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Despite having them in my life for 30 years, more or less, I don’t really know what they are. They flit about like a type of butterfly that may or may not exist.
I can remember being in the Fifth or Sixth Form of the rather well-healed Anglican school I attended on Sydney’s North Shore, my English teacher, Mr Cowdroy, leading us through the reading of a short story, the author of which I regrettably can’t recall. I loved the conciseness of the story – that life could be created and explored and examined in so few pages – and the sense of compression, the cleverness of the ending, which made me want to start reading the story all over again. It also made me want to keep writing, for by that time I had been writing for some years, albeit for school assessment.
Fast forward to my twenties, when I realised that doing little more than hanging out with mates at the pub was not good and deep living and would most likely lead to misery, I began writing stories again, but only because I wanted to. I also read stories, mainly in anthologies. Collections that resonated were Risks (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996; edited by Brenda Walker) and the Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction (Faber and Faber, 1991; edited by Edmund White). I also enjoyed Fishing in the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann (Phoenix House, 1994) and that other Irish chap who did quite well in the form, James Joyce with his Dubliners. I’d go on to discover the short works of Tolstoy and Chekhov, and contemporary writers such as Peter Carey, Annie Proulx, David Malouf, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Tim Winton, Nam Le, and Alice Munro. I subscribed to and read Australian literary journals, including Meanjin, Overland, Island, Tirra Lirra, and Wet Ink.
Over the years that followed I began having my own stories published, at first in relatively minor journals now gathering dust in the National Library of Australia’s vast vaults, before some of my stories were ‘accepted’ (for that appeared to be the termed used) in the journals mentioned above. It was, of course, all very thrilling. To see my name in an edition of Meanjin (2: 2000) alongside writers such as Merlinda Bobis, Thomas Shapcott, Dorothy Hewett, Arnold Zable, and Dorothy Porter. Eventually my published stories were collected in two humble volumes, Homelife (1999) and Joy (2000). The Australia Book Review (no. 224 Sept 2000) described the latter as ‘beautifully poised, warm, lush, humane, with lots of surprises and shocks.’ Which made my heart sing, and still does. I say all this not to brag but to suggest that slowly but surely I have been taking steps; I have, I think, been making progress.
Soon I gathered the confidence to write longer works, including three published novellas and a novel, but rarely does a year go by when I don’t write – and try to have published – short stories. Perhaps part of the attraction is being able to take a break from convoluted, complicated works and spend a week crafting a little tale. But I’m not sure if that’s true and/or wise. Short stories can be just as complex as longer works, if not more so, and they can be just as difficult to write, if not more so. It is common for fiction writers to say that short stories are closer to poetry than prose, in that they are suggestions more than full explorations. In the best fiction, regardless of length, words need to be deployed artfully so life can rise from the page. But perhaps in a short story, as in a poem, each word has to do some impressive – and exhaustive – heavy lifting, often (hopefully) with spectacular results.
Sometimes with spectacular results. My filing cabinet and PC hard-drive are littered with rubbish work.
Recently, to be frank, I’ve been doubting the worth of the short story as a viable form. Australian literary journals do continue to publish them, although, depending on the journal, it could be said that only writers are reading them. On the whole mainstream publishers turn up their noses at collections of stories, claiming readers want a more immersive experience; and some writers who have excelled at the form have simply given up, claiming there is no point when ‘it’s just too hard to find a readership’. So, if the readership is limited, why do it? Isn’t it like, say, insisting on painting miniature portraits, the sort that galleries won’t touch with a barge-pole? But, but, but: every so often single-author collections, such as Nam Le’s The Boat (Penguin, 2008) and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil (Hachette, 2014), make a big public splash.
What am I trying to say? The short story is a surprising and tenacious beast.
A similarly surprising and tenacious beast is the Review of Australian Fiction, which publishes – electronically – two stories every two weeks and often takes the opportunity to publish works that print journals consider ‘too long’ (over 4,000 words); a worthy venture to say the least, considering also that individual issues cost only $2.99. It’s an honour to be published in the Review a second time, especially as I’ve been paired with Marion Halligan, whose collection Shooting the Fox (Allen & Unwin, 2011) was choc-full of literary magic. My story, ‘The Blue Bottle’, has been emerging for many years – decades you could say – because it uses an event from my twenties as a place for jumping off (no, it’s not set in a pub). On the page the story is nothing more or less than fiction, but there must have been something in the original event that had stayed with me and I’d wanted to turn it over with words and sentences and characters and plot. As is so common (predictable?) in my work, the narrative involves an old house and landscape and music and friendship and intimacy and longing and glimpses – glimpses – of love. But I won’t go on.
