Saturday, July 29, 2006

Home and back

Well, I'm home. Or not, as the case may be. Anyone who says "home is where the heart is" hasn't ever left it, clearly. The heart can be in more than one place at a time.
Flew out of Melbourne (which is home, where you get woken by kookaburras, and the ghost gums lurk in the fog) to Auckland (which is also home - where I live, with my partner, in what has recently been dubbed a little gingerbread house, on an island).
In between I suffered my usual airport confusion, not knowing where I was going or leaving. Looked for the Bar Coluzzi cafe which is actually at Sydney airport. At least I didn't go searching for Charlie's, which is in Dubai.
But, finally, here I am. We're not rushing into anything today. Late breakfast. Now it's 4pm and I just dragged myself out of my pyjamas. Spent the afternoon so far with face under a mudpack while tearing recipes out of old food magazines.
I'm recovering from a week of frantic school readings on top of the usual family events (four basketball games, many meals, school drop-offs and pick ups, birthday celebrations for a ten-year-old, maybe the odd antique shop, and one or two cups of coffee). Saw Pirates of the Caribbean, Ice Age 2, most of the old BBC version of Pride and Prejudice on DVD, and an awful lot of NBA 2006 on Playstation over my nephew's shoulder. And study and work and ... now I need a holiday.
On the plane on the way over I re-read Edith Nesbit's The Story of the Treasure Seekers, which I hadn't read since I was ten or so.
I have often thought, writes her young narrator Oswald, that if the people who write books for children knew a little more it would be better. I shall not tell you anything about us except what I should like to know about if I was reading the story and you were writing it. Albert's uncle says I ought to have put this in the preface, but I never read prefaces, and it is not much good writing things just for people to skip. I wonder other authors have never thought of this.


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Reading myself hoarse

Almost at the end of my Melbourne stint, and I've lost count of the number of school groups I've met.
I've been reading a bit, talking about pirates a lot. We're all pirate mad at present. In every school there seem to be several pirate experts who can hotly debate the exact shape of a scimitar or the symbols on Blackbeard's flag. We are past the age of the dinosaur experts who scoff if you don't know your diplosaurus from your T Rex.
I have even met the great-great-great-many-greats-nephew of Calico Jack Rackham.
I usually say "people tell me that girls couldn't be pirates" and then go on to explain that there were really women pirates. I love it when a whole class roars back: "Girls can so!"
I love looking up and seeing fifty spellbound faces, wide eyes, and intense concentration. I love the gruesome questions about various pirate methods of destruction (I'm not sure if the teachers like that so much). I love it when the kids laugh at my jokes. I love it when they make me laugh.
Tomorrow morning I'm going to read at my old school. The biggest thing I remember happening when I was there was the moon landing. The whole school sat out on the cold lino in the corridor, staring at one old black-and-white telly. There were regular bushfires. And snakes lurking beyond the oval. We didn't even have a library then - we had a cupboard off the hallway. I wonder if it's changed?
I never knew it would all be this much fun. First, I just get to write stuff. Then, somebody actually publishes it. And then I get to read and talk to kids about stuff they find fascinating.
How cool is that?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Homeward bound

I'm going home this afternoon. Melbourne. Soul of the South.
Will try to blog from there.
I'm reading at several schools, including my old school, and on 23 July, I'll be at the Chatterbooks Adventure Afternoon. Christine Harris, author of the Spy Girl series, and David Harris, author of the Cliffhangers books, will be there too, for an afternoon of "swashbuckling, espionage and thrill seeking".
Chatterbooks is run by the Eltham Bookshop, and offers "a chance to talk about your favourite books and authors, and let us introduce you to the most exciting and readable books. Don't forget that we also run writing and storytelling workshops and close encounters with acclaimed authors. Especially for 8-13 year olds and their families."
It's from 2 to 3.30pm at Eltham Library, Panther Place, Eltham.
For more information or to book in, phone 03 9439 8700 or email

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

In your dreams

"Writers should be read, but neither seen nor heard."
~ Daphne Du Maurier

(And I bet you thought her best line was "Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.")

Monday, July 17, 2006

Reader, I cried

Children's author (Which Witch) Eva Ibbotson recalls her adopted local library, peaceful moments in a childhood marked by Nazism:
I came across a building with an open door. I went inside. The room was very quiet and full of books. At a desk sat a woman with fair hair and I waited for her to tell me to go away. But she only smiled at me. Then she said: 'Would you like to join the library?'
My English was still poor but I understood her. In particular, I understood the word 'join' which seemed to me to be a word of unsurpassed beauty.

