The Bones of Melancholy or Richard Delivers a Right Royal Serve

My name is Richard and I was born in autumn 1452. The season has always suited me. It is a time of melancholy that is brought on when warm days give way to cooler temperatures and a sense of gloom prevails. The change in mood is deceptive as leaves change colour from green to burnished orange, red and gold. But the promise suggested by the rich, warm hues is a false one. Grapes are stripped from the vines and other crops are harvested. Many things end or are suspended. People stockpile food against the onset of cruel winter and bring in their animals.
Eventually the leaves die and fall. The limbs of the trees are left bare and twisted. They look like stark, dark fingers against a paler sky. At night the branches cast sinister shadows that move about restlessly in the wind. Perhaps it is a time of warning to all men. No honest man wants to stay outdoors after nightfall. Persephone has departed for the underworld and will not return for six long months. The earth will mourn until she rises again.
Unlike most of you I feel at home in autumn. For me, it was always a good time of year to plot while my enemies worried about the fires in their halls going out as they dined lavishly, drank far too much and whored away the hours. I certainly did not live as a recluse, but I made sure that my mind was always alert and capable of initiating action. My realm was full of ambitious men and traitors whose only commitment was to Henry Tudor and themselves.
Despite my best efforts to build a better England, my rule lasted just two short years. My crown and my life were taken from me in the summer of 1485 at Bosworth Field; but not without a fight. Not before I scared the wits out of those damned Tudors. I was struck down from behind by a traitor after my horse was killed under me. A dagger was thrust into my neck as I lay defenceless on the ground. The jackals then moved in to slash and stab and chop at my still twitching corpse. Oh, they made sure of it alright. Richard would not rise again. I was the last Plantagenet monarch of England.
After further merriment at the expense of my poor, bloodied remains, I was buried without ceremony in a lonely wood. Not the church of the grey friars at Leicester as has so often been stated. This was harsh treatment even by the standards of those days. My body was not shifted to the church until all of the hullabaloo had died down.
But worse was to come when that base propagandist, Shakespeare, more than 100 years later if you don’t mind, cast me as one of the most despicable villains in history. Why even now, I can hardly bring myself to utter his foul name. Yet I cannot traduce his reputation as he did mine.
Was he really that clever? Yes, he was. Was everything he wrote all his own work? Yes, it was. Don’t believe what the revisionists tell you today. The bastard was intelligent and he had rare gifts as a writer. But the only reputation that counted with him was his own. It was not below his dignity to prostitute his art by dishing up what the Tudors wanted everyone else to believe. I was described as evil, cruel, twisted and a murderer of children; my own little nephews no less.
There was nobody left who could defend me because all who had known me were dead.
The truth is that the poor little beggars died in the safety of their confinement. No hand was raised against them by me or on my behalf. But who is going to believe me now?
As I look upon the world all about me seems sad and unsettled. I revel in it. Negativity nourishes me. If I had a soul it would no doubt be uplifted.
‘That’s enough. Your self-serving guff is making me ill.’
‘Who in God’s name are you and how is it that you can see me to address me? I am but a shade.’
‘You talk of Shakespeare, propaganda and defamation. I am his Richard III and I would take issue with you.’
‘But this is ridiculous; you are a bloody fictional character. A spiteful creation made up by the so-called bard of Avon. You exist only when given life by actors. You are like an apothecary’s potion. You are a mere concoction; a compound of words.’
‘Yes, but I am no less a phantom than you. I am the villain splendid with the hunchback and withered arm. I am ambitious and treacherous and murderous. I kill my rivals old and young. No skullduggery is beneath me. My fame has endured while yours has faded beyond memory.’
‘That may be so, but you are not and never have been the real Richard Plantagenet. You are so biased that you list to one side like a sinking ship. You are the very instrument of slander. The tame playwright of the Tudors gave it to you to say of me that I was rudely stamp’d, deformed and unfinished. That was false and harsh. It is a distortion pure and simple. Also, I am very sure that I never said that I was determined to prove a villain.’
‘Really? How touching. But what about Tyrell and the Princes in the Tower? That was all his own work, I suppose?’
‘My nephews had to be placed in the Tower, for safekeeping. They were young, too young to rule. Besides there were good reasons to suppose them both to be bastards. You may begin to see the position I was in. You may even agree that the Tower of London was the best place for them until I could determine what would serve them better in the longer term. I did what any other medieval ruler would do.’
‘Oh, please! Who do you think could believe such self-serving rubbish?’
