Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Blog

January 18

Chasing Beauty

I’ve been tootling up and down the west coast of Victoria in my campervan for the past week, storing up some beauty before the working year begins:

Wye River had a bad summer. But still, beauty persists.

Wye River had a bad summer. But still, beauty persists.

 

We named this echidna Eric because it alliterates. Tame as all get-out.

We named this echidna Eric because it alliterates. Tame as all get-out.

 

The view from the balcony of the lovely old house i stayed in at Wye River.

The view from the balcony of the lovely old house i stayed in at Wye River.

 

David Bowie dies and i was bereft. No music machine in the old beach house so i back the van up to the house and played Diamond Dogs on the car stereo LOUD.

David Bowie dies and i was bereft. No music machine in the old beach house so i back the van up to the house and played Diamond Dogs on the car stereo LOUD.

 

Pink things began appearing everywhere - starting with this Wye River sunset.

Pink things began appearing everywhere – starting with this Wye River sunset.

 

Pink seaweed down the coast at Airey's Inlet.

Pink seaweed down the coast at Airey’s Inlet.

 

Pink orchids on the bush walk.

Pink orchids on the bush walk.

 

Another Eric at Airey's Inlet!  (or the same one, moving fast?)

Another Eric at Airey’s Inlet! (or the same one, moving fast?)

 

Strange hieroglyphics on the sand.

Strange hieroglyphics on the sand.

 

Bush n beach.

Bush n beach.

 

My portal back to the working life. Happy summer, everyone.

My portal back to the working life. Happy summer, everyone.

January 2

Summer sojourn in Sydney

I’ve been having a summer mini-break in Sydney. And having my usual internal debate about whether I should move to that stunning city. And returning home to Melbourne and realising that if I moved north then Sydney wouldn’t be this lovely place I get to visit regularly, but a place with whose nutty geography I would have to negotiate on a daily basis. So I will stick with my sultry summer visits and my holiday snaps for now.

 

That bridge. It sneaks up on you.

That bridge. It sneaks up on you.

North Sydney Olympic Pool. My new favourite place for lapping. Location location location.

North Sydney Olympic Pool. My new favourite place for lapping. Location location location.

Fell in love again with Luna the Swiss shepherd.

Fell in love again with Luna the Swiss shepherd.

Luna loves a stick.

Luna loves a stick.

But sticks are tiring.

But sticks are tiring.

Found a great spot to watch the fireworks on December 31st.

Found a great spot to watch the fireworks on December 31st.

Nature took a bow and gave way to nurture.

Nature took a bow and gave way to nurture.

Happy New Year, everyone. xx

Happy New Year, everyone. xx

December 15

Not So Grand Designs

There are so many things I loathe about the cult TV show ‘Grand Designs’ I can’t begin to count them. Mostly it’s the ‘grand’ part; the size of the domestic spaces being created. We westerners take up too much space. We demand airy rooms, vaulting ceilings, walk-in robes and bathrooms the size of bedsits. We are swimming in cubic metres.

When I invested in a small campervan last year it was partly in reaction to this space-gobbling trend. Even if I could afford a beach house it would have felt grotesque for one person to gobble up so much living space for herself. Yet I need to be beside the seaside, often, for my mental health. By the sea there are vaulting skies and airy breezes and I can swim in countless cubic metres of ocean. I blame my grandmother. She provided our family with beach house holidays all through my childhood and adolescence. I followed her into the surf before I could spell my own name and the shocking pleasure of it has never left me. So last year the campervan was purchased and the coastal journeys began.

Some pleasures are obvious: the freedom of hitting the road and heading wherever I like. The dawns and sunsets accompanied by the rhythmic crashing of waves. The hazy horizon stretching further than my ageing eyes can see. Above all, though, there is the pleasure of being physically contained within a tiny space. The van is the length of a station wagon, the living space not much bigger than a double bed. In that space I feel cocooned and contented. I lie back on faded cushions, reading novels, sipping on coffee freshly brewed on my one burner stove. I take photos with my aging smart phone, re-charge it from the van’s battery and send pictures of sunsets to friends in town. Their envy comes back to me in the form of emoticons.

There is also pleasure to be found in using limited resources with great efficiency. Perhaps this, too, is a family inheritance; I come from a line of generous but frugal folk. The van itself is a marvel of economic design, dreamt up by my stepfather in the wakeful hours endured by octogenarians after midnight. It wasn’t the first campervan he’d designed. He has criss-crossed the dry centre of Australia in his own house-on-wheels many times. We constructed mine together in his back shed; the master and his apprentice. Under the wooden bed base he created ingenious storage compartments (for books, mostly) and a sliding draw hand-crafted from found timber. It stores things like bird books and binoculars, insect netting and fly spray, sunscreen and thongs.

Down the back of the van in the ‘kitchen’ there is a water container, the single-burner stove and some drawers recycled from an old wardrobe. The insect netting is made from table runners found in a Barwon Heads op shop and the cutlery comes from a picnic basket scored at a swap night; objects costing next to nothing but offering daily utility. A recent Greenpeace poster entitled ‘The Buyerarchy of Needs’ perfectly sums up the makings of my little van: use what you have, then borrow, then swap, then thrift, then make – and only buy if you must.

Small pleasures begin to feel like grand discoveries. The shady tree perfectly placed to keep the Esky cool on a warm afternoon. The camp-park dotted with eucalypts, dotted in turn with dozing koalas. Jetties with pelicans perched like avian sentinels atop whitewashed poles. Tiny beaches hiding around rocky corners with just one set of footprints leading across the dry sand – but whose?

At night I lie in the back of the van (my home cinema) watching DVDs on a small laptop. I go to sleep still salty from the surf and wake up with stiff, mad hair. I am like a child in a cubby house, hiding from adult demands. In a small space you need never experience options paralysis (where shall I sit? which bathroom shall I use?) because your options are reduced to a minimum. Believe me, the relief is immense.

You can keep your grand designs, your elaborate homebuilding projects, your extravagant domestic spaces. Give me four wheels, a mattress, a wetsuit and a good body wave, and I’m happier than a tycoon in a jacuzzi.

At a family Xmas dinner this month everyone around the table was asked to nominate the highlight of their year. Amidst the wedding anniversaries and the births of grandchildren my nomination drew puzzled looks from everyone but my stepfather. ‘It’s simple,’ I told them. ‘It’s the van. It’s leaving home but taking home with me. You should try it some time.’

