Saturday, March 17, 2012


About ten years ago I started work on a musical based on the life of Margaret Fulton. There had already been quite a few pastiche biographical musicals - one particularly famous one about former PM Paul Keating.
 A very cool ex- Prime Minister
But I don't want this musical to be a pastiche, because when I met Margaret while researching another TV project, I found her to be delightful and full of surprises.  Margaret Fulton deserves a proper musical. I was nervous when I visited Margaret's home in Balmain and I made some lame comment about our shared Caledonian history and how it was strange that a cook like Margaret descended from a race whose cookery is often held to be just a little higher up the culinary ladder than cannibalism. Those weren't my exact words, but I certainly made some uncomplimentary remarks about Scottish cookery. (I suspect that Margaret had previously heard remarks about her Caledonian heritage and how one does not immediately associate Scotland with fine food, but rather, the Scots are known for eating some parts of an animal that are generally - if not correctly - considered revolting.) Margaret was a good deal less than impressed with my attempt to break the ice. She didn't lose her temper but she became quite wary of me, and rightly so.
An even cooler Scotsman.
It was stupid of me to make the comment, for I have eaten and enjoyed haggis and other Caledonian delights, especially when my father was President of the Clan MacLeod in Victoria. I remembered a New Year's Eve ceilidh in a hall in the Melbourne suburbs, where there was a lot of highland dancing and good cheer going on. I enjoyed the fact that one of the kilted Highland dancers was very definitely Chinese, though he proudly associated himself with the Clan MacLeod, and was duly embraced by the clan, as his name was most cetainly MacLeod. (Would that other groups were so elastic in their entry requirements, except, say for the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.)
Behold Ye haggis.
As the night wore on, we kids were falling asleep, though Mum and Dad kept inviting us to take part in the dancing. We might have been wearing kilts, but we knew very little about the correct dance steps, though we did happily roar during the chorus of a fine song, The Black Bear, in which participants are expected to roar like a bear during the nifty bagpipe skirl at the end of each verse.

Beautiful, isn't he? I don't know why the Scots sing about
a black bear when there aren't any bears in Scotland, to my knowledge. This one is from Canada.

But come midnight, the novelty of roaring and wearing bright yellow kilts had worn off. We were asleep. Fortunately, a lone piper woke us up; for we had come to the highlight of the evening: the piping of the haggis. After the piper played a flourish, a Scotswoman with a loud and proud voice came out and recited a poem by Robbie Burns, Scotland's greatest poet (who is, for some reason, extraordinarily popular in Russia. This is true, I learned it from a Russian. It's not just some dodgy piece of ephemera I picked up from watching QI.) The poem ended. It was called Address to a Haggis. It starts like this (in the anglicised version, since you'd never understand the Scots version):

Fair is your honest happy face
Great chieftain of the pudding race
Above them all you take your place
Stomach, tripe or guts
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm

The groaning platter there you fill
Your buttocks like a distant hill
Your skewer would help to repair a mill
In time of need
While through your pores the juices emerge
Like amber beads

His knife having seen hard labour wipes
And cuts you up with great skill
Digging into your gushing insides bright
Like any ditch
And then oh what a glorious sight
Warm steaming, rich 
But why all this fuss and bother over a pudding? The idea  was to compliment the food we were about to eat, to honour it. After such a huge introduction, we kids couldn't wait to eat the bum-shaped haggis - but there was one more ritual to be completed. (I cannot say for sure if this is a traditional ritual, or one that is only performed in Preston West, because I think that's where we were.) The piper walked out of the hall, playing some marvellous Scottish tune, and everyone followed him round the block. I'm sure that some people would have called the police to complain about the noise, but our nip around the block was over in seconds. We were back in the hall, with the magnificent haggis whose qualities we had just praised.  The loud, proud Scottish woman took out two knives that looked like they belonged on the wall of a Scottish castle, and started to hack the haggis into pieces. We kids couldn't wait to try the stuff. There was enough for everyone at the ceilidh; the haggis being a sort of Albert the Magic Pudding. There was a slice for everyone. And it was delicious. I don't know if it was all the preceding ritual that made it so, but I remember my first slice of haggis tasting absolutely brilliant. (That's right, the haggis you make out of lungs and liver and lights of a sheep, oatmeal flavoured with whiskey and onions, then stuffed back into the sheep's stomach and boiled for an awfully long time.)
Another Scotsman, not quite as cool as Sean Connery, though he certainly looks as though he's prepared to eat the whole animal, if he hasn't already.
And when I think of that, I realise why Margaret Fulton was so brittle  with me for 'joking' about how the Scots are not terribly picky about which parts of the animal they eat. You've seen Margaret. She has a beautiful round face that seems ever-smiling. But I made her frown. Margaret pointed out to me with great patience, for this was important, that the reason the Scots ate so many parts of the animal is out of respect for the animal, just as we had paid respect to the haggis by piping it in and reciting a poem to it.

