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I really can’t do it. I can’t remember the last time I sat upright in an armchair and listened to a new album from start to finish, the cover in my hands, checking song titles, reading lyrics, scanning the acknowledgements, then just closing my eyes to focus on what’s coming out of the speakers. But that’s exactly what I did this morning, for Bon Iver’s Bon Iver.

It was a nervous few minutes as I put on the album and got to listening. Compared to the awe-inspiring For Emma, forever ago (2008), would this album suck dogs balls? I’d recently had an experience of a band trying in vain to follow up a masterpiece – you can read about it here – and I’m just not strong enough to go through it all again. But, quite frankly, Bon Iver’s second album is extraordinary. It is majestic in its scope, in its wide-eyed amazement. Goose-bump material.

‘Perth’ starts the record in typical Bon Iver fashion – strummed and finger-picked guitars, Vernon’s multi-tracked falsetto – but its conclusion is aggressive, as if to say, I’m back and this is my new album and you’re in for a fucking ripper of a ride. From here we meander through a musical landscape so beautifully crafted – so beautiful in and of itself – that it’s as if Vernon can barely believe his eyes and ears and heart and gut.

God is in the detail: in the crystal clear but so very warm production, in the sense of caring – aching – for every note, every beat, every word; you even get this impression in the cover art, the finest of brush-stokes in the idyllic lakeside scene depicted. As well as being majestic, Bon Iver is brave in its exploration and sense of play: song structures that go beyond what we know but stop short of where we thought we were heading. For Christ’s sake on this record saxophones duel with pedal-steel guitars.

Every so often there are hints of other bands: Red House Painters, Sigur Ros, even Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But Bon Iver is all Vernon’s; no one makes music like this, music which strives to get a handle on what it feels like to be alive in this shit-house world we call home, that strives full-stop.

It’s true that Vernon’s lyrics are a cousin of gibberish. Take this for example, the first line from ‘Minnesota Wi’: ‘Armour let it through, borne the arboretic truth you kept posing’. Others have concluded that at the end of it all Vernon really doesn’t have anything to say, and this is understandable. But it’s possible that Vernon might know exactly what he’s trying to say, it’s just that he wants us to work it out, in our own way, in our own time. A clue could be in the acknowledgements; like many artists, he thanks his parents, but it’s how it does it that’s interesting: ‘And to more than anyone, my Mum and Dad. Who never encouraged me to try anything different. Who raised me to always be the best person I could be. For being my best friends and loving me so much. For as much life as there is to live, I will never be able to thank you enough.’

It’s the intensity, the sheer wonderment.

If it’s true that Vernon’s lyrics mightn’t exactly be driven by clarity, it’s also true that ‘Beth/Rest’ is a bizarre note on which to finish the album. It’s an unashamed soft-rock ballad, the sort of thing that REO Speedwagon inflicted on us thirty years ago. Vernon’s take could well be seen as courageous, but it leaves a distinctly cheesy taste in the mouth, which is odd considering that For Emma was a paean to the heartfelt and authentic. Is it a misstep? Perhaps. But on the scale of wank to genius, it might possibly nudge genius. Maybe in structuring the album Vernon wanted to take us on a journey from the mountain cabin in which he recorded that first record to the bright-light cities of middle America, which, of course, has soft-rock firmly planted in its fat burger belly.

Forgiveness is possible – if you think forgiveness is needed – when you consider the sheer gloriousness of the nine songs that proceed ‘Beth/Rest’. On the elegant ‘Holocene’, Justin Vernon disingenuously claims ‘And at once I knew I was not magnificent’. You are magnificent, I’m afraid to tell you. On Bon Iver, you’re dangerously magnificent, and I for one am glad that I live in a world where music as rich and transcendent as this is possible.

There is no doubt that years down the track, when someone asks me to nominate a quintessential experience of living in and around Canberra, I will say, That’s easy, the evening I spent with Marion Halligan.  I’ll remember it as if it was only yesterday.  A Thursday afternoon in early June, 5pm, that damp dark falling on winding suburban streets; a cold front had come through keeping daytime temperatures to single digits, as if the weather was giving us all a very specific single digit.

A fire is burning in the hearth of Marion Halligan’s Inner North loungeroom, books stacked here and there.  Within minutes I’m seated on a couch and being poured a generous glass of white wine.  I’ll need to drink the wine slowly because I have to keep my wits about myself.  I’m here to interview Halligan about Shooting the Fox, her new collection of short stories.  As a reader I have been floored by the razor-sharp intelligence on display between the beautifully designed covers.  I’m nervous: with one slip of the tongue I could be mincemeat.

