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If our sky wasn't so dangerous it would be beautiful.

Summer in Goulburn, Australia: if our sky wasn’t so dangerous it would be beautiful.

The chooks are panting.  They’re holding out their wings as if they have sweaty armpits – this despite the fact the coop and run have for weeks been covered in an old tent fly.  Outside the coop and run the birdbath is a dried-up clay-pan.  The large wattle adjacent is yellow, not from flowering but its tiny stressed leaves.  The dirt, it’s sandy.  The clematis around the front of the house, planted at the end of spring and for much of the time since has been growing vigorously up the verandah post, is now limp, fading.  The two standard white roses beside the front gate look like miniature street-trees in autumn – they’re leafless.  Inside the house it’s dark, all the curtains and blinds closed even though it’s the middle of the day.  When eyes adjust, the cracks in the walls are obvious as the ground shifts and splits.  There’s no breeze coming through the hallways and rooms because the doors and windows are shut tight.  The skylight’s honeycomb covering is drawn across, making a cave out of the loungeroom.  The corrugated-iron roofing creaks like a ship keeling into the ocean (if only).  Sometimes the mad and maddening whirr of a trapped-in blowfly.  The fridge motor bravely trying to keep up.  The Old Lady of the House dragging herself from one place to another, head down and puffing.  The coolest place, she knows, is in the writing room, because its only window faces east – the room is protected from the worst of the afternoon.  There she finds a writer in grey gym shorts and white t-shirt.  Look at the blackened souls of his feet.  Beside him is the six-fin bar-heater, dusty, silent, switched off but plugged in.  The heater is waiting for cold rain.

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.)

The life and death of spring? (Illustration: Jim Pavlidis)

The life and death of spring? (Illustration: Jim Pavlidis. Source: Canberra Times, Fairfax Media.)

It happened only a week ago. There I was, working away at my desk, when, coming from somewhere at a distance on my right, the east, there was a sudden airy whoosh, two of them, in parallel, blasting past my window, above, high above, then the briefest of silences, a nano-second, before this in the west: one explosion, two explosions.

Down below my office, on the sun-drenched terrace outside the café, young men and women stopped concentrating lazily on their lattes and cappuccinos and looked into the sky.  An authoritative shout went up and the young men and women, helpfully already in uniform and camouflage, got to running, sprinting.

They knew, and so did I, because the sirens made it clear: we were – our country was – under attack, we were being invaded.

Except we weren’t; my imagination was simply getting carried away with itself.  Two jet planes, some kind of fighting machine, did indeed zoom through the sky above my room, but – thank the deity that is yours, or just your lucky stars – there were no explosions; it was nothing more than one of those fly-pasts, celebrating something or other that I didn’t know.

But those young military men and women: they were real enough, they are real enough, because I’m currently spending three months at the Australian Defence Force Academy.  No, it’s not the most bizarre holiday you’ve ever heard, nor am I lurking behind bushes like some kind of spy.  It’s just that, courtesy of the University of New South Wales, my spring is committed to a place I never thought I’d even visit let alone allow myself to become immersed, enthralled, besotted even.

Some – many, most – may consider it odd for a writer to spend spring in a place that, in essence, is teaching people how to invade and maim and kill and destroy, all for the greater good, a kind of lofty, lofty cause, one that isn’t always entirely obvious (or true)…

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Keep reading over at The Canberra Times, which commissioned this piece and published it on 11 November 2013.

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