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.)
Last night I launched a new memoir called ‘Two Decades Naked’ (Hachette). It was written by my student Leigh Hopkinson, who spent two decades working as a stripper in clubs across Australia, New Zealand and the UK. This is the speech I gave at her launch:
First impressions can be deceptive.
When I first met Leigh Hopkinson it was in a small writing group I was mentoring at RMIT. She was quiet, considered, unadorned, sweet. Well-mannered. A nice girl. Capital N, Capital G. And then I started reading her draft memoir.
Turns out this nice girl had a naughty side. Capital N naughty. And I very quickly realised that I was reading the first draft of a book that was very definitely going to be published.
Two Decades Naked’ is everything a memoir should be.
It is immersive – Leigh us takes by the hand and leads us inside the doors of places many of us – especially those of us who are usually Nice Boys and Girls – rarely enter. Places where women take a long hard look at the men who are there to take a long hard look at them – and those women quickly work out how to assume the upper hand – how to get what they want from those men.
And we get to feel the sticky carpet under our feet, to hold the slippery pole in our hands and know what it’s like to gyrate and pose for the male gaze – to strip away, not just our clothes, but our inhibitions, our preconceptions, and at times, our dignity.
It’s immersive, and it’s full of deftly-drawn character portraits – of men and women with false names and nick-names.
Women with names like Tiffany and Jade and Bonnie and Chelsea – and Violet.
Leigh tells us: ‘Violet wore all black: a fringed suede jacket, a miniskirt and a lace teddy. She greeted the working girls without moving her lips, which were deep purple and hung open non-compliantly, slashed across her porcelain skin like a blackening wound. Violet stripped to heavy metal, shuffling self-consciously, her eyes downcast. She was scarily fascinating to watch.’
Men like Thursday Man, who ‘opens his wallet like a spinnaker to the wind’. Men like Vietnam Phil, and Weatherman John whose ‘wife dropped him off (at the strip club) on her way to classical concerts’. Men like The Maestro – Leigh describes him like this: ‘A rotund man in shirtsleeves prancing around the podium, directing a topless dancer reclining on her elbows. It was The Maestro: a weekly weirdo and master of grandiose hand signals, with dubious musical ability.’
This memoir is immersive and full of character portraits – and full of love. Leigh falls in love – hard – several times – and she takes us into her heart as she wrangles that complex emotion.
And she is full of love for both her fellow strippers and her clients – she loves their strengths and their vulnerabilities in equal measure. She doesn’t judge, Leigh – she watches, and listens, and looks, and learns, and she wonders.
This memoir is full of wondering – about the strange world she’s entered, about the people she meets there, and about herself. And above all, if you write a memoir, you have to be willing to wonder – hard – about yourself.
Leigh is not a proselytiser – this is not a political tome, far from it – but she instinctively understands what Anne Summers meant when she used the term ‘damned whores and gods police’, and Leigh doesn’t want to be cast in either of those roles.
She understands the cost of stripping to the women who do it, and to the women who don’t do it but whose male friends watch it. But she has also seen the ways in which stripping empowers many of the women she worked with – the mortgages paid off, the businesses established – even just the rent paid. Leigh figured out that there were ways to set boundaries for herself in the world of stripping and for the most part she policed them very effectively.
Leigh’s memoir opens our eyes to the contrasts in this world she’s been observing for two decades – the contrasts between the clichés and stereotypes of stripping, and the reality of stripping. She has a wonderful ear for contrasts – for example, the tired woman who answers the phone at the massage parlour ‘and says ‘Pleasures’, flatly.’
For Leigh, at least at the beginning, stripping ‘is a small, select club. Stripping was (her) juicy secret… ‘ But Leigh also learns that stripping involves both shame and narcissism. ‘Two Decades Naked’ is sexy without being titillating, it’s gently mocking without being judgemental, it’s funny and sad and wise. It’s a bloody excellent read.
I commend it you. I congratulate Leigh – I’m so proud of her I might just burst. Please raise your glasses – to author Leigh Hopkinson and to her two decades naked.
In the last few years quite a few of my friends, former students and writing colleagues who have had books coming out for the first time have asked me for advice about how to handle the media side of book publishing. Specifically, how to deal with being interviewed – for print, TV, radio and online. As a result I have developed a one-off hour-long media training session specifically for writers.
As an arts journalist and broadcaster, and the author of a ridiculously self-revealing memoir (‘Shy: a memoir’, Text Publishing), I have not only spent many years interviewing authors, but I’ve been on the receiving end of some fairly challenging interviews about my book too.
