Meeting Terry Brooks

Salvete, readers!

A few weeks ago I promised that I would share my experience of meeting legendary author Terry Brooks at Supanova on the Gold Coast. Well, here we go! Terry gave me some great advice which I’m sure will stand me in good stead as an author. It was an important moment for me and I’m thrilled to share it with you.

I was full of nerves as I approached the table. Brooks is among the first big-name fantasy authors after Tolkien. People mention him in the same breath as Ursula K LeGuin and Lloyd Alexander. He’s written about 40 books. His Shannara series has been adapted for TV and his Magic Kingdom series has been optioned for a film by Warner Bros. Heck, he worked with George Lucas himself on the adaptation of The Phantom Menace and was partly responsible for the lore surrounding the Jedi and Sith. His writing had a big impact on me as a teen. I was meeting one of my heroes and a veteran of the industry, but I decided to be polite and not act like a fanboy. He probably gets that all the time.

He and his wife Judine were both at the table. The tension in my chest dissipated as they smiled and waved.

‘Hi, there!’ said Terry.

‘Hello! It’s great to meet you both,’ I said.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Julian.’

‘What have we got here, Julian?’ Terry took my book—I’d brought his memoir on writing. He and Judine exchanged a glance. ‘Sometimes the Magic Works?’

‘You’re the first person to ask Terry to sign this—for this trip, anyway,’ said Judine.

‘Oh, really?’ I said. ‘It’s the first book I ever read about writing, followed by Stephen King’s.’

Terry’s eyes twinkled. ‘The thing about me and Stephen is that we’re polar opposites. There’s an important difference between us, though.’ He leaned close. ‘I’m right, and he’s wrong.’

I laughed.

‘Are you a writer?’ he said.

‘Oh, well, yes actually…’ I hadn’t intended to give him a spiel but thought it would be rude not to answer properly. I rummaged around in my bag and pulled out one of my promotional post cards.

‘My first novel is coming out later this year. It’s an historical fantasy based on Greek myths.’

‘Oh really?’ he said. Maybe he was just being polite, but he seemed genuinely interested. ‘Is it just coming out in Australia, or will it be in the States too?’

‘It should be available world-wide.’

‘Oh, great! I’ll keep an eye out for it. But what you should really do, and I’m sure you’re doing it, is read lots of different books about writing and come up with your own ideas.’

‘Oh, yeah,’ I said. ‘I try and make the most of every learning opportunity.’

‘Good on you!’

I noticed there was a chapbook on the table. Street Freaks? What was this book? I had never heard of it.

Street Freaks

He tracked my gaze and his eyes lit up. ‘Street Freaks! Now, this is my last chapbook, but I’ll let you have it if you prove you’re worthy.’

‘Oh, um, okay.’

He opened the chapbook to an illustration. ‘What do you notice about it?’

I blinked. It featured a young man climbing out a skyscraper window, a futuristic cityscape in the background. ‘It’s kind of similar to the poster for Ready Player One?

‘Well, yes, it is. It isn’t gaming lit though. But what else do you notice about it? It’s science fiction!’

‘Aha! You’ve always wanted to write a science fiction novel, right?’

He nodded. ‘Right! I wanted to try it out. And I wanted to know what it was like to have total creative freedom and oversee every aspect of the publication process. The edits, design, marketing, the whole deal. It’s coming out through a small press later this year.’

‘Oh wow,’ I said. ‘I really admire the fact that an author as advanced in his career as you are is trying something different.’

He grinned and grabbed my shoulder. ‘I’ll give you some advice that you should keep in mind throughout your career as an author. If you have an idea, and it scares you because it’s different, that means you should go for it. Because you never want to lose that creative energy, that spark, and if you just do the same thing over and over, it’ll die out.’

‘That’s good advice. Thank-you.’ Oh what the hell, I can be a little bit of a fanboy… ‘Look, um, it’s such an honour to meet you. I read The Sword of Shannara when I was fifteen, and I loved your books as a kid.’

Judine smiled. ‘That couldn’t have been that long ago, surely?’

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Well, half a lifetime ago.’

