We had a great State Library (SLQ) session on Sunday morning 29 May 2022 at Anzac Square Memorial Galleries, Brisbane. Four other ‘Chalkies‘ and I recalled our experiences as conscripted Army teachers in Papua New Guinea 1966-73.
An amazing selection of images from the time, professionally assembled by Mt Nebo Multimedia. Terrific backup from SLQ’s Alice and Greg.
Thanks to librarian India Dixon, the videos will be added to the State Library of Queensland resource collection as part of their military memories program.
We had a great launch of the Oxley Men’s Shed anthology, Offcuts: Stories from the Shed, on Saturday 27 November in Brisbane. Nine men from the Shed contributed to the collection, and the first (modest) print run sold out! 70 to 80 people turned up to hear a brilliant launch by local Councillor Nicole Johnston, listen to music from the band Crossed Fingers, and enjoy a scrumptious morning tea.
This is no ordinary collection of stories. It draws on the varied experiences of nine men who have led very different lives, but whose paths have eventually crossed at Oxley Men’s Shed. In this book these mostly first-time writers have taken the opportunity to share some of their fascinating stories from the past with their families and with the wider community. Many of these are never-before-told tales, entertaining anecdotes that not only illuminate the writers’ earlier lives, but often trigger our own memories too.
In these stories we meet a former fitter and turner who as a boy decided to see what would happen when he packed gunpowder from leftover fireworks into a fruit tin and lit the fuse; a retired meat inspector who had to escape hand over hand down a rope off a high church roof when his ladder collapsed; an ex-plumber who starred in a Bollywood movie and dodged bombs and bullets while driving a tour bus in the Middle East; a former photographer who once had the ultimate hand in a boarding house poker game; and a retired insurance underwriter who relives his late-night dash home to dive under the bedclothes before the resident ghost appeared.
Then there’s a Vietnamese veteran driving an Army forklift who literally backed himself into an embarrassing corner with his commanding officer; an ex-teacher who was driving his prized first car through South Brisbane when the back seat caught fire; a former electrician who turned jackaroo to help out his mate on a cattle drive in northern NSW; and a retired agronomist who as a young man led a hiking group down a mountain during a cyclone, with intriguing romantic results.
This is a heady mix of yarns from a group of writers keen to tell their often remarkable stories – sometimes humorous, occasionally hair-raising, but always from the heart.
Offcuts: Stories from the Shed, Armour Books, Brisbane.
(A poem triggered by a comment from my late mother that people who weren’t there didn’t understand what it was like to live through WWII)
They do not know,
those who came after,
how the bugle call sounded
and the men went away;
when ration cards sold
in back streets of the city
and meat cost as much
as a decent week’s pay.
They do not know,
those with buds in their ears,
how we listened to rumours
of invasion to come;
how we lived with anxiety,
with gossip and blackouts,
and ran for the shelters
but refused to succumb.
They do not know,
those folk on high salaries,
how we once had sweet fun
on minimal pay
in the arms of young soldiers
at dances and parties
knowing the foe
was just islands away.
They do not know,
the punters and brokers,
how we bet on the future
with our wounded and dead;
not knowing if lovers
would ever come back,
not knowing if there were
more dark days ahead.
They do not know,
those planning grand houses,
that there was a time
we had hopes and dreams too;
but our visions were clouded
by tears for the dying;
the best we could pray was
we’d all see it through.
They do not know,
those who came after,
of that unreal existence
when nothing was sure,
or why we still yearn
for missed fun and laughter:
those who grew up
when the world was at war.
Copyright Darryl Dymock 2021
*Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand that broadly commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served”. It is observed on 25 April each year, the anniversary of the landing of Australian, New Zealand and British troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915.
A few weeks back I posted an interview with Fiona Stager, co-owner of Avid Reader bookshop in West End, Brisbane, Australia. You might remember how strongly engaged Avid Reader is with its community, both locally and online. So I thought you might like this recent post from Fiona, from the bookshop website:
“This Saturday 3 October we celebrate Love Your Bookshop Day which was created by the Australian Booksellers Association to celebrate bookshops across the country and highlight what makes local bookshops great. There will be facebook events, online events and giveaways galore.
Here at Avid Reader we have decided this year to rename it Love Our Customers Day! This is a chance for us to thank you for your continued support of our bookshops during this very uncertain time.
We have been overwhelmed with the many acts of kindness shown to us since March. An example is customers John and Jo who acted as our free couriers to 4005 and 4006 postcodes. Many people said it was the highlight of their day to receive a parcel and have a friendly chat with them.
We had orders from across Australia from family and old friends and concerned customers. Authors and publishers have also given us so much support. Along with an understanding and supportive landlord we have survived!
We thank you for everything you have done to support us.
Happy Love Our Customers Day,
I hope that message makes you feel good as we continue to stutter through extraordinary times.
If, like me, your senses respond to the feel and smell of books in a bookshop, you’ll like Avid Reader.
