Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher


January 12

Alone at last: the hours dissolve in Amed

Travel blog: Away from digital distractions, I discovered a different kind of meditation amongst the outriggers of Aas Beach…

Once you start noticing the piles, they’re everywhere you look, in all shapes and sizes. Driving from the crowded Balinese capital of Denpasar towards the north east coast, I start to count all the different types of objects heaped up by humans on the side of the road.

There are piles of bricks and cement bags, sawdust and tiles, timber and kindling and peanuts and rice and stone carvings and religious offerings of rainbow-hued flower petals. And on the heads of women, balanced magically in reed baskets, there are teetering towers of palm fronds and fresh fish, fruits and vegetables. So many piles of stuff that is being made into other stuff, or that no one has figured out what to do with yet, or to be offered up as appeasements to the Heavenly Rulers of All Stuff.

We Australians often worry about the amount of stuff we create and consume, but we are not alone in these habits of heaping and hoarding. Many of these piles are destined for the building sites that, in spite of the terrorist bombings, are still springing up all around Bali. New hotels, shopping centres, schools and houses are chewing up former rice paddies and tropical jungles to accommodate the ever-swelling population of this island of six million people.

It’s my first trip to Bali in twenty years and I’m determined to avoid the heaving tourist centres in the south. Kuta is a hazy memory of Australians behaving badly, and a friend has instructed me to head straight to Amed where, he assures me, the Balinese still live traditional lives in spite of the influx of foreigners.

My driver, a hotel manager called Agus, speaks wistfully of how the island was two decades ago. ‘We used to share things, be collective, but now we are all individuals and everyone wants to go to McDonalds.’ Agus has worked in Seminyak for ten years but is planning to return to his rural village when he is old. ‘There, if you have no food, your neighbour will feed you.’

As we pass through the coastal villages north of Denpasar I stop counting the piles and begin noticing how the jungle creeps back in, trying to re-colonise the space being taken over by building sites; great flowering vines of greenery stretching up and over and through everything, in a race to re-claim the land.

Agus points out a distant mountain that he climbed with his wife when they were newly-weds. They were making a pilgrimage to a temple near the mountaintop, and after their prayers the young couple camped overnight behind the temple. They awoke to find the mountain ringed by dark clouds and the rain falling heavily – but only below them – while the peak remained clear and cloudless at dawn.

The journey to Amed takes three hours and as we turn south-east along the winding coast road I look for signs for Meditasi Bungalows. Meditasi is Indonesian for ‘meditation’, and I hope the name doesn’t imply an expectation that guests will be rising at dawn to contemplate the nature of existence. Having never been into meditation (too impatient), I’m not planning to start now.

The steep coastal landscape is reminiscent of Italy’s Amalfi coast, but where every hairpin bend on the Sorrentine Peninsula reveals a whitewashed town dissected by cobbled streets, Amed’s villages of thatched huts hide demurely under coconut palms. Meditasi is the last ‘resort’ on the road that winds through the village of Aas Beach, and the entrance is hidden down the end of a steep driveway. The manager, Prapta, greets me with a relaxed smile and shows me to my palm-thatched bungalow, one of only four in this small complex. The bungalows have been cannily designed for maximum exposure to nature and minimum exposure to other people. We enter through a private stone-walled garden littered with fragrant frangipani flowers (which doubles as the outdoor bathroom) and climb some winding stone steps to the back door.

The hut is a single spacious room with a double bed and a large balcony overlooking the shimmering sea. Surrounded by pink bougainvillea, the balcony has a second bed for relaxing on during the daytime. Perfect.

Or not. ‘Of course you probably know that we have no internet connection or mobile phone reception here’, says Prapta, and my heart skips a couple of beats. Five days alone in a bamboo hut with no means of communication with the outside world. Suddenly the hours seem to pile up in front of me, empty and aimless. No gossip from friends and family, no online news outlets to keep me in the loop, and no vehicle to drive myself back along the coast to find a phone signal. How will I get through the long humid days?

