June 2018: Snow day
Admittedly the snow didn’t last on the ground down here, but it fluttered across the valley. Some areas had hail, others rain, but there was a giant swathe of genuine snow, about 30 cm deep, and still drifts of snow on the mountain in late afternoon.
That was on May 30, after the warmest May on record. I should have guessed when the wombats arrived the night before, almost in a line and looking expectant /annoyed/ impatient. They knew bad weather was coming, and wanted to stock up on calories so they could sleep away the next 24 hours. Which is a sensible option.
Luckily humans have invented cars with heaters, thermal underwear, fleece lined gloves, beanies, boots, thick socks, cups of tea and reviving soup, so we enjoyed the cold, the white and especially the actual moisture coming from the sky enormously. The garden is no longer wilting -- we only had 7 mm but it soaked in slowly and beautifully, and if we don’t get any wind should keep the garden blooming for a few weeks.
The Saga of My Leg
Me and Mr Jones - My trusty walking stick
Many many thanks to everyone who’s written or emailed offering sympathy or health advice. But truly, I’m fine, and ridiculously well, with an ultra healthy diet and lifestyle.
However, I feel I need to explain more about last year’s problems. Two knee injuries meant I was persuaded to have a knee replacement. The surgery went wrong and my knees became infected. This carried on for six months until I changed to a medical team who’d admit to the various problems.
There’s also been nerve damage, plus my right leg gives way without notice, and the original damage (the reason for the surgery in the first place) still hadn’t been addressed.
So if I’m travelling or on my feet for a while, I need to use a crutch and have to manage walking and standing carefully -- there’s so much tissue damage that further surgery would only have a 50/50 chance of making things worse.
But on the positive side, thanks to excellent rehab I probably have the strongest toes in NSW. Healing has truly begun and things should be much better in a year.
So that’s it: I’m fine, except for a couple of bits that are still improving, but they will never be as good as they were pre surgery. And I am incredibly grateful to the wonderful medical team who rescued me from agony and fear last November. Life is good!
Reading to Babies
Reading to a baby isn’t just about the cuddle factor. If it were, you could read baby the telephone book, and they’d love it just as much as a picture book. Nor, sadly, will it ensure that your child grows up to be a genius. But it will give them a good start.
Visualising creates new neurons in the brain – mental muscle building.The earlier you start the better the result. But don’t start with War and Peace, or even expect them to like every picture book. My grandson didn’t like Pete the Sheep at all. It’s easy to see if a baby doesn’t like a book. They kick it, cry or try to eat it – or all of the above. Pete the Sheep is fun for two-year-olds, who laugh when you do the ‘woof woof’ and ‘baa’ sounds. Then I opened Dinosaurs Love Cheese – instant hit, partly for the bright colours, partly because there is a baby pictured on each page.
Thumbs up from my grandson!
Babies identify with babies. They like bright colours and wide smiles.They don’t like big hats or hair that disguises those smiles. But they can also be distracted. There is a page in Dinosaurs Love Cheese where the tigers are camouflaged in the pizza parlour. My grandson gave a cry of triumph when he first realised they were there, and waved his hands and crowed every time we came to that page again. He understood the story, too – or, rather, that it was a story, even if there was a lot he missed.
Adults often assume that babies don’t understand much of their speech because babies can’t talk. You try talking with no teeth and a tongue you only started really working with five months ago.
Babies lack vocabulary. Don’t expect them to know what you mean by volcano unless you live below one and it’s been breathing ash. But they understand the flow of words, the differences between a conversation and a remark. And – at two or three months’ old at least – understand that you are reading them a story, a tale connected to the marks on the page that you are pointing at.
How to read to a baby:
Choose a baby-friendly book
Bright clear colours and, preferably, a baby and lots of smiles. They can be tiger smiles or human smiles, but the eyes should smile as well as the mouths.
Repetition is ideal
Go for repetition, rather than ABC or counting books that are usually unrelated episodes. You want your child to understand the idea of ‘book’ and story i.e. consecutive text and ideas, one page leading to another. ABC and counting books can wait till they can make their own.
You and baby both, where you can both see the book and it won’t strain your wrist. Sitting on a sofa works when kids are old enough to sit next to you or on your lap. But with smaller kids try both of you lying on your tummy on a blanket on the floor, or baby lying and you with the book propped comfortably sitting beside them.
N.B. If knees are creaky make sure there is a chair next to you so you can hoist yourself up.
Let the babies choose their own books
They’ll tell you if they’re bored: mutter, yell, look away. But if they start beating their toes in rapt delight, you’ll know this is the book for them. Most of the time, let ALL kids choose their own books. Yes, guide them, extend them but, if they are bored, let them read another book instead, just as we do as adults.
