Once every change of season I pack my bags, travel to a nearby suburb and get semi-naked amongst a group of strangers. This intimate ritual has become a highlight of my social almanac. Before you jump to conclusions, let me be clear: there’s no hanky-panky involved. The ritual of undressing is called Clothes Swap and it involves a loose collective of about twenty-five women, many of whom only ever meet at these events.
Here’s the drill: you peruse your wardrobe and haul out anything you haven’t worn for at least a year and are unlikely to wear in the near future. The jeans you grew out of and hoped you would shrink back into (now they reproach you for your non-shrinkage every time you open the cupboard). The T-shirt you bought on impulse the day you were too hot in your long sleeves (even though that colour always makes you look like you have an iron deficiency). The boots you ordered online that were never going to fit (what were you thinking?). You are ruthlessly honest with yourself about whether you need this Stuff (the phrase ‘first world problems’ can be very helpful in this process). Then you stash all the Stuff in a big bag and wait for an email to arrive from whoever volunteers to organise the next Clothes Swap.
If you are hosting a Clothes Swap you choose the biggest room in your home and clear the floor. You make sure there’s a mirror in a nearby room. Then you sit back and wait for the stream of women to arrive bearing food, wine and bags of Stuff. Once the clothes have all been heaped into a pile on the floor, the swapping begins.
There is something both liberating and reassuring about getting undressed in front of other women. All those different body shapes and sizes remind you that there is no such thing as a normal female figure, let alone an idealone. Those of us now in middle age hand over our reproaching jeans to younger women who have not yet reached the age of reproach. The younger ones learn that women of their mother’s generation can have decent taste in clothing. And we all take vicarious pleasure in seeing our pre-loved Stuff looking fantastic on someone else’s body.
There’s currently a debate trending about whether well-off middle-class people should be ‘de-cluttering’ their lives. Books are being published with titles like ‘The Life Changing Joy of Tidying Up’. There are too many objects taking up too much mental space, according to these self-help tomes. One women’s magazine is even running a de-cluttering ‘challenge’. Other commentators have countered that you should hang onto your Stuff because your memories are embedded in it.
At our Clothes Swaps we respect both sides of this ‘first world problems’ debate. Yes, we tell each other, we all have too much Stuff. But there is a reason I haven’t yet been able to give away the pleated mini-skirt my mother wore when she was pregnant with me, and that I then wore with Doc Martens as a twenty-something feminist. Our lives are inscribed in the Stuff we own and giving it away can feel like giving away our history.
On the other hand, my mother’s mini-skirt would look fantastic on the twenty-something feminist daughter of my friend who comes to Clothes Swap. Perhaps my history can merge with the history of my friend’s daughter as she treads the streets of our hometown in that little woollen skirt.
The women at our Clothes Swaps are generous, and not just with their clothes. They often compliment each other as they’re trying things on. If they find something in the pile they think would particularly suit another woman, they hand it over. If they take something home and realise it doesn’t suit them, they bring it back to the next Clothes Swap for someone else to try on.
They’re not interested in patting themselves on the back about re-using and recycling resources, about saving money and avoiding waste. There is nothing self-righteous about the mood at Clothes Swap. Mostly we’re semi-hysterical with laughter as we re-live the childhood pleasures of a game of dress-ups. New friendships are formed between strangers as we zip each other into tight frocks. Inhibitions are shed as we’re challenged to try on new versions of ourselves in front of the mirror.
In a world where women are often encouraged to judge, condemn and compete with each other, a Clothes Swap can be an oasis of intimacy and empathy. And to be honest, who doesn’t love getting Stuff for free?
(This column was published in The Guardian in March 2016)
This year for the first time i am running some short courses for RMIT University in non fiction writing. There are three different courses available. Details below (click through headings to book a place at RMIT):
Whether you’re writing a memoir, a media release or a newsletter article, you need to do more than produce a faithful description of ‘what happened’. If you want to craft an engaging piece of writing, you need to find the ‘story’ at the heart of the ‘situation’ you’re exploring. Whether you call it finding an angle, offering an insight, or arriving at a poetic truth, it’s a task that requires structure, discipline and an empathy with your readers. In this hands-on course, we’ll cover how to convert a bunch of facts into a gripping tale to grab your audience or customers.
