Mr Nobody

It was a pretty ordinary sort of upbringing. Pretty straightforward things of no real interest happened to him every day. Or at least that’s the way he told it. Nobody knew for sure. His boyhood was a mystery. No-one had ever met a relative of his and nor could anyone find a record of his parents or ancestors. As a matter of fact, hardly anyone seemed to be called by his surname, in the city he grew up anyway. The only members of that family seemed to live in Perth, which wasn’t right at all. But we didn’t ask questions. He told us not to so we didn’t. We didn’t burden him with questions anyway. He couldn’t prevent us thinking certain thoughts, much as he would have liked to have that level of control. He certainly liked to control everything else. Having come from nowhere and being related to no-one he joined the army, as we all did, and went overseas when we all went, and the least said about all of that the better. It’s painful still, which really means that none of us wants to talk about it. Most of us would rather not remember all of those times, where life was hard and you just wanted it all to be over. And he did something tremendously brave. Absurdly, almost suicidally brave, and the rest of us really did wonder if he was trying to get himself killed, although we never told him that. He wouldn’t have allowed it. After that there were medals, many of them, for him, and he ended up in the prison camp, as we all did, and life wasn’t bad at all there, with relatively good food and a commandant who treated us pretty well, all things considered. But you had to escape, or try to. It was your duty. And he was active in our planning and in the dangerous work we did. He must have thought he’d be leading us out of the camp one night while the commandant was sleeping soundly. He was the obvious choice. But he injured himself, just a sprained ankle, but it was too close to the day of the escape and he couldn’t go. Our commanding officer wouldn’t let him. So he stayed behind while all those boys were machine gunned in the tunnel and after the war wrote books about it and about all the heroic things he knew about. People loved his books and he made a lot of money and had everything he could want. He had big homes in London and the South of France and a place here, of course, and he got married three times and divorced three times, and ended up with the woman who did his typing for him. But he was never happy and it was never happy to be around him. And when he finally died, a death brought forward by the effects of too much of a good time, which never made his life more satisfying, he was bitter about the whole lot of it.

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Published in: on August 8, 2016 at 8:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Stroll In The Churchyard

There were obelisks and crosses and carved ivy tendrils around the words ‘At Rest’. Cracked tiles and fragments of stone lay where they had fallen as throughout the monuments, some of very great age, are collapsing, very slowly into the soil.

The dogs stepped respectfully around plots and tiptoed through puddles on the paths as we read and paused and moved on.

There were Masons and husbands and wives and sacred to the memory ofs.

The rain came and went, several times, in gentle sun showers which threatened to worsen but couldn’t quite muster the energy to do it.

One man was born before white people arrived in Australia. There were three children, all toddlers, buried in quick succession in the same grave by parents who must have thought their torment was over. There was a little boy whose first two names were Donald and Bradman and who passed away before the cricketer’s retirement from the game. There was a Euphemia and an Honoria.

And some people think it a strange thing to visit a cemetery.

Published in: on August 5, 2016 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

