A Collection of Spanish Stories – memoir and comment

GERARDO2.jpgGerardo Rodriguez Salas – author of a recent collection of Spanish short stories:  Hijas de un Sueño at his desk in Granada

One night in December 2001 I went to a party. It was in a grand reception hall at the University of Granada, and there I met Gerardo Rodriguez Salas, a PhD student of literature in English. We were both part of a conference on writing from the British Commonwealth. When I told Gerardo I was extra keen on the work of Lorca, he arranged for me to go the next day to the Lorca museum in Fuente Vaqueros, about half an hour by car from Granada. Dr Susan Ballyn from the University of Barcelona kindly drove me to the museum. So far, a sweetly orthodox tale. It could have all ended there. But since the party, all of sixteen years ago, Gerardo and I have been having a conversation, sometimes by email, occasionally face to face in Spain or Australia. So it’s a never-ending party.

In 2017 Gerardo published his first collection of twelve stories, Hijas de un Sueño which I choose to translate as Daughters of the Dream. Each story is given an epigraph, one of them being from Lorca, two from Katherine Mansfield – also a writer for whom Gerardo and I share a great love. But there is another writer (whose work was before this unfamiliar to me – my loss) who is highly significant to the collection, and that is Angeles Mora, the 2016 winner of the Spanish National Prize for Poetry. Angeles Mora provides a Preface, and also the epigraph for the book:

‘In the labyrinthine lights of your mind

I was the guest that stayed for dinner’

So the reader realises the stories will have a strong kinship with poetry. They are set, as a splintered discontinuous narrative, in the imaginary Andalusian village of Candiles, the name of which invokes the image of an old oil lamp. On the jacket of the book, the light from such a lamp fills the interior of a snow globe, the lamp being in the hand of a small adventurous girl who resembles an illustration in a picture book from the thirties. With a wonderful understatement and subtlety, the jacket is the flat colour of a dried brown leaf, the girl and her lamp lightly sketched in a darker shade of umber.

The title story, concerning the life and death of a grandmother, and the history of a family after the Civil War, begins with a riddling sentence that sets the reader’s mind off into a labyrinth of images, characters and situations: ‘When the grandmother was born, the world began to die.’ It is local; it is universal – funny, tragic, grand and sad.

Woven deeply into the whole fabric of the collection are inter-textual references to the works of Lorca and Mansfield. ‘Leftovers’ is a delicate re-visiting of Mansfield’s ‘Miss Brill’ (one of the finest and most heart-breaking short stories ever written), and the Spanish story takes as its epigraph a quotation from ‘Miss Brill’: ‘They were all on stage. They weren’t only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting.’ This foregrounding of the theatre of lived lives is the key motif and device of ‘Retales’, and the story rings with the deep pathos that it shares with ‘Miss Brill’.

Characters from one story will speak up in another. In ‘All Souls’, where the legend of a long-lost child provides the spine of the tale, people from ‘Daughters of the Dream’ appear, and play their part in the visit to the cemetery on a very windy day. I tell you, this is beautiful, entrancing stuff to read. Experimental, playing with light and dark, language and literature.

I should say that the collection has not yet appeared in an English translation, but that’s no reason for me to conceal my pleasure and interest in it from English-speaking readers. One of the stories, ‘Mirage’ was in fact published in an English version in Meanjin a few years ago, so there is a little Australian connection. The works of Lewis Carroll and of Virginia Woolf resonate in ‘Beyond Dreams’. ‘Twelve Butterflies’ is set in rural Spain at the start of the nineteenth century when the Inquisition was in its last stages, and it is a glorious feminist re-writing of the Grimm tale ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’. Imagine that if you will.

This collection is one of the great treasures of my bookshelf, and I am so pleased I went to that party in Granada.HIJAS2.jpg

AUBERON WAUGH and THE FOXGLOVE SAGA

A MEMORY OF AUBERON WAUGH and THE FOXGLOVE SAGA

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Sometimes part of the attraction a book has for a reader depends on the time and place where the reader first read the book, the circumstances surrounding the event. The ambience gets into the readers’s memory of the book, and never goes away. My father used to read Wind in the Willows to my little brother, and I used to listen in, and so the story is woven into the experience of the reading. I always think fondly of those times whenever I read or hear someone read the book. When I was about fifteen I had a crush on a boy who gave me a blue and white Penguin copy of the first volume of The Divine Comedy which I then read with a special weird fascination, a fascination coloured by thoughts about the boy himself. I used to sit on the front veranda reading The Divine Comedy and this boy would come past and we would more or less solemnly discuss the book.

In Sydney in May 1998. It was early evening. I was waiting for a cab at the wharf, going back to the hotel after a session at the Writers’ Festival. It was raining like mad and I was sharing a black umbrella with a man I had just met. It happened to Auberon Waugh. I have admired his writing since the sixties, and I’m an avid reader of The Literary Review of which he was then the editor. Under the umbrella he didn’t seem to me to resemble the cartoon of himself in the pulpit at the front of the magazine.

The cab didn’t come and didn’t come, and I begin to tell AW about the first time I read his work.

It was summer 1963 Massachussets. I was staying with friends of friends in a tall serene old house surrounded by European trees. My bedroom was an attic, and beside the bed was a low white bookcase. It was there I found The Foxglove Saga by Auberon Waugh.

The novel is a bit like a sharply farcical Brideshead Revisited – sly, ruthlessly subversive and very funny. I was captivated by delicious the characters and elegant turns of phrase. The action moves from a religious community and school to hospitals, madhouses, the army and various dens of iniquity. The aristocratic Martin Foxglove is matched by Kenneth Stoat, the repellent and unprepossessing son of a dentist. The ridiculously Catholic Lady Foxglove is a magnificent hypocrite whose antics and manipulations are described with a breathless glee. ‘She took out her little notebook in which she wrote her day’s good works. On each page was printed a list: Bury the Dead, Visit the Imprisoned, Clothe the Naked – goodness she must remember about Martin’s new uniform. Give Food to the Hungry – well, that’s myself, she thought humorously.’ She knows the best make-up to wear in times of disaster. She makes at least one fatal mistake when she puts two letters in the wrong envelopes. I love novels with the letter motif.

