Chalkies book launched

A sizeable and enthusiastic crowd gathered at Avid Reader Bookshop, Brisbane, on 8 October, 2016 to hear Colonel Katrina Schildberger launch my book, The Chalkies: Educating an army for independence.

It’s amazing how many will turn up when free wine and nibbles are on offer 🙂 Everyone I’ve spoken to said they had a good time, and lots of books were sold.

Colonel Schildberger is Head of the Royal Australian Army Educational Corps, and travelled from Sydney for the occasion. She gave a great speech to launch the book.

The Chalkies tells the little-known story of some 300 teachers who were conscripted into the Australian Army between 1996 and 1972 and quietly sent to the then Territory of Papua New Guinea while Australian troops were fighting in Vietnam. It is published by Australian Scholarly Press, Melbourne.

The conscripted teachers, colloquially known as ‘Chalkies’, were posted to the Royal Australian Army Educational Corps, and their task was to upgrade the educational levels of indigenous troops of the Pacific Islands Regiment in what turned out to be critical years leading up to the country’s independence. For many it was their first year of teaching and their first time out of Australia.

The Director of Army Education at the time, Brigadier Ernest Gould, described the initiative as ‘an educational scheme which for magnitude, scope, intensity and enlightenment is without parallel in military history’.

Yet most Australians have never heard about it.

With the aid of an Army History Research Grant, I drew on the recollections of more than 70 former Chalkies and archival sources to tell the story of how these conscripted teachers (one of whom was me) responded to the challenges of a life most of them never wanted or imagined for themselves. A small go group of ex-Chalkies gave me feedback on my research to help keep me on track.

It was very appropriate that Colonel Schildberger launched the book, because not only is 1966 the 50th anniversary of the scheme’s beginnings in PNG, it is also the 75th anniversary of the establishment of Army Education in World War II.

The jacket blurb says The Chalkies is ‘a unique tale of the good, the bad and the unexpected, told against the background of military and political developments of the day’.

A former Australian Governor-General, Major General the Honourable Michael Jeffery, who served two terms in PNG, wrote the foreword.

If you’re interested in reading The Chalkies, in Australia you can order a copy through your local bookstore, or direct from Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane. Alternatively, you could ask your local library to buy a copy. The ISBN is 978-1-925333-77-0.

Till next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say

By the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it.                                                                                                                 ~George Orwell

 

 

 

New book: The Chalkies

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.

Chalkies front cover

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

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

ISBN: 978-1-925333-77-0

Australian Scholarly Publishing

Format: Paperback

Publication date: 1st September 2016

 

Pre-publication offer: $35 if ordered from Avid Reader Bookshop, Brisbane, by 31st August 2016 (RRP: $39.95)

logo-avidreader

Go to:

http://avidreader.com.au/products/chalkies-educating-an-army-for-independence

Avid Bookshop, 193 Boundary St, West End Qld 4101

avidreader.com.au

or call (07) 3846 3422

books@avidreader.com.au

What’s the point you’re making?

‘Two years isn’t a long time in your life, but at age 20 it can be significant.’

That’s one of the comments I received in response to a survey I did last year of 180 ‘Chalkies’, conscripted Australian teachers who were sent to Papua New Guinea as part of their two-year compulsory National Service between 1966 and 1973.

Papua New Guinea flag

Papua New Guinea flag

My survey of that 180 resulted in 73 returned questionnaires, a 40% response rate, which any researcher would be pleased with. Those 73 Chalkies provided such rich replies that I’ve been working for months (in between other commitments and travel) on pulling their story together.

Actually, I should say ‘our’ story, because I am also one of those Chalkies. And one of my dilemmas in writing the Chalkies story from those years was whether I was writing ‘their’ story (as an informed insider) or ‘our’ story. After listening to me present part of that story at an international adult education conference in the UK last year, a colleague persuaded me that it should be ‘our’ story. So now I’m in it too.

The advantage of having an ‘outsider’ read or listen to any story we write was brought home to me recently, when I read a short extract from the Chalkies account to two work colleagues. It was, I thought, a pretty interesting non-fiction ‘short story’, involving possible military intervention in a civil dispute that seemed to be getting out of hand, and a prime minister intent on getting his own way.

