Review – Cyclone

CycloneI was but a babe in arms when Cyclone Althea swept across Townsville on the eve of Christmas in 1971 however, I will never forget the noise of it; the warning sirens, the howling winds, the pelting rain. We were hushed into submissive silence by the storm screaming to get through our walls; muted by the all-consuming blackness, the sheer force of it. And then afterwards, struck again with incredulousness; our roof still over our heads whilst every other in the street lay shorn off, twisted and deformed in backyards where they didn’t belong.

Images like these are hard to erase. A few years later, another cyclone, this one by the name of Tracy struck at a similar time of year, blighting a similar town, producing similar indelible memories for the survivors.

Bruce Whatley and Jackie French45 years on, powerful storytelling duo, Jackie French and Bruce Whatley mark this event with their new picture book, Cyclone. It’s hard to ignore the images of this beautiful work, as well.

Following in the same potent spirit of their Flood and Fire collaborations, Cyclone focuses primarily on a single tragic natural disaster, which had cataclysmic consequences for not only the community it affected but also many others across Australia. The results are profound and moving, yet also hopeful.

A storm brewed out at sea on the 24th of December 1974, yet the residents of Darwin hunkered down, unconcerned, too preoccupied with the imminent arrival of Santa Claus to worry about a fairly normal occurrence for them. When Cyclone Tracy unexpectedly swung and hit Darwin full in the face, she did so with such vehemence and force that the township was taken unawares. As the BOM quoted, ‘The entire fabric of life in Darwin was catastrophically disrupted, with the majority of buildings being totally destroyed or badly damaged, and very few escaping unscathed.’

French depicts this wholesale devastation with lilting verse that pays homage to the intensity of the storm as well as infusing the tragedy with a personal touch. The narrator, presumably a small expectant child waiting for Santa but faced instead with a wild beast who consumes their town overnight, is shown huddling with their family in their brick barbecue amidst a sea of destruction.

FloodThe poignancy of the situation and the degree of loss is beautifully rendered by Whatley’s pencil and acrylic wash illustrations. As with its two predecessors, I believe Whatley executed Cyclone’s drawings with his left (non-dominant) hand producing exquisite expressions of infinite detail and fluidity. Streaks, smears and runs feature in every landscape representing the force and chaos of the storm and later the pervading sense of new life, slowly seeping back, where ‘houses grow…day by day’ – my daughter’s favourite spread. The washed-out appearance and toned-down hues do indeed reflect the tone and look of a feature film reel likely to have existed in the 70s. The whole effect is goose bump raising.

Cyclone is an ode of sorts to the man at the end of the phone line French happened to answer one fateful day following the catastrophe of Cyclone Tracy as she manned the Information Section of the Department of Urban and Regional Development. She will never forget his despair, nor his tenacious courage to rebuild and move on.

FireLike Flood and Fire, and Cyclone Tracy itself, Cyclone is a telling testimony to the legacy of good that can emerge from ravaged lives and homes. It cites that humans are ultimately survivors, capable of adapting and ‘inventing ways to live with whatever challenges the planet throws at them.’ We are reminded to respect the forces of nature and learn from our mistakes; a significant observation for those who have endured a natural disaster and for those of our more recent generations who have not. Highly recommended.

Scholastic Press February 2016

Review – Fire by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley

Fire, Jackie French (author), Bruce Whatley (illus.), Scholastic Press, 2014.  

fireHarsh weather conditions are terrifying enough at the best of times, but what about when Mother Nature plays a hand in the wild and extreme that gamble with actual lives?
Award-winning author and Australian Laureate, Jackie French, together with the unequivocally talented illustrator, Bruce Whatley, have joined forces in producing a gripping and stunningly haunting book of adversity; ‘Fire’. Just like their previous book, ‘Flood’; depicting the horrendous Queensland floods in 2011, ‘Fire’ is another efficacious story of courage and strength in the face of a natural disaster.

