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I’m a sucker for a great cover version.  I mean, I really really REALLY like them.  Johnny Cash did some brilliant covers in his day (aided considerably by Rick Rubin), and even bloated-by-their-self-importance U2 can reinterpret a song well – check out their version of ‘Dancing Barefoot’ by Patti Smith.  Heck, some musicians have even done whole collections of covers, for example Mark Kozelek from Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon reworked AC/DC songs for his What’s Next to the Moon album.

What I like most about cover versions is hearing one attempt and then hearing other attempts and then – finally – hearing the original.  This recently happened to me when He Who Loves His High-Quality-TV-Series and I were watching the final episode of Season Eight of Scrubs. Because the main character/actor was leaving the show, the producers threw up a bit of a weepy ending, which is always a great spot for a killer cover.

Enter Peter Gabriel’s version of ‘The Book of Love’ by The Magnetic Fields.  Lots of strings, his standard smoky and just a little wanting voice.  All in all it’s a quality production and hits the right bases, particularly for an end-of-season blast of emotion.

Searching around, I found this version of the song by US indy singer Natalie Dawn.  Cute, pretty hard to hate (plus she’s got some of the amazing eyes available on Youtube, but that’s another story…or song).  Interestingly she follows the same melody as Peter Gabriel.

Then, however, I found the original; it appears on the Magnetic Fields’ three-volume concept album, 69 Love Songs (1999).  Not only is the chorus significantly different, there’s a certain cynicism, weariness and brevity to the original ‘The Book of Love’ that the selected interpreters, particularly Peter Gabriel, miss.  Listen to the lyrics and hear how they seem too much of a mouthful for the ex-Genesis star (I’m actually a bit of a fan; his So album is a mid-80s masterpiece).  More significantly, Stephen Merrit’s two-part harmony is just perfect; check it out in your headphones and you’ll see what I mean.  Sublime.

Perhaps in the case of this song, the original is the best, because the artist knew exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it (which is always a good thing).

The point of this post?  I just wanted to share with you a great song, dressed up three ways.

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1. Driving in the country without music.

2. Getting lost planting.

3. Allowing yourself to enjoy a hayfever hangover.

4. Finding yourself listening to an engaging interview on the radio.

5. Holding your partner as he/she sleeps.

6. Lingering in a room that’s bereft of electronic gadgets.

7. Doing something unexpectedly good for a stranger.

8. Living a day without newspapers.

9. Lying on floorboards listening to a great record (possibly with a glass of wine on hand).

10. Watching a pet sleep.

Without help it would be impossible to find Roger McDonald.  The set of directions to his property near Braidwood in south-east New South Wales contains references to ‘turn left at the end of the bitumen’ and ‘pass the shearing shed’ and ‘cross the paddock and through the gate with the white patch adjoining the chook-yard’.  Helpfully he also advises to follow rural tradition: ‘If gates are open, leave open, but close them again if shut’.

I diligently follow every direction – if a fog closed in and I lost my way I’d need the SES – and after a morning of travelling I eventually point the Barina up a winding steep incline, then hold my breath as a beautiful architecturally designed house of corrugated iron and stone reveals itself perched comfortably on a high saddle.  It’s a place that brings an instant electric buzz to the stomach.

McDonald used to set up camp on the property, and the house and its various outbuildings appear to have grown from the layout that tents once made here.  The view – the extraordinary view – is of rolling wooded hills and undulating Monaro paddocks which after the recent spring rains are almost as green as Ireland.  During the day there are no houses to see and at night, so I’m told, only the lights of two neighbouring properties can be spotted.  Idyllic is the word, particular for a writer who has spent much of his career exploring the hope and despair of the rural Australian experience, which is at the heart of McDonald’s new novel When Colts Ran.

However, before our interview can take place there’s been considerable email correspondence between us resulting in an agreement to have a preliminary chat over lunch in a Goulburn cafe.  I may have got this wrong, but it could be that I’m being checked out, which is fair enough because in this Internet age I might be anybody.  Or it’s because Roger McDonald is protective of his life and the place where he and his family live.  Perhaps for McDonald that rural tradition could be, Close all gates no matter whether they’re open or closed, and keep them bloody well closed.