When I had finished reading the story aloud to my two friends, about 2000 words, one of them said, ‘So what point are you trying to make’? I was a bit taken aback. Wasn’t this a good story in itself, which people would be interested in hearing, especially as they may not have been aware of the machinations that went on at the time? My research had found that detail.

My colleague said he didn’t know how my story fitted with the rest of the book, but was I just going to ‘hang the story out there’ and let people make of it what they will. He asked me again, ‘What point are you trying to make?’

I didn’t have a ready answer but as I drove home from the meeting, I thought about his question. What point was I making? Why was I including this anecdote at all? How did it add to the overall story? I ruminated on this the rest of the journey, and came to a decision.

Back in my study, I scrawled on a square of paper: ‘What’s the point you’re making?’ and stuck it above my desk. Then I sat down at my laptop and wrote a heading: ‘What point are you making in this book?’, followed by my dot point answers to that question.

I then went to each draft chapter and typed: ‘What point are you making in Chapter 1?”, and so on. I then provided dot point answers to that question for every chapter. In most chapters, I thought I had made the point sufficiently clear; in a couple of them, I felt I needed to spell out more clearly the point of the chapter, and not just leave it ‘hanging out there’. I was able to shape the final chapter with the question in my head.

As for the anecdote that had started the process, I cut it back considerably, so that it had a sharper focus within the chapter it was part of. I think it now has a point.

So, I am arguing that the question ‘What’s the point you’re making?’ should apply to the whole book, and to each chapter. In this case it was for a non-fiction book, but it seems to me that it wouldn’t hurt for a fiction writer to ask, ’What’s the point I’m making in this chapter?’ as a way of keeping focussed and also distinguishing the discrete purpose of each chapter within a cohesive whole.

My Chalkies book is now a draft manuscript of some 68,000 words and I’m exploring publication options with my agent.

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say:

‘And if a man would ever sit down and study his life in a practical good-sense way, he would … understand that nothing in his life ever ended. Things only changed and grew up into something else.’ ~ Richard Ford: A piece of my heart (Bloomsbury, 2006)

 

 

A different sort of revolutionary road

War and peace

It was 15-year-old Igor Labzin’s first day at high school and he was in trouble for walking on the neatly mown lawn.

‘Stay off the grass,’ the principal said.

‘Thank you,’ Igor said.

The principal frowned. ‘I said, “Stay off the grass”.’

‘Thank you, thank you,’ Igor said.

The principal’s eyes widened. ‘You don’t speak English, do you?’

‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’ Igor said.*

The principal was right. It was March 1962, and Igor and his family had just arrived in Brisbane from Indonesia. He could speak Indonesian, Dutch, Russian and a bit of French, but had no English.

Four years later, Igor graduated from the top class at high school, did an engineering degree, and then embarked on a successful career as a structural engineer in London, Montreal, and Canberra, and he continues to work in that profession.

The other evening my wife and I went to a launch of Igor Labzin’s book, Russia and revolution: My father, the officer, the man.

Igor Labzin

Igor’s father graduated from the St Petersburg Naval Academy in 1918, just months after the start of the Russian Revolution. He had the wonderfully Russian name of Boris Martemianovich Labzin.

The young officer decided to support the White Army rather than the Communists, and Igor’s book traces his father’s life through the ensuing turmoil of civil war and escape to Manila and Shanghai in the 1930s, Indonesia in the 1940s and 50s and finally to Australia.

We knew about the book launch because Igor and my wife Cheryl were in the same class at senior high school and we met him recently at a school reunion. He still lives in Brisbane.

Igor was off the next day to launch his book in St Petersburg, at the invitation of the State Museum of the History of St Petersburg. How’s that for an immediate international audience (although the book has still to be translated into Russian)?

The Australian launch was at the wonderful independent Avid Bookshop at West End, Brisbane, which is a great supporter of new and existing writers. Digital publishing may be gaining ground (and I’ve published online myself), but there’s a lot to say for the smell and feel of a bookshop like Avid, with ‘real’ books.

Igor’s introduction to his father’s life was fascinating, and I’m looking forward to reading Russia and revolution: My father, the officer, the man.

The Hinkler cake

Regular readers of this blog will know of my book, Hustling Hinkler, a biography of the pioneer Australian aviator, Bert Hinkler.

