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Somewhere between arrival and departure.

Somewhere between arrival and departure.

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.)

If our sky wasn't so dangerous it would be beautiful.

Summer in Goulburn, Australia: if our sky wasn’t so dangerous it would be beautiful.

The chooks are panting.  They’re holding out their wings as if they have sweaty armpits – this despite the fact the coop and run have for weeks been covered in an old tent fly.  Outside the coop and run the birdbath is a dried-up clay-pan.  The large wattle adjacent is yellow, not from flowering but its tiny stressed leaves.  The dirt, it’s sandy.  The clematis around the front of the house, planted at the end of spring and for much of the time since has been growing vigorously up the verandah post, is now limp, fading.  The two standard white roses beside the front gate look like miniature street-trees in autumn – they’re leafless.  Inside the house it’s dark, all the curtains and blinds closed even though it’s the middle of the day.  When eyes adjust, the cracks in the walls are obvious as the ground shifts and splits.  There’s no breeze coming through the hallways and rooms because the doors and windows are shut tight.  The skylight’s honeycomb covering is drawn across, making a cave out of the loungeroom.  The corrugated-iron roofing creaks like a ship keeling into the ocean (if only).  Sometimes the mad and maddening whirr of a trapped-in blowfly.  The fridge motor bravely trying to keep up.  The Old Lady of the House dragging herself from one place to another, head down and puffing.  The coolest place, she knows, is in the writing room, because its only window faces east – the room is protected from the worst of the afternoon.  There she finds a writer in grey gym shorts and white t-shirt.  Look at the blackened souls of his feet.  Beside him is the six-fin bar-heater, dusty, silent, switched off but plugged in.  The heater is waiting for cold rain.

Martin Sharp circa 2011 (Image credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

Martin Sharp circa 2011 (Image credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

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.

A cover of Oz by Martin Sharp featuring Bob Dylan

A cover of Oz by Martin Sharp featuring Bob Dylan, 1967

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.

Might it be this little guy?

Might it be this little guy?

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.)

Prospect or refuge: the choice is ours.

Prospect or refuge: the choice is ours.

Each Monday afternoon, at 5pm, he leaves the writing room, calls The Old Lady of the House to attention, gets her into her lead, and leaves his home for the hills.  Past the old houses, all that red brick and corrugated iron, the good, thick chimneys, some windows with stained glass.  Past the houses from the ’60s and ’70s (not two of architecture’s best decades) and past the newer houses on their big blocks, massive blocks, until they’re five-acre lots complete with post-and-rail fences and four-wheel-drives in the driveways, gazebos too, and water features.

It’s not until he takes a side road and the walking becomes steeper and he and the dog begin to puff that his mind starts to settle and empty.  For this is what he wants: emptiness.  There’s no Facebook up here, no Twitter, and no one can phone him because the mobile’s back on the fridge where it should be.

The road climbs ever higher, and now there are small paddocks with sheep grazing absently between stands of struggling eucalypts.  The sheep are oblivious to the view, but they shouldn’t be – it’s expansive, and endless, which is not so much a fact but a feeling.  To the west is the low rump of a range, wind-turbines barely visible; if they’re turning he can’t tell.

But it’s the south that he’s here to see.  The south is a very different view: glorious, rolling, distant mountains; they must be somewhere between Braidwood and Canberra.  The blue could be from a different planet.

So here he is, late on Monday afternoon, up on the ridge at the edge of town, looking south into that other, mountainous world.

Decades ago, when studying landscape architecture for his undergraduate degree, he discovered J. Appleton’s ‘Prospect-Refuge’ theory.  It explains much about the world.  Humans are attracted to views because they can gauge what sort of weather’s coming, or see an advancing enemy.  Refuge is all about protection no matter what, which is why we like to sit in public places with our backs against a wall.  It makes sense.

When, an hour later, he’s back home and the Old Lady is having a well-deserved drink from her water-bowl, he googles J. Appleton and his or her theory.  But there are no references to it.  Not one.  Did he make it up?

Even if he did, it doesn’t mean that it’s not true.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 21 October 2013.)

