Where I work. Where I keep stuff…

You know you’ve been neglecting your website when you can’t remember the log in details. I’m supposed to be maintaining a relationship with my readers by writing regular posts on this blog, but I’m afraid I’ve been very slack. It’s over a year since the last one!  I also have an Author page on Facebook, which is almost as neglected as the blog on the website. Perhaps if I do both at the same time, I’ll cover the bases. I think my reluctance stems from knowing just how much we all have to read every day. Perhaps subconsciously I just want to leave you time to read books!  Anyway, here’s a start:

The most often asked question of writers is “Where do you get your inspiration from?”   But I’m also asked:  “Where do you write?”

To answer that question, I thought I’d share a photo or two of my workspace. I confess to tidying it up a bit before I took the photo, but apart from being a little less cluttered than normal, this is what it looks like.

This desk has had three of my books written on it. Most of my first book, Outback Heart, was written on a door balanced on a filing cabinet and a box, beside the computer table. Remember when computers needed a table of their own? My first one had a whole 16MB of Ram and was considered very fast. And it took floppy disks which held 1.4 Mb of data. My most recent book, Ronan’s Echo, was written onboard Tramontana, our home for 7 or 8 years, on an earlier version of the laptop I now use. Just as well someone invented the laptop. My old Apple LC11 wouldn’t have fitted on the boat.

I like having a pinboard. Keeps the desk a bit tidier, and means I do less archaelogical excavating when I need to find that interesting thing I cut out of the paper. Bits of inspiration go up there too – photos, postcards, quotes from famous authors, reminders…  It also lets me put up photos of the family so I can remember who they are when I’m in the middle of a book.

I’ve put up some of my old work as well, from my time as an illustrator and cartoonist. When I’m struggling with writing and feel like I’m hopeless, it’s good to remind myself I can do stuff. (One day I WILL write that children’s picture book I started illustrating about 20 years ago…) It’s interesting how we change. When I was drawing, that was all I wanted to do, although I guess it’s no surprise that my artwork was always word-based – cartoons or illustrations for articles.

Here’s the other side of my room:

It’s a mish-mash of a library – books about writing next to cook books. Reference books for the last book alongside tattered old treasures printed 100+ years ago. Favourite classics and children’s picture books. Ephemera. Boxes of photos and slides I swear I will sort out one day. Found objects that I just love for themselves, or which have something to do with a book idea. Old objects from my extended family. Old letters. Diaries. Things that just remind me of other things. It’s all part of being inspired, dreaming, meandering. It’s fertiliser for your imagination.

My husband will stand at the door and mutter that there must be heaps of stuff in here I could chuck out. If opposites attract, we are a great match. He loves taking stuff to the dump. I like the dump too – except I would be bringing stuff back from the recycle shop, so he never takes me on these expeditions. I admit to being a bit (just a bit) of a hoarder. My defence is that if it weren’t for people like me, social historians and anthropologists of the future would have nothing to work with. Imagine a world where the last few hundred years was all digital.  Who remembers floppy disks, and who can read one today? Who doesn’t have old files that you no longer have the software to read them with? My 1Terrabyte back up disk died recently. So much for storage solutions.

Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE my laptop. It comes everywhere with me. It would drive me nuts to try and write a book with pen and paper. I think my study reflects this. It’s as much a testament to the things that I love and that inspire me, as it is a product of the digital age. But my books won’t run out of batteries, my letters won’t need a software update for me to read them in 20 years’ time, and I don’t need a power supply to look at old photos. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking with it!

Have a great day. Read something, write something, and tell someone you love them.




The Gift of Life


On the 23rd of February, it will be the 8th anniversary of the day our daughter Ali became an organ donor, the day we accepted there was nothing more that could be done, and allowed the hospital staff to wheel her warm but lifeless body away from us. We felt so strongly about the struggle we’d gone through to make that decision, because of our own ignorance of the process involved, that I wrote about it for the Australian Medical Journal a few months later.

