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Might it be this little guy?

Might it be this little guy?

Something is stealing my water.

It’s actually the chooks’ water, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an important matter, one of life and death.  They have a ten-day waterer, but in the last two weeks it’s been depleted every day, and the hens aren’t impressed, not at all.  Could it be that with this unseasonally warm winter and spring they are thirstier than usual?  But even at the height of summer they don’t drink this much.

Could the sparrows be the ones who are drinking it, the sparrows who are determined to drive me crazy with their pesky ways?

It just might be that there’s something else in my little garden.

Every morning I wake to find the mulch disturbed, some of it flicked over the paving and stepping stones.  I always broom it back to where I want it – that is, after all, the whole point of having a garden – but the next morning there they are again, the scatterings of mulch.  Something is digging, and it might also be drinking.

Recently, if I’m up early enough and look out into the hopeful dawn, I sometimes see a darting shape, almost as if it’s been flung across the yard by sling-shot.  Yesterday morning, I waited for the light to come and got a better look: it’s small, and black, with a bright red beak.  It’s a blackbird.

They say blackbirds came to Australia in the 1850s via Melbourne, and since then have formed colonies up the east coast, particularly in the lush, basaltic gardens of the Blue Mountains.  But also, quite evidently, in my Goulburn yard (now that Cat the Ripper is nothing more than an ache in my stomach that won’t go away).

Is it the blackbird that’s stealing the water?  It’s possible that it is.

Unless I also have a snake.  But let’s not go there.

Sometimes I’ve seen a large brown hawk sitting on the ridge of the old shed that is my garage.  The hawk could be after the sparrows, or the chooks, or even my blackbird.  What a little world is in my garden.  There are days when I wish that I could sort myself out, forget about this whole writing madness, and just let plants and birds be all I need, let this small patch of life sustain me, in essence be my water – so I could live out my days simply sipping.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 16 November 2013.)

The life and death of spring? (Illustration: Jim Pavlidis)

The life and death of spring? (Illustration: Jim Pavlidis. Source: Canberra Times, Fairfax Media.)

It happened only a week ago. There I was, working away at my desk, when, coming from somewhere at a distance on my right, the east, there was a sudden airy whoosh, two of them, in parallel, blasting past my window, above, high above, then the briefest of silences, a nano-second, before this in the west: one explosion, two explosions.

Down below my office, on the sun-drenched terrace outside the café, young men and women stopped concentrating lazily on their lattes and cappuccinos and looked into the sky.  An authoritative shout went up and the young men and women, helpfully already in uniform and camouflage, got to running, sprinting.

They knew, and so did I, because the sirens made it clear: we were – our country was – under attack, we were being invaded.

Except we weren’t; my imagination was simply getting carried away with itself.  Two jet planes, some kind of fighting machine, did indeed zoom through the sky above my room, but – thank the deity that is yours, or just your lucky stars – there were no explosions; it was nothing more than one of those fly-pasts, celebrating something or other that I didn’t know.

But those young military men and women: they were real enough, they are real enough, because I’m currently spending three months at the Australian Defence Force Academy.  No, it’s not the most bizarre holiday you’ve ever heard, nor am I lurking behind bushes like some kind of spy.  It’s just that, courtesy of the University of New South Wales, my spring is committed to a place I never thought I’d even visit let alone allow myself to become immersed, enthralled, besotted even.

Some – many, most – may consider it odd for a writer to spend spring in a place that, in essence, is teaching people how to invade and maim and kill and destroy, all for the greater good, a kind of lofty, lofty cause, one that isn’t always entirely obvious (or true)…

*

Keep reading over at The Canberra Times, which commissioned this piece and published it on 11 November 2013.

Arcade Fire's 'Reflektor': is this at last the perfect record?

Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’: is this at last the perfect record for our beautifully fucked-up world?

How would it be to exist without music?

I for one would have no clue, and I don’t want to try imagining it, or even write much more along those lines.  But it is, perhaps, worth asking a related question: how would it be to exist without excellent music, or even very good music?  For me, this has been the question of the week.  And you can blame Arcade Fire for that.

I’ve been following this Montreal-based bunch since their highly acclaimed debut Funeral (2004).  Using the phrase ‘highly acclaimed’ in this context is hardly new or surprising – it seems that when Arcade Fire simply get out of bed in the morning there’s cause for rapturous excitement around the world, the sort of rapturous excitement that once greeted The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan (the crusty old shit that he’s become), David Bowie, Nirvana, and, erm, U-bloody-2.

