Saturday, August 31, 2013

The day my mother was born

Stormboy turned sixteen the other day.
"God, he's so handsome," Aussie said when I showed her the photograph of him leaning over a flaming birthday cake. (I'd bent sparklers into the shape of sixteen and the icing was covered in sooty, sulfuric ash after the mini bonfire.)
"Sixteen years! Sarah, what happened?"

After the birthday cake debacle, Mum said, "Your Nan Sarah, she always used to tell the story of my birth on my birthday. So, Stormboy ..."
Stormboy started to look really uncomfortable because his girlfriend was in the room. Then my Mum put the wicker basket on her head; the one she'd used to carry Stormboy's birthday cake, the card with two ten dollar notes stashed inside and the fruit pie she'd baked for him.

She can be a bit fruity, my Mum, in a good way. Stormboy's girlfriend, his Dad and me all stared at her wondering what was coming next.
"A lady on a bus put this on my head when I was eighteen months old," she said. "We were on our way home from the market and there was an air raid. The bus driver, he started heading for the footpath because that is what they did - try and get the bus against a wall rather than be exposed on the road - but he couldn't get onto the footpath for some reason so we were out there in the open and there were bombs dropping and the lady sitting behind me tipped the shopping out of her basket and reached over and put her basket on my head."
Mum sat there with the basket on her head.
"That basket?" I asked, thinking of the baskets I'd left in the garden which had rotted within six months.
"Oh no, no!" She laughed. "But it was just like this one." She took it off and looked at it. "I don't know what good it would have done, if we'd been hit."

When I got home from Stormboy's Dad's house, I related this story to my sister. She said, "Has Mum ever told you what happened the day she was born?"
"No. She said she was born during the Blitz ... but didn't that happen a year or so later?"
"Yeah. But Bournemouth was bombed in retaliation for some German resort town bombing the day she was born. You have to hear Mum tell the story."
"Okay. I'll ask Mum."
We were quiet for a moment in the evening garden. Then I said, "No, fuck it. Tell me now. Tell me the story."

She was a breech birth. The labour went on for way too long and the midwife was starting to freak out. Then the air raid sirens started. As the neighbouring folk around her rushed to the shelters, my Nan decided she was staying put. Perhaps she was at the stage where she couldn't walk. Maybe the idea of giving birth in front of hundreds of people crammed into an air raid shelter didn't appeal to her. Anyway she stayed with the midwife in the second storey of her home, in a row of townhouses.

My Mum was hooked out of my Nan bum first, as the Luftwaffe bombs began to fall. The buildings attached to each side of Nan's home were completely destroyed, leaving a single dwelling standing like a new tooth, with two women and a brand new baby inside.

Metropole Hotel, Bournemouth 23/05/1942
My sister paused then and said, "It's a wonder that we are even here."

I've never experienced a war. I've never had my house bombed or my children taken away from me. As a single woman I've been allowed to vote, keep my children and own my own land. I've had two parents who have loved and nurtured me into adulthood, who gave me ponies and freedom to roam the coast hills at my whim. At times I've whined about their reticence to send me to uni in an era when there were free degrees, or how they got divorced once, or made me work like a bastard when I was a kid. I railed against their staid 1950's morality and vowed to follow a new path in my own life.

Mum perched on the bar stool with a basket on her head, grinning.
"So, Stormie. The story of your birth ..."
I looked around the room. There was Stormboy, his Grandma, his Dad and me. They were all in the car that night.

I've revelled in the arrogance of birthing: a kind of existential joy in pulling rank,
but as we hurtled towards the hospital in a clapped out Combi and passed some random on a bicycle, I was whingeing like a bitch and weeping in the back seat.

As we got closer to the roundaboat, I cried "She's crowning! Stop. Stop!"
She inside my belly was of course a 'she' because we'd not birthed a boy since 1944.

Stormboy's Dad was driving. He'd just ripped over all the speed humps on the main street.
(Ba Doosh! Try a speed hump in a Combi when you are bearing down. Oh! And another one. Ba doosh!)
When I said I was crowning, he protested from the driver's seat,
"But Sarah, I'm on a roundabout. Can't stop now."
The streetlights blinked out.
"Darling. Just. Fucking. Stop."

