Show me the money

Show me the money

Last weekend I had the privilege of working at a sausage sizzle at our local hardware store. I use the word privilege deliberately, because it was actually quite fun working with a bunch of lovely people from my brass band, all of whom were giving up their Sunday for the sake of our organisation. It was hot and greasy work for the two cooks, who worked all day uncomplainingly.

They gave me the task of taking the money and giving people the correct change. It was a cash only situation which perplexed many of our customers who clearly hadn’t used actual money for some considerable time, if ever. I made a couple of mistakes with the more complicated orders (five sausages, three with onion, an extra sausage for the dog and three drinks), but mostly I could do the unsophisticated mental arithmetic fairly easily.

It was interesting to note how many young people seemed hesitant to hand me actual cash (a Covid thing?) or proffered too much money. In one case, a young boy around 12 handed me both a ten-dollar and five-dollar note when his order totalled $8.50. He looked vaguely terrified, as if he was using foreign money and didn’t know its actual value, which was possibly the case. Many customers forgot to take their change (perhaps they were eager to eat their sausages) and I had to chase after them. I could have made quite a tidy profit for the band, had I been a less scrupulous person.

It reminded me of being on canteen duty when my children were little. The tiny kids whose heads barely reached the counter would reach up with a small handful of change and say, ‘what can I buy with this’?

Of course it’s not just young people who find cash confusing or hard to manage. When my daughter was in high school, she worked at the local supermarket and a lot of the older people who shopped there would just hand over their purses and ask her to take the right money because they couldn’t see very well, or their arthritic fingers couldn’t select the right coins. Just as well she was honest too.

Many people struggle with mental arithmetic. It’s a life skill that some people miss out on, either through missing too much school or living in situations of neglect.

Years ago, when I first started teaching adults, my first classroom experience was teaching a group of long-term unemployed people ‘personal development’. It was part of a scheme to get people off the dole and back to work, popular in the 1980s when unemployment rates were high. It soon became clear that the entire group of mainly middle-aged men were not only illiterate, but innumerate. After a few days of encouraging them to talk about their feelings (a total disaster) it occurred to me that the lessons I’d prepared were preposterous and ill-conceived, so I switched to more practical tasks such as how to use a phone book or read a street directory. These tasks are hard, if not impossible, if you don’t know the alphabet works. Simple arithmetic also perplexed them, so I took in a few games of junior monopoly* and they took turns being the banker. Soon they were all wheeling and dealing like big city investors. In the days before credit-cards and smart phones, it was fun and hopefully useful, especially for people who had little money to begin with.

And although people rarely use cash these days, it doesn’t mean they aren’t being taken advantage of. If people can’t do simple arithmetic, how are they to know if they are being overcharged? They could be charged twice them for items and they probably wouldn’t notice. I’m sure many people don’t bother checking their bank statements.

A friend told me that cash is now considered so old school and retro that it’s coming back into fashion, like record players and tape decks. That made me laugh. Soon they’ll be teaching people to cook and sew.

* Monopoly was invented by a Quaker named Elizabeth Magie in 1933 to highlight the wrongs of making money at the expense of others. Charles Darrow stole her idea and sold it to the Parker Brothers, who made a fortune.

Who Invented Monopoly?

Give me a home among the gum trees

Give me a home among the gum trees

Sarah Winman’s book, Still Life, is set largely in Florence and in one scene the main character decorates his Christmas tree with sprays of holly and eucalyptus. This surprised me because when I visited Florence briefly in the 1970s, I don’t remember seeing any gum trees. Perhaps I was too busy looking at boys (and art, of course).

Eucalyptus trees are native to Australia and there are at least 600 species here. Most Australians have a great affection for gum trees, even if they can’t name more than a few varieties.

I googled ‘why are there gum trees in Italy?’ and discovered that there are gum trees all over Europe. They gained popularity in Europe in the late 19th century because of their medicinal properties: the oil from the leaves is antiseptic and effective in reducing pain, swelling, and inflammation. People also thought the trees would help drain the swamplands and reduce the incidence of malaria, which was rife at the time.

A report from a news correspondent living in Naples in 1880 says:

“This lovely, healthful tree is destined to play a great part in the improvement of Italian soil.

 Senator Torelli, in his project for draining and improving the malaria districts through which so many Italian railway lines run, indicates that the planting of the eucalyptus as a principle means to an end. If such plantations had been begun by the Government many years ago, many lives would have been saved.”

The Eucalyptus in Italy – The Argus, Melbourne 1880

Malaria cases in Italy at the time amounted to over 2 million, with between 15,000 and 20,000 deaths per year (1% of the population). To put this in context, this is roughly equivalent to the death rate in Italy from Covid, so malaria was a serious problem, and they were desperate to do something about the mosquito-infested swamps.

They also planted thousands of gum trees in Portugal to combat to combat soil erosion and malaria, and then a century later, Scandinavian timber companies bought up large tracts of land to grow blue gums (eucalyptus globule) to pulp for paper.

