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I have monkeys on the brain.
It’s all because earlier this year I was lucky enough to spend a month in Launceston as an artist-in-residence at the Gatekeeper’s Cottage in Cataract Gorge, courtesy of the local city council. As strange as it might seem in this age of animal liberation, Launceston has 26 Japanese Macaque monkeys living in an enclosure in the city park. The Macaques are the sort you sometimes see in wildlife documentaries keeping warm in winter by sitting blissfully in hot springs with snow piling on top of them. The Tasmanian colony was a gift from Ikeda in Japan, Launceston’s sister-city.
Every morning that month I walked across town to visit my monkey friends. I’d find one to look at. I’d stare as it combed its fingers through a mate’s hair, find a flea or a nit and then put it in its mouth and have a taste, and then keep combing. I took photos, I watched some more, and then took more photos. I learnt that the colony has herpes and they’ve become in-bred. What did they think of their situation? Did they want to shout out, Why can’t you leave us alone? Can’t you see we’re trying to have some private time here? But they just kept grooming each other.
Back in the Gatekeeper’s Cottage, I sat at the desk overlooking the deep, dirty water of the gorge and wrote and wrote until my eyes became bloodshot, but below me tourists crowded on the King’s Bridge. They looked up and stared and pointed at me. I didn’t have any mates to groom, and I don’t have herpes, nor am I inbred (though there are days when it feels like I might be), so it mustn’t have been terribly interesting.
But still they took photos of me, they watched me some more, and then took more photos. At first I liked being on show – Here I am being creative! How clever I am! – but the novelty soon wore off. Within days I wanted to scream out, Why can’t you leave me alone? Can’t you see I’m trying to have some private time here? But I didn’t scream out.
Because, it seems, a writer in a gatekeeper’s cottage is photo-worthy.
And so is a monkey in a cage.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, July 31 2010.)
It seems the world’s going to pot: Britain’s finances are rooted, there’s that whole Gulf oil spill thing, and Australia’s stuck in a very unspiring federal election campaign – down here it’s all say nothing, just kiss babies, over and over, press repeat until your brain turns to mush. And that’s just for starters. BUT there’s no need to hide under the quilt with a packet of chocolate biscuits (not just yet anyway), because the artists are here to save the day, as they always do.
How so? I hear you ask. Well, just click on this tasty little link and see what’s going on over in Verita La land, because my VL co-editor Alec Patric has been a very busy person indeed. For your reading and viewing pleasure are the following:
- interviews with poet Andy Jackson and short-story writers Ryan O’Neil and Pierz Newton-John;
- fiction by Kirk Marshall and Rjurik Davidson;
- poetry by Andy Jackon and Maxine Beneba Clarke; and
- artwork by Maxine Beneba Clarke (a sample’s above).
How’s that for…well, the cost of bugger all?
Oscar Wilde might have reckoned that all art is ‘quite useless’, but the French dramatist Jean Anouilh said, ‘Life is very nice, but it has no shape. It is the purpose of art to give it shape.’
And it’s the purpose of the arts to save us.
Well, you wake up one morning, kiss the partner, put on a cup of tea, and… discover that it’s federal election time yet again. Was it really three years since the last one? It seems the answer is yes – us Antipodean folk are careering towards an August 21 poll. Luckily we live in one of the world’s most stable democracies, so we vote for a local member of parliament who we think (we hope, we pray) will best represent our views. However, since the 1970s election campaigns have been more presidential in style, with people being encouraged to vote on the personalities of the leaders of the two main protagonists – the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Liberal Party. Yes, they’re both called the ALP, and what’s more both have red, white and blue in their logos. No wonder many Australians couldn’t give a rat’s arse about what our leaders do and say, though this might also have something to do with our general anti-authoritarian approach to life because of the country’s Irish heritage and good weather – we really would rather be drinking beer at the beach and perving on the hotties than worrying about political shenanigans.
