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I can remember the exact moment.

I can remember exactly where I was: in the car, on the Hume, just outside Marulan, heading south. And what I told myself: You have to get your act together, take this seriously, make every effort. Get. A. Damn. Website.

The kick up the pants? I was coming home from a month-long residency at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people – I’d worked my bum off, a productive time, but I’d also connected with a bunch of extremely committed artists, many of whom spoke about the need to have a digital platform. I didn’t even have the internet on at home. Within months I got connected to the internet, had a website built and got this blog going (which recently took over the role of being the actual website). Yes, my online adventures began on the Hume Highway that morning back in 2009. But the world has moved on, I’ve moved on, nothing’s the same.

Which means I can now make a declaration: this is my 300th post for UTCOAFITD (which clearly is the most ridiculous acronym in the history of humankind). And this will be my final weekly post.

AsleepI really have been doing this on a weekly basis from the beginning, because I read some advice somewhere or other that blog posts should be regular and frequent. On a handful of occasions I’ve done a cheeky mid-week post, but on the whole I’ve kept to my commitment. And there’s been something about that commitment: spending days thinking about what I’ll post, whether it be something that had been published elsewhere (Canberra Times, BMA Magazine) or something written for the purpose. There have been times – many times – when I haven’t known what I’d write until the pen was being put to pad, which sometimes resulted in no words at all, so I resorted to shonky visual…things.

I doubt that I’ve ever known what I’ve been doing, other than, perhaps, writing a journal that other people might read – here’s a depository of writing, one amongst a gazillion other depositories of writing. Of course, the most rewarding part has been connecting with other writers, bloggers and thinkers, some of whom I now consider friends, despite living hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away and never having met in person. This must be the best part of the digital era, surely.

What happens now?

I’m not going to call it quits, but from now on posts will be on an ad hoc basis only – perhaps on average they’ll be every month, but no longer will there be any hard and fast rules. Why? Because I’m exhausted, I’m over-committed; in the larger scheme of things, my brain is really quite small, it can only take on so much, which really isn’t that much at all. I need to prioritise. I want to spend as much time as possible reading fiction and writing fiction. I want to go on great, long, dreamy adventures; I want to be moved, confronted, changed. I’m forty-five – it’s time to start learning about how this planet works, and, I think, the best way to do that is through immersing myself in fiction.

So, fond blog, happy 300th post. Sincere thanks to everyone who’s read and commented – I’ve appreciated our conversations very much.

Here’s to new adventures.

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.)

Three months in this place does what to a man?

Three months in this place does what to a human being?

There’s no doubt that December is the month of looking back, scanning the year for highlights, the things that have mattered.  For me, one of the highlights (amongst many) was my three-month time as Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy via the generosity of the University of NSW Canberra.  I was in-residence at ADFA from September to November, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I loved every minute of it…even though, for the first few hours, I sat in my bare white office in the Academy Library and thought, Oh my, how on Earth did I end up here?

I remember earlier this year how I’d read through the application details and quickly concluded that a military environment wasn’t exactly the right fit for me.  Twice now I’ve protested in the streets about Australia’s involvement in military conflict overseas.  Frankly, I’d rather see the defence budget reduced and money on education and the arts – including education in the arts – increased.  And then there’s the simple fact that I’m just not interested in the machinations of war: the machinery, the strategy, the winning at all costs (and what terrible costs they almost always are).  However, it was said to me that if I was feeling uncomfortable about being in the military environment then perhaps that’s exactly where I should be.  So I started working on the application and soon found that I was interested in definitions of masculinity – how are men truly and perhaps profoundly tested in times of extreme conflict?

Needless to say, it was a complete thrill to be awarded one of the two residencies on offer, and as the time came closer I became more and more nervous.

Really, was this the right thing for me to do?

And the question was turned up to eleven on that first day in September when I sat in that bare white office in the Academy Library.  Eventually I decided that I wouldn’t approach my research through philosophical or academic lenses.  Rather I’d simply expose myself to as much material as I could find amongst the extraordinary resources available (the ADFA Academy Library is known to have one of the world’s greatest collections of military material): fiction, non-fiction, poetry, feature film, documentary; I also had some fantastically energising conversations with UNSW Canberra academics.

Just off-screen is your local Nigel Featherstone shitting himself from nerves.

End-of-residency presentation day: just off-screen is your local Nigel Featherstone shitting himself from nerves.