 

(This article was published by Fairfax in January 2016)

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December 1

Bare

Out the front of my house stands a eucalypt whose bark is the same flesh-pink as those giant human babies sculpted by Ron Mueck. At least, right now it is. Sometimes the bark is as grey and slit-scored as a medical student’s cadaver. Every day there is an imperceptible change in the colour of the tree and sometimes months pass before I notice the transition. About twice a year the slits peel back and the tree does a slow-motion striptease for me, shedding its curled fragments all over my garden. In between long stints at my desk I head outside to sweep the dry scrolls off the path. It is a comforting Sisyphean ritual.

I have been observing this gum tree through my office window for nearly three years now, ever since moving into my new home. If I look left from the computer screen there it is, leaning away from the wind’s embrace. If I turn my head to the right I see a piece of paper stuck to the wall beside my desk, covered in bold text. The text is a long quote from an essay by American writer Ander Monson called ‘Voir Dire’ and it begins with two questions:

‘How often is something actually at stake in essays, in memoirs, in most of the non fiction I read (and perhaps write), I wonder? How often is there actual risk involved, invoked?’

 

Inspiration has become such a flaccid word. It has been so degraded by careless over-use that reading (or writing) it induces in me a faint nausea. The thesaurus offers up a bunch of insipid synonyms (stimulate, motivate, persuade, encourage, incite) but none quite replaces the original.

To breathe life into inspiration (pardon the pun) I look to its other meaning: to inhale. When in doubt, return to the body. The body’s response to the world. The body’s manifestations of the mind’s travails. Sitting at my desk these past three years, writing a memoir about shyness and grief (about how it feels to live inside a shy body, to grieve inside a breathing body) I found that by looking first to the left and then to the right I could inspire and be inspired. A bare-skinned tree for whom shedding layer after layer is as natural and uncomplicated as breathing should be for humans. And a long draft of fresh words, an astringent for the thoughts flowing from my brain to the screen.

‘The action of telling is fine: kudos for you and your confession, your therapy, your bravery in releasing your story to the public. But telling is performing, even if it seems effortless.’

 

As a child my favourite game was hide and seek. I loved the strategizing, the mental measurement of small spaces, tall curtains, bulky bedclothes. I loved knowing that someone was searching for me. I loved the performance of being lost. Most of all I loved those moments just before my pursuer gave up on the search. The idea that I could draw out the suspense and then end it. I could choose when to reveal myself, and self-revelation would be followed by elation.

Ander Monson’s essay ‘Voir Dire’ is about being lost in the no man’s land between fact and fiction. It is about the way memories peel off and fall away, leaving us vulnerable to mis-rememberings. It is about trying to find the ‘truth content’ in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. My memoir is about my attempts to make, or find, or prove, or approve of, my true self. Whatever that means.

When you are shy your natural state is in hiding. Just the thought of revealing yourself is enough to induce the anxiety at the heart of shyness: fear of negative evaluation. Your instinct is to cover up; your fear, your embarrassment, your deep certainty that you are unfit for human company. Even while you are in hiding, though, you long to be discovered. Like the human forms hidden under Michelangelo’s marble blocks, you wait for someone to chisel you out from under your rigid casing of self-consciousness. If you are lucky you will occasionally find a friend or lover with an artist’s eye and you will be discovered, and known.

With memoir, though, waiting doesn’t work. Writing is an act of will and life writing can be an act of painful self-exposure. You must choose to reveal yourself, with no guarantee of a happy ending.

‘I guess I want awareness, a sense that the writer has reckoned with the self, the material, as well as what it means to reveal it, and how secrets are revealed, how stories are told, that it’s not just being simply told. In short, it must make something of itself.’

 

I’ve never met Ander Monson. If we did meet I would probably blush because that’s one of the tricks my shy body plays on me. Blushing, according to cultural theorist Elspeth Probyn, is the body’s signal that it has an investment in the encounter. It is the physical evidence of how much you care about what others think of you. (When you’re shy, you spend way too much time worrying about what others think of you.) It is shame written on the skin. Shame can ‘fall back into humiliation’ Probyn writes in Blush: faces of shame’. But shame is also ‘positive in its self-evaluative role: it can even be self-transforming.’

The other reason I might blush is because (although Monson doesn’t know it) our words have been intimate. The bold text stuck on my wall has beckoned my words out of hiding and onto the page. No, beckon isn’t right; too gentle. Watching me through the textual prism of his essay, Monson has curled his lip every time my story failed to ‘make something of itself’. Each time I edged politely away from telling about (performing) my shame, my embarrassment, my humiliation, imaginary Monson has closed his copy of my memoir and flung it into a corner of his imaginary office. And every time I wrote and re-wrote the sentences that made me blush, every time I forced myself to apply ‘a little fucking craft’ to my raw confessions, imaginary Monson nodded approvingly then left me alone.

When I first began writing my memoir I could not answer the questions posed by Monson in ‘Voir Dire’. I didn’t know what was at stake, what was being risked with the telling of this story. After all, shyness is not a life-threatening condition. It is a common temperament trait that manifests as social anxiety that leads in turn to physical and mental discomfort. Curiosity about the causes of my discomfort led me to an understanding that at the heart of shyness is a profound fear of rejection. Then my partner announced that he no longer wanted me.

Suddenly I was immersed in a fear so deep it made breathing almost impossible. Lies were confessed but more lies were told. Love was professed but love was withdrawn. I was lost in the no man’s land between fact and fiction. Now, though, I knew what was ‘at stake’: surviving the thing I feared the most. Not just surviving it, but rising far enough above it that I could write about it ‘with a little fucking craft’. That I could ‘reckon with the self’ even while the self was at risk of disappearing.

Last year Shy: a memoir’ (Text) was published in Australia. Many reviewers expressed their surprise at how self-revealing the author had been, how she had stripped herself bare for the reader. The memoir’s rawness made them feel voyeuristic. The word brave came up often in the reviews and this shy memoirist fought hard not to interpret that word as negative evaluation; is brave not code for over-reaching or self-indulgent? Imaginary Monson raised an eyebrow and murmured ‘kudos for your bravery’. I felt more exposed than ever before. Then I began hearing from readers.

One by one their emails came in, shy missives from people like me, people who have spent a lifetime struggling with an irrational fear of other people. They wrote about their trembling hands and their blushing cheeks and their shortness of breath. About the abject terror they felt at parties, surrounded by people they’ve never met. About feeling so exposed they wanted to hide away where no one could find them. About their Sisyphean battles with their own temperament. And they wrote about how it had felt for them to read their story in my book:

- It was like listening to my own brain talking.

