Monday, September 21, 2015

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite - Australian Fairy Tales

 This short story involves the characters of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite and also Henry Handel Richardson. It was first published in my collection 'The Essential Bird' 2005, and Maggie Millar recently performed it at the Woodend Arts Festival 2015. 


In certain lights you can see the impression of a vanished building hanging in the air. The towers and turrets and chimneys of what appears to be a fairy castle may come into view in the mad blue flash of lightning or at the turning point of dusk or dawn. You look up, uncertain of what you have seen, and it is gone, a fanciful silver image fading on the square reality of day, the strange obscurity of night. You imagine you might have glimpsed movement behind the tower window - a hand, the turn of a head, the gentle swaying of a velvet curtain. In the very dead of night it is sometimes possible to catch on the ear the sound of vanished laughter or the faintest tinkle of a bell.

A paving stone under your foot tells you in bold gold type that on this site there stood a college for young ladies, founded, it says on the stone, in 1875, demolished in 1966. In place of the absent castle is a vast white assembly hall where gatherings of men meet to perform occult rituals. Nearby, the Day Procedure Centre of a hospital in which human babies can be brought into being by astonishing modern technology and thought.

Deep in the earth underneath these visible buildings is a place for parking cars, a kind of layer cake joined through the middle by an elevator. The elevator has a voice all of its own, a disconcerting hollow voice, announcing in its strange blank way the names of all the elevator’s destinations, such as ‘basement three’ or ‘ground level’. Underneath the very bottom of the car park is a little stream of running water which connects this world with the next.

Young ladies who vanished long ago, taking their easels and their violins and their tennis racquets, sometimes come back to this place of happy memory, of former life. Girls such as Ida or Nellie or Henry - an odd name for a girl, but she is a writer, and the times being what they are or were, she felt the need for a man’s name in a man’s world. In one of Henry’s books she told the story of her schooldays - the  title of the book was The Getting of Wisdom. These days Henry haunts the State Library where she is doing the research for a trilogy to be published at the turn of the present century. It will be a great Australian saga (inspired by events that have taken place since 1950) produced on CD rom. The title of this one is, you will have guessed, The Forgetting of Wisdom.

Nellie is an opera singer who was celebrated throughout the world. On odd occasions she has spent an evening in the car park elevator, singing the ‘basement one-two-three’ and ‘ground level’ lyrics to the astonishment of the public. Many of the people who heard her were returning from the bars nearby, and so they were inclined to treat her as an hallucination, a large woman in a beaded gown singing in the elevator. In nineteen hundred and seven, Nellie was the President of the Old Collegians Association, and when she materialised on the other side she was re-elected to this position for eternity. The Association is one of the most active organisations on the other side of the water. It is in fact as a member of the Old Collegians that Ida haunts the car park. It is her job to see that the presence of the old school is maintained on the spot.

Ida is a painter. She does delicate pictures of fairies with the fabulous wings of butterflies and other insects. She has illustrated books for children, and once was asked to paint her joyful pictures on the walls of schools and hospitals. Dressed as a fairy in a dark blue tea-gown, she haunts the hospital and the car park. There is a bright hint of mischief in her eyes which sparkle. She carries a large handbag that is shaped like a butterfly’s wing, embroidered with silks the colour of the sunset and studded with sapphires from the heavens and pearls from the depths of the sea. In her handbag she keeps a wand made from a long stalk of evening primrose, and a telephone of morning glory. The technology of these things is primitive in the extreme - the telephone must be connected to the bright blue fire extinguishers in the car park before it will work. The evening primrose has the power, when waved, to stop the elevator between floors. Before doing a tour of the hospital, Ida always gives Nellie a call to let her know she has arrived safely.

Ida’s outline behaves like that of the old school building - now you see her, now you don’t. However, one day she discovered that people who are suffering from the pain of a lost love are gifted with the sight to see her in all her radiance and beauty.

She was standing in the elevator, wincing at the hollow sound of ‘basement three’ when a distinguished-looking fellow with silver hair and sad pale eyes got in. The white silk scarf around his neck slipped and slithered to the floor. He seemed distracted, didn’t appear to notice that the scarf had fallen. Without thinking, Ida stooped down and picked it up. She then realised he could see her, and she knew therefore he must be suffering. She handed him the scarf, he smiled sadly, the corners of his lovely eyes crinkling as he did so. Ida’s heart missed a beat and she felt she had to act at once. She whisked out her evening primrose and there, between the ground and basement one, the elevator settled gently to a halt.

