The pleasure of ruins

I’ve been in England and Ireland the past few weeks, researching lots of things at once.

But I keep getting distracted by the many ancient stories all around me, some of them told in stone, brick, weeds and rubble.


Image of ruined cloister


I’m reminded of the lovely book The Pleasure of Ruins by Rose Macauley (I like it so much I have two editions – one with photographs by Roloff Beny).

The intoxication, at once so heady and so devout, is not the romantic melancholy engendered by broken towers and mouldered stones; it is the soaring of the imagination into the high empyrean where huge episodes are tangled with myths and dreams; it is the stunning impact of world history on its amazed heirs.

Especially on the west coast of Ireland, the ruins of cottages and whole villages often tell the story of the Famine or the Rebellions and their aftermath, or the expulsion of small farmers, or mass emigration of people like my own ancestors, or simple poverty – or all of these.


Deserted cottage on The Burren


Then there are ruined castles and towers, churches and abandoned graveyards, wells and tombs and ancient monuments.


Image of Poulnabrone dolmen


So many stories can be read – or imagined – in ruins, in stone.


Image of Stonhenge


All over the joint

Here are a few things from me you’ll find elsewhere on the web right now:

It’s just a flesh wound: what were sword fights really like?

Image of medieval sword bout

Some historical background for fantasy fans, on the Harper Voyager blog, with gratuitous Arya Stark references. Because. Arya.

Warrior women in history

I could have mentioned Arya in this, too. if I’d thought of it. But instead it’s a post on Kate Forsyth’s blog about just a few of the real life warrior women who preceded Julie d’Aubigny in history.

Interview  – me and Kate Forsyth

Again, on Kate’s blog, she quizzes me on fencing, on Goddess, on reading – and on life.

Julie d’Aubigny: the true story

How much of the legend is true? How could such an amazing woman exist – and how is it that she’s not better known?

So many people ask me these questions, and I’ve spent years trying to find the answers.

I’ll write more soon on my research discoveries, and how I incorporated them into the character of Julie and into the book.

But in the meantime, here’s the real life story of Julie d’Aubigny – Mademoiselle de Maupin. Opera singer, swordswoman, star. Goddess.


Classy entertainment

I’ve been thinking lately about the tradition of the working class as entertainment, those fictional and cinematic ventures into the foreign world of the East End or Fountain Gate, where life is hard but people have hearts of gold and everyone has a good belly laugh at everyone else’s expense.

There’s nothing new about this, of course, and the idea of a different class as a foreign country filled with entertaining specimens of The Other is not confined to the downtrodden. You could argue that The Great Gatsby does exactly the same thing, casting an essentially middle-class gaze on the upper echelon, while Captains Courageous teaches a pampered boy rude lessons of life and death through friendship with a poor fisherman. On the long march through the snow Pierre finds the answers to the questions of life, the universe and everything in the form of an old Russian soldier and a little white dog. The Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam switch roles in life (at least economically) with comic and tragic consequences, and the face of conspicuous consumption, Mrs Merdle, learns to live with less (or perhaps not).

Image of Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit at the gate of the Marshalsea

In all of those examples class conflict or difference is intrinsic to the story and its characters. You’d think we might be over that whole storyline by now, but no.

In Call the Midwife, a British TV series set in the East End in the 1950s,  we see the world through the eyes of the middle-class Jenny Lee. There is great poverty, cockroaches and preventable illness in the tenements (unchanged from Dickens’ day), prostitution and violence, huge families living on nothing but love, washing lines everywhere, screaming babies, lessons for young Jenny at every turn. The show (and presumably the memoir by Jennifer Worth on which it is based, which I haven’t read) has an equal amount of fun at the expense of Chummy, the plummy hyphenated do-gooder who grew up in India and can ride a horse to hounds but not a bicycle. Jenny Lee learns about friendship, love, hardship, courage and loss from people she would normally never meet. She comes to see the women as “heroines” not “slatterns”. But she is essentially on a visit to another world.

Image of Call the Midwife

Jenny Lee confronted with family life in the East End

Then there’s Downton Abbey, which I love, but which on one hand paints a world where immense privilege is only sustained by the hard work and moral fibre of those who pour the claret and polish the silver; and on the other hand tries to blur those class lines through dialogue and plot points which any real earl’s family would never have considered. Involve the housemaid in your affairs? Only as an accessory. Vice versa? Don’t be absurd.