Some Job In The Fashion Industry

She was a blonde woman with a pair of tits who came over from __ and did some job in the fashion industry. Like an editor or something else to do with magazines, although not an editor, because she wasn’t smart enough. Initially she had been a model, which really means that she walked around, looking pretty, which was no effort at all, and she was well paid for it, and that was enough for a time, but then she got older and needed to do other things, as the wildly popular models were a generation younger and her own generation seemed to be receding from view, replaced by succeeding waves of young women, also blonde, also with big tits, who were the same as she was at their age in every way, except the fashions were different and the cosmetic surgery was more refined in technique. And so she became a spokesperson or spokesmodel, she appeared on the television, giving her opinions on things, fashion, to start with, and then other things, and she seemed to be guest editor of magazines she had once caused to fly off the shelves in huge numbers, and of course, she made no money now, it was all to boost her profile, a profile which had once been so big that it cast a shadow on all of her supposed competition in the walking around in clothes industry. And she went on to social media, as you do, when you want to retain what prominence you have left, and to connect with new fans and understand new trends before they take hold, in order that she could appear to be one step ahead of the game. But she was bullied, of course. She was never strong and had found it difficult to cope when things went well and harder to cope when they went badly, and that was when she was riding high. By the time that the public had forgotten her covers and shows and launches it was harder, infinitely harder, to deal with a public turned mean by the anonymity of social media. All of which meant that she was a needy person, always had been, and would need, at a moment’s notice, her friends to fly to her side, and support her when some kind of bad thing came along to upset her always delicate equilibrium. As the years went by the number of friends she could call in the small hours to tell her problems and frantically promise self-harm if it ever happened again dwindled, and so when it finally happened there was one good friend, a __ __, and a few others, who had been considering distancing themselves from her, but who hadn’t got around to it yet, and these stricken individuals gathered outside her place when the television cameras assembled, and they wore their designer sunglasses and looked glamorous in their public grief and in their secret shame, and they comforted each other like they perhaps should have comforted their departed friend, who was their friend, they decided, all bitterness gone now, and they talked of how needy she had been. Of how much she needed contact and support and how difficult it was for her to live on her own and be the strong woman she had always wanted to be. The truth was that she needed others, that she couldn’t get things done without them, and that she had been unable to achieve anything on her own for many years, with the exception of the very last thing she ever did, which was to take the bottle of yellow pills and swallow them and calmly lie on the bed in her room and wait for the end. That was an achievement of which she could be genuinely proud, and something she had done on her own.

Published in: on June 28, 2016 at 8:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Saturday

Item after item was presented to her and she was urged to argue for its life. Many hundreds of articles and receptacles and implements from a kitchen established first in country New South Wales, then transplanted to London, then to the other side of London, and then re-established in Sydney and added to, over many years, as gadgets and more sets of cutlery – old and new – were come by in various ways and nothing could ever be let go.

There were good reasons, in her mind, to keep the lot. Why would you throw away a perfectly good spoon, just because there are twenty or thirty more like it, only better, and you live with one other person and rarely do anything approaching entertaining people? That’s not a good enough reason. Even being broken isn’t a good enough reason. Or covered in dust. And many thing were caked in dirty grey.

For once, despite the recent progress made in the continuing effort to streamline a cluttered life, she refused to play the game. She started off well, volunteering that a shelf full of glasses could be discarded, but that quickly dissipated with the confusion which comes when events seem to get away from you and you decide that the other people are plotting somehow to remove memories of yours which should be treated with more respect.

And so many things, over a long life, bringing up two kids, feeding dogs and cats, passing through the various phases of life, have sentimental value. So many things were a present. And you should hold onto a present, surely.

There was frequent disagreement on this point, and I have to say it was a rather sad sight to behold a woman who once controlled the household she lived in, what her kids ate and how and when they ate it, reduced to appealing for the life of an obscure piece of crockery which no-one else could identify, but which might, just might, have had a story of some kind, and wished it, and other items, returned to a kitchen she no longer spends very much time in at all.

But that was Saturday.

Published in: on June 28, 2016 at 8:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Lunch At The Place That Looked Too Fancy To Eat At

It was approaching Midday and it felt as if time was running out in all manner of ways. One of those days that seem almost over when they are only half over, there is so much that needs doing and so little time to do it. All you can do is think about the available hours and what needs to get done in them and how time can be saved here and there, which corners can be cut and which can’t, how to shift around the commitments on the calendar.

And I had an appointment, which made it all seem harder, as if the day would be a write off now, because to leave the office for an hour would surely mean the day was ruined as a unit of practical task-achieving time. That’s the way we think sometimes, some of us. Of course some people don’t think this way at all. They think about what can be done rather than what can’t be done. They see opportunities for networking where others might see deadlines marching toward them with relentless and alarming rapidity.

Life wasn’t treating me very gently at this time. It wasn’t just at work. It was away from work, where the efforts to help some relatives of mine reset their lives were beginning to take their toll. It wasn’t as simple as saying that all these things made me feel tired, but that was the most of the story. It was wearying and adding anything else just seemed like a crazy imposition – a self-imposition, in fact, as I had agreed to meet my friend for lunch.

But you have to do some things, I told myself. Even if you don’t want to.

We found a restaurant in an elegant old building, which looks as if it ought to be too expensive to eat in at lunchtime, unless it’s a special occasion (which this wasn’t). In fact it is too expensive for such an ordinary meal, but they had some kind of special on which allowed us to sit down and eat Thai curry and drink a glass of wine and discuss the Ottoman Empire and body building and the prejudices of people towards certain places in a city they have lived in their entire lives.

