Saturday, January 29, 2011


APHORISMS, maxims or axioms:
I bought a new pair of glasses last week & I see so much better - the only trouble is when I look in the mirror they give me such a lousy complexion.
On Writing:
You can't be taught to write it's only something you can learn.
“I remember everything in the past– even if it didn’t happen.” (Mark Twain)
Look, you have to believe me, I tell lies – about everything - and that’s the truth. (Damian Runyan)
Awareness and imagination are the principal tools in any writers toolbox. (Flannery O’Connor)
Those who would like to write should be thoroughly discouraged, only those who have to write need encouragement. (TS Eliot)
A vivid imagination is the cheapest mode of travel.
A cliché is often a discarded truism.
I admit I only set out to describe not to understand the human psyche.
The Arts Industry: The ones who make a better living out of our art than we do.
The desert submerges the trees. The trees fail to submerge the desert.
The greatest wisdom is to keep an open mind.
Those who are reluctant to govern make better rulers than those who are eager to govern. (Socrates)
It’s not God that’s the problem it’s those who believe absolutely.
The simple is as much complex as the complex is simple.
If you say something is impossible you are more likely to be wrong than if you say anything is possible. (Arthur C Clark)
The difference between a snob and a discriminator is that a snob relies on ignorance to judge whereas a discriminator discriminates.
Half full or half empty depends on whether you talking about petrol or a vintage wine.
OR: Who cares anyway?
I think therefore I am. (Decarte)
I am, therefore I think. (Decarte’s wife)
The meaning of life ... is the life you lead
To accomplish something of worth for its own sake creates the metaphoric soundlessness of one hand clapping.
The pessimist believes there is no point in action because all is lost, whereas the optimist believes no action is necessary because things always come out okay. It is only through the combination of a pessimistic outlook and an optimist act that change will come about.
Only through sacrifice comes redemption. (Source unknown)
When there are two ways to proceed that are equally as bad as the other there is no choice, only the sufferance of the one thing or the other.
The Mobile phone culture: an often a meaningless mobile chatter that speaks mostly of either isolation or self-importance.
Reality is your reality, my reality, even unreality.
The only difference between a miracle and a mystery is that the former is considered solved whereas the latter is not.
I started off with nothing and I’ve still got most of it left. (Overheard in a Laundromat)
Talking without thought is like singing without a tune.
Advice to give to an extra-terrestrial: Go home the earth is full. (NET)
You are depriving some village of an idiot. (Overheard during a road rage incident)
The suburbs: A bevy of silver TV arrows pointing towards their godhead.
My greatest ambition is to sit on the moon one evening and watch the earth rise. (Nasser Astronaut.)
I’m not really short I just know a lot of very tall people. (Overheard, Salamanca)
You live a bit and you learn a bit but you don’t live long enough to know very much.
Too many people live in a forest and never see a tree and others see a tree and not the forest.
Death is the aphrodisiac for living (Philip Adams):
The Da Vinci Code :A little ancient clay pot with a paper inside that says: Wrong way idiot, go back.
If you haven’t found more in your mind than you thought there was, then you really haven’t tried.
When you’re wrong about something you have the chance to advance your knowledge.
While there is life there is hope and while there is hope there is life.
‘Naïve is a word that people who don’t care about things, use to describe people who do.’ (Ethan Black.)
Moderation in all things, even moderation in moderation. (Neil Hackett)
If ego is the head driver, it shouldn’t have a license.
Save yourself a trip to India: Be your own Guru., (‘GEE YOU ARE YOU’)
Ambivalent? Well, yes and no! (NET)
Without compromise all things remain static.
I’m sure of nothing and surprised by nothing, (Gerald Durral)
It is only the moral self that keeps the moral order.
The older you get the more like yourself you become. ( Zen?)
AND: The older you get the fewer things are worthy of discussion.
AND: A hot shower solves many problems.
AND: The most heated conversation one can expect after being house bound is with your TV.
AND: Just because you can’t find something, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
AND: The time comes when testosterone fades that the exchange of bodily fluids loses its appeal.
Oldies can’t remember names and nouns, There is a name for this condition but few oldies can remember what it is.
AND: If you remain calm when all else is panic, perhaps you haven’t got your hearing aid turned on.
AND: When you walk along the shopping centre you smile at all the oldies in case you know them, and they smile back in case they know you.
AND: Don’t worry that you forgot my name. I forgot yours too. (NET)
AND: I bought pills to help with my memory but I keep forgetting to take them. (Overheard in a chemist shop)
POETS have no place in a perfect world.
Is there such a thing as un-natural talent?
Fundamental Islam: If there were 72 virgins in paradise awaiting the suicide bombers, how would you feel if you were 73rd?
Do we cry for others or do we cry for ourselves?
Who are you in your dream? Have you ever seen yourself in a dream? Or do you just imagine yourself in a dream? You are looking out but never in, you don’t see yourself, so who or what is it you are in your dream? Do you have a specific age? Or are you simply an ageless essence of all your time before and after your earthly birth? Perhaps it is your very soul you are glimpsing?
Sentiment belongs to the past because it is mainly about the loss of something or the regret that we didn’t ever find the love we were seeking.
Romance belongs to the present - an idealistic act directed towards someone you love. If reciprocated we know happiness and if not reciprocated it also falls into the tearful arms of sentiment.

