BEWARE THE TASMANIAN SNIFFER DOG

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The following lecture was delivered as the Second McDermott Lecture at the University of Barcelona, December, 2001

– Growing up as a Writer in Tasmania –

At the tiny airport in my hometown of Launceston in Tasmania are large posters on which there is a picture of a rather appealing beagle. Underneath the picture are the words:

“Beware the Tasmanian Sniffer Dog.”

In the present climate of airport security, the poster takes on a newer and larger significance than it used to have. It was always very serious, but actually bore no reference to weapons or drugs. I will read you the rest of the information on the poster.

‘Tasmania has earned a reputation as one of the most hospitable places on earth. However there are certain visitors that we do not welcome to this state.

And these visitors – in the form of pests and diseases – could be your travelling companions.

To keep out these unwelcome guests, Tasmania has some of the world’s most stringent quarantine regulations. Please help us to retain Tasmania’s disease-free status by ensuring that you are not carrying any of the following items:

Fresh fruit or vegetables

Honey

Plants or plant parts

Cut flowers

Anything carrying soil

If you pass the barrier checkpoint with any of these items our trained sniffer dogs will detect them and you will be find a hundred dollars on the spot.’

So Tasmania is an island where agriculture is protected from the infections of the outside world. Tasmanians are proud of the clean air, clean water, good fishing, great cheeses, wilderness forests – the general purity and even innocence of their small and beautiful world. One time, in Launceston airport, I noticed the dog was missing. I asked about this and the official told me it was a prize-winning dog, and was currently buy competing in a local dog show, so could not be on duty in the airport.

I was born in Tasmania and I lived there for the first twenty-three years of my life. Naturally enough, in the material of those years, in that place, at that time, can be perceived the foundations of the writer of fiction I have become.

Tasmania is an island about the size of Ireland. It suffers – if that’s the word – from many of the things that islands all over the world can suffer from – and these things I will discuss as I proceed. It is located off the south eastern tip of Australia, and if you keep going south from Tasmania you come to the Antarctic. It is the smallest Australian state by far, much much smaller than the others. It is generally treated by Australians from other parts of the country with a mixture of contempt and envy – emotions which translate into various forms of humour which is repetitive and predictable. The island is envied for its physical beauty, and reviled for its history – and because it is small, and because it is different. Tasmanians themselves see the island as bearing the shape of a heart; other Australians usually see it as a tuft of female pubic hair, or a pellet of excrement. Because the outline of the map of Australia is easier to draw without including the island of Tasmania, Tasmania is frequently left off the map.

Yet people from other parts of Australia love to come to Tasmania for holidays, and it has always been a very popular destination for honeymoons. Right now there is a trend towards seeing it as a place to which to retire at the end of a working life. There is a sense in which it is seen as Paradise – for the mountains and beaches and rivers and forests and farms and orchards are beautiful and bountiful, and visitors are welcomed and celebrated. Although sometimes you can hear Tasmanians say, expressing an ambivalence – well, they like tourism, but it’s a pity the tourists have to make so much mess and clog up the roads. If only you could enjoy the gifts of tourism without the tourists.

The island is separated from the Australian mainland by a piece of water 200 miles wide. This water is called Bass Strait, and it is one of the most treacherous bits of ocean in the world. The Roaring Forties blow in, with nothing to stop them between the east coast of Africa and the west coast of Tasmania. In Bass Strait the winds meet 126 little islands, and the waters are full of strange channels, so that the bottom of the Strait is covered in the wrecks of ships. To cross Bass Strait by boat is thrilling and dangerous, and even when you cross it by air, I believe you may occasionally be conscious that you are not flying over ordinary water. It is, or at least I should say it has always been to me, not only a physical barrier between Australia and Tasmania, but also a powerful emotional barrier, and I think it works that way for many Tasmanians.

When I was a child living there, the mainland of Australia was usually referred to as ‘over the other side’. To cross Bass Strait was therefore linguistically and emotionally aligned with the journey from life on earth to life beyond the grave. Over the other side is always a better place, a desirable place, and yet the journey is unknown, and so it is, to a certain extent, to be contemplated with caution and fear. As a child I had a great interest in, and awe of, the other side.

I believe that Tasmania became cut off from the mainland about twelve thousand years ago. A race of indigenous people was then isolated on the island, and remained undisturbed by visitors until European explorers began to arrive, the first one recorded being Abel Janzen Tasman, who came in 1642. To me the date 1642 marks somehow the beginning of modern Tasmanian time – if you like – the dawn of European influence on Tasmania. Naturally to a Spaniard the date has an utterly different resonance. It falls during the reign of Philip the Fourth – and recorded Spanish history had already been going on for a very long time, so that 1642 is no big deal to a Spaniard. To a Tasmanian it is huge. Notice that it is not the date of a great battle – a great victory or a terrible defeat – but the date of a kind of small revelation – the revealing of the very existence of the place to European sensibility. Tasman named the island after Van Diemen, a high official in the Dutch East India Company, and so it became known as Van Diemen’s Land. That naming was to become so significant, and the name would resonate with a terrible darkness and horror.

The Empire of Britain expanded to occupy the part of New South Wales, which is now Sydney, in 1788. I use the term ‘occupy’ for the time being, but I will later elaborate and my language will change – you will find I refer not to ‘occupation’ but to ‘invasion’. In 1803 the Colony in New South Wales sent people south to occupy (or invade) Van Diemen’s Land. The main idea was to stop the French from claiming the land – perhaps that’s a sentiment you can sympathise with. The colonisation by the British of what I will call for convenience Australia was effected by military personnel, convicted criminals, and later by people called ‘free settlers’. The colony of Van Diemen’s Land was, the way I read it, tragic in the extreme. It quickly became, in its remoteness not only from Britain, but also from New South Wales, the location for the most difficult convicted criminals from those places, and also from Norfolk Island. Because Van Diemen’s Land was an island, it seemed to be an ideal place to abandon unwanted members of society, and to establish some kind of ownership of the land, and later to develop and use the territory.

Van Diemen’s Land was an alien place where plants and animals were strange, where the landscape itself spoke of despair, with the great unwelcoming cliffs and the dark mysterious forests. In the early years of the colony everybody nearly starved, and escapees from the prisons established a class of bandits known as bushrangers. (The most celebrated man in Australian history is probably Ned Kelly, a bushranger operating on the Australian mainland.) There was also violent conflict between the British and the Indigenous people whose land had in fact been stolen. What developed is described as Tasmania’s Black War – which was at its most intense in 1824. At one point the ‘settlers’ and the military formed a human chain, a line of people across the island, moving from north to south in an attempt to round up the Indigenous people like animals. In the end they captured only two people. The next tactic was to persuade (a verb which bears examination) the Indigenous people to go, all of them, to a small island in Bass Strait, leaving Van Diemen’s Land free for the British, leaving behind their ancestral Aboriginal places, their traditional lives. The place they went to was called Flinders Island. The result of all this was a kind of concentration camp on Flinders Island where most of the inmates died – it is often said, generally, of the loss of spirit, of a broken heart. There were official attempts to educate and assimilate the Indigenous people on Flinders Island, but these were generally dismal and insensitive. The European people of Van Dienen’s Land raped women, killed them, and killed the men and the children, brought disease, and then corralled the survivors until they died. From that time, the time of the perceived Flinders Island solution to the perceived problem of the Indigenous people – Van Diemen’s Land began to prosper, with ‘free settlers’ using convicts as slave labour to construct roads and buildings. The society of Van Diemen’s Land was brutal and violent and convulsive. Transportation of convicted criminals from Britain came to an end in 1853. (If you would like to read about these things in detail I recommend The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes.)

And as for the Indigenous people of Van Diemen’s Land – until very recently they were written up in the history books as having died out completely – the last man being William Lanne who died in 1869, the last woman being Trucanini who died in 1876. The language of this discourse is still developing, and I have seen it move in my lifetime from the sad story of the lost tribes of Aborigines to the narrative of colonial massacre and a more or less successful attempt at genocide. The genocide was almost successful, but in fact there are now many Tasmanians alive today whose ancestors were Indigenous, and those people identify themselves as First Tasmanians. I must stress that this latter fact does not mean that the campaign against the Tasmanians was not a campaign of genocide. It was genocide. The race that was is in fact no more. The blood of the Tasmanians is mixed with the blood of other races now, but it has not disappeared. I should point out that the thylacine, a kind of native tiger, along with other animals and plants, was killed off deliberately by the Europeans, and is now extinct.