This award-winning independent bookstore has been in the high street at West End in Brisbane for 22 years and has firmly established itself in the local community. In recent years they’ve spun off a successful children’s bookshop next door: ‘Where the Wild Things Are’.
But the past few months of 2020 have been tough for storefront bookshops, and I recently talked to co-owner Fiona Stager about how Avid Reader has coped. This is an edited version of that telephone conversation. It first appeared on the guest blogger page at Margaret River Press in August 2020.
First I asked Fiona about changes she’d seen in publishing in the past two decades. You can listen to her response in this audio clip.
The developments Fiona mentions in that audio clip were of course all before a certain pandemic swept across the world and turned many businesses upside down, including bookshops.
I asked Fiona how Avid Reader had responded to the constraints of Covid-19 measures. You can hear her reply in this audio clip.
Despite the limitations of Zoom-based events, Fiona says they will continue with them after the current restrictions have gone:
Using Zoom has really allowed us to engage with a much wider audience. Each time we’ve done a Zoom there’s been an interesting story that’s come out of it. After our first Zoom event we did a survey: ‘I’ve always wanted to come to your events but I live in Western Australia’; ‘I used to come to all your events but now I’ve moved out of Brisbane and with Zoom I can come to all your events.’
Fiona has also moved all her book clubs to Zoom. But despite the geographically expanded audience, she says that sales are down compared to walk-in events. With an in-store book launch, for example, people often not only buy that book, but they also browse the shelves, and pick up other books that appeal to them on the spur of the moment. Nevertheless, Fiona says they will continue with Zoom even when face-to-face events restart because they know it does reach people beyond the immediately reachable community:
For any number of reasons people can’t come to the shop, but we’ve built such a strong reputation that people jumped at the chance of coming to Zoom events. It’s really opened up the world for us. It also means we can curate our program to even finer detail. So we’ve been able to match the best interviewer for the author, and they don’t have to be in the same city. For example one author was in Melbourne and the interviewer was in Sydney.
‘An ecosystem of small business’
Fiona actively fosters a sense of community, not only among the bookshop’s clients, but also among local businesses. She says that after such a long time in West End, she sees Avid Reader as an ‘anchor tenant’ which relies on other small businesses but has an obligation to them as well:
I made a commitment to our staff, our publishers and writers that we would be here after this [the Covid-19 shutdown]. But also I was really committed to being here for other businesses around us. It’s an important ecosystem of small business, that we all really need each other. That’s something I’m really passionate about.
And there’s been unexpected spin-off from the constraints:
I must say I’ve never been so pleased to be near a chemist. I’ve always thought it was important to be near good retailers, like a good shoe shop, good fashion, good food, a good bakery … . But now, I think it’s been really great to have been close to a chemist. People come out and go to the chemist for something, and then they come to us because the chemist is right next door.
Clearly Fiona is always on the lookout for ways her own business can survive alongside and with the other retailers in West End. But as a bookshop, Avid Reader faces particular challenges at this time.
I asked Fiona about her predictions for the future of publishing and book-selling in Australia in the coming months. You can hear her response here:
Fiona added that in the emerging sales climate, not all the books released later in the year will make it. And that’s got nothing to do with the quality of the books, she says, but to the fact that they’re ‘competing for everything from our shelf space to media and what will get coverage and traction.’
As for Avid Reader itself, I asked Fiona how she was feeling about the bookshop’s future in the midst of this uncertainty. You can listen to her prognosis here:
Fiona’s response is the experienced and pragmatic voice of someone who’s been in the book trade for more than 20 years. It’s clear she sees some hurdles and unknowns ahead. As with the spread of the pandemic itself, retail businesses are in uncharted territory, with a compass we’re all learning to use as we go along.
Nevertheless, in the midst of predictions of retail gloom and doom, and her struggles to maintain a solid client base, Fiona maintains a pro-active and optimistic outlook. Not that she hasn’t had her doubts. ‘At one stage I was just too stressed to read anything,’ she told me. ‘But now I’ve got myself out of that hole.’
So, with the stock of a whole bookshop to choose from, what does Fiona like to read?
I read mostly new fiction. I read a little bit of non-fiction. It will often depend if I’m being any kind of book judge – if I’m judging a literary award, I will read fiction, non-fiction, children’s books as well, and a little bit of young adult.
You’ve probably realised by now that Avid Reader is not only a bookshop but a dynamic part of its local community. We need all the publishing outlets our pockets can sustain, and power to them, but independent bookshops seem to have a special place in our communities, whether you visit them in person or online. And at the end of the year, you might think of Fiona’s prediction that for authors, publishers and booksellers alike, ‘it will depend how Christmas goes’.
Until next time
In the next blog, I’ll bring you another perspective on writing and publishing: a video interview with a key figure in editing.
