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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 as of 16 November 2018: while I’ve not – yet? – received a reply from the school to the letter, or acknowledgement that it was received, there has been 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. 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…

*

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

My dears,

we never really know if

the light on the hill

 

is a brand new world –

 

what might that be exactly:

a sign of alien life,

some kind of angel from

the other side,

miraculous politics?

 

or just a carload of youths about to yell, ‘Fuckin’ faggot!’ –

 

as they drive past

their words do indeed come,

like a casually flung beer bottle,

before the smile and wave

and drive-off

 

But, my dears,

we go on, don’t we

we go on

 

So here’s a thing.

A few weeks ago James Humberstone, the composer I’m working with on the ‘Homesong’ song-cycle, sent me what he humbly described as a cheeky out-take of music. I loved it, so much so that I offered to write some words, perhaps about my thoughts on the current marriage-equality debates that’s going on in Australia. James immediately sent back a text: ‘Yes, let’s do it!’

The next day I wrote some words down on a scrap of paper and then put them on Twitter to see how people might respond. Thankfully, folk responded positively. James then set the words to music, asked Sydney-based vocalist Katie Salisbury to work up a melody, and then the song was mixed and mastered by Jordan Thomas Mitchell in LA. Last but not least, Tina Costessi from Red Gadget Films in Canberra created a wonderfully positive – and emotionally powerful – video.

Click on the above image to have a look and listen.

Why did we do this? Because all people, regardless of their sexuality, deserve to be recognised by the law, to move through the world with dignity, and to feel included. And because much of the political campaign is negative, destructive, and, in many cases, dishonest.

Plus we had a great deal of fun.

 

If I could I would say to Mr Shelton,

‘When I was 17 and at an Anglican school

I had 50 cortisone injections in my face

and a year-long course of Roaccutane

(a drug that’s known to lead to suicide)

because I was riddled with acne.

 

At the age of 48 my face remains scarred

(like a burns victim, I sometimes joke)

and every morning I look at myself and

remember the staggering weight of those days

when I knew that all I wanted – and needed –

was to fall in love with boys.

 

Do you see now, Lyle, do you see?’

Millie ‘Tubs Malone’ Featherstone: the best place in the house.

It was always going to be a challenging day, and by challenging I mean gutwrenching – after seventeen years of good living, Millie was to draw her final breath.

Being a black Labrador, she had been a most loyal and intelligent companion. At dawn every morning, I would hear the clip-cop of her paws on the floorboards as she came to say hello to me in bed. We walked together every day.

She loved going in the car, which was something I appreciated because living in regional New South Wales means I travel a lot; she would stand on the backseat and rest her head on my shoulder as I drove, as if she was pretending to be a pirate’s parrot. At the end of every day, she would sit beside me on the couch as I watched the news on TV or listened to music.

In her last two years, however, Millie had been suffering from arthritis, especially in her back legs. Despite excellent veterinary treatment, her daily walks had gone from ten-kilometre adventures up and down hills to a ten-minute stroll to the nearest street corner and back. A heat-wave had also knocked her around, to the point that she was panting all day.

One morning, on one of her strolls, she developed a bad limp; as I carried her home in my arms I knew the time had come.

*

Keep reading at the Sydney Morning Herald, where the story was published on 26 June 2017. It was commissioned by the Tuggeranong Arts Centre in relation to the 2017 Empire Global Art Award. Correction to the attribution: I am a resident of the Southern Tablelands in New South Wales (not ‘the southern highlands’).

Gates 2 PC

1.

It’s always the same, and it’s not until the end that it makes sense.

2.

At 4pm the slipping on of holey sneakers and the wearing of beanie and gloves; an old blue-striped hooded top too. Glasses on face, ready to go.

3.

Out the back door, down the side of the house (ducking to miss the overhead rose), out the first gate and then the picket-fenced second. Footsteps on cracked footpaths, arms swinging for rhythm, legs keeping up.

4.

Turn right into Addison and the rising begins, past the church with the imploring billboard, though it’s hard to ignore the peace of the high-peaked rectory opposite the workers cottages with nothing in the front gardens except twigs and dogshit, me eyeing off the twigs because I’m in the market for kindling.

5.

A bend in the road where the school oval forms a corner, the dependable runnel of water entering the drain and culvert. Wild plum trees like weeds. Two Herefords in their ag-class paddock, steer and calf, mother and daughter, or mother and son. The Lanyon-esque house opposite, all chimneys and verandahs, like a set of a TV drama. (What drama behind the walls?) On the same side but further up the local Liberal’s mansion tucked away beneath a thickness of pines, the whine of a chainsaw preparing wood for the hearth and then, oh, a glass of sherry. ‘Sherry, dear?’ ‘Yes dear, sherry.’ In my boyhood I would have admired their fine slate roof and the sherry, but not anymore.

6.