In the revisionist world of Downton, we want to believe that the upstairs family members are so fundamentally good that they care deeply about the lives of those downstairs, that the household is enmeshed in one narrative, not two. Not even Tolstoy would have argued such a thing. Sure, no earl wants his daughter becoming a suffragette and running off with the chauffeur. But no earl would involve himself in the affairs of those below stairs, and nor would his family. They’d hardly have noticed the servants at all. Still, we can’t have that in Downton, can we?

Image of Downton Abbey

Her Ladyship dancing with Carson the butler

Closer to home, in every way, is Kath and Kim, the comedy series now become a movie. This focuses on the lives of the second- and third-generation post-war working class: as if the babies born in Call the Midwife and their kids all migrated to suburban Melbourne and got a perm. Which is not unlikely.

I never laugh at Kath and Kim. I tried to watch it in the early days, because I enjoy the work of the three comediennes behind it. But many of the jokes at the expense of the characters simply aren’t funny to me: when I was growing up everyone pronounced film as fillum, after all, so what’s hilarious about that? I just don’t get the jokes because they are about my generation, the people who migrated from Port Melbourne (our local equivalent of the East End) to Springvale or Mitcham or Sunshine, and from there to Berwick or Deer Park or – yes, Fountain Gate.

This has been playing on my mind over the last few weeks, and this morning I read this from Nigel Bowen in The Age:

Over the last decade and a half, the educated have had to make the painful adjustment to living in a society where aspirationals often out-earn them and largely determine the political agenda. Like galled aristocrats confronted by a rising merchant class, their typical response has been to snigger at the tastelessness of the newly affluent. Kath & Kim does this more gently than much of the “cashed-up bogan” comedy but it still does it. The malapropisms, mispronunciations and mixed metaphors of the characters allow the university-educated to chuckle at those who don’t understand the hilarious implications of wanting to be effluent rather than affluent. Many of them would see Kim – bloated by junk food, addicted to tabloid media, bedazzled by hyper-consumerism, utterly self-absorbed – as a portrayal rather than a grotesque caricature.

Bowen divides us between educated and aspirational, and it makes sense now our class sensibilities are less finely-tuned than they were a generation ago. But the cultural division runs deeper than that, and many of the university-educated people of my age are only able to be so due to that one brief shining moment of free tertiary education that jump-started a generation of kids (like me and our Prime Minister) into the professional class. Those who went before us never had the chance to finish school. Those who came after are still paying off their HECS debts. (God knows what will happen to those wanting a TAFE or university education in the next few years.)

There is inherent goodwill in Little Dorrit and in Call the Midwife. The reader or viewer in a comfortable armchair can engage at a safe distance with the lives of such exotic creatures as East End warfies or the inmates of the Marshalsea Prison, just as you might watch Michael Palin visiting the Bedouin or a David Attenborough doco. There is warmth, understanding, respect and as much likelihood of tragedy as comedy. Even in the long-running British series Keeping Up Appearances, one character’s snobbery was comic but everyone else was relatively normal.

Is one of the issues with Kath and Kim that aspiration isn’t a joke unless you are looking down on it from above?

Remember that Pulp song?

Sing along with the common people,
sing along and it might just get you thru’
Laugh along with the common people
Laugh along even though they’re laughing at you
and the stupid things that you do.
Because you think that poor is cool.

Image of Kath and Kim

Kath and Kim and conspicuous consumption

I see it through a slightly different lens. It’s a grand thing that my generation can watch Kath and Kim on their enormous plasma TVs in their McMansions in Cranbourne or Templestowe. Our grandparents would be so proud that all those hours in factories and on the wharf or on dusty Greek farms have meant that later generations can buy a house, have a car or two or three, a lawn to mow.

The conspicuous consumption lampooned in Kath and Kim is, in part, a way of staving off future fear, of saying “Look how far we’ve come – we made it into the lower-middle class!”, of celebrating the fruits of the labours of many generations. But clearly being lower-middle class isn’t good enough. It’s almost white trash, but with al fresco dining.

In a very silly book called How to be Inimitable, George Mikes wrote (in 1960):

The one class you do not belong to and are not proud of at all is the lower-middle class. No one ever describes himself as belonging to the lower-middle class. Working class, yes; upper-middle class: most certainly; lower-middle class: never! Lower-middle class is, indeed, per definitionem, the class to which the majority of the population belongs with the exception of the few thousand people you know.

(As an aside, lower-middle class is probably what the ALP means when it bangs on about working families. But the global financial crisis has meant that plenty of people who thought they had “risen” to be middle-class have found that their footing there is tenuous. That’s why Obama is readjusting the American Dream so that people aspire not to be Donald Trump but to be, more realistically, middle-class, as it was after the Depression and as it is now in countries such as India and China. That’s partly why the Republicans can’t quite figure out how to respond – they’re still stuck on the Trump narrative. And it’s unsettling for those of us whose youth was spent resisting becoming bourgeois.)