All I really wanted to tell you is this: ‘The Blue Bottle’ exists, it is here.
Of all the emails I’ve received this was the most difficult – by far.
In the past I’ve received emails announcing the death of a friend or colleague, and I’ve received emails containing heartbreaking literary rejection, but the one that lobbed into my laptop last week truly knocked me sideways. First there was shock, then disbelief, then emptiness, before anger set in; I guess that echoes the stages of grief, doesn’t it. What did the email say? It said that one of my favourite bookshops, one of my favourite shops of all time, was closing its doors after nearly 30 years of trading.
For many Canberrans, the Electric Shadows Bookshop, or ‘ESB’, or ‘Lecky Shads’, has been a bona fide institution. For a couple of decades in the city it co-existed with the infamous but now defunct Electric Shadows Cinema. If you enjoyed the film, you could go next door and buy the book or screenplay or soundtrack – even late into the evening you could do this.
ESB ran a highly regarded video rental library, and it was the only placed in town that stocked genuinely obscure (and sometimes risqué) titles. ESB was also well-known for supporting community events, such as SpringLit, a popular annual gay and lesbian afternoon that celebrated literary luminaries such as Dorothy Porter, Andy Quan, Judy Horacek, and Christos Tsiolkas. Speaking of Tsiolkas, astute readers will remember that in the late 1990s the future author of The Slap could be found behind the Electric Shadows Bookshop counter closing a sale with that warm and generous smile of his.
When the cinema closed in 2006, ESB moved to a new location in Mort Street, Braddon, which at the time was full of caryards, Summernat types, and people wobbling ecstatically out of Civic in the early hours of Sunday morning. The new version of ESB was smaller but funkier, and it hung out next to the Cornucopia Bakery, another Canberra institution that’s bitten the dust. Despite the somewhat cramped conditions, the bookshop continued to support the ACT region with all manner of literary events. The staff members were always knowledgeable and eager to please, with more than a dash of quirky humour.
In short, to me, Electric Shadows Bookshop has been a constant reminder that the world is more interesting than I sometimes think it is. It has given my little life depth and context and meaning. It has given me hope.
So what now?
Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 20 March 2015. Visit Andrew Sikorski to see more of his series of images taken in the last days of the Electric Shadows Bookshop.
They’ll be the end of us.
I’m not talking about the ill-fated book shop but those lines and marks that scare the living shit out of you and me.
There are the geographic borders: a sandy beach, a cliff-face, a wall of impenetrable rainforest. There are the borders that are nothing more than a flashing light on a computer screen or an invisible line somewhere in the ocean.
People want to cross over; they would do anything to go from one side to the other; they might risk death to be ‘over there’, where it is better. There are ways of doing it ‘legally’ and there are ways of doing it ‘illegally’, depending on the circumstances, and the level of desperation. It seems borders and desperation can go hand in hand, especially in this world where the difference between hope and hopelessness can be so marked.
Each week I, too, cross borders; at least, I drive past a sign that indicates I’m going from one place to another. I cross borders because there are opportunities on the other side, in ‘the big city’ as I’ve come to call it. Because these days I live in a country down in regional NSW. Because where I live the only arts work involves packing shelves. So I come into the ACT to do paid gigs that I enjoy, that are meaningful, that help to keep the wolves at bay.
But I’m not suffering political persecution.
Or religious discrimination.
Or threat of incarceration because I’m spending my life with another man.
Or because I’m a woman.
I’m lucky, supremely so, and just like everyone else who is lucky there is an obligation to cross borders at every opportunity. In the way I think, in the way I act and react, in the way I create – especially in the way I create. If artists can’t (or won’t) cross borders, who will? We should be crossing between forms, between materials, between genres, between ideas, between audiences. Because we should always be wanting – needing – to be uncomfortable. Because, perhaps, when uncomfortable we’re more productive, we’re alive, we’re fighting.
