I’m fresh off the plane from a three week trip to Australia to visit family. I loved touching base with everyone but now it’s good to be back home in London and getting back to business. There’s lots to look forward to, not least next week’s salon, Writing Fiction Using Real Characters with the award-winning writer Jill Dawson. It promises to be a fascinating discussion.
It’s actually a topic that’s cropped up indirectly in a few of our previous salons. Claire Scobie said she developed character and setting by experiencing history with her feet - walking where her characters walked and feeling it bodily. Elizabeth Fremantle focused on creating the interior world of her Tudor characters as that’s where, for her at least, the fiction lies. The historical novelist, Essie Fox viewed her real characters and facts through the prism of a fictional character. I recall Rose Tremain saying something similar at a Goldsmiths reading years ago: "historical facts and figures are surround sound". I’ve delved into my old journal and found her “Tremains Law” in which real historical figures are present and peripheral and seen only through the voice, heart and mind of another character.
Earlier this year I went to an art exhibition in Sydney highlighting the work and wider influence of the late, great Australian artist Margaret Olley. Inspired by the exhibition I went on to read Meg Stewart’s excellent biography, Margaret Olley, Far From A Still Life, which builds a portrait of a unique woman framed in a particular time and place. What a woman and what a character. I’m not sure if I could write fiction about Margaret Olley directly but there were a few key episodes of her life that lit a spark and planted a seed for a possible story or two.
This is how I found myself recently in the drought-ridden and all but deserted gold rush towns of western NSW, where back in the late 1940’s, Margaret Olley once visited her friends, fellow artists Donald Friend and Russel Drysdale. The gold ran out early in the twentieth century long before the artists arrived. They were drawn to the tiny villages of Sofala and Hill End by the unique landscape, abandoned and ravaged by climate, time and man. No doubt they also loved the isolation from the city and it’s distractions, affording them the time and peace to paint. I couldn't help but wonder what the then local residents made of them, especially Margaret. This was a time when women were still very much second class citizens in Australia with limited rights and opportunities. Margaret was independent and single minded, already attracting success and about to travel to Europe for a few years with a brilliant career to follow upon her return to Australia. I ambled, camera in hand, around the streets of Sofala in the morning and Hill End in the afternoon, passing the miners huts and the lone pub, keeping an eye out for ghosts and imaging the artists at work under the unrelenting sun. I stopped to take a snap of Murrays Cottage, in Hill End, where the artists stayed, expecting the curtains to twitch as I peered in a little too closely. No such luck although I did have a interesting chat to a bookseller in Sofala, who ran the only bookshop (second hand and first editions) for miles around.
Vauxhall and indeed London, felt a long, long way away. But now I’m back, and it all feels a little dreamlike! I've bedded my stash of impressions and images of Australia to compost for the time being. Meanwhile I’ll be catching up with things this week, including my sleep, in time for Monday. Hope to see you then at the Teahouse Theatre Cafe with Emma Darwin and Jill Dawson.
PS: Just to flag up Saturday 18th November, when Words Away is collaborating with the brilliant word doctor Andrew Wille. We’re doing a day long workshop, Everyday Magic: The Four Elements Of Creativity at a gorgeous new space, the London Bridge Hive. Come and join us!