Windows of opportunity

Windows of opportunity

Photo by Nathan Fertig on Unsplash

There’s a school of thought that says your opportunities narrow as you get older. This might be true in terms of career advancement, but I’m not so sure about that. In Lucy Kellaway’s new book Re-educated: How I changed my job, my home, my husband & my hair,* she tells the story of reaching 57 and deciding that she should make the most of what time she has left.

Her life-changing decisions weren’t the result of a cancer scare (as is often the case), or the death of a loved one, but were prompted by finding a house that she really, really loved. As a columnist for the Financial Times, she had the chance to purchase her dream house, and this was the beginning of an amazing new life. Finding the cash to buy the house involved leaving her husband, with whom she had a cordial but not especially close relationship. He had already moved into the basement of their Georgian house and they had and grown-up children.

I was fascinated by the idea of falling in love with a house and was amazed to find that you can actually see her iconic house on a design website, complete with the long orange bench top she describes in the book.

After buying The Frame House she leaves her job at the Financial Times to train as a secondary school teacher. This is a hard slog and there are many times that she wonders what on earth she has done! There’s a lot in the book about how the education system works and how hard teachers work.

The book made me feel a bit like an under-achiever although on the upside; I have a penchant for books in which people (mainly women) reinvent themselves, so I enjoyed it immensely.

It made me think about all the things in my life that I’ve put on the back-burner until I have time to do them. Time is something I have plenty of at the moment and luckily I don’t dream of becoming an astronaut, but I still have aspirations to be fitter and healthier, make really awesome sponge cakes, write a book, and maybe start a small business. All these things are possible and not very costly, so it’s not money holding me back but a lack of focus and low self-confidence, both of which I could overcome with a bit more determination and some more self-love.

One of my friends has just started learning Spanish and I know better than to ask her why. I know she is doing it because she wants to. She told me she lived in Spain many years ago and spent most of her time drinking in bars and dancing until the wee small hours. These are excellent things to do in your twenties, but now she’s in her sixties and she wants to travel around the countryside, talk to people and eat the beautiful food. Priorities change. I hope she’ll get back there one day, but even if she doesn’t, she’s enjoying coming first in her Spanish class.

So without wanting to sound like a motivational speaker, if you have some dreams in your bottom drawer, get them out and dust them off because there’s never a better time to do something interesting.

*This book is only available as an ebook. The hard copy will be published on September 21, 2021.

Sunshine on my shoulders

Sunshine on my shoulders

My friend and her husband mind their two grandchildren one day a week and enjoy it immensely, even though they find it exhausting. The baby has a sleep around lunchtime, and they have been told to put him in a room that’s heated to precisely 22°C. He’s zipped up in his sleeping bag (blankets are forbidden), and needs to be woken at a particular time, definitely not later than 3pm. There’s a long list of instructions and they follow them to the letter.

When my children were babies, I argued endlessly with my mother-in-law about how my children should sleep. She always wanted to put them on their tummies, but I thought I knew better. The SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) advice at the time was that babies should sleep on their backs, and I insisted that this was how I wanted it to be. I’m sure she probably still put them on their tummies when I wasn’t around, but fortunately they survived!

My mother once told me she enjoyed having her last baby the most. When she had her first baby, she worried constantly about doing the wrong thing, but by the time she had my baby brother (her fifth child), she had learnt to trust her own instincts and ignore the advice of experts. The nurses at the Baby Health Centre were terrifying and there were many rules to follow.

In the 1950s, the number one rule for a healthy baby was fresh air. “An abundance of pure, cool, outside air flowing fresh and free day and night” was how they described it in the baby manual. In the 1930s they took this edict to ridiculous lengths with the invention of baby cages. In London, they literally hung babies outside buildings to ensure that they had enough fresh air. In his book, The Care and Feeding of Children, Dr Luther Emmett maintained that babies needed to be aired to ‘renew and purify the blood’.

A baby suspended in a cage several floors up to ensure adequate sun and fresh air

Even though baby cages went out of vogue, the idea that babies needed both sun and fresh air persisted, and in the 1940s and 50s, mothers were told to put their babies outside in the sun so that they could soak up some of the sunshine. Not only was sunshine an antidote to nappy rash, it also helped prevent rickets. Scientists were aware of the relationship between sunshine and Vitamin D deficiency, but I suspect that most ordinary people just thought that the warm rays of the sun had some special life-giving properties.

