Fairy tale bonanza

Fairy tales are not my first choice of reading matter, although I’m sure they were a huge influence on my mind as a child. So when I was sent a copy of South of the sun: Australian fairy tales for the 21st century, I didn’t suspect that I would soon be riveted by this magical book.

I am now halfway through the volume and still reading! Here, some of our best storytellers and illustrators engage with this genre in ways that are entertaining, funny, and relevant to our times. These are stories for adults and are about a lot more than fairies. Myths, legends and allegories are reimagined with a 21st-century spin and strong female characters, set in Australia. The stories unfold in the bush, between the dark towers of Docklands, or at the Botanical Gardens.

Favourite authors Carmel Bird and Cate Kennedy give an assured start to the book and lesser known ones take up the baton. Delightful tales by K.Z. Barton and Gabi Brown, involving a homeless man and a Melbourne tram, lead on to a hilarious new take on ‘Jack and the beanstalk’ by Lindy Mitchell-Nilsson, with sparkling dialogue and enough bureaucratic red tape to stand in the way of any good Aussie giant-killer.

Other stories hark back to ancient myths and cultures. Louisa John-Krol’s ‘Pomelina the Pomegranate Fairy’ is a luscious, lyrical tale, originating on the Silk Road in Persia and transferred to Bendigo. It is one of several tales here that took root at the Australian Fairy Tale Society, who published this anthology. The book itself is silky to the touch, edited with care, and illustrated magnificently.

I am now converted to the fairy tale in its modern, adult incarnation. What an excellent, light-hearted way to capture the essence of Australian life, to depict our trees and plants and creatures, to celebrate and satirise our society! I must read on…


Back in the day

I’m sure she would hate it, but I call Irish author Anne Enright ‘Aunty Anne’ behind her back. An aunt I can snuggle under the covers with and share delicious secrets and laugh at what we did ‘back in the day’, as she would say. The phrase smacks of nostalgia: not just any old day, but the day when life was better, or at least more vivid, than today. My friend Sylvia in Galway uses it whenever we reminisce about the 1970s, messing about in MacGillycuddy’s Reeks.

Last week Readings Bookshop hosted a surprise event: our own Jane Sullivan was to interview Anne Enright on Zoom. A chance to catch up with Aunty and have a giggle. And for the author to promote her latest novel, Actress, as it lands on Australian bookshelves. No hard sell with her: she is closer to shooting herself in the foot, as she berates herself for writing the same book over again. I wouldn’t let that put you off.

Now I have a copy of Actress in my hand, I am delighted to find that same voice, the wry Dubliner with the rapier wit, on the page. I believe, after six acclaimed literary novels (The Gathering won the 2007 Man Booker Prize), she has loosened her literary stays and found a voice that is no less eloquent for all its cheeky familiarity.

In the interview with Jane Sullivan, she champions her fellow Irish authors Sally Rooney, Eimear McBride and Anna Burns, who have broken away from masculine tradition with a voice of their own. And yet, even-handedly and in spite of her fight against misogyny, she says ‘Irish masculinity can be a lyrical, poetic tradition, the nicest thing.’

Aunty Anne gives us the best of both worlds: the lyrical tradition of Irish literature and the outspoken female Irish voice of today. The key to her style is her love of language. For her, it is language that drives her, and leads her one way or the other in her storytelling. And there the magic lies.

‘I don’t know’, says the writer

I’m waiting for a knock on the door. One of the upsides of lockdown, and Melbourne is now in lockdown again for five days, is that some bookshops offer to drop off books to any reader within a five-km radius. Last night I ordered a couple from my local store, Jeffrey’s. Same day delivery – just like Christmas, without the wait.

In case you’re curious, the two books are Lyn Yeowart’s debut novel The Silent Listener, and Pip Williams’s The Dictionary of Lost Words.

During last year’s lockdown, Jeffrey’s popped a bag of books on my doorstep, among them two of Colum McCann’s books. The Irish-American author had just brought out his seventh novel Apeirogon, about two friends, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, each united by the loss of a young daughter in the conflict. That was definitely an essential purchase. At the same time, I bought his slim volume Letters to a Young Writer.

