My Northwest Passage: Walking the Penguin Cradle Trail
From my cubicle at work I can see a city square. At the centre of that tree-lined public park there stands a statue, the likeness of a notable local: former governor of the realm, Sir John Franklin, best remembered for his attempt to find a link between the world’s two largest oceans.
A northwest passage – Franklin is not the only Tasmanian to seek one out. In March I embarked upon a perilous quest of my own: a solo walk that took me from the top end of the island to the edge of its spiritual heartland; a 100 kilometre hike I hoped would help me find a way through my worries, through the fears and frustrations hemming me in.
Franklin’s journal is lost. Mine, though, lives on to tell the following tale, one of danger, daring and discomfort, of sights and insights, of isolation, liberation and elation.
PROLOGUE: Sunday, 3 March 2019 – Hobart to Penguin (300 km by bus)
It’s eight-thirty and I’m sitting in my tent at the caravan park, gazing out at the hazy waters of Bass Strait.
Today a bus brought me to Penguin, weeks of frantic preparation at an end. I sat beside a big bloke from the mainland, here to manage the merger of two minor banks; he dozed on my shoulder most of the way. I distracted myself by listening to Jeremy Irons read Lolita, hoping he wouldn’t be overheard.
As we drove through Deloraine a man in a pub raised his beer to the bus – an acknowledgement of my boldness, I fancied. Later, the driver dropped me at the park and I settled in.
I ate dinner at a café in town – a tasty pumpkin and walnut salad complemented by truffle-clad chips and a beer – while watching a musician play. During ‘Ring of Fire’ I thought I saw Johnny Cash cross the street.
Thrilled with the experience, I wandered back to the caravan park, where a dip in the ocean ended the day. Tomorrow I step off into the unknown. My passage – to what? – has begun.
DAY 1: Monday, 4 March 2019 – Penguin to Hardstaff Creek (29 km on foot)
What a day! Perhaps I pushed myself a little too hard…
Skipping breakfast, I got away early, said goodbye to the caravan park and strode purposefully through Penguin, perversely pleased at having a heavy pack on my back once again.
The day was cloudless, sunny and still, and I arrived at the start of the trail feeling anxious but excited. Stopping for a snack and a selfie, I tightened the waist belt of my pack and stepped on to the track. The moment had arrived!
Having finally made it to the trail, I didn’t stay there for long, diverting early so as to take in Mount Gnomon, a friend’s favourite peak. I stopped for tea and porridge on the way, at the top of Mount Dial.
On Gnomon I made a fateful decision: to head up Mount Duncan, via the Tall Tree Track, rather than rejoin the main trail. Thus I added ten kilometres to the journey, all of them hard going.
Mount Duncan, however, was worth the toil: the view was magnificent. From the peak I could see the Nut at Stanley in the north and Cradle Mountain in the south, and a pretty patchwork of farmland in between.
As I munched on mountain bread, salami and cheese, a lone eagle rode the eddies below, soaring up to hang motionless in the air above. A nearby mobile phone tower hummed melodiously in the wind.
It was all downhill from there. Several hours later I rejoined the main track, which met up again with the Leven River, not far from the campsite at Hardstaff Creek. There I made camp.
Fighting exhaustion, I collected water and cooked up a tasty stew. After reading (Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs on my Kindle) and writing (in my diary) I slept, soothed by a sense of relief – I’d survived the first day! – and the rushing river nearby.
DAY 2: Tuesday, 5 March 2019 – Hardstaff Creek to Dobsons Flats (25 km)
So ends an eventful day! Despite vowing not to repeat the excesses of yesterday, I did just that.
The first crisis came early, when I realised I’d strained a muscle above my right knee. Not severely, mind you, but badly enough to make walking downhill a real pain. I strapped up my thigh and struggled on.
The first few hours (up Mount Lorymer and along the Dial Range) were tough: the track was overgrown, steep in places and slippery with snakes.
Yes, SNAKES! Two dark little things that darted away before any damage was done. Shaken, I kept my eyes on the track for most of the morning.
