Six degrees of separation: A Christmas Carol to The Little Red Writing Book

A prompt from booksaremyfavouriteandbest – starting with A Christmas Carol I’ll recall six books I’ve read, triggered by the memory of Dickens’ wonderful never-fading tale.

1. Straightaway I think of another Christmas story by Dickens: The Chimes, a Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In. It comes with magical illustrations. I wrote a post about it because of the opening line of one of its chapters. Exquisite.

2. Goblins remind me of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market illustrated by Arthur Rackham. It’s been said that Goblin Market has sexual references between its lines and was therefore intended for adults. But Christina Rossetti said it was for children, to show the importance of sisterly love.

3. On the other hand, the old fairy tale writers produced stuff intended for adults but it was read to children and that now scares some modern parents, apparently. Here Comes a Chopper to Chop Off Your Head by Liz Evers is an excellent read that reveals the dark side of some children’s stories.

4. A collection of stories from the French Decadent era, also mostly unsuitable for children, is Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned edited by Gretchen Schultz and Lewis Seifert.

5. Both books 3 and 4 have cool illustrations including images by Arthur Rackham who also illustrated Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens which I recently read some of. ‘Becfola’ is my favourite and is accompanied by a picture of her up a tree shrinking away from hungry wolves.

6. Of course thoughts of a hungry wolf take me to Little Red Riding Hood, but then to The Little Red Writing Book by Mark Tredinnick. An excellent play on words. And an excellent writing guide by an Australian writer. I’ve read it again and again.

By coincidence I’ve selected book covers in Christmas colours!

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A rainy day story

Have you ever gone to a place for the first time because you read about it in a story?

I recently read ‘On the Edge’ by an Australian writer, Ashley Hay. I came at it the long way round, beginning with ‘The Little Red Writing Book’ by Mark Tredinnick, a beautifully written, exceedingly helpful Australian book for writers who write like public servants but want to break away from that stilted language. Early in the book Tredinnick praises the writing of Barry Lopez, an American, and recommends Lopez’s writing about nature. So I went searching and saw Lopez’s name come up as an editor of ‘Where the Rivers Meet’, an Australian collection of short stories about our land, the nature of it, the history of it. ‘On the Edge’ was in it.

Ashley Hay wrote about the city of Wollongong, south of Sydney, built between the coastal mountains and the ocean and necessarily spreading north and south but never east or west. The whole city is ‘on the edge’ of Australia. She remembered being taken for a drive, as a teenager, along the road that once precariously hugged the steep cliffs prone to rockfalls, and compared it with the bridge that has replaced that road, the SeaCliff Bridge, a cantilevered serpentine bridge that follows the same coastline but in an open space over the ocean.

I tried to imagine it. I looked at the photos online, but I wanted to feel it, to see it.

Today, I’m in Wollongong, and am being driven to the bridge. It’s pouring, a deluge of rain that began at 5am and hasn’t stopped since. We’re on the bridge, three tourists in brightly coloured raincoats are taking photos of each other joyously holding their arms out as the rain beats down. Not another soul can be seen, and barely another car.  I’m not as bold as the tourists, I can’t get out and walk in this weather, so we continue along the road up to Bald Hill Lookout where the cloud is low and the wind is gusting and whoomping the car. The view is supposed to look as it does in this advertisement for the new seats by Outdoor Design :

Bald Hill Lookout, photo courtesy https://www.outdoordesign.com.au/

But today the view looks like this:

The sea is invisible, can’t open the windows, no point staying. We turn back towards the bridge and search for a place to stop so I can get out, stand still, and take in the view of this bridge I have only known in a story. The car parks are some distance away but I want to see what it’s like to walk on the bridge. I’ll need to take a photo and won’t be able to hold my umbrella steady in this wind, let alone a camera. It’s too hard, I give up and take a happy snap through the windscreen of our moving car.

The view was so blurred by the torrents of rain that if I hadn’t seen photos of the SeaCliff Bridge I still wouldn’t know what it looked like. So what have I gained by wanting to get inside someone else’s story?

