Out of control

After a hiatus of some weeks, I am back doing what I love. Writing.

Rest assured that despite blog silence and an element of personal crisis; my dogs, shoes and cocktail bar have remained a healthy focus. All is certainly not lost.

The personal angst to which I refer has left me with an interesting conundrum. It is now public and as is usual, there are supporters and detractors. I count myself as fortunate that the former seem to vastly outweigh the latter. I can use my skills as a writer to peddle my own barrow and reveal scandalous aspects of my situation to anyone who wishes to engage. Or I can remain ‘private’ and take the path of discussing, in a rational way, topics I see as relevant and important. Not just in regard to my circumstances but to our society in general. Let’s run with option two.

And so ….. on 10.11.19 I was the topic of a Fairfax media article which reveals some personal history and also the actions of my former employer. That article of course only contains a relatively small amount of detail for legal reasons (getting sued is a bummer) and the ever dreaded word count for the journalist. Below is the link to that article.

Fairfax Media. Article by Andrew Taylor. image credit : Wolter Peters

I had a whopper of a zit the day they took the photo. It didn’t show and the journalist was extremely competent, so all in all things went pretty well.

There are a few facts to clarify before I get to the purpose of my own article. Firstly yes, my ex spouse is incarcerated for child sex abuse. I was a witness in the matter and became aware of the investigation after I left him in rather fraught circumstances.

The facebook posts in question were made in 2015 and 2016 to a ‘secret’ group of extremely diminutive size, administrated solely by my ex husband. I got out of the marriage with my three little dogs in February 2017, he was arrested and charged in July 2017 and pleaded guilty to child sexual assault in March 2018. David Edward Lewis admitted to domestic spousal abuse on the stand at his sentencing in November 2018 and was incarcerated in December 2018.

His victim in the specific criminal matter was a children’s chorister at Opera Australia. The company were alerted to the assaults at the time. I was not at OA when the crimes happened, nor was I married to David Lewis at the time of the child sexual abuse which took place on company premises.

There is clearly much more to the tale, but I will not be making any other contribution as it will be dealt with through official legal channels and again… getting sued is a bummer.

So what do I wish to write about if not juicy details of child sex scandals, the murky world of show business and what happened behind closed doors in my marriage?

I would like to discuss the topic of Digital Coercive Control. (‘DCC’ or ‘TFCC’). You will most likely say ‘what is that?’ and that is not a surprise. A brief summary can be seen below.

Taken from ‘Digital Coercive Control : Insights from Landmark Domestic Violence Studies’. Harris & Woodlock, 2018.

Domestic violence is nothing new. It does not just take place between husbands and wives or boyfriends and girlfriends. It is a widespread plague that covers same sex couples, housemates, mothers and fathers against their children and even vice versa.

In my case it was a traditional husband and wife scenario, and it went on for many years. DV is insidious, debilitating and it leaves a train-wreck-like aftermath even when you manage to leave the perpetrator. Methods used by abusers are wide ranging and one coming into focus is Digital Coercive Control. Our world is now dominated by the internet, social media and we communicate on our electronic devices as a matter of course. That is all marvellous when you have autonomy over your life, your possessions and your own actions. It is not so marvellous when you do not.

When you first think about someone’s account being accessed or them being monitored by another, you think of hacking. Hacking is of course a huge problem in the digital age. In a domestically violent situation, that takes on a different complexion because there is physical fear of the person invading your digital world. They are in a position to obtain and demand passwords, use your devices and demand your loyalty without protest. They are in close physical proximity and are not just a distant threat or annoyance. They are next to you on the couch, in the car and you sleep beside them. The abuser’s aim is to control your life and keep you as a compliant and docile play thing . Your aim is to get through each day with safety.

“…….. is focussed on the form of domestic violence we refer to as technology – facilitated coercive control (TFCC). TFCC is violence and abuse by current or former intimate partners, facilitated by information and communication technologies (ICTs) or digital media, acknowledging technological aspects of abuse in the context of coercive and controlling intimate relationships (Dragiewicz et al., 2018; Harris 2018; Harris and Woodlock., 2018). TFCC includes behaviours such as monitoring via social media, stalking using GPS, video and audio recording, making threats via email, phone or other technological medium, surveillance of partner’s email, accessing accounts without permission, impersonation, and publishing private information or images without consent (Dragiewicz et al., 2018, Harris and Woodlock, 2018; Southworth, Finn, Dawson, Fraser, & Tucker, 2007; Woodlock 2017). These behaviours may be overt or clandestine. Unauthorised access may be achieved using force, coercion, deception or stealth. TFCC affects survivors’ mental health and causes or contributes to trauma manifesting in psychological and physical symptoms”. (Domestic Violence and Communication Technology. accent.org.au)

There are many questions often asked of DV survivors and although they are triggering, they are understandable. Why didn’t you just leave? Why did you let him/her do that? Why didn’t you tell someone? Why did you seem to agree with him and not speak up? What about all those photos of you together looking happy?

Reasonable questions which have long, detailed answers and one all encompassing one. It’s not that simple. Abusers are manipulative, frightening and more often than not warp your daily reality (also known as gas lighting). Your focus is to stay safe and appease them. You may be protecting others under the same roof as yourself from harm. You may be protecting those you care about from harm by not drawing them into an already dangerous scenario. You often watch your tormentor hurt others and are overwhelmed with powerlessness because to survive you cannot act. It’s just….. not that simple.

My 19 year story ended with escape and the ability to speak up. That escape has had costly ramifications; one of which seems to be the end of my (until now) unblemished career as an opera singer. This country has only one full time employer for experts in my field. It is a high price, a manifestly unfair price and the circumstances are extremely questionable.

I’ll never really know exactly what is out there in digital world penned under my name until I managed to change my locks and change my passwords in the January of 2017. All I can do is know my own truth and be grateful for the life I have now, with all of its hurdles.

Thank you for reading. If you know of someone or a relevant organisation who would benefit from the information on DCC as outlined in this blog, do feel free to share it with them. They say knowledge is power. I go onward with the knowledge I will not give someone who once had power over me that satisfaction any longer.

Life’s too short. Like me. 🙂

Digital Coercive Control : Insights from Landmark Domestic Violence Studies (Harris, Woodlock). 2018

Technology as a Weapon in Domestic Violence : Responding to Digital Coercive Control (Woodlock, McKenzie, Western, Harris). 2018

Domestic Violence and Communication Technology

A novel idea

It is often said that everyone has at least one book in their head. It is also said that truth is stranger than fiction. If you take these quips on board, every one of us has the capacity to write a book. It logically follows that said book should be about events we have traversed on our life journey.

The ensuing question is, how skilfully would that book be written? Who would read it? (Aside from your mum and some close friends). Life events that are riveting to ourselves and our inner circle are possibly not the fodder for a best seller. If we haven’t had an exciting life, do we all still have a novel fermenting away? How do you even start the process?

It is something I have thought on lately as I have begun a few projects. My beloved high school English teacher sent me out into the world expecting a book would appear at some juncture. Since those school days life has handed me a certain plethora of material, much of which I am informed is ‘novel worthy’. Presuming that is the case (with the naive arrogance of the beginner), it raises questions of how a first book comes into being for any writer.

How did our favourite authors kick start that first successful novel? In certain cases that book becoming their only real success; yet stupendous enough a tome to make an enduring name for themselves. For me, unless the book is a fantasy/sci-fi affair, the key factor seems to be a connection to a certain human truth from the writer. Character detail that I relate to, empathise with, that makes real emotional sense. Certain authors trigger something in your gut that is hard to outwardly express. You ‘know’ them through their words.

