Artist and muse

O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

William Shakespeare

A friend and I made the trek out to Bunjil Place at Naree Warren to see the Archibald Prize and hear a couple of the artists and their subjects in conversation as part of Melbourne Writers Festival.

Kim Leutwyler painted both artist Shane Jenek’s (aka Courtney Act) personas. The work itself is an expression of gender and queerness using a blend of realism and abstraction.

James Powditch pursued chief political correspondent for ABC-TV’s 7.30 and president of the National Press Club, Laura Tingle, determined to capture the fearless political journalist and snippets of the woman behind the image. Her face is superimposed over a collage that includes various pieces of her work including a script from 7.30 and a page from her Quarterly Essay.

As a portrait prize, the Archibald is the perfect vehicle to prompt conversation and thought about the concept of ‘the muse’. In its most basic sense the ‘muse’ is that which inspires the artist. The word has its roots in Greek mythology with Zeus’ daughters forming the nine Muses who presided over the arts and science.

Traditionally the muse was romanticised as the beautiful young woman sitting (and often suffering) for the older male artist who objectified her whilst her own talents were overlooked. To gaze upon an object with such intensity and time lends itself to an intense emotional relationship – think Picasso and Marr, or Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, but the power relations are curious. How much is due to admiration, the artistic form or gender dynamics?

I am my own muse. I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to better.

Frida Kahlo

Writers including including Helen Garner (mixed medium on linen by Katherine Hattam) and a nude Benjamin Law (oil on canvas by Jordan Richardson) also posed for the Archibald and literature has had its own famous muse relationships. Think Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan, Zelda Sayre and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Of course not all artist-muse stories left the female muse as an objectified shadow of the artist. Yates fell for English born-Irish revolutionary and feminist icon, Maud Gonne. A firebrand who refused four proposals from Yates because she didn’t want to be tied to a man and he wasn’t Catholic. Yates remained infatuated for five decades, producing a significant work of yearning poetry as a result.

Perversity is the muse of modern literature.

Susan Sontag

Contemporary writers often talk of the muse as a spirit presence that offers inspiration rather than an embodied being and we are commonly advised ‘don’t wait for the muse, start writing and they will show up!’

Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. If she doesn’t show up invited, eventually she just shows up.

Isabel Allende

At a Varuna writing residency a few months ago, I found the beauty of the National park became my muse as my daily sojourns provided the creative inspiration to motivate me to complete the first draft of my current manuscript, Gallows Tree. One particularly gruelling outing involving the Furber Steps even surfaced an ending I had not expected.

If you ever venture out to Bunjil Place I can also recommend a short trip further down the road to The Courthouse, next to the Berwick Post Office for a funky cocktail and tapas

Diary of a Varuna writer residency

Sunday 12th June Day 1: Road Trip

Old mate and I went for a walk in the rain before I dropped her off with friends, packed up Pearl and turned her nose up the Hume toward Katoomba . I listened to the beautifully crafted Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri on my four hour drive to my overnight stop at Holbrook – best known for its resident Oberon-class submarine, a curious addition for a town 250km from the ocean. Apparently the towns namesake was a decorated wartime submarine captain.

Monday 13th June Day 2 : Varuna

Words: 29; walk: 3.34 km

I left sleepy Holbrook at 8am and drove north stopping only for petrol. Art Malik finished reading the Beekeeper of Aleppo just as I approached Katoomba.

After being shortlisted for a Varuna Fellowship in 2020, I was fortunate to be invited to a weeks residency. At the time I couldn’t go for obvious reasons (COVID lockdowns) and thought I’d lost the opportunity until I was contacted again earlier this year and offered a spot in June. I arrived as excited as a puppy at a picnic.

I unpacked my gear into the Bear Room overlooking the comings and goings of a shed labelled ‘office’ and a stand of what appeared to be either ghost or lemon scented gums. I wanted to shake off the hours of driving so headed out for a short walk in the direction of Cascade Falls. Very soon there were a lot of ‘oh wows’ going through my head as I turned corner after corner of spectacular scenery.

In the evening we gathered in the library room for introductions. Six writers – poets, and authors of young adult fiction, speculative fiction, gothic and crime fiction. It felt almost decadent to talk about little except writing over curries – something that rarely happens in non-writer company. The creative vibe was inspiring and I confess, my mind did keep slipping to how great a setting the house would be for a work of crime fiction…maybe one day.

