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When I left Sydney, in 1987 and as a not-so-fresh-faced 18-year-old, I was determined to find my own way in the world.

I needed to find a new way of being. I needed to be myself.

Without a doubt there had been joy in my childhood. Summers were spent either at the beach or up in the Blue Mountains, and most weekends I was able to explore the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park, which bordered the suburb where my family and I lived. But the suburb was as affluent as they come: the roads were clogged with cars made by Audi, BMW, Volvo and Mercedes, and most streets were adorned with at least one mansion.

It was also monocultural. A ‘blue-ribbon’ Liberal seat, as they say. Conservative to the core. If you weren’t a Christian you were marked as different, and different was never good.

It’s true that, in my formative years, I was aware of that situation – the privilege, but also the stifling (read: dangerous) world view. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to get out of there as soon as I was able, to be in a place where I could choose the people with whom I wanted to associate.

And that’s what happened.

I found my tribe.

But I had no idea that in the ACT region I’d find something else.

While most folk know Canberra as the place where the federal parliament sits, where most government departments have their offices, where, on most nights of the week, the restaurants and bars are packed with political staffers and public servants talking strategy and gossip (that may have been true in the past but these days a majority of Canberrans are actually involved in the private sector; besides, the ongoing wars between ‘public service’ and ‘private enterprise’ are ridiculously reductive), I have come to know Canberra as one of the the most cultural and creatively sustaining places on the planet.

This small city has a wide range of arts organisations covering all the major art forms. There are also the national cultural institutions, including the National Library, the National Archives, the National Museum, and the National Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery. The original parliament house has been turned into a museum of democracy.

There are brilliant universities and terrific bookshops. Libraries are dotted throughout the suburbs.

It probably should not be surprising that the ACT is one of the most progressive jurisdictions in Australia: in 1999 it was one of the only states or territories that voted for Australia to become a republic, and in 2017 it had one of the highest yes votes in the marriage-equality plebiscite.

Then there are the mountains on the edge of the city, the coast is a two-hour drive (which, in Australian terms, is not much more than ‘just up the street’), Sydney at the northern end of the freeway.

While, now I’m thinking about it, I first put pen to paper as a writer while briefly living in Perth in my early twenties, it was when I returned to Canberra that I decided to pursue my literary vocation with vigour. I met other writers, some of whom have gone on to shape the culture of the country. My own progress has been slow, a gradual coming out. (My other coming out was a little more dramatic.)

I should also make it clear that since 2010 I have lived on the other side of the border, in the regional New South Wales town of Goulburn. These days I like to say that Goulburn is my hometown, Canberra is my home city, and the ACT region is the place of my creative community

So, it was lovely – surprising, invigorating, and just a little overwhelming – to be named the ACT Artist of the Year at the 2022 ACT Arts Awards, which were held on Tuesday evening at the Canberra Museum and Gallery.

MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING also picked up a Canberra Critics Circle Award, which is my fifth.

Thank you to the Canberra Critics Circle, who, for 32 years, have been celebrating this region’s artists. Gratitude also to the City News, which so generously sponsors the Artist of the Year Award.

Years ago, a prominent Australian writer and academic shared with me some advice that I’ve never forgotten: ‘When something good happens in your writing life, you have 24 hours to celebrate – drink champagne, go out for dinner, soak it all up, whatever you need to do, but then you have to keep going. When something bad happens in your writing life, you have 24 hours to commiserate – drink whiskey, kick the furniture, howl at the moon, whatever you need to do, but then you have to keep going.’

So I applied that approach to this news; I enjoyed a wonderful Wednesday. And then, to be frank, because sometimes there is life in contradiction and inconsistency, I kept enjoying myself.

But on Monday morning, I’ll be back at the desk.

I’ll keep going.

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Image credit: author photograph courtesy of the Canberra Times.