Nobody is really redeemed in The Foxglove Saga ; people start out bad and just get worse. To spite his mother Martin loses his faith. When she is slowly fading away in a nursing home he sends her a jar of gooseberry jam each Christmas. The religious Brothers are devious and spiteful, and the nurses are in fact criminal.

I loved that book, and I sometimes re-read it with great pleasure. Its principal subject is the joke of the fact of mortality, as this joke translates into character and society.

 

As we stood in the gloom under the umbrella, AW reached into his briefcase and pulled out a small book. He handed it to me and said he would like me to have it. It was a slightly battered uncorrected proof copy of The Foxglove Saga bound in manilla, with burnt umber type. Chapman & Hall. Lg. Crown 8vo. pp.240 Approx. price 15s. 0d. To be published September 1960.

 

I was amazed. Dazed. One of my favourite novels by one of my favourite authors, and here is the author handing me a rare and precious copy. An unimagined moment. I really like bound proofs, I love their spare design and simplicity. No blurbs, no guff, no cover illustration.
In the proof of The Foxglove Saga there’s a black and white line drawing on the title page. This is an unusual flourish, even for the real thing, but very odd in a proof. A sketch of a foxglove in bloom, with a stoat standing on its back legs gazing into the lowest floret, like an illustration in a children’s book.

 

The first time I read the novel in Massachussetts, I liked it so much my hosts said I could keep it. So for me it seems to be charmed. First the desired copy became mine; thirty-odd years later, the bound proof. Imagine. The cosy attic bedroom in Massachussetts is wrapped around me and The Foxglove Saga. Then this the long-ago bedroom is brought forward in my consciousness as I stand with the author in the rain at the wharf. And as if by magic the buff and russet book, soft, faintly ragged, vaguely discoloured at the edges, rusting at the seams, lifts from the briefcase and is put into my hands. There was something unreal and dreamlike about all this.

Auberon Waugh has since died. This makes me very sad.

Lady Foxglove died, you may like to know, as she had lived, in the odour of sanctity.

Stoat joined the order.

ASHES TO ASHES – is it cricket?

‘Crematorium’ reads the old blue street sign in Eaglehawk, Victoria, and the child assumes there is a link to ice cream somehow. I explain the meaning. He is shocked. ‘What, burnt?’ he says. I briefly explain and then hurry past the grisly thoughts and images, and tell him instead about the significance of ashes to the game of cricket. Then later I decide to investigate the background to the famous urn of ashes that is housed at Lord’s.Ashes-Urnx640.jpg

In the spring there are a few pale golden daffodils nodding in the grasses among which stand, here and there, the gravestones in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene (see the image at the head of this page). Kind of romantic. This is Cobham in Kent, and the tower of the church is one of those severe square Norman ones in weathered grey stone. One grave is that of Ivo, 8th Earl of Darnley and his ‘loving and beloved’ wife Florence. When I was doing research for my 1995 novel The White Garden, I visited by chance the church in Cobham, but I confess I paid little attention to the headstones. I must further confess that my research for this essay comes mostly from the internet. So perhaps this is not an essay after all, but a piece of deeply unreliable fiction. It seems the grave of Ivo and Florence was restored in 2011. If I ever return to Cobham I will look at it. You might wonder why the earl and his lady are buried in the churchyard, and not in some more auspicious location. Well, it so happens that the last Earl of Darnley to be buried in Westminster Abbey was the third one, who died in 1781, after which there was apparently no room there for any more Earls of Darnley. So the family built an elaborate mausoleum in the grounds of Cobham manor house, but, as my sources tell me, ‘for obscure reasons’ nobody was ever laid there to rest. So there are Ivo and Florence in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalene. I do love and obscure reason.

Keep your eye on Florence, loving and beloved wife of Ivo.

I must now turn to the matter of cricket. Florence was a key player in the narrative about the ‘Ashes’ that are kept in an urn at Lord’s, and that have given their name to the cricket series between England and Australia. In 1882 after Australia defeated England at Lord’s, there was a mock obituary in the Sporting Times lamenting the death of English cricket, and saying that its body would be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia. Legend has it that a stump from the fatal match was burned, and that the ashes were sent to Australia. The destination of these ashes seems to remain unknown. Ivo captained the English team that subsequently played in Australia in 1882 – 83 and he said he would ‘bring back the Ashes’. So far, so much metaphor.

Ivo and the team sailed from England to Australia in the company of Sir William and Lady Clarke of Rupertswood, Sunbury, Sir William being President of the Melbourne Cricket Club. Now, on board was Florence Morphy, governess to the Clarke children. Florence was the daughter of the police magistrate at Beechworth, Victoria. Ivo and Florence fell in love and were married at St Mary’s in Sunbury in 1884. There’s a nice happy ending bang in the middle of the story.

But between the shipboard romance and the wedding, there was cricket. Before the tour began, on Christmas eve 1882, Sir William presented Ivo with a tiny urn. Was the urn silver? Was it terra cotta? What did it contain? Why ashes of course. But ashes of what? Stump, ball, bail or veil? Family legend insists they were the ashes of a veil belonging to Florence, burnt by Lady Clarke in a playful, romantic gesture. I can’t help thinking this was a weird thing to do, to burn the veil of the governess and pop them in an urn. But then, the Victorians were into memorial keepsakes. If Lady Clarke did burn the veil, she set the ball rolling for confusion ever after between ‘veil’ and ‘bail’. This confusion is perhaps compounded by the fact that after the English won the third game of the series Ivo took a bail from that match, had it made into a letter-opener, and presented it to Lady Clarke. Both the urn and the letter-opener remained at Rupertswood until Ivo came back later in 1883, and married Florence in 1884. He took the urn home to England and it now lives at Lord’s. It is made from terra cotta, and has returned to Australia only twice; the letter-opener is still in Australia.

