Miscellaneous Memoranda

Look what I received yesterday!

'The FitzOsbornes at War' North American ARC

It’s the North American ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy) of The FitzOsbornes at War and it’s even bigger than the Australian edition, at a very hefty 554 pages. If you dropped one of these books on your foot, you could do yourself some serious damage. I should point out that the North American edition has more pages because the typeset is bigger, not because it contains more words. Although it does have one extra feature – a FitzOsborne family tree, dated 1955, so you can see the next generation of FitzOsborne cousins. Anyway, now I am busy proofreading all the pages.

Someone has also created a book trailer for A Brief History of Montmaray. It is excellently done, although the sea monster does look a bit like a whale. (But then, sea monsters are very sneaky and are Masters of Disguise. People sailing through the Bay of Biscay will be innocently strolling about on the deck of their ship and say, ‘Oh, look, is that a whaAARRGGHH!’ And that’s the last you ever see or hear of them.) I was also very impressed that the book trailer’s creator carefully cited every image used in the trailer. Well done.

Congratulations to all the Australian authors whose books were recognised in the Children’s Book Council Awards last week. Congratulations also to the New South Wales government, which, after a review, decided to continue the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. The awards will be presented in November this year at the State Library, rather than during the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May, as they have been in previous years. No congratulations to the new Queensland government, who decided, without a review, to cancel the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. It’s the National Year of Reading everywhere in Australia except in Queensland, it seems.

Back in Sydney, the Museum of Sydney is running a Home Front: Wartime Sydney 1939-1945 exhibition from 31st March to 9th September. There will also be various ‘Life on the Homefront’ events, including ‘Dig for Victory’ kitchen garden tours, children’s activities and a ‘Victory in Europe’ GI dance on the VE Day anniversary.

The Sydney Writers’ Festival programme is also out, with lots of interest for all readers, including those who like historical and young adult books.

And I’m still blogging at Inside a Dog and will be giving away a Montmaray book at the end of the month, so come over and say hello.

Keep Calm, Barnes and Aunt Charlotte

Barnes, long-time companion to Aunt Charlotte, doesn’t really need a poster to remind her to keep calm, but here’s one anyway:

'Keep calm and have a nice cup of tea' poster

Meanwhile, Aunt Charlotte is Not Amused by those little men in the government who think they run the country. Bolsheviks, the lot of them. In her day, they knew their proper place . . .

'Don't Tell Me What To Do!' poster

In Royal Blue, of course.

And that’s it for Keeping Calm this week. I couldn’t think of a poster for Simon – he’s a bit too enigmatic to sum up in half a dozen words – but if anyone has any ideas, leave a comment below and I’ll make one for him.

More Keep Calm posters:
1. Keep Calm, Sophie, Veronica and Toby
2. Keep Calm, Julia and Rupert
3. Keep Calm, Daniel and the Colonel
4. Keep Calm, Carlos and Henry
5. Keep Calm, Barnes and Aunt Charlotte

(If you’ve dropped in here and were wondering what this is all about, these people are characters in my new book, The FitzOsbornes at War, which is set in England during the Second World War.)

Keep Calm, Carlos and Henry

Carlos and Henry may be, respectively, a dog and a young girl, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t desperate to do their bit to defeat the enemy. They deserve posters just as much as the other FitzOsbornes, so here they are, thanks to Keep Calm-O-Matic.

First, Carlos the Portuguese water dog:

'Get Mad and Bite Nazis' poster

(He’s already had some experience at biting Nazis.)

Next, Henry. Actually, keeping calm isn’t really her thing:

'Run Wild and Make Lots of Noise' poster

More Keep Calm posters:
1. Keep Calm, Sophie, Veronica and Toby
2. Keep Calm, Julia and Rupert
3. Keep Calm, Daniel and the Colonel
4. Keep Calm, Carlos and Henry
5. Keep Calm, Barnes and Aunt Charlotte

Tomorrow: Barnes and Aunt Charlotte

Keep Calm, Daniel and the Colonel

More posters for friends of the FitzOsbornes, thanks to Keep Calm-O-Matic. First, Daniel, who may or may not be Veronica’s boyfriend:

'Keep Calm and Read Marx' poster

Then the Colonel, who gets a chance to be even more mysterious and secretive than usual during the war:

'Keep Calm and Be Sneaky' poster

More Keep Calm posters:
1. Keep Calm, Sophie, Veronica and Toby
2. Keep Calm, Julia and Rupert
3. Keep Calm, Daniel and the Colonel
4. Keep Calm, Carlos and Henry
5. Keep Calm, Barnes and Aunt Charlotte

Tomorrow: Henry and Carlos

Keep Calm, Julia and Rupert

Following on from yesterday’s personalised FitzOsborne posters, here are some posters for their dear friends, Julia and Rupert.

