The Brewer’s Tale: How beer went from being suspicious to delicious

The wise Homer once famously declared: “Alcohol: the cause and solution to all of life’s problems.”

That’s Homer J Simpson of course, not THE Homer of Iliad and Odyssey fame. Even so, the yellow man with four fingers makes a very good point. When you examine the relationship society has with alcohol – from a social lubricant that makes an appearance at almost every occasion, to being held responsible for inciting lust, passion or facilitating terrible violence and reckless, foolish behaviour – what Homer says holds true. Alcohol can polarise people and behaviours. Yet, since time immemorial, through good times and bad, rites of passage from birth to death have been marked with the consumption of alcohol.

 

While alcohol continues to play an important part in many significant social and private events, in the era the novel, The Brewer’s Tale, is set, the 1400s, alcohol not only solved and caused many problems, it was also an essential ingredient in everyone’s lives.

 

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In medieval times, people didn’t have the drinking choices, knowledge or understanding of health that we do now. Water, which was often polluted and brackish, was considered dangerous – and it was. While other alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks were available, in England before the 1400s, the main beverage consumed by young and not-so-young; particularly in the lower classes and religious houses, was a home-brewed ale. In the 1400s, people drank on average between 1.5 – 5 litres of ale a day (often on top of wine, sack, cider and mead). That meant that most people were at least a little inebriated most of the time. Ale was regarded as a safe means of quenching thirst.

 

Ale was drunk on rising, given to children, downed regularly by paupers and princes, nuns and priests, sailors and soldiers. People went to battle, farmed, birthed children, treated illnesses and injuries, made important policy and diplomatic decisions, married, died, cooked, cleaned, sewed and accomplished a range of tasks effected by the drink they consumed all day every day. It’s a scary thought!

 

Professor Lynn Martin, who has done a study on alcohol, sex and gender in history, claims that “normal” drinking was a very social activity in traditional Europe. “Normal” drinking is still considered a pleasant social activity in the Twenty-First Century. It’s the abnormal or excessive kind we read about in the media and which arouses grave concerns and causes many of those life problems to which Homer refers. What’s evident is that what passed for “normal” in the 1400s differs considerably from today.

 

The other huge difference between drinking now and in the past was that unlike the ales and beers of today, most of which are produced by big conglomerates who export their drink, or smaller craft brewers who are trying to diversify the market, ale was made overwhelmingly by women (called brewsters or ale-wives) and was localised.

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Ale-making was a domestic industry or a by-product of other cottage-type businesses like baking or milling. The ale was flavoured with various spices and herbs as well as the woodsmoke used to cook the grain and was often sickly sweet. There was great variety in quality and taste.

 

Quantities made differed, but whatever was made had to be drunk very quickly before it soured, so it was sold or shared with neighbours (bartering likely happened in exchange for a brew) and impromptu parties erupted with the attendant fun, violence, accidents, propensity to curl up and rest the head and fire passion they still engender.

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People appreciated that a kind of magic occurred when water, grain and yeast came together. Though the term “yeast” was yet to be used, they understood that the frothy head that was produced must be preserved and transferred to each new brew. They called this “godisgoode”.

 

While almost anyone could brew, few were genuinely good at it. Woe betide the person who sold sour or tasteless ale. They not only attracted the wrath of the authorities and fines, but worse the fury of the townsfolk. Pilloring, dunking (called “cucking” – there was even a special “cucking stool” designed for this purpose), and all sorts of punishments were regularly meted out – mostly to women – sometimes even those who produced a fine ale or sold one. This was because women’s role in brewing and people’s dependence on what they produced and/or sold was regarded with suspicion. It was a double-edged sword. Women associated with alcohol-production, with brewing and sales, while providing something necessary to everyday life, were often resented and perceived as “disorderly”, as trouble-makers who were licentious, dishonest and needed to be reminded of (male) authority, God and the law.

 

imgres-4While some monasteries (and thus monks) were involved in large-scale production (relative to the era) and often sold their ale for a profit, brewsters and alewives played a really important role in the manufacturing and local distribution of ale up until around the 1500s, after which men slowly took over. Historian Judith Bennett attributes this to an interesting and quite complex notion. She argues, “When a venture prospers, women fade from the scene.” That is, once decent profits could be made from brewing and the scale of production grew, it became a male-dominated and very profitable (despite assizes and government controls which were strict) business. Men stepped in and women were eased out due to facts like intensive labour, dealing with authorities and workers (mostly men) and the capital needed to maintain and start a brewing business at this level. The only exceptions were a few widows and resourceful wives and daughters – most of whom inherited the business but also passed it over to male hands either through re/marriage or sale.