One of the things I found very interesting about being ‘in residence’ at an academic institution, in contrast to other residencies I’ve been on (for example, Bundanon, Cataract Gorge, Varuna), is the feeling of connection to the topic, as opposed to being in delicious isolation (which, at the right time, has benefits).  On the ADFA campus I was constantly surrounded by material, and it wasn’t only the material in the Library – even going to get a coffee got the thoughts flowing as I was almost always surrounded by men and women in military dress.  It all added up to a very stimulating and thought-invoking time.

So, for three months I filled my brain with stories and observations and conversations, and some questions evolved.  Who is a man?  Who is a good man?  Who is a good person?  Who is a good being?  And then other questions came to the surface, questions about fact and myth, how nations tend to love the latter for not entirely malevolent political reasons.  I don’t have the answers, of course, but I’m looking forward to continuing to think about these questions and see what original work might result over the coming months and years, decades even.

Have my views towards the military changed?

I’m not sure they have, but I do feel as though I have a better (though, in the broader scheme of things, still cursory) understanding of Australia’s military history, and perhaps a deeper appreciation of what service men and women go through to achieve strategic goals.  I still consider the military mechanism for resolving differences completely and utterly barbaric and absurd.  But perhaps I’ve been given a touch of insight into the humans beneath the camouflage, and, more or less, there’s a diversity to people who have served and who are currently serving.

When Australians think of their military history, they might always conjure the larrikin ‘Digger’ in his slouch hat.  But that larrikin ‘Digger’ in his slouch hat is not all there is to it.

And that larrikin ‘Digger’ might not even be true.

*

Much gratitude to UNSW Canberra for the opportunity, and thanks to the staff for being so helpful and welcoming.

Let’s be honest: when all this started I had no idea what I was doing.  But it’s best we go back a bit.

In the autumn of 2009, I spent a month as an artist-in-residence at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people on the Shoalhaven River just south of Sydney.  On the last night the other artists and I had a few drinks and shared stories of our time in the glorious creative isolation as well handed out business cards and email addresses and website URLs.  I had none of those things – really, how committed was I to writing?  By the time I’d driven home, I resolved to at least get the internet put on at home and set up an email address.

By October of that year, I had indeed got these things, but I also had a website designed, and I set up this blog.  I knew next to nothing about blogging other than it might be a good way of sharing news, if, that is, anyone was interested.  So here we are, in October 2012 and it seems almost impossible to believe that Under the counter or a flutter in a dovecot (which is, to be frank, a ridiculous name for a blog, a ridiculous name for anything) is heading into its fourth year.

It’s probably as good a time as any to reflect on the positives and challenges, so let’s do it, the reflection thing.

On the whole, I’ve enjoyed my time in the blogosphere, even if most of the online energy appears to have shifted to Facebook and Twitter, leaving blogs to feel just a little old-fashioned, which to a certain extent suits me fine because I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy.  Thankfully, when I started this thing, I promised that I’d post only once per week, and I’ve kept to that, more or less.  Is it true that at the beginning I had no idea what I was doing?  Yes, it’s true, and I still might have no idea, although I have come to think of this blog as a diary that I write with other people in mind.  But it’s not a personal diary; I’ve been fairly keen to focus on writing and literature, music, other arts activity, and some quirky investigations into those little things that happen in a day that might have deeper meanings.  Like the last days of a chook.

I’ve enjoyed asking myself during the week, what will I post this weekend, what’s happened or happening that others might be intrigued about?  There’s a discipline to that, on a number of levels.  I’ve also found it fun to try out different things: writing music reviews (which is surprisingly difficult), trying to approach technology in new and weird ways (the On the other side of the city ‘survey’, and what sprung from it, has been a highlight), and it’s good to know that every one of the fifty or so First Word columns that I’ve written for The Canberra Times is stored here, and the features I’ve written have also had a second life online, meaning that the artists I’ve interviewed have been able to link to them (The Canberra Times has only very recently made Panorama, the paper’s weekend magazine, available electronically).

