Weekly photo challenge: Abstract

South coast, New South Wales, a week or so ago.

At Mosquito Bay we met a man who said, Go to Wasp Head.

There we saw sandstone patterns to challenge the best barista.

The Lower Permian Wasp Head Formation, formed about 300 million years ago (!) is near the Murramarang National Park, easily accessible at low tide.

Thanks Dailypost for the Abstract inspiration.

George (and Mephisto)

Since last year the Australian War Memorial has been projecting names of Australians who died in WWI onto the front of the building. I’ve been to the Memorial on cold dark nights to see the names of two brothers, D’Arcey and Frank. Recently, it was their brother George’s turn.

George Ronald Shaw, my grandfather’s cousin, was killed in France, near Sailly-sur-la-Lys, on 20th April 1916, a hundred years ago this week. He was 24, the first of the three brothers to be killed in action, all of them in France. (My grandfather was wounded on the Somme a few months later but returned home alive.)

George Ronald Shaw, name projection, Australian War Memorial, 1st March 2016

George Ronald Shaw, name projection, Australian War Memorial, 1st March 2016

George had disembarked in Marseille on 3rd April and made it all the way to the Somme in northern France, where he was killed 17 days later when his billet, a farmhouse, was shelled. His record says he was KIA, killed in action, but he actually didn’t get to fight against anyone.

An aside: the last couple of times I’ve been to the War Memorial to photograph my relatives’ names, I’ve read the banners advertising the presence of Mephisto, the Rarest Tank in the World (they were still there when I took the photo above, but in preparation for Anzac Day on Monday, they’ve been removed). Today I decided to see Mephisto for myself. It’s a Sturmpanzerwagen A7V invented by the Germans, and Mephisto is the only one of its kind left in the world. It has a painted red Faustian demon on the right side, carrying a British rhomboid-shaped tank under its arm. Hence the name Mephisto, short for the Faustian character, Mephistopheles. It was a great lumbering vehicle, hot, cramped and noisy inside, but it was one of the first of many tanks that would change land warfare for ever.

The War Memorial was quite crowded this morning, and Canberra generally seems to have more people moving around this weekend than usual. Perhaps they’re here for the Anzac Day long weekend. I’m considering going to the dawn service on Monday. I’ve never done it. Yet.


Tobruk – 75th anniversary

The siege of Tobruk began 75 years ago on 10th April, 1941, and yesterday in Canberra the anniversary was marked at the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ memorial on Anzac Avenue.

Tobruk is a small town on the Libyan coast with a deep water harbour, which Australian, British and Indian troops were charged with protecting in 1941 to prevent Rommel and his German forces from accessing the port and advancing into Egypt. The men of the Tobruk garrison withstood attacks for eight months, never retreating or surrendering. The Nazi propagandist ‘Lord Haw Haw’ said they were like ‘rats in a trap’, and from then the Australian troops proudly called themselves the ‘Rats of Tobruk’.

My father arrived in North Africa in September and worked in the hospital where he saw numbers of wounded men from Tobruk. Other soldiers gave him some photos of the harbour and town of Tobruk in various states of ruin, which he brought back in an album when he returned to Australia. A couple of photos are enough to give an idea of the bay in 1941.

The monument on Anzac Avenue is modelled after another one which you can see in the black and white photo, constructed in the cemetery at Tobruk but destroyed a few months after. Beside it is the present monument in Canberra in a photo I took today. On the front of the new one is a bronze eternal flame that faces the avenue, below which were laid wreaths for the 75th anniversary of the siege:

The Tobruk siege is significant for two firsts. It was the first defeat of Hitler’s troops on land. And Corporal John Hurst Edmondson, who died from wounds and is buried in Tobruk cemetery (and whose grave photo is also in my father’s album) was the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the war (awarded posthumously).

