Stuff from the guts of Australian writer Nigel Featherstone
They are beside me, in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, though I never look at them. Except, for the first time in fifteen years, that’s exactly what I’ve just done: got them out and spread them across the floorboards. Canberra Times headlines; front pages, to be precise.
The first is dated September 11, 2001. ‘TERRORISTS STRIKE U.S.’ in the biggest, blackest letters I’ve ever seen in a newspaper. And that photo of a World Trade Centre tower collapsing in white smoke. And that other photo, of ash-covered New Yorkers scrambling for their lives.
The next front page, dated October 15, 2002, says ‘Terror Blast’. A photo of stretcher bearers carrying bodies out of a twisted Kuta Beach nightclub. The next is dated January 20, 2003: ‘Our worst day’. More twisted metal, but in a bushfire-blackened landscape. Then, at last, there is change.
November 25, 2007: ‘Rudd buries Howard era’. A fresh-faced new prime minister holds up his hands, ten fingers spread as if he’s giving himself ten out of ten. Only three months later, February 13 2008: ‘Sorry’ says the headline in big white letters, the faces of four elderly Indigenous men, three with grey beards, two wearing beanies, one with glisteningly red eyes. November 6, 2008: ‘American revolution: first black president; a David Pope cartoon of a beaming (and only slightly grey-haired) Barack Obama, a patched-up Uncle Sam slung over his shoulder. Before disaster strikes again. February 10 2009: ‘Dreams in ashes’, which wasn’t a reference to the United States but Victoria: more twisted metal, another bushfire-blackened landscape.
Yet all is not lost. June 25, 2010: ‘History in her hands. Look at Julia Gillard’s face looming large on the page, her eyes full of hope, and perhaps there’s a dash of relief too. December 7, 2013 and there’s a different face: ‘Nelson Mandela 1918-2013: ‘Our nation has lost its great son’’.
The most recent front page in this collection of headlines? March 21, 2015: ‘Malcolm Fraser, 1930-2015’. The former prime minister’s quoting of George Bernard Shaw: ‘Life’s not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful.’ What exactly are we to make of this private archive of tragedy and triumph? Maybe, just maybe, these headlines are reminders that we live in a world that’s infinitely bigger – and much, much more fascinating – than our tiny little daily worries. And yes, every so often it can even be delightful.
(This was to be my 81st piece for the First Word column in the Canberra Times. Regrettably the column came to an end before it could be published, so here it is. Thanks to Gillian Lord, Natasha Rudra and Sally Pryor for allowing me to have such a long run with the paper.)
Of all the emails I’ve received this was the most difficult – by far.
In the past I’ve received emails announcing the death of a friend or colleague, and I’ve received emails containing heartbreaking literary rejection, but the one that lobbed into my laptop last week truly knocked me sideways. First there was shock, then disbelief, then emptiness, before anger set in; I guess that echoes the stages of grief, doesn’t it. What did the email say? It said that one of my favourite bookshops, one of my favourite shops of all time, was closing its doors after nearly 30 years of trading.
For many Canberrans, the Electric Shadows Bookshop, or ‘ESB’, or ‘Lecky Shads’, has been a bona fide institution. For a couple of decades in the city it co-existed with the infamous but now defunct Electric Shadows Cinema. If you enjoyed the film, you could go next door and buy the book or screenplay or soundtrack – even late into the evening you could do this.
ESB ran a highly regarded video rental library, and it was the only placed in town that stocked genuinely obscure (and sometimes risqué) titles. ESB was also well-known for supporting community events, such as SpringLit, a popular annual gay and lesbian afternoon that celebrated literary luminaries such as Dorothy Porter, Andy Quan, Judy Horacek, and Christos Tsiolkas. Speaking of Tsiolkas, astute readers will remember that in the late 1990s the future author of The Slap could be found behind the Electric Shadows Bookshop counter closing a sale with that warm and generous smile of his.
When the cinema closed in 2006, ESB moved to a new location in Mort Street, Braddon, which at the time was full of caryards, Summernat types, and people wobbling ecstatically out of Civic in the early hours of Sunday morning. The new version of ESB was smaller but funkier, and it hung out next to the Cornucopia Bakery, another Canberra institution that’s bitten the dust. Despite the somewhat cramped conditions, the bookshop continued to support the ACT region with all manner of literary events. The staff members were always knowledgeable and eager to please, with more than a dash of quirky humour.
In short, to me, Electric Shadows Bookshop has been a constant reminder that the world is more interesting than I sometimes think it is. It has given my little life depth and context and meaning. It has given me hope.