In the end we went over time. Significantly over time, and all my plans for the afternoon would need to be reviewed and probably thrown out. I knew this had hurt my schedule, but I didn’t care. It had been good. From a purely selfish point of view ii had made me feel better to think and talk about other things for a while, and feeling better meant I was confident that certain work problems could be solved with a creative approach.

If there were lingering questions about friends and priorities, then they were settled, for the rest of the day at least.

Published in: on March 22, 2016 at 7:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

Breakfast With Dame Janet

(This story has been offered to a number of journals and rejected. It is posted here as I, perhaps wilfully, wish it to have one more chance. But that could be unwise. In any case, here it is.)

It was warm. That was how she knew that day was waiting for her. Light couldn’t penetrate the room because she wouldn’t let it in unauthorised. The room was a void, with light and sound absent, and that was the way she liked it. She had the power to decide these things, and as far as she was concerned it was not quite daytime yet.

Travelling meant late nights and strange hours, and it also meant keeping your own timetable. Dark muffled noises could be heard down on the street, made by those for whom the day had begun some time ago. It was becoming warmer now: too warm to keep your doona over your head. And so she emerged slowly from the Sheridan cocoon, with eyes still shut tight behind a sleep mask that she had bought from the sleepwear counter in Macy’s New York. Still her eyes were sensitive, reluctant, unyielding.

Her skin felt cold. But it wasn’t cold. It was the absence of warmth. The slow process of becoming awake had begun and there was no turning back. At this point she always took decisive action: whipping off the mask and placing it with her glass of water and her pills next to the lamp on her bedside table. It was better to be quick about it, like taking off a Band Aid. Squinting now and sitting on the edge of her bed, feet dangling, she peered into the shadows enshrouding the room.

It wasn’t so bad being awake, she thought. She could do it. Face the day. And then the listlessness came again, and she was reminded that jetlag affects people unequally. That it plays cruel games with the sensitive and creative and vulnerable. That it could take her weeks to feel right again, and she rarely had weeks to adjust. She often had to sing when it felt like there was jelly in her veins. It was part of the job – the hard part – but it made the beautiful music you produced so much more handsome.

Being a singer was what she had wanted to do since an age before counting. Her mother had wanted her to be a singer – they agreed on this, as on much else then – but by the time her voice matured they were beginning to want different things. They still agreed on the singing, they would always have that, because singing was the most important thing, the best thing, the only thing, and to be a singer was something very rare and fine and noble. She believed this, and she knew she was lucky and she knew that it had nothing to do with luck: nothing at all.

Her mother used to say, “Do justice to your gift. Be passionate. Always serve the music, Ophelia.” And Ophelia never forgot this and she always gave everything.

Music wafted through the apartment like perfume, filling the spaces, finding its way to the farthest corners. It was jazz, Dave Brubeck, which she listened to at home because to listen to Schubert would have seemed too much like work. There were many speakers, so the music was never loud, but it surrounded and pervaded her as she sat at the butcher’s table she found at the local antiques market and ate her breakfast. Breakfast consisted of a bowl of sensible cereal with full cream milk (as a treat), but not too much, and two bananas for energy.

Ophelia listened and ate and looked up at her collection of cat cartoons, framed and hanging from the walls of her dining room. And the picture of Dame Janet Baker stared down into the room, judging her and everything else in it, and she suppressed a minor smirk as she peeled the first banana and ate it in small pieces from the tip all the way to the end of the shaft. She thought “shaft”, and smirked again. It was childish, and she wondered if Dame Janet would be critical of her. But there were so many things she could be judged for – legitimate, real things, important things about singing – and with that thought she wasn’t smirking any more.

Singing was serious, and it had always been serious. When Ophelia was at school she was never allowed to sing. Not in the choir or in the musical and not in any other school activities. She sang for her singing teacher, in her lessons, and she sang for her mother when she practiced at home, although these overheard concerts were really just her mother lingering in doorways to listen. The woman had given her so much – discovered her gift, been her first teacher, nurtured her talent and her fragile vocal chords – but she became just another spectator. Her mum could hear less through closed doors, and Ophelia would make sure they were closed.