Plus there’s been the great pleasure of getting to know a number of the regular readers of Under the counter – all of whom, it’s amazing to realise, aren’t from my real-world community, some are even from overseas.  In a way, you are modern-day Pen Friends, or maybe that should be Keyboard Friends.  Some of you have become significant contributors to Verity La, that other part of my online life, and for that I thank you.  And, of course, there’s the handful of blogs that I comment on regularly, because the posts are frequently excellent and thought-provoking – have a look at the blog-roll to the left for the links.  Some of these blogs, for example Whispering Gums, are becoming influential, particularly in the funny little world that is literature, and that’s a great thing – a strong and sophisticated writing culture comes from articulate and erudite public discussion about creative practice (even if that observation and the sentence make me sound like a wanker).

What about the challenges?  There have been times, it’s true, when I’ve been all out of ideas, though this can also be a positive, as it’s forced me to still produce something, even if it’s a hastily put-together collage that looks like a six-year-old did it.  A key part of my blogging routine is commenting on other blogs – I can hardly expect readers to comment on this blog if I don’t comment other blogs.  Do comments matter?  Yes, they matter.  I do want to know what people think; I do want to know if readers have been moved, and a comment is a sure sign of that.  I’d like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for commenting – it’s made my day.  But it can be exhausting – and time-consuming – to find posts that I want to absorb and comment on.

It was – and continues to be – most gratifying that the National Library of Australia selected Under the counter for archiving in-perpetuity (if that isn’t a tautology) as part of its PANDORA program.  To think that maybe, just maybe, a researcher will stumble across this little old place in a hundred years time is a bit special.  There’s no doubt that without the commenters commenting and the National Library’s interest I would have stopped long ago – there’s only so often you can call out into the digital abyss.  And there have been times when I’ve wondered if the end might be in sight; in fact, to be completely frank, I can see the end right now.  I won’t keep this blog going forever, nor should it just keep rolling on and on and on.  But I’m not done just yet; there’s a bit more fuel in the tank, even if the engine’s developed a rattle.

Many many thanks again, and here’s to a bit more Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot.  For the time-being at least.

It’s interesting, I think, to take note of the music we listen to when we’re alone.  Perhaps there’s a dog sleeping on a nearby bed, and a cat amongst the cushions on the couch, and, at least for me, it’s highly likely there’s a glass of wine involved, but essentially, at moments like these, it’s just us, our own breath, our own heartbeat, our own living.

Recently, my alone music has been one – or all – of the following.

The Optimist LP by London-based acoustic duo Turin Brakes.  I’ve known their cracking song ‘Underdog (Save Me)’ for years, but I first bought this album, which came out in 2008, only twelve months ago.  I was a writer-in-residence – such a grand term, probably a wanky term – and had made a trip from Launceston, my temporary home, to Hobart to give a workshop on writing about place.  The Tasmanian Writers Centre put my up in an 1840s whaler’s cottage, which I loved despite finding whaling despicable, even historical whaling, and I began feeling this way when I was a little boy.  Whenever I put on The Optimist LP I remember that little whitewashed whaler’s cottage, I remember the novella I was writing when not giving the workshop, and how much I enjoyed the writing of that story, because I was writing it for myself.  I remember the kitchen in which I wrote for those few days, the view up to Mount Wellington, the fact that the infamous Salamanca Place markets were literally at the back fence, I remember that I was so happy.

The second ‘alone’ record is March of the Zapotec and Realpeople Holland by Beirut, which, in this context, is not a whole country but just one person, the ridiculously talented Zack Condon, a young man from the United States.  It’s a two-disc set: the first is Condon’s typical street-side oompa-oompa brass-band confection; the second is more electronic, a little bit Depeche Mode, maybe almost full-on night-clubby, even if it sounds like it’s been made on a cheap Casio keyboard.  The record reminds me of another residency, this time Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people.  In 2009 I was on that isolated stretch of Shoalhaven River for a month, and I loved every second of it.  The words, the birds, the bushwalks, the late-night booze-ups with the other artists.  Each afternoon it was my little tradition to pour myself a glass of wine and sit on the verandah and listen to ‘March of the Zapotec’.  It felt like real living, true living, and I was so happy.

The third – and potentially the greatest – ‘alone’ record is playing right now and it’s Fordlandia by Icelandic minimalist composer Johann Johannsson.  There’s a fair dollop of Arvo Part in this music, plus some Craig Armstrong, a film-score composer, and, just a touch here and there, some Sigur Ros, perhaps even some Massive Attack, though I might be getting carried away there.  The point is lately I’ve been playing it most evenings, when a day of writing has been done, a meal’s been cooked and eaten, the television news has had its say, and the dark has come.  Yes, Fordlandia is dark music (check out the title track if you don’t believe me), but with its slow cascading minor-key string washes it’s also very, very beautiful music, and it will always remind of this great shift in my life, when I moved from a city to a town to put writing and creativity at the centre of my life, at least as central as we can ever do such a thing, because I can’t forget about love.

