Interview with Louisa John-Krol

Today I’m delighted to feature an interview with multi-talented composer, musician, writer and fairy tale aficionado, Louisa John-Krol.

Louisa, you have had an amazing career writing and performing music and words over a long period of time. Can you share some of your journey? How did you start, and how did your work develop?

 Thanks, Sophie. It began with a hum. Singing plants and poems into melody, and believing in dryads, I made a garden with a wetland, frog pond and flowering vines, ripe for solitude. Fantasy chronicles of Earthsea, Middleearth and Narnia inspired me, as did Faeries co-written by Alan Lee (who went on to design sets for Tolkien films) and Brian Froud (who later made a music clip ‘Muse’ for my music). Life hasn’t felt like a linear journey. More a kaleidoscope with jumbled swirls that sometimes form patterns, hint at echoes, or slide into oblivion. Foreign indie labels released most of my music from the age of 30 onward. I got to perform, compose or record with brilliant eccentrics here and overseas; just as well, for I was never a virtuoso. Less a prodigy than a pixie. (Funny how in some circles it’s a contest as to how early one masters an instrument. Infancy, anyone?) The cliche of singing before we can talk, of dancing before we can walk, of surmounting setbacks, haunts Romantic notions. In some underground neo-medieval/ baroque/ classical/ gothic modern-primitive tribes I’ve inhabited, it’s customary to bemoan corruption. Perhaps I still revel in Voltaire’s ironic ‘best of all worlds’. But being a paid artist was no more admirable than other jobs. It all meant being present with a vast cross-section of humanity. Whether fairy storytelling at carnivals, teaching at disadvantaged schools, writing press releases for parliamentarians, liaising with ecologists, singing at festivals, or tapping royalties from boutique recording labels, I learned to respect time. Not sure I overcame bullying or disappointment, which abounds in corporations or bureaucracies. Whatever lands on a page, or screen, or reel, or disc, is stardust floating long after explosions that elude comprehension. A couple of years ago I signed off my record deal and ceased all employment. I’ve been volunteering, reading, rescuing cats, grooming manuscripts, listening tomusic and educating myself on fairy lore.

You have performed your work across the world, including with other artists. What have been some of your favourite experiences?

In France 2003 I performed at La Loco in the red district of Paris, the stomping ground of legendary cult bands like The Velvet Underground. Adjacent was the Moulin Rouge, to which we found a peep-hole while drinking beer backstage on red crimson sofas with our Swedish headliners, Arcana. Afterwards we went out with writers including Alyz Tale, then Editor of Elegy Magazine, who published her story entitled ‘Louisa’ about my song ‘Blackbird’, in her collection Mon dernier thé. I also cherish memories of Clisson, the medieval town of my record label Prikosnovénie, by the river Sèvre.

In Belgium at Trolls et Legendes festival 2009, meeting the British illustrator Brian Froud was a highlight. We presented a video Muse that he and his son made for my song ‘Which of these Worlds?’ with Robert Gould of Imaginosis who flew me to Oregon, USA, that same year to perform with the band Woodland at Faerieworlds, where the Frouds were guests again.It was moving to receive a message from José Géal of le Royal Théâtre de Toone, which is as old as Bruxelles itself, thanking me for my song ‘Poppet Plum’ being dedicated to his puppetry that I’d experienced six years earlier.

In Italy, on the borders of Umbria, Lazia and Tuscona, I stayed in a medieval castle overlooking the medieval town of Orte, belonging to the ambient artist Oophoi (Gianluigi Gasparetti), haunted by ghost and a white owl. Gigi later died of a rare blood disease, bereaving a loving wife, but the sonic alchemist’s legacy remains strong on the web, as in his masterpiece The Spirals of Time and our collaboration I hear the Water Dreaming.

There were wonderful experiences in other enchanting places, such as in Greece and Germany, but if I cover them all we’ll be here awhile!

 The interplay between music, poetry, folklore and fairy tales is very strong in your work.  Can you expand on that?

Let’s start with poetry. I love how the subconscious resonance of metaphors, layered in iconography over time, allows the imagination room to move, like a muse engaging in dalliance, in diaphanous gowns of Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’. Language can be musical, as with assonance or alliteration. How words ring together sometimes pivots on selection of synonyms, or arrangement. Just as a composer might let a melody leap from one player to another, so writers with an ear for melody recognise when a phrase sends a shiver down the spine. (A challenge in translation!) In folklore and fairy tales, as in poetry, I love economy of language: these modes are tightly packed seeds, full of symbols that leap across centuries and cultures with efficiency of memes. Hence the mother of Memory is the mother of Muses: Mnemosyne.

What’s coming up next for you, in terms of new work created and released?

A magic-realist novella and other manuscripts are bubbling, but my aim is to groom the Elderbrook Chronicles: a series of fantasy volumes. Musically, having recently released two productions after a long hiatus – Torlan (a compilation of water music from our various albums) and Elderbrook (a double-album soundtrack for my aforementioned chronicles), I’m preparing to reprint our discography that sold out on French, German and American companies: an opportunity to revisit mixes, add bonus tracks, include more illustrations and try new eco-friendly packaging.

As a lover of fairy tales, why do you think they still appeal to people? And do you have you any favourites? If so, which–and why?

Fairy tales do more than soothe worldly worries; paradoxically, they offer perennial wisdom for facing them. Wrongly, some view them as escapist, whereas on the contrary I regard fairy tales as a way to delve deeper into life. For me they’re about re-enchantment, of falling in love with the world. As Marina Warner asserts, fairy stories have ‘staying power’, for ‘the meanings they generate are themselves magical shape-shifters, dancing to the needs of their audience’ (From the Beast to the Blonde), a point that Athena Bellas revisits in her article ‘Contemporary fairy tales: Prohibition, transgression, transformation’ in the catalogue of an exhibition All the better to see you with: Fairy tales transformed that she directed at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne. The title-essay by its curator Samantha Comte also cites Warner, further emphasising the adaptability of fairy tales; their fluidity, amorphousness and responsiveness to social context. My favourite tales are open-ended or layered. They emit a diffused lunar light, rather than a laser beam. I’ve often claimed to have a more poetic than polemic approach. That doesn’t mean I shy away from politics, it’s just that I won’t let didactic messages dominate. I’m partial to Wilde, d’Aulnoy, Dunsany, Byatt and Calvino. As to contemporary Australians: I particularly enjoy your writing, Sophie.