It’s fair to say my creativity has been patchy of late. The novel I am working has been in progress for longer than I care to admit. I estimated I had about 20,000 words to finish the first draft and set myself a target to write 1,000 words in the morning, then permit myself a walk before returning to the desk to write more. I wanted to get cracking and make the most of this week.

Tuesday 14th June Day 3

Words: 2,408; walk: 4.78km

The book shelves in the Bear Room were conveniently lined with my genre – crime, suspense and thrillers…bwha…ha…haaa…and the outlook was excellent for ‘keeping an eye on things’…again great inspiration for a crime writer because we are nosy parkers. Though, I did select a tomb on Jung to prop up my laptop to symbolically inspire my subconscious.

The sun streamed through the window, deliciously warming despite the frost on the ground outside. I knocked out 1,200 words (in which I had to kill off one character) and then headed out for a walk. The Round Walking Track to Katoomba Falls takes you through lush rainforest, intermittently revealing spectacular views across the valley to the far off cliffs of the Katoomba escarpment, the Three Sisters and Wishes Leap. What a magical and inspiring location – both the house and the natural surrounds. I was definitely in my happy place.

After a couple of years of struggling to get time to write, it was so satisfying to see those words climb. We gathered by the fire in the evening and had another lovely meal and stimulating conversations. I felt quite blessed.

Wednesday 15th June Day 4

Words: 2,123; walk: 6.81km

Another perfect day dawned. The sun was shining and the air crisp. Words didn’t flow quite so smoothly this morning but I kept my bum planted till I hit 1,000 then headed out on my walk. I ambled 7km along the cliff walk to Echo Point Lookout and the Three Sisters then on towards Leura Falls to Carrington Park, cutting back through the town of Katoomba to Varuna. Walking alone through the forests was great inspiration as large parts of my novel are set in the forests of East Gippsland.

Thursday 16th June Day 5

Words: 970; walk 6.85 km

I was fidgety in the morning so set off on my walk a bit early and returned to pick up where I had left off the previous day to visit the Leura Falls. Then I crossed a creek (nearly fell in) and clambered up a little used goat track up a steep wooded hill to the east side of Katoomba and wandered back to Varuna through streets lined with tiny houses. It was not such a productive day with the external world intruding on my thoughts, but I still got a little done.

We writer residents started sharing readings in the evenings after dinner. So wonderful to hear what my comrades are working on in their rooms overlooking the garden.

Friday 17th June Day 6

Words: 1,852; walk 8.42km

In the morning I continued to feel distracted which interrupted my flow, flitting from one thought to another, unable to settle into writing. I was so close to finishing the first draft, but the last two chapters were eluding me even though I knew more or less what would happen. So I abandoned my computer and headed out. It was no meander. I went deep into the forest, and myself, to gaze up at the rock formations I had looked down upon yesterday.

As I descended the Furber steps to the sound of lyre birds in the undergrowth and the sight of plant life clinging to rock faces that would make mountain climbers squirm, I contemplated the ending to the story I was working on. On the path to Echo Point along the Federal Pass track I brushed past some of the biggest tree ferns I have ever seen and touched the giant Turpentine Tree (Syncarpia glomulifera).

It is hard not to weep at such grand beauty – the big and the small of it – when you know as a race we are hell bent on destroying it. Of course what goes down must come up and the fire in my thighs may have contributed to my tears. I wrote notes for the last page of the first draft of my second book on my phone when I stopped for a breather on the way back up the 1,000 metre ascent . When I reached to Varuna in my sweat soaked clothes I sat down and wrote almost 2,000 words in two hours!

Saturday 18th June Day 7

Words 972; walk 7.52 km

I typed THE END on my first draft at 11.27 am and headed out. My intension was an easy shortish walk as my calves were feeling the stair climbs from the previous day, but the beauty of the forest draws you in. I crossed town to Carrington Park and walked the Leura Cascades Fern Bower circuit via the Amphitheatre track, a 4.5km loop with a 1,000 metre drop in elevation and spectacular waterfalls and gorgeous scenic views of the Jamison Valley – which of course you have to climb out of again. I returned via the Prince Henry cliff walk and arrived back at Varuna 2.5 hours later, happily exhausted.

It is the last night for one of our group members, so we celebrated after dinner by sharing readings late into the night from the material we had been working on, admired authors and poets. We had all relaxed into one anothers company and started to open up. I felt privileged to have gotten to know this group of talented creatives a little.