So.  Three albums. Two residencies, and a house that, sometimes, when I’m alone, I like to think of as a place where creativity might flourish.  Christ, where would we be without music?

But what makes them vivid is the force of James’s interest in them, his manner of pressing into their clay with his examining fingers: they are sites of human energy; they vibrate with James’s anxious concern for them.

– from How Fiction Works by James Wood

What distinguishes a great artist from a weak one is first their sensibility and tenderness; second, their imagination; and, third, their industry.

–  John Ruskin

It’s banal to start a looking-back piece with ‘what a year it’s been’, because years can be nothing but themselves – years. So I’ll start somewhere else (although I haven’t started somewhere else, I’ve just started where I’ve begun) with a challenge: to think about the year ‘that’s been’ (I typed ‘bean’ just then, which is rather lovely), and to write about it, and see what learnings bubble to the surface.  Because we’re about to head into the ridiculous fake-snow-in-summer season – or, as a colleague said to me yesterday, ‘Shitmass’.  Which means the brain will turn off and then another year will get sprinting and before we know it we’ll all be two decades older, greyer, and probably not that much wiser.

So, to begin.  Somewhere.

Learning No. 1 – Go away. Under the Counter (or UTC to those in the know i.e. just muggins here, though ‘UTC’ sounds like a university, or a type of farm vehicle; I should drop this over-use of brackets) is littered with references to Bundanon and its far-reaching artist-in-residence program.  Still I can’t help remembering – for the umpteenth time – the Shoalhaven River and its happy leaping fish, the lantana-infested bush and the largest goanna I’ve ever seen (an easy six feet with a tongue the size of an arm), the mother roo and joey grazing nervously at the backdoor of the writer’s cottage, the sounds of busy things in the night that I’ve never heard before even though I’ve spent forty-one years in this part of the world.  And I remember drinks on the verandah at the always-pink dusk and watching wombats emerge from their burrows, and the swallows darting gloriously through the air, catching whatever it is they catch, bugs, they catch bugs.  And I remember working my arse off, so much so that on my fourth and last Thursday I had to have a lie down and listen to some Sigur Ros – yes, I’d over done it, but that’s my usual way, I’m afraid.  Oh woe is me.  The fact is I bring it on myself, it’s my choice, and, as I’ve counselled others, no one cares.  So Learning No 1.1 – no one cares.

Learning No. 2 – I’m in love with the most complex thing EVER. ‘Work-in-progress’: that’s the not-very-inventive title of my, um, work-in-progress, a novel, a very long story.  When people who know about these things say that novels are inherently complex, listen to them, believe them – novels are complex to write, they’re complex to read; they are the hardest thing to bring into the world.  My one, my second, has been in the process of being born since 2006 (I mistakenly typed ‘1996’, probably because that’s how it feels; bugger it, these brackets are just so persistent).  Needless to say, this project – is ‘project’ the right word? a novel isn’t a bridge, though they might be – has taken me here and there, like a wild river, and some of the waters have been fast and rough, some shallow and sublime, some tannin-black and utterly horrifying, and some murky and motionless, the froth of pollution at the edges.  Enough: I’m getting the shakes writing this, though that could be the rum balls I had for morning tea.

Learning No. 3 – good people never stop doing good things. The middle of the year saw the extended family and passionate others come from all over to be present at the launch of the Dorothy Porter Studio at Bundanon (yes, yet another reference to that Boyd place).  This meant taking He Who Originally Came From That Part of the World, Meaning Nowra, A Shit-Hole He Says back to the place from where he came, and also to the place I spent four weeks in a creative La-La Land.  After three hours of driving – up the Hume Highway, down through Kangaroo Valley, with the last half an hour winding our way amongst tinder-dry coastal bush – there it suddenly was, a converted 19th-century barn.  All shiny new, a red ribbon strung up for cutting, dancers dancing, the rainbow lorikeets watching on, as they will always be.  And we knew that within days the Studio would be filled with artists dreaming, imagining, collaborating – and working bloody hard, there can be no doubt about that.  Cuz, there was a tear in my eye when the ribbon was cut.

