There are seminal moments in life – those experiences that leave indelible impressions on our psyche. They can be positive or negative but they impact us in ways that mobilise us emotionally, spiritually or physically, cause us to sit up and take notice, inject a sense of urgency, and they can reverberate throughout our lives. Such experiences can pop up unexpectedly and may provide inspiration for our writing practice. Recently I was reminded of a couple of such moments from many years ago. This time of isolation lends itself to a bit of reflection, so I thought I’d write them down…
When you’re eighteen, with all the attitude that the age embodies – you’ve just finished high school, the thing you love most is horses, you find people perplexing, you’re itchin’ to move out of home and someone you know calls you and offers the opportunity of a lifetime, you jump right? Right. So I did.
I packed up all my stuff and moved. Two hundred and thirty kilometres from Melbourne, the last five up a deserted dirt road into the foothills of the Avon Wilderness. Our electricity was generated by the sun, or an old diesel generator that often needed to be started by winding an oily crank handle until your shoulders ached. Warmth was throw from wood fires glowing with timber you chopped yourself. Cooking relied on a wood heated slow combustion oven that meant if you wanted a roast you had to put it on at two in the afternoon to be ready for dinner. When water ran out – it ran out.
At the time, the place was considered so isolated that when we kept having trouble with the phone line, the Telstra repair guy showed us how to fix the problem ourselves and left us spare parts so he didn’t have to come back again. When an intruder came in the night banging on windows we got the rifle out and fired into the night to frighten them off.
We were two teenage women with drive, a can do outlook, a protective guard dog, and an endless wilderness to play in. It was magical, spectacular, dangerous country that offered boundless adventures that we embraced it with the zest of youth. I learnt to wrangle cattle, fix fences, shoe horses, run a business, farm, fight fires and engage with people from all walks of life.
The property was my friends family farm, in one of the most beautiful places in the country, with mountains as far as you could see. We ran a business taking tourists trekking on horseback though the mountains. Our guests were all sorts – from over confident schools kids, to families, to an unusual wealthy men’s group who left their wives at home and came away with their sons and one lone woman in a caravan, who they referred to as the ‘company secretary’. Her secretarial duties seemed to be in demand at all times of day and night.
My girls own adventure gave me a love of the Australian bush and carried me into young adulthood. I fell in love with the place where I now live, and have done for twenty years because something about it reminded me of that farm. The location provided inspiration for my second manuscript, which I’m about 15,000 words into now. Here’s the logline:
In denial that her past is holding her back, a private investigator goes to a closed small-town community to investigate the death of an environmental activist in a logging coup. She uncovers more than she bargained for and is forced to confront her own long buried grief to uncover the truth about what really happened.
Curiously living in this remote place in eastern Victoria provided the launching pad for an early career as a horse trainer and after a couple of years in the bush I ended up on the other side of the world in Portugal as a student of one of the worlds greatest horse trainers in the art of classical dressage, but more on that another time…
Where to begin when you sit down to write for the first time in three weeks and the world is a completely different place to what it was last time you faced a blank page? And how does one reclaim a creative space embattled by a mountain of work priorities driven by a virus taking an extraordinary toll on humanity?
In the grand scheme of things I am incredibly fortunate in these uncertain times – I have a stable job and I can now work from home, I am holed up in a comfortable house surrounded by hilltops, forests and the constant chatter of bird life, I have a garden to potter in and grow a lot of my own food, and a person and a dog who I am happy to be locked up with. I am also a natural introvert, so am not overly distressed by the idea of staying home for six months, after all I voluntarily did exactly that for 12 months only a little over a year ago when I took time off to write.
So what is it that leaves me a little discombobulated? There is of course the great sadness experienced when reading the news about the toll the virus is taking on the world, the shock at how this situation exposes the fragility of our globally interconnected economic and social systems, the fear that this even event will not be enough for us to find a different way to live in relation to nature, and for the well-being of people I care about. It is perfectly normal to feel a little shell shocked in the early period of a crisis of this scale, regardless of how well protected from it you might feel individually.
A situation such as this requires a significant mental shift as well as a physical reorganisation, and a willingness to embrace a new normal. The last three weeks have been a work whirlwind – we had 100 people we needed to try to reorganise to be able to work from home. This took a mammoth effort from myself and colleagues. We also have thousands of stakeholders we needed to provide urgent information to – to help them understand the changes to our workplace, and to connect them with information to help them weather the storm.
Prioritising taking care of the work team has been important, and I have been happy to do so, but at the same time I lament the intrusion into my personal space, particularly my creative space, and how the separation between this and work demands have become blurred. I need to trust that on the other side of this shift I will find my creative, resilient brain waiting for me. It made me realise how much routine plays a part in making time for ourselves – I used to use the time commuting to and from work as my creative writing time, with that gone, I need to create a new routine that allows time for writing.
It is clear the current situation is going to last for a long time, at least until a vaccine is found – conservative estimates suggest at least six months, if not years,. The situation demands finding a new routine that allows for as much of the fullness of our lives as can be managed within the restrictions we must live with out of compassion and care for our fellow human beings, as well as our own. My frustration of recent weeks led me to think about what a new structure might look like…here are some of my thoughts.
On the intrusion of work
The voice of work can be loud voice and demanding. We need to take the time to set up a comfortable workspace and make it as private as circumstances allow. Find new ways using technology to stay connected to staff and colleagues now you can’t lob up at their desk. Build in regular welfare checks to make sure they are ok. Carve out time blocks for different categories of your work – do the easy things when stress levels are high and the more challenging jobs when your concentration is at its best. Don’t expect your productivity to be what it was – at least not immediately.