Of course, Marion Halligan is well-known to Canberra readers.  As well as her short story collections, she is the author of five non-fiction books, and no less than ten novels.  She has been short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Miles Franklin Award, she’s taken out the ACT Book of the Year three times.  Readers of The Canberra Times will be familiar with the restaurant reviews Halligan used to do (which never shied away from the fact that sometimes we deserve better), the book reviews she still does from time to time, and her ongoing contribution via a popular column called First Words.  How lucky we are to have her ‘just around the corner’.

In person, Marion Halligan is excellent company: thoughtful, articulate and erudite.  In terms of admired writers she name-checks Javier Marias, Milan Kundera, Patrick White, David Malouf, Joseph Conrad, and Iris Murdoch.  Conversation flows easily, shifting from politics – “Why can’t our leaders be more passionate about the things that matter…and remind us how generous we can be?” – to family and food, to, of course, reading and writing.  She is a grandmother now, a role she clearly cherishes: “I look at my grand-daughter and think she’s just so gorgeous.”

She loves laughing, though it can be a cheeky laugh, one that suggests she has a naughty side.  But more of this later.

Shooting the Fox is Marion Halligan’s fifth collection.  Why another?

“Because I love writing short stories,” is her matter-of-fact response.  “I sent these to my agent.  She rang back and said, Oh Marion, short stories?  My agent sent them to my publisher, who said, Really, short stories?  There has been received wisdom for a decade and a half that publishers don’t want to do short stories.  But we know that readers like reading them.  My publisher took these with her on holidays to Bali and loved them.”

Short stories are a peculiar literary beast, closer to poetry than novels.  Halligan agrees.  “Yes, short stories are a bit elusive and elliptical at times.  Readers have to think, what’s really going on here, and put their minds to working it out.”  This particular author’s stories can be complex, dream-like, surprising, all the while exploring the possibilities of existence, asking questions, letting the answers emerge.  How does she bring them to life?  “I do think about them a heck of a lot before I write them down, and while I write them I like to think.  I write by hand.  Writing by hand is harder work, you’re scratching away and thinking, I won’t put it like that, I’ll put it like this, then you look at it and cross it out and do it another way.”

Is there an over-arching theme to Shooting the Fox?

“I think these stories are about people looking for happiness.  Whether they find it, I’m not always sure!”  Halligan’s face lights up; she laughs, takes a drink of wine, settles.  “Happiness lies in little things.  The stories in this collection are asking the reader to savour these moments because they will pass and the world will change.”

Readers have pointed out that there does seem to be more than a fair share of adultery in Halligan’s fiction.  “Adultery is things going wrong, people betraying themselves or their partners or their families, and that’s what fiction’s about.  One of the things that goes wrong in my fiction a lot is adultery.  I see adultery as a very bad kind of betrayal, and a very common form of betrayal.  You have to ask, what’s going on?  It’s interesting to look at little slices of life and say, this is how they are and we don’t know why on earth they’re like that, it seems mad, but there you are.”

There is a real sense of play in Halligan’s work.

“I’m very interested in watching my little grand-daughter, who’s not quite three.  She’s got a tea-set and she’ll put the napkins out, and she’ll put plates, and she’ll put cups, and then she’ll put a hair-clip beside it.  Then she’ll walk around and get some stickers and put the stickers in the cup.  You can tell that she’s thinking.  She’s not talking to me.  She’s not expecting anything from anybody.  She’s just in her own little world doing things.  Play is a great way of working out how the world works.”

You get the sense that, despite all this time, after everything she has achieved, Marion Halligan is still playing in order to find out what she thinks.

She’s also not averse to setting her work in and around the ACT.

“People say to me that I give them a completely different view of Canberra.  It’s a place where ordinary people live – the bushfires made people think that.  Up until then most people didn’t understand us.  I was saying to someone the other day that in Canberra there are families living under bridges and in cars with no money.  If you live in Queensland with no money you’re alright because you’re not going to freeze to death.  But in Canberra some people have no money for blankets or good food.  It can be a scary place.”

What about Seven Writers, that group of women authors, of which Halligan was a member, who met regularly between 1984 and 1997?  For younger scribes there’s an almost intimidating mythology about this gang.  “It was a curious phenomenon,” Halligan admits.  “Different people wanted different things from it.  What I got was the sense of colleagues.  I liked having people to talk to about writing.  In one novel I had a love-scene between two men and I got them to read it.  I said, tell me if it works.  And they said, How would we know, Marion, we don’t know anything about this.  And I said, I don’t know either, I just want to know if you think it’s convincing!

“It was also about the support.  Husbands were sick or dying or leaving or committing adultery, marriages were breaking up, several people had babies.  It was a group of friends and in those early days we had children around, and we were trying to cope with the whole business of writing – how do you be a writer in this environment, how do you organise earning a living and writing?”

