Some Thoughts on Storytelling by Marion Halligan

Recently I came across a collection of stories, poems and essays gathered in a book called Storykeepers, edited by Marion Halligan and released in 2001. The collection includes contributions from a broad range of Australian writers and poets, and was triggered by the centenary of Australian Federation. Each contributor was asked to select an Australian writer from the past who was of interest or an influence upon them, and to write a response to their work.

In the introduction by Halligan, some thoughts on storytelling are offered. Stories offer an immense scope for ambiguity and complexity. From childhood, the phrase once upon a time is like “a code that brings a multitude of small exhortations and large promises with it”.

Storytelling is described as one of the most natural of human activities, something we instinctively do as children returning home from school, or upon arriving home from work. An example is given of a child telling a story of an event at school with enthusiasm, sound effects and a natural instinct for timing and plot. When asked to repeat the impressive story, the child looks vacant, mumbles something and heads off: “The story has been told, its narrative impulse has been obeyed, the teller is no longer interested.”

The ability to polish, edit and embellish stories improves as we grow older. It becomes less about what actually happened in some instances: “We are all unreliable narrators when it comes to crafting good stories.”

We are all storykeepers, writes Halligan, from the personal and intimate to family lore and even the stories of countries.

This book was found by chance in a second-hand bookshop in Kiama (south coast of New South Wales), and I was pleased to find that another blogger had also stumbled across it – there is a review of it here.

Storykeepers edited by Marion Halligan (2001)  ISBN: 1876631104

[Photo: shared circle]

 

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Head In The Clouds

I know that I am in a pocket of relaxation when I find myself watching clouds. The calming sensation of simply watching tufts of vapour gather and take on massed formations before splintering into separate threads – it symbolises a shift into deeper thoughts or just pondering.

There are other times when the natural world offers moments of welcome distraction – spend some time watching the swell and surge of the ocean, or lose your thoughts in lush green foliage under a canopy of trees. There is something elemental about being absorbed, even temporarily, in nature that seems to recalibrate my mind and soul.

This isn’t to say that the usual pattern of thoughts and mental to-dos vanish, but at these times there seems to be more scope to think a bit differently and to puzzle things out.

A quick google search shows that I am not the only cloud appreciator. There is an exquisite time-lapse clip here with calming music to mesmerise the mind on a day when access to the sky is limited, or if there is a cloudless sky.

There is even a Cloud Appreciation Society with thousands of members in over 100 countries. Membership benefits include receiving a cloud a day. Their manifesto rallies against ‘blue-sky thinking’ and advocates that “clouds are for dreams and their contemplation benefits the soul”. I heartily agree with their declaration to all who will listen:

Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!

During a TED talk by the Society’s founder, Gavin Pretor-Pinney (called Cloudy with a Chance of Joy), we are reminded that clouds provide an opportunity to tune in and slow down whilst watching clouds. They offer a chance to find the exotic in the everyday, in an activity that is aimless yet important in providing a legitimate form of doing nothing in an otherwise overly busy life. Cloud watching is good for ideas, creativity and for your soul.

I’m off to do some cloud-gazing. How about you?

[Photo: clouds above Hartley Valley, towards Mt York]

Writing Prompt: She Rode Off On A Harley

She rode off on a Harley. For a woman who had never caused a fuss or drawn attention to herself, it was an act of defiance. And it wasn’t even her Harley. It belonged to one of my mates, Deano. Lucky he was asleep although how he slept through the roar of the engine and the broad spray of dirt and gravel flung against the wall of the house as if tossed with a careless hand was beyond me. I guess we had drunk a bit the night before.

I was barely awake at the time and had knuckles digging into both of my eyeballs, trying to get a visual confirmation on what I was hearing. There were no raised voices – that would have been expected. I didn’t even twig that something was wrong until Eden woke me up. He said it was urgent, that I had to do something. I’d shrugged him off, rolled over in the bed, but he kept at me. He yanked the blanket off me, throwing it across the room. I swore at him, foul curses that would have earned me a clip across the ears if Mum had heard me. Then I had to get up. It was freezing. The fire must have gone out overnight. But that never happened. Mum was always up with the first light, getting a start on the washing or cleaning or getting breakfast ready.

