Dad’s eulogy

My father, Barry John Ridge, died in the early hours of 9 August 2017. He was 89 years old, and had been living with Lewy Body dementia for around seven years. This is the eulogy I gave at his funeral.

Dad BM

Growing up, the four of us kids were what’s known in the trade—the church trade, that is—as PKs. PKs, parsonage kids, we’re a tribe tens of thousands strong, across the country and across generations who share a common language and experience that is quite unlike that of most kids growing up. There are lots of assumptions made about PKs; we must be incredibly rebellious or else unbelievably sanctimonious and dull, and our parents, especially our fathers, must be strict, uncompromising, and our lives therefore confined and restricted from the freedoms and pleasures other kids enjoy. I’m sure there’s not a PK alive who hasn’t heard some variation on the question, “What’s it like to have a minister for a father (or, of course, mother)?”, the only answer to which is, well, I dunno. What’s it like to have a mechanic for a father? Our father was the only one we had, and our life the only one we knew. And how fortunate indeed were we to have Barry, our father—and Edith, our mother—and the life that they gave us.

Dad, as I am sure all of you who knew him will immediately recognise, was none of those things that our schoolmates assumed. He was neither strict nor boring, and while he had very clear ideas and a firm and unwavering sense of his faith and the values by which he lived, he was neither uncompromising or punishing in his dealings with people in general, and his children in particular. In his role as a Minister of the church, Dad viewed service to others his highest calling, and the absolute expression of his faith. For us, his family, his responsibilities to his parishioners, the broader community and the church meant that there was no such thing as 9 to 5, no reliable “quitting time”, and even his one day off a week was rarely left to him and Mum to share and enjoy without interruption. Perhaps we kids felt it the most on family occasions—only PKs know the peculiar agony of having to wait to open Christmas presents until after Dad’s second or maybe even third service of the day. But while Dad’s working hours may have been unconventional, when he was home—and that may well have been at 3 o’clock when we got home from school, only for him to disappear again after dinner for meetings or Bible study or marriage counselling sessions or youth group—he was absolutely with us in a way many, many fathers of Dad’s generation were not.

In the same way, Dad was a most modern husband in the way he took on his fair share of the housework. He changed our nappies as babies, he cooked and cleaned, he ironed, and he especially loved to work in the garden.

Dad was a practical and pragmatic man. He could turn his hand to pretty much anything; a true child of the depression, nothing was ever wasted, and he took great pleasure in doing up toys, bikes and so on for us kids and the grandkids; they never felt second-hand, but rather, remade with love. His grandson James remembers with great affection the hours they spent pottering in the garage, and the time they made a possum box for a family of ringtails in the backyard at James’s family home house. No piece of wood, no useful piece of rope, no nails and screws, no matter how rusty, were discarded unless absolutely beyond the pale (and not even then, often!). Council clean-ups were a challenge; while Dad loved finding treasures in other people’s unwanted items, convincing him to get rid of dried-up old mops and other things that “just might come in handy one day” was not so easy. He wasn’t miserly, but he was conservative about money, and he hated waste in any form.

Dad genuinely and clearly loved being a father. Fatherhood was so much more than mere duty; it was a pleasure, as well as a responsibility. He enjoyed playing games with us, be it tether tennis or Scrabble, Cluedo or cards (although only simple card games like Snap and Happy Families because, you know, Methodist…). Our strongest memories as a family are associated with music; Dad had a fine singing voice and he was a good pianist. Playing Mum and Dad’s record collection and singalongs around the piano are favourite memories for all of us kids. That piano, his childhood piano, has been lovingly restored by his eldest grandson Peter, in whose home it now resides, and I know Dad would be thrilled to think that Peter and Emelia’s children, Bennett, Isaac and Zarahlinda, will grow up listening to music played on their great-grandad’s piano, and perhaps playing it themselves. (That’s playing it, Ben, not sitting on it!)

I remember stories of he and Mum told of times long before I was born, when they allowed that new-fangled rock and roll music to be played at church hall socials, and the dust the young people raised dancing. Dancing in the Methodist church hall! I can imagine the raised eyebrows this decision caused. When I was 8, Mum and Dad took us to see the first Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar. I think even then I had an idea of what this said about our parents; that they were interested in new ideas and ways of thinking about the world, and that their faith, character and intellect were strong and certain enough to be open to challenges, and not just musical ones (that rock and roll music again!).

Which is not to say they always liked the music we listened to, but they put up with great grace Linda’s period of mild acoustic guitar folk music led teenage rebellion, our collective Barry Manilow fandom, and endless Sunday nights watching Countdown and my seemingly endless obsession with ABBA. In my teenage years, they allowed me to take an overnight bus to Sydney from our then home in Canberra to attend an Elton John concert. They trusted us, they respected our choices, they never once attempted to censor or very rarely expressed disapproval, which is not to say they didn’t offer guidance when required.

Mum and Dad took us to movies and stage musicals from as early as I can remember, and there are many I cannot watch or listen to without associating them with Dad. I think we all remember the night they took us to see Sweet Charity at the Gosford Drive-In without realising what it was about, but to their credit, they didn’t leave, and again, I turn to the words trust and respect—which of course meant we in turn trusted and respected them.

