five golden coaches. Each coach unique, ‘mail’, ‘for ladies only’, ‘smoking, ‘non-smoking’, and a chapel with miniature bells.  And if that were not surprise enough, the tiny model was clockwork, wound-up with a gold key.

  The Trans-Siberian Egg                                                       Photo Credit: Kremlin Museum

The Trans-Siberian Egg                                                       Photo Credit: Kremlin Museum

Why, to me, the Trans-Siberian Egg stands out from all the rest

I'll admit bias right now.   I have been writing a book that describes my own journey on the Trans-Siberian Express.  That journey was nearly fifty years ago and sixty years after the last imperial egg, but the heavy velvet curtains, polished wood and green lamp shades of the First Class carriage suggested imperial Russia was not so far away.

Threads run through all our lives and sometimes it is left to a biographer to see them.  The Trans-Siberian ran relentlessly through the Tsar's life right to his untimely death.   

The design of the Trans-Siberian Egg epitomises an era where technology and art flourished hand in hand and it signified a period of Russian hope and prosperity. 

And it also smacks of a bizarre excess of questionable taste and a wanton squandering on baubles!  A Russian court completely out of touch with reality.

Ultimately of course...

Tsar Nicholas II missed the brief window of opportunity for constitutional change. Delusion, denial and dreadful decisions made revolution inevitable.  As Easter 1917 approached, the Tsar was forced to abdicate.  Work on that year’s egg had already been abandoned. Carl Fabergé fled Russia and escaped to Switzerland but nothing could save the Tsar.
 

 

 

 

 

More Information:

The Trans-Siberian Egg is displayed in the Kremlin Armoury, Moscow

I highly recommend a fascinating book - Fabergé’s Eggs by Toby Faber published by PAN

The Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg, Russia was set up by Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian businessman, who is the single largest owner of Fabergé eggs.  
http://www.faberge.com/news/142_fabergest-petersburg-museum.aspx

There is also a Fabergé Museum in Baden-Baden, Germany  
http://www.faberge-museum.de/index.php?lang=en


 

A Detour to the Amazing Paris Expo of 1900

To write waylaid by curiosity is a better thing than
closing the chapter

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “… to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”.  Now that I write, I’ve found a parallel; settled at my desk, curiosity drives me deeper than my story requires.  It’s seductive; the manuscript makes slow progress, but the quest uncovers destinations and kindred spirits that make it all worthwhile.

Paris Spring in 1900

Last week I paused in April 1900 for the Paris Exposition Universelle - a grand celebration of the achievements of the closing century where art and design showcased seamlessly with the mechanisms of the future; diesel engines, talking films, escalators, and the telegraphone - the first form of magnetic recording, forerunner to video, audio tape and computer hard drives, to name a few.  Fifty million people visited the exhibition.  Fifty million!

Flamboyant Stage-Set under the Eiffel Tower

Under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, National pavilions sprung up, flaunting cultural myth, art and innovation.  Art Nouveau in vogue, the hard mechanics of new-age infrastructure were softened with flowing natural forms.  Moving sidewalks carried visitors past mock castles and pagodas and a square rigged caravel.  The Belgians recreated their Gothic Oudenaarde Town Hall.  Flamboyance and optimism heralded the new millennium.

Paris to Peking, via Moscow

In truth I never got past the Kremlin-styled Russian Pavilion, for here was exhibited the Trans-Siberian express - Moscow to Peking.  A journey time of months by sea and overland, reduced to days.  An extraordinary achievement.  To court the business traveller and wealthy voyageur, real carriages were rolled into the Pavilion. 

 

"... one was decorated with white lacquered limewood mirrored walls, ceiling frescoed with figures from mythology and embroidered curtains, another was in the style of Louis XVI with bulging furniture of gold embellished oak and a third as French Empire and a fourth imperial Chinese".  

 

The world's longest railway line and
the world's longest painting

Visitors could eat in the train’s restaurant car while canvas scenery scrolled past the carriage windows.   All the atmosphere of travelling from the Volga River east across Siberia evoked by the painted panels of pastoral life complete with changing weather.  

The young Tsar, Nicholas II, patron of the Trans-Siberian Railway, had commissioned the Russian artist, Dr Pavel Pyasetsky, to paint the panorama.  Pyasetsky travelled by train, cart and bicycle, sketching bridges and fords, hamlets and villages, railway stations and halts, working teams and depots.  He condensed the 10,000 kilometer journey onto three rolls 850 meters long.*  

Train Connections with Russian Dolls

The Trans-Siberian held me in thrall but at the Russian Pavilion was another product launch right at the opposite end of the scale.  It was the first time babushka dolls were exhibited. The designer, Sergey Malyutin, a folk artist, inspired by Japanese nesting dolls, characterised them with Russian fairytales.

Finding both the Trans-Siberian Express and the babushka dolls at the Russian Pavillion, took my writer’s dream-time to a physical shiver. 

My fascination with the Trans-Siberian began when I travelled the line in 1968 on my way out to a job in Hong Kong and the souvenir that I have of that journey is a babushka doll given to me by a Russian passenger on the train.  He bought it at a wayside station and I gave him Nivea Creme for his wife - a simple exchange of gifts - after a week of shared laughter laced with copious amounts of vodka as we rolled across the Siberian steppes.  

