2017 Purim Spiel – by popular request

A very long time ago there lived a rich and powerful king. His name was Ahasuerus, but no-one could pronounce it. Even his friends found it difficult to say. They called him Harry. Everyone outside the capital called him ‘127.’ All his servants called him the PM – standing for Persian Monarch – acronyms were just coming into fashion around then. He ruled over 127 provinces.

Harry lived in Shushan and generally ignored the provinces, except when he wanted something from them. Mostly it was taxes. Occasionally he collected a concubine or two or built a wall, but generally he preferred good solid gold. When he wanted something, he wrote to them directly, on a small clay tablet. “Send much gold,” he’d write. “Now. Otherwise you’re really stupid.”

The reason he ignored the provinces was because he was too busy spending the taxes and his newly-mined gold on feasts. He didn’t attend feasts organised by anyone but his own people, because he was worried someone would call him 127. He spent most of his gold on more gold, but he also bought rights to a house elf called Dobby.

When he’d done all this, he was hungry. He organised some hunger games. That wasn’t enough. Tea-breaks with merry entertainment just weren’t good enough for someone in his line of work, he decided. It was a hard job, ruling. He wrote it on a tablet and sent it to everyone. “This job is tough,” he wrote. “You need to show your love more.”

The PM got rid of the tea-ladies and sacked Mr CMOT Dibbler, whose family had a long pedigree of making Persian sausages. Harry brought in banquet-management and promoted his new-found friend, Dobby, who hadn’t managed to stay bought for very long. Dobby organised the feasts, or delegated them to junior house-elves (for as a free elf, he was unionized and had health care). The unfree elves brought in contractors to do the job. Harry never remembered to invite the contractors and refused to give the unfree elves his spare socks. His best friend told him that unions were evil and that health care was dangerous and that the only way of avoiding them was by creating a permanent underclass. The elves weren’t too happy about this, but there wasn’t much they could do except grumble, or give the job to someone even further down the hierarchy the next time, or, in the case of a young contractor called Katniss Everdeen who had not yet been recruited into the hunger games, to overthrow the establishment – but that’s another story.

Eventually a lowly branch of servants called D.o.P.E. came to exist, standing for Department of Private Entertainment. The head of the DOPE looked remarkably like Gillian’s nephew and was named Conan. Everyone thought he was a barbarian. He answered to Dobby, of course. 127’s best friend hated him, because he was (possibly) Jewish. ‘Possibly’ was enough.

Harry mostly wasn’t worried that he didn’t pay for the feasts himself, or even organise them. After all, he was king and he had dreadful insomnia. He also poisoned lots of enemies. His most recent successful poisoning let him gloating, but didn’t help the headache. A small banquet here and another there was but tiny reward for the dreadful impositions of duty.

Archaeologists were never invited to the feasts either. They weren’t worried by this. For one thing, they were too poor to pay taxes. For another, they had a dreadful habit of waiting till any big event had been over for a thousand years or so and then digging it all up again. Whenever Harry threw a feast, the archaeologists threw a sort of pre-university academic gathering, where they would get drunk and tell everyone else exactly how they would go about the excavation for this particular dig.

They were advised by a strange Englishman, who wasn’t at all worried that he hadn’t been born yet, for he was too busy analysing the not-yet-buried material at the pre-dig party. He predicted very precise futures from this material and swore that when he finally legally existed, he would become a superlatively brilliant detective. He would also be played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

The archaeologists were always writing letters to American universities asking for funding. Marvin the Paranoid Archaeologist (who looked strangely like Gillian’s nephew) said depressingly “This is not going to get anywhere.”

Each of these letters was carefully written on clay tablets and passed from hand to hand until it was so smudged with corrections that they had to start all over again. Each time they started over, Marvin the paranoid Archaeologist would announce how miserable it all was, that his tremendous brain was wasted on such measly matters, and that it would fail miserably. Sometimes someone got sick of all of this and they tried sending a tablet after only five or so drafts. This failed because their supervisor’s job had not actually been approved yet, so there was no-one to send them.

There was never any answer, obviously. Even if the hierarchy had been fully functional, Ancient Persian archaeologists thought too much about the overall picture and forgot local chronology. Except for Marvin the Paranoid Archaeologist, who knew everything. America hadn’t been discovered by Europeans. In fact, Europe had hardly been discovered by Europeans either.

When no-one answered these carefully expressed letters they got huffy and pretended they didn’t really need the funding anyway.

One day Harry decided to throw a drunken orgy along with one of his banquets. Dobby disapproved. The archaeologists used this as an excuse for yet another boring academic gathering. They were discussing the possibility of grants. Marvin complained that there would never be any grants. That no-one appreciated the magnitude of his intellect. And that banquets were boring anyway.

The servants (other than the DoPEs) had a stop-work meeting to discuss work conditions, and ended up giving each other seminars on management technique and how to find catalysts for change. The DoPEs wished they knew how Dobby had obtained his sock – they wanted to join the stop-work meeting.

This feast was to be Harry’s best yet: it made the third page of the pre-Murdoch press. It even beat the Western Australian elections.

Vashti, Harry’s queen, also gave a feast. It was much more sedate. Pottery was used so the archaeologists dismissed the midden-heap as boring. Archaeologists prefer crumpled gold to shards of pottery, even ones who look like Gillian’s nephew, though no-one has ever been able to work out why.

The king got pretty drunk at this feast. He’d killed all his enemies so there was no poison floating around. This meant he could drink lots of wine. Ancient Persian wine was pretty potent. After two glasses he sung a little song he made up for himself. He flattered himself it had a nice little melody, might have made the pop charts if someone had remembered to invent them. He announced to the person who hadn’t invented the pop charts, “You’re fired.” That would sort everything. He knew it.

After everyone had applauded him and he’d had a few more goblets of wine, and he’d been encouraged to sing his shy, lilting melody a few more times, he was very drunk indeed. He looked for his queen and couldn’t find her. He looked under his throne, which was a stupid thing to do, since it was solid. He looked everywhere. He even asked Dobby if he had seen her. Finally he thought she must have gone to sleep after her own banquet. He had forgotten she had a banquet. He wondered who she had invited. He decided to ask her. He sent the chief eunuch to wake her up. After he found out her guest list, he thought, he could get all the gentlemen of his court to tell him how lovely she was and how good he was at choosing a bride.

