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One minute, so it seems, I’m a spotty teenaged boy sitting on the living-room floor listening to records by Kate Bush and The Cure as well as, erm, the soundtrack to the BBC’s serialisation of Brideshead Revisited; the next I’m writing the libretto for an original song cycle initiated by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium of Music in collaboration with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Of course, a fair bit has happened to that spotty teenaged boy: various jobs that sounded interesting but never set my soul on fire; dipping my toe (and fingers) into the world of short stories before, miraculously, the better ones began appearing in Australian literary journals; three published novellas; a published novel; further tertiary study in the creative arts; as well as much living, including relationships and all the lovely/heartbreaking messiness of that. But the fact remains I never thought I’d be commissioned to be the librettist on an original song cycle.

The beginning: on the living-room floor and listening to a record.

In December 2014 Paul Scott-Williams, the director of the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, met with me in Canberra at an inner-city bar. In the garden courtyard, Paul said he had an idea to create an original song cycle. ‘Art song,’ he told me, ‘did not have much of an Australian tradition and I want to do something about that. And I want you to be the librettist.’ I thanked him for the offer but said that I wasn’t a poet, though I could put him in contact with some poets who’d be terrific for the project. But Paul would have none of my prevarication. He said that he’d recently read my third novella, The Beach Volcano, which concerns an Australian singer/song-writer trying to find himself in the world (and includes snippets of song lyrics). He also said that he knew I had a great love of music, which I do – music, as well as books, primarily novels, are what sustains me. ‘I really want you to be the librettist,’ said Paul, ‘and I want to engage James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium as the composer.’ Paul went on to say that he would sing the work. ‘I think the three of us would make a very good team.’

As I walked to the car I thought that it was lovely to be asked but I was not the right person. Then again, what scares us – creatively at least – is what we need to do…possibly. Needing advice, I spoke to an eminent Australian author who’d had some experience of being a librettist.

‘Just give it a go,’ she told me, ‘but remember that it has to be a three-way dance, between the words, the music, and the audience. You must leave room for all three.’

In a way, I never really made a decision; I just let the project roll on. Although I was largely unfamiliar with art song, I knew enough to be attracted to the minimalism of a work that centred on voice and piano only, and that across the breadth of a song cycle a story could be told, and that perhaps – just perhaps – collectively we could bring an Australian perspective to the form.

After the contractual side of things was sorted, I got town to work in early 2015. Two years earlier, in 2013, I had completed a three-month residency at UNSW Canberra, the campus of the Australian Defence Force Academy, where I had undertaken creative explorations into masculinity under extreme pressure, and I was still thinking about what masculinity (and femininity) actually meant. The then Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, had recently said that he would like to ‘shirt-front’ Russian president Vladimir Putin, which seemed to me to be a good example of what modern masculinity should not be about. Paul agreed and said that he was keen for me to continue with this line of inquiry.

I prepared three concepts: a multiple drowning incident during a family picnic; a soldier returning from war; and a contemporary take on Frederick McCubbin’s iconic painting The Lost Child (1886). Paul asked me to further explore in more detail the drowning and soldier stories, and then together we agreed that the latter had the greatest dramatic scope.

For weeks I immersed myself in my favourite poets – ee cummings, Philip Larkin, Dorothy Porter – as well as the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. I filled my head not so much with art-song but music by Nina Simone, Antony and the Johnsons, Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Max Richter. And then I got down to work. Which was when the doubts came pounding on my temple. I read and enjoy poetry, and for a reason I’m yet to understand I am drawn to poets (perhaps it’s their fondness for giving the finger to conventional ways of living), but, no, I am not a poet. Some readers have said my fiction is quite poetic, one even going so far as to say that I am a poet who writes fiction, but that doesn’t make me a poet either. And in terms of music, I am more comfortable in my local independent music shop buying records by Four Tet and Kiasmos than in a concert hall.

Really, what could I bring to this project?

