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)

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