As Einstein understood, to travel in time and space is not so very different.
They are, in fact, essentially the same.

Anyone who is used to spending 24 hours in a plane flying from Australia back to London Heathrow will understand exactly what I mean. Even after doing this regularly for over 20 years, I experience the same weird disorientation every time after landing. Everything is utterly strange and utterly familiar at the same time.

As always, I pick up a car and start the long drive westward. I love the transition from hellish airport to the six-laned M4 towards the Severn Bridge, then it becomes four lanes, then two as I dive deeper into Wales. How suddenly the names of town and villages change from English to Welsh in the borderlands. Nether Skyborry and Bicton on one side of a river. Bryn Melin and Llangunllo a few hundred metres to the west.

No more lines of trucks barrelling by now, only the occasional tractor. At last I am in a laneway between tall hedgerows tangled with honeysuckle, barely wider than the car, and I bump over rough ground into a farmyard in sight of the sea. I have arrived. In the days that follow, I slip easily into a different vocabulary. I give distances in miles not kilometres. The vehicle is a 4X4 and I came by the motorway route, I say (not on the freeway in a 4WD). Catching up with my brother in a pub, I don’t order chips to go with my schooner of beer, but some crisps and a pint of Seren IPA. My speech drifts back to the familar English falling intonation, sentences drawling to near-whisper at the end (instead of my Australian up-tick on the final word). After a week, I find myself talking Welsh in local shops and pubs.

All of this is done unconsciously, but what still foxes me is the sense of having travelled back in time. For all the tumultous changes in Britain over the last half-century, Wales remains hidden in plain sight and largely unchanged behind the Cambrian mountains. In the hinterland of the west, the deep green hills and woodlands, the rocky coast, the towns and villages where I spent half my life look barely any different. I could drive for hours in any direction and know every turn in the road, every hedgerow, every pub and village hall.

As well as visiting family and friends, I am going to a college reunion, meeting up with people I haven’t seen for decades. I go with a macabre curiosity, wondering if I will recognise anyone. We’re all a little weather-beaten by the years but utterly recognisable with the same strong personalities. As I stagger saunter back through the college quad to my room at 3 AM, feeling disgracefully sentimental, the eerie feeling returns. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find my younger self walking toward me out of the shadows with a smile of recognition.

Once again I feel like a traveller in time. Am I a visitor from the past who has materialised in the present? Or a creature from the future (my glittering city on the other side of the planet), fallen to earth in the past I had left behind?

Both are true, I realise, as I drift to sleep, hearing the town hall clock chime the quarter-hour. The future is only a past we have yet to discover. As each moment unrolls and become a memory, it gives a strange thrill to everyday life, an existential tingle. We are all travellers in time.

Do you want to know a secret?

A secret, once told, is a secret no longer . . .

Once shared, a secret hardens into ‘a fact’, one of those awkward, sharp-edged pieces of reality that we have to accommodate in our lives. Have you ever kept a secret from those closest to you? No? Not one, ever . . ? We all do at some time, of course (even it’s a matter of being ‘economical with the truth’). The universal excuse we make is that it saves hurting people’s feelings. And that’s not something easily dismissed.

But what would happen if our deepest secrets were made brutally visible to everyone? If some Edward Snowden of the heart decided the world would be a better place without lies? What would be the consequences of truth? This is the terrifying question at the heart of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which Simon Stone has adapted in his first movie, The Daughter.

Film versions of stage plays are notoriously difficult to carry off, usually trapped in a box of static interior action (with the occasional exterior shot for atmosphere). In The Daughter, Stone does not attempt to make a film version of his acclaimed Belvoir Theatre adaptation of The Wild Duck, but re-imagines the play again entirely against the backdrop of the Snowy Mountains. The extended opening scene shows a beautiful, still high country landscape. Vast banks of mist cushion the mountains, as though insulating them from harsher realities beyond. At last the crack of a gunshot shatters the peace, and the action begins.