Or then again, perhaps it is all just a load of cods wallop.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Meeting the Great Artist

Ubud, Bali 1991
I sat uncomfortably on the edge of the visitors' couch pinching the tiny china cup between thumb and forefinger. Senor and Senora Blanco sat opposite. Antonio the great Balinese artist collapsed deep into the plump luxurious cushions of his chair in what was obviously meant to be a simulated state of exhaustion. Perched on the very edge of the second chair his wife seemed hardly able to contain her impatience. Or was it disregard? I had no idea, for her expression was inscrutable. Antonio on the other hand, jittered. His hands and feet were forever on the move.
He was quite a small man with an aquiline profile and delicate hands that he used extensively with an amazing variety of flowing movements to conduct his words each time he spoke. Such an intricate patterning of the air, they seemed to contain their own special eloquence. He wore a blue pom-pom beret cockily tilted forward over one eye with the studied care of a showoff. His shoulders were surprisingly wide for a small thin man.
I thought they may have owed some of that width to padding in the decorous shirt he wore underneath his loosely hanging paint-spotted smock.
The great artist didn't seem to have drunk any of his tea and he certainly hadn't reached for any of the biscuits on the black glass coffee table. I would have liked to take his second biscuit but the thought of reaching out to get one suddenly seemed a very difficult thing to do.
I felt the three of us could have gone on like that forever, all in their own worlds. Me thinking of the best way to bring up the subject of his promised interview, the great artist's wife still staring into space as if none of it was any of her business, and Blanco himself struggling to feign some kind of interest in the proceedings when it was obvious that he was still considering color mixes, perspective, shape and form. In his mind's eye painting on, treating the beautiful young body before him as nothing more or less than a smooth brown landscape of shaded contours and configurations that had to be examined minutely, centimetre by centimetre, moment by moment...
"I enjoyed your book," Antonio Blanco said. "I read it through just two days ago. A requirement for my wife's Balinese Hindu religion is that our four children have a tooth filing ceremony when they come of age...we had four done altogether. We had thousands of guests yet I managed to slip away and read your book. I refuse to make comments on it...the fact is it kept me occupied in the face of tumult...that, I think, speaks of my review."
I wasn't at all sure whether it was a good review or a bad one. I nodded back at Antonio Blanco inanely and forced myself to smile. I was surprised to see that the artist was nodding also.
"You do write very well," he said.
I smiled. "But not as well as Chechov." I meant it to be a joke because Blanco had told me earlier that his namesake Antonio Chechov was his favourite author.
But Blanco took my remark seriously. "Chechov, your own Patrick White, yourself, myself - we are all artists. All different, so fortunately we do not have to race like horses. There is no first, second and third, surely?
I couldn't have agreed more but I felt a bit put out because the artist's correction implied I didn't. My ego was rearing its ugly head.
"It should be like that," I said a little truculently, "but I'm afraid it's not. Not in Australia anyway."
Blanco smiled. "Correct me if I am wrong but it seems you feel let down maybe? Your race has been a little futile perhaps?"
"Not futile," I assured him. "More frustrating I would say."
"Ah, yes," Antonio Blanco said, "I understand. But perhaps it is you and not your work that suffers...if you had a little more faith in yourself you could perhaps overcome anything."
I wasn't sure that it was my faith that was lacking so I shrugged for want of a better reply.
It was Blanco who persisted. "You can do anything you want. It is up to you. Take us sitting here. Why are we here?"
"I've come to do an interview," I reminded him succinctly. “For the Australian magazines.”
"No, no, dear. You are here because it was ordained we should share this moment. That dove last week getting into my studio and you helping catch it. You lending me your book to explain yourself, that was the moment. If we really explore what can be done with each moment we may find we can do anything. We can think what we wish. I can think what I want to think and you what you want to think. Or we can talk, as we are doing now. We can change the course of our lives moment by moment, if we so wish. I can make sense of a scared bird frightening my model and crapping on my paintings, if in fact the end result is we are joined in friendly conversation over a cup of tea. The moment was offered and we have taken up that offer and made much of it."
I wasn't at all sure that the artist was entirely serious. "Are you talking about serendipity Antonio?"
"Serendipity? What is that?"
"It's a kind of accidental discovery we make that turns out to be fortunate."
Antonio Blanco raised one of his thick devilish eyebrows and said with some exasperation, "My dear, it is not a matter of accident, every moment can be fortunate, but it is only fortunate if we accept it for what it is, find the best of it and act upon it. This is the way we enrich our lives, moment by moment."
I thought it all sounded a little too pat but of course wasn't going to say. I was going over in my mind my plan of interview.
"Yes dear soul," Antonio Blanco continued. "There is little that mankind can't do. You are perhaps a catholic and think that only Jesus can perform miracles? But remember dear, Jesus only walked on water, man has walked on the moon."
The artist's wife didn't seem too impressed with her husband's revelation. She half-turned and stared resentfully at him for a brief moment and then returned her gaze into her own comfortable middle distance.
"Okay," I said. "But what if that person we are talking of is a poor fisherman, or rice farmer with only a small plot of land, what can he do to improve his lot moment by moment?"
"Well, my dear, no one expects fisher folk and rice farmers to walk on the moon if that's what you mean, but the fisherman can always continue to learn his trade can he not? And the rice farmer to improve the fertility of his land and grow better rice."
"It's not a lot though is it? It's not a big step for a man."
Antonio Blanco, sighed suddenly. "Maybe not for you or me who have escaped the tediousness of life via our respective art but for some it may well be all there is my dear and who is to say one man's moment is any less or more valuable than another's. It is only how each of us value our own moments that is important."
I was still searching for a suspected flaw in Antonio Blanco's argument. It implied a whiff of elitism, but before I could respond the phone rang.
The artist excused himself and picked up the receiver. There was a rapid conversation in Indonesian and then he put the phone down with a look of regret. "My dear," he said, "that was my agent in Jakarta who tells me my paintings are being demanded by the Americans and I must return to work and not stop until I am finished painting for this dreadful exhibition."
He offered me a fleeting smile as he jumped up from his chair. "Not even if I catch on fire, he tells me. So my dear I must go."
The famous artist reached both his long elegant hands across the coffee table and took hold of my reluctant one.
"Don't look so glum," he said, "being at the rich man's beck and call is the price you have to pay. You should well remember that, when you long so for success. But you know as well as I that it is not the art they want my dear, it is market value they seek. Those who really need our art can never afford us. It is one of the great ironies of capitalism don't you think."
Antonio Blanco hurried off then towards the curtained door that led to his studio. He was waving further goodbyes over his shoulder as he went, but then at the door he stopped suddenly and turned fully around. "By the way," he called back across the large visitors' room. "My dear, did you not come here to interview me?"
"Yes," I answered, "I did."
"Just as well for me you didn't get your interview," Antonio Blanco called cheerily. "I think I am a rather pretentious, self-opinionated man and it may have shown. I wouldn't have wanted too many to know that."
I was sure I could see a mischievous sparkle in the man's eyes even from that distance.
I could think of nothing else to do but smile back and when I returned my attention back to Senora Blanco, even though her eyes still seemed occupied with something that was happening out in the garden, I was surprised to see her smiling also.

