I have begun my month-long writing residency in Mildura, courtesy of the Mildura Writers Festival, and have been walking the banks of the Murray River, remembering childhood holidays here. So Much Beauty.
I heard a scientist on the radio saying that sharks like jazz music. Apparently if you play them jazz the sharks will come for the food. Play them classical music, though, and they don’t know what to do with themselves. Note to self, I thought: don’t go near the sea when you’re listening to jazz.
A decade and a half ago I played a jazz album to a three-year-old boy who I loved. When Louis Jordan And His Timpany Fivesang ‘Jack, You’re Dead’, the boy lay down on the floor. He put his head right up against the speakers and listened with his whole body. When the song finished he asked me to play it again. And again, and again.
A few years later that boy started learning guitar. He quickly mastered the instrument, probably because he spent every spare minute of his life playing music. Then he learnt how to play the drums. He also sings and he’s pretty handy on the piano. If only he could do all those things simultaneously, he’d give Louis Jordan And His Timpany Fivea run for their money.
That boy is eighteen now and he’s in a bunch of different bands. Last week he played a guitar gig in a Footscray bar. He was due to fly out of the country two days later for his first big solo travel adventure. The set began with a jazz tune.
As I listened to the melody noodling out from under his fingers I thought about that little boy with his ear pressed to the speaker. I thought about all the new music he would hear on his travels. The trains he would catch, or miss. The strangers he would befriend, or avoid. The foreign languages he would be immersed in, or befuddled by. The freedom he would embrace, and the homesickness that would embrace him. As the first tune came to an end I clapped and whistled louder than was necessary.
The second song was one he’d written himself. In the chorus he sang: ‘And then, piece by piece, everything pushes you into unease’.
Suddenly I wanted to tell him what I’d learnt about the sharks. I wanted to warn him not to go near the sea if he was playing jazz. But he’s gone now and it’s too late.
Safe travels, boyo.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in June 2018)
In the second half of the year i will be running a number of writing courses in Melbourne and Mildura – all welcome:
Life Writing workshops, Mildura
Saturday July 7 and Sunday July 8
RMIT Short Courses
Feature Writing (six weeks) – Oct 24 to Nov 28
Creative Non Fiction (six weeks) – Sep 12 to Oct 17
Getting to the Heart of your Story (non fiction) one day course – Sep 8
The School of Life
Writing as Therapy (introduction) – Aug 23
Writing as Therapy (four weeks) – Sep 4 to Sept 25
Refine Your Memoir – Sep 16 to Dec 16
Manningham Regional Library Writers Group
Second Thursday of each month
The man sitting beside me on the saggy couch is trying not to cry. I’m trying not to put my arms around his shoulders and give him a comforting hug. It’s not because I’m shy. It’s because he’s an actor playing a man who is about to cry and I’m an audience member. It would ruin the scene.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in April and we’re in a farmhouse just out of Melbourne. My friend Bagryana Popov, a theatre director, has decided to tear down the fourth wall and invite us into Uncle Vanya’s living-room. Chekhov’s play was written 120 years ago and set in pre-revolutionary rural Russia. This production is set right now, in the goldfields region of Victoria. Listening to the characters talking about the importance of protecting the environment, the pain of unrequited love and the dignity of hard work, the play still feels as fresh as the autumn wind.
It’s forty years since I started going to the theatre. I’ve reviewed it, chewed it over with friends, and even performed in it. Until this weekend, though, I’m not sure I could have explained why.
We all know that the characters in plays are not ‘real’. We know the stories are usually fictional, the sets constructed, the props pre-prepared. This knowledge helps us keep some emotional distance, even when we’re caught up in the drama. But sitting beside Uncle Vanya on that couch, feeling his shoulders shake, no distance is possible. I am deep inside this imaginary world, swamped by empathy.
Outside the living room window the rain is pouring down. We can see the creek at the bottom of the slope, the bare paddocks behind it. We know where all the trees have gone because a ‘real’ visiting botanist talked to us about de-forestation in between acts. When the characters in the play debate the importance of tree planting, we understand the stakes. Instead of being outside looking in on the staged drama, we the audience members are inside, looking out at the place that has shaped these characters’ lives.