Part of Opehlia’s mum wanted to be in control and parted of her wanted to be Ophelia’s best friend, which seemed strange because she wouldn’t let her have a cat. A cat was the one thing Ophelia ever wanted, but her mum said that cats shed hair, and she was probably allergic to animal hair, as sensitive people often are. Family friends said the two were like sisters, because they shopped for clothes together and behaved like friends, and the men who said this had pursued Ophelia’s mum when she was a talented girl soprano herself, and they revived their pursuit when Ophelia’s dad left to live with his new family at the university in Bologna.

Actually her mother was beautiful. There was a picture of her on the bookshelf in the lounge room – she was nineteen and standing on stage at the opera house, holding a gigantic bunch of flowers and serenely accepting applause. Ophelia loved that picture. She desperately wanted to be radiant, but instead she was neat and presentable. Everything was in the right place, which made her attractive, but it was a conventional look, and she knew it. She was not compelling and romantic and her eyes were not black and fiery and she did not have dark flowing hair. Instead she was merely pretty. Envy moved between the woman and her daughter, in both directions, binding them together.

And they were friends when Ophelia was at school, in the years when it would have been better to have a mother than a friend, and Ophelia’s mum was proud that they were friends still. It was an unbalanced friendship though, where all the fabulous news about glittering occasions and gorgeous shimmering people is on one side, and on the other there is no news at all.

Anonymous uncles often appeared in the lounge room during Ophelia’s girlhood, hanging on her mother’s every word. They would play opera records and sing and dance. She was a charismatic woman when the bottles had been uncorked and the glasses filled. She could make a dressing gown seem mysterious. The men didn’t notice Ophelia, which made her glad – until she wanted attention, and she always wanted attention eventually. Then she was curious about how to attract admirers. This was a new thing and she didn’t know how to practice for it. Her mum became her teacher again.

As a student with special talent Ophelia mixed in strange circles. Her friends were not drawn from the musical groupings at school – she hardly knew the music teachers and spent little time in the theory classes and was not involved at all in the choirs and orchestras and other performing groups.

Private lessons accounted for most of her free time, meaning that Ophelia couldn’t do extra school activities, with the exception of a brief dalliance with the debating team. There she proved herself capable of original argument, and there she made the acquaintance of a girl named Molly, who was said to be a lesbian by people who didn’t know her, because she didn’t know how her hair was supposed to look and wouldn’t have cared if she had known. Molly was attracted by Ophelia’s fast and witty mind, calling her an “intellectual mutineer” and telling her that she was too good for the vacuous groups she drifted through at school. Their chats in the back row of French were lively, and these continued after Ophelia was sent home from the Year 11 debating camp for being caught in a compromising situation with the second speaker from a boys’ team. His parents said their son wasn’t that kind of boy, which amused Ophelia as he had told her he only did debating to meet girls.

“Of course,” she said to him. “Any debater who says otherwise is a fraud.”

But there was always singing, and singing provided an excellent excuse if she chose not to attend a certain class or to leave early or if she should end up in a place where she wasn’t supposed to be. And that meant that she was a natural fit for a group of rebellious girls who did what they liked and were constantly in trouble for smoking and failing to show up to softball, and were then bailed out by their honey-tongued parents, assuring the principal that their daughter had already turned over a new leaf and would make the school proud when she did her Year 12 exams.

These girls were a tight group and they knew some students from the neighbouring private boys’ school, Finchurst. The boys they knew were similarly rebellious, but boys and girls are different and the boys never seemed to be in such dire trouble as the girls were, and they all laughed about this fact when they met on the dark side of the public toilets in the park where the buses left after school, and smoked and talked and stood around assessing each other. An observer might have concluded that the two groups kept to themselves, but in fact rather subtle judgements were being made. The girls congratulated themselves that they knew some really hot guys who were in the football team, while the boys thought themselves fortunate to know a small pool of young women who were willing and compliant.

The boys thought Ophelia was a “top chick”. She loved a beer, and the boys thought that was very good indeed. She was good looking, with the figure of a woman when she was only sixteen, and she didn’t smoke, something to do with her singing, which none of the boys ever asked about, because they didn’t care or it didn’t occur to them to ask. But that made her more interesting, as she wasn’t trying hard to fit in. The boys wanted their girlfriends to look and behave a certain way, but they didn’t want them to try too hard – that certainly wasn’t cool – and Ophelia, or Fifi as they called her, was cool. She liked a filthy joke and would drink at parties and had an earthy, seductive laugh and an awesome rack. She also said she liked football.