‘Why what have we here. A shade and a fictional characterization in argument? Yet you are both so similar in appearance as to be brothers. Almost twins.’
‘I know you.’
‘And so you should, for upon closer examination I recognize you as the product of my own writing.’
‘What? Are you Elizabeth Tudor’s slanderer? The man who murdered my good name. You bastard.’
‘Oh, your majesty, I see now who you are. Surely you would not begrudge the greatest playwright of the ages?’
‘I might ask whether you would continue to begrudge me my reputation as a good king who in two short years made peace with the Scots and introduced many good laws.’
‘Come, come your majesty. Who would remember a monarch of scarce two years’ rule if I had not remade you into the type of villain the crowd loves to hate?’
‘Admit it, your portrayal of me as a malevolent, deformed schemer was simply a dramatic plot device to support the villainous role you and your paymasters chose for me.’
‘Artistic licence my lord.’
‘You gave me a hunchback and a treacherous nature.’
‘Mere window-dressing your majesty. The punters loved it.’
‘Conceited as well, eh, bard? You should know that many modern scholars have cited evidence that I was a good king. They see me as an enlightened and forward-looking monarch.’
‘Your majesty you may have done well as a royal administrator but really, I had it on good authority that deceit and treachery were your best qualities.’
‘Yes that’s right. Look what I do to Lady Anne, Clarence, Hastings and the two princes. Blood soaked hands doesn’t begin to describe my nature.’
‘Now stop that. This unscrupulous playwright is just putting words in your mouth.’
‘Really my lord? What if I did pay heed to the political considerations of my day? It in no way detracts from my exploration of the psychology of evil which stands upon its own merits and transcends mere notions of propaganda.’
‘You’ve had centuries to dream up that one.’
‘I only did for you what I did for Hamlet and Macbeth. A state will flourish under a good ruler and suffer under a bad one. You were tailor-made to be a bad one.’
‘I liked it.’
‘Get back in your box. You vile imposter.’
‘This is great, actual conflict between an idea personified and a ghost. A pale reflection of a man who once was a king and a character that never was.’
‘Excuse me sirrah, but aren’t you also a ghost?’
‘Well yes, but I always honoured ghosts in my plays. Their appearances were always significant. Look at Hamlet’s father, Julius Caesar and Banquo. I gave your majesty’s play an entire legion of them.’
‘But that was not me. Was it? It was him.’
‘You are both so much alike. I was just confused for a moment.’
‘You are welcome to your confusion. In light of the scholarship to which I have referred and recent events, I have no doubt that it will not be long before your play and its biased portrayal of myself is seen as just that. A base amusement with a stage villain to frighten children, a pantomime.’
‘What recent events?’
‘Haven’t you heard? In autumn 2012, archeologists discovered my bones beneath a carpark that had been built over the site of the grey friars’ church in Leicester. Now it seems that there are many who wish to see me honoured as a monarch in death as I was not honoured 500 years ago. There is to be a court case. What is left of me physically may be interred in either Leicester Cathedral or in York Minster.’
‘How do they know the bones belong to you?’
‘Modern science, wordsmith. Something called DNA evidence was used to prove that the skeleton they found was once me. It exhibits my scoliosis, the disease I contracted in my teenage years. I had no hunchback. The infernal doctors treated my young body on the rack in a bid to straighten me out. It did not work and I must have bitten through a small forest of wood as I strove to endure the pain. You can also see the abuses meted out to me by my enemies when I fell at Bosworth. I died bravely. I did not die screaming for a horse. How absurd! If that battle were fought today and my condition was aggravated by the ordeal I would more likely die calling for painkillers.’
‘Then your majesty must be happy and content that at last somebody has taken your side. But the text of my play cannot be changed even if I were moved to do so.’
‘What are you worried about? The Tudors are long gone.’
‘That is not completely correct my lord. Most of them still haunt the Tower and Hampton Court. Some of my old friends and acquaintances do the same. I do not wish to be ostracized from that select company.’
‘Select company, that lot? I should take more care in the friends you choose if I were you.’
‘For once I agree with you, but patronage is patronage and one hesitates to bite the hand that feeds him.’
Hmmm. The words happy and content have never come easily to my lips let alone my person. Both may be so quickly snatched away by changed circumstances. If I have learned anything gentle reader it is that you must live in the moment. Draw in as much as you can before it is taken from you. I have waited a long, long time. What will I do now? How shall I feel? Suffice it to say that whatever the court’s decision I will at least be more content in my melancholy. I do not expect to get my reputation back completely. I will likely remain an enigma so long as scholars and Shakespeare’s acolytes argue over myth, legend, rumour, invention and truth. I think in a way that will suit me.