And maybe they do.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s book, Klara and the Sun , the sun is characterised as benevolent and he also has mysterious healing powers. Klara, an empathetic and wise robot, asks the sun to intervene and provide his “special nourishment” to Josie, her human, when she is unwell. It wasn’t until this week, when I was sitting out in the sunshine, that I realised that the AFs (artificial friends) in the book are solar powered. For them, and perhaps for me, the sun is indeed magical.

This is a sad, wise, and funny book. It made me think a lot about friendship and about the mysterious healing powers of the sun.

You can read a great review here.

Portrait of an artist

Portrait of an artist

My husband and I were lucky enough to spend a few days in Sydney last week. People often recommend being a tourist in your own city and I have to admit, it’s a lot of fun. Even though I used to work in an office near to where we stayed, it was a long time ago, so it was quite an adventure to be in the big smoke.

We stayed in the Fullerton Hotel next to the old GPO, right in the middle of the CBD and close to everything. It’s a beautiful old building, tastefully restored. The Salvos were having their Red Shield Appeal launch in the Grand Ballroom and it was great to hear a brass band echoing through the building. We could see the old clock tower from our room and the bells rang every quarter hour and on the hour, but I suspect they are silent between midnight and dawn because they didn’t disturb our sleep.

The clock tower in the GPO in Martin Place.
The clock tower at the GPO in Martin Place

We were in Sydney to see Hamilton (the musical) which was fantastic, but we also went to the Archibald’s while we were there. The Archies (as they are known colloquially) is the biggest art competition in Australia and a cool $100,000 in prize money goes to the winner of the best portrait.

This year the Archies celebrated their 100 year anniversary, so there was a separate exhibition featuring winners from the last 100 years. It was fascinating to see how styles (and tastes) have changed over the last century. The Archies are always controversial because everyone has strong opinions on what they think should have won. To counter this, the Trustees of the Art Gallery established the Packing Room Prize in 1992, in which the staff who receive the portraits and install them in the gallery vote for their choice of winner. The prize money is a mere $1,500, but I think it appeals to our sense of egalitarianism that ordinary people get a say in the matter. There is also a People’s Choice award, so you can vote for your favourite portrait after you’ve been to the exhibition.

As a person with no artistic talent whatsoever, I’m in awe of people who can paint and draw, but there’s a big difference between admiring a work for its technical brilliance and admiring a work because it makes you feel some kind of emotion. I thought this portrait of Professor Mabel Lee by the artist Hong Fu was brilliantly executed, but there were other paintings that stole my heart.

A portrait of Professor Mabel Lee by the artist Hong Fu.
Professor Mabel Lee by the artist Hong Fu

There’s something about this portrait of Tané Andrews by Nick Stathopoulos that’s very moving, but I’m not sure what it is. According to the description, Mr Andrews is an artist who works in a gallery near to where Nick Stathopoulos lives. I especially loved the white shirt. You can almost feel its soft silkiness.

Portrait of the artist Tané Andrews wearing a white shirt painted by Nick Stathopoulos.
The white shirt – portrait of Tané Andrews by Nick Stathopoulos

It wasn’t until I got home that I realised that Nick Stathopoulos also painted the portrait below, which I think is magnificent. It won the People’s Choice Award in 2016, so even though I can’t articulate my feelings about these works, I guess I know what I like.

A painting of Deng Adut by Nick Stathopoulus
Sudanese refugee and lawyer Deng Adult painted by Nick Stathopoulos

Here’s a link to all the finalists in the 2021 Archibald’s. Which one would you vote for?

Shut that door

Shut that door

I’ve just finished reading Monogamy by Sue Miller. I’ve read a few of her books so I knew I was in for a great read, but to be honest it took me a few chapters to get into it. I think this is because I’ve been reading some very undemanding books (aka trashy) and this one needed a bit more concentration. As I’ve mentioned before, I sometimes find it hard to start new books.

Monogamy is about marriage, fidelity, and grief. It’s about what happens when you lose someone you love, but then find out that they aren’t necessarily the person you thought they were. It’s beautifully written, but I found some of it confronting. Not only did it make me think about my own relationships and how they have affected my life, I also found some of the explicit descriptions of their physical relationship disconcerting. Not because they had any weird sexual proclivities, more because I’m just squeamish about sex scenes in books and movies. I can watch murder scenes (albeit with my hands over my eyes, peeking through my fingers), but sex scenes sometimes make me squirm in my seat.

