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Good celebration, and some very good luck. Photo credit: Andrew Sikorski

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: book launches make me want to vomit.

My own, that is.

Will anyone turn up? Will the speakers remember the date and time? What if there’s a massive storm? A traffic jam? A terrorist incident? What if I become too nervous, drink too much too early, and then embarrass myself?

I’m a natural hermit. Even going out of the house to get groceries is a trial. And having to go into a bank? Forget it.

I’m happiest (if that’s the word) wearing terrible clothes and spending day after day writing and reading and making simple little meals. So the idea of being the centre of attention for an evening fills me with a heavy, almost dangerous dread – I can’t wait for it to be over. But I’d be lying if I said that I don’t also find the idea exciting – the celebration, especially after so much isolation, the community, the good cheer, the love. Yes, it’s exciting, and, now I think about it, healthy.

Which gets me to the launch of Bodies of Men. It happened on 16 May in Canberra at the fabulous Street Theatre. There were books and wine and olives. There were powerful personal responses to the novel from Robyn Cadwallader, who has published her notes on her blog, and CJ Bowerbird, who performed a spoken-word piece about his experiences serving in the Australian military. And there were people: family, friends, my agent and publisher, some folk I recognised but didn’t know by name, some strangers – all appreciated.

There were also more than a few embraces.

And a dinner afterwards. In the last hour of the evening my partner and my agent and I found ourselves walking through the campus of the Australian National University and having a lovely chat to a rabbit, which is clearly the sign of a good night.

Thank you: Robyn and Chris, The Street Theatre, Harry Hartog Booksellers, Gaby Naher, and Robert Watkins and the Hachette Australia team. And thank you to all those who came out to celebrate Bodies of Men.

I won’t forget it.

*

PS There was a rather lovely review in the Canberra Times, so there’s that too. A summary of critical responses can be found here. Bodies of Men can be purchased in your favourite bookshop and can also be bought directly from Hachette Australia – as well as the print version, there are e-book and audiobook versions. Over and out. For now.

If you happen to be in Canberra on Thursday 16 May (I mean, who wouldn’t be) it’ll be terrific to see you at the launch of BODIES OF MEN: 6pm at the fabulous Street Theatre. There will be wise words from the amazing Robyn Cadwallader, author of THE ANCHORESS and BOOK OF COLOURS, and award-winning slam poet CJ Bowerbird. There will also be books. And booze!

The event is free. To RSVP, drop a line to publicity@hachette.com.au

In other news, due to generous and hard-working folk, there have been some lovely profiles, interviews and reviews – all appreciated:

Finally, thank you to all those who’ve sent me pictures of BODIES OF MEN (so to speak) in bookshops around Australia. I’m loving seeing the novel on shelves, and I’m also loving the tireless bookshops who are stocking it.

Gratitude to all.

Peace x

They are beside me, in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, though I never look at them. Except, for the first time in fifteen years, that’s exactly what I’ve just done: got them out and spread them across the floorboards. Canberra Times headlines; front pages, to be precise.

The first is dated September 11, 2001. TERRORISTS STRIKE U.S.’ in the biggest, blackest letters I’ve ever seen in a newspaper. And that photo of a World Trade Centre tower collapsing in white smoke. And that other photo, of ash-covered New Yorkers scrambling for their lives.

What we keep: a reminder of the darkest days?

What we keep: a reminder of the darkest days?

The next front page, dated October 15, 2002, says ‘Terror Blast’. A photo of stretcher bearers carrying bodies out of a twisted Kuta Beach nightclub. The next is dated January 20, 2003: ‘Our worst day’. More twisted metal, but in a bushfire-blackened landscape. Then, at last, there is change.

November 25, 2007: ‘Rudd buries Howard era’. A fresh-faced new prime minister holds up his hands, ten fingers spread as if he’s giving himself ten out of ten. Only three months later, February 13 2008: ‘Sorry’ says the headline in big white letters, the faces of four elderly Indigenous men, three with grey beards, two wearing beanies, one with glisteningly red eyes. November 6, 2008: ‘American revolution: first black president; a David Pope cartoon of a beaming (and only slightly grey-haired) Barack Obama, a patched-up Uncle Sam slung over his shoulder. Before disaster strikes again. February 10 2009: ‘Dreams in ashes’, which wasn’t a reference to the United States but Victoria: more twisted metal, another bushfire-blackened landscape.

Yet all is not lost. June 25, 2010: ‘History in her hands. Look at Julia Gillard’s face looming large on the page, her eyes full of hope, and perhaps there’s a dash of relief too. December 7, 2013 and there’s a different face: ‘Nelson Mandela 1918-2013: ‘Our nation has lost its great son’’.

The most recent front page in this collection of headlines? March 21, 2015: ‘Malcolm Fraser, 1930-2015’. The former prime minister’s quoting of George Bernard Shaw: ‘Life’s not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful.’ What exactly are we to make of this private archive of tragedy and triumph? Maybe, just maybe, these headlines are reminders that we live in a world that’s infinitely bigger – and much, much more fascinating – than our tiny little daily worries. And yes, every so often it can even be delightful.

*

(This was to be my 81st piece for the First Word column in the Canberra Times. Regrettably the column came to an end before it could be published, so here it is. Thanks to Gillian Lord, Natasha Rudra and Sally Pryor for allowing me to have such a long run with the paper.)

What happens when cooking.

What happens when cooking.

I think of her every time I open the book, which isn’t so much a book but a white plastic ring-binder. It’s where I keep recipes; I’m a messy cook so all that plastic makes it easy to clean. At the front, tucked into the clear-plastic sleeve, is the recipe I use the most, one for cooking rice.

