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As has become a bit of a tradition around these UTC parts, the following is not a list of books that I consider ‘the best of the year’. Rather it’s a list of books I’ve read in the past twelve months that have had a personal impact in some way or another, either as a writer or reader, or just because they’re remarkable books no matter how you look at it. Also, not all were published in 2014, but in the world of literature that hardly matters, surely.

SixFirst up is Six by John Clanchy (Finlay Lloyd, 2014). As the title suggests, this is a collection of six short stories, although Clanchy specialises – indeed excels – at long stories, some of which are about 10,000 words in length. As is typical perhaps with Australian short fiction, family is the focus, but Clanchy always brings to his stories more than enough plot and action, albeit in the most under-stated way. The author is also committed to depth: of emotion, of relationship, and of meaning. Clanchy is equally adept at handling farce. It’s been a while since I read a short story that made me say to myself, That knocked me sideways – best take the dog for a walk now. That’s what happened when I read ‘The Day My Father Died’, the first story in the collection. (An interview I did with John Clanchy for the Canberra Times/Fairfax Media can be found here, and Peter Pierce’s review of Six is here.)

Drag down to unlockThey say short stories and poetry are close cousins, so let me now mention Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call by Melinda Smith (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013). For 20 years the Canberra-based Smith has been exploring her craft and being published in the smallest of presses. Then the highly regarded small press Pitt Street Poetry (talk about a micro publishing enterprise that’s punching well and truly above its weight) sent into the world Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call and Smith bags the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Poetry. Divided into sections such as ‘Uploads’, ‘Downloads’, ‘News’, ‘Sport’, and ‘Weather’, what appeals the most is the combination of artfulness and accessibility. Some poems can be understood on first readings; others are more enigmatic. But all are magical and musical, and many are very affecting indeed. Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call should be in all Australians home. Maybe it should be handed out with tax returns.

The Childhood of JesusThe Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee (Text, 2013). As regular visitors to UTC will probably be aware, I’m a fan of JM Coetzee, the novelist from South Africa who has twice won the Man Booker Prize and now lives in South Australia. His Disgrace (1999), which scored the second of his Bookers, is a perfect though harrowing novel about a person, a people and a nation (or a range of nations) in absolute turmoil. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed his fictionalised autobiographies, Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002), and the more playful Summertime (2009). Playful is a good word for Coetzee, who despite being a serious literary practitioner seemingly likes to do nothing more than toy with readers and their expectations; rarely does he appear intent on just telling a story. This marks Coetzee as difficult, but his prose is simple, at least on the surface, and, in most cases, the complexity is in the layers. Having said that, The Childhood of Jesus is an an odd and slightly underwhelming novel. In some ways it seems to be responding to Australia’s morally dubious approach to asylum seekers, and in other ways just meanders along not entirely sure where it needs to go. If it is indeed an allegory it’s a vague one. Still, it had an impact on this particular reader, if only because Coetzee seems to not give a damn about trends and markets; as an author, he is progressing his craft on his own terms.

The Snow KimonoThe Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw (Text, 2014). Like Coetzee, Henshaw appears to enjoy the art of the novel as much as the art of the story. Like Coetzee, Henshaw’s work is about the layers. Unlike Coetzee, Henshaw is not prolific. His first novel, Out of the Line of Fire, was published in 1988 and since then he has co-written two commercial thrillers with John Clanchy (as JM Calder) but no literary works. An intriguing overview of Mark Henshaw’s career can be found at the Sydney Review of Books. The Snow Kimono is a duel narrative, though in reality it has more strands than that. In its review, the Guardian Australia does a fine job of distilling the plot: ‘One night in Paris, in 1989, retired inspector Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a woman in Algiers claiming to be his daughter. A chance encounter with a stranger – Tadashi Omura, former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan – suddenly finds him entwined in the stories of Omura’s best friend, the arrogant and brilliant novelist Katsuo Ikeda, and the lives of three Japanese women, Fumiko, Mariko and Sachiko.’ The review goes on to define The Snow Kimono as a ‘philosophical puzzle’. It’s an apt description. I loved this novel.

The Pure Gold BabyThe Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble (Text, 2013). I was provided this novel to review so I read it in that context. The review didn’t eventuate (the world had moved on), but I found myself engrossed in this novel, which, similar to Coetzee’s work perhaps, meanders through its various sections though never fails to keep the reader engaged. Set in England in the 1960s, the narrative follows a young anthropology student who becomes a single mother after an affair with a colleague. This was my first Drabble and what struck me is the sense of a novel being ‘a directed dream’ (as others have said): the pleasure is in the looseness, the sense of allusion, an appealing lack of interest in traditional plot, and sentences that pulse almost painfully with life.

