Category Archives: culture

The Lady Novelist Travels in Time

ttmart (1)Tucked away on West Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, in an area called Echo Park, is a very special little shop. Time travellers, whether planning to visit the distant past or the distant future – or to bounce around between the two – will find anything they need at the Time Travel Mart. Era-appropriate facial hair; jars of nanobots; barbarian repellent; communist soap; viking odorant; robot emotion chips; or tins of mammoth chunks. The Time Travel Mart has it all.

The Mart is a vastly entertaining location, filled with items sourced from toyshops but also made especially for them. No opportunity for a witty time-travel joke is wasted, so you’ll find delightful warnings and notices posted up all over the space, in between the cans of Primordial Soup, candles for the patron saints of time travel (Hawking, Einstein and Mallett), robot milk and leeches.

Of course, like all the best odd, time-travel-related emporiums, the Mart is just a front for another organisation!

In fact, Temployee of the monthhe Time Travel Mart in Echo Park (and its sister store in Mar Vista on Venice Boulevard) are both fantastic little fundraisers and workshop spaces for 826LA, a non-profit literacy organisation, which supports school students from six to eighteen with writing skills.

The Employee of the Month board at the back of the store is full of fake pictures and dates, but the names are real: backers of the Echo Park Time Travel Mart have included JJ Abrams, Judd Aparatow and the late Melissa Mathison.

It’s a wonderfully funny and imaginative way to raise funds for a program to encourage and nurture writing. It’s doubly fabulous that the students taking part in 826LA get their work collected and published in little booklets sold within the store.

swagI picked up Vinyl has Aged Over Time and So Have We, a collection of poems, short stories, film reviews and essays by a 2016 class of students from the tutoring program. It includes the poem from which the title is taken, written by Michelle Garcia, and the entertaining An Era of Decay by Javier Hernandez, set in 2025 in which Superior Clinton has banished the consitution in favour of the Rights of Man, Woman and Child, and got rid of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and the Kardashians while she’s at it.

As if the Time Travel Mart wasn’t delightful enough, the 826 project operates similarly entertaining shopfronts throughout the USA. In Brooklyn, there’s a superhero supplies store; Boston has supplies for Bigfoot hunters; San Francisco can outfit pirates and in Chicago there’s the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Company.

If you’re in Australia and cursing your inability to get to the US to take part in the fun and support literacy, the good news is that you really only have to get as far as Sydney. Martian Embassy is the shopfront supporting the Sydney Story Factory, which runs free creative writing and storytelling workshops for kids aged 7 to 17.

Looks like I have a new shop to check out next time I’m in Sydney!

In the meantime, if you want to support the project, visit the Time Travel Mart’s online shop.

Turning to the light

celebrate-954787_1920“I learned something recently,” my friend Wendy said to me during her visit to Australia. “Some things are just big black piles of shit, and they’re everywhere, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about that, so sometimes you just have to turn your back on it. You have to face the other way. Towards the light.”

We were talking about how much rage we both carry in us, about discrimination and harm in the world, in all its many forms. We’re both prone to shoutiness in this regard. (Actually, we’re as prone to joyful shoutiness as ragey shouting, and I’ll come back to that.)

Wendy is absolutely correct. Many of the things that reduce us to rage and despair and shouting are heaping mounds of stinking, fly-blown ordure. The comment trolls spitting venom online; misogynists making rape threats against women who dare to have a voice; bigots spewing venom about refugees and the queer community. Gunmen full of fear and hate. Hypocritical leaders who condemn the violence while encouraging discrimination through legislation and denial of human rights, thereby creating environments in which hate is allowed to flourish through tacit agreement that these or those human beings are only second class.

Wallowing in the mire

The trouble is (well, one of the troubles is) that too often, we get caught up with those mounds of excrescence. We go and read the comments; we share the awful and cruel things that someone just posted and point at it saying I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS CRETIN SAID THIS THING! We give oxygen to the haters and let everyone know what the haters said and how outraged we are by it.

Basically, we run up to the big smelly turd and look at it from every angle, sniffing in the toxic stinking stinkiness of it, complaining the whole time about how AWFUL it is – and offering other people a whiff of the proof that such ugliness exists in the world.