Terry’s eyebrows raised. ‘No! Really? You are not in your thirties?’

I shrug. ‘I, ah, hope it means I’ll age like Clooney.’

They chuckled, and he signed my book. ‘All right, you’ve proven yourself. The chapbook’s yours, but can you do me a favour?’

‘Sure.’

‘I’d like you to read it, and let people know what you think of it—on your blog, your Facebook page, whatever you got. Will you do that for me?’

‘Absolutely.’

And then I stammered my thanks and quietly slipped away from the table so he could talk to the next reader.

I read the first couple of chapters of Street Freaks that night. It’s a YA thriller set in a dystopian cyberpunk future. Here’s the blurb!

It begins with a dire call-right before his father disappears and his skyscraper home’s doors explode inward. It is the kind of thrilling futuristic story only Terry Brooks can tell.

“Go into the Red Zone. Go to Street Freaks,” his father directs Ashton Collins before the vid feed goes suddenly silent. The Red Zone is the dangerous heart of mega-city Los Angeles; it is a world Ash is forbidden from and one he knows little about. But if he can find Street Freaks, the strangest of aid awaits—human and barely human alike. As Ash is hunted, he must unravel the mystery left behind by his father and discover his role in this new world.

The writing whizzes like a bullet from a gun. It’s a definite departure for Terry Brooks, who normally eases the reader into the story. This one grabs you and doesn’t let you go. It sets up a mystery which hooks you with the first line. In spare prose, he conjures the setting of an LA whose air is poison and where androids hunt down the innocent. It promises to be a really fun read. It comes out in October 2018 and I can’t wait to see what happens next—I really can’t pay a higher compliment to a story-teller.

You can read an excerpt at i09 here.

Until next time,

Valete

P.S. Sign up to my free monthly newsletter for news and previews, as well as an exclusive prologue chapter to the Ashes of Olympus series! In the meantime, check out the image below for a sneak peak at one of the illustrations by Matt Wolf… The Way Home will be released July 31, 2018.

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A brief message for every writer working today

There’s something you need to remember, no matter how tough things get.

You are lucky.

Published or not.

Indie or trad.

Full-time or otherwise.

Pantser or plotter.

Whether you write for yourself or others.

Even if you just keep a journal.

Lucky.

You’re lucky because you have a story worth telling.

You have the education and the means by which to tell it.

Compared to the totality of human history, you’re a long way ahead of the curve.

 

What I strive for as an author

Salvete, readers!

As publication day of Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home draws closer, I find myself reflecting on what I’m aiming for in terms of my career as an author. I’ve had a few folks tell me I’m going to be the next J.K. Rowling, and they are looking forward to the (hypothetical) movie of The Way Home. While I recognise and appreciate the compliment, it always makes me a little uncomfortable. I love the Harry Potter books and admire J.K. Rowling, but I don’t want to be her. It’s much better to be me. At this point in my career, I don’t think it’s realistic to aspire to be a bestseller like Rowling. Very few authors become superstars like that. And to be honest, I can’t think of anything worse than having that level of ubiquity.

So what am I striving for, at this point? Much simpler, more achievable things.

I want to reach a community of readers who find something to enjoy with my work. There is great satisfaction in cheering somebody up who is having a bad day, and I think novels are the perfect form of escapism. And if readers get something more out of it, I’m glad.

I want to be part of a community of writers. Acceptance by peers and being able to give back something in return means the world to me. I cherish my friendships with fellow writers, published and not. These people make me a better writer. Functional creative relationships are precious gems.

I strive to be professional. I want to develop a reputation in the industry as a versatile, disciplined author who meets deadlines and works well with others. Professionalism is an under-valued attribute among aspiring authors. Admittedly I’m still learning the ropes as an early-career author, but one day I’d like to reach a level of mastery where I can pass on what I’ve learned.

And finally, I’m working hard to make a living as an author. Yes, I know, this is going to be the toughest of the lot. However, I made the decision long ago to adopt the mindset of a small business owner rather than a hobbyist. Making the business profitable will be a multi-phase project which may take years. That’s okay. I’m in it for the long haul. For the time being, any money I make from The Way Home will be invested in the next book, growing the business until it becomes a reliable supplement to my day job. Then eventually my writing will become the main source of income. I still aim to be a hybrid author with a foot in both the indie and the trad camps.