(An almost interview with Antonio Blanco, Ubud, Bali,1991)

Monday, June 7, 2010

A cat called Jasper

Ron’s neighbour asked whether he would look after their old cat overnight so that he and his wife could go to Queenstown for the funeral of a close relative. Ron would have preferred to have a quiet night, because the day before he’d badly twisted his ankle when foolishly demonstrating to his six-year-old niece how to execute a cartwheel on a wet lawn.
‘We’d take him with us,’ his neighbour said, ‘but you know what Jasper’s like.’
Yeah, Ron knew the cat all right. Very depressing, it was. Old Jasper was about as ugly a cat you’d ever see. He was incontinent, almost bald and as far as Ron was concerned about five years past his use-by date.
The only thing that made him stand out from the crowd of decrepit felines was his tail, a glorification that had somehow dodged the hair-destroying pestilence. His tail was quite splendid actually; it reminded Ron of a black feather duster.
The subliminal message Ron got from his neighbour’s request was that it was better for the cat to crap in his house rather than in their car.
Against his better judgement, Ron finally acquiesced. Ron was the sort of bloke who acquiesced quite a bit. His ex-partner Jane left him because of that trait. She had put it down to a physiological condition that he had inherited from his parents, a backbone that was made of rubber. ‘All three of you would bend before a temperate breeze,’ she said on that last day as she slammed the door behind her.
And it was the same lack of fortitude in Ron’s essential being that he’d also said yes that morning to his dubious pal Jacko who rang him and offered to come around and stay the night. ‘I heard you’d busted your ankle,’ Jacko said, ‘I thought you might like a bit of company. I could bring around a few stubbies and a pack of cards and cheer you up.’
That particular scenario was as unwanted as looking after the cat. Jacko was well known to hit the grog more than somewhat and the last time he stayed he ruined Ron’s best pair of fitted sheets when he passed out while smoking a fag in the spare room bed.
That would have been the time to disassociate Jacko from his circle of friends and the same went with Jasper’s owners who often called on him to borrow this or that without any reciprocality. He chastised himself for not saying a very definite no in both cases. He should have, but he didn’t.
Ron admitted it to himself that Jane was probably right; it was a matter of his innate softness, as always it was easier for him to say yes than to say no. Saying it quite cheerily on the surface but deep down there was mostly a great deal of nervous apprehension.

Jasper and Jacko arrived about the same time. Jacko carrying his sleeping bag, a dozen stubbies of beer and a pack of cards, and the cat arriving in a wicker basket along with his four tins of special dietary food, his silver bowl, three bottles of coloured pills and a vet‘s chart on how to dispense them.
With final farewells that would have done justice to a favoured cherub rather than a scraggy, balding moggy well on its way to a heavenly cattery, his neighbours drove away still shouting orders out the window of their car on how to make dear old Jasper happy and comfortable.
Bloody hell, Ron told Jacko, ‘I’m going to be a day/night nurse for a bald-backed, incontinent cat.’
‘No mate, no worries,’ Jacko said. ‘I’ll put old Jasper in the laundry with the back door open a crack. I’ll leave enough for him to eat and drink and he’ll be able to stagger in and out at will, and then I’ll come back and cook you the beast meal you’ve had since Jane left you.’
It all sounded so fine and dandy, so why was it that deep down Ron felt that niggling sense of foreboding once again? But then, his demeanour was somewhat ameliorated later that evening when Jacko had stir-fried a reasonable meal and catered most dutifully to Jasper’s wants and needs. Ron was happy enough to drink a couple of stubbies and play poker till midnight when he gave in to his aching ankle and went to bed. But not before he had established a heartfelt promise from Jacko not to smoke inside the house and to check out the cat before he retired.
‘No worries,’ Jacko assured him, ‘I’ll clean out his crapping dish fasten the door and let him out first thing in the morning.’

Ron found it hard to go to sleep that night, what with his throbbing ankle and residual doubts, and when he did finally drift off in the early hours, not surprising his dreams were very erratic, at one time almost pleasant, and then slipping into a nightmare with crippled cats crawling and scratching around his bedroom floor, meowing plaintively.
Then it was Jacko’s turn to come charging into his dream. Drunk as the hooniest of hoons, car horn blaring, he was chasing decomposing, cat-like obscenities out on the road in his dilapidated jalopy - shouting hysterically as he mowed them down one after the other.
Ron woke abruptly, the sounds still echoing in his head. It was two in the morning and he could hear Jacko bumping around out the back and muttering to himself. Something was wrong. In rising panic Ron lumbered out of bed, slid into his slippers and hobbled into his living room where he found Jacko standing irresolutely by the laundry door with the very limp and bedraggled body of Jasper in his arms.
Jacko thrust the corpse forward and tried to explain what had happened. ‘I was a bit pissed mate, I must have not closed the door properly. I woke up when I heard a car horn blaring and tyres skidding. I rushed out into the road and there was this guy standing in front of his car staring down at Jasper in disbelief. It was like he’d just knocked down the devil incarnate. He told me he was heading home after a wild night out and came across this apparition that looked like a giant black maggot with a feather duster stuck up his bum crawling across the road. He said he thought it was one of his deliriums and tried to drive right through it. He was surprised when he felt the bump of a solid body.’
Ron stared at the ghastly, sagging corpse in Jacko’s arms; it seemed even in death that the cat emitted some kind of evil miasma. He felt completely drained of any caring for anyone or thing. He was acting like an automaton in his strident insistence that he and Jacko spend the next hour blundering around in the dark with a spade, looking for a soft patch of soil in the garden to bury the cat and be rid of it forever.
It was only when it was finally done that they both staggered back to bed. Jacko in the spare room fighting off a brain-destroying hangover and Ron, wide awake, constructing in his mind what he was going to say to his neighbours on their return. But not without some satisfaction that he had at least buried their obscenity for them.
He went off to sleep finally with his mind so shut down that no dream good or bad would have dared to enter his subconscious. When he woke at nine the following morning he was pleasantly surprised to find that through some unexplained miracle, his ankle had stopped its painful throbbing. He even convinced himself that the combination of events of the previous night had done something good for both that miserable old cat and for humanity in general.
As a matter of fact you could say he felt good – until that was his tranquil mood was shattered by Jacko’s terrible howl from the spare room. He hobbled in to see what was wrong. Jacko stood at the window staring out. He was pointing a trembling finger at something in the garden and gibbering incoherently.
Ron followed his gaze and there it was, the residual horror of the night before - the exposed tail of Jasper, upright and brushy, waving frantically back and forth.
‘Bloody hell,’ Jacko groaned, ‘we buried the poor bugger alive.’