The superstar herself. 

It's all about respect. And I write this now because it looks as though the Margaret Fulton musical will go ahead, at Theatreworks in Acland Street, St Kilda. Director is Bryce Ives of Call Girl fame.  Here are the dates (STC):

And thanks to Guy LeCouteur for this timely update on black bears and Scotland (click on the image below, and I don't mean Taylor Lautner. Scotland did have them, apparently, and I think I should have known that because I do remember seeing the drummers Highland bands wearing the fur off the poor bear's back. Of course, it might have been imported black bear fur, but I somehow doubt it. They were Scottish bands, after all.

Now, because I've stopped using Facebook to do my skiting, I'd better update you on my glamorous literary life so as to make other writers grass-green with envy. I've just had the new hardback version of Sister Madge translated into seventeen languages, including semaphore, and teen hearththrob Taylor Lautner has agreed to play the major role of Mango in the movie version of my book, The Shiny Guys.
Okay, this is a complete lie. There is no film planned for The Shiny Guys, I was just trying to make writer Michael Gerard Bauer as jealous as he makes me. And even if a film does  happen, I doubt that Taylor Lautner will do it, especially as the character Mango spends a whole pivotal scene completely naked in front of a mirror. Ooh, hang on ... we may have another google-wacker here: Taylor Lautner naked.

I'm shortly going to be travelling with the CYL  to Geelong, where I will beguile people with marvellous stories of my literary life, both in hospital and out. So far the reviews of my latest Penguin book 'The Shiny Guys' have been positive, but I'm not going to link to them because that would be just too pathetic. America took ten thousand copies of the book I did with Judy Horacek, The Night Before Mother's Day, I have made fifteen flourless orange cakes, and consumed many excellent sandwiches that I made myself, oh and I'll be at The Melbourne Writers Festival This Year for the first time ever!  (Praise be to Mike Shuttleworth.)

I think that about covers it. Craig Smith has completed the illustrations for my kids' picture book, 'Heather Fell in the Water' which is coming out from Allen and Unwin just before Summer later this year. The pictures are, of course, quite beautiful.

And if you're in the mood, why don’t you come along to the launch of 'The Night Before Mother's Day' at Carlton Readings on 26April, starting at 6.30. The multi-talented Tracy Harvey will be doing the launch. Judy and I will both be there, signing autographs. It's my first professional public outing since the stroke. Come one, come all! See if I can make it through the night without falling over.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Farewell Facebook and Losing the Plot

I bid farewell to Facebook this week. I notice other friends (hi, Jane Covernton) have done the same. I don't know if people responded to my departure, because of course once you've gone, you can't go back. Well, not immediately.