If I can achieve these things, I’ll be satisfied. However, all of these goals are contingent upon me being prolific, so I’d better get back to it.

Oh, and big news! Next week I’m going to share the cover of Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home. I’m sharing it first with my newsletter subscribers. If you’d like a sneak peek, then please feel free to subscribe.

Until next time,

Valete

Writing lessons from the Epic of Gilgamesh

Salvete, readers!

I recently finished the first draft of The Black Unicorn, a middle-grade fantasy. The first draft will be up on Wattpad until the end of March, 2018. At this point, I’ll take it down and give it a good polish before I start submitting to publishers. In the meantime, I thought I’d let you in on a little secret. Though the story is heavily influenced by medieval and classical traditions, I actually went a lot further back for inspiration—all the way to ancient Sumer. In this blog post, I share how studying The Epic of Gilgamesh helped me to develop as a fantasy writer.

For a fantastic overview of the ancient poem and its relevance for modern readers, check out Louise Pryke’s excellent essay on The Conversation.

The Black Unicorn is the fifth book I’ve written, but only the second since completing Book 1 of the Ashes of Olympus trilogy, which is scheduled for publication in July. Writing a middle grade novel was simultaneously easier and more difficult. On the one hand, I feel a lot more confident in my craft and I think I have a stronger grasp on structure, dialogue, and world-building. I’m a lot more conscious about how and when to use different techniques. On the other hand, this was my first attempt at a heroic fantasy for middle grade readers, and that brought its own challenges. When you write middle grade fiction, you have only the most primal elements of story-telling in your tool kit. You don’t have the space to gloss any shortcomings of substance with style. I decided to embrace the primal elements of story-telling in The Black Unicorn by going back to The Epic of Gilgamesh for inspiration regarding the themes.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first recorded story in human history, so I figured it was a good blueprint for an archetypal narrative. The themes of the epic are as relevant today as they were millennia ago—relationships between humanity and the divine, the nature of mortality, the tension between nature and civilisation, and above all friendship. These themes pervade all my stories, but in The Black Unicorn I wanted to explore them through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl. I see no reason the heroic archetype of the youthful warrior can’t be made to fit a female character, and honestly, I think we need more heroines in the world. At the heart of my story, as in Gilgamesh, is a relationship between two characters who start out as rivals and through a series of shared trials become friends. Though it takes place against a backdrop with a massive scope, that’s the essence of the novel.

Brevity is another virtue of Gilgamesh. The poem comprises only about 60 pages in the Penguin translation. But in that space our heroes travel across the world and learn lessons about life and death. Likewise, middle grade books are short. The Black Unicorn is only about 40,000 words. There’s no time for navel-gazing. The characters develop through actions and reactions to changes in their situation. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for character development of course. Heck, I would argue that growth and development are integral to any narrative focused on children. It just means there is very little time for introspection or excessive narration. The characters show us who they are and who they are becoming through their decisions. Dynamism is the key.

The Epic of Gilgamesh also embodies one of the core principles of world-building: show, don’t tell. If you read it, you’re plonked into another universe. Though it’s easy to sympathise with the characters, there is no point denying that the poem is the product of an alien world. It’s a dark, frightening place where existence is precarious and world-ending catastrophes are always just around the corner. But the text never stops to explain how its world works. The narrator takes it as a given that readers can pick up the story and run with it. Four thousand years ago, the reader needed no more explanation of the mechanics of sacrifice than we do on how to send a text message. For modern readers, though, the trick is to immerse yourself in the world and drink it in. And once you get the hang of the internal logic, the story makes perfect sense. This is an excellent principle, I think, for writing fantasy, particularly in a middle-grade novel where there is little room to pause for info-dump.

There’s a lot more I could say, and I’d love to revisit the question of what story-tellers can learn from the classics. But for now, my kids are tugging on my sleeve demanding I take them to the library.

Until next time,

Valete

My little library of Alexandria

Salvete, readers!

