First memory

Slate fence

Approaching Melbourne from the airport, the freeway seems to swoop down on the city from above. My car feels like a plane coming in to land . . .  

I glimpse the dome of the Royal Exhibition Building among the twinkling high-rise offices. Rising above the others, the Eureka Tower stands a third of a kilometre high, lights flashing at its tip to warn aircraft away. Far to the right, dockland cranes stand like a row of giant mechanical horses. Beyond them, the ferry sits in the Port of Melbourne, preparing for that night’s voyage to Tasmania. Below the elevated freeway, rows of Victorian houses flash by with all the paraphernalia of suburbia, as I rush into the city’s embrace. The roofs are of corrugated iron, often with an an array of solar panels, but now and then I spy a Victorian house with its original slate roof. In a moment, I’m transported back to Wales when I was a child.

In the nineteenth century, ships sailed almost daily from Australia to England, packed with wool and ingots from the gold fields. On their way back, they carried tons of slate tiles as ballast, to sell in the building boom of gold rush Victoria. Within a few decades, Melbourne grew from a village to one of the largest cities in the world at the time. And all this slate on Australian roofs came from vast quarries in the mountains of north Wales where my mother’s family lived. In their village, almost every man worked in the slate quarry. The houses were built of slate. The church and all the chapels were made of slate – Calvinist, Methodist, Wesleyan – as many and various as pubs would be in an English village. Over their doors were names like Tabor, Siloh, Emanuel and Sion; names I assumed were Welsh until I realised they were dour reminders of the Old Testament. Garden walls and even fence-posts were made of slate. Day by day, my grandfather, too, was turning into slate. Like so many others who worked in the quarries, he was constantly inhaling tiny sharp needles of the stuff. They slowly shredded his lungs as surely as a cheese grater until, unable to breathe, he died before I was born. ‘Quarryman’s lung’ – silicosis – was a thing which was taken for granted. Perhaps going to chapel helped.

It was only my grandmother we visited when I was young, then, travelling from London on a journey that took all day. With a flask of tea and a biscuit tin full of lunch – egg sandwiches, slices of sponge cake, and an apple each – we set off through middle England. By the afternoon, we were in the borderlands, the Black Mountains rearing up ahead leaving no doubt that we were entering another country. By the time we arrived, it felt later than I had ever stayed up before. Carried by my father into the bright cottage kitchen, I drank a mug of hot milk by the glowing fire before being taken up to bed. I was four years-old. The long journey felt as though we had fled through Europe and crossed the Bosphorus in a single night.

It was early when I woke the next morning. I could sense the whole house was still asleep, as with a single, slow breathing. How boring to lie awake in bed, and besides I needed to pee. This required walking down to the slate sentry-box shaped loo at the bottom of the garden. Tucking the sheet around my teddy, I tip-toed down the curving wooden stairs in my Rupert Bear-patterned pyjamas. The wide grey kitchen flagstones were usually cold beneath my feet, but on this morning they were already warm from the low sun streaming in through the open door. At that moment, I saw my grandmother’s broad backside in the garden as she bent to collect eggs from the chicken coop, then stood to stretch before turning to come back inside.

Without thinking, I ducked under the kitchen table. From my hiding place, I watched my grandmother’s legs as she passed by to make a fire in the black-polished range, even as she left the door open to welcome the sunshine. Soon she would be calling upstairs, announcing that boiled eggs and buttered toast cut into soldiers would be on the table in ten minutes. In the meantime, though, we were alone, my grandmother and her silent, invisible watcher. She was a favourite of mine, sometimes winking and slipping me a liquorice allsort from her apron pocket when my parents weren’t watching.

‘If you were my boy, it would be a different story . . .’ she would growl when my mother forgave me some minor misdemeanour, like leaving the tea table without asking. It sounded like a threat but felt more like a promise. She had the family’s wide mouth, blue eyes, and an impressively large bust which I was always curious to touch but never did. I heard crackling as the dry kindling in the fireplace caught alight, and then the agreeable bubbling of eggs boiling in a saucepan. I could feel my full bladder ache to be released; there was something exciting about the contending urges to release and to hold it in. It was thrilling, too, to hide beneath the table and spy upon my grandmother as she walked back and forth.

