Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher


September 8

Don’t Stand So Close to Me

I recently attended the Brisbane Writers Festival, where i was invited to contribute a story to the ‘Jukebox Confessional’ event about the first pop song that made a strong impression on me. This is the result:

Three bleached blondes. Bare muscled arms, crossed defensively. Eyes to camera. Spiky percussive guitar riff. Spiky percussive ungrammatical lyrics. Short bursts. Unfinished sentences. Two word lines.

‘Wet bus-stop

She’s waiting.’

Bleached blondes with pouting lips. Teachers’ black capes flying behind them. Drum-sticks waving. Unplugged electric guitar.

‘Loose talk in the classroom.’

Not scenes. Not narratives. Fragments.

‘His car is warm and dry.’

Allusions to literary heroes. To books I’ve actually read.

‘Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.’

A pop song – a Countdown hit – that mentions Nabokov.

I’m in.

I wanted to part the pixels on my television screen and be IN the video clip of that song. To BE the schoolgirl who was making Sting chew his pen to death as he sat at a desk, pretending to be a teacher.

The Police were my first real band crush.

Oh yes, I’d loved Abba in the ‘70’s. We all did. Abba Arrival was the first album I ever saved up to buy with my own pocket money. Glamorous Swedes with lollipop harmonies and their own helicopter. But it wasn’t a sexual crush. Not for me. Not until The Police.

Not until the bleached blondes sang me a song about isolated people in steamy classrooms longing for – what?

I didn’t know what, back then. Back in 1980 I was 15 but I was an innocent. Oh of course I knew about sex, the mechanics, the procreative purpose. But touching men was something I’d never done, not in the way Sting meant in that song.

It was something I was terrified of, because I was shy, and therefore terrified of lots of things, but mostly of men. Terrified, and longing. Just like the people in those books by Nabokov. Just like the people in the song. Longing for the bleached beached muscled blondes I watched entering the water with their surfboards as I lay on my towel, waiting for my teenage years to end, waiting for my shyness to end. Waiting waiting waiting.

The song’s title could well be the title of a book about shyness: Don’t stand so close to me. I half wish I’d thought of it before I named my memoir ‘Shy’.

Except that it would have been a terrible cliché. A memoir about shyness which features a failing relationship with a famous pop star, named after a song by a bunch of famous pop stars? I don’t think so.

But still. Don’t stand so close to me. That’s how I felt, for most of my teens and twenties and thirties. At the same time as I was wanting that closeness. Wanting to do the kinds of things the teacher and his student in that song never dared to do. Or did they? I always wondered. Did they fuck?

It’s fiction, Sian. You’ll never know because it never happened.

The lyrics of that song seeped into my wannabe writer’s brain.

Short sentences.

‘It’s no use. He sees her.’

Lists of things.

‘Temptation. Frustration.’


‘This girl’s an open page.’

Simple language hiding complex emotions.

And when I developed my last ever crush on a pop star, it was the same recipe that drew me in. The same kind of language. Simple. Complex. Literary allusions. Emotionally-nuanced ear-worms.

I had the same sense, listening to the music of my last ever crush, that the author of these words knew me, knew about my longings, knew that I wasn’t really wanting people not to stand so close to me. That what I really wanted was for them to stand so close that we would never stop touching.

Dangerous lyrics for someone like me. The stuff of school girl fantasies.

‘Inside her there’s longing.’

Two weeks ago I turned fifty. I don’t do crushes any more. They’ve been crushed out of me. And I’m kind of sad, and kind of relieved.

Because there is nothing as exquisite as a crush. And nothing as exquisitely painful, especially for a shy girl.

I don’t do crushes any more. I just do love.

June 18

Shyness isn’t nice but…

Shy people have quite a bit to contend with – not least the word itself.

It has a number of different meanings, none of which are flattering. To “shy away” from something implies avoidance; to “shy” can also mean to move suddenly in fright; to “be shy of” something can mean to come up short, or be insufficient.

And to be a shy person in our extrovert-worshipping age can be seen as being inadequate for the task of relentlessly positive self-presentation.

I recently wrote a memoir called Shy as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at RMIT University and have been exploring the different definitions of the word “shy” as part of a quest to understand the impact of shyness on my own life story. As at least 40% of us would self-identify as shy, I suspect my deep interest in this subject will be shared by many fellow-sufferers.

Psychologists would say it is a temperament trait, one that can induce feelings of social anxiety ranging from mildly distressing to severely debilitating. I have been relieved to discover, though, that shyness is also accompanied by a range of socially useful and positive character attributes.

Part of my research involved interviewing my mother, Melbourne University psychologist Professor Margot Prior, who has been studying temperament for more than three decades. In her view, all children fit somewhere on a spectrum called “approach-withdrawal”, ranging from the most engaged and extroverted kids to the most withdrawn, fearful and anxious kids.

For the shy ones among us, this fear comes from our biology, specifically from the reactivity of our nervous systems. American psychologist Jerome Kagan has studied the physical symptoms of so-called “timid” and “bold” children and found in the timid ones a neural circuitry that is highly reactive to even mild stress.

In short, those children were shown to sweat more and their hearts beat faster in response to new situations. Some kids grow out of shyness but many of us carry this anxiety into adulthood, when this reactivity commonly manifests as blushing, trembling and hyper-ventilating.

I had two shy parents so it is hardly surprising that I inherited a large dose of shyness. As a child and teenager this shyness often got in the way of me initiating social contact for fear of rejection. As an adult I have grappled with social anxiety and been forced to find strategies to overcome my irrational fears.

One such strategy has been to create professional personas for myself, enabling me to function as an apparent extrovert in the workplace. In the memoir I label this persona “Professional Sian” and analyse how she has managed to perform the roles of environment campaigner, choral conductor, opera singer, broadcaster, arts critic and university lecturer.

