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A Cataract Gorge postcard, 1906

Last week I came to Tasmania with only a backpack and a laptop in a travel-case and, let me be frank, a shitload of hope that I’ll write well here (and by ‘well’ I mean, as I’ve noted before, to write by hand).  While the jury’s out on the latter, the minimalist luggage situation has caused one very significant problem: no room for CDs.  In the past when I’ve gone away to write I’ve been able to go in my trusty Barina, meaning more than enough room for a swag of CDs.  But not this trip.

Of course, I have an mp3-player contraption loaded with some much-loved albums, recent gems by Four Tet, Frightened Rabbit and Volcano Choir, amongst others.  There is, however, a need to hear music through the air, music that fills more than the space between my ears.  For that purpose I made room for just one CD from the hundreds (possibly thousands – eek) I have collected over the years, so I chose very, very carefully indeed.  I chose what I know will be in the top three albums of 2010.

When I arrived at the Gorge, tired from a day of travelling (two flights, a stack of waiting and reading in between) but also excited about commencing another period of writing in an unfamiliar place, I discovered that the CD case was broken.  I feared the worst – the actual CD could be irreparably damaged.  I needed to play it to make sure it worked.  In the first hour I hunted around the cottage for a CD player, getting increasingly desperate.  Could I really be about to spend the next month – a whole month – without music in the air?

After turning the place upside down (though not really: I am at heart a gentle soul, and this cottage is 120 years old and, apparently, one of the most photographed in Tasmania, so it deserves respect) I realised that there was no magic music machine here.  Immediately, and just a little shamelessly, I emailed the Launceston City Council who manages the Cataract Gorge Artist-in-Residence Program.  No doubt sensing the distress in my words, they offered to bring around a CD player – but they couldn’t do it for a few days.  Could I cope until Thursday? they asked.  No, of course I couldn’t, but I wasn’t about to push my luck any further.  For the next 96 hours there was no sound in the cottage other than that of pen on paper, fingers on laptop keyboard, and, at the end of each day, the sweet relief of white wine being poured into a champagne glass.

Then the glorious moment arrived: two lovely representatives from the Launceston City Council came around and dropped off a brand-spanking new CD player.  ‘We were just waiting for someone to ask,’ they said generously as they lifted the handsome black beast from the box.  An hour later, after a cup of a tea and a chat (we spent most of it talking about blogging, would you believe), they left me to my own devices.  But the stereo stubbornly refused to play my CD – it claimed that there was ‘no CD’ even though I could see such a thing on the spindle.  I pressed every button I could find and swore like a rabid trooper, but still my CD couldn’t be brought to life.

Being at times the most tenacious person you’ve ever met (or not met, as the case may be), I realised that the CD player had a USB port and I had a legal download of the album on my laptop.  Hooray for technology after all!  I put the album onto a memory stick that had once been used as a marketing gimmick, put the stick into the CD player, and…the bastard thing still wouldn’t work.  It quit playing halfway through tracks, and quite steadfastly refused to broadcast whole sections of the album.  I cleared the memory stick and put the album on it a second time, but it was still no good – the same mega-frustrating problem.

In the morning I’d be travelling two and a half hours to the other end of Tasmania to spend a couple of days in Hobart.  I hatched a plan: while in the big smoke I’d buy a damn good memory stick and see if that would fix a matter that was now keeping me up at night.  After spending much of my time holed up in an 1840s whaler’s cottage (poor bloody whales) and giving a workshop on writing about place, I ducked into town to get the much-desired memory stick – despite the fact that I’m running out of money, I didn’t skimp on price – and this morning I jumped on the bus back to Launceston.  Would what I had safe and secure in my laptop bag fix this hurdle to my month-long residency?

