Creativity through tears

I will not say; do not weep; for not all tears are an evil – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King.

At the end of April my world was rocked by the sudden death of my brother, Werner.
Beset by a debilitating skin condition for most of his adult life he was not the most of well of men, his unexpected departure from this world was nevertheless a shock.
Having no partner or children, my Mother and I had very little chance initally to absorb the impact of his death as we quickly dispatched ourselves to Hobart, where he lived, to organise his affairs and say goodbye.
While a sad time, this immediate period after his death spent in Tasmania was also a cathartic time. In packing up his possessions, catching up with old mutual friends or meeting new people whose lives who had been touched by him, I was able to update my picture of a wonderful, crazy, and passionate man who left us way too soon. That mental picture has become central to my sense of remembrance of him.
The initial grief period in Tasmania through exchanging the stories of my brother and the shared experience of sorrow, confirmed for me how unique the journey of grief is for all of us. I now believe there is no right or wrong way in going about this fundamental life experience.
I am well aware that as time unfolds my grief and sense of remembrance will also change, particularly as major milestones such as birthdays and holiday celebrations including Christmas unfold in coming months.
However Werner’s death has not been the only one. Unfortunately Death has decided to remain active around me although not quite as directly. Since my return from Tasmania close friends and other family members have joined me on the grieving journey.
With Death being so prominent in recent weeks, it is probably needless to point out that writing, either on this blog or the work in progress, has not been a high priority.
My brother’s affairs had to be sorted out (a process that still continues), family members to support and friends searching for answers. This coalition of grief needed each other and the space for creativity was simply not a high priority.
Having made certain pronouncements on my writing goals at the beginning of the year , I quickly realised I had to be kind to myself and therefore decided not to get stressed about the fact that my writing projects have taken a hiatus. This wasn’t the time to force the writing.
Deep down I always knew that the need to do my own writing would return along with the reappearance of the muse. As you can see it is slowly emerging, although only baby steps at this stage.
However the creative life has not been void in recent weeks. It has been somewhat more a passive than active pursuit as the creativity of others guide me through these initial stages of grief. Solace has been gained through looking at a art, listening to music, attending a concert, reading books or watching fine acting. This passive absorption of creativity has been fitting. For my brother and I the creative world was a mutual sphere for us and through these activities I have been able to find him.
Indeed I can say that the creative world has been a blessing.
However these recent experiences have prompted me to ponder on the impact of grief on creativity. I am well aware that for some it can hinder the muse, while for others it becomes a central aspect of their healing process.
As everyone’s ability to grieve is unique I therefore believe the combination of creativity and grief is an unique process. We never know quite how it will hit us until we are in its midst. I also suspect that how I am experiencing it now could well differ the next time I confront grief and loss.
One of the most poignant experiences of grieving and creativity I have ever come across is the experience of one of the my favourite composers, Nigel Westlake following the murder of his son Eli in 2008.
For the first 12 months after the event composing and creativity was the last thing on his mind, as he recalls in the CD notes for his work Missa Solis:

“Many things, including music, completely lost their relevance and meaning. I was cast into an abyss of grief and yearning. All plans went on hold, future work prospects were postponed or cancelled.” – Nigel Westlake, Missa Solis CD notes.

At the time of Eli’s death Westlake had already started composing Missa Solis as a secular mass to the sun, however by the time the work finally premiered in 2011 it had turned into a requiem for Eli. As Westlake recalls:

“When I finally worked up the will and the courage to revive my interest in composition, in the forefront of my mind was the desire to express my grief at the loss of my son through music.
As the pages of Missa Solis stared back at me from the desk, I saw within them the potential to further expand upon this material in a way that might somehow reflect the enormity of my loss. As I pondered the parallel between the words ‘sun’ and ‘son’, Primavera’s ancient ode, ‘My joy is born every time I gaze at my beautiful sun’ now assumed a portentous significance. Here lay the blueprint for Eli’s requiem.” – Nigel Westlake, Missa Solis CD notes.