Take regular breaks – make a cuppa, drink water, pat the dog/cat, talk to the houseplant, walk around the garden or gaze out the window. Even better open all the windows and blast out the house with fresh air.
Keep time sheets to help yourself contain your day job to reasonable hours the loss of a commute removes the natural boundary of home time.
Create a routine. Keep getting up and going to bed at a reasonable time. Move your body in a way that makes you energised at the start of the day. My go to exercise is running or walking with the hound, yoga by YouTube or a bike ride. I will also make time for the solace of gardening. Last weekend I spent time in the veggie patch, weeding and planting seeds – my own version of hoarding whilst others were madly buying toilet paper and cleaning products.
Do some of those jobs you’ve been putting off forever because you were too busy – tidy those cupboards, paint a room, finish the landscape project, organise your bookshelf – control the things you can it can ground us when things are a little chaotic.
Eat well – if you weren’t a cook before, maybe now is a good time to learn the skill, and to appreciate the comfort in it – a couple of the my favourite places to go for tasty recipes are Arthur Street Kitchen and Ottolenghi. Identify things you can do to you bring you peace or joy – take a bath, sort your holiday photos, paint or journal, find a place you can retreat to. What things would you put in your self care toolkit? Keep them close and turn to when needed.
It is important to stay up to date with what’s happening in your world, but it’s also easy to be sucked into obsessing about it. Place limits on your engagement with news and social media about the COVID conversation and remember the media is often sensationalist, so acquire your information from trusted reliable sources. Don’t lose sight of what is good in the world. Look for things to laugh at each day – your pet being amusing, silly memes online, and when it all seems too much – reach out for assistance.
Carve out time for creativity and make sure you use that time for something connected to your creative interests. Now is the time to start that long term project you’ve been thinking about on and off. My plan is to set aside a block of time each day to write, perhaps I will finish my second book sooner than I thought. On the days I don’t actually write I will use my creative time for a connected activity like reading or online learning on writing. The Australian Writers Centre delivers some great online courses for writers and Writers Victoria are moving a lot of their workshops online, one of which I am doing tomorrow.
Your creative thing might be painting, knitting, sewing, or learning an instrument. Don’t limit yourself to things you already know how to do – get online and find someone who’s moved their teaching practice online – you could learn a new craft and support another creative at the same time.
The political narrative about needing to keep our distance from people to contain the spread of COVID-19 uses the term social distancing. For many, the term spells isolation and loneliness. I wish the policy-makers had considered this and referred to physical distancing instead, as at times of stress, social connection is even more important than usual. It provides ballast and helps to keep people mentally well. Find ways to connect with friends and loved ones that keeps everyone safe, whether its Snapchat, video catch ups or long phone conversations. The time for hanging out in coffee shops and hugs will return eventually. We tried our first digital dinner party last week, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it can work. Some tips:
Keep up communication as you cook so you can time your dial in to get everyone eating together
Set your laptop up at least arms length from where you sit (a bit further away than where you lay the table) so everyone can be seen in the picture together
Sit the laptop up on some books – it works better if the camera is slightly above your eye level
Bring your best self to these occasions, people are dealing with the changed world in different ways, and we need to bring compassion for those we care about – it can bring out both the best and worst in people. If you want to hang out online because that’s the only option while you are in isolation there are loads of apps for that – Zoom, Skype, House party, Google hangouts.
This weekend we’re going to try one where everyone taking part cooks the same meal.
Continue to greet neighbours from a respectable distance when you pass them in the street, when you can – support local businesses that are staying open to service your needs or donate to your favourite creative organisation. When businesses set up rules to help keep customers safe and trade fairly in response to some individuals being overtaken by individual greed – follow them without griping – it’s a time to loosen our grip on control and individualism and think more collectively. In Australia there is still plenty to go around – toilet paper, food and cleaning products included.Hoarding is really not necessary and probably tells us more about our mental health than it does about supply and demand – so if you are doing it perhaps consider spending the money on a therapist instead.
This new world order is going to be a marathon, not a sprint so railing against it will not help, now is the time for radical acceptance and innovating to make your life as full as it can be within the circumstances in which we find ourselves, with much lower expectations than you may have had previously. Chunk your days into bite sized manageable segments to avoid the existential dread of the unknown taking over and when you notice the current situation enabling injustices that make your blood boil – channel that energy into writing to your local MP, or the newspaper to call them out so the annoyance doesn’t fester.
If you wear yourself out at the beginning you may not make the distance in one piece, so take the time to find a way to be that offers you the best change of wellness, serenity and productivity for the long haul. And for those of us who take solace from creative pursuits, we must make room for them.
I had a week off last week and went surfing with some friends and a couple of hounds. It was also an intentional week off from writing, so I prepared last weeks blog post in advance and wrote this one after I got home. Having subscribed to a ‘write every day,’ or at lease most days philosophy for the last four years, it was an interesting exercise.
Of course there is a good reason for writing every day. The practice, like developing an exercise routine, drives momentum, improves your writing technique and keeps you connected to the story you are working on. The flip side is that stopping (like stopping exercise) makes me worry I may lose my writing muscle and struggle to get back into it. It’s a bizarre bind. When I’m writing I often worry about the other things, like domestic chores, that I should be doing, yet when I’m not writing I worry that I’m not – in case I lose momentum. Despite my contrary feelings, the week off was refreshing and fun.