Of course, Jasper couldn’t really have still been alive. How would it be possible? On closer inspection it turned out that the phenomenon was caused by a trick of the morning wind blowing old Jasper’s carelessly exposed tail back and forth. And, though only a temporarily confusion in two men’s minds who had suffered a very bad night, it should be said that such a spectre was so symbolically powerful, so extravagantly bizarre, it could well have turned a man’s mind – or two men’s minds if it came to that.
In Jacko’s case, having confronted the full consequences of the demon drink he decided there and then to give up the grog. No way did he ever want to chance such a mind-bending experience ever again.
And as for Ron, well, from that time on he refused all offers to give, to give in, or lend, or do, or help anyone, no matter who asked and how much supplication was applied, or urgently the proposition couched, he would definitely, absolutely, intractably refuse.
You could say, after that night, whereas Jacko turned into a bit of a wowser, Ron turned from being a real soft touch into a real hard bastard.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Saroyan take...

Maskells Hill
Dear Michael de V, I always thought when learning to write that it was good idea to copy the style of other writers. That way one learns something about their style of telling. This story was a take on Saroyan and all in all it turned out to be a pretty good story in its own right, so I’ll pass it onto you and anyone else who visits this blog.


(Forgive me William Saroyan)

A second cousin of mine called Joey, who thinks of himself as an up-and-coming writer of some substance, rings me up last week and suggests we go for a drink in this sleazy little bar where writers hang out on Fifty Second Street. The only time I ever hear from Joey is when he’s frustrated over something or other. I had a bit of time on my hands so I listen attentively to what he has to say and I guess I’m just thankful that it’s not going to be one of his personal visits to my room. Last time he visited he drank my week’s supply of Uncle Elbe’s moonshine whisky and puffed away my last packet of smokes.

“I’ve got writer’s block,” he tells me over the phone. “I’ve got this guy on a ledge ten floors up who’s threatening to end his empty life. I got this Irish cop trying to talk him down. You know the kind, cousin Bill? One of those sentimental Irish cops who still hears the sounds of Irish jigs in his head twenty years after he left Donegal.”

My second cousin is getting very upset because his character the cop, though well rounded, is not doing very well in the savior business. Joey can’t find the right words for the cop to say to talk the guy down from the ledge. To overcome the situation cousin Joey tells me that he calls in a new character. This time it’s the potential jumper’s ex-girl friend. He reads out over the phone what he has the cop tell the girl.

‘I’ve been workin’ at it for two whole hours ‘an ’nuttin’ I say gets troo. He jes don’t wanta listen. Ain’t nobody listens at-tall in th’ Big City, not even a jumper. But then who knows, goils being goils wit’ their tender hearts an’ lovely smiles, might jus’ talk him down. But den I ain’t holdin’ me breath goil, cos this guy is empty of hope, he’s lost his dreaming in a city that takes no notice of lost dreams. He’s got to woirk it out hisself. Nobody’s goin’ to woirk it out for him, they’re not. But, if you tink yer can do it goil, then the best of Irish luck to yer.”

Not bad hey, Joey says. I like those Irish accents. They make good reading. But this girl I bring is of a different mould. She got what it takes. I call her Charlotte. She comes from North Dakota where her old man is a potato farmer who’s lived out feast and famine and blizzards all his life and he’s passed the iron in his blood on to his daughter. Charlotte’s hot to talk him down. She remembers her boy friend’s soft side – his passionate words and hard body when they make love on his narrow iron bedstead in his sleazy little flat with the peeling wallpaper and where the gas-ring’s never worked properly and the cold water tap runs as much rust as it does water.

Joey is getting a bit hoarse in his telling. He’s beginning to sound a bit desperate. “I mean it’s good stuff up to then isn’t it? So, where do I go now? You’re the writer, you should know about these things. How does the girl talk him down?”

“Know thyself, know others,” I tell him.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” he says, “C’mon, be a good guy, they say you can find a plot in a used bus ticket. Be a Pal, where do I take this one?”

“You’re got to look in before you look out,” I tell him.

“You got to explain that to me personally,” he says over the phone.

So, because he is the youngest son of my second cousin once removed, Abraham, I go into the city and meet him at this writer’s joint on fifty second.

When Joey arrives he looks like he hasn’t slept a lot.His voice is edging on desperation,“How the Hell does this girl friend convince the guy’s life is worth living?”

I buy him a scotch on the rocks hoping it might help him and wait for him to drink it.
“Know thyself,” I tell him.

“F’Chrissake,” he says, “Where you going with that one? It’s the girl’s point of view I’m looking for. Gazing at my own navel’s not going to get me anywhere. I’ll tell you I’m desperate. I’ve got to get out of this one. This writing business is dragging me down.”

“Know thy navel and know other’s navels,” I tell him.