I now call myself a “shy extrovert”. If I was an introvert, I might be quite happy to remain in the background and avoid social situations. Shy people long for social connections but have to fight through a thicket of fears to make those connections.

Managing anxiety often comes at a cost to the shy person’s body. Swinburne University psychologist Dr Simon Knowles has studied the “brain-gut axis” and its role in the fraught relationship between anxiety and the gastro-intestinal system.

Many of Dr Knowles’ anxious patients present with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), a bowel condition caused by the interaction between the gut’s nervous system and the brain. My own digestive system has reacted to decades of nervous stress by developing a broad range of food intolerances.

While the symptoms of shyness can be difficult to control, the distress of social anxiety can be compounded by feelings of shame and embarrassment. We shy people often feel like incompetent idiots in social situations.

English sociologist Dr Susie Scott believes this feeling of relative incompetence is central to the experience of shyness. But she blames these feelings on what she calls “the illusion of competence”: the mistaken belief that we all have to present ourselves as socially competent all the time.

In her 2007 book Shyness and Society: The Illusion of Competence, Dr Scott argues that shy people are perceived as failing to pull their weight in social situations and that, while non-shyness is seen as normal and acceptable, shyness is seen as deviant and undesirable.

The misperception of shyness as rudeness or aloofness plagues shy people, but in fact we long for social inclusion and connection.

But the news is not all bad. According to Macquarie University psychologist Professor Ron Rapee, shyness usually comes with a range of positive attributes, including greater sensitivity and greater levels of honesty.

When I interviewed Rapee, he told me shy people were often reliable, conscientious, and good listeners who demonstrated high levels of empathy. Many shy people can be found in the caring professions, working in roles that are generally non-self-aggrandising and non-domineering.

The social acceptability of shyness is also somewhat dependent on the culture in which you’re living. According to Canadian psychologist Xinyin Chen, while North American parents typically react to their children’s shy-inhibited behaviour with disappointment, in group-oriented societies such as China, shy-inhibited behaviour may be encouraged because it is conducive to group organisation.

Back in the 1980s the lead singer of British band The Smiths offered a succinct summary of the situation for shy people. In the song ‘Ask’, Morrisey sang:

‘Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to’

My autobiographical quest to understand shyness has not “cured” me of this temperament trait, as I had hoped. But it has erased my shame and embarrassment about my social anxiety and reassured me that without shy people the world would be a far less compassionate place.

(This article was first published on The Conversation website on June 18th 2014)

April 23

Interview in ‘Books and Publishing’ magazine about ‘Shy – a memoir’

Thursday, 20 March 2014 ( )

Speaking up: Sian Prior on ‘Shy: A Memoir’

In ‘Shy: A Memoir’, journalist and former ABC broadcaster Sian Prior explores the ‘psychology behind timidness’ and reflects on her own battles with shyness. She spoke to reviewer Emily Laidlaw.

Q. ‘Shy’ started life as an essay in Meanjin in 2009. You’ve since published opinion pieces on the topic of shyness in newspapers. What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about shyness, and why did you decide to make this the focus of your debut?

A. After I’d written the shyness essay for Meanjin I was still curious to know more about it. It’s been said that writers often write about what troubles them and shyness had troubled me my whole life. I thought perhaps by understanding more about it I could possibly control it better. And I assumed that if I was so troubled by it, perhaps there were lots of other shy people who would be interested in finding out if there were ways to eliminate it, or at least minimise its impact on their lives. I think back then I thought of it as a form of weakness—a kind of character flaw. What I realised is that I will never be rid of it—it’s here to stay—but that I have found all sorts of good strategies for coping with it. And that it is not a character flaw but a common temperament trait that is often accompanied by some really positive qualities, like empathy.

Q. Having had such a public career as a writer, broadcaster and performer, you acknowledge throughout ‘Shy’ that you shirk the spotlight as much as you crave it. Do you feel the same tension when publicising this book?

A. No doubt I will feel anxious having to ‘perform’ at writers’ festivals and answer questions about my personal life. But I will try to assume the role of Professional Sian (she is much braver than Shy Sian, and rather enjoys the limelight) and tell myself that the information in this book might potentially be useful for others—so it’s not ‘all about me’. Having spent three years writing about myself, I am rather tired of thinking about me.

Q. It’s inevitable some people will hone in on the parts of ‘Shy’, which discuss the relationship breakdown with a famous, unnamed musician. Are you dreading the reaction to this, or did you find writing about this turbulent time in your life to be a cathartic experience?

A. As a journalist and a lifelong student (and fan) of popular culture I understand the allure of fame. There might well be some prurient interest in that part of the book just because people are naturally curious about the famous. As I try to explain in the book, the problem with fame is that it draws attention towards itself and away from other potentially more interesting things. I hope, though, that when people read it they will see that it’s not a book about fame or about a famous person. It’s a book about me and about my obsession with shyness and, yes, in part about the effect of that temperament trait on my love life.

Q. A lot of research has gone into ‘Shy’; you interview many specialists in the field of personality studies, including your own mother. Has investigating the psychology of shyness helped you better understand yourself?

A. Yes, in that I now have a much better idea about why I am sometimes swamped by intensely uncomfortable emotions and anxieties in social situations. I’m now less likely to give myself a hard time when I’m feeling shy and, interestingly, I do feel stricken with shyness less often these days. So maybe it has been cathartic. In some ways shyness has driven me to take risks in my life that I might not have taken if I’d been a more relaxed, less anxious person. I’ve been so determined not to let it ‘beat me’ that I’ve often chosen the path of most resistance as a way of proving to myself that I’m not ‘weak’.

Q. Thinking of other readers who identify as ‘shy’ or suffer from a form of social anxiety, what would you most like them to take away from your book?

A. That shyness, or any form anxiety, is not something to be ashamed of. That many people who don’t seem shy or anxious probably are. That there are ways you can take more control of this stuff but that you also might just have to learn to live with it. My mother the psychologist assures me that high anxiety often goes with high intelligence. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s kind of consoling. Because shyness has often made me feel like an idiot.