The carriages, Hard Class, were not quite as elaborate as the Tsar envisaged, but then a lot had happened in sixty-eight years.

 


* After a hundred years of being rolled up, the canvas scrolls have been restored and are now at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

 

Google the Paris Expo of 1900 - it is a lot of fun!  http://www.expomuseum.com/1900/

Go get the gone days

I was twelve when I saw the photo

The photo was of my maternal grand-mother, Mamie.  She was sitting at a dinner table, laughing out loud, her head thrown back a little.  The meal is over,  napkins careless on the table.  The laughing woman adds joie de vivre.  My mother looked at it for a moment and said, “Mamie gave wonderful dinners.  She was the heart and soul of the party.” 

My grandmother as a party animal was totally unexpected.   I’ve described Mamie recently in my memoir as a thrifty, tall and vitreous stick of a woman.

I was not a favoured grandchild  

Mamie seemed never pleased to see me and I steered clear of her.  So I saw an opportunity.

“Mamie’s in the garden; I’ll show her, the photo,” I said.

“NO, no.  Don’t do that, you will upset her.”

“Why?”

Mum tried to explain. The past was a place adults didn't like to visit for the present
didn't measure up.  

Years later when I was twenty-one and just about to leave for Hong Kong, Mum uncharacteristically snapped at me for endlessly crooning the hit song Those Were the Days

Russian folksong goes down well in Russia

Days after that exchange with Mum, I was rolling across the starry steppes of Siberia, singing the song with great gusto to Russians on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  They loved it because they were drunk as Tsars and because it was originally a Russian folk-song.

Recently, and now in my sixties, when I started
to write memoir

I thought of my mother, my grandmother, that photo and that song.  Revisiting the mopey, self-indulgent lyrics of Those Were the Days, I have to wonder what were we thinking!   But I also thought about messages that the past was a place to visit with trepidation.

Bullshit, my friends

Like life itself, the past is what we make it.  How we imagine the future is seldom objective, how we remember the past isn't either.  With hindsight we can use perspective and examine life and celebrate our success, for survival is success; warts and all!   My generation has even earned the right to sing that silly song, unlike Mary Hopkin when she first sang aged eighteen!

Are you reticent about looking back?   
Does it make you melancholy? 

Sophia's Easter Treat

 Ilya Repin's 19th C portrait of Princess Sophia in Novodevichy Convent- Look out that window!  She lived from 1657 to 1704

Ilya Repin's 19th C portrait of Princess Sophia in Novodevichy Convent- Look out that window!  She lived from 1657 to 1704

The fortified convent of Novodevichy

I was in Moscow in 1968 to catch the Trans-Siberian Express on my way to Hong Kong.  Although I visited Red Square - I missed Lenin - he was on holiday to see his embalmers - but from the walls of the Kremlin, we rattled off to the Moskva River and the 16th Century fortified convent of Novodevichy.

It was a visit I never forgot...

For there lingered the smoldering wrath of the incarcerated Sophia, half-sister to Peter the Great.  Her last succession plot had failed and she was compelled to take the veil and kept in seclusion at the convent; there was no other way to keep her from scheming.  

Her Royal blood saved her from the fate of her fellow conspirators who were hung.  To make the point, their bodies were strung up outside her bedroom…


“Where they hung, blackened and rigid,
turning idly in the wind,
all winter long,
their frozen boots tapping
against the windows…”


Quote from Lesley Blanch in Journey into the Mind’s Eye 


Sophia was immured in the convent for the rest of her life.  Only once a year, at Easter, was she allowed to join the other nuns in worship at Smolensky Cathedral.  This brief interlude offered little consolation to the large and formidable figure, once a patron of the convent and the first woman to rule Russia, who found herself hostage to the church that her brother, Peter, controlled and derided.   

All the magic of a Russian Easter

Sophia joined the congregation on Easter night when the cathedral’s dark interior was lit by guttering candles and a choral litany reverberated over row upon row of nuns prostrated in prayer before one miraculous icon after another.  Chill draughts wrestled with wafts of warm incense and anticipation built hour after hour, as the time for the resurrection
drew near.  

Before the midnight bell tolled

Tapers were lit and fresh incense set to smoulder on burning charcoal.  At midnight, crosses and icons were borne aloft and from the Cathedral's inner sanctuary emerged the bearded priests in ivory-white vestments heavy with gold embroidery.  As clouds of holy smoke billowed from swinging censers, the solemn procession began down the aisle of the Cathedral and led the congregation out into the starlit night.

Thrice round the cathedral under a frosted moon

Three times, the procession circled the Cathedral.  Its magnificent golden cupola gleamed above, while a river of reflected candlelight traced a path along the stone walls.   The Priest halted at the open door and waited to hush his mustered flock.  They held their breath as he walked forward, craning his neck to look inside the empty cavern of the darkened cathedral and symbolically discovered anew Christ’s empty tomb,

“Khristos Voskres!” his cry resounded out the triumphant chord. “Christ is risen!” 

A wave of adulation and celebration
swept through the throng
and condemned
Sophia to another year of solitude.

 Novodevichy Convent on the banks of the Moskva Ruver

Novodevichy Convent on the banks of the Moskva Ruver

Days of Freakish Luck and Preposterous Happiness

 Edmund Dulac - Gerda and the Reindeer - I think she was having a day with a white mark.  I always have loved the surprise on the Reindeer's face - maybe it's him that's having the day!