At the abovementioned school reunion, one of my wife’s other former classmates, Narelle McTaggart, told me about a ‘Hinkler Cake’ which had apparently been devised especially for Bert Hinkler’s triumphant return to Bundaberg, Queensland, his home town, in February 1928, after his record-breaking solo flight from England to Australia in a single-engined biplane.

The recipe came from members of the Bundaberg Branch of the Queensland Country Women’s Association, an enduring community organisation that has branches in every Australian state and parallel organisations in other countries, including the Women’s Institute in Britain.

Narelle subsequently sent me the recipe, which is reproduced below. I am hoping to have a go at making a Hinkler cake, but haven’t yet got around to it.

Base

1/4 pound self-raising flour                 2oz butter           

2 teaspoons sugar                               Pinch salt

Mix with a little milk. Roll out paste very thin, put in flat buttered tin and spread with raisins, dates and currants

Sponge mixture

2oz butter                                            2 well-beaten eggs (or 1 egg & a little milk)

½ cup sugar (beaten to a cream)       4 tablespoons of milk Eggs

1 cup self-raising flour

Beat and spread on paste and fruit. Bake in a hot oven. When cool, spread with lemon icing.

I don’t know if Bert himself ever got to sample a slice of the Hinkler Cake. If any reader wants to be the first to try out the recipe, I’d be delighted to hear about it on this site, crumbs and all…

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

* The ‘facts’ of this story are as I heard them, so this retelling may be a version of the truth.

 

What writers say

The true unreliability of everything written down utterly fascinates me. Even the person who has set down the so-called facts will still get it essentially wrong. ~ Sebastian Barry

 

 

 

 

Until you know what it is to be a pea …

peas

And the winners are…

The Queensland Writers Centre and the publisher, Hachette Australia, recently announced the successful applicants for their 2015 joint Manuscript Development Program, now in its ninth year. They are:

Patricia Holland’s literary fiction manuscript ‘Lochwall’ (QLD)
Victoria Carless’ literary fiction manuscript, ‘The Dream Walker’ (QLD)
Wendy Davies’ romance manuscript, ‘The Drover’s Rest’ (VIC)
Susan Pearson’s historical crime thriller manuscript, ‘River is a Strong Brown God’ (QLD)
Mary-Ellen Stringer’s contemporary literary fiction manuscript, ‘A Beggar’s Garden’ (QLD)
Angella Whitton’s contemporary fiction manuscript, ‘The Night River’ (NSW)
Kali Napier’s historical fiction manuscript, ‘The Songs of All Poets’ (QLD)
Susan Fox’s commercial women’s fiction manuscript, ‘Mine’ (VIC)
Imbi Neeme’s divorce lit manuscript, ‘The Hidden Drawer’ (VIC).

I remember the excitement I felt when my name appeared on that list in 2010 for my non-fiction manuscript of the story of the Australian trail-blazing aviator, Bert Hinkler, which was published by Hachette Australia three years later as Hustling Hinkler. I also remember the anxiety I felt as I realised I had to polish my work to the highest standard for publication, and then submit it to public scrutiny.

Dawn Barker's book, 'Fractured', was chosen for the Manuscript Development Workshop in 2010, and later published by Hachette

Dawn Barker’s book, ‘Fractured’, was chosen for the Manuscript Development Program in 2010, and later published by Hachette.

From the experience of writers selected for the Manuscript Development Program in the past, not all the authors on the list above will see their books published by Hachette. Some will go on to other publishers; some may not make it to the point of publication, for various reasons.

Whatever the final outcome, selection in itself is an acknowledgment that the writer stands out from the crowd, and has something special to offer. So that alone is an encouragement in an industry where ‘getting a start’ is tough.

I know a writer whose application was unsuccessful this year, and I know how much work she put into the manuscript and how she drew on professional advice to help her shape her story. Even though she missed out on selection, this author is not giving up – she has a back-up plan to seek publication in other ways.

Some of the readers of this blog will know that one of my favourite quotes about writing is from the late science-fiction author, Isaac Asimov:

‘You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.’ Isaac_Asimov

Read, and think, and listen to silence

I’ve been reading a biography of an author who won four Miles Franklin Awards*: Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather by Karen Lamb (University of Queensland Press, 2015), and came across this advice from the distinguished Australian author, Patrick White (1912 -1990), to Astley in 1961:

‘I think you should write nothing for a bit. Read. … Read, and think, and listen to silence, shell the peas, not racing to begin the next chapter, but concentrating on the work in had until you know what it is to be a pea … Then, when you have become solid, you will write the kind of book you ought to write.’ (p. 137)

Fire on the horizon

I was recently in Adelaide, South Australia, taking to ex-Chalkies about Army Education in Papua New Guinea (see previous blogs) and couldn’t resist taking this pic of the jetty at Glenelg around 8 o’clock on a Saturday night.

