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I have just returned from a 5-day trip (working on a top-secret commission, which is not actually top-secret, just wonderful), beginning down on Yuin Country, which is what they call the Far South Coast of New South Wales. Starting at Merimbula, the trip took in Eden, Bega, Bemboka, Bibbenluke, Bombala, Nimmatabel, Braidwood (the scene of a certain 93rd birthday), Murrumbateman, Yass, and Gunning.

Ngarigo Country/the Monaro is a place that has really got beneath my skin.

The day after I got back, a box appeared on my verandah. But before we get to the box, here are some photos from the trip:

And some notes, which I wrote on the road:

From the sea to the high plains – day one: The day began beautifully with Tim and included a walk along the edge of Merimbula’s tidal lake and out to the nearby ocean beach, a coffee at a boathouse, before following a boardwalk through mangroves. Bellbirds on the coast? I did not know about that. After an afternoon of reading, a walk into Merimbula, cocktails at a tapas bar, a meal of Malaysian curries – we were warned the soy-chili side was hot and it was, deliciously so – before staggering back to our lodgings along the boardwalk, fish jumping left and right. Even though it’s not yet 8.30, my bed is calling me. 

From the sea to the high plains – day two: in which, exploring more Yuin Country, we headed to a town called Eden. The morning began with a view south over Twofold Bay, where whaling had once been common, before a visit to the Killer Whale Museum, which, as is often the way with colonial history museums, involved a lot of death and destruction. A reminder that not all sentient beings have been treated equally. Thankfully we discovered Aslings Beach, which includes one of my favourite things in the world: an ocean pool – spirit restored. Then a walk along the beach before, now, a café lunch in Pambula. The south-east coast: the sea makes it.

From the sea to the high plains – day three: now travelling solo, because there’s work to be done, I headed up into Ngarigo Country via what they rather unromantically call ‘Brown Mountain’. A coffee break in Bemboka, then south to Bombala, which is a town (population 1500) that feels as though it’s hanging on by the skin of its teeth. Just one car dealership in town and the only vehicles for sale are white utes. Every few minutes the grumble of a timber truck rumbling along the mainstreet. I stumbled on what remains of the Bombala Literary Institute, let myself in, heard the faint echoes of theatre on the stage and, perhaps, the yarn of the local temperance association. The only other audience: a dead sparrow. A sausage roll and pie for lunch. Then back up the road to Bibbenluke, which is at the ‘locality’ end of ‘village’, for an absolutely magical conversation with visual artist Lucy Culliton – a white barn of a studio surrounded by dogs, emus, chooks, geese, sheep, a goat called Harry, cockies, pigeons, horses over the way. I left with more than a spring in my step; I felt positively drunk on the conversation. I drove deep into the Monaro; amongst the almost frightening expanse of it all I was reminded why I became enraptured with the place. Have now arrived at the Federal Hotel in Nimmatabel, where I’ll spend the night. The barman insisted that I have a drink, so there’s a schooner of Old beside me on the table. Ah.

From the sea to the high plains – day four: after a meat-and-three-veg pub dinner, washed down with a few schooners of Old, an early start this morning. From Nimmitabel to Cooma, a foggy crossing of the Monaro, which was a contrast to the sheer blue distance recorded yesterday. If anyone is in need of a coffee, it’s me. Next stop: Braidwood 200kms to the north-east. Update: a wee secret reason for coming by the Braidwood neck of the woods was to drop in on my father, who just so happens to turn 93 today. He has a twin sister, Mary. She and her husband Ron drove 200kms from Bega down on the coast up to Braidwood so the siblings could share the occasion. While I took a photo, Mary turned to my father and, smiling but with more than a hint of sisterly concern, said, ‘Jack, do you think it’s time to get a new jumper?’ He replied, ‘There’s nothing wrong with this one – it’s the warmest I’ve got.’

