I can’t watch commercial television news these days. This is not because of the quality of the news coverage. I have a high tolerance for predictable reductive narratives in all sorts of things, TV news stories included. We all grow up on this stuff. We learn the scripts without even noticing them. We know who the good guys and the bad guys are going to be even as the news host is reading out the two sentence introduction to the story.
No, for me the problem is the puppies.
They’re stuck in drainpipes or floating down swollen rivers or left in a ditch the week after Xmas. Sometimes the puppies are kittens, or ducklings, or even guinea pigs. They’re always in trouble and it always requires a kindly human to rescue them from their plight. And they’re always at the end of the news bulletin.
The journalist in me is filled with a deep nausea about the predictability of their appearance after the weather forecast and before the titles. The creative writer in me is horrified by the cheap sentimentality of this narrative device. But as soon as the slow-motion footage begins – the puppy is re-united with its worried owner, the ducklings are reunited with the frantic mother duck – I am in tears.
No matter how much I steel myself for this approaching predictable curtain closer, the rational, cynical brain is overwhelmed by something much more powerful.
This is the only way I can understand my tears – and my recent decision to get myself a puppy for Xmas.
The rational brain fought hard. Lists were written of the pros and cons. The list of cons was much longer. The loss of freedom, the loss of sleep, the financial cost, the pee on the carpet, the ruined garden, the grooming and feeding and walking and worrying. The training that will be required. The barking that could annoy the neighbours. It was a long, long list.
The list of reasons to get myself a puppy was much, much shorter. In fact it wasn’t a list at all, strictly speaking. But if I told you which single four letter word was on it, I would be guilty of using the same pathetic and predictable narrative device that I can’t tolerate on the nightly news. So I’ll leave you to figure that out for yourselves.
(This column was published in The Sunday Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on December 11th 2016)
In the main street of a small town in northwest NSW there’s a street sign covered in hieroglyphics. The strange wedge-shaped strokes look like some ancient Sumerian script. ‘Stock Brands of the Liverpool Plains’, the title says. Next to the hieroglyphics is a list of names – ‘Known Early Squatters’ – and all but one are men.
As I wander the deserted town I notice all the names on all the buildings – lawyers offices, proprietary hotels, automotive repair shops – are men’s names. The women are silent and invisible in the public records of this town. Behind the scenes, though, the women have been making themselves heard.
I am here to speak at the fiftieth birthday party of the oldest regional book club in Australia.* Five decades ago an American woman blew into town, university-educated and newly-married to a local grazier. She was a big reader and quickly found some bookish friends in the local community. This American had planned to be a diplomat, until love intervened. She knew how to run a meeting.
A book club was formed with a strict but sensible list of rules. Membership would be limited to thirty women. Everyone would take a turn at hosting a meeting and reviewing the chosen books. In a booklet about the club’s history one inaugural member described herself living in ‘an isolated new corner on a property (with) no hours to spare.’ Then came a phone call from the brisk American (“you will always find time, if you really want to do something”) and a chance to pursue her ‘greatest love – reading and sharing of books and minds’. The spare hours were duly found.
At the first meeting Patrick White and George Johnston were up for discussion. Over the ensuing years the quieter club members were given gentle encouragement to overcome their fear of public speaking. When their turn came around, they discovered they could give impassioned presentations about literature. Five decades on, the club has discussed over seven hundred books.
The fiftieth anniversary party is held at the local golf club. Silver-haired women clasp my hands and tell me the group has given them nourishment, grace and insight. One confides, ‘The printed word has been the most stimulating part of my life’.
I have been invited to talk to them about how social anxiety can reduce people to silence. But there’s nothing I can tell these women that they don’t instinctively know. In this book club they have assuaged each other’s loneliness, stimulated each other’s minds, and eased each other’s fears. They have found their voices. I hope they’re still going in another fifty years time.
* The club members requested anonymity for their group. They have no interest in publicity.
This column was published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in October 2017.
Last weekend i paid my second visit to the Islamic Museum in Thornbury. The first had been organised by my friend and fellow writer Fiona Scott-Norman. In a gesture of friendship she responded to a letter to a newspaper in which the museum’s communication’s director, Sherene Hassan, issued an open invitation to come and have a coffee at the museum. Via Facebook, Fiona gathered about sixty friends to join her for two separate visits – ‘Coffee With Sherene’ – and a lovely time was had by all.
