Characters as travelling companions

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I have returned to my manuscript Paris Next Week: Paris, the second book in my trilogy. The writing has been interrupted because of illness, injury and my mother’s worsening dementia so it has been a relief to finally catch up with my character Sarah Linden, nee Montague.

            She has arrived in London after a five and a half week voyage from Australia and is planning some sightseeing over the next few days. She is about to book into a boarding house on Montague Street and will be picking up her pass-book from the Orient Line office on Monday. In the meantime she will do some sightseeing just as I did fifty two years later. Unlike me, my character is gay and, as a lesbian in the 1920s, life can be a bit tricky but she has a lot of things to do other than meet a woman friend. She has a trip to France to plan and a visit to Chelsea to meet her best friend Louie’s uncle. Hopefully he will have a recent address for her. In the first book of the trilogy Louie married a Frenchman and they are living somewhere on the continent. Louie has not been the best of letter writers.

            Although I know I am dictating Sarah’s movements with my writing and research, it often doesn’t feel like that. It feels more like I am visiting her in the 1920s. I’m giving her odd bits of advice, putting the odd challenge in her way and I’m sure together we will enjoy London. I’ll be her confidante as she negotiates her new life in London and Paris. It’s all very exciting and like a beloved friend’s company, I find it soothes me to spend time with her. If that makes me odd, so be it, as Sarah would say. 


Following Strange Urges

Image courtesy of Alchetron

I should be searching for images of Toulon France as it appeared in the 1920s, particularly the harbour as viewed from a cruise ship. I also need to wade through an endless list of books on Paris in the 1920s. The Lost Generation. How can I recreate that iconic time unless I know the history? Who was where and when? Where would my character go when she first arrives in London? And later in Paris. Where can she possibly get some sort of job? If I don’t have these necessary facts which will form the skeleton of my narrative, I simply can’t progress any further with this manuscript, the second book in my trilogy Paris Next Week.

Yet I am doing none of these things. Instead I am suddenly fascinated by a little known English writer Jan Struther, the pen name of Joyce Anstruther, later Joyce Maxtone Graham and finally Joyce Placzek. I found this beguiling image in the Australian Women’s Weekly icon edition 15 the other day. It was featured in an article on Greer Garson who of course starred in Mrs Minniver, the famous movie which persuaded the Americans to finally enter WW2. From the book by Jan Struther.

I am waiting anxiously for my pay to hit my account so I can buy the kindle version of The Real Mrs Minniver written by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, Joyce’s granddaughter. I am not sure why I have this urgency to read the biography but I am fascinated by this young woman in her print dress, sitting in the back garden of somewhere, with her small dog. There is a long fence in the background and a strange sort of wooden structure. I’m guessing the image is from the 1930s. She looks calm but the dog appears anxious looking off to the side at someone or something. I love the headband. The simple innocence of it. Yet her life was complicated and ultimately tragic.

How much will reading about this woman help my research? I have no idea but I have been, for a long time, interested in the arcs of people’s lives according to when and where they were born. What opportunities were available at the time, what turbulent decades were ahead as they reached maturity. These things are so important and how they affect each individual are what makes studying different lives fascinating. Joyce was born three years before my fictional character Sarah who was born in Sydney. Joyce was born in the UK in 1901 but I can’t wait to read about her working life in England in the 1920s (if she did work as a young woman). Within her life, I’m hoping there is inspiration for my character’s next few years as she steps off the ship in Tilbury. A long shot? Possibly. But you never know.

Navigating the Past

Scilla Calabria – image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It seems every time I put one of my characters in a ship, I have a nightmare with the research. In my manuscript entitled I Remember the White I couldn’t even find a suitable ocean liner for my character Miss Summerville to travel to Macedonia in during the last part of WWI. See my blog post from ten years ago here.

