On 29 May 2015, the famous Electric Shadows Bookshop closed its doors after 27 years. There was a wake. There were tears. Photo credit: Andrew Sikorski

On 29 April 2015, the famous Electric Shadows Bookshop closed its doors after 27 years. There was a wake. There were tears. We don’t know what to do now. Photo credit: Andrew Sikorski

Of all the emails I’ve received this was the most difficult – by far.

In the past I’ve received emails announcing the death of a friend or colleague, and I’ve received emails containing heartbreaking literary rejection, but the one that lobbed into my laptop last week truly knocked me sideways. First there was shock, then disbelief, then emptiness, before anger set in; I guess that echoes the stages of grief, doesn’t it. What did the email say? It said that one of my favourite bookshops, one of my favourite shops of all time, was closing its doors after nearly 30 years of trading.

For many Canberrans, the Electric Shadows Bookshop, or ‘ESB’, or ‘Lecky Shads’, has been a bona fide institution. For a couple of decades in the city it co-existed with the infamous but now defunct Electric Shadows Cinema. If you enjoyed the film, you could go next door and buy the book or screenplay or soundtrack – even late into the evening you could do this.

ESB ran a highly regarded video rental library, and it was the only placed in town that stocked genuinely obscure (and sometimes risqué) titles. ESB was also well-known for supporting community events, such as SpringLit, a popular annual gay and lesbian afternoon that celebrated literary luminaries such as Dorothy Porter, Andy Quan, Judy Horacek, and Christos Tsiolkas. Speaking of Tsiolkas, astute readers will remember that in the late 1990s the future author of The Slap could be found behind the Electric Shadows Bookshop counter closing a sale with that warm and generous smile of his.

When the cinema closed in 2006, ESB moved to a new location in Mort Street, Braddon, which at the time was full of caryards, Summernat types, and people wobbling ecstatically out of Civic in the early hours of Sunday morning. The new version of ESB was smaller but funkier, and it hung out next to the Cornucopia Bakery, another Canberra institution that’s bitten the dust. Despite the somewhat cramped conditions, the bookshop continued to support the ACT region with all manner of literary events. The staff members were always knowledgeable and eager to please, with more than a dash of quirky humour.

In short, to me, Electric Shadows Bookshop has been a constant reminder that the world is more interesting than I sometimes think it is. It has given my little life depth and context and meaning. It has given me hope.

So what now?

*

Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 20 March 2015. Visit Andrew Sikorski to see more of his series of images taken in the last days of the Electric Shadows Bookshop.

If there is one thing we can be sure of it is impermanence. The years make this clear, the ending of one and the beginning of another. And the seasons makes this clear too, the delicious slip from summer to autumn, which will be here before we know it, the discolouring of leaves, the fall, the shorter days, the darkness. Days always end in darkness; life doesn’t know anything else. The same way there’s always light at dawn, once night has had its run.

Sylvie Stern: the matron of the undergound. (Image courtesy of Canberra Contemporary Art Space)

Sylvie Stern: the matron of the undergound. (Image courtesy of Canberra Contemporary Art Space)

Lately I’ve been remembering a very specific piece of impermanence from my past, a relatively short period when the working week would end in a blast of unadulterated adventure. Friday evening: some beers here, some cocktails there, and then at midnight – whoosh – into Civic I went on a rickety old pushbike. Up the stairs I climbed and into the club I disappeared.

Heaven: for those of a certain age it was an institution.

In one sense it was just another nightclub, a gay and lesbian nightclub sure, but really it was nothing more than a big black box with a DJ booth and mirror-ball. Every so often effort would be put into the decorations: some sort of material – white or red – draped from the ceiling as if a wedding might take place. But nightclubs aren’t about decoration. They’re about the music, and the dancing, and the people, and the promise that this look might result in that look, which might end up somewhere hoped for but never expected.

