Towards the end of 2016 I lost my beloved friend of over 20 years, Miss Helen. She died after a year of fighting an advanced and aggressive cancer. Miss Helen was a person with the gift of elevating the ordinary life into the realm of magic, and she managed to continue to do this even in the most trying of circumstances. Despite the cruelty of her illness, she faced all that she experienced with great courage. Grieving Helen has been hard for me, and I miss her intensely. One of the worst feelings is that Helen has disappeared, and the world just continues along whether she’s here or not. So I wanted to write something about the space Miss Helen made in the world, and to write a little of her story, and the story of our friendship.
Helen was a prolific artist and writer, working with textiles and multimedia and, most prominently, zines: she is regarded as one of Australia’s most notable zinemakers, making them consistently for 20 years. She perfected the tiny but profound zine: her zines were often small in size but were full of her astute, funny voice, her observations and ideas and her vision of the world around her. Helen’s first zine was Astrogrrrl, a one page zine she made in her teenage bedroom, filling it with lists and observations, questionnaires she’d send to bands, recipes, comments on punk and underground culture, repurposed clippings, drawings, all stuck together so as to leave no space uncovered.
Helen started Astrogrrrl in 1996, the year I started my first zine, Psychobabble. I remember collecting my first letter from her from my PO box. I looked at the address on the back of the envelope, wondering where Loftus was, and who Helen Astro might be. I found out that she lived as far south as I lived north of the city – I liked to imagine us both making zines from our bedrooms back then, both of us with the radio on, listening to Fur or Magic Dirt, writing our way out of the world we were living in, in the hope of constructing or connecting with a new one.
The 1990s was a heyday for zines, and although the scene was small and dispersed across the country, it was a tight-knit one that it was easy to become a part of. Helen was a few years younger than me – I’d just left school by the time I made Psychobabble, but she was still in high school when she made Astrogrrrl. She called it her “secret double life” – by day she’d be at high school with its restrictions and rivalries, “a post-grunge dork with photographs of obscure bands on my folder”. Her secret identity was Helen Astro the zine maker, writing letters to people all over the country, swapping zines and tapes and stories.
Helen and I wrote to each other for a while before meeting in person at a Lawnsmell instore gig at Phantom Records in 1997. Lawnsmell were a zine band, their bassplayer, Glenn, made Scrollzine and they were the kind of DIY punk band that were the musical equivalent of cut and paste. Their sound could be frenetic and ragged, but it all came together into something exciting, made us want to make things. One day last year when Helen and I were talking about meeting at this gig, it was the feeling of energy and empowerment we agreed upon as the legacy of this time. It was a lifesaving thing, reaching out in the hope that we might find people out there who felt similarly dissatisfied with prevailing cultural ideals, and wanted to make things, serious or silly, that were fed from this energy.
This was an exciting time to make zines. There was a lot of vitality and exchange among zinemakers – it was the first time I felt like I was somewhere I belonged, and I know it was the same for Helen, too. At zine picnics we’d meet people in person we’d only ever written to, and sit underneath fig trees in Centennial Park talking until the sun started to set. Helen would organise funny suburban excursions to places like the Tramway Museum at Loftus – although a lot happened in the inner city, zines were as much a suburban and a regional phenomena as a city one. Most zine activity happened through the mail, so it didn’t matter if you lived in the outer suburbs or away from a major city, as long as you could find a photocopier or post a letter.
Helen made 26 issues of Astrogrrrl, the last around 1999, though she continued to use “Astro Press” as the imprint for her subsequent zines. She’d started using the name Miss Helen by then too, moving on from the default zine naming system whereby your name was paired with the name of your zine (making Helen Astro, or Vanessa Psychobabble). After finishing Astrogrrrl, in the 2000s she made zines under different names, sometimes split zines or collaborations, among them: Spycorp, The Hospital for Broken Hearts, The Bubbles Pop, The Little Golden Book of Angst. She believed in the importance of zine community organising zine picnics, and setting up an email list for zinemakers that was, pre-social media, an important way of discussing and organising within the scene.
