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He is going away. It’s nothing dramatic or permanent – he’s just ducking off to spend time in a far-flung corner of the globe, except it’s not that far-flung, though it is a place he’s looking forward to knowing well. Once there he will think and dream, he’ll immerse himself in his imagination; he might even get lost, but that’s okay, because it’s always good to be found again. But there has been so much to do – what a chore going away actually is.
There’s been the whole matter of organising a house-sitter. It’s easy these days, what with the internet and all, but you do have to do interviews, or, in his case, let the Old Lady of the House and Cat the Ripper do the interviewing for him. And they did such a wonderful job, selecting a mother-and-daughter combination who even offered to weed his wild garden if necessary.
Then there’s the house-work. He’s scrubbed the bath and bathroom floor; he’s un-blocked drains in sinks. He’s cleaned the oven (what a terrible task that is – a domestic OH&S nightmare). He’s replaced light-globes that haven’t worked for months; we are all so busy that even changing a globe poses a seemingly insurmountable time-management problem. He’s wiped out the fridge – there was a sludgy detritus beneath the fruit-and-vegetable drawer and more than once he thought he would vomit – and he’s dusted away cobwebs on paintings, and washed rugs, and got a man in to fix the garage door.
Then he turned his attention to other important matters. He’s made sure that his bills are going to be sent by email, he put up a No Junk Mail sign on the letterbox so the house-sitters wouldn’t have to hold on to a dreadful collection of advertising material until his return. Yesterday he prepared a How To Look After My House Information Booklet so the trusty guardians of his home will know exactly what to do and when, and what not to worry about. For example, the loud chomping at night at the back door is not a knife-wielding maniac but a hungry possum.
But there is more to do. He is late – very late – in sending birthday presents to his nephews and niece, which he better do now otherwise there will be an embarrassing, if not disastrous, situation by the time he comes back. There are friends to see and a lawn to mow. And The Old Lady of the House already knows something is up: she’s staring at him with her big brown eyes as if she’s going to be dumped again; normally she sleeps in his study but lately she hasn’t been budging from her bed in his bedroom.
Still the work isn’t finished. His mp3 player has gone on the blink – is there time to replace it? And what about accessing the internet: does he really need to buy one of those flash-drive dongle things for his laptop? (Oh God, technology. It’s such a battle.) But none of this will stop him going away.
Philip Larkin wrote that ‘Home is so sad. It stays as it was left/Shaped to the comfort of the last to go/As if to win them back’.
He – the leaver – is looking forward to going away.
But then being won over again.
(A shorter version of this piece was published in Panorama, Canberra Times on 26 June 2010. PS. I’m not actually going away – I wrote this in early April before heading off to spend a month in Tasmania.)
‘When Death Comes’
by Mary Oliver
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Many thanks to regular Flutter commentor Nana Jo for pointing me in the direction of Mary Oliver and ‘When Death Comes’.
Born Sept. 10, 1935, Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., Mary Oliver is an American poet whose work reflects a deep communion with the natural world. Oliver attended Ohio State University and Vassar College but did not earn a degree. Her volume American Primitive (1983), which won a Pulitzer Prize, glorifies the natural world, reflecting the American fascination with the ideal of the pastoral life as it was first expressed by Henry David Thoreau.
In other words, a bit of a legend.
In Tasmania recently I gave a series of workshops on writing about place. Doing the workshops was a joy, quite frankly – I’ve taught in the university context before but I’d not previously given writing workshops to the broader community. After each session I’d return to the Gatekeeper’s Cottage where I was staying, shove in a pair of mp3-player headphones into my ears (that month I was on a steady aural diet of Frightened Rabbit, The XX, Four Tet, Sigur Ros, and Phil Retrospector) and then walk for hours along the Tamar River with a real bounce in my step and smile on my face.