The ultimate happy ending I suppose is embedded in the graveyard at St Mary Magdalene, Ivo having been buried there in 1927, and Florence in 1944. (Florence died on my fourth birthday – a seriously useless piece of trivia, but at least it is probably a fact.) I assume that it is the skeletons, not the ashes, of Ivo and Florence that lie in the graveyard with the daffodils. Together at last.

In a recent novel by Fay Weldon, Death of a She Devil, there are lots of old people living in an ancient lighthouse (don’t ask). When the 94 year-old man (the only man in the place) dies, there is much discussion of how to dispose of his body. Burial, cremation or something else such as liquefying him and pouring him into the sand. They do in fact crudely and illegally bury him, and he surfaces from time to time, being finally taken off to the morgue. His ultimate resting place is not recorded in the novel.

So, to bury? Or to cremate? To follow the blue street sign to the crematorium, or to meander off to the churchyard. Furnace or slow decay? Problem.

Recently a friend was saying that she and her family are thinking of taking her sister’s ashes to the sea, and scattering them in the waves not far from the old family home. Then she said she might take the ashes of her own late husband and daughter too, and scatter them, since what to do with them has never been decided. This set me off on a frequent train of thought of mine, which is that families often seem to have a problem knowing what to do with the ashes of the dead. Burial of a body is so routine and straightforward, in a way. You die, you are boxed, the box is buried, nature, merry with moisture and heat and cold, bacteria and critters, takes its course. You have a location in the graveyard. Ivo and Florence, for example, will ‘always’ be in place. Ashes in urns often lurk awkwardly about the house for years and years.

I sometimes recall the end of Wuthering Heights where Lockwood visited the graves of Edgar Linton, Cathy and Heathcliff. He: ‘lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.’

This kind of thing appeals to the romantic imagination, removing from the picture the busy and disquieting presence of a range of worms and insects, not to mention the effects of water, fungus, the interest of wild animals, bacteria and the general process of decay. But the romantic imagination is a long long way from reality; that is its function of course.

Some of my family and friends have been buried, and some have been cremated. Both are horrible. They are the two principal methods used today, although as the earth grows ever more crowded and betrayed, and as people become more urgently aware of the need to care for the planet, it is clear that both of these methods involve a most serious and dramatic waste of precious resources.

The characters in my most recent novel Family Skeleton are funeral directors, involved in making a fortune from burials and cremations. The narrator is a skeleton; a body languishes in a cellar unattended for five years; romantic gestures include releasing flocks of butterflies at funerals. There are various kinds of cemeteries in the book. Although nothing quite like the one in Wuthering Heights or the one at St Mary Magdalene. And I realise there is no discussion of cremation in my novel. It’s a burial kind of novel. Dead ad buried, buried alive.

I have no answers to the question of whether to donate the body to science, to bury, to cremate, to liquefy – or even to mummify. It’s clear that a dead body is a problem, whichever way you look at it. But now at least when I think of ashes I might think of Ivo and Florence and the ashes of the veil, the renovated grave, the empty mausoleum. It’s easy to slip from the horrors of that child’s question: ‘What, burnt?’ to the romance of moths fluttering among the heath and harebells.

Not to mention the mysterious romance of The Ashes.

 

New Year 2018            THE FOLIO SOCIETY DIARY

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Often at Christmas I receive a beautiful diary for the coming year. I have developed a habit, or perhaps a phobia, whereby I never use them as diaries at all, because they are too precious. To write on the details of everyday life would surely be to deface them. Like some dreadful kind of graffiti. There seems to me to be an unbridgeable gap between the spirit of the pictures, the skill, the colours, the subject matter, and the facts of appointments with friends, family, dentists and hairdressers. I keep track of those on my phone, laptop, and in dreary ‘planners’ designed for the purpose. On my bookshelves I have several of the fancy diaries from past years, pristine collections of photos of the works of Gaudi, the Lady and the Unicorn, paintings of Australian birds, botanical illustrations.

This year my daughter gave me a diary from the Folio Society. Gorgeous. Small hardback. On the cover is an embossed image of a leaping stag from the Liber Bestiarum held in the Bodleian Library and made in the thirteenth century. The left hand pages show, in strangely soothing colour, on pleasing thick creamy paper stock, images from works of art made in the fifteenth century or earlier. A dreamy selection of fifty-five medieval sights from prayer books, maps, frescoes, manuscripts, herbals, music scripts. I sat down beside the Christmas tree and became lost in a sweet, slow contemplation of the pictures. A detail from the Lindisfarne Gospels, a man catching bees from a Book of Hours, a snowball fight from an Italian fresco.

When at last I closed the diary, everyone else had gone for a swim. I started to think – will I put the diary on my desk and just look at the image for the week? Will I put it on a nearby table and look at it from time to time? What if – it came to me as a revelation – what if I got a nice soft forgiving pencil and wrote appointments in it? Surely not.

On the eleventh of January 2018 I have an appointment with my hairdresser. I turned to the relevant page, where there is a facing picture of Christine de Pizan in her study, painted in the early fifteenth century. The blue of her gown echoes the blue of the cover of the book. Her hair is concealed beneath the sails of a crisp white head-dress. Her tiny white dog waits obediently at her feet. She sits on a chair that resembles what is often known as a Savonarola, in a stone archway. Her book, covered in handwriting, is open on the table. She has some sort of writing instrument in each hand, and she has almost reached the bottom of the page. Her gaze is thoughtful. What will she write next? I picked up a soft pencil, and in the narrow space provided for events scheduled for Thursday 11, I wrote: Hair 2.15.

STATE LIBRARY OF VICTORIA

My speech at the State Library of Victoria for the launch of

                   Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award 2017

If you think it’s a bit funny for me to be launching a writing competition named after me, let me tell you, that’s only half of it. I am also judging the competition. With a bit of luck I might win it. It’s probably called solipsism.

Before I describe the competition, I’ll give you the history, explaining how such a thing could have come about. In 2011, when Bronwyn Mehan was in the early years of her publishing company Spineless Wonders, she sent me an email asking me if I would consider her naming a writing competition in my honour. I considered it. So first there was the Carmel Bird Short Story Competition.

