My Blog

Women of a Certain Age

On Tuesday 6th March at 9:15am I’ll be talking with Amanda Smith on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters, about a great new book of essays called Women Of A Certain Age.Women of a Certain Age cover

I was delighted to be invited to contribute an essay to this wonderful book, published by Fremantle Press.  Anne Aly, Sarah Drummond, Mehreen Faruqi, Goldie Goldbloom, Krissy Kneen, Susan Sullivan, Jeanine Leane, Brigid Lowry and Pat Mamanyjun Torres are some of the other women who have written about what it is like to be a woman on the other side of 40. It is all about a celebration of getting older and wiser, and becoming more certain of who you are and where you want to be.

Women of a Certain Age is in the bookshops now and it’s well worth the read.

Hopefully you will be able to tune in to the interview, but for those who can’t, the link to the audio will be added to my website soon.

Quick news flash

I know, I know … there’s been a very long silence! Sorry about that but I’ve spent the last couple of months on two rounds of editing on my new book.  There was a lot to do and not much time to do it in, but I’ve also found that the older I get the harder it is to switch off what ever project is in my head at the time because I lose bits of it!  So yes, it’s about being too busy for my age and for my ageing brain in particular!

Anyway, I’m happy to tell you that the book is finished, and edited twice as usual and so everything is moving along to get it on to the shelves for July.  I’ll soon have the title and a picture of the cover to show you. And now I’m trying to catch up on all the things I let slip to get the editing done.

Meanwhile I’m excited about the Perth Festival’s Writers Week, which starts today and runs right through until next Sunday.  On Saturday 24th February at 2.30pm I’ll be discussing creativity in ageing with writers Alex Miller and Robert Dessaix, both of whom I admire enormously.  Geordie Williamson will be chairing the conversation which is called Late Style.  So, if you are in Perth I hope you can come along and join us at the University of WA.

And I also wanted to let you know that on Tuesday 6th March I’ll be talking with Amanda Smith on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters, about a great new book of essays called Women Of A Certain Age, published by Fremantle Press.  I was very pleased to be asked to contribute an essay to this wonderful book, which is being released on 1st March. So do tune in if you can. More news about this soon.

Competition winners

Thank you to everyone who entered my Christmas competition. I’m pleased to announce the two winners are Bronwyn Langlands and Karen Hawken. An email has gone out to you both to organise posting the book bundles. I do hope you enjoy reading them.

I’d like to thank all those who included personal messages to me with their competition entries. There are simply too many for me to respond to you all, but I appreciate your lovely comments and Christmas wishes.

To all readers of my blog I would like to say thank you for your continuing loyalty.  I hope you have a peaceful and safe festive season with family and book bundle

Christmas Competition

I’m pleased to announce I’m holding another competition! I’m giving you the chance to win some books for yourself or to give away to friends and family. With Christmas and the holiday season looming, you could tick some presents off your list, or line up your summer reading.

I will be giving away a bundle of five signed copies of my books to two readers. The book bundle includes non-fiction and novels. I have also included my latest book – The Woman Next Door.

To enter the competition all you need to do is follow my blog, either as an existing follower or by joining it now.  To join, just go to my website and enter your email in the “Follow blog by email” field at the foot of any webpage, and click the “follow me” button.

If you already follow the blog – go to the Contact page of my website and fill out the form, putting the words “Christmas Competition 2017” into the comment field.

Two winners will be chosen at random and contacted by email. Winners will also be announced on my blog and Facebook page. The books will be posted to the winners. The competition closes at 4pm on Saturday 16 December. Good luck!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And so it goes

The first time I realised that my father had moved from the forgetfulness of ageing into something more sinister, was the day he opened a package from his oldest friend, and found something he’d never seen before.

‘Ron’s sent me a plastic thing,’ he told me, ‘with brown tape in it. Never seen anything like it before.’

He and Mum had just arrived for lunch, an extraordinary forty-five minutes late.

‘Your father got us lost,’ Mum explained. The lateness didn’t matter, but it was alarming as they lived only fifteen minutes drive away and Dad had driven back and forth many times.

‘Here,’ he said shoving a small package into my hands, ‘see if you can work this out.’

The package contained a cassette wrapped in a sheet of notepaper held in place with an elastic band. I unwrapped it and read the note. Ron had written that the arthritis in his hands made writing very painful so he’d spoken his message onto the cassette. But Dad, who regularly played music cassettes at home and in the car, was now insisting that he’d never seen a cassette before. It was as though that tiny part in his brain that understood ‘cassette’ had simply been wiped out. When we played Ron’s message for him he was totally bewildered and still denied knowing that such a thing existed.

