Margaret Drabble: The Dark Flood Rises

“There is no plot, and there doesn’t need to be.”
A review of Margaret Drabble’s ‘The Dark Flood Rises’ from Jennifer’s site:

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Margaret Drabble’s most recent novel weaves around De Beauvoir’s observation that with people living longer ‘their idleness [is] all the harder to bear . . . mere survival is worse than death’. The main character in this book is Fran, in her seventies, ‘too old to die young’. She is not idle – she works as an inspector of nursing homes and is thus in a position to muse about the various arrangements of the characters in this book – all connected by blood or friendship. There is no plot, and there doesn’t need to be. Each character has a different way of coping with their ‘long journey towards oblivion’, (from D.H. Lawrence’s The Ship of Death).

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The book’s title comes from this poem:

Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul

has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.

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The title, for this reader, also suggested…

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SPEAKING IN TONGUES: THE MUSIC OF TIM DARGAVILLE

From Jennifer’s website:

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A month or so ago I wrote of the first concert presented by an exciting new enterprise in Melbourne, the New Music Studio of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Just recently, in the Salon of the Melbourne Recital Centre, the group presented music of Australian composer Tim Dargaville.

Tim Dargaville

The first three pieces referenced Tim’s special interest in Indian music –  particularly drumming. Indeed at the opening of Kolam, for saxophone quartet, Tim seemed to speak in tongues when he vocalised in a kind of drumming language. A kolam is a mandala-like drawing composed of a continuous line curving around a matrix of dots.  The traditional mandala, fashioned with rice, was usually at the entrance to a home; it was walked on and disappeared by the end of the day, so the next day another one would be made. This idea of continuity was apparent in the shape of the…

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Margaret’s Impressions of Adelaide Writers’ Week 2017

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the World War II books of Paul Brickhill dotted the bookshelves of our den – The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky and The Great Escape most notably. The sparseness of the books’ spines stood in contrast to the more embossed books on our shelves, suggesting that the former belonged to my father, a veteran of that war.

In Adelaide this year, I was curious to hear Paul Brickhill’s biographer, Stephen Dando-Collins, announce that Brickhill was not only Australian, but had been a prisoner of war (POW) of the Germans, as had been my father and uncle. No wonder they forced us kids to watch every late night TV re-run of Reach for the Sky, the film about the indomitable British fighter pilot and real life POW Douglas Bader.

As a prisoner of Stalag Luft 3 himself, Brickhill was fascinated by heroes, underdogs ‘struggling against impossible odds’. He determined that his first novel, The Great Escape, would be based on the events of the break out from his own prison camp, wherein fifty escapees were shot dead. Brickhill knew that his novel needed a hero to focus the story. He chose real life escapee Roger Bushell, or Big X as he was known. Steve McQueen played the lead role in a later movie, somewhat sensationalising the actual escape but cementing Brickhill’s career as a successful author.

Stephen Dando-Collins believes that Brickhill hit upon the need for heroes in a post-war Britain that was reeling from a broken economy and cities in ruin. There was little evidence to the British in the 1950s that they had actually won the war. Brickhill kept his Australian identity quiet so as not to jeopardise his authenticity as a storyteller. The objectivity of his ‘outsider’ status may have helped him shape Britain’s post-war view of itself by creating heroes for posterity.

Dando-Collins says that Brickhill was drawn to other hard-drinking, chain-smoking, driven men like himself. These days he would be described as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In those days he was just part of the norm. But this is a subject for another time.

The Hero Maker: A Biography of Paul Brickhill
Stephen Dando-Collins (Vintage)

Helen’s Impressions of Adelaide Writers’ Week 2017

Once again Adelaide delighted with its heady mix of festival fare. Writers from round the world took to the stage in the wonderfully situated Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens by the river. This year I was drawn to the writings of the chroniclers of our times – the journalists and social commentators who strive to show us the truth of complex human situations through both non-fiction and fiction. A highlight was the poetry reading session curated by Peter Goldsworthy, with six of Adelaide’s noted poets reading from their collections. I particularly loved the simplicity of Jules Leigh Koch’s and Cath Kenneally’s readings. Their observations on the small, often suburban details of life can be both profound and poignant. Leigh Koch’s Man in the Bookshop ‘tucks his thoughts away like a bookmark’ while one of Kenneally’s characters is ‘leaking at the seams’.