I watched a broadcast of Colum McCann conversing with Mark Raphael Baker of Melbourne Jewish Book Week last June. He talked mainly about Apeirogon, of course, because of the Jewish connection. About his love of birds, and their role in the novel. Birds go freely across borders, while humans cower behind fences and take pot shots at each other. Birds migrate, spreading the story.

It was lovely to see the man himself, still with his Irish accent, in his home in Long Island, talking in his garden at 6am on a summer’s day. Wriggling on his seat, he said he had a favourite phrase at the moment: I don’t know. It reminds me of the phrase a cloud of unknowing that has always haunted me. To remain ignorant, in a state of unknowing, but exploring all points of view. That’s his style.

If you want to hear more about Colum McCann, you can listen to my podcast on Melbourne Writers Hub website:

Carol’s podcast on Colum McCann

‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ – Voltaire

‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ is a quotation from Voltaire, one that the Oxford-educated author Vikram Seth tossed up during our interview in 2006. I hunted out that interview this year, when I picked Seth’s novel An Equal Music off my bookshelves, a juicy read for our extended COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne.

I may not have been blogging, but I have been reading. And, after the initial period of panic and distraction, I have managed to settle into a daily writing routine. What has emerged is a glorified plague diary, full of stats and lockdown trivia, but also plenty of commentary on the books I have been reading.

In March I had to cancel my plans for a new creative writing class. With no opportunity to do public readings or face-to-face teaching, I have decided to record some podcasts for Melbourne Writers Hub, using my lockdown reading and the authors who inspire me as a focus. What lessons can we learn from paying close attention to our favourite authors?

My first podcast is on Vikram Seth, and can be found on Melbourne Writers Hub website:

Carol’s podcast on Vikram Seth

Songs for Nobodies

My Christmas treat has been reviewing Bernadette Robinson’s encore performance of her show Songs for Nobodies at the Arts Centre, Melbourne. Ten years on from its debut, the show is still wowing audiences, both here and in London’s West End.

I don’t believe anyone else could perform this show, which demands a unique blend of expertise: a talent for accents, an ability to sing in any range and genre, and acting versatility. A born mimic, Robinson excels at all these skills. And who else could switch between the big-sky warmth of country singer Patsy Cline to the existential howl of Billie Holiday’s final years, or between the growling reverberations of Piaf’s chansons to the divine bel canto of Maria Callas?

Check out my full review at Australian Stage: https://www.australianstage.com.au/201912209103/reviews/melbourne/songs-for-nobodies.html

Quizzical pursuits

The ways of the central nervous system are a mystery to me.

Last month I was laid up in a hospital bed, blindsided by ‘multiple trauma’ after falling downstairs, and the only activity I was capable of was cryptic crosswords. Forget reading – my brain could not drag itself from one sentence to the next. I managed just a few pages of The Tao of Pooh in the six days I was there. But my brain could do flip-turns and spark up the neurons needed to solve the cryptic teasers set by David Astle and his fellow cryptographers – no problem.

I may have missed my calling. Last week we watched The Imitation Game, the story of WWII British code-breakers, who were selected in this fictional version of events by a crossword puzzle in the Times. With a pang of jealousy I watched Keira Knightley ace the crossword test and help cryptographer Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) solve the mystery of The Enigma machine. Although she was a woman and therefore not officially a member of the team, her neurotransmitters were up to the task.

Why wasn’t I offered this career advice when I left school in the 1960s? Maybe there weren’t too many code-breaking jobs by that stage, but the idea of subterfuge and spying always appealed to me. For women who were good at languages, the only jobs on offer were teaching, interpreting and the Foreign Office. I vaguely remember filling in an application form for the Foreign Office, but the Civil Service wasn’t presented as a glamorous option and I either lost interest or failed the entrance exam.

Instead, I went on to study languages at university, with no career path in mind. I was fascinated by the way each culture develops in tandem with its native language, and the way translation straddles cultures. It would be years before I became a journalist and even longer before I focused on ‘creative’ writing, but this fascination with words has been a constant in my life.