Q. What was the last book you read and loved?

A. I am gradually catching up with all of David Mitchell’s novels and recently read Black Swan Green (Hodder). It is astounding how much psychological insight Mitchell-the-adult has into the mind of a sensitive adolescent boy. It took me straight back to the months I spent at an English high school as a 15-year-old, and the labyrinth of unwritten rules that must be negotiated to survive in that kind of environment. He’s a writer with a lot of empathy. I bet he’s a shy one.

March 17

Writing the Body

I don’t have any tattoos but there is plenty of stuff written on my body.

Last year I went to see a dermatologist to check for any dodgy results of my lifelong habit of spending way too much time on beaches. I have pale Anglo-Celtic heritage but I can’t bear to stay out of the sun. She showed me all the marks the sun had left on my body and then cut bits out of me to test for skin cancer. I’ve been lucky, so far. But my history is written on the epidermis that covers my body.

I never got tattoos because I don’t like the idea of self-inflicted pain. But my history is written in my body in the form of ongoing self-inflicted pain. Right now my lower back has an ache that dates back to a prolapsed disc in the lumbar region just over twelve years ago. This injury resulted in a hospital stay and spinal surgery, the result of years of not looking after my dodgy back. The disc prolapse and surgery also coincided with the end of a nine year relationship so by association, almost every time my back hurts I remember that particular grief.

I have another scar on my body from surgery to remove my gallbladder when i was in my early twenties. Soon after that surgery a man came to visit me at home – a married man who I had, not long before, come very close to having an affair with – so every time I see that scar I remember that particular near-mistake. The history of my emotional life is written on, and in, my body.

Right now my eyes are a bit dry from a lack of oil in my tears. This is an inherited condition, and the reason why I never used contact lenses but instead spent my adolescence and young adulthood wearing thick plastic spectacles. Then in my thirties I had laser surgery on my eyes and threw away my spectacles, which felt like a miracle, until recently when I have had to get spectacles again, because now I’m middle aged and my eyes are too tired to do what they’re meant to do. The history of my eyes is written in my personality which was shaped, at least in part, by my adolescent experience as a wearer of thick, unfashionable spectacles. Behind which I hid.

Now that I am nearly fifty I often see my body as a series of small problems to be managed. My friends and I have a ‘five minute limit’ rule. We can only talk about the problems with our bodies for five minutes and then the conversation has to move on or we will talk about it for hours. We will tell each other the history of our bodies until we have bored each other to death. Because the history of our experiences is written on, and in, our bodies.

I have just finished writing a memoir about my lifelong battle with one particular temperament trait: shyness. That battle is written in and on my body because my body had been the locus of agency in this battle, a fighting, protesting, self-sabotaging entity that often seemed to have a mind of its own.

Psychologists label shyness ‘social anxiety’ and one of the key symptoms is self-consciousness. According to one expert, ‘if you suffer from shyness, you worry a lot about the impression you’ll make on others. You are constantly self-monitoring, creating a vicious circle of clumsy behaviour, social avoidance and an impoverished repertoire of social skills.’ The shy person is constantly standing outside of their own body, critiquing it, trying in vain to control it and to control the impression it makes on other people.

Social anxiety often leads to digestive problems. The mind is in a pact with the gut, both trying (unnecessarily) to protect the shy person’s body from perceived danger from other humans. The history of my anxiety is written in the lining of my over-reactive guts.

Psychologists have identified a condition called ‘body identity integrity disorder’, the feeling that one of your limbs doesn’t belong to you, and the accompanying desire to have it surgically removed. Sometimes I wonder if shyness been like for me like one of those unwanted limbs, a perfectly normal part of me that I simply cannot acknowledge belongs to me.

Writing a book was an attempt to come to terms with the fact that shyness does belong to me. We are inextricably bound together just as I am bound to the image of my body I see when I look into a mirror. The history of my shyness is written in, and on, my body. And, now, in my book.


(This article was published in The Victorian Writer magazine in February 2016. My academic essay on Writing the Shy Body can be found in the Published Proceedings of the 2013 AAWP Creative Manoeuvres Conference.)

March 14

Secret Baroque Music – March 16th

This Sunday I will be performing in a ‘Secret Baroque’ concert of vocal music. The following program essay by soprano Katrena Mitchell gives some context for the wonderful music we’ll be singing:

‘The term Baroque covers an incredibly diverse period ranging from around 1600 to 1750. To understand the extent of the musical revolution during this period just compare the music of the composers Claudio Monteverdi and Georg Handel who represent the two extremes of the Baroque.

Chamber music first began to be used as a term around the middle of the 16th century to denote small ensembles of instruments and voices, particularly in a private setting, well, as private as your average ducal court could get. Secret music doesn’t necessarily denote anything clandestine but indicates the private and often domestic nature of the music. Within the ducal palace, the court or the private chapel, great households retained composers and musicians to provide the musical soundscape of their world.

Aristocratic tastes and pretentions dominated the musical world at this time. They enthusiastically endorsed the Platonic philosophy espoused in Platos’ second book of Laws, that the music which pleases the best men (the noble and those educated highly enough to know about Platonic laws) is, by default, the best music.

This may have been a very noble idea but it did lend itself to outrageous flattery, only thinly disguised by classical allusions and figures. Such is the case in this except from a Neapolitan festa e ballo from 1620. Giovanni Maria Trabaci (c. 1575–1647) was Master of Chapel to the Spanish viceroys at the Chapel Royal of Naples. He was conscripted to provide some of the music for the celebration for the recovery from illness of Philip III of Austria, King of the Spains, a grand festival of music and spectacle. During the festivities, three sirens and Sebeto, the personification of Naples, emerge offering tributes and praise for the great Ulysses. He alone can bring them joy and make everything beautiful and serene. He need not fear that their customary enchantments would be used against him. They hope that he will be as gracious towards them as they are towards him.