I’m still in a state of mild panic as I head down to the black sandy beach with my snorkel and goggles. Meditasi is perched on a half-moon bay about 500 metres long and bounded by rocky outcrops. There are dozens of white outriggers pulled up above the tide-line and I clamber around them to find a patch of clear sand. A couple of fishermen are mending nets in the shade but the beach is otherwise deserted. Timing is everything when you enter the water here, dodging between small but powerful waves and watching out for submerged rocks.

I launch out into the deeper water and suddenly, right there below me, is the alternative universe of a coral reef. Clouds of brilliant aquamarine fish swerve away at my approach, and a couple of clownfish rush for refuge to an anemone. The coral shows signs of wear and tear from the outrigger traffic but the variety of different fish promises days of entertainment.

Back on the beach, I am joined by a small gang of local Balinese children aged between six and sixteen. We chat in phrases of two or three words (‘beach good yes’) and then they gather a pile of smooth grey stones and place them in front of me. Under instruction from the eldest boy, they make a series of ‘hotels’ by placing the stones in neat lines in the sand and decorating them with small shells from the shoreline.

The children belong to the families who own the one hundred fishing boats on Aas Beach that go out to sea around 4:30 every morning. Over the next few days it becomes my habit to wake just after dawn to watch the fishermen return to shore, the flotilla of outriggers gliding landwards like waterborne spiders crouched on the surface of the stippled sea.

The beach is narrow and one day I ask a young local called Wayan if he worries about the prospect of rising sea levels. ‘Of course’, he says, ‘because there will be nowhere to put the boats, and without the boats, no fishing and no food’. There are a thousand fishing boats on the Amed coast and their owners also worry about tsunamis. Wayan tells me he feels safe, though, because he lives between two important Hindu temples and prays to the gods every day to make sure the sea is not angry.

I spend the daytime hours reading novels on my sunny balcony, snorkeling on the reef, eating small mountains of nasi goreng at the Meditasi restaurant and having massages. Late afternoons, when the heat recedes, I walk north or south along the coastal road, peering at the carved temples in the villages and nodding to the women who salt baskets of fresh fish and hang them under the thatched eaves of their huts. One afternoon I see a huge pile of straw propped high up between the forks of a dead tree, an ingenious feedlot system for the agile goats who bleat from the side of the road.

And somehow, in the absence of the usual digital distractions, those mountains of empty hours dissolve and flow past in a smooth stream of pleasure. Solitude produces its own meditative trance, and I revel in the opportunity to do just one thing at a time, giving it my full attention. On the fifth day, as I take my last stroll along the beach front, I’m reassured to see that those little rock ‘hotels’ piled up neatly in the sand are still standing, safe and sound above the tide-line.

December 14

Forget Wikileaks: what about the Labor-leaks?

While the Australian media pack salivates over the scandalous morsels being dished up by Wikileaks, it may be missing an equally delicious manoeuvre going on right under our noses. Although The Greens weren’t able to outwit the major parties in the recent Victorian State election, the party seems to have learnt some lessons from the cunning preference deals which kept them out of the lower house. And I have to applaud their chutzpah. Blackmailing a member of the NSW right of the Labor Party into advocating a new debate over the party’s anti-nuclear power policy was a stroke of genius.

You doubt my conspiracy theory? If not the result of a blackmail attempt, how else can we rationally explain the timing of NSW Senator Steve Hutchins recent demand that a change in Labor’s nuclear policy be on the agenda at the next ALP conference? Surely no one in their right minds would want to alienate once and for all the remaining green-left rump of this formerly progressive party?

The ALP has been steadily leaking first preference votes to the Greens for over a decade. Not only that, it has been leaking membership, too. When I was working as an environment activist twenty years ago, many of my fellow campaigners were also active members of the ALP, attending local branch meetings, initiating and supporting the passage of green policies through the labyrinthine policy processes of their party. They saw value in working simultaneously with independent interest groups and within a mainstream political party.