Since then Westlake’s grief and honouring of his son has continued to influence his creativity which has included the beautiful song cycle Compassion created in association with Lior. A piece of music that has been a part of my own grief soundtrack.
As my own words finally once again flicker from the screen, I suspect grief’s impact on my creativity is yet to fully express itself; however I am thankful that green shoots of creative expression are once again starting to emerge from within me.
Time will tell where the juxtaposition of grief and creativity will lead me, however I am already certain of one thing. There is beauty through tears.
Werner, may I continue on the creative journey for both of us. xo

adult alone anxious black and white

Photo by Kat Jayne on

Posted in Cross Border Tales, Family, memoir, This creative life, This Writing Life | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Looking at war and conflict

Perth ANZAC Yellow Rise

Today is Anzac Day and like many Australians I have spent the day in contemplation and thanks for those who have served my country.
Despite the fact there have been limited direct action on Australian soil, it is nevertheless a very rare Australian family indeed who have not been touched by war.
There are those like me, who are descendants of those original World War One Anzacs or of the subsequent generations that fought in later 20th century conflicts ensuring the continuation of our lifestyle and society that I suspect we so often take for granted today.
Then there are others whose family background doesn’t include the Anzac tradition. Instead they are the descendants of soldiers from the opposite sides of the front. Their families having decided that Australia provided an opportunity for a fresh start away from their war torn countries.
Unfortunately there are those recent families who still have had to flee war and persecution. Some of whom are still waiting in limbo for that new life of freedom.
Born 20 years after World War 2 and with the Vietnam War already raging in the background, I recognise that my life and that of my family’s has been shaped by war.
I might have been a child of the Cold War but I also very much grew up in the shadow of both World Wars.
The family war stories started with the legend of my Great Grandfather, a veteran of the Western Front and whom, unlike two Great Great Uncles on my Great Grandmother’s side, did make it back to Australia. Unfortunately he died years before I was born but his stories that were passed down to us, nevertheless ensured his presence was still around.
Then there were my Grandparents who both joined the Air Force in 1940 just months after their December 1939 marriage; a Great Uncle who was a Rat of Tobruk and my Great Aunt and foster Mother (my complex family makeup is for another day), who worked in munitions. I grew up hearing all these stories and understood that the years between 1939 and 1945 shaped not only their lives but that of subsequent generations.
Through my Bulgarian foster Father and other family friends, the Europeans who decided that Australia was far enough away from blood soaked soil of Europe to regenerate their lives, I also grew up understanding the reality of being a refugee and how their experience also shaped my world.
It is probably somewhat not surprising with these tales swirling around me, that I developed an interest in war stories from a young age. I still fondly remember the first book I read featuring a World War 2 background – “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.” Strictly speaking, this memoir by a German Jewish girl about her childhood fleeing Hitler, leading to a journey through Switzerland, France and finally Britain, was set in the 1930s before war broke out. However to my nine year old mind even then, Nazism and World War 2 were seemingly synonymous. As a story reflecting on the impact of politics and war on civilians it was a book that was to have a profound impact on me, leading to my lifelong interest of the home front both in Australia and abroad. That interest has included a particular fascination with stories involving children and war.
That absorbed knowledge over the years either through family tales, reading or formal study is driving my latest WIP. It is probably of no great surprise that the themes of war, conflict and their impact should emerge.
With the family background and my intellectual interest in the period, it is probably of no surprise that World War 2 is a partial setting to the work. However not only are historical conflicts and political events shaping the work, the impact of terrorism on our 21st century lives is also making itself felt.
I am now as a result relishing one of the great joys as a writer, the opportunity to place yourself squarely in a world which until now has only been available to me vicariously. There is however, I believe, a balancing act in having this privileged position.
Although this is a fictional work the fact that my story is set in real time and place means I need to honour that. Consequently there have been times while writing that I stop and think about whether, given that I haven’t had a direct experience on what I am writing about it, should even be writing about it in the first place. I suspect, and hope, that many writers of historical fiction have this same debate.
This is where the legend and memory of the Anzacs and all the other experiences of war I have come across over the years have proved to be pivotal in helping me to reconcile that indeed I do have a right to do this.
Having studied history at university I am a strong believer that if we forget the lessons of the past we are set to experience it all again. Therefore I have decided that reminding people about the reality and impact of war, even as part of a fictional work, is an important part of ensuring those lessons remains alive.
Once the manuscript is finally complete and the story is out there for all to read, I suspect there will be others who will then debate about whether I have that right to write about such experiences. However again that is one of the joys of being a writer – to generate that debate.
If at the end of the day I honestly feel that I have made a meaningful contribution towards reminding us all on the folly and consequences of war it is really all one can ask for.
Indeed Lest We Forget.

