Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: australia

Christmas in July – a license for petty tyranny

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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. 🙂

 

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Voting – exercising our democratic rights Aussie style

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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

  

 

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Library lessons – or how to be a decent human being

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I am not a morning person. But Friday, I had to start work by eight o’clock. As I dressed in a fumble, main lined coffee, grabbed my make up bag and hair care products, and headed out into the half-light, I was surprised by an overwhelming I’m-living-in-Melbourne-and-lovin-it, sensation. It didn’t last. As soon as I saw the five lines of creeping of red tail lights on the freeway, I knew this would be no easy run. My foreboding was confirmed by the electronic sign:

Incident on the Bolte Bridge, expect delays. 

Unfortunately, this instance, Citylink, weren’t exaggerating. I arrived at work, tufty-haired, late and without my age-defying foundation in place. It didn’t help that I had to fit an extra home library delivery into the two hour set up time. Or that the cash reconciliation wasn’t straight forward. As I walked out onto the library floor at opening time, I saw one of our most everyday difficult customers pacing up and down outside the door.

‘She’s early,’ I said to my colleague.

‘My thoughts exactly.’

‘Let’s hope it isn’t a bad omen.’

The minute we logged the phones in, all three started ringing. It was story time, so there were lots of mum’s and crying babies. Added to which, every woman and her dog wanted to join the library. Not sure why, maybe it was announced on the radio?

<insert ABC News music>

We interrupt this bulletin to make and important announcement. That building in the High Street that you have walked past a thousand times, is a library. If you race down there today you will get a discount on your free membership.

Whatever the reasons, they didn’t stop coming. By mid-morning, my blood sugar levels were seriously low. Good Afternoon, I said to the woman standing at the desk. How can I help you? 

Silence. I realised my error. ‘Sorry it isn’t afternoon yet, it only feels like it.’

I went through the usual spiel about needing ID, with a current address to join the library. She passed me her drivers’ license. I handed her a piece of paper on which to write her email address and phone number and began typing details into the catalogue. She paused after jotting down her phone number, looking up at me.

‘Can I give you my husband’s email address?’

 ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘as long as he checks it.’

‘He does,’ every day. But I don’t use the computer.’

I froze. Though this wasn’t an uncommon admission, especially among the elderly or so socially disadvantaged. But this woman didn’t look old, or poor. Didn’t she realise the world has changed? I see this often among my home library clients. Women who never learned to use a CD player in the 1980’s are now old and infirm and beyond learning and we no longer have cassette tapes in the library. If you extrapolate this scenario out across all the other technologies that have emerged and how they have transformed the way society operates, this woman was setting herself up for social and emotional isolation in her old age. 

I didn’t say this, of course. My job is to meet specific information needs not to lecture people. I did however carry a waspish sense of sense of outrage over to my next enquiry. A significantly older woman with a list written in a spidery old lady hand. She wanted to know about a book called Dancing with Strangers. My colleague had punched the title into Google and come up with a number of possibilties. 

‘Do you know the author?’ I asked.

‘I think it might have been Glen Dinnen.’

I typed: Dinnen, Glen, into our catalogue. No result. I looked at the Google list again.

‘Do you remember what the book was about?’

‘It was about the early settlement of Australia and the first contact with the aborigines.’ 

‘Ah, I said. Clendinnen.’ But it had been a long morning, and I was due for morning tea and, as I read the book description out to her, I found myself thinking: if you’d learned to use a computer you could have worked this out for yourself. 

‘It’s for my book group,’ the old lady said. ‘I’m ninety two years of age. But I like to keep my mind active.’

Ouch, I thought. Retract earlier waspish sentiment. I found myself wondering whether I’d be discussing books and ideas in my ninety-third year. But that wasn’t the end of the lesson. Have you ever found that? When life sets out to teach you something, it is rarely gentle? As I worked through the woman’s book list, trying to ascertain how many copies of various titles we had in the collection, I started writing down, authors, titles and numbers for her.