I’m chuffed that a Haiku I entered in an international Covid-19 Lockdown competition run by Fish Publishing in Ireland made the shortlist (although it didn’t win):
There were 1436 entries for the Haiku, Poetry and Pocket Prose categories and the competition raised the equivalent of around AU$7000 for OXFAM’s Coronavirus Emergency Appeal.
Haiku is a Japanese form of short poetry comprising exactly 17 syllables. It’s normally written in three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five, but the competition sponsors indicated that on this occasion they would be flexible about the structure.
Technically, in Japanese literature, Haiku tend to be about nature, while a similar short form, Senryū, is more about human foibles.
Morning mist, Tamar River, Tasmania
Here’s another Haiku I wrote, on a similar theme:
only druggies and astronauts
were spaced out
Until next time
What writers say:
The shadow deepens at the edges of the scene. I hope we come out of it all the wiser.
I have written in an earlier blog about how I occasionally resort to writing parts of a story by hand when it starts to become bogged down. Not so much writer’s block as uncreativity. In other words, it sounds boring.
So I was interested to see the results of a survey of 2000 people undertaken by a Deakin University (Australia) researcher in conjunction with the retail firm Officeworks, which found that those who handwrite their thoughts and feelings were two and half times more likely to experience relief from anxiety, fear and worry than those who use a keyboard for the same purpose.
I don’t know that I’ve noticed any improved emotional level in myself, but I do think that the kinaesthetics involved in writing by hand do help to stimulate my creativity (eventually anyway!).
I often find that, when handwriting, I cross out bits, put arrows up and down to show where text might best belong, and write notes or queries to myself in the margin to help guide my second effort when I go back to the keyboard. It can look pretty messy.
I know that technically I could do the same things on my laptop or my tablet, but the scribbling and scrawling by hand seems to free up my thinking.
That second effort, at the keyboard, then becomes an editing process because I invariably change what I handwrote, hopefully for the better.
I understand J K Rowling writes her novels by hand first. I wonder if she feels relief from anxiety, fear and worry when she’s finished? Richer in some way, at any rate 🙂
Papa Hemingway on writing
The American novelist Ernest Hemingway (often called ‘Papa’ by those who knew him) once said he wrote thirty different endings to A farewell to arms. He told this to a distinguished Australian journalist and war correspondent, Alan Moorehead, when the two met in Italy in 1949.
In a biography of Moorehead by Thornton McCamish (Black Inc, 2016), the Australian writer says: ‘I do not know how [Hemingway] talked to other people, but with me he talked books, always of writing, and with the humility and doubt of a writer who reads for five hours or so every day, and who writes and rewrites for as long as his brain will work, knowing that it is only by a miracle that he will ever achieve a phrase, even a word, that will correspond to the vision in his mind.’
Fellow writers will know the feeling about getting it right. But how many of us read for five hours a day? And produce 30 different endings?
In a recent critique of Hemingway’s writing (Yale University Press, 2015), the Australian-born author and literary critic, Clive James, praised the American’s early novels but suggested that Hemingway’s later work was ‘ruined’. James said that Hemingway, ‘having noticed how the narrative charm of a seemingly objective style would put a gloss on reality automatically, he habitually stood on the accelerator instead of the brake. … He overstated even the understatements.’
Lesson: Don’t overdo it.
Until next time
What writers say:
Finally you get to an age when a book’s power to make you think becomes the first thing you notice about it. You can practically sense that power when you pick it up.
To misquote a well-known saying, the road to publication is paved with good intentions.
I certainly had good intentions about maintaining this blog more regularly this year.
My excuse is that I have been too busy doing other things, including quite a lot of writing.
And I am delighted to tell you that one of those writing efforts has been rewarded with publication:
My non-fiction book, The Chalkies: Educating an army for independence, will be published by Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, on 1st September, 2016.
Here’s the back cover blurb:
‘Two years isn’t a long time in your life, but at age 20 it can be significant.
Between 1966 and 1973, while Australian troops were fighting in Vietnam, some 300 conscripted teachers were quietly posted to Papua New Guinea. Colloquially known as ‘Chalkies’, their task was to raise the educational level of troops of the Pacific Islands Regiment in what turned out to be critical years leading up to the country’s independence.
Drawing on the recollections of more than 70 of those National Servicemen, Dr Darryl Dymock, a former Chalkie, tells the story of how these young teachers responded to the challenges of a life most of them never wanted or imagined for themselves, in an exotic land on Australia’s doorstep. It’s a unique tale of the good, the bad and the unexpected, told with flair and insight against the background of political developments of the day.’
Papua New Guinea flag
Major-General Michael Jeffery, a former Australian Governor-General, and an Army officer in PNG twice during the Chalkies’ time there, has kindly contributed a foreword.
The book can be ordered from Avid Bookshop, Brisbane at a special pre-publication price.
The Chalkies: Educating an army for independence
Darryl R Dymock
Australian Scholarly Publishing
Publication date: 1st September 2016
Pre-publication offer: $35 if ordered from Avid Reader Bookshop, Brisbane, by 31st August 2016 (RRP: $39.95)