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Composer James Humberstone during the creative development sessions at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, December 2017. (Image: Ryley Gillen)

When I first met James Humberstone, over dinner in 2015, he looked like a guitarist in Radiohead: joggers, funky trousers, coloured T-shirt, and a cardigan that looked like something a soccer player would wear in the garden. With his English accent (he was born in London and migrated to Australia in 1997) and a brain full of opinions, which range from veganism to marriage equality, James is terrific company. In terms of music, I remember us that night chatting about Malcolm Williamson, the Australian composer who was also the Master of the Queen’s Music from 1975 until his death in 2003, but also the stratospheric English rock band Muse. James has an irreverent sense of humour, with political conservatives coming off second best.

With the Sydney shows for THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT just around the corner – Friday 27 July, to be precise – James and I had a chat about our influences, and, after all these years, what we think is at the core of our song cycle.

NIGEL

In terms of music, who inspires you?

JAMES

Howard Skempton (image credit: Clive Barda)

The biggest influence on my own composition has been Howard Skempton, the English post-experimental composer. I remember the first time I heard his Lento, at the age of 16, I was struck by a music that was timeless in more than one way. Timeless because it was obviously new, but seemed ancient, too. And timeless because structurally it felt like the piece didn’t go from A to B to C, but instead just occupied the time for which it lasted.

At university I was able to find more of his music, and loved it equally. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Howard’s music over 20 years ago and was lucky enough to study with him privately for a short time before migrating to Australia.

In Australia, the biggest influence on me has been Anne Boyd, who was my supervisor during my Masters in composition, but also influenced me through the study of her own work, as I engraved it as she wrote it over a few years, and as a friend. I knew I wanted to be an academic-composer early on, but it was Anne who made me sure of it.

Of course, I’m inspired by many other composers and performers. In the last decade I’ve drawn on so many of J S Bach’s ideas, which are still so radical even today. I think Beethoven was probably the greatest composer to live, and don’t ever try to emulate him. As a young teenage composer I was inspired by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Britten, and still often revisit their scores to see how they achieved the amazing sounds that they did, especially orchestrally. While I’d describe myself as a (post-)experimentalist (though if Cage didn’t like that label, why would I?), I’m one of the few who loves the music of both minimalists and the serialists/complexists. In fact, there isn’t much music that I don’t like, although to me the stuff that’s truly inspiring is the music you don’t ‘get’ the first time and hear new things in every time you listen.

I’ve listed traditional western art music composers there, but I must also say that last qualification applies to all of the genres I listen to. The greats include Radiohead and Björk, but there are many writing such interesting music in all fields now – I’m listening to hip-hop, punk and EDM just as much as I am to any art music composer. It’s a feast.

What about your musical inspirations?

NIGEL

My musical life started with Kate Bush and The Cure and has progressed (maybe?) from there. Bands that continue to resonate are The Smiths, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Red House Painters, Frightened Rabbit, and The Go! Team, as well as artists such as Nina Simone, PJ Harvey, Peaches, and DJ Shadow. I went through a huge dance-music stage – series by Global Underground and Renaissance – and I still enjoy the more intricate side of that kind of music e.g. Burial, Kiasmos, and Jon Hopkins. After getting into some wonderful post-rock – primarily Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Explosions in the Sky – I’ve been immersing myself in more minimal music; I’ve always loved Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, and Arvo Pärt, but more recently I’ve been listening to Dustin O’Halloran, Jóhann Jóhannsson (rest his soul), and Max Richter – I love his re-scoring of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as well as Three Worlds, his score for a ballet based on the novels of Virginia Woolf. Nils Frahm’s All Melody is that newest album that I adore, as well as Singularity by Jon Hopkins.

I could go on…

Tell me about the literature that has interested you?