Anglesea is about 115 kilometres west of Melbourne at the northern end of the Great Ocean Road on the Anglesea River. It has a resident population of about 2,500 people and retains the feel of a sleepy village. We stayed at a house close to a bushland reserve and the local golf course which is home to a mob of kangaroos. It was quite lovely to hear the thud of kangaroos hopping through the garden in the night and to be woken by early morning bird calls each day.
The locale is a great spot to get away and relax, walk parts of the 44km coastal walk or through the beautiful wetlands at the head of the river, surf the long rolling waves, eat fresh fish and produce from one of the many local farmers markets, or simply read a book and gaze out over the bushland. And I did all of those things.
One day a friend who is the chef at a local cafe dropped by with fresh caught tuna which was delicious barbequed and served with fresh salads and overcooked potatoe chips. On another night we ate at Captain Moonlite, an eatery jutting out over the main beach in the surf lifesaving club restaurant that serves up coastal views and a fresh modern seaside inspired menu that is updated daily. A must for a night out in Anglesea.
One afternoon we made the half hour drive to Lorne along the Great Ocean Road. It’s a drive that makes you realise just how beautiful the Australian coastline is – who needs Greece! Lorne is home to an old Art Deco theatre built in 1937 to cater to tourism after the completion of the Great Ocean Road. The cinema has terrazzo floors and is one of the few single screen theatres left in Australia. We saw the movie Little Women, which I enjoyed but found a bit long. The theatre is worth a visit, just remember to take cash as there’s no credit card facilities.
The complete change of scenery felt much longer than a week and I feel quite refreshed. I’ll start to get back into the swing of writing this week and expect to get my manuscript assessment back soon so I can make what changes I need to, start querying in earnest and get on with my next book, which cogitated quietly in the background while I was away.
Deep down in our bones we must know – we must know that nothing we do is done in isolation. Cause and effect: how did it get so noisy in between?
Into the Woods
It’s hard not to talk about the climate and weather when it’s so in your face, and you spend a significant amount of your spare time cleaning up after it. We had a hailstorm with the ferocity of a tempest last weekend. One moment I was in the vegetable garden doing a bit of weeding, the next I was running for cover as hailstones the size of golf balls were hurled from the sky. Water tanks overflowed, gutters strained under the weight of the ice, paths washed away and torrents of water formed creeks where none had run before.
It was another of those moments, increasing in their frequency, where I marvelled at the awe inspiring ferocity of nature as she strives to demonstrate for humanity that climate change is real. Meanwhile many of our political leaders still grasp desperately to denial and the power bestowed on them by lobbyists, the powerful elites in the mining industry, and the likes of the Murdoch Press.
…those that have the power to change the situation are too scared to do anything in case they lose that power.
Into the Woods
I am half way through reading Anna Krien’s beautifully written narrative non-fiction book Into the Woods about the struggle over Tasmania’s wilderness areas, the people who exploit them and the people who try and protect them. Krien’s work is an exploration of the polarised and conflicting convictions, motives, emotions, power dynamics and allegiances of those involved in the struggles over the forests.
On the rear window of almost half the cars I see, there are stickers in eternal argument with on another. ‘Tasmania: The Corrupt State’ and ’Save the Styx’ versus ‘Greens tell lies,’ ‘Greens Cost Jobs’ or simply ‘Green Scum’ – slightly tamer versions of older stickers that read ‘Keep Warm This Winter: Burn a Greenie.’ It is said each glut of car stickers in Tasmania signals a new chapter in this intense and deeply personal debate that has been going for forty years.
Into the Woods
Krien speaks to everyone on her investigative search for information and understanding: activists, greenies, loggers, politicians, resident citizens. The only obviously absent voice, because they refused to speak to her, is Gunns who hold the economic monopoly over the logging and wood chipping industry in the state.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that deforestation and forest degradation contribute 17% of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions
Into the Woods
Reading Into the Woods has echoes of the debates that happen all over the world in places where natural heritage and human greed come into conflict. Big companies chasing profits by selling products for humanities insatiable appetite for consumption of oil, coal, gas, timber, minerals, and land. Big public companies motivated by shareholder profits that have significant influence over the politicians they lobby and fund, stand in opposition to the passionate defence of forests and rivers and oceans by activists and environmentalists, with politicians riling the camps to maintain conflict in order to further their own agendas. Because conflict demands taking sides and creating allegiances, and allegiance translates into votes.
The activists tread a fine line between drawing attention to threatened areas and provoking resentment that can ultimately backfire against the forest.
Into the Woods
We are all complicit in the supply chain that leads to the destruction of our environment. We influence it in the day to day decisions we make about consumption, by how we vote, what we will tolerate, and what actions we are prepared to take to preserve the natural environment that sustains us. Krien’s work meditates on the world we have made and the complexity of the choices we must make. Into the Woods has astonishing resonance for the current re-ignition of the climate change debate in Australia as bushfires continue to rage across the country.
Most people travelling through Tasmania will never know of the long-running game of hide-and-seek taking place in the labyrinth of logging roads beyond the bitumen.
Into the Woods
It is often not until something impacts us in a direct and personal way that we take notice. This summer it seems that Australia is getting a taste of the future. It is an experience that has bought the issue of climate change into the fore again, while politicians of the day continue to try and smooth the way for them to get back to doing very little about it.
