Virus? Don’t make me laugh!

I need a laugh. I mean, really, really need a laugh. Not just a laugh but a belly laugh, a big old tummy shaker. Why? Well, it’s not even two months since the world looked on with sympathy as the bushfires ravaged Australia, and in particular, our villages of the Southern Highlands. Exhausted, we came out of it feeling thankful that we came through it, and grateful for such moral support from around the planet. Now there’s a new calamity to challenge us, but this time, all the world shares the same boat. Actually, we shouldn’t mention boats because our wonderful authorities have just let 3000 cruise ship passengers go their own way untested after disembarking in Sydney. Now they are chasing them down across the country and have so far confirmed 133 cases of the disease. It would be funny if it wasn’t so catastrophic. Nothing to laugh about, right? So what about that laugh?

Toilet paper humour

The current situation has got me to thinking about humour. There’s something about the worst of times that brings out the humour in us. Perhaps it’s a need to relieve the pressure and it’s released by having a good old laugh. Who could forget Monty Python singing, ‘Always look on the bright side of life’? Having a joke is something we need to do during a crisis, and the current one is no exception. There’s been loads of funny memes and one-liners about the virus, a great deal of which have focused on toilet paper, and that really gives me the shits. Sometimes it seems as if the jokes get funnier as the situation grows more serious. What would they have done during the great wars without a sense of humour? Sorry! Don’t mention the war. I think it’s probably essential for our sanity to find laughter in dark times.

Photo by Pexels

There’s plenty to make us giggle these days, but am I the only one who wonders what happened to the belly laugh? We grew up roaring with laughter. As a child, I remember sitting down to watch the Sunday feature film, which was often a comedy. The whole family would settle down to the matinee after a big Sunday roast lunch, and once the dishes had been washed, Mum, Dad and the family would be able to relax and enjoy our favourite comedy stars in glorious black and white. Favourites like Gerry Lewis, Bob Hope and George Formby. Tears would roll, and so would a belly full of lunch. Sometimes we would laugh more at Mum and Dad laughing than we would be watching the movie, just like the virus, laughs are infectious. What a satisfying way it was to relax before the Monday morning blues and the return of the workweek. Wind the clock forward a few years and we had the likes of Peter Sellers and Lucile Ball, hilarious fools to make us weep with joy. In those days, comedy was full of visual content and slapstick seemed essential for a good laugh. We didn’t have to think about it to get the joke, it was there in all its silly simplicity.

Classic John Cleese

As the years rolled by, new stars emerged who could still make us roar. Who could forget classic comedies like John Cleese’s Faulty Towers, or the Airplane movies with the late Leslie Nielson, both finding humour in disasters and chaos and both almost too much to bear they were so funny. I can’t recall how many times I’ve watched the re-runs, but it’s a lot, and still, they make me laugh. There are also segments of movies or television shows that stick in the memory as classic moments of comedy. The zipper scene in Something About Mary, the bear scene in the Great Outdoors, Clark Griswold’s sandwich scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation, all spring to mind.

Can’t help a chuckle when some poor male gets clobbered in the goolies

To be honest, some of yesterday’s humour would not go down well today. What was acceptable then and what is acceptable now are often worlds apart. In the past, comedy was very often generated by poking fun at someone’s expense or someone’s misfortunes. That’s ok when the clowns are mocking themselves but I’m not a huge fan of the numerous videos that show people coming a cropper and hurting themselves. Having said that, I think everyone would have to admit that they can’t help a chuckle when some poor male gets clobbered in the goolies. You feel the pain but just can’t help but smile. The German word is schadenfreude. Schaden-harm, freude-joy; it means taking pleasure from someone else’s distress. It’s in our nature apparently. Some scientists say it’s a throw-back to early man, that we, as prey, are happy to stand by and watch in safety when someone else gets caught and eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger, just grateful that it wasn’t us. Go save him? Must be joking!

How about a fit of the giggles? Now that makes me laugh. I remember being invited to a neighbourhood pot-luck supper not long after migrating to Canada. The idea was that everyone would take a main dish and a dessert dish to the gathering. Being English, my dear wife thought it would be nice to make an English trifle for dessert. On arriving at the venue, we introduced ourselves, handed our dishes to a lovely lady at the door and took our seats at a long banquet table, new faces all round, so we were a bit shy and self-conscious. The call went out to help ourselves and everyone got up and formed an orderly line, taking a little of everything from the varied dishes spread out on the buffet. On returning to our seats, we looked down the table with horror, everyone had taken a scoop of trifle and dolloped it onto their roasts, cabbage rolls and potatoes. Being newcomers and a little wary, we didn’t speak up to say that our dessert had ended up on the wrong table, but watched in silent embarrassment as our new friends tucked into roast beef, gravy and custard with strawberries and cream. That’s when the giggles started. And, of course, the more we tried to stifle the chuckles, the more they increased, until we were crying, choking on our food and dribbling gravy through our nostrils while trying to suppress the laughter. Undoubtedly, our new neighbours thought we were idiots and we were never invited back again, but the story lives on and makes us smile all these years later. Sorry, lovely neighbours.

