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Maybe it’s because of the coming of the Silly Season but I’m thinking a lot about stillness at the moment.  By stillness I don’t mean sitting cross-legged on the loungeroom floor humming ‘omm’.  I mean a stillness that knocks us for a six.  A couple of weeks ago I found myself driving away in total silence from a lunch with a famous writer at his country home as opposed to always – always – having music playing.  I breathed deeply through my nostrils and watched the landscape on the other side of the windscreen.  I felt sure that at some stage I’d press the PLAY button on the car’s CD player, but I didn’t, not for the entire hour and half it took me to drive home.

I’d found stillness, or it had found me.

More recently I was putting in some plants in the back yard when I realised that I’d sat down on the mulch and was listening to talkback radio coming from next door.  It was a terribly narrow-minded shock-jock’s program; he was ‘discussing’ how Barack Obama was in great political difficulty.  But there I was, as motionless as a concrete garden gnome.  I’d found stillness, or it had found me.

Yesterday, I realised that I’d stopped walking through the loungeroom to watch The Old Lady of the House dreaming peacefully on her bed, a clucking sound coming from her mouth, a look of total contentment on her face.

We’d found stillness, or stillness had found us.

Why does stillness matter so much?  Yes, it might be due to the stampeding onslaught of the Silly Season, except I’ve experienced 41 of these by now so surely I can cope.  Or it could be that I’m just at an age where it’s customary to say ‘Heavens above, the world’s getting so fast these days’.  Or it could be that time really is speeding up.

As we all have to inevitably conclude, when we’re kids a week is an eternity, as teenagers a summer holiday is of similar length.  Now, however, as a middle-aged man an eternity is just not long enough, so a drive in the country without music is an anchor, a sit-down in the garden a deep connection to the earth, a pause to watch the dog sleep a tight grip onto something beautiful.  As we all career headlong into the Greatest Stillness Ever.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 18 December 2010.  Many thanks to those who commented on an earlier post, called ‘Where stillness is’ – the on-line discussion fed into the writing of the piece for the newspaper, which is rather lovely, wouldn’t you say.)

How old they are becoming, how scaly – almost snaky – with age.  In parts the skin is like tissue, the knuckle-bones obvious when a fist is made.  Because age is what’s happening to them, because the owner is becoming old, that’s the fact of the matter, the cold, hard, indisputable fact.  These hands are slowly, undeniably becoming claws.

Decades ago I had a friend who said I had ‘good hands’.  I remember seeing her stride purposefully into the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel Canberra, elegantly dolled up for Friday afternoon drinks.  Like something from the past she wore shiny white gloves that stretched up to her elbows.  This was back when we were at university, so the rest of us would have been in Doc Marten boots and jeans with holes in the knees.  But there she was, my friend, the one with shiny white gloves up to the elbows, the one who’d told me in a moment of youthful generosity that I had ‘good hands’.

In the days after the flattering comment I looked at my hands over and over, turning them this way and that, thinking, Oh yes, they’re pretty special, aren’t they.  Not too big, not too small, although the maximum span is impressive, and such clear smooth skin – they are ageless.  If my hands were on someone else’s body I’d be attracted to them, I’d want to touch them, hold them, wrap my fingers within those good-looking fingers.

Today, however, right now, I think of my friend with the shiny white gloves up to the elbows and wonder if she’d still think that I have good hands.  The proportions of my hands haven’t changed, and both are still strong and can do what’s required of them – they can still open recalcitrant jars of Vegemite.  But they no longer look like they belong to a young man; they don’t look like they belong to someone with the majority of his life left to live.

My hands look like they belong to someone who’s been around the block a few times, hands that have known other people’s bodies, and known his own body, hands that have played pianos and guitars with dreamy ambition, hands that have known gardens – what damage well-loved soil does to well-loved hands!

There’s a persistent rumour that surgeons insure their hands against injury or total loss.

I’d like to insure my hands.  Against old age.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 6 November 2010.)

It was orange and plump and I found it yesterday in a cardboard box in my garage.  I picked it up and turned it over; it was neither heavy nor light.  Written on the front in red texta was ‘1996 (2/3)’.

