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Well, we’ve got a cover.  This time around, Blemish Books commissioned the completely and utterly talented – and damn fine – folk at New Best Friend.

Yes, it’s the baby to the left.

It’s always interesting to see what will be the public face of a story that’s been private for so long – it’s as if the idea materialises right in front of your eyes.  It’s true that there’s a kind of magic to all this.  And it’s all just so full of surprises.

I had no idea the doorknob that features in the story would become the dominant image.  But it’s fitting, very fitting: if you have the key you’re able to go inside.  But maybe the door’s unlocked already – just come on in and make yourself at home.  Perhaps the door’s unlocked but the door’s hinges are a bit rusty and you’ll need to give the whole thing a pull and a push to make it move so you can make your way in.

Whatever the case, there we have it: the cover of a novella called I’m Ready Now, to be published next month.

Also on the cover is a quote from Marion Halligan, one of the ACT region’s – and Australia’s – most esteemed writers.  I admire Marion very much, plus I’m fond of her as a person, so it’s always a nerve-wracking experience for someone like this to be approached to endorse your work.  And you do need endorsements: independent-press publishing is too difficult as it is to go in blind and naked, as it were.  (To be frank, commercial or mainstream publishing is probably no easier).  Needless to say, it was a relief to read Marion’s generous words, to know of her response.  ‘A powerful yet gentle narrative that grabs you and holds you till the end.’  Powerful.  And gentle.  I like that, especially for a dual point-of-view narrative.  Is it Lynne Gleeson, the mother in I’m Ready Now, who is powerful?  Or is she gentle?  Or is it her son Gordon, the naughty – and troubled – son who is those things?  Or is it the story itself, the book?  Or is it me (God forbid)?  Or is it all these things?  It’s all these things.

From here we’re on the slippery slope to the launch, which is at Electric Shadows Bookshop in Braddon, Canberra, on Thursday 22 November.  It’s quite an unreal experience to have two novellas out in two years, two book covers, two endorsements, two launches, all the gut-wrenching anxiety of going public with a personal imagination, a day-dream in a way, a very long day-dream.  If anything, I just want Lynne and Gordon Gleeson to have their time in the sun; it feels as though they’ve been kept cooped up for far too long (since 2003, really, when the idea of this story and the people in it first popped up).

They’re tough people, independent and determined, so they’ll make their own way without me now, I know they will, I know they will.

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You have to take notice of a keenly anticipated album that opens with the gentlest of ballads.  It’s brave, it’s courageous, and it’s exactly what contemporary music needs.  And it’s what The xx do on Coexist, a record that fans of indie music have been looking forward to since 2009, when the band’s self-titled sophomore release bagged them the prestigious Mercury Music Prize.  On paper, The xx are a curious proposition: a male singer who plays bass, a female singer who plays guitar, a percussionist who does it all with electronics (and is becoming a much sought-after DJ and producer).  This is very simple, sparse, left-of-field pop music, as if your brother and sister and their mate are practicing in the bedroom next door.  It is, however, beautifully structured and carefully crafted, every song a sublime mix of peaks and troughs, even silences.  Both voices, despite their youth, are surprisingly soulful, but certainly not in a Whitney Houston or boy-band way; this is all about feeling and intimacy – if soul music is all about, well, bearing your soul, then The xx make soul music.  But it’s also very, very modern.

Like any band that sounds like no-one else, there are challenges.  How to explore and develop while holding on to what makes you special in the first place and keeping your fan-base?  Iceland’s Sigur Ros has had the same problem, and they’ve sustained their career by pushing out the boundaries of their sound without really progressing in any way (leaving that task to lead-singer Jonsi’s side-projects).  What is The xx’s answer?  The band members were only 17 years old when they recorded their first album, and due to its success spent the next couple of years touring the world (and losing a second guitarist at the beginning of the journey).  When they took a break they rather understandably hit the nightclubs of their native UK for a bit of r&r.  In many ways, Coexist is the band heading in a dance-music direction.