So we have our preliminary café conversation; we circle around each other as we negotiate how the interview might occur.  Roger McDonald is unexpectedly slight, and at sixty-nine has a handsome, sculptured, yes, rural face – it’s not hard to believe that he has two brothers who’ve had careers as professional wool-classers.  Although he clearly longs for the endless hush that isolated rural living offers, he is engaging company and very generous with his time.

A week later we’re sitting in his surprisingly modern home office overlooking a thickly treed gully where apparently wombats and roos are often seen.  ‘When I think about where I’m most truly myself,’ McDonald says dreamily, ‘it’s stepping out under some gum trees with crackly bark and a few dry leaves.  When I was growing up there was so much talk, but when you’re in the bush you can retreat into a silence where there’s a mystery of the self, and the self is always a mystery – you can dabble in that.’

Born at Young in 1941, McDonald is the middle son of a Presbyterian minister, Hugh McDonald (‘a good servant of the church’), and the esteemed historian Dr Lorna McDonald, whom he speaks of with such love and affection it’s as though he’s only now realising how lucky it is to have her in his life.  He spent his childhood in the NSW country towns of Bribbaree, Temora and Bourke, but moved to Sydney to attend Scots College and the University of Sydney.  He’s been a school teacher, ABC producer, book editor, and commenced his writing career as a poet before shifting to writing novels because, he says, of the form’s more expansive possibilities.

McDonald’s novels include 1915, winner of The Age Book of the Year and turned into a highly successful ABC-TV mini-series.  His account of travelling the outback with a team of New Zealand shearers, Shearer’s Motel, won the National Book Council Banjo Award for non-fiction.  Mr Darwin’s Shooter was awarded the New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian Premiers’ Literary Awards, and the National Fiction Award at the 2000 Adelaide Writers Week.  His best-selling The Ballad of Desmond Kale won the 2006 Miles Franklin Award.

‘I’ve won a lot of prizes,’ he tells me, obviously wanting to make that point but also as if his achievements surprise even himself.

When Colts Ran is a complex, sprawling work that grew out of a set of long short stories, almost novellas, one of which was awarded the O. Henry Prize as one of the best twenty pieces of short fiction published in the USA in 2008.  On his publisher’s blog – he says the word ‘blog’ as if it’s from a world he doesn’t really want to know anything about – McDonald writes, ‘The main character of the novel is Kingsley Colts, whose ‘run’ starts at the age of sixteen and is still going when he’s well into his eighties.  Fleeing Sydney, Colts goes bush and ends up spending the rest of his life there.  Great expectations blighted him when he was young.  As an orphan and ‘ward of Legacy’ too much was asked of him.  In the rhetoric of two world wars he was the inheritor of national sacrifice.  Could anyone really be worthy of that?’

At home and in his office McDonald admits, ‘God only knows there might be something essentially me in Colts – the alcoholic I never became.’

Does he have a cultural vision for this latest novel?  ‘Yes,’ is his swift reply, ‘but what that is exactly, well, I paraphrase Bernard Shaw: If I could have put it in two words, I would have.  It’s just about using the material at hand, speaking out of the landscape, using people’s use of the place and their working lives, their accent, the dust in the throat kind of thing, hope and despair mixed up together.’

Speaking out of the landscape. How good is that!

What part of McDonald’s background has had the most impact on him?  ‘Connection to the Australia countryside and rural landscapes.  This has always been not so much an escape but a wonderland.  When we lived in country towns as kids all our connections were with sheep farmers.  My parents’ friends and parishners would always be inviting us out for afternoon teas and lunches.  My brothers would ride horses and I’d drive the sulky and we’d swim in the dam, and it was an ideal life removed from the way we lived.’  McDonald pauses briefly.  ‘What never appealed to me was the actual work of a farm.  After 1915 was published I was able to buy a place in the country.  That was a joyous moment – to be able to live in the country but not have the difficult business of gaining the main source of income from it.’

