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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.

Betwixt and between.  It’s a wonderful phrase, partly because it sounds so good, all that alliteration and rhythm and balance, and partly because of its meaning – neither one thing nor the other, somewhere between the two.  Grey is a good example: it’s neither black nor white.  And Grey is my middle name, and I’m telling you the truth, so being neither one thing nor the other has been etched onto my DNA.  But what exactly am I between?  I’m between the old and the new, I’m between old age and youth – I’m stuck in the middle.

Increasingly, just like most people, I’m spending more and more of my life on-line, running websites, writing blog posts, handling a weekly avalanche of emails.  And then there’s Facebook and Twitter, those necessary evils if you’re trying to make a go of a creative career and there are people out there who want to know what’s happening.  It’s all very stressful, isn’t it, juggling these digital balls, making sure you don’t miss something important, even though 99 percent of what’s on the internet is…well, let’s not go into that.  But there are joys, it has to be said –someone who regularly comments on my blog, someone I’ve never met in person, sent me a book to read, a real book, it turned up in my letterbox.

Speaking of my letterbox, something else miraculous turned up recently.  A postcard.  An actual postcard!  On the back were handwritten sentences about a trip to a rehabilitated clay mine in Cornwell, followed by fish and chips overlooking the water, we just hope the weather holds for our canal-boat trip starting Monday.  What really caught my eye, however, was the correspondent had correctly addressed my house: she’d used my house’s name: Leitrim.  Yes, my house has a name, because it’s an old place, 1890s, high ceilings, picture-rails, a Hordern and Sons coal-burning fire, and leadlight windows.  I adore it, I really do.  Slowly I’m filling it with old furniture – my guilty pleasure is spending Sunday afternoons scouring shops selling secondhand goods in the hope that I can find something beautiful I can afford, like a chair, or a piece of cast-iron.

But still this house is where I update my Facebook status and send tweets.

Betwixt and between indeed.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 28 July 2012.)

It’s a small space, just ten metres by ten metres, approximately, of course, there’s no point being accurate about these things.  Open the back door and you step into it, out there, a cast-iron doormat beneath your feet.  To your left is a small nook, terracotta pots of geraniums beneath the bathroom windowsill, lattice covering the Colourbond fence, plastic terracotta half-pots screwed to the lattice (plastic only because real terracotta would be too heavy), some type of sedum clinging on for dear life in the pots.  At the feet of the lattice is the narrowest of garden beds, bulbs emerging, grape hyacinth from memory.  Also on your left is a Koppers-log shade structure covered in potato vine – smothered is a better word.  It protects the kennel for The Old Lady of the House and Cat the Ripper’s food-and-water station.

But come up the path, do.

Now you’re in the guts of it, the cottage garden proper, though it’s winter so it’s looking worse for wear, it’s the frosts, and the wind, always the wind, because it’s relentless.  On your left is a small veggie patch beneath the clothesline, the patch packed down with lucerne bought from the stockfeed supplier up the road, strawberry plants growing amongst it all.  A timber bench at one end – it’s here that I drink coffee or tea, sit in the sun, watch the chooks, and let my brain empty.  The chook run, painted deep red and a faded kind of light green to match the house, the roost half-covered in potato vine for shade in summer.  A grey concrete stepping-stone path leading to the back gate; the gate’s  flimsy so it’s secured with an old chain.  And the single-car corrugated iron garage, though it’s more like a shed, no door, a lean to the whole thing but somehow it’s weatherproof.

Much of the space to your right is covered in lavender and rosemary, lamb’s ears, more bulbs coming through, daffodils I think, two standard roses (white), one has a lean to it, because of the wind.  Another timber bench, this one I’ve had for thirteen years, one of the slats is broken so I don’t sit on the bench often, but it’s surrounded by a sparsely planted English box ‘hedge’.  One day soon I’m going to buy a whole bunch of old bricks and pave the area beneath the bench and within the squared outline of the English box ‘hedge’, and probably put a small cast-iron urn on each side.

Speaking of cast-iron – even more cast-iron – there’s a cast-iron birdbath, it has an old-tractor-seat aesthetic, two cast-iron sparrows stuck onto the rim so they look like they’re drinking, but at this time of year they also look like they’re comatose with frost, so says He Who Notices These Things.  Along the side fence, screening the neighbour’s yard, which is so filled with junk, even an old boat, that we call him Catweasel, or Weasel, or just Weaze, is an old fig tree, and a short run of wattles (I think they’re wattles), they too are windblown, and a Manchurian pear tree that will one day grow too big, too big for this space.  A Chinese silk tree, bulbs beneath, more daffodils I seem to recall, but maybe bluebells as well.  A low, old-brick wall.  An old rusting watering can perched on a bush rock.

