Emerging again…

Adversity is often cited as a spur for creativity – Shakespeare wrote some of his best known plays during, and in the aftermath of the plague. Hardship may get the creative juices flowing but it doesn’t mean its easy.

The arts and cultural sector has been one of the hardest hit by the impacts of COVID. Crowd events are the first to be cancelled and the last to be re-opened when the virus gets loose in the community. Hundreds of thousands of gigs and events have been cancelled over the last 18 months, each one evaporating the livelihoods of artists and resulting in the loss of millions to the sector.

Ever adaptive and experienced at living on the edge, the arts sector was one of the first to adjust to the new world order using technology to revolutionise the way they work, eking out some kind of living and keeping the rest of us entertained and stimulated during our closed in locked down lives.

A number of events I’d planned to attend in recent weeks had to be cancelled. Some pivoted to an online format, including the Emerging Writers Festival.

I purchased tickets to the National Writers Conference and attended via zoom last Saturday whilst I re-caulked my shower. Yes, you did read that correctly. I find it easier to concentrate on online events if doing a manual activity that doesn’t require much thought. During work hours I often get out the mindful coloring book. On the weekend domestic maintenance tasks are ideal.

There were some great sessions including writers waxing lyrical about their writing practice, editors reflecting on their unsung role in making a writers work sing, debut authors discussing their differing paths to publication, world building and character development. The festival also has a YouTube channel with loads of free writerly content that you can watch at any time or check out the festival program for links.

Meanwhile I’ll go and enjoy a freshly sealed shower…

Here we go again…

Melbourne is back in lockdown due to another coronovirus outbreak…

Anxiety induced panic buying has led once again to emptied supermarket shelves and toilet paper shortages as supply chains fail to keep up with the surge.

It’s tough, particularly for those who have had to close businesses or can’t work because their workplaces have closed. I planned to go to a couple of shows at Melbourne’s Rising Festival this weekend but the arts are one of biggest casualties of lockdowns. The Festival has been cancelled, as have restaurant bookings. I feel for the artists, businesses and hospitality staff who are impacted and pay the biggest financial and emotional price to keep the rest of us safe.

I wrote about my joy at being able to re-engage with the arts after the last lockdown concluded and look forward to doing so again after this one.

Meanwhile in my shrunken world I writer, cook, garden and walk, and feel very fortunate that these pleasures remain. I have also been enjoying my new mindfulness colouring book which helps me concentrate in zoom meetings. Stay safe people and see you out the other side…(hopefully next week).

Best ever gnocchi recipe

600g potatoes unpeeled (choose big old white-skinned ones high in starch and similar size)

150g flour

50g Parmigiano cheese, freshly grated

1 dessertspoon salt

extra flour

Scrub potatoes clean and boil whole in their skins in salted water. As soon as cooked, drain and peel whilst still hot. Hold with a tea towel to protect your hands. Mash potato thoroughly in a large bowl making sure there are no lumps. Incorporate the flour, Parmiagiano cheese and salt into the potato. Flour your hands and knead the mixture like bread with the heel of you hand for about five minutes folding the dough in on itself until it is velvety to touch.

Cut the dough into four pieces, covering three with with an inverted bowl whilst you work on one. Roll each section into a long sausage shape about 2cm thick on a floured surface. Use a sharp knife to cut into 2 cm lengths. Make each section into a gnocchi shape. You can do this by rolling each piece over the prongs of a fork or I just flatten them and round the edges off with my fingers. Lay them out on a piece of kitchen paper until all the dough is done.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil and drop in enough gnocchi. Only add enough to fill the base of the pot without crowding. As soon as the pieces start to float to the surface, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and into a colander to drain. Repeat till all the gnocchi is cooked.

My favourite gnocchi toppings are burnt sage butter, pesto or a tomato sauce. For the sage butter simply toss some fresh sage leaves into a small fry pan with a slab of butter and cook until the sage starts to crisp and pour over the gnocchi – it’s decadent, but delicious.

If you have more gnocchi than you will eat, they are easily frozen in single layers divided by kitchen paper for a later meal. Simply take out of the freezer and boil in a pot again until they float to the surface, or try them fried for something different.