Edmund Dulac - Gerda and the Reindeer - I think she was having a day with a white mark.  I always have loved the surprise on the Reindeer's face - maybe it's him that's having the day!

I've been digging out my poetry books this week.  I used to read it in the bath, but now I take a shower!

No one reads poetry anymore, too busy reading tweets

Is this true?  What a terrible bargain we've made in the 21C.  Can't we tweet poetry?  Or is tweeting
the new poetry?

I am neither poet nor philosopher, but when a poem really resonates, I stop breathing.  

A finger on my pulse stays time and the lines take residence, stirring only when there is a crack
in the right moment.

Do you have days with a white mark?

I first read The Day with a White Mark by C S Lewis, when I was in my thirties.  The years gone by have amplified the pleasure, for now when I awake to a day with a white mark, I greet it like an old friend. 

Do you know what Lewis means?  Days when you are whirled in a preposterous happinessDays when you could kiss the very scullery taps

They arrive unbidden and, as Lewis says, arrive even on days when in the dark ahead only the
breakers are white.

Reading the poem will make you smile, and maybe, like me, ever after you’ll have an elf in the blood or the bird in the brain.

The Day with the White Mark

All day I have been tossed and whirled in a preposterous happiness:
Was it an elf in the blood? or a bird in the brain? or even part
Of the cloudily crested, fifty-league-long, loud uplifted wave
Of a journeying angel's transit roaring over and through my heart?

My garden's spoiled, my holidays are cancelled, the omens harden;
The plann'd and unplann'd miseries deepen; the knots draw tight.
Reason kept telling me all day my mood was out of season.
It was, too. In the dark ahead the breakers are only white.

Yet I--I could have kissed the very scullery taps. The colour of
My day was like a peacock's chest. In at each sense there stole
Ripplings and dewy sprinkles of delight that with them drew
Fine threads of memory through the vibrant thickness of the soul.

As though there were transparent earths and luminous trees should grow there,
And shining roots worked visibly far down below one's feet,
So everything, the tick of the clock, the cock crowing in the yard
Probing my soil, woke diverse buried hearts of mine to beat,

Recalling either adolescent heights and the inaccessible
Longings and ice-sharp joys that shook my body and turned me pale,
Or humbler pleasures, chuckling as it were in the ear, mumbling
Of glee, as kindly animals talk in a children's tale.

Who knows if ever it will come again, now the day closes?
No-one can give me, or take away, that key. All depends
On the elf, the bird, or the angel. I doubt if the angel himself
Is free to choose when sudden heaven in man begins or ends.


~C.S. Lewis, Poems, Edited by Walter Hooper, (1964)

                       

 More recently I discovered Jan Zwicky

The second piece is a fragment of a poem that I came across only a couple of years ago.  It’s very different, but again time paused and I read it without a breath.

  

From Transparence

Only in fairy tales,
or given freakish luck, does the wind
rise suddenly and set you down where everything
is safe and loved and in its place. The mind
does not expect it. But the heart,
                                                        the heart -
the heart keeps looking for itself.
It knows and does not know
where it belongs.

~Jan Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, (1996)
 

I'm writing memoir

It's like squeezing a whole harvest of citrus, sweet and sour, into a liqueur glass.  So I find the economy of
Jan Zwicky’s lines exquisite. 

In that first reading I was pitched headlong into the Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham illustrations of my enchanted childhood days before I was swept up with the Wizard of Oz, which is a short synopsis of my life.  I know I am not unique!  

I felt tears prick when I read the words, the heart keeps looking for itself.  It knows and does not know where it belongs.  And then I read again and felt found, not lost,  as if suddenly I understood what I had known all along.

 Jan Zwicky

Jan Zwicky is a Canadian philosopher, poet and musician and she originally published these lines in 1996 in a book called Songs for Relinquishing the Earth that she hand-made for each customer.  At first each book was individually sewn for its reader between plain covers, harnessing an extra dimension of intimacy between the reader and creator.  Although the book is now published by Brick Books and available on Amazon, that idea of a gift from the hand of the author remains in my head and connects us all.

http://www.brickbooks.ca/shop/songs-for-relinquishing-the-earth/

 Arthur Rackham - Girl beside a stream .....       the heart keeps looking for itself

Arthur Rackham - Girl beside a stream
.....      the heart keeps looking for itself

Dropping off dangerous spiders!

 I didn't take this photo...  It was taken in my house, in my garden ... relax!

I didn't take this photo...  It was taken in my house, in my garden ... relax!

The international guests I host through Airbnb are hardly in the door, when they ask about spiders.

“Not to worry, the spiders in the house are harmless, you have to really go looking for dangerous ones!”

They are not easily convinced.

And then one time...

Moments after I had shown one guest her room, she arrived screaming in the kitchen and threw herself into my arms.

"A spider, a spider, above my bed!"

IKEA should really not sell lamps like this in Australia:

 I didn't buy it to terrify guests, I bought it to amuse my small children

I didn't buy it to terrify guests, I bought it to amuse my small children

 

Guests ask difficult questions

Although I'm reassuring, the conversation complicates if guests follow up by asking if I have ever found a dangerous spider in the house.

“Well yes, once, but a long while ago ...” 