Glenelg Jetty Adelaide 8pm in mid-October

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

*The Miles Franklin Award award, now worth AU$50,000, was bequeathed by the will of Australian novelist, Miles Franklin, for a ‘published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases’.  All entries for the award must have been published in the previous calendar year.

A boulder for a bold pilot

A boulder from a Queensland beach is now resting on the side of an Italian mountain, as a memorial to the trail-blazing Australian aviator, Bert Hinkler.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I wrote a biography of the famous pilot, Hustling Hinkler, which was published by Hachette in 2013.

Bert Hinkler Memorial, Mt Pratomagno, Italy

Bert Hinkler Memorial, Mt Pratomagno, Italy

Australian Ambassador to Italy, Mike Rann, recently unveiled the memorial on the slopes of Mount Pratomagno, in Arezzo Province.

Hinkler lost his life when his single-engined Puss Moth monoplane crashed on the mountainside in April 1933, during his second attempt on the England-Australia solo record.

The local Italian community and aero club paid tribute to Hinkler at the time as a pioneer international aviator, and Mussolini’s Fascist government accorded him a spectacular State funeral through the streets of Florence.

Bundaberg Aero Club memorial at Hinkler Ring, Italy

Bundaberg Aero Club memorial at Hinkler Ring, Italy

So it is fitting that the Australian, Queensland and Italian governments should unite in support of a memorial to the gallant flier at the place where he crashed.

The boulder is now a feature of an eight-kilometre long mountain trekking path, called The Hinkler Ring, inaugurated by the Italian Alpine Club’s Arezzo Branch.

The memorial was the brainchild of Queenslander, Kevin Lindeberg, who met one of the finders of Hinkler’s crashed plane, Gino Tocchioni , in 1974, and so knew where the crash site was.

Bundaberg City Council arranged for the 1.4 tonne basalt boulder to be transported to Italy from Mon Repos Beach, where Bert Hinkler first flew, in 1912, in a glider of his own design.

Hinkler Ring Memorial Walk. Italy

Hinkler Ring Memorial Walk. Italy

A time capsule buried in the base of the monument includes letters from the recently deposed Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. About 200 people attended the August ceremony, including Australian, British and Italian dignitaries, and Hinkler’s great nephew John Hinkler.

Here is an extract from the Prologue to Hustling Hinkler, the only piece of ‘creative’ non-fiction in the book, about Bert Hinkler’s final flight, in April 1933:

When he passed over the city of Florence around 10 am local time, he was already behind the schedule he’d mapped out. By now he’d been in the air for seven hours, and he was weary from the drone of the engine and battling the elements. Hinkler wished he’d been able to leave London three months earlier, as he’d originally intended, when the weather – and Air Ministry officials! – might have been kinder to him.

He could see cloud on the mountains distantly ahead, and the thought of diverting to Rome attracted him for a moment, but just as quickly he dismissed the idea – any diversion would mean less chance of breaking the record, and his future depended on achieving that goal. He continued south towards Brindisi. As soon as he’d made the decision to go on, patchy cloud began to snatch at the cockpit, and he could feel the cold drilling deeper into his bones. Sharp fingers of wind continued to push and pull at the plane, and for a moment Hinkler wondered if he sensed another tremor through the wings, but dismissed the thought as he wrestled with the controls.

Up ahead, through the clouds, he glimpsed the snow blanketing the Pratomagno mountains. He knew the highest point of the range, the Croce del Pratomagno, the Cross of Pratomagno, was just over 5000 feet, but that held no fears for him – after all, he’d crossed the much higher Italian Alps earlier in the day. Just so long as the winds were not too violent, and the plane held together . . .

Till next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say:

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidarity to pure wind. ~ George Orwell

Input vs Output for Writers

The Brisbane Writers Festival (BWF 2015) is over for another year. I was fortunate to be able to get to a couple of the sessions on the Thursday and Friday – a masterclass withBWF-2015 US short story writer, Kelly Link, and another with researcher and biographer, Karen Lamb.