His chief eunuch, Hege, took about three hours to find the Queen. When he eventually crawled back into the King’s presence, his face was miserable. He grovelled just as hard as he could. He grovelled into the floor, making a hole. “I need to rename you,” the king said. “Fatso. Fatso the Wombat.” The king was, of course, still drunk. No-one in Ancient Persia knew about wombats.

With his head so far into the floor his voice couldn’t be heard, Hege (or Fatso) excused himself as the bringer of bad tidings. The king made him grovel in apology for mumbling. Then he got him to tell the message all over again. The eunuch was terrified and purple splotches began to cover his face. Harry was fascinated by this phenomenon. It didn’t help him find the Queen, though. “She refused to come,” muttered the eunuch, and he grovelled himself out of sight before the king could come to his senses and have him killed. Hege was a survivor.

The next day Vashti did come. She walked up the 953 purple and red plush steps to the gracious throne and had a private interview with the King. The King was livid. Vashti walked gracefully back down those 953 steps, a slight smile on her face. She was the next best thing to a free elf: she was no longer Harry’s wife.

Harry sent out decrees to all parts of his kingdom in all the languages of his realms. They stressed the need for wifely obedience. More than one hundred and seventy-five clay tablets were used for the various drafts. It went up and down the Persian hierarchy no fewer than thirty-one times in its search for perfect wording.

Wherever the decrees were understood, an awful lot of wives walked down the steps of the house with slight grins on their faces. Fortunately, the wording of the decree was obscure, obtuse and largely incomprehensible. Nineteenth century historians were very angry when they discovered this. The Persian Empire would have fallen at least 200 years earlier, Toynbee calculated, if there had been a complete breakdown of all marriages at the time. Mind you, he couldn’t understand the decree. Sherlock predicted all this, of course, but he wouldn’t be born until 6 January 1854, so no-one listened to him.

The king was pretty pleased with himself after this, and he threw a party. The archaeologists waited anxiously in the rubbish dump, ready to examine the tailings. The tailings never arrived.

What had happened was the king had looked around for Vashti and found she wasn’t there. The PM, being a King and no ordinary mortal, got sick of his 861 concubines fairly quickly. Then it dawned on him, he needed a replacement. He set up a Royal Commission to investigate the matter. The Royal Commission acted with extraordinary speed for a Royal Commission due to the king’s uncertain temper. They were too slow. The King issued a tablet. His own. Without anyone’s help. “Too slow,” he wrote. “What an idiot!”

After their untimely demise, the PM was forced to try other measures. He got in touch with his Chief of Protocol, who referred him to the Taxation Branch. The Taxation Branch could not be found. So the PM asked Dobby (who was a free elf, but who now also served as the PM’s personal assistant), who referred him to the advertising manager. The King did not know he had an advertising manager, and felt safe when he discovered it was Lord Breitbart.

His Lordship decided to set up a complete list of all applicants, and then to hold a beauty parade. The PM was to choose his own bride.

The plan was modest. To gather together the largest array of beautiful virgins ever seen, and to sell the leftovers as slaves. The list was entitled Virgins and Maidens of Persian Satrapies, or VAMPS, for short. The advertising manager sent for his favourite consultants, whose normal work was in the Ancient Persian equivalent of King’s Cross. The list of VAMPS was considerably shorter by the time the King discovered that they couldn’t be trusted.

Dobby and Fatso the Wombat between them found a florid young man who had migrated to Persia from the ancient equivalent of California. He had degrees in pre-Keynesian macro-economics, technology transfer and advanced sandwich making, so it was decided that wife-hunting was the perfect thing for him. He was massively enthusiastic about it and set up a huge media-campaign. It worked so well, this campaign, that, over two thousand years later, the Australian Government was to consider using carrier pigeons, runners, and clay tablets to advertise the NBN. Unfortunately carrier pigeons were nearly extinct by then, and the climate wasn’t suitable for clay tablets. The NBN fizzled. However, Lord Breitbart and the florid young man managed to amass a huge number of Ancient Persian virgins for the king to consider.

To cope with the sudden mass of information, the archaeologists set up a research group to keep American academics informed of the King’s affairs. This was known as TIMEWARP, or Transatlantic Information on the Monarchical Eastern Women’s Affairs Research Program. The Americans took 2,500 years to find out about it.

The shyest and most demure girl in Shushan at this time was the niece of a man called Mordechai, who was Minister for Security, or Persio, as it was known. Mordechai had taken care of his timid relative since the death of her parents, many years before. Now that she was adult, he had great plans for her. Hollywood! Either that or YouTube. Lasting fame and glory, and her virtuous modesty untouched.

His first worry had been her taste in clothes. She was demure and quiet, but she dressed, to put it bluntly, like a bogan. She wore trakkydaks with Ugg boots when she went to the theatre, and her midriff was always, always bare. Her hair was teased peroxide blonde and her lipstick matched her handbag and her fingernails with killer precision. Each part was fine, but the complete effect only said one thing.

All Mordechai’s fond dreams were rudely shattered when Esther became a VAMP.

Hege (who really didn’t look nearly as much like Fatso the Wombat as the king thought) rather liked Esther. He had a weakness for bogans. He didn’t know she was related to Mordechai. Mordechai couldn’t tell him of the link, or stop Esther from being rounded up with the other virgins, because he had a dreadful sore throat. It was thought that his secretary had put something in his mid-morning cup of wine. As everyone knows, all Ancient Persians sang at every opportunity. What not many people are aware of is that Mordechai sang rather like a dying chain-saw, and that was on a good day. So the hero of this tale was sulking in his office when Esther was taken to the palace. He couldn’t sing, so he was teaching himself how to mutter. A useful and pleasant past-time.

During the preparations for the parade of beauties, Hege would often stop and chat a little with Esther because she never made jokes about his weight. He gave her good advice, and told her useful things. He persuaded her to leave the Ugg boots at home, for instance, along with the crocs and socks that were her second favourite footwear.

Hege’s most useful piece of advice to Esther was simple: to have a bath before the presentation. It was traditional that the king walked down the line of beauties as quickly as possible, you see, just to get away from the smell. All the beauties spent far too long in the traditional baths of frankincense and myrrh and other incenses and the combined smell was impossibly intense.

