At the Going Down of the Sun…

ANZAC

There was once a man who loved to sail…

It’s Anzac Day here in Australia today — the day we commemorate the continued service and sacrifice of our armed forces, the day we remember those who gave their lives to make this country the safe haven it is today.

For me, Anzac Day is a solemn occasion. It brings to mind of the sharp scent of rosemary, the sound of harbourbound fighter planes overhead, and the comforting feel and weight of the two brass buttons from my grandfather’s naval dress uniform that I took into every exam at the end of high school and throughout university.

I have no memories of my grandfather speaking to me of his war service: not of surviving the bombing of Darwin, not of the time he spent at sea during the war in the Pacific, not of being one of the first Australians to set foot on Japanese soil after the signing of the surrender in Toyko Bay. And yet, the photograph I have of him on top of my piano is one that was taken at sea during that awful time, and it is of a slim young man leaning casually against the ship’s rail, immaculately dressed (as always) and smiling — and reminding me of my younger brother more than I’d like to admit.

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…he was my Grandfather…

Somehow, the sight of that photograph often prompts me to imagine what he and his mates went through — a bunch of blokes thrown together as the crew of a small ship on a vast ocean, facing a determined enemy. In all honesty, however, I know I can’t really imagine what it was like. Not the exhaustion. Or the feeling of being constantly threatened. Or the battles at sea. Or the kamikazes. And even though I will always be proud of his service, my overwhelmingly emotion is one of relief that he came home.

That he had a family.

That I got to know him and love him.

And as I write this, I am acutely aware that in a matter of days it will be the 25th anniversary of my grandfather’s death.

Anniversaries are strange things. At first they often feel so raw we wonder whether we will make it through them, and worry that the sorrow and anguish will never go away. Because loss literally makes our hearts ache — and I suspect Queen Elizabeth II was absolutely right when she once told her young grandsons, “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

But even as time goes on, anniversaries can fill us with a welter of conflicting emotions, and can sometimes surprise us with the  intensity of our residual grief. Only two years ago, I used this space to write about my grandfather when those feelings crept up on me once again. And, perhaps because I am at heart a reader and writer, then as now I tend to draw comfort from the words of fictional characters whenever grief rears its shaggy head. In the Harry Potter series, for example, Albus Dumbledore offers these comforting words:

Ddore dead do not

…and he’s never really left me….

To have been loved deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.

Elsewhere, Dumbledore also reminds us that the ones who love us never truly leave us, and that even when they have the continue to influence us in our everyday lives — in the thoughts we think, the decisions we make, even in the turns of phrase we use.

I try to pass those funny little things that my grandparents said on to my own children.  My Welsh grandmother, for example, used to say “Golly Gosh!”, which my kids, for reasons known only to them, find utterly delightful. My globetrotting gypsy grandmother was famous for asking, “Where’s Beulah?” every time she hosted a dinner party — referring to an imaginary kitchen maid who supposedly shot through every time guests arrived, leaving Grandma with all the work. And my grandfather? Well, any success, no matter how big or small, was always celebrated by him as being a “true triumph”.

I am grateful I can refer my children to the words of their ancestors as well as those of Albus Dumbledore when they are in need of comfort, though there is one other thing I told them when they were small that they have latched onto: that when someone we love dies, we see them again every night because they are up with the twinkling stars. They reminded me of this only recently when, after we finished reading The Hobbit together, we sat down as a family and watched all three Hobbit movies. Not surprisingly, both my girls have become particularly fond of Tauriel, the Sylvan Elf who does not appear in the book, but who has a minor role in the movies.

starlight

…and he never ever will.

When Thorin Oakenshield and his company of dwarves have been imprisoned by Thranduil, The Elvenking of Mirkwood, Tauriel has a discussion with Kili, one of the younger dwarves about Mereth Nuin Giliath, the Feast of Starlight.

“All light is sacred to the Eldar, but the Wood Elves love best the light of the stars,” Tauriel tells Kili, who says he always thought starlight was cold, remote and far away.

But Tauriel, it seems, has a similar view of the stars to mine:

It is memory, precious and pure…I have walked there sometimes, beyond the forest and out into the night. I have seen the world fall away and the white light of forever fill the air.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.