Lovely story. Read on here.

Glassy eyes

...Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

- From Philip Larkin's High Windows, 1974.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The future's in the past

I love Stephen Fry.
Having been Oscar Wilde, sorted out poetry with The Ode Less Travelled, directed movies, saved pandas or sloths or some such thing, he's now made his mark on history.
Here's his marvellous speech launching the History Matters campaign, on which I grandstanded a few days ago (or maybe it was more a soapbox):
We haven't arrived at our own moral and ethical imperatives by each of us working them out from first principles; we have inherited them and they were born out of blood and suffering, as all human things and human beings are. This does not stop us from admiring and praising the progressive heroes who got there early and risked their lives to advance causes that we now take for granted.
In the end, I suppose history is all about imagination rather than facts. ... Knowing is not enough...
History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier. History is memory; we have to remember what it is like to be a Roman, or a Jacobite or a Chartist or even - if we dare, and we should dare - a Nazi. History is not abstraction, it is the enemy of abstraction.

Over the Caribbean

I never thought I'd say this, but I'm getting heartily sick of pirates.
Not my pirates, mind you.
But if I see another "True Story of Blackbeard" documentary or another dull buccaneers book, I'll make someone walk the plank. Everywhere I look there are pirates. Cliched pirates in red coats and back hats. Grinning pirates. Caribbean pirates.
Don't get me wrong. It's not the pirates' fault. And I'm sure it's good for book sales, even if it's all a marvellous coincidence - although it does mean there are an awful lot of pirate books about.
But really. These people were horrible. They were truly amongst the most appalling creatures ever to sail the seas. Colourful, yes. But revolting. And all they did was sail about the tropics (hardly a chore, except during a hurricane) and blow one another up.
Give me the Mediterranean any day.
I haven't gone off the nautical life altogether - far from it. I'm having a bachelor's weekend, and recovering from flu, so on Friday I watched two episodes of Hornblower on DVD and then got so interested I sat on the couch all day yesterday and read three Hornblower books one after another. Endlessly fascinating, even on the second, or third, or perhaps it's fifth reading. Even when he ventures near the Caribbean.
Here you have the great powers of Europe in turmoil, shifting and changing. The early books (and indeed my books) are set against one of most interesting periods of history, when the world seemed to be changing shape before people's eyes. Revolution, republicanism, feminism, nationalism; the clear flame of Enlightenment giving way to the dash and drama of Romanticism; astonishing men and women and one man - Bonaparte - like no other; great empires like Spain, Holland and Portugal crumbling; Britain ruling the waves and much of the planet; France ruling Europe and on the road to Moscow; mass emigration to upstart colonies like America; the great Rebellion in Ireland; new plants, new ideas, new worlds. Intrigue, espionage, great battles. Honour, duty, drama.
All much more interesting than a pack of drunken retrobates with bad teeth and no dress sense.
Anyway, speaking of pirates, today I'm proof-reading the galleys of Swashbuckler book 2, before it goes off to the printer - this week we got final artwork for books 2 & 3 covers, and gorgeous things they are too.
I just hope everyone else doesn't get sick of pirates in the meantime.

(I haven't yet seen the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, as I'm saving it to watch with my nephew in Melbourne next week. I will make an exception for that.)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Notes from a small island

The Guardian last week ran a fascinating profile of Shirley Hazzard, the vaguely Australian writer who for decades has lived mostly in New York and Capri. She is, like the heroines of her books, "good with words":
"The idea that somebody has expressed something, in a supreme way, that it can be expressed; this is, I think, an enormous feature of literature. I feel that people are more unhappy, in an unrealised way, for not having these things in their lives: not being able to express something, or to profit from somebody else having expressed it. It can be anything but it's always, if it's supreme, an exaltation."

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Past and present rewards

Mal Peet has won the UK's prestigious Carnegie Medal for Tamar, a "fictionalised exploration of history and its impact on the present which focuses on the untold story of the resistance movement in Holland towards the end of World War Two."
In his acceptance statement, Mr Peet said:
"Tamar was a story I particularly wanted to tell. I believe it’s so important for young people to grasp the connections between their own lives and the past. Our understanding of history is in danger of becoming hopelessly partial and fragmented; the sense of continuity, cause and effect, is in danger of getting lost. If young people don’t make those connections, what hope is there for us to learn from our mistakes rather than repeat them!"
The judges reckon he nailed it:
"Tamar is a powerful and moving story that cleverly connects the present with the past. Peet's is a broad canvas; his writing is beautifully controlled as he unravels the complex historical and personal aspects of the story of sixty years ago and today. He has an assured lightness of touch and his book is rich with imagery, simile and strong characterisation, all of which are the hallmarks of quality in writing for children and young people. Dark and moving, it is a compelling read that ultimately offers a sense of optimism."
And again we cry, hoorah!
And it's only his second book, too. He was so sure he wouldn't win, he didn't attend the awards. I don't suppose you would, either. He was on the shortlist with David Almond, Frank Cottrell Boyce (last year's winner), Jan Mark (twice a winner), and Geraldine McCaughrean.
Emily Gravett took out the Kate Greenaway Medal, the UK's oldest and most prestigious award for children's book illustration, for her first book, Wolves.

