Should we be writing about the pandemic?

According to the Washington Post, it was four years post 9/11 before the first major novels about the September 11 attacks began to grace our shelves. A quick look on GoodReads provides a list of over 214 books including Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and Ian McEwan’s Saturday.

Before this of course, there were the non-fiction accounts, the fact-seeking, truth-telling, first-hand accounts of what went wrong, and a handful of sideways mentions, but it was a few years before the novelists had found their story.

Almost two decades later, the world finds itself in the grips again of another singular event, the corona virus pandemic that – at the time of writing – has infected more than ten million people worldwide and killed over half a million. Conversations about whether we should be writing about the pandemic are everywhere.

Interestingly, children’s books about the pandemic have already arrived. Instructional and educational, they include Corona Virus: A Book for Children (illustrated by none other than the Gruffalo’s Axel Scheffler) and The Princess in Black and the Case of the Corona Virus by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale.

There are some novelists who are determined not to write about the pandemic, who see that by not writing about it, might set them apart.

Justine Larbalestier, author of three books and currently living out the pandemic in locked-down New York writes ‘I don’t want to write that book. There will be a million such books. When we come out of this pandemic, will we really want to read books about it?

Debra Purdy Kong also agrees there will be a ‘glut of pandemic stories coming up.

But for others, it’s caution about writing about the pandemic too soon, at least while the pandemic is still in force, while the statistics keep piling on and no one can see an end. As Chris Bohjalian, author of 21 novel writes ‘None of us can really make sense of history as history is occurring.

Oliver Winfree, who writes contemporary stories for children, acknowledges that life as we know it has changed forever, but asks – how much of this we need to include in our writing? ‘Or maybe we just ignore it, and continue to write stories as if life hasn’t changed. Except we’ll be washing our hands more often now…

Anne Tyler, author of 23 novels including The Accidental Tourist and Pulitzer Prize winning Breathing Lessons says ‘I’m very much a believer in letting things get old before we write about them at all.’ She is not exaggerating with her desire to let things sit and develop: she adds that she still doesn’t think there has been a decent book about 9/11, but that perhaps in another twenty years there might be a good one.

So my decision to write a book about the pandemic might be seen as a very unpopular one. Especially since it’s been only six months since the first mention of a novel corona virus and we haven’t yet reached the peak.

It’s extra strange I would write a contemporary novel considering I see myself as a writer of historical fiction. My last two manuscripts are set in the 20th century, one focussing on the years immediately prior to World War 1 and the other spanning the decades between 1960 and 1980.

I have always loved history. Looking back at where we have been and how we got where we are fascinates me. Every book of historical fiction is full of truth and detail and I love nothing more than disappearing down a rabbit hole of research and will spend hours making sure I get the small details correct, from the design of a woman’s underwear in 1913 to what’s on TV late at night in the 1970s.

So why would I choose to write a book set in 2020?

Quite simply, it’s because I see us living through history, and this unique era – at least here in Perth, so isolated and protected from the worst of the devastation – has been so brief. I want to capture it while I can, and what better way to record history than to write about it while it is happening?

My story will not be the pandemic story. There can’t be just one. My experience of COVID-19 here in Perth will be completely foreign to someone living in New York or Italy or even Melbourne. For the children of Spain who were not allowed out of their houses for forty days, my daughters’ time in lockdown, chalking pictures on the footpath and taking the dog on long walks through the suburb, would be unrecognisable. My brief, two-week stint ‘homeschooling’ my kids, would make families in the US, who have had their children home with them for four months (and counting) laugh with the absurdity of it all.

I do not know anyone who has become sick with corona virus, let alone die from it, and for that I am immensely grateful. But it has been a uniquely singular time, with a new soundtrack, and a new language. We wear different clothes and we have different social interactions and expectations. The rules and laws have changed. We are living in a historical era: with a distinct start date, and – one hopes – there will be an end date. By the end of the pandemic, we all will have been changed by it.

But my story is not about the pandemic, just as my story set in 1913-14 is not about the War. It’s a setting, a time and place both unique and instantly recognisable regardless of where you live. I didn’t set out to write a contemporary novel – I had written the plot last year when I was at KSP Writers Centre. But when the virus came for us, I started a diary of some of the small ways the world changed, and saw how the unique circumstances of the pandemic would enhance the story I was tinkering with.

So I say, write about the pandemic if you want. We shouldn’t let others dictate what we write about. Don’t be shamed by the idea there may be a million other books touching on a topic. There will only be one book like yours. It’s not a bandwagon you’re jumping on, but simple adherence to the first rule of writing – the one they slam into your heads the first day you pick up that pen: write what you know.