Throughout the book are amazing, succinct verses that take your breath away with every word. The story begins with a serene outback set amongst golden hills and limp gum tree leaves. Upon turning the page, we are faced with the sudden impact of ferocious orange flames and black smoke, sending a once peaceful cockatoo fleeing for its life. Ramifications advance, affecting the people who live amongst the burning trees as the fire engulfs the land in a thunderous, cackling roar. Pretty soon, whole page spreads bleed with blood-red paint across the atmosphere, and thick grey ash that forces inhabitants to quickly escape the “gulping smoke and singed debris.”
Fire book imageNext, a gut-wrenching image of the oven swallowing houses, trees, the land. What about the aftermath? Loss, grief, disbelief. But the bravery of the firefighters and the safety of loved ones is what is appreciated most. From pain comes the strength of the Australian spirit, as we see the CFA tending to sick animals, and read of those friends who give love and help rebuild a world burnt bare. And eventually, the Earth is reborn once again.  

The final page details Jackie French‘s personal experiences with fighting bushfires and its effects on the land, and how best to manage its dangers. Bruce Whatley also gives appreciation for the courage of those dealing with these terrors, and his account of his illustration process. It is fascinating that he felt the erratic nature of the fire was the hardest thing to capture, because looking at his daubs, flicks, bleeding outlines, reds and yellows amongst their surrounding darks certainly creates intensely evocative and impactful imagery in my eyes.  

‘Fire’ is a powerful, poignant and moving story of real life truths; a devastingly beautiful, poetic rendition of a tough facet of nature. It is a book about life, love, friendship, hope and the human spirit that is so brilliantly captured in its words and images. ‘Fire’ is suited to primary school children, and is deservingly shortlisted in the CBCA’s 2015 Picture Book of the Year awards. Just phenomenal.

Interesting background information on Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, as well as fantastic teaching ideas based on the book, ‘Fire’, can be downloaded from Scholastic here:

The (Brisbane) Flood

Flood_1I’m back in my apartment and online after—to use the most overused term in Brisbane these days—surreal turn of events: the 2011 Brisbane flood, which kicked off on 11/1/11 and blurred the next week or so’s worth of sleepless, stressful days.

My much-loved apartment was in one of the suburbs that was in the firing line—indeed, my near-water street was named straight up as one from which you needed to move yourself and your stuff—and I’ve struggled to comprehend and explain just what transpired a week ago. I’ve included below an excerpt of a blog I wrote to try to process it (it should give you some indication of the experience if you didn’t happen to be in Brisbane at that time) and, at the end, the book I think that most closely relates to the experience.

The Apartment Background

My brother recently moved into the investment property we’ve part owned for about six years and, after a year of discussing options (because it’s a truth universally acknowledged that no brother and sister can seriously share a place without the sister wanting to kill the brother), it was decided that he’d buy me out and I’d go find a one-bedroom apartment on my own.

We were tossing up between two apartments: one at Wooloowin and one at Windsor and I opted for the Windsor unit. It’s in a beautiful house that was built in the 1930s, that has frescoed (if that’s a word) ceilings, and that was divided into six apartments. It also happens to be on the very edge of and up the hill from—and on principle I feel the need to stress ‘on the very edge of’ and ‘up the hill from’—a flood plain.

The building was affected by the benchmark 1974 flood, but we researched the property and reasoned that:

  • Wivenhoe had been built so that the ‘74 floods would never ever happen again
  • half of Brisbane was inundated in ‘74 so my property wasn’t overly more prone than many others
  • they’d done work around the Clem so the tunnel wouldn’t flood, ergo Windsor wouldn’t flood
  • the building is something like four blocks and a community farm away from the creek that runs directly off the Brisbane River (I mean, compost and straw can be counted on to hold back water)
  • my apartment is up high on the top floor
  • it was a one-off apartment and I really, really loved it. Did I mention it has frescos?

