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Let’s be honest: when all this started I had no idea what I was doing.  But it’s best we go back a bit.

In the autumn of 2009, I spent a month as an artist-in-residence at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people on the Shoalhaven River just south of Sydney.  On the last night the other artists and I had a few drinks and shared stories of our time in the glorious creative isolation as well handed out business cards and email addresses and website URLs.  I had none of those things – really, how committed was I to writing?  By the time I’d driven home, I resolved to at least get the internet put on at home and set up an email address.

By October of that year, I had indeed got these things, but I also had a website designed, and I set up this blog.  I knew next to nothing about blogging other than it might be a good way of sharing news, if, that is, anyone was interested.  So here we are, in October 2012 and it seems almost impossible to believe that Under the counter or a flutter in a dovecot (which is, to be frank, a ridiculous name for a blog, a ridiculous name for anything) is heading into its fourth year.

It’s probably as good a time as any to reflect on the positives and challenges, so let’s do it, the reflection thing.

On the whole, I’ve enjoyed my time in the blogosphere, even if most of the online energy appears to have shifted to Facebook and Twitter, leaving blogs to feel just a little old-fashioned, which to a certain extent suits me fine because I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy.  Thankfully, when I started this thing, I promised that I’d post only once per week, and I’ve kept to that, more or less.  Is it true that at the beginning I had no idea what I was doing?  Yes, it’s true, and I still might have no idea, although I have come to think of this blog as a diary that I write with other people in mind.  But it’s not a personal diary; I’ve been fairly keen to focus on writing and literature, music, other arts activity, and some quirky investigations into those little things that happen in a day that might have deeper meanings.  Like the last days of a chook.

I’ve enjoyed asking myself during the week, what will I post this weekend, what’s happened or happening that others might be intrigued about?  There’s a discipline to that, on a number of levels.  I’ve also found it fun to try out different things: writing music reviews (which is surprisingly difficult), trying to approach technology in new and weird ways (the On the other side of the city ‘survey’, and what sprung from it, has been a highlight), and it’s good to know that every one of the fifty or so First Word columns that I’ve written for The Canberra Times is stored here, and the features I’ve written have also had a second life online, meaning that the artists I’ve interviewed have been able to link to them (The Canberra Times has only very recently made Panorama, the paper’s weekend magazine, available electronically).

Plus there’s been the great pleasure of getting to know a number of the regular readers of Under the counter – all of whom, it’s amazing to realise, aren’t from my real-world community, some are even from overseas.  In a way, you are modern-day Pen Friends, or maybe that should be Keyboard Friends.  Some of you have become significant contributors to Verity La, that other part of my online life, and for that I thank you.  And, of course, there’s the handful of blogs that I comment on regularly, because the posts are frequently excellent and thought-provoking – have a look at the blog-roll to the left for the links.  Some of these blogs, for example Whispering Gums, are becoming influential, particularly in the funny little world that is literature, and that’s a great thing – a strong and sophisticated writing culture comes from articulate and erudite public discussion about creative practice (even if that observation and the sentence make me sound like a wanker).

What about the challenges?  There have been times, it’s true, when I’ve been all out of ideas, though this can also be a positive, as it’s forced me to still produce something, even if it’s a hastily put-together collage that looks like a six-year-old did it.  A key part of my blogging routine is commenting on other blogs – I can hardly expect readers to comment on this blog if I don’t comment other blogs.  Do comments matter?  Yes, they matter.  I do want to know what people think; I do want to know if readers have been moved, and a comment is a sure sign of that.  I’d like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for commenting – it’s made my day.  But it can be exhausting – and time-consuming – to find posts that I want to absorb and comment on.

It was – and continues to be – most gratifying that the National Library of Australia selected Under the counter for archiving in-perpetuity (if that isn’t a tautology) as part of its PANDORA program.  To think that maybe, just maybe, a researcher will stumble across this little old place in a hundred years time is a bit special.  There’s no doubt that without the commenters commenting and the National Library’s interest I would have stopped long ago – there’s only so often you can call out into the digital abyss.  And there have been times when I’ve wondered if the end might be in sight; in fact, to be completely frank, I can see the end right now.  I won’t keep this blog going forever, nor should it just keep rolling on and on and on.  But I’m not done just yet; there’s a bit more fuel in the tank, even if the engine’s developed a rattle.

Many many thanks again, and here’s to a bit more Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot.  For the time-being at least.

