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Vincent van Gogh (as a yoof): a hero to many

Vincent van Gogh (as a yoof): a hero to many – imagine being able to meet him.

It is a big adventure, this writing life.  There’s the adventure in the stories: characters experiencing things, discovering things, learning things; overcoming and becoming.

Then there’s the adventure of conceiving stories, writing stories, redrafting stories (repeat ad infinitum if necessary), before sending them out until an editor takes a shine to a particular piece and puts it amongst his or her pages.  Then there’s the adventure of feedback.  Who will like what?  Or will no-one like any of it?  Or will there be no feedback at all?

But there’s more: the places writing has taken me, as in real places.  A homestead out of Braidwood.  A gatekeeper’s cottage in Launceston.  The writers’ house at Bundanon beside the Shoalhaven River.  The monastic Varuna in the Blue Mountains.  And, most recently, the Australian Defence Force Academy, courtesy of UNSW Canberra.

Then there are the people I’ve met, other writers, artists of all kinds.  The conversations over coffees, lunches, glasses of wine, dinners even!  It doesn’t take me long to be enthralled by those who are far ahead in this game; I become besotted.  It is, to tell you the truth, one of the most exciting things: to spend time with extraordinarily creative souls.

I have been so fortunate.  A highlight?

In January 2011, as part of a piece for the Canberra Times, I found myself in the Sydney home of eminent contemporary – or ‘pop’ – artist Martin Sharp.  All morning we talked about the things that mattered to him: his great love of Vincent van Gogh, Tiny Tim, and, a little surprisingly, UK talent-show contestant Susan Boyle; about how he thought the best art came from school children; about how his thinking has evolved, his relatively newfound religiosity.  ‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘conservative thinking is radical.’  This from the man who was once involved with Oz Magazine, whose London editors would end up being jailed as part of the infamous ‘Obscenity Trials’.

At midday, after he farewelled me, as I walked up his driveway, I thought – and I distinctly remember it – that this would be go down as one of my favourite days.  Here was a great artist, but one without a skerrick of pretension.  It was as though I’d just spent the morning with a slightly kooky but utterly charming uncle (who chain-smoked).

So, dear writing, thank you for the adventures thus far.

And, dear Martin Sharp, thank you for everything you gave us.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 14 December 2013.)

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.)

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.)

What I was wearing when I wrote this First Word.  Potentially.

What I was wearing when I wrote this First Word. Potentially.

When it’s intense it howls, truly howls, as if it’s angry with me, or with this house, or with this town, or with this whole damn country.

Across the paddocks it comes and up over the ridge and, so it feels, rushes headlong down into my humble little yard, pushing the climbing rose into the windows, flattening the wattles, sending buckets flying.  The wind, it’s true, has decapitated fully grown shrubs.  When it’s properly bellowing, so much so that the dog takes herself off to the safe harbour of the en-suite, there’s nothing for me to do than hide under a blanket on the couch and get lost in a novel.

Goulburn is famous for its winds; this is why we’re surrounded by wind-turbines.  It’s good clean energy and it’s what we need if we’re going to be able to keep living on this planet.  But on the couch I don’t think about these pragmatic things, this frustratingly political situation.  I just let the wind rant and rave as I read.

Some days, when it’s literally blowing a gale, I put the book down and set my imagination free.  I could live in a lighthouse and my job would be nothing more complicated than getting the light going each night (perhaps a simple flick of a switch does it) and help keep boats and ships out of harm’s way.  I’d like to be that: a keeper of light – what a business card that would make.

But my imagination doesn’t stop there, not when there’s a novel close at hand.

As the wind batters me and my house around the ears, I could be on of those boats or ships, a sailor, a lone sailor exploring the seas and the oceans and be out there amongst it all.  Or I could be a sailor of the wind; I could run some kind of air-ship and discover worlds beyond my wildest dreams.  Oh I could be a pirate of the sky!  An eccentric, a madman, shouting and calling as I travel here and there on the thinnest of whims.  Yes, that would be me, riding the wind, sails full and powerful.

Until the calm comes, as it always does, and I’d sleep in the quiet, so quiet it would be.  And in this sleepy silence I’d know that I was living a good life, because it’d be one of almost unimaginable adventure.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 14 September 2013.)