‘I do believe we’re stuck,’ he said. And he began to press the buttons on the wall. Nothing happened. They introduced themselves - his name was Lawrence, Lawrence Honey - and he explained he was on his way to Lodge. Which Lodge is that, she asked in innocence, and he told her he belonged to a society called the Invisible Lodge. She said she liked the name of that, and then she explained she was a volunteer, a visitor to the hospital. He said he hoped she didn’t suffer from claustrophobia, stuck there in the elevator, hanging by a thread between the floors. She said she wasn’t frightened. My ex-wife, he said, and tears came to his eyes, my ex-wife Georgina was terrified of things like this. She was very young - always insisted that we use the stairs. As you can see, I miss her. You must excuse me, he added, and took out his handkerchief and wiped away his tears, and then he opened up his attache case and took out a silver flask from which he drank. A nip? he said, and handed it to Ida. She took a swig of brandy and felt it go straight to her head. They both began to laugh, and then he offered her a bite of his peanut butter sandwich. My secretary, he said, always insists that I bring a sandwich with me on Lodge night. She’s a most practical woman - makes the sandwich for me. I think you’ll find it satisfactory. And it was.

We’re moving - are we moving? he said this several times and Ida felt it prudent to give the evening primrose an imperceptible wave. The elevator slid gently into motion and they arrived at the ground floor. The security guard at the front desk woke up from a little dream he had been having, unaware that on his elevator monitor he had just missed something that resembled a scene from a silent movie - a man and a woman both in evening dress having a sort of picnic between floors.

Ida found that her imagination was gripped by Lawrence. Ida had fallen in love in that brief time between the ground floor and basement one. She was moved also by the thought of the obvious cruelty of his ex-wife Georgina. Ida would comfort Lawrence; he would not have to weep again. She dashed down to a fire extinguisher and plugged in her morning glory. Nellie, Nellie, she said, all excitement. I’m bringing someone home to dinner. A simply lovely man. I met him in the elevator on his way to Lodge. Do we have cognac - I think he would like that.

It is a coincidence, Ida said to Lawrence in the elevator when he was going home after Lodge, that we should meet again. They both laughed and hoped the thing wouldn’t stick between the floors. You have your car? he said, and Ida said that actually she didn’t have a car - had something else to show him. Perhaps he didn’t realise, but the very latest thing to do was to travel round the city by underground waterway. He said he thought he had read about it somewhere. Perhaps is was in the colour supplement of the Saturday paper.

Lawrence Honey, as if in a trance, stepped into the rowing boat. He felt a drowsy humming feeling running through his blood. The beautiful woman, so reminiscent of a fairy from a ballet or a picture book, took the oars, and smiled. He smiled. The small black attache case of the Invisible Lodge slipped silently from his hand into the water.

They found the attache case caught in weeds some miles downstream. They never found a body. Vanished into thin air. The white silk scarf embroidered with Lawrence’s own secret symbol turned up at the State Library some years later. A baby boy who was manufactured in the hospital was named Lawrence Honey Hamilton in a gesture of reparation for the man who disappeared. And in certain lights you can imagine that you see a gorgeous fairy and a man in evening dress as they step into a little rowing boat on the water underneath the car park that is underneath the Day Procedure Centre.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Love of Libraries

I was asked this morning what it is I love about libraries. Here is my response. And I am adding an image that appeared on twitter today. It seems to illustrate my story.

