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I’m a dirty rotten thief and this is why.

Last month, while working words in the Blue Mountains, I returned to the place where I spent my childhood, a village, a post office and a public-phone booth making up the village heart.  I hadn’t visited the village for twenty-five years, although I had thought about it.  In fact I’ve thought about it often, every week, sometimes every day.

When I can’t fall asleep I recall the green-painted weatherboard cottage; it had once been used as an apple-packing shed.  And the wood-chip heater in the bathroom, how it would puff-puff-puff when we’d get it really hot.  And the fire-wood alcove in from the front door and the tool-room out the back.  And the bedroom in which I once slept, how it had a view of the open-fire in the loungeroom.  And the school friends I invited up there, one particular school friend, another boy, the event that happened one night in the bedroom, the event that suggested my life would take a different course.

So I did my trip back; I made a mix-CD for the purpose, songs from the last two decades, not songs from my childhood because that would have been too much.  In the car I put on the CD and drove the twenty-five kilometres – one kilometre, I realise now, for each year that I’ve been away – to the old holiday mountain.

Everything was the same, everything: the hairpin bend, the tree-ferns like soldiers, the avenues of oaks and ash.  I turned down the lane to the apple-packing shed.  But the apple-packing shed: it was no more.  In its place was a sleek, black, architectural creation, not ugly, but it shouldn’t have been there.

How could they do this?  How will I be able to get to sleep now?

I got out of the car.  I took quick photos for the family.  But then I saw it: an old apple box half-covered in builder’s rubble.  I exposed the box, carefully cleaning it of basaltic dirt.  I felt sure it had once been inside the holiday house I used to know, either in the fire-wood alcove or in the tool-room.  In a flash I had an idea.  I grabbed the box and ran back to the car.

As I sped away I thought of Robert Frost’s ‘After Apple-picking’: One can see what will trouble/This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 17 December 2011.)

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I’ve got a bad case of sparrows.  No matter where I am in the house a sparrow isn’t far away.  Even now, in my writing room, I can hear the chirpy little birds in the front garden, plus they’re scurrying in the guttering above, and they’re also in the climbing rose around the side.  There’s always a squadron of the bloody things in the backyard wattles; from there they can do raids on the chook-house.

I grew up being told that sparrows are awful birds because, like rats, they carry disease.  Indeed some people call sparrows rats of the air’, but that’s not an image worth exploring right now.

Because sparrows are clearly a permanent fixture of my house I’ve been reading up on them.  I’ve learnt that the common ‘House Sparrow’, Passer domesticus, originated in the Middle East and has been taking the world by storm ever since, apparently by natural migration or ‘seaborne travel’ (don’t tell our politicians).  In the 1860s, sparrows were purposely introduced to Australia in an attempt to make the place more European – our forebears really were a bit odd, weren’t they.  I’ve learnt that because of their ability to adapt the sparrow was considered The World’s Most Successful Bird, as if it was an electronics company or a type of religion.

However, there’s trouble in paradise: sparrow populations are dwindling.  They’ve completely disappeared from central London, though they remain in Paris, which probably just suggests that our little feathered friends have excellent taste in bread and cheese.  Populations in Australia are also shrinking, because there are fewer insects to eat due to increased pesticide use and decreased flora diversity.  Or because the Indian Mynar is having a good crack at that World’s Most Successful Bird title.

So I’m starting to feel sorry for my own little sparrow population, perhaps even grateful.  Old Mr Shakespeare would have agreed: in Hamlet he wrote, ‘There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow’.  Further back, the Bible’s Old Testament said, ‘I watch and am like a sparrow alone on the house top’ (Psalm 102:7), which no doubt is the motto of the International Stalkers Fellowship.  Jokes aside, I am rather taken with the lyrics of the 1905 Gospel hymn ‘His Eye on the Sparrow’: ‘His eye is on the sparrow/and I know He watches me’.  I better go see what the chooks make of that.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 29 October 2011.)

