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Sydney Cove back when it all started: are they ominous storm-clouds or is it an approaching bushfire?

Sydney Cove back when it all started: are they ominous storm-clouds on the horizon or is it an approaching bushfire?

It’s January in Australia and I’m hot and bothered. Hot, because that’s exactly what it is: for weeks now it’s been thirty degrees Celsius in the shade, some days thirty-five. Last Friday went over forty; Sydney, just two hours drive north of me, had its hottest day ever – it breached the forty-five-degree mark. Here at home the chooks have their beaks open and their wings out and hanging low, so I’ve covered their run as much as I can with an old tent-fly – it seems to help, for now. But hot is hot is hot and there’s not much I can do about it. And I can’t do much about the alarming waft of smoke as it comes into town and gets us coughing. Last week there was an automated message left on the landline: ‘Tomorrow’s bushfire conditions are CATASTROPHIC. Activate your bushfire survival plan now.’ I put the sprinkler into the garden and, rather uselessly, turned it on.

All this is enough to make anyone hot and bothered, but it’s not all.

On 26 January there’s Australia Day; yes, it’s come around yet again. So the flags are out and about: they’re being stuck on cars and utes and trucks, they’re hung in shop windows, and they’re sent flapping in front gardens, stating the bleeding obvious, but also as though staking a claim all over again. We do it every year, our national day to commemorate the beginning of British settlement, when Governor Phillip landed at Sydney Cove in 1788. I was born and bred here, my forebears arriving by boat only a handful of years after that adventurous governor. Despite this ancestral longevity, however, and whatever blood I have in my veins, and all my thinking on the topic, I don’t really know this nation of mine; as I age I’m understanding it less and less. So, this summer, this dreadful, pressure-cooked summer, I’ve turned to our writers for assistance, for succour even, because their imagination, observation and skilful way with words are surely better than simply hanging out a flag.

Keep reading at Overland.  Thanks to Jeff Sparrow and Jacinda Woodhead.

The Nigerian poet and novelist, author of 'The Famished Road' and 'Astonishing the Gods' is onto something, he really is.

The Nigerian poet and novelist, author of ‘The Famished Road’ and ‘Astonishing the Gods’, is onto something, he really is.  His collection of essays, ‘A Way of Being Free’ (1997), is a book I turn to time and time again.

‘True artists are wiser than we think.’

‘Creativity, it would appear, should be approached in the spirit of play, of foreplay, of dalliance, doodling, messing around – and then, bit by bit, you somehow get deeper into the matter.’

‘There is a touch of blessedness in the art of writing.  It is sometimes interesting, while writing, to be occupied by the mood you want to render and to let the mood find the words.  This assumes oneness between you and your material, a quality of grace.’

‘The best kinds of books have a delightful mystery about them.’

‘Creativity should always be a form of prayer.’

‘The mystery of storytelling is the miracle of a single living seed which can populate whole acres of human minds.’

‘It should be clear by now that it is you, great readers of the world, who are at the root of the storyteller’s complex joy.’

‘Storytellers ought not to be too tame.  They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society.  They are best in disguise.  If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys.’

‘When we die in life, it’s much easier to watch others dying too; it’s much easier to murder the dreams of others, to poison the stream of their lives, to poison their innocence, their love.  When we are dead in life we don’t notice when little miracles die around us before our deadened gaze.’

‘The enemies of poets are those who have no genuine religious thinking.  To be truly religious does not require an institution, it requires terror, faith, compassion, imagination, and a belief in more than three dimensions.  It also requires love.  Religion touches us at the place where imagination blends into the divine.  Poetry touches us where religion is inseparable from the wholly human.  In heaven there could be no poetry.  The same is true of hell.  It is only on a sphere where heaven and hell are mixed into the fabric of the mortal frame that poetry is possible.’

‘There are many ways to die, and not all of them have to do with extinction.’

‘Writers are dangerous when they tell the truth.’

‘Writers are also dangerous when they tell lies.’

