#blogjune – A “#classic100 weekend

Today was the final part of ABC Classic FM’s Top 100. This year it was the baroque and before. As always, listeners got to vote for 10 pieces. I had decided not to vote for pieces by Bach or Handel because:

1) they would be popular anyway

2) one could easily pick 10 pieces from just either of these composers

I was pleased to see two Hildegard of Bingen pieces, though I was disappointed not to see Gaudete, by Anon, that most prolific of composers. It was the first piece of music that I ever heard Steeleye Span perform, and they have been my favourite band now for nearly 30 (?!?) years.

We didn’t get to hear as much of it this year with various family events, so it didn’t have quite the intensity for us that previous years have had. One of the events was my father-in-law’s birthday, and we have justr returned from there having had a couple of very nice wines. One was a Tim Adams Clare Valley Pinot Gris. The other was a fundraiser vintage made from 11 different grape varieties and was absolutely delightful.

Mixed Blessing 2009

I hasten to add that I don’t admire Churchill’s politics. However, having visited the Churchill Museum in London late last year, I got an appreciation of the breadth of his interests.

The annual Classic 100 selections make me realise how grateful I am that we have an excellent public broadcaster that has helped broadened my cultural horizons. I didn’t grow up with classical music, and the ABC has enriched my life in more ways than mere words can express. There is a quote doing the rounds that Winston Churchill opposed cutting arts expenditure during WW2 which unfortunately is inaccurate (though the sentiment behind it may not be). But he did say in 1938 that:

“The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.”

Of course, I don’t love every program that graces SBS or the ABC, but I don’t expect it to, and don’t begrudge funding things that I myself am not interested in. But the arts and culture seems today to be unimportant, even though wee can spend huge sums of money locking up asylum seekers, and keeping them away from our shores by cloaking such efforts in ANZAC garb by calling it Operation Sovereign Borders. It seems to me that we have become a very mean-spirited people. Encouraging people to produce art and music and encouraging fine food is infinitely more useful than encouraging a nation of property and financial speculators. Art and food and culture can bring people together, even in difficult times. Indeed, this is when they are most at need. I hope that in the future we don’t have our Top 100 cut to a Top 80 or 90.

#blogjune #aww2014 Goodreads Challenge 14/65: Ducks on the Pond – Anne Summers

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2114 – Review 2

One of the things that I do like about Elizabeth campus library is that we have a good Womens’ Studies collection. We had to weed a lot of older material that was long unused, but there are still a goodly number of classic titles. This is one of them.

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Ducks on the PondDucks on the Pond by Anne Summers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anne Summers is rightly famous for her ground-breaking Damned Whores and God’s Police: the colonisation of women in Australia. Ducks on the Pond is her autobiography from 1945 until the publication of Damned Whores in 1975.

Unexpectedly, Summers tells her story well. But there is a wealth of wonderful details on growing up in post-war Adelaide. Living not far from Cabra Dominican College, where she attended school, I was fascinated by her description of navigating a muddy and unpleasant Cross Road.

One of six children, her parents were devoutly Catholic. Summers’ relationship with her parents were never easy. Her father served as a pilot in the RAAF during WW2, and was an alcoholic. He was also, she discovered later, an informer for Australian domestic intelligence on post-war Communist political activity in Australia. One day, her father took the family to Port Adelaide when a Soviet passenger ship was in dock, and was bemused by his constant note-taking.

But despite the political gulf that separated them, glimmers of affectation shine through. Like many returned veterans, her father rarely talked about his war service. There were only ever glimpses of it. One day she rang him from Surabaya in Indonesia. When she described to him where it was he responded, ‘I know. I laid mines there during the war.’ When Damned Whores was published, she learned that he had visited local bookshops and surreptitiously rearranged stock to that her book was more prominently displayed.

I was fascinated by her descriptions of ANZAC Day because I remember similar experiences of not knowing when men would come home, nor how drunk they would be. She wrote that, ‘It was the first time that I can remember being revolted by men’s behaviour, though I did not think to reproach the men themselves. I blamed the day. The day acquired a dignity in the 1990s that was missing in the 1950s.’

