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Last Tuesday, late on a bleak winter’s morning, I headed down to my local, the Southern Railway Hotel, and spent a few hours being interviewed by arts journalist Steve Dow for the Guardian Australia.

Over a beer (for me) and a red wine (for him), our conversation touched on a range of issues relating to BODIES OF MEN: patriarchy, masculinity, nationalism, faux military history, the North Shore (the conservative region of Sydney where I spent my formative years), and religion. To discuss – and question – masculinity and war in a traditional Australian pub on a weekday lunchtime required some caution: I must admit to stopping the conversation every so often, looking around, checking the blokes at the bar to make sure they were ensconced in their beers and burgers, before, almost in a whisper, proceeding to answer the question truthfully and openly.

The resultant interview can be found here.

Luckily both Steve Dow and I survived.

Surrounded by the paintings of Myuran Sukumaran , April 2018. Photo credit: Tuggeranong Arts Centre

One of the joys – and, to be frank, surprises – of the last few years has been collaborating on music projects. I’ve spent much of the last three decades in my writing room with only a cup of coffee for company, so it’s wonderful to work in a different form and with others, even if, in the main, I continue to be focused on the words.

There has been THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, for which I was commissioned by the Hume Conservatorium to write the libretto for a new song cycle, with the music composed by James Humberstone – this work was developed by The Street Theatre in Canberra, where it had its premiere in 2018, before being performed in Goulburn and Sydney. During the writing of THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, James and I took a few days out to write ‘Yes of Love’, a song in support of Australia’s push to enshrine marriage equality. Late last year, Andrew Bull AKA Hyperconfidence, asked me to write and – gasp – perform some spoken-word lyrics, which he turned into a dance track called ‘We are Freedom’.

There’s been a fourth music project bubbling away.

Back in February last year, the Tuggeranong Arts Centre invited me to spend a day sitting in ‘Another Day in Paradise’, a travelling exhibition of paintings by Myruran Sukumaran, a convicted drug smuggler who the Indonesian Government executed by firing squad in April 2015. Other artists participated in the event, which was called ‘The Final Hours’. I decided to invite my old friend Pete Lyon to join me – he is a singer-songwriter who for many years has performed with the popular acoustic-pop duo The Cashews. I first wrote about this project here.

Inspired by Sukumaran’s work, Pete and I left the Tuggeranong Arts Centre at the end of the day with the sketches of five songs, most of which were recorded on Pete’s phone. We then developed the songs: I rewrote, edited, and polished the lyrics; and together we reflected on the music we had made in the Arts Centre, slowly rebuilding them into songs that people might be interested in listening to. Although my musicianship is extremely limited, from the beginning of this project I said that I would like to try and play some of the music, even ‘write’ some of it – in other words, put my fingers on a piano’s keyboard or on some guitar strings and see what happened.

Gear in Goulburn, June 2018

For the rest of the year, once every few weeks, Pete and I met up to work – in Goulburn, before we moved to his place in Canberra, where he has a small studio. Slowly we layered up the tracks, adding vocals and harmonies. We put the work aside, before we came back to it, adding new elements and re-recorded parts that needed improving.

One of the things I love about collaborative projects is the discussion about creative choices, and both Pete and I were keen to make simple songs in which listeners would be able to find room to reflect on Sukumaran’s work, either directly or indirectly. Even though we both have a longstanding position on the death penalty, we were not making a protest album – our goal was to make a suite of secular hymns. We also chose to limit our musical pallet to piano and acoustic guitar, which would be recorded as raw as possible. Imperfections were embraced.

Although our original intention was to finish the work by the end of 2018, we decided to put the songs aside for much of the summer (my mother died just after Christmas) before doing one or two final sessions. The songs were then mixed and mastered by by Kimmo Vennonen of KV Productions. An album cover was designed by John Fry of Six Heads.

And now, here we are with THE FINAL HOURS available for listening and purchase through Bandcamp.

All proceeds of the songs will be donated to an Australian art-in-prison program.

Art work by John Fry, Six Heads, Melbourne

Four of the songs were directly inspired by particular paintings of Sukumaran’s. For example ‘If I Were You’ is a response to his portrait of his mother; and ‘Indonesian Flag’ is a response to the last painting he made, which is of the Indonesian flag – when exhibited it was shown away from the wall so viewers could see that on the back were the signatures of those to be executed, some of whom took the opportunity to leave messages about wishing Indonesia well. The last song, ‘He They I We’, Pete first recorded in the last half an hour of the original day in the Arts Centre – singing in Indonesian, a language he learned while living for a time in Sarawak, Borneo, he says in essence, we will not forget Myruran and his fellow executed prisoners.