JAMES

I’m a complete lightweight, but not because I want to be. I have a job that involves reading thousands of words every day, and while I do find reading for research extremely pleasurable (I won’t say the same for marking university assignments, but they are an essential part of the education process, so I try not to complain), I have little energy left for reading for pleasure, so tend to read page-turners.

Margaret Atwood

Rather like my choice of films and TV series, my tired brain enjoys science fiction as Philip K Dick described it (anything where reality has changed a little bit – not necessarily with spaceships and laser guns!). I’m a huge Phillip Pullman fan, and really want his permission to create an opera trilogy of the Dark Materials books (I’ve asked; his agent says no), just reread Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale after the excellent new TV adaptation, and have been enjoying reading Tolkien and Rowling to my kids.

That may not sound very inspiring for a composer, but I should point out that when one works with words, as I have in my two largest recent projects, The Weight of Light and Odysseus: Live, I’m constantly inspired by the texts that I’m setting. One begins with the words, their emotion, their structure, their intent, the narrative, and everything is planned around that. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with some amazing writers, and have never had to set a ‘dud’ text yet. I imagine that it would result in a piece of music that wasn’t much cop, either.

Over to you: what’s the literature that inspires?

NIGEL

I love the Russans, especially Chekhov and Tolstoy. More often than not I’m stunned by JM Coetzee. Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx is one of the most extraordinary pieces of literature I know, as is Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and The Riders were an early influence, and I’ve also found much inspiration in Helen Garner, as well as Patrick White and Randolph Stow. Of course, there’s Hemingway – what a perfect piece of writing is The Old Man in the Sea. Other authors who regularly inspire are Aminatta Forna, Kazuo Ishiguro, Colm Tóibín, Evelyn Waugh, Michelle de Kretser, Alan Hollinghurst, Anne Enright, Evelyn Waugh, Christos Tsiolkas, and EM Forster. In terms of poetry, for me it’s Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, ee cumings, Philip Larkin, and Dorothy Porter. Recent novels that knocked me for a six: Solar Bones by Mike McCormack and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, both of which are thrillingly, bravely experimental – but with heart.

To finish, in terms of THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT I’ve been thinking that, at its core, the work is about the pressure nations put on individuals to do near impossible things, but the unpredictable chances we get to heal and make new.

What do you think the work is about at its core?

JAMES

Humanity, or the human spirit if you prefer, pulling us through.

Whether we live in Australia, where most of us live in the top levels of wealth in the whole world, or in poor countries where the majority struggle to survive, or in war zones, where it might not matter how wealthy or poor you are, but whether you can save your life and the lives of your family — we all have stories of adversity that we have survived. Most adults have lost someone very close to them. Many of us, even in this country, have struggled with questions of our identity or against forces and misassumptions out of our control. Perhaps just thinking back on those things is enough to make us cry, or break down again.

Yet most of us get up. And get on. And when we see someone who can’t, or at least not yet, we help them. Or, at least, the best of us do.

In THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT a series of devastating events shake our soldier to the core, all over one short weekend. He is down, he is down again, he is hurt, hurt, hurt, and breaking. Yet he gets up. We endure and express so much pain, but we get up. And when we can’t, we ‘cry out for help’, and hopefully our family and our friends are there for us. I hope in this Trumpian, post-Brexit, keep-out-the-boat-people time that we live in, that the tide might change, soon, as we remember our humanity and find a little more compassion and love for those around us – or far away – who are hurting.

Michael Lampard as The Soldier, at the world premiere of THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, Canberra, The Street Theatre, Canberra, 2018. (Image credit: Shelly Higgs)

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THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT: Friday 27 July 2018, 1pm and 7.30pm. Venue: Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featuring Michael Lampard as The Soldier. Pianist: Alan Hicks. Direction: Caroline Stacey. Tickets ($25/$15) available here.

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THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium and developed by The Street Theatre in Canberra.