You are closely involved with the Australian Fairy Tale Society. Tell us about it and its work.

As a founding member and President of this national charity, I cherish our inclusive spirit. Our members are writers, researchers, educators, storytellers, illustrators, puppeteers and other fey folk. One of our committee members is a glass artist, Spike Deane, based at Canberra Glassworks. We’ve attracted such internationally acclaimed fairy tale authors as Kate Forsyth, Carmel Bird and you; I’ll never forget your launch of the thrilling Snow White re-spin Hunter’s Moon at an AFTS conference, flying away with a signed copy and reading it during a recording session at Pilgrim Arts studio while visiting South Australia; I later bought a copy for the producer Brett Taylor’s daughter. I’ve since reviewed more of your novels. A lot of fairy tale people in Australia are nourishing each other’s knowledge. We discuss sensitivities around colonisation, immigration and ways of seeking mutual ground, respectfully acknowledging differences while fostering intercultural collaboration. We are interested in exploring definitions of the very term ‘Australian fairy tale’ itself. I recommend Dr Rebecca-Anne’s spiel on this at our website: We are delighted that you have accepted our invitation to contribute to our forthcoming fairy tale Anthology, which we’ll have more to say about publicly soon. Meanwhile, we’ve already produced six editions of an illustrated Ezine, available exclusively to members. Thanks for all you do, Sophie.

Explore more of Louisa’s work:

Homepage of ethereal music & faerielore: http://louisajohnkrol.com/

Welcome portal to unfolding Elderbrook Chronicles: http://www.elderbrook.com.au/

Fairy record label in France: http://www.prikosnovenie.com/inde.shtml

Froud/Louisa ‘Muse’ video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahBe3Znj8lY

Fairy Blog: http://victorianfairytalering.blogspot.com.au/

Australian Fairy Tale Society: https://australianfairytalesociety.wordpress.com/

Connect with Louisa on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/louisa.johnkrol

Advertisements

First advance copy of See Monkey!

 

It was very exciting today to get my first advance copy of See Monkey, my picture book with Kathy Creamer, published by Little Pink Dog Books! It’s absolutely gorgeous! Will be out in the bookshops in two or three weeks, can’t wait!

Word of Mouth TV: an interview with Kate Forsyth and Sarah Mills

Today I’m delighted to bring you a great interview I recently conducted with writers–and now TV presenters!–Kate Forsyth and Sarah Mills, who very recently launched a book show with a difference. The Word of Mouth TV concept combines some of Kate’s and Sarah’s favourite things: food, books and friendship, to create lively, engaging TV, delicious in terms both of body and mind! The first episode, with authors and husband and wife writing team Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist, was most enjoyable, featuring great conversation, yummy food, and great literary–and cooking!-insights. I loved it, and am looking forward very much to the next episode. But while I’m waiting, I thought it would be great to talk to Kate and Sarah about why and how they’ve put together this excellent show with film-maker Claire Absolum. Enjoy! (And subscribe to Word of Mouth TV You Tube channel and website–it’s free!)

Photograph of Kate Forsyth and Sarah Mills by Claire Absolum.

Kate and Sarah, congratulations on the launch of Word of Mouth TV and the show’s first episode! It’s a fabulous concept–innovative and appealing, with so much scope for fun and warmth, and a great title too! How did you first come up with the idea?

Sarah: It was one of those ideas that took a long time to manifest. The idea struck me about six years ago when I was in one of my aimless dreaming phases. The idea kept revisiting me and I asked Kate about three years ago if she would be interested in doing it. We agreed it was something that the book industry desperately needed because there is so little good news and content serving this industry.

Kate: I thought it was such a brilliant idea, but I didn’t know how we would ever find the time to do it when we had such busy schedules. But we kept talking about it and tossing ideas around. We agreed we wanted it to have really good production values but we didn’t know how we would achieve that when we had no skills or experience in that area. Slowly the idea took hold of our imaginations, though. Once we had our title, it really seemed to come to life.

Sarah: We decided upon Word of Mouth as the title because the Sound Bites that accompany the show involve authors recommending the best books they’ve read lately and their favourite cookbooks – so viewers get their reading tips straight from the author’s mouth.

 Coming up with a great idea is one thing of course: bringing it to fruition quite another!  There must have been a lot of work involved in getting to the launch of the show. How did you get from concept to reality?

Sarah: Yes, well, the idea lay nascent for years because we were both writers and neither of us had camera or video-editing skills. Then former SBS and ABC producer Claire Absolum moved into my neighbourhood and we met through mutual friends. Claire was sitting with me on the day I called Kate: “Remember that idea we were talking about a few years ago about interviewing and cooking with authors? Are you still interested?” And to our relief, she said yes.

Kate: It was complete madness! I had such an intense workload and had sworn I would take on no new projects. But Sarah finding Claire just seemed like a sign from the universe. And I’d actually been thinking about how sad it was that there was no great book chat show anymore.

 Sarah: From there it was just a matter of putting everything together. We all have very complimentary skill sets. Claire obviously has the video production skills, I have creative direction and website production skills (I was a journalist for decades at Fairfax), and public relations, branding and marketing skills, and Kate had the contacts within the industry and styling skills from her time freelancing on magazines. And we are all reasonable cooks. We really liked the idea of three women working together to create the show – there is something magic about the number three. Perhaps we’ll be “Charmed”.

Kate: It just seemed to come together so well – I feel that we’ve found the sweet spot between people who love to watch cooking and lifestyle shows, and people who love to read. We’ve certainly had a great early reception!