 

Another reason that women left brewing and which is directly related to the above is because of the additive hops. Before roughly 1420 in England, with some exclusions, the ale the women made contained no hops. This herb – from the same family as marijuana – came from Europe and when placed in a brew made the ale quite bitter but also preserved it. Preservation and thus hops was what changed the face of the brewing industry forever.

 

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Once hops was introduced as a regular part of ale/beer making, the product had a longer shelf-life. The new drink, called beer to distinguish it from ale, could be made in larger quantities, exported around the country and overseas. It was also cheaper to make, requiring less grain, so the overheads were fewer and the profits greater. Regarded with distaste and “unEnglish” by many at first, beer was gradually adopted as the preferred beverage. Initially, even the laws reflected the negative attitude towards the hopped ale, as those who made ale were forbidden from making beer and vice-a-versa. (Important to note that “ale”, as a description of a type of beer, didn’t come into use until the 1800s).

 

It was the ambivalent role of women in brewing – as makers of something essential to the diet of medieval folk – as bitches and “witches”, and the constant assertion of authority and control over them and their product through the presence of ale-tasters and taxes and guilds (the latter which virtually excluded them) that finally clinched the story for me.

 

I started to think, “what if a woman did succeed as a brewer in the medieval man’s world? What would she endure? What would she have to do to earn respect and make a living? Was it even possible in a time of plague, church corruption, powerful religious beliefs and strict gender roles? What would be done to prevent and/or punish her temerity?”

 

I began researching and uncovered so much fascinating information – not just about medieval times, of course, but brewing ale and beer.

 

From being indifferent to beer, I’m in its thrall. In awe of its colourful history and the dedication of contemporary craft brewers (mostly men), many of whom advised me in the writing of the novel – from the fabulous Bill and Lyn Lark, whisky makers extraordinaire, to Owen Johnson formerly of Moo Brew, Ashley Huntington of Two Metres Tall in Tasmania, Scott Wilson-Browne of Red Duck in Ballarat and many others who knowingly and unknowingly helped, I have a deep and abiding respect for the brewers who make something so suspicious and dimgres-5elicious (to paraphrase Lorenzo de’ Medici).

 

Finally, there’s my husband, Stephen who, inspired by my research and delight in all things brewing, shared his formidable knowledge with me as well as started his own craft brewery, Captain Bligh’s Ale and Cider in Hobart (and yes, you can visit the brewery if ever you are here and also taste some of his delicious beer jams as well!). I even enjoyed being his “brew bitch”, assisting him and having a hands-on experience.

 

Homer may have been talking about beer in the present when he joked that it caused and solved all life’s problems, but it holds true for the past as well. Only for women, the problems outweighed the solutions. That is, until The Brewer’s Tale…

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The Inspiration behind The Brewer’s Tale: or What Was I Drinking?

Authors often get asked where their inspiration for writing a particular story came from. Some people have been very curious as to what motivated me to write a tale about a medieval brewer and all things brewing – particularly when they discover I don’t drink beer. The simple answer as to what inspired me is, curiously, a glass of whisky; one I tossed back in a wonderful bar in Hobart during a very dark period in my life.

 

 

Only days before, my beloved friend, the writer Sara Douglass, the person my husband, Stephen, and I had moved to Tasmania nine and a half months earlier to care for, had died. On top of her loss, I was also coming to terms with the changes my own cancer diagnosis had wrought upon my life, the numerous operations I’d had and the ones still facing me. Then, there was survivor guilt. I was still here; Sara was not. I was empty and felt terribly alone and sad.

 

In the weeks leading up to Sara’s death, I’d been unable to conjure a word or creative thought. It appeared I was losing not only my closest friend but my creative heart as well. Determined to continue after she died, I took my sister and her friend (another Karen) from the USA (both of whom had come south to console me) to the famous whisky distillery and bar, Lark, on the Hobart waterfront for a drink. A visit to Tasmania is not complete without a trip to Lark. But I had an ulterior motive as well.

 

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This place, like so many others around Hobart, had become a special part of my husband’s and my shared life with Sara. Not long after arriving in Tasmania, Stephen and I introduced Sara to the joys of a locally made Whisky liqueur – Slainte. Made by Lyn Lark, Bill Lark’s (the then owner of Lark and man known as the “godfather of whisky”), wife, it’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted. It’s pure golden sweetness followed by a warm caramel heat that coats your throat before delivering a small kick below the heart. It’s magic. The first time Stephen and I tried it, we knew Sara would love it, and bought her some. We were right. Thereafter, Sara and I referred to Lyn as a “goddess” and swore what she made was ambrosia. Stephen would ensure there was always some for Sara and, Bill, in a spirit of generosity, not only discounted what we bought, but gave Sara a bottle for free with every order as well. She’d have a dram or three every night with all those toxic medications she took. That a simple drink could bring so much pleasure amidst so much pain….

