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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.

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.)

In May this year I returned to Canberra from a month as an artist-in-residence at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people on the Shoalhaven River near Nowra, and despite feeling like I was coming back from Mars, the first thing I did on arriving home was to go into my work room and write some words which within minutes would be stuck in the window of my wallet: Creating and the imagination are my natural habitats; creating is what I love doing, the imagination is where I am most alive.  Being in and with a community of dedicated creative people makes me so happy I want to burst out of my skin.

How is it that someone who’d only recently turned forty had come to that point of wanting to burst out of their skin?

When I turn my increasingly unreliable brain to my childhood, I think of spending the first 18 years of my life wandering, rather aimlessly it must be said, around my home suburb of St Ives on Sydney’s Volvo-infested North Shore, catching the bus and train to the austere school I attended, Barker College.  I think of the uniform – black shoes, grey trousers, white shirt, red-and-white striped tie, barber-shop blazer, and a Venetian boater.

I think of reaching adolescence, of girls joining us in Fifth and Sixth Form but somehow, for some reason, remaining only interested in the boys, of swimming carnivals, of trying to play rugby union, of homework, always that terrible homework.

Mostly, however, I remember writing: double creative writing classes and thousands of words – albeit dreadfully composed words – forming themselves on the exercise-book pages in the worst handwriting imaginable.  I distinctly remember my Fourth Class teacher, a man who had flicks and a Freddie Mercury moustache, yelling ‘Shut up Featherstone, don’t be rude!’ as I demanded that it be me who read out his story to class.  I remember writing in my bedroom, having a pseudonym, though thankfully I’ve forgotten the actual name – no doubt it was something like Roger T. Bartholomew the Third.

I remember writing in school holidays and writing when I was home sick – I always seemed to be getting bronchitis, particularly in winter.  I remember one of these periods of sickness, somewhere around Third or Fourth Form when I spent weeks on end sitting on the couch, a garishly-coloured cashmere nana-rug over my legs and waist, and rewriting and rewriting a short story to the Brideshead Revisited soundtrack, which was on repeat on the record player.

But despite all this writing and reading I was at a loss as to what I wanted do when I finished school.  Even though my family, particularly on my father’s side, is filled with writers and poets and painters and printmakers, some of whom have made significant names for themselves, the thought of seriously pursuing a career in the arts simply didn’t cross my mind.  Perhaps I misunderstood what Oscar Wilde meant when he said All art is quite useless. For a short time I did consider becoming an audio engineer, because I loved music – and still do, very much.  However, I’m glad I didn’t pursue this line of work, mainly because I’m the most impractical person you’ve ever come across – I have to get a man in to change the washers on my taps.

So I applied to do an undergraduate degree in landscape architecture.

But I didn’t get in.  Being someone who gets volcanically stressed at the most inconsequential of things, like when my computer decides that it would like to download some update or other, I became so anxious in the days leading up to the HSC that my temperature soured and the family GP refused to let me sit the English exam, English being the one subject in which I regularly excelled, and I wasn’t well enough to sit through all of mathematics.  The examining board guesstimated my English mark, which was unjustifiably low, and I failed maths outright, though somehow did remarkably well in economics, a subject I had no interest in whatsoever.  Thank God for universities, which offer almost limitless opportunities to correct early education flunks and misdemeanours.

After being subjected to much begging and pleading, the University of Canberra, or the Canberra College of Advanced Education as it was known back then, generously let me in on one condition: that I pass all my first semester units.  Not only did I pass, I did rather well, particularly in the design-related units, which I adored.  I learnt about the importance of big ideas, of understanding context, of piecing together relationships (‘everything is connected’ I’d learn later when I augmented my landscape degree with a graduate diploma in social ecology), of knowing that the best things have the right fit.  My love affair with the arts and design, as well as the humanities, was on its way.

More to the point, I fell in love with a classmate, a Christian boy, who loved me back but only as much as his religion would allow.  I converted to his faith hoping he’d convert to my sexuality.  He did not.  So I rounded out these undergraduate years wearing only black, listening to The Cure, The Smiths and New Order, driving my beloved 1969 Volkswagen Fastback around the blue-sky streets of Belconnen; I ate too much coke and chocolate and meat pies, and became fat.

Thinking it appropriate to find someone else to love, I moved to Perth where I lived beneath the desiccating heat at Cottesloe Beach (on which I’d read Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet) and worked for a small design firm in Subiaco. Though I loved Perth, it’s fair to say that I was a lonely soul there – I knew no one and spent most of my evenings writing in a journal and reading down at the beach (with one eye surveying for deliciously suntanned things that would walk my way but then walk on by).  Ultimately I decided that I needed to be in a place where there were mountains and I could wear jumpers, so after two years I returned to the south-east, where my family has lived for seven generations.  Place, I discovered, can be etched into your DNA.