That has made me re-examine some of the books I have loved for many years. Books of course come in many, many forms. Writing any book takes dedication and usually a hefty amount of research. Yet, I was interested to discover that many of my favourite books stem tangibly from the lives of the authors. In some cases a direct narrative of their experiences and in most, stories drawn from places and people they have known intimately. Interspersed with facets of their own personality and soul.

A short cook’s tour of some greatest hits then.

A childhood favourite. I’ve adored Gerald Durrell since I was not even quite in my teens. The book that put him on the map was “My Family and Other Animals”. As the title suggests, it is autobiographical. The writing is exquisite, funny and poignant. The world as seen through his eyes as a young boy living in Corfu directly prior to the Second World War. Durrell became a prolific author, writing a stream of books about his life as a zoologist. I have many of them on my shelves and some no longer in physical print have made their way onto my Kindle.

Bryce Courtenay wrote his incredible novel “April Fool’s Day” in 1993, telling the story of his haemophiliac son who had died of AIDS related complications in 1991, (having contracted the virus via a blood transfusion). Courtenay was born in South Africa and emigrated to Australia in 1958, his South African years subsequently producing “The Power of One”.

A variety of authors have told their own stories, but portrayed them through characters of fictitious name created as a mirror of themselves. Miles Franklin wrote “My Brilliant Career” in that format. An ill disguised attempt to relay her own story of struggle as an intelligent young woman living in rural Australia. She received acclaim for the book and scathing criticism from those who recognised themselves amongst her characters. In a previous article I have waxed lyrical about Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca”. Indeed, Du Maurier spent much of her life in Cornwall and sourced much of her material from the places there she loved. The Estate of ‘Manderley’, so pivotal to the story of “Rebecca”, is modelled on ‘Menabilly’ in that same county. Daphne Du Maurier was so enamoured of the home, she was later to rent the property and live there for some years. Unattractive and controversial aspects of Rebecca’s personality she viewed as her own; whilst certain aspects of the narrator’s nameless persona she described as her own emotions and general confusion as a young girl.

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” is an Australian icon and much has been said about whether it is based in truth. This is an interesting one to examine. Despite much conjecture, a party of school girls never met the fate of Miranda, Irma, Marion and Miss. McGraw at the Rock. What can be established is that Joan Lindsay knew the area very well; and in fact based Appleyard College on her own school, which was relocated to Mount Macedon some years after she had graduated. In 1962, Lindsay wrote a novel titled “A Time Without Clocks” which referenced an odd phenomenon she herself experienced where clocks and machinery would stop when she drew near. This factored into “Picnic at Hanging Rock” in 1967, where every watch stops at 12.00pm at the ill fated picnic. Joan Lindsay created the landmark book in a mere fortnight, writing tirelessly after a series of dreams gave her the storyline. Peter Weir fittingly opens his film of the same name with Miranda’s dialogue, “What we see and what we’ve seen are but a dream. A dream within a dream”. #cuepanpipes 😉

I finish this potted list of greatest hits with the legendary “Sherlock Holmes”. Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle was nearly driven mad by people asking if Holmes indeed existed. He became so consumed by the character he killed him off and had to resurrect him some time later. The acute public disappointment and pressure brought about by his creation’s death demanded he reappear. Holmes was of course fictional, but evolved through Conan Doyle’s own experiences. Conan Doyle studied under a physician named Joseph Bell, a brilliant man and acute reasoner. His form of inductive reasoning fascinated Conan Doyle, who went on to become his assistant for a time. From that relationship and close study of a colleague came Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson was subsequently a medical man and a reflection of Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle himself – assistant to a perceived genius. In 1892 Conan Doyle wrote to Joseph Bell declaring, “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes”. He did not receive a positive response. Bell did all he could to distance himself from any association with the infamous character, as talk of it detracted from his practice.

Now let me see…. I’ve made some notes….. what life event
shall I turn into my own version of “War and Peace”?????

In the end, I guess what one can take away from examining great books is a factor in great writing is personal truth. That cannot be manufactured, and many of the best stories are not pulled out of the air. Whether one’s own ‘test drive novel’ will fly is a leap of faith. It will be many months of work for any writer. A fairly raw bit of self sent out into the world like a cherished baby. Perhaps to blossom into a prize winner.. or very likely to come home from its adventure in a return envelope, destined to line the kitty litter tray.

The books I’ve examined today certainly support the theory of “write what you know”.

I did give Mrs. Woolford my word I’d write a book one day, as I stood before her in my atrociously yellow school uniform. She was one of those educators whose belief in you stays with you for life. Sadly she has now passed away and won’t ever read it.

One should never break ones word. However many years it takes to get there. ❤

Bryce CourtenayPenguin Books Australia

Sherlock Holmes – Website

Joan Lindsay

The extraordinary story behind Picnic at Hanging Rock (Janelle McCulloch)

The child’s play of Enid Blyton

I recently did a bit of home beautifying and put up some floating shelves sourced at IKEA. I’d never been to IKEA. What a life changing day … there’s another blog for another time. ‘Stuff I didn’t know I absolutely had to own until I walked into an enormous, Swedish shop’.

I digress.

On my major shelf feature I placed some framed photographs, two super sized wine glasses and my Enid Blyton book collection. Where it once languished in a bookcase, it is now a home feature that greets visitors. The conversations thus far at the sight of all those titles have been most interesting. Not surprisingly, a lot of people have been quite excited when they spot them. Blyton’s books have sold 600 million copies around the world and are logically part of many a childhood memory. For me, the works of Enid Blyton were an absolute signpost of my formative years.

Blyton display courtesy of IKEA.

As my interest in writing continues to grow, it follows that I give thought to the kind of literary exploits I feel comfortable with. Journalistic articles, copywriting, advertising and communications work, short stories, extended stories, novels all get a potential nod. The one that makes me go wide eyed is children’s writing. How does one re-enter the mysterious world of childhood once one has left it, and create material for that audience? I view the work of JK Rowling as incredibly skilled. It struck me that I have a selection of titles from the most prolific and successful children’s author in the English speaking world in my living room; and I have never really looked into what made her tick.

Enid Blyton. Credit : The Daily Mail

Enid Blyton (I have subsequently discovered) was a most interesting and complex woman. She created over 700 titles and wrote up to 50 books a year at her most prolific. Those books have sold in the vicinity of 600 million copies, been translated into 90 languages and have been the subject of controversy and debate amongst children’s educators for decades. They were banned from libraries in the 1970’s and 1980’s and many still will not have them in their children’s sections. Her work has been labelled as racist, sexist, xenophobic, repetitive and of very poor literary merit. Of the titles that are still published today, many have undergone changes to try and combat those perceived faults. Particularly the aspects of racism and xenophobia. Some of this is clearly a product of the era in which she wrote. Some of it appears to be inherent in Blyton’s own psyche.

In a letter to psychologist Peter McKellar, Blyton wrote “I shut my eyes for a few minutes, with my portable typewriter on my knee – I make my mind a blank and wait – and then, as clearly as I would see real children, my characters stand before me in my mind’s eye …. The first sentence comes straight into my mind, I don’t have to think of it – I don’t have to think of anything” (Wikipedia).