Post script
This piece was written before the 2015 court decision that King Richard be re-interred with full honours in Leicester Cathedral. That should please him.

The long reach of the tarantula, a last breath and lavendula farming

It being a fine day for the purpose I resolved to undertake some minor work in the garden. God was clearly in her heaven.’Thank you Jan.’ I said softly, but with considerable sincerity. You see, I believe that God is a woman, named Jan. Why not? When challenged on the matter by the skeptics I always say that the possibility of a female deity, at least, should not be ignored. Of course, I regard Jan as a God for all seasons. One who tends to take an interest in the affairs of everyone. But, I digress.

This morning, one of my self-appointed tasks was to adjust the fairy lights I strung across the roof of our arbour at the start of the festive period. We call it the ‘Arbour Tunnel’ in honour of those amazing watertight constructions that run under Sydney Harbour. Catchy eh? Anyway, said fairy lights are solar powered (big tick) and the collector sits atop the arbour so as to maximise it’s solar collecting potential. I stood on a plastic milk crate (surely one of Jan’s greatest gifts to person kind) and proceeded to unscrew the base of the collector. To my utter surprise I found the narrow, confined space was occupied by a large tarantula* (*Latin for effing big spider). Said beastie was also taken on the hop so it fled from view leaving me with a trembling hand and an empty collector. After I got the standard expletive out of the way, I proceeded to adjust the switch which will make the lights dance. The ‘Terry’, that’s what we call them in these parts, had retreated only a short distance and was busy looking harmless on a nearby section of lattice. Keeping one eye on the Terry I returned its abode to its usual position.

As I stepped back onto terra firma I had the rather strange inclination to wonder what sex the spider was. How do you work out such things? I supposed you just peer between the legs but which ones? Perhaps the very back pair? My next thought was to imagine what a spider’s landing gear might look like? After five minutes I decided to cease wondering and get on with my chores. Then I remembered that professional chicken sexers often suffer from short-sightedness as a result of the demands of their calling. I don’t know if there is a chicken sexers’ compensation fund. Maybe spider sexers can progress to sexing chickens after serving a sort of apprenticeship?

After one last look at the Terry (still pretending to be a very still spider), I tackled the lavender. Lavender or lavendula is a delightful plant. It flowers (magnificent purple flares) and it provides lovely oil. A waving field of lavender is a sight to behold. Yesterday we visited a lavender farm at Wandin Yallock on the edge of the Yarra Valley. My main interest was in seeing how their plants were grown and maintained. A secondary interest was lunch. Before dining we tried the strawberry and lavender jam, the lavender honey, the lavender mustard and the lavender marmalade. All were judged to be ‘Yum Oh’. We ordered foccachias, salads and coffee. Then we had the lavender ice cream. ‘Sensational’. I purchased a couple of plants and we boarded the waiting SUV as the tourist hoards began to arrive. A brilliant diversion and a splendid excuse for a drive in the countryside.

Back to today. As my nerves returned to normal, I unlocked my garden shed and began to assemble the tools I would need for lavender maintenance and planting. I noted that the shed seemed to be devoid of Terries. This was a good thing. But as I happily hoed the clay dominated soil my thoughts returned to the Terry. What was it doing now? Forget it, said the little cricket that sits on my shoulder. No, I insisted. I have to see. You are on your own then, said the cricket. I swiftly crossed the yard and stealthily positioned myself close to where I had last seen the spider. It was happily engaged in ripping apart an unfortunate butterfly which it quickly devoured. Piece by piece. Yuck! As it sat (upside down) and possibly doing little spider burps or even farts, the Terry showed no signs of returning to its home. I cringed and wondered if I had awoken a monster that was now bent on wreaking havoc on the hapless insect life of the garden? The spider version of Godzilla, incarnate! I shook my head and resolved to get back to the lavender.

One half hour later all was complete. The new plants had been placed to best advantage and the old ones protected by a shallow trench. They don’t like wet feet, you know. Flushed with success I headed down to the house in search of a cold, cordial drink; just reward for my labours. On my way back up to put the tools away I remembered that I had walked underneath the spider’s perch without thinking. I went cold with the thought that the bloody thing might have jumped me and exacted revenge. Such events can change a man! Unarmed and totally alert I crept beneath Shelob’s lair. She, It or He was still there, staring at me. Spiders are inscrutable. I took a deep breath and shot past like a really fast thing.

As I mopped my brow on the bench beneath the trees I was reminded of another recent experience involving a deep breath. A few weeks ago we were in Tassie; the Apple Isle that is the apple of the eye of many people. One sunny afternoon, we visited historic Richmond. Located just north of Hobart, it is a pleasant place that retains a number of Georgian buildings and structures from Australia’s time as a convict colony. Among other things, there is Australia’s oldest bridge and Catholic church. A couple of pubs and numerous old homes. There is also Richmond Gaol, made of sandstone and featuring an ancient almond tree. It beckoned to me like an experienced tart.

There is a central courtyard around which are arrayed the male and female cellblocks, the guards’ quarters and the superintendent’s residence. In an age when we still argue about equality of the sexes, I was pleased to see that there were exactly eight solitary cells for girls and eight for boys. All were about a metre wide by three metres high and two metres deep. Lined with rotting planks of timber (top, sides and bottom) the accommodation in the ‘coolers’ was far from luxurious. I read that the average stay was 21 nights for an offence like insubordination. Two minutes with the door shut was enough for me. Worst of all, the darkness was heavy, sad and a bit on the wrong side of menacing. I kept my iPhone on, but the feeble green light did little to assuage my fears.