Descending through a plantation of pines, I limped into Wings Wildlife Park, where the trail notes suggested staying the night. It was early afternoon and I had a decision to make. Give in to the pain and hole up at Wings awaiting collection? Or push through it and carry on?
Knowing that the hardest part of the walk was yet to come, I decided to soldier on – but only if I could get ahead by finishing the next leg – a twelve kilometre ramble along country lanes – today.
Decision made, I answered the call of nature – good timing that! – and refilled my water bottles from a rainwater tank. I saddled myself up and was on the road by three o’clock.
The next two-and-a-half hours went like a dream. The weather was still and warm, and the road was mine; my pack sat snugly on my back and my leg felt fine.
As I passed through the paddocks I was watched by beefy black cows, inquisitive yet timid. Tiny amber crickets clicked and clacked at my feet, leaping about like jack-in-the-boxes.
The air was rich with the aroma of hay, big round bales of which stood in long lines, looking like great wheels of cheese. I almost envied the cows.
Some things were not so benign.
Tempted by the blackberries growing alongside the road, I asked a woman at a farmhouse if the bushes in the area had been sprayed. She pointed to a patch. ‘They’re okay to eat.’ As I tucked in her husband drove up. ‘I wouldn’t do that,’ he said. ‘I sprayed them yesterday.’ ‘Give my regards to your missus,’ I called after him. (Or wanted to.)
As I neared my next campsite, at Dobsons Flats, I stopped for a wash in the River Leven, my first for the trip. Boy, did I need that bath!
In the twilight I put up my tent and ate a meal, looking out over the river. Another big day awaits me tomorrow. As hard as it will be, though, I know there’s no going back.
With kookaburras chuckling, waters warbling and rain spattering on the tent, I head for bed.
DAY 3: Wednesday, 6 March 2019 – Dobsons Flats to Leven Canyon (15 km)
Crazy day today! By trying to make it easier for myself I somehow made it harder.
The bad news is that the weather turned wet, and I sat out two heavy showers of rain. The good news is that I nearly died only twice and that I got lost only thrice.
Ultimately, though, I pushed myself to the limit and my body responded; my leg now feels better than it did, despite the punishment I put it through. Go figure!
The track was amazing but atrocious: a narrow crumbling ledge carved out of the hillside above the River Leven. My near-death experiences came where the path had fallen away, and where I almost fell away too. They passed quickly.
Worse were the times I lost the track, because they took longer. In two places the trail descends to the river – the first to skirt a landfall, the second by design – and in both places I had trouble relocating the track.
The first descent happened about halfway along. Relying on intuition and imaginative reading of the trail notes, I guessed I had to rock-hop across the river, work my way up the opposite bank, then rock-hop back. Having done so, though, I couldn’t find where the track recommenced. My panic grew during the hour it took me to stumble on the opening.
Then there was the rope used by walkers to haul themselves up a steep bit of bank. I just couldn’t find it! After a desperate search I eventually spotted it in the distance.
The delays were disruptive. I’d planned to push on and camp near Griffiths Flats, but I now had barely two hours to do the most demanding part of the walk: the ascent of Leven Canyon, in fading light.
Running on adrenaline and anxious energy, I struck out. It was terrifying stuff, since the track petered out well below the summit.
Luck was with me: falling and floundering, my pack dragging me down, I happened to see light through the trees, a break in the buttress of rock. Making one desperate last effort, I scrambled straight up and – lo and behold! – found myself back on the track. It felt like a minor miracle.
From there it was a short walk to the top, where I pitched my tent (with difficulty) in a fortuitous flat open space. And here I am, shivering in my sleeping bag despite donning all my clothes, trying not to slip away down the slope.
All in all, it was an amazing day. One smell has stayed with me: a fecund pong, probably that of rotting leaves, sour but not repulsive. A healthy kind of yuck – just like this walk!
DAY 4: Thursday, 7 March 2019 – Leven Canyon to Paddys Lake (15 km)
This day is described as the hardest of the walk and boy did it live up to the billing!