Enid continued to write to McKellar, describing how in just five days she wrote a 60,000 word book using what she referred to as her “under mind”. Her daughter Gillian recalls in a newspaper article about her mother that …. “she never knew where her stories came from”, but that her mother used to talk about them “coming from her mind’s eye”. The amateur psychologist within me finds this rather fascinating. It appears Enid Blyton was able to regress subconsciously into a state where she could create fantasy as a child might, but using adult writing skills. That leads an amateur shrink with a writing focus such as myself to look at who her subconscious child actually was.

Some delightfully politically incorrect books from my collection.
(That fairy next to Mr. Pink-Whistle ‘interfering’ looks appropriately worried).

Enid Blyton was born in August 1897 and died in November 1968, after suffering from ‘dementia’ (most probably early onset Alzheimer’s) from her mid-sixties. She had built a writing empire. She had also managed to self market herself right down to her memorable signature, at a time when that was not common practice. Her juggernaut career came at a cost. Two marriages, and two daughters who are estranged from each other as adults. The women disagree on the level of parental neglect they suffered as children, but both agree theirs was a very abnormal childhood.

Enid Blyton was not a particularly happy person either as a child or as an adult. Her happiest years all came before her thirteenth birthday. The DIY analyst in me views this as significant.

Enid never got along with her mother from a very early age. She did however adore her father, and they spent hours together on nature walks, reading and playing. When she was thirteen her father suddenly left Enid and her mother and went to live with another woman. He subsequently had two children with his mistress and the relationship with his first child was abandoned. Enid’s descriptions of her mother are of someone who is cold, cruel and distant. She notably said her mother was scathing of her interest in writing and labelled it a “waste of time and money”. Enid got away from her family home as fast as was practical and completed a teaching certificate with distinctions in zoology and principles of education. She was first published in 1922.

The ‘Wishing Chair’ series, initially published in 1937, was Blyton’s first phenomenal success.

Enid’s first full length book was the ‘Adventures of the Wishing Chair’ in 1937, which became her first series. From there she went from strength to strength. In 1939 she created ‘The Enchanted Forest’ which was the first book of her ‘Faraway Tree’ series. When you mention Enid Blyton, these seem to be the titles people recall. Whatever your modern day opinion of her writing skill or social prejudices, they are amazing children’s books. The central child characters solve problems, have adventures and touch a world which is theirs alone. The child reader feels a part of that world.

As an only child who wasn’t having a high level of family fun in my own home….. these books were my friends. I was obsessed with them and they turned me into a child who was constantly reading. In an article by Alex Hannaford called ‘What Makes a Good Children’s Book?’ (literatibooks.com) he covers various aspects of successful formula in the genre. He quotes Dr. Mark West, who is head of the English department at the University of North Carolina and a children’s literature authority. West says a common thread seen running through excellent children’s books is child characters who make decisions that matter. Whilst they may have assistance or guidance from adult characters, they still act independently. When child characters have agency and face dangers, child readers are much more likely to care about the fate of the characters. “In an excellent children’s book, the child characters are able to solve problems on their own”.

Enid Blyton instinctively knew this and created the ‘Adventurous Four’, ‘Famous Five’ and ‘Secret Seven’. Unfortunately, she was unable to transfer her understanding of children to her own two girls. One daughter describes her mother as emotionally stunted, which makes sense looking back over what I’ve just expounded. Her daughters had nannies, were sent to boarding school and were somewhat exploited as an early form of marketing tool. Whilst they did not spend quality time with their mother, they were used in photographs for the papers and the impression was given they were a part of the magical story world their mother was infamously creating. Both women agree that was untrue; although one remains more faithful to her mother’s memory than the other.

Blyton with her daughters in a publicity photo. Credit : Daily Mail U.K..

Whatever we conclude about the person Enid Blyton was, her standard of writing or the political incorrectness of some of her content; you can only admire the joy she brought to so many children and her ability to create a world children love. I think being a children’s writer presents as many, if not more, hurdles than so many other kinds of content. I’m not sure if I’m really up for that. That being said, it turned out quite well for JK Rowling when she set her mind to it. Never say never.

Thank you Ms. Blyton. You gave me many happy hours reading your creations under the blankets with a torch after lights out when I was a little girl. The colourful little volumes on my IKEA shelf are a constant reminder of that happiness.

600 million copies sold and counting is a pretty good achievement. Particularly for a school governess with a portable typewriter, an active imagination and a determination to prove her mother wrong. 🙂

Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton Society

What Makes a Good Children’s Book (Alex Hannaford)

Mother Love

Two years ago I farewelled my mum. She was 85 years old and had suddenly been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She passed away about 6 weeks after they found the tumour. In hindsight the situation was hopeless; but she dutifully underwent chemotherapy and died four days after her second treatment. In many ways it was a merciful death. She did quite well and then suffered a horrible 48 hours before lapsing into unconsciousness and slipping away. I made it to the hospital before she passed (as I live in another capital city). Although she seemed deeply asleep, nurses told me they saw indications she was aware of my presence through her breathing. Having arrived mid afternoon, I sat by her side for a couple of hours and told her I would be back at 7.30pm to be with her through the night. I still had my suitcase with me from my hurriedly undertaken flight and also hadn’t eaten….. the nurses advised me to have some tea and return for what could be the first of several nights like this.

At 7.00pm, as I prepared to leave my hotel room and head the short distance to the hospital, my phone rang. It was a nurse telling me mum had suddenly begun to decline and I should probably get my skates on. I raced into the ward at 7.20pm to be greeted by a closed door with a kindly nurse standing next to it waiting for me. My mother had passed away at 7.10pm. I had the task of ringing my father to tell him she had now gone. The nursing staff were kind, respectful and expert. To them I am sure I was just another relative farewelling an elderly cancer patient. There are things you remember from life events such as this, and I will always remember their compassion. In particular the nurse who took my hand and said my mother had probably waited for my arrival and then happily let go knowing I was there. Romanticised theory or not, those are the things that are steadying at the time. Her tired, gentle face searching out mine as I ran down the corridor to my mother’s hospital room is forever etched in my memories of that night.

Mum aged sixteen.

What would be lovely to read after the description of how she left would be a narrative of a happy life filled with tales of joyful times. A deep mother daughter bond that concluded as I rushed to her side. Having a slight writing bent, I could probably drum that up from the memories I have in my head. There were happy family times in her life journey. Fact and fiction can mingle when we sit down to tap out a piece such as this. However, I would like to write something respectful to my mother that is based in reality. A reality that can be discussed still under the umbrella of filial love.

My mother had many grand qualities. She had physical beauty. Something of which I was aware, but has become more apparent to me now I have access to all the images of her life housed in photo albums in the family home. She was a head turner. The day my dad saw her at her first job interview at the radio station where he worked (and where she was subsequently to work) he watched her walk down the corridor and famously declared “I’m going to marry her”. He was punching above his weight, but he stuck with it with a determination surprising from one so timid. Neither of my parents sprang from particularly happy homes, so he probably couldn’t rationalise he may have been making an error in romantic judgement. It took nearly a decade for him get her down the aisle and the patience of Job. Dad had set his heart on being with her and they married in 1960. I didn’t come along for quite an extended period of time, seen as extraordinary for their generation. Since mum passed away dad has stated it was a “surprise” when I was born. That’s best left as a dormant story I think for everyone, including me……..

My mother was intelligent. She was also quite a competent comic actress. With a wisdom I seem only to have acquired since her death, I realise she was in fact extremely smart and the owner of a frustrated mind. As a modern woman, my mother would have had a university education and turned her frustration into a career befitting her IQ. Instead she did her leaver’s certificate, topped the state in short hand and subsequently worked in an office in an inferior position as suited to her gender. When I came along, she was a stay at home mother to one small child and bored out of her mind. She needed a career, and in the absence of any other mental or emotional stimulation her career became me.

