You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2009.

Recently I typed ‘sadness’ into Google just to see what would happen.  I’d been thinking about doing it for weeks and then, like succumbing to the temptation of a stiff mid-evening tipple, I finally did it.  It was a warm Sunday morning, I had uggboots on my feet and a mug of tea beside me on the desk, and the sun charged through the timber blinds in thick white stripes.  I had no idea what I was looking for or what I expected to find.  Was I after some kind of revelation?  Or a reinforcement?  Or was it simply an experiment?

I’m a fan of sadness, the word, and the activity, and the atmosphere.  If a book is reviewed as being ‘packed full of sadness’ I’ll rush out to buy it.  If a friend describes a movie as being ‘impossibly sad’ I’ll make a note to see it at the earliest opportunity.  If a colleague decides someone is ‘a bit of a sad character’ I’ll track down the person and befriend them.  I find Sundays sad, which makes them one of my favourite days of the week, along with Fridays.  I love Gorecki’s ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ and play it once a year (full disclosure: I’m listening to it now as I write this).

So what did Google unearth for me?  First up was a brief Wikipedia entry complete with two pictures, one a child crying, the other an appropriately mournful man in a bowler hat.  Then came a link to ‘Sadness the video game’ which, when finished, will offer ‘associations with narcolepsy, nyctophobia and paranoid schizophrenia’.  Third was a YouTube link to the film-clip of Enigma’s famous 1990s pop song, which is a rather jaunty concoction of house beats, keyboard washes, and Gregorian chants.

Then came a series of mental-health links.  Finally there was a list of images – photographs, paintings, sketches etc, all homemade by the looks of it – with titles like ‘Sadder than sadness’ (which sounds too much, even for me) and ‘French sadness’ (which doesn’t sound entirely legal) and the ominous ‘Will come to take sadness’.

Then I went to the front door because someone had knocked.  Though no one had knocked; I was just hearing things.  But on the footpath stood a young man in red T-shirt and blue jeans and white joggers, beside him an old long-haired sheep dog on a lead, her head down and tail limp.  Clearly needing to cross the road, the young man, who looked as fit as a daily jogger, checked left and then checked right and then checked left again.  The sound of a car coming though there was plenty of time to cross.

But the young man and his dog didn’t move.

They waited until the road was completely deserted in both directions before going.  And then I understood why: the dog was so frail that it took minutes to cross the road by slowly, determinedly, putting one paw in front of the other; even the pram-ramp on the other side seemed too much.  But the young man so patiently, so kindly, so gently, urged the dog to keep moving forwards, just keep going, we’re not far from home now, you can do it, you really can, because we’ll do it together.

And so they did.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, October 10 2009)

I’m west of Nowra, at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people (and what a gift it is), and as I like to do every three hours or so I go outside to get some fresh air.  Rather than head to the Shoalhaven River or up onto the bush escarpment, this morning I just stroll down to the homestead and sit for a while in Arthur’s garden.  The garden, which links the two-storey sandstone main house with the simple weatherboard studio, has a tropical feel and is well-tended but pleasingly not immaculate.  Today isn’t a public open day so I have the place to myself, though in the tree canopies above a squadron of rainbow lorikeets makes true solace impossible.

At this much-loved refuge of arguably Australia’s most significant visual artist, a man who lived the ultimate creative life, a commitment to dreaming and exploring and communicating, a life more should be enabled to live, I sit quietly on this timber bench.  I let my mind wander here and there; I slow down, I empty.  But within minutes I’m snared by a scene: it’s not the sudden memory of a famous Boyd painting, a biblical landscape set off by one of his mythical ‘ramox’, but it’s this: less than a metre away, behind a dark-leafed shrub the name of which I have no idea, is the u-shaped mating site of a satin bowerbird.

How perfect.  How beautiful.  How… audacious!

I’ve always had a thing for bowerbirds, because they’re the most outwardly inventive of all our winged creatures.  It’s the male’s job to attract the female and he does this by building what in essence is a performance space – a stage, a dance-floor; a gateway, an archway, a landing.  Once the bower is built (always in a north-south direction) it’s painted with a mixture of chewed vegetable matter and saliva and then decorated with all things blue: feathers or flowers when away from human habitation, otherwise his favourites are clothes pegs, drinking straws and bottle tops, all of which he scatters like toys around a sandpit.  That the male birds raid each other’s bowers to steal favoured objects only makes me love them even more.