As I removed the envelope’s contents I realised that 1996 was the year before the internet and email snuck its way into my life.  Back then it was an end-of-year tradition to bundle up the letters, postcards and invitations family and friends had sent me and put them in an orange envelope and file the envelope away in a cardboard box – not unlike when at work we’re required to keep key documents for an important project, in case one day someone wants to find out how it happened.

I wanted to know how 1996 happened, so I leafed through the collection, this the second of three envelopes – it must have been a bumper year.  Thoughtfully composed letters from friends: how courageous we were, how wanting, and revealing.  In the midst of our twenties we expressed so much love for each other, sometimes testing to see how far we could go, desiring to cross lines, to define ourselves.

But there are two pieces that stick in my throat.

One is a handmade card in a handmade envelope.  In this undated piece a friend with whom I have lost contact apologises for his behaviour at a dinner party: he is sorry for not wanting a meal I’d prepared because he’d recently and privately become a vegetarian, he is sorry for leaving my house between dinner and the movie on video, sorry for going under what appear to be cloudy circumstances – he asks me to forgive him for these ‘terrible things’.

The second and similarly undated piece is a black-and-white newsagent card, on the front an image of a blue-heeler dog chained to a kennel, a windmill in the background, desert on the horizon.  Inside the card it reads, ‘Dear Nigel, just a quick note to say THANK YOU, I had such a wonderful time’.  But the correspondent is nameless and I don’t recognise the handwriting.

There is no way of knowing if the two events are connected, except in the sense that in a world where letters are becoming increasingly rare, where we’ve forgotten about the physicality and intimacy of handwritten correspondence, something is lost, if not altogether broken.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 October 2010.)

I have monkeys on the brain.

It’s all because earlier this year I was lucky enough to spend a month in Launceston as an artist-in-residence at the Gatekeeper’s Cottage in Cataract Gorge, courtesy of the local city council.  As strange as it might seem in this age of animal liberation, Launceston has 26 Japanese Macaque monkeys living in an enclosure in the city park.  The Macaques are the sort you sometimes see in wildlife documentaries keeping warm in winter by sitting blissfully in hot springs with snow piling on top of them.  The Tasmanian colony was a gift from Ikeda in Japan, Launceston’s sister-city.

Every morning that month I walked across town to visit my monkey friends.  I’d find one to look at.  I’d stare as it combed its fingers through a mate’s hair, find a flea or a nit and then put it in its mouth and have a taste, and then keep combing.  I took photos, I watched some more, and then took more photos.  I learnt that the colony has herpes and they’ve become in-bred.  What did they think of their situation?  Did they want to shout out, Why can’t you leave us alone?  Can’t you see we’re trying to have some private time here?  But they just kept grooming each other.

Back in the Gatekeeper’s Cottage, I sat at the desk overlooking the deep, dirty water of the gorge and wrote and wrote until my eyes became bloodshot, but below me tourists crowded on the King’s Bridge.  They looked up and stared and pointed at me.  I didn’t have any mates to groom, and I don’t have herpes, nor am I inbred (though there are days when it feels like I might be), so it mustn’t have been terribly interesting.

But still they took photos of me, they watched me some more, and then took more photos.  At first I liked being on show – Here I am being creative! How clever I am! – but the novelty soon wore off.  Within days I wanted to scream out, Why can’t you leave me alone?  Can’t you see I’m trying to have some private time here?  But I didn’t scream out.

Because, it seems, a writer in a gatekeeper’s cottage is photo-worthy.

And so is a monkey in a cage.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, July 31 2010.)

He is going away.  It’s nothing dramatic or permanent – he’s just ducking off to spend time in a far-flung corner of the globe, except it’s not that far-flung, though it is a place he’s looking forward to knowing well.  Once there he will think and dream, he’ll immerse himself in his imagination; he might even get lost, but that’s okay, because it’s always good to be found again.  But there has been so much to do – what a chore going away actually is.

There’s been the whole matter of organising a house-sitter.  It’s easy these days, what with the internet and all, but you do have to do interviews, or, in his case, let the Old Lady of the House and Cat the Ripper do the interviewing for him.  And they did such a wonderful job, selecting a mother-and-daughter combination who even offered to weed his wild garden if necessary.

