It has been a tough year and as usual books have saved the day – on a number of occasions I’ve found myself clutching my latest read to my chest, as though it was a hot-water bottle or a long-lost friend.

Here are a few that got me through.

Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton) is Bernadine Evaristo’s playful yet punchy joint-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize. The novel explores the power and politics of race and love and art, among many other things, doing it in a way that verges on poetry. Adding to the beguiling mix is the fact that this is a collection of interlinked short stories. Despite all that, it hangs together so beautifully – it is peopled with characters who are fighting against the system, sometimes winning, sometimes not. To my mind this novel deserves all the accolades it has received. I have held it to my chest more than any other this year.

Philippe Besson’s Lie With Me (Penguin), as translated by Molly Ringwald, takes a familiar story – a man remembers a high-school love – and mines it for considerable emotional resonance. I have read a number of Besson novels and he is a master of conviction and brevity. With this latest work, he is devastating in the way he explores the trials and tribulations of love, especially gay love, and the final paragraph is one of the most powerful I have read in years. A book to read in one sitting, and be blown away.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books Originals) was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize and I can see why: this is a novel that, like Girl, Woman, Other, powerfully explores and expresses the dynamics of race, this time on an American campus. It is truly heart-breaking; Taylor is a courageous writer – he is especially good at bringing to examining relationships between men, in terms of both sex and friendship. I read the novel across three days and I could not stop thinking about it, and I will not stop thinking about it.

Speaking of examining relationships between men, I read two novels by Garth Greenwell this year: What Belongs to You and Cleanness (Picador), both of which I found to be stunning to the point where I almost hurt physically. In a way both novels contain loosely connected stories, but the overall impact is truly stunning. Greenwell has an ability to start with the simplest of propositions – receiving an email from a father, who is unwell and will die soon – and the riff on it for pages, sometimes without any paragraph breaks; it is as though he just lets himself go – he is finding out what he thinks as he writes, and his readers are swept along in the process. Breathtaking.

Karen Wyld’s debut novel, Where the Fruit Falls (UWAP), is a multi-generational Indigenous epic that cuts to the core of the Australian psyche. This is essentially a realist work, but Wyld brings to it elements of magic realism as she tracks the impact of colonialism on First Nations people. By the end I cared deeply about the people of this story and was once again reminded that Australia as a country has so much work to do in terms of rebuilding a most equitable nation, one that values all life. Here’s hoping we hear much more from Wyld.

Speaking of debuts, Sam Coley’s State Highway One (Hachette) is a moving tale about returning to New Zealand to put together the pieces of a young life. Coley is a writer who brings a delicious sense of humour to his characters and their dialogue. He is terrifically good at bringing to life the sometimes fraught relationship between siblings. What is especially appealing about this particular novel is the novel can – and probably should – be read twice, because there is a lot going on beneath the surface.

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber) is one of the best novels about male friendship and music I have read in years. In the first section of the novel a group of friends celebrate finishing school by going on a series of benders, taking drugs and seeing bands – in a way it is familiar territory, but O’Hagan’s characters are intelligent and culturally and political aware, so their banter is hugely entertaining. In the second section, we have moved on thirty years and one of the friends is now dying of cancer, meaning the tone of the novel changes significantly. O’Hagan’s rendering of the conclusion – that true friends will be supportive, no matter what – will stick in my mind for years.

In terms of non-fiction, Olive Cotton: A Life in Photography (4th Estate) by Helen Ennis is a masterclass in compassionate biography. Cotton was once married to Max Dupain, arguably Australia’s most famous photographer, giving us the iconic ‘Sunbaker’ image. Cotton and Dupain were teenage sweethearts but their marriage took a toll on Cotton’s own photographic practice, as was common at the time (and no doubt still is). The marriage failed and Cotton left Sydney to start a new life, in the country with a new man. Due to the depth of Ennis’s research and the warmth of her writing, Cotton well and truly comes to life and I was deeply moved by the end.