Regional Threads - an afternoon of readings - 20 October 2013 at South Hill, Goulburn (jpeg)

What is it, amongst everything we do, the working, the sleeping, the loving, the eating, and all the other things that come in – barge in – to fill our lives, that you’d consider being ‘the main game’?  It’s not necessarily about priorities but how things are managed, sorted, contained, enlivened.  For me, the main game is writing, which must come as no real surprise.  But within writing, there’s a whole heap of activities: the forming of ideas, trying to tease out something that might be of value to someone else; and then there’s the editing, and editing, and editing, and the reading, and reading, and reading; and then, if a book is lucky enough to see the good light of day, there’s playing a role in the public process, the promotion, and whatever comes with that.

None of this is meant to be a complaint.  Rather, a lead-in to a rather special literary event that’s happening in Goulburn – yes, GOULBURN! – tomorrow, Sunday 20 October.  It’s the very last of the events that have been held this year to celebrate the launch of The Invisible Thread, an anthology published by Halstead Press and edited by the amazingly hard-working Irma Gold that collects work by writers who’ve had an association with the ACT region (you’re right: yours truly is in it).  Being someone who these days lives outside the city limits, I could see an opportunity to present the best of the writers from the anthology who now see ‘the country’ their home.  So it’s amazing to have in one room for one afternoon Roger McDonald, Kim Mahood, Russell Erwin, and John Stokes, as well as Marion Halligan to draw us back to the very modern little city where all this started.

So if you’re fond of words – and to me THAT’s the main game – join us for Regional Threads: an afternoon of readings.  It’s free, it’s in a terrific heritage-listed venue, and quite frankly it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever again have such high-calibre writers like this together in one place in this neck of the woods.  Seriously.

Plus there’ll be cake.

What I was wearing when I wrote this First Word.  Potentially.

What I was wearing when I wrote this First Word. Potentially.

When it’s intense it howls, truly howls, as if it’s angry with me, or with this house, or with this town, or with this whole damn country.

Across the paddocks it comes and up over the ridge and, so it feels, rushes headlong down into my humble little yard, pushing the climbing rose into the windows, flattening the wattles, sending buckets flying.  The wind, it’s true, has decapitated fully grown shrubs.  When it’s properly bellowing, so much so that the dog takes herself off to the safe harbour of the en-suite, there’s nothing for me to do than hide under a blanket on the couch and get lost in a novel.

Goulburn is famous for its winds; this is why we’re surrounded by wind-turbines.  It’s good clean energy and it’s what we need if we’re going to be able to keep living on this planet.  But on the couch I don’t think about these pragmatic things, this frustratingly political situation.  I just let the wind rant and rave as I read.

Some days, when it’s literally blowing a gale, I put the book down and set my imagination free.  I could live in a lighthouse and my job would be nothing more complicated than getting the light going each night (perhaps a simple flick of a switch does it) and help keep boats and ships out of harm’s way.  I’d like to be that: a keeper of light – what a business card that would make.

But my imagination doesn’t stop there, not when there’s a novel close at hand.

As the wind batters me and my house around the ears, I could be on of those boats or ships, a sailor, a lone sailor exploring the seas and the oceans and be out there amongst it all.  Or I could be a sailor of the wind; I could run some kind of air-ship and discover worlds beyond my wildest dreams.  Oh I could be a pirate of the sky!  An eccentric, a madman, shouting and calling as I travel here and there on the thinnest of whims.  Yes, that would be me, riding the wind, sails full and powerful.

Until the calm comes, as it always does, and I’d sleep in the quiet, so quiet it would be.  And in this sleepy silence I’d know that I was living a good life, because it’d be one of almost unimaginable adventure.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 14 September 2013.)

Trucks, hi-viz outfits, and a massive sheep (on the move) - this is my town, folks.

Trucks, hi-viz outfits, and a massive sheep (on the move) – this is my town, folks.

1.

