Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Night After Christmas

As usual I have a festive rhyme for you. If no one is offended then I haven't done my job. And thanks as ever to Graeme Base for writing the more rhythmical bits.
'Twas the night after Christmas
And sleepiness fell.
They'd finished the turkey,
The pudding as well

They'd opened their crackers,
The riddles they'd told
(And none of them less
Than a century old).

They'd worn paper hats
For a moment or two
Till even Gran found it
A lame thing to do.

The presents were opened,
The mess cleared away,
Now everyone slumbered,
Recalling the day . . .

Paul got a video game
He thought neat,
(The one where you murder
Each person you meet.)

But Mum said, 'It's awful!
'I won't let you play.
'I don't care if Dad
Has been playing all day.'

And David got DVD movies,
He'd downloaded all of them
Ages ago.

Old Gran gave out books
And a chemistry set.
(All going on eBay
Next week, you can bet.)

And then there was Courtney
Who cried, the poor soul -
For Santa had brought her
The wrong kind of doll.

'I wanted a dolly
That wets when it's pressed
Bit this one won't wee
And I'm deeply distressed.'

'But this doll is lovely,'
Said Mummy to daughter.
'I think they've stopped making
Those dolls that pass water.'

And Courtney kept squeezing
But nothing came out.
The doll wouldn't pee.
It was airtight. No doubt.

She squeezed and squeezed harder,
With all of her might
Till dolly exploded -
A terrible sight!

The head popped right off
Looking spooky and scary.
And bounced off the Christmas tree,
Killing a fairy.

It rocketed round
And finally fell
Right into the fireplace
(It burned rather well).

The plastic was melted,
The room filled with smoke
Mum said, 'Let's sing carols!'
And tried not to choke

But Courtney kept crying
And cursing the elf
That brought the wrong dolly,
She soon wet herself.

Her two darling brothers,
Young David and Paul,
Were laughing like mad
At the thrill of it all.

But Courtney was livid
And growled at the pair,
'I hope that next Christmas
You're killed by a bear!'

Her mother suggested
She might want to go
And put on new undies.
But Courtney said, 'No!'

She glared at her dolly's head,
Melted to goo,
And into the fireplace
Her panties she threw!

And what happened next
Made the family flee -
A cloud of burnt plastic
And panties and pee.

And two hours later
The household returned
To witness where dolly
And undies were burned.

The boys looked at Mother.
'We don't understand.
'Is this part of Christmas?
Is this what God planned?'

'I'm sure that it isn't,'
Their mother intoned.
'Now let's tidy up!'
She looked round and groaned.

The soot and the cinders,
The stains and the wet -
The night after Christmas
Was not over yet.

'Next Christmas,' she said,
'We'll avoid all this stuff-
The presents ... the pudding ...
The turkey... Enough!

'From now on, each dollar
Goes straight to the poor,
We'll give it to charity -
They need it more.'

'Hooray!' they all cried.
Not a soul disagreed.
A household united
In good over greed.

And so the day finished,
With goodwill and cheer…
And who knows? They might even
Do it next year.

But just for the moment,
The presents seemed nice
And thoughts of the poor
Disappeared in a trice.

And Courtney was just as
Amazed as can be
To find in her bed
A doll that could pee.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Tonight's The Night

 It worked!

But unfortunately, Dad couldn't make it. He'd have got on well with Margaret.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Margaret Fulton musical is nearly here.

With a bit of luck, my stroky Dad may be well enough to attend the forthcoming production of Margaret Fulton, Queen of the Dessert, the musical that I wrote with composer and mate Yuri Worontschak. The cast members are young and ludicrously talented. Our beautiful leading lady, Amy Lehpamer, can play the violin as well as sing and dance, so we've written a violin solo into a scene set in The Rocks in Sydney, where the tenants (Margaret's friends and neighbours) sing a song about their love of La Vie Boheme. I started writing this so long ago, it's hard to believe it's about to happen. Although we've just has one major setback: poor Amy, our aforementioned leading lady, has caught chicken pox, so she can't rehearse for a week.
  Amy Lehpamer not with chicken pox.

