Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Library lessons

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You get a sixth sense with some library customers. As I worked through the simple trouble-shooting steps, the woman beside me was becoming increasingly agitated. 

‘I have to scan these documents,’ she said.

‘Yes, we have to get you logged onto this PC first.’

‘Then I have send them.’ She shifted nervously, from foot to foot, her frame slight, her jaw tight.

‘Yes, we can do that too. Have you logged out of the other terminal?’

‘Oh, no, sorry.’

‘Right, let’s try the password again, shall we?’

We eventually got the woman logged onto the fifteen minute PC. At which point, I could have handed her over to my colleague. I was only meant to be on the library floor to cover tea relief. But my colleagues were busy and I’d taken longer to troubleshoot the problem than I’d have liked. I pulled up a chair and prepared to see the woman’s project through to the end. 

We placed the documents onto the flat-bed scanner and followed the simple step-by-step instructions. She had logged onto a fifteen minute terminal and the clock was ticking down. I asked how she wanted to save the documents. She chose to email them to herself. Though, from her nervous smile, I could tell wasn’t too confident about her ability to complete the task.

We logged onto Hotmail, attached the documents. ‘Write something in the subject line so you can find them,’ I suggested, imagining she simple, neutral words like: scanned documents, or library scanning. She typed the words: application compassionate grounds.

As I said, you get a sixth sense with some people.

We sat waiting for the email to arrive. By the time it hit the woman’s inbox, her fifteen minutes was almost up. We checked the attachment, deleted the file from the computer’s memory and logged out. 

‘Do you want to log you onto another terminal and send them now?’

She hesitated. ‘Maybe another day.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘It’s just well, I get anxious, you see.’

Yes, I saw, perhaps more than she realized. ‘They will be safe in your inbox until next time,’ I assured her. ‘You can do them whenever you are ready. We are always here to help.

‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Thank you for understanding.’

*

At other times, you get the whole thing wrong. In this instance, I was serving a stooped, elderly woman wearing a yellow hand-knitted beanie. 

‘I can’t use your computers,’ she said. ‘Can you help me find a book?’

‘Yes, of course.’ I smiled benignly. Hers wasn’t an uncommon question, especially among the woman’s demographic many of whom missed the boat on the technology front and now find themselves needing help in certain circumstances. ‘What book are you after?’

‘I’d like something on Canadian totem poles.’

Right, I thought. That’s out of the box. I’d expected her to name a favorite author, or the latest family saga. 

‘I’m a lacemaker,’ she added. ‘My son and his family are living in Canada. I’d like to create a piece of lace based on the totem poles in their area.’

Right, I thought, technologically challenged and beanie wearing but no slouch in the arts and crafts department. I couldn’t make a piece of lace to save my life. But as it happened, if did know a little about Canadian totem poles. We used to have an amazing book about the artist Emily Carr. I typed in her name. Sadly, the book was no longer on our system. I widened my search, found some possibilities and and took her down to the relevant section. ‘If you don’t find anything come back to me,’ I said. ‘I can always do a Google search and print a picture out for you.’ 

‘Oh, I’ve already done a Google search,’ she said. ‘On my tablet. I didn’t find anything that took my fancy.’

Right, I thought, a culturally aware, lace-making, tablet-using old woman. I slunk back to the reference desk making a mental note not to make anymore foolish assumptions about stooped, senior citizens in hand-knitted beanies.

 

 

 

 

A series of first world problems

For months, my MacBook Pro has been on the blink. Hanging regularly like a PC, the rainbow wheel-of-death spinning endlessly. Crashing every time I perform an update, only to be kick-started by an emergency call to Apple support. I knew it had to be replaced but, to be honest, I’d been procrastinating. It was an expense, for a start, and I’d have to decipher terms like Intel Core and GHz, PCle-based flash storage and LPDDR3, decide what data to transfer and then set the whole computer up, complete with passwords for every application. Yes, I know, a first world problem, half the world does not have access to clean water and I am bitching about buying a new MacBook.

The thing is, I’m in research mode, so I’m spending more hours reading, jotting and imagining than I am serious word crunching. As  consequence, I’ve been able to place Great MacBook decision on the back burner. Until last week, when my iPad became terminally ill, the battery draining away like blood from a beast. Damn, thought, I’m going to have to go to the Apple Store.

apple-ipad-air-A1474-Wi-Fi-Cellular-1st-Generation

This is no great chore. To take my iPad to a warm, well-lit store, where a friendly young, tattooed technician wearing a navy blue T Shirt, would fix my problem free of charge. But I’d have to schedule an appointment, drive to the store and find a parking spot when I could at home be reading books on Owain Glyn Dŵr.

I drove to the appointment, parked, drank my obligatory Westfield coffee, topped up on Body Shop supplies and arrived in time for my session. The Apple store attendant hooked my iPad up to his iPad, pronounced my battery dead and told me he was going to give me a replacement. Just like that. A new iPad. I’d have to set it up, of course, and, when I visited mum on the way home, we’d have to squint at pictures of Charlie on my iPhone. But, hey, first world problem, right?

