The rise of the memoir manifesto

The odd little niche that is manifesto/memoir has exploded in recent years. One would have thought the advent of the internet would have quelled, not accelerated, the genre’s (I guess it’s a genre?) popularity. Who would ever do something so pedestrian as go to a book these days for political think pieces? Twitter is right there (and by right there I mean friggin’ everywhere).  In the place of revolutionary pamphlets (Martin Luther), long bits of scroll written by white dudes (US Declaration of Independence) or stone tablets (Moses on a mountain), Twitter and blogs have become the most accessible points of contact for those seeking to define the zeitgeist of the age or to inspire change. Often, the author’s personal narrative is at the heart of these discussions. (Even our CEO Jennifer McDonald is at it. You can check out her immensely popular blog here.) As the Internet moves like water into the nooks and crannies of every aspect of our most intimate selves, manifesto and memoir have become merged.

But where the internet offers the broadest of churches in both quality of thought and quality of writing, books now treat the genre as very literary indeed. The most recognisable trigger point for the pivot was 2015’s Between the World and Me by Ta-nehisi Coates, a truly wondrous book, worthy of every one of its accolades. Winner of the National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller, the slim volume is a direct address from Coates to his teenage soon, attempting to articulate the experience of being black in America.

I struggle to think of a book that is so exquisitely written and manages to articulate the disturbing mess of racial politics. Coates is, as Toni Morison points out, a contemporary James Baldwin. He is just that good.

“So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to be twice as good which is to say accept half as much. These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile.”

511ktu-MsbLReleased just one year later, Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country is too easily reduced to ‘just like Coates’ work but for Australia’. In fact, reading these two books side by side reveals how unique - and how much further we have to go in this country. Widely acclaimed and winner of the Walkley Book Award, Grant’s intensely personal meditation on race feels at times like a confessional, at other times like an urgent warning. Every senior Australian school student should be required to read this astonishing work.

“I have started this so many times and stopped. I have tried to find the right words. It is so tempting to turn to rage and blame. I am angry: I know that. It flares suddenly and with the slightest provocation; it takes my breath away sometimes. I know where that comes from. I have seen it in my father and he inherited it from his father. It comes from the weight of history.

I am afraid too. And that comes from the same place. I have known this fear all my life. When I was young it used to make me feel sick, physically ill in the pit of my stomach. It was a fear of what could touch us - the sense of powerlessness, of being at the mercy of the intrusion of the police or the welfare offices who enforced laws that enshrined our exclusion and condemned us to poverty. It was a heavy hand that made people tremble. … We fear the state and we have every reason to. The state was designed to scare us.”

This is to say nothing, of course, of the long list of celebrated books by women on contemporary feminism. Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford, Shrill by Lindy West and Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay just to name a few. I highlighted so many passages from Gay’s book that it’s a neon storm from page to page.

“It's hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you're not imagining things. It's hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you're going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it's that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.” 

The point being there’s a lot of great writing out there on the issues of the day. The news gives us plenty of reasons to despair about the state of the world, but these books go beyond headlines, beyond tweets, to actually articulate some of the more messy and nuanced aggressions at the heart of our everyday life. 

41wmScO2UaL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Getting these books into the hands of their perfect audience - those who need to have their prejudices illuminated, who need to have their understanding deepened - is difficult. But I have even surprised myself in this regard. I went to these books to attempt to grapple with my straight, white male-ness. In doing so, I expected to be raked over the coals. Something in me felt I should read these as some kind of punishment for my privilege. Instead, I found the experience heart-warming. It validated my view of the world and made me feel closer to people. It expressed ideas that I felt in my gut but didn’t have room for. And yes, at times, it challenged me, but not as the hair-trigger challenge of an errant tweet. It confronted me on a deeper level, where I was able to have a dialogue with an author and examine my own life and behavior, quietly.

So, read these books or at least these sorts of books. Give them to someone in your life after you’ve read them and then talk about them. Bonus points if they’re a young person. 

The Handmaid’s Tale – A season too far already?

Leave a comment on this post and you’ll go into the draw to win Jen’s slightly second-hand copy of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Post by Jennifer McDonald

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 18 months you couldn’t have failed to notice the hubbub surrounding the screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize winning The Handmaid’s Tale starring Elizabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes.

I’m no TV show critic so I’ll spare you the addition of my voice to the chorus of reviews on the second instalment of this Hulu Original series. I’m also not a purist about screen adaptations of brilliant books like The Handmaid’s Tale. I understand that stories told in books are often enhanced and expanded for the screen, large and small, particularly when the producers are trying to eke as many seasons as possible out of the original print concept. I accept that and occasionally delight in the fruit of their efforts.  But as a publisher and a great believer in the excruciating impact good fiction can sometimes have on the real world, you can hardly blame me for standing up for books.

A New York Times review by Margaret Lyons (republished in The New Daily) said it best. While Season Two had retained its stunning visuals (think blood red-clad handmaids walking beside grey sandstone walls or filmed from above running through stark white snowscapes) Lyons asserts that the TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale appears to have ‘run out of story’. 

Right about now, anyone who’s read Atwood’s astonishing book (or any of her books for that matter) would have to be asking themselves, how could that happen and so quickly?   

The Handmaid’s Tale burst onto our screens in 2017 just after Trump made history as the US’s first pussy-grabbing President. Who can forget the infamous photograph of him in the Oval Office, surrounded by blokes, signing an executive order to ban federal funding to international groups providing information on abortions? No wonder The Handmaid’s Tale was the darling of the 2017 awards season. Offred/June’s words during one of her pre-Gilead flashbacks seemed chillingly close to home - ‘That’s how we let it happen.’

After such a strong start out of the blocks, season two is in danger of losing the plot, descending into what Lyons describes in her review as little more than ‘torture porn’ with circular, obscure and sometimes dead-end storylines. More than once while viewing this season I was bored enough to contemplate turning the TV off. For someone who had trouble putting the book down, that’s nothing short of a travesty!

Margaret Atwood’s original work is so rich in narrative tributaries feeding into the wild rapids of a dystopian feminist nightmare I find it impossible to accept that the screen representation could be ‘running out of story’. It’s more likely that, flush with the acclaim and success of the first season, the book’s themes have fallen by the wayside or been sacrificed for the entertainment value of whippings, rapes, executions, death by radiation poisoning and forced separations of mothers and their babies. 

You see? There’s still plenty of modern day relevance in this futuristic fiction so it’s not too late to salvage The Handmaid’s Tale for at least another few seasons yet. One need look no further than the book. If I was executive producer for a day, here’s what I’d run with:

  1. Pursue Serena Joy’s backstory: The TV series made a very promising start on this but to my mind, it’s low hanging fruit that season two just left hanging. In the book, the pre-Gilead Serena was a gospel singer who made speeches in support of ‘traditional values’ and a-woman’s-place-being-in-the-home. While being the wife of a Commander afforded certain privileges denied to other women in Gilead, Serena is as oppressed as the rest of them. In a recent re-read of the book I came across Offred’s telling observation of the Commander’s wife: 

‘She doesn’t make speeches any more. She has become speechless. She stays in her home but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be now that she’s been taken at her word.’ 

