Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Wildflower Dreams - A seventy year story

Do flowers have memories? Do houses have memories? Or perhaps more to the point, what memories might they hold for us. I recently re-read David Malouf's "12 Edmondstone Street", his remembering of his childhood home in West End, Brisbane. To my surprise this piece, published in 1985 was much more than a piece of nostalgia. It was about memory itself and the slippery and very personal nature of it. Malouf begins as if this is a charming evocation of his parents house in which he grew up and ends talking about its homo-erotic connections. His growing awareness of himself as separate from his family. An early coming of age story. It covers the period of the early 1940s.
     My mother had her version of a coming of age experience also in the 1940s. In her case it took place in Western Australia, far from her home town of Sydney. She was in Perth towards the end of WWII working for the Post Office, driving delivery trucks, she told us. She would have been 26 - 28. It was her big adventure.
     The only remaining evidence of that adventure is a book of wildflowers that she collected and pressed. They have sat in various cupboards for more than 70 years. And I am now their guardian. But what meaning do they have? What is the point in keeping them? Can they tell me anything about what was my mother was like in 1946 when she collected and pressed them?      
     They are beautiful and beautifully presented - despite the brittle backing paper which is beginning to disintegrate. Disintegrating faster now that I have taken an interest in them. Ironically they seem to want to disappear from my view as if to make a point. Her neat handwriting adorns each page naming each flower. The writing is as delicate as the flowers they describe.
     I am aware that there is a risk here of being drawn into sentimentality; to ascribe qualities to her that reflect well on her; to remember her as I'd like to. An innocent young girl visiting a girlfriend in Perth. A hardworking and funloving kid in her mid twenties. A shy, cautious girl. For all I know she might have been a hellraiser, dating a different boy every night. A wild girl. As a son who only knew her as a devoted mother that seems out of character; beyond my experience of her but.....
     And then there's the wildflowers. On the surface an innocuous hobby. But people are never one thing. A wildflower fascination might have been the counterpoint to something altogether different. Without other evidence I am stuck.
     But what took 'Tottie'  (her nick name) to WA? I'll never know. She's gone. We heard this story of little 'tottie', all 4ft 11in of her, many times but I can't remember asking her why she was there. Perhaps we did, but I can't remember her answer.
     I did something similar twenty five years later. Perhaps we all have that story. The time we enter adulthood. In my case I ran away to Tasmania. I was having my existential breakdown. I was lost. Confused as to my place in the world. I had just read Jean Paul Sartre. Nausea. It all made sense. Alone in the world. Make your own way. So I ran. I stood on the side of Ipswich Road, Brisbane, stuck my thumb out and began my hitch hike south. My adventure. Tasmania turned out to be my destination but any other would have sufficed. At the time it seemed to be as far away from my Brisbane reality as was imaginable. It was only accessible by sea. Anywhere other than Brisbane and my old familiar connections and friends. Tasmania saved me.
     My mother chose Perth. The other side of the continent, similarly as far as possible from her home. Was that what my mother did. Was it her existential crisis? Her coming of age?
     She loved her adventure. I got the impression it was her leap towards independence. She joked that she could barely reach the brake and clutch pedals of her delivery truck, let alone see over the steering wheel. It was a period when Australia needed women in the workforce. The men were at war or recovering post war or just gone. It was a window of opportunity for her. She loved work. That is one thing that these wildflowers help me remember. Unusually for a woman of her generation she worked throughout her life returning to the workforce after we kids were off her hands at school. She was fiercly proud of that short period. It helped define her. Strangely she never drove the family car over the next fifty years but was determined to retain her drivers licence for that long duration. God help us if she had needed to take her place behind the steering wheel in an emergency.
     Strange that these flowers are here and she is absent. Despite the fact that these bloomed for just one season they have outlived my mother. And now I struggle with how best to create a memory with some meaning for future generations. What will they make of it? That she was a flower lover? She was much more than that.  She was a terrible gardener. And this is part of the conundrum.
