Late November/early December 2020: Happy Holidays
Usually ‘happy holidays’ is a break from work, though (whispers) for an author, December and January are the months editors usually send large packages to be corrected for when they get back from the beach. (NB I rather enjoy this).
But this year ‘holidays’ may hopefully mean a break from 2020. The pandemic will ease, the vaccines may prove successful, masks will be worn, bushfires will either flare or be extinguished before they become monstrous, the cherries will ripen, and wombats will be fat, and I may even get around to mowing the lawn.
It’s been an interesting year. Everyone we know has had personal trauma added to the national and international ones, as if 2020 decided that we weren’t going to enjoy it so it may as well lump a truckload of disasters on us and get them over with.
I hope. But never will ‘happy new year’ be cried with quite so much fervour in our home before.
As I write this life is magic. The lyrebirds are singing and scratching up the damp bush and not my strawberry bed.
It rains at least once a week lately, as if on a timer. Three girls are heading up the valley to talk about why they want to be writers and how they might make their work professional; Bryan is boiling the kettle and about to make a cup of tea, and there are three kinds of biscuits I made two days ago waiting to be served
Later: One of the girls asked why I didn’t live in New York. I laughed and told her to look outside – six million roses, ripe cherries on the trees and a wallaby eating as many loquats as possible before the possums and fruit bats feast on them tonight. (Luckily wallabies, possums and fruit bats prefer large fat loquats to smaller ripe cherries).
But also the quality of gossip – and eccentrics, and people with fascinating stories their grandparents told them – is far superior in country areas. In cities you mostly mix with your peers. Here you meet everyone, work together in disasters, even if their bull broke your fences last week. The perfect place to be a writer. Also this is home, deeply and absolutely.
The Not Quite Holiday Season
For some reason a large proportion of our friends and relatives have birthdays about now, so holiday season begins on November 6 and continues till after the Australia Day weekend, though still can’t understand why we need a day to celebrate being Australian, given we also have 364 days to do so, and if we don’t feel like doing it then, why bother?
But to return: this is the gift finding season, but hopefully not for Bryan and me, as we are what museums and art galleries call ‘de accessioning’ which means we’d rather give possessions away than gather more of them, and there is nothing we need except possibly a house which will not burn down no matter what the extremes of bushfire, world peace, a reduction of C2 in world temperature, and goodwill to men, women, kids and wombats.
I’ve had fun getting the kids’ gifts though. Or rather one gift. The best presents to give to kids are the ones you always wanted when you were a kid, so this year (shh) there will be a flying fox between the trees, or there will be if I can find the correctly sloping spot with soft grass below to put it. We have trees in abundance, and also grass, but we also have an abundance of rocks, which turn out to be six tonne boulders when we try to dig them out. The flying fix is still provisional, but Grandma will be the first to try it out.
And for everyone else, books. And more books. A book is a six times gift as when you give them to the right people they pass them around, plus I get to read them before I post them. Dad taught me never to give a book I hadn’t read, just to make sure it was excellent all the way through.
May your season be full of cherries and sun-ripened apricots, real and metaphorical, with no storms or fires or pestilence, rea or metaphorical, and a season of pure joy.
The wombats are fat, but there are no new babies – last summer was not a time for mating, even though we kept the animals here fed and watered. Phil is still a darling, Monkey Whiskers scampers three times around the garden table in sheer joy at being given carrots, and Wild Whiskers still tried to bite the legs of everyone, human, wallaby or wombat.
Twelve Ways To Enjoy Summer
Take a book to a shady tree and read to someone, even if it’s just the dog. Or especially if it’s the dog. Dogs love being read to, and a book feels different read aloud.
Freeze tea or coffee in ice block trays to either add to iced tea or coffee, or to pile in glasses when guests arrive so they can sip the gloriously cold liquid as they melt, possibly with a little milk or cream poured over them.
