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PART 1: THE iPad

Not a bookshelf but a machine

So Steve Jobs from the Apple corporation has launched the iPad.  Good for him, is all I can say, though I can say something else, which is this: what a load of complete bollocks.  In covering this ridiculously hyped event my city’s local TV news bulletin took the angle that the iPad is the first great e-reader (no doubt they took this angle because per capita Canberra apparently reads more books than anywhere else in Australia).  And based on what can be found on Apple’s iPad website the angle is justified: beneath a picture of the gadget with an image of a bookshelf is this claim: ‘The iBooks app is a great new way to read and buy books.  Download the free app from the App store and buy everything from classics to best-sellers from the built-in iBookstore.  Once you’ve bought a book, it’s displayed on your Bookshelf.  Just tap it to start reading.’ A couple of things with this quote: one, Apple’s habit of referring to ‘app’ is damn annoying; two, the capitalised ‘B’ in iBookstore and Bookshelf, as if they now own the word ‘book’.

Being someone who loves to read, in fact a day doesn’t end well without some fiction in my head, I took an interest in this claim.  Well, a kind of interest; actually I got pretty angry pretty fast.  This is just another ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ toy that does a million things that we could always do.  At the risk of sounding like the greatest Luddite still walking the earth, the book – and by that I mean the thing with paper pages between cardboard covers – is a perfect invention: it does exactly what’s required of it.  The cover tells you what’s inside (to a certain degree anyway), and the pages take you on a journey.

Writing, especially fiction, is magic and this to me is the appeal of the book: how can this thing, which essentially is nothing more than ink on bits of flattened tree, take me on such a journey?  How is it that I end up caring about the characters when it’s all just tricks and lies on paper?  How is it that sometimes I’m so moved I have to go for a long, long walk to recover?  And then there’s the actual physical action of reading: the stillness.  You sit up in bed or lie on a couch or sun-lounge and you’re motionless (and absorbed) as this thing in your hands transports you to a completely different place and often a completely different time.  It really is magic.  But stories are complex, and story-making is complex (I reckon it’s the hardest thing), and there’s something wonderful when this complexity is presented in the simplest way imaginable.

Books don’t need extra buttons, they don’t need batteries.  In the scheme of things books aren’t burdensome to carry.  And if you’re going very far it’s rarely a hassle to pack a number of story companions.

Some Kindle thing

Despite what Apple and the other corporations in this e-reader racket want us to believe, there’s simply no way to improve on the design of the book.

Many compare what’s happening to reading books to what has been happening to listening to music over the last decade or so, but these contexts are totally different.  Personally, the ultimate way to listen to a great album – say, Remain in Light by Talking Heads, or The Queen is Dead by The Smiths, or Silent Shout by The Knife – is on vinyl, in my loungeroom, and most likely with a cheeky vodka somewhere very close by.  (And before you think I’m some crusty old audiophile I only bought my record player a couple of years ago.)  On vinyl, music is big, dynamic, multidimensional, warm, and, dare I say it, human.  But, as much as I love listening to music in this way, it’s a bit hard to strap onto my back the record player, the amp, the pre-amp and four speakers when I go for a walk with the dog.  So I have a nifty little mp3 player, not an iPod mind you, just your humble, no-brand-worth-mentioning mp3 player.  It’s tiny, much smaller than the Walkman, and it doesn’t skip like my old Discman used to do.  Plus I can load up a number of albums, so if I’m not in the mood for one band I can easily swap over to another, or even switch to a homemade best-of, like the personal Portishead mix  I’ve been listening to for the last few months (all songs burnt, might I add, off the CDs I own).  So in this context technology has made music transportable as well as, to a certain extent, self-managed.