The characters in Kath and Kim aren’t on the bread line: they go to the mall and buy dreadful clothes and drink middling wine. Kath doesn’t have to take her father’s good pair of trousers down to the pawnbroker every second Friday to get a couple of shillings to see the family through to pay day. The telly can be bought from a store, rather than the local fence. Nobody need be in jail for running a bookie outfit on the side, or run from the coppers down the back lanes, or do a midnight flit because the rent’s due. That wasn’t true for their parents and grandparents.

The real Kaths of this world know what it was like, even if their kids don’t: they’ve been told the stories, perhaps lived the reality and they never want to be in that situation again. They don’t need to watch Call the Midwife to know how poverty looks. Many people in Australian suburbs know exactly how it feels – if only poverty had vanished along with the perm.

Sure, I’m as ridiculously susceptible to unrealistic nostalgia about the East End or Station Pier as the next person. One day I might even write about it. I loved the vaudeville singalongs of my childhood, and all the stories about uncles fighting bare knuckle bouts in someone’s front parlour, about the brawls at the cinema on Saturday nights, the black market deals, the SP bookies and two-up games in the alley behind our house. I love how my grandmother made everyone’s wedding dresses by hand and the women always tried to look like fillum stars when they were going out on the town.

But I also know that Uncle Phil lived on rabbits and little else up country in the Depression, that our family’s name was written in the pawn shop register every fortnight (‘one good tablecloth – linen’), that my grandfather had no proper boots until he went to work at 13.

I bet that was just hilarious.

Autumn on the Somme

Overgrown trenches

Last month I visited the Somme battlefields to do some research for a work in progress, War Songs. It’s a manuscript I began some years ago, and need to rewrite. One day.

War Songs is the story of an ambulance driver and a nurse in a Casualty Clearing Station on the Somme from 1916 to 1918, the years of the great battles on that stretch of the Western Front, and since I was in France I took the train north to Amiens to get a better feel for the country and the memories it holds.

Amiens Cathedral is one of the wonders of the Gothic world, as vast and glorious as Notre Dame in Paris, but without the crowds.

It was an appropriate place to start my journey, to stop and reflect and light a candle, with memorials to many of the forces that defended the town, including the Anzac force which stopped the German advance at Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918.

During the war, the cathedral was piled high with sandbags to protect the precious stained glass windows, the carved choir, and the ethereal stonework. The town and the cathedral were bombed, and again during World War 2, but saved from the utter destruction suffered by many of the smaller towns in Picardy and Flanders which, to this day, have never really recovered.

One such town is Albert, a few kilometres east of Amiens. I have set most of War Songs in an encampment outside Albert, a town through which so many soldiers and ambulances passed on their way to the front line. It was also famous for its cathedral – or basilica – the spire of which is topped with a golden statue of the Virgin holding the infant Jesus aloft. The spire was hit by a shell in 1916, and the statue spent most of the rest of the war dangling precariously. The soldiers believed that if she ever fell, the Germans would win the war. The Australians, of course, had many nicknames for the Holy Mother, including Fanny Durack – one of our Olympic swimmers.

The statue did fall eventually, blasted off its pedestal, although that didn’t seem to affect the outcome of the war. Albert itself was slowly beaten into dust by shells and bombs, and taken by the German Army in its Big Push of 1918. The basilica and the statue were rebuilt in the 1920s, and it remains – as it was then – a landmark visible across the battlefields, so you can always see where you are, and how near you are to Albert.

I hiked to the outskirts of Albert, to two small cemeteries. One was Bapaume Post, once on the frontline. Here, as in so many other sites, I was the only visitor, walking silently between the rows of graves, pausing every so often to ponder the eighteen year-old Tyneside Irishmen, the 45 year-old stretcher bearer, the four friends buried with their headstones close together, the rows and rows of human beings who share the same final day. 1 July, 1916. 23 July, 1916.  24 April, 1918. 4 July, 1918.

From here you can look back towards town, or out across what was once a contaminated mess of barbed wire, smashed vehicles, pulverised dirt, cast-off boxes and bottles and tins, and too many small wooden crosses or nondescript mounds of earth.

Cross of sacrifice

Like Gallipoli, the countryside is dotted with cemeteries, each with row upon row of simple white headstones, and edged with close-trimmed lawn and flowers, and the last few poppies of the season. Your eyes can trace the positions of the front lines and key battles by the placement of the cemeteries and memorials that mark the skyline – the high ground. Always the high ground.