But he doesn’t take me seriously. He’s really on edge and lays his troubles on me for the following two hours, and because I’m a willful parasite I let him go.“It’s the issues I want to write about,” he confesses. “I want to write about suicides and crooked cops and wars and pestilence and poverty. I want to tell those rich sons of bitches that pay us peanuts for our labors what the real world’s about. I want to shake ‘em out of their apathy.”

I listen conscientiously and it’s skewed somewhere because his father is a successful scrap metal merchant who’s put his youngest son through college and is always grizzling about how his youngest son drinks too much and won’t join the firm. Joey lives in the loft above his parents’ garage and sponges off anyone who’ll give him a free lunch.

Joey’s still ranting when I leave him two hours later. He hasn’t been able to get any sympathy out of me so he’s switched his attention to an overweight cutlery salesman from Cincinnati and his spiky-haired New York girl friend that are as drunk as he is. When I get up to leave he doesn’t notice. He’s still trying to peddle his fantasies.
“I’m a writer,” I hear him say to his new found drinking friends. “I got this guy hanging fire over a two hundred foot drop an’ nobody’s come up with a way to talk him down. It’s a tough business, this story telling, but I’ll beat it you see if I don’t.”

At home - if you can call one room with lice infected wall paper, a single gas ring that doesn’t always work, a cold water tap that runs more rust than water and a hall-shared bathroom, home - I’m pretty well fired up. I sit down at my table, take the cover off my second-hand Remington and begin my next story. It’s called, Ten Storeys up and Writers’ Block.

It goes quite well for a while but the ending eludes me so I sit there staring at the peeling wallpaper for an hour or two until the phone rings. It’s the Captain from the Seventh Precinct. He tells me my would-be writer second cousin is dead. He tells me he jumped out of a hotel window down town. I tell him how shocked I am and I go back to my typewriter and finish the story.

Two weeks later I go to his graveside and whisper my story to him. “It’s about this guy, I say, who never got to know who he was and died because of it.”

Sunday, January 17, 2010


By popular request – well four readers anyway – insist that I add the following memoir to my blog. This I am happy to do because I consider this work one of my best and most sincerely accomplished. I wrote it in 2004 and offered it to two literary journals but both weren’t interested. Both had, I might add, academic backgrounds and what would an academic editor know about honest to god story telling. Then I sent it off to Ralf Wessman at Famous Reporter, Ralf being in my mind one of the few editors who is attuned to what readers like, published it immediately. His common touch, reminds me of that wonderful editor Bruce Pascoe who edited Australian Short Stories through the nineteen eighties and nineties. Sadly now defunct. And I should like to add here with thumb firmly on end of nose and fingers extended like a cock’s comb that I have correspondence in my files from Amanda Lohrey and Nicholas Shakespeare who also thought it a humdinger



What I know about birds I mostly gained from my father as we tramped the hills and gullies of Tasmania. An ardent Field Naturalist member and a keen amateur ornithologist he said that birds were put on this earth to amaze us with their beauty and their song. I was thirteen years old; he was fifty-five. At that age I wasn’t much interested in bird watching myself. Birds were birds as far as I was concerned. Some were big and some were small, some whistled and some squawked, and some - if you were unlucky - shat on you from a great height. No, I wasn’t there by choice, I accompanied my father on those jaunts for quite a specific purpose; I was his guardian - commissioned by my mother to make sure that he didn’t forget where, or even who, he was.

My father was a TPI war pensioner. He was shot through the neck during a bayonet charge in the final weeks of World War One. He lay on the battlefield all day and through the night, conscious but completely paralyzed. The following day the medics loaded him on to the truck with the rest of the dead. It was only through the alertness of one of the soldiers at the burial site that he was saved from the horrendous ordeal of being buried alive. The soldier felt that the body he lifted down from the truck still had warmth. He held a mirror to my father’s mouth and the trace of steam on the glass showed that he was still breathing.

It took four years for him to recover from his ordeal. According to my mother, a voluntary auxiliary nurse, who was a one of those who nursed him through his rehabilitation, his main motivation was to get fit enough so he could tramp through the wild areas of his island home checking out the wildlife. Though his right arm was paralysed and he had bouts of memory loss, his heart, legs and lungs were fine. In fact he could out distance me even in the hardest going. One of his well-remember sayings was: If you’re only tired we’ll keep on, if you’re exhausted we’ll take a rest.

Most Sundays during the springtime my father and I set out very early in the morning carrying our packed lunch, a long light rope, binoculars, a tomahawk, a small calico bag full of six steel spikes, a medical kit, a torch, a magnifying glass, a ball of string and a few small cardboard boxes packed with cotton wool. It wasn’t just the birds we were after; we were searching out their nests and stealing their eggs. And I was there with him, the most agile, and possibly the most suggestible of his four sons, his apprentice egg thief and tree climber.

We didn’t steal every egg we came across, just those remaining sets my father needed to add to his collection. The collection numbered over one hundred and seventy different species. It was reputed to be the most comprehensive collection that was ever assembled in Tasmania. He had been collecting the eggs since he was eight years old. The gem in the collection was the egg of a Tasmanian Emu, a species that had been extinct since the middle eighteen hundreds. He told me his own father had found the egg when he was young man. That it was a Tasmanian Emu’s egg is disputed in some quarters, but the egg was definitely smaller and a slightly different colour than the mainland variety. My father was an honorable man and I can’t imagine he would have concocted such a story even if his own memory was somewhat unpredictable.

Such was his drive I sometimes considered that his main ambition was to collect a set of eggs from every single Tasmanian bird species and that his jobs as an itinerant fruit picker and cane cutter and later a teacher, a bank teller, and a Company Sergeant in the Great War were mere impediments to that paramount ambition. Even at the age of thirteen I thought this rather an obsessive and forlorn hope.

 My father and I covered a fair bit of territory in those days, sometimes not far from our home on the outskirts of Hobart and at other times to further destinations by car. Any place where there were heath lands, river grasslands, open bush, damp gullies, and the tall trees of the ancient forests whose height took your breath away. I often fantasized we were trekking through the Congo, the Amazonian Basin, the wilds of Patagonia and I don’t ever remember losing our direction, even though he never carried a compass or a watch. The sun, or failing light were good enough indicators of the time, and re-following those landmarks he’d mapped out in his head was good enough to guide us to our safe return. The fact that I was there to watch over him was becoming quite farcical.  