But reading is a different kettle of fish.  You have to commit to a book, particularly a novel.  I choose a novel based on where I’m going and for how long I’ll be there; often I choose a novel to reflect what’s happening in my life – being a slow reader I know that I’ll be investing days if not weeks in a book.  For example, in November last year the partner and I went to Vanuatu (for a wedding, of all things) and I specifically chose Geraldine Brook’s People of the Book because it would be a big read, a complex read, and I needed this space and time to lose myself in the work (and lose myself I did – it’s a terrific story and an extraordinary piece of imagination).  What’s more, I read this novel in airport lounges, in planes, beside lagoons, beside the resort pool, in the resort gardens, in our room.  And this invention, the book, performed perfectly – it did exactly what I asked of it, no more, no less.  And the book will continue to perform perfectly; it will continue to do exactly what’s asked of it, no more or less.

What irks me the most about the iPad is that it is so obviously consumer manipulation – in terms of the e-reader function at least, it is saying this will be better for you, more convenient, when it so clearly won’t be either of these things.  If anyone can tell me what I’m missing, do share, but until then I – along with quite a few others, I’m relieved to report – say this: Gutenberg got the book right, let’s leave reading there.

PART 2: JD SALINGER

Interesting that in the same week the Apple corporation launched it’s iPad thing, one of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers JD Salinger died, on 27 January.  And he was one of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers because of just one book, The Catcher in the Rye. I’d not read the book until last year (rather embarrassing I know, especially when I, like the book’s protagonist Holden Caulfield, was private-school educated and didn’t do that well in that particular environment).  But it did have an impact on me: one mighty, memorable character, someone with attitude as well as flaws, someone who wanted to buck up against the context in which he’d been placed, which is a trait we never fail to admire.  Combined with this, the narration is aimed squarely at the reader; it’s a surprisingly intimate reading experience.

But what I’ve always found fascinating about Salinger as a writer is that he wrote nothing else of significance and spent much of his life a recluse, refusing to correspond with journalists or even fans.  Such mystery.  Was Salinger a flash in the pan, did he just have an amazing stroke of luck?  Was he not brave enough to start or finish another book?  Did he fear failure (reports suggest he certainly was very sensitive to criticism, but then again most artists are)?  Did he write other manuscripts and were they just as good if not better but simply refused for the manuscripts to be made public?  How tantalising if this is the case.  Or did he just lose himself in his own legend?  Was the mystique manufactured to keep himself in the front of the public’s mind because he had no new stories to do this for him?

Harper Lee of To Kill A Mockingbird fame is similar in that she too only ever wrote one great book.  Perhaps once a writer has created something as perfect as Catcher or Mockingbird there’s no chance of topping it so you might as well quit while you’re ahead.  Or it could be because the writer has put every fibre of their being into their creation that there’s nothing left to create something else.  We’ll never know – Salinger has taken his motivations not to publish again to his grave, and it’s highly likely that Harper Lee will do the same.  But there’s something appealing in the way these great writers have approached their careers – it could be said they just gave up after creating one great thing.  This ability to give up, of course, is assisted by stratospheric sales of their works – Catcher was still selling 200,000 copies per year and publishers claim that to date Mockingbird has sold 30,000,000 copies worldwide – but the fact that these writers ended up resting for the remainder of their lives seems to make us revere them even more.

Perhaps these books were miracles?  I’m just so glad I have both in my library, on the bookshelf invisibly marked In The Event Of An Emergency Do All You Can To Rescue These Puppies.

With all confidence I can report to you that I’ll never have The Catcher in the Rye (or To Kill a Mockingbird) stored on the hard-disk of some bogus iPad contraption.  It will always have a physical presence in my house.

Because books reinforce my soul.

Computers might make my life easier – including being able to post these words on this blog – but they can never reinforce my soul.

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We survived!  Yesterday the partner and I returned from what organisers claim is the world’s biggest touring contemporary music festival – the behemoth that is Australia’s Big Day Out.  We attended the Sydney 22 January show, which was only the second time we’ve done a BDO, the first being in 2001 when we watched the likes of PJ Harvey (who was brilliant), Placebo and Coldplay go through their paces.  Whilst He Who Stayed Up Until Midnight To Book The Tickets and I both love our contemporary music, very much in fact, to the point that for me it’s rare that a week goes by when I don’t return from a visit to my favourite independent music store with a CD or vinyl record in hand, in the days leading up to our, well, big day out we began to feel more than a little apprehensive.