Sunday 19th June Day 8

Scene inventory of chapters 1- 3; walk 6.42 km

I woke at dawn, made coffee and sat at my desk looking out over the winter garden with cool air filtering in the open window. There was frost on the ground but the sky was crystal blue. My calves and thighs were satisfyingly tired from all the walking, which is such an important part of my process. It was my last writing day and I started a scene inventory to begin analysing my draft and answering these questions:

  • are there any scenes missing?
  • any important scenes summarised rather than written in detail – think character development
  • left any plot elements out?
  • have I summarised any key moments which should be a scene?
  • have I put scenes in the wrong place?
  • Have I left some elements of scenes out?
  • Does the flow of the story work?
  • Are there any gaps?
  • Will readers follow the logic?

I stayed up high on my walk when I went out to give my legs a rest from stair climbing. I ambled along the back roads to Narrow Neck lookout and back via Cliff Drive and Prince Henry cliff walk. The five of us remaining at Varuna wandered into town and had a lovely meal at a pub in Katoomba.

Monday 20th June Day 9 – homeward bound

I awoke to a morning of mist and drizzle and realised how lucky I was to have a week of such fine weather in a mountain winter. I said my farewells and headed through the mountains and south back toward my way stop at Holbrook.

I discovered something new about Holbrook whilst I was at Varuna. A large submarine is not the towns only quirk. One of my companions was a speculative fiction writer and has been researching cryonics – the preserving of the human body and/or brain after death in liquid nitrogen for a future awakening when (if?) science works how to do it with memories and a sense of self intact. It turns out Australia’s first cryonics storage facility was recently built at Holbrook.

After arriving mid-afternoon I went for a walk along the main street and was struck by the unusual number of friendly older gentlemen getting around on mobility scooters. As with many country towns, Holbrook has a shrinking population and many empty shops on the main street, though her former glory can still be seen in the fading old buildings. The shops that remain have a distinctive 1950’s feel to them and there is a mustiness about the place. I did ask a couple of people about the cryonics centre and received pretty much the same response from all accompanied by a derisive smirk – that yes a cryonics facility had been built in the town but no one seemed to know where it was located.

What a wonderful week it has been with about 10,000 words written and 50km traversed through stunning landscapes. The writerly company and their words were exceptional, though what’s said a Varuna stays at Varuna. A heartfelt thanks to Varuna for the opportunity for a phenomenal, inspiring and nurturing week.

Tuesday 21st June – Arriving home a little changed

I left Holbrook early and drove straight through to Melbourne. The experience at Varuna has left me invigorated about my writing and determined to make an effort to carve out regular time for my creative writing life. I hope to get back there again sometime, but its nice to be home with my pal.

Photos: taken with iPhone SE (second generation)

Book review: Honeybee by Craig Silvey

Heart wrenchingly sad, tender and beautiful, Honeybee is the coming of age story of Sam Watson, a fourteen year old boy with gender dysphoria on the cusp of puberty. The book opens with Sam standing on the wrong side of the railings of an overpass, driven to despair by his ‘otherness’ and the hurt and rejection that he has already been subject to because he is different in a society that cannot tolerate diversity.

It was very timely reading this book whilst the Australian Parliament argued over the so called ‘religious freedom bill’, that if passed, would favour the protection of religious people over rights of LGBTI folk – particularly trans kids and allow religious institutions to discriminate against those who do not conform to their particular principles. The bill was debated a week after one christian school had asked parents to sign an enrolment contract that referred to homosexuality as a sin – including it in a list of ‘immoral’ behaviour alongside bestiality, incest and pedophilia. The outrage that followed caused the school to withdraw the letter.

All these vitriolic shenanigans are backlash following the 2017 same sex marriage vote from a small group of the not so loving (hateful) faithful who still struggle to accept that humanity is a broad, diverse church – and that is ok. I have waxed lyrical about this before. Some people just love to hate, but fortunately a few politicians voted with their conscience resulting in the bill being shelved…for now.

…back to Honeybee. Sam grew up in poverty with a single mum he adored but who suffered from addiction issues and falling for abusive, criminal men. Sam is too gentle for this life. Whilst standing on the bridge he sees an older man, Vic, also standing on the wrong side of the railings. The meeting prevents both from following through their intentions and the two becomes friends – finding in one another a reason to keep living, and Sam finds his logical family.