Between the old rusting watering can and the house is a small paved area, in the corners geraniums in pots, in the middle a timber outdoor setting, a white pot in the centre of the table, the pot overflowing with some kind of sedum that flourishes in Goulburn conditions.  Sometimes I sit at the table and eat lunch, leftovers mostly, or eggs on toast, but I don’t sit there as often as originally envisaged, because of the mozzies that seem to love coming out from beneath the shade of the wattles.

Despite its small size, despite the fierce heat in summer and the frost in winter and the wind, always the wind, despite being fond of wearing black jeans, black T-shirts, listening to The Smiths and PJ Harvey records, despite loving a glass or three each evening, despite everything else I’ve put in my body, and done to my body, this space, this tiny tiny space, my garden, is where I love being.  It’s my retreat, it’s my sanctuary.  If I don’t spend at least an hour or two out there each week I unravel just a little bit (more).

Margaret Atwood said, ‘Gardening is not a rational act.’  So my garden is where I’m going now this post is done, and gardening is what I’m going to do.  Drop over, drop in, have a cuppa and sit for a bit.  Just make sure to bring a beanie, maybe gloves, perhaps even a scarf.  And nothing – absolutely nothing – in your brain.


This post was inspired by a piece over at Broadside titled ‘Flowers and plants and shrubs – oh my!

Wow.  Today, right now, I find myself feeling peaceful, so very peaceful.  It might have something to do with the blue sky, which is such a relief after the weather we’ve had around these Southern Tableland parts, blustery and drizzly, sleety even, so it makes your hands turn grey-black and your nose feel as though it’s going to snap off.  But it’s not just the weather, that deep dark blue Goulburn sky.  No, it’s because yesterday, I feel, something momentous happened.  It’s not momentous as in a change of government, or a great sporting achievement (as if sport can ever be such a thing), it’s just momentous to me.

You see, yesterday I submitted my second novella to my publisher.  Yes, I’ve done this before; I’d thought I was finished, because I felt finished.  It must have been some kind of trick, because Blemish Books came back with changes, good changes, and wise, which then set in train changes I wanted to make.  So that’s how the last seven days have been, making changes to a manuscript and thinking about changes, even at night, and making more of the bloody things, until everything – everything – is perfect.

So I hope.

I’ve been going through I’m Ready Now with a fine-toothed comb, well, in reality it was just a Bic pen.  I’ve agonised over words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters.  I’ve never forgotten something that the Australian children’s-book author Mem Fox once said: ‘Care about writing because it matters.  Ache over every detail.  Be involved in the painful and intolerable wrestle with words and their meaning.’  So that’s what I’ve been doing: wrestling with words and their meanings until I’ve ached.  Until the deadline loomed, the deadline that was 5pm yesterday.

At 4.45pm yesterday I bundled up the manuscript onto a flash-drive, loaded it onto my laptop, crafted an email…and pressed SEND.  The next time I see the manuscript it will be professionally laid out, and the opportunity for making changes will be limited.  Oh, what a relief.  Last night I celebrated with a glass of wine and a fire in the hearth.  And two steaks of salmon, which was an extravagance, but why not.  I slept well.

Today, yes, such extraordinary peace, as though every worry I’ve had has simply dissolved.  But I’ve not given myself a day off – I’ve been in the writing room, in uggboots and tracksuit pants and an old stripy-brown jumper my mother knitted for me when I was a teenager and I’ve kept it with me all this time, it has holes but who cares.  And I’ve worked, going back to another project, except I’ve taken it easy.  I’ve even allowed myself to listen to music: the soundtrack to the BBC serialisation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  When I was a teenager I loved nothing more than wrapping myself in a blanket, lying down on the couch, and writing school-boy fiction to the Brideshead soundtrack, which would be on LP and on repeat.

So here I am, thirty years later, doing exactly that, although I’m at a desk and the music is on CD and I hope the words I write amount to more than school-boy fiction.  Whatever I write, however I’m Ready Now is received, today has been one of the most peaceful days in my life.  And I am so very thankful that writing remains with me.  Tomorrow I might feel differently, perhaps even the opposite, but today is today and today is calm, serene, still.  So very still.