The show has very high production values and works really well within its time frame. Not surprising, as you have such a skilled and experienced producer as Claire Absolum on board! Tell us what it’s like actually filming the show.

 Sarah: It’s fun and very tiring. It is only a 10-minute Youtube show but so much ends up on the cutting room floor. Particularly for the first episodes because we were a bit nervous and if it wasn’t one of us making bloopers, it was the other. Or the dog would start whining, or the neighbour would start up with a drill. It seemed a process of endless takes. We are still trying to hone the process.

Kate: We are really learning on the job, aren’t we, Sarah? It took us a while to work out a template for the show, and a balance between the cooking, the eating and the talking. We’ve learnt a huge amount in just a few months.

Sarah: It is also difficult because we all live so far away from each other (about two hours) and we are trying to shoot Word of Mouth TV in our spare time. On the upside, the food is divine and we are collecting recipes for a cookbook at the end of the year. And the champagne … it speaks for itself!

How do you go about choosing books, writers–and recipes? 

Sarah: Kate is plugged into the writing industry so this is her task. We try to interview a mix of authors from all different genres and levels of experience, and Kate is the best positioned to know who are likely to be producing good books.

Kate:  It helps that I have so many friends in the industry, and that I read so much anyway. It means I have a good general knowledge of who is launching new books and whether or not our audience is likely to be interested in it.

Sarah: If we don’t personally like the book, we don’t feature it because we have to review it and we want to be kind in our reviews – we are, after all, authors ourselves. We understand how much heart and soul goes into the production of a novel.

Kate: Our aim is to celebrate books and reading and writing, and to encourage people to read outside their comfort zone. This is after all, one of the great benefits of belonging to a book club.

Sarah: I occasionally suggest books that I think will fit the show too. We also recommend cookbooks on every episode. That process is pretty simple. We both have some well-used and well-loved cookbooks. Then we ask the authors to recommend their favourite books read lately and their favourite cookbooks.

Your motto is ‘food, books and friends’hip: it’s the perfect nurturing combination. What are you hoping viewers will get from it? And what’s the response been so far?

 Sarah: So far everyone who likes books has been really encouraging. We are steadily building a subscription base to the Youtube channel, the website, and to social media feeds such as Twitter and Facebook. The authors have been incredibly supportive as well. Mind you it is fun to be wined and dined and have the opportunity to talk about your book, and the subject of books generally, all at once.

 Kate: We hope to become an integral part of the Australian literary scene, a show that bookworms will love and recommend to their friends to watch. The show comes out every fortnight, so that means we are recommending books twice a month – our hope is that Book Clubs will start watching it together, or using it to help them choose books to read, or simply enjoy what we do on a regular basis.

How many episodes are you hoping to make in the series? 

Sarah: The first season will be 12 episodes, seven of which have already been filmed and the remaining five of which have already been scheduled. Hopefully, by the end of that time, we will have a big enough audience, and sponsorship, to continue filming. We really hope this happens as we’ve had more authors asking to be on the show and they are all so fantastic that we want to interview them all.

Kate: We hope there’ll be many more seasons to come!

 Anything else you’d like to add?

Sarah: Well, towards the end of the season, if we don’t get corporate sponsorship, we might run a crowd-funding campaign. In the meantime, it would be great if readers could subscribe to our Youtube channel www.youtube.com/wordofmouthTV000 because we need 1,000 subscriptions under Youtube’s new rules to be able to earn money from the site. If readers want to hear all the latest news, views and reviews, then they can also subscribe to our website at www.wordofmouthtv.com.au We also have a Facebook and Twitter page that we are having a bit of fun with.

Kate: Every fortnight we give away huge piles of books to our subscribers who help spread the word about the show. We want to foster an atmosphere of joy and excitement about the act of reading, and to support as many other authors as we can.

Writing about World War One…

Today, April 25, is Anzac Day, and the hundredth anniversary of the battle at Villers Brettoneux in northern France on 25 April 1918, where Australian regiments were instrumental in helping to secure the liberation of that area of France. As someone brought up between Australia and France, it’s made me reflect not only on the joint experiences of French and Australian troops and civilians in that terrible war, but also on how difficult it is to try and convey, as a writer, something about those experiences, especially when you are writing for children.

Until a few years ago, I never expected to write about World War One. In both France and Australia, as a child I’d seen, in churches and memorials, the staggeringly long rollcalls of the dead in World War One; a war that seemed not only horrible and tragic but absolutely incomprehensible. World War Two seemed more understandable by comparison, in part because my parents were children during the German occupation of France. I could imagine myself writing about World War Two (though I didn’t, in fact until very recently) ) but not World War One. Partly, perhaps it was because in Australia, Gallipoli loomed large, of course, and I did not feel able to write about it, but also could hardly begin to understand, let alone depict, the ghastly long years of trench warfare on the Western Front.

What changed that was, first, a brief visit many years ago to the heartbreakingly big and neat Commonwealth war cemetery just outside Villers-Brettoneux. In the back of my mind, a seed was being planted–and years later, in 2010, it sprouted, inspired by a longer visit–a stay of a few days, in fact, in the pretty, and war-haunted, cathedral city of Amiens and the countryside beyond. Being on the spot, in the quiet streets of the city and the green and pleasant Somme countryside which yet saw so many deaths, looking at memorials and the French Australian museum’s collections of touching photographs of both Australian and French soldiers and the local civilian population, made me change my mind. And also I read about the last year of the war–the way in which in 1918, trench warfare, at least in northern France, gave way not to the pitched open battles of the very beginning of the war, but to a more ‘guerrilla’ style campaign, on both sides, with ambushes and surprise attacks and street-by-street battles in devastated villages. I began to see how I could perhaps tell a story, through the eyes of a young French-Australian character .