The hidden trauma of organ donation    Joanne M van Os, Med J Aust 2009; 191 (11): 612-613


Ali was 16 when she died in Phuket, Thailand, with barely a day’s illness in her short life. Her heart saved the life of another teenager, a 15 year old Thai girl, and her other organs saved or improved the lives of six other people. Organ donation is not something we think about very often. Most of us think it’s a good idea, but too few of us take the next step and actually sign the forms or register on line as donors. The other important – hugely important – thing you must do, is let your family know what you want to happen. If you’re in the unfortunate position of being a potential organ donor, then your family may be too traumatized to be able to give permission unless they know your wishes beforehand.

Then, read the information, and understand the process. If we had done this ourselves, we wouldn’t have spent a whole night in anguish, trying to make the right decision. We knew it was what Ali would have wanted us to do, but there are facts about organ donation that can be confronting, especially when you have lost someone you love, and the hospital bedside is not the place to find out about them for the first time.

Read the information provided by the Donate Life organization, on their website at http://www.donatelife.gov.au/understanding-donation-process

There have been several articles in the Australian press lately about organ and tissue donation and about the lives saved and improved. This is wonderful to see, and hopefully will reopen the conversation our country needs to have, about making organ donation an “opt-out” decision, not an “opt-in” as it is now.

We have never regretted making the decision to donate Ali’s organs. Knowing that seven other people would have a chance at a healthy life themselves, made the death of our beautiful daughter so much less wasteful.

Register with DonateLife now, and talk to your family, so that the people who love you know what you want.  http://www.donatelife.gov.au/decide



Dreaming of a quiet Christmas


Bliss: definition – (entirely subjective) – A cool day, a fresh wind, a pot of tea and a good book. I’m almost tempted to add “what could possibly go wrong?” but that might invoke a cyclone, so I’ll stay quiet. (Note the bookmark – a little bit of self-promotion can’t be avoided…) The gorgeous tea cozy was knitted by my friend Clare – and yes, they’re useful in Darwin! Tea goes cold fast under ceiling fans.


It’s my favourite time of year to be at home : that lovely interim between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when the town is quiet, half the population seems to have either fled north to Bali or somewhere south, and the remainder are working at half pace, or going out for breakfast and reading the books they were given for Christmas last year. People linger over coffee and newspapers in cafes, and move more slowly. The word languorously springs to mind. No one minds the rain. A torrential downpour brings people out with grins and bare feet, shoes carried across the gushing streets. It’s COOL. It’s humid, but it’s not 36C either.

During this quiet time, Lex and I have read books, spent time with friends we don’t see enough of, written long overdue letters – real letters – and taken grandkids to the movies. We’ve also put up a pin board in my writing room, setting me up to start work on the 2nd of January. I’ve pinned up props and prompts that will hopefully keep me on track, spark ideas, and remind me what I’m trying to do.  (When I’ve figured that out enough, I’ll tell you.) The grey is a bit boring, but I reckon I’ll have it hidden in another few weeks.

So for now, I wish everyone a peaceful and happy festive season, and a safer, saner and more constructive year ahead. Here’s hoping.

Happy New Year!

100 years ago today…

Today is the 100th anniversary of the battle of Fromelles. Until 2008/9, few Australians had heard of this tiny village on the old Western Front, or of the fighting that took place there in 1916. Very few towns in Australia included the name “Fromelles” on the war monuments listing their dead sons.

Photo courtesy Bobbie Ruben – Poppies in a Fromelles field

In 2008 my husband Lex, our daughter Ali and two friends were sailing our boat Malaika in southern Borneo, where we met Caroline Barker, a British forensic anthropologist. I was fascinated by Caroline’s stories about her work, which had taken her to some of the worst atrocities in war-torn parts of the globe, including Bosnia, Guatemala and Timor, recovering and identifying victims of mass killings. Her next job was a dig at a place called Pheasant Wood, in northern France, a WW1 battlefield. She said, “You Australians are obsessed about Gallipoli, and rightly so, but Fromelles was a much bigger disaster.” As soon as I was home again, I began reading.

