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I’m a dirty rotten thief and this is why.

Last month, while working words in the Blue Mountains, I returned to the place where I spent my childhood, a village, a post office and a public-phone booth making up the village heart.  I hadn’t visited the village for twenty-five years, although I had thought about it.  In fact I’ve thought about it often, every week, sometimes every day.

When I can’t fall asleep I recall the green-painted weatherboard cottage; it had once been used as an apple-packing shed.  And the wood-chip heater in the bathroom, how it would puff-puff-puff when we’d get it really hot.  And the fire-wood alcove in from the front door and the tool-room out the back.  And the bedroom in which I once slept, how it had a view of the open-fire in the loungeroom.  And the school friends I invited up there, one particular school friend, another boy, the event that happened one night in the bedroom, the event that suggested my life would take a different course.

So I did my trip back; I made a mix-CD for the purpose, songs from the last two decades, not songs from my childhood because that would have been too much.  In the car I put on the CD and drove the twenty-five kilometres – one kilometre, I realise now, for each year that I’ve been away – to the old holiday mountain.

Everything was the same, everything: the hairpin bend, the tree-ferns like soldiers, the avenues of oaks and ash.  I turned down the lane to the apple-packing shed.  But the apple-packing shed: it was no more.  In its place was a sleek, black, architectural creation, not ugly, but it shouldn’t have been there.

How could they do this?  How will I be able to get to sleep now?

I got out of the car.  I took quick photos for the family.  But then I saw it: an old apple box half-covered in builder’s rubble.  I exposed the box, carefully cleaning it of basaltic dirt.  I felt sure it had once been inside the holiday house I used to know, either in the fire-wood alcove or in the tool-room.  In a flash I had an idea.  I grabbed the box and ran back to the car.

As I sped away I thought of Robert Frost’s ‘After Apple-picking’: One can see what will trouble/This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 17 December 2011.)

'Nigel's interior' by Rudy Kistler (oil on panel, 2011)

There’s a new painting on my wall.  It didn’t just appear there out of the blue, of course, although it would have been good if it had (fancy a house where art just appears on the walls, and disappears again, just like that!).  No, I bought this one, at least I’m in the process of buying it, because it’s a painting of a room in my house, the doors to the ensuite no less, which doesn’t sound like a worthwhile subject for a painting, and if you could see the actual doors, and the actual ensuite, with its over-cast grey tiling and floor-to-ceiling crack in the wall, you’d think it even less worthwhile.  But there it is: a painting of my ensuite doors, a painting by Australian artist Rudy Kistler.

Last month, while I was working words at Varuna, the national writers’ house in the Blue Mountains, Rudy was at my place in Goulburn, ostensibly house-sitting, and chook-sitting, the latter much more important than the former.  But in reality he was painting.  One of the joys of those two weeks was seeing Rudy post on Facebook the paintings he was producing.  There was one of sparrows in the budding Manchurian pear tree in the backyard.  Another of a whiskey bottle on my dining-room table, French doors behind, the tiling beneath the table rendered as if peeling away, like baked mud in a summer dam.  But it’s the painting of the ensuite French doors that really took my fancy, because – because why?  Because here was someone, Rudy Kistler, engaging with my house, connecting with it, interpreting it.

Had he woken one morning and saw something that took his eye?  Had he sat up in bed and sketched it?  I’ve asked Rudy about the motivation of the painting.  He said that he was taken by the light, how it came through ‘three rooms in one’.  That’s all; it’s nothing more complicated than that.

To me, however, it’s the magic of being able to see through someone else’s eyes.  If writing is all about walking in someone else’s shoes, and communicating that as fully as possible, perhaps painting – all visual art – allows the viewer to spend a moment experiencing someone else’s sight.  And how extraordinary that is, because it’s a rare privilege. So that’s why I have this new painting.  When I look at the painting of my ensuite doors by Rudy Kistler I’m out of my own wretched body, I’m not of myself, and that’s such a good feeling.  Perhaps, for some, religion takes them out, but for me it’s art, art that is as good as this.

To finish with a quote from Rudy himself.  You know how I mentioned that other painting with the tiles like dried-up mud?  I asked him why he chose to paint the flooring in such a way, especially when the flooring is actually brand new (and cost me a small fortune).  Rudy replied, ‘I had a teacher once who said, we’re not interested in your straight lines, anyone can paint in straight lines, we’re interested in your wobbly lines.’

There’s something in that, isn’t there, the startling beauty of imperfection.

‘Writers are the interpreters of their environment –
not singly, but in the mass…
you won’t find the whole of Australia in any one book
you won’t even find it in all of the books of any one writer
but you will find it…

…pretty clearly and comprehensively in
the whole mass of Australian literature…
To understand one’s country one must read its books
not only its descriptive and factual books
but the works of its creative writers.’

– Eleanor Dark, ABC interview, 1946

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