The following day I took him to the doctor, and later that week for a variety of tests. He had suffered a TIA – a very small stroke – presumably the night before they came to lunch. Further tests diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease, fast-tracked by the TIA. It was sudden and shocking, and life for Dad and Mum, and for me as their carer, changed dramatically

I had been aware for some time that both Mum and Dad were forgetful, Mum more evidently so. But that seemed to be the slow and natural diminishment of memory that comes with ageing. They hadn’t spoken or seemed anxious about it. What I wonder now, more that twenty-five years later, is how that forgetfulness felt for them and how long they were aware of it before this sudden crisis. As I approach seventy-four, I’m increasingly aware that the nature of my own forgetfulness has changed. Not only do I forget more, and more rapidly, than I did just a few years ago, but my ability to recall the things I’ve forgotten is much slower, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Much has been lost – probably forever.

Memory seems to be on most people’s minds these days. We blame information overload, the pace of life, the pressure of time, the demands of social media. And when I mention an appointment I’ve missed, a name I can’t recall, or when the title of a book, a film, or the date of someone’s birthday, simply evades me, people decades younger roll their eyes and tell me not to worry because they do the same thing all the time. What they don’t understand is that forgetting in your thirties, forties or fifties, even in your sixties, is not the same as forgetting in your seventies and beyond. There is less memory, more forgetting, more that is completely lost, and then there’s the creeping fear that all this might be more than just old age.

A few years ago I was doing between ten and thirty public talks a year, and unless it was a formal speech I did them without notes. I was also writing and delivering lectures in the university where I work where, in order to avoid droning on and sending students to sleep, I would simply work from dot points. That would be impossible for me now because it is most unlikely that I would remember how I intended to join the dots. I can focus and remember well while writing, and when I forget something my recall is much slower than it used to be but it still works. But out in the world, in conversations with friends and strangers, and with colleagues, I am in a constant state of alert anxiety that I will forget what I want to say. In meetings I am uncharacteristically quiet, a relief for others probably, but not for me!

Earlier this week I came across a couple of boxes of newspaper articles, magazine features, lectures and other pieces I wrote years ago. Some were familiar, others quite memorable because they were associated with particularly interesting or charismatic people, or written at significant times in my own life. But there were dozens that might just as well have been written by someone else. I couldn’t recall doing the interviews, meeting the people, nor the process of writing. It was only my name printed on them that told me they were mine.

Both my parents had dementia; my mother’s somewhat more benign than Alzheimer’s. So now I have to ask myself if I too am heading in that direction or if I am just growing old! Did they have this awareness? Did they feel the same concern? They certainly never expressed it other than in that casual ‘I’m always forgetting stuff,’ way that we all do from time to time?

I am not depressed but I am concerned; but I am still working and writing, still juggling a number of different interests and projects. I could have the series of tests that would tell me if I might get Alzheimer’s, but the tests aren’t conclusive. And it’s not as if there is a cure or treatment. It might be hard to fight depression if the one thing I never forgot was the result of test that said ‘very likely’.

But every time I lose my glasses, miss an appointment, completely forget what I am supposed to be doing, or try to remember the name of a book I only finished reading a couple of days ago, I wonder. And sometimes those things all happen in the course of a couple of hours. And so it goes…

Earlier this year I wrote a piece about a memorable memory experience that happened as I was driving one afternoon. I called it How To Tell You’re Getting Old, and it’s about completely forgetting and then the relief of remembering. Apologies if you’ve seen this before. If you haven’t, I hope it will make you smile.

How To Tell You’re Getting Old

  1. Get into car and switch radio to ABC RN.
  2. Hear Richard Fidler talking to a woman who is speaking authoritatively and in great detail on a subject on which you consider yourself to be something of an expert, having published a book on the subject 18 months earlier.
  3. Experience undignified sense of outrage and paranoia, followed by sense of failure, at being surpassed by someone smarter and probably younger and certainly thinner.
  4. Punch steering wheel several times and vow to discover identity of arrogant interloper.
  5. Groan with the agony of loss of self-worth.
  6. Hear Richard Fidler say “… today we’re talking with Liz Byrski, author of…”
  7. Feel enormously clever, famous, important, world expert, relevant, wise and articulate – and hugely relieved.
  8. Then REMEMBER (wait for it) that Richard’s producer called you ONLY TWO DAYS AGO to tell you that they would replay the interview this afternoon.
  9. Feel old, stupid, moronic, horribly petulant DEAF and DAFT can’t even recognise own voice.
  10. Get home take out iPhone and read seven texts – which you couldn’t read earlier because you left reading glasses at home. Messages from friends all say, ‘You’re on the radio NOW!’
  11. Make cup of tea, have long lie down in darkened room.
  12. Get up feeling ridiculous and incompetent having failed to recognise self on the wireless, but also feeling rather smug at impressing self!

