A love letter to my gym

Dear Gym,

I have to get this off my chest.

I didn’t appreciate you until you weren’t there, and for that I’m truly sorry. Please forgive me. I admit I took you for granted, acted like you’ll always be there for me. Until you weren’t. Even though it was circumstances that drove us apart, I missed you. At first the longing was vague and occasional – a glimpse of exercise gear in my drawer, my gym bag in the back of the car. These things made me remember you and smile. Then the longing became intense, and I ached for you.

Sure, there were other ways to exercise. Online classes and walking the dog filled the void for a while. At times I thought Zoom classes were right for me. But when the novelty wore off, Gym, all I wanted was to have you back.

And so to be with you again now is a joy. I’ve missed your smooth carpeted floors, the clunk of your weights in their rack, the embrace of cool water in your 25 metre pool.

I know we have to take it slowly for now, not get to close, meet only by appointment. That’s okay with me. You deserve my full effort – I know that now. I’ll never treat you with indifference again.

You may not look like much from the outside, but inside you’re truly wonderful. With you, I’m  strong. I can take on the weight of the world. You keep me afloat. You make me more flexible. I never want to be without you again.

I love you, Gym. 

John Hockney’s memoir The Hockneys: Never Worry What the Neighbours Think to be published in October

John Hockney’s memoir is to be published in October 2019 by Legend Press. I was honoured to edit it before submission. It’s a very satisfying aspect of my work to help writers  get their book published.  Legend Press includes top Australian writers Mark Brandi and Alice Pung on its list.

John Hockney is a professional storyteller and brother of the artist David Hockney. He  helps others to write their life stories. I met him at a wonderful workshop he ran in the Blue Mountains. I went on to work with him on his manuscript before he submitted it for publication. That it took only a couple of months before it was snapped up is testament to what  a great story he has told.

John Hockney: storyteller

Before I did his workshop ‘Your Life – Your Story’,  I heard John talk about life with his brother, world-renowned artist David Hockney. David’s exhibition Words & Pictures opened at Blue Mountains City Art Gallery in October 2017. I remember thinking, ‘He should write a book’.

John Hockney tells his story going back two generations. His grandfather was a founding member of the Salvation Army in Bradford in England’s industrial north. His grandmother would made him a cup of cocoa with whole milk – not the watered-down variety he had at home – after he had dragged home her shopping in his billycart.

You would expect that the world-famous artist David might dominate the book, but John gives every member of his brilliant and eccentric family their due.  His father, who liked to wear brightly coloured stick-on dots on his bow tie, was always true to his moral compass. His sister Margaret produced an art work of a squid squashed on her scanner. It was accepted in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The theme that they never worried what the neighbours think runs thorough the book.

With his closely observed detail and exceptional storytelling,  John Hockney combines the two essentials of memoir or autobiography: have a great story to tell and write it well. It’s often funny and always honest and true. My understanding of what life was like in  post-war Britain was so enriched. My appreciation of what it means to be part of a family – in all its crazy complexity – was deepened immeasurably.

The book is available in hardcover from Book Depository.

(Not) Remembering Bob Hawke

I didn’t live in Australia during the Hawke years. I knew nothing about Australian politics; I was caught up in the turmoil of my own country, South Africa.

But I went to the memorial service for Bob Hawke. It was by chance, really. I was in Sydney and the morning news reminded me that this was the day. I was catching the ferry to Circular Quay anyway, so I strolled over to the Opera House for a bit of a stickybeak.

After an hour or so of celebrity spotting, chatting to friendly strangers and snapping politicians alighting from their official vehicles, I felt compelled to stay for the ceremony.

I left feeling rather emotional, and with some unexpected reflections on my adopted country.

After Tiananmen

I can’t claim to be as deeply affected by Hawke’s legacy as the 40,000 Chinese students he allowed to stay in Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre. One of these told me, tears welling in his eyes, how he owed his life to Hawke. Another was there with his wife and daughter. They each carried a bouquet, his daughter’s made up of natives and wildflowers; his with orchids. He showed me the condolence card which read: ‘Always in my heart. As many Chinese students, my life changed forever when Mr Hawke offered us to stay in 1989.’

