Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Life

Over at The Guardian there's an extract from Victoria Glendinning's new biography of the strangely underestimated Leonard Woolf.
The book's been highly-praised so far, and rightly so, judging by this brief extract.
Eclipsed in fame - and, it must be said, in fiction writing ability - by his wife, perhaps one of Leonard's most remarkable feats was the impact of his writing on the formation of the illustrious but disastrous League of Nations. It was the hope of many, including Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, in a time where hope was a rare thing, and the precursor in many ways to the UN. Leonard's powerful words formed its ideological basis.
The poor man spent much of his later life defending himself and Virginia against a whole range of charges from feminist writers and literary critics who portrayed him as a weak and inferior being who never supported her; or some kind of unfeeling monster (perhaps he and Ted Hughes formed a little support group).
Why everyone picked on him so, I've never known, but I suspect behind all those accusations that he'd virtually driven her to suicide might have been a fundamental and deeply human jealousy that had nothing to do with politics or literary theory. Apparently some have since apologised.
I've never quite managed to plough through Leonard's autobiographies. I swear I will, one day - along with Duff Cooper's and Lees-Milne's diaries and ... But certainly his letters convey an intellect and creativity equal to any in Bloomsbury, and an ethical framework and wisdom on which many of the other fluttering things relied. Not to mention the fact that he was a "penniless Jew" amidst a pack of virulent anti-Semites - no matter how fond one might be of Lytton, Virginia, Vita and Harold, they really could be quite vicious. It comes through in their letters to each other, and their diaries, when they think they are unobserved.
He's vindicated now, at any rate, by Glendinning's book which is now officially (loved ones, take note) on my Christmas wishlist, along with Christopher Ondaatje's Woolf in Ceylon.
"You cannot escape Fate," Leonard Woolf wrote at the end of his life, "and Fate, I have always felt, is not in the future, but in the past."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


A few weeks ago I was browsing through the secondhand bookstall at our local Saturday market, where you can get everything from guitars to fresh crepes to ... well, crap. It's in the grounds of the Returned Soldiers Association clubhouse, so you have to dodge around the light artillery while searching for scones or strange knitted objects.
Anyway, my greedy eyes fell on a book with the name Catherine Jinks on the spine. Imagining it had been wrongly placed in Romance, rather then Young Adult Medieval Fiction (they don't really have a section for that niche, but I like to organise other people's books in my head) I almost moved it to another cardboard box. But since it was a title I hadn't seen before, I thought about buying it.
It really was a romance. A "stirring historical romance in the tradition of ..." etc.
Must be a different Catherine Jinks, I thought, to the creator of Pagan's Crusade and the gritty streetlife of 12th century Jerusalem.
But no. The woman's a chameleon.
And I only knew the half of it.
Here's an interview with her from SMH, which quantifies her work as "30 books that range across young adult, children's and adult genres. She writes historical, horror, chick lit, mystery and science fiction; her latest manuscript is a story about computer-generated porn."
(Nice to see she got a whopper of an advance on her new book in the US.)
Mind you, I didn't buy the romance. Don't care who wrote it.
However, just got back from a dash across the Tasman where I picked up Inga Clendinnan's Quarterly essay on historians versus novelists. Shall report later when I've finished it, as I've also now read The Secret River (apart from anything else, what on earth was all the fuss about?).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The pointy end

Is a manuscript ever really finished?
Of course, if at some point it becomes a book, it's finished in one sense. But perhaps never in the author's mind. One keeps wanting to fiddle, to make alterations and make it better, well beyond the point of no return.
I guess at some point one learns to live with that extra fussy adjective or impossible-to-read-out-loud phrase. Sometimes when I read to kids in schools they read along in their own copies and catch me skipping a phrase or changing a word.
"Hey!" someone shouted one day. Ripped off.
Yesterday I spent most of the day in imaginary Amsterdam circa 1660 then switched to July 1, 1916 (first day of the Battle of the Somme, for those who don't know). I've been redrafting for the umpteenth time the adult WWI novel. There seems to be no end to the slicing and dicing. I'm not sure I'll ever actually stop.

All books are either dreams or swords
You can cut, or you can drug, with words.

~ Amy Lowell

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Imagined history

I like this confession about the juxtaposition of accuracy and imagination in historical fiction, from Isabel Allende Author's Note to her new novel, Inés of My Soul:
"This novel is a work of intuition, but any similarity to events and persons relating to the conquest of Chile is not coincidental."

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Prosecution rests

I was banging on earlier about the subjectivity of blogs. Now I've come across (via Matilda) this discussion on Reading Matters about the ways in which bloggers have been used by businesses (in this case publishers) to promote products - and of course since there's no code of conduct or professional standard, readers have no idea about the influences involved.
Read the initial post and discussion here.

