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It’s always the same, and it’s not until the end that it makes sense.
At 4pm the slipping on of holey sneakers and the wearing of beanie and gloves; an old blue-striped hooded top too. Glasses on face, ready to go.
Out the back door, down the side of the house (ducking to miss the overhead rose), out the first gate and then the picket-fenced second. Footsteps on cracked footpaths, arms swinging for rhythm, legs keeping up.
Turn right into Addison and the rising begins, past the church with the imploring billboard, though it’s hard to ignore the peace of the high-peaked rectory opposite the workers cottages with nothing in the front gardens except twigs and dogshit, me eyeing off the twigs because I’m in the market for kindling.
A bend in the road where the school oval forms a corner, the dependable runnel of water entering the drain and culvert. Wild plum trees like weeds. Two Herefords in their ag-class paddock, steer and calf, mother and daughter, or mother and son. The Lanyon-esque house opposite, all chimneys and verandahs, like a set of a TV drama. (What drama behind the walls?) On the same side but further up the local Liberal’s mansion tucked away beneath a thickness of pines, the whine of a chainsaw preparing wood for the hearth and then, oh, a glass of sherry. ‘Sherry, dear?’ ‘Yes dear, sherry.’ In my boyhood I would have admired their fine slate roof and the sherry, but not anymore.
Turn away to the patch of scrappy bush, pine cones out of reach beneath the pine trees on the other side of the fence. The footie oval, or it might be for cricket, roos grouped on the sidelines, a hop here and a hop there, before head down to snack on the winter grass. Now my legs and arms have found their flow and there’s good breath and air in my lungs. Up we go some more. The small, axe-murderish farm with its darkly curtained windows and the goats that run up to the fence. One time, as I charged by, the farmer waved and called out hello, and I waved and said hello back and thought, so he’s probably not an axe-murderer after all. And on and on, past the new houses that are being built on sold-off paddocks, black Labradors running from one side of their unfinished yard to the other, thinking of my own black Labrador who is too old to come with me these days.
Turn left and up I go even further, past PLEASANT RIDGE, no railings on the stairs or on the top landing despite the house, a red-brick 70s shocker, being two-storeys high – how old the occupants are, which always (sometimes) makes me worry. The horse paddock on the other side of the road, the horse I call Melody or Max; sometimes he – or she – whinnies, but I just keep walking, the ground becoming rockier, and steeper, my ankles training.
And then, at last, the road tips over to flatness and I can feel my heart pounding. I draw in the crisply clean air; I smell the waft of the single sheep in the sloping paddock. I look over the animal to the wind-turbines on the ridge far away in the last of the light. I stop at the gate, grip the cold metal with two hands, let my breathing – and everything else, everything that I’ve brought with me but have left along the road, like invisible breadcrumbs – settling and settling some more. Breathing: it’s all about breathing; to have come all this way (47 years) to reach that conclusion. ‘Mr Sheep, it’s me again. I was here yesterday but now I’m back. What’s going on for you?’ Silence. And stillness. That other thing I’ve learnt: there’s breathing and there’s silence and stillness. Which is why I’ve come to the edge of town. Everything is now in place, even me, in my gloves and beanie and sneakers. ‘See you tomorrow, Mr Sheep.’
Cross the road and make sure to walk beside the piece of bush, the smooth white trunks of young eucalypts, the scent that’s sometimes heady. VOLUNTEERS ARE REHABILITATING THIS AREA – DO NOT LITTER. As if I would. Looking north to the new suburbs, the suburbs that are already lighting up for another evening of Netflix and nachos, soft folds of paddocks to the north where the end of the day is making hollows, before the damp comes, then the frost. I shudder and burrow into the hoodie that I’ve pulled up and tightened.
It’s always the same, and it’s not until the end that it makes sense: breathe out, ease in. I am empty.
It could be a peculiarly Australian obsession, though I doubt that’s the case. Still I made sure to remember to do it the next time I was in the car and on the road.