But is Arcade Fire really that good?

There’s no doubt that when they’re fully charged they’re excellent.  Witness ‘Neighbourhood No. 2’ and ‘Wake Up’ from Funeral, ‘Intervention’ and ‘No Cars Go’ from Neon Bible (2007), and ‘The Suburbs’, ‘Ready to Start’, ‘Modern Man’ and ‘Suburban War’ from The Suburbs (2010).  One day Arcade Fire are going to put out a best-of that’s going to knock the socks off people and prove once and for all how great – and ‘great’ is the word – they can be.

However, and this is a big ‘however’: they can also be utterly infuriating.

Some Arcade Fire songs start brilliantly before burning out as though in the end they just didn’t know what to do with them but, hey, chuck it on the record anyway.  The band can pack too many ideas into each song (certainly Reflektor suffers from this in parts), and lyrically they can be as awfully obtuse as a Sixth Form poet inspired only by Google.  Throw into the mix the fact that they’re fueled by both anger and beauty, they appear to adore and detest modern life in equal measures, and they can be grand, dramatic, over-dramatic, over-blown even, but there’s also a deep vein of melancholia throughout.  A rich brew or a directionless mess?  They’re both, quite honestly.

So.  What to make of this latest record?

In a way it’s exactly what you’d expect.  This is, apparently, Arcade Fire’s dance collection and they enlisted LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy to get their hips a-wigglin’.  Appropriately split over two discs, and inspired by the 1950 Brazilian classic Black Orpheus and its themes of death and isolation, Win Butler, wife Régine Chassagne, and the couple’s clever cohorts lead us from the superb ‘Reflektor’ – this is their ‘Atomic’ – through ‘You Already Know’, which sounds like what would happen if Butler fronted The Smiths and Queen, and the almost Clash-like ‘Joan of Arc’.

On the second disc the pairing of ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’ and ‘It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)’ shows just how close Arcade Fire is getting to John Lennon, in ambition if not execution.  ‘Porno’, the most James Murphy-esque track, is a fine slice of moody electro, and ‘Afterlife’ is one of those typically exasperating Arcade Fire songs: a gorgeous verse, a glorious chorus, it’s all ‘Can we work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?/Can we just work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?’, and then, and then – well, it just collapses under its own weight.

Referencing a bunch of great bands and singer/songwriters here is intentional, including The Smiths and The Clash.  Is Reflektor as good as the former’s The Queen is Dead or the latter’s London Calling?  No, it’s not.  But it’s dangerously close.  It has the scope, depth, audacity, and a burning desire to create something as timelessly artful as those albums.  In some ways it also feels like the best mix-tape you could ever possibly receive (the inclusion on the second disc of the test-sound once found on cassettes alludes to this) and, perhaps, in the age of iTunes, YouTube, and Spotify, Reflektor is as good as it gets.

A magnificently flawed masterpiece.  Yes, let’s call it that.

And I can’t stop listening to it.

But what does she really want him to do?

But what does she really want him to do?

Day in, day out, there they are, on the terrace below, in uniform, camouflage for some, others in blue or green or white, so it’s a military uniform – because they’re soldiers.

It’s not because we’re being invaded, though the assumption is that one day we might be, or it might be us who’ll do the invading, all hell might break loose, yet again.  It’s just that those people, those men and women in uniform, those soldiers, are my environment at the moment.

Because I’m currently the 2013 Canberra Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy, courtesy of the University of New South Wales Canberra.  ‘Creative Fellow’ being just a posh name for writer-in-residence.  Which itself is a posh name for professional day-dreamer.

I haven’t talked about it much, because, primarily, it’s taken me some time to work out what I’m doing.  I’m here for three months, and I’m two months down the track, and it’s only now that things are coming into some kind of focus, though that might not be entirely true, or accurate.  The thing is I’m a natural-born pacifist; I’ve marched in the streets to protest wars.  I’ve always been of the view that there must be better ways to resolve disagreements than standing in a field and pointing weapons at each other.  I like books and music and drinking coffee in my garden while chatting to the chooks – hardly the sort of bloke who gets off on putting an enemy in the crosshairs.

So, no, the Australian Defence Force Academy is not my usual habitat.

Thankfully, as mentioned, I’ve come in via UNSW Canberra, which runs the academic side of ADFA, so that I simply get to spend my days in a very comfortable office in the library, looking down at people in uniform…when I’m not madly researching and reading and writing, of course.  And that’s the thing: I’m finding the place extraordinarily thought-provoking, inspiring even, and bloody productive, in a roundabout kind of way.  As I rather childishly (and potentially inappropriately) said to a senior academic the other day after he’d asked me how I was going, ‘I’m having THE BEST time.’

