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Despite having them in my life for 30 years, more or less, I don’t really know what they are. They flit about like a type of butterfly that may or may not exist.
I can remember being in the Fifth or Sixth Form of the rather well-healed Anglican school I attended on Sydney’s North Shore, my English teacher, Mr Cowdroy, leading us through the reading of a short story, the author of which I regrettably can’t recall. I loved the conciseness of the story – that life could be created and explored and examined in so few pages – and the sense of compression, the cleverness of the ending, which made me want to start reading the story all over again. It also made me want to keep writing, for by that time I had been writing for some years, albeit for school assessment.
Fast forward to my twenties, when I realised that doing little more than hanging out with mates at the pub was not good and deep living and would most likely lead to misery, I began writing stories again, but only because I wanted to. I also read stories, mainly in anthologies. Collections that resonated were Risks (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996; edited by Brenda Walker) and the Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction (Faber and Faber, 1991; edited by Edmund White). I also enjoyed Fishing in the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann (Phoenix House, 1994) and that other Irish chap who did quite well in the form, James Joyce with his Dubliners. I’d go on to discover the short works of Tolstoy and Chekhov, and contemporary writers such as Peter Carey, Annie Proulx, David Malouf, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Tim Winton, Nam Le, and Alice Munro. I subscribed to and read Australian literary journals, including Meanjin, Overland, Island, Tirra Lirra, and Wet Ink.
Over the years that followed I began having my own stories published, at first in relatively minor journals now gathering dust in the National Library of Australia’s vast vaults, before some of my stories were ‘accepted’ (for that appeared to be the termed used) in the journals mentioned above. It was, of course, all very thrilling. To see my name in an edition of Meanjin (2: 2000) alongside writers such as Merlinda Bobis, Thomas Shapcott, Dorothy Hewett, Arnold Zable, and Dorothy Porter. Eventually my published stories were collected in two humble volumes, Homelife (1999) and Joy (2000). The Australia Book Review (no. 224 Sept 2000) described the latter as ‘beautifully poised, warm, lush, humane, with lots of surprises and shocks.’ Which made my heart sing, and still does. I say all this not to brag but to suggest that slowly but surely I have been taking steps; I have, I think, been making progress.
Soon I gathered the confidence to write longer works, including three published novellas and a novel, but rarely does a year go by when I don’t write – and try to have published – short stories. Perhaps part of the attraction is being able to take a break from convoluted, complicated works and spend a week crafting a little tale. But I’m not sure if that’s true and/or wise. Short stories can be just as complex as longer works, if not more so, and they can be just as difficult to write, if not more so. It is common for fiction writers to say that short stories are closer to poetry than prose, in that they are suggestions more than full explorations. In the best fiction, regardless of length, words need to be deployed artfully so life can rise from the page. But perhaps in a short story, as in a poem, each word has to do some impressive – and exhaustive – heavy lifting, often (hopefully) with spectacular results.
Sometimes with spectacular results. My filing cabinet and PC hard-drive are littered with rubbish work.
Recently, to be frank, I’ve been doubting the worth of the short story as a viable form. Australian literary journals do continue to publish them, although, depending on the journal, it could be said that only writers are reading them. On the whole mainstream publishers turn up their noses at collections of stories, claiming readers want a more immersive experience; and some writers who have excelled at the form have simply given up, claiming there is no point when ‘it’s just too hard to find a readership’. So, if the readership is limited, why do it? Isn’t it like, say, insisting on painting miniature portraits, the sort that galleries won’t touch with a barge-pole? But, but, but: every so often single-author collections, such as Nam Le’s The Boat (Penguin, 2008) and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil (Hachette, 2014), make a big public splash.
What am I trying to say? The short story is a surprising and tenacious beast.
A similarly surprising and tenacious beast is the Review of Australian Fiction, which publishes – electronically – two stories every two weeks and often takes the opportunity to publish works that print journals consider ‘too long’ (over 4,000 words); a worthy venture to say the least, considering also that individual issues cost only $2.99. It’s an honour to be published in the Review a second time, especially as I’ve been paired with Marion Halligan, whose collection Shooting the Fox (Allen & Unwin, 2011) was choc-full of literary magic. My story, ‘The Blue Bottle’, has been emerging for many years – decades you could say – because it uses an event from my twenties as a place for jumping off (no, it’s not set in a pub). On the page the story is nothing more or less than fiction, but there must have been something in the original event that had stayed with me and I’d wanted to turn it over with words and sentences and characters and plot. As is so common (predictable?) in my work, the narrative involves an old house and landscape and music and friendship and intimacy and longing and glimpses – glimpses – of love. But I won’t go on.
