My father loved poetry and had a store of favourite lines. He also knew a lot of Shakespeare by heart, and all the words to Gilbert and Sullivan songs. Books on the shelves that influenced me – because I read them over and over again – included the blue bound Oxford Books: Light Verse, Ballads and English Verse. Many I didn’t understand, some I found boring, others remained mostly unfathomable, being in dialect. But I loved their mystery and their fierce emotions. My favourite poems were Sir Patrick Spens, the Golden Vanity and the Lyke-Wake Dirge.
Making up rhymes came naturally to me. Some are still famous in my family – an early masterpiece for example about Jim my friend (a dog). I made up stories but mostly it was too much trouble to write them down, so my friends and I played them out sometimes over weeks.
Fragments of poems I wrote still remain in my memory. This is from an epic on the coming of the Romans to Britain (I was 12)
Just after dawn we came in sight of land
Dim in the morning mist on either hand
Lay strange white cliffs rising up from a stony shore
The rest has disappeared, except for the final line:
And we followed him and that great eagle on the standard that he bore
Just before my 15th birthday I went for my first time to Nigeria. I would spend six weeks here every year for the next seven years. It was only two months since my father’s sudden death. I wrote a poem about vultures which appeared in the school magazine.
But the glory of it when they fly
Carving circles in a lapis lazuli sky
In utter timelessness they wheel and climb
Their element is eternity not time.
Drifting on air, effortless and slow
The vultures fly and men below
Go on living and loving and dying
Blind to the beauty of the vultures flying.
When I was 15 I won a prize (3rd) at school in a short story competition. My story was about a man who becomes a priest so he can kill his lover’s husband and not be punished beyond being excommunicated. But he finds his true love is God, so his punishment in the end becomes worse than death. The judge’s comment was ‘write about what you know’. But I’ve never really followed that advice.
Gillian Rubinstein was born in England and has lived in Australia since 1973. Her first book, Space Demons, was published in 1986 and she produced many works for children of all ages until 2002, when the first book of the Tales of the Otori appeared under the name Lian Hearn. As well as the five books in this series, she has also written two historical novels set in 19th century Japan. Her latest book is The Tale of Shikanoko which is coming out in two parts in 2016: Emperor of the Eight Islands and Lord of the Darkwood.