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For the last forty-eight hours something has been on my mind.  No matter what I’ve gotten up to – arranging the repair of a mysterious electrical fault, heading out for dinner and then a bit of local theatre, driving over to my father’s town to photograph his latest series of paintings – there it’s been, lurking in the background like a headache that just won’t go away no matter what’s been thrown at it, a headache that has been slowly making me feel sick.

What’s been the worry?  Burst Apart, the new album by The Antlers.

The Antlers’ previous record, Hospice, the first chief songwriter Peter Silberman wrote with an actual band, was a beautifully flawed masterpiece.  Apparently a concept album based on an abusive relationship seen through the eyes of a hospice worker and a terminally ill patient, it was an extraordinary work: magically both grand and intimate, uplifting in the way that only authentic melancholia knows how, rustic, vernacular even, but never coyly lo-fi.  There are days – quite a few of them actually – when Hospice is in my Top Ten albums of all time.  I know every second of those ten songs, and, somehow, those ten songs know me.  And there’s no better antidote to loneliness – that inescapable human loneliness we can all experience no matter how much love is around – than music knowing us.

Whatever has happened in Silberman’s life between making Hospice and Burst Apart, it can’t be good.  Perhaps it’s the Audi A4 he (potentially) bought with the proceeds of his master-work, or the cupboard loads of new Country Road outfits (ditto), or the comfy wife and kid in the cot (ditto again), I don’t know, but it has sapped him of his musical strength and conviction, his soul.  There’s no heartbreak in these songs, there’s no joy, there’s no anger, there’s no god-damn point – this music has nothing to say.  This is aural wallpaper.  Indeed I’ve tried to imagine the album as the soundtrack to a film.  If it were a soundtrack it might just make sense: multi-layered atmospherics the support act to a story about…Christ knows what, because there couldn’t be any soul to that story either.

Not only is there no soul to Burst Apart, there are no choruses, not a single one.  The songs – as much as they can be actually called ‘songs’ –  just tick by invoking not a single emotion from the listener.  The record feels like being stuck at a party where all the faces are blurred and the voices muffled.

It’s obvious that The Antlers simply didn’t know how to follow-up Hospice.  To be sure, it would have been a daunting task: the band must have been tempted to try making that great record again, which, of course, would have failed, or they might have tried reinventing themselves into purveyors of noodly electronica a la Kid A by Radiohead (and Radiohead have a lot to answer for here, as they too can focus on inward experimentation at the expense of any true enjoyment).

In the end, Silberman and co have simply turned Ikea into music.

Believe me I’ve tried to understand this record; after all, it is being very well received by the music press.  I’ve listened to it while driving – in my part of the world I’m surrounded by big open-sky landscapes, which have always fitted the rollercoaster dynamics of Hospice – and I’ve listened to it closely at home.  However, ‘French Exit’, the album’s second track, with its carnival-like keyboard motif, is such an appalling piece of music that I hope to never have to hear it again.  Others have commented on the Portishead-like beats of ‘Parenthesis’, which to my humble set of ears sound nothing more than arrogantly retro.  And ‘Hounds’, in the last third of the album, could be a tune coughed up for a vacuous remake of Twin Peaks.  Mr Antler-man, smothering your guitar in all the effects that you can now afford and twiddling every studio knob you can find so your drums sound as though made by Casio keyboard is no way to create music of everlasting value.

I have – we all have – been here before: a band follows up greatness with something that just stinks.  You try to be open-minded, you try to be generous in terms of letting much-loved musicians find a new way of looking at the world; an artist who repeats is categorically worse than an artist who has a go but fails.  You wonder if it’ll be a grower.  I remember something similar happened during the initial listens to ( ) by Sigur Ros; it didn’t work for me at all, except I couldn’t stop listening to it, until, one day, I understood, or it understood me.  But sometimes you just have to cut your losses: the album is still-born.  For a band like The Antlers, who made brilliance out of a place where people go to die, that death reference is apt.  Even more so considering the last track on Burst Apart.  ‘Putting The Dog To Sleep’ is the closest to something off Hospice, but it finds Silberman singing over and over ‘Put your trust in me’.  Not anymore I can’t, not anymore.