Furious indeed. The actor who plays Serena Joy Waterford, Yvonne Strahovski, has just been nominated for an Emmy, providing a big fat clue to the value of this highly ironic character’s storyline.

  1. Take a closer look at Aunt Lydia: This character (played so immaculately by Ann Dowd, another Emmy award winner for her part in The Handmaid’s Tales first season) is the starkest example of a most perplexing and horrifying theme of the book - the subjugation and humiliation of women by other women.  While this phenomenon isn’t new (think the Aufseherinnen in Nazi Germany’s concentration camps) the motivations behind the cruelty of Aunt Lydia and her cohorts in the realm of Gilead would be rich pickings for a very interesting continuing narrative. 
  2. The roles and fates of ‘lesser men’: And no, I don’t mean Nick the driver-cum-security guard of the Waterford household, even though his role is both obscure and fascinating in the book as well as the TV series. I mean the other non-Commander types. We already know that males who happened to be homosexual, intellectuals, political dissidents, journalists or doctors who worked in the field of women’s reproductive health (if you get my meaning) were hunted down and slaughtered by the incoming Gilead regime. But what of the ordinary men who were not fortunate enough to be afforded Commander status? 

In the book Offred observes that many of the security guards on the street are no more than adolescents who’ve known no other life before Gilead. Now, they’re equipped with machine guns and combat gear which, thanks to their limited life experience, they sometimes use injudiciously. These young men are sworn to protect the handmaids as they walk two-by-two to the shops. But looking at them or, God forbid, touching them, is a criminal offence punishable by execution. Too young and insignificant to be afforded State-issued ‘wives’ and in the absence of books and magazines, porn films or even prostitutes (these are the preserve of the ruling class) Offred wonders what kind of outlet these young men have for their raging testosterone? 

Towards the end of the book, one of these ‘guardians’ is the subject of a particularly gruesome ceremony where handmaids are let loose to tear him apart with their bare hands as penance for a supposed rape. In the TV series, the young guardian assigned to the Waterfords home makes off with Eden, the new, 15 year-old wife assigned to Nick the driver. When they’re caught, both are ceremoniously and simultaneously executed for the crime of falling in love. All evidence to the gun-slinging contrary, it would seem that an ordinary young man in Gilead is a particularly powerless creature. 

And then there’s the Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale section at the end of the book, a particular stroke of Atwood fictional genius. This epilogue of sorts is recounted as a partial transcript of a paper delivered at the Twelfth Symposium of Gileadean Studies in 2195 by Professor Pieixoto of England’s Cambridge University. Clearly, by this time, Gilead is a but a blip on the horizon of world history.

The Professor’s paper chronicles the discovery of some cassette tape recordings of a woman’s voice, uncovered in what would have been the state of Maine prior to being enveloped by Gilead. These tapes have been transcribed and entitled The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred is identified as the narrator and her story provides incredible insight into the culture and workings of the Gilead regime. Professor Pieixoto’s retrospective conclusions about State-institutionalised procreation, while vastly informative, are highly objective and clinical as evidenced by this passage:

‘If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgement upon the Gileadeans… [their] society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and it was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand. (Applause from the audience.)’

I’d forgotten about this epilogue until I reread the book in preparation for writing this post.  Seems to me that the TV show producers and scriptwriters could do a lot worse than revisit the book for viable, contemporarily relevant themes to underpin several more series of The Handmaid’s Tale. Running out of story? Please…

Don’t forget to leave a comment on this post if you’d like to go into the draw to win a pre-loved copy of the book!

Dorothy Johnston's Swan Island Connection

We're thrilled to announce that a handful of our authors are part of the NOOSA ALIVE celebrations next week, including our acclaimed crime novelist, Dorothy Johnson. You can find details about Dorothy's event here.

Inspired by real Queenscliff folklore, The Swan Island Connection sees Chris and Anthea consigned to the edges of a shocking murder investigation that somehow involves the secret military training base stationed on the island just off the coast of their peaceful town.

Here, author Dorothy Johnston shares some anecdotes of living in Queenscliff, where local residents must share their town with shadowy military agents.

Though the existence of a secret training base on Swan Island was denied for years by successive federal governments, Brian Toohey and Bill Pinwell, in their book, ‘Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service’ offers some tantalising details.

“(On Swan Island) the eager young army officers and NCOs learnt the dark arts of demolition, disguise, deception, sabotage, secret communication, and assassination… In one exercise on Swan Island the incorrect line of fire was set on a Chinese medium machine gun so that tracer bullets shot over the sandhills into the rigging of fishing boats in Port Phillip Bay. Fortunately for ASIS the only complaint made to the media was about the noise…”

There’s a special kind of snail that lives in the seagrass of Swan Bay. Because the bay is so shallow, it’s an important fish nursery and the baby fish eat the snails. Marine scientists didn’t know why the snail numbers were decreasing. They did a study and found that the lead in the bullets has been turning all the snails into males. I don’t know the end result of this, but I’d hope that those organizing target practice would find other, safer ways than firing into the water.

Local legends date from the time when regular army personnel were allowed to have their families living with them on the island. One woman recalls a birthday when she was a small girl, how she and her friends had gone for a walk in their party dresses and came upon a soldier in full combat gear lying in the marram grass. Another incident involved a night-time exercise, with trainees climbed across roofs and one inadvertently jumping down onto the family dog.

Part of the island is occupied by a golf club and my favourite story is about my mother and a group of critically endangered orange-bellied parrots.

Each Winter, the parrots used to fly across to Swan Island from Tasmania. My mother, a keen environmentalist and bird-lover used to observe and record them. Sadly, there haven’t been any for the past few years. My mother was given permission to enter the golf club part of the island for this. One day, engrossed in her task, she didn’t realise that the birds had ventured into the forbidden zone. Following them, she was shocked by a loud voice bellowing ‘Stop!’ and three soldiers in combat gear running through the bushes. Mum was a small woman, though by no means a cowardly one. She stood still, clutching her clipboard to her chest, and explained politely that she was tracking the parrots who couldn’t read the Keep Out signs.

A Short Story From Diana Thompson

We're thrilled to announce that Diana Thompson, Sara Dowse and Dorothy Johnston will all be appearing for events as part of the Noosa Alive! Festival next week. Here's some of Di's shorter works to remind you of her alluring and effervescent style. It'll be a fantastic opportunity to catch up with one of the country's hottest new romance writers.  ‘I remember the first time I saw you, wearing a figure hugging yellow sun dress, a standout against the deep gold of your summer tan. I’ll never forget the brilliance of your electric blue eyes and your messy French braid straining to contain your thick blonde hair. Even then it was difficult to resist tucking the escaping wayward strands behind your delicate ears. From the cute dimples when you smiled at me, to the hot pink toenails peeping from your wedge sandals, in that instant I knew I was a goner. Highly inappropriate, now I think about it, me hiring you to tutor my younger sister Grace in piano, but I took my duties as her appointed guardian seriously after our parent’s untimely death a year ago. Anything to make her days happy and provide a safe and secure home for her.