Now I’m nearing the end of my character Saran Linden’s voyage on the SS Ormonde in 1924. It’s been challenging to research as well. For the most part what is tricky is trying to find the coastlines and their appearance nearly 100 years ago. Youtube has quite a few videos travelling down the Suez Canal and cruising through the Straits of Messina but that is in this century and obviously the coastline has changed since the 1920s. 

Instead I have been looking at diaries of the period and have found a brief but useful one written by an Australian rower on the Ormonde in 1924. He’s on his way to compete in the 1924 Paris Olympics. I’ve also found quite a lot of photos of the Suez Canal so have been able to complete the scenes detailing what Sarah sees from the Ormonde when she is on deck. However there are not as many photos of the Straits of Messina so currently I’m struggling. Wish me luck in finding more as Sarah can’t wait for the ship to pass through the straits between Sicily and Calabria, Italy.

Patrick Modiano and I

Image courtesy of Goodreads

I first heard of Patrick Modiano, the French novelist, when he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014. What originally grabbed my attention was the prize motivation: From the Nobel Prize website: “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” From that moment on I decided that’s it. I’m reading at least a few of his novels. 

Working from the bottom up of the image above, you can see that I read my first Modiano in March 2015. Well three novellas actually in the one book and on the 19th December last year, I completed my eighth Modiano – Invisible Ink and this is the novel that has triggered the need to examine what I have discovered so far about this accomplished and intriguing writer.

Some say that he simply writes the same story over and over. This can appear so after reading two or three books but I now realise after reading eight of his novels that there are subtle differences. He never repeats himself in descriptions or evocations. Never. There is always a different turn of phrase, an alternative set of details. I marvel and have decided that he must keep extensive notebooks, echoes of the small notebooks and lists that his characters often find themselves with.

Yes, there is an American convertible in several novels, many late night cafés visited by lost, restless souls; several Guys and Jacquelines. There are tantalising short visits to the Haute-Savoie region of France and one very powerful one in Missing Person. In that novel you think to yourself: “Of course this is where the novel was leading the whole time.” You feel pleased but then discover you have not finished the novel. There is one last exquisite scene told very simply.

Certain novels on this list stand alone for various reasons but still, somehow manage to add to the Modiano oeuvre which to my mind is like a many facetted diamond that we must continually study from different angles to understand how the diamond’s facets interact with the light. For instance in Villa Triste Modiano intriguingly mentions magazines his main character and Yvonne flip through during long, lazy days at her hotel, The Hermitage in the Haute-Savoie region of France. The covers often feature an actress who has recently died, including Marilyn Monroe. These could be old magazines but they add so much to the feel of this stolen time in a beautiful lakeside resort that the whole scene has stayed with me. The ending of Villa Triste is a surprise, or at least it was for this reader. 

Here is one of my favourite Modiano descriptions. This simple but evocative paragraph is one of the reasons I keep reading him:

“…I would go back to Carabacel, walking slowly along Avenue d’Albigny. I’ve never known nights so lovely, so crystal clear as those were. The sparkling lights of the lakeside village dazzled me, and I sensed something musical in them like a saxophone or trumpet solo. I could also perceive the very soft, immaterial rustling of the plane trees on the avenue. I’d wait for the last cable car, sitting on the iron bench in the chalet.”

The three short novellas in Suspended Sentences are grounded in Paris and as the translator Mark Polizzotti says: “What becomes clear as we read these books is that the inconclusiveness of the pursuit is central to the story – indeed, is the story.” In one of the novellas the title story the narrator has a brother and the two boys are often left alone with relative strangers, just as readers of Modiano can’t help suspecting Patrick and his brother Rudy often were. In Flowers of Ruin there are tantalising visits to one of those marvellous islands in the centre of Paris and in Afterimage the main character is trying to track down an elusive photographer. There is mention of Haute-Savoie where the photographer flees during World War II – shades of Missing Person.

For me what defines and differentiates each Modiano is the ending and this is particularly true of In the Café of Lost Youth – his bleakest ending of the eight Modiano novels I have read. It also stands apart from the others for having four narrators – all in first person.  The first narrator is a student who is fascinated by the elusive Louki, the second is a private detective, the third is Louki herself and the fourth her boyfriend. Binding some of these characters together is the neutral zones that are often mentioned in this novel where “you enjoyed a degree of immunity there.”