So he waits until a female starts showing interest and then he sings and dances until the job is done, in more ways than one.  The older he is, the less he relies on his exhibition of blue, having more confidence in his bodily performance, in his mimicry skills, pinching the calls of other birds.  Bowerbirds are thieves and plagiarists.

I’ve seen bowers before but it’s the cheekiness of this particular Bundanon bird that captivates me.  He hasn’t hidden his bower in the kilometres of impenetrable bush nearby; no, he’s made this one smack-bang in the guts of Arthur Boyd’s garden.  It’s as if he’s saying, Yes, Mr Famous Painter, you did great things, but look at what I can do – I’m a singer and a dancer and a painter and a sculptor all in one, and a pretty handy lover to-boot!  And it’s like he’s saying to me just over here on my bench, Sure you might end up being clever with words, but have you ever thought of being as brave as I am right now?

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, August 29 2009)

There’s something on my mind.  It’s not the Global Fine-thinking Crisis (oh, have I misunderstand that acronym?) or the hole in the ozone layer or most people having no idea about apostrophes, but – drumroll please – it’s lantana.  Yes, I’m worrying about a plant.  And this plant is worrying me because earlier this year I spent a month on a coastal stretch of the Shoalhaven River, and despite that hinterland being so spectacular when viewed from a distance, extraordinary even, there’s a problem, one caused by this feisty, feisty weed.

I was down there with a small group of artists: a print-maker, an animator, an oil painter, a composer, and a performance artist.  Whilst we all dreamily worked away on our projects, we did cross paths, and after we enquired about each other’s mental health, the conversation always turned to the lantana infestation on the river banks, in the low-lying scrubland, even up on the less accessible ridges, less accessible to us though very accessible to Lantana camara.  And in nurseries this thing goes under the hardly evil names of ‘Irene’ and ‘Dallas Red’.  And to hear that it has been ‘recognised’ as a Weed of National Significance – well, that just gives the impression that it’s in the same league as Holden utes, Akubra hats and blue singlet tops.

Did this weed detract from the feel of the landscape we were working in?  Yes.  Did we wish someone would come along and get rid of the nasty, nasty thing so we could have the beautiful landscape back?  Yes.  Were we trying to justify its existence by saying that for 160 years the Shoalhaven has been in the process of modification so this was just a part of that?  Yes.  Whose land is this anyway?  No idea.  Aren’t most of us ‘weeds’, claiming and rearranging?  Absolutely.  I even tried arguing that there’s a fantastic Australian film called Lantana, and Ray Lawrence, the film-maker, had used this particular plant as a symbol of how our lives tangle and sometimes strangle – couldn’t we be similarly inspired?  Apparently not.

I must confess that after a few days I began taking things into my own hands, literally: I wrenched out smaller plants; I madly decapitated larger bushes; and once, after I’d drunk too many cups of tea, I ran outside, found the nearest seedling and gave it a good golden dose – it felt appropriately offensive at the time.  Of course, none of this can really make a difference, but it did make me think I was doing my bit, even though for every step I made, ‘Irene’ and ‘Dallas Red’ took us a thousand steps backwards – or is that forwards? – into a weed-infested world.

But you do have to laugh.  In the last week I was down on the river a curator dropped by and asked how we were going.  When we described our concern (is ‘heartache’ a better word?) for the invasion that was going on around us, she said, ‘You must realise that lantana is just so…so… obnoxious’.  Perhaps she meant ‘noxious’, but maybe Lantana camara really is one of the most offensive plants imaginable.  Except it’s not imaginable, or imagined – it’s very real, and becoming more and more so.  And even the artists are worried.  And that’s a worry in itself.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, July 18 2009)

Like many people I’m reading a number of books at the moment.  One of mine is Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (her real name, would you believe).  It’s brilliant, one to rival the spectacular How Fiction Works by James Wood.  Where in my teenage years I may have looked to religion for guidance on how to live a good life, I now look to books about writing, as if writing’s the only activity that matters, and perhaps it is.  But this isn’t exactly what’s occupying my mind right now; what’s occupying my mind is a certain paragraph in Prose’s book.

She remembers a young writer telling her how he was taken to dinner by a highly successful and powerful agent.  The agent asked the young writer about what sort of things he was interested in and the writer replied by saying that he was only interested in creating great sentences.  The agent sighed and then asked him to promise that he would ‘never, ever’ repeat that to an American publisher.  Prose goes on to say that despite the poignancy of the young writer’s response, and the dig at the publishing industry, it was refreshing to hear of someone so dedicated to the art of sentences.