Given how much of a book’s ‘success’ these days depends on how you ‘sell’ your own book to the media, I think it’s really important that we all find ways to make this process easier.
Feel free to contact me if you’d like to get together for one of these sessions (either in person or on Skype) or even just find out more about them.
Comment from recent media training students:
Author Jenny Valentish (‘Cherry Bomb’, Allen and Unwin): “Never has playing ‘worst-case scenario’ been so reassuring. Sian is an expert guide through media minefields, generous with her own experience and analytical of yours.”
Author Kate Mildenhall (‘Skylarking’, Black Inc): “Thanks so much Sian for your excellent (and hugely revealing) media training session. Feeling a little braver because of you!”
The Westgarth Ensemble presents: ‘Supernatural – uncanny music from the world of opera’
By the pricking of your thumbs you’ll know that something wicked this way comes! From Purcell’s beguiling sirens to Verdi’s plotting witches, from Lully’s majestic goddesses to Mendelssohn’s flitting fairies, the Westgarth Ensemble will lure you into unnatural worlds as envisioned by composers from the Baroque era through to the 20th century.
Last time these four singers performed together they were cross-dressing in Who Wears The Pants (St Paul’s Cathedral 2015). This time they’ve cooked up a cauldron of musical magic that ranges from the uncanny to the frankly unbelievable. Arias, duets, trios and quartets to make your hair stand on end.
Many of these songs have been inspired by the words of William Shakespeare. In the year we mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, the Westgarth Ensemble will present excerpts from Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Falstaff, amongst many other creations from myth and legend. Come along and be enchanted!
When: Saturday May 28, 3pm
Where: Armadale Uniting Church, 86A Kooyong Rd. Armadale. (Not far from Armadale Station)
Who: The Westgarth Ensemble
Claire McDonald (Soprano)
Katrena Mitchell (Soprano)
Sian Prior (Soprano)
Kerrie Bolton (Mezzo soprano)
with Gregory Smith (Piano)
Admission: $20 ($15 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 concerts in venues around Victoria. In 2015 they performed ‘Who Wears The Pants’ at the Armadale Uniting Church and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Do you ever feel embarrassed about ‘over-sharing’? If the answer is yes, you’re not exactly Robinson Crusoe. The interwebs are full of people saying sorry for offering us ‘TMI’ (Too Much Information). Facebook friends apologise before relating their latest online dating disasters. Colleagues beg forgiveness on Twitter before recounting tales of professional exploitation. Close buddies send emails admitting to feeling anxious about admitting to feeling depressed. Everyone’s sharing and yet everyone’s worried that everyone else is over it.
As the author of a memoir that could earn me an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for over-sharing, I’m here to sing the praises of confessional communication. Our culture is replete with positive examples of people admitting to their shameful fears.
In Puccini’s opera La Boheme our lonely heroine Mimi over-shares with her handsome neighbour Rodolfo at their first meeting. He instantly falls in love with her, because vulnerability can be deeply seductive. On national television this week comedian Luke McGregor admitted to feeling hopelessly inept in all things sexual (Luke Warm Sex, ABC 1). Afterwards the Twitterverse almost imploded from the weight of McGregor’s new fans praising his courage and confessing their own sexual confusion. I continue to receive missives from readers describing how my memoir Shy (Text Publishing) has made them feel less freakish and less isolated by social anxiety. So why do we all feel so guilty about over-sharing?
Sociologists might point to ‘self-presentation theory’, the idea that we are all ‘performing’ in social situations. We’re all adopting appropriate ‘masks’ or personas to ensure we appear confident and therefore socially acceptable. If we remove our mask and admit to uncertainty, potentially we undermine the unwritten rules of public performance. This kind of confident performance can go too far, though: just look at Donald Trump, all bluff and bluster, bullying and braggadocio.
Perhaps we fear that our over-sharing moments could be perceived as pleas for pity, and few of us enjoy feeling pitiable. Pity and compassion are sometimes mistaken for each other, but there is no shame in soliciting compassion. Judging by the number of hits on Brene Brown’s TED talk on The power of vulnerability (upwards of 24 million), there is much to gain from admitting that we are not perfect. Brown argues that we are ‘neuro-biologically hardwired to feel connection’ with other humans, and that admitting to vulnerability is a brilliant way to connect.
So let’s all embrace over-sharing. At worst, we may look momentarily foolish. At best we may feel more compassionate. And less alone. Or is that TMI?
This column was first published in the Sunday Age in April 2016.
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