CHRISTINE M. KNIGHT

An Australian author who provides insight into the human condition.

On Writing: In and Out of Step

As a writer, my preferred genre is general fiction but with a woman as the protagonist and men in the supporting role, developed only as far as the role they played required. As a story teller, I like to explore character perspectives through experience, evoke an emotional response, provoke thought and discussion, and allow readers to conclude insights.

Since my teens, I've been interested in the position of women in modern Australia; their place in the modern world, the nature of relationships, gender politics and power, choice, and changing societal views about male and female relationships. When I entered the adult workforce, I became interested in bullying, sexual harassment, and the conditioned responses and culture that support overt and covert forms of it.

I first thought of using fiction to explore chauvinism, gender politics, the realm of sexual behaviour and the links to sexual harassment, bullying, and the line between appropriate and inappropriate humour and sexual innuendo when I lived in the United States. In 1991, I was glued to the television, fascinated by the United States Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. Hooked, I stayed tuned throughout the hearings, relocating as many household tasks as possible to that space, watching mesmerized until the early mornings for about a week.

The contradictions of that case and the questions that arose from it puzzled me for a long time. How could someone, who seemingly supported women's rights and empowering legislation that could protect women, be accused of sexual harassment? In what circumstances could a man be a sexual harasser? Was the paradox possible? Could a man try to be 'modern' and yet be threatened by power shifts in society and the workplace? What was credible?

So began my research into the fabric of gender politics and the politics of power in the physical and social contexts in which I lived. Research focused me on gender patterns of action, interaction, and belief as well as the polarities in a variety of environments. As part of that research, a huge number of women shared their personal and workplace experiences in a world where sexual freedom was the order of the day.

Many women shared stories about their first sexual encounters, more often than not impromptu affairs where the boy was swept away in the passion of the moment and the girl caught up in that tidal pull. Those stories centred on private trauma, developing personal doubts about sexual identity, the need to resolve those doubts through further sexual experiences, and empowerment issues.

During the research phase, I found a lot of 'ordinary' women in the workforce felt caught in a dilemma. Was sex the only coinage for advancement in a male dominated workplace or could women achieve advancement as a result of their knowledge and skills set? Did so-called workplace femme fatales make it difficult for other women to advance? Did such women in part bear responsibility for sexually charged workplaces and undermining the status of women who wanted to be seen as a person first and a woman second?

At the same time, my love affair with dance continued. When watching newcomers to the ballroom in lessons, I was struck by the way traditional gender roles were reinforced during the process of learning ballroom dancing even though in non-dance environments there had been significant gains in gender equality. Students came to the dance floor as 'equals in ignorance' and the ritual of role was imposed on them. As dance novices, girls and women were drilled with 'Whatever you do, do not lead! Be alert to your partner's cues and submit to his intent' even though boys and men seemed quite happy to let the female lead if that meant the male avoided the embarrassment of being visibly out of step on the dance floor.

The traditional gender perspective embedded in lessons seemed to be contrary to the reality of my own ballroom dance experiences where both male and female dancers responded to music, its rhythm, and relied on one another to know the options for steps and patterns. As skills developed, dance seemed to be more a conversation and dialogue about partnership than an act of submission.

Yet, in lessons, the traditional gender biased perspective about roles went unchallenged despite changing societal views. I observed that, in life and on the dance floor, attuned gender interaction was lost, especially as the complexity of the dance increased, when one person appropriated control and power of the dance and required blind following. In such instances, the dance broke down visibly as well as in a decline in the number of willing partners. As an aside, it is interesting that during the second wave of the women's movement that dance styles broke away from male dominated lead.

Out of those experiences, the story line and central characters for my first novel manuscript, 'Down Under' developed. It took 12 months to draft the manuscript. Another year to work with an editing service to refine it. I spent my final year in USA in search of a publishing home for it. Feedback from publishing houses was American audiences were interested in home-grown stories not overseas ones and that I should write for the romance genre instead. In short, rejection letters said, 'Put it in a bottom drawer and start a different project.' I did both.