‘Where’s Mum?’ I’d hissed the words at Eden as I dragged on yesterday’s clothes. They were tumbled and dirty, right where I’d left them. Mum was obsessive about clean clothes. We’d joke that the only way to keep anything out of her endless washing cycle was to not take it off. She must be crook. ‘Well?’ I took a step towards Eden but he slipped around the doorway and scooted off down the hallway.

It was then that I heard the roar of the bike. Loud, rumbling, deep and low enough to give the windows at the front of the house the jitters. I’d made it to the front door just in time to see Mum’s right hand give a rough salute as she disappeared with some mate of Deano’s off into the distance, my old school backpack loaded up and the sleeve of her favourite cardigan catching and waving in the wind.

[Photo: bikes spotted at Marulan]

Monument to the Brig “Amy” at Thirroul

As you approach the beach at Thirroul, on the south coast between Sydney and Wollongong, there is a grassed area with picnic tables leading up to the bathing pavilion. The car park has a monument and I thought it might be worth a closer look. It reads: This monument was erected by residents of the district to the memory of Captain McKee, officers and crew of the Brig Amy which was totally wrecked on Thirroul Beach Sunday 13th February 1898.

The brig had left Wollongong at 9 am on that day, loaded most likely with coal. A cyclone of monsoon origin moved from Brisbane down along the southern coast and the boat was driven ashore near Thirroul.

When it was clear that the ship was in distress, a large crowd gathered on the beach, forming a human chain and managing to reach within a few yards of the captain and crew, but all were lost to the waves. A newspaper report described the scene as follows:

The sea was so severe that no boat could live in it. One of the rescue party, named Tom Birch, an old soldier, upon arriving at the scene, dropped dead from heart disease. (The Week [Brisbane], 18 Feb 1898)

Initial reports mentioned seeing a woman and child on board – thought to be the captain’s wife and child – but there were no subsequent mentions in reports or at the inquest. Most, but not all, of the bodies were eventually washed up along the shore in the days following the wreckage.

During the inquest into the loss of the ship and crew, initial reports indicated that the ship was in poor condition with masts and timber rotten,”too much paint and putty” holding the ship together. Some witnesses said that even if life-saving equipment had been available, it wouldn’t have helped as the wreckage was too profuse, and that it was the wreckage that had killed the men, not drowning.

By the end of the inquest, though, the verdict that the fate of the ship was due to pure misadventure, and the owner of the ship was blameless despite previous claims that it hadn’t been adequately repaired following being run aground at Port Hacking two years beforehand.

The jury also noted: “We desire to add as a rider that life-saving apparatus should be placed at frequent intervals along the coast.” This may be seen as a precursor to the Australian Surf Lifesaving movement.

The residents of the district were so moved by the loss that they gathered the funds to erect a memorial. Originally the monument was located on a site donated by a local family near the beach on the banks of Flanagan’s Creek. There was a tall white marble column, but over time this has been seriously truncated.  It had been pulled down by vandals in Christmas 1908, with portions of it thrown into the lagoon. In the 1950s the memorial was moved to its current location, and the local progress association has been lobbying for its third relocation as the memorial is knocked about by passing traffic.

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Monument to the loss of the Brig “Amy” on 13 Feb 1898 at Thirroul Beach

Shipwrecks along the south coast weren’t unusual, and there were other ships lost or damaged on that particular day, but this monument is the only one along the south coast in the 1800s to be commemorated in a formal manner. Nearly a hundred years later, a further plaque was added, listing the names of the captain and crew, including their office and country of origin.

