Saturday, July 24, 2010


Being an avid diary-keeper, I have always been obsessed with dates (hence my love of Pepys' online journal), and personal anniversaries, happy (today it's xxx years since I first met my husband/moved house/published my first novel) and otherwise (today it's xx years since I fell off a horse/my friend was murdered/my mother had a stroke).  (Yes, I do wonder about myself, but I'm assuming that this obsession, like so many others, might abate with age.  At some point, there has to be too many numbers to keep track of - hasn't there?)

This time last year, I was attached to the House of Commons: the window of my office looked up to Big Ben (roughly on the other side of the top windows in the photo).  I had dinner in the Guildhall, saw the statues of Gog and Magog.  I travelled to the north of England on weekends, once to have lunch with my extended family, once to have a whooping good time with my best friend from primary school, who I'd seen once in twenty years, and who lived in a haunted, thatch-roofed 17th century cottage.

Do I feel nostalgic?  You bet.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bye, Beautiful: some reflections on race

I have been asked some questions about Bye, Beautiful and race by one of Tony Eaton's honours students.  As I said to her, it's the aspect of the novel that was most overlooked in reviews, so I thought I would provide an edited version of my response here, in case anyone's interested (yes, my one reader, I know you are!)

I apologise in advance if there is any content that offends.

My grandfather was a police Superintendent and officer in charge of the north west of Western Australia immediately before the Nookenbah dispute.  I was always brought up to think of my grandfather as ‘harsh but fair’, including with his relationship with Aboriginal people.  He talked about his respect for ‘full blood’ Aboriginal people in the North West, and apparently he had good relationships with Aboriginal leaders in all of his postings: my mother tells a story of him regularly visiting an Aboriginal elder when he was in Quairading (a wheatbelt country town) in the late 50s, to get information about what was going on in the community: when she wanted to see him, she’d come to the police house and tap on the verandah with her stick.  He spoke with some sorrow about Aboriginal men who would drink themselves into oblivion, saying, ‘Shit, I like a drink, but not like that’.  But he was also scathing about ‘half castes’ who caused trouble, and if you thanked him for doing something, he’d say, ‘I’d do the same for a black fella.’  He told me that Al Grassby, Whitlam’s Immigration Minister, came to visit his station in the north west, and accused him of being racist.  ‘Mate, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick,’ my grandfather replied.  (I would love to know why Al Grassby said that, but I guess I’ll never know.) 

So, I was left with a confused impression of my grandfather’s approach to Aboriginal people in his job.  I read the transcripts of interviews with individual policemen about their attitudes towards Aboriginal people, which were conducted after the death of John Pat in custody in Roebourne in 1981, and I’m sure my grandfather didn’t possess the kind of racism evident in those accounts – they were truly appalling.  But he was not immune to racism, and I used his response to the relationship of Marianne and Billy to explore how racism operates, even in otherwise decent people.
During the writing of the novel, I spent (thank you, Australia Council!) a lot of time in the Battye Library in Perth, reading accounts of Aboriginal and other experiences in the 1960s to get a general feel for the time and the attitudes – including memoirs of policemen who served during that period.  I read copies of The West Australian and the Merredin Mercury from the period, to see how Aboriginal people were described, if at all.  Most useful was being granted access to the existing occurrence books from police stations in country areas in the 1950s and 1960s, held at the State Records Office – because of my grandfather, the WA Police kindly allowed me to read them.  So many of these were destroyed in the late 70s (ironically, my grandfather wrote to the Commissioner to argue for the value of archiving them instead: his pleas fell on deaf ears), but the ones that exist give a fascinating account of individual policemen’s attitudes: the way they described situations involving Nyoongah people gave clear clues as to how they might have treated them in their work, and I was surprised that there was a vast difference between officers, even in the same station.

I also learned, in the course of my research, that Aboriginal people could be arrested if they were on the streets of small country towns after 6pm, and that most wheatbelt towns had reserves on the outskirts of town for Aboriginal people, and that even in the 60s there were ‘crow bars’, separate bars (or windows) where Aboriginal people could buy alcohol.  To my shame, I had had absolutely no idea about any of that.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Over your shoulder

Somebody* recently complained to me about my lack of blogging frequency.  There are good reasons for it, I promise (besides which, there's a fine balance between over-blogging and under-blogging.  In relation to the former, if you haven't got anything to say, as Segovia apparently once said, you shouldn't say anything.  Applies to writing as well as blogging, and probably many other situations besides).

But I digress.

The good reasons include starting a full-on but enjoyable new dayjob, which takes some time to get one's head around, and which pushes out writing-related concerns (at least during dayjob days).  But I'm now catching the train to work, which gives great opportunity for a) people watching and b) reading over people's shoulders (yes, I'm one of those annoying people who just has to know what is on the page of the open book/newspaper/office manual of the person sitting next to them.  I can't help myself: sorry.)  Besides the content, I love sussing what people are reading: so far this week, Anita Shreve; some book about a guy called Barry, who, going by the cover, is a footballer; Danielle Steele; a history of the world since 1945 (which was thick, but not as thick as it probably ought to have been); and some female crime fiction writer whose name currently escapes me.

It's heartening that there's still as many people on the train reading as those who have iPod buds jammed in their ears, or are fiddling with their iPhones or BlackBerries, or staring fixedly into space (or, in my case, at other people.  Again, sorry.)  But how will I work out what they're reading when e-books take over?

Oh, and in case you were wondering how Margo Lanagan (another writer with a dayjob) writes, read this.

* My one reader.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


The air is wintry clean;
The sun an idea of warmth;
The potato plants are sticking their nubbly noses above the dark soil;
I've sent off my latest redraft;
I'm staying with friends who make me laugh;
That is all, and enough.