So what now?
Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 20 March 2015. Visit Andrew Sikorski to see more of his series of images taken in the last days of the Electric Shadows Bookshop.
If there is one thing we can be sure of it is impermanence. The years make this clear, the ending of one and the beginning of another. And the seasons makes this clear too, the delicious slip from summer to autumn, which will be here before we know it, the discolouring of leaves, the fall, the shorter days, the darkness. Days always end in darkness; life doesn’t know anything else. The same way there’s always light at dawn, once night has had its run.
Lately I’ve been remembering a very specific piece of impermanence from my past, a relatively short period when the working week would end in a blast of unadulterated adventure. Friday evening: some beers here, some cocktails there, and then at midnight – whoosh – into Civic I went on a rickety old pushbike. Up the stairs I climbed and into the club I disappeared.
Heaven: for those of a certain age it was an institution.
In one sense it was just another nightclub, a gay and lesbian nightclub sure, but really it was nothing more than a big black box with a DJ booth and mirror-ball. Every so often effort would be put into the decorations: some sort of material – white or red – draped from the ceiling as if a wedding might take place. But nightclubs aren’t about decoration. They’re about the music, and the dancing, and the people, and the promise that this look might result in that look, which might end up somewhere hoped for but never expected.
This nightclub, however, our nightclub, Heaven, was about more than any of this. It was about a woman with the wildest black hair, a deep, husky voice, and thongs on her feet. At around 1am she’d stop the music to say happy birthday to a regular, hand out some CDs, and introduce the show (we never knew what we’d get). We loved her. For the way she was always there, as though we were partying in her house. For the way she kept the place running without a heavy hand. For the way she’d see us during the week and smile, despite this being a completely different universe. And when Heaven closed once and for all, we kept on loving her. Because she never forgot us. Because she still wanted the best for us.
So, while there’s no escaping impermanence, there’s also no escaping the wonderful, generous, loving life of the matron of the underground: Sylvie Stern.
(First published in Panorama, the Canberra Times, 7 February 2015.)
It could be a peculiarly Australian obsession, though I doubt that’s the case. Still I made sure to remember to do it the next time I was in the car and on the road.
By ‘do it’ I mean nothing more than watch it happen, that’s all it was: make an observation. Miraculously I did remember. ‘Miraculously’ because these days I’m forgetting the most commonplace things, like the order in which the laundry gets done (the detergent goes in before the machine is turned on) and where tins of unopened canned soup are stored (in the pantry, not in the freezer), and the other day it took me hours to summon the word ‘poplar’.
Like many other people, I did a lot of driving over the Christmas/New Year break, so perhaps it wasn’t so miraculous at all that I got to experience this supposedly special event. It happened just south of Lake Bathurst, which is more or less halfway between Queanbeyan and Goulburn, a stretch of road I know well. I watched as the odometer counted up, thinking that there’d be a clicking sound but there was nothing of the sort.
And then, and then, the holy grail: 100,000 kilometres.
For a long, slow, few seconds there they were, all those kilometres notched up; somehow it made me feel as though I was seeing a long-lost friend.
These milestones are everywhere, aren’t they. A cricketer scores a century and a crowd rises to stand. An acclaimed author’s tenth novel is published. A twenty-first birthday. A fiftieth wedding anniversary. A nation’s bicentenary.
It’s all arbitrary, of course, quite meaningless.
Why is one number better than another? Is it about goals achieved? Or is it about survival? Or luck? As I stared at that big, dumb number on the dash, I wondered if it was actually just about aesthetics: the simplicity of those zeros. But then it became 100,001 and suddenly it seemed to be about symmetry.
Whatever these things are about, whatever their meaning, as the numbers kept adding up silently, I looked out the car’s side window into a paddock the colour of an old lemon. The paddock was punctuated with a single little lamb. Why was it on its own? Was it lost? Had it been left behind?
I looked into the sky; it was empty and endlessly blue, the sort of blue that only happens around here. Up there was a single wedge-tailed eagle, gliding, circling.
(First published in Panorama, the Canberra Times, 17 January 2015.)
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.
Two bits of news on The Beach Volcano.
Firstly, my alma mater, Verity La, has published a wonderfully thoughtful and expansive review, one that manages to tease out some themes and interpretations that might have been buried even from me. It includes some generous conclusions: ‘The Beach Volcano rises and falls to a compelling beat. Not unlike John Cheever before him, Featherstone unpicks the threads of a successful family to reveal a hollow and corrupted core. With striking imagery, the twin themes of music and water are elegantly interwoven. Unforgettable.’