It’s a rare event for a dictionary to fail me but that’s exactly what happened a minute ago: my usually trustworthy Oxford Australian Dictionary (1992) couldn’t come up with the goods, and what a sinking feeling that was.  Then the unspeakable happened: my Roget’s Thesaurus (1976) failed as well.  I reached for the Pears’ Cyclopaedia (1932) but it too fell short.  I pulled my copy of Soule’s Synonyms (1904) off the shelf – at last there was hope.

What have I been looking for? A definition of lane.

Where I live, a town dating from the 1820s, we have many lanes; in fact, we’re cross-hatched with them.  I adore them.  Consisting of two roughly parallel lines of compacted gravel or dirt bordered by knee-high grass, those narrow throughways between old houses.  I walk the dog down them.  I take them when going to the mainstreet.

I remember being a little boy and visiting cousins out at Young and they had a rear lane; how lucky I thought they were.  For two years in the 1990s I lived at Cottesloe Beach, Perth, and there was a lane behind my flat; how lucky I thought I was. I’ve named the on-line literary journal I co-edit Verity La after a lane in the Sydney Building, Canberra, and in Hong Kong recently my camera regularly found itself pointed towards backstreets and laneways.

These days, I might walk the lanes of my home-town because they offer protection from the winds, but mostly I take them because you can peer into backyards – wild veggie patches, saggy chookyards, an outdoor dunny turned into a wood-store, a rusted metal seat in the sun, a broken cricket bat…

When walking a lane there’s a sense that words like private and public don’t matter, that life can’t be categorised by what is yours and what is mine.  Lanes are semi-places, they’re reserved, they’re reticent.  That’s why dictionaries struggle with them.

The best the Oxford could do was “a narrow road or street”, which is downright wrong.  The Roget’s was able to suggest words like “short-cut”, but in the end this is clutching at straws.  Perhaps in 1902 there was a better understanding of these things, because the Soule’s got as far as “alley, narrow passage or way”; as definitions go it’s prosaic but at least there’s accuracy.

How would I define lane?

I wouldn’t, I can’t; I too would fail miserably.  I’ll just keep walking them, being with them, because their elusiveness makes me feel whole.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 24 March 2012.  This is my fiftieth piece for the First Word column; many thanks to Gillian Lord)

'Nigel's interior' by Rudy Kistler (oil on panel, 2011)

There’s a new painting on my wall.  It didn’t just appear there out of the blue, of course, although it would have been good if it had (fancy a house where art just appears on the walls, and disappears again, just like that!).  No, I bought this one, at least I’m in the process of buying it, because it’s a painting of a room in my house, the doors to the ensuite no less, which doesn’t sound like a worthwhile subject for a painting, and if you could see the actual doors, and the actual ensuite, with its over-cast grey tiling and floor-to-ceiling crack in the wall, you’d think it even less worthwhile.  But there it is: a painting of my ensuite doors, a painting by Australian artist Rudy Kistler.

Last month, while I was working words at Varuna, the national writers’ house in the Blue Mountains, Rudy was at my place in Goulburn, ostensibly house-sitting, and chook-sitting, the latter much more important than the former.  But in reality he was painting.  One of the joys of those two weeks was seeing Rudy post on Facebook the paintings he was producing.  There was one of sparrows in the budding Manchurian pear tree in the backyard.  Another of a whiskey bottle on my dining-room table, French doors behind, the tiling beneath the table rendered as if peeling away, like baked mud in a summer dam.  But it’s the painting of the ensuite French doors that really took my fancy, because – because why?  Because here was someone, Rudy Kistler, engaging with my house, connecting with it, interpreting it.

Had he woken one morning and saw something that took his eye?  Had he sat up in bed and sketched it?  I’ve asked Rudy about the motivation of the painting.  He said that he was taken by the light, how it came through ‘three rooms in one’.  That’s all; it’s nothing more complicated than that.

To me, however, it’s the magic of being able to see through someone else’s eyes.  If writing is all about walking in someone else’s shoes, and communicating that as fully as possible, perhaps painting – all visual art – allows the viewer to spend a moment experiencing someone else’s sight.  And how extraordinary that is, because it’s a rare privilege. So that’s why I have this new painting.  When I look at the painting of my ensuite doors by Rudy Kistler I’m out of my own wretched body, I’m not of myself, and that’s such a good feeling.  Perhaps, for some, religion takes them out, but for me it’s art, art that is as good as this.