What it means to be human…

(There needs to be an error code that means “I received your request but decided to ignore you.”)

Ok, so I confess I binged listened to the entire Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells last week – all five after last weeks review of All Systems Red. I could probably just stop there. Declaring that fact is review enough, but stopping would leave a lot of white space in this blog post…

So the plan wasn’t a clusterfuck, it was just circling the clusterfuck target zone, getting ready to come in for a landing.

At their heart, the Murderbot Diaries are about a machine coming to understand what it means to be human. Murderbot is a construct, part-human part-robot, designed to be owned, used and discarded by humans. The novellas are simple stories with complex themes and characterisation. I could draw parallels to issues of slavery, racism, gender and sexuality, as well as the role of artificial intelligence.

As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

The Murderbot Diaries are also bubbling over with brilliant one liners delivered from the SecUnits point of view. I have included some of my favourites scattered through this post.

I hate caring about stuff. But apparently once you start, you can’t just stop.

The series reminds me of studying transhumanism and the likes of Turing, Huxley, Putnam and Searle in philosophy at university. Philosophers who made us grapple with the idea that we could create a being that is equal to human, even replace humans, using artificial intelligence.

Yes, talk to Murderbot about its feelings. The idea was so painful I dropped to 97 percent efficiency. I’d rather climb back into Hostile One’s mouth.

Could a convergence of human and machine consciousness result in a superior being? AI that could think and therefore by definition reduce humans to nothing more than machines. It was mind bending stuff but I fell squarely in the camp of AI being a tool for humans, not being capable of replacing us.

It was very dramatic, like something out of a historical adventure serial. Also correct in every aspect except for all the facts, like something out of a historical adventure serial.

As a decision making tool AI and the use of data have myriad benefits, including the capacity to remove human biases from decision making in some circumstances. But in many respects I believe the essence of our humanity is our fallibility. That we can become overcome and driven by our fears and anxieties, anger, sadness or elation is a unique characteristic of organic sentient beings. Perhaps even more important is our capacity for creativity. Our emotional worlds and imaginations are at the essence of being human, characteristics I do not believe can be replicated by AI.

Disinformation, which is the same as lying but for some reason has a different name, is the top tactic in corporate negotiation/warfare.

That central question in the Murderbot Diaries of what it means to be human is something that all of us actual humans must grapple with throughout life – either consciously or unconsciously. We do this every time we make judgements and decisions because those acts determine the kind of person we want to be, in relation to both ourselves and others.

They were all annoying and deeply inadequate humans, but I didn’t want to kill them. Okay, maybe a little.

Murderbot expresses an irresistible blend of deep love for its humans and angry, pessimistic, exhausted cynicism because he believes the world is a terrible place and humans are hopeless. Part-robot, part-organic beings such as Murderbot were built after all to have superior performance and prevent stupid humans from making stupid decisions and getting themselves killed. Yet Murderbot is driven by a passionate sentimental commitment to do the right thing by them. No wonder he’d rather zone out binging on his favourite show Sanctuary Moon than engage with the world.

I hate having emotions about reality; I’d much rather have them about Sanctuary Moon.

Environmental crime fiction

I woke up to a startlingly beautiful sky filled with hot air balloons this morning. After doing some writing I set out with the hound on a long walk. It is a stunning Autumn day. Already I have been squawked at by some cheeky galas and said hello to an echidna going about its day.

Now, I have stopped for a moment and I am squatting on a rock looking at the river scene in the the photos include in this blog post as I write it on my phone. The intermittent sound of birds play a tune over the background base of the swollen Yarra River waters spilling across rocks on their way to the city. It is peaceful and soothing and my mind turns to my writing.

My current manuscript is a crime fiction novel with a backdrop of the environmental movement. One of the underlying themes is climate grief and I have taken much inspiration from my local environment as well as from a period living in East Gippsland.

The idea for the story came to me during a writing workshop I attended with Angela Savage, former CEO of Writers Victoria, at the Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival (TARWF) in October 2019 and I commenced work on the manuscript in November that year (TARWF will run again this year in November and I hope to go again as it was a hoot last time – I delivered spoken word piece at their Noir at the Bar event. You can listen to that here.)

