The last time I was on a residency, a year ago at Bundanon in New South Wales, I put up an A4-sized sign above my desk – BE BRAVE. A high-end publisher had given me that advice a week before and I made sure to take it with me down to the Shoalhaven. Whenever I struggled, I looked up, saw the sign, and then I was brave. At least, I tried to be. I have the same sign with me here at Cataract Gorge: it’s just there, on the wall, a metre away from where I’m writing this post (still by hand, would you believe; I’m sticking to my guns).
Bravery seems to be the theme of the week.
Most days in this place young boys or men strap themselves high up to the Gorge cliffs and abseil their lives away. Sometimes they stop mid-fall, steady themselves, put out their arms and have a photo taken by their friends back up the cliff – should the rope break, or the equipment fail, they’d smash their bodies open on the rocks below.
Every evening, Launceston joggers – men and women – plug themselves into their i-Pods and send their bodies up one side of the Gorge and down the other, across and through and around and over the duckboards, boardwalks, catwalks, even along a suspension bridge that makes you feel drunk just by looking at it. I scared the living crap out of one of these folk last night, when, wearing my black jeans and black hoodie and black jacket, I rounded a corner and almost ran into a guy. He stopped, put his hand to his heart, and said, ‘Bloody hell, it’s a bit dark here, eh?’ He meant, of course, I’m sure you were about to stab me with a flick-knife, you bastard.
In summer, apparently, Lonnie boys throw themselves off the Kings Bridge (pictured above, at dawn) and dive or drop or flop or crash into the liquid, silty mud that makes for water at this the Gorge end of the river.
I think I’d rather listen to The Smiths.
As hoity and literary and – quite frankly – wanky as it may sound, I’m having a Grim As Buggery Short Fiction Festival while I’m here in Launceston. The head-lining acts are the Grand Reapers of Grim-ness, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and Australia’s own Nam Le (who can actually be very funny, but that’s beside the point).
In Tolstoy’s short story ‘The Raid’, his main character, a civilian who’s curious about war, says, ‘I remembered that Plato had defined bravery as the knowledge of what should and what should not be feared ‘ [and] wanted to explain my idea to the captain. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it seems to me that to every danger there is a choice, and the choice that springs from a sense of duty, for example, is courage, while a choice made under the influence of base feelings is cowardice. Henceforth, the man who risks his life from vanity, curiosity or greed cannot be called brave. Conversely, the man who avoids danger from an honest sense of responsibility to his family, or simply out of conviction, cannot be called a coward.’’
Today, am I brave or cowardly?
Would I dive off the Kings Bridge? No.
Would I run around Cataract Gorge at night? No, I wouldn’t.
Would I abseil down the rocks and stop to pose for a photo? No, is the answer to that as well.
But good characters must do all these things, and more.