At the going down of the sun, the twinkling stars shine.

Ivy, Oak and Ash

olivanders-2

Ollivanders…where the wand, as we know, chooses the wizard.

I’m writing this at my kitchen table, listening to a beautiful Ólafur Arnalds track he recorded with Nils Frahm. The music, with its high-pitched, bell-like tinkling, has an ethereal quality that sounds unmistakably like…Magic.

And then it occurs to me that this piece, relatively obscure as it is, has conjured up the memory of the opening bars of a much more famous musical score: John Williams’ overture to the original Harry Potter film, a movie filled with mystery and wonder, and more Magic than you could poke a stick at — particularly if that stick should be a wand.

Ah, Magic.

It’s such a powerful thing — such a potent, creative force.

Even though I know quite well that the Harry Potter novels and films are works of fiction, I also recognise them as works of wonder. Of a fantasy that I can — and do — quite readily buy into. And, as I’ve said before, I encourage my children to do so as well. I think that the late and ever-so-great Roald Dahl, who definitely knew wonder when he saw it, probably explained why best:

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

 

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Hogsmeade Village, Hollywood style…please respect the spell limits.

For me there can be as much Magic in a well-crafted sentence as there in a beautifully realised fictional world — complete with its own myths and history. But when The Bloke and I had the chance to take our girls to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Hollywood during our recent trip to the US, we both knew this was a opportunity to see some real Magic.

And it was.

We explored Hogwarts Castle, drank butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks, bought sweets at Honeydukes, visited the Owlery, and browsed through the broomsticks at Dervish and Banges.

And then we went to Ollivanders.

Ollivanders, as all self-respecting Harry Potter fans know, have been makers of fine wands since 382BC. Being a Ravenclaw myself, I could spend hours discussing the importance of the Ollivander family in history of European wandmaking or introducing you to the finer points of wandlore but that, one suspects, would be better done at another time. The most important thing to know, for the purposes of this post, is that the wand chooses the wizard.

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Our Wands, each pointing to the Hogwarts houses we most identify with: Gryffindor, Slytherin and Ravenclaw.

Or the witch, for that matter. Because when we came out of Ollivanders, the wands had well and truly chosen: Ivy for Marvel Girl, Oak for Miss Malaprop, and Ash for me. Not surprisingly, my wand is lying beside me on the kitchen table as a write. It is beautifully balanced, it is perfectly weighted, and it feels like it was made just for me.

And that’s the truly Magic thing, isn’t it?

But there are, as I discovered once again that day in Hogsmeade Village, many kinds of Magic…

After our visit to Ollivanders, Miss Malaprop strode purposefully towards Gladrags Wizardwear, where she proceeded to demonstrate her own considerable powers as she persuaded The Bloke to buy her a full set of Hogwarts robes (Slytherin ones, naturally) complete with house insignia and wand pocket, and some for her sister (Gryffindor, of course) as well. How does she do it? I wondered, as I struggled to calculate the cost of purchasing two sets of robes, plus tax, plus the exchange rate, plus the inevitable excess baggage cost associated with getting two large bundles of heavy black fabric back home…and I knew the answer in an instant: Miss Malaprop was utterly certain that we would let her have them before she even entered the shop, because she knew that deep down, we wanted them too.

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Basic Wand Motions…I think Arresto Momento would be one of the most useful spells I could have in my kitchen.

We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, bigger than all of us. We all know that there is real Magic to be found in shared experiences, particularly when they involve mutually suspended disbelief.

I know it’s not real.

And my kids know that, too.

(Really!)

But there is much to be said for the transformative joy that is produced when you allow the fictional to enter the everyday.  It’s why my kids have the words Nox  and Lumos on their bedroom lightswitches.  It’s why I’ll tell them I would love one of them to play Quidditch for Australia one day. It’s why Miss Malaprop and Marvel Girl got their Hogwarts robes (or they will on Christmas Day, at any rate).

And it’s also why our wands, which individually and specifically chose us, sit in pride of place in the rooms of our house that we use the most.  Our wands are tangible reminders that our differences make us as strong as our similarities, that our words and actions are powerful and must be wielded well, that there is Magic in us all.

Ivy, Oak and Ash.

Always.

olivanders

Ollivanders: makers of find wands since 382BC.