There remains a clear desire in many parts of Australian society to view the extinction of the First Tasmanian as a fact. And there is also a desire to view the extinction of one of the Tasmanian animals, the thylacine or tiger, as a fable. Truth be told – the First Tasmanians are not extinct; the thylacines are extinct. This latter fact is ocasionally still contested. People long to discover a living thylacine in Tasmania, and there are sometimes strange reports of sightings, but no real evidence. Some people claim to have sighted the animal far away in Western Australia. With a certain perverseness people long for the invisible thylacine and refuse to see the indegenes before their eyes.

Eleanor Dark was an Australian novelist who wrote The Timeless Land (1941). Writing within the discourse of the prevailing Australian attitude to the fate of Indigenous people, she wrote: ‘The Aboriginal race is nearly gone.’

The dark and violent events of the Tasmanian penal colony, and the saga of the defeat and murder of the Aborigines, sat very very uneasily on the conscience of a society which was cultivating a respectable face. Ashamed, deeply troubled, morally corrupted by their own actions in the recent past, the people of Van Diemen’s Land set about burying the past. In 1853, when the transportation of convicts from England ended, the island was re-named – called Tasmania after the Dutch sailor who came to it – ‘discovered’ it as history books used to say – in 1642. This re-naming was an attempt to cleanse the past, to obliterate from memory the horror and the tragedy and the violent grotesquerie of recent life, to go forward with a false confidence based on some kind of fictional innocence. Many official records of the convict and also the Indigenous past were officially destroyed, and families with blood ties to convicts and to the First Tasmanians re-wrote the family history to exclude the shameful ancestors. If your grandfather was a horse-thief from Ireland, and a bushranger in Van Diemen’s Land, and your grandmother was an Indigenous woman, then chances were, for a start, your grandfather raped your grandmother and was not joined to her in wedlock. Your family history was stained with shame. But you were now a respectable farmer who read the lesson in church every Sunday and so you certainly didn’t need those ancestors. You were constructing your dream of paradise in a little paradise island far far from the real centres of power and civilisation and as far as possible from some sort of recorded truth.

In an early history of Tasmania (published in 1852 ) John West described the island:

Its general character is mountainous, with numerous beautiful valleys, rendered fertile by numberless streams descending from the hills, and watering, in their course to the sea, large tracts of country. The south-western coast, washed by the Southern Ocean, is high and cold, but the climate of the northern and inland districts is one of the finest in the temperate zone, and produces in abundance and variety all the fruits which are found under the same latitude in Europe.

He was describing that paradise to which I referred earlier. And there grew up a perception that Tasmania and the biblical Paradise had much in common. There was even a suggestion sometimes that Tasmania was in fact the true location of the Garden of Eden. This would make the ancestors not criminals and blacks but, presumably Adam and Eve – somehow or other. From being the hell on earth of Van Diemen’s Land – Tasmania was to become that Garden of Eden. Somehow. At the expense of truth, and at the expense of a strange and complex and unconscious and on-going un-ease in the spirits of the people.

When I was at school we were taught that if we could sail the island just a few degrees to the north, it really would be the Garden of Eden. If only. Magic Realism wasn’t far away from the classrooms of my childhood. For one thing there had been that swift obliteration of the history of convicts and blacks, giving rise to the common invention of fictions. Once I was invited to write an essay about my own country – it was supposed to be submitted to a school magazine in the US. My choice of topic for my essay was Tasmania’s blood-stained past. My teacher forbade me to send the essay to America since it was not expressing the official narrative line. Censorship is sometimes a marvellous spur to interest and creativity – perhaps the killing of my essay played a part in my desire to write fiction. I like to think so.

The Tasmanian countryside is different from that of most of mainland Australia. There is a poem which all Australian children, including Tasmanian children, used to learn by heart throughout most of the twentieth century. It described Australia as a wide brown land – a sunburnt country. We learnt the poem dutifully, but it does not describe Tasmania – remember that Tasmania is off the map anyway, is too small and insignificant to figure in the larger picture. Perhaps it’s like – I suppose if you were describing Spain you wouldn’t really stop every time to take, say, Los Canarias into account. I believe that on weather maps they show up as being much closer to the Spanish mainland than in fact they are. That might not be a fair analogy – I don’t know. I do know that Tasmania is to Australia rather like what Newfoundland is to Canada. Anyway, Tasmanians traditionally identified their countryside as being different, as being as a little piece of rural England. They planted hawthorn hedges and English trees, and they built elegant little imitations of the English churches and the Georgian houses of eighteenth century England – and then they built Victorian and Edwardian houses as well. I don’t know how much these architectural terms will mean to you – just believe me when I tell you that the public buildings, farmhouses, houses of the rich, and cottages of the poor – as well as the parks and gardens in Tasmania often resemble charming toy replicas of English places. The indigenous plants were for a long long time considered to be inferior to European plants. It is a great climate for growing apples and cherries and roses.

I have ever so briefly described the history of my native land. I must now enter the scene myself and reflect on how I might have interacted with it to develop a passionate interest in – not only the place itself, but in the writing of a body of fiction which frequently locates itself in my imaginative reconstruction of the place, and which demonstrates I think, somehow, in its tone and position, some of the influences I have described.

I was born into a world in crisis, at the beginning of the Second World War. I have often tried to imagine what it must have been like for a woman bearing a child at that time. But although I know the people had only newspapers, radio newsreels, and letters to supply information, I can’t really envisage how informed they would feel, or how they would really feel. I somehow remember the radio was always on. Today people are drenched in information so that I imagine a contemporary pregnant woman must be daily bombarded with deep fears and uncertainties. Of course nature does insulate pregnant women in many ways, but I think the situations and conflicts in the world today, full as it is of news, must surely impact deeply and dramatically on the sensibilities and systems of all people, even pregnant women. There was less choice in the developed world in the forties – about having a baby – than there is now. So a woman of today in Australia can (theoretically) make more decisions about having a baby or not having a baby. But I have always wondered how my mother felt about bringing me into the world just then. Perhaps what I am really saying is that I have always been conscious of a personal, a deep and personal, temporal connection to the war. It was a turning point in the century (from my perspective) and I materialised at that turning point. Of course everyone sees their own birth as significant – and you bet it is – but anyhow, I have for some reason always been fascinated by and fixated on the war. (Along with millions of other people, I know – but I am trying to get to the colour of the influences on my own fiction here, and this feeling about the war was one of those.) My father was making optical equipment, and didn’t go to war, but much of life was dominated by the war, of course. There were men and women in uniform, and life was ruled by the disciplines of food rationing and blackouts. It sounds almost surreal – more magic realism perhaps – to describe the effects of war on Tasmania in the forties, when I think of all I have read and seen of the realities of the war as it was fought, and of the ravages of war on other countries. But we lived in the fear and shadow of war. To a child in Tasmania in the early forties, the war was an ordinary fact of life. Everywhere I looked, it seems, people were knitting balaclavas and rolling bandages to send to the troops. We were prepared in case there was an invasion by the Japanese, and so we had a fantastic air-raid shelter under the garden, and personal gas-masks which we also used as play-things. I regret very much that there are not photographs of me and my sisters as small girls in floral dresses running under the apple trees wearing our gas-masks. We had large toy wooden guns called ak-ak guns made by my father. Our attempts at art were filled with drawings and paintings of the enemy – known as Japs and Germans – they both had helmets and huge bared teeth – the Japs were small people with oriental eyes.

So my first five years were lived in the demi-paradise of Tasmania, to the distant sounds of a distant conflict. My world was coloured by the war, but not quite touched by it. I had male cousins who were in the navy, and they all came home, handsome and amazing in their uniforms, alive, experienced, different, changed. Exciting. And then it seems, in my memory, that the war receded, and as it did fascinating strangers began to arrive in Tasmania, un-English people from places like Holland and Italy. One time I was given two Dutch girls to look after at school, and that was so interesting and exciting. From this distance, from memory, I sense that the stability and prosperity which gradually came at the end of the war fell upon the world I knew like some kind of blessing.