In the world of romance writing, books with explicit sex scenes are known as “open door” books. You follow the main characters into the bedroom and get to read a graphic description of what follows. Books that leave you at the door are described as “closed door” books, for obvious reasons. The door is shut firmly in your face and you have to use your imagination. I don’t think these labels apply to literary fiction, but romance readers are very picky about their books and there are lots of rules.

Personally, I would rather move on with the story of “what happened next” rather than linger in the bedroom for too long. There are exceptions, of course. In Emily Maguire’s book Love Objects, there is a very graphic bedroom scene near the beginning of the book which is integral to the story. The book wouldn’t make sense without knowing what happened in the bedroom.

I was talking to a friend about this recently and she agreed she finds long descriptions of sex to be irksome. Not because we are prudish, but because they simply don’t add to the narrative. Also, they aren’t necessarily very romantic in the truest sense. If you think about what constitutes a ‘romantic evening’, then that depends on where you are in life and what makes you feel happy and loved. It could easily be very romantic to see your partner doing the washing up! No roses or champagne required in that scenario. I have to admit that I’m a sucker for romance when it’s handled sensitively. We both agreed that the most wildly romantic movie in the world is The English Patient. Check out this clip and see if you disagree. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how the sex scenes are handled, but in the film they are beautiful. Also, Ralph Fiennes is unbelievably handsome, so that helps!

In “Monogamy”, I suspect that the sex scenes were included because they were illustrative of their relationship. They showed that her husband, (despite his unfaithfulness) had been a generous and caring lover. But if they make the book into a movie, I hope they leave some things to our imagination.

Farewell Eric Carle

Farewell Eric Carle

I was looking at the Publisher’s Weekly list of the bestselling children’s books of 2020 last week and noticed that Eric Carle’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar was number five on the list, so I was sad to read of his passing last Sunday. If you have children, you might have read The Very Hungry Caterpillar once or twice, or perhaps a thousand times, as I have!

I set off in search of my copy and couldn’t find it, which made me sad, although I’m sure it’s around somewhere. Perhaps one of my children has snaffled it?

First published in 1969, the book was an immediate success and has remained on the bestseller list ever since. Over forty million copies have been sold over the last five decades and it’s been translated into 60 languages. The book has enduring appeal thanks to its combination of lovely writing and beguiling pictures. The caterpillar seemed to have an insatiable appetite and you never quite knew what he was going to eat next. Also, kids (and adults) know what it’s like to be VERY hungry and eat anything in front of you, even if you end up with a tummy ache!

My kids loved the fact that you could poke your fingers through the holes in the book. Carle said that he was inspired to write a story about a bookworm when he was using a hole punch one day. Originally entitled “A week with Willie the Worm”, his editor convinced him to change his protagonist to a caterpillar and the rest is history.

Eric Carle sounds like he was a lovely man. In an interview with The New York Times in 1994, Carle said when he was a child, “I always felt I would never grow up and be big and articulate and intelligent. Caterpillar is a book of hope: You, too, can grow up and grow wings.” I love that idea. Who doesn’t want to turn into a beautiful butterfly?

So thank you Eric Carle for writing an excellent book. It has given my family hours of enjoyment and I’m looking forward to reading it again when I find it. If not, I’ll just buy a new copy because thankfully, it’s still in print.

Some kind of legacy

Some kind of legacy

I met some of my old work colleagues for a drink the other evening and it was lovely to catch up. They’re all super-focussed on their work and full of office gossip, some of which I can’t really follow because I don’t know who everyone is anymore. It still feels weird not being at work, even though it’s been more than a year since I left, but I’m mostly able to fill my days doing something useful, even if it’s just weeding the garden. I sometimes feel like I’m on holiday and one day I’ll wake up and find that I’ve been ordered to return to the office. That would be terrible!

Although I miss the sense of purpose that goes with having a job, I don’t actually miss the work (except for strategic planning meetings which I love). I think choosing your own projects is a lot more fun than having other people decide how you will spend your days, but I’m not very good with deadlines. When no-one is relying on you to finish a task, it’s very easy to put it off until another day. This is especially true when the task is something boring, but I also find it quite easy to procrastinate about doing things I enjoy, such as writing. It’s inexplicable really.

I’m assured by my work friends that they still mention me at the office (which was gratifying because no-one likes to be forgotten), but I was really interested to know what they remembered. They said it usually starts with, “as Marg would say…” and ends with one of the things I’ve been banging on about for years. It’s nice to think that someone was actually listening! It’s a bit like when your kids say something back to you that makes you realise that despite them pretending they were on another planet, or had cotton wool stuffed in their ears, they were taking it in all the time.

