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The world is sick. It is easy to think that when the COVID-19 death ‘tally’ increases every day and reports suggest that as much as a third of the global population is currently living in some form of lock-down.

Here in Australia we are experiencing unprecedented limitations on how we can move about and who we can see. Some of us are lucky to be in a long-term relationship and intimacy is only a look or a joke away. Others are having a much more challenging time: not being able to see who they want, when they want, how they want, and why they want. Has love become even harder?

This week, while eating a homemade omelette for lunch (packed with mushrooms and feta), I decided to take my mind off the current troubles by watching a short film in which French philosopher Alain Badiou spoke about love being ‘a risky adventure’. Towards the end of the film, Badiou said two things that resonated with me: ‘Love creates a perspective and an existence in the world from the point of view of two, not one’, which he described as a ‘revolutionary act’; and, evidently paraphrasing Spinoza, ‘All that is true and rare are difficult’, which is a statement that reached right into my belly.

All that is true and rare are difficult.

Yes, that is love: wonderful, beautiful, messy, contradictory, infuriating, exciting, banal; and, in this challenging and sometimes unbearably heavy year, necessary.

Love is the domain of philosophy; it is also the domain of novelists and poets. There was a time, during my childhood and adolescence, when instructions on love came from a man in a black frock who was armed with a bible and a hymn book. Thankfully, these days my shelves are packed (ever more chaotically) with much better books.

Although I do not seek it out with any kind of fervour, gay literature is well-represented on my shelves, particularly gay novels. These works have provided me with experience, understanding, solace, antagonism, confusion, and, in the end, profound contentment. I never found profound contentment in nightclubs or tennis clubs or dinner parties, darling. I found profound contentment in novels, where the gay experience could shift and buckle and expand and explode; where it could be both ordinary and wondrous, and spectacularly alive.

The following are some novels that have indeed felt spectacularly alive.

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Keep reading over at The Canberra Times, which published this piece on 18 April 2020.

Despite the world having serious wobbles at the moment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (though thankfully, miraculously, Australia appears to be faring much better than many other countries), some good things continue to happen.

BODIES OF MEN is still doing its humble little thing: finding readers here and there; it’s such a joy to receive messages from folk saying that they have enjoyed the novel. In rather lovely news, for the month of April Amazon has the e-book version on special for $2.99. If you’re a Kindle user and would like an affordable way of reading the novel, now is your chance! Also please do help to spread the word – it’s autumn in Australia so the chooks have gone off the lay, which means more trips to Woolies, which means I need to have a few coins rattling around my pockets.

In related news, like many writers I have lost a number of gigs due to The Virus, but at least one is still going ahead, albeit online: a panel organised by the Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane, Writing War, which features Melanie Myers, Simon Cleary and your old Goulburn mate and facilitation by Cass Moriarty, will be held via Zoom at 6pm (Queensland time) on Monday 20 April. Tickets are just $5 and can be bought here. It would be terrific to see you.

Moving from the page to the stage: my new play – with songs – has been selected for a creative development through the First Seen program, which is an initiative of The Street Theatre in Canberra. Last month I had the opportunity to spend two days at The Street doing a preliminary creative development with dramaturge Anne-Louise Rentell, which was such a productive experience. First Seen will offer an even deeper experience and involve a range of creative voices exploring and challenging the work. While usually this would happen over an intense 7-day period in the theatre’s rehearsal space, due to COVID-19 the sessions will be over Zoom and spread across 2 weeks in May.

The text for the work is still very much a work-in-progress, but here is a sample from one of the songs:

Who is he,

the man who dares to himself himself

‘father’?

 

He is my

he is your

crumbling wall

What I find (sometimes almost overwhelmingly) fascinating about writing for the stage is being able to access input from so many creatives, all with their different perspectives and requirements. In a way, there’s no way of knowing what will emerge, but, to be frank, it’s exciting.

To end: during the week I posted on my socials a photograph of me from when I was about 5 years old; it’s at the top of this post. Although I said online that the photo was taken in my backyard, I was actually at a holiday house my family used to rent at Mount Wilson in the Blue Mountains, to the west of Sydney. Throughout my childhood we spent many holidays at Mount Wilson and I adored it; I still think about the place. And write about it. A lot. My first novel, REMNANTS (Pandanus Books, 2005, largely out of print but information is available here), was set at Mount Wilson, a significant chunk of BODIES OF MEN involves Mount Wilson, and a recent memoir essay I wrote for the special Australian Issue of the CHICAGO QUARTERLY REVIEW explored my ongoing association with the place, including an event that has continued to resonate. (You might be pleased to know that new projects have moved ‘off mountain’.)

