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May 2019: The wonder of the oldest profession of all

National Library

No, not that one.

An even older one.

Think of our most ancient cave paintings, or engravings under a cliff. Imagine the person carrying a torch guiding people into the darkness, explaining the images, the symbols. Without those guides, the true meaning of those images is lost.

Those were the first librarians. 40,000 years later (or longer still) librarians are still carrying that torch, leading us through the darkness. We may not live in caves now, but librarians still light the way through the mass of over information (much of it inaccurate, untrue or irrelevant) that overwhelms us.

If you are reading this, you probably don’t need convincing that libraries are important.

Libraries matter these days because of their people, not just their books.

However, the reason libraries matter is changing. When I want to research a topic, I mostly go to primary documents that have been scanned, usually on Trove but many other web sites too. These days I can usually do this in my own study – but those documents are in a library and the library has done the scanning and arranged the access so I could find them by Googling.

Libraries have books you won’t find in bookshops – but if you have enough money you can track down a copy on eBay or an online specialist bookshop.

The bounty of a library

The joy of a library is that it has LOTS. You can hunt for a specific book or subject or author on the internet and even download a copy for less than the bus fare to the library. But libraries have books you didn’t know you needed to read. And there is a certain magic in lots. Lots of books, pages, the smell of them, old and new paper together.

The people of the book

Libraries are for ‘the people of the book’. They are not places to go to meet new friends, unless you count a book as a friend, which I do. But sitting there surrounded by people who have a passion for words and knowledge and the beauty that both bring is a form of peace that comes from deep in our psyche. There are no tigers lurking over your shoulder at a library. You are surrounded by not necessarily good people (I am remembering the mother who refused to claim her toddler son as he tried to take a walker away from a terrified elderly woman) but by people with whom you have of life in common.

A library is a refuge

It is quiet and there is often coffee nearby and shelves of new worlds around you and old worlds that you have loved.

Sometimes it isn’t quiet, but full of kids or toddlers and stories, which is why in the last years of his life my father timed his daily visit to the library to coincide with story time. He loved to sit and watch the joy on kids’ faces. He’d missed much of that with his own kids, he’d admitted, focusing on work and football as a man of his era was supposed to do, but libraries allowed him to reclaim a part of that by giving him a small family of regulars to enjoy.

Libraries are places where the homeless can come for warmth and the coffee and biscuits and newspapers that some libraries I know provide for them, (placing the coffee and biscuits and armchairs carefully away from the kids’ section).

Libraries are places where the librarian has already picked out a book that the frail, like Dad, will want to read – or that he loved a year ago and might want to read again.

I know one library where a mentally ill man stands for an hour each morning, even in Canberra’s cold waiting to get in, because the librarian on the desk is the only person in his life who will endlessly listen to him as she stamps the books.

And for a child, a library can be a refuge from fear or a gate to unknown possibilities. To put it simply: a library is a place where good is done, and good is collected.

The gifts of a librarian

And if, increasingly, libraries have an online presence as well as a physical one, I suspect you need to learn the skills of a physical library to successfully find the path through the overload of information on the web.

Librarians know people, as well as books. They know how people use books, or might use books, if they were given a way to do it.

The library is also possibly the oldest human institution, and if you want to argue that churches or temples of worship are, most of those had libraries too. Books change their form, from manuscript to e-book, and libraries change form and function too. But I am betting that in another thousand years there will still be libraries. And those libraries will have books, books you can touch and will still have people of the book coming to discover them.

Wombat news


Not much on this front. There’s lots of grass and the wombats are ignoring us, which is just as it should be. They’ll be hanging around again after the first frosts, when there’s less grass, and it contains fewer nutrients.

Crutch Fu

Me and Mr Jones

By the time you read this, I'll be on crutches. Actually, I’ll have been on crutches for nearly two years, but this time I’ll be on crutches as a way of getting off crutches, and repairing the fractures in my leg and knee from the unsuccessful surgery that began all this (mutters).

It’s interesting being on crutches.

  • 50% of the population are lovely, helpful or offering to help.

  • 48% simply pretend not to see

  • 2% are actively nasty i.e. how dare someone like you pollute our hotel. (Mind you, it was only one hotel – the staff at all others have been incredibly kind).