I wish it didn’t have to be this way.

A slightly neurotic, obsessive, even superstitious tradition I have when on a residency is to take one Polaroid photograph per day, no more, no less, Monday to Friday, not on weekends.  It’s a visual diary of my time away, but more importantly it gives me a break from the notepad, from the computer – it takes me out of my wretched old brain.  As strange as it might seem, this self-inflicted routine can be pretty bloody stressful.  Every day must get its Polaroid; there’s no option to rollover the shot to the following day.  Plus the technology is almost extinct: if I drop my camera it can’t be replaced and they’ve stopped making the film, so the only stock that is available is what’s remaining in warehouses, which means it’s currently $50 for a pack of ten.  Not cheap.

Making sure I’d get my picture was exactly what I was doing this afternoon when a young girl did the strangest thing.

Launceston (pronounced ‘Lon-sess-tn’, or just ‘Lonnie’) isn’t without its charms: there’s Cataract Gorge on the city’s doorstep, and the Tamar River, and there are more old buildings than you could poke a stick at, as well as a heap of other character-filled sites – a monkey enclosure in the town park, anyone?  But still I couldn’t find anything that would fit the bill.  As the afternoon lengthened I began to panic.  For a moment I even considered taking a shot of some of the local faces, because they’re hard faces, all toughness.  But, quite frankly, I was too scared they’d slice me open with a broken pint glass so I just kept going on my way.

Thankfully, almost miraculously, just as the sun began disappearing behind the nearby hills, I saw something shiny in the last-minute light: a sign hanging off a facade: ‘Carlton Draft – Brewery Fresh’.   At last, this would be it!  I lined it up, tried it this way and that, made my decision, and then pressed the button and the magic paper whirred its way out of the camera.  Within seconds I could tell it was a good Polaroid, though not a great one, but that didn’t matter – the day’s photographic mission was done and dusted.

Relieved, I started walking back to the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage via the central mall, but a young girl approached me; behind her was a group of a dozen or so other youths, milling about, looking both excited and restless as if about to stage a revolution.  The girl, who had in hand a postcard and a black marker, stepped up close and said something to me, so I removed the mp3-player earphones from my ears.  (I’m still not sick of The Antlers’ ‘Hospice’ album, and I hope that day never comes.)

‘Can I tell you about something?’ the girl asked politely though just a little nervously.

‘Sure,’ I said.  I almost added, I’m an artist-in-residence in the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage so I’m happy to do all kinds of crazy shit.  But I didn’t say this because it would have been naff as well as untrue – I may be an artist-in-residence in the Gatekeeper’s Cottage, but that’s no license to do all kinds of crazy shit.

‘Have you heard of To Write Love On Her Arms?’ she asked, handing me the postcard.

‘No, I haven’t,’ I replied.

‘Well, we’re raising awareness about depression.  On this postcard are some website addresses.  Basically we’re simply asking people to care.’  Then she looked up at me as if about to let me know that my fly was down (which, regrettably, it often is).  ‘We’re writing ‘love’ on people’s arms,’ she said.  ‘Do you mind if I write ‘love’ on your arm?’

‘No,’ I said politely though just a little nervously, ‘I don’t mind.’

So she wrote ‘love’ in big black letters on the skin of my upper arm, finishing it off with the neatest of love hearts.  ‘If anyone asks you about it,’ she advised, ‘just show them the postcard.  All we want is for people to talk about the issue.’

‘Of course,’ I said, wondering who in Launceston was going to ask me why I had ‘love’ written on my inner arm.

We said goodbye and off I went towards the end of the mall, the safety of the Gatekeeper’s Cottage – my temporary home – not far ahead.  In one hand the day’s Polaroid was developing nicely, the rich deep colours of the beer sign slowly but surely becoming more pronounced and defined.  But written on my inner arm was the word ‘love’ complete with its love heart.  Right now, the postcard is beside me on the desk.  It says, ‘We will be collecting photos, writing on arms, and handing out textas for you to do the same.  We will be there to start it, and we want you to carry it to everyone.’

The things that happen when you go scouring a city for a Polaroid.

(PS I’ll post the actual beer-sign picture one day…soon.)

