In Anticipation of Creative Endeavours

Earlier this week I wrote about anticipating spring, and how this shows itself in a myriad of ways from early blossoms to the proliferation of buds. It reminded me of the importance of having something to look forward to, that intoxicating sense of anticipation.

This has resulted in a quick assessment of where I am at the moment in a creative sense. In my working life I am task oriented and love crossing items off my to-do list. Occasionally I think that if I applied the same approach in my creative life, I’d get a lot more done. This is probably true, but my creative side seems to resist any attempt to contain it in such a structured format. I know I could, but I don’t want to. Somehow it seems too important to have the flexibility to go where my creativity leads, rather than corralling it with constraints.

So what am I looking forward to, creatively speaking? I have a few ideas tucked into the pages of my writing notebooks for future projects, and these will continue to germinate as I go about my daily routines. I have two stories on the go at the moment, one of them triggered by a vivid dream. Both are longer than my usual outings and that in itself creates a sense of delight. Usually with a short story I have a fair idea of what I’m working towards, but both of these stories are taking their own sweet time to reveal the end and that makes the process quite intriguing.

Recently I have started reading a book of ten short stories with accompanying essays by the writers revealing insights into their craft and the genesis of their particular story. I have dipped in and read a couple so far and have been invigorated but have resisted the urge to read them too quickly. Some things are better digested slowly and savoured.

Another source of creative anticipation is something about me but not something that I have created. By chance I came across some interesting drawings on Instagram by an artist called Carly Zandstra. A few weeks back she posted a drawing of her head in a phrenological kind of way. There is a link to the post here which will make more sense. I was so impressed that I made contact and Carly is creating something similar for me, based on things that matter to me. I am really looking forward to what Carly has come up with – another version of my creative self.

So right now there are still stories to write, different worlds to ponder, stories to be read and a head full of ideas to fuel my sense of creative anticipation.

What are you looking forward to, creatively speaking?

[Photo: phrenology head spotted at a market]

In Anticipation of Spring

There are signs of spring throughout the Blue Mountains, even in the upper mountains which is usually a bit late to the party. Bright swathes of wattle provide flashes of yellow to draw the eye, and there are bulbs erupting in masses of colour.

A particular favourite of mine are the flowering trees. Some of the ornamental fruit trees have started to flower in my neighbourhood, bristling with pink flowers that are heavenly to walk by. There is a large magnolia tree adorned with buds, some already starting to reveal the creamy flowers contained within.

Wandering around my garden I can spot bulbs that are thickening and preparing to put on a display of colour and scent. Daisy shrubs and roses are showing spurts of growth, and rhododendron shrubs and trees are suddenly heavy with buds.

One of my favourite springtime experiences is a cherry tree that I can see from my kitchen window. In early autumn I watched the leaves as they curled and fell, and now the bare branches are beginning to be tickled by buds, bright fluffs of green that over the next couple of months will morph into delicate white and pink flowers which have a beautiful scent. It is a glorious explosion to delight the senses, and it has come to epitomise some of the joys of spring for me each year.

I await these gradual changes with a keen sense of anticipation.

What seasonal changes are you looking forward to in your garden?

[Photo: buds on the cherry tree]

Book Review: True Stories by Helen Garner

First released in 1996, this collection of non-fiction stories spans a quarter of a century in an extraordinary writing life. Helen Garner is regarded as one of Australia’s foremost writers with a body of work ranging from journalism to novels, screen-writing to reviews. Her recent published works have been non-fiction including This House of Grief and a collection of essays in Everywhere I Look. There are many hints of what was to follow in Garner’s work in some of these essays.

The book opens with an overview of Garner’s writing career at this point titled ‘The Art of the Dumb Question’, before segmenting into four parts: A Scrapbook, An Album; Sing for Your Supper; The Violet Jacket and Cruising. The stories are roughly grouped together by themes, spinning and weaving through a wide range of topics and experiences from teaching students about sex to a series of sisterly interviews (Garner is the eldest of five daughters and one son). The reader follows her into a mortuary and into a registry office, before travelling by train across Victoria and out to sea on a Russian cruise ship. There is time to marvel at the amazing produce at the Royal Melbourne Show, and to gain insight into the professional pride of maintaining a public pool – the Fitzroy baths.