Freeze a bunch of grapes to eat one by one (they taste like grape sherbet) or to add a few to chilled sparkling wine or sparkling apple juice.
Water in the cool of the evening- night scents are different. On very hot nights, water yourself too.
Play skipping games with the jet of water from the hose.
Put your feet up for ten minutes after lunch and dinner, unless you are very busy, in which case make it twenty minutes.
Look for Santa Claus’s practice runs in the night sky. Any excuse to look up and wonder is a god one.
This is the season of giving. Give something to someone who needs it every day, even if it’s just a smile you might not have remembered to give, or coins to a busker, or actually filling in the donation to that charity, and if you see a kid looking longingly at a book, buy it for them, or for their parents or guardians to give them.
Put out wild bird seed. This is a hard year in most places for wild birds.
Smile a lot. Smiling also releases pleasurable endorphins in the smiler.
Nothing made or offered with love has calories – Grandma said so. Life is too short to resist any deeply delicious temptation.
Nod politely to dogs, with reverence to cats, and don’t forget the animal treats if asked to dinner where some of the guests may be four footed.
Books to Buy for the Holidays
The Angel of Waterloo
Out: November 2021
Henrietta is a surgeon on the battlefield of Waterloo, at a time when women were not surgeons, nor, officially, on battlefields. She was born on a battlefield, will marry on the battlefield, lose her husband and hunt for love, change and a place where she can work in colonial Australia.
This is a story of how those Napoleonic wars shaped colonisation and the nature of our nation. It also tells how, at some times and some places, there was friendship, love and exchange of knowledge between indigenous and colonial women. The histories of tragedies and slaughter of indigenous people must be told, but these stories need to be remembered too.
It is also, of course, a story of the many roles of women that are only now being acknowledged, from Hen’s surgical skill to Elizabeth’s farming, Mrs Cook’ indomitable survival and Jessica’s deep indigenous knowledge. It is adventure, mystery, and above all love, for each woman in this book has her own love story, as well as love for the land on which this book was written.
Please read it. (I have never asked that before).
The Fire Wombat (with Danny Snell)
This is the true story of the small wombat who staggered towards us from the smoke at 2 am in last summer’s bushfires, and of the animals she led to safety. It is also a story of the uncounted volunteers, the hope and the renewal.
The Schoolmaster’s Daughter was released earlier this year – I’m not quite sure what crisis was occurring just then. I love the book, which I don’t say about all my books. Each review has focused exactly on the heart of the book, and why I wrote it – a coming of age for a girl, and a nation, where our nation’s first law was of racial division, forcibly removing Pacific Islanders who came as slaves, adventurers or indentured workers for decades to Australia, and their children for whom Australia was home. It’s about the fight for education for those with a dark skin as well as for women; how books can light a future; how battles might take decades to win, but we do, eventually, get there, or at least much further on the path.
It’s also the stories of my grandmothers, combined. And even the shipwreck, the secret school, and the treasure on the beach, are true.
Pandemic (with Bruce Whatley)
Out: November 2020
Scholastic Books had what we thought might be the final book in the Disaster series ready to go to print – Earthquake. Then the pandemic hit. So while Bruce was in quarantine for a fortnight to be able to see his mother in South Australia, we created this, and Scholastic books edited and designed it with similar sped and dedication. It will be out soon, and there have already been overseas rights sales. It is the story of the 1918-1921 Spanish Flu pandemic, and again a true story, about my great grandmother, as well as the two heroes of a pandemic that finally vanished across the world: kindness and quarantine. Luckily we still have both those gifts to help us now.
We were going to bring out another this year in the series ready to go to print – Earthquake. but this seemed urgent. I wrote it in a week. Bruce was quarantined in a hotel for a fortnight to see his ill mother in SA, and all he had were a few coloured pencils and hotel pens - and in that fortnight he used those to create artwork unlike any of his others, because he never had to work with just hotel pens and a few coloured pencils. It is the story of hope and help and happiness — even in a pandemic.