Finally, a poem. Here are the first two stanzas of Wounded from Tobruk, recorded by my father in his poetry book, but written by James Andrew “Tip” Kelaher and published in The Bulletin on 29 October 1941. Sadly, Tip Kelaher was killed the following year at El Alamein in Libya. Here’s the page in my father’s writing, followed by my transcription with corrections:

Wounded from Tobruk by James Andrew "Tip" Kelaher, 1941

Wounded from Tobruk by James Andrew “Tip” Kelaher, 1941

You come limping down the gangplank
Or you’re carried down instead,
Covered by a dusty blanket
With a boot beneath your head,
And you all look lean and hungry
Underneath that Aussie grin,
Sick of bully beef and biscuits,
But the sort that won’t give in.

Perhaps you’re smiled at by a bearer,
Who is muscular and big,
Fishing fags out of his pocket
With a “Better have one, Dig”.
And you take it as he lights it,
And return the wry old grin,
Making little of your troubles,
But there’s no one taken in.

Poets, photographers, artists, sculptors, and a corporal who saved a man but sacrificed his own life. We must write about them lest we forget.



Joseph Olenin’s Coat

By coincidence, a literary journal named The Cossack Review has accepted my translation of a story set in Russia and Ukraine. There are no cossacks in the story, but there is a quirky Russian man who falls in love with a coat. He is alone, winter is long, his sojourn in the Russian countryside is monotonous and tedious, and now he is besotted with a velvet and sable coat that is not his.

You can read ‘Joseph Olenin’s Coat’, my translation of ‘Le Manteau de Joseph Olénine’ by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé (or Marie-Eugène-Melchior, Vicomte de Vogüé!), in Issue 6 of The Cossack Review, out now. The original was published in 1886 in an illustrated review, Les Lettres et les Arts. Above, in the header, is a part of the decorative first page as it appeared in the Paris journal. And here’s one of the images that appeared mid-story:

'Contemplation' by M. H. Gray, illustration in 'Le Manteau de Joseph Olénine' in 'Les Lettres et les Arts', Paris, 1 July 1886

‘Contemplation’ by M. H. Gray, illustration for ‘Le Manteau de Joseph Olénine’ in ‘Les Lettres et les Arts’, Paris, 1 July 1886

And here’s the cover of the spring 2016 issue of The Cossack Review (not from Paris, nor from Russia, but from America):

Issue 6 features new prose, poetry, and translation from twenty-five contributors and three translators.

A few weeks ago I told a friend that I do read Facebook but I never write on it. Well, today – never say never – I wrote on it for the first time, after reading, somewhere, recommendations for promoting one’s own writing. Apparently I was mad not to be taking advantage of it.

I much prefer blogging. I’ve enjoyed writing this post today, hunting down the picture and thinking about my words. Facebook seems too narrow by comparison; but perhaps I should look at it like one of those poster pillars we see in city centres, where people can legally post bills. So today, I posted a bill advertising the journal that has very kindly published my translation.

If you read ‘Joseph Olenin’s Coat’, let me know.


Weekly photo challenge: Half-light

From Core of my heart, by Dorothea Mackellar (1908)

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land –
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand.

It was Friday, the end of the week, the end of the day, the end of my birthday. My family had picnicked on fish and chips by the lake, and then in the half-light of the evening the younger ones pulled out the Frisbee. The blue of the sky and water dimmed as they played, and I thought of my opal-hearted country.

Twilight frisby

I joined in the game briefly, but was frightened, like a girl, of the speed of the thing tearing towards me, and rather than confront it, I ducked, but duckers are no fun. Not wanting to spoil their game, I returned to the table to pack up. Besides, half-light is not enough light for catching a hurtling object.

When I turned round, three of them were standing at the water’s edge. The green of the distant trees was darkening and Black Mountain was indeed nothing but a silhouette. The sky and water were now mauve, and one of my sons had dropped onto all fours on the lake’s stone edge. Was he going in?

Is he going in?