Turn away to the patch of scrappy bush, pine cones out of reach beneath the pine trees on the other side of the fence. The footie oval, or it might be for cricket, roos grouped on the sidelines, a hop here and a hop there, before head down to snack on the winter grass. Now my legs and arms have found their flow and there’s good breath and air in my lungs. Up we go some more. The small, axe-murderish farm with its darkly curtained windows and the goats that run up to the fence. One time, as I charged by, the farmer waved and called out hello, and I waved and said hello back and thought, so he’s probably not an axe-murderer after all. And on and on, past the new houses that are being built on sold-off paddocks, black Labradors running from one side of their unfinished yard to the other, thinking of my own black Labrador who is too old to come with me these days.

7.

Turn left and up I go even further, past PLEASANT RIDGE, no railings on the stairs or on the top landing despite the house, a red-brick 70s shocker, being two-storeys high – how old the occupants are, which always (sometimes) makes me worry. The horse paddock on the other side of the road, the horse I call Melody or Max; sometimes he – or she – whinnies, but I just keep walking, the ground becoming rockier, and steeper, my ankles training.

8.

And then, at last, the road tips over to flatness and I can feel my heart pounding. I draw in the crisply clean air; I smell the waft of the single sheep in the sloping paddock. I look over the animal to the wind-turbines on the ridge far away in the last of the light. I stop at the gate, grip the cold metal with two hands, let my breathing – and everything else, everything that I’ve brought with me but have left along the road, like invisible breadcrumbs – settling and settling some more. Breathing: it’s all about breathing; to have come all this way (47 years) to reach that conclusion. ‘Mr Sheep, it’s me again. I was here yesterday but now I’m back. What’s going on for you?’ Silence. And stillness. That other thing I’ve learnt: there’s breathing and there’s silence and stillness. Which is why I’ve come to the edge of town. Everything is now in place, even me, in my gloves and beanie and sneakers. ‘See you tomorrow, Mr Sheep.’

9.

Cross the road and make sure to walk beside the piece of bush, the smooth white trunks of young eucalypts, the scent that’s sometimes heady. VOLUNTEERS ARE REHABILITATING THIS AREA – DO NOT LITTER. As if I would. Looking north to the new suburbs, the suburbs that are already lighting up for another evening of Netflix and nachos, soft folds of paddocks to the north where the end of the day is making hollows, before the damp comes, then the frost. I shudder and burrow into the hoodie that I’ve pulled up and tightened.

10.

It’s always the same, and it’s not until the end that it makes sense: breathe out, ease in. I am empty.

 

Despite having them in my life for 30 years, more or less, I don’t really know what they are. They flit about like a type of butterfly that may or may not exist.

I can remember being in the Fifth or Sixth Form of the rather well-healed Anglican school I attended on Sydney’s North Shore, my English teacher, Mr Cowdroy, leading us through the reading of a short story, the author of which I regrettably can’t recall. I loved the conciseness of the story – that life could be created and explored and examined in so few pages – and the sense of compression, the cleverness of the ending, which made me want to start reading the story all over again. It also made me want to keep writing, for by that time I had been writing for some years, albeit for school assessment.

One of the lingering collections.

One of the lingering collections.

Fast forward to my twenties, when I realised that doing little more than hanging out with mates at the pub was not good and deep living and would most likely lead to misery, I began writing stories again, but only because I wanted to. I also read stories, mainly in anthologies. Collections that resonated were Risks (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996; edited by Brenda Walker) and the Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction (Faber and Faber, 1991; edited by Edmund White). I also enjoyed Fishing in the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann (Phoenix House, 1994) and that other Irish chap who did quite well in the form, James Joyce with his Dubliners. I’d go on to discover the short works of Tolstoy and Chekhov, and contemporary writers such as Peter Carey, Annie Proulx, David Malouf, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Tim Winton, Nam Le, and Alice Munro. I subscribed to and read Australian literary journals, including Meanjin, Overland, Island, Tirra Lirra, and Wet Ink.

Over the years that followed I began having my own stories published, at first in relatively minor journals now gathering dust in the National Library of Australia’s vast vaults, before some of my stories were ‘accepted’ (for that appeared to be the termed used) in the journals mentioned above. It was, of course, all very thrilling. To see my name in an edition of Meanjin (2: 2000) alongside writers such as Merlinda Bobis, Thomas Shapcott, Dorothy Hewett, Arnold Zable, and Dorothy Porter. Eventually my published stories were collected in two humble volumes, Homelife (1999) and Joy (2000). The Australia Book Review (no. 224 Sept 2000) described the latter as ‘beautifully poised, warm, lush, humane, with lots of surprises and shocks.’ Which made my heart sing, and still does. I say all this not to brag but to suggest that slowly but surely I have been taking steps; I have, I think, been making progress.

What makes a writer's heart sing.

What makes a writer’s heart sing.

Soon I gathered the confidence to write longer works, including three published novellas and a novel, but rarely does a year go by when I don’t write – and try to have published – short stories. Perhaps part of the attraction is being able to take a break from convoluted, complicated works and spend a week crafting a little tale. But I’m not sure if that’s true and/or wise. Short stories can be just as complex as longer works, if not more so, and they can be just as difficult to write, if not more so. It is common for fiction writers to say that short stories are closer to poetry than prose, in that they are suggestions more than full explorations. In the best fiction, regardless of length, words need to be deployed artfully so life can rise from the page. But perhaps in a short story, as in a poem, each word has to do some impressive – and exhaustive – heavy lifting, often (hopefully) with spectacular results.