Like a tree, a good play can span multiple generations. Like a tree, a good theatre production is multi-layered. Under the surface of this intimate tale of a rural family in crisis there are generations of history, layers of grief, cycles of regret and hope. Like a tree, it is a living thing.
(This column was first published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in May 2018)
All The Ladies: Baroque Women in Song
From the Queen of Heaven to the simple shepherdess, the Westgarth Ensemble celebrates ‘All The Ladies’ in a Baroque vocal recital.
The feisty, fearless and fun females take centre stage through the medium of songs by Monteverdi, Purcell, Handel and Vivaldi. There are also some rare gems including a piece by the pioneering Italian composer Barbara Strozzi and Englishmen John Eccles and Walter Porter.
Come and meet the ladies of the Baroque, as sung by Melbourne’s Westgarth Ensemble.
When: Sunday June 3rd, 3 pm
Where: Church of All Nations, 180 Palmerston St. Carlton
Who: The Westgarth Ensemble
Claire McDonald (Soprano)
Katrena Mitchell (Soprano)
Sian Prior (Soprano)
with special guest Fiona Piggott (cellist)
Admission: $25 ($20 concession) at the door
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 2016 they performed ‘Supernatural’ at the Armadale Uniting Church and St Paul’s Cathedral, and ‘Exotica’ at the Bardin Centre, Brunswick in 2017.
Why do we read memoirs? One theory is that we are mentally rehearsing for other possible lives, imagining how wewould behave in these situations. Some memoirs also function as a reminder to count our blessings.
One of my many blessings was a free university education. I studied politics and learnt about the theory of ‘interpellation’, the process whereby ‘repressive state apparatuses’ make passive subjects of their citizens, robbing them of the power to think critically about dominant ideologies. These ideologies are embedded in everyday language and absorbed unconsciously into our sense of identity.
Reading Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up in rural Idaho, it struck me that her fundamentalist father would have loved this stuff. It would have reinforced Gene Westover’s paranoia about ‘the Feds’. It would have made him even more determined to isolate his family from the education system, the health system, from every form of social support offered by government.
It would have justified his decision to refuse medical help when the family car overturns, seriously injuring his wife. And when his son suffers deep burns whilst working for his father. And when Gene Westover nearly loses half his face from an even worse burns accident.
There is a tragic irony at the heart of this memoir. While Tara Westover’s father rails against the persecutory power of ‘the Feds’, he cannot see that his own wacky brand of religious fundamentalismisa repressive ideology. Every member of his family is scarred by it, literally and/or emotionally.
‘Educated’ is the story of how Tara Westover survived her brutal childhood and, despite having no formal schooling, made it to university. But this is no revenge memoir. It is also a story about how love can survive in the face of unfathomable cruelty.
To remain within the embrace of the family Tara must embrace her father’s worldview. When he forbids her from going to school and instead puts her to work in his junkyard, young Tara falls from a front-end loader. Though the fall was caused by her father’s recklessness, still she loves him. When her brother Shawn nearly breaks her wrist trying to stop her meeting up with a boy, she forgives him. And when her family labels her a ‘whore’ for wearing lipstick, she internalises the label and the shame that comes with it.
It’s not until she finds her way to university that Tara begins to question that worldview. When her brother calls her a ‘nigger’ for the ‘thousandth time’, she finds she can no longer laugh it off.
‘Something had shifted… I had started on a path of awareness, had perceived something elemental about my brother, my father, myself… that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalise others.’
The narrator’s voice remains distanced, even dissociated, as she recounts episode after episode of physical and psychological violence. A more lyrical voice takes over when she is describing the consolations of nature and art.
The family farm sits at the foot of a mountain her father calls the Indian Princess, and in young Tara’s imagination the Princess is a benign presence watching over her. When she leaves home to go to university, she misses the mountain as keenly as she misses her family.
Music is the one thing that can soften her father. Entranced by a recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Tara takes some singing lessons. Somehow Gene Westover’s anti-education views are trumped by the heavenly sound of his daughter’s voice floating above the church choir.
