After Story – Della’s Discoveries

Here’s how the story starts: Jasmine’s friend, Bex, wants to write some articles about English literary sites to launch her career in travel journalism. Bex co-opts Jasmine to accompany her to the UK and offers to pay half Jasmine’s fare. Six weeks prior to departure, Bex lands a new job; Jasmine now has a spare ticket. Jasmine asks her mum, Della – who has rarely left her hometown – to go on the trip with her.

Here’s how the story starts: ‘People often assume I chose to go to law school because of what happened to my sister.’ (Jasmine)

Here’s how the story starts: One night, while Della and her daughters are sleeping, seven-year-old Brittany is snatched from her home.

Here’s how the story starts: ‘I was fifteen years old when I ran away from home … I came across Jimmy coming back from the river.’ (Della)

Here’s how the story starts: ‘A long time ago before there had been any death…’ (Cultural story told by Della)

After Story is a book with many beginnings and many stories – stories of the past and the present, of the living and the dead. The novel unfolds over the course of 11 days and across 65,000 years. It lives within time and outside time.

Which Story To Choose?

Multiple themes unfold in Larissa Behrendt’s After Story: love, loss and grief; family violence and intergenerational trauma; the Australian justice system; the English literary canon; and ‘deep listening’ and the wisdom of elders. I’m going to focus on just one strand: Della’s discoveries on her trip with Jasmine.

Map of Della and Jasmine’s tour

Discovery #1 – Names and Dates

Unlike university-educated Jasmine, Della ‘wasn’t very good at learning in school’. She had dropped out of formal education by the age of 16 when she gave birth to her first child. But Della has a keen sense of curiosity. Early in their 11-day tour, Jasmine buys Della a notebook so her mother can write down the things she wants to remember.

Della starts to fill the notebook with factual snippets: ‘Great Fire. 1666. Few lives lost’, ‘Charles Dickens – 12 years old. Blacking = shoe polish’, ‘Winchester – very old. Cathedral. 900 years like yew tree’.

Winchester Cathedral, Choir Stalls

On Day 2 of the tour, she jots down: ‘Ye Old Cheshire Cheese public house’. She has learnt that an earlier pub on the site burnt down in the great fire of 1666 – a fact she had recorded the previous day. ‘See, that’s why you write stuff down’, she thinks. ‘Then you can join the dots and see how everything’s connected.’

Discovery #2 – ‘Helping something to grow’

The function of the notebook expands as the tour proceeds. Wandering the grounds of Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst Castle sparks Della’s interest in gardening. The idea of ‘helping something to grow’ appeals to her. She decides that, when she returns to Australia, she will start a garden at her own home even though no-one in her street has a garden ‘except for Aunty Elaine, and since she’d passed away most of her plants seemed to have died’.

Because she is a complete novice, Della purchases ‘a good book for starters’ at the castle’s gift shop. As the tour continues, she dips in and out of the book, learning about seeds and soil and compost, and about air plants and cut-and-come-again plants and companion plants. She begins listing memory prompts at the back of her notebook: ‘Aunty Elaine’s flowers?’, ‘Easy to grow?’, ‘Watering can’, ‘Bucket’.

Sissinghurst Castle Gardens by Len Williams. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Throughout the tour, Della takes herself out of buildings and into gardens, from Dean Garnier’s Garden at Winchester Cathedral and the garden at Thomas Hardy’s Cottage in Higher Bockhampton to the hotel garden at her Bath hotel and the Knot Garden at Nash’s House in Stratford-upon-Avon. (“knot garden”, not “not garden”’, she writes in her notebook – ‘my own little joke’.)

Although the tour’s focus is literary, Della observes:

If there was one thing I was learning today it wasn’t about books but about how lovely a garden could be. I wondered that I had never thought it until now but I guess that’s what seeing the world is all about – opening your eyes to things you haven’t seen before.