Private settings also permitted the use of risqué or erotic lyrics. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), the first superstar of the baroque, served the Gonzaga family in Mantua as court composer from 1602 to 1613, although he continued to write works for Mantua up to 1628. Come dolce hoggi láuretta was written some time during this period but was posthumously published in a collection of madrigals and songs in 1651. It is evident that these three ladies are greeting the coming day after enjoying a night of blissful love making.

From Book 7 of the madrigals, published in 1619 come two works, Io son pur vezzosetta and Parlo miser o taccio. In the first the beautiful young women exult in their attractions but remained puzzled why Lydio seems not to notice them. The second tells the familiar story of unrequited love, to speak out or stay silent; both options carry their own danger. Perhaps silence is best after all.

A nod to the crowning achievement of the baroque period, the creation of opera, we have Arianna’s lament Lasciate mi morir, part of the tiny fragment that remains from his 1608 composition. The heartbreakingly dramatic outpouring of grief as Arianna begs to be left alone to die probably contributed to its survival. It was obviously a favourite of Monteverdi’s as well since he sets it again as a 5 part madrigal in 1614 and in 1640 reworks it into Pianto della Madonna (Tears of the Madonna).

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) was appointed Gentleman of the Chapel Royal by James I of England around 1615. His most enduring madrigal is The Silver Swan, based on the legend that swans only sing on the point of death. It appears to take rather a dim view of Jacobean society; “More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise”, however it is thought that perhaps Gibbons was commenting on the general demise in quality music after the Tudor period.

Along with Monteverdi, Giulio Caccini (1551-1618), was one of the most influential composers of the early baroque. As a young tenor living in Rome, he was heard by Francesco de’ Medici and taken back to the Florentine court, then one of the most progressive music centres of both Italy and Europe. Amarilli is taken from his 1602 publication boldly called Le Nuove Musiche, in which he carefully explains the new style of composition for single voices called stille recetativo and which has become known to us as the operatic recitative. The singer invites Amarilli to open up the breast of the lover so she can satisfy herself as to his devotion. There she will find inscribed on his heart the words, ‘Amarillli is my love’.

The Venetian Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) was the proverbial triple threat. Not only was she an exceptional singer, she was renowned for her poetic ability as well as her compositional talent. Her father was instrumental in publicly promoting his daughter’s talent in the early years. Both works come from the first book of madrigals published in 1644. Begli Occhi speaks darkly of wounding eyes. Were they arrows, they would be fatal. Merce di voi takes a much more joyful view of love; the singers thank their lucky stars and exult in the joyful harmony of two loving souls.

The composer who personifies baroque music for most of us is Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and one of the best known collections of works are the preludes and fugues that make up the Well-tempered Clavier. One of the more virtuosic pieces, the C# major prelude and fugue from Book 1 was published in 1723. Dubbed “the old testament” by Hans von Bulow, the Well-tempered Clavier is acknowledged as one of the most significant works for the keyboard ever written.

Most of the composers featured in this concert were servants attached to great houses; Monteverdi and the Gonzaga family in Mantua and Luzzaschi with the d’Este family at the court of Ferrara. This concert features a rarely performed composition by Luzzascho Luzzaschi (?1545-1607). Tamo mia vita was written for the Three Ladies of Ferrara known as the Concerto della Donne. Here they sing of the joy of their love; Let “I love you my life” be my life.

Another highly significant but rarely performed composer is Luigi Rossi (1597 or 8-1653), who entered the service of the Borghese family in Rome in the 1620s and later Cardinal Antonio Barberini, a great lover of opera. Following Barberini to Paris, Rossi was instrumental in bringing opera to that city. His melodious style became popular throughout Europe and his music was well known in England. He was one of the few composers of the time to accrue some wealth during his lifetime. The chamber duet Speranza, al tuo pallore speaks directly to Hope, noting its sickly pallor and exhorting Hope to cure itself before trying to help the person in which it resides.

The last great star of the baroque was George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Best known for his large public works for the English court and the King’s Theatre, Handel first began to write chamber duets when in Italy and Hanover as a young man. The reason for his return to this form much later in his career is unknown but during 1941-1945 he composed several more chamber duets of which “Quel fior che all’alba ride” is one. This rather jaunty piece, recycled for use in his most enduring work, the oratorio Messiah, tells of how quickly youth fades. True for flowers that fade in a single day and people who likewise lose their youth all too quickly.

In the mere 26 years of his life Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) managed to become a leading light in the development of 18th century comic opera and produce one of the most enduring and often recorded and performed pieces of music from this period, the Stabat mater. It was the last completed work before his all too early death and was written for the noble fraternity in the Church of Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori in Naples as a replacement for Alessandro Scarlatti’s Stabat mater. The Stabat mater concerns itself with the Holy Virgin as a mother watching her child crucified which is aptly described in Quae mœrebat et dolebat. The duet Quis est homo asks, who could not weep to see the sufferings of the Virgin and Vidit suum dulcem Natum tells how she stayed there until the very end. The German poet Tieck reports that he was reduced to tears at this point. The sublime, other worldly tone of the music lifts it beyond its dolorous subject matter.

Like Pergolesi the comparatively obscure composer Girolamo Abos (1715-1760) worked in Naples. Unlike Pergolesi, who worked mostly for the viceregal court, Abos primarily held teaching positions but was also maestro di cappella at several important Neapolitan churches. As a liturgical sequence the Stabat mater had only been restored to use in 1727 but it became immediately, and has remained, a popular theme for composers and those who commission them. Abos’ version was written in 1750 and these excerpts come from the very end of the piece where the focus moves from the Virgin to the listener who longs for Paradise after their bodily death and finishes the thought off with a rousing Amen.’

‘Secret Baroque’ will be performed at Armadale Uniting Church (86A Kooyong Rd.) this Sunday March 16th at 3 pm (tickets available at the door).