They say that a story mustn’t be the author’s confession, but they also say that rules are there to be broken, so here’s a story about a confession.  I love semi-colons.  Yes, that’s the confession.  Actually the confession is the fact that I adore semi-colons.  I adore how beautiful they look on the page when used properly, but I hate – and hate is the word – when they are used incorrectly.

I should get a life, I should find something more important to occupy my mind, like climate change or the apparent fate of bookshops, but sometimes it’s the little things, isn’t it.

There’s a rule that semi-colons must be used sparingly because otherwise they annoy a reader, a bit like how a child who insists on playing drums with his cutlery in a restaurant puts the diners off their food.  I’ve been told that I use semi-colons too frequently, so on top of this confession is a commitment: in this story about semi-colons I won’t use any, not a single one.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so they say.

What is a semi-colon and how should it be deployed?

My trusty Oxford Australian Reference Dictionary says that a semi-colon is a punctuation mark ‘used where there is a more distinct break than that indicated by a comma but less than indicated by a full stop’.  Fair enough, but to my mind this definition is a bit too elusive.  It’s a bit like saying that a chicken is larger than a quail but smaller than a goose – we all know chooks are much more magical than that.

Barbara Dykes in Grammar Made Easy (1992) gets closer to solving the mystery of the semi-colon.  She believes that our little friend ‘separates two complete ideas which could be written in two sentences [but] are written in one sentence to show that they are closely related’.  Yes, that’s much better.  It’s this tension that I so adore, because it’s in this tension we find life, in that space between this and that, here and there.  The semi-colon is the beach of our language – it’s the sand between the ocean over there, the deep, dangerous ocean, and the land, the safety we have right here, right now.

So that’s my confession.  I adore semi-colons.

They are my favourite punctuation mark; they mean the world to me.

Oh Godammit.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 27 August 2011.)

I’ve been going on about it, telling anyone who’ll listen, I’m even telling you now, sharing my story about the little black hole that appeared on my verge.  Last Tuesday at 6.30 a.m. there was knocking on my door.  My neighbour was standing there.  He asked me if I owned a collection of plastic toy motorbikes; I said no.  He asked me if I owned a pot plant filled with old coins; I said no, I didn’t – what was he talking about?  He told me to go out to the lane.  He’s a good man, but a very quiet man, and I recalled how when I’d moved in he’d said that if I ever needed help he had a gun.  I thought it best to follow his instructions.

In the lane was a scattering of toy motorbikes, all different colours, looking like an accident had happened, though it would have been a strange accident to say the least.  Nearby was the pot plant, upturned, the old coins spilled.  “You really don’t know anything about this stuff?”  No, I didn’t.  I remembered how my neighbour on the other side owned motorbikes, and that his garage door was broken so he’d tried to secure the gap with chicken wire.  We went to investigate.  The wire had been lifted into a miniature archway.  Kids had got in and stolen what they thought would be valuable or fun but almost immediately decided the loot was neither.

My neighbour and I put the motorbikes in a bag and returned the coins to the pot.  We’d hand it all back to our other neighbour when we saw him at a less ungodly hour.  Case solved.

Except I saw a little black hole on my verge.  As they’d left the scene the thieves had pulled a much-loved sapling from the ground, a dogwood from a previous house, a piece of the old home for a new home, what beautiful white flowers the tree had given, always in the first week in December.  How brave the sapling had been, surviving incessant winds, hail storms, frost.  Leading away from the hole were drops of dirt, like blood, black blood, until there were no signs of the sapling at all.

As I’ve told this story to anyone who’ll listen, I’ve said, “I understand burglary, I even understand graffiti, but where is the pleasure in wrenching a sapling from the earth?”

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 23 July 2011.)