If anything there appears to be an indignant kind of mateship here, a loyalty that precludes empathy
Into the Woods
As I have been reading Into the Woods and Krien’s struggle to understand Tasmania’s relationship with the wilderness I had been pondering our current governments stance on climate change. Is it some kind of misinformed ideology? Religious beliefs? Naivety? Ignorance? Shape-shifting party power dynamics that mean being bold would result in loss of power, possibly being knifed by your own colleagues with the help of the Murdoch Press?
It doesn’t matter if you’re a logger or a greenie,’ she says, ‘it’s the fact that our government thinks its electorate are a bunch of dimwits.’
Into the Woods
The rhetoric about maintaining the coal industry is about jobs, but I am reminded of a section in Into the Woods where Krien notes the primary argument for logging in Tasmania was jobs. Then she goes on to write that in reality machines may be a bigger threat to timber jobs than ‘any greenie’. I suspect the same applies to the coal industry, which is increasingly automated. Then I saw a piece of Michael West’s investigative journalism called Dirty Power made for Greenpeace. It’s a social network analysis of connections between the Coalition and the Coal Industry, and is fascinating viewing. After seeing it I concluded the primary motivations to maintain the status quo must be a particular blend of allegiances, greed and power.
Standing on a lookout with the maps spread out around us, I can imagine how easily deals might be done in boardrooms, where wilderness is reduced to abstract numbers of hectares and its fate sealed with a handshake.
Into the Woods
While Krien was writing her book, I was studying climate change at university; reading Thoreau, studying bushfire behaviour with Kevin Tolhorst, and reading documents like the Intergovernmental Panels on Climate Change reports predicting would happen without action to reduce greenhouse emissions. I am sad to say it all appears to be starting to come to fruition in a much more obvious way.
Why Tasmania?’ Barry Chipman once asked me. He’s right–in the greater scheme of things, the island is nothing but a drop in the ocean. But its story is universal–and what goes on in Tasmania goes on in the mainland, goes on in the Pacific islands, in other continents, until it comes straight back over the ice to Tasmania again. You can follow its story like a ball of wool, get tangled in it and unravel it.
Into the Woods
Once the summer is over and the fires are out, when the smoke has cleared and the first green shoots start to appear in the charred remains of Australia’s forests I can’t help wonder what will happen. Will we all breathe out a sigh and go back to doing what we’ve always done as our memory of what happened fades? Or will our collective shock at what we have done to our planet, and its consequences maintain enough rage to motivate citizens to drive our coal loving, climate change denying political leaders and their allies to take steps to make the changes we need to at least try to get a different outcome?
Some scientists are beginning to describe the modern geological era as the Anthropocene, the sixth in a series of mass extinctions, all said to be caused by extreme phenomena, in this case the harmful activities of humans. Perhaps even more poignant is biologist Edward O. Wilson’s description of the period that will follow. Wilson says it will be ‘the Age of Loneliness’–a planet inhabited by us and not much else. In his version of the future there is no apocalypse, no doom, no gates of hell, no wrath of god or mass hysteria, only sadness. I wonder if perhaps the Age of Loneliness has already begun, its effects far more complicated than we realise.
Into the Woods
I highly recommend reading Into the Woods, for its insights into Tasmania, the politics of forestry, its resonance with the global debate about climate change and for the beauty of its writing.
Happy New Year! This is not a writing post. It is another rant about some of the things I thought about whilst enjoying a beautiful evening in a bushland setting on the Yarra River on new year’s eve. Feel free to turn away, normal writing programming will resume next week.
I had mixed feelings about celebrating new year’s eve when catastrophic bushfires were raging across the country destroying some of Australia’s most precious bushland, decimating wildlife populations and ravaging human communities in their path. Despite the valiant efforts of underfunded volunteer fire fighters, Australia’s east coast has been burning since September 2019. Many of the fires remain out of control and will likely continue that way throughout the summer unless significant rain falls on the fire grounds.
Canberra was rated to have the worst air quality in the world on Wednesday due to smoke, killing one elderly woman on Thursday. Meanwhile Scotty from Marketing (aka PM Scott Morrison) kept up his ‘nothing new to see here’ stance over champagne at Kirribilli house and entertaining the Australian and New Zealand cricket teams. On Thursday he delivered a press conference, and was on the back foot.
Of course Scotty from Marketing’s claims that climate change doesn’t cause bushfires, and Australia has always had droughts are technically correct, but incomplete and misleading. Suggesting the best way to respond to natural disasters is by ‘doing what we’ve always done’ sounds like a commitment to kick back and allow the problem to perpetuate. And saying Australia cutting emissions will make no difference globally is shirking responsibility. I bet he’s thanking his lucky stars that the millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide released by the current fires don’t count toward the countries emissions footprint or he’d have to do a lot more creative accounting than he is already to meet our Paris targets..
Climate variability does influence fire and the changes we are experiencing will make fire management more complicated because it alters ecosystems function. Fire is a physiochemical process that can be represented by a simple equation: fuel + oxygen + heat. Remove one from the equation and fire cannot take hold, turn up the volume of the elements and the frequency and intensity of bushfires increases.
Climate change contributes to creating the perfect weather conditions for dangerous bushfires. CO2 concentration impacts the amount and composition of fuel loads because it alters the growth rate of plants, and thus the frequency and intensity of fires when they occur. Increased and more extreme temperatures reduce humidity and moisture content, compounding drought conditions caused by diminished rainfall. Drier conditions bring vegetation closer to its ignition point and ensures it burns hotter and faster once ignited. Extended drought reduces fires intervals and the wild winds caused by changes in air pressure create perfect conditions to drive wildfires to their most dangerous conflations. Wildfires themselves then contribute to perpetuating climate change because they release a lot of greenhouse gas.