Halfway between the Big Merino, which stands like a sentinel on the Hume highway, and a supermax prison is a place known only by a few. Here, less than a kilometre to the east of Goulburn’s main street, is the music of birds twittering in trees, the splash of ducks diving, the ponk-ponk-ponk of frogs in conversation, and the heady smell of eucalyptus.

If a healthy landscape is one where birdsong is often heard, then the Goulburn wetlands must be one healthy landscape indeed, which is remarkable considering it is only 10 years old – and not long ago this part of New South Wales was facing a water crisis. It was formed out of clay pits once used by brickworks that closed just after the second world war. For much of the most recent drought, the wetlands were just a hole in the ground. But heavy rain last year and again this spring and summer brought an abundance of water. The regeneration plantings are thriving to the point that banks of wattles and eucalyptus are up to eight metres high.

For local people in the know, this is the place to walk your dog in the evening, catch another glorious pink-and-orange sunset, and, of course, see birds paddling about in search of a meal. Friends and Residents of Goulburn Swamplands (Frogs) is a small, volunteer-run organisation that cares for and maintains the wetlands on a weekly basis. They have counted 130 different bird species.

Birdwatcher Frank Antram says the list of birds includes the blue-billed duck, which is noted as a vulnerable species, and the ruddy turnstone, which visits from the NSW south coast. It even includes the Latham’s snipe, which flies all the way from eastern Russia and the Japanese islands, and is protected by the Japan-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement. Human visitors can enjoy three timber-and-iron bird hides as kangaroos laze on the nearby grasslands and snakes lurk among the groundcover.

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Keep reading at The Guardian (Australia edition), which commissioned this story and published it on 30 December 2021.

As this year, a publication year for your old Goulburn mate, comes to an end, I’d just like to say thanks so much to all the lovely folk who have been a part of the BODIES OF MEN adventure.

Thanks to those who attended the launch of the novel back in May at the wonderful Street Theatre in Canberra.

Thanks to those who attended my speaking gigs, in bookshops, libraries, and schools.

Thanks to those who have messaged me with photos of the book in various places around Australia and in New Zealand – it’s such a simple gesture but it means a lot.

Thanks to those who have emailed or messaged me or come up to me at events and shared their experience of the novel. So very much appreciated.

Thanks to those who interviewed me and helped find an audience for my funny little war novel.

Thanks to those who have written responses to the novel online and then shared them. Some members of the literary community are just amazing, like Sue Terry from Whispering Gums – check out Sue’s summary of authors who have blogs, which includes a little mention of this here place in the online world.

Special thanks to all the many bookshops who stock the novel – you are bona fide heroes.

Special thanks also to my magic-making agent, Gaby Naher of Left Bank Literary in Sydney, and my very smart and hardworking publisher, Robert Watkins at Hachette Australia.

What have I learned?

To be frank, I have no idea, but here are some thoughts, which may or may not end up being true:

  • confidence is a trickster
  • publication is the fullstop at the end of the sentence
  • for the stories that find a home, it was always impossible to predict where that home was going to be
  • accept invitations that make you feel as though you’re going to faint
  • it is better to make art that no one sees than to not have made art
  • success is 10% talent, 20% luck, 50% hard work; no one knows what makes up the remaining 20%
  • doubt is a loyal friend and is more helpful than you may realise.

What happens now?

After a bit of a summer break, my mind will turn to other projects, although I do have a BODIES OF MEN-related event in Queensland in April, just in time for Anzac Day 2020 – it will be at Avid Reader and with authors Melanie Meyers and Simon Cleary and moderated by the tireless Cass Moriarty. We’ll be talking all things writing war.

See you next year (if we in Australia survive the Bushfire Apocalypse).

Baritone Michael Lampard performing the role of the soldier in THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT at The Street Theatre in Canberra. (Image credit: The Street Theatre)

Holy moley, what a ride.

The first three WEIGHT OF LIGHT shows – two in Canberra and one in Goulburn – have happened and it’s hard to put into words how it felt, and how it continues to feel.