And then it happens.  Perhaps it’s the small amount of wine I’ve drunk, or the deliriously warm fire that Halligan’s partner, the poet John Stokes, has faithfully attended, or the fact that I’ve been completely entranced by this master story-teller: I miss-phrase a comment along the lines of after all these decades of the hard-work of writing it must be tempting to call it a day.

“Of course I’m not giving up!  Jesus!”  Halligan is incredulous.

Bravely – or stupidly – I persist.  Really, why keep writing?

“Because it’s so exciting every time.  I love sitting somewhere and thinking, I want to write a short story, what should I write about, thinking it up from scratch – I find that such a pleasure.  My head is full of things that I want to put into fictions and give people chances to think about.  The older you get the more mental furniture you have and the more interesting it is to wander about amongst it all.  The other thing is I didn’t start very early.  I was 47 when my first novel came out.  I have a lot of time to make up.”

When Marion Halligan reflects on her creative life, what does she see?  “Well, there are the books.  There’s the sense of putting the world into words.  But the most exciting part is having readers who say, I read that and loved it.  The reader has the sense that somebody has understood them.  We all like to be understood.”  Halligan pauses, looks away to the hot bed of coals in the hearth.  She says, “Adultery is a perennial story, which is why I keep telling it.  It fascinates me so much, that people fall into this delusion.”  She turns back to me, her eyes alive with the sheer thrill of her ongoing literary task.  “Perhaps at seventy I should give up adultery!”  She laughs wildly.  “But not yet!  Not yet!”

 (First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 18 June 2011.  Thanks to Gia Metherell and Alan and Unwin. Gratitude to Marion Halligan.)

It feels only right that after all this time I tell you about my house, my home, an old place, 1890s they say, because that’s the age of my end of the street. It’s a cottage, a ‘cosy cottage’ according to the real-estate advertisement. A short run of picket fencing, a matching gate leading along a short brick-paved path, up three concrete steps painted red to a concrete veranda, the floor of which is also painted red. That’s the extent of the front garden. You could park a small car in it, but only just, and you’d squash the roses that are trying make the best of the lack of sun – the house faces east, over town to the hills and paddocks beyond.

At one end of the veranda is a perforated-metal table and two matching chairs, which sometimes I sit on and drink a coffee or tea or have a glass of wine. At the other end of the veranda is an old church pew, or perhaps it’s a school bench – the local old-wares shop that sold it to me openly admitted that they didn’t know much about it, they don’t want to know where their stuff comes from in general.

The old part of the house is just four rooms, two on either side of a hallway. The ceilings are high; even though I’m six-feet tall I can only just reach the ceiling when standing on the top of a step-ladder. To the immediate left is my study, or work room, or writing room, depending on what mood I’m in. The room is painted a deep rust red up to the picture rails, ‘ceiling white’ above.

To the immediate right is the original sitting-room, also painted deep rust red. There’s a coal-burning heater made by A. Hordern and Sons of Sydney, a mantelpiece (ancient-looking but not original), ceiling-high bookshelves on each side. When I first moved in I thought that this room would be my study, or work room, or writing room, what with the fire and mantelpiece and bookshelves and all, but I felt like a fraud, or that I was 100 years old and smoked a pipe while writing poems about daffodils and young girls. It’s just a sitting-room now; sometimes I call it The Library, or The Fireplace Room. Visitors like the coal-burning fireplace, especially friends from Canberra who’ve forgotten that such things ever existed.

Further along are the bedrooms, the main one on the left, the guest one on the right. The colour-scheme in the main bedroom is white with black trim and black curtains, or cream and black, Clotted Cream I think it is actually called. It’s a simple room, monkish: a queen-sized bed, simple timber bedside tables from St Vinnies, on one wall a colourful painting done by my father, on another a framed black-and-white photograph I took when I was eighteen, a morning-rise landscape, black branches against a brand new sky. I realise now that the photo is older than the person who took it. There’s an ensuite and walk-in robe, a first for me. I like how when I have guests I don’t have to use the ‘common’ bathroom. It makes me feel as though I’ve come of age.

The guest room is yellow, Cheesy Grin is the paint colour. The previous owners used it as a nursery for their young child, hence the colour of the walls. Perhaps they were saying to their child, You might live in an old house that’s crumbling around the edges, but we’re so happy to have you with us.

Yes, my house is crumbling around the edges.