To finish with a quote from Rudy himself.  You know how I mentioned that other painting with the tiles like dried-up mud?  I asked him why he chose to paint the flooring in such a way, especially when the flooring is actually brand new (and cost me a small fortune).  Rudy replied, ‘I had a teacher once who said, we’re not interested in your straight lines, anyone can paint in straight lines, we’re interested in your wobbly lines.’

There’s something in that, isn’t there, the startling beauty of imperfection.

It feels only right that after all this time I tell you about my house, my home, an old place, 1890s they say, because that’s the age of my end of the street. It’s a cottage, a ‘cosy cottage’ according to the real-estate advertisement. A short run of picket fencing, a matching gate leading along a short brick-paved path, up three concrete steps painted red to a concrete veranda, the floor of which is also painted red. That’s the extent of the front garden. You could park a small car in it, but only just, and you’d squash the roses that are trying make the best of the lack of sun – the house faces east, over town to the hills and paddocks beyond.

At one end of the veranda is a perforated-metal table and two matching chairs, which sometimes I sit on and drink a coffee or tea or have a glass of wine. At the other end of the veranda is an old church pew, or perhaps it’s a school bench – the local old-wares shop that sold it to me openly admitted that they didn’t know much about it, they don’t want to know where their stuff comes from in general.

The old part of the house is just four rooms, two on either side of a hallway. The ceilings are high; even though I’m six-feet tall I can only just reach the ceiling when standing on the top of a step-ladder. To the immediate left is my study, or work room, or writing room, depending on what mood I’m in. The room is painted a deep rust red up to the picture rails, ‘ceiling white’ above.

To the immediate right is the original sitting-room, also painted deep rust red. There’s a coal-burning heater made by A. Hordern and Sons of Sydney, a mantelpiece (ancient-looking but not original), ceiling-high bookshelves on each side. When I first moved in I thought that this room would be my study, or work room, or writing room, what with the fire and mantelpiece and bookshelves and all, but I felt like a fraud, or that I was 100 years old and smoked a pipe while writing poems about daffodils and young girls. It’s just a sitting-room now; sometimes I call it The Library, or The Fireplace Room. Visitors like the coal-burning fireplace, especially friends from Canberra who’ve forgotten that such things ever existed.

Further along are the bedrooms, the main one on the left, the guest one on the right. The colour-scheme in the main bedroom is white with black trim and black curtains, or cream and black, Clotted Cream I think it is actually called. It’s a simple room, monkish: a queen-sized bed, simple timber bedside tables from St Vinnies, on one wall a colourful painting done by my father, on another a framed black-and-white photograph I took when I was eighteen, a morning-rise landscape, black branches against a brand new sky. I realise now that the photo is older than the person who took it. There’s an ensuite and walk-in robe, a first for me. I like how when I have guests I don’t have to use the ‘common’ bathroom. It makes me feel as though I’ve come of age.

The guest room is yellow, Cheesy Grin is the paint colour. The previous owners used it as a nursery for their young child, hence the colour of the walls. Perhaps they were saying to their child, You might live in an old house that’s crumbling around the edges, but we’re so happy to have you with us.

Yes, my house is crumbling around the edges.

In the back half, built during the Second World War when Goulburn must have felt so far away from everywhere that mattered, and perhaps there was a comfort in that, are the living areas. The lounge area contains a decade-old fading red couch which the Old Lady of The House and Cat the Ripper use more than me, the upright piano from my childhood, a stereo with record player, more bookshelves, and a skylight. The dining area contains an old pine table, also bought from St Vinnies. In this part of the house are two sets of French doors, one set looking north to the green Colourbond fence that’s smothered in a massive climbing rose, the other set looking west into the rear yard, a view of the old private school on the hill, Hogwarts we call it, of course.

A kitchen, the largest kitchen I’ve ever had – there’s room for two fridges (one for food, the other, a bar fridge, for bottles of wine), a walk-in pantry (sort of), windows that look out into the side lane. At least it used to look out into the side lane – after I lost interest in the drug deals going on next door I had frosted glass put in so I can pretend all is fine with the world.

Out the back is the ‘common’ bathroom, which includes a spa bath and is another first for me, and a timber-sash window, the weight is broken, so when the day is warm enough I prop it open with a piece of old dowel, no fly-screen, so the flies come in.

A laundry that’s really just a cupboard with a sliding door.

Much of the back of the house is tiled, a large square brown type, which I sometimes pretend are flagstones and this house is even older than it is. The rest of the house is floored with polished timber, turpentine the wood, so it’s a deep reddish brown and hard as steel. I broom the floors every day to get rid of the dog-hair tumbleweeds, and because I persist in spending much of my life wearing ugg-boots – this is Goulburn after all.