On the day of the parade, Esther adorned herself simply, as befits a young maid. When the king stopped in front of her as Hege had predicted, demure little Esther shyly raised her long lashed eyes and Harry was enchanted.

Factionalism was particularly rife in the Persian government. Hege was Centre-Left, and very powerful. Mordechai’s power was mostly personal.

This was a shame, because very few people really got on with him. Though he had an older brother with a great deal of charm, and a young sister who was as sweet as they came, he couldn’t sing, and, when they’d taken care of that, the man insisted on muttering. It was absolutely impossible to like him under these conditions.

But he was clever, and had managed to find out about a plot against the PM’s life. Mordechai and his intrepid band of Persio men foiled it, of course. The matter was written up in a Departmental Minute and it was sent to the King. It unfortunately went to the Taxation Department instead, and was filed under Shushan region 15, section 9501, subsection 33.56392 by mistake. Life went on as usual.

Haman, who was of the extreme right, found great favour with Harry at this time. He was a notable person in many ways. Even before he entered the Megillat Esther, he was responsible for a variety of noxious conditions. They included Twitter addiction, indigestion, job outsourcing, wall-building, mansplaining, and tourists who persist in telling you how to find your way home. He also invented Facebook, Days of our Lives, and paperclips. He was promoted to chief minister.

Haman used his newfound power constructively. First he ground people’s faces into the dust. Then he laughed at them for having dusty faces. Also, he offered people flat rate taxes. When they enthusiastically agreed to it, he raised all taxes to 99% of income.

He liked giving banquets in honour of himself. Only the archaeologists and the DoPEs were pleased. Harry issued a tablet about it. “Best banquets are mine,” he wrote, “Everyone knows! All others fake!!”

Haman made everyone bow to him, including Dobby, but Mordechai wouldn’t. He muttered to himself and claimed that his sore throat and a stiff neck had given him a very rigid spinal column.

Haman didn’t do things by half. When he planned his revenge on Mordechai for his disrespect, he didn’t just plan to unstiffen his neck. First, Mordechai’s mother would die, Haman decided. Then his brother was added to the list. He tried to poison them with a cunningly ethnic food fair. When this didn’t work, his ambitions grew. He added Mordechai’s sisters and his cousins and his aunts and even his mother-in-law to the list for slaughter. Then he went around trying to find a tune for the words, “If sometime it must happen that a victim must be found; I’ve got a little list, I’ve got a little list, of Mordechai’s relations who should all be underground. They never will be missed, no never will be missed…”

Haman looked at this list for a couple of days and decided it was very unsatisfying. Mordechai was Jewish, so Haman decided to kill the whole race. It was much easier to include everyone than to risk offending someone by leaving them off. He invented three useful acronyms to cope with the problem. Both of them later became very popular. The first acronym was YIDs, standing for Yucky and Irreverent Dissidents, the second was MAD, standing for Moslems are Dissidents too” (he didn’t care that Islam was in the future – logic was not his greatest ability) and the third was SDI, or Sudden Death Initiative. This latter was Haman’s name for his special technique of ridding the world of his enemies. It went at the top of every list he made. It used the latest technology – the drawing of lots and the sending of fast couriers – enabling him to co-ordinate his effort in a way previously unheard of. Because the couriers reached every corner of the immense Persian realm, it was also called Far Wars. His advisors wrote SDI on their lists, as Haman told them to, but in their minds it stood for Some Damn Idiocy. At the bottom of every list Haman wrote in the biggest, boldest letters he could get his scribe to muster up, “NB gallows for Mordechai to be particularly high.” Then he went to bed, perfectly happy.

Next day he cast lots, or Purim, and settled on the 13th of Adar as a suitable day. Then he told Ahasuerus that all the Jews were breaking the laws and ought to be punished. Just like refugees. It was necessary, Haman claimed, to make sure the bringer of justice was a disinterested and upright man, such as himself, for example. He brought in a representative from a lobby group founded the day before by himself, to argue the case. It was a very talkative lobby group, and was known as JAWS or, Jewish Abolition: Women’s Society.

The King, deceived, handed over Haman his ring, which meant Haman could do what he liked in the matter.

On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, ran the decrees, all Jews in the realm were to be killed, and their possessions were to be given to Haman. It was a very tidy, simple little decree.

The scribe who worked on it was a Persio agent. Mordechai was not very happy to get the news. He suggested that it would be a good idea for the Jews to stage a protest. The Society Contrary to the Abolition of Residents of Eastern Demesnes, or SCARED, had a meeting to discuss the matter. They contemplated a stop-work, a strike, a street-march, and a sit in, but eventually settled for sackcloth and ashes and wandering through the streets of Shushan, groaning loudly.

Esther was very embarrassed to hear that her uncle was roaming the streets, looking like a fool. It was bad enough that he was a Public Servant, but to wear such stupid clothes! She sent him linen and silk and cloth of gold. He sent back a message saying he’d rather die than wear such things. It took Esther a while to penetrate this deep and meaningful statement. In fact, it took a leak from the Taxation Office, which asked if she wanted any of the loot.

Esther was tempted by the gold, of course, but nobly put her life above such wordly considerations as money. In fact, for the first time in her life, she stopped to think. Her maids were very worried by this aberration, and sent for five psychologists. She had stopped thinking before they arrived. Esther washed herself very clean, and put on a lovely gown. She looked her very best – modest, timid and demure. Harry was so impressed that he granted her a favour. Vashti hadn’t even been able to get him to pay the food bills. Esther knew the PM very well. So did the archaeologists. They held their collective breaths. You guessed it, she invited the King and Haman to a banquet. Conan (who was a barbarian and who looked just like Gillian’s nephew, organised it, of course).

Banquets don’t just happen overnight, even when you are the Queen of Persia and have a whole army of DoPEs to do the work for you.

The weather was hot and sticky. Summer seemed to go on forever. The king’s insomnia was getting worse and worse. He began to get bad headaches from all the filing he had to do. He’d have to invent a new government department to cope with it all, he thought. In the meantime, he spent long, sleepless nights dreaming of filing cabinets. Finally, at three o’clock in the morning, he sent for someone to read to him. Harry was torn between having something read to him that was interesting, or something that was so boring that it would put him to sleep. He compromised. One of his secretaries started reading him the tax returns for Susa region 15, section 9501, subsection 33.56392.