Despite the difficulty I made it to my campsite just after four (it’s now almost six), which is nice for a change. I’m all set up now, my tent angling into the wind – of which there can be plenty at these sub-alpine heights. (It’s fairly calm right now.)
I had a chilly old time last night. Although I kept riding my mattress to the bottom of the tent, I managed to get some rest.
I got off to a frustrating start in the morning, wasting time and energy trying to find the way down the hillside, only to discover it right under my nose. I’m learning that some things on the map can be trusted, and that the trick is knowing what they are.
The canyon itself is impressive. The track down its side was rocky and steep; it was followed by a leg through ferny groves and an indecently easy stretch along a dirt road.
The adrenaline I’ve been riding ran out at midday, near Taylors Flats, at the start of an ‘unrelenting’ ascent that took me three hours. Rarely have I been happier to reach the end of a leg.
And now here I am, in the high country, parked beside a beautiful tarn.
As I was leaving the canyon I ran into an unfamiliar animal (i.e. a person): Phil from Melbourne, who’d come from camping at the Walls of Jerusalem.
Phil had hoped to walk the trail but he’d picked up an infection from a blister, so he was doing day walks instead. It was nice to have a natter.
Before we parted Phil asked if I’d lost a slip of paper, because he’d found one back on the track. Oddly enough, I had. He handed over the page on which I’d scribbled my plans. I’d hardly missed it.
Gee, I’m getting hungry as I write this, having not had dinner yet. Tonight’s main course is miso soup with fresh carrots and onion, dried peas and dried mushrooms. The tucker’s pretty good out here!
Oh, and I’m into my fourth near-death experience of the trip: there’s a tick on my leg, sucking out my life blood. I’ve smothered the bugger in lip balm having doused it with metho, so perhaps I’ll pull through.
After pitching my tent I tried to climb Black Bluff, the big rocky outcrop that towers over the lake, but was forced back down when the clouds closed in. Bummer! The views up there are to die for (which I wasn’t willing to).
An early night tonight, then, ahead of a another big day tomorrow.
DAY 5: Friday, 8 March 2019 – Paddys Lake to Fourways (25 km)
I’m just about done for the day, thankfully!
This leg posed a different kind of challenge: it was all about dealing with monotony and discomfort rather than solving navigational puzzles or staying alive. I’m happy to say that I passed the test.
I woke early in an attempt to have a second go at getting up the bluff, but the weather was worse than yesterday, serving up rain and wind and fog. It did mean, however, that I was able to get away by seven, which worked in my favour later on, when I got to have a peek at a different peak.
For much of the day I froze. This part of the trail is exposed to the elements and the winds were wild. The track itself was testing: a narrow groove overgrown with low heathy plants sporting sharp little leaves.
Stubbornly unwilling to change out of my shorts, I blundered on, my shins getting lacerated, my socks and boots saturated. Now I know why hikers wear gaiters!
The atmosphere was eerie, almost alien, there being so few signs of life (as I know it). Even I was barely alive! Later on I was joined by green parrots and felt less alone.
Slope after slope after slope – the monotony was driving me mad. The weather only made things worse, low scudding clouds obscuring the expansive views.
I had morning tea (couscous and a coffee) huddled behind a rock, Cradle Mountain occasionally visible in the distance.
It was around then that my leg began to play up again, which at least gave me something to think about. I limped on and gradually got below the worst of the wind, the Vale of Belvoir spread out below on my left.
I lunched at the foot of a lookout where the road runs past. Here I met David and Janice from Canada, who are tooling – nay, touring – around Tasmania on bikes. What a nice couple they were, Janice offering me chocolate when she heard I’d walked all the way from the coast.
I got my second wind after that (thanks, perhaps, to the cheese I’d eaten, sadly the last of my supply) and charged on, my leg aching less.
At three o’clock I reached a junction in the track where a side trail leads up to Mount Beecroft. Determined not to miss out on a second peak in one day, I shed my pack, threw a few things in a shoulder bag and shimmied up the slope.
I ate my last biscuit at the summit and admired the panoramic view, feeling on top of the world.