Comedy has changed since the days of my youth. It’s supposed to be more sophisticated, subtle and clever, but it never really gets my juices flowing to the point where I lose all self-composure. It makes me titter rather than break out in hysterics. Don’t get me wrong, I like modern humour, but as far as therapeutic release is concerned, there’s no substitute for the slapstick of old. Maybe our capacity to laugh hard has diminished as life has become more stressful. Too much on our minds to let go and have a good laugh, we run from here to there and don’t stop to have a good giggle. But it seems to me that it’s in times of stress that we need laughter most. Having a good laugh promotes hormones and triggers the release of endorphins. Similarly, tears will do the same. They release hormones that make us feel better. So it makes complete sense to laugh until we cry. Double the benefits, right? I’m going to do my best to find a belly laugh and share it. Let’s all take some time to find some, after all, time is something we’re going to have a lot of for a while. Pick out a funny video, a movie or television classic and give ourselves permission to let the belly roll and with it the tears. Play a game of nude Twister; get one of the kids to pull your finger and fart; there has to be a good chuckle somewhere. God knows we could do with a laugh. Just make sure to laugh into your elbow.

Photo by Caroline Hernandez

God knows we could do with a laugh

Great reviews for Black Bones, Red Earth

I’m delighted to see some great reviews for Black Bones, Red Earth from various sources. It’s always good to get some feedback from readers. I’m told there’s been a massive discrepency in delivery times. Some readers have the book within days of order, others it seems they had to wait weeks. I’m sorry for any delays. I assume it’s due to the current situation and working conditions for the printers and delivery couriers. Please be patient if you haven’t received your copy yet.

A Novel View of the World

This has been a big month for me as my new novel, Black Bones, Red Earth, finally goes live and is available through bookstores and online worldwide. The book comes in three formats: hardcover, paperback and e-book. Personally, I like to read from a printed copy and it’s nice to get the real thing in my hands after so long working on it; the hardcover looks particularly great. I’ve already received some fantastic advance reviews from NetGalley, Readers’ Favorite, and Goodreads. Hopefully they’ll spread the word and the momentum will grow. Don’t forget to give me some feedback if you get the chance to read it. Good, bad or indifferent, I’d like to hear from you.

Photo by Lubos Houska

With the buzz around the book launch, I’m already getting asked: what’s next? I had thought I would give it a bit of a rest; writing a novel is one of those activities that occupies your thoughts day and night until finished. I could do with a distraction that does not consume me 24/7. Having said that, I do have a couple of things started, like the sequel to Alexander Bottom and there’s a couple of thrillers already on the go. To be honest, the ideas come so thick and fast that I would have to live to a ripe old age to get them all down and develop them. I might try some short stories for a change but it’s hard to control just how far a story will take you once it’s started. They take on a life of their own and there’s no stopping it once it’s started. I’d probably end up with War and Peace anyway.

Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.

Franz Kafka

Another question often asked is: what makes you want to write? This is harder to explain. What makes anyone want to write? It’s a tough slog and for the most part a lone pursuit. I think maybe it’s the need to write rather than the want. Not even that. It’s a need to express yourself. It doesn’t have to be writing novels; it could be painting, sculpting, writing music or any creative activity that allows you to relate your feelings. We often describe certain people as creative types. We say it’s in the genes and runs in families. How often do you hear that someone “gets it from their father or mother”? There may be some truth in that. My mum loved to write and she did so beautifully. My brother is an incredibly talented musician and songwriter, as are my sons. My sister is a successful artist and paints wonderful miniatures from her little bedroom studio in the Lake District. And the same could be said for nieces, nephews and grandchildren, there’s plenty of creative talent within the family.

Mum loved to write

I do believe the world is filled with creative people. I know so many personally that I’m sure it’s just a basic human trait. While there may be an artist in everyone, sadly it’s often lost when childhood dreams are set aside for the real world. But for those who feel compelled to pursue their art throughout life, it’s just not possible to set it aside for long. Ask any of them why they do it and they’ll more than likely tell you it’s just something they feel the need to do.