After studying the conventions for story telling in the romance genre, I decided that genre wasn't for me for philosophical reasons. I believe there is more to a woman's life than the getting of a partner, and while the heated sexual tension around that getting may be interesting, there is a lot more to life and the nature of love than the romance genre allows writers to explore. I realised I wanted to write women's fiction that also had an appeal to men. For years, I played around with various plot lines and characters. Ultimately I drew inspiration from mythology: the story of Cassandra, Pandora's Box, the Sword of Damocles, and the story of the phoenix. I was also influenced by a line from Tennyson: 'I am part of everything I meet.' I think the corollary is also true. That is, I am part of everything I meet, and it becomes part of me.

From that realisation, I wrote the poem 'Stepping Back' which became the organising motif for the story of 'In and Out of Step'. I realised I wanted to explore the ripple effect of experiences and the impact that the people we meet have on us and how that impact defines the authentic version of self. My narrative came into focus and became a multi-threaded plot as I explored the contrasting perspectives, the culture, and the characters that shape Cassie Sleight as a person. That world and its people are an important part of Cassie's story as well as her journey toward self-knowledge and recovery from trauma - a form of rebirth.

In closing, I agree with Margaret Culkin Banning who accurately described the art of writing fiction. Banning said:

'Fiction is not a dream; nor is it guess work. It is imagining based on facts, and the facts must be accurate or the work of imagining will not stand up.'

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QUICK LINKS


GLOSSARY SNIPPET

The Australian Bicentennial occurred in 1988. The novel is set between 1988-1990.

anti-Metherell campaign: teachers’ union protests against the changes to the New South Wales (NSW) state school education system introduced by the then NSW Liberal Minister for Education, Terry Metherell.

arvo is Australian slang for afternoon.

BHP (today known as BHP Billiton) is a global mining group that includes steelworks such as those based in Wollongong south of Sydney. In Australia, it is the top producer of iron ore and coal (thermal and metallurgical).

bloke is Australian slang and means an ordinary man

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LATEST BLOG POSTS

    Thursday, March 16, 2017

    An era, a show and a legendary album

    Thursday, March 16, 2017

    John Shortis and Moya Simpson’s playful sense of humour was evident from the moment I entered their Bungendore property. Their next-door neighbour’s gates featured a sign that read 'Ironing done here'. The wall plaque near Shortis and Simpson’s front door read 'Irony done here'.

    Over a steaming mug of coffee, we discussed the inspiration behind their current cabaret show Fifty Years Ago Today.

    Cobargo Folk Festival commissioned the cabaret after Shortis and Simpson’s acclaimed festival performance about Eurovision and the context out of which it evolved.

    John said, ‘That show was really an entertaining look at the history of Europe post World War 2 linked by bad songs.’

    Fifty Years Ago Today
    marks the anniversary of the launch of the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in June 1967 in the northern hemisphere.

    Apparently, the album’s release date in Australia was delayed until July 1967 because the British producers did not trust Australian printers to faithfully reproduce the elaborate artwork of the Sgt Peppers album cover. The covers were produced and printed in England and shipped here via the Suez Canal. Regrettably, the six-day Arab Israeli war broke out and so the shipment was detoured around the South African cape. The album was launched in Australia at the end of July.

    The cabaret’s story line positions the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in the context of what was happening globally at the time. It also provides fascinating insights into the backstory of the album’s creation, dating back to the early 1960s when the Beatles were mop tops, in the heyday of swinging London.

    John said, ‘You can’t tell the story of the Sgt Peppers album without showing the Beatles’ evolution from catchy pop rock songs to complex artful experiments in music.’

