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I might not be big on tradition, but I’m certainly big on habit and routine, and my winter habit and routine is, at 6pm, exactly at 6pm, I call it quits on writing, pour myself a glass of white wine, light the fire, and put on some of the best melancholic minimalist music I can find. As you can probably imagine, I have quite a store of it, and I do order in new CDs and digital downloads at an alarming rate. I’m not really sure why I love this stuff in the early evening, but I do, and I’d die without it. Maybe it’s about the close of the day, especially a winter’s day, which around my neck of the words can be pretty severe – some days, if the wind-chill factor is taken into account, daytime temperatures never go above zero Celsius, and the nights can go down well below freezing. And it can be grey, so so so grey. Regardless of the weather, listening to melancholic minimalist music is what I do.
Here are three albums currently on high rotation.
Piano Solos by Dustin O’Halloran (2004). Mr O’Halloran’s music is a favourite of film-maker Sofia Coppola, who is a very special kind of spunk – some of these tunes were used to great effect in her completely marvellous Marie Antoinette. As is made clear by the title of this album, there’s nothing but piano here, and it’s all extraordinarily simple – your teenager daughter with a few keyboard skills (the musical kind, not the inane Facebook kind) could probably knock this stuff out. However, there’s a stack of feeling on this record, and if O’Halloran was to be found playing it in a hotel foyer you could bet your bottom dollar that everyone would be watching and listening, and probably weeping too, which would be a bit nice. Try ‘Opus # 12’ on for size.
Eulogy for Evolution by Olafur Arnalds (2006). On the surface, this is just pretty piano-and-strings music. It would certainly soundtrack a slightly miserable European film where people try to love and live well and be the best people possible, but in the end it all falls apart, only a hint of hope as the credits roll, so you clutch your partner’s hand, drop by the servo on the way home to get a family-sized block of chocolate, and you knock it all off before sliding into bed and each other’s arms, slowly falling asleep to the realisation that all is not lost, not yet. But Arnalds offers more depth than your standard soundtrack, and, dare I say it, more sophisticated musicology. Be warned: this bloke’s from Iceland, and there is just little of Sigur Ros here, particularly in terms of the background strings, but also in the way some of the songs end up in quite unexpected places. Check out this little beauty – ‘3055’.
For the tired and ill at ease by Scissors and Sellotape (2012). This is a pretty damn special thing, partly because it’s only available on very limited edition handmade vinyl (the packaging, not the actual record…I’m assuming), although I heard it’s well and truly out of stock, and digital download – there are no CDs in sight. Originally from the UK but now based in Melbourne, the main protagonist here, John McCaffrey, makes the grimmest of music, slow and rumbling and almost drony, despite being based around simple minor-key piano motifs. Dimension and perspective come from the addition of field-recordings to some tracks, such as a father and child talking, and, on the utterly intriguing ‘I say ‘get used to it’’, the subtlest of beats, almost as though they’ve come from a human heart. Many may find For the tired and ill at ease (a title written fairly and squarely at me) just too macabre, but after repeated listens it reveals its warmth and beauty. In short, it’s a ripper. I’m off to hunt down the vinyl version. But as it’s now 6pm I better pour myself a glass of white wine, light the fire, and listen to one of these albums. Which one, I have no idea – it’ll be a lovely surprise for all of us.
A great source of information on contemporary minimalism, check out Headphone Commute. Actually, it’s the only source you need.
‘Find the place where passion and precision are one.’ (Yeats)
‘Making a character ‘alive’ means getting to the bottom of his existential problem, which in turn means getting to the bottom of some situations, some motifs, even some words that shape him. Nothing more.’ (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)
‘Ford and Conrad loved a sentence from a Maupassant story, ‘La Reine Hortense’: ‘He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.’ Ford comments: ‘that gentleman is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act. He has been “got in” and can get to work at once.’’ (James Wood in How Fiction Works, 2007
‘Care about writing because it matters. Ache over every detail. Be involved in the painful and intolerable wrestle with words and meaning.’ (Mem Fox in Radical Reflections: Passionate Opinions on Teaching, Learning and Living, 1993)
‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully, which is to say write well. Within this responsibility is that of being truthful. To charm, to amuse, to enchant, to take us out of ourselves, these are all part of beauty. But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt (because they can’t really do it the same way when dead) and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’ (Ben Okri in A Way of Being Free, 1997)
‘Go boldly forward and write the email to Australia and the world that says, ‘Your position is not sustainable. You cannot keep going in this direction. Something is going to give: it may be your relationships, it may be your infrastructure, it may be your children, or it may be you.’ (John Marsden, from his Colin Simpson Lecture to the Australian Society of Authors, 2005)
‘When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is a lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’ George Orwell in his essay Why I Write, 1946)
‘Write it only for yourself, not for publication, not to show anyone, but full out, all you feel, for yourself, alone… And then sooner or later I daresay someone will talk you into publishing it somewhere.’ (correspondence from Douglas Stewart to David Campbell in Letters Lifted into Poetry, 2006)
‘To compose a novel is to set different emotional spaces side by side – and that, to me, is the writer’s subtlest craft.’ (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)
‘There is only one recipe – to care a great deal about the cookery.’
