Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: reflection (Page 2 of 2)

Old Melbourne Town – some snippets from history

One of the best parts about researching a historical era and location in which to set a novel is that you have to read everything. The sadest part is that you don’t get to use half of what you learn. At least, not consciously. But you don’t ever know what you’ll need. So you read.

This week have been reading Old Melbourne Town by Michael Cannon. l am always struck when reading about Victoria’s early settlers at how capricious they were – coming overland and across Bass Straight to occupy the district illegally, yet calling on British law to protect their squatting interests. Despoiling the land with nary a thought for its original inhabitants, living in tiny wattle and daub huts, enduring floods, fires, noxious odours and explosions, yet having the foresight to lay out botanical gardens, race courses and cricket clubs. What vision. What arrogance.

Here are some snippets I came across this week.

  • Punt Road is called Punt Road because – wait for it – there was a punt at that part of the river
  • Living ‘south of the Yarra’ was nothing to boast about initially.
  • The inhabitants of the south bank huts and clay pits were ‘social pariahs,’ said to be ‘terrors for drinking.’
  • Elizabeth Street was originally a creek bed
  • Small wooden bridges were constructed so that people could cross from the road to the shops
  • Commercial water carriers pumped water from the Yarra and delivered it to town inhabitants
  • Carcasses from the abattoirs below Batman’s Hill were thrown into the Yarra
  • The incoming tide washed them back towards the town
  • Some wondered whether this was causing ill health
  • A dam was constructed across the Yarra to help separate the fresh water from the incoming tidal waters
  • In July 1842, flood waters swept down the Yarra were balked at the dam and flooded the town
  • Brick makers huts and kilns were washed away
  • People drowned
  • This happened in 1842, 1843 and 1844
  • Old Melbourne gaol is in fact the fourth Melbourne gaol. Aboriginals burnt the first one down in 1838
  • The majority of Melbourne’s first constables (sent down from Sydney) were dismissed for drunkenness and corruption
  • Melbourne’ first Supreme Court Judge, John Walpole Willis’ stormy background included expulsion from school, removal as Equity Judge in Upper Canada, and constant conflict with his brother judges in Sydney.
  • Governor Gipps sent him to Melbourne to get rid of him.
  • Ditto Supreme Court Deputy Registrar James Denham Pinnock (also from Sydney) who as Emigration Agent had allowed ‘many scandals to continue.’
  • Are you picking up a theme here?
  • The first mail in the settlement was hand delivered by John Batman
  • Letters took five weeks to travel overland from Melbourne to Sydney
  • One poor horseman rode all the way to Yass and forgot to exchange the mail bags, returning months later with the original letters
  • I am thinking of taking up genealogy.
  • Seriously, I think he and I must be related

Family Matters – a reflection on Internet enabled grand parenting

Anyone who ever had a meal with our family back in the days when we were all living under one roof will recall one iron fast rule. No phone calls during dinner time. If the phone rang we would sit, glued to our seats, listening to the answering machine go through its paces. Mostly, the caller would hang up, dinner being the favoured time of telemarketers. At others, a digitised message from the Whitehorse Maningham Regional Library Service would tell us our books were overdue. Occasionally, it was a personal call and the intended recipient would turn besseching eyes on Andrew.

He never let them answer.

These days, the rules have changed.

Sunday night we had an impromptu BBQ. We went through the usual agonised debate over how to use our gas Weber Q. We've had the BBQ almost two years and I use it all the time. But when we have people over Andrew and I have to coordinate our efforts. This always involves the instruction book and loads of impassioned hand gestures, causing Seth to observe.

'Family BBQ's wouldn't be the same without the great Weber debate.'

Anyway, we got the meat cooked, table set, salads on the table, we had just finished saying the blessing when Andrew's iPad started to chime.

'That'll be Jack,' he said, determined to preserve the sanctity of our meal time. 'We'll call back after dinner.'

'But Charlie might be in bed.'

'Quick, Dad, you'd better get it.'

'There's a spare seat. We could pop him at the end of the table.'