We are fast heading toward a new normal of longer, hotter, drier fire seasons and more intense fires. In Gippsland, rainforest that has never burnt are being engulfed. It’s likely that some plant and animal species may not recover because available habitats for some organisms will be diminished and shorter fire intervals may not allow time for even fire adapted plant species to mature. The result could be local extinctions due to an absence of seeds.
Contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth…reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
Darwin, The Origin of Species
We do not survive in isolation from our environment. We are like the frog, who when placed in a pan of tepid water that is slowly bought to boil, does not perceive the danger of its situation, does not attempt to jump out and gets cooked. We are blind to our own growing vulnerability. Despite the scientific evidence, the Australian government has no credible policies to address climate change – either to reduce our greenhouse gas pollution and transition to clean energy, or to invest in disaster management and adaptation to build resilience to cope with the new normal. Thoughts and prayers and patience will not solve this wicked problem and I suspect history will reflect poorly on many of the current world leaders.
In the absence of political leadership we place our hopes in the likes of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg to remind us of our collective failings and inspire action by uniting young and old to tackle contemporary environmental issue. Scott called for patience on Thursday, but it’s time to stop being patient and force the hand of the global political elite who prefer denial and maintenance of their ties with fossil fuel industries to carefully considered policies to a more sustainable way of living. My hope is that this bushfire season will spur more citizens into action. That we demand our governments take climate change seriously, start to think long term about minimising our contribution to emissions and begin to make the structural adjustments we need to build climate resilient communities.
I was going to do a bookish Christmas post, but have concluded that Christmas is a bit overrated. Besides, a few things have got my goat this week, so a pre-Christmas rant is in order.
On a day of 44 degrees in Melbourne, when half the coastline of the country is ablaze, and NSW is in a state of emergency, my dystopian fantasy of our future world is right on my doorstep and plastered all over the media. Meanwhile, our political leaders continue to bury their heads in the sand about climate change and the environment. I use the term leader loosely as it’s an attribute I feel is sorely lacking among our current political class. The best Scott Morrison seems prepared to offer is thoughts and prayers in its place.
You may be wondering why a fiction writer is having a rant about politics on a blog about writing? As it happens the crime fiction manuscript that I will start querying in the new year has political hypocrisy as one of its central themes, and it is something I am both fascinated and repelled by in the real world as well.
Morrison has gone to some lengths to avoid engaging in discussion about climate change and has pushed his perverse nothing to see here stance while communities are raised, flora and fauna are decimated, and city populations choke on the smoke. Earlier this month the man determined holding a press conference about his controversial Religious Freedoms Bills was more important than showing leadership about the bushfires. The first version of the bills had been heavily criticised by faith and secular groups alike, and I can tell you the second version is no better.
While Sydneysiders were gasping on smoke, Morrison was touting a package of legislation with potential to significantly change Australia. It may prevent many individuals accessing services such as medical, education, employment, aged care, and some commercial services on the basis of their otherness. Not to mention the Isreal Falau clause about how we can interact on social media. It is the most hateful piece of legislation to be tabled in some time.
I find it curious that institutions that were called out on poor governance, lack of transparency, and accountability in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse should now be deemed in need of the types of protections that will enable them to be even more closed and secretive by excluding anyone they view as other from their ranks. It strikes me as a recipe for more festering problems and institutional failure.
The religious freedoms debate started as a knee-jerk reaction to a small group of ultra conservatives railing against a secular state and afraid that allowing gays to marry would cause the sky to fall. After years of preventing progress in this area these conservatives were over ruled by the Australian public who voted in favour of same sex marriage. The religious right were offered a review to assess the state of religious liberty in Australia by the government as a consolation prize for the postal vote on same sex marriage to keep them sweet. Phillip Ruddock was tasked with overseeing the review. The first airing of the reviews outcomes was in the form of leaks of key findings around the time of Malcolm Turnbull’s demise. The leaks exposed the fact existing law already exempted religious groups from discrimination laws and enabled them to discriminate against teachers and students. They could sack teachers and expel students of diverse sexualities already if they chose to – it caused a moment of outrage, that many may have forgotten.
Subsequently Attorney-General Christian Porter was tasked with turning Ruddock’s review into legislation. It took an extraordinarily long time because ultra conservatives did not just want anti-discrimination laws for religious groups, they wanted a positive right to discriminate. Any reasonable person would agree that an individual should not be discriminated against on the basis of their faith, but what the religious right wanted was a weapon to strike out at people they deemed unworthy, like the LGBTI community, not just a shield to protect their faith. The laws are not about freedom to speak ones religion, but freedom for institutions to hire, fire, deny service, insult and humiliate based on an individuals personal characteristics. The cynic in me can’t help thinking Morrison may have chosen that moment on 10th December to announce the bills, with Australia burning in the background, to invoke some kind of symbolic fire and brimstone moment. But in reality who knows what Morrison really thinks about anything (he abstained from voting on same sex marriage)? He appears to be a man who will go wherever the favourable winds of power blow.
On the same day as focussing on a bill few deemed necessary, Morrison insulted volunteer firefighters by downplaying their work. Two CFA volunteers died fighting fires yesterday, and three more were injured. I wonder if Scott still thinks they really want to be doing this job?
…they’re tired, but they also want to be out there defending their communities…
All the volunteers were, foregoing income and time with their families to risk their lives fighting fires with often substandard equipment, yet Morrison was more interested in announcing legislation that has never been needed, and has the potential to create great divisions in society.