To convince myself that I should proceed, I wrote out a list of objectives:

  1. do this my fucking way
  2. find my own voice
  3. find my own form and structure
  4. ‘show us something new’
  5. be driven by the work

I now had an articulation of how I could keep going, but then I was struck by different concerns. How to create a story of truth and resonance about a modern-day soldier who was returning from a tour of duty? Was this my story to tell? I told myself that, mercifully, only a few Australians would know what it’s like to serve in a military capacity, but many people can empathise with coming home to find their dark secrets exposed. So now I had my themes: home and secrets and fear. I also decided that I would tell the story from three points of view: the soldier’s as well as his mother’s and father’s. Further, I would set the work on the Hume Highway, a stretch of road I’ve been getting to know for nearly five decades, as well as on the Southern Tablelands where I live. I would write from a position of love and interest. Ultimately, and reflecting what novelist/poet Merlinda Bobbis has said about these things, I could walk in the shoes of my main character and his parents, but I couldn’t own those shoes.

Scribbles: the start

At my desk in my little Goulburn house, I planned the work the way I plan a piece of fiction: I created characters and got into their history; I formed a story arc and then plotted where the key events would be – this process went back and forwards until I knew enough, but not too much. For each plot point I wrote additional notes and then – after some deep breathing and much staring out the window – I put pen to paper. Some of the songs came together relatively easily; others were like trying to unearth a granite boulder with my teeth. While the doubts remained, somewhat surprisingly I found myself having fun: this was exciting new territory, especially in terms of working with brevity and compression, and I enjoyed playing with the architecture of a piece of writing; I was keen to see where it all might go. As the initiator of the project Paul could end up hating what I had produced, and James might find it impossible to score, but all I could do was create a text that only I could create.

Once I had a complete though rough set of lyrics, I decided that I wanted feedback from a practicing poet. I approached Melinda Smith, who had won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry for her magical collection Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013). In a noisy Canberra café Melinda went though which pieces of mine were working, which were wobbly (as evidenced by the amount of red ink she’d put on the page), and which ones could be jettisoned. While Melinda’s feedback was frank and constructive, she also said, ‘Nigel, you’re creating a work that’s going to have considerable emotional resonance with an audience. You’ve got this.’ Which was the best possible thing for someone to say at such an early stage of the work, especially from someone of Melinda’s stature.

After reworking every word of all thirteen songs, I gave the new draft to Paul.

And waited nervously for his response.

In a Goulburn pub, with some kind of sport being played on the television in the corner, Paul said, ‘I’ve got to tell you, I had a very strong emotional reaction when I first read your work.’ I could only hope that was a good thing.

The score in development by James Humberstone

James spent much of 2015 progressing the score, feeding through to us sketches as he developed them. He specialises in experimental new music and although my role isn’t so much to engage in the musical composition I  enjoyed what he was producing. James was investing in the work a high degree of artistic intelligence, and even at an early stage it was coming across to my ears as intricate and very moving.

Some tantalisingly brief extracts from James’s score are available here.

The three of us met a number of times during that year, at the Sydney Conservatorium and at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium. At one stage James said to me, ‘How precious are you with the libretto?’ I said, ‘I see this as a collaboration so do whatever you need to do with it.’ He said, ‘That’s a relief. Some librettists won’t allow even a single comma to be changed.’ I was glad to have had the advice from the eminent author, that there needed to be a dance between the text and the music and the audience. How could that dance happen if there isn’t some kind of give and taken between the components of the work?

Creative development, December 2016, Paul Scott-Williams and Alan Hicks. (Photo courtesy of James Humberstone)

In 2016 Caroline Stacey, the Artistic Director of The Street Theatre in Canberra, took a keen interest in the project, and in December we had our first creative development – the work, at least as much of it as had been completed, was performed in a rehearsal space. I was eager for feedback, but I was also completely terrified. How would my words sound when sung? When there is nothing but piano and voice there isn’t much to hide behind. Would there be emotion and intimacy? Or would the whole thing come across as artifice? As each song was played it felt as if someone was projecting on the wall images of my naked body. Unsurprisingly, Paul sang the work beautifully and with considerable power (though he would soon decide that it would be best to engage another singer to take the work to public performance). By the end of the creative development, James and I knew what needed to be improved, and Caroline suggested that we undertake another creative development before the work was premiered.

