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Trucks, hi-viz outfits, and a massive sheep (on the move) - this is my town, folks.

Trucks, hi-viz outfits, and a massive sheep (on the move) – this is my town, folks.

1.

Three years ago I was waiting nervously – completely and utterly anxiously – to see what would happen to the Australian Government.  After six months of tarting up my tiny ex-guvvy grey-brick box in Canberra, the thing was ready for the market; in a rare fit of good but not entirely risk-free decision making, I’d decided that my house was the ticket to a better life, one where writing would be the core of each and every week.  (For years, decades, it had been the core, but it was a struggling core, exhausting, and something had to give.)  So there I was, house ready and real-estate agent on standby.  But we had a problem.  A massive problem.  If the Conservatives won the 2010 election they’d strip the bejeezus out of the public service, ejecting bureaucrats from the capital, and house prices would plummet.

2.

Of course, there were plenty of better reasons to fear the Conservatives returning to power.  Tony Abbot, a former seminarian, and boxer, and Rhodes Scholar, was a key player in John Howard’s backwards-looking, xenophobic and homophobic government.  Now he was leader of the opposition, who knows what he’d do.  He was famous for saying that climate change was ‘crap’, that women had a different physiology (exact quote: ‘I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons’), was anti-abortion, and maintained the anti-immigration and anti-marriage-equality stance of his political godfather.  Being rusted on to small-government ideology, if Abbott got in there would be carnage in the capital, and I’d lose $50,000, the $50,000 I needed for my new and better life to begin.

3.

That year, 2010, Abbott almost did get in.  It was a terrifying two-week wait to see if Labor’s Julia Gillard could form an alliance with the independents.  I remember watching that press conference in which the three key independents would reveal their decision – it was the most excruciating 20 minutes of my life.  When Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott eventually announced that they’d be supporting a Gillard-led government I threw my arms in the air as if my favourite footie team had just scored the game-winning try in the final seconds (if I had a favourite footie team, that is).  Not only did I want the Mad Monk and his insidiously grinning gang to lose and for Labor to continue moving us forward (if only inch by inch), I wanted to be able to ring my real-estate agent and shout, ‘GET THIS SHOW ON THE ROAD!’

4.

The show did go on the road.  My house was sold and I now could move to regional New South Wales and live a cheaper, more frugal life in order for writing – creativity in general, the arts, all of it – to be my reason for existence.  So, while Gillard managed to keep her precarious government together, stoking the fires of the economy while the rest of the world went down like the Devil wearing velvet trousers, and putting a price on carbon, and enabling a massive – and wise – investment in education, and establishing the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and continuing with the National Broadband Network (try downloading something as short as a 30-second video where I live and you’ll see why we need this infrastructure), and increasing the tax-free threshold from $6,000 to $18,000, which is an enormous reform for those struggling to make ends meet including artists, and allowing her party to officially endorse a policy of legal recognition of same-sex relationships (while she personally opposed the policy, which, to my mind, was a gross misjudgement on many levels), and – let’s indeed be critical where criticism is due – failed to find a humane and effective way of welcoming refugees to this country, yes, while all this was happening, I moved house, I went interstate.  And now, more or less, I live the life I’ve always wanted.  How luck I am.

5.

There are approximately 23,000 people in this regional New South Wales town of mine.  The place is working class, it’s welfare oriented, there’s some old rural money but not much despite the Big Merino stuck there out on the Hume.  There are cracked faces, broken bodies, some broken spirits.  There are pubs, some of which look like they haven’t been changed in 50 years, and the carpets probably haven’t been changed either.  The mainstreet is packed with 2-dollar outlets, hi-viz stores, and there’s a run of takeaway shops that I swear goes for 300 metres.  But this is home.  For someone like me, who was born and bred on Sydney’s North Shore, who spent his formative adult years in Canberra, which is one of the most enlightened and progressive jurisdictions in the world, in many ways Goulburn is not my natural habitat.  And when the wind howls and the sky comes over grim and grey, it’s really no place for anyone.  But in my little old house with sparrows in the guttering I read and write and read some more.  When I take a break from the words and me and my misshapen tracksuit pants and uggboots go out to see what the chooks are doing, I feel more myself than ever.  At the end of the day, when I pour myself a glass of wine, light the fire, and put on the most miserable music in my collection, I know that this somewhat struggling but good-natured old town is being very good to me.