Don’t worry about sticky fingers and baby dribble
Babies are more precious than books. Even if it is your first edition, signed copy, it will be better with a dribble mark too. In twenty years, or thirty or forty, you’ll find that the dribble is more precious than the signature, as you remember the joy of reading, just you two, at the beginning of a magic life.
Writing tips: How to get Published
Step 1. Finish your book
Yes, publishers DO accept books that haven' t been finished- but only if you are a cricket legend, famous author, or an ex-President of the United States.
Step 2. Read your book again
Ask yourself WHY anyone will want to read beyond page one, beyond chapter one and why they'll want to keep on going. No one keeps reading a book just because it's beautiful writing. They have to want to know what will happen, or how, or really enjoy being with the characters or fascinated by that particular world you have created.
Step 3. Rewrite your book
If you're not honest enough to admit it could be better if you rewrote it, you're not yet a professional writer. Professionals work at their writing. Amateurs zap off a book and cross their fingers.
Step 4. Don't send your story to your favourite author and ask if they can get it published for you
They can't. Each book is accepted on their own merits and a covering letter from an author won't help. Authors aren't experts on what books will sell- they are experts in writing their own type of books. The decision to accept a book is taken by experts in editing and marketing. Most writers get asked at least six times a week to look at people's stories or help get them published. It takes hours to assess even a very short story, and several days at least to assess a book. And most people just want to be told 'hey, your story is brilliant' even if it isn't. There are manuscript assessment agencies who CAN help you get your story into shape- for a fee.
Contact the Writer's Association in your nearest capital city, or the Australian Society of Authors. They may also be able to tell you about writing workshops too, or mentoring schemes. Of course you can see if your favourite writer will be your mentor- officially or unofficially. But all writers have only two hands, one brain and 24 hours in a day, and there's a limit to what they can take do .and sometimes it really hurts to have to say 'no.' Nor will the publishers take much notice no matter how much your mentor loves your book. It will still go through the assessment proves that everyone faces. The only exception to this is if you are a celebrity and your name will sell the book even if it is lousy. Actually most celebrity’s books are excellent, if their celebrity has come from hard work and brilliance. If it has been achieved by being born rich/royalty/ arrested for an interesting crime, you may or may not be able to write well. If not, you will be offered a ghost writer- as long as your name will really sell.
Step 5. Browse through a bookshop and see who is publishing your sort of book, and send it off to that publisher
Publishers will tell you to only send it to one publisher at a time, but you can send it to as many as you want to. the first one to accept it, gets it!
Step 6. Look on the publishers’ web sites
They will tell you what they are looking for, and what days you can ‘pitch’ your book by sending them whatever they request, whether it’s a synopsis or a few chapters or the whole book.
Step 7. Be patient
There will be many, many submissions to each site. You probably won't hear for months- maybe even 18 months or more.
Step 8. If it's rejected, work out how you can make it better
Even if it is brilliant and the publishing house only rejected it as they thought that type of book wouldn’t sell, it CAN be improved.
Step 9. Join your local writer’s centre
They will have information on which publishers are looking for the kind of book you write. They may also have days or workshops or festivals where editors from publishing companies will assess your manuscript and tell you:
a) that they’d love to publish it
b) what you might do so it can reach publishable stage.
An experienced editor will give you the best feedback possible. Take it.
How long is a book?
Dunno. But it's MUCH easier to write a short book, so that's what most would be writers attack first. It will need to be a brilliant short book to stand out from the crowd.
How do you know if your story is any good or not?
Dunno that either. EVERY writer thinks their story is great when they have finished it, just like every mum thinks her kid is the best and the brightest, even if they have the brains and beauty of Horrie the Slug.
I reckon that if I have tears in my eyes when I reread the story, it's okay. They don't have to be sad tears -- you can cry because something is funny or true.
Also the more work you have put into it, the better it is likely to be. If you read your book out to a class of kids and they enjoy it, it doesn't mean it's a great story -- just that they'd rather listen to a story than do maths!
Also most stories sound good when they are read aloud, as the reader puts in life and expression. A better test is if they'd rather read your story than watch their favourite tv show. Yeah, I know this is a hard test, but it's one of the best ways of knowing whether you're onto a winner.
Age range: 10+
The 'author is terrified and needs to explain this book to everyone’ book is about to be published.
It is set in Judea, in 72AD, as the Roman army move like bloodthirsty locusts swarm through the land. Two girls, an old woman, a Roman slave left for dead and a goat shelter in a store cave.
All of which is fiction. But interwoven are the memories of the old woman of her childhood in Nazareth and marriage in Jerusalem, and a woman called ‘Maryam’. And these parts of the book are based on decades of study and research of possibly the most famous but least known woman in history, be she known as Mariam, Maryam, Maria or Mary.