Over time, though, most of those people (and the younger campaigners who’ve followed in their footsteps) have migrated to the Greens. Disappointed by ALP policy reversals on key environmental issues like uranium mining and, more recently, by the parliamentary Labor Party’s spectacular failure to tackle the threats posed by climate change and our unsustainable use of natural resources, green-left activists and voters opted to support a party which puts those concerns at the centre of its policy platform.

According to Labor historian Rodney Cavalier, author of Power Crisis, ALP membership in Senator Hutchins’ state of NSW dropped from 19,609 in 2002 to 15,385 in 2009, representing a decline of over twenty percent. In contrast, the Greens national membership climbed from 4889 in 2002 to 10,429 in 2009, representing an increase of over one hundred percent.

The ALP is not alone in facing this leakage problem. Speaking on ABC Radio National last week, Berlin-based politics professor Wolfgang Merkel claimed that in Germany, the membership of traditional social democratic parties has effectively halved over the past decade. In many European and Scandinavian nations, young people who are interested in politics join ‘either NGOs or environmental parties such as the Greens’, leaving labour parties to become ‘elite cartel parties losing their link to the population.’

If the ALP wants to reverse this trend and re-energise its membership base, the last thing it should be doing is trashing its remaining environmental credentials by adopting a pro-nuclear policy. Not only might it be the last straw for many ALP members who are considering abandoning the party, but it makes no economic or environmental sense.

Judging by the US experience, a nuclear power industry would require huge government subsidies to produce energy at an affordable cost for consumers. According to physicist and President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Professor Ian Lowe, direct subsidies to the US nuclear industry totalled $115 billion between 1947 and 1999. Decommissioning nuclear power plants is expensive and dangerous, and no one has yet found an economically or environmentally sensible (or indeed a politically acceptable) solution to the problem of radioactive waste.

Furthermore, building new nuclear power stations would lead to a short term increase in our carbon emissions, at a time when we need to be quickly and efficiently reducing emissions to slow the pace of dangerous climate change. And even if we were willing to cop that increase, maintaining a reliable, long term supply of uranium ore to fuel those stations would also require increasingly carbon-intensive extraction and processing.

I challenge any Labor Government to persuade the residents of a major Australian city that a nuclear power station is safe enough to be built in their backyard. Our memory banks may be shrinking as digital technologies take over the work of our brain cells, but few Australians over the age of forty won’t shudder at the mention of the word Chernobyl. And which insurance companies would agree to insure an Australian nuclear industry without iron-clad government guarantees to underwrite the risks?

Given the astounding success of Team Wikileaks in sniffing out any dirty political underwear left lying around, surely it’s only a matter of time before this ingenious blackmail strategy is revealed to the world and Senator Hutchins is forced to back down from his patently ridiculous attempt to send more Labor members and voters into the waiting arms of the Greens. Watch this space.

November 23

Words and Music

On Friday 19th November I had an opinion piece published in the Age (available online in The National Times about the taboo surrounding the declaration of voting intentions.

On Friday November 26th I’ll be singing some French and German art songs and some original works by local composer Natalya Vagner at a bar called The City Tiler at 115 Bay St, Port Melbourne – 8:30 pm – come along (it’s free).

And i’ve finally dragged myself into the 21st century and got on board with Twitter: you can follow me on @sianprior

October 27

Radio, Print and some Gigs

I co-hosted The Conversation Hour today with Jon Faine on 774 ABC Melbourne: guests were novelist and fashion columnist Maggie Alderson and presenter of ABC TV’s ‘art + soul’ series Hettie Perkins. We had a lively discussion about the past and future of Aboriginal art and women’s fashion.

The Victorian Writers Centre have invited me to run a year-long series of workshops on non fiction writing in 2011. The program will be out a little later this year, but you can check their website for news of when 2011 enrollments begin.