All I really wanted to tell you is this: ‘The Blue Bottle’ exists, it is here.
What is it, amongst everything we do, the working, the sleeping, the loving, the eating, and all the other things that come in – barge in – to fill our lives, that you’d consider being ‘the main game’? It’s not necessarily about priorities but how things are managed, sorted, contained, enlivened. For me, the main game is writing, which must come as no real surprise. But within writing, there’s a whole heap of activities: the forming of ideas, trying to tease out something that might be of value to someone else; and then there’s the editing, and editing, and editing, and the reading, and reading, and reading; and then, if a book is lucky enough to see the good light of day, there’s playing a role in the public process, the promotion, and whatever comes with that.
None of this is meant to be a complaint. Rather, a lead-in to a rather special literary event that’s happening in Goulburn – yes, GOULBURN! – tomorrow, Sunday 20 October. It’s the very last of the events that have been held this year to celebrate the launch of The Invisible Thread, an anthology published by Halstead Press and edited by the amazingly hard-working Irma Gold that collects work by writers who’ve had an association with the ACT region (you’re right: yours truly is in it). Being someone who these days lives outside the city limits, I could see an opportunity to present the best of the writers from the anthology who now see ‘the country’ their home. So it’s amazing to have in one room for one afternoon Roger McDonald, Kim Mahood, Russell Erwin, and John Stokes, as well as Marion Halligan to draw us back to the very modern little city where all this started.
So if you’re fond of words – and to me THAT’s the main game – join us for Regional Threads: an afternoon of readings. It’s free, it’s in a terrific heritage-listed venue, and quite frankly it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever again have such high-calibre writers like this together in one place in this neck of the woods. Seriously.
Plus there’ll be cake.
You may have been in the presence of a writer – any kind of artist – during the moments after they’ve read a review of what they’ve created. If it’s a good review, as in the reviewer has come down on the side of the work, the producer of that work will be happier than they’ve ever felt before in their life, or so it feels at the time. If it’s a bad review, as in the reviewer has not come down on the side of the work, the producer of that work will be more miserable than they’ve ever felt before in their life, or so it feels at the time. Either way, however, why does it matter so much? Is it really that important? Shouldn’t the artist have sufficient confidence in their practice and work to enable a mature and reasonable response to a review, no matter what judgements and conclusions might have been made? And isn’t it true that the work is not the person behind it, that there’s a separation to be made? Isn’t this the best kind of protective mechanism?
As someone who’s had their work reviewed – sometimes positively (every so often amazingly positively), sometimes nowhere near as positively as I’d dreamt – I do understand these things. Even if I wish I didn’t, that I was strong and big enough not to care.
Perhaps all this matters because every artist simply wants a considered response, for it’s taken days and weeks and months and years, sometimes decades, to create something they consider worthwhile. It is wonderful when family and friends and sympathetic others say they enjoyed the work, that they were moved, that it ended up meaning a lot to them. But there’s that other kind of response, from someone whose job it is to consider context, goals and ambition, technique, and ultimately make some kind of evaluation of worth against the broader cultural register. An authority, an expert has given the work a close reading, and a pronouncement has been made. It would be difficult to find an artist who didn’t appreciate this kind of response to what they’ve created, even if they’d like to suggest otherwise.
All these questions and issues will be discussed on Friday 18 October 2013 at a forum organised by the Childers Group, an arts advocacy body for the ACT region (and beyond). The forum, which is better described as a ‘Q and A-style’ panel discussion, will include participation from Centenary of Canberra Creative Director Robyn Archer, Chief Executive Officer of Ausdance National Roslyn Dundas, eminent author Marion Halligan, Artistic Director/CEO of the Street Theatre Caroline Stacey, longtime Canberra Times stalwart Jack Waterford, and Editor of BMA Magazine Ashley Thomson, amongst others. If you’re in or near this neck of the woods, and you’re worried about what’s perceived to be fewer opportunities for truly independent and robust review (the sort that is beyond simply online opinion), then you may well want to drop in and get involved. For more information, head on over to the Childers Group website.