Mum and I managed to adore the phone-sized images of Charlie. But I can tell you I felt pretty angsty knowing my iPad was lying dormant in my bag. It was akin to the feeling I’d had in Corris for seven months without the stunning scenery and the music of the Welsh  language to compensate. As soon as I arrived home, I fired it up, chose my language and region, launched the set up process. I chose to restore from iCloud <insert shaft of ethereal light and booming God voice>.

macbook-air-gallery2-2014

But here’s the rub – iCloud told me I had no back ups. Really? No back ups! Could The Cloud lie? My iPad and phone back up automatically whenever they are on WIFI. But no matter how many times, I tried to restore, The Great God of the Cloud said, No Back Ups. I turned to my MacBook. No problem, I’d restore from iTunes. Except, my computer had joined the evil circle of doom. No matter what I tried, the damn thing would not sync with my iPad. I rang the Apple support team. We set the iPad up as a new product. The guy assured me, we’d be able to connect to The Cloud once I’d done a software update. I managed to connect to WIFI. But my back ups were still missing. I rang Apple Support again. The team member got me to log onto iCloud on my phone. There was nothing there. Do you hear me? My cloud was empty! Panic washed over me in a series of hot waves. I had an app with all my passwords, thousands of words of notes and research, all backed up to The Cloud.

The young woman was well trained. ‘I can tell that you are upset. Let’s go through the situation one more time. I want to make sure I am understanding you correctly.’

Upset! I was more than upset.

She went and talked to her supervisor. ‘Your apps aren’t lost,’ she said. ‘You simply need to go to the app store and download them manually.’

‘What about the data,’ I repeated. ‘My notes, my research, my passwords.’

‘Your data will be there somewhere,’ she said, ‘if you’ve backed up to The Cloud. But we can’t take responsibility for individual apps. You may have to contact the developer.’

By this stage it was getting late. I suggested we schedule a call for the morning. I still had my iPhone. Proof that my data was out there somewhere. If we couldn’t get it from The Could, I’d simply have to transfer it manually. Meanwhile, I’d still be able to do my banking, keep appointments, phone my ageing mother, email and send text messages. I plugged the phone into the charger and tried to adopt an attitude of Christian calm. Though, I have to admit, libations and small animal sacrifices did cross my mind.

I woke the next morning with a jolt of recollection. Apple would be calling soon. I picked up my iPhone. It was dead. I kid you not. The screen was black. I pressed the button. The battery showed a thin red strip. I must have knocked the USB cord out by mistake. I pressed it into the plug. Nothing. I jiggled, tried another plug. By this time I was wide awake. I scuttled about the house plugging and unplugging my iPhone. Nothing. No life. No lightning bolt. No ding. My documents, my research notes, my passwords, all gone. Vanished.

hero-grey

I made myself coffee. Lit my candle. Placed it on my Welsh tapestry placemat. Sat staring at the flame. Call me a slow learner but I realised some decisions had to be made. I needed a new MacBook, to somehow find my documents in The Cloud, and get my phone working. Meanwhile, the Apple gods must have been working overtime. My iPad calendar and contacts had  filled up overnight. I started downloading apps manually. I opened, aNote, my note-taking app (chosen for its rainbow coloured folders). Set it up to sync to WIFI. Nothing happened. I sent a note to the developer. Within half an hour I’d received a reply.

Dear Customer,

We have analysed your log file, it has not downloaded data from iCloud. You have a lot of notes. Please wait until download is completed.

The developer gave me a list of instructions. I went into preferences, turned buttons on and off (as you do). Went into the app, followed Mr aNote’s directions to the letter. Powered the iPad off and on, took a deep breath. Waited thirty seconds. That’s the magic number right? Then pressed the button. The Apple logo appeared, my home screen. I opened aNote. My data had downloaded, from The Cloud <insert: hallelujah chorus>, where it had been safe all along. I still had to organise my apps into categories (hey, I’m a librarian), change my language preferences to Welsh, log into each individual app, get my phone fixed, then buy a new MacBook. But those are first world problems, right? Nothing to complain about.

Colour crises and other important life matters

You may have noticed I have a slight (cough) preference for the colour red. What you may not realise is that this preference is in fact a more recent phenomenon. I distinctly recall doing Dolly Magazine quizzes in my teens and simply not knowing what may favourite colour was. Imagine that? Not knowing my favourite colour? When red was there, fluttering her eye lashes at me all along.

I cannot recall the moment I realised red was my one true colour but, looking back, believe the love affair may have started with a pair of red shoes. We were dirt poor at the time, having married while still at university and, thanks to an idealistic family planning decision, popped put a baby within the first year. Andrew started work a month before that baby entered the world and with family help we managed to buy an ugly little wooden house on a main road beneath the a massive street light. By the time my twenty-third birthday came around, we’d made a second, can-you-believe-it-was-planned addition to the family. Mum took me shopping for my birthday. I chose a pair of red shoes. I think they were supposed to be ‘for best.’ Fact is, from the moment I unwrapped them, I wore those shoes everywhere. When they finally fell apart, I bought another pair – and another. 