 

 

Photo of Sara Douglass and Karen Brooks

It seems fitting somehow that the first time I returned to this place after Sara died, a place that though Sara never graced its cosy rooms nonetheless brought her so much comfort and joy, I found a story – the basis for The Brewer’s Tale. It was there, waiting for me, and I accepted the gift of its presence gratefully.

 

Listening to the husky-voiced barmaid, Becs, explain the origins of whisky to my sister and her friend, I asked her to pour them some Slainte. Finishing my drink and enjoying the sensations that raced through my body, I started to think about women producers of alcohol in what is a male-dominated field. I vaguely recalled knowing (but I don’t know how I knew) that what Lyn was doing shouldn’t be seen as a rarity, but a harkening back to historic practices, a reclaiming of old and familiar territory if you like. Sort of a recovery of women’s space and talents.

 

Then, it hit me. Right in my very core, a tale took root and before I’d left Lark it had blossomed.

 

Instead of being a story about a whisky brewer, I knew (and my research confirmed) it would have to be about a female ale brewer – but no ordinary one, this would be about a woman at the vanguard of beer production in the United Kingdom, someone who had the sass and flair to succeed in what was a man’s world.

 

So, the medieval brewer, Anneke de Winter, was born: smart, kind, beautiful, she’s overcome some terrible obstacles, but when the book starts, little does she know her real trials – trials of the heart, head, body and of being a businesswoman – are only just beginning.

Beer Mo

 

Doing the research and starting the writing process brought a healing I never expected. It’s wasn’t quick and nor would I want it to be, but it was a sweet and tender ache that brought with it unexpected bouts of sadness followed by moments of sheer joy – joy in the power of words and imagined characters to transport you beyond your own life and propel you into times and places otherwise denied. This is something Sara knew as well and used after her initial diagnosis and towards the end. It might be escapism, but it’s also a blessing. I like to believe, perhaps indulgently, that Sara made sure that my muse, my mojo, returned that day and gave me a wonderful tale to tell – Sara and Lyn Lark’s marvellous drink, Slainte.

 

So whisky was the inspiration for my ale tale and in a weird and wonderful way, it seems appropriate. After all, it started with a drink and, as the adage goes, no great story starts with someone eating a salad.

 

 

 

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“This is true love… you think this happens everyday?”

Ten points if you can guess where that quote comes from… if you can’t, I will reveal at the end of the blog…

So, here we are, another year. Happy New Year! I really hope that whatever plans you’ve made (even not making any), come to fruition and that you have many adventures, love and laughter in 2013. And good health. We cannot forget that!

I was going to do a reflective blog about the year we’ve just had and then project forward with my plans for the next twelve months, when I had a change of heart. You see, tomorrow, January 9th, is my 20th wedding anniversary. Twenty years! Instead of writing about a year, I want to celebrate and share with you my twenty years (briefly, I promise) with the most amazing man on this earth – my true love, Stephen Ronald Brooks.

Not many people can say they met and married their true love – I can’t say with any conviction I even knew he was the day we were married in our Midsummer’s Night Marriage Ceremony on Big Hill golf course in Bendigo.

Oh, I knew I loved him – very much. I knew that fairly early on in our relationship. We met making a film, Ranko. Stephen was the leading man and I was the leading lady. The shout line was something like, “He’s going to fall in love, get married and clean up the streets” and the movie was touted as Neighbours Meets Mad Max. We had a ball making it, even if it was, as Stephen says, “highly unsuccessful”, I am so very grateful I agreed to be cast.

And, let’s face it, you have to love a man who, in order to get to know you better while dating, asks what your favourite books are so he can read them too. There were so many I could have chosen, but I told him Lord of the Rings. He read it and The Hobbit.

Proposing to me on my 30th birthday, Stephen only told one of his best friends of his intentions. This best friend (I’m looking at you, Grant), told him not to be stupid. You see, I was what’s known as “a package deal” – that is, a single mother with two kids. I was also older than Stephen. It didn’t seem the wisest of decisions for a young man to make.

Fortunately, Stephen didn’t listen to his mate (who was just looking out for him), and went down on bended knee in front of all our friends and, after giving me a pewter cup that was shaped like Galadriel’s face (from Lord of the Rings), produced a lovely little ring from his pocket (Galadriel is also the bearer of the second ring – and this was to be my second marriage – clever, hey?).

The wedding was a hoot – a dress up affair in which the kids and friends and family partook. I had a theatre background and all my wonderful theatre friends, Andrew Balnaves, Angela Rashleigh (White) and many others, helped. One of my best friends, Frances Thiele was a bridesmaid. The men wore shirts and stockings, Stephen carried a sword, and we all feasted and danced and made merry under the beautifully decorated hall, festooned with ivy and fairy lights and outside the moon glowed. Magical.