But let’s say now that I have arrived at the age of eight, with the war a fading memory. By the age of eight I am conscious that Tasmania is dead weird – I know that I am living in a place that they don’t put on the map. And I feel that this is destabilising, that the place where I live does not exist in the same way that other places exist. England exists. France exists. America exists. At eight I have never been to England, and yet I know that it is real because everything points to its reality. I can’t explain it to myself, and yet I feel that I am nowhere, and I sometimes find this puzzling, sometimes find it uncomfortable, but I also find it very, very thrilling, like a fantastic secret. I was a sort of weird child, I think. I believe that all this – all that I have so far explored about the place, and my position in the place – has resolved itself – if that’s the word – into the making of fiction.

 

At the age of eight I am conscious – and I still can’t really explain how or why this is so – conscious that there are terrible secrets somewhere just below the surface of this place where I live, that the surface is somehow constructed of lies and half-truths. I am there but I am nowhere. The far interior of mainland Australia is known as the Never-Never – Tasmania could be – still could be – the Nowhere-Nowhere.

The history I learnt at school was the history of England. I have still, in fact, a copy of my history book. It is Book Four in a series –The Tasmanian History Readers. It is in the Royal School Series, and it is published by the Education Department of Tasmania. In the back of the book is a Summary of History With Dates. The events listed in the summary are ‘Death of Elizabeth and accession of James the First. The date is 1603. You will recall that Tasmania was discovered (as we say) in 1642. So we were already forty years short in this history book, if you were looking at it from the perspective of a Tasmanian child. We were not being written out of the history books – we had not yet gotten into the game.

So, I am eight – I am a bright and inquisitive and active child with many interests and skills, but I am also creepily determined to walk back into the darkness of the terrible shadows I half sense in the streets and stones and waters around me. There are signs, and pieces of evidence of strange unspoken events – bricks marked by the broad arrow of the convict builders, a few places with the musical names of bushrangers or of First Peoples – just stories with no connection with the present, or even with the realities of the history I learn. The history book I mentioned has a section of British poems for readers to learn, and they have in them such lines as ‘So far I live to the northward, No man lives north of me, To the east are the wild mountain chains, To the westward all is sea.’ Well the last bit was right. I am not meaning to suggest that everything a child is told must feed in to a sense of personal nationalism, but in my case there was no official acknowledgment of even the reality of my own country. Australia did not come into the story in those days (it is different now) and if Australia didn’t figure in the history of the British, then Tasmania did not even figure in the story of Australia. So to me there was a sense that I was living and breathing in a place which for some reason did not really exist. You may think that all of this is being explored and explained in hindsight, that it is fanciful nonsense. Some of it must be the explanation of hindsight, but I do in fact recall much of this from childhood, much of the feeling, the suspicion, the sense of dislocation. I knew I was living in a haunted land, a land very recently haunted, a land where everybody seemed to deny the existence of the ghosts, and even to deny the reality of the real in a strange deference to the mainland of Australia, and the great and beautiful homeland of Great Britain, and also of Ireland.

As a child I had two ongoing projects which went against the grain of normal everyday life. One was seeking information about what happened to the First Tasmanians (oras I would then say ‘the Aborigines’), and the other was to find out everything I could about the convict past of Van Diemen’s Land. I do believe that these interests were related to my feeling that Tasmania itself was a kind of myth. I used to – well I still do – collect references to Tasmania in unexpected places – passing references in literature for instance – like in Nabokov or Virginia Woolf. It is often used as a kind of amusing reference to somewhere a bit exotic, a bit funny, a long way away, of no real significance. Of course these references didn’t re-assure me of the firm existence of Tasmania – they just added to the air of weird quaint unreality. The most recent one of these I found was in the New Yorker (in 2001), in a short story: A man in Denver, Colorado, ‘considered selling the factory, removing himself to Tasmania or Kuala Lumpur.’

It is probably much too simple to explain it all like that. And please remember that I am exploring all this only for the purpose of examining some of the springs of my own identification as a writer of fiction, as a writer born at a certain time in a certain place, writing in a certain way. Writers are sometimes quite interested in visiting Tasmania nowadays, and even in the past writers such as Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Jack London, Agatha Christie – they visited the island and wrote a little about it. But my imagination constantly returns to the feeling I had that I was a girl in the middle of a lovely hidden nowhere which was whispering with horrible horrible secrets.

I believe that the apparent problematic nature, and even non-existence of my early home, had a significant effect on the way I looked at the world, and had the effect of shaping my desire to write, and on shaping the nature of the writing. The first years of my life were spent walking on the pathways of this non-existent island, climbing the hills of nowhere, swimming in a sea which washed onto the shores of nothing.

I remember something I used to do some days when I came home from school, and as I reflect on the idea of living in nowhere-land, this action of mine, I realise, could be linked, maybe, to my experience of the nothing of nowhere. Instead of entering the house in the normal way, which was to walk down a wide driveway on the right and go round to the back door, I would approach the left side of the house. The sinister side? The strip of land between the house and the fence is too narrow to get the sun. There is a raised garden bed filled with greenery that can survive in shade. At either end of the pathway is a tall green fence and gate, both made from slim slats of timber crossing each other to form lace-work. The whole area is therefore enclosed – by the house, the side fence, the two gates. The light was always different between the gates. It was a world of its own, an enclosure, a sacred space.

I get to the first gate, put down my school case, undo the bolt on the gate, pick up my case, go through the gate, close the gate behind me. I am in. I take as long as possible to walk the short distance from one gate to the other, to go the length of the house. I feel nothing, think nothing, am nothing. I am nowhere. I cease to exist, I merge with the nothingness, I drift. I am somehow obedient to a higher force. I am permitted to sit down on the edge of the flower-bed, but only in order to stare at the flowers and leaves, to sniff them, and taste them. There was a dense bed of catmint. I am not permitted to read or to draw or to sing. I may not do anything that is not connected with the place itself. I may only be.

 There was no act of imagination. It was more an act of negation, an exercise in disappearing. Having disappeared, I possessed the place, possessed myself, was possessed by the place. It is hard to describe what I was doing, because the act itself was against words and images. Perhaps it was something like meditation or hypnosis, but I don’t like to say so because these words give a false impression. There was a feeling of going in, being trapped, fulfilling the requirements of nothingness, giving in to nowhere. Then getting out. I knew I would emerge, would take up the real world again, be a schoolgirl with hat and gloves. I would go into the house, open the case, get out my books and pencils.

But in the time between the green lattice gates I was gone, I was nowhere, I was not. The place had no name, no language, no essential characteristics. It was a piece of time and place sliced off for me where nothing happened. I did not feel safe there, it was not a refuge, it was a trap, a zone to be negotiated, navigated, where internal rules must be obeyed. It was tense and dangerous.

Go slow, said the rules, take as long as possible.

I now realise I was creating a split in my real world, trying to find a way out of reality, a way that was not dreams and imaginings. I think this desire for getting into nothingness between the gates is probably linked to my desire to write fiction. And is also linked to the fact that I found myself to be in Tasmania. I am not even sure how it is linked to these matters, but I see the person who went into the special slice of nowhere after school as being closely related to the person who now writes stories. When you write fiction you go somewhere – but you know it is really nowhere.

Some of the narratives of my fiction are supposed to be located in Tasmania, and I believe that all of them are affected in some way be the tales I have told you of my early perceptions. If I have time to read you a little, I will read to you a section from my novel The Bluebird Café. (page 148) This novel is set in Tasmania. I think the narrative bears out much of what I have just said. The central problem of the narrative is the disappearance from her bedroom in the middle of the night of a small girl. This is a very recognisable Australian narrative. White Australians, the descendants of the ones who ‘colonised’ or invaded the land only two hundred years ago, have a deep terror that the weird wild inhospitable land itself is going to snatch their children and swallow them up, or that a stranger or a wild animal will take them and kill them and eat them. Australian literature and art frequently returns to the location of this fear. In writing fiction I am in part giving a geography to the Hills of Nowhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Group Notes – ‘Field of Poppies’

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ABOUT THE BOOK

The Big Picture:

Early in the twenty-first century, the world appears to be on the brink of catastrophe. Political and environmental changes and disasters are colluding in the destruction of the planet.