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The power of empathy

As March comes to a close, I bid farewell on the period that is Mad March and my foray as a culture vulture.

For most of the month Adelaide Writers’ Week, the Adelaide Festival and the Fringe Festival have dominated my time. A wonderful way to have the creative well replenished and energised.

Now that these events have called a wrap,  I usually go through somewhat of a grief period. However this year the withdrawal process will be somewhat easier thanks to a significant number of new additions to the ‘to read’ pile.

In reading them I will be able to once agin ponder on the many wonderful words, thoughts and discussions that permeated, particuarly at Writers’ Week, making it the great event that it known for.

This year was no exception with an array of writers who entertained, provoked, delighted and/or pushed me to a deeper understanding of why writing and books are still so central to our culture.

In 2018 a dominant theme emerged from the diversity of topics covered during this year’s event. Empathy.  Not just by writers as they discussed their stories, but among readers as well.

So since then I’ve been musing on what is it about empathy in reading and writing that makes it so powerful?

First of all what exactly is empathy?

The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as the ability to identify with a person or object. However when considering it in the context of writing and reading I think the Scrivener dictionary definition – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – hits the nail on the head.

Empathy, I believe, is therefore at the heart of any writing and reading. In fiction however it is vital.

As a writer I need to be empathetic to my characters in order to achieve a depth and complexity in their creation. While at the same time I’m doing this I am also inviting you dear reader to transcend your thoughts, worlds and own lives to experience another’s.

Story therefore provides both us as writers and readers with a pathway to connect with the rest of humanity. It’s powerful stuff.

That central role of empathy in literature for me further illustrates the importance of books, writing and words to society and why ignoring them is at our peril.

In an interview with the New York Times as he departed the White House in January 2017, President Obama described how reading fiction and the associated empathy was important to his decision making.

“I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful…And perspective is exactly what is wanted. At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted, the ability to slow down and get perspective, along with the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes — those two things have been invaluable to me. ”

— Barack Obama, “President Obama on What Books Mean to Him,” New York Times, January 16, 2017

Given our current political climate where division and divide are increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception, just think what it would be like if all leaders were avid fiction readers?

However I digress. It does however lead me to believe that by promoting empathy, and in turn the opportunity to experience someone else’s world through writing and reading, provides a way to counteract the propaganda, misinformation and intolerance that is now so pervasive in both mainstream and social media. When we walk in each other’s shoes, it is harder to misunderstand or hate one another.

So as a writer I feel there is a sacred duty to promote empathy in my work. It also means that I am required to reach a level of empathy that goes beyond what is necessary for reading.

The best way for me to achieve the writers’ empathy is through the creation of my characters. While I’m well aware they aren’t real people I nevertheless need to empathise with them as if they are so I am successful in their creation.

It is why I spend so much time in working on the backstory as I need to know my characters inside out, consider their lives and their choices from their perspective. Ultimately I need to allow them to take control and choose their own path.

Even if I don’t personally agree with their choices I must be empathetic to that decision and direction.  Let’s face it isn’t that what a part of being a creative is all about, to push ourselves out of our comfort zone?

Once away from the desk and the computer screen, that writerly empathy, can then assist in our interactions back in the real world. It makes us more aware that others are strugling with the same joys, pressures and mistakes and in some cases their situation could even be worse. It forces me to consider how my choices can effect someone else.

Powerful stuff indeed.

Looking back at Adelaide Writers’ Week, words and their power is truly what this event is all about. To hear a group of wonderful writers to tell their own and others’ stories and all for free. We are truly blessed here in Adelaide.

As Australian author Robert Drewe mentioned while discussing his latest novel Whipbird during one of the Writers’ Week session. “Everyone talks about the death of the novel but you only need to walk into the book tent to see that’s not right. Fiction is very much alive in Adelaide.”

If that is the case empathy is also very much alive here in Adelaide.

Until next Mad March, happy writing and reading.

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The power of Shakespeare’s history plays

Kings of War_1920x1080 Shakespeare productions come and go but Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of Kings of War, surpasses everything I have ever seen to date featuring the Bard’s words.

The Dutch company’s triumphant return to the Adelaide Festival with this production that conflates Shakespeare’s five history plays – Henry V, Henry VI (Parts I, II and III) and Richard III, clearly illustrates how the themes of power, greed and war are still so resonant in the 21st century.