For years I’d used the absorption method. I had a clay pot that I’d bought from an Asian grocery in Dickson. I’d soak the rice in the pot for an hour, drain the cloudy water, add more water so the rice was covered, bring to the boil, turn off the heat, and let the clay do the rest. It never failed to make good rice.

But then I went to a Greek restaurant with my Greek friend, Helen.

I said, ‘Greek rice is so tasty – how do you make it?’

She said, ‘It’s not really “Greek rice”. It’s just rice.’

‘But how do you make it?’

‘I’ll send you my recipe.’

And so she did. She emailed it to me.

Just before she died in a motorbike accident.

For some months I couldn’t open the email. But one day, after two decades of service, the clay pot gave up the ghost and Helen came to the rescue. I opened the email, printed her recipe. I went through the steps to make what I’d insisted was ‘Greek rice. Heat olive oil, coat rice until transparent, add chicken stock powder, stir, add water, boil, turn heat to low. It’s a more complicated procedure than the one I was used to but it leads to perfect rice.

However, it’s not just perfect rice that the recipe makes.

It could be that I’m always cooking after having a glass or two of wine, but I don’t think so. When I’m cooking rice, Helen joins me at the stove-top. She’s small, black-haired, good fun but relentlessly honest. Now she’s saying, ‘Let me do it, Nigel, you’re stuffing it up.’ So I stand aside, have another sip of wine, and watch as Helen takes over. And then, as is usual these days, I tell her what I think of her. ‘You’re an excellent friend.’ She turns to look at me, then looks at the bottle, shakes her head, then smiles, laughs gently.

This is how it is now. Every time.

And, no doubt, it’s how it’ll be for as long as I’m alive.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 22 November 2014.)

THE WILD ONES - 6pm 3 Dec 2014 - updated

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Martin Sharp circa 2011 (Image credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

Martin Sharp circa 2011 (Image credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

Summer is odd, especially in Australia.

The first dose of decent weather – as in clear blue skies, no wind, 35-degree temperatures, and, where I live, 50% humidity (or less) – brings a sense of optimism: finally we’re through the winter and can now go outdoors without worrying about being frozen to death or being blown off the face of the Earth.  This week we at last had that feeling, because we had two days in a row of good summery weather.  So, yes, optimism.

But this week has also brought sadness.  The passing away of Nelson Mandela.  Closer to home, we’ve had the death of eminent Australian contemporary artist Martin Sharp at the age of 71.  It might be just a little strange to put these two names in the same paragraph, but I think it’s apt, not because of these two men having made similar contributions to the world – they didn’t – but because both lived such genuine and genuinely inspiring lives.

Martin Sharp was – and no doubt will continue to be for some time – Australia’s answer to Andy Warhol.  There’s plenty written about him, and there’s certainly been quite a few thoughtful and informed obituaries, including this one from his colleague and friend Richard Neville.  To many, Sharp will be remembered for being a founding member of Oz, a radical and irreverent magazine –  today we’d call it a zine – that lampooned authority and tradition, particularly the church, including conservative attitudes to sexuality.  He also designed some of the most iconic rock-music album covers from the 1960s/70s.  Later, he’d become an obsessed champion of Tiny Tim, Ginger Meggs, and Sydney’s site-of-thrills-and-fun Luna Park.  He continued to practice for the rest of his life, though became fond of spending years, if not decades, touching up his earlier work.

A cover of Oz by Martin Sharp featuring Bob Dylan

A cover of Oz by Martin Sharp featuring Bob Dylan, 1967

Amazingly, through sheer luck, in early 2011 I interviewed Martin Sharp in his Sydney home for the Canberra Times.  He was warm, generous with his time, thoughtful, always choosing his words carefully, not because he was guarded (though he might have been), but, I think, he just wanted to be clear.  He chain-smoked through the entire morning, constantly rolling homemade cigarettes, the tobacco in a bowl in the table as though it was merely just some kind of herb that he was about to use for cooking.  I found him to be utterly unpretentious, and during the interview we spoke about his great love of Tiny Tim, Vincent Van Gogh (his life’s great inspiration), and that he thought the best art was being done by school children.  He’d become religious in his old age, though in the broad, somewhat mystical sense that artists can become religious (I doubt he went to church), and I remember how he said that in certain contexts conservative thinking can be radical.

I asked him if he had any modern-day heroes, and without blinking an eye he said, ‘Susan Boyle.’  I knew only a little of Boyle, but when I got back home made sure to learn more about her.  What was it about this UK talent-show contestant that had intrigued Sharp so?  I remember how he said that she’d given her all, everything, put her whole being on the line, words to that affect.  So I googled her and was amazed to find myself getting goose-bumps.  When I could drag my way from Youtube I wrote up the interview and the resultant feature article – it wasn’t so much about Martin Sharp but about a new (at the time) gallery and arts facility in Goulburn called South Hill, of which Sharp was the patron – and I also wrote a short piece on how Sharp had given me goose-bumps while telling me about his love for Boyle.

Just before I left Martin Sharp’s house that January day, he gave me a copy of a Tiny Tim album that he’d produced (at considerable expense).  For some reason I’ve never listened to it; perhaps I just didn’t want to take it out of its resolutely plastic-wrapped sleeve.  Maybe I just wanted to keep it as perfect as it had been when it was given to me.  Every time I saw the CD in my collection I thought to myself, Wow, what an amazing day that was.

But I’m listening to it now.  It’s hilarious.  But also important: Tiny Tim, just like Susan Boyle, gives every fibre of his being to his performances.

Thanks, Martin, for your time, your wise words, and, above all else, your art.

If I make it to 71 I’ll be sure to remember that morning with you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen to that, sister.

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

*

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

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