The wife of a firefighter wrote a heartfelt response to Morrison’s insensitive comments about our volunteer fire fighters that touched on another of Morrison’s blind spots – climate change. The blog has had over 80,000 views in a week. Remember Morrison is the guy who loves coal so much, he took a piece (which had been cleaned) into parliamentin order to demonstrate his committment to a carbon-intensive economy and mock those concerned about climate change.
In November Morrison declared the bushfires had nothing to do with climate change and has been actively and publicly trying to shut down climate protesters because he doesn’t like their message, and clearly struggles to understand the science. He’s since made some concessional comments that climate change may be a factor, though I suspect that’s because he’s afraid of losing public support, he must have felt the winds changing. One wonders if he is confusing his own beliefs with science. He’s a Pentecostal. The evangelic religion emphasises the idea of the Rapture – that when it arrives, the chosen will ascend to heaven while the rest of us suffer the Tribulation – fires, floods and famines that will kill most of us, while he and his fellow chosen believers wait for the Second Coming.
Meanwhile, Scott has packed up his family and gone off on holidays. I don’t actually resent Scott having a holiday, we all need one now and then after all, but the act does expose a nasty element in his makeup and a big hypocritical black hole in the mans psyche. You might think that comment a bit harsh, but let me take you back to the Black Saturday fires that started on 7 February 2009 in Victoria.
I remember the day well as I was at home and could see the red orb thrown by the fires over the King Lake Ranges from my house. Apparently my town was spared by ten minutes and a wind change, my cousin wasn’t so lucky – her place burnt to the ground. In the aftermath, when people were looking for answers, and perhaps a few scapegoats, an ambitious young politician called Scott Morrison made an appearance on the ABC’s Q&A program and had a few things to say about the fact that Police Chief Christine Nixon left the incident room and went out to dinner that night.
“She’s clearly made a bad judgement call. That happens to people from time to time, but this was a very serious issue…I think there are very serious concerns in the community about exercising judgement, and it’s incumbent on all of us in public life to make decisions following that in the best interests of the ongoing nature of the program.”
Scott Morrison, Q&A 2010
Christine Nixon ultimately lost her job over the dinner decision. The comments then, and Morrison’s actions now, are an indication of the shallowness of the mans convictions. Ultimately he’s simply playing the politician, but his actions in recent weeks also call his judgement into questions based on his own benchmark. The image I have of Morrison lands somewhere between a crazed religious zealot determined to impose his beliefs on all of us, and Nero fiddling while Rome burns. The BBC delivered an interesting summary on Australia’s leadership failure on climate this week.
He’s not my Prime Minister, never was, never will be. I just hope the rest of Australia wakes up to his disastrous Prime Ministership soon and vote someone in capable of real leadership on the big challenges of our time.
JF Archibald (1856-1919) was a Victorian journalist and founder of the Bulletin magazine. He served as a trustee for the Art Gallery of NSW and during that time commissioned portrait artist John Longstaff to paint poet Henry Lawson. He was so enamoured with the work that he left money in his will for an annual portrait prize.
Painting, like writing has genres. Portrait painting became a thing in the thirteenth century and its roots are in memorialising the rich and powerful. The word means to show a likeness. A portrait is an intimate character sketch that seeks to capture the inner essence of its subject, in much the same way as a novel aims to express the inner world of its characters.
The history of the Archibald presents something of a cultural snapshot of Australian society – up until recent years all winners were caucasian males, usually from Victoria or NSW, who painted caucasian male subjects – a mirror of our societies discrimination in education, opportunities and social views of the times. The first woman to win the Archibald was Nora Heyson for her portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman in 1938.
Today, both the subjects and artists are much more representative of Australia’s diversity. This years Archibald finalists include portraits of women of color, Aboriginal Australians, a subject with a disability, queer and elderly subjects. There was in fact a noticeable absence of old white suited men in armchairs and politicians. As I walked around the gallery, I couldn’t help wondering, what were the characters thinking in the moment captured, what is their life like, and what kind of relationship they have to the artist. Each tells a story.
Main image: Sarah Peirse as Miss Docker in Patrick Whites ‘A cheery soul’, Jude Rae
This week I went to see Gertrude Stein’s DoctorFaustus Lights the Lights. It’s the story of a scientist who trades his soul for electric light, obliterating the difference between night and day. It was an experience that required letting go – letting go of expectations of what to expect from a stage play. There was no neat plot to carry us through, and no temporal logic.
The piece was a beautifully executed avant-garde romp with ambiguous and fractured identities that transitioned through a struggle between good and evil, and grappled with the notion of the individual. The script was poetic with looping lines that were deliberately repetitive and sprinkled with short acidic words that blurred the boundaries between dialogue and narrative. I was left for much of the production with a sensation of hearing the voices inside someone’s head.
I am not talking about the terrifying voices that haunt the sufferers of severe mental illness and render them lost to themselves for periods of time, I am talking about the quieter voices that chatter away in our heads. The voices that self sooth or offer observations, instructions, praise or admonishments in a way that we understand them to be part of ourselves, or that spill out of us onto a blank page in a controlled way to tell our stories. The inner voices that can speak the unspeakable, threaten, challenge, or desire in ways we believe our true selves never would in real life. The voices that take us deep within ourselves whilst simultaneously suspending us from our own realities. The ones that cause me to look up from a page and wonder where the words have come from.
