Possum Magic Turns 33
Okay, people, it’s Possum Magic‘s 33rd birthday today (31st March 2016) so let’s kick-start some life into this website! This is the latest edition, with me reading the story on a CD inside.
Having promised five months ago to update the site every two months, you may have noticed that I’ve failed, failed, and failed again. Saying sorry isn’t going to fix anything. Good grief. I was so busy doing real-life stuff I didn’t even notice my digital life had collapsed. Life is what it is. I’m sincerely sorry for not having tweeted as promised. Don’t hold your breath on that one.
Off We Go!
Speaking of life, my ‘little’ sister is still living, for which I am incredibly grateful. All else fades in importance, as you can imagine. One of the highlights of the last six months was her 60th birthday in late January, but I need to get some order into this update, so I’m going to go backwards, from this Easter 2016, to October 2015. Brace yourselves for a very long ride, probably over several evenings. This entry is a long as a uni essay. (If you are reading this in America, ‘uni’ is short for ‘university’, which, in your parlance, is ‘college’.) It serves me right for not up-dating on the run.
March 2016: What I Have Read and Loved (but if you don’t like reading, skip this bit)
In mid-March I returned home from a twelve day overseas trip. I was on planes for nine of those days—one of them was 17 hours from Dallas, Texas to Sydney—so I’ve read some stunning novels. Books take me all over the world whether I’m in plane or not. I found myself in Canada, in Winnipeg to be precise, for the searing All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Towes, a heartbreak of a novel. I absolutely loved it. But it wasn’t as sad or as brilliant, or even as funny as Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, which totally tore me apart. Feathers was was set in England. Then I went to Watford in London for Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh, and finished it with my hair standing on end. Read it and tremble. In Sarah Baume’s amazingly moving book: Spill Simmer Falter Wither I went to Ireland, and met, and wanted to protect a damaged man and his damaged dog, but there was nothing I could do to save them. Then I whizzed off to Nigeria for an eye-popping meeting with an amazing, yet normal African family caught up in ghastly political tragedy, among other things, in the pages of The Fishermen by Chigozie Obiama. A sensational book. I can’t recommend it highly enough. And finally I zoomed over to the west coast of Scotland to read askance about a brute of a ploughman in the 1920’s in Wigtown Ploughman by John McNeillie, first published in 1939. It reminded me forcefully of the fact that children who are treated brutishly have almost no chance but to become brutes themselves. There were times when I felt like reading it at arm’s length so I wouldn’t be able to see what was on the page. But I read it to the end, and although it was ghastly my life was enlarged by the experience. I read another novel as well, but fortunately can’t remember the title. I was trying to finish it before I got on to yet another flight and it was so bad that I stood reading the last few pages beside an airport rubbish bin, which is where I dropped it when I was done. Hmmm. Not every book that’s published is brilliant. I was fabulously lucky to have found so many fantastic books to keep me company on my journeys. And they were all real books, with paper pages that made sounds when I turned them.
However, just in case all was lost, I did have books on my iPad. I’m reading an old Australian novel on my iPad right now and loving it. (I missed out on some great Australian novels by growing up in Africa.) This one is called The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson. It was published in 1930 but there’s nothing outdated about its writing. I’m finding it enthralling. So that’s my book rave. And that was only in the last month. Don’t ask me what I’ve read since last September. I can’t remember that far back. (I turned 70 a few weeks ago.)
Missouri, USA in March
Why was I on planes for nine days out of twelve? In mid-March I was an at early years convention at a conference centre in Tan-Tar-A, Missouri (USA), where I gave a keynote speech one evening, and a workshop the following day. A workshop is usually a smallish affair in which the interaction between me and the participants is cozy and intimate. There were 400 (!) at this workshop so they must have like what I’d said the night before. I gulped and was fearful, but calmed myself by teaching the assembled hundreds as if they were a university class of 25 students. It was a session on how to read aloud with vivacity. The ‘class’ was superb. Such good teacher-learners. We had lots of laughs. Had I been an early childhood teacher myself I would have given them all early minutes and a gold star. As you can probably tell, I had a wonderfully cheerful time, and a rewarding one. Teaching is absolutely my favourite activity—’favourite’ is the correct spelling in Australia. In my talks I rant about the teaching of reading, the fundamental importance of reading aloud to every age group we teach, and the necessity of reading aloud well, instead of in a dull and passionless manner. I always hope that children’s lives will be changed by some of the things I have said and done, and read in my talks. A big hello and thank you to all the people who were at the conference, especially the organisers—Hello, Gretchen! Hello, Jaime!—who made me so welcome. And thanks to Belle and Jerry for the long ride to and from Springfield airport.