In Radelaide recently (‘Radelaide’ being what appears to be a relatively new and sarcastic moniker for the grand old dame of South Australia, Adelaide) I spent a lot of time walking between Hindley Street, which is the Kings Cross of that part of the world and blogged about below in ‘Every City Has Sex’, an admittedly meretricious title for a post, but, hey, we all want to be wanted don’t we), and Rundle Street, because that wildly wicked Fringe Festival was on at the bottom of the street. So I wore out a fair bit of rubber on the old joggers, which I really should replace, though I don’t want to, because me and those joggers have been through so much – we’ve struck up this friendship and I can’t break it off, not yet.

Hang on, this isn’t about footwear friendships.  It’s about chicks.  Kind of.

Between Hindley Street and Rundle Street is Rundle Mall, a typical Australian pedestrian plaza filled with chewy-struck brick pavers, reject shops, fashion stores that only those with too little taste would bother entering, bubblers that don’t work, a bit of public art here and there (fat brass pigs banging around fake rubbish bins, that kind of thing), and stranded cafes selling over-priced coffee and cakes that should have been taken to the tip weeks ago.  Actually it’s not that bad – I’m just getting carried away with myself…yet again (but getting carried away is my professional obligation, or so I keep telling myself).

But then, on a hoarding for a new fit-out for a department store, I spotted a series of women.  Of course, there weren’t really women stuck to the hoarding, though that would have been very interesting indeed – as I said, this was the time of the Fringe, so anything can happen, anything should happen, so a group of women stapling themselves to a temporary facade would have been just lovely.  But the images: LIFE-SIZED (I can’t stress that enough) cartoons of young, apparently modern women.  There was The Professional Woman, The Casual Woman, and the High Society Woman.  There were others but I was beginning to look like a freak as I snapped away at what were essentially marketing images. We live in age when a man with a digital camera in public is either a terrorist or a pervert, and I’m happy to report I am neither.

Despite sounding like a Year Twelve Media Studies teacher, I can’t help asking a question: what do the images want to tell us?  ‘If you’re a woman, you too can have the waist the size of a 5-cent piece, the head the size of a hot-air balloon, and the eyes that Walt Disney would kill for.’  If you’re one of the developed world’s larger girls or women, are they saying, ‘Come inside this department store and we’ll make you slim and slinky and beautiful?  Just spend some money and walk out carrying a few shopping bags and you’ll have the biggest spring in your step it’ll be like you’ve just shagged 10,000 Jude Laws.’

Are these images saying, ‘Don’t worry about what you eat – just yack it up and all’s well?’  Are they saying, ‘Women don’t really have stomachs – that’s a myth’?  Are they saying, ‘Women can be anything they want, so come inside, max out your credit card and validate your freedom’?

I may well be getting all worked up over nothing.  Tell me I’m getting worked up about nothing.  Except Canadian humourist (and economist, would you believe) Stephen Leacock did say in The Garden of Folly (1924) that ‘Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it’.  He’s got a point, doesn’t he.

Still, tell me to go listen to some wretchedly miserable contemporary rock band (Oh God, he’s going to mention The Antlers again, I hear you cry).

Tell me to just go to sleep and wake up cheery like a normal person.

The Society Islands: still getting a handle on the whole 'keeping dry' thing.

There used to be a time when I’d hear about new music because I saw it on Countdown, a much-loved Sunday-night music show here in Australia.  Or I’d read about it in the free street press, when I pretended to know about what the next big thing would be.  Or I’d hear it on my crackly old transistor radio (where on earth did that go?).  Or I’d overhear some kid much cooler than me talking about it in the schoolyard, or I’d spot a sticker on a folder when I was meant to working out what the hell the teacher had just written on the board.  A third of a century later it just magically turns up courtesy of this whole interweb thing.  Which is one of the perks of this brave new world we live in, I guess.

So…getting to the point…some new music:

I’d not heard of The Society Islands before (neither the place nor the band), but I have now.  Essentially The Islands are a one-man band formed by Boris Rogowski, one talented bastard based in Cologne, Germany.  And their latest album, the rather ominously titled Last Hero of the Western World is well worth a listen.  I don’t do mp3s on Under the Flutter (partly out of technological ineptness, but also because of the principle – it’s not so bad to actually pay for music every now and again), but you can visit the band here or check out LastFM to listen to a few of the tracks.

