Book Review: The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn

When I spotted the front page of the Blue Mountains Gazette last week, I was delighted to see that The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn had been longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. There is a link to the interview with the author here.

Shortly after I moved to the mountains, I attended a poetry reading by Mark at the newly opened Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. A poet’s eye and love of language is evident throughout this novel, with a sense of place and mood evident from the opening line of the section titled Morning: ‘Dawn cracks like an egg against the fibro walls of the derelict shack.’ Word choice matters to Ava Langdon, who is described below:

Catching sight of herself in a little wedge of mirror perched on an exposed joist, she stops. Who is that hideous creature? What form dost thou take? Her hair like the thatch from a mattress used for nesting material, with lavender bags under her eyes.

Words are chosen carefully to capture the essence of an eccentric personality living in extremely basic conditions in a shack on the outskirts of a mountain village. There is a blurring between the character’s sense of reality and her very active imagination, interwoven with recollections which at times seem unlikely yet not impossible. The vivid evocations of a familiar landscape appealed to me, and I enjoyed pondering what Katoomba would have looked like decades ago. Ava’s interactions, especially at the post office and tea shop, have stayed with me months after reading the book. I am reminded of her whenever I spot the old post office in Katoomba Street:

The red bricks of the post office are darkening now where a downpipe has leaked over the facade. May as well go in, she thinks, and mounts the steps. The door. The dimness. All that detail.

‘Never fear, I have arrived.’

The door swings shut behind her, light, dark, light, dark. Several people at the counter turn to stare, she who is dressed so extraordinarily, the cravat like a golden goiter spilling down her shirt front, the pinstripes, the braces.

The book is loosely based on the life of Australian writer Eve Langley, who is best known for her novel The Pea Pickers. Like Langley, Langdon is an unorthodox writer who wrote a successful novel but didn’t reach the same heights of success again in her career. The hope, anticipation and despair of a writing life is poignantly portrayed:

And here are her four fibro walls which guard her boxes of rejected manuscripts, each one four hundred pages long and typed on rose-colored paper. Each encapsulating an aspect of her life, the romance of it, the creative force of it.

This is one of those books which once read I want to hang on to, to be able to dip back into and savour again. There is an excellent review of it here.

[Photo: Old Katoomba Post Office]

 

Quiet Moments

Recently I had to attend a work conference in Sydney. It went for a couple of days, and the first day was particularly intense with lots of people and activities and interactions – a full on schedule where I had almost no time alone. Breaks throughout the day were spent with colleagues, with the time allocated too short to do anything other than grab a cuppa, debrief a little and get on with it. After the day’s agenda was completed, it was straight on to drinks and canapés before heading out to dinner as a group.

Accommodation was provided but shared, then another day with a full dance card but involving a smaller group of people. When we finished for the day I collected my car, rejoicing in spending time in Sydney traffic, still in a crowd but alone. 

A few years ago, the prospect of a two-day conference would have agitated me for weeks beforehand. It has taken me a while to understand the underlying cause of the agitation. The industry updates and networking don’t create concern for me – I usually emerge informed and with refreshed enthusiasm. I find, too, that taking a couple of days away from my usual routine provides me with a different perspective and I tend to come up with more creative solutions to problems. The agitation relates to the absence of quiet time.

I know now that I need time to digest what has happened and to think through what this means. And to do that best, I need some time alone.

Learning more about having an introverted personality has taken much of the angst out of attending conferences and events such as these. I know that finding even very small pockets of time when I can be on my own will help refresh me and give me the energy to return to the mob. Knowing that many other people feel the same way helps too – this isn’t some oddity on my part, and by understanding this I can get through these events and even enjoy myself.

How important are quiet moments to you?

Writing Prompt: A Familiar Scent

At a recent writing group gathering, we wrote to a prompt of ‘A Familiar Scent’. A few of the pieces have been posted on Writers in The Mist – you can find them here. Below is my contribution.

There was a familiar scent in the air. Annie paused, momentarily struck. It was the soft, sweet scent of freesias, a fragrance of her grandmother’s garden on a warm spring day and not something that she expected to smell in hospital in the depths of winter. She cast a look around the room but there was just one other woman resting opposite her. She was snoring softly and hadn’t woken when Annie had been wheeled into the corner.

Annie leaned forward, thinking that perhaps it was just a floral scent being worn by one of the nursing staff. But there was no-one in sight and all that she could smell now was the brazen note of antiseptic, strong enough to singe nasal hair and cover most of the bodily odours in the ward. She sighed and closed her eyes. It might have been the effect of the medication or a delayed impact of the anaesthetic but as she closed her eyes, suddenly drowsy, she could smell it again.