The Ghost of Howler's Beach (The Butter O'Bryan Mysteries)
Adventure, The Depression, mysterious kids who vanish from a beach, The Very Small Castle and Aunts Cake, Peculiar and Elephant who I love dearly, as does the hero, Butter O’Bryan. The sequel will be out next year.
Great fun, and I hope deep insight into our past too.
The Early Summer Garden
Plant, plant and plant again. Seasons like this come rarely. Be extremely, totally extravagant and plant all you can afford and have space for and ask Santa Claus for the rest. Plant seeds of your favourite trees to grow to give to schools or to plant in unloved public places.
November is the time to evaluate what you’ve planted, and what you need to plant. Do you have enough carrots, parsnips, and celery to last a year?
Have you put in enough tomatoes, watermelon and zucchini?
Are you continuing to put in successions of corn, beans, and lettuce?
Plant more Beans whenever the last lot flower; corn and lettuce every three weeks; radish every month; and cabbage whenever you remember.
I usually stick in another lot of cucumbers and zucchini in December in case early plantings are hit by powdery mildew. Plant them well away from the first lot, with a tall crop like corn in between if you can. Plant another large lot of corn now too, so you have some to store for winter.
Most winter crops and all-rounders will have gone to seed; broad beans and peas will be fruiting; early silver beet can be snipped small and young; mignonette lettuce sown in August will be ready; parsley will be plentiful; dandelions will be leafy and sweet; and you can gorge on asparagus and artichokes.
Cherries, early peaches, early nectarines, early apricots, small early plums, Joaneting and Irish peach and lady Sudley apples (late November to December), loquat, orange, mandarin, citron, bush lemon, early Capulin cherries, lemon, lime, grapefruit, tangelo, avocadoes, strawberries, blueberries, early loganberries, Japanese raisin fruit
, lillypilly, and raspberries.
(An easy way to pick cherries, if you’re not going to store them, is to climb a tree with a pair of scissors and snip the bunches, then gather them at the bottom of the tree. This also tells the birds that the whole cherry tree territory is yours – not just the bottom branches. Otherwise they sit at the top of the trees and sneer at you.)
*Feed lettuce, seedlings, celery, silver beet and corn with liquid manure.
*Weeds are the worst problem now. Cover them with mulch. The weeds will die and turn to fertiliser.
*Sniff the roses down at the nursery – then buy your favourite.
*Collect and plant seed from your favourite bulbs, like daffodils and dahlias.
*Use a long handled ‘chipper’ to cut out weeds from your paving: cheaper and less toxic than herbicide.
*Put ‘fruit fly’ bags or netting over peaches, mangos and other fruit that might be ‘stung’. It’ll keep birds and possums off too!
*Scatter a good organic plant food around.
*Don’t forget the hat. And sunscreen. And mozzie repellent if gardening in the evening cool.
Check the wisteria, Chinese jasmine and kiwi fruit vines to make sure they aren’t invading your roof or dreaming of conquering the neighbourhood. Be firm and cut wandering tendrils back.
Five Why I Can't Garden Myths
Myth No 1: I can’t bend down
Solution: Convert your garden into shrubs, mulch and a few raised beds among gravel or tan bark paths where you can plant flowers, herbs or vegies without bending down.
PS You don’t get as many weeds in raised garden beds either.
Myth No 2: Gardens make me sneeze
Solution: Pollens and moulds make you sneeze, not gardens! Pave or have gravel instead of lawn, and go for flowers that don’t produce much pollen, like ageratum, alyssum, anemone, azalea, banksia, boronia, bottlebrush, many bulbs, cacti and succulents, camellias, correa, gardenia, hakea, lavender, leptospermum, magnolia, lillipilli, plumbago, rhododendron, roses, salvias, viburnums, weigelia, impatiens, pansy, nasturtium, petunias and phlox. Wear goggles and – if necessary – a respiratory mask when pulling out flowering weeds, mowing long flowering grass, using a brush cutter, putting out hay or other mulch that might have mould spores. Or get someone else to do it for you!
