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.

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 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? 

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