My mother loved animals and abhorred animal cruelty. She grew up in a cat, Pomeranian and Pekingese laden house. Her own mother was obsessed with both breeds and had armies of them. Family photographs always had someone holding a dog or several cats perched on a table in the background. Oddly, my mother had a cat (gifted to her by her mother) when first married which was run over. She was so distraught she never had another pet and would allow me none. I begged and pleaded but she wouldn’t relent. She would never explain why. Near the end of her life she confessed she’d never go through that grief ever again. Something I can quite understand, solving the puzzle of her angry refusal to allow me any fur companions. She could also type fast, sew dresses, play the piano and be very, very funny when the mood took her. And there is the key word. Mood.

My rather beautiful, intelligent, animal loving, amateur theatrical, fast typing, piano playing mother was a terrifying individual because our home lived in fear of her mood. Of her displeasure. Of her irrationality. Of her anger. Of her inherent instability. Of her paranoia. She was my world and it was was not a safe world in which to live. My mother was very, very mentally unwell. In an era where to be so had stigma – and help was simply not there.

Mum and dad in 1985.

The precise history between mum and me is not fodder for this article. That would be inappropriate and is not its purpose. Suffice to say my childhood was not ideal, and young adult me was naturally shaped by childhood me who had a bit of a bumpy ride. Hence, young adult me was rather a hot mess and very vulnerable. I spent years unravelling what the hell actually happened. I was a guilt riddled woman child and a bit cheesed off at the family package I’d been delivered into. That took a while to work through.

Extricating myself from the family legacy came at a cost and I was estranged from my parents for some years. That estrangement ended unexpectedly, and whilst the relationship remained delicate and safely distant; some ten years after we reconnected I found myself at my mother’s bedside as she ebbed away. Nothing had ever been resolved. It was more a respectful truce offered on the grounds the past was not addressed. At the time it felt rather hypocritical. Two years after mum has gone I have come to a place where I understand a little more of who she was. The resentment I once carried is replaced with a certain empathy for her ….and a regret she was not a woman born into different times. I can see her positives as well as the overwhelming negatives that formed her persona.

They say to forgive for yourself and not for the person who has wronged you. I am undecided if ‘forgiveness’ is the correct word. Some of what my mother did along the way cannot be ‘forgiven’ – but it can be understood. My last words to my mother as I left her room on August 16, 2017 were that I would be back. That she had my promise I would care for my father and that I loved her. The last one was difficult because I couldn’t even tell if it was true. But I wanted her to have it, to take with her if she could hear me in her final hours. Love can be difficult to categorise.

My mother’s last trip to Sydney in October 2016 to see me in a stage production.

Before I left the hospital after she had died, I went into the room to say a last goodbye. It was a strange couple of minutes. The story seemed incomplete somehow without that final step. Ours had been such a tumultuous story and so painful. It was a chance to create an enduring, peaceful memory.

For many years I rejected any similarity between my mother and myself. I would emphatically declare I was only like my father. Unless I’m missing something, I appear to have dodged the mental demons that plagued mum her entire life; for that I am forever grateful. I am now the age she was when I begin to remember her the most vividly. Oddly enough, I begin to see little bits of her in my equivalent self. In a photograph, a quick flash in a mirror, a turn of phrase, a gesture. In my love for my little dogs. Instead of rejecting that I choose to embrace it. I will never have the equivalent of her physical beauty, but I am grateful for whatever of that she gifted me. Any of her intelligence and any of her positive qualities that wound up in my genetic cocktail. Our parents can never be erased. Accepting that seems to be a part of understanding myself.

In the hospital room on that final night I knew what I needed to say.

“You did the best with what you had, and I forgive you. Go in peace”.

Did her spirit hear me? I don’t know. I like to think it did.

Remembering my mother Geanette Benger. 13.2.32 – 16.8.17.

Make ’em laugh

Recently I was having one of those days. You know, when it’s all a bit crap and you can’t get your mind off the negative. I turned to something that (for me) invariably flips the ‘I’m over it’ switch in my head. A good comedy series.

I grew up on British comedies. My parents watched the ABC religiously, only flicking over to ‘Sale of the Century’ as an allowable aberration. ‘Are You Being Served’. ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’. ‘Porridge’. ‘Open All Hours’. The one I particularly adored was ‘Fawlty Towers’; and so it was to this classic I turned for some distraction. As expected, it transported my mind to a happy place the other afternoon. As I sat there smiling merrily on the couch, I found myself pondering why this politically incorrect, frustrating and in many ways excruciating comedy still ticks all the boxes. Having recovered my joie de vivre I did a bit of research.

‘Fawlty Towers’ was famously penned by John Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth, first airing in 1975. The couple were to divorce after the first series but valiantly still worked together to produce the second in 1979. Only six episodes were written for each, with the scripts meticulously worked and reworked by Cleese. Just this year “The Radio Times” poll revealed that, yet again, it remains the most popular British comedy of all time. Why?

Well it’s certainly not visual production values. There are wobbly walls, the odd visible boom mike and the most unrealistic Siberian hamster/rat puppet in shot. The acting performances are of good quality, but some of the delivery is a touch stagey by certain characters. The magic is in the writing. In particular the creation of Basil Fawlty. Who is expertly portrayed by Cleese.

Cleese encountered his inspiration for Basil in 1970 when travelling with the Python crew. They had the misfortune to stay at a Torquay hotel run by a man named Donald Sinclair. Cleese was fascinated by Sinclair. He and Connie Booth stayed on for several days to observe him after the rest of the cast had left. By all reports Sinclair was rude, obnoxious and clearly disliked running a hotel. He appeared to resent the guests and see them as an imposition. He was a man with absolutely no filter.
Comedy gold.

It is accepted that comedy scripting has a basic formula. “A beginning, a muddle and an end”; as aptly described by poet Philip Larkin. Cleese and Booth honed this beautifully. They also created a character that you love to hate. Basil is very dislikable, but you sympathise with his dysfunction. There’s a bit of you that wants him to triumph. There’s a part of you that has Basil Fawlty days… where you just want to squat in a hallway, cover your head and make like a demented frog. When Fawlty comes out ahead betting on a horse you know he cannot prevail. You realise that Irish builder O’Reilly’s seemingly successful rectification of a building blunder can only end in further humiliation. The man’s life is a misery, and a misery of his own creation in the most part.

The scripts have an exquisite tension to them as they progress. In the majority there is a ‘false’ resolution of tension at the end of the exposition or beginning. This causes you to relax as the viewer. You then enter the middle of the writing and get swept up in the ‘muddle’ which is unrelenting and cringe worthy. Whilst there are elements of slapstick, it is not so overdone as to not have stood the test of time. The plot resolution is fairly swift in each episode. Each character does not change in their hierarchy throughout any of the stories. There is a comfort in knowing that is safely established. I describe ‘Fawlty Towers’ as the comedy where you can’t look …but you can’t look away either.

It is hard to know if people will still laugh at the plight of Basil Fawlty in another forty years time. It’s refreshing that in an ever changing world, where even language is morphing at a rapid rate, a classic still stands.

I would venture to say the American equivalent may indeed prove to be ‘Seinfeld’. Once again, the magic is in the writing. A consistency of plot quality and character creation that does not age. It too still tops the charts twenty years after its final season aired. There’s a grounding in real characters who were carefully observed and then honed to fit the comedy genre.

They say laughter is the best medicine. Trite, but in my experience somewhat true.