I came here with the idea of exploring ‘masculinity in times of conflict’; this probably says as much about me as it does about Australian military history.  Perhaps, like always, I’m being driven by that central question: what does it mean to be a good man, which, of course, is almost exactly the same as asking, what does it mean to be a good person?  But the military, especially the Australian kind of military, is all about men, isn’t it, the warrior, that iconic ‘digger’, that myth of our country, that brave saviour of everything we’re meant to stand for (whatever that is).

Those men who could do no wrong.  Except I don’t believe that for a second.

Are all men who've served their country 'good'? Peter Stanley thinks not.

Are all men who’ve served their country ‘good’? Peter Stanley thinks not.

Recently, over the last handful of years, historians – the courageous ones at least – have been turning their attentions to what our soldiers were truly like.  Perhaps the best example of this is Bad Characters: sex, crime, mutiny and the Australian Imperial Force (Murdoch Books, 2010) by Dr Peter Stanley, who for almost three decades was the Australian War Memorial’s chief historian and is now associated with ADFA/UNSW Canberra.

This excellent book, which jointly won the 2011 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History, asserts that an army is a reflection of the society it serves, which means it is a reflection of everything that that society is – warts and all.

Stanley has also been instrumental in establishing Honest History, the soon-to-be-launched organisation based in Canberra dedicated to telling military history how it is without the dramatics, especially as Australia builds up to celebrating the centenary of 1915, when, apparently, though I don’t believe this for a second either, our country formed some kind of identity or purpose – or even found its soul – on a Turkish beach.

So that question remains: who were those men who served, and who are the men who serve now, considering there are just as capable women filling key roles, including in active duty?  Eight weeks down, do I have a clue?  No, not a single one, even though I’ve researched and read and written like a bastard.

Except to say this: (1) I couldn’t do what these men do/have done; (2) I maintain my view that war is senseless, barbaric, and an insidiously bewildering mess; and (3) men who deserted – those who discovered that for what reason they just couldn’t blow up another person, or even go anywhere near a front-line – may well be the truest heroes of all.  Because – and here’s that word again – they were honest with themselves.

Really: deserters as heroes?  I’m serious.  Deadly so.

Prospect or refuge: the choice is ours.

Prospect or refuge: the choice is ours.

Each Monday afternoon, at 5pm, he leaves the writing room, calls The Old Lady of the House to attention, gets her into her lead, and leaves his home for the hills.  Past the old houses, all that red brick and corrugated iron, the good, thick chimneys, some windows with stained glass.  Past the houses from the ’60s and ’70s (not two of architecture’s best decades) and past the newer houses on their big blocks, massive blocks, until they’re five-acre lots complete with post-and-rail fences and four-wheel-drives in the driveways, gazebos too, and water features.

It’s not until he takes a side road and the walking becomes steeper and he and the dog begin to puff that his mind starts to settle and empty.  For this is what he wants: emptiness.  There’s no Facebook up here, no Twitter, and no one can phone him because the mobile’s back on the fridge where it should be.

The road climbs ever higher, and now there are small paddocks with sheep grazing absently between stands of struggling eucalypts.  The sheep are oblivious to the view, but they shouldn’t be – it’s expansive, and endless, which is not so much a fact but a feeling.  To the west is the low rump of a range, wind-turbines barely visible; if they’re turning he can’t tell.

But it’s the south that he’s here to see.  The south is a very different view: glorious, rolling, distant mountains; they must be somewhere between Braidwood and Canberra.  The blue could be from a different planet.

So here he is, late on Monday afternoon, up on the ridge at the edge of town, looking south into that other, mountainous world.

Decades ago, when studying landscape architecture for his undergraduate degree, he discovered J. Appleton’s ‘Prospect-Refuge’ theory.  It explains much about the world.  Humans are attracted to views because they can gauge what sort of weather’s coming, or see an advancing enemy.  Refuge is all about protection no matter what, which is why we like to sit in public places with our backs against a wall.  It makes sense.

When, an hour later, he’s back home and the Old Lady is having a well-deserved drink from her water-bowl, he googles J. Appleton and his or her theory.  But there are no references to it.  Not one.  Did he make it up?

Even if he did, it doesn’t mean that it’s not true.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 21 October 2013.)

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