  I haven't made a big deal about my stroke recovery in any of the media interviews I've done, but the fact that you're reading this blog suggests that you might already know about it. For the moment, I think that one of the best things you can do to aid stroke recovery is keep busy, find a group of energetic people to be busy with, and put on as musical. I realise this remedy may not be readily available for all stroke survivors. I'm particularly fortunate in that regard. It all started when I volunteered to work on the musical Call Girl last year. Call Girl is a musical written by my friend Tracy Harvey. It's about love and laughter in a call centre. Tracy actually worked in one of these places for a short while. YOu have to harden up. Most people you 'cold-call' really don't want to talk with you, and you might have dragged them away from something important, such as Letters and Numbers or dinner. It was interesting for me to go from an experience of dreading the call centre calls, to a position where I couldn't wait for them to ring me, so that I could plug our show. I think I must be the only person who ever managed to 'sell' anything to a call centre caller. Tracy kept a notebook full of the adventures of working in the call centre, and came up with a clever script where it was possible to sympathise and even cheer for the 'phonies', after all, they were human beings like you or me, who had, in many cases fallen on hard times. One of the best experiences of working on Call Girl was getting the chance to work with director Bryce Ives.

 Director Bryce Ives with the fabulous Tracy Harvey 

Bryce is 28 and one of the most dedicated people I have ever met, somehow making himself available to deal with the concerns of cast and crew (and there were plenty) while somehow keeping the whole vision of the show together. Our cast (with the exception of Tracy) were all fairly new to the business, but Bryce brought out the best in them all and the end production was slick and funny. I hope we get a chance to do it again.

After seeing how well Bryce brought together the various components of Call Girl I decided to show him the remnants of a script and some songs I had written for the Margaret Fulton musical. There have been a lot of bio-musicals lately, as well as some that take inappropriate subject matter and turn it into a musical, so the biggest joke is that someone has gone to the effort of producing a whole musical about the life of Shane Warne, or a dystopian world called Urinetown, where water is scarce and lavatories may only be used if a substantial fee is paid to the corrupt company (Urine Good Company) that runs the town. The trouble is, unlikely subject matter that is often the only joke, and what might have worked well as a two minute joke on The Simpsons (they've already done parody-musicals based on The Planet of The Apes and also A Streetcar Named Desire, to name but two) flounders when it reaches the midway point. I haven't seen Warne, so I don't know if this criticism applies, but I did see Urinetown, and also the musical about Jerry Springer, and it was hard for me to last the distance.

Margaret being a 'celebrity chef'- a term she hates. She will not be taking part in future seasons of Masterchef

I'd met Margaret Fulton - the 'celebrity chef' - while doing some research on a TV program proposal for Steve Vizard's production company. Margaret and I spent a morning together. Margaret was, and is, phenomenally entertaining. Conversations with Margaret often collapsed into giggles as Margaret would suddenly go off on a tangent, recalling an anecdote that might involve Germaine Greer or Jorn Utzon or any other artistic, political and literary celebrities of the fifties and sixties. Margaret, you see, had a knack of being in the right place to commune with the great and near-great. It helped, of course, that she was strong-willed, intelligent and courageous. Margaret was the first female business executive in Australia, with her own line of credit. The musical recreates some funny but true moments where male executives have underestimated Margaret, or even mistaken her for a 'lady of the night', which once happened during a business trip to Canberra. After I met Margaret I was determined (though not driven) to create a musical about her life, since the performing arts had been such a major part of it. This was, I think, before Casey Benetto did such a good job with his musical about the life of former Australian prime minister, Paul Keating. I think one of the reasons Keating worked so well is that Casey put a lot of heart and soul into the script. It wasn't just funny (fantasically so) it was also moving and a fair representation of a full political life. I wanted to make the Margaret Fulton musical a genuine biographical piece with music of the various periods of history that Margaret's life spanned.

A typical Margaret Fulton pic from the early sixties. You can tell she's a communist, can't you?