PS: If you would like to hear the interview there is a link on the Interviews page of my website.

Thank you for the music

I’ve been thinking recently about confidence or, more accurately, the lack of it. I’m essentially a shy person, and a classic introvert. Over many years I’ve learned how to mask that and appear confident simply because I’ve had to. Some years ago I had to take on a lot of public speaking; talking about my books, about ageing and a range of other topics. It was part of establishing myself as writer, so I had to grit my teeth and get on with it. A few years later, I was able to pull back a bit, which reduced my anxiety, and freed up some more energy to focus on writing.

I mentioned in a recent blog, that I was grounded earlier this year by a couple of falls and resulting injuries. It was a huge shock, I felt nervous and incompetent, and my confidence crashed. My close friends and neighbours took wonderful care of me. I barely left the house, couldn’t write, or concentrate on anything, and didn’t drive for four months. In the last couple of months I’ve been able to focus on writing again. That period of stillness has been really valuable and I’ve emerged, calmer and more peaceful than I have been for a long time. I also managed to set some boundaries about how I manage my time. It probably sounds weirdly unsociable because it includes declining most public invitations, and lots of personal ones, and rarely going out in the evenings. Getting control of my time and what I agree to do, has helped me to win back some confidence. Sadly it’s also resulted in losing some friends who, despite my efforts to explain my reduced availability, can’t or won’t, accept this. I’ve spent much of my life accommodating others; now I’ve reversed the situation and it’s working for me. I’m sorry to have lost some people, but the gains are, frankly, well worth it.

In other areas though, I am less confident than ever. Driving on the freeway for the first time in four months was terrifying. Everything was moving so fast, even in the pouring rain, I just had to turn off at the first exit and go home. Although I’ve have slowly grown more accustomed to it I suspect that my pleasure in driving has gone forever. I am sure this is not just about being out of circulation for a while; it’s also part of getting older. In some ways, as I learn to understand who I am in my seventies, I feel stronger and more focussed, in other ways I am more fragile and lacking in confidence than ever.

I won’t begin to go into all confidence challenges that result from the constant changes in the systems and processes that are now part of the ways we live our lives. I am slowly coming to terms with some. The self-scanning process in supermarkets for example, seems designed to destroy the confidence of anyone over thirty! I am trying, honestly I am! But I frequently find myself staring intently at the screen wondering how to scan an orange or a potato! I lack confidence in much of the world around me at present and the pressure we are all under to do everything faster and more efficiently adds to that. I am certainly finding it hard to keep up.

Falling and its side effects created psychological and emotional outcomes, as well as physical ones that contribute to my waning confidence. I feel insecure and vulnerable in new ways – particularly when it comes to staying vertical! I am trying to develop a greater awareness of my body – particularly what I’m doing with my feet. I am very scared of falling again, so staircases and changes in the levels and surfaces of the ground demand greater attention than in the past. I am learning to be more vigilant about what Toby is doing, especially when we’re walking; his sudden changes of direction, urgent attention to some fascinating smell, the erratic stops and starts, really take me by surprise, and have already tripped me a couple of times.

In an effort to improve my physical awareness, I’ve been trying new ways to exercise. I hired an exercise bike, put it in the spare bedroom and tried hard to love it. Sadly I didn’t even succeed in liking it. It was so uncomfortable and boring, and thankfully it has now gone back to the rental company, where I’m sure it will find a new home with someone who doesn’t swear at it all the time.

Instead I am dancing and for the first time in my life I can honestly say I am enjoying exercise. I can be feeling fragile, low spirited and grumpy but dancing to ABBA GOLD changes that in an instant. As the first notes of Dancing Queen soar through the house my spirits soar with the music and I start moving. I’m re-discovering long forgotten muscles, learning to control my feet and regaining my balance. My heart rate is improving and somehow this is all restoring some confidence. Half an hour or twenty minutes most days feels really good, and fortunately the neighbours can’t see me!

The other big challenge in the confidence stakes is my failing memory, but that’s another story which I’ll leave until next time. Meanwhile ABBA – thank you for the music – the songs you’re singing, and thanks for lifting my spirits and helping me get back some confidence.

Cross Cultural Conversation

I had a terrific evening last week in a cross cultural conversation with Professor Dai Fan who is Professor of English and founding director of the Sun Yat-sen University Center for English-language Creative Writing. The event was organised by Curtin University’s China Australia Writing Centre (CAWC), in collaboration with the Centre for Stories in Northbridge. Dr Lucy Dougan, who is the Program Director of CAWC, chaired the conversation.