Tegan Bennet Daylight’s The Details (Scribner) is a collection of essays about writing, parenting, and death – I read some essays twice and will no doubt read them again. Daylight writes with extraordinary precision and, at times, a confronting honesty. There is so much skill in every sentence: nothing is overwritten; the meaning is crystal clear. The Details, I think, compares with the best of Helen Garner’s work.

I also loved Charles Massey’s Call of the Reed Warbler (UQP), which explores the devastating impact of industrial agriculture on Australia’s landscapes and their ecologies. This is a brick of a book and it is filled with science and philosophy, but Massey writes in an accessible and engaging way. As someone who spends so much time driving through farmland, I now can’t stop looking at what is growing in the paddocks and what isn’t, and I also can’t stop imagining what might have been if the British colonisers had been more open to appreciating the existing systems and cultures rather than imposing one from the other side of the world.

For the poetry lovers, Melinda Smith brings misogyny to its knees in Man-handled (Recent Work Press). This collection is necessarily angry, but as always with Smith the skill is evident in every line – she is a poet who knows exactly what she is doing, and there are frequent fireworks. What I love most about her collections is the terrific variety, especially in terms of accessibility: one poem will stretch me as a reader (a good thing), the next will open out immediately and delight within seconds.

In The Other Flesh (UWAP) Robbie Coburn reveals the loneliness and isolation he has experienced in regional Australia. Despite being still in his twenties, Coburn has been writing and publishing poetry for some years. He is especially good in writing about mental illness. This is very fine poetry, and Coburn asks you to sit within him as he shares his experiences. Yes, this is emotionally raw, but every line has been worked and worked some more until there are depths and layers, encouraging slow reading, and re-reading. No doubt we will be hearing a lot more from Robbie Coburn.

Solid Air: Australian and New Zealand Spoken Word, edited by David Stavanger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu (UQP) is an extensive and timely collection of poetry written for the stage (rather than for the page). The editors have a longstanding commitment to holding space for writers from diverse backgrounds who have a diverse range of subject matter. I was incredibly moved by the work in Solid Air and my being has been exposed to issues and predicaments that have otherwise passed me by. Highly recommended.

More and more I’m doing the majority of my music-listening in the car, which is primarily because, living in a regional area, I do so much driving, most of it through paddocks and bush. That means I’m looking for music that will help to knock off the kilometres, or keep me awake, or evoke the Southern Tablelands landscape around me. When an album does all three? Head explodes (in a good way).

Here are the albums that have kept me on the road this year.

No Geography by The Chemical Brothers

Released in 2019 and bagging a Grammy, this is one of the most enjoyable – and joyful! – records I’ve heard in years. Despite being a full-length album with 10 songs, the whole thing clocks in at just over half an hour, but not a second is wasted: every beat and note, every lift and release, is exactly where it needs to be. It’s just so damn listenable. There’s a vague hint of politics, or perhaps an attempt to at least reflect some of the dominant discussions, as though Rowlands and Simons know that the world is going down the shitter, but there’s also an almost unbounded celebration of the human spirit. Start with the title track and then get the party really started with ‘Got To Keep On’.

Kitchen Sink by Nadine Shah

The find of the year for me is Nadine Shah, a Londoner who has been described as the lovechild of PJ Harvey and Nick Cave (which to my mind only partly makes sense). Shah’s Kitchen Sink is chock-full of terrific rhythms, fascinating structures, and political lyrics, most of which explore contemporary feminism – it’s almost as if Sade has a daughter who makes music and she isn’t pleased with how women continue to be treated. All the tracks are brilliant, though the title track and ‘Ladies for Babies (Goats for Love)’ have truly worked their way into my brain. An album of power and grit.

Komorebi by BPMoore

Taking things down a notch, though just as memorable, is Komorebi by BPMoore. Perhaps due to the popularity of composers such as Max Richter, Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm, the planet is awash with neo-classical music, if I’m using the label correctly. BPMoore’s music is more rhythmic than most of its ilk, artfully employing drums and bass, which gives a wonderful warmth to the songs. The overall feel is less cinematic and more driven; there’s a strong human pulse to the work. Try the title track. Note: the album has been reworked, with stunning results.