Cemetery behind Thiepval memorial

You can also see, especially in autumn or winter, the marks of war scattered in the fields: the shattered white clay coming through the topsoil in circles (shell craters) or lines (trenches) or surreal blotches (all hell broke loose here). The earth still bears scars, nearly a hundred years on. Each year, even now, the farmers find more shell casings, belt buckles, water bottles, and – yes – bones. The locals call it “the memory of the earth”, or “Somme harvest”.

View from Australian memorial, Villers-Bretonneux

One day, I was very fortunate to have the services of Olivier Dirson from Chemins d’Histoire, a softly-spoken French battlefield guide. Olivier took me to Heilly, the site of a casualty clearing station by the railway line, its presence marked only by a small cemetery. It was just as I had imagined the setting of War Songs, but immeasurably sadder in real life. We travelled to Villers-Bretonneux, where the Australians checked the German advance, and where the school, famously, was rebuilt with funds raised by Victorian schoolchildren; to the mine crater at La Boiselle; to the old trenches at Beaumont-Hamel; to Pozières and the site of the windmill, which, according to Bean, “marks a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other spot on earth”.

From Pozières you can gaze across the few hundred metres to Mouquet Farm and a few hundred metres further to Theipval – to Lutyens’ magnificent Memorial to the Missing.

All these place-names, learned in school and on many Anzac Days, read in countless books.

It’s easy to do, easy to write: I stand on the remains of the Windmill and look towards Mouquet Farm. But in that field, the AIF suffered more than 23,000 casualties between 23 July and 5 September 1916 – just over six weeks.


Like Lone Pine, the distances between the sites of these horrific battles is sometimes just a short stroll. Just like the Nek, in places the opposing trenches were only a grenade lob apart. And yet … and yet men were expected to climb out of those trenches and run across that thin stretch of shell-pocked ground towards the machine guns, the wire, the other men. And yet they tried. Over and over.

The numbers, the facts, are literally incomprehensible. 30,000 British casualties, just to take Mouquet Farm, a small red-roofed building on a hill. The number of names listed on the Thiepval Memorial: 73,367. And that’s only the names of the British Empire and South African people who served here in these few miles of the Front and whose graves are unknown. Most of them died in the first few months of the Battle of the Somme.

Medical staff were among them: there were many RAMC headstones in the cemeteries I visited. 300 nurses – women – died in the war. Stretcher bearers and orderlies were amongst the casualties far too often (including my great-grandfather who returned from Flanders, gassed, and ill for the rest of his life).

The brain dodges around these numbers, tries to think about them logically, then flinches away: there is no way to properly understand them. 74,000 missing. That’s the entire population of Darwin. Or New Plymouth.

74,000 people.

Numbers too big to comprehend. But they hold enormous meaning: individually and collectively.

Then. Now. Always.

It was supposed to be the war to end all wars.

It wasn’t.

La Boiselle, above Lochnagar crater

Remembrance Day, 2011
Selected archival photos: Australians on the Western Front, Musée Somme 1916 (Albert)

Vive la France

I have gathered memories, images and notes of so many favourite things during my time in Paris, most of them to do with my research project, Tragédie; others accidental or incidental. Here are a few of the other things I noticed along the way.

Maquis motorbike
A fold-up motorbike, still in the steel container in which it was parachuted into Occupied France.

Also at the Musée d’Armée, best window frames ever.

I had been worried about Napoleon: he seems seriously out of fashion here nowadays, which seems a little unfair, given the education and legal systems and all that. But also I’d seen photos of his tomb, and it seemed very small. I know he was only little, but a weensy casket seems a bit sad.

I needn’t have worried. It’s as big as a bus.

But here is the thing that really stopped me in my tracks:

Paris is as beautiful and wild as ever. Men no longer urinate in the streets (though they still keep that time-honoured tradition in Marseille, we noticed). There are a million more tourists than last time I visited: you can’t even get into Notre Dame without waiting in a 200 metre queue. But it still feels like a spiritual home to me.

Always will.

For the first time, I walked further down the island and visited Sainte-Chapelle, an ancient jewel-box in stained glass. I gasped. Really.

And also for the first time, I visted Versailles. Twice. It was all just as opulent and dazzling as you imagine, but the most poignant, in a way, was Marie-Antionette’s little hamlet that she had built so she could play at being a milkmaid or simply get away from the rest of the Court. And there, having a lovely time, was a pukeko. Who knew? I always thought they were Antipodean.

