Forgotten what memories are made of?

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing. ~ Luis Buñuel (Spanish film-maker 1900-1983)

Is it that I’m getting older that makes me see references to memory in several of the books I’ve been reading lately?

Or is it that the books I choose have an historical element that makes it inevitable that memory figures prominently?

I remember (yes I still do!) once reading that fiction authors tend to stick to a similar theme or motif in their writing across the years, whatever the plot or title.

I’ve never tested that hypothesis, but I wonder if it holds also for readers?

In any case, I found myself reading three books that specifically focussed on memories, two novels and one non-fiction.

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The first was Sebastian Faulks’ Where my heart used to beat, which takes its title from the long poem, ‘In memoriam’, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the relevant verse is quoted at the front of Faulks’ book:

Dark house, by which once more I stand

   Here in the long unlovely street,

   Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, waiting for a hand.

The focus of the book is the main protagonist’s memories of the past, particularly of his experiences as a British officer in World War II, some of which he explores reluctantly.

This character is a psychiatrist, and at one point even one of his patients asks him a question about memory: ‘If you forget something, surely it must be over and gone, Doctor. Isn’t there a time limit after which you can say, “Well, that just didn’t happen.”?  Can I be liable for things I just don’t remember?’

In relation to a ‘time limit’, all I can say is that when I was writing The Chalkies, about the experiences of conscripted Australian soldiers some 50 years ago, I was surprised at the range of memories they were able to dredge up.

Since I was one of those men, sometimes their memories triggered dormant memories of my own, and sometimes I had no recollection at all of incidents that seemed so clear to them.

In his book, The schooldays of Jesus, J. M Coetzee seems to challenge the clarity or even the reality of memory.

In response to a claim by the young boy in the story about remembering what life was like before, the chief adult male protagonist responds: ‘There are lots of people who say they can remember the life they had before they crossed the ocean. … The problem is that we have no way of telling whether what these people remember are true memories or made-up memories. … We just have no way of telling for sure whether a memory is true or false.’

Of course, sometimes we can cross-reference memories, ‘triangulate’ our sources, to try to verify claims, but one of the challenges for an historical non-fiction writer is when there is only one available source.

For example, when I was writing Hustling Hinkler, about a pioneer aviator, I could rely only on the pilot’s account about the times he was in the air solo on his record-breaking attempts.

Because of the dearth of information, there is still debate about the circumstances of Bert Hinkler’s death, alone, on a mountainside in Italy.

Which brings us to Simon Schama’s proposal in his book, Wordy, that ‘Memory without history is random recall; history without memory is just interrogation’.

He goes on to argue that it is the personal accounts of those who were there that brings the past to life. ‘History’s eloquence is inseparable from witness,’ he says.

The character in Coetzee’s novel would say: to what extent can we trust those witnesses to recall what really happened?, and the character in Faulks’ novel would say there are some things that are painful to remember.

Of course, there is a broader debate here about what are facts and what is truth, but that’s a bit much for an occasional blog, so I’ll conclude by telling you the titles of two books of memoir that got around the reliability and veracity question very nicely.

The author Clive James wrote a book he called Unreliable memoirs, and a friend of mind, the late Arch Nelson, former Professorial Fellow at the University of New England, called his memoir, My life. As I remember it.

It’s hard to quibble about accuracy with those titles.

Until next time

Darryl R Dymock

What writers say

Of course, when you correct the errors of others, do so with kindness, in the hope that later writers will be as kind when they correct yours. ~ Francis A Burkle-Young and Sandra Rose Maley, The art of the footnote.

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Ever heard of the Kamchatka Leaf Warbler?

Ever heard of the Kamchatka Leaf Warbler? Neither had I, until a couple of years ago when I read online an ABC Great Southern story about how this tiny Russian bird had been sighted in Broome, Western Australia. This was news because it was the first sighting of this leaf warbler ever made in Australia, and birdwatchers were very excited. Apparently these pretty little birds normally holiday in Indonesia to escape the Russian winter. Sounds like a smart move, except this ‘outflier’ was apparently blown off course and ended up in north-west Australia. It’s lucky it wasn’t declared an illegal immigrant and sent off to labour camp!

I used that news report as the basis for a short story, ‘A tough little bird’, which has made the shortlist for the Margaret River Short Story competition and will be published in the 2019 anthology by Margaret River Press, Western Australia. Author and poet Michelle Cahill, who chose the winners, is also editing the anthology.