So how’s the fight shaping up?
In the left(ish) corner there’s Ms Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, although it must be said that she’s been in the job all of three weeks – she toppled Kevin ‘07’ Rudd in a dramatic midnight coup. But there’s a fact here that can’t be ignored: Kevin was going down like the devil wearing velvet trousers and someone had to do something about it. It was Ms Gillard, a proud red-head born in Wales (she’s also unmarried although does have a partner, and she’s an atheist), who stepped up to the plate. Julia’s a no-nonsense kind of person who could easily be a minor character on the TV comedy series Kath & Kim, but she’s smart and tenacious. She’s kicked things off by floating a pitch based on ‘Moving Australia Forward’. As election slogans go it’s a bit on the prosaic side, but after 11 years of ultra-conservative rule under the very easy to hate John Howard and then the wobbly period with the Ruddster at the helm, it’s at least a nod in a better direction.
In the (extremely) right corner is Tony ‘The Mad Monk’ Abbott, a former minister under Howard, who seems to be pinning everything on ‘Practical Action’ (he loves that word action because he’s a budgie-smuggler-wearing marathon runner, so he sees himself as a political GI Joe) and ‘Turning Back The Boats’. By ‘Turning Back the Boats’ Abbott is trying to score votes by saying that – with some kind of Superman sweep of his hand – he’ll stop anyone fleeing political persecution and poverty reaching our shores. We’re essentially islanders and have a deep-rooted fear of invasion, particularly by people who have different hair and skin and languages to us, let alone use funny cutlery like chop-sticks, so there’s a good political reason for pursuing this strategy. Never mind that the numbers of these ‘boat people’ are actually extremely low. Never mind also that Abbott’s on the record as telling us that we can’t believe everything he says, and that only what’s written in his speeches is fair dinkum. At least he’s warned us, I guess.
Of course, there is a third option – the Greens, who are lead by the irrepressible Bob Brown. (Dear old Bob has become such a part of our political furniture – one day he won’t be doing politics anymore and we’ll all wonder what happened.) For many, the Greens are crack-pots keen on issues like legalising marijuana and euthanasia and other supposedly nutty things like saving our natural world from going to hell in a hand-basket. For others, however, the Greens have finally got their act together and the party is becoming more and more attractive to the thinking element of the middle class. At least their logo isn’t red, white, and blue – that’s got to be something.
What does all this mean to simple, dreamy folk like this humble scribe? It means jackshit, because the issues I care deeply about – the arts, the environment, and marriage equality – won’t get the attention they deserve. The Greens will have a stab at it, but they’ll be drowned out by the lumbering political machines of the Labor and Liberal parties. You see, we’re a bunch of Neanderthals when it comes to a genuine political conversation about the value of the arts and creativity. The really tough environmental issues – climate change, reinvigorating our rivers, and saving our old-growth forests – are dealt with in a jingoistic, if not patronising fashion, never with the long-sightedness required; these are complex matters that require complex but decisive solutions. And marriage equality? Both the Labor and the Conservative parties have reconfirmed that only men and women ‘to the exclusion of all others’ (according to our very modern Marriage Act) can have their relationships taken seriously. There’s no doubt in my mind that Abbott would rather gay and lesbian just drown in their chardonnays, whilst Julia would be more than happy to see people with minority sexualities tie the knot, just not at this very moment.
Thankfully, luckily, miraculously, grass-roots activist organisation Get Up!, which came to life in the last few years of the Howard Government, enables those who really do care about Australia becoming a better and bigger country to have a sliver of hope. In 2007, completely dispirited at the lack of progressive political gumption on offer from the main parties, I volunteered for Get Up!, handing out How to Vote cards at a country-town booth. To this day it was one of the most life-affirming actions I’ve ever taken: not only were people genuinely interested in hearing a different perspective, but it also felt bloody great to do something real and positive beyond just putting a tick or a number in a box. Will I volunteer again? Or might I just hide away in my little house with ear-phones clamped to the side of my head and listen to great music by great bands and read great books by great writers?