I had missed TG Amsterdam’s previous visit with Roman Tragedies in the 2014 Adelaide Festival but as with that production, Ivo van Hove has combined a thematic series of Shakespeare’s works that through his translation provides a new respect for these great plays.

It is a production that is both complex and simple at the same time.  The main stage setting of a modern war room, counterpoints to a behind the scenes warren of white corridors which through live video are relayed back to the audience on a large screen above centre stage. Through these stark settings along with the interplay of technology, scenographer Jan Versweyvel has cleverly projected us into a world of intrigue and murder. It provides a sense of watching the TV news until you realise that in fact we have gone beyond the main story and are for once privy to the backstory.

The Shakespeare history plays, set during the last stages of The Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses in the 1400s have long been regarded as part of Tudor propaganda, written to firm up the claims of the Tudor dynasty to the English throne. Whether such claims are true they nevertheless 500 years later still powerfully depict how propaganda and cynicism shapes power, priviledge and rule.

However Kings of War isn’t all intense and seriousness, van Hove’s pared down script and the stellar cast masterfully portray comedy and irony. One of the highlights is the interchange between Ramsey Nasr as Henry V and Hélène Devis as Catherine of Valois when the former tries to overcome a language barrier to woo her. There is also the nod to the current political climate with Hans Kesting’s Richard III’s imaginary telephone conversations to Trump, Hitler and Stalin/Putin. Kesting as Richard III and Eelco Smits as the tragic and peace loving Henry VI are the standout performances although this ensemble cast are on point all the way through.

In addition to the use of technology, the story is also amplified by the use of music with brass instruments creating a sense of pomp and ceremony and the tension and darkness that lurks all the way through, while countertenor Steve Dugardin’s beautiful voice transports us back to the 1400s. Another clever way of illustrating how the themes of propaganda, power, politics and greed are indeed timeless.

While I walked into the Festival Theatre wondering if I could cope with 4.5 hours of Shakespeare in Dutch (with English subtitles), I walked out mesmerised. This is indeed theatre at its very best.

Kings of War is a must see. Through this work Ivo van Hove has created a beautiful prayer for peace.

Kings of War is being presented at the Festival Theatre until March 13. For further information or to book visit

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Reading with benefits

sunset-hand-garden-book.jpgWriting time remains unfortunately as elusive as ever while work continues to be all encompassing, sucking up any chance not only for writing but also for reading.
However finding reading time, no matter how brief, has been luckily a little easier to come by.
It is through a recent reading experience that I have come across an element of this most wonderful of pursuits that I had never seriously contemplated until now — reading as therapy.
Like any bookworm I enjoy the fact that stories can take me to parts of the world that I am yet to traverse, or remind me of cities and towns that remain fond holiday ports. I enjoy the fact that someone else’s characters become, for a brief period of time, part of my life, breathing an existence of their own. There is also the opportunity in reading, to embrace worlds and activities one can only dream about.
Reading for me is discovering more about life and my own place in an increasingly complicated world.
One thing about reading that I never really experienced until recently is reading as a distraction.
During the heatwave that descended upon Adelaide earlier this month and feeling that one was at the gates of Hades, I decided to pick up my book rather than turn on the computer to write. I plead this was not procrastination and the reading was linked to my current work in progress, the heat sapping energy was making the brain feel passive than active so reading it was.
Anyhow I digress, having picked up my book in 43C heat I proceeded for the next couple of hours to reacquaint myself with one of my most favourite cities in the world – Paris – and the fascinating story that antiques can sometimes provide. Immersed in a world of auction houses, Parisian apartments and cafes and flirtatious French men I forgot for a brief while about the burning hell that was occurring outside.
A couple of days after my heat escaping read I came across a news article discussing the impending change whereby codeine products were to be only available by prescription. The article included comments by a chronic pain sufferer on the new pain management techniques he had implemented to not only overcome the change but to reduce his reliance on codeine. The new found methods he had embraced to reduce his suffering included reading.
This emerging theme of reading as a distraction came up again the next day while talking to a girlfriend about her stress in trying to find a new house at short notice mentioned how she spent the weekend reading as a way to calm herself down while waiting to see if her application for a new place would be successful. I am pleased to report she also got the house.
These three instances got me thinking… so what it is about reading that makes it more than just a pleasurable pastime and possibly something more transcendental.
Virginia Woolf once wrote that a book “splits us into two parts as we read for the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego, while promising perpetual union with another mind.”
In remembering that quote I immediately understood the importance of reading as a transcendental activity and in turn explaining, to me anyway, why reading can be therapeutic. I also now realise that I have unconsciously used reading for therapy and healing over time without realising the effect it was having on me. Yes, indeed story telling is powerful stuff.
Since this great dawning reality I have started looking at my fiction reading and writing in a new light. Is it my leap into mindfulness, placing me into a meditative state to process and deal with the world?
It seems that science agrees, with its own scientific field — bibliotherapy.
Research around the world indicates that reading can place our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, providing the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Reading has been shown to reduce stress by 68%, more than listening to music, going for a walk, or having a cup of tea. Readers seem to sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers. Now I know why I embrace reading so much.
Last year (2017) I came across for the first time the Australian Reading Hour. This year it will be held on September 20. It doesn’t matter what time of the day you choose but as long as we all find an hour to enjoy the beauty of a printed word. Last year I found my hour by turning off the TV and going to bed early. I really should endeavour to wind down like this more often.
The aim of the day is for Australians to either rediscover or introduce themselves to the benefits of reading.
Given a book tragic like myself has only recently realised the therapeutic benefits of reading, it makes sense why there has to be a day set aside to promote and encourage the benefits of reading for both young and old. Even if you have never been a bookworm in your life, don’t worry it is never too late to pick up a book. It is a journey, I promise you won’t regret.
As another’s words provide therapy for me, I look forward to the day when my own words can be a source of healing for someone else. That’s something for me to aspire to with my writing.