Which is where we are at now.

On Thursday 1 June, again at The Street Theatre in Canberra, and through the First Seen program, we will do a second creative development; at 5pm there will be a public showing of the full work – the audience will be asked to provide feedback. If you live in the ACT region you are most welcome to come along. More information here. A Canberra Times article published on 12 May can be found here. You will find me in the corner, curled into a ball and wishing I was still that kid in the living-room and listening to Kate Bush’s ‘Running up that Hill’ on repeat.

I still have doubts about the work. Perhaps, back in December 2014, I should have done more to convince Paul to engage another librettist – an actual poet. While I have given the text my all, reworking, revising, polishing, over and over and over and over, I just don’t know how audiences will respond. Will there be an enticing, enthralling dance between the words and the music? Will the story be emotionally textured, or will it come across as a bald polemic? Have we made a contribution to art song in Australia? Was that ever possible?

I should say that doubting my ability is not new; after 20 years of practice, I doubt my ability no matter what the form. For example, despite having 50 short stories published in Australian literary journals, I seriously and genuinely feel as if I barely understand what makes a short story come to life.

Perhaps all this comes down to expectations. When I’m thinking pragmatically, I tell myself that I’ve had a certain amount of time to give to Homesong, and I’ve invested in it as much skill and heart and soul as I can. Soon it will be public and I will have to let go.

What is this work about? Home and secrets and fear.

It’s all that, and more. I hope.

*

I’ve decided that I will keep writing about Homesong as the project comes to fruition, so if you’re interested in knowing more, including opportunities to see and hear the work, do drop in again.

It is true that on a daily basis I find myself thinking of much better – that is, more productive and less harrowing – ways to spend my life.

For example, I could be a breeder of chickens: I could put this bird with that bird and then there would be eggs before chicks, which I could sell. Or I could make my own tomato sauce from home-grown tomatoes and sell it on a card-table at a town market. Sometimes I have dreamt of having a lavender farm and being in a shed with the radio on and packing dried leaves into little pillows. How good it would be to only worry about the growing of plants and the harvesting of leaves and the drying of leaves and having enough material to make the little pillows (I don’t excel at sewing but that is a minor point at this stage, isn’t it?) and packing it all into the boot of the car and setting up my little stall and selling my wares to passers-by, who would undoubtedly adore what I’d made. A writing colleague and I often talk about opening a café or, when we are feeling especially despondent and therefore less sociable, we consider running an online shop selling fancy scarves – wouldn’t we just wait for the orders to come in and then package up the goods and into the account the money would go?

RAF_VOL9_ISS_1But then I realise – yet again – that the constant in my utterly inconsequential existence has been reading and writing. I have moved between towns and cities, I have had a variety of jobs, I have fallen in love with rock bands and fallen out of love with rock bands, I have made friends and some friendships have dissolved. But all the while there has been reading and there has been writing.

In terms of reading, books – novels especially – have provided daily company. Books that I loved when I was younger include The Day of the Triffids by John Windham (my edition is dated 1981), One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (again my edition is 1981), The Dingo Summer by Ivy Baker (1980), The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (I’ve owned a number of editions, but the one currently at hand is dated 2008), The Lotus Caves by John Christopher (1978), The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow (1968), and Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1972). Those novels have been plucked from my bookshelves more or less at random, and here’s hoping that I will have copies of them nearby in my final years, as portentous as that sounds. It would be good to return to the early stories.

And writing: it seems that I have been doing it from the very beginning.

RAF_VOL14_iss_2I distinctly remember being in Year Four – so we are talking 1978 – and having a double creative-writing period. I loved that time of the school day. It didn’t seem terribly difficult to fill a few pages of an exercise book with words written in my illegible hands – indeed, thinking back on it now makes my belly come alive with butterflies. No doubt they were terrible words, but that didn’t seem to be a major concern, for me at least. Towards the end of one particular class, the teacher asked for someone to read their work aloud. Up shot my hand, but the teacher chose someone else. After the boy read his story, the teacher again asked for a volunteer. Again my hand shot up. ‘Pick me! Pick me! Pick me!’ This time the teacher glared at me and said, ‘Nigel Featherstone, you’re being very rude. Put your hand down – I will not be choosing you.’ I was shattered. I had always been a well-behaved child who rarely got into trouble. All I had wanted to do was read my story aloud, and, obviously, dazzle them with my boundless literary skill.