Honeybee is a book about what and unaccepting society does to people who are different, and how love and acceptance can change an outsiders trajectory to one of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Here’s hoping that religious freedom bill gathers dust on the shelf until the silverfish are sated.

Honeybee has been subject to some debate over the efficacy of the story because ‘it was written by a cis man using predictable tropes’ – there is a view that writers should only write from their own experience and leave own voices to tell their stories themselves. My concern is that this limitation could result in very little on mainstream shelves about diversity, and marginal groups need allies to help drive change in mainstream hearts. Personally I was moved by Honeybee, it made me feel a lot of things and I wanted Sam to be ok, so that’s a good thing.

The silly season and S.S. Metaphor

I decided it was time to stop shying away from the world last week and got out amongst it. I went out to lunch with work colleagues on Friday, to live music Saturday and to caught Ash Flanders latest stage show, S.S. Metaphor, on an outdoor stage at the Malthouse on Sunday.

It had been a bleak day of storms but the clouds parted and the boat sailed under a perfect sky. S.S. Metaphor was one of those performances you’re either going to love or hate. I could tell when I perused the crowd whilst belly laughing, because some of the audience members wore expressions that sat somewhere between a scowl and a grimace. Whilst my more serious friends sat at their tables looking tortured I immersed myself in the absurdity of the cabaret-comedy show.

The audience became the passengers on a boat stuck at sea for 365 days in order to avoid some unknown catastrophe onshore whilst also trying to dodge the Great Pacific Trash Vortex. We were entertained by cabaret singers vying for centre stage whilst jollying the audience along by repeatedly saying, ’We’re all in this together.’ Below decks, some of the crew who were sick of being at sea hijacked the ship. Then all hell broke loose.

S.S. Metaphor was perfect absurdity masking more serious themes such as man made environmental disasters, and of course the pandemic. Slapstick at its best. It was exactly what I needed – to shine a humorous light on the current world madness in which we live.

Back to semi hibernation now that Omicron is here…I trust you all have a peaceful and pleasant festive season.

Meet The Creator…poet soup

Being creative nourishes the soul and gives expression to kaleidoscopic thoughts and feelings. When imaginative motivation wanes, creatives must seek small inspirations that will bring us back to our craft.

One of my habits is to leave books of poetry scattered around the house to scoop up at random and dive into. Poetry is playful and exploratory, it can spark ideas, deepen our understanding of language, make us better writers and help us understand the world around us.

Too many times
I find myself searching my poems
To see if they make sense

When will I learn
That joy has its own logic
Shaped like a sunburst!

Besteller, MTC Cronin

I first encountered MTC Cronin in 2003 when I came across her collection beautiful, unfinished. Her work is intelligent and thoughtful, and steeped in paradox and surrealism. I like the way she writes in fragments leaving plenty of space for the reader to fill in, or fodder to cogitate on. Her work explores and plays with the idiosyncrasies of language and breaks many of its rules. And Cronin is prolific, having produced more than 20 books, some of which are in translation – so there are plenty to choose from.

what if everything broke
in our world
and we just had to sit there
on the ground
until we were dead

excerpt from The questions I would ask & the statements I would make, My Lovers Back: 79 Love Poems, MTC Cronin

Dr Seuss and my father’s love of the limerick ignited an early childish attraction to verse and by age ten I believed I would be a poet. Recently, I stumbled across an old note book from my childhood containing my early poetic endeavours. My personal favourite is a piece titled The Man Who Brushed His Teeth With Paint.

As I grew up, encounters with poets and lovers of poetry stoked the flames of my enthusiasm. An adult who read one of my childish versus gave me a book called Poetry A Modern Guide to its Understanding and Enjoyment containing a message ‘to use when you are very much older’. I still have it. As a teenager I sent one of my poems to Nan Witcomb and to my surprise she responded to my letter with a note saying ‘I wish I had written it.’ Poets can be generous souls.

Sit awhile with time wasted
There’s solitude in every journey
Picking up what might be
and taking it to another place
Fire suspended
Knife attracting history
to its sharp blade

V, from beautiful, unfinished, MTC Cronin

Darby Hudson stuck samples of his poetry on poles around my local town a while ago and I got great pleasure from hunting for them on my morning dog walks. Small acts of inspiration or encouragement stoke the embers for the work and solitude of writing.