To provide a bit of inspiration for ways of thinking about place I put together a series of quotes and prepared them as a hand-out. I reckon I’ve been thinking about place since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and it’s one of those elements of living that really turns my crank (check out those delicious mixed metaphors!). I thought I’d share the list of quotes with you. You’ll notice that a bloke called Edward Relph gets quite mention. A specialist in human geography, Relph is one of the legends amongst ‘place thinkers’, and his Place and Placelessness text is a real cracker.
Do feel free to add to the list as you see fit.
‘To be human is to live in a world that is filled with significant places: to be human is to have and know your place.’ (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)
‘A key test of sense of place rests with the degree to which a place in its physical form and the activities it facilitates reflects the culture who use it.’ (Francis Violich, Towards Revealing the Sense of Place, 1985)
‘We are not connected to the land, we are not connected to God, we are not really connected to one another. You can’t keep severing all these connections, leaving people to float around without a sense of history, without a sense of story. I think it leads to psychosis and I do wonder whether there isn’t a collective nervous breakdown.’ (Jeanette Winterson, as quoted by Helen Trinca in ‘A Particular Kind of Woman’, an article published in The Australian Magazine, July 25, 1994)’
‘The meaning of places may be routed in the physical setting and objects, but they are not a property of them – rather they are a property of human intentions and experiences.’ (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)
‘To have a sense of place is not to own, but rather to be owned by the places we inhabit; it is to ‘own up’ to the complexity and mutuality of both place and human being.’ (Jeff Malpas, from his article ‘Place and Human Being’, published in Making Sense of Place: Exploring Concepts and Expressions of Place Through Different Senses and Lenses, 2008)
‘A deep human need exists for associations with significant places. If we choose to ignore that need, and to allow the forces of placelessness to continue unchallenged, then the future can only hold an environment in which places simply do not matter. If, on the other hand, we choose to respond to that need and to transcend placelessness, then the potential exists for the development of an environment in which places are for man, reflecting and enhancing the variety of human experience. Which of these two possibilities is most probable, or whether there are possibilities, is far from certain. But one thing at least is clear – whether the world we live in has a placeless geography or a geography of significant places, the responsibility for it is ours alone.’ (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)
‘The crucial point about the connection between place and experience is not… that place is properly something only encountered ‘in’ experience, but rather that place is integral to the very structure and possibility of experience.’ (Jeff Malpas, Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography, 1999)
‘The essence of place lies in the largely unselfconscious intentionality that defines place as profound centres of human existence.’ (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)
‘Place identity is closely linked to personal identity. ‘I am’ is supported by ‘I am here’.’ (Kevin Lynch, A Theory of Good City Form, 1985)
Okay, stand well back, because I’m about to do something I’ve never done before, and, dare I say it, you’ve probably never seen done before. Am I about to turn myself inside out? Levitate while cross-legged? Speak in two languages at once? No. What I’m about to do is quote Australian literary legend David Malouf in what’s essentially a review of three pop-music records. In his article titled ‘Music, the most abstract of the arts, is mathematics on the move’, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 May 2010, Malouf asks, So what is music for? What does it do to us or for us? What happens when we give ourselves over to actually listening to it? Music vibrates in the air around us and involves us; it touches and moves us. Its rhythms take us back to primitive foot-tapping and finger-clicking or clapping; the regularity of its beat excites our heartbeats and pleases us with its natural order; it invites the body, even when the body remains still, to sway and dance. All music takes us back to the body; all instruments discover what they do in what the body does.
Three records that are currently doing exactly what Malouf is talking about, taking me back to my body, and getting me pretty bloody excited in the process, are ‘High Violet’ by The National, ‘Crystal Castles’ by Crystal Castles, and ‘This Is Happening’ by LCD Soundsystem, the latter band surely being the most genuinely enthralling bunch of contemporary musicians working today.