Their eyes widen, “IN THE HOUSE?”

“Yes, but it was before we put in flyscreens and got brushy things on the bottom of the doors.”

This confirms their worst fears – the spiders are OUT THERE, battering to get in

They immediately want to know more.  “What kind of spider?  What did you do?”

“Well it was a funnel-web. I released it in Lane Cove National Park.”

What I don’t tell them is that I confiscated it from a guest who was a biology student.  He'd put it in a jar and wanted to keep it as a pet.  When he cooked, the jar sat on the kitchen bench.  Other brave guests would shake the jar to see if it was true funnel-webs jumped.    But when he told me he let it out for runs, I’d had enough. 

Neither do I tell them that I didn’t drop it at the nearest entrance to the Park but took it far away as I was terrified it might have some kind of homing instinct.

That’s why I prefer hosting graduates.  They are past keeping things in jam-jars.

Take aim, fire!

“You didn’t kill it?” is the next question from my newest guest.  It is especially Australian men that want it dead.  And they repeat, "Really, you didn't kill it?"

Last week my daughter Emily listened to my spider spiel

She watched the expressions on the faces of my guests as I moved into the convoluted story about the single funnel web ever known to have crossed the doorstep. 

Afterwards, she took me aside and said, “Mum too much information.”

 “But I can’t lie!” I say...   “I have to tell them when they ask if I’ve ever had a dangerous spider in the house.”

“But Mum, it was over five years ago.”

“But it still happened.”

There was a pause while Emily, who is very practical and solution focused, thought about my predicament.

“Mum, think of it like demerit points - spider sightings drop off after five years.”

 

 

AND IF YOU REALLY MUST KNOW MORE:

Don’t mess with spiders with your bare hands

Don’t leave your soggy towels on the floor

Don’t walk around outside at night in bare feet

Don’t touch spiders in the kids paddling pool – funnel-webs just look drowned

Don’t go poking around in my garden without gloves on

And if you find one, call Emily

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I threw the Russian chapter to the wolves

I wanted to write

I enrolled for Travel Memoir at the Australian Writers’ Centre with Claire Scobie.   She focused me and she cut to the chase.  She told me I was already a writer.  All I had to do was to write

I walked on air, and then, for long weary months through fog, snowstorms and mud. 

There is a children's book called The Bear Hunt.  Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it

Every budding author should read The Bear Hunt.  Because for many of us, the start is like the bear hunt... got to go through it.    Five starts and I was heartily sick of being a writer.  Never could I get further than the Russian chapter.  I got completely bogged down in Russia.   Of course, I knew my history, Russia did that.  

My book was about Hong Kong - I'd travelled there on the Trans-Siberian railway and I needed a Russian chapter

I got off the track altogether when I started to read about magical shaman who wore deer antlers and, at a whim, shapeshifted to travel the sky like geese or ride on airborne goats and rams.   When their bums got sore from all that flock-flying, they slid along rainbows to visit the spirit world and grazed magic mushrooms. 

Maybe I was easily diverted by spirited Russia, but Russia can serve an enormous range of distraction; the largest military battle in history, one of the largest museums in the world, the deepest lake on earth and of course the longest railway line.  It is impossible to pick up any book on Russia and not be sidetracked.  Siberian brown bears, man-eating wolves and reindeer migrations.  See?  Quite impossible and we haven't even started on the Tsars, Tolstoy or Laika, the first dog in space.  Notice too the Reds have not yet had a mention.

I put it all into my back-pack

I was still working on the chapter when Dale and I went to Europe in late 2013.   I spun her interminable tales of Russia.  I moved from mystics to statistics about the Trans-Siberian, from Imperial Russia to revolution.  A bleak and bloody tale. 

Her eyes glazed and eventually she said, “Mum, enough of Russia.  Stop researching.  You are doing my head in.” 

I knew she was right!

I put my books and notebook away.  I couldn't complain.  We were in Tuscany to visit Dale’s friends.  Their company arranged wine tours by Fiat 500.  Each tiny car identical except for the paintwork; blue, red, green, cream and yellow.  We drove the countryside in single file and paused at a glorious renaissance villa for lunch. 

The next day, Dale and I went to Florence.  Walking by the Palazzo Strozzi we stopped in our tracks.  The current exhibition was The Russian Avant-garde, Siberia and the East.  Dale rolled her eyes with a laugh, while mine twinkled.  Fait accompli.  

Wolves by Night

An 1912 oil painting by Alexei Stapanov, Wolves by Night, greeted us in the first exhibition room.    A century ago this dude was troubled by the spread of urbanisation.  He warned against man’s intrusion into Russia’s fabled and primitive wilderness.  His wolves are bewildered by marks in the snow; parallel tracks like those of the iron road of the Trans-Siberian.  

No escape from the Russian Chapter

The wolves were right to be nervous, Alexei Stapanov was right to be troubled.

Dale was troubled too.  Was there no escaping the Russian chapter?    

Wolves by Night was like a talisman for me.  I didn't have to hunt the bears, just to throw ninety percent of what I had written to the wolves.

 

 Fun in Florence with Fiats and the Russian chapter

Fun in Florence with Fiats and the Russian chapter

Travelling in Time

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapesk, but in having new eyes.(1).jpg

I travel countries, but what I seek is to travel time

In 1960s Hong Kong the journey from duty-free shopping to imperial China only took a matter of hours. 