Making THE FINAL HOURS has been an intense, exposing, and rewarding experience. Intense because of the subject matter (in more ways than one); exposing because for the first time I have directly helped make some music; and rewarding because it is always thrilling to make new work, no matter what the form, and because it seemed that one minute Pete and I were spindly 20-year-olds housemates and strumming guitars at midnight, the next – i.e. 30 years later – we had the opportunity to make something tangible, maybe even lasting.

As always, I’ve learned that taking risks can be a good thing, although I know I’m sufficiently privileged to not be in a position where I feel that I have no choice but to risk my life.

It was not the call I had ever imagined I would receive at 6:00 am on Christmas Day. At the other end of the line was the overnight nurse at my mother’s aged care facility. ‘We want to let you know that Rosemary is expected to pass away within the next few hours, so if you’d like to say goodbye you should make the necessary arrangements.’

I said thank you and hung up.

I lived 160 kilometres away, and we were in the middle of a heatwave, and I had visited my mother the previous day, but I knew what had to be done. I apologised to my partner Tim, who had spent days preparing lunch. He offered to drive me. I said I was fine—I’d pick up my middle brother on the way.

But as I drove, my chest began to feel as though it was filled with a jittery kind of air; my legs became as heavy as stone.

I should have turned around.

Two hours later we found our mother in the room, the curtains drawn. She was lying on a bed low to the ground, the mattress thin as if for camping, a mat on each side in case she rolled out. She couldn’t roll anywhere. She could barely move. She could barely breathe. Her eyes were closed, and every few minutes we heard the throaty rattle that everyone says is true. A vein on her neck pulsed frantically. Her head was turned to one side, her mouth wide open and forming an O, as if desperate for oxygen. Her hands—the brittle bones, the purple-black skin—gripped the sheets. Her legs were raised, almost as though she had been sitting in a chair and then become frozen before they put her back on the bed.

My brother checked her feet.

‘They’re cold,’ he said.

*

Keep reading at 3:AM Magazine, which published this essay on 3 June 2019.

Good celebration, and some very good luck. Photo credit: Andrew Sikorski

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: book launches make me want to vomit.

My own, that is.

Will anyone turn up? Will the speakers remember the date and time? What if there’s a massive storm? A traffic jam? A terrorist incident? What if I become too nervous, drink too much too early, and then embarrass myself?

I’m a natural hermit. Even going out of the house to get groceries is a trial. And having to go into a bank? Forget it.

I’m happiest (if that’s the word) wearing terrible clothes and spending day after day writing and reading and making simple little meals. So the idea of being the centre of attention for an evening fills me with a heavy, almost dangerous dread – I can’t wait for it to be over. But I’d be lying if I said that I don’t also find the idea exciting – the celebration, especially after so much isolation, the community, the good cheer, the love. Yes, it’s exciting, and, now I think about it, healthy.

Which gets me to the launch of Bodies of Men. It happened on 16 May in Canberra at the fabulous Street Theatre. There were books and wine and olives. There were powerful personal responses to the novel from Robyn Cadwallader, who has published her notes on her blog, and CJ Bowerbird, who performed a spoken-word piece about his experiences serving in the Australian military. And there were people: family, friends, my agent and publisher, some folk I recognised but didn’t know by name, some strangers – all appreciated.

There were also more than a few embraces.

And a dinner afterwards. In the last hour of the evening my partner and my agent and I found ourselves walking through the campus of the Australian National University and having a lovely chat to a rabbit, which is clearly the sign of a good night.

Thank you: Robyn and Chris, The Street Theatre, Harry Hartog Booksellers, Gaby Naher, and Robert Watkins and the Hachette Australia team. And thank you to all those who came out to celebrate Bodies of Men.

I won’t forget it.

*

PS There was a rather lovely review in the Canberra Times, so there’s that too. A summary of critical responses can be found here. Bodies of Men can be purchased in your favourite bookshop and can also be bought directly from Hachette Australia – as well as the print version, there are e-book and audiobook versions. Over and out. For now.

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