Shovelling shit

And okay, sometimes there’s a good point in paying attention to the pile of poo. Sometimes, knowing that it’s there, it’s possible to pick up a shovel and start mucking out that particular stall.

It’s good and right to fight against this stuff stinking up the world. To lobby politicians to change the law, to add your body and your voice to the protest marches and the gatherings in support of vulnerable people – often those buried under that awful shit. That kind of presence and activity is incredibly important. Representation is important.  Whether you’re fighting for your own rights, or are an ally of those struggling for them, it’s good to be seen to be out there. Refusing to be silent is powerful.

It’s true, too, that some people siding with the stink piles simply lack information. Maybe they’ve never been challenged. Maybe nobody has ever gone through the issue with them. They’ve been surrounded by the stink so long they don’t know it’s possible to live in fresh air. So sure – engage with them if you believe you can win an ally from it. If there are people who are willing to listen, be willing to talk, to converse – not to browbeat but to share ideas that may be new to them. That’s a noble undertaking too.

Cutting off the air

But sometimes, paying attention to the haters is just lavishing attention on garbage. When we acknowledge what they say by paying attention to it at all, we’re giving oxygen to outdated and vile viewpoints. We’re feeding the trolls.

And it’s exhausting. It’s disheartening at best, soul-crushing at worst, to expend energy on arguing against people who have no logic to stand on in the first place. They won’t be turned into allies. They’ll just enjoy watching your blood pressure rise, and the fury in your eyes turn to despair and hopelessness at the awfulness of the world.

Sometimes, I think we’re at risk of making those smelly mounds of ignorance, fear, hatred and viciousness bigger and more important than they should be.

Sometimes we should note that there’s a stink and instead of sticking our faces close to inhale it deep and then rage about the stench, we should turn our backs to it and face the other way. Maybe they’re only heard because of the shouty rage that is spreading word of the awful thing they said. Deprive them of oxygen and attention. Turn away.

But don’t turn off.

Don’t shout down – lift up

If you can turn your back on the smelly, time-consuming, attention-demanding turds, you’ll see other things. Not necessarily sparkly rainbows and ponies. Brightness is in the world too, of course, but that’s not what you look for.

What you look for is those who, like you, are half broken by the awfulness of that shit that’s everywhere in life. Look for anyone who needs the air that got taken up by the stink you’ve turned your back on, and give the air to them instead.

Raise your shouty voice to say: I belong here too! Raise it to say: I deserve my space and I’m taking it back!

Raise your shouty voice to say: I hear you! I’m your ally – how can I help? I will fight for your rights too, because human rights are everybody’s business.

Spend your energies on listening and learning. Get behind projects and ideas and voices that counter the vile stenches, and lift them up.

Shovel the shit away when you can; but don’t roll around in it. Don’t stick your face in the fumes and make your eyes water with it. Don’t try to shout down the ugly voices who just love to shout back and never learn a damned thing, because they revel in the pain they cause.

Use your passionate voice to lift others who need lifting. Use whatever you have to encourage, affirm, support, and give and give and give to those who need encouragement, affirmation, and support. Help the ones who need lifting to be heard and seen above the miasma of the stink-makers.

Shouting joyfully

Wendy and I have taken to reminding each other of this choice we’re making. When we’re full of rage and distress and despair that there’s so much hate, we remind each other to turn our backs on it, and to try in whatever way we can to give something to the love, to face the light

To listen and to learn. To steal our oxygen back and breathe it – and sometimes shout it joyfully – into something that grows.


Image: Celestial by johnhain
CC0 Public Domain  

Me and the British Library: A Love Affair

IMG_0477When I went to the UK in 2014, I arranged to spend a week there on my own while husband, Tim, did some travel writing research in Europe. A key activity for that week was to get access to the British Library’s collection.

I duly applied for a Reader’s Pass so I could use the reading rooms. That process could only be completed in the British Library itself, so I set aside a morning and took my paperwork in and walked out a relatively short time later with my reading card.

I proceeded, over that week, to spend six of the happiest hours of my life ever spent in a public building.