My story is actually about two tough little birds – the Kamchatka Leaf Warbler and a fictional woman in a Perth hospital who’s clinging on to life. I worked and re-worked this story, and changed its title a couple of times, but finally came back to the question I have taped above my desk: ‘What are you trying to say?’ Margaret River Press is a quality publisher, and this volume will be well worth looking out for.

Educating an army in peace and war

Most people know as much about the Royal Australian Army Educational Corps (RAAEC) as they do about the Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. Yet Education in the Australian Army has a strong history – one that starts in the killing fields of Europe 100 years ago, then after a twenty-year break, turns up in the jungles of the south-west Pacific in World War II, spends a little time in Japan and Korea, detours into Vietnam and Papua New Guinea, then comes back to Australia in the final decades of the last century, and continues with a significant and active contribution to the needs of the Australian Army in the current century, including in overseas deployments.

French class, 1st AIF troops, Europe 1919

I know a little bit about that history because two of my published non-fiction books, A sweet use of adversity and The Chalkies, are about the history of the Corps, and I’m currently researching the Corps’ role during the Vietnam War 1965-72. I was also an RAAEC member as a National Serviceman for two years. It was because of that interest that the Head of Corps, Colonel Fiona Curtis, invited me to give a talk about the history at the annual conference of the Corps, held at Simpson Barracks, Melbourne in early February, 2019.

I called my presentation, ‘An Adaptive Corps for an Adaptive Army’, because the Corps has continually had to justify its presence in a military organisation, and therefore needs to be adaptive. I pointed out that Army Education began life in WWI as the AIF Education Service – and has always provided a service to Army, but it has come to be recognised as a Corps of professionals. I talked more than I intended to, but the audience was generous and interested, and it was good to chat with Corps members afterwards and at the formal dinner that evening.

Photo: The author with former Head of Corps Col. Katrina Schildberger & current Head of Corps, Col. Fiona Lewis, at the RAAEC dinner.

Until next time

Darryl R Dymock

What writers say: 

The ambivalence of labels and the intersections of race, class and gender for Australian women require that these conversations become more flexible and nuanced as we negotiate the next phases of multiculturalism.  ~ Michelle Cahill

Unformed possibilities: a writer’s inner world

On a recent visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, I came across an intriguing painting of the Australian writer, Peter Goldsworthy. The photo-like painting shows Goldsworthy sitting at his desk, looking through the window ahead of him, seemingly deep in thought.

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The artist, Deidre But-Husaim, said she chose the angle because she wanted to represent more than just the author’s appearance.

’I wanted to convey the process of trying to bring a thing or idea into being,’ she said, ‘ – a peek at the process and space that is inhabited between the person and resulting end point that we are not usually privy to.’

So her painting is intended to offer ‘a glimpse of the inner private world of Peter alone with his imagination, all unformed possibilities before him.’

‘All unformed possibilities before him’ – what an insightful understanding of the creative process, from someone who no doubt has her own ‘inner private world’ when she paints.

Deidre But-Husaim

I’m thankful to But-Husaim and her fellow artists at the National Portrait Gallery because I consistently find that other people’s creativity feeds my creativity as a writer.

Whenever I see works of art, or plays or movies that rise to great creative heights, I’m encouraged to push myself higher in whatever writing I’m working on at the time (or pushed to get moving again if I’ve been distracted from it).

I don’t claim that the end result is as inspiring as the creation that triggered my renewed enthusiasm, but at least I have higher aspirations!

Short story published

Perhaps it was someone else’s creativity that led to my putting together a short story that was published recently in an anthology, ‘Within/Without These Walls’.

Within Without Thesewalls multi copies

The creative non-fiction story, ‘Melons and mudslides’, tells of a day I spent at the iconic sporting venue, the Gabba, more properly known as the Brisbane Cricket Ground.

I think the title of the story will give you some indication that, among the spectators on the Hill, the focus was not always on the game being played out in front. The story begins:

“In those days, the Brisbane Cricket Ground was being redeveloped but wasn’t yet encased in the girdle of concrete grandstands and plastic multi-coloured seating you see today. On the south-east corner there was an uncovered gently sloping grass section – the Hill – set aside for spectators who couldn’t afford a reserved seat and weren’t averse to a glass or three of XXXX either. I find myself heading to the Hill this mid-December day because we’ve booked late, and the one-day match, between Australia and the old enemy, England, is a sell-out.”

