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Borders: lines on a map but not necessarily in hearts and minds.

Borders: lines on a map but not necessarily in hearts and minds.

Borders.

They’ll be the end of us.

I’m not talking about the ill-fated book shop but those lines and marks that scare the living shit out of you and me.

There are the geographic borders: a sandy beach, a cliff-face, a wall of impenetrable rainforest. There are the borders that are nothing more than a flashing light on a computer screen or an invisible line somewhere in the ocean.

People want to cross over; they would do anything to go from one side to the other; they might risk death to be ‘over there’, where it is better. There are ways of doing it ‘legally’ and there are ways of doing it ‘illegally’, depending on the circumstances, and the level of desperation. It seems borders and desperation can go hand in hand, especially in this world where the difference between hope and hopelessness can be so marked.

Each week I, too, cross borders; at least, I drive past a sign that indicates I’m going from one place to another. I cross borders because there are opportunities on the other side, in ‘the big city’ as I’ve come to call it. Because these days I live in a country down in regional NSW. Because where I live the only arts work involves packing shelves. So I come into the ACT to do paid gigs that I enjoy, that are meaningful, that help to keep the wolves at bay.

But I’m not suffering political persecution.

Or religious discrimination.

Or threat of incarceration because I’m spending my life with another man.

Or because I’m a woman.

I’m lucky, supremely so, and just like everyone else who is lucky there is an obligation to cross borders at every opportunity. In the way I think, in the way I act and react, in the way I create – especially in the way I create. If artists can’t (or won’t) cross borders, who will? We should be crossing between forms, between materials, between genres, between ideas, between audiences. Because we should always be wanting – needing – to be uncomfortable. Because, perhaps, when uncomfortable we’re more productive, we’re alive, we’re fighting.

Inspiration is everywhere. There’s Oscar Wilde and his ability to move between prose and poetry, between stage and page, between the ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ and risk his freedom and, ultimately, his life in the process. Closer to home there was, up until 2008, the Melbourne-based poet Dorothy Porter, who blurred the lines between collection and novel and reached the point where one of her works, The Monkey’s Mask, made it onto the silver screen. Closer to home even further, we have artists like Andrew Galan, who cross between the written and the spoken and the complex and the simple. And we have Katy Mutton, who slips – almost effortlessly – between the painted, the drawn, the political, and the personal.

Yes, borders are the end of the line for some of our number. And that’s our eternal shame, our immeasurably heavy burden.

But for us lucky ones, borders should be our beginnings.

*

(First published in BMA Magazine on 23 April 2014. Thanks to Sir Allan Sko.)

Oscar Wilde said it was useless.  DH Lawrence said it was like having a good sneeze.  Margaret Atwood does it for the man in the sky.  What are they talking about?  Art and writing, of course.  But witty quips aside, why do people become obsessed with artistic endeavours like putting words on paper?  Hell, in this crazy day and age of prime ministers asking us to spy on our neighbours in the name of ‘being alert’, why should we do anything out of the ordinary?  Because it’s better to write twaddle, anything, said Kiwi novelist Katherine Mansfield, than nothing at all.

The great Australian artist Sir Sidney Nolan said that he thought that a successful artist would have no trouble being a successful member of the Mafia.  Lately I’ve been trying to work out whether artists and terrorists have something in common.  You would hope that most artists don’t set out to create terror.  And surely the aim of most terrorists is not to bring beauty into the world.  But artists and terrorists do have one – albeit uncomfortable – commonality: they both want us to see things from new perspectives, think in ways that are foreign to us.  Of course, there’s a rather horrific romanticism to that statement, and I for one would rather live in a world where someone takes a good book into a public place than a bomb.  But sometimes a superbly-crafted sentence, like a bomb, can change us forever, whether we like it or not.

So why do artists religiously obey the alarm clock when it shakes them awake each day?  Is it because they think they can change the world by composing sounds on their computers?  Is it because life is inherently dull without making up stories, as if we should never really grow beyond being that six-year-old child?  Is it because there is glorious logic to the statement, ‘I don’t have a mohawk but I gave up full-time work to make ceramics?’  Possibly.  There is one writer I know who thinks she’d have more to offer if she spent the mornings just walking the dog up Black Mountain, absorbing herself in kangaroos, cockatoos and echidnas rather than sitting in her study, fingers looking for some words to work with.

