The Book I Wish I'd Written

Several years ago, I started to think about a book I wanted to write. I wanted to set it in the marshes, that misty halfway territory, half-land, half-water; at the edges of things, with stretches of beach and sky, and mud and water. I wanted to write about loneliness and courage, stories and spells. I was going to include a blind person, and a dog, and a girl who doesn't know how brave she is… It was going to be eerie, and magical, silvery with moonlight and dreams, with ghosts and half-forgotten songs.

Well, in the writing, my book, as books often do, has turned into something quite different from that original conception. 

But Julie Hunt has written the book that I was dreaming of, all those years ago, and she's done it so much better than I ever could have. Song For A Scarlet Runner has been short-listed for every award there is, and deservedly so. This is a wonderful, rich and rewarding children's fantasy.


The Colours of Madeleine

I don't do many reviews of current books on this blog. I'm self-conscious about reviewing the books of authors I know (even though they are all GENIUSES). But I just can't bring myself to stay silent on these ones. Bonus: I've never met Jaclyn Moriarty, so I can talk about how clever she is without fear.

I absolutely adored these books, the first two volumes of the Colours of Madeleine trilogy (yay! still one book to look forward to!). They are fresh and funny, sweet and serious, fantastical and moving, both unexpected and plotted tight. For me, they fell in the sweet spot between children's and YA: smart and philosophical, but also magical and filled with wonder.

In A Corner of White, we meet 14 year old Madeleine Tully, who has run away from her dysfunctional father to live in a garret with her mother in Cambridge, England. And we meet Elliot Baranski, who has also lost his father, though under very different circumstances. Elliot lives in the small town of Bonfire, The Farms, in the Kingdom of Cello.

Elliot and Madeleine discover a crack between their two worlds, a crack just large enough for a letter to slip through. They begin an illicit correspondence (contact with the World is a capital offence in Cello). Cello is a world not unlike our own in many ways. But its seasons shift about from day to day; there is a Lake of Spells in the province of Magical North, and other, dangerous magic in the province of Olde Quainte, which has an irritating dialect all its own; and the population are at risk from random attacks of   Colours -- a sixth level Purple, for instance, or third level Red. But Elliot is searching for his vanished father, and he has other things to worry about…

I'm especially grateful to Jaclyn Moriarty, because A Corner of White was the first book I could persuade Evie to read to get her away from those damn cat books, and she loved it too. We raced each other to finish The Cracks in the Kingdom (I won, she is still going). Both volumes start off slow, but be patient. Moriarty is building a careful edifice of small pieces, and at the end you can only stand back and gasp at the perfect, utterly satisfying whole. There was a twist at the end of Book 2 which I might have been dumb not to foresee, but it gave me that wonderful jolt of happy surprise that the best books give you when you're young. Maybe that was why I loved these books so much; they recaptured for me, as so few books do these days, the utter delight and wonder of immersion in a new world. And now I'm all itching for volume 3.

Just read them!


The Drama of Football

Photo from Maribyrnong Leader
I think it's fair to say that some of my nearest and dearest (hello Mum...) have been bemused by my growing absorption in the world of AFL, and the Western Bulldogs in particular. And even though it's now technically the off-season, and there aren't even any games going on, the events of the past week or two have illustrated the roller-coaster experience of belonging to a football club.

It's all about the story.

It's been said (by Martin Flanagan I think) that sport is the purest form of drama - the enactment of a contest where character is displayed, or found wanting; where the outcome is thrillingly unknown; where the audience is emotionally invested in the twists and turns of the 'narrative' as the game plays out.

But lately, for my Bulldogs, all the drama has been off the field, and it was just as absorbing, just as emotionally wrenching, as any game could be.

The high point of the roller-coaster was set before the end of the AFL season proper, with the victory of the new Footscray team in the VFL Grand Final. It was the first grand final victory for a team called Footscray since our single premiership win in 1954, and the Bulldog faithful spilled onto the ground in jubilation to celebrate with our boys.