The caption I used for the photo when posted online was ‘One minute you’re a happy little kid playing theatre in the backyard; the next you’re a gloomy bloody author. Either way, buy a copy of the BODIES OF MEN e-book and cheer this old bugger up?’

Perhaps I’ll end this post by simply saying: if you’ve ever bought a copy of one of my books, or you’ve come to one of my shows or events, if you’ve commented here or on the socials, thank you.

Very much.

Snowfalls. Orange skies. Face-masks. Raging flames. Ash on the letterbox. Hail the size of apples. Half a billion animals gone. Dead trees. Lives lost. Floods.

It was the Summer from Hell in Australia.

And now the daffodils are coming up. In March. As they say in polite society: what the fuck?

Still, writing manages to happen.

Firstly, I was chuffed to have been asked to write a piece for the special Australian Issue of the CHICAGO QUARTERLY REVIEW, which is now out. I wrote about my childhood in the Blue Mountains, Patrick White, and one of the worst mistakes I’ve ever made.

The opening paragraph:

I stood on the edge of the lane and stared at the black house, at the old concrete water tank, at the lawn stones that might have been foundations. Some minutes later, after deciding that as it was midweek and the house likely a weekender, I took a step, then another— until I was standing in the garden, in the very place where my bedroom had once been. I stretched out my arms as if to touch the missing walls and said, “This is where it happened.”

Such an honour to share the pages with writers such as Claire G Coleman, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Krissy Kneen, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Behrouz Boochani, Van Badham, David Malouf, Kim Mahood, Simon Cleary, Quinn Eades, and Inga Simpson among many others.

While writing for the page continues to be my focus, writing for the stage is something I’m doing more and more, even though I never intended to go in this direction. Ah, the twists and turns in the writing life.

So, it was rather exciting to be informed recently that three of my songs from THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT will be performed in November this year at Carnegie Hall’s Recital Hall in New York by international baritone David Wakeham.

To be frank, this is rather special: the song cycle, the score for which was written by the amazing James Humberstone, is about a high-raking Australian soldier who returns from his latest tour of Afghanistan with a dark secret; all he wants to do is heal on his family’s grazing property on the Southern Tablelands – what he doesn’t know is that his family have a dark secret of their own.

To have elements of the work performed in the US? Mind-blowing.

Finally, earlier this month I spent two days at The Street Theatre in Canberra. Three songs from THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT may well be off to New York, but I have a new work for the stage in the very early phase of development i.e. crappy words on bits of paper.

Is it another song cycle? Perhaps it’s more of a play with songs?

Thanks to some lovely funding from Create NSW, I was able to spend two days with Wollongong-based dramaturge Anne-Louise Rentell. Together we talked about big ideas and then we tore the draft into small pieces and started putting it back together.

Not all the words are coming together yet, but here are a few:

A boat, I see

an empty boat blown by the wind

to the shore

 

of a lake filled to the brim

with life-giving water

that’s no more, like three boys

 

They drowned, they said,

and I believed them

Is the script in a better shape now? Yes. What’s the next step? Who knows. But I do love being in the creative space, both physically and mentally.

Thanks again to Create NSW for the opportunity, The Street Theatre for hosting these preliminary creative-development sessions, Anne-Louise Rentell for pushing me into some uncomfortable terrain (almost literally), David Sharpe for joining the dots, and Paul Scott-Williams from the Hume Conservatorium, who, by commissioning me all those years ago to write the libretto for what became THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, sent me in this exciting direction.

Perhaps if humanity survives long enough there might be a new work on the stage before long?

Quite honestly, who knows.

Who knows.

 

In winter you are covered from head to toe. Grey beanie; brown-striped woollen jumper that was knitted by your mother when you were a teenager; long-sleeved black sloppy-joe over black thermal top; blue thermal longs beneath blue tracksuit pants; red woollen socks from the shop in Crookwell; and Ugg-boots, of course. You spend those dark days in your writing room with a bar heater beside you, your right hand hovering over the bars. As the hours progress the room does get warmer, but the rest of the house, a worker’s cottage dating from 1895, does not. If you are lucky, the fog burns off by lunchtime and there is a bright blue sky, at which you will gaze longingly while eating an omelette.