But I didn’t find myself back over east; the opposite happened: I became lost.  I lived with my parents on Mount Gibraltar in the Southern Highlands, where they’d escaped Sydney to slide into retirement.  Feeling sorry for me, a friend gave me a suitcase-load of music recording equipment and I wrote and recorded some songs, sent them to Triple J, but Triple J only sent a car-sticker in return.  I scratched out some lyrics, one of which I quite liked, so, without having any idea whatsoever of what I was doing, I sent the ‘poem’ to an arts magazine in Canberra and then jumped onto a Jumbo jet to backpack around the world.   Exactly one hundred days and nights later, I returned to Mount Gibraltar and was surprised to find in the mail a letter from the magazine – they’d published the poem.

So, buoyed by this completely unexpected literary success, I wrote another poem, and this too was published, this time in Tasmania.  Then, realising that I didn’t actually know anything about poetry, I wrote a short story and this was also favourable received.  I was hooked – again – by words and ideas.  Since then, 1994, I’ve been writing fiction and creative journalism five days a week, augmenting a meagre writing income with landscape architecture work before, at the age of 36, jumping ship to work as the manager of arts development for the ACT Chief Minister’s Department, a job I believe in very much.

Despite the odds firmly stacked against the publication of fiction – according to the literary journal Overland, there is currently a one-in-a-thousand chance of having a novel published in Australia – writing is what I love doing. Whether it is fifty-word micro-fiction, short stories, a novel, or creative journalism, writing is my greatest achievement – apart from, of course, maintaining a relationship, which, even though it has had to weather a few internal hurdles, some family dramas, and the meretricious scorn of recent federal governments, has lasted thirteen years .

Yes, I love writing.  Yes, I’m in love with writing.  But quite regularly, like the best lovers, he doesn’t always love me back, at least not in the way I want.  Writing is reticent, he is painful, unpredictable, mercurial; he can fill my blood with heat, he can make my heart race like the best of drugs; writing can be everything, and then, like an ocean tide, he can recede, leaving me sore and hollow and exposed.

In 2000, I commenced what would end up being one of the most wonderful experiences of my life: a masters in creative arts/creative writing.  I did feel like an impostor – what was someone who’d only barely passed the HSC and didn’t originally get in to his first degree doing at university for the third time?  And a masters of all things!  But every Thursday for two years I connected with other writers, thinkers, academics; I read more than I’d read in my life.  I finished with a manuscript for what would become my first novel, Remnants, which was published in 2005.  Out of the nine Australian reviews and one international review that humble little story received, only one hated it and that was The Age. Despite others making conclusions like ‘a beautifully written book’ and ‘deserving of a wide audience’, The Age described Remnants as ‘a noble failure’, as if I’d gallantly tried to fight a wild dragon but had ultimately lost.

But what does all this reminiscing actually mean?

It means the importance of ongoing education. Writing – creativity – in itself is an education, but sometimes it’s worth taking the exit off the nine-to-five freeway and spending time back in the academy, to think, to learn, to explore, to be wild again.

It means the importance of blind faith, though by faith I don’t mean what my old landscape architecture paramour meant by faith.  Ex-Canberra writer and artist Judy Horacek, co-author of the phenomenally successful children’s book Where is the Green Sheep?, talks about the need to charge ahead no matter what the odds.  What makes someone spend up to ten years writing a novel, when it appears that the readership of literary prose is diminishing and new technologies may change the publishing landscape forever?  It’s the desire for adventure.  And adventure is risk.  And risk is living.

It means the importance of relentless persistence. I’m by no means a fan of sport, but recently I heard Carrie Graf, the unstoppable coach of the Canberra Capitals, talk about the notion of relentless persistence. There’s something in this: the unyielding, the unremitting, the inexorable; the perseverance, the determination, the doggedness, the diligence, even the pushiness.  These are the inescapable qualities of the artist, and, dare I say it, the qualities of anyone who wants to wring every drop of life from their days.

But to finish up.  And to end quoting an artist, not a sportsperson.

In October this year, the twice Miles Franklin Prize-winning Australian novelist Alex Miller gave the closing address at a conference on writing and creativity at the National Library of Australia.  Miller delivered his point by expanding on the often-quoted writing aphorism: he turned ‘Write what you know’ into ‘Write what you love’. But, right here, right now, let’s expand this a little further, to broader out its application: LIVE what you love.

LIVE what you love. How good is that!

(This is an edited version of a speech presented as an Occasional Address at the University of Canberra’s Conferring of Awards ceremony, held in the Great Hall, Parliament House, 17 December, 2009.)

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