Within days, three members of that victorious team had been de-listed from the club. Not long after, the voluntary exodus of senior players began -- Higgins, Jones (a hero of the VFL victory), Brownlow-medallist Cooney, all looking for new clubs. We knew that there were rumours of trouble at the Kennel, that the end of season reviews between coach and players had been pretty brutal. But we were confident that our coach, Macca, with his reputation as a patient teacher, was on the right track. If some older players were disgruntled, well, maybe it was better if they moved on, and cleared the stage for the next generation.

But then came the bombshell. Thursday afternoon: Ryan Griffen announced that he wanted to leave, too. Griff, our captain, our best player, our leader, was jumping ship. And not even to a team at the top of the ladder -- he wanted to go to GWS, the no-hoper plastic love child of the AFL. It smacked of desperation -- he wanted to be anywhere but with us. Things must be very, very wrong.

We were still reeling from that news when the second bombshell dropped. Friday morning: Macca was gone. He'd 'resigned,' apparently convinced (or having been persuaded) that he no longer had the confidence of the majority of the players. Turmoil at the Kennel! Suddenly we had gone from a calm, steady, confident club -- not achieving well at the moment, but with a course for improvement mapped out ahead -- to a total basket case! No coach, no captain, players lining up to get out… What the hell was going on down there?

It was a sombre weekend. I listened to Brendan Macartney's dignified, philosophical interview on ABC radio and cried. I read and posted on the club forum obsessively, taking comfort from the shared anger and sorrow (and even pained laughter) of fellow fans. (Someone had named their dog Griffy -- what was he going to do now??) I couldn't see where we'd go from here.

Then on Monday morning, the roller-coaster took a dramatic swing upwards. The Bulldogs slapped down the gauntlet to GWS. You want our captain? You can have him -- but only if you give us Tom Boyd, your number one pick from last year. Boyd is a young gorilla, nineteen years old, the young power forward our side has been desperately seeking for years. (Our last top-class forward recruit was Chris Grant, in 1988.) Straight swap. How about that?

The boldness of it took our breath away. Then it got even better -- Boyd declared that he wanted to come to us! Suddenly we dared to dream again. Could it actually happen? Could we land this big fish, the missing piece of the puzzle? All week we seesawed between hope and incredulity. It couldn't happen -- GWS said they'd never let him go, under any circumstances. He was a number one pick, just last year, for heaven's sake!

But by the end of the week, the deal was miraculously done. We had lost Griff, lost Macca, and a handful of other players. But we had gained Tom Boyd for the red, white and blue: the Tominator, the Six Million Dollar Man, Major Tom, our own Tommy Boy.

So here we are, breathless and dazed, but starting, tentatively, to hope again. Up and down and up again, participants in a drama with its own wounded heroes, defiant rhetoric, valiant but untried knights,   silent and probably misunderstood traitors, bluster and bluff, enormous costs and potential for huge reward, an immense gamble, a future. And us -- the supporters, because we are part of the story too. Bruised from decades of disappointment, but daring to believe that success might be just around the next corner, that this might be the gamble that pays off.

How could anyone resist a story like that?


Streatfeild Unread!

I know it's boring, but this is what my copy looks like!
I thought I'd read everything Noel Streatfeild had ever written. Of course I've read my copy of Ballet Shoes to pieces, but over the years I've also collected and devoured White Boots (skating), Party Dress (patriotic fundraiser), A Vicarage Family (thinly veiled autobiography), The Painted Garden (film), The Children on the Top Floor (television), Dancing Shoes, Apple Bough, Far To Go, and more.