When Adam Cook, the artistic director of The State Theatre in Adelaide asked me if I had any show ideas (we had just finished working together on the Midnite musical), I mentioned the Fulton project and he burst out laughing. He thought I was proposing yet another of those inappropriate subject matter joke-musicals. To give people an idea of what I really wanted to do (and Margaret was yet to give us her blessing - she has now) I thought the best thing would be to put together a collection of songs to demonstrate the sweep of the project. I bought the rights to Margaret's autobiography, and the first song I wrote was a huge thing called The Book. It's a song about Margaret's first cookery book, which broke all records by having an initial print run of one million. That's the story, anyway. I don't quite know how it is possible to do such a massive first print run unless you are, say, doing the latest volume in the Harry Potter series. But Margaret insists that Paul Hamlyn, the famous semi-teutonic publisher and patron of the arts commissioned an initial print run of a million - when there were only about eighteen million people in Australia. (This gives you an idea of how popular Margaret Fulton was in the fifties and sixties, when she was contributing to Woman's Day and New Idea, as well as appearing on the exciting new medium of television. I suppose if anyone could do a primary print run of one million, then Paul Hamlyn, with all his Asian printing connections, could. There's a song about him in he show, and we've delighted in presenting him as the King of Colour, a sort of pop-art swinging guru that would be quite at home in The Beatles' movie, Yellow Submarine. And we've placed him right at the heart of swinging London, where Margaret did dozens of highly successful book signings (although people weren't queueing around the block as they did at the Australian signings). So the first song I put down with Yuri was a massive rock opera piece about this massive book that introduced bland Australian cooks to such novelties as garlic and Indian spices.

Australia really was somewhat insular in her cookery tastes. Never mind that we were in the middle of the pacific, but we based our menu on English rather than Asian tastes. Exotic herbs like cumin or cardamom were barely heard of. But Margaret Fulton's cookery book introduced Austrtalian men and women (okay, mainly the women) to a myriad of new flavours and exotic methods of food preparation. Readers of The Women's Weekly lapped it up, and Margaret's book became the cornerstone of modern Australian cuisine. All the while, Margaret was presenting a fairly conservative image to the readers of the women's magazines. Most photographs of her featured her presiding in a matronly way over wonderful spreads of food; exotic, spicy food that the readers could make for themselves. But Margaret's seemingly conservative image was at odds with her true self. Fiercely independent, she set out to create a career for herself in Big Bad Sydney (she was born in Scotland but spent her childhood in Glen Innes, in rural New South Wales). Margaret had a young daughter from her first marriage, which broke up fairly swiftly when both parties realised they didn't share a lot in common. Thus, Margaret became a 'rebellious' single mum (there weren't so many of them back then) who decided that the best, most convenient place to live would be in the famous, sometimes derided 'Rocks' district of Sydney, right near the south end of the bridge.

The Rocks. It used to be rough, now it's a repolished gem, a bit like my beloved St Kilda.

Margaret's friends were her fellow tenants; a lively mixture of actors, artists, writers and musicians. The show features a big song called La Vie Boheme, or The Bohemian Life, which was very much the life that Margaret lived when she wasn't working in the ACP building on one of the magazines. Margaret's daughter Suzanne is on record as saying that she thinks her mother had poor taste in men. They were always good-looking and 'interesting', but they were sometimes dishonest, even predatory. I wrote a song called Decorative, Elegant and Useless, which strives to encapsulate Suzanne's opinion of her mother's ability to hook up with disastrous men. I wrote two more songs, one piece to encapsulate Margaret's energetic philosophy of life. It's called I Sang for My Supper. My favourite song in the show is about a 'Bohemian' character called Mandrake the Magician, a female legal eagle who attended one of Margaret's many custume parties, dressed as the male cartoon superhero Mandrake, and promptly had an affair with Margaret's husband at the time, Denis Doonan.

Leave her alone! Mandrake the magician bravely threatens an evil spaceman

With the bare bones of a script and a CD of six songs I pitched the idea to Margaret. I wasn't quite sure how she would take it, but it was a good pitch. Yuri Worontscak produced the songs so that they were technically of a high standard, and we had good singers such as Mark Trevorrow and Shaun Micallef performing the lyrics. I sat and listened to these songs with Margaret, having to translate a few lines because Yuri, like many musical producers, thought the music was more important than the lyrics and the balance was wrong. Lyrics disappeared in lilting seas of music. I was most concerned about the Mandrake song, since it dealt with such a personal part of Margaret's life. But I was rapt when Margaret smiled at the end of it. 'She was exactly like that,' Margaret said, especially in relation to 'Mandrake's' line that the reason she always worked so hard on being a superhero was that she 'couldn't find love'.