Kelly Link introduced us to The Family Arcana: A Story in Cards by Jedediah Berry. It’s described as ‘a story about a haunted family, published as a poker deck and written to be read an infinite number of ways’. Kelly’s deftness in shuffling this pack indicated either that she spent her childhood in Las Vegas or that she has a fall-back position if she ever tires of writing. One member of the masterclass asked her about the appropriate length of a short story. Kelly said she’d recently written a 14,000-word story, and one of her writing colleagues consequently suggested it

Author Kelly Link

Author Kelly Link

was time she thought about writing a novel…

I bought a copy of Kelly’s latest book of short stories, Get in trouble (Text Publishing, 2015), and when she signed it she warned me that the stories had ‘pretty weird endings’. I’m looking forward to reading it.

I have a few things in common with Karen Lamb – she’s a researcher and biographer, she teaches at a university in Brisbane, and she likes structure in her teaching. So she had a timetable for the masterclass. The value of the class for me was that it gave me new insights into my current draft about the ‘Chalkies’ in Papua New Guinea 1966-73 (see previous blog). Also, Karen mentioned a book by an American writer, the intriguingly named Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer (Harper Collins, 2006), described as ‘A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them’, which could be worth a look. I bought a copy of Karen’s biography, Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (University of Queensland Press, 2015), because I’m interested to see how she wrote it, and I also like supporting fellow writers as well as an independent bookshop (State Library of Queensland).Thea Astley biog

There were other potentially fascinating sessions at BWF, but apart from having family commitments over the weekend, I also reach a point at such events where I need to get back to my own writing rather than continue to hear other writers talk about theirs. I strongly support the adage that the best thing a writer can do is write! As a long-time educator as well as writer, I believe external input, whether through writers’ festivals, self-help guides or online tips, can be very helpful, especially if it’s timely, but it can also be an excuse for procrastination.

Book review

I thought I’d share with you my response to a book my wife gave me for my birthday: Between you and me: Confessions of a comma queen by Mary Norris (Text Publishing, Melbourne)

Mary Norris is a copy-editor at the well-known The New Yorker magazine, which publishes news stories, short stories, essays, cartoons, poetry, etc, and includes an audience well outside its host city. It’s also well-known, if not notorious, for its rigorous copy-editing, and Mary Norris is one of the enforcers.

new-yorker-magazine

This non-fiction book is part memoir, part discussion of points of punctuation and grammar, often humourously expressed, and sometimes self-deprecating. Nevertheless, there are clearly standards of English expression to be upheld, and Ms Norris shows she believes has a responsibility as a standard-bearer. She does not brook the use of dangling participles, for example, once objecting to this construction from an author: ‘Over tea in the greenhouse, her mood turned dark’, and she rejects outright the use of ‘their’ in place of ‘his and/or her’. Mary Norris also uses only No. 2 pencils for hard-copy editing and if someone accidentally leaves a No. 1 pencil on her desk and she picks it up, she knows immediately it is not hers, and throws it in her desk drawer.  Part of her story is about being able to find a reliable supply of No. 2 pencils.  You get the picture.

In between, the author gives us a fascinating insight into the backrooms of The New Yorker and her fellow editors, including Lu, who ‘patrolled the halls like a prison warden’. On Lu’s desk sat a small canister she called a ‘comma shaker’, to express her distaste for what she saw as The New Yorker’s over-use of commas.

Between you and me: Confessions of a comma queen is an enjoyable read, and some of Mary Norris’s punctuation examples are guaranteed to provoke discussion among people who care about the use of language. I just hope she doesn’t run her No. 2 pencil over my blog.

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

 

 

A bumper restart blog

Good intentions

There’s an old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The lack of activity on my blog in recent times has not been due to lack of intention but rather, lack of time. This has been a busy year, including a period spent in the UK, Finland, Sweden and Norway, as well as a short teaching stint in Singapore. Since I believe writers shouldn’t procrastinate, however, I’m determined to restore my regular blog and to let those generous people who were following it know that I have not neglected my writing since I last posted here. So here’s a bumper blog for the restart.

With Assoc Prof Sarojni Choy and Singapore students July 2015

With Assoc Prof Sarojni Choy and Singapore students July 2015

Conscripted!