It was an interesting bus trip to say the least.  Behind me was a man who, with earphones in his ears, insisted on laughing loudly to himself the whole time as if he was in his own private comedy show.  Even more worrying, in the seats in front of me were two heavily tattooed young men who spent the journey talking loudly and proudly about how they’d both just gotten out of jail.  One of the men ‘couldn’t read or nuffin’’.  The other man had gone to Hobart to see his ‘missus’ before she too was sent to jail, but rather than stay with her he’d spent the night on the streets; this same man wondered if his mate knew that sometimes you can shoot a wombat twelve times and it may not die.  The poor granny beside me did nothing but stare straight ahead, refusing to even blink for fear of being knifed.  I had flash-backs to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  Needless to say I clutched onto my newly purchased memory stick very tight, as if it was made of Unobtainium.

But then, thankfully, gratefully, I arrived in Launceston and walked back up to the Gorge.  Would the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage be soon filled with the sounds of an album that I know will be in the top ten of the decade?

As soon as I stepped into the cottage, I downloaded the album onto the new memory stick and then plugged the stick into the stereo.  Oh dear Lord, there it was at last.  Music in the air, good music, great music.  But it’s not just any music.  What I played this morning – and am still playing this evening as I write this post – does everything I expect of great music: it is clever, it is beautiful, it is dark (to the point of grimness); it makes you want to cry one minute and then swing your hips the next, or even do a bit of air-guitar; it is new, thoughtful, sometimes funny, but above all it takes risks.

It’s a clash, a mash-up, a remix and a reimagining.

Interested in hearing This Mortal Coil versus Sigur Ros?  Philip Glass versus Elton John?  REM versus Sia?  Want a listening journey that encompasses David Lynch soundtracks, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Coldplay, Nancy Sinatra, Nina Simone, Nirvana, Bon Iver, and Harry Dean Stanton, Charles Bukowski and Bob Dylan, just to name a few artists represented in this collection?   Do you have a penchant for melancholia and the more reflective side of eletronica?  If the answer is yes to these questions, you need Introversion by Irish DJ/producer/remixer/mash-up artist Phil Retrospector.  Amazingly it isn’t available commercially, but you can listen to it here.

Can I be so bold as to say that if the Coldplay versus The Beetles versus Joe Anderson mash-up called ‘Jude Will Fix It’ doesn’t make you smile or bring you to tears, or both at the same time, then you may want to check for a pulse – and I’m not even a crazy fan of these bands individually.  So I end this tale with a declaration and a request: if a wild Tasmanian storm comes Launceston’s way (the weather reports are saying that it’s quite possible this week) and I get flushed out of my little cliff-face cottage and washed into the Tamar River and never come up for air, then please have this song playing as you file out of the crematorium.

Last week I came to Tasmania with only a backpack and a laptop in a travel-case, but now I have music in the air.

A slightly neurotic, obsessive, even superstitious tradition I have when on a residency is to take one Polaroid photograph per day, no more, no less, Monday to Friday, not on weekends.  It’s a visual diary of my time away, but more importantly it gives me a break from the notepad, from the computer – it takes me out of my wretched old brain.  As strange as it might seem, this self-inflicted routine can be pretty bloody stressful.  Every day must get its Polaroid; there’s no option to rollover the shot to the following day.  Plus the technology is almost extinct: if I drop my camera it can’t be replaced and they’ve stopped making the film, so the only stock that is available is what’s remaining in warehouses, which means it’s currently $50 for a pack of ten.  Not cheap.

Making sure I’d get my picture was exactly what I was doing this afternoon when a young girl did the strangest thing.

Launceston (pronounced ‘Lon-sess-tn’, or just ‘Lonnie’) isn’t without its charms: there’s Cataract Gorge on the city’s doorstep, and the Tamar River, and there are more old buildings than you could poke a stick at, as well as a heap of other character-filled sites – a monkey enclosure in the town park, anyone?  But still I couldn’t find anything that would fit the bill.  As the afternoon lengthened I began to panic.  For a moment I even considered taking a shot of some of the local faces, because they’re hard faces, all toughness.  But, quite frankly, I was too scared they’d slice me open with a broken pint glass so I just kept going on my way.

