Meet Victor

Part 1

Lower him down, softly there, matey,

Though little he’ll heed a rough journey.

This is thy last trip, Victor, beneath earth’s surface,

And eight unwilling hands are lowering thee.[1]

“Victor” was my great-grandfather – Franz Paul Victor Streich. I’m working on a biography of him, and thought I’d introduce him to you.

I had grown up being told that my great-grandfather was an Important Man in Australian History. I knew that he was a scientist, that he had been “the geologist on the Elder Expedition” and that a mountain was named after him somewhere out in the desert. If I got a particular atlas down from the bookshelf behind the winged armchair in the sitting room – the only bookshelf in the house apart from a low, dusty shelf under the louvre windows in the sleep-out, to where my grandfather’s medical text books had been relegated – I could sit on the floor in the space between the shelf and the chair and open it to the page where, in tiny text, surrounded by a little ring of lines, were the words Streich Mound. The numbers beside it meant nothing to the ten-year-old me. But, full of smugness – the Streich name was in the atlas! – I imagined this to be a big mountain, solemnly named by some fat men in a wood-panelled room somewhere, because they knew my great-grandfather to be Important.

There was piece of silver on a table in the corner of the sitting room, on which was engraved “To Clara and Victor” and some other words that I can’t remember. I can’t remember what the object was, either; it may have been a wedding present. I don’t know where it is now; whether it’s still in the house where my brother lives, among other family things passed down, or whether it’s with one of my Streich cousins. I’d like to know, for sentiment sake, now; I’d like to see it again. I’d like to know so much that I didn’t know then.

I must have been a very uncurious child! I don’t think I had even clocked that Clara was the “Nannie” that my mother used to speak of so often and with such affection. Although she was much mentioned, Nannie seemed to have no other name, and Victor (who I think was simply referred to as “Grandpop’s father”) was only spoken of in reverential tones for what he had done, not who he was or what he was like. He was just someone who had died a long time ago – in Coolgardie, my mother said – and I suppose that was why there weren’t many stories about him like there were about Nannie, whom my mother had known and loved. Victor had just … been. And had been, apparently, Important.

So, I didn’t realise that Clara and Victor were Nannie and the famous explorer, or that Nannie and the man with the mountain named after him were even connected to each other.

Victor and Clara, with their young family, a year or two before Victor’s death. My Grandpop, Carl, is on the right.

I had no idea how little I knew, and had no way of knowing how important Victor’s story – and my own ignorance of it – was going to feel later in life.

My mother and my grandmother liked to set us apart from other families. My mother’s father, “Grandpop”, who had died two years before I was born, had been the much-revered local doctor, with a road named after him and a wing at the hospital. He was still a real presence in our house, the big house full of furniture my grandmother pointedly told me was antique.

There were stories about how my English-born grandmother had had maids back in the day, sometime in the 1920s and 30s – in Kelmscott, then a rural backwater in Western Australia, connected to Perth, 20 miles away, by a gravel road. There was a lot of talk about the Rochford Manor House back in England where rich Uncle Joe lived. My mother sometimes referred to our bathroom, when she wanted to reminded herself of the glory days, as “The Maid’s Room”, because that’s what it had first been used for.

With this as my domestic example, my ignorance didn’t stop me skiting in the playground, “My great grandfather”… did I even know he was my great grandfather? Perhaps I just said, “One of my family was an explorer on the Elder Expedition”.

None of my school friends seemed particularly impressed, actually. Perhaps the Elder Expedition meant as little to them as it did to me. And anyway, no one likes a show-off.

I finally acquired in adulthood some curiosity about the world around me, when I developed an interest in my family history.  I’ll talk more about that in my next post.

[i] Frank Brown. The Sun, Kalgoorlie, Sunday April 23 1905.

Covid block

It’s hard to read or write at the moment

There have been lots of articles and social media posts from avid readers who are finding it difficult, suddenly, to read in these Covid times.  This chimed with me.

Sophie Vershbow, writing in Vogue in April said “Reading is a primary form of self-care, the thing I turn to just as much when I’m happy as when I’m sad. It’s felt like losing a friend in a time when we’ve already lost so much.” 

She quotes research as showing that chronic stress affects the way the front of the brain works: “the area…[that] normally controls our ability to concentrate and switch attention from one thing to another.” So, during something as stressful as living through a global pandemic, “we lose our usual mental flexibility and become highly focused on the source of the threat,” which means it’s difficult to lose ourselves in a book.”

Some people have suggested we should consume less news.  I know I’ve been obsessively watching the news, scouring social media and reading online news sites.  And then I perpetuate the anxiety by sharing articles that impact on me on my social media pages.  It makes sense, then, that BBC journalist Emily Maitliss, in the thick of the news, tweeted:  Ok. An admission. I’m finding it really hard to read at the moment and I usually devour novels. Is anyone else? Is it concentrate span? Twitter? Or as I suspect the plots and problems now seem to belong to a slightly different age. Book tips?’

Constance Grady, in Vox, in May, interviewed Oliver J Robinson, Neurologist and psychologist, about anxiety (and the difference between anxiety and fear).  He said that anxiety is about uncertainty (fear is about the known or visible or understandable) – and with anxiety you don’t know when something is going to end.

“The pandemic that we’re in is the most uncertain thing possible. You don’t know when it’s going to end, whether you’re going to get it. You don’t even know what it is, really. And all of a sudden, everything in your environment is dangerous. Door handles are dangerous. Other people are dangerous…” To this uncertainty I’d add coping with a new normal – working from home, having your partner home all the time, home schooling, on furlough and worrying if your job is safe …

“It’s also completely uncontrollable. But what I can do is seek information. I can go on Twitter, I can go on the internet, I can search nonstop, trying to resolve this uncertainty. The problem is that you’re never going to actually resolve it [yourself].”