What I’d expected when I had placed the advertisement was a middle aged schoolmarm, not the drop dead gorgeous vision of you in front of me. I just googled piano tutors and your name was at the top of the list. It was only later that I read your resume and realised you were a child prodigy and had played in concert venues all over the world. I’d hit the jackpot that day. 

I remember trying to control the tremors in my hand as I shook yours and how at that moment I didn’t want to let go of you. Did you know that from that moment, I rearranged my entire working schedule so that I could be at home for all of Grace’s lessons and not miss a minute of seeing you during those few weeks over the summer holidays?

It took me three weeks to work up the nerve to ask you out for a date, and I can remember how I was both relieved and excited when you agreed. I’ll never forget our first shared meal, at the “Boathouse” down on the pier and how we chose the seafood platter, feeding each other the delicious fresh morsels, washed down with boutique beers. I can remember your first time trying an oyster. You smothered it in seafood sauce and when I asked how you liked it, your answer was,

“Well it tasted really nice, except for the fishy slimy bit.”

Do you remember how we talked and laughed for two hours without taking a breath, until the staff threw us out to prepare for the dinner crowd?

I remember taking your hand in mine and walking along the beach, sharing gelato in waffle cones. You weren’t sure about my green tea and lime combo and chose a safer option of raspberry and vanilla instead. I couldn’t help teasing you about your rainbow painted toenails and wondered whether you were making a political statement in your own quiet way. But no, you were simply calling them your happy toes, celebrating their freedom from the constraints of heavy socks and winter boots. I remember as the sun was setting, you shivered in the cooler air and I wrapped you in my jacket and held you against my chest. I remember the steady beat of your heart beneath my hands and the softness of your lips as we shared our first kiss. You tasted of raspberries and vanilla and I’ll never forget your sighs as our kiss deepened and you wrapped your arms around my waist, hugging me close. I knew then that I wanted you to be mine for forever.

Three months, two days and four hours later, I remember dropping down on one knee and proposing to you on the beach where we had our first date and shared our first kiss. You probably didn’t realise at the time that I was terrified that you would turn me down. What could a junior partner in an architect’s firm, with the family responsibility of a younger sister offer a world class concert pianist? You had job offers flowing in from all over the country and I was so proud of your incredible talent and so afraid that I would lose you to fame and fortune. But you proved me wrong once again when you dropped to your knees, took my face in your hands and said a resounding yes.   

The day of our wedding, I couldn’t stop myself from meeting you halfway down the aisle. You looked like an angel. My angel. And when we finally repeated our vows and before the celebrant had time to pronounce us husband and wife, I already held you in my arms sealing our union with a scorching kiss. I will never forget, knowing you were mine now, forever.’

My phone rings loudly, snapping me out of my memories. It’s the office and I ignore the call and let it go to voicemail. I know they’re worried about me and only trying to be supportive, but I can’t face going back to work, not until I can get my shit together and beg you to forgive me. I’ve always been the strong one. Had to be for Grace. But without you in my life, I’m nothing.

My finger hovers over the send button but there is still so much I need to say. I look around our living room at the three weeks, two days and four hours of accumulated garbage. Stacked pizza boxes fight for space in the kitchen with empty Thai takeout containers. Beer and wine bottles fill the overflowing recycling bin. Time I took back control and cleaned the place up instead of wallowing in misery, day after day. Time I cleaned myself up before Grace comes home from college for the holidays. She would be so disappointed in me and even though she wouldn’t voice it, just one look in her eyes and I would see it. I’ve caused enough distress and disappointment to myself and everyone around me. I refuse to let depression suck me any further into its dark void.

The couch has become my only comfort. My safe place in an empty shell of a house. No sounds emanating from the music room as you practice, hour after hour. No delicious baking aromas in the kitchen, from your passion for cooking. Nor the blasting of the sound system playing your eclectic favourite songs, anything from heavy metal to Simon and Garfunkel. Just the never ending silence of my own company.

I return to the keyboard.

‘Sleeping alone in our bed is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Without your body pressed against mine, listening to your soft sighs as you settle in for the night, I toss and turn endlessly. I miss your drugging kisses and your passionate response to our lovemaking. Even the everyday habits that form such an intrinsic part of who you are and who I love. It’s the little things I remember. No sugar in your coffee, but honey in your tea. Dark chocolate – not milk. Filling the vases with fresh flowers every week.  

Your bedtime ritual of applying hand cream to your long fingers and wrists, keeping them soft and supple and callous free from hours of piano practice. The soothing scents of lavender, rose and geranium, all of your favourite essentials oils still linger in our room, reminding me every day that you are absent from my life.

I remember us celebrating the announcement of your concert tour to Europe with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. I’ve always been blown away by your incredible talent and I was so proud of your achievements at such a young age. 

What I wasn’t proud of was my uncontrollable jealousy towards Erik, your new conductor. It was the first time in my life with you that I felt inadequate. I expected an older man, balding with a bit of middle age spread, not a thirty five year old with movie star looks and more talent in his little finger than I could ever hope to achieve. I felt shut out by your shared passion in music and it didn’t take a blind man to see how he looked at you.

 That I could understand.

Every time he took your hand at each concert finale, together bowing to the audience, it cut more deeply into my heart. He was touching what was mine and although you never gave me any reason to doubt our love, my jealousy overwhelmed me. Only able to catch quick conversations on Skype between venues just added to the tyranny of distance. I was missing my other half. 

The final straw was when Erik answered your telephone in your hotel room, late at night and well after the concert had finished. I’ll never forget his exact words.

“Arianna is in the shower right now. I’ll let her know you called.”

The bottom fell out of my world in that instant.          

What I’ll never forget is the terrible argument we had when you came home and the unforgivable accusations I cast at you. I’ll never forget the hurt in your eyes and I’ll never forgive myself for causing you that pain. I can understand why you left. Hell! I’ve regretted every word I spoke since that moment. I know I was projecting my insecurities onto you and pushing you away in the process. Pushing you right into his waiting arms.

I broke what we had and I was too stubborn to listen to what you had to say. Too consumed by jealousy and a hurt so deep, I thought my heart had been torn out.

Arianna, I love you more than life itself. You are the other half of my whole and I hope you can find it within your heart to forgive me. I miss every minute of every day without you and I’ll even stoop as low as pulling the Grace card. 

She misses you too!

All I’ve ever wanted was for you to be happy, and if being with Erik makes you happy then as much as it will break my heart, I will give you your freedom. But I will never stop loving YOU.’

My finger hovers over the send button. I’ve never bared my soul so openly before, but I can’t hold my feelings inside any more. I’ve had so many regrets over the last few weeks, but it is with relief that I finally press the send button. I feel as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I need to shower and shave. To regain a semblance of myself and face life again. It will be different without Arianna, but what choice do I have?