ChallengeChallenge (MUP, 2014) by Paul Daley. Daley is a high profile, Walkey-winning Australian journalist who currently writes for the Guardian Australia. Challenge is his first novel. And a challenge it is. It’s a brutal, at times confronting exploration of the current state of Australia’s political system. It is a fiction, but it doesn’t take much for the reader to link characters and events to their antecedents. In essence the plot follows, Daniel Slattery, the leader of a slightly progressive party in opposition. Daley himself describes Slattery as a cross between Mark Latham and Holden Coalfield, which is quite something, all things considered. Slattery’s political capital is diminishing and his personal life is falling apart; meanwhile the prime minister is milking a potential terrorist threat. There is a thriller element to Challenge, but the joy (if that’s the best way to put is) is the way Daley makes his readers realise how toxic Australian politics has become. If only 5% of this novel is true, we’re fucked.

Crow MellowOne of the year’s most left-field but highly readable novels is Crow Mellow by Julian Davies (Finlay Lloyd, 2014). This is a rewriting of Aldous Huxley’s first novel, Chrome Yellow (1930), a work that Davies admits in his foreword had a significant impact on him when he was a teenager. In Crow Mellow, a group of artists and intellectuals gather for a weekend at Crow, a bush retreat. Interesting that Davies, who is the key publisher behind Finlay Lloyd, lives in a bush retreat where artists and intellectuals gather, so it’s easy to see why the Huxley original had an influence on the young Davies. Again, it’s the playfulness of the whole exercise that’s so appealing, made even more evident by the drawings by Phil Day that adorn every one of the 400 or so pages. An original, eccentric, and highly enjoyable piece of work.

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Random House, 2013). Enough has already been written about this novel that has won many of Australia’s and the world’s literary awards, including this year’s Man Booker. A Second World War novel, it focuses on the Australian servicemen pushed beyond themselves on Burma’s ‘death railway’. What works best in the novel is Flannagan’s lack of judgement and the commitment (to a certain extent at least) to showing both sides of the story – the Australians who were subjected to such harsh and degrading treatment but also glimpses into the lives of the Japanese guards. The novel also provides an exploration of how these men tried to get on with their lives once home. Readers will be aware that this novel isn’t universally loved, with some critics citing the overt jingoism as being a distracting element. Personally, there are many scenes in this novel that I continue to think about and no doubt I will revisit it years down the track. What I’ll think then is anyone’s guess.

Other works that have been a source of interest and/or inspiration this year include selected poem collections from Rosemary Dobson (1973) and David Campbell (1978), Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse (1906), The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani (1958) (both the Hesse and the Bassani are excellent examples of short novels), The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992; the perfect novel about war due to the poetry in the prose) and As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930), which stumped me on first read a few years ago but for some reason made complete sense in 2014.

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.

The following was first published in Panorama, Canberra Times, on Saturday 11 September 2010.  Many thanks to Chris Colonna from Bumblebeez, Julian Davies, and John R Walker for participating in the story.  Thanks also to Gillian Lord.

***

One of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers about place, Edward Relph, wrote in his seminal Place and Placelessness that ‘The meaning of places may be rooted in the physical setting and objects, but they are not a property of them – rather they are a property of human intentions and experiences.’  This begs a question: can one of those properties be creativity? Can a place have a confluence of attributes that might result in a source of vision and inventiveness?  And if so, what might be an inherently creative place?  And might that place exist outside the maddening megalopolises, which are usually seen as the hot-bed of arts practice?

Here’s one possibility: Braidwood, New South Wales, Australia – population 1,100.

For many residents of Canberra, the national capital nearby, Braidwood is just a place to stop to grab a meat pie and a cappuccino on the way down to the coast.  According to tourist literature, however, the town is ‘a centre of excellence in the world of art and craft, presenting unique and diverse talents in the fields of pottery and ceramics, two-dimensional art, sculpture, patchwork and quilt-making, doll and bear-making, spinning and weaving, woodwork and precious handcrafted jewellery.’  What’s more, the same tourism source claims this: ‘It is the picture-perfect location for movies, melodramas, masterpieces and photography.  Let Braidwood inspire the screenwriter, the movie producer, the artist and the photographer.  The peaceful countryside encourages the free flow of inspiration and genius.’

The town also boasts that The National in the mainstreet is the oldest operating picture theatre in Australia, and at the local museum visitors can gape at the ‘armour’ worn by Mick Jagger in the Ned Kelly film which was shot in and around Braidwood.

As creative places go, it’s clearly got something.