The full review can be found here.
Secondly, Blemish Books has now made The Beach Volcano, and its cousins Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now, available as e-books.
What’s more, for a very limited time Blemish is offering a massive 80% discount on the electronic versions. To purchase the e-books, and to claim the discount, head here and then put the relevant code into the coupon field. For The Beach Volcano use VARLUDO4S6, for I’m Ready Now DTS1RW4H2L, and for Fall on Me AEBE9D5AE6.
And finally, as you might know I’m obsessed with UK dub-step/electronica artist Burial. And he has new music: a single called ‘Temple Sleeper’. In a just world, there would be wild public celebrations, including dancing in the streets and drinking till dawn.
I think of her every time I open the book, which isn’t so much a book but a white plastic ring-binder. It’s where I keep recipes; I’m a messy cook so all that plastic makes it easy to clean. At the front, tucked into the clear-plastic sleeve, is the recipe I use the most, one for cooking rice.
For years I’d used the absorption method. I had a clay pot that I’d bought from an Asian grocery in Dickson. I’d soak the rice in the pot for an hour, drain the cloudy water, add more water so the rice was covered, bring to the boil, turn off the heat, and let the clay do the rest. It never failed to make good rice.
But then I went to a Greek restaurant with my Greek friend, Helen.
I said, ‘Greek rice is so tasty – how do you make it?’
She said, ‘It’s not really “Greek rice”. It’s just rice.’
‘But how do you make it?’
‘I’ll send you my recipe.’
And so she did. She emailed it to me.
Just before she died in a motorbike accident.
For some months I couldn’t open the email. But one day, after two decades of service, the clay pot gave up the ghost and Helen came to the rescue. I opened the email, printed her recipe. I went through the steps to make what I’d insisted was ‘Greek rice. Heat olive oil, coat rice until transparent, add chicken stock powder, stir, add water, boil, turn heat to low. It’s a more complicated procedure than the one I was used to but it leads to perfect rice.
However, it’s not just perfect rice that the recipe makes.
It could be that I’m always cooking after having a glass or two of wine, but I don’t think so. When I’m cooking rice, Helen joins me at the stove-top. She’s small, black-haired, good fun but relentlessly honest. Now she’s saying, ‘Let me do it, Nigel, you’re stuffing it up.’ So I stand aside, have another sip of wine, and watch as Helen takes over. And then, as is usual these days, I tell her what I think of her. ‘You’re an excellent friend.’ She turns to look at me, then looks at the bottle, shakes her head, then smiles, laughs gently.
This is how it is now. Every time.
And, no doubt, it’s how it’ll be for as long as I’m alive.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 22 November 2014.)
It’s the silence. It’s terrible.
Regrettably, I didn’t make this claim but an eminent novelist I know.
He was referring to the work of the writer: you sit alone in your room for years on end, then, with more than a little luck, the book is published, before…silence. Perhaps there will be a review, or a festival invitation, or someone might share some generous thoughts, but mostly there’s silence. This could just be the reality. Thankfully, there hasn’t been too much silence lately in the world of The Beach Volcano.
First up, there’s now a trailer. Created by exciting young Australian filmmaker James Hunter, it’s a sixty-second series of suggestions that might just help to illuminate the novella in the miasma that is YouTube. It was great working with James, who approached the project with such enthusiasm, thoughtfulness, and skill. It’s certainly fascinating to see what’s brought to light by an artist working in a different field.
I have also been fortunate enough to be interviewed by Sally Pryor at the Canberra Times, with the resultant article being syndicated nationally throughout the Fairfax Media network. Sally picked up on the resurgence of the novella. Clearly publishing is currently in a state of heightened evolution, but the upside could be the diversification of story forms that are finding readers. Here’s hoping the interest in novellas is sustained – there’s nothing like starting the reading of a book just after lunch and being able to devour the conclusion by dinner time.
Finally, The Beach Volcano scored a Canberra Critics Circle Award gong in the 24th Annual ACT Arts Awards. There’s some debate about the worth of literary awards. Do they have meaning? Do readers take any notice? Isn’t it just one panel’s opinion? Isn’t it all a lottery? Everyone has different answers to these questions. As to most things (I hope), I’m open-minded. What I found instructive is that at the well-attended ACT Arts Award function the artists who received recognition – there were quite a few – appeared so very happy, regardless of whether they were ‘emerging’, ‘developing’, or ‘established’. Perhaps all we want/need every so often is someone to say, ‘Congratulations, you’re doing good things, keep going.’
Because, if only for a few minutes, we’ve beaten the silence.