For a start our combined age is 77, which is bloody scary when put like that, so we’re not really in the festival’s target demographic.  Plus neither of us likes the heat and crowds make us nervous (which means we’re not huge fans of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras either).  And I hate city traffic.  So considering that we were driving three hours to Sydney to share Olympic Park with 50,000 revellers in temperatures hovering over 40 degrees we had every reason to feel a bit on the ‘this could be very scary’ side.

But, yes, we survived, with sore legs and a touch of sunburn our only war wounds.  Though I do have another wound, which I’ll share with you shortly.

The Horrors' Faris Badwan

All the bands we saw largely impressed.  Miami Horror did their New Order-pop thing.  Sugar Army were heavier and moodier than I expected.  Karnivool thrilled with their Tool-esque twists and turns and professionalism.  Decoder Ring were deeper and grungier live than their recordings would suggest.  What I heard of Oh Mercy made me want to learn more about these guys.  Passion Pit, whose Manners album is a bit too poppy for my taste, looked like a bunch of good people – more than once they reminded the audience to look after each other because of the scorching heat.  I thoroughly enjoyed The Horrors; I’d love to see a full-length gig from these guys, although the guitars were lost in what was a muddy mix, but that could have been due to the ear-plugs I wore throughout the day – I used to think ringing in the ears was the sign of a good night out, but these days I love my music too much to do any further damage.

Dizzee Rascal was certainly a crowd favourite – we watched a stadium filled with 30,000 people going, erm, bonkers for the East Londoner.  Lily Allen did her catchy pop thing.  Phrase and his band chucked everything but the kitchen sink into their set and thrilled a small though devoted crowd.  And then there was Muse, who rocked the stadium senseless.  Within a couple of minutes of walking onto the stage they had everyone – and I really do mean everyone – singing along to the chorus of ‘Uprising’, the first song on their overblown but great album ‘The Resistance’:

They will not force us,

They will stop degrading us,

They will not control us,

We will be victorious.

For me, however, it was Peaches who was the pick of the musical crop: funny, funky, sexy, theatrical, outrageous – she was the only act I saw who was committed to actually stirring the pot.

I wrote ‘musical crop’ in the previous sentence because my personal highlight of the entire day was being able to watch Angelica Mesiti’s ‘Rapture (Silent Anthem)’, a piece of video art that won the 58th Blake Prize, which is Australia’s oldest art gong dedicated to ‘spirituality and religious and cultural diversity’ (the latter being more than a little interesting in this context).  In a darkened tent we were invited to sit on bean bags and watch on a large screen slowed-down images of audience faces from the 2008 Big Day Out.  The hero-worshipping eyes, the ecstatic smiles, almost the pain of being so close (close to what? close to so many things) – this is art that knows precisely what it wants to say.  In twenty years time it’ll be this that I’ll recall.  For more information, visit http://www.angelicamesiti.com.

A screen grab from Angelica Mesiti's 'Rapture (Silent Anthem)', 2009.

The crowd?  Despite the heat and the amount of drinking going on and the bucket-loads of other substances thrown into the mix as well and the general overall intensity of the event, everyone in the main seemed polite, respectful and looking out for each other.  In the twelve hours we were there we saw only one altercation, and that was just between a drunk bloke who’d walked into a group of young girls, or the girls had walked into him, whatever, there were just a bit of harmless verbal jousting and that was it.  That the event organisers had set up free water stations, were regularly showering the crowd with water cannons, had volunteers spraying anyone who needed it and were evicting those who looked too wobbly on their feet no doubt helped to keep things as harmonious as possible without it turning into a hippy love-fest.

So, if you’re interesting in sampling what’s hot (huh!) in the Australian and international music scene, there’s probably no better opportunity than the Big Day Out.