Darker themes are explored rather than evaded. Following the piece on days spent observing at the morgue there is a somewhat surreal visit to a gun show. The shadow of violence and aggression overlays ‘The Violet Jacket’ and ‘Killing Daniel’ is devastating to read, a piece that once read cannot be forgotten. There are fleeting moments captured with clarity, such as an old woman making her way down hospital stairs with the help of a younger woman. She says ‘It gets worse. It gets worse. The grief gets worse.’ Garner’s ear and eavesdropping skill are demostrated throughout the collection.

But humour and honesty is also in evidence. Garner is upfront about her otherness, her role as the observer with a notebook, cataloguing and condensing the essence of human experiences, significant and otherwise. Warmth and wit flows through the sibling interviews with each sister numbered rather than named. The shifting alliances, the similarities and shared histories are documented in such a way as to give a sense of the camaraderie.

In David Jones’ ‘perthume’ department, Two says to One, ‘Here – let me squirt this on you, in case I hate it.’

In ‘Three Acres, More or Less’, Garner writes of a block of land with old orchard trees, a couple of dams, a shed and a house. Her father pays an unexpected visit, giving a brusque overview of all that is wrong or needs work about the place before quietly admitting before he leaves that he could live in a place like that. During the night, the silence is shattered by someone out in the dark with a shotgun. In true Garner style, the story doesn’t finish quite as you might expect.

For all the moments of seeing the world through the prism of other people’s lives and experiences, there are glimpses of the familiar in these stories for me. The drawing of a young, sulky girl by John Brack. The visit to Sovereign Hill at Ballarat on a day so hot that Garner buys a copy of Bush Studies by Barbara Baynton and reads it at the Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library, sitting under a large sign saying SILENCE.

Garner is generous in sharing insights into her writing process. The collection includes stories of attending writers’ festivals and reviews of other writer’s work, including Elizabeth Jolley and Germaine Greer. ‘Patrick White: The Artist as the Holy Monster’ is an excellent overview of David Marr’s biography, described as a ‘grand and gorgeous book.’

I read the book on planes, in buses, at meal tables. I became deaf, I laughed, I cried.

Some of these stories were familiar, read years ago. But this recent encounter seemed to lose none of the vivacity and humanity despite the passing of the years. I’d found the audiobook on the online library catalogue, narrated by Garner herself. This was an audible treat, a wonderful way to immerse in these individual but not unrelated stories. It has only served to deepen my existing appreciation of Garner and her extensive body of work.

[Photo: view inside the Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library, Soverign Hill]

A Whistle-stop Tour of Hobart

Hobart is Australia’s second oldest city, and this heritage is one of its main attractions for tourists. To get my bearings on a recent trip to Hobart, I joined a morning tour of some of the sites of this city scalloped around the Derwent River, beneath the magnificent Mount Wellington.

Salamanca Bay, Hobart

Salamanca Bay, Hobart

The tour departed from the waterfront, along Sullivans Cove. Harbour cruises and trips to MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, leave from here. Hobart is still a working harbour, and there were plenty of fishing boats as well as the huge Antarctic icebreaker Aurora Australis in dock. We passed through the sandstone glory of Salamanca Place, a very popular tourist destination with lots of cafes and restaurants as well as artisans selling their wares. You can wander through and see artists at work whilst admiring the old sandstone warehouses and stairways and pubs. On Saturdays there is a huge outdoor market, selling all sorts of fresh produce and locally made goods.

St George's Anglican Church

St George’s Anglican Church

Battery Point offers views of the river, and one of the warehouses has a large chimney which was for the fire that was kept going all day and night to ensure that gunpowder was kept dry. We wound our way past the official finish line for the Sydney to Hobart yacht race and through narrow, winding streets that clutch to the hills behind. We paused at St George’s Anglican Church which had been a landmark for sailors for decades. Along the way there were scores of cottages and grand houses with neat gardens, some with drawn curtains offering glimpses of stylish and antique furnishings inside.

Memorials at the Anglesea Barracks - 99th Regiment Column and Peacekeeper

Memorials at the Anglesea Barracks – 99th Regiment Column on far left and Peacekeeper

Anglesea Barracks was the next stop, one of the oldest continually operating barracks in Australia – as the second oldest city, and one with a tighter grip on its history than some, there are many ‘oldest’ tags. There were a few memorials including headstones patched into a wall, a memorial arch and a column commemorating Regiment 99, which served during the New Zealand Maori wars in the 1850s. This was the first war memorial in Australia, and was erected by a British regiment serving in Australia. Nearby there is a striking statue of a peacekeeper, bearing aloft a child, which was carved from a single piece of wood and knocked into rough shape with a chainsaw before the finer carving was done.