Perhaps tomorrow will not be a rainy day.

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Six degrees of separation: ‘Where am I now?’ to ‘The Collector’

The blog Booksaremyfavouriteandbest asks once a month if we can find links between books in six moves. I like this kind of challenge. My thoughts often drift irrationally from one thing to another and I curse myself for not being able to stay on one brain path. But analysing my links between the following books helps me see there are indeed connections, be they gossamer-thin. September’s starting point, as suggested by Kate from the blog above, is Where am I now? by Mara Wilson.

I ended up at The Collector. Let me take you there:

1. I haven’t read ‘Where am I Now?’ but I immediately knew the little girl on the cover. It’s Matilda, from the movie of the book by Roald Dahl. Of all the movies Mara Wilson was in as a child actor, the name Matilda stuck with me because I wanted her to be Australian, but of course she was American.

2. And that was because Matilda made me think of Waltzing Matilda by Banjo Paterson and a book that includes some of his songs and stories called Bush Songs, Ballads and Other Verse that I picked up at a garage sale.

3. It came with a matching volume, Best Stories by Henry Lawson. ‘The Drover’s Wife’ is the opening story which I use when tutoring to help new Australians get a taste of our history and the harsh life for women who were left alone on the land to raise children and fend off snakes.

4. As I sat in sadness over drovers’ wives, I thought of another fictional woman who had to go it alone with her child, the protagonist of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Agnes Brontë. I’ve read it twice.

5. And another book I’ve read twice with a theme not unlike The Tenant, is The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. The movie with Meryl Streep is one of my favourites.

6. This brought to mind The Collector, also by John Fowles, a book about a creepy guy who collects butterflies and enjoys pinning them into display cases to admire them. But then he collects a young woman and traps her like a butterfly. I listened to this book in the car on a long trip and at a particularly disturbing part I stopped at a café for a break where on the wall were multiple pictures of individual butterflies.

I had fun doing this! No doubt I’ll do it again in October when the starting point is The Outsiders.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 40

It’s pre-dawn, all dark. Breeding season.

First words of ‘Breeding Season’, Amanda Niehaus, in Overland, Spring 2017

I’ve been buying literary journals for a couple of years now, reading short stories to see how writers write in the 21st century. My translations are mostly of 19th-century stories, so I need to prompt myself to read today’s writing. It’s never good to get stuck in the past.

Overland is one of the Australian journals I’ve been reading. Not every piece is to my taste, but there’s usually one in each issue that I read and re-read. ‘Breeding Season’ was such a story, drawing me in with the very word breeding, not in the title but in the first line. And then, later, the mention of an antechinus.

I once caught sight of an antechinus in a sawn tree trunk in Wangaratta. I’d heard about them, how they resemble mice and rats, how we can confuse them all, but this one was prettier than any rat and I suspected that the crevices of the old trunk were more suited to a native marsupial than an introduced species. He stood still long enough for me to snap his photo. I wrote about the antechinus and my trip to Wangaratta in an earlier blog post.

Antechinus, North Beaches Reserve, Wangaratta (river beaches not ocean beaches…)

To return to the great opening line: my interest was triggered by the word breeding, evidence that the first words of a story can click somewhere in the reader’s experience, or in their hopes and fears. I wasn’t disappointed, for within ‘Breeding Season’, Amanda Niehaus writes about the jelly-bean sized babies of the antechinus and a woman’s own baby growing inside her.

I read this prize-winning story in my copy of Overland but it’s also available online.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 38

Had it not been for a murder and robbery on Sunday, 26 March 1848, the University of Queensland would not be sited at St Lucia.

The Mayne Inheritance, Rosamond Siemon, 1997

The first line of this book contains the beginning and end of the story. A great way to start. Especially in a book about a real murder and a real university.

But the reader finds in the preface that the author “has taken a little licence”.