Mr MachineMore often than not the experimental end of the ‘new music’ spectrum leaves me wanting to lie down in the middle of the Hume Highway on a forty-degree afternoon.  But I love Berlin’s The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble (or, apparently, just Brandt Brauer Frick).  They’re a strange combination of techno artists meet classically trained experimental composer who as a bunch like to make dance music using mostly acoustic instruments – and by rights they should be awful.  Thankfully their Mr. Machine album is fresh and new and wonderfully playful, and gives a hint where Australia’s Alpine could go if they ever want to chuck a Kid A.  Check out ‘Pretend’, though be warned: this is as straight as they get.

KveikurAs anyone who’s dropped into UTCOAFITD over the years, I do love lashings of Sigur Ros – always have, always will.  But I was more than a little troubled to hear that last year their foundation multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson had decided he’d had enough and it would be left to the remaining Icelandic pixies to limp on without him.  Amazing, then, that Kveikur is so good.  It’s rawer, rockier, darker; certainly it’s less pretty.  Because I’m a fussy bastard, hard (almost impossible?) to please, I hold to my view that Sigur Ros never quite let themselves go over the edge – if they did, they’d blow the world to smithereens.

Trouble will find meSure Trouble Will Find Me by The National is appearing on a lot of ‘best of the year’ lists, but there’s a very good reason for it: this is the Ohio band’s finest selection of tunes to-date.  It’s Dad-rock for those with an alternative bent, and as some wag somewhere or other put it they’re the Counting Crows it’s okay to like.  But when the songs are as lovingly crafted as this it’s music that’s hard to ignore.  On Trouble will Find Me, The National are like a good port: it’s an old taste, and it’s a resolutely familiar taste, but it loosens you up…before dropping you down into a glorious pit of melancholia.  ‘Graceless’ is just one of the crackers on offer.

hopkins_immunityThe London-based Jon Hopkins is a strange musical beast: he’s a soundtrack composer (he did the tasty music to the tasty Monsters film) and for some reason or other he’s helped bands like Coldplay and seems to enjoy hanging out with Brian Eno, but he also makes his own albums, which, it’s true, can be hit and miss.  Immunity is easily his crowning achievement so far and was nominated for the 2013 Mercury Prize.  At times it’s thumpingly atmospheric dance music, but it can also turn sweet at the drop of a hat.  ‘Open Eye Signal’ is such a fantastic piece of minimalist, gritty dance music (it reminds me a little of ‘Rez’, the B-side to Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’); damn good video too.  Just so you know, Immunity is brilliant in headphones.

EngravingsFor the last few months I thought Immunity was going to be my album of the year, but then came along Engravings by Forest Swords, who is another English producer of excitingly sliced eletronica.  But where Hopkins is slick and melodic, Forest Swords creates a more organic and varied sound; certainly there’s nothing here that could be described ‘lovely’.  On first listen, Engravings might be a little hard on the old lug-holes (no surprises that the creator of this music suffers from tinnitus and related issues) but, oh my, it reveals itself over repeated listens.  The bloody thing’s never far from the stereo.

ReflektorI’ve written at length about Reflektor by Arcade Fire and after countless listens I still think it’s a very fine record.  As always, this Montreal lot are maddeningly, frustratingly brilliant; LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy has helped them find their very appealing swagger, but there are still songs which build and build before…they unravel in front of your ears.  Perhaps the unravelling is intentional, but it can drive a punter to despair.  And ‘despair’ is an interesting word to use here, because Arcade Fire, to a certain extent at least, have built their career on exploring contemporary despair in all its urban and semi-urban grimness.  Lucky for us, then, this time around they invite us down to the disco for a party, with a few deliciously weird and wild left-turns to keep us guessing.

Finally, here are three honourable mentions.

