How to be a jolly good fellow

I’m sitting at my ‘Hot Desk’ at the Wheeler Centre and feeling a little bit guilty for writing a blog post as the reason I applied for this fellowship was so I could exclusively focus on my new YA novel – ‘The Year it All Ended’.

I’ve been coming into the city four days a week to work on the novel which is a huge and convoluted epic set in 1919. It tells the story of four teenage sisters and what happened to them in the wake of WWI. The book is starting to come together, at last, though yesterday I slashed 5,000 words from it and wound up slumping home feeling stuck in the two-steps forward, one step back stage. But despite the odd setback, the Wheeler Centre fellowship has helped me focus my energy on this beast of a book and get it in harness. There are four other ‘fellows’ working on the 4th floor and when everyone is at their desks you get a powerful sense of the energy involved in creating new work.

The Wheeler Centre Fellowship has also given me the chance to spend a lot more time next door in the State Library of Victoria. There are so many fabulous treasures in the SLV, I never get tired of exploring the collection.In 2006, I received a Creative Fellowship from the State Library of Victoria. It made it possible for me to write my novel ‘India Dark’ and deepened my love of the SLV. For me, the SLV is the heart of Melbourne.  Creative Fellows of the SLV receive funding to support a research project plus a dedicated space inside the library where they can work.This year, I’ve been invited to be a member of the committee that will select the 2013 SLV Creative Fellowships. Yesterday, I met with other members of the committee in a meeting room overlooking La Trobe Street. It’s exciting to be continuing my relationship with the SLV in a new way and I’m looking forward to reading the applications from prospective Creative Fellows. There are eight fellowships on offer plus, this year only, four special ‘Dome Centenary Fellowships‘ to mark the 100th anniversary of the beautiful dome of the library.

Creative fellowships are open to Australian residents in any discipline or form of expression. New and digital media artists, visual artists, musicians and composers, writers in all disciplines and subjects, independent scholars and creators working either in collaboration or independently can apply to be jolly SLV fellows. It’s a fantastic opportunity to enrich a creative project by accessing the resources of the State Library of Victoria.

Dome centenary fellowships are open to individuals and community groups.

Applications need to be submitted by 22 March, 2013.

Seven random things about Castlemaine

1. New friends, old friends and rediscovering long lost friends.

Being in Castlemaine was intensely social. Everyone was incredibly friendly and generous – we were treated to lunches, dinners, coffees and drinks all over town. Castlemaine has a rich and diverse local community with a strong appreciation of the arts. But maybe country towns are also inherently more friendly than big cities. 2011 could prove to be a very sociable year on the road, if the past few days are anything to go by.

2. Castlemaine Library and the sad, mangy stuffed koala above the encyclopedias.

I’ll be spending a lot of time in country libraries over the next year. Castlemaine set me off to a good start. The air-conditioning was a godsend and the old koala keeping watch over the readers felt symbolic. I’m working on a book for the National Library of Australia about European responses to Australian animals. The first example of a koala presented to the Governor of NSW was a pair of pickled paws.

3. Walking through the Botanical Gardens at dusk.

I love the old world charm that so many of Australia’s goldfield towns still possess. It’s as if corners of them are frozen in time – Victorian architecture, monuments, grand sweeping boulevards and Avenues of Honour. Thanks to the recent rains the Castlemaine Botanical gardens were lush and green. There’s something both worrying and poignant about the longing and ambition of early European settlers to replicate the old world in the (ancient) new world.

4. The municipal pool as the afternoon heat intensified

Something about walking down to the pool brought back flashes of all the Australian children’s fiction that I read as a kid. It was as if I could hear little snatches from stories by Colin Thiele and Ivan Southall, Hesba Brinsmead and Nan Chauncy. I can’t think that their novels necessarily featured country swiming pools but something about the heat, the crowds of kids splashing in the pool and the smell of an Australian summer conjured their stories.

5. Hosting our first caravan park ‘soiree’

At home, we have a long dining table and a great big friendly kitchen but the Punchmobile isn’t really designed for entertaining. So it was great to discover that a table of cheese, biscuits, olives, and home-made pickles can be just as welcoming when the company is good and the conversation lively.

6. The night sky above the caravan park

Caravan parks have their own rituals which I know very little about as yet. Both The Professor and I are really baby-caravanners. His family had a holiday house when he was a kid and my family had too many kids to take on any sort of holiday so we’re both learning about the complicated subculture which is the world of caravan parks. One of the things I was dreading – tramping out into the night to use the communal amenities – has turned out to be actually kind of fun. There’s nothing nicer than staring up at the stars with your toothbrush in hand.

7. Mr Punch at the Castlemaine Art Gallery

Best until last. The Professor did four performances at the Castlemaine Art Gallery. I went to three of them. I never seem to tire of watching Mr Punch. Every show is different. Every audience’s response is unique. Whether it’s a small boy who can’t stop shouting ‘sausages, sausages, not squashages’ at Mr Punch; a little girl in a pink dress with a chubby face full of wonder; or the delighted old lady stroking Toby the Dog, for me, watching the audience is part of the fun.

So much contemporary entertainment involves audiences sitting passively, soaking up culture without response, that Punch and Judy takes people by surprise. Mr Punch encourages kids to talk back. He argues with them, shocks them and astonishes them. The beautiful aesthetics of the gallery provided a perfect backdrop for his brazen craziness.