Sleep still evades me, but at least this morning I have the energy to return to my ten kilometre run down to the docks and back. I’ve missed pounding the pavements, the heat of the sun on my back as it rises and the sweat pouring out of me washing away the toxins. I’ve missed both the physical and the mental benefits from the burn in my muscles to the clarity of thought it brings.

Standing at the sink, a towel around my neck soaking up the sweat, my doorbell rings as I gulp down the last of the orange juice, straight from the carton. Can’t be Grace, college doesn’t end for another couple of weeks.

I open the door and my heart stops beating.

“Hey,” is all I can muster.

“Joshua, can I come in?” Her words are tentative and her body is tight with tension.

I let her pass me and follow through to the living room. I still can’t speak. The memories of our first meeting slam into me once again. She turns.

“Joshua, I have to say this quickly. You were right. Erik was manipulating both of us. I confronted him about your phone call. The one he never told me about. I’ve never had feelings for Erik. We are just work colleagues although he has now admitted he wanted more. You are my husband and the only man I love. Can you ever forgive me for giving you any doubts? You are my other half, my life.” She grabs both ends of my towel and pulls me towards her.

I can see the truth in her eyes and her love for me reflected there.

Our lips meet and I know that my life as I know it has returned.


You can purchase Diana's work at our store

Stop Fixing Women - A Reflection by Jennifer McDonald

Leave a comment on this post and you’ll be in the running to win a new copy of Catherine Fox’s Stop Fixing Women. While reading Catherine Fox’s 2017 Ashurst Business Literature Prize nominated Stop Fixing Women: Why building fairer workplaces is everybody’s business, I was reminded of a scene in the 1988 film Working Girl. 

Tess McGill (played by Melanie Griffith) is a secretary from the wrong side of tracks working at a Wall Street investment firm. Desperate to get into Mergers and Acquisitions, she passes herself off as her own (ironically) female boss to gain a seat at the table. When the ruse is discovered, Tess says to the big businessman client, “You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you're trying to get there. And if you're someone like me, you can't get there without bending the rules.”

Herein lies an essential theme of Catherine Fox’s excellent treatise, one that endeavours to get to the bottom of why, in 2018, we’re still having this interminable conversation about women’s equality and advancement in the workplace. 

Fox knows a thing or two about working women, having written the ‘Corporate Woman’ column in the Australian Financial Review for several years and authoring a 2013 book entitled Seven Myths About Women and Work. When her introduction cites several examples of naggingly persistent assertions (chiefly made by male executives) that women themselves are to blame for the depressing lack of gender diversity in the upper echelons of Australian business, I’m inclined to believe her. 

The book’s introduction reads like a business-world equivalent of slut-shaming. Women don’t ‘back themselves’ enough, or don’t put their hands up enough for promotions and board positions.  And while there have been several (usually female) high-profile champions of women’s advancement in the workplace, the establishment of many businesswomen’s networks plus the availability of countless seminars and programs for upskilling, confidence-building and networking – the lack of actual progress in this arena is staggering. And guess what? Women get blamed for that too.

A few pages into Stop Fixing Women, I confess to becoming a little depressed. While trying to avoid sounding like a victim myself, as a small businesswoman and mother, I’ve always felt the game of work is rigged against us girls. Fox’s book, underpinned by an abundance of scrupulously researched examples, makes it impossible to deny that this corporate match-fixing exists. Furthermore, this bias against women is so ingrained and pervasive that I’d actually stopped noticing it. Now that’s dangerous territory.  When you can’t even see how the odds are stacked against you, why not fall into the trap of believing it’s your fault if you can’t win at the game of work?

Don’t get me wrong here, folks. Stop Fixing Women is not just a depressing summation of how this country’s corporate sector is going to hell in a handmaid’s basket in relation to gender equality in the workplace. Catherine Fox frequently refers to one significant pinpoint of light in the form of an Australian initiative called Male Champions of Change (MCC). This growing movement comprises male CEOs who are coming to the realisation that, just as history is written by the victors, the rules of the gender-equality-at-work game are set by the people (read men) at the top.  Interestingly, many of the members of this group were inspired to take up the mantle of change while witnessing the obstacles faced by their wives and daughters. Smell the irony?

This progress notwithstanding, the real source of my depression about this whole topic stems from the realisation that debates about workplace flexibility and diversity are still framed as ‘women’s issues’. Surely men could also benefit from more flexible and (okay let’s call a spade a spade here) humane work environments that accommodate life outside the office? 

Clearly not or at least, not yet. In chapter two, entitled ‘The fight for flexibility’ Fox states, ‘…flexible working is still viewed as the exception to the rule in the majority of Australian companies…While flexibility can clearly mean many different things to different cohorts, there is still a tendency to equate it with part-time work for mothers.’ The author goes onto say that the few men who’ve tried to access flexibility options such as varying start/finish times or working from home are ‘battling the legacy of this remedial approach to fit women into a traditional male breadwinner model.’

Furthermore, those men who’ve taken up the offer of flexible working conditions (where these opportunities even exist) usually face a distinct lack of support from their bosses and peers. They also suffer that pesky ‘curtailed career advancement and income prospects’ thing that the overwhelming majority of women are confronted with after having the temerity to take maternity leave. 

It would seem that work cultures and systems that are stacked against women are actually detrimental to working blokes as well. This surely begs the question why, in the high-stakes game of Australian business, we are still playing the woman and not the ball? 

Leave a comment on this post and you’ll be in the running to win a new copy of Catherine Fox’s Stop Fixing Women.


Diana Thompson's 'Winterflood's Passion' is FREE for a limited time.

We're thrilled to announce that Diana Thompson's debut romance work Winterflood's Passion is now available for FREE on the Amazon Kindle Store. Click here to download now! You can also check out Diana's website for an exclusive sneak peek at her unreleased novel, coming soon! Check out a bonus extract from Winterflood's Passion below!

Daniel Winterflood.

Why did the name sound so familiar to her? Charlotte searched the recesses of her memory. She couldn’t place him among James’ and Phoebe’s friends in Sydney. She must have met him at some time in the past. Maybe it was at their wedding? Needless to say, it would be exciting to have James come and stay again, and to bring Daniel along with him.

James’ phone call had come as a surprise. He and Phoebe had stayed with her at Ranleigh only a fortnight ago and she hadn’t expected to see either of them again for at least a month. Still, James’ work as a business broker took him all over the country. The winery sale he was working on down here in the Southern Highlands would be a lucrative deal for him. Besides, she’d missed having visitors at Ranleigh Park. It alleviated the boredom and monotony of endless days spent mostly by herself, far too much alone.

20150617-Winterfloods-Passion-Cover-only-RGB-195x300If she was brutally honest, she was becoming boring and apathetic, leaving the property less and less these days, usually only for shopping visits to Bowral or committee meetings for the charities she was involved with. Not healthy for someone who was only twenty-eight.