Thankfully, almost miraculously, just as the sun began disappearing behind the nearby hills, I saw something shiny in the last-minute light: a sign hanging off a facade: ‘Carlton Draft – Brewery Fresh’.   At last, this would be it!  I lined it up, tried it this way and that, made my decision, and then pressed the button and the magic paper whirred its way out of the camera.  Within seconds I could tell it was a good Polaroid, though not a great one, but that didn’t matter – the day’s photographic mission was done and dusted.

Relieved, I started walking back to the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage via the central mall, but a young girl approached me; behind her was a group of a dozen or so other youths, milling about, looking both excited and restless as if about to stage a revolution.  The girl, who had in hand a postcard and a black marker, stepped up close and said something to me, so I removed the mp3-player earphones from my ears.  (I’m still not sick of The Antlers’ ‘Hospice’ album, and I hope that day never comes.)

‘Can I tell you about something?’ the girl asked politely though just a little nervously.

‘Sure,’ I said.  I almost added, I’m an artist-in-residence in the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage so I’m happy to do all kinds of crazy shit.  But I didn’t say this because it would have been naff as well as untrue – I may be an artist-in-residence in the Gatekeeper’s Cottage, but that’s no license to do all kinds of crazy shit.

‘Have you heard of To Write Love On Her Arms?’ she asked, handing me the postcard.

‘No, I haven’t,’ I replied.

‘Well, we’re raising awareness about depression.  On this postcard are some website addresses.  Basically we’re simply asking people to care.’  Then she looked up at me as if about to let me know that my fly was down (which, regrettably, it often is).  ‘We’re writing ‘love’ on people’s arms,’ she said.  ‘Do you mind if I write ‘love’ on your arm?’

‘No,’ I said politely though just a little nervously, ‘I don’t mind.’

So she wrote ‘love’ in big black letters on the skin of my upper arm, finishing it off with the neatest of love hearts.  ‘If anyone asks you about it,’ she advised, ‘just show them the postcard.  All we want is for people to talk about the issue.’

‘Of course,’ I said, wondering who in Launceston was going to ask me why I had ‘love’ written on my inner arm.

We said goodbye and off I went towards the end of the mall, the safety of the Gatekeeper’s Cottage – my temporary home – not far ahead.  In one hand the day’s Polaroid was developing nicely, the rich deep colours of the beer sign slowly but surely becoming more pronounced and defined.  But written on my inner arm was the word ‘love’ complete with its love heart.  Right now, the postcard is beside me on the desk.  It says, ‘We will be collecting photos, writing on arms, and handing out textas for you to do the same.  We will be there to start it, and we want you to carry it to everyone.’

The things that happen when you go scouring a city for a Polaroid.

(PS I’ll post the actual beer-sign picture one day…soon.)

Directly behind me is a 100,000-person city. Really.

Courtesy of the Launceston City Council, the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage, pictured above, is my home for the next four weeks.  For those not familiar with this neck of the woods, Launceston is a small city in the northern part of Tasmania.  Between Tasmania and Antarctica is…well, nothing except a shitload of ocean.

The 120-year-old Kings Bridge Cottage is perched on the side of a 200-million-year-old dolomite cliff overlooking the South Esk River.  From where I’m sitting, if I look to the right I may as well be in wilderness because all there is to see is dark brown deep water and bush-covered valley walls (with the sound of rapids not far behind); but if I look to the left, there’s traffic scurrying across two bridges and further back the red-roof clutter of the Launceston CBD.  So this humble cottage (though it’s not really that humble: four times a day cruise boats glide up and down the river, the passengers snapping away at this architectural miracle, so I stand a distance back from the windows in case I look like a caged animal) is a gatekeeper in more ways than one.