First, Julia, Belgravia socialite and wife of the Viscount Whittingham:

'Keep Calm and Stay Chic' poster

Julia can share that poster with her equally glamorous friend, Daphne, who has a larger role in The FitzOsbornes at War than in the previous books.

Then there’s Rupert, friend to all animals in distress, but especially furry ones that meow:

'Keep Calm and Care for Cats' poster

More Keep Calm posters:
1. Keep Calm, Sophie, Veronica and Toby
2. Keep Calm, Julia and Rupert
3. Keep Calm, Daniel and the Colonel
4. Keep Calm, Carlos and Henry
5. Keep Calm, Barnes and Aunt Charlotte

Tomorrow: Daniel and the Colonel

Keep Calm, FitzOsbornes

During the Second World War, the British government was very concerned about keeping up the morale of its poor, beleaguered citizens, so the Ministry of Information produced a number of posters, including this one:

'Keep Calm and Carry On' poster

More than two million copies were printed, but the plan was that they’d only be distributed if Britain was invaded. This didn’t happen (thankfully), so most of the posters were destroyed at the end of the war. However, one was discovered by Stuart and Mary Manley at Barter Books, who displayed a copy in their shop and then began making copies to sell. You can now buy ‘Keep Calm’ postcards, key rings, mugs, tea towels, mouse mats . . . or even design your own personalised ‘Keep Calm’ poster using the handy Keep Calm-o-Matic website.

I decided the FitzOsbornes and their friends deserved their very own posters, so here they are, thanks to Keep Calm-O-Matic. First, Sophie:

'Keep Calm and Update Your Diary' poster

Well, she does tend to neglect her journal when her life gets busy.

Next, Veronica:
'Keep Calm and Fight the Patriarchy' poster

In Suffragette Purple, of course.

Then there’s Toby, who enlisted in the Royal Air Force at the end of The FitzOsbornes in Exile:

'Keep Calm and Fly Fast' poster

Or possibly, knowing Toby:

'Keep Calm and Get Drunk A Lot' poster

More Keep Calm posters:
1. Keep Calm, Sophie, Veronica and Toby
2. Keep Calm, Julia and Rupert
3. Keep Calm, Daniel and the Colonel
4. Keep Calm, Carlos and Henry
5. Keep Calm, Barnes and Aunt Charlotte

Tomorrow: Julia and Rupert keep calm

‘Dated’ Books, Part Five: Emil and the Detectives

‘Dated’ doesn’t have to mean ‘painful to read’ – sometimes it can mean ‘charming and sweet and nostalgic’. Emil and the Detectives, written by Erich Kästner in 1929, is an example of a children’s adventure story that is old-fashioned in the best sense of the word. Young Emil (age unknown, but he seems to be about ten or eleven) encounters a suspicious bowler-hatted man during a journey to Berlin. While Emil is asleep in the train carriage, the man steals a large sum of money that Emil is meant to deliver to his grandmother. Emil doesn’t feel he can report it to the police – he’s already afraid that he’s going to be arrested because he chalked a red nose and black moustache on an important statue in his home town. No, Emil must track down the missing money himself in Berlin. It’s a daunting task for a country boy – but luckily he encounters Gustav and his gang of friends, who are eager to be part of the adventure.