At 4pm off go the jumper, tracksuit pants and Ugg-boots, and on go a pair of grey tracksuit pants, a grey hooded top, black sports socks, and running shoes (if that is what they are called). You leave the house and get on your way, past the little cottages the same as yours, all the corrugated iron roofs rusting, past the newer, bigger houses on their manicured blocks, until you reach the edge of town and the twin water-tanks there with the view across the paddocks to the low ranges to the west, wind-turbines turning in the distance.

There’s hope in those turbines, you think.

Then – in September, October, November? – the outfit changes.

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Keep reading in the Sydney Morning Herald, which commissioned this piece and published it on 31 August 2019.

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.

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

The start of my school journey; tea-pot stance not yet perfected.

Dearest Headmaster Heath,

It was with disappointment – and a little reignited heartache – that I read in the media last week that Barker College had co-signed a letter to the Australian Government stating ‘there is no effective protection under Australian law that guarantees religious freedom for both faith and action’.  The letter was interpreted, justifiably, to mean that Anglican schools wish to retain the right to discriminate against LGBTIQ+ teachers and students.

I know that you have since issued a Mea Culpa, with a very recent follow-up, both of which read as heart-felt and are appreciated, therefore I have wondered about the wisdom in adding to the public debate. However, silence, especially when it relates to formative experiences with long-term – if not life-long – implications, is not always healthy.

So, in the spirit of truth to power:

I attended Barker College from 1978 to 1986, when I completed my secondary education. My brothers, both older, also attended Barker. I have my parents to thank for choosing the school – it was a privilege, though I would come to understand that privilege comes with responsibility and a need for self-reflection.

Looking back, the school offered a reasonable, balanced education. There was a mix of the core subjects and the humanities, arts, languages, and sport. We were encouraged to be inquisitive and well-rounded young people.

In my experience, Barker highlighted three key principles: respect for knowledge (clear thinking and facts); find your own path for living well, which, by extension, meant letting others find their own path; and speak up for what you believe.

Despite being a resolutely average student, my school years were productive and happy.

Except in one respect: a well-hidden turmoil as I began to navigate a sexuality that, I soon realised, was neither common nor generally acceptable, that was, I would soon discover, aggressively – even violently – hated by some.

Regardless, and in a beautiful, innocent way, as I went from class to class, as my friends fell voluminously in love with girls, I allowed myself to fall in love with a boy. What bliss! Indeed, to all intents and purposes, throughout Third Form he and I were in a relationship, as much as it was possible at that age. Of course, we could not publically express our feelings for each other, and we were somewhat confused. I remember him saying, ‘This is not what God wants. We should like girls.’ Oh, would love always be difficult? In Senior School, I did try to like girls; thankfully – for all concerned – there was not much success.

When my time at Barker came to an end, I left the North Shore and moved to Canberra, where I was freer to live a more genuine life, including having the opportunity to explore the wonders of my sexuality.

Still, it was not until 1997 that I was able to do that harrowing (and, thank goodness, increasingly old-fashioned) thing: ‘come out’.

Why did the process take so long?

Fear.

With my maternal grandmother, who I adored.

Of being rejected. Of being considered a freak, a deviant.

That my sexuality might prevent me from achieving my goals; that I might be bashed for simply being myself (a good-natured introvert, you could say). Having been a teenager through the AIDS crisis, there was also fear that my life would be cut short.

Not wanting to bring too much emotion to this correspondence, there were dark times: loneliness, despondency – and worse, but let’s not dwell.

Recently I turned 50, so it seems my life has not been cut short. I have been with my partner Tim for 21 years, and have experienced love, intimacy, and companionship.

Perhaps that is something else I got from Barker: tenacity.

Speaking of tenacity, you might be interested to know that I have what some consider an unusual job. I am a writer – 50 short stories published in Australian literary journals, two story collections, a debut novel titled Remnants, a series of interlinked novellas with the latest being The Beach Volcano, and my war novel, Bodies of Men, will be published by Hachette Australia in 2019. I was commissioned to write the libretto for a contemporary song cycle called The Weight of Light (score by James Humberstone) that had its world premiere in Canberra earlier this year before being performed at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. I have held residencies at Varuna and Bundanon, and in 2013 I was a Creative Fellow at UNSW Canberra. Being an author has resulted in some surprising invitations: in 2010 I was asked by the University of Canberra to give the valedictory speech at a graduation ceremony, which was held in the Great Hall at Parliament House – yes, I took the opportunity to tell a version of the story that I am telling you.