In US journalist Thomas Frank’s ‘Listen Liberal’ he explores the failings of the US left and the disintegration of the middle class. He believes the Democrats cannot find the policy or conviction to alter the economy and ‘the gravity of discontent keeps pulling to the right, and the right and the right’. Ben Ehrenreich and Mei Fong, respectively writing about the lives of Palestinians living in the West Bank in ‘The Way to the Spring’ and the effect of China’s one-child policy in ‘One Child’, discussed the very real issue of bias and objectivity in telling compelling stories. Ehrenreich posed the question: How can you write about Palestine objectively when it is very clear there is an absolute imbalance of power? You cannot denude the truth, he purports, and you must be transparent about where you stand. Fong concurred that the reader wants to know the truth and you must give your reader a clear point of view. Of course bias is in her book by her very status of being Chinese and a woman.

Journalists Patrick Cockburn (Ireland), ‘The Rise of Islamic State’, and Janine di Giovanni (US), ‘The Morning They Came for Us’, both Middle Eastern experts, gave a sobering and thorough account of the chaos that is Syria, painting a clear picture of the major players involved and the likely outcome. On the other hand, two novelists have brought the stories of the marginalised to readers via fiction. Mexican author Yuri Herrera, ‘Signs Preceding the End of the world’, and Korean Krys Lee, ‘How I Became a North Korean’, explore the realities of displaced people. Herrera delves into the shadowy world of border communities where people are not ‘recognisable’ (no papers or passports) and must adapt to many migrants from different worlds living together. He deems ‘art allows us not to be hostage to one version of reality’. Lee wanted to write about the people she knows who are not just ‘North Korean’, but complex human beings. How do we know what it is like to be that person who is simply a stereotype to the outside world? she asks.

I enjoyed an entertaining session on Books and Reading with Keith Houston (Scotland), an expert on the history of the book, and Alberto Manguel (Canada) who has written extensively on books and reading. It was heartening to hear both authors emphatically stating that the book will survive, that libraries are our identity and memory, and can and must collect everything, including new technologies.  Libraries must be preserved, they concurred!

Of course there was so much to sample of the Arts and Fringe festivals running concurrently. Watching the Berlin company Schaubuhne Berlin’s rendering of Shakespeare’s Richard III in German was a roller coaster of frenetic-paced, fantastic acting, to the accompaniment of heavy metal music, rapping, and with audience interaction and nudity (his) on stage. A phenomenal performance and for this writer quite thrilling as Richard limped off the stage, plonked himself next to me at the end of the row and asked ‘Do you mind?’ as Anne delivered her soliloquy over her dead husband’s body.  No proscenium arch here!

Finally, as part of the Fringe Festival, a delightful concert of popular music by The String Family, mum, dad and two teens all on cellos or violins, had everyone’s toes tapping.  Their story of life on the road for the past thirteen months, travelling around Australia, living in a caravan and winning the Australian National Busking Championship, had moments of great poignancy as they live out ‘the dream’. While missing the family and friends they have left behind, they have come to understand, first hand, the hardships of life on the land for so many Australians. Now there’s a book in that.

Jennifer’s Impressions of Adelaide Writers’ Week 2017

What will I take away this year from Adelaide Writers’ Week? One of the visiting writers, Ian McGuire, when asked why he writes, quoted John Cheever: ‘I write as a way of making sense of my life’. Yes, I thought, that’s what I try to do.

I spent quite a lot of time not attending the talks on the banks of the River Torrens. It seemed better to savour a few things than to come away crammed with a confusion of wisdom. This allowed time to attend some of the concurrently running Adelaide Festival: plays, concerts and two excellent interviews/panel discussions on The Secret River and Richard III, conducted by David Marr.

Adelaide writers week

I attended (and years ago had read) Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, I had recently read Hannah Kent’s The Good People and Zoë Morrison’s Music and Freedom and I have become particularly interested in how writers might use a little-known historical incident as the starting-point for a piece of fiction – most of the sessions I attended related to this interest.

Armando Lucas Correa uses the story of the ship, St Louis, which, just before World War II transported Jewish families from Nazi journey to find a safe haven. But they were turned away from Cuba, Correa’s home country, from New York – with its vibrant Jewish community – and other places, to have to return to Europe, to countries such as the Netherlands, which were later occupied. Many of those Jewish families seeking asylum ended up in Nazi concentration camps. Correa has created a young girl on that ship, who happens to be the same age as his own daughter, and he tells the story of those families through the eyes of the young fictitious Hannah.