Two electronica albums got beneath my skin this year. The first is Four Tet’s Sixteen Oceans, which continues Kieran Hebden’s relatively recent formula of combining experimental dance songs that could be played in nightclubs with ambient tracks that could be used to aid meditation – or falling asleep. With Hebden there is always the sense that he’s trying to reach for new electronic horizons, and he almost always succeeds. Like on No Geography, there’s a sense of joy in this recent Four Tet collection, as if Hebden is saying that it’s still pretty good being alive in 2020, despite everything. Try ‘Baby’ and ‘Romantics’.

The other electronica album is Crush by Floating Points. This collection starts with what can only be described as a chamber piece – yes, there are strings involved – though, of course, it is gently fucked-up to give a sense of what’s coming. The rest of the album alternates between minimalist bangers and highly experimental sections that sound like Sam Shepherd has left his machinery to do its own thing. At first I found the glitchy tracks to be more annoying than anything else, but eventually the album made sense and it’s had countless spins in the car. ‘Last Bloom’ is a good place to start.

Paring everything back is Emily Alone by Florist. This is lo-fi, bedroom accoustica and it’s wonderful from beginning to end. It’s a highly poetic collection – there is even some spoken-word – and fans of Nick Drake and/or Red House Painters will find much to love, especially in terms of wordplay: ‘My hair is dirty blonde now / and there are even little / sea sand pieces in there / probably’ (from ‘Moon Begins’). The opening track, ‘As Alone’, is the perfect place to begin your Florist adventure.

Finally,  Marét is an Australian pop-artist who is making songs that sparkle in the night. Despite having spent much of my life seeking out music that pushes boundaries (whatever that means), I have always loved perfect pop, and Marét’s pop is as perfect as you can imagine: there’s some Kylie, some Beyoncé, and a fair whack of straight-up disco, all of it intricately cut and polished. Try ‘Press Play’, which has a terrifically cheeky video – make sure to watch all the way to the end.

 

As a schoolboy I lied to my friends.

Not about what I had done on the weekend but about the ‘fact’ that I did not watch war movies, because I did not like war. To be accurate, I clearly remember saying, ‘I object to war.’ I grew up with parents who were constantly fighting – they hated each other with an unfathonable intensity – so it made sense that I did not seek out high-conflict stories in which violence was at the core.

But I did engage with war stories.

Very much.

I used to be glued to the television while watching The Dam Busters, which was made in 1955 but repeated regularly, and The Great Escape (1963). Along with most other children my age, I laughed along with Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971 with endless reruns). I was obsessed with Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds (1978) based on the novel by HG Wells (1898) – as the disco rhythms got my heart beating fast I would sit on the floor and be transfixed by the cover illustrations that depicted a war between humanity and alien invaders.

I allowed myself to be captivated by the serialisation of Roger McDonald’s classic war novel 1915; it was aired in 1982, when I was 14 years old. At the end of the final episode, when the main character, a soldier, comes home a physically and psychologically damaged young man, I turned to my mother and said, ‘What will happen to him?’ She said, ‘We don’t know, do we?’

I said, ‘But I need to know.’

Four decades later, that need has not gone away: I have not stopped trying to work out how we let things get so out of hand that the only ‘solution’ is to pick up weapons and try blasting the enemy to smithereens.

Just before I sat down to begin writing this piece it took less than ten minutes to retrieve 50 war books from my shelves. There is the Great War poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. There are the Great War novels: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1928), Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929), and Regeneration (1991), Pat Barker’s fictional account of the close friendship between Owen and Sassoon as they recovered from what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is Stephen Crane’s American Civil War story The Red Badge of Courage (1952), which I first read as a boy – perhaps that was the book that had sparked my bold schoolyard claim

I own the classic Australian war novels, including The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning (1929), the previously mentioned 1915 by Roger McDonald (1979), and Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013). There are the glittering international successes: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014), and Robin Robertson’s astonishing verse novel about post-war life, The Long Take, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh (1991) and Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man (2013) have both had a significant impact on me.