Learning Poetry by Heart at My Age
While I was on my many flights I decided to see if my ageing memory was still working. I’ve always loved the old Australian ballads that were written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so I decided to learn The Geebung Polo Club by AB (Banjo) Paterson, who also wrote our most famous song: Waltzing Matilda. The Geebung Polo Club has many long verses but it’s incredibly funny, and the strong ballad rhythm made it moderately easy to learn by heart. I now use the ballad to send myself to sleep when I’m having trouble dropping off. So useful! Which goes to show that my memory is intact. Major relief! Ask me to recite it next time you see me. I’d be delighted. I’m reciting it at an old people’s home next week.
70th Birthday. What??!
Remember, we’re going backwards in this time-line, so we are now arriving at March 5th, the day I turned 70. I’m still reeling from the fact that I, of all people, could have turned 70. How is that possible? I’m still working. I’m still writing. I’m still walking daily with my lovely neighbour, Lorna Williams. I’m still running upstairs and skipping downstairs. I’m still weight-lifting (6 kilos/13.2 lbs) in a fitness class twice a week and doing lots of bending and stretching and cardio stuff in the same class.
It’s true that my asthmatic lungs are so ancient and decrepit that they’re definitely holding me back: I can barely run at all, although I know that if a member of my family were in danger I would be able to run like the wind. My hands are certainly old. So indeed are my terrible bones, after years of cortisone to keep the lungs working. And as for my neck, well! It must have been born twenty years before I was. It looks as if it belongs on a woman of 90. (My beloved grandson, Theo, now 6, was playing with the skin on my arms today, and asked why it was so loose. ‘Because I’m old, my darling. I’m 70. But these arms can still lift you up and hug you to bits, and do a whole lot else besides.’ He told me I wasn’t old at all, and that he would have me for a long while yet. And I said I would have him for a long time too, which was even better. And on it went. All that grandmother stuff. You had to be there.)
I marked my 70th birthday in Ireland. Why Ireland? you might be asking. Gasp. I will have to reveal my real name, which I have detested all my life: ‘Merrion’. Imagine having had to spell that out every time anyone asked: ‘…two r’s, eye, OH, en.’ It drove me mad, so I called myself Mem when I was about 14. At the same time, my two best friends changed their names too, for fun. Barbara became (and remains, to me) Blah. Blah and I were in a singing duo called The Barberrions (get it?!) in our late teens. Our other friend, Caroline, became Clang. And then, as a teenager, while I was reading an Irish novel: Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan, I read the word Merrion. It leapt off the page. My own name! I was overjoyed. It was a square in Dublin, I discovered, near the Houses of Parliament. And there was a park in Merrion Square. And Oscar Wilde and WB Yeats had both lived in Merrion Square. And best of all, many years later, I discovered that there was Merrion Hotel in Merrion Square.
So, with my family’s shocked blessing, I ran away from home for my 70th, to the Merrion Hotel in Merrion Square, Dublin, to avoid all the palaver of local celebrations. The fellow-members of my fitness class did manage to spring a surprise party at the sweaty end of a session, which was delightful and hysterical—two of them accompanied the singing of Happy Birthday on ukeleles!— but in spite of the protestations of friends, I succeeded in escaping any other event that might have publicly marked my movement across the Bridge of Youth into the sad Country of Old Age. At the Merrion Hotel I was joined for the whole weekend by the famous Blah herself, who now lives in Scotland, and whom I hadn’t seen for 35 years.
We met as we were both checking into the hotel. 35 YEARS! You can imagine the scene. The reaction of the staff was touching to behold. It was so divine.
How wonderful it was to sign in as Merrion, to the Merrion Hotel. My name was everywhere, on everything. I decided I loved it after all, and would forever tell people what my real name was, instead of saying: ‘I never talk about it.’ I cannot thank or praise the Merrion Hotel enough for its/their kindness during my stay. Blah and I were both upgraded into suites. Little birthday cakes were delivered to my room while we were at breakfast and ‘Happy Birthday!’ was written on the platter in chocolate icing. Fresh hyacinths were placed in our rooms. The whole place appeared thrilled that I had come all the way from Australia to celebrate my 70th birthday at The Merrion, merely on account of my name. Or was it that I was so thrilled I willed everyone else to be thrilled too?