Check out this bookcase in my study! 

It mostly consists of items from the pre-modern period. You might also spot Latin translations of Harry Potter and the lost journal of Indiana Jones, but never mind. As you can see, I’m running out of space. Just for something different, I arranged them into rough chronological order.

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It was quite an eye-opener! Sun-Tzu (possibly) wrote around the same time as Plato, and the Koran sits close to the Law Codes of Justinian. The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini rests alongside Wu Ch’eng-en’s Monkey. The Roots of Ayurveda is right next to the Hippocratic Corpus, and The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam is nestled next to the Arthurian Romances of Chrétien De Troyes, which bumps up against Njal’s Saga. The world is a big place!

I’ve been thinking of starting a project where I focus on reading the whole lot through in order, starting with The Epic of Gilgamesh and finishing with Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s The Art of the Samurai. It’ll be a tough slog, and will involve some re-reading, but I’m up for the challenge. One of the keys to being a good writer is to step outside your comfort zone, and I would love to see the development of story-telling from a global perspective. I might just blog about what I find along the way.

Until next time,

Valete

On being a wizard

Salvete, readers!

I didn’t last long as a teacher, for a few reasons. Long hours, lousy work-life balance, low pay. It wasn’t doing good things for my family. That, and it often felt more like being a prison warden whose job was to crush the spirit of the inmates. That’s not me. That said, the experience of working with schoolkids did much to shape me as a writer. There’s one memory in particular that always makes me smile.

I’m on playground duty, watching to make sure the kids aren’t running on concrete or throwing the football on the roof or smooching or punching each other.

A bunch of boys are casually talking about me after class. I don’t remember their names now, so let’s call two of them Jim and Baz. They don’t know I’m in earshot.

‘That guy?’ says Jim. He’s a tall kid, gangly. Fifteen, maybe sixteen. ‘Gave me a detention for being two bloody minutes late. I hate him.’

His mate Baz pushes his long, stringy hair out of his eyes. ‘What? Mr. Barr? Nah, man. He’s cool. He’s a wizard.’

‘Hey? The fuck you on about, Baz?’

‘He’s a fucking wizard. Got the little glasses and beard and talks all posh. And he knows all kinds of shit and he’s chill. Like, I’ve seen him lose it maybe once. He’s like Dumbledore.’

One of the boys spots me and nudges Baz to shut up.

I walk on, pretending I can’t hear them. When it comes to behaviour, there are many worse things than bad language. Why get reactive? Generally, it only makes the situation worse and kills any possibility of establishing a rapport. And to be honest, I’ve worked with these kids for a while. They act tough, but there’s no real harm in them. Rough kids are generally okay. It’s the bullies I can’t stand.

As I continue on my rounds, Jim yells at my back. ‘Oi, sir! Are you a wizard?’

The other boys guffaw.

I turn, put on my most guttural voice. ‘Young knave,’ I say. ‘I answer not to a mere apprentice, for I am a Fire-Mage of the North.’ Not very good, maybe, but the best line I can conjure up on the spot.

The kids stare for a second. ‘Was that, like, a quote or something?’ says Jim.

‘Nah,’ I say. ‘Just made it up.’

‘Jesus,’ says Baz. ‘That totally sounded like you were quoting an actual thing.’

‘Why the hell you teaching, sir?’ says Jim. ‘You should be a writer or something.’

He’s right, of course.

Anyway, from that day onward, I’m ‘Mister Wizard’ with those kids. Never had a problem with them again.

Until next time,

Valete

 

Museum memories

Salvete, readers!

One of the best experiences of my life was working as an education officer at a small antiquities museum. I loved seeing how different people reacted to artefacts…

Archaeologist: Well, we can clearly see the fertility motif, and our most accurate dating technique puts it somewhere in the late Archaic period, and the decorative style and clay are consistent with Attica. But without knowing the exact provenance, I’d hesitate to identify the artefact more precisely. Let’s call it a ‘ritual object.’ Please don’t cut my funding.

Historian: I can’t find any reference to this object in the literary sources. Are you sure it exists? Please don’t cut my funding.

