Black Smoke: White Sheets

Sighs and puffs and a swirling fog of steam, the smell of fireworks, a billow of charcoal smoke as perfect as a child’s drawing then the pitch black barrel of an engine. Up front a driver in a slouch hat with the top half of his body hanging out at a dangerous angle, the pull of a rope and a breathy toot-toot, the wave of a friendly hand. A man in soot covered overalls shovelling coal into a firebox, two men in grey lab coats wearing goggles stoking a fire. At the end a conductor checking the time on his fob watch dressed in a double breasted uniform with shiny buttons and a black cap. steam train#2

No it’s not Thomas the Tank Engine or his pal Henry but a glimpse from my past. It’s a steam train in 1956 hauling ten red varnished carriages up the steep gradients and sharp curves of a line measured in chains to the station of Warrimoo. This is why I became bewitched by trains – especially steam trains. There was an ‘up’ service and a ‘down’ service which ran to a strict timetable. We rarely missed either the morning or the afternoon ritual – my mother and I on the grassy verge of Railway Parade waving with frantic energy. blog warrimoo girl 2I with my doll in a pram and Mum with the white sheets in a cane washing basket. The washing, you must understand, could not be hung out until the ‘up’ train had passed and the carbon and charcoal had shaken itself out of the fresh Blue Mountains air.

Our laundry – a windowless brick enclosure under the house held a copper boiler and a wringer suspended over double concrete sinks. While I played with the dolly pegs and my new baby sister slept upstairs in her bassinet Mum attended to this laborious task.  Together we hung the washing out on a line built by Dad of wooden cross pieces and ropes which could be raised and lowered as needed. Those white sheets had until precisely 3:00pm to dry before the screech of metal on metal and the black smoke came billowing back down the mountain to cover us again in soot and ash.

There’s an unshakeable curiosity in me when it comes to trains

After 1958 when the line became electrified and red rattlers replaced steam, we still left our chores, our games and our babies to run out the front and wave to the driver or a cheerful passenger. Counting the carriages on the long, long goods trains was a game saved for the afternoon when Dad arrived home from school. The Fish and The Chips – regular commuter trains so named because the original driver was a big man with the surname of Heron (affectionately known as The Big Fish) took their own place in history. But the sleek silver carriages and diesel power of the those later years lost some of the magic of the steam era.


F1030029Warrimoo girls had girl toys – our dolls and our tea sets, our knitting and our dress-ups. F1030009But we also built with Dad an impressive train set on a board the size of a double bed that we lowered on pulleys from the ceiling of the garage. Hornby engines and metal carriages, yards of track and papier-mâché tunnels and bridges, plastic stations, sheds, miniature people and farm animals. No rigid definition as to how girls should behave defined us then or now and like Thomas we were fiercely proud of our side line.

The right side of the tracks

Blog Warrimoo girlDo you have a childhood memory so bizarre it makes the truth of it stranger than fiction? Any time I hear one very recognisable waltz by Johann Strauss I involuntarily start The Tennis Dance!

From about ten years of age until well into my teens I had tennis lessons on a Saturday morning. Nothing unusual about that as I was a child of the 50s and 60s except that more often than not our drill was given along the platform of the local train station. Our coach, Miss O’Brien who had been on the ‘pro circuit’ at some undisclosed time in her life was the Station Mistress. A short plump spinster she wore a uniform of tan skirt and blazer with thick stockings and sensible lace up shoes and upon her balding pate a stiff captain’s hat from which wispy pink curls escaped about her ears like fairy floss. Racket and ball in hand, dressed in whites, ‘the comp squad’ lined up in single file along the mostly empty platform where we mimicked serving, fore and back hand movements in a carefully choreographed sequence to the scratchy bellow of The Blue Danube Waltz pumped through the station’s loud speakers. As the infrequent trains pulled in and out over the next hour – Miss. O’Brien raised her little flag and blew her shrill whistle while we gracefully pivoted and waltzed our way to the end of the platform and back under the gaze of amused passengers.

blog warrimoo girl 4One way or another that station, those tracks that ran from Central to Bathurst up over the Blue Mountains shaped my life. It was to a varnished weatherboard log cabin named The Ridges, at 128 Railway Parade, Warrimoo with the phone number 256 that I was taken on my discharge at seven days of age from The Royal North Shore Hospital. My father had accepted a teaching position at Penrith Public School and my mother accepted the fact that her dream of married life in a cottage by the sea in Manly was over. Instead of falling asleep to the lulling roll of waves we fell asleep to the rolling grate of metal on metal as the steel monsters carrying sheep and wheat from the western plains snaked their way down the mountain.