Hymn boys: how beautiful can Tallis really be?

Hymn boys: how beautiful Thomas Tallis can be.

So odd.  I’d not heard anything like it for decades.  But there it was, as it unmistakably left my lips and hung in the air.  A whistle, yes, a whistle, complete with shrilly vibrato, as though it had emerged from one of those content old men who can knock out any melody at the drop of a hat.

How on Earth did it happen?

It was last Sunday morning.  I was sitting at the dining-room table, beside me a good coffee half drunk, in front the laptop whirring away as I did something easy on the screen.  Playing on the stereo in the background was a CD I hadn’t listened to for years.  Bearing the Bell: the Hymns of Thomas Tallis by Sydney-based jazz saxophonist Andrew Robson.

Let me say that I’m not fond of jazz.  I don’t even like the look of the word (it looks almost obscene).  And I don’t like a thing about the saxophone – Kenny G’s got a lot to answer for.  But I bought Bearing the Bell after reading a review of it in the newspaper.  What originally intrigued me was the way Robson so irresistibly abstracts his selection of sixteen-century ‘tunes’, which are the basis for many Christian hymns.  It’s delicious music.

These days I don’t have a religious breath in my chest, but the majority of my first eighteen years were spent at an all-boys Anglican school on Sydney’s North Shore, one where weekly attendance at chapel was compulsory, and taken very seriously – by most students.  If there was one thing I loved about chapel it was singing the hymns, especially the ones where Tallis was the source.

The hymns were unfathomably beautiful.  The harmonies.  The passing notes.  The big, glorious, skin-tightening finishes.  Now I think about it, what a strange act it was to bellow out lines such as ‘When in the slippery paths of youth/with heedless steps I ran/thine arm unseen conveyed me safe/and led me up to man’ (from “When All Thy Mercies, O My God”).

Who knows what these words really mean.

All I know is that listening to Robson’s imaginative take on Tallis last Sunday morning made me whistle.  The whistle was brief, really just half a dozen notes, but in that moment I felt happier than I have in decades.  As if I was nothing more than a teenager again and walking the cool corridors of school.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 10 August 2013.)

Ireland: a place where one day I belonged

Ireland: a place where long ago I once belonged. And sometimes still do.

‘Whiskey is spelt with an ‘e’.’  That’s what my writing colleague told me 20 years ago after I’d asked him to comment on a short story of mine – he thought the story was alright but made it clear that I’d spelt whiskey incorrectly.  ‘That’s the Irish way,’ he said, in his broad, multi-generational Australian accent.

I too have Irish ancestry, though it dates back well over 200 years, so I took his point.  And ever since, no matter what I’m working on, even a column for a newspaper, I make sure that whiskey has its ‘e’.

A couple of years before the writerly conversation with my colleague, I visited Ireland – I did the typical young Australian thing of chucking everything in, donning a borrowed backpack, and flitting off on adventures overseas.  First I trained it across Canada in the North American mid-winter; I was told that it would look just like Tuggeranong – it didn’t.  Then I flew over the Atlantic and landed in London; being someone who also has English ancestry, I was told that I’d definitely ‘feel something in Old Blighty’ – I didn’t.  I caught the train to the top of Wales before riding the ferry across to Ireland.

Dublin.  What a city.  Eire in general.  All the faces seemed so familiar, as though I could tap a random person on the shoulder and they’d turn around and say, ‘Ah Nigel, you’re home!’  Which is absurd: I’m as Irish as a glass of water.  Still, I spent six weeks backpacking up the west coast, from Caherciveen to Inishboffin, which is like spending six weeks backpacking from Batemans Bay to Wollongong.  But I loved every minute of it, despite the rain, and the insidious damp, and the pale light.  The conversations.  One in particular, with a village shopkeeper.  She: ‘You have that Paul Keating as a prime minister.’  Me: ‘Yes, he’s a republican.’  She, deadpan: ‘And look at what republicanism’s done to Ireland.’

Regardless, when it was time to catch the ferry from Belfast to Scotland I had an Irish accent and now wore an emerald-green coat that made me look like a walking field.  A fortnight later, when I made it back to London, I found myself even more in love with Ireland, and even more out of love with the UK.