Charlotte missed her sister Phoebe, but with three year old Emily and five month old Jackson, it was becoming more difficult for the family to come and visit her. Phoebe and James lived on the upper north shore of Sydney, a two hour drive from Ranleigh Park in the Southern Highlands. It was too far to have weekly visits and catch up for coffee chats with each other, made more difficult since the children took up so much of Phoebe’s time.

Nevertheless, happy with the news that James would be visiting with the mysterious Daniel, Charlotte smiled to herself. The day matched her mood. The sun was high up in the sky, having burnt off the early morning mist that often settled over the highlands, and was already warming the rich dark soil. The scent of fresh new growth filled the early spring air.

She and James had always been close, ever since his marriage to Phoebe four years ago. They had grown even closer since Michael’s death. James had been there for her throughout that devastating ordeal. He had been her tower of strength and was more like the brother she had never had. Charlotte was excited to have company for a change — human company, not the four legged kind.

It was lovely to have the two dogs, Ned and Toby, her Hungarian Viszlas. They were gun dogs born and bred, both a rich russet gold colour and impossible to visually tell apart, but the total opposite in personality. Toby was the leader, fearless in all his pursuits, while Ned was essentially very blonde, constantly being led into trouble by Toby and always the one caught in the act. She enjoyed riding the horses on a daily basis, and preferred her beloved Molasses, a gentle rich roan mare. Michael’s favourite horse, Connor, a massive shiny coal black stallion, was a handful. She fought his will power constantly, ever mindful of being kicked or bitten. Michael had his measure and Connor would behave beautifully, but it was open warfare if anyone else tried to ride him. She loved the four animals dearly and would not have parted with a single one of them, but she couldn’t have a spirited discussion about current news events, politics, fashion, wine or food with her four legged family. It was the company of people she craved.

She scanned the old French railway clock on the end wall that hung just above the mantle over the large black enamel Belling stove. Ten o’clock. James and Daniel were due at four, so she had plenty of time to saddle up Molasses to get in a couple of hours of solid riding before their arrival. She quickly removed a tray of chicken thighs from the freezer and placed them into the double French porcelain sink to thaw. A bowl of rhubarb and apple picked from the farm garden that she had cooked the previous day would make an excellent dessert with a nice crumble topping.

The four large guest bedrooms ran along the hallway to the right of the kitchen with the main bedroom at the very end of the house. Each bedroom had its own en-suite, purpose-built during the renovation, for the privacy and comfort of their house guests. Charlotte opened up the linen press to extract fresh bedding and towels for two of the bedrooms. James would be in the blue room beside hers and Daniel would be in the coffee coloured bedroom, being the next one along the hallway towards the back of the house. As she couldn’t recall having met Daniel at all, this would afford her a little more privacy.

When she and Michael had the interior of the house refurbished, Charlotte had chosen a different soft colour for each room and then sourced the furnishings and linen to match. Michael had given her carte blanche and she would spend hours seeking out the appropriate fabrics, sheets and towels on her shopping trips into Bowral or up in Sydney.

James and Phoebe always had the room that was painted a soft duck egg blue, with grey blue toile curtains hanging either side of the French doors. Daniel’s room was identical but in a coffee colour scheme. Charlotte had always loved pure white sheeting and towelling. It had been a contentious issue with Michael at the time, as he would often point out to her that keeping anything white in a country house was difficult with dusty roads and dry paddocks in summer.

The soft colour scheme formed a subtle backdrop, enabling her to cover the walls with wonderful original art that she and Michael had collected over the years, trawling through galleries to find just the right pieces for each room to complete their classically beautiful country home.

Charlotte made up each room, smoothing the covers across the queen size antique cedar beds. She plumped up the double pillows and slid back the curtains, catching them on each side with silk tassel tie backs looped onto large brass hooks fixed to the walls. She unlocked the French doors, swinging them open to let in fresh air and light. It was fun to make up the bedrooms ready for guests, and as she ran her fingers along the beautiful sheeting, it reminded her once again of the times the house was constantly filled with visitors. Of course they were mostly Michael’s polo friends, but they were a rowdy, fun lot. Only Phoebe and James came to stay now with the children, but it wasn’t as often as Charlotte would have liked. It was lovely to be surrounded by beautiful things, but what good were they when you couldn’t share them with somebody?

Charlotte shook off the recurring feelings of loneliness and made her way to her room. Whenever she went riding on Molasses it cleared her mind, the fresh air and exercise always lifting her spirits. She felt almost as if something momentous was about to occur. She couldn’t put her finger on what that might be, but it caused her to smile to herself as she changed into her riding gear.

Read the entire book now by downloading Winterflood's Passion - free for a limited time

Picnic At Hanging Rock - a reflection on the many adaptations, by Jennifer McDonald

Comment on this blog to go into the running for a pre-loved copy of 'The Picnic At Hanging Rock'. It was 1975 when the movie adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book Picnic at Hanging Rock  was released.  I was in year nine at a straight-laced Presbyterian-Methodist private school for girls in Brisbane and I did not read Lindsay’s book before seeing the film.

Directed by Peter Weir, Picnic at Hanging Rock lodged quite firmly in my psyche. Thanks for this must go in part to the haunting, wood pipe soundtrack, surely designed to buzz inside one’s head like flies around, well, a summertime picnic. I also related to this film and the book on a subliminal level. While both are set in 1900 in rural Victoria, the stitched-up, rule-based existence of the students at Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies resonated with me even in 1975. References to not removing one’s gloves until well out of the public eye and having stockings as part of the official school uniform (in a Brisbane summer no less) were remarkably on the money.

It wasn’t until I heard that Foxtel had produced a six-part miniseries that I ventured to my local bookstore to pick up a copy of Joan Lindsay’s acclaimed novel.  Until this point I’d always believed the story to be based on fact, dramatically enhanced of course - but a real story nonetheless.  Then I read Lindsay’s own preface stating,

‘Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.’

Hardly seems important?  Let’s just explore that for a minute. There is a reasonable expectation when one starts reading the book, or viewing the original movie, that some insight might be proffered into the mysterious disappearance of three students and one governess of Appleyard College on Valentine’s Day in 1900. Both Joan Lindsay’s book and Peter Weir’s film drip with intrigue and menace, leveraging to the hilt the possibility that this unsolved mystery is based in fact.

However, coming late to the read and discovering direct from the author’s mouth that Picnic at Hanging Rock is most likely a work of fiction, I now think Joan Lindsay was right to say it hardly matters. Whether ‘true’ or not, the mystery disappearance at Hanging Rock really only serves as the backdrop to Lindsay’s often biting observations of (a) the class system in a young nation flush with gold rush cash, (b) the disciplining and grooming of ‘young ladies’ that passed for education at the time; (c) and the ability, or lack thereof, of society in general to deal with the unresolved.