So, my two now infamous remarks, issued as I got on a plane to South America in September, were:

  1. For me to be in trouble, half of Brisbane has to be in trouble.
  2. How often does it rain in Queensland anyway?

I know. It’s hilarious in a blackly comic kind of way.


The Flood

The stormwater drains out the front of my place went before the creek/river did, which was more than a little freaky. I met the local and non-local, sightseeing crackpots who espoused their flood theories. I spent a lot of time wandering the neighbourhood in my pyjamas. I spent many, many hours outside watching the water creep up on my place, and I got sunburnt, because I’d forgotten that the sun ever shone in Queensland, and because who thinks to grab sunscreen when you’re stuffing things into a bag to escape rising flood waters that are predicted to be of biblical proportions?

I realised that floods mean a shortage of food for possums, although power shortages result in a boon of emptied fridges. I was raided by the friendly neighbourhood possum at 2am on the Wednesday and he was not only not afraid of me, he looked me in the eye as he ferreted through my bin, ate all of the organic strawberries (whoever said possums don’t have good taste?) and bread crusts (I know, I know, but I’ve recently decided that I’m no longer five and if I don’t like crusts, I’m not going to eat them). He then did a lap of my apartment and called my wussy bluff by half-heartedly running towards me when I shook an empty Diet Coke bottle at him and told him he really needed to leave.

I learned that harsh reality that even if your apartment is on the top floor, you’re (almost) as screwed as if you’re on the ground if the ground floor goes under. I realised that the idea to fill my cupboards with books and not food was good only when there wasn’t a flood that may leave me stranded. I learned equally that people are stupid at the mere suggestion of an impending natural disaster. Sure, I may not understand because I drink soy, but what is it with bread and milk, people? And why would you buy perishables that, as the name suggests, don’t last long and last even less time when you don’t have power?

We had to talk down a rubbernecking idiot in a 4WD who was going to joyride through the water immediately out the front of our place. His efforts would have pushed the water over the doorsteps and into the apartments it was lapping and would have quite possibly seen someone pull him from his vehicle to punch him. There were reports of attempted looters who were busted a street away, although I should say that that report came from the close-talking crazy chick who smelled strongly of alcohol and who kept touching me. She may have harassed people who were legitimately checking out their property.

Flood_3I moved more than a million sandbags, as I helped sandbag and then un-sandbag the entire building (I now expect compliments on my guns and shoulders of steel). I learned that ants will crawl up your legs as they search desperately for higher ground and that if you don’t encourage them to move to other higher ground quickly, they will end up in your underpants.

I waded through murky brown, potentially sewage-infested water and didn’t freak out, especially not during the pitch blackness of the 4am peak when my father was a way ahead of me with the torch, everyone was on edge, and that screaming about the something suspiciously resembling the feeling and shape of a snake wrapped around my submerged leg would have seen all hell break loose.

I was horrified and outraged that not everyone looked after their pets during the flood, but I was also heartened that people rushed in to help foster the animals at the flood-swamped RSPCA. I can now confirm that trying to rid your place of sludge is like pushing sh*t uphill. Literally and figuratively. I also found that time expanded and contracted in ways I’ll never be able to articulate, much less understand.

I wondered what to say to neighbours that you know know that you do nudie runs between your bedroom and your bathroom. I did my best what-you-talkin’-about-Willis? face when someone suggested putting a sandbag in my toilet to prevent what I had previously never even known was possible: sewage backflow.

I found that you shouldn’t look at photos of your street from the ’74 flood. Or listen to the stories of the locals who experienced it and who are only too happy to show and tell you how your place went—and will go—under. After days of soggy, wrinkled feet, a phone that didn’t work, and mail servers that had crashed or been taken offline, I realised that I should own a pair of gumboots and a wind-up radio. And that I should buy shares in companies that make them. If I were smart, I’d be going out now to stock up on deodoriser things to mask the rancid sludge smell. And carrier pigeons. A flock of carrier pigeons.

