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A place that looks like this could well be predisposed to melancholia. With any luck.

A place that looks like this could well be predisposed to melancholia. With any luck.

I always look forward to it, through the high dry heat of summer and much of autumn.  As the days shorten and shadow, once daylight-saving has finished its run and darkness comes before dinner, it’s one of the things I love most about being alive.  And it’s this: at 6pm each night I scrunch up newspaper pages into balls, carefully craft a tee-pee of kindling, and, like placing a cherry on a dollop of ice-cream, I top it all off with a pine-cone, before, with the strike of a match, fire takes hold in the hearth.  But wait, there’s more.  There’s the pouring of a glass of semillon or ‘sav blonk’, and then, the piece de resistance, the playing of the most deliciously maudlin music I can find – Max Richter is a favourite (his reworking of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is heartbreaking, in a good way), as is anything by Johan Johansson or those Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Ros.

When everything is in its place like this, I’m as happy as a humble scribe can be.  Except, of course, happy isn’t right, because it’s misery that I’m after, or, at the very least, a no-holes-barred melancholy.

Melancholy: it’s a word to be adored.  Acquiesce is another, so is panacea, but melancholy is the king or queen of the lexicon; but in these wild days of ours where gender is the be all and end all, let’s just say that melancholy rules the roost.  Because it sounds good, and it looks good – as if it’s something that could be diced up and steamed – but it also feels good, no, it feels sublime.  Melancholy means, of course, pensive sadness, or the constitutional tendency for said sadness.  But it has troubling roots, being derived from the Greek word melas meaning black and khole meaning bile, which puts me off, just a smidgeon.  Quick, throw another log on the fire, pour another dash of the white, and turn up the music!

However, there’s no escaping the out-and-out danger of what we’re talking about.  It’s widely acknowledged that melancholia refers to a mental disorder marked by depression and ill-formed fears.  Please step forward Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway and, um, Moses; Vincent van Gogh is also a member of the club but you already knew that.  Interesting that my trusty Roget’s Thesaurus Everyman Edition (1972) jumps from melancholy to ‘distressing’ and ‘dejection’, but for melancholia it cuts to the chase by taking us straight to ‘insanity’, which sounds rough to me, but you can’t argue with Roget.

Could it be that the ACT region, in which I include the Southern Tablelands to the north and the Monaro district to the south, might be devilishly fond of putting melancholy on its people?  It’s highly likely.  Because we have the harshest winters: fog, frost, freezing nights, as well as wind and rain and sleet, and snow if we’re lucky.  Because during the day we have a frighteningly blue sky, the sort that can send the best of us into an abyss of existential angst.  And because during the night we have a perilously black sky, one that can pinch our breath. The tropics we are not; our winters can kill.

'Blue Notebooks' by Max Richter.  For those who like to be blue, we salute you.

‘Blue Notebooks’ by Max Richter. For those who like to be blue, we salute you.  Well, I salute you.

This particular winter, with all the dreadful mess that’s currently oozing out of Capital Hill (or Camp Hill as it was once called, and as some still refer to it, which is divine), could well be sending even the most buoyant amongst our number into a pit of despair.  Or into the cult of busyness.  And it’s here that I’m reluctantly reminded of what Gunter Grass wrote in From the Diary of a Snail (also first published in 1972): ‘If work and leisure are soon to be subordinated to this one utopian principle – absolute busyness – then utopia and melancholy will come to coincide: an age without conflict will dawn, perpetually busy – and without consciousness.’  No doubt our representatives in parliament house will ensure that over the next three long, slow, sinister months we’ll be fully supplied with conflict, between the future and the past, between fact and fiction, between elevation and condemnation, and – oh it seems absurd but regrettably it’s the case – between male and female*, and many of us may well indeed want to slip into unconsciousness.  Which ultimately, irony of ironies, could be a lifesaver.

Virginia Woolf, in A Writer’s Diary (1953), is a bit more positive about us melancholic types, especially, I think, those who’ve fallen into the black hole of social media but are trying to make the most of it: ‘If one is to deal with people on a large scale and say what one thinks, how can one avoid melancholy?’

Amen to that, sister.