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A railway tale

As I come towards the end of the first month 0f 2018 I am already aware that my grand plans of focussing on writing this year is getting a serious battering.
I suppose one really needs to be a little more realistic when setting holiday writing goals I did however manage a couple of writing blocks, a fair whack of research and the reactivation of this blog, but that was it.
Then January came along with a series of emergency management issues involving fires and fruit fly. Not only did this cause an early return to work by three days early but also a three week blur of long hours and weekend work again minimising precious writing time.
I am well aware that I am not alone as we make the transition from holiday mode back to day to day reality as I became involved in many a conversation in various Facebook writing forums about finding that elusive time to write.
To my fellow writers who have taken to early morning writing starts I applaud you. Well done you!
Not being a morning person and particularly before at least one cup of coffee, an early writing sprint is currently a little beyond my abilities. Such a plan also clashes with my other grand scheme for 2018, to improve my fitness levels. This is particularly to counter the long hours already spent sitting at a desk. So any early start I have been able to muster so far this year has been reserved for the exercise sessions.
One evening last week however a moment of inspiration led to a combination of exercise and writing occurring in one full swoop. While taking a late evening walk Yours Truly suddenly came across an idea for a particular scene in the novel. I had heard how exercise can help creativity but I had not heard how one can take advantage of this moment and not lose the opportunity to keep up with the fitness regime at the same time.
However all was not lost. Realising the importance of capturing this light bulb moment, I flicked open the smartphone, switched on the microphone and dictated the scene while continuing on with the walk. While some might think it is taking multi tasking to the extreme, I did go to bed happy that night knowing not only had I made my 10,000 step goal for the day but also managed to add 400 words and a scene to the manuscript.
I should probably stop gnashing my teeth on my minimal writing time so far this year and look upon any chance for writing that I have been able to snaffle, no matter how big or small, as steps towards the my goal of a more focussed writing year.
So here I am finally once again able to fire up the computer, sit down, start typing away and tell you a story.
As today’s temperature in Adelaide reaches beyond 42C and the town seemingly in hibernation, it is appropriate to discuss a new form of story telling I have embraced recently – Slow TV – thanks to the SBS program The Ghan.
Despite no plot, dialogue or narration, I was mesmerised while watching both the three hour and 17 hour versions in recent weeks. To me it was story telling at its simplest.
While I didn’t watch both versions from woah to go, when I did sit down in front of the TV I found the concept absolutely captivating. Is it because it is just paring a story back back to it’s most basic or the fact that it is train travel lived vicariously? I believe my fascination might actually be both.
I’ve always adored train travel. From the Murder on the Orient Express, The 39 Steps, Anna Karenina, the Railway Children and others; I’ve loved the depiction of railway travel in stories. It is the thought, I suspect, of a captive cast who emerge to create a new world of possibilities, incidents and characters while the outside world rushes by.
As a young child taking various trips around Adelaide with my father at weekends on the old red hen railcars, I always had the feeling on the train that one was in a separate and complete world away from the scenes that flashed by the railcar window. It was only once you were back onto the platform would the two worlds merge.
Often freezing in winter or wilting in summer as you were stuck to the red vinyl seats the red hens nevertheless would take you out of your own backyard and allow you to explore the wider metropolitan area and beyond. I recall the joy of going through tunnels on the way up to Mount Lofty, playing with the the autumn leaves at Belair National Park, eating ice creams while walking along the beach at Brighton, Semaphore or Grange and going on the longer trip out to Gawler. In those days it was still a country town rather that an outer metro area and like the train journey to Bridgewater, it provided an opportunity to step out of Adelaide.
Yes train travel and I are like peas in a pod. It seems to be a natural fit.
It is no surprise that my first great travel adventure should be by train, although to be fair I should preface that statement by admitting my first interstate journey actually involved flight.
However there is something about your first great railway journey. It also now seems fitting in discussing my recent encounter with Slow TV my first great railway trip was in fact on the old Ghan – the Central Australian Railway – from Adelaide through to The Alice and included the original narrow gauge line from Marree to Alice Springs. That adventure is seared in my memory.
