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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.

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.

A bathtub. Regrettably not filled with words.

A good friend of mine, an accomplished writer, once told me that she loved words so much she’d like to bathe in them.  It may be slightly wacky but it certainly is a brilliant image: you turn on the tap and out come your favourite words, rushing and swirling, the bath every so slowly filling up until it’s time to take off your clothes and lie down amongst the little bits of language, soaking in it, all those wonderful sounds and meanings touching your skin, perhaps even seeping through to your bones.

I have a handful of favourite words.  Home is one, in fact I saw it on a book cover in a bookshop last week and it made me stop, not because the cover was especially well designed or the font was eye-catching but because the word itself.  Home. It is such a complete word, which I know is a problematic thing to say as all words are complete, even one like arrivin’ as in ‘arrivin’ home after a big day out’, even when it’s missing its ‘g’, but still home as a word really gets me going.  It’s the sound, it’s the shape, it’s the meaning, and it’s the fact that for ever and a day it’s something that I’ll be searching out.

Community is another personal favourite.  Derived from the Middle English and Old French of ‘communitas’, meaning ‘common’, as in ‘have something in common’, this is truly a very special word.  (Now I think about it, common is another word that I like very much, partly because of its almost symmetry – it’s such an architectural word – but also because of the sound, as if it’s a spice, as if it’s a way of moving.)  But back to community.  Like home, this is a word that can stop me in my tracks; it can make my body tingle as if I’ve just swigged something very pleasant.  Yes, if it was possible to bathe in this word, then I would, I’d get naked and immerse myself in it.

Another word I’d love to immerse myself in is acquiesce.  This is a funny one, strange funny not hilarious funny, because I don’t use it very often, actually I can’t recall the last time I used acquiesce, but my God it’s a winning word.  It may mean ‘to agree’ or ‘submit’ or even ‘comply’, but with this one it’s entirely the sound.  Listen: ack-wee-ess.  It could be a bird call, or something on a menu, as in ‘Roasted half spatchcock with Potato and Chive Gnocchi with Acquiesce Sauce’.

Yes, it would be great to be able to lower myself into a bath filled to the brim with words, although I’m sure if I told non-writer/reader friends that I’d tried to do this then they’d probably wrap me up in a sleeping bag and drop me off at a hospital for special people.  But heck, what’s life without a bit of risk.  I’m going to head to the bathroom right now and do it: put in the plug, turn on the tap, and close my eyes.  If words come out, favourite words, you may never see me again – I’ll be pruning up in a lovely mix of home, community and acquiesce, with a touch of common to make it anything but.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, December 6 2008)

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The past