There was also the security guy at the airport who told me I had to put my crutches on the conveyor belt, (I already knew the procedure as I travel a lot). I asked if I could have the walking stick when he just shook his head and grabbed the crutches, so that I fell hard onto a protruding bit of conveyor belt (and still have the bruises). Hope they got that on CTV.

The next think I remember is two lovely Qantas workers helping me into a wheelchair then getting me a cup of coffee. And I had my crutches back.

What I’ve learnt on crutches:

  • How to carry 6 books, 2 apples, emergency chocolate almonds, a book, phone, iPad and other necessities over my shoulder.

  • Also, that there are times when only a backpack will do the job.

  • Airports are the worst place to be on crutches. 90% of people are looking at the boarding notices or their phones and walk into you if you can’t move fast enough to get out of their way.

  • When to stand my ground, secure on my four legs, waiting for the idiot with two legs and eyes glued to their mobile to crash into me and I won’t be the one to fall over. (Must admit, have not done this yet.)

  • That I am deeply lucky to be able to do some of the work I love. That I am even luckier that it is done in a place I love, with wombats out the window and a kind man bringing me cups of tea.

Hopefully however, by the time you read this the problems will have been solved, and there will be strong and steady healing instead.

How to get your five year old to write a book

(You do the writing, they make up the story, and, if possible, they then copy it in their own handwriting, making any changes that they like.)

Question 1: Where will our story be?

At the beach, the zoo, a jungle, a spaceship, a mountain.

Question 2: Who is it about?

Are they a person?

An animal?

What kind of animal?

How old are they?

Question 3: What do they want more than anything in the world?

Now let's write out story.

Where will we begin?

Then what happens?

Then what happens?

Repeat till you get to the end five minutes or five hours later (if they are only five it will be more like ten minutes).

Now make a copy for everyone so they can illustrate their own book (or illustrate one page of it).

Copy again and you have the best gift ever for parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts.

Plus, the confidence that when you were five you wrote a short book. When your child is older, they will realise, they can write ANYTHING.

New books (and books out soon)

This is embarrassing. There are about six books coming out in the next few months, making about 12 coming out this year. This is not an excess of productivity but coincidence – partly because I couldn’t work much for the months of infection after the first surgery, and so projects were delayed, but also because the partners in some of the books also had reasons why they couldn't work on them for a while too. And suddenly a lot of diverse books were read, some of which were written as long as five years ago.

By Jackie French & Bruce Whatley

Age range: 3+

Out: May 2019

Happy Birthday Wombat

The latest the Diary of a Wombat series. It’s just plain, enormous fun. Look for the free activities, too, ‘pin the Carrot on the Wombat’ and the wombat birthday wrapping paper. I cannot wait to pin the carrot on the wombat.

Written with Bryan Sullivan

Age range: 10+

Out: June 2019

To the Moon and Back

This was really written by Bryan, the man who downloaded those first incredible images of Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the moon. To the Moon and Back is the story of the extraordinary Australians at Honeysuckle Creek, ACT, who sent men to the moon – and bought them back – a vital role that had never been made public till Bryan first write the book about 15 years ago. This is a new edition, and finally, we have added the astonishing contributions of the women of the Apollo program, which were kept hidden at the time.

I’ve spent much of my career putting women back into the history they have been left out of, but despite many hours searching, those women’s contribution remained a mystery to me, as the technical culture of the time was still too male oriented.

But then the first crack appeared, with Hidden Figures, and now … well, read the book. Those were extraordinary days, brilliant people completely focused and dedicated, inventing the internet (which others would take credit for, as their work was classified), biometrics and much else, all for quite small salaries, working for humanity, not profit.

Age range: 10+

Out: June 2019

Pirate Boy of Sydney Town

There’s a carefully hidden part of Australia’s history … for about a decade Sydney town was a pirate port, where farmers supplied the ships that raided the fabulous treasure-laden Dutch traders heading to or from Batavia. We will never know how many ships were destroyed, the crews killed, the ships sunk, but the situation was serious enough for Governor Maquarie to appeal for extra troops in case the French sent a fleet to retaliate. (Holland was then under the control of Napoleon.

Enter a ripping yard that also rips open a hole in our hidden history. Twelve-year-old Ben Huntsmore is the son of a ship owner, an only child who loves the farming life on his family’s estate, Badger’s Hill.

