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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.

_

Image credit: author photograph courtesy of the Canberra Times.

Last Tuesday, late on a bleak winter’s morning, I headed down to my local, the Southern Railway Hotel, and spent a few hours being interviewed by arts journalist Steve Dow for the Guardian Australia.

Over a beer (for me) and a red wine (for him), our conversation touched on a range of issues relating to BODIES OF MEN: patriarchy, masculinity, nationalism, faux military history, the North Shore (the conservative region of Sydney where I spent my formative years), and religion. To discuss – and question – masculinity and war in a traditional Australian pub on a weekday lunchtime required some caution: I must admit to stopping the conversation every so often, looking around, checking the blokes at the bar to make sure they were ensconced in their beers and burgers, before, almost in a whisper, proceeding to answer the question truthfully and openly.

The resultant interview can be found here.

Luckily both Steve Dow and I survived.

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.)

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The past