It wasn’t what he thought it would be. When he found out that no-one had bothered to reward Mordechai for saving his life, he waxed exceeding wrath. In fact, he called Haman out of bed. Haman was puzzled, but hopeful.

The PM led into his subject indirectly. The filing cabinets walking beside his bed when he had dozed off three nights before, had inspired him. He commanded Haman to spend 50,000 sheckels of the enormous bribe which had got him the use of the signet ring, to set up a bureau to take care of the filing. He called it the Cabinet Office. Then he tackled the more important issue.

“What would you give someone deserving of the highest honour, if you were the King of Persia?” Harry asked. This looked promising. Haman listened for the sounds of the gallows-builders doing overtime and rubbed his hands with glee. He listed everything he could think of, but the centrepiece of the honour was to have “this worthy individual” astride the king’s mount, adorned with cloth of gold, and wearing a crown.

Haman was not at all pleased to find himself, the next day, leading the King’s horse. On it was Mordechai. On Mordechai’s head was the king’s own crown. To add insult to injury, Mordechai muttered the whole time and Haman had to pretend he was listening. The only good thing in Haman’s whole day was the sight of the gallows, reaching higher and higher. He consoled himself with the thought of a private banquet with their Majesties, that evening.

The banquet wasn’t really worthy of the name. It had only forty courses, and so few guests that Haman was able to monopolise the conversation. However, even the garbage bags were made of cloth of gold. The archaeologist wept tears of joy. Haman, while he was chatting away, managed to put a couple in his pocket to spend later.

Esther was in despair as the evening progressed. She had planned to reveal Haman’s plot and the threat to her own life, and to allow the PM to see the villain’s guilt written all over his face. If only that villain would stop talking long enough to let her get a word in edgewise! Mordechai stood behind the curtain in agony. He was tempted to try to sing a little something, to get the King’s attention, but, after a woeful attempt, his voice faded entirely. Esther dismissed the noise as a male Australian prime minister catching sight of a feminist. The King relaxed again.

Esther slipped quietly over to her lyre and sang a little song bewailing her sad lot. The King’s face paled and he demanded an explanation. Esther told the King that she was Jewish, and that the crimes Haman had accused her people of were pure fabrication. She petitioned her husband for her very life.

Harry was bewildered. He went into the garden to think. What to do? His chief advisor, a murderer? Finally, the King knew what to do. Esther was more interesting than Haman, after all.

While the PM was in the moonlit garden, Haman had tried to get out of his dilemma. He had seen his life was threatened, and had come close to where the Queen was sitting, meaning to throw himself upon her mercy. The King re-entered and didn’t realise that it was upon her mercy that Haman was advancing to throw himself. He vaguely remembered seeing a nice new gallows, fifty cubits high, in the central part of town. Haman was sent to these gallows at once. He said nothing, for he was gagged until he was out of the King’s presence. It was Purim. Haman died bitter, but, being Ancient Persian, he couldn’t resist writing his own funeral dirge. Very original, he thought, as he waited for the hangman.

I was a crooked man
I walked a crooked mile
I made some crooked sixpence
Into a crooked pile
And with my crooked dough
I led my crooked life
Which now must finish
Due to Kingy’s crooked wife.

“What rubbish,” the PM wrote on a tablet.

Gillian age almost-twelve

In a recent tidy of storage space, my mother found a box of my possessions. As well as quite a few short stories that I thought had gone missing forever, the box contained a strange mixture of papers from my past.

Very little went back beyond university, but there was a scattering of work from high school. One was a school assignment I did when I was not-quite-twelve. In an ideal school, I felt, teachers would also wear uniform so that they couldn’t tell students “well, you’ve got your uniforms” when the students tell them how well they’re dressed.

I also had a list of the books I had out from the library. All mistakes were made by my near-twelve self.

Most of the books I can remember, but, oddly, not The Outsiders. I was saying just two weeks ago I needed to read it. It obviously didn’t make an impression on my younger self!

The books were:

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Outsiders
The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit
The Pirate’s Treasure
The Outlanders
Escape Alone by David Howarth
The Nomads
Ordeal of Innocence by Agatha Christie
Helen Keller’s Teacher
The Island of Blue Dolphins

Turning fiction writing into a privilege

A poor person on Twitter unintentionally got me answering back where normally I would bite my tongue. Some of it was the day: between anti-Semitism, a heat wave, various ailments and stuff (much stuff, but all of it private and family and not appropriate for here). Some of it was, however, a genuine annoyance at a statement that was made.

The tweeter told writers to support a type of publication. To subscribe to review publications and literary journals. Apparently they were targeting their tweet at writers who don’t and should.

I apologised and backed down and promptly worked out that I still have an issue with the command. Several issues, in fact.

The first is not with the tweeter, but with the environment the tweeter is a part of and the assumptions that fed into the tweet. The one that assumes that a statement like that can be made about people in any industry without supportive data about what people in that industry do. If the tweet had linked to a table that showed that writers didn’t support literary journals, there would have been a leg to stand on. A single leg only, but a leg.

The underlying assumption made by a general statement exhorting any group of people to do a particular thing is that they’re not doing it. As a group. Data pointing out that a subset do it helps that group identify that it’s not a general accusation, and that it’s not about them if it actually isn’t about them.

Poor wording unsubstantiated by the material that would have let those of us who aren’t the target know that we aren’t the target is not what made me respond. This was Twitter. We all do things like this on Twitter. If I’d complained about that, it would be a case of pot and kettle.

What made me annoyed is that this was the umpteenth time a member of the public has told me as a writer what I have to spend my money on. I’ve been told that if I don’t support this industry body, this journal, this wonderful project on the other side of the world, this political thingie, this anthology, this fundraiser for charity, I will be failing as a writer. Not all of them say it so directly, but enough do. The others imply, gently, that I’m currently doing less than my public duty.

Who and what determines the public duty as a writer? And why do so many people assume that spending money we don’t have on something that someone else thinks important is so critical to the well-being of society?

Let’s start with the second question. The first may have to wait until another time.

Writers support literature. Writers support culture. That’s the assumption.