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 graduated from the Victorian College of Arts Opera Studio and has appeared with More Than Opera. (More information to come)

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 occasionally programmes music for ABC Classic FM.

Sian Prior is also a graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio. She has performed with Operalive, More Than Opera, Opera Sessions, Divas Inc. and at the Macedon Music and Castlemaine Festivals. A writer and broadcaster, Sian is currently completing her PhD at RMIT University and will publish her book ‘Shy – a memoir’ in May this year. http//

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.

March 10

‘Shy – a memoir’: another excerpt

You’ve been asleep for ten hours but you wake up and it’s actually only been ninety minutes and what woke you up was the sound of the woman in the next hospital bed whimpering with pain.
Her whimpers turn to sobs that turn to groans as her head threatens to explode from pain. Where the hell does it come from? The doctors can’t say, it looked like an aneurism but all the tests in the world, the MRI tube of pain, the dye of pain, the lumbar puncture of pain, can’t confirm or deny their vague diagnosis.

So she’s crying out for the nurse, who gives her Panadeine Forte, but that takes a good twenty minutes to work, and in the meantime her arms and legs start tingling and pretty soon she can’t feel her hands, and who is there to comfort her? The nurse has gone away to page a doctor, and the woman is calling out, ‘Come back. Don’t leave me. I’m scared. Somebody?’

You’re lying two feet away from her in your roofless tent, earplugs out, wide awake, wondering if you should ease yourself painfully out of bed and go to the side of this woman and hold her hand (what if she doesn’t want you to?) and tell her someone cares (what if she doesn’t believe you?).
You don’t move.

You lie there silently and half of you is resenting your broken sleep and wishing she’d shut up and the other half knows exactly how she feels, how unspeakably awful this pain is, how you think you’re going to die and you half wish you would. But you don’t move. You just lie there behind your sky-blue hospital curtain, blushing with shame.

Eventually the pills kick in and she sleeps. But you don’t, not for a long time.

In the morning you offer your sympathy, too little too late, and she apologises for waking you in the night. Somehow the night’s dramas have opened everybody up and pretty soon the other two women in the ward are telling their stories too.

There’s Polly who has five kids from three different fathers, but her new boyfriend is different, she says. She’d been having a holiday, the first day of a week-long holiday from her job cleaning in a nursing home where she really loves the old folk. She says they have a great sense of humour. One old woman, Gladys, said about a new resident, ‘who’s that bastard?’ and when Polly said ‘I beg your pardon’, Gladys said ‘whose is that basket?’ and smiled a sly smile.

So Polly’s on holiday and she’s kissing her new boyfriend and suddenly it feels like a small plane has done a suicide plummet into her temples and she can’t stand up for the pain. Her boyfriend calls the hospital and she has to be airlifted from her country town to Melbourne because they don’t have the technology to sort her out up there. The trouble is, they don’t seem to have it here either. She’s been through all the technologies of pain too, and they can’t figure her out. She’s also had a drip inserted into the wrong part of her body all night so instead of reaching her veins it’s gone into her soft muscle tissue and her arms have swollen up. When the offending doctor comes around in the morning to sort it out, she apologises to him for causing trouble.

And then there’s Beryl whose son-in-law has promised to buy her a Frankenstein mask because that’s what the new scar on her temple reminds him of, and she thinks it’s a hoot. She’s quite disinhibited and often talks to herself, and you’ve learnt not to feel like you have to respond. Beryl got sacked from her job last week, by letter, because her boss couldn’t wait the three months it will take her to recover (if she’s lucky). So she’s asking the nurse if there are any jobs for her at the hospital, and offering to go to a job interview in her nightie.

She asks you if you’re married, or have any children, and when the answer is no, she and the others lose interest in you. You’re half disappointed and half glad, because even though you could tell them some stories, none of yours could compete with theirs.

Even when you close your eyes you can’t block out their pain and their after-midnight groans and their sad, worried children and their uncertain futures. You ache with the relief of knowing that soon you’ll be out of here, now that they’ve chopped the protruding bit off your dodgy spine, but next week these women will still be here, propped up on their pillows, hair awry, mouths dry, waiting for the next round of pills and the next visit from the be-suited young doctors who hold all the answers – except maybe they don’t.

You wonder for a long time afterwards why you hadn’t gone to the crying woman.

And what if you had?

(‘Shy – a memoir’ will be published by Text Publishing on May 28th 2014.)

February 27

Tribute to an indigenous cultural hero

Sad news today of the passing of the man who has been leading the fight to protect James Price Point and the Goolarabooloo and Lurujarri Heritage Trail, in the footsteps of his grandfather, Paddy Roe.

I wrote this piece about him in 2010, and it was published in The Age. (I have removed his name, out of respect for indigenous tradition, and replaced it with Mr R.)

Mr R steps backwards out of the fluorescent glare of the beachside fish and chip bar and lights a cigarette. He’s late, but he’s here. While we wait for our chips to fry, Mr R’s wife, Margie, tells me about her work with young indigenous offenders in the Kimberley. The petrol sniffing’s coming back, she reckons. She’s not sure why. It eased off for a few years, but now some of the community kids are back to stealing fuel from parked cars.

Margie shakes her head in frustration and stares over the wooden railing towards the glittering black water of Cable Beach. She blames the parents. They’re not teaching the kids, not about hygiene, not about whitefella laws and not even about blackfella lore, she says. So the kids have nothing. Her husband sucks hard on his cigarette and nods: ‘‘THAT’S what I’m talking about.’’

You might have seen Mr R on your TV in June, an Aboriginal man sitting alone on a jagged red rock in the middle of a deserted beach on Western Australia’s Dampier Peninsula. The Four Corners helicopter circled slowly around him, capturing a cliched but somehow affecting portrait of solitude. Mr R has been leading a campaign from his home town of Broome to prevent Woodside Energy from building a gas processing plant on his traditional land at James Price Point and closing off up to 80 square kilometres of Goolarabooloo country to anyone but plant workers.