Then there’s the house-work.  He’s scrubbed the bath and bathroom floor; he’s un-blocked drains in sinks.  He’s cleaned the oven (what a terrible task that is – a domestic OH&S nightmare).  He’s replaced light-globes that haven’t worked for months; we are all so busy that even changing a globe poses a seemingly insurmountable time-management problem.  He’s wiped out the fridge – there was a sludgy detritus beneath the fruit-and-vegetable drawer and more than once he thought he would vomit – and he’s dusted away cobwebs on paintings, and washed rugs, and got a man in to fix the garage door.

Then he turned his attention to other important matters.  He’s made sure that his bills are going to be sent by email, he put up a No Junk Mail sign on the letterbox so the house-sitters wouldn’t have to hold on to a dreadful collection of advertising material until his return.  Yesterday he prepared a How To Look After My House Information Booklet so the trusty guardians of his home will know exactly what to do and when, and what not to worry about.  For example, the loud chomping at night at the back door is not a knife-wielding maniac but a hungry possum.

But there is more to do.  He is late – very late – in sending birthday presents to his nephews and niece, which he better do now otherwise there will be an embarrassing, if not disastrous, situation by the time he comes back.  There are friends to see and a lawn to mow.  And The Old Lady of the House already knows something is up: she’s staring at him with her big brown eyes as if she’s going to be dumped again; normally she sleeps in his study but lately she hasn’t been budging from her bed in his bedroom.

Still the work isn’t finished.  His mp3 player has gone on the blink – is there time to replace it?  And what about accessing the internet: does he really need to buy one of those flash-drive dongle things for his laptop?  (Oh God, technology.  It’s such a battle.)  But none of this will stop him going away.

Philip Larkin wrote that ‘Home is so sad.  It stays as it was left/Shaped to the comfort of the last to go/As if to win them back’.

He – the leaver – is looking forward to going away.

But then being won over again.

(A shorter version of this piece was published in Panorama, Canberra Times on 26 June 2010.  PS. I’m not actually going away – I wrote this in early April before heading off to spend a month in Tasmania.)

An unexpectedly intriguing aspect of blogging is the opportunity to see how it all operates behind the scenes.  With a click of your mouse on the button that says ‘My Dashboard’, you are privy to the deep, dark workings of the on-line machine.  It is like being able to see the strings that hold up a puppet show, or visiting the Ghost Train ride when they’re doing maintenance.  On offer are oodles of stats – visits per day, week, year, ever.  You can see all the sites that are referring internet surfers to yours.  But the real delight is being able to view what people around the world are typing into search engines to inadvertently find their way to you.

To get to my blog-shaped home, people have made the funniest searches, for example ‘In what year did Tony Abbott get merried?’  Yes, ‘merried’.  Was an over-worked journalist writing a character sketch of the current leader of the Opposition but slipped a finger?  Or maybe a cheeky internet sleuth was wondering about when this prominently fit Australian man last got himself inebriated on the sauce?  The fact is we can only imagine the scenario, and there’s much joy in that.

Some searches are straight-out bizarre, for example ‘Every city has a sex quote’ (really? I’d not noticed), while others are just plain worrying, such as ‘Asian pop degrading nationalism’, which could end up as a PhD thesis for someone brave enough to give it a go.  And ‘pretty brain’ – was that typed in by Hannibal Lecter?  One of the more disquieting searches that have turned up on my site is ‘what women really should look like’.  Frankly, if you need to ask Google that question you probably need more help than the internet.

But I’m being unnecessarily cruel.  The most interesting search-engine references are the saddest.  To reach my blog, people have done a search on ‘holding hands’ (did they need to know how to perform this particular action?), and the rather terrifying ‘last hours living’.  But the one that stuck in my throat was this: ‘true love is not for me’.  It’s rather final, isn’t it.  Of course, these might be half-remembered song lyrics or lines of poetry or even titles of books, but what if they aren’t?  What if someone really did want to know how to hold hands, or how to live the last hours of their life?  What if someone really had decided that true love wasn’t for them, and they only wanted to let someone know?