My article on ’10 Things You Should Know About Reporting The Arts’ is in the October edition of The Walkley magazine. Check out the online edition here.

I’ll be performing with Paul Kelly in some of his forthcoming A to Z concerts in 2011: Sydney 20th to 23rd January (SOLD OUT), Melbourne 2nd to 5th March.

September 6

Ubud and Beyond

Plans are firming for my appearances at the forthcoming Ubud Writers And Readers Festival in Bali (October 6th – 10th), courtesy of Meanjin literary magazine. I’ll be appearing on a panel called ‘Writers Speak Out’ with Meanjin editor Sophie Cunningham, author Christos Tsiolkas, poet and rapper Omar Musa and non fiction writer Antony Loewenstein on Friday October 8th. I’ll also be interviewing Tony Maniaty, author of the memoir ‘Shooting Balibo’, taking part in a panel discussion on the future of criticism, and running a workshop on reviewing the arts.

(A review of my Reviewing Workshop can be found here!) And on the evening of October 7th i’ll be singing a couple of songs on a lunar theme at the Jazz Night at Casa Luna.

Keep an eye out for my forthcoming profile of debut author Maris Morton (winner of the 2009 CAL Scribe Fiction Prize for an unpublished manuscript) with a focus on her forthcoming novel ‘A Darker Music‘ (pub. by Scribe). It will appear as part of the Readings New Australian Writing series.

And you can hear me playing clarinet on Paul Kelly: A to Z, the forthcoming set of 8 CDs to be released in late September, along with PK’s mongrel memoir, ‘How To Make Gravy‘ (pub. by Penguin).

August 18

Horacek Launch and forthcoming Limelight article

On the evening of Wednesday September 29th i’ll be launching Judy Horacek‘s new book of cartoons, ‘If You Can’t Stand The Heat’ (Scribe), at the Trades Hall in Carlton (cnr Victoria and Lygon Sts) – 6 pm for a 6:30 start..

Keep an eye out for my forthcoming article about the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concert series: 1910 – A Miracle Year, to be published in the next edition of Limelight magazine.

My 2010 series of non-fiction workshops at the Victorian Writers Centre is going gangbusters – third class coming up on September 9th – if you’d like me to run a workshop (or series) in your community, drop me a line via the contact page on this website.

And on Sunday September 5th I’ll be hosting a session at the Melbourne Writers Festival on poetry, journalism and songwriting at ACMI 1, Federation Square, 1 pm featuring poet August Kleinzahler, songwriter Robert Forster and journalist Craig Mathieson.

August 2

SP at Byron Bay Writers Festival and Melbourne Writers Festival

Heading off to the Byron Bay Writers Festival on Wednesday – hope to see some of you there. Here’s what I’ll be doing and who i’ll be talking to:

Thursday 5 August (all day)
Non Fiction writing workshop with Sian Prior

Friday 6 August 10.45am – 11.45am
From song to page: lyric to literature
Robert Forster and Linda Neil with Sian Prior

Saturday 7 August 9.15am – 10.15am
What women want: is it still OK to need?
Laura Bloom, Victoria Cosford, Susan Maushart
Chair: Sian Prior

Sunday 8 August 11.45am – 12.45pm
Aren’t you married to what’s ‘is name? A glimpse behind the scenes
Kathy Lette with Sian Prior

Sunday 3.45pm – 4.45pm
Music to our ears: the universality of song
Robert Forster, Damien Leith, Linda Neill, Monica Trapaga
Chair: Sian Prior

The latest articles of mine in The Age include a piece in the Travel section on 7th August about the Dampier Peninsula in WA and one in the A2 about the campaign to protect James Price Point from an LNG processing plant.

July 11

What’s Going On

Check out the feature article I’ve written about ‘Songs from the Middle’, the song cycle collaboration between Eddie Perfect and the Brodsky Quartet, in the July edition of Limelight magazine.

