Wizards, Wars & Words

Wizards, Wars & Words

On the 28th of August 2019 I was invit­ed to address the whole school assem­bly at Patri­cian Broth­ers’ Col­lege in Fair­field. It was an hon­our to vis­it this tremen­dous school and meet so many stu­dents and teachers. 

There was a dis­tinc­tive joie de vivre at Patri­cian Broth­ers’ Col­lege and a strong cul­ture of ser­vice shone through. Speak­ing of which, it was a spe­cial joy to meet teacher-librar­i­an Rober­ta Goehn­er. Rober­ta has taught at Patri­cian Broth­ers’ Col­lege for 50 years. What an incred­i­ble record of ser­vice to lit­er­a­cy in Australia! 

With Mrs Rober­ta Goehn­er, teacher-librar­i­an extraordinaire 

After address­ing the assem­bly I was invit­ed to a spe­cial Book Week morn­ing tea in the library and then con­duct­ed a work­shop for Year 10 stu­dents on the sub­ject of North Kore­an pro­pa­gan­da. Tru­ly, a rich and ful­fill­ing day in the life of this author!

Below are my remarks to the school assembly:

Patri­cian Broth­ers’ Col­lege Assem­bly (all pho­tos cour­tesy of Patri­cian Broth­ers’ College)

From the moment we devel­oped speech we have told tales. From the ancient leg­ends of our ances­tors to the sto­ries shared on social media today, we use tales to make sense of our lives and place in the world. Once upon a time we called them myths. These sto­ries rose wher­ev­er peo­ple dwelled. These myths made mean­ing of the sea­sons and the tides, the ris­ing and the falling of the sun. Most impor­tant­ly, they made sense of us: of where we came from, where we are going, and what we might become. Many of these sto­ries, includ­ing some told hun­dreds or even thou­sands of years ago, are with us still. They take new shapes and forms in every age. They fill our com­ic books and movie screens, as well as our poems and nov­els and plays. They live on in our dreams.

I used to think of sto­ry­tellers as pow­er­ful magi­cians. As a child I looked on them in awe. In a way, writ­ing is a kind of mag­ic. Writ­ers use words to con­jure pow­er­ful illu­sions or to reveal hid­den truths. Of course, it’s in my inter­est to main­tain the illu­sion that we are wiz­ards. Writ­ers love to sur­round them­selves with mys­tery. But the truth is more won­der­ful than mag­ic: for we are all sto­ry­tellers. The only dif­fer­ence between a tale shared between two friends on the way to school and a pub­lished sto­ry writ­ten for an audi­ence is craft. Or, put anoth­er way, prac­tice. If you can think, you can speak. If you can speak, you can write. Writ­ing is just redraft­ed thought. And all our minds are full of thoughts. The secret to being a writer, then, is sim­ple: keep an open heart, try new things, sur­prise, and chal­lenge your­self. In the end, it may not make you a great writer, but it will make you a bet­ter writer. And, as an added bonus, you will have lived a life that you will savour and remember. 

Many of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries are of sto­ries. I was a vora­cious read­er and adored The Hob­bit and The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia and The Wind in the Wil­lows and many oth­er clas­sic children’s books. I was often sick as a child and once vicious­ly attacked by a teenag­er when I was small. At times I felt anx­ious and afraid. Like mil­lions of oth­er chil­dren I hoped there would be a new world hid­den inside a wardrobe. I dreamed that a TARDIS might take me away to oth­er times and places. The char­ac­ters in books became my friends; their images became the movie of my dreams. The best sto­ries for young peo­ple become wired into our flesh like DNA. Let’s be hon­est, there are few books for adults that will ever have so great an impact on human­i­ty as The Very Hun­gry Cater­pil­lar.

Our sto­ries can be served up in so many dif­fer­ent flavours: in nov­els, poems, graph­ic nov­els, films, and plays. Like the Very Hun­gry Cater­pil­lar, eat them all and see what you become! When I was a child, many of my favourite tales were not writ­ten down at all. My grand­moth­er lived to be one hun­dred and three years old. Alice grew up poor in the East End of Lon­don, so old that she could recall the Ger­man Air Force drop­ping bombs from hot air bal­loons dur­ing World War One. As she grew more ancient, Alice’s mem­o­ries did not exact­ly fade, but they did dis­tort into ever more amaz­ing fan­ta­sy and fic­tion. Grand­ma would tell any­one who cared to lis­ten that she was hid­ing in the bunker when “Old Adolf” – as she called Hitler – died at the end of World War Two. The stranger grandma’s tales became, the more I was enchant­ed. My sis­ter and my cousins felt the same. Alice was a liv­ing library. All of us are, in fact. Every per­son here today is a col­lec­tion of tales. Some are true, some half true, and some are tales in which it’s hard to know the dif­fer­ence because we don’t real­ly know ourselves.