'Emil and the Detectives' by Erich KästnerAh, the good old days – when rural mothers sent their young sons off on unaccompanied, four-hour train trips to an unfamiliar city, and city parents allowed their boys to roam the streets of Berlin in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, they were also the days when girls weren’t allowed to have adventures. Emil’s female cousin, Pony, would love to help, but all she can do is bring refreshments to the boy detectives. On the few occasions she gets to speak, she says things like “I wish I could stay! I’d make you some coffee. But I can’t, of course. Nice girls like me have to be in bed in good time” and “I’m just doing the washing up. Women’s work is never done”. I’d love to have seen Pony run down the thief on her bicycle or something. Still, the boys – Gustav with his motor horn, the bespectacled Professor, little Tuesday and the rest – are so full of energy, fun and ingenious plans that the story skips along. It’s also nice to see a boy character who cares for his mother in lots of practical ways and isn’t afraid to discuss this with his new friends (although Emil does threaten to punch anyone who calls him a mummy’s boy).

I do wonder what today’s young readers, accustomed to fast-paced modern adventure stories, would make of a book that begins with Mrs Wirth, the baker’s wife, having her hair shampooed by Emil’s mother. It takes a few chapters before anything remotely suspenseful or adventurous happens, although the action speeds up once Emil reaches Berlin. Young readers may also struggle with some of the dialogue, unless they’re familiar with Enid Blyton. The edition I borrowed from my library was a 1959 English translation (see photograph above – although I must emphasise that Sydney City Library does stock other, more recent, children’s books). Gustav says things like “Cheerio, Emil. Gosh, I’m looking forward to this. It’s going to be smashing!” and the stolen 120 marks is translated into “seven pounds” (which still won’t mean much to young readers). I think a modern translator might have done a better job of conveying the original German text, although I suppose it’s always difficult to translate slang.

The edition I read also included a rather poignant introduction by Walter de la Mare which says, “There is nothing in it that might not happen (in pretty much the same way as it does happen in the book) in London or Manchester or Glasgow tomorrow afternoon.” This may have been true when he wrote it in 1931, but it certainly wasn’t ten years later. By that time, Britain and Germany were at war; the cities of Berlin, London, Manchester and Glasgow were being bombed; and young Emil and his friends were of age and probably conscripted into the Nazi war machine. Meanwhile, the author, a pacifist, had been interrogated by the Gestapo and had his books burnt by the Nazis. His home in Berlin was destroyed by bombs, but he survived the war to write more books for children and adults, including an autobiography called When I Was A Little Boy. Emil and the Detectives was made into several films, the most recent in 2001 (in which, apparently, Pony had a bigger role to play, hooray!).

Thank you, Alex, for drawing my attention to this book in one of your comments a few months ago. I think I might have read it as a child, but I had forgotten almost everything about it, so I thoroughly enjoyed all the plot twists and jokes.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

Broccoli: It’s Good For You!

Is it possible to learn about history through fiction? Or should historical facts only be acquired via proper, serious non-fiction books which have footnotes and sepia photographs and extensive bibliographies? Christchurch City Libraries Blog has a thoughtful post about the issue, inspired partly by The FitzOsbornes in Exile. The blogger notes that I have sneakily inserted quite a few historical facts into the novel:

Broccoli! It's good for you! Even though it isn't quite as delicious as chocolate!
“A bit like parents who sneak broccoli into chocolate cake, the Montmaray books are full of historical detail, actual real stuff that happened. I am learning, not only about things like the War of the Stray Dog, but also the Spanish Civil War, British court etiquette, and the often murky political allegiances of upper-class English people between the wars.”

This is all quite true. I confess. I love broccoli, in both its literal and metaphorical forms. The FitzOsbornes in Exile is stuffed so full of broccoli that it’s only thanks to my wonderful editors that the whole thing doesn’t taste and look exactly like vegetable terrine. I’m struggling through the same issue at the moment, as I edit The FitzOsbornes at War, the final Montmaray novel. It is a very, very long manuscript, which I’d like to make a bit shorter, and it would be logical to remove some of the information about wartime events outside England. The problem is that I find all that background information absolutely fascinating. I have to keep reminding myself that I am not writing a textbook about the Second World War, but a story, and that if the factual information does not have a direct bearing on my fictional characters, then it doesn’t belong in the novel. It doesn’t matter if I spent an entire fortnight researching a particular event – if those historical facts can’t be blended in smoothly, they have no place in my chocolate cake (admittedly, a cake made of very bittersweet, dark chocolate). As New Zealand author Rachael King points out,

“When you’re reading my book, I don’t want you to be thinking about me and my research. If you are, I’ve failed in my job.”

And apparently she knows how to skin a tiger, so I think we should all pay careful attention to what she has to say.