According to this article, the vast plantations crippled village economies by commandeering valuable farming land and lowering the water table. Now the exotic blue gum is the most abundant tree in Portugal, covering about 7% of the country. Native to Tasmania and south-eastern Australia, it’s easily recognizable by its minty scent and pale peeling bark.

Tasmanian blue gum – Photo credit: Dana L Brown

Portuguese people are strongly opposed to the eucalyptus forests: the trees are regarded as highly invasive and aggressive. To local environmentalists, the gum tree is to Portugal what the rabbit is to Australia – an environmental disaster. The local insects can’t feed off the trees, so there are no birds. The forests are silent.

Gum trees don’t belong in Portugal any more than the camphor laurel trees belong in Australia.

Widely planted as shade trees in the late 19th Century, the camphor laurel (Cinnamomum Camphora) is considered a weed in New South Wales and Queensland and is just about the only tree you can cut down without gaining permission from the local authorities. It’s ranked among the top ten most invasive plants in Australia because it sneaks into waterways and competes with the native species, most notably the blue gum, one of the favourite food trees of the koala.

An avenue of camphor laurel trees (native to southeast Asia) and now the target of an eradication campaign in eastern Australia

Here in Australia, we are familiar with the scourge of invasive species. We introduced rabbits and foxes with no thought to how they would integrate with the native flora and fauna and the Queensland government famously introduced cane toads in 1935 to combat the devastating sugar cane beetles, without bothering to check if cane toads actually ate the beetles.

They didn’t, and now we have an out-of-control infestation of the horrible ugly toads. As well as being ugly, they are also poisonous, putting our native fauna at risks and other small mammals, such as cats and dogs. Cane toads are native to Florida and as far as I’m concerned, they should all go back there.

I suppose it’s ironic that whilst we revile cane toads, many Americans are not so keen on our gum trees. They grow all over the United States, but are especially prolific in California.

The trees were first introduced in California in 1865 by a fur trapper called William Wolfskill who, seeking to settle down as a farmer, planted blue gums outside his house in Southern California. An innovative man, he made a fortune growing oranges, wine grapes and walnuts, and he recognised the potential that eucalyptus trees had to upset the commercial timber market. Timber was scarce, and he believed that the fast-growing eucalyptus could provide a local supply of timber in a few short years.

Gum trees planted by William Wolfskill around his house in Southern California

Before long, news of the versatility of the tree spread and in 1872, Ellwood Cooper planted a 200-acre eucalyptus grove near Santa Barbara. Several other farmers also planted groves of gum trees, but it was tobacco heir Abbot Kinney who turned the fad into something that would alter the landscape forever.

Kinney was a state forester and used his position to promote the eucalypt. He wrote a book explaining that every part of the plant could be used commercially, including the volatile oil in the leaves, which he said had powerful anti-malarial properties. Over the next few years, optimistic farmers planted millions of trees and by 1909, blue gums were ubiquitous.

The bubble burst in 1913 when the US Department of Agriculture confirmed that eucalyptus wood warped, cracked, and twisted as it dried. According to the Janka scale, created to measure the hardness of wood, blue gum is difficult to dry, making it unsuitable for fencing, but they continued to be popular as shade trees.

Many Americans revile our beloved gum trees because of their supposed contribution to the wildfires in 2018 and 2020. However, forestry experts say that the native pine trees also contain volatile oils that are highly combustible and eucalypts are no better or worse than the indigenous species.

Here in Australia, where bushfires are a regular occurrence, we blame poor land management and climate change for our calamitous summer fires. We would never to think to blame our indigenous species, perhaps because they are so much part of our landscape and our psyche.

When you talk to most Australians about our connection to the land, we are likely to talk about our deep love of ‘the bush’.

We love our gum trees, but we’re happy to keep them here where they belong.

How did we get here?

How did we get here?

I went to the theatre with some friends recently and the conversation revolved around exercises you can do to keep yourself from falling over when you are going about your daily business. They recommended standing on one leg like a flamingo and spinning around in a circle with your eyes closed to make sure you can keep your balance when the lighting is poor.

“How did we get here?” I thought to myself.

I still cannot believe that I’m old. Not ancient, but definitely grey-haired, a bit creaky and wrinkly enough to be deemed an old lady by the rest of the world.

After the show I complemented my friend on her new hairstyle. After several years of dying her hair, she’s allowed it to turn back to its natural grey colour. She went grey years ago (way before it was fashionable) and I thought it looked fabulous. She kept it like that for three years and then suddenly dyed it brown again. I was so disappointed. It looked much more striking when she was grey. Last week she confessed that she started dying it again after an incident where she was standing at the bar and the barman started taking orders from the (younger) women behind her, ignoring her completely.