The thing is most artists simply can’t stop making art.  They’re like drug addicts with no interest in being clean.  Which begs another comparison: like the terrorist and the artist, does the artist and the addict have something in common?  Both are looking for new realities, for adventures, great escapes.  If you take drugs, you take risks.  There is a sense of being more alive than ever when risks are in your veins.  Surely Brett Whitely would agree with that, though it’d be kind of handy to know what he would think about life in April 2012).

Why can’t artists stop?  What really drives them on, especially when the world around continues to turn itself inside out?

Thankfully, there is one major difference between the agendas of the artist, the terrorist and the drug addict.  In his book A Way of Being Free, the African novelist Ben Okri said, ‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully… But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt… and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’  Substitute painters or composers or sculptors in the above and it makes just as much sense.  Substitute terrorists or drug addicts and Okri’s point slips out the window like a daydream on the run.

Yes, Australia did have prime minister who, in his infinite wisdom, recommended to us, the people, ‘the mob’, that we be alert.  But shouldn’t we aim to be fully alive rather than merely alert?  Ants can be alert – the ever-present threat of being squashed by a big fat sneaker makes sure of that – but when was the last time one produced an extraordinary film?  We’re human beings and human beings are creative sorts.  Whether we want to be actually called ‘Artists’ or not, Okri is right: in our own simple, humble ways we should bear witness to the beauties and horrors of our times.  Record and communicate, make and tell.

So as the bombs keep dropping, no matter who’s dropping them and whoever’s land they are being dropped on, let’s not settle for merely being alert: let’s write poems, compose songs, paint pictures, build sculptures.  Because no matter how amateurish the end product, we’ll be alive.  And even if we’re living in a world dominated by a sad-sack coalition of the willing rather than the council of the wise, being properly alive is inherently a good thing.  That’s what art in the everyday sense can do: bring blood-pumping, naturally ecstatic, unadulterated life.  Alert people might be awake, but truly alive people are powerful.

It’s true that Oscar Wilde said all art was useless, but he was just writing twaddle – and changing the world.

*

This is a slightly edited/updated version of a piece that was first published in The Canberra Times on 3 April 2003.  Not much has changed huh?

It’s been that weekend again in Sydney, that annual weekend, and perhaps it’s more than one weekend, a whole fortnight of it, maybe even a month, which would be a special kind of hell.  But it’s the weekend that I’m talking about, that’s been on my mind, the Saturday night in particular, it’s always the first weekend in March, which puts it smack-bang in the middle of my partner’s birthday week.  The Saturday night, the parade and party, all that dancing in the streets and in the great cavernous halls of Fox Studios, if that’s where the party’s held, as you can see I really have no idea about much of this Mardi Gras stuff.  Sydney Mardi Gras, they’ve dropped the ‘gay and lesbian’ bit, which, to me, is good and wise.

I always dread this time of year, a bit – a lot – like how I dread Christmas.  All the celebration, the public displays of some kind of joy and affection.  But it’s an empty celebration, both Christmas and Mardi Gras, because neither means anything to me.  If you wish me a happy Mardi Gras I’ll stare blankly at your face. If you wish me a happy gay Christmas, I may well bludgeon you with a baseball bat.

Have I been to a Mardi Gras?  Yes, twice: two parades (one of which was the 20th anniversary, in 1998), and one party.  Did I have a good time?  From what I can remember the parade was as it appears on the telly: so many guys in red Speedos and/or angel wings, so many drunk drag queens trying not to fall off the back of trucks, dykes on bikes, some political floats – it’s always good to see gay marriage getting a mention.  And the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, those men dressed up as nuns, which, if I’m to tell you the truth, never fails to give me a little chuckle.  And men in black leather, so many men in black leather, their butts hanging out.  And on the sidelines: thousands and thousands and thousands of people who come out to watch the show, the spectacular.  That’s what it seems to me: wheel out the funny sexuality people to entertain the drunk masses from the suburbs.

But my sexuality isn’t a show, it’s not a spectacular.