I had read some of Dai Fan’s work before we met and was already impressed by her skill in writing creatively in English. Her novel, Butterfly Lovers, is a contemporary version of a traditional Chinese story very similar to the story of Romeo and Juliet. Fan has also written a number of essays and short stories in English, and published four books of essays in Chinese.

We discussed a range of topics including the ways in which we both started writing and teaching writing in universities, what drives our writing practice, and the relationship between reading and writing. I found it particularly interesting to learn that Fan has been writing in English for so long that she now feels that she is a better writer in English than in her native language. Having only about six words of Chinese and knowing I don’t even pronounce these really well I was in awe of her ability to move so fluently between the two languages, to make jokes in English, and confidently use English idioms.

I also particularly enjoyed the part of the discussion when we talked about the ways in which we both use real life events and experiences not only as the subject of essays, but in a variety of different ways in fiction. Readers often ask –‘where do you get your ideas’, the answer from most writers will be that we get them from life and from imagination. The things we, as writers, observe, experience, hear about and discuss with others, are all grist to the mill. They change in shape, form and identity, transforming into something that is unrecognisable to others and often also to the writer.  Sometimes this is a conscious act, but often I find I become caught up in the momentum of writing and during that flow the sub-conscious draws on the great inner melting pot of things that have happened to me and to others, things I have read in newspapers or been inspired by in other books. So the raw material of life and experience is transformed into something unrecognisable to me and to others.

I think this alchemy is one of the most exciting elements of writing. It has taken me a long time to trust this process, which involves actually ‘listening’ to the characters that have emerged, and trusting their momentum and direction. As Margaret Atwood once said, “Writing fiction is like driving at night without headlights.”. That’s certainly how it is for me.

Talking with Fan, who is much younger than I am, and comes from a very different background, was inspiring. It was wonderful to discover that our similarities outweighed our differences.  This is the magic of writing and reading – it enables us to know and understand others whose lives are so different from our own, and to find common ground. And sometimes too it helps us to recognise ourselves.

I hope to be able to meet with Fan again in the future for more conversations, and to read more of her work.

Many thanks to Lucy Dougan for her thoughtful chairing of the evening’s conversation, and thanks too to CAWC and the Centre for Stories for organising the event, and to all the lovely people who turned up to join us. And thanks to Paul Clifford for the photographs.

Dai Fan, Liz Byrski, Lucy Dougan
Dai Fan, Liz Byrski and Lucy Dougan
In conversation L-R Lucy Dougan, Liz Byrski, Dai Fan
A cross cultural conversation at the Centre for Stories



Some thoughts on ‘The Casual Vacancy’

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Last week, on a flight from Perth to Melbourne, I began reading The Casual Vacancy, a novel that has been sitting unopened on my bookshelves since I bought it a several years casual-vacancy-book coverago. I’d opened it a few times but then closed it and put it back on the shelf, so now I hoped that the three-and-a-half-hour flight might force me to get to grips with it. I’ll admit that as the seat-belt sign went off I wished I’d chosen something else for the journey, but ten minutes later I was wishing I’d started it sooner. The novel is set in the first decade of the 21st century but I was captivated by the recognition of so much that was familiar to me from living in a village near a small town in England from the 1950s to the eighties.   Initially the petty jealousies, snobbery and small mindedness alongside the sense of community, social responsibility and genuine good will seduced me, until I realised I was being drawn into something much darker.

The Casual Vacancy is an uneasy mix of the social paralysis of a Barbara Pym novel and a particularly bizarre episode of Midsomer Murders, where gruesome crimes, malicious plots, feuds and a brutal disregard for others pervades council meetings, sunny flower shows, refined afternoon teas and, of course, evenings in the local pub.

Rowling is the hugely successful author of the Harry Potter books, which have imbued a whole generation of children with a love of reading and brought pleasure to millions of adults. But while this, her first novel for adults, captures many of the aspects of the Potter books: the large cast of characters, the multiple plots which interlock, the breathtaking power of evil, it lacks the warmth, charm and humour of her earlier works. Unsurprising really as this was never touted as a book for children or teenagers, or even as a transition for younger fans pledging loyalty to a loved author. The Casual Vacancy is rich in the everyday ignorance, jealousy, small mindedness, selfishness and cruelty that can thrive within a small community riven with issues of class, and driven by ambition, avarice and the desire for self-aggrandisement. This is no Harry Potter, nor is there a canny Inspector Barnaby to deliver a satisfactory ending to restore rural harmony. Indeed the ending is somewhat melodramatic – macabre even. No winding up at the end of the day with a swift half, or a nice cup of tea.