Like a man reprieved on the gallows I left the cellblock and entered a small walled yard that contained a flogging triangle and a very realistic recording of an actual flogging. I listened to it twice before deciding that was enough. Suddenly a grey cloud obscured the sun and as I stood still in the small walled yard I heard a deep breath. But there was nobody else there. I glanced about and as I did so, I heard the same sound again. Was it the flagellator taking a breather? Or, was it his victim gasping in pain? I don’t know, but I was relieved to find myself in the souvenir shop. That is, I was relieved until I saw the replica cat-o-nine-tails. I left without making a purchase and headed for the gaiety of the pub and a steadying pint.

Shelob was still on watch when I headed back to the house after returning the tools to the shed. I have decided that a tarantula has a long reach. It can manipulate your thoughts long after any physical encounter. I am now going to give my mind over to the idiot box and hope to escape the spider’s clutches.

So you want to be a ghost hunter, huh?

I have lately developed a healthy and unquenchable liking for watching the various reality tv shows that feature ex-plumbers, muscle shake drinkers and hot chicks who investigate paranormal situations. I have calculated that you can watch up to 12 hours or more of these types of shows each week.
This suggests that I am not alone in my fixation.
Actually, that’s sort of one of the points they make isn’t it? We are not alone. It seems that the past and those who have passed on are still with us. Very comforting. N’est pas?

On a scale of one to ten I am probably a 9.5 on the Official Cowardly Custard Meter. In short, if something goes bump in the night my first reaction is to pull the bedclothes over my head and hope it goes away. Trembling doesn’t help much and grabbing your sleeping partner is likely to get you a good punch in the head. Better to take your chances with whatever is lurking in the dark I reckon. Therefore, if the bumping persists take away the thing’s advantage by turning on your bedside light. This seems to work.

Conclusion; things that go bump in the night prefer the darkness, which is perhaps why they keep going bump in the night. The fools can’t see where they are going. Simple.

Despite my misgivings and reluctance to experience demonic possession, as occasionally happens on tv, I devised a cunning plan to allow me to try ghost hunting first hand. I’d like to share it with you.

First of all it helps if you own a late model SUV. I do, but it’s not black, it’s grey. Well actually silver-grey. But close enough to black for my purposes. Black clothes are never a problem. Next you must load up with a bunch of ghost detecting electrical devices. I don’t have many but it’s no real drawback. You can improvise.
For example, my smart phone has a recording feature and we own more than one reliable torch. I don’t have a movement detector but I figure if anything comes at me out of the dark I can probably react quickly enough to at least strike it a glancing blow with my cricket bat.

Watching the pros on tv has been good because I have studied their various techniques and mastered such questions as, ‘Hello, is anyone there?’, ‘Do you want us to go?’ and ‘Did you die here?’. I also know other stuff like, ‘Was that you? You swine? Lay off those hamburgers with the lot.’, ‘What the f—k was that?’, ‘Some thing just scratched me’ and ‘I’m getting out of here!’. Actually that last one is one of mine but feel free to use it. Any time.

Once I am tooled up and cruising in my near black SUV I head for any likely location that takes my fancy. For example, an old building, a cemetery or just somewhere really creepy. Here’s an actual recent case of mine.

Investigation of Eltham Tower, Victoria.

Not far from where we live is a tall, stone tower. It’s a memorial to those who lost their lives in various wars. At night it stands surrounded by tall trees that amplify the wind which always seems to sweep around the hill on which the tower stands. Access up the tower is by a set of metal stairs that cause footsteps to echo with suitably hollow effect. No need for a multiple hour lock down. If something is here I will not be staying long enough to see the dawn. At the foot of the stairs I take several nervous glances at the creepy shadows thrown by the wind tossed trees and pop the standard question, ‘Hello, is anyone there?’

‘Oooo’ comes the reply.

‘Do you want me to go?’

‘Ooooo. Oooooo. Ooooooo!’

My knees start to knock together like demented bongo drums. I see a definite shadow that rises from the steps above and moves upwards. Higher into the tower.

‘Ooooo. Ooooo.’

A shadow person. There is always at least one of them on tv! This tower must be a hell hole? A hive of paranormal activity! I suddenly realise that in my terror I have forgotten to turn on my phone’s recorder. Damn.

‘Could you make a noise so I know you are here?’ I ask in a slightly strained voice.

‘Oooooooooooo. Oooooooooo.’

‘Right, that’s good enough for me. Thank you.’

‘Oooooooooooo. Ooooooooo.’ Another shadow sweeps upstairs. My grip tightens on the cricket bat.