Inspiration is everywhere. There’s Oscar Wilde and his ability to move between prose and poetry, between stage and page, between the ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ and risk his freedom and, ultimately, his life in the process. Closer to home there was, up until 2008, the Melbourne-based poet Dorothy Porter, who blurred the lines between collection and novel and reached the point where one of her works, The Monkey’s Mask, made it onto the silver screen. Closer to home even further, we have artists like Andrew Galan, who cross between the written and the spoken and the complex and the simple. And we have Katy Mutton, who slips – almost effortlessly – between the painted, the drawn, the political, and the personal.
Yes, borders are the end of the line for some of our number. And that’s our eternal shame, our immeasurably heavy burden.
But for us lucky ones, borders should be our beginnings.
(First published in BMA Magazine on 23 April 2014. Thanks to Sir Allan Sko.)
A quick note by way of introduction: the following is not a list of what I think are the best books published this year; rather it is a list of work published at any time that I have read this year and have had an influence on me one way or another. Kicking off with poetry, I picked up Air Ship by Roger McDonald (UQP 1975) in a second-hand bookstore halfway through 2013 and I’m glad I did. McDonald has spent much of his significant career writing novels that have had a deep impact on the Australian literary landscape and beyond. His ability to create a sentence that offers so much life and bounce and possibility is, I think, unequalled amongst contemporary writers. And that sense of life and bounce and possibility is present in McDonald’s poetry, even poetry written almost forty years ago. This year I began a habit of spending the first moments of a writing session reading poetry, and it’s Air Ship that has been the book of choice. It’ll probably stay on the desk into 2014.
If there’s an Australian writer who came to change the way the broader community related to poetry it was Dorothy Porter. Best 100 Poems of Dorothy Porter (Black Inc. 2013), curated by partner Andrea Goldsmith, is a fine taster to Porter’s extraordinary intelligence, but also her playfulness, her cheek, and her great heart. Here’s hoping many readers will be tempted to discover new Dorothy Porter territories, such as Crete from 1996 or even Little Hoodlum from 1975 (interesting: the same year McDonald’s Air Ship was published).
Room by Emma Donoghue (Picador 2010) had a physical impact on the way I live. No doubt there are better novels around, better as in reaching for and finding greater and more profound highs and lows, but I enjoyed Room because of the challenge Donoghue set herself: write about entrapment from an innocent child’s perspective, a child who knows no other world than the cell that has been made for him. It does lose some tension in the final stretch, but as soon as I finished the last page I went out and doubled the size of the chook run – I just couldn’t stand to see them cooped up for another minute.
I’ve read and enjoyed all of Christos Tsiolkas’s fiction work and ploughed my way through Barracuda (Allen & Unwin 2013) in three sessions despite its hefty size. It’s a tough book, as can be expected, but it’s also Tsiolkas at his most tender. Australia is unreasonably obsessed with sport, and in Barracuda Tsiolkas goes straight to that particular jugular while also taking the hatchet to the privileged world of elite private schools; he reveals the violence that is so central to Australian mainstream culture and our many hypocrisies around class, race, gender, and sexuality. Despite this, Dan (or Danny), his central character, an elite swimmer whose life doesn’t become what he and everyone else wanted for him, is beautifully brought to the page regardless of – or because of – his many flaws. As others have noted, Barracada does lose some tension in the last third (like Donoghue’s Room), but the novel didn’t lose me.
Staying on the theme of violence, I’m not a fan of reading about war: I’m bored by the strategic machinations, and the human toll can never be anything other than devastating; there might be heroes on the front-line, but every heroic action is blackened by a thousand more tragic ones. Enter Deserter: the last untold story of the second world war by the eminent US/UK journalist Charles Glass (Harper Press, 2013). What this extraordinary and important non-fiction work does is examine the lives of three World War Two servicemen: two from the US, one from England; with a forensic eye and ear for detail he reveals the diverse and multi-layered experiences of these men, and in doing so goes beyond the hero-versus-coward binary.
Just going to put this out there: I adored The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury 2013). Whilst Tsiolkas brings forth the barely hidden violence of ‘the lucky country’, Forna, who was born in Glasgow and raised in Sierra Leone and Britain as well as in Iran, Thailand and Zambia, expertly explores the forever lingering impact of the Croatian conflict. In my review for the Canberra Times (republished in the Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere), I wrote: ‘Forna flatly refuses to over-dramatise. This is a delicate and restrained work. Indeed at times the narrative comes across as a travelogue augmented with childhood reminiscences of hunting and swimming and fumbling first love, these meandering passages lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Forna’s considerable power comes from not overstating her case, and never taking sides. It’s this refusal to make judgements and draw any kind of conclusion that gives The Hired Man its significance… Through Duro Kolak, a complex, conflicted but ultimately likable character, and the many stories he shares with us, Aminatta Forna does what great writing should do: she illuminates the horrors of our times, those that will follow us to the grave, and she makes us feel as though we, too, have played a role, which is almost always the case.’