I had ordered in advance a bunch of documents on the Frost Fairs that used to take place on the Thames when it froze over. I ordered books on folklore, too, but the frost fair documents? Those?

The British Library gave me booklets published in 1814 that gave an account of the last Frost Fair. It gave me great, weathered scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings from the 18th and 19th centuries about earlier fairs, including much more mundane reports not of the fairs but of the cost to London’s poor who froze and starved and died in those harsh winters.

I was excited and engaged and I wrote pages and pages of notes (in pencil only, in a hardcover notebook used expressly for this purpose) for a planned novel in the Kitty and Cadaver universe.

IMG_1027Naturally, when I returned to London for a three week trip in September 2015, I made sure that I would get more use out of my favourite souvenir. I ordered a whole lot more books in advance – more on frost fairs and folklore for the Kitty book; a chunk of stuff on 13th century London for the same series; a bunch of things on Victorian life, clothing and steamships for The Adventure of the Colonial Boy, due out next year. Of my 21 days in London this year, I spent part or all of six of them at the library.

There is something incredibly thrilling about getting your hands on a primary source document. There’s a gleeful joy in being allowed to see a 200 year old book, to touch it and turn its pages. There’s a kind of awed reverence in wondering how many hands touched these pages before me, how many minds have read what I’m reading, and in wondering what each person may have felt or thought or concluded from the text, given their own lives and times.

There are also surprises to be found – like the essays from 1891’s Ocean Steamships reading almost like a post from a modern travel blog. This extract is from John H Gould’s Ocean Passenger Travel, reviewing the most recent steamship developments:  “On the most unpretentious modern steamship there is room enough in the chamber to put up a small trunk and even other articles of convenience, and one may dress, if he takes reasonable care, without knocking his knuckles and elbows on the wall or the edges of his berth.’

Or these extracts from Travelling Palaces by AA Fletcher (1913).

IMG_0427 IMG_0426

IMG_0473The joys of the British Library go beyond its marvellous collection and the fact that they let you look at it. It’s a wonderful space, outside and in. The atmosphere is studious but also light; grand yet accessible; serious and playful. There are works of art within and without, including a chair that looks like a book weighted down by ball and chain, and a painting of bookshelves that makes your eyes turn inside out until you realised it not just trick 3D effect- it’s actually a sculpture.

The courtyard outside showcases all kinds of art too – it boasts a kind of summer house with surreal art at present.

IMG_0474 IMG_1023


IMG_1025Hell, I’m even so fond of the locker room (you can only take a clear plastic bag of your essential belongings into the reading room, and no pens – though you are allowed now to take photos of the texts for reference.)

Thank you, British Library, for letting me be one of the thousands of people who enjoy your pleasures every day. I’ll see you again soon, I hope.

In the meantime, I am eying off the State Library of Victoria and aim, very soon, to make her my primary mistress for primary sources.

The Lady Novelist and Surprising London

IMG_0515One of the great joys for me being in London is not checking off things from a ‘must-do, must-see’ list: it’s simply wandering around the streets of this great city, preferably in the company of good friends who love this place as much as I do.

Yesterday was one such joyful day. London gave us one of it’s warm, sunny days – blue sky, a little humid but generally perfect for a meander. Fellow Improbable Presser, Wendy, and I met a delightful friend of hers at the National Theatre cafe for breakfast. (Here’s a London secret for you – the NT does a terrific breakfast and the coffee is pretty good). After a long chinwag with Alexina about feminism, rage, swearing and theatre, our friend Sara joined our table. Alexina had to be on her way, but the NT continued to be a happy meeting place and Wendy, Sara and I stayed on.

Eventually, having spent hours in happy, boisterous, passionate, ridiculous and earnest conversation in turn, the three of us left to walk through London.

London, like any great city, is full of the unexpected. Sometimes the surprises are small and subtle. Sometimes they’re grand and gobsmacking. Sometimes they’re just a fabulous melange of what-the-hellery that both puzzles and engages.

Well, that’s how the Dancing Bubble Sherlock Holmes struck us, anyway.

IMG_0492As we left the NT, one of us spotted a familiar figure in travelling coat and deerstalker hat at the embankment by the Thames. We also noticed glistening bubbles floating in profusion through the air. The three of us being enthusiastic Sherlockians, we naturally went closer to find the meaning of this Strange Affair.

