Remember when you were young…

This must be the longest break from blogging I’ve had in years. I’ve been thinking about it the whole time, wishing I could just take that hour or so out and write, but it hasn’t happened. I have good reason for slacking off: we’ve renovated the whole house, painted every room bar one, most of the outside, replaced almost all the floor coverings, every door except one, and all the light fittings. I guess it probably doesn’t sound like a lot. We haven’t gutted the kitchen or anything, although we did replace the bathroom sink and both toilet cisterns. It hasn’t been a complete renovation but it surely has been a huge undertaking and the results are pretty good.  I’ll post some photos at some point.

Anyway, aside from that, which happened in the space of less than six weeks with a week in Thailand in the middle (we had it booked, we had to go!), I’ve also been working full time which has been a massive challenge. The work was relatively challenging although nothing  I couldn’t handle. It was dealing with the internal politics that took its toll. It’s the public service, typical really, but it’s been a while since I’ve worked full time and I’d forgotten just how carefully one has to play the game.

Part of a letter written in 1918 to my great great great grandmother. She seems to have been very kind to a woman whose son was killed during the war. Her own son was too. Nothing to do with this blog post, only that it captures a moment in time...
Part of a letter written in 1918 to my great great great grandmother. She seems to have been very kind to a woman whose son was killed during the war. Her own son was too. Nothing to do with this blog post, only that it captures a moment in time…

So it’s been full on, and I haven’t had a moment to even plan a blog post, let alone write one. I’ve had so many ideas jump into my head but I’ve been too busy to jot them down or draft something short to remind myself, so they’ve gone. I’d really wanted to do NaNoWriMo this year and try and beat my previous pathetic word counts or, shock horror, actually win, but no chance, just too much to do. The good news is that the renovation is done and the house is now on the market. I’ve also finished my contract at work, so in between job hunting and preparing the house for viewings, I’ve now got a bit of time to play with.

I got to thinking this week about the twists and turns life presents us with. Ever since I met Mr Chewbacca, my life has felt a little bit out of control. Not unmanageable or difficult, just a little bit beyond my grasp; kind of like chasing a horse but still holding its bridle. Life becomes complicated by relationships. But life would be nothing without them. The Dude has complicated my life immensely but I wouldn’t swap him for anything.

It’s bizarre to think about the hugely diverse situations I’ve ended up in so far in life. Once when I was 11 I stood around the back of my old primary school dressed as an Arthurian musician and kissed a boy.

When I was 18 I was fiddling with the car radio while driving after having had my license for only three months and didn’t give way at an intersection. The woman I collided with shouted at me and I cried in shock. My best friend’s mum happened to be there at that moment and took me to her place, which I was on my way to. My mum couldn’t afford to fix her 1979 Renault station wagon and we drove it around for months with the entire front panel dented in so far you could see the suspension.

When I was 21 I met a boy and had what can only be described as a religious experience, ending up randomly at his house somehow and not leaving until the early hours of the morning when I crept out past the open door of his parents’ bedroom as they slept. That relationship lasted six years.

When I was 28 I travelled through the Scottish highlands and was invited by an old man to become a weaver on the Isle of Harris. I reluctantly refused.

When I was 29 I met my mirror image, my soulmate, but I didn’t know it, and life has been surprise ever since.

When I was 32 I lay in a pool in the living room of a Vaucluse mansion and gave birth to a baby.

When I was 35 I tried to write and it just didn’t come out the way I wanted.

I am reading the autobiography of the father of an old friend at the moment. It’s not a masterpiece, just a detailed and interesting account of a varied life, a legacy of sorts, and it is quite inspiring. I find myself becoming so envious of other people’s ambition and drive to achieve. I wish I had that. It’s there but I can’t channel it outside of myself. I have my book idea, the main one, sitting right at the front of my mind, desperate to be written, and I know it is good, but it just won’t come out. Or perhaps I’m not making time for it. Yet again, my resolutions for 2014 will involve writing discipline. This time, I must succeed, as I feel I’m running out of time to write this book…

A life lived large

This is my granddad, Hector:

I’ve had this photo in my possession since I was 14. I did a family history project then, which was the beginning of my genealogical research. That was nearly 20 years ago now.

See the eyes? They were a bright, piercing blue; my son has them. And those pointed, slightly buck teeth? Same in my mouth. My dad got his black hair from granddad. Luckily no one else in the family has inherited that nose – you can’t see it in the photo but it was large and hooked. You can see the smooth confidence this young man exudes, he’s an open book.