Does it look like I’m here? by Emeralds – a strange but beguiling beast, this is gloriously noodly, and at times can come across as good as M83 but without the histrionics.  Pedestrian Verse by Frightened Rabbit – a very solid record from these very solid Scots.  Being their major-label debut it lacks the rough edges of the earlier work, but perhaps this is a more varied record; it does contain ‘Backyard Skulls’, which is an elegantly structured master-stroke of a pop-song.  And, finally, there’s One (壱) Uno (壹) Ein by Australia’s Rat & Co – a captivatingly risky record, perhaps (most likely) the best one from our funny little old nut-case country. Check out ‘The Letter’.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs. For months now I’ve been meaning to write at length about this album but frankly I’ve just never known how to do it.  I love husband-and-wife team Win Butler and Régine Chassagne and their expanded brood.  Both their previous albums, Funeral and Neon Bible, are classics in my book in that they have something to say and know how to say it, plus there’s an element of timelessness about the music they make.  However, at first I wasn’t sure about The Suburbs. As others have noted, the band have turned down their histrionics to suit the subject matter of suburban alienation and emptiness, and perhaps this is a good thing as at times this Canadian lot do conjour up an almost evangelical zeal.  But a number of the songs here, particularly in the middle third, seem to end up nowhere – there’s a faint wiff of oh well, we almost got this right, but bugger it, we’ll chuck it on the record anyway.  The Suburbs is long and a cull would have made it closer to extraordinary.  Still, there’s no denying that it’s a very, very fine album, with a good chunk of it comprising intelligent, passionate song-writing – ‘Ready to Start’, ‘Modern Man’, ‘We Used to Wait’ are just a handful of gems on offer here.  It also expands the band’s musical pallet, even getting a little electro/disco in parts – who’d have thought!

LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening. There’s something about James Murphy and his mates that really spins my nipples.  Sure they want to be this decade’s Talking Heads, but it’s the cleverness in the production, the wittiness in the lyrics (despite being someone who loves writing and reading I’m rarely interested in song lyrics, but Murphy sure knows how to engage a listener through word-craft), and the sheer dancability of the beats that make this music impossible to ignore.  This is Happening may as well be titled ‘This Won’t Be Happening For Very Much Longer’ as it’s LCD Soundsystem’s last album and perhaps it’s fair to say that there’s an element of starting to go over old ground here.  However, once this CD find its way into my car it’s near impossible to get the bloody thing out of it again.  Infectious, hilarious, and totally bloody brilliant.

Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks. I started my love of Frightened Rabbit with this album and then worked my way back to The Midnight Organ Fight (which apparently is a euphomism for sex – I’ll have to try that out, the phrase I mean).  I know there are many who’ve been following Frightened Rabbit since the beginning who didn’t enjoy this second album as much, but apparently it’s the album the band always wanted to make, so who are we to argue?  It’s noisy, dirty, and at times a bit of a mess, but ultimately it’s a supremely passionate, almost uplifting affair, with every second tune building to a stratospheric conclusion.  Sure all the songs seem to argue that modern relationships are a bit rubbish, and that modern life in general is a bit rubbish (and I have no doubt that it is), but when it’s said with as much blood, sweat and tears as it is on this record, well, turn your back at your own peril.  Go searching for ‘Skip the Youth’ and if you’re not moved, go see your doctor.

Four Tet – There Is Love In You. I wrote about this album back in February, making it clear how much I loved it, and I still play the bloody thing regularly, mostly because it’s dance music with heart and soul (note: it’s categorically not chill-out music).  There Is Love In You deserves to be remembered as a classic of the genre; every track is just so sublimely intelligent – listen closely at what Hebden is doing and you can see why he’s considered a genius.  (I have a hunch that he might also be a bit of a nerd, but that’s no bad thing – nerds of the world unite!)  Put this record on at the end of a summer’s Saturday afternoon, pour yourself a drink, open your French doors and forget about the rubbish modern world that Frightened Rabbit is, well, frightened about, and just watch as your toes start tapping and your heart starts beating just that little bit more solidly.

Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles II. Like Four Tet’s album, Crystal Castles’ second spinner is all about intelligent dance music.  The shouty Sonic Youth-esque interludes are still there, but this time around there’s significantly more craft in the actual songs, and indeed they are songs, as much as dance tracks can actually be songs.  There’s been a heap of thought put into this music, and there’s a fair wallop of heart as well (I can sense a theme emerging in this end-of-the-year wrap-up: the head and heart of great music).  Check out ‘Vietnam’, ‘Suffocation’ and ‘Celestica’.  If you’re of a certain age, also go searching for a reissue of ‘Not In Love’, which contains a vocal by Robert Smith from The Cure – you’ll be gelling up your hair into gothy spikes within seconds.  Amongst all the thought and heart there’s an ugliness here, as if over the last couple of years this Canadian duo (there’s such good music coming from Canada at the moment) has been wandering the earth finding cities that, like most hospitals, aren’t really fit for human living.  Ultimately, however, amongst this ugliness there’s beauty to be had, it’s just that it’s a hard beauty, an honest beauty, and that’s got to be a good thing.  If Crystal Castles make a third album, and let’s pray that they do, and they keep going on this trajectory, then they may well create the dance album of the century.  It’s a big call, but based on what this duo have produced so far it’s not unjustified.

Phil Retrospector – IntroVersion. Like Four Tet’s record, I’ve written previously about Irish remix artist/sonic magician Phil Retrospector and his IntroVersion album – in fact I gushed about it embarrassingly.  But the thing is I still believe every word of it; I recently decided that discovering Retrospector’s IntroVersion and associated tunes, all of which are only available on his website, is the musical event of 2010.  Whilst most of the bands listed above conclude that modern life is just too empty to offer any real hope, there’s a great big wallop of enjoyment to be had here, which is more than ironic considering Mr Retrosepctor acknowledges that this is ‘glass half-empty music’.  The thing is, it’s music that connects, that affects, that moves.  This is what’s good about the modern world (okay, there’s something): having the technology to cherry-pick the best of what’s happened to music in the last fifty or so years, and, using as much skill and intelligence as possible, make something new, say something new, and give your listeners something to chew on into the bargain.  It’s DIY, it’s punk, it’s probably illegal.  It’s one mother of a nose thumbed at the music industry; it says we’re going to make great music no matter what you think.  Call Retrospective’s stuff maudlin, mawkish, melancholic, nostalgic, sentimental, I don’t give a damn – as long as this bloke’s making music as good as this I’m happy to keep having a crack at life.

In Tasmania recently I gave a series of workshops on writing about place.  Doing the workshops was a joy, quite frankly – I’ve taught in the university context before but I’d not previously given writing workshops to the broader community.  After each session I’d return to the Gatekeeper’s Cottage where I was staying, shove in a pair of mp3-player headphones into my ears (that month I was on a steady aural diet of Frightened Rabbit, The XX, Four Tet, Sigur Ros, and Phil Retrospector) and then walk for hours along the Tamar River with a real bounce in my step and smile on my face.

To provide a bit of inspiration for ways of thinking about place I put together a series of quotes and prepared them as a hand-out.  I reckon I’ve been thinking about place since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and it’s one of those elements of living that really turns my crank (check out those delicious mixed metaphors!).  I thought I’d share the list of quotes with you.  You’ll notice that a bloke called Edward Relph gets quite mention.  A specialist in human geography, Relph is one of the legends amongst ‘place thinkers’, and his Place and Placelessness text is a real cracker.

Do feel free to add to the list as you see fit.