In the 2000s she also began Fly Away Bird, her other long-running zine series, which she made from 2004 – 2013. Her style had by now refined into individual pages of illustration and text, each of which distilled something of an emotion or an experience, whether it be something joyful or trying. I loved to read them – Helen was my close friend and we regularly went on adventures, catching ferries, eating icecreams, having tea parties, taking her little dog Snuffy out for a walk, sharing tables at zine fairs – but there was something magic about the way she’d turn her life and thoughts into zines. She honoured moments, objects, emotions and frivolity, never dwelling on anything too long, but for just the right amount of time to make you think about it.
There’s a page photocopied from Fly Away Bird above my desk as I write this. A cartoon girl in frilly clothes and boots, floating amid a page of hearts and the words “so happy right now, I could flap my hands like little wings and float away”. The corners of it have holes from the pin marks where it was pinned to a corkboard for her 2007 “Zine Factory” exhibition at Penrith Regional Gallery. The exhibition included her zines as well as her knitted cupcakes and creatures: a giant knitted bunny which sat on a while wicker chair with a cute, stubborn expression on its face. More than anyone I know, Helen harnessed the transcendent power of cuteness. She believed that in our response to cuteness is a feeling of tenderness and love that can be directed both towards the world at large, or inwards towards the self.
In her last zine, Iridescent Jubilee, which accompanied her tea party installation at Waverley Library Gallery, she wrote of wanting to “make things that are ultimate joy bombs”. Missing her, I try to reach for this sense of joy. I haven’t felt very happy over the last few months, certainly not as if I could float away, but every time I look at the happy girl being carried aloft by canaries, I think of how Helen brought joy to my life, and to many others. I know that Helen’s zines affected a lot of people, gave them solace and companionship, whether they knew her in person or not. That feeling that zines sometimes inspire, when they seem to be speaking directly to you, has a strong power. Helen’s zines, small enough to fit in a pocket, always honest, accepting life with its contradictions and struggles and making something good out of it, are treasures.
I haven’t covered anywhere near all the things that Helen made in her artistic life in this short piece of writing, and little of our friendship and how she was such a vital presence in my life. It’s hard when I’m still getting used to writing about her in the past tense. But I’ve made a start. And although she is no longer here to continue to make art and zines, her zines reached thousands of people, and her work is an important part of the zine and DIY cultures she was a part of.
Throughout Helen’s life she believed strongly in the true values of DIY: passion, community, communication. In one of her issues of Fly Away Bird she writes what I interpret as a guide to reading her zines: “I want you to think, to understand and start making your world more like what you want.” The call to action that she and I had felt so strongly back when we started making zines, that there was no alternative but to make the good things you wished yourself to discover. This spirit remained strong throughout all the many things she made and sent out into the world.
As far as material possession go, I have more than my fair share after 25 years of regular op shopping. As much as I tell myself there is nothing more I need or want, sometimes objects with particular talismanic power will make themselves known to me. It was thus with the silver bear.
The bear was put out for sale outside Reverse Garbage, alongside a box of foam offcuts. It was about a metre high and glittery silver and at first I fought my inclination to inspect it further. But after I had left the store, and was sitting on a bench outside having some lunch, I found my eyes drawn back to the bear. The situation escalated. When a man approached the bear and picked it up, testing its weight, I had a sudden lurch of feeling. The next thing I knew:
As some of you dear readers may know, for the last four years or so I’ve been writing the blog Mirror Sydney, which takes as its subject overlooked, forgotten or unexpected places in Sydney. I’ll be sharing some of the things I’ve learnt along the way at a course that’s coming up soon at the NSW Writers’ Centre: Writing Place for Fiction and Non-Fiction. So if you’re interested in sharpening your skills on writing place, whatever style you write in, this is the course for you: I promise tips, tricks, and plenty of inspiration.
Weird Sydney, which booked out in its first incarnation last November, returns on July 21st at the new Double Bay Library. Hear me, Peter Doyle, Chris Mikul and Michael Wayne tell some of our very best stories from the strangest corners of the city. It’s on from 6pm-8pm and is free, but make sure to register, details here.