So that’s how my first World War One novel, My Father’s War(Scholastic Australia 2011), began. Set in 1918, it is told in the voice of eleven year old Annie, whose Australian soldier father, fighting on the Somme, goes missing, and who goes with her French mother to Amiens to try and find him. Through Annie’s diary unfolds the story of that last year in the war and the experiences of both soldiers and civilians in northern France. It was a story that both flowed naturally from having been in the areas I was writing about and being immersed in pictures and documents of the time, but was also very hard to write. This was a work of fiction so it had to work as an engaging story, especially given the age of my readers, but I also felt a great responsibility to tell it in a way that would not trivialise or falsify. It was a very delicate balance to strike and at times felt almost impossible(and saddening; I found myself weeping several times over scenes) but in the end it worked. Or at least, readers seem to think so–seven years after its release, it is still finding its way into libraries, schools, and homes.

Writing My Father’s War had made me see I could tell a story set in that time. Three years later, my second World War One novel was published. This was 1914 (Scholastic Australia 2014), which from the point of view of Louis Jullian, teenage son of a French diplomat and his Australian wife, told the story of the beginning of that ‘war to end all wars’. It was a very different book, because it was set in a very different time to that of My Father’s War. In 1918, four years of dreadful stalemate and horrendous slaughter had changed the face of Europe, destroying the old order forever.  In 1914, the old order was still there, sleepwalking towards disaster, and even by the end of that year, people imagined that the war might soon be over and things go back to what they’d been before. And my characters might both be French Australian, but they came from very different backgrounds and experiences. Annie had a difficult childhood dominated by war and her father’s absence; Louis, whose childhood was cosmopolitan and carefree, was coming of age at a time when everything would be thrown into question by a conflict that would engulf the world and truth itself. It was just as hard to write this novel as the first; harder even in a way, precisely because it was the beginning: reading about the causes of the war and the chain of events in those fateful few weeks from June 28 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, you get a sense both of the so-called ‘inevitability’ of the war but also the fact that it need not have been so. There were times when the momentum could have been halted–but it was not. I chose to tell that story, and the way in which a carefree summer turned into a deadly winter, through Louis’ eyes as he goes from helpless witness of the attack in Sarajevo to scarred and determined young war correspondent on both the Western and Eastern fronts.

Both the novels have had unexpected offshoots: minor characters from My Father’s War inspired a short story of mine, The Other Anzac Day (set during the battle in Villers Brettoneux on 25 April 1918) which was published in a UK collection, Stories of World War One, edited by Tony Bradman(Orchard Books, UK, 2014). This story, told in the voice of Archie, a tough but troubled young Australian soldier, both echoes and contrasts with Annie’s own view of that ‘other Anzac Day’ in My Father’s War. And Louis’ daughter as well as the son of one of his pre-war Austrian friends will be featuring in a novel I’ve been writing, set at the beginning of World War 2 this time, to appear in 2019. In the novel, the experiences of World War One, which transformed the lives of Louis and his friends, haunt the lives of their families too–and of course, by extension, their communities and nations, as the drums of war beat yet again.

 

More about My Father’s War and 1914:

My Father’s War

By Sophie Masson

(My Australian Story, Scholastic Australia 2011)

ISBN 9781741698282

It scares me a lot, thinking of Dad out there, far away in that dangerous, terrible place, wondering how it will be when he comes back-if he comes back, that is . . .

Annie’s dad has been away for two years, fighting on the Somme battlefields in northern France. For months there has been no word from him, no letters or postcards. Annie and her mother are sick with worry, so they decide to stop waiting-and instead travel to France, to try to find out what has happened to him. There she experiences first-hand what war is like, as she tries to piece together the clues behind her dad’s disappearance. Will Annie ever see her father again?

Teacher’s Notes My Father’s War: http://resource.scholastic.com.au/resourcefiles/8005439_228.pdf

1914

By Sophie Masson

(Australia’s Great War, Scholastic Australia 2014)

ISBN 9781743622476

A small black bottle or a torch came sailing through the air, and landed on the side of the car, close to the Archduke. An instant later came a terrific bang, the road exploded in a shower of dust and stones, and tiny sharp things went flying through the air like angry bees.

In June 1914, Louis and his brother Thomas are enjoying the European summer in a small town near Sarajevo. In the shadow of the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, the world erupts into war and Louis’ life changes forever. Old Europe is torn apart and Louis finds himself in the midst of his own battle – and fighting for the truth in war means that sometimes even your own side is against you.

Teacher’s Notes 1914: http://resource.scholastic.com.au/resourcefiles/8284239_24164.pdf

A Boat of Stars: an interview with Margaret Connolly and Natalie Jane Prior

Last week, I went to a very special launch celebrating a very special book: the beautiful multi-author, multi-illustrator poetry collection for children, A Boat of Stars, edited by renowned literary agent Margaret Connolly, 2017 winner of the Pixie O’Harris Award, and award-winning writer Natalie Jane Prior, author of many popular books for children. Published by ABC Books/Harper Collins, it’s a real joyful treasury of brand-new original poems for kids, by an amazing range of Australian authors and illustrators. I am delighted to say that yours truly is not only one of them–I am also lucky enough to have no less than seven poems in the book, illustrated by such wonderful illustrators as Julie Vivas, Lisa Stewart, Sara Acton and Cheryl Orsini. It was such fun celebrating this very special book with the editors and a great many fellow contributors! So today I’m very happy to bring readers an interview with Margaret Connolly and Natalie Jane Prior, about how the book came to be!
First of all, congratulations on an absolutely gorgeous book, Margaret and Natalie! How did the idea for it first come about?

Natalie had written two ‘picture book texts’, Owl and Mouse, which we realised were poems, and the book evolved out of a conversation about what we could do with them. We both love poetry, and fretted that there was no obvious way of getting them published. We knew that there were very few new books of children’s poetry being published, and suddenly realised that there was a gap in the market. By the next morning we were working on a proposal for what eventually became A Boat of Stars.

How did you go about gathering poems initially? And how did you make selections? What were you looking for in each poem?