On the actual day, Blah and I were joined at the famous Merrion Hotel afternoon tea by a Mercy Sisters nun, Margaret Scroope, a lovely, lively Australian whom I’d worked with once in a tough school in Sydney. She’s now based in Dublin. And also with us was a true local, the very funny Siobhan Parkinson, publisher of children’s books at Little Island in Dublin, whom I had met a couple of years before at a convention in America. What a ‘Merry-on’ little band we were! The afternoon tea was meant to be from 4:30-6pm but we partied on until 8:30 pm, just the four of us. Champagne on the house added to the merriment. For once, I drank it. I’m usually a boring non-drinker, thanks to the additives in wine that make me wheeze and seize up.
It was a fairy tale weekend. Fantastically good to see Blah again! We found it impossible to believe we were 70 year old grandmas. We felt as if we were still 17. Siobhan gave us Sunday lunch the following day: pot roast. Delicious. It was 3ºC/37ºF outside. Brrrr.
I hope you will allow me that perfect weekend.. As the child of missionaries I admit to feeling terribly guilty about having so much fun. But the rest of the time, I promise, I’m happily devoted to looking after my family, friends and colleagues, although in a state of permanent weariness, trying to successfully combine the roles of mother-and-wifehood, with my writing and speaking; let alone taking on the dominant role role of being a grandmother, which I wouldn’t relinquish for anything, no matter how tired I am, and it is tiring, there’s no doubt. Any working grandma will tell you that, before she collapses on the bed for a nana nap.
The Wayne Swan Event in February
As if there weren’t enough highlights in the first three months of the year, in February I was invited to an event with Wayne Swan, MP. He’s the ex-Federal Treasurer who, with our then-Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, saved Australia from the ravages of the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2010. South Korea was the only other country to come through unscathed. As a lifelong member of the Australian Labor Party—I’d be a Democrat in the USA—I view Wayne Swan as a hero of our times, so it was with great excitement that I accepted his invitation. Like so many politicians, Wayne is well aware that the first five years of life are the basis of a child’s future, and that reading to children regularly from birth to five will change their lives forever. It was a message that he wanted to reiterate to his electorate of Lilley. So I delivered it, to a packed audience at the Taigum shopping centre. The crowd was so big that my first instinct was to shrink back into the wall for a moment.
I read a selection of my books, which the shopping centre sold. All the profits went to my chosen Queensland charity, The Pyjama Foundation, whose volunteers read books once a week to foster children, for the sheer pleasure of sharing stories. In the afternoon I visited a disadvantaged school and read books again to a positively delightful and diverse group of children. And all day long it was Wayne Swan who carried my heavy book bag. What a prince! You’d imagine a man like that who’s been at the forefront of politics at a crucial time in our history to be something of a self-aggrandising pain. So many other politicians are. But not this one. He’s quiet, gentle, lovely, normal—and wildly effective. And before I forget, thank you to his gorgeous staff member, Holly Shine, for making the day so successful.
What I love and admire about Wayne—sorry to go on and on, but honestly!—is his absolutely genuine Labor passion for using politics to take care of people who might need to be taken care of: the sick, the poor, the unemployed, the exploited, the elderly (don’t count me in that number!), the homeless, the under-educated, the marginalised, the entire environment, the whole country, and so on. He sifts carefully through every policy put forward by his side of politics—or the other side—to make sure that the disadvantaged are not going to be further disadvantaged by whatever plan is afoot.
Two Contrasting Events in February
Prior to the Wayne Swan event I gave presentations at opposite ends of the country. The first was in Bundaberg, Queensland, organised by the Bundaberg Library, so three cheers for them. The weather, the people, the various sessions with adults and children, and my favourite drink: Bundaberg (Bundy’s) Ginger Beer made that a very happy trip indeed. (And you were a trooper, Sue Gammon. Thank you!) The sugar cane country around Bundaberg is so different from where I live in Adelaide that it’s hard to believe you’re not in a foreign land. For those of you reading this in the US, you have to remember that if you put the map of Australia sideways on the map of the America they’re the same size: huge, both of them. We have a population of 24 million while the States has over 300 million—in the same space!
My other contrast was a school in Melbourne that was again so different from Bundaberg that you sort of have to shout for joy at Australia’s diversity. I presented to the parents of the students at Mentone Grammar one evening, and then to the children the next day. Now you’d think that my greatest fan would be roughly in the age group of 0-7, but John Nolan, the Junior School director who invited me, has to wear that crown. The corridors of the school were superbly curated exhibitions of my books, put together by John himself.