The Kitchen Front, Part Two: Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam . . .

I’d been intending to do another Kitchen Front post for a while, but sadly, my attempts at authentic 1940s meals have not been a success. The vegetable part has been easy – I like vegetables – although I must admit, quite a lot of British recipes of the time seem to involve boiling the poor things to death, then smothering them in a margarine-based white sauce.

No, the problem has been meat. Meat was rationed during the war, of course, but what made it tricky for me was that it was rationed by price, not weight. Each adult was allowed one shilling and ten pence worth of meat each week, although this had fallen to one shilling’s worth by 1941 (while food prices had soared). I think this would have bought a couple of chops or about twelve ounces (340 g) of mince or stewing beef. That doesn’t seem so bad to me (it’s as much meat as I’d usually eat in a week), but I had to remember that in pre-war Britain, families who could afford it ate meat at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It must have been a real hardship for them, trying to adapt to rations. I should add that bacon and ham were rationed separately, with the total amount ranging from eight ounces (225 g) to four ounces per week. Poultry, fish and rabbit weren’t rationed, but were difficult to obtain, unless you were lucky enough to live on a farm in the country.

SPAMGiven these restrictions, it’s no wonder the British welcomed the first shipments of SPAM® after the signing of the Lend Lease agreement with the United States in 1941. I thought I’d try it out myself, and purchased a tin from my local supermarket. I’d read that it could be used straight from the tin to make tasty sandwiches, so I put a few slices of it on wholemeal bread with margarine, mustard and lettuce. Readers – do not try this at home. It was like eating a very salty piece of pink sponge – and I’d bought the salt-reduced version. But perhaps I’d put too much SPAM® on my sandwich. My next experiment involved dicing it and adding it to a hash of potato, cauliflower, spinach and whatever other vegetables I could find in my fridge. This was better, although I don’t think the SPAM® contributed much to the dish. I still had a third of a tin of SPAM® left, so in desperation, I added small cubes of it to a stir-fry of bok choy and rice noodles. This was quite nice, the little pieces of SPAM® providing some salty, fatty goodness to an otherwise healthy meal. However, it wasn’t exactly an authentic 1940s British dinner. Bok choy would have been unknown to most British diners, and rice was in extremely short supply, due to the British not being able to import it from Asia, especially after the Japanese entered the war. In fact, I read about one Chinese restaurant in London that chopped up spaghetti to make ‘rice’.

Still, if I’d been living in England during the war, I probably would have eaten SPAM® and liked it – although I think I might have been tempted to become a vegetarian and exchange my meat ration for cheese.

And speaking of spam, why does my blog attract such weird examples of it? I don’t mean the usual offers to increase the size of my (nonexistent) penis or make me a millionaire in thirty days. I’m talking about the spam comments that seem to have been translated through several languages by someone with very little understanding of any language, let alone English. For example:

“Out! Gone. And I maid the, misconstrue the bus, the close halfwit!
Clara Hyummel kicked in spleen nor innocent stool. My sinfulness, Alya, overlooked! Underestimated.”


“All the in in the terra won’t mutate the at one’s fingertips’s awareness of him as a scant Napoleon with a eminent mouth.”

I know it’s usually generated by a computer, but it’s hilarious how even the relatively coherent ones manage to be completely unrelated to the blog post on which they are ‘commenting’. For example, this appeared on my blog post about fan mail:

“my partner and i love this specific, where can I receive much more home elevators this particular topic?”

(And it wasn’t even advertising ‘home elevators’ – the link in the address looked like a site that sold Windows-related software.)

And this was a response to my post about my favourite fictional girls:

“I have to say that I thought this piece was very profound . . . It has shown me a new insight in to my research about current government policy.”

Of course, most spam is far more creative when it comes to English grammar:

“I firm next to way of this blog ask for up and it is really incredible.I patently genuinely enjoy your website.Perfectly, the chunk of posting is in pledge the very finest on this genuinely worth even though subject.”

However, my award for Spam of the Month has to go to this spammer (advertising a real estate agent), who posted the following comment to my blog:

“Im completely fed up with this, in the event you spam my internet site or even blog site 1 more point in time I am going to expose you!”

Even the manufacturers of SPAM® are fed up with spam. Thank goodness for Akismet spam filtering service.