It’s amazing (such a weak word in this instance) to have the work performed by such fine artists as baritone Michael Lampard and accompanist Alan Hicks. It’s also been fantastic – an education, really – to be able to observe what goes into staging a work professionally, and a part of that has been spending time with the show’s tireless director Caroline Stacey, set-designer Imogen Keen, lighting designer Linda Buck, and stage-manager Anni Wawrzynczak. Then there is the sheer thrill (and almost overwhelming nerves) of opening night and the relief that comes from seeing an audience demand two curtain-calls from the performers. And then there’s the energy of the foyer afterwards, as punters talk about the show over a glass or seven of wine. As I’ve mentioned before, writing for the page is such a slow-burn of a process; writing for the stage offers immediacy, in every way.

Last weekend saw THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT head to Goulburn, where it was performed in an intimate and atmospheric space to an incredibly enthusiastic audience at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, the organisation that bravely commissioned the work. Not only did Michael and Alan yet again perform spectacularly, it was wonderful to see the show come across so very well in a smaller venue.

In the lead-up to the shows, there was a wide range of media, including:

It’s pleasing to report that there have been a number of wonderful reviews, with the following the crux of it:

Accompanist Alan Hicks performing in THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT at The Street Theatre in Canberra. (Image credit: The Street Theatre)

‘THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT is a gem of a piece, combining the performance rhythms of a song cycle with the force of theatre. Much of its power comes from the delicate way the combination of Nigel Featherstone’s spare text and James Humberstone’s dark and carefully mournful music touches on issues of masculinity and trauma. Michael Lampard finds even the smallest scrap of light and uses it to the advantage of the performance. THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT will certainly have a life beyond the two Canberra performances’ – The Canberra Times

‘THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT is a richly crafted production with universal themes of grief, despair, hope and fear’ – Australian Stage

‘Seamless, exquisite, mesmeric poetry of text, music, drama and the conversation of light and shadow on a spare, evocative set that had me ‘falling / in my (own) chest / my guts / my legs / my head’, but then carried me as I fell, lifted me until I became the weight of light’ – award-winning author, poet and performer Merlinda Bobis

‘An enthralling visual and aural experience’ – Australian Arts Review

‘A beautiful show. The whole package – words, music, performance, set and lighting. Highly moving’ – Whispering Gums

‘Composer James Humberstone, librettist Nigel Featherstone, director Caroline Stacey, baritone Michael Lampard and pianist Alan Hicks have put together a dark and spellbinding tale of a soldier who has returned from his latest tour of Afghanistan. As they move through the songs, a sense of a person lost and wondering emanates through the music, the lyrics, and the strongly effective staging and lighting, all in a well thought-out story that is touching and dramatic in every aspect. What this song cycle shows is that if there is anything good to come out of war, it is the beauty of creations such as THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT’ – Canberra City News

‘A truly stunning piece of work. Bravo’ – Sydney Voice Project

Baritone Michael Lampard and accompanist Alan Hicks. performing together in THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT (Image credit: The Street Theatre)

So, enormous – let’s say endless – gratitude from me to every single person who came to the shows, to those who shared their thoughts (and tears) in the foyers, to those who wrote me an email or sent a text message or shared their response on social media. It’s meant the world to me.

What’s next?

A breather for all, before THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT hits Sydney on Friday 27 July at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It’s also pleasing to announce that composer extraordinaire James Humberstone has secured a deal for the work to be professionally recorded and released physically and digitally.

Oh yes, what a ride.

Specially commissioned art work by Katy Mutton

How lucky I am.

That’s what I keep thinking whenever I’m working on Homesong, or The Weight of Light as the song cycle is now known. Lucky because this is a project that brings together my two main creative loves: words and music. Lucky because it’s a project that has taken me well beyond what I usually consider my area of expertise. And lucky because I’m working with a team of incredibly skilled professionals.