Glaswegian Graeme Macrae Burnet found intriguing documents when he was researching his family history: medical reports and court transcripts of a murder trial in 1869. A seventeen-year-old youth wrote a lucid confession to three violent crimes. Why?  The context is a remote crofting community where stoicism and violence may have been the only way to respond to feudal conditions and grinding poverty. One of the characters sums up what is explored in Macrae Burnet’s book: ‘One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone’. The book, His Bloody Project, was short listed for the Man Booker award.

Hannah Kent found a short newspaper article one day when she was undertaking some other research. In the early 19th century, in Ireland, a woman was tried but ultimately pardoned for a drowning murder because she believed that she was dealing with a changeling – a child brought by the fairies and substituted for another child. This led to Kent’s book, The Good People. Kent spent 6 weeks in Ireland, going to the place where her story is set, walking through the muddy fields, learning some of the expressions used in the isolated communities of that time. From a brief newspaper article a vivid depiction has unfolded of a life governed not only by faith in God but, with poverty so grim that a doctor can’t be afforded, with spirits and superstition.

Ian McGuire studied the journals of surgeons on whaling ships to inform his book about mid 19th century whaling in the Arctic region, The North Water. The book is a thriller, but not a ‘whodunnit’—we know from the first chapter that Henry Drax committed murder. There is an abundance of smells, suggesting that Drax is like an animal, moving through a world of smells as animals do. He is also animal-like in that he lives in the present moment, with no sense of consequences. McGuire grew up in Hull, where the book is set – it has changed greatly since those whaling days, but his familiarity with the town helped him to recreate it in an early 19th century context.

Although it is set in the past, the interviewer did not dwell on this aspect of Zoë Morrison’s Music and Freedom. There was greater interest in her treatment of domestic violence, which indeed is a central theme of her book. Zoë said that her main character ‘just appeared on the page’ one day when she was doing a writing exercise. Presumably her vivid accounts of performing a Rachmaninov concerto come from personal experience, as Zoë is an accomplished pianist.

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Two other sessions that I particularly enjoyed were Caroline Baum’s discussion of her recently published memoir, Only, and Paula Byrne’s discussion of research into the life of Jane Austen. Caroline, an experienced journalist, mentioned how refreshing she finds it to write in the first person – something that is pretty much taboo for journalistic reporting. I was hooked when she read from her prologue, using the metaphor of a triangle as the situation of an only child – there are pointy ends, things don’t mesh together. Caroline mentioned that a life of privilege can in many ways be a handicap for a writer. Now she has had to tackle the fact that her mother doesn’t agree with all that she’s written, and grapple with the possible fallacy of memory – we think we remember something accurately – but is it accurate?

Paula Byrne has written several biographies of Jane Austen. From her talk I got further insight into Austen’s genius. Byrne said, ‘nothing Jane Austen does is an accident’. For example, the way characters play the piano has a purpose. The Real Jane Austen is organised around objects: each chapter begins by focusing on an object, such as a cashmere shawl. Byrne stressed that as a young woman Jane Austen was playful and naughty – not the demure young lady that the Victorians described, and Byrne emphasised Jane Austen’s independence and feminism – her female characters think for themselves, they don’t defer to men. Byrne is sure that Jane Austen could have married – in fact she turned down one poor man pretty much on the day of the wedding. She may have been anxious about childbirth, or she may have realised that as a married woman she would have less freedom to write.

Elizabeth Harrower

Something quite different, though, was the opportunity to hear Elizabeth Harrower. How exciting that today we could see this 89-year-old writer, right there on the stage in Adelaide, and feel connection with the Australian literary canon. Harrower had attended the first Adelaide Writers’ Week in 1960. She used to have long phone conversations with Patrick White! She is a survivor of the generation of Patrick White and Christina Stead. Being there reminded me of musicians who, through their venerable teachers, have links to Liszt or Beethoven. After tremendous success as a young writer in the 1950s and ’60s, Harrower stopped writing when a manuscript was rejected by a publisher – she locked it away in a library and it was retrieved only recently by Michael Heyward of Text Publishing, who was her sensitive and intelligent interviewer on this occasion. In some ways we writers of today may feel that things were easier in the 1960s with so much less competition, but there also wasn’t support. It seems that back then there was no one to tell Elizabeth that she was right to think her writing good and that she should have persisted and not given up with the ‘rejection’. Fortunately, Text Publishing came along 50 years later.

ELWOOD WRITERS MEETING 14TH JANUARY 2017

Another spirited meeting of the Elwood Writers this week. Inevitably, domestic and world political affairs loomed over the general discussions again. It seems we’ve entered a new age of anxiety. Before our collective blood pressure soared too high, we made teas and coffees and got down to literary business.