But when Ben’s father loses their ancestral home to pay a gambling debt, Ben reluctantly joins his father in a desperate venture to win it back, capturing enemy trading ships off the west Australian coast.

Ben faces not just the giant waves of the Southern Ocean but also Dutch guns, as well as unexpected treachery. Only the friendships of the mysterious convict Higgins and the young Indigenous sailor Guwara will help Ben survive, as well as show him the true meaning of loyalty and riches.

This book is possibly the most adventurous I’ve ever written. It also has a cameo appearance from Tom Appleby (now a prosperous farmer) and his wife and son and especially, daughter.

Age range: 12+

Out: July 2019

My Name is Not Peaseblossom

Fairies are cute. Fairies are sweet. Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream can have happiness and true love just by squeezing a little juice into their eyes, ensorcelled to love the first person they see thereafter.

Fairies dance and sing and play magic tricks and can fly around the world in seconds.

But there are drawbacks to being a fairy.

You must do what you are ordered by the kind or queen – and royalty in A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be capricious, just as they were in Shakespeare’s day, when the wrong words might have you chained in the stocks and rubbish thrown at you if you were lucky. If you weren’t, your head would hang on Traitor’s gate (after your innards had been pulled out while you were still alive).

And what if you didn’t want cute and sweet?

What if you preferred pizza to fairy bread and fell in love before the magic juice had been squeezed into your eyes?

What if you’d rather be known as Pete, instead of Peaseblossom?

I began the Shakespeare Series writing about Romeo and Juliet from the point of view of Juliet, adding scenes that might have happened, while staying true to the play. Ophelia, Queen of Denmark is Hamlet but with a happy ending and a lot of cheese – but true to the play too. Third Witch is Macbeth, but with no witchcraft, only pretense and mistakes – and a happy ending (for some, at least).

My Name is Not Peaseblossom is the last in the series, and the first from the point of view of a man. It’s a comedy, just like the audience laughed at A Midsummer Night’s Dream back when it was performed in Shakespeare’s Day. But like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, My Name is Not Peaseblossom has deeper questions at its heart. A Midsummer Night's Dream can be seen as tragedy as well as a comedy, how both mortals and fairies suffer under the whims of two kings, Oberon and Theseus and two Queens, Hippolyta and Titania.

At its heart is a question as relevant today as it was when the play was written.

Which would you rather have, real life or faked happiness?

Whether we choose to spend all our free time on vicarious adventures with a DVD or flower drops in our eyes to give everlasting love?

Do we want to face the problems the world faces, or even the heartbreak of our friends, or stay in happy ignorance?

By Jackie French & Bruce Whatley, concept by Ben Smith Whatley

Age range: 3+

Dippy is a delight, a picture book with Bruce Whatley based on an idea by his son Ben, based 100,000 years ago in the age of megafauna.

Age range: 7+

The fourth book in the Secret History series, is possibly the most real account of the Vinegar Hill rebellion you will find, and hopefully the most exciting as well as accurate. (Tip: Major Johnson lied about what happened that day, as he broke the law and would have been liable for prison or even hanging in Britain. Also, we may already be a republic….)

Age range: 14+

Out: April 2019

The next in the Miss Lily series The Lily in the Snow is enthralling, exciting and unpredictable – The Crown crossed with James Bond but with deeper history. Sophie, now Countess of Shillings, Nigel and Miss Lily are blackmailed by Hannelore to travel to Germany to meet the man the Prince of Wales thinks may bring peace to Europe – Adolf Hitler.

It is not easy for an author to write down the racist words of Hitler, or those of the poor foolish Edward, Prince of Wales, corrupted by both too much power and too little, but they are necessary to show how lies can eat the truth, in 1929 as in today.

Illustrated by Anne Spudvilas

Age range: 8+

Out: March 2019

When the War is Over with Anne Spudvilas is so moving I cannot read it without tears at the beauty Anne has created. It is not about wars, but the endings of those wars, from 1918 until today.

Now the war is over

And they say the world is free,

Though somewhere guns are snarling,

You've come back to me.

War may never truly end, but there can be homecomings.

Schedule for the next six months

The schedule just now has now changed slightly to:

  • a Wodonga Library visit in Book Week in August

  • a visit to Brisbane in September

  • the Romance Writers Conference in Melbourne in October

but everything else depends on how the surgery goes.