In her recently published autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson writes, “Where you are born – what you are born into, the place, the history of that place, how that history mates with your own – stamps who you are, whatever the pundits of globalisation say.”  For Winterson, it’s Manchester, the rawness of the world’s first industrial city.  For me, it’s Sydney, that sprawling urban tart just up the road.

But what is it, this city where I came into being?  What is the history that, as Winterson says, mates with me?

I was born and raised on Sydney’s North Shore, amongst towering gums and argyle apples, the screech of rainbow lorikeets never far away, and possums in the roof – one time a pint-sized sugar-glider landed on the handlebars of the mower.  Summer weekends at Freshwater Beach, boogie-boarding with my older brothers, on the return home Midnight Oil’s first album screaming out of the car stereo.  Going into the city to meet friends, hooking up in Oxford Street, which back then I figured was just another inner-city through-way.  Regular family holidays up into the Blue Mountains, where I imagined that dinosaurs lurked just around the corner.  Trips down to Bowral in the Southern Highlands to visit my mother’s parents; the house was barely furnished, which wouldn’t do these days, would it.

So, the way I think about it, I was – we were – always leaving, always getting out.  And who could blame us?  Despite the gloss and glam and glitter, Sydney has the darkest of hearts, a twisted soul.  It’s a city formed on the hardship of convicts, the majority male, many professional criminals.  Famine caused by frequently failed agriculture.  Disease: small pox, chicken pox, venereal disease, measles; one of these wiped out 90 percent of the local Aboriginal people so that their bodies could be seen floating in the harbour.

It’s said that Sydney was to be called New Albion.  Albion: that poetic nickname for Britain.  It’s a name that may have been inspired by a story about the 50 daughters of Syria’s king, who all got married on the same day and murdered their husbands on their wedding night; as punishment, they were set adrift in a ship before landing at Britain where they shacked up with the locals.

Sydney: she sure does stamp me out.

And there are days when I wish she wouldn’t.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 June 2012.)

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.

We survived!  Yesterday the partner and I returned from what organisers claim is the world’s biggest touring contemporary music festival – the behemoth that is Australia’s Big Day Out.  We attended the Sydney 22 January show, which was only the second time we’ve done a BDO, the first being in 2001 when we watched the likes of PJ Harvey (who was brilliant), Placebo and Coldplay go through their paces.  Whilst He Who Stayed Up Until Midnight To Book The Tickets and I both love our contemporary music, very much in fact, to the point that for me it’s rare that a week goes by when I don’t return from a visit to my favourite independent music store with a CD or vinyl record in hand, in the days leading up to our, well, big day out we began to feel more than a little apprehensive.

For a start our combined age is 77, which is bloody scary when put like that, so we’re not really in the festival’s target demographic.  Plus neither of us likes the heat and crowds make us nervous (which means we’re not huge fans of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras either).  And I hate city traffic.  So considering that we were driving three hours to Sydney to share Olympic Park with 50,000 revellers in temperatures hovering over 40 degrees we had every reason to feel a bit on the ‘this could be very scary’ side.

But, yes, we survived, with sore legs and a touch of sunburn our only war wounds.  Though I do have another wound, which I’ll share with you shortly.

The Horrors' Faris Badwan

All the bands we saw largely impressed.  Miami Horror did their New Order-pop thing.  Sugar Army were heavier and moodier than I expected.  Karnivool thrilled with their Tool-esque twists and turns and professionalism.  Decoder Ring were deeper and grungier live than their recordings would suggest.  What I heard of Oh Mercy made me want to learn more about these guys.  Passion Pit, whose Manners album is a bit too poppy for my taste, looked like a bunch of good people – more than once they reminded the audience to look after each other because of the scorching heat.  I thoroughly enjoyed The Horrors; I’d love to see a full-length gig from these guys, although the guitars were lost in what was a muddy mix, but that could have been due to the ear-plugs I wore throughout the day – I used to think ringing in the ears was the sign of a good night out, but these days I love my music too much to do any further damage.

Dizzee Rascal was certainly a crowd favourite – we watched a stadium filled with 30,000 people going, erm, bonkers for the East Londoner.  Lily Allen did her catchy pop thing.  Phrase and his band chucked everything but the kitchen sink into their set and thrilled a small though devoted crowd.  And then there was Muse, who rocked the stadium senseless.  Within a couple of minutes of walking onto the stage they had everyone – and I really do mean everyone – singing along to the chorus of ‘Uprising’, the first song on their overblown but great album ‘The Resistance’:

They will not force us,

They will stop degrading us,

They will not control us,

We will be victorious.