Entry into the company of these young men with floppy hair and flapping shirt tails conferred a status, which would be taken away if you fell out with the other girls, or with a key member of the congregation – someone like Georgia Penrose, whose dad was an accountant and whose mum had a beautiful Burmese and was the daughter of a supreme court judge. Georgia was a smart girl who devoted herself to lip gloss and nail polish after boys discovered her skin was smooth and tanned and her rack was awesome on about her fifteenth birthday. Since then she had worn her skirt shorter and allowed her hair to fall about her shoulders in dusty blonde ringlets and spent the minimum possible time on her school work. Good education genes were still getting Georgia through, even if the teachers realised her results had begun to slide. She did what she wanted to do, and what she wanted to do was hang out with cool boys.

Meanwhile as far as the footy guys were concerned their female companions were all pretty much interchangeable, in a lazy hazy sort of way, dimly apparent in their own minds, which really means that they didn’t think much about the subject and certainly didn’t worry about it. They were assured of their status as members of the footy team, and they would have been perfectly happy with the company of other boys, for the most part, if there was enough beer.

Ophelia upset several complex social structures the day she was irrevocably cut from the group for being seen to kiss Adam Fraser: she remained friends with Adam, and most of the footy guys, even though she was on the permanent outer with the girls for stealing away Georgia Penrose’s boyfriend.

It was silly, and Ophelia knew it was silly, and she didn’t care about being ostracised. What she cared about was not being able to play with Georgia’s mum’s Burmese Harry. Being separated from the other kids her whole life meant that she had a genuine ability to take or leave acquaintances with a certain resigned equanimity or just a shrug. Lieder and arias and scales were more important and the advice of her teacher and even her mum was more important than the opinions of fatuous teenagers, even when she was herself a fatuous teenager. When Ophelia grew older she realised that friendships did not come easy. Making friends was not a skill she had ever needed and she had certainly not practised it enough. Other things took priority, as they always had.

Romance was even harder. Champagne for two on a beach at sunrise was one of many unfulfilled fantasies. She loved the idea of the thoughtful surprise – the pillow fluffed up just the way you like it, flowers for no reason at all or a foot rub – but life was routine and surprises for her took the form of immigration complications at airports or receiving unwelcome letters from taxation authorities.

This didn’t rule out love, of course. Many of those who travel are looking for love. But this kind of love is the vapid and brutal kind, brief and purely physical. Ophelia would not be governed by these nasty rituals, and told her mother she was looking for the right man. Still looking, getting closer, culling the candidates and approaching the inevitable answer to the challenge which her mother had unknowingly set all those years ago. For a little while Ophelia thought Adam was the one, and her mum encouraged her to think that. She said an artist’s life is about passion, and she should be passionate about other things than singing. But it wasn’t real. They were both children. It couldn’t be real, even if Adam’s dad was in construction and a fantasy life seemed to be opening up before her in the months after school finished, while she was waiting to be accepted by the Conservatorium. It wasn’t love. It was playing at love, without risk, without attempting to truly lose yourself and serve the other person. Although Ophelia knew now about losing yourself she had never done it because there had never been anyone willing to lose himself in her.

Auditions were all she had known, in the absence of the perfect thing she was searching for. There was always singing, though, and there always would be. Her affection was given to music. It was a substitute because she needed a substitute.

Dame Janet continued her steady gaze. It was 5pm and Ophelia was in her red pyjamas and it felt right because she decided it was still breakfast time. And the music played, and the banana skins lay on the small plate she had placed on the table from the antiques market, and the cats played with balls of wool and romped in and out of boxes in the pictures along the walls, and she felt healthy and thought about performing on the weekend. She had two nights off, which was a wonderful treat, and her one good friend Molly was coming over soon to catch up and Ophelia would tell her about all the men who had recently broken her heart, and they would drink vodka, but not too much, and eat pizza from the gourmet place on the corner, as Ophelia didn’t cook and didn’t really have a proper kitchen anyway.