Grand­ma Alice

A nat­ur­al sto­ry­teller, Grand­ma rarely told the same sto­ry twice in the same way. Per­haps you have some­one in your fam­i­ly who is a gift­ed sto­ry­teller like her. I espe­cial­ly loved when Grand­ma told a famous fairy tale like The Three Lit­tle Pigs or Red Rid­ing Hood, because it was always wilder and stranger than the offi­cial ver­sion. Grand­ma just made it up as she went along. I nev­er knew what would become of Red Rid­ing Hood from one ver­sion to the next and was des­per­ate to find out. That’s one thing all good sto­ries have in com­mon, isn’t it? They leave us want­i­ng to know what hap­pens next. Just one more chap­ter before I go to bed! Just one more.

Grand­ma did not much like the com­pa­ny of adults and pre­ferred to play games of make-believe and dress-ups with her grand­chil­dren. Togeth­er we would cre­ate whole worlds and fill them with dif­fer­ent ver­sions of our­selves. Play­ing: just anoth­er word for sto­ry­telling, as nat­ur­al to young peo­ple as run­ning and jump­ing in the park, laugh­ing with our friends until we cry, day­dream­ing, telling tall tales, and some­times even lies. 

How quick­ly we for­get that power! 

To be a writer is to lis­ten to that voice again and start to take dictation. 

My father loved books too, but was not a fan of fic­tion. I found that strange, as he was an Angli­can min­is­ter and fine preach­er. After all, Jesus taught with para­bles. He told tales to reveal the truth. Christ was, as Oscar Wilde once said, a poet. My father did not object to my obses­sion with fan­ta­sy and sci­ence fic­tion, he just did not see the point. I’ll nev­er for­get him snor­ing at the movies dur­ing The Fel­low­ship of the Ring. To each their own, but I think my father missed some­thing impor­tant there. 

You see, J.R.R. Tolkien, like his dear friend C.S. Lewis, was a vet­er­an of the First World War. Both had seen the worst of human­i­ty first­hand in the trench­es of the Sommes, as well as brav­ery and sac­ri­fice and love. And so, in their fan­tas­tic tales of Mid­dle-earth and Nar­nia these writ­ers asked the deep­est of all ques­tions: about love and death and war, faith and fam­i­ly and friend­ship. Para­phras­ing Chester­ton, Neil Gaiman wrote: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that drag­ons exist, but because they tell us that drag­ons can be beat­en.” Smaug was nev­er just a drag­on, was he? Smaug was – and still is – greed and rage and our all-too-human lust for pow­er. Dark forces with us still. 

J.R.R. Tolkien

When it came to writ­ing my own fan­tas­tic tale, I want­ed to cre­ate a new myth too. Where­as Tolkien and Lewis were respond­ing – like my grand­moth­er – to the shock of World War One, I was respond­ing to a post‑9/11 world. My tale of pirates and sea mon­sters and float­ing cities is a tale of pirates and sea mon­sters and float­ing cities, true. But it is also a sto­ry of a world at war once more, of the val­ue of courage and hero­ism and kind­ness and love in trou­bled times. It is a sto­ry of the need to lis­ten to each oth­er and to hear one another’s stories. 

All of us here know the pow­er of words. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will nev­er hurt me. We know that it’s not true, don’t we? On the con­trary, the names we are called, the words we hear, the sto­ries that sur­round us, all help shape us and help shape our world. Tales may trap us or may set us free. 

In my oth­er life, I am a researcher of children’s lives in North Korea, a coun­try we hear a lot about in the media, and usu­al­ly for all the wrong rea­sons. Here is a land where almost every tale is told about one man, the leader of the coun­try, Kim Jong Un. The sto­ries told to chil­dren teach all from birth that they must love Kim Jong Un more than their own lives and hate Amer­i­ca with equal pas­sion. He is an eater of tales. A destroy­er of sto­ries, as well as lives. In a land of 25 mil­lion peo­ple only one person’s life mat­ters in North Korea … only one sto­ry is seen as worth telling.

How lucky we are to be in a school in a city in a land where we can read any­thing we freely choose to read, and write the sto­ries freely ris­ing from our hearts. How for­tu­nate to have such librar­i­ans and teach­ers and so many books to choose from, so many tales to tell. So let us take the time to read and write and lis­ten. The writer’s jour­ney starts here with all of you.  Thank you.