By ‘do it’ I mean nothing more than watch it happen, that’s all it was: make an observation. Miraculously I did remember. ‘Miraculously’ because these days I’m forgetting the most commonplace things, like the order in which the laundry gets done (the detergent goes in before the machine is turned on) and where tins of unopened canned soup are stored (in the pantry, not in the freezer), and the other day it took me hours to summon the word ‘poplar’.
Like many other people, I did a lot of driving over the Christmas/New Year break, so perhaps it wasn’t so miraculous at all that I got to experience this supposedly special event. It happened just south of Lake Bathurst, which is more or less halfway between Queanbeyan and Goulburn, a stretch of road I know well. I watched as the odometer counted up, thinking that there’d be a clicking sound but there was nothing of the sort.
And then, and then, the holy grail: 100,000 kilometres.
For a long, slow, few seconds there they were, all those kilometres notched up; somehow it made me feel as though I was seeing a long-lost friend.
These milestones are everywhere, aren’t they. A cricketer scores a century and a crowd rises to stand. An acclaimed author’s tenth novel is published. A twenty-first birthday. A fiftieth wedding anniversary. A nation’s bicentenary.
It’s all arbitrary, of course, quite meaningless.
Why is one number better than another? Is it about goals achieved? Or is it about survival? Or luck? As I stared at that big, dumb number on the dash, I wondered if it was actually just about aesthetics: the simplicity of those zeros. But then it became 100,001 and suddenly it seemed to be about symmetry.
Whatever these things are about, whatever their meaning, as the numbers kept adding up silently, I looked out the car’s side window into a paddock the colour of an old lemon. The paddock was punctuated with a single little lamb. Why was it on its own? Was it lost? Had it been left behind?
I looked into the sky; it was empty and endlessly blue, the sort of blue that only happens around here. Up there was a single wedge-tailed eagle, gliding, circling.
(First published in Panorama, the Canberra Times, 17 January 2015.)
I can remember the exact moment.
I can remember exactly where I was: in the car, on the Hume, just outside Marulan, heading south. And what I told myself: You have to get your act together, take this seriously, make every effort. Get. A. Damn. Website.
The kick up the pants? I was coming home from a month-long residency at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people – I’d worked my bum off, a productive time, but I’d also connected with a bunch of extremely committed artists, many of whom spoke about the need to have a digital platform. I didn’t even have the internet on at home. Within months I got connected to the internet, had a website built and got this blog going (which recently took over the role of being the actual website). Yes, my online adventures began on the Hume Highway that morning back in 2009. But the world has moved on, I’ve moved on, nothing’s the same.
Which means I can now make a declaration: this is my 300th post for UTCOAFITD (which clearly is the most ridiculous acronym in the history of humankind). And this will be my final weekly post.
I really have been doing this on a weekly basis from the beginning, because I read some advice somewhere or other that blog posts should be regular and frequent. On a handful of occasions I’ve done a cheeky mid-week post, but on the whole I’ve kept to my commitment. And there’s been something about that commitment: spending days thinking about what I’ll post, whether it be something that had been published elsewhere (Canberra Times, BMA Magazine) or something written for the purpose. There have been times – many times – when I haven’t known what I’d write until the pen was being put to pad, which sometimes resulted in no words at all, so I resorted to shonky visual…things.
I doubt that I’ve ever known what I’ve been doing, other than, perhaps, writing a journal that other people might read – here’s a depository of writing, one amongst a gazillion other depositories of writing. Of course, the most rewarding part has been connecting with other writers, bloggers and thinkers, some of whom I now consider friends, despite living hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away and never having met in person. This must be the best part of the digital era, surely.
What happens now?