Three years ago I was waiting nervously – completely and utterly anxiously – to see what would happen to the Australian Government.  After six months of tarting up my tiny ex-guvvy grey-brick box in Canberra, the thing was ready for the market; in a rare fit of good but not entirely risk-free decision making, I’d decided that my house was the ticket to a better life, one where writing would be the core of each and every week.  (For years, decades, it had been the core, but it was a struggling core, exhausting, and something had to give.)  So there I was, house ready and real-estate agent on standby.  But we had a problem.  A massive problem.  If the Conservatives won the 2010 election they’d strip the bejeezus out of the public service, ejecting bureaucrats from the capital, and house prices would plummet.

2.

Of course, there were plenty of better reasons to fear the Conservatives returning to power.  Tony Abbot, a former seminarian, and boxer, and Rhodes Scholar, was a key player in John Howard’s backwards-looking, xenophobic and homophobic government.  Now he was leader of the opposition, who knows what he’d do.  He was famous for saying that climate change was ‘crap’, that women had a different physiology (exact quote: ‘I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons’), was anti-abortion, and maintained the anti-immigration and anti-marriage-equality stance of his political godfather.  Being rusted on to small-government ideology, if Abbott got in there would be carnage in the capital, and I’d lose $50,000, the $50,000 I needed for my new and better life to begin.

3.

That year, 2010, Abbott almost did get in.  It was a terrifying two-week wait to see if Labor’s Julia Gillard could form an alliance with the independents.  I remember watching that press conference in which the three key independents would reveal their decision – it was the most excruciating 20 minutes of my life.  When Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott eventually announced that they’d be supporting a Gillard-led government I threw my arms in the air as if my favourite footie team had just scored the game-winning try in the final seconds (if I had a favourite footie team, that is).  Not only did I want the Mad Monk and his insidiously grinning gang to lose and for Labor to continue moving us forward (if only inch by inch), I wanted to be able to ring my real-estate agent and shout, ‘GET THIS SHOW ON THE ROAD!’

4.

The show did go on the road.  My house was sold and I now could move to regional New South Wales and live a cheaper, more frugal life in order for writing – creativity in general, the arts, all of it – to be my reason for existence.  So, while Gillard managed to keep her precarious government together, stoking the fires of the economy while the rest of the world went down like the Devil wearing velvet trousers, and putting a price on carbon, and enabling a massive – and wise – investment in education, and establishing the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and continuing with the National Broadband Network (try downloading something as short as a 30-second video where I live and you’ll see why we need this infrastructure), and increasing the tax-free threshold from $6,000 to $18,000, which is an enormous reform for those struggling to make ends meet including artists, and allowing her party to officially endorse a policy of legal recognition of same-sex relationships (while she personally opposed the policy, which, to my mind, was a gross misjudgement on many levels), and – let’s indeed be critical where criticism is due – failed to find a humane and effective way of welcoming refugees to this country, yes, while all this was happening, I moved house, I went interstate.  And now, more or less, I live the life I’ve always wanted.  How luck I am.

5.

There are approximately 23,000 people in this regional New South Wales town of mine.  The place is working class, it’s welfare oriented, there’s some old rural money but not much despite the Big Merino stuck there out on the Hume.  There are cracked faces, broken bodies, some broken spirits.  There are pubs, some of which look like they haven’t been changed in 50 years, and the carpets probably haven’t been changed either.  The mainstreet is packed with 2-dollar outlets, hi-viz stores, and there’s a run of takeaway shops that I swear goes for 300 metres.  But this is home.  For someone like me, who was born and bred on Sydney’s North Shore, who spent his formative adult years in Canberra, which is one of the most enlightened and progressive jurisdictions in the world, in many ways Goulburn is not my natural habitat.  And when the wind howls and the sky comes over grim and grey, it’s really no place for anyone.  But in my little old house with sparrows in the guttering I read and write and read some more.  When I take a break from the words and me and my misshapen tracksuit pants and uggboots go out to see what the chooks are doing, I feel more myself than ever.  At the end of the day, when I pour myself a glass of wine, light the fire, and put on the most miserable music in my collection, I know that this somewhat struggling but good-natured old town is being very good to me.

6.

At times like these I raise a chipped, cracked, coffee-stained mug to Julia Gillard and say thanks for (a) being as decent as you could despite all the shit that was thrown at you (and even though your judgment seemed to go AWOL at times, and your mass-media communication left many of us wondering what you really did mean), and (b) for making all this happen to me.