I followed the fortunes of Spineless Wonders, until, in 2013, I realised Bronwyn had a certain expertise that I needed. Here’s the history of what I needed, and why.

Back in 1997 – yes – twenty years ago – I started my website. This was in fact the first writer’s website in Australia. So people could be forgiven for imagining I was a writer who was across a certain amount of electronic publishing. I was invited, in 2013, to contribute an essay to an online site where they were talking about how writers use technology. I didn’t really know much to write about, but I was at the time thinking about the electronic publication of my old book Dear Writer, and so I wrote an essay that was in fact a BIT OF A fantasy. The essay concluded at the point where I said I was going to make an ebook of Dear Writer. I thought I got away with that – but no – the editor of the site requested a second part to the essay, the part in which I described the making of the ebook. Hmmmm.

By this time I had bought my own fantasy. So I started making an ebook. I did? Dear Audience, I was incapable of doing the first thing about making an ebook.

But wait – in an apartment with a roof garden in Sydney (true) there was the industrious genius Bronwyn Mehan. She would know how to do it. So – and now I must cut a pretty long story short – Bronwyn took over the making of the ebook of Dear Writer – called Dear Writer Revisited – and I was able to write part two of the essay and everybody was happy. Specially me. Spineless Wonders also published Dear Writer Revisited as a paperback.

Time passes.

The Carmel Bird Short Story Competition keeps happening.

Then, in 2017 Bronwyn devised the notion of having ebook publication as the prize. And hence you now have the CB Digital Literary Award. That’s what I am actually launching at this minute.

So now I will give you some facts (everything I just said was true – but this next bit is more important). These facts can also be found on the postcard.

Here’s what you do.

You write up to 30,000 words. What sort to words? Well this award is open to traditional short fiction, whatever that may be, to quote the Prince of Wales – but open also to microfiction, novellas, graphic novels, verse novels, experimental thingies. Go wild. And you know how it is fashionable to write an exegesis on your fiction, and get a PhD? Well if you wish you can incorporate such a thing into your submission – within the word limit. You might not get a PhD. My hard copy collection of stories, also published by Spineless Wonders – the title is My Hearts Are Your Hearts – has such a thing within its pages.

You submit your work electronically with various supporting documentation by APRIL 30 2018

The next bit will go in one ear and out the other, but the notes are on the handy postcard.

I will select a long list by the beginning of June (fast reader) and writers on the long list will be notified by email. The long list will also be announced on the SLV website and the SW website.

The three finalists will be announced in July.

There will be an award ceremony in August.

The outright winner will have the work published as an ebook in December 2018.

And here is the punch line:

The winner will receive $3000 in prize money, and the two runners up will each receive $1000. Now THAT bit might make you sit up and take notice.

The two runners up will also have their work published as ebooks in due course. All the ebooks will be part of the SW Capsule Collection – of which The Dead Aviatrix is the first volume.

The Capsule Collection is an initiative of that bold and creative publisher, Spineless Wonders. It is not always a simple matter for a writer of short stories to have a collection published in hard copy, and to have the opportunity to send a collection into the ether so that readers can access it any old time on their phones – that is a distinct boost to the life and development of short fiction. And of course if your work is published in the Capsule Collection, there is nothing to stop you from adding more stories or whatever, and having a much larger volume published in hard copy by some other publisher.

You will have questions about all this – and Bronwyn can best answer those. I am just launching the competition on its merry way.

And while we are talking about skill and luck – I would like you to take out your little blue door prize tickets and see who among you wins a packet of Blue Heaven Aeroplane Jelly Crystals. Andy Griffiths has kindly agreed to draw the winners in a minute.

If you have ever been a student at one of my workshops, you will know that each workshop is a mini writing competition with me as the judge. The prize there is not publication but the Silver Eggcup. Students have to guess what qualities I am looking for in the winning stories. It’s more or less the same here. The point is that you the writer write something that convinces me the judge that the writing is worth reading. So that’s all there is to it really. It’s as easy as it sounds. A little quote from Dear Writer Revisited:

‘If you write stories, you write stories – that is what you do. Get on with it.’ Launch Over. Now for the door prizes. Here comes Andy.

(speech by Carmel Bird, December 2017)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FAIRY TALES AT IAN POTTER MUSEUM

FAIRY TALES AT IAN POTTER MUSEUM

Exhibition: “All the better to see you with”

kikiSmith_born.jpgImage by Kiki Smith

The constant re-interpretations of the fairy tale narratives and tropes in literature and the fine arts are evidence of the way fairy stories articulate the key issues of human existence, human relationships, human society. Such re-interpretations are also vital tools in re-shaping responses to those issues, in re-defining roles in relationships and societies. Uppermost in many Australian minds right now is the matter of the re-definition of marriage. I remember when same sex marriage became legal in New Zealand in 2012. At the time, one of the most potent images shown on television was that of the Disney Cinderella kissing the Disney Snow White outside the court after the decision was announced. Whatever you may think of Walt Disney, he did give one happy couple the signifiers for the moment. We are not here to discuss Walt Disney. We are here to witness the marriage of story and the visual arts.

 

It is with particular delight that I stand among you, and among these thrilling and disturbing works of art, linked as they are to the treasure trove of fairy tale, to the world of hallucination and transformation, under the inviting yet sinister banner of ‘All the better to see you with’.

This teasing phrase summons up the essential elements of the story of Red Riding Hood, but it also, in the context of an art gallery, suggests the contemplation of works of art, the act of seeing, the gift of sight, the benefaction of inspiration and understanding. Art by its nature expands the experience of life, images constructed by artists can have a powerful effect on the way people make meaning. In art the impossible becomes manifest – the monsters, the mermaids – unicorns move silently through the forest, the wings of angels fill the dome of heaven.