Barry proposed sharpening up the structure of the group’s workshopping sessions. In place of an informal general discussion about a particular piece of writing we agreed to try a more targeted approach where we each have five minutes to deliver individual feedback. This new format will allow us to focus during meetings on the more salient or urgent responses to a piece of work. So that nothing is overlooked, all comments and observations will continue to be captured within the marked up documents that return to the writer of the piece under consideration.

In this week’s workshop sessions, Helen talked about a book she’s recently acquired, Contemporary Australian Poetry (Puncher & Wattmann). Her poetry library is growing. She has approached the form in a somewhat unconventional way, beginning to write it before studying it closely. But that may prove to be an advantage. Margaret shared a piece of work that was conceived during a writing workshop she attended last year. Barry shared the first 2000 words of a reworking of one of the stories from his linked collection. He’s been experimenting with blocks of second person narration in the piece, and was keen to see if this was working. Finally we were introduced to a new character from Jenny’s novel when she presented a recently developed section from the work.

We’re going to return to second person narration/point of view in a future meeting for a fuller discussion of its features and applications.

‘Tis Pity: An Operatic Fantasia on Selling the Skin and the Teeth

From Jennifer’s website:

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As expected, this was a refreshing beginning to the Vic Opera 2017 season. Vic Opera can be relied upon to come up with original, fresh offerings, leaving traditional grand opera to other companies. So one goes to a Vic Opera performance with open ears and an open mind.

The title comes from a play, written close to Shakespeare’s time: ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, by John Ford, written in 1633. As with the two other productions of hers I’ve seen (Die Sieben Todsunden, Brecht/ Weill and Music of Berlin – with Barry Humphries), Meow Meow was the centre-piece. The production probably couldn’t have come off without her. According to the program notes, director/ writer Cameron Menzies was inspired by working with Meow Meow on the Brech/Weill production and this led to the idea of a show about the history of prostitution. He worked on this concept with Richard Mills…

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ELWOOD WRITERS MEETING 31ST JANUARY 2017

‘What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.’
Samuel Johnson

It was another lively session at Elwood Writers, especially with world events as they are. We discussed the group goals for 2017, including our planned soiree in August where we will read from our own work. As the group prepares to attend Adelaide Writers’ Week in March, we looked at the possibility of designing individual business cards that reflect our status as members of Elwood Writers.

In the past fortnight, Margaret attended Lee Kofman’s Introduction to Memoir: Telling the Emotional Truth. Lee reminded the class that memoir is always about memory, it is always told from your point of view, and is not so much about what happens to you as it is about ‘what you make of it’. She emphasized that the narrator must always be specific in their writing, that is give details. When asked about the importance of telling the emotional truth in memoir, she said, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson: ‘Books that don’t do any harm don’t give any pleasure.’

In the workshopping sessions, Margaret read a piece from her memoir that is currently ‘placeless’ (as Lee would say) in her narrative, but important to it. Jennifer is preparing her first contribution to a short-story writing online class that she has enrolled in. Her story is most topical and we await the class feedback. Barry read a piece of fiction he intends submitting to a literary journal. Helen presented a new poem written ‘off the cuff’ in a poetry class she attended. We look forward to hearing more about this at our next session.

ELWOOD WRITERS MEETING 17TH JANUARY 2017

Elwood Writers meets every fortnight. The week before a meeting we circulate any material we’d like to discuss. Meetings typically begin with general business, mostly discussions about writing issues or what we’ve been reading. We use this time to discuss activities and plans for the group in the year ahead. Margaret is our time-keeper. After the general discussion we divide up the remaining time equally between the four of us. This usually leaves about half an hour for each member to have the floor to discuss their circulated piece or anything else they nominate.

At the 17th January meeting, much of the general discussion focussed on the use of social media for writers. Jennifer had just been to Patrick Lenton’s Creating an Author Platform seminar at Writers Victoria. She came away from that with the view that if you don’t already use Twitter it’s not especially important for a writer to start doing so. She said that the seminar reinforced the importance of maintaining some kind of online presence, and highlighted the benefits of Facebook author/writer pages.

We agreed to have a fuller discussion of future online strategies for the group when we meet at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival in March. There was also mention of the next Cover to Cover radio program we’ve been commissioned to develop for Vision Australia Radio for Fathers Day later this year.

Helen read the latest draft of a new poem she has been working on. Jennifer read a re-working of the opening of her novel-length story. Barry read a new short story he’s developing from a piece written a few years ago. Margaret outlined a section from her work-in-progress that she will circulate for discussion at the next meeting.