We were looking for poems that modern Australian children would enjoy, and that reflected their experience of the world. We wanted poems that they would find engaging and amusing, and enjoy returning to, again and again. The book needed to be Australian in its outlook, so poems about Australian animals, and with indigenous content, were essential. When we’d selected about two thirds of the poems we looked critically at what we had, and where there were gaps, and also asked a couple of experienced teachers to identify topics they thought would be useful in the classroom.

You worked closely together as editors. How did the process work for both of you? What were the challenges and discoveries?
We’ve worked together creatively for many years, so it was a natural progression for us to start working as an editorial team.
Did you send particular poems to particular illustrators, or did they choose poems to illustrate, or was it achieved in a different way?

The format of the book allowed for sixty poems, each with an accompanying illustration, and we assigned illustrators to poems, trying to match style and sensibility. We were thrilled when Stephen Michael King agreed to illustrate the cover. We wanted the book to have a cohesive look, and using a core team of five illustrators helped achieve this, with variety from illustrators who worked on one or two poems.

I believe you also worked closely with ABC Books on concept, layout, design etc. It must have been a big job–and it certainly is a superb production! Tell us about how it all worked.

It was a massive job, but one we both enjoyed. We were very involved in the layout and design, including spending a very intensive day in an ABC office mapping out the poem order, and illustrator/poem choices. Chren Byng, our publisher, was wonderful, as was the whole ABC Books team. Chren trusted us to do what we felt was best for the book, but was there to guide and assist whenever needed. She shared our passion and vision, and understood the book right from the start. It was the happiest editorial and publishing experience.

What do you hope young readers and their families will get from A Boat of Stars? And why do you think poetry is important for children?

We hope that the anthology will give children a happy early experience of poetry, and enrich their understanding of words, and rhyme, and rhythm. Poetry, like music, is primal. It’s language operating simultaneously at both its most fundamental, and sophisticated level. Reading poetry teaches children to look sideways, to see the world and themselves from different angles. Modern children are growing up in a troubled world, and this is a skill they are going to need. It’s a weapon in their arsenal for life.

 If you had one line to describe A Boat of Stars–other than the lovely one on the cover, ‘New poems to inspire and enchant’– what would it be?
Australian children need more poetry.

Margaret and Natalie signing copies of the book at the launch at The Children’s Bookshop, Beecroft

The Bluebell Club: a memoir-story

Today I’m republishing a story based on memories of a literary episode in primary school.

The Bluebell Club

by Sophie Masson

Towards the end of my Enid Blyton phase, in late primary school, I founded a wrhiting club, which I called the Bluebell Club, and managed to inveigle some of my friends into it. My younger sister Camille also hung around it sometimes. The name of the club came straight out of Enid Blyton, of course. And I was the President, also of course!

We would sit, we the Bluebell Club, under the trees at the end of the playground, ignoring the bands of boys who sometimes marched past us, arms linked, chanting, ‘We hate girls! We hate girls!’ We knew they were just craving attention, and were jealous of us as we sat there, telling each other calmly the stories we had made up, which was the ritual of the Club. Each member had to bring a story to the week’s meeting; we read them, admired them, and then it was my job to say which was best, and which would be entered in the exercise book that served as the Club’s record.

I loved the Club. It was the perfect venue for recounting the adventures of my favourite creation, Princess Alicia of the rippling blond hair, the wise mind, clever tongue and magic finger. Alicia featured in dozens of adventures I wrote, each profusely illustrated with curly pictures. The Club members listened to the Alicia stories with respect, but then seemed to want to tell their own and to vote for others, not just Alicia. Secretely, I thought that Alicia should win every week, but not even being President could save me from the fate of knowing what would happen, then.

All the other girls, except for my younger sister Camille of course, were real Aussies—they had vegemite, not salami, sandwiches at lunchtime and glamorous parties for their birthdays, with fairy bread and pink cakes and balloons. I never had a party. I wanted one, so badly–and yet I feared that Maman would probably not know the right ‘form’-she’d make a pâté, and real lemonade with lemons, and her cake would be iced just with melted chocolate, not with ‘proper’ icing. I was not yet at the teenage shamed stage–yet I knew, somehow that those things I loved within the four walls of my home would be misunderstood outside them. The Bluebell Club was my way of integrating, of showing that I knew about what I imagined marked out the ‘mainstream’, knowing, despite the lack of a TV in our house, and the fact Maman never bought processed food, about TV programmes and frozen chips. In my stories Alicia always watched Bewitched and Dr Who, and loved frozen chips and green GI cordial.

I talked to Maman about the Bluebell Club, and was amazed when she suggested that we run a proper competition. She would donate a prize for it, she said. My joy at this unexpected offer was tinged with suspicion–would she know what was the right thing to do? I kept dropping hints, saying, well I think a good prize would be a book, hoping that she wouldn’t get it into her head to bake a cake which would look home-made, with dense, delicious yellow flesh and pockmarked brown skin.

She did buy a book–done up in blue tissue, it sat in my bag, innocent and weighty. She hadn’t told me what it was–couldn’t remember, she said, mischievously. But a book was safe. Sure. I took it to school in anticipation, having last week announced the competition. I’d written a story, Alicia’s latest adventure, in which, sheathed in gold brocade and silk hair nets, our heroic princess went to do battle with an alien. I’d had trouble drawing the alien–it looked rather like Maman’s vacuum cleaner. But the story was good drama. I’d rehearsed it to myself, last night in bed.

One of the other girls’ mother had kindly baked a cake for us, as celebration, and we ate it as a preliminary. There it sat, neat as a house on its plate, its walls straight and pale, its roof prettily frosted with white icing, dusted with multi-coloured sprinkles. It looked like a proper shop cake, and I was awed by its beauty. ‘Mum always buys the good packet mixes,’ the girl said, and I gasped with longing. I’d seen those packets in the supermarket—they had names like Snow Vanilla; Royal Chocolate; Pink Marble. Cakes for a Princess Alicia, to eat off golden plates.