‘Oh,’ she said, on seeing the list. Thank you… thank you so much.’ She stopped, swallowed, her voice wobbling with emotion. I kept my eyes trained on the computer screen. 

‘My husband, is a veteran.’ She said, when she found her voice again. ‘It’s hard looking after him. I come to the library every Friday, on the oldies bus. It is the highlight of my week.’

I swallowed, looking up her. At this point, she wasn’t the only one getting misty-eyed. 

‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.’

‘No.’ I shook my head. ‘Thank you, for making my job worthwhile.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Easter Aussie style – the rubber hits the road

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We had booked accomodation in the Victorian High country – a place of mountains, wineries and Autumn leaves. The theory being that I would be sufficiently recovered from my jet lag to enjoy a five day holiday. When I emailed to make the final payment, I found the accomodation had been double booked. The company had tried to phone me but I was using a UK SIM card and the emails they sent hadn’t materialised. I scrambled about trying to book alternative accomodation. There was nothing affordable in the High Country. I tried the coast. Nothing there either. I ended up booking and overpriced holiday cottage in Gariwerd (the Grampians).

‘It’ll be lovely,’ my daughter said. ‘Lot’s of nice walks.’

‘But no castles at the end of them.’ I replied.

‘There will be waterfalls.’

‘Yes.’ I forced a smile while secretly thinking: pigs might fly!

We’ve had a long hot summer in Australia. We’ve been waiting for a ‘good winter’ for the last ten years. All creek beds and potential waterfalls dried up long ago. There would be nothing in Gariwerd (yes, deliberate use of indigenous name) but dust and gum trees.

Now, at this point I must hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with Gariwerd – it is an area of outstanding natural beauty. But in Alexander McCall Smith’s, Number one ladies detective agency, Mma Ramotswe says:

Every man has a map in his heart of his own country. The heart will never forget the map.

While in the city it is possible for me to get caught up in the rhythm of daily life, to forget the map written on my heart. Face to face with the Australian bush, I would be reminded that I was in fact a long way from home.

I decided to take control of the situation, to make the holiday my own. Day one, I headed down to Bambruk, the Aboriginal Cultural Centre, and booked myself on a tour. I also bought tickets to an Ozact performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream in the local Heatherlie Quarry. 

Shakespeare in the bush! How was that going to work? I wasn’t sure, to be honest. My reservations grew as we travelled thirteen miles along a dirt road, hiked the sandy path to the quarry and laid our picnic mat in the dust. I needn’t have worried. Once the performance started, the majestic sheer stone quarry became a perfect backdrop to Shakespeare’s imagined world.

The following morning, I rose early and headed down to Bambruk for my cultural tour. Only to find, due to a mix up, that the tour had left earlier than the specified time – and without me. Andrew had gone on a long bike ride. I faced ten hours alone in Halls Gap. There are plenty of things to do in Gariwerd if you like hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking and four wheel driving. For me, the options are more limited. I could go for a drive or go for a bush walk. I chose the Chataqua Peak track a five and a half kilometre hike that boasted seasonal waterfalls. Of course, we were long out of season. There wasn’t a drop of water to be seen. Though, this little fellow did bring a smile to my face. 

The following day, I expressed an interest in returning to Heatherlie Quarry. I’ve spent the last seven months surrounded by abandoned quarry workings and, though this may prove to be nothing more than a local stone quarry, I’d seen information boards on my hike up the sandy bush track, abandoned buildings and equipment. For a museum and tour junkiee like me it promised and hour or two of great interest.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Established in the late 1860’s, Heatherlie Quarry was in fact one of Victoria’s foremost stone quarries. Transported to Melbourne by rail, the dressed sand-stone was used in a number on Melbourne’s historic buildings, such as Parliament House, the State Library of Victoria and the Melbourne Town Hall. 

After the quarry, Andrew was keen to visit Migunang Wirab (McKenzie’s Falls). I didn’t hold much hope for the visit beyond a parched picnic ground and a trickling creek. But bushfires had ripped through the area in 2014 and the whole recreation area had been remodelled. There were information boards (I read them all), well marked pathways, platforms and attractive railings, and lookouts from which we saw a beautiful waterfall. At which point, I didn’t feel so very far from home at all. 