I could hear them laughing, which was some comfort. The February evening was warm, and he wouldn’t be too chilly if he ended up in the drink.

It takes two

Ah! It was the Frisbee that had gone in! Clearly, it takes not just one good man, nor two, to rescue a plastic flying disc. Here was my son, his father holding him by the arm, his brother holding his leg. But was his arm long enough to draw the Frisbee to his side?

It takes three

Yes! The Frisbee lives, to be played with another day. And although he was as far over the side as possible without actually being in the water, nothing more than his arm got wet. Neighbouring picnickers applauded his amazing feat! Then, with the light all but gone, we retired to the house for supper.

Frisby rescued

Thanks WordPress for the inspiration. And thanks also to an evolving scientist for reminding me of Core of my heart.


A writing exercise: Describe something you see differently from others.

My vision allows me a clear view of everything within about a foot; beyond this, the world blurs. Yet when I lie in bed sleepless at two in the morning, without my glasses on, I can distinguish something through my sheer white curtains. Two stars, literally twinkling, catch my eye. They’re the pointers, signposts to the Southern Cross, the constellation Crux. And if I sit up and push the curtain aside, my poor eyesight can make out the five stars of the Cross, so brightly are they shining.

At 10 o’clock when I go to bed, Crux is on my horizon, just above the southern rooftops. I’m comforted by its presence, it helps me fall asleep. When I wake again at 2 o’clock, it’s at just the right angle to shine in my window. Often I’ll sit up and write or translate for a couple of hours until 4 o’clock, when the Cross is so high in the sky that I have to stretch my neck to see it almost above my house. If I’m still awake before dawn, I have to put on my glasses, go outside and look straight up.

For locations south of 34°S, that is, anywhere in the southern hemisphere south of Sydney, the circumpolar Crux is always visible in the inland night sky, even in this city of Canberra, for our population is small and produces only a little light pollution. In the dark sky the five stars of the cross – named in decreasing order of brightness from the bottom star, Alpha, then Beta on our left, Gamma at the head, Delta on our right, and the small one Epsilon – are easy to see.

These Greek names are scientific and logical, but the awesomeness of the Southern Cross has turned some star namers into poets. The blue-white star, Beta, is also known as  Mimosa, from the Latin mimus, mime. Near it is a blue, red, orange and yellow star cluster called the Jewel Box, and just below it is a dark nebular, a cloud of interstellar dust called the Coalsack, a black fish shape in the whiteness of the Milky Way. And of course there’s the name of the Southern Cross which came from Christian European sailors exploring the southern oceans in the 15th and 16th centuries, discovering that this star pattern, which resembled the Christian cross, was a useful navigational guide.

Crux and Coalsack. Courtesy Naskies, Wikimedia Commons

Crux and Coalsack. Courtesy Naskies, Wikimedia Commons

But back to the pointers that accompany me as I write in the wee hours of the morning. Furthest from the cross is Alpha Centauri, the closest active galaxy to the earth. Yet, Beta Centauri, a hundred times further away, is brighter. To my dim eyes they seem the same distance from my window, both glowing with the same intensity.

Science is not my cup of tea, I’m not blinded by it, but I am dazzled by the two points of light shining through my curtains, the ones that, in all my former life in the northern part of Australia, I had never really noticed.

Crux_(Southern_Cross)_from_Hobart,_Tasmania, courtesy Edoddridge, Wikipedia

Crux_(Southern_Cross)_from_Hobart,_Tasmania, courtesy Edoddridge, Wikipedia

Postscript: My son is soon to be married, and the wedding breakfast will be at the Southern Cross Club.

Post Postscript: He’s marrying an astronomer.


Agnes at the beach

A writing exercise. Describe nature imitating art.

I thought how pleasant it would be to pass through the quiet town and take a solitary ramble on the sands while half the world was in bed. […] Nothing else was stirring – no living creature was visible besides myself. My footsteps were the first to press the firm, unbroken sands; – nothing before had trampled them since last night’s flowing tide had obliterated the deepest marks of yesterday.

Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë

Late afternoon, south coast, New South Wales. The last waves of the ebb tide roll in, low impact waves thinning out as they feebly stretch their way up the shore. They wash back, and watery fingers gouge long grooves, dragging rutile particles from a pinpoint, down and out in fine sinuous curves, crisscrossing and lying darkly over each other. Peppery grains gather at the edges of the patterns, sharpening the lines. People and dogs tread obliviously over the etchings; not one is without a footprint. On this beach, unmined for mineral sands, the waves retreat and carry some of the lighter sand into the ocean, leaving rutile behind, a heavy mineral that resists movement and forms patterns like fine charcoal sketches. Mined beaches have the rutile sifted out and the whiter quartz grains put back where they were found, making a new beach that is strangely light, where there are no artworks at sunset.

Next morning, I go early to the beach to look for lines in the sand. They’re all gone, the art has been washed away and the rutile is no longer gathering in dark rivulets. The night tide has stirred and blended it with the regular quartz grains. As I, like Agnes, make the first footprints in the sand, I see the dark specks that soften the glare. In the late afternoon the sketches will reappear, no two lines ever twisting the same way twice, not drawn with a pencil or brush or sculptor’s tool, but with the ebb tide.


PS  I posted this piece yesterday about nature imitating art, and today the WordPress Photo Challenge is… Life imitates art. That’s a coincidence.


A writing exercise. Describe something never before described. Something that makes you look twice.

I’m sitting on a park bench, my feet tucked up on the seat to keep away from large two-centimetre ants wandering about looking for their nest. I can see it, in the soil to my right. Nearby, a crowd of regular-size ants crawls over and under a small Christmas beetle, devouring its innards. The beetle’s iridescent elytra – its hardened forewings – were intact when I arrived, but now one elytron is hanging loose, barely attached. It’s a small and pretty beetle, yellow with blue and purple tints like a tiny metallic-painted VDub. I look back to the large ants that have found their nest, a broad depression in the dry soil. In it is a bed of eucalyptus leaf litter, and at its centre, a jewel, a deep emerald green beetle. Can’t tell if he’s dead or just playing dead. I want to save him from the marauding ants, take him to my safe home.

I have nothing with me except a paperback novel; I pick him up on two gum leaves and sit them on the book, and his little black legs stretch out. Not dead, sleeping. He tries to walk away but the plastic film of the book cover is slippery and he can’t get a grip. I walk towards home, holding the book horizontally, tipping it repeatedly, watching him slide back towards my fingers. He never tries to fly away. Christmas beetles are clumsy fliers anyway; he probably wouldn’t get far before slamming his tiny body into an obstacle. At night we hear them hitting the windows, flying blind. It sounds like someone tap tap tapping. In the mornings there are always a few upside down on the ground beneath the glass. If they’ve survived, they just need flipping over and off they go. Otherwise they’re trapped on their backs and die. Reminds me of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

Resigning himself to fate, he crawls underneath the larger leaf where he thinks I can’t see him, and hangs on for the remainder of the walk.

Back home, I put the book on the table and the leaves and beetle fall off.

I encourage him to walk on top of a leaf but he doesn’t trust me, crawls beneath the longest one and hangs upside down.

I take his photo and release him into the native garden in my back yard.



A writing exercise. Describe something never before described.

Someone at work or play. Or trying to sleep.

Insomnia.  A Chekhovian professor in A Boring Story, which incidentally isn’t boring, suffered from it.  He says:

“If I were asked: ‘What is now the chief and fundamental fact of your existence?’, I would reply:  ‘Insomnia.’ ”

And for the next 28 lines the professor describes his nights when he doesn’t have the right to be awake.

Yes, insomnia has been described before. However, there’s no insomnia like one’s own.


