Wednesday, July 6, 2011


The brush-footed butterfly is any member of the Nymphalidae family, named for its reduced adult forelegs which are frequently hairy, resembling brushes. I know this because I flicked open a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and there was the brush-foot, complete with pictures of typical members of the family such as mourning cloaks and anglewings. I had never really heard of the brush-foot before, and for more information I googled it and found 29,000 results. That shows you one of the differences between the Britannica and the Web. One other difference is that you can consult the Britannica by saying – tell me anything you like – whereas with the Web you have to have a starting point. Another thing is that on the open page of the Britannica the gaze strays over to the picture of Aleksey Alekseyevich Brusilov who was distinguished primarily for the 1916 Brusilov Breakthrough which contributed to the fall of the Tsar’s government in 1917. I didn’t know that before. He’s got 48,000 results on Google. But the big difference between the Britannica and the Web is that the Web collects only the dust that settles on a keyboard, whereas the Britannica, occupying quite a bit of space on a shelf, has to be dusted with a bunch of feathers quite often.

Writers collect a lot of books, and you sometimes hear them saying what a battle it is to house and control them. I am engaged in such a battle, and I happened to be looking at the Britannica because I was thinking about how much shelf space I could acquire if I threw the encyclopaedia out. Like having silly old grandpa put down. But I discovered that Old Grandpa Britannica is not so silly after all, and mostly I discovered that I love him very much. He is wise and wonderful.

So, I say to myself, is sentimentality going to win over common sense here?

When I was a child I spent endless hours browsing through several different kinds of encyclopaedias. In fact I can still visualize pages of them, words and pictures. The black and white photographs in the Richards’ in particular drift vividly through my memory – the Princes in the Tower, the Sword of Damocles, the Fighting Téméraire (53,000 Google results). So the experience of encyclopaedias is deeply nostalgic, browsing the Britannica takes me back to the pleasures of childhood, denies the passage of time. But it is also a present day pleasure to be found nowhere else. I am not just looking for specific information, I am going on a walk through a landscape I know and don’t know. I can keep walking here for many pleasurable hours. (When I am not dusting or out buying bookshelves.)

All those encyclopaedias I read as a child must have had an effect on me as a writer, but I realize that there were other books also that affected me in different ways. If I try to confine myself to five of those books I come up with: Treasures of English Verse; En Route; ‘The Fly’ by Katherine Mansfield; The Diary of Anne Frank; Barnaby Rudge.

For my sixth birthday my parents gave me Treasures of English Verse, first published by Oxford in 1925, last reprinted in 1942. They were treasures, and I learnt many of them by heart. Even though it was printed in wartime, it is a hardback bound in blue cloth and has a coloured picture as the frontispiece. The cover is faded now, the spine foxed. Etched into the front cover in black is an image of Pegasus flying above clouds and above a strip of stylized water where Art Nouveau images of what might be waves or birds or fish or leaves are flowing. The poems proceed from easy to difficult in three sections, each section signed off with a little woodcut – first an angel, then a Norse ship, then Queen Elizabeth the First. The coloured picture is of a shepherd boy with a flute, and underneath him are lines from Wordsworth’s ‘Written in March’, lines that were delicious then, but strike an ominous note in Eastern Australia today: ‘the rain is over and gone’. The poems begin with ‘The Raindrops’ Message’ by the beautifully named Lucy Diamond and end with George Herbert’s ‘Virtue’, praising the ‘sweet and virtuous soul’ that will live ‘though the whole world turn to coal’. Again I can now read into this a grim ecological message.

I read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was fifteen. I remember sitting in the apricot tree – the book was covered in the brown paper we used to protect books. It is commonplace now for teenagers to read the published diaries of other teenagers, but I had never seen anything like The Diary. It was emotionally freighted with the tragic knowledge that the teenage writer, who broke off the writing on the first of August 1944 was arrested by the Nazis on the fourth of August and died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945. She was fifteen when she died; I was fifteen as I was reading. She was so candid and alive and full of bright innocent hope. I realize now that the reading was a revelation to me, a revelation of how it was possible to write. But it was also a powerful message about the efficacy of writing under pressure, appalling and unimaginable pressure. And I remember experiencing a new feeling of guilt at the realization that when I was frolicking about the garden in Tasmania in the early forties, this girl was hidden in an attic in Amsterdam in fear of her life, able to write: ‘I am young and strong and am living a great adventure.’ Perhaps it was for me an epiphany. ‘The liberation is drawing nearer. Why then should I be in despair?’
Another revelation came about a year later when I read ‘The Fly’ by Katherine Mansfield. Before this I had no concept of the short story form. I woke up to the idea that you could deliver psychological truth via mood, structure, image and language – that the plotting could be stronger because it was subtle, that character would emerge through the other elements of the piece, that the metaphor and the meaning were one. I really was astonished by all that, and delighted, and inspired.
A key book in my development as a reader, and hence as a writer, was Barnaby Rudge. I was seven, and you couldn’t be a member of the children’s library until you were eight. This is now hard to imagine. My older sister was reading David Copperfield, and so I had a passing knowledge of the existence if not the importance of Charles Dickens. My father had pity on me and took me to the adult library saying I could use his card. So – bliss – there I was importantly holding my father’s hand, ascending a magical spiral staircase in a gracious old Georgian building, heading for the Dickens shelf. I selected a leather-bound volume of Barnaby Rudge for two reasons – I thought the title sounded wonderful, and I loved the illustrations, particularly those of Dolly Varden in her bonnet and crinoline. When I came to read the book at home, I found that although I could read a lot of the words, I could not make any sense of most of the sentences. So in an agony of disappointment and rage and wounded pride I sat in tears, slowly turning the pages, making my way through the book, dwelling with relief on the illustrations. This was reading as frozen horror. But I believe it speeded up my determination to read well, and soon enough I turned eight and was admitted to children’s with its fishtank and Enid Blytons.
Then there was the French text book En Route which I started when I was twelve. This was a little blue hardback with a dizzy pattern of dark red calligraphy all over the cover. It was by a genius called E.Saxelby M.A., and was illustrated by another genius called Blam. It, and the subsequent books in the series, followed the lives and adventures of a family named Lépine – Monsieur, Madame, Paul, Bobette and Toto. As with the Treasures of English Verse I still know slabs of these books by heart. I believe that because I moved slowly through the books, particularly the first one, I took in a great many small details of human relationship and psychology, of character and plot and the possibilities of story. The narratives were quite brilliantly constructed and paced. I believe I still draw on elements of the Lépines today as I write.
So from the beginning I truly loved to read, and was quickly led from the intricacies of the texts to a desire to write. It seemed natural.
Just for fun I googled Saxelby, but all I found was an invitation to let Catherine Saxelby guide me ‘through the mumbo-jumbo of how to adopt healthier eating habits.’ No, no, give me Paul and Bobette who eat slices of bread and butter covered in honey. The landscape of words is a beautiful place in which I will continue to wander in sentimentality, but also, I believe, common sense. Sometimes on www; sometimes on the bookshelves.
And then, of course, there’s eBooks. I have finally got there, and I do love them. But I still love Britannica between covers, and also www and so on and so forth.

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