Later, around Year Nine (or ‘Third Form’ as it was called where I went, an Anglican private school), my English teacher gave an assignment that was to be completed during the holidays: write a long short story on any theme. For days, if not weeks, I sat – and at times lay sprawled – on the couch and wrote my story. Over and over I did it, rewriting and rewriting. I know I have spoken about this detail before, but on repeat in the background would be the soundtrack to the BBC’s serialisation of Brideshead Revisited. Curiously, to this day I still sometimes write to that music.

In the early 1990s I took a job in Perth, the world’s most isolated city, and I began keeping a sketchbook-notebook-diary. It wasn’t long before my notes twisted into fiction. Perhaps it was because I didn’t know a soul in Western Australia, or I found reality rather limiting, or that it was easier to be an expert in a pack of lies. Or there was something I wanted to work out, and the best way to do that was through fiction.

RAF_VOL17_ISS_2aAnd now, in 2016, I am still doing it: I dream up stories of various lengths, I write them down (by hand), I rewrite and rewrite and then edit and polish. It is probably true to say that the writing of a story becomes a fixation – it occupies my thoughts. And then it is either published or it isn’t. No doubt it is all about the lure of the imagination. The lure, yes, but also the safety of the imagination. In my imagination I can control what happens. I can make a big drama out of a careless conversation. I can resolve a life-long hurt. I can bring someone to justice. I can experience something that I would not dare experience in ‘the real world’ (whatever that is). Through writing, life becomes an object for play, something to be pulled apart and opened out. Through reading, the world becomes more coherent.

My trusty Roget’s Thesaurus (1976) provides the following phrases for ‘imagination’: ‘fine frenzy’, which is lovely; ‘thick-coming fancy’, which is quite something, all things considered; and ‘coinage of the brain’, which I like very much.

So I am not a wannabe chook breeder or lavender farmer/craftsperson or co-managing director of poshscarves.com. I am a purveyor of brain coinage.

Good to know.

Wow.  Today, right now, I find myself feeling peaceful, so very peaceful.  It might have something to do with the blue sky, which is such a relief after the weather we’ve had around these Southern Tableland parts, blustery and drizzly, sleety even, so it makes your hands turn grey-black and your nose feel as though it’s going to snap off.  But it’s not just the weather, that deep dark blue Goulburn sky.  No, it’s because yesterday, I feel, something momentous happened.  It’s not momentous as in a change of government, or a great sporting achievement (as if sport can ever be such a thing), it’s just momentous to me.

You see, yesterday I submitted my second novella to my publisher.  Yes, I’ve done this before; I’d thought I was finished, because I felt finished.  It must have been some kind of trick, because Blemish Books came back with changes, good changes, and wise, which then set in train changes I wanted to make.  So that’s how the last seven days have been, making changes to a manuscript and thinking about changes, even at night, and making more of the bloody things, until everything – everything – is perfect.

So I hope.

I’ve been going through I’m Ready Now with a fine-toothed comb, well, in reality it was just a Bic pen.  I’ve agonised over words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters.  I’ve never forgotten something that the Australian children’s-book author Mem Fox once said: ‘Care about writing because it matters.  Ache over every detail.  Be involved in the painful and intolerable wrestle with words and their meaning.’  So that’s what I’ve been doing: wrestling with words and their meanings until I’ve ached.  Until the deadline loomed, the deadline that was 5pm yesterday.

At 4.45pm yesterday I bundled up the manuscript onto a flash-drive, loaded it onto my laptop, crafted an email…and pressed SEND.  The next time I see the manuscript it will be professionally laid out, and the opportunity for making changes will be limited.  Oh, what a relief.  Last night I celebrated with a glass of wine and a fire in the hearth.  And two steaks of salmon, which was an extravagance, but why not.  I slept well.