The tiny village best known in the news for train derailments, truck crashes and bushfires carries with it neither the kudos of the upper mountains nor the poetic tone of ‘the foothills of the mountains’ but sits unobtrusively somewhere between the two. Its name means Eagle’s Nest yet it has none of the breathtaking views or majestic rock formations or waterfalls or autumn trees or cafes of towns like Leura or Katoomba. No tourist bus is likely to stop for souvenirs at the garage or photograph The A.W. Bewley Bridge.  Though most don’t know it there is a simple stone horse trough beside that overpass which has survived years of widening of the Great Western Highway due to its historical significance but generally if you blink on your journey west you will miss both the trough and the village and wonder who ever grew up in a town named Warrimoo!

F1020019However it is with some affection that I look back on that address and those train tracks that pulsed with life and purpose. Our house built by my father and my maternal grandfather sat to one side of three large elevated blocks of bushland which provided my sisters and me with unbridled freedom. A sanctuary of giant Angophoras, Bloodwoods and Casuarinas, kookaburras, magpies and a rare bowerbird with shiny black plumage and electric blue eyes. A chook pen, orchid house, aviary, cubby made from chicken wire and a wooden swing dangling from a towering iron bark. Bright orange and mauve sunsets over the railway line, the Saturday twilight smell of smoke from the burning of mounds of damp gum leaves and old Mrs Higgins in her knitted bonnet with the pixie ears staggering up our block from her one room cabin below carrying chocolate blancmange set in egg cups for our dessert.

F1010004Directly opposite our house was a well-trod gravel path up a steep embankment swaying with bright yellow Calliopsis and bees. It was a shortcut across the railway tracks beside a sign that read


I was an adult before I realised the irony of learning to cross the tracks safely under that ominous sign. My grandparents Elsie and Wally had a mini matching log cabin to ours on the western side of the line and across the Great Western Highway. Built entirely by Wally the carpenter, it was a simple three roomed home with an outside toilet and shower and a magnificent cottage garden of lavender and daffodils tended by Elsie. Grandma used to visit us daily negotiating the incline and snakes from her side of the tracks to skittle down with the gravel to our side – dressed always in hat and gloves carrying port wine jelly or salmon mornay or macaroni cheese in a small Pyrex bowl. She would dust herself off and arrive at the back door with a smile and a kiss to put on her apron and help about the house. 

F1030038The line as we called it in its own way protected and nurtured and provided a measure of security. Like Miss O’Brien the tracks and the trains and the characters who used them became over the years a theatre of performance – both comic and tragic.


From a collection of stories:

The Girls from Warrimoo

What’s in a Name?

Blog 9IN the course of writing the first daft for my novel which has thus far taken approximately six years I have made a subtle but significant shift from memoir to historical fiction. My problem stems from the fact that it is a multi-generational, multi family saga involving scandals and deceptions, forbidden love and some downright outlandish behaviour that is so entertaining I can’t leave anything out. It’s a blend of fiction and fact that is as much accurate as not. Some of it however happened to members of other families who have been referenced in Australian history. I have met face to face with some of the characters and been in written contact with others.  I have historical records and documents from local history libraries, copies of letters and transcripts of stories told by surviving relatives and books written by one of them. But getting it accurate, assembling some sort of order and sticking to the facts is crippling the creative flow.

The TRUTH in fact has been holding me back.

It took just one simple comment from a friend with whom I spent time during my recent Writer’s Retreat to unblock the brain drain and release the torrent. On her magnificent Chook Deck as we call it (due to the fact that it is on the upper level of the house near the free range chook pen) we were discussing the problem that in sticking to the facts I have no ending. This is something that has been worrying me for ever. In fact one tutor in a workshop told me,

‘If you don’t have an ending you don’t know what your story is about.’

He’s right of course and that caused a familiar crisis of confidence. My friend pondered this then held up her Aperol Spritzer to compare its colour to the glorious sunset.

‘Just make it up’ she said.

And with that we did.

‘Turn the house into a B&B and go and stay there a night. Poke around in the nooks and crannies and take the stairs to the attic. There you find some music left in the house and the soft notes of recognition will float about you with the dust motes and the ghosts of the past. You never know who you will meet there and some unseemly truths may be revealed.’