6.

At times like these I raise a chipped, cracked, coffee-stained mug to Julia Gillard and say thanks for (a) being as decent as you could despite all the shit that was thrown at you (and even though your judgment seemed to go AWOL at times, and your mass-media communication left many of us wondering what you really did mean), and (b) for making all this happen to me.

7.

Today, however, it’s election time again and Tony Abbott, the love-child of John Howard and George W. Bush that he is, will most likely romp across the line.  Despite Labor’s undoubted achievements, the party’s leadership dramas have been appalling – it’s been like having to put up with a couple of junkies fighting in the fruit-and-veg aisle of my local Woolies.  It has to end, and hopefully it ends tonight, when Abbott, all Botox forehead and flapping jug-ears and budgie-smugglers already set out for an early morning swim, takes to the podium.  Perhaps it’ll end a bit more when Kevin Rudd vainly announces his resignation, or doesn’t have to do such a thing because he’s lost his seat.

8.

I’m not a social conservative, and I don’t believe that markets are necessarily the be all and end all, and I don’t believe that wealthy nations can ignore our responsibility to care for those who are wracked by poverty and political turmoil.  So I can’t put a mark in the Coalition’s box, and I can’t ever see myself not thinking in a progressive way.  But I do hope this weekend marks the beginning of a refreshed, enlivened voice for the Left, which may or may not be the Australian Labor Party.

9.

Even though it may well be true that at heart Australia is a fearful, inward-looking country, frankly, as they say around my home-town, you’ve just gotta get the fuck over it and find a better way.

10.

Here’s cheers to Goulburn, to Gillard, and to bright new chapters.

So here's a place.  And perhaps it means something...good.

So here’s a place. And perhaps it means something…good.

Overhead the plover,
Like the moon apart,
Tells his lonely knowledge,
Of the human heart.

– from ‘Town Planning’ by David Campbell

 *

At the bottom of the world, in a country of white-sand edges and a heart of red dust, halfway between a glittery tart called Sydney and Melbourne’s rash of football scarves, is a city, a capital city, a place dreamed up over a century ago to be the ideal[1].  Canberra: founded on landscape and democracy, geometry and axis.  And smack-bang in the middle of this dream city, at the end of a grand spine, is a hill.  Not a mountain or a temple, just a simple pimple of a hill.

It’s not a big place, just a few hectares rising up to a hump, all of it planted out with tree species imported from other lands, thick green grass as if supporting a dairy, vacant park benches scattered here and there.  But encircled by a busy double-lane road, this hill is more an island.  A secret island, and very few people cross over; you can’t see what’s inside.  A grotto, a moated castle, a place for ghosts and hunchbacks, except bells don’t ring out from here – City Hill is gagged.

This isn’t how it was meant to be.

Walter Burley Griffin, the architect/landscape architect/town planner/ dreamer/mystic/sharman who gave us the original idea for Canberra (before it was stymied by a sceptical, Europe-obsessed federal public service) described City Hill – or, as he named it, ‘Civic Place’ – as an ‘eminence’[2].  What a great word!  Distinction, recognised superiority.  A piece of rising ground.  Eminent: exalted, great, famous, celebrated.  I don’t know about you but I’m conjuring witch doctors and cardinals, and there’s applause that could go on for hours.

But in 2013 how is City Hill actually used?

If you ever want to get clues about a place, do what good pulp-fiction detectives do – ferret around rubbish bins.  And this is what you would find on our Hill: empty booze bottles, spent condoms.  That’s it.

Despite all the planning that’s gone into Canberra (it’s been sketched to within an inch of its life, you might say), despite the desires to make this particular spot on our fragile little planet a place of enduring symbolism and meaning, City Hill is nothing more than a forested mound ringed by a raging torrent of cars driven by people with malls to visit and fastfood to buy.  A place no one goes except some time between midnight and dawn, for people who’ve trawled through Civic and scored and are now ready for the payoff.  A place for the losers who just want to forget their heart’s ‘lonely knowledge’, as Campbell puts it.  And it’s a place for the others who haven’t a skerrick and will spend sub-zero nights sleeping beneath pencil pines, tick-ridden possums for company.