The night after Dad died, I played the movie of Fiddler on the Roof as I wrote a notice about Dad’s death to share with friends on Facebook. David has since reminded me that Mum and Dad made a special trip with us to see Fiddler at the cinema in Sydney, as it wasn’t going to be showing in the cinema in Katoomba, where we were living at the time. They didn’t want us to miss out on a thing we didn’t have to, just because a.) we were living on a Minister’s stipend and b.) we were living what was then a very long way away from the city. Watching Fiddler again I was reminded again how the character of Tevye always makes me think of Dad; it’s without doubt both the unswerving faith in a loving and wise God, and a deep devotion to their children that makes me associate one with the other. Fiddler also has great songs, and Dad, as we know, loved to sing.

One of Linda’s early memories from the Toronto years is Dad along with one of the women from the Couple’s Club, dressed as tramps, singing a duet of Underneath the Arches and Side by Side. I wonder if in another life Dad might not have enjoyed amateur theatricals. He could be a bit of a ham; we remember fondly his appearances in musical reviews on stage at the Victory Hall in Auburn, including his turn in A Murky Melodrama and a pun-filled musical soap opera; I can still hear Dad singing “I’m a Lux Change Daily Girl” with Mum and Dad’s good friend Lynne Drabsch, who is here today.

And of course, none of us will ever forget his lovely voice leading the singing in church. Mum tells us Dad never joined a choir because he wasn’t quite a tenor nor quite a baritone, and he didn’t think he could sing parts. He could sing hymns, though, full-throated and heartfelt. In his later years, when the Lew Body dementia affected his throat muscles and he could no longer sing, it was for us all a significant turning point in his decline, and we missed, and miss, his voice terribly.

Dad always liked being around young people, and he truly enjoyed our company, at home, on Sunday drives, or bushwalks in his beloved Blue Mountains, and especially at the beach, Macmasters (Macs, as we called it), which was in many respects our family home. A small fibro shack when he and Mum bought it in the early 60s, our house at Macs redefined the word “modest”, but lovely as many of the church homes we lived in were, Macs was the only one that was truly ours. And while even on holidays Dad was always busy; building extensions to the house, clearing gutters, calling the snake man to come and relocate an unwelcome visitor, he always, always had time for us. I think we all have in our heads a clear image of Dad emerging from the surf, hair pasted to his head like Mo from The Three Stooges, laughing with the sheer pleasure of being in the surf, and more often than we’d have liked, at the sight of one of us kids emptying our togs of sand after being dumped. The photos where you saw Dad at his most relaxed in the slideshow were nearly all taken at Macs. He loved Macs perhaps more than any of us; his final ritual of every holiday was one last swim, just by himself, no kids allowed, before we loaded ourselves in the car for the trip home.

Dad was also genuinely interested in us as people; interested in our thoughts and interests and lives. Not in an intrusive way—Dad respected our privacy as much as he valued his own—but in an admiring and deeply respectful way. He never mocked us for our ideas or passions as children; as adults, he was always completely supportive of everything we set out to do, utterly and unconditionally proud of us and our achievements, and practical and kind when things didn’t go to plan.

As I was writing those very words, a video of Bennett, my great nephew, Dad’s first great grandchild, landed in my email inbox. The video shows Ben riding a pushbike on his own for the very first time, and in the proud, loving and encouraging words of his parents, Peter and Emelia, I can hear echoes of Dad, and the way he raised us to always give things a go, and of the unselfish, admiring pride Dad and Mum both have always taken in us, and subsequently their beloved grandchildren. Some of Dad’s last words were about his great-grandchildren, and I don’t think that’s any kind of accident. Family was everything to Dad, and in the last difficult years of his life, as the Lewy Body dementia began to take away his ability to engage with the world, his memories of his parents, grandparents, his adored Uncle Jim, his cousin Mavis and other family members were what brought him the greatest comfort and pleasure.

Alison remembers with great fondness her and Dad’s shared love of baseball and softball, and the hours Dad spent with her practising pitching and hitting. Dad played baseball as a kid, and this was a unique bond Alison and Dad had—that is, until she had a son of her own who also became a baseball player. Dad loved going to watch James play, and I think was quietly chuffed about the continuity across the generations.

Some of my own fondest memories are of having serious conversations with Dad about politics and social justice, feminism and other issues dear to my heart. It wasn’t until very recently that I discovered that Dad held his own intellect in fairly low esteem, but I think he was wrong about that. To me, the mark of intelligence isn’t just about formal scholarly achievement, but about having an agile, open and curious mind. Dad proved over and over again in his lifetime that he had both the capacity and the willingness to change his mind and to accommodate new ideas, while remaining true to his most deeply held principles.

I think in many ways this is the aspect of Dad’s character that I admire and hope to emulate the most.

Dad was also funny, sometimes surprisingly and wickedly so. He was patient, organised to the point of intractable, slow to anger, but righteous in his anger if the cause arose. He was, it has to be said, stubborn, and could therefore be, as Mum has said from time to time, a most infuriating man. But I think it’s the kindness, the compassion, the patience and the good humour that we will all remember most.