This nightclub, however, our nightclub, Heaven, was about more than any of this. It was about a woman with the wildest black hair, a deep, husky voice, and thongs on her feet. At around 1am she’d stop the music to say happy birthday to a regular, hand out some CDs, and introduce the show (we never knew what we’d get). We loved her. For the way she was always there, as though we were partying in her house. For the way she kept the place running without a heavy hand. For the way she’d see us during the week and smile, despite this being a completely different universe. And when Heaven closed once and for all, we kept on loving her. Because she never forgot us. Because she still wanted the best for us.

So, while there’s no escaping impermanence, there’s also no escaping the wonderful, generous, loving life of the matron of the underground: Sylvie Stern.

(First published in Panorama, the Canberra Times, 7 February 2015.)

The holy grail. Potentially.

The holy grail. Potentially.

It could be a peculiarly Australian obsession, though I doubt that’s the case. Still I made sure to remember to do it the next time I was in the car and on the road.

By ‘do it’ I mean nothing more than watch it happen, that’s all it was: make an observation. Miraculously I did remember. ‘Miraculously’ because these days I’m forgetting the most commonplace things, like the order in which the laundry gets done (the detergent goes in before the machine is turned on) and where tins of unopened canned soup are stored (in the pantry, not in the freezer), and the other day it took me hours to summon the word ‘poplar’.

Like many other people, I did a lot of driving over the Christmas/New Year break, so perhaps it wasn’t so miraculous at all that I got to experience this supposedly special event. It happened just south of Lake Bathurst, which is more or less halfway between Queanbeyan and Goulburn, a stretch of road I know well. I watched as the odometer counted up, thinking that there’d be a clicking sound but there was nothing of the sort.

And then, and then, the holy grail: 100,000 kilometres.

For a long, slow, few seconds there they were, all those kilometres notched up; somehow it made me feel as though I was seeing a long-lost friend.

These milestones are everywhere, aren’t they. A cricketer scores a century and a crowd rises to stand. An acclaimed author’s tenth novel is published. A twenty-first birthday. A fiftieth wedding anniversary. A nation’s bicentenary.

It’s all arbitrary, of course, quite meaningless.

Why is one number better than another? Is it about goals achieved? Or is it about survival? Or luck? As I stared at that big, dumb number on the dash, I wondered if it was actually just about aesthetics: the simplicity of those zeros. But then it became 100,001 and suddenly it seemed to be about symmetry.

Whatever these things are about, whatever their meaning, as the numbers kept adding up silently, I looked out the car’s side window into a paddock the colour of an old lemon. The paddock was punctuated with a single little lamb. Why was it on its own? Was it lost? Had it been left behind?

I looked into the sky; it was empty and endlessly blue, the sort of blue that only happens around here. Up there was a single wedge-tailed eagle, gliding, circling.

(First published in Panorama, the Canberra Times, 17 January 2015.)

'Very few historians become novelists. It's a risk. You risk reputation and ego' - Peter Stanley (Image source: Fairfax Media)

‘Very few historians become novelists. You risk reputation and ego’ – Peter Stanley (Image source: Fairfax Media)

Think outside the square. Push the envelope. Go beyond your comfort zone. These are the clichés that are trotted out with monotonous regularity, as though every single one of us isn’t brave enough, we’re all just lazy sods. Then again, we’re also told to be cautious of those who dare to be outspoken, don’t get too close to the people who rock the boat; at all costs we should avoid those who are courageous enough to try turning truth on its head.

Then there’s historian Peter Stanley. Who seems to not care about any of this – he just wants to get on with the job of illuminating history.

Surely if there’s anyone who is qualified to illuminate history it’s Professor Peter Stanley. For twenty-seven years he was a historian with the Australian War Memorial, and after a brief stint at the National Museum of Australia he now works out of the University of New South Wales’ Australian Defence Force Academy campus. Stanley is the author of over twenty-five non-fiction works (he admits to having lost track), including the potentially blasphemous Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder, and the Australian Imperial Force, which was jointly awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for history in 2011. As if he doesn’t have enough to do, he is also the president of Honest History, a relatively new ACT-based organisation that aims to debunk the mythmaking that often occurs in Australian military history, particularly when it’s in the hands of politicians.