There seemed that no place was without birds and if you stayed long enough and still enough they would emerge and invariably disclose to the patient watcher where their nests were. Many nests were high up and by planting spikes into the trunk of a tree and a rope tossed over a bough higher up; smaller trees were quite climbable. My father would sit at the base of the tree with his bird and egg-identifying book and I would call down the type of material the nest was made from and a description of the eggs. Usually he could work out what kind of bird it belonged to.

If that failed I would take one egg, put into one of the cardboard boxes and lower it to the ground on a piece of string. If it was a bird whose eggs weren’t in his collection, he would then decide whether they were freshly laid or too close to hatching to preserve the shell. This was simply done. By holding up the egg to the sun the level of development of the chick inside could be readily seen. If there was no sun, then shining a torch was almost as good. If the eggs were freshly laid they could be “blown” by boring a hole with a needle at both ends of the egg and giving a few hearty blows at one end. If too close to hatching we would replace them and leave the vicinity as soon as possible to avoid unduly disturbing the birds.

Though, as far as I remember, we only took a dozen or so batches of eggs that he didn’t already have in his collection. Three, I remember well. A Red-capped Plover clutch we found at the back of the beach at Marion Bay, another two eggs which he thought were the eggs of a Forty Spotted Pardalote (though they could have been the more common Spotted Pardalote) we found in a hollow on Bruny Island and a Bassian Thrush’s clutch we found in a rotting stump near the magnificent tall trees of a rain forest near the Arve River. On his insistence we always took the complete clutch because he told me that with all their eggs gone the birds would lay again.

 And it was, I recall, this latter area around the Arve that I think my father revered the most. I remember him once sitting on a moss-encrusted log in the ancient forest shushing me to silence.

“Listen,” he said.

“But it’s so quiet,” I complained.

“Shush,” he said. “Listen, deeper.”

I cupped my hands over my ears, listening again. This time I heard in the distance the faint warbling of a thrush that floated on a wind you couldn’t even feel at ground level. The sound lent immensity to our surroundings.

“I nodded as if I fully understood because I knew that was what he wanted.

“It is the reason I survived those terrible years. All those days I spent in bed.  All this,” he said, waving his one good arm about, “Is my church.”

 Although, in spite of the attraction of such cathedral-like aspects as the rain forests with its giant trees; or those lesser trees that I could scale with ease and display my agility; my favourite sites were the river grasslands where there was an abundance of water birds and especially the habitat of the intricate weavers of dry grasses.

“How do they do it,” I had asked in awe at seeing my first Grassbird’s nest - so exact, so delicate in its structure, strung between a half dozen stalks of reeds, it swayed ever so slightly in the breeze. It was an intricate work of art.

“Ah”, my father said, “that is the question. I once saw two Wedge-tailed Eagles teaching their fledging to fly but I never saw a Grassbird chick getting a lesson in weaving.”

It was a question I haven’t found an exact answer to yet. Though in my father’s case it simply didn’t matter. He just accepted the marvels of nature as they were revealed...

 It was only after his death in 1981 that I really understood how deeply he must felt about the wilderness. During a walk in the Florentine Valley with a friend some years after my father’s death, and remembering that I had walked the same track with him years before, we stopped when we heard a distant piping whistle from somewhere above. We looked up and there framed in the canopy of branches; high up in the cloudless sky was a white Goshawk circling the sun. It was a wondrous sight and with the sunlight filtering through its wings it was almost translucent. There seemed a mystical quality. We were enthralled and stood there completely immobile for several minutes until we heard a distant sound – not the warble of a thrush this time, it was the cough and splutter of a distant chainsaw starting up. Being once again reminded of the present day reality my heart sank. I felt I was losing something special and something personal. What would my father have thought of the present day method of clear felling in such an area? I wouldn’t have been too surprised if he’d taken up his .22 rabbit gun and gone to defend his “church” against the forces of ignorance.

 As with everything else in my life; from what I do and what I see and what I hear and what I read, stories emerge; and so it was with my experience as an egg thief; some of these incidents were bordering on the mystical, some humorous and some frightening. One such story involved a disagreement between my father and the Tasmanian Museum in the nineteen thirties after he’d reported sighting a pair of Dollarbirds in the far northeast of Tasmania. He told the museum curator that the birds seemed to be in nesting mode. His observation was summarily dismissed. The record showed that there had only been two verified sightings of the Dollarbird in Tasmania since white settlement. My father was a stubborn man who would not back off. He had seen them and that was that. The following year he returned to the same area with one of his brothers and camped there for two weeks, but the birds hadn’t returned.

Knowing at the time he didn’t have a sophisticated camera I’d asked him once what he would have done if he’d seen them again?

“Maybe I would have shot one just to prove a point,” he said gloomily. Though I knew from experience it was an empty threat due more to his frustration that his word wasn’t accepted. He considered his word and his experience were irrefutable proof. The museum needed concrete evidence and he didn’t have any.

The second installment of the Dollarbird arose when my family and I were farming on the east coast and my father was visiting. My youngest daughter came home one afternoon and asked him about a bird she’d seen on her friend’s farm. It was a bird she’d never seen before. A bird as big as a starling, she told him, skewing along the windrows after insects like it was drunk.

“A cranky fan?” my father said.

“No,” she said, “It was bigger and noisier – a  kind of bluish-grey with a red beak and white spots under its wings.”

We didn’t see much of him for the next three days as he went looking for his Dollarbird, unfortunately for him, again without luck.            