A life long passion for red shoes was born. 

I’m not sure when the red passion crossed over into other items of clothing. I did not wake up one morning and think I am going to wear a touch of red every day. Only that, for some reason, I do. I’m not unadventurous. I do occasionally wear other colours. Only last week, I purchased a jumper without a hint of red in the mix. Okay, so I did break into a cold sweat at the audacity of the purchase and I did lay it out on the armchair once I arrived home wondering whether I should return it and, okay, when I did finally pull the tags off, I teamed it with a cranberry coloured scarf. But the jumper is not red. That’s the point I’m making.

In addition to red clothing, I may also have acquired a few personal accessories. Actually, not just a few, and not purely personal either. I have a red bike, a red yoghurt maker, red-toned cushions on my couch, a red iPad cover, a red phone cover, a red handbag, burgundy towels in the bathroom, a burgundy scatter rug, and red Welsh tapestry place mats on which I place my red candles while journaling in my red leather notebook (okay, so maybe a little over the top). But rest assured I use the contrasting blue/green side of my Welsh tapestry placemats. The candles, I always buy in bulk, from Dusk. Not just any old candles either – spice scented cranberry red candles called, Vienna. 

There is no Dusk outlet on Sydney Road. Andrew says there is a message in that. ‘Like, Dusk is so suburban.’ But I have remained loyal to my suburban roots. On a recent trip out east, I popped into, Eastland to stock up my candle supplies (yes, Eastern dwellers, the new Eastland is amazing, yes, I’ve never seen anything like, no, there isn’t any reason to go to the city). I parked in my usual spot, passed through the Woolworths entrance and made a beeline for the Vienna votive shelf in the Dusk store. 

The candles weren’t there. I glanced left. Right. Circled the store, came back to the Vienna votive shelf. Still not there. There were no pillar candles either. No Vienna at all. 

‘Can I help you?’ I’d been so busy staring at the shelves I didn’t notice the shop assistant coming alongside.

‘I’m looking for the Vienna votives.’ 

I’m afraid they have been discontinued.’

Discontinued, without notice! As if they were nothing but a consumer product.

‘We have a new Vanilla scented candle,’ the assistant added, smiling nervously, ‘if it’s the spicy scent you’re after.’

The Vanilla votive smelled nice. I had to admit. But, it was white. It wouldn’t match my place mats. ‘It isn’t the right colour.’ I told the shop assistant. 

‘Oh, we have red candles too, Signature Love.’

She handed me a sickly candy-red candle. The scent wasn’t right either – all old lady’s sweet rose and lavender. I passed the candle back to her. Things were happening too fast. It was like the Great Colorado Clothing Crisis all over again. On that occasion, I had passed from the age of wearing hip hugging teenage fashions and not being not quite ready to surrender to Millers, and had fallen into the habit buying most of my clothes at one particular clothing outlet. Actually, not most of them. I was pretty much little-miss-Colorado. When Colorado went into receivership. I refused to believe it, kept thinking, hoping, trusting, praying they would return. Until, Eastland boarded up the store front (yes, Eastland has a lot to answer for) and I returned home in white faced shock.

It took me ages to recover from the Great Colorado Crisis. Even now the family are careful not to mention the C word in my hearing, remembering the too-long conversations – on the phone, at dinner, during family gatherings. Items bought and returned. Requests to please-come-and-help-me-choose. But recover, I did. I now buy clothes online, at markets, at funky little artisan stores along Sydney Road. In fact, I hardly ever think about Colorado anymore. Apart from sometimes…late at night. It will be the same with Dusk. I mean, they are just so suburban, right? I’m gonna find me a new handmade hippy candle outlet, that understand loyalty and habits and finding just the right scent and, once I’ve found them, I’ll buy me a life long supply of candles and, as so long as the they are not candy-red, I will never have to shop at Dusk or Eastland, ever again. 

 

History – a matter of perspective

I have started researching a new novel, set between the years 1383 and 1413. It will begin in the Tower of London and end in the Tower of London and range from Flintshire to Snowdonia before finally reaching its harrowing climax in Harlech Castle. That’s all I’m going to say at this point. Apart from the fact that (to my knowledge) there are no statues of my viewpoint character in Wales, hardly anything written about her. Why is that? I’m sure she played her part. Why do men’s exploits so dominate the pages of history?

Before we ponder that question, let us examine my suitability for the task.

I was raised in Australia. I did a project on beef cattle in grade four (for which I received a gold stars), heard a fair bit about convicts (despite SA where I grew up being colonised entirely by free settlers). I absorbed similar jaw cracking stories about the sailors from the good ship Corromandel who absconded in the Adelaide Hills, along with obligatory visits to pioneer village and old government house. I did a term of American history in year ten, focussing on slavery, a term on the Russian Revolution, another on the French, and similar units on the history of China and India. In my final school year, I studied the causes of the First and Second World Wars. I did an undergraduate history degree majoring in history (primarily Australian) and my urban history units touched on Europe. But there was no Welsh history in that mix, barely any English (apart from those horrible old judges who sent innocent convicts to the antipodes for stealing handkerchiefs).