The story for my current manuscript is set in 2018, before the Victorian bushfires and the pandemic. Whilst the premise pre-dates our recent disasters, the story has certainly been shaped by them. It is a lament to Victoria’s beautiful disappearing landscapes and humanities seeming collective inability to do what needs to be done to save them from the impacts of climate change. There have been moments when I considered abandoning the endeavour, particularly after the terrible bushfires in Victoria that consumed much of the landscape in which the story is set. Instead I made some changes to include a foreboding of disasters such as the fires and the pandemic so that the story does not seem dated.

I entered the first few chapters into a competition for a Varuna Fellowship last year and was chuffed to be shortlisted. I hope to take up the opportunity for a supported residency later this year.

My writing has been interrupted a bit over the last year, but I have now crossed the half way mark of the first draft at just over 40,000 words and am feeling inspired to forge on into the home stretch so I can set myself to editing.

For now, I must continue on my walk as the hound is getting restless.

Seeing the Light

One of the things I most missed during lockdown was immersion in the arts. Like reading – galleries, sculpture parks, theatre and music all provide fertile ground for inspiration. Art helps us to see the world through different lenses, challenge our perspective on the world and transports us to different places. I have been to four exhibitions in recent weeks and feel creatively refreshed by the experiences.

Looking Glass at Tarrawarra Museum of Modern Art bought together two contemporary Australian Aboriginal artists – Waanyi artist, Judy Watson and Kokatha and Nukunu artist, Yvonne Scarce. The exhibition was a tribute to, and a lament for country. It reflected Aboriginal history from colonial massacres to Stolen Gernations, climate change and the impact of the Maralinga bomb tests.

Flesh after Fifty explored stereotypes of ageing and celebrated the older female form through photos, painting and sculpture. We are so accustomed to the memorialisation of youth and cajoled into drinking from its fountain at any cost through the media. Older women often talk about being ‘invisible’ and ‘overlooked’, and they do, with a few exceptions, for all intents and purposes ‘disappear’ from public view once their bodies start to wrinkle and sag.

To me, in many ways older people have always been beautiful. I see the lines etched on their faces and bodies as stories. Their creases and scars mark the life that has been lived – a rich source of story and inspiration if you take the time to explore them. It was a refreshing balm to go to a show that celebrated the diversity of the older woman’s form, challenging negative stereotypes of ageing.

One day I got lost in the National Gallery of Victoria Triennial exhibition. A celebration of the porosity and cross disciplinary influences of the creative arts. It was an awe inspiring, challenging visual feast, and at times a little nerve wracking when I found myself caught in the buildings maze unable to find my way out without help from the concierge.

My final drink from the creative fountain was Lisa Sewards Short Stories, an exhibition of printmaking and painting inspired from contemporary Australian short stories Lisa read during lockdown. The exhibition was held at Fortyfive Downstairs, a great art space off Flinders Lane, Melbourne.

I climbed down the steep wooden staircase into the bowls of the building to the gallery and found myself alone. Having time to peruse the stunning etchings and paintings brimming with emotion somehow made the experience much more intense.

The stories that inspired the works included A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop; The Flight of Birds: A Novel in Twelve Short Stories by Joshua Lobb; Nova (a raw manuscript) by Laurie Steed. My personal favourite, because it drew so strongly on emotion (and includes a dog), was The Edge of Tears inspired by Bec Yule’s unpublished Dog walking in the time of Corona, with apologies to Gabriell Garcia Marquez.

It was such a privilege to be able to go back out into the world and fill my creative cup from the inspiration of others. I encourage you to get out and support the artistic community who were hit so hard by lockdown and yet kept on creating. We need artists and their works to help us think critically, connect with the world around us in new ways, and nourish our cultural lives.

Main image: Melbourne Laneway

The trials and tribulations of an adventurous hound

We were finally released from our collective misery last week, and I’m not talking about lockdown. The hound and I have experienced another kind of restriction as a result of an injury I wrote about back in January, after what should have been a two week resolution turned into six.

