Writing, words and written work

Posts tagged ‘JB Rowley’

It’s a mystery

It’s a mystery, not a murder mystery, but a mystery just the same.  It all began a few months ago when I was listening to the car radio on my way to an appointment. Nothing much on my usual station so I was flicking through the channels. That’s when I heard a voice, such a voice. I was so captivated that I knew I had to find out the name of the singer. The song was still in progress when I arrived at the place of my appointment, but I stayed in the car with the radio on waiting for the announcer to tell me who owned that voice. The song turned out to be a lengthy one, but there was no way I was going to turn the radio off until it was over and I found out the name of the singer. I had fallen helplessly, hopelessly, overwhelmingly in love with his voice.

The mystery is how that came about. You see, he was singing opera. I DO NOT like opera. Not one bit. For someone like me who loves simplicity, opera is an anathema. It’s an extravagant spectacle of emotional torture and opulent costumes. It’s over-the-top. Every moment is milked for drama.  The performers use so many words when a few would do.  And on top of all that the opera is not sung in English so I cannot follow the narrative (or I have to follow it ‘second hand’ through subtitles). So how is it that I could be profoundly affected by an opera singer’s voice?

And what’s more, this was not the first time. Many years ago I fell in love with the voice of another opera singer when I went to see a French movie called Diva. The voice of Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez bewitched me and I have never forgotten the moment in the movie when I first heard her sing. Perhaps that early ‘infatuation’ paved the way for the emotional impact of the voice I heard on the car radio.

When the ‘song’ (apparently opera does not use that term) on the radio concluded I wasn’t able to hear the name of the singer. Unfortunately, the reception was not clear, perhaps because it was a community radio station. When the singer’s name was announced, all I could pick up through the static was a first name that might have been Fergus and a surname which sounded like Hoffman.

It took quite a lot of searching later that evening on the internet to finally work out that the name of the singer whose voice had entrapped me was Jonas Kaufmann.

Strangely enough, although I complain of not being able to understand the words of an opera, it does not matter at all that I don’t understand the words sung by Wilhelmenia Fernandez or Jonas Kaufmann. Perhaps it is something about the quality of their voices that enchants me. Does the solution to the mystery have to do with sound?

I was brought up on the sounds of the Australian bush. Since there are no buildings, sound is free to travel in the bush. This meant that the sounds of nature enveloped us day and night. As I comment in Mother of Ten: ‘Our natural amphitheatre was vast and yet the crisp, clear sounds wrapped us in a sweet intimacy.’  Those sounds are a long way from the voices of opera and yet perhaps there is a link.

Is there anyone out there who can help me solve the mystery of why I can make an instant spiritual connection with an opera voice while still feeling repulsed by opera?  I cannot ponder it any longer as I need to get back to writing a murder mystery which I hope to have finished for release later this year.

Until next time…JB

14.3.2014: Thanks to my friend Elizabeth who reminded me that hearing is the first human sense to develop and the last to leave us when we die. I think that is significant.  If we come into the world on sound and leave it on sound, it makes sense that sound has a deep connection in our psyche.

15.04.2014: In March this year I heard that Jonas Kaufmann was coming to Melbourne for one concert on August 14. The price of a ticket was way out of my modest budget. How could I possibly pay $300 for a ‘one night stand’?!

It was due to the combination of encouragement from my niece Sally and the happy coincidence of a cheque in the mail from an insurance company who gave me a refund of $230 to compensate an overcharge that I took the plunge and bought a ticket.

The big day arrived yesterday and I was one of the entranced audience members at Hamer Hall who luxuriated in an evening of aural ambrosia. It was definitely the best one night stand I have ever experienced.


The Woman at the Back of the Room

The woman at the back of the room paved the way for Quentin Bryce to become Australia’s Governor-General and Julia Gillard to become Australia’s Prime Minister. Back in those days men scoffed at ‘this nonsensical idea of giving women the vote’. They exposed their own foolishness by objecting to the idea of women having the right to stand for Federal Parliament with the argument that ‘members would not do their work if ladies sat beside them’. However, for Louisa Lawson it was simply ‘a just privilege so long denied’.