Which is what terrifies me. This book is set before the Christian gospels were written, apart, possibly, from the letters; before Islam, and in a time of turmoil, with young protagonists who would not know or be able to perform the duties of their religion.
It is a book about a central religious figure, but without the religion most readers will expect. It's not there because much of it had not yet been formulated.
But Mary/Maryiam of Nazareth took what might have been the most tragic story in the world, and made it one of joy, a woman of extraordinary courage, a teacher, and very much an historical person that we know of from primary as well as secondary sources. Her life can also be seen as testimony: like so many history has dismissed or diminished, thus woman was never 'just a girl’.
Age range: 14+
World War I is over, but can there ever truly be peace?
Sophie Higgs, Australian heiress, faces the revolutionary turmoil of Europe to rescue her fellow student, Hannelore, the Prinzessen von Arneburg.
And what of the mysterious Miss Lily? Can she ever return?
Even love seems impossible, as the women who helped win the war are expected to forget all they achieved on the battlefields. Sophie is torn between her very different feelings for Nigel, Earl of Shillings; Dolphie, patriot and enemy; and ‘John’, the man who carves stone crosses on Sophie’s Australian property for every man who has died under his command.
This is the second in the Miss Lily series, a cross, perhaps, between James Bond and Downton Abbey, as well as following not just the changing role of women, but how we see ourselves.
Age range: 8+
Barney Bean now has his dream, his own farm. But when Elsie suddenly falls desperately ill, the secret of why she will not speak is revealed.
This story reveals more of the secrets of our past: the French invasion ordered by Napoleon, and the women like Jeanne Barre who disguised themselves as men to take part in great scientific adventures on voyages across the world.
Age range: 11+
This is the best book I have written and the most deeply important. It is a book that matters – and I have never said that about my work before.
Goodbye Mr Hitler is the third in the loose trilogy that began with Hitler’s Daughter and Pennies for Hitler. It is the story of Johan; of Heide, who has now become Helga Schmidt; and Georg’s mother.
The book still has too powerful a hold on me to write about it – if I could summarise it I wouldn’t have needed to write the book. Perhaps this quotation from the last chapter might say what I can’t about the book and why it is one that so many need to understand, now, today, before the world begins another insane spiral that, as an historian, I recognise too well:
The world has many ogres. Some, like Mr Hitler, do not even know that they are ogres, but dream they are the hero of the story.
But I have learned this in the years since I was ten years old: when you see injustice, stand beside each other and seize your spears. My spears are made of words. Yours may be different. But do not hesitate or look away. If too many look away, the ogres win. To be mostly deeply human we must risk our lives for others. Only when we stand together can we be truly free.
It is not easy fighting ogres. No one who fights an ogre comes away unscarred, even if you cannot see the wounds. And so you owe the ogre hunters this.
When the ogre has been vanquished, sit down upon the quiet earth and try to understand the ogre’s anguish and his twisted fear. Only by understanding can we stop them rising in our midst.
When you understand, forgive.
And then stand up, and live.
Age range: 12+
As grass dries and the hot wind howls, Gibbers Creek will burn. But if you love your country, you will fight for it.
Facing the Flame is the seventh in the Matilda series, a heartbreaking and powerful story of the triumph of courage, community and a love for the land so deep that not even bushfire can obliterate it.
Set in the late 1970s, this book tells the story of a small rural community suffering through a debilitating drought. When bushfire catches and spreads, the people of Gibbers Creek must come together to defend their home and all that they have worked for; a dangerous struggle that many Australians must face each year.
Lu Borgino has been recently blinded, but she battles flames to save a racehorse, even though her dreams of being Australia's first professional female jockey have been destroyed.
Scarlett O'Hara risks her hard-won life at medical school and the new love of Alex Romanov, to save a child.
Flinty McAlpine draws on the local knowledge of tens of thousands of years to protect her valley.
All the while Jed Kelly must escape not just bushfire, but the man who plots to kill her with its power.
There have been fires before, but not like this.
Facing the Flame is written for both teenagers and adults.
Some events this year are ‘possible’, i.e. not confirmed yet or details still being organised. While I’m travelling again now, my legs were damaged in surgery last year, so I need to travel with a crutch, which puts limits on how long I stand or sit. I’m trying not to let the damage stop me, but it does mean there’s a bit more involved in travel these days.
For bookings, check the terms on the website and/or contact Booked Out.
20 June: SEATA, Adelaide, SA
10 July: ALEA conference, Perth, WA
4 August: Shoalhaven Readers' and Writers' Festival, NSW
20–22 August: Melbourne Book Week events organised by Booked Out, VIC
8 September: Joint Laureate event, Brisbane Writers Festival, QLD
18–21 September: Events in Hunter Valley, NSW
June: The Month for Kiwifruit
This is the month that kiwifruit ripen, beautifully slowly so there is no hurry to pick them all — unless the birds want to eat them first. This is also an excellent time to plant kiwifruit vines.