On the morning of July 21st my radio essay on shyness (first published in full in the Meanjin literary magazine) will be broadcast on ABC Radio National as part of the First Person series.

Come on down (or up) to the Byron Bay Writers Festival in early August. I’ll be conducting a one day workshop on non fiction writing on Thursday August 5th, and hosting a number of panels with guest writers including Kathy Lette and Robert Forster over the following weekend.

Or if you’d like to venture further afield for your literary holidays, check out the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali in October, where i’ll be a guest writer, courtesy of Meanjin journal.

Just back from a fantastic trip to the Kimberley in Western Australia and am planning to write some articles about my travels – i’ll let you know when they’re going to be published.

And looking further ahead, i’ll be performing with Paul Kelly early in 2011 for his ‘Paul Kelly A – Z’ gigs in Melbourne and Sydney.

June 1

Wild Things and Far Away Places

Saturday June 5, 5pm – Il Trionfo dei Napoletani – The Music of Baroque Naples – Armadale Uniting Church, 86A Kooyong Rd Armadale – a concert of beautiful and rare music from Baroque Naples, featuring arias and ensembles by composers Scarlatti, Porpora, Leo, Pergolesi, Vinci and Trabaci. Please join singers Kerrie Bolton, Ingrid Heyn, Katrena Mitchell and Sian Prior, along with instrumentalists Emma Ayres (from Classic FM!), David Dore, Sophie Maxwell, Myfanwy McIndoe and Eva Tandy, for a unique musical experience. Tickets $20 ($15 concession) at the door.

Sunday June 13th – Wild Things: Sian Prior in conversation with Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle about the things that ignite and inspire his imagination – 2:30 pm at The Malthouse Theatre in Southbank.

Thursday July 7th – Non Fiction Writing Workshop (first of five) conducted by Sian Prior for the Victorian Writers Centre, 1 pm to 4 pm. Enrollments now open.

Friday August 6th – [Byron Bay Writers Festival]( (August 6th to 8th), with guest panel host Sian Prior.

You might like to check out my travel article about south west Western Australia which appeared in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald ‘Traveller’ lift out on Saturday 15th May.

In the Walkley Magazine’s online May edition (Media and Entertainment Alliance) i’ve written a column about why it’s important to report on the arts in East Timor and in Australia.

in July a feature article I’ve written about ‘Songs from the Middle’, the forthcoming collaboration between Eddie Perfect and the Brodsky Quartet, will appear in the July edition of Limelight magazine.

On October 1st I’ll be a guest reviewer for the Victorian Writers Centre’s Club Writers – Book Talk – along with David Astle and Elly Varrenti. From 1 pm to 2 pm at the Wheeler Centre.

And latest news – I’ve been invited to the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali in October. Nice work if you can get it…

May 2

Forthcoming Concerts and other events

Saturday 29th May, 5 pm – Crazy in the ‘Bool – fresh from their sell-out performance at The Toff in Town, Opera Sessions (Sian Prior, Vanessa West, Angus Grant) will be re-staging the show ‘Crazy! Songs of Mad Love, Jealousy and Revenge’ at Simon’s Waterfront restaurant in Warnambool. Tickets $22 ($17 conc). Bookings 03 5562 1234.

Thursday May 27th – Sian Prior will be co-hosting The Conversation Hour on 774 ABC Melbourne, featuring guest author Joel Magarey talking about his wonderful new travel memoir ‘Exposure’; 11:00 am.

Thursday May 27th – Madmen forum, hosted by Sian Prior, ACMI, Federation Square, 7pm. Panel discussion of the hit US TV series, featuring screen experts Mark Nicholls and Debi Enker.

Sunday June 13th – Wild Things: Sian Prior in conversation with Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle about the things that ignite and inspire his imagination – 2:30 pm at The Malthouse Theatre in Southbank.

Thursday July 7th – Non Fiction Writing Workshop (first of five) conducted by Sian Prior for the Victorian Writers Centre, 1 pm to 4 pm. Enrollments now open.