Oliver (Ewen Leslie) works at the local timber mill which is closing down. He breaks the news to his wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and daughter, Hedvig (Odessa Young). They are a strong, loving family, and you feel they are tough enough to weather this challenge. Oliver’s father, Walter (Sam Neill) lives in a caravan behind their house, pottering around and looking after wounded animals and birds (wild duck alert). Modest domestic scenes between the four of them are surprisingly moving, a testimony to superb acting talent as well as Stone’s script and direction.

Up at the ‘big house’ meanwhile (filmed at Camden Park House, NSW), the local landowner, Henry (Geoffrey Rush), is preparing for his marriage to Anna (Anna Torv). She is young enough to be his daughter, but it only seems crass when someone points out the age difference. They clearly love one another. The closure of his timber mill has been shrugged off; Henry evidently has plenty of other assets. Christian (Paul Schneider), his son from a first marriage, returns after 16 years in the US for the wedding. When Christian meets Oliver (they are old school friends), a spark arcs between the two families. A circuit is closed, and the destruction of their peaceful existence begins. Henry’s carefully-named son is like a serpent bringing the curse of knowledge into their garden of innocence. If he cannot be happy, then nor shall anyone else.

As Christian exposes the secret, and then the secret-within-the-secret, everything leads back to his father, Henry. Geoffrey Rush loves vaudeville and clowning and draws on these traditions in some of his film roles, but he has a nice line in buttoned-up, conflicted middle-aged men too. It is a delight to see him act so minimally here by force of character it seems, rather than through grand speech or gesture. Henry is nothing but polite and considerate to the other characters. He is anxious to please and do the best for everyone, providing generous packages to the workers at the mill when it closes. Yet in the end, everything is his fault. It could also be said that nothing is his fault either. The action of the play unfolds with the inevitability of a Greek drama, as though it were all fated to happen.

Henry’s crimes and misdemeanours might be blamed on his sense of privilege, but secrets are not the prerogative of any social class. Adjusting other people’s view of the world, by what we say and do not say, is intrinsic to how we operate. Secrets great and small are part of the human condition. Exploring the consequences of this was Ibsen’s project, and is Simon Stone’s too in this new movie. It seeks to understand not to condemn.

While the men in the story are rendered helpless or crumble under the weight of the truth, it is the two main female characters who remain strong and decisive. Charlotte rushes into action to prevent the secret escaping, desperately trying to hold the hold the men together as they emotionally collapse. It is Hedvig, her fifteen year-old daughter though – as luminously played by Odessa Young – who is at the centre of the movie. She is the kind of girl you might have yearned to have as a friend at school: intelligent and conscientious, tomboyish and sexually adventurous with her boyfriend, always ready with smartass remarks yet warm, loving, and close to both her parents. When she, too, learns the secret, Hedvig’s reaction is the most mature of all the characters. By this time, though, her father has been reduced to a snivelling, angry mess, unable to respond. She then takes the decision which reverberates long after the closing credits.

For his debut movie, Stone wisely ensured he had some of the best in the business on his team: Jan Chapman as a producer, Andrew Commis as cinematographer, and Veronika Jenet as editor, among others. His direction is assured and subtle, as in the slow, horrific exposure of Christian from fresh-faced prodigal to the demonic messenger he truly is, haunting the corridors and shadows of the great house where he grew up, and where actions first became secrets. Particularly impressive is the way Stone works with his actors to convey emotional intensity and meaning through scenes of quiet intensity, as when Hedvig silently watches from the school bus when her boyfriend packs up to leave town without having had the courage to tell her.

The Daughter is a masterly film.


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.



For five year-old Nahla Berry, going to school in the morning is an ordeal.
It’s always stressful and sometimes frightening.

From their front door to the schoolyard, she and her mother are regularly harassed by photographers crowding around them and calling out their names. Nahla calls them simply ‘the men’.