Xuesu Dai with his bouquet for Bob Hawke

My homeland, South Africa, owes a debt of gratitude to the former PM for his support of economic sanctions against the apartheid regime. I was ambushed by a rush of emotion when he and Nelson Mandela, who was beloved to us as Hawke was to Australia, appeared on the big screen in front of the Opera House steps. Back in the 80s, sanctions were one of the prongs of attack that that led to Apartheid’s downfall. Trade unionist Bill Kelty told the crowd how Nelson Mandela had been buoyed by Hawke’s support. I was a hopeful twenty-something in South Africa at the time. A woman who had travelled from Hobart specifically for the memorial service confided that Hawke had shaped her and her generation. Across the Indian Ocean, he had also played a part in shaping mine.

I had many conversations outside the venue. We agreed: Penny Wong for President, we missed Malcolm Turnbull in the light of subsequent events, and didn’t Quentin Bryce present as the epitome of elegance. The easy friendliness, the lack of pomp and ceremony and relaxed, happy atmosphere was striking. Those who had come to pay our respects and to spot a politician or two mingled with MPs, actors, media personalities and past politicians. Security was undoubtedly there, in the form of police patrols, a helicopter circling overhead and security details for many of the guests. But there were none of the machine guns and flak jackets we have come to see as normal in a post-9/11 world. I reflected on how lucky were to live in  a country where you could walk up to an MP or an ex-party leader and shake their hand and say hi, love your work.

Australia before Hawke

I hadn’t been aware of just how significant the changes Hawke brought were. Before him, Australia didn’t sound much like a place anybody would want to come to. It was shut off from the Asia-Pacific region and in ways to the rest of the world, far away and insular and with a government that wielded more power than is comfortable. Hawke’s granddaughter Sophie Taylor-Price reminded us that Antarctica could have been a mining site were it not for her grandfather. One of her first memories is of sitting by her Pop’s side as he pleaded for rejecting the destruction of one of Earth’s last wild places. The four-year-old with a coloured pencil in her hand credits this moment as the start of her journey to being an environmental protector.

As we sat on the steps, around us life went on as usual. People jogged by on their lunchtime runs, groups of schoolkids made their way to the ferries and trains at Circular Quay, looking mildly curious about the crowd of mostly grey-haired citizens on the steps; not concerned enough to stop. Bob Hawke understood that we owe it to these kids, the young office workers out for their midday runs, the baffled tourists, to do better.

‘I don’t exude morality’

Most of the audience would remember a kinder time when politicians were not crucified for their imperfections. Anthony Albanese remembered Hawke saying: ‘I have credibility because I don’t exude morality’. Hawke could be a bit of a boozer, loved a punt on the horses and could lose his temper with people in his office – including Paul Keating – without being excoriated on Twitter. I don’t think Scott Morrison would get away with synchronising parliamentary adjournments with the races, as Hawke did with the Arbitration Commission according to Bill Kelty.

Blanche d’Alpuget, Bob Hawke’s widow, asked that we make his death a turning point in the history of Australia. Everybody who spoke pleaded for us to listen to the young, to take a long view on our children’s future, and to remember that the reforms of the eighties, tough as they may have seemed, made Australia a better nation.

Writing True Stories


Patti Miller has created the complete guide to writing autobiography, memoir, personal essay, biography, travel and creative nonfiction

Great cover design!

People who have attended Patti Miller’s highly rated memoir-writing workshops have recommended this book to me to me more than once. I’ll admit to not having read it cover to cover yet. But I want to approach it like a course in creative nonfiction writing and work through it systematically.

Writing True Stories grew out of writing workshops the author ran at Varuna, the Writer’s House in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. And this shows in its practical approach, as it is written as a series of workshops, covering sources, voice, structure, narrative and style and editing.

Take the masterclass

Part Two consists of masterclasses that extend the skills in the first part. It deals with genre: memoir, creative nonfiction, essay and more. The last (brief) chapter is about publishing. Miller writes about commercial publication and self-publishing and how to present your work to agents and publishers. Although there’s a lot more that could be said about publishing, that’s best left to a another book.


A reading list and a page of useful contacts rounds out Writing True Stories. I can’t wait to get started on honing my skills before I get my project, now at the research stage, underway.

Listening to ‘Truth, bullsh*t and weasel words’


It has nothing to do with love, and everything to do with the fact that I can’t stand corporate speak.