Just don’t mention the war. 😉

Add a dash of criticism.

I am going to open with a somewhat hackneyed sentiment. Creating a piece of writing is rather like cooking a meal. It may be a short story starter, a main meal novel, a cheese platter communications project or a dessert comedy script delight. Whatever you are working on, you start with a whole lot of ingredients that are put together. Some time after you’ve opened the pantry and slaved over the creative stove; you silently pray you’ve created something your figurative diners enjoy. Hopefully they’ll leave a tip ….and it won’t just be editing advice and a rejection slip. It’ll be in your bank account and paying for next week’s groceries.

I like cooking and I like writing. I’m a much lazier cook than I am a writer, which isn’t a total disaster. That’s what Youfoodz is for. Shove it in the microwave and away you go. There isn’t really a parallel shortcut in the writing arena. If you chuck something together with minimal care it will read that way. Once an editor or prospective employer has read one mess, they are not likely to return for more. That’s like going back for a second round of bad curry.

So. Let’s say you’ve decided to write a short story. You have characters in mind and have jotted down all the main elements of the planned piece. The timeline, the world in which the story takes place, those key players and the essential plot. You have your introduction, your middle and your end. You’re all set to go and you perch at your computer and write those 2000 words (or whatever the brief may be). Once that’s done you re read. Tweak. Re read. Tweak. Re read. Tweak. Is it improving or are you actually wrecking it? Are things missing? Are they relatable characters? Is the protagonist likeable, or really irritating? Is it readable? Are there errors in spelling and syntax that you are not picking up? Hard to tell. You’ve been staring at it for two days now and you’ve either created modern day Dickens or a disaster.

Time to request……….. A CRITIQUE.

Meme from ‘Writer’s Digest’
writers digest.com.

In some circumstances a writer can be in the advantageous position of having a professional editor at their disposal. Perhaps one has been provided as part of a brief with a newspaper, magazine or book deal. A writer may be a tad cashed up… oh #happyfantasy … and has privately engaged an editor to check their work. Or in the world of reality, you are seeking the opinions of fellow writers or understanding friends for insight with regards to your recently created casserole. This is where it gets tricky. We’ve all watched the carnage of shattered egos on ‘My Kitchen Rules’. No one wants to hear their soufflé sucks.

Any writer who really wants to evolve and hone their skills will seek those risky, critical opinions. It is relatively impossible to evaluate your own work with unbiased eyes. You often know if something has real potential or is (in essence) a lemon. Fine tuning however, is very hard to do completely on your own. That does not mean you take on absolutely everything offered. Blindly rewriting anything and everything. Three different people can have three quite different opinions on what works and what doesn’t. Instead, see if there is uniformity in any of the criticisms. If anyone has offered something that you can clearly see yourself when looking at the piece with rested eyes. That’s what often brings the lightbulb moment. Something goes from average to well above with some intelligent editing.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. (Aristotle)

Critiquing someone’s work is tricky and another topic for another day. There may be little to offer as the writing is excellent. You may have just read a real stinker. (I’m tempted to offer some blue cheese quip here, but I think we’re done with the food analogies). If you are tremulously offering up your writing for criticism, there is no harm in giving your friendly editing team a few guidelines. Key points to ask for are spelling, syntax, their impression as a reader, does the plot make sense and were they engaged by the characters. Constructive criticism is the name of the game. If they liked your literary laksa (sorry…. couldn’t help myself… this is fun), then it is most helpful if they give you the reasons why it appealed. Those can often be built upon during a final rewrite.

I had this experience the other day when I roped in a few victims to read something I am working on. The idea has been simmering in my head for some time, and I’ve been thinking about starting to make some inroads. Jotted down all the essential elements and then wrote a first draft. I had bashed it out and then fiddled with it….. it was hard to tell how it was really shaping up. The good news is my readers seemed to enjoy it. The other good news is, although there were various suggestions, one observation regarding my protagonist was uniform. Yes it was a criticism (how very dare they), and yes it was utterly valid. Fascinatingly, I had been blind to it as the character is my own creation. Therefore, she is already fully developed in my own mind. I know her trajectory and potential for growth from the outset. As a result, I had omitted certain necessary facets of her character at her introduction. In the second draft the lady in question is much less one dimensional- and more interesting as a result.

Survived the critique. Learned something. We’re all still friends. Win.

Offering a critique or receiving one are both tricky negotiations. Both are excellent exercises for writers as you learn something every time. No writing is ever totally wasted, even if it winds up not being a best seller. It’s an ever evolving skill.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to microwave my dinner. It’s time to write chapter two, and I don’t have time to be all Masterchef with actual food.

Bon appetit. 😉

#writing #editing #communications #critique #criticism

Better late than never.

Some Yuletide plonk.

Here’s a fascinating fact for all of you taking the time to read this little article. (Well, define fascinating).

Thus far everyone following along knows I am a dog obsessed, shoe loving, childless, divorced woman who loves to write. It is additionally apparent I am not averse to the odd drinkie. If I didn’t know me, I’d kinda think I sound like fun. Truth be told, I am rather fun a lot of the time …. but I’m also somewhat more complex than blogland portrays. A dog obsessed, Cosmo swilling, shoe loving divorcee sounds like someone who was smoking the odd Alpine behind the bike sheds at school. Swigging their uncle’s scotch when no-one was looking. Climbing out of bedroom windows to go drink a goon bag with friends when mum and dad had gone to bed.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective, nothing could be further from the truth. My liver went unsullied for nigh on three decades.

I was actually a teetotaller for many more years than I have been a bubbles and Cosmopolitan consumer. I may have blurred the lines with designer shoes, champagne and Pomeranians these days – but I am the girl who remembers everyones’ teens and 20’s for them. When others of my generation were going to clubs and ripping the pants off whoever they fancied, I was living a cloistered life. I had very strict parents. I came from a family where pants stayed ON and alcohol was 100% not acceptable. Thus passed all of the 80’s and much of the 90’s. Securely clothed and temperate.

I was led to believe I was allergic to alcohol by my elders for many years. Eventually social pressure won and I had my first swig at 29. TWENTY-NINE. Truth be told I wasn’t enraptured on that particular occasion. Then I had a French champagne at around thirty and the floodgates were partially opened. By about the age of 35 I had a real handle on the joys of a nice beverage, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Current wine rack stock……..

What has been fascinating is being the person who recalls everyone else’s youth with total sobriety. I was the girl who held girlfriend’s hair back as they lost their dinner by 10pm. I called cabs, sat people in gutters and picked up their discarded handbags. My party trick is to remember key events for them. I recall one notable occasion where a friend and I were talking to a fellow we came across at a social function. He’d last been spotted about a decade beforehand.

“Why do I know him? There’s something weirdly familiar”.
“Darl, you banged him in 1996”.
“Oh…….. sh*t”.

True story.

NADK Flinders University tell us that Australians aged 18 – 24 years generally drink more standard drinks on a single occasion than any other age group. Those aged 70+ are most likely to drink 2 or less standard drinks. This leaves me in the No Man’s Land of age related drinking. I missed the binge years, but I haven’t got to the pension stage either. I’ve thrown off the shackles of my restricted youth but truth be told, I’ve never gone on a bender. I had the spins once after a Christmas party and had to sleep with one foot on the floor. The next day I staggered into work and realised at coffee break (when squintily visiting the loo) I had put my undies on backwards. It wasn’t pretty and neither was I. I swore off alcohol for a week; and then someone offered me some Moët. There endeth my exciting, drinking stories.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that in 2003 the average age of first use of alcohol was about 14, compared to about 17 and a half in 1965. Which does illustrate the prevalence of drinking young has increased with time. It doesn’t matter what website you consult, or what generation you examine, having your first bevy at 29 makes you an oddity. I used to almost hide it like a dirty secret; which is an interesting social response to being a teetotaller. These days it’s just a part of my story and persona.