After a couple of weeks of rigorous supervision and battles with the cone of shame, which I can attest made both the hound and myself miserable, we returned to the vet to have the sutures removed. I was relieved the saga was over and had the best nights sleep since Harper’s surgery. So imagine my horror to wake up in the morning and notice a small hole had opened up where the stitches had been. By the time we got to the vet it had turned back into a gaping wound.

The vet took one look and said, ‘We’ll have to staple her up.’

He disappeared into the surgery and reappeared with some goo on his finger — a local anesthetic which he wiped around the hole. Next, he produced a staple gun and whilst the vet nurse and I placated the 46kg beast he proceeded to staple her together. The anesthetic didn’t worked on one spot and Harper screamed blue murder. My heart leapt into my throat at her distress but fortunately she is such a gentle beast that she tolerated the procedure despite the discomfort.

The next three weeks were a slog of close supervision and anxiety about whether the wound would heal. After one week the vet indicated if it wasn’t significantly improved by week two they might have to do surgery again, which would have meant a return to ground zero.

The wound was located on the most bendy part of the dog, making it slow to knit. It was clearly itchy so I couldn’t leave Harper out of my sight without the cone of shame on, and could not leave the cone on for anything other than short periods due to the stinking hot weather because the device prevented her from drinking water.

It’s hard work trying to contain a 46kg playful young dog, even if she is a lazy sod 90% of the time. As the days dragged by, she became more and more frustrated with the restrictions I had to impose. All she wanted was to play zoomies with her friends and I could not let her.

Six weeks later, after being substantially locked in the same room together, save for one day that Harper spent on a kind friend’s sofa, the staples were removed. I held my breathe willing everything to stay together. After a few days without any sign of complications, Harper had her first off lead play and I got a chance to go out without her for a meal with a friend. Tails are wagging all-round.

Locked in

Melbourne’s been back in lockdown, so a post on locked-room mysteries seems appropriate.

Locked-room mysteries are a sub-genera of crime fiction in which a seemingly ‘impossible crime’ is committed. The circumstances surrounding the crime make it implausible that the perpetrator committed the offence at all, or if they did, it seems unlikely they could evade detection. The crime scene is sealed from the inside with no way out (unless they were Houdini).

These stories usually involve a closed circle of people with a limited number of suspects and a whimsical detective to keep us guessing as they investigate. The solution is always right there, if only we could lay our eyes on the sleight of hand that plays on our curiosity. They are great mysteries for lovers of puzzles and a world away from gritty police procedurals or thrillers about psychopaths and the more brutal side of humanity. They are more cosy-supernatural-gothic.

Think a group of acquaintances getting locked up together on a remote property. They are caught out when the weather turns bad, making leaving impossible and bringing communications down. Keith, who had been driving everyone mad, is found dead in the garden shed. The garden shed has no windows and is locked securely from the inside. When the group break the door down they find Kieth lying on the floor with a bullet wound to his head. Strangely there’s no gun in the shed…Lucky one of the group is also a brilliant detective.

Locked-room mysteries were hot in the Golden Age of detective fiction between the two world wars. Agatha Christie perfected the genera, but Edgar Allan Poe is credited with invention of its long form in 1841 with The Murders in the Rue Morgue, although some say John Dickson Carr pre-dated him with The Hollow Man in 1935.

Casting even further back, the style was evident in short stories. In Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op story Mike or Alec or Rufus that appeared in the January 1925 issue of Black Mask, the action takes place in an apartment building and the private investigator tries to solve the crime through interviewing suspects; Wilkie Collons’ The Moonstone (1854) is also credited as contributing to development of the sub-genre. Elements can even be found in the Old Testament story of Bel and the Dragon in which an idol who eats food offerings from a sealed room is worshiped. The stories hero Daniel, exposes the secret entrance used by the priests who are taking the food for themselves.

In a Guardian article from 2014, Adrian McKinty nominated his top ten impossible murder novels, ranging from The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868) to La Septième Hypothèse by Paul Halter (1991). Interestingly there are a lot of locked room mysteries with a French origin.