However, before we face the infamously fierce winds of the place and ask the hard questions, here’s a quick history.  In terms of the European context, Braidwood was discovered in 1822.  Dr Thomas Braidwood Wilson, a respected though by some accounts luckless pioneer of the district, has his name immortalised on the town.  In the 1820s and ’30s, despite the harshness of the climate and what must have been excruciating isolation, settlers established cattle and sheep properties.  Like many towns in the area, Braidwood’s population exploded in the 1850s when gold was discovered.  Much more recently, and after considerable internal angst and argument, the town was placed on the NSW State Heritage Register.  Whilst the architecture has been restored to former glories, it is still a living place where things are allowed to look their age.  It’s not museumified.  At least not yet.

But what is the Braidwood experience for practicing professional artists who call the area home?  I put this question to three creative practitioners: a painter, a musician, and a writer.

Abstract landscape painter John R. Walker has been described as a ‘force in contemporary landscape painting’ and his work was celebrated by the 2008 exhibition Journey Through Landscape at Sydney’s S.H. Ervin Gallery.  In a Sydney Morning Herald review of the show, critic John McDonald noted that ‘to spend many weeks and months in silent communion with a landscape is also to spend that time in an increasingly deeper meditation on the self.  I don’t think this is a Romantic idea, just an observation about what happens when an artist stops worrying about other people’s expectations and begins to discover personal, fundamental priorities.’  The suggestion is that Braidwood has facilitated this ‘silent communion’.

Walker, whose work can be found in many of Australia’s major public and private collections, has lived in Braidwood since leaving Sydney in 2002.  He first discovered the town when he’d regularly pass through on the way to the Budawangs, the ranges that form a dramatic barrier between the Tablelands and the south coast.  Walker lives in town on a half-hectare block located ‘a few hundred yards’ from the surrounding farmlands.  Needing to often travel, he describes Braidwood as ‘a home-base’.  When I ask him how the area influences what and how he paints, he replies, ‘My work is based in experience – when the place changes the pictures change.  For some reason I connected with something about this place.  The land here has a lived-in, damaged-and-loved feel to it.  Every ‘thing’ in every paddock is a story.’

'green pick' by John R Walker, 2006, gouache on paper, 55x75cm

What advantages is there in being an artist and having a relationship with a place like Braidwood?   ‘For me,’ says Walker, ‘close and long immersion in the ‘motif’ is essential.  It’s all about looking, learning to see clearly, which is something that takes a surprising amount of time and effort.  Time and space are big advantages to living here.  The area has a diverse cross section of people.  It’s very different to a lot of our main cities where post-codes are good indicators of uniform demographics and attitudes.’

Walker believes that there’s an interesting political overlay to this neck of the woods.  ‘Braidwood is in the federal seat of Eden-Monaro,’ he points out, ‘which is in some ways a microcosm of Australia.  Up until this recent election is was known as a ‘bellwether’ seat because it’s a representative cross-section: urban areas, old-fashioned rural areas, feral areas, middle-class ‘greenie’ areas, public servants, retirees and self-employed contractors like builders, loggers and fishermen.  It’s a small population spread over a lot of country.  It’s stimulating and, at times, annoying.’

In many ways, with its hot summers, cold winters, fogs and mists, sometimes snow, and in September and October that relentless wind, the Braidwood edge of the Monaro must be a potentially unforgiving place to live and work.  How does Walker’s practice respond to this?  ‘Matisse said it well: “solitude and silence, only the mediocre need fear it.”  Australia is very different to all other inhabited continents, and the experience(s) of the sheer strangeness, the resistance to human meaning of the land, has a centrality in Australian culture which is unusual in other modern societies.  But the Braidwood winds are truly awful, and on a bad day there are times when it’s possible to feel like you are in Mongolia.’

Walker disagrees that Braidwood is inherently creative, because, he says, nothing is inherently anything – there is only change.  ‘In modern Greek a Meta-phora is literally a removal van,’ he says.  ‘The usefulness of containers that move is that they have a lot of empty space inside them and thus they can be used to bring together things that would otherwise be unconnected.  The mental and physical room to maneuver is important.  The very high capital cost of inner-urban real-estate these days has changed the dynamics.  When I was twenty it was the inner-city that was a largely deserted, cheap and interesting relic of a previous industrial age.  These days the inner-urban areas are very pricey.  In more recent times creativity is more likely to be found in rural and other sorts of ‘fringe’ areas that have the low capital cost spaces needed for people to take innovative risks.’

