This is another recording of my uncle Lyall Watson sent to me by Keith Williams.

The Explorer – 12th August 1982 2

In this recording, Lyall talks about the explorer who was the inspiration for his book Lightning Bird: Adrian Boshier.

This is who I think Lyall wanted to be – he would have liked to turn back the clock and be one of the early explorers, mapping out a new world and uncovering its mysteries.

A documentary was made on Adrian Boshier: Rradinokga. (You can see a trailer for it here.)

Adrian Boshier - the explorer

Adrian Boshier – the explorer

Lyall Watson - the explorer

Lyall Watson – the explorer


I am indebted to Keith Williams for sending me recordings he’d made of my uncle Lyall Watson. I’m not sure where they were originally aired but imagine it was on the BBC and, from the sounds of it, Lyall is reading from his work rather than talking off the cuff.

This recording is about his grandmother (and my great-grandmother) Ouma. The family stories about her are all as fabulous as this recording suggests.

Oma – 13th August 1982 2

I think that Ouma is sitting in the middle, wearing pink in this photo from my christening… (please correct me if I’m wrong, family! And send better photos of her if you have them.)

Katherine's christening: seen with grandparents and two great-grandparents.

Katherine’s christening: seen with grandparents and two great-grandparents.
Back row: John Davidson, Mary Lyall-Watson and Doug Lyall-Watson
Front row: Beryl Clarence, Katherine, Grace Morkel (nee Devine) and Cynthia Davidson

close up of Oma at the christening

close up of Ouma at the christening

A week ago I was moved to start a petition. It’s the first time I’ve taken this initiative – I’m usually much more comfortable signing, sharing and forwarding other people’s advocacy. I did it, even though it took me out of my comfort zone, because I was so appalled by the lack of compassion we display in Australia.

Leunig cartoon on the lucky country

Leunig cartoon on the lucky country

Compassion is something I keep coming back to. I remember reading On My Brother’s Shoulders many years ago. It’s the autobiography of a post-war orphan in Vietnam. Ty was a little boy crippled by polio who could not crawl or walk and so would wriggle to where food was dumped on the ground and bite and push his way through the other orphans to reach sustenance. The book struck a chord with me when the author referred to compassion as a luxury.

I remember it so clearly because of my shock. I believed that compassion was an integral part of our humanity. Because we can imagine someone else’s suffering, we can feel compassion and we can choose to act to relieve that suffering. But the book made me consider this again. If, as Ty Andre said, compassion is a luxury for the privileged then I have to rethink all my assumptions.

Basically (and I apologise to Ty Andre if I’ve got any of this wrong – as I said it’s many years since I read his book), we need to have our basic needs met before we can feel compassion for others. If we are starving to death and there is limited food available then it is natural to push to reach the food first and neglect those who are weaker than us. It is only once we have taken care of our own needs that we can think of others and share what we have with them.

I feel very uncomfortable writing this. I like to think that I would always consider others and that I would help those weaker than myself but I do have an inkling of the strength of my own survival urge and I don’t know that my desire to be a “good” person would win out over my desire to live.

So, back to compassion and to the Australian public. In acknowledging that we have to have our basic needs for survival met before we can feel compassion, I am left with a dilemma:

If Australia is the lucky country, why are we so selfish?

The only answer that comes to me is that we’ve grown up with this myth of ourselves as the underdog. The “Aussie battler” is enshrined in our lexicon and even if we own two 4WDs, send our kids to private schools and live in a mansion, we still think we’re doing it tough.

If Australia is the lucky country then we deserve to have it easier. We should be able to have a plasma screen in every room in the house – we deserve it!

Our politicians reinforce this with their constant references to the Aussie battler and to “how tough” Australian families are doing it. Rubbish! If we’re doing it tough it’s because we’ve gotten greedy. We’re a consumer culture gone mad. We all want more of everything. Whether it’s a TV in every room, an ensuite for each bedroom, a car for each member of the family or the latest, updated gizmo to replace the one we purchased last year, we’ve taken capitalism into overdrive and it’s left us feeling as if we don’t have enough.

Have the iPhone 4 but can’t afford the iPhone 5 yet? You must be a battler, doing it tough*.