She spent most of her life in this kitchen, humming to herself as she cooked and cleaned, punctuated regularly by a nice sit down for a cup of tea. A large parlour at the front of the cottage was only used when there was a visit from the vicar, doctor, or other eminent person of the village. That room was always cold. A clock ticked and rang the chimes of Big Ben on the hour. In the middle of the slate floor, a thin woollen rug was spread. Beneath the window, an ancient chaise longue of brittle, black leather bulged so much with its horsehair filling that I slid off it to the floor when I tried to sit. To the side, a cabinet of china supported an enormous Bible and a photograph of my grandmother and her husband on their wedding day. They were good-looking, even glamorous. They reminded me of Bonny and Clyde.

I heard footsteps upstairs. My parents were stirring. My secret watch would soon be over, I thought with regret. We would have breakfast then go out for the day. We would visit my cousins who lived in a similar cottage, a little further down the wooded valley. Seeing them only once or twice a year, I was never quite sure how many there were. Was it five or six? Some were teenagers, some my own age or younger. An older boy always seemed to be tinkering with a motor-bike, while the girls sat on a slate wall, swinging their bare legs and combing each other’s hair like stranded mermaids. I saw one of these girls a few years ago, aged in her forties and harrowed by multiple sclerosis. Too proud and stubborn to use a stick, she insisted on making her way across the room without help, gripping one chair-back after another for support. Behind her, back then as she combed her sister’s hair, the younger ones were hanging from the windows or standing knee-deep in the nearby river, fishing with cotton lines and jam-jars. The adventure of their lives filled me with envy. My own siblings had not yet been born, so I was still an only child. How nice it would be to have big sisters with long hair to cosset me. And brothers near my own age to fight and play soldiers.

And then I seemed to float from beneath the table and up into the air. My grandmother had known I was there all along. Now she scooped me up and held me as I flew around the room, squealing with delight before being embraced to her breast and throwing my arms around her neck.

My double life


Here we go again.

After 24 hours in the air, traversing half the planet, I am home in Melbourne at last. In London, just a day ago, the summer trees had an almost tropical extravagance. Here in wintry Victoria, the branches are stark graphite lines against the sky. I go for a walk in the park to resist the urge to sleep which draws me to bed in the afternoon. After a few days the jetlag will pass as it always does, but a faint feeling of strangeness lingers and never entirely disappears. Where, after all, is home?

After 20 years in Australia, this is as close to being at home as I’ll ever know. Yet visiting Europe, especially the UK, also feels like going home, full of memories of an earlier life. James Wood writes of emigrating that you can never really go back to where you grew up. It continues to change in your absence. You change. The place is lost to you.

A generation or two ago, this fracture was sharper, more cruel, yet perhaps easier to deal with. Many never went back – to England, to the Lebanon, to Greece – and built their new lives here, only making contact with the old country on an expensive and tearful telephone call on Christmas Day. Today, with Internet contact and cheaper flights, we don’t have to let go of that other life. Most years I spend a month or so in that old world too: travelling in space feels like time-travelling, back to where I spent the first half of my life.

Sometimes it feels that I inhabit two parallel worlds, with their own geographies, culture and weather. The sky looks different in each; the air feels differently on my cheek. Each world has its own network of friends, of memories. I feel like a character in a Murakami novel – like Aomame in IQ84 – slipping back and forth between alternative realities, similar but different in a thousand subtle ways. Roadsigns look identical but I drive onto a motorway not a freeway. The car I overtake looks like a Holden but the badge says Vauxhall. Weetabix cereals look like Australian Weetbix but taste quite different. I hear the beeping sound of a Melbourne tram door closing, but look up and I’m standing on a London Underground train. My ways change too, without conscious intent. Little details about the way I dress, the way I speak. The references I hear and make in conversation. All the same, in Melbourne people still pick up my English accent. In England, they ask if I’m Australian.

So many of us must feel like this. After all, one in four Australians were born overseas. Sufficiently at home in both worlds, I can see each one from two perspectives, as an outsider as well as a local. For some, I understand how this might be unsettling. But as for me, I like my double life. I am grateful for this alien privilege.


True love


Do you remember the cartoons on TV when you were a child? In those surreal tales, Scooby-Doo, Tom, Jerry, or Roadrunner would sometimes be hit by a cannonball. It passed through their bodies, leaving only a neat circular hole which they looked at in comic dismay.