This is Rowling’s version of the ‘state of England novel’ which goes back to Dickens and Mrs Gaskell, and more recently Blake Morrison’s South of the River, and John Lanchester’s Capital. The Casual Vacancy is a disturbing but fascinating read and it is not for the faint-hearted. The author’s anger and frustration is apparent especially in the insights it offers into the lives of teenagers.

For me it was reminder of the impact of a six-month stay in England in 2007, spent largely in the area in which I lived from the late 1940s until 1981 when I moved to Australia. While I had been back to England a couple of times for brief holidays, this was my first lengthy stay and one in which I was confronted with the past in a profoundly powerful way. My experience of living in a Sussex village, attending a local school and then secretarial college, of working behind the counter of the local shop and later pulling pints in the pub on weekends, getting my first job as a secretary and then as a reporter on a local paper, are the sorts of things young people are still doing there. They still go to the local youth club, cruise around on their bikes, play or watch the cricket matches, or ride along the lanes on a borrowed pony. They go dancing, fall in love, get married and divorced, have children, the cycle of life goes on, but somehow, while I was there for long enough to watch, listen and process what I saw and heard, I felt a change in the tenor of the places I knew and loved.

The territory wars, the frictions of class, the impact of money and the hostility between those who had it and those who didn’t, was striking and hard-edged. The jealousies and resentments, the ambition and lack of it, the sense of hopelessness and futility and the random acts of violence, all seemed harsher, more cruel and more common; the mistrust of outsiders more hostile. Rowling’s novel captured what I observed during that long stay. I felt dislike at the heart of the place, a yearning for how things used to be and a blunt acceptance that time had delivered bitterness and mistrust far more extreme than in my memory.   What I saw, back then in 2007, was largely what convinced me that I would never live in England again. Much as I loved it I realised I no longer really liked it.

I’m not suggesting that these sorts of changes have not happened in Australia in recent years, I know that they have – along with a whole lot more disturbing changes. But when you return to a place you have loved and trusted since childhood, and still sometimes think of as home, it is the clash of memory and nostalgia with contemporary reality that is so profoundly disturbing. It was the small things that I observed between individuals and groups of people, in communities and organisations, the way they spoke to and about each other, the harshness and hostility, and the overwhelming individual and national insularity, that had me swallowing the lump in my throat and turning away to disguise how close I was to tears.

Perhaps it was ever thus and perhaps years of separation simply provide clarity. But The Casual Vacancy crystalises all that I felt about England when I spent those six months in what I had thought was home. I don’t think this book is a great literary work, but it is a profoundly clever and insightful contemporary example of the state of the nation novel in the 21st century. I’m sure that many of you who, like me, came here from England, will have read this book and either loved or hated it. Perhaps it seemed irrelevant to you, tedious, or the nastiness, the profanities, the harsh realities and sheer bastardry of the characters, will have made you put it down unfinished. Perhaps you loved it and recommended it to friends.  I can understand all of that – reading can sometimes become so extraordinarily personal. Sometimes you read something that seems to be just what you need to help you sort out things that have been niggling for some time. This is what The Casual Vacancy has done for me.

At the same time as I was reading this I was watching the television coverage of Londoners turning out to help and support the occupants of the tower block so terrifying destroyed by fire. The appalling neglect of the safety and welfare of the residents was countered by the magnificent generosity of volunteers to who came with the essentials of food, clothing and shelter, and the courage of the fire and rescue crews. It seemed to symbolize the sprit of the Blitz, that sustained the British through the remaining years of the war. Coming so soon after the extraordinarily unexpected result of the recent UK election it was a reassuring reminder of what Britain can be, and what it could be again.

It’s that mix of past and present, light and dark, good and evil which is always so challenging, and which one always hopes will be drawn into balance.

If you are looking for a relaxing, uplifting read you won’t find it in The Casual Vacancy. But it is an engrossing and challenging book that provides intrigue, stark, dark humour and a thought-provoking dose of social realism.

It has made me want to re-read South of the River and Capital and I will write more about those books here when I’ve done so.

And the winners are…

Thank you to everyone who entered my competition to celebrate Mother’s Day – and there were a lot of you!  I’m pleased to announce the two winners are Christine Mole from Victoria and Sue Shatford who lives here in Western Australia. Your book bundles will be arriving in the post soon. I was delighted that both of you were so excited to win and really pleased to hear that Christine always shares my books with her 89 year old Mother. How apt for a Mother’s Day competition!

Look out for the next competition held late in the year.

Mothers day comp prize