Most writers, it seems, have one or two thematic preoccupations. Mine? The need to live our own lives; and there is nothing more important than love and refuge.

Of course, I have also written about what happens when we are unable to live our own lives, when we are unable to find love and refuge. My lived experience shows – proves – that when someone, especially a young person, is not allowed to be who they are, when someone is told their healthy yearnings for human connection are wrong (or that all gay people belong to an evil organisation as I was informed during last year’s marriage equality debate), living can be hard work.

Does Barker really want to make life hard work for its LGBTIQ+ teachers and students?

Currently on the Barker website, under the title ‘From the Head’, there is a quote from the Bible, Jeremiah, 29.11: ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you, and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ Although not a person of faith, I can appreciate the sentiment: allow life to unfold as it must, do not let existence be harmful, approach the future with open arms.

‘All good things must come to an end’, claimed my end-of-school top; but even better things were around the corner.

What if last week Barker had put out a clear and unambiguous statement saying that it encouraged all its teachers and – particularly – its students to live good, true lives, to be the best people they can be: brave, generous, curious, authentic, and loving?

What if last week, and reinforcing what I hope is a deeply held conviction, Barker had publically declared that it did not, and would never, discriminate against LGBTIQ+ teachers and students? What if that had been the school’s default position? What a powerful, positive message that would have sent, especially to those students who, for whatever reason, and so sadly – and perhaps, still, with tragic consequences – are experiencing their own well-hidden turmoil because of something as innocuous as their sexuality.

My wish is that from here Barker becomes an active and public voice in ensuring there is no legislative room for Australian schools, public or private, to dismiss LGBTIQ+ teachers and students.

What the marriage equality vote proved is that love – in all its wondrous diversity – does win in the end, that love is inherently resilient, and that resilience will see LGBTIQ+ people continue to live good, healthy, and productive lives.

So then, it is with love that I have shared these words with you.

Sincerely,

Nigel


UPDATE: on 23 November 2018 I received an open-hearted – emotionally raw even – letter from Phillip Heath, the current headmaster of Barker College, in which he said, ‘I apologise for the hurt and embarrassment that these matters have caused’ and that he ‘deeply regrets’ being involved in original letter; he also wrote, ‘Please be assured that I will continue to demonstrate my rejection of the [legal] exemptions in word and deed’. Mr Heath’s words and actions are appreciated and welcomed.

For those interested, there was considerable media on the issue: one of the headmasters who signed The Letter described the response as ‘the most humiliating moment of my career‘ (that piece, by David Marr, is interesting in other ways too, especially in terms of what ‘ethos’ means in practical terms), the Anglican Archbishop apologised, and school students held a street protest, which is brilliant.

While not directly related, it was interesting to see this recent story about a student at one of Sydney’s most elite private schools come out in front of the assembly just weeks after the above hullabaloo.

Onwards.

It is, in a way, an act of withdrawal, and I worry about it sometimes.

I am spending more and more time reading and alone. How healthy can that be? But let’s be honest: for a natural hermit, it is very healthy, especially when I am fortunate to have a room dedicated to books—a private library.

Eight years ago, partly due to good luck and partly due to a desire to put literature at the centre of my being, I left Canberra for a town an hour away, in regional New South Wales. Although I would need to continue earning an income, I could, if luck kept smiling on me, live on the smell of an oily rag. My plan was to spend the majority of each week writing, but I have found, thankfully, that I am spending as much time reading—day after day of it, all in the smallest room in my crumbling old cottage.

In the library is a pair of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that were there when I moved in, as well as an old green Hordern & Sons wood-heater (it is rarely used, because it tends to smoke out the house) and a tartan couch that I bought for $30 from the local Vinnies but is a bit too short for my body. In winter, when the mornings sometimes start with a horrifying minus 10 degrees, I read under two blankets: one, a mix of oranges and reds, was my grandmother’s; the other, which is as green as the wood-heater and the couch, was my mother’s and given to her by a school friend—my mother is now in a nursing home and battling dementia, so the gift came to me earlier this year.

In summer I am sprawled only in black T-shirt and grey shorts, the soles of my feet gritty with dirt because I like to get up every hour or so and hand-water the garden…

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Keep reading over at Meanjin, which commissioned this piece and first published it on 26 September 2018.

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