Wednesday, 28 December 2011

A Passion for Place

I picked up a book I've had for 10 or more years the other day. It was "About This Life', the autobiographical writings of Barry Lopez a North American storyteller and sage. He writes about the landscape and about people with an intimate knowledge of their land or their world. He moves from artic landscapes to intercontinental air freight and subjects them to the same incisive gaze and sense of discovery.

I was reading his essay "The American Geographies" where he grapples with the question of what is the land we live in? He sees that his country is often glibly represented by billboards and, in film by internationally recognised emblems of North America and he argues that this devalues the true nature of the landscape. He observes that true understanding 'resides with men and women more of less sworn to a place.' In saying that he also says that it's not an encyclopedic knowledge that these people have but a deep love and familiarity. They inhabit real spaces rather than inhabiting an idea of a place.

That got me thinking. I have an uncle Paddy like that. Every time I visit him in the Richmond River Vally where he was born he constantly talks about the weather and the river and the fish and hunting and seasons. It's as if he is a bird hovering above the land taking it all in. He can describe the route from his place to anywhere in the district as if by touch and feel rather than by street signs. Barbara Kingsolver does that in 'Prodigal Summer', the most remarkable book I've ever read. Everyone else in my circle loved 'The Poisonwood Bible' but I was captivated by her intimacy with the landscape and the people in 'Prodigal Summer'.

Barry and Paddy got me thinking. Thinking about what I'd read and written this past year. I realised that the books I most remember were set in places I knew or could know: "The Body in the Clouds" - Sydney; " All That I Am" - London and Germany between the wars; 'Spirit of Progress' - Melbourne. These are all Australian authors (I'm in a local Australian Authors Bookclub) but their stories are universal while specific to real places. I also read a series of books by young authors which were well constructed, well written and with interesting plots but, while they were set in recognizable landscapes, these landscapes were not named and the sense of place was not the same. I want to learn about a concrete world as well as a psychological world.

In terms of blogs, I've read less this year but the few I read I read regularly. On reflection I am drawn to sites which are grounded in place or accounts of place. Two of my favourites have been Sara Toa's 'A WineDark Sea' and Jennifer Morrison's 'Realia'.

Sara writes and photographs her fishing life and fishing community on the southwest coast of Western Australia. It's her writing I love. It is so true to daily experience. It is so deeply simple in the way she captures moments like launching a boat as the sun rises over the bay or loading crab pots or reading the weather. It's much more than notes about a good days fishing. Hers is writing with the intention of telling a story and capturing the reader in the moment.

Jennifer, similarly, captures moments in a very intentional way. Her moments are often about people she encounters on the bus or train on the way to work. Small observation of real life in Toronto, Canada. Jennifer teaches writing to adult groups and has a passion for storytelling and, in naming the streets and the destinations, she builds a picture you can step in to or could step into if you visited and followed in her footsteps. None of this is new. Writers have been documenting and capturing the world they live in since well before Dickens. I can still, forty years later, close my eyes and find myself in Steinbeck's 'Cannery Row'.

For my part I realised that my writing has also followed this path. I am more interested in writing stories of real experiences and real people than fictionalised accounts from my imagination. To my mind my stories are no less creative; the fundamentals of good storytelling are the same and that's where the craft and the creativity reside.

At this point my focus has been on my personal experiences and encounters I have with the interesting and absurd. Family and memoir has been a large part of my writing this year. It occurs to me that the landscapes that Barry Lopez talks about do not need to be the exotic; they could equally be the immediate locality, my community. How can I know my community and my local history better? What better way than to examine it, observe it and write about it.

I don't make New Year's resolutions but I'm hoping this idea might have a life beyond this immediate blog.

Happy New Year for next week.

Link to Barry Lopez on Storytelling

Tuesday, 27 December 2011


I'm off to New Zealand for a few weeks from 1 January so see you all in the new year.

I'll take my computer but hopefully I'll be too busy to blog. That, or I'll be writing from the bottom of a crevasse after another South Island earthquake - we fly into Christchurch which has had another big one this week. But as one article reminded us all recently - the landscape we love in NZ is the result of milleniums of earthquake and volcanic activity.

Here's to fate, fun, rain, and unused travel insurance.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Cryptic Christmas


I've aged only one year
but my children's combined tally
creeps closer to my maturing years.

I've written a small mountain of words
but the memoir in me
grows faster than I can capture it.

I've been a teacher in a Pacific idyll
but I've learnt more
than I've imparted.

I've immersed myself
in the history of my community
only to discover that I know very little.

I've lived my 37th year
in a partnership both
baffling and satisfying.

I've read a lot
becoming a better reader,
more discerning and insightful.

I've spent more time alone
and found good company within,
and out and about.

I haven't been paid
but I have worked hard
hoping the tax man is losing interest.