Creative Non Fiction Writing September/October 2016
We are living in the age of ‘reality hunger’. The reading public has an insatiable appetite for well-crafted true stories. This course will introduce you to some of the essential skills required to write publishable works of non fiction. From essays to memoirs and autobiographies, from personal columns to self-help books, the ingredients remain the same: well-planned and focussed research, a clear and convincing voice, and an ability to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ your readers what you want them to know. You will also learn how to structure and write a persuasive publishing proposal.
Feature Writing September/October 2016
Media editors are always looking for fresh and engaging freelance feature content, especially when it comes to travel articles, opinion pieces, personal columns, profiles and informative features. In this course we will introduce you to the basics of feature writing and show you how to pitch and sell your work to relevant publications. You will learn how to find an eye-catching ‘angle’, how to write to the traditional formulas of feature articles and how to write for a ‘house-style’.
A few people have expressed interest in reading the column i refer to in ‘Shy: a memoir’ about Magazine Woman. It was first published about ten years ago in The Age.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
There she is again. Just when you think you’ve seen the last of her for a while, she pops up again in all the usual places.
She’s in the bathroom mirror, standing just behind you, smiling seductively with her hair all tousled and her fashionable pink terry-towelling bathrobe framing her perfect neck. Her skin is clear, her scent is fresh, and she’s putting you to shame again. She’s Magazine Woman.
She joins you at the beach in her sleek black swimsuit, her hair now combed back in a perfect, salt water slick. As you scurry self-consciously into the shallows, she strides out beside you, throwing one smooth, long leg out in front of the other, smiling all the while at the admiring onlookers. A perfect dive, and she’s strokes ahead of you already, because, remember, she’s always, inevitably fitter than you.
In fact, she comes to the gym with you and perches elegantly on the exercise bike, back straight, armpits dry, and as you crouch and sweat and frown, she’s still smiling that beautiful smile.
No one else can see her, except perhaps those bored enough to flick through the dog-eared ‘Vogue’ or ’Marie Claire’ magazines as they pedal away. You wonder if she escapes the confines of those glossy pages for them just as regularly as she does for you.
And she sure gets around. You’re far from home, in the change room of a small boutique in a distant shopping mall, and as you look up from that tricky zipper, she’s turning around, making sure her identical new outfit looks as good from the left angle as it does from the right. (And it does.) So you take it off and hang it back on the rack, once again reminded of your bulging thighs or sloping shoulders or non-existent bust. You can’t win when she’s around.
So just who is she? And why does Magazine Woman plague your sub-conscious in this way?
Is she your ideal self, the stunning beauty you wish you could have been, or are trying hard to be? Sometimes she looks a little like you, but slightly thinner, or taller, or with a flush of rosy colour highlighting her well-sculpted cheekbones. At other times she looks completely different, fair where you are dark, or curvaceous where you are stick-like.
Is she your past, youthful self? She’s always young, and reminds you of the time your skin was smooth and your hair was thick and shiny with health. And she has an air of confidence (remember, ignorance is bliss) that you must have felt at some time before the responsibilities started piling up.
Or is she the enemy, the Other, upon whom who you focus all your envy and resentment, because you know very well you were never, ever anything like her, and never will be?
And yet we can’t keep away from her. Hundreds of thousands of us buy her image in dozens of different magazines every day, to pore over her wardrobe, her hairstyle and her make-up, feeling that strange mixture of pain and pleasure that she always induces.
In one part of our media-savvy brains, we know all about her hair-brushing, her air-brushing, her waxing and teasing and plucking, her tinting and fudge-ing, her rigid work-out regime, her dental and her cosmetic bills. We understand she’s a pawn of the industrial/entertainment complex, designed to stimulate our desire for retail therapy, and distract us from the real problems facing this mad, over-consuming society of ours. We even know she may soon be replaced by an image that is entirely digitally constructed, using the very latest tools of the computer animation industry.
But another part of that contrary organism, the human brain, insists she’s all pure and natural, no artificial colourings or flavourings, no genetically engineered improvements. She’s what we should have been, and what we could yet be if only we would buy more products.
So we meet her at the hairdressers. She’s the one with the hairdo we know will suit us down to the ground, if only our stylist could get it right for once.
Then we return home and take a bath with her, pouring in the salts and the scents, paying homage to her beauty and begging her to become one with us. She’s our greatest friend, our worst foe, our nemesis – she’s Magazine Woman.
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:
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.
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)
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)
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. )
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.
2017-05-27 6:00 PM
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