- It was so empowering to hear someone talking about the things I have felt over the years and which continue to plague me.

- It put a few more pieces of the puzzle together for me about my personal life.

- It occasionally made me sick in the stomach with a sense of recognition of my Self.

- Thank you for your courage.

This week I took down the Ander Monson excerpt from my wall. It has served its purpose. I have stopped thinking that perhaps brave is code for self-indulgent. Who knows if this memoir has ‘made something of itself.’ By peeling back the layers of my experience I have made something useful for some other (shy) individuals. And breathing has become easier.

 

 

(This essay was first published on the EssayDaily website in February 2015)

    

 

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November 6

Pica Pica

It is just over seven years since my beloved grandmother Peg passed away. Today i re-discovered this piece i wrote in the weeks before her death. As we fumble around, trying to decide what do to about euthanasia laws, these are the kinds of experiences that should inform our decisions:

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

My grandmother is like one of those magpies you sometimes find lying in an unweeded corner of the garden, wings hunched, breathing fast and shallow, eyes closed, waiting to die. There’s nothing you can do – even cradling it could do more harm than good. You can only watch in horror as its prone body heaves quietly in the spring sunshine.

My grandmother has been asking for ‘a pill’. When she can get enough air into her lungs, she grabs at the hands of visitors and tries to open her tired eyes wide enough to make contact with their moist ones, and says ‘I need a pill, can you please – ?’ The sentence is never finished, perhaps because her air runs out, or perhaps because she can’t quite bring herself to say out loud exactly what she is asking for. A pill to let her die.

My grandmother asks everyone who visits her for this pill – everyone except me. I am the special one (or so I thought), the youngest of the eldest, the one who has always been protected from the sad things, like the panting bird discovered in the corner of the garden, or the sight of my grandfather lying comatose in a hospital bed. He was lucky. He fell down with a stroke and never woke again, his gaunt face covered with an oxygen mask for two weeks while his wife and daughters waited until they could bring themselves to turn off the machines.

My grandmother didn’t want me to see him like that. She wanted him preserved in my memory as the sprightly chap in the long socks and brown sandals who walked along the beach path every morning, dipping his hat to the wind-blown passers-by. She had her way, and I missed out on the dying part of his life. I missed the slowing of the breath, the stilling of the chest, the silent stiffening of the limbs. ‘He was lucky’ goes the family refrain. ‘He didn’t know a thing’.

My grandmother is not lucky. She didn’t want to die like this. She had seen this kind of dying many times, as a volunteer visitor to the ‘elderlies’ here in the nursing home. She never said exactly what it was that she saw on those visits, at least not to me, because I had to be protected, remember, but I knew it was something very, very bad. She would frown and shake her head and avoid my gaze, saying only ‘I never want to get like that. It’s not right. It’s not right.

My grandmother has shown me, now, exactly what it was she had witnessed. Now as I walk through the entrance of the nursing home I can see the breathing skeletons flopped over on vinyl couches, hair askew, mouths gaping. I can hear the whimpers of the ones curled up in their beds, dribbling into their pillows. And I can see her, slumped in an armchair beside the window, sucking in the too-thin air as fast as she can. Her jumper is stained with food, her hands are dry and mottled with deep red stains, and there is a faint smell of urine coming from the catheter bag that is now permanently attached to her.

My grandmother opens her eyes as soon as I enter the room and her first word is ‘help’. I stretch out my hands instinctively towards her but I don’t know what to do with them. ‘I need the nurse… the toilet… help me – ’ I turn on my heels and am back out in the corridor, interrupting a conversation between two nurses to tell them ‘My grandmother needs help. Can someone – ?’ and they come and lift her, so, so slowly from the chair and take her away to some place without dignity but with confident, helping hands, and after a long time they bring her back and she sits with her eyes closed, silent and heaving, until they bring the dinner around on plastic trays.

My grandmother doesn’t want to eat. ‘I don’t, I can’t – ‘ she says, waving her hand vaguely in the air, but I talk fast, trying tempt her with vivid untruths about the delights awaiting her under the plastic lid of the dinner plate. Stabbing some roast meat of unknown origin with a fork, I lean in towards her. She opens her eyes and for the first time looks directly at me. ‘This is a turn-around for the… ’ she whispers ‘you feeding me… I used to feed you, do you remember? ‘ I do remember, the choo-choo trains and the aeroplanes and all the tricks she used to get me to eat, and I say ‘yes Nan, and now I’m returning the favour’.

My grandmother doesn’t want to eat. She wants to die. So how is it a favour? And yet how can I not feed her? Stubbornly I pile up the fork with the tastiest things I can find under the gravy and obediently she opens her mouth and takes them in. She is only doing this for me, protecting me still from her own mortality. I urge her to try the pudding, and though I know she wants none of it, she concedes to swallowing a few mouthfuls of custard, just for me.

My grandmother loves birds. One of her sons-in-law brought a bird bath to the nursing home and placed it right outside her window, so that she might see the magpies when they come to sip at the sun-warmed water. But she isn’t watching. She hasn’t the heart. She’s just living until she doesn’t have to any more.

(This piece was first written in September 2008. A version of it was published in The Age in November 2015. )

Peg Jones, aged 21

Peg Jones, aged 21

November 4

Light and strength (and beer and love)

Musicians Simon Walkenhorst and Beth Williams run the Hargreaves Hill Brewery Company and Restaurant in the Yarra Valley. Simon is a classical and jazz pianist and Beth is an opera singer and songwriter who records under the name ‘Lumie Stark’.

Beth: When I was 21 my singing teacher suggested I contact a jazz pianist called Simon to try and get some work. I drove to his house and this 19 year-old kid auditioned me to see if I was worth playing for. We went to see lots of music together and eventually he said, ‘Is this a relationship?’ I said ‘Hell no, you’re just a baby!’ Then one night we were at a wine bar and he leaned forward at the table and I looked at him properly, without worrying about his age, and just fell into his eyes. I could never get out after that. Simon always seemed older than his years when he was immersed in music. I think that’s what I fell in love with. He was able to make people feel the world through his soul.

We did a few gigs together then one night I was sick and he replaced me with his friend on sax. After that I was ‘sacked’. It was torture at the time but it was probably good in the long term.