When the cake was cut, it proved to have white flesh inside. It must have been a Snow Vanilla. I couldn’t get my eyes off that snowy colour; it was like no cake we ever had, at home. There was none of the sweet denseness of the French butter cake known as quatre-quarts which Maman made a lot; instead, you closed your mouth on an airy lightness, as soft as cloud. Privately, I was a little disappointed; it was like barbe à papa (fairy floss or cotton candy) that looked so magically wonderful but disintegrated into a trickle of pink on your tongue. But I was loudest in praise, for you couldn’t admit that pretty words could hide nothing at all. It was the image that was important, the feeling of riches, of magic, of leisure. No hard mixing and stirring and separating here, no messy egg shells, still with yolk adhering, or showers of flour on the floor. Just a packet, a picture, a pretty name, and hey presto–instant cake! It was like a miracle, I thought. And you can’t question miracles.

When the last crumb of Snow Vanilla had gone, I held up a hand for attention. ’And now for the judging of the competition,’ I announced rather pompously. ’I have here a magnificent prize, for the lucky winner.’ The others watched me a little strangely, I thought. Didn’t they want to know the winner? ‘Let’s read all our stories, and then we’ll see.’
I read the latest adventure of Alicia first, my voice rising and falling. I added an episode ad lib, when the Princess feasted on Snow Vanilla. The others listened, then read their stories. Very ordinary, they seemed to me.

‘Now, we’ll decide the winner,’ I began, but then another girl, the cake girl no doubt, stopped me. ’I’ve told my mum about all this,’ she said, ‘And she said it’s not fair, that you get to be the judge. I bet you’d choose your own story!’

‘I’m tired of Princess Alicia, anyway,’ said another girl. ’Why do you always write about her? She’s boring!’

The meeting broke up in disarray. In my bag, still in its blue tissue, was the prize book. I’d had no chance to bring it out, to display it, no chance to choose the winner, no chance to hand the book over, in its secretive blue. I tried to call them back, but the words wouldn’t come. They were off, chattering, their minds on elastics and skipping. They’d had enough of the Club, too. Possibly enough of me. My earnestness frightened them off. Now I was frightened. I’d thought I’d done so well, queening it over them, but now I realised they’d humoured me, for a while, because there was nothing else to do. Camille stayed for a minute, then said, ‘Don’t worry, I like Alicia. You can read it to me, if you like.’
But I didn’t want to read them to my sister. I could do that any day, at home. I wanted to sit under the trees, with the Bluebell Club, being their President, their admired, imitated President. I wanted to fill the exercise book with our work, with our efficient meetings. It felt like real life, quiet, efficient real life, not the chaotic un-Australianness of our home. But I’d just been voted out of office. Permanently. I knew it. And suddenly, Alicia’s curly hair, her huge eyes, filled me with anger. I tore the story across and put it in the bin.

The book stayed in its blue tissue all day. At home, I opened it at last. ‘The members of the Bluebell Club,’ I told Maman, ‘voted my story the best in the competition!’ I could even believe it, as I opened the collection of illustrated poems Maman had bought (it was a lovely book). Yes, I could even hear their clapping as one by one, the members of the Bluebell Club agreed that Princess Alicia and the Aliens was the best story they had ever heard, and deserving of the first prize. I looked across at Camille. But she said nothing. Her mouth was full of cake. Quatre-quarts, not Vanilla Snow.

The Mirror of Honour and Love: a woman’s view of chivalry

I’ve always been interested in the Middle Ages, especially the chivalric period between the 12th and 15th centuries, and wrote this essay some years ago, after the publication of my historical fantasy trilogy, The Lay Lines Trilogy,  released in an omnibus edition as Forest of Dreams. The trilogy was inspired by the shadowy life and extraordinary work of 12th century writer Marie de France, one of the writers mentioned in this essay. I’m republishing the essay today and hope readers find it interesting–and with some relevance to our times as well!

THE MIRROR OF HONOUR AND LOVE:
a woman’s view of chivalry

by Sophie Masson

 

Chivalry. Isn’t that a bloke’s thing? Isn’t it do with being a man-at-arms, with strapping on armour, and sallying forth into the wildwood on your horse, your lady’s token on your arm, to right wrongs and do great deeds? Isn’t the only role of the woman in chivalry to be the inspirer, the Muse of a paragon of the knightly virtues? Well, yes–and no. Chivalry was much more than that. And its ideals encompassed both sexes, actively.

As the French-derived term chivalry indicates–it is originally from chevalerie, meaning horsemanship, literally–it came about as a means of codifying and disciplining a mounted order of military types. Mounted men-at-arms–knights, in the English word, which by the way derives from the same root as knife, referring to weapons–could be a damn nuisance in the early and later Middle Ages. The way they were regarded by many people is perhaps best summed up in the German proverb, Er will Ritter an mir werden; ie, he wants to play the knight over me, ride roughshod over me. That is, these mounted men were regarded as tyrannical bullies, delinquents and pests. That they were more often than not is indisputable; a combination of young man’s energy, a lack of efficiently centralised civic or moral teaching(the State did not really exist, and the Church struggled mightily to tame the warriors for centuries), and the fact that on a horse you could quickly get away from the scene of your crimes, mixed with a kind of carte blanche, a blind eye turned to your hi-jinks by the man–or woman–who paid your wages when you were at war with their rivals or enemies(but cut you loose when they didn’t need you, leaving you to fend for yourself), made for quite a potent little cocktail of public nuisance. The Middle Ages was a young person’s period; though many people did live on into old age, the average age of death for a woman was thirty-three; for a man, especially a knight, it was under thirty. The often wild energy, idealism and exaltation that characterises medieval culture comes from that demographic fact. This was real youth culture.