Learning No. 4 – reading completes me (like Blundstone boots and Arvo Part). 2009 was filled with great books and my favourites are listed elsewhere on this blog, but there are a few notables that aren’t on the list because they weren’t published this year, in fact they were published many years ago.  Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave – for decades I’d put off reading this book because by and large, and despite my own personal sexuality (which is indeed my own and personal), I don’t read gay fiction, but this novel completely ripped me to shreds.  So much so that, when after the last page was read, I had to go for the longest walk up the mountain (with The Old Lady of the House, obviously) until I felt ready to come back into the world.  Holding the Man went straight onto my ‘Brilliant Books Live Here’ shelf in my work room.  I also thoroughly enjoyed Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, which was no doubt reissued because of our bomb-tastic times.  And – embarrassingly – I finally read DJ Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; see ‘Caught in an Edgy Trap’ in the First Word 2009 archive for more on this.

Learning No. 5 – there will always be great music. Like the book list, the year’s top albums can be found elsewhere on Under the Counter, but I do have a late entry for the best-of-2009 gang: ‘Hospice’ by The Antlers.  Anyone who likes Jeff Buckley, Deerhunter and Arcade Fire really should check out this extraordinary album; there’s also a hint of Antony Hegarty in the overall aesthetic, which is both gentle and dramatic, always a great combination.  Hospice is hardly a jovial ride – it wallops you in the head and heart, and everywhere else for that matter – but it’s certainly worth the purchase price.  And great cover art, too.

Learning No. 6 – so writing conferences CAN be worthwhile! In October the National Library of Australia put on its Flight of the Mind – Writing and the Creative Imagination conference.  Speakers included Geraldine Brooks, Steven Conte, Rodney Hall, Andrew Goldsmith, Kevin Brophy, Claire Thomas, Judy Horacek, James Bradley, Alex Miller, Peter Goldsworthy, Felicity Packard, Sophie Cunningham, Aviva Tuffield, and Peter Pierce; not a bad line-up, it has to be said.  Topics covered creating fiction from fact, recreating other people’s stories, and writing across borders (a session chaired by yours truly; okay, the brackets win).  As one of the more prominent speakers told me at the end of the weekend, ‘This conference was a beauty’.  And good audiences too, in terms of both numbers and engagement.  The other thing that impressed me was the amount of speakers who hung around for the entire weekend, their journals at the ready, pens poised to jot down another pearl of wisdom for safe-keeping.  Yes, a beauty.

Learning No. 7 – posh experiences in poor countries don’t add up. In November He Who Likes A Cool Drink On A Warm Day and I jumped on a plane to attend a wedding in Vanuatu.  Apart from me almost carking it (check out ‘The Trouble with Death’, which is also in the First Word 2009 archive), we did everything you’re meant to do when on a tropical island: ate way too much, drank way too much, got so sunburnt we looked like Iced VoVos, read heaps, in my case Geraldine Brook’s People of the Book, which I enjoyed, though it also wore me out.  But resorts, big ones at least, aren’t my thing – they’re theme parks for the moderately rich and not-at-all-famous.  Still, good times were had, and, most importantly, two friends got married the way they wanted, and sometimes that’s all that matters (says he who over-thinks everything, including the moral responsibility of my local supermarket to provide free trolleys – not everyone has a gold coin in their pockets, you bastards).

Learning No. 8 – there’s nothing freakier than politics. 2009 was also about climate change, Copenhagen (a disaster? no, a little foot-shuffle in the right direction, me-thinks), and…bloody Tony Abbott.  Who’d have thought the Punch-Drunk Mad Monk would get the Leader of the Opposition gig?  Despite being born and bred on Sydney’s North Shore and schooled entirely at private schools, combined with the fact that I can sound terribly, terribly posh went I want to (see?), I’m not one for the conservative side of politics, but at least Malcolm ‘John Howard Broke My Heart By Stuffing Up The Republic Campaign’ Turnbull was trying to move things forward, if only by a millimetre.  Then, however, came the most public coup (of course, I just typed ‘pubic’, which isn’t something I usually associate with the Liberal Party) and Mr Malcolm went down the tube and Tony ‘Verbally Attacking Terminally People Is Such Fun’ Abbott came up trumps.  You know, I was happy give him a go, only because that’s what we do in this part of the world (when it suits us), but then all he’s been saying since he got the job is ‘great big tax’ and I’ve found myself shouting at the radio/television/newspaper, just like I did when John Howard hung around for eleven long, long, LONG years.