The next twenty years seem to have passed so swiftly, now I can peer back with hindsight, but what fabulous years they have been – and all because of who I’ve had the privilege to share them with. They’ve been a combination of hardship (struggling financially while I did my PhD, Stephen working to support us, the kids becoming used to a step-father, both Stephen and I to each other and married life in a new place – we shifted to Wollongong from Bendigo two weeks after we married and away from family and friends), and utterly fantastic moments. But none of them would have meant anything to me, or Adam and Caragh, if hadn’t been for one man… Stephen.

 

Some of the highlights of those last twenty years are:

  • 1993. The scary move to Wollongong where with great difficulty we left behind (it was more like tearing ourselves apart) beloved friends and family. We lived in a place called Fairy Meadow in a street called Cabbage Tree Lane – great address J – which partly compensated and had the best neighbours in the world, Trevor and Maureen, with whom we drank ourselves silly the first day we met and every other week from then on…
  • Meeting Kerry Doyle and Peter Goddard in Wollongong and having them enter and still be a part of our lives.
  • Grant (yes, the one who advised Stephen not to marry me!) moving in with us for twelve months while he and Stephen (who was also working full-time) did postgrad studies.
  • Stephen and Grant coaching the local winning football team.
  • Delayed honeymoon to Thailand – was fantastic.
  • Stephen’s 30th surprise party – a funeral. Yes, I gave him a “death to his youth” party as he was always giving me a very hard time about being older than him – Grant too, so with Grant’s girlfriend (now wife), Fiona’s help, we gave him a party he’d remember. LOL!
  • 1996. Moving to the Sunshine Coast for my first uni position and again, being embraced by the community and meeting some terrific people (many of whom we still count among our best friends).
  • Buying our first house in Mountain Creek – it had a pool!
  • 1997. Stephen and I graduating from Wollongong uni (Grad Cert and PhD)
  • Going on our first family holiday – a cruise in 1998
  • Hosting two gorgeous Japanese teens, Keizo and Ayako
  • Our beautiful pets, Cupid and Psyche having kittens
  • My first book coming out in 2001
  • Adam being given his first pet snake, Morphea
  • Caragh illustrating her first book and being paid! She was still in primary school.
  • Great parties and fun Friday nights with friends
  • 2002. My 40th and second book launch
  • Adam “coming out” – he and his dad just held each other. *sniff*
  • Trips to Bali, New York, Las Vegas, Vietnam, Thailand, NSW, and VIC
  • Driving the car through the garage wall and into the house and ruining two rooms – one my study.
  • Caragh photographing me all distressed and laughing with Lesley who was staying with us. Our friend, Chris, the psychiatrist, running down the hill when I frantically called him (Stephen was at work) and asking me if I was “having a blonde moment?”
  • Adam accidently burning down the kitchen while I was in the USA and Stephen and the kids going to mum and dad’s up north for a few days while the house was repaired and cleaned.
  • Moving to Buderim and fully renovating our first house
  • 2004. Stephen’s 40th and first tattoo – back to the 80s night.
  • Too many Melbourne Cup and Grand Final parties to count.
  • Trips to China, New York, Las Vegas, Europe, England, teaching and living in Maastricht, The Netherlands – twice.
  • 2005. Caragh’s 18th and Adam’s 21st – Caragh’s a dress up, of course!
  • Both kids shifting out of home and becoming fabulous, independent people
  • Adam moving to Sydney and joining the Oaks group.
  • More books released
  • Invited to be part of the ABC show, The Einstein Factor (for four years)
  • Working with Lisa on Consuming Innocence and studying Italian with the lovely Lauren.
  • Another trip to Las Vegas, this time to say goodbye, along with my sister, Jenny, to my dying mother.
  • My beloved grandmother passing away as a consequence of a house fire.
  • 2008. Apply for job at Southern Cross University (promotion) and we move to Brooklet, NSW (three weeks after returning from three months in Europe) and Stephen starts renovating again.
  • Caragh graduates. I’m made an Honorary Senior Fellow of Sunshine Coast University
  • Caragh moves to Melbourne
  • Wonderful visits from friends
  • Caragh’s 21st 
  • Caragh goes to the USA and a short time later is married, making world headlines.
  • We are given a rescue dog, the gorgeous “Tallow”
  • My great friend, Jim McKay becomes my boss.
  • 2009. Receive cancer diagnosis.
  • Tallow is released to great success
  • Have big series of ops in Sydney for cancer – overwhelmed by support
  • Two years off work to heal. More ops. Keep writing my weekly column for Courier Mail and fiction books.
  • 2010. Travel around South-East Asia on a cruise
  • While we’re away, dad dies. Unable to go to his funeral, but do write the eulogy.
  • Our darling Dante Primo dies from a tick
  • Psyche, our 15 year old cat dies of cancer
  • Dante Piccolo comes into our life
  • Adam lands a fantastic job in Sydney with a terrific company.
  • 2010. Sell house in Brooklet
  • Visit Sara in Tasmania – she’s very, very sick.
  • Make decision to join her and care for her
  • 2011. Shift to Tasmania and rent seven minutes away from Sara by car.
  • Stephen cares for me and Sara (his two wives) while Sara and I write our books – her, The Devil’s Diadem, me, Illumination.
  • Loving friends visit – us and Sara.
  • Stephen works with the refugees at Pontville.
  • Stephen buys a Harley Davidson – a Heritage Soft-tail.
  • Meet fabulous people, have wonderful and very sad times.
  • Caragh comes back from the USA – single and very happy.
  • Sara dies and we grieve. For a long time.
  • After initially saying “no” (three times), agree to take part in TV show Location, Location, Location Australia to buy a house in Tasmania as Sara has left us her five cats.
  • Take a family holiday (cruise) to New Zealand.
  • Caragh begins a tattoo apprenticeship in Brisbane
  • Move to Braeside, Feb 2012.
  • Stephen begins to renovate
  • We travel to Gold Coast for the marvellous Somerset Celebration of Literature and catch up with darling cousins and friends as well.
  • I have a huge and horrid operation that makes me very ill for weeks.
  • Stephen is so caring and wonderful, as always.
  • Illumination comes out, I turn 50. 50!
  • Stephen begins plans to start a business
  • Make some fantastic friends here in Hobart.
  • Go on amazing trip to Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Dubai.
  • Stephen becomes a tour guide at Cascade Brewery – he is brilliant!
  • Christmas comes and goes as does New Year and the Taste of Tasmania. Share all this with family and friends – wonderful times.
  • 2013 is here. This is the year of a new book, a new business and the celebration of twenty wonderful years.