In 1916, some 6 months after the evacuation from Gallipoli, Australian soldiers fought their first major battle in Europe. The Battle of the Somme had begun on 1 July, and the action at Fromelles was intended to draw German troops away from the Somme. It was a complete disaster.

The fighting began at 6pm, along a front of less than 4000 metres. It ended about 9am the following morning, but most of the casualties were sustained by 9pm the first evening. Three hours. In that time, 1701 Australians were killed, a further 216 died of wounds, 470 were taken prisoner, and 3146 were wounded. 5533 Australian soldiers taken out of the conflict in just one night. As Robin Corfield writes in “Don’t forget me, cobber” : “These losses were the highest for one Australian Division in one day in the whole war, the 60th Battalion’s losses the highest for any Australian battalion in a single action.”

The morning after, the Germans asked for a ceasefire in order to collect the casualties. The generals, including Australian General McCay, refused, so young German soldiers were sent out under cover of night to collect as many of the dead as they could. They recovered enemy dead as well as their own, and the bodies were searched for ID which was later sent to the Red Cross. 250 Allied dead were buried behind the German lines at Pheasant Wood, near the village of Fromelles.

Many years later, a Melbourne history teacher named Lambis Englezos met survivors of the battle and became interested in the history. He realised after much investigation that there were men not accounted for on the lists at the VC Corner cemetery. In his words: “…the number of Australian soldiers who died at Fromelles and the numbers recorded at the VC Corner Cemetery just didn’t add up.”

It took Lambis Englezos years of effort to convince authorities in Australia and Britain to agree to a search, and on the first survey in 2007, they found evidence of Australian soldiers. The following year 250 bodies were exhumed, and by 27 May 2016, 150 soldiers have been identified.

The result of my research into the battle of Fromelles was my novel Ronan’s Echo. Everything I read about it affected me profoundly. One line in particular influenced me a great deal. A woman who bought of copy of Don’t forget me, cobber, told author Robin Corfield: “The battle of Fromelles has ruined four generations of my family…at least I will know where it all started.”  That’s the nub of it – the tragedy is not just the loss of life, but the damage that echoes down through the following generations from the trauma and horror that soldiers experience in war. I decided my contribution to extending an awareness of Fromelles could best be done in a way that reached people who might not read war histories.

And just last night I had the great pleasure of meeting Adjunct Professor Bill Gammage of ANU and his wife over dinner at our friends’ home. In 1974 Bill first published his ground-breaking work The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War, and it’s been reprinted many times since. He has an abiding interest in Fromelles, so we had some great conversation – he has visited Fromelles and was an advisor to the search for the missing Australians. [and yes, I gave him a copy of Ronan’s Echo!]




Singing the Technical Blues…

The Sun must be in Scorpio or the Moon in the seventh level of Hell, or something, but we are cursed with technical misfortune at the moment. My uncle would have said it less politely, but I must have run over an electronics technician recently.


We’ve been without internet since we moved into our new place. NBN was the recommended way to go (the new, much hyped National Broadband Network, for non-Aussies), so we chose a service provider, paid the money and waited. About two weeks later the modem arrived, the NBN box was installed, and the nice techie even connected the modem for me. There it was, flashing away seductively as we slid the cd into the laptop and opened the instructions. All 158 pages of them.


Suffice to say we couldn’t get past number 1. Instruction number 1, not page, that is. After sending messages for help to the provider (who is impossible to contact directly) we finally had a callback which revealed that a crucial button on the modem wasn’t switched on. Simple! No, of course not. It’s still not working and we’re waiting for another call back, and another booking for another technician.


The day after that, our brand new Smart TV stopped working: no signal, or else a picture like shattered china wrongly glued back together. Antenna problems it seems, so now we have to navigate real estate agent>Body Corporate>technician… still waiting for a callback.


Lex has been using a mobile remote to connect, but that’s gone on the blink. And his computer is showing signs of joining the rebellion.