We have many stories about Dad we’ve been sharing this week; here are just a couple.

Linda says that, being the eldest, Dad had to learn on the job how to be the father of a teenage girl. She remembers the discreet flicking of the outdoor lights, and the “ahem” of milk bottles being gently rattled—Dad’s way of saying “time to come inside now” when he felt she’d spent enough time saying goodnight to the boyfriend of the day.

Dad’s compassion when we faced heartbreak and disappointment was constant and consistent. Alison remembers, after a personal heartbreak when she was a young woman, that Dad came and sat with her, just sat quietly as she grieved, not speaking, just stroking her forehead and being there loving her. Alison says she thought of this often when, at the end of his life, she reciprocated his loving care, sitting with him in the nursing home, no words spoken, stroking Dad’s forehead and just being there with and for him, loving him.

In the days since Dad’s death, the family have received many messages of love and respect about Dad. The words that keep coming up about him are these:

Generous
Decent.
Kind—and as Dad’s friend Pamela once said to me, kindness is not to be undervalued as a virtue.
Wonderful.
Special.
Wise.
Gentle.

Many have spoken of Dad’s guidance and mentorship; my friend from my teenage years, Sally, wrote “I had some of my most important and life-defining conversations with him and loved his mix of kindness, humour and genuine care.” Others have spoken of how Dad supported them in their ministry; others still simply spoke of what a good man Dad was. There have been many more similar messages, and it has helped us all so much to know how much our beautiful dad was so important to, and so loved by so many. He was indeed a good man; he was without doubt the best man I have ever known, and ever expect to know.

I would just like to finish up by reading a passage from a book that informed a great deal of Dad’s ministry and faith, and also reflects exactly who Dad was. It’s one of my most treasured possessions—Dad’s copy of Your God Is Too Small by J.B. Phillips. Early in the book there’s a section called “MEEK-AND-MILD”, several passages of which Dad has marked; they clearly contained ideas that resonated with him. The section is essentially a critique of the child’s prayer Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild, or rather, what it suggests about the character of Christ. Phillips objects to “the impression of a soft and sentimental Jesus (supported, alas, all too often by sugary hymns and pretty religious pictures)” that the words conjure, reminding us that Jesus was a man who did not hesitate to challenge and expose the hypocrisies of the religious people of his day, and who was considered a danger by the authorities. A rebel, and a radical, in fact; not the first things we associate with someone described as “meek and mild”.

Now, Dad wasn’t a boat-rocker in the obvious sense, but nor was he one to stand down from what he believed to be right and true. I think there’s a danger in mistaking gentleness—and Dad was indeed a gentle man—with indecision, weakness or passivity. Dad was none of those. He tempered determination with caution, justice with compassion, and passion with pragmatism.

Phillips concludes:

There is a further offshoot of the worship of this false god which must be mentioned. It is the sentimental Christian ideal of “saintliness.” We hear, or read, of someone who was “a real saint: he never saw any harm in anyone and never spoke a word against anyone all his life.” If this really is a Christian saintliness, then Jesus Christ was no saint. It is true that He taught men not to sit in judgment upon one another, but He never suggested that they should turn a blind eye to evil or pretend that other people were faultless. He Himself indulged no roseate visions of human nature: He “knew what was in man,” as St. John tersely puts it. Nor can we imagine Him either using or advocating the invariable use of “loving” words. To speak the truth was obviously to Him more important than to make His hearers comfortable: though, equally obviously, His genuine love for men gave Him tact, wisdom, and sympathy. He was Love in action, but He was not meek and mild.

And that is our Dad in a nutshell.

We love you, Dad, we are grateful to have had you for as long as we did, and we will always miss you, but we are glad for your sake that your troubles are behind you. Rest well, dearest Dad, and thank you for everything you did and everything you were.

Dr Maurice Saxby AM: In Memoriam

Maurice Saxby, 26 December 1924—2 December 2014

I met Maurice Saxby the first time I attended a meeting of the NSW Branch of the Children’s Book Council. I was in my mid-20s, and I had not long since decided that I wanted to make children’s books my life’s work. I had met Ros Bastian, who was at the time the coordinator of the annual Children’s Book Fair, during my postgrad studies in Children’s Literature at Macquarie University, and she encouraged me to join the CBCA. And so I came along to the AGM, circa 1990, joined the committee and began my work in children’s literature.

And of course Maurie was there. He was the CBC’s first President in 1958, and remained an active member his whole life. I didn’t know anyone or anything much back then—I didn’t know who Maurie was, but I quickly learned. He was of course, as we all so affectionately called him, the Godfather of Australian Children’s Literature. In addition to his work with the CBC, he established studies in children’s literature at university level, and thousands upon thousands of primary education and teacher-librarian students trained under  his guidance. There is no doubting his influence in establishing Australian children’s literature as a core part of the curriculum in Australian schools, and in promoting its value and quality to the international children’s literature community.