Why I am here?  Because the good folk of the Launceston City Council have the generosity and foresight to offer their gatekeeper’s cottage to artists who not only want to progress a particular project but are also willing to engage with the local community.  Which means I have a responsibility to write and to connect.  (I have decided that while I’m here I will write everything – even blog posts – by hand, meaning handwriting.  For those who’ve had the great misfortune of experiencing my illegible scrawl, this will be quite an achievement, if I can pull it off.)

But that responsibility of writing.  It has me thinking of a quote by Ben Okri, author of The Famished Road.  ‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully, which is to say write well.  Within this responsibility is that of being truthful.  To charm, to amuse, to enchant, to take use out of ourselves, these are all part of beauty.  But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt while they were alive (because they can’t really do it the same way when dead), and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’  (A Way of Being Free, 1997)

So here I am, in a 120-year-old gatekeeper’s cottage perched on the edge of a 200-million-year-old dolomite cliff, hoping, by heart and hand, to bear witness in my own way to the beauties, ordinariness and horrors of my time.

It sounds so bloody grand.  And hard.

Oh Christ, what have I done.

The following feature article was first published in The Canberra Times on 10 April 2010.  Many, many thanks to the following Australian author-bloggers who generously participated in the story: James Bradley, Sophie Cunningham, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Alec Patric and Charlotte Wood.  Thanks also to Canberra Times Features Editor, Gillian Lord.

Apparently it happens to most of us at some stage.  You’re happily travelling through life, getting all the pragmatic stuff done while trying to hold on to one or two dreams, maybe even achieving a dream when the stars align, but then, to everyone’s surprise, including your own, you go to bed very late one night realising that you’ve become…a blogger. I didn’t mean this to happen; this wasn’t one of my dreams.  Like a sworn TV-naysayer suddenly drawn to the latest reality show, I – a humble writing hack and up until the middle of last year a complete on-line Neanderthal – am now the proud owner of my own sparkling ‘web log’.  It has the rather unwieldy title of Under the Counter or a Flutter in the Dovecot.  And I am not alone in my blogging activities.  According to sources, there are 112,000,000 blogs in the world.  If my maths is right, and it’s often not, every fiftieth person around the globe is blogging.

There are blogs about everything, from crochet to Christ.  If you care to go looking, you will find ‘J-blogs’ (blogs written by journalists or those with a Jewish focus), ‘mummy blogs’ (about home and family life) and ‘bloggernacles’ (blogs written by Mormons).  Some blogs are open diaries or scrapbooks, while others are thoughtfully written on-line magazines, enthusiastically – and often professionally – presented by one person or a group.  Some are interactive adjuncts to newspapers or barely concealed marketing tools for home-produced goods.  And it’s not just mums and dads or people with no social skills or insomniacs who have flocked to the medium.  A number of Australian writers loyally maintain blogs.  On these sites you won’t find a photograph of the writer’s dog sleeping dreamily amongst the petunias (well, not often), but good, solid literary stuff – in-depth analysis of writing trends, cultural comment, and artful polemic, and that’s just for starters.  Sometimes they write about food.

Being curious about why successful writers have dived into the murky e-waters of Blog Ocean, I plucked up the courage to email a handful of dedicated scribes – through their blogs, of course – to see what’s going on.  Why, when your works are published around the world and well-reviewed and read by hundreds of thousands of people, when your works win or get short-listed for prestigious literary prizes and the rights are sold to movie makers, do upper-echelon writers want to muck around in an environment where so much is rubbish?  Isn’t it like living on the right side of the tracks but wanting to play with the rough kids at the local garbage tip?

Sydney-based Charlotte Wood, author of The Submerged Cathedral, which was short-listed for the 2005 Miles Franklin Literary Award, and the widely-acclaimed The Children, began blogging in early 2009.  In March this year she decided to put her food-related blog How to Shuck an Oyster on ice (so to speak) to focus on the writing of her latest novel.  She says her original motivation was to talk to her friends about food and amuse herself while at it.  ‘I began the blog when our house was being renovated last year,’ says Wood.  ‘We were living out of suitcases for four months in other people’s houses and I found it difficult to settle firmly into writing my novel-in-progress.’