The night doubles as a launch for the NSW Writer’s Centre July-December Program, including my one day workshop on writing place and psychogeography in September. Details of that soon too…
I am a Camera is my longest-running zine series. I made the first issue in 1999, and here all the way 17 years later is issue 18. Like most I am a Cameras it is a collection of stories from my life, in which I drive, walk, swim and catch buses through the weird, weird world.
I’ll be debuting this zine at the Other Worlds zine fair in Marrickville Town Hall on Saturday 21st May – also Simon and I have contributed a comic about Elizabethan swindlers to the Other Worlds poster zine, a tabloid newspaper of posters by zinemakers and artists affiliated with Other Worlds. You can buy these at the fair, or through the Other Worlds Pozible.
I look forward to seeing some of you at Other Worlds!
Twenty years ago I sat down at my desk and started to make a zine. I’d been reading zines for years – music zines like Lemon, personal zines like Ms.45, the big American zines like Thrift Score and Murder Can Be Fun – but hadn’t up to this point felt brave enough to make one of my own. What would I write about? I was a teenager in the Sydney suburbs, with no particular claim to the underground world I so wished to be a part of beyond being an obsessive music fan. My whole life up to this point had been characterised by shyness and feeling as if I was on one side of a fence and the world and everyone and everywhere else was on the other.
Why did I make a zine in February 1996? I don’t remember what particularly inspired me to do it, so perhaps it was a spur of the moment decision. Maybe I realised that channelling my errant thoughts into a vessel would be a way of tethering me to the here-and-now, a place I had a fairly absent relationship with as a teenager. So I sat at my desk, a cumbersome flatpack contraption from Freedom Furniture, and wrote about some of these things:
To find the zine now I drag out the heavy suitcase that has all of my old zine master copies in it and dig right to the bottom of it, though years of the zines that were to follow, I am a Camera, Laughter and the Sound of Teacups. The 1996 version of me would be surprised that I was still making zines 20 years later, and no doubt similarly surprised that her spur of the moment decision to write a zine would be one of the most defining decisions of her life, leading to a life of writing and making. Psychobabble #1 is of course acutely embarrassing for me to read, as anything you do as a teenager becomes soon afterwards. With so many years of distance it rather seems like it was written by someone else, though I suppose the me that had a fascination for religious pamphlets, B-grade movies and wondered if tearing sticky tape with your teeth ruins them is still in there somewhere.
Over the last 20 years I’ve lost count of the zines I’ve made (150 maybe?) and all the people I’ve written to and become friends with through making zines, but it has all been a great joy. Thank you for following me some or all of the way, dear readers.
I recently gave a lecture to writing students at the University of Sydney for a subject called “Writers at Work”, and one of the students asked me what my “rules” for writing were, based on the Guardian’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction, a compilation of writers’ personal tips . I love reading these kinds of lists, and find them eminently useful for thinking about my own writing. Here are my rules, to compare and contrast, to take on or not, and to consider.
1. Write often, every day if you can, or at least every other day, even if it is only for ten minutes. In this time, put all else aside.
2. Spend time doing nothing else but thinking.
3. Write things that no one will ever read, as here you will find the freedom to discover what you really want to say.
4. Be curious – the essential quality for a writer above all others.
5. Make a habit of noticing and remembering the details of everything around you. This ensures you will never be bored but also trains you into the heightened awareness you will need.
6. Learn the names of birds, trees and fabrics.
7. Make lists of ideas for stories – I have some ideas I’ve been carrying around for years and I know some I never will write, although I can’t know that for sure. These ideas are like the furniture in a familiar room.
8. It’s okay to write badly as bad writing can always be transformed, although the transforming part is something that can take considerable time and effort.
9. Write letters. Not only is it magic to receive letters, it is an important craft for writers. Letters are all voice, that elusive quality that it can be so hard to develop.
10. (After Walter Benjamin – whose Writers Technique in Thirteen Theses is my favourite ever list of rules for writers) Have in plentiful supply of the pens, notebooks and teacups you will need, and choose the ones of these that give you the most pleasure. I like a vintage exercise book and a black biro. With these as my companions, I am never lost.