Then there is a loud noise from outside the tower. It sounds like chains rattling. It’s hard to fight the stay or flee instinct as a yellow orb manifests in the bushes and moves about erratically.

‘Oooooooooo. Oooooooo.’

‘Oh shut the f–k up!’ I yell up the tower as the orb gets closer and my nerves fray like cuffs on an old pair of jeans. I stand poised to play a telling hook shot.

‘Who are you yelling at?’.

I manage to get my torch on just as the tower caretaker steps into the newly created circle of light.

‘What are you up to?’

‘Oh, nothing really. I was just checking out the tower for ghosts.’

The stern face of the caretaker softens.

‘You should have come and asked first mate. We’ve got plenty of them back there in the old shed. They avoid the tower after dark. That’s when the demons take over. The spooks don’t like the demons.’

Ice water runs in my veins for all the wrong reasons. But a wide smile breaks across the caretaker’s craggy face.

‘You idiot. I really had you going then didn’t I?’

‘But, I just heard a disembodied voice. Several times. It went Oooooooo. And…and there were shadows. Big ones.’

‘More likely disembodied doves you fool. They own the tower. Oooooooo! Ooooooo! I love it.’

“Doves?’

‘Yes, friggin’ doves. Now get in your van and piss off!’

‘S’not a van. It’s an SUV!’ I say mustering what little dignity I have left.

‘Yeah. Well you and it can just POQ’ ‘Ooooooooo. Doves.’ Ha, ha ha………

Muttering and slightly embarrassed I return to my SUV deprived of the opportunity of doing a formal wrap up of my investigation. As I head down the driveway with the screen credits playing in my head I regret not having someone to fist and say ‘good job’ to.

In the darkened tower all is quiet except for ‘Oooooooo’. ‘Ooooooooo.’

Friggin’ doves. ‘Oh well, on to the next one.’

I think my orchard is haunted; also the vegetables are not doing too well

We are fortunate to have a sizeable backyard that has been divided into three distinct sections. First comes the pool area, which is surrounded by rocks and shrubs. Then, there is middle earth. A leafy haven where lavender, roses and native trees surround a full-sized petanque court. Just the place for cool drinks and heated arguments. However, the unlikely setting for the concerns I will now express, is the third section. We call it the top paddock.

The first occupants of this property were keen gardeners and what we call the top paddock was their orchard. Sadly, when we arrived, this part of the yard had been fenced off by the interim owners and was occupied by four dogs. As is invariably their want, the canine four were given to digging. The once fertile orchard was laid waste and presented as a dust bowl. The only things missing were the tumbleweeds.

But there was one faint reminder of what had been. It was and is an apple tree. Gnarly with age and stunted by neglect, yet it held the promise of something better.

At some stage we decided to have an orchard of our own. A bustan (Persian for fruit orchard). Visitors would be greeted by a gulistan (Persian for rose garden). Our romantic notions were induced by a visit to the State Library where there was an exhibition of ancient Persian books. Well? We reckon that you take your inspiration where you find it. Another tenuous motivation, if anything more was needed,was the presence of three pomegranate trees. Like the apple tree, they were left neglected, shrouded by blackberry vines and weeds.

So we laboured long and hard. Bringing life back to the soil and planting rose bushes, olive trees, lemon trees, a tangelo tree and a lime tree and two pear trees. The ancient apple took fresh heart and sprouted new growth. This Spring it was frosted in pink and white blossoms. The pomegranates have blood-red flowers. Raised vegetable beds have been added. They now provide tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce, cauliflower, eggplants, beans, sunflowers and rhubarb. There is also a shed and companion shrubs to bring more bees. Unfortunately, some newer stock, including carrots are not protected, as yet.

This then is the back story and idyllic backdrop to my tale. Hardly Baskerville Hall is it?

Melbourne weather of late has been its usual contrary self. Four seasons in one day. One day it is furnace hot, the next one chilly or wet or both. As is my habit, I wandered up to the top paddock one cool evening to check on the plants and watch the sun go down. It had been raining but I took a cold beer with me. After surveying my domain with considerable satisfaction I sat down on the green painted bench beneath the apple tree. It is a perfect place to see the sun set. Carlos Castenada wrote that the sunset was the gap between the worlds. It’s a concept that I like to conjure with. Despite the gloominess of the day in question, the sun put on a glorious show as it departed for the other side of the planet.

The beer was going down a treat and I felt the peace of the bustan and gulistan settling around my shoulders like a cashmere throw rug. But, all of a sudden there was a blast of freezing cold wind that whipped across my face like a cat-o-nine-tails. Scarcely had I started to zip up my jacket then my exposed ribs also got a taste of the lash. I slumped back onto the seat. Peace was now replaced by terror as my unseen assailant took to my cowering form with relish. This was no capricious change in the weather. I was under attack. As I tried to defend myself dark shadows seemed to be darting wildly about the orchard. The wind rose and started to howl like a banshee. The trees all bent in one direction after another like Chinese acrobats. I was scared. I kid you not. It seemed that the agents of Mordor had come to paradise.  Believe me, any gardener would much prefer weeds, snails, slugs or wasps.