I still believe everything I wrote in the review, and I still believe everything Aminatta Forna wrote in The Hired Man.
It’s January in Australia and I’m hot and bothered. Hot, because that’s exactly what it is: for weeks now it’s been thirty degrees Celsius in the shade, some days thirty-five. Last Friday went over forty; Sydney, just two hours drive north of me, had its hottest day ever – it breached the forty-five-degree mark. Here at home the chooks have their beaks open and their wings out and hanging low, so I’ve covered their run as much as I can with an old tent-fly – it seems to help, for now. But hot is hot is hot and there’s not much I can do about it. And I can’t do much about the alarming waft of smoke as it comes into town and gets us coughing. Last week there was an automated message left on the landline: ‘Tomorrow’s bushfire conditions are CATASTROPHIC. Activate your bushfire survival plan now.’ I put the sprinkler into the garden and, rather uselessly, turned it on.
All this is enough to make anyone hot and bothered, but it’s not all.
On 26 January there’s Australia Day; yes, it’s come around yet again. So the flags are out and about: they’re being stuck on cars and utes and trucks, they’re hung in shop windows, and they’re sent flapping in front gardens, stating the bleeding obvious, but also as though staking a claim all over again. We do it every year, our national day to commemorate the beginning of British settlement, when Governor Phillip landed at Sydney Cove in 1788. I was born and bred here, my forebears arriving by boat only a handful of years after that adventurous governor. Despite this ancestral longevity, however, and whatever blood I have in my veins, and all my thinking on the topic, I don’t really know this nation of mine; as I age I’m understanding it less and less. So, this summer, this dreadful, pressure-cooked summer, I’ve turned to our writers for assistance, for succour even, because their imagination, observation and skilful way with words are surely better than simply hanging out a flag.
Keep reading at Overland. Thanks to Jeff Sparrow and Jacinda Woodhead.
There’s the luck of the idea, that little ‘what if’ that pops into your brain, you write it down somewhere – a post-it note, the back of a napkin (how appalling it’s been that sometimes I’ve had the best ideas when a little too drunk, so the idea is gone by the morning, it’s never stuck) – and then at some point or other you see if you can turn that idea into something. There’s the luck of having the time, or being in a position to make the time, to do the hard work of writing. And there’s the luck of being in the right headspace to produce that particular story, because every story is different. And then there’s the luck in having the right editor read the piece and there’s always a bit of luck in terms of whether or not the publisher has the physical – or digital – space to get it out into the world.
More specifically, I have looked back at the publication of my novel Remnants as a series of events and confluences that have had as their commonality good bloody luck. In 1999/2000 I did a Masters in Creative Arts (Creative Writing) at the University of Wollongong. It was a great experience, a highlight of my life. First up, I had the good fortune to spend time with writers such as John Scott, Merlinda Bobbis and Tony Macris. Most closely I worked with Tony, and he was sufficiently blunt to tell me that my major project was good enough to give me the qualification but wasn’t good enough to find a publisher.
That night I started on a new project.
By the end of the year I had the bones of a story that I knew I wanted to take further. I spent three years editing and re-working and polishing and worrying and fretting. After shopping the manuscript around, and being told that it was well-written but would never be a commercial proposition, Francesca Rendle-Short, now creative writing academic RMIT but at the time was at the University of Canberra, suggested that I might like to have a chat with Ian Templeman, who was the head-honcho of Pandanus Books, the academic publisher at the Australian National University. Excitedly, impatiently, I arranged this meeting. (I am the least patient person in the world, so perhaps I should be serving burgers rather than writing stories.)
Over lunch Ian told me how he’d read a story of mine, ‘Song of Excess’, in Overland and would love to read the manuscript for my first novel – what luck that he’d read that particular issue!