Why bother growing them?
• they’re the most prolific vine I know
• they grow like Jack's beanstalk — an incredibly fast way to cover a pergola.
• they’re almost indestructible once established. We have been mowing the remnants of one vine for three years — and it still thrives
• birds prefer the green fruit to other crops— so an excellent bird distractor.
Where to grow
Most of temperate Australia — and with careful placement even in areas that seem unlikely.
Plant the seeds?
Seedlings often pop up in the bush, but you won't know which is male or female until they flower. Plant seeds or the a quarter of a soft almost rotten fruit in spring.
How to keep alive
Kiwifruit MUST have:
chilling — 700 hours below 7C
good watering for the first three years
mulch and water when the temperature is over 35 C for the first three years
a male and a female vine (or nine females to one male - but one to two females are more than enough for a kiwifruit addicted family and all their friends and birds. Avoid male and females grafted onto one vine - they almost always break down.)
If you've got all of those it's easy. (Well, for backyarders anyway. It's much harder to produce commercial quality fruit — see your local Dept. of Ag).
Train your kiwifruit onto a pergola, fence or up a tree in warmer climates
Be warned: the vine will get very big and heavy even if you prune it rigorously once a year — fences et al can well collapse under their weight. The first year prune back to the central trunk, with two main arms. The fruit is produced on this year's shoots from last year's growth — in other words, you get fruit from one year old wood, and anything older needs to be pruned back.
If you don't prune, you'll get a jungle that even Sleeping Beauty's prince wouldn't be able to hack through and rats love to nest in the tangles. Every winter prune back vigorously — if you've trained it properly the first year or two, you'll have lots of long 'laterals' growing out of the two main arms. Keep about half of these and trim them back to a reasonable length. You'll also need to trim back any new laterals off the main arms in summer.
I know this seems complicated. In fact kiwifruit are so vigorous that after five or six years, if you just cut it back to manageable size, you'll still have enough last year's wood and this year's shoots for masses of fruit. Just remember that if you do go for a very drastic cut back, you won't have any fruit next season.
Kiwifruit may put out suckers — these may be an inferior vine with a better one grafted onto it so avoid them. But if you know you have a seedling, a bit of root transplanted will usually grow into a good vine.
Most vines are grafted onto seedlings; I find seedlings produce good fruit (though you won't know which is male or female till it flowers). We also have wild vines appearing in the bush, the seeds carried by birds but as there are no other vines to pollinate them, I don't think this will be a major feral problem. (Hope these aren't famous last words.)
If you want to take a cutting — which you know will be either male or female — take a 15 cm piece of dormant wood with at least one bud; dip ends into hormone rooting powder; bury TOTALLY UPSIDE DOWN, with the base about four cm from the top.
In early spring dig the plant up again, and replant the shoots that have formed roots - the right way up this time.
Fruit should appear after 2–3 years; some authorities recommend picking before frosts, but I find that frosts tenderise and sweeten them. Don't wait for the fruit to get ripe on the vine though — it doesn't.
Pick and wait for anywhere from three days to two weeks for them to ripen indoors. The riper they are, the sooner they'll soften inside. If they don't taste sweet, they aren't ripe enough to pick and if they leave a furry taste on your tongue, they are definitely not ready.
Note: Your homegrown fruit will be MUCH sweeter than shop bought stuff; and will have more flavour too — commercial kiwifruit never seem to have much flavour at all, just vague sweetness and a hint of scent.
Pick the latest fruit first — kiwifruit are best stored on the vine. We let the birds get most of ours — the display as they try to balance and peck is worth losing the fruit for —and, anyway, a few hundred kiwifruit is more than enough for us.
Fresh with a spoon like an egg (kiwifruit peel is hairy and horrible, even in home grown fruit).
Dip in sugar syrup then dry - see 'Apricots'.
A bit of garden craft: Corn Dollies
Corn dollies were once part of a fertility rite - the last and strongest stalk of corn was saved to make an image of the goddess to watch over the harvest till the next year.
Cut the cob out of its paper, but leave the paper intact. Leave it to dry thoroughly.
Now turn it upside down, so the end of the stalk is on top. Take another piece of corn paper from another corn cob, twist it into a rope and tie it a few centimetres below the stalk. This is the 'head'. Now tie another strand half way down - and you have a waist.
From here on it's up to you.
Trim the 'head'; paint on a face; twist out plaited legs and arms or paint a skirt or divide the base into trousered legs; glue on a wig made of plaited corn paper or even dried tassels.
Hang up your dollies over the door or on a shelf where they can see who comes in the front door, to protect your home from harm - and ensure a fertile harvest next year.
(Note: corn dollies are also made from wheat stalks and heads; several grains are referred to as corn.)