The following story about Louisa Lawson’s role in yanking out the weeds of prejudice on the path to women’s suffrage won me an award and publication in Marngrook.

The Woman at the Back of the Room

In an auditorium packed with women eager to celebrate the historic occasion one woman in a high-collared dress, her dark hair swept up in a style more functional than fashionable sat unnoticed in the back row.

It is September 1902. Golden wattles hint at a bright new dawn, spring rains generate hope that the drought might soon be over and the world’s greatest opera singer, Australia’s Dame Nellie Melba, has returned home for a triumphant concert season. The women who pack the hall of the School of Arts in Sydney are there to celebrate something more important than the start of a new season, more significant than the breaking of the drought, more momentous even than the world-wide success of their compatriot. They are there to rejoice the blossoming of a new world for women.

“It has taken years of struggle,” said one speaker from the platform at the front of the hall, “but the Commonwealth Franchise Act has finally granted us what should have been our right from the beginning; the right to vote.”

The crowd cheered and applauded. The speaker continued.

“The Act also gives women the right to stand for election to the Federal Parliament, making Australian women the first in the world to be able to do so.”

More enthusiastic applause and cheering almost drowned out her final words. The exhilaration of the occasion rippled through the hall but the woman sitting at the back of the room seemed detached from the excitement. Her dark eyes reflected signs of disappointment. Her mouth was set in a firm line of dissatisfaction.

She glared at the official podium overcrowded with special guests and politicians, as well as office bearers from the Womanhood Suffrage League. Why hadn’t she been invited to be up there? She had worked harder for this day than any of those people on the podium.

The woman’s disappointment took her back to a time when she had first experienced such profound disenchantment. She was thirteen years old again, standing on the dirt floor of the slab hut in Mudgee that had been home for her, her numerous siblings and her parents.

Mr Allpass, her teacher, had suggested that when she turned fourteen she could train as a pupil teacher. Wanting very much to take up this opportunity she had waited impatiently for her parents to sign the necessary papers but they had not done so. She could not understand why her mother was opposed to the idea.

“It won’t interfere with my schooling, Mother. The training is done after lessons.”

Her mother turned from the old wood stove, waved away a hovering fly and swept back loose strands of hair that had fallen over her eyes before she answered with a stern look.

“You’ll do the training after lessons, will you? And who do you think is going to help me with the children if you are at the school house till all hours.”

“It’s only for a couple of extra hours, Mother. Anyway, what about Emma? She’s the eldest, why can’t she help you when I am not here?”

“Your sister has her hands full looking after the babies, as well you know, young lady.”

“But Mother, after two years I will get paid. I can help you by earning money.”

“Earn money? Earn money, indeed. A woman’s place is in the home. What man will want you if you go around giving yourself airs above your station. Men do not want to marry women who are smarter than they are. Your fanciful ideas will ruin your chances of making a good marriage.”

“But Mother, getting married is not enough for me. I want to do things, I want to achieve things. Mr Allpass says I could be a fine writer one day.”

A sharp look of disapproval crossed her mother’s face. “A fine writer is it? Writing such nonsense as this, I suppose.” She reached into her apron pocket, retrieved a piece of paper and held it aloft between her thumb and forefinger as though she were holding a dead mouse by the tail. She eyed it with the same distaste she might bestow on the rodent. “I’ve told you before; this nonsense you are writing is not fit for respectable people to set eyes on.” Her mother screwed the piece of paper up into a tight ball, enclosing it in her clenched fist.

“What’s wrong with it? It’s just a poem about the bush. Mr Allpass said it was a good poem.”

“Mr Allpass indeed!”

Protecting her hand from the heat with an old cloth set aside for the purpose, her mother turned the handle of the small iron door at the front of the stove and flung the crumpled piece of paper into the fire chamber. The flames devoured her beautiful poem. Her mother closed the chamber door firmly, straightened and turned back to her daughter.

“You need to get your thoughts in order, young lady. This world is for men not women. You will only create misery for yourself with your foolish dreams.”

