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Before we go any further, I suppose it would be a good idea to let you put a face to this writer, let you know who you’re dealing with, as it were.

This is one of the few photographs I have in which I look even halfway presentable. It was taken in Brisbane in 2010 (I know it’s four years ago; I’m harder to photograph than a yeti) at the 50th reunion of agricultural scientists who graduated from Queensland University in years in ’58-’62 approximately.

What’s a person with a B. Agr. Sc. and a major in Plant Physiology doing writing fiction and editing/assessing manuscripts? It’s a l-o-n-g story …

For more, click on the About section above. For information about manuscript assessments or editing, please see: http://patrickdevalera.com

and click on Manuscript Development Services in the menu bar.

 

The other day I found myself with nothing to read so I pulled out my old copy of A Book of Australian Verse, selected by Australian poet Judith Wright. I was reading the collection when I came across the poems of John Shaw Neilsen, whose work I’d always admired. This shy, slight figure, who had almost no education, had a love of natural beauty and could produce lines of effortless simplicity such as:

“I was around by the cherries today: all the cherries are pale. The world is a woman in velvet. The air is the colour of ale.” He is considered one of Australia’s finest lyric poets.

Shaw Neilsen

Shaw Neilsen

Whenever I think of Neilsen, I’m reminded of a story my old friend Lyle Freeman told me. Lyle (gone now, alas) wasn’t a writer, but he moved on the edges of the literary circles in Brisbane and Sydney in the 1940s and early ‘50s. In his late teens, he ran away from the family business in Kingaroy, went to Sydney and with friend Lois Whose-last-name-eludes me, they opened a boarding house in the vicinity of Kings Cross, where itinerant writers and artists often stayed while they found their feet. Or not. At one stage, Charlie Blackman and his wife Barbara (not his wife at the time, but) boarded there.

I think it was his friendship with Queensland poet Val Vallis that would have got him the invite to Judith Wright’s house that Sunday.

judith-wright

Whenever Lyle told the story (it was a story I asked to hear more than once), the house he described was in the Blue Mountains, though Wright never moved there permanently until 1950, and the event Lyle described must have happened before 1941. (Neilsen was at that time up from Melbourne; he returned there and died within twelve months of this encounter.) Perhaps Wright toyed with renting houses in the country outside Brisbane as many of us did in those days before land inflated to preposterous proportions; my partner and I had a weekender at Mt Glorious in the ‘60s. On this particular day, Lyle told me, a group of seven or eight aspiring writers were sitting in Wright’s kitchen debating the state of Australian arts and letters when there came a gentle knock on the back door. Standing there was a shy, slight man in his early seventies. Perhaps an elderly gardener, they thought.

The man spoke only one sentence. He said softly, “I’ve come for my tiffin.” (He meant afternoon tea.) Wright handed him a cup of tea and some cup cakes and he went away. “That was Shaw Neilsen,” she explained to the Young Turks. “He’s staying with us for a while. He’s a bit shy.” Lyle said he felt immensely humbled to see this unassuming man shuffle away with his tea and cake. There they’d all been, debating the parlous state of Australian literature, and there he was, the real thing, just wanting peace and quiet and a bit of tiffin.

Lyle had an interesting life. He was a roadie for the Borovanski Ballet when Kathleen Gorham was one of the principal dancers, and he was gay at a time in Australia when it took real guts to come out and say so. He was once insulted at a party by Patrick White, that dour, sharp tongued Australian novelist.

patrick-white

Wine must’ve loosened my old friend’s tongue sufficiently for him to begin talking about his ambitions for a novel. “Hmph,” White said to him. “You’re a small man, and you’ll write a small novel.” That put my friend Lyle, who was six-foot-two, nicely in his place. White was famous for these bon mots.

Lyle never did write that novel. There were no mobile phones when I knew him, and the only photo I have of him is more than forty years old and somewhat blurry. For reasons I don’t understand, I can’t reproduce it here. But I’ll keep trying, and I’ll get it eventually.

Roadworks, Anyone?

One hundred metres to the east of where I live a small boy’s dream is in progress. Road works, and lots of them.

 

Trench diggers, graders, rollers, water wagons and huge trucks filled with dirt come and go all day on the avenue to the east of us, the first in a series of streets in this long neglected part of the shire to be drained, guttered and footpathed, and have their surfaces completely redone.