For my sixth birthday I received a thick book with a smooth dark blue leather cover. It was the collected tales of the Brothers Grimm, and physically it resembled a Bible. The pages were tissue thin, the illustrations were dense little black and white etchings by the Victorian illustrator George Cruikshank. He created a grotesque and vivid world that gripped my mind and haunted my imagination. To me there was something malevolent and alarming about the very medium of the dense black and white etching. I would stare captivated and intoxicated by the pictures, gripped with fascination and dread, even at the ones that were intended to be joyful. They seemed to come from a twisted pen with an undertow of horror leading back and forth into the abyss. Two rather interesting details from Cruikshank’s life: he rewrote some fairytales as rather dull texts for teetotalism – and he had eleven illegitimate children with the family servant. His drawings would seem to be a long way from the wonderfully extravagant gestures of the works in the gallery tonight – Patricia Piccinini’s startling living child, Allison Schulnik’s apocalyptic claymation video of the Danse Macabre – yet Cruikshank’s pictures and these works before us have a similar power to enthrall, a similar ability to stimulate the mixture of delight and terror that is the mark of fairy tale. Illustration is intimately bound up with language in the history of tale telling. The words conjure the images; the images nourish the words.

But to return to the title of the exhibition, ‘All the better to see you with’. It is a clear signpost to the tale of Red Riding Hood, giving me the opportunity to dwell on this narrative which is one of my very favourite topics. I just can’t tell you what a joy it was to be invited to speak under the banner of those words: All the better to see you with. I often hear people say that telling stories is one of the key characteristics of human beings, and of course it is. But some people, myself included, want to go further and suggest that perhaps the telling of stories, like dance, and the making of music and images, is somehow encoded in human DNA. Having offered you that idea, I must return to the forest, the girl, the grandmother, the wolf. All the better to see you with.

Folkloric research suggests that the bones, if I can say that, of this narrative can be found in many cultures long before the French writer Charles Perrault published his version of it in 1697, setting it on its way as what is called a ‘literary fairy tale’, a story with its own astonishing career of seduction of the western mind and heart. It got to the point where Charles Dickens later wrote these arresting sentences: “Little Red Riding Hood was my first love. I felt that if I could have married Little Red Ridinghood, I should have known perfect bliss.” That is one of the wackiest things I have ever heard, and I have never been quite sure of how to take it. Was he somehow casting himself in the role of the wolf? Or the woodcutter? Some prince outside the story? What?

 

Be that as it may, and irrespective of how and for what audience the story is told, I believe that in your heart of heart you know that this story is about nothing but rape. With a kind of carefree yet knowing innocence, the girl leaves the goodness of the family home, taking home-baked nourishment to her feeble grandmother who can only be reached by a solitary walk in the forest. Danger in the form of a creepy sweet-talking male figure will cross the girl’s path and trick her into bed and rape her, and in fact destroy her. It doesn’t really matter how you choose to save her, resurrect her, or how much agency you give her, how she triumphs in the end – whichever way you look at it, the story is about sexual violence. Last century Roald Dahl gave the girl a gun and she shot the wolf. Hilarious! But it’s still that same stranger danger story. It is still a story that works with the primal abuse of power. You might want to check out Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs singing ‘Hey there Little Red Riding Hood’ on youtube. I find the insistence of the adjective ‘little’ in the girl’s name a disturbing element of the whole thing too. Diminutive, powerless – the words hold a seductive and sinister rhythm, Little Red Riding Hood.

 

Since Jill Meagher was raped and murdered in Brunwick in 2012, I can never think of Red Riding Hood without remembering Jill Meagher. And the terrible terrible thing is that with all the myriad incarnations and transformations of Red Riding Hood in story after story, in image after image across the centuries, nothing could save Jill Meagher in 2012. So I descend into a bleak chasm of sorrow and despair as I realise that, powerful as stories certainly are, they are only one part of the answer to the great questions of how to address the matter human of cruelty, viciousness, injustice and depravity. Artistic response is another part of the answer. Or another chapter in the story.

 

Looking at the works in this exhibition, you can see new templates, new possibilities, shifts in emphasis, shifts in power, you can see determination for change, for revolution. Horror, rage, love, joy. What you do not see is acceptance. This is an exhibition that suggests modulation and change. The works here are subversive, ambiguous and mesmerising, and they come from a range of disparate sources.

 

When I began to construct this speech, my plan was to be pleasant and maybe amusing and upbeat, but the material took me, as I think was inevitable, into the darker regions behind the scenes. And the works here will take you into the dark, believe me. However, what illuminates all the works in this intoxicating exhibition by twenty-one artists from near and far is one of the most important elements ever given for the salvation of the race – and that is WIT. Whew – I thought I would never get there.

 

Wit. I don’t necessarily mean humour – although often it is humour, comedy, farce that lift tales into the category of classics. It’s the ones that disturb the most, the ones with the sharpest cruelty, sometimes bonded with the finest beauty, that have become the ‘classics’. Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid. The wit can enter the unconscious mind of the listener or the viewer – the consumer if you like – not as a bombshell, but as the finest filament of spider-web. These are not called fairy tales for nothing. They enter the deep consciousness and endure. Often the endurance is in the form of an everlasting puzzle, for the great fairy stories nearly always pose as many questions as they answer. That is part of their attraction too, part of their charm, part of the enchantment they have cast over human beings forever. In other words they cast a spell. And as you know, spells can go either way – they can damn or they can heal. Embedded in the stories is the thread of inextinguishable hope, and hope, that indestructible creature left behind in Pandora’s box, is one of the little engines that keep the stories moving. Hope keeps people coming back again and again to contemplate the images and to listen to the narratives. By bringing all these works of art together in one place, the Ian Potter gallery has made a glorious statement of confidence in the ability of the marriage of stories and the visual arts to raise the consciousness of human problems, and to sometimes point the way to solutions.

 

I congratulate the Museum on the vision and skill demonstrated in bringing this exhibition into being. And I take great pleasure in inviting you to open your eyes and your hearts to the opportunities before you on the walls, beginning with the special wallpaper out at the entrance.