Novelist Miles Franklin paid tribute to her good friend Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marian Mahoney Griffin – possibly the brains of the duo – in a piece that appeared in the Bulletin in 1937:

Never, they felt, had there been a better opportunity to create anew, free from the debris of old mistakes and the shackles of dead tradition, than in this wonderland with its forward-looking and independently-minded democracy.[3]

Franklin might have been impressed with Canberra (you would have been if you spent a childhood looking at it from the hazy blue heights of the Brindabellas and then racking off overseas), but City Hill in real life is just a mirror.  Perhaps it proves that if our efforts to plan and design don’t result in the creation of great places, we will fill our world with ordinariness.  Because at the core of our lives, at the centre of our communal existence, is mystery.  And we try to medicate our frustrations at this mystery with the most ignoble of acts.

City Hill hasn’t become what the Griffins dreamt.  No, not yet.

But it could be a wonderland, an ideal – it could have unending eminence.


[1] Walter Burley Griffin, New York Times, 2 June 1912

[2] National Capital Authority, The Griffin Legacy – Canberra, the Nation’s Capital in the 21st Century, Canberra, 2004, p66

[3] Ibid., p. 30

David Campbell’s ‘Town Planning’ can be found in David Campbell: Selected Poems, Angus and Robertson, 1978

01 Dickson

02 Dickson

03 Dickson

Eminent Australia literary journal Meanjin does a job on Canberra - both come out winning.

Eminent Australia literary journal Meanjin does a job on Canberra – both come out winning.

One anthology (two anthologies)

It’s beautiful in design, it feels good, actually it feels perfect – how it all holds together in colour and shape and form and texture.  A glistening cover, inside the gorgeous black and white and sometimes sepia images, and thoughtfully composed essays and short stories and poems and memoir from some of Australia’s best writers – Geoff Page, Marion Halligan, Alan Gould, Susan Hampton et al.  It’s hard to imagine a more lovingly constructed object.  Which is utterly apt for an anthology with Canberra as the theme.  Meanjin should be congratulated for getting together this particular edition, and the context couldn’t be more fitting – Australia’s national capital turns 100 this year.  And for having the guts to do it: across this crusty, leathery old country of ours there isn’t much love for the little southern city, and, rather predictably, there’s a persuasive view that nothing much happens there beyond political and public-sector hot air, and, so the story goes, there’s nothing much of literary note either, which is, of course, complete bollocks.  There’s another anthology about Canberra out at the moment, The Invisible Thread: one hundred years of words (Halstead Press; editor Irma Gold), and that more than proves the point.

City living

I lived in the ACT for the best part of 25 years, from 1987 to 2010, and these days I’m only an hour away.  I moved to Canberra from Sydney by choice, to go to university and start my adult life.  However, university wasn’t the real reason: it was about escaping a city that had leached into my bloodlines (I have ancestral connections to that part of the world dating back to 1797) but had also overwhelmed me with its hedonism and dark heart; moreover, it was about putting myself in an environment which I believed would open me out so that, at last, I might be properly alive.  I knew little about Canberra beyond what I’d gleaned from a handful of trips to visit family friends, but I knew it was different in look and feel to anywhere else I’d been.  Even as a child I understood the territory to be fresh and forward-thinking, and this appealed to someone who was born and bred amongst the well-heeled conservatism of one of the wealthiest parts of Australia, and I had the sense that a new way of being in the world was required.

Much of this Canberra edition of Meanjin focuses on built form and town-planning, which is both unsurprising and perfectly reasonable for a city famous for being designed from the ground up.  And it was certainly a resonating experience to undertake my first degree, landscape architecture, in a place where landscape and architecture are so important.  However, these things are not what I enjoyed the most; these things are not what have ultimately made me remember my time in Canberra with great fondness, often love.  In Canberra I discovered who I was, I met people, I fell in love.  Critically, it seemed – and still seems – a place where pre-judgement isn’t the preferred modus operandi.  Is there really much difference between getting drunk or getting stoned?  Do we wish to demonise people who sell sex and people who pay for sex?  For some years now, Canberra – the society of 380,000 people, not the hollow, hill-top political machine – has been asking the question about whether or not marriage is about gender.  And isn’t it time that the nation stood on its own two feet and became a republic?