Anybody who loves clear writing knows – and loves – Don Watson. I took the opportunity to hear him speak as part of Sydney Ideas, the University of Sydney’s public events program last week. His books on language include Weasel Words, Bendable Learnings and Death Sentence: The decay of public language.

This question-and-answer session focused on language in political discourse, about which there is plenty to lament. We’ve seen a profound change in news media in the last while, Watson argued, which has changed news into a combat between talking heads. And while there has always been lies and trickery in politics, we are now less able to judge truth and lies as politics has become so tribal. The suggestibility of the public has risen at the same rate as the lies.

And along came Trump

Trump, of course, had to be discussed. Watson pointed out that he ‘didn’t drop from the sky’: Bannon et al figured out that what we saw on our screens was what was important. All he had to do was make sure Trump was the centre of the story. And we can agree that Trump has been pretty good at keeping himself there, front and centre day after frustrating day.

So what’s the answer?

The refreshing thing about hearing this witty, accomplished and intelligent speaker and writer is that he didn’t pretend to have the answers. Is it education? That’s part of it. Better journalism? It would help, and it would go a long way if journalists bothered to consult academics when writing their stories. Are independent candidates making things better? At least they save us from the party operatives who are presently running the show, and make us begin to think again.

And those weasel words?

I discovered that a book is to be referred to as a ‘cultural externality’. When he was asked what his (least) favourite weasel words were. Watson listed:

  • impact, and more particularly impactful learnings
  • window of opportunity
  • appropriate and/or inappropriate

You can contribute your own to Don Watson’s website. The next day I noticed this one in Sydney’s Hyde Park:

‘For your safety we advise you not to visit the park during or just after heavy rain and strong winds because of the risk of tree failure.’

If I’m not wrong, that’s a piece of tree falling on your head, whether anybody’s there to hear it or not.

Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?

A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon

By Steven Poole

We hate it, we laugh about it, and then sometimes we hear it come from our own mouths. The horrible jargon that was once confined to office life slowly ekes its way into everyday language. So ‘leverage’ started in high finance, and now it’s everywhere. The first time I heard somebody say they’d ‘reached out’ to a colleague, I was alarmed; now I think I might have said it in a meeting, once. I’ve created a list of alternatives for some of the worst words.

An A to Z of unbearable jargon

I bought this book because I do find office jargon unbearable. I also love a good laugh, and this provides an A to Z of amusing entries. Here’s one of my favourites.

Going forward helpfully implies a kind of thrustingly strategic process, and moving forward perhaps even more so – even though none is likely to be made as long as the work-day is made up of funereal meetings where people say things like ‘going forward’.

Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower, p. 91

The alternatives to ‘going forward’, ‘in future’ or ‘from now on’, don’t have the implication that the slate is being wiped clean. Using them might sound rather like owning up to a mistake. ‘We won’t charge dead customers in future’ has a different ring to it.

If you write in your job, get your hands on this book. Every time you want to use a tired office cliche, such as bandwidth, leverage or deliverables. You’ll find an alternative. Or if you work in an office and want to know what a brown-bag session is, or what they really meant by saying they would ‘open the kimono’, look it up.

Then circle back to me with your favourites.

Mark Tredinnick’s Little Red Writing Book

There are many books, courses and workshops that teach writing. I’ve found many of them inspiring, motivating and full of great tips. For my money, this book is the best.

I’d advise anybody who wants to write better to sign up for a face-to-face course in the first instance. In Sydney, Writing NSW and the Australian Writers’ Centre both offer excellent courses on a range of genres, both creative and for business purposes. Varuna in the Blue Mountains has wonderful literary programs. In any face-to-face course, you’ll benefit from the interaction with other writers as well as from the course content.

Great add-on to a face-to-face course

The Little Red Writing Book is a great add-on to any writing course. And if you can’t do a course in person, it’s an extremely good substitute. It’s approach is that good sentences are the basis of all good writing. Any writing, from business reports to scripts for your podcast, starts with sentence construction. Clarity is vital, style is everything.

Tredinnick writes both clearly and poetically, so working through The Little Red Writing Book is a joy. It has plenty of writing exercises (do them!) and examples, and processes to help you get your writing project out of your head and into shareable form.

