It is always interesting to try and work out where an idea came from, and I know exactly when and where I got the idea for Emporium. It was in the National Library of Australia a couple of years ago, and I was reading through old newspapers trying to find out exactly which paintings went up in flames when Sydney's Garden Palace burned down in 1882.
An invitation from the National Library of Australia to undertake a study of convict artist Joseph Lycett and his artwork did not take me long to ponder over. Lycett and his work have long held great fascination for me, particularly as someone born in Newcastle, one of the areas most strongly connected to his work. The result of this study is True Light and Shade: An Aboriginal Perspective of Joseph Lycett's Art.
The wonderful thing about getting older is an increasing appreciation for both beauty, and relics from the past. In the case of Australia's early botanical artists, both 'beauty' and 'the past' readily apply.
The idea for a book about Australian cavalrymen training in England and leaving from there for the Boer War came to me 15 years ago, when I was in England myself.
I was a fellow at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, the only time I’ve ever been attached to a university department. I was doing just two hours’ teaching a week, some editing and writing, and a lot of research, much of it towards a book on Australia’s experience of the Boer war.
I love the smell of trains, whether diesel or steam—it is just so evocative of days gone by. The whole culture of rail travel is fascinating to me, from the fireman loading the fire bin with coal or wood to the refreshment room serving sandwiches, slices of sultana cake and lukewarm tea and coffee.
Recently, the National Library published my book, Crime, Punishment and Redemption: A Convict’s Story. I call it ‘my’ book, but in fact it is the result of a great deal of effort and expertise from many people, both at the NLA and elsewhere; people to whom I am eternally grateful. The story is based on John Ward’s convict diary written while he was imprisoned on Norfolk Island from 1840 to 1844.
When I look out my lounge room window south-east of Bungendore, I look down our creek towards a hill 5 km away. More than 100 years ago, just on the other side of that hill, a young man was given a stern talking-to by his companions for shooting 35 Koalas one morning—such were the numbers of Koalas around Lake George and many other parts of south-eastern Australia. Today, the closest record of a Koala to my house was one seen in 1985 some 15 km to the north-east, on the other side of the dividing range.
The Fairy Who Wouldn't Fly was first written by Pixie O'Harris in 1945 and subsequently re-written in 1974. The first version was my favourite book as a child—so much so that my father's nickname for me was Fairy. In some ways it is a predictable story; the fairy doesn't want to be like all the other fairies, and she is banished to the Woodn't, where all the creatures who won't do as they should are sent. There they must stay until they learn to do what they should. Fairies must fly and be busy and useful, frogs must hop and kookaburras must laugh.