In June I received a random message via my website in which the sender asked if I wanted them to send me a book. I recognised the name in the email address and had a fan moment. A short exchange followed, then in September a parcel arrived in the post with three books What We Have: Except When We Are Lost; Bestseller; and My Lover’s Back: 79 Love Poems. What a feast.

Bestseller (2001), Cronin’s fourth book explores the life of the poet, poetry as a form of writing, making meaning, and communication. In My Lover’s Back: 79 Love Poems (2002) Cronin pays tribute to the insecurities of love, its ambivalence and disquieting qualities in all their technicolour. What We Have: Except When We Are Lost (2020) is a collaboration with Melbourne poet, lyricist and librettist Maria Zajkowski. A small book, a Fat lady, poet soup.

In poetry, evening and twilight balance perfectly.
Mystery balances with any word you choose to weigh it against.
Poetry, however, puts the whole world out of whack.
When you read it you drift up or down
while everything else goes in the opposite direction.

excerpt from The Imbalance, The Law of Poetry, MTC Cronin

I highly recommend any of MTC Cronin’s work for those who enjoy poetry that plays with language and makes you think.

Book review: Seed to Dust. A Gardener’s Story by Marc Hamer

staghound dog staning in the Yarra river. River bank behind shows tall eucalypts and greenery
Natures landscaping

If lockdown continues for much longer, I may well complete most of that list of outstanding jobs that has been hanging around, some for longer than I care to admit. When I go for my daily walks in the forest I notice what a superb landscaper nature is. She throws together trees and shrubs and rocks and delicate flowers to create a display of visual perfection that I strive to emulate in parts of my constructed garden.

There is a patch of gravel beside my house that has been largely unchanged for over twenty years as I have never been quite sure what to do with it. The area is in a cutting and shaded and damp in winter, dry in summer. I had an inspiration after discovering some discarded pavers beneath the house and set to work over two weekends.

I often listen to audio books whilst working in the garden and chose Seed and Dust. A Gardener’s Story by Marc Hamer. His story was the perfect companion. Told over a twelve month period when Marc tended elderly Miss Cashemere’s garden on her country estate, the story is a meditation on gardening, nature and life.

In my imagination, this life has been a path with many, many forks, each one a choice to be made. Each unchosen route fading from view as it became the past, its destination unknowable. No destination is really known until you arrive, and then it becomes merely a point along the way — a vague place rarely planned for, simply the start of another adventure. The only thing to do is be happy with the outcome, whatever it is. The path leads to the end, as all paths do.

The story meanders month by month through the seasons honing in on minute changes on the estate. Marc’s work in the garden reflects his love for nature and his distant yet intimate relationship with its owner who observes him and occasionally interacts with him is tentative yet tender. Reflections on nature are interspersed with Marc’s reflections on his own life and philosophical observations of humanity and what gardening has taught him about life. It is a beautifully written story. I really enjoyed listening to the rambling baritone of actor Owen Teale reading the audio.

By the time I got to the end I had fallen in love with the garden the man and the voice and started listening to it again.

Seed to Dust was shortlisted for the Wainwright Price in 2021 (winner to be announced next week on 7th September). I understand that the printed novel is beautifully illustrated and have ordered a copy for my shelves as well as one I have sent as a gift to someone I think will enjoy it also.

200 days of solitude

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Yesterday marked the 200th day of lockdowns in Melbourne since the beginning of the pandemic. The solitude of lockdown has a rhythm, and despite the shrinking of our worlds to 5km life goes on. It is surprising how much still happens.

I wake at 5am to a dark silence interrupted only by the occasional sound of snoring from the great yellow hound languishing on my bed. 

I suppose I will have to make the coffee again, I think. Sometimes I say it out loud and wonder how I might teach the dog to do the task. Though, I suspect even if Harper knew how, I would still be the morning barista as I would lose patience with her indolence before she with mine.

I make coffee and breakfast. Chicken and vegetables for the dog, muesli, yoghurt and an orange or tangelo plucked from my tree the day prior for me. I climb back into bed with my hoard (the dog will have to get up for hers). 

My plan is always to write, but often I become lost in news stories about COVID, vaccines, politics and the destruction of the planet, or find myself falling blindly down some social media rabbit hole. My morbid fascination with all this unpleasantness so early in the morning confounds me. Though perhaps it is not so surprising considering some of my reading as reflected in my book reviews. My father keeps suggesting Thomas Hardy and Jane Austin to cure my macabre tastes in literature.