But this isn’t really what’s occupying my mind either.

What’s really occupying my mind is theme, the point of that agent’s question.  For me theme is always the idea of home.  I’ve written about home before in this column, but that’s okay, because it may well take a lifetime of reading, and writing, and living to understand, to know.  But what is so mysterious, so captivating, about the idea of home?  My 1904 copy of Soule’s Synonyms offers some leads.  ‘Home’ as a noun: domicile, dwelling, residence.  As an adverb: closely, pointedly.  As an adjective: internal.  And then Soule’s heads into such wonderful terrain as ‘homeliness’ and ‘homespun’ before coming to grief in ‘homicide’.  All of this only raises more questions about why home is so intriguing.

A quick story.  Fifteen years ago I donned a backpack, as is the Down Under way, and headed to the United Kingdom amongst other places.  Being from English-Irish (and convict) stock, I was warned that I would probably have a ‘homecoming’ moment when landing at Gatwick.  I had nothing of the sort – I felt as alien in England as I had felt when in Canada and the United States.

But then I caught the ferry from Wales to Dublin.  And it was in Dublin, a fantastic Irish city (and ‘fantastic’ is the word), that it seemed like I had come home.  It was in the forever fighting faces, the soulful swooning of the Uilleann pipes played on street corners, in the soaking weather, the living-room-like pubs, and the pure distaste of authority.  Six weeks later, now with more than a hint of Irishness in my accent, I left Eire, and, via Thailand, returned to Australia, to Canberra, where day in day out I think about, write about, try to get a handle on, what home means.

Frankly I have no idea what it means.  If it is anything, it’s a desire, and a rush.

As is creating the great sentence.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, June 13 2009)

Down at the Shoalhaven River recently, embroiled in the work of words and sentences and paragraphs and characters who misbehave and do the unexpected, I almost choked on my cereal when I heard the radio broadcaster say, ‘Coming up after the next song will be the Forecaster of Beauty’.  What?  Huh?  Of course, it was too good to be true – the DJ had tried to say ‘The Forecaster on Duty at the Bureau of Meteorology’ very fast – but his wonderful mistake certainly got me thinking.

What if there really was a Forecaster of Beauty?  We’d surely hear gems like ‘there should be a few millimetres of beauty in the gauge this week’ or ‘light and easterly beauty, increasing to moderate beauty in the afternoon’ or ‘isolated beauty, tending scattered along the coast’.  I’m particularly taken with ‘a strong beauty system is centred over the Bight and extends a broad ridge over the ACT’ and the fantastically imprecise ‘early beautiful patches’.

Needless to say, the Forecaster of Beauty (FOB for short) would not only deal in beauty, just like the meteorologist doesn’t only deal with sunshine, so there’d have to be comments along the lines of ‘the beauty is expected to weaken mid-week, which may lead to some ugliness impacting on the region later in the week’ and ‘fine, apart from the chance of some ugliness on the ranges’ and the straightforward ‘ugly conditions developing later’, which really does sound like a day best spent under the doona with a good novel and a block of chocolate, doesn’t it.

Perhaps the FOB wouldn’t only tell us about environmental issues, but beautiful events too.  ‘Tomorrow evening on the walking track to Mount Majura there’ll be a wombat mother with her baby by her side and they won’t be frightened’.  It would be good if the FOB could say, ‘On the 318 this afternoon there’ll be an old choreographer who, completely happy and content with her long creative life, will close her eyes for the last time and she’ll keep riding the bus around the city for three hours, which will be considered her last dance’.  How good it would be if we could be let in on the fact that at 10pm tomorrow night we should all go to bed with our partners but not read or do anything else, just hold hands in silence because we’ll fully notice for the first time the soft bony warmth of the skin.