The problem was, I kept losing my temper with authors who posted minute details of their every waking moment. I started griping at Michael Gerard Bauer, who actually is a good guy, though I guess he must doubt it if he feels the need to post so many details about his apparently perfect literary life. Desist! We approve of you, Michael! You're good! And I was probably a little antsy that The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher appeared on just about every shortlist going last year, but didn't receive a single win. Even Sonya Hartnett (yes, Sonya of Astrid Lindgren medal fame) confesses that this still depresses her when it happens to her. So, it's probably a bad idea to go on Facebook if you're feeling antsy, unless you have the savoir faire to keep your big yap closed, which clearly I lack. I'll return to Facebook one day, because I enjoyed reading the articles that some Facebookers posted, provided they weren't just 'rave reviews' from Goodreads or bloggers. I'll keep blogging about my books here, because I figure you might be interested, since you've made an effort to find this blog, unless you google-whacked me by accident or you were looking for nude ladies, of which there are six extremely tasteful examples on this blog.
 Make that seven.

Something happened this week when I reread my sequel to The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher. I really didn't like it and found myself getting bored by the time I reached the middle, which would mean that the average reader by this stage would have thrown the book down the insinkerator. The problem is, I think, you can't artificially lengthen a story. As I mentioned last post, I had plotted a perfectly good - but short - story involving my heroes and their battles against a terrible cult called The Herophilists - people who believe in dissecting live humans, as was the occasional practice in ancient Greece. Spoiler: I borrowed from Sherlock Holmes in the book's final sequence, when Thomas finds himself on the dissectionist's slab; quite alive and about to be dissected. He even sees the scalpel go into his chest. The Sherlock Holmes 'steal' was a chemical that causes people to hallucinate. The body-snatching group sets up their new base in a millinary warehouse, where the air is redolent with mercurial sulphate: a felt preservative known to cause hallucinations, and one of the reasons that hat-makers gained the reputation for going mad.

But the story came to little more than 30,000 words. Then I tried to interweave another story to 'pad it out', but I don't think you can do that. Unless your A story and your B story address each other, what you end up with is a patchwork mess. In other words, you really do need to plot at the beginning. So, I've decided to cut all the stuff that I set in The Azores. It was pretty, but it wandered too far from the main plot. To quote Sonya Hartnett again, writing isn't just putting one word after another. And yet, this is what it felt like, which is hardly surprising when you obsess about daily word counts, as I do. Then there is the whole business of writing a novel while recovering  from a stroke. If I were a bricklayer I would know when I'm ready to return to work; presumably when I'm able to lay bricks again.
Just in case you needed to be reminded of what a bricklayer looks like. Sorry I couldn't find you a nude one.

But my brain is all I use when I'm writing and I don't know if it's in good shape or not. The fact that I get so upset by self-congratulatory posts on Facebook would indicate, I think, that it isn't. After all, it never bothered me before. Of course writers are egocentric. It's the way we're made. Some of us just pretend not to be and resist the urge to post every bit of cover art or flattering festival photo that we can. I'm also finding it difficult to read 'demanding' books. My sister recommended The Moonstone, which she assured me I would enjoy, but I found myself reading the same paragraph over and over. I love reading. Before the stroke it was one of my greatest pleasures. But now, there are some books that I find very heavy going. Richard Gill (who runs The Victorian Opera) told me that every year he rereads Proust's gigantic masterpiece, Remembering the Past. Last month I started on Swann's Way, the first of the series, but I didn't get much beyond the famous opening sequence with the Madeline cake. The fact that Richard can read this stuff so easily, then go out at night to conduct an orchestra or even appear on The Spicks and The Specks, leaves me breathless.
 Richard Gill - friend and renaissance man

I've been re-reading books that I liked before the stroke, and am pleased to find that I still like them. And I've been writing the odd article and blog post, but does this mean I'm match-fit? I mentioned in my last post that I had a TV gig and wasn't sure if I was up to it. I'm still not sure that I am. The time I spent at the writers' table last week at Fremantle Media in Richmond  was so exhausting that I would have to leave at three in the afternoon so I could sleep and recover. (Mind you, I've produced sketch shows before where most of the writers do that.)

And, is my brain well enough to critique what I've written? My first reaction is to cast aside the body-snatcher sequel and start all over again from the beginning. It's a horrible thought, but it will certainly be a better use of my time than haranguing the needy Facebookers.

Stay tuned. I'll let you know how I go. And sorry, Michael.