Outside, the house is concrete-rendered; it’s been painted a light, drab green, but the trim is rust red, so are the doors, the roofing is corrugated iron and doesn’t leak though it does creak in the heat of summer. A stubby little chimney, which I always love seeing when I come home from down the street, a bag of groceries stretching from each arm. It all hangs together well, my house. Many places don’t: extensions done in the 1970s still looking exactly like extensions done in the 1970s.

Out the back is the smallest of yards, though to be accurate it is four times the size of the front. A Koppers-log pergola thickly covered in potato vine – I seriously considered getting rid of the structure when I first moved in, until I realised that it’s there to cut down the incessant Southern Tablelands wind, and stop the houses behind seeing in, which is good, because in this place I’ve developed a dreadful habit of pissing outside, as if I live in a thousand-hectare farm out the back of buggery.

A small brick outdoor area, the old portable barbecue that’s yet to be used in this place. The rest of the yard is a cottage garden in the making – lavender, rosemary, salvias, irises, geraniums. Bulbs are emerging now. There’s not much room for trees, but I have a silver birch, a silkwood, two large wattles, a struggling Manchurian pear, and a very old fig which I originally thought was dead but my brother said I should give it a chance because it looked ‘prehistoric’. Come summer the fig showed itself to be a healthy tree, though I’m not big on fig fruit – my neighbour must be, because I’ve seen him lean over and pinch a few, and good on him for that.

A small veggie patch beneath the clothesline. My three new Wyandotte hens in their coop and run; they get the shits with the sparrows, who do little mission impossibles to steal food. An old iron garage that my father reckoned would have once been used as a shearing shed but clearly it wasn’t. I’ve thought about replacing the garage because it has no door, has a lean to it, and it leaks. But my friends say that it has character. Plus I have no money.

My place is pretty, she’s cute, but, yes, she’s crumbling. The floors had to be rebuilt from the ground up. When I arrived they were so sloping it felt like I was constantly drunk; really I’m only drunk some of the time, a little at 6pm each evening to celebrate another good writing day, and when He Who Too Loves A Cool Drink On A Warm Day is here, weekends mostly, because we live busy lives. So the floors needed rebuilding. I have photos of the process that make it look like an archaeological dig up at The Rocks.

There are cracks in the walls, which worried me sick at first, but I worked out how to do the repairs, making the walls look new, or at least newish. Some of the cracks seem permanently fixed, but one, above the door to the guest room, is persistent – I almost admire it now. Some of the walls suffer from rising damp, the paint sweats and bubbles. The damp is slowly killing the house. I’ve had a ‘chemical damp-proof course’ installed. I showed a photo of the procedure to a friend, who said that it reminded her of the Matrix films. The builder had to inject the walls, the multiple injectors connected to a machine that looked like it might have been stolen from an Intensive Care Unit. This means the dampness is fixed, or, at least, it’s in the process of being fixed.

The point of telling you all this is my house is alive. She’s old, she’s ageing. She’s a geriatric patient I care for. In return she gives me lessons about perfection, about the need to redefine my idea of perfection. She cracks, she creaks, she cries. She can be damp and cold. But she can also be warm, so warm, so loving.

It is good to be here, coming home, seeing her, taking me – us – into her, being reminded how imperfect I am despite my best intentions, because time is slowly taking us apart.



The cover of Oz number 23, August 1969

What do a pair of lawyers, a country homestead, an iconic Australia pop artist, a massive merino, a man with a ukulele, an Archibald Prize-winning water-colourist, and a mythical yellow house have in common?

To find the answer we’ll have to go time-travelling.  It’s 1960s Sydney and a young girl opens a copy of Oz, the infamous antiauthoritarian magazine which would put its founders in jail for obscenity.  An advertisement: Wanted, Nude Model for a Martin Sharp collage.  The girl thinks she could give it a go so rings the number; within days she’s standing in a studio, throwing the required shapes with her body.  When the session is over she’s given “twenty quid”, taken out for lunch, and then sent home.  No ramifications.  Except, it seems, one.