But I’d be lying if I finished this post here, because there’s something very worrying going on with this festival.  If you’re looking for a crowd that reflects the diverse cultural mix of modern Australia then you’re not going to find it at Big Day Out.  I was hard-pressed to see anyone of Asian or African or Middle Eastern appearance.  The BDO crowd is 99% Anglo-Saxon.  And very proud of it: there’s a heck of a lot of Aussie-flag capes, Aussie-flag dresses, Down Under terry-towelling hats and nationalistic tattoos on display.  I really have no idea what motivates someone to have HANDMADE IN AUSTRALIA permanently emblazoned across their chest.  One Australian band that I won’t name observed of the crowd that they looked to be ‘a good Aussie lot’, as if this was the best compliment imaginable.  Christ, at one point even the young blokes manning the Skywalker ride got a crowd doing the completely inane ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!’ chant – I mean, what’s that all about?

Obviously the fact that the festival runs over the Australia Day long weekend has something to do with it, but that can’t explain the intensity of the feeling that’s on show.

Statistics regularly reveal Australia to be one of the most multicultural societies in the world, reputedly second only to Canada.  The 2006 census showed that 50% Australians were born overseas or had one or both parents born overseas.  There are 266 languages spoken at home, the most common being Italian, Greek, Cantonese and Arabic.  But none of this is on show at the Big Day Out.  What’s on show is the most nationalistic crowd you’re ever likely to experience outside of an official Australia Day event.  And, even though I’m a six-generation Australian and rather fond of the country I call home, this display of nationalism didn’t sit comfortably with me one bit.  It’s just plain ugly.  And it’s not harmless cultural pride either.  It’s nationalism, pure and simple.  It’s protectionism, it’s aggressive xenophobia.

In 2007 the Big Day Out organisers infamously reminded attendees that the festival was not an Australia Day event and asked people to leave the flag-waving at home.  Predictably this caused an outcry, with the then prime minister, the fear-mongering John Howard, describing the move as ‘stupid’.  But I reckon the organisers could see the future of their festival and didn’t like it one bit, and I get the feeling they still don’t like it one bit.  Regrettably, though understandably, they’ve not had a second go at stopping the nationalism from getting out of hand.

The potentially frightening thing is this: what exactly did the Sydney crowd have in mind when it sang along so fervently to that Muse chorus?

Here are two life-snippets from the last few weeks or so that have been worrying me senseless.

Life-Snippet Number One: just before Christmas and keen to buy a new sun-hat – I’m at an age when these things matter – I walk into a surf/street-clothing store in the very guts of this modern and supposedly progressive city I live in (it’s not yet 100 years old, and it’s the only state or territory that voted for a republic in the 1999 referendum).  As I scan the shelves and racks for what I’m looking for I watch as two women walk into the store.  They’re middle-aged and might have dyed blonde hair.  They walk up to the shop assistant, a youngish man, and say they’re looking for a Christmas gift for their thirteen-year-old nephew – a kind of cool school bag, they request.  The shop assistant dutifully takes them to a display of bags hanging on the wall.  He points one out.  One of the women, who has a very broad Australian accent, says, ‘Oh not that!  We don’t want him to look gay!’ She isn’t joking.  ‘Yeah,’ says her friend, ‘we don’t want him to look GAY!’  The shop assistant, obviously taken aback but still keen for a sale, returns the bag to the display and then suggests another that might be suitable.  ‘Nah,’ says the first woman, ‘that looks gay as well’.  Again the shop assistant looks bemused, at best.  I walk out, hatless.

Canberra's not anywhere near the beach but it's the thought that counts.

Life-Snippet Number Two: on the Wednesday night just gone I visit my mechanic to pick up my car, a shitty little Barina thing that I don’t use that much because I like getting around on my pushbike (more on this in a forthcoming post).  My mechanic has his workshop in the Chinatown district just down from where I live, an inner-suburb that’s filled with students, public housing, and groovy young families that also get around on bikes, or in Subaru stationwagons, or environmentally-sensitive hybrids.  As my bill is being tallied up, I turn around and look out the workshop window.  Two women walk past: one is tall, the other shorter; the shorter woman has short dyed-red hair.  There is nothing particularly unusual about these women, except they’re holding hands, actually it’s more like they’re holding fingers, the way people who are very comfortable with themselves and their surroundings can often do.  Walking behind the women is another couple, an older man and woman; they’d be in their late sixties or early seventies.  The older man taps the woman – his wife, I assume – on the arm and points out the women ahead by doffing his head in their direct.  As if it’s the freakiest thing he’s ever seen.  I have no reason to think that the older couple is about to abuse the women – they look friendly enough.  But why is the sight of two women holdings hands remarkable, notable, even worthy of any comment whatsoever, even on this blog?  I return to the mechanic’s counter and settle my bill.