The more we think of ourselves as struggling, the more we want and the less we feel able to give to others.

This is the only reason I can think of to explain why we are so reluctant to give to charities (unless of course there’s a disaster that affects our communities and then we’re incredibly generous) and why, as a nation, we have turned our back on the world’s poorest and most desperate, who come to our shores seeking asylum from whatever hell they’ve escaped.

To be an asylum seeker in Australia is to be hated by the majority of the media, the politicians and the public. We live in a huge land with a tiny population. We have one of the highest employment rates in the world and our economy is doing better than most other Western economies and yet we think that we can’t afford to show compassion or generosity to those who arrive here with nothing.

refugee children behind bars

We take asylum seekers who are proved to be genuine refugees and lock them in detention centres, out of sight and out of mind. In a new move, those that we release into the community will be forbidden to work for the first five years that they are here. They will have no access to Medicare cards or cheap housing. They will have no access to English classes. They will receive no government aid and will have to rely on charities to survive. They will be an underclass living in Australia – most probably on the streets as without work or support how can they afford housing?

When I started my petition, I thought it was a no-brainer and that all my friends would sign it and seek to allow asylum seekers released into the community to at least look for work. But I hadn’t considered how deeply the anti-refugee sentiment runs. There seems to be a fear that if we show compassion all hell will break loose. Millions of refugees will arrive on our shores and we will all lose our homes, our jobs and our lifestyles.

Instead of looking at how much we have and what we can afford to give or share, we hold tight to our fears and assume the worst. It’s made us miserly and shallow and made me feel that I have to take a stand to try to bring compassion back into our hearts and minds.

I believe that compassion is a luxury we can afford and one that makes us better people.

For those who are interested, here’s my petition for the government to stop punishing refugees.

Further Reading

Refugee facts.

Julian Burnside’s article on 4 Steps to more humane processing of refugees.

* Of course there are some people who are doing it tough in Australia, I don’t intend to imply that there aren’t. It’s just that, on the whole, we are a very fortunate nation and most of us could afford to show some compassion.

After almost ten years as part of our family, we said goodbye to our beautiful Kirra yesterday.

boy and dog at playground

Jack and Kirra
Photo by Barbara Lowing

She was a Hungarian Viszla – long coltish legs and as clumsy and uncoordinated as I am. Her ears were the softest things imaginable. Her eyes a dark chocolate and her tail a never stopping whip of muscle. We all bore the bruises of her affection after being whacked about the legs with her tail.

She loved chasing a ball but never watched to see which way it went – staring fixedly at where she thought you’d throw it instead. Hungarian Viszlas are hunting dogs, supposed to sniff out and retrieve duck and game with their gentle mouths. Yet Kirra had the most hopeless sense of smell. She couldn’t even find a juicy bone thrown into the garden for her. We’d have to call out instructions while she ran round in circles looking for it.

dog and puppet

Kirra meets Brydie’s sock puppet

She grew terrified of stairs and smooth floors as she got older: when she had to cross a patch of floorboards at our home, she’d stand on the rug, all her muscles quivering as she tried to get the courage to move. Once she was finally ready she’d launch forth with all four legs going in different directions causing her to skitter and slide in a tangle of limbs.

She was as excitable as a puppy right until the end. Always loving and affectionate. In fact Kirra couldn’t get enough love. Once you started patting her, she wouldn’t leave your side, begging for more and more and more, never tiring of the contact.

We got Kirra when she was already grown, the fallout of a broken marriage. Perhaps some of her insecurity and nervousness came from the change of homes and leaving her brother who she’d lived with until that time.

Pete insisted that she would be an outside dog – by the end of the drive home he’d agreed to let her in as long as she didn’t get on the furniture. Within two days she was sleeping on our son’s bed with him. Kirra helped Jack get over his nightmares and her presence in his room stopped his fear of the dark.

kids and pets in bed

Young Jack with his dog, his sister and her cat in his bed

Jack walked her every day and, because he had her with him, we didn’t mind him walking in the bush without an adult, even when he was just a little boy. He’s grown up with her by his side, which makes this all the more difficult.