I don’t know if it was the Aperol speaking or the magic of the sunset but that’s it. That’s my ending. Now I know what my story is about. I am free. The words have been pouring out.  But this freedom brings another problem. No longer can I use the names and identities of most of my characters for fear of reprisal. In fact no publisher would touch it should my pitch be successful on account of the liability that would be attached. However without those ‘big’ names, the personalities and the social pages, the significance of the house is diminished somewhat and it’s the house after all who is at the heart of my story. She is a character in herself and she too has a name. I let this problem simmer away in a slow cook overnight and this morning I made my decision. I’ve read enough books where the names have been changed and the identity so thinly disguised that it is possible to work out just who is who to keep up the intrigue but protect the author. The most recent of these is Palace of Tears by Julian Leatherdale and you can read it yourself to work out the location, the iconic building and the famous family implicated.

I’ve become so attached to my characters I’m not looking forward to re- naming them – least of all my house but I will leave that to the last draft. My dilemma now is how much of this do I tell in my five minute pitch to the experts. Do I hook them with the names and shock them with the revelations or keep that under wraps in case they find it all too controversial and thus unpublishable?

Looks like I won’t sleep much tonight!

Dishonourable Discharge


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Donald Friend 1945 painting of Diggers, Showers in a Ruin.

This last week in self-imposed exile to write myself off – literally that is, I set myself a task of getting my protagonist off to WW11. This required research into the conditions in Japanese POW camps, the duties of medical staff at the make-shift camp hospitals and homosexual behaviour in a war setting.

I know for a fact Geoff was not allowed to enlist as a chemist for which he was admirably qualified as his skills were needed at home yet he was accepted at a second attempt into the AIF as a jazz musician. Ironically when he arrived in Palestine he was sent to a Clearing Station to act as a medical orderly and remained in camp hospitals until the very end of the war when he was able to organise a Christmas Pantomime for the emaciated and exhausted POWs in Thailand. The insight I gained into homosexual activities in the camps was both fascinating and disturbing. I’m in no doubt Geoff was having a private war within himself at the time of enlistment, a time when the word homosexual was not used as it was not considered a state of identity.

Surprisingly research shows the army became one of the first institutions to grapple in a practical way with the differences between homosexual behaviour and homosexual identity. In other words they recognised that a sense of self, a sense of identity was as necessary in the war setting as at home. Though rarely discussed sex was central to war time experience and with no women in POW camps there were ‘girls’ who played the female part and ‘aunties’ who took less experienced men under their wings and taught them the tricks of the trade.  Where did the platonic pledge, the emotional bond called mateship blur into something more physical or intimate?

Were bravery and homosexuality compatible?

Had these activities been officially reported by the corporals the participants could be court-martialled and given a dishonourable discharge. While there existed a vice squad to seek out the ‘perverted practices’, no one was quite sure how to deal with the participants who were sometimes decorated men. It was better to handle such ‘episodes’ quietly to avoid attracting embarrassing attention.

The war put Geoff and others like him in touch with feelings and desires he was unable to or unwilling to explore on the home front.  After the war women were expected to return to the kitchen, blacks sent back to the West Indies and Africa and men like Geoff returned to a draconian law that would put them in prison.  The politicians who had used any man regardless of his sexual preferences when it so suited them now conducted a campaign of victimisation when the country was no longer in danger.  Homosexuals had discovered in war a new consciousness of their collective identity and could never go back to the life they had been living. Yet acceptance for them was still a long way off as old taboos remained in place in the armed services until the Labour government removed them in January 2000. Geoff never saw this day.

Resource SMH A secret of history of sexuality on the front Archived Files.




Aperol Spritzer and Root Vegetables

Perhaps an unusual combination but this week I’m in Writer’s Bootcamp with very dear friends and anything goes. Their home is beyond lovely, the location magnificent. Located at the top of a steep hill in the lee of Mt Ninderry it is a twenty minute drive to Coolum and a thirty minute spin to Noosa. This morning my prize for waking early was an orb of sun sitting amongst scattered golden, pink clouds over a mist filled valley dotted with Belted Galloways in a patchwork of green and furrowed pastures.

My hosts and I took India the Chocolate Lab for a walk before a trip to Yandina Markets. The bounty you see is a selection of the local, organic vegetables available. The flowers are from a neighbour’s garden, the parsnips are the largest I have ever seen. Shortly I will make curried parsnip soup and a mandarin syrup cake. The eggs I will collect from the chooks up the back and the mandarins have fallen from our own citrus grove. The combination of writing and cooking works for me and the local Mooloolaba Prawns washed down with a colourful Aperol Spritzer add zest to the task.

I’m writing and I’m excited to be playing hooky, absent from my obligations and inspired by all that nature has to offer. Like a great book this change of scenery has placed me in a different world – one that I don’t want to end.