Discovery #3 – Wondering while Wandering

Travelling by bus and on foot offers the chance to reflect. Time and again, Della pauses to wonder:

  • seeing the flourishing garden at the bombed ruins of London’s St Dunstan-in-the-East, now wedged between skyscrapers, she wonders about remnant ‘pieces of history’ and then reflects further on the 65,000-plus years over which Aboriginal people have lived in Australia. ‘When you think of it, even things from Shakespeare’s day are all kind of new.’
St Dunstan-in-the-East, London
  • walking through Oxford, with its ‘bell towers and church steeples, narrow lanes and gardens, markets and rivers’, Della muses: ‘as soon as you arrived here to study you must have felt you were special and in your own little world’. This thought then prompts her to wonder what it must have been like for Jasmine when she first moved to the city to study. ‘I felt a little ashamed that until that moment I’d never thought much about what a big change and adjustment it must have been for her to go to such a new place like a university … I was more focused on how much I missed her when she left, so I didn’t think about it from any sides other than just mine.’
Oxford street, looking towards the former All Saint’s Church, now part of Lincoln College
  • visiting Cambridge, with its ‘big buildings and big thoughts’, Della wonders ‘why the British didn’t think they had everything they needed right here in their own country so had to go and claim someone else’s’ and, having done so, why try ‘to erase what was there before. I guess because you think one is superior to the other’. But, if you were ‘really smart’, you’d value Aunty Elaine’s kind of knowledge ‘about plants and medicines and the stars’.

Discovery #4 – Cultural Stories and Practices

‘I’m beginning to understand why you might [travel] now I’ve done it, and can see how much you learn’, thinks Della. But, in truth, it’s a recognition of the importance of what she already knows that is Della’s greatest discovery on her trip.

Prompted by the sights she sees, Della’s memories of cultural stories and practices re-surface. She begins to add another kind of entry to her notebook – snatches of the old cultural stories that have been passed down by Aunty Elaine.

On the final day of the trip, Della and Jasmine visit the Museum of London where Della learns more about the Great Fire of 1666: ‘that fire was an angry one – violent, hot and intense’. Her thoughts continue: ‘Back home, fire was used to keep the land healthy – a cool fire could help clear the undergrowth. I thought again about how Aunty Elaine said fire helped some plants regenerate … I tried to remember all I could about it. There were complex rules about where fire burning should take place … I took a minute to write everything I could remember into my notebook.’

Walking from the museum to the British Library, Jasmine tells Della how much she enjoyed Aunty Elaine’s stories and suggests to her mother, ‘we should write them down’. Della instantly realises: ‘It was that thing when you have already been doing something but until someone puts it into words, you don’t quite realise that it’s what you’ve been thinking.’

I thought of all those bits and pieces I’d been noting down and now it seemed like somehow the spirits had brought it all together and planted this idea that we should record it … I can’t tell you how much I liked the idea.

Discovery #5 – A Tip for Novice Travellers

Finally, on a slightly frivolous note, here’s one last discovery: with an overcrowded suitcase and a constant urge to buy gifts to take home, Della learns how to roll clothes so they take up less packing space – a not inconsequential skill, especially now she’s had a taste of travel and thinks she might enjoy more.

‘I’ve liked the trip’, she tells her sister Kiki, ‘I wouldn’t mind another one.’

Links and Sources

A garden in Bath frequented by Jane Austen.

Signs and Wonders

What do we ‘see’ when we travel?

This is the question I asked myself last week as I began labelling photographs taken during several sojourns in the UK. The labelling task seemed a useful occupation during bound-to-base, COVID-19 days.

My first experience of overseas travel didn’t come until I was in my mid-50s, quite an august age for an Australian of my generation, and something that made me unusual among my peers.

I’ve never had an urge to travel. I recall sitting at a wedding reception with a group of strangers a decade or so ago. The conversation started with ‘Where do you live?’ (a guest from Sydney) and ‘What do you do?’ (a guest from Canberra). There were no guests from Melbourne so we didn’t ask ‘Who do you barrack for?’ or ‘What school did you go to?’ Eventually, the questions shifted to family and children. One of my children had been living overseas for a couple of years at that stage so the inevitable query was ‘Have you been to visit?’ When I answered in the negative, the follow-up question was inevitable: ‘When are you going?’

Home and Away

At that time, I hadn’t considered going at all.

I like home. I am content with the mundane and averse to people en masse. As the years passed, however, it became clear that my son in the UK would not be returning to Australia. It was time to arrange a passport.

Being an Australian of Anglo-Celtic descent, I carry images of London in my DNA. Big Ben, Tower Bridge, the Palace of Westminster, the River Thames. There is a sense in which I had known the English metropolis before I ever set foot there.

But imagination is not the same as reality.

Looking back at the photos from my initial visits (and, yes, there have been several now), I am interested to see what captured my attention, what it was I chose to record.