Myth No 3: I don’t have a garden
Solution: Sorry – you mean you don’t have a garden YET! Buy six BIG pots. Put them by a sunny window or on the patio. Add potting mix, plants, slow-release fertiliser and water once or twice a week. You can even grow your own tomatoes, coffee bushes, tea bushes, passionfruit or Italian parsley in indoor pots.
Many suburbs also have community vegetable gardens where you have your very own plot, even if you don’t ‘own’ it.
Myth No 4: I can’t spare the water
Solution: Trust me… unless you live with desert around you, there are plants that will grow without extra watering – at least once you’ve settled them in and they’re growing well. Try any cacti or succulents; geraniums/pelargoniums, erigeron, white or purple alyssum, daisies, large grevilleas, banksia, rosemary, lavender, any of the stunning flowering sages, calendula, petunia, gazania, tomatoes, Warrigal spinach, marigolds, tiny Golden Nugget pumpkins, floribunda roses, (especially white Iceberg), clipped bay trees, bougainvillea... check the label at the nursery and you’ll find many more.
Myth No 5: I don’t want to be tied down to a garden
Solution: If you want to travel, or family or work commitments make it hard to ‘commit’ to a garden there are still some very satisfying options. Most towns have community projects, from bush regeneration and Land Care projects to Friends of the Parks/Gardens, that are always keen to welcome more willing hands -with or without green thumbs. You’ll learn so much from working alongside more experienced people that any lack of confidence and knowledge will soon vanish! Many pre-schools and schools also welcome help with their gardens.
How Do I Grow a Choko?
Take a choko, any choko. Plant it so that the top just pokes out of the soil. A green shoot will appear, then start clambering over fences, trees and pergolas. Pick the fruit when it’s thumbnail sized, not big and coarse. Tiny chokoes are like tiny zucchini – MUCH superior to the big watery ones! The vine will die back in winter but should regrow in spring.
PS: Warn all friends and family that you’ll be giving away LOTS of chokoes. Also look up recipes for choko jam, choko chutney, chokoes with cheese sauce etc… chokoes are just a bit TOO generous!
Festive Furry Flexibility
For the first time there is a guest author on the blog, my dear friend and adopted sister Elaine Harris, who many of you will remember from her decades as an ABC presenter across the country. She is an expert on all things ‘ woof’. She assures me that her current guide dog, Whizz, approves entirely of this article...
Festive Furry Flexibility
We had to adapt Christmas, the dogs were allergic. Well, almost.
Take two people, thirty-eight years and six dogs: four working Guide dogs and two rescue German Shepherds. I can’t speak for everyone, but when most Guide dogs are at home (and certainly mine) they are allowed to be dogs and romp with the rest of the family - especially at Christmas.
Dogs are all different, just like the rest of us, and if you have ever organised any Christmas family gathering you will know that catering for those differences is part of the challenge as well as the fun, and I don’t just mean Christmas dinner.
You may just notice that many of the ideas here apply equally to children. Actually, people have told us our dogs are child substitutes or surrogate children, but we won’t go there.
When Chris and I married, exactly a week before Christmas in 1982, we were in full agreement on many things, most especially Christmas. We love it. We watch mushy movies, read Dickens, turn up the carols and revel in choosing presents for each other as well as family and friends.
We also both adore dogs so no bone of contention there. (Sorry!) Put Christmas together with things that go woof in the night and you get pure magic.
When we started out we were determined to keep Christmas using the traditions which defined our growing-up years, all except Christmas pudding which neither of us like much. A boozy trifle serves just as well – no pun intended.
The list included: tinsel, tree with lights and presents but no chocolate, decorations, turkey, Santa hats and crackers.