There’s an obvious intelligence to the songwriting, which is both dramatic and melodic, in parts reminding me of Jeff Buckley if he was a little more on the Jarvis Cocker side (and, of course, a little less on the dead side).  There’s even some David Bowie in the clarity of the voice and the elocution. Mostly, however, I hear Canada’s The Dears, particularly in the biting, cynical though at times very funny lyrics and the cinematic feel to much of the music.  For me, it’s the last two tracks that are the real killers,’No Place Home’ and ‘The Filing Cabinet’; here the dramatics are kept in check and the melancholic melodies allowed to work their evil magic, a little like a less morose Antlers.

By the sounds of it, The Society Islands (which, for those wondering, are a group of islands in the south Pacific Ocean and were named by James Cook in honour of the Royal Society, the sponsor of the first British scientific survey of that neck of the woods) are the epitome of determination, with Mr Rogowski pushing on regardless of whether or not this album gets picked up by a major.

Certainly worth a few minutes of your time to get your ears wrapped some of the beauties on offer here.

Now, if only Countdown made a comeback.  Anyone?

I’m learning that there’s an art to making the most of the final day of a holiday, particularly at Christmas/New Year when much of the break is spent at home with family and friends and pets and books and albums.  Oh, and the food, the MOUNTAINS of food, and the booze, okay, MOUNTAINS of booze, though that should really be OCEANS, shouldn’t it.  But when the excesses are over and done with and we feel and look like beached whales and the chill-out days are fast coming to an end, a decision has to be made about how those final hours will be spent.  I’m lucky that not only do I have a job I enjoy – working in the arts has plenty of rewards to balance out the challenges – I also get to return to my writing routine, so it’s not like I feel as if I’m being sent to jail.  But still, how exactly to spend that one last glorious day of anthing-goes freedom?

In recent times I’ve thought that the last day should be set up to be a slice of the ideal life.  So it could be waking up in bed to the smell of bacon and eggs being hand-delivered on a tray by someone you love; or getting up at the crack of dawn and diving into a wild ocean; or, if this is your thing (and it’s certainly not mine, I can tell you that for free) finally waking after a walking-dead night on the town, not a skerrick of memory left but some stranger in your bed and in your mouth a taste that reminds you of newly laid bitumen and green chicken – the gone-off green, not the green-curry green.  For me, I decided, rather than reading the newspaper while eating my way through a large bowl of cereal, muesli, lecithin, yoghurt and milk with a side of lite cranberry juice, I’d have brekkie on the couch whilst watching the final half-a-dozen episodes of Six Feet Under. I love this show – along with The Office it’s in my top three TV series of all time.  (The third, rather embarrassingly, is the BBC’s Brideshead Revisited series from the 1980s.)

How great it was to sit and watch the death throes of a show about death: a show whose thesis is ‘Everything.  Everyone.  Everywhere.  Ends’.  Because holidays die, that’s the inescapable fact.  Because holidays are a microcosm of our lives: they have a distinct beginning, when we know little about how our festive (or festy, as more than one person I know has been saying) season is going to pan out; and then there’s the middle section where we start to feel that the end isn’t that far away; and then, all too soon, we’re beginning to count down the hours, because soon this brief summer life will come to an end.  After I cried my way through the extraordinary final ten minutes of Six Feet Under where – and SPOILER ALERT for those three people on earth who’ve not yet seen the show – everyone dies, I decided that I better do something else, something…practical.

So I redecorated the wall of my writing room with a new series of photos.

Being a Polaroid freak, most of the photos I usually have on the wall above my computer are of the instant square variety with the thick strip of white down the bottom for witty captions.  And since over the last few years I’ve been getting crazier and crazier about taking Polaroids (probably because the technology is fast reaching its own demise) I have hundreds of them so there’s quite a few to choose from.  But this year I decided to reach a wary hand into my vaults – cardboard boxes in the cupboard, in other words – and put together a brief series of photos that illustrate significant places in my life.  So there’s a shot of a rock garden I built at the back of the house in which I navigated those nasty teenager years; nasty for me and everyone around me.  There’s a shot of my family’s rented green weatherboard cottage in the Blue Mountains; how I loved that place, and so often do I think of visiting, but if it’s not there any more, or has been turned into some grotesque mansion, then I’d fall apart, I really would).  There’s a shot of a dream house at Cottesloe Beach in Perth, a messy humble shack with the million-dollar view, a shack that no doubt has been turned into some grotesque mansion.