The conversations of the brain were once seen as mythic – the rumblings of gods or shamans, but in reality our inner voice is the stream of consciousness that speaks when no one is listening but us. For most of us it is rarely shared with anyone, except when it erupts in moments of stress, or we lay on the couch and expose it to a therapist in an effort to understand, tame, or change it.
Look around you at the people walking down the street in silence and imagine their inner worlds teeming with chatter, or notice them trying to drown it out by plugging their ears with music that carries them to other places. Imagine the anarchy if all that chatter and noise was unleashed on the world uncensored.
In fiction we often talk about finding our unique voice, the one that can tell a tale in a way that no other can, that leaps off the page and turns words into three dimensional characters. Fiction is a realm in which we seek the unfettered and extraordinary. The more outlandish, edgy or strange our voice the better, as we try to take our readers to the edges of believability or to interrogate matters we may not dare to in real life. In fiction the inner voice can put a characters humour on display in serious situations such as in Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton:
Watch my language? Watch my language? This is what really shits me, when the clandestine heroin operation truth meets the Von Trapp family values mirage we’ve built for ourselves.
Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton
In fiction inner dialogue is like the voice within the voice. It is a mechanism that defines character in a way that dialogue and narrative cannot. It exposes our characters inner dilemmas, self perceptions, contradictions, humour and fears, making them available to the reader even though they are kept hidden from other characters. Inner dialogue invites us into stream of consciousness to bare witness to the fragmented, messy reality of what it means to be human.
Jack nodded vaguely. Merry was only recounting what she’d overheard, what she’d read, what she’d imagined down the years. He wondered suddenly if that’s how everyone constructed their own past – with the experiences of others, and photos, and headlines and snatches of reality, all mashed together into memories that they claimed as their own. For the first time he thought that the photo of them all, happy and with the wind in their hair, might never have existed either. Maybe it was all in his head and he’d only imagined it on the fridge, and the little frame he’d stolen from HomeFayre would be empty for ever.
Snap, Belinda Bauer
Inner dialogue is commonly used in written fiction and sometimes on stage, such as in Hamlet’s well known soliloquy which opens with the words ‘to be or not to be’. The mechanism is rarely seen on the screen, though one exception is the television show Offpring in which the main character’s inner world is put on display in all its anxiety ridden psychedelic glory in a way that blurs Nina’s inner and out worlds. It is the use of that technique more than the plot itself that has drawn me to the show. I love the way her inner world looms up and threatens to derail her with the suddenness of a gusty wind.
Of course the original story of the erudite Faust is that he was highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life as a scholar. He made a pact with the devil to exchange his soul for unlimited worldly pleasures and knowledge and surrendered his moral integrity for power and success. The devils representative was Mephistopheles who helped Foust seduce a beautiful and innocent girl called Gretchen who’s life was destroyed when she gave birth to Faust’s bastard son and drowned the child. One can’t help wonder if both Faust and Gretchen where victims of their own inner dialogues rather than some external other worldly force though.
There are a lot of ordinary people in the world who do extraordinary things. Most of them pass through life unnoticed by all except those whose lives they touch. A small number become immortalised when their contribution is recognised by the media, awards, or writers who become fascinated enough in their stories to commit them to paper, but most often the extent of a person’s contribution to society, only becomes apparent when we hear others tell stories about them.
Last week I went to a living wake for a woman called Katrina Leason, a long-term
friend of my partner, and someone I have come to love and admire through that
In the mid-eighties when feminist activists began to challenge dominant discourses about violence against women, a group of young women in Melbourne got together and formed a collective to set up Zelda’s Place which provided support and accommodation to young women who were victims of incest. Katrina was one of the founding collective members.
The collective named Zelda’s Place after Zelda D’Aprano, a staunch feminist, labour unionist and pay justice advocate. Zelda was an unstoppable force in the women’s movement and the labour movement. She got sacked from factory jobs for speaking out about unfair condition for women, organised pub crawls with groups of women to drink in bars that banned women from entering, and chained herself to the doors of the Commonwealth bank in 1969 to protest the dismissal of an arbitration of an equal pay case with the meat industry union. On another occasion she chained herself to the doors of parliament house, only to have her chains cut and removed by a police officer. When the officer suggested she should be embarrassed by her behaviour, Zelda responded she was not because soon there would be more women joining her. Sure enough they did, and Zelda formed the Women’s Action Committee and the Women’s Liberation Centre with them, and the women’s liberation movement was born.
Zelda’s spirit inspired the young women’s collective who formed Zelda’s
Place, five of whom were at Katrina’s living wake. The five have taken varies
trajectories in their careers, but Katrina, like Zelda, and the in the spirit
of that first collective, dedicated her professional life to ending violence
On sighting Katrina from a distance you would not immediately pick her
as a staunch feminist, she doesn’t fit the stereotype. She is glamorous. Tall,
blonde, immaculately dressed and always made up. It is not until you speak to
her that you realise she is a woman not to be taken lightly.
I had known for some time that Katrina had done quite a lot of work with
the Australian Football League (AFL) around reducing violence against women.
What had not dawned on me was that she was one of the drivers behind the
professionalisation of women’s football, which emerged as a national
competition backed by the AFL in 2017.
Katrina had realised some time ago that Australian’s love of sport could
be a vehicle for change and bought her more than twenty-five years of working
to create more inclusive environments to the male dominated world of
football. She believed that increasing
the participation of women in football was key to the cultural change needed in
community football clubs to prevent violence against women and girls, and
pursued that belief with the same strength and determination that she pursued
all her years of working to eliminate violence against women. I imagine that
many of the blokes in the football world would have been surprised by
Katrina. As my partner pointed out; Katrina
Leason never shies from a fight, but always turns up dressed for a ball.