Annie let her mind wander back to when life was simple and relatively pain-free, when her school holidays were spent at her grandparents’ house and days passed by playing in the wonderland that was their garden.

The freesias were planted in a neat row along the driveway, forming a fragrant guard of honour along the entrance. There were several garden beds at the front and back of the property, and Annie could picture the native trees marching along one fence line, bristling with banksia men and their fierce brown faces. The front garden was encircled by camellias, their blooms both large and small providing a colourful carpet of petals as the seasons changed. A large macadamia tree stood sentry over the driveway, its barbed leaves protecting the tough nuts. Bright bottle brushes and grevilleas tempted the birds, honeyeaters dancing swiftly about when the shrubs were in bloom.

The steep back garden had been terraced in part to grow vegetables. Crisp beans grew against the back fence, sharing a space with colourful sweet peas in spring. Parsley grew in pots, and Annie had loved to pluck and lightly crush the curling herb between her fingers. Large cabbages grew in winter, their dark green and purple leaves encasing the heavy hearts of the vegetables. The cumquat tree had enchanted her; the zesty skin of the carefully harvested small fruit later transformed into jam. A gum tree towered high above the clothes line, a favourite podium for the magpies to sing their beautiful songs.

Annie walked herself around the garden again, taking slow steps to enjoy the multicoloured freesia blooms, almost too heavy for their stems. She walked over to the camellias, marvelling at the marbling of pinks and whites and reds on the petals, such a contrast to the glossy emerald leaves. She reached out and felt once more the soft and comforting warmth of her grandmother’s hands as the scent of freesias surrounded her.

Kew-Y-Ahn, Hartley

Kew-Y-Ahn, also known as Bells Rock, is a cluster of granite rocks located in the hills surrounding the historic township of Hartley, between Mount Victoria and Lithgow. This granite tor – rocky eminence or hill – has kept watch over the area for centuries.

There is a walking path which winds its way up the slope, the steep climb rewarding walkers with a close-up view of the rock outcrop as well as views of historic Hartley. In the distance lie Oberon and Lithgow, the Great Western Highway snaking its way up in the distance.

Kew-Y-Ahn, Hartley

Kew-Y-Ahn, Hartley

On the day I had a wander, it was cloudy with startling bursts of sunlight. From some angles the tor looked dark and brooding, a weighty and silent sentinel. Then the sun would appear and the colours in the stones would brighten. There were granite outcrops along the track, along with a number of plaques providing some historic insight into the town and the importance of Cox’s Road and the Great Western Road.

The Talisman Gallery and workshop is located in an old woolshed and there are a number of sculptures dotted around the area which provide points of interest along the way. One of the historic buildings in the town, the Farmers Inn, is now home to the Kew-Y-Ahn Aboriginal Art Gallery, providing an exhibition space for artists from the Central West.

There is a short video of the walk by John Paix here.

Have you come across any tors in your travels?

[Photo of Kew-Y-Ahn, framed by one of the sculptures from the Talisman Gallery]

Creative Lessons from Pets

Recently I was remembering when my dog, Buster, appeared in my world. I had wondered how this puppy, full of energy and noise, would fit into my life.

This led me to consider some of the lessons and habits that he has taught me which foster creativity in my days. Here are some of the learnings so far.

Naps

Dogs are brilliant at sleeping. There are bursts of activity and they will run and jump and bark and chase anything. Then there’s nap time. Naps can be short or long, and napping is permissible at any time. And life is generally better after a nap. Ideas emerge, sometimes fully-formed plots or ways to move a story forward. As I write this, Buster is napping nearby, as if on cue.

If In Doubt, Shake It Out

Have you ever watched a dog discover something new in the yard, or find a forgotten toy stashed somewhere? Usually they will sniff around it and maybe poke it with a paw before picking it up and throwing it around. This also works for trying out new approaches or routines. It is easy to get into a rut, creatively speaking. Sometimes you need to throw it all up in the air and see what falls down.

Discovery Tours

Also known as walks, these outings provide endless material from a dog’s perspective. So much to sniff and scratch, even if the walk is a familiar one. These regular airings are great for writing material too, or for solving plot or scene problems. There have been many times when I’ve untied a writing-related knot whilst walking my dog. Even a short jaunt helps.

Don’t Be So Serious

Buster is always ready to play. Any excuse for silliness and he’s there. There’s no moping about the past or fretting about the future. There’s just right now. This sense of play can be harnessed when writing to prompts or brainstorming and coming up with different ideas.

