Remember Ali Baba?
He’s the hero of a famous story from The Arabian Nights, the one in which a poor woodcutter (that’s Ali) finds his way into a treasure cave having overheard its keepers (that’s the Forty Thieves) using the password. After taking a little of the loot for himself, Baba shares the command with his brother (that’s Cassim), who utters it himself, drawing back the door and connecting the cave with the world.
I’ve just had a similar experience myself, as it happens, but I got my password from a Baba of a different kind.
I’ve been sick, you see. Not as sick as some, that’s for sure, and yet sick enough to be room-ridden for a month. Normally I’d have been a mess, mentally as well as physically, and my virtual isolation would have hit me hard. I would have seen it as time out of life, as a state of being at odds with my everyday existence.
You know the mentality I mean. It’s the kind of thinking that puts things in opposing camps, compulsively conjuring up dichotomies. Well or unwell. Happy or sad. Hermit or socialite. Loser or legend. It’s like being the ‘living double of a single fiction’, as the more eloquent Elvis (Costello, that is) aptly puts it.
Normally, then, I’d have seen my illness as sign and put an end to my activities. I’m a bipolar being, after all, and opposites attract. And yet I didn’t – thanks, oddly enough, to a literary critic called Homi K. Bhabha.
I met my Baba early in the university year, when I borrowed a book of his essays. I was trying (and failing) to flesh out my skeletal understanding of postcolonial studies, a field that Bhabha, along with two other luminaries, is credited with creating.
In his book, The Location of Culture, Bhabha takes issue with ‘binary logic’, the mode of thought usually associated with the colonial mindset (and with me). He offers, instead, a different interpretation of the imperial past and present.
The colonial realm, Bhabha argues, does not simply give rise to and reinforce ‘parochial polarities’, as many believe. By acting as an in-between place where back-and-forth movement causes ‘domains of difference’ to overlap, the subjugated space ‘opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity’.
Bhabha’s words came back to me as I lay sick and despairing. Although I wasn’t quite sure what they meant, I said them nonetheless, drawing back the door and connecting my cave with the world.
In doing so I escaped my bipolar mindset. It’s possible, I realised, to be both happy and sad, hermit and socialite, loser and legend. And, yes, I could even be well and unwell at the same time and thus keep my dreams alive. Knowing this, I started studying from my sickbed, ultimately acing my essays and making a success of the semester.
I uttered the password and it opened my mind.
Ali Baba’s brother, Cassim, isn’t so lucky. He forgets the command that would free him from the cave. Unable to escape, he is captured by the robbers, who cut his body into four quarters, ‘to hang two on one side, and two on the other, inside the door of the cave, to terrify any person who might attempt the same thing’.
Without the password Cassim is a man divided. His is a state – and a fate – I hereafter hope to avoid, in sickness and in health.
[Drawing by Joan Kiddell-Monroe]
I’m a good listener.
Be it a sign of curiosity, shyness or low self-esteem – it’s true.
I’m all ears.
It’s why I like asking questions so much and dogs that bark so little.
It’s why I have so many podcast pals.
Let me introduce them.
There’s David, Catherine and Matt from The Tennis Podcast, playful, penetrating and prolific.
Andy and John have been Backlisted for years. Learned and lighthearted, these literary agents provocateurs are so far into old books they’re out of this world.
I Am the Eggpod – that’s Chris. He backtracks through the Beatles with erudition, daftness and fellow devotees.
Then there’s Bob, the mind and mouth behind Music History Monday. Professorial, opinionated and occasionally puerile, he’s the Pied Piper of the musical past.
Ah, it’s easy listening.
Yesterday I came home.
Dispirited after a day at work, I’d put away my bike and plodded down the path to the front door of the house, where I was met by my seven-year-old daughter, who gripped me in a long hard hug.
‘Dad,’ she said. ‘Do you want to play duets?’
Hear ye, hear ye: music is one of the three best things. The symphony orchestra, for a start, is hard to top. Then there’s the piano, that band in a box, and my musical tube of choice, the trumpet, an ancient instrument first sounded by seven angels.
I’d wanted to be a musician ever since my tune-infested teens, when I dreamed of making sounds like those I struck in the symphonies of Sibelius and the songs of Led Zeppelin.
It was then, too, that I started to feel like a lost legionnaire – a solitary soul wandering the earth in search of home, a conscript separated from his comrades in the last great battle, a disastrous defeat. I’d felt alone and adrift ever since.
Well, less so now.
Yesterday, like Julius Caesar, who in 49 BC was neither lost nor a legionnaire, I crossed the rubicon, to the same sounding of trumpets that heralded the uncrowned king’s fateful deed.
The die was cast on the doorstep of my house, as I stood in the arms of my daughter.
’Sure,’ I said. ‘Let’s play duets.’
Soon we were tripping through our favourite tunes. Later my son joined us on trombone and we played music of my own making: a little trio called ‘The Lost Legionnaire’.
Hear ye, hear ye: never has this legionnaire been less lost.