Having shared this with you, I should admit these references wouldn’t be ending up at my blog if a search engine wasn’t linking it to something I’d written and posted – a battalion of Google-type technologies was matching my written words with someone’s desire for information, or answers, or the truth.  So it could be just a case of my thoughts coming back to haunt me through the endless electronic fog that is the internet.  Is it a cyber mirror to my life?  Perhaps when posting on-line I am calling into the void, and days, weeks, months later, an echo finds me.  Yes, perhaps.  Though I should be very clear with you about something: I have never once wondered about the year that Tony Abbott got merried.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 8 May 2010.  The wonderful illustration by Michael Mucci originally appeared in conjunction with ‘Bloggers Unplugged’, first published in The Canberra Times on 10 April 2010 and can be found here; this article was then magically posted and can be found in this little e-loft.)

In Adelaide recently for a variety of reasons including taking He Who Had A Birthday To Celebrate out for dinner (and what a dinner it ended up being) but also to experience the Fringe Festival, which we did with much unearthly delight, I found myself in North Adelaide one night in a room above a café watching a young man film himself.  No, I hadn’t strayed and ended up in a strip joint, though this was before He Who Had A Birthday To Celebrate flew over to join me.

You see, I’d run into a friend at an arts function – Malcolm, a performance artist, and I first met on a residency last year.  Anxiously, he invited me to attend his Fringe show.  I’d seen his work before, in fact I’d been quite moved by it: it was both shambolic and finely honed, which sounds oxymoronic, I know, but is accurate.

So I accepted the invitation and headed over the Torrens.  The café was posh: well-dressed patrons comfortably sipped expensive wine or imported beer and ate $30 pizzas.  But upstairs five other people and I watched the young man film himself; for an hour he did nothing else but dance, the footage projected on vertical blinds for our viewing pleasure, on an adjacent wall YouTube video clips of other people filming themselves dancing.  Apparently it was about how the internet has blurred the line between public and private, which is undoubtedly true.

After a ten-minute break during which I hurriedly drank a glass of Riesling, we returned upstairs and watched Malcolm, now alone, begin his piece (his opening-act colleague had inexplicably scuttled away in a taxi).  But Malcolm was so nervous he couldn’t get a glass of red wine to his lips.  Nevertheless, he repeatedly asked us to love him; he stripped down to his boxer shorts and conversed with an empty chair; he eventually managed to get some red wine into his mouth and then let it dribble down his neck and chest so it looked like he was bleeding from the inside; he smashed a red wine bottle and put the shards between his toes and paraded around the room; he tried to explain the show by drawing a graph on the wall; he sang a Nick Cave song; he finished by inviting us to get naked, which we declined.

In the taxi back to the relative safety of Hindley Street, I couldn’t help wondering what makes someone travel halfway across the country to perform in front of six people.  The thrill of the risk-taking?  The rush of communication?  The satisfaction of pursuing a career most would consider useless at best?

I bunkered down in my hotel room.  Needing company I clicked on the large flat-screen TV and watched beautiful young men and women go through their meretricious moves on So You Think You Can Dance.  And then some Peter Carey lines popped into my head, from his story The Death of a Famous Mime: ‘Asked to describe death he busied himself taking Polaroid photographs of his questioners.  Asked to describe marriage he handed out small cheap mirrors with MADE IN TUNISIA written on the back.  His popularity declined.’

My friend Malcolm may or may not end up being popular, but his bravery has been etched onto my mind.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, March 27 2010.)

At a barbecue recently, one of those gloriously traditional Saturday-evening affairs where a dozen or so people sit around an outdoor table and drink beer and wine and eat bread and dip before – when someone can be bothered – the meat is eventually cooked, I was reintroduced to thyme.  Yes, thyme, the herb, not the ‘indefinite continued existence of the universe in the past, present and future’ as the Oxford Dictionary has it.  The host, a kind and gentle soul, did the honours; we’d arrived early so she showed us around her herb patch before other guests turned up.  The thyme in the centrally located terracotta pot immediately took my interest, because as a little boy and then as a not-so-little teenager it was my favourite plant in the whole wide world.

Back when I knew nothing about anything (though I still don’t, it has to be said) I enjoyed gardening very much.  I had my own plot at the rear of our North Shore home in Sydney.  The yard was terraced there and I was allowed the lower, partly hidden level, which had been a cricket pitch before my brothers moved out.  More a rock garden, I filled it with plants bought on sale from the local nursery or ‘borrowed’ from my mother’s beds or, more often, stolen from the bush over the road, which isn’t good, I know, but it’s the truth.  Thyme, however, was the beloved plant, because it’s one that’s impossible for a dreamy teenaged boy to kill.