Just give me the facts, ma'am

Australia's Federal Communications Minister Helen Coonan, fresh from deregulating media ownership, delivered the annual Andrew Olle lecture last night in Sydney. According to the ABC, for which the late great Olle once worked:
Senator Coonan said the new digital age has left both journalists and politicians struggling to maintain the foothold into people's homes and minds they once had.
Senator Coonan said she suspects the emergence of the Internet is the closest the media industry has come to its Armageddon, with many warning of the dire consequences for traditional journalism.
But she said the Internet could end up being the best reporting medium ever invented and believes it will only enhance democracy...
Senator Coonan said the growth of blogs and online journalism could have enormous implications for the future of the craft.
"People are no longer just sounding the death knell for the newspaper, but warning of the dire consequences for traditional journalism," she said.

Sure. Traditional print and radio media, in particular, are changing rapidly. But let's not be fooled into thinking that the rise of blogging is an alternative to journalism.
These are some of the ways in which journalism is changing:
~ More people in more places can create news reports, especially sending digital photos, which enhances coverage.
~ Coverage is more immediate, especially in a global sense (although radio has always been capable of that)
~ Coverage is more specific; so that I can watch, say, the US mid-term elections tick over all afternoon sitting in an office in Auckland, instead of waiting for an update in news bulletins.
But journalism has been changing for a long time, and not necessarily in ways that make it more democratic. The steady rise of political interference from networks or proprietors, advertisers, governments, lobbyists and PR people has fundamentally affected the ways in which we see the world.
If anything, the big change wrought by the web is to the business model, not necessarily the craft, although the threat is undeniably there.
Web news outlets can act as a counterpoint to that outside influence, if they are done properly and ... well, like journalism. They can, critically, provide alternative news sources from areas of the world in which media is strictly or covertly controlled.
But by and large the blogosphere is a flurry of electronic pamphlets, an opinion-based media not too much different to the world of Camille Desmoulins; or even the hysterical Puritan William Prynne, who had his ears chopped off by Charles I for expressing his admittedly vile opinions (he argued that theatre was the work of the Devil, complained about the morality of the Stuart court, was branded on the cheek with the letters S L - seditious libeller - and later opposed Cromwell's readmission of the Jews to Britain).
The sorts of apocalyptic outpourings we hear about "traditional journalism" were voiced in Prynne's day too, about the rising threat of the printing press and its democratic nature.
I'm all for the democracy of opinion, and there are a few online media outlets producing high-quality and important news in alternative ways. There are ways in which blogs and websites can and do generate fascinating debates and present a whole range of ideas and information to which we might otherwise never get access. I rejoice in that fact every day.
But let's not fool ourselves. Most blogging is opinion. Some of it is propaganda. All well and good - but it's no more objective journalism than a "Repent or die" pamphlet you find stuck under your windscreen wiper, or the op-ed pieces in the weekend papers. At least most newspapers make disclosures about the affiliations of their commentators. Bloggers don't bother - in fact, many go to great lengths to hide their affiliations, and even their identities.
Many of the politically-influential bloggers are aligned with some faction or other, or are well-established "media commentators" from a lobby group or think tank. Right-wing "trolls" spend their lives searching (trolling) for blogs or websites which voice opinions with which they disagree and then pick fights in the comments section. Some of them are presumably paid to do so, especially in the US. (I'm sure left-wing groups do the same, albeit not on such an organised scale.)
Then the politicians pay attention to these people, just because the opinions are out in the public domain. It's no more journalism - nor, for that matter, genuine public opinion - than shock-jock talkback radio, perhaps even less so, because there are no internal checks and balances like sub-editors, producers or editors making sure that the work is genuine and in line with the ethics of the trade.
But the facets of traditional journalism that matter have not changed:
~ Reporting truth and fact-checking
~ Objectivity
~ Disclosure of vested interest
~ Professional confidentiality of sources
~ Freedom from outside influence.
No matter how much governments may wish it, these elements of so-called traditional journalism, these fundamental freedoms of expression and of access to information, do not face oblivion.
They carry on in media of all varieties, across all platforms, no matter what.
It's called integrity.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Silk threads

History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.
~ Voltaire

I've begun work on the new book, An Act of Faith. Amsterdam, Venice and Seville. Late 16th century. Early printers. Inquisition. Desperate dashes across Europe.
No wonder I couldn't wait to get stuck into it.
Writing's really quite a fabulous thing to do, you know.