In music the home key is the aural space to which sound gravitates. In life – in my life – the key to home is music. Music and the other two best things: my daughter and son.
So, I’m a student again.
How the hell did that happen?
The usual way. I applied, somewhat blindly, to study Honours at a local university, unsure about my thesis topic and even about my discipline. I mean, how could I choose between literature, creative writing and history?
In the end I didn’t have to. I managed to nab myself a scholarship, one that came with a project attached. Over the next couple of years I’ll be studying the papers of two of Tasmania’s most prolific and unheralded authors (who happen to be siblings).
Fortuitously, the project encompasses my three loves. Coursework aside, I’ll have to produce a thesis (creative writing), exegesis (mostly literary criticism) and some kind of public program (history).
Somehow I chanced upon my holy grail.
What does it mean, being a student again?
That I can’t redraft this blog post to death, for a start. (Not such a bad thing.) I just don’t have the time.
What it really means is that I can live a richer life again – which is ironic because study is costly, scholarship or no scholarship.
Remember the discredited diagram that purports to depict the teaching/learning process? The one that shows a teacher tipping information into a student’s open head?
Well, that’s how I feel, as silly as it sounds. I feel full again – full of ideas and excitement. Full of life.
Take the past week. I’ve had seminars on research and on writing an exegesis. I’ve been reading about and reflecting on literature and history; travel writing, colonialism and displacement.
I’ve been mixing with writers too, having been to workshops led by an acclaimed local author. It’s been immensely inspiring, all the thought and talk about books and writing. It’s brought me back to life.
Returning to study has reopened my mind, and the ideas are already flooding in. Like the kid in the picture, I’m an empty vessel no more.
The next question is: will I drown in the deluge?
Stick around – the world needs sensitive people like you.
That’s what I told a suicidal kid in the park today.
I was there with family and friends. The boy was there alone, earbuds in, bike at his feet.
I saw him watching so I wandered over, offering him sushi and a sympathetic ear.
Passing on the first, he asked shyly if he could tell me something – something he hadn’t told anyone else.
Of course, I said.
And that’s when he told me that he didn’t want to be around anymore, that he was scared because he’d been making threats to people online, people who’d been making him feel bad.
Taken aback, I trotted out the usual clichés. He nodded like he’d heard it all before.
We talked until he said he had to go, to meet his dad, by the bridge.
As we shook hands I blurted it out: Stick around – the world needs sensitive people like you.
Even as I said it I had my doubts. And yet I could see I’d finally given him something to think about.
Only later, after the boy had gone, did it occur to me that maybe I was right. The world, it seems, does need sensitive people – if only to comfort each other in the park.
November is traditionally the month when writers everywhere set about penning a novel from scratch. Not me though; I’m neither daring nor desperate enough to attempt that sort of stunt. Besides, I’ve been too busy writing other things: lots of bits and pieces that don’t amount to very much.
Or do they?
Here’s the thing: the novel is an ultra-accommodating art-form, the literary equivalent of an open house. ‘Wonderfully omnivorous, capable of assimilating all kinds of nonfictional discourses’ is how the novelist and critic, David Lodge, once described it.
In its time the novel has taken in all sorts of strays. Whole works are based on fictitious letters and diaries – Pamela and I Capture the Castle spring to my mind – and any number of novels feature other types of texts, everything from shopping lists to court reports.
Looking back at the tail-end of 2020 again, I reckon I might have written a novel without even knowing it…
The story is told through the scribblings of its protagonist, a wannabe writer like me. (I’ll call him Will even if you won’t.) It starts with a poem.
I’m not dying
I feel close to death.
my body lives on
while so weak
my spirit seeks release
from a straitjacket
of self-hood borne
Will, it seems, is sad. And why not? It’s mid-winter and the pandemic is in full swing.
With the walls closing in Will tries to reach out. He starts penning blog posts, one about identity…
It’s one of the biggest decisions of our lives and we make it every day: who to be (or not to be).
… and one about illness.
So, I’m writing a novel – not because the world needs another one or because I’ve got something special to say, but simply because I’ve got a bad case of novelitis. I’ve had it for years and the condition is all but incurable.
But his thoughts turn to other things and he shelves the posts. Owing to Covid, the nature of his work has changed. He explains the situation in an email:
For now I remain in ‘redeployment’, my office having taken over the national helpline when demand for passports plummeted and call centre staff were sent to the Eastern Front (Human Services). Thus I spend all day on the phone, answering silly questions and being called the wrong name (Stuart, Kieran, Stan…)
Before long, though, the novelty of the situation has worn thin and boredom begins to set in. Will dreams about starting a business. Write to Life it’s called, and he drafts a proposal.
Creative writing brings us more than pleasure and publication: it can help us find ourselves and our place in the world. Write to Life is a program designed to help people of all ages achieve greater self-fulfilment through storytelling.
Will loves the idea – it’s a product of his own experience, after all. But he knows he’s not bold enough to give it a go.
His thoughts turn instead to university and to studying honours, something he’s long wanted to do. After weeks of preparation he applies for a scholarship, submitting an outline of a thesis topic.