It was the last straw in a series of events that made her feel old and invisible, so she went home and changed her hair colour back to one which society thought was more acceptable for a woman in her early fifties. She said that as soon as she re-dyed her hair, she found a new romantic partner, so it was worth it. Now she’s in her late sixties and she no longer cares about what other people think.

We are used to these stories of older women feeling invisible, but to be honest, it’s not something I have experienced as part of being older because I’ve always felt a bit invisible. As an introvert, I’ve been okay with that because I certainly don’t enjoy being the centre of attention, but I also don’t appreciate being ignored because someone thinks I’m irrelevant.

Like most women, I’ve always attempted to do the best I could with what was available, but I’m not very vain, so I didn’t expect to be bothered this much by the signs of ageing. To be honest, it’s caught me unawares. I can cope with reduced flexibility and the propensity to huff when I bend over, but the wrinkles and looking worn out all the time are starting to annoy me.

I tell myself that I just need a good night’s sleep or that the lighting is bad, but I know I’m just getting old. I wonder if I should have invested in some decent night cream about forty years ago. Is it too late to moisturise now?

I’m relatively healthy and able to do nearly everything I could do when I was younger (albeit a bit more slowly), but I still feel bad when I look in the mirror. And then I feel guilty about feeling bad.

Writer Nora Ephron said that it’s your neck that ages you the most.

You can put makeup on your face and concealer under your eyes and dye on your hair, you can shoot collagen and Botox and Restylane into your wrinkles and creases, but short of surgery, there’s not a damn thing you can do about a neck. The neck is a dead giveaway. Our faces are lies, and our necks are the truth.

Nora Ephron

Nora, who wrote the screenplays for When Harry Met Sally, Silkwood and Sleepless in Seattle, wrote a collection of essays called I Feel Bad About My Neck when she was in her mid-sixties. She suggests the following strategy.

If I pass a mirror, I avert my eyes. If I must look into it, I begin by squinting, so that if anything terrible is looking back at me, I am already halfway to closing my eyes to ward off the sight. And if the light is good (which I hope it’s not), I often do what so many women my age do when stuck in front of a mirror: I gently pull the skin of my neck back and stare wistfully at a younger version of myself.

Nora Ephron

I’m not sad about being older, but I feel wistful for my younger self, who doubted herself so much and tried so hard to please other people. Mostly, I’m sad that I didn’t appreciate myself more. I could have worn prettier dresses, higher heels, brighter lipstick. I guess that wasn’t me, but I suspect I could have had a lot more fun and been kinder to myself.

Shortly after Ephron’s essay collection was published, she was diagnosed with leukemia and died at seventy-one, ending a brilliant career. Reading this reminded me that life is short and if you’re lucky enough to be growing older, go out dancing while you still can. Or learn an instrument. Or walk amongst the trees. Love your wrinkly old body and buy yourself some good moisturiser because it’s never too late until it’s too late.

Family secrets

I often used to stay over at my grandmother’s house when I was a little girl. I had two brothers and two sisters, so staying with my nanna gave my mother a break, (one less child to look after), and gave me the precious gift of being the most important person in the world, at least for a couple of days.

I slept in the second bedroom in a big saggy bed that was hard to get out of. The spring base had given up the ghost, but no-one had ever thought to replace it.

My nanna worked as a cleaner and would leave early in the morning to sweep and mop the post office floor, returning before I was awake to make me a boiled egg with toast soldiers. She would bring it on a tray, another special treat that never happened at home unless you were sick. I would luxuriate in the big bed reading books and pretending I was a princess. When I finally managed to get myself out of bed, achieved by holding onto the side and heaving myself out, my favourite thing to do was open all the drawers in the wooden dressing table and investigate the contents.

In one drawer, there was a box of musty yellow newspaper clippings. My family were always snipping things out of the paper, so I wasn’t surprised to find them, but I was quite puzzled by their contents.

One was an advertisement from a lonely-hearts column.

Clean living man (non-drinker) seeks single woman or widow for outings and companionship.

I was intrigued by this cutting and deduced that it was an advertisement posted by my stepfather when he was still a single man. He found his woman (my widowed mother), but I was still curious about why my grandmother had kept the cutting, and why it was a taboo topic to ask my mother how she and my stepfather had met. No-one ever mentioned it and it seemed that it was not a question that we were allowed to ask.

Every family has its secrets.

In my family, our most scandalous secret was that my great-grandfather, Lindsay Hague, was a bigamist. This is what we were told, and I never thought to question it, but recently I decided to find out if it was true.

I’ve never been very interested in family history, deeming it to be something that interests ‘old people’, or those with nothing better to do than trawl through shipping records, but old age is creeping up on me and causing me to reflect on my life and how I came to be the person I am and lately I find myself musing on the past.

In Telling it Slant: creating, refining, and publishing creative nonfiction, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola say that when we write about our families, we can see how people were shaped by the historical context in which they lived. Writing family history is also writing cultural history: the two are intertwined.

