What if Shakespeare had been born on 23 April 1964 not 1564?

What sort of person would he be today? What would we think of our Gen X genius? I wondered this recently at a production of King Lear, reminded yet again of how vividly and immediately Mr Shakespeare speaks to us about our own lives, even after 400 years.

I love and work with words every day, yet confess they rarely move me emotionally the way a song or a movie can. Words have a quieter music. Shakespeare is the exception. There are some speeches in the plays which always move me close to tears. It is a truism to say that he remains an extraordinary artist of genius, yet how would we view him as a contemporary in 2012?

Shakespeare was a creature of his time, of course, when English crystalised into the lithe and robust language we know today, but can anyone doubt that his genius would have expressed itself in other ways too?

I imagine him as a teenager in a ’70s suburban bedroom, listening to Bowie or the Velvet Underground, writing songs that would astonish the world a few years later. Hitting his twenties, he would form a band because that was what you did. He grew the funky goatee beard that became his trademark. Despite the band’s top ten album, their music was hard to define. Punk? Hip-hop? Jazz? Classical crossover? It was their songwriter and singer who got all the attention anyway, and he soon drifted into acting. There was a famed performance at the Donmar, then Will moved swiftly into directing himself. He was a man in a hurry.

Will made an arthouse movie that became a cult. People in anoraks could recite whole scenes from it. He made a Hollywood movie and won the first of several Oscars. Each film was utterly different apart from the astonishing dialogue that made you want to rewind and watch scenes over and over. What’s your favourite WS movie? became a popular topic for magazine articles. He disappeared for a year. It turned out he’d been living incognito in Berlin, writing a novel. He gave it away as an ebook from his website. There were a hundred thousand downloads in the first week. The following year he was directing a Bond movie for the fun of it.

And what about his personal life? There were rumours about his sexuality. There were rumours about affairs with actresses and models. Some of these people he had actually met. Then the Murdoch press hacked his gmail account and published a series of explicit, lyrical emails to ‘my dark lady’ in Chicago. She was never traced.

In later life Will retreated to his house in the country, a few km from his friend Sting’s estate. He was labelled ‘eccentric’ and ‘reclusive’ simply for refusing interviews with the tabloid media. He emerged once to put on a strange, spare play that disturbed its audiences. Critics were divided, but in the years that followed it spawned dozens of imitations, starting a whole new movement in the theatre. And then there was silence.

Who is the real WS? journalists asked. It was a question he sometimes asked himself, then shrugged his shoulders.

The Houdini of the chocolate eggs


Easter has always been a mystery to me.

Christmas, on the other hand, I instinctively understood a child. In the darkest, shortest, coldest days of our northern winter, we celebrated the coming of a miraculous child (though the mechanics of a virgin birth were silently passed over). For a week before, I went with the church choir to sing carols from house to house in our village, with a lantern hanging on a pole. At every door we were welcomed, or even asked inside for mince pies and mugs of hot chocolate. The snow-draped landscape around us seemed contiguous with the one we saw on Christmas cards, as though across the hill and in the next village there was a stable where shepherds and magi knelt in adoration of a glowing child. On this day, time felt different and even the light in the air, because this was Christmas Day. There were yearned-for gifts in a pillow case at the foot of the bed. Carols on the radio as my mother prepared the turkey for lunch. A fire roared all day in the living room. There were figs in balsa wood boxes and Christmas Specials on television. I could eat chocolate with abandon until there was only the sickly-sweet apricot creme left that no one wanted, and was thrown out the next day with the turkey bones and empty boxes and wrapping paper we had torn from our parcels so eagerly the morning before.

But Easter was different. While Christmas made sense as a mid-winter festival and had a genuine emotional resonance, Easter was an uneasy mix which didn’t make a lot of sense. There was a terrible scene of torture which I imagined in all its ghastly detail – nails smashing through a man’s feet and hands to hang him alive from crossed beams. Somehow this was done for me, prompting vague feelings of guilt that somehow it was I who deserved it. Three days later, the tortured man somehow came back to life, escaped from his grave and rose into the sky, like Houdini on a wire. Then there were the chocolate eggs which I struggled to connect with the grim Easter story, but gorged on nevertheless, after carefully peeling the coloured foil from the surface (for there was nothing worse than biting on metal foil). And what does all that have to do with Easter bunnies?

Easter never worked for me then, even as a child. it eventually became clear it was a clumsy, unsuccessful attempt to crash together several Spring-time traditions and tie them together with a Christian message of guilt and redemption. Commentators in the media regularly bemoan how the ‘traditional’ messages of Christmas and Easter-time are being commercialised into excuses to spend and have a good time. This secularisation, however, may simply be returning these equinox festivals to their guilt-free pre-Christian origins at last. The the spring-time arrival of those sparkling, tasty chocolate eggs. The ubiquitous Easter rabbits, famously devoted to rutting and almost miraculously fecund, able to conceive a second brood while still pregnant with the first. Rather than the gruesome scenes of Christ’s Passion, maybe it is Playboy Bunnies’ attractions that have more to do with the true spirit of Easter, after all.


Narrow bed. Wide desk.

Three-Sisters VARUNA Pronounced: Var-oon-a. Noun. Vedic god of the ocean and of the law.
Place: Creative writing retreat in Katoomba, NSW.

Set in a large garden, beside a nature reserve perched on the edge of the Katoomba escarpment, sits Varuna, the Writers’ Centre.

It is a unique and delightful place to stay and work. The house was designed in the 1930s in a mixture of Art Deco and comfortably domestic architectural styles. Built for writer, Eleanor Dark and her husband Eric, the local GP, it was generously gifted to the Australian people by their son, Mick, through the Eleanor Dark Foundation. Now in his eighties, Mick still visits the house regularly to sit and talk with the writers in residence. I recently spent a week at Varuna and chatted with Mick for an hour, as scores of others must have done over the years.

‘Quiet – Writers at Work’ says a sign at the front of the property. And it is indeed silent as a monastery all day. Jancis and Vera, the helpful staff who manage the house, work in a nearby weatherboard office, formerly the garage and garden shed. A cook tiptoes in once a day to prepare a dinner and leave supplies. For one week at least, I and my companions – Andrew, Martine, Taryn, and Alison – do not have to lift a finger in domestic effort. We live like the Crawleys of Downton.

There are no excuses therefore. The first curse of the writer, prevarication, is removed and I have no choice but to begin writing. The second curse is neutralised by removing the dongle from my laptop. No Internet means no checking emails. No googling for ‘research’ of dubious relevance. No ‘while-I’m-online-I’ll-just-check-Facebook’.

While the others have a bedroom and study upstairs, I sleep in the narrow Maid’s Room next to the kitchen. (There is no narrow maid, I should explain.) The room feels appropriately like a hermit’s cell. It also means I have exclusive use of Eleanor Dark’s writing cottage in the garden.

From 10 in the morning till the early hours of the following day, I sit at my wide desk alone, unconstrained by time or other distraction, pausing only to dine and catch up with the others for an hour. Time is no longer measured by the hour in carefully monitored allocations, but simply flows and carries me with it. The clock seems to move at my pace and no one else’s.

After a week, I have done more writing than in the preceding three months. I have a full first draft of a novel. Thank you , Varuna. We shall meet again . . .