Cascade Female Factory - clothesline

Cascade Female Factory – clothesline

Cascade Gardens is a pleasant spot with a winding path towards Cascade Brewery, a magnificent old industrial building set against the backdrop of Mount Wellington. The beer, cider and soft drinks are made using water that cascades from the mountain. Just a little further down the hill are the remains of the Cascades Female Factory. This predates the Port Arthur Historic site, and was erected to keep female convicts separate. There isn’t much left in the way of buildings, although yards and areas such as laundry and crib rooms are marked out and snatches of official reports attest to the conditions. Even on a day of winter sunshine it is hard not to feel a taste of the despair that would have cloaked any new arrival, trapped within the walls with extremely basic living conditions. The nearby rivulet often flooded the prison. It is a quietly devastating place.

Hobart with Mt Wellington in the background

Hobart with Mt Wellington in the background

Across the mighty Derwent River to Rosny Hill Lookout to marvel at the city from afar. The Tasman Bridge was a talking point, not least of all due to the bridge collapse in 1975 when a ship ploughed into the arch at night. The falling concrete sank the ship and killed seven crew, and cars crossing the bridge at night could not see the collapsed arch and drove into the gap with five further fatalities. Traffic is still stopped when large vessels are heading up the river with pilot boats guiding the vessels safely under the bridge.

Ferns and waterfalls at the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens

Ferns and waterfalls at the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens

The final stop was the beautiful Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens, set to celebrate 200 years next year. It was lovely to have a wander about and see the lovely lakes and some of the many huge trees and varieties of camellias and rhododendrons throughout the gardens.

The tour was on a repurposed 1973 Bedford bus, a fitting way to see some of the sites of a beautiful city with much heritage to enjoy.

Writing Snippets

It isn’t possible to jot down everything that might come in handy one day in a writerly sense. There are some things which seem momentous, and are recorded, but when rediscovered at a later date there is some head scratching at context or simply general bewilderment about what was so important about a snatched phrase or idea. Other isolated thoughts, sometimes as simple as a word or two, seem to resonate with possibilities.

Whilst flicking through my latest writing notebook, I have come across some odd scratchings. Sometimes it is testing out an idea, or gathering notes on something I have listened to. The following was recorded after listening to how phrases from some obsolete (for the most part) occupations still appear today. One of the phrases was ‘a whale in the bay’, which was popular during the decades of whaling, and indicated someone with money to spend, a captive audience. The fluke is the tail fin of a whale, and is used when a whale lifts its tail before diving, usually after arching its back.

There are patches of word association: circuit breaker, mindfulness, visualisation techniques, creativity, calm, relaxation, invigorating, breath, breathing. These words helped to shape a post on mindfulness.

Then there are the random bits. Build the life you want in the time you’ve got. Not sure if I read this or heard it, but it captured my attention long enough to ensure it was recorded. There are bits from other people’s blogs. Comfort zone: a place where boredom lives and fear dominates. This was spotted on Susans130 in January this year.  And lots of things like this. Tuxedo: what a funny word. Where does it come from? Answer: named after a country club at Tuxedo Park, New York.

Writing notebooks are there to capture moments which otherwise might be lost. One last example below from March this year.

One of the reasons why I go out is to experience life – the essence of surprise. The lift door opened to let in another lady and an amazing burst of German opera. A man in black pants, white dress shirt and a stunning voice. Just magic, really.

How do you keep track of odd moments in your writing life?

[Photo: wren spotted scratching about at Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mt Tomah]

Proteas at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden

It is impossible to miss the striking blooms of the many varieties of proteas at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden at Mount Tomah.

27536064_UnknownThe mixture of altitude (about 1,000 metres above sea level) and the soil conditions combine to create conditions in which these plants thrive, and they are at their best in autumn and winter.

27536016_UnknownWhen most plants seem to be conserving energy for spring, these South African plants are full of colourful energy.

27537136_UnknownThe blooms are popular as cut flowers, and there was a display of them in the visitor centre. The pictures behind the protea feature some of the beautiful bark around the extensive gardens.

27536096_UnknownThe day I visited the garden was one of a clear sky with warm sunshine, with only the chill on the wind as a reminder of winter.