From the sea to the high plains – day 4 (evening): after celebrating – with a green tea – the 93rd birthday of Jack and Mary, I checked in to the Royal Mail Hotel in Braidwood and tried to get some rest, but my mind was buzzing – this trip has been packed with highlights and magic, and the company and generosity of good folk, and I wanted to hold on to it all. In the surprising heat of the afternoon, I walked down to the southern end of town to meet with singer-songwriter and discussed how to stitch together a life as an artist in the thing called regional New South Wales. Turns out it’s all about trusting your gut and finding love and home. And making the work you want to make. Another theme of the trip: taking photos of artists with their dogs. We continued talking as we walked a way towards the mainstreet, Michael’s labrador, nose lost – or not lost at all – in the sodden grass, leading the charge. If the day started with the need for coffee, it’s finishing with the need for a vodka at the Royal.

From the sea to the high plains – day 5: after a much-needed sleep in the Royal Mail and a dawn-lit coffee in the mainstreet, I headed north-west to the granite and wine country of Murrumbateman. I had a wonderful conversation with the novelist Robyn Cadwallader about working as an artist in the thing called regional New South Wales. ‘It’s all about being able to breathe,’ Robyn told me. ‘And, while writing, there’s something about being able to watch a wren on the other side of the window.’ I then took a series of photos of her sitting in her garden. (Interesting to reflect on the fact that all three artists I chatted with during this trip wanted to be photographed with their canine companions.) I then drove on to the small town of Yass and had lunch at Thyme to Taste – it’s a gorgeous café owned and operated by a very friendly chap called Andrew; it just so happens that he and I went to high school together in Sydney. We did not talk about those days, preferring to yarn about the joys of living regionally. I also dropped in on the Yass Bookstore – owner Jo has set up her shelves in the foyer of the town’s now-disused cinema. It was terrific seeing so many familiar names represented, including BELIEVE IN ME by Lucy Neave – was it really only 5 days ago that we had a very engaging event at the Book Cow  in Canberra together with Irma Gold? Feeling a little delirious from the trip, on the way home I went by the tiny town of Gunning, where I treated myself to a caramel slice, which was washed down with a cappuccino. I then drove the final 50kms – across the 5 days I would do over 1000kms in total – through the boulder-strewn paddocks and wind farms stretching hopefully to the north and south, before finally pulling up at my house, feeling – deeply feeling – incredibly lucky that I get to live and write on what always was, and always will be, Gandangara Country.

As if there hadn’t already been enough excitement for one week, yes, a box appeared on my verandah. What was inside? Final, author copies of MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING. Oh shit. I picked up the first book in the box, turned it this way and that, saw how the gloss lights up the clock, and the very generous comment from Delia Falconer, a novelist I admire very much so her thoughts about my novel are very humbling, the boldness of the back cover, including the first line of the story presented as though lit up in lights. Oh my. The novel is not out until 4 May, though is currently available for pre-order, but I already feel as though it’s no longer mine, that it belongs to readers, and there’s no harm in that – none at all.

‘In preserving the story of what I experience, I live doubly; the past will return to me, the future is always there’– Eugène Delacroix, 1824

This summer I am looking for my father. Things have happened – things are always happening, but this is different – and I know time is running out. If I do not do this now, all that I will be able to say is I wish, I wish, I wish.

My father is not missing, and neither am I estranged from him. We have maintained a good relationship over the years: I do not remember any arguments. When I was a child, if my mother wanted my father to do something – put out the garbage bins, clean the pool, fix a leak in the roof – she would send me to tell him. More than once I asked why I had to do it; couldn’t she speak to him herself? ‘I’m asking you, Nigel, because you don’t annoy him.’ So, obediently, off I went to pass on the message. I have told friends that I know what sort of old man I will be because I have been following my father’s life. ‘In forty years, I’ll be him.’ With that they nod and smile, a little alarmed.

Yes, my father and I are similar people, so what exactly am I trying to find? Perhaps I am not trying to find anything; I want to interact with him in a deeper way, to better understand him, to experience the way he lives in the world, to know him – before it is too late.


Keep reading here.

Thank you to the Tuggeranong Arts Centre, which commissioned this essay to accompany Jack, John and Kempsey, an exhibition of my father’s work, held from 6 February to 27 March 2021, ACT, Australia.