Before our first son was born I was doing my PhD and singing in the Victorian Opera chorus and Simon was teaching piano in schools. He was getting frustrated and said ‘If this is what life is going to be like for the next 40 years I’ll die’. A friend’s husband introduced us to home brewing and the penny dropped for Simon. There were very few microbreweries around at that stage. We set up the brewery at my parents’ farm at Steele’s Creek and later we took over the restaurant at Yarra Glen.

On Black Saturday I’d taken our three kids to Simon’s parents place in Ringwood. I called the farm and Mum answered and said ‘The house is on fire and brewery is gone!’ That was the last I heard from them for ten hours. Simon was running the restaurant that day and Yarra Glen was like a blockade. Lots of our friends from Steele’s Creek came in and sat around not knowing what to do. Simon took them home and gave them somewhere to sleep for the night.

My parents stayed to fight the fire but their house burnt to the ground. When I first saw them they had these horrible grins – faces of horror. We couldn’t get them to leave the farm and for a while they lived in the greenhouse. Simon was getting a bit traumatised at that stage. People’s fuses are much shorter when they’re really stressed. I said ‘Let’s ring Red Hill brewery, ask if they’ll let us brew there’. You don’t expect other businesses to come to your aid. But they said ‘Sure thing’. We had put everything on the line for this young business. We’d just opened the restaurant and had a very poor winter with the GFC. It was hell.

Six months later we mortgaged ourselves to the eyeballs and established a new brewery in Lilydale. It took my parents three years to begin to smile again. We all drank more than we should have, for a while.

In 2011 we could almost see the light at the end of the tunnel, then Simon was diagnosed with cancer of the uvula. The next few months were a tunnel of horror, with surgery then radiotherapy. They wanted to save his taste buds if they could. He insisted on doing it by all by himself because he didn’t want me to see him suffering. But he had a pretty massive breakdown. It was ages before he was able to seek help. He went into a period of immersing himself in books about mindfulness. Since then he’s been on relentless mission to change his way of thinking.

I was offended at first when Simon didn’t want to be involved with ‘Lumie Stark’, but I think he did it to protect me, because of the cancer. He thought he might not be around to participate. When I was looking for a recording name I discovered there’s a porn star called Beth Williams so I decided on a quirky name that no one else had. ‘Lumie’ from illumination and ‘Stark’ means strong in German. Light and strength.

Simon: When Beth rocked up at my house one day she’d been working in the vineyards. It was the end of summer and she was all bronzed. I was pretty excited by her. She had written these songs that didn’t fit into any particular form so it was a bit of a challenge. She had no formal skills as a musician but her voice had a dark timbre I hadn’t heard before. I thought there may be something there as a classical singer. I can be a hard person to work with because of my lack of diplomacy. I had to be so accurate as a soloist but when I was accompanying these bloody singers they were taking massive liberties with the notes.

Music is a really demanding place. You spend every waking moment chasing it. Brewing started out for me as a diversion that felt mentally healthy. We were brewing one batch a week, selling that and repeating it. We’ve never been a big business, just tried to brew beer made from good ingredients and brewed well.

There was a café here in Yarra Glen we sold beer to but the bills were being paid slower and slower. Then we found the business was for sale. Beth had worked in hospitality at De Bortolis winery and it’s something she’s good at. I’m the pragmatic guy who says no to lots of things and she dreams up crazy ideas for us to try. So we became accidental restauranteurs. If you come in here on a Sunday Beth’s got people lined up at the bar and she’s got all the kids out the back doing craft activities. Because it’s a small family business she does everything from taking bookings to cooking steaks to running the floor. I just keep an eye on the books.

The biggest impact for us with the Black Saturday bush fires was watching Beth’s parents go through it all. When we lost contact with them we didn’t know if they were alive or dead. I snuck in a back road on Sunday morning and found that everybody was okay. Beth’s mum’s shoes had melted. After they lost the house they’d grabbed a bottle out of the cellar, sat in a paddock and drank wine all night.

Following the cancer diagnosis I didn’t have any way to cope with the idea of impending death. I remember pulling up outside the restaurant and seeing my kids at the end of the street and it was like watching them live without me. I completely broke down. Then I spoke to a lady who was a breast cancer survivor and she said ‘One day you’ll be able to help someone else with their illness’. She spurred me on to find a level of mental fortitude rather than wallowing in this stagnant self-pity.

I try to find more enjoyment in life now rather than obsessing about keeping up appearances. Beth’s enjoying recording her songs and we’re travelling overseas every year. Beth has this massive capacity for humanity. Everybody comes before Beth, in her mind. That’s something to aspire to.

 

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Beth Williams, aka Lumie Stark

October 5

The hidden history of design violence

When you see the word ‘design’ what springs to your mind? Images of elegant and useful objects? Clever technologies to improve your quality of life?

Chances are you don’t immediately think of the design of the AK-47, or the lethal injection used to deliver capital punishment in the USA. According to Paola Antonelli, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the field of design has a hidden history of violence.

Italian-born Antonelli is one of the world’s foremost experts on contemporary architecture and design and she recently co-curated a year and half long MOMA investigation into the relationship between design and violence. Using weekly posts on a WordPress site, the inquiry aimed to provoke questions about the dark side of the world’s ‘second oldest’ profession.

Antonelli says she had always been a ‘cheerleader’ for design until she heard about the development of the 3D printed gun.

‘In a Pollyanna-ish way, I had thought that design was for the betterment of society. But when I heard about that printed gun I had a sudden epiphany – design is always a two-edged sword. I started looking at objects one by one and making a list of those with an ambiguous relationship with violence.’

It turns out history is replete with ingenious designs for violence. From Paleolithic hunting tools to Medieval torture instruments to the French guillotine, humans have worked hard to perfect the art of cruelty. To narrow the focus, Antonelli and her co-curator Jamer Hunt took their cues from contemporary society.

‘We looked at objects such as the plastic handcuffs called flexicuffs and the lethal concoction used for executing death row prisoners in the US. Then we invited experts to contribute an essay about each object. With the flexicuffs, for example, we had a contribution from the judge who had declared New York City’s (allegedly racist) ‘stop and frisk’ police program unconstitutional. For the lethal injection we heard from a man who had spent thirty years on death row before being released.’

The curators then posed questions for visitors to the site to consider. After a post about the slaughterhouse re-design initiated by animal welfare advocate Temple Grandin, visitors to the site were asked – is it possible to re-design a violent act so it is more humane? Many posts provoked heated debates, which was exactly what the curators intended.