Learning No. 9 – the machines may take over. I started the year without having an internet connection at home but have ended the year with a PC on my desk, a laptop in the cupboard, an email address, and a website and a blog.  Next stop digital television and an i-Phone.  Perhaps.  Though probably not – a home is a home, not a computer-corporation outpost.  But it’s nice to be in the blogosphere, or hanging around ‘the inter-webs’ as some like to say, though I do feel as if I’m wandering around a parallel universe stark naked with the CCTV cameras tracking my every movement.  Now I just have to keep all this technology in check.   It’s us human types who control the machines, don’t we?

What, the machines have taken over?  How did I miss that?

Better go and pour myself a glass of crisp, dry Semillon and put on a record, yes, one of those Ye Olde spinning platter things that crackle and hiss like carpet on a hot day.  It might be The XX’s album, or Peaches’ cheeky latest, or something really, really old, maybe even Peter Gabrielle’s So, because So reminds me of being seventeen and school was about to finish and I knew absolutely nothing about anything.  Which, despite this list and all the words that go along with it, is still probably the case, because the sum total of what we know can only ever be a tear-drop in the deep blue ocean.

(Footnote: What’s with the opening quotes? you ask.  Well, I’ve had those two pearlers Blu-tacked onto the side of my computer screen all year.  They’ve hung there, just a little dog-eared and torn, fluttering each time I breathe or I type extra vigorously or the fan finds them; they tell me to work harder, to work deeper, to do good things.  In time, in time.)

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.)

I’m west of Nowra, at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people (and what a gift it is), and as I like to do every three hours or so I go outside to get some fresh air.  Rather than head to the Shoalhaven River or up onto the bush escarpment, this morning I just stroll down to the homestead and sit for a while in Arthur’s garden.  The garden, which links the two-storey sandstone main house with the simple weatherboard studio, has a tropical feel and is well-tended but pleasingly not immaculate.  Today isn’t a public open day so I have the place to myself, though in the tree canopies above a squadron of rainbow lorikeets makes true solace impossible.

At this much-loved refuge of arguably Australia’s most significant visual artist, a man who lived the ultimate creative life, a commitment to dreaming and exploring and communicating, a life more should be enabled to live, I sit quietly on this timber bench.  I let my mind wander here and there; I slow down, I empty.  But within minutes I’m snared by a scene: it’s not the sudden memory of a famous Boyd painting, a biblical landscape set off by one of his mythical ‘ramox’, but it’s this: less than a metre away, behind a dark-leafed shrub the name of which I have no idea, is the u-shaped mating site of a satin bowerbird.

How perfect.  How beautiful.  How… audacious!

I’ve always had a thing for bowerbirds, because they’re the most outwardly inventive of all our winged creatures.  It’s the male’s job to attract the female and he does this by building what in essence is a performance space – a stage, a dance-floor; a gateway, an archway, a landing.  Once the bower is built (always in a north-south direction) it’s painted with a mixture of chewed vegetable matter and saliva and then decorated with all things blue: feathers or flowers when away from human habitation, otherwise his favourites are clothes pegs, drinking straws and bottle tops, all of which he scatters like toys around a sandpit.  That the male birds raid each other’s bowers to steal favoured objects only makes me love them even more.

So he waits until a female starts showing interest and then he sings and dances until the job is done, in more ways than one.  The older he is, the less he relies on his exhibition of blue, having more confidence in his bodily performance, in his mimicry skills, pinching the calls of other birds.  Bowerbirds are thieves and plagiarists.

I’ve seen bowers before but it’s the cheekiness of this particular Bundanon bird that captivates me.  He hasn’t hidden his bower in the kilometres of impenetrable bush nearby; no, he’s made this one smack-bang in the guts of Arthur Boyd’s garden.  It’s as if he’s saying, Yes, Mr Famous Painter, you did great things, but look at what I can do – I’m a singer and a dancer and a painter and a sculptor all in one, and a pretty handy lover to-boot!  And it’s like he’s saying to me just over here on my bench, Sure you might end up being clever with words, but have you ever thought of being as brave as I am right now?

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, August 29 2009)

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