Photo by Gerd Altmann

I’ve written and painted and had the urge to be creative all my life. I once dreamed of a career as an artist but life took over and my career path went in a very different direction. As most of us know, when mouths are to be fed, we do what we have to and it’s not always possible to follow the path we intended to tread. Having said that, the creative mind doesn’t stop just because you can’t find the time to express yourself. It keeps churning out ideas and locking them away for a chance to get back to them when time is available. There’s an upside of course, life’s reality, hard lessons and dramas provide a treasure trove of ideas and experiences to share when we do get the time, that’s particularly for a writer.

Photo by Bodobe

I find that creative people tend to be more open to ideas and are always ready to explore possibilities. They look for details rather than broad views, see things from other peoples’ perspective and feel a lot of empathy when they listen to others speak. They see the world from all angles, which helps a writer, as it allows them to take different points of view, get into characters’ heads and imagine how they would react or feel in any given circumstances.

Photo by Fathromi Ramdlon

There’s something else that drives me personally to want to write or paint and it could be that other creatives feel the same. I believe it’s partially to do with wanting to reveal one’s self, wanting people to know and understand the real me and doing it through art and writing is the best way I know how. I want to tell of my struggles, my joys and my heartaches. I want to tell my story, even though it may be hidden within the words of a novel, the paint on a canvas or the notes of a melody. Perhaps we all have a basic need to share ourselves with the wider world, to express ourselves through any means available. For me it’s through writing.  

Waifs & Strays

There are pansters and plotters. As a panster, I begin my novels by taking the germ of an idea, a starting point, and just start writing, allowing the story to develop naturally as I go (writing by the seat of my pants). I never quite know where the journey might take me, or what characters I’ll meet along the way. My new novel – Black Bones, Red Earth – started in this way, with just the hint of an interesting tale.

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I never quite know where the journey will take me

The seed from which my new book grew, was, in fact, a part of my mum’s own life story. Mum stunned everyone when well into her eighties, she revealed that she had been brought up in an orphanage, a secret she had kept for over 80 years. Apparently, my maternal grandmother had died of TB when Mum was just four years old. Mum and her sisters, aged two and seven, were sent away to an orphanage on the Cumbria coast, by my grandfather. He was serving in the army at the time, and it just wasn’t done for men to raise little girls. This was the thinking at the time.

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Mum (right) and her sisters, little orphans

It’s hard to imagine how traumatic it must have been for the three little ones to be uprooted, packed away after only just losing their mother, thinking their father didn’t want them anymore, and finding themselves amongst strangers. The orphanage in Whitehaven was run by the Waifs and Strays Society, later to become the Church of England Children’s Society.

But why had my mum hidden her past for so many years, and why had she invented a different childhood that omitted the orphanage altogether? She told us that she had been too ashamed to tell the truth. The stigma of being an orphan in a small English town had been difficult to bear, especially during school years, when children at the local school would make fun of the orphan kids who lived in the home for strays. I can only guess at the cruel taunts from those children. But Mum was a fighter, and she quickly learned to look after herself and her sisters.

Ashamed of being an orphan

Mum survived her time in the strict establishment, where children rose between three and four in the morning to begin chores before school. The home’s overriding mission was to prepare children for employment, and so they were put to work with a lengthy list of daily duties. Mum said she was never mistreated, but that life was hard for the little girls in care. On her thirteenth birthday, Mum had to leave the home and was sent into service, shipped off in the goods department on a train to the coastal town of Hythe in Kent. “I had a name tag hanging around my neck, like a piece of baggage,” Mum told us. There she became the parlour maid for a doctor and his family, and was again singled out as ‘the orphan kid’. Mum vowed from then on that no one would ever know about her past. She joined the army when she was eighteen, her father’s regiment, the Green Howards, and served throughout the Second World War. Mum said she made peace with her father, but I’m not sure she ever forgave him.

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Irene Lee (Mum) 1918 – 2015

Mum’s revelation explained a lot about her character. At five-foot-one, she was as tough as they come. She took no-nonsense and would stand up for, and to, anyone. It also explained why she was so passionate about kids who needed help, working tirelessly for many years raising funds for children’s causes, especially the Church of England Children’s Society, and overseas charities, all while raising five kids of her own.

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British child migrants, courtesy Molong Historical Society

The idea for my book started with an English woman, like Mum, in the twilight of her years, her secret orphaned childhood revealed. That’s about where the similarities end, but it set me on a path that eventually led me to explore the traumas of child migrants, orphaned children shipped to Australia after the war. During this line of research, I also discovered the hardships suffered, under the name of child protection, by Aboriginal children – The Stolen Generation – who were separated from their families and placed in mission homes. These two stories came together to form the backbone of my novel.