Investigating the lives of long dead family members has value as a way of seeking to understand the past, but also helps me figure out my place in the world. Habits and attitudes suddenly make sense. Aha moments abound.

***

Harry Lindsay Hague

Harry Lindsay Hague was born in 1865 in Strathalbyn, South Australia. He was my great-grandfather and a fine looking man. He had a flair for woodwork and was popular with the girls. This proved to be his undoing.

Lindsay Hague
Harry Lindsay Hague

He moved to Darwin and married Mary Jane “Daisy” Cleghorn in May 1889 when he was 24, but things obviously didn’t work out and Daisy was granted a divorced in 1902, on the grounds of desertion.

Lindsay popped up in Perth and married my great-grandmother, Minnie Laura in 1903. He was 38, and she was 22. My grandmother, Mabel (Madge) was born in 1904 and her brother Percy in 1906.

Minnie Laura

Their marriage quickly went downhill, and Lindsay left the family home. Desertion was a criminal offence in those days, punishable by a prison sentence with hard labour.

Minnie tracked him down and in September 1907, he was ordered to pay 25 shillings per week to help provide for his wife and children. He was soon in arrears and by January 1908 he was back in court for owing eight pounds in maintenance. This was a significant amount, equal to about six weeks’ wages. During the court hearing, Minnie admitted she had been around to the place where he was living, smashed his crockery and let a parrot out of his cage. The judge cautioned Minnie to keep away from Lindsay.

By August 1908, things had deteriorated, and Lindsay made yet another court appearance.

The TRUTH Newspaper had this to say:

Lindsay Hague’s little lapse

Leaves wife and weans in want: must pay up or shut up

Some twelve months ago, a well-built man named Lindsay Hague was ordered to contribute the weekly sum of 25/- towards the support of his wife, Minnie Hague, and his two children, and for a time he came up to the scratch with the brass at the end of each period. Then the order was increased to 30/- per week and whether the burden was too great or there was some other reason, Lindsay got into arrears. An application by him for a variation of the order was refused and since then he does not appear to have been a particularly happy man.

Eventually, he decided to take a trip to the Nor’West and as he did not inform his wife of his departure, she naturally took steps to ascertain his whereabouts, and after some difficulty succeeded in locating her lawful spouse.

The wife, a cleanly built little woman with a particularly determined looking face, gave her evidence very clearly. She said she had only taken out a warrant for her husband’s arrest because she could not get at him any other way. She had no desire to press the change providing he were willing to obey the order of the court. She had to live, and she had to do something.

August 29, 1908

Turkey Creek

When Lindsay disappeared up north to work, he travelled to a place called Turkey Creek in a remote area called the Kimberley, about three thousand miles north of Perth, Western Australia. The Kimberley is three times the size of England and even today, has a population of less than 40,000 people. It’s regarded as one of the world’s last wilderness frontiers.

In 1908 there would have been a very small number of white people in the area and it’s not clear what Lindsay did while he was there, but it’s likely that he would have found employment at a cattle station.

The area around Turkey Creek was first settled by white people in 1882, notably by the Durack family who established huge cattle stations in the area.

This had a devastating effect on the local Aboriginal people and in the early years of white settlement, massacres of the local Kija (or Gidja) people were commonplace, and Aboriginal people were also routinely poisoned by pastoralists. They were seen as a threat because they speared the cattle for food.

It’s estimated that about half of the Aboriginal people of the East Kimberley were murdered in the first fifty years of colonisation. In 1901, a ration depot was established at Turkey Creek (now called Warmun) to try and stop the poisoning of the indigenous community.

The daily food ration was one pound of flour, two ounces of sugar, and half an ounce of tea, with other foods, clothing and material items (such as nets and fishing lines) issued on an occasional basis. Rations were provided to old people, women, and children, but not to able-bodied men.

The practice of distributing rations to Aboriginal people didn’t cease until the early 1960s, when Aboriginal people became eligible to receive the same government benefits as other members of the community. It’s a shameful part of our history and I can only hope that my great-grandfather was not involved in the persecution of the local Aboriginal people.

Lindsay eventually made his way back to Fremantle (the port for the city of Perth) on a cattle ship and was arrested at Robb’s Jetty, the destination point for transporting cattle from the Durack brothers Kimberley station. This confirms my view that he must have been working at one of the cattle stations during his time in the Nor’West.

Unloading cattle from the Australind steamship (circa 1911). Photo credit – Museum of Western Australia.

During his court appearance, Minnie accused Lindsay of living with another woman, a claim that he vehemently denied. But shortly afterwards he scarpered off to NSW with his new lady friend, a woman called Mary Pratt and another warrant was issued for his arrest.

