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Somewhere between arrival and departure.

Somewhere between arrival and departure.

I hear trains.

That isn’t an admission of something unhinged in my mind, or a euphemism for a kind of illegal activity.  It’s just that where I live, on a hill behind the mainstreet of an old town, I can hear trains.

Even when I’m putting clothes on the line I can hear the sound of trains coming and going, freight trains especially, as they heave and clatter in and through and on to the other side.

As is obvious it’s a sound I adore.  After twenty-five years living in Canberra I’d begun to miss it, though I didn’t know that then – sometimes it’s only when you move from one place to another that you realise what’s important.

Perhaps the sound reminds me of being a boy in Sydney and having to catch trains to get to school and back, all of us jammed into the clunky, stinky ‘Red Rattlers’, the windows so hefty that if they suddenly closed they would chop off arms or fingers.  So we imagined, or feared.  Of course, back then, having to catch trains every day wasn’t anything unusual; it was just part of living in a city.  These days I look on it nostalgically, as though I once lived in a more exciting land, somewhere big and dangerous and overflowing with life.  Strange then that whenever I return to Sydney, even on a train, I’m filled with terror – that place always reminds me of a snake trying to eat its own head.

So why this love of the sound of trains?

It could be because it just feels old-fashioned, a delicious thing of the past, and for those like me who find the present a trial the past can be a good place to go.  It could be a reminder of the sort of adventures once discovered in books for children.  But trains aren’t necessarily historical.  Look at the sort that can be found in Europe and the larger cities of Asia – those trains are like something out of Star Trek.  Maybe the sound is a metaphor.  For arrival: the joy of becoming, of making real the new, the hope there is in that.  For departure: the melancholia of leaving behind, of letting go, of saying good-bye.  Because it’s somewhere between arrival and departure that life can be found most readily, whatever that life might be.

Oh how much there is in a sound.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 15 March 2014.)

Me shaving at Brideshead Castle, October 1923. (Warning: this post may contain things that aren't strictly true.)

Me shaving at Brideshead Castle, October 1923. (Warning: may not be strictly true.)

Summer is the land of tradition and regrettably I’m no different.  Making the morning cup of coffee before heading to the writing room and getting stuck into it is one, as is marinating in a glass of wine at 6pm to celebrate the end of the day.

All things considered, however, these are relatively recent traditions, one befitting of a man who’s slipping disastrously into middle-age.  If there’s something I’ve done for a very long time, from when I shared a home with parents and brothers, it’s this: to celebrate the completion of some writing, a novella say, I play the soundtrack to the BBC’s serialisation of Brideshead Revisited.

My family, avid ABC viewers the lot of us, had the Brideshead soundtrack on vinyl record, but these days I have it on CD.  It’s dated 1981, so perhaps the series aired in Australia that year, or the one after.  I would have been thirteen or fourteen years old.  With the music playing I’d spend whole days on the couch under a blanket, a pad in my lap, pen in hand, and make up a story – a school assignment.  I can remember the plot of one of them: two country-town boys who aren’t old enough to go to war are forced to stay home and do the hard work of grown men.  Where on Earth I got that from I don’t no.

I simply wanted to listen to Brideshead Revisited and write and wish that I didn’t live on Sydney’s North Shore but in a humble abode called Brideshead Castle and be a Marchmain or a Flyte (but not Sebastian – he was too uptight, even for me); perhaps I could be Charles Ryder and waft here and there and fall in love with this and that and do a watercolour painting whenever the mood had me.

It’s odd, because I’m not fond of classical music, and my music knowledge isn’t sufficiently refined to know how to describe the Brideshead score – contemporary chamber music?  All I know is that, just like Eveyln Waugh’s famously fading English family with their own twisted traditions, I still like to play the soundtrack to Brideshead Revisited whenever it feels as though a piece of writing is on the home stretch.  Perhaps it reminds me of being under that blanket on that couch, crafting a story without a clue as to what I was doing.  How comforting.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 25 January 2014.)

I’m going to do it, get the needle and slowly, carefully, put it where it needs to go.  Then I’ll stretch out and let it wash over me, through me, and enjoy the utter gloriousness of it.  After decades of abstinence, you see, I’m going to have a record player in my house again.  And I can’t wait, though I will have to wait because I have to scrape together the last few pennies.  But I’m already going through my small (and rather dusty) collection of LPs and singles, trying to decide which will be lucky enough to have First Spin status.

It could be New Order’s Substance, partly because it has ‘Blue Monday’ on it, which will sound great through the new speakers (you can’t buy a record player without getting new speakers), and partly because I can remember riding my bike up to the St Ives Shopping Village, which was my haunt for the first eighteen years of my life, and buying this double album, although it actually contains “12 x 12-inch a-sides”.  Back home, however, I discovered in one of the records an imprint of a sneaker, so I returned it to the store and was given a replacement.  But I’d learnt that at some stage in the manufacturing process, records must be pliable enough for a mark to be left when, perhaps, an overworked factory employee stumbles.  Vinyl indeed.

'The Queen is Dead' by The Smiths. Greatness.

Or it could be The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead.  The first time I heard this record, in 1986, my last year of school, I didn’t understand it one bit – my older brother’s best friend had just told me that if I was keen on music I must give The Smiths a listen.  But I thought the singer, whose lyrics referenced Wilde and Yeats, sounded like a morose yodeller and his lines ran counter to the music, the music being pleasant enough, in a jingly-jangly sort of way, but it simply wasn’t to my less-than-developed private-schoolboy taste.  Needless to say, two or three years later I realised that Morrissey sang all his words for me and me alone.  Even now, at the age of 39 and 51 weeks, I’m still a Smiths obsessive.

Or the first record could be ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ by A-ha or ‘Victims’ by Culture Club, both on 45.  Then again, maybe not.

It’s true that this is all about nostalgia – I even admitted as much when last weekend I nervously walked in to a hi-fi store and told them what I was looking for.  Yes, I’m having a sentimental yearning for the past. But what does ‘sentimental’ actually mean?  A romantic or nostalgic feeling; by emotion rather than reason.  Hang on, my decision to own a record player is entirely reasonable, and sensible, and logical; emotion has nothing to do with it, thank you very much.  Besides, even now, in 2008, some bands still put out music on LP, so this might not be about the past at all – it’s just about…options.

Whatever, if I am being nostalgic, I really don’t care.  It was Lou Reed who said ‘I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine’.  And this nostalgia is all mine, baby.  If only I was cool enough as a kid to own a Velvet Underground record.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, October 4 2008)

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