Imagine that you’ve completed your teacher training in an Australian state or territory, and have just spent your first full year in front of a class. The next year, without your willing consent, but with the full force of the law, you’re in the Army. If you’re lucky, you may still be teaching, but not in a school, and not in Australia…

From 1965 to 1973, during the Vietnam War period, almost 64,000 young Australian men were conscripted by ballot into a two-year term of ‘National Service’ with the Australian Army. Over 15,000 of these conscripts were sent to assist the American war effort in Vietnam, but some 300 National Servicemen, who had been school teachers before their call-up, were quietly posted with the Royal Australian Army Educational Corps to the then Territory of Papua New Guinea for roughly 12-month periods. Colloquially known as ‘Chalkies’, the conscripted teachers served in the 3000-strong Pacific Islands Regiment, assisting an Australian Government effort to prepare TPNG for self-government and eventually independence.

Chalkies in Territory of Papua New Guinea

Chalkies in Territory of Papua New Guinea 1971

With the aid of an Australian Government Army History Research Grant and a small reference group of ex-Chalkies, I’m currently writing the history of that scheme, drawing on official records (ask me about the frustrations of archival research sometime, when you have an hour or two to spare), historical commentaries, and more recently, the responses of more than 70 ex-Chalkies to a national survey. This is a little-known story, and the recollections of those teachers provide a fascinating picture of young men suddenly catapulted from their school classrooms into the military, of how they survived the experience, and what it meant to them.

I presented a paper about this scheme at an international adult education conference in the UK in July, and am aiming to develop the fuller material into a non-fiction book. As a writer, I’m enjoying the challenge of capturing the diversity of stories, not to mention the humour and sometimes the pathos of individual experiences. Remarkable stories in unique circumstances.

Writers group

I’ve been meeting every few months with three other writers as a spin-off from a very successful workshop I ran for the Queensland Writers Centre in 2014, ‘Harnessing research for writing’. The four of us discuss our work and read from it, and at the last meeting we also shared our thoughts on a favourite or impactful* book.

To protect their privacy, I won’t mention the other members by name, but they have also been developing their writing: one has finished a novel based on true events in Asia and Australia, and is seeking publication; another has found a satisfying online outlet for his writing, which is based on his particular professional expertise; and the other member of the group is researching a 19th century soldier with American origins and an Australian demise, with the intention of writing a biography. It’s a very supportive and productive group.

*Hand up if you think this is a real word.

Baffled by Baffle Creek?

If you’ve never heard of Baffle Creek, that’s understandable, especially if you don’t come from the mid-coast of Queensland. I hadn’t heard of it either until Kevin Sommerfeld contacted me to see if I’d be interested in writing a history of the Baffle, as it’s known locally. My name had been suggested to him by Lex Rowland OAM, who chairs the Board of the Hinkler Hall of Aviation in the coastal city of Bundaberg, where Lex ‘launched’ my book, Hustling Hinkler, a little while back.

Baffle Creek, which is more like a river, empties into the sea just north of Bundaberg,

Baffle Creek

Baffle Creek

and Kevin grew up in that area.  He’s been assembling historical material for some years,but felt he needed some assistance to write the story. After meeting with Kevin, who lives about an hour’s drive from my place in Brisbane, Queensland, we agreed that I would take the lead in using the material he had collected to write a jointly-authored article for the Queensland History Journal. It was a lot of work, but we beavered away, and the result is a 6000-word peer-reviewed article, ‘Baffle Creek: the changing fortunes of an inland waterway’, which was published in the August 2015 edition of that journal. Kevin and I patted each other on the back via telephone.

Lifelong learning

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a strong proponent of lifelong learning (e.g. see my book, Extending your use-by date, and the Griffith Review essay, ‘Working late’), and am currently co-editing a book, Supporting learning across working life: Models, processes and practices, which will be published by the international academic publisher, Springer, later this year.  I’m also contributing as an author to three chapters in that publication.

Finally…
I believe in that adage that writers should also be readers, and read on average a book a week.  Just in case you think from what I’ve written above that I’m only into non-fiction, much of my recreational reading is crime novels and thrillers, and an occasional historical novel. I’m also working on a fiction novel and a couple of short stories, all based on real-life events.

What are you reading at the moment?

