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Directly behind me was a 100,000-person city.  Really.

What was I doing in this place? I had no clue.

Back in April 2010, after I’d landed in Launceston, I walked to the front door of the Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s in Cataract Gorge Cottage (courtesy of the city council) and thought, ‘I have no friggin’ clue what I am doing.’

The cottage was perched on the edge of a cliff; there were metal bars on the windows to prevent break-ins. The gorge was both beautiful and disturbingly dark, to the point that when the sun wasn’t shining it was grim, if not straight-out depressing. With the small rooms, and being up high with 180-degree views of a surprisingly wild urban-edge environment, it wasn’t hard to imagine that I was about to spend time in a lighthouse.

All I could do was get to work.*

Four weeks later I left Tasmania with the very sketchy drafts of three…what the hell were they? Novellas? Yes, they were novellas. Mainstream publishers will tell you that this ‘in between’ literary form is almost impossible to produce commercially: they cost the same as a novel to edit and print and distribute and market but readers are wary of paying good money for a ‘small’ book; no one knows what novellas really are (meaning, are they inherently ‘difficult’?); and perhaps they’re too long for a single-sitting reading but not long enough for complete immersion.

Which is where Blemish Books came in. Thank Christ.

The mighty ACT-based independent press published Fall on Me in 2011 and I’m Ready Now in 2012 – these books bagged some enthusiastic reviews, a few gongs, and, perhaps most importantly, found their way into the loving arms of readers, a handful of whom have gone on to be very vocal champions of these funny little books. Although ‘funny’ is the wrong word. I don’t consider either Fall on Me or I’m Ready Now to be ‘difficult’, but they do have dark themes: the former is about a father and teenaged son and the long-term ramifications of a cold-blooded murder; the latter concerns a stoic though grieving mother and an almost unreasonably adventurous adult son, both of whom need to make life-changing decisions.

And then there were three.

And then there were three.

The Beach Volcano is a different beast altogether. It focuses on middle-aged man called Canning Albury, although most would know him under another name – because he has been a much-revered Australian rock musician. He is long-estranged from his family, having left home at the age of seventeen under a heavy cloud. Now armed with what he thinks is the secret to his family’s questionable past, Canning travels from his secluded though tantalisingly unfulfilled life in Launceston back to Sydney so he can help celebrate his father’s 80th birthday, which is to be a grand event at the ancestral mansion on the edge of the harbour. Needless to say, things go arse-up pretty quickly.

Perhaps, like the two preceding novellas, The Beach Volcano is about confronting the past in order to have a good, open and honest future, but it’s also, I think, about the power of families to both destroy and heal, and how we must navigate our own way. If there’s anything that binds these three stories, it’s the notion of family being infinitely complex.

But that’s enough from me.

Here’s what I really want to do – give you a heads-up about the launch:

The Beach Volcano will be launched at 6pm on Thursday 18 September at Electric Shadows Bookshop, Mort Street, Braddon, ACT.

Importantly, there will be wine, and a very wonderful launcher (already sorted but not yet made public).

And there will be a ridiculously nervous writer.

It would be brilliant to have your company.

____

* I can now see that the month I spent in Cataract Gorge was one of the most productive times of my life.

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.

Cowan Creek, Kuringai Chase National Park, Sydney, 1986

‘Don’t do it,’ she said, ‘they’ll eat you alive, you’ll regret it, you might not write another word.’  We were in a cafe and I’d just told my friend that I’d been invited to attend a Canberra book-club to talk about Fall On Me.  ‘They forget that you’re the writer and it turns feral,’ she explained.  ‘I certainly won’t be attending one ever again.’  So I worried about it, whether I should go or not; I became more and more nervous as the evening drew closer.  I seriously considered cancelling my involvement, or perhaps I could come down with a very rare but completely depilating illness.  Which, thankfully, never had to happen.  Because my evening with a book-club turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done in 18 years of doing this; in fact, it’s in my Top Three Writerly Experiences of All Time.