Fast-forward five decades and we’re sitting in a crumbling early nineteenth-century homestead called South Hill.  The homestead and its various outbuildings, including a sheering shed, a barn, and “heritage” chook-yards, sit high on a hill adjacent the southern free-way exit to Goulburn.  Look one way and there’s a sobering view of the abattoir; look another way it’s the rolling north-eastern edge of the Monaro.  Just there, however, almost touchable, is the bitumen rush of the Hume Highway as it impatiently skirts Australia’s first in-land city, except it’s really just a town, a town that most Canberrans associate with pit-stops at a ubiquitous fast-food restaurant and gawking at the concrete Big Merino.

South Hill, the property, isn’t overly manicured.  It doesn’t smell of money, its soul hasn’t been destroyed by renovation.  Uncut red geraniums sprawl here and there; strummed acoustic music comes from somewhere nearby.  I like being here, especially as I’m talking with Linda Gumbert, an articulate, fiercely intelligent but gregarious sixty-plus-year-old woman.  Gumbert, who appears ridiculously fit for her age, is wearing blue jeans and a tight white T-shirt with ETERNITY across the front; it’s the sort of T-shirt you’d expect to find on a thinking woman from the city, a thinking woman who was once a girl who saw an ad in a magazine.

“You’ll want to ask me about how I know Martin Sharp,” she says, mischievously.

I ask her.  She tells me her story.  But Gumbert’s day with Australia’s most revered pop artist is only part of a much bigger story, one that is just beginning.

More time-travelling.

At the turn of the millennium, Linda Gumbert and her husband Roland, both lawyers based in Sydney, had a hankering that they might like to invest in a country town.  “We chose Goulburn deliberately because it’s accessible and we thought it might take off.’  Gumbert laughs; there’s much knowing in her wide-eyed face, but there’s also something of the teenaged girl that once was, an obvious delight in the world.  “The other thing that’s attractive about Goulburn is it’s not full of teddy-bear shops and an antique store on every corner.  When you swing into the main-street you park beside a sheep truck.  It filled our desire for something real.”

How did South Hill come to being in the Gumberts’ hands?

“Quite by chance,” says Linda, as if she can’t quite believe that she and her husband have ended up with the place, “we picked up the newspaper and saw that this place was for sale.  The auction was in two days.  It was owned by the local Anglican minister – a bit of a bed-and-breakfast thing, some pictures on the walls, a few artsy soirées.  We got some advice that said don’t buy it.  But we bought it anyway, because we knew better!”  Gumbert laughs again, giving a clear signal that when she wants to do something she just bloody well goes and does it.

“The house needs a million dollars which we don’t have, it’s freezing cold in winter and boiling hot in summer.  We don’t know anything about sheep or fencing.  We had to do something – we thought of having a performing arts centre, but we settled on a gallery.”

The couple admit to not having a background in the arts, just an unshakeable belief that healthy societies embrace creativity with open arms.  They set about scoring a patron.  “I reminded Roland that I once took my clothes off for Martin Sharp,” Linda Gumbert explains.  “Maybe we should speak to him about how to open a fine-art gallery?  I was too scared to make a phone call, so I wrote a letter and said, you wouldn’t remember me but we’re starting this gallery in Goulburn and do you want to give me a ring.  He rang me back a few days later and said, I remember you really well and still have the photos – come over.”

Linda and I take a break and, together with Roland (who’s handsome in a way that suggests he might know more about farming than he likes to let on), we do a tour of the three rooms of the gallery part of the main house, and then through the rest of the rooms.  At the heart of the place, above a glassed-in courtyard space, hang two massive banners Martin Sharp produced to celebrate Tiny Tim, the American ukulele player most of us remember as the funny-looking bloke who sung ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ in an unearthly falsetto.

“When you get Martin Sharp to be your patron,” Roland Gumbert tells me, “you also get his great love of Tiny Tim.”  In fact one room at South Hill is filled with Tiny Tim and other 1960s memorabilia: paintings, books, photographs, odds and ends.  A glass hallway cabinet displays original copies of Oz magazine.  It’s hard not to get the impression that the Gumberts believe that this new, potentially staid decade needs something of a much earlier, more liberal era.

I’m shown around the grounds.  An American-born Sydney artist called Rudy Kistler is currently working on a body of work in a shed; he appears in floppy hat with a handful of raspberries.  Peter Royles, a folk musician and “original Yellow House member” (whatever that is) who happens to live in Goulburn, practices in another shed.  There are plans to hold open-air concerts in a natural bowl high up on a ridge.

“You’ll have to go to Sydney to interview Martin,” Linda Gumbert requires of me.  “He wants to turn South Hill into Yellow House!”  I really have no idea what she’s talking about so I nod politely, hoping that she doesn’t see through me, except Linda and Roland Gumbert are perceptive people, and I’m twenty years younger than them, so they’d know, they’d know.