There is nonfiction too. Peter Stanley’s gutsy Bad Characters: sex, crime, mutiny, murder and the Australian Imperial Force (2010), which was the co-winner of the 2011 Prime Minister’s Prize for history, and Charles Glass’s very moving Deserter: a hidden history of the Second World War (2013).

I could go on.

What if I applied that old trick: my house is on fire – or there is an approaching army at the end of my street – and I only have time to rescue three war books?

*

Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 7 November 2020.

Well, the writing life is full of surprises, isn’t it?

Today it was announced that BODIES OF MEN has been longlisted in the inaugural 2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize, which recognises the best historical long-form fiction in Australia and New Zealand.

Crikey, I did not expect that.

Indeed, expecting anything as an author is a recipe for a disaster. Mostly I just want to get better, and, perhaps, to connect with more and more folk who are interested in literature. So a nod like this is a shot in the arm (to mangle my body parts).

And what a list to be on. It’s all rather dazzling, which means I’ll head to the couch for the rest of the day. This afternoon the Southern Tablelands weather is miserable – cool and rainy – so perhaps I’ll light the fire.

It’s made me wonder what is it that any writer hopes to achieve when they sit down at the desk and start working on the first sentence, and then, hopefully, the last sentence. I’m not sure recognition is the answer; perhaps it’s just about wanting to create some kind of ripples in the literary pond, and, with a bit of luck, the bigger pool beyond.

In any case, there’ll be a few moments of reflection to mark the occasion, and then back to the desk in the morning.

Over and out.

*

UPDATE: a brief interview and reading for the longlisting can be found here.

Can good things happen in a pandemic? Apparently.

It’s lovely to be able to announce that, along with wonderful Australian novelists Robyn Cadwallader and Julie Keys, I’m heading to northern New South Wales as part of the inaugural Write North Writers’ Group Residency.

The residency, which is a special initiative of the Byron Writers Festival and Create NSW, will give us space and time to write under the direction of eminent novelist Charlotte Wood. I’ve long-admired Wood’s work and her internationally successful The Natural Way of Things quite literally changed the way I look at the world. Her latest novel, The Weekend, about ageing and friendship, also affected me greatly.

Charlotte Wood

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been selected for a handful of residencies over the years – Varuna, Bundanon, and the Australian Defence Force Academy at UNSW Canberra – and they tend to have a significant impact on how I work. Indeed, it’s usually the case that I don’t fully understand the impact until some years down the track.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about ‘going away’ to write is that what I expect is rarely what I get, but what I get is just as valuable, usually more so. Perhaps the greatest benefit is the way a different place enables me to see my work in a different way; perhaps the place can even have an impact on how – and perhaps even why – I’m writing.

You would think by now that I would know what I’m doing, but I really don’t. Perhaps I do have a couple of tools in my writing tool-box, but I could always do with more. A lot more. And then there’s the fact (and I really do think it may be exactly that: a fact) that the writing process is largely mysterious. What makes one piece of writing feel more alive than another? The author’s motive probably has something to do with it; the rest is more or less beyond me.

Of course, with this residency, it will be wonderful spending time with two friends – Julie and Robyn – who are also writers of novels, all three of which – The Artist’s Portrait, The Anchoress, and Book of Colours – I’ve adored. And then, there will be Charlotte Wood encouraging us to take risks, to write differently, to challenge ourselves, and, perhaps to challenge each other. She also sent us an email: Be prepared to work hard. Roger that.

If I’m allowed one expectation for this particular experience, what might it be?

To get just a little better.

after Mary Oliver

 

The only way to write a story is to put a word down on a page, then another word, then another, until a sentence appears.

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A good sentence is clear and precise; it can also have hidden depths.

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It takes time and effort, and perhaps a little heartbreak, to make a sentence sit up and sing, or put a hand on your shoulder, or stare at you in the face.

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There is a difference between wanting to write a book and needing to tell a story: one is a product; the other is a great desire to explore, record, and communicate.