In the back half, built during the Second World War when Goulburn must have felt so far away from everywhere that mattered, and perhaps there was a comfort in that, are the living areas. The lounge area contains a decade-old fading red couch which the Old Lady of The House and Cat the Ripper use more than me, the upright piano from my childhood, a stereo with record player, more bookshelves, and a skylight. The dining area contains an old pine table, also bought from St Vinnies. In this part of the house are two sets of French doors, one set looking north to the green Colourbond fence that’s smothered in a massive climbing rose, the other set looking west into the rear yard, a view of the old private school on the hill, Hogwarts we call it, of course.

A kitchen, the largest kitchen I’ve ever had – there’s room for two fridges (one for food, the other, a bar fridge, for bottles of wine), a walk-in pantry (sort of), windows that look out into the side lane. At least it used to look out into the side lane – after I lost interest in the drug deals going on next door I had frosted glass put in so I can pretend all is fine with the world.

Out the back is the ‘common’ bathroom, which includes a spa bath and is another first for me, and a timber-sash window, the weight is broken, so when the day is warm enough I prop it open with a piece of old dowel, no fly-screen, so the flies come in.

A laundry that’s really just a cupboard with a sliding door.

Much of the back of the house is tiled, a large square brown type, which I sometimes pretend are flagstones and this house is even older than it is. The rest of the house is floored with polished timber, turpentine the wood, so it’s a deep reddish brown and hard as steel. I broom the floors every day to get rid of the dog-hair tumbleweeds, and because I persist in spending much of my life wearing ugg-boots – this is Goulburn after all.

Outside, the house is concrete-rendered; it’s been painted a light, drab green, but the trim is rust red, so are the doors, the roofing is corrugated iron and doesn’t leak though it does creak in the heat of summer. A stubby little chimney, which I always love seeing when I come home from down the street, a bag of groceries stretching from each arm. It all hangs together well, my house. Many places don’t: extensions done in the 1970s still looking exactly like extensions done in the 1970s.

Out the back is the smallest of yards, though to be accurate it is four times the size of the front. A Koppers-log pergola thickly covered in potato vine – I seriously considered getting rid of the structure when I first moved in, until I realised that it’s there to cut down the incessant Southern Tablelands wind, and stop the houses behind seeing in, which is good, because in this place I’ve developed a dreadful habit of pissing outside, as if I live in a thousand-hectare farm out the back of buggery.

A small brick outdoor area, the old portable barbecue that’s yet to be used in this place. The rest of the yard is a cottage garden in the making – lavender, rosemary, salvias, irises, geraniums. Bulbs are emerging now. There’s not much room for trees, but I have a silver birch, a silkwood, two large wattles, a struggling Manchurian pear, and a very old fig which I originally thought was dead but my brother said I should give it a chance because it looked ‘prehistoric’. Come summer the fig showed itself to be a healthy tree, though I’m not big on fig fruit – my neighbour must be, because I’ve seen him lean over and pinch a few, and good on him for that.

A small veggie patch beneath the clothesline. My three new Wyandotte hens in their coop and run; they get the shits with the sparrows, who do little mission impossibles to steal food. An old iron garage that my father reckoned would have once been used as a shearing shed but clearly it wasn’t. I’ve thought about replacing the garage because it has no door, has a lean to it, and it leaks. But my friends say that it has character. Plus I have no money.

My place is pretty, she’s cute, but, yes, she’s crumbling. The floors had to be rebuilt from the ground up. When I arrived they were so sloping it felt like I was constantly drunk; really I’m only drunk some of the time, a little at 6pm each evening to celebrate another good writing day, and when He Who Too Loves A Cool Drink On A Warm Day is here, weekends mostly, because we live busy lives. So the floors needed rebuilding. I have photos of the process that make it look like an archaeological dig up at The Rocks.

There are cracks in the walls, which worried me sick at first, but I worked out how to do the repairs, making the walls look new, or at least newish. Some of the cracks seem permanently fixed, but one, above the door to the guest room, is persistent – I almost admire it now. Some of the walls suffer from rising damp, the paint sweats and bubbles. The damp is slowly killing the house. I’ve had a ‘chemical damp-proof course’ installed. I showed a photo of the procedure to a friend, who said that it reminded her of the Matrix films. The builder had to inject the walls, the multiple injectors connected to a machine that looked like it might have been stolen from an Intensive Care Unit. This means the dampness is fixed, or, at least, it’s in the process of being fixed.

The point of telling you all this is my house is alive. She’s old, she’s ageing. She’s a geriatric patient I care for. In return she gives me lessons about perfection, about the need to redefine my idea of perfection. She cracks, she creaks, she cries. She can be damp and cold. But she can also be warm, so warm, so loving.

It is good to be here, coming home, seeing her, taking me – us – into her, being reminded how imperfect I am despite my best intentions, because time is slowly taking us apart.

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