Thankfully the craft and sense of dynamic remains.  These songs won’t fill nightclubs, though no doubt many will be remixed (they’d be stupid not to give at least a couple to atmospheric beat-master Burial, who’d do extraordinary things with this stuff – darken it right up to the point that shivering might be a good idea).  In fact, on Coexist, the songs are so brittle, so fragile, that it’s hard to imagine them even being played live.  That opening ballad, ‘Angels’, is a case in point: it feels as if singer Roma Madley Croft is going to simply dissolve in front of our ears (eyes).  ‘Reunion’, which contrasts Croft’s sweet tones with the deeper timbre of bassist Oliver Sim, is similarly delicate, although does manage to climb into a glorious coda that, it’s true, gets the toes tapping.  Towards the end of the collection is ‘Swept Away’, which is The xx at their most clubby, the song building and building into a jungle rhythm (‘jungle’ as in Tarzan, not the style of dance music).

If you’re detecting a hint of reservation in these words, it’s that this fine mix of beauty and intimacy can become all a bit of a blur in the wash-up.  On Coexist The xx don’t stop you in your tracks; it’s a bit like how you can make a mix-tape of your favourite songs only to find that there’s something lacking – sometimes you need some songs that you don’t like, or songs that you don’t like initially but end up working out, or songs that are edgy and dangerous and unexpected.  Perhaps that’s where The xx should go next: into the land of danger and the unexpected; they’ve dipped in a toe but really should dive in head-first.  They’ve proved that they can be audacious, now they just need to put that spirit at the centre of everything they do.  And the world will be theirs.

(Postscript: if an album is good enough, as in potentially great, I buy it on vinyl.  I own Coexist on vinyl.)

Let’s be honest: when all this started I had no idea what I was doing.  But it’s best we go back a bit.

In the autumn of 2009, I spent a month as an artist-in-residence at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people on the Shoalhaven River just south of Sydney.  On the last night the other artists and I had a few drinks and shared stories of our time in the glorious creative isolation as well handed out business cards and email addresses and website URLs.  I had none of those things – really, how committed was I to writing?  By the time I’d driven home, I resolved to at least get the internet put on at home and set up an email address.

By October of that year, I had indeed got these things, but I also had a website designed, and I set up this blog.  I knew next to nothing about blogging other than it might be a good way of sharing news, if, that is, anyone was interested.  So here we are, in October 2012 and it seems almost impossible to believe that Under the counter or a flutter in a dovecot (which is, to be frank, a ridiculous name for a blog, a ridiculous name for anything) is heading into its fourth year.

It’s probably as good a time as any to reflect on the positives and challenges, so let’s do it, the reflection thing.

On the whole, I’ve enjoyed my time in the blogosphere, even if most of the online energy appears to have shifted to Facebook and Twitter, leaving blogs to feel just a little old-fashioned, which to a certain extent suits me fine because I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy.  Thankfully, when I started this thing, I promised that I’d post only once per week, and I’ve kept to that, more or less.  Is it true that at the beginning I had no idea what I was doing?  Yes, it’s true, and I still might have no idea, although I have come to think of this blog as a diary that I write with other people in mind.  But it’s not a personal diary; I’ve been fairly keen to focus on writing and literature, music, other arts activity, and some quirky investigations into those little things that happen in a day that might have deeper meanings.  Like the last days of a chook.

I’ve enjoyed asking myself during the week, what will I post this weekend, what’s happened or happening that others might be intrigued about?  There’s a discipline to that, on a number of levels.  I’ve also found it fun to try out different things: writing music reviews (which is surprisingly difficult), trying to approach technology in new and weird ways (the On the other side of the city ‘survey’, and what sprung from it, has been a highlight), and it’s good to know that every one of the fifty or so First Word columns that I’ve written for The Canberra Times is stored here, and the features I’ve written have also had a second life online, meaning that the artists I’ve interviewed have been able to link to them (The Canberra Times has only very recently made Panorama, the paper’s weekend magazine, available electronically).