So what’s it all about?  Were the women on the hunt for a sports bag for their nephew truly worried that a particular design would have an impact on their young nephew’s sexuality?  Or were they already worried about their nephew’s sexuality – was he displaying signs of ‘sensitivitiy’?  Or were they just bogan women who themselves had the sensitivity of a punch-drunk moron?  And what of the old couple following the lesbian couple who were daring to hold hands in public?  In effect, were they saying to each other, ‘Look at those freaky lezzo women?’  or ‘Why do they have to do that in public and shove our faces in it?’  Do either of these stories give a hint to what modern love – or sexuality, which are so closely related they’re almost the same thing – is all about in 2010, now that the infamous naughties are finished?

Based on the two stories presented above, my conclusion is that despite all the societal advances since the Second World War, we’ve not really pushed the whole issue of sexual diversity, expression and freedom that much forward at all.

The poll below is a start, but comment however you see fit…

Now it’s dawning on me that we really are into a brand new year and I’m coming to terms with all the hope and expectation and mental exhaustion that goes along with it, and then after the five days of almost-forty-degree temperatures that we’ve had in this Australian part of the world (weather we’ve always had, it has to be said, but it doesn’t get easier, in fact it seems to get harder), and now with everything that’s happening in Haiti – what can I say about that disaster without sounding vacuous? – I’m afraid that the dear old brain has quite simply run aground.  Already.

So what better (read: easier) thing to do than post a handful of photographs, all of which were taken during the Christmas and New Year just gone in the small town an hour east of here where my father lives.  It’s essentially a nineteenth-century cattle-grazing joint, but the mainstreet is remarkably intact.  I took these shots while walking around after lunch one day, as all about me half of the city I live in was passing through the town on their way to the coast to escape…pretty well everything they know.

So there’s a picture of one of the strangest (and possibly most evil) Christmas shop-window displays imaginable.  There’s a soldier in the sky and under a streetlight, the soldier, of course, actually being the main part of the town’s beloved war memorial.  There’s the remnant of what must have been quite a session for a few bored local teenagers, or a few bored local hippies, or, let’s not pick on the usual suspects, maybe the local town priest who just needed a bit of time out, and who’d blame him for that?  And there’s someone else in the sky, this time a cemetery angel.  And, finally, another thing from the local cemetery: plastic flowers on a grave, which has always struck me as odd, the plastic, though at a time when someone so cherished has been lost just a little bit of colourful permanence wouldn’t go astray, surely.

Permanence. Now that’s something worth thinking about over the coming days (though I already know intransience is something us human types can never really have).

POSTCRIPT: while I’ve been getting this post together I’ve been listening to Unmap by Volcano Choir, a collaboration between Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Collections of Colonies of Bees.  I won’t write at length about the album right now because I want to let it percolate for a few days so I can fully get my head around what the album’s trying to do, but let me say that mostly it’s a cracker.  For anyone interested in Bon Iver it’s certainly worth a listen to, particularly ‘Still’, which is a stunning reworking of ‘Woods’ off the Blood Bank EP.  I’m not going to upload that song here, because somehow it’d feel like gutting a great piece of music, but it’s worth purchasing Unmap just for this – talk about something wonderful to fall asleep to, which is exactly what I’ll be doing in a couple of minutes.  Until I write something a little bit more intelligent on this, check out the band’s website at http://www.volcanochoir.com.

