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One minute, so it seems, I’m a spotty teenaged boy sitting on the living-room floor listening to records by Kate Bush and The Cure as well as, erm, the soundtrack to the BBC’s serialisation of Brideshead Revisited; the next I’m writing the libretto for an original song cycle initiated by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium of Music in collaboration with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Of course, a fair bit has happened to that spotty teenaged boy: various jobs that sounded interesting but never set my soul on fire; dipping my toe (and fingers) into the world of short stories before, miraculously, the better ones began appearing in Australian literary journals; three published novellas; a published novel; further tertiary study in the creative arts; as well as much living, including relationships and all the lovely/heartbreaking messiness of that. But the fact remains I never thought I’d be commissioned to be the librettist on an original song cycle.

The beginning: on the living-room floor and listening to a record.

In December 2014 Paul Scott-Williams, the director of the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, met with me in Canberra at an inner-city bar. In the garden courtyard, Paul said he had an idea to create an original song cycle. ‘Art song,’ he told me, ‘did not have much of an Australian tradition and I want to do something about that. And I want you to be the librettist.’ I thanked him for the offer but said that I wasn’t a poet, though I could put him in contact with some poets who’d be terrific for the project. But Paul would have none of my prevarication. He said that he’d recently read my third novella, The Beach Volcano, which concerns an Australian singer/song-writer trying to find himself in the world (and includes snippets of song lyrics). He also said that he knew I had a great love of music, which I do – music, as well as books, primarily novels, are what sustains me. ‘I really want you to be the librettist,’ said Paul, ‘and I want to engage James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium as the composer.’ Paul went on to say that he would sing the work. ‘I think the three of us would make a very good team.’

As I walked to the car I thought that it was lovely to be asked but I was not the right person. Then again, what scares us – creatively at least – is what we need to do…possibly. Needing advice, I spoke to an eminent Australian author who’d had some experience of being a librettist.

‘Just give it a go,’ she told me, ‘but remember that it has to be a three-way dance, between the words, the music, and the audience. You must leave room for all three.’

In a way, I never really made a decision; I just let the project roll on. Although I was largely unfamiliar with art song, I knew enough to be attracted to the minimalism of a work that centred on voice and piano only, and that across the breadth of a song cycle a story could be told, and that perhaps – just perhaps – collectively we could bring an Australian perspective to the form.

After the contractual side of things was sorted, I got town to work in early 2015. Two years earlier, in 2013, I had completed a three-month residency at UNSW Canberra, the campus of the Australian Defence Force Academy, where I had undertaken creative explorations into masculinity under extreme pressure, and I was still thinking about what masculinity (and femininity) actually meant. The then Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, had recently said that he would like to ‘shirt-front’ Russian president Vladimir Putin, which seemed to me to be a good example of what modern masculinity should not be about. Paul agreed and said that he was keen for me to continue with this line of inquiry.

I prepared three concepts: a multiple drowning incident during a family picnic; a soldier returning from war; and a contemporary take on Frederick McCubbin’s iconic painting The Lost Child (1886). Paul asked me to further explore in more detail the drowning and soldier stories, and then together we agreed that the latter had the greatest dramatic scope.

For weeks I immersed myself in my favourite poets – ee cummings, Philip Larkin, Dorothy Porter – as well as the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. I filled my head not so much with art-song but music by Nina Simone, Antony and the Johnsons, Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Max Richter. And then I got down to work. Which was when the doubts came pounding on my temple. I read and enjoy poetry, and for a reason I’m yet to understand I am drawn to poets (perhaps it’s their fondness for giving the finger to conventional ways of living), but, no, I am not a poet. Some readers have said my fiction is quite poetic, one even going so far as to say that I am a poet who writes fiction, but that doesn’t make me a poet either. And in terms of music, I am more comfortable in my local independent music shop buying records by Four Tet and Kiasmos than in a concert hall.

Really, what could I bring to this project?