Pay Attention

Dogs are alert most of the time. Even when apparently resting and doing nothing, they are listening to what’s going on around them and taking in sights and scents. Sometimes these small details can be telling, and can provide a creative spark.

There is an excellent post called Dogma for Writers by Sue Owens Wright here, inspired by her basset hounds. Have you picked up any creative tips from your pets?

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Buster enjoying autumn leaves and keeping an eye on a singing magpie

Mitchell’s Ridge Monument, Mount Victoria

Perched atop the escarpment just before the steep descent of Victoria Pass sits a monument. The monument is an obelisk with classical motifs including an acanthus leaf to support the lamp. It is barely visible through the trees but of a night an orange beacon draws the eye, visible through rolling mountain mists.

The engineering accomplishment of Surveyor General Major Thomas Mitchell and his role in the improved crossing of the Blue Mountains is recorded on the monument. The initial dangers of ascending the mountains near Lapstone and the steep descent from Mount Victoria to the Hartley Valley were lessened by Mitchell’s surveying work. Early records recall the dangers of crossing the mountains, with logs tied to wagons and carriages to act as rudimentary brakes.

Mitchell's Ridge Monument

Mitchell’s Ridge Monument

Victoria Pass was opened in 1832, and a century later this monument was unveiled to commemorate at a local level the work of Mitchell, recognised as a great though flawed public engineer. The road was a significant improvement to transport options and early settlement of the western districts.

Mitchell's Ridge Monument

Mitchell’s Ridge Monument

Mitchell arrived in New South Wales as an Assistant Surveyor-General in 1827. Upon the death of John Oxley in 1828, Mitchell become the Surveyor-General. A period of general survey was required to correct and record landholdings and titles. This included the use of tent poles to measure a baseline and hilltops, with all trees bar one removed, used as trigonometric points. I wonder if this was why Mount Victoria was once known as One Tree Hill?

Mitchell remained in the role of Surveyor-General until his death in 1855. Over his decades of service, Mitchell was well-known for his insubordination and regularly clashed with Governors including Darling and Bourke. He led several expeditions in search of inland rivers and seas. South-west explorations revealed ‘Australia Felix’, now known as Victoria. He was known as a glory hunter, seeking fame in a time when explorations leading to new discoveries resulted in recognition. Mitchell is acknowledged as a competent and painstaking surveyor, and he wrote up his travels during periods of extended leave. He invented the boomerang  propellor which was tested by the Royal Navy during one of his periods of leave. Mitchell is also credited with taking part in one of the last public duels in Australia, challenging Sir Stuart Donaldson after Donaldson publicly criticised excessive spending by the Surveyor-General’s Department.

Sunset from Mitchell's Ridge Monument lookout

Sunset from Mitchell’s Ridge Monument lookout

A browse through the entry on Major Mitchell in The Australian National Dictionary shows another side. To Major Mitchell was to pursue a zig-zag course, originally as a method of exploration, to meander, to become lost. It became a verb: to have Major-Mitchelled was a reference to becoming lost on a regular basis. Doing a bit of Major-Mitchelling was a term that become current in the 1870s amongst stockmen to express being lost in the bush, and to indulging in aimless wandering. It was something that the gallant Major Mitchell himself was supposed to have done a good deal.

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Mitchell remained popular with public until his death: ‘This was no doubt due in part to his well-known and repeated conflicts with governors; in part to his appreciation and fostering of those things peculiarly Australian, from an enlightened preference for convicts in his exploring parties to the retention of Aboriginal place names.’

I’ll do my best to remember Mitchell when I make one of my frequent trips along Victoria Pass.

[Photo: view from Mitchell’s Ridge over Victoria Pass with Hartley Valley in the background]

Book Review: The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea by Randolph Stow

Sometimes books live on my peripheral before the time seems right to read them. The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea is one such book. I have glimpsed it over the years on the bookshelves in my Mum’s extensive library, and the title itself became quite evocative and telling in its own way – the image of a merry-go-round conjures up visions of childhood and freedom of a kind. A recent biography of Randolph Stow (Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow by Suzanne Falkiner) was extensively reviewed earlier this year; enough to remind me of an Australian author who I was yet to read. Then I spotted the audio book recently in the Blue Mountains Library online collection and it was available for instant download. The time was right.