Imagine being cheated on by Mandrake. Spiderman you'd understand, but Mandrake?

So, Margaret apparently liked the songs and when she decided she could trust me, she let me go ahead with writing the musical.

Our cast, gathered in Bryce Ives' kitchen, where many of the rehearsals took place.

It's punishingly hard to produce musicals anywhere in the world, let alone in Australia, so I suspected we would have to give it to one of the local theatre companies to present as part of their season. It wasn't a vast production, just a sort of chamber piece with five performers and a small band. Yuri and I shook hands on the production and we took it to Simon Phillips, who was then the artistic director of The Melbourne Theatre Company. At the time they were presenting the musical Urinetown, which both Yuri and I had seen but not enjoyed terribly much. Sadly, Yuri mentioned this to Simon. I've always found that to gain the support of a person of influence, it's often a good idea not to tell them you think their work is crap. But Simon remained very encouraging, and wondered whom I had in mind to play the title character. I'd just been working with Gina Riley on the Kath and Kim series, so I suggested her - good-looking, fantastic comic timing and a magnificent singing voice. Who could be better? This came as a bit of a surprise to Yuri; we hadn't even discussed this, but Simon liked the idea very much and told me to finish it. Some money even changed hands, though I don't recall how much. There was certainly no promise of the MTC taking it on as one of the shows in their latest season, but Simon Phillips' encouragement and money inspired me to write a whole first act, which I sent him.
 Our cast again. it seems likely that our set will resemble a working kitchen. We have permission to cook stuff during the show. In the last rehearsal I attended, there was much chopping of vegetables and fiddling with pots. It was a little distracting and it will be tidied up for the final production, but I did rather like the fact that at the end of the show, the cast sat and ate what they had made. No food wastage here.

 Simon was still kind and supportive, but by this stage he had decided he no longer wanted to perform the role of the MTC's artistic director. So, we had a show but nowhere to present it. It gathered dust for a few years. I showed it to Bryce Ives at some stage and gave him a copy of the CD. I remained in contact with Margaret, and made sure that she got invitations to some of the other Sydney shows in which I had played a part. I was glad Margaret came to The Clockwork Forest at the Sydney Theatre Company, because I think that show is the most faithful rendering of my writing. She also saw the Belvoir Street production of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie which I adapted with John Clarke. I remember a ludicrous, plump arts administrator complaining about the script that John and I had written, stating that it was 'little more than a satire on Australian iconography'. This overwhelmed me. If you commission Australia's best known satirist to write a show then complain that it's satirical, it's a bit like buying a cherry ripe then complaining because there appear to be cherries in it. It wasn't a good experience, because of Sydney theatre politics, though I very much enjoyed working with John.

The incomparable Keating, The musical. We were working on the Margaret Fulton show before this mini-masterpiece appeared, and it was an inspiration. 

Simon Phillips was also in the opening night audience of The Clockwork Forest. I did passingly mention to him that I still had this musical about Margaret Fulton which by an extraordinary coincidence, was holding my hand. I don't know if Simon had lost interest in the project, but he nodded and moved away to chat with a painting. Margaret joined me at the bar. I should have bought Margaret a whiskey and water as I know this is her preferred tipple, but we both downed some white wine while I was eager to hear what Margaret thought of the show. She said that the design was very good - and it was. But, of course, it's not what the writer wants to hear. In the end, Margaret said something polite and kind about the script and I farewelled her as she climbed into a cab and rode back to Balmain.

 The elegant Brink/STC production of The Clockwork Forest, directed by Chris Drummond.

What happened next is I had a stroke. I woke up one morning unable to feel any sensation in my hands, except for a sort of pins and needles feeling in my fingertips. I couldn't talk properly because my mouth drooped down on the left side and I seemed to have developed a slight limp. I journeyed to the local medical centre and they were very adamant that I had to get to a hospital as soon as possible. I really didn't believe I was having a stroke. To me, my voice sounded fairly normal, though I've since been assured that it didn't. I spent a few weeks in hospital, and when I was discharged I looked around for something to do. There was a book I wanted to write, and I've blogged about that elsewhere. I was at a bit of a loose end when Bryce Ives rang, as enthusiastic as ever, saying that he definitely wanted to get the Margaret Fulton musical happening and that there might even be some funding from Port Philip Council and local company Theatreworks. All I had to do was finish it.