 

 

 

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Blog thirty (o Heathrow) – things I am looking forward to

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Being one of two

Day or night

Better for worse

Being part of a bigger group

The Welsh word is teulu

Walking my dog

Riding my bike

To the shops

To the city

To the gym

(Okay, so that’s a lie)

But I’ll do it anyway

Join the gym, I mean

And shelve books

At the library

After stretching

Not wearing a raincoat

Every day

Or sleeping with a hot water bottle

Or in my down jacket

Hipster cafes

Good coffee

Everywhere

No, I mean everywhere

Not just Adam and Andy’s

The sgleen of trams

Along Sydney Road

WIFI

All day – every day

A phone signal

In most places

Sushi, kebabs, skinny flat whites

Salad on every menu

Water bottles on cafe tables

Being part of a faith community

On Sunday mornings

Where I’m not the visitor

From Australia

Welsh class

On Tuesday nights

In the bar afterwards

The smell of eucalyptus

Straight talking

Aussie, no nonsense

Barely polite

By British standards

Electricity sockets in the bathroom

Chasing my dog around Coburg

(Okay, so that’s a lie too)

But if he gets out, I’ll have to

Drinks with the neighbours

Rosie and Ted

Bike rides with friends

Charging my headlights

Riding home in the crisp cool evening

Turning into the bluestone lane

Heritage listed

But still bone jarring

The sensor light coming on

The garage door lifting

Home

Yes, I am coming home

 

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Blog thirteen and a half o Gymru – an invitation

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Blog five – a matter of false information

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Those who know me and can be bothered counting, may have noticed this is my fifth visit to the UK in the last ten years. You may also have observed that now and again (cough) I like to talk about the place. I mention the walks I’ve been on in Wales, the beachside amusement arccades, pubs which allow dogs (very civilised) the way people eat mushy peas with their fish and chips (maybe not so civilised) and how the Brits have a tendency to strip down to their Y fronts whenever the sun peeks out from behind a cloud (need I comment?). What you may not realise, is that I may have been guilty of giving you false information.

The misinformation, has its origins three years ago when, one Sunday, during my month long Welsh language Summer School, I decided to walk from Borth to Aberystwyth. It was a warm, blue sky, day, with only a whisper of cloud. I meandered along the Ceredigion Coastal Park, taking in the heather covered hillsides and spectacular sea views. Just short of Aberystwyth, I stopped for a drink at the cafe attached to the local caravan park. Having spent a number of summer holidays in Aussie Caravan parks, I enjoyed seeing how the Brits (largely from the Midlands judging by their accents) did the summer holiday thing. No, sun smart campaign, judging from the lobster-coloured backs of the children paddling on the beach. No trees for shade, or sun shelters and some of the caravans had two doors. Oh, my! How quaint! Semi-detached caravans!

Roll forward three years, and you will find me a little further along the coast with a group of Welsh speaking friends looking out over a different caravan park. The day wasn’t quite as sunny and, if I’m honest, it was a tad more windy (like blowing a force ten gale). As I sat shivering on the walls of Harlech Castle, I fell to making random summer holiday observations:

‘We don’t have castles in Australia so … this is not a normal summer holiday activity for me (nor the chattering teeth). Do many people stay in tents? Those semi-detached caravans you have are quaint.’

Silence. Four sets of eyes turned on me. ‘Semi-detached caravans?

‘Yes. I’ve seen them, near Aberystwyth.’

‘Really? I’ve never seen one.’ One by one, they all agreed.

Now at this point, I probably should have backed down. Four born and bred, British people, one who has an onsite caravan in a Welsh caravan park were telling me there was no such thing as a semi-detached caravan. What other evidence did I need? But here’s the thing about me. As well as telling tales of Brits sunbathing in their Y fronts, I may also have mentioned the semi-detached caravans a few times. Okay, so more than a few – and I was pretty damn sure they existed. I mean, why else would a caravan have two doors?