But in some strange way he did get his point over to the Tasmanian Museum years after he was dead. In the time I lived in Cygnet during the nineteen nineties I had stepped out the back door on my way to the shops early one winter’s morning when right in the middle of the path lay the body of a dead bird. I had only seen such a bird as that in cages in Indonesia. I assumed it was some kind of escaped pet killed by the cold weather. But that bird wouldn’t leave my mind. I fretted about it for two days until I was driven by curiosity to find out what it was. I rang the museum and described the bird over the phone. I was asked to freeze it and bring it to the museum. It was eventually identified as a Dollarbird.

I must admit the following day I looked up at the sky with my sceptical eyes and wondered about all the amazing coincidences that had happened to me throughout my life. Was there some unstated law that threw up such unbelievable odds to make us reconsider our prejudices? Was Carl Jung right when he suggested there was no such thing as a coincidence, that it was a matter of syncronicity – an acausal connecting principle that would give meaning to a series of coincidences not explicable through notions of simple causality? Who knows? Of all the places that the Dollarbird could fall, it fell from out of a blue sky right at my feet. No doubt other birds could have lost their way and fallen somewhere in the mountains or in the deep forests, undiscovered, but even then that Dollarbird episode goes to the top of my list of unexplained phenomenon. And, as my father often said rather dismissively: “If it works, then it works, knowing why makes little difference.”

 The humorous story that emerged still resonates today and continues to gives me enjoyment. My father and I had been searching the tussocks in a small valley close to Hobart for the nest of a Bassian Thrush when up flew a flock of small birds with yellow backs. I asked my father what they were and it was one of those occasions when the name escaped him. He told me that he would think of it later.

Later turned out to be the following Sunday, one of those dreadful days when I and my three brothers were warned to be on our best behavior because our grandmother was coming to share our Sunday’s roast. To us kids grandmother was the granny from Hell. My mother’s mother was a Methodist to her very core. Her attitude towards life was denial, where laughter, dancing and singing were inventions of the Devil. She wore veils and dark filmy dresses that gave her body no shape, no character, other than that of a formidable battleship presence that should to be avoided at all costs, especially if you were young. On the threat of no lollies or pocket money, or any largesse for the duration of our childhoods, we four boys sat silent and immobile, chomping away at our dinner. Half way through the fruit salad with icecream our father sat up straight with a sudden grunt. He looked across at me, his blue eyes alight with a sudden realisation and almost shouted it out: “Tits, that’s what they were!”

In the deathly silence that followed I could hear the mantelpiece clock ticking out the seconds. Our grandmother’s face had turned a sickly yellow. She looked like she was well on her way to a heart attack. The rest of my family was giving a fair impersonation of being catatonic. Nobody wanted to comment. And when one of my brothers dropped his spoon on the wooden floor it could have been a bomb going off. It shook me into action. I was the only one who knew what my father meant. I looked at him across the table and tried to keep the tremble out of my voice. “Those birds up at Ridgeway last week,” I said.

“Yes,” my father said, “Yellow-rumped Tits.”

It was all too much for my brothers who began an uncontrollable giggling. They were banished to the back yard where the giggles became a kind of suppressed whooping. Our grandmother didn’t finish her meal that day, she left soon after. My father drove her home still wondering what all the fuss was about. When she was gone my mother gave us all a generous heaping of icecream in the backyard. “We don’t want Mum’s helping going to waste, do we?” she said.

 The frightening side to egg stealing came the following year when recklessly showing off my ability to climb, a branch snapped under my feet and I fell twenty feet to the hard ground below and was knocked unconscious. I was rushed to the hospital by ambulance and spent three days there, my head wrapped in bandages, bruised and aching. Fortunately there were no bones broken and no lasting effects other than an acquired fear of heights - or at least a cautionary attitude when it came to climbing trees. I hadn’t realized before that such a thing could happen. I began avoiding those weekend jaunts with my father. I made up excuses. I became unusually keen to play football for my school, or do my homework.

But pressure, or conscience, got through to me eventually. So one day in the following spring I set out again with my father on a nest hunt. Only this time, he emphasized, we were merely observing rather than stealing eggs. “Just a short jaunt,” he said, as we set off up towards the Hobart Waterworks. He told me that he’d seen two nesting birds there and they could have been Leaden Flycatchers. He told me he had a set of the Satin Flycatcher’s, which were more common, but the other Flycatcher had eluded him. He had seen several pairs but he’d never found their nest.

“I just wanted you to help me check it out,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get a set of eggs. Not that I’m asking you to climb after your accident last year.”

“I’ll climb the tree if it’s easy,” I said rather recklessly.

It wasn’t. It was in a Eucalypt tree in a dense gully at the back of the reservoir. The first branches began several metres up the clean bole of the tree - too large for me to be able to put my arm around it for support. The only hopeful feature was that another smaller tree was growing close alongside. Small enough, I surmised, for me to hang on with one arm as I straddled the trunk and if I could use the spikes as steps to a height where I could toss the rope over a branch above the nest I thought I might be able to do it. I had climbed more difficult trees, though not since my accidental fall.

Though I didn’t tell him that. If he thought I couldn’t climb the tree I wouldn’t have to tell him of my fear. For at least an hour we sat very still on the ground each one of us taking turns to view the two birds as they came and went. “See that! He’s got cobwebs in his beak,” my father said. “They’re putting the finishing touches to the nest now. Can you see its back? Is it dark grey or more to dark iridescent blue?” There was no way to tell, we were directly below and there was little light in the dense surrounding trees. “It’s no good,” my father said. “We can’t tell what it is. It’s not worth the risk of the climb – not knowing.” I readily agreed.

The following week I couldn’t concentrate on anything. My schoolwork, which had always been mediocre, was plummeting. I even tried to do a bit of homework to get that nest out of my mind. At night my dreams were to do with trying to fly and falling - and dragging my feet through ankle-deep mud in a dismal, endless swamp. I had to do something. So the following Saturday I arose before sunrise and set off towards the reservoir reserve carrying a rope, a bag of spikes and a hammer.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do but I had to take another look. In the early morning light with no pressure to do or not to do, I stood at he bottom of the tree and felt optimistic. At first there was no sign of the birds, Leaden or Satin, but after a few minutes one of the birds came arrowing in. I saw its tail flick as it changed places with its mate, who then set off to catch its own morning insects. I made up my mind – it was now or never. Without thinking I hammered the first spike into the tree.