Roger McDonald has an enormous love of language.  ‘If I read a sentence in Shakespeare or Saul Bellow or whatever I feel like I’m almost chewing the words, and yet they have a delicious taste as well.  There’s a real pleasure in those words.  So the feel of language and the rhythm of sentences – this is what drives me.  I don’t have a moral axe to grind, though a novelist might need to grind that moral axe to get the words working right.  A book may have very strong and clear themes but from the writer’s point of view they’re patterns.  In When Colts Ran there’s the pattern of the way men might connect, there’s the pattern of what people derive from the pressure of the hard landscape through drought and flood and distance.’

What hopes does McDonald have for his latest work?

‘The only hope I ever have,’ he replies, ‘is to have someone come up to me and say, I read your book and I absolutely loved it, I got caught up in it, and I was in that whole world while I was reading it, and now I’m sorry that it’s finished.  My God, someone has really read what I have written!  And then you hope that that can be multiplied and you have lots of readers, because the most difficult thing for a writer is to labour hard over something and then get no response.

‘When I got my first advance copy of When Colts Ran I spent a week going through it and thinking, this has the feeling of it being beyond me.  Even though I made everything that’s in it, its elements combine in a way that I hadn’t quite predicted, and it’s possibly good in that way.  That doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to like it, or everyone’s going to think it’s good, but for me it has that quality of excelling what I originally put into it.’

Our conversation meanders on, traversing enjoyable terrain, such as influences (Patrick White, David Campbell), faith (McDonald doesn’t have one but is interested in the ‘spirituality of connection’), and Australia’s pioneering history and its impact on Indigenous culture, but all too soon we’re done.  I’m invited to stay for lunch with his wife Sue, a relationship mediator and ceramicist, and over a home-cooked frittata and salad we talk about dogs and foxes and chooks.

When sadly it’s time for me to go, I drive away in silence, which is odd for someone who enjoys nothing more than travelling in the country to music.  But drive away in silence I do.  I breathe deeply and slowly, my mouth closed, my heart making its beats.  The sky develops from cloudy to overcast, and then a light rain falls on the windscreen and the naturally harsh land and living outside.  In this silence, for every minute of the hour and half it takes to get home, I hear Roger McDonald speaking wisely and deliciously out of the landscape.

The following was first published as ‘Nature of his Tale’ in Panorama, Canberra Times, on Saturday 13 September 2010.  Many thanks to Roger McDonald.  Thanks also to Gia Metherell.

How old they are becoming, how scaly – almost snaky – with age.  In parts the skin is like tissue, the knuckle-bones obvious when a fist is made.  Because age is what’s happening to them, because the owner is becoming old, that’s the fact of the matter, the cold, hard, indisputable fact.  These hands are slowly, undeniably becoming claws.

Decades ago I had a friend who said I had ‘good hands’.  I remember seeing her stride purposefully into the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel Canberra, elegantly dolled up for Friday afternoon drinks.  Like something from the past she wore shiny white gloves that stretched up to her elbows.  This was back when we were at university, so the rest of us would have been in Doc Marten boots and jeans with holes in the knees.  But there she was, my friend, the one with shiny white gloves up to the elbows, the one who’d told me in a moment of youthful generosity that I had ‘good hands’.

In the days after the flattering comment I looked at my hands over and over, turning them this way and that, thinking, Oh yes, they’re pretty special, aren’t they.  Not too big, not too small, although the maximum span is impressive, and such clear smooth skin – they are ageless.  If my hands were on someone else’s body I’d be attracted to them, I’d want to touch them, hold them, wrap my fingers within those good-looking fingers.

Today, however, right now, I think of my friend with the shiny white gloves up to the elbows and wonder if she’d still think that I have good hands.  The proportions of my hands haven’t changed, and both are still strong and can do what’s required of them – they can still open recalcitrant jars of Vegemite.  But they no longer look like they belong to a young man; they don’t look like they belong to someone with the majority of his life left to live.

My hands look like they belong to someone who’s been around the block a few times, hands that have known other people’s bodies, and known his own body, hands that have played pianos and guitars with dreamy ambition, hands that have known gardens – what damage well-loved soil does to well-loved hands!

There’s a persistent rumour that surgeons insure their hands against injury or total loss.

I’d like to insure my hands.  Against old age.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 6 November 2010.)

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