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Marlon and cat

At the vet’s recently, because Cat the Ripper has had a stroke, his back-end’s gone skew-whiff, he’s old so apparently these things can be expected, I saw on the counter a brochure from an animal-health company.  ‘Is your dog missing out on playtime?’ it asked.  Of course there was an accompanying picture: a white pooch, its head softly resting on the carpet and eyes looking glumly into the distance (impersonating a writer perhaps), an abandoned chew-toy on the other side.  ‘They could be suffering from osteoarthritis,’ was the answer provided.

Being a writer, and a pedant, which is a dangerous combination, I noticed that clunky they.  In my old-fashioned opinion, a singular dog cannot be a they.  So as I waited with Cat the Ripper in his carry-box for us to be called into the consultation room, I silently rearranged the sentence: ‘He or she could be suffering from osteoarthritis.’  Still clunky, plus the sentence should be more precise.  ‘Osteoarthritis could be the cause.’  But we need that suffering word; at least the animal-health company does.  It forces us to relate to and empathise with the four-legged members of the family.  We need to know they might be in pain, or uncomfortable, or just plain unhappy.  Then we can act.

Artists, writers especially, are besotted with the idea of suffering.  They (and I’m using that they to hypocritically distance myself from the others of my ilk, or ink) explore it, try to resolve it; some even wallow in it, creatively, or personally, or both.  Thankfully we (ah now I’m back amongst the fold!) have the ability to analyse and order and communicate.  We use words to make sense of it all; sometimes we can make it all go way.  Think of a novel and its heart will be suffering.  Gillian Mears’ extraordinary but distressing Foal’s Bread (2011) is an example.  So is Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886).  Even amongst the articles of this newspaper, every story, the sports ones too, and the latest weather report, there is that thing: suffering, or the potential for it.

Needless to say, dogs aren’t that interested in this philosophical stuff – they just be – and Cat the Ripper has other things on his mind.  So we have vets to act as our intermediaries, and we have animal-health companies with their questionable grammar.  In the end, everything hinges on language, doesn’t it.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 15 December 2012.)

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I reached in and there it was, exactly where it should be, exactly as I expected, except it’s not a daily occurrence, no, I’m not lucky enough for that. But still there it was, just sitting there, left there, waiting for me to come by and collect it.

I picked it up. Between my fingers, in the palm of my hand, it was perfect, truly perfect, no markings, no scrapings of dirt. So warm, so recent, recently left for me to find – the best of presents.

I went to return to the backdoor but stopped. I stood motionless in the middle of my handkerchief-sized yard, Cat the Ripper catching the mid-morning sun by lying on his side in the veggie-patch mulch (a bed just for him, he thinks), sparrows chirping industriously in the bush of the potato vine on top of the pine-log pergola as if they had picks in their beaks and mining the sky – clink clink clink. But I stopped only because of what I held in my hand.

I couldn’t believe it, I was incredulous. And it really was the perfection that got me. The creamy colour, only a hint of coffee in the hue. And simple – the simplest of the simple. And smooth! Did I know of anything smoother? Dry glass perhaps, but this was microscopically pitted. So it was like bone, the thinnest of bone, a bony membrane. I could crush it. A slow, concerted turning in of my fingers and palm and it would be gone, an oozing gooey mess remaining, the sharp shell bits digging into my skin.

I got going again – I had work to do, words to write, stories to create – but at the back-step I stopped for a third time. Could there be anything more beautiful than this simple thing, so whole, wanting to be nothing more than this? Wouldn’t that be good – to be as whole as this and believe it, understand it, know it.

Inside the house at last I washed it in the laundry sink, but – oh of course – my efforts made it no more perfect. As I went into the kitchen I remembered some words that Lou Reed used to sing: ‘It’s such a perfect day/I’m glad I spent it with you’. It’s true: how glad I was to be in the company of that day’s backyard-chicken egg. Because I’m not perfect, and never will be.