I shared all this with the barbecue host, and then declared that I’d be sure to visit a nursery and buy myself a piece of thyme.  Which I did the next morning.  At home I pinched the leaves and put my thumb and forefinger to my nose – what a delicious, pungent smell and how, yes, it transported me back to that rock garden I had in Sydney.  So I potted up my new plant and put it pride of place on my own outdoor table.  It was like I’d reunited with an old friend, or had discovered a part of me that had been submerged by years of being someone I’m not.

Yesterday I did some research on Thymus vulgaris, the second part of the name not at all appropriate for such a cheery plant.  The ancient Egyptians used it for embalming, the Greeks liked bathing in it because it was thought to be a source of courage (I love that); in the European Middle Ages it was placed beneath pillows to ward off nightmares, which I’ll be sure to remember.  I learnt that thyme’s central element, thymol, is a key ingredient in toothpaste and mouthwash, that it can cure tinnea and ringworm, that it’s used to prevent mould in bee colonies (another image I adore), and, just to show that absolutely everything has a dark side, it is one of the 599 additives to cigarettes as it improves flavour and relaxes the trachea.

I’ve since dug out an old photograph of my little lower-level rock garden and just now Blue-tacked it on the wall in my writing room.  It’s so easy to imagine being that skinny, pimply young kid lost in a world of plants and soil.

It was – is – such a good world to be lost in.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 20 February 2010)

Somehow, it seems, it all comes down to footwear.

Recently I was invited to speak at a university’s graduation ceremony up at Parliament House and once I recovered from the shock of being asked, I noticed how the inviter was staring at what I had on my feet, a mangy old pair of red-and-white-striped runners.  ‘I should warn you,’ she said, ‘you’ll need better shoes than that – you’ll be seated on the stage beside the chancellor!’  I sought advice from a good friend, a journalist, who told me how she’d done a similar gig and a week later was approached by a woman who congratulated her on the speech but also took the opportunity to comment on the knee-high black leather boots.

A classic Blundstone boot...before wear and tear ages it beautifully.

During the writing and rewriting of my speech, making sure to read it aloud for flow and mistakes (there’s nothing more off-putting when presenting than finding a wayward word or apostrophe), I went out for a break with a friend – who also stared at my foot clobber.  This time I had on what I like to wear during the week: a pair of well-worn Blundstone boots, brown-leather with the elastic up the sides.

My friend said, ‘You’re not going to wear those up at Parliament House, are you?’

‘Of course,’ I replied emphatically.

‘You can’t – graduation is… significant.’

As if the importance of the event was lost on me.

‘But Blundstones are my thing!’ I protested.

As the writing of the draft speech lurched this way and that, those words lingered: Blundstones are my thing. I recalled the pair I wore as a teenager; I remembered being crammed into the back of my school-friend Stephanie’s little car and taking a photo of my boots because how perfect (and perfect is the word) they looked on my feet.  Ten years later, after I’d under-graduated, I moved to Perth to find myself (I didn’t) and a friend wrote me a letter to say how in the library she’d seen a pair of Blundstones walking along on the other side of the stacks and she thought I’d come to say hello.  More recently I spotted a revered member of the local arts community wearing Blundstones as she floated through the central plaza of my city, and I realised I’d be able to approach her because of what she had on her feet.

How can a make of boot mean so much?  Is it the Australian-ness?  But what does Australian-ness actually mean?  What is national culture? And at what point does national culture become nationalism? British author Richard Aldington wrote that ‘Nationalism is a silly cock crowing on its own dunghill and calling for larger spurs and brighter beaks.’  When does that ‘silly cock’ transform, Jekyll-like, into something much more evil?

All I know for certain is that, as absurd as it might sound, Blundstone boots complete me – they are my personal culture. Tens of millions of personal cultures might make up the national culture, but that’s not really any of my business.  So, stubbornly, I did wear the boots up at Parliament House last week, and as I delivered the speech – it had as its central theme the idea of ‘living what we love’, which is apt now I think about it – I felt solid on the ground, I felt anchored.

And sometimes that’s all that’s needed.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, 2 January 2010.)

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