 Director Bryce Ives, very much at home with a microphone.

Yuri Worontscak and I signed on, and Yuri patiently helped me with all of the new songs we had to write. (I thought that a quick way of writing songs would be to compose new words to fit already establish melodies, but fortunately Yuri didn't like that idea. He was very good at doing 'soundalikes' and had gained a reputation for doing the song parodies on shows like Fast Forward and Full Frontal. His work sounded just different enough from the original to keep him out of the law courts. But Yuri was keen to write some brand new stuff, not the old soundalikes. We worked hard on eighteen more songs. (When you've had a stroke, it's a good idea to work with a friend, because the chances are you'll come up with some stupid ideas, and only a really good friend would be brave enough to point out just how abysmally stupid those ideas are.) Bryce kept on at me to finish the script, so he could cast. I decided that whoever played the lead had to be a comic performer, not just a singer, because there were quite a few jokes in the show. Eventually we had a table reading of the script in the dungeons of the old National Theatre in St Kilda. I recognised a few faces from the old Call Girl prduction - choreographer David Harford and singer comedianne Laura Burzacott. Laura was a perfect fit for the show and did such a good job reading a Rocks character called Bea that I immediately went off and wrote a lot more scenes for her.

 The amazing Laura Burzacott who will be playing the role of Bea in the show. I don't see how someone so talented can seemingly appear out of nowhere. She hasn't taken a singing lesson in her life, but she has perfect pitch and can give the songs a lot of energy. Though I irritate her when I make the lyrics too wordy.

Gina Riley was unavailable to play Margaret Fulton, on the grounds that she'd just made a movie that she was rather keen to promote (I'd worked on the same movie, so I understood.) Wendy Harmer said she was interested, and for a while it looked as though Wendy would be Margaret Fulton, but there was a clash with another big TV gig she was doing. Neither Gina nor Wendy had complained about the pathetically low remuneration we were offering. Maybe they were just being polite? But I think they were genuinely interested in playing such a wonderful cahracter as Margaret. There aren't that many Australian musicals with such a strong female character. Eventually Bryce cast Amy Lehpamer, as he'd just seen her in the retro musical Rock of Ages and she'd been very good.

The rest of the cast sort of fell into place. Both Laura and Bryce could make a good living as talent scouts. They seem to know everyone funny and musical and - gasp! - affordable, working on the fringes of Melbourne Theatre. Producer Sean Bryan came on board to help Bryce and organise funding drives. He's young, but has an incredible list of credits from working on shows all over the world.

Sean Bryan seeking donations for Margaret Fulton Queen of the Dessert. How could you say no to this face?

The script and songs have been through countless rewrites. We manage to cover three decades of Australian history from 1988 on. We sing cautious love songs about pressure cookers and - recently removed - a song that refers to Margaret Fulton's brief flirtation with the communist party in Australia in the fifties. I thought it so surprising the Margaret, who to me represented a fairly comfortable, domestic cosiness should be involved in leftist politics, that I wanted to call the show Margaret Fulton: Communist. But Margaret didn't like that idea at all. She joined the party when she agreed with communism's more noble ideals of nobody being forced into poverty,  but Margaret later told me that Stalin had let her down very badly, and that Russia was the one country she was never likely to visit. Yuri came up with the eventual show name Margaret Fulton - Queen of the Dessert. So that's what it's called, for the moment. One of the best songs in the show is about jam, which was Margaret's solution to a huge Australian sugar surplus, thanks to some overly generous subsidies from the Menzies Government to cane farmers. This song was also on the original presentation CD. I now want to  call the show Margaret Fulton's Jam, since that seems to trip off the tongue nicely. If we do ever get the show to Sydney, I'd hope that the same cast and crew could be involved, since we all worked together to make the idea of the Fulton show a reality. But first we have to get through our premiere season at Theatreworks in St Kilda.

Heartfelt thanks to anyone who donated to the project via the Pozible site. See you there!

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Dad eating chocolate with his twin sister Florence, about seventy years ago. Chocolate consumption was to become a lifelong hobby.