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The first draft can be like an archaeological dig: clear away the dirt until you find the evidence of story. If you find nothing that makes your blood pump faster, try digging somewhere else.

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Compare yourself to no one.

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Today there are 7.7 billion stories and 7.7 billion ways of telling them.

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As well as being an act of the mind, writing is an act of the body. Take note of your chest and heart, your gut, your arms and fingers, your legs, your crotch. When all of you is at work, your sentences will have more energy.

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If your writing is giving you a physical reaction – goosebumps say – it is possible that your readers will have the same or a similar response.

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When you put fingers to a keyboard, you type; when you write with a pen on a piece of paper, you compose.

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Prose is not poetry, though both are cousins of music.

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Allow life to rise from the page.

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Read more than you write.

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Put a moat around your writing time, pull up the drawbridge, and guard it with the biggest sling-shot you can find. That also goes for your reading time.

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Average writing can become good writing after it has been put aside to ferment.

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Sometimes the best writing happens when your conscious brain is switched off, for example when you’re walking your dog, or when dreaming.

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When something good happens with your writing practice, you have 24 hours to celebrate: drink champagne, eat French Camembert, dance naked to terrible pop music in the lounge-room – but then you have to keep going. When something bad happens with your writing practice, you have 24 hours to commiserate: drink whiskey, kick furniture, cry – but then you have to keep going.

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The writer at a dinner party who tells you all about his novel-in-progress will never write a novel.

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Confidence is a trickster.

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Doubt is a loyal friend and is more helpful than you may realise.

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There are no wrong steps. What feels like a wrong step now will reveal itself to be the right step further down the track.

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Listen to feedback but make your own decisions.

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Moving forward can come down to a brave choice and a safe choice. It is likely that the brave choice will be right.

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Whenever you don’t know how to proceed, play.

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A child telling a story is always a master of narrative technique.

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To edit a story, take it to an unfamiliar place – literally. It could be a library you don’t normally use, or a pub, or the coldest room you can find. Wherever you go, it should irritate you; watch as you slash your work with a red pen.

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Read your work aloud. If you find yourself wondering whether or not you should have a coffee or a green tea, you may have detected a weakness.

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It you are worried that a potential reader will think you are mad, you’re probably heading in an interesting direction.

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Give all yourself to the telling of your story: think about it day and night, week after week, month after month, year after year – care about the details.

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The story you are telling now may be your last.

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Finish all stories.

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Publication is the fullstop at the end of the sentence.

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For the stories that find a home, it was always impossible to predict where that home was going to be.

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Accept invitations that make you feel as though you’re going to faint.

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It is better to make art that no one sees than to not have made the art.

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Success is 10% talent, 20% luck, 50% hard work. No one knows what makes up the remaining 20%.

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Financial reward for your writing should be non-negotiable.

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Help the writing community grow and it will grow around you: attend a book launch, send a congratulatory tweet – whatever is your way.

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If you love another writer’s story, share your thoughts.

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Be easy on yourself. Rest.

*

First published in BITE 2019, as commissioned by ACT Writers.

Bloody hell, I’m about to do something I’ve never done before.

Starting at 2pm tomorrow, I will be spending two weeks straight at The Street Theatre in Canberra undertaking a creative development of my new full-length play with songs, which has the working title THE STORY OF THE OARS.

What does this mean?

Professional actors reading the text as it currently stands. A director and dramaturge analysing every scene, sentence, and word. Body explorations. A music consultant investigating opportunities and challenges. Me passing out from the thrill – and glorious work – of it all.

Due to COVID-19, it will be happening online. Pictured is my set up at home. Complete with angel and (hint of) bull talisman.

Frighteningly, at 5pm (AEST) on Friday 15 May the ‘doors’ will open and you can experience a professional reading of the play. And get to give me and the creative team feedback.

Shit.

Tickets, which are free but limited, can be found here.

I have been through this process before. The song cycle for which I wrote the libretto, THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, also went through a First Seen creative development. However, because that work was already at a fairly developed stage, it was a much shorter process – 2 days. Also, we already had a full score, by the wonderful James Humberstone. This time around, we’re developing the project in a much more incremental way, aiming to get the text as finished as it can be before we move into the music-collaboration stage. That’s not to say this will be a better process, just a different process for different projects.