So, what’s happened since the last Homesong Diary update?

Firstly, based on feedback from the creative development at The Street Theatre in June, which included responses from an invited audience, I did a lot of work on the libretto. I decided that the text would be more coherent if the story was told from one point of view with the present story told in present tense and the narrative elements that related to the past told in the past tense – this makes sense considering the entire story is told through the voice of one performer, a baritone. Also, when in doubt, go with simplicity! Then I spent some days examining the story in an almost clinical way: what was happening and when and why? Should some songs get the axe and new ones added? And what might be the most logical order of songs? Director Caroline Stacey and I then spent a few hours over coffee in Canberra going through the latest draft, eventually deciding that some elements of the libretto were clearer while some needed further refinement. And, yes, some songs got the axe and new ones were written.

Then the core team – project initiator Paul Scott-Williams from the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, composer James Humberstone, and myself – got together in Goulburn to investigate the latest version of the libretto, essentially to check in with each other to make sure we were happy with the direction in which the work was going. It was at this point that we settled on the title, which is not only a line from one of the songs, but also, we thought, references the contrast in the work’s themes and elements. I’m especially fond of the title, as it reflects the somewhat wild mood-swings of the light in the Southern Tablelands, where the story has been both written and set.

While James worked on revisions and additions to the score (a process that was challenged by my near-constant fussing with the words), The Street Theatre commissioned Canberra visual artist Katy Mutton to create an image that would be used to support the project’s publicity campaign. The work Katy produced, which is above, beautifully reflects the sense of failing masculinity that is explored in the song cycle; we’re absolutely thrilled.

As the story revolves around an Australian soldier who has served in Afganistan I wished to check some of my assumptions by having discussions with professional support personnel at Soldier On, an organisation whose mission is to work side by side with those who serve and protect Australia, and their families, helping them to secure their futures

Baritone Michael Lampard and accompanist Alan Hicks try out the songs in ‘The Weight of Light’

Finally, last week, the team, including Caroline and new baritone Michael Lampard, and accompanist Alan Hicks met at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to spend two days exploring the new songs and also to do a full run-through to see how the work was coming along. It’s a buzz hearing my words come to life, but perhaps what I have been enjoying the most is working collaboratively. As I have said elsewhere I’m primarily a writer of fiction, which means I spend most of my time in my writing room dreaming up characters and narrative scenarios and crafting sentences; sometimes the resultant stories come to life and sometimes (often?) they don’t. At heart I am a recluse, and I enjoy spending the majority of each week alone. However, working with a team and collaborating with other artists opens up so many possibilities. Mutual respect, I think, is a key ingredient and this team has that in spades.

Overall, it was agreed in Sydney that The Weight of Light is starting to rise off the page, which is exactly what any writer wants to hear. As James has observed, this song cycle is an emotional ride, and, in parts, it’s difficult (after all it explores themes of nationalism, fear, masculinity and family dynamics under extreme pressure), but there are also moments of beauty. Paul Scott-Williams’ original proposal – indeed requirement – was to create a work that would make a contribution to art song in Australia. We’ve certainly taken some risks; some pianos won’t be the same afterwards! But we really won’t know if it is any good until it’s back in front of an audience…

Next stop?

The work will have its world premiere at The Street Theatre in Canberra on 3-4 March 2018 – tickets are already on sale. It will be premiered at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium on 10 March. There is talk of a tour and a recording, which would be completely terrific if they came to fruition. If you’re around this neck of the woods it would be wonderful to see you at one of the performances.

For now, a few days’ rest is warranted, before rehearsals begin in February. I hope to spend some time on the couch, with a pile of novels, and a very large glass of wine.

 

 

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1.

It’s always the same, and it’s not until the end that it makes sense.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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.

5.

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.

6.

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.

7.

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.

8.

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.’

9.

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.

10.

It’s always the same, and it’s not until the end that it makes sense: breathe out, ease in. I am empty.

 

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