 

I know I have left stuff out… I’ll have fun recalling these times later. I know Adam and Caragh and Stephen will remember things too. But, just listing some of the highlights and lows of the last twenty years, what’s not evident but should be, is that every single moment was made all that more luminous and wonderful or bearable, because I shared it with my true love.

I cannot begin to describe or explain how utterly amazing he was and still is in his loving care, not only of me and the children over two decades, but our darling Sara as well. How he rarely loses patience with me (well, OK, sometimes!), but is always so compassionate, passionate, loving and caring. I am so very, very blessed and, as our anniversary unfurls, I remember this and every other moment I have spent with this beautiful man and wonder what it was that I did so right to deserve him. I thank his gorgeous mother every day that she raised such a magnificent man.

People often ask me what I wish for my children: the answer is simple. My wish for Adam and Caragh is that they too will find a love like this, like Stephen and I have. I don’t think it happens very often, nor does it occur everyday, but when it does, appreciate what you have because it’s more than rare, it’s magical.

Thank you Stephen Ronald Brooks for twenty perfectly imperfect years. Here’s to the next decades and beyond – per eternita.

 

 

PS. The quote above comes from our favourite film, The Princess Bride.

 

 

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Somerset Celebration of Literature: A Wrap Up

Last week, I spent three glorious days, immersed in books, reading, writing, readers and authors at the fabulous Somerset Celebration of Literature on the Gold Coast. I was star-struck, awed by accomplishments and performances, relished long and often very funny conversations in the Green Room, loved meeting authors I knew and loved and many whom I didn’t  – know that is, but came to love as well. I was able to work with and speak to readers who knew my work and many who didn’t but who were so warm, welcoming and excited about texts and reading. I came away utterly inspired and on a high. I’d love to share with you some of these experiences – but I have to say, my only regret was that I didn’t have more time!