Parental Guidance Recommended

A Let them Be Little

How much should I tell them?

One of the greatest challenges of being a parent is finding the right way to explain things to your children — or maybe not the right way, but the one that is most age appropriate, or the one that they will actually find some way of correctly interpreting and understanding.

I was reminded of this when Miss Malaprop came home from school yesterday and said her teacher had read her class a story about Moses and the Israelites in Egypt. Ever true to her pseudonym, Miss Malaprop didn’t quite manage to say ‘Israelites’, but she had a pretty good go at it — and I must admit I was too distracted by the sheaf of school notices and permission slips that has somehow managed to materialise in my kitchen since school resumed two days ago to discern the exact word she used as a substitute.

Now, being fully aware that my younger daughter is never one to speak to one so lowly as her mother of the knowledge bestowed upon her in the classroom unless she at least seven questions to ask me about various aspects of what she has learned, I braced myself for the inevitable barrage. I presumed — incorrectly, as it turned out — that she probably wanted to know all about the basket into which Moses had been placed among the bullrushes, its capacity, its relative seaworthiness, that sort of thing. Or perhaps she wished to quiz me about exactly what the Egyptian princess who found Moses might have been wearing that day, and whether her ensemble would have included a crown?

Wrong again.

“Mummy, what are slaves?”

This was the question that came from my smallest child’s lips. It came out so sweetly, so innocently, that I was forced to stop, immediately, and turn away from the tottering pile of lunchboxes I had just plonked onto the kitchen bench.

How do you answer a question like that when the person who has asked it is so young that they have only just started school? And how do you explain something as abhorrent and cruel as slavery to that person when you believe it is your solemn and sacred duty to protect them from all that is evil in this world?

A Dobby

Dobby, the House Elf who started it all…

“Slaves,” I ventured, “well, they’re a bit like the house elves in Harry Potter — the ones who have to do everything their masters tell them to, and don’t get paid.”

Miss Malaprop’s greeny-blue eyes lit up with dawning comprehension — somehow, incredibly, I had managed to hit upon a reference she understood straight away.

“Oh, OK then,” she said, nodded her head, and ran off to play.

Now, in my defence, Harry Potter is Miss Malaprop’s current obsession. It is not unusual for me to hear her yell, “Expelliarmus!” in an attempt to disarm her sister during one of their inevitable fights, and when given an alphabet book to complete for homework over the holidays she decided that drawing a picture of Voldemort was an excellent choice to illustrate the letter V.

Moreover, we are currently half-way through reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which details Hermione’s crusade to improve the lot of house elves at Hogwarts by founding the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.), so the concept of slavery — albeit it in a fictionalised, relatively child-friendly context — is not entirely unknown to her.

But should I have said more? Had I just completely trivialised a serious topic? Should I have checked that Miss Malaprop understood that I meant that slaves are individuals who have been denied that most basic and fundamental of all human rights — freedom — and that they are not tiny creatures with large ears and bulging eyes who toil away in the Hogwarts kitchens?

A Cleanup

This wouldn’t work in my house…I’d have to resort to a whole other fandom to get my laundry hampter sorted properly.

If it was a trivial matter we were discussing, I wouldn’t think twice about making an example of Dobby and his kin, or of shamelessly appropriating whatever other popular culture references I need to make my children understand things. Believe me, I’ve even considered putting pictures of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker above the laundry hamper so that my kids learn to correctly differentiate between the Dark Side and the Light Side. (Honestly, the two of them can rhapsodise for hours over the different types of light sabers or various random skirmishes during the Clone Wars, but heaven help them if they can figure out how to separate whites from colours when it comes to doing the washing.)

But that’s just the small stuff.

Anyone who follows this blog with any regularity knows that when I believe it is called for, I am not afraid to put fingers to keys and speak up for what I believe in, regardless of whether it’s to do with Asylum Seekers, Marriage Equality, the Death Penalty or whatever other injustice I perceive in the world. And I think it practially goes without saying that I want my children to be raised with a strong sense of social justice and an awareness of the things that impact other people — not just themselves.

A Jason

The very lovely Jason Isaacs, resplendent in what he called his “Paris Hilton wig”, letting them be little.