And of course, he was its great chronicler. Soon after that first CBC AGM I found copies of Maurie’s History of Australian Children’s Literature in the library of the school where I worked at the time—from memory, they were being discarded (!) and I snaffled them. Of course, Maurice went on to revise that history, and its three volumes—Offered to Children: A History of Australian Children’s Literature 1841-1941, Images of Australia: a History of Australian Children’s Literature 1941-1970, and The Proof of the Puddin’: Australian Children’s Literature 1970–1990—published and expanded in the 1990s, remain core texts in my professional library. I refer to them all the time. They are my Bible, my most comprehensive and reliable (if also opinionated!) source, and will be in the pile of treasures to be saved come flood or zombie apocalypse. I believe Maurie was working on Volume 4—I hope it was finished before we lost him, this week, just shy of his much-anticipated 90th birthday.

Going back to that kid’s lit newbie back a quarter of a century ago—Maurie welcomed me into the fold as if I’d always been there. His generosity of spirit and his passionate commitment to his field rendered him, where it really mattered, ego-free. (He wasn’t ego-free about everything, including his own writing, but that’s not remotely a bad thing.) He wanted advocates, he wanted people to be as in love with children’s books as he was, and anyone who wanted to roll up (and roll their sleeves up) and be part of the community was in, as far as he was concerned. That’s certainly how he made me feel. He always treated me with the greatest professional courtesy, and the warmest personal affection. (Maurie was a kissy man. I think we’ve all received a smacking greeting from him.)

Maurie also had a slightly acerbic side; he knew too much and was too smart to suffer fools privately, but publicly I never knew him to be anything else but charming, warm, generous and completely enthusiastic. And he was a great friend to so many—widowed twice and with no children of his own, his friendships sustained him over many decades. I don’t claim that degree of friendship myself. I am just honoured to have known him, and to have been the inheritor of his great work and legacy in bringing children and books together—and for welcoming me so whole-heartedly into the world that has in turn sustained me and brought me enormous professional satisfaction and some of the most important friendships of my life.

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My dear friends Simon French and Donna Rawlins with Maurice Saxby at the Maurice Saxby Lecture, May, 2012

I guess it was a bit more than 10 years ago, I was browsing in a second-hand bookshop, and I came across a small stash of children’s books from the early-to-mid 20th century. Flipping through them, I was astonished and thrilled to see the neatly inscribed name of Maurice Saxby on the fly page of a book called Willie the Orphan, or, The Happy Land. At first, I thought, I must return this to Maurie! How did this end up here? But then I realised it must have been one of the books he sold when he moved from his home to a retirement apartment—and I was so pleased to have it. A book from Maurie’s library! How wonderful to have this on my own shelves.

Tonight, thinking about our beloved Maurie, I went to my shelves and took down the book, and rediscovered what I had forgotten about this treasured find—that it was a book given as a Sunday School prize to the five and a half year old Maurice Saxby.

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Imagine that. Five year old Maurice.

It feels so fitting, to have a book that Maurie held and read and, maybe—I don’t know!—loved as such a young child. Perhaps one of the first books he could read alone. Because, thanks to Maurice Saxby, and all the people he influenced and befriended and converted, I was able to make a life in children’s books. In putting books into children’s hands.

I owe him so much.

And, as I said to Maurice’s great friend, Margaret Hamilton:

We will honour him with our work.

Thrilled Me, Silenced Me, Stilled Me

Sinead O’Connor has been in the press again today (October 2013), kicking up a stink, alienating people left, right and centre, as she is wont to do. It put me in mind of this piece I wrote back when I saw her in concert in Sydney in 2008.

I’m not ashamed to say I wept back then, when at last, 21 years after I first heard her music, I saw her perform live. I love her, like Emma Thompson in Love, Actually, loves Joni Mitchell. Flaws and all. She’s my girl.

Originally published Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at misrule.com.au/s9y

As I was leaving work today, our fabby young admin support guy, Ben, was playing—get this—Boz Scaggs on his computer. So I stopped for a chat and a groove (come on, Boz was pretty groovy in the day!) and it turned out that the CD belonged to Jean, one of our colleagues who is, I suppose, about the same age as my older sister, Linda, who owned a copy of Silk Degrees back when, well, Boz was groovy.

Jean started reminiscing about listening to Boz Scaggs when she was travelling around after finishing her HSC and we talked about how music comes to mean something more than itself when it becomes attached to a certain time in our life.

And then tonight, 20 years after I first heard “Mandinka” and bought a copy of The Lion and the Cobra, I heard Sinead O’Connor in concert.

I didn’t take my eyes off her for an hour and a half.

She’s tiny, and a little round these days from her four babies, and the top register of voice showed the wear of a year-long concert tour (this was the last concert) but, oh, when she opened her diaphragm and that voice came out… Oh that voice! It filled the State Theatre and it filled me up too.

I have always loved Sinead O’Connor, her contrariness and rage and compassion and feminist faith—and her songs. Her voice.