To convince myself that I should proceed, I wrote out a list of objectives:

  1. do this my fucking way
  2. find my own voice
  3. find my own form and structure
  4. ‘show us something new’
  5. be driven by the work

I now had an articulation of how I could keep going, but then I was struck by different concerns. How to create a story of truth and resonance about a modern-day soldier who was returning from a tour of duty? Was this my story to tell? I told myself that, mercifully, only a few Australians would know what it’s like to serve in a military capacity, but many people can empathise with coming home to find their dark secrets exposed. So now I had my themes: home and secrets and fear. I also decided that I would tell the story from three points of view: the soldier’s as well as his mother’s and father’s. Further, I would set the work on the Hume Highway, a stretch of road I’ve been getting to know for nearly five decades, as well as on the Southern Tablelands where I live. I would write from a position of love and interest. Ultimately, and reflecting what novelist/poet Merlinda Bobbis has said about these things, I could walk in the shoes of my main character and his parents, but I couldn’t own those shoes.

Scribbles: the start

At my desk in my little Goulburn house, I planned the work the way I plan a piece of fiction: I created characters and got into their history; I formed a story arc and then plotted where the key events would be – this process went back and forwards until I knew enough, but not too much. For each plot point I wrote additional notes and then – after some deep breathing and much staring out the window – I put pen to paper. Some of the songs came together relatively easily; others were like trying to unearth a granite boulder with my teeth. While the doubts remained, somewhat surprisingly I found myself having fun: this was exciting new territory, especially in terms of working with brevity and compression, and I enjoyed playing with the architecture of a piece of writing; I was keen to see where it all might go. As the initiator of the project Paul could end up hating what I had produced, and James might find it impossible to score, but all I could do was create a text that only I could create.

Once I had a complete though rough set of lyrics, I decided that I wanted feedback from a practicing poet. I approached Melinda Smith, who had won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry for her magical collection Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013). In a noisy Canberra café Melinda went though which pieces of mine were working, which were wobbly (as evidenced by the amount of red ink she’d put on the page), and which ones could be jettisoned. While Melinda’s feedback was frank and constructive, she also said, ‘Nigel, you’re creating a work that’s going to have considerable emotional resonance with an audience. You’ve got this.’ Which was the best possible thing for someone to say at such an early stage of the work, especially from someone of Melinda’s stature.

After reworking every word of all thirteen songs, I gave the new draft to Paul.

And waited nervously for his response.

In a Goulburn pub, with some kind of sport being played on the television in the corner, Paul said, ‘I’ve got to tell you, I had a very strong emotional reaction when I first read your work.’ I could only hope that was a good thing.

The score in development by James Humberstone

James spent much of 2015 progressing the score, feeding through to us sketches as he developed them. He specialises in experimental new music and although my role isn’t so much to engage in the musical composition I  enjoyed what he was producing. James was investing in the work a high degree of artistic intelligence, and even at an early stage it was coming across to my ears as intricate and very moving.

Some tantalisingly brief extracts from James’s score are available here.

The three of us met a number of times during that year, at the Sydney Conservatorium and at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium. At one stage James said to me, ‘How precious are you with the libretto?’ I said, ‘I see this as a collaboration so do whatever you need to do with it.’ He said, ‘That’s a relief. Some librettists won’t allow even a single comma to be changed.’ I was glad to have had the advice from the eminent author, that there needed to be a dance between the text and the music and the audience. How could that dance happen if there isn’t some kind of give and taken between the components of the work?

Creative development, December 2016, Paul Scott-Williams and Alan Hicks. (Photo courtesy of James Humberstone)

In 2016 Caroline Stacey, the Artistic Director of The Street Theatre in Canberra, took a keen interest in the project, and in December we had our first creative development – the work, at least as much of it as had been completed, was performed in a rehearsal space. I was eager for feedback, but I was also completely terrified. How would my words sound when sung? When there is nothing but piano and voice there isn’t much to hide behind. Would there be emotion and intimacy? Or would the whole thing come across as artifice? As each song was played it felt as if someone was projecting on the wall images of my naked body. Unsurprisingly, Paul sang the work beautifully and with considerable power (though he would soon decide that it would be best to engage another singer to take the work to public performance). By the end of the creative development, James and I knew what needed to be improved, and Caroline suggested that we undertake another creative development before the work was premiered.

Which is where we are at now.

On Thursday 1 June, again at The Street Theatre in Canberra, and through the First Seen program, we will do a second creative development; at 5pm there will be a public showing of the full work – the audience will be asked to provide feedback. If you live in the ACT region you are most welcome to come along. More information here. A Canberra Times article published on 12 May can be found here. You will find me in the corner, curled into a ball and wishing I was still that kid in the living-room and listening to Kate Bush’s ‘Running up that Hill’ on repeat.