Until now, the area to the far north of the shire has been largely left untouched. Reason: it didn’t have many tourists. Now, with the advent of the music festivals three miles to the north — something the locals fought against and lost (of course) — large numbers of mostly young people are being attracted to the area, and they need good roads and somewhere to stay while they’re attending the festivals.

 

music-festival

And so the long suffering residents, lurching for years over the broken roads, shaking their teeth loose, damaging their suspensions at every turn, have now been remembered. Well, sort of. Most of the people I speak to in this area couldn’t have cared less about the footpaths and guttering — or even the drainage, which might yet turn out to be questionable. They just wanted good roads.

Now it’s happening.

All day long, from 7 a.m. onwards, the road works continue. Little boys beg their mothers to take them there, eschewing trips to the park in Brunswick Heads, accompanied even by ice cream. All they want is a good view of the machines.

 

earthmoving-equipment

And it is exciting. Catching a bus now resembles the scene from First Knight, where Richard Gere as Lancelot ran the gauntlet for a kiss from Julia Ormond as Guinevere. Residents dodge artfully between bulldozers, water wagons, etc. in their efforts to reach the bus stop. And just where your particular stop might be that day is also exciting. As different sections of road are closed, the bus must reroute, and there’s never any notice of this in advance. One just turns up and, half-blind from the dust, dodges various pieces of large machinery (all in motion in different directions), and hopes to find a spot the bus might conceivably pass. It’s interesting. And it’s going to go on for a long time to come, as the council gangs work their way through the suburb.

The cat’s already on tenterhooks from all the tumult. He particularly dislikes the beeping. (I thought machines only beeped when they reversed; these things beep all the time.)

 

annoyed-cat

One thing’s for sure: he’s not going to like it when they’re doing his street.

droppingout_e-cover

Sitting here waiting for my son and his wife and kids to wake up. They leave to return to the UK today. I hadn’t seen my son for ten years, and I’d never seen my grandchildren, who are nine and five. They’ve been here for three weeks, on and off when they weren’t exploring the countryside in their rented campervan, and it’s going to be a wrench, I know.

I sit here sipping coffee, trying to fortify myself for the ordeal to come. Fortunately, my daughter, who’s up from Melbourne, will be here until Monday, so I won’t have to lose them all at once.

Attachment. The Buddhist masters have always talked of the evils of attachment. Not that it’s evil in itself, but that it causes us humans so much pain from loss, or even the fear of it. But then, I wonder, how would we care properly for our young if we weren’t attached to them? Attachment seems to be hardwired into us, with all that it entails.

There’s one being in my household who won’t be sad to see the whole caravan go. That’s my cat Tim, who’s spent the past 14 years in the peace and quiet of my solitary existence, and who’s never had to deal up close with little people.

timmy-p-72

He had to be taken to the vet yesterday afternoon with nervous exhaustion. The vet gave him a B shot. I could’ve done with a B shot myself.

I’m still recovering from the book launch last night, which turned out to be a comedy of errors. The first night I chose at the hotel for drinks turned out to be too close to my daughter’s arrival from Melbourne. So I moved the night from Wednesday to Thursday — usually a quiet night for pubs. To my horror, after I’d notified all the people concerned, I discovered that the pub was holding a huge band night with a $30.00 cover charge that Thursday. So I moved the night to Friday.

I had envisaged a nice quiet book launch on a quiet night in a peaceful garden setting. Some food, some drinks, nice conversation; a good way to put a full stop to the book I’d just completed.

loud-singer

We could hear the music blocks away as we parked the car. After that, it was all shouting, as we tried to make ourselves heard over the din. More than half of us were well over sixty, and we had a particularly hard time. “What was that?” we kept saying to one another. “Say that again.” I envied the cat, at home watching TV and enjoying his newfound B status, nerves all nicely taken care of.

Anyone reading this who was invited but couldn’t come, you didn’t miss anything. But as they say, it’s all part of growing up and being human. And these things have a habit of being funny later on.

Years ago, when I was pregnant with my second child, I ran away to Point Lookout on North Stradbroke Island to escape relationship problems with my then partner.

stradbroke-1

In those days, it was wonderfully primitive —a four-and-a-half-hour journey by boat to get there, followed by a one-hour journey by bus across the island to the point; no pub, no electricity, earth toilets, an ice works, a post office and a general store. I lived in a one-room cabin with my first child, a boy. We loved Straddie, but because my first child had been a Caesarian and the specialist intended the second to be the same, eventually as my time drew near I was forced to return to the mainland.