It might be simply my imagination or just the title Paris Nocturne but Paris at night does seem to feature more prominently in this novel. A nameless narrator is hit by a car near Place des Pyramides. He is sure he has met the woman driver before – Jacqueline Beausergent. And the search begins.

“I often found myself, sometime later, making the same journey in reverse. At around nine o’clock at night, I would leave the Right Bank, cross the Seine at Pont des Arts, and find myself at the Corona Cafe. But this time, I was alone at one of the tables in the back room and I no longer needed to find something to say to the shifty-looking guy in the navy-blue overcoat. I began to feel a sense of relief. On the other side of the river I left behind a marshy zone where I was starting to flounder. I had set foot on solid ground. The lights were brighter here. I could hear the neon buzz. Soon I would be walking in the open air, through the arcades, up to Place de la Concorde. The night would be clear and still. The future opened out before me.”

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood is different again. The novel is in the third person with the beginning and end marked by a very inclusive use of the second person. The main character Jean Daragane seems older than a lot of Modiano’s main characters. He is contacted by a very strange couple who have found his address book and in return for the book want some information from Daragane. There is mention of Jean’s mother working in the theatre and his father having an office in Boulevard Hausemann. A mother in the theatre is tantalisingly close to Modiano’s real mother’s history. This time Saint-Leu-la-Foret is a place that becomes very important to the main character. It seems Jean lived there for a year as a child and was then taken by someone called Annie Astrand to a house on the Cote d’Azur. A very unsettling ending. An ah-ha ending. You can’t help asking yourself as a reader, is this the core of it all?

In Little Jewell Modiano effortlessly portrays a female narrator Therese. “One day in the corridors of the Metro, nineteen year old Therese sees a woman in a yellow coat. Could this be her mother? And we are trailing Therese as she searches strange streets and apartment buildings. “Life is completely different when you live near a railway station. It feels as if you’re passing through. Everything is temporary. One day or another, you’ll hop on a train. In those neighbourhoods, the future is at your doorstep.” As in The Café of Lost Youth there is a person who takes advantage of our fragile main character. Be prepared for an ambiguous ending.

Lastly but definitely not least is Invisible Ink with the best opening sentence of the eight: “There are blanks in this life, white spaces you can detect if you open the “case file”: a single sheet in a sky-blue folder that has faded with time.” In Invisible Ink Jean Eyben briefly works for the Hutte Agency which features in Missing Person. One of his assignments is to try and track down a Noelle Lefebvre. Later Jean steals the case file. This is from my review:

“As in a lot of Modiano novels there are several strange, slightly unsettling characters that appear and disappear. There is an American car, this time driven by a youth. There is mention of a mountainous region in France – Haute Savoie which also makes an appearance in Missing Person and briefly in Villa Triste. And unlike most of the Modiano novels I have read, there is a second narrative thread and another city featured.”

I now know why I need to keep reading Patrick Modiano. In some strange way the oft repeated details in slightly different evocations become almost a refrain of your own dimly recalled memories. It’s oddly reassuring. It is as if you will gradually find out more details about your own life if you keep reading him and how enticing is that?” I dare you to fall under his spell.

Other Writings

Image courtesy of Dodging the Rain

I have been very lucky lately to have quite a few prose pieces and poems and a talk published and I would like to thank those marvellous online and print literary journals that have featured my work including the latest, the marvellous Dodging the Rain.

You will find a list of my publications on my Other Writings page with thanks to Typishly,
Cabinet of Heed, The Mystic Blue Review, Radio Adelaide, Poached Hare, Storgy, Women of Words: 2016-2018 edited by Janette Hoppe, Not Very Quiet and of course Dodging the Rain. Hopefully will be adding more soon!