The Sydney Opera House - an example of great simplicity in action (as well as great complexity)

The Sydney Opera House – an example of great simplicity in action (as well as great complexity)

New year resolutions aren’t really my thing, beyond preparing a list of what I’d like to achieve in writing – read better, write better, submit more, do more creative journalism, make sure to enjoy it all, that kind of thing, which I say to myself every year.  However, on a recent drive south, good music on the car-stereo, a hot hot hot sky and landscape and potentially catastrophic summer conditions all around, it came to me quickly, a list, three words: simple, good, imaginative – that’s the kind of life I want to live.

Simple

Life, given half the chance, will always complicate itself, because it is random, chaotic, and formless.  Being someone who likes a bit of routine and order, I find that keeping things simple helps to keep me on the straight and narrow.  So, simple finances, simple goals and expectations, even simple house-furnishings.  Of course, this is often easier said than done, because to reach a point of great simplicity takes a brain that can traverse great complexity.  Consider the Sydney Opera House: a simple idea, a simple structure; but what extraordinary technical skill to make it all a reality.  Still, a simple life is the one for me.  If I can manage it.

Good

What is good?  Something that enhances life?  Or perhaps simply (huh!) doesn’t diminish life?  Is good nice?  Not necessarily, and probably not.  Is it generous, honourable, thoughtful, loving?  Yes, it may well be all these things.  Is living a good life the same as writing a good story?  I’m not so sure – is it good that Brett Easton Ellis gave us American Psycho (1991), a novel that’s about how not to be good?  Yes, it’s good that we have that work in our world, but not in the way we think.  Perhaps a good life is one in which that person and the people are around that person feel more able?  I’ll run with that.

Imaginative

At first, the word on my list was ‘creative’, but a creative life can be nothing more than making handmade birthday cards, which is inherently a good thing, but it’s not quite what I’m looking for.  Imagination seems to me to be more all-encompassing.  It is an imaginative act to write a story – in every possible way.  But it also requires imagination to solve a particularly complex household maintenance issue.  Or to resolve a financial matter.  Or to mend a broken friendship.  Imagination may also be required to approach the design of one’s life in new and exciting ways.  In an interview I did this week with literary blog Whispering Gums, I referred to something Ben Okri wrote in his magnificent collection of essays A Way of Being Free (1997): ‘The imagination is one of the highest gifts we have’.  He really is right.

What are the key words for you this year?

Here are 9 blogs that make you feel bigger and better and more alive than ever

Here are 9 blogs that make you feel bigger and better and more alive than ever

Under the Counter has been going since 2009 and now that it’s 2013 it’s probably time for a list of blogs that I check out regularly.  By regularly I mean once or twice a week, because I do try to balance online time with offline – as in real life – time, so I can keep on being a human for as long as possible.  It’s true that I’m not much of an internet traveler, and would much prefer to spend a morning working in the garden before a long afternoon on the couch with a book and a cup of coffee, probably some chocolate, perhaps with a late addition of wine if I just can’t put the book down.  However, there are places online where it’s possible to linger and come away with your brain expanded rather than diminished.  So, below is a list of blogs that I currently enjoy.  It’s neither definitive nor unchangeable – I thoroughly recommend all those sites listed in UTC’s blogroll to the left – but you may wish to go exploring in the following directions:

  • Whispering Gums – an indispensable well of reviews and commentary on Australian and international literature
  • Broadside – a New York-based blog written by professional freelance writer Caitlin Kelly; it’s invariably thought-provoking, particularly in terms of US current affairs but also on the trials and tribulations of being a practicing independent scribe
  • City of Tongues – a longstanding blog by highly regarded Sydney novelist and reviewer James Bradley, on offer here is a host of links (to James’ work and elsewhere) and glimpses into the writing process/life, plus music recommendations
  • Three other writer-blogs that I follow are by Irma Gold, Gabrielle Bryden, and Mark William Jackson
  • Headphone Commute – a very professional music blog dispensing reviews, interviews and general information about all things minimalism, electronica and contemporary classical (for want of a better term)
  • Bootlegsmade4walking – if you’re interested in mash-up/bootlegs then you can’t go past Phil Retrospector’s blog
  • And, just for a bit of good fun, albeit the ever-so-slightly maudlin kind, I visit I’ve Had Dreams Like That, which is simply a collection of odd, cheeky, hilarious vintage photographs (you’ll get a Warning Notification, but that’s only because every so often the images are extra cheeky indeed).

What currently are your favourite blogs?

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