I discovered Siemon’s book in a relative’s personal library this week in Brisbane. My interest was piqued by the discovery that Patrick Mayne, the protagonist, lived very close to my great great great-grandfather, Joseph Burley, in the new streets of the new town of Brisbane. Mayne, as an alderman, helped Burley solve the problem of drays flinging mud up against his door. For the streets were then nothing but rutted tracks of dirt, turning to mud on rainy days.

Rosamond Siemon wrote the story of the successful businessman Patrick Mayne who died in 1865 and left an inheritance to his wife and children. Patrick’s son and daughter, James and Mary, made a number of philanthropic donations with their inheritance, including the acreage on which the University of Queensland has been built.

University of Queensland, St Lucia, 1948

The topic of the book is the inherited money and its possibly dark origin: Patrick Mayne may have gruesomely butchered a cedar woodcutter in order to rob him of a substantial sum. Another man hanged for it. However, though the credibility of the story is a deathbed confession by Mayne, no actual confession has been found by anyone but the author…  Until we can all have access to this proof, the book must remain a mythical murder mystery.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 36

My brother Jack does not come into the story straight away.

Opening line, My Brother Jack, George Johnston, 1964

A great first line that lets the reader know he’ll have to read on for a while before encountering the man of the title, Jack.

It’s a story about an Australian bloke who is a likeable larrikin, tough and uneducated, but it’s also about the effect of war-damaged parents on their children. The father is a sapper and the mother an army nurse who have had roles in World War 1, on the Front, and who have now returned to suburban life. On Anzac Day this week I thought of my own father and grandfather, veterans of the two world wars, who also returned to the dullness of suburbia, bringing with them troubled minds as shell-shocked soldiers.

The soldiers marching this week in the Anzac parade in Yass looked clean and smart, untroubled.

Army waiting to march, Anzac Day, Yass NSW 2018

I liked seeing the odd ones in this group, a New Zealander with a red-banded flat-brimmed hat, and a Fijian in a beret and three-quarter trousers, his muscly arms almost too big for his sleeves, catching sight of me catching sight of him as he adjusted his belt. I was also amused by the Australian soldier to his left, looking at something under his arm that was not quite right…

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46 Great Opening Lines: 35

The rabbits came many grandparents ago.

First line, The Rabbits, John Marsden, 1998

The phrase ‘many grandparents ago’ is a brilliant way of defining time for Australian descendants of immigrants. For me, it’s a great opener to an unsettling story.

The Rabbits is a fable about two things multiplying prolifically in this country: rabbits and non-Indigenous people.  John Marsden is cryptically commenting on the coincidence of the human and rabbit population explosion since the arrival of the British in 1788. The illustrator Shaun Tan produced quite disturbing images for the award-winning book destined for older children but for us adults too.

This week, I read two conflicting things. I read The Rabbits with my adult student who has come here from across the seas, and explained to her the problem caused by introducing these cute fluffy creatures into Australia. And also this week I read this advertisement near my house:

Are they serious?

Rabbits near Lake Burley Griffin shoreline
Rabbits near the underpass of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, Canberra
Rabbits near underpass of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, Canberra

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46 Great Opening Lines: 25

Advertised it looked an interesting job: Writer requires an intelligent typist.

Opening line, The Words She Types, Michael Wilding, 1975

A few years ago I was staying in an apartment with bookshelves full of books. With only three days to read, I selected The Penguin Best Australian Short Stories and flicked through it, reading first paragraphs. Michael Wilding’s story ‘The Words She Types’ captured my attention from the start, from the opening line.

And from the second line I was completely into it. As someone who has been typing for forty-odd years, I saw myself in this woman’s shoes:

It sounded more interesting than routine copy-typing; and the ‘intelligent’ held out the bait of some involvement.

She is accepted for the job of typing up the handwritten manuscript pages of a writer, but over time his pages contain fewer and fewer words and she is expected to fill in and expand, and even to interpret blank pages. She knows he will publish the story, but will he claim the words are his and hers, or his, or hers?