Why does it take me so long to fall asleep now I’m in the second half of my life? Chekhov’s fictional professor goes to bed every night at midnight and wakes at one o’clock. And that’s it. That’s all the sleep he gets. The rest of the night he paces and reads and waits for the cock’s crow. Here in my bedroom it’s presently 12.30am and I’m thinking of the professor. Two hours I’ve been in this bed. My mind is busy, buzzing even, anything but tired, yet my body is weak and exhausted. Yesterday was hot, and the heat lingers. My feet are too warm, puffed up; I’ve kicked off the quilt and even the sheet.

At 10.30 when I lay down, my window was open wide, but so was the neighbours’. They had guests, and their games and laughter and loud voices carried across the night air into my room. An hour and a half had passed before the guests departed and all went quiet next door. Now, despite another half an hour of a fair silence, I’m still awake. The night breeze picks up. In the next bedroom, the bed empty for now, the blind on the open window blows in and falls back with the gusts, bang bang bang, as its plastic base rod hits the window frame. It’s too hot, no point shutting it, the man who will sleep in that empty bed will only open it when he finally comes home. Minutes later, he does. I hear his feet gingerly treading on creaky floorboards as he comes down the hall, puts his keys in his room, then makes his way to the bathroom and back again. Far off in the distance, leftover fireworks from New Year’s Eve illegally explode every ten to fifteen minutes. In the emptiness of the town they sound much closer, like gunshots. Across the street someone walks a dog past the fence of the government flats where another dog picks up the scent and barks out a repetitive warning. The walking dog responds for as long as its adversary is in sight, the barking echoing in the tunnel of the street. Outside my room all at last is silent, but the bathroom light has been left on and is shining under my door. I can’t ignore it. I get up and turn it off. It’s now 1.30.

‘Not to sleep at night means to be conscious every minute that you are abnormal, and that is why I wait impatiently for the morning and the day, when I have the right not to sleep.’
A Boring Story, Anton Chekhov

At 6.30am I wake to the sound of creaking floorboards, the shower running, doors opening and shutting as the man from the next bedroom gets ready for work. I rise and prepare for a two-hour journey to another town to visit an aunt. I can’t cancel her; she’s 88. I’m a zombie, but fortunately I won’t be the driver. Sitting up in the front seat of the car, I can sleep.


Weekly photo challenge: Weight(less)

Today when I was out and about I stopped by the Mount Stromlo Observatory. In January thirteen years ago the Observatory’s large telescopes were destroyed or rendered useless by a massive bushfire, and now the buildings have become much-visited ruins. Here are some photos of one that feels strangely weighty and weightless when you know that heavy equipment used to occupy this cylindrical little structure, but exists no more. Now there is only air and echoes and imagination.

When I was in the shell of the former Yale Colombia Refractor telescope, I thought of the dome that burned and the heavy supports for the telescope that survived the fire and that now make dramatic photo props. It’s a special experience to enter the round space, which looks like nothing but a sad burnt-out shell; but there is always something good to be found in something ugly, you just have to look and think hard enough. Here it’s the echoes that come back at you when you open your mouth to exclaim amazement, and it’s the surprise view when you look up and see the rusted wheels that enabled the dome to turn, still sitting on top of the wall, silhouetted against a blue Australian sky.

Yale Colombia telescope ruin1

A few days after the fire, it looked like this:

Yale Colombia telescope, 19 January 2003, Image courtesy of National Library of Australia

Yale Colombia Refractor telescope, 19 January 2003, Image courtesy of National Library of Australia

The year before the fire, it looked like this:

Fisheye image of Yale Columbia refractor at Mount Stromlo

Fisheye image of Yale Columbia Refractor at Mount Stromlo, 2002, Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Since the 2003 fires, there have been no working research telescopes at Mount Stromlo. However, offices and workshops for astronomers and astronomy students from the Australian National University are still situated here.

Thanks WordPress for the photo challenge, and for suggesting that a collapsed ruin evokes weight(lessness)…