(This is the text of my launch speech for the exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum in November 2017)

 

WRITING UNDERSTATEMENT

UNDERSTATEMENT – from ‘Dear Writer Revisited’ 

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One of the most useful and powerful devices for the fiction writer is understatement. You tell the reader less so that the reader knows more. Instead of having everything spelt out, the reader is given, in a very careful way, just enough information for the imagination to go to work. From understatement the reader can derive great pleasure and satisfaction.

In popular fiction, and in romantic fiction, for instance, understatement is rarely used. This kind of fiction is often an exercise in overstatement. I will give you an example of overstatement from a romantic novel, and then two examples of understatement. All three pieces of writing are meant to give the reader an image of a man and a woman embracing. The images in the second and third “literary” examples are achieved only in the mind of the reader, whereas in the first one the romantic writer explains things graphically for the reader. Many readers love this kind of writing. How you do things depends on what effect you are aiming for. I generally prefer understatement myself.

Overstatement

“He advanced towards her with a purposeful expression, and she backed away, laughing, trying without success to ward him off with her hands. He caught her to him and kissed her, bending her dramatically over his arm like a twenties film heroine, and exploring her lips unmercifully until she could do nothing but wind her arms around his neck and kiss him back.”

—Daphne Clair

Understatement

“And by the harbour, in the midst of the wagons and barrels, at every street corner, the citizens opened their eyes wide in amazement at the spectacle, so extraordinary in a provincial town, of a carriage with drawn blinds, continually reappearing, sealed tighter than a tomb and being buffeted about like a ship at sea. Once, in the middle of the day, when they were right out in the country and the sun was beating down at its fiercest on the old silver-plated carriage-lamps, an ungloved hand stole out beneath the little yellow canvas blinds and tossed away some scraps of paper, which were carried off on the wind and landed like white butterflies in a field of red clover in full bloom. At about six o’clock the cab drew up in a side-street in the Beauvoisine quarter, and a woman got out; she walked away with her veil lowered, and without a backward glance.”

—Gustave Flaubert

“In town, the lights were going on, and we were sitting on the bank on the other side of the river, and we were full of what they call love, that rough discovering and seeking of each other, that sharp taste of one another—you know, love.”

—Italo Calvino

Of the Flaubert quotation from ‘Madame Bovary’ I think it’s fair to say that once you have read it, you will never forget it. The imagery is so vivid and sexual, and your imagination is given the chance to see what is going on inside the carriage without your being told about who did what to whom.

Take a scene from your work, and rewrite it in two ways, first using overstatement and then understatement. You will see how dramatically the use of understatement can affect your work. You could try showing the two versions to your potential readers to see how each version is received. Don’t be surprised if people seem to prefer the overstated version. Reading understatement requires the reader to do more work than reading overstatement. It depends on which kind of readers you are looking for, but it also depends on what kind of stories you want to write, and what kind of stories you enjoy reading most yourself.

This is an extract from ‘Dear Writer Revisited’ published 2014 by Spineless Wonders

Now Ida Haunts the Car Park

In November 2017 I was invited to launch an art exhibition inspired by the motifs of fairy tales. In a glass cabinet there was a book illustrated by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, an illustrator of the early twentieth century. Here is a story I wrote about Ida, first published by Bruce Pascoe in ‘Australian Short Stories’ in 1994.

NOW IDA HAUNTS THE CAR PARK

In certain lights you can see the impression of a vanished building hanging in the air. The towers and turrets and chimneys of what appears to be a fairy castle may come into view in the mad blue flash of lightning or at the turning point of dusk or dawn. You look up, uncertain of what you have seen, and it is gone, a fanciful silver image fading on the square reality of day, the strange obscurity of night. You imagine you might have glimpsed movement behind the tower window – a hand, the turn of a head, the gentle swaying of a velvet curtain. In the very dead of night it is sometimes possible to catch on the ear the sound of vanished laughter or the faintest tinkle of a bell.

 

A paving stone under your foot tells you in bold gold type that on this site there stood a college for young ladies, founded, it says on the stone, in 1875, demolished in 1966. In place of the absent castle is a vast white assembly hall where gatherings of men meet to perform occult rituals. Nearby, the Day Procedure Centre of a hospital in which human babies can be brought into being by astonishing modern technology and thought.

 

Deep in the earth underneath these visible buildings is a place for parking cars, a kind of layer cake joined through the middle by an elevator. The elevator has a voice all of its own, a disconcerting hollow voice, announcing in its strange blank way the names of all the elevator’s destinations, such as ‘basement three’ or ‘ground level’. Underneath the very bottom of the car park is a little stream of running water which connects this world with the next.

 

Young ladies who vanished long ago, taking their easels and their violins and their tennis racquets, sometimes come back to this place of happy memory, of former life. Girls such as Ida or Nellie or Henry – an odd name for a girl, but she is a writer, and the times being what they are or were, she felt the need for a man’s name in a man’s world. In one of Henry’s books she told the story of her schooldays – the title of the book was The Getting of Wisdom. These days Henry haunts the State Library where she is doing the research for a trilogy to be published at the turn of the present century. It will be a great Australian saga (inspired by events that have taken place since 1950) produced on CD rom. The title of this one is, you will have guessed, The Forgetting of Wisdom.

 

Nellie is an opera singer who was celebrated throughout the world. On odd occasions she has spent an evening in the car park elevator, singing the ‘basement one-two-three’ and ‘ground level’ lyrics to the astonishment of the public. Many of the people who heard her were returning from the bars nearby, and so they were inclined to treat her as an hallucination, a large woman in a beaded gown singing in the elevator. In nineteen hundred and seven, Nellie was the President of the Old Collegians Association, and when she materialised on the other side she was re-elected to this position for eternity. The Association is one of the most active organisations on the other side of the water. It is in fact as a member of the Old Collegians that Ida haunts the car park. It is her job to see that the presence of the old school is maintained on the spot.