I learned that every millimetre counts, with the difference between euphoria and disaster (we got lucky with the water lapping the doorways but for the most part not spilling over). I found that the most random things end up in your yard once the water subsides. Say, for example, a log and a vegetable peeler. I also wondered why they (they being the people who design and build things, as opposed to the people like me who write about them) would put electricity, hot water, and gas fitting thingys down low.

I’m relieved that the water didn’t go as high as they’d predicted, because I’d have truly been in trouble. But I also feel a little embarrassed that it didn’t go higher and we weren’t as affected as we could or should have been—the relatively minimal damage to my apartment block is inversely proportional to the outpouring of care and concern everyone’s shown. I quickly realised that although I mastered the art of sandbagging, I have yet to master the art of shovelling. I am grateful that while my parents did note that Wooloowin wasn’t flood affected, they didn’t say ‘We told you so.’

I came to realise that there’s no such thing as too much flood footage, particularly when you’re watching things you’ve spent a lot of time on or in float down the river. I was reminded that it’s ok to cry in public and that you’ll do it over things like tug boats saving the day. I was reminded that we all—me included—have too much stuff. I’m disturbed that the money being generously donated will go back into buying more stuff neither we nor the environment need. I felt (and feel) guilty that we’re getting so much attention while the disaster in Brazil is much worse and much less cared about. And I worry that this warm-and-fuzzy feeling won’t last and everyone will be back to mass and mindless consumption and road rage before we’ve cleaned up the last street. As a side note, the property my brother now solely owns is high, dry, and in perfect, un-flooded health.

Flood_4I noticed that despite owning the vehicle of choice for war-ravaged terrain or its equivalent, not a single Hummer driver was out using their vehicle in the clean up. I was also puzzled and saddened that finger pointing and calls for enquiries have already started, as if we can completely control mother nature and it’s someone’s fault that we had so much rain and that they should have known to release water from Wivenhoe sooner. Indeed, we seem to have collective selective memories. We criticised them for releasing water just a few weeks ago.

But on a happier note, I discovered that one of the best text messages you can ever receive is that someone’s place is high, dry, still has power, and that you’re welcome to come over to recharge your phone or yourself. I was reminded that there’s humour to be found in even the darkest moments, with my neighbours engaging in some sandbag-placement bets as to where the high point would be. And I discovered that it’s possible to basically not sleep for four or five days. Then you’ll be struck by a post-stress, post-adrenalin fatigue that’s so sudden and so overwhelming it borders on narcolepsy.

I now know what the apocalypse, should it happen, will be like. That The Road and whatever that Will Smith movie is are pretty much spot on (who thought Will Smith would ever be in a realistic-ish film?). I found that ‘surreal’ became the most overused expression to describe the experience, but that it was also the most apt. I found that everyone will prairie dog it, pausing, head high, to sniff the smell of cooking toast in the air when you’ve been without power for days. I also found that there are few things as blissful as having a hot shower and then dry, clean feet.

I learned that, however clichéd it may sound, friends and family and friends who are like family are pretty goddamn awesome. I’ve been overwhelmed by how many people have contacted me and offered support from all around the world and all around Australia and all around Brisbane. It’s been incredible and humbling and I can’t thank everyone enough. Especially not without breaking down into choked up sobs and awkward hugs.

And if I had to recommend a book to read that would go part way to explaining what transpired here (that is, a book that’s already been published as opposed to be the flood-inspired books that will emerge in coming months and years) it would be Dave EggersZeitoun. It’s a brilliant work of non-fiction that captures the aftermath of a man who stayed behind in New Orleans to protect his business and help during Hurricane Katrina. I’ve blogged about it here before and won’t go into details for this reason and because this blog is already enormously long. We didn’t experience anything quite so drastic in terms of law-enforcement reactions (I won’t say anything more for fear of ruining the story), but the rest of the story holds true. I highly recommend Zeitoun and will keep you posted about any works that come out of this flood experience.