Then, after about five minutes of sheer terror, the arctic gale stopped. I looked about me for some clue. The black shadows were still evident but indistinct. What were they? I arose and seized a large stake out of the pile we keep near the orchard gate. It was a mistake. A huge splinter penetrated my index finger. The atmosphere of paradise was fouled a second time by the devil’s language. Sorry, my bad.

The horizon was a gaping red crooked smile against the gathering night. My eyes struggled to adjust and then the shadows became familiar. Rabbits. Bloody rabbits were gorging on our juvenile veggies under cover of darkness. I wielded the stake like Excalibur. I slashed here and there. I ignored the pain of the giant splinter. I had a crop to protect. The bunnies fled. I like to think that they were more scared than I had been. Exhausted I slumped down once more on the seat beneath the apple tree.

It was several minutes before I was able to find my way to the path that links the top paddock with the rest of Chez Nous. In the blackness, I halted once or twice because I fancied that I could hear laughter. Horrid, mocking laughter such as only a sadistic fiend might make.

So is our orchard haunted? Will we need to call in an exorcist? Or perhaps, those guys from Ghost Hunters? I don’t know. But I can say that this ordeal is not over. The vegetables are suffering. The rabbits are being assisted by somebody or some thing.

Halloween; a time to reflect and contemplate that which is to come

Oh, the horror! The horror! It’s a bright sunny morning now but later, when night falls, all will change. I have just finished my degree in writing and publishing at Melbourne Polytechnic (formerly NMIT). Three years of blood, sweat and tears have left me bruised and bloodied but unbowed. But barely have the wounds crusted over and the pain to ease then that I have begun to consider further study. Am I a masochist? Maybe. The perversion is not without its attractions. However, in my case life is a quest and the prize is knowledge. I am also partial to the idea of making more money than I could possibly spend in the time left to me.

Such idle musings have led me to reflect on Halloween.

Halloween aka Allhalloween, All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints’ Eve has mixed pagan and Christian origins. But scholars argue whether it originated independently of the Celtic Samhain or has solely Christian roots. Whatever the case, it matters not to the kids in costume who will turn up for trick or treating this evening with parents hovering as bodyguards against the spirits of the night. Thankfully the lighting of bonfires (of vanities or otherwise) is strictly regulated by local authorities. Rumour has it that there are at present no pagans on the council. Even so, apple bobbing may be practised in secret and thousands of pumpkins may be sacrificed to do service as jack-o’-lanterns. There will be parties, drinking and much watching of horror films. Such is the popular taste.

But away from the costumed kids, bobbing apples, hollowed out pumpkins and inebriated adults there are other sides to Halloween. Darker and more spiritual sides. There are religious observances that include church services and the lighting of candles on the graves of the dear and not so dear departed. Saints and martyrs are also remembered. At the same time goblins, fairies and god knows what else will make merry.

I like to fancy myself as a rational being with an open mind. However, I have always struggled to forget my maternal grandmother and her superstitions. Despite her undoubted love for her grandchildren she could not refrain from scaring the bejesus out of us at the most inappropriate times with her own version of tales of the unexpected. When I was a child of about seven years of age my Nan was walking us kids home as a storm was closing in and the skies grew dark. Suddenly a swarm of fruit bats flew overhead shrieking like the damned. Nan could not resist. ‘Those are the souls of the dead,’ she intoned. Boris Karloff was never half so frightening. We cowered like ducklings under Nan’s protective wings and hurried for the safety of home. But that was not the limit of my grandmother’s scary playbook. We lived in a late Victorian two storey terrace on Sydney’s lower North Shore (rented not owned). There was a space under the stairs that was used for storage. According to Nan, that was where the bogeyman lived. The said bogeyman was partial to eating kids. If we ‘played up’ Nan had no qualms in suggesting that the offending kid/s would find themselves locked in the dark space beneath the stairs. I can tell you from personal experience that five minutes in the lair of the bogeyman was more than sufficient. If that were not enough, there was a ghost who haunted the top of the stairs. It’s job was to stop kids from venturing up to the bedrooms which were off-limits until bedtime. Fair enough, you might say. I always had my doubts about this particular story but I lacked the courage to test it. Another favourite ploy of my grandmother’s was to make us huddle under the gigantic old dining table in the kitchen during thunder storms. This was so the thunder god couldn’t get us. Maybe Nan enjoyed our screams? I don’t really know. Small wonder that I emerged from childhood with a well developed fear of the dark, bats, bogeymen, ghosts and thunderstorms.