My dad's heart operation went okay and he has been transported from Geelong to a hospital in Ballarat. But we now have another problem. Dad managed to get a stroke (just like me), so now we can talk with each other about the experience. I think that, generally, dads get strokes long before their sons, so this is an interesting inversion. He felt very sick in the middle of the week and when I learned the symptoms, I actually knew what was wrong. (I know so few things about the world that I am delighted and staggered when I can offer some advice borne of experience.) Dad's on the same bloodpressure-lowering drug that am. It's called Karvea, and I found that it made me feel sick and incredibly sleepy, because my dosage was too high and my blood pressure had dropped below a hundred, where it had been just over two hundred, prior to treatment. Dad was experiencing exactly the same thing as I did, and I suspected for the same reason. I wonder what the correct protocol is, when you are pretty sure you know what is wrong with a patient but have had no medical training? Should you seek the attention of a nurse and tell them what you think is wrong with the patient and why? From experience, medical staff hate this sort of intervention, as much as a writer would hate someone telling him what's wrong with the words he has written, by someone who hasn't ever written a book in their life. But hang on, that's how my life works. And if the critic is wrong (they usually are) all that happens is I feel miserable for a few hours. I don't actually die. So why be a coward?

In the end, my little sister (who's had quite a lot of experience with medical staffwas brave enough to inform the ward sister that she had a fair idea of what was wrong with Dad, since her stupid and neurotic big brother had just suffered a similar experience. Sniffily, they reduced the dosage of Karvea and Dad felt well again.

Dad can't drive or talk properly and he's always sleepy, but can't sleep. He also finds it hard to read and work.  My father and I have more in common than ever. I already love him, but perhaps the
shared stroke will bring us closer together?

Here is my dad fishing with his dad, a long time ago. Both are probably thinking they will never get cancer or strokes. Both, I regret, are wrong.

Musings on Sequels

It's been a year now since I had the stroke but I'm still finding it very hard to work. If you want to hear how I'm talking at the moment, go here. It might sound normal to you, but this is nothing like how I used to speak. By the way, my two friends Amy and YUri did a lot of speaking, even though they do not feature here. There are alternative edits of film, which will be released on facebook.

Not quite sure where my career will be going next. Writing is punishingly difficult and I'm still not as sturdy on my feet as I would like to be. It was very hard to write the sequel to my Body-snatcher book, and it looks as though Penguin are tentative about publishing it. So they should be, the original received an honour in the CBCA awards and a shortlisting in The Victorian Premier's Awards so obviously the book is a piece of crap that should never have been exhumed. Now I'm in a quandary. It took at least four months to write that sequel. It's about sixty thousand words long. What do I do with it? Is it appropriate to show it other publishers? The manuscript is now in the hands of my personal friend and editor extraordinaire, Dmetri Kakmi. I don't even know if the book is any good, since I wrote it while I was still in rehab from the stroke. I know that dmetri won't hold back with constructive criticism.

Meanwhile here is a picture of the glorious Amy Lehpamer (the pretty one in that movie with me plugging the play, who not only has the best pair of legs in the business, but also possesses a stunning voice and will be playing the title character in the musical,
Margaret, Queen of the Dessert.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Dad's Heart

My father has a crook heart. About ten years ago, he went into The Royal Melbourne Hospital to have a quadruple by-pass. I went to visit him, far too soon after the operation, but nurses are often unaware of what constitutes a suitable visiting time. If a patient has his/her eyes open and is not screaming with pain, or covered in crap, they consider this patient to be in a perfect state for visitors. After all, they're used to trauma. Thus, when I first saw my father after the bypass operation he was lying on a bed, with a box on top of him. Through this box ran many tubes full of his blood. These tubes were hooked up to various supports, giving him the appearance of an insect trapped in a particularly nasty spider's web. My father did not appreciate having visitors, though he remained courteous.