So, in this photo, you see some of the terrific authors I was privileged to be counted among: Jacqueline Harvey, author of the Alice Miranda books who’s growing success as she storms up the best-seller charts here and overseas is testimony to her fantastic tales and the magic that her characters weave – never mind the beauty that Jacquie projects herself – a truly lovely soul. The lines in front of Jacqueline at the festival as kids queued to buy her books and have them signed were snake-like and the excitement on the faces of the students as they met their favourite author a delight to behold. Next to Jacquie, is award-winning author, James Roy. I love Jim’s books and I adore his presentations. Watching him perform to a packed room is joyous as he captivates the kids with stories, teasing, and a reading from his works such as Hunting Elephants or Town or the many, many other books he’s written. It’s hard to keep three hundred kids focussed but, like me, they didn’t want him to stop! Then there’s Leigh Hobbs – the marvellous and very droll illustrator who is so hard-working and yet patient and talented. With drawing pads tucked beneath his arm, he would stride off to his sessions with a smile on his face, ready to enchant the next group. Then there’s Jane Caro. Perhaps best known for her role as a panellist on The Gruen Transfer, Jane is also an author (among other things) and has written a beautiful book, About a Girl, which tells the story of a young Queen Elizabeth the FIrst. She’s also written The F Word which is about feminism and why it’s become a dirty word. I spoke to a few girls who went to Jane’s session and they were driven. Next to Jane is Michael Wagner, author of the Maxx Rumble action books among many others and such a lovely man! He’s also very funny and I encountered a group of chuckling boys leaving his session, repeating gags and simply raving about him. Next to Michael is me 🙂 and I am standing next to the beautiful Susanne Gervay – one of the most prolific and lovely writers whose novels are so heart-warming, real and daring. Susanne is one of those souls who you delight to meet, feel so lucky she’s a friend and whose presence and books are life-changing. I regularly buy her books for my nieces and nephews and they count her among their favourite authors. Sitting in front of us in that vibrant red dress is Ursula Dubasarsky. I hadn’t had the privilege of meeting her before – but wow, what a lady and what an exquisite writer. I went to one of the sessions in which Ursula spoke and I loved the way she described the writing process, how she found her ‘voice’ and her almost fey yet grounded way of evoking her craft. Really funny as well, I rushed out to buy her haunting book, The Red Shoes, and when I saw the effort she put into signing it, the care and love, I was awestruck. Next to Ursula is the gorgeous Georgina from Somerset – Georgina was the media/PR person and such a delight to work with. I am only sorry that the half of the photo that some of us are in is shaded so badly – sorry. But you see what I mean about meeting these amazing people? And not just the writers, but the staff, students and volunteers as well…

OK… to continue my love-fest, 🙂 I have to share that I also went to one of Deborah Abela’s sessions. Deborah has written many books, among them, the fabulous Max Remy super spy books, Grimsdon (which I cannot wait to read) and the Ghost Club series. Her session was magic! I felt like one of the many transfixed kids who couldn’t wait to interact with her energy and passion. Deborah has a new fan 🙂 I also saw the wonderful and witty Oliver Phommavanh – stand up comedian and just a great guy and writer. The kids adored him. I was in a session with the articulate and simply great Lili Wilkinson and Tristan Bancks as well – both extraordinary people who enchanted those fortunate enough to be in their sessions. I also saw Scott Westerfield, author of the Leviathan series in action. Oh. My. Clever, imaginative, with flair, erudition and drive. Terrific man and writer.

While I couldn’t get to every session, I did get to hang out in the Green Room with some utterly delightful writers such as Wendy Orr (Nim’s Island), Felice Arena, Nadia Sunde and Angela Sunde, Frances Watts, Belinda Jeffreys, Rosanne Hawke (love her work), the exuberant John Heffernan (who was disguised as Charlie Carter for this festival :)), and Cath Crowley. If I have missed anyone out, it’s not deliberate, it’s just I was literally overwhelmed by how many amazing personalities and talent were in one room.

The way we were looked after at Somerset is incredible too. From the dashing Michael Brouier, to Karen Mackie, Andrea Lewis, Georgina and the entire team of staff and volunteers, nothing is too much trouble and the care and consideration you are given is just phenomenal. Even Craig, the school principal, was running around helping out! They all work so hard and why? Because they believe in what we writers, illustrators, songwriters, film-makers and creative artists do and they love the stories we tell, the way culture is enriched through tales. Thank you all of you – you were just wonderful.

Among many stand out moments, however, there were two that really stuck with me (apart from the two high school sessions I did with years 10-12 which were incredible. The students and adults who attended were wonderful). These were the literary lunch at which I spoke and where I have to say I was overwhelmed by the warmth, sincerity and generosity of those who attended  – from the paying guests to the staff – teachers, waiting, kitchen and bookshop). I felt like I’d been enveloped in a giant hug and I was on a high for days after still am. I also have to mention the elegant table settings which featured candles and a circlet of Venetian masks – it’s proof of how emotional I was that I forgot to take a photo (did that a lot!).