Had I become radicalised?

If so, my radicalisation has only ever manifested itself in spelling.

Whiskey is spelt with an ‘e’.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 13 July 2013.)

It was an odd thing to do but I was getting desperate.  Within minutes I’d be on Melbourne radio by telephone link-up and talking about a novella of mine published last year, but I was already into the writing of the next novella.  I made a coffee, hoping this would break my concentration, but it didn’t have the desired effect.  I quickly fed the chooks, but still my brain was filled with the work-in-development.  As the interview crept closer, the only idea I had was to just return to my writing room and hope my head would clear.

But my head didn’t clear; all I could think about was the new story, the one that’s still in the process of being born.  On air would I mix up my titles and characters and plots and themes and end up sounding like a fool?

Highly likely.

Could it be that all we have to do sometimes is sit in a different chair to sort everything out?

Could it be that all we have to do sometimes is sit in a different chair to sort everything out?

As a last resort, I stood up, walked to the other side of the room, and breathed in slowly, deeply, breathed out.

There’s a chair on that side of the room.  It’s a simple 1930s piece which I bought just after I moved in – my house is old so it seemed only right that I have some old furniture.  I’m not into antiques per se; I don’t like gloss and shine and perfection.  If I find a piece that’s been discounted due to an obvious flaw, I’m more interested.  This particular chair was so unloved that the shop kept it outside under a lean-to.  No one wanted it.  Except me.

I sat down and – oh my – what on earth was happening?

I like writing, I like working hard, so when I’m in my writing room I’m always at my desk, not in the old chair in the corner, which really just exists these days for decoration and atmosphere.  But while I sat and waited for the interviewer to ring, I saw a completely different view of the room.  From this angle, the room appeared larger, taller; it even smelt different.  For a minute, two minutes, three minutes, I just sat quietly in the old unloved chair and felt altered.  It felt as if I’d stepped outside myself, the way some people describe an out-of-body experience at the time of near-death.  Of course, I wasn’t dying.  I was just being differently.

After three minutes, the phone began ringing.

I stood up and calmly answered the call.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 25 May 2013.)

According to Zadie Smith's definition, is swimming a joy or pleasure?

According to Zadie Smith’s definition, is swimming a joy or pleasure?  And what about learning to swim differently?

In the New York Review of Books last year novelist Zadie Smith wrote an article on the differences between joy and pleasure.  I wasn’t made aware of the piece until last Christmas, those long, slow, sometimes empty, sometimes bumpy days of eating and reading and sleeping.  I read Smith’s words closely; I read them repeatedly.  Are these ideas of joy and pleasure really that hard to get a grip on?

What else to do when something’s on your mind than head to the local pool.

In my lane, which luck would have it I didn’t need to share, amongst the crystal-clear chlorinated water, beneath the hazy but grand Southern Tablelands sky, I thought about Zadie Smith and her joy/pleasure conundrum.  She believed that for most people joy is just a more intense version of pleasure.  However, she also noted, ‘The thing no one ever really tells you about joy is that there is very little pleasure in it.  And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how could we live?’  It’s this question that hounded – haunted? – me as I got myself from one end of the pool to the other.

I’m a life-long lap-swimmer; I come from the breed of people who find this sort of thing enjoyable.  I can remember my first swimming less as a little boy, which was given in the family pool at home in Sydney by a Jaguar-driving man who prevented me from sinking by gripping the back of my tiny black Speedos.  Since then there’s rarely been a time when swimming hasn’t been a weekly activity; not so long ago I could do thirty laps, sometimes fifty, every so often more.

Which is probably why my shoulder gave up the ghost.  The physiotherapist told me that if I wanted to swim for the rest of my life then I’d have to learn to breathe ‘on both sides’, which, like jogging, is something I’ve simply never been able to do.  So, during the Christmas just gone, with Zadie Smith in my head, I began teaching myself to breathe on my left as well as my right.  By the end of the first session I could do it, gingerly, and I had to concentrate, but I made it work.

As I walked home I thought, swimming might be a pleasure but teaching this old dog to learn new swimming-pool tricks is where joy lives.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 February 2013.)

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