As Paola Antonelli points out, violence isn’t always physical. As well as selecting objects, the MOMA curators chose a series of action-based themes to investigate the ways design can be used for ‘evil’ rather than for ‘good’. From hacking (‘disrupting the rules of the system’) to manipulating (‘drawing into the realm of violence with suasion’) to exploding (‘annihilating visibly and completely’), design can be employed to exercise control.

‘As we define it, violence is a manifestation of the power to alter circumstances, against the will of others and to their detriment,’ says Antonelli. ‘Design can be used to intimidate. Totalitarian regimes have had a famously good sense of design, as historians have noted. Sometimes objects are designed for violence and sometimes they are ‘tweaked’ for violence.’

One MOMA post focused on the box cutters allegedly used by the 9/11 plane hijackers – tools originally designed for benign use but employed in the 2001 terrorist attacks with devastating global consequences. ‘Those events were a watershed moment of change in our understanding of violence – a big awakening in the US.’

The curator says one of the inspirations for the MOMA inquiry was Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature in which the author contends we are becoming progressively less violent. Antonelli’s response: ‘Maybe what’s changed is the nature of violence ’.

Design can tell us a lot about how much we trust each other. I believe humans are fundamentally good but sometimes things go awry. Design is the same. Well meaning acts of design that were originally aimed at the betterment of society can be tweaked to have the opposite effect. It has been easy for designers to overstep, indulge in temptation, succumb to the dark side of a moral dilemma, or simply err. We need to be more aware of the circumstances of design.’

MOMA: http://designandviolence.moma.org/about/

 

(This article was first published on the ABC Radio National webpage in October 2015)

September 29

Vocal Concert at St Paul’s Cathedral, November 18th.

The Westgarth Ensemble presents - Who Wears the Pants? operatic music from the Baroque and Classical eras

 In the mid 17th century the castrati dominated the operatic stage and were the superstars of the day. Their time is long past but many of the operas created to showcase their particular talents are still performed today. So who wears the pants now? Well, since the castrati voice was far closer to female vocal types, it’s only natural that these days it’s the girls!  In this program of soaring operatic quartets, trios and duets from the Baroque and Classical eras, all of the ensembles feature a mixture of female and male (formerly castrati) roles. Can you tell who’s wearing the pants?

Featuring works by: Monteverdi, Handel, Gluck, Vinci, Vivaldi and Mozart.

When: Wednesday 18th November, 1:00pm

Where: St Paul’s Cathedral, Flinders St, Melbourne (entry by donation)

Who: The Westgarth Ensemble –  Claire McDonald, Katrena Mitchell and Sian Prior (sopranos) and Kerrie Bolton (mezzo) accompanied by Greg Smith (pianist)

Background: The members of The Westgarth Ensemble have been singing together since 1997. Graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio, they have all worked for a range of Australian opera companies and ensembles. In recent years they have been presenting themed vocal concerts in venues around Victoria. In 2014 they performed ‘Secret Music of the Baroque’ at the Armadale Uniting Church and St Paul’s Cathedral.

The Performers:

Kerrie Bolton graduated from Melbourne University with a Batchelor of Music Performance, furthered her studies in the UK and completed a Master of Music Performance at the Victorian College of the Arts. Kerrie performs regularly with the choruses of both Opera Australia and Victorian Opera and as a soloist with many companies including Melbourne Opera, Lyric Opera, Chamber Made and with the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic.

Claire Macdonald commenced her tertiary studies at the Melba Conservatorium of Music and continued post-graduate study at the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio. She is currently the instrumental department co-coordinator of voice at Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School and works frequently as a soloist in recitals and concert performances.

Katrena Mitchell is a graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio. A fellowship at the State Library of Victoria focusing on baroque vocal music has resulted in a series of concerts exploring aspects of this rich music period. As well as concert performances Katrena has performed various operatic roles with Eastern Metropolitan Opera.  She also programs music for ABC Classic FM.

Sian Prior graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio in 1999. She has performed with Operalive, More Than Opera, Opera Sessions, Divas Inc. and at the Macedon Music and Castlemaine Festivals. Sian is also a writer and broadcaster who can be heard presenting on Classic FM and 774 ABC Melbourne. Her memoir Shy was published in 2014.  sianprior.com

Greg Smith was born in NZ and studied composition at the University of Canterbury.  Despite his teaching duties he maintains a constant performing profile. His skills in Musical Direction have been sought in many professional productions, including “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in Asia, NZ and Australia (Really Useful), “Hello Again” (Halogen), “Putting It Together”, “A New Brain” and “Falsettos”.  Greg has played keyboards in productions of “Mamma Mia”, “Cats”, “Les Miserables”, “Into the Woods”, “42nd Street”, “Me & My Girl”, “Pirates of Penzance” and “Evita”.  He has also performed the role of Manny Weinstock in Terance McNally’s “Masterclass” at the Court Theatre in Christchurch.  A versatile accompanist and repetiteur, Greg can play anything from figured bass to jazz and rock. His operatic highlights were playing in “Eugene Onegin” and working with Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Dame Malvina Major.

 

The Westgarth Ensemble

September 13

Remembering Balibo

On the eve of the fortieth anniversary of the murder of the Balibo Five i am posting this essay originally commissioned and published by Meanjin literary magazine:

Their eyes stare straight out at you from five grainy black-and-white photos on the wall. Such young faces, framed by luxuriant waves of hair in various stages of bouffant rebellion. The hair is unmistakably from the seventies, but those eyes could be staring at you from any decade. The men’s facial expressions seem to cover the spectrum of human emotions. Malcolm Rennie is grinning, Brian Peters has a half-smile, and there’s a faint wry twist to Gary Cunningham’s lips. But Greg Shackleton is furrow-browed and there is something haunted in Tony Stewart’s serious, wide-eyed gaze.

Resisting the tabloid temptation to interpret this as a look of foreboding, I remind myself that most of these photos were professional portraits, posed by media men whose working lives revolved around cameras. None of them expected to die for that privilege.

The photos hang on the wall of a small house in the village of Balibo, near the north-west coast of Timor-Leste. The wall has had a fresh coat of powder-blue paint, courtesy of cash from the Victorian Government, and the house has been renamed the Balibo Community Learning Centre. Until recently, though, it was known as ‘The House of the Flag’. The fresh paint has covered up the outline of an Australian flag hastily daubed on the wall by Channel Seven news reporter Greg Shackleton sometime on 11 October 1975, and shown in one of his last TV broadcasts from what was then called Portuguese Timor.