 

Ida is a painter. She does delicate pictures of fairies with the fabulous wings of butterflies and other insects. She has illustrated books for children, and once was asked to paint her joyful pictures on the walls of schools and hospitals. Dressed as a fairy in a dark blue tea-gown, she haunts the hospital and the car park. There is a bright hint of mischief in her eyes which sparkle. She carries a large handbag that is shaped like a butterfly’s wing, embroidered with silks the colour of the sunset and studded with sapphires from the heavens and pearls from the depths of the sea. In her handbag she keeps a wand made from a long stalk of evening primrose, and a telephone of morning glory. The technology of these things is primitive in the extreme – the telephone must be connected to the bright blue fire extinguishers in the car park before it will work. The evening primrose has the power, when waved, to stop the elevator between floors. Before doing a tour of the hospital, Ida always gives Nellie a call to let her know she has arrived safely.

 

Ida’s outline behaves like that of the old school building – now you see her, now you don’t. However, one day she discovered that people who are suffering from the pain of a lost love are gifted with the sight to see her in all her radiance and beauty.

 

She was standing in the elevator, wincing at the hollow sound of ‘basement three’ when a distinguished-looking fellow with silver hair and sad pale eyes got in. The white silk scarf around his neck slipped and slithered to the floor. He seemed distracted, didn’t appear to notice that the scarf had fallen. Without thinking, Ida stooped down and picked it up. She then realised he could see her, and she knew therefore he must be suffering. She handed him the scarf, he smiled sadly, the corners of his lovely eyes crinkling as he did so. Ida’s heart missed a beat and she felt she had to act at once. She whisked out her evening primrose and there, between the ground and basement one, the elevator settled gently to a halt.

 

‘I do believe we’re stuck,’ he said. And he began to press the buttons on the wall. Nothing happened. They introduced themselves – his name was Lawrence, Lawrence Honey – and he explained he was on his way to Lodge. Which Lodge is that, she asked in innocence, and he told her he belonged to a society called the Invisible Lodge. She said she liked the name of that, and then she explained she was a volunteer, a visitor to the hospital. He said he hoped she didn’t suffer from claustrophobia, stuck there in the elevator, hanging by a thread between the floors. She said she wasn’t frightened. My ex-wife, he said, and tears came to his eyes, my ex-wife Georgina was terrified of things like this. She was very young – always insisted that we use the stairs. As you can see, I miss her. You must excuse me, he added, and took out his handkerchief and wiped away his tears, and then he opened up his attache case and took out a silver flask from which he drank. A nip? he said, and handed it to Ida. She took a swig of brandy and felt it go straight to her head. They both began to laugh, and then he offered her a bite of his peanut butter sandwich. My secretary, he said, always insists that I bring a sandwich with me on Lodge night. She’s a most practical woman – makes the sandwich for me. I think you’ll find it satisfactory. And it was.

 

We’re moving – are we moving? he said this several times and Ida felt it prudent to give the evening primrose an imperceptible wave. The elevator slid gently into motion and they arrived at the ground floor. The security guard at the front desk woke up from a little dream he had been having, unaware that on his elevator monitor he had just missed something that resembled a scene from a silent movie – a man and a woman both in evening dress having a sort of picnic between floors.

 

Ida found that her imagination was gripped by Lawrence. Ida had fallen in love in that brief time between the ground floor and basement one. She was moved also by the thought of the obvious cruelty of his ex-wife Georgina. Ida would comfort Lawrence; he would not have to weep again. She dashed down to a fire extinguisher and plugged in her morning glory. Nellie, Nellie, she said, all excitement. I’m bringing someone home to dinner. A simply lovely man. I met him in the elevator on his way to Lodge. Do we have cognac – I think he would like that.

 

It is a coincidence, Ida said to Lawrence in the elevator when he was going home after Lodge, that we should meet again. They both laughed and hoped the thing wouldn’t stick between the floors. You have your car? he said, and Ida said that actually she didn’t have a car – had something else to show him. Perhaps he didn’t realise, but the very latest thing to do was to travel round the city by underground waterway. He said he thought he had read about it somewhere. Perhaps is was in the colour supplement of the Saturday paper.

 

Lawrence Honey, as if in a trance, stepped into the rowing boat. He felt a drowsy humming feeling running through his blood. The beautiful woman, so reminiscent of a fairy from a ballet or a picture book, took the oars, and smiled. He smiled. The small black attache case of the Invisible Lodge slipped silently from his hand into the water.

 

They found the attache case caught in weeds some miles downstream. They never found a body. Vanished into thin air. The white silk scarf embroidered with Lawrence’s own secret symbol turned up at the State Library some years later. A baby boy who was manufactured in the hospital was named Lawrence Honey Hamilton in a gesture of reparation for the man who disappeared. And in certain lights you can imagine that you see a gorgeous fairy and a man in evening dress as they step into a little rowing boat on the water underneath the car park that is underneath the Day Procedure Centre.

 

 

Rose of Jericho – remembering war – November 11, 2017

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Beside a few delicate teacups and a piece of scrimshaw, on a shelf in a glass-fronted cabinet, my mother kept a pepperpot. It was of classic Georgian shape, a tiny phallic basilica of a thing, not silver, but made from dark golden imitation wood, intricately carved with designs of multiform roses. You unscrewed the dome and put in the ground pepper; but it you unscrewed the base you found a secret compartment in which my mother kept a treasured twig. This twig was a small shrivelled claw from a bush called the Rose of Jericho, and it came from somewhere in the Middle East, a souvenir brought home to Tasmania from the First World War by an uncle.

Take the twig from its hiding-place and submerge it in water for about twenty minutes. The dried-up claw, in the water, gradually opens out, stretches tendrils, until it blossoms, resembles a freshly-picked bunch of soft brown herb. Tiny bubbles of ancient air bead the delicate branches. Then take it out of the water, let it dry, and when it is utterly shrivelled and dead, replace it in the secret compartment. Return the pepper-pot to its place in the cabinet.

So the Rose of Jericho is now in my possession. I keep it in a cupboard with such things as old prayer-books and a pair of small white china hands. I removed these hands from my grandmother’s grave after vandals had trashed all the ornaments, leaving the hands behind. Whenever I take the twig from its hiding-place and let it come to life again, like a beloved piece of music, played over and over, it can make me stop quite still, make me hold my breath, stare in simple amazement. And it can trigger memories long rested. Sometimes I remember to bring it to life on November 11, when many Australians remember wars, in particular the two world wars.