The book steps with confidence into the lives of Rob Coram and his family, living in Geraldton, Western Australia, during the Second World War. Nearly six-years-old when the story begins, Rob is curious and direct and emotional with the intensity of a child. It is easy to believe his excitement at visiting the family farm, and it’s touching to see his affection and admiration for his Uncle Rick. The visit coincides with Rick’s twenty-first birthday, and Rick’s departure for war. Rob’s despair and grief is palpable, and throughout Rick’s extensive absence he maintains an avid interest and belief that Rick will return, even when his mother and aunts seem to lose faith.

Family connections form a constant yet changeable backdrop during the war years. Rob, his younger sister Nan, and his mother stay with various parts of the family as the threat of invasion increases then gradually fades. There are reminders of war everywhere, from trenches being dug into tennis courts to the rough justice in the school yard playgrounds. Rob’s father is an absent presence, initially stationed nearby and visible at odd intervals, only to disappear on war service and return in a perpetually distracted and absent state of mind.

The portrayal of Rick’s war imprisonment is devastating without being dramatised. Insights into the relationships formed during impossible times are shown in various guises, including the mateship between Rick and Hughie, a friendship which survives the war years but is tested in peacetime when the challenges of returning to a ‘normal’ life after near death existence are difficult to overcome, for Rick in particular.

Throughout this, the relationship between Rob and Rick develops, and Rob provides the sometimes brutal insights that children unintentionally make. Rick is direct in speaking of some of his wartime experiences with Rob, disturbing as they are. Rob in turn shares part of the rocky and awkward path towards adolescence with Rick.

The warmth and wit and humour of an extended family who love and mostly support each other is woven throughout the story, including some delightfully eccentric aunts. And then there is the landscape itself, countryside with a changeable beauty tracked by Rob through the seasons. He is saddened when he realises that he is a ‘townie’, wanting instead to be from the land. The harshness of the continent is shown too, but the natural beauty is conveyed with such genuine affection that the sights and sounds are vividly experienced.

By rock pools and creeks the delicate mauve-petalled wild hibiscus opened, and the gold dust of the wattles floated on water. Wild duck were about, and in trees and in fox-holes by water he looked for the nests, staring in at the grey-white eggs, but touching nothing. Climbing a York gum, he was startled when a grey broken-off stump of branch suddenly opened golden eyes at him. He gazed into the angry day-dazzled eyes of the nesting frogmouth and felt that he had witnessed a metamorphosis.

Listening to this book in the lead up to Anzac Day made it more poignant somehow, making me wonder how it was received when it was initially published in 1965. I was sad to finish it, and pleased a couple of days later when I found a copy on my own bookshelves at home. I thought I’d picked it up somewhere in my travels.

There is a comprehensive review of the novel on the ANZ LitLovers LitBlog site here.

Have you discovered a hidden gem in your reading lately?

[Photo: flowering gum]

Sculpture at Scenic World, Katoomba

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to join a guided tour of the Sculpture at Scenic World exhibition. This is the sixth year of the exhibition and there are 35 artworks on display, located along 2.4 kilometres of walkway. There is significant interest in the exhibition with artists from all over the world submitting concepts for sculptures and installation. The successful submissions are on show from 7 April to 7 May at Scenic World.

Illusion by Kayo Yokoyama

Illusion by Kayo Yokoyama

The exhibition is complimented by other pieces of sculpture on show at various locations across the mountains including the Carrington Hotel at Katoomba and the Hydro Majestic Hotel in Medlow Bath. There is also an exhibit of indoor sculpture by many of the contributing artists on show at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Sculpture Otherwise.

Kangaroo with a Selfie Stick and Home is Where the Heart Is by Jimmy Rix

Each year the sculptures follow a theme with a chosen medium. This year it was timber and the wide range of sculptures offers a broad interpretation with materials including fabric, recycled tents, copper, pottery and glass, to name a few. There is colour and vibrancy, along with thought-provoking pieces as well as a healthy sense of fun.

Consumption by Louis Pratt

Consumption by Louis Pratt

Some pieces have direct references to the industrial activity on the site: Scenic World is located on an old coal mining site and the railway itself follows the track used to haul coal out of the valley.

3D Webs by Louisa Magrics with La Subida Rhizome (The Rise Rhizome) by Miguel Valenzuela & Francois Limondin in background

3D Webs by Louisa Magrics with La Subida Rhizome (The Rise Rhizome) by Miguel Valenzuela & Francois Limondin in background

As the boardwalk meanders round, there is the opportunity to view some of the works from a different viewpoint, offering another perspective. It was invigorating, delightful and surprising.