Just amazing! I don’t get out as much as I used to so I’m now taken aback by other people’s image of who I am. Obviously, to myself I am only me, pottering along with my little family, in my own quiet way, somewhere near a beach in Adelaide, South Australia. John made me feel ten feet tall and Very Important. I am only 5’3″ or 159 cms.
The only non-joyous thing about Bundaberg, Mentone Grammar and Missouri was the need to write speeches. It takes me weeks to write an hour-long presentation and each of these was different enough to require a whole new talk. The stress of it! I could feel myself grinding my teeth at night, but I’d said yes so long before any of these events finally hit me that there was no way out but to grind away and get them done. I loathe listening to boring speeches so much myself—who doesn’t?— that I live in horror of giving one myself.
In mid-January (look how fast we’re moving backwards!) my middle sister Jan, who has lived in Italy for many years, came to stay. Our tiny family of four—three generations of only four people—increased to a magical five. Wow! Living so far from all my remaining family means such visits are a total joy. I see in my sister some of the mannerisms of our mother, needless to say, and it chokes me up. And it’s delicious to watch Theo and Jan together. A long time ago Jan was an early childhood teacher so she’s brilliant with little kids: treats them like intelligent adults and they rise to expectations. We recalled the old familiar sayings of our dad, and reminisced about our enchanted childhood in Africa, and about our parents’ wild political activities on behalf of the Africans who were so downtrodden at that time. Things forgotten were remembered, and those memories sparked others and and it was so comforting. Then Jan went to New South Wales to visit our other sister, Alison (Lailu) and I joined them later for Lailu’s 60th.
Man, oh man! (Am I allowed to say that in 2016?) What an occasion that was! If you’re good at arithmetic you’ll realise that there are almost exactly ten years between me and my little sis. I have hinted in the past that she’s been terribly ill. That remains the case. She said in her speech that she hadn’t expected to be at her humdinger of a birthday party. But she was, and the joy of it was just wild. Vast numbers of supportive, dear, loving cousins came from everywhere. (Angela dearest, you were fabulous, thank you!) They are good singers, these cousins of ours, and players of guitars, so a rousing choir sang a song I’d written about Lailu’s life, to the tune of Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho. Some of it was R-rated, much to her daughter’s amazement. I thought Lailu was going to fall off her wheelchair she laughed so much. (She’s been a paraplegic since she was 23.) I panicked about candles for her cake, at the last minute, because it was a summer pudding and candles wouldn’t have worked: they’d have sunk in. So five of us and her beloved carer, Leonie, held six real candles, lit of course, and she rolled past and blew out each one, one by one. I was a wreck. The days after that were Three Sisters days. I don’t have to tell you how special they were: the days and my sisters. And I’ll just mention in passing that Lailu’s husband, Stephan, is a saint.
Summer Holidays in January (confusing, if you’re in the northern hemisphere)
In the first week in January, right after Theo’s 6th birthday, Malcolm—my husband: I dislike the word ‘partner’. I didn’t get married in 1969 in order to have a mere ‘partner’—and Theo and I went to Kangaroo Island for three days. It’s only 30 minutes from Adelaide by plane. It was paradise for a small boy who thinks David Attenborough is his personal friend. At Raptor Domain he named all the birds in a clear voice for all to hear before the ranger could tell us himself, which was both cute and annoying. Theo is our bird man. We supply the bird books and he studies them. Extraordinary. We are have no interest in bird-watching ourselves, except that now we’re sort of obliged to have an interest. For Theo, being able to be up close and personal to vast numbers of native birds and animals was fabulous, but a little difficult for us: we couldn’t drag him away from anything. Grandparents! So hopeless at such a time. And the music Theo loves made Malcolm want to crash the car on the long journeys between one animal kingdom and another. He exaggerated his dislike, for comic effect. Theo was in fits. It was hysterical. We had a lovely time, even though a good coffee was hard to find. Chloë (Theo’s mum, our daughter) slept for three days in our absence, which was the point of the whole exercise. No photos. Chloë is a fiend for privacy, especially for Theo. Fair enough.
The Prime Minister Makes a Phone Call
Moving right along, backwards, to November 2015. Nearly done! I heard one morning that our new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had just opened a library in Melbourne and had read Possum Magic during the proceedings. I was ecstatic. And grateful. Think of all the other books he could have chosen! I rang his electorate office immediately to pass on my thanks and the person who took the message said: ‘Oh, we’re all Possum Magic fans here, Mem.’ So kind, especially as I’m a Labor voter.