There were things lost -
a job, or two; a son leaves home
But I have no memory of funerals.

I have valued relationships and relatives
I have valued time and also tide
I am again a fortunate man.

Have a great holiday season everyone.
See you in 2012.

steve aka 'little hat'

Friday, 16 December 2011

Starting Point

Is it possible to take inspiration from anything as the beginning point of writing a blog or a piece of creative/reflective writing?

Right now my toilet cistern is hissing at me. It's been hissing for a few weeks now as precious water flows constantly down the slightly stained porcelain walls through the S bend and on a journey ultimately to mix with waters polluted by poo and pee and other waste products.

Can I learn anything from this?

At the most practical level I have learnt that toilet cistern valves are not as easily sourced as I'd presumed. Two weeks later and a series of excuses and my local Tradelink plumbing shop still can't provide me with a simple piece of rubber. I could have flown to Malaysia, tapped a rubber tree, cured the sap and shaped a perfectly ordinary seal in the same time.

Of course I'd still be cursing and ruining the world on a number of fronts. One, the piece I would have made would be too big or too small or the wrong shape or too rough and I would have made no progress at all. Two, my trip to Malaysia would have added tons of carbon to the atmosphere and, so, more than counter balanced the good I am trying to achieve by stopping the leak. Three, let's leave three to your fertile imagination, because mine has run dry.

On the spiritual level I have learnt that acceptance of life's S bends, while challenging, can lead to an inner harmony and this, in turn, is good for one's bowel movements. I have also learnt that a calm reply and a logical account of progress to date can sooth the ire of those to whom saving the planet (not to mention the dollar cost of wasted water) is of paramount importance.

Finally, and there is always a final irony in most things (though I am told my friends in North America - the USA in particular do not get irony), my hissing toilet cistern has chosen to coincide its flush and flow with the release of tens of thousands of megalitres of water, not officially waste water, but certainly wasted, from the Wivenhoe Dam west of Brisbane to reduce its capacity to 75%.This is a precaution against a possible repeat of the January 2011 flood which devestated the community.

Are my efforts in vain. Can one person's cistern make a difference? Is the Kyoto protocol wasted on me? Did it ever get signed? What has waste water got to do with global warming? Answer: it can help keep things cool - for a while?

And to answer my opening question: The answer is yes. But the value of the result may very likely be questioned.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Harry loves Bindi

I've just spent a week watching a DVD of Bindi and the late Steve Irwin of Crocodile Hunter fame. I never was a fan but Bindi, age about 8 in the DVD, and Steve were quite a team. She's the mature straight man (if I can use that term) and he's the playful child messing with dangerous animals (and finally getting too close to one particular stingray).

I can remember where I was for a small number of major events in history as they unfolded over my lifetime.

I was walking past Our Lady of the Assumption Church, Norman Park, as a 13 year old when I learned about the assination of JFK from a passing motorist. (November 1963)

I was in the Music/Media Room under the University of Qld Refectory watching Neil Armstrong step on to the moon in the late 60s. (July 1969)

I watched the 9:11 drama unfold on my home TV screen early in the morning of that terrible day in 2001 and then watched it replayed hour after hour at work in my office at Indooroopilly. (September 2001)
In 2006 I was camped in remote Central Australia at Kings Canyon having a glass of wine in a camp chair watching the sunset when news swept the campground that Steve Irwin had died. there was no TV, no radio, no media. Someone had picked up the news via their CB Radio. The camp ground was stunned. (September 2006).

For a period Steve sat beside JFK, Neil Armstrong and the 9:11 event as a moment of international significance. How do you figure that? They all occured in the second half of their respective years; Steve and 9:11 both in September. It's not a hugh step to develop a conspiracy theory around those facts.

No I haven't gone potty - just the price of a visit from 7 year old nephew Harry all the way from London.

Brisbane born and London raised he has an unusual take on his birth country - this last week we had daily visits from wallabies grazing in the backyard of the house we were renting on Stradbroke Island (plus families of kookas and butcherbirds which we fed from the verandah).

As far as Harry's concerned it's true, we have kangaroos bounding down our main streets in Australia. And Bindi is set to become the second female Prime Minister with young Harry as her consort.

Now what to buy harry for Christmas? A date with Bindi?

Friday, 2 December 2011


I am surrounded by reminders of my mortality. I decide to visit Sydney to track down some family sites which I hope will help me fill in some gaps in the family saga. I call my cousin and suggest we spend a couple of days together exploring. The visit will coincide with an old friend's 60th birthday celebration.

I arrive three hours late after my flight out of Brisbane has been cancelled and a seat found for me on a later plane. Cousin Steve picks me up at the airport and we talk about the state of the nation and his state of health. The economy is pretty shaky and Steve's year hasn't been much better. He's had a hip operation and then a strange virus which doctors couldn't identify but which attacked his heart. He makes light of it but later his wife tells me he's definitely not running on all four cylinders. This is ironic for a man with a passion for cars. He has a 1950 something MG TF convertible in his garage which he has done up and in which he goes touring. He and the car both look pretty good but they are, to be honest, both getting on.