There is a comprehensive article in the Illawarra Historical Society Bulletin outlining the story behind the ship and its crew by Joseph Davis who notes: ‘What remains is the fact that there are probably few sadder ends than dying unknown and alone, far from home in a shipwreck where your body is never recovered.’ Davis played an integral part in confirming the names of the crew and ensuring they were added to the memorial.

A painting of the shipwreck by a local artist, Christine Hill, can be viewed here, along with her research into the history behind the Amy.

Have you stumbled across any interesting local history lately?

[Photo: Thirroul Beach]

 

 

Musical Moments: Three Trip-Inspired Tunes

Often the best times are those unscripted moments when there is a convergence of factors such as being in the right place at the right time. Recently I travelled from the mountains to the south coast along the beautiful coastline. Apart from the amazing scenery and surroundings, there were several musical moments which are now etched in my memory.

En route to Sydney, I stopped for a break at Lennox Bridge, Lapstone. After days of rain and mist, the sun was out and the surrounding bushland was alive with bird calls. I followed the sound of scratching and spotted a blackbird, which firmly lodged Blackbird in my mind.

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Blackbird at Lennox Bridge, Lapstone

Turning off the Princes Highway and onto the Grand Pacific Drive, the Bald Hill lookout at Stanwell Park offered a different flight of fancy. This is a popular launching spot for hang gliders, and whilst taking in the magnificent curve of the coastline, a glider came into view. The moment was pure magic as the glider seemed to levitate in the air till the brisk breeze moved them on. The line of a song that came to mind? “Suspended animation, a state of bliss”.

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Hang glider at Bald Hill Lookout, Stanwell Park

But the day still had more musical delights in store. It was hard to resist watching the sunshine fade at day’s end, the sky turning “rosy and grey”.

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South coast sunset views

Do you come across musical moments in your travels?

{Photo: view from Stanwell Park looking down the coast; the tiny speck above the ocean is the glider coming into view}

King Parrots, A Poem by Alan Gould

The king parrots have returned to the Blue Mountains, working their way through trees bearing fruit. Recently I arrived home to find half a dozen of them picking off the small fruit on a plum tree. They are bold in colour and temperament, and are charming despite the destruction. This poem expresses what it is like to have a visitation.

They’ve arrived.

That’s all I am allowed to know.

Four, no six, they have materialised

 

trembling on the Mexican Hawthorn

as though the tree had just devised them,

six startling orchids,

 

or six jocund rascals, outrageous

in their green or crimson balaclavas

and crimson pantaloons,

 

tucking away their conifer wings,

eating with greedy disdain

like babies or commit strip bandidos.

 

My lawn is rubbished with half-eaten crimson berries.

Vandals. Solferino angels:

how can my eye stray while they remian

 

in creaturely candelabra

on a sky of nursery blue.

It’s like a siege.

 

One cocks its head, as though to say,

‘Don’t worry. We are too brilliant to be real,’

then goes on eating from my tree.

 

They’re gone. The branch skitters into stillness.

And I could spend a year behind this glass

longing for their return.

ALAN GOULD

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Female Australian king parrot

[Header photo: male king parrot about to take off with some fruit]

Write Where You Can

I don’t know if I’ve ever been precious about where I write, but over the last few years I’ve been working on writing wherever I can. This really took off whilst I was participating in NaNoWriMo a couple of years back. Working full-time and maintaining a life whilst generating 50,000 words in a month saw me tapping out words in lunch breaks or whilst waiting in queues. Vague notions of not being able to start to write until I had a pocket of clear time were cast aside as the pressure was on to simply get the words down.

NaNoWriMo is not my normal writing style. I usually wish that I wrote more, and had some sort of discipline about writing practice but that isn’t the reality. Although I relish structure in my professional life I continue to be reluctant about imposing the same sort of schedule around what I write and when. It puzzles me why I am so resistant to adopt a regular pattern of creativity. I know that the muse doesn’t turn up on demand when I finally sit at the desk. The muse is a fickle creature, often putting in an appearance when writing tools are nowhere in sight, such as whilst driving or out walking.