For little six year old me, going on the old Ghan was also my introduction to Central Australia, an area that was to play a further role in my childhood, although I wasn’t to know it at the time. What I do remember however is a three day journey north that made me realise how big our great country truly is.
It was December 1972 and I was part an extended family group travelling to Alice Springs to spend the festive season with family members living up there. This was the era when the Stuart Highway was still unsealed, so if you wanted your car at the end of the journey, the best way to ensure the vehicle reached Alice in one piece was via The Ghan.
A very early summer morning saw me walking through Adelaide Railway Station’s Marble Hall, holding Mum’s hand and in awe of the beautiful stonework, providing a calmness that promised great things. However the peace didn’t last long as one was suddenly became immersed in the hubbub of checking in luggage, making your way through the crowds to the platform and ultimately our carriage. There was a further burst of activity as conductors punched tickets, valets directed you to your cabin and rushed goodbyes were made to family members staying behind in Adelaide as the final call and whistle rang out.
Waving goodbye through the window, a little thrill ran through me as the train pulled out of the station, through the parklands, the northern suburbs and finally onto the mid north countryside. For the first time I was finally in a train that was going beyond Gawler!
My fondest memory of that initial leg to Port Pirie was my first foray in the dining car and being allowed to choose my own dishes (for a six year old this is significant). It must have been for lunch as I recall having cream of chicken soup. I know I was already a fiend of chicken noodle soup but this seems to be my first recollection of cream of chicken soup and it also seems to be the meal that fostered my ongoing love affair with pepper.
I was continually fascinated as I sat in the carriage lounge watching the country side pass by. Boredom strangely was not a factor here. There was something always seeking your attention, whether it was the ever changing landscape, being hypnotised by the ongoing thread of the electricity and telegraph poles and lines, observing one end of the train from the other while as it rounded a bends, or waiting in the siding as a goods trains rushed by.
After the change of trains at Port Pirie the clocks dotted through the train gained in significance with me as I moved through the carriages from the lounge to our berth and into the dining car. Whenever I came across one I would start to work out how long it would be before we reached our next stop at Port Augusta and onto our the change of trains at Marree that night. I was learning quickly that keeping a track of time was very much a part of train travel.
However I was also about to learn that in the case of the old Ghan keeping to timetables was not its forte.
The first inkling of this train’s idiosyncratic time keeping occurred just north of Port August while in the dining room having dinner.
Unlike the chicken soup of lunch I no longer recall what I was eating when the train came to a halt. By now used to the train stopping at various stages of our journey so far to allow for the passage of the goods trains past us, neither myself or anyone around me thought this stop signified anything different and we continued on with our meal.
However the longer the train remained stationary and without the accompanying rumble of a goods train passing by, it soon became apparent that this was no ordinary stop. In time one of the conductors came into the car to confirm our suspicions. This time the stop was due to a derailment of a goods train further north of the line. We would shortly be continuing on with our journey near to the derailment point and staying in the train overnight until the buses arrived in the morning for us to continue to Marree.
The old Ghan was once again showing how she was the mistress of her own timetable and not Commonwealth Railways. Derailments, from buckled rails brought about by the searing heat and floods that often came from no where to wash away the line, were a common part of life on the Central Australian Railway. I was soon to learn that it was a rare occurrence for the Ghan to ever complete the journey on time.
By the time dinner finished the train had once again set off and subsequently Yours Truly was packed off to bed to enjoy for the first time the delicious pleasure of being rocked to sleep by the gentle motion of the train moving through the starlit desert night.
The next day emerging out of the train in the morning light, we were all able to see the damage ahead of us caused by the goods trains. Twisted rails and wagons concertinaed across the sands. It was clear that our train was going nowhere.
This was also the first time I had step out of the train onto the parched country side and already the morning air brought the promise of the heat that was to come. It was quickly apparent the bus trip to Marree was going to be uncomfortable. This was before we even saw the buses.
A short while after breakfast the buses turned up. I can’t remember clearly the older family members reactions to what we were going to be travelling but salubrious they weren’t.