Town living

Two old mates, three big rocks, a mountain range off screen, as is a great modern city called Canberra.

Two old mates, three big rocks, a mountain range off screen, as is a great modern city called Canberra.

Almost three years I moved out of Canberra into neighbouring regional New South Wales.  Why?  Cheaper housing – most writers can’t afford big-city mortgages, even the rent.  And I appreciate small-town life.  And old stuff.  Canberra has a rich heritage – Aboriginal, natural, and built – but it’s not the crumbly, slightly depressing sort.  And I’m a big fan of the crumbly, slightly depressing sort.  So these days I live in my little old 1895-era cottage called Leitrim, and I spend my weekends patching up cracks that keep appearing in the walls and I collect firewood for a fire on these cold, damp nights, and I’m as happy as Julia Gillard on a Sunday arvo sitting on the couch in her jim-jams with a glass of red while watching Bruce Willis bash it up in Die Hard.  I love walking down to the mainstreet to visit the post office, which is a truly spectacular late nineteenth-century marvel, and doing a few transactions in a bank where the people know my name, before wandering home through  hidden laneways.  When Goulburn’s good, she’s heart-stopping spectacular.

The future

But still I visit Canberra regularly, weekly in fact, and a hump-day highlight is careering through the rolling back-road Southern Tableland landscape, listening to music (the latest Frightened Rabbit has been getting a good run, which make me laugh in this context – the road’s awash with roadkill) and when I cross the border into the ACT it’s always a joy, a hopeful joy.  Because to me that’s what Canberra is about: the future, and how we can craft it anyway we like, even as a society we can do this.  We can honour the past, live in the Brindabella-boundary present – if you’ve never been around to see snow on those ranges then you’re missing the quintessential south-east Australian experience – but keep eyes open to move forward.  It’s this youthfulness that I admire about Canberra – how my own youth once became a kind of ‘manhood’, whatever that is – and the unashamed optimism.  And the fact that many of my friends still live there.

And that perfection might not be so unattainable afterall.

The city’s been good to me, one particular city, it’s called Canberra and it’s an hour down the road.  I lived in the place from 1987 to 2010, over half my life.  I moved there as an eighteen-year-old, escaping Sydney, that city of two million people at the time (it’s four million now), purposely leaving behind everything that it had been to me, for me, the rich district where I grew up, the private schools, the Mercedes and BMWs and Volvos and Porsches, the loveliness of all that, but also the dreadful emptiness – I’ve been disinterested in material wealth ever since.

In Canberra I enjoyed university life, group-house life, working my way into adulthood, finding myself (more or less), making friendships, many of who remain with me to this day, settling down, running amok, settling down again.  In Canberra I met my partner Tim.  In Canberra I rediscovered my love of reading and writing, committed myself to both, started writing poetry (the first thing I ever wrote and had published – under a pseudonym – is now embedded into the pavement in the heart of the city) but quickly moved onto short stories and then longer forms.  I began doing freelance work for The Canberra Times, interviewing writers and artists, which has been such a pleasure.  In Canberra I had a stroke of good real-estate luck, which now enables me to live in the country without debt.  Now when I look at my resume I realise how good Canberra has been for my creative life.

So, for almost two and a half decades, Canberra was home, that most modern of cities, imagined from the ground up by the American architect and landscape planner Walter Burley Griffin and his professional partner and wife Marion Mahoney.  The Griffins won the international design competition in 1912, and the first peg was hammered into the ground in 1913, so next year one of the world’s great designed cities turns 100, which is quite something, wouldn’t you say?  But not everyone will be celebrating.  To the majority of Australians, Canberra is just the place of Australia’s federal parliament and all the public-service departments that go along with that.  Only ever experiencing the city via compulsory school trips, they see the intricate order of every street and street corner unnatural, as if the city isn’t Australian at all.  Indeed, as a child and I’d visit Canberra with my family, I always thought that as we drove across the border we were stepping into another world, a bit like how it’d be travelling in Europe, so I day-dreamt.