Studied indifference

At the weekend I finished my last assignment for my Children's Lit diploma - for this year, anyway. It was quite fun - as I'm studying by distance, they send you a picture book and you have to open the package on the appointed day and analyse the book on the basis of what you've learned over the year.
So it begged the question: what have I learned?
Firstly, I've learned that I could have written a whole book in the time I've spent studying this year, so I've had to weigh up whether or not it's been worth it.
It has, in one sense. After my Masters, I had sworn that I'd never study again until I reached retirement age, which seems like the only realistic time to do a PhD.
But then I developed this unexpected career in writing for kids, and felt like I needed to understand a whole lot more about the field, and particularly about picture books, which I'd like to write (well, I have written a couple, but whether anyone wants to publish them is another matter, which in turn seems to have nothing to do with whether or not they're any good). So I decided to go back to school - and it was a great deal more work than I envisaged.
Yet there are lots of things I know now that I didn't know at the beginning of the year about how picture books, in particular, work. My other subject was largely to do with poetry, which mostly confirmed there's a lot of crap poetry about, including poems written for kids - but also some gems, like the work of Catherine Bateson and Steven Herrick in Australia.
Will I keep going?
I'm not sure. I never cared about getting another qualification, so it's now a matter of deciding how I should best spend the next twelve months or two years. We'll see. Watch this space.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Out of this world

Gob-smacked by this snippet I just read in one of my travel writers' newsletters:
Virgin Atlantic today announced that Alan Watts, a former electrician, will be the first person in the world to become an astronaut using his frequent flyer miles as payment.
Alan has earned the two million Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles required to qualify for the offer and will be redeeming them on a trip to space with Virgin Galactic, the world’s first privately built,commercial space tourism company, in 2009.
I'm not sure what's more astonishing: the idea of commercial space travel or the idea of two million unused frequent flyer points. Such willpower. Never tempted to pop off to Mallorca for a weekend. Let alone those alluring offers of a new electric kettle or a mixed case of wine.
Gives a whole new meaning to the concept of redemption.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Please be Cybil

A group of US bloggers* on children's and YA lit have taken the law into their own hands and set up their own literary awards: the Cybils.
The democracy of the blogosphere in action: anyone can nominate a book in one several categories, and these all go to specialist panels of volunteer judges who make the final decision. It's all very transparent, but we'll wait to see if their decisions are greeted with the same level of debate as other awards announcements.
Take at look at The Cybils here.

* That makes me wonder: what's the collective noun for bloggers?
A gaggle of bloggers?
A coven?
A pod?

Friday, November 10, 2006


It's been busy lately.
Day job. A few school visits. A few radio interviews. The final assignments for my course this year. Long days, late nights, no writing.
It feels like ages since I've sat in one spot, even on the ferry, and simply read a book instead of rifling through stacks of paper or scribbling notes.
I have one final exam, and then two weeks of (mostly) writing, although there are a few more schools scheduled, and paid work will no doubt intervene.
I visited a school event this week (hello, Kohimarama) but it was in the evening and the crowd was grown ups. I hadn't realised, and rocked up with eye patch and my usual props to explain that there really were women pirates in history, just like in my books. Instead of nine year-olds there were all these (lovely) parents standing about having a wine tasting.
Uh oh. Time to improvise.
One of the things I love most about school visits is when I look up while I'm reading and see spellbound faces: eyes wide, mouths open.
There were a few parents like that at Kohi the other night. But maybe it was the wine. Cheers.
Now that I'm hawking around a second book, it's interesting to see how kids react to the idea of a series of books - they expect such a thing, now, and lobby very very hard to be given a sneak preview of what might happen in the third book.
I've even been offered bribes. Ten bucks. Hard to resist, I know, but that's a lot of money to a ten year-old, so I had to consider for at least half a second before saying "No way".
A few reviews trickling in now for The Pirate's Revenge, too. I won't bore you with them this time, unless they are fabulous or really vile.
Now I'm about to collapse into a bath (cup of tea in one hand, chocolate in the other) and hope to be more like my normal blogging self next week.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Punctuation matters

I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is - my point is, there's a strong will for democracy.
~ President George W Bush, CNN Late Edition (no, I'm not sure, either)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Poetry in motion

Just writing an essay on whether "poetry of the past" is relevant to today's children.
I begin to detest that word "relevant". It's like the academic (and also political) version of "whatever".
If a poem/book/painting/welfare centre/educational program/cultural argument/concern is not relevant in the narrowest possible terms to educational/political/funding/cultural authorities, you get the big "whatever". The newspapers will run a campaign to ask why on earth that artwork or youth refuge cost so much. The Prime Minister will raise an eyebrow on early morning TV. An inquiry will be called.
Is history relevant? Is literature relevant? Is art/youth/age/gender/culture relevant?
Air, water, wildlife? People?
Do we really need them, after all?
Prove it.

The aim of poetry is for me simply to keep the child from its television set and the old man from his pub.
~ Philip Larkin, proving relevance