Of course, the Forecaster of Beauty would also have to tell us about the ugly events.  But hang on, why?  Why couldn’t the FOB only tell us about the beautiful things?  That would be their job, for heaven’s sake – to let us know where the beauty is going to be tomorrow and what we should wear for it!  Perhaps, however, all this would remove the element of surprise from those wonderfully glorious things that just happen, sometimes for only a few seconds, like when I was down at the Shoalhaven River recently, embroiled in the work of words and sentences and paragraphs and characters who misbehave and do the unexpected, I heard a radio broadcaster say that coming up after the next song…

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, May 16 2009)

Happy on my treadly some Sundays ago, I found myself thinking about bravery.  I wasn’t planning on dramatically sliding my pushbike beneath a truck or launching myself over a giant pothole.  I was thinking about a good friend who’d received feedback from a potential publisher on his latest manuscript for a novel.  ‘They say I have to be braver, the bravest,’ he’d told me.  ‘Give me an example of what this means,’ he added, ‘to be the bravest of the brave.’ And then he’d flung back his double-shot long black, and more than a bit wounded, disappeared into the wilds of the nearest supermarket, heading for the chocolate aisle, then the ice-cream aisle, and then the bottle-o.

I rode off to the pool in town, because swimming for me is what camomile tea is to those brave enough to try living without caffeine.  See?  Bloody bravery!  That word was smothering my beautiful autumn afternoon, all because my friend had received that feedback.

But what does bravery actually mean?

There is, of course, bravery and there’s stupidity.  It wouldn’t be brave of me to even consider sliding my bike under a truck just because I’d seen it done in movies, and it wouldn’t be brave to try bunny-hopping a pothole by clenching my thighs around the bike frame and getting some kind of levitation thing going.  This would be the stuff of fiction.

Well, let’s talk about fiction.  Was Tim Winton brave when he put two different families in an old Perth house and wrote his Cloudstreet epic?  Was Morris West brave when he constructed the extraordinary Eminence around the idea of the Pope-in-waiting being an atheist?  Was Annie Proulx brave to write about a life-long love affair between two American cowboys in Brokeback Mountain.  Was Heath Ledger brave to star in the filmed version of Proulx’s story?  I’m not sure I know the answers to these questions, except the last, which is a resounding yes.

But I needed to find something more definite for my friend.

I reached the city’s paved central square, the cafes half-filled with neatly dressed Sunday afternoon types guzzling coffee.  A short distance away, black-clad teenagers lurked menacingly over a stainless-steel pillow with its accompanying poem inconspicuous beneath.

Within seconds my ears filled with the speed-boat-like sound of trance music coming from a portable CD player off to one side of the stage.  Gathered around the CD player was a group of about a dozen boys.  I’m hopeless at determining ages of people but I figured that the youngest would have been about ten, the oldest maybe fourteen, fifteen.  Some were small, others just beginning to be awkward and gangly.  Most were casually sitting on the lip of the stage, but three of them, the youngest of the group, were dancing wildly as if the ground was burning up; they were moving so fast it looked like their legs were going to separate from their bodies.  They weren’t there to draw a crowd.  They were simply dancing in public, and they didn’t have a care in the world, it didn’t matter what others thought of them.

Minutes later, as I lowered myself into the cool pool water, I silently said to my friend, I have found what you need.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, April 25 2009)

No doubt you’ve heard of air-guitar – the art of playing an imaginary guitar, usually electric and often to Led Zeppelin – and perhaps you’ve heard of air-drumming, but you probably haven’t heard of air-harpsichord.  I hadn’t either, until I found myself engaging in it last week.  It was 9pm on a weekday and, as my daily routine dictates, I cranked up the record-player to indulge in some tunes before bed.  This night I chanced upon an old LP by the classical/rock fusion band Sky.  Released in 1980, the price sticker on the front said Sky 2 cost $13.99.  The sticker surprised me – for years I’ve removed these hideous things from LPs, CDs and books immediately after purchase because price and value are different concepts.

Amongst this eclectic recording, which contains creative versions of Vivaldi’s Concert in G and a prog-rock reworking of JS Bach’s ubiquitous Toccata, is the Gavotte and Variations by the mid-eighteenth century opera composer JP Rameau.  The liner notes cheerily state that this isn’t really a gavotte because the tune – or ‘simple’, which now I think about it is such a great word as a noun – should be played slowly.  I doubt whether as a twelve-year-old boy I was interested in such detail, but I did love this series of seven variations very much, to the point where I drove my brothers, both older, to distraction.

Last week, shortly after I laid down the stylus, I found myself standing in the middle of the loungeroom and watching in amazement as my hands and fingers danced over a harpsichord keyboard.  There are those who say it is a difficult instrument to play, but to me it was surprisingly easy – and I was great at it, not missing a single note even as each variation became so fast that it almost sounded like modern techno dance music.  Regardless of how much a maestro I was, the Old Lady of the House and Cat the Ripper stared at me from the couch, declaring to each other that The Slave had finally gone completely bloody cuckoo.

