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.

Shopping

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_Hospital_people_killed_in_WWI_01

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.

NARRABEEN BEACH

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

 

Always

Always

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.

Out of the blue – a surprise request

Scottish Women's Hospital at Ostrovo

Scottish Women’s Hospital at Ostrovo – Source: Wikimedia Commons

I am so excited! I have been invited by Helen McLeod Meyer from Radio Adelaide to give a talk on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for her Christmas Day 2019 Scottish Broadcast.

Since 2010 when I stumbled upon this marvellous organisation I have been inspired by what this group of women achieved 100 years ago. There is so much history I want to cover: how the organisation was formed, how they efficiently ran dressing stations and field hospitals in France, Corsica, Greece, Macedonia, Romania and in Serbia and how they raised the standards of hygiene and disease management in the theatre of war.

That’s just to name a few points. Don’t get me started on all the wonderful women that worked in the field hospitals, including several Australians – Chief Medical Officers, orderlies, ambulance drivers, sanitation workers, nurses and surgeons. I am looking forward to putting together a half hour talk. The challenge will be to limit myself to that time frame when there is so much to tell.

On receiving an acceptance

Mr Peregrine at Typishly

You know how it is. You brace yourself when you see an email from a literary magazine. Oh, okay it’s back, you think to yourself. Oh well, I’ll see where else I can send it. You open the email and it’s an acceptance. If you are like me and not super confident of your abilities, it probably takes you a while to realise what the email is actually saying. That they want to publish your story! 

It is a wonderful moment and for me a rather long winding journey to this first acceptance. I first wrote some short stories in the 1980s. In the 1990s I wrote poetry (and had quite a few acceptanced) and then began writing historical fiction which pretty much consumed me. (And still does). Short story writing was not something I did anymore. But three years ago a window opened and ideas flew back in.

It has taken me a while to build up a reasonable amount of short stories that I felt worthy of sending out into the world. Spreadsheet in hand I have been submitting in earnest for a while now and lately receiving some very encouraging “please submit again”s. And then in May my first acceptance from Typishly. I have also received a second acceptance of another short story but there is nothing like your first. And here it is.

My talk on the research of Tomaree

On March 10th I will be giving a talk at Toronto FAW on the research behind Tomaree. Now that it is nearly 10 years since the book came out, the long view helps me put a few things in perspective.
Firstly I am so grateful that I began researching the book when I did. Officially that was 2 January 2002. My friend Wayne Sampey had kindly put together a group of local residents for me to question. I was blown away because I had only been expecting one or two and here I was with a whole group of strangers. I believe the discussion was recorded and I remember it as a lively one.
Back in 2002 there was still quite a few residents that I could interview about their personal reminiscences that I believe really helped with the tone of my book. Also two US soldiers were still alive and corresponding with them was marvellous. In my talk I hope to illuminate how they did help make Tomaree a better book. And more importantly the real Peggy and Tom were alive and living in California when I began the book in earnest.
Time is not kind of course and most of the people that were adults during World War II are now gone. One of the things I value now more than ever is the letters I exchanged with the real Peggy until her death in 2010. She read the beginning of Tomaree when it finally came out and said she was too moved by the first encounter between Tom and Peggy, to continue reading. I hope that I captured something of that first conversation that eventually led to a young Australian women giving up all that she had known, including her family and country, for a new life in America.
I believe I am speaking for about forty minutes. Of course I have hours and hours of memories regarding my experience of researching the novel but I hope I can touch on the main points and help give others the tools to bring the past alive.

Centenary commemorations of Dr Elsie Inglis and of the Scottish Women’s Hospital Movement

ELSIE INGLIS-LW

Descendants of pioneering Scotswoman Dr Elsie Inglis gathered at her grave today (within Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh) to mark the centenary of her death and pay tribute to her remarkable accomplishments in establishing and running the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during World War One. Photo source: Lenny Warren / Warren Media

The story of Elsie Inglis and The Scottish Women’s Hospitals is an amazing story that should be more widely known and I was so pleased to hear, earlier this year, that there would be Centenary commemorations for this marvellous woman at St Giles Cathedral on the 29th November. Although I couldn’t attend I was very excited to receive an invitation.

When war broke out in 1914 the Government put out a call for doctors and nurses to help on the front line. “Elsie was more than willing to play her part. She went first to the military authorities in Edinburgh and then to London to the War Office itself to offer her services, only to be told: “My good lady, go home and sit still.”

Of course she didn’t sit still. She went on to form what soon became known as the Scottish Women’s Hospitals which “served the war effort from 1914 to 1919 and were not finally disbanded until 1925. They started off in Calais supporting Belgian soldiers, but their main locations were four hospitals in France, two in Corsica, two in Greece, one in Macedonia, two in Romania and six in Serbia. There were also a number of satellite hospitals and dressing stations.

As a writer, discovering the existence of the SWH was life changing and of course led me to write a novel inspired by the movement and Australian women who worked at the field hospital in Ostrovo, including the novelist Miles Franklin. I am indebted to Alan Cumming for keeping me company on this journey of discovery and to Ann Wells for the gift of the booklet that was given out at the commemoration and from which I have quoted. Also for the use of the photo above. Luckily for historians and writers there are quite a few good biographies and memoirs written by members of the SWH. Contact me through this website and I can give you my full list.