Our transportation to Marree was to be via buses used by Leigh Creek coalminers. While you could see a hint of the past lives as a part of Adelaide’s metropolitan bus network, they had nevertheless gone through a serious transformation in their new role of carting miners through the desert. All now remained was a ghost consisting of just the metal skeleton of the bus frame, the glass having been removed to enable as much air as possible to flow through.
My grandfather, realising that as being the youngest passenger on board the train I was going to need all the help I could get in making it to Marree. So as the transfer of passengers and baggage occurred he walked through all the carriages, obtaining empty drink cans and filling them up with water before stocking them in the bus. All I now remember of this bus journey was the searing heat as we bounced along the unsealed rocky road with my mother pouring water from the collected cans over me and constantly wetting the face washers that were wrapped around me neck in an effort to keep me cool. Thank you Grandpa for coming up with your great plan.
After a while we finally made it to Lyndhurst and the pub.
Taking a break in the shade of the Lyndhurst Hotel verandah, you could see the shimmer of the heat into the horizon as you looked out on the treeless plains beyond. It was at this point I fully appreciated just how unforgiving our big brown land could be. I was also grateful for the cold glass of lemonade that had come my way.
Looking out onto the sunburnt plains I overheard the adults behind me discussing the fact that while it was 42C in the shade, it was more like 50 degrees or more out in the sun. I didn’t doubt them.
However Marree still beckoned and all too soon it was time once again to rejoin the skeleton bus, the heat, the dust and the flies for the remainder of that bone shaking journey and more cans of water being poured over me.
On reaching Marree and sighting the train, we thought that worst of the adventures were over. The old Ghan still wasn’t done with us yet.
As we settled into our cabin we were advised by the conductor that the air-conditioning in our carriage had broken down and they hoped to replace it with one that worked. So for the rest of the afternoon the train shunted to and fro as other carriages were reorganised but for us it was to no avail. As our carriage contained the lounge car there was no choice but to continue on with our journey sans air.
Even in departing Marree The Ghan’s sense of humour continued.
As sunset approached an announcement came through to ask passengers who had been fortunate enough to have their carriages changed over to go onto the platform to identify their luggage. Given our carriage hadn’t changed we were sitting in the lounge area watching the activity occurring outside.
Seemingly without warning the train started moving. As with the collective thought process the night before just north of Port Augusta, the initial movement seemed no different to the shunting activity that had been occurring throughout the afternoon. However it soon became apparent that this time the train was starting to speed up forcing many to make a dash back into the moving carriages.
It is still one of the great mysteries of this adventure that the luggage seemingly left on the platform at Marree was somehow available for pick up on arrival at Alice Springs. I never found out just what happened but I suspect it was put on one of the goods trains that overtook us during that final leg north.
As we travelled into the night and into the next day slowly inching our way towards Alice Springs and despite our adventures encountered so far on the journey, I was still in awe of the country that was unfolding outside our carriage windows. Standing in the passage way with my cousin we marvelled as emus and kangaroos travelled along with us. Seeing them in their natural environment moving along the red sand and scrub suddenly gave life to the school and library books that until then had been our only reference to these magnificent creatures. For all her dramas The Ghan was still better than any classroom.
With no air conditioning and only a steel floor between you and the searing desert sand below, there was no way one could walk with bare feet. Jokes were abounding around the carriage about being able to cook an egg on the floor. It was one of my great disappointments that no one was game to try to test the truth of theory. However when going to bed during that our final leg to Alice Springs thongs were always strategically placed on the bunk in case one needed to get up during the night.
Finally in the early hours of Christmas Eve, three days after our departure from Adelaide we arrived in Alice Springs. My first great adventure on The Ghan was over but it was not to be my last, however the tale of those adventures are for another day.
In 2004 the 19th century colonial dream of a North/South transcontinental railway was finally realised when the new line via Tarcoola reached Darwin. I have yet to go on this full journey all the way from Adelaide to Darwin, other than what I have recently seen on SBS, but it is on my travel bucket list. I am looking forward to making the comparison of what I suspect will be a far smoother and comfortable journey against The Ghan of childhood adventure.