That’s how grief feels. A great hole punched through your body –  through your life – that makes you want to curl up on the ground, weeping and whispering the lost one’s name. Nobody said it would be dignified. We don’t pass through neat stages of grief either, as was once thought, but – at best – we somehow learn to live with it, in time.

Robert Hillman’s new novel, Joyful (Text Publishing) explores this terrain of love and loss with a characteristic blend of lightness and dark enquiry. Antiquarian bookseller, Leon Joyce, mourns the early death of his wife, Tess. Leon is no ordinary man, however, nor is their relationship conventional. Leon is, he tells us, quite uninterested in sex. Tess, on the other hand, is enthusiastically promiscuous. They come to an arrangement. One day a week she can do as she wishes with no questions asked.

When Tess dies, Leon discovers that she had a secret, slavish passion for a bear-like Polish poet, Daniel. She had installed Daniel in one of Leon’s country properties and visited him every Sunday. Driven almost mad with grief, Leon sets off to Yackandandah, to repossess the house, and to jealously reclaim her memory – to restore the beautiful, perfect Tess he remembered.

Tragedy and comedy are finely and sensitively balanced in the story of Leon and the people he encounters. There are a number of sub-plots which echo the despairing extravagance of Leon’s sorrow. The most moving and memorable of these concerns Professor Delli who is also driven mad by grief for a while following the death of both his children. Delli empties his house onto the street and ends up standing naked in the rain by a country road, like Lear on ‘the blasted heath’. He threatens to kill his wife, Daanya, and calls her by new obscenities every day. Daanya only responds with understanding and love, stroking his arm and saying gently, ‘poor Delli’ until he finally recovers.

In contrast, Leon tries to literally ‘buy’ others’ memories of Tess, so that only his own are left. He almost destroys the house, carving letters to her into every wooden surface of the house until it is covered, then attempting to set it on fire. Finally realising he can never regain the idealised Tess, he abruptly proposes to Susie, the assistant in his bookshop, who agrees to move in with him.

This is no romantic, healing conclusion. Leon is a monster of self-pity. After losing Tess, kept like a beautiful mannequin as the object of his obsession, he finally releases her memory only to attach his needy tentacles to poor Susie who feels sorry for him. Iris Murdoch defined love as ‘the extremely difficult realisation that someone other than yourself is real’. To love, then, is to realise and cherish that other existence in itself, with no reference to oneself. This is a discovery that the repellant Leon ultimately fails to make, remaining a prisoner to his own obsessive needs. In her own gaily promiscuous way, Tess was actually more faithful to him.

It must be said that the novel is sometimes tangled by levels of detail which ‘over egg’ the story: for example, the academic researcher who conveniently appears on Leon’s doorstep with the sole function of leaving copies of his great-aunt’s diary behind, which carries another echoing sub-plot.  Overall, though, Joyful is an idiosyncratic and imaginative novel which will move anyone who reads it .

A night at the opera

The curtain rises on Wagner’s Rheingold. Alberich sings as he creeps up on the Rheinmaidens who guard the fabled treasure . . . But enough has been written about the Melbourne Ring Cycle. What about the audience?

Arriving, I recognise The Famous Actor having a swift smoke outside before rushing to his seat. A Federal Minister chats to a companion as we wait to take our seats. (Hoping for political gossip, all I hear is, ‘That’s Melbourne weather for you’.) There are the good, the great, and the merely affluent – the ones in evening dress who appear on the patrons list in the program. No queuing at the bar during the interval for them. Ushered into a private room, I imagine them chatting about winters long past in Chamonix, back when the children were still young. They don’t seem to notice as waiters discreetly top up their champagne glasses. I spot the beautiful benefactor, patiently explaining the plot to a young girl in her Irish accent. A rascally older man with a pockmarked face arrives in a fluster and greets his Chinese wife, twenty years younger. She scolds him for being late, then squeezes his hand. An overweight woman with a pearl necklace in a wheelchair looks straight ahead as an usher pushes her through the chattering crowd.

Alberich steals the gold and forges an all-powerful ring. When it is stolen from him in turn, he casts a curse on the ring, bringing doom to all who wear it. The Valkyries arrive to collect fallen heroes from the battlefield and take them to Valhalla . . .

The first interval is over an hour long, allowing time for dinner at the theatre. The man sitting next to me is alone. His crossed leg shows a pair of R. M. Williams boots and a stretch of white, veined calf. His hair is unruly. A soup stain marks his jacket where a flower might have been in a buttonhole. Looking shyly around, he catches my eye and smiles.