The clock ticked antiquely on the mantelpiece and Ophelia heard her heart beat and marvelled at the body being an engine which produces beautiful sound if you treat it right. It felt good to be home, lingering over breakfast. It felt good to feel good. Daily she reminded herself what a sin it was to get sick – a professional and moral sin for someone in her position. She had got a cold on her first trip to Budapest, and never forgave herself for losing what would have been her first contract that day.

At the Conservatorium they were all careful about germs and microbes and drinking tea with lemon and taking Vitamin C and Echinacea, because they were competitive. It was a competitive group of individuals, playing a serious game where you win because the next player loses. Already the students were splitting off and becoming isolated from each other by this time, and those who did well, the success stories who went on to careers in music, were forced to hunt alone, which suited Ophelia, because she had been trained to live that way.

Male music students devoted huge amounts of energy to having sex with as many of their classmates as they could. They talked about art and feelings and spiritual connections but these young men were interested in having a good time and telling their mates about it just as much as the boys she had known at school. They drank red wine, not beer, but that was the main difference. Ophelia wondered if there was more to men than that. There had to be. If Schubert could write the Winterreise then there must be purity in all things. In looking for a man, her task was to find a measure of purity sufficient to resonate with her own. This reasoning became for her an article of faith.

It became a quest. As success touched her career, she set up small homes in Europe and Asia and North America, and she became more alone. There were singers, of course, but they travelled as she did, and they were so self-absorbed. She was as inspired by their commitment to art as she was repelled by their vanity. Intimacy with baritones and tenors reminded her that her ego was both large and fragile, and she really wanted a simpler, more grounded partner. When her mum asked after her romantic life Ophelia gave a detailed account of what had happened recently. There was always news. Names and dates and places changed, but the stories were much the same – it was never satisfactory and always fell short of being real, true passion.

At last count, seven men had proposed to her. There had been a pilot, an academic, a diplomat, and a professional hockey player who had studied poetry at college and thought Ophelia conformed to his ideal of beauty. The others had been singers. All thought she was a jewel and wished to put her with their collections, and she thought their ardour was sweet but essentially juvenile, and she was after more.

A conductor from Argentina had been in her life for a tempestuous few months at one point. He was older, which was fine, and they instinctively understood each other, but when they clashed, which became often, it was volcanic. He didn’t propose to her. He had never married and she understood why. The experience made her wonder if she ever would.

But she told her mum there would be time for that. There was no hurry, if you wanted to get it right. There was room for passion and there always would be, and she could have told the same thing to the unruly-haired woman on her doorstep holding a sleek grey feline in his travelling box and pressing the front door bell repeatedly. The last warm glow of the evening filled the porch with mellow light, rendering a kind of soft focus halo around the apparition of the strange woman and her cat.

“Sorry I’m early,” said Molly when the door was opened to her. “I’ve just been at the vet with Algy. He has a cold, the poor little man. I couldn’t leave him at home on his own so I brought him too. I hope that’s alright.” The animal’s eyes were half-closed with muck and it sneezed with gusto.

When Molly asked, “Can we come in?” her friend was forced to stand there for some time in her silk pyjamas and choose her words very carefully.

Published in: on March 22, 2016 at 6:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pleasant News

It is a huge pleasure to tell you that my story The Pupal Stage has been included in Issue 13 of Tincture Journal (http://tincture-journal.com/). Copies may be purchased from the website.

Tincture Journal is a literary journal published in ebook form and they were good enough to publish another story of mine some little while ago too.

I am contractually obligated to add that subscriptions are now available, for the first time: http://tincture-journal.com/subscribe

There would have been an accompanying picture of some kind, but how you do this escapes me (if I ever knew) – so, just words for now.

Published in: on March 1, 2016 at 4:37 pm  Comments (2)  

2015 Ends, 2016 Begins – Reading

As promised, some reading thoughts from last year (2015).

Highlights, sort of. More impressions than book reviews. I hope I don’t give anyone the wrong impression about any of the following.