The crackers were the first to go. My first three working dogs were frightened of them. After serving as tree decorations for several years, we gave at least a box of them away. Although my current dog, Issi, (Usually known as Whiz), doesn’t worry much about crackers, we rarely indulge. We don’t miss them; we’re both capable of corny jokes without paying for someone to write them for us.
The next casualty was presents under the Christmas tree. They look great, I agree, and add a certain sense of anticipation, but they are too tempting to inquisitive noses, teeth and claws.
My first dog, Kati, taught us a lesson we have never forgotten. Despite boxes of chocolates and tins of biscuits being placed beneath the tree by visiting friends, Kate was interested only in presents intended for her.
When she thought we were too busy to notice, she would creep up to the tree, single out a parcel with her name on it and very quietly, slowly, stealthily begin to unwrap it. The contents made no difference; the same applied to toys as it did to treats.
That same year we were also brave or daft enough to hide wrapped doggy treats in amongst the branches, along with bells, baubles and other seasonal glitter. We were lucky. Kati would sit and look up hopefully but never tried to help herself. (Other dogs would have done and who can blame them.)
However, when the tree was removed and the usual pot plant returned to its place, Kate sat beneath it and cried mournfully into the foliage. “Where are my treats?” We laughed, felt mean but never did it again.
Speaking of the tree, where you place it in the house can make a difference to dogs who generally love their routine and can resent disruption. Our tree sits in the front window of the sitting-room; the same front window favoured by our German Shepherd, Allie, for monitoring the front door.
The first year we put up the tree after her arrival, “Bear’, as she was known, actually sulked. She didn’t want it there, obscuring her view. Her disgust didn’t last. Once she realised what the tree meant, she became progressively more excited until Christmas morning.
All our dogs have loved Christmas but Allie-Bear couldn’t get enough of it, ever. Like most German Shepherds cuddles were rationed on her terms but on one memorable Christmas Day she snuggled between us on the sofa as we watched a new DVD box set, then curled up on the bed between us that night. Bestowing such an honour was her way of saying thank you.
The reason we have never hung chocolates on the Christmas tree is simple: the weather. It might have worked for my mum and dad in chilly 1960s English houses before central heating became more widely available, but given our December temperatures it would be disastrous. We did consider it but soon dismissed the idea.
One UK Guide dog owner in the eighties was less cautious. His large, ever-hungry female Labrador knew her Christmas had arrived early when she discovered the chocolate liqueurs hanging in the tree.
Unaware of her movements, busy with his daily after-work routine, her owner only realised there was something wrong when he called her for dinner and received no reply. After careful investigation, the aptly named Jolly was discovered snoring behind the sofa, silver-paper wrappers scattered across the carpet.
They were lucky, there was no harm done; dogs, chocolate and alcohol should not mix. (More on that when we get to food.)
Finally, beware of puppies and cables. Pups will chew anything which takes their fancy. We have never taken on a dog during the teething stage but if you need to keep your pup and Christmas lights cables apart, I am sure you will find a way, even if it means placing some sort of decorative guard around the tree.
When a friend visited from the UK three years ago and asked, “What do you do on Christmas day?”, the answer had to be, “We wallow.”
And we do.
We have a definite present ritual on Christmas morning. Coffee first, then bring all the parcels through from wherever they are hidden before beginning the unwrapping ceremony. (We often break for extra coffee, to put something in the oven or answer the phone.)
We always begin with presents from friends, taking time to read cards and annual newsletters along the way, then move on to gifts from one another. However, in between unwrapping and enjoying gifts addressed to us, we have to make sure Whiz can join in by opening hers, either bought by us or sent by her admirers.
There are strict protocols to choosing, wrapping and unwrapping doggy presents.
First, and this sounds so obvious, know your dog. Small presents, for example, are not safe for most large dogs.
My second Guide dog, Dori, was utterly terrified (and I mean hide under the bed and refuse to come out even for a biscuit terrified) of squeaky toys.