From there it was a painful hour-long descent to the Fourways campsite, where I now recline, at the junction of four chattering creeks. With only a few hours of walking left on the trail tomorrow, it’s starting to look like I might make it after all.
DAY 6: Saturday, 9 March 2019 – Fourways to Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre (10 km)
I woke early this morning as I did not want to miss my connection (the bus to Launceston, leaving from the Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre at midday).
The last leg of the trail was no easier than the rest, with much of the track being boggy and rough. The weather, too, was unchanged: overcast and cold. To my dismay, thick banks of clouds obscured Cradle Mountain as I laboured towards it.
The first few kilometres of the track wound its way through a myrtle forest, and here I had to contend with ‘killer’ leeches, which descended on me in droves. Very tasty (me, that is, not them). ‘Gaiter aid’ would have been very welcome.
To make matters worse, there was no brass band to greet me as I emerged from the wilds, just a bemused German tourist who gave me vague German directions to the visitor centre.
Ah, the visitor centre! Instead of being conveniently situated at the end of the trail, the building is two kilometres away, up a long steady slope. This discovery might have broken a lesser man’s spirit but I took it in my stride – over two thousand of them, in fact.
I arrived at the centre with an hour to spare. My relief was enormous: I hadn’t missed the bus and, oh yeah, I’d walked the trail! I then devoured two of the tastiest sausage rolls I’ll ever eat.
Momentarily replete, I repaired to a restroom, where I cleaned myself up, exchanging my wet and dirties for the dry clothes I’d had hiding in my pack. I also mopped the mud and blood off my lower legs, albeit with some sadness: the mess on my shins was a kind of biological record of my journey, bearing witness to the places I’d been.
Then it was back to the café for banana bread and coffee while I waited for my ride. And who should be seated at the table beside me, sheltering from the streams of Asian and European tourists?
Why, David and Janice, of course, the cyclists I’d met yesterday. We greeted each other like long-lost friends. (Had they given me up as dead?) As it happened, Janice had something to tell me. ‘I was exhausted when we met,’ she said, ‘but you inspired me to go on.’
I joined them at their table and we chattered away like children.
They told me about a time they’d been hiking in Canada with some kids and got caught out in the snow. While the youngsters sweated it up with a camp oven in the canvas tent, they’d spent a sleepless night huddled together on a wagon.
We flippantly agreed that there should be a badge for hardy adventurers like us, one that would reveal what we really are (i.e. hardy adventurers). David told me not to worry: he said he could see my stamp.
With that we parted and I raced for the bus, hoping my stamp would stay with me and that I would always have the eyes to see it.
EPILOGUE: Saturday, 9 March 2019 – Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre to Launceston (150 km by bus)
Civilisation tried to reassert itself over the airwaves as we wound our way cityward. Dave, the driver, had (optimistically) turned on the radio and static played softly in the background for most of the trip.
As we entered Launceston, though, Frankie (Goes to Hollywood) broke through, telling me to relax, don’t do it. But it was too late by then – I had returned to the real world.
I had a great chat with Dave on the journey, bare feet and all. (My boots were wet!) So many people, so many stories. I was the only passenger on the bus and, as I learned, the last one ever, since the service was ending.
Dave was a friendly, down-to-earth bloke; born in Deloraine, he’d been driving trucks and buses in northern Tasmania for close on thirty years. He’d camped in the area back when he was a kid, so I fancied he could see my badge as he glanced back at me.
Later I sat back and savoured my emotions: the pride and satisfaction I felt, the tranquility, hopefulness and sense of resolve. Out there I’d learned to trust myself, and I’d come to realise that I’m capable of more than I think. Yes, I’d had doubts and concerns – almost constantly – but they’d been rooted in reality rather than mostly imagined, as my usual worries are. There’s a lesson in that, I’m sure.
As I watched the last of the wilderness whipping by, I reflected on how I’d felt at home in the bush, even though I was always aware of the dangers. I’d been at one with myself and the world, and this had informed my interactions with the people I’d met: Phil, David and Janice, and Dave the driver, who even now was piloting the bus into the transit centre.