All I knew previously was that this photo was taken around 1943 or 44. But now I know more.

“We went into town, got drunk, and had our picture taken.” This was 1944, at the end of granddad’s training for the paratroop regiment. He was 17. He tried to join the army the year before but his mother followed him down to the recruiting office, gave the recruiting officer a serve and dragged granddad home by the scruff of his neck. “If you must join up, you’ll wait until you’re 17 and for Christ’s sake, stay off the water! Get into something with wheels on.” This was his father’s lecture. He’d just returned from five voyages to Dunkirk. He knew what his son would be confronted with. And he knew how vulnerable being on the ocean would make him.

Granddad did get into something with wheels on, but only because of a slight tall tale he rattled off. Upon signing up at 17, when asked by a superior what aspect of duty interested him, granddad mentioned he knew how to drive a bren gun carrier. A lie of course, unless you count the one time he and his mate accidentally drove a bren gun carrier into an Air Raid Warden’s hut. “Which side are you on?” shouted the Warden. “Silly little buggers.” They were 15 and had no licenses.  But that was war, that was the way things went in London in those days. The superior officer was impressed and assigned young Hector to drive trucks. He had a day’s lessons, no real driving experience, and then he was put at the wheel of a first world war Leyland Lynx, a huge monstrosity of a vehicle that required some clutch skills just to get into the next gear. Which was a challenge for Hector as he didn’t actually know how to change gear at all. Luckily his superior and the mechanic were riding up front with him and taught him as he went, with 30 troops in the back, complaining all the way about the bunny hopping.  Off they trundled, in convoy with another truck, across from the far north east of England, Newbiggin by Sea, to Kirkcudbrightshire, just over the Scottish border further west.  They hit the notoriously bad weather in those parts, and the second truck broke down.  This is where destiny begins to show itself in granddad’s life.  He suggested to the officer in charge that they put the 30 troops in his truck.  And against his better judgment, the officer agreed. So now he had 60 troops, two officers, and the mechanic.  The others stayed behind with the broken down truck. The mechanic mentioned they might make up for lost time if they removed the speed limiter the truck was fitted with, and granddad liked this idea a lot.  They came to a sign at the top of a steep incline. “Use low gear”.  Granddad ignored it.  He took off down the hill, spun the truck and overturned it into a tree, the troops having abandoned it halfway down the hill and the mechanic hiding in the footwell. Broken gear stick.  Disaster.  He hadn’t even been in the army three months, and this was his first driving assignment.

So even though it wasn’t his fault, although he could have been more cautious, he was reprimanded and sent off to peel potatoes all day as punishment for two weeks. It didn’t seem much of a punishment.  He and his mate (he always had one with him) were on their lunch break.  They’d snuck off beyond where they should have been and were having a smoke and watching the planes coming in over the downs doing bombing raid practices. And suddenly they saw one plane land roughly and crash nearby.  Without thinking, they rushed across and dragged out the pilot and rolled him in the dirt to put out the fire on his suit, shortly before the whole plane exploded. They disappeared as soon as the fire brigade showed up, hoping their little stunt might go unnoticed. The pilot remembered them and pointed them out.  They were transferred to another unit, “got rid of”, sent back to London on a week’s leave with orders to report back to the CO.  Apparently they had been labelled as ‘good round aeroplanes’, so to their shock and confusion, Hector and his mate, who he refers to as Bennett, were sent up to Marlborough and then Leicester for paratrooper training.

There’s more to the story, so much more, but this is just a little snippet of my granddad’s extraordinary adventures, taken directly from his own narration on the tapes I’ve been transcribing which he recorded in 1996. Unfortunately, as I think I might have mentioned before, I got to the second recording only to discover it’s unintelligible. All is not lost though, as I’m going to try and adjust the sound with some software.  I am desperate to hear about how he met my grandmother.  All I know is that they met at a dance sometime around the end of the war and he told her he’d marry her during that first dance and she laughed and said there’s no chance. I can imagine that.

True or false: the ethics of writing reality as fiction

Just reading an article from the NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/17/books/review/Gates-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss about Janet Frame (NZ author, subject of Jane Campion’s film An Angel At My Table) and her book Towards Another Summer, which has been published posthumasly.  It’s not arbitrary that the book came out after Frame’s death in 2004; she deliberately witheld it, saying it was ‘too personal’ to release during her life.  I think this must have been done to protect the other subjects of the book, who are based closely on real people, as if you’re ever read Frame’s autobiography, you’ll know that she isn’t concerned in the least about being open and honest about her life.