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Vincent van Gogh (as a yoof): a hero to many

Vincent van Gogh (as a yoof): a hero to many – imagine being able to meet him.

It is a big adventure, this writing life.  There’s the adventure in the stories: characters experiencing things, discovering things, learning things; overcoming and becoming.

Then there’s the adventure of conceiving stories, writing stories, redrafting stories (repeat ad infinitum if necessary), before sending them out until an editor takes a shine to a particular piece and puts it amongst his or her pages.  Then there’s the adventure of feedback.  Who will like what?  Or will no-one like any of it?  Or will there be no feedback at all?

But there’s more: the places writing has taken me, as in real places.  A homestead out of Braidwood.  A gatekeeper’s cottage in Launceston.  The writers’ house at Bundanon beside the Shoalhaven River.  The monastic Varuna in the Blue Mountains.  And, most recently, the Australian Defence Force Academy, courtesy of UNSW Canberra.

Then there are the people I’ve met, other writers, artists of all kinds.  The conversations over coffees, lunches, glasses of wine, dinners even!  It doesn’t take me long to be enthralled by those who are far ahead in this game; I become besotted.  It is, to tell you the truth, one of the most exciting things: to spend time with extraordinarily creative souls.

I have been so fortunate.  A highlight?

In January 2011, as part of a piece for the Canberra Times, I found myself in the Sydney home of eminent contemporary – or ‘pop’ – artist Martin Sharp.  All morning we talked about the things that mattered to him: his great love of Vincent van Gogh, Tiny Tim, and, a little surprisingly, UK talent-show contestant Susan Boyle; about how he thought the best art came from school children; about how his thinking has evolved, his relatively newfound religiosity.  ‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘conservative thinking is radical.’  This from the man who was once involved with Oz Magazine, whose London editors would end up being jailed as part of the infamous ‘Obscenity Trials’.

At midday, after he farewelled me, as I walked up his driveway, I thought – and I distinctly remember it – that this would be go down as one of my favourite days.  Here was a great artist, but one without a skerrick of pretension.  It was as though I’d just spent the morning with a slightly kooky but utterly charming uncle (who chain-smoked).

So, dear writing, thank you for the adventures thus far.

And, dear Martin Sharp, thank you for everything you gave us.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 14 December 2013.)

Prospect or refuge: the choice is ours.

Prospect or refuge: the choice is ours.

Each Monday afternoon, at 5pm, he leaves the writing room, calls The Old Lady of the House to attention, gets her into her lead, and leaves his home for the hills.  Past the old houses, all that red brick and corrugated iron, the good, thick chimneys, some windows with stained glass.  Past the houses from the ’60s and ’70s (not two of architecture’s best decades) and past the newer houses on their big blocks, massive blocks, until they’re five-acre lots complete with post-and-rail fences and four-wheel-drives in the driveways, gazebos too, and water features.

It’s not until he takes a side road and the walking becomes steeper and he and the dog begin to puff that his mind starts to settle and empty.  For this is what he wants: emptiness.  There’s no Facebook up here, no Twitter, and no one can phone him because the mobile’s back on the fridge where it should be.

The road climbs ever higher, and now there are small paddocks with sheep grazing absently between stands of struggling eucalypts.  The sheep are oblivious to the view, but they shouldn’t be – it’s expansive, and endless, which is not so much a fact but a feeling.  To the west is the low rump of a range, wind-turbines barely visible; if they’re turning he can’t tell.

But it’s the south that he’s here to see.  The south is a very different view: glorious, rolling, distant mountains; they must be somewhere between Braidwood and Canberra.  The blue could be from a different planet.

So here he is, late on Monday afternoon, up on the ridge at the edge of town, looking south into that other, mountainous world.

Decades ago, when studying landscape architecture for his undergraduate degree, he discovered J. Appleton’s ‘Prospect-Refuge’ theory.  It explains much about the world.  Humans are attracted to views because they can gauge what sort of weather’s coming, or see an advancing enemy.  Refuge is all about protection no matter what, which is why we like to sit in public places with our backs against a wall.  It makes sense.

