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Not my backyard chook set-up, but it'd be great if it was - there'd be oodles of rituals to be found

Not my backyard chook set-up, but it’d be great if it was – there’d be oodles of rituals to be found

We’ve all heard of writers who have certain rituals they put themselves through before starting a work, or when finishing a work, or when the work has gone off into what’s likely to be a dreadful dead-end.  Some writers only start putting words down on the page when they have three blue Bic pins lined up nicely on the desk; others have to take a walk up the hill and down the trail and over the creek.

No doubt you have your rituals too, whether you’re a writer or not.

For me, it’s cleaning out the chook-shed.  Yes, once I’ve fed the dog and had breakfast myself, once I’ve read the newspaper headlines online and checked the emails that have come in overnight and quickly scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed – as if my friends know something about the world the newspapers have missed; sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t – I head outside, feed the chooks, refresh their water, and clean out their shit-tray.  Yes, there’s a tray that catches their poo.

I have the world’s smallest backyard so in my quest to keep happy chooks there needs to be a judicious use of space, which has meant creating a two-storey coop.  To stop the girls crapping into their water while roosting my brother and I constructed a drawer that’s lined with sugar-cane mulch.  So this is my ritual, the last thing I do before heading to the writing room (which sometimes feels like a bower of bliss, other times it’s a pit of eternal doom, often it’s both at once): I lift the side hatch, slide out the draw, and with an old brickie’s trowel found in a secondhand yard, I carefully extract the little – or not so little, as the case my be – macaroons of chookshit and drop them into the watering-can at my feet.

It is, to be sure, a strange ritual, but also appropriate.

For a start it’s mechanical: open hatch, pull out drawer, scoop shit into watering-can.  Writing is all head, and fiction – its production at least – is amorphous and multi-layered and inherently complex and slippery and more often than not mind-warpingly unfathomable.  So it’s good to start with something that is so rudimentarily of the body.  And it doesn’t require much thinking beyond ‘Ooh, lots of crap today’ or ‘That one’s a bit runny – I wonder who’s feeling off?’ or ‘My God, that really does look like a macaroon’.  Of course, this whole process is analogous to writing: getting ride of the crap, cleaning up, putting the house together so everyone is happy and healthy and full of life.

But there’s more to it, of course.  Because each morning, once the watering-can has its scattering of chook crap at the bottom, I half-fill it with water and let it all stew into a foul-smelling swill.  Sometime later, it could be at lunchtime or during afternoon tea, I top up the watering-can with more water before finding a sapling or shrub or tiny little annual or perennial to give what I always imagine to be an intoxicating concoction.  So it’s also about turning the crap into a ripe juice that will make leaves grow glossy and green, stems thick and solid, moving everything along despite the harsh Southern Tablelands weather – the desiccating summers and the cutting winds and the wild wild frosts of winter.

Life, in other words; life against all odds.

Because surely that’s what writing is all about: creating richly living life from the most unlikely ingredients – paper and ink and a brain that, despite everything it knows, thinks it can do something with all this.  Regardless of the odds, which are so resolutely stacked against the whole wretched bloody enterprise.  For what’s in that watering-can is hope: faith, reassurance, optimism, aspiration, credit, trust.

There’s a phrase for hope: ‘a castle in the air’.

I call it chookshit in a watering-can.

A confession: I’ve got the hots for a chick, and have had so for quite time.  Of course, she doesn’t have flesh and bones, at least not to me; she’s a voice, a music, and what an extraordinary voice she has, and what extraordinary music she makes.  And her most recent album: well, it’s been a long time since I’ve adored an album as much as this, how I’ve learnt every song, as in I’ve become to understand it all, it’s seeped into me, getting beneath my skin.  You know when you’re young and you listen to an album so often that you start to become sick of it?  So you wisen up and get into the habit of drip-feeding albums that you’re loving.  Or you love an album immediately only to find that it doesn’t hold its own ground.  Or you don’t like an album immediately, but soon find yourself playing it over and over, loving it intensely, obsessively, until it’s all-consuming.

PJ Harvey’s most recent album Let England Shake is the sort of album that makes me remember the great records from my deep, dark past – Faith by The Cure, London Calling by The Clash, The Queen is Dead by The Smiths – and I do own this latest Harvey opus on record, as in on vinyl, because that’s how I like to listen to the best albums that come my way.

Despite being an age-old though not uncritical PJ Harvey fan, I’ve come a little late to Let England Shake.  It was recorded over a five-week period at a church in Dorset UK in April and May 2010 (when I was bunking down in Launceston Tasmania, I realise rather deliciously) and released later that year.  In 2011 Harvey won the coveted Mercury Prize for this record, making her the only musician to have bagged the honour twice; she’d previously won it for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea back in 2001.

What makes Harvey such an exciting, beguiling, and sometimes, let’s face it, frustrating singer-songwriter is her dogged refusal to repeat herself (Tim Winton should take notice, in more ways than one).  Her albums have covered such various terrain as riot-grrl grunge, folk, pop, electronica, sparse piano ballads (check out 2007’s White Chalk), and now she adds a dozen war songs to her, er, canon.

Harvey wrote Let England Shake over a two-and-a-half-year period, producing the lyrics first – she claims to be inspired by Harold Pinter and TS Elliot – before sitting down to set the lyrics to music.  Her mission, it’s clear, was to explore what it means to live in a country that’s at war.  However, this isn’t some table-thumping polemic; it’s intimate, it’s beautiful, it’s harsh, it’s haunting.  Her voice is higher than on previous records, and it’s complemented – more than appropriately – by the deep timbre of her long-time collaborators, John Parish, who Harvey has described as her music soul-mate, and Mick Harvey (no relation), who for many years has worked with Nick Cave.

Using instruments as diverse as autoharp, zither, piano, trombone and saxophone, as well as some cheeky and downright hilarious samples, Harvey has crafted an album that is as engaging as it is adventurous.  And it’s packed with tunes; it would almost be thigh-slapping good fun if it the subject matter wasn’t so serious.  Check out ‘The Last Living Rose’, the gut-wrenching ‘On Battleship Hill’ and ‘Written on the Forehead’ to experience the musical and emotional range of the album.

It’s true that PJ Harvey can be awkward company: I imagine that you’d have a delightful cup of tea with her, she’d smile, she’d talk sweetly but with brutal honesty, before she’d stand up, excuse herself, and go and play with her chooks or pot up some salvia.  And I haven’t always been faithful to her; in fact years have gone by when I’ve not had much to do with her.  But, despite the latest fixation on how ugly human beings can be to each other, how supremely violent for no real logical reason, we’re back together now.  And I feel that this time she’s with me for quite some time.  Even if she does a runner on me again, or I do a runner on her, I have no doubt that in twenty years time I’ll still be playing Let England Shake, and on vinyl, and loud, very very loud.

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