I became a teenager in the 1980s; I was in my own little world; music was my thing: The Cure, The Clash, New Order and, erm, Culture Club.  Early on, around twelve years old, thirteen, I knew I had feelings, strong feelings, explosive feelings for other boys.  I didn’t have a name for it, I didn’t want a name for it.  As scary as it was, how downright frightening, this thing, whatever it might have been, was mine, all mine.  I wanted to explore it; I wanted it to take me places.  Despite knowing that it wasn’t normal, whatever normal might be, might mean, I loved it, it was beautiful.  How good and golden it made me feel, how alive, blood-pumpingly alive.

I was shy, I was nervous, cautious.  I took little steps, just inched along, finding my own path, and never did I want a name for what I was doing, who I was, and if I did discover names for it I turned the other way.  Oscar Wilde may have infamously called love between men ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, but, to me, it’s the love that doesn’t need a name, because it’s in my blood and bones, my DNA, in every breath I take.  I wouldn’t change it for the world, it’s been my absolute delight, despite the heartache, the shock and horror.  So I fell in love with a boy in Fourth Form (or was it Third?), it happened again at university, which took me into the post-uni world, that cliff that’s jumped off, and then, in my mid-twenties, I met another boy, who became a partner, my partner to this day, who too isn’t fond of this weekend that’s been, this Mardi Gras.

Am I proud to be gay?  What is pride?  Self-respect, dignity, self-esteem, honour.  Must these words relate to me?  It’s just who I am, just what I’m made of – my sexuality comprises me.  Of course, I live in better times; it hasn’t always been easy for people like me to say the sort of things I’m saying.  In fact, I’m frankly astonished to learn that homosexuality was illegal in my home state of New South Wales until 1984, the year of my first love affair, puppy-love for sure, sweet and innocent, but also rich and intense and beautiful and profound; I was none the wiser of how a brush of the hand could put me in jail.  And in Tasmania, that dark island state of my nation, it was illegal until as recently as 1997, though that place has gone from zero to hero in no time as it now has some of the most progressive same-sex relationship laws in the country – but not in the world, not yet.

Australian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick White, who was openly gay, said that he wished the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras would be stopped forever.  ‘A lot of screaming queens in Oxford Street will not help the cause for which we shall have to fight,’ he wrote.  Do I agree?  No, I don’t.  Like Christmas, it can go on, but it will have to go on without me, because it means nothing, it simply doesn’t represent my life.  Like all fair and decent people, I stopped wearing red Speedos in my last year of school, and even though I’m fond of angels, over-sized wings on me would look ridiculous – and hypocritical.  And drag queens?  Good for them, I say, but if that’s your thing and you come around to my place, well, please just be yourself, and cut the sarcasm, and that voice.

All I wanted when I was young is all I want now: beauty and love and intimacy.

I don’t need to dance in the street for these things.  I just want to feel it pulsing through my veins, as it always has, as it always will.

‘Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.  This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated.  For these there is hope.’  Oscar Wilde

In May this year I returned to Canberra from a month as an artist-in-residence at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people on the Shoalhaven River near Nowra, and despite feeling like I was coming back from Mars, the first thing I did on arriving home was to go into my work room and write some words which within minutes would be stuck in the window of my wallet: Creating and the imagination are my natural habitats; creating is what I love doing, the imagination is where I am most alive.  Being in and with a community of dedicated creative people makes me so happy I want to burst out of my skin.

How is it that someone who’d only recently turned forty had come to that point of wanting to burst out of their skin?

When I turn my increasingly unreliable brain to my childhood, I think of spending the first 18 years of my life wandering, rather aimlessly it must be said, around my home suburb of St Ives on Sydney’s Volvo-infested North Shore, catching the bus and train to the austere school I attended, Barker College.  I think of the uniform – black shoes, grey trousers, white shirt, red-and-white striped tie, barber-shop blazer, and a Venetian boater.

I think of reaching adolescence, of girls joining us in Fifth and Sixth Form but somehow, for some reason, remaining only interested in the boys, of swimming carnivals, of trying to play rugby union, of homework, always that terrible homework.