I’d not heard this music for twenty years but every single note was familiar; I could even remember how each variation began and finished before it was played.

Why had I loved this music so much?  Was it the simplicity?  Was it the prettiness?  Maybe the repetition?  Or the relentless build up?  Or the furious high drama of the last?  Was it the plucky percussion of the harpsichord and the accompanying images of men in wigs and make-up and tight white stockings?

And the fact that I am still moved by it, despite all the music I’ve now heard and adored, tells me what exactly about my life?  What core of me had been tapped?

If Bruce Chatwin is correct when he wrote in The Songlines, ‘Music is a memory bank for finding one’s way in the world’, then I’ve carried Sky’s version of Rameau’s Gavotte and Variations around in my body for three decades and it’s showed me a path through life.  If Chatwin is wrong, then this music is merely the reason why I’m a brilliant air-harpsichordist.  Either way, I’m deliriously happy that it exists in the world, that we have it in the first place.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, March 28 2009)

It may well be because of our city’s recent Festival of Hot Hot Heat but I’ve been thinking alot about a certain phrase: the morality of aesthetics.  Yes, it does sound like the title of Peter Singer’s latest, but it’s been hounding me, it’s been making me twitch, it’s even been keeping me up at night.  So I’m afraid that I’m going to exorcise it right here, right now, in this column, in public.  Hopefully it won’t be too gross an operation.

I’ve never been great at understanding the first word in my phrase – morality.  What’s the difference between morality and ethics? The thesaurus that can be raised by pressing F7 on my computer believes there is none.  God help the world’s youth!  (I am forty years old now so I am officially allowed to say such things.)  My Oxford dictionary gives better definitions: as an adjective a moral means to be concerned with goodness or badness of character; an ethic is a set of moral principles.  But this is all sounding like a Grade Seven General Studies class, so let’s move on to the good stuff.

Aesthetics.  Now that’s a word that really spins my nipples.  It looks spectacular, it feels divine in the mouth and on the lips, and it is everything in which I believe.  If aesthetics was a religion I’d be its most devout member, perhaps even a fanatic, but – shhh! – don’t tell anyone otherwise I’ll have taps on my phone and men in black suits at my door.  Although Mr Gates doesn’t seem that interested in it: his thesaurus offers only two words in response: ‘artistic’ and ‘visual’, both of which seem far too prosaic.   Again, reach for the Oxford.  As an adjective aesthetic means concerned with or sensitive to what is beautiful; as a noun it refers to a branch of philosophy (religion would be better) dealing with the principles of beauty and tastefulness, though let’s ignore that last word – taste in this context also sounds overly ordinary.

No doubt you’re wondering why the morality of aesthetics has been bothering me and you’re not at all convinced it’s because of temperatures nudging forty degrees.  Well, this is the reason: quite clearly we are nearing Economic Armageddon; we are also nearing Environmental Armageddon.  And this is a bit of a problem and requires attention.  However, where does that leave those of us who like beautiful sounds, or beautiful objects, or beautiful stories?  Where does it leave those who like beautiful faces?  Or beautiful souls?

It was Stendhal who said that beauty is the promise of happiness.  And despite the coming of the end of the world I want to be happy, goddamit!

Time to bring in the big guns, one of my top-five personal heroes, the High Priest of Aesthetics, Mr Oscar Wilde.  In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde writes, ‘Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.  This is a fault.’  (Can’t you just imagine him saying that at a dinner party, leaning back in his chair, red wine in hand, his arm around a young…well, never mind.)  Mr Wilde then adds this, and it’s a cracker: ‘Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated.  For these there is hope.’

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, February 28 2009)

During these summer holidays I’ve found myself spending evenings on the living-room floorboards, head on a cushion, a glass of wine not far away, a record on the record player – and a mobile phone in my hand somehow looking lost and deflated.  The phone isn’t in my hand because I’m about to make a call; it’s there because of the phone numbers it contains, two phone numbers in particular, contact details for people who’ve moved on to better things, if that’s what has happened.

The first number is for a work colleague.  I didn’t know him well but he was someone so very skilled at connecting people, someone adored by hundreds despite being a shaved-head, motor-bike-loving, anti-establishment punk (at least that’s how I saw him).  Why I came to have his number in my mobile is anyone’s guess, but I do have a picture of him near my desk so I see him most days and he sees me and makes sure I stay true.

