JF Archibald (1856-1919) was a Victorian journalist and founder of the Bulletin magazine. He served as a trustee for the Art Gallery of NSW and during that time commissioned portrait artist John Longstaff to paint poet Henry Lawson. He was so enamoured with the work that he left money in his will for an annual portrait prize.
Painting, like writing has genres. Portrait painting became a thing in the thirteenth century and its roots are in memorialising the rich and powerful. The word means to show a likeness. A portrait is an intimate character sketch that seeks to capture the inner essence of its subject, in much the same way as a novel aims to express the inner world of its characters.
The history of the Archibald presents something of a cultural snapshot of Australian society – up until recent years all winners were caucasian males, usually from Victoria or NSW, who painted caucasian male subjects – a mirror of our societies discrimination in education, opportunities and social views of the times. The first woman to win the Archibald was Nora Heyson for her portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman in 1938.
Today, both the subjects and artists are much more representative of Australia’s diversity. This years Archibald finalists include portraits of women of color, Aboriginal Australians, a subject with a disability, queer and elderly subjects. There was in fact a noticeable absence of old white suited men in armchairs and politicians. As I walked around the gallery, I couldn’t help wondering, what were the characters thinking in the moment captured, what is their life like, and what kind of relationship they have to the artist. Each tells a story.
Main image: Sarah Peirse as Miss Docker in Patrick Whites ‘A cheery soul’, Jude Rae
This week I went to see Gertrude Stein’s DoctorFaustus Lights the Lights. It’s the story of a scientist who trades his soul for electric light, obliterating the difference between night and day. It was an experience that required letting go – letting go of expectations of what to expect from a stage play. There was no neat plot to carry us through, and no temporal logic.
The piece was a beautifully executed avant-garde romp with ambiguous and fractured identities that transitioned through a struggle between good and evil, and grappled with the notion of the individual. The script was poetic with looping lines that were deliberately repetitive and sprinkled with short acidic words that blurred the boundaries between dialogue and narrative. I was left for much of the production with a sensation of hearing the voices inside someone’s head.
I am not talking about the terrifying voices that haunt the sufferers of severe mental illness and render them lost to themselves for periods of time, I am talking about the quieter voices that chatter away in our heads. The voices that self sooth or offer observations, instructions, praise or admonishments in a way that we understand them to be part of ourselves, or that spill out of us onto a blank page in a controlled way to tell our stories. The inner voices that can speak the unspeakable, threaten, challenge, or desire in ways we believe our true selves never would in real life. The voices that take us deep within ourselves whilst simultaneously suspending us from our own realities. The ones that cause me to look up from a page and wonder where the words have come from.
The conversations of the brain were once seen as mythic – the rumblings of gods or shamans, but in reality our inner voice is the stream of consciousness that speaks when no one is listening but us. For most of us it is rarely shared with anyone, except when it erupts in moments of stress, or we lay on the couch and expose it to a therapist in an effort to understand, tame, or change it.
Look around you at the people walking down the street in silence and imagine their inner worlds teeming with chatter, or notice them trying to drown it out by plugging their ears with music that carries them to other places. Imagine the anarchy if all that chatter and noise was unleashed on the world uncensored.
In fiction we often talk about finding our unique voice, the one that can tell a tale in a way that no other can, that leaps off the page and turns words into three dimensional characters. Fiction is a realm in which we seek the unfettered and extraordinary. The more outlandish, edgy or strange our voice the better, as we try to take our readers to the edges of believability or to interrogate matters we may not dare to in real life. In fiction the inner voice can put a characters humour on display in serious situations such as in Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton:
Watch my language? Watch my language? This is what really shits me, when the clandestine heroin operation truth meets the Von Trapp family values mirage we’ve built for ourselves.
Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton
In fiction inner dialogue is like the voice within the voice. It is a mechanism that defines character in a way that dialogue and narrative cannot. It exposes our characters inner dilemmas, self perceptions, contradictions, humour and fears, making them available to the reader even though they are kept hidden from other characters. Inner dialogue invites us into stream of consciousness to bare witness to the fragmented, messy reality of what it means to be human.
Jack nodded vaguely. Merry was only recounting what she’d overheard, what she’d read, what she’d imagined down the years. He wondered suddenly if that’s how everyone constructed their own past – with the experiences of others, and photos, and headlines and snatches of reality, all mashed together into memories that they claimed as their own. For the first time he thought that the photo of them all, happy and with the wind in their hair, might never have existed either. Maybe it was all in his head and he’d only imagined it on the fridge, and the little frame he’d stolen from HomeFayre would be empty for ever.