‘Are you from Melbourne or visiting?’ I ask. (This is the accepted opening line. If the answer is Melbourne, the questions  cascade without apology into which suburb? Which street? There’s a nod. No need to ask which school; now they can tell.)

‘I’ve just driven up from the country,’ Brian answers, sipping on a beer. ‘Three and a half hours on the road.’

‘That’s rough. I hope you’re not driving back tonight! Did you have trouble finding a hotel?’

‘No need. I keep a little place in East Melbourne for when I’m in town.’

‘That must be handy.’

Brian scratches his head, causing a scatter of dandruff to fall on the shoulders of his jacket.

‘I thought about selling when my wife died, but it breaks the journey when I’m visiting the farms.’ (I notice the plural.)

‘Or on my way to Buller. I’ve a little place there,’ he adds, giving another shy smile.

Brian gets to Covent Garden every year he tells me. Also La Fenice in Venice. And the Met. Milan Opera House is his favourite. We talk through the whole meal before he walk off alone back to his seat, rolling from side to side.

The hero, Siegfried, forges a magical sword and kills the dragon which guards the hoard of stolen gold. Careless of riches, he takes only a helmet and the mysterious ring, unaware of the curse laid on it. Defeating Wotan, chief of the gods, he crosses through a circle of fire to wake the sleeping Brünnhilde . . .

A few days later, another interval. Opposite me a dinner are a well-dressed, middle-aged couple who both have the same, slightly manic smile. They look as though they have been taking white powder or found religion, I think to myself.

‘This is our first date,’ Richard tells me proudly. I get the impression he can’t believe his luck that the woman next to him agreed to meet. She is in her elegant fifties, well dressed, displaying long model’s legs when she sits. Both divorced; an online date I decide. But I’m only half right.

‘Our children went to the same school over ten years ago . . .’ Elisabeth tells me.

‘More like twenty,’ he says, looking at her adoringly.

She uncrosses and crosses her legs again, not pleased at the interruption.

‘We only knew each other by sight in those days. You know how it is,’ she says. ‘And last week, all these years later, we bumped into each other in Laurent’s on Toorak Road, buying bread. We recognised each other straight away. Hit it off like a pair of teenagers.’

‘Amazing . . !’ says Richard, as though it were a scarcely-conceivable coincidence.

When Elisabeth goes to the bathroom, swaying through the crowd on her high heels, Richard leans over towards me.

‘Haven’t got my leg over yet,’ says this man I met twenty minutes before. ‘I’m hoping tonight’s the night.’ He gives a wink.

I don’t fancy his chances, but say nothing. After all, I was wrong before.

Siegfried is betrayed and killed. Brünnhilde avenges him then throws herself on the funeral pyre. The flames spread and consume Valhalla, home of the gods. The stage is filled by an enormous burning house, flames reaching high above us as the music reaches a climax. The ring will return to the Rhein with her ashes. Love has triumphed, but at a terrible cost.

When the curtain comes down and the applause finally ends, everyone has the same exhilarated look in their eyes. A stranger in the row behind asks if I have ever seen a more wonderful  performance. Two thousand people take a very long time to leave the theatre. I find myself hoping it would happen a lot faster if there were a real fire. Moving slowly towards the exit, I notice the woman in a wheelchair I had seen earlier. Once again, she is being pushed through the chattering crowd with a fixed look on her face. I imagine her getting ready to come out earlier that evening. She chooses one dress, then decides on another. (‘They both suit you,’ says Betty who comes to help out every day. Betty doesn’t sound as though she cares either way.) She decides to wear the patent black shoes, though no one will see them under her long skirt in the wheelchair. After more indecision, she decides to wear her grandmother’s pearls after all. Applying makeup takes longer than she realises, for already the special taxi is sounding its horn outside.

‘You look lovely!’ says Betty as the driver pushes her out of the door.

But she knows that no one will notice her. It is unlikely that anyone will speak to her except the usher. All she wants as she is slowly pushed out of the theatre, in fact, is not to be noticed. But that night, like me, she finds it difficult to sleep. Her thoughts go back again and again to the swirling music. She sees the mermaids dancing in the Rhein. The valkyries flying through the air as they sing. The dying dragon: a naked, painted man, blood pouring down his chest. She sees the burning house and Brünnhilde, throwing herself into the flames for love. Then, like all the audience, we both can sleep at last.