But something that I learnt from the NaNoWriMo process is that it is possible to write anywhere. I am writing the first draft of this post from an outdoor setting at Bunnings, a hardware and gardening chain, whilst the family looks for plants and gadgets. Ear plugs help to drown out the sound of children playing nearby and people having lengthy conversations about the various merits of kitchen fitouts. I can still people watch, but I can also get some words down rather than just be frustrated by another day slipping away with not enough words captured.

Mobile devices make it easier to be able to work on the go. I tend to carry my current writing notebook too, just in case as the act of writing it down still works best sometimes. But it is convenient to tap something out in an application, and the ability to synchronise across devices means that it is easier than ever to write on the move.

The need to write becomes a compulsion at times, especially when a story is taking hold or that missing piece of a puzzle suddenly appears.  The ability to get these thoughts down quickly matters, so the notion of writing where you can comes into play. Work can be edited and rearranged with issues resolved at a later time. Getting the words down gives you something to edit.

I’ve worked in my car, at cafes, in queues and on the train (a particular favourite). Conference calls and work seminars are also great opportunities to think and write differently about works in progress, or to record ideas that occur out of the blue for another story. Airport lounges, shopping centres, hospitals, waiting rooms at professional offices; really just anywhere will do. Over the years I have developed the ability to focus quickly and deeply on what I’m writing on, as if there is no time to waste.

My preferred writing location will always be at home at my desk or kitchen table, where the environment is familiar. But it provides me with a great deal of comfort to know that I can, will and do write anywhere.

Do you write where you can?

[Photo: old telegraph/post office counter display at West Wyalong Museum]

Woodford Academy, Oldest Building in the Blue Mountains

From its origins as a roadside inn, the Woodford Academy on the Great Western Highway has seen a variety of uses over the years. It started out as a weatherboard and stone inn called the ‘Sign of the Woodman’ in 1834, providing accommodation for 10 people and stables for passing travellers.

During the early decades of the 19th century, the Great Western Road to Bathurst was a journey of up to four days. Twenty Mile Hollow (now known as Woodford) was a popular stop at the end of the second day of travel, between Springwood and Blackheath on the road west.  The pub was rebuilt and expanded further during the gold rush years of the 1850s onwards, when it was known as the King’s Arms. In 1868, it was bought by Alfred Fairfax as a gentleman’s residence, and he renamed it Woodford House.

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Old taproom with shelves marked out and a centrepiece of grapes, peaches and corn above the door

The alternations, extensions and repurposing of the property helped to ensure its survival. Various uses included as a guest house, licensed hotel, boarding house, private hospital and a boarding school, when it became known as the Woodford Academy. From the late 1930s onwards it was a private home until Gertie McManamey, daughter of scholar and principal of the Woodford Academy, bequeathed the property to the National Trust in 1979.

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Old schoolroom at Woodford Academy

Aboriginal heritage in the area is acknowledged; the nearby reserve has an engraved groove in a sandstone platform, considered likely to be a signpost or signal to assist travelling Aborigines.

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View from bedroom in loft looking towards Great Western Highway

From foot traffic to horse and carts, wagons to motor vehicles, the passing parade of people heading west has been viewed from this site. The loft area above the residence is accessed through tight wooden stairs. The rooms offer views of the highway, gardens and courtyard. The property has a central courtyard area, reminiscent of Rouse Hill House, with access to washrooms, kitchen, laundry and stable areas.

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Kitchen, including stone sink

Throughout the property there are series of photos celebrating previous eras, highlighting the many lives the property has had. Memorabilia in the rooms provide insights into what life was like in earlier times, before the arrival of electricity, sewerage and running water.

On the day of my visit the academy was doubling as an exhibition space, continuing to provide a place for people to come and gather and experience something unique.