She started with “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and went into “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” and I don’t remember what else after that, except she played lots of old songs (some I had forgotten, like “Fire On Babylon”) and a few from her new album, Theology (which I bought last week and listened to over Easter). Lots from I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (which I am playing as I write this)—”The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance” nearly killed me, as it always does (as does “Three Babies”, which I hadn’t realised was a waltz, which somehow makes it even more sadly beautiful). Oh yeah, and of course she did “Nothing Compares 2 U”, which has never been a particular favourite of mine (not compared to “Troy” or “Jackie” or “Mandinka”—which she didn’t do, alas—or “Acquaintance”), but it was fabulous live.

She had a wonderful band—the feedback was obviously bothering her at times, but they sounded great most of the time. I hadn’t realised how tricky some of her rhythms are until I heard and watched the drummer. The violinist brought that amazing Irish sound to so many songs. I love that. And it was astonishing to me how Sinead would pull away from the mic and her voice was just as full and powerful as if it were still up close.

There was a young Irish couple sitting next to me. I did wonder what they made of the middle-aged single chick grooving away in her seat (you’re not allowed to get up and dance in the State Theatre, you see), but what the hell—maybe they didn’t really notice.

And then, during the encore, during “Black Boys on Mopeds” to be precise—I was leaning forward and singing along without making a noise, if you know what I mean—the woman of the Irish couple touched my arm and handed me a pair of binoculars. And so I watched Sinead sing the last verse of “Black Boys” close up. And burst into tears.

Me, not Sinead.

It was a little embarrassing, I admit. I did that waving-the-hand-in-front-of-the-face to indicate “sorry, I’m crying!” when I handed the binoculars back and they were so sweet. When the lights came up I was still all damp (well, she finished with a song that was a goodnight prayer for godssakes!) and I turned to them and said “thank you—I’ve been waiting twenty years for that!” “You looked like you were enjoying it!” they said, which was hilarious because I was in fact this weeping mess. I had to duck my head all the way out of the theatre so as for people not to see me all teary and ridiculous.

I don’t know why I got so emotional. It’s not even as if I’ve listened to her all that much in recent years, apart from the new album, but listening to her tonight, live and now at home, I realise how much those songs, her voice, have got into my bones. That voice is so familiar to me—so is that face. Thus the weeping binocular moment! She wore a blue scarf on her head—a bit like an old-fashioned nun, actually—and seeing her face close up, she’s still so very beautiful, and so familiar—and in her daggy old jeans and unflattering t-shirt, how “ordinary”!

I guess the thing is when a musician (as opposed to a celebrity) is important to us in some way over the years, and especially one whose life and lyrics have been laid so bare, we do feel like we somehow know them. (I’ll talk but you won’t listen to me. I know your answer already.)

And how contemporary are the lyrics to “Black Boys”, even decades after the Thatcher era:

These are dangerous days
To say what you feel is to dig your own grave
‘Remember what I told you
if you were of the world they would love you’

I’m not going to read over this or I’ll be too embarrassed to post it!

 

In a related world…

Somewhere filed away are the first drafts—rough, meagre things that they are—of my first attempt at writing a thesis for my Masters degree. I was in my late 20s, newly married (though not for long), and desperately in love with the books I was writing about, and the field that I had entered into with all my heart and passion. Like a starry-eyed reality TV contestant, I had thrown in my day job (as a secondary English teacher) and set my course on the wild seas of children’s literature.

And it was all, more or less, because of Diana Wynne Jones.

I’ve written and spoken many times over the years about how Diana’s novel The Magicians of Caprona changed my life. I’m not going to repeat that story here—you can read all about it in this paper (in fact, I’m going to assume you have), which I gave at the conference dedicated to Diana’s work, held in Bristol in 2009.

This post is being written as part of the memorial activity for the first anniversary of Diana’s death, on March 26 2011. Sharyn November, Diana’s great friend and American editor of recent years, has organised a blog tour and this tumblr in order for those of us who loved Diana, and her books, to share our memories. And so this is my contribution to that memorial, a(nother) tribute to the writer whose work has meant more to me than perhaps any other in my life.

So it’s the early 1990s, I’m in my late 20s (just), I’ve just got married, and I’ve chucked in my teaching job and am spending most of my days deep in the related worlds of Diana Wynne Jones. Actually, I’m sitting at a tiny desk in front of an early model Apple computer (one of the ones, if memory serves, where you have to keep swapping the software disk with the write-to disk, so it’s slow and cumbersome work). I’m in a sun-lit rooftop flat on the top of a glorious old house in the Sydney suburb of Gladesville. Outside there’s a camphor laurel tree that’s grown taller than the flat on the top of the house—and the house is towering, enormous, so the tree must be more than one hundred years old. (We know it’s a feral plant, the world’s hugest weed, but we love it anyway, because it gives a home to possums and brings in a daily cacophony of rainbow lorikeets.)

The flat itself is an add on. For the few years before I got married and moved up here, I’d lived in a bedsit in the same house—it was a room of the original house closed off with a kitchenette and the world’s tiniest bathroom stall, and lord knows how even then I managed to fit myself, my books, my boyfriend and my cat in, but manage I did. The house where bedsit and rooftop flat were is a magnificent Sydney California Bungalow, but twice as big as the average suburban Californian, rearing out of the garden on huge Sydney sandstone foundations, looking out, like an anchored and squat Castle, over an enormous, tiered garden and wild parklands that run down to the Parramatta River.