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‘To be human is to live in a world that is filled with significant places: to be human is to have and know your place.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘A key test of sense of place rests with the degree to which a place in its physical form and the activities it facilitates reflects the culture who use it.’  (Francis Violich, Towards Revealing the Sense of Place, 1985)

‘We are not connected to the land, we are not connected to God, we are not really connected to one another.  You can’t keep severing all these connections, leaving people to float around without a sense of history, without a sense of story.  I think it leads to psychosis and I do wonder whether there isn’t a collective nervous breakdown.’  (Jeanette Winterson, as quoted by Helen Trinca in ‘A Particular Kind of Woman’, an article published in The Australian Magazine, July 25, 1994)’

‘The meaning of places may be routed in the physical setting and objects, but they are not a property of them – rather they are a property of human intentions and experiences.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘To have a sense of place is not to own, but rather to be owned by the places we inhabit; it is to ‘own up’ to the complexity and mutuality of both place and human being.’  (Jeff Malpas, from his article ‘Place and Human Being’, published in Making Sense of Place: Exploring Concepts and Expressions of Place Through Different Senses and Lenses, 2008)

‘A deep human need exists for associations with significant places.  If we choose to ignore that need, and to allow the forces of placelessness to continue unchallenged, then the future can only hold an environment in which places simply do not matter.  If, on the other hand, we choose to respond to that need and to transcend placelessness, then the potential exists for the development of an environment in which places are for man, reflecting and enhancing the variety of human experience.  Which of these two possibilities is most probable, or whether there are possibilities, is far from certain.  But one thing at least is clear – whether the world we live in has a placeless geography or a geography of significant places, the responsibility for it is ours alone.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘The crucial point about the connection between place and experience is not… that place is properly something only encountered ‘in’ experience, but rather that place is integral to the very structure and possibility of experience.’  (Jeff Malpas, Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography, 1999)

‘The essence of place lies in the largely unselfconscious intentionality that defines place as profound centres of human existence.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘Place identity is closely linked to personal identity. ‘I am’ is supported by ‘I am here’.’  (Kevin Lynch, A Theory of Good City Form, 1985)

Frightened Rabbit's third album. Still not entirely a barrel of laughs.

1. The Winter of Mixed Drinks. Sadly this isn’t a title of my own making, because I love winter and I love mixed drinks – no, it’s the name of the third album from Frightened Rabbit.  Some say these wild and woolly blokes out of Scotland are about to grab Arcade Fire’s crown, although more likely they’re going to have a crack at The National’s.  Good luck with that.  Previously known for being miserablists, The Winter of Mixed Drinks is almost an upbeat selection of songs, except this version of upbeat is frantic, in parts panicked, and the close-to-joyful melodies mask lyrics that plumb some pretty bloody tricky depths.  For instance, from The Wrestle: ‘The crumpled ocean is no boat trip/Dark water stole my clothing/A shape stirs beneath me’.  Or this from Skip the Youth, an almost hymnal song, if hymnal songs were allowed to break free and go stratospheric: ‘I’ve been digging a hole tonight/On my knees beneath the moon/All I want is a place to lie/Guess a grave will have to do’; I should add that the glorious, increasingly noise-soaked coda to this angsty gem finds the band shouting over and over ‘Skip the youth/It’s ageing me too much’.  Oh amen to that.  This is simple music, only a few chords per song, and the often fast-paced beat drives and drives and drives, sometimes until the song reaches a crashing crescendo or burns out under its own weight.  But this is also electric music, electric as in the electricity of modern life (which is a bit rubbish, it must be said).  The Winter of Mixed Drinks is best played up loud so the windows rattle, which means it probably should be served on vinyl, and at a time when you have something to celebrate but you also know that yet another disappointment is lurking around the corner.  If you’re sailing seven sheets to the wind, well, that wouldn’t hurt either.