Off the beaten track, in the New Territories, were walled and moated villages, fortified against pirates, rival clans and tigers. 

Dawn explorers

It was not far past dawn when my friend Gerry and I explored.  The early light still thin, the sun soft, a lull before the summer heat solidified.  We had to go early because by mid-morning, we needed to be rigging our boat for sailing in a regatta. Gerry already had one eye on the weather.  A wisp of grey cloud ahead had an olive tint. 

We parked my mini tardis some distance away

In the wall of the fortified village was a plain entrance, like a door frame, and we passed through to a narrow winding alleyway that squeezed in on us.  At first we thought the village deserted, left to robust pigs rooting the rubbish in company with small-time chickens.

Curious, we wandered on, past rows of closed grey-black houses flat-facing the path. 

The crones appeared

Some old crones appeared in front and behind and blocked us in the confined space.  They started to pat my pockets and held their hands for coins, good-natured cackle rising and persistent. 

Then, from nowhere, a terrible utterance broke over us.  A shockingly deformed man leapt at our little convocation and the women scattered shrieking with laughter and melted into the walls. 

I took fright and grabbed Gerry's arm.  No part of the man was complete, his face contorted, his body twisted.  Gerry smiled and extended his hand.  The man hooked a withered arm, beckoning us through the village, past closed doors, and little temples, scruffy and littered, back to the entrance and pointed to a decrepit notice board and a money slot. In English the faded writing asked for donations for the upkeep of the village. 

Gerry had slowed his pace to match the man's gait

They talked as they went.  What about, neither of them knew, for they had not a word in common, but between them was a communion of souls that I could not enter because I could not fully overcome my horror.

The diaspora

In those villages only the old and infirm held on, scratching an existence, the young had long gone, sometimes far, far away, to America, Europe, blown off by the winds of change and opportunity.

Hong Kong's deserted villages spring to life

I thought back to that early morning expedition when I read in an article that Hong Kong's abandoned villages, deserted for decades, may be about to get a make-over.  Some descendants see an opportunity to repopulate, farm the land and create an eco-tourist opportunity - to let visitors glimpse a living history.

Some villages hadn't been lived in for thirty years

As I read, my heart beat with conceited superiority; after all I'd been there in the old days.  Then I remembered that crippled man.  

Destination heritage village

But part of me still felt irritated.  Are our imaginations so blunted that we can't just walk the ruins?  Must everything be presented hygienically to be tourist-correct?  I suspect the planning authorities will insist on a prescribed number of toilets and rubbish bins, fatuous notices about step-minding, a souvenir shop and a car park.

And yet ...

Raymond Fung, once a Hong Kong government architect, sees no need to build more tourist attractions.  "We need to showcase the quality of our city - and that's our countryside and our culture."  For an architect to say a city is overbuilt is so encouraging, but he went further.  "The quality of a city's brand is not derived from shopping."  Let me repeat that, because when I read it, I did just that:

 

"The quality of a city's brand is not derived from shopping."

 

Fung made me think.   If the choice is between another Disney Land or Water World and a revitalised Hakka or Punti village, then I know which I'd rather. What I think Hong Kong might get though is a Disney Land Hakka village in all its commercially viable glory.

 

Time travel can be a selfish satisfaction

And in the scheme of things, I have effortlessly travelled time.  Hong Kong's duty-free shopping in the 1960's offered cutting edge technology - a transistor radio, a View-Master, a cassette deck - all so coveted!  All so old hat!

 

 

If you'd like to read more, here are the articles I enjoyed:

http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/wilderness-resources/stories/hong-kongs-deserted-villages-spring-life

http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/1904339/its-nature-makes-hong-kong-so-special-former

 

 

 

 

 

 Photos taken at walled villages in the New Territories, 1970

Photos taken at walled villages in the New Territories, 1970

 

 

 

 

 

I

Gong Hey Fat Choy - the year of the Monkey is almost here!

 My daughter Emily's interpretation of the Year of the Fire Monkey.      Gong Hey Fat Choy!

My daughter Emily's interpretation of the Year of the Fire Monkey.      Gong Hey Fat Choy!

Chinese New Year - Monday 8 February 2016

Welcome the Year of the Fire Monkey!    I feel an auspicious year ahead.  1908 was a Monkey year when my Glaswegian grandfather enjoyed the celebrations in Hong Kong on his world tour.  And I landed in Hong Kong myself, sixty years later, in another Monkey year.

Anything can happen!

Chinese pundits say anything can happen in a Monkey year.  Breathe deep for a hugely lively time of opportunity.  Leap in and embrace innovation and creativity!   With breathless speed, a dollop of humour and quick wit, it’s a time to dare to be different, be flamboyant, shake up your life and take a risk.  But don’t be gullible or you’ll get peanuts!

So mercurial and quirky are the ways of the Monkey, one horoscope warns iron-fisted bosses may go belly up, pitched out in the melee.

That’s just what happened to my Hong Kong boss in 1968 – my quintessential Monkey year.

Celebration Central

Chinese New Year in Hong Kong swept out the turgidity of Christmas celebrated by Europeans on a monsoon island far from home.  Down came soggy Santa and up went red and gold banners heralding exuberant celebration - an unrestrained eruption of discordant noise and colour, indulgence and togetherness. 