    Sgt Peppers
    is the first Beatles’ album after they gave up touring.  The album marks The Beatles’ arrival as recording artists instead or touring musicians. For instance, ‘Ringo’s drumming is more orchestral in its approach. McCartney’s bass work transitioned from simple bass lines that filled out the pop rock sound to complex, intricate bass countermelodies that actually featured on the Sgt Peppers album rather than being fill.’

    Shortis and Simpson’s Fifty Years Ago Today incorporates humour and poignant stories as well as songs of different tempos and styles from that Beatles’ milestone album as well as songs by other famous musicians from that era.

    I was fascinated to learn that the Beatles’ celebrated producer, George Martin, used his background in producing Peter Sellers’ Indian characters on comedy records to bring together Indian and orchestral musicians to produce George Harrison’s Within You Without You.

    John said, ‘While the lyrics are hippy trippy, the music is quite extraordinary because it follows the traditional rhythms and scales of Indian music.’ 

    Moya said, ‘It was a nightmare to learn!’

    John admits to scoring the music into a computer software program and practicing to it every day for ages so that he could synchronize his keyboard part with the rhythms.

    Another interesting aside is that, in celebration of the link between the Beatles and Peter Sellers, Moya sings the Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers’ hit Goodness Gracious Me in the cabaret as part of the side story to the Sgt Peppers album.

    Fifty Years Ago Today was not designed as a nostalgic trip down memory lane, although people who lived through that era may relish the show as such. It provides insight into a seminal moment in music and world history when world music influenced the Beatles music not only in composition but also in performance.

    As we talked, it struck me that the show was very much like a great meal: lavish, prepared with great care, nutritious and good for the soul, and an experience not easily forgotten. The cabaret utilises the rich harmonies of a large choir, the vocal skills of its musicians, and the rocking talent of a hot backing band. It has appeal for all ages.  I also realised that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album prepared audiences for the emergence of another musical phenomenon, Queen, masters of pomp-rock with its diverse rock styles and intricate vocal harmonies.

    This cabaret should not be missed when the show comes to  your part of the country.

    © Christine M Knight



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    Friday, November 25, 2016

    Acknowledging Indigenous Heritage in the Palerang region

    Friday, November 25, 2016

    Recently, I wrote a blog about the restoration of The Carrington Inn. My article about the inn also appears in the District Bulletin's December issue. The District Bulletin reports on country living in the Palerang region. I feel it would be remiss if I did not also acknowledge the importance of Indigenous heritage as a side bar to the Carrington article.

    Heritage places are a visible reminder of Australia’s history and identity. If they are neglected or demolished, then part of our history and identity is lost. When they are protected and restored, they add value and dimension to our community. This applies equally to the heritage represented by the traditional owners of the land. It is important to acknowledge that Indigenous heritage when promoting awareness of colonial heritage as it shows respect for Indigenous culture.

    Before European settlement, Indigenous people represented an unbroken culture that was inextricably linked to the land and history of the continent. That relationship and life as Indigenous people knew it changed drastically as a consequence of Dr Charles Throsby and Hamilton Hume's exploration of the region in 1820.

    By the end of 1821, Europeans had settled the region. The provision of a mail service in 1837 formally made the settlement a town while the arrival of train services in 1885 resulted in the town becoming the hub of the region. Cobb and Co coaches transported travellers to far flung settlements. 

    During this period and into the twentieth century, Indigenous people experienced a history of exclusion, denial, and were silenced. Many Indigenous people many died as a result of white settlement (disease and conflict). Indigenous heritage is in the land, in sacred places, lore and values. By contrast, colonial heritage is in buildings and property and its laws.

    To better appreciate the impact of the European arrival in Australia and related issues, click on  The Dispossessed.

     

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    Sunday, November 20, 2016

    The Restoration of the Carrington Inn, Bungendore

    Sunday, November 20, 2016

    Late October, I met Innkeeper, Richard Graham in the motel carpark of The Carrington Inn a few weeks after it had reopened.