The Comfortable Life:

At the same time many human beings are able to turn a blind eye to the problems, to continue on their merry way, seemingly capable of ignoring the signs of disaster, incapable of action. They are not evil or immoral people (necessarily), but many are overwhelmed by the clear signs of the coming disasters, the probable extinction of life on earth.

The Novel

Field of Poppies begins by briefly drawing the reader’s attention to the bleak facts of the Big Picture, then turns its focus to the finer details of lives in an ordinary rural Australian town. The town itself is perhaps the central ‘character’ in the narrative, which is told by a tree-changing woman, Marsali (rhymes with parsley).

The mood and texture of these two approaches to the world of the novel are presented in sharply contrasting ways, reflected in the design of the text. The realities of the world at large edge their way into Marsali’s consciousness, mostly in regular formal words of wisdom offered by her husband, William. But it is evident that Marsali (and for that matter William and their friends) is unable to deal with the facts and implications of that Big Picture.

Art and Literature are lenses through which Marsali and William try to view the truth, and sometimes the pair seem to glimpse reality, but more often than not it eludes them. Early in the novel their attention is focused on the disappearance and murder of a neighbour, Alice. With this grim reality, come even more hideous revelations. The fate of Alice is ultimately revealed, the lives of Marsali and William are changed, but even so, the pair still appears to be blindly and helplessly sleepwalking into total darkness, living the good life, ignoring every warning sign of doom.

The couple recognise the sinister implications of the arrival in the town of a mining company from China. The town they have grown to love will be changed forever. They don’t see the complex irony in the fact that their new home is the Eureka Tower in Melbourne, a tall and glamorous apartment building owing its name to the celebration of gold-mining and miners in the very area from which they have fled. They persevere in the fantasy of their everyday lives, flying off to Paris for a wedding, seemingly ignorant of the damage the airline industry is doing to the planet.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carmel Bird grew up in Tasmania, and much of her writing reflects this fact. In 2016 she received the Patrick White Literary Award. Carmel is the author of ten novels and eight collections of short fiction. Her books on writing, Dear Writer Revisited and Writing the Story of Your Life are widely used, as is her anthology of writing from the Stolen Generations, The Stolen Children – Their Stories. She published an anthology of a hundred Australian stories written from 1900 to 2000, titled The Penguin Century of Australian Stories. She has also published children’s books, memoir, and several other anthologies.

www.carmelbird.com

https://carmelbird.wordpress.com

 

COMMENTS on the TEXT


How to describe Field of Poppies? A lush feast of wit and wisdom? Writing so rich you simply want to devour it?  A forensic examination of an Australian country town?

Literary tour de force will have to do. Robert Drewe

***

All the Bird trademark strands – beauty, shock and horror, a genuine story based in the reality of the world, complex imagery, elegant irony and compelling prose.   Gabrielle Lord

***

Field of Poppies is an absolute feast of wit and wisdom. Carmel Bird embroiders a seemingly simple story with the most wonderful observations and colourful mischief. This novel resonates with a long list of contemporary problems. It does so using humour, not anger. It is fun – wry, intelligent, searching, poised and astute. It showcases the human catastrophe with grace and charm. It takes years of experience for a writer to be able to pull off this kind of sorcery. It is wonderful to see Carmel Bird working with such zest and verve. Michael McGirr

***

Sharp yet sensitive, wildly imaginative, and layered with allusion and allegory. Bird’s vivid characters weave together local legend, small-town speculation, art, literature and science in their narration of their selves and lives, all but ignoring the social and ecological destruction taking place around them.

A truly remarkable achievement from a novelist at the height of her powers. Fiona Wright

***

Bold and playful, sharply funny and humane, Carmel Bird’s timely social satire shimmers with layers. She has a gift for distilling the essence of her characters and locations and bringing them together in wonderfully unexpected ways. Her distinctive voice and lightness of touch shine in this penetrating and evocative novel. Michael Sala

***

Highly engaging storytelling that blends and layers reality and extravaganza with ingenious irony, wit and subtlety.

Gerardo Rodriguez Salas

 

 

 

POINTS FOR DISCUSSION

* 1 Tree-changers are often people with the freedom to seek out their own personal ‘lifestyle’. Briefly explain how this all works out for Marsali and William.

* 2 The third section of the novel is titled ‘The Mine’. What is the significance and role of gold throughout the text?

* 3 So many elements of this novel are steeped in irony. Discuss.

* 4 Marsali tells the story in an informal, memoirist tone. She is articulate, privileged, judgmental, sociable, likeable. Moral. Yet her view of the world is skewed, and much of what she says reveals an inability to face reality. Discuss

* 5 In which ways is William the novel’s centre of wisdom and goodness?

* 6 The title of the novel references World War One (as well as a reference to a painting by Monet). The wars of the 20th Century are part of the background fabric of the novel, which frequently descends into moments of ugly violence. The reader doesn’t see the wars, but they form part of the founding fabric of life in the twenty-first century, part of the history of the town of Muckleton. Discuss

* 7 History, geography, mining – discuss the roles of these within the narrative.

* 8 The town of Muckleton is central to the story, as is the general area of the old goldfields. Discuss.

* 9 In contrast to the more or less charmed lives of Marsali and William, are the dysfunctional lives of Saffron and Tonto. Discuss.

* 10 The churches of Muckleton play a key role in the life of the community. Discuss.

* 11 Generally speaking, the people of Muckleton are of good will, and some of their antics give rise to comedy. Discuss.

* 12 The murder of Alice is a grotesque, careless, mindless, alcohol-fuelled act. It is also emblematic, within the novel’s fabric, of human stupidity, and inattention to the plight of the other human beings, the plight of planet itself. Discuss.

* 13 How do the various literary works discussed in the text contribute to the central concerns of the novel?

* 14 What is the role of Monet’s painting ‘Field of Poppies’ in the text?

* 15 What does Marsali’s obsession with and analysis of Monet’s painting tell you about Marsali herself?

* 16 Consider the epigraphs at the beginning of the novel. Discuss these in relation to your reading of the text.

* 17 The poppy as a signifier of sleep is foregrounded in the novel, while the scarlet poppy of Flanders flags the bloodshed and tragedy of human conflict. Consider how the novel plays with these two meanings of the poppy.

* 18 Do you think that the couple, with their baby, who set up their b&b in the house vacated by Marsali and William, are a marker of some sort of hope for humanity?

* 19 Do you think the novel suggests that Marsali and William will ever be punished in some way for their wealthy, careless, carefree lives?

* 20 Marsali and William both belong to reading groups. These are quite different from each other. Discuss.

 

 

 

FURTHER READING

The White Garden – Carmel Bird

Red Shoes – Carmel Bird

Cape Grimm – Carmel Bird

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

Jacob’s Room – Virginia Woolf

The Dry – Jane Harper

Soon – Lois Murphy

 

A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR

A friend went to a gallery where she bought a fancy hair clip, which she gave to me. The image on the hair clip was ‘Woman with a Parasol’, one of Claude Monet’s many depictions of his wife.

I went on a little Monet spree, and naturally I came to ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil’. Sometimes it is easy enough to explain how and why an event is the inspiration for a piece of fiction, however I can’t really say why ‘Poppies’ set my imagination in motion, but it did.

Suddenly I had a character who loved, not just that painting, but a faithful copy of it, created by her aunt. The main figure of the woman in ‘Poppies’ is probably the same woman as the one with the parasol. For that matter, she’s carrying a parasol in ‘Poppies’ too. Before I knew it, I was writing about the poppies in Flanders, about the waste and horror of war, leading me on to meditate on the ravages that humans have visited upon the planet itself. Yet as I descended into the bewildering darkness of wars, refugees, climate, disease, overcrowding, starvation, thirst, extinctions – I saw all around me people who lead cheerful, comfortable Australian lives, playing sport, going to the opera, the café, the art gallery, flying to Paris, decorating their hair with fancy clips. My own life is fairly comfortable, for one thing. The novel was beginning to take shape.