For a start, the host was an old high-school friend, and we’d not seen each other for 25 years.  I knew this already, which is why I would never have cancelled, because Rosy was wonderful at school, so kind and generous and good natured, and I had no doubt that she wouldn’t have changed, and I was right.  Secondly, how often does a writer have an opportunity to discuss his/her book for three hours with people who’ve read it so closely?  Even to the point that they picked up a mistake: in the book, two characters – Lou Bard, a single father and cafe owner, and his enigmatic housemate Anna – are having a deep and meaningful discussion in the kitchen over a bottle of red: large wine glasses are used, and the wine is poured out three times, which the book-clubbers said was unlikely out of just one bottle.  (I really should know these things, shouldn’t I.)  But how lovingly – have I mentioned that the group comprised only women? – this observation was made.  In fact, it was a great laugh.

Thirdly – and here’s the truly amazing thing – what really clinched it for me was this: each book-club session someone volunteers to bring food inspired by the book.  One of the women made a pizza based on the favourite topping of Lou’s son Luke: potato, fetta and chilli.  With a huge smile on her face she said to me, ‘It must be very yummy for you to put it in the book!’  And I said, ‘I have no idea – I just made it up!’  That’s fiction for you.  Thankfully Luke has excellent taste, and we all woofed the pizza down, and I’m going to make it, too, life imitating art.  She also made caramel slice, because there’s mention in the book of Lou having caramel slice in his cake display at the cafe, but it must have been there for a while because it’s started to get that slightly unsavoury dew on top.  So she put her home-made slice in the fridge for an hour to replicate the effect.

How good is that.

It makes me want to do it all again, which is handy because, as reported earlier, it is all happening again: Blemish Books is publishing another novella from me later this year, another of the Launceston novellas, the stories I wrote while I spent a month in that town as an artist-in-residence at the Cataract Gorge Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage courtesy of the City Council.

As a kid I loved writing, telling stories; the highlight of my week was the double creative-writing period.  I’d write and write and write, just made shit up really, but I loved how the pen seemed to get carried away on the page, except it was really me who was getting carried away, wasn’t it.  And I still get carried away, especially when writing by hand, as in handwriting, which is what I did in Launceston during those four weeks.  When school finished all that time ago, however, there was no thought – it simply never occurred to me – that I might go on to do something with this story-telling thing, so I enrolled in landscape architecture, because it seemed interesting enough, and it was.

But the boy in the photo above: though he’s hiding from you, though you can’t see his face, you know what he’s thinking: school is finished, I’m off to university, it’s all a great adventure, but what am I doing, what am I to do with this life?  It’s not until now that he knows.

Because the boy is me.


I have monkeys on the brain.

It’s all because earlier this year I was lucky enough to spend a month in Launceston as an artist-in-residence at the Gatekeeper’s Cottage in Cataract Gorge, courtesy of the local city council.  As strange as it might seem in this age of animal liberation, Launceston has 26 Japanese Macaque monkeys living in an enclosure in the city park.  The Macaques are the sort you sometimes see in wildlife documentaries keeping warm in winter by sitting blissfully in hot springs with snow piling on top of them.  The Tasmanian colony was a gift from Ikeda in Japan, Launceston’s sister-city.

Every morning that month I walked across town to visit my monkey friends.  I’d find one to look at.  I’d stare as it combed its fingers through a mate’s hair, find a flea or a nit and then put it in its mouth and have a taste, and then keep combing.  I took photos, I watched some more, and then took more photos.  I learnt that the colony has herpes and they’ve become in-bred.  What did they think of their situation?  Did they want to shout out, Why can’t you leave us alone?  Can’t you see we’re trying to have some private time here?  But they just kept grooming each other.

Back in the Gatekeeper’s Cottage, I sat at the desk overlooking the deep, dirty water of the gorge and wrote and wrote until my eyes became bloodshot, but below me tourists crowded on the King’s Bridge.  They looked up and stared and pointed at me.  I didn’t have any mates to groom, and I don’t have herpes, nor am I inbred (though there are days when it feels like I might be), so it mustn’t have been terribly interesting.

But still they took photos of me, they watched me some more, and then took more photos.  At first I liked being on show – Here I am being creative! How clever I am! – but the novelty soon wore off.  Within days I wanted to scream out, Why can’t you leave me alone?  Can’t you see I’m trying to have some private time here?  But I didn’t scream out.