So, on paper, hmm… not so well qualified.

Fortunately, I’m a librarian <insert research junkie> and I have a slight (cough) interest in Wales. I’ve made it my business to do a spot of reading on the side and, now, thanks to the recent referendum, I am able to buy second hand books far dirtier and cheaper than I could a month ago. I have started with an overview of the period. This entailed re-reading, Land of My Fathers’.

Land of My Fathers’ is an unashamedly partisan history of Wales. It’s author, Gwynfor Evans, was a Welsh hero, politician and statesmen who took on Maggie Thatcher and won (yep, that good). I believe every word of his history. I read parts of it every now and again to regain a true perspective on the world. However, despite the fact, that I share the author’s considerable biases, I thought it best to cast my research nets a little wider. Over the last few weeks I’ve also read, The Hollow Crown, Owain Glyndŵr: the story of the last prince of Wales, The Three Richards, The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr, The Time Traveller’s guide to Medieval England, A History of Wales, and the Cambridge University Press title: Medieval Wales. 

Amazon tells me David Walker, the author of Medieval Wales was “born in or near Wilmington in or near, North Carolina, the son of a slave father and a free black mother (thus under the laws of slavery, he was born free).” These biographical details can’t be correct, as the book’s prefaces Walker as a former senior lecturer in Medieval studies at University College Swansea, a contemporary of Glanmore Williams (b. 1920) and R. R. Davies (b. 1938). I don’t know where he hailed from or what his background. Only that reading Medieval Wales felt like receiving a series of slaps in the face.

Here is what Walker had to say about the reign of Owain Glyn Dŵr, the last native Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales.

In the literary record his prospects and his capacity as soldier and leader were, by well known convention, overstated. […] The records suggest that Glyn Dŵr had a sense of style and he knew the value of the outward trappings of power, but the limitations of his power were all too easily identifiable. […] Plunder and thinly disguised extortion provided (Glyn Dŵr with) short-term supplies but left a legacy of bitterness […] In one important sense the Pennal scheme was well based: an independent Welsh church was a sound ambition. In another sense, […] it implied a capacity to inflict a massive defeat on the English King which was far beyond Glyn Dŵr’s resources.

Now by English standards of wealth and power, Glyn Dŵr may not have been considered a great threat. But as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, there are two worlds in Wales – the English speaking and the Welsh speaking – and, my preliminary reading tells me, this phenomenon was active in fourteenth century Wales. In the Welsh speaking world, Glyn Dŵr was considered the pre-eminent claimant for the title. Under the surface of an outwardly subservient populace a powerful network of kinship alliances and aspirations was in operation. Added to which, the English crown was in disarray – the King having been usurped and starved to death by his own cousin.

The History of Wales was written by the late John Davies, an eminent Welsh historian who won the Owain Glyndŵr Award for his outstanding contribution to the arts. The tone of his work is less condescending than Walker’s. Here is what Davies had to say about Glyn Dŵr:

By 1400, Owain Glyndwr was a man with considerable experience of the ways of the world. In addition to the mass support which Owain received from the villeins and poorer clergy, he also won the allegiance of most of the members of the low ranks of the Welsh official class. By 1404 […] so great was the prince’s authority and so feeble the reaction of Henry IV that English officials, Marcher Lords and the inhabitants of the border counties were making their own local agreements with the new power that had arisen in Wales. At the same time, Owain was seeking an alliance with the Percy and Mortimer families. […] At the beginning of 1405, French soldiers (yes, he had secured the backing of the Pope and the French King) landed at Milford Haven.

History is a matter of perspective. And most often a male perspective.

Yet amidst these records of power bases, battles and alliances, there is another narrative. The story of a woman, all but forgotten by time, who lost her home as a result of her husband’s decisions, who watched many of her children die, who ended her days a prisoner of the English crown. A Welsh woman, of Norman descent, Marared ferch Dafydd, who lived, loved, laboured and no doubt played her part. Yet history simply remembers as the wife of Owain Glyn Dŵr.

Christmas in July – a license for petty tyranny

July is cold and wet in Melbourne and, as it is also my birthday month, a family dinner was required. Having just returned from the northern hemisphere, I requested a Christmas in July theme. For those of you on the far side of the world, this is what Aussies do to make up for the fact that we celebrate Christmas in the heat. For my migrant parents, Christmas meant jacking up the air conditioner and serving the full Christmas roast followed by plum pudding and hot mince pies. I followed this tradition until my family grew old enough to voice their opinions. At which point it was decided a summer feast was required. We now roast meat on the Weber and team it with a mix of salads and baked vegetables which we eat balanced on our knees while swatting at flies. It is a fun day and quintessentially Australian. But I do miss the traditional fare. Hence Christmas in July. 

 

The benefit of doing Christmas in July for my birthday is that it was all about me. 🙂 I chose the decorations, the food and the music. The later meant pulling out my Welsh Christmas carols CD. A selection that would not usually be tolerated beyond the obligatory half hour. Once the theme had been set, tasks were delegated. Andrew roasted the pork:

My daughter, Phoebe, created the dessert. My son, Seth, mulled the wine.