It is hard to know whether my staccato concentration is a consequence of social media or COVID brain, but I often become frustrated by it and apply additional effort to focus my concentration, congratulating myself for putting pen to paper and bleeding ink across the page (or screen), even if it is only 200 words. This blog generates a rigid moment of writing discipline each week that I am grateful for having imposed on myself, as even in my laziest writing periods this weekly ritual keeps me engaged.

Mornings are the most precious part of my day. They seem to me always to be filled with hope. 

I leave the house with the dog just before dawn. The first kilometre of our morning sojourn traverses a quiet road running up a north-south ridge. To my left I catch glimpses of the sky burning shades of yellow, orange, pink and red from the sun rising behind the mountains to the east. I spy the occasional ringtail possum crouching in a tree as if enjoying the event. To my right, the  blinking lights of Melbourne gradually fade as the sky brightens. I am transported along this enchanted path by the morning chorus as it shifts and swells and rolls with the growing illumination. I am absorbed and in awe of the beauty around me.

Away from the stories of pestilence, conflict and climate change it is easy to find great pleasure and meaning in the small things of life. An emerging flower augers the coming spring, the pure joy on my dog’s face as she wallows in the muddy waters of the Yarra and explores the bushland, the sight of Tawny Frogmouths roosting high up in a eucalypt. The ninety minute walk is a fortifying elixir and the most precious part of my day.

Emerging again…

Adversity is often cited as a spur for creativity – Shakespeare wrote some of his best known plays during, and in the aftermath of the plague. Hardship may get the creative juices flowing but it doesn’t mean its easy.

The arts and cultural sector has been one of the hardest hit by the impacts of COVID. Crowd events are the first to be cancelled and the last to be re-opened when the virus gets loose in the community. Hundreds of thousands of gigs and events have been cancelled over the last 18 months, each one evaporating the livelihoods of artists and resulting in the loss of millions to the sector.

Ever adaptive and experienced at living on the edge, the arts sector was one of the first to adjust to the new world order using technology to revolutionise the way they work, eking out some kind of living and keeping the rest of us entertained and stimulated during our closed in locked down lives.

A number of events I’d planned to attend in recent weeks had to be cancelled. Some pivoted to an online format, including the Emerging Writers Festival.

I purchased tickets to the National Writers Conference and attended via zoom last Saturday whilst I re-caulked my shower. Yes, you did read that correctly. I find it easier to concentrate on online events if doing a manual activity that doesn’t require much thought. During work hours I often get out the mindful coloring book. On the weekend domestic maintenance tasks are ideal.

There were some great sessions including writers waxing lyrical about their writing practice, editors reflecting on their unsung role in making a writers work sing, debut authors discussing their differing paths to publication, world building and character development. The festival also has a YouTube channel with loads of free writerly content that you can watch at any time or check out the festival program for links.

Meanwhile I’ll go and enjoy a freshly sealed shower…

Here we go again…

Melbourne is back in lockdown due to another coronovirus outbreak…

Anxiety induced panic buying has led once again to emptied supermarket shelves and toilet paper shortages as supply chains fail to keep up with the surge.

It’s tough, particularly for those who have had to close businesses or can’t work because their workplaces have closed. I planned to go to a couple of shows at Melbourne’s Rising Festival this weekend but the arts are one of biggest casualties of lockdowns. The Festival has been cancelled, as have restaurant bookings. I feel for the artists, businesses and hospitality staff who are impacted and pay the biggest financial and emotional price to keep the rest of us safe.

I wrote about my joy at being able to re-engage with the arts after the last lockdown concluded and look forward to doing so again after this one.

Meanwhile in my shrunken world I writer, cook, garden and walk, and feel very fortunate that these pleasures remain. I have also been enjoying my new mindfulness colouring book which helps me concentrate in zoom meetings. Stay safe people and see you out the other side…(hopefully next week).

Best ever gnocchi recipe

600g potatoes unpeeled (choose big old white-skinned ones high in starch and similar size)

150g flour

50g Parmigiano cheese, freshly grated

1 dessertspoon salt

extra flour

Scrub potatoes clean and boil whole in their skins in salted water. As soon as cooked, drain and peel whilst still hot. Hold with a tea towel to protect your hands. Mash potato thoroughly in a large bowl making sure there are no lumps. Incorporate the flour, Parmiagiano cheese and salt into the potato. Flour your hands and knead the mixture like bread with the heel of you hand for about five minutes folding the dough in on itself until it is velvety to touch.