Does anyone remember ‘My Word’, the BBC quiz show? In the highlight of the show, two doyens of verbal wizardry, Frank Muir and Denis Norden, gave their fictional origins of aphorisms or quotations, such as ‘A stitch in time saves nine’ or ‘Come into the garden, Maud’, manipulating the phrase to produce a new one. I was spellbound by these improvised fabulations, a cross between cryptic puzzles and oral storytelling.

It seems that code-breaking plays some part in manipulating language, to translate or author a new work. Writers often talk about allowing the puzzle to solve itself, giving time for the unconscious to sort through the material. I wonder how the synapses and neurotransmitters delegate the tasks. Why could I do the code-breaking before the reading? Does reading require subtler connections?

And where does writing fit in the hierarchy of brain activity and creative thinking? Our everyday language is already there for simple communication, but there is always the possibility of building up new verbal representations of our world, to explore and share our experience.

Can anyone enlighten me?



The songs that made Memphis made us

Memphis, Tennessee. Home of Sun Records, where many of the greats – B B King, Elvis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash – got their start, and where rock’n’roll was born (allegedly!) And I was there, in virtual Memphis, at the Clocktower Centre, Moonee Ponds, believe it or not, on Saturday night, when a bunch of fine local musos performed their long-running show, Sun Rising: the songs that made Memphis.

They had me at the opening number, a grinding blues by Howlin’ Wolf and kept me swinging through the 1950s with lesser known songs by B B King (She’s Dynamite) and Elvis (Baby, let’s play house) to old favourites by Jerry Lee Lewis (Great Balls of Fire and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On). There was certainly a lotta shakin’ goin’ down in the Clocktower that night, if not the sort that the song was originally banned for!

The show has been going for seven years and is tight, professional and fizzing with energy. The musos were clearly having as much fun as we were. As a one-time bass player, I was knocked out by the talent of the rhythm section. Drummer Adam Coad and bass player (upright and electric bass) Trent McKenzie are formidable players. The two superb guitarists (David Cosmo and Adrian Whyte) and virtuoso pianist (Damon Smith) took the vocal leads. Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis were all there in spirit, not impersonated but recreated with a dash of individual spark.

Sun Records is still there, in Memphis. A friend in the US emails me excitedly to tell me about her trip there with her teenage son, many years ago. ‘There was a diner next door,’ she recalls, ‘where you could order Elvis’s favourite grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich (I passed).’ Another friend in the States agrees: that is ‘her kind of music, firmly fixed in the ‘50s and ‘60s’.

Music, the great uniter, our common heritage.

Sun Rising is a tribute not just to the stars, but to Sam Phillips, who discovered all these artists and gave them a break in his modest studio, launching them into the big time.

Thank you, Sam.

Shakespeare with a difference

Until 5 January, you have the chance to see Twelfth Night, Melbourne Theatre Company’s latest production. This is a hilarious and upbeat version of the more nuanced comedy Shakespeare wrote. It’s refreshing to see an Australian company treat the Bard with confident irreverence without ditching any of the poetry and drama. And the bright lights and dazzling sets of the Sumner Theatre, Southbank, are breathtaking.

I mentioned in my last post that I was weaned on Shakespeare at the Old Vic in the years leading up to its transformation into The National Theatre. I just wish I had kept the programs. I think Judi Dench, Barbara Jefford and John Neville were in the cast when I saw Twelfth Night around 1960. Or was it the production with Eileen Atkins?

Although those historic performances left such deep and fond memories, I can’t help wondering whether Shakespeare wouldn’t have preferred an energetic, crowd-pleasing production like this. I can just imagine him leaping up to applaud Frank Woodley’s show-stopping Sir Andrew Ague-cheek. Or marvelling at the magic technology had brought to his play.

Read my review of MTC’s Twelfth Night here:


Tea with the Dames

On Mother’s Day my daughter, who shares my love of theatre, treated me to a screening of Tea with the Dames, a new documentary directed by Roger Michell that records a conversation between Dames Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench, all in their eighties. Four lusty comediennes who may be losing their eyesight and their hearing, but whose resonant, velvety voices are unchanged, as familiar as those of old friends.