Roy Bridges (1885-1952) is Tasmania’s most prolific novelist, having published thirty-six novels. He lived with his sister, Hilda (1881-1971), who wrote thirteen novels herself while acting as Roy’s amanuensis. Both were born in Hobart and formed a deep attachment to Woods’, the family farm near Sorell.
In 1933, after working on the mainland as a journalist, Roy returned, somewhat unwillingly, to Tasmania, thereby keeping a promise he had made to his family. He remained at Woods’ until his death, battling anxiety and loneliness as he and Hilda tried to restore and protect the property.
Will hopes to study the Bridges’ letters and manuscripts, many of which have been preserved. Displacement is to be his theme.
It’ll be months before he’ll learn if he’s been successful. In the meantime, though, Will wants to stay busy. He knows that boredom might bring on a breakdown.
He and his wife have talked for years about home improvements. Now, though, the situation is more serious, the family having outgrown its digs. Will decides to get the ball rolling. He contacts a designer who sends him a questionnaire. It’s important, the designer explains, to see if their values align.
We value modesty and simplicity, durability and functionality [Will writes]. Ideally, our new space will reflect and support these values . . . The history, personality and environmental impact of our house is as important to us as its monetary value and appearance.
They arrange to meet in the new year.
But Will is not done yet. He’s suddenly smitten by the prospect of a new job, in a different part of his department, a job that would require him to ‘think creatively and critically’ and would encourage him to ‘subvert the dominant paradigm’.
Will decides to show his suitability by writing his pitch for the position as a story. He calls it ‘Will Meets His Match: A Fairy Tale’.
Once upon a time there was a passport officer called Will. Although Will was good at his job – he foiled a serious fraudster in late 2020 while assessing applications – he knew he’d be better suited to some other work. To something involving ideas.
It’s a gamble that pays off. Will wins himself an interview, which goes well. (The interviewer even claims to love Will’s blog.) Although he won’t know for weeks if he’s got the job, Will’s not worried. He’s living in a fairy tale, after all.
And that’s where we return to reality.
Okay, so I didn’t knock off a novel in November. I did, though, add a chapter to my life story, potentially adding a twist to the tale.
Thanks to the writing I did at the end of last year – some ‘creative’, some not – 2021 promises plenty.
We’ve all got something that keeps our ego in check. Some of us have social media, others have mirrors or a mother. Me, I’ve got tennis.
I’d been feeling good about myself. Writing and work were going well and I was starting to believe I was somebody.
Then, on the weekend, the bubble burst.
It wasn’t a big event – just a dozen middle-aged boys vying for glory and some sports socks. Yet it was a tournament nonetheless.
And, for someone like me, someone who sub-consciously equates self-worth with success, competition is the best reality check of them all.
Reader, I lost to them.
Having performed poorly I now feel more like myself – like a nobody, that is.
Which is fine. The truth hurts but, as a masochist, I embrace the ache.
It’s a timely reminder of my rightful ranking – in tennis and in life.
Writing a novel is a lot like making stone soup.
Remember that story?
A hungry wayfarer meets a tramp who offers to make stone soup. Into the pot goes a stone and, while the water is warming, the tramp idly mentions that an onion might help. Tempted, the wayfarer takes one from his pack. ‘A carrot,’ the wily tramp says. ‘If only…’ And out comes a carrot.
This goes on until a rich minestrone has been made from the purloined provisions. The wayfarer is amazed. ‘This,’ he asks, ‘is stone soup?’
The first draft of a novel is a pot of stone soup: the seed of an idea swimming in a sea of words. Only by convincing ourselves that our book-to-be is a delicacy can we make it minestrone, adding ingredients until we too end up asking the wayfarer’s question.
This is stone soup?
Last night, in a tiny community hall in Hobart, a séance was held.
I was there, along with a few dozen others.
As we sat in a semi-circle, candles were lit. The lights were extinguished and, swathed in black, the medium swept in.
She took her place in silence. Eyes closed, she raised her arms and – voila! – contact was made.
For the next forty minutes I sat spellbound as the spirit of a man long-dead spoke to me from the past.
That man was Johann Sebastian Bach, musician and much-loved composer.
The medium, too, was musical. A fine violinist, she played Bach’s Second Partita from memory. It was an eerie, expressive performance.
In his day, Bach knew several languages, none of them mine. Last night, he spoke using the universal tongue: music. He bared his soul in sound and, wondrously, we heard every word.
Who do you wake up with in the morning? Someone you love or someone you loathe?
I don’t mean to pry but rather to posit a proposition: that the company you keep in your first waking hour sets your self for the rest of the day.
And I’m not talking about your bed buddy here – I’m referring to the version of yourself you choose to wake up with.
Stop looking at me like that!
Say you want to be a writer. Be your writing self in your first hour of wakefulness and you’ll feel like a writer for the rest of the day – that’s my assertion.
It’s nothing new. Back in 1886, the English preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote: ‘Begin as you mean to go on.’
I’ve been doing so for weeks and it works.
So why not wake up to yourself and seize the hour?