Our holiday finished without further reference to the great two door caravan fib. But back in Corris, I could not let the matter rest. I knew the Corris Caravan park wasn’t far away. I set off, camera in hand, to gather evidence. Imagine my delight when I came upon this scene.

I immediately sent a Facebook message to my friends.

‘Tystiolaeth!’ (Evidence)

‘Efallai’ (maybe)? The friend with the onsite caravan wrote. ‘Neu jyst carafan dau ddrws’ (or just a two door caravan).

No need to tell you what I thought of that idea. Who would be potty enough to make a caravan with two doors. Another friend messaged that she would best visiting the seaside town of Aberdyfi later in the week. She would do some research. I decided to join her This was too important a matter to leave to prejudiced minds.

We set off after dark, two middle aged women sneaking round a sleepy caravan park. Fortunately, we were in west Wales, where the crime rate is quite low, or we may have been arrested. Especially when we started circling two door caravans and peering through windows.

‘This one only has one storage box,’ my friend said.

I had to admit she was right.

‘And one number plate.’

Right again.

‘And look this one only has a name.’

I looked at the caravan in question. Number two, Seaspray, and there was only one storage box. I had to admit the evidence was stacking up against me. But what to do? How to tell my Aussie friends that a glorious West Wales holiday in a semi-detached caravan was no longer a possibility? And what about all my other stories. Maybe those men weren’t wearing Y fronts after all?

I’m not sure where all this doubt would have lead too, if not for the quiet persistence of my friend with the onsite caravan. Quite apart from our nighttime escapades, he’d been conducting his own quiet research. It’s called the World Wide Web, in case your interested. Far more sensible than creeping around caravan parks at night. Here’s the picture he sent me.

There may not be semi-detached caravans in modern Britain but once upon a time they did exist. In fact, if enough people make enquiries about semi-detached caravan holidays in West Wales we might be able to bring them back again. Meanwhile, I’m conducting another branch of research. Can someone please tell me why some British caravans have two doors?

 

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Becoming a Welsh language expert…

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I am not an expert at anything. I am a Jack-of-all-trades kind of girl. Imagine my surprise when an elderly gentleman approached me at the library.

‘I want to learn Welsh,’ he said. ‘One of your colleagues told me you are the library’s Welsh language expert.’

Turns out the man was vision impaired and needed a course that didn’t require him to be able to read or write. I knew just the course and my ‘Welsh language expert status’ was confirmed as surely if it had been listed on my job description along with a degree in library and information studies, eligiblility for ALIA accreditation, and holding a current Victorian driver’s license.

Now, personally, I think the ability to speak Welsh should be an essential requirement for every librarian. But as they haven’t yet achieved this in Wales, I don’t have much chance in suburban Melbourne. It was a shock therefore when on a second business-as-usual afternoon another man sought me out.

‘Hello. I’m looking for Liz Corbett.’

‘Yes. That’s me. How can I help you?’

‘I heard you speak Welsh.’

Heard! Where from? I guessed another of my colleagues had supplied the information.

‘I try, but…my Welsh isn’t fluent.’

Turns Ken James was a local historian with Welsh ancestry who was doing research on Eaglehawk’s Welsh Churches (yes, the hiraeth gets to us all eventually). He had a couple of cemetery inscriptions that needed translating. Would I have a look at them? Now, as my job description does not have ‘an ability to speak Welsh’ as a condition of employment, I am not paid to translate documents. As a librarian I am supposed to direct the borrower to the languages section. But as a person with an interest in Austalian history and Welsh language, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass.

‘I’ll have a go,’ I said. ‘If I can’t work it out, I know people who can. Why not email me a copy?’

Here is one of the inscriptions Ken James sent to me:

Jones

Serrhog Goffodwrineth / Robert Watkin Jones/ Pantymarch / Anwl Ac Unig Fab / Watkin Jones / Pandy, Llanuwchllyn, Bala / Yr Hwn A Hunodd Yn Yr Iesu / Hydref / 10 February 1884 Yn Zomywydd Oed / “God’s Will Be Done”.