Would my trek from coast to Cradle Mountain prove to be a kind of rebirth, I wondered, a second coming of sorts? Only time will tell.
Before my expedition I saw John Franklin as a flinty faraway figure. Now, though, as I sit in the square across the street from my office, I feel a kinship with the man in the monument. And why not? The quest for a northwest passage altered both of our lives – Franklin’s for the worse but mine, I hope, for the better.
The North West Walking Club, Wildcare Friends of the Penguin Cradle Trail and Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service for managing and maintaining the trail
Penguin Cradle Trail Coordinator, Greig Clarke, for detailed and up-to-date information on the state of the trail
The traditional owners of country in northwest Tasmania
Penguin Cradle Trail – Map and Notes (Wildcare Friends of the Penguin Cradle Trail)
100 Walks in Tasmania (Tyrone Thomas and Andrew Close)
Equipment: backpack and pack cover; tent; inflatable mattress; water filter; Trangia, fuel and fuel bottle; first aid kit; personal locator beacon, folding shovel and toilet paper; head torch and batteries; cord, compass and whistle; journal and maps; mobile phone, batteries and cable; Kindle and cover; water bottles (2); knife and cutting board; spoon and cup; rain jacket, fleece jacket and shirts (2); long pants; thermal underwear; socks (3 pairs); gloves and cap; sunglasses and sunscreen; food and water (Total weight: 17 kg)
Food: leaf tea and porridge (oats, dried cranberries and pepitas); instant decaf coffee, home-baked biscuits and mixed raw nuts; couscous mix (including raisins, pine nuts and spices) and dried apricots; salami, cheese, mountain bread and chocolate; dried figs; soy mince, fresh carrot and onion, dried peas and herbs; miso, dried mushrooms and peas, fresh carrot and onion; red lentils, fresh carrot and onion, dried peas and curry paste (Breakfast, morning tea, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper)
Talk and Self-Talk: People, Their Diaries and Me
Conversations – I had over two thousand kilometres of them during a recent foray into the Australian bush.
For ten days my brother, my best friend and me shared a car, a tent and a track. We talked the whole time as long-separated soul-mates will do, mulling over food and fatherhood, music, the moon and more. It was our way of reaching out, of clasping hands, of arm-wrestling and twiddling our thumbs.
In the weeks leading up to the trip I’d been holding conversations of a different kind, as I gave myself a good talking-to. That’s right – I wrote in my diary.
I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was seventeen, when I started recording my doings on a daily basis, larding my jottings with pithy reports on public events and, er, the weather. Thus, on 3 January 1992, I penned this informative entry:
Overcast and rain tried hard. I had a shave first thing ‘smorning – just felt like it. Achievement: Ironed a wet shirt until it was dry (cuffs don’t count). India has clawed into the Test Match due to an Umpirical decision and luck reversal.
Thankfully I went on to lose that kind of complacency. Over time the tune of my self-talk changed, my manner becoming more managerial as I tried to get a grip on myself on the page. Hence the following entry, made at 8.55 am on Tuesday, 11 October 2005.
Yesterday I did everything I planned to do – yippee! I expect today to be much more relaxed. Apart from sending an email to Bridget and buying prunes (as you do), all my other tasks are work- and study-related.
No sour grapes there – just prunes!
That was then and this is now. In more recent times I’ve written in my diary for a deeper reason: to better understand myself. Here’s the opening of an entry I called ‘Lost Causes (cont.)’, dated 22 November 2017:
What can I write about myself that I haven’t written before? That I’m flaky? Definitely not. Anyways, after ending my last (if only it was my last!) notebook on such a positive and hopeful note, I’m here to dispel the mood and return myself to that thing I call reality. For a day or two.
I really believed I could become a nurse…
Therein lies its beauty, for a diary can be many things to many people.
We get a glimpse of this astonishing versatility in Thomas Mallon’s A Book of One’s Own – People and Their Diaries, which I’ve recently read. As Mallon reminds us, journals have been kept by all kinds of characters, infamous, famous and forgotten, from Degas, Goebbels and de Beauvoir to Byron, Trotsky and Voltaire, their motivations varying wildly.