I still have doubts about the work. Perhaps, back in December 2014, I should have done more to convince Paul to engage another librettist – an actual poet. While I have given the text my all, reworking, revising, polishing, over and over and over and over, I just don’t know how audiences will respond. Will there be an enticing, enthralling dance between the words and the music? Will the story be emotionally textured, or will it come across as a bald polemic? Have we made a contribution to art song in Australia? Was that ever possible?

I should say that doubting my ability is not new; after 20 years of practice, I doubt my ability no matter what the form. For example, despite having 50 short stories published in Australian literary journals, I seriously and genuinely feel as if I barely understand what makes a short story come to life.

Perhaps all this comes down to expectations. When I’m thinking pragmatically, I tell myself that I’ve had a certain amount of time to give to Homesong, and I’ve invested in it as much skill and heart and soul as I can. Soon it will be public and I will have to let go.

What is this work about? Home and secrets and fear.

It’s all that, and more. I hope.

*

I’ve decided that I will keep writing about Homesong as the project comes to fruition, so if you’re interested in knowing more, including opportunities to see and hear the work, do drop in again.

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Trucks, hi-viz outfits, and a massive sheep (on the move) - this is my town, folks.

Trucks, hi-viz outfits, and a massive sheep (on the move) – this is my town, folks.

1.

Three years ago I was waiting nervously – completely and utterly anxiously – to see what would happen to the Australian Government.  After six months of tarting up my tiny ex-guvvy grey-brick box in Canberra, the thing was ready for the market; in a rare fit of good but not entirely risk-free decision making, I’d decided that my house was the ticket to a better life, one where writing would be the core of each and every week.  (For years, decades, it had been the core, but it was a struggling core, exhausting, and something had to give.)  So there I was, house ready and real-estate agent on standby.  But we had a problem.  A massive problem.  If the Conservatives won the 2010 election they’d strip the bejeezus out of the public service, ejecting bureaucrats from the capital, and house prices would plummet.

2.

Of course, there were plenty of better reasons to fear the Conservatives returning to power.  Tony Abbot, a former seminarian, and boxer, and Rhodes Scholar, was a key player in John Howard’s backwards-looking, xenophobic and homophobic government.  Now he was leader of the opposition, who knows what he’d do.  He was famous for saying that climate change was ‘crap’, that women had a different physiology (exact quote: ‘I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons’), was anti-abortion, and maintained the anti-immigration and anti-marriage-equality stance of his political godfather.  Being rusted on to small-government ideology, if Abbott got in there would be carnage in the capital, and I’d lose $50,000, the $50,000 I needed for my new and better life to begin.

3.

That year, 2010, Abbott almost did get in.  It was a terrifying two-week wait to see if Labor’s Julia Gillard could form an alliance with the independents.  I remember watching that press conference in which the three key independents would reveal their decision – it was the most excruciating 20 minutes of my life.  When Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott eventually announced that they’d be supporting a Gillard-led government I threw my arms in the air as if my favourite footie team had just scored the game-winning try in the final seconds (if I had a favourite footie team, that is).  Not only did I want the Mad Monk and his insidiously grinning gang to lose and for Labor to continue moving us forward (if only inch by inch), I wanted to be able to ring my real-estate agent and shout, ‘GET THIS SHOW ON THE ROAD!’

4.

The show did go on the road.  My house was sold and I now could move to regional New South Wales and live a cheaper, more frugal life in order for writing – creativity in general, the arts, all of it – to be my reason for existence.  So, while Gillard managed to keep her precarious government together, stoking the fires of the economy while the rest of the world went down like the Devil wearing velvet trousers, and putting a price on carbon, and enabling a massive – and wise – investment in education, and establishing the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and continuing with the National Broadband Network (try downloading something as short as a 30-second video where I live and you’ll see why we need this infrastructure), and increasing the tax-free threshold from $6,000 to $18,000, which is an enormous reform for those struggling to make ends meet including artists, and allowing her party to officially endorse a policy of legal recognition of same-sex relationships (while she personally opposed the policy, which, to my mind, was a gross misjudgement on many levels), and – let’s indeed be critical where criticism is due – failed to find a humane and effective way of welcoming refugees to this country, yes, while all this was happening, I moved house, I went interstate.  And now, more or less, I live the life I’ve always wanted.  How luck I am.