I thought at first that Joan Lindsay was having a shot at the English establishment and, some might say, its undue influence on a far away land coming into its own identity.  Take this description of the ambitious Mrs Appleyard, Headmistress of Appleyard College for example:

‘Whether the Headmistress…had any previous experience in the educational field was never divulged.  It was unnecessary. With her high-piled greying pompadour and ample bosom, as rigidly controlled and disciplined as her private ambitions, the cameo portrait of her late husband flat on her respectable chest, the stately stranger looked precisely what the parents expected of an English headmistress. And as looking the part is well known to be more than half the battle in any form of business enterprise….the College, from the very first day, was a success; and by the end of the first year, showing a gratifying profit.’

Here’s another example - an exchange between Colonel Fitzhubert and his fresh-off-the-boat nephew, Michael, with regard to a local young lady of good breeding (if not good looks) who’s in the crosshairs as a potential match for the young English gentleman.

(The Colonel says) ‘I can’t imagine why you’re so critical of poor Angela.’

(To which Michael responds) ‘I don’t mean to be critical. It’s entirely my fault that I find Miss Sprack – how can I express it – too English.’

‘What’s this poppycock about being too English?’ asked the Colonel, emerging from the shrubbery with the spaniels. ‘How the deuce can a person be too English?’

But the toffs aren’t the only beneficiaries of Lindsay’s humorous sarcasm. Edith, the hapless and ungainly schoolgirl who managed not to disappear along with three of her classmates on picnic day, also cops a serve:

The Headmistress, aware of Edith’s limited intelligence and unlimited obstinacy, plus a possible mild concussion, thought the expedition a waste of time…

Then there’s Lindsay’s bordering on cynical assessment of the friendship that develops between Albert Crundall the stable-hand and the aforementioned young English gentleman, Mike Fitzhubert:

To see them now – Albert loose of limb in rolled-up shirtsleeves and moleskin trousers. Michael stiff in garden party attire with a carnation in his buttonhole – they looked an ill-assorted pair. ‘Mike’s all right,’ Albert had told his friend the cook. ‘Him and me are mates.’ And so in the finest sense of that much abused word, they were. The fact that Albert, who had just tried his friend’s grey topper on this own tousled bullet head, looked like a music hall turn; and that Mike in Albert’s wide brimmed greasy sundowner might have stepped from the pages of The Magnet or the Boy’s Own Paper, meant less than nothing.

Apart from the unexplained disappearances narrative, the next most intriguing theme of Picnic at Hanging Rock is Lindsay’s exploration of how fear and wild speculation spreads through the local community and beyond with the speed of a bushfire.

As always in matters of surpassing interest, those who knew nothing either at first or even second hand were the most emphatic at expressing their opinions; which are well known to have a way of turning into established facts overnight.

Despite Mrs Appleyard’s attempts to keep a lid on gossip and hearsay emanating from the school, the ‘College Mystery’ soon hits the newspapers at home and abroad. Soon, wealthy and influential parents start pulling their daughters from Appleyard College, threatening the very existence of the Headmistress’s lucrative undertaking.

Michael Fitzhubert, instrumental in locating the sole survivor of the vanished party, Irma Leopold, is clearly traumatised and haunted by the whole experience. The Hanging Rock legacy may well ruin his chances of a creating a new life in Australia, free from the shackles and expectations of upper class England.

Indeed, after Irma Leopold is rescued from Hanging Rock the search to unearth further clues about the fate of the other missing women is expanded to cover ‘likely and unlikely places in the locality’:

Drains, hollow logs, culverts, waterholes, an abandoned pigsty where someone had seen a light moving last Sunday. At the bottom of an old mineshaft in the Black Forest a terrified schoolboy swore he had seen a body; and so he had – the carcass of a decomposing heifer.

20180515 - picnic-at-hanging-rock 2018 coverAnd now we have the 2018 manifestation of Picnic at Hanging Rock thanks to Foxtel.  I’m two episodes into this patently well produced if a little over-dramatised six-ep series. Foxtel’s marketing bumph describes this as a ‘trailblazing reimagining’ of Lindsay’s iconic tale. It’s certainly proving to be a darker, sexier and more ominous take on the original work, complete with wildly embellished and rather twisted back stories of key characters. As if Lindsay’s 1967 story didn’t provide enough intrigue on its own!

For this reason, drawing comparisons between the book and this new TV series are nigh-on useless. It makes more sense to me to compare the contemporary Picnic at Hanging Rock to its 1975 movie predecessor, which was largely faithful to the narrative of the book.

I’m no Margaret Pomeranz but I’d venture to say that the 2018 version can best be described as the screen equivalent of fan-fiction. As such, it completely and utterly swats any vestiges of speculation that Lindsay’s enduring mystery story might ever have been rooted in fact.

Comment on this blog to go in the running to score a pre-loved copy of The Picnic At Hanging Rock.

Breath by Tim Winton - a reflection on the film & book by Jennifer McDonald

Comment on this blog to go in the draw to win Jen’s slightly age-damaged, with a few bits underlined, but still good copy of Tim Winton’s Breath.  Soon after Breath won the 2009 Miles Franklin Award I bought a copy and put it in my bookcase. Life got in the way and Breath sat there until this April when I first heard of Simon Baker’s directorial debut in the movie by the same name. It was worth the wait. I devoured the book in a matter of days before seeing the film on release day at the Palace Theatre in Norton Street, Sydney.

I like to credit myself as a fan of Tim Winton before he became as acclaimed as he is now. My bookcase sports several of his pre-Cloudstreet works namely The Riders,That Eye The Skyand In The Winter DarkWhile I’m a little rusty on the storylines of these books after so many years, the feelings Tim Winton’s writing evoke in me have never faded. When I started in on Breath, these came rushing back to me with a force to rival the biggest waves ever ridden by Loonie, Pikelet and Sando.

I’m sure I can add nothing to the chorus of high praise Winton has consistently attracted over the years from more erudite literary types than myself. Nevertheless, I will try to accurately describe the emotional impact Tim Winton’s style of stringing words together has on me. Why? Because it is central to my mindset as I entered the cinema to see Breath on the big screen.

Winton writes in a straightforward way that is highly accessible to the reader while completely transcending the ordinary. His words are authentic, evocative and lyrical, without a hint of literary pretension. Early on in Breath, Pikelet - the book’s main voice – gives us this first insight into what can only be described as the beginnings of his and Loonie’s obsession with surfing:

I couldn’t have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day.  How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.

‘Pointless and elegant’. It’s hard to think of a more apt description for a person jumping to their feet on a board while skimming down the face of a wall of water. The adult Pikelet goes onto say,

The way the swell rose beneath me like a body drawing in air. How the wave drew me forward…And though I’ve lived to be an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I made, I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.

Breath is ostensibly a coming of age story but it’s a complicated one.  Two teenage boys, growing up in the 1970s, are living in a dying mill town set on a placid river that flows to, but doesn’t quite connect with, the thundering surf beaches of Western Australia’s southern-most parts. Pikelet is the only child in a loving but dull working-class home. Loonie’s father is the local publican who tends towards violence and has already been through a couple of wives. Pikelet craves escape from the ordinary and Loonie’s devil-may-care temperament is just the ticket. They discover the sea and quickly become hooked on the rush of riding waves, bringing them into contact with the enigmatic former surfing champion Sando, and his secretive and surly American wife, Eva.

