You are currently browsing the monthly archive for March 2012.
It’s a rare event for a dictionary to fail me but that’s exactly what happened a minute ago: my usually trustworthy Oxford Australian Dictionary (1992) couldn’t come up with the goods, and what a sinking feeling that was. Then the unspeakable happened: my Roget’s Thesaurus (1976) failed as well. I reached for the Pears’ Cyclopaedia (1932) but it too fell short. I pulled my copy of Soule’s Synonyms (1904) off the shelf – at last there was hope.
What have I been looking for? A definition of lane.
Where I live, a town dating from the 1820s, we have many lanes; in fact, we’re cross-hatched with them. I adore them. Consisting of two roughly parallel lines of compacted gravel or dirt bordered by knee-high grass, those narrow throughways between old houses. I walk the dog down them. I take them when going to the mainstreet.
I remember being a little boy and visiting cousins out at Young and they had a rear lane; how lucky I thought they were. For two years in the 1990s I lived at Cottesloe Beach, Perth, and there was a lane behind my flat; how lucky I thought I was. I’ve named the on-line literary journal I co-edit Verity La after a lane in the Sydney Building, Canberra, and in Hong Kong recently my camera regularly found itself pointed towards backstreets and laneways.
These days, I might walk the lanes of my home-town because they offer protection from the winds, but mostly I take them because you can peer into backyards – wild veggie patches, saggy chookyards, an outdoor dunny turned into a wood-store, a rusted metal seat in the sun, a broken cricket bat…
When walking a lane there’s a sense that words like private and public don’t matter, that life can’t be categorised by what is yours and what is mine. Lanes are semi-places, they’re reserved, they’re reticent. That’s why dictionaries struggle with them.
The best the Oxford could do was “a narrow road or street”, which is downright wrong. The Roget’s was able to suggest words like “short-cut”, but in the end this is clutching at straws. Perhaps in 1902 there was a better understanding of these things, because the Soule’s got as far as “alley, narrow passage or way”; as definitions go it’s prosaic but at least there’s accuracy.
How would I define lane?
I wouldn’t, I can’t; I too would fail miserably. I’ll just keep walking them, being with them, because their elusiveness makes me feel whole.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 24 March 2012. This is my fiftieth piece for the First Word column; many thanks to Gillian Lord)
‘Don’t do it,’ she said, ‘they’ll eat you alive, you’ll regret it, you might not write another word.’ We were in a cafe and I’d just told my friend that I’d been invited to attend a Canberra book-club to talk about Fall On Me. ‘They forget that you’re the writer and it turns feral,’ she explained. ‘I certainly won’t be attending one ever again.’ So I worried about it, whether I should go or not; I became more and more nervous as the evening drew closer. I seriously considered cancelling my involvement, or perhaps I could come down with a very rare but completely depilating illness. Which, thankfully, never had to happen. Because my evening with a book-club turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done in 18 years of doing this; in fact, it’s in my Top Three Writerly Experiences of All Time.
For a start, the host was an old high-school friend, and we’d not seen each other for 25 years. I knew this already, which is why I would never have cancelled, because Rosy was wonderful at school, so kind and generous and good natured, and I had no doubt that she wouldn’t have changed, and I was right. Secondly, how often does a writer have an opportunity to discuss his/her book for three hours with people who’ve read it so closely? Even to the point that they picked up a mistake: in the book, two characters – Lou Bard, a single father and cafe owner, and his enigmatic housemate Anna – are having a deep and meaningful discussion in the kitchen over a bottle of red: large wine glasses are used, and the wine is poured out three times, which the book-clubbers said was unlikely out of just one bottle. (I really should know these things, shouldn’t I.) But how lovingly – have I mentioned that the group comprised only women? – this observation was made. In fact, it was a great laugh.
Thirdly – and here’s the truly amazing thing – what really clinched it for me was this: each book-club session someone volunteers to bring food inspired by the book. One of the women made a pizza based on the favourite topping of Lou’s son Luke: potato, fetta and chilli. With a huge smile on her face she said to me, ‘It must be very yummy for you to put it in the book!’ And I said, ‘I have no idea – I just made it up!’ That’s fiction for you. Thankfully Luke has excellent taste, and we all woofed the pizza down, and I’m going to make it, too, life imitating art. She also made caramel slice, because there’s mention in the book of Lou having caramel slice in his cake display at the cafe, but it must have been there for a while because it’s started to get that slightly unsavoury dew on top. So she put her home-made slice in the fridge for an hour to replicate the effect.
How good is that.
It makes me want to do it all again, which is handy because, as reported earlier, it is all happening again: Blemish Books is publishing another novella from me later this year, another of the Launceston novellas, the stories I wrote while I spent a month in that town as an artist-in-residence at the Cataract Gorge Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage courtesy of the City Council.
As a kid I loved writing, telling stories; the highlight of my week was the double creative-writing period. I’d write and write and write, just made shit up really, but I loved how the pen seemed to get carried away on the page, except it was really me who was getting carried away, wasn’t it. And I still get carried away, especially when writing by hand, as in handwriting, which is what I did in Launceston during those four weeks. When school finished all that time ago, however, there was no thought – it simply never occurred to me – that I might go on to do something with this story-telling thing, so I enrolled in landscape architecture, because it seemed interesting enough, and it was.
But the boy in the photo above: though he’s hiding from you, though you can’t see his face, you know what he’s thinking: school is finished, I’m off to university, it’s all a great adventure, but what am I doing, what am I to do with this life? It’s not until now that he knows.
Because the boy is me.