It just goes to prove that key messages do actually stick in people’s minds if you keep them short and repeat them often enough!

So here (in no particular order) are the sayings of Marg…

  1. White space is good Give your words room to breathe. White space makes complicated ideas more approachable and easier to comprehend.
  2. Slides are free, use as many as you like Don’t squash all your information on to one slide (see above).
  3. Simple is not the same as simplistic There’s a vast difference between making something clear and understandable and reducing a concept to a meaningless motherhood statement. The most beautifully designed products are incredibly complicated, but easy to use.
  4. What are you are trying to say? Once you know, you can write it down. Say it as simply as possible. Your readers will thank you.

There’s nothing really new of inspiring here, but I guess it could be worse. I reminded them of my favourite saying from the Best Marigold Hotel.

“Everything will be alright in the end. And if it’s not alright, it’s not the end”.

John Lennon

Do you have any favourite sayings that you’d like to be remembered for?

Dear reader

Dear reader

I’ve just finished reading a lovely book called Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy. It’s for middle-grade readers (8-12-year-olds), who are ready for novel length books, but not quite ready for young adult fiction, which often has quite strong themes around sexuality, loss, and the difficulties associated with transitioning from childhood to adulthood.

Dear Sweet Pea has all those themes, but they are softened. Body consciousness is dealt with gently, and relationships are all about friendship, rather than romance. It’s an enjoyable read with the main character inadvertently falling into the role of Agony Aunt when she gets involved with an eccentric neighbour who writes an advice column for the local newspaper.

It reminded me very much of a book for grown-ups called Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce, which has a similar storyline. Set in war-time England, Emmy (an aspiring war correspondent) takes a low-paid job at a rundown newspaper and begins to secretly answer the letters to Mrs Bird, the resident (and rather fearsome) advice columnist.

Advice columns have always been popular in newspapers and magazines. In the nineteenth century they offered advice on domestic concerns, as well as personal issues like how wives could make themselves indispensable!! They were a good way for women to ask questions about love and about sexual matters in a time when these things were not discussed openly, and doctors were mostly male.

Women have always wanted to know what’s normal and often don’t have anyone they can ask. Some topics are just plain embarrassing and hard to discuss with even your closest friends.

A good place to find the answers to embarrassing questions used to be Dolly Doctor, a column in Dolly magazine, published in Australia from 1970 to 2016. If you want to take a trip down memory lane, back issues of Dolly have been digitised by the National Library of Australia and can be found here.

Another well-known Australian agony aunt was Kate Samperi who wrote a column in the Women’s Day magazine from 1970 to 1993. She gave advice about life, love and happiness in her ‘Dear Kate’ column.

America’s most famous agony aunt was probably Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer, also known as Dorothy Dix. She was born in 1861 and was the highest paid and most widely read female journalist in the world at the time of her death in 1951. Her advice on marriage was syndicated in newspapers around the world and her name lives on to this day in Australian politics, where a ‘Dorothy Dixer’ refers to the practice of asking a government Minister a planned question during Parliamentary Question Time. This provides an opportunity for a Member of Parliament to either show off or waste time on a matter of little importance.

Modern versions of Dorothy Dix include Dear Sugar, a column originally published anonymously by Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild) and Ask Polly, a column in The Cut magazine, where writer Heather Havrilesky gives no-nonsense advice about a range of issues including how to find new friends, when to break up with your boyfriend and whether you have to thank your aunt when she gives you terrible gifts. Be warned that there is often quite a lot of sweary language (prolific use of the *f* word) in both these columns, but I like their tough love approaches.

I guess there will always be a place for agony aunts in various guises, because despite all the changes in the last 100 years, people are still deeply insecure and in need of reassurance.

I hope you have someone you can talk to, but if not, you can always write to me and I’ll do my best to answer.

You’re never too old for a story book

You’re never too old for a story book

I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books lately. I love the simplicity of the writing and the funny and quirky stories, but mostly I love the illustrations. I am in awe of the work that illustrators do to bring story books to life.

I’m currently enjoying reading Two Bad Teddies by Kilmeny and Deborah Niland, and it struck me that Niland is a very familiar name, but I couldn’t think why.

I thought they might be related to Carmel Niland, former Director-General of the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Community Services, former President of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, and founding co-ordinator of the NSW Women’s Co-ordination Unit, but it turns out that Kilmeny and Deborah are (or were) the twin daughters of Ruth Park (author of Poor Man’s Orange) and D’Arcy Niland (author of The Shiralee, a very famous Australian book about a shearer and his four-year-old daughter). What a pedigree!