I’m not going to call it quits, but from now on posts will be on an ad hoc basis only – perhaps on average they’ll be every month, but no longer will there be any hard and fast rules. Why? Because I’m exhausted, I’m over-committed; in the larger scheme of things, my brain is really quite small, it can only take on so much, which really isn’t that much at all. I need to prioritise. I want to spend as much time as possible reading fiction and writing fiction. I want to go on great, long, dreamy adventures; I want to be moved, confronted, changed. I’m forty-five – it’s time to start learning about how this planet works, and, I think, the best way to do that is through immersing myself in fiction.
So, fond blog, happy 300th post. Sincere thanks to everyone who’s read and commented – I’ve appreciated our conversations very much.
Here’s to new adventures.
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.)
I hear trains.
That isn’t an admission of something unhinged in my mind, or a euphemism for a kind of illegal activity. It’s just that where I live, on a hill behind the mainstreet of an old town, I can hear trains.
Even when I’m putting clothes on the line I can hear the sound of trains coming and going, freight trains especially, as they heave and clatter in and through and on to the other side.
As is obvious it’s a sound I adore. After twenty-five years living in Canberra I’d begun to miss it, though I didn’t know that then – sometimes it’s only when you move from one place to another that you realise what’s important.
Perhaps the sound reminds me of being a boy in Sydney and having to catch trains to get to school and back, all of us jammed into the clunky, stinky ‘Red Rattlers’, the windows so hefty that if they suddenly closed they would chop off arms or fingers. So we imagined, or feared. Of course, back then, having to catch trains every day wasn’t anything unusual; it was just part of living in a city. These days I look on it nostalgically, as though I once lived in a more exciting land, somewhere big and dangerous and overflowing with life. Strange then that whenever I return to Sydney, even on a train, I’m filled with terror – that place always reminds me of a snake trying to eat its own head.
So why this love of the sound of trains?
It could be because it just feels old-fashioned, a delicious thing of the past, and for those like me who find the present a trial the past can be a good place to go. It could be a reminder of the sort of adventures once discovered in books for children. But trains aren’t necessarily historical. Look at the sort that can be found in Europe and the larger cities of Asia – those trains are like something out of Star Trek. Maybe the sound is a metaphor. For arrival: the joy of becoming, of making real the new, the hope there is in that. For departure: the melancholia of leaving behind, of letting go, of saying good-bye. Because it’s somewhere between arrival and departure that life can be found most readily, whatever that life might be.
Oh how much there is in a sound.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 15 March 2014.)
Summer is odd, especially in Australia.
The first dose of decent weather – as in clear blue skies, no wind, 35-degree temperatures, and, where I live, 50% humidity (or less) – brings a sense of optimism: finally we’re through the winter and can now go outdoors without worrying about being frozen to death or being blown off the face of the Earth. This week we at last had that feeling, because we had two days in a row of good summery weather. So, yes, optimism.
But this week has also brought sadness. The passing away of Nelson Mandela. Closer to home, we’ve had the death of eminent Australian contemporary artist Martin Sharp at the age of 71. It might be just a little strange to put these two names in the same paragraph, but I think it’s apt, not because of these two men having made similar contributions to the world – they didn’t – but because both lived such genuine and genuinely inspiring lives.
Martin Sharp was – and no doubt will continue to be for some time – Australia’s answer to Andy Warhol. There’s plenty written about him, and there’s certainly been quite a few thoughtful and informed obituaries, including this one from his colleague and friend Richard Neville. To many, Sharp will be remembered for being a founding member of Oz, a radical and irreverent magazine – today we’d call it a zine – that lampooned authority and tradition, particularly the church, including conservative attitudes to sexuality. He also designed some of the most iconic rock-music album covers from the 1960s/70s. Later, he’d become an obsessed champion of Tiny Tim, Ginger Meggs, and Sydney’s site-of-thrills-and-fun Luna Park. He continued to practice for the rest of his life, though became fond of spending years, if not decades, touching up his earlier work.