We were given a tour of the museum by some of the volunteers and learnt a lot about the faith, history, culture and complexity of Islam. We shared stories and made new friends. I met a woman who has two aunts stuck in the Syrian town of Aleppo. Now every time i see a news story about the horror of war in that town i worry specifically about these two women i haven’t met but feel distantly connected to.
I was so inspired by our first visit that i gathered a group of about 20 friends and family members and went back for another coffee and tour with the incredibly generous Sherene. I would encourage everyone to consider joining the Facebook groups Friends of Sherene and going down to Thornbury one day to see this architectural marvel and its fascinating exhibits – and say hello to Sherene. Small gestures of friendship and respect like this can make a dent in the wall of racism that is building in our country. I truly believe this.
I’m back to work now after my wonderful winter travels and I thought some of you might be interested in the various creative and professional writing courses i’m running in Melbourne over the next few months.
‘Writing As Therapy’ for The School of Life
‘Refine Your Memoir’ for Writers Victoria
‘Non Fiction – getting to the heart of your story’ for RMIT Short Courses
‘Creative Non Fiction’ for RMIT Short Courses
Iceland is simply astonishing. Did i mention that already? Volcanic landscapes alternating with green green grassy fields. Startling waterfalls and hot rivers. Lumps of ice the size of a house floating serenely down rivers. You’ve gotta go there. But start saving now. It’s expensive.
I have been wanting to go to Iceland for a few years now. Something about the wild landscape, the small population size, the intriguing political history and the music scene, all combined to push it to the top of my travel list. So I persuaded my friend Kate to join me in a two week jaunt around the south of the island. We both spent the trip agape at the natural beauty. (We also saw Bjork get out of her car in the main street. But that’s another story.) I think it’s worth two separate postings – here’s the first. (More comprehensive captions coming soon)
After two weeks in Wales I was meant to go to Brittany. But the comrades in air traffic control in France went on strike so instead I headed to Rome for four days. Warm weather, history piled up under my feet, best coffee in weeks, and the bells tolling all day long. Didn’t want to leave. Next chapter – Iceland!
I’ve spent the past two weeks travelling around Wales with my mother Margot (née Jones) and sister Yoni (short for Merrioneth). We wanted to explore our family’s Welsh heritage. And hang out together. What luxury. Here’s some of what we’ve seen.
Winter has come so I have gone, off on another long jaunt to escape the cold and see the world. Chapter one was a week in Umalas, Bali, staying with cousins. Here are some highlights:
In the house next door to mine lives a dog called Celia. When Celia’s owners go out and leave her alone in the garden she howls. The sound is almost operatic, a high fluting song of desolation. I work from home so there is no escaping the soundtrack to Celia’s loneliness. Recently I bought a bag of doggie treats and whenever it gets too loud I lean over the fence and drop her a few lumps of processed meat. She goes quiet then. For a while, anyway.
Humans have designed complex ways of measuring their loneliness. The UCLA Loneliness Scale asks a series of questions like ‘How often do you feel you cannot tolerate being so alone?’ and ‘How often do you find yourself waiting for people to call or write?’According to social psychologists, up to a third of the population has experienced acute loneliness at some point in their lives. We also know that loneliness is bad for your health. In fact, the expert literature on loneliness is vast and growing. Yet how often do you hear someone say out loud – I’m lonely.
Celia has no problem expressing her loneliness. She just opens her jaws and out it comes. Humans, on the other hand, try and hide their loneliness, thinking it’s a purely personal problem. According to Emily White, the author of a book called ‘Lonely’ (Harper Perennial), we often view our loneliness as an individual shortcoming. We feel ashamed of it.
Thirty years ago I had a job delivering Meals on Wheels to elderly residents in a public housing high-rise. Most days it was hard to get away from my clients. Many of them were so isolated I was the only human they spoke to all day. They left their transistor radios on all day long, just for the sound of a human voice. They tried to delay my departure with small talk about football and the weather. Yet none of them ever said out loud – I’m lonely.
These days loneliness lurks behind the pages of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Some people look for a sense of communion by observing and commenting upon the apparently busy lives of others. Others hide their heartache behind frequent postings about their apparently busy lives. They wait for ‘likes’ to assuage their loneliness, the equivalent of doggie treats for humans. You never read a tweet that simply says – I’m lonely.
I’m with Celia. Open your jaws. Sing about it.
(This column was first published in Daily Life in May 2016.)
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