Snap, Belinda Bauer
Inner dialogue is commonly used in written fiction and sometimes on stage, such as in Hamlet’s well known soliloquy which opens with the words ‘to be or not to be’. The mechanism is rarely seen on the screen, though one exception is the television show Offpring in which the main character’s inner world is put on display in all its anxiety ridden psychedelic glory in a way that blurs Nina’s inner and out worlds. It is the use of that technique more than the plot itself that has drawn me to the show. I love the way her inner world looms up and threatens to derail her with the suddenness of a gusty wind.
Of course the original story of the erudite Faust is that he was highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life as a scholar. He made a pact with the devil to exchange his soul for unlimited worldly pleasures and knowledge and surrendered his moral integrity for power and success. The devils representative was Mephistopheles who helped Foust seduce a beautiful and innocent girl called Gretchen who’s life was destroyed when she gave birth to Faust’s bastard son and drowned the child. One can’t help wonder if both Faust and Gretchen where victims of their own inner dialogues rather than some external other worldly force though.
There are a lot of ordinary people in the world who do extraordinary things. Most of them pass through life unnoticed by all except those whose lives they touch. A small number become immortalised when their contribution is recognised by the media, awards, or writers who become fascinated enough in their stories to commit them to paper, but most often the extent of a person’s contribution to society, only becomes apparent when we hear others tell stories about them.
Last week I went to a living wake for a woman called Katrina Leason, a long-term
friend of my partner, and someone I have come to love and admire through that
In the mid-eighties when feminist activists began to challenge dominant discourses about violence against women, a group of young women in Melbourne got together and formed a collective to set up Zelda’s Place which provided support and accommodation to young women who were victims of incest. Katrina was one of the founding collective members.
The collective named Zelda’s Place after Zelda D’Aprano, a staunch feminist, labour unionist and pay justice advocate. Zelda was an unstoppable force in the women’s movement and the labour movement. She got sacked from factory jobs for speaking out about unfair condition for women, organised pub crawls with groups of women to drink in bars that banned women from entering, and chained herself to the doors of the Commonwealth bank in 1969 to protest the dismissal of an arbitration of an equal pay case with the meat industry union. On another occasion she chained herself to the doors of parliament house, only to have her chains cut and removed by a police officer. When the officer suggested she should be embarrassed by her behaviour, Zelda responded she was not because soon there would be more women joining her. Sure enough they did, and Zelda formed the Women’s Action Committee and the Women’s Liberation Centre with them, and the women’s liberation movement was born.
Zelda’s spirit inspired the young women’s collective who formed Zelda’s
Place, five of whom were at Katrina’s living wake. The five have taken varies
trajectories in their careers, but Katrina, like Zelda, and the in the spirit
of that first collective, dedicated her professional life to ending violence
On sighting Katrina from a distance you would not immediately pick her
as a staunch feminist, she doesn’t fit the stereotype. She is glamorous. Tall,
blonde, immaculately dressed and always made up. It is not until you speak to
her that you realise she is a woman not to be taken lightly.
I had known for some time that Katrina had done quite a lot of work with
the Australian Football League (AFL) around reducing violence against women.
What had not dawned on me was that she was one of the drivers behind the
professionalisation of women’s football, which emerged as a national
competition backed by the AFL in 2017.
Katrina had realised some time ago that Australian’s love of sport could
be a vehicle for change and bought her more than twenty-five years of working
to create more inclusive environments to the male dominated world of
football. She believed that increasing
the participation of women in football was key to the cultural change needed in
community football clubs to prevent violence against women and girls, and
pursued that belief with the same strength and determination that she pursued
all her years of working to eliminate violence against women. I imagine that
many of the blokes in the football world would have been surprised by
Katrina. As my partner pointed out; Katrina
Leason never shies from a fight, but always turns up dressed for a ball.
Katrina has approached her illness with the same pragmatism she has applied to her life. Meditation has given her inner strength to withstand many challenges and to stand tall with dignity and pride in the face of opposition and adversity, along with her connection with family and close friends.
We live in a society that is largely afraid of death, and where talking about it is often taboo. Katrina chose to take a different path and engaged a Buddhist death doula to provide non-medical support to her and her family through her end of life journey. Doula’s can help us to lean into death, to steer away from the socialised silence that most commonly surrounds dying and that brings disconnection rather than that which we most crave – connection.