I grew up in Launceston where the public library was in an elegant Georgian building, in one corner of which was a separate children’s library. It had a wonderful goldfish tank. It was a magical place with avenues of books and books and books on shelves. I could go into a kind of trance. My older sister was a great reader and she used to borrow books from the children’s library. She borrowed books by Georgette Heyer and Charles Dickens – among others, but these were the names I knew. Occasionally I would go there with her, but because I was not yet seven, I was not allowed to be a member, not allowed to borrow books. I became so distressed about this that my father decided to take me into the adult library next door where he said I could choose a book and use his card. So, holding my father’s hand, I moved on air along the pavement from one level of paradise  where I was forbidden to taste the fruit, to a higher level where I could pick my own apple. This was a golden place in which the shining shelves of books went forever up into a high vastness. We climbed a spiral staircase. Somewhere at the top of this my father found for me the works of Charles Dickens, as I had requested. Choose one, he said. You can have any one you like. I looked for good pictures, and I found Dolly Varden in ‘Barnaby Rudge’. This was it. I carried it down to the desk, and I borrowed ‘Barnaby Rudge’. I don’t remember many occasions on which I wept, during my childhood. But I do recall the great sorrow and the terrible tears I shed as I was later confronted by the text of ‘Barnaby Rudge’. For although I could read quite a few of the words, I could make no sense at all of any of it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Interview by Danielle Wood

Birds, butterflies and beating hearts

by Danielle Wood
First Published in The Weekend Tasmanian, August 29, 2015

In the world of one of Carmel Bird’s best-loved and most anthologised short stories, ‘The Woodpecker Toy Fact’, a ‘toy fact’ is a particular kind of truth – the truth according to the writer of fiction.

A toy fact can be absolutely true, or not quite. And even if it is a very long way from being true, then it will be so seductive that it ought to be. For Bird, such facts are the gorgeous, vivid scraps of stuff out of which stories are made.

Here is a toy fact: Carmel Bird and the cabbage white butterfly both arrived in Tasmania in the year 1940. Carmel sprang from her parents – her mother a creative soul and her father a Launceston optician with the magnificent name Will Power. As for the cabbage white: it came from Europe, via mainland Australia, and few gardeners relish the sight of the species’ slender green caterpillars on their brassicas.

Here is another fact, one that seems to chime quite nicely with caterpillars, butterflies and the transformative process that joins and separates them: Carmel Bird was born Janice Maureen Power, and Janice she remained while growing up in Launceston and studying to be a teacher of English and French. She took her birth name with her when she left Tasmania in 1963, but if getting married and then divorced taught her anything, it was that surnames could be acquired and abandoned with relative ease. And if this were true of surnames, then why not of first names, too?

‘I liked the music of Carmel. I did not especially like the music of Janice,’ Bird said.

As Carmel Bird, she has turned her mischievous, witty, dark, light, fierce attention on just about everything. She has written and edited more than 30 books, been thrice short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award (with The White Garden, Red Shoes, and Cape Grimm), and inspired countless other writers through her how-to manuals (including Dear Writer and Not Now Jack – I’m Writing a Novel).

Although she moved away from Tasmania in the early 1960s – and now lives in Castlemaine in country Victoria – she has never really, truly left her birthplace behind. The two new books she has released this year, Fair Game: a Tasmanian Memoir and the short fiction collection My Hearts are Your Hearts contain plenty of evidence of how deeply the island’s trademark triangle is imprinted on Bird’s imagination.

‘I was born in Tasmania early in World War 2. In our bomb shelter there were maps ­– very pretty – of the world, and there was weeny little Tasmania, way away from where the war was. And there was also a huge map of Tasmania. I really loved the shape. I imagine that could be where my personal obsession with the place began,’ Bird said.

‘Because it was left off many maps, and was treated as a joke, and because the perspective my family and associates had of the world was focused far away (the war), it came to be that I perceived Tasmania as unreal. And I thought it was thrilling that I, being marvellously real myself, was roaming around in this non-existent place.’

When she ‘flew the island’, she took Tasmania and all its fairy-tale associations with her, hidden in a ‘fabulous, fictional capsule’ in her memory. And there, it has continued to echo.

Since she was fifteen years old, and possibly even earlier, Bird has been squirrelling away references to Tasmania from the obscure corners of world literature and popular culture.

Underlined in Bird’s 1950’s edition of Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts are the lines: ‘She had been born, but it was only gossip said so, in Tasmania: her grandfather had been exported for some hanky-panky mid-Victorian scandal’. In his autobiography, Hans Christian Andersen describes how a Lady Blessington keeps ‘a Tasmanian blackbird’ on her balcony. Small matter, Bird says, that there’s no such thing as a ‘Tasmanian blackbird’. The important thing, to Andersen, was that the warbling creature came from an unknown and exotic corner of the globe.