(First published as ‘Joy in the little things’ in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 17 November 2012.)

Despite my age I’m doing it more and more, I can’t stop, hour after hour after hour, until I’m sore, my hands, my wrists – from holding a novel. Because it’s reading novels that I can’t stop doing, great big slabs of it, whole mornings, whole afternoons, whole days, from dawn until dusk, lost in the best of written words, or I might mean found.

As a boy and early teenager I loved reading, except I don’t remember being voracious, that word that’s often used to describe someone who ploughs through books like there’s no tomorrow. But read I did and was moved. Jean George’s My Side of the Mountain, Stowe’s The Merry Go Round in the Sea, and Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich were the novels for me.

In my late teens and early twenties, that first taste of university life, I had other things on my mind, no time for reading, no inclination even – I wish someone had thrust a tome into my hands and said ‘Read that, you oaf’. But I fell back into the habit when I moved to Perth to live for a while; alone, lonely, I wanted to know more about that far western place, and, miraculously, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet had just been published. I read those pages on the sand and in the sun, the teasing sea just there.

These days I have a library in my house; it’s in the smallest room, what would have once been the parlour, that place for visitors. There’s a coal-burning fire – sometimes, on the coldest, dampest, windiest days, I light a fire and that’s a heaven that’s hard to describe. Rising up on each side of the mantelpiece like columns are the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, rows and rows and rows of novels, my favourite of the favourite at the very top where the bastard cat can’t spray them.

It’s in this room that I like to spend whole days with the best of fictional worlds, just ink on the page. What magical lies! I’m visited; I go visiting. I’m transported, I’m opened out. I’m led away from myself so I’m walking in the shoes – living the exciting, illuminating lives – of others.

Logan Pearsall Smith, the US-born British essayist, wrote, ‘People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.’ How true.

I hope I’ll never stop reading novels.

Never ever.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 29 September 2012.)

I have a thing for light, quite a thing. Sometimes days go by and it’s all I’ve thought about. Light. It’s such a simple word, and it sounds exactly as it should – it sounds light, as in light to carry, but also as though it would be possible to turn the word on and off, that it glimmers and glows, that it shows us the way, and indeed it does. In the early evening, after I’ve poured myself a glass of wine and struck a match to the fire, I close the west-facing curtains over the French doors only when it’s well and truly black outside, because I like to see the final blue hue as the day darkens.

I’ve written short stories about hurricane lanterns, because I love the idea of a light – at least a carrier of light, or a protector of light – that’s designed to withstand the worst of storms, the worst of seas.

One of my all-time favourite songs is ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’ by The Smiths, which is such a jaunty tune about young people going for a night-time drive: “And if a double-decker bus/crashes into us/to die by your side/ is such a heavenly way to die”. But it’s the lyric to fade that’s the real killer: “There is a light that never goes out”, repeat, repeat, repeat until – irony of ironies – you feel more alive than ever.

Recently I bought a light-shade for my hallway, a simple Art Deco design found in a second-hand store up the road. I’d been looking for it for weeks, months, my whole life perhaps, and there it was in all its frosted green-glass glory. For an entire evening I turned the light on and off, on and off, as if electricity had just been invented and there I was amazed, gob-smacked. Each time I walk down the hallway I look up and see the light-shade; it makes me feel as though I’m in love for the first time. I’ve found myself thinking, I feel so happy at the moment, I wonder why, oh yes, a new light in the hallway – best go and have another look.

Light may be, as my Oxford Dictionary claims, an electromagnetic radiation whose wavelengths fall within the range to which the human retina responds, but really it’s the opposite of hopelessness.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 1 September 2012.)

Betwixt and between.  It’s a wonderful phrase, partly because it sounds so good, all that alliteration and rhythm and balance, and partly because of its meaning – neither one thing nor the other, somewhere between the two.  Grey is a good example: it’s neither black nor white.  And Grey is my middle name, and I’m telling you the truth, so being neither one thing nor the other has been etched onto my DNA.  But what exactly am I between?  I’m between the old and the new, I’m between old age and youth – I’m stuck in the middle.