A Resilient Festival

Successive revolutions on the Chinese mainland, Sun Yat-sen in 1911, the Communists in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, tried to extinguish everything old and interesting and especially riotous festivals.  So the spirits channelled Hong Kong – or that’s what it felt like to me when I was there.

A month of double pay.  A time to eat, drink and embrace.  New clothes, new starts, new possibilities.  Dragon dancers wound the streets with cymbals and gongs, cheered by onlookers, ignoring the drippy, oozy weather that heralds Spring in the South China sea.

Markets, massed with flowers, opened until the wee small hours.  Row upon row of pink cherry blossom branches signified, beauty, prosperity and growth.  Potted white narcissi marched shelves of bamboo scaffolding.  Miniature kumquat trees were sold in pairs. Put at my doorway, their golden fruit jostled glossy green leaves, assuring a year of joy, abundance and wealth. 

Chinese New Year on the Water

Businesses were shut-up, bedecked with flamboyant red paper notices wishing their patrons happiness and riches.  And in particular, the huge fishing fleet that set out daily from Aberdeen, a village in the South of Hong Kong Island, stayed home.  All the junks were arrayed with red flags.  In the dawn they flapped wettish in the muggy chill, until the fires on board got going to roast whole suckling pigs, and the warm, greasy smoke wafted up, stirring the bunting.  Whole families prepared a feast together, joyous with raucous noise, Incense and drumbeats. Grinning pansy-faced children jettisoned red envelopes to float enlivening the harbour swill while they clutched their lucky money.

Going Crackers

Firecrackers made the old men start and smirk and the children squeal with delight.  Illegal after the riots the year before in 1967- the prohibition made the explosions all the more exciting.  The noise heralded good luck and prosperity, frightening away evil, shaking the ground, acrid spitting smoulder drifting into smoke and misty weather.

Gong Hey Fat Choy!

 Chinese New Year 1969 Aberdeen and Victoria Park Market

Chinese New Year 1969 Aberdeen and Victoria Park Market




Taking Outward Steps in the Direction of a Dream.

The Artist’s Way.  Unlock your creativity in 12 weeks, said the flyer.

Doing The Artist’s Way with Ros Burton opened my eyes to the opportunities that a lifetime spent working for crazymakers could spell if I would banish them forever and focus on my own creativity.   

But there was more in store

Week 5: Recovering A Sense of Possibility.  There is a real advantage to doing some courses later in life.  You’ve been there!  OK, it would have been good to have done them, twenty, thirty, forty years ago, but I didn’t.  The Artist’s Way was published in 1993 so I could have done it two decades before but I’m a late bloomer, a late developer. So never mind.  

To us also comes a prize

Just as the session on crazymakers leapt off the page and let me end my subscription to the Worshipful Cult of Crazymaker Enablers, Week 5 would validate some decisions I’d taken when I headed for the UDO, my Unilateral Declaration of Ownership, a few years before.   I quote Julia Cameron, “Time and again, I have seen a recovering creative…… take a few outward steps in the direction of the dream – only to have the universe fling open an unsuspected door.”

Wow, I related to that.  In my first blog, I told you about my head-banging moment.  Maybe the universe thought because I was banging on the floor, I needed a big door.  It is absolutely true that the universe flung one open: more than one.

And the feeling was familiar

I’d experienced the sentiment first when I had dug a hole for myself in the early weeks after my arrival in Hong Kong as a twenty-one year old in 1968.  I was hardly a recovering creative then, more like a would-be.  But it was true, a few outward steps was all it needed to open doors and trigger a whole new world.

It’s the butterfly effect.  Big clod-hopping steps have a bigger effect and the thumping of a howling, head-banging banshees bigger again. 

The lesson went on

It explained that thwarted artists can eventually become like cornered animals, snarling at family and friends.  They need to be left alone without unreasonable demands made upon them.

Dear family, see I wasn't mad.  Just a thwarted artist.  Consider it proven when you get to read my memoir about Hong Kong.  I just had to start writing, that's all it was.

 

 

Crazymakers’ Central

  Emily's collage illustrates how I constantly swept up after crazymakers.

Emily's collage illustrates how I constantly swept up after crazymakers.

The Artist’s Way.  Unlock your creativity in 12 weeks, said the flyer.

The course was by Ros BurtonShe credited Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, with her success as a writer.  That’s what I wanted to be.  It was January 2013.

I was so excited.  I enrolled immediately.  So excited, I completely forgot I was deaf. 

You’d be surprised how long it takes to get used to being deaf.  When no-one is talking to you it is not a consideration and when they do, well, it’s the way they speak.   I can hear my daughter Emily clearly, but not so easily Dale’s modulated tones.  Alice talks like a fast undercurrent, impossible.  Kim, talks rapidly too but in shot-gun staccato and I can hear that. 

On the first day of the course lively chatter bounced off walls around me that I couldn’t catch.  No context, a dozen unfamiliar voices.  Babel.

I tried to focus on what Ros was saying.  Everyone was years younger than me. I sat tight, a bit like a bobblehead doll, nodding and smiling like an imbecile. 

I might have cut and run, but the second week was on CRAZYMAKERS.  I didn't care that I couldn't hear that session, I was mesmerised by the words on the page.

CRAZYMAKERS! 