Her insights into being raised as a Catholic in this period said a lot about why many moved away from the church in general(and not just Catholicism). One lesson covered Saint Maria Goretti, an Italian peasant girl who was elevated to Sainthood in 1950. Stabbed 11 times by a would-be rapist rather than submit to his advances, she was promoted as a paragon of chastity. ‘Reading this, I could only conclude that the church valued our chastity more than our lives.’

Yet these values didn’t apply to men. Date rape was relatively common, and it seemed that it was Catholic boys who tended to be the worst culprits. Working for the National Civic Council (Bob Santamaria’s Catholic political movement) in Melbourne, Summers was fired because her dress sense ‘inflamed the men’.

The thing that really stands out is how little role women had in public life before the 1960s. ‘Women only got written about if they were murder victims or murderers, or had lax morals like a woman I remember only as Joan, a Sydney bus conductress who was engaged in a very public fight to keep the child she had given birth too out of wedlock.’

Ducks on the Pond charts the author’s political evolution through her student activism in opposition to the Vietnam war. Her descriptions of the birth of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the early 1970s were fascinating for their detail, and the opposition that they faced. She was involved in setting up Australia’s first women’s shelter in Sydney, and the book is worth reading for this section alone. Yet they found it difficult to secure government funding, even from a reforming Whitlam government.

A Labor activist in the 1960s and 70s would usually have had some trade union exposure (I wonder if that’s the case now). The book’s title was a phrase that Summers heard in the shearing sheds – it was a warning that women were present and that the hands should behave themselves.

She herself benefited from industrial muscle. Summers was fired from her job at the Duke of Brunswick Hotel when the then-owner discovered that she was a student. In the hotel at the time was ALP parliamentarian Clyde Cameron and AWU official Jack Wright. When they learned of her plight, both men threatened to declare the hotel ‘black’ unless she was reinstated. Faced with the loss of hard-drinking trade union regulars, Summers was quickly reinstated.

It was a pleasure to read. There is triumph, certainly, but also personal heartbreak in spades. The final chapter was particularly touching. There were statements here and there that I disagreed with. But it shows how far women have come as a result of the feminist movement. It also tells us that the need for a vibrant and active feminist movement is as important as ever.

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#blogjune Downtime and Rugby

I had thoughts of comparing a very ordinary and cheap pub dinner with a good quality lunch today and then tie it in with what I love about France and the importance they place on good quality food. But I haven’t. We had a nice relaxing day, and I think that we both needed a bit of downtime.

As much as I do like France though, I was pleased by tonight’s rugby result. 50:23 looks comprehensive, though I wasn’t sure that the Wallabies were quite as brilliant as the scoreline would indicate. But an encouraging start. Maybe this year the Bledisloe Cup returns to Australia?

#blogjune D-Day

Today is the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings – still the largest amphibious landing in history to date.invasion.

We’ve just had dinner with some friends of ours, and a few people came up in conversation that have had very difficult lives for one reason or another, but have managed to stay resilient. There are all sorts of things that, if we had foreknowledge of them, we would run from. The people who scrambled ashore on D-Day had trained for months, but nothing that I can imagine could come close to what those on both sides went through.

Shelley and I had another lovely trip to Normandy in January. We stayed in Bayeux, which we love very much. We managed day trips two D-day related trips. The first was to Arromanches-les-Bains, which was the centre of the Gold Beach zone. It was absolutely quiet, apart from some locals at the pub. The museums were shut, but we just wanted to have a wander about. The tide was out and we could get up close to some of the surviving Mulberry harbour caissons. These were built in the UK, sunk in the Thames to hide from the Germans, then towed over to Normandy and assembled. Absolutely amazing structures.

Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches les-Bains

Mulberry harbour caisson interior

One of the nice things about the day was that we also had dinner with a very nice American couple who live in the area. The second trip was to Omaha Beach with an Australian couple who were staying at our hotel. The museum and cemetery was simply awe inspiring.

Overlooking Omaha Beach

American Cemetery, Omaha Beach

American graves, Omaha Beach

Looking back towards the cemetery from the Omaha Beach

On Omaha Beach

Waiting for the bus back to Bayeux, American cemetery, Omaha Beach

The second Mulberry was built here, but only lasted a few days before storms destroyed it.

I cannot imagine being caught in something like D-Day. It would be better of course if no-one did.