This brings me back to Halloween. This year I have decided to do the Christian thing and ignore the costumed kids. Originally I had wanted to dig a deep pit full of spikes and covered with false grass in the approach to our front door. Cop that for a trick, I thought. However, to my utter disbelief I found that the the non-pagan council have strict rules against such developments. I was prepared to argue that it was only a mere fixture but got howled down by the other members of my household. This means I will just have to retreat to the back room and turn up the telly. I will also keep my fingers crossed that a swarm of fruit bats passes overhead at the crucial moments. Perhaps a thunderstorm will arrive?

I’ll leave you on that positive note. After all I have an application for further study to complete.

Enjoy your Halloween. If you can?

 

Reflections on studying at NMIT – Part 4 – Guest speakers, pearls of wisdom in the chapel

To be an NMIT student is to answer a calling. Dedication and application are vital pre-requisites. However, it’s only at assessment time that you must take a vow of silence and avoid social contact. Otherwise it’s a good life and the gruel served in the canteen is second to none. We even have a peacock to look at.

Although the Mordor-like wider world laps at NMIT’s gates like an unpredictable and stormy sea, there is periodic relief in the form of visiting guest speakers. In fact, the guest speaker program has been a feature of the BWAP course for years. The guest speakers materialize at lunch time in the campus chapel. It’s an informal atmosphere and students have learned to munch on their lunches with minimum noise and crumb splattering.

This last semester’s lineup has been the usual mixed bag. It included a blogger, several authors and two editors. But all of them had more than one string to their knots. Most importantly, they all had experience of the dark, real world that lies in wait for innocent students.

The benefits of the program are obvious in terms of the valuable information these speakers have to impart. Best of all most speak with considerable insight and can reflect on their particular experiences. In this context the phrase, pearls of wisdom is not inappropriate.

The guest speaker program opens a window on the industry we students aspire to and offers an opportunity to ask questions of actual writing and publishing professionals. To those BWAP students who have not attended I urge you to find the motivation. You are bound to find out something you don’t know.

My time as a BWAP student is coming to an end. I will soon cast off my humble cassock and slip into the graduate student uniform of duffle coat and desert boots. But I know I will remember my time at NMIT.

Reflections on studying at NMIT – Part 3 – Creative Project III

My project is an ebook with modest enhancements. It is a collection of creative non-fiction pieces entitled ‘Retrospective Miscellany: short journeys into the past’. Whilst it is in no way a rival for ‘War and Peace’ this ebook took a considerable  amount of time and effort. In fact the written bits were only part of the story.

The chill winds of the Melbourne winter were howling about the Fairfield campus when I embarked on this task. Snow was not quite piled up against the doors and windows but I think you get the picture. Inside we were huddled around a small gas fire (coin operated). We covered divers topics such as self-publishing, building content, publishing mechanisms, styling, special  print effects and lots of other stuff that would enable us to realize our projects.

The brief called for a production plan as well as a report on progress. I recall that it was about the first day of spring when the lecturer made me cry. He just did not like the cover I had designed and pulled no punches in saying why he took that view. Two boxes of soggy tissues later I picked up the gauntlet and went to work using InDesign and Photoshop. I am very pleased with the new cover. It’s much better than the original but we are still waiting on the assessment.

Once the ebook format was complete I was able to include hyperlinks to Smashwords.com, my website and my Twitter account. Welcome to the new age of self-publishing people. Its all about you, your vision and courage. But there is a note of caution.

To quote Dirty Harry ‘A man’s gotta know his limitations’ (this can aslo apply to ladies). DH also famously asked whether a certain punk was feeling lucky? So (ignoring the unspent shell factor), let me ask you writer to writer,. ‘Do you feel lucky?’ If you do, go for it.

Reflections on studying at NMIT – Part 2 – Magazine II

Funny old things magazines. There are almost as many magazines in the world as there are people. Yet there are also anomalies called niches and this is where our attention has been directed as students. Our objective has been to identify a niche and come up with a magazine concept to fill it. The end product was either a print ready magazine or an e-magazine with all the necessary interactive links. The choice was ours.

It was a steep learning curve and I felt rather like a novice standing at the top of the Olympic ski jump. Sooner or later I just had to push-off and fly. The time passed like a really transient thing. Whooshka! We sucked up knowledge like little vacuum cleaners. We scoured magazines on the Internet and in print. We went to the biggest magazine shop in Melbourne. We even hung around doctors’ waiting rooms without an appointment just so we could research old magazines. In the end I felt like a computer that had been force fed data. I even saw magazines in my sleep.

Yesterday we had to present our own magazine projects to our lecturer and fellow students. Mine is called ‘Basilisk’. It is a satirical and hopefully funny publication that looks at aliens, spooks and other scary stuff with an open mind. As my start up budget is non-existent I invented advertising; ‘Spend Halloween at Dracula’s Castle’; ‘Purchase that special pet from http://www.baskervillepets.com’; and ‘Build Your Own Scale Model of Cape Canaveral’.