All my life I’d worked for crazymakers.  But I’d never categorised them.  Now I could count them off on my fingers.  I'm a good 2i/c, a Jack-of-all-trades, hardworking; I make things happen.  Crazymakers give free reign, an endless supply of things to fix, revamp and restore.  I thrived on drama.  Crazymakers are charismatic, charming, inventive and persuasive. 

“To fixer-uppers, they are irresistible…” wrote Julia Cameron

Damn right they are.  Endless chaos for me to FIX! 

I read and reread the pages.  How had I not recognised it before?  Ye Gods, I choose them and they chose me.  Cultist.  Footlights, please.  Ladies and Gentlemen, let the circus begin.  The show must go on.  The most destructive show on earth, the paranoia, the politics and the Herculean effort.  And I’d enabled that, no problem too ridiculous, too personal or too outrageous.

The solution was to recant

I read on.   You have to BE crazy to keep working for a crazymaker; a self-destructive delusion averting any chance of nurturing individual creativity.

I walked out into the cool air of an Autumn evening and along the Manly shoreline promenade.  I made some decisions.  I was going to cast adrift the last crazymaker and restore my equilibrium by putting them all where they belonged, on the pages I would write.

And, I was going to get hearing aids.

Do you know any crazymakers?

Or did Julia and I hog them all?  It feels a bit like I did and I’d hate to be selfish, so I make a promise, they are now all yours. 

PS - a really good start to 2016

Ros is running another Artist's Way Course at Desire Books, 3/3 Whistler Street, Manly 2095 commencing Monday 1st February Email desire@desirebooks.com.au or phone 02 9977 0888.

Comfort Women

I've just finished a memoir about the two years that I spent in Hong Kong in the 1960s.  I still log on occasionally to the South China Morning Post (SCMP) to scan the news.

An article just before the 2016 New Year, highlighted some unfinished business from World War II.   The Japanese Government had reached a landmark agreement to resolve the comfort women issue with the South Korean Government, Comfort women being a euphemism for girls dragooned into Japanese military brothels.

'Silenced No More'

In 2015, Sylvia Friedman, a Hong Kong based author, published her book, Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women.  She documented the heartrending stories of lives ripped apart in the most barbaric way and the duplicity of Governments on both sides of the original conflict.

Sex-Trafficking sanctioned by Imperial Japan

The Imperial Japanese war machine set up the brothels as their World War II campaigns moved through Burma, Ceylon, India, Thailand, Indochina, Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong.  The reticence of the survivors make it hard to quantify, but some believe the provision of comfort women to brothels is the largest episode of sex-trafficking known in modern history.   

Military mindfulness

Japanese army commanders wanted to stop their troops raping women in the areas they occupied.  They didn't need any more local hostility and they didn't want pillow talk.

They had good reason to curtail loose gossip.  Tokyo pieced together snippets of strategic information about Hong Kong collected from pre-war brothels, bars and dance halls seeded with Japanese informers.  It was invaluable when the time came for their invasion. 

Raw memories

When I lived in Hong Kong in the late 1960s, the Japanese occupation of the Colony during World War ll was still a raw memory.  I didn’t comprehend the depth of the antagonism; it was not my war and I had good Japanese friends.

Nevertheless, we don’t need to take sides to ache for what happened to those women. It’s almost too late for compensation - only a few are left.  What they need most of all is an apology.  They also want their plight to be written into Japanese history text books so their suffering will never be forgotten.

Still the cycle goes on

Yet as I read on, skimming the SCMP webpage, I saw a report that the Daesh has established a department of War Spoils to codify the sexual exploitation of young girls and women taken prisoner in the current battle ground of the Middle East.  Sex slavery condoned all over again.   

It took forty years for the comfort women of South-East Asia to speak up and more than seventy years to get to the recent resolution for some of them.  Today’s newest victims may never gain even that outcome.

When will it ever stop?   

What the comfort women endured and what the women captured in the Middle East are now enduring is a continuing saga of sex slavery.  Perhaps, put in that context, we can all do a little bit to help and feel less powerless.

Journalist, Rahim Kanani, covers really interesting social innovators.  From his interview with Siddharth Kara, an expert on human trafficking and modern day slavery, I learned the US Government spends more money to combat slavery than almost any other government in the world, yet it outlays 350 times more money each year to combat drug trafficking. 

That interview gives some pointers as to how we can help combat human trafficking

The first step is to become aware of what is happening around the world.  Knowledge is power.  Visit Sylvia Friedman’s 852 Freedom Campaign on Facebook and look out for Siddharth Kara’s upcoming film on human trafficking. 

https://www.facebook.com/852FreedomCampaign/?fref=nf

http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/east-asia/article/1896474/why-japans-comfort-women-apology-coup-washington-and-blow?page=all

http://www.scmp.com/news/world/article/1896432/sickening-edict-islamic-state-issues-15-rules-governing-sex-female-slaves

http://www.forbes.com/sites/rahimkanani/2012/01/08/how-to-end-sex-trafficking-and-modern-day-slavery-with-siddharth-kara/

http://wwlp.com/2015/12/30/film-sheds-light-on-human-trafficking/

 

Late Bloomers dare to go it alone

I'm told that, as a writer, I'm a late bloomer 

Full blown pale roses or full blown pale pantaloons; take your pick.   I’ll be a rose thanks.  At least that way I am between a bud and a dead-head.  Better than pantaloons – between a pair of speedos and a Vinnies bin.