Work in progress

It seems that now we are virtually imprisoned there is a greater need to connect. I’ve found that when I exercise my dog more people say hello and now that I have to write from home rather than at a cafe, suddenly the need to share what I’m working on is palpable, although I rarely used to talk about my projects. Here is a snippet from a chapter entitled Shopping. It is from the second book in the trilogy manuscript entitled Paris Next Week. I hope you enjoy this glimpse. Like all of us at the moment, she is imprisoned. In Sarah’s case by the threat of violence.


Melbourne was wonderful, the Block as they call it, much nicer than I expected. Funny how in Sydney we think everything in Melbourne will be inferior to what we have. The Block arcade of shops I could have spent all day in and Mother would have disappeared for days. But Clarissa had obviously set herself a vast list of places to visit and Pene and I could only follow in her wake. I felt like a child glancing at the marvellous domed ceiling, the tiles below my feet with my character Anne whispering in my ear that it would be a lovely place to play hide and seek in.

Yes, wouldn’t it be marvellous to lose myself here. Simply not go back to the ship. Find a cheap hotel and stay for a while until Nana’s five pound note ran out. But what then? I have no idea how many shops we visited but number one on Clarissa’s list was Georges on Collins Street.

Clarissa was intent on buying a woollen, navy coat for London. She tried to offer to buy me one as well but I told her that my terrible mink would keep me warm. She also offered to buy me some warm underwear for France. You have no idea, how cold it can be, she exclaimed but I stood firm, explaining that I couldn’t be seen spending money as I was soon to tell Toby I didn’t have any. Although I felt such a longing to buy one single thing from the wealth of beautiful items on the shelves.

It was then, as the spoilt only child of a Sydney socialite prone to spending a lot of money on clothes and accessories that, stupidly, I felt the full force of how my life has changed. As I gazed at a sunset coloured evening dress, which would have been perfect with my auburn hair, I realised that Toby was actually a terrible straightjacket, squeezing the life out of me.

Now as I return to my cabin I can feel that band around my chest. I am actually short of breath as I open our cabin door. Toby is inside seething. That much is obvious at first glance.

“You actually had the nerve to go shopping, did you? Shopping!”

“I was invited.”

“You were invited. You were invited!”

He is moving closer, his red face shoved close to mine. His left hand begins to squeeze my arm tight when there is a knock at the door. I open it quickly before Toby can compose himself.

It is Clarissa, serene, composed and with a happy smile on her face. She bursts into the room without invitation, startling Toby. I struggle to hide my relief.

“Darling, I got you something. It’s just a trinket for being so patient whilst I dragged you and Pene through all those shops. Pene’s is silver but I thought gold would suit you better with your marvellous hair.” Clarissa raises her arm to give me a small paper bag with the large scrolled writing of Georges on it, the G an extravagant loop…..

My talk on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals


Scottish Women’s Hospitals Roll of Honour courtesy of Wikimedia commons

I am very proud and excited to announce that my talk on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals will be broadcast on Radio Adelaide 101.5 this coming Monday evening at 6pm on the segment On Service Voices.

Here is a link to the broadcast.

On Service Voices – Monday  02.12.19  from 6 to 7pm Adelaide Time (or listen again any time after 7pm)

DEBBIE ROBSON:  The SWH and the Aussie women who served in it.

This month 102 years ago, a British female doctor called Elsie Inglis died.  Elsie was almost 50 years old when World War One was declared. She offered her medical skills to the War Office, and was resoundingly rejected with the words, “My good lady, go home and sit still.”

Sitting still at home had never been one of Elsie’s strengths.  She contacted the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies with the intention of forming independent medical units staffed by women, in order to support Allied troops where they were needed most. She was able to establish the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service (the SWH), and they sent medical teams to Belgium, France, Serbia and Russia.  Many Australian women served in these units. They saved countless lives during WW1 and alleviated untold suffering. Today Debbie Robson brings us the story of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, and some of the Australians who served in them.

Please tune in and I hope you enjoy hearing about these marvellous women.