It was school holidays and being a mildly (cough) obsessive person I didn’t want to wait until Welsh classes started back again. I looked up serrhog. It wasn’t in my dictionary. Neither was gofodwrineth. However, language is all about context. I am often telling my Welsh class. Your comprehension will sometimes be situational. So, what was the context here? I looked at English language cemetery inscriptions. They generally started with something like loving remembrance. I looked up remembrance in the English side of my dictionary and came up with: coffadwriaeth, remembrance, and serchog, with means affectionate. The spelling was wrong (possibly the family had no dictionary and may not have had much education in the Welsh language – it wasn’t exactly encouraged – and maybe they were relying on English speaking mason). Anyway, the inscription should have read: Serchog goffadwriaeth. Perfect.


See, being an expert is easy. 🙂


I knew Pantymarch and Llanuwchllyn, Bala were place names. I also knew that there was no letter z in the Welsh alphabet. A little enquiry, confirmed that Robert Watkin Jones had died at the age of twenty. Therefore zomywydd oed was probably 20 blwydd oed – twenty years old – Anwl ac Unig Fab meant: dear and only son.


I paused, thinking about this family far from home who had lost their only son at twenty years of age.


So, much pain, in those few words.


My final challenge with this inscription was the phrase: Yr Hwn A Hunodd Yn Yr Iesu.


Hunodd meant ‘slept’ my dictionary told me, Iesu, I knew, meant Jesus. But why yr hwn? And why yr Iesu? Literally, it seemed to be saying ‘the this and slept in the Jesus.’ Puzzled, I went where any sensible woman in this day and age who needs to know something goes. Facebook.


Fortunately Sion Meredith Director of Cymraeg i Oedolion – Canolbarth Cymru – Welsh for Adults mid-Wales was online. That’s right – a real expert. He confirmed my earlier guesswork and told me the phrase Yr Hwn a Hunodd yn yr Iesu meant: this one slept in Christ. Nice. I sent my results back to Ken James. Imagine my pleasure when a few months later he came back to the library with a signed copy of his book: Eaglehawk’s Welsh churches. He even put my name in the acknowledgements.

 

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The Railwayman’s Wife – a review

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I had never heard of the acclaimed author Ashely Hay, prior to reading The railwayman’s wife. An arresting cover image of a veiled woman above a misty seascape, overlaid with a deep, cranberry title, caught my eye durIng library shelving time. I picked the book up. Not unusual, I often finish shelving with a trolley full of maybes. Would this do for Mrs Jones? I wondered. Or Mrs Smith? I read the blurb on the back cover. A historical novel, Australian author, hmm…the book was ticking a number of boxes. Maybe I should read it first?

Yes, why not? I checked it out on my card and took it home.

The railwayman’s wife is set in Hay’s home town of Thirroul, during the years immediately following World War Two. Having survived the war in this idyllic setting, Anikka Lachlan’s life is shattered by a sudden, unexpected loss. Returning to the Thirroul at this time, is Roy McKinnon, a war poet and one time school teacher, who is struggling to come to terms with beauty after the violence and horror of war. As Roy struggles to find his voice. Anikka struggles to rebuild her life. Both find solace in the railway station’s library.

The novel unfolds through the third person viewpoints of Annika, Roy and Annikka’s husband, Mac. In addition to its shifting point-of-view, the narrative also switches between past and present tenses, giving the whole a dreamy reflective feel, that is in keeping with its themes of grief and loss. Not an easy book to write. Or read. But once into the groove, its clear, shining, cut-glass prose, lift the novel out of the ordinary. The railwayman’s wife is a homage to literature and, as such, is strengthened by references to novels and poetic works. When in the course of the novel, Roy McKinnon, writes a poem, I found myself consumed by writerly envy.

Not only can this woman craft can a good sentence she’s a poet too!