Charles Dickens, Somerset Maugham, Vladimir Nabokov, Agatha Christie and Noel Coward (‘I once had an aunt who went to Tasmania’) are also represented in Bird’s Tasmaniana snippet collection.

‘Tasmania [is] a name, a location, that pops up in literature when a writer seeks a far off, inconsequential, mythical or gruesome place to insert into the prose,’ Bird writes in Fair Game, her own most recent literary return to the island, and a story that began – like Bird herself – in association with butterflies.

A watercolour image of butterflies arrived some years ago in Bird’s mailbox, on a postcard. These butterflies have now taken up residence on the cover of Fair Game, a slender volume that has been exquisitely produced by boutique publisher Finlay Lloyd as part of its ‘Smalls’ series.

The image is from a cartoon lithograph titled ‘E-migration or a flight of fair game, 1832’, by English artist Alfred Ducote. A close look reveals that the butterflies are in fact women: their wings large, their feet tiny, their elaborate Georgian hair-dos adorned with tiny crowns.

But what Ducote is satirising – and what Bird has written about in her memoir – is far from a beautiful scene. In 1832, 200 young women were sent from England to Van Diemen’s Land aboard the ship Princess Royal – the first large group of non-convict women to make the journey – to become wives and servants in a colonial society suffering from a desperate gender imbalance.

In Ducote’s image, the butterfly women are being swept off the English cliffs by women with brooms. What awaits them in Van Diemen’s Land are men with butterfly nets, their speech bubbles exclaiming: ‘I spies mine’, or ‘I spies a prime ’un’. But these details are small and difficult to see.

‘It takes a very close look and a magnifying glass to release the narrative of the journey they are making from a hostile England to a rapacious Van Diemen’s Land,’ Bird writes. ‘It is not a joyful picture; it is a depiction of a chapter in a tragedy.’

Fair Game is a deceptive book, full of tangential musings, personal recollections and gossipy Tasmanian detours (‘I went to school with…’, ‘I once briefly dated…’), but by the last page, the final layer of has been removed and the reader has been brought face-to-face with the truth of what happened to many of those young women who crossed the world, poor and desperate, only to discover that they were absolutely ‘fair game’.

Bird has dedicated the memoir to her father, and also to Lucy Halligan, daughter of Bird’s close friend, the writer Marion Halligan. Before Lucy died in 2004 of complications from a life-long heart complaint, she was in the habit of sending postcards; it was she who sent the butterfly women to Bird, with a characteristically lively note on the reverse.

It’s hard not to hear the beats of Lucy’s ‘faulty heart’ echoing through Bird’s other new release, the short fiction collection Your Hearts are My Hearts. The hearts that Bird excavates in these stories might be anything from chocolate hearts wrapped in scarlet foil and displayed in a bowl, to transplanted body-part hearts, to the island of Tasmania itself, whose shape, in Bird’s ‘heart of heart…resembles that of a love heart’.

A private girls’ college in Deloraine, an artist’s home in the Huon Valley, and a second-hand imaginary version of Queenstown are among the Tasmanian locations that have made their way into the stories.

‘I didn’t have a rigid scheme for the collection, but the motif of the heart weaves and flickers through the narratives, and the stories do quietly sing to each other,’ Bird says.

Whether she is writing short stories or novels, it is all part of the same endless piece of string for Bird.

‘The first short story I ever read was “The Fly” by Katherine Mansfield. This was in Year Eleven and “The Fly” was a revelation to me. I have been a student and a practitioner of the form ever since. I will hear something, or observe something, and ­– ping! ­– something goes off in my mind, and a whole lot of details and recollections and voices gather, and I start to write a story,’ Bird said.

‘I also love reading and writing novels. I work on a novel and I write short stories at the same time, because I can’t help myself. My whole attitude to life, I suppose, is that of a writer of fiction, and I am, as it were, on the job all the time.’

I first met Carmel Bird in the pages of ‘The Woodpecker Toy Fact’, which hooked me with its opening description of women ‘magging’ over a paling fence, passing between themselves ‘hot scones wrapped in tea-towels, cups of sugar, bowls of stewed plums and a continuous ribbon of talk’.