Historian 2: Wait! If we interpret it *this* way, it fits my hypothesis! And this obscure German scholar published a paper on it 84 years ago, and that proves it! Please don’t cut my funding.

Philosopher: Well, existentially– Oh, I’ve lost my funding.

Museum patron: Gosh, how much is this stuff worth?! Your discipline must be really, really well-funded! Wait! Are you sure you should be displaying that in a museum? Think of the children!

Adolescent museum patron: When’s lunch?

Pre-adolescent museum patron: Hee hee, doodle!

Thirty-three year old museum patron: Hee hee, doodle!

Until next time,

Valete

A lesson from Star Wars

Salvete, readers!

Just a short post tonight, as I’m juggling a couple of deadlines and need to focus more on writing.

A few weeks ago, I watched Star Wars with my boys for the first time. This was a big moment for me, as I’ve loved Star Wars since I was seven years old. The kids were enthralled right up until the medal ceremony at the end. It went like this:

Master N: Do the good guys get medals, Daddy?
Me: Yep!
Master T: Even that guy? (Points at Han) But he’s a scaredy cat who ran away!
Me: Yeah, but he did come back at the end.
Master N: But the robots didn’t run away and they don’t get medals. That’s not fair. They all helped.
Master T: The princess should get a medal too, and she’s definitely not a scaredy cat!
Master N: I’m Luke.
Master T: That’s okay, I’m Chewie. He’s my favourite, except I can talk. RaaaAAAAAaargh!

There are a few important lessons here for a children’s author.

  • Kids will usually identify with the marginalised characters and the dorks, rather than the suave ones.
  • They also have a strong sense of justice and will call out unfairness if their favourite characters get short shrift.
  • Children can spot nonsense a mile away. Han is a scaredy-cat in Act 3. He’s willing to let his friends die to save his own hide—I think he mostly comes back out of guilt. But he’s uber-cool, so most of us still cheer for him.
  • Boys will absolutely identify with a female heroine until some idiot tells them they can’t. Kids are less worried about the gender of the character than their achievements.

Until next time,

Valete

The essence of the story

Salvete, readers!

Last weekend I watched Moana again with my kids. This was no hardship, as I love this movie. Heck, I love the direction Disney is going right now—they really seem to have figured out what makes a story tick. As the credits rolled, my oldest son turned to me.

‘Dad, I think I know what this movie’s about.’

‘Oh, aye? What?’ Now, my son’s not long grown out of Thomas the Tank Engine, so I’m not expecting a particularly sophisticated answer. Probably he’s going to tell me it’s about a girl who goes on an adventure with a shapeshifter and fights a giant lava monster at the end. Nope. His next words staggered me.

‘It’s about being who you are.’

I blinked. ‘That’s interesting. What makes you say that, buddy?’

‘Well…’ He frowned. ‘They talk about it lots. Especially in the songs. Moana loves the ocean, and that’s who she is. But she needs to be brave to be a sailor, because the ocean’s scary and her dad doesn’t want her to go. So she has to be brave to be who she is.’

I smiled. ‘Go on.’

‘Maui, he’s really nice, and that’s who he is, but he acts mean and tough because he thinks that’s how everybody will like him. And the island lady at the end…’

‘Yes?’

He shrugs. ‘That’s what it’s about. Being who you are.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I would agree with you. That’s what it’s all about. Well done.’

He gets it. At heart, whatever the details of plot or character, stories are about something. And when you’re writing, that something isn’t always clear. Sometimes you don’t figure out the theme until you’re deep in the editing phase. But once you realise it, you hold onto it and never let go.

I’d say it’s really important to know what your story is really about before you start trying to sell it—to the reading public, agents, publishers, whatever. It should be implicit in your elevator pitch, even if you don’t beat readers over the head with it. Once you can distil the essence of your story into a simple phrase, it’s your first step toward getting others to understand what it’s really about.

Until next time,

Valete

Harold and Marion’s War

Salvete, readers!

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A couple of years ago I decided to do some research on the lives of my maternal great grandparents, Harold Moses Horne and Marion Gordon Horne (née Taylor). I thought I would share what I found, and my reflections on the ANZAC legend and what it has meant for my family.