I am daily reminded of the urgency needed to attend to looming global disaster. Marsali and William are intended to foreground the dangers inherent in blithely living in a kind of fairyland. At one level, they know everything is spinning out of control; at another level they are powerless to act. The ground beneath their feet is rich in gold that will betray them, and is also seeded with the bones of historic tragedies and massacres. And such things are still happening around them.

It’s ironic (rather horrible actually) that something as apparently innocent and sweet, something so inconsequential, as the fancy hairclip should have set all this in motion.

 

 

CHRISTMAS IN TASMANIA 1943

 

IMG_7304.jpgMy whole attention is on the little angels flittering through the vegetable patch. It’s Christmas Eve in my maternal grandmother’s garden in Tasmania. Cypress hedge, coral roses flushing and blushing, red fish darting in the enigmatic waters of a bottomless pond. But my whole attention is really on those little angels – that’s what I call the cabbage white butterflies – as they perform their dances in search of Christmas nectar. On gravel paths, I run on my two year-old legs, my arms outstretched, fingers splayed, as I proceed in the sure and certain hope that I will catch an angel. My dress is new, blue with white trims, knitted by my grandmother, a gift for Christmas. Her other gift is the shiny shilling she gives to every grandchild every Christmas. I never caught my angel in the veggie garden.

My recollections of that Christmas eve are in fact my earliest memories, and they are sharp and sweet and also sad. For that night was my grandmother’s last. She died on Christmas eve. Her name was Ellen Margaret. So ever after, Christmas eve for me has been tinged with the sorrow of loss. Was it her heart? A stroke? The history of all that has disappeared in the swirl of the mists of time, and what remains are the magic lantern moments with the little angels in the garden.

I can record no memory of what followed. Memory being the apparently whimsical creature that it is, the melancholy that must have filled Christmas Day has been erased. I have a space where there must have been a Christmas tree. Were there gifts? We must have gone church. I would like to be able to say that I saw a flock of angels on the ceiling, heard them singing in the choir. Hark those herald angels. What became of the pudding?

We always spent the long Christmas holidays at the beach with caravans and cousins. But before we left for Bicheno with its penguins and red rocks, or Port Arthur with its stark old prison cells and seagulls, we would go to the cemetery at Carr Villa in Launceston to put a vase of roses, sometimes they were coral, on Ellen Margaret’s grave. We went on the tram, just me and my mother. On the white gravel surface of the grave there was a bloodless porcelain collection of flowers and birds, and a pair of tiny white hands in that sentimental handshake of farewell. There was something about these two right hands, severed as they were from their body of origin, that reminded me of wings. These memorial objects, still and silent, were protected by a glass dome.

My mother ritually cleans the surface of the dome with a damp cloth impregnated with a few drops of methylated spirit, and the birds and flowers come into clearer view. For a while, the air in the cemetery no longer smells of decay and rosemary, but is lashed with the sting of metho. I fill the cheap vase with water that gurgles from a crooked tap. Mother arranges the roses in the vase, titivating the petals with the tips of her fingers. She stands back to admire her work. Titivates a bit more. And we whisper and mumble some prayers. One of these is to the archangel Michael – a warlike fellow with wings and a great spear – a separate species that is a million light years from those little angels among the veggies.

Well, years and light years have now passed by, and with them a merry-go-round variety of Christmas Eves and Christmas Days. Some of them I remember and some of them I forget. However, wrapped in a linen doily, accompanied by a sprig of rosemary, on a shelf, in a cupboard in my house, I have the small white porcelain hands that once lay under the glass dome on Ellen Margaret’s grave.

So what kind of merciless grave-robber am I? Ten years ago I visited the grave at Carr Villa. Some force – the branch of a tree, the pleasures of vandalism, a bolt of lighting? – had smashed the glass dome. Flowers and birds lay in a tragic, monstrous shattered clutter of shards. Twigs and leaves lay everywhere in mushing clumps. Twisted rusty wires poked out from the base of petal and wing. Lying alone, unharmed except for dirt and rust were the voiceless little hands. I tidied up the broken pieces, and pocketed the hands. There was no vase. I left some flowers – I don’t remember what they were – on the surface of snow white pebbles.

When I got home I searched through the collection of embroidered doilys that came to me from my mother. Some of these were done by Ellen Margaret. To my great joy, one of these was a square of white linen worked in shiny white and shades of vermilion. I had always thought there was something bloody about that doily. Now it seemed to be the perfect shroud for the farewell hands. The thumb of the hand on the left is still indelibly stained with rust. A hateful spike of darkly rusted, tormented wire protrudes from the back on which is printed a number ‘5048’, resembling the mark on the back of the neck of an antique porcelain doll. It looks rather like part of a long lost phone number.

These days, on the low table where I always put a Christmas tree, I place the doily, and on it, the hands. Although they are, I have to say, rather creepy, they seem to blend in with the general theme of the red and white of tinsel and baubles and candy canes. I know I am fanciful, but the hands, freighted as they are with meaning and memory, seem to me to carry distinct echoes of the cabbage moths, those little angels that flew about their business in Ellen Margaret’s garden on Christmas Eve, long, long ago.

LITERARY INSPIRATION

From Sebastopol to Muckleton:

An examination of the long history of the inspiration for my novel FIELD OF POPPIES

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IMAGE: Cannon from the war in Crimea 1854 – 56monet.jpg

Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873  by  Claude Monet

 

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Photo of my mother, Laura Power, in the Conservatory, City Park, Launceston Tasmania in the early 1930s

Claude Monet painted ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil in 1873’. Argenteuil, where the people of ancient Gaul mined for silver, is on the Seine, about twelve kilometres from the centre of Paris. There is, I fancy, a silvery haze drifting across the field. The painting is now in the Musée d’Orsay which is a treasure house of Impressionism. I have never seen the original of this painting, and I am aware that my experience and understanding of the work is therefore flawed. However, this picture was the direct inspiration for my 2019 novel Field of Poppies, which is set in a fictional Australian town called Muckleton.

I chanced upon an image of the painting when I was checking out (on the web) a picture of a Monet woman with a parasol that was reproduced on a large hairclip given to me by a friend. My search led me to other Monets with similar motifs, and suddenly, on my screen, there was ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873’. What was it that stopped me in my tracks? What was it that drew me into this particular scene, this impression of a moment, real or imagined, in Argenteuil in 1873?

I am no longer sure what I saw first – was it the great sweep of scarlet poppy petals across the hillside, occupying almost half of the canvas? Perhaps. Because I have now studied this picture in almost endless detail, I can in truth only speculate on the sequence of my reactions. Before I could have known it, I would have been responding to the two sets of human figures, and to the house in the centre of the horizon. And then before I knew it the whole experience of looking would have linked automatically to my memories, my ideas, my desires. Do I love poppies? I do. Do I love French provincial farm houses? I do. Do I love images of nineteenth century women with children and parasols? I do. Do I love the work of Monet, his astonishing way of making the scene shift, of sending a breeze rippling across the landscape? Oh yes. My vision of all this was almost instantaneous. A shock. Was it like having a ‘vision’, being visited by something supernatural? I think it was. Bear with me.

My response to the picture is a reaction to images arranged in a certain geometry, and applied with the specific Monet technique of feathery light and shade. First the response was emotional and sentimental, but before long, as I ‘studied’ the scene, it altered, becoming intellectual, and probing memory and meaning. I had somehow entered the picture, knowing, at some point, that I was being led to construct a narrative involving ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873’. As an easy answer to the question: what was the inspiration for the novel Field of Poppies? I say: Monet’s painting.

I propose now to examine what I might mean there by the term ‘inspiration’. Readers sometimes wonder where a writer’s ideas for fiction come from. It’s easy enough to say they come from experience, memory, or a phrase overheard on a bus. I suppose every case is different. This essay is an attempt to explain where the ideas for my novel originated, what set my thoughts going until I ended up with Field of Poppies. What made this picture, for me, a source of grace, of dangerous knowledge, of inspiration for a whole complicated narrative that had apparently nothing to do with that first woman with her parasol, on the hairclip?