Sadly, Kilmeny passed away in 2009, shortly after Two Bad Teddies was published. She was a prolific illustrator and artist and published over thirty books. She also painted a portrait of her mother, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. You can see it here.

Two Bad Teddies features Tilly and Gruff, a pair of naughty teddies who are jealous of a new soft toy named Bendy Bill. You can just see the displeasure on their faces as their new rival steals away the affections of Mollie-Sue.

Two teddy bears looking grumpy

Like most picture books, the story has a happy ending which I won’t spoil here. I like to read children’s books when I’m feeling down because they make me feel everything will be alright, even if things aren’t great at the moment. They’re a way to escape from reality that doesn’t involve over-eating or drinking too much wine.

So if your life is going a bit pear-shaped, I strongly recommend that you visit your local library or bookshop, and pick up some new books or some old favourites.

In the meantime, look after yourself!

Book Chat!

Book Chat!

Hello friends

I’m thrilled to announce the launch of BOOK CHAT: a newsletter for readers and writers. If you are a reader or a writer (or both), I’d be really pleased if you signed up. You can do that here. If you’d rather just receive these weekly blog posts, that’s fine as well. I’ll still keep posting here.

People often ask me what I’m reading and how my writing is going, and I thought it would be fun to send out some regular updates on both these topics, along with some of my favourite recipes.

To be honest, it feels rather bold to be launching a newsletter of my own. It seems like something a mildly famous person might do and I’m certainly not that, but I have the time to experiment and I love reading other people’s newsletters, so I thought why not give it a go? I’m sure I’ll make some mistakes along the way, but that’s okay. I heard someone say recently that the only way you can learn is by actually doing something, so I thought it was probably time to stop researching and start taking some action.

I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately, and especially about why we fear it so much. I’m not sure if it results from toxic work cultures, or whether it’s a by-product of capitalism and rampant individualism (whereby we have to be better than the next person all the time) but I know that an aversion to failure is not conducive to learning. If we don’t fail, we don’t learn.

People say this all the time, but no-one wants to be the person who fails. I know I don’t want to fail, even though I espouse the idea of learning by trying new things.

I’ve spent at least a year thinking about launching a newsletter, and I can honestly say that fear of making a fool of myself has been the main thing holding me back. So here it is – a new experiment. Join me!

cheers

Marg xxx

I want to be like Ramona Quimby

I want to be like Ramona Quimby

I love children’s books, so I was sad to see the passing of the children’s author Beverly Cleary (aged 104) on March 26, 2021. She was one of America’s most successful writers, selling over 91 million books during her lifetime. Her books have been translated into 12 languages and are loved by readers all over the world.

If you aren’t familiar with her work, Cleary was the author of the Ramona books (amongst others), a series of eight humorous children’s novels that center on Ramona Quimby, her family and friends. Her first book, Beezus and Ramona, appeared in 1955 and the final book, Ramona’s World, was published in 1999.

Cleary described Ramona as a feisty girl with no desire to conform, even when pressured by those around her. In Ramona the Pest, when her sister Beezus (real name Beatrice) asks her to stop being a pest, she says…

“I’m not acting like a pest. I’m singing and skipping,” said Ramona, who had only recently learned to skip with both feet. No matter what others said, she never thought she was a pest. The people who called her a pest were always bigger and so they could be unfair.

Ramona went on with her singing and skipping.

From Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary

Cleary (whose maiden name was Beverly Bunn), was born in Oregon, the daughter of a farmer and a school-teacher. She trained as a librarian, but didn’t start writing until she was in her thirties. She kept writing well into her eighties (there’s hope for me yet). Cleary said that children kept coming into the library asking for books about ‘children like them’ and there weren’t any, so she decided to write them herself. As a child she was a slow reader and was often sick and absent from school. This seems to be a common theme for a lot of writers. Long periods of time confined to bed must cultivate the imagination!

It’s not possible to calculate the effect that books have on people, but I think that children’s books in particular can really influence how we see ourselves in the world. It’s good to read about characters who look and feel the way you do, especially if you feel like you don’t really feel you fit in. I think this is the reason that I love Ramona. She’s both vulnerable and brave.

Here’s a lovely tribute from journalist Scaachi Koul, born some 20 years after the first Ramona book was published, talking about how the Ramona books affected her life.

Have you read any of her books? Do you have a favourite character?