I have so many stories from that house—stories of cats and possums and a rottweiler called Rommel, there on Her Majesty’s Pleasure until the landlady’s son was released and able to reclaim him.* It was in this house I learned the magic of the garden; where I learned that herbs love to soak the sun down to their roots;  that tomatoes self-seed, and that you can break off an impatiens and stick it in the ground and it will continue to grow. It was here I first had total and complete responsibility for another life, or perhaps nine lives—my cat Bridie, rooftop dancer who lived to be almost 20, despite encountering in the next house after this her very own Throgmorten. Here that I started to think I was becoming an adult. And it was here I started to imagine the story of my own life—and without knowing it, at the same time, was growing away from the life my new young husband had imagined for us.

People think that the books that shape you the most are the books you read in childhood. I am sure that’s true, I believe that to be true very sincerely, but it’s not true that it can’t happen also in your adult life. Because side by side with the stories I was living, were the stories of Cat and Janet and Gwendolen, of Tonino and Angelica, of Nan Pilgrim and Charles Morgan and Brian Wentworth and those girls with their dank-coloured knitting. And of Christopher Chant and The Goddess—Chrestomanci and his beloved Milly—and all the related worlds they—and I—inhabited. And though I didn’t know it at the time, they were to make all the difference.

One of the most important aspects of writing a literature thesis, I think, is choosing a text (or texts, or author) that you can live with for a very long time—live with, read and re-read and never tire of and still find something new in it to exclaim over and ponder and then, at the end, to come out of the experience loving it as much, if not as more than you did on the very first day. The more time I spent with Diana’s books—I was also working on The Time of the Ghost and A Tale of Time City, trying to find an elusive thread between temporality in those books and Chrestomanci’s related worlds—the more time I wanted to spend, not just in Diana’s books, but in children’s books generally, including what we were only then just starting to call ‘YA’, absorbing them into my being, understanding them and the place they have in the world, and then bringing them back to the ones for whom they were intended.

Of all four of the Chrestomanci books then written (this is a good decade or more before Conrad’s Fate and The Pinhoe Egg) that I was hoping to include in my thesis**, Charmed Life in the one I most clearly remember reading over and over again. In many ways, and despite the importance of The Magicians of Caprona for me personally, and no matter how much I love other DWJ books—The Time of the Ghost, Howl’s Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock, that Chinese puzzle of a novel—I think if I had to choose a favourite Diana Wynne Jones book, then Charmed Life is it. It’s the one book I remember returning to over and over as I tried—and ultimately failed—to write that thesis the first time. It’s a book that now, if I pick it up, I can open at almost any page and find the words sing out to me as familiarly as my own voice.

Everything you need to know about Charmed Life, and everything that will make you want to keep reading, is contained in its opening paragraph:

    Cat Chant admired his elder sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her. Great changes came about in their lives and left him no one else to cling to.

Then comes the Saucy Nancy disaster, the loss of Cat and Gwendolen’s parents, and the first of those many ‘great changes’ that come about.

You don’t need me to recap the story—three pages in, we know that Gwendolen is a force to be reckoned with, potentially dangerous and without a shred of kindness in her.

But if you have by chance forgotten, it turns out that Gwendolen is not, after all, much of a witch, but she’s smart and venal enough to have figured out that Cat is in fact an incredibly powerful nine-lived Enchanter, and she’s been sucking the magic out of him his whole life. She may indeed be the most purely, and deliciously, evil character in all of children’s literature—largely because she is still a child herself. Bad seed, indeed.

It’s testament to Diana’s powers as a writer that we see all this through Cat’s eyes—he is the closely focalised third person narrative subject of the book, to go all thesis-y on you for a moment—but Cat doesn’t know it, doesn’t feel it, doesn’t understand it, until the final chapter of the novel. He’s the perfect, and perfectly drawn,  naïve child protagonist, and Charmed Life is as an perfect example of how third person protagonist-focalised narrative can be as unreliable as any common or garden unreliable first person narration you can think of. Cat doesn’t get what’s happened to him—who he is, who Gwendolen is, what the implications of all of that are—almost until the very last page of the novel.

And if you’ve forgotten the last page of the novel, just take a half hour and go and read the final two chapters. You might have forgotten some of the minor characters, and incidents, but don’t worry—you’ll be surprised how easily they come back to you. The final two chapters are set in the forbidden, magical garden outside of Chrestomanci Castle. Cat and Janet, the girl Gwendolen has displaced from a related world who everyone except Cat appears to think is actually Gwendolen (you understand—you’ve read it) have gone to the garden in a last desperate effort to return Janet to her own world—and for Cat to escape his miserable life and go with her. They’ve stolen dragon’s blood—Cat’s most daring and dangerous act—which will open the gates between worlds. It takes them ages to even enter this forbidden space—eventually, they have to stop looking directly at the place they’re aiming to be and come at it at a kind of an angle: “Try keeping it in the corner of your eye and not going straight to it,” said Cat. And when they do finally make their way in, the garden seems to spin and turn around them, through time and the seasons and space itself, as they move towards the gates at the centre of the garden, where Cat casts the dragon’s blood and the final battle (and yes, I use that phrase deliberately) begins, and eventually, ends.