“Oh, that’s great!” said a friend over lunch.  “They’re just like having an open fire in the backyard!”  With that I had the answer to one of life’s great questions – why on earth do human beings like to raise chickens in their gardens?  For decades I’d been thinking about embarking on my own poultry adventure, and now that I have an appropriate yard I’d been thinking about it more and more.  In fact, I’d become completely obsessed with the idea.  But I hadn’t known why.  My friend had helped me understand: chooks are comforting.

I googled, I read blogs, I looked at a thousand pictures, I sketched out a design.  In the local hardware store I got in touch with my inner handyman and bought what I needed.  By the end of the day I’d built what I rather grandly referred to as The Super Structure: four solid posts, eight bracing beams.  But the going got tough and my inner handyman went MIA, so I enlisted the help of my brother, who’s good with a hammer and a bit of four-be-two.  The next day, I stood in my backyard with a coffee and admired the handiwork.  After forty-two years my very own chook-house was taking physical shape.  I felt…validated.

A call came on my mobile phone.  Stunned, I listened as a friend told me how on the Sunday just gone two good friends, two great people, had headed off on a motorbike ride, they’d had an accident, one had died at the scene, the other was in a coma.

Twelve hours later, after He Who Too Was Stunned and I had huddled on the couch wrapped in a blanket and eaten leftover Easter chocolate, we received the second call – we were now mourning the loss of two good friends, two great people.

I returned to the coop and, alone, got to painting.  In silence I painted for hours, as though I would be painting forever.  I put the colour to the wood, dark red and pale green, to match the house.  I looked down at the bare earth at my feet.  Soon there’ll be clucking and scratching and dust-bathing.  Soon I’ll scatter feed and my hens will come running.  Soon there’ll be eggs.

My friend is right: there’ll be an open fire in my backyard.

I will – we will – need it for the winter that’s coming.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 21 May 2011.)

There she was, amongst the acres of car parts and toy cars and old tools and new leather belts, sitting upright on a trestle table, as if it wasn’t me who’d spotted her but her who’d spotted me.  Miraculously, she was right beside the show-ground entrance; all day hundreds of people had walked past and ignored her, or they saw her but simply weren’t interested.  Wasn’t it obvious how beautiful she was?

She’s such a rich, royal red, at least a foot high, and you’d need three hands if you wanted to wrap yourself around it completely.  And what decoration she has: images of flowers created from savoury biscuits, Saladas we’d call them, although they’re probably a different brand in the design.  The way I remember it the biscuit barrel we had when I was a little boy and then a moody, introverted teenager (how little has changed) was filled with sweet biscuits – Chocolate Wheatens, caramel crèmes, Tim Tams if someone in the family was doing well.

The clear glass knob on the top like a pom-pom on a winter beanie.  The directions inside the lid: ‘Before using for the first time, merely unscrew the BLUE MAGIC DRI-NOB from the KRISPY KAN lid, wipe with a damp cloth and place the DRI-NOB in a hot (400-450) oven for 15 to 30 minutes.  The BLUE MAGIC crystals will then be bright blue in colour and ready to absorb moisture’.  What enchantment!  What delight!

When I found her on that swap-meet trestle table – or she had found me – it was as though a member of my family was sitting there, not a parent or one of my brothers but someone very different, an angel in the shape of a red-tin biscuit barrel, an angel that had been missing from my life, because each of us has to grow up to become an adult, which, by definition, means ‘someone who has no need for angels’.  Now that I’m in the second half of my life, the downhill run, the red-tin biscuit-barrel angel is back, she’s come for me, and how lucky that makes me feel, how lucky I am.

I have her home with me now, I paid $20 for her.

I know that tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or next year, I’ll need her, I’ll hug her, I’ll reach in my hand and find – at last – what I’m looking for.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 30 April 2011.)

My life is about landscape. It’s always been so, but as I continue to age at a rate of knots, it becomes more and more so, as if I’m only just realising, or I’m trying to hold on. It’s an odd conclusion. How can a life be about landscape, especially my life, which has always been such an urban life, suburban at least? Farmers are allowed to have landscape lives, national-park rangers too, even shooters. Not me, who dresses and walks and speaks so city.