For me, however, it was Peaches who was the pick of the musical crop: funny, funky, sexy, theatrical, outrageous – she was the only act I saw who was committed to actually stirring the pot.

I wrote ‘musical crop’ in the previous sentence because my personal highlight of the entire day was being able to watch Angelica Mesiti’s ‘Rapture (Silent Anthem)’, a piece of video art that won the 58th Blake Prize, which is Australia’s oldest art gong dedicated to ‘spirituality and religious and cultural diversity’ (the latter being more than a little interesting in this context).  In a darkened tent we were invited to sit on bean bags and watch on a large screen slowed-down images of audience faces from the 2008 Big Day Out.  The hero-worshipping eyes, the ecstatic smiles, almost the pain of being so close (close to what? close to so many things) – this is art that knows precisely what it wants to say.  In twenty years time it’ll be this that I’ll recall.  For more information, visit http://www.angelicamesiti.com.

A screen grab from Angelica Mesiti's 'Rapture (Silent Anthem)', 2009.

The crowd?  Despite the heat and the amount of drinking going on and the bucket-loads of other substances thrown into the mix as well and the general overall intensity of the event, everyone in the main seemed polite, respectful and looking out for each other.  In the twelve hours we were there we saw only one altercation, and that was just between a drunk bloke who’d walked into a group of young girls, or the girls had walked into him, whatever, there were just a bit of harmless verbal jousting and that was it.  That the event organisers had set up free water stations, were regularly showering the crowd with water cannons, had volunteers spraying anyone who needed it and were evicting those who looked too wobbly on their feet no doubt helped to keep things as harmonious as possible without it turning into a hippy love-fest.

So, if you’re interesting in sampling what’s hot (huh!) in the Australian and international music scene, there’s probably no better opportunity than the Big Day Out.

But I’d be lying if I finished this post here, because there’s something very worrying going on with this festival.  If you’re looking for a crowd that reflects the diverse cultural mix of modern Australia then you’re not going to find it at Big Day Out.  I was hard-pressed to see anyone of Asian or African or Middle Eastern appearance.  The BDO crowd is 99% Anglo-Saxon.  And very proud of it: there’s a heck of a lot of Aussie-flag capes, Aussie-flag dresses, Down Under terry-towelling hats and nationalistic tattoos on display.  I really have no idea what motivates someone to have HANDMADE IN AUSTRALIA permanently emblazoned across their chest.  One Australian band that I won’t name observed of the crowd that they looked to be ‘a good Aussie lot’, as if this was the best compliment imaginable.  Christ, at one point even the young blokes manning the Skywalker ride got a crowd doing the completely inane ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!’ chant – I mean, what’s that all about?

Obviously the fact that the festival runs over the Australia Day long weekend has something to do with it, but that can’t explain the intensity of the feeling that’s on show.

Statistics regularly reveal Australia to be one of the most multicultural societies in the world, reputedly second only to Canada.  The 2006 census showed that 50% Australians were born overseas or had one or both parents born overseas.  There are 266 languages spoken at home, the most common being Italian, Greek, Cantonese and Arabic.  But none of this is on show at the Big Day Out.  What’s on show is the most nationalistic crowd you’re ever likely to experience outside of an official Australia Day event.  And, even though I’m a six-generation Australian and rather fond of the country I call home, this display of nationalism didn’t sit comfortably with me one bit.  It’s just plain ugly.  And it’s not harmless cultural pride either.  It’s nationalism, pure and simple.  It’s protectionism, it’s aggressive xenophobia.

In 2007 the Big Day Out organisers infamously reminded attendees that the festival was not an Australia Day event and asked people to leave the flag-waving at home.  Predictably this caused an outcry, with the then prime minister, the fear-mongering John Howard, describing the move as ‘stupid’.  But I reckon the organisers could see the future of their festival and didn’t like it one bit, and I get the feeling they still don’t like it one bit.  Regrettably, though understandably, they’ve not had a second go at stopping the nationalism from getting out of hand.

The potentially frightening thing is this: what exactly did the Sydney crowd have in mind when it sang along so fervently to that Muse chorus?

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