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Despite my age I’m doing it more and more, I can’t stop, hour after hour after hour, until I’m sore, my hands, my wrists – from holding a novel. Because it’s reading novels that I can’t stop doing, great big slabs of it, whole mornings, whole afternoons, whole days, from dawn until dusk, lost in the best of written words, or I might mean found.

As a boy and early teenager I loved reading, except I don’t remember being voracious, that word that’s often used to describe someone who ploughs through books like there’s no tomorrow. But read I did and was moved. Jean George’s My Side of the Mountain, Stowe’s The Merry Go Round in the Sea, and Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich were the novels for me.

In my late teens and early twenties, that first taste of university life, I had other things on my mind, no time for reading, no inclination even – I wish someone had thrust a tome into my hands and said ‘Read that, you oaf’. But I fell back into the habit when I moved to Perth to live for a while; alone, lonely, I wanted to know more about that far western place, and, miraculously, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet had just been published. I read those pages on the sand and in the sun, the teasing sea just there.

These days I have a library in my house; it’s in the smallest room, what would have once been the parlour, that place for visitors. There’s a coal-burning fire – sometimes, on the coldest, dampest, windiest days, I light a fire and that’s a heaven that’s hard to describe. Rising up on each side of the mantelpiece like columns are the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, rows and rows and rows of novels, my favourite of the favourite at the very top where the bastard cat can’t spray them.

It’s in this room that I like to spend whole days with the best of fictional worlds, just ink on the page. What magical lies! I’m visited; I go visiting. I’m transported, I’m opened out. I’m led away from myself so I’m walking in the shoes – living the exciting, illuminating lives – of others.

Logan Pearsall Smith, the US-born British essayist, wrote, ‘People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.’ How true.

I hope I’ll never stop reading novels.

Never ever.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 29 September 2012.)

There is somewhere he goes, a secret somewhere.  A village high on a mountain, an extinct volcano.  A village so tiny it doesn’t have shops.  Decades ago there were tearooms that sold just tea and apple cider, the cake cabinets empty but for blow flies – alive in summer, dead in winter.  The village had a post-office, too, where his parents would collect the cottage keys.  The shop and the post-office didn’t last forever.  But the mountain has.

Up there, his days would alternate.

One day he’d be with his mother.  Somehow she’d wrangle invitations to visit grand sandstone mansions, those buildings so different from the humble weatherboard place they rented.  The mansions looked as if they’d been teleported from the other side of the world.  Together they’d explore the sprawling gardens that grew in the rich, volcanic soil: perfect lawns, banks of azaleas and rhododendrons, bulbs in spring; all of it dripping and drooping when the late-afternoon mist rolled in.

The next day he’d be with his father, trekking into the blue wilderness, exploring ancient places where decades later botanists would discover an ancient tree that had somehow survived for longer than he could comprehend.  Together they’d drop into freezing canyons.  Hoping snakes would leave them be, they’d clamber up to rocky plateaus that were covered in stiff, prickly heath.

On the third day he’d be alone.  He’d walk to Wynne’s Rocks, officially the greatest lookout in the world, and he’d fast-forward ten, twenty, thirty years to see how life might become.  It was out at Wynne’s, with just eighteen birthdays notched into his belt, that he promised to visit the mountain every year.

And he’s stuck to that promise.

He visits often – he makes the quickest of trips.

He even visits when he can’t sleep.  When he needs to remind himself of being a boy and a big decision was choosing between climbing one of the skyscraper-sized pine trees or hunting for extinct dinosaurs.  To be reminded of being a teenager and having a mate from school in the adjacent bed and knowing it was done – he’d finally offered his mate some words, three words, three syllables.  To be reminded of wild, wild Australia and those bits of imported England.  And being in between.

Sometimes, however, he has nightmares: shopping malls smothering village streets; old mansions (and a certain cottage) demolished to make way for gaudy, two-storey weekenders owned by Sydney stock brokers; a rabid bushfire that’s come to claim the whole bloody lot of it.

Visiting right now, he’s reminded of one of his favourite books (with one of his favourite titles).  No, not George’s My Side of the Mountain but Relph’s Place and Placelessness.  ‘A deep relationship with places is as necessary and perhaps as unavoidable as close relationships with people; without such relationships human existence, while possible, is bereft of much of its significance.’  How good is that!

Yes, there is somewhere he goes, a secret somewhere.

He’d promised to visit every year and he does, in fact he visits all the time – it may be a five-hour drive from where he now lives but he can be there in a second.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, August 11 2007)

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