TRIPPING OUT WITH THE FAM.

A big part of our goals for this year involves getting out and about with the kids and making the most of the region in which we live: the South West of Western Australia is rich with history, natural beauty and cultural heritage, and pretty much all of it is within a three hour drive, which means we can be there by lunch and home in time for tea.

Thanks to the power of an extra-long weekend , Luscious decided to kick start Subject One of Master 9’s upcoming home-schooling year by taking us all out to Fremantle Prison for their daily Doing Time tour, a ninety minute guided tour through the 140-odd year history of the facility.

Ohhhhhh, didn’t we have a lovely daaaayyy….

It’s stunning, not least because the set-up of the building, from the entrance gate through to the museum wing, art gallery and the gaol itself, is utterly unsentimental. Fremantle Prison, as is made clear to visitors, was a punishment prison, not a centre for rehabilitation, and no attempt is made to veer away or whitewash this rather uncomfortable fact. There is no attempt to romanticise the surroundings, or justify the range of sentences carried out within its walls: the yards remain unvarnished and rotting, the cells are presented exactly as they were used throughout the years, and visitors are exposed to the flogging post and execution room in the conditions they were in when sentence was carried out.

In its original condition, the room in which 44 people, including Martha Rendell and Eric Edgar Cooke, met their end.

The history of the prison is, largely, the history of the colony and, eventually, the wider City and State, no less because of the way punishment was carried out: the last person to be flogged in the gaol, for example, received 25 lashes in 1943 as part of his 4th conviction for paedophilia, whereas one of the first recorded floggings was 100 lashes for swearing at the prison chaplain. The highlight of the tour, for me at least, was the prison chapel, where it was easy to see why so many prisoners ended up turning to religion. It was the only stop on the tour that had no bars on the windows, that had any sort of colour on the walls, that had carpet underfoot and didn’t exist purely to crush the spirit and isolate the mind. It was the only part of the entire goal building– the tour, it should be noted, was restricted to those parts occupied by prisoners, and did not include offices or residential sections– where you could see the sky.

The only room with a sky in it.

The kids were wide-eyed throughout: this is a side of history they’ve not been exposed to in any great detail, and between them took well over 100 photos as we went around (hooray for digital technology!). Master 9 was one of the few tourists to ask a question of the guide: What did the arrows on prison uniforms come from. For the record, the arrows on prison uniforms were not specific to the prison system. They are used to indicate ‘property of the British Government’, and were used on a wide number of objects. They are still used in the British military and civil materiel industries– news to many of us, judging by the number of other visitors who approached us to congratulate him on his question and chat about how they had not known the answer.

A door bears the mark of ownership.

In the end we came away with an appreciation of how massive the recent history of our State is when streamed through the lens of a single cultural filter, and how it is an ongoing beast that can still reach out and touch entire elements of our culture: the museum had large sections devoted to the Fenian imprisonments of the 1860s and 70s, which stood in stark counterpoint to an exhibition of works by current women prisoners in the Art Gallery, the majority of which were clearly created by Aboriginal women. The stories were fascinating, complex and almost constantly compromised by the prevailing sentiments of the time from which they originated. The images– paintings on cell walls, shelters corroded and rusting, garden beds destroyed and partially filled– were stark and almost beautifully ruined.

Paintings of beauty and hope created in the midst of isolation and despair. Quite beautiful. And then you learn that the prisoner who did it was a 13-time violent rapist, and that’s the kind of place you’re in.

It is a big place, Fremantle Prison, uncomfortably so, and filled with the ghosts of culture past. We left it with wider eyes and deeper questions to explore over the coming months: the children with a pack full of reference points for learning, and Luscious and I, as authors, with countless vectors for our future work. A successful field trip, certainly, but an enriching experience for us all.

If you’d like a second view of the experience, Luscious has blogged about the trip on her blog as well, and she gives some different insights into what made the day so memorable.

Image of prisoners baking bread in the kitchen. A coveted role, and one given almost exclusively to convicted murderers.
Raw concrete, barbed wire, and panopticon. As close to freedom as you get, eight hours a day.

The exercise yard where prisoners milled for eight hours a day, no matter the weather. The shelter was erected in the 1960s. Before then, you stood in the open.
3 Division, for long-term prisoners, complete with ‘suicide net’ to stop falling bodies.
Solitary confinement day cell. 
From the prisoner lists contained in the museum. A family link? 
 

WRITE, YOU DOGS!