A month later, I received a letter saying that Ian enjoyed the work but as Pandanus was primarily an academic publisher of non-fiction they couldn’t accept it; I should, however, again make contact with Ian. More than confused, I rang Ian. He said that he would like to publish Remnants, but he would have to establish a special imprint to do so, and this would take ‘some time’. Ian was true to his word, and in 2005 that little novel eventually saw the light of day through Pandanus Books’ Sullivan’s Creek series. Which would fold within a year because the ANU was adamant about focussing on the academic, not the fictional.
Remnants went on to achieve ten reviews, in places like Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Australian Book Review, Antipodes as well as literary journals. Nine of the reviews were positive; eight of those nine were glowingly enthusiastic. There’s no doubt in my mind that I was a very lucky person indeed throughout the whole journey of Remnants, and if that book hadn’t appeared it’s highly likely that I wouldn’t have continued trying my hand with the longer narrative form.
It’s a humble book, and a flawed book, but the more distance I get from it the more I like it, the characters and their situations have resonated with me, and the story has found a small but appreciative audience. However, it left me with two feelings: one, how lucky we need to be for our work to be published; two, that I want to go on, that I want to write more, that I might just be able to do better, but I’ll need a shit-load of luck to go that next step, along with drive and tenacity and sheer hard-work. Plus a good idea every now and again – that wouldn’t go astray.
In terms of current work, my novella Fall On Me was published by Blemish Books last month, and I could tell you a story about that story, how my partner and I went on holiday in Tasmania in 2007, how we stayed a few nights in Launceston, how, one night, we walked up Cataract Gorge and went past the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage and I thought, Mmm, how good would it be to write in a place like that, how two years later, I discovered that the Launceston City Council ran a program where artists could indeed live and work in the Gatekeeper’s Cottage, so I applied, was accepted, and in April-May 2010 went down to Tasmania to live in that Cottage for a month, intending to write short stories, but instead I wrote three novellas, Fall On Me being one of those, how, a year later I saw that Blemish Books was looking for manuscripts around the 40,000-word mark, so I sent off a submission, and the good, generous folks at Blemish loved the thing, so here I am, talking to you about luck and publishing and I’m realising that good fortune plays such a big role, perhaps a bigger role than hard-work and any talent one might have (though talent is always debatable).
And how lucky I am to live in a country where I’ve been able to receive a good education, and there are opportunities to continue that education.
And how lucky I am to have had an English teacher in middle school who once handed back a story I’d written, an obviously average story by the look of the mark written on the top of the front page, but he said to me, ‘You can do so much better.’ So here I am, aged 42, trying to do so much better.
And I could tell you how lucky I am to make a real-estate decision eleven years ago which now allows me to write as fulltime as humanly and financially possible.
And how lucky I am to not be in the twenty per cent of the world’s population that can’t read.
And how lucky I am that you’re reading this post.
All this – every little bit of it – has lead to publication, and now I realise that I am a man of such good fortune. And how grateful I am for every little cheeky drop of it.
Perhaps all writers feel this way, at times, to a certain extent. I’m reminded of the greatly loved Dorothy Porter, whose final poem, ‘View from 417’, finishes with these delicious words: Something in me/despite everything/can’t believe my luck.
With thanks to Irma Gold, who asked a question that inspired this post.
For the last few days – these slow, almost alcoholic summer days – I’ve had on my dining table a pile of books, the books I’ve read in the past year. There are not many books in the pile, just fifteen in total, which isn’t much more than one book per month. It’s a busy life and this pile, so it seems, is all that I can manage. Of the fifteen books, twelve are fiction; there are three books of short stories; there is only one poetry collection, though in the pile is an essay by a poet, the same poet who wrote the collection. Seven of the books were written by Australians; only three of the books were written by women – two of them by the same woman, actually, the poet.
How I’ve loved having this tower of books on view! What worlds I’ve explored in the last twelve months!
Why, however, is the pile of books on my dining table in the first place? Because it’s good, good as in telling, to review the year’s reading. When I scan the covers, which make my heart skip a beat?
Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History by Adam Nicolson was a completely edifying non-fiction read about a man who inherits a castle but then takes on the National Trust as he tries to return the estate to how he remembers it being when he was a child. No, it doesn’t sound much, does it, but ultimately it’s an exploration of place and belonging, and if there are two words I adore they are place and belonging. Into the bargain is the fact that Nicolson writes beautifully, which is handy because his grandmother was Vita Sackville-West.