It was relatively easy to find information on Harold in old newspapers and the national archives, as he was a soldier in World War I. Marion was more difficult to trace. I managed to find three photographs of Harold. I’ve included one above. There are only two existing pictures of Marion, as far as I know. One is their wedding photo, taken when she and Harold were young. The other is of them in their fifties, worn and unsmiling. Both pictures are lost in a box somewhere. For both of their lives I am dependent also on the oral tradition handed down to me by my Mum. What really strikes me is how profoundly the war affected both of their lives. These people were not legends, as such, but genuine human beings with all the strengths and frailties that come with being human. I hope nobody minds if I share some of what I’ve found, and some of the thoughts I’ve had trying to piece together their lives.

Our story begins with Harold. This is by necessity, because information about Marion is scarce. His war record says he was born in 1895 to Charles and Miriam Horne, both of them farmers. That’s not too surprising. The overwhelming majority of Australians were farmers in those days. He was a Baptist, and from what I understand pretty devout most of his life. Most of his life he lived in Rosewood, Queensland. What really hits me is that he was a promising kid. According to the Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser, he won an academic prize at Ashwell State School. I guess he would have been twelve. After that, he took up an apprenticeship as a mechanic at the Ipswich Rail Works. He would have just finished the apprenticeship when he signed up with the army in March of 1916.

Why did he sign up? The same old stories get trotted out around this time of year. The stereotypical story of the ANZAC recruit is that he had a craving for adventure, or an ardent desire to defend the Motherland, or (God help us) wanted to help forge the Australian identity. Honestly? I have no idea, but I am willing to speculate that there were more prosaic reasons he might have joined the army. The Ipswich Rail Works ceased operations less than a year after he joined. Government subsidies had been redirected to the war effort, and most of the company’s labour force had volunteered. Perhaps Harold saw the writing on the wall for the company, and decided to try his luck with the army as many of his mates had? Certainly he and his family had never been well-off, and Australian troops were paid a princely sum of six shillings a day—more than three times as much as their British counterparts. In any case, we do know that he enlisted in February of 1916. At the age of twenty-one, I don’t think he could have known what he was in for.

A few months later, he boarded a ship for Alexandria to undergo training. I don’t think he could have had much training or experience. Five months after he embarked from Australia to Alexandria, he was shipped off to Marseilles, and from there to the Somme. Harold was part of a machine-gun division. Perhaps he had been assigned there because of his experience with heavy machinery. Who knows? All I know is that what he experienced changed him forever. We can read of the Somme, but I don’t think any of us can really understand the pointless, empty brutality of the battlefield—young men cut to ribbons and left to rot in no-man’s-land, and for what? To gain a few feet of land which would be lost the next day? Whatever empty sentiments we hear on ANZAC Day, I have difficulty seeing anything noble or glorious about such pointless loss of life. As a machine-gunner, his role would have been defensive. He likely never went over the top, but rather defended his trench against enemy attack. I can’t imagine the horror of it, to have to kill or be killed. He would have let loose a hail of fire that would have decimated row after row of enemy soldiers. What does that do to a person? I’m glad that I’ll never have to know.

Harold served in France until November of 1917. On a cool Autumn morning, his unit was hit by an enemy mustard gas attack. In the confusion, he was snared in some barbed wire. He managed to get his mask on, but the damage was done. His lungs were shredded. He was relocated to a military hospital in Aberdeen with acute laryngitis. It is at this point my great grandmother Marion comes into the story.

Marion had been born in 1898. Her dad was a blacksmith, and she had lived in Aberdeen all her life. When they met she was a munitions worker, and volunteered by night as a nurse’s aide. Here the oral tradition diverges somewhat from the documentary evidence. According to my mum, her grandmother always said they fell in love gradually as she tenderly tended his wounds. He was the tragic hero, an exotic foreigner fighting for freedom. It was like a scene from a romance novel. Perhaps that’s genuinely how they remembered it, and I don’t doubt that they were immediately attracted to one another on some level. No, what I find myself doubting is the timeframe. Harold was admitted to hospital on the Eighth of November, 1917. He and Marion were married on the Thirteenth.