20180505 - Jens copy of Breath coverThe visceral beauty in Winton’s words are always, always underpinned by a sense of foreboding. I’ve felt this in every Tim Winton book I have ever read and Breath is no exception. In the telling of ordinary things, like swimming in a river, riding bikes to the beach or sitting on the school bus, Winton keeps readers on the edge of their seats, wondering if this is moment where disaster will strike, and what form that disaster will take.

This inexorable sense of dread compels one to keep reading, to get to the bottom of whatever it is the author is trying to subliminally impart. Breath is so much more than a coming of age story. It is a deeply disturbing cautionary tale of addiction to the most potent substance of all – adrenaline.

Sando was good at portraying the moment you found yourself at your limit, when things multiplied around you like an hallucination…And when he talked about the final rush, the sense of release you felt at the end, skittering out to safety in the beautiful deep channel, Eva sometimes sank back with her eyes closed and her teeth bared, as though she knew only too well.  

There was a real opportunity to bugger up the film version of this complex, emerging- from-the-chrysalis-of-youth story. And I hoped beyond hope that Winton’s masterful command of the undercurrent of impending tragedy, like a storm brewing on the horizon, wouldn’t be lost in Breath’s translation to the screen.

Thankfully it wasn’t.  The sense of foreboding was palpable in almost every scene, rendered in heartbreakingly beautiful images - like the white tops of heaving waves just visible over the sand bar behind which Pikelet and his father fish from their tinny, barely bobbing on the quiet river. Or how, after a severe wipe-out, Pikelet appears as a tiny, prone speck surrounded by white foam on top of a churning deep-blue ocean.

The backing track of pounding surf, Loonie’s hoot of triumph when he manages to catch hold of a passing ute for a drag-along on his bike; or the rattle of Sando’s combi van engine as it pulls up outside Pikelet’s house in a winter dawn, also plays an important part in this exquisite sense of dreadful anticipation. Coupled with a suitably efficient screenplay (thanks in no small part by Tim Winton’s input) Breath the movie certainly captures the foreboding undercurrent of the print version.

What it doesn’t do so well, in my humble opinion, is examine the vexing and multi-faceted nature of addiction, a powerful and devastating theme of Breath the book. While the references to addiction are frequent and obvious in the film, the relentless, life-threatening and ultimately life-ruining nature of addiction to processes (like extreme surfing and aerial skiing), as opposed to substances (such as Eva’s painkillers and perpetual hash-smoking) remains largely unexplored.

These are big issues, of course, and Breath is only an hour and fifty-five minutes long so one can hardly expect a dissertation. However, while I was slightly disappointed by this, my movie companion who had not read the book, was unperturbed. When she asked if the film was an accurate representation of Tim Winton’s book, what else could I say but yes?

Breath is a gob-smackingly beautiful and visually memorable film which I would advise you to see before you read the book. Peculiar advice coming from a publisher, I know, but there is method in my madness.  This way, when you come to read Breath (which I also strongly advise you to do) you’ll get a second, bigger hit from the story, which is probably the point Tim Winton was trying to make all along.

20180505 - Breath movie cover

The Somme, 2001 - A Reflection by Perry Yeldham

This Anzac Day, we pause to remember the tremendous sacrifice of the brave men and women from yesteryear. Here, Perry Yeldham, son of national treasure and For Pity Sake author Peter Yeldham, reflects on visiting Somme in 2001 with his father and family. The rain was bucketing down, a gift from the North Atlantic and the product of heavily laden dark clouds that had followed us all the way from Paris and now stretched for miles in every direction over the pancake flat terrain of Picardie.

The road was treacherous, as the driver of the truck ahead had discovered. Like a slow-motion train wreck, we watched as its wheels sank into the mud and it slowly toppled over.  It now lay on its side slowly sinking into the deep chocolate furrows of the ploughed field alongside.

Turnips and onions were scattered everywhere.  The small irrigation ditches had long since been overrun. The driver and his assistant were exchanging Gallic pleasantries, the fields were flooded and an old lady appeared out of the rain and busied herself scooping up onions into a hessian bag. More shouting, but nobody cared. There was no help coming. We went the long way around to our B and B, Les Alouettes at Hardecourt au Bois.

It was April and The Somme region, known for its heavy falls and flat, low-lying terrain, had lived up to its reputation.

We thought it poignant that for our purposes, Mother Nature would have created a similar landscape to that confronting the soldiers in what the French referred to as La Grande Guerre. 

What was missing, of course, was the full horror of war: the hopelessness, the blood, the stench of death, the screams of the wounded and the mind-numbing terror of being caught up in endless battles where lives were little more than an numerical entry in the chief-of-staff's  notebook.

Our party of eight was in two vehicles and we were here following in the footsteps of a previous patriarch of the family, Lance Corporal  Ainslie Neville McDonald, as he lived through the horror of World War I.

Unlike Lance Corporal McDonald, we travelled in comfort. We slept in comfort. We ate fabulous food and drank superb French wine. But on some subliminal level, we all felt slightly guilty that our lives were so hedonistic in stark contrast to the Australian Diggers whose legend had lured us here.

Lance Corporal McDonald had kept a diary and it was this fragile remnant of his life that had brought us halfway across the world to northern France. The party largely comprised descendants of McDonald, one of whom is my wife, Mary Anne Yeldham (nee McDonald) and my parents, one of whom is the historical novelist, Peter Yeldham.

We called ourselves ‘Dad's Army’ and cut a swathe through the countryside of Picardie. Locals would remember us for our pathetic attempts to speak French and even worse command of the local geography. But we armed our vehicles with little Australian flags and these worked a charm with the locals. The French in this region, particularly the older people, bear an enduring fondness towards Australians which is not feigned, but heart-warmingly genuine. On one occasion, an elderly man drove after our convey tooting and gesticulating. My wife, Mary Anne, returned the favour with some well-known Aussie gestures. I thought he was upset because we had nearly caused an accident at the previous traffic lights. In fact, he knew where we wanted to go and wanted to tell us that we were headed in totally the wrong direction. He was really nice.

There were so many other instances of French kindness to travelling Australians. We were touched. There was little evidence of this warmth being extended to English tourists but then a thousand years of conflict, rivalry and warfare, isn’t that easy to overlook.

On tour we were divided into two camps: Teetotallers and heavy drinkers; religious, a little agnostic and those steeped in atheism … and that was before we got into politics.

However, despite having divergent views on just about everything, we all got on really well, possibly brought together by a common view regarding the conduct of La Grande Guerre and the protagonists’ military strategy, or lack of it.

I think it was the insanity of the tactics that formed the kernel of an idea that became my father’s novel, Barbed Wire and Roses. That and the whispered voices of the dead from the diary of Ainslie Neville McDonald, letters home from so many others, and our discoveries as we made our way through Picardie.