I had no memory of how I climbed the tree. The same way, I suppose, I had climbed trees before, one step, one hand, always keeping three grips at any one time and thinking of nothing else than the next move upwards. Even the monkey jump from one tree to the other I took with ease. And there was the nest in front of me with three eggs in it. I settled the eggs into the cotton-wool lined boxes I had in my pockets. “Thanks birds,” I said a little flippantly in my triumph. I’d seen in a movie once when the Native American Indian shot down his prey with an arrow and I copied him. But up there, in the cool morning air, even at that young age, I realized that the notion of thanking the beast he had slain for food and bird that I had robbed of its eggs was a human construct after all - to salve our conscience.

The next lesson I learned that morning was never to forget the salutary rule in climbing – it was much easier to go up than come down. I was turned backwards to the tree that I had to descend by. To turn around I had to stand with only a few gum leaves to hang onto, then take two steps along the branch and jump back to the other tree. That was when the fear really gripped me. That was when all my dreams of falling pierced me right in the heart. So I sat indecisive - perspiring.  How long could I sit there? How long would it be before I lost my balance and fell? Who would ever find me? I sat and I sweated and I worried, for a very long time.

But then I remembered one of the few things my father told me about the war and his near mortal wounding. The fact that he had been shot down that day in 1918 didn’t surprise him. He knew his time was up because his mother had warned him in a dream during the night that he would be shot. In his dream he saw her standing on the parapet before him. She raised her finger in a manner he knew so well and waggled it before his eyes. He believed the message but he had no alternative: he had to go. He was the senior Sergeant and the highest ranked soldier still alive in his depleted Company. If he hadn’t have given the order and gone over the top with the rest of his mates he couldn’t have lived with himself.

Remembering all that gave me the strength I needed. If he could then I could. I stood up, balancing with my arms outspread, and I turned, took two steps and leapt across the gap, and, unlike my father, I was saved by the sturdy bough that I fell into. 

I got home late for breakfast that morning. I didn’t care when my mother chastised me. And I wasn’t too surprised later when my father sadly affirmed that the eggs were the wrong kind of Flycatcher after all. I cared for his disappointment but not for mine. For hadn’t I had proved something that morning as my father had proved before me. Though what exactly that was I was never quite sure. But what I was sure of, that experience was a kind of catalyst, for even though my father and I still roamed the bush on and off for years after, we never cheated any bird out of its prime purpose in life - to go forth into the world and multiply…


Tuesday, December 29, 2009


The death of a family pet is always a trauma. However, sometimes that inevitable trauma is relieved by a most unlikely circumstance that somehow ameliorates the sadness of the occasion.

The family pet was a much-loved, tail thumping, sooky old Labrador named Allie, whose only two sins in his behavior patterns during his life was to bark at people wearing large hats and sometimes embarrassing his family by his inbred desire to rescue bathers from the sea.

He contracted arthritis in his back legs at the age of fifteen years and went downhill rapidly until he was almost completely immobile. Groaning became his chief occupation. Drugs did nothing for him, so driven by concern for his well being, our family assembled one day and, unlike our nervous politicians, we unanimously passed the Euthanasia Bill in my backyard. We thought it for the best and the vet thought it for the best and we presumed that poor old Allie would agree.

The following day after a lot of pampering and soothing words we took him to the vet who injected him with a lethal drug. Within a few seconds his groaning stopped and I’ll swear to this day that his last breath was a sigh of gratitude.

I had prepared a grave for him and bought a pencil pine to plant on top but our family couldn’t assemble until the following Saturday. The vet told us that he put Allie’s body in the cooler until then. What he didn’t tell us was that his cooler was set very low for when we picked up his body two days later poor old Allie was quite frozen inside a stiff plastic orange bag.

It’s what we use for such occasions, the vet told us. People find it less confrontational.

We carefully settled Allie in the back of my daughter’s wagon and off we went to the burial site in my back garden relating ‘remember how’ stories of the dog’s life on the way.

At the time I lived in Warwick Street just above Argyle and anyone who knows the area will realize it is quite steep. I’m not quite sure what happened when we lifted Allie out of the boot. Perhaps we were distressed at the occasion and not quite concentrating. Whatever, his body suddenly slid out of the plastic bag and took off down the street at a rate of knots that he’d never acquired during his life.

We watched in awe as his frozen body slid into the traffic in Argyle Street - running a red light I might add. I could hear brakes squealing, horns tooting and shouts of disapproval and disbelief issuing from inside the cars that were banking up behind each other.

The iced up carcass of Allie finished up in the gutter twenty metres beyond the intersection. Two young girls hanging over a picket fence added to the mayhem with a duo of high-pitched screaming as they bolded indoors when they realized the thing sliding their way was a frozen dog.

Several cars were jammed together because their drivers had climbed out to see what it was that had run out in front of them. Others, further back, began tooting impatiently. Road rage was pending.

When the cops turned up a few minutes later one took to sorting out the traffic and the other walked down to where my daughter and I were trying to slide the dog back into his bag.

He stood in front of us with arms folded, trying to take in what was going on. An older cop he was who thought he’d seen it all, but hadn’t. He cleared his throat and asked me to explain.

Well, I said. It was like this…

Due to the solemness of the occasion he did his best not to smile but I imagined that it wasn’t far away. I also imagined how the bizarre event would be described and relayed around the police station on their return. I mean what could we book him for? There’s no law about keeping a dead dog on a lead, is there? Right, but the dog didn’t have a licence to slide on the Queen’s Highway and it did run a red light! Yeah, sure, but imagine explaining that to a magistrate?

It would make their day.

Back in the real world the older cop who was still holding back his smile said finally: Well no real damage done, though you better bury him quick and try not to do it again, hey!

Yes officer, my daughter said, trying to beat him at his own game. And if we do we’ll be sure the traffic light is on green.

And that made the bugger smile.