If anyone deserves the title of being one of the nation’s most prominent military historians it is Peter Stanley. But is he a towering, intimidating force?

Not in the slightest.

We meet in his north Canberra house, which doesn’t seem to have had much done to it since it was built in the 1960s. Two small fluffy dogs appear behind the flyscreen door, before Stanley appears as well – he looks like he’s no more significant than a suburban tax accountant. (If you’ve seen him during one of his many television appearances, he can be fiery almost to the point of discomfort.) After asking the dogs to behave – they do – the historian leads me through to the kitchen, where he gets together tea and biscuits. We take our places in a small, unassuming loungeroom. There’s a view into a semi-neglected, semi-loved backyard that’s so peaceful it’s hard to imagine that there are any problems in the world.

We’re here to discuss the recent publication of The Cunning Man, which is Peter Stanley’s first novel for adults. (He is the author of a novella for young adults, Simpson’s Donkey, which tells the famous ANZAC story from the animal’s perspective – it’s a memorable yarn.) This latest work is set in 1845 and explores the world of the European soldiers who created Britain’s Indian Empire. Sergeant Major Nelson Mansergh, Bengal Horse Artillery, is given the job of searching the Punjaub for a conspiracy among the company’s European soldiers. There’s a sub-plot of love and, needless to say, the story culminates in battle.

Why the move to long-form fiction?

*

Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 28 November 2014. Thanks to Sally Pryor.

Two bits of news on The Beach Volcano.

Firstly, my alma mater, Verity La, has published a wonderfully thoughtful  and expansive review, one that manages to tease out some themes and interpretations that might have been buried even from me. It includes some generous conclusions: ‘The Beach Volcano rises and falls to a compelling beat. Not unlike John Cheever before him, Featherstone unpicks the threads of a successful family to reveal a hollow and corrupted core. With striking imagery, the twin themes of music and water are elegantly interwoven. Unforgettable.’

The full review can be found here.

A French man's reaction after hearing that there's new Burial music in the world.

A French man’s reaction after hearing that there’s new Burial music in the world.

Secondly, Blemish Books has now made The Beach Volcano, and its cousins Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now, available as e-books.

What’s more, for a very limited time Blemish is offering a massive 80% discount on the electronic versions. To purchase the e-books, and to claim the discount, head here and then put the relevant code into the coupon field. For The Beach Volcano use VARLUDO4S6, for I’m Ready Now DTS1RW4H2L, and for Fall on Me AEBE9D5AE6.

And finally, as you might know I’m obsessed with UK dub-step/electronica artist Burial. And he has new music: a single called ‘Temple Sleeper’. In a just world, there would be wild public celebrations, including dancing in the streets and drinking till dawn.

Onwards.

As has become a bit of a tradition around these UTC parts, the following is not a list of books that I consider ‘the best of the year’. Rather it’s a list of books I’ve read in the passed twelve months that have had a personal impact in some way or another, either as a writer or reader, or just because they’re remarkable books no matter how you look at it. Also, not all were published in 2014, but in the world of literature that hardly matters, surely.

SixFirst up is Six by John Clanchy (Finlay Lloyd, 2014). As the title suggests, this is a collection of six short stories, although Clanchy specialises – indeed excels – at long stories, some of which are about 10,000 words in length. As is typical perhaps with Australian short fiction, family is the focus, but Clanchy always brings to his stories more than enough plot and action, albeit in the most under-stated way. The author is also committed to depth: of emotion, of relationship, and of meaning. Clanchy is equally adept at handling farce. It’s been a while since I read a short story that made me say to myself, That knocked me sideways – best take the dog for a walk now. That’s what happened when I read ‘The Day My Father Died’, the first story in the collection. (An interview I did with John Clanchy for the Canberra Times/Fairfax Media can be found here, and Peter Pierce’s review of Six is here.)

