‘I love a sunburnt country’, sunning on the beach, regardless of the risk. Beaches offer sculpture exhibits, ‘race riots’, and peaceful protests: something for everyone.
‘A land of sweeping plains’, consumed by cash crops, draining precious water, leaving a legacy of dead fish.
‘Of ragged mountain ranges’, left scarred by logging and mining.
‘Of droughts and flooding rains’, while climate change deniers cite MacKellar’s 1908 poem as scientific evidence: No climate change here.
‘I love her far horizons’ that grow closer every year, fogged by pollution and bushfire smoke. This year, with reduced road traffic, the media reported with some astonishment that the Blue Mountains were visible from Sydney – as they were 60 years ago.
‘I love her emerald sea’, the bleached and dying coral reefs, the floating plastic and Styrofoam beads.
‘Her beauty and her terror’ Beauty? Yes. Terror? Yes, the forces of nature and climate change are formidable. Terrorist attacks and the pandemic: two new sources of terror.
‘The wide brown land for me’ And for me, the granddaughter of a Scottish settler, and great-granddaughter of a convict from Yorkshire? I love and embrace this land as my birthplace, but it’s not mine to claim.
How does a child learn how to read? As far as I can remember the process, I couldn’t read until, one day, I could. Written words and spoken words suddenly matched each other, and when that happened, it was magic. One clear memory that I treasure involved carefully copying words and stories from a book, probably a school reader, into an exercise book, and I can still feel the excitement and satisfaction of seeing that unfold. I was sitting at a child-sized table in a patch of sunshine at the front of our house during a Sydney winter, writing out the story word for word.
As I think about this now, I’m reminded of a similar process, but not a happy one, involving a university colleague who suffered a severe stroke in the prime of life. He had written two ground-breaking books based on the work of French philosophers, and, as part of his personal project of rehabilitation, he began copying the original text on his laptop, in the hope of making sense of what he had written a few years earlier.
Returning to my own story, I recall the first ‘real’ book that I read – Enid Blyton’s Shadow the Sheepdog. A family friend had given me a copy, and I was thrilled to be able to read it by myself – that is, until I got to the word ‘determined’, somewhere in the first few chapters. I always had to ask my mother how to pronounce that word, apparently because it was important to me to hear it correctly in my head; I routinely put the stress on the first syllable instead of the second. I still have the book in my collection, not for its literary value (yes, I’m aware of all the critiques of Blyton’s biases, including racism), but because it was a landmark in my childhood.
Book-lovers and authors often say they grew up in a house full of books. This was not my experience. As I recall, my mother had a copy of Pears Cyclopaedia, mainly for its health advice, and bought the Women’s Weekly quite regularly, while my father read the Sydney Morning Herald and had a small collection of Zane Grey’s paperback westerns. Author Frank Dalby Davison was an acquaintance of my father’s, and we had a copy of Man-Shy. My brother, 12 years older than me, had a small collection of books, including one called The Theory of Flight that I read when I was older and loved books about flying. In short, my family were readers, but I would not say that I was surrounded by books.
A neighbour and friend, Ada Smith, was the mother of Thelma Clune and mother-in-law of Frank Clune, both patrons of the arts. Through Frank’s connections to the publishing industry, Auntie Ada (as I called her), was the recipient of several remaindered books that she passed on to me. I think Shadow the Sheepdog and other children’s books came through her, as did a number of coffee-table books, some about Australia and others about the Royal Family. And yes, I still have most of these books, too, 70 years later.
When I began undergraduate studies in 1972, I used to write term papers in longhand, then type them. As an early adopter of a computer in 1979 (a primitive contraption that used audiotapes for data storage), I began composing on-screen, a big step towards writing more quickly and efficiently. It’s hard to imagine how we wrote back in the day, without the benefit of computers. It also seems like a different era (although it was only about 12 years ago) when I had to print final drafts and send them by courier to my American publisher, rather than simply email them as attachments. However, I was certainly not an early adopter of online books, having only graduated to doing so this year, out of necessity, when Toronto public libraries were closed for several months because of the pandemic.
Yes, reading and writing: things that sustain us (to borrow from Julia Baird, with great admiration!)
‘Before all this’, as we’ve been saying in our house for several months, I used to check online news every morning. During Australia’s bushfire season 2019-20, I’d start with ABC and Sydney Morning Herald, and, depending on the news, message family and friends in NSW to see how they were coping. Canadian news – CBC and the Toronto Star – was next on my list, and news of the virus was gradually making headlines.
By February, with the pandemic threatening, and my planned May flight to Sydney in question, I got a bit obsessive around online news, most of which was frighteningly bad. Opinion pieces and social media were the worst, and I had to stop reading them. Then on March 16 Canada went into lockdown, and I spent the first two weeks wondering if I had the virus, having been on crowded buses and in a busy restaurant just days earlier.
Early in ‘all this’, I was concerned about Australia’s seemingly slow start to enforce restrictions, while Canada appeared to be dealing with the crisis relatively effectively, with a fairly sane and sensible prime minister. Sadly, that situation was soon reversed, and Toronto is still in Stage 2 of a three-stage plan to reopening, averaging about 30 new cases daily.
Obviously, I’m not on holiday at Manly this year.
Like many regular swimmers, I despaired of finding a substitute when Toronto’s indoor pools closed. Jogging kept me fit, but offered none of the joys of water, as Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence and Roger Deakin’s Waterlogged eloquently describe. Toronto is on the shores of Lake Ontario, the 13th largest lake in the world, but in March, the water is close to freezing. At the end of May, after a lot of online research about size and thickness, I ordered a heavy-weight wetsuit on Amazon. By then, water at Toronto beaches was about 10 C. Swimming in a 5mm wetsuit is a challenge – one swimmer on my Facebook swim group aptly calls his a sausage suit. It kept me warm but was not a tight fit and bulged in strange places. It seems that I should have paid twice as much for a suit designed for swimming, with thinner material on the arms and legs. The plan is to buy one now that stores are open, so that I can have a longer open water swimming season this year.
It’s possible that most Australians reading this will not know anyone who caught the virus. I personally know of only a few. Two of my UK colleagues at Emerald Publishing were quite ill in April, as well as two young Toronto women, friends of my son and daughter-in-law, and one university colleague.
My generation tended to self-isolate, and retired University of Toronto faculty have stayed in touch through weekly Zoom ‘coffee times’ and regular online presentations replacing the monthly in-person talks. Weekly online meetings of a group called Oasis (a secular community, see <torontooasis.org>) also nurture my mind and spirit. Cyclists have benefitted, with Toronto creating new cycle lanes throughout the city, and closing the major lakeshore highway to cars every weekend. The so-called ‘new normal’ might not be as bad as it seems.