The memory is so clear to me, now. I must have been four years old and was on my usual summer holiday break at my Nana and Granddads house. I was stood in the kitchen, eagerly awaiting my choice of Kelloggs cereals, because my Nana always bought the exciting variety packs for me. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, almost as an afterthought my Nana reached back up into the kitchen cupboard and said, ‘I almost forgot. I’ve been saving these for you…’
She passed me a set of small cards that smelled of the familiar boxes of PG Tipps tea, some grainy with tea fragments and dappled with brown speckles. That was the moment that I discovered there might be more to this planet than I had previously thought. That was when I discovered monsters.
The Unexplained Mysteries of the World Brooke Bond collection cards held two images that I will never forget. The first was the Doc Sheils photograph of Nessie, a now widely reported hoax known as the ‘Loch Ness Muppet’, which shows the strikingly clear image of what looks like a dinosaur neck coming up out of the water, mouth open and grinning. For my four year old, dinosaur obsessed brain this was utterly mind blowing. And of course at that age, if something is published, on print in front of your very eyes, how can it be anything other than real? Without the internet access that all youngsters have available to them now (it will have been about 1987), I was completely innocent, drawn into this world of magic and wonder where it might be possible to see the impossible. The other image that blew my mind was the card that showed stills from the Patterson Gimlin female Bigfoot footage. These images, on cards that my Nana had saved for me and almost forgot to give me, started something inside me that I’ve never really shaken off.
And I’m pleased to say I’ve been using it in my writing ever since.
Cryptozoology, the study of hidden animals, isn’t just about Yetis and sea serpents. If you go to any zoo you will see an okapi, a beautiful animal that resembles a mixture of a giraffe, a donkey and a zebra. For years word of this creature was dismissed as something born of fantasy, scientists suggesting that the natives who described it were ignorantly mixing three real animals together. When the duckbilled platypus was first reported and sketched people found the idea so preposterous they even dismissed a corpse that was presented to them as being a number of animals sewn together! Even the mountain gorilla was once dismissed as legend. Regularly in the news you hear of new species being discovered in remote parts of the world. And it’s not just a fascinating subject, scientists also have fun with it, too. Just this year scientists have discovered a new type of mushroom and named it Spongebob Squarepants. It’s official. There is also a trilobite called Han Solo and a protein called Sonic Hedgehog. Who says science can’t be fun? And cryptozoology is science, whether people like it or not.
But then there’s the snag. The bit people can’t get their heads around. The Bigfoots and the Nessies and the Chupacabras. The ‘monsters’.
The idea of something magical, something that brings wonderment, is often laughed at and scorned in our society. Whilst I understand now that we cannot look at an image of something unexplainable and accept it as the truth, is it so wrong to dismiss that little flicker of excitement? That little voice that says, ‘Well, what if…?’
The feeling I get when I discover a new video of a possible cryptid is akin to the flicker of awe in my gut that I get when I start to write; a wonderful spark that spells endless possibilities and anticipation that something amazing might just be about to happen. When I marry the two together, I just can’t beat that feeling. That’s what happened when I wrote my first successful story, The Bunyip Hunter.
The Bunyip Hunter is about a plucky little girl living in Australia in the 1800s at the time of the Ned Kelly gang. She overhears her father and uncle discussing a danger at the swamp, sightings of a strange creature that could be dangerous. Her father dismisses it as being one of the Kelly gang in hiding, but our heroine knows better. She knows it must be a bunyip, and she’s determined to find it to prove to the boys at school that they are no better than girls. After a long day trudging through the swamp, she is about to turn back when she hears something in the water…
I wrote the story after reading about a short story competition based around Australian history. What did I know about Australian history? I racked my brains, looked on the internet, jotted down idea after idea, but nothing rang true. Then it dawned on me: I did know something about Australian history after all. I found one of my well-thumbed books on cryptozoology and flipped to the chapter about the bunyip, a dog-like swamp creature that had been reported in Australia since the eighteen hundreds. When I started writing it was easy to put all of the hopes and anticipation I had felt as a young girl onto my main character, and the story won me a place in The Stringybark Australian History prize. It was the first short story I had entered into a competition, and my first official published work.
I am currently working on a novel based around characters who study cryptozoology, their lives fraught with exciting adventures, tragedy and secrets. I hope that my childhood passion is ringing true in my characters there, too. I don’t know if the book will catch on. Who knows what the future holds for our tentative scribblings and hours slogged away at the computer? But Grahame Greene said, ‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in’. I think, for me, one of those moments was that instant my Nana made a decision to save me some PG Tipps cards. And I’m so very glad she did.