#blogjune – Goodreads Challenge 13/65 – Stephen King, ‘On Writing: a memoir of the craft’

I read this some months ago, but hey, I’m already way behind with my reviews. What really struck me was that:

1) he came across as a thoroughly decent human being

2) he was candid about his issues with alcohol and the effects it had on those around him

3) his dedication to his craft. The image of his rejection slips stuck on the nail, which became a spike because there were so many of them, is still very vivid for me.

If you’re even vaguely interested in writing, read it.

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On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve never read anything by Stephen King, nor seen any of the movies based on his books. Not that I ever thought that there was necessarily anything wrong with his work. I’d simply not ever been interested in horror as a movie genre. I read it just fine, but on the screen, thank you but no. And that prejudice probably prompted me to not pick up one of his books. So when his On Writing was enthusiastically recommended to our writing class earlier this month, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was a fascinating story on the making of a writer.

On writing; a memoir of the craft is part biography and part ‘this is how I do it folks – maybe it’ll work for you’. He lets his life story do his work. His journey in perfecting his craft was not a smooth one. Maybe the best craftspeople are forged through adversity. King’s father left the family when King was two years old. His mother worked at a variety of jobs but financial hardship was an ever present reality. Leaving high school, he worked in a fabric mill, and after he qualified as a teacher spent time working as a laundry labourer while looking or teaching work. On the way he married Tabitha Spruce (who he met in the library stacks at the University of Maine). He wrote that, “[f]from a financial point of view, two kids were probably two too many for college grads working in a laundry and the second shift at Dunkin’ Donuts” (p. 71). His first two published novels were written in the laundry room of the large trailer that they were living in (p. 177). So when King talks about what’s necessary for a writer to become good at their craft, he talks with the authority of one who has had to do it tough himself.

On the way King deals with the questions all writers get asked at some point. Quite early on, he makes it clear that ‘there is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere… (p. 29)’. He then describes process of coming up with the central idea for one of his early short stories, which he got when his mother was licking the type of shop coupon stamps that disappeared by the 1970s. These turned her tongue green. He thought how nice it would be if you could make them yourself, and a story was born.

Writing was a passion for him from early on. He wrote for a mimeographed newspaper that older brother Dave produced in high school. When he produced his own newspaper (as it turned out it ran for one issue), he learned that you have to be careful when you write about real people. Lampooning an unpopular teacher landed him a couple of weeks’ suspension.

But out of that incident came his first paid writing job, as a sports writer with the local newspaper. Not that King knew much about sports, but being willing to learn to get the gig is something else that a good writer should cultivate. The editor “taught me more than any [English Literature class], and in no more than ten minutes (p. 54)”. His editor said that “when you write a story, you’re telling the story… [when] you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story (p. 56)”.

If there are two central issues that King returns to, the first is the need for persistence. When he received his first rejection notice, he stuck it on a nail stuck in his bedroom wall. But,

By the time I was fourteen… the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen I’d begin to get rejection slips with hand-written notes a little more encouraging… ‘This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again.’ (p. 34).

The second central issue is that if you want to be any good you have to spend time at it. There are no short-cuts dangled in front of our eyes. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot (p. 164).” He goes on;

“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on, Every book that you pick up has its own lesson or lesson, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.”

Why so many books? ‘The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing… [constant] reading will pull you into a place where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness” (p. 171).

What constitutes ‘a lot’ of reading and writing? ‘The sort of strenuous reading writing program advocate – four to six hours a day, every day – will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them.. (p. 171). That’s twenty eight to forty two hours a week, folks – about a full working week. Well, I don’t much like watching TV anyway. Helpfully, he gives aspirants hints on where to read (though you probably won’t need these). He takes books everywhere (a writer after my own heart). “The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows” (p. 168) So movie lounges, checkout lines, the toilet, on your way to work are all fair game. At the time of writing he listened to between six and a dozen audio titles each year.

As you’d expect from a successful writer taking about writing, there is a wealth of ideas to savour. He describes the sort of toolbox that a writer needs. Like a toolbox, the tools you use most are at the top. “The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary (p. 125).”Good rich vocabulary can produce a good heart prose, and he gives some fine examples from Lovecraft and Cormac McCarthy. But simplicity has its own virtues, and he gives us his favourite simple passages from Hemingway, Sturgeon and Steinbeck

Next is grammar. “Take a noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence (p. 134).” A writer needs to know why some things work and others don’t. But it’s not enough to simply say avoid the passive voice, because your writing will be the stronger for it. King re-writes some sentences from passive to active so that we see what he means. More helpfully, he gives us his opinion of why people use it anyway:

I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England… I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice also lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty (p. 136-137).