5.

There are approximately 23,000 people in this regional New South Wales town of mine.  The place is working class, it’s welfare oriented, there’s some old rural money but not much despite the Big Merino stuck there out on the Hume.  There are cracked faces, broken bodies, some broken spirits.  There are pubs, some of which look like they haven’t been changed in 50 years, and the carpets probably haven’t been changed either.  The mainstreet is packed with 2-dollar outlets, hi-viz stores, and there’s a run of takeaway shops that I swear goes for 300 metres.  But this is home.  For someone like me, who was born and bred on Sydney’s North Shore, who spent his formative adult years in Canberra, which is one of the most enlightened and progressive jurisdictions in the world, in many ways Goulburn is not my natural habitat.  And when the wind howls and the sky comes over grim and grey, it’s really no place for anyone.  But in my little old house with sparrows in the guttering I read and write and read some more.  When I take a break from the words and me and my misshapen tracksuit pants and uggboots go out to see what the chooks are doing, I feel more myself than ever.  At the end of the day, when I pour myself a glass of wine, light the fire, and put on the most miserable music in my collection, I know that this somewhat struggling but good-natured old town is being very good to me.

6.

At times like these I raise a chipped, cracked, coffee-stained mug to Julia Gillard and say thanks for (a) being as decent as you could despite all the shit that was thrown at you (and even though your judgment seemed to go AWOL at times, and your mass-media communication left many of us wondering what you really did mean), and (b) for making all this happen to me.

7.

Today, however, it’s election time again and Tony Abbott, the love-child of John Howard and George W. Bush that he is, will most likely romp across the line.  Despite Labor’s undoubted achievements, the party’s leadership dramas have been appalling – it’s been like having to put up with a couple of junkies fighting in the fruit-and-veg aisle of my local Woolies.  It has to end, and hopefully it ends tonight, when Abbott, all Botox forehead and flapping jug-ears and budgie-smugglers already set out for an early morning swim, takes to the podium.  Perhaps it’ll end a bit more when Kevin Rudd vainly announces his resignation, or doesn’t have to do such a thing because he’s lost his seat.

8.

I’m not a social conservative, and I don’t believe that markets are necessarily the be all and end all, and I don’t believe that wealthy nations can ignore our responsibility to care for those who are wracked by poverty and political turmoil.  So I can’t put a mark in the Coalition’s box, and I can’t ever see myself not thinking in a progressive way.  But I do hope this weekend marks the beginning of a refreshed, enlivened voice for the Left, which may or may not be the Australian Labor Party.

9.

Even though it may well be true that at heart Australia is a fearful, inward-looking country, frankly, as they say around my home-town, you’ve just gotta get the fuck over it and find a better way.

10.

Here’s cheers to Goulburn, to Gillard, and to bright new chapters.

What a complete cracker of a year it’s been for music.  Beside me on the desk is a small tower of CDs, all of which I’ve bought this year and almost all of them could – or should – appear in any kind of best-of-2011 list.  As opposed to this year in reading, where, in the main at least, the books I’ve read have been slow-burners, the records that have come into my house in the last twelve months have demanded immediate attention.  Some of these records will go on to achieve the status of classic, which is thrilling for all concerned, even if the 80s seems to be having a greater influence on contemporary musicians than is strictly necessary.  Anyway, enough introductory crap from me.  Here’s the best of music of 2011.  I’ve tried to keep it to only six albums, but who knows what will happen.

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming by M83 – this record is so extraordinarily ambitious that it’s impossible to ignore.  It’s also made with such craft and love, and you can’t ask for more than that.  This time around the main M83 provocateur Anthony Gonzales has created a double album of depth, delight, texture, joy, sadness, and – like Coco Rosie and DJ Shadow, who are a little further down the list – sheer inventiveness.  Sure this is synth-pop shoegaze with a touch of Toto, Thompson Twins and Simple Minds thrown in for good measure (there’s also a hint of the Seinfield theme tune to a couple of songs, which is rather worrying), but somehow it all hangs together so magically that it traps you until you realise that you’ve been playing it for days on end without a break.  ‘Midnight City’ on the first disk makes me want drive up to Sydney in the middle of the night, which would be a five-hour return trip, and it’d never happen, but when I listen to music as fine as this it makes me think that anything might be possible.  ‘Midnight City’ is also the song of the year, there’s no doubt about that.