There’s a shot of a herb rack in an inner-city grouphouse I shared for a year or two back in the 1990s.  There’s a photo of a black VW Beetle on an island called Inishboffin off the south-west coast of Ireland.  There’s a photo of He Who Is Still With Me when we went down to Melbourne to visit a photographer friend.  And there’s a photo of the house I now live in, a nondescript ex-government thing that was built in 1959, which is very old for this young city – a national capital – I call home.  Oh, alright, I should admit to including just a couple of Polaroids in my display: one of an 1830s farm cottage where I stay when I need focus and solitude (and to commune with rats and mice and snakes and lizards, and the odd stray lamb), and another of a desk I’d used when on a residency last year.

Of course, once I Blue-tacked the photos on the wall and then sat in my chair to admire my handiwork, I began to cry at this as well, because there, in a handful of photos, was the entirety of my life so far.

Despite my forty-one years (and rising), it seemed so…slight.

So what else was there to do but spend the last few hours of my holiday scrubbing the bath, because, quite frankly, it was so disgusting houseguests had been refusing to use it.

Now I’ve thought about this issue – or is it a challenge? – and have written out these words, I can’t see much of an art to having a memorable, or at least meaningful, last day of a holiday.  But I am glad that mine has turned out to be a day of thought and depth, a day that moved me, a day that got me thinking about my impermanence.  The makers of Six Feet Under said their aim was to encourage viewers to consider/confront their mortality (I actually typed immortality then, which is a Freudian slip if I ever saw one, or just a desire, or a wish, or a useless plea for mercy) and that’s exactly what happened to me.  And the cliché goes that a picture equals a thousand words, though I think photographs of your own life equal novella-length stories, if not the whole novel shebang.  And they say that there’s nothing more centring than soaking in a bath for an hour.  So now that I have a bath that’s actually white I reckon I should get the water running, pour myself a glass of wine, crank up the stereo with a great album, which I’m guessing is going to be Hospice by The Antlers (yes, yet another reference to that album on this blog), because it fits this mood I’m in, a mood of holiday endings, and lay myself down and close my eyes.

Perhaps that’s where the art is: just being still as the end comes.

But what makes them vivid is the force of James’s interest in them, his manner of pressing into their clay with his examining fingers: they are sites of human energy; they vibrate with James’s anxious concern for them.

– from How Fiction Works by James Wood

What distinguishes a great artist from a weak one is first their sensibility and tenderness; second, their imagination; and, third, their industry.

–  John Ruskin

It’s banal to start a looking-back piece with ‘what a year it’s been’, because years can be nothing but themselves – years. So I’ll start somewhere else (although I haven’t started somewhere else, I’ve just started where I’ve begun) with a challenge: to think about the year ‘that’s been’ (I typed ‘bean’ just then, which is rather lovely), and to write about it, and see what learnings bubble to the surface.  Because we’re about to head into the ridiculous fake-snow-in-summer season – or, as a colleague said to me yesterday, ‘Shitmass’.  Which means the brain will turn off and then another year will get sprinting and before we know it we’ll all be two decades older, greyer, and probably not that much wiser.

So, to begin.  Somewhere.