How does this manifest itself?  “One person might have difficulty remembering things, or difficulty staying on task, or difficulty not focusing on negative things. So it’s very hard to say, ‘This one function is affected by anxiety’.”

Laura Abernethy, in an article in the Metro of 19 May has consultant psychologist Sarah Lewis, Psychologist explaining it like this:

 “When we feel under threat we become more alert to danger, including becoming hyper-vigilant. We are fully focussed on ascertaining the source of the danger. Think of when you have been startled in the night by an unexpected noise. Immediately you think – is someone in the house? Your attention is focussed on to that sound, straining to make sense of it. Then you realise it’s your son knocking over the hall-stand trying to creep in; relief rushes over you…The problem with C-19 is that the resolution of the danger, the flood of relief, doesn’t come.”

Maybe spending more time on screens is changing the way we process information: research from Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University, quoted by Laura Abernethy, tells us that reading is a body/mind process.  Our brains like to get physically involved with what we read. Reading a book (as distinct from a screen) requires a different hand-eye co-ordination, and is a different sensual and tactile experience (the smell of the paper, the feel of turning the page). But “the instant gratification of screens means that we have the ability to take more shortcuts – browsing and scanning rather than steadily reading and absorbing. We lazily skip over text that’s more demanding rather than rereading and checking if we’ve understood.”

I wondered whether it was the same for writers, because when I left my job at the beginning of the year to return to freelancing (and, I said, finally spend some time on that book I’ve been trying to write), I found it impossible to do once Covid-19 hit.  I kept looking for diversionary activity.  I recognised my anxious state, and instead of reading, or writing, and once I’d cleaned out all the cupboards in the house, like so many others I took to gardening and jigsaws. They required something different from my brain, something that I could access.

So I took great comfort from a quote from Kit de Waal in the Guardian in May, who said, “Well, you can’t write because you’re not paying the rent, or you’ve got three kids at home, or you’re lonely. So I would say it’s not the end of the world if you do jigsaws for the next two months. I haven’t written anything since this crisis started, but I know it will come back.”

I hope it does for me, too.  I’ve been trying to exercise my writing muscle – I’ve taken workshops in Italy and in Cornwall and they have been wonderful.  But back at my desk, nothing happens. I’ve had long discussions about writing with my Australian writer/editor friend. And I decided that I needed to reactivate this blog and try to re-generate some sort of writing muscle memory.

Richard Osman, in the same Guardian article, talked about how he carved out a discipline for himself when writing The Thursday Writing Club:  “Give yourself two hours a day to write  – make a deal with yourself”.  This reminded me of an interview I did with Australian writer Olga Master several decades ago.  Olga came late to writing fiction, having raised her seven children while working as a journalist on a country newspaper.  She had no truck with writers’ block:  “Go back to your corner and write”, she said. 

Here’s Kit de Waal again: “There’s a lot to be gained by not writing, but thinking. Not catastrophising, but contemplating a piece of work that you’ve done that maybe doesn’t work or hasn’t worked in the past. Ask yourself, what is wrong with this? Can I talk to someone about why it doesn’t work?

Or as Joe Dunthorne said:  “ Even when I do manage to find some uninterrupted time, editing seems more appealing than writing. I can happily spend an hour moving a few commas around.”  This reminded me that a voraciously-reading former colleague of mine, when tweeting about the loss of reading solace during Covid, said she could re-read, but not tackle anything new.

Cue that debate I always have with myself about whether to just keep writing, anything, to keep the muscle exercised, as all writing teachers will tell you, or give in to the urge to edit and tinker, which exercises some muscle, even if it’s not the critical one (like rehabilitation after being forced to rest because of badly broken ribs, and then discovering actually you need to rebuild your atrophied leg muscles before you can sort out your core…) 

So – back to being unable to read: do we need to create some reading rituals, and stick to them?  Or join a gang (eg a reading group) to help us? Or would the neuroscientists say that simply won’t work?   Maybe there’s a lateral solution? Maybe we should be trying different or shorter forms?  Poetry?  Audio books?  Has any of this worked for you?

Going again …

I’ve found it harder than I thought I would to write

I’m re-launching my neglected blog.  Since leaving my job early this year, ostensibly to have more time to write the book I’ve been working on, and return to freelance work to enable me to manage my time better, I’ve found it harder than I thought it would be to write.  I’ve done workshops (which were wonderful) and I’ve tried various recommended tactics, but none of them are working (or perhaps I should say, I can’t make them work).  I don’t think I’m alone; lots of people have reported finding it difficult to read during the Covid-19 pandemic, and writers have reported finding it difficult to write, for all sorts of reasons.  I’ll explore that further in a new post shortly.

But for now, I’ve re-enacted my blog in the hope that it will help me re-develop a writing muscle of sorts. Give me a framework and a discipline.  Instil some new confidence that I have something to say.  Help me re-find a writing voice. 

So I’ve given everything a fresh new look, and a new name, which feels like a start. I’ve kept, as archival material, some of my older blogs, to help me feel like this isn’t a completely terrifying blank page.  As before, I’ll be blogging on the arts, writing, social history and, occasionally, politics.   

And thanks to Jane Moss and Kath Morgan of The Writing Retreat for their fab blogging workshop that got me re-inspired.

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