Occupying Melbourne

The mood at Occupy Melbourne yesterday was more Woodstock than Wall Street.

Economic conditions and employment rates in Australia are a world away from those in the US, let alone Greece. No Molotov cocktails on Swanston St then. Alongside posters exhorting ‘World revolution today!’ are others urging passers-by to smile, or reminding them that all you need is love.

There is something whimsical, almost bucolic about the Occupy Melbourne site: a waterside tent-village that everyone knows will soon disappear. City workers sip lattés a few metres away from earnest workshops on global peace and biodynamic farming. Children splash and giggle in what is usually a sterile ‘water feature’. It has to be said that the the tent-village, on aesthetic grounds alone, is arguably an improvement on the usual barren, sandy expanse of the City Square.

Will any of this make a difference? The pictures speak for themselves.

Jonathan Franzen’s Crimean War

You know what it’s like.

You set out to look for a bed-and-breakfast in the Southern Highlands and an hour later you’re still at the computer, reading about the best place for a cocktail in Buenos Aires.

Jonathan Franzen’s rather po-faced Rules for Writers state that the Internet has devalued the point of doing research for a novel. His ‘rules’ correctly emphasise the hard work and discipline needed to write, but give no hint of the creative pleasure it involves. And part of the fun (and if it’s not fun, don’t bother) is the mindless googling wide-ranging research involved. After all, isn’t it just a digital extension of staring out of the window  or flicking through an encyclopedia  for hours on end as a child?

When I was a young I haunted libraries, reading everything I could find about volcanos, revolutions, ghosts and space travel, as well as novels I was too young to fully understand. (At 14 I devoured  John Updike’s works, so in love was I with his prose.) When I was younger, I couldn’t walk past a scrap of newspaper in the gutter without stopping to read it. When I was older, I had the frustration of waiting for photocopied articles from ILL (inter-library loans) that could take weeks to arrive – articles I can now summon in seconds onto my screen.

In the novel I have recently completed, a character moves to Melbourne and lives on Inkerman St in Balaclava. It was named after a battle in the Crimean War, as were so many streets in the area, I realised. Crimea St. Balaclava Rd. Alma Rd. Odessa St. And then there were more, named after British generals who fought there: Cardigan, Lucan, Raglan. How strange that a suburb-full of Melbourne streets were named after those distant battlefields, those generals who barely cared that Australia existed. Perhaps my character, recently moved to Melbourne, could discover the story of the area she had moved into.

Cities throughout the British Empire competed to raise money for the Crimean War effort. Melbourne in the 1850s was one of the biggest and richest, thanks to the Gold Rush. Melbourne residents raised so much to support the war that the British Government presented it with two Russian cannons captured in the Crimea, and these still stand in front of Victoria Barracks on St Kilda Rd. Other cities in Canada and throughout the Empire had similarly-named streets …

An hour or more had gone by. It was absurd that my character could take any interest in all this! She was a maitre d’ not an historian.

I filed the lot away under ‘Quite Interesting’ and didn’t even name the street where she lived. ‘You must do a lot of research,’ I am often asked. It’s true, I do. But almost none makes it through to the final manuscript – never used, or eliminated in the massacre of irrelevant or self-indulgent passages that every book needs before a publisher even sees it.

‘Kill your darlings,’ goes Q’s old dictum to writers. It’s almost right. I’m a little kinder. I hold my .44 magnum pistol to their head and say, ‘Give me one reason why I shouldn’t shoot you, and make it a good one.’

Gothic Melbourne

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, in a dark and nineteenth century mood.

Experimenting with the BW setting on my Leica DL2 on a winter’s morning.

Slow Photography

A thoughtful article by Tim Wu in Slate argues for ‘slow photography,’ a focus on creating a moment rather than the doomed effort to frantically grab it as time slips by. From being something to record special times, the ease of digital photography means we now use cameras differently – to record everyday moments.

This is a huge shift, but Wu doesn’t make a Luddite argument against digital cameras or ’happy snapping’. This is a process which began with the Kodak Box Brownie in the last century, of course. Rather, he reminds us of the difference, and how satisfying it is to take the time to create a good photograph, rather than fire away at everything in sight, using the viewfinder instead of your eyes.