We found a rather zen-like Holmes, impassive of expression yet graceful of motion, using a rope contraption to send cascades of bubbles into the air while he danced, a simple, elegant curve of motion. It was like he was trying to be as graceful as those huge rainbow-gilt bubbles he was sending to the sky.

Charmingly, he was surrounded by children, all squealing and running and trying to catch the bubbles. One baby boy smiled and laughed so hard he seemed about to float up into the air himself with the simple joy of it. Dancing Bubble Sherlock was sweet with the kids, making sure he let loose bubbles they could chase, without ever losing that self-contained serenity of his persona.

It was all very strange, and very beautiful, and very perfect.

IMG_0499We eventually dragged ourselves away from that seen of happiness, only to come across a small group of Morris Dancers, jingling away and inciting an audience member to kiss a prostrate dancer, for only the kiss of a virgin would save his life. A volunteer was handily found, and one he was revived, the rest of the troupe came over with a small case of Death, and had to be revived each in turn, so she gave each man a little peck and they jingled to their feet.

As we moved on, we kept encountering more and more Morris Dancers crossing the Millennium Bridge and converging on the embankment in front of the Thames. Some were in almost warlike face paint, though it was hard to feel threatened when they jingled merrily with every step. Of course, that didn’t stop me from hoping they were going to clash in a giant Morris Dancing Rumble, a fight to the finish to see who had the best bells and hankies.

We moved on, however, to cross the Millennium Bridge with the Tate at one end and St Paul’s at the other. But London had tiny wonders yet to reveal, and Wendy pointed down and said, ‘Look at these little pictures! I’ve seen the guy who does them lying on his stomach up here, painting them!’

So down we looked, and there they were, painted between the metal grooves of the bridge, these cartoony little pictures. Scattered all across the bridge – little buildings, odd machines, people, an insouciant frog reclining on the grooves, a yellow cat. Names and dates and bright, bright colours.

And it turns out, they’re all painted on the squished remains of discarded chewing gum by a man named Ben Wilson.

It’s really every bit as strange and wonderful as Dancing Bubble Sherlock or the Morris Dancer Thameside Dance-off.

So it seems that even when you are not that interested in the Changing of the Guard, you’ve already seen Hampton Court and the National Portrait Gallery holds no sway over you – London will give you unexpected history, wonders, strangeness and delight, even when you’re just taking the time to walk her streets and look.

“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn” – a happy ending

babyshoesThere’s a story that does the rounds that Ernest Hemingway once wrote the shortest, saddest story every told, for a $10 bet.

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

I first heard that six word story when Mary Borsellino told of how she had found it so terribly sad that her friend, artist Audrey Fox, decided to subvert the gloominess of it. Since they both enjoyed monster stories, Audrey used that as an inspiration to illustrate the story in a way that gave it a happy ending (a version of which you can see here – Audrey redrew the picture for my blog!).

Of the picture, Audrey says, “I was really just using my imagination and thinking about what else the story could mean that wasn’t ‘sad baby tragedy’.”

That story, and the story of Audrey’s illustration, made it into one of Mary Borsellino‘s Wolf House books, from memory, but I’ve always loved that whole story-in-a-story

Now, the saddest part of this whole thing is that the Hemingway part of it isn’t true. Ernest Hemingway’s writing of the tragic six-word novel is an urban legend.

A very similar story actually dates at least to Hemingway’s own childhood, when a newspaper classifieds section titled Terse Tales of the Town published the item, “For sale, baby carriage, never been used” in 1906. Similarly worded stories popped up again every few years in newspapers.

Whether the bet with Hemingway ever happened (and if it did, whether Hemingway quoted this story deliberately) is unclear – but that version of the story is ascribed to literary agent, Peter Miller, who first told it in 1974 – after Hemingway’s death – and then published it in a 1991 book. It was just the latest in a long line of stories about that story, but it’s the one that stuck.

The idea of writing something so perfectly pithy over lunch is an appealing legend, but the perfection and pithiness of the six word ‘novel’ remains, whatever its origin.