It’s true that Canberra is quite odd; now that I don’t live there but remain close by I can see that now.  It is ordered, it is polite.  It is a city-state, which means to many it’s neither one thing nor the other.  It can be the most beautiful city in the world – 70% of the Australian Capital Territory, of which Canberra is the centre, is mountainous national park, much of it getting dustings of snow in winter.  Regrettably, to many it can also be the most boring city – it’s never developed the pub culture that makes a stack of other Australian places come alive.  It should be made clear, though,that  these days Canberra has many fine cafes, bars, clubs and restaurants, and the diversity and quality of cuisine matches or surpasses that available anywhere else in the country, even Melbourne and its ridiculous self-belief that it’s the centre of Antipodean culture.

In the end, however, Canberra is just a community of 350,000 people getting on with their lives – half of the residents don’t have a thing to do with the parliament or public service.  In general the population is well-educated, well-read, and politically leans to the left.  For a long time it has had progressive policies on recreational drug-use, prostitution and pornography, it was the only state or territory jurisdiction to vote YES in the 1999 referendum for Australia to become a republic, and on Tuesday 14 August 2012 the ACT Legislative Assembly will vote in favour of the most advanced same-sex relationship laws in the country.

Manning Clark: possibly cranky.

It’s not surprising, then, that Canberra is also a creative and cultural place.  Statistics regularly reveal that the city’s rate of participation in the arts is higher than anywhere else in Australia, and many high-profile artists working in all forms of creative practice call the ACT region home.  In particular, Canberra has for decades well and truly punched above its weight in terms of writing.  The list of eminent writers from this neck of woods is long: Miles Franklin, Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson, Manning Clark, Roger McDonald, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Alan Gould, Geoff Page… In fact, the list is so long that as part of the centenary of Canberra celebrations a major anthology is being published – it’s called The Invisible Thread.  The book will be launched in November as part of the National Year of Reading, but will also have a long run through the centenary shenanigans.  This in itself is very exciting, but it’s also personally very exciting because my work has been selected for inclusion, which is an almost unbelievable honour.

But here’s the rub: despite the project attracting a publisher, Halstead Press, and support from the ACT Government as well as other literary and related organisations, including my own publisher, Blemish Books, The Invisible Thread does not yet have enough money to get over the line.  It says something about the status of writing – any kind of creative practice – in Australia when a book of this – dare I say it – importance has to put out its hand.  Because that’s exactly what the project team, led by the tireless Canberra writer and editor Irma Gold, has done: it’s started a Pozible campaign to help pay for the marketing side of the book, to make sure the work has the best life possible out in the community.  At the time of writing, 40 generous people have pledged $3,335 with the target being $5,000 .  If you have a few dollars to spare, why not throw them into the Invisible Thread bucket; if not, perhaps you might pass this post onto someone who might be interested.  There are 28 days to go to make this happen.

So, yes, Canberra has been very good to me.  It’s where I found myself, where I found family and friends and love.  How lucky I’ve been to have spent so long in a community where democracy is at the heart, where people like to think, where people have the long view and move forwards, where the diversity of its population is held up for all to see, where the reality of contemporary living informs policy and legislation, and where a book that celebrates 100 years of working words is about to spring to life.

Where I live I get to drive past the Canberra Airport at least a couple of times a week, and for the last month or so I’ve been chuckling at this sign (though also just a little distressed, not much, just a little).  I can’t help thinking the sign is suggesting that this is a place to roll out very sick hospital patients, not quite a cemetery but a dumping ground, a place to leave people in whom we’ve lost interest because they have become too hard to care for, or their case too hopeless.  Or it’s a place for people who’ve lost interest in their days to dispose of their bodies.  A handy chute for poor souls, then.  A place to discard, not to fly.  Though perhaps flying and discarding might be more closely related than I give it credit for.  Who doesn’t shed something, or die a bit, even just emotionally, internally, when they climb aboard a trusty jet and get away for a while?

PS Suggested music for this post: Red House Painters and associates.  Pick a song at random.  You’ll know what I mean.

