Date Archives July 2012

The art of collecting: turtles, autographs + The Hare With Amber Eyes

Duran Duran
Duran Duran

Moving house recently (and trying to whittle down contents to fit in a very small shipping container), I came across a box in my shed. It was full of programmes. Theatre programmes from Starlight Express and Phantom of the Opera. Some signed — family friends working in theatre would get all the autographs. Gigs through the ages: Transvision Vamp, Madonna, INXS, petering out in the 90s.

I loved collecting as a child. Or I loved beginning to collect. The idea of having a collection; my follow through wasn’t so strong. I started off obsessive.

I would collect turtles. I always liked turtles. Shared an affiliation with them. That desire to crawl under a thick shell and have a little rest. Before re-emerging into the light. Once, driving from Casino, the road was covered in turtles, so thick that Caron (my stepmum) had to get out of the car and sweep a path for us to drive through. I was afraid of squashing them. Not toads. But collecting involved finding them in op shops. Too hard.

I would collect posters of Duran Duran. I bought magazines and albums with free posters inside. Until there was no more room on my wall, and Simon Le Bon (and his voice) was starting to wear thin.

I would collect autographs. Travelling on a plane to visit my dad in the school holidays meant I saw lots of ‘famous people’ (as I called them) at the airport. I remember Crowded House. The guy who sang What About Me? (not Shannon Noll, the other one). Peter Garrett. Rolf Harris. I was often too shy to ask them directly to sign and my poor parents would have to approach, me snuggling behind them, awestruck. I did speak to Rolf on the plane and he drew me a little cartoon of himself in red pen.

I would pore over these signings later. I still have them and the traces (getting fainter) of pen on paper charge me with a thrill at the touch. Even though there’s many names I no longer even recognise.

Kylie Minogue + Jason Donovan, days of Neighbours
Kylie Minogue + Jason Donovan, days of Neighbours

When I was 15, I won a dancing competition at Melbourne’s Festival Hall. I got up on stage with the cast of Neighbours (Kylie, Jason, Craig) and received my prize from Molly Meldrum. I won for doing that strange kind of hand dancing we used to do to The Cure in the 80s, flickering your hands near your face, and Kylie was the judge. These days it would be on YouTube and I could link to it. Thank god it wasn’t these days. The prize was a black T-shirt, promoting a road safety campaign, and had their autographs quickly scrawled on in red pen. I still have it folded in my cupboard, uniting Kylie and Jason forever, and every now and then think: must get that framed.

Nowadays, I seem to have lost my connection with early collections. The programmes in the box no longer held any special appeal. The DVDs (where I rapidly consumed director by director: David Lynch, Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Hal Hartley — where are the women I ask myself?) now seem cumbersome in the days of online streaming, as I lug box after box interstate.

I also like to read about collectors. Or any obsessives really. I like the detail, the narrowing down. A good enough writer can make you enthused about their collection, no matter how small (or large), and make you want to start collecting yourself. This was the case with Edmund de Waal, the author of the family memoir, The Hare with the Amber Eyes. de Waal is an artist (a potter) and he sees the world with a unique slant. He uses the collection of netsuke as a starting point to branch off into a family history, then a history of anti-Semitism in Europe, then a background to World War II in Austria, then the re-emergence of Japan under US occupation.

The Hare With Amber Eyes: Netsuke
The Hare With Amber Eyes: Netsuke

The strength of de Waal’s writing comes in his ability to focus in on the detail, describing the beauty of the netsuke, how they are handled and adored, and then to step back, to frame things in a bigger picture, and write with such emotional force (even though it appears at first, subtle), to wind you, knock you around. His descriptions of the Nazi invasion of Austria, and the family home in Vienna, give a visceral experience of what it must have been like to be trapped in every sense, to be gradually stripped of your belongings, your heritage, your identity. If you left it too late, you had nowhere left to go. His writing power comes from a rare talent: the ability to weave historical research and factual accounts into a spirited and moving narrative: it’s an unforgettable read.

Like de Waal, I return to moments in my childhood. I always come back to the autographs. I have a shelf of treasures. A line of books stretching from the 70s, that have one thing in common. They’re all signed by the author. Many have inscriptions. I prefer those I’ve waited in line to get signed myself (Jonathan Franzen) and ones where kind people, like Denise (my mother in law) have lined up too (Margaret Atwood). I like to have my name in there (To Kirsten…), the promise of that, rather than a signed edition from a pile near the counter of the bookstore. If I had the money I know I’d get truly obsessive about first editions. Tracking them down with detective work (like John Baxter).

Perhaps, in a sense, as you begin on a new piece of writing, it’s always a process of collecting (like a bower bird, how I see myself): the beginnings of an obsession, the reams of research, the snippets of conversation noted down, the focusing in on the small items, the branching out to make connections.

Just writing about it makes me want to start a new collection.



