August 1st is the horses’ birthday, but it also belongs to the whales, because Herman Melville was born this day in 1819.

437_Herman_Melville_photographIn January 1841, aged 21, Melville left America on the whaler Acushnet to spend four wild years roving about the Pacific, soaking up many an experience that led to his best writing. As he said, ‘A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard’. In July 1842 he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands and took up with a Polynesian tribe, the Typee. Although much feared as warlike cannibals, they treated him kindly.

Melville stayed a month with the Typee before setting off on another whaler, the chaotic Lucy Ann from Sydney, a ship so badly run the sailors mutinied and were jailed in Tahiti. This actually turned out well; soon freed, Melville enjoyed a stint of beachcombing and island hopping until joining a third whale ship, the Charles & Henry from Nantucket, on which he worked as a harpooner.

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This six-month cruise ended in Hawaii, where he worked three months ashore, carefully avoiding the Acushnet when it showed up (the captain still wanted his head on a stick for deserting). Eventually he got himself home by joining the U.S. Navy. In October 1844 Melville was discharged in Boston after a year or so with the frigate United States, and soon began writing, his muse aflame with all those maritime adventures.

His first novel, the best-selling Typee (1846), fictionalises his Marquesas sojourn. Its sequel Omoo (1847) covers the Lucy Ann mutiny and his beachcombing (Omoo is a Typee word for wanderer). His third, the highly strange Mardi (1848), is a first tilt at something deeper, a rambling oceanic odyssey awash with allegory and symbolism.

Mardi sold poorly, alas, prompting his return to semi-autobiography. Redburn (1849) was inspired by his first voyage, as a cabin boy in 1839, to Liverpool; this one is Melville at his most Dickensian. White-Jacket (1850) follows his naval career and was highly influential in ending flogging in the U.S. Navy.

Next came his second, and artistically triumphant, dive into mystical rhapsody – his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851), a book broiled in ‘hell-fire’, he once said. Of his subsequent works, all are worth exploring but I particularly recommend Bartleby (1853), one of the greatest, most subtly shattering short stories ever written and, unusually for Melville, set firmly on very dry land indeed – a lawyer’s office.

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Mass coral spawning isn’t just an incredible sight (and tourist attraction). It also provides a way for scientists to help corals cope with a warming future. Turbocharging coral larvae with heat-resistant algae may significantly boost their chances of resisting mass bleaching events.

Here’s a link to my coral spawning story in the current Rex Airlines in-flight magazine True Blue (July/Aug 2020), featuring an interview with coral scientist Professor Peter Harrison, who’s been busy ‘turbocharging’ coral larvae on the Great Barrier Reef.

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Last November I was fortunate enough to dive the Great Barrier Reef off Cairns during the natural wonder’s marvellous annual coral spawning.

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While at Moore Reef pontoon I spoke to marine biologists engaged in the first attempt at a new, highly innovative reef rescue technique.

Called larval restoration, it gives hope that some corals will soon be better able to resist mass bleaching. And it relies on the amazing outburst of new life provided by the synchronous mass spawning event.

READER’S DIGEST (June 2020) has my eight-page feature about this exciting new development in the ongoing struggle to save our coral reefs from the worst effects of climate change.

The issue is out now. Look for the charismatic little white dog on the cover!

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Inspired by the Books Are Essential movement, I shall sporadically post Interesting & Inspirational Books Of Any Era.

Here’s an excellent novel set in Australia’s early convict past:

THE PLAYMAKER by Thomas Keneally

The first play staged in Australia was a sitcom, The Recruiting Officer, in 1789, with an all-convict cast and a First Fleet marine, Ralph Clark, directing. Keneally brings this bizarre colonial footnote to life in a bewitching blend of fact and plausible imaginings. Clark is sensitively handled, and his relationship with convict-actress Mary Brenham proves quite touching. IMG_E3067

Satisfying splashes of myth and magic often involve the kidnapped Eora man Arabanoo and Cornish ‘witch’ Mary Bryant (later a famous runaway).

Keneally is naturally fond of the colony’s writers such as David Collins and Watkin Tench, to whom we owe much of what we know about those times.

But his synthesis of the play’s content and progress with contemporary colonial doings – such as Arabanoo’s bond with Governor Phillip, marines hanged for theft and a London underworld transplanted intact – is The Playmaker‘s greatest triumph.

 

 

On the Road Magazine online has published my travel piece (‘A Real-Life Jurassic Park’) on wondrous Wallaroo Outback Retreat on Wallaroo Station. This Carnarvon Ranges (Queensland) cattle station is twice the size of Sydney and features a flourishing bush ecosystem, cycad ‘dinosaur plants’ aplenty and a truly astonishing array of Aboriginal rock art, including many evocative hand stencils. Boobook Ecotours are the folk to contact for tours and stays.

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They’re still flogging copies (not convicts!) at the University of Queensland Press website. TOUR TO HELL tells the true tale of colonial Australia’s convict ‘escape mythology’.

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Escape mythology is my umbrella term for the bizarre beliefs that had runaway convicts convinced they could walk to China, find sanctuary with a mystery white society in the outback, or find the west coast of Australia (together with a port and a ship back home) just a short distance through the bush from Sydney.

Resurrected from contemporary sources (court records, colonial diaries and newspapers, etc) this strange corner of Australian history has never before been told in full. As well as documenting the most significant outbreak of the convict imagination in early colonial New South Wales, Tour To Hell casts valuable light on a fascinating but little-known aspect of first contact between European and Aboriginal people.

 

It’s World Poetry Day… so for everyone for whom the tiger’s yell comes articulate – or not as the case may be! – here’s my good friend John Keats on the essence of the business…

KeatsWhere’s the Poet? show him! show him,
Muses nine! that I may know him!
’Tis the man who with a man
Is an equal, be he King
Or poorest of the beggar-clan,
Or any other wondrous thing
A man may be ’twixt ape and Plato;
’Tis the man who with a bird,
Wren or eagle, finds his way to
All its instincts; he hath heard
The lion’s roaring, and can tell
What his horny throat expresseth,
And to him the tiger’s yell
Comes articulate and presseth
On his ear like mother-tongue.…

What is the best Charles Dickens novel? The one you are reading right now! He never put out a bad book. In that sense he’s the Buddy Holly of English prose; in a greater sense he’s the Dylan or Mozart. Anyhow, happy just-belated birthday (7 February) to him!

Here he is in 1842 during his first US tour, painted by Boston artist Francis Alexander. He’s just turned 30, he’s had five novels published – all big hits – and he’s only a year or so away from writing A Christmas Carol.

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Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in northern NSW is a wonderful refuge and treatment centre for our precious koalas. This Christmas I had the best present ever – the adoption/sponsorship of Lismore Rose, a charming koala with a bright white bib. She’s also a permanent hospital resident, as she’ll never be fit for release into the wild.

Here she is!

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I visited the Koala Hospital a few years ago in my capacity as a journalist and wrote a feature story about the amazing work of the dedicated staff, almost all volunteers, who work tirelessly to rescue and rehabilitate injured koalas.

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The Koala Hospital needs a lot more support and I urge anyone who can to adopt a koala. You’ll feel great helping out and the money goes exactly where it’s needed – into the welfare of this very special and seriously threatened Australian species.

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Dimension 6 Annual Collection 2019 (now available from Couer de Lion publishing) features my story The Sirens’ Secret and other tales of wonder and imagination – science-fiction, the fantastique, etc. And sirens! Listen, can you hear them? You can’t resist…

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