The Old Tin of Worms…

Radiohead minute

It’s easy to get lost in the tin of worms.

My head is going around like a tin of worms.

Not because I’m having a Squirrel Week, but because I have been absent from this small patch of cyberspace for more than a month and my brain is overloaded with partially constructed blog posts, bizarrely random thoughts and more than a few reminiscences.

I was struck last week, for example, that on 16 June 1997, Radiohead released their OK Computer album, followed ten days later, on 26 June 1997, by J K Rowling first publishing Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone.

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Two decades of brilliance!

Can we all just take a moment, please, to appreciate the fact that it has been twenty years since these two marvellous creations found their way into the wider world — and in the same month, no less?

I know this happy coincidence may not be considered particulary newsworthy in many circles, but in this weird and wacky era of Fake News and Alternative Facts, I think I would prefer to have my attention drawn to the fact that two of my favourite things in the whole world are celebrating two decades of existence rather than having to acknowledge the things that actually make the papers these days…except we don’t actually read newspapers any more now, do we?

See? That’s what my head is doing — leaping from one thought to the next, much like an Alaskan salmon struggling determinedly yet somehow dementedly upstream to spawn…something…

I mean, this is the time of year that all those Sockeyes and Chinooks and Ketas run, but given that I live more than half a world away from the Kenai Peninsula and haven’t set foot in Alaska for over ten years, I don’t think I can reliably claim to be having a Salmon Week?!

Perhaps it’s because we have finally found ourselves at the beginning of the Winter School Holidays here in the Antipodes that I am thinking such thoughts. Or maybe it’s because I’ve watched a few too many episodes of Life Below Zero on Netflix recently?

I freely admit that Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop have beeng pushing every last one of my buttons lately — including buttons I didn’t even know I had — but I can’t really make my children scapegoats for my scattered headspace, particularly when I know that in addition to being more than usually annoying (because end of term and upcoming birthdays) they have also been responsible for some moments of actual joy I have experienced in the past weeks.

Take Miss Malaprop, for instance. Miss Malaprop was blowing up (and believe me, she possesses explosive power and matches it with unbelievable volume) because she couldn’t find anything to wear when I asked her to get dressed before a dinner out with her grandparents. Resisting the urge to retaliate in kind — a feat I managed only because I knew I would probably be poured a cold glass of Sav Blanc at some point in the not so distant future — I ventured into the demon’s lair Miss Malaprop’s bedroom and proceeded to extricate every last piece of clothing from her overstuffed drawers and wardrobe, removing anything that was too small or seasonally inappropriate, then carefully refolded and rehung what remained, all while speaking in soothing tones and encouraging the fiend my dear daughter to get dressed.

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To keep or not to keep…

Three bags full of charity later (more mine than hers, I thought at the time), Miss Malaprop was suitably attired.  She also behaved impeccably when dining with The Bloke’s parents. And then, a couple of days later, when I asked her whether she really wanted to give away a favourite top that had made its way into the hand-me-down pile (a dark blue t-shirt with a glow in the dark picture of the Millenium Falcon on it) she surprised me — no, she actually humbled me — by saying that even though she really loved that top she would rather pass it on than keep it, because that way someone else would get to enjoy wearing it, too.

Who knew?  Who actually knew that Sunday evening’s shrieking banshee could turn into Wednesday afternoon’s wunderkind?

Because now I feel completely and utterly torn between wanting to keep the top even more, so I can present it to her in twenty years or when her teenaged self most needs it, as a reminder of that beautiful moment when she showed such generosity of spirit — and yet knowing that to keep it would be completely contrary to her own wishes and the selflessness she so willingly displayed.

And so the worms turn yet again, and my mind remains a squirming mess, until my thoughts eventually happen upon Marcel Proust’s musings, and I am reminded that:

We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us. 

Much like Harry Potter, really.

For a minute there, I lost myself…but I’m OKNOTOK now.

JKR

More words of wisdom…

At the Going Down of the Sun…

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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.

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…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.

Far From Plain Jane

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Oh Jane Austen…how ardently we admire and love you still…

Fun Fact for you Folks: 16 December 2016 would have been Jane Austen’s 241st birthday if she was alive today. Sadly, she only reached the age of 41, but on the upside I don’t fancy knowing what she would have look like if she had lived those extra 200 years (though I’m thinking it would probably be along the lines of Bilbo Baggins after Frodo took the One Ring away from him and moseyed off towards Mordor…)

Despite her untimely demise, I would venture to assert that it is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of the best loved writers (in English) the world has known — and will ever know. But rather than praising Austen’s elegant prose, or admiring her artistic longevity, or extolling her virtues as a social commentator, or waxing lyrical over her well-honed and even-better-aimed wit, I thought the occasion of her 241st birthday could be better spent considering something completely different.

What would Jane Austen make of the world of 2016?

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Has anything really changed? Would any of us turn down the opportunity to live at Pemberley?

What would she have made of selfies, and status updates, and social media? Would she have embraced technology and been right at the cutting edge of social commentary, garnering thousands of Likes with every carefully-worded comment, or would she have been far more circumspect — and perhaps chosen to email an errant niece privately, for example, to warn her that having viewed her Facebook feed that she would be receiving suitably decorous clothing and the Oxford English Dictionary for Christmas?

Would Jane Austen have usurped J K Rowling as the undisputed Queen of the Twittersphere? Would she have taken the view that if you can’t say it in 140 characters you’d be best not to say it at all, or would she have been entirely too polite to tweet?

Would she have taken part in the seemingly endless conversation regarding real estate (which, in the face of sky rocketing property values, has become something of a national pastime here in Australia)? It seems reasonable to suppose that she might — given that Netherfield Park being let at last was such big news in Pride and Prejudice  — or would dear Jane deem such discussion to be too crass in a modern world so obsessed with resale values?

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The sad syndrome that besets Austen fans of every Persuasion…ahem…

 

What would Miss Austen make of the many film and television adaptations of her novels, or of their various parodies,or of the ones that even feature zombies? Would she wade into the debate over who made the best Mr Darcy — was it Laurence Olivier? Colin Firth? Matthew MacFadyen? Elliot Cowan?

What would she think of Bridget Jones?

(What, I wonder, would she make of Donald Trump?)

And, speaking of catastrophes, would she care to comment on the so-called “Austen-Induced Disillusionment Cycle” and its effects on fans around the globe?

Would Jane Austen ever Swipe Right? Or would she counsel her fellow singletons to stay away from Tinder, perhaps suggesting — gently, of course — that while Mr Wickham’s profile picture might be ever so attractive, it may not provide the full measure of the man?

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I am, and will remain, eternally grateful that Mr Collins never got Instagram…

Would she use a Kindle, or would she remain the sort of person for whom only paper and ink would do? Would she share the iTunes playlist of the music she listened to while she wrote? Would she continue to write longhand, in her elegant handwriting, or would she use a computer — and, if she did, Jane Austen be a Mac User or PC Girl?

Would Jane Austen blog?!

Oh, just imagine that for one glorious moment…

I know I would follow her until the end of time if she did. But in the meantime, to celebrate her 241st birthday, I think I’ll go and re-read Pride and Prejudice for the twenty-seventh time instead.

PS: This one’s for my Dad, who handed me my first Austen...

Ivy, Oak and Ash

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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.

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Ollivanders: makers of find wands since 382BC.

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