When, an hour later, he’s back home and the Old Lady is having a well-deserved drink from her water-bowl, he googles J. Appleton and his or her theory.  But there are no references to it.  Not one.  Did he make it up?

Even if he did, it doesn’t mean that it’s not true.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 21 October 2013.)

The following was first published in Panorama, Canberra Times, on Saturday 11 September 2010.  Many thanks to Chris Colonna from Bumblebeez, Julian Davies, and John R Walker for participating in the story.  Thanks also to Gillian Lord.


One of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers about place, Edward Relph, wrote in his seminal Place and Placelessness that ‘The meaning of places may be rooted in the physical setting and objects, but they are not a property of them – rather they are a property of human intentions and experiences.’  This begs a question: can one of those properties be creativity? Can a place have a confluence of attributes that might result in a source of vision and inventiveness?  And if so, what might be an inherently creative place?  And might that place exist outside the maddening megalopolises, which are usually seen as the hot-bed of arts practice?

Here’s one possibility: Braidwood, New South Wales, Australia – population 1,100.

For many residents of Canberra, the national capital nearby, Braidwood is just a place to stop to grab a meat pie and a cappuccino on the way down to the coast.  According to tourist literature, however, the town is ‘a centre of excellence in the world of art and craft, presenting unique and diverse talents in the fields of pottery and ceramics, two-dimensional art, sculpture, patchwork and quilt-making, doll and bear-making, spinning and weaving, woodwork and precious handcrafted jewellery.’  What’s more, the same tourism source claims this: ‘It is the picture-perfect location for movies, melodramas, masterpieces and photography.  Let Braidwood inspire the screenwriter, the movie producer, the artist and the photographer.  The peaceful countryside encourages the free flow of inspiration and genius.’

The town also boasts that The National in the mainstreet is the oldest operating picture theatre in Australia, and at the local museum visitors can gape at the ‘armour’ worn by Mick Jagger in the Ned Kelly film which was shot in and around Braidwood.

As creative places go, it’s clearly got something.

However, before we face the infamously fierce winds of the place and ask the hard questions, here’s a quick history.  In terms of the European context, Braidwood was discovered in 1822.  Dr Thomas Braidwood Wilson, a respected though by some accounts luckless pioneer of the district, has his name immortalised on the town.  In the 1820s and ’30s, despite the harshness of the climate and what must have been excruciating isolation, settlers established cattle and sheep properties.  Like many towns in the area, Braidwood’s population exploded in the 1850s when gold was discovered.  Much more recently, and after considerable internal angst and argument, the town was placed on the NSW State Heritage Register.  Whilst the architecture has been restored to former glories, it is still a living place where things are allowed to look their age.  It’s not museumified.  At least not yet.

But what is the Braidwood experience for practicing professional artists who call the area home?  I put this question to three creative practitioners: a painter, a musician, and a writer.

Abstract landscape painter John R. Walker has been described as a ‘force in contemporary landscape painting’ and his work was celebrated by the 2008 exhibition Journey Through Landscape at Sydney’s S.H. Ervin Gallery.  In a Sydney Morning Herald review of the show, critic John McDonald noted that ‘to spend many weeks and months in silent communion with a landscape is also to spend that time in an increasingly deeper meditation on the self.  I don’t think this is a Romantic idea, just an observation about what happens when an artist stops worrying about other people’s expectations and begins to discover personal, fundamental priorities.’  The suggestion is that Braidwood has facilitated this ‘silent communion’.

Walker, whose work can be found in many of Australia’s major public and private collections, has lived in Braidwood since leaving Sydney in 2002.  He first discovered the town when he’d regularly pass through on the way to the Budawangs, the ranges that form a dramatic barrier between the Tablelands and the south coast.  Walker lives in town on a half-hectare block located ‘a few hundred yards’ from the surrounding farmlands.  Needing to often travel, he describes Braidwood as ‘a home-base’.  When I ask him how the area influences what and how he paints, he replies, ‘My work is based in experience – when the place changes the pictures change.  For some reason I connected with something about this place.  The land here has a lived-in, damaged-and-loved feel to it.  Every ‘thing’ in every paddock is a story.’