His heart has been bad for the past year. He needed a new valve and it would be impossible for doctors to insert said valve without opening up his heart again. Since the loss of my driver's licence, and a particularly stupid moment when I nearly got myself run down by a car that I apparently didn't see (we talked about left side neglect in this blog before) I have become effectively barricaded in St kilda for my own safety. (That sentence is probably one of the strangest you will ever read.) But it's fine to be barricaded in St KIlda. I like the place and I love my partner, so life is pleasant. But I was rather keen to see my father in the Geelong hospital, to see how he was coping with the operation, and possibly even cheer him up. My sister kindly drove me from Melbourne to Geelong. It was a cheerful enough kourney, my sister and I reliving childhood outrages that might one day be resurrected as books. Then at around four in the afternoon we went to visit dad in the Geelong Hospital. Knowing how inured nurses are to the sometimes disturbing appearance and desire for visitors too soon after their operations, I made certain that Dad would not have a box with bloody tubes resting on his chest. He would be sitting peacefully, in the Intensive Care unit and would probably welcome visitors, I was assured.

I had forgotten that my father had to be shaved before the operation. He is particularly proud of his big bushy eyebrows (also mentioned elsewhere on this blog, as there is quite a story behind them) and his great muttonchop sideburns. Because the whiskers are something of a trademark, Dad protested and wondered why he would not be allowed to keep them. After all, the sideburns are a fair distance from the heart. The medico to whom Dad complained pointed to a grey hair on his jumpeer. 'That's from your sideburns,' Dad was told. 'If one of those things ends up in your body it could cause an infection.' Dad needed no further persuasion and agreed to losing his sideburns. He has a bad track record when it comes to infection. After every operation he has managed to contact some singularly ugly infections, perhaps caused by stray facial hairs, who knows?

THe ward sister gave me the number of the bed. I knew that the little character sitting next to it must have been my father. But it diudn't look like him. The scale was all wrong. Sitting in the chair beside the bed was a poor little soul who seemed half the size of my father, like one of those Ron Mueck sculptures that play with our perceptions of size and the human body. He was on several drips and he was indeed sitting upright. But his eyes were closed and his face bore the expression of someone who was doing battle with invisible demons. My sister and I both kissed him and patted his hand, then left him, saying we would be back the next day. I suspect he didn't hear.

My father loves steam engines as, I suspect, most fathers do.

I have just written a novel about a family coming to terms with the death of a beloved father. My favourite editor, Dmetri Kakmi, on his first read-through, suggested that I had allowed too long a period of mourning. I had allowed six months, but Dmetri said that a mere few weeks would be more believable. Dmetri recently lost his mother so he can speak from personal experience. But as I left the hospital I thought of what my world would be like if Dad didn't pull through. Dad was always the one who encouraged me when I made up my mind to be a professional writer. He always told the best stories, and we three kids would marvel as he read us bedtime stories. Dad, you see, had been more or less ordered by Mum to read the books that she had liked and that meant something to her. So it was that we discovered the world of Winnie The Pooh at about the same time that Dad did. He was a good reader, very theatrical.

 And somehow he could remember all the different voices he had created for the inhabitants of The Hundred Aker Wood. We liked his Eeyore voice the best. I think his enthusiasm for 'the books that Mum liked' might well be the reason why I was determined to become a book writer myself. I never really doubted that that's what I would be. My parents were worried about this and thought that such a career choice might lead to penury. They spoke with a writer friend of mine, Michael Dugan, about whether it was possible to make a living from writing stories and Michael told them that it was, although it might not necessarily be a posh living. My parents had no great fondness for poshness or 'putting on side' as my grandmother used to put it, even though she often did pretend to be posh, saying 'rum' instead of 'room' or 'hom' instead of 'home'. But MUm and Dad were not snobs. Dad worked at the Melbourne docks and later landed an office job at Australian Paper Manufacturers, and Mum made extra money working for a printer in West Heidelberg, where we lived. It had never occurred to me that West Heidelberg wasn't a 'nice' place to live. But then I managed to win a scholarship to a very fine school in Kew, which meant I could escape the truly shithouse state school that I attended (Maryvale High in Morwell, just before we moved back to Melbourne). My new schoolfriends had me over to their places, but when I returned the favour I could see the looks of confusion and maybe even disgust on their faces. It got around Carey fairly quickly that I lived in a crappy house and that my parents both drove cars that were complete bombs. I had finally learned about the class system, and it had taken me so long because most of ther other schools I had attended were fairly run-of-the-mill, and absolutely no one 'put on side'.
Dad had left school at fourteen, as was the done thing in working class families because the teenagers had to make money to support the family as soon as they were able. I wonder what would have happened if Dad had stayed at school abnd maybe gone on to get a tertiary education. He was a bright man, I knew that. He also knew a fair bit about classical music, though the reason why speaks volumes about his logic. When those thick black 78rpm records were first made available in the shops, and every home had a gramophone, Dad would buy a record a week from some of the money he earned through working at docks. He didn't particularly like classical music, but his logic was that contemporary music would go out of fashion and the records would become worthless, but classical music never wenr After all it had lasted for centuries. Unfortunately Dad had not figured technological advances intio the equation. Try getting a 78 to play on a CD player.