Turns out this wasn’t the case. Hay had a go at writing a poem and couldn’t quite pull it off. She went in search of a poet who was willing to write a bespoke poem and found it in the person of Stephen Edgar. Edgar’s poetry immortalises the voice of Roy McKinnon, giving the novel a delicacy that could not have been achieved through prose alone. I was not surprised to learn that since its 2013 publication, The Railwayman’s Wife has been awarded the Colin Roderick Prize. It also won the People’s Choice Award at the 2014 NSW Premier’s Prize, was longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin and Nita B. Kibble awards, and shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the NSW Premier’s Prize.

In addition to writerly envy, I now felt a flush of librarian’s shame.

How had this writer escaped my notice?

As a librarian, I often have people come to the information desk and ask: what’s a ‘good book’? Here’s the catch: one person’s ‘good book’ is another person’s yawn-fest. To what subset of readers would I recommend The railwayman’s wife? It isn’t a plot driven novel. Indeed, there is a section immediately after the set-up where it may have been possible to stop reading. The urgency of the tale picks up once the friendship between Annika and Roy is established. Hay teases her reader with the possibility of a happy ending. Then brings us to a climax that is breathtakingly, shocking. I wouldn’t be recommending it to readers who like a feel-good story. The Railwayman’s wife is literary novel, rich in words, imagery and ideas, suitable for those who like to read prize winners and to members of book groups. It offers the potential for much in-depth discussion.

 

 

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Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2105

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The statistics compiled in conjunction with Australia’s Stella Prize paints a sobering picture of reviewing patterns in Australia. On average, more books by male authors are reviewed by predominantly male reviewers. Why does this concern me? I am a woman. I write. I am also a librarian. On anecdotal, whom-I-serve-at-the-desk evidence, I encounter more women, than men. These women have longer books lists. They read across a range of genres. Many belong to book groups. But let’s move away from anecdotes.

In my capacity as a Home Library Service Librarian, I select books for housebound members of our community. Of the thirty two housebound individuals serviced through our local branch, five borrowers are men. Twenty seven are women, in case your maths is as bad as mine, that’s eighty five percent. It’s my job to know what is available and to develop and in depth understanding of what my borrowers like to read. One of the ways I do this, is by reading reviews.

So, male or female, what’s the difference? A good review is a good review isn’t it?

Maybe.

Or maybe male reviewers favour books by men? Maybe there are broad gender differences in reading tastes? Maybe, more women read literary fiction than men? Maybe more read romance? Or follow crime series? Maybe, some favour books about relationships? Inner growth over action? Maybe these women want to hear what other women think about the books they are reading?

Enter the Australian Women Writers’ challenge a website established to raise the profile of Australian Women Writers. Elizabeth Lhuede, the site’s founder, realised she was guilty of gender bias in her reading choices. Lhuede read fewer books by women – particularly, Australian women. In 2102, she decided to redress this balance, contacting librarians, booksellers, publishers, book bloggers, authors, teachers and inviting them to examine their reading habits. She asked them to join her in reviewing books by Australian women. By the end of 2012, 1500+ reviews were linked to her blog. In 2103, the number had risen to 1800+ books, reviewed by over two hundred reviewers, only seventeen of whom were men. In 2104, these figures increased.

Now it’s 2015 and I’m jumping on the bandwagon.

  • I am committing to reading four books by Australian women in 2015 and reviewing at least three of them.
  • Four? That’s nothing!
  • I agree.
  • I expect to read more titles but…I have committement issues.
  • Most of these will be historical fiction titles because that’s what I like reading.
  • In addition to the four books by Australian women, I will also read four books by Honno the Welsh Women’s press
  • Why not?
  • I am going to the first ever Historical Novels Society of Australasia conference in March.
  • I’ll be living in Wales for the second half of the year.
  • I’m not saying I won’t read books by men. I mean, McCall Smith might bring out a new title.
  • But basically, I’m going to be exploring books written by women
  • And talking about them
  • So, watch this space

 

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