I’m learning that there’s an art to making the most of the final day of a holiday, particularly at Christmas/New Year when much of the break is spent at home with family and friends and pets and books and albums.  Oh, and the food, the MOUNTAINS of food, and the booze, okay, MOUNTAINS of booze, though that should really be OCEANS, shouldn’t it.  But when the excesses are over and done with and we feel and look like beached whales and the chill-out days are fast coming to an end, a decision has to be made about how those final hours will be spent.  I’m lucky that not only do I have a job I enjoy – working in the arts has plenty of rewards to balance out the challenges – I also get to return to my writing routine, so it’s not like I feel as if I’m being sent to jail.  But still, how exactly to spend that one last glorious day of anthing-goes freedom?

In recent times I’ve thought that the last day should be set up to be a slice of the ideal life.  So it could be waking up in bed to the smell of bacon and eggs being hand-delivered on a tray by someone you love; or getting up at the crack of dawn and diving into a wild ocean; or, if this is your thing (and it’s certainly not mine, I can tell you that for free) finally waking after a walking-dead night on the town, not a skerrick of memory left but some stranger in your bed and in your mouth a taste that reminds you of newly laid bitumen and green chicken – the gone-off green, not the green-curry green.  For me, I decided, rather than reading the newspaper while eating my way through a large bowl of cereal, muesli, lecithin, yoghurt and milk with a side of lite cranberry juice, I’d have brekkie on the couch whilst watching the final half-a-dozen episodes of Six Feet Under. I love this show – along with The Office it’s in my top three TV series of all time.  (The third, rather embarrassingly, is the BBC’s Brideshead Revisited series from the 1980s.)

How great it was to sit and watch the death throes of a show about death: a show whose thesis is ‘Everything.  Everyone.  Everywhere.  Ends’.  Because holidays die, that’s the inescapable fact.  Because holidays are a microcosm of our lives: they have a distinct beginning, when we know little about how our festive (or festy, as more than one person I know has been saying) season is going to pan out; and then there’s the middle section where we start to feel that the end isn’t that far away; and then, all too soon, we’re beginning to count down the hours, because soon this brief summer life will come to an end.  After I cried my way through the extraordinary final ten minutes of Six Feet Under where – and SPOILER ALERT for those three people on earth who’ve not yet seen the show – everyone dies, I decided that I better do something else, something…practical.

So I redecorated the wall of my writing room with a new series of photos.

Being a Polaroid freak, most of the photos I usually have on the wall above my computer are of the instant square variety with the thick strip of white down the bottom for witty captions.  And since over the last few years I’ve been getting crazier and crazier about taking Polaroids (probably because the technology is fast reaching its own demise) I have hundreds of them so there’s quite a few to choose from.  But this year I decided to reach a wary hand into my vaults – cardboard boxes in the cupboard, in other words – and put together a brief series of photos that illustrate significant places in my life.  So there’s a shot of a rock garden I built at the back of the house in which I navigated those nasty teenager years; nasty for me and everyone around me.  There’s a shot of my family’s rented green weatherboard cottage in the Blue Mountains; how I loved that place, and so often do I think of visiting, but if it’s not there any more, or has been turned into some grotesque mansion, then I’d fall apart, I really would).  There’s a shot of a dream house at Cottesloe Beach in Perth, a messy humble shack with the million-dollar view, a shack that no doubt has been turned into some grotesque mansion.

There’s a shot of a herb rack in an inner-city grouphouse I shared for a year or two back in the 1990s.  There’s a photo of a black VW Beetle on an island called Inishboffin off the south-west coast of Ireland.  There’s a photo of He Who Is Still With Me when we went down to Melbourne to visit a photographer friend.  And there’s a photo of the house I now live in, a nondescript ex-government thing that was built in 1959, which is very old for this young city – a national capital – I call home.  Oh, alright, I should admit to including just a couple of Polaroids in my display: one of an 1830s farm cottage where I stay when I need focus and solitude (and to commune with rats and mice and snakes and lizards, and the odd stray lamb), and another of a desk I’d used when on a residency last year.

Of course, once I Blue-tacked the photos on the wall and then sat in my chair to admire my handiwork, I began to cry at this as well, because there, in a handful of photos, was the entirety of my life so far.