So reading this article (which is brilliant, by the way, check it out), got me thinking about something I very often worry about.  My English teacher in year 11 (second last year of highschool before university, if any non-Aussies are reading this) was instrumental in giving me confidence with my writing and showing me the correct path to follow to improve it.  For some reason, I wrote a short piece about my grandparents and handed it in to Mr P (should I use his real name?  Read on…)  It was about visiting my grandparents, various conversations we had, just giving a snapshot of their life and surroundings, and I remember describing their ‘nicotine-stained hallway’ which I thought was nothing special (they were chain smokers) but which Mr P thought was fantastic.  I said to him that I’d always wanted to write fantasy for young adults, but was always criticised for being to ‘cliche’.  He said I should follow this lead, write from life, as exemplified in the story about my grandparents.  Suddenly I realised, that’s it!  Write about what you know!  Why didn’t I take in that piece of wisdom when I watched that episode of Degrassi Junior High when Michelle has to make a presentation and she’s afraid, so Mr Raditch says, ‘just talk about what you know’.  Genius advice!

I thought I was free and clear and would be a published novelist in no time… but sadly, another more fundamental problem arose.  How do I write about what I know and the people I find fascinating without offending them?  At first I thought the solution might be simply to change people’s names.  But I realised very quickly that the detail with which I wanted to write about people was such that they would be identifiable without their names.  I constantly struggle with this idea of how to make these characters known to others, how to show them for how interesting and entertaining they are, without defaming or exposing the living individuals.  Even dead people are a struggle – I couldn’t write everything about, say, my grandmother, without a member of my family reading it and getting upset; the truth is painful, even if it’s not your own truth.  Most people are more private than me, I’ve discovered, and everyone has their own truth which usually differs from mine – truth, after all, is often heavily influenced by perception.  I toyed with this idea of just using bits and pieces from different characters to create new people, new lives, fictional ones.  But the fact remains, at least in my head, that truth, reality is deeper, more interesting, more relevant and rather more entertaining than fiction.  Why write about a fluffy, cliched fictional creature when the real one is right there in front of you for you to describe in complete detail, whose story you can tell in full, not having to make sloppy assumptions and guesses.

‘Interesting?  Yes, of course, people LOVE interesting writing!’ exclaims Elaine Benes (Seinfeld), upon her sudden realisation that she can write product descriptions without help from her boss.  As funny as it is, it’s so true: so many basic things are realised too late.  So it’s the realisation that makes the impact, provides the impetus to act.  Things are always there, have been there all along, it’s just up to us creators to realise them.  I realised something just as obvious in deciding to write from my own life.  Yet, as I say, I’m still at something of a standstill.

It’s odd though, now I think about it – I’ve been writing from life my entire life.  From the age of 10, I’ve kept a diary.  Not an everyday, ‘Dear Diary, Today I did something incredibly mundane which is of no interest even to me let alone others…’  No, it began as ‘Dear Diary…’ of course, because, at 10, you think this is how it’s supposed to be written, and I had this sort of obsessive idea in my head that made me want to organise my life, record every moment, no matter how seemingly mundane.  I always knew at some level that I’d want to know when I got older, like a sociological experiment.  That’s why I’d make so many different time capsules, write letters to myself in the future, include tiny fragments of my life at that point – a plastic Kinder Surprise toy, an old Yugoslav postage stamp, a silk scarf that used to sit around the neck of one of my small teddies, random keys for long lost locks… In my first year of uni, at art school, we were asked to complete a ‘cultural nexus’ project – something that represented our own personal culture, whatever that was.  I made a life size bust with a long hooped skirt, all thin strands of metal wire welded together, and then the ‘dress’ itself consisted of layers of clear sticky tape running down the contours of the frame with various small objects embedded.  Our old front door key made an appearance there, dwarfing everything else with it’s thick, four inch long body.

So the point is, I want to capture lives, people, how life unfolds through time and circumstance.  I think it’s some sort of desire to prove that nothing is arbitrary, everything is connected and relevant.  But without exposing people’s bare bones, I cannot really do this.  Maybe I’ll write everything and, like Janet Frame, prevent its publication until after my death.