Grey Oceans by Coco Rosie – it’s true that this album came out in 2010 but it seemed to go under the radar until this year, so it’s going to be in this year’s list, damnit.  I’ve written about this album previously, and it’s clear that Grey Oceans is Coco Rosie’s masterpiece.  It’s just as inventive as their previous albums, but this time the half-sisters at the core of the Rosie are searching for purity of musical expression.  They’re achieving a greater musical range, from balladry to weird-arse pop, to even nudging the dance-floor, though Christ knows what sort of dance-floors exist in the Coco Rosie universe.  If M83’s ‘Midnight City’ is the song of the year, the title track of Grey Oceans is a very, very close second.  In a just world, every household would have a copy of this album.

The Less You Know, The Better by DJ Shadow – Josh Davis is undoubtedly a cantankerous bloody thing, refusing to do anything other than make the music that he wants to make, and he’s had his missteps, that’s for sure.  He’s also in that infinitely tricky position of having made a much revered first album, that being Entroducing… from 1996.  Is The Less You Know as good?  Almost.  It’s more like the Psyence Fiction album he did with James Lavelle as UNKLE (1998): it’s widescreen, sentimental, experimental, all the while refusing to be categorised.  It’s fair to ask the question: what’s the point of DJ Shadow?  He’s neither a rap/hip-hop artist nor MC, nor is he the sort of bloke who spins records in nightclubs.  Davis makes music with samples, but the samples are put together so cleverly and seamlessly that it may as well be the product of an actual band.  But who cares when the music is as good as this.  The best way to approach The Less You Know is as a mix-tape put together by a friend who decided to make his own music because he couldn’t find any real stuff he liked. In a way, ‘Border Crossing’ is atypical of DJ Shadow; then again, because he does whatever the fuck he wants, it’s a good illustration of his modus operandi.

The Riptide by Beirutagain I’ve written about this album previously, but let me say at the outset that I love Zac Condon and his wandering (wondering?) band of troubadours, and I’ve been following this lot from the beginning.  This time, Condon strips things back to carefully crafted songs that are almost pop but thankfully – luckily – the melancholy remains.  These are intimate vignettes, almost as though they weren’t made for public listening.  In the past Beirut has sounded like a bunch of street-drunks trying to remember the hymns from their childhoods, but now they sound as though one of them has made a go of things, getting a flat, maybe even a dog, and is starting to think that the world may not be as hopeless as previously thought; perhaps there will be comfort, maybe even love.  The Riptide could be Beirut’s best yet.  Search out the title track if you want to hear what all this is about.

Rolling Blackouts by The Go! Team – yet again I’ve already written about this album, but I still mean every word of it.  I’m just so happy that I live in a world where bands like this exist.  Perhaps like Beirut (or M83 or DJ Shadow for that matter) The Go! Team shouldn’t work: a mix of Sonic Youth, Spice Girls, school-yard rap and 1960s TV-show theme tunes anyone?  No, didn’t think so.  It’s just that it’s all so freakin’ clever (‘freakin’’ really is the right word in this context), and the song construction so faultless.  It’s true that at first Rolling Blackouts didn’t initially grab me as much as I wanted it to – as others have said, it did sound like The Go! Team had run out of puff just a little (and who wouldn’t, quite frankly, when you’ve made a habit of making every song on an album sound like a single).  But I now realise that this one of the band’s best, because there’s more devil in the detail, and, dare I say it, maturity.  In the end this is bubble-gum pop-music with an edge, and it’s bonkers, but it’s also genius. Here’s T.O.R.N.A.D.O., which kicks-off the album.

Bon Iver by Bon Iver – the world’s probably written enough about Bon Iver, and I have too, but suffice it to say that music lovers around the globe were relieved to discover that Justin Vernon and Co had come up with something as good as For Emma Forever Ago (2008), potentially even going one step further.  I’m not entirely convinced that Bon Iver has anything truly meaningful to say, but in this purposeful obtuseness is also a very majestic kind of beauty.  Everything on this record is impeccably constructed so that not a nano-second is wasted.  I’m also not convinced that ‘Beth/Rest’ was a good idea – it’s just too REO Speedwagon for my taste – but there’s no mistaking Justin Vernon’s ability to make music that moves listeners, and we can’t ask for much more than that.