“Why, Mother? Why? Why can’t women do more than just look after babies?

“Because that’s the way it is and the sooner you accept it the better.”

“Well, that is not the way it’s going to be for me. If a job doesn’t need muscles and brawn a woman can do it just as well as any man. One day I’ll show you. I’ll show everyone. I’m going to do something to make the world a better place for women.”

“That’s enough from you, young lady. There’s work to be done and you can start by peeling the potatoes.”

Loud cheers and applause brought the woman from her reverie. When she realised who the crowd was cheering she sat forward with alert interest. It was Vida Goldstein. By starting a newspaper in Victoria advocating women’s rights, Vida had copied what she herself had already done in NSW.  She listened in anticipation of hearing her name mentioned, her thick dark eyebrows coming together in concentration. Vida Goldstein spoke about the history of the women’s suffrage movement and mentioned several people who had contributed to the good fight. Each person’s name was greeted with applause and cheers. However, Goldstein finished her triumphant victory speech without referring to the woman who sat at the back of the hall.

The anguish from her childhood memory was transferred to the present with bitter thoughts. She was the first to start a newspaper for women but Goldstein has conveniently forgotten that. And have they all forgotten she was also the first to publicly call for women to have the vote? That was back in 1888 through her Ladies Column in The Republican. Ever since then she had fought for women’s rights. She had also been one of the founding members of the Womanhood Suffrage League.

Waiting around to endure the indignity of further indifference was something she did not propose to do so while the official speeches continued the woman pulled on her gloves and picked up her bag. With cat-like disdain, she rose from her seat and crossed the room. A strong, tall physique was revealed, the puffed sleeves of her floor length dress accentuating her height and adding to the width of her ample shoulders. Despite her commanding physical presence the women in the audience, who were giving their full attention to those on the front stage, did not see her as she made her way to the door. However, on reaching the exit her departure was stalled by a woman dressed in a lace-collared satin gown with immaculately coiffed hair who stepped in front of her.

“Louisa,” said Margaret Windeyer, gently taking her arm. “Please do not leave yet.”

Someone in the crowd turned and, recognising the woman in the doorway, called out.

“Mrs Lawson! Louisa Lawson is here.”

Others in the crowd called her name.


“Louisa Lawson.”

A startled expression which quickly turned to pleasure crossed the woman’s face. She stepped back into the room. Hands began to clap.
The speeches had ceased. All those on the podium joined in the applause. A wave of enthusiasm brought the whole audience to its feet. Long, voluminous skirts swished as the women rose from their seats and turned toward the back of the room.

Louisa Lawson was swept by a torrent of excitement down the aisle and up to the podium. Miss Rose Scott, a genteel lady and secretary of the Womanhood Suffrage League, applauded her onto the platform. Miss Scott, her fair hair curling out from under a pert hat, raised her hand to silence the audience After following the customary protocol of acknowledging honourable and distinguished guests she then focused on Louisa Lawson.

“This lady is the pioneer who started our journey. She was the first to give public voice to our cause. By the time she joined us as a founding member of the League she had already fought fiercely for womanhood suffrage through her excellent newspaper, The Dawn, and later the Dawn Club. It gives me much pleasure to welcome, Mrs Louisa Lawson, the mother of womanhood suffrage in NSW.”

A storm of applause broke forth and thundered through the room. As she stepped forward, her bearing radiating dignity and pride, Louisa Lawson sent a silent message to a departed one. I told you I would make the world a better place for women, Mother.


JB 🙂 Murder in Murloo

Mother of Ten: the sequel

The sequel to Whisper My Secret is finally done! Writing Mother of Ten took me on a journey to a secret sanctuary in my mind where remembrances sheltered. As the pages of my memory album turned, I realised what a carefree and joyous childhood I had been blessed with.

While poverty restrained us in many ways, it also gave us freedom. Because we were poor, we lived in the bush but that in itself was a source of insouciant pleasure. Creeks, rivers, mountains and hectares of eucalyptus forests became our playground and, in some ways, our home.

One of the memories featured in Mother of Ten is a visit to my father’s workplace; the woodcutters’ camp.