Crikey. They didn’t waste time in those days.

Most marriage certificates tend to be printed on cream paper with gold embossed writing—or the ones that are meant for display, at any rate. This one is pretty grubby, with military typescript and scribble. Whoever made the record got her name wrong. The paper says she was ‘Maria.’ I’m willing to bet Marion lied about her age. While other records show she was born in 1898, the marriage certificate says she was born in 1895. Or perhaps it was a clerical error.

I can speculate all sorts of things that might have been going on at this point. It was probably clear to them that Harold was going to be rejoining his unit soon, and chances were that he wouldn’t have made it home, especially with his wounds. Did either of them expect this to be lifelong commitment? Nobody knew when or how the war would end. Maybe they felt they had to live in the moment. Or maybe they were just silly kids who didn’t think things through. I expect they saw it as terribly romantic to get married so soon, in a flurry of passion. There could have been any number of reasons. I honestly don’t know. There’s only so much a scrap of paper can tell you, and only so much a grandmother is willing to divulge to a child. Don’t forget, one of my main sources is what my mother tells me her grandmother told her when she was a kid. I suspect we’ll never know the full story. It would certainly cause his proper English Baptist parents some consternation when he brought home a girl who was not only Scottish but Presbyterian!

Harold and Marion only had a few weeks together before he was sent back to the front line, where he was reassigned to another machine-gun division. A few months later he suffered a relapse of laryngitis, and was sent back to the UK to recover. I haven’t been able to figure out where, and I haven’t found any evidence of communication between Harold and Marion at this point. Then he was deemed too ill to return to fighting, but was not discharged at this point. The war ended in 1918, but he couldn’t go home just yet.

After four years of bloodshed and with millions dead, Harold was reassigned to the Burials Division. This was a common fate for a lot of soldiers in his boots, I think. Too sick to fight, not sick enough for a medical discharge. They called Australian soldiers ‘Diggers.’ The word ‘Digger’ evokes mateship and bravery in Australian parlance. It features heavily in the bellicose rhetoric of the tabloid, the trite warmongering of the political speech. In Harold’s case, I don’t think he would have found anything to cheer in the name.

At this point we find something a little unexpected in Harold’s war record. In May, 1919, he was admitted to yet another military hospital, this time seeking treatment for syphilis. When did he pick it up? How did he pick it up? Actually, you know what? Never mind how. Let’s go back to when, and from whom? When I mentioned the disease to Mum, her eyebrows raised. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘Well, you know. These young blokes, they thought they were going to die any day. I guess they had to try it.’ It is entirely possible that he contracted syphilis from a casual encounter or through the services of a sex worker. Once more, we’ll never know.

And I’m okay with that.

What I’m more curious about is whether he had it before he and Marion were married. If so (as seems likely) then she would have caught it too. Mum thinks that would have explained a few things about their marriage. I cannot blame him for passing it onto her. After all, syphilis only becomes detectable to the naked eye in its later stages. I just feel terribly sorry for both of them. Treatments for syphilis in those days did little and had horrible side-effects. It must have seemed like a miracle when penicillin was discovered when they were in their thirties. Shortly after undergoing treatment, Harold was placed on indefinite leave, and returned to Aberdeen. I can only assume she was treated too, as both would still have been carriers.

Some months later, they embarked aboard a ship to Australia. By this point, Marion was pregnant; the baby was stillborn en route. He was Christened ‘Allan’ before being buried at sea. Marion always blamed him. Now I guess we know why.

Harold came back to Rosewood a hero. The local paper ran a photo of him on the front page. His name and picture were included in a commemorative book, Queenslanders in the Great War. Incidentally, you can still download a copy of this book via the University of Queensland library. But inside I think both of them were dealing with a world of hurt. They had both seen things that nobody should have to see. They had just lost a child. And I can imagine that each was suddenly realising the consequences of marrying a stranger. Marion was far from the only home she had ever known, and trapped living with her in-laws, who never lost their distaste for her. She spoke with a heavy brogue, and never quite fit in with her husband’s family.