Learning No. 1 – Go away. Under the Counter (or UTC to those in the know i.e. just muggins here, though ‘UTC’ sounds like a university, or a type of farm vehicle; I should drop this over-use of brackets) is littered with references to Bundanon and its far-reaching artist-in-residence program.  Still I can’t help remembering – for the umpteenth time – the Shoalhaven River and its happy leaping fish, the lantana-infested bush and the largest goanna I’ve ever seen (an easy six feet with a tongue the size of an arm), the mother roo and joey grazing nervously at the backdoor of the writer’s cottage, the sounds of busy things in the night that I’ve never heard before even though I’ve spent forty-one years in this part of the world.  And I remember drinks on the verandah at the always-pink dusk and watching wombats emerge from their burrows, and the swallows darting gloriously through the air, catching whatever it is they catch, bugs, they catch bugs.  And I remember working my arse off, so much so that on my fourth and last Thursday I had to have a lie down and listen to some Sigur Ros – yes, I’d over done it, but that’s my usual way, I’m afraid.  Oh woe is me.  The fact is I bring it on myself, it’s my choice, and, as I’ve counselled others, no one cares.  So Learning No 1.1 – no one cares.

Learning No. 2 – I’m in love with the most complex thing EVER. ‘Work-in-progress’: that’s the not-very-inventive title of my, um, work-in-progress, a novel, a very long story.  When people who know about these things say that novels are inherently complex, listen to them, believe them – novels are complex to write, they’re complex to read; they are the hardest thing to bring into the world.  My one, my second, has been in the process of being born since 2006 (I mistakenly typed ‘1996’, probably because that’s how it feels; bugger it, these brackets are just so persistent).  Needless to say, this project – is ‘project’ the right word? a novel isn’t a bridge, though they might be – has taken me here and there, like a wild river, and some of the waters have been fast and rough, some shallow and sublime, some tannin-black and utterly horrifying, and some murky and motionless, the froth of pollution at the edges.  Enough: I’m getting the shakes writing this, though that could be the rum balls I had for morning tea.

Learning No. 3 – good people never stop doing good things. The middle of the year saw the extended family and passionate others come from all over to be present at the launch of the Dorothy Porter Studio at Bundanon (yes, yet another reference to that Boyd place).  This meant taking He Who Originally Came From That Part of the World, Meaning Nowra, A Shit-Hole He Says back to the place from where he came, and also to the place I spent four weeks in a creative La-La Land.  After three hours of driving – up the Hume Highway, down through Kangaroo Valley, with the last half an hour winding our way amongst tinder-dry coastal bush – there it suddenly was, a converted 19th-century barn.  All shiny new, a red ribbon strung up for cutting, dancers dancing, the rainbow lorikeets watching on, as they will always be.  And we knew that within days the Studio would be filled with artists dreaming, imagining, collaborating – and working bloody hard, there can be no doubt about that.  Cuz, there was a tear in my eye when the ribbon was cut.

Learning No. 4 – reading completes me (like Blundstone boots and Arvo Part). 2009 was filled with great books and my favourites are listed elsewhere on this blog, but there are a few notables that aren’t on the list because they weren’t published this year, in fact they were published many years ago.  Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave – for decades I’d put off reading this book because by and large, and despite my own personal sexuality (which is indeed my own and personal), I don’t read gay fiction, but this novel completely ripped me to shreds.  So much so that, when after the last page was read, I had to go for the longest walk up the mountain (with The Old Lady of the House, obviously) until I felt ready to come back into the world.  Holding the Man went straight onto my ‘Brilliant Books Live Here’ shelf in my work room.  I also thoroughly enjoyed Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, which was no doubt reissued because of our bomb-tastic times.  And – embarrassingly – I finally read DJ Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; see ‘Caught in an Edgy Trap’ in the First Word 2009 archive for more on this.

Learning No. 5 – there will always be great music. Like the book list, the year’s top albums can be found elsewhere on Under the Counter, but I do have a late entry for the best-of-2009 gang: ‘Hospice’ by The Antlers.  Anyone who likes Jeff Buckley, Deerhunter and Arcade Fire really should check out this extraordinary album; there’s also a hint of Antony Hegarty in the overall aesthetic, which is both gentle and dramatic, always a great combination.  Hospice is hardly a jovial ride – it wallops you in the head and heart, and everywhere else for that matter – but it’s certainly worth the purchase price.  And great cover art, too.