Certain Admissions by Gideon Haigh is a kind of true crime/journalistic investigation/work of history about the murder of a young woman in Melbourne in 1949 and the man who was gaoled for her murder. It’s about what happened and whether he did it. An excellent book which wears its research lightly, with a well-told story conveying insights about life in Australia and specifically Melbourne in the 1950s and later. One of the best works of non-fiction I have read. Is it a coincidence that Gideon Haigh and Malcolm Knox, the novelist and writer of non-fiction, are both very fine cricket journalists and authors? I like to think not.

The Secret Son by Jenny Ackland is a novel with themes including World War I, Ned Kelly and the intrigues of village life. These are some of my favourite things. I read this book because I know the author, very slightly, through her writing blog (jennyackland.com), and because she has been friendly and kind to me on a couple of occasions – and I’m recommending it because it is a good read.

A Passage To India by EM Forster. All of his novels are worth it. A joy to read one of the greats, and proof that an important and great book does not need to be a chore to get through.

Voss by Patrick White is the first Patrick White book I had read, and it seemed like I had put it off for too long. Not sure if I’ll be going back. Struck me as similar to some examples of modern visual art where you can be deeply impressed but not immersed in it. I didn’t love it and wasn’t absorbed.

The feeling was somewhat similar with To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Perhaps modernist fiction doesn’t appeal to me as much as novels from other eras or movements. Perhaps I’m a philistine. It’s possible. Quality output from a first-rank author I found it too easy to put down. And, it must be said, that one of my abiding thoughts, while reading it was, “In the final draft, this will be quite good” – which could just settle the philistine question. Maybe I’ll try another one soon. Will probably give her another go before I can muster the energy for more White (and Voss is said to be one of his more ‘accessible’ works, which frankly scares me).

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time and it didn’t disappoint. Except it was a tad too long, and I already knew the big secret about Thornfield Hall (having watched the BBC series with Timothy Dalton in the 1980s), which could hardly be said to be a fair criticism, or a criticism at all, in fact. There’s a bit of melodrama, I suppose, but the subject matter does lend itself to this sort of thing, on occasion, and that’s not even the right word. In fact, this novel met my expectations. It seems natural, in my mind to compare it with Wuthering Heights, by Charlotte’s sister Emily, and, again in my mind, Wuthering Heights is better, a truly great book, but this book too is well worth a read and deserves to be on the kind of best ever lists I’ve seen it on lately.

Lastly The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, about the experiences of a noble Sicilian family as the modern Italian state begins to form, is one of the best books I’ve read. Top two or three. A work of art.

Published in: on January 4, 2016 at 9:05 am  Leave a Comment  

2015 Ends, 2016 Begins

It’s the first of January and I am wearing an old army hat, floppy, wide brimmed, the sort of thing which it is useful to bring on camping trips and bush walks, as I write this. I was wearing a sort of Santa hat – festive, spangly, yet black – last night and again this morning after the cat and the dogs woke us up and moved the coffee hour to an earlier part of the day than we guessed it would be when we went to bed, late, last night, after Sydney’s midnight fireworks on TV and then the wait for a song we knew and actually liked (something from our youth) on ‘Rage’, the music video show.

Headwear isn’t important. Being here, writing something, is. I suppose.

It has been a distracting and busy few months, the last quarter of 2015. There are things which I shan’t explain, things for another blog, at another time, where my identity is even more secure, and truth may flow more freely – if that happens at all – which have been going on. It’s not terribly mysterious and it just means time away from usual activities to help older relatives with things they need to take care of – but it has been tiring and time consuming and it isn’t likely to end any time soon. Well … not for a while, anyway.

And it means my reader may have grown anxious for updates which never came. Or possibly she even forgot me and moved on to some other bloke with a made-up name who writes about writing, about life as it relates to writing, about observations (which constitute writing, in their own way), and actually writes little things, sometimes, which are intended to be considered as fully fledged examples of fiction writing, in their own right (as it were). It may be wrong to suspect my reader of a lack of loyalty when my loyalty to her has dropped off markedly of late.

In any case, if she’s still here, she should know that I’m back, and intend to renew my acquaintanceship with her, albeit in a limited way, for a time – abbreviated, compared with the way things used to be – an austerity blog, of sorts. If you will. And so on.

 

2015 began with a certain confidence. My first story had been published and there was no reason to think that there wouldn’t be more to come. I thought (and may have written) something like: this year I will have a few more stories published, and hopefully something at one of the elite journals.