Ernest-Baynes-Stand-at-the-Exhibition-Grounds-Brisbane-1928-crop

I enjoyed the challenge of conveying in words not only a physical picture of the venue and the tens of thousands of spectators that poured in that day, but also of the atmosphere an international sporting event creates, and of the ebb and flow of the crowd in response to what is happening around them.

When I was writing that story, a painter might have captured a very similar impression of me to the one Deidre But-Husaim painted of Peter Goldsworthy. Full of unformed possibilities. Except that I’d be staring at a wall.

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say

When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. ~ George Orwell

Bert Hinkler & the Italian connection – continued

I’ve recently been fortunate enough to make a second visit to Pratomagno, Tuscany, Italy.

That’s the mountain where pioneer Australian aviator, Bert Hinkler, lost his life when his tiny monoplane crashed in January 1933 while he was making another attempt on theBrochure cover Ital England-Australia record.

Regular readers will recall that I wrote a biography of the famous flier, Hustling Hinkler (Hachette Australia, 2013). It was a spin-off from that story which took me back to the crash site in 2018.

When I first went to the mountain two years ago, Cesare Ciabatti, the owner of an excellent restaurant, da Giocondo, which now sits close to the top of the peak, told me that he would love to be able to give visitors a booklet about Hinkler’s long connection with the area.

That connection has been fostered through an impressive display Cesare maintains on his bar wall, and also through Hinkler memorials nearby that are linked by a walking track, the Hinkler Ring, initiated by Carlo Palazzini and friends in the Club Alpino Italiano (Arezzo).

After I returned to Australia, I decided late last year that I would put together a small publication that could be translated into Italian, which Cesare might be able to provide for visitors.

After much liaison with him and with Carlo (who kindly finalised the translation) and with a Brisbane contact, Kevin Lindeberg (who has a much longer attachment to the Hinkler story and to Pratomagno that I do), we produced a foldable double-sided A3 brochure, with text, photos and maps (above).

I arranged for the typesetting and artwork to be done in Australia, and Cesare generously sponsored the printing of the brochure in Italy, in both Italian and English.

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Cesare Ciabatti and Carlo Palazzini with the new Bert Hinkler brochure September 2018

I had hoped we might have been able to organise some sort of ‘launch’ of the brochure on Pratomagno, but unfortunately my visit was planned for September, towards the end of the main tourist season, and Cesare needed the brochures several months earlier for his guests.

So I contented myself with a visit to da Giocondo to see the finished product, and a trek around most of the 8 km Hinkler Ring with family in the genial company of Carlo, where once again I was moved by seeing the Hinkler crash-site and memorial.

 

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Carlo Palazzini at 2015 Bert Hinkler Memorial, Pratomagno

 

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This tree on the slopes of Pratomagno may have been the last resting place of Australian pilot Bert Hinkler.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Afterwards I trekked to the top of the peak, which is topped by the giant Croce di Pratomagno (Cross of Pratomagno) and gives 360 degree views, which were spectacular on a warm sunny September day.

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The author on his way to the Croce di Pratomagno

We ended a memorable visit appropriately with an excellent meal at da Giocondo, and a local beer. (Yes, I know Chianti is the specialty of Tuscany, but I wanted to try the local brew – it’s called Pratomagno!) Our transport for the day was expertly provided by Andrea from Very Tuscany Tours, and we were glad to see him again after our previous visit to the region.P1100470

But wait – there’s more! There’s an intriguing aside to this story that began some months before. When we visited Pratomagno the previous time, good friends from Armidale, New South Wales, Geoff and Judy Hinch, were with us. Sometime after we had returned to Australia, to her surprise and my delight, Judy found three poems about Bert Hinkler in a collection of poems penned on the family farm by her late paternal grandmother, Marion Parsons.

One was written in 1928, when Hinkler made his record-breaking flight from England to Australia; the second was from early 1933, when he had disappeared and was still missing.

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The third poem was a tribute to the ‘Women of Strada’, an Italian town not far from Pratomagno. Soon after Hinkler’s body had been found, the women of the town sewed together panels of cloth, cut from whatever material they could find, to create a Union Jack (Hinkler lived in England) that could be draped over his coffin.

The poem concludes:

“Oh splendid Women of Strada

Did you feel when you made that pall

The kinships of wills and mothers

That maketh us sisters all.

And to us the greatest honour

Done for our hero’s sake

Is the flag that the Women of Strada

Tore up their sheets to make.”

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Australian newspaper article in 1936, three years after Hinkler’s burial outside Florence

It seemed fitting that I should read that poem in the presence of Cesare and Carlo on the slopes of Pratomagno at the time of my second visit. The poem and its discovery seem to emphasise the significant historical and perhaps emotional connection the two countries have to Bert Hinkler, and why it continues.