I sometimes wonder how it would have been if my first careful examination of the picture had been when I was standing at eye-level to it as it hung on the wall of the gallery. Would the painting have had the same mysterious impact? I think I know that, as I gazed at it, backlit as it was on the screen, my first reaction was to the joy that seems to me to be mixed with the very paint from Monet’s brush. But next I think my focus went to the house that is central, although it is in the distance. A blunt, ideal three-storey place with regular windows and a pale terra cotta roof. There is only the faintest blurry suggestion of a chimney. Then to the woman with the parasol and child at the bottom right. Then swiftly up to the distant woman with parasol and child high up at the top left. My gaze swept back and forth between the women, across the hillside splashed with the blood of a thousand poppies. The horizon where the house sits is a busy ragged line of trees, one of which is tall and bulky, and is definitely dancing on the skyline. The sky is sweetly blue, but densely fluffed with puffs of whitish clouds. Snuggling into a slight dip in the horizon, where one hill-slope folds into another, is the house. I have come back to the house. In the novel, the large house built on the goldfields by an Irish family in the nineteenth century, is at the heart of the lives of the central characters.

I imagine that for the artist this was just another ‘scene’, an impression of the landscape he loved, punctuated by images of two separate women with parasol and child. The inspiration and model for his pictures of women was often his first wife Camille who died in 1879, when she was thirty-two. Claude and Camille had been disowned by each of their families when their first child, Jean, was born out of wedlock in 1867. When Monet did this painting, the sun was still shining in his life. Perhaps the most curious feature of it is the presence of the distant second woman and child as they come over the hill. One of my interpretations is that they are a premonition of Monet’s second marriage. He married Alice Hoschede in 1892, the year following her husband Ernest’s death. In 1877, Ernest Hoschede, a wealthy art collector, had gone bankrupt. Ernest, with Alice and their six children, had moved in with Claude and Camille Monet in Vetheuil. Soon after, Ernest had moved to Belguim, leaving Alice and the children behind. After, it is speculated, and probably even before Camille died, Claude and Alice were having a love affair. This is only the briefest sketch of marital matters in the Monet household. But I think it is worth noting that Jean Monet (1867 – 1914) married Blanche Hoschede (1865 – 1947), the daughter of Alice and Ernest. Hence Blanche was both Monet’s step-daughter and his daughter-in-law. She was also a painter whose work reflects the influence of Monet. So I think I can see why I was intrigued by the meaning of the two women with their parasols in ‘Field of Poppies’.

As I studied the picture very closely on my screen, I allowed my imagination to go to work on the significances of its parts. I felt that the great sweep and splash of the poppies suggested the dead bodies of soldiers killed in Flanders in war, a war that was far in the future when Monet painted the picture. I felt that the arrival of the second woman coming over the horizon was a premonition of the troops coming up over the hill. Something very sinister had inserted itself into the whole picture. A narrative began to form in which the multiple global problems of the present day were in a sense set in motion by the First World War. The words of Herbert Asquith, British Secretary of State for War: ‘We are within measurable, or imaginable distance of real Armageddon. Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators.’ These words, written the day before Britain entered the First World War, kept playing in my head, suggesting to me the blindness, carelessness, misguidedness, sleepiness of human beings, as matters to be explored. I set the story in a pleasant rural Australian village today, and I niggled away at contemporary complacency, working with satire and very broad metaphor. Monet’s ‘Field of Poppies’ is a key object in the life of the main character, Marsali Swift (whose surname is intended as a reference to Jonathan Swift).

An odd thing was that when I magnified the picture, bit by bit, I discovered a tiny detail about the central house. It is actually visible without magnification. On the top storey there are clearly three windows. There is probably another window obscured by the foliage of a tree. Just where that window would be, there is a tiny black spot with a minute white mark in the centre. As part of the dark atmosphere aroused by the imaginary dead soldiers beneath the poppies, I figured there might be someone with a powerful firearm up there. The gun is trained on the woman in the foreground. She is doomed, and when the second woman moves forward, she also will be shot.

In the novel these things are ‘only’ in Marsali’s imagination, but in this fact lies an aspect of the technique of this particular novel. I didn’t want to present actual historical scenes – everything is mediated through Marsali’s thoughts in her journal. So my encounter with ‘Field of Poppies’ is translated into her lifelong knowledge of it, her great fondness for it, and the narrative is set in motion by her shock response at the loss of the painting during the robbery. She has a much more profound reason for being so connected to the picture than I do. I have puzzled over why this particular painting obsessed me to the extent that it gave rise to a novel. I kept examining the women with their parasols, particularly the larger one in the foreground. I even thought I could envisage, in the folds of her greyish skirt, the sketch of a little horse. Fanciful, yes.

Now, something I often observe about students of fiction writing is that sooner or later many of them seem to write about their mothers, in one way or another. This is really no surprise, since writing fiction (I believe) is an activity by which people try to make sense of their own lives, and such sense-making will frequently take you back to where you began, and who else was there. So one time, when I was staring at the horse-skirted woman in the foreground of the painting, I had an inkling of a photograph of my mother. The woman in the painting is elegant and French; my mother was neither of these things. However, I searched for the photo in question, and I realised the link was probably the hat. So here she is, in the conservatory in the City Park in Launceston Tasmania is the early 1930s. Even the hat – so jaunty in Argenteuil, so practical, if tilted, in the conservatory – can hardly be held responsible for the fact that the image of Camille Monet took me back to my mother. But I think it did. She is accompanied by a child. Could that child be me in my straw hat, carrying a bunch of poppies? There are no poppies in the photo of my mother. I think the great puffs of black and white blooms in the conservatory are begonias. Baskets of Begonias – a title for a novel? Maybe not.

There is a wealth of emotion, for me, in the picture in the conservatory. It was taken years before I was born, but I remember we used to have picnics in the City Park, gaze at the begonias, visit the cages of rabbits and monkeys, marvel at the intricate stone memorial of the Boer War, climb on the Russian Sebastopol gun from the war in the Crimea. Oh, suddenly there are thoughts of war.

That war lasted from 1854 to 1856, so it was over before Monet, who was born in 1840, painted his ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873’. Another clear memory from the joyful times in the City Park is of the horrible smell of gas from the nearby gasworks. And then there was the fact that along the side of the park ran a street with a fascinating French name – it was Cimitière Street, because it once led to a cemetery. These days it leads to the Launceston Entertainment Centre. Times change.

So there you have it – in my somewhat fanciful way, I believe I can trace the genesis of Field of Poppies from the Sebastopol gun to the flowers of Argenteuil.

 

 

Resurrection Plant

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This week I am giving a workshop on writing memoir. I have asked the students to bring some objects that will inspire them, will stimulate their memories. When I was looking for something of my own to take to the workshop, I found a lovely thing that used to be kept in a glass-fronted cabinet in my childhood home. It was a carved pepper pot containing, instead of pepper, an old twig. This twig had been brought to Australia from the Middle East after the First World War. It’s called the Rose of Jericho, or the Resurrection Plant. When you immerse the ancient twig in water for about twenty minutes, the gnarled little claw unfolds, opens out, breathes, and it takes the form of a strange brown twiggy flower on a stalk. Bubbles of oxygen form along the fronds. Above are pictures of the pepper pot and the plant. The apparently dead twig is lying there alone. Maybe one day soon I will post a picture of it as it floats in water, resurrected.

FIELD OF POPPIES

 

FOP_COVER.jpgCOMMENTS ON MY NEW NOVEL – ‘FIELD OF POPPIES’ – WHICH IS PUBLISHED IN NOVEMBER 2019 
“How to describe Field of Poppies? A lush feast of wit and wisdom? Writing so rich you simply want to devour it?  A forensic examination of an Australian country town?

Literary tour de force will have to do.”      Robert Drewe

“All the Bird trademark strands – beauty, shock and horror, a genuine story based in the reality of the world, complex imagery, elegant irony and compelling prose.”

Gabrielle Lord

“Field of Poppies is an absolute feast of wit and wisdom. Carmel Bird embroiders a seemingly simple story with the most wonderful observations and colourful mischief. This novel resonates with a long list of contemporary problems. It does so using humour, not anger. It is fun – wry, intelligent, searching, poised and astute. It showcases the human catastrophe with grace and charm. It takes years of experience for a writer to be able to pull off this kind of sorcery. It is wonderful to see Carmel Bird working with such zest and verve.”        Michael McGirr

“Sharp yet sensitive, wildly imaginative, and layered with allusion and allegory. Bird’s vivid characters weave together local legend, small-town speculation, art, literature and science in their narration of their selves and lives, all but ignoring the social and ecological destruction taking place around them.

