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A place that looks like this could well be predisposed to melancholia. With any luck.

A place that looks like this could well be predisposed to melancholia. With any luck.

I always look forward to it, through the high dry heat of summer and much of autumn.  As the days shorten and shadow, once daylight-saving has finished its run and darkness comes before dinner, it’s one of the things I love most about being alive.  And it’s this: at 6pm each night I scrunch up newspaper pages into balls, carefully craft a tee-pee of kindling, and, like placing a cherry on a dollop of ice-cream, I top it all off with a pine-cone, before, with the strike of a match, fire takes hold in the hearth.  But wait, there’s more.  There’s the pouring of a glass of semillon or ‘sav blonk’, and then, the piece de resistance, the playing of the most deliciously maudlin music I can find – Max Richter is a favourite (his reworking of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is heartbreaking, in a good way), as is anything by Johan Johansson or those Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Ros.

When everything is in its place like this, I’m as happy as a humble scribe can be.  Except, of course, happy isn’t right, because it’s misery that I’m after, or, at the very least, a no-holes-barred melancholy.

Melancholy: it’s a word to be adored.  Acquiesce is another, so is panacea, but melancholy is the king or queen of the lexicon; but in these wild days of ours where gender is the be all and end all, let’s just say that melancholy rules the roost.  Because it sounds good, and it looks good – as if it’s something that could be diced up and steamed – but it also feels good, no, it feels sublime.  Melancholy means, of course, pensive sadness, or the constitutional tendency for said sadness.  But it has troubling roots, being derived from the Greek word melas meaning black and khole meaning bile, which puts me off, just a smidgeon.  Quick, throw another log on the fire, pour another dash of the white, and turn up the music!

However, there’s no escaping the out-and-out danger of what we’re talking about.  It’s widely acknowledged that melancholia refers to a mental disorder marked by depression and ill-formed fears.  Please step forward Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway and, um, Moses; Vincent van Gogh is also a member of the club but you already knew that.  Interesting that my trusty Roget’s Thesaurus Everyman Edition (1972) jumps from melancholy to ‘distressing’ and ‘dejection’, but for melancholia it cuts to the chase by taking us straight to ‘insanity’, which sounds rough to me, but you can’t argue with Roget.

Could it be that the ACT region, in which I include the Southern Tablelands to the north and the Monaro district to the south, might be devilishly fond of putting melancholy on its people?  It’s highly likely.  Because we have the harshest winters: fog, frost, freezing nights, as well as wind and rain and sleet, and snow if we’re lucky.  Because during the day we have a frighteningly blue sky, the sort that can send the best of us into an abyss of existential angst.  And because during the night we have a perilously black sky, one that can pinch our breath. The tropics we are not; our winters can kill.

'Blue Notebooks' by Max Richter.  For those who like to be blue, we salute you.

‘Blue Notebooks’ by Max Richter. For those who like to be blue, we salute you.  Well, I salute you.

This particular winter, with all the dreadful mess that’s currently oozing out of Capital Hill (or Camp Hill as it was once called, and as some still refer to it, which is divine), could well be sending even the most buoyant amongst our number into a pit of despair.  Or into the cult of busyness.  And it’s here that I’m reluctantly reminded of what Gunter Grass wrote in From the Diary of a Snail (also first published in 1972): ‘If work and leisure are soon to be subordinated to this one utopian principle – absolute busyness – then utopia and melancholy will come to coincide: an age without conflict will dawn, perpetually busy – and without consciousness.’  No doubt our representatives in parliament house will ensure that over the next three long, slow, sinister months we’ll be fully supplied with conflict, between the future and the past, between fact and fiction, between elevation and condemnation, and – oh it seems absurd but regrettably it’s the case – between male and female*, and many of us may well indeed want to slip into unconsciousness.  Which ultimately, irony of ironies, could be a lifesaver.

Virginia Woolf, in A Writer’s Diary (1953), is a bit more positive about us melancholic types, especially, I think, those who’ve fallen into the black hole of social media but are trying to make the most of it: ‘If one is to deal with people on a large scale and say what one thinks, how can one avoid melancholy?’

Amen to that, sister.

So, until mid-September, until spring with its colours that go beyond black and blue, and the lengthening, lightening days that are to come, I will ensure that the woodpile is fully stocked, overstocked if my back and bank-account can manage it, that there are enough bottles of cheap white plonk ready and waiting along the bottom drawer of the fridge, and that the most miserable CDs I own (and I have quite a few) are stacked beside me.  But despite all this intentional – and, let’s be frank, gratuitous – desolation, there is hope.  Because as winter knows best, particularly the sort of winters we have around these parts, especially the 2013 version, a true melancholic isn’t sick at heart, and a true melancholic doesn’t let cheap political tricks suck the marrow out of his or her bones.  A true melancholic is simply realistic, and just a little brave.

*

First published in The Canberra Times on 22 June 2013.  Thanks to Cameron Ross. *Written before Wednesday 26 July 2013, when Australian politics went arse-up.  Now insert ‘between male ego and male ego’.

A bathtub. Regrettably not filled with words.

A good friend of mine, an accomplished writer, once told me that she loved words so much she’d like to bathe in them.  It may be slightly wacky but it certainly is a brilliant image: you turn on the tap and out come your favourite words, rushing and swirling, the bath every so slowly filling up until it’s time to take off your clothes and lie down amongst the little bits of language, soaking in it, all those wonderful sounds and meanings touching your skin, perhaps even seeping through to your bones.

I have a handful of favourite words.  Home is one, in fact I saw it on a book cover in a bookshop last week and it made me stop, not because the cover was especially well designed or the font was eye-catching but because the word itself.  Home. It is such a complete word, which I know is a problematic thing to say as all words are complete, even one like arrivin’ as in ‘arrivin’ home after a big day out’, even when it’s missing its ‘g’, but still home as a word really gets me going.  It’s the sound, it’s the shape, it’s the meaning, and it’s the fact that for ever and a day it’s something that I’ll be searching out.

Community is another personal favourite.  Derived from the Middle English and Old French of ‘communitas’, meaning ‘common’, as in ‘have something in common’, this is truly a very special word.  (Now I think about it, common is another word that I like very much, partly because of its almost symmetry – it’s such an architectural word – but also because of the sound, as if it’s a spice, as if it’s a way of moving.)  But back to community.  Like home, this is a word that can stop me in my tracks; it can make my body tingle as if I’ve just swigged something very pleasant.  Yes, if it was possible to bathe in this word, then I would, I’d get naked and immerse myself in it.

Another word I’d love to immerse myself in is acquiesce.  This is a funny one, strange funny not hilarious funny, because I don’t use it very often, actually I can’t recall the last time I used acquiesce, but my God it’s a winning word.  It may mean ‘to agree’ or ‘submit’ or even ‘comply’, but with this one it’s entirely the sound.  Listen: ack-wee-ess.  It could be a bird call, or something on a menu, as in ‘Roasted half spatchcock with Potato and Chive Gnocchi with Acquiesce Sauce’.

Yes, it would be great to be able to lower myself into a bath filled to the brim with words, although I’m sure if I told non-writer/reader friends that I’d tried to do this then they’d probably wrap me up in a sleeping bag and drop me off at a hospital for special people.  But heck, what’s life without a bit of risk.  I’m going to head to the bathroom right now and do it: put in the plug, turn on the tap, and close my eyes.  If words come out, favourite words, you may never see me again – I’ll be pruning up in a lovely mix of home, community and acquiesce, with a touch of common to make it anything but.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, December 6 2008)

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