There were men everywhere, some with axes and some with saws: strong men with the broad shoulders and calloused hands of hard-working bushmen. White Australians with faces tanned to mahogany brown from daily exposure to the sun were barely discernible from Aboriginal Australians. Some men worked with shirt sleeves rolled up, revealing their tanned forearms. Others wore blue or white singlets fully exposing their muscled arms. They all wore long pants and boots and most heads were covered by hats or berets.  (Italics indicate quotes from Mother of Ten.)

Bluey, the camp cook, used to make tea for us all at break time.

Bluey was a big man with thick red hair and freckles all over his face. His old hat was held together in places with large safety pins.

One day when we were sitting around the camp fire I learned that Bluey had once been tricked into thinking there was a ghost roaming in the bush. Late one night he had heard someone playing the mouth organ not far from their camp. There were no other camps nearby so the men thought it odd that someone would be walking through the trees in the dark playing the mouth organ. When Bluey and a couple of the men went to investigate, they were unable to locate the musician.

“Whenever I got close to the sound it’d stop. Then it’d start up again in another direction and further way. So off we’d go in the direction of the music and, blow me down, if it didn’t move to another spot again, still playin’ the same tune.”

Apparently, Bluey wanted to pack up camp and head back to town until they eventually worked out that the musician was not a ghost but a lyrebird. These ground dwelling brown birds can mimic any sound they hear. In fact, a lyrebird can mimic the sound of an axe so precisely that even the woodcutters cannot tell the difference.

Happy memories of fun and family should be the gift given to each and every child born on this Earth. Alas, this is not the case. It certainly was not the case for the three children my mother bore before she started her second family with my father. Although Mum’s eldest child, Bertie, did eventually grow up in a family environment, it was far from joyous. Bertie’s brother and sister were, like thousands of other children in Australia, robbed of family life and brought up in institutions. Another quest that Mother of Ten took me on was the mental pilgrimage through the lives of these children.

An Inquiry conducted by the Australian Senate in 2003 and 2004 received over 600 submissions from people who, as children, had been in institutions in Australia from the 1920s to the 1990s. The 2009 report of this Inquiry, known as Forgotten Australians, states:

‘…the overwhelming response as to treatment in care, even among those that made positive comments, was the lack of love, affection and nurturing that was never provided to young children at critical times during their emotional development.’

The two journeys that evolved for me through the writing of Mother of Ten epitomise the contrast between the childhood I took for granted and was privileged to enjoy, and the childhood forced on each of my half-siblings. But, although Mother of Ten explores their heartbreak, the book also celebrates their resilience, resourcefulness and determination, as well as their triumph.

What lies behind the title? The title was inspired by a reader of Whisper My Secret who was one of those that generously took the time to email me and share her thoughts after reading the book. When she mentioned she was a mother of ten, I thought, ‘Mother of ten, same as my mum.’ That was when I first considered calling the book Mother of Ten. I realised it neatly fulfilled my wish to have a title that was somehow inclusive of all of Myrtle’s children. It works on another level as well because that was Myrtle’s secret: the fact that she was a mother of ten. I also like the way the titles can be linked by two simple words to form a sentence: Whisper My Secret: I’m a Mother of Ten. I love playing with words so that aspect of the title kinda tickles my fancy.

Now Mother of Ten has started her own journey I am off on my next writer’s journey. This time it’s a whodunnit!

Until we meet again… JB:-)

Update June 2013: At the end of Mother of Ten I inserted an amendment about the death of Myrtle’s father as described in Whisper My Secret . However,we have now discovered a record of the inquest into his death which confirms that the original information indicating his death resulted from a self inflicted gunshot wound was accurate after all.

More about the writing of  Whisper My Secret.

Photos of Myrtle and family

Oh, by the way, talking about lyrebirds, here’s a link to a superb new picture book called: Lyrebird: a true story

The most precious gift of all?