One of the roads I almost took in life would have led me onto the boards of the London stage. My theatrical ambition was conceived at the age of eleven, when my mother began taking me to the Old Vic Theatre, to see Shakespeare’s plays. It was there I witnessed Judi Dench’s debut as Ophelia, and later her Juliet. That husky-voice, pert-nosed girl has accompanied me down the years, popping up regularly on cinema and TV screens. As I have zigzagged between my various passions – writing, languages, the stage, music (‘Jack of all trades, master of none’), Judi has stayed true to her first love: the theatre.

The doco is a casual affair, with this great gang of girls sitting round Joan Plowright’s table, in the house she lived in with her second husband Laurence Oliver, chatting, laughing, swearing and sipping glasses of champagne. Prompted by occasional questions from the interviewer, they seem reluctant to talk about their careers, but soon the joy of reminiscing with their close friends takes over, and the anecdotes start flowing. Maggie Smith, with her ascerbic wit, has Judi Dench in fits of girlish giggles, while the astute Eileen Atkins fills in the gaps in their memories. Virtually blind and, at eighty-eight, the eldest of the four, Joan Plowright, presides over all with a quiet authority.

We were shown clips from the early stage shows, the movies, the ceremonies where they suited up for Prince Charles to hang medals around their necks, a few family photos with their children. The videos unleashed a flood of backstage gossip, mostly about Larry (Laurence Oliver), who scared them all.

There is such tenderness between these four women who have all worked hard and continuously for about sixty-five years. They have shared the same stages, played the same roles, appeared in the same films, known the same actors, and are still friends, growing old together.

The film closes with a voiceover of Judi reading, almost whispering, one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. So light, so romantic, after the cut and thrust of his plays. A call to action, to read his sonnets, take comfort and inspiration.

For a day or so, after coming out of the cinema, I was not ready to engage with the mortal souls around. I was still basking in the company of immortals. I wanted to stay buoyed by those familiar voices, those witty and wise women who have, since the 1950s, been holding up the mirror to our lives.

If I envy them, it is in their persistence, their ability to stay on one path all their lives and create a solid work of art, a legacy. No one can forget them.

Inspired by Joyce Carol Oates

It is over three months since I saw Joyce Carol Oates talk at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. On 26 August, Michael Cathcart interviewed her in his benign and unpretentious manner, but was not a good match for her incisive intellect and wit, and the glassy Deakin Edge venue echoed nastily. Too often, JCO’s precious words bounced away, but fortunately were captured for Cathcart’s Radio National show ‘Books and Arts’. I had prepared myself for the rare treat by reading two volumes of her short stories and her novel Black Water. Much as I admired her work, that was enough for now. There is only so much bleakness I can tolerate, and her short stories go into dark territory. When JCO flew away, I put her books back on the shelf, and turned to more cheerful fare.

Shortly afterwards I came across (in Best American Essays 2016) her essay about her sister, eighteen years younger than Joyce, who developed severe autism as a child and was eventually institutionalised. ‘The Lost Sister: An Elegy’ is a harrowing account, bringing to mind characters and incidents in Oates’s stories, and giving some context to her fiction. To live with a mute and violent sister who never looks any of her family in the eye would surely colour your imagination in shades of black.

On a recent trip to the Murray River I came across a secondhand copy of A Widow’s Story, JCO’s 2011 memoir, a testimony to grief. When her husband of 47 years, Raymond Smith, died, Oates dived into a crazed insomnia and spent the next six months trying to claw her way back from despair. Unlike Joan Didion’s succinct A Year of Magical Thinking, Oates’s memoir is discursive, a 415-page record of a distracted mind haunted by regret and shame, a day-by-day account of survival.

There are some books that make me reluctant to move on and start reading another. A Widow’s Story had that effect on me. Its honest self-exposure has inspired me to make a tentative start on a memoir about living with a daughter who has a mental illness. It is difficult territory, which I have been hesitant to enter, but now I have a light to guide me.

And it appears there is another memoir of JCO’s waiting for me, one day: The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age (2015). It includes a lot of her published nonfiction, including the essay on her sister. I imagine I will come across it one day, at the right time, on a shelf in some dusty rural bookshop.