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say:

We occasionally felt that inside the book we read there was a better one – sometimes a thinner one- straining to get out.

~ Kwame Anthony Appiah, Chairperson, Man Booker Prize judging panel, 2018

He swung his stockwhip round and gave a cheer

Recently I stopped in the Victorian rural town of Corryong, and discovered something about a famous Australian poem, The Man from Snowy River, written in the 1890s by A. B. (Banjo) Paterson.

Man from Snowy R movie image

This stirring poem tells the story of a group of riders in pursuit of a valuable colt that had escaped and joined ‘the wild bush horses’ in rugged mountain country, and how:

When they reached the mountain’s summit, even Clancy* took a pull,

It well might make the boldest hold their breath,

The wild hop scrub grew thickly, and the hidden ground was full

Of wombat holes, and any slip was death.

But the man from Snowy River let the pony have his head,

And he swung his stockwhip round and gave a cheer,

And he raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed,

While the others stood and watched in very fear.

Eventually this ‘stripling on a small and weedy beast’ turned the mob of horses around and ‘alone and unassisted brought them back’.

The poem’s continued popularity is due of course to the theme of an heroic individual beating the odds in a rugged environment where the rest of his mates had given up. No wonder there was a movie spin-off.

Paterson always claimed the story was created from several stories he’d heard, but over the years a number of people have claimed to have been or to have known ‘the man from Snowy River’.

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A B (Banjo) Paterson

The town of Corryong sits attractively at the base of the Australian Alps, and it’s easy to see how the area and local characters might have inspired Paterson to set his poem there. (Corryong has claimed the poem as its own, as have a few other towns in the area, but Corryong also has an annual festival).

Corryong Vic

I learned in my stopover there that the poem was first published in The Bulletin magazine in 1890, but what interested me as a writer was that Paterson kept changing the original slightly, and that the one published in a collection of his poems in 1895 was probably the fourth version.

Apparently W H Auden was also known for continuing to ‘fiddle’ with the text of his poems between editions.

I don’t know whether any modern authors edit their material in this way when new editions appear, but I can’t imagine publishers are too keen on changing the text once it’s set up for printing.

Printing Press early

Nevertheless, I know that feeling of sending off the ‘final’ version of a book or short story and later thinking of ways I might have improved it.

I guess the lesson for us lesser writers is that if we can’t make changes after publication, we need to do all the rewriting beforehand. (Except of course for blogs – Caution: This version may not be the original, or the final one …)

Until next time

Darryl R Dymock

*Clancy of the Overflow was another well-known Australian bushman created by Banjo Paterson.

What writers say

‘In my racket it’s so easy to tighten up and get all stiff and wooden. Then the stuff is no good. When it’s good it comes easy. Anything you have read or heard to the contrary is a lot of mish-mash.’ ~ Character Roger Wade (a writer) in The long good-bye by Raymond Chandler.

 

New Year’s Eve: Remembering Bert Hinkler’s tragic end amid the snows of Mount Pratomagno

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As another year turns over on its well-oiled axis, it’s almost exactly 85 years since the Hinkler formal photo in suitAustralian pioneer aviator, Bert Hinkler, died when his plane crashed on Mount Pratomagno in Italy during an attempt on the England-Australia record.

Thanks to the efforts of Hinkler admirers in Italy and Australia, a memorial to this extraordinary pilot was unveiled on Mount Pratomagno in August 2015 (see my earlier blog, ‘A boulder for a bold pilot’).

One of those enthusiasts, Cesare Ciabatti, who runs a highly regarded restaurant, Da Giocondo, near the top of the mountain, recently sent photos of the memorial covered in winter snow.

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Despite the beauty of the scene, the image is a reminder of the time of year Hinkler crashed, when the weather for him was not as benign. When the Australian pilot and his plane came to grief on the peak, on 7 January, 1933, there was a vicious storm raging.

Hinkler’s body and the wreckage were not discovered until three months later, when the snows had melted from the slopes. He was just 40 years old.

At other times of the year, when the temperature is not sitting at close to zero, the 2015 memorial, the brainchild of Brisbane man, Kevin Lindeberg, looks like this (below). The 1.4 ton dark basalt boulder was transported from Mon Repos Beach, Bundaberg, Queensland, where the teenage Bert Hinkler first flew, in a home-made glider he built in his backyard.