Certainly, there are pictures of renowned sites – Lord’s Cricket Ground, Royal Albert Hall, St James’s Park – but there are other, perhaps less expected, snapshots. The latter fall mostly into three types: places that put flesh on the bones of my imagination, sites that offered a connection to home, and unexpected oddities.

Here is a sample…

Flesh on the Bones of Imagination

  • Cheapside

As long-term readers of this blog know, I have a fondness for the novels of Jane Austen. In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a certain London district is spoken of with derision and disdain.

One evening at Netherfield Park, the conversation turns to the Bennet family’s relations. Mrs Hurst reveals that there is an uncle (Mr Gardiner) ‘who lives somewhere near Cheapside’.

‘That is capital’, replies Miss Bingley and both sisters laugh heartily at the Bennets’ ‘vulgar relations’. Mr Darcy compounds the sisters’ scorn by declaring that, for the Bennet daughters, having relatives living in such a place ‘must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world’.

My pleasure was great indeed when I accidentally found myself wandering into this formerly unsavoury part of London.

  • The Inns of Court

Another of my literary favourites is C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. The series’ protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a lawyer who conducts his legal business at the Inns of Court. Shardlake’s offices are at Lincoln’s Inn, but he also petitions at Gray’s Inn and Clifford’s Inn.

No doubt I missed some of the erudite narrative presented by my London Walks guide as I strolled among the buildings where the fictional Shardlake had walked before me.

In Cheapside and around the Inns of Court, I took photos of signs that authenticated the mental pictures formed through reading.

 

Connections with Home

I never suffered a moment’s homesickness in the course of my UK travels. But that’s not to say I didn’t recognise, and welcome, connections with home.

  • The Cutty Sark

On three separate occasions, I visited the Cutty Sark, the famed tea and wool clipper now preserved as a museum in Greenwich.

After my first visit, I became so enamoured with the ship that I spent hour upon hour in the National Library of Australia researching the clipper’s voyages to the Australian colonies.

As with Cheapside and the Inns of Court, it is the interpretive signage on board the Cutty Sark that features in my photos.

 

  • Captain Bligh House

In a stroke of good fortune when searching for accommodation options in London, I came across a self-catering B&B in Lambeth. It’s a quirky establishment that reflects the flair of its artistically minded owners.

And the connection with Australia?

The house was once home to Captain William Bligh, infamous for the mutiny on the Bounty, and only slightly less infamous for his ill-fated governorship of the colony of New South Wales.

 

Curiosities and Oddities

You’ll have noticed by now that I like taking photos of words – interpretive text, street signs, wall plaques, you name it. If there are words in public spaces, they will likely be recorded on my camera … especially if those words reveal the unfamiliar or the unusual.

Private Gardens

On my first stay in London (when Captain Bligh House was, alas, already fully booked), I spent a few nights in a small hotel in Victoria, very close to genteel Warwick Square and its leafy arbour. My only previous knowledge of private communal gardens came from the movie Notting Hill where Anna (Julia Roberts) and William (Hugh Grant) execute a successful night-time ‘break and enter’ over a wrought iron fence and into Rosmead Gardens.

Prior to their illegal climb and drop, William points out that ‘only the people who live around the edges are allowed in’.

Signage at Warwick Square’s garden reinforces William’s claim.

An entry in my diary indicates the status of those likely to be admitted to the lush green plot: ‘The price of real estate here is suggested by the make of cars parked on the street alongside the garden fence: BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar and four Porsches.’

  • Street Crossings

Another English novelty was the Humped Pelican crossing.

I am familiar with Zebra crossings, a name clearly referencing the white stripes on black bitumen, but a ‘humped pelican’? Nothing at the crossing site offered a clue to its meaning.

It was only after searching the internet that I discovered ‘Pelican’ is a portmanteau derived from ‘Pedestrian Light Controlled Crossing’.

(In addition to both Zebra and Pelican crossings, the UK also has Puffin, Toucan and Pegasus crossings.)

 

What Did I See on My Travels?

I saw signs and wonders!

I travelled into an unknown land (albeit one with cultural similarities to my homeland) and I was alert to both familiarity and curiosity. The first reinforced my own sense of self and my known place in the world, the second exposed me to difference and a wider understanding of ‘the other’.

And, as is so often the case, literature bridged the two.

Waterstones, Piccadilly (photo taken with permission)

 

Links and Sources

Photo credits: this blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photos are free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog.