Circe’s Wise Words (Resisting the Song of the Sirens)
I heard a song on the radio recently as I was driving home. I didn’t catch its name, but I caught the name of the band.
Guided by Voices.
We’re all guided by something.
Sometimes it’s a grumble in our guts, the murmur of our hearts or lewd whispers emanating from somewhere much lower.
Occasionally conscience calls.
Mostly, though, we’re led on by the voices in our heads.
In Greek mythology a Siren is a creature – half bird, half woman – that lures sailors to their doom with its singing.
Odysseus encounters two such creatures as he sails home from Troy. Heeding Circe’s wise words, he has himself lashed to the mast so he can’t steer his ship on to the rocks.
Now, to resist the Sirens’ song, I too have tied myself down, although not to a boat but a bus – the Bridges Omnibus.
[Image from SPHS]
Caliban’s Rage (Seeing and Not Seeing My Face in a Mirror)
I’m fifty and I’ve still got a full head of hair. That’s a good thing, right?
Wrong. My locks, I tell you, have got me tied up in knots.
It’s those men and their amazing reflecting machines – mirrors, they call them.
Ostensibly aids in the trimming of hair, these dastardly devices serve a more sinister purpose: they cut characters like me down to size.
Which brings me to Shakespeare’s Tempest.
According to Oscar Wilde, Caliban is infuriated by seeing – and not seeing – his face in a glass. His rage, Oscar argues, accounts for the ‘nineteenth century dislike’ of realism and romanticism alike.
Call me Caliban.
What I see in a mirror is my face and yet it’s not; the reflection is real enough and yet it shatters my illusions.
It’s enough to drive a man mad – and to steer me clear of barbers’ scissors.
[Image from The Met]
Why I Write (And Why I Don’t Care that Nobody Cares)
Why do I write?
It’s a question no-one wants answered – no-one but me, that is.
And that’s the point.
I write for myself. Partly because I love piecing words together and solving puzzles; partly because I love the way words look in print, and how they sometimes shine with insight.
I do it, too, because I love learning.
In other words, I’m an amateur – and a proud one to boot.
See what I mean? For me, those two weird little words make this piece worthwhile.
Is that me, the writer, putting my foot down – or getting it stuck in my mouth?
One in a thousand wannabes make a living from writing; even fewer win fame and fortune. Writing for money is a gamble.
I can buy me a lottery ticket but I can’t buy me love. Love must be made.
Ghost Writing (Johnno, Dante and David Malouf)
I’m not normally a fan of horror stories and yet I’ve found David Malouf’s Johnno a fascinating read.
Ostensibly a book about two boys growing up and out of Brisbane in the days before it became a city, Johnno is actually about possession – about two opposing figures trying to win the other over.
Johnno’s the hero. He’s daring, disorderly and dangerous, a restless irresistible rebel.
The narrator, Dante, is the author’s alter ego. He haunts the story, refusing to declare himself, relentlessly evading capture – by his father, his birthplace and his friend.
‘I’ve spent years writing letters to you and you never answer, even when you write back,’ Johnno complains.
Johnno, the novel, is the author’s brutal belated reply.
When it appeared, in 1975, Johnno the man was long-dead and Dante had won, having taken possession of his friend as only a writer can.
Man of Many Parts: Shakespeare, Modern-day Novelist
Since his death Shakespeare has had a long and illustrious career, playing many memorable parts: immortal bard, literary imposter and, somewhat improbably for an upstart crow, a swan.
Recently, Will has even been cast as a shiftless time-waster – a timeless shape-shifter, I mean.
Clearly, Shakespeare has been many things to many people. In his lifetime, though, he was simply many things full stop. The son of a glove-maker, Will turned his hand to one vocation after another – actor, poet, playwright, investor, producer – acing them all. And yet he never became a novelist – unsurprisingly, perhaps, since in his day the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe, was over a century away.
Back then, the future, too, was still to come, as was our current century – the twenty-first.
Would Shakespeare make it as an author today? Would he ever! To my mind, Will is the very model of a modern-day novelist.
I came to this startling conclusion a week ago, while pretending to write a proposal for a PhD project located in the city from which I’d fled last year, a project entitled ‘The Novel in the 21st Century: Reading Contemporary Book Culture’.
I read novels in the 21st century, I thought. I’m qualified to critique the state of the art. And yet part of me wasn’t so sure. I’d failed to finish any of my forays into long-form fiction, after all, let alone have one published.
Deflated, I wondered why. Robinson Crusoe had appeared long ago, so I couldn’t use Shakespeare’s excuse. Was I simply a shiftless time-waster?
And then it struck me. Shakespeare!
I haven’t made it as a novelist because I’m not like Will.
New-age novelists don’t sit lord-like in an inky tower, channelling unchallengeable wisdom, painstakingly making immutable monuments designed to be decoded in private. They’re performers who collaborate like playwrights and play many parts.
The novel of now isn’t a big book thick with detail and description, whose life is strung along lines and bounded by covers. It’s a set of directions aimed at activating an audience and spawning new stories – a staged production, no less.
For a time Shakespeare was based at the Globe Theatre in London. There, during performances, actors and audience, playwrights and producers alike would interact, working as one to put on a play.
Literature is theatre once again. Today’s stories, though, are told on a truly global scale, woven in a web populated by people working with a will, like a Will.
Until I join their ranks I might as well hang up my pen and paper.
[Artwork from OpenArt]
Diversionary Tactics: Going Nowhere, Getting Somewhere
The legendary blues singer, Robert Johnson, was blessed: he came to a crossroads just once in his life.
Me, I’m not so lucky. Not only am I anything but a great musician – Johnson became a blues god when he supposedly sold his soul to the devil – but I keep stumbling across them.
Crossroads, that is.
Since submitting my thesis, I’ve been beset by doubts and distractions. Should I expand my story into a novel or should I leave well alone? Should I stay on the straight and narrow or widen my horizons?
Should I go this way or that?
My journal, poor suffering soul, bears witness to my meandering missteps.
They begin in mid-October, when, buoyed and emboldened by my thesis-writing experience, I get side-tracked by the Faber novel-writing scholarship, and an application I never submit.
Within days I’m eyeing a different diversion. Having just received confirmation of my aboriginal ancestry, I contemplate applying for an Indigenous Coffee Creative grant, even though I’ve already started exploring my ambivalence in an essay I think I might enter in the Kill Your Darlings non-fiction prize.
It’s easy now to look back over my life and see supposed signs of my ‘aboriginality’. There are the unexplained affinities I’ve felt with certain people and places. The bush, for example. Ever since I spent two years in western Queensland as a kid, I’ve been drawn to the land. And not just in the abstract way most white Australians always have been…
I don’t – apply for the grant or finish the essay. Instead I stumble on, staying, for the moment, on the beaten path.
Within a week I’m toying with pursuing writing as a profession, by enrolling in a Master of Writing.
Mastering that impulse, I impetuously take the next turn, writing three stories: one for the Neilma Sidney prize (not submitted), one a titillating tale, one a work of flash fiction.
He asked for whisky because he remembered he’d liked it, long ago. There was some argy-bargy at the bar over how he wanted it, so he wandered off, finding himself in the beer garden, which was half-full with men and women and music. He planted himself in a corner, next to some plants. Dumping his backpack on the table, he began to go through it, looking for a clue. Before long, a woman in black brought him a glass. On the house, she said, with a wink. He stared at her and used his new powers to freeze her where she stood. Not his type, he decided. Tucking a credit card into the top of her skirt, he let her go, with a wink. She went quickly, stopping in the doorway to study him. Funny, he thought. The further she got from him the closer to her he felt.
Dazed and dishevelled, I duck back on to the main drag.
In mid-November I come to yet another crossroads: Podcast Parade. Making the turn, I pen poems and scraps of piano music for ‘Bitter Sweet Nothings’, an audio work I park when I discover I don’t have the ability or equipment to produce it.
Then I get my study results, which are good enough to send me scurrying down another side alley. Before long I’ve submitted an adaptation of my exegesis to Island magazine. (No response as yet.)
Returning to the high street, I briefly consider becoming a teacher, having had some success at work as a coach, and then an entrepreneur, having fallen under the spell of some of my sillier ideas.
The devil being only in the detail, I move on.
Finally, in early December, I reach my last junction (for now); on one side lies writing as a craft, on the other writing as a hobby. Unswayed by either option, I plod back to the present.
The truth about Robert Johnson’s turning point is now lost in legend. As he left his crossroads (real or imagined) did he know where he was going? Or was his subsequent success an unknown destination, recognised only when it was reached?
The key to life, I suppose, is to keep on walking, eyes on the horizon, going nowhere in the hope of getting somewhere. Only later, looking back, does the path become clear.
Until then, my fate lies in the lap of the gods.
Unless I decide to play the blues, of course, in which case my destiny is in the hands of the devil.
[Photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash]
Making the Crossing: Roy Bridges, Tasmania and Me
Almost a century ago, in 1926, the popular Tasmanian-born writer, Roy Bridges, arrived in England for an extended stay, having just published his seventeenth novel. He had been living in Melbourne with his sister, secretary, and housekeeper, Hilda (herself a successful author) since 1909. The death of their mother, however, had broken up their home, and Roy’s restlessness – his ‘nervous curse’, as he later called it – sent him on his way across the seas.
Roy’s visit to Britain, his first, allowed him to reunite with long-lost friends, to meet with his publisher, and to see the land whose history and literature he had revered since childhood. It gave him a chance, as well, to experience new ways of living, thinking and writing, and an opportunity, crucially, to make a fresh start.
And yet by the end of the year, Roy was on the boat back to Australia, driven out of England by the loneliness and depression that had afflicted him in London, and by the demons that had finally overcome him on a visit to York. Roy’s hasty retreat heralded the beginning of the end – the end of his attempt to break with the past: his own and that of his home state, Tasmania, which loomed large in his imagination.
Within ten years Roy would be a captive on the ‘prison island’. For, in 1936, he retired with Hilda to the family farm in southern Tasmania, where, isolated, impoverished and unwell, he wrote his remaining eight novels – several concerned with the cruelty of the island’s convict past – and scores of letters in which he bemoaned his fate and his declining literary fortunes. There he lived out his final days, dying, in Hobart in 1952, unfulfilled and largely forgotten.
As I set out a year ago to write Roy’s story – my story about ‘Roy’ – I decided I wouldn’t make the same mistake. Like Roy, I was dogged by demons and haunted by the past; like Roy, I was faced with a dilemma: stay and stay safe or go and confront my fears; like Roy, I chose to go. Unlike Roy, however, I have not retreated.
In February I moved to Brisbane from Hobart. It was the bravest thing I’ve ever done. It was also the most selfish – I left my family behind, after all. (They join me here soon.) And yet it was also the best thing I’ve ever done. By going it alone and making a new life in a place filled with bitter memories, I’ve faced and overcome many of my fears. Most importantly, I know now that I can live with myself, and thus that I’m fit to live with others.
I know, too, that I can be the kind of writer I want to be. This year I made not only the crossing (from Tasmania to the mainland), but ‘The Crossing’ (my honours thesis). I made my story and I made it to my liking. In doing so, I re-made myself – something, it seems, Roy Bridges wasn’t able to do. It’s an act I hope will rewrite my ending, leaving me feeling less unfulfilled than Roy, if no less forgotten.
Mind Games: A Crash Course in Staying the Course
Coleopterology. It’s a word that scores a minimum of 22 points in Scrabble and refers to the study of beetles.
Sadly, there’s no term for the study of the Beatles – Beatleology is just a made-up word (boo, hiss!) and scores only 17 in Scrabble – but that hasn’t stopped musicologists concocting a system which pegs Paul as the happy Beatle, George as the holy one and Ringo as the hedonistic one. (Pete Best is the has-Beatle.)