Increasingly, just like most people, I’m spending more and more of my life on-line, running websites, writing blog posts, handling a weekly avalanche of emails.  And then there’s Facebook and Twitter, those necessary evils if you’re trying to make a go of a creative career and there are people out there who want to know what’s happening.  It’s all very stressful, isn’t it, juggling these digital balls, making sure you don’t miss something important, even though 99 percent of what’s on the internet is…well, let’s not go into that.  But there are joys, it has to be said –someone who regularly comments on my blog, someone I’ve never met in person, sent me a book to read, a real book, it turned up in my letterbox.

Speaking of my letterbox, something else miraculous turned up recently.  A postcard.  An actual postcard!  On the back were handwritten sentences about a trip to a rehabilitated clay mine in Cornwell, followed by fish and chips overlooking the water, we just hope the weather holds for our canal-boat trip starting Monday.  What really caught my eye, however, was the correspondent had correctly addressed my house: she’d used my house’s name: Leitrim.  Yes, my house has a name, because it’s an old place, 1890s, high ceilings, picture-rails, a Hordern and Sons coal-burning fire, and leadlight windows.  I adore it, I really do.  Slowly I’m filling it with old furniture – my guilty pleasure is spending Sunday afternoons scouring shops selling secondhand goods in the hope that I can find something beautiful I can afford, like a chair, or a piece of cast-iron.

But still this house is where I update my Facebook status and send tweets.

Betwixt and between indeed.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 28 July 2012.)

In her recently published autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson writes, “Where you are born – what you are born into, the place, the history of that place, how that history mates with your own – stamps who you are, whatever the pundits of globalisation say.”  For Winterson, it’s Manchester, the rawness of the world’s first industrial city.  For me, it’s Sydney, that sprawling urban tart just up the road.

But what is it, this city where I came into being?  What is the history that, as Winterson says, mates with me?

I was born and raised on Sydney’s North Shore, amongst towering gums and argyle apples, the screech of rainbow lorikeets never far away, and possums in the roof – one time a pint-sized sugar-glider landed on the handlebars of the mower.  Summer weekends at Freshwater Beach, boogie-boarding with my older brothers, on the return home Midnight Oil’s first album screaming out of the car stereo.  Going into the city to meet friends, hooking up in Oxford Street, which back then I figured was just another inner-city through-way.  Regular family holidays up into the Blue Mountains, where I imagined that dinosaurs lurked just around the corner.  Trips down to Bowral in the Southern Highlands to visit my mother’s parents; the house was barely furnished, which wouldn’t do these days, would it.

So, the way I think about it, I was – we were – always leaving, always getting out.  And who could blame us?  Despite the gloss and glam and glitter, Sydney has the darkest of hearts, a twisted soul.  It’s a city formed on the hardship of convicts, the majority male, many professional criminals.  Famine caused by frequently failed agriculture.  Disease: small pox, chicken pox, venereal disease, measles; one of these wiped out 90 percent of the local Aboriginal people so that their bodies could be seen floating in the harbour.

It’s said that Sydney was to be called New Albion.  Albion: that poetic nickname for Britain.  It’s a name that may have been inspired by a story about the 50 daughters of Syria’s king, who all got married on the same day and murdered their husbands on their wedding night; as punishment, they were set adrift in a ship before landing at Britain where they shacked up with the locals.

Sydney: she sure does stamp me out.

And there are days when I wish she wouldn’t.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 June 2012.)

No doubt it’s because of the season, but my backyard is a matter of life and death.  I have a rose out there, a standard rose in a pot, and a frightening wind came up last week and tried to decapitate the thing – the spindly crown hung upside down, held on by only a thin strip of what looked like skin.