Here endeth the community service announcement.
And if you hadn’t already gathered, I’m a member of the Childers Group. A foundation member even. Never imagined that I’d be a foundation member of anything. Other than Melancholics Anonymous.
Writers make good jugglers. There’s the juggling of time to write and time to earn money and time for family and friends and time for your own mental health, which being a writer is more than likely quite precarious. There’s the juggling of ideas: fine ones, not so fine ones, appalling ones. There’s the juggling of character and plot and point. There’s the juggling of words, getting them all exactly where they need to be so that magic is the result. Oh my, I’m exhausted already. But we’re not done yet. There’s the juggling of writing fiction and non-fiction and poetry. In terms of fiction alone, there’s the juggling of the writing of novels and novellas and short stories and micro-stories, and, those slipperiest of beasts, prose-poems. It’s enough to make you want to chuck it all in and become something simple, like a duck-farmer, or a grower of daffodils.
For some reason, after twenty years, I haven’t yet chucked it all in, although I do think about it every second day, every single day if things aren’t going well, which is usually the case, if I’m honest with myself, and honest with you. I began my writing life, as in with seriousness and an almost religious sense of purpose, in my early twenties as – drumroll please – a poet. I wrote a poem, miraculously it was published, so I wrote another, and miraculously that, too, was published. Remembering that I loved reading short stories as a boy, I wrote a story, which was short-listed for publication; that it didn’t end up in print wasn’t the point – I was hooked again by words and their meaning, and by play, and by dream.
Wait, there’s more
Since 1994 I’ve had over 40 short stories published, including in literary journals such as Meanjin, Overland, and Island, and in the USA. In 2003 my novel Remnants was published by Pandanus Books. In 2011 and 2012 respectively, my novellas Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now were published by Blemish Books. Okay, now I’m just boasting. Wait, there’s more. Wanting to expand my readership, and add another string to my bow, in 2007 I began doing freelance work for the Canberra Times, primarily for the paper’s weekend magazine Panorama and its First Words column (along with Marion Halligan), as well as feature articles. Clearly not having enough to do, in 2009 I started this blog, ridiculously named Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot, which was selected for archiving by the National Library of Australia. I still write a post for the blog every Saturday morning.
Despite now working across these different modes, my mission hasn’t changed: I’m still just playing with words and their meanings. No matter what form there’s nothing like crafting and re-crafting until a piece hangs together, everything in its right place, it all makes sense; with any luck it might engage readers, perhaps – with an extra dose of luck – it might even move readers.
Ever since early 2010, when I spent a month in Launceston as a writer-in-residence courtesy of the City Council (as written about on this blog ad nauseam), I’ve written everything by hand. My handwriting is truly appalling, which, oddly, helps – I’m forced to slow down, to think about every mark on the page, but I’m also forced to follow my head and heart and gut. When writing like this is both mental and physical work, you want it to be worthwhile in the end – for yourself and the reader. These days, everything, even blog-posts, even articles for the local writers centre magazine, is first written with pen and pad. Because it’s better this way: there’s more life.
A decent dose of honesty
There are, however, subtle differences between the various forms of prose. Short stories, of course, are a cousin of poetry, so every word has to do more than one job. In the writing of a novel there’s greater opportunity for exploration and multi-layering and depth (and that awful flipside of getting tangled up and lost). Novellas are an especially peculiar creature: neither a short story nor a novel, they have their own prospects and hurdles; but in some ways I feel that this in-between mode is my natural home, because I’m an in-between kind of guy in an in-between stage of my life. Writing for newspapers requires turning down the literary fireworks and turning up general accessibility, although I still like strong characters, some kind of plot, a decent dose of honesty, and perhaps the odd writerly trick to create a spark – there’s nothing like an email from a reader saying that my work brings freshness to the newspaper. And there’s the writing of blog-posts, which can be more a terrific whoosh of words, maybe even something experimental (why not?), but still I like to make sure it’s as fine as possible.