Some are chroniclers of the everyday. Others have kept their books only in special times – over the course of a trip, or during a crisis. Some have used them to record journeys of the soul, plan the art of the future, confess the sins of the flesh, lecture the world from beyond the grave. And some of them, prisoners and invalids, have used them not so much to record lives as create them…
Diaries are clearly the cosiest kind of literary accommodation.
Of all the diarists covered in Mallon’s lively review, it’s the would-be writer, William Allingham, for whom I feel most. Allingham lived in the shadow of two great poets of his day – Tennyson and Browning – and it seems he never quite came to terms with his own lack of success, as this poem suggests:
A man who keeps a diary pays
Due toll to many tedious days;
But life becomes eventful – then
His busy hand forgets the pen.
Most books, indeed, are records less
Of fulness than of emptiness.
Sad but sometimes true, I suppose.
I finished A Book of One’s Own on my way back from the bush, in an aeroplane. Closing the book, I sat back and wondered about my own diary-writing, and how it seems to separate me from the world as much as it makes me feel connected.
And then, to my amazement, as I watched idly on, two fellow passengers took out journals and pens. Dating pages with due deliberation, they settled down to write, one a teenage girl trying to find her voice (her words kept deteriorating into doodles), the other a middle-aged man reflecting on the book he was reading.
It was an incredible coincidence and one I couldn’t wait to get down – in my diary, of course.
Only Words Remain: The Day My Music Died
As the song-sheet of history shows, singers are silenced in curious ways. Some, like Jeff Buckley, fall from boats, while others fall down sets of stairs, Fritz Wunderlich-style. Then there are those who, like me, simply fall sick.
Mind you, it wasn’t the pox that bottled me up: it was something my medico said.
The visit started normally enough, with the doctor peering into my mouth and declaring I had a cold. But then the bombshell dropped. Giving my tender tonsils one last lingering look, she uttered two weighty words. ‘Unusual architecture,’ she said.
‘It’s crowded in there,’ she added, by way of explanation, and with that our explosive encounter was over. I was left feeling lousy but enlightened: something suddenly made sense. I knew now why I sucked as a singer.
I’d been reminded of my vocal unloveliness while listening to a home recording a few days before. Revolted, as always, by my unrefined nasal whine, I pictured myself as a poor man’s Bob Dylan, all spit and no polish. The image was awful.
What had I been thinking when I’d first let my cords loose almost thirty years ago? That practice makes perfect, of course. That I could train my voice to sound so much better.
By inadvertently alerting me to my not-so-super inner structure, the doctor had cured me of my musical illusions. Clearly, the inside of my bonce wasn’t built for beauty. Nascent sounds need headspace: room to grow in richness and roundness; time to mature into a loftier kind of chamber music, a harmony of the sphere.
Anatomy, I decided, is destiny, so I sang no more.
. . . . .
Mine was a musical journey of discovery and self-delusion, a thirty-year odyssey encompassing shifting styles, identities and instruments, none of which I ever mastered or made my own. I played around but was never any good.
It started back in high school when, bored with maths, a mate and I conjured up the Stumpjump Ploughers, a sham country band whose singles – ‘River Full of Beer’ and ‘The Barnyard Blues’ – took our senior year by storm.
Emboldened by success, I moved on to the mouth trumpet. Jamming with cool cats in classrooms, I tried – and failed – to jazz up the campus.
Real trumpet soon followed, and I was quick to perfect a faulty technique. My signature sound – a kind of wavering bray – was captured on Foolhardy Adventures, an album produced by a real musician, my brother, which featured the playing of an unreal musician, my sister.
Musicianship, it seems, does not travel in threes.
Not-so-grand piano came next, and for a time I saw myself as Horowitz reborn. Alas, I was simply horriblowitz, despite my bumbling best efforts. Once, while ‘working’ at a boarding school, I made a desperate Liszt-like pact with the devil, whose short-lived support inspired me to write a wicked piano part for one of my brother’s best songs.
