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There she was, amongst the acres of car parts and toy cars and old tools and new leather belts, sitting upright on a trestle table, as if it wasn’t me who’d spotted her but her who’d spotted me.  Miraculously, she was right beside the show-ground entrance; all day hundreds of people had walked past and ignored her, or they saw her but simply weren’t interested.  Wasn’t it obvious how beautiful she was?

She’s such a rich, royal red, at least a foot high, and you’d need three hands if you wanted to wrap yourself around it completely.  And what decoration she has: images of flowers created from savoury biscuits, Saladas we’d call them, although they’re probably a different brand in the design.  The way I remember it the biscuit barrel we had when I was a little boy and then a moody, introverted teenager (how little has changed) was filled with sweet biscuits – Chocolate Wheatens, caramel crèmes, Tim Tams if someone in the family was doing well.

The clear glass knob on the top like a pom-pom on a winter beanie.  The directions inside the lid: ‘Before using for the first time, merely unscrew the BLUE MAGIC DRI-NOB from the KRISPY KAN lid, wipe with a damp cloth and place the DRI-NOB in a hot (400-450) oven for 15 to 30 minutes.  The BLUE MAGIC crystals will then be bright blue in colour and ready to absorb moisture’.  What enchantment!  What delight!

When I found her on that swap-meet trestle table – or she had found me – it was as though a member of my family was sitting there, not a parent or one of my brothers but someone very different, an angel in the shape of a red-tin biscuit barrel, an angel that had been missing from my life, because each of us has to grow up to become an adult, which, by definition, means ‘someone who has no need for angels’.  Now that I’m in the second half of my life, the downhill run, the red-tin biscuit-barrel angel is back, she’s come for me, and how lucky that makes me feel, how lucky I am.

I have her home with me now, I paid $20 for her.

I know that tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or next year, I’ll need her, I’ll hug her, I’ll reach in my hand and find – at last – what I’m looking for.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 30 April 2011.)

In here

somewhere, somehow

I find myself


or old.

It’s interesting, I think, to take note of the music we listen to when we’re alone.  Perhaps there’s a dog sleeping on a nearby bed, and a cat amongst the cushions on the couch, and, at least for me, it’s highly likely there’s a glass of wine involved, but essentially, at moments like these, it’s just us, our own breath, our own heartbeat, our own living.

Recently, my alone music has been one – or all – of the following.

The Optimist LP by London-based acoustic duo Turin Brakes.  I’ve known their cracking song ‘Underdog (Save Me)’ for years, but I first bought this album, which came out in 2008, only twelve months ago.  I was a writer-in-residence – such a grand term, probably a wanky term – and had made a trip from Launceston, my temporary home, to Hobart to give a workshop on writing about place.  The Tasmanian Writers Centre put my up in an 1840s whaler’s cottage, which I loved despite finding whaling despicable, even historical whaling, and I began feeling this way when I was a little boy.  Whenever I put on The Optimist LP I remember that little whitewashed whaler’s cottage, I remember the novella I was writing when not giving the workshop, and how much I enjoyed the writing of that story, because I was writing it for myself.  I remember the kitchen in which I wrote for those few days, the view up to Mount Wellington, the fact that the infamous Salamanca Place markets were literally at the back fence, I remember that I was so happy.

The second ‘alone’ record is March of the Zapotec and Realpeople Holland by Beirut, which, in this context, is not a whole country but just one person, the ridiculously talented Zack Condon, a young man from the United States.  It’s a two-disc set: the first is Condon’s typical street-side oompa-oompa brass-band confection; the second is more electronic, a little bit Depeche Mode, maybe almost full-on night-clubby, even if it sounds like it’s been made on a cheap Casio keyboard.  The record reminds me of another residency, this time Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people.  In 2009 I was on that isolated stretch of Shoalhaven River for a month, and I loved every second of it.  The words, the birds, the bushwalks, the late-night booze-ups with the other artists.  Each afternoon it was my little tradition to pour myself a glass of wine and sit on the verandah and listen to ‘March of the Zapotec’.  It felt like real living, true living, and I was so happy.

The third – and potentially the greatest – ‘alone’ record is playing right now and it’s Fordlandia by Icelandic minimalist composer Johann Johannsson.  There’s a fair dollop of Arvo Part in this music, plus some Craig Armstrong, a film-score composer, and, just a touch here and there, some Sigur Ros, perhaps even some Massive Attack, though I might be getting carried away there.  The point is lately I’ve been playing it most evenings, when a day of writing has been done, a meal’s been cooked and eaten, the television news has had its say, and the dark has come.  Yes, Fordlandia is dark music (check out the title track if you don’t believe me), but with its slow cascading minor-key string washes it’s also very, very beautiful music, and it will always remind of this great shift in my life, when I moved from a city to a town to put writing and creativity at the centre of my life, at least as central as we can ever do such a thing, because I can’t forget about love.

So.  Three albums. Two residencies, and a house that, sometimes, when I’m alone, I like to think of as a place where creativity might flourish.  Christ, where would we be without music?

My life is about landscape. It’s always been so, but as I continue to age at a rate of knots, it becomes more and more so, as if I’m only just realising, or I’m trying to hold on. It’s an odd conclusion. How can a life be about landscape, especially my life, which has always been such an urban life, suburban at least? Farmers are allowed to have landscape lives, national-park rangers too, even shooters. Not me, who dresses and walks and speaks so city.

Perhaps it’s because I’m lucky to have grown up beside Sydney’s Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park and spent countless weekends building cubby-houses there, or just being in that scrappy peripheral place, getting views from rocky outcrops to the wild landscape beyond.

Maybe it’s because when not in that scrappy peripheral place I was down at the beach with my brothers. The beach is as much about landscape as it is about ocean, a landscape of edges, of bodies, of light and depth and danger.

As a boy and as a teenager I had books about landscape. Somewhere on my bookshelves even today is Landscapes of Britain (1984), which I loved – and still love – for all the photographs of rolling misty hills. There’s Australia’s National Parks (1978); as a ten-year-old I wasn’t so much interested in the pictures of bowerbirds or rare quolls or spiders and snakes, not stalactites in caves (because caves are evil), but the pictures of thickly treed valleys, of canyons and waterfalls and waterholes.

It’s no surprise, then, that my first foray into university education was to study landscape architecture – I wanted to be an architect of the landscape, as if a man could ever be such a thing.

I’m a writer these days; it’s no easier a task.

Early last Sunday, not much beyond dawn, on the way to drop off a heater for my father in Braidwood, I spent an hour driving through this south-east tableland landscape of mine, a landscape I’ve been trying to know for twenty-five years. Tractors motionless in fields, as if the farmer has quite simply had enough. Sheep grazing thoughtlessly. An old homestead, only the chimney remaining. The melancholic blue of the ranges beyond. Driving alongside pine-tree windbreaks, spider webs revealed by the dew, the webs catching the whispers of the landscape, or the prayers, or the dreams.

I just can’t see an end to loving this.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 9 April 2011.)

  1. Going blind.
  2. Going deaf.
  3. Losing my love of music.
  4. Running out of ideas for stories (or would this be a great relief?)
  5. Choking to death.  Alone.
  6. My little old house falling down.
  7. Not meeting my expectations for my writing.
  8. Receiving a horrible review, one so bad that I’d never write again.  (But if I must never write again, I’d rather it be by my own hand – e.g. from running out of ideas – than by someone else’s.)
  9. Contracting AIDS.
  10. Waking up to the realisation that my on-line life is more active than my real life.

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The past