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.)

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