A quick glance at his watch, a flicker of indecision, andrew lunged, and thirty years of patriarchal control crumbled.

Charlie took his place at the head of the dinner table.

This is not an new event for the boy. We do a regular Sunday night call, watching him finish his dinner have a bath and get ready for bed.

This is called twenty-first century grandparenting.

Tonight Charlie had two adoring aunts and an uncle to watch him plough through his bowl of his spaghetti. Skype dropped out at some point and we had enough self control not to call back. The conversation turned to other matters, for some reason we needed to know what the alphabet that goes Alpha, Bravo, Charlie… Is called. I mean we had to know. I was twitching to look it up on Google, but, old habits die hard. I knew Andrew would only say.

'You don't have to look it up now, Liz.'

Fortunately, the kids are unaccustomed to not knowing. When did that happen? The realisation that most family debates can be solved by resorting to Google? Except, when two phones are involved, each one bringing up data to support their side of the argument.

Sunday night, Phoebe was the first to cave.

The alphabet is called the International Radio Telephony Alphabet, in case you are interested.

After dinner we filled the teapot and took a follow up call from Jack. Charlie was in the bath. We chatted while Jack dried and dressed him. Once he was upright, in his nighttime grow suit, Jack said. Watch Charlie for a minute will you?

He ducked from the room.

Now I don't know about you but I have reservations about minding a toddler on Skype two states away. I wasn't the only with doubts, one uncle, two adoring aunts and a besotted grandfather stared open mouthed at the screen. Charlie's chubby knees came into view, his little round toddler tummy, two wide blue eyes. He then turned and toddled out of view.

'Charlie!' A chorus of voices. 'Charlie!'

He didn't return.

I started moving the iPad around, trying to find Charlie, which didn't achieve anything, apart from making us all dizzy.

'Hold it still, Mum. You won't be able to find him. Charlie! Come back Charlie.'

Fortunately, Jack returned with Charlie under his arm. After after a story, the boy was tucked up in bed. We then took turns passing Jack around the room.

This is not a new phenomena either. We do this whenever we have a birthday gathering. Mostly with Jack and Ness. Sometimes with Carine. Or my brother Ian. Skype attendance has become a normal part of our family gatherings. I don't suppose we're alone in this. I guess it's like that in other families too.

The evening finished off with a quick YouTube session. Also becoming a standard feature of family events. We huddle around each other's mobile phones (I don't know why we don't use the iPads. Bonding perhaps?) and show of our latest favourites. Seth generally has the best offerings. This week he showed us Seinfeld in parliament. Why not check it out? Then you can be part of the party too.



Library lessons – a true story

It was ordinary Friday afternoon in the library service, mum’s and kids, retired couples, a full complement of the regular unfortunates, me busy reserving items, trouble shooting computer problems, helping people download eBooks, finding the latest travel guide. As I said, business as usual, until the lady with the green shopping bag sat down at my desk.

There was nothing distinct about the woman, on first impressions. She was lower middle-aged, had honey brown hair, wore gold hoop earrings. She could have been any one of the women that access our library service. Though, I noticed, as she sat down, that she was a little dishevelled, breathless. As if approaching the information desk had taken some effort.

‘I’ve got these books.’

I nodded, summoning a smile, wondering, if I was about to assess another pile of not-so-useful donations.

‘I’ve had to move,’ she paused, tears welling. ‘A number of times.’

A tear spilled onto her cheek. She dashed it away with the back of her hand. Another followed. And another. She raised a hand to her face. I’m thinking someone has died. It has to be a death, surely? By now her shoulders were also quivering. With a sinking heart, I realised, I was going to have to take the donations, even if they were useless.

I waited. Not knowing how to respond. I mean, this situation wasn’t covered in library training. It wouldn’t be professional to grasp her hand. Or go round the desk and give her a hug. Infact, it would probably freak the poor woman out. Eventually, she drew a shaky breath. Upending the bag, she tipped a pile of children’s books onto my desk.

‘They’re overdue.’ She said. ‘And the fine…I can’t pay.’