Half way through the afternoon, Andrew asked: ‘How long does this carol CD go for?’

 ‘Ages,’ I said, not bothering to smother my smile. ‘It is called 101 Carolau Cymraeg – 101 Welsh Carols.’

‘But, Liz, it feels like we’ve been in church all afternoon.’

Andrew was right. There is a reason we only sing the ten top favourite carols annually. But I wasn’t about to alter my selection. What is birthday for, other than a license for petty tyranny? Infact, I’m thinking of making Christmas in July a new family tradition. Though, I may buy a new CD for next year. 

PS. Yes, that is an old door in the background of the first photograph. No, it doesn’t serve and useful purpose. My husband is a collector. In light of which, 101 carols once a year is a minor inconvenience. 🙂

 

Voting – exercising our democratic rights Aussie style

Voting is flavour of the month at the moment. What with the referendum in the UK, morning after regrets, and the domino resignations of its shark like leaders, not to mention the rising horror of blonde hair and a fake tan on the other side of the Atlantic, it is not surprising that Australia’s recent federal election failed to attract much notice. When I fronted up to the GP the week prior to the election with a sore throat, temperature and all over body aches, and explained I was supposed to be working as a polling official on election day, the Doctor pulled a sour face. 

‘It will be a long, cold day.’ She replied. ‘I suggest you pull out.’

She was right. I knew she was right. I’d picked her out on HotDoc (unfortunate name) for her medical expertise. But as the day approached, I couldn’t bring myself to make the phone call. I started working elections almost thirty years ago. I’d finished Uni, popped out a couple of babies, moved interstate, and at the ripe old age of twenty three, my appointment as a polling official constituted a major milestone. Paid work. A day out. A sense I could do more than wipe noses and bottoms. 

I have worked federal elections, on and off, ever since, even doing a two week stint at the Australian Embassy while we were living in Fiji. I’ve set up cardboard voting screens, marked people of the roll, issued declaration votes, and even been officer in charge on one occasion. My enjoyment of Election Day has never faded. It is a day on which I feel proud to be an Australian.

This year, the AEC had a formal social media policy. So, if you wondered why I was blogging about the UK referendum and ignoring homegrown issues. You now have an answer. I wasn’t allowed to blog, or share any content on social media associated with the election (they kept that small condition a secret until after we’d signed the acceptance forms). But now I am no longer an employee, I thought I’d tell you about voting Down Under:

  • We vote on Saturdays (so we get whole sporting teams coming in together)
  • It is compulsory
  • If you don’t vote you get fined
  • We used to keep a transistor radio in the polling room
  • The eight o’clock ABC news was our signal to open the doors
  • Smart phones have replaced this tradition
  • The sense of occasion is sadly diminished
  • Most polling places are in schools, church, scout or other community centres
  • People come with their dogs on leads and kids on bikes
  • The group associated with the venue gets creative
  • A sausage sizzle is arranged
  • Maybe a market
  • You vote to the smell of frying onions and sausages
  • The mood in the queue is generally laconic
  • There are jokes about the ‘uselessness bastards’ in Canberra
  • The ridiculous size of the senate ballot papers 
  • And what a waste of time the ‘whole bloody’ process is
  • But most people make a decision
  • Some lodge a protest vote
  • By leaving their ballot papers blank
  • Or drawing X rated pictures
  • But they can’t get fined
  • As it is a secret ballot
  • At six o’clock a polling official stands at the end of the voters queue
  • No one is admitted after this point
  • No matter how red faced, sweaty or apologetic
  • Once the polls close the ballot box seals are broken
  • The number of ballot papers in the box must match the number of papers issued
  • It is all organised, above board, transparent
  • People don’t wake up the following morning saying: Oh, no, I didn’t think my vote would count
  • Or angst about what percentage of the population turned out
  • Because we vote all the time
  • From when we turn eighteen
  • To when we die
  • It is compulsory
  • And therefore a fair system

  

 

Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel

One of the things about claiming your Welshness late in life is that there is so much to learn. You accept the fact. You have missed out on a whole lifetime of knowledge – about flora, fauna, history, language, social customs. You know you can never fully belong, those formative experiences are lost, forever. Yet, for some perverse reason, it still comes as a shock, to realise there are things about Wales you simply never knew. In this instance, I am talking about artists, or specifically one artist. Gwen John. You would think  having lived in an artist’s residence for seven months, I’d be all over the topic. But I’m not. At least, I wasn’t, until I read Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel. 

Girl in Profile is primarily told from a shifting first person female point-of-view, but it also has some short male epistolary segments. The overall effect – quirky and humorous, with an adventurous use of metaphor and simile that gives the reader a kind of head spinning, like wow, like this is amazing type sensation.