Curried Parsnip Soup

Continue reading “Aperol Spritzer and Root Vegetables”

Constructing a Life


Taking my character Geoff from the academia of Sydney Grammar School to the vibrant scene of Manly Corso in 1935 has been my quest this week. To understand how my great uncle worked and played, to bring the sketchy details to life I took a day trip to Manly Local History Library and sought out the local historian. John opened up Geoff’s world for me and for hours I was alive in that place with him.  I could imagine Fegents Chemist (now Soul Pattinson’s) as it was then with its remarkable front glass window displays, the vibrancy of the beach with its lifesavers, donkeys and deck chairs and the excitement of the crowds as thousands disembarked from a listing ferry on Friday night. I drove up Raglan Street and found Number 17 right at the top of the hill just as my Dad had described to me. Who knew an electoral roll could bring so much pleasure? I retraced Geoff’s steps as he walked up that steep hill after work, his white lab coat over his arm, a pretty raven haired girl hanging off each arm, the laughter, the joy, the making of a handsome, brilliant young man at twenty one. No-one could possibly imagine then how it could all be such an invention of a life, a desperate search for identity.

The best part of writing is the construction of a life from a few scraps of information, the weaving of a story from a few broken threads, the confirmation that truth is more exhilarating than fiction.

Pitching Point

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This past fortnight has been busy. The best of it was spent at the marvellous Belle-Vue Farm Stay in the Camberwarra Mountains between Kangaroo Valley and Nowra. The occasion was a family holiday, introducing three little grandsons to farm animals roaming a lush mountain top landscape and showing them that milk comes from a cow, eggs from a chicken and oranges from a tree. Each morning we jammed on the gum boots and joined our hosts Rob and Shirle with bales of hay and buckets of greens on a buggy tour feeding alpacas and a feisty bull named Jasper.  With enormous verandahs, spectacular rural views extending to a distant Jervis Bay, a warm fire and a kitchen big enough to cater for the King family I can highly recommended this place.

The worst of the week was spent pitching. Out of interest I looked up definitions for pitch –there is of course a reference to the slope of a roof and the quality of a sound but more appropriately I liked the definition:

to throw roughly or casually as in a crumpled page pitched into the fireplace.

Synonyms: throw, toss, fling, hurl, lob, launch, flip!

That pretty much sums up what I’ve been doing.

On Wednesday I lobbed a 140 character pitch to NSWWC in what was described as a Pitch Party.  I learnt that spaces are characters and pitching is not really my kind of party. There is an art to a tweet that belongs to a different generation but I am loitering and learning. You can read my pitch on my twitter post about set of thrilling adventures I’ve written for young children based on the bedtime stories told to me by my grandfather Hedley.  Set in the time of caveman they tell of Ab and his companion Lightfoot as they leave their cave to fight a woolly mammoth, trap a wild bear and take a wolf as a pet. Based on the original stories written at the end of 19th century by Stanley Waterloo it turns out my grandfather, a scholar, studied the author and the beginnings of philosophy in prehistoric times. He simplified these tales for his grandchildren into the captivating world of Ab who lived in a bed of leaves at the foot of a giant oak tree. He encouraged us to question what is right and wrong, truth and beauty, friendship and loyalty; lessons I find to be just as relevant today.

Not that you can say all that in 140 characters!

Yesterday I registered for a pitch session at the Romance Writers’ Australia National Conference in August. If I am successful I will have precisely five minutes to hurl, toss, fling my pitch at a publisher in an experience that sounds excruciating. Like contestants in the TV Series Shark Tank I will have to sell my as yet unfinished manuscript to a weary investor who has heard it all before.

I think I might just go back to dreaming at Belle-Vue Farm.

New voices capture the excitement!

IMG_3152It’s been a busy few days at the SWF. What a magnificent world class venue blessed with glorious  weather and great coffee. How could anyone fail to be inspired?

This year I avoided jostling with the crowds at Roslyn Packer Theatre and spent my time instead at a mix of ticketed and unticketed events stretched out along the unique timber wharves. International draw card Vivian Gornick spoke with authority to a sold out session about her new book: The Odd Woman and New York City. The tiny frame of her hardly needed a facilitator as she explained her relationship with her ‘best friend Lionel’ as told in the book and her exploration of self. In fact she read a good portion of the book seemingly unable to resist the sound of her own voice before telling us she did not miss her mother about whom she has written in the past as  ‘I had not one moment of pleasure with that woman’. Her distinctive Jewish New Yorker voice stamped authority on a silent audience and painted an image of herself as an ageing writer wandering and challenging New York City streets in the search for what we we call humanity. It was good to get outside and breathe in the joy and sunlight of Sydney.