The next decades are a blur. Times were lean. The roaring twenties largely bypassed the young couple, and indeed much of Queensland. Harold didn’t qualify for a pension, as the government did not deem him grievously injured enough to warrant one. But his health was permanently affected, and he was so frequently ill that he could never hold down a steady job. There are a few reports of him being fined a few shillings here and there for driving without a licence or public drunkenness. Their marriage was never easy. Before he left, Harold had apparently been easy-going and likeable. Now he was surly and easily provoked. The war had changed Marion too. As a girl she had been naive, energetic. Over the next years she nursed a deep resentment for the hurts she had endured, and a regret for the life she had left behind. They had three more boys, Jack, Gordon, and Allan. The last boy was her favourite, named after the baby she and Harold had lost.

Their marriage, always tense, seems to have reached breaking point during the Great Depression. I was startled to discover a 1937 article from The Queensland Times. I don’t know much about the context, but certainly the clipping is suggestive of deep problems in their marriage. I shall reproduce it below.

STIR IN COURT

Woman Leaves Witness Box

A stir was caused in the Summons Court yesterday when the complainant in a case became somewhat excited and rushed from the witness box before she had completed her evidence. Appearing before Mr. G.A. Cameron, P.M., Marion Horne, Ipswich, claimed that of February 20th, 1937, she had been unlawfully deserted by her husband, Harold Moses Horne, and that she had been compelled to leave her husband’s residence under reasonable apprehension of danger to her person.

The complainant, in evidence, stated that she had been married to the defendant for 18 years. Her present address was Bremer flats, but she had lived with her husband in Roderick Street until a year ago. She was not living with him now, as he had made her life a “hell.” On February 20th she was compelled to leave her home because she was afraid he would do her an injury. Her mind was a complete blank regarding the events that led up to the incident on February 20th, because every day was the same to her. She had gone through a lot and her nerves were bad. On one occasion he had thrown water over her, and he ill-treated her frequently.

With an outburst of emotion witness declared that she was happy to go to her own home, and she would never go back to live with him again.

‘Witness began to talk very fast, and after being continually advised by the Police Magistrate to tell her story calmly and coherently she shouted hysterically: “That is enough! You can do what you like with me!” She then left the witness-box and made for the Court-House door, but was recalled.

‘The case was dismissed, Mr. Cameron observing as he turned to the defendant: “You had better make arrangements to keep her.”

What conclusions can I draw from this? First, that the situation for women in the 1930s was pretty lousy, if that’s the best the judge could come up with when presented evidence of domestic abuse. Next, my great grandmother had considerable courage to testify against him in the first place. And finally… Look, I don’t want to absolve my great grandfather of blame, but my mind cannot help but make a connection to the war. It is possible that post-traumatic stress could have been a factor in the domestic violence. The war made her life hell as well as his.

This is one of the legacies of war, that it tears apart the lives of generations. She did go back to him, and that they never separated again after that. I’m not sure she had much choice in the matter. But when Harold passed away in 1955 at the age of sixty, I know she remembered him with fondness. She would sit by the window in the afternoons with a pack of cigarettes, and remember. Sometimes she would tell her grandchildren something of her life, and that of the blue-eyed boy she fell for in Aberdeen.

I have mixed feelings about ANZAC Day. Most of all I hate the way the legend silences the Anzacs themselves. I hate the way it has become commercialised like Christmas, with scented candles and slogans, biscuits, campouts and all this khaki rubbish. Is it nothing more than an excuse to get pissed and play two-up? Why do we mask the human dimension of conflict behind sanctimony? Harold and Marion’s was not the war to end all wars. A hundred years have passed since Gallipoli. Do we have the right to use the ANZAC story to encourage today’s young people to take up arms for God, gold, and glory?

No. I don’t think we do.

But you know what? I too am a part of the war’s legacy. So are my parents, my siblings, my children. I’m rather glad Harold and Marion jumped into their relationship head-first. I owe my present existence to a very rash decision two young people made around a hundred years ago. And now as an historian I can do my best to ensure that their legacy is remembered and not misused.

Lest we forget.

Until next time,

Valete