Learning No. 6 – so writing conferences CAN be worthwhile! In October the National Library of Australia put on its Flight of the Mind – Writing and the Creative Imagination conference.  Speakers included Geraldine Brooks, Steven Conte, Rodney Hall, Andrew Goldsmith, Kevin Brophy, Claire Thomas, Judy Horacek, James Bradley, Alex Miller, Peter Goldsworthy, Felicity Packard, Sophie Cunningham, Aviva Tuffield, and Peter Pierce; not a bad line-up, it has to be said.  Topics covered creating fiction from fact, recreating other people’s stories, and writing across borders (a session chaired by yours truly; okay, the brackets win).  As one of the more prominent speakers told me at the end of the weekend, ‘This conference was a beauty’.  And good audiences too, in terms of both numbers and engagement.  The other thing that impressed me was the amount of speakers who hung around for the entire weekend, their journals at the ready, pens poised to jot down another pearl of wisdom for safe-keeping.  Yes, a beauty.

Learning No. 7 – posh experiences in poor countries don’t add up. In November He Who Likes A Cool Drink On A Warm Day and I jumped on a plane to attend a wedding in Vanuatu.  Apart from me almost carking it (check out ‘The Trouble with Death’, which is also in the First Word 2009 archive), we did everything you’re meant to do when on a tropical island: ate way too much, drank way too much, got so sunburnt we looked like Iced VoVos, read heaps, in my case Geraldine Brook’s People of the Book, which I enjoyed, though it also wore me out.  But resorts, big ones at least, aren’t my thing – they’re theme parks for the moderately rich and not-at-all-famous.  Still, good times were had, and, most importantly, two friends got married the way they wanted, and sometimes that’s all that matters (says he who over-thinks everything, including the moral responsibility of my local supermarket to provide free trolleys – not everyone has a gold coin in their pockets, you bastards).

Learning No. 8 – there’s nothing freakier than politics. 2009 was also about climate change, Copenhagen (a disaster? no, a little foot-shuffle in the right direction, me-thinks), and…bloody Tony Abbott.  Who’d have thought the Punch-Drunk Mad Monk would get the Leader of the Opposition gig?  Despite being born and bred on Sydney’s North Shore and schooled entirely at private schools, combined with the fact that I can sound terribly, terribly posh went I want to (see?), I’m not one for the conservative side of politics, but at least Malcolm ‘John Howard Broke My Heart By Stuffing Up The Republic Campaign’ Turnbull was trying to move things forward, if only by a millimetre.  Then, however, came the most public coup (of course, I just typed ‘pubic’, which isn’t something I usually associate with the Liberal Party) and Mr Malcolm went down the tube and Tony ‘Verbally Attacking Terminally People Is Such Fun’ Abbott came up trumps.  You know, I was happy give him a go, only because that’s what we do in this part of the world (when it suits us), but then all he’s been saying since he got the job is ‘great big tax’ and I’ve found myself shouting at the radio/television/newspaper, just like I did when John Howard hung around for eleven long, long, LONG years.

Learning No. 9 – the machines may take over. I started the year without having an internet connection at home but have ended the year with a PC on my desk, a laptop in the cupboard, an email address, and a website and a blog.  Next stop digital television and an i-Phone.  Perhaps.  Though probably not – a home is a home, not a computer-corporation outpost.  But it’s nice to be in the blogosphere, or hanging around ‘the inter-webs’ as some like to say, though I do feel as if I’m wandering around a parallel universe stark naked with the CCTV cameras tracking my every movement.  Now I just have to keep all this technology in check.   It’s us human types who control the machines, don’t we?

What, the machines have taken over?  How did I miss that?

Better go and pour myself a glass of crisp, dry Semillon and put on a record, yes, one of those Ye Olde spinning platter things that crackle and hiss like carpet on a hot day.  It might be The XX’s album, or Peaches’ cheeky latest, or something really, really old, maybe even Peter Gabrielle’s So, because So reminds me of being seventeen and school was about to finish and I knew absolutely nothing about anything.  Which, despite this list and all the words that go along with it, is still probably the case, because the sum total of what we know can only ever be a tear-drop in the deep blue ocean.

(Footnote: What’s with the opening quotes? you ask.  Well, I’ve had those two pearlers Blu-tacked onto the side of my computer screen all year.  They’ve hung there, just a little dog-eared and torn, fluttering each time I breathe or I type extra vigorously or the fan finds them; they tell me to work harder, to work deeper, to do good things.  In time, in time.)

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The past