 

It's a Small World dollhouse image from Kate Hedley Firfax media https://www.watoday.com.au/national/western-australia/remember-it-s-a-small-world-west-perth-its-mastermind-is-still-making-memories-20190410-p51cz5.html

It’s a Small World

I recently finished the first draft of a book set in Perth which spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s. Many iconic locations form the backdrop of the book. How many do you remember?

Growing up in the 1980s, a visit to It’s A Small World in West Perth was always the highlight of my school holidays. I can’t say how many times we visited the Lilliputian world of magic, but the thought of it still brings a smile to my face: a six-foot tall dolls house with over 50 intricately decorated rooms and working lights, the fairy tale scenes the moving trains, the giant concrete frog out the front that greeted you on approach and didn’t always seem to stick to the script.

My memories are of stairs going in all directions, Hogwarts-style, rooms with creaking floorboards crammed with tiny treasures, many behind glass or just tantalisingly out of reach. There were buttons everywhere, to turn on lights or music, to make things move. There seemed to be something new and different every time we visited.

Reaching the shop where you could buy so many of the tiny pieces of furniture and miniaturised groceries and food, was a mixed blessing. You might be lucky to walk out with some tiny new gift to take home, but it also meant your adventure was almost over.

It’s a Small World opened in 1978 and operated for more than two decades, before closing in 2000. During that time, owner Shirley Putnin, who made most of the miniatures herself, saw her diminutive utopia grow from a single room to eventually taking over the entire sprawling house, which is how I remember it.

Increasing rents drove her from West Perth, but Shirley’s retirement was short-lived, and soon after opened a shop called Miniature World in Kardinya, which apparently is still open. I hope to visit soon with my daughters.

What is your favourite memory of It’s a Small World?

It's a Small World dollhouse image from Kate Hedley Firfax media https://www.watoday.com.au/national/western-australia/remember-it-s-a-small-world-west-perth-its-mastermind-is-still-making-memories-20190410-p51cz5.html

One of the 56 rooms from the It’s A Small World dollhouse. Image used with permission, credit Kate Hedley, Fairfax Media

 

UWA Student Protests Stops Traffic

I recently finished the first draft of a book set in Perth which spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s. Many iconic locations form the backdrop of the book. How many do you remember?

In my book, Cordelia and her friends start their degrees at the University of Western Australia in 1965. At the time, the Uni was more than half a century old, having grown from 184 students when it opened its doors in 1913 to 3,800 students in 1962.

As the student population grew, so did the need for off-campus residential halls. St George’s College was the first to open in 1931 and within the next two decades four more colleges had opened. Located directly across the road from the university, the string of residential colleges were often referred to as ‘College Row’ hosting inter-college events and competitions.

Separating the colleges from the main campus was busy Stirling Highway, a multi-lane road which still acts as one of the main thoroughfares between Fremantle, the western suburbs and the Perth CBD.

By the mid-60s, it was estimated the 750 students of College Row made as many as 4,000 crossings every day, and while there were traffic lights, they were for cars only, and not designed to assist pedestrians.

In 1967, a 19 year old student was hit and killed by a car on Stirling Highway as she attempted to cross back to her residence at St Catherine’s College. She was the second student to die in as many years and many others had been injured.

Students began to lobby the authorities for a safe underpass crossing, but no progress had been made when another student was almost killed two years later in 1969. Tired of waiting for formal lobbying to bring results, the students of UWA took a different approach and staged a sit-down protest on the afternoon of Friday 28th March, 1969. Hundreds of bodies created a major roadblock for peak-hour traffic and an even bigger headache for university officials and police. Apparently, some students even brought along shovels and tools and began digging their own tunnel to further hammer home their point.

The subsequent furore and widespread support from both the media and community led to an underpass beneath Stirling Highway being constructed and opened for use by September 1970.

The underpass was built too late to be of any help to the characters in my story, so they had to run the gauntlet of peak hour traffic when heading to the bus stop, but it was an interesting piece of history that deserved to be shared.

Have you ever used the UWA Underpass?

Image of the UWA underpass circa 1975 sourced from https://www.web.uwa.edu.au 

 

The Meckering Earthquake

I recently finished the first draft of a book set in Perth which spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s. Many iconic locations form the backdrop of the book. How many do you remember?

The Meckering quake, on October 14th 1968 may not have been the largest earthquake to hit Western Australia, but it was certainly the most devastating. In less than a minute, the 6.9 quake had all but destroyed the small town of Meckering, damaging the hotel, hall, bank, three churches and 60 of the town’s 75 houses. Roads were split open, railway lines twisted like spaghetti and the steel water pipeline was compressed into itself.