'green pick' by John R Walker, 2006, gouache on paper, 55x75cm

What advantages is there in being an artist and having a relationship with a place like Braidwood?   ‘For me,’ says Walker, ‘close and long immersion in the ‘motif’ is essential.  It’s all about looking, learning to see clearly, which is something that takes a surprising amount of time and effort.  Time and space are big advantages to living here.  The area has a diverse cross section of people.  It’s very different to a lot of our main cities where post-codes are good indicators of uniform demographics and attitudes.’

Walker believes that there’s an interesting political overlay to this neck of the woods.  ‘Braidwood is in the federal seat of Eden-Monaro,’ he points out, ‘which is in some ways a microcosm of Australia.  Up until this recent election is was known as a ‘bellwether’ seat because it’s a representative cross-section: urban areas, old-fashioned rural areas, feral areas, middle-class ‘greenie’ areas, public servants, retirees and self-employed contractors like builders, loggers and fishermen.  It’s a small population spread over a lot of country.  It’s stimulating and, at times, annoying.’

In many ways, with its hot summers, cold winters, fogs and mists, sometimes snow, and in September and October that relentless wind, the Braidwood edge of the Monaro must be a potentially unforgiving place to live and work.  How does Walker’s practice respond to this?  ‘Matisse said it well: “solitude and silence, only the mediocre need fear it.”  Australia is very different to all other inhabited continents, and the experience(s) of the sheer strangeness, the resistance to human meaning of the land, has a centrality in Australian culture which is unusual in other modern societies.  But the Braidwood winds are truly awful, and on a bad day there are times when it’s possible to feel like you are in Mongolia.’

Walker disagrees that Braidwood is inherently creative, because, he says, nothing is inherently anything – there is only change.  ‘In modern Greek a Meta-phora is literally a removal van,’ he says.  ‘The usefulness of containers that move is that they have a lot of empty space inside them and thus they can be used to bring together things that would otherwise be unconnected.  The mental and physical room to maneuver is important.  The very high capital cost of inner-urban real-estate these days has changed the dynamics.  When I was twenty it was the inner-city that was a largely deserted, cheap and interesting relic of a previous industrial age.  These days the inner-urban areas are very pricey.  In more recent times creativity is more likely to be found in rural and other sorts of ‘fringe’ areas that have the low capital cost spaces needed for people to take innovative risks.’

Bumblebeez is an Australian band comprising siblings Christopher and Pia Colonna, both of whom have a long association with Braidwood.  The band was discovered in 2002 by national youth radio station Triple J as part of the ‘Unearthed’ project.  Bumblebeez’ first release, The Printz, hit the shelves in 2004, with the follow-up record, Prince Umberto & The Sister Of Ill coming out in 2007 and nominated for a J Award.  All Bumblebeez songs have received significant international airplay.

Speaking from Rome where he is working on the band’s fourth studio record, Colonna says, ‘I started school in Braidwood in Year One and since then have walked those streets up and down.  In later years I ventured outside of the shire to pursue my adventures.’  He keeps a studio in town where he makes hit records, including producing albums for Australian acts such as The Vines and Wolf and Cub, and ‘holds techno parties’.

Like John Walker, Colonna describes Braidwood as a home-base, and he believes that the trick is finding the right balance – ‘not too much, not too little’.

‘The freedom in my music and practices comes from the freedom in Braidwood and the surrounds,’ says Colonna.  ‘The advantages are being able to get drunk with Jarrah, Bib and Lil Joe, walk up the street to get a coffee and sit at the Albion, then go and play ping pong… and never get a parking ticket!  The challenge is it’s up to you, so you need discipline – there’s no scene to be a part of.  The isolation can be quite evil, especially in winter.  In winter I get out of there.  But my music has a punk feel to it, and I reckon Jack Frost was a punk.’