There is a feature article about the spread of Loch Ness Monsters around the world, A guide to UFOs and an interview with Edgar Allan Poe. Of course we also welcome readers’ contributions. Watch this blog for more details.

I think that the main things I learned were that a magazine involves hard work; imaginative layouts; appropriate fonts; great illustrations; wonderful photographs AND commitment. I am now looking forward to dealing with temperamental contributors, wealthy advertisers and the salesmen at the local Mercedes Benz dealership.

 

 

Reflections on study at NMIT – Part 1 – Tender and Pitch

I am looking at the light at the end of the tunnel. Is it opportunity coming my way or a train that will make a big mess of me all over the nice clean tracks? Tension is high but it is tempered by knowing that each passing day brings us closer to finishing the course. It is has been both an emotional and spiritual journey. I feel like a cork at a backyard wine bottling. Tossed about, soaked in learning and waiting to be rammed into a bottle of new experience. Of course, the next question is what will that be? Perhaps it will determine what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life? Pause for a drink. Ah, that’s better. The wheels in my poor little brain spin like supercharged hamsters.  Employment wise I have found that I have apparently reached the stage of being over the hill. Forgive me Father it has been three years since my last job. Further study beckons as a safe haven. But perhaps I need to go back to the beginning of this latest academic endeavor to make sense of this blog? It was on a brilliant Sunday in the summer of 2011 that I learned about the BWAP course at NMIT (Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE). My career had given me a mountain of writing experience but I knew very little about publishing. That did not stop me from seeking an interview with the Head of School at which I was able to persuade her to accept me as a student. I know for a fact that she thanks her lucky stars every day for making that decision. Three years on and I am studying Tender & Pitch, which should not be confused with the book or the film called Tender is the Night. Basically we have been taught how to sell ourselves in the teeming marketplace of writing and publishing. Dog eat dog is probably too mild a term to describe it. The lecturer is like one of those fashion photographers who croons and purrs at the models. That’s right baby show me a bit more author bio. Yeah. Come on you know it’s good. Now smoulder baby read your blurb. Hook me until I can take no more. Ooooh! That’s good, now drop some names. Names darling. That’s right. Alright big finish, whip out your bibliography and folio. Yeah. Yeah. Too much baby. I’m sold. Terrific the job is yours. Without realizing it, I have progressed from student writer/ publisher to budding professional.

Weather report: as I see it we are all in deep whoopsy

Weather report

Time was when people would talk about the weather when all other topics were exhausted. Nowadays our conversations, news, documentaries and current affairs are all about the weather because most of us are concerned.
We are concerned about the unpredictability of weather.
We are concerned about the increasing incidence of extreme weather conditions.
We are concerned about the wider implications for our planet; and in some instances we are concerned about inactivity or too little activity on the part of our governments to combat climate change.

Are we over-reacting? The facts suggest we are not. Why then do so many of our parliamentary leaders act like an assemblage of latter-day Neros? It surely can’t be for fear of abandoning their principles. Or should that be their principal?

It almost makes me laugh to hear some politicians and business leaders bemoaning the high cost of dealing with climate change. Others even doubt the truth of climate change despite the advice of a vast majority of experts and the overwhelming evidence.

What good are savings and profits when there may be nowhere left to spend them? Where would be the fun? Not everybody has a huge vault where you can swim in cold cash like Scrooge Mc Duck.
Ignorance is no excuse. Wilful ignorance is worse. Nor is it acceptable for executives to claim to be acting in the best interests of their shareholders.

It may be a simplistic approach but I have relied upon my own observations of changes in the weather over my lifetime. Once upon a time, Hawaiian shirts and short skirts heralded the warmer weather. Now, so many people wear singlets, shorts and thongs all year round, in all kinds of weather, clothing has ceased to be a reliable indicator. Thank goodness that many birds continue to fly north.

That said, it seems the gods must indeed be crazy. Football is no longer a strictly winter sport and cricket never ends. Other games take place both indoors and outdoors, dictated by seasons that are almost nomadic in nature. Surfers ride their boards all year round. The term silly season seems to cover just about everything and anything.

I remember when things were much simpler. A time before we punctured the ozone layer; television had fewer channels; guernseys bore club crests and carried no advertising; politicians seemed less self-centred and public transport was more affordable. We didn’t exactly live in a land of milk and honey; it was more like peanut butter and vegemite. Those days have gone from all but memory. However the necessity to live and survive is still with us. That is why we need a comprehensive plan to combat climate change. A wind farm here, a solar panel there, a single desalination plant and pitifully small carbon reduction targets will not suffice. We must succeed. There is nowhere else to go.