There are so many museums in Paris, and I only visited those related to my research, but they included some gems, such as the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris:

The Musée Cluny, museum of the Middle Ages:

And in the National Archives I saw documents such as Marie-Antoinette’s last letter, the proceedings of the Parlement as they discussed the matter of Jeanne d’Arc, and the Edict of Nantes. Right there in front of me. The actual Edict of freaking Nantes. Revoked or otherwise. Consider me flabbergasted.

The Archives has a strangely moving exhibition called Fiches. It is focused on the different types of files the state or authorities hold on people, and in particular since the advent of the photograph: ID cards, mugshots, registers of varying kinds. I was just walking through on my way elsewhere in the building and got caught by the sight of ID cards for Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein (who famously stayed in France throughout both wars in spite of being American and Jewish), Man Ray, Josephine Baker, Samuel Beckett and Jean Cocteau, whose file has ANARCHISTE stamped in red across it. Then I was sucked right in, by agonising images of young Jewish people in 1938 smiling at the camera – just before JUIF is stamped on their file, of forged papers used by the Resistance and Allied airmen, of photos of nuns and criminals and apprentices and men going off to the trenches and Verdun.

Speaking of which, I’m headed north to the Somme now, to do some research for a different project, War Songs, which is a manuscript that’s been sitting in the drawer for years and which I will have to get to – one day.

On opera

This week I’ve been on planet opera.
It’s a pretty wild place, let me tell you.

The idea was simple – gather together in one room a whole bunch of aspiring librettists, and throw at them the combined wisdom, imagination, experience, suffering, creativity, skill and humour of some of the finest minds (and voices) in the business. For a week.


I applied because my brain exploded at the idea of creating an opera as well as a novel based on the life of Mademoiselle de Maupin. And because with all my current research into Baroque and Sappho leading to Tosca and gender performance archetypes and how they play out in opera, literature and life, something big is slowly taking shape in my mind, fragments are connecting or sparking or swirling. Hopefully it’s the rest of my PhD. Dunno yet.

And because, clearly, I haven’t got enough going on.

Just a few of the things I learned, some of which apply to any written work, some of which we all know but it doesn’t hurt to have them beaten into our skulls one more time:

  • There doesn’t need to be a narrative (arguably, there should not be a formal narrative)
  • Sounds of words may matter as much as meaning
  • Leave room for the audience – and the music – to do the work
  • Distill. Write essence only. Then distill again.

So I won’t tell you what happened. Just what it means for me today, knowing this will change over time.

Been thinking lately about fragments, about glimpses of lives and fragments of memory, and how to capture that in prose – specifically, in Tragédie – how to convey confusion, and memories being sometimes out of reach, sometimes conflicting. That’s not a lack of narrative, just a different way of writing it and reading it, but rethinking the meaning of narrative helped that project enormously. Or will, when I have time to reflect.

I also realised, though, that the idea of squeezing La Maupin’s life as a biographical narrative, into an opera was absurd. She may have died at 33 but she had more adventures than The Three Musketeers put together, and my version of her is also a recitative on guilt, sin, redemption and celebrity. So I’m left wondering what to do with that idea. And that’s good.

The concept I was left with was a meditation on opera, on gender, on performance of opera and gender in life and on stage, and on celebrity. A riff on Baroque, on costume and how it defines us. On sex and sin. With a little Lully and Purcell thrown in. And swordfighting. Or the sounds of swordfighting.

Sure. Still a bit of distilling to do.

Some soundbites from various presenters over the week:

  • People aren’t interested in stories. They want experiences.
  • Shakespeare’s ghosts are silent for a reason.
  • Opera is slow – it’s a meditation.
  • It’s also a blunt instrument.
  • It’s never going to be what you [the writer] imagined.
  • Write simple stories.
  • Contemporary opera done well can be very powerful in conveying the big ideas.
  • Music takes the ideas to the heart and bypasses the head.
  • Let the audience members make up their own minds.
  • If the composer isn’t weeping while she writes, nobody else will feel it either.
  • Intuition is quicker than the brain at figuring things out.
  • Each scene has its own self-contained logic and idea that contribute to the overall.
  • A breath can convey as much as a word.

Also, as with most forms of writing, it’s almost impossible to get work produced. But that’s never stopped me before.

I could go on, but I won’t.

Respect to Chambermade Opera and the VWC, the fine people at CAL who funded the workshop, the twelve bewildered composers who came to listen to our pitches, and our cast of gurus: Deborah Cheetham, Moya Henderson, Judith Rodriguez, Alison Croggan, Ida Dueland Hansen, Stephen Armstong, Margaret Cameron, David Young, Caroline Lee, and Deborah Kayser who sang our homework. (See! Read that list and weep with envy.)

Will now attempt to float back to earth.