I bandaged it back together with masking tape before realising that something stronger was required, so I’ve now wired it up, forming a splint.  Who knows if the rose will survive, and if it’ll be any better at withstanding the next frightening wind, which surely is just around the corner.

Then there’s a chook, Woo’s her name, and she’s unwell.  She’s jerking her neck as if she thinks she’s a break-dancer on the streets of New York.  She probably has a compacted crop, which means her food has lodged in a compartment in her throat that’s now fermenting.

Her days are numbered (a ridiculous phrase: all our days are numbered), and I’ve found myself waking in the night and wondering how I’ll go into the run in the morning and lift her up and say goodbye, thanks for all your eggs, but now, I’m afraid, I’m going to have to break your neck.  She’ll look at me, I know she will, so being the coward that I am I’ll put her back on the ground and wait another day.

And then there’s Cat the Ripper, who is – shhh don’t tell him – ageing.  He’s slowing down, sleeping more than ever, always in the sun.  So he has sun-blotches on his nose.  Cancer.  Last week the vet put him under and did an operation, burning off the blotches.  Hadn’t the poor bloody animal already been burnt enough?  Now and for another week I must inject antibiotics into his mouth and spread Ungvita ointment on his wounds.

Autumn: as always, it’s the poets who understand.  Verlaine, in ‘Autumn Song’ (‘Chanson d’automne’; 1866), incisively observed, ‘The long sobs/of the violins/of autumn’.  Keats, in ‘To Autumn’ (1819), described this time of the year that we’re in as ‘The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’.  So I’m off to check on a rose, a chook, and a cat, and then, at the dark end of the day, I’ll light a fire, pour a glass of wine, and listen to violins – life and death be damned.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 5 May 2012.)

It’s a rare event for a dictionary to fail me but that’s exactly what happened a minute ago: my usually trustworthy Oxford Australian Dictionary (1992) couldn’t come up with the goods, and what a sinking feeling that was.  Then the unspeakable happened: my Roget’s Thesaurus (1976) failed as well.  I reached for the Pears’ Cyclopaedia (1932) but it too fell short.  I pulled my copy of Soule’s Synonyms (1904) off the shelf – at last there was hope.

What have I been looking for? A definition of lane.

Where I live, a town dating from the 1820s, we have many lanes; in fact, we’re cross-hatched with them.  I adore them.  Consisting of two roughly parallel lines of compacted gravel or dirt bordered by knee-high grass, those narrow throughways between old houses.  I walk the dog down them.  I take them when going to the mainstreet.

I remember being a little boy and visiting cousins out at Young and they had a rear lane; how lucky I thought they were.  For two years in the 1990s I lived at Cottesloe Beach, Perth, and there was a lane behind my flat; how lucky I thought I was. I’ve named the on-line literary journal I co-edit Verity La after a lane in the Sydney Building, Canberra, and in Hong Kong recently my camera regularly found itself pointed towards backstreets and laneways.

These days, I might walk the lanes of my home-town because they offer protection from the winds, but mostly I take them because you can peer into backyards – wild veggie patches, saggy chookyards, an outdoor dunny turned into a wood-store, a rusted metal seat in the sun, a broken cricket bat…

When walking a lane there’s a sense that words like private and public don’t matter, that life can’t be categorised by what is yours and what is mine.  Lanes are semi-places, they’re reserved, they’re reticent.  That’s why dictionaries struggle with them.

The best the Oxford could do was “a narrow road or street”, which is downright wrong.  The Roget’s was able to suggest words like “short-cut”, but in the end this is clutching at straws.  Perhaps in 1902 there was a better understanding of these things, because the Soule’s got as far as “alley, narrow passage or way”; as definitions go it’s prosaic but at least there’s accuracy.

How would I define lane?

I wouldn’t, I can’t; I too would fail miserably.  I’ll just keep walking them, being with them, because their elusiveness makes me feel whole.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 24 March 2012.  This is my fiftieth piece for the First Word column; many thanks to Gillian Lord)

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