Sometimes with spectacular results. My filing cabinet and PC hard-drive are littered with rubbish work.

Recently, to be frank, I’ve been doubting the worth of the short story as a viable form. Australian literary journals do continue to publish them, although, depending on the journal, it could be said that only writers are reading them. On the whole mainstream publishers turn up their noses at collections of stories, claiming readers want a more immersive experience; and some writers who have excelled at the form have simply given up, claiming there is no point when ‘it’s just too hard to find a readership’. So, if the readership is limited, why do it? Isn’t it like, say, insisting on painting miniature portraits, the sort that galleries won’t touch with a barge-pole? But, but, but: every so often single-author collections, such as Nam Le’s The Boat (Penguin, 2008) and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil (Hachette, 2014), make a big public splash.

What am I trying to say? The short story is a surprising and tenacious beast.

A similarly surprising and tenacious beast is the Review of Australian Fiction, which publishes – electronically – two stories every two weeks and often takes the opportunity to publish works that print journals consider ‘too long’ (over 4,000 words); a worthy venture to say the least, considering also that individual issues cost only $2.99. It’s an honour to be published in the Review a second time, especially as I’ve been paired with Marion Halligan, whose collection Shooting the Fox (Allen & Unwin, 2011) was choc-full of literary magic. My story, ‘The Blue Bottle’, has been emerging for many years – decades you could say – because it uses an event from my twenties as a place for jumping off (no, it’s not set in a pub). On the page the story is nothing more or less than fiction, but there must have been something in the original event that had stayed with me and I’d wanted to turn it over with words and sentences and characters and plot. As is so common (predictable?) in my work, the narrative involves an old house and landscape and music and friendship and intimacy and longing and glimpses – glimpses – of love. But I won’t go on.

All I really wanted to tell you is this: ‘The Blue Bottle’ exists, it is here.

Miraculously.

'Very few historians become novelists. It's a risk. You risk reputation and ego' - Peter Stanley (Image source: Fairfax Media)

‘Very few historians become novelists. You risk reputation and ego’ – Peter Stanley (Image source: Fairfax Media)

Think outside the square. Push the envelope. Go beyond your comfort zone. These are the clichés that are trotted out with monotonous regularity, as though every single one of us isn’t brave enough, we’re all just lazy sods. Then again, we’re also told to be cautious of those who dare to be outspoken, don’t get too close to the people who rock the boat; at all costs we should avoid those who are courageous enough to try turning truth on its head.

Then there’s historian Peter Stanley. Who seems to not care about any of this – he just wants to get on with the job of illuminating history.

Surely if there’s anyone who is qualified to illuminate history it’s Professor Peter Stanley. For twenty-seven years he was a historian with the Australian War Memorial, and after a brief stint at the National Museum of Australia he now works out of the University of New South Wales’ Australian Defence Force Academy campus. Stanley is the author of over twenty-five non-fiction works (he admits to having lost track), including the potentially blasphemous Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder, and the Australian Imperial Force, which was jointly awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for history in 2011. As if he doesn’t have enough to do, he is also the president of Honest History, a relatively new ACT-based organisation that aims to debunk the mythmaking that often occurs in Australian military history, particularly when it’s in the hands of politicians.

If anyone deserves the title of being one of the nation’s most prominent military historians it is Peter Stanley. But is he a towering, intimidating force?

Not in the slightest.

We meet in his north Canberra house, which doesn’t seem to have had much done to it since it was built in the 1960s. Two small fluffy dogs appear behind the flyscreen door, before Stanley appears as well – he looks like he’s no more significant than a suburban tax accountant. (If you’ve seen him during one of his many television appearances, he can be fiery almost to the point of discomfort.) After asking the dogs to behave – they do – the historian leads me through to the kitchen, where he gets together tea and biscuits. We take our places in a small, unassuming loungeroom. There’s a view into a semi-neglected, semi-loved backyard that’s so peaceful it’s hard to imagine that there are any problems in the world.

We’re here to discuss the recent publication of The Cunning Man, which is Peter Stanley’s first novel for adults. (He is the author of a novella for young adults, Simpson’s Donkey, which tells the famous ANZAC story from the animal’s perspective – it’s a memorable yarn.) This latest work is set in 1845 and explores the world of the European soldiers who created Britain’s Indian Empire. Sergeant Major Nelson Mansergh, Bengal Horse Artillery, is given the job of searching the Punjaub for a conspiracy among the company’s European soldiers. There’s a sub-plot of love and, needless to say, the story culminates in battle.

Why the move to long-form fiction?

*

Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 28 November 2014. Thanks to Sally Pryor.

THE WILD ONES - 6pm 3 Dec 2014 - updated

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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