The late Dorothy Porter’s Love Poems is an exhilarating collection of poems about love, desire, passion and obsession, the bliss, the poison, the sheer dangerous drug of it all. But this isn’t love poetry that could find its way into greeting cards, oh no, it’s not that. Try this on for size: ‘There’s a white-blue nerve burning/across my night sky/I wish it hurt to watch/because then/I might stop’ (Comets 1). Even if you’re not a fan of poetry, check out Love Poems. Please do. You might find yourself in love, or lust. If only with words.
Two other books that really did it for me are story collections from Tolstoy and Chekhov (which makes me sound dreadfully literary and stuffy and tweed, but I can only tell the truth): The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories and The Steppe and Other Stories, 1887-1891 respectively. The sparse, intense and – yes – grim realism from these Russians can be breathtaking, and just a little humbling. Chekhov’s ‘Gusev’ is a good example of how short stories can achieve so much; the ending in particular is extraordinary, and really it’s just ink on paper.
Speaking of short stories, I finally read Nam Le’s The Boat, and it lived up to the hype, which is always a relief. ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, which I’d already read in the Australian journal Overland, is one of the best contemporary short stories I’ve experienced in years. Oh bugger it, it is the best. And many of the others are very nearly as good, including the title story, which should be required reading for all Australians, especially at Christmas time. In this collection, Nam Le displays such a wide range of themes and styles that it’s almost unbelievable that this is the work of one person. Clearly a very good book by a writer a lot of people will be watching. Australia’s Franzen perhaps?
However, the two books of 2010 that truly moved me were In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (yes, I’m a little late getting to this) and The Lakewoman by Alan Gould.
I read Capote’s monumental work on the way to spend a month in Tasmania, which is rather apt considering that island’s terrible penal history, and I was overwhelmed by the author’s control of his material, the depth to which he plummets the characters and their situations in order to unearth the core of the tale, and the startling qualities of the prose. How’s this for a final sentence: ‘Then, starting home, he walked towards the trees, and under them, leaving behind the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat’. Ah the weight – and sheer life – of poetry. A bold, important book that appears not to have aged one bit.
Speaking of poetry, Alan Gould is a wizard of the craft and he brings this wizardry to his ‘romance’ (his term, or at least his publisher’s) about an Australian soldier who parachutes into German-occupied France during World War Two only to be rescued by a mysterious woman who emerges from the flooded battle-fields. Whilst magical, The Lake Woman is not magic realism, and I gobbled up the last third of the novel in one sitting. A full box of tissues needed to have been on standby. Not only was it the story that got me in the gut, it was the quality of the sentences, each and every one of them giving the reader something to savour. If you’re looking for a love story with depth and intelligence and written by a master of the English language, do hunt down this book. Stealing it from the grannie on the train-seat next to you would be justifiable.
So there it is: the best of my year of reading. What the dining-table pile says to me is that, yes, what wonderful worlds I’ve experienced in the last twelve months, and without these worlds, and without the music I listen to (music which, in its own strange way, can augment these worlds), life would be bereft of much of its meaning, worthless even.
Bring on the new worlds!
‘One day I will die. One day I will not wake up to the smell of my partner bringing my morning mug of strong coffee up the stairs. One day I will be dust. But I have learnt the truly hard way that the passion I must cling to and ardently believe in is plain gusto. To respectfully paraphrase [Agatha] Christie – whose books were wonderful comfort and company when I was on chemo – how lovely to be fifty-four years old and greedy!’ From On Passion, by the much-loved poet Dorothy Porter (1954-2008).
I’m a fair way off 54, but I’m greedy too. For great stories (like those contained in this book), for great music (Frightened Rabbit is doing it for me at the moment), for great food, for great places, for great company, which I’m lucky to have.
I’m greedy for as much life as my trusty little ticker can handle.
I’m greedy for fucking gusto.
But best to give the last word to the poetry wizard, another quote from the delicious read that is On Passion. ‘One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen is an azure kingfisher fishing in a mangrove swamp near my family home in Pittwater, Sydney. I was paddling a canoe down a creek in a rare meditative silence (one of the joys of canoeing), when there was a flash of orange/blue, like a jewelled dart suddenly spearing into the water. And as Gerard Manley Hopkins so exquisitely says, I watched a kingfisher ‘catch fire’. In the same sonnet, Hopkins proclaims the unique wonder of ‘each mortal thing’: ‘What I do is me: for that I came.’‘
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.)