This morning I reading two profile pieces which held my attention and moved me profoundly. One was an appreciation of Professor Stephen Hawking, the physicist who died this past week (Cerebral Celebrity, The Australian by Dennis Overbye - paywalled).
The other article was a profile (by Jane Cadzow) of journalist and author Cynthia Banham. Her new book, A Certain Light (which I haven't read), in part details the terrible 2007 plane crash in Indonesia in which she nearly died. More importantly, it details her recovery from severe injuries including the amputation of her legs while she spent three months in a Perth burns unit.
I did not have the opportunity to interview Stephen Hawking. I would like to interview Cynthia, although I'm not sure at the time of me writing whether she's agreeable. I can imagine how difficult it would be to talk about her experiences, so the profile may be the closest I get to her.
What moved me about the stories was a sense of wonder about survival and and an acknowledgement that life doesn't always go the way you want it to.
Earlier this week, I read how Hawking lost his ability to speak more than three decades ago after a tracheotomy. This was related to complications in his condition, motor neurone disease, which he was diagnosed with at the age of 21. He told the BBC that after the operation he had considered committing suicide by not breathing, but he said:
the reflex to breathe was too strong.
Cynthia Banham says in the Sydney Morning Herald profile that she often imagines seeing the two Australians sitting on either side of her, who perished in the crash. They were journalist Morgan Mellish and diplomat Liz O'Neill.
It's like they occupy those places on either side of me permanently now." She keeps in touch with O'Neill's husband and daughter. She often imagines she sees Mellish's face in the street.
And then this about the nature of tragedy.
Actually there is tragedy everywhere you look...you can find it very easily in certain countries overseas but even when you look in your own very privileged country, it is there in every family. Whether it's cancer or mental illness or misfortune of some kind. Losing a child. Whatever. It's everywhere. And actually that's the way life is.
Life as I knew it took a vibrant twist when I left Hong Kong and became a communications student at Mitchell College (Charles Sturt University) in the 1980's. Bathurst was a long way from Hong Kong. At first I kept the curtains in my room firmly shut, because the wide-open field outside my dorm window was too confronting.
Within a few weeks, however, I had friends and that made all the difference to the girl from Hong Kong.
Without a doubt, the most terrifying person at Mitchell was our writing lecturer Peter Temple.
Peering from behind his glasses as if he were gazing out of a window, he had this soft South African accent and a laugh that was more a whinny. Likeable yet fearsome, he was by far the toughest of our lecturers.
Peter Temple used to leave our corrected assignments outside his office. The door was always shut. One day, I arrived to see a student named Tim pick up his assignment. He searched for the mark on the back page of the assignment and then began to shout abuse and kick Peter's door. Clearly, his assignment had failed to impress our writing lecturer.
"You bastard!" Tim cried as his foot pounded the wood, echoing down the hallway.
Suddenly, the door opened. I don't know why, but it had never occurred to me that when Peter's door was closed, he was actually in there.
Tim was taken aback too. He was a tall man, but Peter stepped forward, unafraid.
"Fuck off." Peter said, as if Tim was an annoying fly.
And then the tutor retreated into his room, closing the door behind him.
Years after I left Mitchell College, I started to see Peter's name in the headlines. He quickly rose to become a brilliant crime writer. Many of his books became TV series. I particularly enjoyed The Broken Shore. He was so economical with his descriptions and his stories kept you on the edge. Imagine having to suffer students like me.
It's at this point I have to post some of the pertinent and hilarious comments he wrote on my major writing assignment (on my favourite subject: chocolate) at the end of my first year:
I didn't get a brilliant mark (65% when 55% was a pass, if I remember correctly) but I passed and without that, I wouldn't have moved into Year 2 of my degree.
In 2014, I blogged about the chocolate assignment after reminiscing with my first Mitchell College friend and now crime and romance author Jaye Ford.
A few days after my blog, incredibly, I received an email from Peter Temple.
The subject heading was "chocolate box".
Just when you thought you'd got over it, someone mentions that first assignment ...
I think about it every time I see you on the box.
I was gobsmacked. At the time, apart from presenting my interview show One Plus One, I had embarked on my second book China Baby Love, but wasn't sure I'd make it to the end. This is how I replied.
Great to hear from you Peter.
I’m still a struggling writer, but it’s becoming more important for me to write. I’m not sure why.
Always grateful for the first 65%
All the best, Jane
And then he wrote this drops of magic.
Imagine being remembered only for your face or your voice?
Writing is a puny lunge at immortality.
Nice word, puny. PT
That was our one and only exchange after Mitchell College. I will treasure it. #ValePeterTemple.
The question I get asked most about One Plus One is how do we choose our guests?
We do around forty-four interviews a year. We have a big wish-list and then lots of other fascinating names came forward too, all worthy of attention in their own way which, in our estimation, can hold the television viewer’s attention for 30 minutes. The guests are drawn from a variety of sources selected by producer Barbie Dutter and me.
This week my guest is Indian comedian Vir Das and I was lucky enough to speak to him hours after he stepped of a plane on his first ever visit to Australia. He's on his first international tour, performing in Sydney and Melbourne (May 18 - 27).
In preparation for the interview I watched Vir's hilarious Netflix show Abroad Understanding. I read widely and watched his You Tube channel, where there are some very touching videos. Every year around exam time, he does a video for school-kids. There's a worrying suicide-rate among Indian school-children because of exam pressure.
I was very interested in the movie 31st October based on the anti-Sikh protests after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Via played a serious dramatic role in that art-house film but he’s also a familiar Bollywood actor.