 

I HEAR THE CHOPPER GOING OVER

I HEAR THE CHOPPER GOING OVER

I rent an apartment that is not far from the centre of the city. The apartment is on a main road where trams run in the middle of the road and two lanes of cars go on either side of the tracks. We are not far from the zoo and I have sometimes heard what I take to be the roaring of the lions in the early hours of the morning. Opposite the apartment is a public hospital where the ambulances drive in and out, day and night, day in and day out. Police cars and fire engines drive along the road at high speed, flashing their lights and sounding their sirens. In the sky above the apartment I often see helicopters. There’s always plenty of noise from outside, and I keep the TV on to counteract it. Sometimes I don’t know whether the sirens are on the TV or coming from the outside world. Once when Diane who lives in the next apartment had locked herself out, she came in here to wait for her flatmate to come home. She sat on the sofa watching the news and I was making salad in the kitchen. When the ads came on Diane called out to me to come and look. See that girl advertising skim milk, Diane said, well she’s got a heart transplant. And guess whose heart it is really? I said I couldn’t guess. It’s my fiancé’s ex-wife’s brother’s heart. I asked her how she knew that and Diane explained that the brother died in a road accident and his heart was flown to the hospital across the road by chopper. The same night the girl with the skim milk got the heart. Must be his, Diane said.

When Diane and her fiancé get married they are going to move out to a house in a suburb as far away from here as possible. They are saving up to put a deposit on a house because they just couldn’t stand to bring up children in a place like this. Diane is frightened of the woman in the apartment across the hall, even though I have tried to tell her the woman is pretty harmless. The woman pins up notices on the door of her place saying things like, ‘Jews and Chinese Keep Out’ and ‘Meat is Murder’ and ‘Jesus wants YOU for a sunbeam’. Diane’s fiancé, Alan, is a helicopter pilot, and in December he gets to fly the Santa Clauses around to all the shopping plazas and sports ovals. Alan says that because of the stress that comes with their job the Santas drink. They get into the helicopter with their sacks full of scotch and they make Alan fly them round and round in circles while they get up the courage to go on with the job. The drink takes different ones in different ways; some get tearful and sentimental, and some get violent. Two of them have fallen asleep in the air, and once one had a mild heart attack and had to be flown to a bayside hospital. Diane told me these things about the Santa Clauses the night she was waiting for her flatmate with the key. By the time the flatmate, Bronwen, got home, Diane and I had eaten the salad and some chops and half a frozen cheesecake. When I was grilling the chops the woman from across the hall came over and started banging on the door with a wooden spoon. She always does that. You take not notice.

Bronwen sat down and told us about her day in the department store where she works as a Gift Wrapper and also as a Christmas Hamper Consultant. She got a special award for selling the most gift items aside from food items to go into the hampers. I asked her what sort of things went into hampers and she said everybody, just about, got straight-forward things like potted cheeses from England and special honey from the Holy Land. Then there were amusing things like chocolate-covered ants and pickled cactuses. But it’s easy, Bronwen said, to persuade people to include some jewellery and china and glassware and lingerie and linen and perfumery. One woman spent nearly $700 on a hamper that she sent to the people she had just bought a house from in a really beautiful area. The house cost $700,000 at the auction and the $700,000 explained the figure of $700 for the hamper, Bronwen said. When Diane and I said we didn’t get the connection, Bronwen told us the whole story. She said she heard the story from Kevin in Jams, Jellies and Imported Condiments.

The house had been completely restored before the sale, with new leadlights and carpets and ceiling roses. The garden was a showplace, and when the wisteria was in bloom people used to get out of their cars and take photographs. Once a bride asked if she could have her wedding photos taken in front of the wisteria, and one of the pictures appeared in Harper’s Bazaar as an ad for something. The people who sold the house loved it, and sold it to this woman who said she was going to love it too. The gave her spare tins of paint for touch-ups and left-over pieces of the carpet. But as soon as the woman had taken possession of the house she had it knocked down. Bronwen said such things are done these days as a matter of course, and so it was unusually kind of the buyer to send the people the hamper. The hamper contained a dozen Moët et Chandon and four tins of Scottish grouse, as well as chocolate-covered ants and a Norwegian mystery parcel. Bronwen said that when she told Mrs Pepper from Lingerie about all this at morning tea Mrs Pepper said $700 for knocking down a person’s house was nothing these days. She told Bronwen that people were paying $2000 for nighties for their mothers.

Bronwen gets a discount on everything she buys in the store and she got a set of brass things like ice tongs and bottle openers and corkscrews for Diane to give to Alan for Christmas. Some of these had dog heads, and some had bird heads. Bronwen said she had wrapped dozens of them for customers. She said she had also wrapped six step-ladders and one wheelbarrow. She did the ladders up to look like giraffes. Mrs Pepper from Lingerie said she should get a prize for her wrapping. Then Diane asked Bronwen if it would be possible to wrap up a helicopter. Diane’s idea was that she would arrive at the church on her wedding day in a chopper decorated to resemble a wedding bell. Bronwen said of course she could do it, but she didn’t think it was very good idea. When Diane asked her why not, Bronwen admitted that as a matter of fact whenever she saw a chopper going over it always reminded her of the angel of death. Diane said no, quite the opposite, and just at that minute the girl with the skim milk came on the TV and Diane said to take the instance of the girl in the ad. If it hadn’t been for the helicopter she wouldn’t have been alive; she wouldn’t have been able to get Alan’s ex-wife’s brother’s heart. Bronwen said she realised all that but she didn’t think a helicopter was the right note for a wedding. They were still arguing about this when they went next-door to their apartment. I think Diane will persuade Bronwen that the helicopter would be a good idea for the wedding. She has the example of the Santas on her side, and the argument about the girl in the skim milk ad is very hard to ignore.

(This story was published in my collection ‘The Common Rat’ 1993)