But imagine my surprise when I was at a beer barn in Brunswick St at the weekend and I spied among the decorative shelves of second hand books, a dull-looking little volume called The Children of Primrose Lane which I had never even heard of, let alone read…

My hard-bargaining husband negotiated for me to acquire it (they gave it to me for nothing :-)) and I started to read it straight away. quickly it became clear why I hadn't come across it before. It's not one of Streatfeild's ballet/show-biz titles; it's a war-time spy adventure story, with a gang of six children chasing a German spy across the countryside. Originally published in 1941, this edition dates from 1965 and includes a foreword from the author, explaining about gas masks, curfews and the danger of enemy parachutists in these early days of the war when everyone feared an invasion was just around the corner.

This kind of story is unusual for Streatfeild, and it's not her strongest work, though there are pleasures here in the treatment of the children's relationships with each other as they work together to trick and catch their spy. There are lots of disagreements, management of each other's awkward personalities, and inner doubts, fears and guilt -- it's not all straight heroics (though there are plenty of heroics, too!) It was obviously written as a morale-boosting, patriotic tale, and it's very much of its time.

I can't see it getting a reprint today. It's spoilt by way too much talk of suspicious foreigners, dirty gypsies, evil Germans with thick necks and the like, while the plucky British children save the day. Still, I'm not sorry to have it, though it's a most misleading title. It was published in the US as The Stranger in Primrose Lane, which is better. The plot is pretty clunky, too, but it's fun to read about a gang of kids who vanish for days on end to save their nation, with no more than a single phone call home to say, don't worry, we're fine… Have to say that wouldn't quite do the trick today!


Get Your Skates On!

Yesterday, because it's school holidays, we went ice skating at Docklands. It's the first time I've travelled through the Docklands by tram, and I was startled by how huge the area is. How did this whole massive section of the city spring up without my knowledge or consent? It wasn't a great place to be yesterday, with its howling winds, swirling dust and empty plazas. But the skating was fun! Someone in my family thinks she might like to take up lessons… someone used to love rollerblading (before she grew out of her rollerblades) and she flew across the ice with immense confidence, while others (me) inched around the edge, with grim determination rather than grace.

But it got me thinking about skating in literature, and here, in no particular order, are my favourite books with skating in them.

1. Winter Holiday, Arthur Ransome
My favourite Swallows and Amazons book involves no sailing at all. The Blacketts and Walkers, and new nerdy friends Dot and Dick, find themselves on an extended winter holiday due to the great good fortune of one of their number contracting mumps, which means none of them can go back to school. So, as you do, they mount an expedition to the North Pole… This requires lots of skating across the frozen lake, as well as igloo-building, fur hat and mitten-making, and sledging. The Ds gain entry to the expedition purely on the strength of their skating, because they are endearingly hopeless at just about everything else, which was a relief to me after the brisk competence of the Swallows and Amazons in the other books.

2. Tom's Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce
Though most of the book takes place in summer, the last section features a particularly cold winter, where the river freezes over, and Tom and Hatty skate home by moonlight together. This part of the novel haunted me, and the way in which Tom gets hold of skates to use gives us the biggest clue about the truth of the midnight garden, and Hatty's identity.

3. White Boots, Noel Streatfeild
From the author of Ballet Shoes comes another 'showbiz' story, with Streatfeild's characteristic eye for technical detail and shrewd psychological insights. It's the story of a friendship between rich Lalla, daughter of skating champions, whose aunt is determined she will follow in their footsteps… (skate tracks?); and the timid, poorer Harriet, who is instructed to take up skating to strengthen her after a long illness (hm, I wonder if any doctor today would issue the same prescription!) The see-sawing relationships between the girls, as Harriet at first idolises Lalla's skill, then matches, and at last overtakes her, are beautifully handled.

4. On the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder
Okay, it's not actually skating, because Laura and Carrie are just sliding on the frozen lake by moonlight (what is it about moonlight and skating? it's such a magical combination). They slide almost right across the lake before they notice, on the far bank, watching them in the moonlight, an enormous wolf… The girls turn and skate for their lives.

Now, that's an incentive to not fall over.