    Originally known as The Lord Carrington Hotel, the property was built between 1884-85. It was named after the newly appointed governor of NSW. When the governor retired, the inn became The Carrington Hotel.

    In the 20th century, descendants of the Winters sold the property to Toni Dale who reverted the property to its original function from a domestic residence. It later changed hands until Richard bought it eight years ago.

    As we walked through the half acre of man-made gardens' entrance to the Wintergarden complex, I was struck by their intrinsic naturalness and the patterns of dappled light. Richard said they are ‘one of the largest publicly accessible private gardens in the region.’ He credits the illusion of a much larger space to the use of meandering sinuous paths.

    There are three distinct themed locations within the Wintergarden complex: The Tom Wills Tavern, The Empire Hall and Salons – fine dining, and Myee’s Tearoom. Myee is pronounced my. The tavern’s namesake and a local, Tom Wills was a leading Australian cricketer from 1856 and is said to be the founder of Australian Rules football. Heavy drinking was apparently part of the sport's culture at that time and purportedly played a role in his tragic death in 1880.


     

    Maria Myee Gallagher, 1889-1967, was the granddaughter of the original owner, William Daniel Winter. ‘An educated woman of many talents, Maria Myee never married and lived in the hotel throughout her life.’ She was a skilled pianist and taught the piano as well as the sewing arts and painting to locals. She was also well-known for her charitable work in the town.

    The interview and tour began in Myee’s tearoom. Its décor, like the rest of the complex, ‘pays deference to the 19th century colonial Victorian nature of the Carrington Inn.’ An airy and serene space, the tearoom’s authentic hand-painted stencilled wallpaper, pale green wainscoting, slate floor, furnishings, and hanging baskets suggest a Victorian garden conservatory.

    When I asked about the ideas underpinning the renovation process, Richard explained the choice before him. Restore the inn to look like the property as it had been in 1885 or restore it to reflect the Victorian era from 1885 but have modern restaurant equipment. For commercial reasons, he opted for the latter.

    After much research, Richard and his team distilled the Victorian period to a single restoration intention: ‘allow modern-day patrons to appreciate the aspirational nature of the Victorian era’ and witness a different lifestyle.

    The aspirational mood of the period is clearly visible in the style of ceilings in the tavern and the Empire Hall and Salons. The tavern’s patterned copper ceiling is reminiscent of Tudor ceilings and represents the revival of British styles during the Victorian era. The decorative tin ceiling in one of the salons is another popular architectural element from that period as are the subtly lit, rounded vaulted plaster ceilings in the Empire Hall.


     

    The Victorian theme is evident in the use of decoratively etched glass mirrors, beautiful period-styled drapery, luxurious furnishings, dining settings, and décor accents. Thirty-three hand-painted artwork reproductions tell the colonial story, including artwork by Tom Roberts. In the tradition of the time, a picture of Queen Victoria dominates the Empire Hall.

    The attention to authentic detail is also seen in the use of deeply embossed wall covering (Lincrusta) in  the Empire Hall. Lincrusta was invented in Britain in 1877 by the same man who invented linoleum floor covering some years before.

     

     Having visited many famous historic sites, I found The Carrington Inn as striking as places like Chatsworth House and Hampton Court in UK. Of course, The Carrington's pristine interior décor  and the inn are much smaller in scale than those other historic UK properties.

    As Richard told the stories behind each room’s décor, I realised that he is more than the owner and operator of an enterprise that happens to exist in a heritage property. He is keenly aware of his custodial role in restoring, documenting, and protecting heritage.

    As I left that afternoon, I realised that heritage places not only add dimension to the character of a community and its diversity but to its unique features of streetscapes as well.

     

    Left to right: Mark Summers, General Manager; Edwina Fitzgerald, Accommodation Manager; Me, Innkeeper; Merili Pihlamäe, Venues Manager; and Andrew Stansbie, Executive Chef.

     

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