NEW SOUTH WALES POLIC GAZETTE AND WEEKLY RECORD OF CRIME

9 December 1908

West Australia – a warrant has been issued by the Perth (WA) Bench for the arrest of Lindsay Hague (better known as Harry Lindsay), charged with disobeying a magisterial order for the support of his wife. He is 34 years of age, 6 feet 2 inches high, well built, dark complexion, hair and moustache, oval visage; dressed in grey suit and grey straight rimmed felt hat; a labourer. Supposed to have come to this State. Arrest desired.

By my calculations, Lindsay would have been 43 in 1908, not 34, so perhaps that’s why he was never apprehended. They would have been looking for a much younger man and I imagine there were a lot of men in Sydney dressed in grey suits in those days.

Minnie was finally granted a divorce from Lindsay some twenty years later. I’m not sure why there was such a long delay.

This also made the news:

DAILY NEWS

9 November 1927

Wives deserted have to fend for themselves.

Two of the divorce petitions dealt with by the Chief Justice (Sir Robert McMillan) today arose through the failure of husbands to support their wives.

In 1927, Minnie Laura Hague sought a dissolution of her marriage to Lindsay Hague. When he married in October 1903, he was following the trade of carpenter. They had two children, but Hague rarely supported his wife adequately. At one time his payments to her over a 12-month period represent 3 shillings a week. He also occupied his time with other women.

Minnie eventually turned to the Police Court for assistance and received an order against her husband for 25 shillings a week. Hague did not comply with the Court’s direction and cleared off to the Eastern States with a woman with whom he had been keeping company. That was many years ago. She had not seen him since. “He left me without a penny”, lamented Mrs Hague.

Despite being left without a penny, Minnie was an astute businesswoman and somehow managed to purchase a bush block and build herself a house made from iron and wood. The house was lined with pressed metal, and it had beautiful glass panelled doors, but little by way of comforts.

The house that Minnie built

It was very dark inside because my great-grandmother only used low wattage bulbs to save money. Frugality (a family trait) involved re-using every docket for shopping lists, and empty bottles were used to border haphazard garden beds. The house had an unusual filigree gate made from the cut-outs from the heel plates of soldiers’ boots.

Times were hard, and one Christmas there was no money for presents or treats. My grandmother (Mabel) said she was thrilled to see a policeman come riding out of the surrounding bush on his big grey horse. He had a sugar bag on his saddle and from it took a cricket bat for her brother Percy, a rag doll for her, and a pudding for the family.

Minnie worked as a cook and washerwoman, often leaving the children with friends while she went away to work on sheep or cattle stations in the country. She eventually purchased two more blocks of land, which she set up as tennis courts for hire. Despite her diminutive stature, she watered and rolled them herself.

A photograph of my grandmother Mabel and her brother Percy taken around 1914 depicts them as well-dressed and moderately well to do, so she clearly managed pretty well on her own.

Percy and Mabel taken around 1914

Minnie died in 1949 in West Australia at 68, and Lindsay passed away in 1950, in New south Wales. He is buried in Liverpool cemetery. He was 84.

***

I often wonder what became of him after he arrived in NSW. Did he remarry? Was he ever charged with bigamy? I can’t find any record of this, so I guess I’ll never know.

What I do know is that I come from a long line of resilient women, and that makes me proud.

Here is a lovely photo I found of my mother Nola (another resilient woman), with her grandmother, Minnie Laura taken around 1948.

Nola and Minnie Laura

The man who didn’t wash his dishes

We have a lot of old children’s books tucked away on various bookshelves around the house. Some of them date back to my childhood, others belong to my husband, and some were my mother’s. When our children grew up and moved out, they left all their childhood paraphernalia with us, including many of their books, which apparently we need to keep for them until they have their own houses. That day may never come, given today’s property prices, and if they do miraculously buy a house, I’m pretty sure their old books will continue to live at our place. Why clutter up your own house when you can clutter up somebody else’s?

I don’t really mind because I like re-reading them.

One of my favourites is The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes by Phyllis Krasilovsky. It’s a very thin old book we bought secondhand at a fete for fifty cents. Originally published in 1950, it’s a simple story about a man who eats so much dinner that he goes into a food coma and can’t be bothered washing up. Once this bad habit becomes entrenched, he ceases washing dishes at all, and is forced to eat his dinner from random items around the house, including a vase, a flowerpot and even an ashtray! It always made me laugh.

The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes by Phyllis Krasilovsky, illustrated by Barbara Cooney

I always assumed that this was a little-known book, so it surprised me to discover that Phyllis Krasilovsky wrote over twenty books for children and two novels for young adults. She also wrote humorous articles for several newspapers.

Many of her stories were written for children she actually knew. The Very Little Girl (1953) was originally a birthday card for her sister’s child, and The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes (1950) was written for her husband’s five-year-old cousin who was dying of leukemia. I don’t quite know why a story about a man not washing his dishes is appropriate for a five-year-old child, but my children always loved this story and I have read it many times.

