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Christmas and NYE: one great big ugly belly-flop?  (Image by Pat Campbell.  Source: Fairfax Media/The Canberra Times)

Christmas and NYE: one great big ugly belly-flop? (Image by Pat Campbell. Source: Fairfax Media/The Canberra Times)

Here’s something I want to shout from my shimmering tin roof-top so I can feel the relief as the words leave my body, as my heart begins to beat again, as my brain clicks back into gear, as my whole being finds its beautiful natural shape.  IT’S OVER, IT’S OVER, IT’S OVER.

Christmas, you vacuous tart, you slobbering drunk, you’re dune and dusted.  And New Year’s Eve, good riddance to you, too.  Normal, predictable, boring days: I’m all yours, come have your wicked way with me.  These are the words I want to scream until I’m giddy with life, even if they edge me that much closer to a padded cell.

No, I’m not a fan of year’s end.

As November, that month of calm before the storm, trips over itself into December, everything good and reasonable goes belly up.  Political leaders prepare YouTube Christmas messages, hoping they’ll come across as our favourite uncle but really they’re the uncle we want to forget. Supermarkets and malls play surreptitious carols in the background as we stock up on food as though the end is nigh.  In mainstreets and malls, under harrowing heat and while being dive-bombed by blowflies, shopkeepers have their shop-fronts spray-painted white to give the impression of snow but really it just looks as though the sign-writer had a stroke.

At work, after slaving away at deadlines that are as meaningful as a blow-up Santa tethered to the letterbox, we wear reindeer antlers on our heads and in the tearoom stand anxiously as ‘gifts’ are handed around – nice, another bottle of salad-dressing well past its use-by date.

At home, we drag the plastic tree from the back of the spare cupboard, plonk it in the corner of the loungeroom, and wait for the lights to flash miraculously so we can stare at them until we pass out of an evening.  On the twenty-fifth, that hollowest of days, some of us go to church, hoping that by murdering a Thomas Tallis hymn all the evil things we’ve considered and done will be washed away and we can exit the building as happy as fat Elvis.

Later, we’ll gorge on turkey or seafood (if we want to be that little bit more ‘Australian’), we ram into our gobs fruitcake and custard, we drink booze till we pick fights about things that only matter now that we’ve received yet another seven-pack of…


Keep reading at the Canberra Times, which – rather bravely – published this piece on 8 January 2014.

Hymn boys: how beautiful can Tallis really be?

Hymn boys: how beautiful Thomas Tallis can be.

So odd.  I’d not heard anything like it for decades.  But there it was, as it unmistakably left my lips and hung in the air.  A whistle, yes, a whistle, complete with shrilly vibrato, as though it had emerged from one of those content old men who can knock out any melody at the drop of a hat.

How on Earth did it happen?

It was last Sunday morning.  I was sitting at the dining-room table, beside me a good coffee half drunk, in front the laptop whirring away as I did something easy on the screen.  Playing on the stereo in the background was a CD I hadn’t listened to for years.  Bearing the Bell: the Hymns of Thomas Tallis by Sydney-based jazz saxophonist Andrew Robson.

Let me say that I’m not fond of jazz.  I don’t even like the look of the word (it looks almost obscene).  And I don’t like a thing about the saxophone – Kenny G’s got a lot to answer for.  But I bought Bearing the Bell after reading a review of it in the newspaper.  What originally intrigued me was the way Robson so irresistibly abstracts his selection of sixteen-century ‘tunes’, which are the basis for many Christian hymns.  It’s delicious music.

These days I don’t have a religious breath in my chest, but the majority of my first eighteen years were spent at an all-boys Anglican school on Sydney’s North Shore, one where weekly attendance at chapel was compulsory, and taken very seriously – by most students.  If there was one thing I loved about chapel it was singing the hymns, especially the ones where Tallis was the source.

The hymns were unfathomably beautiful.  The harmonies.  The passing notes.  The big, glorious, skin-tightening finishes.  Now I think about it, what a strange act it was to bellow out lines such as ‘When in the slippery paths of youth/with heedless steps I ran/thine arm unseen conveyed me safe/and led me up to man’ (from “When All Thy Mercies, O My God”).

Who knows what these words really mean.

All I know is that listening to Robson’s imaginative take on Tallis last Sunday morning made me whistle.  The whistle was brief, really just half a dozen notes, but in that moment I felt happier than I have in decades.  As if I was nothing more than a teenager again and walking the cool corridors of school.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 10 August 2013.)

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The past