Kolorhaus by Selena Seifert & Chris Wellwood

Kolorhaus by Selena Seifert & Chris Wellwood

And all of this sculpture is on show against the backdrop of a Jurassic rainforest with steep cliffs surrounding the valley. The trip down into the valley on the scenic railway was stunning, and it is understandable why this has been a major tourist drawcard for over 70 years. We returned via the scenic cableway with stunning views out to Mount Solitary as well as vistas of the Three Sisters and Orphan Rock.

It is an amazing location and an extraordinary place to enjoy some wonderful sculptures.

Have you enjoyed an artistic outing lately?

[Photo: Corridor.of.tents by Georgina Humphries; created using discarded festival tents]

 

Sydney, Her City: Short Fiction

She had watched the bridge take shape. It had seemed an impossibility, an absurd idea that the sheer expanse of the harbour could be tethered by steel and iron. There had been talk of it for so long that it seemed like an intrinsic part of her childhood memories, its design a favourite topic of debate. Then suddenly whole streets and entire neighbourhoods began to vanish, houses and shops and factories that had been familiar were pulled apart and families were forced to relocate.

Ella’s family had been lucky. They had been earmarked for relocation but changes to plans meant that their street was spared. She could recall heading off to school of a morning, walking through nearby streets with her brothers and sister, then the shock of arriving home to find rubble and dust where houses had been. Her mother had complained of the dirt and the rats that seemed to be in plague proportions as buildings that had stood firm for decades were pushed over and destroyed within a day.

Her eldest brother had landed a job on one of the many construction crews that worked on the bridge. He would come home with stories about the movement of massive sandstone blocks that would form the pylons to anchor the bridge. Bert’s excitement at being part of something momentous was tangible and contagious.

But the building of the bridge took so long that Ella’s interest eventually waned. By the time it was almost complete, the magnificent arch tantalisingly close to joining, she was working at a tea shop in the city, down near Circular Quay. The bridge was visible, a looming presence in the background, but she was busy with work and stepping out of an evening on dates and going to dances.

After marriage Ella stopped working, settling quickly into domestic life. She found herself drawn to the harbour, taking the pram along the narrow city streets and steep gradients down to the foreshore. She loved to walk past the ferries, puffing out smoke, their sturdy shapes seemingly insignificant as they motored their way underneath the enormous arch of the iron coat-hanger.

When Ella and her husband moved to the suburbs, she still managed to visit the city occasionally, especially when Christmas shopping trips came up. To turn into a street and glance up at the bridge gave her a thrill that she couldn’t quite explain. The bridge became less extraordinary over time to most Sydneysiders, just a way to get from one side of the harbour to the other. But for Ella it remained one of her favourite things. Her birthday treats invariably included a trip to the city to take in the splendour of the bridge, now a constant presence against a changing city skyline. For Ella, the bridge was the essence of Sydney, her city.

Inspired by a writing prompt using a postcard painting of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Do landmarks appear in your writing?

Anzac Memorials

With Anzac Day approaching on April 25, I thought I’d share photos of some of the war memorials that I have spotted in my recent travels through Goulburn and the central west of NSW. Most towns, regardless of size, have a memorial to the lives lost and altered forever by war. The intention behind these monuments was captured at the unveiling of the South Australian National War Memorial on 25 April 1931 by His Excellency, the Governor Sir Alexander Hore-Ruthven:

It is not only for ourselves that we have erected this visible remembrance of great deeds, but rather that those who come after us and have not experienced the horrors of war, or realised the wanton destruction and utter futility of it all, may be inspired to devise some better means to settle international disputes other than by international slaughter.

Goulburn War Memorial

Goulburn Boer War Memorial

Memorials are often located in parks and public places, including this memorial to the Boer War in Goulburn.

Lithgow War Memorial

Lithgow War Memorial

Many memorials have been updated over the years to reflect recent wars and conflicts, including this one in Lithgow.

Wellington War Memorial

Wellington War Memorial

This memorial is located in Cameron Park, alongside the river in Wellington. At the centre is ‘Winged Victory‘.

Dubbo War Memorial

Dubbo War Memorial

The Dubbo War Memorial is located in the centre of the town at Victoria Park, and there is a pathway lined with statues and stories of people who served.

Bathurst War Memorial

Bathurst War Memorial

There are 35 bells in The Carillon, built in 1933 to commemorate the men who served in World War I.

Memorial at Bathurst, dedicated by Lord Kitchener in 1910

Boer War Memorial, Bathurst

Located in the same park is this memorial to the soldiers of the Boer War in Africa, dedicated by Lord Kitchener.

There is an excellent resource of war memorials across Australia here.