I took these images over the weekend just gone in Hindley Street, Adelaide.  Hindley Street is essentially the seedy end of that South Australian town, filled with a wild, almost out of control mix of cancerous fast-food franchises, strip joints, sports bars, wine bars, hotels (some posh, some not), and independent bookshops with a fair bit of street art, both permanent and ephemeral, thrown in for good measure.  To spend a week in the street  – so to speak – was a joy, especially for someone who comes from the right side of the tracks.

I was in Adelaide for a range of reasons, including attending the Fringe Festival (which was bloody brilliant – steal money from your grandma to see Australia’s own The Burlesque Hour and The Wau-Wau Sisters from New York) as well as for He Who Deserves The Best Bars and Restaurants Money Can Buy, because it was his birthday, well, it’s almost his birthday.

But since I’ve been back in the comfort of my own house and street and suburb and city, I’ve been thinking about the miracle that is a pulsing city street, one that’s human despite the threat in the faces of the people who live there, beautiful despite the ugliness, wanting despite the aloofness.

Tonight I’ve come across a quote from the British author and critic John Berger.  In Keeping a Rendezvous (1987), he wrote ‘Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography.  Rome is feminine.  So is Odessa.  London is a teenager, an urchin, and, in this, hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens.  Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman’.

I’m not from Adelaide but I’d call it an old-man wino in search of a cultural experience or a quickie in a laneway. And my home town, Canberra?  A bored middle-class white boy speeding along in a stolen car hoping to crash into some meaning.

Your place – how would you describe it?

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.)

An Australian classic

In the last three weeks, He Who Likes to Drive and I have been in three different Australian cities.  Despite two of the cities often being lauded as wonderfully liveable or visually spectacular or both, I can’t help thinking that the places us modern first-world humans are creating can only be considered one thing – ugly as sin.  First you have to navigate the outer nowhere lands which are neither rural nor industrial nor suburban – they are quite simply empty, they have given up.  And then the ubiquitous suburbs start.  Always there are power-lines, looking like the skeletal remains of alien invaders.  If you’re lucky, you jump on a freeway and ignore it all.

Sure, eventually you’ll arrive at your destination and the comfort it offers, in our case the inner areas where the streets narrow to a human scale, where crumbling old abuts throwaway new, where trees have grown (as much as they can), where there is tangible evidence of life. But what you have to traverse to get there.  Of course there are flashes of brilliance – Melbourne’s inner-city lanes where cafes overlap one another, and Sydney’s Circular Quay (although it’s starting to feel like an open-air shopping mall) – but in the scheme of things these are just little sparks out of the dying coals.

How is it that we have created such horrific places?

In his great work The Australian Ugliness, the architect Robin Boyd offers this conclusion: ‘The Australian ugliness begins with fear of reality, denial of the need for the everyday environment to reflect the heart of the human problem [and it] ends with betrayal of the element of love and a chill near the root of national self-respect.’   I think Boyd is right.  When we persist in creating such ugliness, what does it say about how we feel about ourselves?

Boyd agrees that Australia’s built form does need ‘an injection of emotion and poetry’ but admits that if we could learn to turn out Frank Lloyd Wrights (and perhaps we have turned out just one – Glen Murcutt), there still wouldn’t be enough architects to do all that’s required.  But are architects the problem?  In A Pattern Language, another seminal tome on the human environment, the American Christopher Alexander suggests a way of creating places that have the elusive ‘quality without a name’.  The goal must be to produce places that evolve directly from the human experience, and it’s not all about physical beauty.  Us humans can be ugly sometimes so it’s only right that we have ugliness mirrored back for us.  However, we are more beautiful than ugly, more good than bad, more alive than dead.

So what to do?  In The Timeless Way of Building, his companion volume to A Pattern Language, Alexander tells us this: ‘There is no skill required.  It is only a question of whether you will allow yourself to be ordinary, and to do what comes naturally to you, and what seems most sensible, to your heart…’  How everything comes back to heart.  And love.  Or maybe I just like returning home to a place which is more landscape than anything else.  Even Boyd, who from my reading of him was a pessimist, admitted that ‘Canberra set out with good intentions and may yet succeed’.  Oh my city, please succeed.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, January 17 2009)

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