A truly remarkable achievement from a novelist at the height of her powers.”

Fiona Wright

“Bold and playful, sharply funny and humane, Carmel Bird’s timely social satire shimmers with layers. She has a gift for distilling the essence of her characters and locations and bringing them together in wonderfully unexpected ways. Her distinctive voice and lightness of touch shine in this penetrating and evocative novel.”

Michael Sala

“Highly engaging storytelling that blends and layers reality and extravaganza with ingenious irony, wit and subtlety.”          Gerardo Rodriguez Salas

 

 

Tasmanian Gothic

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Tasmanian Gothic Convict Breaks the Chains

This essay was first published in Mystery Writers Journal, July 2019

In 1955, a high school somewhere in Nashville, Tennessee decided to exchange student essays with a high school in Launceston, Tasmania. I was one of the Tasmanians chosen by my teacher to produce one of the essays. Two things happened:

  1. a) the teacher said she couldn’t send my essay to Nashville because it dealt with unsuitable material
  2. b) I had my first and inspiring lesson in how to respond to censorship

So what was that unsuitable material? I had written about the dark history of Tasmania at a time when that history was still supposed to be suppressed. I had told stories of the attempted genocide of the indigenous people of the island by the British, and I had clarified the fact that the place was originally a prison colony. Oh no! What was the child thinking? In her pale blue school dress with white collar and cuffs, her straw hat, white gloves, blonde hair, green eyes, hockey stick and piano lessons? What was all this about native wars and escaped convicts?

It was my material. And of course the whole experience was a magnificent spur to me to write and never stop writing. Get the story out. Since then – well it’s a long time ago, isn’t it – the truths of the history of Tasmania have gradually come into the spotlight. I imagine that today my essay – alas, long lost – would possibly be refused entry in the exchange because it was too much of a cliché.

I left Tasmania when I was twenty-three. But the dye was cast. My imagination was formed in that place at that time. The early history of Tasmania would forever inform the fiction I would write. My work is often described as ‘Tasmanian Gothic’ and sometimes ‘Tasmanian Noir’. A clue to this is in the title of one of my books, Cape Grimm. The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm meet the dangerous rocky outcrop on the far, far north-west coast of Tasmania. Even when the scene is set far from the island, there will just about always be a character who goes there, or who originates from there. Sometimes I think that’s just lazy, but when I try to change things, they won’t change, and it turns out the character has no alternative but to have the Tasmanian link. Only four of my twelve novels, Unholy Writ; Open For Inspection; Child of the Twilightand Field of Poppiesare crime fiction proper, but all of them, with the exception of Crisis, are explorations of dark and terrible events. I don’t have a detective, or a who-dun-it scenario; I take what is a kind of sideways approach to the whole matter of the horrors of crime.

In my 1990 novel The Bluebird CaféI invented Woodpecker Point, an old mining town on the north west coast of Tasmania, and also a character called Carrillo Mean, grandson of Philosopher Mean. This Carrillo is a shape-shifting Tasmanian who invades or hovers over much of my work. When he isn’t a character in the narrative, he provides an epigraph for the book, a wise saying that originates from his own vast repertoire of writings. He has his own Facebook page, but is rather careless about it and doesn’t often make posts. He really should pay more attention to these things. His most celebrated books are The Mining of Meaningand The Meaning of Mining. Much of his work is published by his own Bedrock Press.

My new novel Field of Poppies, which will be launched at the Terror Australis festival of crime writing in Cygnet, Tasmania in November 2019, has an epigraph from Carrillo: ‘I was sleepwalking through a field of poppies, somewhere in France.’ The novel is set in an old mining town on the mainland of Australia, but yes, there are characters who come from Tasmania. And the plot might as well be Tasmanian Gothic. There is a horrible contemporary crime, in the context of historic crimes, which are gradually uncovered as the new facts come to light. The mining town appears to be a perfect place for professional people to go to for their retirement, while the wider world is mired in wars and famines and terrorism, not to mention the changes to the climate, the catastrophic weather events, and the disappearance of a million species. There are echoes of the Great War of 1914, a war that looms large in the history of Australia. Was it downhill for the planet after that war? The people of the town just go about their lives as if sweetly half asleep, until everything splits apart when one of them disappears overnight.

And in the end, has anything changed in these people? Not much, it seems. Sleepwalking, dancing into the dark, about to be overtaken by a brand new foreign gold-mine in their little old town. Long ago in this place some people got very rich, thousands died from disease and despair. Whatever next? Is nowhere safe?

In the eighteenth century the British imagined they could contain their criminals on the island of Tasmania, could wipe out the indigenous populations, could develop a nice outpost of empire down there at world’s end. Well, it didn’t work out quite like that, as I noted in 1955, when I was accidentally given the freedom to turn the truths of the past into my own brand of Tasmanian Gothic.

 

 

Biographical Note

Carmel Bird has written twelve novels and eight collections of short fiction. In 2016 she was awarded the Patrick White Literary Award – one of Australia’s most significant prizes. Her interest in indigenous cultures is reflected in the anthology The Stolen Children – Their Stories, which she edited. She has also edited a range of anthologies of both fiction and non-fiction. She now lives in the historic gold-mining town of Castlemaine.

 

FIELD OF POPPIES

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                                                              New Novel

                 Field of Poppiesis published in November 2019 by Transit Lounge.

“It takes years of experience for a writer to be able to pull off this kind of sorcery.”         

                                                                                       Michael McGirr 

The scarlet poppy is a reminder of the First World War, a war that tore civilisation apart in the 20thcentury. The poppy grows wild in the fields around Muckleton, a rural Australian town, where one night a woman called Alice vanishes. The village is turned upside-down. In the world outside Muckleton, the seas are rising, the climate is changing, millions of refugees are dying, forests and species are disappearing. The majority of affluent westerners appear to be living carefree, careless lives. Muckleton tree-changers Marsali and William are involved in the woes of the village, are aware of the worries of the world, and yet they seem to be merrily swept along with the tide that is threatening to overwhelm the planet.

                                Two Odd Sources of Inspiration for this Novel

A friend went to a gallery where she bought a fancy hair clip, which she gave to me. The image on the hair clip was ‘Woman with a Parasol’, one of Claude Monet’s many depictions of his wife.

I went on a little Monet spree, and naturally I came to ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil’. Sometimes it is easy enough to explain how and why an event is the inspiration for a piece of fiction, however I can’t really say why ‘Poppies’ set my imagination in motion, but it did.

Suddenly I had a character who loved, not just that painting, but a faithful copy of it, created by her aunt. The main figure of the woman in ‘Poppies’ is probably the same woman as the one with the parasol. For that matter, she’s carrying a parasol in ‘Poppies’ too. Before I knew it, I was writing about the poppies in Flanders, about the waste and horror of war, leading me on to meditate on the ravages that humans have visited upon the planet itself. Yet as I descended into the bewildering darkness of wars, refugees, climate, disease, overcrowding, starvation, thirst, extinctions – I saw all around me people who lead cheerful, comfortable Australian lives, playing sport, going to the opera, the café, the art gallery, flying to Paris, decorating their hair with fancy clips. The novel was beginning to take shape.

I am daily reminded of the urgency needed to attend to looming global disaster. Marsali and William are intended to foreground the dangers inherent in blithely living in a kind of fairyland. I live in something like this fairyland myself. At one level, they know everything is spinning out of control; at another level they are powerless to act. The ground beneath their feet is rich in gold that will betray them, and also seeded with the bones of historic tragedies and massacres. Such things are still happening around them in the wider world.

It’s ironic of course that something as innocent and sweet as the fancy hairclip should have set all this in motion.