I should know by the end of May what other things I can take on, but I won’t be able to fly for longer than about an hour or drive for more than two hours till the end of the year, and won’t be able to drive till the end of July.

The May Garden: Autumn Glories

Persimmon tree

Autumn is the gentle time in Australia. Spring can suddenly present you with a frost that withers the new shoots and tomatoes, but autumn is mostly blue skies. Autumn rain is usually gentle, the great thunder heads of summer gone.

As I write this, the persimmons are ripe, big fat orange fruit, and the leaves are just turning orange. In a few weeks they’ll be stunning, a tree like a blaze of fire, with leaves that will drop to an almost perfect circle on the ground. I only rake them after they have turned brown. The persimmons will still be hanging like orange globes on the bare tree, unless the birds have eaten them, which they probably will – but then the birds are even more beautiful than the fruit.

The pomegranates are round and gorgeous too, big fat red and yellow fruit. The pomegranate leaves have turned bright yellow and the sugar maples have turned bright red.

ripening pomegranate

You need cold night and warm days and little wind for the best autumn colours, as well as a good wet summer. We’ve had that all right and the autumn colours are the most stunning I have ever seen.

If your climate is too warm for traditional autumn leaves, you may still be able to get some autumn colour with crepe myrtles, both the brilliant purple, mauve, pink or white blooms and the reddish orange leaves.

Old-fashioned Crepe Myrtle varieties were prone to mildew in warm and humid climates – or even if it wasn’t particularly warm and humid. Modern varieties both bloom longer and are pretty much disease free, no matter what the weather throws at them.

I inherited an old Crepe Myrtle when we bought our place, and a hideous straggly multi stemmed bush it is, with vaguely pink blooms almost hidden by the branches. But the new varieties I planted about five years ago are one of the most stunning features of our autumn garden

You can prune Crepe Myrtles to keep them as low shrubs, but if you let them grow tall to their natural 3-6 metres high they have smooth mottled trunks, one of the most beautiful barks you can find in the backyard.

Crepe Myrtles require little care to keep them lovely. Prune off spent flowers in winter, if you get around to it. If you don’t, they’ll eventually turn into small, crisp debris that blows away in the wind. Do prune off small low twiggy branches though, to keep the smooth ‘top model perfect’ slim crepe myrtle shape.

Older varieties tended to sucker, so you ended up with a big bushy mass instead of an elegant shape. Be firm if your crepe myrtle shows any tendency to sucker and snap off suckers at once. Sucker-bushes can become so shaggy that even the flowers look messy, instead of one of the highlights of the autumn garden.

Crepe Myrtle flowers seem to jump at you. One day it’ll be an unremarkable green tree; the next there’ll be a brilliant blaze of blooms. The new varieties flower for months, from early autumn well into winter. Make sure you plant them where you can see the tops of the trees as the plant grows taller. In cold areas, plant them near a warm sunny wall or in a sheltered courtyard, as they don’t like cold winds.

In , you’ll get the most brilliant of autumn blooms, colour without fuss for decades in almost any garden in Australia.

Some Matilda Recipes

I’ve just finished writing the last in this part of the Matilda Saga. This book covers 1869-1989, and answers the many questions readers have had about Jed, Scarlett, Auntie Love, Sam… and many others. Like all the books, but even more so, it is a love song to a land and to its people. And (naturally) it has a lot of food in it, from the banquets of Rosemere to the bush magic of drover Mrs McIntyre, ex cook (or kitchen maid) at Government House. Food is one of the best ways of giving a taste of the time, the place and the person.Each chapter in this book (the name won’t be released for a few months) starts with bush lore, or a recipe. So here are some of them, as a taster of the book to come...

From the Notebook of Maria Fitzwilliam

The yellow flowered yam daisy looks similar to a dandelion, but with wider spaces between its petals. The leaves are slender. The seeds are sown after fire by native women and can cover many acres. They are delicious baked, sweet and slightly salty, and make a most excellent soup.

Kurrajong is a native name for several species of native trees. The seeds may be roasted, or ground into an excellent flour for general use and I have been told the roots are also eaten. The name derives from the native word for ‘fishing line’. The bark is soaked for several weeks so the long fibres can be separated and woven for many purposes. It has great potential in agriculture as I have been told its foliage may also be cut and fed to cattle.

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