27535968_UnknownProteas are available for sale at the garden, and there is a guide to growing them at home here.

Have you spotted any winter delights in your area?

A Booklover’s Delight

Recently I popped along to one of the occasional book sales hosted by Lifeline in Sydney. These events are major fundraisers, offering books which are no longer needed or wanted by their current owners for sale with the proceeds going to charity.

Having attended a couple of these events before, I knew what to expect. Rows upon rows of books sorted in categories and held in sturdy cardboard boxes. A multitude of volunteers zip about, tidying up boxes that have been picked through and refilling gaps from a large stash held out of sight. These well organised events hold a treasure trove of books across all topics and genres, a delight for anyone seeking something of general interest and those trying to track down an elusive book that is tricky to trace through bookshops and online channels.

There is something about being in a group of people, strangers yet united through the common interest of books. Courtesy is evident in the absence of snatching and grabbing of books, a polite patience as one waits to scrabble through the box adjacent which someone is still lingering over. There are book titles both recent and remote in time, old treasures that have been kept for decades until finally they were no longer needed or required, and are available for their next custodian to collect for a very minimal fee.

As I am still sorting and culling my current collection of books, I entered with low expectations and didn’t even have a bag with me, such was my mindset that I didn’t really need any more books. There were still shelves of books at home that needed to be picked over and bags of books that could be sent back into the world for a more appreciative mind to gather and enjoy. But inevitably I found one book, then another, as a small stack formed in my arms. The books at events such as these, and in charity shops too from my explorations, tend to include lots of large, beautifully illustrated books that are hard to find anywhere else. If found online, the postage costs would be greater than the purchase price. But treasures they are, documenting a different time and place and worthy of collecting and enjoying even if it is only for a brief period of time.

Eventually I stumbled out into the daylight, found a spot in the winter sunshine and enjoyed the beautiful surroundings of the Knox Grammar School at Wahroonga as I sipped a coffee and flicked through my books. There is something satisfying about finding that book which you didn’t even know you needed in your life.

Are you able to resist a book sale?

[Photo: sample of some of the classics on sale, including one of my long ago favourites, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson]

 

Blue Mountains Railways Celebrate 150 Years

From a vantage point beside the moving throng of commuters, thousands of them on any given day, the bust of John Whitton keeps a watchful eye on all who pass through Sydney’s Central Station.

Whitton was the Engineer-In-Chief from 1857 to 1890 and his extensive tenure coincided with the rapid development of railway lines across much of New South Wales. A mere 37 kilometres of tracks were in use at the time of his commencement in the role. By his retirement this had expanded into over 3,500 kilometres branching north from Sydney through Newcastle, Werris Creek and Tenterfield, south to Cooma, Albury and Hay, and west to Dubbo and Bourke. The key to opening up the gateway to the west was overcoming the challenging terrain of the Blue Mountains.

Initial challenges for the railway construction included building a railway bridge across the Nepean River and negotiating a way through Knapsack Gully in order for the western railway line to cross the mountains. Victoria Bridge, designed by Whitton, still survives today. The viaduct at Knapsack Gully was also designed by Whitton.

The character of many of the mountain villages have been defined by the arrival of the ‘iron horse’ and the railway opened up employment and housing opportunities. Prior to the establishment and extension of the railways with the arrival of Whitton, various other transportation ideas were proposed. Reverend Hulbert suggested the importation of elephants or camels as a solution; Sir William Denison spoke of horse-drawn railways. What a different world it may have been without Whitton’s vision.

IMG_0864

Tribute to John Whitton, Central Station, Sydney

Last weekend marked the 150th anniversary of the Blue Mountains railway line, which reached as far as Weatherboard (now Wentworth Falls). The first passenger train to Weatherboard ran on 22 July 1867. The line was then extended to Blackheath and Mount Victoria before the construction of the famous zig zag descent into Lithgow – another achievement of Whitton’s. The coming of the railway was to alter and redefine life in the area, and all these decades later, the railway remains an integral aspect of mountain life for locals and visitors alike.

Read through the letters most weeks in the Blue Mountains Gazette and you’ll find that train timetable changes continue to create a flurry of interest and weekend trains are so regularly packed with tourists that additional carriages have been commissioned. The noise of freight and coal trains is regularly compared to existing and anticipated aircraft noise. Like many mountain folk I can hear trains trundle by at all hours, but for me the short toot of commuter trains leaving the station and the low rumble of freight trains remind me of the perpetual motion of life, of people and goods moving about, travelling from one place to another.