She also wrote the wonderfully titled The Man Who Cooked for Himself , which is about being self-sufficient and begins like this…

There once was a man who lived with his cat in a little house on the edge of a wood. He didn’t have a wife or children, so he always cooked his own supper, cleaned the house by himself, and made his own bed. The man didn’t even have a car or a telephone. But he had a friend who visited him every few days, bringing him the things he needed.

Phyllis Krasilovsky
The Man Who Cooked for Himself by Phyllis Krasilovsky

Phyllis started her career with a bang.

Born Phyllis Louise Manning, she was just nineteen and newly married when she stormed into the offices of Doubleday and demanded to see an editor. Children’s book editor Margaret Lesser heard the confrontation at the front desk, read the manuscript and accepted The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes a few minutes later. I don’t think it would be that easy today. After her husband checked the contract (he was a law student), the couple set off for Alaska in their miniscule car.

I’m not sure if it was this exact model, but their car was too small to travel on the back roads of Alaska and had to be transported on the back of a truck. It reminds me of Noddy’s car.

The couple spent three years in Alaska before returning to settle in Chappaqua, about 30 miles north of New York.

In those days, Alaska was regarded as the last frontier, a bit like the wild west. Phyllis had her first child in Juneau and subsequently wrote Benny’s Flag, which tells the true story of the Aleut boy who designed the Alaskan flag.

In 1927, Benny Benson was 14 years old and living on a mission when he won a contest to design the flag for the Territory of Alaska. He was awarded $1,000, an engraved watch and a trip to Washington, DC. Quite an achievement for a young boy.

Benny Benson with the flag he designed in 1927 – photo from the Alaskan State Archives.

Both Phyllis and her husband, Bill (an entertainment lawyer) were interested in helping people maintain or regain the rights to their work. Bill Krasilovsky represented many well-known musicians including Duke Ellington and Herman Hupfeld, who wrote As Time Goes By.

In the late 1960s, Phyllis was part of an initiative of eminent children’s book authors who pressed for foreign rights to their works to be negotiated separately from domestic publishing contracts. Other members of the group included Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) and Margret Rey (Curious George).

In her later years, Phyllis taught children’s literature in Tarrytown, near New York. She died in 2014, aged 87. I love her quilted vest. It’s very Alaskan.

Phyllis Krasilovsky 1926 – 2014

A bit puzzled

A bit puzzled

A few days before Christmas, my friend gave me a jigsaw puzzle to take home. She pressed it into my hands with such enthusiasm that I couldn’t resist, even though I don’t normally like doing puzzles. I usually get annoyed and frustrated when I can’t find the right piece, but I took it home because I thought having a puzzle on the go might lure my children away from their phones for at least a few minutes. It worked after a fashion, but then they all went home and left me with a pile of pieces, all crying out to find their proper place in the ‘big picture’, and I just couldn’t resist having a go at it myself.

In Australia, Christmas falls right at the beginning of the long summer holidays, a time when I always feel lethargic. The days are long and humid, and I don’t have enough energy to do anything except waft about, complaining that it’s too hot. I start books and abandon them half-way through. I make resolutions I know I won’t keep, and feel vaguely annoyed with myself and the world, so a puzzle was just the thing to give me a sense of purpose.

My husband rummaged around in the garage and came back with a piece of hardboard to put the puzzle on. It was a map of the world (circa 1960). It still had lots of pink (Commonwealth) countries. Sri Lanka was still Ceylon, and Tanzania was still called Tanganyika. He flipped it over and it became the perfect place to sort through the pieces.

A map of the world – Circa 1960

When Christmas was over, we moved the puzzle from the living room into my study, where I continued to sit in front of the pieces contemplating life and pretending to myself that I was doing something productive.

My husband would come in to give me encouragement, or advice about how I had too many pieces cluttering up the middle of the puzzle (true). I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. But every time I found a home for piece, I felt good about myself and the world. It made me wonder who invented this curious form of entertainment, and why.

It turns out that John Spilsbury, an English engraver and mapmaker, gets the credit for inventing the jigsaw puzzle in 1767, when he attached a map to a piece of wood and carefully cut out each country. Teachers used Spilsbury’s puzzles to teach geography by asking students to piece the map back together again.

John Silsbury’s dissected map – thought to be the first jigsaw puzzle

In those days, they were called ‘dissected maps’ and weren’t known as jigsaws until the invention of the fret treadle saw (also known as a jigsaw) which was operated with foot peddles like a sewing machine. By 1880, jigsaw puzzles were being machine crafted, and although cardboard puzzles entered the market, wooden jigsaw puzzles remained popular until the 1930s, when the puzzle craze reached its peak in the USA. Manufacturers mass-produced die-cut cardboard puzzles and sold them cheaply enough for most Americans to afford, even in the Great Depression.

Puzzles have enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity over the last couple of years, for obvious reasons. People are stuck at home and they’re a relatively cheap form of entertainment. According to psychologists, puzzles are very appealing when we are feeling stressed because they give us a sense of control and have a known outcome. They are the perfect antidote to living in a world where everything seems out of control.