The city’s been good to me, one particular city, it’s called Canberra and it’s an hour down the road. I lived in the place from 1987 to 2010, over half my life. I moved there as an eighteen-year-old, escaping Sydney, that city of two million people at the time (it’s four million now), purposely leaving behind everything that it had been to me, for me, the rich district where I grew up, the private schools, the Mercedes and BMWs and Volvos and Porsches, the loveliness of all that, but also the dreadful emptiness – I’ve been disinterested in material wealth ever since.
In Canberra I enjoyed university life, group-house life, working my way into adulthood, finding myself (more or less), making friendships, many of who remain with me to this day, settling down, running amok, settling down again. In Canberra I met my partner Tim. In Canberra I rediscovered my love of reading and writing, committed myself to both, started writing poetry (the first thing I ever wrote and had published – under a pseudonym – is now embedded into the pavement in the heart of the city) but quickly moved onto short stories and then longer forms. I began doing freelance work for The Canberra Times, interviewing writers and artists, which has been such a pleasure. In Canberra I had a stroke of good real-estate luck, which now enables me to live in the country without debt. Now when I look at my resume I realise how good Canberra has been for my creative life.
So, for almost two and a half decades, Canberra was home, that most modern of cities, imagined from the ground up by the American architect and landscape planner Walter Burley Griffin and his professional partner and wife Marion Mahoney. The Griffins won the international design competition in 1912, and the first peg was hammered into the ground in 1913, so next year one of the world’s great designed cities turns 100, which is quite something, wouldn’t you say? But not everyone will be celebrating. To the majority of Australians, Canberra is just the place of Australia’s federal parliament and all the public-service departments that go along with that. Only ever experiencing the city via compulsory school trips, they see the intricate order of every street and street corner unnatural, as if the city isn’t Australian at all. Indeed, as a child and I’d visit Canberra with my family, I always thought that as we drove across the border we were stepping into another world, a bit like how it’d be travelling in Europe, so I day-dreamt.
It’s true that Canberra is quite odd; now that I don’t live there but remain close by I can see that now. It is ordered, it is polite. It is a city-state, which means to many it’s neither one thing nor the other. It can be the most beautiful city in the world – 70% of the Australian Capital Territory, of which Canberra is the centre, is mountainous national park, much of it getting dustings of snow in winter. Regrettably, to many it can also be the most boring city – it’s never developed the pub culture that makes a stack of other Australian places come alive. It should be made clear, though,that these days Canberra has many fine cafes, bars, clubs and restaurants, and the diversity and quality of cuisine matches or surpasses that available anywhere else in the country, even Melbourne and its ridiculous self-belief that it’s the centre of Antipodean culture.
In the end, however, Canberra is just a community of 350,000 people getting on with their lives – half of the residents don’t have a thing to do with the parliament or public service. In general the population is well-educated, well-read, and politically leans to the left. For a long time it has had progressive policies on recreational drug-use, prostitution and pornography, it was the only state or territory jurisdiction to vote YES in the 1999 referendum for Australia to become a republic, and on Tuesday 14 August 2012 the ACT Legislative Assembly will vote in favour of the most advanced same-sex relationship laws in the country.
It’s not surprising, then, that Canberra is also a creative and cultural place. Statistics regularly reveal that the city’s rate of participation in the arts is higher than anywhere else in Australia, and many high-profile artists working in all forms of creative practice call the ACT region home. In particular, Canberra has for decades well and truly punched above its weight in terms of writing. The list of eminent writers from this neck of woods is long: Miles Franklin, Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson, Manning Clark, Roger McDonald, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Alan Gould, Geoff Page… In fact, the list is so long that as part of the centenary of Canberra celebrations a major anthology is being published – it’s called The Invisible Thread. The book will be launched in November as part of the National Year of Reading, but will also have a long run through the centenary shenanigans. This in itself is very exciting, but it’s also personally very exciting because my work has been selected for inclusion, which is an almost unbelievable honour.
But here’s the rub: despite the project attracting a publisher, Halstead Press, and support from the ACT Government as well as other literary and related organisations, including my own publisher, Blemish Books, The Invisible Thread does not yet have enough money to get over the line. It says something about the status of writing – any kind of creative practice – in Australia when a book of this – dare I say it – importance has to put out its hand. Because that’s exactly what the project team, led by the tireless Canberra writer and editor Irma Gold, has done: it’s started a Pozible campaign to help pay for the marketing side of the book, to make sure the work has the best life possible out in the community. At the time of writing, 40 generous people have pledged $3,335 with the target being $5,000 . If you have a few dollars to spare, why not throw them into the Invisible Thread bucket; if not, perhaps you might pass this post onto someone who might be interested. There are 28 days to go to make this happen.
So, yes, Canberra has been very good to me. It’s where I found myself, where I found family and friends and love. How lucky I’ve been to have spent so long in a community where democracy is at the heart, where people like to think, where people have the long view and move forwards, where the diversity of its population is held up for all to see, where the reality of contemporary living informs policy and legislation, and where a book that celebrates 100 years of working words is about to spring to life.