[Photo: front of Woodford Academy from Great Western Highway, Woodford]

 

A History Lesson

Recently I attended a talk by Grace Karskens, a noted colonial historian. Her published works include The Rocks and The Colony. Karsken’s talk was about her upcoming book, Recovering Vanished Places: Stories from the Hawkesbury/Nepean River.

History is approached by Karskens by an ethnographic focus, a wide lens which includes archaeology, ecology and geography amongst other studies. Sources range from official documents and historical texts to newspaper articles, paintings, local and family histories, letters, poetry and folklore to provides a broader context to understanding history on a deeper level.

Part of the challenge lies in what cannot be found or ascertained. Of course not everything is recorded or accessible, and sometimes all that remains is a sanitised version of real events.

Something that resonated with me was the snatches and snippets of past events that are woven into stories. As a writer I feel at times that my mind is swirling with scraps of stories, real and imagined. Some are recent, others are not my memory fragments but those of parents, grandparents and other relatives. And it isn’t just family that provide threads to weave stories from; chance conversations with friends and strangers also provide material.

Whilst some fictional scribblings require little in the way of research, unlike academic endeavours, it was interesting to hear Karskens talk of how obsessive the need to know can become. It is this attention to detail and intellectual vigour which creates work which resonates with readers. Again this has similarities in the fictional space. Research is an important aspect across many genres: as a reader few things jar more than reading something factually wrong in a story.

The talk provided a taste of what is to come, a book which promises accessible and illuminating insights into vanished places along the Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers. There is a link to a TED talk by Karskens here.

What lessons from history do you take on as a writer?

[Photo: view of Hawkesbury River near Wisemans Ferry]

Cicada Days

As a harbinger of warmer days to come, it’s hard to go past the cicada. It might be due to the combination of a dry winter and a warm start to spring but in recent weeks there have been discarded cicada shells all over the place. Fence posts, brick walls, tree trunks – all are seemingly dotted with husks, cast aside as cicadas move on to their final phase of life. During the day the air often thrums with their calls. Usually camouflaged by leaves, they are hard to spot unless being chased around the neighbourhood by hungry birds.

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After the countdown, they go over the top, grey shapes in the grey dawn, clambering out of themselves (Cicadas by David Campbell)

Cicadas were captured as temporary trophies when I was a kid, with a league ladder of varieties according to scarcity. The common Greengrocer wasn’t given much weighting; Yellow Mondays were a bit harder to find, Black Prince cicadas were highly sought, along with the noisy Double Drummer. The cicadas would be brought to school in ice cream containers with holes punched into the lids, to be admired and swapped before the cicadas were released.

There are Miller or Floury Baker cicadas, covered in fine, silvery hairs. I haven’t seen a Cherrynose cicada, but they are meant to be more common on the coast. There are Red-eyes along with smaller varieties such as Fairy, Maiden and Midget.

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A shell on the left, a cicada getting ready to emerge on the right

It is mainly the male cicada who sings by flexing their tymbals which are drum-like organs found in their abdomens. They drink and eat using their beak or rostrum, and begin life as an egg embedded in a tree limb. When the egg hatches, the ant-like form falls to the ground and digs until it finds roots to feed on. Cicadas can remain underground for anywhere up to 17 years, according to the species. It is an active life spent feeding and tunnelling.

As nymphs, they return above ground and climb the nearest tree to shed their exoskeleton. Their wings inflate and their bodies harden. They search for a mate with males singing to attract females, and the cycle begins again. As an adult they have a short life, usually only a few weeks.

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Greengrocer

There are over 3,300 varieties around the world, and a couple of unusual Australian cicadas are the Blue Moon and Bagpipe Cicada.

There is a lovely poem about cicadas by David Campbell here.

Do you have cicadas in your backyard?

Main source of information on cicadas: Cicada Mania web page. It is brilliant – hover over a link and the mouse arrow turns into a cicada!

[Photo: Greengrocer cicada]