Writing Mothers: Kirsten Tranter

Kirsten TranterSydney-based writer Kirsten Tranter has published two novels in quick succession, The Legacy and A Common Loss, to international critical acclaim. While she has written widely about the trials and tribulations of writing a second novel, the setting of A Common Loss (the neon streets of Las Vegas) has distinguished her writing from other Australian contemporaries.

Angela Meyer, from Literary Minded, described the book’s appeal:

The complexity of Vegas — where people dream, work, gamble, are seduced, marry, play, and drink themselves to death in giant rooms under flashing lights — is the perfect setting for this book about a man, an intelligent man, an academic, who realises he’s not as aware (or even self-aware) as he thought he was. Eventually, in Vegas, he begins to see behind the surfaces to the wear and tear. Read More

30 kangaroos, 12 alpacas, 5 magpies, two shetlands and a chook

Creswick Wool Mill alpacas
Creswick Wool Mill alpacas

Every morning we are waking to a winter wonderland. The longer nights mean better sleep-ins (it still seems like midnight at 7am) but at 9am the ground is still covered in sparkling, crunchy frost that steams in the weak sun.

I brave the cold with GG in her pram. Even in zero-degree weather she insists on taking her socks off so we wrestle with each other on the stroll. Each day I head in a different direction down a dirt track, first right, first left. I never get very far because I’m usually stopped by something that catches my breath. The first day we strolled up past the Kickback Corral. Yep, pardners, an old sign bearing the name swings broken from a tree. Just around the corner, pram wheels spinning in the deep and rutted gravel, there are horses. A Shetland pony nibbles grass, fat, not hungry enough to come to the fence to check us out. No carrots.

The next day we head right and it’s even colder. My hands ache. My feet crackle. I’ve been to the opshop to find more clothes. Coming from Sydney (originally Melbourne) I couldn’t imagine a real winter. I have seven layers on. And I haven’t even got to my coat. I waddle along. I need fingerless gloves and a funny hat. A lot of people in Castlemaine wear funny hats. The ones with the dangly bits that keep your ears warm. I couldn’t ever see the point. But now I want one — the more outrageous the better. We have been battling with McCool for months now about wearing a coat. But even he’s given up and is wearing the warmest he can find. The other day I drove him to child care and the car declared ‘minus 1.5 degrees’. I couldn’t believe it. Can humans exist in such temperatures?

Funny woollen hatBut back to the travels. GG and I turned a corner and a mob of 30 kangaroos froze in the pale light. They stayed still as if playing a game of hide and seek. We stood frozen too; it felt like trespassing to walk through them. Ten minutes we stayed like that, hushed. Finally a large roo started to hop and they all bounded a short distance away, then resumed their stance. Eventually a few heads went down to nibble at the grass. I want to go all Instagramy now and show you some shimmery sepia photos but I didn’t have my camera, and my phone is crap.

At the local farmers’ market beautiful freckled chooks were for sale. Twenty bucks. One had happily laid an egg in her cage, and I wanted to take her straight home. The owner took a dainty hen out and gave her to a small boy. She relaxed completely in his arms, posing for a photo for the local paper; the photographer seemed desperate to find something happening. McCool stroked the chooks gently, enjoying their warmth. I chomped my way through a spinach and cheese burek.

The local wool mill at Creswick had a ‘cutest cria competition’. Crias are baby alpacas and they jostled with each other as we decided which one deserved our vote. McCool quickly points out Scout, the tiniest, a jet black rascal with the softest fuzzy head. I’m not usually one for the shops they place at the start of the building to entice you along the way but this was full of delectable soft things to snuggle up into, alpaca throws and sheepskin rugs. At prices in the hundreds of dollars but you can always cop a feel, anyway, free of charge.

Driving around the region it feels like you’re on holiday, that you’ve grabbed a long weekend and are exploring with the kids. But the best part is you don’t have those ‘we’ve gotta return to the city’ Sunday night blues. We wake up again here on Monday morning. It’s a good move. I can feel it in my waters.

Writing Mothers: Susan Johnson

Susan Johnson
Author Susan Johnson has recently published her novel, My Hundred Lovers.

Susan Johnson is an author of seven novels, and also non-fiction, and has recently released her latest, My Hundred Lovers. She blogs regularly on all aspects of writing and the process of launching her book.

I remember reading an early work of hers, Flying Lessons, and revelling in its fierce characterisation and descriptions of Queensland. She was always a writer who excited and challenged me, and I kept an eye out for her latest works.

Susan describes Flying Lessons here:

The book, set in Australia, has two heroines, modern-day Ria Lubrano and her Edwardian grandmother Emma James. Ria Lubrano, who “came into the world with bones plotting mutiny”, suffering from a literal and metaphorical film over her eyes, is vegetating as a jingle-singer, a voice without an identity or even a complete song, her sense that life is just “a series of disengagements”. She is preoccupied with the loss of her brother Scott, who has drifted out of touch with his family and turned by degree into a missing person. She is also engrossed by the story of Emma, who married a Catholic boy and was renounced by her archetypal disciplinarian father. Read More