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…

View original post 454 more words

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.

And the winner is…

And the winner is…

There’s always a big flurry of activity when the winner of the Booker Prize is announced. This year, The Promise by Damon Galgut won the coveted award for the best novel written in English and published in the UK.

Winning the Booker is a big deal. The winner receives £50,000 and authors who are shortlisted win £2,500. This doesn’t sound like very much, but being shortlisted usually results in a dramatic increase in book sales, so it can transform an author’s career overnight.

But apart from the generous prize money, it made me wonder why the Booker is so important and how it all started.

It turns out that the Booker Prize has a very murky past involving exploitation, slavery and reparation.

Here’s a potted history:

In 1815 Josias Booker arrived in British Guiana, and his younger brother George joined him soon after. George found work as a shipping agent for the export of timber and Josias became the manager of a cotton plantation, where he managed nearly 200 enslaved people.

With the abolition of slavery, which took effect in 1834, the Booker brothers received compensation from the state for 52 emancipated slaves. The Slave Ownership Database at University College London records the total sum as £2,884, equivalent to £378,000 in 2020.

In 1835, George and Richard Booker (another brother) founded a trading and shipping company and established the Booker Line, which focused on shipping goods. Richard Booker died four years later in 1838, leaving Josias and George to increase the business after the purchase of sugar plantations across the colony. At one point, the Bookers controlled 75% of the sugar industry in British Guiana and owned five Booker Line ships. It was common to refer to the country as Booker’s Guiana, rather than British Guiana. After emancipation, the sugar plantations relied on indentured labourers shipped in from Calcutta. This continued for over three quarters of a century, with workers being treated as slaves and living in poor conditions.

In 1952, Jock Campbell took over the chairmanship of the company and his Fabian social politics transformed it into a benevolent force, providing major benefits for sugar workers. Jock Campbell helped to set up Booker’s Author Division, which sponsored the original Booker Prize until 2002.

The modern day Booker has no connection to the family and is currently sponsored by a charitable foundation.

Not only does the prize have a colourful past, the choice of winner is often very controversial. There is often widespread debate about whether the ‘right’ book has won as well as whether the judging panel was diverse enough.

This year’s panel was chaired by historian Maya Jasanoff and included writer and editor Horatio Harrod; actor Natascha McElhone; Professor Chigozie Obioma and former Archbishop Rowan Williams, who is also a poet. A mixed bunch indeed, but the winner was apparently a unanimous choice.

Will I read The Promise? Probably not. It looks too highbrow for me, but I might get around to reading Great Circle, which is very long, but getting great reviews. One of my favourite books this year was Klara and the Sun, which was on the long list, but sadly didn’t make it to the short list.

Do you plan to read any of the books on this year’s list? Let me know in the comments.

The elements of style

The elements of style

I spent the morning searching high and low for a postcard I bought in a New York bookshop nearly two years ago. I had chosen it especially for my friend Megan, but hadn’t given it to her, so I thought it would be perfect for her upcoming birthday. Using some clever detective work, I found it nestled between the pages of my copy of The Elements of Style, which I purchased in the same bookshop.

The Elements of Style was first published in 1918 by William Strunk Jr. a professor of English at Cornell University. It was later expanded and updated by his most famous student, EB White. Some of you might recognise EB White as the author of such classics as Charlotte’s Webb and Stuart Little.

Often simply referred to as Strunk and White, it’s a slim little book. The salesperson tried to convince me to buy a facsimile of the original, but I didn’t like the old-fashioned font, so I bought a newer, easy-to-read version. I was delighted to get my very own copy, but until recently, I hadn’t bothered to read it. It was only when I found my missing postcard that I realised that this very short book contains pretty much everything you need to know about writing well.

In chapter two, The Elementary Principles of Composition, it offers the following advice.

  1. Put statements in a positive form. For example, instead of saying “she did not think that the apples were very tasty” say “she thought the apples were sour”.
  2. Use definite, concrete language. Instead of saying “a period of unfavourable weather set in” say “it rained every day for a week”.
  3. Place the emphatic words in a sentence at the end. Writer and editor Allison K Williams also says that you should start sentences with a strong verb and end with a strong noun. “Bring me your dead” is a good example.
  4. And my favourite piece of advice: omit needless words. What can I say?

These suggestions will strengthen your writing, but they all take practice.

Plenty

Plenty

I grew up in the Salvation Army and once a year we had a period of a month or so, just before Easter, where we practiced self-denial. The idea was that you went without something you liked, for example, chocolate milkshakes, and gave the money you saved to the church so that they could support their international missions. It was a bit like Dry July, except you couldn’t abstain from alcohol because that was already on the banned list. The self-denial program was a thinly veiled, Protestant version of Lent, and everyone took it very seriously.

People are sometimes unaware that the Salvation Army is church as well as a charity. They have a hierarchy of ministers (called officers) and all the trappings of a religious institution, plus lots of flags and other quasi-military paraphernalia. There are three services every Sunday and a well-defined set of theological constructs underpin their work.

William Booth and his wife Catherine founded the Salvation Army in 1865. Booth was originally a Methodist minister who preached in the slums of London. In this environment, the Booths saw first-hand the effects the consumption of alcohol had on families and the community, hence the rule that all members of the church abstain from drinking alcohol and from dancing, which is thought to lead to lewd behaviour.

Methodism emphasises charity work and support for the sick and the poor, ideals which are known collectively as the Social Gospel, a social movement within Protestantism that applies Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, crime, racial inequality, environmental degradation, child labour and the dangers of war. These are all social issues that I care about, not necessarily from a Christian perspective, but because I think they are important, but I still think some negative messages have seeped into my psyche, especially in relation to self-care.

As with most Protestant religions, the need to deny oneself pleasure is reinforced strongly in sermons and hymns. You are told that denying yourself pleasure on earth will result in ‘riches in heaven’. This could be something as simple as not eating that second baked potato or foregoing a coffee when you are at the shops. If you go without something, you’ll be rewarded. Rather than accumulating wealth on earth, you pay into your heavenly bank account by doing good deeds and being charitable, but also by denying yourself pleasure.

I was talking to a friend about this recently. We both have issues with buying ourselves treats. Chocolates, flowers, exotic fruit and other desirable products, like beautifully scented hand cream. We happily spend our money on things that are deemed necessities, but there’s some unwritten rule about buying things that aren’t strictly necessary, but add to our quality of life.

A few years ago, I realised I had an issue with spending money on myself. Perhaps this came from my childhood, from too much time sitting on those cold, hard pews listening to sermons. I’m not sure. When my kids were little, I hardly ever spent any money on myself, but my ideas about what items are luxuries have changed over time.

In years gone by, I would only buy avocadoes occasionally because I thought they were too extravagant. Now I buy one every week along with milk, cheese, eggs, and other essentials. I’m still up in the air about blueberries. Are they a luxury? Are they a superfood? I accidentally bought two punnets last week when I was doing the grocery shopping online and was relieved to find that they were on special and only cost two dollars a punnet. Bargain!

Lately I’ve been practicing being more generous with myself and others. It’s nice to buy things for other people, especially things I know they won’t buy themselves. Being in lockdown has made this so much easier; there are so many opportunities for online shopping. I try to restrain myself from getting carried away, but then I think, why not spoil yourself? Why not spoil others? Life is short.

I haven’t forgotten to have a social conscience, but it’s tempered with more self-love. And lest you think I’m being critical of the Salvos, let me say that I think they do great work and I’m deeply indebted to them for my deep and abiding love of brass band music.