Steve and I spend a day mooching around inner city Leichhardt uncovering a series of Italian and Irish connections. Leichhardt was, and is, Sydney's 'Little Italy' and was the first port of call for many migrants looking for affordable housing. The Fruit and Vegetable shop from 1910 has gone but a few locals tell us there was still a fruit and vege business on the corner of Paramatta Rd and Norton Street until the recent past.

The Kilcoyne family (two Kilcoyne girls married two Capelin boys) had settled in Leichhardt in the early 1880s, about the same time Lorenzo, the original Italian connection, was disembarking from his disastrous venture to the Pacific with 200 other Italians. Their house is still there and the woman living there is home and shows us through. We are following a warm trail. We visit the local Catholic Church, St Fiacres, where the weddings took place and confirm that the wedding photos were definitely taken in front of a backdrop featuring fake pillars. I check out St Mary's Cathedral the next day hoping to find the very pillars there - but am again disappointed. We track down two other houses built by various members of the family and have a coffee at Bar Sport, a place that my Sydney friends tell me later is an icon of Norton Street. The coffee is good.

The next day I am at my friend Mark's house in Glebe, having slept on the floor overnight. He's the one turning 60. His family have arrived from Rockhampton and Perth and we are 11 in the house over three days. Well, most of them have. His sister in law can't make it as she is nursing her sister who is seriously unwell. I also learn that a cousin of Mark's wife has been knocked down by a car and taken to hospital the day before. She's from Israel and looked left instead of right as she went to jog across the road on her morning run. Her partner was well in front of her and didn't know she'd been hit, only that she never arrived back from the run. Sydney's like that. People disappear all the time. After a series of frantic phone calls they track her down. She's okay. It was only a glancing blow.

Around mid morning a call comes from another relative apologising that they won't be able to make the party. The husband has just been taken to hospital having suffered a heart attack. It's turning out to be quite a weekend.

Understandably the conversation for the remaining two days often revolves around health. The party goes well. No one is taken to hospital, though a few are going home a bit worse for wear thanks to Mark's generous bar tab.

I visit the Police Museum and am disappointed to find I don't have a National Security file - I was always too afraid to really stick my head up too high during the Vietnam protest years.

Next day Cousin Steve and I drive to Woollongong to visit our only remaining uncle on the Capelin side. Cyril is 83 and pretty unsteady on his feet but he has a memory of a teenager and tells us stories with people's names, dates and even the time of day. He swears his longevity is based around his heavy diet of dairy products and cream.

On the way back to Sydney for my flight home I get a text message from my wife, Andrea, telling me that my younger brother has completed his angiogram procedure and that they've inserted a stent into one of his major arteries. He's going to live. He retired three weeks ago and has been at the hospital every other day since then having tests after some chest pain. Can I pick him up from hospital the next day as his wife is on crutches after foot surgery and can't drive; Andrea isn't available as she'll be at work - its her third last week; she's been retrenched.

It seems I'm the only one left standing. I feel fine. But I do have strange thoughts as I swim my twenty laps of my local pool where I wonder how long it would take the other swimmers to notice my body on the bottom of the pool if I karked it mid swim.


I facilitated a sharing of stories at the AGM of my local community organisation last night. I began by noting that, while the January flood had defined the year, it was not the only thing we had all experienced in the past 12 months. I asked people to think about how the flood may have influenced their year. What had they learnt about themselves? About their community?

I didn't want people to re-experience the flood. It was hard enough the first time without doing it all over again in our imaginations. Still, the flood did dominate the conversation.

Two women who had never met before January had ended up working alongside each other for the whole year in a Flood Recovery Centre, 5 months of that as volunteers. They are chalk and cheese and yet now best friends. They met the Queen. One was overcome with excitement; the other, of Scottish heritage, was completely uninterested in Her Majesty. They laugh a lot and finish each others stories.

Norma is 84. She spoke of the good things to come from the flood; the people who had helped; the relatives rallying around. She's moved on. She is still reminded of the experience in strange ways. "Yesterday I wanted to thicken some cream but I couldn't find my eggbeater anywhere." Gone. Thrown out by helpful volunteers in the days after the flood. It's become her convenient excuse for not doing things she doesn't want to do. " Oh I can't, sorry, that got thrown out after the flood."

My neighbours moved in 12 months ago - November 2010. He had a book collection and stored them under his house while he organised shelving upstairs. He lost the lot. They moved out last week, 12 months to the day. I haven't spoken to them since the week of the flood when we delivered some food to them. I guess the thought of a repeat experience was too much to bear.

January will be a strange time for many people.