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When I left Sydney, in 1987 and as a not-so-fresh-faced 18-year-old, I was determined to find my own way in the world.

I needed to find a new way of being. I needed to be myself.

Without a doubt there had been joy in my childhood. Summers were spent either at the beach or up in the Blue Mountains, and most weekends I was able to explore the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park, which bordered the suburb where my family and I lived. But the suburb was as affluent as they come: the roads were clogged with cars made by Audi, BMW, Volvo and Mercedes, and most streets were adorned with at least one mansion.

It was also monocultural. A ‘blue-ribbon’ Liberal seat, as they say. Conservative to the core. If you weren’t a Christian you were marked as different, and different was never good.

It’s true that, in my formative years, I was aware of that situation – the privilege, but also the stifling (read: dangerous) world view. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to get out of there as soon as I was able, to be in a place where I could choose the people with whom I wanted to associate.

And that’s what happened.

I found my tribe.

But I had no idea that in the ACT region I’d find something else.

While most folk know Canberra as the place where the federal parliament sits, where most government departments have their offices, where, on most nights of the week, the restaurants and bars are packed with political staffers and public servants talking strategy and gossip (that may have been true in the past but these days a majority of Canberrans are actually involved in the private sector; besides, the ongoing wars between ‘public service’ and ‘private enterprise’ are ridiculously reductive), I have come to know Canberra as one of the the most cultural and creatively sustaining places on the planet.

This small city has a wide range of arts organisations covering all the major art forms. There are also the national cultural institutions, including the National Library, the National Archives, the National Museum, and the National Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery. The original parliament house has been turned into a museum of democracy.

There are brilliant universities and terrific bookshops. Libraries are dotted throughout the suburbs.

It probably should not be surprising that the ACT is one of the most progressive jurisdictions in Australia: in 1999 it was one of the only states or territories that voted for Australia to become a republic, and in 2017 it had one of the highest yes votes in the marriage-equality plebiscite.

Then there are the mountains on the edge of the city, the coast is a two-hour drive (which, in Australian terms, is not much more than ‘just up the street’), Sydney at the northern end of the freeway.

While, now I’m thinking about it, I first put pen to paper as a writer while briefly living in Perth in my early twenties, it was when I returned to Canberra that I decided to pursue my literary vocation with vigour. I met other writers, some of whom have gone on to shape the culture of the country. My own progress has been slow, a gradual coming out. (My other coming out was a little more dramatic.)

I should also make it clear that since 2010 I have lived on the other side of the border, in the regional New South Wales town of Goulburn. These days I like to say that Goulburn is my hometown, Canberra is my home city, and the ACT region is the place of my creative community

So, it was lovely – surprising, invigorating, and just a little overwhelming – to be named the ACT Artist of the Year at the 2022 ACT Arts Awards, which were held on Tuesday evening at the Canberra Museum and Gallery.

MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING also picked up a Canberra Critics Circle Award, which is my fifth.

Thank you to the Canberra Critics Circle, who, for 32 years, have been celebrating this region’s artists. Gratitude also to the City News, which so generously sponsors the Artist of the Year Award.

Years ago, a prominent Australian writer and academic shared with me some advice that I’ve never forgotten: ‘When something good happens in your writing life, you have 24 hours to celebrate – drink champagne, go out for dinner, soak it all up, whatever you need to do, but then you have to keep going. When something bad happens in your writing life, you have 24 hours to commiserate – drink whiskey, kick the furniture, howl at the moon, whatever you need to do, but then you have to keep going.’

So I applied that approach to this news; I enjoyed a wonderful Wednesday. And then, to be frank, because sometimes there is life in contradiction and inconsistency, I kept enjoying myself.

But on Monday morning, I’ll be back at the desk.

I’ll keep going.

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Image credit: author photograph courtesy of the Canberra Times.

 

 

Might it be this little guy?

Might it be this little guy?

Something is stealing my water.