While I was there, however, an American couple befriended me. They were an interesting pair. She had been a theatre sister at the Johns Hopkins, and we were all big readers. One night over dinner, they tried to persuade me to write short stories. At that stage I was still carrying the Brisbane novel like the proverbial albatross around my neck. (Still am, in fact, but all that will change in 2018.)

To return to the point, over dinner they extolled the virtues the short story held for writers, one of which was a quick remuneration. I remember at the time saying simply, “I can’t write short stories.”

Time passed, as it does. When my partner and I broke up for good, I found myself alone with two small children. Remembering what the Stradbroke Island couple had said about short stories (the magic word was remuneration), I put away the Brisbane novel and turned to stories as something I could manage between the children and the chores. It took me a while to get the hang of the form, but in the end I did, and started aiming for well-paid competitions and magazines. As is always the case with submissions of any kind, the old 1 in 9 rule applied. That is: expect 1 acceptance for every 9 rejections. That way, you won’t be crushed, and occasionally you might even be pleasantly surprised.

Occasionally.

Now, after 25 years of writing short stories, most of them set in Byron Shire, I’ve been able to put together a collection called Dropping Out.

droppingout_e-cover

I would’ve loved to call it something enigmatic like Richard Flanagan’s The Sound of One Hand Clapping — or something beautiful, like Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. But the book was intended for the internet market (though there is a POD option available for those, like me, who like the feel of a book in their hands) and search engines make hard masters, so it’s called Dropping Out: a tree change novel-in-stories. Which translated means the stories are all character linked, so the book reads like an episodic novel.

Do pop over and have a look if you have time. This is my one and only collection of short stories, there won’t be another.

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/669161

and

https://www.amazon.com/Dropping-Out-change-novel—stories-ebook/dp/B01LXF9QEB

Amazon has a generous sample in their Look Inside feature.

Frightened woman

I’m afraid to open the parcel containing the Amazon proof copy of my short story collection. I’ve had it since Tuesday, it’s now Saturday. When I got the proof of the 1st novel I put up on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00H0ORWQY, I fell on it like a famished wolf. Why this sudden turnaround? Perhaps it’s got something to do with the cover, which was unfinished when I sent off for this particular proof, and feels to me as if it will ever remain so.

Let me explain. You see, when I wrote my weird cat fantasy novel, which caused people to think I had finally lost the plot (though they were all too nice to say so), I had the image for the cover before I even wrote the book—a marvellous black & white drawing by US artist Marty Norman.

Marty Norman's cat illus'n 75 dpi copy No cats on pedestals

This time, I had chosen another of his works, a wonderful, hard-edged painting of a businessman on a tightrope, see below. (Sorry I’m too much of a luddite to know how to make the image bigger.)

man on wire

But beta readers from here to Timbuktu all agreed that to use an image like that on the cover of my collection was to mislead people into expecting a book about the problems of Wall Street suits. And that, my little short story collection set in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales definitely was not.

What to do? I had no idea. In the end, I settled for a very ancient image (no, I’m not going to show it to you at this point), and hoped like hell it would work. To open the package from Amazon, even though I know the cover is unfinished and will make the necessary allowances, is to expose myself to immense disappointment if this cover idea hasn’t worked.

Now it’s all very well to say I’ve got time to think of another and still get the book out in October-November of this year, but you see, I can’t. Having been dragged from one fixation (which in my heart I still prefer) to another, something in me has said, This is it. Further than this, I’m not prepared to go. In other words, I’m stuck with this cover, no matter what. So the parcel feels very threatening to me and just sits there on the sofa, accusing me every time I walk past. Thank heavens I’m going out today. I’ll be out all day – so there, parcel!

This state of affairs could go on indefinitely if I don’t so something, so I’ve set myself a deadline of Monday morning. On Monday I must take a deep breath, rip open the parcel and take it on the chin, come what may.

Am I scared? You bet. But will I keep the deadline? Oh yeah; I’m a creature of deadlines. I’m not really happy unless I can see one looming somewhere on the horizon. So Monday it is. Meanwhile, I give the sofa a wide berth.

 

A few days ago I paid one of my biannual visits to friends at Dyraaba in northern New South Wales, about half an hour’s drive out of Casino. They have a 240 acre property there, where they run 30-40 head of cattle and half a dozen horses.