You see Jack is on a school trip in China and we haven’t told him yet about his dog. He’s only been gone a week but her deterioration was sudden.

Jack and Kirra

Jack and Kirra.
Photo by Barbara Lowing

She developed an insatiable thirst just before he left and with it came incontinence. We took her to the vet who tested her for diabetes but it came back negative. Then she stopped eating and her breathing became very laboured. She couldn’t go for walks anymore and just lay on her bed. We took her back to the vet yesterday and the pericardial effusion is back (fluid around her heart) but this time with a whole lot of other nasty things. He felt the kindest thing would be to put her down.

We brought her home and the family came over to say goodbye. It was the toughest decision: should we wait for Jack to come home or should we let her go while he was away?


saying goodbye

The choice we made is obvious – but the guilt keeps tearing at my heart. Peter and I were both with her when she died. We held her and talked to her throughout her last minutes, telling her how loved she was and thanking her for all the joy she’s brought to our family.

We brought her back home (one of the most traumatic trips I’ve made) and buried her in the garden so that we can make a special place for Jack to remember her.

But now there’s a week of waiting before I post this or tell anyone – because I don’t want word to get out and Jack to find out from a friend while he’s so far from home.

The silence is deafening.

Jack came home last night and we told him in the car on the way back from the airport. He took it far better than we had hoped and we will hold a little ceremony for Kirra next week after he’s chosen a plant for her grave.


Breasts are on my mind at the moment for a couple of reasons.

Last night I was at the opening celebration for this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival and I commented on the marvellous cleavage of one of the organiser’s  (I know Molly well enough to do this without it being pervy!). She mentioned that it was one of this year’s featured authors who had persuaded her to be out and proud with her assets rather than trying to camouflage them as she would normally do. The featured author is one who I will be doing a panel with on Sunday and so I asked for an introduction.

love heart of books

Brisbane Writers Festival 2012

When I met the gorgeous and gregarious Kate Forsyth, instead of acting professionally and talking about our panel session, I found myself checking out her cleavage to see if it matched Molly’s. Perhaps it was the wine that made me bold – or perhaps it was the presence of so many like-minded writers and the feeling of belonging, at last, to a glorious, outspoken tribe – but my opening gambit to Kate was to comment on her boobs. This is not like me at all. In fact it is so unlike me that my usual, cautious self was left flabbergasted, watching with horror while this wine-glass clutching, animated self prattled on about breasts and cleavages.

Fortunately Kate has a sense of humour and we were soon laughing about my gaffe and bonding over a shared love of books, history, magic and fairy tales. I hope when we sit together on a panel on Sunday she will forgive my moment of breast obsession. It may have come in part from being a small-breasted woman in a family with more generous curves. I’ve enjoyed the years of being able to go bra-less while also envying my friends who look like bombshells no matter what they wear.

So, that’s one reason that breasts are on my mind today. The other is much more serious and involves a friend who is fighting breast cancer as I write. She has had a radical mastectomy and is now undergoing chemotherapy. It’s an awful process and, while I am grateful that the cancer was found and hopeful that it was found early enough to give her a clean bill of health, it is painful to see a vibrant, passionate woman brought so low by her treatment.

A while ago I was contacted by Louise Egan, a woman who travelled on the Linblad Explorer when my uncle Lyall Watson was working there as expedition leader/scientist in residence. It was such a joy to hear from someone who’d met Lyall in the early 70s and remembered him so fondly.

Lyall Watson cutting loose on the dance floor

Lyall dancing with Louise on the Linblad Explorer

Louise and her sisters Marie and Joanna and their parents travelled on the Linblad Explorer in 1970 and 1973 and she said she would be happy for me to share her memories here. (Thanks to Marie for the fabulous photos.)

The following is an edited extract from Louise’s email to me:

“Back in 1970, Lyall was probably the first adult I ever called by his first name. [He] was in a notably younger age group than my parents — he could wear those “groovy”, Indian-style, embroidered shirts with open collar, beads, and yes, white bell-bottoms, and playful straw hat and look totally cool. And he could dance rock-n-roll and look right doing it — unlike my parents & their friends, who looked so awkward.