Drag down to unlockThey say short stories and poetry are close cousins, so let me now mention Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call by Melinda Smith (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013). For 20 years the Canberra-based Smith has been exploring her craft and being published in the smallest of presses. Then the highly regarded small press Pitt Street Poetry (talk about a micro publishing enterprise that’s punching well and truly above its weight) sent into the world Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call and Smith bags the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Poetry. Divided into sections such as ‘Uploads’, ‘Downloads’, ‘News’, ‘Sport’, and ‘Weather’, what appeals the most is the combination of artfulness and accessibility. Some poems can be understood on first readings; others are more enigmatic. But all are magical and musical, and many are very affecting indeed. Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call should be in all Australians home. Maybe it should be handed out with tax returns.

The Childhood of JesusThe Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee (Text, 2013). As regular visitors to UTC will probably be aware, I’m a fan of JM Coetzee, the novelist from South Africa who has twice won the Man Booker Prize and now lives in South Australia. His Disgrace (1999), which scored the second of his Bookers, is a perfect though harrowing novel about a person, a people and a nation (or a range of nations) in absolute turmoil. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed his fictionalised autobiographies, Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002), and the more playful Summertime (2009). Playful is a good word for Coetzee, who despite being a serious literary practitioner seemingly likes to do nothing more than toy with readers and their expectations; rarely does he appear intent on just telling a story. This marks Coetzee as difficult, but his prose is simple, at least on the surface, and, in most cases, the complexity is in the layers. Having said that, The Childhood of Jesus is an an odd and slightly underwhelming novel. In some ways it seems to be responding to Australia’s morally dubious approach to asylum seekers, and in other ways just meanders along not entirely sure where it needs to go. If it is indeed an allegory it’s a vague one. Still, it had an impact on this particular reader, if only because Coetzee seems to not give a damn about trends and markets; as an author, he is progressing his craft on his own terms.

The Snow KimonoThe Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw (Text, 2014). Like Coetzee, Henshaw appears to enjoy the art of the novel as much as the art of the story. Like Coetzee, Henshaw’s work is about the layers. Unlike Coetzee, Henshaw is not prolific. His first novel, Out of the Line of Fire, was published in 1988 and since then he has co-written two commercial thrillers with John Clanchy (as JM Calder) but no literary works. An intriguing overview of Mark Henshaw’s career can be found at the Sydney Review of Books. The Snow Kimono is a duel narrative, though in reality it has more strands than that. In its review, the Guardian Australia does a fine job of distilling the plot: ‘One night in Paris, in 1989, retired inspector Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a woman in Algiers claiming to be his daughter. A chance encounter with a stranger – Tadashi Omura, former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan – suddenly finds him entwined in the stories of Omura’s best friend, the arrogant and brilliant novelist Katsuo Ikeda, and the lives of three Japanese women, Fumiko, Mariko and Sachiko.’ The review goes on to define The Snow Kimono as a ‘philosophical puzzle’. It’s an apt description. I loved this novel.

The Pure Gold BabyThe Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble (Text, 2013). I was provided this novel to review so I read it in that context. The review didn’t eventuate (the world had moved on), but I found myself engrossed in this novel, which, similar to Coetzee’s work perhaps, meanders through its various sections though never fails to keep the reader engaged. Set in England in the 1960s, the narrative follows a young anthropology student who becomes a single mother after an affair with a colleague. This was my first Drabble and what struck me is the sense of a novel being ‘a directed dream’ (as others have said): the pleasure is in the looseness, the sense of allusion, an appealing lack of interest in traditional plot, and sentences that pulse almost painfully with life.

ChallengeChallenge (MUP, 2014) by Paul Daley. Daley is a high profile, Walkey-winning Australian journalist who currently writes for the Guardian Australia. Challenge is his first novel. And a challenge it is. It’s a brutal, at times confronting exploration of the current state of Australia’s political system. It is a fiction, but it doesn’t take much for the reader to link characters and events to their antecedents. In essence the plot follows, Daniel Slattery, the leader of a slightly progressive party in opposition. Daley himself describes Slattery as a cross between Mark Latham and Holden Coalfield, which is quite something, all things considered. Slattery’s political capital is diminishing and his personal life is falling apart; meanwhile the prime minister is milking a potential terrorist threat. There is a thriller element to Challenge, but the joy (if that’s the best way to put is) is the way Daley makes his readers realise how toxic Australian politics has become. If only 5% of this novel is true, we’re fucked.

Crow MellowOne of the year’s most left-field but highly readable novels is Crow Mellow by Julian Davies (Finlay Lloyd, 2014). This is a rewriting of Aldous Huxley’s first novel, Chrome Yellow (1930), a work that Davies admits in his foreword had a significant impact on him when he was a teenager. In Crow Mellow, a group of artists and intellectuals gather for a weekend at Crow, a bush retreat. Interesting that Davies, who is the key publisher behind Finlay Lloyd, lives in a bush retreat where artists and intellectuals gather, so it’s easy to see why the Huxley original had an influence on the young Davies. Again, it’s the playfulness of the whole exercise that’s so appealing, made even more evident by the drawings by Phil Day that adorn every one of the 400 or so pages. An original, eccentric, and highly enjoyable piece of work.

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Random House, 2013). Enough has already been written about this novel that has won many of Australia’s and the world’s literary awards, including this year’s Man Booker. A Second World War novel, it focuses on the Australian servicemen pushed beyond themselves on Burma’s ‘death railway’. What works best in the novel is Flannagan’s lack of judgement and the commitment (to a certain extent at least) to showing both sides of the story – the Australians who were subjected to such harsh and degrading treatment but also glimpses into the lives of the Japanese guards. The novel also provides an exploration of how these men tried to get on with their lives once home. Readers will be aware that this novel isn’t universally loved, with some critics citing the overt jingoism as being a distracting element. Personally, there are many scenes in this novel that I continue to think about and no doubt I will revisit it years down the track. What I’ll think then is anyone’s guess.

Other works that have been a source of interest and/or inspiration this year include selected poem collections from Rosemary Dobson (1973) and David Campbell (1978), Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse (1906), The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani (1958) (both the Hesse and the Bassani are excellent examples of short novels), The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992; the perfect novel about war due to the poetry in the prose) and As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930), which stumped me on first read a few years ago but for some reason made complete sense in 2014.

What happens when cooking.

What happens when cooking.

I think of her every time I open the book, which isn’t so much a book but a white plastic ring-binder. It’s where I keep recipes; I’m a messy cook so all that plastic makes it easy to clean. At the front, tucked into the clear-plastic sleeve, is the recipe I use the most, one for cooking rice.

For years I’d used the absorption method. I had a clay pot that I’d bought from an Asian grocery in Dickson. I’d soak the rice in the pot for an hour, drain the cloudy water, add more water so the rice was covered, bring to the boil, turn off the heat, and let the clay do the rest. It never failed to make good rice.

But then I went to a Greek restaurant with my Greek friend, Helen.

I said, ‘Greek rice is so tasty – how do you make it?’

She said, ‘It’s not really “Greek rice”. It’s just rice.’

‘But how do you make it?’

‘I’ll send you my recipe.’

And so she did. She emailed it to me.

Just before she died in a motorbike accident.

For some months I couldn’t open the email. But one day, after two decades of service, the clay pot gave up the ghost and Helen came to the rescue. I opened the email, printed her recipe. I went through the steps to make what I’d insisted was ‘Greek rice. Heat olive oil, coat rice until transparent, add chicken stock powder, stir, add water, boil, turn heat to low. It’s a more complicated procedure than the one I was used to but it leads to perfect rice.