The theme for Katrina’s living wake was semi-formal with a splash of gold and she looked ever glamorous in a long dress with gold braid. The gathering took place over a sit-down dinner at the same place Katrina and her husband, Peter, had married, but the main event was the family and friends who spoke.
Katrina gave those who knew her the opportunity to tell her, and for her to hear their words that she would not have experienced had they been spoken at her funeral. It was a beautiful evening to be part of.
I sprayed my hair gold and shed quite a few tears at the beautiful speeches. The final speaker presented Katrina with a well-deserved Zelda D’Aprano Lifetime Achievement Award in honour of her tireless work to contribute to the elimination of violence against women. Afterwards I felt I knew Katrina a little better and had a deep sense of gratitude for the woman in who’s honour I was there, for showing us what it means to strive not only for a good life, but for a good death as well.
In 2015 on a trip to New York I had the good fortune to meet a gentleman who worked at the University Club in Manhattan. It’s an elite private club established in 1861. Its purpose now is to promote Literature and Art and it’s based in a Mediterranean-Revival-Italian Renaissance palazzo-style purpose built building constructed in 1899 on West 54th Street. The Club hosts one of New York’s greatest private art collections which includes works by American artists Gilbert Stuart and Childe Hassam. It also has an extraordinary reading room with ceiling murals by H. Siddons Mowbray that were modeled after the Vatican Apartments (unfortunately I couldn’t take photos).
The gentleman gave us a tour of the building, library and rare book collection and it was one of the greatest book highlights of my life so far. Some of the rare books we were shown included:
Ptolemy Geographical (1511): an early publication of geographical maps pre-dating knowledge of Australia’s existence, which does not appear in any of the drawings.
Domenico Fontana Architecture (1590): which described and illustrated the removal of the Vatican Obelisk from its old location behind the sacristy of St. Peter’s, where it had been since the reign of Caligula, to its present location in the center of the Piazza of St. Peter.
The natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands 3rd edition, Mark Catesby (1771): which contained drawing of the figures of fish, snakes, turtles, etc.
Handwritten Patent of Nobility, King Ferdinand to Don Pedro Jacinta Elantra (1750): a royal manuscript printed on velum (goat/sheep skin).
Trattato del giuoco della palla (1555), Antonio Scanio: the first book ever written on the rules of tennis.
Book of Common prayer (1770’s): which had a fore edge painting, a painting on the edge of pages that can only be viewed from a certain angle.
I set about reviewing and rationalising my own book collection for the first time in about ten years last week, and while it may not contain any valuable or rare books it was an interesting trip through my own history, because a book collection can tell us a lot about ourselves. They put on display an intimate insight into our intellectual lives, inspirations, influences and escapes. I remember the last time we did this exercise and took a big load of books to our local second hand bookshop. It was after a youthful phase of reading loads of self-help and personal growth books.
The shop owner foraged through the boxes, turned to us and said, “I hope you feel better now.”
This time the throw out pile, about eight boxes, includes an eclectic mix of mainly literary and genre fiction. There are also a small number of management, cooking and personal development books.
What we chose to keep on our bookshelves is as interesting as what we discarded. The unread; favourite reference books (cooking and gardening); the books we loved and reread with the bent spines and creased pages (like Tracks by Robin Davidson; The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger; poetry books; and anything by Jeanette Winterson); the nostalgic volumes that hold some fond memory from childhood that we cart from house to house even though we may never read them again (James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl; The Black Stallion Walter Farley; Midnight by Rutherford Montgomery); and the ones we read as adults that hold some historical meaning and we might revisit one day (Equus by Peter Schaffer; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance and all those tomes on the art of classical dressage written by the greats like François Robichon de La Guérinière and my own teacher Master Nuno Oliviera – even though I no longer ride)
Of course when I mentioned discarding books, I didn’t mean throwing them away, that would be sacrilegious, there are many options to consider, disposal being the last resort. I have seen some amazing creative uses of old books from art installations to turning them into a bed base. I will attempt to find homes for as many as possible with friends, at second hand bookshops or by donating them to the local library, or op-shop, or one of the places around Melbourne listed below. Then I’ll set about filling up those empty shelves again.
Aboriginal Literacy Foundation: accepts donations of new and used children’s books. Refer to the criteria on their website before sending or delivering books.