There are six chapters. Try setting yourself the goal of working through one chapter a month. By September you will be a much better writer, guaranteed.

The Little Red Writing Book has a sibling: The Little Green Grammar Book. Catch up on everything they should have taught you in school.

Why you should always have an atlas to hand


Which is larger, Corsica or Sardinia? Which is the least densely populated country in the world? Where exactly is Yemen?

I bought this atlas to answer questions like these. After a couple of school trivia nights, I realised my geographical knowledge was scant and outdated. I find I can browse its maps for hours and it has readily accessible information about all things geographic. Basic map symbols are explained and things like time zones and national flags are included. There are interesting facts to be found, such as that in 1950 there were 82 countries and by 2011 there were 196, South Sudan being the newest. The smallest is Vatican City, at only half a square kilometre.

Use a concise atlas for quick fact checks

A concise atlas like this one is useful for an editor in checking facts: latitude and longitude, capital cities, rivers, lakes and other landforms that it’s easy to get wrong. What’s the correct way to write Russian or Korean names in English? The Collins World Atlas has used the name forms approved by the Permanent Committee on Geographical Names for British Use. These are the accepted way to display non-Roman alphabet names in English. The atlas’s comprehensive index makes it easy to check spellings and pinpoint exact locations. Be sure that there will always be a reader willing to alert you – and the world – to your errors if facts like these are not correct.

Another good use of the atlas is for leisurely browsing, placing characters from novels I’ve read in their landscapes, following the course of a river I hadn’t heard of before, wondering about the seemingly arbitrary nature of borders and marvelling at the intricacy of our little blue planet.

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published

How to write it, sell it and market it…successfully!

By Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry



This expert guide to getting your book published is packed with helpful information for new writers, would-be writers and those who have already published. The authors are simultaneously editors, literary agents and published writers. The first edition was published in 2005. This one, updated in 2015, takes the huge shifts that happened in the industry in those 10 years into account and includes ebooks and how to deal with social media. Although it’s written for the American market, most of it applies to publishing in Australia too.

The guide pinpoints what I aim to do for my writer clients to help them to get their work into shape to submit to publishers or for self-publishing. Read about the levels of edit most professional editors offer here.

“Outside editors, a.k.a. book doctors, diagnose, treat and help you fix your book.”

One of the book’s strengths – and there are many – is that it has sound advice no matter what you want to publish, from cookbook to potboiler, business manual to poetry volume. It’s not a writing manual, but a practical (and pragmatic) how-to.

Publishing success comes from four basic principles:

  1. Research. Not just your subject matter, but what else is out there and who might publish your book. Do this and … your odds of getting published will go from nearly nil to extremely decent
  2. Network. Use your people skills to find the right publisher, create buzz, reach your readers and sell books. I believe this has become critical for successful publishing. The days of the cloistered author are well and truly over.
  3. Write. While this seems obvious, the authors say it’s the one thing published writers told them over and over. Get your ideas down on paper and keep at it.
  4. Persevere. You will have to deal with rejection. Probably a lot of rejection. As the authors say, ‘please, don’t quit five minutes before the miracle’.

Fifty Typefaces That Changed the World

By John L Walters/Design Museum



This is one I snapped up in the marked-down basket at my local bookshop, The Turning Page in Springwood, that little shiver of excitement running through my middle as I found my cut-price treasure. For a long time back in my teens and 20s, I secretly wanted to be a typographer. Lining up each Letraset letter before rubbing the black letter onto the white paper, slowly forming a heading, was how I found my ‘flow’. I used to buy The Face magazine to see what typographer Neville Brody was up to as much as for its cool content.

And then desktop publishing, and the internet. Anybody could be a typographer. We all know how to deride Comic Sans. I stuck with writing and editing. Nothing could every disrupt those, right?

I still keep my love of a good font, and this book runs through most of them, from the Gutenberg Bible’s blackletter in the mid-1400s to Ubuntu in 2011, an open-source typeface available to anybody in the world, in over 200 languages, in and for free. As the designers say, ‘The way typography is used says as much about our brand as the words themselves’.

I have more comprehensive and detailed books about typography, but recommend this one as a heavily visual introduction to the art, with an incidental history lesson attached.