Alec Patric is a St. Kilda bookseller and, more importantly, a creative writer of poetry and novel-length works.  He admits to never having visited a blog until last year, when he was introduced to the concept by three women bloggers.  The immediate motivation for starting his own blog was to bring together under one umbrella his work published in literary journals.  These days A.S.Patric.Ink features his own creative writing, mostly experimental poetry, much of which is cleverly linked to graphics and quotes from literary luminaries.

Short-fiction writer, editor, reviewer and former academic Kerryn Goldsworthy, who lives in Adelaide, became involved for ‘pedagogical’ reasons.  In 2004 Goldsworthy was asked to assess a Masters thesis on blogging and its social implications, and she became so interested she started her own site.  ‘I figured if this kind of thing was what students were writing about then I needed to learn about it, and of course the best way to learn anything is to do it.’  She now maintains Still Life With Cat, an ‘all-purpose blog containing reflections on whatever is going on in the realms of literature, politics, media, music, dinner, gardening etc’.

Sophie Cunningham, author of the novels Geography and Bird, has been blogging since 2004 both at her own site as well as on Spike, the blog-shaped offshoot for the eminent Australian literary journal Meanjin, of which she is the current editor.  Cunningham began her blogging journey when traveling to Sri Lanka and she simply wanted to capture the experience for herself as well as friends and colleagues.  She has stayed with the practice because, by her own admission, she is a scattered thinker and writer and blogging has been a helpful way of catching some of those thoughts before they disappear.  ‘The minus side,’ she says, ‘is it takes me away from novel writing.’

Sydney-based James Bradley is the author of The Resurrectionist, which has sold over 200,000 copies worldwide.  His deliciously named City of Tongues blog features book and film analysis, articles about the creative process, and, quite regularly, pop-music videos.  Bradley says that he had three reasons for embarking on a blogging life.  ‘The first was my increasing frustration with the relatively narrow parameters of the newspapers and magazines I write for.  The second was about wanting to try something new, and to learn to write for the online environment.  And, finally, it was at least partly about an awareness that the most exciting writing is now happening online.’

Is there a difference between writing for a blog and writing ‘serious’ fiction?  As I’ve rather painfully discovered, it is all too easy for a blogger to just spray the words up on the screen and see what happens, a lot like swinging a fishing line into the ocean in the hope that something bites.  Kerryn Goldsworthy says it all depends.  ‘Even with the most casual or spontaneous blog posts, I try to make the writing something that people will enjoy reading, and I think about it at the level of things like sentence structure and word choice.’  Goldsworthy goes on: ‘The most exciting things about blogging are the opportunities afforded by hyperlinks and graphics.’

Charlotte Wood had a looser approach with How to Shuck an Oyster.  ‘When you write for a living, the quest for the perfection of a sentence or a paragraph can be quite exhausting.  So to write in a much less self-conscious way was a great deal of fun.  I focused on the subject at hand rather than the writing, and tried to keep it all loose.’

Sophie Cunningham agrees with the need for looseness.  ‘Because of my job as an editor,’ she says, ‘I got too much grief if I posted rushed and hastily thought-through pieces.  But I certainly want to keep that freshness and immediacy.  If it starts to feel like an exam it doesn’t work out.’

Alec Patric believes the only criterion for successful blog writing is readability.  ‘If the writing comes off half-cocked and unfocused then it’s not going to be read by anyone.  If it’s overly ‘literary’ or academic it won’t be readable.  It’s not that it can’t be sophisticated and polished, but blog writing thrives on momentum, passing from one day to the next.’