I respect whatever take you have on alcohol, as long as you don’t lecture me with it. It’s in the same category as religious views. Non drinker? Have a lemonade. Wine enthusiast? Behold my wine rack. What I have always hated is either being berated by a non drinker (or reformed drinker) for knocking one back; or being relentlessly coerced into drinking more than is my personal limit. Once I think I’m looking down the barrel of a backwards underpants scenario… I’m out. Once was enough.

Classily celebrating being divorced with some Veuve in 2018. #dontmentionthewar

A glass of bubbles and a Cosmopolitan will forever be my poison. (With the odd white wine and gin infused something or other for variety). Do I wish I’d had a rocking, alcohol soaked youth? Yes and no. I think being a non drinker saved me from various mistakes; but it also precluded me from that certain social ‘freedom’ that comes with having a drink or two. The teenage parties and University Bar mishaps. A certain rite of passage into adulthood. I don’t have any outrageous stories or escapades. As they say, no great story starts with “So we all went out and I ate a salad…..”. or …..”Had a big Saturday night on the Diet Coke”.

However, I am the biographer of various persons who rely on me to jigsaw together the pieces of their Coolibah soaked younger years. Or a few that need me to piece together more recent events. Like the Night of the Killer Cosmos. One day I shall tell the great story of poor Kate and her chuck bucket. But not yet. It remains a thing of whispered legend. On that fateful evening in September 2017, the struggle was real. Poor wee Kate hadn’t fathomed my cocktails can floor an elephant. *see below*

I missed out on the early years, but I’m certainly enjoying the catch up. I figure my twenty-nine was everyone else’s eighteen. My liver is positively youthful with such a late start. These days it’s good friends, good times and good memories with a glass or two. If it ever all goes horribly wrong and I’m found with undies on backwards clutching Kate’s bucket…. we’ll just call it a second adolescence. Bottoms up.

NADK Do younger or older Australians drink more alcohol?

National Institute on Alcohol abuse and Alcoholism

Follow that hero.

When we read a book or see a film (and love it), we instinctively know it had a formula that worked. What we don’t consciously realise is that the formula used is one that has in fact, run endlessly on repeat. A magical writing potion utilised in the majority of films and books we have loved. An intrinsic tool in successful novel and script writing for generations.

Ladies and gentlemen I give you…… “The Hero’s Journey”.

What? Like the Prince kissing Snow White when she’s in her glass coffin?? She wakes up, spits up some apple and defeats the Wicked Queen??? He’s a hero.

Well not exactly, but you’re in the ball park.

This ‘formula’ was identified by Joseph Campbell, who outlined his theories in his book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” (1949). Campbell sets out that the great historical myths and stories all share an underlying structure he names the ‘monomyth’. When I first read the odd quote from Mr. Campbell I went….. meh. It was all a tad Dungeons and Dragons for simplistic me. However, I studiously started looking into how it works as it is so widely recognised and used. The steps have been clarified by smart people for the, ‘I don’t have time to wade through all that’ kind of person. Such as myself. I read through those steps – and then thought about many of the films and literature I love.

Revelation! Mr. Joseph Campbell was bang on.

Of course it’s easy to look at a work retrospectively and think, I see what they did there. As a writer, the challenge is to create characters and plot that seamlessly integrate the theory. You can’t just put together a pile of badly written hooey following the steps, and expect success. One writer who came into my mind as soon as I had my mini revelation was the magnificent Tolkien.

My well loved copy of ‘The Hobbit’.

Now, my classroom teacher in Grade 6 was rather an idiot, but I can thank him for one thing. Once a week he sat us down and read us a chapter from “The Hobbit”. I was enthralled. Little Bilbo Baggins and his epic journey. Gollum, Gandalf, Smaug the dragon, a collection of dwarves and a magic Ring that made you disappear. What ten year old wouldn’t be enraptured. To me, it was simply an incredible story and I recognised it as really well written. What I didn’t recognise was that I was being read a rather expert version of the “The Hero’s Journey”. As the book was written in 1937, Tolkien wasn’t even using the template. He was just a damned fine writer.

So what are the steps? There are various interpretations available. I give here a nice, clear version from What is the hero’s journey? (screenwriting.io). They give us the twelve step model.

1. Heroes are introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD, where
2. they receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE.
3. They are RELUCTANT at first or REFUSE THE CALL, but
4. are encouraged by a MENTOR to
5. CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD and enter the Special World, where
6. they encounter TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.
7. They APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE, crossing a second threshold
8. where they endure THE ORDEAL.
9. They take possession of their REWARD and
10. are pursued on the ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World.
11. They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience.
12. They RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the Ordinary World.

It’s still a tad Dungeons and Dragons because of Campbell’s emphasis on mythology. So is “The Hobbit”, which makes that classic little book an excellent study. Tolkien nailed it all again with stunning expertise in “The Lord of The Rings”. (Which isn’t so little……..) ..

The steps themselves can be adapted and tweaked for almost any setting and most genres. The hero must have capacity for change and must face an ordeal. Considering no-one really enjoys a book or film where the protagonist is static and learns nothing, “The Hero’s Journey” is quite an intrinsic part of good storytelling. I’d been chucking it about in a clumsy kind of way for years before I consciously knew what I was doing.

In the case of Bilbo Baggins of Hobbiton, his ordinary world is his little home in the Shire. His call to adventure is the arrival of the dwarves and the unexpected invitation to go on their quest as a burglar. He refuses to go but, with Gandalf as his mentor, crosses the first threshold and sets off. Thus begins his tale of tests, allies and enemies as he travels. He crosses the second threshold and encounters both Gollum and Smaug as his ordeal. His reward is the infamous Ring, and recognition as an honoured member of the party and successful burglar. His party are pursued but victorious and he crosses the third threshold resurrected and changed by all his adventures. He will never be the same little domesticated, sheltered hobbit of old. He returns home to the Ordinary World with the treasure of the Ring.

Snaps for Tolkien. Magnificent effort.
I unconsciously learned much, hearing this tale in Grade 6. Sadly I didn’t ‘unconsciously’ learn any maths at the same time, a subject which still eludes me to this day.

Once you know the drill, you can merrily analyse all your favourites. From “Aliens” to “Gladiator” (both by Ridley Scott who is a master) the steps of a journey from the ordinary to the extraordinary are all set out. The first is in outer space and the second is set in Ancient Rome. Makes no difference. Sometimes that final journey and victory can be pyrrhic. At the end of “Gladiator” Maximus doesn’t make it out alive. Yet he is rewarded and resurrected through his journey into the Afterlife to join his murdered wife and son. He restores Rome to the people through the Emperor’s death, thereby giving the Ordinary World a treasure through his actions. “The Hero’s Journey” is a versatile and wonderful device.

Russell Crowe as ‘Maximus’ in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator”. (Dreamworks and Universal Pictures, 2000).

So there you have it.