I don’t think it spoils the tale to note that Hemingway didn’t create it. I love the fact that this little notion first popped up in 1906 (if not earlier) and proceeded to grow, little by little, acquiring embellishments as it rolled down the years, until it grew to the story of a dinner party and a bet and a writer of terse words.

Or until it grew to the story of terse words, a sad friend, and an artist who decided to turn the whole thing on its head.

It’s a great reminder that many stories never stop being told, and never stop growing in the telling. It’s a reminder that stories can mean different things to different generations and that sometimes, if you look at an old story in a new way, it can grow into a whole new meaning.

Sometimes with tentacles.

You can find some of Audrey’s art, and other art that she likes, on her Tumblr.


Aussie Culture, According to Film

25118545_sHello all, and welcome to 2015! The end of 2014 was full of non-internety things that made blogging impossible, but I’m back! (You may read that as Schwarzenegger-esque, The Shining-esque or simply as a cheery greeting. You be the judge.)

January is a month where many Australians consider their Australian-ness in some fashion. Australia Day is on 26 January, but that date is viewed as problematic as it also marks the date where Europeans landed in Sydney Cove and proceeded to disposses the existing inhabitants.

A lot of immigrants take up Australian citizenship on that date, too, swearing an oath and receiving a gum tree sapling (and some Vegemite I was wrong) as gifts to welcome them to their new home. The Australian of the Year is usually announced then too. Let’s not forget radio station JJJ announcing the JJJ Hottest 100 songs of the preceding year, which usually heralds a lesser but still vocal controversy about the diversity of acts (or lack thereof) represented in the voting.

Still, one way or another, many citizens of this wide, brown land spend at least a little time this month thinking about our history, our culture and what it means to be Australian.

Of course, it means many different things because ‘Australian’ is a broad label for a huge number of very different people who all happen to be citizens, by birth or by choice, of this giant island in the southern hemisphere. Nevertheless, certain ideas about ourselves as a nation tend to coalesce – though it has to be said that some of those ideas represent values that exist in many other cultures too.

Cultural labels that come to mind, though, are things like ‘laid back’ or ‘the fair go’; ‘mateship’ and ‘larrikinism’. Then we can have a whole other debate on what words like that even mean.

Taking another approach, though – I’ve had conversations from time to time about what films or TV shows I might give to someone who wanted to garner an idea of what it is to be Australian. (As an aside, the first feature film ever made was made in Australia – The Story of the Kelly Gang. Pretty Aussie, that.) My friend, Rod Sherwin, and I were discussing it once more over Christmas drinks and we decided to attempt to compile a list.

So, for what it’s worth, here is a suggested list of depictions of Australia which might give you a hint, whether you are from beyond these shores or if you are a born or naturalised citizen and still trying to work out what the hell it’s all about.


The Castle immediately springs to mind. That feel-good film about the little guy versus bureaucracy; about people who love the lives they live, who celebrate suburbia and each other. A film about mateship and the fair go. It also features Eric Bana in a supporting role before he went off and got buff to play heroes and villains in Hollywood.

Picnic at Hanging Rock remains, after nearly 40 years, haunting and beautiful. It also echoes the European fear and distrust of the Australian outback which is evident from the earliest colonial paintings and epitomised by Frederick McCubbin’s painting Lost. It’s moody and disturbing, but much less terrifying than Wolf Creek, which does nothing to entice visitors to our shores.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – drag queens, road trips across the outback, a bus called Priscilla, and a cock in a frock on a rock. Australia’s not all football jocks, surfers and Crocodile Dundee. Australia is also queer, funny, vulnerable and finds love in unexpected places.

Gallipoli told the story of the failed battle that helped Australia forge an image of itself less than twenty years after Federation and when white Australia still largely regarded itself as essentially British. For some, the blood of Australian and New Zealand troops shed on that Turkish beach “washed away the convict stain”. However you see it, or the war in which it was one failed invasion attempt, it formed the basis of a modern mythology of what it is to be Australian.

Ten Canoes, directed by Rolf de Heer, is funny, moving, enlightening and beautifully shot. It’s also entirely in an indigenous language, Yolgnu Matha, with an English narration supplied by David Gulpilil.