So, until mid-September, until spring with its colours that go beyond black and blue, and the lengthening, lightening days that are to come, I will ensure that the woodpile is fully stocked, overstocked if my back and bank-account can manage it, that there are enough bottles of cheap white plonk ready and waiting along the bottom drawer of the fridge, and that the most miserable CDs I own (and I have quite a few) are stacked beside me.  But despite all this intentional – and, let’s be frank, gratuitous – desolation, there is hope.  Because as winter knows best, particularly the sort of winters we have around these parts, especially the 2013 version, a true melancholic isn’t sick at heart, and a true melancholic doesn’t let cheap political tricks suck the marrow out of his or her bones.  A true melancholic is simply realistic, and just a little brave.

*

First published in The Canberra Times on 22 June 2013.  Thanks to Cameron Ross. *Written before Wednesday 26 July 2013, when Australian politics went arse-up.  Now insert ‘between male ego and male ego’.

'Kveikur' by Sigur Ros - could it be that this one record is able to answer that question, what is music?

‘Kveikur’ by Sigur Ros – could it be that this one record is able to answer the question, what is music?

What is music?  It’s a pretty bloody stupid question, especially as music is one of the few things that link us human-types together and runs as a conduit down through the ages.  It’s impossible to know if Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Ros ever ask the question or just go ahead and make music with all they know and feel.  On the basis of Kveikur it sounds very much like the latter.

Before discussing the contents of the record, here are a few bits and pieces you might want to know.  This is Sigur Ros’ seventh album over 15 years but first without founding multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson, who left in 2012.  It’s hot on the heels of last year’s superbly brooding but divisive Valtari.  Why the rush?  Perhaps it’s to make the most of the new dynamic.  Also, Sigur Ros has now played Madison Square Garden and appeared on an episode of The Simpsons and, ahem, Sarah Brightman’s done a cover of one of their songs.

Is Kveikur – which apparently means ‘candlewick’the band’s leap towards U2/Coldplay territory?  No, thank Christ, but it is a significant part of their ongoing evolution.

The album opens with the surprisingly muscular and menacing ‘Brennisteinn’, which is based around a bass riff that sounds like someone trying to kill a fairy by squeezing the crap out of its stomach.  From there the band makes it way through its usual palette of widescreen peaks and troughs, lifting us up before easing us back down, and then bleeding into the next song.  On Kveikur there’s greater variety to Jonsi’s angelic falsetto – ‘Isjaki’ is a fine example – and there’s also more exploration of percussion; ‘Hrafntinna’ sounds like it was recorded in a cutlery factory.

This time around the band also seems more committed to working with light and dark, and it’s the dark that makes Sigur Ros a truly worthwhile proposition: they might do sweet, and glacial, and epic, but when they want to they can lead us into the murky depths.  Frustratingly, and despite the cover image of what could be a mask found in a psychiatric hospital (and hence adorn a death-metal record sleeve), Sigur Ros never really takes us over the edge.  ‘Yfirbord’, with its reverse-looped vocals, goes close.  If only they could find a producer they trust: oh my, Sigur Ros could break our hearts.  There’s also a slightly annoying tinny-ness to Kveikur; no matter what system the thing’s played on it does sound as though it was mixed in a supermarket with the fluorescent lights on.

But still, because these guys give a shit, this is an excellent album.  ‘Stormur’, all stabbing piano chords and frantic drumming, should fill stadiums and get the mobile-phones held aloft; no doubt ‘Kveikur’ will give the strobes and distortion pedals a work-out; and ‘Blapradur’ manages to be both beautiful and just a touch unhinged before it segues into a chorus most bands would kill for (here’s hoping an outfit like Crystal Castles will mix the thing – the results will tear nightclubs apart).  And there are choruses aplenty here; there’s rarely a dud moment or a lull.

So, in some ways, on Kveikur it’s business as usual in the weird but engagingly peculiar land of Sigur Ros, while at the same time the band gets to explore and expand their range.  And there’s no denying that Jonsi and co have a renewed sense of purpose, one as an actual rock band.  In a world where talent programs such as Idol and X-Factor and The Voice smother us with saccharine tosh, we need our Icelandic mates more than ever.  And so that one day we might be able to answer that pretty bloody stupid question: What is music?

Blemished Evening FlyerJust a quick Blemish Novella Story update and rare mid-week UTC post, for two reasons.