The opening viewpoint character is Gwen John, a Welsh artist who was born in 1876. Having lost her mother at an early age, Gwen John moved from Haverfordwest to Tenby, where she was raised by her two aunts, who were strict Salvationists. In 1895, she began to study art at Slade School of Art, the only school in the U.K. that then allowed female students. She won the Melville Prize for figure composition in her fourth year. In 1903, Gwen John travelled to France and shortly afterwards began modelling for the much older sculptuor Auguste Rodin. She became his lover (as you do) her passion for him continuing unabated for ten years. Unfortunately, Rodin’s passion abated far sooner (as it often does). The novel opens with Gwen John pining for Rodin.

Gwen John’s viewpoint is juxtaposed against the modern day viewpoints of Elizabeth, an elderly woman, suffering dementia, who lives in a care home in Tenby, largely ignored by her distinguished children, and who is writing letters to an American prisoner on death row. Here is how Elizabeth describes her self. 

“Constrained in every decade I’ve been. Stoned in my teens; pregnant and insecure in my twenties; husband, two children and a springer spaniel in my thirties; midlife crisis in my forties; age-defying creams and faradic machines in my fifties; and now in my sixties losing my marbles.”

The third viewpoint character is Moth, a mother of two young children Roan and Dove who was Miss Carmarthen at twenty two and devoted to her children. Though, she is considering having an affair with her son’s art teacher Adam:

“He’s wearing a white shirt and blue jeans, same as me. No visible tattoos. He’s not the kind of guy to have a tattoo. Drew’s (her husband) got “Moth” on his chest and “Roan” and “Dove” on either wrist. Looks plain dirty if you ask me, and imagine when you’re old. I drew the line, with a full stop at piercings. We’re his heart and arms, he says. Load of crap. It’s just his tribalistic, sadomasochistic, look-at-me way of displaying us. Branding. Establishing ownership rights. If you name it, you.”

Girl in Profile is a literary novel, rather than a feel good book. But that doesn’t mean is it depressing. The novel explores the complexity of women’s choices – the ones who follow their passions and the ones who subsume them for the the love of their family. The poignant letters from the man on death row give us a sense of the life cycle – you’re born, you live you die. They also illustrate Elizabeth’s sense of pointlessness as her control is taken away by her institutionalisation and the disease that is eating away at her brain. 

I read each segment of the novel, unsure how the author was going to bring the story together. Then, I had this kind of ‘oh, wow’ lightbulb moment and found myself wanting to read the whole thing over. So, if you want a book to make you think, or a story to make your head spin, or a writer in whose audacious use of language makes you blink and marvel and chuckle, then head on over to Honno, the Welsh women’s press, and buy Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel. 

 

Border protection: in which the family pooch takes on the local authorities

In case you didn’t realise, Liz has recently spent seven months in Wales. And in case you didn’t also realise, I was for a time effectively homeless. After all my faithful years of service, after dog sitting four growing children, not to mention the parade of exchange students. My plight was reduced to an ad on Facebook. 

Fortunately, Jo, responded, and I must say she treated me in the manner in which a family Pooch should be treated. I slept on her bed every night, had cuddles with Ella, and went to play with Midge during the day. It was doggy heaven. 

But now Liz is back and I have to put up with with Andrew again.

It may surprise you to know Andrew’s dislike of me is mutual. He took my baby safety gates down while Liz was away and refused to put them up again. Not in the shed. Or down the side of the house. Liz wasn’t too impressed. But Andrew was determined. They’d work together from now on, he said, make sure I didn’t get out. 

Yippee! I thought, escape is imminent.

So far, my efforts to break free have been fruitless. Not one escape, not one, tense, ‘look what you’ve done now!’ exchange. It seems seven months apart may have diffused the ‘it’s me or the dog bomb.’ Meanwhile, I get left home with Andrew while Liz is out speaking Welsh in Melbourne’s pubs. 

Misery!

Until I remembered under the house strategy.

Liz doesn’t like me crawling under the house. Especially when she has just paid Aussie Pooch to hydro bath me. But I can’t think of a better way to get rid of that horrible clean dog feeling. I roll in the dirt, gnaw old bones and pick up fleas and, most important of all, when Liz gets home she starts up the ‘maybe we should put up a gate’ argument.

Andrew won’t consider it, of course. His strategy was to build barriers, first with chicken wire, then with planks, and finally with a kind of scorched earth policy in which he flattened the vegetation along the entire underside of the house and walled it up. ‘Hey Liz,’ I said. ‘Is he related to Donald Trump?’

It took me a few weeks to get through that round of border protection. But last night I succeeded. There was only one problem, I couldn’t get out. Andrew had screwed my escape route closed. I had to lie under their bedroom floorboards yapping until Liz crawled out of bed, found a screw driver (yes, she learned to use one in Wales) and set me free. 

‘Biskit,’ she said. ‘Give up. You can’t win this.’

I know she’s wrong. Because I’ve tallied up the hours Andrew has spent ‘protecting’ the side of the house. And it’s quite a few. Added to which, one day soon, he’s going to forget to close the gate and I will break free. At which point, the ‘it’s me or the dog’ bomb will start ticking all over again.