However, it’s not just perfect rice that the recipe makes.

It could be that I’m always cooking after having a glass or two of wine, but I don’t think so. When I’m cooking rice, Helen joins me at the stove-top. She’s small, black-haired, good fun but relentlessly honest. Now she’s saying, ‘Let me do it, Nigel, you’re stuffing it up.’ So I stand aside, have another sip of wine, and watch as Helen takes over. And then, as is usual these days, I tell her what I think of her. ‘You’re an excellent friend.’ She turns to look at me, then looks at the bottle, shakes her head, then smiles, laughs gently.

This is how it is now. Every time.

And, no doubt, it’s how it’ll be for as long as I’m alive.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 22 November 2014.)

It’s the silence. It’s terrible.

Regrettably, I didn’t make this claim but an eminent novelist I know.

He was referring to the work of the writer: you sit alone in your room for years on end, then, with more than a little luck, the book is published, before…silence. Perhaps there will be a review, or a festival invitation, or someone might share some generous thoughts, but mostly there’s silence. This could just be the reality. Thankfully, there hasn’t been too much silence lately in the world of The Beach Volcano.

The Beach Volcano: now with added trailer (click to view)

The Beach Volcano: now with trailer (click to view)

First up, there’s now a trailer. Created by exciting young Australian filmmaker James Hunter, it’s a sixty-second series of suggestions that might just help to illuminate the novella in the miasma that is YouTube. It was great working with James, who approached the project with such enthusiasm, thoughtfulness, and skill. It’s certainly fascinating to see what’s brought to light by an artist working in a different field.

I have also been fortunate enough to be interviewed by Sally Pryor at the Canberra Times, with the resultant article being syndicated nationally throughout the Fairfax Media network. Sally picked up on the resurgence of the novella. Clearly publishing is currently in a state of heightened evolution, but the upside could be the diversification of story forms that are finding readers. Here’s hoping the interest in novellas is sustained – there’s nothing like starting the reading of a book just after lunch and being able to devour the conclusion by dinner time.

Finally, The Beach Volcano scored a Canberra Critics Circle Award gong in the 24th Annual ACT Arts Awards. There’s some debate about the worth of literary awards. Do they have meaning? Do readers take any notice? Isn’t it just one panel’s opinion? Isn’t it all a lottery? Everyone has different answers to these questions. As to most things (I hope), I’m open-minded. What I found instructive is that at the well-attended ACT Arts Award function the artists who received recognition – there were quite a few – appeared so very happy, regardless of whether they were ‘emerging’, ‘developing’, or ‘established’. Perhaps all we want/need every so often is someone to say, ‘Congratulations, you’re doing good things, keep going.’

Because, if only for a few minutes, we’ve beaten the silence.

THE WILD ONES - 6pm 3 Dec 2014 - updated

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘This ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular’ – Toni Morrison

‘This ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular’ – Toni Morrison

1.

I want to be there when it comes.

2.

To be precise, I want to be there in the moments before it comes. I want to be a witness, but also a willing participant, engaged and alive. Breathless.

3.

It’s about darkness, the house a subterranean cave. My eyes are open, but there’s very little to see. It’s about the near-perfect quiet. It’s no good when, for whatever reason (an exhausting social event, a rough night’s sleep), I wake too late and the house is already filled with light and noise. No, that’s not right. I want to be walking around my home, going from room to room, opening curtains and blinds to the black and the stillness and the quiet.

4.

Toni Morrison knows about this. In her Paris Review interview, the novelist recounts how a colleague told her about her writing routine. ‘Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was – there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard – but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark – it must be dark – and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual.’

5.

How morning – the break of dawn – does that: it enables us. Allows, facilitates, permits, makes possible. We enter the day, and the day enters us. We don’t know how the day will unravel, not really. We can hope, we can have expectations; there will be things we want and need – food, companionship, success, acknowledgment, reward. Or we might let the day simply (or not so simply at all) unravel. We’ll see what happens.