But our second meeting – on paper, still – was a profound one for me. I had just given up my job in Hobart and was driving across the Nullabor Plain towards Perth and an uncertain plan to start writing fiction. It was January and my car had no airconditioner and by the time I reached Kalgoorlie, I was so hot that I didn’t care where I spent the daylight hours so long as it was indoors, and cool.

I found the library. I found Bird’s Not Now Jack ­– I’m Writing a Novel, and since then I have had total faith in the truism ‘when the student is ready, the teacher will appear’. Bird taught me, through the pages of that book, about the concept of suspending observations from life in the ‘marvellous clear jelly’ of fiction (and included a recipe for Japonica Jelly as well). She told me, firmly, that ‘real writers don’t have mothers’, which meant that I could not expect anyone to hold my hand or mop my fevered brow; I must just get on with it, alone. She urged me to give up housework. Her advice – on writing, and on the writing life – was and is golden to me.

While interviewing her for this article, I asked – somewhat nervously – about the how-to books, including my beloved Not Now Jack. They weren’t, were they, just something she did – the way writers sometimes must – to pay the rent?

‘No!’ she exclaimed, to my great relief. ‘No, they were much more than that. I loved writing them.’

Bird was first asked to teach a creative writing course in the early 1980s, a time when the concept of teaching creative writing was very new in Australian tertiary institutions. Soon she was also assessing manuscripts for the Victorian Ministry for the Arts. This process was anonymous and Bird was given the moniker ‘Number Eight’, with which she signed her reports.

Much of the advice in Bird’s how-to books came directly from the reports that ‘Number Eight’ wrote for real life writing hopefuls. The advice is enduring, and when Dear Writer was recently re-released (as an e-book and in paperback), the only details Bird really needed to change were to do with the march of technology in the publishing industry.

Bird has never been afraid of embracing technology, either within the worlds of her fiction, or in the way her work is presented to the world. She was the first Australian writer to have a website (her current site hosts a link to the original, ‘vintage’, model) and her book Red Shoes was issued with a CD-ROM appendix, at a time when such a thing was cutting edge technology.

‘I think communication, medical and space technology are all wonderful, but it’s also clear that technical progress is double-edged,’ Bird said.

‘Since at least World War 2 it has been more or less clear that the world is probably on a dizzy trip to disaster…the extinction of species, loss of crops, starvation, millions of refugees, the rise of sea levels, wild weather events. Bits of this get into my fiction, of course.’

Having just read Fair Game and My Hearts are Your Hearts, my mind is jostling with the many, many ‘bits’ – beautiful and terrible – that make their way into Bird’s fiction. There’s a $6000 raincoat from Paris, a monkey on the loose at a garden party, a retinue of faded Beatrix Potter figurines on a child’s grave, the broken insect that is the body a 15-year-old girl on the deck of the Princess Royal. And there’s Bird’s father Will Power standing in a Launceston garden on the day of an eclipse, comforting his little blonde daughter, who has just smashed a precious piece of green glass.

Look, Bird always seems to be saying to her readers. Look.

Carmel Bird will appear in two sessions of the forthcoming Tasmanian Writers and Readers Festival in Hobart.
·      ‘Our Heart is Her Heart’, in conversation with Danielle Wood, 2.30-3.30pm, Saturday, September 12, Hadleys Orient Hotel. Tickets, $15/$10, available from
·      ‘Short, Sharp Shreds’, a short story celebration with Adam Ouston and Robbie Arnott, 3.45-4.45pm, Sunday, September 13, Hadleys Orient Hotel. Tickets, $20/$15, available from

As a fledgling writer Danielle Wood encountered Carmel Bird in the pages of Bird’s how-to book, Not Now Jack – I’m Writing a Novel, and immediately took her advice to heart. Danielle, a former Mercury journalist, is the author of books including the Vogel Award-winning The Alphabet of Light and Dark, Rosie Little’s Cautionary Tales for Girls, Housewife Superstar: the very best of Marjorie Bligh and Mothers Grimm. With Heather Rose, she is ‘Angelica Banks’, author of the Tuesday McGillycuddy books for children: Finding Serendipity, A Week Without Tuesday and the forthcoming Blueberry Pancakes Forever. Danielle lives in Hobart with her family and a menagerie of creatures great and small. She teaches writing at the University of Tasmania.