Of all the chapters of Charmed Life, the last two were the two I spent the most time going over and over, reading and re-reading when I was writing that first attempt at a Master’s thesis. And every time I found something different, something new, something surprising, something that made me understand this story in a whole other, deeper, more exciting way than the last time I read it.

I’ve already alluded to one of the books that this final chapter has resonance with—The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, of course. There’s the sacrificial stone and plenty of Christian allegory lurking around (when I put this to Diana in the interview I did with her in 1993, she exclaimed, Dammit! I’m turning into CS Lewis!). It’s rich with allusion and allegory—bread and butter for a youthful wannabe academic—but as I return to re-read the chapters now, I find it’s the mastery of the writing that impresses me.

Diana’s writing is a bit like Cat and Janet’s journey to, and through, the magical garden. You can’t always come at it front-on—not if you want to really get to it, and get the most out of it. It’s not that her stories are inaccessible—though some are more opaque than others, and plenty of nervous adults have thought them too difficult for children. But they’re not easy, either. As Sharyn says, you have to have your brain turned on when you read Diana’s books.

I think what I’m trying to get at is that Diana deals in her work with the unexpected—and so too is her writing frequently unexpected, and all the more thrilling for it. How many times have you read a story by Diana and thought you knew what was coming next, only to have your expectations completely overturned—and yet been delighted by the utter rightness of her narrative choices? How often have you found yourself laughing aloud with delight and surprise at a sentence that you never saw coming? (And never ever let us forget how just completely funny Diana’s stories are, even when they are as serious as murder.) Here’s one of my favourites, again from Charmed Life. It’s from Chapter 14, when Janet and Cat have broken into Mr Saunders’ rooms to steal the dragon blood, and discovered that the mummified baby dragon is anything but… This is after they’ve made friends, more or less, with the creature, said goodbye and leave the very much alive dragon looking “like a dog whose master has gone for a walk without it”:

    “I think it’s bored,” said Cat when he had shut the door.
“It’s a shame! It’s only a baby,” said Janet. She stopped on the first turn of the stair. “Let’s go back and take it for a walk. It was sweet!”
Cat was sure that if Janet did any such thing, she would come to herself to find the dragon browsing on her legs.

I’ve never forgotten that phrase—browsing on her legs. How perfect, and yet how perfectly unexpected.

How often, for that matter, has a DWJ character surprised you—surprised themselves, indeed, but surprised you, the reader, and who they turned out to be. Take Gwendolen, for instance. We know, as I’ve already noted, that she’s a bad’un from the start—but who would have predicted, in a children’s fantasy novel that is in so many respects so quintessentially English, that this wicked child would turn out, in fact, to be a sociopath who is completely willing to kill her own brother not once, but nine times over. (She’s already killed her parents, of course.) Who would expect that? And who would dare write it?

Anyone who comes to a novel by Diana Wynne Jones thinking they’re knowing what they’re getting on any level is in for trouble. She destroys the arrogance of the good reader, by being better. Better at story, and better at knowing people and what they are capable of—their capacity for casual wickedness and stupidity as well as their capacity for great love, kindness, forgiveness and intelligence. Diana didn’t suffer fools, not gladly, not at all, and neither do her books.

It’s not just that Gwendolen is allowed to be fully and completely evil—and get away with it. (Get, indeed, rewarded for it—she goes back to the related world where she’s a liveried queen, carried about by servants, or more likely slaves, bestowing largesse and punishment with equal arbitrary callousness.) No, it’s the end to Cat’s story that has always fascinated me.

Cat has gone almost the entire novel without having the first clue that he is one of, if not the most powerful enchanter in the world. Worlds. You know what I mean. He finds out in the very final chapter of the book, when he and Chrestomanci have been captured by the pack of rebellious witches and warlocks, determined to destroy them so they can use their magic untramelled, to be as wicked as [they] want. It’s a crisis of unimaginable magnitude, and on Chrestomanci’s urging, Cat at last feels his magic—the magic he was looking for head-on his whole life, expecting it not to be there (Try keeping it in the corner of your eye and not going straight to it)—and there it is. It’s a stand-up-and-cheer moment; he releases himself and Chrestomanci, the forces of good from Chrestomanci Castle are summoned, and the battle is on—and won.

But in all the action, Cat doesn’t get a minute to draw breath and absorb this new truth about himself. The last we see of him, he’s sitting on the grass, everyone has been enjoying the Blytonesque picnic that is, after all, the very English spoils of war, and the final conversation has been had that wraps up all the unanswered questions about who knew what when (with a nod to that other great English storyteller, Agatha Christie). And everyone else—with the possible exception of Janet—thinks everything is explained and fine and let’s go on to the next thing. But poor Cat—even in the very last sentence of the book, Cat is almost in tears—still a little lonely and fearful—and not understanding very much at all, really, about himself and what he’s just discovered and what his life is going to be like from now on.