We fell upon Moscow like hungry dogs.

So begins 4500 words I wasn’t expecting to write this month. Cleaning out my inbox last week, I stumbled across an invitation to submit to an anthology of alternative history stories that I’d been sent in November. The word length was reasonable, the pay was excellent, I’m looking for extra money to help fund a holiday at the end of the year, I still had 2 weeks to write the story….

I’ve worked with tighter deadlines.

My good friend Stephen Dedman imparted a piece of advice to me in my younger days that I’ve always remembered: when time is tight and you’re short of plot ideas, pick a Shakespeare play and pull out a plot thread. Shakespeare’s work is so rich, so redolent with possibility, and so infinitely interpretable that it’s almost impossible to recreate his tone, style and intent, even if you wanted to. No matter what you take away from one of his plays, it’ll be utterly your own work by the time you’ve finished writing it.

It’s excellent advice, and over the years I’ve come back to it on more than one occasion. I’ve found, though, that Shakespeare doesn’t work for me as much as history books and science magazines. It’s not the source, of course, that’s the important thing: it’s the practice. If I’m short of time or plot ideas, I’ll find a scientific concept and ask the question “What if humans could do that?” or pick up a book of history and turn an event or concept through 90 degrees and see where it takes me.

What if humans could dehydrate their bodies into a form of natural cryogenic suspension and wait until rehydrated to begin the natural life cycle, as some plants in the Arctic circle have been discovered to do? gave me my early story Carrying the God, which took me to the Writers of the Future and launched my career. What if the bombing of Dresden exposed ancient Jewish alchemical practices to the German soldiers defending the town? was the basis of Europe After the Rain. And so on.

So I had two weeks. And, you know, alternative history. I’d just written a story– Disciple of the Torrent— about the Batavia massacre, so that research was fresh in my head. I still have all my research papers from The Claws of Native Ghosts, an alternative history set around the Pinjarra massacre. And there’s always Napoleon. I’m fascinated by Napoleon. I’ve written a whole novel about Napoleon.

Yeah. Let’s do Napoleon.

Somewhere in my future plans there’s a twinned set of novels about Napoleon’s march on Moscow: one set in the world where he loses, instead of winning the Pyrrhic victory he actually wins, and one in the world where his victory is genuine, and he conquers Russia.

Let’s test that one out. Let’s have a proof of concept. But: I don’t want to wet the powder here. I don’t want to write the version I have in mind for the novel. So let’s take that idea and move it in a different direction. An alternative alternative history.

So The Emperor of Moscow has been written. 4500 words in five days of writing. I haven’t written a short story at that speed in years. It feels good to be blatting words out, feeling the hot rush of creation with the eyes of a deadline upon me. It feels like that start of my carer, twelve years ago, when I was selling, never mind writing, ten or twelve short stories a year, and was ploughing through ideas like I was farming Shangri-La. I haven’t worked at that level of ferocity in a long time, not since marriage and family and a job I actually like gave me more in life to enjoy.

And now I have a long weekend in front of me, 4 1/2 days from lunchtime this afternoon, to edit and polish and send it off, before I go back to the long drudgery of editing the latest novel while my Agent taps his watch and raises his eyebrows at me.

They say you can’t go home again. But this was a fun visit. I’ll have to do it again some time.

PRETENDING TO BE ALL GROWED UP AT THE FESTIVAL FOR GROWED UPS

Now that the programme has been released, I can finally announce that I will be appearing at this year’s Perth Writers Festival, to be held at the University of WA from Thursday 20 to Sunday 23 February.

I’ll be running a workshop from 10am-1pm on Saturday 22nd, on how to create a believable fantasy universe. Here’s the full blurb:

UNIVERSAL LAW 
(Because *my* title of “Unicorn Physics” wasn’t catchy enough….)
10am – 1pm Sat 22 Feb 2014


Award-winning speculative fiction author Lee Battersby shows you the rules of building a believable fantasy universe. Learn what works, what doesn’t and just how much you can get away with before the reader starts to notice.

So if you want to learn about concepts like unicorn physics, world +1, and why writing what you know is for the weak, I’ll expect to see you there!

You can get a gander at the full program here. Luscious and I already have tickets for Lionel Shriver and she’ll also be seeing Margaret Drabble, and we’ll be wandering around the grounds for pretty much the entire three day festival, so anybody who’s interested in catching up, just drop me a line and we’ll organise some picnicky goodness like we did last year.