But as time went on, and the disorder of the post-Roman period, the invasions, and the Norman adventures receded, and prosperity and peace descended in Europe, due to some kind of balance being precariously achieved, more attention was being paid to the fact that the youth had not only to be kept in line, but also to be given a channel for their energies which would make them both more productive, and more disciplined. Added to that was the change in peacetime culture, particularly in England and France, with women becoming more prominent again, able to provide a guiding hand. Modern people all too often view the Middle Ages through distorting mirrors; and one of the most distorting is the idea of medieval women’s position. In fact, it is probably true to say that women in the Middle Ages, especially after about the eleventh and up to the fifteenth centuries, enjoyed a level of relative freedom not equalled until the twentieth. The fall of Rome had also made many of her laws recede into the distance, slowly; Roman statute law was notably more misogynist than the customary law of the tribal groups the Empire had conquered. Celtic and Germanic women enjoyed a degree of freedom that scandalised the Romans: perhaps the greatest and most serious of the rebellions against Rome in Britain occurred when an arrogant Roman governor flouted the realpolitik of his masters and cut across British customary law by refusing to ratify the awarding of the chieftainship of the Iceni to the widowed Queen Boudicca, or Boadicea.

Now as the Middle Ages advanced and people forgot about Roman law, or cheerfully ignored it, opting instead for a mixture of old and new in their customary law, so the position of women improved. Please don’t think I’m talking modern feminism here. Medieval society, like pre-Roman society, was one of kinship and hierarchy(which is NOT the same as class, by the way). If you were related to the right people, if you were part of the clan, you had a right to exercise the rights given to you on that basis, no matter what your sex. So women in the Middle Ages, as in the Celtic and Germanic worlds, could openly be chiefs, could command armies, run huge estates and businesses, inherit and so forth, in a way that women in Roman times and women in the Renaissance–which rediscovered Roman law and reinstated many of the old ways, including the institutionalised repression of women–could not, or only do through subterfuge. The thing was that medieval people recognised custom, and its pre-eminence; kinship, and its inextricable centrality; hierarchy which meant that everyone had a place but that people could move between them, in case of great personal merit (eg there were quite a number of serfs who became knights).

What we now think of as chivalry came out of that world. It began, as a codified idea, in the twelfth century, in the courts of two famous and talented and powerful women of the time: the extraordinary Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her daughter, Marie of Champagne. Eleanor was a force of nature, a brilliant figure whose true stature is only now being rediscovered. Sole heir to the vast lands of Aquitaine, the teenaged Eleanor married the pious, shy Louis VII of France, who was no match for her wilfulness and talents. She went along with him on Crusade, as an important person in her own right, had several children with him, including Marie, then tiring of him and his font-frog ways, and infatuated with the younger, sexy Henri Plantagenet d’Anjou, a.k.a. Henry II of England, she concocted an excuse to get rid of Louis. She even managed to persuade the Pope to grant her a annulment on the basis of too-close kinship to her former husband, and so, despite having had several children with Louis, was able to enter into legal marriage with Henry.

Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine on her tomb in Fontrevaud Abbey in France.

She and Henry were a match for each other, but too much so in many ways; though they had six more children, and for a long time had a strong relationship, Henry’s roving eye and bad temper, and Eleanor’s sometimes arrogant pride proved the undoing of a partnership that had had all Europe enthralled. During the happy times, she ran her own court separately in Poitiers, and was the patron of artists, poets, musicians and philosophers. It was at this court, and at her daughter Marie’s in Champagne that the codes of chivalry and of courtly love were established, in close contact with the great ladies, and a flourishing literary and social culture was born. Eleanor and Marie were aware not only of the delinquent tendencies of knights, but also of the boredom of ladies–and of the many sexual adventures that went on. They would encourage the concept of a new form of chivalry, which would not only emphasise prowess in arms and great deeds, as had been the case in the past, but also the great adventure of love, the way that it helped in the journey to self-knowledge and integration. It would mean that women would have a central part in the culture, as muses and inspirers certainly, but also as honourable beings in their own right.

Secular Woman in Romance, and Sacred Woman, the Madonna, dominated medieval culture from the twelfth century, in the process turning a rather rough and ready culture to a most beautiful, subtle and richly patterned one. As well, contact with the East meant that philosophy, astrology and astronomy, and the natural sciences in general, flourished.

So, what were the distinguishing elements of chivalry? I have devised a list of the Seven Qualities of Honour, gleaned from various medieval books, qualities which were firmly to be sought after by both men and women. These are:

Franchise, or frankness(ie openness of mind and honesty); Pitié, or Compassion; Courage; Courtoisie, or Courtesy; Sagesse, or Wisdom; Largesse, or Generosity; and Temperance, or Moderation. As is obvious, these were not sex-limited characteristics. Within those seven qualities, we can get a sense of the characteristics admired by twelfth century medieval culture. Hotheadedness was to be restrained; greed and avarice, always pet hates of the times(and major problems)cast into the darkness; ignorant yobbo behaviour firmly rejected. Respect for the other, and for oneself as a growing soul is iabsolutely ntrinsic to the chivalric tradition. It is intended to carry through into all aspects of one’s life; at its best it is truly impressive. It is pointless to keep saying, as some modern writers do, that the ideal wasn’t always lived up to; what ideal ever is? The fact is that this ideal genuinely changed a whole society, and laid the groundwork for many other social developments in the future.