It’s got a lot of truth in it, as an assumption. It falls down, however, in the nature of the assumed support. As people within the writing industry often point out, writers don’t get paid in the same way as, say, accountants. It’s so hard to make money reach fiction writers as a rule, that new writers have to be told not to pay to be published. “The money should go towards the writer,” they’re told.

We give work away for free (me, this piece, now, though I admit that people who want more essays by me can join me on Patreon, most of my essays are not for money for so many reasons). We donate copies of books to this cause or that, and our services to this cause or that. All that is par for the course. It’s not sufficient, it seems, for we have to do more. We’re exhorted to do more.

One big problem with the assumption that writers are essential to keeping the Arts afloat through being responsible for the survival of literary journal sand their ilk through subscribing rather than by submitting pieces to them or being a part of the discussion around them or by being reviewed or any of the other ways we already participate is that when one adds an emotional “thou must” financial support aspect to the game it becomes a wealthy person’s game. (And I shall leave that sentence as it is, however tempting it is to edit it into readable blocks – sometimes we need impossible sentences.)

This is related to the ‘who determines’ I mentioned above. When the determination of a writer’s duty is through moral obligation more than by hourly rates of pay and type of work, we start living in a different world to many others. It’s not about the quality of work, the hours spent, the pay received, the negotiated benefits: it’s about the specific benefit to society. It turns fiction into a job for those who are sufficiently prosperous not to need to live from it.

With that prosperity comes a different type of obligation, one where it’s perfectly normal to spend more money on supporting an industry than the income one earns within that industry. Writing is for the gentry, not workers.

I am a member of seven industry bodies, because they fit my work. If I had more money, there are several more I really need to join. Yet I’ve been told that my authority as a writer is suspect because I’m not a member of these other organisations. I buy subscriptions to journals when I can (which is not nearly often enough), and I mentor, I support new artists and help established ones get through difficult periods. I teach. I edit. I write. And my actual creative writing brings in a much smaller income than my teaching and my editing and my non-fiction. Yet it is as a creative writer I’m expected to shoulder that extra burden of public duty. It is as a creative writer I’m instructed to do more, because it’s the right thing to do. The right thing takes money. Writing is for the gentry, not workers.

This is – probably entirely unintentionally – creating a class system. My choice of language above was not unintentional.

Writers who have the money to pay for these things through other income (day jobs, supportive partners) are doing the right thing. Writers who don’t, are not. It’s important that the tweeter let me off the hook because I support who I can when I can, not because of my income. The actual income of a writer is not relevant when creative writing is considered a luxury to be undertaken by those who can. Writing fiction is seldom considered a regular job.

There are other jobs that are also not regular jobs. We’re all part of a social change, where some critical areas are expected to carry particular burdens. I need to talk more about this somewhere, sometime. Right now, there’s one key element of that change that belongs here.

Australia is in a mess. One of the ways that mess is being articulated is by people who think they see a way out telling others “If you do this, we’ll be better off.” If we can all support literary magazines we would be better off. It’s true. These people are pointing out things that would work.

Why isn’t this uniformly a good thing to do then? To ask writers to shoulder the critical support means that the literary criticism is more important than what we do as writers ie our writing. It actually makes the mess worse. It pushes us just that much closer to a society where only the privileged may create professionally.

Yet another angle is that the assumption is that the critical magazines are more important than our livelihood. Yes, I said this before, but this time it has a different meaning. It means ‘cultural cringe.’ Australian creators are being returned to the bad old days when what we do is not important. We’re moving back into a cultural framework when being an Australian writer is terribly important for the support they give others but is probably not doing anything worth noting themselves.

I keep wanting to say to all these people who have wonderful ideas of how I should spend my money in support of others, to first of all buy enough of my books so that I have that money. This is not allowable in this world. Cultural cringe says “people must discover your work mysteriously – it’s not like the Big Names, about whom we’re informed by Those Who Matter.” This is the Australia I grew up in, and I don’t like to see it returning.

What’s ironic about all this is that I count as friends some wonderful people who write for literary magazines. They never play this kind of game, for their vision of Australian culture is complex and profound and includes my writing and the writing of others and lays the burden of supporting literature on wider populations.

None of the critical literary pundits I’ve spoken to (as friends or casually) have ever told me I have to support this or that magazine. They’ll point out articles I need to read. They’ll share ideas. We’ll argue about the ideas in my novels or in the fiction of someone else. They’ll say “If you’re writing a novel about gender, did you see that article in…?” When enough people send me towards enough articles in a particular magazine, I’ll save and save and save and take out a subscription, for it will be entirely undeniable that I need to read every single issue.

A general exhortation says more, while it says less.

I have even more sympathy for the tweeter than I did when I responded to the tweet in such an ill-advised fashion, therefore. Not only did they get an annoyed Gillian making puerile statements in their direction, they caused this rant. It was good for me, however, for it means I can get back to writing my novel and researching my non-fiction and leading the life I lead.

Lost Stories

Once upon a time, I wrote many short stories. Forty-one short stories, to be precise. Until I was twenty-five, in fact.

Alas, I translated all those stories from Mac to PC and only four survived. Also alas, it was the four worst stories that survived. They’re very useful for teaching how not to write, but not for much else.

The reason I personally didn’t have a printed copy was reasonable. I’d moved from Melbourne to Sydney to Toronto to Sydney to London to Paris to Sydney and then to Canberra, all in five years. I didn’t have much of anything that couldn’t be fitted in a single suitcase. Being a cautious tyke, there were copies of everything safely stored with my parents.

Then my father died. Mum moved house. We couldn’t find the stories when this happened. They were officially deemed missing.

This week, my mother asked various relatives of they would remove their belongings from under the house. When they did, a box of papers appeared labelled “Gillian.” Mum thinks they might be my stories and will post them to me in the near future.

At this moment, we have no idea how many of them there are, or how good they are. Several of them were accepted for publication, then the magazines collapsed, so they never saw light of day. One of them won an award. We don’t know, however, if those stories are in the box. For all we know, the stories that survived might be the same appalling stories that I occasionally use to teach bad writing. In fact, the only thing we’re certain of is that the box smells frightful, having been confined under a house for nearly three decades.