Street Library: Community home’s for books in the street where people can simply reach in and take what interests them; when they are done, they can return them to the Street Library network, or pass them on to friends. The website shows drop off points
Brotherhood books: When you donate or purchase a book from Brotherhood Books, you are supporting the Brotherhood of St Laurence in working for an Australia free of poverty. All the proceeds of these book sales are reinvested back into the charitable operations
Vinnies: accept donations of quality books – fiction, non-fiction, childrens
Do you ever clear out your book shelves? What do you do with your second hand books?
It’s the end of the day, of the end of my second week back at work and as may become evident from this stream of consciousness blog, my brain is a little tired and addled. Yesterday it was Bohemian Rhapsody, but ten minutes ago I had the song The Wheels on the Bus going around in a loop in my head, when the wheels on the actual bus made an abrupt stop. As I write this I’m sitting on said bus, and it ain’t going nowhere, having broken down ten kilometres from home when the door jammed open. I’m reframing the experience as an opportunity for more writing time, very Buddhist of me considering what I want most, is to get home, eat dinner and put my feet up.
Speaking of Buddhism, as I understand it, the second noble truth is that suffering is due to attachments and expectations, to grasping and clinging. The idea of letting go makes me think about writing practice, when we need to hold on, and when we need to surrender.
I remember when I wrote my first draft, how chuffed I was to complete it, and how attached I was to those 60,000 odd words, little realising the lessons I was about to understand. Learning to edit was about coming to terms with letting go, to absorb feedback and use it to improve technique, to apply critical non-attachment.
It’s a funny thing that us writers can become so attached to those tiny squiggles on the page, invest so much of ourselves in them as if they were a living part of us and we will become less if we let them go.
I often think of writers as being most akin to musicians. When a musician wants to perfect their craft they will spend hours practicing. They study music theory, receive tutoring from a professional instructor, and develop a work ethic that gives them the grit to keep plugging away at it. They can’t afford to get attached to all those notes, to hoard them all and try to prevent them from floating away as they leave their instruments. They don’t think all their notes played in practice are wasted either. I wonder if writers would benefit from thinking of words more like musicians think of notes, embrace our practice as practice, know that not all our words are necessarily destined for the world, and that the cutting and pruning is about honing and perfecting our craft.
My commute is a long journey, but hey, so is writing a book right? I’ve been editing for a long time now, and it occurred to me this week how my approach to the task has changed over time. It was a hard lesson, well learnt, when I did a structural edit of an early draft and realised I had to cut and rewrite all of the first five chapters. I think I put down my manuscript for a full week, fuming over the realisation, before I could bring myself to do it. Now after much application, I have become detached and carefree about editing, happy to cut and slash and relegate large chunks of text to the bin. I enjoy allowing fresh ideas to surface as I rewrite and rework, and apply what I have learnt to improve my manuscript.
…Oh, here comes another bus, and I must get on it.
I’ve been listening to The First Time podcasts recently about the first time you publish a book. Fortuitously, one I listened to this week was an interview with counselor and coach Alison Manning who described part of her work as ‘helping writers with their minds’. She assist writers to understand themselves and their relationship to their writing in a way that aims to overcome roadblocks and self defeating thought patterns.
The interview included an interesting discussion about some of the myths, from both reader and writer perspectives (particularly first time novel writers), about how beautiful writing is produced. Manning said there is a common lack of understanding of the effort involved in completing a book – that it doesn’t just flow out as the finished product. Writers who are the most resilient operate from a growth mindset. That is that rather than focus on the outcome (getting published, being successful, etc) their emphasis is on valuing effort, development of effective strategies, hard work and learning from whatever happens – regardless of achieving outward success, or what might be perceived as failure. Their interest is primarily in exploring their potential.
Manning quoted research that says one of the five most powerful elements of well-being is achievement for its own sake, doing something that matters a lot to us and doing it because it’s interesting and enjoyable just to see how well we can do it.
The interview also discussed the importance of focusing on the things we can control, rather than those we can’t. That to find out what’s possible we need to develop the flexibility to allow ourselves to work with what we’ve got, even if it’s not our ideal, and focus on doing what we can.
I thought her advice was useful in a whole range of contexts but the reason I found the discussion so interesting right now was that I had been grappling with feeling a bit disappointed at not completing more of my project during my year off, and wondering how/if I would find the time to finish it once I returned to my busy job. It’s the kind of thinking that can really erode motivation and become self defeating if you give into it. The interview gave me some ideas about managing my own expectations and changing circumstances to help keep up momentum on my project. It could also prove to be valuable advice in the workplace.