“There were a bunch of kids on the Lindblad Explorer in the summer of 1970, same for the summer of 1973 in Indonesia. The two summers kind of blur in my mind – but in both cases, we all loved Lyall. He was a fun, energetic excursion leader, always approachable, ready for any kind of conversation. His daily talks on the ship covering what we would see on the islands were interesting – on some aspect of nature or the culture we would find on an island – and never too long or over our heads. He was also the first one I’d ever known who could say he was the first “white person” ever seen by people on an island.

 Lyall Watson dancing

“I can picture him leading us around an island — the hat, loose shirt billowing in the breeze, his white pants. At one point, I asked him why he never took any pictures. I forget what he said, but his response made me realize that this man traveled for his living but the trips were also his LIFE — he seemed to take such joy and interest in doing it, it didn’t really seem like a job for him.

“Lyall was the first one to tell me about the Greenhouse Theory. We were on a cliff overlooking a beach somewhere one evening and my younger sister was with me – she remembers it too. For some reason, he started telling us about what we now call global warming. It was pretty overwhelming to hear all that but it did give me an early feel for the environmental movement that I became aware of a bit later.

“One of my favorite talks of his was when he showed us the kinds of faces monkeys made that showed different emotions: fear, anger, happiness. He made each kind of face, which of course, made everyone laugh – but his point was very well taken.

“One thing that my siblings and I loved to do in the summer of 1973, was sing songs from musicals or TV shows. One song we liked in particular was the theme song to The Patty Duke Show — we have pictures of us “cheerleading” at some native island soccer tournament and singing that song. And for the Farewell Dinner that year, I wrote a tribute to Lyall using the tune to Patty Duke and I think it spoke for everyone:

Here’s Lyall who’s lived most everywhere –

From Zanzibar to Berkeley Square;
And Lyall’s also seen the sights from faraway, exotics heights —
What a character (“charac-tair”)
But that’s Lyall, incredible Lyall, and you’ll see

One kind of funny fellow, looks like a chimpanzee!

Where Lyall adores the nature scene, the ocean trips,

 on birds he’s keen —
And Lyall loves to rock-n-roll but not much makes him lose control –
You know what we mean;
Cuz that’s Lyall, incredible Lyall and you’ll find …
He laughs a lot and talks a lot and has to put up with a lot —
But he won’t lose his mind …

Cuz Lyall, YOU’re one of a kind!

Thank you Louise and Marie for making my day with these memories.

For those who want to sing along, here’s the Patty Duke intro song…

After four years of researching, writing, developing, rewriting, researching again and more developments, my play about Nelle Tritton, Alexander Kerensky, Nina Berberova and Vladislav Khodasevich is getting a showing at Metro Arts. Whoo hoo!

Motherland poster

Image designed by Warrick Fraser

I’m excited and terrified at the prospect.

The showing is a rehearsed reading at Metro Arts’ Free Range and I’ve been having nightmares where it all goes horribly wrong and the audience turns on me. (Kind of like those getting up to give a talk and realising you’re naked nightmares.) In the last one, a man in a wheelchair yelled at me for giving him the worst night of his life. I woke up in a cold sweat and realised that I might just be a control freak.

You see, creating theatre is an act of trust and collaboration. As the writer I can work alone for as many years as I choose, but to get the play staged I have to trust other people with my precious baby. I have to take a step back and let them choose how to dress her, what to feed her and which school she goes to. All I can do is hope and pray that she’ll come out okay.

While I keep her in my head and on a page, she is stillborn but perfect (in my imagination at any rate). When others take her and play with her, she has the chance to live and breathe and be complex, flawed and glorious. She also has the chance to stuff up and show all the genetic flaws I gave her.

The good news is that my baby is in wonderful hands. I respect and love all the people who are taking this next step with her. Now I just have to take a deep breath and trust that I’ve given her the bones, muscle and heart she needs to grow and be everything she can be.

If you’re in Brisbane on 22 and 23 June and would like to join me to see the birth of this long gestating baby, I’d love to see you there. (You can book tickets at this link.) I’ll be the anxiously pacing parent at the back of the theatre.