The first – and perhaps most important, if anything about all this could be considered ‘important’ – is that tomorrow night (20 June), at 6pm, I’ll be taking part in my publisher’s Very Blemished Evening at Smith’s Alternative, Canberra City.  Can you think of a better title for a literary event?  But this isn’t any old literary shindig, because this one has music, by the always cheeky Jason Recliner, and mountains of booze from the bar.  So do drop in, have a drink and a dance, and listen to words by poets J.C. Inman and P.S. Cottier as well as myself.  I’ll be singing – yes, singing – an entire chapter from I’m Ready Now.  Okay, I may have made up that last bit; I’ll simply be reading a couple of saucy excerpts.

Speaking of I’m Ready Now, this being the second in what I hope will be a series of three novellas, all of which exploring contemporary Australian family life, has scored a warm and appreciative review in the Newtown Review of Books.  The only response a writer really wants to their work is a close and thoughtful and open reading, and that, to my utterly biased mind, is what Walter Mason has done.  Click on the link above for the whole deal, but the tastiest morsel might be this:

A newly widowed Tasmanian woman travels to Sydney to start a new life and begins her journey in the in-between space of her gay son’s stark one-bedroom flat in the inner city.  This is the premise of Nigel Featherstone’s beautifully crafted novella, I’m Ready Now, a book that examines the impact of ageing on a grieving rich widow and a lost gay man approaching what he can only perceive as a hopeless middle age.  Featherstone writes with sensitivity and a terrific eye for what it is that makes love – or at least sustained sexual connection – so very thrilling.  Ultimately I’m Ready Now is about ‘feeling life’ – feeling one’s way around its unpleasant limits and reaching the end of its strangely narrow circuits.  Thoughtful and frequently wistful, it serves as a guide to Sydney’s sadder streets and as a map of those moments of emotional maturity where you realise that it isn’t going to work out.  Nuanced and thoroughly original.

Cue glowing heart.

If you’re in the ACT region tomorrow night, I look forward to seeing you – I’ll be the one whose legs won’t stop jiggling from nerves…

Male, female, masculinity, femininity: making crap up as we go along.

Male, female, masculinity, femininity: making crap up as we go along.

Proscrastination

This morning, after breakfast was done and the dog fed, and after sorting out the chooks for the day, I, feeling the need for just a few cheeky extra moments of procrastination, cleaned the loo and the sink and the mirror.  When done, I went into the garden and cut a small clump of pink geranium flowers, popped them in a little clear-glass bottle, filled the bottle with water, and set them out.  There: a sparkly, sparkling bathroom; and it always makes me feel brilliant.  Until I walk down to the writing-room with a strong mug of coffee in hand, turn on my computer and think, Oh Christ, I can’t remember where I’m up to.

Just activities

The point of all this? Manhood.  Or, at least, gender.  The thing is I’ve spent much of the last few weeks (on top of much of the last four and a half decades) thinking – worrying – about gender.  Along with most of Australia, probably.  Gender, sexism, equality: this is the stuff that’s currently flooding our radios and TVs and websites and newspapers.  But I don’t understand what any of it really means.  Last week over at Verity La I wrote an editorial about gender equality in terms of what the journal publishes, and I introduced the piece by saying that I simply don’t know what makes a man and what makes a woman.  Of course, we can talk in general terms, we can make observations based on assumptions.  Even though gender isn’t always black and white, it’s actually the notions of masculinity and femininity that are the hardest to define.  Is fixing a car a masculine activity?  Is cooking chicken soup a feminine activity?  Is tinkering in the shed with hammers and nails a masculine activity?  Is, oh I don’t know, blogging a feminine activity?  In the end the only rational conclusion is that these are just activities.  But if anyone knows of a logical definition of masculinity and femininity, do feel free to share it.

Political tedium

Yet one of the core precepts of human life is gender and what this enables and entitles us to do between being born and kicking the bucket.  In Australian political life, men wear dark-coloured suits with blue ties; woman wear whatever they want, more or less, though a pearl necklace, it seems, should be seriously considered if you’re in a leadership position.  Men can say whatever they want, even swear (hopefully off-camera), but it wouldn’t be right for women (even off-camera).  Men can be ruthless, but when women do the same we’re advised to approach with caution – she may be dangerous or mad, or even a witch.