IMG_7623

It looks idyllic, but the beauty of this photo belies the amount of work it takes to keep a property like this running smoothly. To add to the workload, when the couple moved here four years ago, the paddocks were overgrazed; fireweed, blady grass and lantana were rampant.

Lantana 2Lantana – hell to eradicate

Four years of hard yakka has pulled the property back into shape, with improved pastures on the flatland, hardly a fireweed in sight, and very little blady grass. One more year should see the last of the lantana.

That’s the extra work, of course. Just everyday running of a place like this involves so many things that owners have to keep on top of. There’s worming, earmarking, drenching, dipping and hand feeding of stock during drought, the keeping up of miles of fences, sitting up nights with calving cows, saving stock from wild dogs, etc. etc. Some winter nights when the dogs are bad, you can hear them howling in the distant paddocks like something out of Dr Zhivago.

Some people on a neighbouring property have filled in the wetland where black swans used to come every year. Now my friends have swans gracing their biggest creek.

DSCF4402

It all looks very idyllic, as I said, but the work required would stimey most people. In summer you need to be in the paddocks by 4.30 a.m. at the latest, so you can get in a good six hours toil before the heat hits. From noon to four, the fields are impossible. However, work can recommence at 4.30 and go onto until night falls. Winter is different, of course, but those early mornings are mighty chilly; it was 6 degrees C when I was there.

All in all, it’s a beautiful place to visit, but not a place to live if you shy away from hard work. Fortunately, both my friends are tigers for punishment and thrive on the lifestyle.

_MG_7403

Having worked with animals all their lives, they understood when they bought how it would be, and so didn’t suffer the fate of many tree changers who move from the city to the bush, chasing the dream.

 

God chasing cat, b&wWatching my cat Tim this morning leaping from the washing machine to the linen cupboard and from there to the ledge of the little window from where he likes to survey the kingdom, I was reminded of another cat I used to have and his adventures with a rescue dog my then partner brought home, wanting to take in. Just why we didn’t realise from the start just what we were letting ourselves in for, I don’t know. But we had a lot on our minds in those days, what with the two children and my elderly mother.

The cat’s name was Mao; he was a bluepoint Siamese, and he knew it.

Bluepoint siamese

The rescue dog’s name was Harry.

Harry was a German Shepherd that nobody seemed to want. That should’ve given us pause right there, but as I said, we had a lot on our minds, particularly in the mornings. Harry was obviously well bred, the sort of dog that would’ve had “papers”, yet nobody wanted him.

We tried him out with the children; he was fine, so we let him stay.

Night fell. We fed Harry and bedded him down and locked him into the shed at the side of the house. Next morning, unbeknown to me, as I was working in the kitchen, making breakfasts, ironing uniforms, getting the children off to school, my partner let Harry out.

Mao, the Siamese cat, having finished his breakfast, strolled out to inspect the dawn from the doorstep of the back porch. As he sat there checking out the day, Harry came around the side of the house.

 

Shepherd looking tough

The cat, accustomed all his life to being superior, waved a paw at Harry to tell him his presence there on the step was not required, that he was persona non grata, in fact.

But Harry came on. The cat found himself being pursued by this slavering beast. He raced into the nearby bathroom and leapt up onto the hand basin. Harry’s first leap landed him in the hand basin, too. Just in the nick of time, the cat leapt up onto the edge of the shower stall, a precarious position.

Harry was leaping and snarling at him, but he couldn’t quite reach the cat, when I came out, atracted by the commotion. I grabbed a straw broom and began to beat Harry with it, to no avail. Then the cat teetering on the edge of the shower stall lost his balance and leapt onto the head of the straw broom when it was at the height of one of its upswings. Anyone could’ve told him this was not a good idea, but it seemed it was the only one he had. He then fell off the broom head, and saved himself from landing in Harry’s waiting maw by latching onto my thumb.

I screamed, turning this way and that to save the cat. The dog leaped and snarled, the cat clung. I don’t know what would’ve happened next if my partner hadn’t arrived just then and whipped Harry off with one of the studded leather belts he liked to affect.

After that, we locked Harry back in the shed and drove to the hospital so that I could get a tetanus injection and, of course, I needed stitches. As I said, just why we hadn’t realised from the start what we were letting ourselves in for, I don’t know. But we had a lot on our minds in those days.

Harry stayed, by the way. He and the cat arrived at an uneasy truce, with the cat dominant. The tucker was good, and there were lots of cattle to harrass in the nearby paddocks; Harry knew he was on a good thing.