Mostly, however, I remember writing: double creative writing classes and thousands of words – albeit dreadfully composed words – forming themselves on the exercise-book pages in the worst handwriting imaginable.  I distinctly remember my Fourth Class teacher, a man who had flicks and a Freddie Mercury moustache, yelling ‘Shut up Featherstone, don’t be rude!’ as I demanded that it be me who read out his story to class.  I remember writing in my bedroom, having a pseudonym, though thankfully I’ve forgotten the actual name – no doubt it was something like Roger T. Bartholomew the Third.

I remember writing in school holidays and writing when I was home sick – I always seemed to be getting bronchitis, particularly in winter.  I remember one of these periods of sickness, somewhere around Third or Fourth Form when I spent weeks on end sitting on the couch, a garishly-coloured cashmere nana-rug over my legs and waist, and rewriting and rewriting a short story to the Brideshead Revisited soundtrack, which was on repeat on the record player.

But despite all this writing and reading I was at a loss as to what I wanted do when I finished school.  Even though my family, particularly on my father’s side, is filled with writers and poets and painters and printmakers, some of whom have made significant names for themselves, the thought of seriously pursuing a career in the arts simply didn’t cross my mind.  Perhaps I misunderstood what Oscar Wilde meant when he said All art is quite useless. For a short time I did consider becoming an audio engineer, because I loved music – and still do, very much.  However, I’m glad I didn’t pursue this line of work, mainly because I’m the most impractical person you’ve ever come across – I have to get a man in to change the washers on my taps.

So I applied to do an undergraduate degree in landscape architecture.

But I didn’t get in.  Being someone who gets volcanically stressed at the most inconsequential of things, like when my computer decides that it would like to download some update or other, I became so anxious in the days leading up to the HSC that my temperature soured and the family GP refused to let me sit the English exam, English being the one subject in which I regularly excelled, and I wasn’t well enough to sit through all of mathematics.  The examining board guesstimated my English mark, which was unjustifiably low, and I failed maths outright, though somehow did remarkably well in economics, a subject I had no interest in whatsoever.  Thank God for universities, which offer almost limitless opportunities to correct early education flunks and misdemeanours.

After being subjected to much begging and pleading, the University of Canberra, or the Canberra College of Advanced Education as it was known back then, generously let me in on one condition: that I pass all my first semester units.  Not only did I pass, I did rather well, particularly in the design-related units, which I adored.  I learnt about the importance of big ideas, of understanding context, of piecing together relationships (‘everything is connected’ I’d learn later when I augmented my landscape degree with a graduate diploma in social ecology), of knowing that the best things have the right fit.  My love affair with the arts and design, as well as the humanities, was on its way.

More to the point, I fell in love with a classmate, a Christian boy, who loved me back but only as much as his religion would allow.  I converted to his faith hoping he’d convert to my sexuality.  He did not.  So I rounded out these undergraduate years wearing only black, listening to The Cure, The Smiths and New Order, driving my beloved 1969 Volkswagen Fastback around the blue-sky streets of Belconnen; I ate too much coke and chocolate and meat pies, and became fat.

Thinking it appropriate to find someone else to love, I moved to Perth where I lived beneath the desiccating heat at Cottesloe Beach (on which I’d read Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet) and worked for a small design firm in Subiaco. Though I loved Perth, it’s fair to say that I was a lonely soul there – I knew no one and spent most of my evenings writing in a journal and reading down at the beach (with one eye surveying for deliciously suntanned things that would walk my way but then walk on by).  Ultimately I decided that I needed to be in a place where there were mountains and I could wear jumpers, so after two years I returned to the south-east, where my family has lived for seven generations.  Place, I discovered, can be etched into your DNA.

But I didn’t find myself back over east; the opposite happened: I became lost.  I lived with my parents on Mount Gibraltar in the Southern Highlands, where they’d escaped Sydney to slide into retirement.  Feeling sorry for me, a friend gave me a suitcase-load of music recording equipment and I wrote and recorded some songs, sent them to Triple J, but Triple J only sent a car-sticker in return.  I scratched out some lyrics, one of which I quite liked, so, without having any idea whatsoever of what I was doing, I sent the ‘poem’ to an arts magazine in Canberra and then jumped onto a Jumbo jet to backpack around the world.   Exactly one hundred days and nights later, I returned to Mount Gibraltar and was surprised to find in the mail a letter from the magazine – they’d published the poem.