The plan could also bring an end to Mr R’s annual pilgrimage along the Lurujarri Heritage Trail. His grandfather Paddy Roe, a Goolarabooloo traditional custodian, initiated the trail in 1987 to try to bring his people back to their country. Paddy passed away in 2001, but each July a swelling group of traditional owners, Broome locals and southern visitors follows Mr R’s footprints along the dunes towards the point, listening to his stories of the Goolarabooloo song cycle, camping in the same places traditional owners have camped for thousands of years.

Mr R wants to take my partner and me up to see his country, maybe catch some fresh fish, but he’s in the eye of a perfect storm of commitments. He has come to Cable Beach straight from the local court, where he has been trying to keep some Aboriginal boys out of jail.

Tomorrow he will have back-to-back meetings with lawyers and traditional law men to try to block Woodside’s bid for his land. And then there is next week’s Heritage Trail to prepare for, food and drink to be supplied for nearly 100 this year. Margie will use up her annual leave to cook for the walkers.

So tonight we’re perched on wooden benches watching the tide come up on the moonlit beach, sharing our chips and calamari and trying to make sense of this complicated battle. Mr R’s fired up. He is taking the Kimberley Land Council to court, and is still enjoying the memory of delivering the legal documents to the bewildered office staff. His language is all Old Testament vengeance, but as a campaigner he’s as slick as a fish.

‘‘My grandfather told me those stories of that land,’’ Mr R says as he waves a wilted chip in the air. ‘‘That’s my responsibility now. It’s heavy, but it’s mine. And that Wayne Bergmann, he’s been talking to the wrong people.’’

Bergmann, executive director of the Kimberley Land Council, is a man who swallows a lot when on camera. The recent Four Corners program portrayed him as a patsy, a small-town Aboriginal lawyer being manipulated by WA Premier Colin Barnett, and caught between his ambition to be a player in this big-boys’ game and a genuine desire to help his people. Woodside is promising jobs and money for the local indigenous community if the project goes ahead.

But it is hard to understand how Bergmann could have left Mr R out of the picture when the land council boss signed an agreement last year with Woodside and the state government on behalf of local native title claimants. ‘‘My name’s on the original native title claim.’’ Mr R’s words are almost drowned out by the sound of the shutters coming down on the fish and chip bar. ‘‘First name on the claim, lodged back in 1994 — Mr R, grandson of Paddy Roe. He chose me when I was three months old and he taught me the stories and he’s still buried up there on his land.’’

Mr R lights another cigarette. His Sydney barrister is planning to walk the Lurujarri Heritage Trail this year with his wife and daughter. Could be a shock to the system. No mobile phone cover, no internet, no tents. Just the clearest night sky in the country, according to experts; you can see the stars setting all the way down to the horizon.

Later in the week my partner and I do make it up to James Price Point. We pause at the creeks and estuaries along the way where local families go fishing and mud-crabbing on weekends, and wander among the dunes, poking through ancient middens. We swim in tidal rock pools, then watch as the water mysteriously disappears, leaving rippled wet sand where we’d just been swimming freestyle.

Finally, we park close to the edge of the burnt red cliffs overlooking the beach and spot the rock where Mr R posed for the Four Corners helicopter camera. Picking our way over the jagged remains of a petrified forest, we scan the horizon, hoping to see calving whales — almost 1000 humpbacks were recorded in the area last year — but no luck today. Black kites circle slowly in the warm updrafts above the cliffs as our host points north and south to where four giant jetties would be built if the gas plant goes ahead.

It’s after nine now, and Mr R’s looking tired. Fish and chips dispatched, I need to use the ladies’. The public lavatories are locked so I stride past the waitresses in the noisy cafe, and when I get back, Margie follows my lead. She takes a while to return and when she does, her face has changed, shut down.

‘‘They didn’t want to let me use the toilets,’’ she says. ‘‘What do they expect me to do? It’s their fish and chips we were eating!’’ I’m embarrassed as Margie hugs us goodbye. Mr R holds out a stiff arm to shake our hands. He’s already thinking about tomorrow.

February 24

‘Shy – a memoir’: an excerpt

‘Shy. It’s such a shy word; a timid little word that begs to remain unnoticed. Only three letters long and it begins with an exhortation to silence: ‘shhh’.

Reserved is something different. Tall men with jutting jaws. Prime Ministers can be reserved, but never shy. And quiet implies choice; you could be loud but you prefer not to, instead perhaps watching purposefully, critically from the sidelines. Strong, silent types are quiet.

Restrained carries itself with dignity; with an implication of control. Even introvert has a whiff of clinical authority about it. Myers and Briggs have awarded these people an impressive three-syllable label. And most introverts probably don’t mind the label. They have proven themselves useful in the workplace; they make a positive contribution to group dynamics; they don’t usually embarrass themselves in public.

But with the word shy there’s no authority, no control. It’s a blushing, hunching word; a nervous, knock-kneed, wallflower word. A word for children, not grown-ups, because surely grown-ups grow out of shyness. Don’t they?…

…Apparently the correct term for this thing is social anxiety, a term that has been leached of the redeeming sweetness of ye olde worlde shyness. Jane Austen’s heroines could be shy but still lovable: young ladies of fine character, excellent marriage material.

A socially anxious person, on the other hand, is best avoided. Anxiety can be contagious, leaping from person to person like static electricity. I know because I’ve observed myself passing it along on countless occasions.

Social anxiety may lack the poetry of shyness but, once you put the symptoms together, it’s hard to argue with the diagnosis. If you’re feeling shy you’re worried about something. If you’re a persistent worrier, you’re anxious. If you’re anxious, your mind enters into a pact with your body, sending it forth into the world with an armoury of self-protective physical responses. Danger! The adrenaline, the sweating, the rapid breathing, all preparing your body to run. Ensuring your hands will shake but your legs will move faster when you need to take off.