So what is THE STORY OF THE OARS actually about?

Summer somewhere on the east coast of Australia, 1987: three teenage brothers drown on a large ephemeral lake. Thirty years later, with the lake now dry, four strangers unburden themselves of the truth. Their lives will never be the same. A play with songs, THE STORY OF THE OARS is about the repercussions of childhood, and how facts have their way of revealing themselves. It’s also an exploration of class, privilege, and the power of place to enchant, repel, and mend.

Of course, massive thanks to the unstoppable folk at The Street Theatre, and Create NSW for supporting an earlier development.

Now, where’s a crate-load of whiskey…

The world is sick. It is easy to think that when the COVID-19 death ‘tally’ increases every day and reports suggest that as much as a third of the global population is currently living in some form of lock-down.

Here in Australia we are experiencing unprecedented limitations on how we can move about and who we can see. Some of us are lucky to be in a long-term relationship and intimacy is only a look or a joke away. Others are having a much more challenging time: not being able to see who they want, when they want, how they want, and why they want. Has love become even harder?

This week, while eating a homemade omelette for lunch (packed with mushrooms and feta), I decided to take my mind off the current troubles by watching a short film in which French philosopher Alain Badiou spoke about love being ‘a risky adventure’. Towards the end of the film, Badiou said two things that resonated with me: ‘Love creates a perspective and an existence in the world from the point of view of two, not one’, which he described as a ‘revolutionary act’; and, evidently paraphrasing Spinoza, ‘All that is true and rare are difficult’, which is a statement that reached right into my belly.

All that is true and rare are difficult.

Yes, that is love: wonderful, beautiful, messy, contradictory, infuriating, exciting, banal; and, in this challenging and sometimes unbearably heavy year, necessary.

Love is the domain of philosophy; it is also the domain of novelists and poets. There was a time, during my childhood and adolescence, when instructions on love came from a man in a black frock who was armed with a bible and a hymn book. Thankfully, these days my shelves are packed (ever more chaotically) with much better books.

Although I do not seek it out with any kind of fervour, gay literature is well-represented on my shelves, particularly gay novels. These works have provided me with experience, understanding, solace, antagonism, confusion, and, in the end, profound contentment. I never found profound contentment in nightclubs or tennis clubs or dinner parties, darling. I found profound contentment in novels, where the gay experience could shift and buckle and expand and explode; where it could be both ordinary and wondrous, and spectacularly alive.

The following are some novels that have indeed felt spectacularly alive.

*

Keep reading over at The Canberra Times, which published this piece on 18 April 2020.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be LIVE ONLINE talking all things Writing War with the very wonderful Melanie Myers, Simon Cleary, and Cass Moriarty, who must be one of the hardest-working people in Australian letters.

The panel, which was organised last year by Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane, was originally scheduled to be held in person in the store. However, things have changed a lot since then, haven’t they. It’s been a tough year for so many, a heart-breaking year, a tragic year. The writing community has had to rethink how it does things, with events either cancelled or moved online. Thankfully the Writing War discussion will still be happening, thanks to the wonders of the internet and the tenacity of folk.

Who knows what we’ll end up talking about, but we’ve already decided that we won’t be shy about heading into the contentious (and increasingly frightening) world of Australian military history. Why is it so hard to talk about war history? Why are so many scared about having a point of view?

Have we really reached the point where it is impossible to have an alternative or creative view about Australia’s military past? Is it now impossible to critique it, even in a respectful and informed way? Why is it that people have lost their jobs – indeed some have even been kicked out of the country – if they have tweeted criticism about Anzac Day?

It will all be happening at 6.30pm on Monday 20 April. The tickets are just $5. It’ll be via Zoom so it’s open to folk anywhere in the world.

It’d be great to have your company.

Booking information here. Big thanks to to Krissy Kneen and the amazing team at Avid Reader Bookshop.

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