A fine? Not what I expected. I’ve had people lie about library fines, make excuses, slip the books back on the shelf, the occasional flare of anger, hissed threats. But this was grief, and heartfelt, and something about it unnerved me. I searched the woman’s face. Seeing worry lines. Sorrow in her tear-glazed eyes. And something else. What was it? ‘Do you have a library card?’

‘Yes, my daughters.’ She handed it over.

I opened up her daughter’s membership record. The fines weren’t small. But I’ve seen worse. I returned the books – Hairy Maclary, Dogger, John Brown, Rose and the midnight cat, Where the wild things are, The Gruffalo, and others – a catalogue of innocence. They were all accounted for. I smiled, going into official librarian mode. ‘Let’s start by updating your address.’

‘No.’ A flicker of fear. ‘I can’t tell you where I live.’

Fear? That was the other emotion. What was going on here? I studied the membership record, looking for inspiration, knowing I should be going through the spiel about getting books back on time being the woman’s responsibility, that having a correct address was part of our process, reminding her that we’d explained all this when she signed up as her daughter’s guarantor. Guarantor? I flicked into the family details tab. Hang on a sec, woman wasn’t the guarantor. ‘There’s a man’s name on your daughter’s record.’

‘Her father.’

‘He joined her?’

‘He came, that day. Made me use his name. But we don’t see him anymore.’

Right, the woman had moved a number of times, she was scared to give me her address, her husband made her use his name. I’m starting to get a prickles-down-the-spine feeling. ‘Technically,’ I said, choosing my next words with care, ‘you are not responsible for these charges.’

‘He’d say it was my fault. I had to keep track of them.’

‘Your name isn’t on the record. Or your address. You have no legal obligation.’

Pressing her lips together, she shook her head. ‘He won’t pay. Ever.’

‘He’ll get a notice, if you leave the charges on his card. Asking him to clear them. But…that won’t be good for you, is that what you’re saying?

‘Yes.’ She said. ‘He would pursue me.’


I’m not going to tell you how the interview ended. That is between me, God and the library system. But, no-one – man, woman, or child – should have to live with that kind of fear. By the time the woman left the library, she wasn’t the only one fighting back tears.


A severe dose of real life…

These last two weeks, you seem to have been struck by a severe dose of real life. Behind at work, stuff to do around the house, Doctors appointments with your mum, an emergency dash to the Apple store, catching up with friends, a visit from the Canberra Corbett’s, a family lunch, braving BodyStep class, cycling home in an aching, how-did-I-lose-so-much-form daze, dental appointments, grocery shopping, catching up with friends, Biskit escaping…

Can I go on holiday again please?

All this time your manuscript is waiting in your drawer. You lie in bed each morning with the Marimba alarm tone ringing in your ear, telling yourself, today is the day. Today, you will start work on your novel again… It’s not that you don’t enjoy writing. When the words are flowing, there is nothing better in the world. But…when you are coming back from a long break, wondering what exactly you wrote six weeks ago, whether it will be clumsy and embarrassing when you see it with fresh, almost a stranger’s, eyes, fearing a great wave of despair will crash over you, and that you will realise you’ve been deluding yourself, all along.

You should have focused on your library career.

In the end, you develop a cold, a sniffling, achey-all-over kind of malaise that knocks you flat. You cancel Welsh Class (yes, that bad), crawl into bed and sleep for two days. On the third day, when you eventually drag yourself upright, you spend a day reading Llwbyr Llaethog Llundain, a fascinating little Welsh language book about cattle drovers and the subsequent development of a Welsh dairy industry in London. Not a complete diversion. Your Welsh character was in fact a drover and he did work in a dairy. Though, neither of these details are major plot points (more like back story) and you’ve pretty much got them covered. But, it helps to know the details in those two paragraphs are just right.

Confidence. It’s all about confidence.

Next day you sit on the couch – with a fire blazing and an old lady rug over your knees (okay, so a little indulgent). You won’t ‘work’ on your manuscript, you tell yourself. You’re far too sick. But it won’t hurt to start reading, from the beginning. That way you’ll get to know your characters again. And if it all gets too much, you can simply curl up on the couch and go back to sleep.