Perhaps it’s because I’m lucky to have grown up beside Sydney’s Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park and spent countless weekends building cubby-houses there, or just being in that scrappy peripheral place, getting views from rocky outcrops to the wild landscape beyond.

Maybe it’s because when not in that scrappy peripheral place I was down at the beach with my brothers. The beach is as much about landscape as it is about ocean, a landscape of edges, of bodies, of light and depth and danger.

As a boy and as a teenager I had books about landscape. Somewhere on my bookshelves even today is Landscapes of Britain (1984), which I loved – and still love – for all the photographs of rolling misty hills. There’s Australia’s National Parks (1978); as a ten-year-old I wasn’t so much interested in the pictures of bowerbirds or rare quolls or spiders and snakes, not stalactites in caves (because caves are evil), but the pictures of thickly treed valleys, of canyons and waterfalls and waterholes.

It’s no surprise, then, that my first foray into university education was to study landscape architecture – I wanted to be an architect of the landscape, as if a man could ever be such a thing.

I’m a writer these days; it’s no easier a task.

Early last Sunday, not much beyond dawn, on the way to drop off a heater for my father in Braidwood, I spent an hour driving through this south-east tableland landscape of mine, a landscape I’ve been trying to know for twenty-five years. Tractors motionless in fields, as if the farmer has quite simply had enough. Sheep grazing thoughtlessly. An old homestead, only the chimney remaining. The melancholic blue of the ranges beyond. Driving alongside pine-tree windbreaks, spider webs revealed by the dew, the webs catching the whispers of the landscape, or the prayers, or the dreams.

I just can’t see an end to loving this.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 9 April 2011.)

GoosebumpsGoosebumps.

This summer I’ve had two episodes that have knocked me for a six, particularly the second, because it came out of the blue.

The first episode: driving along country roads when a song began playing: a mash-up of Primal Scream’s paean to partying, ‘Loaded’, with the ridiculously bombastic ‘Epic’ by Faith No More.  Neither song usually does it for me, to my mind they haven’t aged well, but the way the DJ, Dunproofin’, had overlaid the two tunes to create something so fresh and joyful – well, there went the tingling of my skin, the blood-rush to my spine.

The second episode: recently I spent a morning with Australian pop-art guru Martin Sharp at his Sydney home.  We talked about his love of Tiny Tim, who Sharp considers a genius in the order of Van Gogh, but then he floored me when he said that Susan Boyle, of Britain’s Got Talent fame, was equally as important.

Back home, I googled my way to a YouTube video of Boyle’s original live performance of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ from Les Miserables. Now, some facts about me: I rarely watch TV, reality programs leave me as cold as a cadaver, and show tunes are invariably so saccharine as to be vacuous.  But I forced myself to watch Boyle sing; I needed to know why someone of Martin Sharp’s stature considers her brilliant.

Susan Boyle, who has the physique of a front-row forward, walks out onto the theatre stage.  Her hair looks like it’s been cut by meat-axe and somehow she’s squeezed herself into a potato-sack frock.  She faces the immediate derision of the judges and the audience.  Innocently, but confidently, she says she wants to be like Elaine Paige.  She dares to announce that she’ll sing ‘I Dream A Dream’; eyes roll into backs of heads.

Then, however, Susan Boyle opens her mouth, she starts to sing.  Her singing is heartfelt and precise, it’s passionate without being histrionic, she knows exactly what she’s doing (Sharp is right).  Within seconds the audience is standing, applauding and hollering.  From contempt they’re now in love, rapturous even.  The three judges can’t stop smiling; two of them begin crying.  And then, as Boyle carries on with the song, hitting the sustained upward notes, there it goes, the tingling of my skin, the blood-rush to my spine.

Goosebumps: it’s a sure sign of life.

And, perhaps, genius.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 12 February 2011.)

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