The welfare of a child

Closer to home, I’ve been thinking about the welfare of children raised by same-sex parents.  I used to believe that as long as, say, the son of a lesbian couple had access to a good father-figure (an uncle or high-quality family friend), then all would be right with the world.  But what exactly is that father-figure meant to do?  Teach the son how to kick a footie and do air-guitar to AC/DC?  It’s just rubbish.  So my thinking evolved to this: as long as the son has access to masculine and feminine influences (both of which could be found in his two mothers) then all would be right with the world.  But does that mean one of the mothers has to be good at climbing onto the roof to clean out the gutters (a supposedly masculine trait) while the other has to be good at getting down on her hands and knees to clean the kitchen floors (a supposedly feminine trait)?  It’s totally absurd.  So recently my thinking has evolved to this: as long as the son is loved and protected and encouraged and challenged all will be right with the world; one day he might even climb the food-chain to be deputy prime-minister.

'Brokeback Mountain' by Annie Proulx: the best prose ever, as voted by me.

‘Brokeback Mountain’ by Annie Proulx: the best prose ever, as voted by me.

Best-ever novels, Fred Nile and the Australian soccer team

But here’s a thing: even closer to home, when I think of my favourite novels, you know, the ones that I’d rescue if the house was burning down around my ears, all but one (Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx) are written by men, and all of them (except, ironically, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tobin) are about men finding their way in the world and, quite honestly, fucking it up as they go here, there, and everywhere.  Further, as I pointed out over at Verity La, there is a distinct bias towards male writers in the work the journal publishes – and I’m the one who makes the decisions.  Surely it goes beyond my personal sexuality (which, sorry Fred Nile, is genetic) to something sinister: in society, and in the way we move through and within society, men have an access-all-areas voice while women must know their place.  Cue: the coach of the Australian soccer team and his completely and utterly ridiculous ‘private joke’.

Making crap up

It’s pretty handy that as Australians we live in an environment where these matters can be discussed so freely and openly (though I’d be brave to the point of stupidity to chew this stuff over with some mates down at my Goulburn local).  It’s also interesting that these issues have been brought to front of stage by a female prime-minister who is, rightly or wrongly (perhaps both), and consciously or unconsciously (perhaps both), using her gender to bolster her government (which has, it should be said, achieved a lot despite almost crippling political and economic circumstances).  But it would be good to reach the chapter – I thought we had already, but clearly I was wrong – where actions are just actions: they don’t have sex or genders.  Like picking pink flowers for the bathroom.  But it’s likely this is me just being a bit of a fairy.  And, as always, making crap up.

Organising a life around the need for creativity: what's the priority?

Organising a life around the need for creativity: what’s the priority?

At the beginning of a plane flight recently I dutifully watched the airhost go through the safety drill, which is a drill that’s been so drummed into us that most of us don’t even watch it anymore, preferring to sort out the headphones and see what’s on the movie menu.  Often I don’t watch the drill either, but I did this time.  Except I wasn’t really listening.  Because I found myself thinking about the advice that parents must always put their own oxygen-mask on first before assisting children.  It just doesn’t seem right.  Surely in a moment of terrifying panic we should over-ride any innate selfishness we might have and help the helpless.  But, of course, the airline advice is sensible – how can a parent assist a child if the parent can’t breathe?  It’s an instance of when thinking about ourselves is logical.  And if there’s one part of society that is constantly accused of thinking about themselves it’s our artists.

There is nothing like writing.  There’s the heady rush when it’s all coming together: words flowing, characters forming, predicaments becoming drama; when time – real time – is lost and hours pass in the mark of a pen.  Or the gut-wrenching frustration when it all falls apart as though it was never meant to be, a wordy nightmare, a mushy mess that should be forgotten as quickly as possible.  And then there’s publication, attempts at publication at least, the odds so resolutely stacked against the author – where I live, Australia, it’s estimated that only one in a thousand novel manuscripts are published.  But still, despite these realities, millions of us, potentially even billions, are dedicated to some kind of creative practice – the writing of stories, the composition of music, making paintings, taking photographs, building sculptures, and acting and directing and dancing and singing.  For many, most perhaps, it’s a hobby, an ‘outlet’.  For others, however, it’s a dedicated pursuit, a serious intent, a commitment, a profession, perhaps even an obsession.

But how to organise a life, especially a domestic life, when this commitment, profession, obsession brings in an unreliable income at best, or no income at all, or actually costs money?

Keep reading over at Role/Reboot. Thanks to Meredith Landry.

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