Now it is June 2005, and inside the dimly lit house there’s a group of Timorese women doing a sewing workshop, and a handful of Australian travellers who’ve come to pay homage. The Timorese women nod and smile at the visitors but we Australians avoid each other’s gaze. Tears seem self-indulgent here.

Back outside in the tropical afternoon, I consider climbing up to the jagged ruins of a Portuguese fort at the top of the hill to the left. But they look deserted so I turn right into the main square, where a clutch of children are milling around the foot of a monument. Erected by the Indonesians to celebrate East Timor’s so-called ‘integration’ into the neighbouring republic in 1976, its plinth supports the triumphal figure of a Timorese man carrying a flag almost as big as he is.

I am reminded of images captured by television reporters in the previous century, pictures of giant statues of Stalin and Lenin being toppled by exultant crowds in post-communist Eastern Europe. Those images will be replayed over and over in decades to come, shorthand symbols of the human will to freedom and self-determination, and of the media’s role in bearing witness to those moments in history.

Here in Balibo, the statue stands firm as the children kick a frayed soccer ball against the base and wait for their mothers to emerge from the community centre. The kids seem happy enough to have their photos taken by the latest Australian journalist to visit this town, and some of them hold their fingers up in a V sign. V for Viva Xanana Gusmão? V for peace? For victory?

Behind the statue, on the other side of the square, is a row of burnt-out buildings—roofless and daubed with fresh graffiti—the latest monuments to Indonesia’s 24-year occupation of Timor-Leste. They were torched by departing troops in 1999 after the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. I move closer and take a photo of these charred shells of former homes, to remind myself of the criminal spite that accompanied that long-awaited separation.

Before continuing on my journey southwards, I return to the powder-blue wall to take a last look at those staring faces, and try to commit those five names to memory: Malcolm Rennie, Brian Peters, Gary Cunningham, Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart.

In June 2009 I ask a class of Australian journalism students, aged between about twenty and fifty, if they have heard of the Balibo Five. When less than a quarter of them hesitantly raise their hands, I find myself wondering—when did this phrase disappear from our communal vocabulary? How has this Grimms tale of calculated murder and political subterfuge been allowed to disappear from the public sphere, and how should it be told now, to bring it back to life?

 

Once upon a time there was a tiny nation with large oil reserves and an aggressive neighbour to its west. When the aggressive neighbour decided to annex the tiny nation by force, another near neighbour to the south (with an appetite for oil) decided to turn a blind eye. But the southern neighbour had a long tradition of media freedom and so a bunch of intrepid news gatherers travelled north to the tiny nation to bear witness to these events.

The aggressive neighbour didn’t want any foreign witnesses to the invasion, so when it found five of the intrepid newsmen filming its cross-border incursion into a small town called Balibo, it had them killed and their bodies burnt to cinders.

This was rather awkward for the leaders of southern neighbour, but nevertheless they continued to turn a blind eye to the murder and mayhem going on to their north, secretly hoping that the world would forget about the tiny nation.

But the colleagues, friends and relations of the murdered newsmen couldn’t forget, and down through the decades the words ‘the Balibo Five’ became synonymous with a dirty little secret—a political cover-up—and a tiny nation of people who were still waiting and hoping for someone to bear witness to their story.

 

Queensland communications academic Alan McKee defines the public sphere as the virtual space ‘where each of us finds out what’s happening in our community, and what social, cultural and political issues are facing us … where we add our voices to the discussions… in the process of reaching a consensus or compromise about what should be done’.1 The term ‘public sphere’ encompasses more than just the news stories being reported in the media—the trends and products of popular culture influence the so-called ‘water-cooler’ topics too—but the media have long had a central role in forming our collective memory and defining the stories we tell each other in this huge public conversation.

Gurus of contemporary broadcasting use a simple image to describe how radio presenters should conceive of their role in these discussions, advising them to imagine they are chatting with their listeners around the kitchen table.

Over the past three decades, the Balibo Five have drifted in and out of Australian kitchen-table conversations. Unless you were personally connected to any of the central players in this story, chances are you would only hear about them when one of the friends or relatives of the five men gained media coverage for their latest plea for a full investigation into the newsmen’s deaths.

And there were understandable reasons why Australians of all political persuasions would be reluctant to spend too much time thinking and talking about the Balibo Five. Even if the exact details of the events of October 1975 remained unclear, enough information had been reported by interested journalists to indicate that, for reasons of political expedience and/or anticipated fiscal benefit, members of the Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating ministries had all been either active or complicit in covering up the murders of the five newsmen. Successive governments had tried to shape the official history—and thereby the dominant collective memory—of these events by framing the deaths as regrettable accidents amid distant and inevitable conflict. And we the Australian voters had let them get away with it.

Furthermore, any discussions about the Balibo Five led inevitably to consideration of the fate of the East Timorese people, following their nation’s forcible incorporation into Indonesia as its twenty-seventh province (a move whose legality was formally acknowledged only by Indonesia and Australia). Symbolically led by Timorese foreign-minister-in-exile Jose Ramos Horta traipsing the corridors of the United Nations in New York, small groups of Timorese ex-pats and international activists dedicated to the cause of their independence (including Greg Shackleton’s wife Shirley Shackleton) persisted in reminding us of the violence being perpetrated against our Second World War allies by their Indonesian colonisers.

In short, this was a story that provoked feelings of shame, and nothing sends a conversationalist scuttling away from the kitchen table faster than a curdling sense of shame. But the story kept bubbling up and, as it was told and retold, new details were added and new and at times contested layers of meaning were attached to the lives and deaths of the Balibo Five.

Australian journalist Jill Jolliffe was in East Timor in 1975 at the same time as the five newsmen, and declined an offer to join them on their trip to Balibo. She remained behind in the capital, Dili, and was one of the two journalists (the other was the ABC’s Tony Maniaty) who first reported the television newsmen missing.

Jolliffe’s early involvement led to a three-decade-long personal pursuit of the truth about the circumstances of their deaths. She has since filed countless stories about East Timor and the Balibo Five for print and broadcast media, and in 2001 she documented her findings in forensic detail in her book Cover-Up.2

Jill Jolliffe’s book also pays tribute to a sixth journalist from Australia whose story became inextricably—and fatally—linked to that of the five newsmen. By December 1975, AAP correspondent Roger East was the last remaining foreign journalist in East Timor and his final assignment was to try to find out exactly what had happened in Balibo. But Roger East was shot dead in Dili by Indonesian forces on 8 December, the day after their full-scale military invasion of the East Timorese capital began.