Cut the dough into four pieces, covering three with with an inverted bowl whilst you work on one. Roll each section into a long sausage shape about 2cm thick on a floured surface. Use a sharp knife to cut into 2 cm lengths. Make each section into a gnocchi shape. You can do this by rolling each piece over the prongs of a fork or I just flatten them and round the edges off with my fingers. Lay them out on a piece of kitchen paper until all the dough is done.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil and drop in enough gnocchi. Only add enough to fill the base of the pot without crowding. As soon as the pieces start to float to the surface, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and into a colander to drain. Repeat till all the gnocchi is cooked.

My favourite gnocchi toppings are burnt sage butter, pesto or a tomato sauce. For the sage butter simply toss some fresh sage leaves into a small fry pan with a slab of butter and cook until the sage starts to crisp and pour over the gnocchi – it’s decadent, but delicious.

If you have more gnocchi than you will eat, they are easily frozen in single layers divided by kitchen paper for a later meal. Simply take out of the freezer and boil in a pot again until they float to the surface, or try them fried for something different.

What it means to be human…

(There needs to be an error code that means “I received your request but decided to ignore you.”)

Ok, so I confess I binged listened to the entire Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells last week – all five after last weeks review of All Systems Red. I could probably just stop there. Declaring that fact is review enough, but stopping would leave a lot of white space in this blog post…

So the plan wasn’t a clusterfuck, it was just circling the clusterfuck target zone, getting ready to come in for a landing.

At their heart, the Murderbot Diaries are about a machine coming to understand what it means to be human. Murderbot is a construct, part-human part-robot, designed to be owned, used and discarded by humans. The novellas are simple stories with complex themes and characterisation. I could draw parallels to issues of slavery, racism, gender and sexuality, as well as the role of artificial intelligence.

As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

The Murderbot Diaries are also bubbling over with brilliant one liners delivered from the SecUnits point of view. I have included some of my favourites scattered through this post.

I hate caring about stuff. But apparently once you start, you can’t just stop.

The series reminds me of studying transhumanism and the likes of Turing, Huxley, Putnam and Searle in philosophy at university. Philosophers who made us grapple with the idea that we could create a being that is equal to human, even replace humans, using artificial intelligence.

Yes, talk to Murderbot about its feelings. The idea was so painful I dropped to 97 percent efficiency. I’d rather climb back into Hostile One’s mouth.

Could a convergence of human and machine consciousness result in a superior being? AI that could think and therefore by definition reduce humans to nothing more than machines. It was mind bending stuff but I fell squarely in the camp of AI being a tool for humans, not being capable of replacing us.

It was very dramatic, like something out of a historical adventure serial. Also correct in every aspect except for all the facts, like something out of a historical adventure serial.

As a decision making tool AI and the use of data have myriad benefits, including the capacity to remove human biases from decision making in some circumstances. But in many respects I believe the essence of our humanity is our fallibility. That we can become overcome and driven by our fears and anxieties, anger, sadness or elation is a unique characteristic of organic sentient beings. Perhaps even more important is our capacity for creativity. Our emotional worlds and imaginations are at the essence of being human, characteristics I do not believe can be replicated by AI.

Disinformation, which is the same as lying but for some reason has a different name, is the top tactic in corporate negotiation/warfare.

That central question in the Murderbot Diaries of what it means to be human is something that all of us actual humans must grapple with throughout life – either consciously or unconsciously. We do this every time we make judgements and decisions because those acts determine the kind of person we want to be, in relation to both ourselves and others.

They were all annoying and deeply inadequate humans, but I didn’t want to kill them. Okay, maybe a little.

Murderbot expresses an irresistible blend of deep love for its humans and angry, pessimistic, exhausted cynicism because he believes the world is a terrible place and humans are hopeless. Part-robot, part-organic beings such as Murderbot were built after all to have superior performance and prevent stupid humans from making stupid decisions and getting themselves killed. Yet Murderbot is driven by a passionate sentimental commitment to do the right thing by them. No wonder he’d rather zone out binging on his favourite show Sanctuary Moon than engage with the world.

I hate having emotions about reality; I’d much rather have them about Sanctuary Moon.