And then there was the Friday night dinner. That commenced with drinks and conversation as it usually does.But what happened after was magic. First, we were entertained by students from Somerset College who performed two magnificent numbers, bringing tears to more than a few eyes with their songs and dance. It was quite simply lovely. The other was the gust speaker and one author I haven’t yet mentioned, Sandy or A.J MAcKinnon – author of Jack de Crow and other books. From the moment he stood, after main course, to speak to us, he had the entire ballroom in the palm of his hand. Regaling us with his adventures from the northern UK to Romania as he travelled in an 11 foot Maradinghy (?), and described his encounters with the English, French, German, Belgians and so on, he had us captivated and laughing so hard my stomach hurt. Naturally a gifted speaker, he performed with an appreciation for his audience, a respect for the occasion and delivered what I think was one of the best dinner speeches I have ever heard. I was sat at his table, so was very glad to be able to tell him how much i enjoyed his efforts. Slightly eccentric, he really is an amazing man – reminiscent of the adventurers of early last century or before, with his bonhomie and positivity and pith helmet. He ended with an important message though: that while we talk about stranger danger and fear the incurions of ‘others’ and what they might do in our lives, the harm they may inflict, the truth is, most people are lovely and helpful, I guess, friends in waiting, if we would just give them the chance. It’s a message I have long preached as well and it was refreshing to hear it delivered by someone so experienced and erudite.

So, that was my festival expereince. I also was able to have dinner with one of my dearest friends, Katherine Howell and her beautiful partner Benette and catch up with my gorgeous cousins, Tyrone and Shannon and their partners. That I hadn’t seen Tyrone in almost forty years, didn’t matter. We were all as comfortable together as a old shoes. Now what was magic!

How lucky am I then? Can you understand why I’m so inspired? But oh, I haven’t told you everything… I forgot to mention the very thorough body search I was given at Gold Coast airport, witnessed by my husband and Jacquie Harvey (who said my eyes nearly popped) and where I had my breasts squeezed and my inner thigh stroked  – all in public and by a woman security officer. After the initial shock, I thought, “maybe there are some advantages to having a pacemaker!” LOL!

 

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Loss, Grief and the Healing Power of Words

I have been absent a while, haven’t I? For that I’m so sorry and please, I ask that you read and accept this blog as a rather poor attempt to both apologise  and explain why before I beg your forgiveness and let you know that I’m back and invite you to return as well…

The reason I’ve been gone is twofold: I’ve had several operations this year, related to post-cancer complications, and which mean I now have a pacemaker. It’s been hard to become accustomed to and I’ve had periods of terrible illness and pain. But all that pales by comparison with my second reason for deserting this cyberspace and puts what I’ve been through into perspective – the terrible illness and death of my beloved friend, Sara Warneke who most of you know as the writer Sara Douglass.

Ten and half months ago now, my partner, Stephen, and I shifted temporarily to Hobart, Tasmania, to care for Sara as she tried to deal with the last stages of ovarian cancer. I have written about this elsewhere, mainly in my obituary for Sara on the Voyager website a day after she died.  You can read it here: http://voyagerblog.com.au/2011/09/28/sara-douglass-remembered-by-karen-brooks/

(I should add that Lucy Sussex also wrote the most amazing obituary for Sara that’s appeared in many newspapers.) I also write about Sara – her life, influence and works as well as our relationship that spans twenty years – in the Introduction to the beautiful compilation of her short stories, The Hall of Lost Footsteps, which was published posthumously by Tinconderoga Publications.

Together, these, along with a brief piece I wrote about Sara in Australian Author, explain the months and weeks that led up to her death and give a glimpse into our long-term friendship. What none of these do, however, is elucidate the impact her death has had in other ways and on other people – not just me, but Stephen, her other very close and loving friend (and mine too), Dr Frances Thiele (who adored and was in turn, adored by Sara), or the grief felt by her family, other friends, and loyal fans.

While I always knew the day of Sara’s death would come and, as she became sicker, tried to prepare myself (as did Stephen), it wasn’t until almost a week after she died, that the reality of her absence hit me. She really wasn’t going to phone or text me again. When I went to her house, she wasn’t going to open the door and fold me in one those tight hugs I loved receiving. She was gone… for real. For good. When the realisation struck, I felt like the sun hadn’t gone behind a cloud so much as imploded; as if the lights had gone off in not only my house, but, for the time being, my life, and plunged me into a grey world of shadows and murkiness leaving me to stumble and misapprehend. Sara had been my anchor for the last nine months, my life had been tied to hers in the most intimate and loving of ways and now, suddenly, I was cast adrift. I could no longer talk to her, hold her, share my thoughts and fears, and she couldn’t with me either. A part of my world that, despite the encroaching presence of death was remarkably light and love and hope-filled, had been swallowed by darkness and, worse, an enormous silence that I didn’t see, despite everything being there in front of me, coming. It was the strangest and scariest of sensations. There was not the silence associated with quietude or stillness, but an agitation that had no way of being expressed or relieved. As if the frequency we operated on and within could no longer be tuned. There was only static, no clear signal. Weighed by grief, I swam in circles, barely staying afloat, my ears pricked for a sound, a sign, for a signifier that this lostness was temporary. For Stephen it was the same. We lived and worked in a haze, thinking we were coping when in reality, we were sinking into this hungry silence.