This is a mystery worth celebrating. Make a guess at how many stories of mine are in that box (1-41). If you’re right, I’ll let you see one of them before the rest of the world, before I so much as decide what to do with them. In my early twenties, I wrote some very good stories. I also wrote some amazingly bad ones. I can’t guarantee which you’ll receive. The only thing I can promise you is that it will be fiction, by me. You have until January 8.

All guesses that reach me (that I actually see ie that don’t get eaten by spam or a ferocious internet tiger) will be valid. If a thousand people guess correctly, then a thousand people will receive a story. If one does, then one will.

Open Question Time

This is open to anyone (you don’t have to know me) and you can ask anything. I won’t answer questions that require much research at my end – open question season is not a place for me to do significant amounts of research for others. If I don’t know an answer off the top of my head, however, I will say so.

I’ll try answering all questions (one way or another) but your best bet is to ask questions that fit my areas of expertise. I’m strongest on things historical (especially Medieval, but not by any means only Medieval), things political (especially given my recent post on my personal blog), things to do with writing, editing, research, literature…

Let me take care of the standard questions. My current research is all to do with cultural constructs and genre and how we tell stories. The novel I’m working on right now is science fiction and about alien engagement with Earth and is sarcastic and feminist and full of chocolate and fruitcake. My next novel (publication-wise) is about colonialism and is not set on Earth.

The questions that are hardest for me to answer during question time are the ones that require long answers or are nebulous. With the nebulous questions, if you don’t know precisely what you want to ask, then the likelihood is quite high that I will have equal difficulty giving you an answer. Also, very broad questions are difficult, because I’m a writer/historian and I see the world as complex. In other words, try to keep your questions specific. Be as precise as you can. “Did London shoes have shoelaces in the early fourteenth century?” is preferable to “What’s the history of shoelaces ?” It also helps if I know a bit about you or why you want to know. “I am interested” will often get a quite different answer from “I need to know for my new novel and it’s a NaNoWriMo novel so I can’t go away and research for a week.” I’m happy to be asked why this difference exists…

With history questions, remember that if a hundred years is a long time to you personally and if you’ve seen heaps of changes in your less-than-100-years, that this might also apply to people in the past – this is another reason to ask precise questions.

Frivolous questions are fine. I do not answer “How long is a piece of string?” or “What’s your shoe size?” for once was enough for both of those questions.

Personal questions are fine for I can always be snarky or refuse to answer. I reserve the right to be snarky, in fact, or cheeky, or even impudent. I will take serious questions seriously, however. It’s OK to ask me about being Jewish, especially if there isn’t anyone else you can ask. It’s not OK to ask me about my housekeeping.

This thread is open for questions until next Sunday.

Edit: Some weeks are just like that, aren’t they? I know that there are people wanting and trying to ask questions and it’s just not working. I’m therefore moving this post to my Livejournal blog and keeping it open until 1 December. I hope this helps. Gillian

The Biology and Lifestyle of Griffins by K.J. Taylor

On Sunday, a group of us shared a booklaunch at a science fiction convention. One of the authors was K.J. Taylor. She and I share a Moomin addiction and are Tuckerising each other due to a random conversation on Facebook.

Her new novel, The Last Guard” is set in Cymria, a place where humans live alongside griffins. I word this with care, for I’m not at all certain what would happen if I implied the griffins were second in importance. To celebrate, she has kindly given us important information concerning griffins. For Sydneysiders who find this post in time, she will be at GleeBooks on 7 October.


In the wild, griffins generally live in mountainous areas, and make their nests in various places – nesting mothers generally choose treetop platforms which they make themselves, but griffins have been known to choose caves and overhangs for sleeping and eating. If you are travelling in the wilds of Cymria and happen upon a cave with a stench of rotten meat about it, run away very fast – a wild griffin has no qualms about adding you to the menu.

Griffins hunt their prey both from the air and from the ground – sometimes swooping down on their victim from above, and at other times mounting an ambush from cover. More than one person has been killed that way, but most of the time they prefer larger animals such as deer, and livestock which they frequently steal.

Unfortunately, as humans became more and more numerous and their settlements became larger, the wild griffins began to lose their habitat. Prey became more difficult to find as wild animals were killed or driven away by human activities, and in time the griffins were forced to begin taking livestock rather than starve. Naturally the humans banded together and killed plenty of griffins to protect their flocks, and their numbers began to drop.

However, not being mere dumb animals, some griffins soon realised that there was another way to survive. They began to loiter around human settlements, picking up scraps, and over time some began to form bonds with various humans who took pity on the starving creatures, which they venerated as sacred (some humans had even argued against killing livestock-stealing griffins for this reason, but mostly went ignored. In the face of starvation, nothing is sacred).

So some humans began deliberately feeding the griffins, mostly out of basic decency and kindness. Others, happening upon griffin chicks that had been lost or abandoned, took them in and kept them as pets.

In time such griffins became more and more accustomed to humans, who in turn came to see that the creatures were at least as intelligent as themselves, and that the sounds they made were in fact a language. As humans and griffins grew closer, both races began to understand each others’ speech – chicks raised by humans understood them more or less perfectly, though they were unable to speak the human language themselves.

And, when fighting began to break out among the humans, the griffins joined in – fighting to defend the towns and villages which they had claimed as their “territories”. Before long it became obvious enough to both sides that if griffins fought alongside humans they could crush their enemies and seize more territory for themselves. And so the first true griffiners emerged. Griffins, recognising that wealthy and powerful humans could provide better food and shelter, began to gravitate toward the emerging nobility, and many of them would form a special bond with a particular human. Others made the choice purely out of self-interest. Some griffins feel genuine affection toward their humans, but others see their partners as nothing more than a commodity on legs and treat them accordingly.

Not wanting to leave “their” humans unprotected, partnered griffins took to carrying them on their backs when travelling, though aerial combat proved to be far too dangerous and inconvenient to be particularly worth it. Some griffiners would use bows while on griffinback, but flying hands-free was extremely risky. Besides which, carrying a rider makes a griffin slower and less agile in the air, so this idea never really got off the ground, so to speak.