Does Colonna believe that Braidwood is inherently creative?

‘Many Australian towns are creative hot-spots,’ he says, ‘though only a few of the country-town artists will shine through and go worldwide and take things to another level and not do some hippy wind-spiral shiz.’

Julian Davies, author of five novels including The Boy (2003), a member of not-for-profit publishing venture Finlay Lloyd, and a potter, says that long-term residents of Braidwood refer to relative newcomers as ‘blow-ins’.

‘It’s a nicely appropriate semi-meteorological-sounding term,’ he says, ‘considering the region is a place with plenty of weather.’

Davies suspects that after more than thirty years living on the mountain range to the west of the town he’s still something of a ‘blow-in’.  ‘But I’m comfortable with that label – after all, I’ve long argued that the district is a refuge for misfits and escapees from mainstream urban Australia and that I’m one such happy outcast.  I’ve always felt it’s a virtue of the place that I can take part in a small community but also hide off in the forest.’

Davies describes the country around Braidwood as being wonderfully varied.

‘There are the changing skies,’ he says, ‘the thunderstorms and mists, the open grazing lands, and the wooded hills and mountains.  Tall moist forest covers the range where I live – a protected place where it’s possible to grow citrus and cherries, raspberries and figs, all in the same garden.’

This diversity is something that Davies finds particularly appealing.  ‘Getting up from my desk I can, within minutes, walk among four-hundred-year-old trees.  It was this particular landscape that brought me here – it’s a perfect place to live, and to write and pursue a craft.  Braidwood itself I’ve got to know and enjoy over time – eventually becoming part of Finlay Lloyd – until now, when I’m beginning to set up a small, eccentric gallery in town.’

John Walker believes that there is something ‘inner-city’ about Braidwood, and Davies agrees.  ‘It might seem funny, but for me Braidwood feels strikingly urban.  For city dwellers its resources must appear very limited but after a thirty-five minute drive out of the bush it becomes something of a hub.  It’s a place interesting for its mixture of old farming families, people with newer rural dreams, tradesmen, urban retirees, and academic and arty types.’

It is arguable, says Davies, as to why Braidwood has long been a retreat for artists.  ‘The district may be an attractive place to settle and work but the suggestion that one place is inherently more creative than another seems unlikely.  Most people attempting any sort of creative life are doomed to some level of economic insecurity, so perhaps this town’s appeal has had more to do with being a relatively cheap place to live, at least until recently.  Reasonable proximity to Canberra and Sydney may also make the town an easy hideaway.’

Davies makes the point that the increasing mobility of people may be a factor.  ‘In the United States, for instance, the polarization of different communities has been particularly exacerbated by migration.  Now significant numbers of people are choosing to move to a city or district where they hope to feel comfortable, where other people are gay or Christian, liberal or conservative.  Perhaps for its newcomers, Braidwood has become part of this self-selecting process.  Whatever has caused Braidwood’s peculiar population mix, I’m simply happy to be part of it.’

If Edward Relph, who has spent his adult life thinking about place and geography, is right that the meaning of places is a property of human intentions and experiences, it could be argued that whilst there’s no such thing as an inherently creative place, people who hunger for creative experiences may gravitate to certain places.  And that tourism blurb might be right: Braidwood and its physical, cultural and historical environment may indeed encourage ‘the free flow of inspiration and genius’.  Even if it’s only an aspiration, it’s a mighty aspiration for a little country town to have.

Odd to end the year with pictures of a dead animal, but perhaps it’s not so odd at all – today 2009 comes to a close and something that was getting long in the tooth calls it quits to make way for something…completely unknowable, quite frankly.  Yeah, not so cheery.  But it is truthful and that’s what matters the most, so I’m working out as I continue to age at a rate of knots.  I took the pics at the base of Mount Gillamatong, Braidwood, New South Wales, this part of the world being a favourite haunt of my father’s.  I’m not really sure what the bones once held together, but I’m guessing a sheep that had lost its way.  That happens.

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The past