A writer must have wine
One side of all this that I’ve become better at over the years is choosing the best form for an idea. Is there enough in it for a short story? Or perhaps there’s a lot in it and could run the marathon length of a novel? Or perhaps a novella might rein it in? In terms of creative non-fiction (which is my euphemism for journalism, because I really have no idea what I’m doing), is it something for the First Words column or a feature or an opinion piece – where in the newspaper might it belong? Blogging is interesting, too. When I first started Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot I committed to never self-publishing fiction on the thing, and I’ve held to that commitment, so it’s a place for everything but fiction. Except there’s something else about blogging: every so often, if I try harder, I can get the piece up a notch or two so that it can first be published by a journal that pays. Because, quite frankly, I need the money – a writer must have wine.
Writing is writing is writing
Despite all these years of juggling and practice and more juggling, writing is still about play – playing with words and their meanings – and dreams – dreaming up characters and predicaments, or imagining a non-fiction piece into existence and making a contribution to the broader cultural discussion. Scottish comedian Billy Connelly once famously said that ‘funny is funny is funny’. Perhaps I can echo Connelly by somewhat less famously saying that writing is writing is writing.
First published in ACTWrite, the monthly journal of the ACT Writers Centre (August 2013).
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.
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?
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.
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.
It’s January in Australia and I’m hot and bothered. Hot, because that’s exactly what it is: for weeks now it’s been thirty degrees Celsius in the shade, some days thirty-five. Last Friday went over forty; Sydney, just two hours drive north of me, had its hottest day ever – it breached the forty-five-degree mark. Here at home the chooks have their beaks open and their wings out and hanging low, so I’ve covered their run as much as I can with an old tent-fly – it seems to help, for now. But hot is hot is hot and there’s not much I can do about it. And I can’t do much about the alarming waft of smoke as it comes into town and gets us coughing. Last week there was an automated message left on the landline: ‘Tomorrow’s bushfire conditions are CATASTROPHIC. Activate your bushfire survival plan now.’ I put the sprinkler into the garden and, rather uselessly, turned it on.
All this is enough to make anyone hot and bothered, but it’s not all.
On 26 January there’s Australia Day; yes, it’s come around yet again. So the flags are out and about: they’re being stuck on cars and utes and trucks, they’re hung in shop windows, and they’re sent flapping in front gardens, stating the bleeding obvious, but also as though staking a claim all over again. We do it every year, our national day to commemorate the beginning of British settlement, when Governor Phillip landed at Sydney Cove in 1788. I was born and bred here, my forebears arriving by boat only a handful of years after that adventurous governor. Despite this ancestral longevity, however, and whatever blood I have in my veins, and all my thinking on the topic, I don’t really know this nation of mine; as I age I’m understanding it less and less. So, this summer, this dreadful, pressure-cooked summer, I’ve turned to our writers for assistance, for succour even, because their imagination, observation and skilful way with words are surely better than simply hanging out a flag.
Keep reading at Overland. Thanks to Jeff Sparrow and Jacinda Woodhead.
You know, six months out from a book launch, you just can’t wait for the big day – it’s all just too exciting. Then there’s the week of the launch and you start counting down the sleeps. But then the morning comes and you think, why the hell do I do this? It’s the nerves: will anyone turn up? But there’s also the anxiety around a story, and the people of the story, who have been private for so long, years, all of it being made public: will the words and their intent come alive for readers?
In the end, people do attend book launches, and the book is officially sent out into the world, and you wake up the next morning and think, Wow, what a night; did that all really happen? Thank you so much to all those who came long to the launch of I’m Ready Now at Electric Shadows Bookshop in Canberra on the Thursday just gone. A packed-out independent bookshop is always a thing of beauty.
McEwan on the novella
I’m Ready Now is a novella, and some people have asked me what this strange beast is all about. It’s the million-dollar question – if there can be million-dollar questions in the world of literary fiction – and many have tried to come to a definition. Back in October of this year, Ian McEwan wrote the following in The New Yorker: ‘I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant’. It’s a great line. But in a feature I wrote last year for The Canberra Times on the novella, John Clanchy dived deeper: ‘Whatever we call it, the novella isn’t a novel that’s run out of puff; it isn’t a short story that’s meandered beyond its natural length and lost its way. I like working with the novella because it shares some of the most attractive features of the novel – its expansiveness, its multiple layers of theme and plot – at the same time constraining them with features normally associated with the short story: intensity of focus, singularity of narrative voice and architecture, discipline of length. But all the while remaining a distinct species, not a hybrid.’