This week I’ve been adjusting to a new routine after returning to work, as has the hound. We’re up at 5am for the dog walk/run and I’m on the way to the office by 7.30am. My commute is loooong, about 1.5 hours one way, so that is now my writing time – on the bus on an iPad. I’m lucky to always get a seat because I get on at the first stop and off at the last. There will be some days, no doubt, that I will be too tired or full from my day to write and will just sit on the bus and read a book or listen to a podcast, activities related to developing my writing practice, even if not actually writing.
Manning has also done a podcast series called A Mind of One’s Own with novelist Charlotte Wood (The Natural Way of Things) in which they discuss many of the struggles that plague emerging writers, and how you might address them, so I shall also add those to my listening list also. I will add links to both podcasts to my resources page.
Joseph Campbell was an American mythologist, anthropologist and writer who studied myths and legends. He identified a common thread in story structure that he named the ‘hero’s journey,’ (also known as the monomyth) and noticed that all heroes and heroines took the same journey within stories.
The hero’s journey begins with a departure, the call to adventure where the hero departs from the world they know to enter the unknown. Sometimes the hero seeks out the call and sometimes something unexpected happens and pushes them to it. On the journey they face a series of adventures, trials and tribulations that test them (the initiation), they meet allies, enemies and mentors that guide them on their journey and experience an internal transformation that matures them before they returns home changed.
An example of the classic hero’s journey in film is Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy was living an ordinary life in Kanzas and dreaming of excitement when a tornado hit (the call to adventure). Dorothy, our hero enters into the new world of Oz and goes on an adventure. She meets new people (the lion, tin man, and straw man), mentors (Glinda the Good Witch) and enemies (the Wicked Witch of the West). She overcomes challenges like learning Oz is a fraud (the trials) and develops new skills like discovering clicking her heels together will return her home. When our hero returns to her old world she has undergone an inner transformation that furnishes her with a new appreciation for her own life.
Examples of the hero’s journey can also be found in Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Ishmael in Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, Max in Where the Wild Things Are, and Scout in To Kill a Mocking Bird.
Many say that the adventures and misadventures of our own lives follow the same pattern – we are the heroes of our own journeys and Campbell’s advice was ‘to follow your bliss.’ What he meant by this was that if you do things you are passionate about, you’ll feel fully alive and doors will open up for you.
I am due to return to work on Monday after taking twelve months off to focus on my writing practice and have been reflecting on what I have done and learnt during this past year on my own little hero’s journey. It has been fantastic to have the time off to fully connect with my creative self and focus on my writing practice. I have learnt a lot about plot and character development, story structure, point of view and dialogue, show and tell, exposition, and editing – not to mention procrastination and perseverance.
I have learnt that a practice that returns you to the page again and again, even if you don’t feel like it is valuable, and that it’s ok to allow yourself to write crap because that’s where the gems are hidden. I discovered that sometimes writing feels like wading through mud, and at other times you find a state of flow and become so immersed in your work that real world time and space recede. At these times the depths of your subconscious is revealed in surprising and exciting ways and it’s those moments that make you return again and again to the page.
During the year I attended four writers festivals (Melbourne, Emerging, Clunes Booktown and Adelaide Writers Week), completed four creative writing workshops/short courses, a weeks writing retreat, and have almost completed a creative writing course which I commenced in 2016.
I joined a writers group in my local community and met some fabulous writers via social media – some of whom I have also met in the flesh.
I have written over 200,000 words comprising 63 blog posts, eight short stories and what is now the almost completed fourth draft of my novel. I entered pieces in a number of competitions with mixed results, though for most I am still waiting to hear the outcome, and I took part in a spoken word event reading one of my flash fiction pieces to a crowd of about fifty. Alongside the writing activities I have completed some long awaited garden projects, grieved the loss of my old dog and wrangled a new puppy.
I am spending my last few days of leave at the beach and as I walk along the foreshore I promise to myself that whilst the shape and speed of my hero’s journey may change, it will continue. I will write on the bus on the way to work and on weekends and continue to develop my craft and learn from the amazing people I have met along the way, and eventually I will finish this damn book so I can unleash some of the other ideas fermenting in my head.
Last week I mentioned that I was taking part in a local spoken word event, The Grand Read. After spending the week torturing the dog with my practice…she probably knows if off by heart now…the night finally arrived. My rehearsals paid off and I succeeded in reading without mishap. I have included the flash fiction piece below and attached an audio file of the reading if you want to hear the spoken version recorded at the event.