James Bradley is less concerned with rawness and roughness, but he does enjoy the sense that bloggers are free to explore ideas in a way they are often not in print.  ‘Partly that’s about the fact that the format is so open – I’m not expected to write something as constrained as a book review, so if I feel like wandering off and talking about Jack Kirby comics in the middle of something I can.  But it’s also about the fact that the form encourages conversation, so the best blogging is often about making connections rather than broadcasting to a passive audience as you do in print.’

One of the peculiarities of blogging is the fact that many are written by anonymous individuals and the majority of comments posted on blogs are written by similarly shady and mysterious people – regular visitors to my own blog (whom I appreciate very much, I should add) include ‘Screamish’, ‘It All Started’ and ‘A Free Man’.  Kerryn Goldsworthy says that using her real name means that people can find her, and that occasionally means vile personal abuse by email.  ‘I have less and less respect for anonymous bloggers and commenters who aren’t prepared to own their opinions.’

Sophie Cunningham reckons it is wise to remember that a blog is a public forum, no matter how private it might seem.  ‘Using your real name can help you remember that,’ she says.  ‘Which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t like the freedom to write ungrammatical, badly spelt posts without getting cracks on my editorial skills.  Or that I can’t understand why some people need to develop a more theatrical persona on-line.’

The often anonymous Internet environment and the unregulated nature of the conversation was one of the reasons why James Bradley originally avoided participating in blogs.  ‘Some people say appalling things online, and I wasn’t in a hurry to put myself in the way of that.  But as it turns out most of my experiences have been overwhelmingly positive, and I’ve made many new friends through my blog.’

Considering the incredibly fast technological change of late – witness the Australian publishing industry’s current scurrying to address changes brought on by the Kindle and i-Pad e-readers – as well as the emergence of less onerous platforms such as micro-blogging site Twitter and the ubiquitous Facebook, is there a future for blogging?  Barack Obama, who famously embraced on-line social media to fuel his successful presidential campaign, did a back-flip in 2009 and said that he could see a future where it’s ‘all shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding’.

‘Oh Lord, who knows?’ offers Charlotte Wood with refreshing frankness.  ‘To me, fundamentally, blogging is writing – there is good and bad and boring and engaging and superficial and deeply thoughtful writing in blogs, just as there is in books or magazine articles.  But I love the democracy of the medium.  The fact that anyone can create a blog is a wonderful thing, not something to be abhorred.’  I can’t help wondering if Wood will return to How to Shuck an Oyster.  ‘I feel quite strongly that I’ll go back to it,’ she says, ‘and that it will be a deeply pleasurable part of my life between novels, or drafts of novels.’

Kerryn Goldsworthy is positive that the blogosphere will continue to be a place worth exploring for some time yet.  ‘The continuance of blogging might be the thing that separates the actual writers from the people who just want to chat and maintain relationships and friendship groups via the web.’  Alec Patric believes the future of blogging will see it grow from ‘a curious organ on the literary body to a point at which it will replace the whole nervous system’.  He continues: ‘Most of the critical thinking and opinion-making has already shifted to literary blogs and related Internet sites.’  And Patric vehemently disagrees with Obama.  ‘The void has opened up within the established mediums as they all wonder what the advent of e-books will mean.’

Sophie Cunningham claims that blogs have become ‘old school’ compared to Twitter and Facebook.  ‘The more social aspects of the online environment are migrating to these forms and blogs are becoming more formal.  I don’t think this is a bad thing.  It’s just different.’  She too disagrees with Obama.  ‘I don’t know that he’s right in that you could argue that all human interaction is, to some extent, shouting across the void without a lot of mutual understanding.’

In a very general sense, believes James Bradley, the Internet is a force for liberty and freedom of speech.  ‘You only have to look at what happened in Iran last year to see the way it breaks down a lot of the old polarities and forces governments to confront individuals.  But there is undoubtedly an echo-chamber effect, in which people gravitate towards sites and forums where they will find people of similar views and opinions, all of which then reinforce – and often amplify – what they already think.  The only way to overcome that is going to be to foster a culture that values discussion over abuse, but we’re going to have to work at it.’  Whether it’s the real world or the blog world, let’s all say amen to that.