Mum caught Stormboy as the cyclist passed the van.
I pulled a slimy, shocked and silent Stormboy to my breast and watched the cyclist heading up Campbell road. You know, I felt stronger at that moment than I've ever felt in my life. It was a dark moon that night and the inside of the Combi was so, so black. I felt the cool baby floundering and pressed him to my tit. Mum and Stormboy's Dad scrambled for blankets and the torch. Mum found it on the floor of the car and shone it into my newborn son's face. That Stormboy, he took a deep breath and started yelling.
Boy, they said to me. It's a boy. And we drove with me shuddering with body shock to the hospital, passing that cyclist as he/she struggled up the hill.

Lucky, lucky, we are so lucky.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Flinders, Mr Thistle and Cape Catastrophe

In the Recherche Archipelago, they try fishing from the Investigator but their work is impeded by three monstrous sharks, in whose presence no fish dared to appear. They manage to catch one of the sharks but getting it aboard is an operation akin to hoisting one of the wooden launches. The circumference of the shark is eight feet and it is twelve and a half feet long. Amongst the vast quantity of substances contained in the stomach was a tolerably large seal, bitten in two, and swallowed with half of the spear sticking in it with which it had probably been killed by natives.

On to South Australia and Flinders and his right hand man Mr Thistle spend the night pondering the fierce currents that flow past the island, in an ocean devoid of king tides. Does the current mean there is a massive water course that travels through the centre of the continent from the Gulf of Carpentaria ... large rivers, deep inlets, inland seas ... and the prospect of making an interesting discovery seemed to have infused new life and vigour into every man on the ship.

The next morning Flinders and Mr Thistle launch a boat from the Investigator and visit the island. They climb a hill and at the peak they find a snake sleeping on a warm rock. The snake is speckled and yellow. They decide to take it back to the ship for the naturalists to examine. While Flinders presses the butt of his musket against the snake's neck to keep it down, Thistle sews shut its mouth with a sail needle and twine.

As they continue exploring the island, Thistle holding the writing snake in his hands, two huge white eagles rush at them from the sky and then retreat to the nearest tree, watching them. These birds sit watching in the trees, and should a kangaroo come out to feed in the daytime, it is seized and torn to pieces by these voracious creatures. Flinders thinks that the two men are mistaken for kangaroos and about to be attacked. Perhaps the eagles are really after that speckled yellow snake.

In the evening Mr Thistle sails from ship to shore in the cutter, to gather water and verify Flinders' longitude observations. The watchman sees his returning sail in the gloom of dusk and then there is no more sight of Mr Thistle. Shots are fired. A light is shown. Lieutenant Fowler leaves in a boat with a lanthorn to see what might have happened. Two hours passed without any tidings ... no answer to be heard to the hallooing and the firing of muskets ... Fowler reports that he was nearly upended himself by that fierce, rippling tide.

Another boat leaves in the morning and returns towing the wreck, bottom upward, stove in from being dashed against the rocks. On shore they find an oar and Mr Thistle's keg. They never find Mr Thistle or his seven crew. On board that night, Fowler tells Flinders strange story of the fortune teller Mr Pine, whose palm Mr Thistle had crossed on a whim one day whilst the ship was lying idle at Spithead. The cunning man informed Mr Thistle that he was going out on a long voyage, and that the ship, on arriving at her destination, would be joined by another vessel. That such was intended, he might have learned privately; but he added, that Mr Thistle would be lost before the other vessel joined.

Lieutenant Fowler then relates to Flinders the rest of the prophesy; that the remaining crew would be shipwrecked, but not in the ship they went out in. The whole of the Investigator's crew knows this story, he reminds Flinders.

I remarked with some pain in a future part of the voyage, that every time my boat's crew went to embark with me in the Lady Nelson, there was some degree of apprehension among them that the time of the predicted shipwreck had arrived. I make no comment upon this story, but recommend a commander, if possible, to prevent any of his crew from consulting fortune tellers.

(Turns out Flinders' crew should have been more worried about getting aboard the Porpoise than the Lady Nelson.)