A massive crack opened the earth, a terrifying rupture almost 40 kilometres long, parts of which are still visible today.

The Meckering Fault Line, 1968, aees.org.au

The earthquake was felt across the state, from Geraldton to Albany and neighbouring towns Northam and York suffered damage of their own. Perth, only 130km from the epicentre, experienced shaking and damage and many stories of the day have been shared on the Lost Perth Facebook group.

According to one contributor, on the day of the earthquake, the Junior French oral exams were taking place in the Arts Building at the University of Western Australia. The tea-room was full of staff and examiners taking a break between sessions when the quake hit, prompting cries of ‘tremblement de terre!’ and everyone dashing downstairs to safely.

It was an anecdote too perfect not to share, and so on the day of the Meckering Earthquake my main character Cordelia happens to be sitting in a quiet space in the Arts Building courtyard just as the French examiners come tumbling out of the doors, exclaiming in French.

meckeringPub-Hall_27 aees.org.au

Meckering Public Hall 1968, aees.org.au

The quake not only devastated the town physically, but socially, with 45 families leaving Meckering on the day, never to return. Many more were to follow.

One thing which surprised me when doing research for my book, is discovering that Western Australia is home to one of the largest fault lines in the world, the Darling Fault, an (oxymoronic) monster stretching 1,000 kilometres from Albany to Shark Bay.

Despite its size, the Darling Fault has not experienced a significant event in recorded history. However to the west of the Fault lies the South West Seismic Zone. This area boasts the majority of Australia’s seismic activity, with more than 6,000 recorded earthquakes in the past 50 years, including the horror of the Meckering quake.

In Perth, the impact of the Meckering quake was significant despite the distance. Houses and buildings across the city shook, the Kwinana Freeway cracked, and there was damage to the Physics Building at UWA. The Subiaco pub originally had a spire on top of the corner tower, but damage caused by the quake forced the owners to have the top removed.

Do you have memories of the 1968 Meckering quake?

Thanks to the Australian Earthquake Engineering Society for providing permission to use the images in this article.

EPSON scanner image

Meckering Anglican Church 1968, aees.org.au

 

 

The History of Daylight Saving in WA

I recently finished the first draft of a book set in Perth which spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s. Researching this time frame has brought back many memories – how many do you share?

For anyone who believes daylight saving was invented in the 1980s just to torture children, you may be surprised to learn that the concept of turning the clocks forward to extend the hours of daylight into the evening was first introduced uniformly across Australia during the first World War (1917).

It was used again across the nation during WW2 (1942-1944) but from the 1970s onwards, states have had free reign to decide.

Looking back on my childhood, with the dubious blinkers provided by decades of distance, I thought daylight saving was a constant. I have strong memories of being sent to bed in what seemed like full sunlight, my roller blind always jamming a few inches above ground level, the bright orange sunset bleeding around the edges of my curtains. If you had pressed me, I would have said that we had daylight saving every summer of my childhood during the 1980s, so strong are the memories of fighting with my parents about the unfairness of being sent to bed while the sun was still up.

Naturally, I’d be wrong.

During the research for my book, which is set in Perth during the 1960s to 1980s, I discovered that Western Australia only had daylight saving for two years of my childhood: 1983-84 (when I was six) and 1991-92 (when I was fourteen). There was an enforced trial for three consecutive years from 2006-2009, but by then I had grown up and my bedtime was no longer dictated to me by my mother, but by my newborn daughter.

Perhaps the reason daylight saving is so strong in my memory, although in reality it only directly affected me twice, was because it was constantly being debated in the press and around kitchen tables across the state.

Western Australia has held no less than four referendums on the issue of daylight saving, in 1975, 1984, 1992 and 2009. (As a side note, the only other state referendums carried out by Western Australia were in 1933 which was about seceding from the Commonwealth of Australia, and two separate referendums in 2005 about retail trading hours1.)

The first three referendums were held following a single year trial of daylight saving, and each time the voters returned a vote of ‘no’. Unconvinced West Aussies didn’t want daylight saving, the government then enforced a three year trial from 2006-2009 followed by the fourth and final referendum, which returned the highest ‘no’ vote of all.

The final vote was 54.6% no, 45.3% yes. Interestingly, it showed many of the people living in the coastal and inner suburbs of Perth supported daylight saving, but this was overshadowed by the overwhelming rejection of daylight saving by people living in the eastern suburbs as well as rural and regional areas.