7.

Today, however, it’s election time again and Tony Abbott, the love-child of John Howard and George W. Bush that he is, will most likely romp across the line.  Despite Labor’s undoubted achievements, the party’s leadership dramas have been appalling – it’s been like having to put up with a couple of junkies fighting in the fruit-and-veg aisle of my local Woolies.  It has to end, and hopefully it ends tonight, when Abbott, all Botox forehead and flapping jug-ears and budgie-smugglers already set out for an early morning swim, takes to the podium.  Perhaps it’ll end a bit more when Kevin Rudd vainly announces his resignation, or doesn’t have to do such a thing because he’s lost his seat.

8.

I’m not a social conservative, and I don’t believe that markets are necessarily the be all and end all, and I don’t believe that wealthy nations can ignore our responsibility to care for those who are wracked by poverty and political turmoil.  So I can’t put a mark in the Coalition’s box, and I can’t ever see myself not thinking in a progressive way.  But I do hope this weekend marks the beginning of a refreshed, enlivened voice for the Left, which may or may not be the Australian Labor Party.

9.

Even though it may well be true that at heart Australia is a fearful, inward-looking country, frankly, as they say around my home-town, you’ve just gotta get the fuck over it and find a better way.

10.

Here’s cheers to Goulburn, to Gillard, and to bright new chapters.

The audience gasped and it was because of something I said, or, at least, had written in a humble novella called I’m Ready Now.  I didn’t think much of it, because I had to keep reading, engaging the crowd as much as humanly possible (especially when your hands are shaking and your legs feel as though stuffed with porridge).  It wasn’t until I finished and stepped off the stage that Greg Gould from Blemish Books said to me with a cheeky glint in the eye, ‘Some may have found the reference to X a shock to the system.’  Of course, Greg didn’t say ‘X’; he told me exactly what some may have found a shock to the system.  But I didn’t mind, not at all, because it’s better for an audience to have a strong reaction than to have no reaction.

Now it’s time to focus on the next public-speaking gig: the 2013 Southern Highland Writers’ Festival, which runs from Friday 12 July to Sunday 14 July in Bowral, New South Wales.  Shit – next weekend!  Check out the festival’s website for the program.  As mentioned before around these parts, my session, which is with Wollongong-based novelist Christine Howe, is at 4pm on Saturday.  Not only am I looking forward to participating in this amazing festival and gratuitously rubbing shoulders with eminent writers like Anne Summers, Mark Tredinnick, and Ursula Dubosarsky, I have a few familial connections to the region.

My father worked in the local hospital, my parents lived on neighbouring Mt Gibraltar, my maternal grandparents lived opposite the town oval (now named Bradman Oval, which is apparently a reference to some cricketer or other), and family lore has it that in the late 1700s, after immigrating in a boat – yes, Australian politicians, IN A BOAT – my forebears, convicts the lot of them, were granted land just south of Bowral.  These days, my kin are all over the joint, but I’m just an hour down the road, in bloody-boiling-one-day-and-fucking-freezing-the-next Goulburn, which is, quite frankly, where I’m happiest.

But I’m getting carried away.

If you’re not doing anything next weekend, why not head for the Highlands?  It’ll be great to see you.  I might even tell you about X.

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Eminent Australia literary journal Meanjin does a job on Canberra - both come out winning.

Eminent Australia literary journal Meanjin does a job on Canberra – both come out winning.

One anthology (two anthologies)

It’s beautiful in design, it feels good, actually it feels perfect – how it all holds together in colour and shape and form and texture.  A glistening cover, inside the gorgeous black and white and sometimes sepia images, and thoughtfully composed essays and short stories and poems and memoir from some of Australia’s best writers – Geoff Page, Marion Halligan, Alan Gould, Susan Hampton et al.  It’s hard to imagine a more lovingly constructed object.  Which is utterly apt for an anthology with Canberra as the theme.  Meanjin should be congratulated for getting together this particular edition, and the context couldn’t be more fitting – Australia’s national capital turns 100 this year.  And for having the guts to do it: across this crusty, leathery old country of ours there isn’t much love for the little southern city, and, rather predictably, there’s a persuasive view that nothing much happens there beyond political and public-sector hot air, and, so the story goes, there’s nothing much of literary note either, which is, of course, complete bollocks.  There’s another anthology about Canberra out at the moment, The Invisible Thread: one hundred years of words (Halstead Press; editor Irma Gold), and that more than proves the point.