Just thought I’d leave you with a picture of Russ. Not for educational purposes. The man has many faults, but it has to be said….. Whilst sitting on a horse in a skirt looking sexy growling, “What we do in Life, Echoes in Eternity”, he has a certain something that makes me go all thing. Academically, I’ll put it down to his portrayal of a great character in a film epitomising “The Hero’s Journey”. In truth, I think it’s mostly the burly buff biceps. Good storytelling with heroic, gruff allure. Five Academy Awards can’t be wrong.

I’ll just pretend I never watched “Les Miserables”, wipe that troubling memory and keep the Crowe magic alive………

What is the hero’s journey?

#writing #herosjourney #novels #screenplays #journalism

Baby steps

As little girls we are very often given a baby doll to play with. A birthday gift perhaps, or a present wrapped under the Christmas tree. Little boys get a racing car or a truck. You might think I am about to launch into a debate on gender appropriate toys; or state that little girls like trucks and cars to play with just as much as boys. That male children can be extremely happy playing with dolls and gender specific toy giving is sexist. All relevant topics worthy of discussion. But we’ll shelve that for now and take it as a given.

I’d actually like to talk about the first time as females we are expected to respond to the concept of being a mother. It is worth clarifying at this juncture that I am highly in favour of kiddies – but have never had one of my own.

My paternal grandmother gave me my obligatory baby dolly. After she had been excitedly unwrapped I dutifully named her ‘Anne’. I examined the little feeding bottle and potty she came with whilst grandma looked on proudly. I recall my immediate concern was if I put water or milk in Anne’s head end with the bottle provided for that purpose…. it would consequently shoot out Anne’s opposite end and make a mess. I didn’t have siblings and I was rather an uptight child from an uptight family. I didn’t do mess. Nnoooooooooooooo. Having politely thanked my grandmother, I tenderly plonked baby dolly on her potty and moved to my next birthday gift. Poor Anne continued to perch on her pink plastic throne for many years in my toy cupboard. I’d bring her out into the light of day when my grandparents came for tea. As well as being an uptight child, I was unerringly polite to my elders. Even if I proved somewhat of a failure as a baby doll parent.

I did enthusiastically play with dolls. I loved doing their hair and dressing them up. Anne’s ‘potty situation’ however was a total non starter as far as I was concerned.

The older dollies enjoy my favour whilst ‘Anne’ languishes in her cupboard.

The truth of the matter was I had no interest in Anne, or her bottle or her potty. I was a feminine child who loved pretty dresses and dancing and music lessons. The older dolls, and subsequently Barbie, with their outfits and accessories were my personal bag. Babies really held no interest for me. I determinedly stalked the neighbourhood cats and dogs constantly for pats (as my parents wouldn’t allow me a pet). If someone had a new puppy or kitten I was instantly clamouring for a cuddle. If someone had an infant sibling I was habitually polite, but never asked to hold them or see them. I’d slip away from the circle of parents and children and go occupy myself elsewhere. (Most often with the family dog who was looking forlorn in the backyard).
High school years arrived, and friends were talking about how many kids they’d like when they grew up and got married. I always confidently replied I was not getting married and not having children. (Got it half right). As a teen there was no circumstance where I could envisage myself with a flesh and blood ‘Anne’. As I was an affectionate child, it was assumed this was a phase and one day I too would decree, ‘I want a boy and a girl!’. Yet school years passed and my opinion did not alter. Ditto my University years. I was valiantly sticking to my guns.

Obviously as life chugged onwards, the girls of my generation began to have families. I was always very happy for them. I attended baby showers, bought gifts, sent cards, handed out hearty congratulations. This was what my friends wanted and I was incredibly happy for them. I was still a bit of a youngster, so my statement I would not be joining the motherhood train was not taken that seriously. I was becoming aware however, that it was starting to be viewed by some as less of a ‘quirk’ – and more a character flaw. My grandma had handed me that baby doll for a reason. It was my apparent destiny as a woman to eventually desire a live ‘Anne’ of my own. Tendrils of inadequacy started to wrap around me that I found difficult to shake.

I did marry. #dontmentionthewar. I went into that union being transparent that I didn’t want a family. About a year in, my ex husband stated (in not wildly pleasant terms) that he expected I’d now have a change of heart. He had subsequently decided that he wanted a child and expected me to comply. Nnnoooooooooooooo. I had quietly wondered if I would experience some invisible ‘click’ somewhere along the line. A sliver of me secretly hoped my baby gene would magically kick in and I’d join the club. That unpleasant marital exchange was a pivotal moment. I decided that, even if my biological clock started ringing, I would shut it off again.

It had a mild jangle a couple of times but never enough to be of any consequence. The faint dinging was only heard on about two occasions when I saw a very doting and protective dad with his bubba. At those times I ‘got’ what it was about. It had no bearing on my own circumstances though.

Being childless was a burden for many years. I dreaded every baby shower, every birth announcement and every awkward question which now bordered in the invasive. People wanted answers. Why was this seemingly nice woman who obsessively mothered her dogs not producing offspring? My favourite was, “Can’t you have children?”, to which I retorted, “I don’t know. I’ve never tried”. I became an aunt to two little ones, which gave me great happiness. Still does to this day. They were the first two babies I ever held. My terrified countenance as I cuddled them is forever recorded as you see here. I was very concerned I’d drop said tiny infant…. or its head would fall off. Both are now old enough to drive a car and survived the ordeal.

Worried aunt clutches newborn with wobbly head…….

My marriage failed, but not for reasons linked to lack of offspring. I am immensely grateful I stuck to my ‘no baby’ guns. It was one of the only times I stood firm in those early years. It was simply too important a fight to lose, despite incessant berating and pressure. A baby is a little person who deserves things to be done right. I was never going to be a mum if I wasn’t confident it was the right choice. It would have been a catastrophic choice.

I have cried tears of joy for friends who have fought terribly hard to have a baby and finally succeeded. Tears of sadness for those who have wanted it so badly and it never happened. The person I have never cried for is myself. In my own circumstances, to be childless was the right path.

I am single and older now. The baby ship is inevitably heading out to sea due to age; and enough arthritis drugs on board for the last decade that cause birth defects to make things impossible (even if I were espoused). The awkward questioning is growing silent, although it still pops up. Had #dontmentionthewar ended sooner, perhaps I would have met someone different and changed my mind. Perhaps he would have been the protective, decent type of guy who made my alarm clock ding on occasion. We’ll never know, and it is not something I have ever dwelled on.

I have learned one thing. I think as women we all ‘mother’ in many ways. I’ve realised I am brimming with maternal instincts that are used in other capacities. I may have rejected poor ‘Anne’ with her bottle and potty…. but I have still been a mother. I have mothered my nieces. Most notably I have mothered my fur children to bits; and will undoubtedly be doing that for the rest of my life. (And they’ve made much bigger , stinkier messes than dolly on her potty could ever have achieved).

A message I would send out into blogland is to never ask people too many questions on the baby topic. Unless you are personally invited into their story. You never know what raw nerves you may be pulling. Only now can I answer the difficult questions I was asked as a young woman. Indeed, it is only now I can begin to sort out the jigsaw in my own head of exactly what my journey was.

They say “It takes a village to raise a child”. It’s always lovely to be part of that community. My little duties as a villager have all been precious. No regrets. 🙂

The print of a great author.

For those of us who love to read, there are always those books which have the title of having turned you into a book worm. For those of us who love to write, there is also the author that you first realised had a mastery of words you could only aspire to.

As a youngster I had three favourite authors. Although I have expanded my horizons over the years, those three have remained my biggest influences. (Unless you count Enid Blyton, to whom I was addicted from about ages 5 to 12).

Secret Enid Blyton stash remains in my possession
on very dusty shelf.