Pekanbaru Library on the island of Sumatra is one of the most impressive library buildings I have ever seen but the empty book shelves and the sight of out-dated books published in the 1970s and 80s saddened me.  When I visited the library on a trip to Indonesia a couple of years ago the head librarian, a tall man dressed in a uniform reminiscent of army fatigues, graciously met with me to discuss the library system in Indonesia. I had several picture books with me that I had brought over from Australia. When I showed him a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, his eyes widened and his mouth dropped. His look of astonished enchantment increased with each page. At the end of the book, he asked in an awed tone, “Where can I get such a book?”

The reaction of Indonesian teachers to Eric Carle’s masterpiece was similar. One teacher, who  immediately grasped the beauty of the book’s simplicity and its educational value, highlighted the lessons embedded in the story as she turned the pages: “Colours, numbers, days of the week, food, biology…” Millions of children have enjoyed the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar without even noticing that it was teaching them so many things. What a gift Eric Carle has given to generations of wide-eyed children.

Like many children in Indonesia I had little access to books as a kid growing up in the Australian bush. However, I was lucky enough to be given the gift of story by an aunt who sent books each Christmas, knowing that my parents could not afford such luxuries. Those beautifully bound books of literature classics gave me hours of reading pleasure, escape from my real world, a love of stories and probably extensive education that I was not aware of at the time.

That love of stories stayed with me and led me to oral storytelling and writing. I feel privileged to be able to use my skills to give the gift of story. Although I would not attempt to emulate Eric Carle’s magnificent picture book I hope that children reading my chapter book, Trapped in Gondwana, will benefit from the pleasure of reading a good story and escaping from their real world while being unaware of the lessons they are learning about the evolution of the earth, the environment, threatened species, personal growth and more.

I wonder if Trapped in Gondwana is the book that I boasted about to my mother when I was still a scrawny bush kid in the early 1960s.

“One day,” I said to her, “I’m going to write a best-selling book.”

My mother replied, “One day I might give you something to write about.”

It wasn’t until after her death almost forty years later that she gifted me her story by leaving papers, previously hidden, for her children to find, which revealed her secret. When I put together the pieces of the puzzle presented by the paperwork, I remembered the promise she had made to me. At the same time I recalled one of her favourite sayings: “You can say anything you like about me when I am dead.” That was how I knew she had given me permission to write her story and the licence to write it as I saw fit.  Her legacy to me was the gift of story. Perhaps it is her story Whisper My Secret and not Trapped in Gondwana about which I heralded great success with my grandiloquent boast. (Fingers crossed for both!)

Whatever the fate of my books in terms of sales, I do believe that the gift of story is one of the most precious gifts we can give, not only to children, but to each other. Apart from bestowing books whether print, electronic or audio, we can also give the gift of story in other ways. Sharing our stories, whether by telling and listening or by writing and reading, is a profound gift which binds families, communities, friends and nations through the creation of understanding, empathy and a sense of connection.

Until next time…JB 🙂

Whisper My Secret

Trapped in Gondwana

About Whisper My Secret

Why I Envy Librarians

Books for Indonesian kids

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Why I envy librarians

A skinny little kid rummaging through rotting vegetables, broken furniture and rusty engine parts in search of books, that was me.

When I was growing up in Orbost, East Gippsland, in the 1950s my library was the local rubbish tip, now euphemistically, ridiculously called a ‘transfer station’. We lived several kilometres out of town, which is a long way for a large family with little money. It would have been financially impossible for my parents to buy books for us kids, or even for themselves. There were usually a few comic books floating around the house, perhaps given to my older brothers by school friends. It must have been through these comic books (and perhaps newspapers) that I learned to read at an early age.

There wasn’t a library in Orbost then. That precious institution, the local library, was not established until the 1960s or later and Orbost would have been too remote to have a library even then. My only other access to books was the annual book gifted at Christmas by my aunties in Albury, bless their cotton socks. (Update 18.1.2012. Apparently there was a library in Orbost then. The first library in Orbost was opened in 1885, in the Mechanics Institute Hall in Browning Street. However, I am not sure when it started to function as a free lending library.)