Other specific advice covers adverbs (hint – don’t trust them). This is especially so in dialogue, where the best form of dialogue attribution is said. All writers slip into it sometimes, either timidly, or because of the onrushing deadline, but he reminds us that if we’ve told our story well enough, the reader will know to read that dialogue exasperatingly (p. 143).

There is a core simplicity in the English language… but it’s a slippery core. All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine (p. 144).

As we delve deeper into King’s toolbox, we come to the paragraph, which he argues is the basic unit of writing. It’s ‘the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words” (p. 152). The paragraph structure tells us something about a work;
You can tell without even reading if the book you’ve chosen is apt to be easy or hard, right? Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs – including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long – and lots of white space… Hard books, full of ideas, narration, or description, have a stouter look. A packed look. Paragraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent. (p. 145)

How those paragraphs come together depend the way you want to use narration, description and dialogue (the three parts of a story – p. 187) to bring it to life. Plot is by and large not part of King’s universe;

I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless…; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible… I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much write themselves (p. 188).

And more:

The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. (p. 190)

And to make sure that we get it;

Please remember… that there is a huge difference between story and plot. Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest. (p. 197)

I really recommend doing the exercise that he gives us soon after this passage.

King told us earlier how much reading and writing we should do each day. How much writing is that. He tells the (probably) apocryphal story of James Joyce. Joyce seemed to be struggling to get his words onto paper;

‘How many words did you get today?’ the friend pursued.
Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled face down on his desk):

‘Seven.’

‘Seven? But James… that’s good, at least for you!’

‘Yes,’ Joyce said, finally looking up. ‘I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!’ (p. 172)

More helpfully, King tells us that he likes to get ten pages a day, which is about 2000 words, which is a good-ish length for a book in three months (p. 176). Sometimes those pages get done before lunch, sometimes in the afternoon, and occasionally around teatime (p. 176). To manage your goal (perhaps begin with 1000 words a day), you need one thing: a door that you are willing to shut (p. 178). By the time you get to your second draft, you should be looking at cutting your work by around 10% (p. 246). So if you’re looking at a 200 page work, your first draft needs to be around 220 pages.

This was simply a joy to read. The advice is invaluable, but it was told by someone who was, quite simply so very likeable. When he was writing this book, he struck by a truck while out walking, It made it a hard book to write. Perhaps his candid discussion of his struggle with alcohol did as well. His descriptions of family and friends are lovingly drawn. He comes across as a nice guy. Not because of how he describes himself, but because of the way he describes those around him.

Of course, being a successful writer, we learn about the path that led to the publication of Carrie, his first novel. His family were, if not on the streets, at least living close to Penury Road. I wanted him to get a big fat cheque, as much for Tabitha’s sake as his. The discussion of Carrie’s gestation is itself fascinating, and you should read it for yourselves.

You should borrow or buy a copy of this and read it. Right now. But before you do, I’ll leave you with Stephen finding out that his agent had sold the paperback rights. It was worth $400 000, of which Stephen would get half. In 1973, that was an enormous sum of money (and it’s still not a shabby sum today). He tried unsuccessfully to call his wife with the news. On his way home, he bought her a Mother’s Day present – a hair dryer.

“When I got back home she was in the kitchen, unpacking the baby bags and singing along with the radio. I gave her the hair dryer. She looked at it as if she’d never seen one before. ‘What’s this for?’ she asked.

I took her by the shoulders. I told her about the paperback sale. She didn’t appear to understand. I told her again. Tabby looked over my shoulder at our shitty little four-room apartment, just as I had, and began to cry.” (p. 95)

At that point, so did I.

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#blogjune – an unstructured day

There was a visit to the doctor, and my final writing class for the semester. Two assignments to go – a chapter for one, and a 15 minute script for the other. I also heroically did a load of washing.

Most television is bilge. But I have to say that Offspring is simply a wonderfully crafted, cleverly written and superbly acted piece of television. If I could write as well as that, Id be very pleased with myself.