A few minutes later the phone rang and I said, ‘Mem Fox speaking,’ and the other person said, ‘Hello Mem, it’s Malcolm Turnbull.’ OMIGOD: the Prime Minister himself. I was so flabbergasted I could barely make my mouth move, but with the usual informality of Australians I said: ‘Ooh! MALCOLM! I may have to take this phone call from the floor in case I faint.’ We had a most cordial, charming, lively conversation about politics (I was bold), books and grandchildren, during which I kept saying to myself in disbelief: THIS IS THE PRIME MINISTER! If you live in England, it’s like having David Cameron phone you; or in the USA, Barack Obama. I floated around for days after that, Labor voter or not. (Don’t worry, Wayne Swan remains safely cemented to his pedestal.)
The No-News Book News
It’s appalling really, that we’ve almost come to the end of this endless catch-up without my having mentioned the writing of books, which is what you might have wanted to know at the very beginning. Apologies. I haven’t written a word since last August. Too busy with other things. I write rarely, as I’ve said many times before. My subconscious is probably writing on my behalf the whole time because somehow the books appear; and I know I wrote them because I have fat files of mostly hideous drafts for each one, half scrawled in 4B pencil and half typed. But there is good news. Penguin is hosting a celebratory dinner for me in Sydney to mark the fact that Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes has reached sales of a quarter of a million. I love a book like this one that sells quietly for years and years. It’s a solid book, not flashy.
The other good news is that there’s a new Mem Fox & Judy Horacek book out in November 2016, our fourth collaboration, with adorable illustrations obviously, as it’s a Work of Judy, but it feels a bit early to be talking about it in detail, so I’ll resist. Where is the Green Sheep? was our first and most famous book, and it’s now passed the million sales mark. Many a Green Sheep birthday cake has been made over the years. Take a look at this one, home-made!
There’s another book coming out in March next year about which I’m so excited I can barely contain myself. It’s a hopeful book, yet it makes me weep when I recite it. No one I’m working with: my agent, publisher, or illustrator wants me to mention a thing about it, so I won’t, except to say it exists. The two latest books: This &That and Nellie Belle are behaving themselves very nicely. A friend who has a grandchild in Germany told me she’d had to read Nellie Belle to her little Hannah 18 times in a couple of weeks. Sue, the grandmother, can say it off by heart, which is more than I can myself at this point.
Book Tour and Book Tours in General
In October/November 2015 Judy and I went on a book tour to many cities and towns around Australia promoting This & That, accompanied by that wonderful whirlwind otherwise known as our Scholastic publicist, Sarah Hatton.
From afar, a book tour must seem like living the dream: we’re cosseted, flown here and there, jump into taxis that other people call, put into lovely hotels, treated nicely by everyone we meet, and so on. But by the end of a tour you’re so drained you can hardly drag yourself onto the last plane for the final flight home. At the end of this particular tour I burst into tears, at my age!—on a busy Friday evening at Sydney airport when one of the security staff spoke to me with astounding, very public rudeness about an aerosol that I had inadvertently left in my carry-on bag. It wasn’t the aerosol really, it was weeks of early mornings, late nights, skipped meals, different events and appearances on radio and tv and in libraries and bookshops, and massive signings: all good, of course, as the aim of a book tour is to sell books, but not easy for anyone of any age, such as a certain person on the verge of her six score years and ten. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t go to drama school for three years for nothing. I absolutely love each separate event. They’re such a buzz. Judy is hilarious to work with. It’s just the accumulation of events and time away from home that mount up and knock me out. The photo below is of Judy on the left, and me at the on-line store, Booktopia, with a Booktopia assistant (poor thing!), about to sign piles and piles and piles of copies of This & That and Goodnight, Sleep Tight! Be careful what you wish for!
Not To Be Left Out
The only member of my family whom I haven’t really mentioned yet is Chloë, who adores teaching French at a nearby public high school while she studies for her doctorate. It’s a superb school with inspiring leadership. She wouldn’t want me to say anything else, except that I love her to bits. Mothers! You know what they’re like.
So that’s it. If you have read this far you must be absolutely exhausted. Thanks so much for accompanying me on this marathon. Let’s fall over the finish line together: down we go…crash!
Love and laughter,