Darryl Dymock

Making a difference

I’ve never been one for making New Year resolutions, or rather, specific New Year resolutions, but at the beginning of each year I always feel an urge to do better in some way. (Mind you, the fact that I ‘m writing this on the first day of February might indicate that overcoming procrastination could be a specific goal worth aiming for.)

While I was doing a clean-up of my study over the past few weeks (which in itself might be seen as appropriately New Yearish), I came across two clippings, that, on re-reading, seem particularly appropriate for beginning a new year.

One of them is an extract from Ray Bradbury’s classic story, Fahrenheit 451:

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it, into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.” (HarperCollins, London, 2004, p.164) In everything that I do, I’d rather be the gardener than the guy who just cuts the lawn.  I think of my late sister-in-law, Monica, who was about the same age as me when she died 18 months ago, and how her memory still lives on in the lives of people she knew and loved, because she touched them in some way. Through her acts and words, and through her husband, children and grandchildren, she’s still there.

The other quote I came across is from Neil Finn, former member of the band ‘Crowded House’, who continues to perform. Talking about his song-writing in an interview published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Finn said:

“When something looks effortless, like it always existed, like it rolled out of you like a river, then you have done a good job. But what makes that up is painful, small steps, craft, skulduggery, anything that gets you over the line.”

Neil Finn

Neil Finn

I have a number of writing projects on the go this year, and my aim is to make all of my writing look ‘effortless’. But I know that will require ‘painful, small steps and craft’ and that magic ingredient Finn calls ‘skulduggery’. There is also another element, which he doesn’t mention: just getting on with it. Sit down and write.

For 2015, may your gardens be well tended and your creativity roll out of you like a river. “It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it, into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.”

How would you like to be remembered?

Darryl Dymock

On the importance of being literate

On the importance of being literate is the title of a book that my good friend, the late Arch Nelson, was inspired to create in the early 1980s, when he was Chair of the Australian Council for Adult Literacy. I was reminded of the book’s title by something Richard Flanagan said in his acceptance speech as co-winner of the Australian Prime Minister’s 2014 Literary Award for Fiction for his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Flanagan, who earlier had won the 2014 Man Booker Prize for the same publication, said at the PM’s event, ‘If me standing here means anything, it’s that literacy can change lives.’ Arch Nelson passionately believed that too, and in the introduction to On the importance of being literate, he wrote: ‘The level of literacy in our society is an index of the respect, the affection and the compassion we have for each other, and … these things … are – or should be – basic to our way of life.’

Flanagan showed his own passion for literacy by donating his prize-money to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF), an organisation dedicated to improving literacy among Australian Aboriginal people in remote and isolated areas. In making the gesture, Flanagan brought the wheel of writing and reading full circle – the ILF was founded by the owner of the well-known Brisbane indie bookstore, Riverbend, in 2005, and has been supported by the Australian Book Industry ever since. I also donate a portion of my writing income to the ILF, but unfortunately my book sales are not in Flanagan’s league 😦

Like Flanagan and Nelson, my experience as a researcher and an educator convinces me that literacy can change lives, because it helps people take control of their lives. To paraphrase radical Brazilian educator, the late Paolo Freire, literacy helps us to read the word and the world.

It was therefore disconcerting to read in the Sydney Morning Herald of 13-14 December, 2014 that primary and high school students in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, are not achieving literacy and numeracy targets, and that children starting the first year of school are less academically prepared for the transition than they were three years ago (p. 5).

This is despite the introduction of standardised tests at regular intervals at school, and the fact that some 96% of the state’s children were involved in some sort of pre-school program.

I don’t claim to know why improvements aren’t coming, but I do know what I first learned some 30 years ago when I was Secretary of the Australian Council for Adult Literacy: the acquisition of literacy is a complex process, that the ‘aha’ moment of ‘cracking the code’ comes for different individuals at different times, that no single ‘system’ or strategy of teaching works for everyone, and that learning to read and write is a long-term proposition, not something acquired overnight, especially for adults who may have had unhappy experiences of school, and have been out of the classroom for a long time.

Not only do writers have a vested interest in having a literate population, but, like Arch Nelson (and, I suspect, Richard Flanagan), I believe that the level of literacy in a nation is a mark of the extent to which we are able to understand the world in a critical way, to respond to it, and to participate meaningfully and sensibly in it.

What’s your take on literacy?

Darryl Dymock