Because, it seems, a writer in a gatekeeper’s cottage is photo-worthy.

And so is a monkey in a cage.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, July 31 2010.)

What can be said about endings that hasn’t been said before (and by endings I don’t mean the last sentence of a story, or the final frame of a film, or a person’s back-side, although perhaps I am, we’ll see)?  All good things must come to an end?  One door closes, while another opens?  What starts must finish?  Clichés, the lot of it, except, of course, in every cliché there’s a grain of truth, which in itself is a cliché, but let’s stop there or else we’re going to get stuck in a dreadful brain-porn cycle.

All I really want to say is that a month ago I came to the Gatekeeper’s Cottage at Cataract Gorge, Launceston, Tasmania, to write, as well as give some workshops, which I’ve enjoyed immensely, so thanks so much if you attended one of the sessions and are reading this.

And write I have, though that’s secret scribe’s business.

Now I’m done.  It’s over.

I’m not sure when I’ll come back to Tasmania – there’s one heck of a large world out there, with lots of residency programs to which I might apply.  Eek, the thought of going on another residency in the near future…well, it’s too soon to be talking about going away again to write.  That’s the future, and this post is about endings, going home, being with He Who Stayed At Home, and the Old Lady of The House, and Cat the Ripper.

To get myself and you, dear reader, on our collective way, I’ve channelled some wisdom from people who seem to know about the whole home caper, and I thought I’d share it with you – see below.

We’ll talk again when I’m snug in my own home, in my own bed, in my own study, with my own books and CDs and LPs, in my own good old flawed life.

Home is where you hang your head. Groucho Marx

Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. Matsuo Basho

When I am abroad, I always make it a rule never to criticise or attack the government of my own country.  I make up for lost time when I come home. Winston Churchill

I never worry about being driven to drink; I just worry about being driven home. W.C. Fields

Fiction was invented the day Jonas arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale. Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Home is where one starts from. T.S. Eliot

Directly behind me is a 100,000-person city. Really.

Courtesy of the Launceston City Council, the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage, pictured above, is my home for the next four weeks.  For those not familiar with this neck of the woods, Launceston is a small city in the northern part of Tasmania.  Between Tasmania and Antarctica is…well, nothing except a shitload of ocean.

The 120-year-old Kings Bridge Cottage is perched on the side of a 200-million-year-old dolomite cliff overlooking the South Esk River.  From where I’m sitting, if I look to the right I may as well be in wilderness because all there is to see is dark brown deep water and bush-covered valley walls (with the sound of rapids not far behind); but if I look to the left, there’s traffic scurrying across two bridges and further back the red-roof clutter of the Launceston CBD.  So this humble cottage (though it’s not really that humble: four times a day cruise boats glide up and down the river, the passengers snapping away at this architectural miracle, so I stand a distance back from the windows in case I look like a caged animal) is a gatekeeper in more ways than one.

Why I am here?  Because the good folk of the Launceston City Council have the generosity and foresight to offer their gatekeeper’s cottage to artists who not only want to progress a particular project but are also willing to engage with the local community.  Which means I have a responsibility to write and to connect.  (I have decided that while I’m here I will write everything – even blog posts – by hand, meaning handwriting.  For those who’ve had the great misfortune of experiencing my illegible scrawl, this will be quite an achievement, if I can pull it off.)

But that responsibility of writing.  It has me thinking of a quote by Ben Okri, author of The Famished Road.  ‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully, which is to say write well.  Within this responsibility is that of being truthful.  To charm, to amuse, to enchant, to take use out of ourselves, these are all part of beauty.  But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt while they were alive (because they can’t really do it the same way when dead), and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’  (A Way of Being Free, 1997)

So here I am, in a 120-year-old gatekeeper’s cottage perched on the edge of a 200-million-year-old dolomite cliff, hoping, by heart and hand, to bear witness in my own way to the beauties, ordinariness and horrors of my time.

It sounds so bloody grand.  And hard.

Oh Christ, what have I done.

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