Now, this is the kind of thing writing books warm you about all the time – ‘avoid going back to the beginning.’ But you are at a fine tuning stage, trying to respond to reader feedback, and make subtle but meaningful changes. It’s scary. And it makes your brain ache.

And sometimes…well, you have to trick yourself.

You play at ‘not writing‘ for a couple of days. Mostly, you tinker. In some places, you re-draft whole paragraphs, once, twice, three times. Other times, you press delete. Doodling, journaling, trashing, commenting, all the while working your way back into the story. By Thursday, you have reached the scenes that most needed changing. Some, still need work. Others…maybe they are okay? You take a deep breath and hook your laptop up to the screen on your desk. Your sniffles are gone. The fog of jet-lag has lifted. You realise you are back. Writing. It’s time to get serious.


A reflection on the letters ICU

You have heaps to write about. A new bike, travel plans, a trip to the Apple Store, the reasons you favour red shoes over all others. Yes, I know, important topics. They will one day be explored. But this week has been given over to a three letter acronym – ICU.

Your journey began last Friday when your daughter was scheduled for spinal surgery. It would be a big operation you were told and, as with all surgery, there were associated risks. You brace in the preceding weeks, light candles, journal about your hopes and fears, ask trusted friends to hold you in prayer, then you set off for the hospital ready to watch and wait.

The surgery will take two hours the surgeon tells you on admission. Please make sure your mobile phone is switched on. He will call when she is in recovery. You head down to the cafe. Marvel that a hospital canteen can be so unhealthy. The staff in their uniforms ploughing through great mounds of chips. You write a blog, check your Twitter feed. Two hours passes. You check your phone. No missed calls. The same half an hour later. After three and a half hours, you head to the hospital reception.

'Is my daughter in recovery yet?'

'No, they tell you. Still in surgery.'

You wander the hospital corridors. All those safely journaled fears come bubbling to the surface. At four hours, you find yourself in the hospital chapel staring into the stained-glass face of Jesus. Once you would have raged against the the possibility that things might be going wrong. You'd prayed. Why didn't God do what you'd asked? Years down the track and at a different place in your faith journey you know bad things happen to good people all the time. Today, one of them might be happening to your daughter.

In the filtered light of the chapel windows, the call comes. The surgeon says your daughter has lost a lot of blood during surgery. Four litres. You wonder how much blood a body needs. They have managed to collect and transfuse the blood but your daughter will need a night in ICU. The procedure has gone well the surgeon tells you, his voice gentle. This is nothing to worry about.

You try not to worry sitting in the ICU waiting room. And when you see your daughter wheeled past in a tangle of cables, monitors and and oxygen lines. You try not to worry later on when you are allowed to visit her. You look around the ward at people suspended between trauma and recovery. Most of are old, their bodies twisted by illness and time. You wonder how your daughter has ended up in such a place.

You learn a great deal in ICU. As one night turns into three, you realise so much can go wrong. Kidneys don't take kindly to blood loss. When they fail, there is nothing the doctors can do to start them again, only manage the symptoms and wait for the body to remember its lines. You pray. Though, you scarcely know where to begin. Though, once or twice you do inform the Almighty that you don't much like the way things are unfolding. Yet, for all your disappointment you know ICU is a privelege, the possibility of such care beyond the reach of over half the world's population. As three nights turns into four, you consider the likelihood of missing your grandson's first birthday celebrations in Brisbane over the weekend.

Then, on day five it happens. The creatinine levels start dropping. The nausea and dizziness ease. You notice your daughter is smiling again. You wait, trusting this is the tide turn. That all those assurances the doctors gave you were in anticipation of this moment. You are not disappointed. Your daughter is wheeled up to the orthopedic ward. She is walking, eating, her kidneys are filtering. Leaving the hospital after visiting hours that night you walk past the hospital chapel. It is in darkness now. Only a single candle to mark its purpose. As you stand in the flickering candlelight, you know Jesus is there even when you can't see his face.


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