What we can be sure of is that how we participate in the production and distribution of stories continues to evolve at a furious rate.  Human beings have an insatiable appetite for story-telling and connection.  We’ll do it any way possible, on anything available to us; our commonality is the indisputable fact that we’re telling stories day in, day out.  Even our dreams are a way of exploring story and understanding our lives.  It might be impossible to confidently predict where blogging will take us – Kerryn Goldsworthy says she can see ‘a future in which we can all read each other’s thoughts via microchips, though I can also imagine that if that were the case, humanity would implode fairly quickly’ – but it seems the platform is here to stay.  And it’s not a singular progression, but a multi-dimensional expansion of possibility.

Perhaps you’re keen for this article to finish so you too can get blogging.  If that’s the case, maybe we’ll run into each other.

Don’t forget to say hello.

My on-line name is Nigel Featherstone.

Where I live I get to drive past the Canberra Airport at least a couple of times a week, and for the last month or so I’ve been chuckling at this sign (though also just a little distressed, not much, just a little).  I can’t help thinking the sign is suggesting that this is a place to roll out very sick hospital patients, not quite a cemetery but a dumping ground, a place to leave people in whom we’ve lost interest because they have become too hard to care for, or their case too hopeless.  Or it’s a place for people who’ve lost interest in their days to dispose of their bodies.  A handy chute for poor souls, then.  A place to discard, not to fly.  Though perhaps flying and discarding might be more closely related than I give it credit for.  Who doesn’t shed something, or die a bit, even just emotionally, internally, when they climb aboard a trusty jet and get away for a while?

PS Suggested music for this post: Red House Painters and associates.  Pick a song at random.  You’ll know what I mean.

Frightened Rabbit's third album. Still not entirely a barrel of laughs.

1. The Winter of Mixed Drinks. Sadly this isn’t a title of my own making, because I love winter and I love mixed drinks – no, it’s the name of the third album from Frightened Rabbit.  Some say these wild and woolly blokes out of Scotland are about to grab Arcade Fire’s crown, although more likely they’re going to have a crack at The National’s.  Good luck with that.  Previously known for being miserablists, The Winter of Mixed Drinks is almost an upbeat selection of songs, except this version of upbeat is frantic, in parts panicked, and the close-to-joyful melodies mask lyrics that plumb some pretty bloody tricky depths.  For instance, from The Wrestle: ‘The crumpled ocean is no boat trip/Dark water stole my clothing/A shape stirs beneath me’.  Or this from Skip the Youth, an almost hymnal song, if hymnal songs were allowed to break free and go stratospheric: ‘I’ve been digging a hole tonight/On my knees beneath the moon/All I want is a place to lie/Guess a grave will have to do’; I should add that the glorious, increasingly noise-soaked coda to this angsty gem finds the band shouting over and over ‘Skip the youth/It’s ageing me too much’.  Oh amen to that.  This is simple music, only a few chords per song, and the often fast-paced beat drives and drives and drives, sometimes until the song reaches a crashing crescendo or burns out under its own weight.  But this is also electric music, electric as in the electricity of modern life (which is a bit rubbish, it must be said).  The Winter of Mixed Drinks is best played up loud so the windows rattle, which means it probably should be served on vinyl, and at a time when you have something to celebrate but you also know that yet another disappointment is lurking around the corner.  If you’re sailing seven sheets to the wind, well, that wouldn’t hurt either.

