A Red Christmas
The sky is grey, the sun is red, the paddocks and animals a uniform dusty tan. Our house is perched between two vast bushfires, too large to control, yet the firies and whole community are quietly battling on. For now, the easterly wind will keep us all safe for — at least for another three days.
Meanwhile we give the wombats, wallabies, birds et al. lucerne crunchies, bird seed and other foodstuffs, and make sure there is the garden rock pool stays full of water. You know times are bad when a wombat, wallaby and black snake drink side by side.
But hard times can also be glad times – the Araluen kids’ party will take place this Saturday, and if Santa is busy firefighting, the elves will give out the gifts, and there’ll be one for each kid even if their parents weren’t able to make it into town to buy one. The sense of community has never been stronger, not just here but around Australia as people ask ‘how can I help?
We are used to the new normal. Invitations are given ‘bushfires willing’. It’s been hard on the kids who have seen flames around their home for hours, and the burnt animals outside. It’s desperately had for the volunteer firefighters, most of whom have been facing the flames for three months now. Many I know are in the seventies, or even older. Others are not even formal firefighters, but have known this land with the wisdom of many generations. They resigned from the Rural Fire Service in the past two decades with increased bureaucracy and cost cutting from Sydney, ordered by politicians who do not know country, or even rural communities.
But they face the flames again now, knowing where the wind will take the fire, what updrafts will control it, why the ‘change’ will come at ten to five, who lives up that track, are they sensible, and can the fire vehicles turn around up there, the deep knowledge that firefighting needs and Sydney take no notice of.
Will history even count the unofficial volunteers who fought these fires? Tens of thousands of them, from well-equipped and experienced farmers to blokes with hoses and women sheltering kids with wet blankets.
In the past two weeks I have seen six fire fighters leaning against the hospital walls, too tired to even go inside; an elderly man who is dying, slowly and in great pain, but who pushed his body to direct the fire fighting in his area once again. It was an impossible blaze - but they beat it. Without the vast local knowledge there wouldn’t have been a chance.
I have seen a kids at school do a joyous laughing rain dance, one of over 600 primary schools to join in, the teachers devising the happiest of memories to counteract the bad.
Children at St Bede's Primary doing a rain dance
Years ago an elderly relative told me that the bush needs drought. The land rests. The weakest die. The bush is stronger when a drought is over.
There is no excuse for the politicians whose negligence had brought us to the devastation of this year. They had been warned by firefighters, scientists, weather forecasters - and they cut fire budgets. There are no prepared ‘safe places’, just ‘the best we can find’. No prepared evacuation centres. Hospitals have fewer emergency resources than last year, not more. It took three months for NSW even to declare a ’State of Emergency’. The paid fire force in NSW is down 400 positions. The bulk of firefighting is done by volunteers or physically, mentally and financially cannot take much more. Neither can their families.
Humans are at their best with challenges. We are not good at boredom. The last 40 years have brought a plague of the superficial: shopping as a hobby, or even ‘therapy’; holidays tours to places people don’t know and don’t want to understand; binge tv watching, video games…
These fires are burning away the superficial. Strangers offer help on the street, or on social media. I have never seen our community more magnificent than it is now, many businesses going broke with road closures but still giving parties (bring a plate, fires willing) for their staff. Everyone is emailing, texting, sending emails, to check everyone is okay, or where they are, or what they need, or come to lunch on Sunday, because what we need now is joy, a knowledge the most important things in life continue: love, kindness, compassion, innovation to meet challenges, the optimism to know we can survive and thrive- and to pass that to our kids.
It hard work, finding joy now. But it is there, amidst the smoke. If you can, this season, add to it: give others pleasure, laugh a lot at silly things; give time to kids, because they need that more than toys. If you aren't a parent, aunt or grandma, give to other kids. Give books, or workshops at the library.
This is the time for all of us to work together, to find joy and kindness together. And, just possibly, our example may show our leaders how to follow.
The Newsletter (Or Lack Thereof)
Apologies for the lack of newsletters this year. The knee replacement from two years ago became infected and the bone from knee to ankle ended up with over 100 fractures. The subsequent surgery and antibiotic therapy have gone excellently, but I’ve also ended up with a fractured spine and other damage.
It sounds grim, and some of it has been. But it has also been a time of joy, kindness, friendships, contemplation, writing and wombat watching. I am lucky. I can do most of my job lying on my right side, and see wombats when I lift my head above the computer. It is also still improving, too, so we will see where I am in a year.
My early New Year’s Resolution is ‘remember to do the monthly blog’.