Except that you’re never sure why you needed to take off so fast in the first place…’

‘Shy – a memoir’ will be published by Text Publishing on May 28th.

February 7

Performing arts reviews February 7th

It’s been a mixed bag of shows in Melbourne for the beginning of 2014. Have to admit I haven’t come away from the theatre feeling elated yet. I have, on the other hand, had to deal with some motion sickness.

The MTC 2014 season has opened with a production of Noel Coward’s 1930 play ‘Private Lives’, and whilst there are some things to like about this show, I found myself wondering whether it was still earning its place on the theatre mainstage in the twenty-first century.

The first half of this MTC production, directed by Sam Strong, is dominated by a complex revolving set which moves so fast and so often I felt a bit giddy at times (lord knows how the actors were coping). One side is the interior of a hotel in the French seaside town of Deauville, the other a pair of hotel balconies on which much of the action takes place. In adjoining rooms are newlyweds Elyot-and-Sybil and Amanda-and-Victor, who spend an awful lot of time bantering about the earlier failed marriage of Amanda and Elyot. When the former couple spy each other on their respective balconies, they realise they’re still in love and decide to abandon their new spouses and run away to Paris together.

This comedy of manners is replete with witticisms, but almost a century after the play first hit the stage, much of the dialogue feels archaic and, to be honest, trivial. There is a momentary interest in observing the lives of the idol rich in Europe, people whose most taxing decisions appear to be about whether to have champagne or a martini before din-dins, but after a while I stopped caring. And the cavalier conversations about domestic violence (Elyot and Amanda like a bit of fisticuffs) were full of terrible clangers, seen from a twenty-first century perspective.

Most annoying, however, was the interpolation of dodgy contemporary pop songs in the musical accompaniment to the show. Watching Amanda (Nadine Garner) doing a frantic foxtrot to a Michael Jackson song was deeply discomforting.

Leon Ford as Elyot Chase was the strongest cast member, finding a balance between the inevitable archness of Coward’s character sketches and the stereotype of the uptight Englishman. And Julie Forsyth’s beautiful clowning as the French maid Louise was a highlight of this production. I’ve never seen Gallic contempt portrayed with such deftness and so many pratfalls. Lucy Durack (Sybil Chase) is a music theatre performer and employed an acting style more appropriate for that theatrical form than for farce.

I dunno. There was plenty of laughter coming from the rest of the audience, so maybe I’m the lone curmudgeon here. Froth and bubbles just doesn’t seem that relevant to me in the theatre these days.

‘Private Lives’ is on at the MTC’s Sumner Theatre in Southbank until March 8th.

At the Arts Centre this week I saw the Diavolo dance company from Los Angeles perform ‘Architecture in Motion’, consisting of two works – Transit Space and Trajectoire. Directed by French choreographer Jacques Heim, the company employs a range of acrobatic, gymnastic and circus manoeuvres as muscular additions to a more traditional ‘contemporary’ dance language.

Transit Space borrows from the competitive masculine cultures of skateboarding and hip hop and is set on and around a series of slides styled on the ramps you might find in a skate park. The dancers leap and strut in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of movement as they push the giant silver slides around the stage. It looks dangerous, and perhaps it is, although the performers also look astonishingly comfortable as they defy gravity over and over. At times you feel like you could be watching a break-dancing competition, and at other times you could be inside a Cirque de Soleil tent. At all times, though, the athleticism is overlaid by a physical grace that gives the work an assured artistic depth.

In Trajectoire the set is once again a central focus of the performance. The dancers move under, over and around a giant rocking ship-like structure, negotiating the ever-changing balance of this contraption with brilliant timing and immense physical strength. At times I had to fight off a slight sensation of motion sickness just watching them, so who knows how the dancers themselves cope with the earth moving constantly under their feet. I was full of admiration for the dancers and the imaginative choreography in this work.

On the other hand, the sound design in this show leaves a bit to be desired. In Transit Space there is a way-too-loud and at times rather trite recorded commentary over the top of a way-too-loud and slightly bombastic musical accompaniment. The aphoristic commentary on the Alienation of our Modern Lifestyles is completely unnecessary, and distracts us from what the very clear dance language is trying to communicate. And in Trajectoire, once again the music slips over into Cirque de Soleil-style bombast a few too many times, trying to TELL US how we should be feeling. Less is more…

But I’m happy to recommend this production to anyone interested in the beauty and courage of the human body. Diavolo perform at the Arts Centre until February 9th.

And finally, last night I saw ‘Evolution Revolution and the Mail Order Bride’ at the Fortyfivedownstairs theatre in Flinders Lane. This production is written and performed by Zulya Kamalova, a Tartarstani-Australian singer-songwriter who is best known for her work with the band The Children of the Underground.

Kamalova worked with director Maude Davey to create this work whose premise, according to the writer, ‘is that the suppression of the Feminine leads to crisis – political, environmental, social or moral’. Kamalova plays three characters – Inessa Armand, a Soviet Russian revolutionary feminist; Eva, a Russian mail-order bride who marries an older Australian man; and Maya, a ‘wild shaman woman’.

The three characters’ stories are interwoven and performed around a deliberately shambolic set in which domestic objects are piled up at the back of the stage, and the performance is accompanied by a quartet of extraordinarily talented multi-instrumentalists including violinist and composer Errki Veltheim, cellist Charlotte Jacke, brass player Donald Stewart and keyboard player Justin Marshall.

Kamalova is a charismatic performer with a pure, flexible voice capable of carrying off practically any musical style. Her first major outing as an actor, however, was a little tentative at times, leading to a few moments of low energy and flagging audience attention. The most successful character was Eva the mail-order bride, a strutting, pouting, vulnerable blonde who is barely resigned to her status as a sexual object. At times, though, the ‘message’ being conveyed about women’s powerlessness tended to swerve from mild didacticism to obscure mysticism.