Today, yes, such extraordinary peace, as though every worry I’ve had has simply dissolved.  But I’ve not given myself a day off – I’ve been in the writing room, in uggboots and tracksuit pants and an old stripy-brown jumper my mother knitted for me when I was a teenager and I’ve kept it with me all this time, it has holes but who cares.  And I’ve worked, going back to another project, except I’ve taken it easy.  I’ve even allowed myself to listen to music: the soundtrack to the BBC serialisation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  When I was a teenager I loved nothing more than wrapping myself in a blanket, lying down on the couch, and writing school-boy fiction to the Brideshead soundtrack, which would be on LP and on repeat.

So here I am, thirty years later, doing exactly that, although I’m at a desk and the music is on CD and I hope the words I write amount to more than school-boy fiction.  Whatever I write, however I’m Ready Now is received, today has been one of the most peaceful days in my life.  And I am so very thankful that writing remains with me.  Tomorrow I might feel differently, perhaps even the opposite, but today is today and today is calm, serene, still.  So very still.

Last week my little humble home stepped into a new era – I had a fire installed, a slow-combustion wood heater, I should say.  Technically I don’t need it.  There’s an old coal burner in the front room that’s now a library; I can use the coal burner to burn wood should I want a fire.  Plus I’m lucky to have ducted gas heating and a wall-mounted gas heater the size of a very large travelling suit-case.  And electric bar heaters.  And an electric blanket on the bed.  In this Southern Tablelands neck of New South Wales, winters do have a bite – heavy frosts are common, we regularly have minus-six mornings (which, according to the Bureau of Meteorology actually feel like minus-ten), even the odd snow flurry.  But I have my range of heaters, and, when I’m here alone, I wear thermal undies, because they make things just that little more bearable, and I really can’t afford to run the gas heating for long stretches.

Still I had a slow-combustion wood heater installed last week.  A man came by and did it for me, because I wouldn’t have had the first clue where to start.

Despite being a winter person, I’m finding more and more that I need heat, good, dry, radiant heat.  So there it is, the fire, sitting in the lounge-room where the piano used to be (the piano that’s now in the front room, glancing back at the coal burner).  My new slow-combustion wood heater is a big black cast-iron box of a thing, a massive black flue that gives the room an industrial aesthetic.  I can’t wait to get to 6pm tonight and light the fire, because I’ll want that good, dry, radiant heat, the flames, the glowing, dancing yellow-orange light, the smell of hardwood burning, the pop and crackle of it all, which scares the living daylights out of The Old Lady of the House.  I’ll pour myself a glass of white wine, or Cointreau, or American Honey whiskey, and sit in front of the heat.

Because I’m a melancholic – that’s the real reason why I love my new fire so much.  Melancholia is my natural habitat, it always has been.

I love melancholic books: The Remains of the Day, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, Holding the Man, Brideshead Revisited, Brokeback Mountain, Disgrace.  I love melancholic music: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Red House Painters, The Smiths, Bon Iver, Sigur Ros, M83, Arvo Part, Johan Johannson.  I’m not depressed, although there have been times when that’s exactly what I have been.  I’m just a miserable old melancholic – I have, as my Oxford Australian Reference Dictionary makes clear, ‘a habitual or constitutional tendency to pensive sadness’.  Pensive: deep in thought.  Don’t you love how words can take us on journeys, take us from one place to another!

I think my new fire takes me from one place to another, from the surface-tension of the present to deep within myself, to that core of melancholia that’s there, that which I was born with, that which I will die with.  Because, as strange as it may sound, I’m happiest in that place.  No doubt the fire is more friend than foe, taking me down there but, most importantly, bringing me back, warming me up, sending me to bed, reminding me that, more or less, everything will be alright in the morning.