Narrabeen Beach

Last weekend I walked Narrabeen Beach for the first time in over twenty years. It was a time to reflect on my life during that period and also to remember the poem I wrote back then. So much has happened but the beach is still pretty much as I remembered it from the 90s and I find that the poem is still true to the person I am now. Comforting somehow.
It seems the green coastal stabilisation scheme has done it’s job.

The poem was originally published in the Poetry at the Pub Anthology for 1998 – Untitled. I hope you enjoy it.


This is my beach and has been for a long time.
Beach Boys song aside and the surfers –
I’ve never waited for one of them to come
ashore yet they rock out there, astraddle,
patient as the wheeling gulls. But for me
history’s important. I need the whole story.
I need an old codger, sand ingrained
on his back from thousands of summers.
I remember when, he’ll say. Although Bondi
has the famous rescue of ’38 to tell, he must
have some memories worth hearing. Right now
I’ll seek him out. Right now in the yellow
fibro house with the turquoise window sills
two doors down. No, that’s a young couple
renovating. He’s in the units in Malcolm
Street and can’t recall a think, not even
the Sixties when it used to take forever
to walk from lake to beach or so it seemed
to me. That hill of sand has since eroded
into a green coastal stabilisation scheme.
The daisies flower amongst sober realisations
that the sand is washing away with everything
else – the long walk to the other side,
the lone surfer, the old codger years younger
telling stories of the first boat crew.

Debbie Robson




Are we defined by the things that haunt us? Perhaps haunt is a strong word. How about the things that won’t leave us alone? The things that keep popping back into our lives from time to time. For me it is two signs that I’ve been thinking about lately. The one pictured above I’m hoping will be the jumping off point for a new story.

The other one, another sign on a gate – Manderley – (obviously a fan of the book Rebecca) by the waters of the upper reaches of the Colo River, of all places. I was on a boat at the time cruising past and the gate literally opened out onto the water. I strained to see a house further up the path above the river but couldn’t. This was the 1970s and I’m suspecting that the house and the gate are long gone. From time to time over the years, I wonder idly about hiring a boat and finding the gate but the logistics of the whole endeavour keep putting me off. Still “Manderley” comes to me from time to time in both its manifestations.

Daphne du Maurier “discovered” Manderley in the late 1920s when the family began visiting Fowey in Cornwall. Sailing on her yacht Marie-Louise, Daphne had come across the enchanted woods on the Gribben Headland. “And looking north, inland, from the Gribben, I could just make out the grey roof of a house there, set in its own grounds amongst trees.”

On the first occasion Daphne and her sister Angela attempted to visit the house but the drive was three miles long and night fell before they reached the house. From Growing Pains: the shaping of a writer Daphne writes:

“The following day we tried another approach, taking M (Daphne’s mother’s) little car and driving to the west lodge, leaving the car at the gate. We walked across the park and through another gate, and came to the house. Grey, still, silent. The windows were shuttered fast, white and barred. Ivy covered the grey walls and threw tendrils round the windows. It was early still, and the house was sleeping. But later, when the sun was high, there would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys. The shutters would not be thrown back, nor the doors unfastened. No voices would sound within those darkened rooms. Menabilly would sleep on, like the sleeping beauty of the of the fairy-tale, until someone should come to wake her.”

She visits the house many times by herself, walking the grounds, peering inside and imagining the past life of the house. Of course it is Daphne herself who wakes the house. Twice. In real life she leases the house and does it up, making it her home and living there from 1943 to 1969 when she returns it the Rashleighs. In the world of fiction she creates Manderley, the house of Maxim de Winter.

“Childhood visits to Milton Hall, Cambridgeshire influenced the descriptions of Manderley, especially the interior. Menabilly provided the setting, the long drive and the woods hiding the house from the road. The inscrutability of it, you could say.