I know that in the years ahead there will be many questions, hard questions, that Miss Malaprop and her sister will ask me to answer. And I hope that I have the courage to face those questions with an open heart and an open mind, and to answer them as best I can without diminishing the facts or distorting the truth.

But I don’t think that my girls — my mostly sweet, still innocent girls — are yet ready to open the book on the grisly lessons of the history of humankind, with all its madness, mayhem, murder and misogyny.

So in the meantime, I’m going to keep answering the difficult questions my kids ask by referring them to things that they already know and understand, even if that knowledge and comprehension is partially drawn from reading Harry Potter.

I would imagine that by the time they’re up to reading the Hunger Games, the conversations will be very, very different.

But for now? I’m with Jason Isaacs on this one.

Dobby is in his trailer.

 

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Muggling Along

HP Harry Potter

Harry Potter: the Boy Who Lived

Nearly twenty years ago, something magical happened that changed the world — and I do mean, quite literally, magical. Back in 1997, we encountered an eleven year old boy with green eyes, untidy black hair, and a lightning bolt shaped scar on his forehead for the very first time.

We met Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived.

I’ve always loved reading the Harry Potter books, despite the fact that I had just graduated from university when the first volume was published. And whenever the movies are on TV I find it ridiculously difficult to change the channel and watch something else, let alone turn them off.

The scene in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when Harry, Ron and Hermione and their friends (and occasional foes, if you count Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle and the rest of Slytherin house in that number) arrive at Hogwarts remains one of my all-time favourite sequences in any film — ever.

Perhaps it’s the recollection of the awe and excitement I felt when I first saw the lamplit boats, bobbing on the black waters of the lake with the castle looming above. Or maybe it was the welcoming golden light shining from the windows of the school, promising goodness and safety, knowledge and wisdom within those ancient walls and towers.

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Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Regardless of what so captured my imagination, the world of Hogwarts and Harry Potter has been one that I have been happy — no, make that overjoyed — to return to with my children. Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop have fallen in love with the characters and the wizarding realm just as quickly as I did, and while Marvel Girl knows that the books are works of fiction, Miss Malaprop (being two years younger) is having a hard time understanding that it isn’t real. Not surprisingly, Miss Malaprop is a firm fan of Harry himself — “because he’s brave” — while Marvel Girl favours Hermione Granger — “because she’s clever and she likes to read a lot”. But they both absolutely adore Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts, and his fabulous phoenix, Fawkes.

So much could be written about the wonders of these books and the wisdom they impart to their readers, particularly via Albus Dumbledore himself, who conveys many simple — yet powerful — truths.  “It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be,” he reminds us, along with other pearls like these:

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The quotable Dumbledore — you can get these on Etsy here.

Surviving life in the Muggle world (the non-wizarding realm, for the small handful of uninitiated still among you) is ever so much easier when you have the guidance of the greatest sorcerer of the age to fall back on — Order of Merlin, First Class no less. And the fact that J K Rowling created such an incredibly detailed world, complete with its own rich history, myths and legends, customs and values remains a great and daily inspiration to me whenever I don my fiction-writing hat (not to be confused with the Hogwarts Sorting Hat, of course), and sometimes even when I don’t. (That, in itself, could be the subject of a whole series of blog posts in which it would become even clearer that J K Rowling is one of my literary heroes, not to mention that I believe her to be the undisputed Queen of the Twittersphere.)

HP Muggles“I do believe,” as J K Rowling herself said, “that something very magical can happen when you read a good book.” I’m ever so grateful that there are seven volumes of Harry Potter for me to share with Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop. And when we’ve read each one, and watched the movie afterwards (our latest ritual), I’ll be thanking the Old Gods and the New that there are so many more fantastic lands we have yet to explore. I am looking forward to climbing with my girls through the wardrobe into Narnia, to wandering through The Shire towards Rivendell in Middle Earth, to sailing among the farflung reaches of the Earthsea Archipelago, and — perhaps when they’re a bit (a lot?!) older — to visiting Winterfell, and Kings Landing, and the rest of Westeros.

Even more importantly, I am grateful that I can give my children the gift of knowing that there is always another adventure to be had between the pages of a book.

Wherever I am, if I’ve got a book with me, I have a place I can go and be happy.

J K Rowling