Really, what happens, is that Cat’s story only begins at the end of the novel.

And I think that’s true of so many of the truly great children’s books.

The great children’s novels gets the child through those high and wild narrative seas, fraught with danger and fear, and delivers them safely, but on some equally wild and rocky shores, safe but uncertain, hopeful but going into the unknown. In the great children’s novels, there is supper waiting for them (and it was still hot), but it’s not the end of the journey, as it was for Sendak’s (much younger) Max. The heroes of the great children’s books end their journey at the start of the new—adolescence looming, with all its terrifying promise of adulthood beyond. For the lucky ones, there are still adults there who will help them through; there’s family, if not the one they were born into, and friends, including siblings, whether real or Related…. The great children’s novels get the protagonist to enough knowledge of themselves and to the point where they are just equipped enough to embark on the truly wonderful and difficult journey to eventually separate from family.

This where we leave Cat—a long way from adolescence, much less adulthood, but at the first step of that journey. This is where Diana’s great friend Neil Gaiman left Bod at the end of The Graveyard Book. Harriet M. Welsch. Matilda. Mary Lennox. The children of Narnia. Skellig‘s Michael. Tom, from the Midnight Garden.There must be many more.**

In all honesty, I’d never really thought this about children’s books (In my end is my beginning) before I started writing this post, and it’s a thesis I’m going to have to think about and test more over the weeks and months to come. Let me know what you think. Am I right, or did I just make it up?

Huh. See what Diana did there? She made me turn my brain on.

So whether or not I’m right about this, this I know I am right about: Charmed Life is a perfect children’s novel. I don’t think it’s a difficult book—it’s in some respects no more difficult than the succession of great 20th century children’s novels that come before it, none of which may be much read by the average reader, but are still cherished by what Farah Mendelsohn calls The Reading Child*** today as much as they ever where—but it does repay a thoughtful and intelligent reader. It is completely deserving of classic status, and is as simultaneously typical and marvellously ground-breaking an example of the great children’s novel as you could hope to find.

I never did finish my thesis on Diana’s books. I kept working, kept trying to configure my brain to understand at the level I wanted to, and I was getting there… and then that young, short marriage ended and I gave in and filed away those rough and meagre chapter drafts and I concentrated for a while on surviving getting up every morning, and then on making that life in children’s books that, frankly, has given me more joy and satisfaction than I could ever have imagined.

I did eventually finish my thesis, and graduated with my Masters, but it was a different writer and a different—although, dare I say it, related topic. I never thoroughly clarified my ideas about Diana’s books; in all honesty, I think I was too young! I was really interested in the question of the child at the age of 12 finding out about his or her hitherto unknown magical abilities. I was interested in time—as I mentioned, I was also trying to include Time of the Ghost and A Tale of Time City in the thesis—and I think now I was confusing the nature of thee related worlds in the Chrestomanci books with my lifelong passion for time travel stories. I can see now that they were two mostly different areas of consideration—and now I’m properly grown up, one day maybe I’ll go back to both of them, separately or maybe even find what that elusive thread of time that I thought was running through all the books was, or if it was there at all…

If you read the full transcript of my interview with Diana, you’ll see many traces of the areas I was interested in then. I still re-read that interview and am amazed and astonished by how generous she was, with her time, her thoughts and her imaginings. How lucky I was to have met her. How very much I miss knowing she is there.

I confess that when I started out to write this post, I thought that it would be much more personal—a reminiscence of the time I actually met Diana, when she was here in Australia. That was a very precious experience for me, as was the occasional correspondence I had with her in the year or two after her trip here, and then, so sadly, in the months before her death. But I can’t claim an unusual personal relationship at all (although I often wonder if she did ever wear the marcasite dragon I sent her to thank her for the interview…) and really, in the end, as for most of us, my true relationship with her is through her books. And that’s about as personal as it gets—and I mean that very sincerely.

Thanks again, Diana, for the books, and for this life. You will never know how far your legacy extends. Vale.

_______________________________

* (See that bit of loose wall cladding in the rooftop flat? That’s where Lexie, our landlady, reefed it away to toss the clothes her drug-addicted son was wearing the day he held up the TAB, to hide them when the police arrived to arrest him. They’re probably still there, mouldering away, although Lexie is long gone, alas, struck down by a car; Rommel also long since given over to the kindly ministrations of the vet after years of not being disciplined properly led him, an otherwise doleful and kindly creature, to bite a passer-by. I don’t know what happened to David, he of the hidden clothing, but he was a good man, all in all, and well-recovered from his demons when I met him, so I hope all is well with him.)

** (And for those of you who know the classic Australian children’s novel Seven Little Australians, this is why Judy had to die at the end of that novel—because at that time and place and society, there was no way that particular child could separate from her family and be who she truly was meant to be.)

*** Diana Wynne Jones: Children’s Literature and the Fantastic Tradition. Farah Mendlesohn, Routledge, New York, 2005