Inscrutable too was my “Always” gate. What was its meaning? When I first saw the green gate, I had recently moved to the area after my “always” marriage broke up. In the early days when I passed the sign, I would look at it with a quizzical fascination. How hopeful of them. In darker moods, I would think, How dare they! Now I just wonder (as my character Zach will do) what do they actually mean by this nonsensical word?

And what about he persistent image of a ‘Victorian Woman’ who later developed into The French Lieutenant’s Woman – the character Sarah Woodruff in the novel by John Fowles. This image wouldn’t go away either.

In a 1969 essay titled “Notes on an Unfinished Novel,” Fowles reflects on his writing process. He said he had an image during the autumn of 1966 of “A woman [who] stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea.” He determined that she belonged to a ‘Victorian Age’ and had ‘mysterious’ and ‘vaguely romantic’ qualities. He made a note at the time about the function of the novel saying:

“You are not trying to write something one of the Victorian novelists forgot to write; but perhaps something one of them failed to write. And: Remember the etymology of the word. A novel is something new. It must have relevance to the writer’s now – so don’t ever pretend you live in 1867; or make sure the reader knows it’s a pretence.” And not long afterwards The French Lieutenant’s Woman, one of the most intriguing, postmodern historical fiction novels of the 20th century is born.

A sign, a house, a person. Whatever the object of fascination is, it seems to me that often, if we let it, obsession turns into a creation.

Unknown Wedding Couple WW2 Identified!

Unknown wedding couple

And so it begins. Another photo that rears up and grabs me by the throat. Each photo that has done that to me always presents questions to be answered. In this one I can’t believe the answer isn’t readily available. I first caught sight of the photo of three people at a wedding just a few days ago whilst researching Australian war brides of WW2 for a talk I’m giving on 1 June.

The beautiful young woman is about to cut the cake, her bridegroom is holding her hand and in front of them stands a very pleasant, affable young pilot. I glanced below to find out the names of all three. The young wedding couple are unidentified. My first reaction was shocked disbelief. How can that be? Him with his movie star looks and her, very stylish and glamourous. She looks down a little as if to say, “Let the boys have their joke. I’m concentrating on the cake.”

And gosh, her wedding dress is not your run of the mill wartime dress, handmade or second-hand. It looks like something out of Hollywood. Yet I suspect she’s English. Where did she get the dress? It is almost timeless in it’s elegance. And what about him? Can’t you see him in the movies? I know we shouldn’t judge people by their appearances but such beauty in both of them would have definitely marked their lives in some way. They would have been an unforgettable couple for one thing. Gossiped about probably. Envied definitely.

Of course the most important question of all is, did he survive the war? Or was his fate similar to that of FO Allen, the affable young pilot, who died on the 20th June 1942 in a flying accident, not in the skies over Germany-occupied Europe but at Breighton, Yorkshire.

The caption of the photo, held by the Australian War Memorial, merely says that the bridegroom is an unidentified pilot of the RAAF who was presumably, like Allen, attached to RAF 41 Squadron and that he was Wing Commander with a DFC. Surely as a Wing Commander he shouldn’t be too hard to find, although the AWM evidently haven’t been able to.

So many questions. If he survived the war, did they live in the UK or return to Australia, depending possibly on whether she was British or Australian? Hard to tell from the photo. I would love to find out what she did before her marriage. Did she work in an art gallery? Perhaps she was a model? Or perhaps she was from a wealthy family? She obviously had beautiful taste and looks refined. Her new bridegroom suits her completely. Even the way they hold their heads in this photo is similar, also the line of their jaws and noses. Can you imagine their children?

The death of Allen, though, does cast a shadow. And why in England? That’s another burning question. Was he returning after a mission gone wrong? Barely able to make it home and then botching the landing because of injuries he sustained? When you look at WW2 as a whole, complete thing – it is just history and statistics. When you start to drill down and look at each man or woman that died as a result of war, any war, it’s hard not to wonder what the world would be like now if we hadn’t lost a swath of brave, marvellous people. Here’s hoping I can find out more about these three, standing smiling, caught in a moment in time forever.