I can’t stop.  So here are two more wonderful albums from 2011.

Metals by Feist – if there’s anyone who could turn me from my wicked gay ways it’s this Canadian songstress.  Not only is she completely gorgeous, she has the voice of honey – if hers was the last voice I heard I’d die a happy man.  She follows up the resolutely poppy The Reminder (2007) with this collection of ballads; there’s nothing to get the toes tapping here (though it’s not hard to imagine that many of the songs become punchier live).  This is aloof music, austere even, and there’s more than a hint of Kate Bush, which is never a bad thing.  But what makes this record so very special is Feist’s strength (so to speak) in saying, I will not get poppier, I will go in the opposite direction, I don’t want popularity, I just want to be good.  Any artist who does that is an artist of confidence, and Feist is confident.  But also humble – how does that work?  If you want a good place to start with Metals, go looking for the soulful, bluesy meander of ‘Anti-Pioneer’.

Lupercalia by Patrick Wolf – here is yet another fiercely original artist, even if on this record Mr Wolf does get dangerously close to being this decade’s Rick Astley.  But everyone has a soft spot for a bit of Astley, don’t they?  What I love about Lupercalia is that as opposed to Feist, Patrick Wolf has specifically set out to make a poppy, commercial record.  Strange then that not much of it got commercial-radio airplay.  Perhaps Wolf is just too camp for these supremely conservative times.  Which is exactly why we need an artist like this, an artist who refuses to be anything but himself.  Despite his pop intentions, Wolf hasn’t lost his keenness for exploration, for experimentation, for new musical perspectives.  This album includes ‘William’, a song he wrote for the man he clearly loves and will marry in 2012; in his rich, articulate baritone he sings, ‘And I showed you my ugly/heart yet you did not/surrender’.  Now we just need Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott to listen.  Here’s another gem from Lupercalia: ‘House’.

With that, happy festive season.  Whatever that may mean to you.


It’s been haywire around this neck of the woods and, rather reasonably, I put it down to the fact that Australian politics has turned into a dog’s breakfast.  A week and a half ago, on Saturday August 21, we had a federal election, resulting in what’s essentially a hung parliament, which is a rare event for us.  The only hope of resolution is coming from a small group of rural-based independents who are currently trying to work out whether they’ll support the slightly more progressive Australian Labor Party, the incumbents, or the conservative Liberal/National Coalition, who – based on previous form – may well take us back to a dim dark past.

How did we get to this point?  In a nutshell (or should that be ‘nutcase’?), the election involved an inept campaign from the Australian Labor Party and a morally bankrupt campaign from the Coalition.  Labor, who’d ditched their leader just before calling the election and chose to put forward Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, seemed to be making things up every minute, trying to be modern and ‘real’ but really just coming across as amateurs.  The Coalition, however, ran a traditional fear campaign, putting forward the old chestnut that Australia is in the process of being swamped by Asians – gasp, all those funny eyes and weird languages and the stinky food – and we’re going to lose our way of life.  Morally bankrupt indeed.

So what did Australia do?  We sent one message that neither party was really up to the task, and another message that we’d like the Greens to have control of the Senate from July next year – both of these are good things.  But it should be pointed out that fewer Australians voted in this election than in previous elections, despite it being compulsory, and of those who did vote 600,000 either stuffed up their ballot paper or wrote ‘We can do better than this’ or ‘Don’t treat us like fools’ or ‘F*** off and die’, or something similar, perhaps.

At least the politicians have got the message that we’re not happy.

So while we wait to hear who the independents will support, what to do?  I’ve chosen to tune out.  And it’s the first time in my life that I’ve chosen to do this.  Normally I read all the papers, watch all the current-affairs shows, get obsessed and worked up about every twist and turn.  But not this time.  On one hand, this political caper is very important, but on the other it’s not what matters at all.  What matters is reading a great story.  What matters is hearing great music.  What matters is a loving look from your partner, or a smile from the dog (how good to be the dog!), or the taste of a particularly delicious home-cooked meal.  Or just the sound of the wind in the trees, though it’s frighteningly windy today – not sure if someone’s trying to tell us something.