Another source of inspiration forField of Poppies was an article I had saved from The Australian Women’s Weekly, June 4 1975. My filing cabinets are full of odd files of rather eclectic bits of information that I seem to have been collecting forever. This was a story about people in London who specialized in producing excellent legal fakes of great paintings. I am interested in the world of art theft (which I explored in my novel Child of the Twilight) and also in the matter of fakes. The character of Marsali’s aunt Clarissa in Field ofPoppies is an amateur painter who made the copy of the Monet Poppiespainting that is one of the key elements in my new novel. The magazine article from 1975 isn’t even particularly detailed or interesting, but it must have fermented away in the filing cabinet, and in my memory, to surface again when I came to construct Field of Poppies.

                                                Comments on Field of Poppies 

Fiona Wright: “Sharp yet sensitive, wildly imaginative, and layered with allusion and allegory. Bird’s vivid characters weave together local legend, small-town speculation, art, literature and science in their narration of their selves and lives, all but ignoring the social and ecological destruction taking place around them.

A truly remarkable achievement from a novelist at the height of her powers.”

Michael Sala: “Bold and playful, sharply funny and humane, Carmel Bird’s timely social satire shimmers with layers. Carmel has a gift for distilling the essence of her characters and locations and bringing them together in wonderfully unexpected ways. Her distinctive voice and lightness of touch shine in this penetrating and evocative novel.”

Gerardo Rodriguez Salas: “Highly engaging storytelling that blends and layers reality and extravaganza with ingenious irony, wit and subtlety.”

Michael McGirr: This is an absolute feast of wit and wisdom. Carmel Bird embroiders a seemingly simple story with the most wonderful observations and colourful mischief. This novel resonates with a long list of contemporary problems. It is wry, intelligent, searching, poised and astute, showcasing the human catastrophe with grace and charm. It takes years of experience for a writer to be able to pull off this kind of sorcery. It is wonderful to see Carmel Bird working with such zest and verve.

Gabrielle Lord: “All the Bird trademark strands – beauty, shock and horror, a genuine story based in the reality of the world, complex imagery, elegant irony and compelling prose.”

Robert Drewe: How to describe Field of Poppies? A lush feast of wit and wisdom? Writing so rich you simply want to devour it?  A forensic examination of an Australian country town? Literary tour de force will have to do.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW OF STAR-CROSSED

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This piece which I joyfully wrote on Star-Crossed by Minnie Darke (aka Danielle Wood) was published in ‘Review’ in The Australian in April 2019

If you don’t read your stars, maybe you should. There are all kinds of forces at work in the universe. According to Star-crossed, astral configurations are ‘mapped onto’ your soul at birth.

From the text of Star-crossed: ‘Aquarius. This month sees Venus transitioning from Leo to Virgo, bringing into focus themes of sex, intimacy and trust. Aquarians can expect to be discussing these issues with their romantic partners, but should also anticipate miscommunication in many of their important relationships.’

In the mythical Australian town of Edenvale, a baby boy (star sign Aquarius) and a baby girl (Sagittarius) are born, nine months apart. These are Nick and Justine. Where will destiny lead them? He grows up believing in Astrology; she does not believe. She loves to interfere in things, taking a corrective pen to the spelling mistakes on the greengrocer’s labels. Oh, where will it all end? As children, the two were good friends. Nick becomes an actor; Justine works for a local glossy magazine. Yes, the magazine is called ‘The Alexandria ParkStar’. Nick, intent on rekindling his love affair with ex-girlfriend Laura, will play Romeo (famously star-crossed) on stage; Justine, having by now fallen in love with Nick, devises a personal plan to engage him in romance. This involves Astrology in a most devious and ingenious way. Justine starts to influence Nick’s thoughts and actions by inserting key ideas into the Aquarius horoscopes in the magazine. She writes: ‘You discover a powerful surge of nostalgia for what once was, which also doubles as an intuition of what yet might be.’ She realises that ‘writing hog-shit is surprisingly good fun’. She is drastically tampering with the words of Leo, the weird reclusive official astrologer. Talk about mischief and risks. Oh, Justine, where willit all end?

There will be marvellous twists and turns before the grand finale. Every step along the way has the breathless reader hoping for the best, fearing the worst, swept up in the delicious complexities in the lives of not only Justine and Nick, but of a wealth of other vivid Edenvale characters. Everybody has a star sign, naturally, and the novel works its merry way through the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

It is no secret that the author of this glorious romantic comedy, Minnie Darke, is none other than Danielle Wood who has previously been known for more sober kinds of fiction, as well as for non-fiction. This is one dazzling, versatile writer, working with impeccable skill, sharp wit, frolicsome charm.

The narrative is, as well as being a great story, a swift, satirical, forensic exploration of contemporary society, and of human nature generally. It dances along, now light, now darkening, now light again. ‘Fern – Libra, florist, habitual wearer of a single gerbera behind one ear, stylish re-inventor of vintage dresses, surreptitious smoker of menthol cigarettes and drinker of gin slings, lover of Brat Pack movies and occasional karaoke diva – had taken the risky step of shutting down her mobile flower van and re-opening Hello Petal as a static concern in the Alexandria Park Markets, with all of the new and alarming overhead costs that this move entailed.’

The reader is offered startling direct access to the conversations Justine conducts with her own brain as she makes decisions about what she will and won’t do. Here she is chatting with Brain while searching through a mess of sticky notes for the password to a colleague’s computer. She has, by this time, lost a fair bit of moral rectitude, as she pursues Nick via her construction of his Aquarian horoscopes.

Brain: Your pulse is up.

Justine: Thanks for pointing that out.

Brain: I think you’re experiencing guilt and nervousness.

Justine: Shhhh…I bet it’s still here, somewhere.

Brain is, within the medley of characters whose stars cross and re-cross, one of the most fascinating. It is a bold and economical invention, a neat short-cut to tickle the reader’s fancy, as are the occasional little blocks of dot points that paint rapid pictures of the action. This Minnie Darke composes with a wonderful insouciance.

Sorrow and broken dreams lurk as possibilities, but unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which underpins the narrative, tragedy has no place in the world of Justine and Nick. Brain says: ‘It’s not as if the horoscopes are…real. They’re all just rubbish. What’s one random phrase compared to another? What harm could it do?’ Quite a bit, as it happens. But oh, the whole wild fabrication will put a smile on every reader’s face.

Mary Had Always Been Fond of Dogs

Writing Memoir

kuukaudenkuva.jpgI was preparing material for a workshop on memoir, in particular memoir inspired by the writers’ recollections of their pets past and present. There were my own memories to call on. The cat who went into mourning when our daughter left home to go to university. He sat on the gatepost staring out into space, waiting for her every afternoon for about a month. Then there was the dog who organized the sale of the house – see ‘Raf the Dog’ https://carmelbird.wordpress.com/2018/03/

Throughout literature, there is no shortage of tales to tell about people and pets. The dedication of animals to humans is one of the great and beautiful mysteries of life on earth. Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye Terrier who guarded his master’s grave for fourteen years, is possibly the star.

However, a story that kept coming back to me was that of Mary Queen of Scots and herlittle Skye Terrier. I haven’t yet decided whether or not I will bring this one up at the workshop – it sort of depends on whether I think the students can handle it. How will I tell? I don’t really know yet. I never intended for the workshop to be grisly. I haven’t seen the latest movie about Mary – it probably includes the story I am about to write.

This dog story haunts me, and I need to write it down. You can find it also in Emma White’s History of Britain in a Hundred Dogs.

When Mary Stuart returned from France to Scotland after her young husband, Francis the Second of France had died (from an ear infection – interesting in itself, I think), she brought with her twenty-two little dogs. (Mary was always fond of dogs.) In 1587 Mary was executed for treason by a particularly incompetent executioner who had to chop away at her neck several times before severing her head. To her beheading Mary had brought a Syke Terrier hidden under her dress. After the execution, people could see something moving beneath her clothing. When the executioner was in the process of removing Mary’s garters (!) he discovered the dog who was guarding the body of his beloved mistress. The dog ran up to where the body was separated from the head, lay down there in a puddle of blood and refused to be moved. When it was finally removed, it pined and died, and no wonder.

I confess that I took the words for the title of this story from within an account I read in a history of Scotland. It seemed to me to be a poignant and almost misleading statement, and it kept ringing in my head – so I used it myself.

Yes, Mary had always been fond of dogs.

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Image of Mary Queen of Scots ascending the scaffold. Where is the Skye Terrier?