At death's door

Flu. Or something. Too ill to ...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Mongrel history

The organisation English Heritage has launched a new campaign called History Matters, which aims to find out whether or not - and why - people in the UK care about history.
Setting aside critical questions of Britishness, the campaign has drummed up an impressive line-up of celebrities and historians (and some who are both) to support its aims, and get debate underway. The not-too-subtle message behind the campaign, of course, is that history matters very much, but that it's important to understand why.
Good question.
The campaign's declaration reads:
We believe that history matters. A society out of touch with its past cannot have confidence in its future. History defines, educates and inspires us. It lives on in our historic environment.
As custodians of our past, we will be judged by generations to come. We must value it, nurture it and pass it on.
Value it, nurture it, pass it on intact and explored by all means. Search it out. Protect and illuminate it.
But the definition of us by our history is a much more complex matter. Who does history define? How? Does British history define its recent immigrants? No. Does English history define the Scots? Try having that argument in a pub in Edinburgh. Does military history define its survivors? Possibly, but each is marked in his or her own way.
Of course there's also the much recycled position of Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It's true, and also not true enough.
"History is what makes us human," suggests campaign supporter Dr David Starkey (Tudor and general monarchy expert). "It is collective memory and the country that has lost its sense of history has ceased to be itself."
Another campaign supporter, actor Gryff Rhys-Jones appeals to the heart: "History matters because of the emotions it evokes. You just can't measure the importance of how history makes us feel."
Now, don't get me wrong. History matters a great deal to me. I read about it all the time, write about it, even dream about it.
But here's the thing: in the UK, or here in NZ or in Australia, and almost everywhere there are many histories. There's your top-level kings and queens and chiefs and battles and dates history. There's military history and economic history and oral history and imagined history and colonial history and anti-colonist history, the stories of the dispossessed, the stories of the unheard, the children and the women and the paupers and cut-throats and sailors and legionaries and firemen and warriors. History is a mongrel.
I'm a mongrel. What's my history, then? In my family, we can only trace back about a hundred years. Two at the most. Even that's mongrel. Australian now. But before that Irish, English, Scots, and nobody knows what else. A mixture of faiths, trades, deaths, births and marriages - not necessarily in the correct order. Marks in spidery ink in the pawn shop register (Hegarty, one linen tablecloth, one shilling, redeemed two weeks later, pawned again the next month). A few lines in the Captain's log. A dusty certificate. Ship registers. News clippings.
Sometimes people say to me - or the limitation is implied in funding criteria or book awards - we must write about our own history, our own landscapes. We shouldn't write about the history of places on the other side of the world.
But mongrels can be promiscuous, undefined. Should we be limited by geography, by some definition of our cultural ownership or particular histories? Should anyone? And when do we cross the line into appropriation?
Australia's convict past, for example, is fascinating, but is it more my history than the London or Dublin from which they were sent? No.
Bushrangers? No more than highwaymen or pirates. Possibly the potato famine - but then, that happened in a country on the other side of the world I've never visited (yet). It affected my ancestors - does that make it mine?
Maybe one day I will write about my own history: about the wharf, and Port Melbourne, the strike. Maybe one day I will write about my great aunt Madge, the smallest suffragette. Or a stretcher bearer in the Boer War.
Or dancing on the bar in a Sydney pub in the crazy days before the world was affected by AIDS. Before we all grew up.
But the history in my blood is such a mixture that it seems just as right to write instead about pirates in the sea off Malta, or printers in Amsterdam, or the London Blitz. Or dinosaurs. Or football. Or Siberia.
History isn't just history, after all. It's also imagination. And that's partly why it matters.

Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all: the conscientious historian will correct these defects.
~ Herodotus (The "father of history")

Exiled from Wimbeldon

What the hell kind of country is this, with no live tennis coverage on TV?
You can watch netball in prime time and dog trials at the weekends but not the Tour de France. You can watch two full hours of Coronation Street, but only ten seconds of the women's final on the news - if you're lucky.
(Of course, you can pay for it by subscribing to Sky Sport, but then you'd be forking out for year-round rugby union replays interspersed with the odd other sport every so often, when there's a break in the rugby. Instead, this household subscribes to Sky movies, so that we can watch silly Will Smith movies all afternoon purely out of resentment that there's no BLOODY TENNIS.)
At least we get the FIFA World Cup.
But I never realised until last weekend's quarterfinals (at 6am) that there aren't any ads on TVNZ on Sunday mornings - that's so Presbyterian. I didn't realise because I never watch it and you can guess why without me resorting to any more unseemly capital letters.
So if there ever was such as thing as free to air coverage of the world's greatest sporting events, we wouldn't miss a second of it.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

It's a trap

People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.
~ James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

This week in books

I'm reading at seven libraries this week, as part of the kids' holiday program. Here are a few of the highlights, all of which, of course, come from the audience - much more interesting than the author:
- Where's Anthony Browne?
- Don't be stupid. Girls aren't pirates.
[and then, following assurances of historical fact, "That's not even true."]
- Nana, I love you ["I love you, too," said Nana from the rear of the room, "now sit down and listen to the story".]
- What's that great big thing on your head? [It's a mole. And it's coming off next week, but thanks for pointing it out.]
- Are you Margaret Mahy?
- Pirates are really ugly, aren't they?
- I'll swab the deck. That sounds good. What's swab?
- No, let's not read that book. Let's read a different book.
- They better not feed ME to the sharks. I'd just eat those sharks right up.
- How do you find the pirate treasure?
- Can you read three more books? OK, two. And then another one.
(That's all quite apart from the girl who asked if I used to wear my eye patch when I was a pirate)
We've made treasure maps and pirate hats, we've dressed up, we've even played pin the parrot on the pirate's posterior, we've eaten quite a bit of treasure, and we've read pirate stories until we're hoarse.

Now we need a cup of tea and a good lie down.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Future investment

When the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerers and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards - their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble - the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, "Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading."
~ Virginia Woolf (1932)

It's a girl!

The Hegarty clan has a new member: Eve Ferrier, born yesterday morning in Melbourne, weighing in at a svelte 8 pounds 4 (we don't do things by halves in my family).
Welcome Eve. I'll be over there to read Olivia to you in a couple of weeks.
I'm sorry your parents have not bowed to the intense lobbying to name you after me, but maybe next time. I'll start the campaign as soon as they wake up.
If your great-grandfather were still here, he'd be singing, "Thank heaven for little girls" all over the hospital, as he did when I was born, and when your mother was born. If you hear a faint song on the breeze, that'll be him.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Well, that's a relief

One of those silly quizzes, this time on topic (as opposed to "Which B-grade country and western star are you?"). It also features quite funny questions, in a pirate kinda way. And, as you can see, they even cater to those concerned about gender neutrality.
You Are A Pirate!
Apparently, I am ... wait for it ... A Pirate!
Oh good. I love a plunder.
Take the quiz: What Type Of Swashbuckler Are You?

Time on our hands

In The Times, Amanda Craig reviews two time-slip novels for young readers I've been anticipating with some relish: Gideon the Cutpurse, by Linda Buckley-Archer, and (ring the bells and deck the halls) Jeanette Winterson's first children's book, Tanglewreck:
What is particularly interesting is that, where adult novelists such as Audrey Niffenegger and Liz Jensen have recently used time travel to explore romantic love, these children's authors use it to explore the moral debt adults owe children - a challenging preoccupation that guilty parents will recognise all too well. The special nature of childhood rests on having the luxury of time, as Dylan Thomas’s great poem, Fern Hill, recognises.
Tanglewreck, like Gideon the Cutpurse and Kate Thompson’s The New Policeman, is partly a satire on our current perception that we all have too little time due to a change in the nature of reality, rather than our own greed and impatience.
Love a good cutpurse story - I have a hankering to do a highwayman novel, meself. Someone's also recommended Charley Feather by Kate Pennington.
I'm less keen on timeslips, with some notable exceptions (such as Stravaganza), but find myself in the middle of writing three of the buggers so it must get into the blood somehow.
Been out on the North Shore reading at two libraries today. As there are little kids there I have a secret cache of pirate picture books in case they get bored with mine, which is for 9 to 12 year-olds and gets a bit scary for young 'uns.
I wasn't so impressed with Cornelia Funke's Pirate Girl when I read it, but can report it goes down a treat - if you ham it up enough and read it with your eye-patch on. Now I think it's hilarious.
One girl asked me: "Did you used to wear that eye patch when you were a pirate?"
What can one say to that but: "Of course"?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Half a world away