Katrina has approached her illness with the same pragmatism she has applied to her life. Meditation has given her inner strength to withstand many challenges and to stand tall with dignity and pride in the face of opposition and adversity, along with her connection with family and close friends.
We live in a society that is largely afraid of death, and where talking about it is often taboo. Katrina chose to take a different path and engaged a Buddhist death doula to provide non-medical support to her and her family through her end of life journey. Doula’s can help us to lean into death, to steer away from the socialised silence that most commonly surrounds dying and that brings disconnection rather than that which we most crave – connection.
The theme for Katrina’s living wake was semi-formal with a splash of gold and she looked ever glamorous in a long dress with gold braid. The gathering took place over a sit-down dinner at the same place Katrina and her husband, Peter, had married, but the main event was the family and friends who spoke.
Katrina gave those who knew her the opportunity to tell her, and for her to hear their words that she would not have experienced had they been spoken at her funeral. It was a beautiful evening to be part of.
I sprayed my hair gold and shed quite a few tears at the beautiful speeches. The final speaker presented Katrina with a well-deserved Zelda D’Aprano Lifetime Achievement Award in honour of her tireless work to contribute to the elimination of violence against women. Afterwards I felt I knew Katrina a little better and had a deep sense of gratitude for the woman in who’s honour I was there, for showing us what it means to strive not only for a good life, but for a good death as well.
In 2015 on a trip to New York I had the good fortune to meet a gentleman who worked at the University Club in Manhattan. It’s an elite private club established in 1861. Its purpose now is to promote Literature and Art and it’s based in a Mediterranean-Revival-Italian Renaissance palazzo-style purpose built building constructed in 1899 on West 54th Street. The Club hosts one of New York’s greatest private art collections which includes works by American artists Gilbert Stuart and Childe Hassam. It also has an extraordinary reading room with ceiling murals by H. Siddons Mowbray that were modeled after the Vatican Apartments (unfortunately I couldn’t take photos).
The gentleman gave us a tour of the building, library and rare book collection and it was one of the greatest book highlights of my life so far. Some of the rare books we were shown included:
Ptolemy Geographical (1511): an early publication of geographical maps pre-dating knowledge of Australia’s existence, which does not appear in any of the drawings.
Domenico Fontana Architecture (1590): which described and illustrated the removal of the Vatican Obelisk from its old location behind the sacristy of St. Peter’s, where it had been since the reign of Caligula, to its present location in the center of the Piazza of St. Peter.
The natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands 3rd edition, Mark Catesby (1771): which contained drawing of the figures of fish, snakes, turtles, etc.
Handwritten Patent of Nobility, King Ferdinand to Don Pedro Jacinta Elantra (1750): a royal manuscript printed on velum (goat/sheep skin).
Trattato del giuoco della palla (1555), Antonio Scanio: the first book ever written on the rules of tennis.
Book of Common prayer (1770’s): which had a fore edge painting, a painting on the edge of pages that can only be viewed from a certain angle.
I set about reviewing and rationalising my own book collection for the first time in about ten years last week, and while it may not contain any valuable or rare books it was an interesting trip through my own history, because a book collection can tell us a lot about ourselves. They put on display an intimate insight into our intellectual lives, inspirations, influences and escapes. I remember the last time we did this exercise and took a big load of books to our local second hand bookshop. It was after a youthful phase of reading loads of self-help and personal growth books.
The shop owner foraged through the boxes, turned to us and said, “I hope you feel better now.”
This time the throw out pile, about eight boxes, includes an eclectic mix of mainly literary and genre fiction. There are also a small number of management, cooking and personal development books.
What we chose to keep on our bookshelves is as interesting as what we discarded. The unread; favourite reference books (cooking and gardening); the books we loved and reread with the bent spines and creased pages (like Tracks by Robin Davidson; The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger; poetry books; and anything by Jeanette Winterson); the nostalgic volumes that hold some fond memory from childhood that we cart from house to house even though we may never read them again (James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl; The Black Stallion Walter Farley; Midnight by Rutherford Montgomery); and the ones we read as adults that hold some historical meaning and we might revisit one day (Equus by Peter Schaffer; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance and all those tomes on the art of classical dressage written by the greats like François Robichon de La Guérinière and my own teacher Master Nuno Oliviera – even though I no longer ride)
Of course when I mentioned discarding books, I didn’t mean throwing them away, that would be sacrilegious, there are many options to consider, disposal being the last resort. I have seen some amazing creative uses of old books from art installations to turning them into a bed base. I will attempt to find homes for as many as possible with friends, at second hand bookshops or by donating them to the local library, or op-shop, or one of the places around Melbourne listed below. Then I’ll set about filling up those empty shelves again.
Aboriginal Literacy Foundation: accepts donations of new and used children’s books. Refer to the criteria on their website before sending or delivering books.
Street Library: Community home’s for books in the street where people can simply reach in and take what interests them; when they are done, they can return them to the Street Library network, or pass them on to friends. The website shows drop off points
Brotherhood books: When you donate or purchase a book from Brotherhood Books, you are supporting the Brotherhood of St Laurence in working for an Australia free of poverty. All the proceeds of these book sales are reinvested back into the charitable operations
Vinnies: accept donations of quality books – fiction, non-fiction, childrens
Do you ever clear out your book shelves? What do you do with your second hand books?