For a full five minutes I felt truly divine.
The guitar brought me back to earth; on its fretful board my fumbling fingers were never at home. And yet even I could string together a few basic chords, a fact that encouraged me to become a singer-songwriter of sorts.
I devised my debut offering, Climbing Falling Trees, in the early 1990s. It opened with ‘You’ll Get Hurt’, the first song I ever wrote and the only one to feature this head-turning refrain:
The time to look
Is the time to look the other way
Rounding out the almost-album was ‘Taking Care’, a song that serves up some of my tastiest lines.
There’s air enough for smoke rings and a last breath
He holds his nose and tries to live a slow death
Butter to hide the knife
Bread to burn his toast
Surely it’s here somewhere
Honey cut the other loaf
Impressed by my early efforts, I shelved plans for my symphonic masterwork, War Machine. Instead I practised playing my two songs right through, something I could rarely do.
History shows that my first album failed to get off the ground: those trees just kept on falling. And although I tried not to let the fiasco affect me, I was tongue-tied for a time. My voice returned in ’98, when I wrote a four-legged number known as ‘Hard Easy Chair’.
Just room in these boxes, a little despair
There’s a box in this room, but no hard easy chair
E7 to C7, if you don’t mind.
As the new millennium broke, I got bitten again by the song-writing bug. I’d moved to a small island and was feeling bigger and bolder. As if to prove the point, I dabbled in punk, forming Osterberg’s Angels one day before disbanding it the next.
Punk ain’t dead
It’s just got nothin’ to wear
Locked in the bathroom
Spikin’ its hair
Seeking something more serious, I then dreamed up an indie outfit called Ready Reckoner, whose first full-length offering I christened Nothin’ Adds Up.
Nothin’ adds up the way it should
But that don’t mean that nothin’ ain’t good
This almost-album featured three cracking tracks: ‘Solitary Confinement’, ‘Clocks Without Hands’ and ‘Just a Potato’. Another corker, ‘Truer Than the Truth’, cut to the core:
There is no mystery
Without false clues
The lies you tell about yourself
Are truer than the truth
And, yes, that was an FM7 chord in there.
Like all good lemons, I had a side project or three on the back-burner.
I used to think faith
Would set me free
That if I believed in God
He’d believe in Me
Bombadier blossomed briefly in 2015. ‘Interstellar Cinderella’, a song from the band’s one and only almost-album, Electrocutie, was fit for glory.
Home at midnight
Out all day
Across the Milky Way
Doubts, however, had begun to creep in.
We’re all stars in the making
With hearts made for breaking
The harder we try
The harder we’re faking
Finally, the deadweight of my delusions became too much to bear, and I caught a cold. I called in the doctor, who, as we’ve seen, dealt the deathblow to my musical dreams.
Happily, I only ever gave two performances, one at the outset, the other at the end.
In 1989, the Stumpjump Ploughers appeared in a busking competition. I played the lagerphone and we won best comic act. My last public showing took place in a church. Afterwards I was praised for the way I masked my mistakes.
Shadows, life disappearing
Substance swept away
Echoes, double dying
Silence here to stay
Although this wasn’t the song I sang as my last – I attempted another number instead – I wish now that it had been, if only because it seems so prescient.
For, as a real singer-songwriter, Peter Allen, sang,
All that’s left of the singer’s
All that’s left of the song
Of the sounds I made only words remain.
Humble Pie: How I Got My Just Desserts
These days, fans accost me in the street. Rick, they say, how did you do it? How did you get where you are today?
Waal, it wasn’t easy, I reply, adjusting my codpiece. The bus was late and I missed my stop. But I got here. Eventually.
The fans don’t think so, oddly enough. They look at each other and edge away, leaving me wondering why I can’t come clean about my sudden ascent.
You haven’t heard about that? Think about it, you nonce – what else could prevent me publishing a post here since mid-May last year? Illiteracy? Lumbago? Wild horses?