Storybook Melbourne Meme


Penni Russon of Eglantine’s Cake has tagged the world and asked bloggers to do her meme “At least five (almost) free things to do in your home town”. Only problem is that she’s already listed some of my favourite freebies in my hometown, Melbourne . But I decided to bite the bullet anyway and take the challenge. I figured I’d do a version that explores Melbourne and my personal obsession; books. So here’s my bookish Melbourne Meme:

1. The State Library of Victoria is definitely the funkiest place in town to hang out for serious readers. And it’s free. There’s exhibitions to gawk at and millions of books to read. An afternoon in the La Trobe (domed) Reading Room is my idea of fun. It’s also a great place to take kids – especially bookish primary aged readers. When my youngest son, Elwyn, was in need of respite from a heavy week of school I’d take him into the SLV and he’d help me with my research. He loved sifting through the piles of old books I’d order up, checking out the weird illustrations or chasing up books on the catalogue. Some of the best learning experiences you can give a kid can happen in a place like the State Library. I figure when I’m too old to do anything useful, I’ll spend my afternoons in a comfy chair in the SLV, reading my way through all those great books that are on my list of ‘must read one day’. It’s in Swanston Street, right opposite Melbourne Central. Why don’t they call the metro station ‘Library’? Much more alluring. I’d get off the train for a library any time.

2. If you’re still in the mood for browsing after a few hours at the SLV, you can skip around the corner to the Caroline Chisholm Library in Mitchell House, Level 3, 358 Lonsdale Street, (cnr of Elizabeth Street, opposite St Francis’ Church). It’s a fascinating place to hang out if you’re feeling philosophical. It’s actually a private Catholic library that specialises in (mostly Christian) theological and reference texts. Although you have to be a member to borrow books, browsing is free. And there are seriously amazing books on the open shelves including beautiful rare books from the 19th century, residue from when it was founded by the Irish Catholic community. There are heaps of books on the history of the Irish in Australia too. Hibernica, patristics, hagiography, spirituality and mysticism are all subjects that this library specialises in. Whoa – weighty words!

3. You probably need some fresh air by this stage. So with your head full of strange images of Irish mysticism, you can wander along Elizabeth Street and turn left into Collins Street. Just past the Melbourne Town Hall you’ll discover the Athenaeum Theatre. If you climb the red-carpeted stairs to the first floor you’ll discover the Melbourne Athenaeum Library. Like the Caroline Chisholm Library, you have to be a member to take books home but if you’re in the mood for a dose of popular fiction, the shelves are crowded with literature worth a leisurely browse. I love the atmosphere in here. It’s worn, and perhaps a little daggy but the books and staff and the patrons all love books so passionately you know you are in great company. And you can often pick up ex-library copies of racy fiction for a few coins. An iconic Melbourne book-lovers refuge.

4. Haven’t had enough? There are still more free books to be perused. When you leave the Anthenaeum turn left into Swanston Street and walk down to Flinders Lane. Turn right and wander down this fantastic and magical lane – only half a block to reach Melbourne City Library
– a free library where you can sign up for membership. Though I mostly prefer to just poke around on the shelves as I already have too many library memberships to keep track of. When you’ve finished browsing and checking out the artwork in the gallery, you can grab a coffee at Journal bracing yourself for the your next bookish adventure.

5. When you exit Journal, turn left and wander down Flinders Lane to Elizabeth Street where you should then turn left again. Wander down toward Flinders Street Station, keeping your eyes peeled for City Basement Books. When my kids were little, we used to make special trips into the city to tour the second hand bookshops that lined Flinders Lane and surrounds. A lot of them have moved on but City Basement Books has endured. For years, my kids have bought fantastic birthday presents for each other from this shop. Some of my favourite books – especially my collection of Australian theatre history books – were sourced from Basement Books. You may have to part with some coins here – you won’t be able to resist with so many books at bargain prices – but it’s the sort of shop where you really do need to browse. It’s nooks and crannies are jammed full of obscure, forgotten books that are waiting for you, the passionate reader, to discover them. I have bought hundreds of books from City Basement Books but as often as not, my visits involve nothing more than browsing, checking out what new treasures are lurking on the shelves and contemplating my next visit where I may make them my own or rue the fact that I missed my chance of owning them by not parting with the cash on the day I first found them.

5. Best for last. I probably should have put this as the third destination as you’re going to have to walk back down Flinders Lane, retracing your steps, to find Collected Works bookshop. It’s on the first floor of the Nicholas Building on the corner of Swanston Street and Flinders Lane. Climb the stairs or take the fantastic old art deco lifts and you’ll discover this magical bookshop located right next to the Victorian Writers’ Centre, a stone’s throw from the funky Retro Star second-hand clothes emporium. Collected Works has a long history that is deeply connected to the Melbourne book trade. When you push aside the beaded curtain at the door you’ll find a haven for poets and any writer who simply loves words. Kris Hemensley is the guardian of this intimate oasis. You can read the Collected Works blog here but nothing matches the pleasure of a visit. I love browsing its shelves, discovering the work of writers that you will never have access to in mainstream bookshops. Anyone interested in books and writing has to visit this bookshop at least once and when you do, you must spend a long time looking. Sometimes the most precious book, the one that really changes your life, isn’t sitting front out in Borders or Angus and Robertson but it could be tucked away in a corner of Collected Works. It probably is sitting there, waiting for you. Oh, just writing this makes me want to catch the next train into the city and spend the morning at Collected Works.

I could wax lyrical about Melbourne and books for hours and hours but maybe five items are enough for one blog.

Kirsty is an Australian author of books for children and young adults.

“Every adult was once a child and the child inside them never completely disappears.”

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