A free and unexpected pleasure was a session in The Bar at the end of Wharf 4 where Jill Eddington facilitated three New Australian Voices. Abigail Ulman, Peggy Frew and  Maggie Walsh. All three emerging female writers spoke with humility and a freshness about their new books and the process of writing them. With the jaw dropping background of Sydney Harbour alive with sailing boats under a cloudless sky – Maggie, a Bwgcolman woman from Palm Island who now lives in Townsville read us some of her uncomplicated but magnificently insightful poetry in the voice of a born storyteller. Her quiet and lyrical notes bounced and swayed across the old polished boards and warm timber beams captivating an entire audience. Her poetic stories told of sitting on the lap of Great Grandma Bessie, tables laden with food and children playing with marbles in the dust. Encouraged by Jill, she told with delight the story of the illustrated cover to her book Sunset.

‘I wanted a Palm Island sunset, she said, ‘ but after many requests the image was not forthcoming. So I said F— it and tore a page from a notepad, found some dried up tubes of paint in Old Granny’s craft box and drew my own.’

The sketch of pinks and yellows was accepted immediately by her publisher and since then the original artwork has been purchased by a collector.

‘Tell us how you chose the title? Jill encouraged.

‘Oh it found me.’ Maggie giggled in her now familiar way. Her effortless voice gave energy to the huge room.

‘It just stood up and announced itself one day and I knew that was the one for me.’

I attended a dialogue workshop at NSW Writer’s Centre last year where we were told  that if you are struggling to find a title for your book then you don’t know what its about. I have spent dozens of painful hours since then trying to find myself a title and coming to terms with my themes. I am now content to wait for my title to reveal itself to me and have some fun with the creative process.

This new voice was like a balm for the anxious soul and a reminder to all we aspiring writers that anything is possible if you write what you know in a voice that is uniquely yours.

Possessions Matter

My shrine to GeoffI’ve made myself a little shrine in the attic – my studio in the rafters. When doubt sets in and the words dry up I look into that sheet music with the coloured illustrations still vivid after seventy years. There’s the initials GKW, Wiseman written in old fashioned cursive with the date 1947. This was his music, his hands have smoothed the creases as I do and played the melody as I wish I could. There’s his writing in the petty cash book from the chemist I know he owned in Wollongong with a female Pharmacist named Joan. I found these lost possessions through serendipity – possibly my favourite word – in another attic in another house from another era.

Writing his story fills in the blanks of my own!

I still can’t believe it but I know it to be true. I have the history to prove it. The house, the man – once belonged in my family.   There’s the black and white angelic face of my great uncle aged in his early twenties reaching out to me across the chasm of years and social change to tell me his story. Geoff, Geoff, I look into that face and I feel his presence in the attic with me and oh yes I want to write his story for him.

I’m off to a good start this morning.

Out of the Attic

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It’s 4am. A dozen inescapable nagging thoughts have pestered me like mosquitoes in the dark and I have given up the idea of sleep. What has sent me into a cold sweat flicking off the covers, reaching for water and checking the time on the iphone?  The demons have come for me – I’m a fake, a fraud, an imposter.

I’m talking about a crippling anxiety that overwhelms me when I dare to think of myself as a beginning writer.  Why do I think I can write? Why do I even want to write? How much time have I wasted in the last eight years trying to write?  I have no talent that belongs on a page and my aspirations are delusional. Sleep is no longer an option so I rise to my studio in the sky.

In my attic I am safe, the panic subsides – slowly retreating until another day. No-one knows I’m here hunched over a computer at a tiny desk under a dormer window. Nor do they know about my notebooks full of scribblings, my camphor wood chest of research papers and ancient photographs, my shoe-box file of cards (colour coded for characters and dialogue) or the recycled gift box with the lid marked Completed Short Stories. Nor do they know of my dreams and despair as I battle an addiction to writing.

As this misty morning rises over the chimney pots and steep roofed terraces of Paddington I make the decision something has to change. I imagine I open the dormer window like the door to an aviary and free my stories. Like the whistling canaries I kept as a child they will take flight across those rooftops. Some will disappear far away never to be seen again, some will land in the courtyards of my inquisitive neighbours and some will return to the window sill too timid to leave. Like my stories I’m trapped in the attic and it’s time to let me out, expose myself, accept the anxiety and do something with it.    I’m still tittering on the window sill but this blog is the first stage of my flight and as Dennis Palumbo writes I’m turning anxiety into creativity!