It’s actually the chooks’ water, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an important matter, one of life and death.  They have a ten-day waterer, but in the last two weeks it’s been depleted every day, and the hens aren’t impressed, not at all.  Could it be that with this unseasonally warm winter and spring they are thirstier than usual?  But even at the height of summer they don’t drink this much.

Could the sparrows be the ones who are drinking it, the sparrows who are determined to drive me crazy with their pesky ways?

It just might be that there’s something else in my little garden.

Every morning I wake to find the mulch disturbed, some of it flicked over the paving and stepping stones.  I always broom it back to where I want it – that is, after all, the whole point of having a garden – but the next morning there they are again, the scatterings of mulch.  Something is digging, and it might also be drinking.

Recently, if I’m up early enough and look out into the hopeful dawn, I sometimes see a darting shape, almost as if it’s been flung across the yard by sling-shot.  Yesterday morning, I waited for the light to come and got a better look: it’s small, and black, with a bright red beak.  It’s a blackbird.

They say blackbirds came to Australia in the 1850s via Melbourne, and since then have formed colonies up the east coast, particularly in the lush, basaltic gardens of the Blue Mountains.  But also, quite evidently, in my Goulburn yard (now that Cat the Ripper is nothing more than an ache in my stomach that won’t go away).

Is it the blackbird that’s stealing the water?  It’s possible that it is.

Unless I also have a snake.  But let’s not go there.

Sometimes I’ve seen a large brown hawk sitting on the ridge of the old shed that is my garage.  The hawk could be after the sparrows, or the chooks, or even my blackbird.  What a little world is in my garden.  There are days when I wish that I could sort myself out, forget about this whole writing madness, and just let plants and birds be all I need, let this small patch of life sustain me, in essence be my water – so I could live out my days simply sipping.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 16 November 2013.)

Prospect or refuge: the choice is ours.

Prospect or refuge: the choice is ours.

Each Monday afternoon, at 5pm, he leaves the writing room, calls The Old Lady of the House to attention, gets her into her lead, and leaves his home for the hills.  Past the old houses, all that red brick and corrugated iron, the good, thick chimneys, some windows with stained glass.  Past the houses from the ’60s and ’70s (not two of architecture’s best decades) and past the newer houses on their big blocks, massive blocks, until they’re five-acre lots complete with post-and-rail fences and four-wheel-drives in the driveways, gazebos too, and water features.

It’s not until he takes a side road and the walking becomes steeper and he and the dog begin to puff that his mind starts to settle and empty.  For this is what he wants: emptiness.  There’s no Facebook up here, no Twitter, and no one can phone him because the mobile’s back on the fridge where it should be.

The road climbs ever higher, and now there are small paddocks with sheep grazing absently between stands of struggling eucalypts.  The sheep are oblivious to the view, but they shouldn’t be – it’s expansive, and endless, which is not so much a fact but a feeling.  To the west is the low rump of a range, wind-turbines barely visible; if they’re turning he can’t tell.

But it’s the south that he’s here to see.  The south is a very different view: glorious, rolling, distant mountains; they must be somewhere between Braidwood and Canberra.  The blue could be from a different planet.

So here he is, late on Monday afternoon, up on the ridge at the edge of town, looking south into that other, mountainous world.

Decades ago, when studying landscape architecture for his undergraduate degree, he discovered J. Appleton’s ‘Prospect-Refuge’ theory.  It explains much about the world.  Humans are attracted to views because they can gauge what sort of weather’s coming, or see an advancing enemy.  Refuge is all about protection no matter what, which is why we like to sit in public places with our backs against a wall.  It makes sense.

When, an hour later, he’s back home and the Old Lady is having a well-deserved drink from her water-bowl, he googles J. Appleton and his or her theory.  But there are no references to it.  Not one.  Did he make it up?

Even if he did, it doesn’t mean that it’s not true.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 21 October 2013.)

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)

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