Celebrations over the weekend included heritage train rides, and you can see some footage of the trips here.

Book Review: The Home Girls by Olga Masters

I listened to this collection of short stories a few years ago, mainly as I wended my way to work along mountain roads in winter. At the end of some the stories I simply had to turn the audio off, needing time and space to absorb the dynamics of a story, or the machinations of various characters. Masters captured the essence of a character, of life in a small town, of the many joys and devastations of every day life with such a deft touch.

Sometimes I would also refer to the written word to recapture the moment, or to check my understanding of a story. I was also struck by the physicality of her writing; her way of depicting a character’s inner world through their physical actions. These stories in particular stayed in mind.

The Home Girls. This was a short, disturbing story of two sisters preparing to leave one foster family for another, sharing a final act of defiance before they head to their new home.

The Rages of Mrs Torrens. I loved this story of a vibrant and passionate woman, who was perhaps a bit extreme in her mood swings. The timber town is enthralled by her antics, during which she seemed to lose focus of her beloved Harold and their five children.

The rage that ended all rages took place when there was an accident at the mill and poor Harold lost the fingers on his right hand. Mrs Torrens goes to the mill and climbs atop a fence with surprising grace and agility to address the men who were ‘standing there … faces tipped up like eggs towards her’. She asks them what they have done with her beautiful mannikin before going wild with a piece of timber, destroying parts of the office.

The incident is strangely not widely discussed by those present, who were deeply affected by her rage. The family left town soon after, and eventually medication was used to stabilise her mood swings.

‘During these times Mrs Torren’s blue eyes dulled and her beautiful red hair straightened and she moved slowly and heavily with no life in her step or on her face. She looked like a lot of the women in Tantello.’

On The Train. This depicts an interaction between a beautiful mother travelling with two young plain daughters and a nosy stranger. The stranger speculates about their relationship, trying to prise information. As the two leave the carriage, the mother tells the stranger something deeply unsettling.

The Done Thing. An interesting twist on the tale of attraction between two married couples. On revisiting this story recently I was struck by the contrast between the two wives: the educated but insecure Annie and the thoroughly practical Louisa. Annie’s husband Peter arrives unannounced at Louisa’s place, bearing a large pumpkin.

She laid a hand on the grey-blue skin of the pumpkin as she might have touched a beautiful fur wrap.

Peter’s delight in the homely order of Louisa’s home is evident and there are gentle hints of the attraction between them.

As she spoke she bent and pulled at some grass, ripping it away to show more rock. He bent and pulled it with her and she straightened, holding the long loop of root against her skirt as if it were a bridal bouquet. 

I was pleased to see that I wasn’t alone in finding much satisfaction in this collection of stories. There is an excellent review by Lisa Hill here.

[Photo: old kitchen at Elizabeth Farm, Rosehill]

Mid-Winter in the Blue Mountains

So far the consensus is that winter has been relatively mild in the Blue Mountains. There have been days starting out with fierce frosts, and there have been periods of bleak rain and uncharitable winds, but these have been interspersed with days of sunshine to take the sting out of the cold nights.

But we are only just past the halfway mark and there could be some cold snaps in store between now and the end of winter. In the upper mountains in particular, seasons tend to pay scant attention to the rigid start and finish dates, and snowfalls have been known to occur in late spring and beyond.

Early morning walks are characterised by frosts on lawns, roofs and car windshields. I keep an eye out for the subtle changes throughout the coldest months, endlessly fascinated at the gradual emergence of buds on bared branches offering the promise of an abundance of blooms when the warmer weather arrives.

There are spots of colour to cheer me on. Bright puffs of wattle blooms, winter bulbs in flower and carpets of spent camellia petals draw the eye. Creamy daphne flowers and early blooming rhododendrons mingle with late-blooming roses and ever reliable geraniums and lavender to provide points of interest. There are still sprays of salvia and delicate fuchsia blooms in the garden, as bright green spikes of freesias and jonquils feel their way into the world.

The cold is a necessary part of the seasonal life cycle and it always surprises and delights me that there is so much activity happening at a time when the natural world appears to be dormant.

What is winter like in your part of the world?

{Photo: red wattle bird spotted against backdrop of winter branches}