6.

Artists – all kinds of artists – are good at seeing what happens. In fact, they are the best at it. They see what happens, understand what happens; more importantly, they know what happens. And what happened – past tense. And what might happen – the vital future. What might happen to our lives? What might happen to our relationships? What might happen to our places, to our environment? Our environment: the natural and the ‘man’ made: are we screwing it over, are we losing our way, are we not listening, are we not seeing the signs? These are good questions. These are the questions good artists ask.

7.

Ben Okri writes, ‘The artist should never lose the spirit of play. It is curious how sometimes the biggest tasks are best approached tangentially, with a smile in the soul. Much has been written about the seriousness with which important work has to be undertaken. I believe that seriousness and rigour are invaluable, and hard work indispensable – but I want to speak a little for the mysterious and humble might of a playful creative spirit. Playfulness lightens all terrifying endeavours. It humanises them, and brings them within the realm of childhood. The playfulness becomes absorbing, engrossing, all-consuming, serious even. The spirit warms. Memory burns brightly. The fires of intelligence blaze away, and self-consciousness evaporates. Then – wonderfully – the soul finds the sea; and the usually divided selves function, luminously, as one.’

'The secret content of our lives is terrifying' - Ben Okri

‘The secret content of our lives is terrifying’ – Ben Okri

8.

Oh isn’t that astonishing: ‘the mysterious and humble might of a playful creative spirit’. I can see that here, I can feel it, I can hear it. Laughing, warbling magpies, singing for the morning, or for each other, or just because they can. Ripe soft fruit in the grass: red and green and orange and yellow. Fresh lawn like blades or spikes. ‘The importance of precious ground.’ A fat black chook, comb upright and ready – very generously, she’s keeping our tea warm. ‘Wake up! Who’s for tennis?’ Seashells like spoons – cutlery for a picnic? Begging bowls for everyone, or they could be new ways to hold better ideas. Broken maps for buried treasure, except the map might be the treasure itself. Shadows casting both inwards and outwards – the miracle of this and that and more. A confluence of roadways: ‘Mirrors and memories, all tied together.’ A dead parrot; or it’s sheltering from the storm. ‘Barking up the wrong tree: LOVE AND PEACE, NO WAR.’ A rolling, patterned meadow; microscopic skin. Eggs like eyes; eyes like eggs (‘a world within’). A dark gift. Rejuvenation. ‘These plates have no instructions.’

9.

Toni Morrison has more to say. ‘I realised that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular … Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage with this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me.’

I suspect you know what Morrison means.

10.

Ben Okri has more to say about this as well. ‘The reality of what we are doing to one another is explosive. The secret content of our lives is terrifying. There is so much to scream about. There are great polluting lies and monsters running around in the seabed of our century. The river within us has become more frozen than ever before. We need much more than Kafka’s proverbial axe to crack the ice and make the frozen blood of humanity flow again. Something is needed to wake us from the frightening depths of our moral sleep.’

I suspect you know what Okri means too.

11.

My eyes are now open; they have been opened for me. I can see differently. I feel new, renewed. I feel deeper, bigger, better, brighter. My breathing is strong, powerful, potent. There are images – ideals, realities, opportunities – that I will carry with me for days, years, decades, until the end. The light is magnificent. It’s almost blinding.

12.

I want to take this art work with both hands. I want to hold it, embrace it, kiss it. I want it like I’ve never known before.

13.

I am awake.

*

Acknowledgment
This creative essay was commissioned by Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre as a response to the 2014 Accredited Professional Members show, called ‘Awaken’.

References
Philip Gourevitch (ed.), The Paris Review Interviews Vol. II (New York: Picador, 2007) 358 Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free (London: Phoenix House, 1997) 22, 52

Note
Section 8 of this essay includes quotes from artist statements by Judi Elliott, Morgan James, Nikki Main, Luna Ryan and Nancy Tingey.

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