2. The Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers. Twice in the last month, perhaps because Easter has been stampeding towards us like a herd of chocolate-filled elephants (they do exist – go have a look), I’ve spotted those brown-clad happy-clapper-types in the central part of my city, standing comfortably together in a circle, a three-metre-high hand-crafted cross upright in the middle, one young chap with a cheap banged-up acoustic guitar, a few of them with bongos, one or two with their hands in the air.  Whilst the intransigence and, at times, outright danger of their religiosity worries me, I can’t help admiring their courage.  They don’t give two hoots about what they look like or what we think of them.  And they do appear so ecstatically happy, especially when they look to the sky and smile and one of them joyfully tosses a plastic bottle of water into the air or another starts clapping in time with something other than the song they’re all singing.  Obviously, when the Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers take a break from singing to – with black-bound Bibles in hand – work their evangelical tricks amongst the general public I run a mile into the nearest music or book shop and scamper for the darkest gear I can find.  But I can’t help being glad that someone has been singing in public, that they believe in something so much, so God damn hard, that they want to take it to the streets while the rest of us lose ourselves in shopping malls and reality television.  And blogging.

3. My Italian Neighbour. Almost a year and a half ago I came home to hear loud drumming in my head.  No, it wasn’t a headache thing, or a hangover thing, or even a mental-health thing – it was the middle-aged father next-door who’d bought himself a drum-kit for Christmas.  And he practices often: weekly, daily.  In his garage.  With all the doors and windows… open. But he’s getting no better.  Okay, he’s getting a little better, particularly with the complexities of his fills, and by ‘complexity’ I mean how much he puts into each fill, he fills his fills, he piles them on top of each like what a brickie does when making a wall, though My Italian Neighbour is actually a green-grocer (all clichés are based in reality).  Does he harbour unrealised dreams about being the next Tommy Lee?  Did he recently hit forty but the wife didn’t allow him to get a Harley Davidson motorbike so instead he maxed-out the credit card on the kit?  I’d poke my head over the fence and ask him but there are always too many kids, and these days kids scare me as much as rats.  Despite the fact that I have to close up the house when My Italian Neighbour’s practicing, and there are times when the pillows go over my head and I swear like Courtney Love if she’d been bitten by a Rottweiler, I do admire him for having a crack at learning an instrument regardless of his advancing years, for trying to be good at something musical, and, a bit like the Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers, not giving a shit what anyone thinks.  If he feels like hitting the skins then that’s exactly what he’s going to do – bugger this (normally) quiet, gentile inner-city neighbourhood of ours.  And you know what?  I reckon he builds up a racehorse-sized sweat, and he closes his eyes, and when he’s done he’s puffing, and he smiles as if it’s the first real smile he’s ever managed.

4. The Best Gig – Ever. So, it comes to this.  How good it would be if we lived in a world where Frightened Rabbit could come to my neck of the global woods with a fistful of songs and play in the central part of my city – we have a stage, it’s out in the open and not big, but it’d do.  Frightened Rabbit would spot the Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers further along the pavement; they’d wave and invite them onto the stage.  The Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers wouldn’t shake their heads.  They’d go, ‘Sure, why not!’  So the Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers step up onto the stage and Frightened Rabbit share with the Clappers some lyrics, and the Clappers pick them up quickly because singing songs in public is in their collective blood.  And then My Italian Neighbour, who’s in town to take the wife and their brood of kids out to Mama’s Trattoria for lunch, walks by but is immediately snared by the music and starts nodding his head.  And then he can’t help himself: he kisses his wife on the cheek, pats his nearest kid on their head, and then walks over and up to Frightened Rabbit’s drummer.  And Frightened Rabbit’s drummer, without any reluctance whatsoever, smiles knowingly and steps away from his kit, handing it over to My Italian Neighbour.  And My Italian Neighbour finds the beat, yes, the beat, and he drives Frightened Rabbit and the Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers forever onwards.  And the crowd grows and grows until the central part of my city is packed and the sun’s going down and everyone’s singing yet another rousing Frightened Rabbit coda, this one from The Loneliness and the Scream: ‘We fall down/Find God just to lose it again/Glue the community together/We were hammering it/I fell down/Found love/Can’t lose it again/But now our communal heart beats miles from here’.  Yes, how good that would be!  I’d write a post about that, I would.

‘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.’

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