20160405 Peter Yeldham - Barbed Wire and Roses Cover onlyLike so many other callow Aussies, Lance Corporal McDonald (he preferred his second name of Neville) had answered the call for volunteers to help defend the empire against the Hun, to do their duty, or to have an adventure of a lifetime, depending on the recruiters sales' pitch. It would all be over by Christmas, they cajoled, without specifying which Christmas it must be said.

Neville was a Methodist lay preacher: a man steeped in his love of the church and his faith in the Almighty. So, it was sobering to read his diary entry, written after an excursion into no man's land went wrong, where he questioned his faith and expressed doubt in God's plan.

There were other entries too, detailing battles and skirmishes at places like The Windmill, Mouquet Farm,  Fromelles and Pozieres.

Neville, a skilled horseman, volunteered for the cavalry. But of course he, like all the other Aussie adventurers, ended up listed with the infantry as the troop ships headed for the Dardenelles. It's a well-recorded irony that the Aussies celebrated their escape from Anzac Cove and welcomed their posting to northern France.

Our latter day Dad’s Army pilgrimage to the war zone included trips to battlefields and remnants of trenches and the inevitable visits to the immaculately maintained Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries in our area. There are more than 250 such cemeteries in this historic war zone, some huge like Thiepval and Tyne Cot and smaller ones with just a few graves, but all are emotionally shattering in the quiet message conveyed by the inscriptions on the bleached headstones. The German graveyards are, if anything, even more depressing.

Equally sobering were the visits to museums at Peronne, Ypres, Albert, Villers-Bretonneux and the very realistic recreation of trench life at Tommy's Cafe near Pozieres.

At Ypres, we were treated to a wall-sized painting of a war scene, flames and smoke billowing around civilians who were staring at their bombed township. Printed across the foreground was a quote from a British cavalry officer that declared: "I adore war. It's just like a picnic, without the objectlessness of a picnic." That one had my father scrambing for his notebook.

At all of these museums the weapons of war were displayed. From heavy mortars to sabre-like bayonets and clubs or maces, often with nail-studded which carried the description: Mace, for mopping up in the trenches.”

These also had my father making more notes, along with the exhibits detailing the effects of shell-shock on the troops. Shell-shock was a new phenomenon. Never before had humans been subjected to such a brutal and unceasing barrage of bombing. This was not death delivered by an adversary on the battle field, this was a living torture, designed to break men, to devastate their mind and render them shattered. It broke many stout-hearted soldiers’ minds and broke the hearts of their compassionate comrades who had to watch as the descended into “madness”.

Less sympathetic were the generals and officers in command of the conduct of the war. So many of these poor soldiers ended up facing a firing squad at first light, condemned to die a coward’s death, delivered by their friends, for the crime of having a mental illness.

It was this facet of the war in the trenches, above all others, that gave the novel Barbed Wire and Roses its own final push.

We were at the Menin Gate, in Ypres, when the town stopped. It does this every night at 8pm. Police halt the traffic and people gather to hear the town band play the Last Post. Then Laurence Binyon's Ode of Remembrance is read. There's a minute's silence, then Reveille is played. The adage ‘Lest we forget’ never conveyed more meaning.

My father, whose birthday ironically, is on April 25, worries that Anzac Day celebrations tend to glorify war and camouflage the harsh and cruel reality of war. It's an opinion shared by many, particularly when politicians get involved.

I tend to disagree. I think the Anzac Day celebrations honour the fallen and the millions of men and women caught up in what they thought was the war to end all wars.

Our own brief deployment to the European World War One battlefields made a lasting impression, not just on our Dad's Army group, but on all who were paying their own respects.

When you met fellow visitors at a war memorial or cemetery, you might exchange a look, an acknowledgement or just a nod.  Sometimes that's all you need.

This photo was taken in the playground of the Villers-Bretonneus Primary School. Peter is on the far right. Perry, his son and author of this blog, is on the far left.


That looks on tempests – thoughts on the nature of love by Barbie Robinson

For Pity Sake Publishing pal Barbara 'Barbie' Robinson has just released a new collection of poetry. Check out her reflection below and visit the store now My brother and I had the blessing of a northern hemisphere childhood until, at the ages of nine and seven respectively we came to Australia as migrants – ten pound Poms in fact. Think the south of England with its greenness, its rain and its cold winters. Indoor pursuits like board games, family concerts and reading by the fire. Think too of a place where the snow banked up to the rooves of two-storey houses and a mittened hand placed on a window pane meant the mitten stayed there till thaw – Goose Bay in Newfoundland and Labrador. More indoor activities like listening to jazz records and reading, with the basement furnace blazing away.

The double blessing of parents who loved and cherished learning and books meant that we both grew up to be adults who read and collect books. I admit to the incurable vice of bookitis. I can’t go into a book store unless I am prepared to come out with at least four books – and I am prepared to.

Poetry was something I started writing in that angst driven state one perpetually inhabits as a teenager. Happily, an education that included French poets like Verlaine and Prevert, English poets like Gerard Manly Hopkins and Roger McGough and a life path that gifted me the Fitzgerald translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the irresistibly sensuous language of Dylan Thomas, Milton, Dryden, Richard Brautigan and so on and son – you get it. I was blessed over and over with the power of language both, prose and poetry, to move, amuse, beguile, raise up, cast down, expound and altogether fill us with ideas and feelings.

That looks on tempests is my third solo book of poetry and it is a very important piece of work for me. Not only does it explore the gamut of love, it also expresses my gratitude for being here to write – thanks to a stem cell transplant that saved my life in 2015. Love and gratitude seem to be in such short supply world-wide. I am daily conscious of how fortunate I am and the poetry is one way of acknowledging this and thanking the universe.

I’ve set the book up in three sections – people, place and paradoxes. The work explores the way the word love is used, what it means in different contexts and to different people, how we learn about love. I start by quoting in full Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 – Let me not to marriage of true minds – is there a better known work on the subject or a more beautiful one? I end by quoting two lines from a Bonnie Raitt recording of a song by Bob Thiele Jr, John Shanks and Tonio K:

Isn’t it love that keeps us breathing? Isn’t it love we’re sent here for?

Both of these works carry meaning for me – does it matter that one is considered high literature and the other popular culture (country music no less?) I don’t think so. The poems in my book are all true, which is to say they all come from my life, from real things that have happened, real things I’ve felt and experienced. They are not mysterious, impenetrable or difficult. They are accessible and they are not just my experiences but I suspect rather  the experiences of many who will read them – the care and death of a loved one, passion, sex, lust, devotion, the love you have for children and grandchildren or lovers or spouses or parents, friendship, admiration, charity, misuse of the word ‘love’ when ‘selfishness’ and ‘ego’ are better suited.

I hope the words will wash over you and that you will be able to say, ‘Yes, I’ve felt that. Yes, I’ve known that. She’s writing my life too.’ I hope you will cry, laugh, smile, sigh, share the poems with someone else, read them again to yourself in a private moment of recognition. Of course, I hope you will cherish and love my child, this book, as I do. It’s the wish of all writers I think and all artists who open themselves to the world outside.

That looks on tempests in available now.