I go back and read these three writer’s works regularly. I invariably see bits of their style creeping into my own blather. It’s an eclectic mix.

The first is Gerald Durrell. British naturalist and zookeeper who changed the face of zoos around the world. The book that got me started was “My Family and Other Animals”, which was on our reading list in first year high school. Obviously the animals were an attraction, but what mesmerised me was his use of English and his mix of humour and pathos in exquisite measure. You knew his characters. Durrell’s use of imagery took you to the heart of the places and people within his recollections of a childhood spent in Corfu. That book led me to all his other books. Animal collecting expeditions, zoos, failed marriages and various adored yet unsavoury relatives and friends. I devoured them all, and I still do. Sadly he passed away in 1995 from a love affair with whisky. On reading his biography, I learned he was a loveable yet frustrating character who was simply a natural writer. His wife (or wives) and secretaries fixed all his spelling and edited a lot of his work. The man simply had a fascinating life and a gift for story telling. His was an unconventional background with little formal education. Durrell’s type of ‘conversational’ writing has been imprinted on me permanently. Vale sir.

A side note for book fanatics is that his older brother was Lawrence Durrell, also a respected writer. Both had the same eclectic background and obvious talent for the written word, but very different styles. Lawrence pursued further education and ‘high literature’ whereas Gerald didn’t give two hoots. He tortured a few home tutors and then extricated himself from schooling with remarkable ease. That choice makes his success as a popular author quite incredible. Raw talent and a dollop of good luck.

Second favourite is Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle. Not a lot of explanation needed really. ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stands alone. Beautiful writing, well constructed narratives.

Then it’s time for my biggest influence and a book I can read on a loop, never getting bored or tiring of its masterful techniques. That book is ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier. A British female writer who penned quite a prolific amount of work. This however is the book that put her on the map, and establishes her (in my humble opinion) as rather a genius.

Daphne Du Maurier in 1936.

Du Maurier was a complex woman who – pardon the cliche – was somewhat ahead of her time. She had sexual relationships with both men and women, although history confirms she was in a long term marriage from 1932 until her husband’s death in 1965. She had three children. ‘Rebecca’ was written in 1938 at a time of marital boredom and frustration. It was her 5th novel, the first being published in 1931. The story was made into a film by Hitchcock as well as several television adaptations, cementing its notoriety. Many people know the story of ‘Rebecca’ because of the Hitchcock film. If you have seen the film and not read the book, may I be so bold as to suggest you get a copy. The novel’s iconic opening phrase “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” begins the film, but film cannot do justice to the writing. When published, ‘Rebecca’ was a smash hit and marketed as a gothic romance novel. This apparently annoyed Daphne no end as that wasn’t its intention. (Although she couldn’t argue with the money the book generated for her. Her success as a writer put great strain on her marriage however). The book is moody, gothic in feel, suspenseful and all it was touted to be. But it is a lot more. Using some very remarkable techniques.

The first thing that strikes you about the novel as you delve into it, is the use of imagery. Masterful use of concrete and abstract language. You are with the narrator as she revisits Manderley Estate in that opening dream sequence. The house immediately becomes a character within itself. Something that is lost in ‘Rebecca’s retelling on the silver screen is the fact this is a tale being shared by a woman who is in command of her life. She has been shaped by the events linked to Manderley which we are to subsequently traverse through her eyes. The tale is harrowing, yet she has emerged in control of her own mind. She distracts her husband when she perceives he is remembering the past, she organises their travels, their daily routine in the foreign land where they have retreated from their former existence and history. They are a team, but she is his carer. His guardian. She is the stronger of the two. She has chosen her path dutifully, despite it proving something of a claustrophobic prison. The woman of Chapter One does not resemble the woman we meet in the bulk of the retrospectively focussed writing.

Indeed ‘Rebecca’ is not a gothic romance. It is a story of innocence lost, deception and eventual self realisation and resolve.

An emotionally distant, selfish and in some respects abusive man attempts to self distract by taking advantage of an isolated teenager with a crush on him. He’s sophisticated, older, wealthy and behaves with full knowledge that she is inexperienced, alone and completely out of her depth. He acts on impulse, not ever thinking of her eventual destiny as his much younger and naive wife. Maxim de Winter only cares that he’s lonely, she’s besotted and it might fix some of his own mess. The attraction isn’t even particularly sexual for him. (In modern prose, this guy is VERY f**ed up). Once they return from honeymoon to his Manderley mansion, he goes into full on self centred mode. She’s abandoned to the tender mercies of his scary, obsessive housekeeper and the ever present shadow of his deceased first wife. Rebecca. Rebecca, whom he hates and the narrator brokenly presumes he still pines for. It doesn’t occur to our dashing hero to have a quick word with his second wife and tactfully explain that’s not the deal. Without indulging in a complete synopsis (again in modern text) the conclusion runs thus. Our youthful narrator learns the truth and stops torturing herself she’s inferior to her predecessor. She forgives and then rescues her handsome, self obsessed, guilt ridden, arse of a husband. She becomes a mouse that roars; with steel to survive.

That’s more feminist masterpiece than gothic fluff.

The book is remarkable in two respects, in terms of writing technique. The first is that the most powerful character we take away with us is -Rebecca. Yet she is dead from the outset. There are only hints at her physicality (we learn she is tall, dark, a social genius and inevitably… has great beauty). Any dialogue from her character is extremely sparse. She dominates the narrative as only something that threatens can.. when it is not entirely revealed. The second device the author wields is that we never learn the narrator’s name. When asked, Du Maurier remarked she set herself the challenge as a test of writing technique, which she made easier for herself by composing the piece in the first person. She could not think of a name when she began to create the novel, and the process went on from there. Intentional or not, it adds to the power of Rebecca’s character and the helplessness of the storyteller. Nameless, she embodies being ‘unimportant’ and we can stand in her shoes unhindered. Her name can unconsciously become our own. The entire piece is a tour de force of creative skill.

I think I can safely say I will never write at the level achieved by Daphne du Maurier. However when putting pen to paper, or digit to keyboard, it is always worth learning and relearning what writers of this ilk have left us. I guess what got you into books, perhaps into writing and what floats your creative boat is a matter of personal taste. As a female writer, I can only admire what Daphne put together at a time when being a woman with a voice and ambitions was not the social norm. She was seemingly both tortured and liberated by her talent and personality for most of her eighty-one years. As you can possibly tell, I highly recommend a night on the couch with the print version of ‘Rebecca’. It is a book universally loved by women for reasons they probably never bother to analyse. The appeal may be complex when taken apart, but it’s also self explanatory. The story and characters simply strike a very powerful chord. It’s a damned fine piece of writing.

“What a pity I’m not a vagrant on the face of the earth. Wandering in strange cities, foreign lands, open spaces, fighting, drinking, loving physically. And here I am, only a silly sheltered girl in a dress, knowing nothing at all – but Nothing”. Daphne du Maurier (taken from her personal diary, aged 21).

“Women want love to be a novel, Men a short story”. Daphne du Maurier

“It’s people like me who have careers who really have bitched up the old relationship between men and women. Women ought to be soft and gentle and dependent. Disembodied spirits like myself are all wrong”. Daphne du Maurier (taken from a personal letter to friend Ellen Doubleday).

Daphne du Maurier in her beloved Cornwall, 1970’s.

Biographical detail in this article has been sourced from the Introduction to ‘The Rebecca Notebook’ Daphne du Maurier (1981).

Daphne du Maurier’s Personal Life (Daily Telegraph) 2017

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