The author of Cover-Up is in no doubt about what she describes as the terrible cost for the Timorese of those six deaths: with ‘the elimination of all independent observers to its actions … the invading force was no longer subject to restraint of any kind’.3 Furthermore, she asserts, ‘the film (that the Balibo Five) had in their cameras could have changed the course of history’.4 For Jill Jolliffe, the story of the Balibo Five is a tale of moral delinquency: ‘Understanding what happened at Balibo is the key to understanding the complicity of successive Australian governments, Labor and Liberal, in the Indonesian military occupation of East Timor.’5

Tony Maniaty, the other Australian journalist who alerted his nation to the disappearance of the Balibo Five, agrees with Jolliffe that their story should be kept alive. These days Maniaty teaches journalism at the University of Technology Sydney, but in October 1975 he was working in Portuguese Timor for the ABC and met the Channel Seven crew on the road as they were heading west to Dili. He was fleeing back to the capital after the invading militias had shot at him and his ABC crew in Balibo, and tried to warn the newcomers of the dangers they would face in the border town.

At the Melbourne launch of his new book Shooting Balibo Tony Maniaty described how he thought the Indonesians would have responded to the Australian Government’s inaction over the five deaths: ‘They must have thought, how easy is this! Nobody’s watching, nobody cares.’

But Maniaty’s analysis of the impact of the five journalists’ deaths differs significantly from that of Jill Jolliffe. ‘People say that if they’d been able to get it to air, that film footage might have been able to stop the war against East Timor, but I don’t think so’, he told his audience. And when I asked for his answer to the rhetorical question he poses in the book—‘why the fate of a small group of journalists from a past generation matters in this one’—Maniaty’s views again diverged from Jolliffe’s: ‘Speaking as a teacher of journalism, it’s important that we go back to see what can be learnt from that tragedy. It’s an opportunity to talk to a new generation of journalists about what went wrong and what not to do. Because no story is worth a life.’

And he’s right, of course. No-one should have to die for the privilege of bearing witness to acts of injustice and inhumanity. And yet history is replete with examples of how these crazy-brave news reporters have had an impact—at times incremental, at times dramatic—on the course of events they have been covering.

There is now general consensus that without the startling Vietnam War footage gathered by cameramen such as Australian Neil Davis (whose work was celebrated in the 1980 film Frontline by another crazy-brave Australian, documentary-maker David Bradbury) and broadcast on the television sets of voting Australians and Americans, the war would have lasted longer than it did. And in East Timor, sixteen years after the events in Balibo, the actions of three courageous foreign news gatherers were to influence the course of the independence movement throughout the 1990s.

On 12 November 1991, two US journalists and a British cameraman were caught up in the massacre of around two hundred and fifty East Timorese mourners by Indonesian troops in the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili. Americans Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn were beaten by Indonesian soldiers, and Yorkshire Television cameraman Max Stahl caught the violent events at the cemetery on film. Stahl’s footage was later smuggled out of the country and, along with the eyewitness accounts of the two American journalists, broadcast around the world.

This irrefutable evidence of the Indonesian campaign of repression against the East Timorese not only galvanised pro-independence protests around the world, but it led to diplomatic reprisals against Indonesia by the Portuguese and US governments, and to increased debate in Indonesia about the ongoing annexation of East Timor. The widespread international media coverage of the joint 1996 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Jose Ramos Horta and Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo for their ‘sustained efforts to hinder the oppression of a small people’reinforced the growing feeling in Indonesia that East Timor was a problem requiring a new solution. The debate culminated in the 1998 decision by then Indonesian President Habibie to hold a referendum in 1999 on ‘special autonomy’ for East Timor, and a quarter-century after the withdrawal of their Portuguese colonisers, the East Timorese were finally able to vote for independence.

We will never know whether the stories contained in the final film footage of the Balibo Five might have ‘changed the course of history’. But like a classic Grimms fable without a happy ending, the story of their deaths has functioned as a morality tale in Australian public life. It has been a persistent reminder of how even the most apparently benign governments should never be trusted to tell ‘the whole truth’ about their motivations, actions and inactions when relations with other powerful nations are seen to be at stake—and of the vital role of a culture of investigative news-reporting in attempting to hold those governments to account.

As Jill Jolliffe documents so convincingly in Cover-Up, even after political pressure led two Australian foreign ministers (Gareth Evans in 1995 and Alexander Downer in 1998) to commission reports into the deaths of the Balibo Five,6 key questions remained unanswered about exactly who was responsible for ordering the five deaths, and what role the Australian Government and its intelligence services played in the events in East Timor during and after October 1975.

More recently, following the 2007 Coronial Inquiry into the death of Brian Peters, the NSW Coroner concluded that the men died ‘from wounds sustained when [they were] shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces’ and recommended that criminal proceedings be commenced against the alleged Indonesian perpetrators.7 As yet, however, no such proceedings have been instituted, and Jill Jolliffe is calling for a new criminal investigation into the matter.

For those journalists who have followed the story, either actively in the case of Jolliffe and Maniaty or (in my case) from a distance, the actions of the Balibo Five have been a kind of professional moral measuring stick. How far would you go to get the story, if you were convinced that it should be told? Would you go as far as those five men did—or as far as Roger East, who lost his life in pursuit of the story of their deaths?

In Shooting Balibo, Tony Maniaty uses the term ‘survivor guilt’ to explain why he has been consumed by the events of October 1975 for more than thirty years. He told the audience at his Melbourne book launch that ‘no story is worth a life’, and yet he also describes his own decision to leave East Timor before the full-scale Indonesian invasion as a ‘strange failure’.8

Perhaps it is in part survivor guilt that has compelled journalists Jolliffe and Maniaty to keep asking questions about the fate of their dead colleagues over the past three decades. And the stories of these two journalists in particular have formed the basis of the new Australian feature film Balibo, released in August 2009.

Tony Maniaty claims to have first alerted filmmaker Robert Connolly to the cinematic potential of the events in Balibo when the two men met at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in 1993.9 Connolly produced a short film written by Maniaty at AFTRS, and went on to write, direct and/or produce a number of award-winning Australian feature films, including Romulus My Father, The Boys, The Bank and Three Dollars, before co-writing and directing Balibo. In 2008, at the invitation of Robert Connolly, Maniaty returned to East Timor for the first time since 1975 during the film shoot to relate his memories of those events to the Australian cast members.