Woke up this morning at six knowing it was the 90th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the day on which more soldiers died than on any other day in British (and Commonwealth) military history: 20,000 souls in a matter of hours.
The numbers have so many noughts as to be almost mind-bogglingly meaningless: 420,000 British casualties for the entire mess known as Somme, which dragged on until November 1916; 200,000 French and 500,000 Germans. That's over a million people killed, wounded or ill from trenchfoot, gas poisoning, tuberculosis, shell-shock.
All those men - and the women in the support services - woke up on this morning ninety years ago knowing they were about to be thrown into something momentous, purgatorial, unprecedented. But even they had no idea what was about to descend upon them. Imagine waking up that morning, in the dark - if you'd slept at all. Imagine crouching in a hole in the ground as the greatest artillery storm the world has ever known flies over your head - hopefully. Imagine climbing up out of the hole to greet the bullets.
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air...
Alan Seeger's rendezvous came on July 1. An American poet who had lived in Paris before the war and fought with the French Foreign Legion, he was 28.
Whole villages were effectively wiped out in minutes as the Pals Battalions, men all recruited from the same area, walked or ran or crawled into the machine guns. The haemorrhage didn't stop for another two years.
The end result was that the Allied front line moved forward six miles, ground lost later in the great German push of 1918.
I meant to be there, on the other side of the world today, but then remembered that battlefields are best visited alone. I went to Gallipoli alone. I certainly wouldn't want to be there with a million other people. And the stretch of countryside around Albert and Baupaume, the fields near Pozieres, the little towns and the memorials: for all of those I need time and solitude.
Half a world and a lifetime away, I feel like I know it already, that unconsecrated ground. I've spent years with my head wrapped in the Somme for a book I once wrote, that has never seemed quite finished or quite good enough.
But this morning, in the dark, I suddenly realised what's wrong with the manuscript and how to fix it, and had to get out of bed urgently and scribble. We all pay tribute in our own ways.

Mouthguards on

Whosoever, in writing a modern history, shall follow truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his teeth.
~ Walter Raleigh, History of the World


I'm not entirely sure JK Rowling really wanted to kick off the global thunderstorm that accompanied her recent comments about poor Harry's future - or lack thereof. Maybe she thought everyone would be distracted by the World Cup (she should have waited until the semi-finals, but perhaps wasn't sure if England would scrape through). But she ought to know by now how hysterical the media will get over any mention of what happens next. But, love, did you really think you could get away with an off-the-cuff comment like: "A price has to be paid, we are dealing with pure evil here"?
I feel pretty sure that most readers - of all ages - are well prepared for anything that might happen in book 7. The good folk at The Leaky Cauldron took it all in their stride. They're even running a poll on which characters are most likely to die. I imagine you can place bets on it in London by now. (My money's on Hagrid and Ron, and I think Snape has to go too. Voldemort doesn't count. But I'll just pretend to be a grown-up and act like I can deal with the suspense.)
But all hell's broken loose in the papers and the(adult) blogosphere.
Chasing Ray makes an impassioned plea for Harry to live on:
When did the good guys winning become something that a young adult author needed to avoid?

The Guardian thinks a bit of grief is good for youngsters:
The rumours alone of Potter's demise, whether or not exaggerated, will be enough to bring the issue of mortality firmly on to the breakfast table where it will further loom over many a school run in the coming weeks and hype-filled months.

Those of us who still haven't recovered from Beth's demise in Little Women might not agree, although our therapists may.
But they're not pulling any punches over at Bookninja:
I hope he dies while listening to bad prose, or better, by eating his creator's words.

Bitch-slapped by Bookninja. Nasty.
No wonder she's a recluse.
Anyway, the most interesting thing, besides the frenzy, is that in the same interview Rowling admitted she'd boxed herself in on a couple of issues early in the series and now has to write her way out of them. The most astounding thing for me, when I read Rowling now, is how incredibly foresightful she has been, and how she lays the groundwork for characters and events early on - even minor things - and how complex the plotting is. Now I know what it's like to write a series I am awe-struck at the prescience. It's remarkable, if you ask me, that she's only boxed herself in a couple of times.
There must be literally hundreds of characters and dozens of strands by now, including red herrings and insignificant details, and I can't imagine how she keeps it all in her head. She can't go back and change anything. She's stuck with words she imagined last decade, when she was a different person and had no idea who her readership would be. Remarkable.