A Voyage to Terra Australis, Matthew Flinders, Text Publishing, Melbourne, (1814) 2000.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

It's here, it's beautiful and I wrote it

This is a mail box moment to beat most other mail box moments in my life.
During the downpour today, Stormboy and I pull into our driveway.
"Oh look!" I say. "A present for me." There is a parcel sticking out of the letterbox, but I am joking really because I'm not expecting any books this week and I think the parcel is probably for my mum or my sister.
I jump out into a puddly driveway, wriggle loose the parcel and some bills from the WW2 ammo box that stores our letters, and sit in the car. The windscreen wipers squeak back and forth.

The parcel is addressed to me.
"Stormboy, it's for me. Oh."
I tear away the bubble wrap. "Oh fuck. Oh boy. Far out, kid. Oh, Have a look at this."

The car is still running. I'm conscious that we are about to run out of fuel and that my payday is tomorrow, that we may break down before we get to the bank, but my sense of occasion overcomes any immediate economics.

It's the first (ever) copy of my first (ever) book. It's a real book. It's no longer a word document. It's absolutely bloody gorgeous. It's a real book. My book.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

An unfortunate loss to our nation

She's got a bit of cash. She's in love. It's a fairy tale romance and now he's asked her to marry him but there is one hitch.

"We have something called the Reviewing Committee for the Export of Works of Art," said the Culture Minister. (here.) "It assesses important works of art or artifacts under a set of criteria, and one is, 'would its loss to the nation be a misfortune?'"
Everyone is being very nice about the pretty lass who just wants a rock with some kind of cultural meaning to cement her engagement - but they are not about to let Jane Austen's ring out of the country. And no Clarkson/Austen ring jokes please. No. I'm serious.

This wouldn't normally even buzz my radar but I'm paying a bill somewhere and footage of the culture minister speaking comes on the screen behind the counter. I'm distracting myself with bill paying and television on a day when I should be writing-but-end-up-researching-something-sort-of-related-but-not ...

... like Patsy Adam Smith writing on the graveyard at Wybalenna, which was the failed island settlement for Pallawah exiles:
"And then there are the graves that are graves no more, roughly marked with stones, the places where the exiled Aborigines had been buried. The skeletons were disinterred a century ago and sold to museums in Britain and on the Continent."
Here I go from a mere anecdote of glass and gold to the bones of history, but bear with me, please.
'Disinterred.' What does that mean?

It means that the robbing of bodies and graves became so widespread and accepted as practice that Elders began to request that coffins were held open during ceremonies, so the family could see they were not full of sand bags. On Flinders and other Bass Strait islands, people buried their families quietly, often only marking the site with a single stone. They knew about that man with the spade, who stood to gain a year's wage from one Tasmanian body.

The amount of red tape and bullshit that Aboriginal groups have had to wade through to get the remains of their ancestors back to Country is beset with problems to this day: identification of human remains is one. Some of the Aboriginal bodies were smuggled out of the country labelled as kangaroo bones. (At least we all know that Clarkson's rock used to belong to Austen. If she dropped it down the toilet and a New York sewer worker found it ten years later in the belly of one of those crocodiles, we'd still know it was Jane Austen's ring.)

Then there is the resistance posed by certain British institutions to returning them at all:
"Efforts to repatriate the skulls have so far been spectacularly unsuccessful. A delegation of Ngarrindjeri elders sent to Oxford in 2008 was first told that the skulls were "objects", and as such were not covered by the museum's policy on human remains." (Here)

Although some museums such as the University of Edinburgh have immediately returned body parts upon request,  other museums prove a bit more tricky. "London's Natural History Museum, whose collection of Aboriginal remains includes a dried head, 124 skulls, and about 20 skeletons (five of which have names and addresses), has strenuously opposed repatriation." As of 2009, British institutions were still hanging on to 643 Aboriginal human remains; ten times more bones, hair, and pickled or dried fetuses, heads and organs than did the next most acquisitive country, Germany.

So I know that a literary national treasure, a piece of jewellery and a pop star makes for great nationalistic clicky copy ... but Mr Culture Minister! Consistency please!

For more info (here) is an interesting page on the repatriation of Aboriginal remains.