Right now, who knows. But I’ll be sure to keep you posted.
Thirty more days to go.
PS Thanks to Ampersand Duck for the Abbott ‘Nope’ image. Brilliant.
In an earlier Under the Flutter post I spoke about a self-imposed rule that I have when on a residency – take one Polaroid photograph per day, no more, no less, and one must be taken, there’s no option of allowing a day to go by without a part of it turning into a piece of Polaroid magic. It becomes a visual diary of the residency, but also allows me to focus on something external rather than the generally internal nature of writing. And, quite frankly, it’s a great excuse to get out of the house and see more of whatever place I’m living in for that month.
But can I just say how god-damn hard it is to take a decent Polaroid snap. All you’ve got is a lens and a shutter, that’s it. There’s no little inbuilt computer to do all the work for you, no digital trickery to smooth over the edges. Although that’s also the brilliant part of this technology – its sheer simplicity.
Anyway, the point is I promised I’d post some of the shots I took while on a residency in Launceston, Tasmania, in April/May this year, and so they’re below for your viewing pleasure. You’ll probably read the (admittedly slightly blurry) caption that comes with each pic and think, Okay, that Nigel Featherstone bloke really has lost the plot this time. And I may well have lost the plot. Although the shots actually feature over at my other site, Open to Public, and each caption is taken from a line of a short story.
Yes, that’s a shameless plug for you to check out OTP and see if there’s anything there that takes your fancy. If there’s nothing there of interest, please don’t let me know because you’ll crush me like a butterfly. But if there’s a story you like, drop me an email, or send me flowers. Either will do.
In the meantime, let the Polaroid love begin.
While we’re talking plugs, if you’re up for a bit of brain fodder, check out Verity La and a wonderfully succinct interview my VL co-editor Alec Patric has done with Australian writer Tiggy Johnson.
Not satisfied with all the things I currently have going in my life, over the last few months I’ve been collaborating with Melbourne writer Alec Patric on something we both hope will be pretty bloody special – an on-line creative arts/literary journal. Whilst format-wise there are still a few things to iron out we’re throwing caution to the wind and as of today getting it out there. We’re planting a seed, and seeing what takes hold.
The name of this something pretty bloody special? Drum-roll please.
It’s named after a hidden back-alley in the small Australian city where the journal was born. We’re looking for the truth, and reality, and actuality, whatever these things mean.
We’re publishing short fiction and poetry, cultural comment, photomedia, and review. What’s the point of difference? Bravery. Yes, bravery. Courage, daring, pluck and nerve are all essential in the Verity La neck of the woods. We’ve produced a place for creative risk-taking, freedom, and – above all else – being no one but yourself.
We’re interested in new voices, different voices, progressive voices; we like writing that gets you in the head as well as the gut, that has a point, that isn’t afraid. Whether it’s fiction, poetry, comment or review, we want high-quality text, and by ‘high-quality’ we mean thoughtfully composed, a focus on words, words with impact.
Verity La publishes in the following streams:
- ‘Lies To Live By’: Short fiction to 1,000 words.
- ‘Heightened Talk”: Poetry with gumption. Alec has kicked things off with a blistering poem called ‘What We’ve Done’. Do have a read – it’s here.
- ‘VL’: Cultural comment to 1,500 words.
- ‘More Than Opinion’: Reviews of literature and contemporary music to 500 words. Principles for submissions of reviews: accuracy, respect, truth. We’re looking for high-quality text, hence the whole ‘more than opinion’ thing.
- ‘Catching Light’: stills only. Hint: Polaroid pics are particularly hot property on Verity La.
- ‘The Melbourne Review Interviews’: interviews with writers and other artists.
Submission guidelines can be found here.
So…charge your glasses and join us in sending Verity La into the world!