I’m learning that there’s an art to making the most of the final day of a holiday, particularly at Christmas/New Year when much of the break is spent at home with family and friends and pets and books and albums.  Oh, and the food, the MOUNTAINS of food, and the booze, okay, MOUNTAINS of booze, though that should really be OCEANS, shouldn’t it.  But when the excesses are over and done with and we feel and look like beached whales and the chill-out days are fast coming to an end, a decision has to be made about how those final hours will be spent.  I’m lucky that not only do I have a job I enjoy – working in the arts has plenty of rewards to balance out the challenges – I also get to return to my writing routine, so it’s not like I feel as if I’m being sent to jail.  But still, how exactly to spend that one last glorious day of anthing-goes freedom?

In recent times I’ve thought that the last day should be set up to be a slice of the ideal life.  So it could be waking up in bed to the smell of bacon and eggs being hand-delivered on a tray by someone you love; or getting up at the crack of dawn and diving into a wild ocean; or, if this is your thing (and it’s certainly not mine, I can tell you that for free) finally waking after a walking-dead night on the town, not a skerrick of memory left but some stranger in your bed and in your mouth a taste that reminds you of newly laid bitumen and green chicken – the gone-off green, not the green-curry green.  For me, I decided, rather than reading the newspaper while eating my way through a large bowl of cereal, muesli, lecithin, yoghurt and milk with a side of lite cranberry juice, I’d have brekkie on the couch whilst watching the final half-a-dozen episodes of Six Feet Under. I love this show – along with The Office it’s in my top three TV series of all time.  (The third, rather embarrassingly, is the BBC’s Brideshead Revisited series from the 1980s.)

How great it was to sit and watch the death throes of a show about death: a show whose thesis is ‘Everything.  Everyone.  Everywhere.  Ends’.  Because holidays die, that’s the inescapable fact.  Because holidays are a microcosm of our lives: they have a distinct beginning, when we know little about how our festive (or festy, as more than one person I know has been saying) season is going to pan out; and then there’s the middle section where we start to feel that the end isn’t that far away; and then, all too soon, we’re beginning to count down the hours, because soon this brief summer life will come to an end.  After I cried my way through the extraordinary final ten minutes of Six Feet Under where – and SPOILER ALERT for those three people on earth who’ve not yet seen the show – everyone dies, I decided that I better do something else, something…practical.

So I redecorated the wall of my writing room with a new series of photos.

Being a Polaroid freak, most of the photos I usually have on the wall above my computer are of the instant square variety with the thick strip of white down the bottom for witty captions.  And since over the last few years I’ve been getting crazier and crazier about taking Polaroids (probably because the technology is fast reaching its own demise) I have hundreds of them so there’s quite a few to choose from.  But this year I decided to reach a wary hand into my vaults – cardboard boxes in the cupboard, in other words – and put together a brief series of photos that illustrate significant places in my life.  So there’s a shot of a rock garden I built at the back of the house in which I navigated those nasty teenager years; nasty for me and everyone around me.  There’s a shot of my family’s rented green weatherboard cottage in the Blue Mountains; how I loved that place, and so often do I think of visiting, but if it’s not there any more, or has been turned into some grotesque mansion, then I’d fall apart, I really would).  There’s a shot of a dream house at Cottesloe Beach in Perth, a messy humble shack with the million-dollar view, a shack that no doubt has been turned into some grotesque mansion.

There’s a shot of a herb rack in an inner-city grouphouse I shared for a year or two back in the 1990s.  There’s a photo of a black VW Beetle on an island called Inishboffin off the south-west coast of Ireland.  There’s a photo of He Who Is Still With Me when we went down to Melbourne to visit a photographer friend.  And there’s a photo of the house I now live in, a nondescript ex-government thing that was built in 1959, which is very old for this young city – a national capital – I call home.  Oh, alright, I should admit to including just a couple of Polaroids in my display: one of an 1830s farm cottage where I stay when I need focus and solitude (and to commune with rats and mice and snakes and lizards, and the odd stray lamb), and another of a desk I’d used when on a residency last year.

Of course, once I Blue-tacked the photos on the wall and then sat in my chair to admire my handiwork, I began to cry at this as well, because there, in a handful of photos, was the entirety of my life so far.