I found a website.  It said that late bloomers are NOT FAILURES and gave this encouragement:

  • Van Gogh was a late bloomer and didn't start painting until his late twenties.  My God, he so nearly missed the boat. 
  • It’s OK if you don’t hit your peak in High School because it’s often downhill all the way from there.  Good, I don’t think I’ve hit my peak yet.  Now I’ll know when I do because it’ll be WOOOOOSH after that.
  • Diving in too early to a relationship and set-in-stone life plans can keep you from determining what really
    matters to you.  Well I got engaged in six weeks but a set-in-stone life-plan eluded me, so I guess I’m well-balanced.  I know what matters first, it’s what comes second that confounds me.
  • Let go of the pressure to be perfect ...   I don’t think I was ever that deluded.
  • Going through an awkward stage can build character ...  Can?  Oh, God why else? 
  • If it hasn’t happened yet, one day, you’ll feel truly comfortable in your own skin ...  Really?  I think that might be just before WOOOOOSH and the secateurs chop off the dead-head.

Go John Updike!

Then I found another website with a quote by John Updike, Writers may be disreputable, incorrigible, early to decay or late to bloom but they dare to go it alone”.

Updike was considered one of the greatest American writers of his generation.  

So that’s it.  I'm a ramblin’ rose. 

Late to bloom and, I hope, incorrigible but not too disreputable - it would upset my mother.  I did go it alone.  I declared UDO.  My Unilateral Declaration of Ownership.

Own the situation.  Own the solution.

Remember how much fun that was? 

No? 

Oh, pass the rosé.

 

Dreamtime’s Glossary

  My daughter, Emily, kindly made this collage of my glossaric inso  mnia

My daughter, Emily, kindly made this collage of my glossaric insomnia

Night Writers!

Some nights just as I drop off to sleep, words roll into my head.  My heart sinks, I know this sensation.  This is not what my mother called the witching hour, around 3 am, when the gremlins call.  That is the stuff of bank balances, ignominy and indebtedness.  This is a new affliction.  Well new, but now aged enough to be a familiar.  It started not long after I began to write my first book.

They show up individually, lone footloose forerunners

But that’s it, I’m done for.  I hold my breath; the corps is on its way.  With centrifugal force, they arrive: words multiplying, gathering speed, aligning and coalescing. 

I don’t know which sense to nominate.  I don’t hear the words, I can’t see them, yet there is nothing ethereal about this transmission, they rattle my skull, insistent, teasing and robust.

Sleep is unthinkable  

Some nights, I greet them with wondrous joy.  Phrases and couplings that have eluded me by day are child’s play now.  Other nights, I groan because if the muse has insomnia, it will be a long night for me. 

I reach for my notebook to capture dreamtime’s glossary and try to think what I have eaten or imbibed, what I have done or not done, to summon the word brigade.  If I knew, perhaps I could sell it as a cure for writer’s block and having triggered battalions; make another fortune if I could find the remedy and send them all back to barracks and the bookshelf. 

Do your dreams match your occupation?

 

 

The Ease Of Late Career Change

  My daughter, Emily,  kindly made a collage for me when she read my blog.

My daughter, Emily,  kindly made a collage for me when she read my blog.

A Jack-of-all-trades

I was born a Jack-of-all-trades.  Blessed with an optimistic disposition, I set off on a peripatetic journey through life, qualifying for, but never practicing, a profession.  

I'm of the age where people ask me what I did, rather than what I do.   I sweep a broad brush - 
“business administration", I say. 

Business Administration?

Have you ever heard anything more boring in your life?   Can you imagine any two words that conjure up a worse fate? Roll out the coffin, tip her in, she’s crisped and dried out. 

Jack shouts in my ear, “No, no.  That’s not right”.

“Shut up Jack, it’s too hard to explain.  And in any case the fat lady has not yet left the stage.”

I didn't necessarily choose careers either, some were foisted upon me.  An American watched me with fabrics, designing, sewing, trialling colours, making a quilt.  She said, “How long have you been an artist?”  I said, “No, no I’m not an artist”. 

Never mistake a blush

Jean-Paul Satre said modesty is the virtue of the lukewarm.  My friends, I’ll own up to business administration sounding boring as batshit, but not to being lukewarm. 

Shortly afterwards I was back on the road.  I filled out the forms at the airport and when it came to occupation, instead of Retired Business Administrator, I wrote, with a flourish, Artist.

Forget, What Colour is my Parachute, mid-life career-choice blues, just book an overseas trip.  Then you can instantly be anything you ever wanted to be.  You can adopt the persona just for a trip or make it permanent.  Go joyfully through the barrier, exchanging your hat as you go.   Once I’d made it official, Jack said, “Oh.  Of course, that’s what we are…  I had been wondering”.  That whole trip, I saw images, constructed new artwork, for after all, I was an artist on sabbatical.

Two years later

It was the next overseas trip, two years later, when I changed professions again and I became a writer.   As I travelled, I filled notebook after notebook. 

And that is how you find me now. 

Jung said, “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become”.

I had to think about this one.  I have always felt I became what happened to me, but once I fixed on the idea that I wanted to write a memoir, I made a choice and magic happened.