Michael Wilding, by the way, is a much published author. No doubt, all the words in his books are his.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 22

In Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’, which adorns numerous war memorials around Australia, there is a verse that every Australian knows:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old…

Opening line of the Author’s Note, Desert Boys, Peter Rees, 2012

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I’ve heard the line ‘They shall grow not old…’ every year of my life, yet it still catches me out. Wars need poets.

Australian soldiers in North Africa, 1941/42

When I look at the photo above from my father’s World War Two album, taken during his time in North Africa in 1941/42, I wonder whether these soldiers fell or grew old. Unfortunately the photo is uncaptioned and I have no names for them. They seem to be posing, demonstrating a lesson in warfare.

I’m struck by its similarity to the image on the cover of Desert Boys by Peter Rees, a book about Australian soldiers who fought in the desert in both world wars. In each photo there are five young Australian men in helmets, focusing on something to their left. Perhaps these cover men are also posing. In any case, their photos remind us that they went to the desert to fight, and may not have returned to grow old.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 16

The sun burns hotly thro’ the gums
As down the road old Rogan comes —
The hatter from the lonely hut
Beside the track to Woollybutt.
He likes to spend his Christmas with us here.

First lines, A Bush Christmas, C. J. Dennis, 1931
 

Clearly, if you’re reading a poem entitled A Bush Christmas and the first line says ‘The sun burns hotly…’ you can be sure you’re not in northern Europe.

My Christmases have always been hot. Where I grew up in Queensland, the morning temperature in the kitchen would have been, say, 25 degrees celsius, but Mum would never hesitate to turn on the oven and roast the chicken, a luxury. (No turkeys for us.) After a couple of hours of cooking, it would have easily been 35 degrees in that room. I’d keep out of the way and splash around in my small canvas pool while the grown-ups of my family would sit chatting in the shade of the yard. Dad in his long sleeves and trousers, which he wore in all weathers, would be chain smoking on his bench. We’d all wait for Mum to finish roasting the vegetables or making gravy, and then she’d call us to the table. The sweat dripped from her face as she served the food.

“It ain’t a day for working hard,” says the father in A Bush Christmas, and of course, as he speaks, the mother is roasting and boiling and baking in the soaring temperature of the bush kitchen. She’s hot, but guess what the poetic father says…

“Your fault,” says Dad, “you know it is.
Plum puddin’! on a day like this,
And roasted turkeys! Spare me days,
I can’t get over women’s ways.”

Traditions from the old country, the wintry Christmases of England, Scotland and Ireland, are dying hard in Australia, even now. For those from the old country who sought a better life in Canada or the northern parts of the USA, Christmas temperatures were just like home. But those who came to Australia kept up the traditions despite the upside down climate.

A few hours after our Queensland Christmas dinner was over, it was invariably followed by sharp cracking thunder, lightning flashes and a cooling torrential downpour.

But old Rogan of the poem is celebrating Christmas out in the bush, far from any city, where there might not have even been the relief that comes with a storm. Instead, Rogan passes the afternoon telling the kids “his yarns of Christmas tide ‘mid English barns”, “of whitened fields and winter snows, and yuletide logs and mistletoes”.

The children listen, mouths agape,
And see a land with no escape
For biting cold and snow and frost —
A land to all earth’s brightness lost,
A strange and freakish Christmas land to them…

Old Rogan was the lonely neighbour invited for “a bite of tucker and a beer”. They offered him company and a meal, and in return he offered them that valuable form of nourishment for children’s minds, a good yarn.

…The sun slants redly thro’ the gums
As quietly the evening comes,
And Rogan gets his old grey mare,
That matches well his own grey hair,
And rides away into the setting sun…

In the end, the father relaxes with a full belly, and his wife washes up.

“Ah, well,” says Dad. “I got to say
I never spent a lazier day.

This is how it was in my childhood. I’m glad to say some things have changed.

Cover, “A Bush Christmas” by C.J. Dennis, illustrated by Dee Huxley

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