Darryl Dymock with memorial stone

In September 2016 I was fortunate to be able visit the crash site (see above) and to trek part of a new walking trail, the Hinkler Ring, which connects the various memorials erected over the years and leads hikers to the top of the mountain, where the Croce del Pratomagno sits.

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Erected by the Franciscans in 1928, the cross stretches its arms across the 360 degree views of the colourful panorama of the Tuscan countryside below.

P1040797The Hinkler Ring is an initiative of Carlo Palazzini and his colleagues in the Club Alpino Italiano, Arezzo, and it makes this wonderful area more accessible to walkers of all abilities.

Mt Pratomagno

I can highly recommend a visit to Mount Pratomagno in Tuscany, a trek around the Hinkler Ring, and a delicious meal at da Giocondo. My wife and I are planning to head back for a re-visit in September 2018.

Weather forecasts New Year’s Eve 2017 

Mount Pratomagno : Min 1° Max 3°

Mon Repos Beach, Bundaberg: Min 26° Max 29°

(Source: https://weather.com)

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I wonder what decisions Bert Hinkler would have made if he’d been able to Google the weather forecast for Mount Pratomagno ahead of his final flight in January 1933.

Further information:

D R Dymock: Hustling Hinkler: The short tumultuous life of a trailblazing aviator (published by Hachette).

Hinkler Hall of Aviation, Bundaberg: www.hinklerhallofaviation.com

http://www.news-mail.com.au/news/hinkler-memoria-unveiled/2741194/

http://www.visittuscany.com/en/attractions/pratomagno-the-mountain-range

Until next time

Darryl R Dymock

 

What writers say

The real measure of ‘truth’ in any novel is not whether the characters, places and events portrayed exist beyond the pages of the book but, rather, whether they seem authentic to us as readers. When we open the pages of a novel, we enter into a pact with it. We want to immerse ourselves in its milieu. We want to engage with the characters, to find their actions psychologically plausible.

~ Graeme Macrae Burnet, ‘Afterword’, The accident on the A35.

(As with the ‘Foreword’, Burnet plays with the reader in what he writes in the ‘Afterword’, so we have to decide if this is the ‘real’ GMB speaking in the words quoted above.)

 

What’s the catch in Catch-22?

The absolute simplicity of Catch-22

One of the advantages and pleasures of browsing in a library or bookshop with real books (hard copy) is that you can stumble across publications you might never find if you’re searching online.

Recently I came across a library copy of Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, a book originally published in the US in 1961, and which I later read as a young man, when its humour and cynicism appealed to me (before I matured, of course). The term ‘Catch-22’ has now become a fixture in the English language.

I borrowed the book this time mainly to check the authentic origin of the term, because I’ve found in my research that so-called quotes from famous people are sometimes misquoted and even misattributed, e.g. a quote originally by Thomas Edison may be attributed to Albert Einstein.

Shakespeare has contributed so many phrases to modern English that it’s not surprising his words have been twisted a bit in the 400 plus years since he penned them.

For example, the witches’ line in Macbeth, ‘Double, double toil and trouble’ has often become ‘Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble’, and in Hamlet, the eponymous lead character is often quoted as saying, ‘Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well’, whereas what Shakespeare wrotehamlet skull was ‘Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio – a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.’

So I’ve found it advisable to check back carefully before using a quote that I’ve found on the Internet.

Hence my interest in the origin of the term, ‘Catch-22’, which I found first mentioned on page 52 of this Vintage Books edition (1994).

The story is set in a frontline US Air Force squadron in World War II, and Captain John Yossarian is the chief protagonist:

‘Sure there’s a catch,’ Doc Daneeka replied. ‘Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.’

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon Catch 22 coveras he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed.

‘It’s the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agreed.

So there it is, in the original. I don’t think ‘Catch-22’ needs any further explanation, but (as Yossarian said) Heller’s invention of the term and its meaning deserves our admiration.

 

If you want to be a writer, then get on and write!

During 2017 I’ve been privileged to be a member of the writers’ panel for the Queensland Writers Centre’s Writer’s Surgery, a support service for aspiring and emerging writers.

QWC LOGO

What has impressed me about the writers I’ve been working with is the dedication and passion they bring to the task, and their eagerness to make sure their book is as good as it can be.

There’s a well-known adage in writing: if you want to be a writer, then get on and write! It’s been encouraging to see newcomers taking on that challenge and developing very readable work.

Until next time

Darryl R Dymock

 

What writers say

He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it.

From Catch-22, Joseph Heller