2. The Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers. Twice in the last month, perhaps because Easter has been stampeding towards us like a herd of chocolate-filled elephants (they do exist – go have a look), I’ve spotted those brown-clad happy-clapper-types in the central part of my city, standing comfortably together in a circle, a three-metre-high hand-crafted cross upright in the middle, one young chap with a cheap banged-up acoustic guitar, a few of them with bongos, one or two with their hands in the air.  Whilst the intransigence and, at times, outright danger of their religiosity worries me, I can’t help admiring their courage.  They don’t give two hoots about what they look like or what we think of them.  And they do appear so ecstatically happy, especially when they look to the sky and smile and one of them joyfully tosses a plastic bottle of water into the air or another starts clapping in time with something other than the song they’re all singing.  Obviously, when the Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers take a break from singing to – with black-bound Bibles in hand – work their evangelical tricks amongst the general public I run a mile into the nearest music or book shop and scamper for the darkest gear I can find.  But I can’t help being glad that someone has been singing in public, that they believe in something so much, so God damn hard, that they want to take it to the streets while the rest of us lose ourselves in shopping malls and reality television.  And blogging.

3. My Italian Neighbour. Almost a year and a half ago I came home to hear loud drumming in my head.  No, it wasn’t a headache thing, or a hangover thing, or even a mental-health thing – it was the middle-aged father next-door who’d bought himself a drum-kit for Christmas.  And he practices often: weekly, daily.  In his garage.  With all the doors and windows… open. But he’s getting no better.  Okay, he’s getting a little better, particularly with the complexities of his fills, and by ‘complexity’ I mean how much he puts into each fill, he fills his fills, he piles them on top of each like what a brickie does when making a wall, though My Italian Neighbour is actually a green-grocer (all clichés are based in reality).  Does he harbour unrealised dreams about being the next Tommy Lee?  Did he recently hit forty but the wife didn’t allow him to get a Harley Davidson motorbike so instead he maxed-out the credit card on the kit?  I’d poke my head over the fence and ask him but there are always too many kids, and these days kids scare me as much as rats.  Despite the fact that I have to close up the house when My Italian Neighbour’s practicing, and there are times when the pillows go over my head and I swear like Courtney Love if she’d been bitten by a Rottweiler, I do admire him for having a crack at learning an instrument regardless of his advancing years, for trying to be good at something musical, and, a bit like the Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers, not giving a shit what anyone thinks.  If he feels like hitting the skins then that’s exactly what he’s going to do – bugger this (normally) quiet, gentile inner-city neighbourhood of ours.  And you know what?  I reckon he builds up a racehorse-sized sweat, and he closes his eyes, and when he’s done he’s puffing, and he smiles as if it’s the first real smile he’s ever managed.

4. The Best Gig – Ever. So, it comes to this.  How good it would be if we lived in a world where Frightened Rabbit could come to my neck of the global woods with a fistful of songs and play in the central part of my city – we have a stage, it’s out in the open and not big, but it’d do.  Frightened Rabbit would spot the Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers further along the pavement; they’d wave and invite them onto the stage.  The Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers wouldn’t shake their heads.  They’d go, ‘Sure, why not!’  So the Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers step up onto the stage and Frightened Rabbit share with the Clappers some lyrics, and the Clappers pick them up quickly because singing songs in public is in their collective blood.  And then My Italian Neighbour, who’s in town to take the wife and their brood of kids out to Mama’s Trattoria for lunch, walks by but is immediately snared by the music and starts nodding his head.  And then he can’t help himself: he kisses his wife on the cheek, pats his nearest kid on their head, and then walks over and up to Frightened Rabbit’s drummer.  And Frightened Rabbit’s drummer, without any reluctance whatsoever, smiles knowingly and steps away from his kit, handing it over to My Italian Neighbour.  And My Italian Neighbour finds the beat, yes, the beat, and he drives Frightened Rabbit and the Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers forever onwards.  And the crowd grows and grows until the central part of my city is packed and the sun’s going down and everyone’s singing yet another rousing Frightened Rabbit coda, this one from The Loneliness and the Scream: ‘We fall down/Find God just to lose it again/Glue the community together/We were hammering it/I fell down/Found love/Can’t lose it again/But now our communal heart beats miles from here’.  Yes, how good that would be!  I’d write a post about that, I would.

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The past