The second number is for a cousin, a great, great woman, the closest I’ve had to a sister, someone I used to email or text when something brilliant had happened, someone who explained the blood that I have in my body, someone who told me that to get ahead I need to take risks, someone who encouraged me to compare myself to no one.  An Epsilon character (as per Huxley) someone said, a vital force said someone else; she was another anti-establishment punk I reckon.  I’m yet to put a photo of her near my desk because to me she is still alive and I want to keep her that way for as long as I can.

To send a text message to both of them.  ‘Hi, how r u?’  But what would happen?  Where would the message go?  Do the phones still exist?  Are they in drawers, the battery fading?  Or does the partner keep the phone fully charged by the bed as if it’s a version of the gone-away person, something that might suddenly flash and rumble into life?  An almost irritated message may come back to me: ‘You need to know that the person you loved has gone.’

Perhaps the phones no longer exist at all, dropped into a recycling box in a communications shop, but maybe the phone numbers still work although not in the way they once did back here on earth.  I could get a response from my text message.  ‘Hi, gr8 to hear from u!  I’m really well.  How r u? xox.’  But what would I do then?  I’d scull the wine, that’s what, and I’d stare at the phone and wonder if it’s me who may have shuffled off to Buffalo.

It could be that I shouldn’t have these phone numbers any more; maybe I should just press the delete button.  But I can’t have these two people erased all over again – I don’t want to lose this evidence of their living, of our connection.  Sometimes I think that despite what I know to be fact I should just write a message anyway and press SEND.  And then what?  I’d wait.  And keep waiting.  According to the Italian author Oriana Fallaci, ‘Death always announces itself by a kind of scent, impalpable perceptions, silent sounds.’

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, January 31 2009)

An Australian classic

In the last three weeks, He Who Likes to Drive and I have been in three different Australian cities.  Despite two of the cities often being lauded as wonderfully liveable or visually spectacular or both, I can’t help thinking that the places us modern first-world humans are creating can only be considered one thing – ugly as sin.  First you have to navigate the outer nowhere lands which are neither rural nor industrial nor suburban – they are quite simply empty, they have given up.  And then the ubiquitous suburbs start.  Always there are power-lines, looking like the skeletal remains of alien invaders.  If you’re lucky, you jump on a freeway and ignore it all.

Sure, eventually you’ll arrive at your destination and the comfort it offers, in our case the inner areas where the streets narrow to a human scale, where crumbling old abuts throwaway new, where trees have grown (as much as they can), where there is tangible evidence of life. But what you have to traverse to get there.  Of course there are flashes of brilliance – Melbourne’s inner-city lanes where cafes overlap one another, and Sydney’s Circular Quay (although it’s starting to feel like an open-air shopping mall) – but in the scheme of things these are just little sparks out of the dying coals.

How is it that we have created such horrific places?

In his great work The Australian Ugliness, the architect Robin Boyd offers this conclusion: ‘The Australian ugliness begins with fear of reality, denial of the need for the everyday environment to reflect the heart of the human problem [and it] ends with betrayal of the element of love and a chill near the root of national self-respect.’   I think Boyd is right.  When we persist in creating such ugliness, what does it say about how we feel about ourselves?

Boyd agrees that Australia’s built form does need ‘an injection of emotion and poetry’ but admits that if we could learn to turn out Frank Lloyd Wrights (and perhaps we have turned out just one – Glen Murcutt), there still wouldn’t be enough architects to do all that’s required.  But are architects the problem?  In A Pattern Language, another seminal tome on the human environment, the American Christopher Alexander suggests a way of creating places that have the elusive ‘quality without a name’.  The goal must be to produce places that evolve directly from the human experience, and it’s not all about physical beauty.  Us humans can be ugly sometimes so it’s only right that we have ugliness mirrored back for us.  However, we are more beautiful than ugly, more good than bad, more alive than dead.

So what to do?  In The Timeless Way of Building, his companion volume to A Pattern Language, Alexander tells us this: ‘There is no skill required.  It is only a question of whether you will allow yourself to be ordinary, and to do what comes naturally to you, and what seems most sensible, to your heart…’  How everything comes back to heart.  And love.  Or maybe I just like returning home to a place which is more landscape than anything else.  Even Boyd, who from my reading of him was a pessimist, admitted that ‘Canberra set out with good intentions and may yet succeed’.  Oh my city, please succeed.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, January 17 2009)

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