As for John, he’s always been seen as the brainy Beatle. This view (confirmed by the shape of his specs) is based on the fact that J-Lenn (a) wrote books, (b) penned some pretty deep lyrics, and (c) lay around pondering world peace, undisturbed by anyone except his wife, a few celebrity friends and a roomful of reporters.
Lennon’s main claim to fame – for the purpose of this post, at least – is his song ‘Mind Games’, which he recorded in 1973. It’s a cruisy number that peaked at eighteen on the US charts.
As good as it is, though, the best thing about the tune is its title. Mind games – they’re what I’ve been playing for the last eight months.
Yes, this post is actually all about me.
It’s also (briefly) about grizzlies. Everyone knows that a bear with its paw caught in a trap will chew off its own limb rather than let its porridge go cold. Pop Will Eat Itself never covered Lennon’s song, but those musos do tell us something basic about the brain: that the organ at the top will eat itself if it doesn’t have some other bone to gnaw on.
A year ago, as my regular reader – can you hear me, Major Tom? – might remember, I gave myself something meaty to munch on mentally: postgraduate study. Hot on a hunch, I enrolled in a two-year Honours course at the whizbang University of Vandemonia, scoring myself a bonus 21 points (for ‘scholarship’).
So, as my first year fizzles out, how have I done? Have I eaten myself out of head and home? Or have I dined out on the ‘mind games’ of study, preserving my sanity and keeping myself out of a psychological pickle?
Well, the short answer is yes – or rather affirmative (22 points). Study has saved me from myself. My course has helped me stay the course, as a full-time worker-dude, a half-decent dad and a sub-par music-maker. Mission accomplished!
And yet it’s done much more than that, of course. Being an extreme sport, study has forced me to learn and write a whole buncha stuff from and for a whole buncha bright sparks. Wow!
Here’s what I’ve learned. Firstly, that something has been hidden in plain sight from me for twenty-odd years: Tasmania and its stories. And, moreover, that in this something I’ve found myself a field of study, a source of material and inspiration, and, dare I say it, a home for my head as well as my heart.
Having stumbled on to this path, I know now what I want to be doing. I want to be reading and writing about ‘the wandering islands’, to purloin a phrase from the poet, A.D. Hope, himself a once-were Tasmanian.
I’ve learnt other things too: that Tasmania isn’t one island but many, on the map and in the mind, and that although I work in the passport office helping others to travel, I belong in the world of words and ideas, where real books and not insipid little travel documents are the key to all countries.
(That’s nice, dear, but where’s my passport?)
Pesky travel permits aside, here’s what I’ve pumped out over the past eight months.
Proposals, plans and presentations aplenty, for a start. Half have been about my thesis topic (which, for the record, is ‘Tasmanian-ness’ and the lives and literary fortunes of Roy and Hilda Bridges).
Hang in there!
First I put together an annotated bibliography, thesis plan (‘Building Bridges: Displacement and the British Literary Diaspora’) and a presentation.
Later I wrote a proposal for my exegesis (the theoretical part of my thesis, which will itself be a work of fiction), followed by the exegesis itself (‘No Book is an Island: “Tasmanian-ness” and the Life and Literary Fortunes of Royal “Roy” Bridges’).
Along the way I wrote a critical review and a travel essay (‘A Room (and Tomb) of One’s Own: Revisiting and Re-evaluating “My Northwest Passage”‘), as well as another essay on a topic in Tasmanian literature. Then, just for a change, I prepared a proposal for a podcast, which I produced (‘Foreign Correspondent’).
See what I mean? Study has pushed me to do the seemingly impossible – to write and learn lotsa stuff and to stay on the straight and narrow.
Mind games, hey. Keep on playing them and, as the brainy Beatle says, you’ll make an ‘absolute elsewhere in the stones of your mind’.
Or, failing that, 15 points in Scrabble.
Open, Sesame: Homi K. Bhabha, Hybridity and Me
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]
All Ears (Me and My Podcast Pals)
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.
Geoff and Annabel are Adrift, plumbing the depths of social awkwardness with insight and irreverence.
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.