Feet of Clay
Lilith rolled and pounded and
prodded and plotted. Clay dripped from slender fingers, flecks thrown by the
spinning wheel spattered into golden locks, made her beauty more desirable.
Twice winner of the pottery prize, prominent and popular, she knew she would be
made if she could triumph again. A hat trick to cement her place in the town’s
Rex, her lover, her muse, her
confidant, her king; had taken up the craft with the same passion and zeal he
had when he had taken up with her, on a summer night many moons ago, on the
banks of the river beneath a willow, embraced by the arms of soft green
grasses. Lilith admired his body, his coils, his glaze when they sat side by
side in the sweltering heat of the kiln, matched only by the heat in his loins,
the love she knew he held for her.
Late one night whilst they potted
and spun, the soft sounds of love leaking from the stereo; his Swayze to her
Moore; Rex leant in close, whispered in her ear so she felt his hot breath
brush the down of her lobe.
“I think I’ll enter the prize, we
could stand side by side.”
They were doing what they often
did, he behind her, clay sliding through fingers, along arms, a sensuous ritual
that gave life to art and art to love. The work; a French ceramic flower pot
that Lilith would glaze, just so, in imperfect green.
But his words planted a seed. Its
tiny tendrils entwined, wrapping themselves in ever tightening circles around
Lilith’s heart, her freedom, herself. That Rex would want not only her, but her
dreams, her talents, her prize, struck weeds in her Eden that took root and
slowly spread, a demon force that left thorns in her flesh, eroded her love.
Lilith began to work when Rex was
away, ignoring his calls, in the dead of the night, to the cries of the owls,
the yowls of the cats left out in darkness to hunt like jackals, feast on
possums and bats. Creatures that belonged to the night’s forest devoured by
those who would slink in and steal their lives.
She experimented with silkscreens,
with decals and lustres, turned plates, bowls and cups till her back ached and
her hands were raw, pitted with cuts and scrapes and burns. Before dawn she
squirrelled away her finest work, hoarded from his prying eyes to ensure her
stall would be a surprise.
Expo day arrived along with the
blues and the whites and the reds of the French. Tents were sprung and tables
were set with the fruits of eighty potters for all the world to see, but the
coveted potluck prize waited for only one.
Lilith laid her wares with care on
white lace cloth, her red dress flared as she twisted and twirled; a flourish
here, a tweak there. Embraced in the imperfect green flower pot, planted in
soil and ash was foliage the shape of lopsided hearts, splashed, slashed and
swirled with plum and purple and scarlet. The showboat and king of the begonia
world, its lush and lovely leaves quivered in the summer breeze and set off her
stand to perfection.
The judge, a dour woman with
puckered lips and bulging hips paraded along the river trail inspecting pots,
peering in, tut-tutting, enjoying her own importance, before disappearing into
a tent to deliberate. Finally emerging, she sauntered a windy path to Lilith’s
stall. It was not until she was right up close that she allowed herself to
crack a tiny smile.
“Congratulations Lilith, you have
won the prize yet again. I was particularly taken with your centrepiece, the
imperfect green flower pot holding the begonia. You must tell me your secret to
ensuring the good health of this fickle plant.”
Lilith smiled sweetly, gave nothing
away, but if you had been listening closely when she bent over the plant after
the judge had left you would have heard her whisper.
“We did it Rex.”
Main image: The Queen of the Shire, Deborah Halpren
This week I wrote a flash fiction piece for fun, inspired by my trip to WOMADelaide.
WOMADelaide is a four day open air festival of Music, Arts and Dance held in beautiful Botanic Park in Adelaide. Every year, around 500 artists from 30+ countries perform on 8 stages spread across the 34-hectare park and 18,000 – 20,000 people go each day.
The leaf people shown in the photos were artworks around the park which I found spooky and were the inspiration for this story…
Take a Leaf Out of My Book
I was amongst the thousands who made the pilgrimage to the music festival each year. We traipsed around the parkland gardens like the faithful seeking redemption, enveloped in sound waves that vibrated through the air around as we lay on the cool grass beneath river red gums, Moreton figs and pencil pines. Reality receded fast amongst the tie die, Indian cotton, beards and pigtails, and the thin trail of weed smoke that wended it’s way through the crowd to a melody so sweet it tasted like fairy floss, enfolding me in clouds of saintly bliss.