Bumblebeez is an Australian band comprising siblings Christopher and Pia Colonna, both of whom have a long association with Braidwood.  The band was discovered in 2002 by national youth radio station Triple J as part of the ‘Unearthed’ project.  Bumblebeez’ first release, The Printz, hit the shelves in 2004, with the follow-up record, Prince Umberto & The Sister Of Ill coming out in 2007 and nominated for a J Award.  All Bumblebeez songs have received significant international airplay.

Speaking from Rome where he is working on the band’s fourth studio record, Colonna says, ‘I started school in Braidwood in Year One and since then have walked those streets up and down.  In later years I ventured outside of the shire to pursue my adventures.’  He keeps a studio in town where he makes hit records, including producing albums for Australian acts such as The Vines and Wolf and Cub, and ‘holds techno parties’.

Like John Walker, Colonna describes Braidwood as a home-base, and he believes that the trick is finding the right balance – ‘not too much, not too little’.

‘The freedom in my music and practices comes from the freedom in Braidwood and the surrounds,’ says Colonna.  ‘The advantages are being able to get drunk with Jarrah, Bib and Lil Joe, walk up the street to get a coffee and sit at the Albion, then go and play ping pong… and never get a parking ticket!  The challenge is it’s up to you, so you need discipline – there’s no scene to be a part of.  The isolation can be quite evil, especially in winter.  In winter I get out of there.  But my music has a punk feel to it, and I reckon Jack Frost was a punk.’

Does Colonna believe that Braidwood is inherently creative?

‘Many Australian towns are creative hot-spots,’ he says, ‘though only a few of the country-town artists will shine through and go worldwide and take things to another level and not do some hippy wind-spiral shiz.’

Julian Davies, author of five novels including The Boy (2003), a member of not-for-profit publishing venture Finlay Lloyd, and a potter, says that long-term residents of Braidwood refer to relative newcomers as ‘blow-ins’.

‘It’s a nicely appropriate semi-meteorological-sounding term,’ he says, ‘considering the region is a place with plenty of weather.’

Davies suspects that after more than thirty years living on the mountain range to the west of the town he’s still something of a ‘blow-in’.  ‘But I’m comfortable with that label – after all, I’ve long argued that the district is a refuge for misfits and escapees from mainstream urban Australia and that I’m one such happy outcast.  I’ve always felt it’s a virtue of the place that I can take part in a small community but also hide off in the forest.’

Davies describes the country around Braidwood as being wonderfully varied.

‘There are the changing skies,’ he says, ‘the thunderstorms and mists, the open grazing lands, and the wooded hills and mountains.  Tall moist forest covers the range where I live – a protected place where it’s possible to grow citrus and cherries, raspberries and figs, all in the same garden.’

This diversity is something that Davies finds particularly appealing.  ‘Getting up from my desk I can, within minutes, walk among four-hundred-year-old trees.  It was this particular landscape that brought me here – it’s a perfect place to live, and to write and pursue a craft.  Braidwood itself I’ve got to know and enjoy over time – eventually becoming part of Finlay Lloyd – until now, when I’m beginning to set up a small, eccentric gallery in town.’

John Walker believes that there is something ‘inner-city’ about Braidwood, and Davies agrees.  ‘It might seem funny, but for me Braidwood feels strikingly urban.  For city dwellers its resources must appear very limited but after a thirty-five minute drive out of the bush it becomes something of a hub.  It’s a place interesting for its mixture of old farming families, people with newer rural dreams, tradesmen, urban retirees, and academic and arty types.’

It is arguable, says Davies, as to why Braidwood has long been a retreat for artists.  ‘The district may be an attractive place to settle and work but the suggestion that one place is inherently more creative than another seems unlikely.  Most people attempting any sort of creative life are doomed to some level of economic insecurity, so perhaps this town’s appeal has had more to do with being a relatively cheap place to live, at least until recently.  Reasonable proximity to Canberra and Sydney may also make the town an easy hideaway.’

Davies makes the point that the increasing mobility of people may be a factor.  ‘In the United States, for instance, the polarization of different communities has been particularly exacerbated by migration.  Now significant numbers of people are choosing to move to a city or district where they hope to feel comfortable, where other people are gay or Christian, liberal or conservative.  Perhaps for its newcomers, Braidwood has become part of this self-selecting process.  Whatever has caused Braidwood’s peculiar population mix, I’m simply happy to be part of it.’

If Edward Relph, who has spent his adult life thinking about place and geography, is right that the meaning of places is a property of human intentions and experiences, it could be argued that whilst there’s no such thing as an inherently creative place, people who hunger for creative experiences may gravitate to certain places.  And that tourism blurb might be right: Braidwood and its physical, cultural and historical environment may indeed encourage ‘the free flow of inspiration and genius’.  Even if it’s only an aspiration, it’s a mighty aspiration for a little country town to have.

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