Of Blume, Book Club and the Bomb

“Am I going to be assessed on this?”.

I am mortified to confess that this was my response when a nurturing Year 12 English teacher asked if I’d submit something to a literary event in my hometown of Canberra. She told me they wanted pieces about life in the shadow of nuclear war, including some by young writers. Submissions closed the next day. I said that I’d think about it, but I was just being polite. There were phone calls with my girlfriends and communion with U2 to fit into my evening, after all.

But while riding my bike home I had an idea so pesky that I abandoned the Dublin lads and spent the night at our family typewriter. The next day I handed my teacher a poem about a boy whose parents install a luxury fall-out shelter in their back yard. Soon afterwards she told me that I’d been invited to recite my work. Envisaging a few kindly attendees holding cups of tea while they listened to some amateur readings and considered pieces tacked to the walls (‘Mushroom cloud – Jimmy, age 7’), I told my dad not to bother stick around when he dropped me off. My teacher was there, looking oddly excited. Leading me into a large auditorium filled with people taking their seats, she told me to approach the organisers on stage. Apparently, there was a seat there for me – among a group of Australian writers whose eminence I recognised, even as a pop-obsessed teenager. Both on stage and in the subsequent radio broadcast I was featured alongside our only literary Nobel Prize winner, Patrick White. The crazy kept coming when an anthology was published: Imagining the Real – Australian Writing in the Nuclear Age (ABC, 1987). I checked a proof! And wrote a bio that managed to be cringe-worthy despite only containing two sentences! There it was, hiding sheepishly among the likes of David Malouf, Thomas Keneally, Manning Clark, Judith Wright, Thea Astley, Faith Bandler, and – of course – my mate Patrick. It was quite the end to high school.

Putting this aside as an hilarious fluke, I sensibly studied Law and Social Work (we were in a recession, after all), and carved out an interesting – and hopefully useful – working life which also allowed me to be largely at home for the hectic, funny years of hands-on motherhood. I still wrote a little, here and there. Poetry, when I felt inspired and could find a pen and a shopping docket. Blogs that brought delightful readers into my life from unexpected places. I would have loved time to focus properly on writing but knew that my life was a fortunate one. This isn’t a tale of self-recrimination and regret. OK – not more than a tinge.

I managed to keep reading, at least. I’d been a kid whose name was scribbled repeatedly on the library cards of favourite books, spending childhood in the warm embrace of Moomintrolls, Edward Island and Marmee. Then Judy Blume rocked my tween world; her daring take on puberty inspiring me to weave a period-related storyline into every piece I wrote during Grade 6. Foreshadowing later themes, my final primary school composition centred on a nuclear attack – after which the heroine had to contend with a shortage of feminine hygiene products. This handwritten thriller was taken to the staff room and shown to the principal – “because it was so good,” I was told. Looking back, I reckon bets had been laid about whether I would maintain a perfect menstruation subplot rate, and winnings required collection.

My gritty social realism phase continued in early high school, with a dog-eared copy of Go Ask Alice passed in secret from schoolbag to schoolbag, and obsessive re-reading of everything by S.E. Hinton. Year 10 was a revelation. Mrs. Doyle gave us Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies, as well as Macbeth and Julius Caesar. I started pinning a Shakespeare button on my ‘80s over-the-shoulder canvas bag – next to People for Nuclear Disarmament.

When book-rich university years gave way to working life – and Cold War tensions eased –  my reading for pleasure was kept afloat by a book club. It differed from most clubs we’d heard about in mid-90s Sydney. We had a young, mixed gender membership, and socialising was not – and has never been – our raison d’etre. From our twenties to (can it be?!?) our fifties we have gathered, in person or remotely, for the joy of passionate, thoughtful, and often extremely funny group analysis of a chosen text. This reading family has led me down literary pathways I would never have explored on my own (cyberpunk…graphic novels…Beckett!) and encouraged me to finish intimidating epics that brought immense reward (Moby Dick, The Tin Drum). We’ve devoured witty page-turners from DeLillo and de Bernieres, societal skewerings from Butler and Burns, wild imaginings from Mieville and Martel, pulpy-but-fun Christie and Booker-of-Bookers Rushdie, and classics from Catch 22 to Fahrenheit 451. There’s been mind-expanding non-fiction; poetry; plays. We’ve travelled the globe with works translated from Arabic, German, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Spanish; and come home with Australian treasures including – yes –  old mate’s The Tree of Man. Turns out he really was rather good.

As our club enters its second quarter-century I find myself on a Darwin veranda with kids left for uni. I’ve started submitting and have once again felt the excitement of having proofs to read. I’ve put Imagining the Real in my fledgling writer’s bio, deciding to embrace the ‘1987’. I like to think of it as a nod to the countless people who mostly put away writing after their youth. I raise a toast to all of us from Australia’s steamy Top End. Here’s to grabbing hold of pesky ideas and not worrying about marks, because you just never know what adventures may follow.