I wandered around the park to soak up the atmosphere and noticed creatures fashioned from chicken wire into the shape of people. They were stuffed with brown autumn leaves that looked like skin after too much time in the sun and scattered through the forest like aberrant seeds. Someone’s idea of art, frozen in ghoulish stances, sitting in chairs, leaning on walls and spilling from the hollows of trees. Faceless creatures in poses of waiting. They appeared at every turn and I started to feel like they were watching me.
On the second day I noticed that the leaf creatures moved around the park over night. One that had been playing a piano in a gully on the first day was no longer there and another riding a bicycle had materialised alongside a path. When I mentioned this to my girlfriend she said I had been drinking too much.
At dusk I was sprawled on the grass listening to the sounds of a throat singer and animal sounds emanate from a wind instrument. Their cries were answered by creatures deep in the park. At one point I was sure I heard a human scream, but when I struggled to my elbows all eyes around me were faced front to the stage, no sign anyone else had noticed, so I lay back down again. After an hour the throat singer melted into the forest and an aboriginal women’s choir dressed in colours of the desert emerged on stage and started to croon. Their haunted voices echoed through the night competing with the owls that dwelled in the high tree branches.
My bladder started to fill to bursting so I scrambled to my feet and headed into the dark toward the portaloos down the back, far enough away that the stink wouldn’t seep into the crowd. I passed through a stand of pines and couldn’t tell whether the rustling of leaves was coming from beneath my own feet or others walking in the shadows out of sight. The gouls in my head took shape in the night around me as I thought I caught glimpses of movement in the dark.
Fortunately the dunny queue was short. The bathroom experience was the worst part of festivals. No matter how often the tireless staff mopped out the stalls, at the end of a hot day the smell of urine was still nauseating, but the relief of emptying my bladder to the distant keening of the singers overrode any feelings of disgust I had for my stinky box cubicle with its invisible splashes sprayed around the walls.
When I stepped back out of the loo, I was alone with the sounds of the night. Already a bit spooked, I started to walk stealthily in the direction of the haunting melody that filtered through the trees, then tripped and landed sprawled on the ground. I heard a low painful moan nearby and scrambled to my feet. In the dim shadows I thought I saw a figure prone on the ground and in my mind it’s mouth was stuffed with flaking brown autumn leaves. I turned and ran through the night as adrenaline flooded my body.
I passed a large tree and something latched onto me from the shadows. When I swiped at it I felt my sleeve grabbed and tugged and started to swing around wildly. A shriek escaped from deep in my throat and I struggled with the dark figure feeling the scrape of chicken wire and the crunch of leaves as it wrestled me to the ground. My panicked mind realised that my daytime fantasy of the chicken wire and leaf people coming alive in the night was real. The person I had tripped over lying prone in the forest must have been a victim and now they had come for me.
Another scream echoed through the forest louder than the distant singing. I was fighting for my life, could feel the sting of wire cuts on my arms. In the distance I thought I heard my name being called and yelled for help while I struggled.
Flashes of torchlight leapt through the forest nearby and after what seemed like a lifetime found me. All the spots converged on my face and there was a deathly silence. I scrambled to my feet and wheeled around wildly in the torchlight ready to defend myself again. Peals of laughter started to fill the forest around me. My attacker, one of the chicken wire and leaf sculptures, was flattened to a pulp at my feet, no signs of life having ever been in it.
I was expecting a quiet new years eve with a couple of friends and made a delicious mushroom pie that went very nicely with a freekeh and pomegranate salad made by my partner (I’ve included the recipes below). Despite there being only four of us (and two hounds) to celebrate we did turn the evening into a party and danced till midnight. We had a small ritual as the year turned that involved writing on two pieces of paper – one for something we wanted to let go of and leave behind in 2018, and one for something we wanted in 2019. Said paper was burnt over a bowl of water (for fire safety) whilst drinking my friends home made limoncello over ice.
Needless to say, finishing my book was my wish for 2019. The madness of the festive season has subsided and today was the first day this year I have sat down to write. I’m hoping for a productive day, as at 42 degrees Celsius it’s going to be too hot to do anything else.
Last week was filled with helping my partner build a new kennel for the hound who has grown to big to fit in the house built for her predecessor. She seems to like the new abode and has been hanging out in it during the day.