We are hand feeding the wildlife just now, not just the odd treat but the food they need to survive. Wild Whiskers doesn’t even try to bite me when I take it out. She has also been subdued by 6 tonnes of extremely large baby wombat in her pouch. It finally emerged last week.
I think the ‘I do not want to emerge and so I won’t’ attitude is genetic — Wild Whisker’s Mum’s pouch was dragging on the ground before she ventured out into the world. For a while we had a two-headed wombat, Mum eating grass at one end and the baby peering out of the pouch to eat grass at the other. Who wouldn’t prefer a fur lined conveyance instead of walking?
Phil is still the wombat Casanova king, with a smile of deep satisfaction every time he fathers a new generation of grey wombats. Rosie McBristles is timid but cute. And one day in a few months it will rain, and Wild Whiskers will try to bite me again.
The Matilda Saga is…not finished. Concluded is a better word, as now I go back to 1815 and how Gibber’s Creek began on the battlefield of Waterloo, and there will be short stories, too, about Jed and Scarlett and the rest.
But it is a conclusion. If I have done it well, the reader will know what every character will do, long after they have reached the final page. I love the book. I hope you love it too.
It is the story of our nation, told in a single sweeping love story, as well as the tales of women hidden in Australia’s history, from the English aristocrat Clancy first loved, to his ‘monstrous’ scientist sister, and Rose, for whom he would give up his inheritance and yet gain it all over. And as Jed Kelly finally brings all of these stories together, Clancy of the Overflow and Matilda Rose will waltz again by the river at Scarlett’s wedding, and the forgotten will be given new voice.
Top Koala (with the marvellous Matt Shanks)
Ages: All ages!
He is stroppy, furry, and he must ALWAYS be on top, whether it’s on Parliament House, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race, or the head of an AFL player...
All of Us: A History of Southeast Asia
(With Professor Virginia Hooker and artist, historian and cartographer Mark Wilson)
This is 120,000 years of Southeast Asia, our region, bound by the monsoon winds that make it the most culturally diverse region in the world. Children will study the ‘story maps’, older kids will read the poems that tell the story of a brother and sister across the centuries; scholars will pour over the timeline.
There was no one way to write a book to cover the immensity of the topic. This book tells history in six ways, all we hope fascinating and powerful, enticing the reader to the Teachers Notes and the references they will find there too. It has taken us five years’ collaboration and it is magnificent.
Books Coming Soon
Out: February 2020
The Ghost of Howler’s Beach is your younger readers, the first in a new series, The Butter O’Bryan Mysteries, set in 1932. Butter O’Bryan lives in The Very Small Castle with his Aunt Peculiar, Aunt Elephant and Auntie Cake. There is a beach, a skelelton, three kids playing cricket - and keep vanishing. Who are these children and why do they refuse his help?Butter is certain they're hiding a secret and he's determined to uncover it.
Dippy and the Dinosaurs (with Bruce Whatley)
Out Feb: 2020
You cannot, of course, have a friendly Diprotodon living at the same time as dinosaurs.
But we did….
Out: April 2020
Lilies, Love and Lies is the most explosive yet on the Miss Lily series, based on two long lost archived letters I uncovered.
Out: May 2020
The Schoolmaster’s Daughter is the story of the coming of age of a girl and a nation. The girl is based on my grandmother, the daughter of a school master, and though it is fiction, the most extraordinary parts, from the shipwreck to the treasure, are true.
There have been some shortlistings this year, and a million apologies for not acknowledging them. For some of the year I have been just lying on my side, making mooing noises. Please do not be offended, and know each one made an extraordinary difference to the pot of joy of life I needed to dip into at the time.
Schedule for 2020
This doesn’t contain everything, as the details of other trips away are still being worked out. But if you’d like me to speak at a school, festival or event next year, this will tell you where I might already be, thus saving travel costs. Otherwise look at my website to look at costs and booking agents, as well as some extremely handsome wombats.
I’ll also be in Canberra more often next year, and would love to do more talks there. It is our nearest large city but most of my trips there are to the airport.
24 February: A large event for kids in Brisbane, details still to come.
7-14 March: Somerset Storyfest
30-31 May: Judith Wright Festival, Mount Tambourine Brisbane
1-3 June: Possible talks at Brisbane Schools
23-26 August: school talks in Sydney for Book Week
The December Garden
Simply water, enjoy the earth’s bounty, and have a break.
Excellent Fruit Punch (non alcoholic)
Lemon and Garlic Butter Corn Cobs
Cheat's Most Excellent Chocolate and Macadamia or Pistachio Fudge
And just for fun...