Linda Gumbert explains that in Sharp they didn’t only get a patron but someone who is inordinately connected to the arts world – through Sharp they were put on to local photographer Jon Lewis and another “original Yellow House member”, who then introduced the Gumberts to Cherry Hood, the Archibald Prize-winning portrait painter who lives nearby.

Back home I Google “Martin Sharp Yellow House”.  Apparently Yellow House was a terrace in Potts Point.  In the sixties it was a hang-out for a wide range of artists including Brett Whitely, Jim Sharman, Peter Weir, and folk-singer Gary Shearston, amongst many others.  The walls were painted in all sorts of colours, something about a train coming out of a fireplace.  It seems that it was one part university grouphouse, one part hippy love den, and one part scary bohemian arts happening; it feels like the ground zero of radical Sydney.

My mind is spinning.  I really do need to interview Martin Sharp.


Cherry Hood and her portrait of pianist Simon Tedeschi, which won the 2002 Archibald Prize

First, however, let’s hear from Cherry Hood about her role as South Hill curator.  Cherry Hood’s practice focuses on large painterly portraits, primarily of children and animals.  On top of winning the 2002 Archibald Prize for her study of pianist Simon Tedeschi, Hood’s work is represented in many Australian collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of NSW, and the BHP Billiton Collection.

What originally interested Hood in the Gumberts’ plans for South Hill?  “When Linda asked me to open an exhibition of paintings I naturally wanted to know more about what they wanted to achieve.  Their idea was wonderful; it was very exciting that a new gallery was to open here.  Our Regional Gallery is excellent but Goulburn needed at least one commercial space to compliment it.  So I wanted to help them fit-out the gallery and with choosing artists who are serious and dedicated.”

What about Martin Sharp’s apparent vision to bring Yellow House to South Hill – how does Hood see that unfolding?

“One of the great periods for art in Australia’s cultural history was when Yellow House was alive and well in Sydney.  Martin was inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s idea of bringing artists “to the South” to join him in his Yellow House, which is what he called his studio.”  (Ah, it’s becoming clearer now!)  “Vincent, like other artists, knew that good things happen when artists get together and brainstorm, artists inspire each other to greater things.  So Martin has seen a very nice synchronicity in this idea of a new Yellow House in Goulburn.  And while the walls may not get painted in bright colours or patterns every few days and the Pop Movement is long gone, South Hill has already become a meeting place and the Gumberts have already established an artist-in-residency program.”


A week later, I’m on the early-bird train to Sydney to meet Martin Sharp.  How has this happened?  It feels like South Hill has put a spell on me, one that’s saying follow all leads, never be afraid.  To manage my apprehension I’ve done more research: I’ve learnt that Sharp designed the influential album covers for sixties rock legends Cream, that he even wrote the lyrics for Cream’s most famous song, ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’, that Eric Clapton likes to visit his old friend (there’s a photograph at South Hill to prove it).

I’ve read how Sharp’s cartoons and illustrations were a central feature of Oz, both in Australia and London.  I know a little more about Martin Sharp’s passion for Tiny Tim – Sharp even produced some of his albums.  I’ve learnt that Sydney is besotted with their pop artist, and I get the impress that this man is Australia’s Andy Warhol and that his Yellow House might have been just like Warhol’s Factory.

The closer my train gets to Central the more my hands feel faint with nerves.  I take comfort in something Linda Gumbert told me: “Martin is a believer in the crossing of paths.  There are no mistakes.”

Martin Sharp...nowish.

Now I’m walking down the steep driveway of what would be a harbourside mansion should the owner be interested.  Martin Sharp, a slim man with longish grey hair that gives a hint to how he would have looked as a young creative provocateur in the sixties, greets me warmly, even tenderly, and welcomes me into his inherited home.  An artist who is doing work on Sharp’s extensive Tiny Tim archive makes us a cup of tea each and then we get down to business in his studio.  The room, as you’d expect, is filled with paintings and books although it’s darker than I’d imagined, a result of the wood panelling that surrounds us.

Sharp is erudite and deeply thoughtful if not a little rambly, though that might be due to a recent spell of ill health more than anything else.  We’re joined by a cat called Imelda, after Imelda Marcos, because the feline had a shoe obsession when she was a kitten.  Later Sharp will tell me why Susan Boyle, who unexpectedly was runner-up on reality TV show Britain’s Got Talent in 2008, is someone who should be admired: “She’s one of my great heroes.  Such courage, she turned the world around.”