Despite my forty-one years (and rising), it seemed so…slight.

So what else was there to do but spend the last few hours of my holiday scrubbing the bath, because, quite frankly, it was so disgusting houseguests had been refusing to use it.

Now I’ve thought about this issue – or is it a challenge? – and have written out these words, I can’t see much of an art to having a memorable, or at least meaningful, last day of a holiday.  But I am glad that mine has turned out to be a day of thought and depth, a day that moved me, a day that got me thinking about my impermanence.  The makers of Six Feet Under said their aim was to encourage viewers to consider/confront their mortality (I actually typed immortality then, which is a Freudian slip if I ever saw one, or just a desire, or a wish, or a useless plea for mercy) and that’s exactly what happened to me.  And the cliché goes that a picture equals a thousand words, though I think photographs of your own life equal novella-length stories, if not the whole novel shebang.  And they say that there’s nothing more centring than soaking in a bath for an hour.  So now that I have a bath that’s actually white I reckon I should get the water running, pour myself a glass of wine, crank up the stereo with a great album, which I’m guessing is going to be Hospice by The Antlers (yes, yet another reference to that album on this blog), because it fits this mood I’m in, a mood of holiday endings, and lay myself down and close my eyes.

Perhaps that’s where the art is: just being still as the end comes.

Somehow, it seems, it all comes down to footwear.

Recently I was invited to speak at a university’s graduation ceremony up at Parliament House and once I recovered from the shock of being asked, I noticed how the inviter was staring at what I had on my feet, a mangy old pair of red-and-white-striped runners.  ‘I should warn you,’ she said, ‘you’ll need better shoes than that – you’ll be seated on the stage beside the chancellor!’  I sought advice from a good friend, a journalist, who told me how she’d done a similar gig and a week later was approached by a woman who congratulated her on the speech but also took the opportunity to comment on the knee-high black leather boots.

A classic Blundstone boot...before wear and tear ages it beautifully.

During the writing and rewriting of my speech, making sure to read it aloud for flow and mistakes (there’s nothing more off-putting when presenting than finding a wayward word or apostrophe), I went out for a break with a friend – who also stared at my foot clobber.  This time I had on what I like to wear during the week: a pair of well-worn Blundstone boots, brown-leather with the elastic up the sides.

My friend said, ‘You’re not going to wear those up at Parliament House, are you?’

‘Of course,’ I replied emphatically.

‘You can’t – graduation is… significant.’

As if the importance of the event was lost on me.

‘But Blundstones are my thing!’ I protested.

As the writing of the draft speech lurched this way and that, those words lingered: Blundstones are my thing. I recalled the pair I wore as a teenager; I remembered being crammed into the back of my school-friend Stephanie’s little car and taking a photo of my boots because how perfect (and perfect is the word) they looked on my feet.  Ten years later, after I’d under-graduated, I moved to Perth to find myself (I didn’t) and a friend wrote me a letter to say how in the library she’d seen a pair of Blundstones walking along on the other side of the stacks and she thought I’d come to say hello.  More recently I spotted a revered member of the local arts community wearing Blundstones as she floated through the central plaza of my city, and I realised I’d be able to approach her because of what she had on her feet.

How can a make of boot mean so much?  Is it the Australian-ness?  But what does Australian-ness actually mean?  What is national culture? And at what point does national culture become nationalism? British author Richard Aldington wrote that ‘Nationalism is a silly cock crowing on its own dunghill and calling for larger spurs and brighter beaks.’  When does that ‘silly cock’ transform, Jekyll-like, into something much more evil?

All I know for certain is that, as absurd as it might sound, Blundstone boots complete me – they are my personal culture. Tens of millions of personal cultures might make up the national culture, but that’s not really any of my business.  So, stubbornly, I did wear the boots up at Parliament House last week, and as I delivered the speech – it had as its central theme the idea of ‘living what we love’, which is apt now I think about it – I felt solid on the ground, I felt anchored.

And sometimes that’s all that’s needed.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, 2 January 2010.)

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