As Tara Westover declares in an Author’s Note, ‘this story is not about Mormonism’. Her father, she belatedly realises, suffers from a mental illness. Any rigid dogma, when combined with madness, can be dangerous.
In this era of ‘fake news’ and popular despotism, Tara Westover’s memoir reminds us that the best defense against repressive ideology is critical thinking – the kind that comes with an education.
(This review was first published in The Age and the SMH in April 2018).
It’s 9:30 on a Saturday night and I’m doing laps at the Melbourne City Baths with a polystyrene model of an island strapped to my head. There are a dozen island-wearers in the other lanes, being cheered on by an audience up in the bleachers.
We’re taking part in a Festival of Live Art project called ‘Landing’. The volunteer lappers are aiming to swim the equivalent distance from Manus Island to the Australian mainland. ‘Landing’ is just the latest in a wave of cultural events focusing on the fate of asylum-seekers.
On SBS, for example, there’s a new drama series called ‘Safe Harbour’. A group of Australians on a yacht cruise discover a broken-down boat full of refugees. They have to decide whether to help these people or leave them adrift in the sea.
Over on Netflix there’s a British crime series called ‘Collateral’. A pregnant cop finds some Syrian refugees hiding in a lock-up. She must decide whether to help them stay in England or send them back to a country riven by civil war.
In the cinemas there’s a film made by exiled Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. ‘Human Flow’ follows some of the 65 million refugees who’ve been forced to flee their homes in recent years. In an interview about the film Ai Wei Wei says ‘their home should be humanity’.
But wait, there’s more. At La Mama theatre there’s a show coming up in which actor David Joseph explores his family’s connection to Australia’s asylum-seeker debate. In the bookshop there’s a novel by Jock Serong about some Australian surf tourists who encounter a refugee boat wrecked on an Indonesian reef. There’s also a book called ‘45 Days’, co-written by an asylum-seeker on Manus Island and an Australian grandmother.
This cultural wave feels somehow familiar. About eight years ago our anxieties about child abuse were bubbling up everywhere in the arts, and I wrote about this trend in an Age column. A couple of years later the Prime Minister established a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse.
Art can sometimes be the ‘canary in the coalmine’, warning us that something is amiss and something needs to be done about it.* Perhaps all these refugee stories in our theatres, bookshops, cinemas and swimming pools are prophetic. Perhaps, some time soon, our humanity will make a home for those in need.
* (Jock Serong’s last novel was about cheating in cricket.)
This column as first published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald in April 2018.
Since you last heard from me I’ve fallen in love with a celebrity. Here’s what I’ve learnt: front-page fame won’t necessarily save you from extinction.
My love-object first hit the headlines a couple of decades ago when former Premier Jeff Kennett dismissed it as a ‘trumped up corella’. The orange-bellied parrot (its real name) was getting in the way of Kennett’s plan to move a chemical storage facility to Point Lillias, near Geelong. The ‘OBP’ was endangered and Point Lillias was one of the places the remaining parrots came to feed.
In spite of the best efforts of scientists and bird-lovers, things have gone from bad to worse for this winsome bird. Orange-bellied parrots are now critically endangered. There are a few hundred in captivity but only about twenty adult OBP’s in the wild.
Why should you care if this gentle bird is consigned to oblivion? Unless you join the posse of biologists and volunteers trying to keep these parrots alive, you may never see one in the wild.
In spite of my click-baity opening line, this is not a story about celebrity. It’s about loss.
Ageing, I have realized, involves a long, hard coming-to-terms with losing things. We will all lose our grandparents, then our parents. Many of us will lose our children, or the possibility of having any. We may lose jobs we’ve valued, friendships we’ve treasured, hopes we’ve harboured.
Our bodies will lose their strength. Our minds will lose memories we thought would last forever. These losses are inevitable and they can be crushing.
The people working to save the OBPs have given individual names to all the remaining wild birds. When a species is as close to extinction as this one is, each death is deeply felt.