Ghostbird – and interview with Carol Lovekin

I generally read books set in the past. I don’t mind those set half in the present and half in the past. Though my preference is definitely for the former. If I do read books set in the present they generally have a quirky, mystical element to them. Or are set in Wales. Which is how I found myself ordering a copy of Ghostbird. It popped up on my Facebook feed. I have to admit the cover intrigued me. As did the recommendation at the bottom:

‘Charming, quirky, magical.’ Joanne Harris.

I flipped over to the Honno site and read the blurb.

Nothing hurts like not knowing who you are. Nobody will tell Cadi anything about her father and her sister. Her mother Violet believes she can only cope with the past by never talking about it. Lili, Cadi’s aunt, is stuck in the middle, bound by a promise she shouldn’t have made. But this summer, Cadi is determined to find out the truth.

In a world of hauntings and magic, in a village where it rains throughout August, as Cadi starts on her search the secrets and the ghosts begin to wake up. None of the Hopkins women will be able to escape them.

Okay, so this was starting to sound like my kind of book. The magical quirky, present day hauntedness was happening in Wales. I ordered a copy. The book didn’t disappoint. It had rain and damp and overgrown gardens and village gossips, resonance with the mythical character Blodeuwedd, Welsh words, fierce original characters, a compelling story and clear, evocative prose. When I turned the final page, I flipped over to Google (as you do) and typed in the author’s name. Carol Lovekin had a blog and she sounded interesting. I shot her an email asking whether she would be willing to answer a few questions for my blog. She agreed.

I had been intrigued while reading Ghostbird to find that much of the viewpoint was carried by a fourteen-year-old girl. I wondered whether Lovekin, had ever thought she was writing for teens. Or indeed whether she had the market in mind when she was writing at all. Here is what she had to say to me:

At no point did I ever imagine myself writing YA. The truth is I’ve always been a bit snobbish about the genre. I’ve learned not to be, but it doesn’t mean I ever planned for Ghostbird to be marketed as a teen novel. And although the possibility of ‘cross-over’ was mentioned, to my publishers’ credit, they haven’t tried. If a young audience does read and enjoy my book, I’m delighted! I don’t mind who reads it.  It was always a novel for adults though. Cadi found me – I’m still unsure why. I have always had easy relationships with young women and girls; I like their fierceness and their courage. And I have strong granddaughters who continue to inspire me.

While reading Lovekin’s blog, I noticed that she didn’t initially realise that she was writing a ghost story. I asked her at what point she realised she was and how the realisation changed her approach. Also what aspects of the novel changed in the re-drafting process?

In the beginning, although I imagined the story with a ghost – Cadi’s baby sister – I wrote her only in brief vignettes. The initial idea was that the myth would be a whispered soundtrack. Once my editor read the complete draft she made it clear the ghost needed a bigger voice. I went away and wrote the ghost’s story in isolation. It was genuinely exciting and once it was done – and slotted into the main narrative – I realized, yes, I’m writing a ghost story! The notion pleased me hugely because I have ‘issues’ with genre and have never really been able to place my work outside of the ubiquitous ‘magical realism’ label. I don’t mind magical realism, I love it – I do get tired of it being appropriated by fantasy writers. Magical realism has very little in common with fantasy. Many things changed during the redrafting of the book, not least the title. And relationships between some of the characters changed too.

The book has a great connection to the landscape and also some very realistic spells and incantations. I wanted to know where they came from. Whether they were a product or research, or Lovekin’s own spirituality?

Ah… The ‘witch’ question! Everyone wants to know ‘where it all comes from’ and some people mistakenly assume I’m a pagan. I’m not – or if I am, it’s like my relationship with ‘fashionable’ and quite accidental! I am an eco-feminist and yes, I have decades of practice behind me. I know my ‘craft’ so to speak; therefore no research was needed with regard to Lili and her ‘powers.

Photograph: Janey Stevens

 

A committed feminist, Lovekin’s characters have an uneasy relationship with the story of Blodeuwedd. Here is what Lovekin had to say about her own relationship with the text:

When I first read The Mabinogion I was struck by the notion that to be turned into a bird could be considered a curse. Initially and purely as an exercise in reclaiming her for feminism, I rewrote Blodeuwedd’s story from her point of view; made her angry and potentially vengeful. I gave Blodeuwedd her voice if you like. Years later, she was still there, haunting me and one day I quite literally woke up and I had Cadi. Fully formed and in complete agreement with me that Blodeuwedd deserved a better fate.

I asked Lovekin how she balanced her love of Welsh mythology against the perceived misogyny in the Mabiniogi?

I don’t address or try to make sense of the misogyny in mythology and legend; or in fairy tales for that matter. I have always enjoyed picking them apart and as I’ve already mentioned, reclaiming them. ‘

When it was first published in 1992, I read Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and I found myself enchanted. She presented me with a whole new way of looking at myth and fairytale which chimed perfectly with my feminism. Goddess is a metaphor for me – the perfect metaphor for the Land and I do believe that once the divine feminine power was diminished, humanity was the loser.

Finally I asked how writing the next book was going.

I’m finding it interesting and a little daunting. There is an expectation – there’s bound to be: people read and like a book and want more. Hopefully they will be happy with more of the same because I’m writing another ghost story. (I have to get it past my editor first of course!) I hope my perspective remains the same: the writing is what matters. It’s the cake so to speak and ‘being published’ is the icing. It’s always about the creative process – with maybe a bit more urgency this time? If writing ever became unenjoyable, I would stop.