This morning I wanted to write a short piece about old stuff. I have, and use, my grandmother’s old rotary beaters, a worn but working piece of egg and batter beating equipment that needs no electricity, batteries, instruction manual or warranties. They were first made in 1932, and hers is probably an original. I thought it would be good to take a photo of it, for the youngsters who’ve never seen one. Yep – my trusty (and only 6 months old) Lumix digital camera won’t download the photos. It sits there dumbly, not doing anything.


I’m at my local café, using their internet. In the New Yorker today, in a serendipitous bit of synchronicity, there’s a cartoon with the title “Apple Comes Up with Phone that’s Impossible to Unlock” and beneath it is an old black Bakelite telephone with a dial and a handset. Just what I need. My mobile phone will probably be next…


A little rave about Tassie…

We’re constantly struck by the beauty of this island. It seems that every time you turn a corner, there’s another breathtaking view of mountains, rivers, channels and islands, gentle rolling hills, grapevines, crop-striped farmlands or forests, and sometimes all at once. Often all at once! People we meet are friendly and welcoming, and the food – especially the fresh seafood – is excellent. Below is the Coal River, which flows beneath the beautiful Richmond  Bridge.

Read more »

Officially Homeless!

When we sailed out of Darwin in July 2008 on board our first yacht Malaika, we were off on an open-ended voyage across the world with our youngest daughter, Ali. We’d sold our house and had no fixed address, so we were granted “long grasser” status by the Electoral Office. Now, seven years later, and in a different boat, we’ve gone a step further and today we’re officially homeless as well.

Lex, with our daughter Ali on Malaika in the Similan Islands, Thailand in 2008

Finally, it’s time for the big announcement. We’ve held off making it until it was completely signed, sealed and delivered, and it’s taken all of three months to happen, with falls at every jump along the way. We have sold our beloved Tramontana, our home since late 2009. Superstitious and (as it turned out) well-deserved paranoia kept us from making an announcement about it, fearing that if we spoke too soon it wouldn’t happen. Settlement on our buyers’ property actually collapsed twice at the last moment during that time. However we knew they were the right people to take over the custodianship of this boat. Being very experienced sailors, they knew a great boat when they found one and they’d fallen in love with her the moment they saw her. So we waited.

Tramontana at the Spit Bridge, Sydney 2015

We sailed to Newcastle NSW last week to finalise the sale and the handover. Just to keep the tension wound tight, settlement was delayed for the third time, by the biggest storm the east coast has seen in years. Our last night on board was memorable for the worst weather and the strongest, loudest winds Tramo had ever been in, but we were safely tied up (and triple-tied at that!) at a berth in Newcastle marina. While canopies and sails were being shredded all around us, she suffered no damage at all. So, after numerous delays, yesterday morning, 23 April, we handed Tramontana to Jenny and John, her ecstatic new owners.

Lex checking the mooring lines at the Newcastle marina during the gale

So what’s next? We’re not really sure. A year ago, we decided it was time to change tack and sell our boat, time to do something different, so we set out for Tasmania last October, hoping to find a buyer along the way, but without any real plans past that. Why Tasmania? Maybe it’s an overreaction but after 40 plus years in the tropics, we wanted a change of climate. A Tasmanian winter should sort that out! We’re going to be house sitting for a few months – a month in picturesque historic Richmond, in a house that’s 188 years old, and three months in a lovely place high above the D’Entrecasteaux Channel near Kettering, on the coast south of Hobart.

Different kinds of waterways beckon now…

Darwin remains home – even if we don’t have a house there at the moment – and we’re sure we’ll wind up back there. Three of our four children and most of our grandkids are there, plus four decades of friendships, so we’re treating this as a sabbatical rather than a re-location. In the meantime, we’re going to explore Tasmania as thoroughly as we can, and I’m going to get the next book written!




Writing in paradise…

We’re still floating around this beautiful waterway – Broken Bay, just 16 nautical miles north of Sydney. It’s a huge harbour, full of long, wide arms (called creeks), with snug little coves and quiet anchorages off each of them. This is the Hawkesbury region, one of Australia’s earliest settled places after Port Jackson. Read more »