What some are thinking
As to the launch itself, a huge thanks to journalist and writer Chris Wallace for cutting the metaphorical ribbon. What’s the best thing a launcher can offer a writer? A close reading. And no bullshit. Chris, who is infamous for calling a spade a spade, offered both. Amazingly, there’s already a review of I’m Ready Now: it’s over at the unstoppable literary blog Whispering Gums. What I love about the review is that it begins with some reflections on the launch, and the independence of these reflections make them more valuable and interesting than anything I can do here. But the writer of the review, Sue Terry, also gets the books, so much so that she concludes that ‘I’m Ready Now is about living imaginatively and about liberation, but it is also about how the past can stall us if we don’t get it in the right perspective’. Those last few words, about how the past can grind to a halt if we don’t frame it correctly, really do get to the heart of the book.
Thanks again to everyone who came along to the launch or sent warm wishes. Special thanks to Marion Halligan, Karmin Cooper, and editor Nicola O’Shea who really helped to bring I’m Ready Now to life through offering very astute suggestions. And, of course, much gratitude to Greg Gould and Lesley Boland from Blemish Books for publishing I’m Ready Now (along with Fall on Me last year). I can only write what I want to write, and what I’d like to read, which means that I may never have the biggest readership in the world (though one can dream), so it’s brilliant that Blemish has made such a commitment to me as a writer and to the novella as a form of story-telling. What now? I just hope that I’m Ready Now is read. One final time: thank you. Until we meet again.
Your copy is here
I’m Ready Now can be purchased through your local bookshop or you can order it directly from Blemish Books – that link will take you straight to Blemish’s online store.
Yes, it’s the baby to the left.
It’s always interesting to see what will be the public face of a story that’s been private for so long – it’s as if the idea materialises right in front of your eyes. It’s true that there’s a kind of magic to all this. And it’s all just so full of surprises.
I had no idea the doorknob that features in the story would become the dominant image. But it’s fitting, very fitting: if you have the key you’re able to go inside. But maybe the door’s unlocked already – just come on in and make yourself at home. Perhaps the door’s unlocked but the door’s hinges are a bit rusty and you’ll need to give the whole thing a pull and a push to make it move so you can make your way in.
Whatever the case, there we have it: the cover of a novella called I’m Ready Now, to be published next month.
Also on the cover is a quote from Marion Halligan, one of the ACT region’s – and Australia’s – most esteemed writers. I admire Marion very much, plus I’m fond of her as a person, so it’s always a nerve-wracking experience for someone like this to be approached to endorse your work. And you do need endorsements: independent-press publishing is too difficult as it is to go in blind and naked, as it were. (To be frank, commercial or mainstream publishing is probably no easier). Needless to say, it was a relief to read Marion’s generous words, to know of her response. ‘A powerful yet gentle narrative that grabs you and holds you till the end.’ Powerful. And gentle. I like that, especially for a dual point-of-view narrative. Is it Lynne Gleeson, the mother in I’m Ready Now, who is powerful? Or is she gentle? Or is it her son Gordon, the naughty – and troubled – son who is those things? Or is it the story itself, the book? Or is it me (God forbid)? Or is it all these things? It’s all these things.
From here we’re on the slippery slope to the launch, which is at Electric Shadows Bookshop in Braddon, Canberra, on Thursday 22 November. It’s quite an unreal experience to have two novellas out in two years, two book covers, two endorsements, two launches, all the gut-wrenching anxiety of going public with a personal imagination, a day-dream in a way, a very long day-dream. If anything, I just want Lynne and Gordon Gleeson to have their time in the sun; it feels as though they’ve been kept cooped up for far too long (since 2003, really, when the idea of this story and the people in it first popped up).
They’re tough people, independent and determined, so they’ll make their own way without me now, I know they will, I know they will.