But losing the last little parrot with a blue-striped brow and an amber belly is not inevitable. It is preventable. With enough money and political will, the OBPs could be dragged back from the brink. Their beauty, their ingenuity, their mysterious navigational powers – these things are worth preserving.
Try this: search online for that famous footage of the last Tasmanian tiger. Watch it pacing in its cage, and remember that this astonishing creature is gone for good.
Now search for images of orange-bellied parrots. Watch them feeding, flirting, flying. Fall for that rainbow undercarriage, that graceful blur of luminescence.
It’s not too late.
(This column was first published in the Sunday Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in March 2018)
The story I’m about to tell you only ever had two possible endings: a happy-sad one and a disappointing one. Let me explain.
I have never seen my father move. I’ve heard stories about him and seen black and white photos of a tall young man with my jaw-line. My existence is proof that he once existed. But somewhere deeper than my conscious mind, he never quite seemed real.
Fifty-three years ago my father ran into the surf to rescue a pair of drowning swimmers. I was on the beach that day, a newborn baby wrapped in my mother’s arms. So yes, I have seen my father move, but no memories survive.
The story of what happened that day has two different endings. It all depends on when you press pause.
There is a happy ending: the struggling swimmers grabbed my father and he hauled them both back to shore. There is an unhappy ending: after he had rescued the swimmers my father disappeared under the waves and drowned.
When a man dies a hero he can seem too good to be true. Perhaps that’s why he’s always been like someone I’ve seen in a dream.
Recently a family friend sent me another old photo of my father. In this one there is a huge movie camera trained on him as he plays the trumpet. If someone once filmed him, could that footage still exist?
With the help of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia I discovered a ten-minute documentary had been made at a national music camp in 1955 – the same year the photo was taken. The Archive people promised to send a copy of the film down to their Melbourne office for me to watch. But had my father had made the final cut? I tried to steel myself for disappointment.
Last week my sister and I were led into a small room and invited to sit in front of a computer screen. We held hands and I pressed play.
Five minutes in I stopped breathing. On the screen a tall young trumpeter was sitting behind a music stand. He had a jaw just like mine.
He licked his lips. He blew a raspberry. He took a deep breath, pressed the mouthpiece to his chapped lips and blew.
I pressed pause.
My dream-father was real.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in Feb 2018)
Imagine this: it’s late afternoon and you’re relaxing inside your caravan on the Rosebud foreshore. You’ve spent most of the day sailing on Port Phillip Bay. Suddenly you hear the sound of rapid gunfire, followed by screams. You poke your head out of the door. At the other end of the camp park you can see people running for their lives.
You sprint down to the beach where your two kids have been making sandcastles. Get in the boat – you yell – now!
You heave the kids into the yacht and make your escape. Others follow your lead, and soon there is a flotilla of small yachts tacking behind you. Luckily a tailwind speeds you across to the other side of the bay.
When you get to Queenscliff Harbour there are armed men in uniforms hauling people out of their yachts. They’re wearing badges that say ‘Stop The Boats’ and one of them escorts you and your kids to a waiting bus. As you’re shoved up the stairs of the bus you notice the sign above the windshield: ROSEBUD ILLEGALS.
The bus is driven up the hill to the old Queenscliff Fort. You, your two kids and the other Rosebud campers are all herded inside the high red brick walls of the fort. You try telling the guards what has happened – the gunshots, the screams – but they ignore you. Your family is ushered into a small room and you are locked inside.
You remain in that fort for the next five years. In the winters your room is freezing and in the summers it is steaming hot. When your kids get sick there are no specialist doctors available to treat them. The guards limit your access to the phone. No journalists are allowed inside the fort to interview you about your escape across the bay. Sometimes you listen to the local radio station, where you hear talkback callers describing you as a ‘terrorist’.
When one of your kids reveals they have been sexually abused inside the fort, you collar a guard and demand an investigation. Instead, your children are removed from the fort and sent to live with strangers in Queenscliff.
Left alone, you sink into a state of profound hopelessness.
Aren’t we lucky to be living in a civilized country where this kind of thing would never happen?
(This column was first published by Fairfax in January 2018)
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