However, when I realised that books could be found at the local rubbish tip my home library grew. The tip was an easy bike ride from our place and my two older brothers went there regularly. They would sometimes, after ‘encouragement’ from my mother, allow me to go with them. Oh, boy, was I excited when I arrived at the rubbish tip. I could not believe the treasure trove of books that were there for me. Imagine people throwing away perfectly good books! I searched under whatever rubbish was there. If there was a book there I had to find it. I did not want to miss a single book. Sometimes my brothers grew tired of waiting for me and left me to it. They were smart enough not to go home without me; they simply explored other areas of the bush on their bikes and came back to fetch me later. When I did get back home I was so eager to explore the literary treasure I had found that I went straight to the hayshed, climbed up over the stacks of hay to my special hiding place, curled up like a wombat in a burrow and escaped into the world of print.

There were no librarians at my first ‘library’ and when I found out that there were people who ‘looked after books’ I was astounded. I couldn’t think of a better job. The concept of buildings where books ‘live’ was another eye opener for me. I wanted to live there with them and often imagined myself living in a library. Even now, when I walk into a library and see shelves and shelves of books I feel a sense of awe (even though I now realise living there might be impractical).

In general I find that librarians have a generosity of nature and a sense of calm that allows them to attend to my queries fully, with unhurried courtesy. I wonder if this quality springs from the deep knowledge brought by books or simply from ‘living’ with so many books.

The generosity of librarians (and many other Australians) was overwhelmingly demonstrated to me when book donations poured in for my Books for Indonesian Kids project which continues to grow. When those looking after our community libraries in Indonesia tell me how the Indonesian kids’ eyes widen in wonder when they see the donated books, I know exactly what those children are feeling. JB 🙂

Serious about writing

At long last I have decided to make a serious commitment to writing.

From an early age I have been encouraged by those wiser than me to write.  At Orbost North Primary School (Victoria, Australia) my teachers actively encouraged me. It is with great pride and humble gratitude that I recall they referred to me as ‘the one with the Enid Blyton touch’. Once, I even beat the English teacher’s son in a story writing contest!

When I moved up to Orbost High School (now Orbost Secondary College) the teachers there also encouraged me to write. At this stage I even enjoyed the exhilaration of having my short stories published in New Idea (a national Australian magazine).

Did I take the hint? Did I buckle down and develop the craft of writing? No! I have been fiddling around in life: having fun, making mistakes, earning money, not earning money, meeting wonderful people, meeting horrible people, doing wonderful things, doing stupid things, working, playing, loving, hating and everything else that came my way … except writing.

However, writing has always been close to my heart and nearby in some form or other. For instance, I have been an oral storyteller for over twenty years. In 2011 my work as an oral storyteller led me to become one of two winners of the ABC Hope 2011 award for my story The Flowerdale Tattoo, I was editor of the national storytelling magazine for many years. I attended writing workshops and courses. I published some articles and started to write several books. It wasn’t until 1995 when my mother died that I found a story that not only compelled me to start to write a book but also motivated me to take it to the finished and published stage. You see, my mother had a secret that only came to light after her death. I write about her tragic secret in  Whisper My Secret, which was first published in 2007 as a print edition and enjoyed much success. As an ebook I’m thrilled to say Whisper My Secret is an Amazon #1 Best Seller.  I have written short stories, poems, songs, and ditties and won a few prizes for my writing. (This paragraph updated October 2017.)

I am a member of two writing groups. One is seasonal (we meet each season) and is a delicious mix of people; not that we eat each other, although we do eagerly devour each other’s work. The ambrosial quality of this group is created by our linked connections of friendship, storytelling and writing. The members of the seasonal group have been a source of inspiration and positive reinforcement (and fun) for me.

The other group is the newly formed Friday Group; a collection of emerging writers connected through our membership of Writers Victoria. This is a lively group of people with a variety of writing styles but committed to developing our own and each other’s writing.

At present I am working on a sequel to Whisper My Secret. This project was progressing quite well until it was interrupted by another story, a children’s story that had been lurking in my imagination for years. This children’s story has developed into a planned series of seven books. I have completed the first book: Trapped in Gondwana.

So, all in all, it looks I am pretty serious about my writing…finally! JB 🙂

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