Nahla’s mother is Hollywood actor, Halle Berry. She recently testified before the California State Assembly, supporting a bill to protect children like Nahla from the attention of paparazzi. I don’t fancy her chances in the land of the free. The photographers’ real target is the actor herself, of course. And the reason they follow Berry on the school run is to get a picture of her without makeup, looking as much as possible like – well – a real person. This is now a regular feature in supermarket magazines and a host of websites are dedicated to ‘shocking, nearly unrecognisable pictures of your favorite stars’.

What lies behind the bizarre public fascination with ‘stars without makeup’?

The obsession with ‘stars’ (actors and others who work in the public eye) has been around since at least the 1930s. They are treated like gods in ancient Greek mythology: powerful, beautiful, flawed creatures who act out our inner lives in a magnificent, neverending melodrama. Archetypes abound. The Good Mother. The Loveable Bad Boy.The Ice Queen. The Jealous Wife. The Strange One. (I leave you to fill in the names.) Hollywood stars are chimerical like the gods: despised one week; forgiven and embraced the next. Their bodies, too, seem to shrink and expand fantastically on a regular basis (if the cover of New Idea is to be believed.) It can be hard to remember that these are ordinary people, albeit with a very public way of earning a living.

milakunisMila Kunis

‘Stars without makeup’ is a cruel refinement of this obsession. There’s an element of schadenfreude here. A bitter pleasure in seeing that the mighty have feet of clay – or at least, bags under their eyes and spots on their faces at times, just like everyone else.

There’s a curiosity about the ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ juxtaposition. It fascinates to see that glamorous creature from the Oscars out shopping in her tracky dacks. I’m reminded of a hologram card I had as a child, on which Superman flickered into dull Clark Kent then reverted to the superhero as you turned it back and forth. Intrusion into private lives is turned into a spectacle, a masque in which the mighty are brought down and thrown up again on a weekly cycle.

sharonSharon Stone

There is a sadder, more poignant aspect to this modern preoccupation. ‘This could be you . . .’ the pictures whisper. ‘You’re as good as they are.’ As with the strange manifestations of reality TV, a hollow aspirational message is conveyed that – given a chance – anyone can be famous (regardless of talent, hard work, or appearance). Look, the pictures say: these people aren’t that much different to you in the harsh light of day. You too can be a star.

It is, of all people, Karl Marx who suggests a partial explanation for this obsession. In a consumerist society, he argued, many of our natural attributes are alienated from us into products which we have to ‘buy back’. We no longer produce our own music, but buy it as MP4 files. Sexuality is ‘alienated’ as a natural attribute, and sold back, commodified through pornography or ‘sex toys’. Dignity is put on with a dress or a suit. With the right accessories. The right mobile phone. We feel incomplete without a panoply of products and brands which help to define us.

umaUma Thurman

The unearthly standard of beauty in popular magazines reminds the lowly readers daily of their supposed inadequacy and the need to buy more. This is not simply due to the dynamics of capitalist society however. Like the urge to shop, this dissatisfaction only responds to a deeper, underlying anxiety about who we are. ‘Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is,’ wrote Camus.

It is essentially human to be discontented with who we are and what we have. For all of us, nothing is ever quite good enough. We want more. We want newer. We want better.

‘Stars without makeup’ reflects this yearning. It reminds us in a very personal way of the spotted reality of our lives, and the icons of perfection to which we aspire in so many ways. Even urgings to ‘embrace the present’ ironically express the longing for a different life. This innate dissatisfaction – the constant desire for something better – can often be depressing to contemplate. At other times, though, it seems exciting – the root of all progress and improvement in society and ourselves. We are all stars without makeup.

A bit of mischief

Six months ago I was diagnosed with cancer. This is the story of what happened next . . .

The boom gate rises.  I drive into the car park. It’s inside a converted factory. The roof is high, made of corrugated iron with wide skylights, so the place is flooded with a creamy glow, as in an artist’s studio. Birds fly freely inside the airy space. I like it here for some reason. It’s quiet, like being in a tall cathedral made of tin. I sit here undisturbed in the car to think about what the specialist told me half an hour ago.