So.  Why is Martin Sharp involved with South Hill?

“Because Linda Gumbert asked me and she said that I didn’t have to do anything.”  That’s it, that’s Sharp’s answer.  He doesn’t laugh, just rolls another of what will be an endless series of cigarettes, selecting tobacco from a ceramic bowl.  Perhaps realising that I need a more expansive answer, he mercifully adds, “I like the Gumberts very much.”  Sharp then tells me that when he was asked to be patron of South Hill he had to look up the word in an old dictionary.  “It’s got a different meaning that you’d normally think,” he warns.

I have an old dictionary and have since looked it up.  He’s right.

As patron, does Sharp have a vision for South Hill?  “I’m thoughtful about the place, put it that way.”  Again he pauses.  At last he continues: “South Hill has enormous potential as an ‘Off Broadway’ exhibiting place.  You could start exhibitions there and then they go on to other places.’’

An ‘Off Broadway’ exhibiting place – how’s that for a concept.

“Linda’s a very charismatic person,” Sharp goes on, now without encouragement.  “She’s a power-house.  I love her spirit.  South Hill has charisma.”  A new cigarette is lit.  “I can see the place almost being like a college.”  He would like to see South Hill hold a children’s art competition.  “The great exhibitions that go on at the end of the school year – you know, it’s remarkable work.  I’ve seen some astounding stuff, better than the art gallery shows.”

The artist points to a series of paintings hanging around the top of the walls of his studio which he did when he was sixteen years old.  “They’re not bad,” he says.  “I’m impressed and I get more impressed as time goes by.”

Point made.


Martin Sharp, Yellow House, 1970-1971 (photo by Rennie Ellis, courtesy of the National Library of Australia)

What about this whole notion of recreating Yellow House down at South Hill?  “Well, it would be a lovely idea in theory, but…”  Sharp gives out an impish laugh, as if he’s gently telling me that he’s not going to do all the work.  “Yellow House very much came out of the sixties.  The theory was if you make a good environment, if you can create a garden where all sorts of things can grow…”  He trails off as if enjoying the memory.  “It was held together by a high degree of visual tuning and intelligence within its decoration, and then within that all sorts of things like films for show, poetry readings, concerts, cabaret emerged.  There’s great potential down at South Hill to do the same thing.”

But can it happen in good old Goulburn town, a place where, so I’m told, even the hospital’s surgeon has tattoos?

“Vincent Van Gogh, the patron saint of artists, said a good painting does good wherever it is.  I love that.”  Sharp asks me if I’ve read Van Gogh’s letters?  No.  He sucks in his breath through his teeth as if he’s just witnessed a bad car accident.  He says, “You should.  Vincent said, ‘There will be an art of the future and it will be so lovely and beautiful that we’ll give up our youth for it but will surely gain serenity.’  He felt that it would come from the popular side of art.”

I have to ask about Tiny Tim.

Martin Sharp first saw the unique if not eccentric musician at the Albert Hall in London in 1968 and decided that he was in the presence of genius.  “Tiny was a master of the whole language of the popular song, a pioneer post-modernist, if you want to look at it that way.  I think he’s as great as van Gogh, I really do, he’s an artist of the first magnitude.  He was time-travelling all the time.”

Time-travelling: I haven’t heard that term in ages.

Perhaps South Hill is time-travelling, from its original pastoral purpose to countrified bed-and-breakfast establishment, from fine-art gallery and residency complex to – with hard work as well as a good dose of luck, even a little magic – Australia’s new wildly influential Yellow House.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

The best thing is that none of this is happening in an image-obsessed inner-city suburb but right on the edge of our oldest in-land town, which is just up the road from the National Capital.  All because two supremely motivated people believe in the inherent value of the arts and that creativity can and should happen anywhere, and this belief is going to be pursued until the cow’s come home.  Meanwhile, Cherry Hood will skilfully curate, and Martin Sharp – rather dreamily, it must be said – will encourage and protect.

Thank God the young Linda Gumbert liked reading obscene magazines.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, on 5 March 2011.  Thanks to Linda and Roland Gumbert, and Cherry Hood.  Much gratitude to Martin Sharp.  Never have I ever thought that I’d end up meeting such good people and writing a story like the one above.)

I have no idea why...

...old things make my heart sing.

It might be due to all the living...

...that's been and gone and will be again.

Or it might be that one day, one day...

...I will live in a place like this.

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