It was decided by the Premier at the time, that the issue would not be raised again for another twenty years2.

sunset-2418090_1280

Sunset over Elizabeth Quay, which actually didn’t exist when I was a child

But even if Western Australia does not participate in daylight saving itself, we are still affected by it every year the Eastern States takes part. Daylight saving in the East increases the time difference between Perth and Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to three hours – sufficient to make it challenging for businesses, confusing when you need to call friends and family, and enough of a difference to wreck your sleep when you travel interstate.

I wasn’t alone in thinking that daylight saving formed a major part of my childhood, a brief straw polls among friends also showed many thought battling with parents about bedtime was a fixture growing up.

Turns out we were just being annoying kids, fighting with parents for the sake of it, and daylight saving had nothing to do with it.

 

Further reading: A recent National Geographic article looking at Daylight Saving in the US and its history around the globe.

 

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Referendums_in_Australia#State_and_territory_referendums
  2. https://web.archive.org/web/20090521204833/http://www.thewest.com.au/default.aspx?MenuID=77&ContentID=142031

Coles Cafeteria in the CBD

I recently finished the first draft of a book set in Perth which spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s. Many iconic locations form the back drop of the book. How many do you remember?

Many a trip to the city in my childhood with my Mum or Grandma ended with lunch at the Coles Cafeteria.

Located upstairs in what is now the Target building in the Hay Street Mall, we would mount the steep and narrow escalator to arrive at the large open cafeteria. It will forever be associated with a time when a trip to the city was considered a treat, usually dressed in our best clothes and on our best behaviour.

With no natural light, it seemed somewhat dark but never gloomy to a child who loved the crinkly chips with gravy, pikelets wrapped tightly under plastic wrap or the ubiquitous green jelly with a chocolate frog and swirl of whipped cream.

The first Coles Café opened in the Melbourne store in 1930, taking up an entire floor of the building and seating more than 1,000 people. Its immediate success meant replicas were soon opened across the country.

Coles Cafeteria Melbourne Glen H flikr

This is actually the Melbourne Coles Cafeteria, but I remember the Perth one looking very similar, even down to the lemon yellow salt and pepper shakers on the table. (Image credit Glen H flikr)

Food was served from long counters around the perimeter of the room, while a great expanse of chairs and tables filled the space in the middle. On arrival, you would collect a tray and slide it down the bench, collecting plates of food from the displays as you went. A glass of icy choc milk from the dispenser was the ultimate treat for us (Mum didn’t like us having the green lime coola).

The Coles Cafeteria in Perth remained open until at least the late 1980s. Apparently you can still see some of the old pink and yellow lino flooring in the back passages of the new Target building, but for most of us, it will simply remain a fond memory of childhood.

What was your favourite treat from the Coles Cafeteria?

Atlantis dolphins in the 1980s

Atlantis – Abandoned Marine Park

I recently finished the first draft of a book set in Perth which spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s. Many iconic locations form the back drop of the book. How many do you remember?

Atlantis Marine Park was built in 1981 as part of an ambitious plan to turn a tiny town at the northern end of Perth’s sprawling metropolis into a standalone satellite city. Established in Two Rocks, 60 km north of Perth, Atlantis became a must-see destination for the people of Perth – for a short while at least.

The image of an enormous carved head of King Neptune smiling down on the park became part of a collective childhood, surrounded by many more limestone sculptures of dolphins, mythical creatures and even celebrity heads (Di and Charles, Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles and more).

Atlantis dolphins in the 1980s

Atlantis dolphins in the 1980s, Julia Leat (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Six months before the park opened, six local bottlenose dolphins were captured and trained to perform together. Images of the dolphins performing in unison and jumping to touch a ball suspended high over the pool, drew crowds in, but ironically it was partially the dolphins’ fault that the park failed.

The birth of three babies and a tightening in regulations meant that the pools built to house the dolphins were too small. The owners were already facing financial issues due to smaller crowds and so the decision was made to close the park in 1990. This often comes as a surprise to many people who grew up in Perth at the time – the fact that Atlantis was only open for 10 years.

Many of the limestone sculptures were transported off site to the Club Capricorn Resort (which itself closed in 2015), while the dolphins began a long rehabilitation project to ready them for a return to the wild. It was only partially successful. Five dolphins were returned to the waters off the coast of Yanchep, to be seen happily frolicking for a number of years. Sadly, one dolphin died and three were unable to be rehabilitated. They were transferred to AQWA (then known as Underwater World) which had opened in 1988 in the Hillarys Marina.

King Neptune from Atlantis Marine Park

KIng Neptune, 2012 Tor Lindstrand (CC BY-SA 2.0)The park itself was left abandoned. It became overgrown and a place for vandals until recently, when a group of volunteers cleaned up the site around King Neptune, where it is now open to curious visitors and dog walkers.