Black Bones, Red Earth, is in the final stages of editing and should be released before Christmas.

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A Special Kind Of Lady

When Gundungurra Aboriginal Elder, Aunty Val Mulcahy, describes her life growing up on a mission reserve, she’s not complaining, she’s merely telling it how it was. And neither will you find her feeling sorry for herself; she’s a fiercely independent and proud Australian woman.

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Velma (Aunty Val) Mulcahy at the Order of Australia Awards

I first met Aunty Val after seeking help with the cultural aspects of my new novel, Black Bones, Red Earth. Set in 1950s rural Australia, the story follows the life of Katherine, an English child migrant and her relationships with Aboriginal station hands. I never intended this novel to be about black Australia; it is, after all, the story of an English orphan. But I soon found similarities between Katherine’s story and those of the Aboriginal stolen generation, and that led me to learn more. As the writing progressed and characters emerged, I found it impossible to overlook the hardships suffered by Aboriginals as a result of government policies. As a result, the novel delves into a traumatic period in the lives of First Australians who were taken from their families and separated from their ancestral homes by British and Australian governments.

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Aunty Val (right) with family at La Perouse mission

Eighty-four-year-old Aunty Val was born and raised under protection law on the Aboriginal mission at La Perouse, south of Sydney. After being taken to live on the mission, the Protection Board separated Aunty Val’s mother, Ida, and her children from her husband, Reg. He was arrested and beaten every time he tried to see his family. Val saw her brother ejected from the mission when he reached 18 years of age. Life on the mission was difficult, and racial prejudice rampant when the residents strayed beyond the reserve.

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La Perouse mission reserve south of Sydney

‘We had different rules to white Australians,’ Aunty Val told me. ‘We didn’t have freedom of movement. We didn’t have a vote. We weren’t allowed to go to see a doctor or go to the hospital until Thursday. If you were very sick and it wasn’t Thursday, you died.’

If you were sick and it wasn’t Thursday, you died

Aunty Val says that babies died in numbers on the reserve because of gastroenteritis. ‘Women were not allowed to breast-feed on the mission. Instead, they were given bottles of milk to feed their babies. But they didn’t teach them how to sterilise the bottles, so babies got sick and died. Schooling was inadequate. We got to paint pictures, listen to bible stories, and sing hymns. There was no reading or writing, and we were not allowed to talk our own language or talk about traditional ways.’

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Aunty Val’s parents Ida Amatto and Reginald Russell in the 1930s.

Aunty Val had no idea why she and her family had to live on the mission. ‘My mum told me we had to stay because we were special. It was only when I was older that I learned the truth and that we had been forced onto the mission. I was sent out to work when I was thirteen, and that’s when I discovered we were treated differently to white kids. Even at work, we had different rules; we had to give all our wages to the mission, and they gave us sixpence back.’

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An early photo of the La Perouse mission house

Despite coming out of the mission, ill-equipped for the world, Aunty Val vowed to gain a university education. She was fifty years old when she achieved her dream, studying at the University of Sydney for her degree. Aunty Val worked in Aboriginal health and services and is passionate about educating others. ‘Education is the key for our people if they are going to thrive. If you’re not getting children educated, they will always be disadvantaged.’ Aunty Val has seen too many kids coming out of school, unable to read or write. ‘They need jobs, but they don’t stand a chance if they’re not getting educated.’

My mum said I was special

Aunty Val was awarded the Order of Australia for her work in the community, but she says there’s so much more to be done. I asked her if she was bitter about the treatment she and other First Australians have suffered. ‘I’m not bitter,’ she says. ‘but I get angry at governments that refuse to move the country forward. We can’t change the past; what’s done is done. We’re not stupid; we know we can’t turn the clock back. But Australia needs to recognise the truth and admit what happened in the past. This land was not empty when the whitefellas came. It was our country and had been for thousands of years. What happened was an invasion, followed by genocidal attacks on our race, segregation and outright discrimination. The protection laws were brought in to breed out our Aboriginal blood. Until Australian history recognises what really happened, and until we start teaching it in schools, we can’t move on, and our people will continue to suffer. We need a treaty, and we need to be recognised in the constitution. Then, maybe, we can have a chance at reconciliation and start to heal.’

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Having a yarn with Aunty Val at the community centre she helped create

Aunty Val would be the first to say her story is unremarkable; she’ll tell you that every Indigenous Australian has a story to pass on and that there were a lot worse off than her. But after listening to her tales, and learning of her past and her accomplishments, I can say without a doubt that her mother was right, Aunty Val is indeed very special.