Amazingly, through sheer luck, in early 2011 I interviewed Martin Sharp in his Sydney home for the Canberra Times. He was warm, generous with his time, thoughtful, always choosing his words carefully, not because he was guarded (though he might have been), but, I think, he just wanted to be clear. He chain-smoked through the entire morning, constantly rolling homemade cigarettes, the tobacco in a bowl in the table as though it was merely just some kind of herb that he was about to use for cooking. I found him to be utterly unpretentious, and during the interview we spoke about his great love of Tiny Tim, Vincent Van Gogh (his life’s great inspiration), and that he thought the best art was being done by school children. He’d become religious in his old age, though in the broad, somewhat mystical sense that artists can become religious (I doubt he went to church), and I remember how he said that in certain contexts conservative thinking can be radical.
I asked him if he had any modern-day heroes, and without blinking an eye he said, ‘Susan Boyle.’ I knew only a little of Boyle, but when I got back home made sure to learn more about her. What was it about this UK talent-show contestant that had intrigued Sharp so? I remember how he said that she’d given her all, everything, put her whole being on the line, words to that affect. So I googled her and was amazed to find myself getting goose-bumps. When I could drag my way from Youtube I wrote up the interview and the resultant feature article – it wasn’t so much about Martin Sharp but about a new (at the time) gallery and arts facility in Goulburn called South Hill, of which Sharp was the patron – and I also wrote a short piece on how Sharp had given me goose-bumps while telling me about his love for Boyle.
Just before I left Martin Sharp’s house that January day, he gave me a copy of a Tiny Tim album that he’d produced (at considerable expense). For some reason I’ve never listened to it; perhaps I just didn’t want to take it out of its resolutely plastic-wrapped sleeve. Maybe I just wanted to keep it as perfect as it had been when it was given to me. Every time I saw the CD in my collection I thought to myself, Wow, what an amazing day that was.
But I’m listening to it now. It’s hilarious. But also important: Tiny Tim, just like Susan Boyle, gives every fibre of his being to his performances.
Thanks, Martin, for your time, your wise words, and, above all else, your art.
If I make it to 71 I’ll be sure to remember that morning with you.
Something is stealing my water.
It’s actually the chooks’ water, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an important matter, one of life and death. They have a ten-day waterer, but in the last two weeks it’s been depleted every day, and the hens aren’t impressed, not at all. Could it be that with this unseasonally warm winter and spring they are thirstier than usual? But even at the height of summer they don’t drink this much.
Could the sparrows be the ones who are drinking it, the sparrows who are determined to drive me crazy with their pesky ways?
It just might be that there’s something else in my little garden.
Every morning I wake to find the mulch disturbed, some of it flicked over the paving and stepping stones. I always broom it back to where I want it – that is, after all, the whole point of having a garden – but the next morning there they are again, the scatterings of mulch. Something is digging, and it might also be drinking.
Recently, if I’m up early enough and look out into the hopeful dawn, I sometimes see a darting shape, almost as if it’s been flung across the yard by sling-shot. Yesterday morning, I waited for the light to come and got a better look: it’s small, and black, with a bright red beak. It’s a blackbird.
They say blackbirds came to Australia in the 1850s via Melbourne, and since then have formed colonies up the east coast, particularly in the lush, basaltic gardens of the Blue Mountains. But also, quite evidently, in my Goulburn yard (now that Cat the Ripper is nothing more than an ache in my stomach that won’t go away).
Is it the blackbird that’s stealing the water? It’s possible that it is.
Unless I also have a snake. But let’s not go there.
Sometimes I’ve seen a large brown hawk sitting on the ridge of the old shed that is my garage. The hawk could be after the sparrows, or the chooks, or even my blackbird. What a little world is in my garden. There are days when I wish that I could sort myself out, forget about this whole writing madness, and just let plants and birds be all I need, let this small patch of life sustain me, in essence be my water – so I could live out my days simply sipping.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 16 November 2013.)