Jill Jolliffe’s book Cover-Up is listed in the film’s credits as one the key sources for the Balibo screenplay. Her reconstructions of the Balibo Five’s deaths, based on the accounts of eyewitnesses whom she tracked down and interviewed over many years, are re-enacted in shocking detail in Connolly’s film, as is the brutal killing of Roger East in Dili several months later.

Co-executive producer of Balibo Anthony LaPaglia, who also plays Roger East in the film, has said that it was the core group of Australian writers, activists and surviving relatives who kept the Balibo story alive: ‘I asked them all the same question: Why would you devote your life to this? … There’s an old saying: There’s a special place in hell for those who witness atrocities and do nothing about it. And I don’t think they want to go there.’10

Robert Connolly (interviewed in this issue of Meanjin) has carefully structured the film’s narrative using the ‘Russian doll’ technique of a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. At the core is the re-enactment of what happened to the Balibo Five, as described to Roger East—whose own story is then related by a Timorese eyewitness to East’s death. The Timorese woman’s testimony opens and closes the story, and this plot device is a fitting acknowledgement of the fact that, while concerned Australians have played a part in seeking justice for this nation, and some have lost their loved ones—or their lives—in the process, it is the East Timorese people themselves who have suffered most for the goal of independence.

The filmmakers have incorporated in the movie some of the archival footage shot by the five newsmen, and restaged other filmed material, including the moment when Greg Shackleton daubs the Australian flag on the wall of the house in Balibo. They show the five adrenalin-charged young men doggedly pursuing that final footage which Jill Jolliffe believes could have changed the course of history—proof that Indonesian troops were pouring across the border between West and East Timor.

The film does not attempt to describe the subsequent political cover-up of what happened to the five newsmen, but by presenting their deaths as cold-blooded murders, it leaves viewers in no doubt about which version of history should be remembered when the Balibo Five are discussed around the kitchen tables of local film-goers. It remains to be seen whether the renewed interest in this story following the film’s release could see the wheels of justice begin to turn again for the families and friends of the dead men.

But if you stay to watch the credits roll at the end of the film, you will find those same five grainy black and white faces staring out at you from the big screen, as images of the actors are replaced with photos of the real players in this memorable Australian story: Malcolm Rennie, Brian Peters, Gary Cunningham, Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart.

 

[notes]

1 Alan McKee, The Public Sphere: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2005, pp. 4, 5.

2 Jill Jolliffe, Cover-Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five, Scribe, Melbourne, 2001; revised edition under the title Balibo, Scribe, released in July 2009.

3 Jolliffe, Cover-Up, pp. 108, 109.

4 Jolliffe, Cover-Up, p. 3.

5 Jolliffe, Cover-Up, p. 6.

6 See, for example, Tom Sherman’s Second Report on the Deaths of Australian-Based Journalists in East Timor in 1975, January 1999.

7 Jolliffe, Balibo, pp. 351, 352.

8 Tony Maniaty, Shooting Balibo, Penguin, Melbourne, 2009, p. 23.

9 Maniaty, p. 7.

10 ‘Balibo film gives voice to Timor victims’, Australian, 15 July 2008.

September 2

Half a century

I’ve never liked the term ‘mid life crisis’. It reduces what can be a revelatory phase in your life to a histrionic headline. When I turned fifty late last year there was no crisis. There was a time of reckoning.

In 2014 I published my first book, completed a PhD, clocked up a decade as a freelancer and hit my half-century. To reward myself for this quadrella of significant events I sold my old car, bought a small van and, with the help of my stepfather, converted it into a campervan. I was single and without dependents. I had found temporary tenants to rent my home. It was time to untether myself.

In the first week of winter this year I left my hometown of Melbourne and headed north. For three months I noodled up and down the east coast of Australia in my little van. Along the way I kayaked to islands and hiked to lighthouses, danced to eighties music at RSL clubs and took endless photos of pelicans. Interstate friends and relations who I hadn’t seen for decades contacted me with generous offers of accommodation and companionship. And I made a pilgrimage to the northern NSW beach where my father drowned fifty years ago.

Along the way I gave myself permission to park the van under shady trees, lie down on the mattress in the back and do nothing but think. I thought about the last fifty years and the next fifty years. Hubris? One of my grandfathers made it to 102, so there’s a chance I’m not even half way to the end.

I thought about all the things I’d wanted but would never have, and all the things I’ve had that I hadn’t known I wanted. Thoughts trickled rather than cascaded. Hours flowed rather than scrambled. Decisions came to me slowly but clearly. Yes I could write another book. No I wouldn’t apply for that full-time job my conscience had been nagging me about. Yes I do love my precarious freelance working life. No I don’t want to relinquish the freedom to untether myself from daily life when I need to. Yes I have learnt a few useful things in the past fifty years.

There is a poem by Judith Wright called Turning Fifty in which she describes drinking her morning coffee and tasting ‘my fifty years here in a cup’. The poet’s mind, like the coffee she savours, is ‘dark, bitter, neutral, clean, sober as morning’. Turning fifty is a sobering thing. Bodies have become unreliable vehicles. Physical pain has become a constant companion rather than a temporary annoyance.

Watching the grey nomads doing their gentle laps in the camp park swimming pools, I understood the fear that drove them up and down, up and down. Just keep moving. If you stop it will be hard to start again.

‘These years we live scar flesh and mind’ wrote Judith Wright. By fifty we’re all bearing these scars. People we loved have let us down or let us go. People we respected have failed to live up to our unreasonable expectations of them. Death has begun stalking the perimeter of our circle of attachment, picking people off. We cannot protect them, or ourselves.

As I meandered along in the van the digital post delivered news from people within that precious circle of mine. Dying parents, newborn grandchildren, dying marriages, newborn love affairs. Everyone, it seemed, was going through a time of reckoning.

Meanwhile the pelicans floated serenely past on those great bodies of water that permeate the Australian coastline, oblivious to our little dramas.

So what else did I glean from all that thinking time? I’ve done some dumb things but some of them ended well. I’ve hurt some people but some love me still. Courage has sometimes failed me but courage is not finite. I may have another fifty years to acquire it. It’s not too late to ‘show my colours’, as Judith Wright said.

This winter I paid two visits to the beach where my father drowned. On the first visit I donned my wetsuit and entered the surf. When the water reached my thighs I retreated back to my towel. The tow was too strong. Some risks are not worth taking. This is something I have learnt.

On the second visit there was no tow. There were whales on the horizon. I strode out into the surf and caught wave after wave. I tasted my fifty years there in the sea. Bittersweet, neutral, clean.

 

(This article was published in The Big Issue in September 2015.)

 

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