City living

I lived in the ACT for the best part of 25 years, from 1987 to 2010, and these days I’m only an hour away.  I moved to Canberra from Sydney by choice, to go to university and start my adult life.  However, university wasn’t the real reason: it was about escaping a city that had leached into my bloodlines (I have ancestral connections to that part of the world dating back to 1797) but had also overwhelmed me with its hedonism and dark heart; moreover, it was about putting myself in an environment which I believed would open me out so that, at last, I might be properly alive.  I knew little about Canberra beyond what I’d gleaned from a handful of trips to visit family friends, but I knew it was different in look and feel to anywhere else I’d been.  Even as a child I understood the territory to be fresh and forward-thinking, and this appealed to someone who was born and bred amongst the well-heeled conservatism of one of the wealthiest parts of Australia, and I had the sense that a new way of being in the world was required.

Much of this Canberra edition of Meanjin focuses on built form and town-planning, which is both unsurprising and perfectly reasonable for a city famous for being designed from the ground up.  And it was certainly a resonating experience to undertake my first degree, landscape architecture, in a place where landscape and architecture are so important.  However, these things are not what I enjoyed the most; these things are not what have ultimately made me remember my time in Canberra with great fondness, often love.  In Canberra I discovered who I was, I met people, I fell in love.  Critically, it seemed – and still seems – a place where pre-judgement isn’t the preferred modus operandi.  Is there really much difference between getting drunk or getting stoned?  Do we wish to demonise people who sell sex and people who pay for sex?  For some years now, Canberra – the society of 380,000 people, not the hollow, hill-top political machine – has been asking the question about whether or not marriage is about gender.  And isn’t it time that the nation stood on its own two feet and became a republic?

Town living

Two old mates, three big rocks, a mountain range off screen, as is a great modern city called Canberra.

Two old mates, three big rocks, a mountain range off screen, as is a great modern city called Canberra.

Almost three years I moved out of Canberra into neighbouring regional New South Wales.  Why?  Cheaper housing – most writers can’t afford big-city mortgages, even the rent.  And I appreciate small-town life.  And old stuff.  Canberra has a rich heritage – Aboriginal, natural, and built – but it’s not the crumbly, slightly depressing sort.  And I’m a big fan of the crumbly, slightly depressing sort.  So these days I live in my little old 1895-era cottage called Leitrim, and I spend my weekends patching up cracks that keep appearing in the walls and I collect firewood for a fire on these cold, damp nights, and I’m as happy as Julia Gillard on a Sunday arvo sitting on the couch in her jim-jams with a glass of red while watching Bruce Willis bash it up in Die Hard.  I love walking down to the mainstreet to visit the post office, which is a truly spectacular late nineteenth-century marvel, and doing a few transactions in a bank where the people know my name, before wandering home through  hidden laneways.  When Goulburn’s good, she’s heart-stopping spectacular.

The future

But still I visit Canberra regularly, weekly in fact, and a hump-day highlight is careering through the rolling back-road Southern Tableland landscape, listening to music (the latest Frightened Rabbit has been getting a good run, which make me laugh in this context – the road’s awash with roadkill) and when I cross the border into the ACT it’s always a joy, a hopeful joy.  Because to me that’s what Canberra is about: the future, and how we can craft it anyway we like, even as a society we can do this.  We can honour the past, live in the Brindabella-boundary present – if you’ve never been around to see snow on those ranges then you’re missing the quintessential south-east Australian experience – but keep eyes open to move forward.  It’s this youthfulness that I admire about Canberra – how my own youth once became a kind of ‘manhood’, whatever that is – and the unashamed optimism.  And the fact that many of my friends still live there.

And that perfection might not be so unattainable afterall.

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