So, buoyed by this completely unexpected literary success, I wrote another poem, and this too was published, this time in Tasmania.  Then, realising that I didn’t actually know anything about poetry, I wrote a short story and this was also favourable received.  I was hooked – again – by words and ideas.  Since then, 1994, I’ve been writing fiction and creative journalism five days a week, augmenting a meagre writing income with landscape architecture work before, at the age of 36, jumping ship to work as the manager of arts development for the ACT Chief Minister’s Department, a job I believe in very much.

Despite the odds firmly stacked against the publication of fiction – according to the literary journal Overland, there is currently a one-in-a-thousand chance of having a novel published in Australia – writing is what I love doing. Whether it is fifty-word micro-fiction, short stories, a novel, or creative journalism, writing is my greatest achievement – apart from, of course, maintaining a relationship, which, even though it has had to weather a few internal hurdles, some family dramas, and the meretricious scorn of recent federal governments, has lasted thirteen years .

Yes, I love writing.  Yes, I’m in love with writing.  But quite regularly, like the best lovers, he doesn’t always love me back, at least not in the way I want.  Writing is reticent, he is painful, unpredictable, mercurial; he can fill my blood with heat, he can make my heart race like the best of drugs; writing can be everything, and then, like an ocean tide, he can recede, leaving me sore and hollow and exposed.

In 2000, I commenced what would end up being one of the most wonderful experiences of my life: a masters in creative arts/creative writing.  I did feel like an impostor – what was someone who’d only barely passed the HSC and didn’t originally get in to his first degree doing at university for the third time?  And a masters of all things!  But every Thursday for two years I connected with other writers, thinkers, academics; I read more than I’d read in my life.  I finished with a manuscript for what would become my first novel, Remnants, which was published in 2005.  Out of the nine Australian reviews and one international review that humble little story received, only one hated it and that was The Age. Despite others making conclusions like ‘a beautifully written book’ and ‘deserving of a wide audience’, The Age described Remnants as ‘a noble failure’, as if I’d gallantly tried to fight a wild dragon but had ultimately lost.

But what does all this reminiscing actually mean?

It means the importance of ongoing education. Writing – creativity – in itself is an education, but sometimes it’s worth taking the exit off the nine-to-five freeway and spending time back in the academy, to think, to learn, to explore, to be wild again.

It means the importance of blind faith, though by faith I don’t mean what my old landscape architecture paramour meant by faith.  Ex-Canberra writer and artist Judy Horacek, co-author of the phenomenally successful children’s book Where is the Green Sheep?, talks about the need to charge ahead no matter what the odds.  What makes someone spend up to ten years writing a novel, when it appears that the readership of literary prose is diminishing and new technologies may change the publishing landscape forever?  It’s the desire for adventure.  And adventure is risk.  And risk is living.

It means the importance of relentless persistence. I’m by no means a fan of sport, but recently I heard Carrie Graf, the unstoppable coach of the Canberra Capitals, talk about the notion of relentless persistence. There’s something in this: the unyielding, the unremitting, the inexorable; the perseverance, the determination, the doggedness, the diligence, even the pushiness.  These are the inescapable qualities of the artist, and, dare I say it, the qualities of anyone who wants to wring every drop of life from their days.

But to finish up.  And to end quoting an artist, not a sportsperson.

In October this year, the twice Miles Franklin Prize-winning Australian novelist Alex Miller gave the closing address at a conference on writing and creativity at the National Library of Australia.  Miller delivered his point by expanding on the often-quoted writing aphorism: he turned ‘Write what you know’ into ‘Write what you love’. But, right here, right now, let’s expand this a little further, to broader out its application: LIVE what you love.

LIVE what you love. How good is that!

(This is an edited version of a speech presented as an Occasional Address at the University of Canberra’s Conferring of Awards ceremony, held in the Great Hall, Parliament House, 17 December, 2009.)

…do so at their own peril.”  (The High Priest of Aesthetics, Rev. Oscar Wilde)

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