First up, The National’s ‘High Violet’. Frankly, these guys are so god-damn frustrating. They could be great, they could be huge. They could take REM’s indy-music crown, and part of me wants this to happen, because on ‘High Violet’ they get mighty, mighty close to making something truly significant. This is a big record, one that’s best played up loud so the richness and the rawness makes your rib-bones rattle. Melancholic, intimate, but still rocking, it’s an intriguing beast of a thing. In parts, especially on album-opener ‘Terrible Love’, it owes a little to Sigur Ros, in terms of the buzz-saw atmospherics, and Arcade Fire in terms of the naked ambition. ‘Afraid of Everyone’ (I put my hand up to say, yes, that’s me), ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, and ‘Lemonworld’ is a stunning trifecta of songs and worth the price-tag alone. The frustration comes from Matt Berninger’s voice, which while deeply attractive and listenable does tend to mangle the lyrics into an unintelligible slop so that a song’s never given the opportunity to properly blossom into a classic. But this album grows and grows on you until you just can’t live without it, and perhaps that’s where The National’s true genius lies.
Crystal Castles has now given us their second album and it’s…um…totally friggin’…beautiful. Yes, beautiful. Though I should caution that at times it’s an ugly kind of beauty. As with the duo’s first – and also self-titled – album, there’s the mix of scratchy, screechy snippets of dancey noise (a bit like a jacked-up Sonic Youth trapped in a computer-game shop) and then great big slathers of almost-but-not-quite trance. This time around, however, it all comes together in a more cohesive whole. ‘Celestica’, ‘Year of Silence’ (which samples ‘Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur’ by Sigur Ros, revealing the dark soul of those Icelandic noise-niks, which, to my mind, is missing from Jonsi’s solo effort ‘Go’, though the darkness is all over his and his partner Alex Somers’ extraordinary Riceboy Sleeps album) and ‘Vietnam’ make for fantastic listening. For those of an age there’s a fair bit of inspiration from the 90s-era, Rickenbacker-strumming English band Lush in many of these beguiling songs, and that’s no bad thing. As long as the world has artists like Crystal Castles in it, dance music and electronica is in very…dangerous hands indeed. Bugger it, I might just pour myself a glass of champagne, turn out the lights, crank this album up very loud, and dance around the lounge-room like a dervish until the Old Lady of the House and Cat the Ripper give me the evil eye before darting under the bed.
And so we come to LCD Soundsystem, which is the first band in years that have spun my nipples so hard that I’m amazed that I still have a chest. Mixing brilliant, thoughtful beats and the wittiest of lyrics, a gorgeous though not unchallenging pop sensibility, and perfect production, ‘This Is Happening’ is already in my Top Ten Albums of 2010. Like the band’s previous record, ‘Sound of Silver’, the influences are many, though in almost every song I’m reminded of Talking Heads’ ‘Remain in Light’, which just so happens to be in my Top Ten Albums of All Time. Having said that, the stunning, feedback-drenched ‘All I Want’ sounds suspiciously like a mash-up of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and any Strokes song you care to mention, just infinitely better. While it’s true that there aren’t as many highs as on ‘Sound of Silver’, this is a more minimal record, and it’s one that deserves – and rewards – close listening, because there’s more than one devil in the detail here. And it’s all so very, very New York that I almost feel like going out to graffiti something just for the heck of it. Apparently James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem’s key protagonist, has said that this is the last outing for this particular musical incarnation. If this is true, good on him for bowing out while completely on top of his game.
David Malouf in his Sydney Morning Herald article goes on to say the following: One of the opportunities art offers us is simply to stand still for a moment and look, or to sit still and listen; the pleasure of being firmly present while the ego goes absent and our consciousness is fired with something other than ourselves. For some reason, losing ourselves in this way is a form of self-discovery. Going passive and absent energises us, gives us a renewed sense of presence. Whether you want to sit still and be swept away or dance like a complete idiot without a care in the world (I can flit between the two with remarkable ease, I should admit), being fully present in the company of these three albums could make you very happy to be living on this planet in the year 2010.
If you’re interested in reading the full Malouf article, it can be found here.