I have an image of my Dad taking the bus to work and reading one of 'Mum's books'. Dad was a fairly stocky man, but he wasn't quite comfortable about being seen reading a kids' book, or whatever volume Mum had handed him in her quest to 'improve him'. It was nothing of the sort, of course. Mum just wanted to talk with someone about the books, as she had done with her own mum and friends. So, Dad would make blank covers out of brown paper and wrap them around the books, so that no one could tell he was reading The Wind in the Willows or Now We Are Six or whatever. BAak then, books in plain brown wrappers were regarded with suspicion as they were usually pornographic. Given that most men on the bus would have been reading sexy James Bond novels, they would no doubt have been curious about what saucy book Dad was reading. I'm sure that those who peered over his shoulder would have been perplexed to read, 'Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.'

Dad had introduced me to all those wonderful books that Mum liked. Even though Mum could read aloud very well and had even done it on the wireless, we preferred it when Dad read the stories because he put so much effort into doing the voices, and he would laugh as if he had only just got the joke, which might well have been the case. As we kids grew older, Dad introduced us to other books, the ones he liked. I remember one of the first 'adult' books I read was The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle. 

It was a smashing science fiction story where the people of earth had to learn how to communicate with a giant approaching cloud that seemed to have less-than-benign intentions towards our small blue planet. It started me on a lifelong appreciation of science fiction stories. A book about malevolent clouds can do that to a person. Then I got hold of The Day of the Triffids (not sure if this was Dad's book or from the school library) but that one was was a science fiction fan's dream; a smart, original plot, situations we could recognise or identify with, and a relentless energy that meant you really couldn't put the book down. I remember discussing with Dad about whether the earth might really be subjugated by human-eating plants one day. He didn't discount the possibility. After all, we were about to put a man on the moon. I was, of course, a complete Apollo 11 nerd.

The crew of Apollo 11. I always identified with Michael Collins, the guy in the middle. He flew all the way to the moon, but he didn't land on it because he had to remain behind, orbiting in the command module Columbia. MIchael Collins, I am you. Always orbiting on the outskirts but never  really at the centre of things, escept in photographs, where I always end up looking awkward and dorky.


I had a model of the Eagle on my bedhead. Dad even bought me special postage stamps from Yemen, which depicted Columbia the command module, and of course Eagle, the lunar module. These stamps were lenticular: a word I have only recently learned that describes a sort of hard-copy 3D. (A lot of box-set DVD's feature them.) Those stamps, about the size of playing cards, were the coolest things I ever saw, and Dad knew that I would be just crazy about them. They've gone now, sold in a jumble sale during a lapse of judgment. I also had chemistry sets that were positively dangerous, so I was allowed to play with them only when Dad was around. Anyway, he was the one who ended up committing a scientific snafu when he lit some gunpowder and blew off his eyebrows (as well as mine, as it happens. His grew back, mine never did).

When my sister and I returned to Geelong hospital the next day, Dad was out of the intensive care unit and in a ward with three other beds. His whiskers hadn't miraculously grown back overnight, but somehow he seemed to have returned to his correct size as he sat up in bed, looking much more like the dad of old. Two days ago, someone had been opening him up and fiddling around with his heart. I hoped to god there were no stray hairs. Anyway, it was all pretty serious stuff, so perhaps I was asking too much of my father to appear more Dad-like when I'd seen him just the day before. He chatted and made jokes. He has always been able to make good jokes, or tell good stories just like his own father. I think it might be a Scottish trait.

I have to accept it probably isn't likely that my father will survive another big operation like this - and he's already had a few. But with all due respect, Dmetri, I can't imagine the period of mourning being a few short weeks.