‘It looks like there’s a bit of mischief . . .’

He must have said this to patients scores of times or more. But I’m not one for euphemisms. He may as well have spoken plainly, and said ‘You have cancer’.


 In movies, a diagnosis is often unexpected and dramatic. The reality takes longer, giving you plenty of time to get used to the idea, plenty of time to dread the result of the latest test. First the GP says after a routine blood sample, ‘That number looks a bit high. Probably nothing to it, but let’s repeat next week.’ And after the repeated test, a referral to a specialist, ‘just in case’.

It’s a nuisance to take a morning off work. This should be an ordinary day. I have enough to do.

‘The number from the test isn’t so important,’ the specialist explains. ‘It’s more how the numbers change over time. It’s the trajectory we look at. Yours have been rising steadily. There may be nothing to worry about, but let’s investigate to be on the safe side.’

The word ‘trajectory’ sticks in my mind. Every time I hear it, I find myself flinching. The number goes up again. I’m not even sure what it means. Some measurement that indicates – that may indicate – presence of a cancerous tumour.

I’m sent for an ultrasound. There’s a screen with an image on it, but I avert my eyes. I don’t want to see that dark flickering shape, like a demon-seed growing inside me.

I’m sent for a biopsy. It’s a day procedure: a tube inserted up my backside with a camera and needles for taking samples at its head: a one-eyed, multi-fanged, metal snake. I’m relieved to have a full anaesthetic. A few days later I get the phone call.

‘It looks like there’s a bit of mischief . . .’

Like most of us, I’ve known people who’ve had cancer. Some died (friends’ parents; that woman at work years ago whose name I’ve forgotten). Others had treatment and recovered; memories of them pale in headscarves fading as the years go by. As well as sympathy, there’s an atavistic relief too, as though a part of your brain is thinking, ‘well it’s happening to them, so it’s not happening to me’. It’s like driving past a crashed car – ambulance lights flashing red and blue, figures huddled over a body on the ground – then accelerating away, turning up the radio to put a distance between the scene of horror and yourself.

I find I have an urge to run away and hide from this threat, as from a hooded assassin. Remote places where I could never be found come to mind. I remember a fisherman’s bach on a New Zealand fjord, inaccessible by road. If only it would leave me alone. I promise to be no trouble. But cancer is no black-clad figure out on a hillside, watching me through the telescopic sight of a rifle. It is my own body, the cells crashing and grinding against each other like faulty cogs in a machine.

The specialist has the reassuring authority that surgeons and airline pilots always carry. He describes the usual treatment options, ending with radical surgery: opening me up and removing the mischief entirely. It’s a complex, intricate operation with a risk of complications but he recommends it. This is my kind of talk. I agree.

There are other investigations over the coming weeks. I don’t mind; the more information the surgeon has beforehand, the better.

The CAT scan. No worries. I’ve had several in the past.

The MRI scan. This makes frightening, loud clanking noises. It’s like lying inside the engine of a 747 as it prepares for takeoff. I hate the thought of a sick child having to endure this. I’m offered noise-cancelling headphones and a catalogue of music. After noting the poor selection, I choose some country and western. Hello Patsy Cline.

The nuclear scan. The results of this show whether the cancer has spread to my bones. This is a particular challenge for my sang-froid. (The answer is no.)

In hospital for surgery at last, I am turned within minutes into a patient. I undress and put on an open-backed gown. An identity tag is attached to my wrist. People repeatedly ask my name and date of birth. Lying silently on a trolley, I wait to be wheeled to the theatre. The process is disempowering but I embrace it. I want to walk through the fire, the sooner to emerge on the other side.