But it wasn’t that easy, and it didn’t pan out that way.

At all.

It was after lunch on the last day of 2015 that I learned via an email that my second story would be published, by the same journal as the first one, some eighteen months after learning of my first success in mid-2014. It was good news. News that seemed unlikely. Most news has been bad, after all. And so my reaction has been positive, but tempered by the experience of so much rejection over the last twelve months.

The year started off with a long essay – experimental creative non-fiction or something – and there was another piece of writing, also an entry to a competition, which was a series of connected stories, a cleverly conceived competition, in a diabolical sort of way, because many writers probably don’t have a neat series of stories ready to send, and therefore entries to the competition could be expected to be of a decent standard, sent by people serious enough to write 20,000 words on the topic, with entries by writers who just send the same story to all the competitions weeded out. My entries to these, and all competitions, of course, were unsuccessful.

Other stories were just sent to journals, in the hope they would be published. Many journals emphasise their lack of resources and limited time and commitment to something we all believe in when they basically tell you that unless you are a subscriber you will be unsuccessful. This confuses me. It isn’t difficult to imagine that running a literary magazine will not make you a profit, but is it really necessary to lay the guilt for the difficulties of the enterprise on the people who are supplying content for your magazine? Readers and writers overlap, but not all readers are also trying to hone their craft and be recognised by someone who might give them an opportunity, in order to make their way slowly toward some sort of artistic success … if they are good enough. A prestigious journal I know of requires a small payment to submit work, and I like this method more, if it really is true that only subscribers are taken seriously otherwise – for who can subscribe to multiple literary journals at the same time?

Anyway, enough of that.

These were knocked back, too. At one point I even made it quite clear that a small journal, which I liked, could have something of mine for free (when getting paid, just for the sake of the principle enshrined in the transaction, the dignity, the reward, is the whole point of the exercise) – and they still said no. A journal rejected something – flash fiction, I think, up to 500 words – because it was “underdeveloped”. How developed can a story of such smallness be? You can’t say, “Just wait for Chapter 2. It really picks up then”.

I was tempted to say something smart – as in smart-arse – but didn’t. I believe in this process. I believe that rejection and coping with that and learning something from it is very important. The people who run the competitions and edit the magazines don’t have to do what they do. They could quite easily stop. And I am grateful. Genuinely. Sometimes a few deep breaths and needed – and a few short minutes – before the desire to be rude wears off, and I will write my reply. I’ve become quite good at these, and they are sincere and thankful and it seems to work because there have been a couple of times when I have received a reply to my rejection reply, and that is an oddly successful feeling. As if, I had a little win.

There was going to be something about some of the books I’ve read in the last few months, which might have to wait until another post. Yep, at a later date, in a few days maybe.

But I have a story currently in competition, a long story in another competition, and one or two stories under consideration by journal editors. Rejections for all of these should be expected, and I am expecting it, but you never know.

Hopefully I’m getting better, and the experience of all this is making me a better person and a better writer.

Happy 2016 to my reader (and to anyone else who may have stumbled in here).

Published in: on January 1, 2016 at 5:31 pm  Comments (2)  

Midday

The flag rippled steadily at the top of the pole, quickly interchanging reds, blues and whites to the unfocused eye. The pole was taller than the terracotta rooftops by some metres, as these were all one storey high. The roofs were long and low and they shielded two hundred and fifty three little students from the glare of the mounting sun and provided a cool space to hear the lessons of five superannuated teachers, each holding a piece of chalk and commanding the blackboard at the end of five rooms, filled with rows of desks.

At Midday the guns high up on the mountainside began to fire and all the little students spilled out from under the terracotta roofs and massed near the gates of the compound. Through the gates there was a view stretching down to the pale blue harbour, and as the big guns continued to fire, the boys and girls spotted the ship entering through the heads, like a smudge of grey, then a spot, and then a nautical shape with masts and sails and guns of her own.

The good boys and girls would have toffee and chocolate for Easter, and their parents would have all the latest magazines and prophylactics.

The Commandant emerged from his office at the other end of the parade ground, and told the children to go back inside. They reluctantly complied, but they wouldn’t be much good as scholars for the rest of the day.

And then the rain came.

Published in: on August 20, 2015 at 8:29 pm  Leave a Comment