     Did I ever really get to know my mother? The honest answer is no. She remained an enigma to me. Her inner life is a mystery to me. I'm sure she had her own dreams, some she fulfilled others she failed to. But she only ever shared those dreams with me in tangential ways. Sometimes I was just not alert enough to hear her story in a way that would help me know her. Even enter her world for a moment.
     Her love of literature is a case in point. She made much of the fact that she had passed the Intermediate level in NSW (the equivalent to year 10). Quite an achievement for a girl from a working class family in Kingsgrove in Sydney. She loved poetry and literature. The English poets. We had few books in the house but among the few was a copy of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" (which I never saw her open ), a collection of English classic poetry that she would occasionally quote, and a copy of Dickens "David Copperfield" dated September 6, 1935 (a seventeen year old). She wrote. I never took her seriously. In fact it was a small embarrassment. She would occasionally share her writing but the reality was she had no one to share this with; no one to care; no one to encourage her. Ironic that I have, many years later, taken up writing, something she might have enjoyed and perhaps been good at.
     I sense that in a household of men with a husband who was an avid reader but not of the classics (my father left school at year 8 to work in the cane fields of Northern NSW), she was stuck in a literary limbo.
     So I have her wildflower collection. A statement left by her to assert her presence in the world. Her insistence that the world around her was something she was connected to. She was a good mother. Loving. Generous. Patient. Living in a house 1000 kilometres from  her two sisters. I suspect that ultimately she was alone despite my father's deep love for her. Both Malouf and Satre explore this reality. Malouf by exploring his inner and outer life of himself as a child; Satre in his novel creating the classic existential character.
     Perhaps the message these flowers have sent me is like life, full of contradictions, confusion, uncertainty. 'Look at me and enjoy my beauty but don't interfere with me or I will disappear';  'Allow me to conjure up memories but don't mistake memory for truth';  'I'm still here but in a different form. Life is transient'.
     My present task is to preserve this link to my mother for the next generation.  Will they be interested? Will the collection simply get dumped in the big cleanup when I go. I will be here for maybe another twenty years but these flowers could last another hundred years. Maybe longer. It's a task that requires some belief in continuity. In a humanity that values the past as well as the future.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Year of Headlice

I'm half way through the next edit of my novel.
     Paradiso didn't get short-listed for the Premiers Awards in October so it's back to the grindstone. In fact there was no winner in my "unpublished manuscript" category - a slap in the face for all who submitted but in a perverse way comforting. I'm told, unofficially, that Paradiso got to the last ten. But that's just hearsay.
     My nose, meanwhile,  is looking pretty shabby, what with all the nose to the ....... combined with spring weather and humidity. Brisbane is hot. Perth is still cold acccording to the weather bureau. It warmed up then plunged back to mimic Tasmania again in recent days.
     Editing is a little easier this time round. I'm more removed from my precious words. More inclined to see the sentences for what they are. A bit more forensic. Like combing your child's hair for nits. In my past edits I was tweaking. This time I'm slashing and burning. Nothing to lose. Except a few thousand words and some favourite passages. I'm looking for more than overuse of adverbs and adjectives this time. Clumsy dialogue and sentences which don't come off the page easily just have to go. Whole sections that helped me write myself into the story but which only serve to slow the guts of the story down. GONE!
     Headlice, many of you will know, are tough little buggers who hang on and are only removed with persistence. Editing is the same process. Reading and refining and reading again and finding more lice that need to be removed and then more. Many years ago our family experienced our year of headlice. They just refused to say goodbye. We washed and combed; combed again and there they were time after time. A year of combing my daughter's lovely blonde hair crawling with lice, each time fewer but never finally gone. Always one left to procreate and begin a new colony.
     Thankfully adjectives and bad dialogue can't procreate, can't write themselves. It's all my doing. I can't blame the other kids in the class; other parents for their neglect; teachers for not alerting families to the plague. In my case the combing continues. Perhaps this is my writing version of the year of nits, a writ-nit-year. One way or the other the manuscript will be better for it.