Some people find surrendering control difficult. They resist taking a sleeping tablet or even a Panadol for a headache. I’m the opposite. It’s almost worrying how I can surrender myself at times. It’s a relief. I love sleeping, and slide easily, even eagerly, into unconsciousness. I resist delving into the psychology of this tendency, of being ‘half in love with easeful Death’ as Keats put it.

On the operating table, I begin the countdown for the anaesthetist. Ten, nine, eight, seven … six hours later I wake in a chemically-assisted calm. I note the oxygen line at my nostrils. I take in the cannula embedded in each of my hands. The four lines coming in (saline drip, morphine, anticoagulant, and anti-nausea medication, I later learn). The two lines coming out: one from my bladder, and the other a rubber drain tube which hangs disconcertingly out of my stomach. I notice with relief too, that the incision is neatly vertical, leaving a symmetrical line from belly button to groin.

Moving to either side triggers pain, so it’s easier to lie still and drift back to sleep. On and on I float. This must be the netherworld that opium-smokers like de Quincy sought, I realise. And very nice too. My time out of time, space out of space, is interrupted periodically by a nurse taking my vital signs.

‘That’s good,’ she says, noting my blood pressure. ‘You’re doing well,’ she adds, writing my heart rate down. I feel pleased to be praised. I am a good patient.

By the second day, constant somnolence begins to feel suffocating. With the help of two nurses (London, Dublin), I’m supported to the shower, afterwards sitting in a chair for an hour before the bed draws me back.

‘Breathe right in, then slowly exhale,’ says Dublin.

I do as she says, to feel a searing pain as the rubber drain tube is pulled out through my stomach.

A few days later I can bear to eat solid food. It’s possible to get up from the bed without help, forcing myself to rise and shuffle around my room, or sit and read in a chair. After waiting an hour for the nurse to help me to the shower, I decide to do it alone. The patient begins to be an agent again.

The surgeon inspects his handiwork, making confident, hopeful prognostications. We discuss the subject like two hardened professionals. The following day I go home.

I make progress with all those books I’ve been intending to read. I get through boxed sets of two entire TV series, developing a crush on Lucy Liu as Dr Watson.

After ten minutes walking, though, I find I’m exhausted. A few days later I can manage 30 minutes. After a week I have my catheter removed. It’s pleasing to have my body entirely under my control at last. I make halting attempts at helping around the house. Two weeks after discharge, I start work from home a few hours a day – this grows rapidly as I get fired up. And today I start back full-time at the office.

The memory of this time will fade, I know. And yet the sharp horror of encountering my own mortality remains: a skull glimpsed in the mirror where I expected to see my face. So much of our lives revolves around familiar – comfortably familiar – routines. On Monday night I put the bins out. On Saturday morning, a trip to the market. How many years have I done this? I imagine a vast warehouse stacked high with all the shopping I have ever done. All those tins of Italian tomatoes. The hundreds of kilos of coffee. The paper towels and pyramids of Frank’s rye bread, as high as houses. How many shopping bags filled in my life before I die? The number is incalculable but finite.

Somewhere in arithmetic that number exists, but I do not want to know it.

Now, more than ever, I know this cannot last. There is no escape, only postponement of the inevitable end, whatever mischief is ultimately responsible. I take nothing for granted. I cherish the hour. There is no such thing as ‘an ordinary day’.

Image: Cancer cells (Wellcome Institute)

The war on sex

IN 1870, at the height of Victorian prudery, two young men were arrested in a London theatre. They were in women’s clothing, extravagantly made up, and flirting outrageously with anything in trousers. Their crime? ‘Incitement to sodomy.’

As their trial progressed, it became clear that their arrest was part of a plan hatched at the highest levels of the British government to crack down on’ sexual immorality.’ Unfortunately for the prosecution, ‘Fanny’ and ‘Stella’ also had connections with the rich and powerful, through the sexual underground which flourished beneath the veneer of Victorian respectability …

See my review of Fanny and Stella by Neil McKenna in the July 2013 issue of Australian Book Review.