I think I’ve changed my mind about doing jigsaws, although I have to say that a lot of them don’t really appeal to me. I might do another one next summer and if I do, it might be this one, which I think is beautiful.

Geode puzzle

Guerrilla gardening

Guerrilla gardening

There’s a splash of colour in my garden that doesn’t quite belong there.

It’s a bright orange gladioli, standing tall and proud amongst the greenery and the pale pink flowers that I usually favour. My beloved aunt went to heaven years ago, but not before popping a few random bulbs into the earth when no-one was looking.

Even though it’s out of place, it reminds me of our many happy hours together in the garden. She constantly admonished me for ‘pulling the heads off weeds’ instead of removing them with their roots, and I still think about her every single time I pull a weed.

She taught me to crochet and how to make the best tomato and onion salad (slice everything thinly and sprinkle with vinegar and sugar). She would arrive unannounced with a fresh chicken in a string bag, ready to cook for dinner. She never rang before making the two-hour train journey from Sydney, and I often wondered what she would have done if we’d been away for the weekend.

Aunty Dorothy was the perfect friend. She was sometimes hard on her own daughter, but gentle and uncritical with me. Once she stayed with us for New Year and we had an impromptu party outside with our own fireworks (sparklers). The kids sang songs, and she recited a poem memorised from childhood.

I can’t quite see her doing anything illegal, but she always went out walking with a pair of secateurs in her pocket so that she could help herself to a cutting of any plant that took her fancy, so she might have been a secret supporter of the guerrilla gardening movement (people who cultivate plants on land they don’t own).

The term was coined by the Green Guerrillas, a non-profit environmental group based in New York in the 1970s who transformed a derelict site into a garden that is still protected as a city park.

One earlier radical gardener was Gerrard Winstanley (1609–1676), an English Protestant religious reformer, philosopher and activist. Winstanley was the founder of the English group known as the True Levellers or Diggers, who seized public land with the aim of growing food to give away to the poor. Diggers Seeds in Australia, known for its commitment to growing and selling uncontaminated seed and speaking out against the corporatisation of our food supply, is partially named in honour of this movement.

Guerrilla gardening is also popular in Berlin and London, where the movement is led by Richard Reynolds. He recommends using mature, flowering plants to make a significant, immediate impact, or planting seedlings which are easily identifiable as not being weeds. Guerrilla gardeners are dedicated to revitalising ugly public spaces but don’t recommend growing fruit or vegetables on public land as they are prone to pests and diseases and need proper care. Fruit and veg should be grown in community gardens where groups of interested people can look after them.

Our own Costa Georgiadis (a hippy if ever there was one) famously supports the idea of growing plants on public land, mainly verges, which are under-utilised spaces. As Costa says, “gardening is about communication, relationships, routines and life-enrichment” and I agree. Gardening soothes the soul and brings people together.

Reading round up 2021

Reading round up 2021

One of my favourite things to do in December is to check out all the lists of the best books of the year. There’s always a title I’ve missed in my never-ending quest for a great read. It’s good to be reminded about books that have come out during the year, so that I can keep an eye out for them at the library. They sometimes take a while to show up on the shelf.

I’m hesitant to compile my own list of best books, because everyone has different tastes, but I’d like to share some titles I’ve enjoyed in case you are looking for something new to read over the holidays.

This task is usually easy for me because I normally keep a spreadsheet of books I’ve read, but this year I was very lackadaisical with my record keeping, so I’m not sure how many books I got through (and nor does it really matter) but I think it was around fifty. My list peters out in August, so I had to go back over all the issues of my newsletter to find out what I’d read, and when.

When I look back over my reading year, I can see that my concentration dropped a bit in the second half of the year, for reasons that are perfectly understandable, given the strange year that we’ve all had. Sometimes I find it hard to start new books. I wrote about that here.

I read a few romantic comedies (no shame in that) and some books that were definitely a little sweeter than my usual fare. I also gave up on a lot of books because they were not what I was in the mood for. No shame in that either. Life is too short to keep ploughing through a book you aren’t enjoying.

Overall, I think I’ve been a lot more fussy about my reading. I’m less inclined to read what I call ‘worthy’ books (they’re the books people tell you must read) and more inclined to read books that engage me with vivid stories and characters. I’d also like to note that my best reads were all recommended by reading friends or family. It’s good to have friends who know what you like and can recommend accordingly.

Here are my top ten picks for 2021, listed in the order I read them.

  1. Bruny, by Heather Rose
  2. Sorrow and Bliss, by Meg Mason
  3. Heft, by Liz Moore
  4. The Good Sister, by Sally Hepworth
  5. Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  6. The Covered Wife, Lisa Emanuel
  7. The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett
  8. Love Objects, by Emily Maguire
  9. Once There Were Wolves, by Charlotte McConaghy
  10. The Last Woman in the World, by Inga Simpson

What was your favourite book in 2021?