What’s important is the small things, the things that will continue on no matter who’s ‘in power’.  And in the spirit of the small things, and to inject this pallid election tale with something that really does matter – the arts and creativity and meaningless whimsies which are actually so meaningful it hurts – I give you Slinkachu, who has rather delightfully imbedded himself into this post.

In six days time this man could be Australia’s next prime minister.  Seriously.

Could we stand turning on the TV each night and seeing this?

Could we handle him strutting the world stage?

What would I do to stop this happening?

Do a nuddy run around the block (and please note that it’s still winter in this neck of the woods).

Listen to every Red House Painters song in chronological order.

Read Atonement.

Eat only celery.

Anything.

Well, you wake up one morning, kiss the partner, put on a cup of tea, and… discover that it’s federal election time yet again.  Was it really three years since the last one?  It seems the answer is yes – us Antipodean folk are careering towards an August 21 poll.  Luckily we live in one of the world’s most stable democracies, so we vote for a local member of parliament who we think (we hope, we pray) will best represent our views.  However, since the 1970s election campaigns have been more presidential in style, with people being encouraged to vote on the personalities of the leaders of the two main protagonists – the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Liberal Party.  Yes, they’re both called the ALP, and what’s more both have red, white and blue in their logos.  No wonder many Australians couldn’t give a rat’s arse about what our leaders do and say, though this might also have something to do with our general anti-authoritarian approach to life because of the country’s Irish heritage and good weather – we really would rather be drinking beer at the beach and perving on the hotties than worrying about political shenanigans.

So how’s the fight shaping up?

In the left(ish) corner there’s Ms Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, although it must be said that she’s been in the job all of three weeks – she  toppled Kevin ‘07’ Rudd in a dramatic midnight coup.  But there’s a fact here that can’t be ignored: Kevin was going down like the devil wearing velvet trousers and someone had to do something about it.  It was Ms Gillard, a proud red-head born in Wales (she’s also unmarried although does have a partner, and she’s an atheist), who stepped up to the plate.  Julia’s a no-nonsense kind of person who could easily be a minor character on the TV comedy series Kath & Kim, but she’s smart and tenacious.  She’s kicked things off by floating a pitch based on ‘Moving Australia Forward’.  As election slogans go it’s a bit on the prosaic side, but after 11 years of ultra-conservative rule under the very easy to hate John Howard and then the wobbly period with the Ruddster at the helm, it’s at least a nod in a better direction.

In the (extremely) right corner is Tony ‘The Mad Monk’ Abbott, a former minister under Howard, who seems to be pinning everything on ‘Practical Action’ (he loves that word action because he’s a budgie-smuggler-wearing marathon runner, so he sees himself as a political GI Joe) and ‘Turning Back The Boats’.  By ‘Turning Back the Boats’ Abbott is trying to score votes by saying that – with some kind of Superman sweep of his hand – he’ll stop anyone fleeing political persecution and poverty reaching our shores.  We’re essentially islanders and have a deep-rooted fear of invasion, particularly by people who have different hair and skin and languages to us, let alone use funny cutlery like chop-sticks, so there’s a good political reason for pursuing this strategy.  Never mind that the numbers of these ‘boat people’ are actually extremely low.  Never mind also that Abbott’s on the record as telling us that we can’t believe everything he says, and that only what’s written in his speeches is fair dinkum.  At least he’s warned us, I guess.

Of course, there is a third option – the Greens, who are lead by the irrepressible Bob Brown.  (Dear old Bob has become such a part of our political furniture – one day he won’t be doing politics anymore and we’ll all wonder what happened.)  For many, the Greens are crack-pots keen on issues like legalising marijuana and euthanasia and other supposedly nutty things like saving our natural world from going to hell in a hand-basket.  For others, however, the Greens have finally got their act together and the party is becoming more and more attractive to the thinking element of the middle class.  At least their logo isn’t red, white, and blue – that’s got to be something.