Griffins are able to mate all year round, and without the need to consider the avilability of food they have more or less abandoned the “mating season”. When a female goes into heat males will fight for the right to mate with her, but mating still occurs even when the female is not on heat, if it is simply convenient at the time. Some females will couple with a male merely to win something from him, a trick plenty of humans have used themselves! Pregnancy lasts for three months, and after laying the eggs must be incubated for a further three months. A typical clutch consists of three eggs, about the size of watermelons, usually speckled brown in colour (though there was at least one exception in recorded history…).

After hatching the chicks stay in the nest, sharing their mother’s food, until they are large enough to leave. More or less the moment they are able to fly, the mother will drive them away. If they try to return to the nest, she will attack to kill.

City griffins generally live for fifty to seventy years of age, though some have lived much longer (it is commonly believed that more magically powerful griffins have longer lifespans). Much like other large predators, they spend a lot of their time sleeping. Griffins aren’t particularly talkative and have a limited range of emotions – they have little to no concept of love, and virtually no sense of empathy. They find both concepts largely incomprehensible, and view any sort of religious worship as complete nonsense, as they have no concept of spirituality and prefer to think of themselves as the centre of the universe. The existence of the gods would in other words bruise their ridiculously huge egos and is therefore unacceptable.

Griffins are however quite capable of showing affection, and when scratched or otherwise petted they will sometimes purr or croon. The chicks are very playful, though playing with one will probably leave you sporting a lot of scratches.

Children are generally not allowed to be presented to the griffins as potential griffiners, on the grounds that it’s simply too dangerous. Griffins partnered with children can and have killed their humans, purely by accident.

As for the wild griffins, they are now largely extinct and have no rights. Some are killed outright, and others captured and forced to entertain the crowds at the fighting pits which most Cymrian cities have. Few survive for long, and all are intentionally crippled from using their magic with regular doses of a herb known as griffinsbane, which paralyses the organ responsible for generating magic. Wild griffins are thought of as savage brutes incapable of speech, and it would take a truly exceptional person to ever successfully form a partnership with one. But every now and then, such a person does come along…

KJ Taylor

Moonshine Pudding

An extract from the Conflux cookbook, mainly for Ilse Pilsener and Penni Russon. This is the result of a loaf of bread (not mine) and a tweet. Just for the record, this is the best bread and butter pudding recipe I’ve ever made.

A loaf of thinly sliced bread
Glacé cherries
Candied pineapple
Other glacé fruit
900 ml cream
6 egg yolks
½ nutmeg (grated)

Layer the bottom of a baking dish with bread and butter. Add a layer of currants and candied fruit. Add another layer of butter, then more candied fruit. Continue until the dish is full.

Mix cream, egg yolks, nutmeg, and sugar. Pour the mixture on the pudding, and bake it in a moderate oven for three quarters of an hour.

Additional comment: I interpreted the bread and butter bit quite specifically. I buttered all the bread and used that for the layering. So did the hotel.

The food (including a recipe and test for Cornish Meat Rolls) in The Wizardry of Jewish Women

A group of enthusiastic cooks and lovely people are making recipes mentioned in my new novel, The Wizardry of Jewish Women. I almost always have recipes lurking beneath my fiction. Even my next novel (which I’m editing this week) contains food which I can cook, and it takes place off-planet! My new novel is set in Australia and I’ve borrowed and adapted over a hundred of my family’s recipes for it. When more recipes are out, I’ll put up a post with links. In the meantime, this is the culinary background to the box of forgotten recipes that appears in the novel. When you’ve read this blog entry you will know more about them than my characters do!

I was lucky with this novel. Very lucky. I’d been researching the difference between Anglo-Australian Jewish and Continental Jewish food because someone asked me to, way back. My family had found me many, many recipes to help with my research and I had the full oral history for them from two aunts and from a cousin. There were no missing years: both aunts had cooked the cuisine (and I’d eaten it at their houses) and my cousin is just enough older than me to know the bits they wouldn’t tell. When my aunt and my mother found recipes notes and even a handwritten cookbook, I had the stories to understand them and to interpret them. My food historian side, in fact, enabled me to work out exactly which bits came into the family and when. Stuffed Monkeys was a favourite dish of my father’s for instance, and they came into the family from the nineteenth century London Jewish community. You can find its history here. If enough people ask, I’ll make the recipe and give a documented version to you, just the way I’m about to do with Cornish meat rolls.

The thing about this cuisine is that it’s missing a lot of ‘standard’ Jewish dishes. Even those parts of the culture that came from Eastern Europe had been transformed, through London and then through Australia. It doesn’t come from Eastern Europe, in fact (though dishes poke their heads through from time to time and say “But I do!”): it is partly a southern English variant of Sephardi cuisine. It has lost many of its most Spanish elements, but maintained a lot of recipes that are easier to make with London and Australian ingredients. In their place one finds very familiar British dishes (like the Cornish Meat Rolls), some local oddities (like Stuffed Monkeys) and a few dishes that look very unJewish. They’re a part of the cuisine. Some of the older English Jewish food is kosher, and some enjoys its bacon. My grandmother knew how to cook all these dishes and according to some relatives she cooked them and according to others she didn’t. What I know for certain is that after my father married, she didn’t cook them for him, for he married into a very kosher-keeping family. This means that, from 1956, one whole strand of recipes was lost, just as, from the moment the family came to Australia (just under a century earlier) the more Sephardi dishes would have been lost.

If you want to know more about how I identified the London Sephardi origins (check my research, argue with it, etc) just ask for a copy of my paper.

I chose the Cornish Meat Rolls because I wanted to see if the family’s pastry can be made with olive oil (since I knew what it was like made with other fats). An olive oil pastry would be very good for my heart, I thought. The pastry was good with olive oil (rather good, in fact) but not perfect. It was too crumbly for my taste, but I’d still do it again, for it had a lovely aroma and if I can solve the crumbliness I have a pareve heart-healthy pastry that takes next to no time to make. I adapted the filling a bit and have put my replacements in brackets. This is because I’ve had this food in my childhood and have made it with dripping at my aunt’s. I wanted to adapt it into a modern Australian version.

The filling took me back to my childhood. The moment I tasted it I knew where it came from. It was tasty and stodgy both at once. Perfect for a Melbourne winter. Also, very easy to make. very hard to turn into something elegant. This is easy food for a big family, basically.