I, for one hope she doesn’t stop. I am already looking forward to her next charming, quirky, magical, eco-feminist ghost story set in Wales. But I think Lovekin’s philosophy is the takeaway for me. The creatve process is what matters. Being published is merely the icing on the cake. It is the point I bring myself back to every time I sit down to write. 🙂

Angry Birds: how I nearly failed the Aunty test

One of my more recent pleasures is having my brother and his family settle in Melbourne. This means I get to be Aunty Liz to my nephews, let’s call them, Gideon and Jonathan. I have in fact, been Gideon’s aunty for eighteen years but the small matter of him living in Africa limited tangible expressions of this relationship. When asked, recently, whether the boys could stay with us for the weekend, we agreed readily. Though, of course, I had forgotten how much energy was involved in managing teenagers. Especially when the said teenagers have quite distinct needs. 

Gideon is small and particular and funny and needs loads of time to himself. Jonathan is sporty and outgoing and busy trying to establish himself in Melbourne. He also eats a lot. I had forgotten how much fuel teenage boys need. I shopped for Shapes and bread and fruit but Jonathan got home before me and Andrew had recently flown in from Huston, Texas, so there wasn’t enough food in the house. 

Right, I thought, this is going to take a bit more forethought than I had envisaged.

 

We had an ESL dinner at church which meant I had cooked a risotto. This, combined with curry, rice and some home baked muffins did the trick for an hour or two. Andrew, due to the residual effects of jet lag, volunteered for the early Saturday morning sports run while I looked after Gideon (I am so good at this morning routine that I can do it in my sleep, literally). Having to take my hearing aids out the night before, helps significantly. I woke at a not unreasonable hour Saturday morning and thought, why is Gideon in the shower? Half and hour later, when I woke again, I thought, why is he still in the shower? Turns out the Wiggles played, over and over, down low, sounds like running water. Who would have thought? 

Around lunch time, Gideon and I met Andrew and Jonathan in our local cafe for brunch. Yes, turns out we are a hipster aunt and uncle. We asked the boys what they would like to do that evening. Jonathan wanted to see Captain Marvell, Gideon, Angry Birds. We searched for a cinema in which both movies were playing simultaneously. Northland, had an almost perfect solution as long as Andrew and Jonathan left early and cycled to the cinema, leaving Gideon and I to follow in the car in time for the shorter Angry Birds. The movies would finish within fifteen minutes of each other and we would buy dinner (yes, hipsters on steroids, or perhaps, just making up for eighteen years of neglect).  

Now, I had never been to Northland Shopping Centre (I’ve never done the 1000 steps either, or been to the MCG). Call me unadventurous but I wasn’t exactly lining up for the Northland experience. But I punched the address into my iPhone, started the navigation program, and set off nice and early. We arrived in plenty of time. Which was good because I parked pretty much as far from Hoyts as possible. Speaking of which, I haven’t been to a Hoyts since I left Neighbours country. A fact that will become patently obvious as the story unfolds. 

We bought our tickets. The woman mentioned something about Extreme Screen. But, you know, it’s a long time since I have been to a Hoyts cinema and I was looking for a number. Even though it said, Extreme Screen, on the ticket, right where the number usually sits, and even though we walked past a theatre labelled Extreme Screen. The penny did not drop. I saw L 12 and even though that is clearly a row and seat number and even though, theatre number twelve didn’t have a row L. The penny didn’t drop. Not when the movie didn’t start on time either. Or when there were no children in the audience. I thought: gee, it’s amazing how many adults have nothing better to do than watch Angry Birds on a Saturday night. It wasn’t until the film started to roll that I felt my first twinge of unease. Gee, I thought, fancy Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant being the voices in Angry Birds. It wasn’t until the words Florence Foster Jenkins filled the screen that the penny dropped.

‘Gideon,’ I said, ‘this isn’t Angry Birds.’

‘No,’ wide, serious eyes, ‘I don’t think so either.’

We left the cinema. The young girl who had sold me the ticket had great tact. I didn’t sense an inner eye-roll, or even the smallest hint of oh-my-God-what-loser in her manner, at all. 

‘Angry Birds started twenty minutes ago,’ she explained, politely. ‘But we have another session starting at 7.00.’

I turned to Gideon. We can go in now and miss the beginning, or we can wait until later. What would you prefer?’

‘I just want to see Angry Birds.’ Gideon replied, in what I am beginning to recognise is his wide-eyed, serious, trade mark style. 

By which I deduced he meant the whole movie.

Fortunately, we live in a technological age. I was able to convey the change of plans to Andrew and Jonathan, grab a quick, pre-movie bite with Simeon while waiting for the next session, which would be playing in an ordinary numbered theatre. I am still none the wiser about the Extreme Screen experience. But if Gideon’s doubled over laughter is anything to go by, Angry Birds was worth the wait and, I think, I may have even passed the Aunty Test.

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