Plus there’s been the great pleasure of getting to know a number of the regular readers of Under the counter – all of whom, it’s amazing to realise, aren’t from my real-world community, some are even from overseas.  In a way, you are modern-day Pen Friends, or maybe that should be Keyboard Friends.  Some of you have become significant contributors to Verity La, that other part of my online life, and for that I thank you.  And, of course, there’s the handful of blogs that I comment on regularly, because the posts are frequently excellent and thought-provoking – have a look at the blog-roll to the left for the links.  Some of these blogs, for example Whispering Gums, are becoming influential, particularly in the funny little world that is literature, and that’s a great thing – a strong and sophisticated writing culture comes from articulate and erudite public discussion about creative practice (even if that observation and the sentence make me sound like a wanker).

What about the challenges?  There have been times, it’s true, when I’ve been all out of ideas, though this can also be a positive, as it’s forced me to still produce something, even if it’s a hastily put-together collage that looks like a six-year-old did it.  A key part of my blogging routine is commenting on other blogs – I can hardly expect readers to comment on this blog if I don’t comment other blogs.  Do comments matter?  Yes, they matter.  I do want to know what people think; I do want to know if readers have been moved, and a comment is a sure sign of that.  I’d like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for commenting – it’s made my day.  But it can be exhausting – and time-consuming – to find posts that I want to absorb and comment on.

It was – and continues to be – most gratifying that the National Library of Australia selected Under the counter for archiving in-perpetuity (if that isn’t a tautology) as part of its PANDORA program.  To think that maybe, just maybe, a researcher will stumble across this little old place in a hundred years time is a bit special.  There’s no doubt that without the commenters commenting and the National Library’s interest I would have stopped long ago – there’s only so often you can call out into the digital abyss.  And there have been times when I’ve wondered if the end might be in sight; in fact, to be completely frank, I can see the end right now.  I won’t keep this blog going forever, nor should it just keep rolling on and on and on.  But I’m not done just yet; there’s a bit more fuel in the tank, even if the engine’s developed a rattle.

Many many thanks again, and here’s to a bit more Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot.  For the time-being at least.

Despite my age I’m doing it more and more, I can’t stop, hour after hour after hour, until I’m sore, my hands, my wrists – from holding a novel. Because it’s reading novels that I can’t stop doing, great big slabs of it, whole mornings, whole afternoons, whole days, from dawn until dusk, lost in the best of written words, or I might mean found.

As a boy and early teenager I loved reading, except I don’t remember being voracious, that word that’s often used to describe someone who ploughs through books like there’s no tomorrow. But read I did and was moved. Jean George’s My Side of the Mountain, Stowe’s The Merry Go Round in the Sea, and Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich were the novels for me.

In my late teens and early twenties, that first taste of university life, I had other things on my mind, no time for reading, no inclination even – I wish someone had thrust a tome into my hands and said ‘Read that, you oaf’. But I fell back into the habit when I moved to Perth to live for a while; alone, lonely, I wanted to know more about that far western place, and, miraculously, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet had just been published. I read those pages on the sand and in the sun, the teasing sea just there.

These days I have a library in my house; it’s in the smallest room, what would have once been the parlour, that place for visitors. There’s a coal-burning fire – sometimes, on the coldest, dampest, windiest days, I light a fire and that’s a heaven that’s hard to describe. Rising up on each side of the mantelpiece like columns are the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, rows and rows and rows of novels, my favourite of the favourite at the very top where the bastard cat can’t spray them.

It’s in this room that I like to spend whole days with the best of fictional worlds, just ink on the page. What magical lies! I’m visited; I go visiting. I’m transported, I’m opened out. I’m led away from myself so I’m walking in the shoes – living the exciting, illuminating lives – of others.

Logan Pearsall Smith, the US-born British essayist, wrote, ‘People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.’ How true.

I hope I’ll never stop reading novels.

Never ever.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 29 September 2012.)

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