India has always fascinated me. In fact, it was the first country I fell for, even before China. Maybe because I grew up in colonial Hong Kong, I enjoyed books about the English view of colonial life: Heat and Dust, A Passage to India and I particularly enjoyed Sarah Lloyd’s An Indian Attachment (and later Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance).
However, on my first visit to India - when I was nineteen - I was shocked by the poverty. One day my brother and I bought some cakes in Delhi’s Connaught Place. I carried them in a box, suspended in a plastic bag. As we walked around I could feel something hitting my leg, but when I turned around in that tight sea of humanity, I couldn’t see what was knocking me. Something hit me again and this time I looked down. It was a person. A legless person. A legless, handless person whose arms finished near the elbows - in stumps. The person made eye contact with me then pointed to the plastic bag. The one holding the cakes. I handed it over immediately.
Apart from poverty I’d seen in Hong Kong (yes, there was much poverty in the seventies and early eighties) I had not experienced anything like India. And yet I loved it. It was so... alive!
Now the sub-continent is a whole new world from the place I experienced in the 1980’s.
It has 1.3 billion people but still, there are great divisions between the wealthy, the middle-class and those who dwell in slums.
A few hours before Vir arrived for the interview I went to the BBC website to see what was making news in India. Sadly, the main story was about rape and whether Indian doctor would allow a 10 year old rape victim to have an abortion. The 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey still looms large in my mind.
So, mingling in with the research I had done, these were some of the issues playing in my mind when I sat down to interview Vir. He admits he speaks from a perspective of privilege. And I interviewed a comedian for some light relief, right? But my head is still awash with more questions that I need to unravel for myself over the next few days, through books, news, discussion. Vir Das opened a door.
(Photo credits: Vir Das and Jane - Tom Hancock, Sadhu - Jane Hutcheon, Protest - Getty Images)
I took a bunch of old stuff to the Salvo's the other day.
As usual, the store was overflowing. There were bags of old stuff literally spilling out of the shop. One of the volunteers tried to move some of the goods out of the rain which had just started. She looked down at my offering and quick as a flash said:
We don't take encyclopedias.
"No worries," I replied cheerily, lugging the basket of all but one of the 24 volume Mammals of the New Illustrated Animal Kingdom back to the car.
Last week, my Dad was told something similar. Someone came to his house and gave him $40 to take away 20 books. But the book dealer shook his head at the offer of a complete set of 1986 Encyclopedia Britannica's.
The only place for those is in the bin, he said.
For anyone who grew up in the era of printed books, there is something almost sacred about a set of bound books acquired gradually until you have the complete. Books were, quite simply, knowledge.
For people like Olympic Diver Matthew Mitcham, encyclopaedia's were a lifeline.
He told me once that as a kid, he read them on the toilet because it was a silent past-time that wouldn't disturb his Mum, who suffered from chronic fatigue.
It was through reading an encyclopedia that he first heard of 'aversion therapy'. He was ten and thought about boys rather than girls. After that, he kept a rubber band around his wrist and every time he had a gay thought, he snapped the rubber band against his wrist to associate pain with that thought.
Thankfully, aversion therapy didn't work.
And now it seems, neither do encyclopedias.
Mammals Of the New Illustrated Animal Kingdom was published in the fifties and sixties in the United States. There were twenty-four volumes of which I have twenty-three, picked up from a neighbour's front yard (I must add, with permission) during a clean-up. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Something for my daughter for when she got a bit older.
And there's the problem. So much of what we call knowledge, changes. Even to find out about the origin of the Mammals series, I went to Google. When in doubt, ask Google. Google isn't always right, but these days we're prepared to sacrifice accuracy for speed, because it's there at our fingertips. And does anyone really want to search through twenty-four volumes of animal facts? Perhaps a budding vet.
So now I have plenty of old books about animals and there are nice drawings in them too. I cannot bring myself to put them in the recycle bin. So I'm trying to turn them into something; wrapping paper, greetings cards, bookmarks, craft... I'm open to ideas.
Once, ripping up an old book would have seemed like desecration. Now, it's about preservation.
The drawings really would look pretty on cards. You're welcome to take a couple. Go on, how about a few more?
She was a missionary of kids' lit. That's her on the far right of the photo.
From her annual 'Best Books' lists to children's book reviews to her fiery opinions in the New York Herald-Tribune, she turned the library from a NO DOGS OR CHILDREN ALLOWED zone into a haven of enrichment.
She also bought foreign language books and hired a multi-racial, multi-lingual staff.
She toured the libraries of England and France and met some of her idols, including Beatrix Potter. The NYPL now has some original drawings by Beatrix Potter and the original soft toys which inspired A.A. Milne to create Winnie the Pooh.
As a result of her work, libraries around the world introduced similar reforms to open the world of books to small children.
Yet Anne Caroll Moore isn't a total heroine.
She took a strong dislike to the work of journalist and author E.B. White. You can read about that here.
E.B. Whiteis one of my absolute favourite author's. Charlotte's Web is a gem.
Each reading reveals something new. Unlike many books written long ago, the language remains contemporary and the story is plainly beautiful. He also wrote a great little book on grammar that we just called Strunk and White at uni.
But I'm grateful to Anne Caroll Moore for her work. Even today, I always find solace in a library. And the NYPL doesn't disappoint.
(Photo of Anne Carroll Moore is my own, of a photo at the recent NYPL exhibition Why Children's Books Matter)