Despite my forty-one years (and rising), it seemed so…slight.

So what else was there to do but spend the last few hours of my holiday scrubbing the bath, because, quite frankly, it was so disgusting houseguests had been refusing to use it.

Now I’ve thought about this issue – or is it a challenge? – and have written out these words, I can’t see much of an art to having a memorable, or at least meaningful, last day of a holiday.  But I am glad that mine has turned out to be a day of thought and depth, a day that moved me, a day that got me thinking about my impermanence.  The makers of Six Feet Under said their aim was to encourage viewers to consider/confront their mortality (I actually typed immortality then, which is a Freudian slip if I ever saw one, or just a desire, or a wish, or a useless plea for mercy) and that’s exactly what happened to me.  And the cliché goes that a picture equals a thousand words, though I think photographs of your own life equal novella-length stories, if not the whole novel shebang.  And they say that there’s nothing more centring than soaking in a bath for an hour.  So now that I have a bath that’s actually white I reckon I should get the water running, pour myself a glass of wine, crank up the stereo with a great album, which I’m guessing is going to be Hospice by The Antlers (yes, yet another reference to that album on this blog), because it fits this mood I’m in, a mood of holiday endings, and lay myself down and close my eyes.

Perhaps that’s where the art is: just being still as the end comes.

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.)

Pop music: you’ve got to love the way it can get you in the guts.  The other night, with He Who Likes Being Away At Conferences away at a conference, I came home late and, needing a bit of couch time before bed, I poured myself a glass of wine, propped up The Old Lady of the House on one side, settled Cat the Ripper on the other, and then put on a DVD.  It was a collection of Pet Shop Boys film clips.  I’m not a lifelong fan of the band; I’d only bought the DVD because (a) anyone who has the name Nigel Grey Featherstone and had adored the Brideshead Revisited TV series as a teenager should own some Pet Shop Boys music, and (b) it was really cheap.

Everything was fine (and just a little dandy) until a certain song came on: ‘Home and Dry’.  According to the DVD’s running order, it’s one of the band’s most recent numbers.  Whilst the tune itself is relatively joyful in that joyfully melancholic way pop music can do so well, the lyrics are as wanting as anything.  “So my baby’s on the road/doing business, selling loads/charming everyone there with the sweetest smile/Oh tonight, I miss you/Oh tonight/I wish you/could be here with me/but I won’t see you/’til you’ve made it back again/home and dry/home and dry.”

But the film-clip’s imagery.  It’s devastatingly simple: just hand-held video footage of mice scurrying about an urban railway station.  Amongst the shiny silver train tracks, the mice dart here and there, searching out rubbish – an ice cream wrapper, a discarded biscuit, a mostly intact meat pie.  Sometimes one of the mice suddenly stops and noses another (maybe they kiss, I don’t know), but then off they go again, searching for what has been thrown away.  Sometimes they do little leaps for joy, or so it seems.  Then, however, over the top of the music, comes the sound of a train roaring down the line.  There’s no actual footage of it, just more of the mice going about their lives, oblivious to what might be about to happen.

Before long I became lost in the memory of one of my favourite books, Frederick by Leo Lionni.  Rather embarrassingly, I’d read and reread the story as a teenager, not as a child.  Frederick is a sad-eyed mouse who in the lead-up to winter spends all his time staring at the sun and the meadow and catches words in his sleep while his chums work so hard around him.  But then, snowbound in their stonewall hideout, their food stash long depleted, the mice are forced to call on Frederick.  ‘What about your supplies?’ they beg.  So Frederick proceeds to describe all that he’d observed, which gets the clan through the cold and the dark, and he emerges a hero, complete with little flushed-red cheeks.

Lionni’s motivations are clear.  Being a respected Italian painter and illustrator (and advertising executive, it should be noted), Frederick is an unambiguous plea: when all else fails it is imagination and aesthetic pleasure that keeps us alive.

I reckon the Pet Shop Boys would say three cheers to that.

I know I did, as I replayed the film clip over and over until I fell asleep.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, May 31 2008)

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