Contemporary novels in this sub-genre are dominated by women writers and include Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood (2016), The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall, The Last by Hanna Jameson, Nine Perfect Strangers by Laine Moriarty, The Last Resort by Susi Holliday, and One by One by Ruth Ware who must like four walls, a ceiling and a floor.

Locked room mysteries are concerned with psychology and relationships between people in high pressure environments. They study what can happen when we are forced to spend more time with other’s than we would choose to. When we see one another more clearly that we ever have before and it becomes claustrophobic and uncomfortable because we are cut off from the outside world. Under these conditions our masks and defenses fall away and our true selves are revealed, warts and all. The evaporation of the veneer of civility creates a perfect environment for a mysterious crime. And of course there must be a brilliant detective to keep everyone contained until they solve the case.

I hope your lockdown was less dramatic, but if you can’t get your fill of a locked-rooms in lockdown try one of these:

  • The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-room Mysteries by Otto Penzier – collection of 68 of the all time best
  • Miraculous Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards – anthology
  • Locked Room Murders by Robert Adey – a bibliography of the problem and solution to 1,280 locked room crime novels and short stories

Know where you live

I was listening to Melissa Lucashenko interviewed on The Garret podcast about her novel Too Much Lip whilst I laboured in the garden. The novel won Melissa the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award amongst other accolades.

Too Much Lip is the story of Kerry Salter, a First Nations Woman, who returns to the place she has been avoiding all her adult life – her hometown. She heads south on a stolen Harley for one last visit to see her dying Pop. The novel is a dark, political, funny and fast paced story about the Salter family, love and redemption, set in fictional Bundjalung country.

Into the river that was about to be stolen away again, as it always had been since Captain James Nunne Esq. first rode up with his troopers, one two three, crying I’ll have that, and that, oh, and that too, while I’m at it.

Too Much Lip

During the interview Melissa spoke about relationships to land, connection to country, and the cultural differences in that connection and knowing. It occurred to me, with a little embarrassment, that despite having lived in the same place and admired the same fabulous view every day for twenty-five years, I did not actually know the names of all the distant landmarks. So I did a bit of research to educate myself. Sadly my efforts returned very little about the Indigenous culture of the specific mountains I can see from my balcony, though all fall within the Wurundjeri and Taungurung lands of the Kulin Nations.

One Tree Hill (372m), Christmas Hills.

One Tree Hill

Europeans named Christmas Hills after David Christmas, an emancipated convict shepherd who got lost in the area in 1842. Gold was discovered at One Tree Hill in 1859 causing a brief gold rush until 1964. Remnants of the mining activity are still visible if you meander along Happy Valley Walking Track through the bush and along the creek of that name. The reserve is home to the large bent-wing bat, eastern horseshoe bat, the carnivorous marsupial phascogale, and powerful, and barking owls.

Yarra Ridge (241m), Christmas Hills

Yarra Ridge is not just a wine label, though being part of Victoria’s first wine growing district most of the information online is about wine. The regions viticultural history goes back to 1838 when the Ryrie Brothers planted a vineyard at Yering Station and produced their first drop in 1845. Vines were first planted at the original Yarra Ridge vineyard by lawyer Louis Bialkower in 1983, though Yarra Ridge wines are now just a brand, having been taken over by Foster’s Group.

Yarra Ridge the place is part of the Great Dividing Range. The Watsons Creek catchment runs along the southern spur downstream form Kinglake National Park and is home to the Growling Grass Frog, Brush-tailed Phascogale, Common Dunnart and the Barking Owl.

From my balcony on 7 February 2009, I could see the glow of the fire that swept along Yarra Ridge which carried it down to devastate the Steels Creek valley. Alice Bishop, author of A Constant Hum, a book which grapples with the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, grew up at Christmas Hills.

Mount Graham (271m), Christmas Hills

Mount Graham overlooks Sugarloaf Reservoir, built in the 1970s to supplement Melbourne’s domestic water supply. The dam is fed by the Yarra River and the Maroondah Aqueduct that runs past the base of Mount Graham via the Sugarloaf pipeline.

There is a 14km walking track around the reservoir that skirts the base of Mount Graham. The more adventurous can take the steep climb along a rough track over native grasslands and through fern thickets to the top of the mountain.