     At the same time I've begun research into material for my next novel. A sequel if you like, but written quite differently. It will be the story of arrival rather than departure and will focus on the struggle of illiterate migrants to make a new life in an alien landscape. Set in Sydney and Northern NSW it will follow the first Australian born child of Italian descent in his struggle to live between two cultures. Throw in a marriage to an Irish colleen keen to escape her "bog Irish" past and a life in the bush which neither manage well. And then  there behind it all is the Aboriginal story.
     That should keep me occupied for the next few years.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Stories from the West No.10 Finale - The Glory of Native Orchids

I am sitting here wondering how to finish off this series. So much more happened than I've recounted thus far but writing is the art of selection so some things will simply remain in my head or on my camera. I could load all 342 photos but that might be the end of a beautiful friendship - yours and mine (whoever you are).
     Now there's a little piece of weirdness - if I had published a book (which I will eventually), I would have no idea who read it or where they were from. This blog, on the other hand, tells me how many people came to visit, up to 120 of you, which is heartening, but unless you leave a comment I never know who you are. So that leaves about 105 mysterious readers. I do wonder who you are. In fact I'm surprised by how many of my close friends are not among you, including my wife and my children, so even those I assumed I'd know are not among you.
    But back to the story which is not a story at all at this point.
WA ended with a rush. Three nights in Albany and then a dash back to Perth. Albany was great. Dramatic bays and coastline; a fascinating old precinct and foreshore; whaling history at the preserved Cheyne's Whaling Station, the last operating whaling business in Australia only closing in the 70s. We camped behind the dunes of Middleton Beach on King George Sound. The wind blew. We lit a fire two nights in a row in the camp kitchen and met three young people from Taiwan one of whom I turned into a firebug with some careful tutoring. They each had names like Jason and Maureen but their real names bore little relation to these pretend names. Why don't we change our names to Chinese versions when we travel to their country? It's weird.
     We went to bed early and cuddled up close. Then the final day in Albany dawned and the wind had died. I joined the hardy regulars in the water at Middleton and my eyeballs froze. What pain. What exquisite pain. And then we said goodbye and headed north for the Stirling Ranges.
I haven't done my homework. I don't know who Stirling was but he has a string of steep slopes named in his honour. I call them slopes because even in Australian terms they hardly rate as mountains. We are such an old country with such ground down mountain ranges (the only continent with no active volcanoes) our highest ranges are akin to the foothills of the Himalayas or the French Alps. Still they can be steep and we ventured high enough up Mt Trio to get a good view of the plains to the north and of the steep path above us which, on that hot day (rare) we chose to enjoy the view and the lowland wildflowers.

The next morning we woke in our bush camp and joined the property owner John on a tour which never strayed more than 500 metres from our campsite but which contained an impressive range of native orchids none of which we would have seen without his help. I've never understood the fascination with these plants. Ugly little critters I've always felt. Show offs with a bit of the "Emperor has no clothes" to them. Stalky, stringy, showy but self consciously reluctant plants.
 I am happy to say that I changed my mind that morning at least in the company of these hidden beauties. They were much more discrete than the nursery variety. Small, shy, delicate survivors in a harsh landscape. I only retained the name of one of them, the rabbit ear (donkey ear) orchid, no bigger than my little finger nail - two fine antennae standing straight up, hiding under a fallen piece of timber. Very cute. Only one flower. Only one plant that we found. After that I felt like a huge lumbering carnivore stomping through the undergrowth possibly inadvertantly wiping out precious ancient flora.
     It felt like an appropriate way to finish off our wildflower chase and when we next were tempted to pull over and take yet another photo we both agreed 'nuh, let's hold the memories and move on. No point in exhausting our good fortune or overstaying our welcome. Maybe that's a story for another time.