I took a picture, but seem to have lost it. You’re not missing anything. Think of big sausage rolls. Golden and clunky and full of filling. In fact, the filling spills out whenever it’s not properly sealed. The pastry is short and crumbly. I took one look at it and wanted to add tomato sauce and demolish it. I couldn’t get through it all (though I tried for three meals) and gave a slab to a hungry friend. Depending on how hungry the diners are, therefore, this will fill 3 to 6 people. Add chips and salad and it’s terrifyingly Australian.

And now for the recipe:

Cornish Meat Rolls:

¾ topside steak (I used low fat mincemeat)
1 onion
1 large potato
1 tomato
2 cups SR flour (or 2 cups plain plus raising agent)
pinch salt
¾ cup dripping (I used olive oil)
½ cup cold water
1 teaspoon lemon juice
salt and pepper.

Remove fat from steak. Peel potato, tomato and onion, and put through mincer with meat or chop each very finely and mix together. Season with salt and pepper. That’s the original instructions. Me, I boiled my potato and peeled it and cut it finely. I added it to the mincemeat. I then chopped my onion and tomato coarsely and put them through the blender. Then I seasoned the mix. I mixed it until it held together very nicely.

Sift flour, salt and baking powder (or just the flour and salt if you use SR flour!). Rub in dripping ( or olive oil – oil doesn’t rub in properly, so you need to watch the texture) and add water and lemon juice and mix to a stiff paste. Roll on floured board to oblong shape, about ¼ inch thick. Spread with mixture, and fold into a neat roll.

Bake in a moderate oven 40 to 50 minutes.

Being here

I’m still catching up with things from March. I have just one or two urgent things to go and they get harder and harder as time passes. It also gets harder to do the straightforward paperwork, because I’ve got this sense of never being quite caught up. There’s one particular article that’s causing me too many problems, but until it’s done, I can’t turn to the others (the stuff that was beginning to be due around August).

I’m doing some rethinking, along with the catching up. The seventeenth century novel has to wait. It’s high intensity in terms of work and I can’t do it yet. It’s that simple. If I wrote it now, I’d write it badly. Next year or the year after I’ll be able to write a good novel on that theme, for all the different parts of my brain will be able to work together. This means that my writing is turning to another contemporary novel. I had two begun (barely) and have decided to focus on the gendered one, for I really need to sort out those issues. Also, this is the perfect year for writing in the voice of an angry alien who is frustrated by the limitations of human bodies and human lives. (Most of the novel won’t be in that voice – just enough to annoy people.) I’m nearly 5,000 words in and will take a break at 15,000 for that will be most of that voice. This is the novel that was speaking to me the night before surgery. I was supposed to be launching my Wizardry novel (news of which is definitely forthcoming soon) and instead I was listening to an old woman dying and was being shaved in interesting places. I wasn’t allowed to wear off my nerves by walking, for I was hooked up to various things and besides, the hospital was worried about me and didn’t want me to go away even for a second, so I lay there, looking up at the television (this was the only ward I had a television), listening to my neighbour try valiantly to hang on, being interrupted by various preparations, realising that some of the weirdness was PMT and that the hallucinations were from medication and wondering just how strange life can become. At that moment this novel (which was had already taken some shape in the weeks before) announced a bunch of things to me. These are the things I’m dealing with now. The rest of the novel isn’t even a small part of the way there, because I was focussing on the other novel. Life does this.

I think this novel might contain a deal of bleakness. This is why I have to write it. being grateful to be alive and able to live life fully is one thing, but the path I took to get here is also a bit of who I am.

It’s not just my papers I’m catching up with.

When the New becomes the Same-Old

I’ve reached the stage where I’m tired of the Not-Quite-New Black in SFF. I would very much like publishers to stop pushing gritty urban noir fantasy at me right now, whether it has elves or not, whether it’s derived from ancient gods or not, whether it’s set in London (which most are) or somewhere else. I’ve loved this sub-genre for a fair while in book terms, but there comes a moment when you read something sparkling new and it feels you’ve read it before. Just to clarify, I’m not talking about the moment it becomes clear that a sub-genre has codified and events are predictable: that was three years ago for my particular example. Now it’s “I need to come back to this book when I can read it for what it is, rather than expecting it to be dangerous and new.” The problem with reading novels as dangerous and new when they’re not is one starts to look for flaws. Not even the best-written novel can stand up to this.

There’s another style of book I’m tired of, but this second type is much harder to pin down. Some groups of writers develop their own style. I read the first novel by one of them and that author gets all the advantage of newness. I tell everyone “read this author.” Then I find other books by the same closed circle and I discover that they’ve infected each other with style traits in their beta reading process. Sometimes this is good, but more often it means that reading more than one writer from a given circle feels like reading story after story that are the same.

I’ve worried about this before. I’ve been working on teaching methods to break this down. While it’s nice to know I can break it down and can ensure it doesn’t affect my writing (all my faults are, alas, mine own) it doesn’t help when I encounter it in others.

Often it’s linked to a teaching writer surrounded by non-teaching writers. The teaching writer doesn’t realise they’re teaching their own method of writing and only their own method of writing. It’s the main reason I do fewer writing exercises in my classes than I used to, for I discovered that it was when I corrected exercises that I pushed writers towards my perfect text. I’m coming out the other door on that, for I’ve been working on to improve my teaching in this regard. My priority now is to find out who people are, how they write, where they want to go as writers and what kinds of paths they have open given their abilities and background and can open given their aptitude for language and learning. I analyse their speech and their attitude to language and people as well as their writing, for I need to know what they can be if I don’t want them to become me. And I load them with tools that can be twisted into various direction so that they are forced to make choices for themselves before they use those tools. And it works. All my Wednesday students have their own voice, despite years of Gillian.

Only one writing circle out of maybe ten becomes this inward-looking self-replicating story-telling machine. That one, however, makes me weep. I deal with it by never reading books by these authors within 2-3 months of each other. Sometimes I have to leave books for two years.

It’s not a sufficient way of dealing. It’s the best I can do.

When I discover writing groups that don’t have this inwardness, I grab everything I can by every single writer in the group for I know the various writers in the group will be the richer for the interaction.

The first few pages of any new book is checking to see if that novel is not-quite-new or whether there is an inward writing circle involved. Discovering either of these things will entirely change the way I read a book.