When the hound came to live with us as a puppy one of the first things she did was walk out onto the reeds in the pond and pee. I was unable to curb this habit so ended up having to fence it off and get a dog pool for the water obsessed beast. The pond lilies and reeds have grown uncontrollably since the fence went up and I have avoided the inevitable task of cleaning it out for some months. Yesterday the weather was perfect for working outside and getting wet so the day to do the deed arrived. The hound was not happy with being prevented from ‘helping’ but once she understood I would not let her climb the fence and get into the pond with me she contented herself playing with the detritus I tossed over to her.
I did make the fatal mistake of not shutting the back door properly and when I threw one particularly large bundle of sludge from the bottom of the pond over the fence, the hound grabbed it with glee and bounded inside whilst I yelled a futile “NO!” after her.
When I went in it was evident the hound has shaken the offending bundle as she entered and plastered the walls and kitchen cabinets with muddy blobs, left a couple of large sludge puddles on the floor where she dropped it a few times, then landed content on her bed with what was left making another muddy pool. I spent half an hour cleaning up then locked the dog outside and returned to my task. The pond and the house now sparkle, there is a fresh water supply for any thirsty birds that visit today in the heat and I can get back to working on my novel and see if I can make that new year wish come to fruition.
Oh, and here are the recipes for the fabulous Ottolenghi’s mushroom and tarragon pithivier (published in his book Plenty More and the Guardian online) and the freekeh salad (from BBC food recipes). Both are fairly easy to make and look and taste sensational.
Mushroom and Tarragon Pithivier (serves 6) Ingredients:
3 tbsp olive oil
400g shallots, peeled
50g dried porcini mushrooms
200g chestnut mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
150g shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and halved
150g oyster mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
150g buna shimeji mushrooms, divided into clusters
300ml vegetable stock
Salt and black pepper
200g crème fraîche
2 tbsp ouzo (or Pernod)
1½ tbsp chopped tarragon
1½ tbsp chopped parsley
900g all-butter puff pastry
1 egg, beaten
Notes on ingredient substitutes: Mushrooms: I was not able to find all the different types of mushrooms, so just increased the amounts of those I could find to make up the quantity. Ouzo: I couldn’t find ouzo in mini bottles and didn’t want to buy a large one, so I substituted two tablespoons of vodka with 1/4 teaspoon of ground star anise for the ouzo.
Method: Bring the stock to a simmer and add the porcini mushrooms. Remove from the heat and set aside to soften.
Heat a large, heavy-based pan with a third of the oil and butter, add the shallots and cook on high heat for 10 minutes, stirring, until soft and brown. Transfer to a bowl. Add another third of the oil and butter to the pan, and cook the chestnut and shiitake mushrooms on medium-high heat for a minute without stirring. Stir, cook for a minute, then add to the bowl. Repeat with the oyster and buna shimeji mushrooms
Tip everything back in the pan, add the porcini mushrooms and stock and lots of salt and pepper, and simmer vigorously for eight minutes, until reduced by two-thirds. Reduce the heat to low, add the crème fraîche and cook for another eight minutes. Once a relatively small amount of thick sauce is left, add the ouzo and stir through the herbs, adjust the seasoning to taste then set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, cut the pastry in two and roll both blocks into 4mm-thick squares. Rest in the fridge for 20 minutes, then cut into circles, one 27cm in diameter, the other 29cm. Leave to rest in the fridge again for at least 10 minutes.
Heat the oven to 200C/390F/gas mark 6. Place the smaller circle on a baking sheet lined with grease-proof paper, spread the mushroom filling on top, leaving a 2cm border all around. Brush the edge with egg, lay the other circle on top and seal the edges. Use a fork to make decorative parallel lines around the edge. Brush with egg and use the blunt edge of a small knife to create circular lines running from the centre to the edge, just scoring the pastry but not cutting through it.
Bake for 35 minutes, until golden on top and cooked underneath. Allow to rest for ten minutes then serve.
Freekeh and pomegranate salad Ingredients:
200g/7oz freekeh, pearled spelt or pearled barley
5 tbsp olive oil
4 spring onions, finely chopped (leave these out if you don’t like them)
1 pomegranate, seeds only
handful flatleaf parsley, roughly chopped
handful mint, roughly chopped
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
2 tbsp pistachios, roughly crushed
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put the freekeh and 1 litre/1¾ pint water in a pan together with 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes until just tender. Drain and allow to cool
When cool, mix together the freekeh with the spring onions, pomegranate seeds and herbs. Season with salt and pepper.
Whisk together the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil and the pomegranate molasses with a pinch of salt, and dress the salad with it, mixing gently. Serve topped with pistachios.