The Writer in the Changing Room

I’m excited to share the post I had published on the Brevity blog today.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

By Margaret Moon

Trying to become a writer is like trying on lots of new outfits to see what suits you. You start with what’s fashionable but quickly realise that the skirt is too short for your knobbly old knees and the colour is all wrong for your complexion. No matter how much you squint or look sideways at yourself in the mirror, you can’t take off the forty pounds you gained sitting at a computer writing business reports for the last thirty years and you can’t fool yourself that you look great.

One by one the dresses you’ve taken into the changing room end up on the ‘not for me’ rack outside the cubicle, hanging limply with their necklines askew and their sleeves inside out. Clothes that look appealing on the mannequin feel scratchy and uncomfortable. You begin to despair of ever finding a garment that makes you feel…

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Why you should read children’s books

Why you should read children’s books

During the last lockdown, the staff at our local library drove around hand delivering books to people like me who were stuck at home. I was thrilled when a pile of books magically appeared on the little white table on my front porch, wrapped in plastic and ready to take me to another realm.

I’d requested some children’s books and when they arrived, they came with a brown paper bag containing art supplies for a craft project suitable for three-year-olds. I don’t have anyone of that age at my house, so I gave the materials to a neighbour with two young children, but it told me that the library staff had assumed I had a small person living at my house. Why else would I be requesting picture books?

It would be easy for me to tell you I was doing “research” so that I can find a publisher for my own book, but the truth is that I enjoy reading books for children.

In Katherine Rundell’s book “Why you should read children’s books even though you are so old and wise,” she says…

“Children’s fiction necessitates distillation: at its best it renders in their purest, most archetypal forms hope, hunger, joy, fear. Think of children’s books as literary vodka.”

I love that quote. I should paint it on my wall.

Rundell says that as we get older, our imaginations become dampened and we can’t experience the same wonder that children experience when they see the stars in the night sky or the stark blue ocean. Adults feel these things at a primal level, but we are quick to deny ourselves wonder and joy. We avoid being child-like because it leaves us open and vulnerable. Who knows what other feelings might leak out if we admit to being enthralled or amazed?

Children never worry about what other people think. They shriek with delight when a beetle crawls lightly across their palm, or they see a lizard sunning itself on a warm rock. Everything is wondrous to a three-year-old, but sometimes older people forget to be amazed and become cynical and hard. Reading children’s books gives us a second chance to re-capture the bliss of being a child.

“When you read children’s books you are given the space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra”.

Katherine Rundell

Adults want things to make sense and align with their understanding of the world, but children don’t question the logic in stories, even though they are keen to ask “why” about most things in life. In The Tiger who came to Tea, the tiger eats all the food in the house and drinks all the water in the tap. Judith Kerr said that her publishers wanted her to change that line because it was impossible to drink all the water in the tap and that this would trouble children.

How foolish. If children can cope with the idea of walking through a wardrobe to a frozen wonderland full of speaking lions and magical witches, then they can certainly cope with a tiger drinking all the water in the tap.

Writing for children doesn’t mean you need to avoid big words

Rundell’s criterion for cutting words was whether they interrupted the story and not whether they were too sophisticated for children. She went against her editor’s advice and retained façade, abundance and renunciation in one of her books because there weren’t any other words that would do the same job of meaning, tone, and rhythm. But she had limits.

“I cut adamantine, a word I love and think children might also love, because it came at the climax of the story, and I didn’t want to lose even that split-second flicker of time that comes when a reader jumps over an unknown word. I would do the same for adults.”

I must admit that I had to look up adamantine because I was unfamiliar with that word. Imagine my surprise when I found it means ‘having the quality of being adamant’, which is exactly what I thought it meant, even though I was guessing.

Like adults, children understand the meaning of words by seeing them in context. They have good imaginations.

Children’s literature is not a lesser form of writing

Another myth that Rundell explores is that children’s books are easier to write than books for adults. I think they are harder. Children wriggle and squirm if they aren’t fully engaged in a story, but they can also listen to the same book hundreds of times if they like the rhythm of the words. Sometimes they just like snuggling up close to you while you read.

Children are keen to read about feelings and emotions

In the book “Are You My Mother?” by PD Eastman, a newly hatched chick goes out into the world to search for his mother. He doesn’t know what she looks like, so he asks every creature he meets if they are his mother. This includes cats, dogs and other animals. Eventually, a kind friend takes him home, and he finds his mother waiting for him and wondering where he is. This is a book about belonging, something every child (and adult) hungers for. Children can understand deep themes.

I like to read children’s books because they make me feel better about the world. When I’m stressed, or tired or angry, they bring me comfort and take me back to a place where feelings are allowed to be expressed and where values such as love and friendship are deeply held and treasured.

Children’s books get down to the nitty gritty without being pompous, but they are often profound. They’re like poetry. Pure, concise, and true.

Like literary vodka.