Posted in Cross Border Tales, memoir, This Writing Life, Travel writing | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

In fear and trembling or the latest attempt to overcome procrastination

Another festive season is over and once again here I am at the starting line of a New Year with yet another resolution.

Like many I spend the last weeks of the year reviewing the achievements or otherwise of the past 12 months and begin to consider goals and aims for the coming year. Like many I then set myself up in great expectation with various resolutions.

Over the years I have taken on the more health related resolutions such as no alcohol consumption until my birthday (which being in April means a fair whack of the year of being teetotal), getting fit, setting weight goals, dieting and giving up smoking all with mixed results.

They have also all followed a similar pattern. December usually sees Yours Truly taking advantage of the seasonal festivities to indulge in good food and wine with the background thought that on 1 January I will suddenly go cold turkey and live the life of a nun by abstaining from alcohol, get fit and lose weight (not necessarily in that order) for the first few months of the year.

Well that is the plan.

Then suddenly the New Year arrives and the deadline clock clangs. “Hey baby there are no excuses now, it’s time,” says the little voice inside your head that you just know can’t be easily ignored.

So yes here I am on 2 January 2018 facing that shrill alarm clock.

I’ve now closed the chapter to 2017 and looking at the new page/chapter/story that will be this new year

However unlike past years 2018’s opening lines – the New Year Resolution – is already different.

This time around there is no declaration of getting fit, losing weight, going through a period of abstinance or even setting some unrealistic total on the number of books to read in the coming year. Yep 2018 is all about writing.

This year I am even publicly declaring it.  In past years I have tended to keep my resolutions to myself and in doing so probably set them and I up for failure.

So the resolution/aim/plan/ goal is to have the first draft of my novel written by the end of 2018.

A necessary and tricky ingredient in ensuring this goal is met is to increase my writing time and to get the writing itself more out there. I say tricky as like many things the rest of the world will get in the way. I know I am very much not alone in stealing whatever time I can for this endeavour against full time work, dealing with ageing family members and in ensuring fitness, a balanced diet and a social life are not totally sacrificed as well. As you can see the themes of those other past resolutions are still a factor in this overall scheme.

At the moment a helping hand to this grand plan is the fact that I am still on leave, yet this has had its own distractions, the initial recovery from a hard year at work, preparing for Christmas, recovering from Christmas, catching up with friends and family who are in town for the holidays and then getting ready for the New Year.

Just as I was starting to worry that I would fall at the first hurdle, I cam across a wonderful blog piece this morning written by fellow local writer Jennifer Sando (, that reminded me on the need not to place too much pressure on oneself at the outset and in ensuring balance and patience with this endeavour.

Suddenly the procrastination and distractions that have occurred these holidays disappeared and the panic on hearing the screaming alarm clock about already being in 2018 and yet to commence my first writing steps for the year also dissipated.

So here I am on 2 January writing and already a part of this overall goal is about to be met – reactivating this blog.

Instead of a deadline of weekly blogs, I’m choosing instead the goal of having regular blogs that reflect on this 2018 writing journey. I may blog once a week or even more, while at other times it could be up to a fortnight before a relevant post is able to come along. Whenever it is I am committing myself here and now to regular blogging

As I embark on this journey over the next 12 months, I am already well prepared for the moments of frustration and tears that I know will come, but I also believe there will be highlights as well. I will reflect on those junctures such as the disappearance of the creative muse, dealing with the various competing interests on my precious writing time and share achieving the various baby steps to this project.

So 2018 come at me and let this journey begin… now back to writing the novel.

Posted in Cross Border Tales, This Writing Life | Tagged | 2 Comments