What does all this mean to simple, dreamy folk like this humble scribe?  It means jackshit, because the issues I care deeply about – the arts, the environment, and marriage equality – won’t get the attention they deserve.  The Greens will have a stab at it, but they’ll be drowned out by the lumbering political machines of the Labor and Liberal parties.  You see, we’re a bunch of Neanderthals when it comes to a genuine political conversation about the value of the arts and creativity.  The really tough environmental issues – climate change, reinvigorating our rivers, and saving our old-growth forests – are dealt with in a jingoistic, if not patronising fashion, never with the long-sightedness required; these are complex matters that require complex but decisive solutions.  And marriage equality?  Both the Labor and the Conservative parties have reconfirmed that only men and women ‘to the exclusion of all others’ (according to our very modern Marriage Act) can have their relationships taken seriously.  There’s no doubt in my mind that Abbott would rather gay and lesbian just drown in their chardonnays, whilst Julia would be more than happy to see people with minority sexualities tie the knot, just not at this very moment.

Thankfully, luckily, miraculously, grass-roots activist organisation Get Up!, which came to life in the last few years of the Howard Government, enables those who really do care about Australia becoming a better and bigger country to have a sliver of hope.  In 2007, completely dispirited at the lack of progressive political gumption on offer from the main parties, I volunteered for Get Up!, handing out How to Vote cards at a country-town booth.  To this day it was one of the most life-affirming actions I’ve ever taken: not only were people genuinely interested in hearing a different perspective, but it also felt bloody great to do something real and positive beyond just putting a tick or a number in a box.  Will I volunteer again?  Or might I just hide away in my little house with ear-phones clamped to the side of my head and listen to great music by great bands and read great books by great writers?

Right now, who knows.  But I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

Thirty more days to go.

PS Thanks to Ampersand Duck for the Abbott ‘Nope’ image.  Brilliant.

An unexpectedly intriguing aspect of blogging is the opportunity to see how it all operates behind the scenes.  With a click of your mouse on the button that says ‘My Dashboard’, you are privy to the deep, dark workings of the on-line machine.  It is like being able to see the strings that hold up a puppet show, or visiting the Ghost Train ride when they’re doing maintenance.  On offer are oodles of stats – visits per day, week, year, ever.  You can see all the sites that are referring internet surfers to yours.  But the real delight is being able to view what people around the world are typing into search engines to inadvertently find their way to you.

To get to my blog-shaped home, people have made the funniest searches, for example ‘In what year did Tony Abbott get merried?’  Yes, ‘merried’.  Was an over-worked journalist writing a character sketch of the current leader of the Opposition but slipped a finger?  Or maybe a cheeky internet sleuth was wondering about when this prominently fit Australian man last got himself inebriated on the sauce?  The fact is we can only imagine the scenario, and there’s much joy in that.

Some searches are straight-out bizarre, for example ‘Every city has a sex quote’ (really? I’d not noticed), while others are just plain worrying, such as ‘Asian pop degrading nationalism’, which could end up as a PhD thesis for someone brave enough to give it a go.  And ‘pretty brain’ – was that typed in by Hannibal Lecter?  One of the more disquieting searches that have turned up on my site is ‘what women really should look like’.  Frankly, if you need to ask Google that question you probably need more help than the internet.

But I’m being unnecessarily cruel.  The most interesting search-engine references are the saddest.  To reach my blog, people have done a search on ‘holding hands’ (did they need to know how to perform this particular action?), and the rather terrifying ‘last hours living’.  But the one that stuck in my throat was this: ‘true love is not for me’.  It’s rather final, isn’t it.  Of course, these might be half-remembered song lyrics or lines of poetry or even titles of books, but what if they aren’t?  What if someone really did want to know how to hold hands, or how to live the last hours of their life?  What if someone really had decided that true love wasn’t for them, and they only wanted to let someone know?

Having shared this with you, I should admit these references wouldn’t be ending up at my blog if a search engine wasn’t linking it to something I’d written and posted – a battalion of Google-type technologies was matching my written words with someone’s desire for information, or answers, or the truth.  So it could be just a case of my thoughts coming back to haunt me through the endless electronic fog that is the internet.  Is it a cyber mirror to my life?  Perhaps when posting on-line I am calling into the void, and days, weeks, months later, an echo finds me.  Yes, perhaps.  Though I should be very clear with you about something: I have never once wondered about the year that Tony Abbott got merried.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 8 May 2010.  The wonderful illustration by Michael Mucci originally appeared in conjunction with ‘Bloggers Unplugged’, first published in The Canberra Times on 10 April 2010 and can be found here; this article was then magically posted and can be found in this little e-loft.)

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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