I suspect Kamalova’s performances will grow in confidence as the season progresses. It is a brave and admirable professional move from one of this country’s most talented musical performers.

‘Evolution Revolution…’ is on at Fortyfivedownstairs until February 16th.

January 16

The Self-Sabotaging Writer’s Blues

A tragic-comic list has been doing the rounds recently on Twitter. Entitled ‘The Creative Process’, it’s a seven-stage description of how writers often feel when they embark upon a new project:
‘1. This is awesome 2. This is tricky 3. This is shit 4. I am shit 5. Everything I do is shit 6. AARRGGHH 7. Booze.’

This humorous tweet describes a state of mind I usually describe to my writing students as ‘The Self-Sabotaging Writer’s Blues’. For the lucky ones it is a temporary crisis of confidence that is quickly overcome. For others, it can lead to the abandonment of a writing project. So how do writers find their way through the thicket of anxieties?

The first thing to acknowledge is that these fears can be useful. Writing is tricky. Not everything in a first draft is going to be worth salvaging in the second. Sometimes what we write really is ‘s**t’. Our self-critical voice can help us to refine our writing until it is of a publishable standard. And there is always consolation to be found in the Thomas Mann quote: ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’

There is also consolation in knowing that even the most successful authors often still struggle with this stuff in the midst of their brilliant careers. At the State Library of Victoria last year award-winning writer Christos Tsiolkas described the inner critic who sometimes gets in the way of his writing:

‘There’s this voice on my shoulder that says, “Are you good enough? Are you a fraud? Are you deserving to be… a writer?” (But as well as) that voice… there’s the other one that goes, “you’re a bloody genius.” Equally wrong. I think.’

The self-sabotaging blues can also prevent us from coming up with a new writing project idea. In an essay for The Millions online magazine, novelist Toni Jordan (Addition, The Fall Girl) described the paralysis that overtook her after she finished her second novel:

‘I wrote nothing for more than a year… This was the bleakest stretch I could remember… I called my long-time publisher (and said) “my career is over… I’ll never get another idea.”’

Fortunately her publisher didn’t take her seriously (“that’s what you said after your first book”), an idea eventually emerged, and Toni Jordan’s third novel, Nine Days, was published in 2012.

Deborah Robertson, author of the novels Careless and Sweet Old World, says it’s important to ‘learn to tell the difference between genuine self-criticism and the demands of the ego. Being overly concerned with yourself, rather than the work in front of you, is a failure to take the work of writing seriously. Writing demands a certain moral toughness and stamina and it helps to be very clear with yourself about your reasons for writing.’

So what exactly are these paralyzing thoughts produced by our inner critic, and how can they be combatted? My writing students can easily fill a whiteboard with these nasty little saboteurs, but the three most common are:

– I have nothing original to say with my writing
– I’m too old to become a successful writer (or too young)
– No one will want to read or publish this stuff because it’s no good

Writer and academic Professor Ross Gibson recently addressed the first one in a keynote speech to the Creative Manouevres writing conference in Canberra. ‘How do you stop yourself being oppressed by everything that has gone before?’ he asked his audience. ‘How do you trick yourself into writing?’ The answer, he says, is to start by letting go of the myth of originality and acknowledging that everything you write has come from something else.

Gibson pointed to Bob Dylan’s songwriting process, as described in Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. Dylan unashamedly re-worked other people’s songs and stories until, Gibson says, ‘the stuff that was already re-working (him) started to push through’.

‘Stop worrying about getting it right’, Gibson advised, ‘because there are so many things to say.’ He quoted from a 1921 essay by T.S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in which the poet argued that the process of artistic creation ‘is a continual surrender (of oneself) to something which is more valuable.’

As for being too old to be a writer: two words – Elizabeth Jolley. The award-winning WA writer didn’t publish her first novel until she was 53, but went on to write fourteen more. One way to positively re-frame the ageing process is to think of it as a process of gathering stories. The more stories you’ve gathered, the more you have to tell in your non-fiction, or to recycle in your fiction.

As for being too young: two more words – Tim Winton. His first novel, An Open Swimmer, was published when Winton was only 21 and his eleventh, Eyrie, in 2013.

The third anxiety on that list is perhaps the hardest to counter. Unless you are an established literary star, there are no guarantees that anyone will want to publish or read your work. Deborah Robertson says, ‘In order to tolerate the doubt and the nagging internal voices and just get the words down on the page, it helps to remind myself… that THIS IS AS BAD AS THE WRITING IS EVER GOING TO BE! It will be my job in subsequent drafts to make it better, but by then… I’ll be dealing with words in front of me rather than phantoms in my head.’

You could also try using this fear to take more risks with your writing. A mentor once advised me to ‘write as if no one is ever going to read this stuff’. It was a perfect example of ‘tricking yourself’ into writing and allowed me to write with new courage because I had lowered the stakes, at least temporarily.

If tricks won’t work, try these practical strategies to move past your anxieties:

– Set yourself achievable word targets each day (or week).
– Use the Pomodoro system for time organisation: write (anything) for 25 minutes, then give yourself permission to stop for 5 minutes, before writing some more.
– Try doing ‘scaffolding writing’, where you write about the writing you are trying to do.
– Spend 15 minutes reading a few pages of writing by one of your favourite authors, then go straight to your desk and write.
– Write with the thought that it’s ‘not about you’, but that your work is going to help or entertain or inspire or delight someone else.
– Write down the names of three books you are really glad the writer finished because they have had a positive impact on your life.
– Write a letter of congratulations to yourself that you can’t read again until you have finished your first draft, acknowledging the hurdles you’ve overcome and the reasons you should feel proud of yourself.
– Keep going because if you don’t finish the project, you may ultimately feel worse about yourself than if you keep writing in spite of the vicious taunts of your inner critic.

(This article was published in Newswrite magazine in February 2014)