And yet…

Every time we spoke of her, recalled something either with each other, or Fran, or someone else including the many and beautiful homage on FaceBook and other cyber-pages, the silence cracked and the load diminished slightly. Memories came in the most unexpected form and ways. The first time Sara’s cat, Luther, walked into my arms and curled into my neck like he’d always belonged, giving me the audible cuddle that we call a purr, an image of Sara with all her cats surrounding her filled my mind and put me strangely at peace.

I laughed out loud, scaring the other cats and, most of all, myself – but not Luther. After that, each time one of the others came to us for attention, licking, purring, kneading our legs and arms in the way cats do, putting you on edge as you wait for the claws to stick, we found our pain eased and smiles bloomed where tears had once fallen.

Then there were the notes – to me, herself, to others – that we found and treasured. Simple things, like remembering to pay the ‘butcher lady,’ put the bins out, remind Karen about Cromwell (one of the Birmans); there were lists of ‘things to do’ which conjured both sadness and delight at her orderliness; or the folder of recipes that Sara used and which we all enjoyed at her table together, using produce she grew in her garden and which we harvested and cooked as a family. These little paper treasures rip a hole in you when you find them, but then they catapult you back to the moment and the unexpected recall has its own terrible beauty. I loved finding these things, how they would throw us off emotional balance, only to repair our hearts after all. Together, they amounted to a record of a person and life that was rich, complex, giving and simple at the same time – one that we were privileged to share.

When the gardens of Nonsuch began to bloom a few weeks ago, our souls felt renewed. Here was the life that, together, Sara and, later when she became too sick, Stephen under her instructions, planted and nurtured. I felt Sara in every new bud, every blossom that burst into life and colour. Bees hummed, butterflies danced and birds sang while the supine cats, grooming themselves in the sunlight, pretended not to watch them. This was her creation, her gift to everyone, continuing, just like her stories will as well.

After weeks of not being able to conjure a word or creative thought and becoming despondent about that, a story, unbidden but so very welcome, took seed in my mind. I was in, of all places,  a Whisky Distillery when it happened, taking me by complete surprise. I was in no ordinary distillery mind. I was in Larks in Hobart with my sister and her friend who were visiting. This place, like so many others around Hobart, has also become a special part of our shared life with Sara. You see, not long after we arrived here, Stephen and I introduced Sara to the joys of a locally made Whisky liqueur – Slainte – that is made by Larks.

It’s like nothing I have ever tasted before – pure golden sweetness followed by a warm caramel heat that coats your throat before it delivers a small kick below the heart. It is magic. The first time Stephen and I tried it, we knew Sara would love it, and bought her some. We were right. Sara called the woman who made it a goddess and swore it was ambrosia. Stephen would ensure there was always some for Sara and Larks, in a spirit of generosity, not only discounted what we bought, but gave Sara a bottle for free with every order as well. That a simple drink could bring so much pleasure amidst so much pain….

It seems fitting somehow that the first time I returned to this place after Sara died, a place that though Sara had never graced its cosy rooms nonetheless brought her so much comfort and joy, I found a story – the basis for my next novel. It was there, waiting for me, and I accepted the gift of its presence gratefully.

Doing the research and starting the writing process has brought me a healing I never expected. It’s not quick and nor would I want it to be, but it is a sweet and tender ache that brings with it unexpected bouts of sadness followed by moments of sheer joy – joy in the power of words and imagined characters to transport you beyond your own life and propel you into times and places otherwise denied. This is something Sara knew as well and used after her initial diagnosis and towards the end. It might be escapism, but it’s also a blessing. I like to believe, perhaps indulgently, that Sara made sure that tale came to me on that day the way it did. Anyhow, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Every word I write now, I raise an imaginary glass to my darling friend: Slainte Sara.

So, there you have it.  That’s why I’ve been absent from my website and blog – I retreated for a time, firstly to begin my own process of recovery and then to care for a friend who needed me, needed Stephen too. That I needed her just as much was always apparent to me, but her death has made that awareness acute and hard to overcome. She didn’t choose to leave me, us, this life, her life, and that’s why I’ve struggled so hard with her absence: the unjustness of it. What I didn’t expect was that, just as she was in life, she’s there beside me in death and, in my writing, whether it be this blog or the stories I have yet to tell, she will be with me every syllable of the way.

There you are, my friends. I am back. I hope you forgive me. After all, we have a journey to take and I have many tales to tell…

Thank you.

 

 

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