Undead is the zombie film for lovers of horror, Australian-style. Made on the cheap, it’s also drily hilarous and contains one of my favourite movie lines ever. “In my day, children respected their parents. They didn’t eat ’em.” The mix of Australian humour with a trope more associated with American films is a treat.

Strictly Ballroom was Baz Luhrman’s first big film hit and bears his trademark hyper-realistic style. It also, against a backdrop of ballroom dancing, looks a little at migrant experience, the value of blazing your own trail and the cost of abandoning your dreams. The dancing is also fantastic.

Crackerjack is another celebration of suburbia set around a bowls club, with that quirky humour that we so love.

Of course, there are heaps of other Australian films that showcase not only talent but different views of being Australian. Paperback Hero has Hugh Jackman as the sensitive outback guy who writes romance novels under the name of his best friend, laconic tomboy Ruby (Claudia Karvan) and touches on ideas of masculinity, if only briefly. There’s Mad Max and The Cars that Ate Paris and the recent, brilliant The Babadook for Australian takes on SF and horror. Comedies like Malcolm, Cosi and Muriel’s Wedding and musicals like The Sapphires and Bran Nue Day all have something to say about Australian people and culture.


The Code, made in 2014, made Canberra – long disparaged as an ugly, soulless place – well, not beautiful. But intriguing, dangerous, and paranoid. Superbly written, directed and performed, this thriller draws together rural and urban communities and concerns, security, politics and provides a more modern view of Australia than we normally get on our small screen.

Janet King was also a brilliant and gripping legal drama/thriller, with a queer protagonist, terrific writing and motivations for crime that are complex and textured.

Kath and Kim is of course the quintessential Australian suburban comedy. It’s often been said that everyone knows a Kath or a Kim, but no-one will admit to being a Kath or a Kim.

Frontline, a comedy about a 60-Minutes-style news program, is perennially relevant. When it first came out, it altered the way some magazine format ‘news’ shows presented stories, because it so accurately and brilliantly skewered their tricks and habits. It’s probably time for a repeat, to keep the bastards on their toes.

We Can Be Heroes saw Chris Lilley play a wide variety of characters of different genders, ages and even ethnicities. It’s a bit of a minefield, that, but Lilley walked that line well and brought sharp observation and at times heart wrenching poignancy to his portrayals of a group of people all nominated for Australian of the Year.

Outland_S1 dvdOutland gave us a break from the relentlessly ‘realist’ direction style of so many Australian shows (at least until Janet King and The Code showed up), its visual style inspired by British shows like Spaced and The Book Group. It’s ostensibly about a queer SF fan club, but they’re mostly out and proud about their sexuality. It’s their nerdiness that’s mainly in the closet. Modern, funny and clever. And yes, it was co-written by John Richards, who is family, but as I often say – just because I’m biased, it doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Please Like Me was another comedy that was often more of a drama, written by and starring Josh Thomas. Another take on modern Australia and full of young, diverse characters and unexpected moments of heartbreak.

Mr Squiggle perhaps, like Vegemite, defies description. Maybe it’s something you just had to be born to. It’s a kid’s show where a little puppet man with a pencil for a nose comes to Earth in a talking rocket. He is given a series of random lines drawn on a white board that’s propped up on a talking blackboard, and he uses his nose to turn the lines into drawings (often the wrong way up). I don’t know what it says about being Australian, but for many generations it was an essential part of growing up (along with Dr Who, The Goodies and Monkey). Don’t knock it. That’s my childhood there, people!

Australian children’s television has also always been imaginative and clever, and much more likely to use fantasy or science fiction in its storytelling than films and shows made for adults. I used to watch The Girl from Tomorrow on Egyptian TV when I lived in Cairo in the 90s and Heartbreak High managed to get in characters from migrant backgrounds. The Silver Brumby was based on a series of books about wild horses (brumbies) that I ate up with a spoon when I was a child.

So there we go. A sort of ‘Australia 101 on Screen’ if you want to start to get an idea about what Australians are like, in all their diversity.

Naturally I’ll have missed stuff – so feel free to comment with your own recommendations!

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at

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