Writers like Chrétien de Troyes and André le Chapelain–or Andreas Capellanus, as he’s often known–wrote books demonstrating and portraying the new ways of being and relating between the sexes: incidentally also changing the face of literature(the romance being the true ancestor not only of the novel in general but of fantasy!) As time went on, more and more writers, inspired by the beauty and depth of the ideas embodied within the notions of chivalry, explored it in ever greater depth. Many of these (in the main) male writers saw Woman as Muse: whether spiritually as well as romantically, like Ramon Llull, for instance, or practically and realistically, like Godefroi de Charny (both men wrote books on chivalry which are still in print today). Of course, there were also those who fought hard against the new works and their implicit validation of women as real human beings, worthy of respect,

a manuscript of Le Roman de Renart, held in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

true love, and even adoration. Such a one was Jean de Meung, writer of Le Roman de la Rose, or Romance of the Rose, which especially in its second part is an anti-woman diatribe, and the mostly anonymous authors of the cynical, savagely amusing and often obscene Roman de Renart, or The Romance of Reynard the Fox, an extraordinary anthromorphic ‘novel ‘ in many episodes, which in many ways could be seen as the anti-romance. (Mind you the Roman de Renart is something of an equal-opportunity offender, satirising both men and women)

Between idealism and misogyny, though, there were also those who saw women as equal partners in the great journey of life, and of the quest for honour, and the development of the soul that chivalry represented. At least two of those writers were women: the twelfth century writer Marie de France (not the same person as Marie de Champagne, incidentally!)and the early fifteenth century Christine de Pisan. Marie wrote fiction: lais, or lays, narrative poems, romances based on Celtic motifs, full of love, magic, humour and adventure. But Christine was a non-fiction writer, who wrote hugely popular and influential books on the achievements and behaviour of women. Some of these were intended as self-help guides; others as witty and fierce ripostes to anti-woman propagandists. Two of her books, La Cité des dames, or City of Ladies, and its sequel, The Treasury of the City of Ladies, examine at length about the ways in which women achieve honour and respect, and the ways in which the chivalric code can be applied to everyday life.

Let’s have a look at some of the things these women writers said. Marie, who has a rather salty tongue and sardonic eye and ear for the way people behave, is particularly preoccupied with love and the different ways in which lovers act. She firmly tells her audience that chivalry and courtliness are about real things, including sexual things, and that hypocrites and coy flittergibbets are without honour:

The professional beauty will mince

and preen her feathers, and wince

At showing she favours a man,

unless it’s all for her gain.

But a worthy lady of wisdom and valour

will not be too proud to show her favour

and enjoy the love of her man

in every way that she can.

(this quote is from Marie’s poem Guigemar–the translation is my own, you can find it in Forest of Dreams).

Marie’s outlook is that of an upper-class medieval woman, fluent in several languages, moving easily around Europe, sure of her place and independent within it. She roundly chastises those snooty critics from her time who say that what she writes about is not serious literature, or that it is immodest, or ‘untrue’, because it has magic in it. (Such wet blanket critics still exist in our time of course!) She is very concerned with female honour, and makes it quite clear that women must show as much courage, courtesy, generosity, etc, as men. She has several examples of female characters who run a love affair from beginning to end, fight, travel, and so on; just as she has a female character, werewolf knight Bisclavret’s merciless wife, who is punished severely–not for being a woman but for being faithless. This savage justice is equally meted out to men who transgress the code.

Women really did live by this code; there are numerous examples of women left in charge of large estates who faithfully and bravely mounted the defence of those estates against the enemies of their house, and were praised for it by chroniclers of the time. Medieval people had a horror of treachery and cowardice; the two were often felt to go hand in hand. The fact you were a woman did not absolve you from keeping to the ideals of chivalry, in times of crisis and in your ordinary life. And in her fiction, Marie demonstrates clearly both the complex realities of medieval life, and what was considered honourable for both sexes.

From the twelfth to the early fifteenth is quite a jump. We come here to the tail-end of the code of chivalry–we have been through the culture-shaking hideousness of the Black Death, and are close to the shift in thinking represented by humanism and the Reformation. In this climate, propaganda against women was growing, though some of the old chivalric spirit remained and indeed never went away altogether. Women of all backgrounds were still very much in evidence in ordinary life, in all kinds of ways; the cruel Roman-derived statutes, which wiped out many customary rights of inheritance and divorce and so on, had not yet been applied.

Christine de Pisan presenting her work, from a painting of the time

Christine de Pisan, a prolific and indefatigable writer who proselytised tirelessly for the recognition of the talents, achievements and potential of women, gave her advice and insights in the form of allegory and exposition. She was enormously influential and popular; her own life story is an inspiration. Left a widow at a young age, with small children to support, Italian-born Christine launched into a professional career as a writer in early fifteenth-century Paris. She was not one to bite her tongue, but took part vigorously in many of the intellectual debates of the day, her sharp intelligence, comprehensive education and refusal to be beaten thrilling her fans and infuriating her enemies. She launched into a lively denunciation of the anti-woman Romance of the Rose, pointing out tartly the many faults in its logic and its humanity, and La Cité des dames was conceived as a direct riposte to Jean de Meung’s jeremiads(The Romance of the Rose still being popular in her time. ) In the book, she used the device of three allegorical figures: Dame Reason, with her mirror of self-knowledge, the ‘mirror held up to nature’, as she called it; Dame Rectitude, with her rod of peace; and Dame Justice, with her cup from whence she pours out stability and equilibrium, to frame a discourse in which a ‘City of Ladies’ can be constructed, which allows women to fully develop their talents and potential. In so doing, she refuted many of the criticisms of women made by contemporary writers, and highlighted the achievements of women in many areas. The sequel, The Treasury of the City of Ladies (republished a few years ago, in English, as The Medieval Woman’s Mirror of Honour), was more of a self-help and advice book, tailored not only to aristocratic women but to women of all social backgrounds, from rich merchants to poor cottage women. The thrust of her argument is that, in order to act honourably, women do not need to fight against nature, but to follow selectively and intelligently the dictates of their truest selves. Real self-knowledge and respect for others, so central to chivalry, is also the centre of Christine’s words to her readers, the armour she advises them to put on to sally forth into the great adventure of life. From it grow all those qualities of honour, from courage and generosity to openness of mind and temperance, compassion and courtesy–and the result is true wisdom. For that was the aim of chivalry:  a way of reaching one’s own fullest potential as a human being, but always tied in to the presence, the needs, and the worth of other people too. Chivalry, both male and female, recognised that each of us is, indeed, our brother’s or sister’s keeper–but also courageously responsible for our own actions. It is an ideal which is of increasing and urgent relevance in the world we live in today.