The King’s Speech

As this blog is supposedly devoted to books, writing and language, I should, first of all, note that this film is based on a book by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi about Lionel Logue.

The King's SpeechRight. Well, from what I’d heard of this film – Australian speech therapist plus 1930s British politics plus dysfunctional royal family – it sounded just my cup of tea. Then it started attracting rave reviews from critics, and reports of standing ovations in cinemas. Then just about everyone I knew said, “Michelle! Haven’t you seen it yet? You’ll love it!” The problem with this sort of hype is that it creates enormous expectations that can rarely be met. It makes me put off seeing the film for weeks, then slouch into the cinema, cross my arms and raise a very sceptical eyebrow at the screen.

I am happy to say that, in this case, my friends were quite right. I did enjoy this film very, very much. Colin Firth does a superb job of turning Bertie into an endearing and poignant character. All the British kings of the twentieth century were completely useless, but King George the Sixth (as Bertie becomes during the film) was even more useless than most of his forebears. The best that can be said about him is that at least he wasn’t his elder brother, David, whose Fascist sympathies and appalling choice of wife would have been a disaster during the war. The film demonstrates how ridiculous the idea of a monarchy is in the modern world, and how sad and suffocating it must be for those born into reigning families. I like that even Bertie asks whether there’s any point to being a king. He has no real political power. All he can do is wear flashy uniforms and give speeches, and poor Bertie finds speech almost impossible. But at least he has a supportive wife. (And I thought Helena Bonham Carter was excellent as Queen Elizabeth – it’s so nice to see her playing someone other than a homicidal maniac once in a while.)

The best part of the film for me, though, was Lionel. I’m not a huge fan of Geoffrey Rush (his performances so often scream, “Look at me, here I am winning an Oscar!”), but he was perfect for this role. I absolutely adored the Logue family and would have loved to have seen more of them, especially the bookish younger son. They were so warm, funny and Australian – such a contrast to the stuffy British royals. The speech therapy sessions were fascinating, although I must admit I cringed at some of the ‘facts’ Lionel presented. Actually, stuttering (or stammering, as it’s called in the film) ISN’T caused by cruel parents and siblings. It usually manifests itself long before “four or five years of age” – in fact, it usually appears when a child first starts to put words together. It’s a motor speech disorder with clear evidence of a genetic basis, although, yes, many people who stutter find their speech becomes less fluent in situations where they feel anxious. And I’m proud to say that Australian speech pathologists are still leading the world in stuttering research and that the renowned Lidcombe programme for the treatment of early stuttering was named after the Lidcombe campus of the University of Sydney, where I trained as a speech pathologist (and no, the Lidcombe programme does not involve teaching children to swear).

Er, sorry – will take off my speech pathologist hat now and replace it with my historical novelist hat. Generally, I try not to have very high expectations of historical accuracy in films. If the story is engaging, the acting is good and the costumes and sets are pretty (which is certainly true for this film), I’ll go along with minor issues of historical revisionism. So, I wasn’t too concerned that everyone in the film seemed to be treating Hitler as a serious threat long before the war began. But – King George the Fifth warning Bertie about Hitler’s plans to conquer Europe? Very, very unlikely. The real Bertie actually sent cheery birthday greetings to Hitler in April, 1939, only five months before war was declared. I was also surprised to see Winston Churchill castigating David during the abdication crisis scene. In fact, Churchill very publicly supported David at the time, and said, with characteristic hyperbole, that if the King was forced to abdicate, “the outrage so committed would cast its shadow across many chapters of the history of the British Empire”. (I must admit, though, that I was a bit distracted during that part of the film because I kept thinking, ‘What’s Peter Pettigrew doing there?’ and expecting him to transform into a rat. That’s the problem with British films, all those wonderful but very familiar actors. Look, there’s Dumbledore pretending to be King George the Fifth! And Bellatrix has had a perm and put on some pearls!) The film also ignored the fact that Bertie toured the United States and Canada – and gave a number of successful speeches – in early 1939, months before the ‘King’s Speech’ of September, 1939.

But never mind all that historical nitpicking – this is a charming, beautifully-produced film with lots of sparkling dialogue and moments of real emotion. Haven’t you seen it yet? You’ll love it!