Mount Tanglefoot (1024m) and Mount St Leonard (1100m)

Mount St Leonard

Mount Tanglefoot is just north of Mount St Leonard in the Toolangi State Forest. The two peaks are connected by a 10km saddle.

Toolangi is an aboriginal word meaning tall trees, a nod to the Mountain Ash and Myrtle Beech trees in the area that attracted the paling splitters and timber cutters who moved there in the 1890s. At least one of the giant beauties was spared – Toolangi Forest is home to the 400 year old, 65m high Kalatha Giant, a mountain ash that is the seventh largest tree in Victoria. The forest also houses a sculpture trail that takes in sculptures formed from materials taken sustainably from the forest.

Toolangi even has a bit of literary history. One of Australia’s most famous poets, CJ (Clarence James) Dennis the author of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke published in the early 20th century, lived in a hut at Toolangi in the early 1900s. He published his first volume of poems, Backblock Ballads and Other Verses, whilst living there.

Out with the old, in with the new

Happy New Year amigos! And thank you for journeying with me through 2020.

The scariest moment is always just before you start.

– Stephen King
are we there yet?

Fruit bats sailed across the dusky sky and the shrill buzz of cicadas echoed through the cooling air. Two dogs rested on the sofa after a gambol around the park befriending picnickers and searching for scraps. The table was laid with a delicious spicy meal of fish, tahini potatoes, and an eggplant, braodbean and soba noodle salad. Roast rhubarb and the first peaches plucked from my tree in the afternoon lay in wait on the kitchen bench for desert.

2020 was prickly. It was a strange year, with the main beneficiaries being household pets who got to have their humans around more. Humanity had developed a COVID weariness, a yearning for a return to ‘normality’, and a tentative hopefulness as the year drew to a close.

Reflecting on 2020, I am most grateful for friends and family, a little disappointed that I did not get more writing done, and genuinely curious about what 2021 will bring.

I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.

– Anne Frank
waiting for action

I sent my completed first manuscript out into the world of querying early in 2020. One publisher contacted me and provided valuable feedback that resulted in some rework. I shelved the idea of sending it further afield as COVID-19 took hold, and the industry entered a state of uncertainty, though I did submit to a few unpublished manuscript awards. No success so far, but I will re-enter the world of querying in 2021.

There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.

– Beatrix Potter

The first draft of my second manuscript is half way through. This year I hope to reinvigorate my work on it after a few months of distraction. Most of my recent writing, other than this blog has been short stories and journaling about day to day life. I have written less than I hoped through the year, but I did read more. Curiously my to-be-read pile didn’t diminish however. A selection of reading highlights, in no particular order, included an eclectic mix:

happy place

New years eve was a companionable night with friends, but I didn’t quite make it to midnight. I drove into the new year. Fireworks erupted from a paddock as I cruised past, lighting up the night sky in psychedelics that startled me and caused the laconic hound to sit up and search for the source of the explosions.

Never one for new years resolutions, I did not make any, but I have promised myself to be open to possibilities, embrace opportunities, and of course to write more.

May 2021 live up to the promises you have made it, and write you a beautiful story.

Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.

– Louis L’Amour

main image: Mainstreet and full moon

Navigation

My writing mojo is a little flat this week, so I’m going abstract, partly inspired by one of my favourite poets, James Walton

She became certain that the world was not flat when she flew off its edge. The instigating event was packaged in a few short sentences that spelled ‘the end’. A surprise finish to a story she thought only half way through. Some writers like to conclude with a twist.

Afraid of falling as she spun through space. Perpetually at the apex of a roller coaster – dizzy; stomach lurching toward mouth; sense of time and space confused. Astronauts know it only too well. But she held her own and panic subsided. A euphoric calm settled in. Awe at the infinite possibilities of all-that-space. She is a speck of dust, both insignificant and gloriously extraordinary. Weightless.

Wonder at the celestial balls burning bright, lighting up the night sky with constellations of starlore. Her grandmother told her that her anger set fire to the barn. The flames reached into the night sky and their embers created the stars. The old crone could throw back whisky like a Kentucky pioneer and she knew a thing or two about navigation.