Nay, nay and nay. Nothing but success, pure and simple. For let’s face it: a bloke who hits the big time doesn’t need to blog. (Or beg for that matter, which is much the same thing.)
Now, as I bask in the glory from the isolation of my grandiose grotto, I feel a plectrum of guilt. One that picks at my nylon nerves. I mean, don’t my fans deserve better?
Yes, you do – you know you do. Well, here it is: a retracing of my path to prominence. Follow it, and you too might aspire to greyness. To greatness, I mean.
Milkman. If cheese is made from milk, big cheeses are made from milkmen. Delivering milk, midnight to dawn, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue swinging me along – such was my first job of work. A month or two on the dark side set me up for an enlightened life.
Trolley-boy. Nothing’s harder to handle than twenty shopping trolleys in a row, especially in the swirl of customers and cars. My short stint at a supermarket taught me that control is an illusion. Holding on is the best we can hope for.
Administrative Officer. After accidentally acing a public service exam, I wrote letters for the Minister of Police. Few of us are truly happy, it seems. In almost a year I discovered that, for many, life is a complaint for which there is no cure, judicial or otherwise.
Law Clerk. Speaking of the law, I was in it for a bit. Just long enough to learn that every firm – every group big or small – has its own unwritten rules. Which I broke. Stuck out the back with the stationery, I wrote satirical news stories until I earned the sack.
Assistant Resident Boarder. Living with fifty teenagers gave me a good gauge of my own mentality. The results weren’t pretty. Clearly, I’m no leader of boys, let alone men. Which is why it’s best to go it alone, all the way to the asylum.
Investment Relations Officer. God is not always the best guide, especially when it comes to gold. I discovered this while working for a posse of preaching prospectors. Tasked with placating doubting Thomases – irate investors seeking imminent earthly reward – I realised that the faith of others is never enough.
Medical Typist. To be a good listener, you need someone to talk to you. For months on end I had doctors whispering in my ear, dictating letters. After a while, I thought they were talking to me. But they weren’t. They were talking through me. Dodge the dictators – this became my motto.
Writer. Okay, so I wasn’t a real writer. For a time there, though, my words did earn me some dough. Three kids’ stories netted me $800 (one was reprinted), at about 40 cents a word. Evidently, this invaluable experience taught me nothing, as I ain’t published anything since.
Data Entry Operator. Data – it’s everywhere. And it needs to be entered and operated on. That’s where I came in. For ten years I dealt with botanical data, sampling along the way something of the poetry of science. Lesson No. 9: there’s an art to everything.
Casual Research Assistant. To zone out, that’s what I learned while casually assisting a friend with her research. Numbers aplenty cried out for input and, as an aimless Arts graduate, I was ready to put in. As I daydreamed, my digits became, well, the digits. Truly, trying too hard makes trying too hard.
Ten sure steps to success or a beagle’s blighted breakfast? Call it what you will, this serpentine, potholed path has made me what I am today: a humble Passport Officer (ongoing), no less. Which is perhaps more than a trifler like me deserves.
And yet, as the Lonestar Hitchhiker himself, Don Dilego, puts it:
I want to build a brand new road,
But I’m not so sure I know where it goes…
Imaginary Friends: The Perils of Putting Books in Boxes
For someone who has a lot of friends, I get pretty bloody lonely. Okay, so all my buddies are imaginary, but what has that got to do with it?
Years ago, I made a big decision, and probably a bad one. I decided that real people suck – as pals, at least. Phantoms, I felt, make better friends. What led me to such a pretty pass? Was it the misanthropy of my parents or my own social awkwardness? A bit of both.
Mostly, though, I put it down to the crazy ideas I had as a teen. Back then, all my friends – bar two – seemed to lack a couple of crucial qualities: complexity and concern.
No-one called me, you see. No-one came after me. No-one seemed to care. The friendships I had were fed solely, I believed, by me. And, in my youthful eyes, one-way streets inevitably led to dead ends.
Sure, there were no smartphones in those distant days, but I wasn’t that hard to contact. No, my unpopularity had nothing to do with my remoteness and everything to do with the way I perceived my pals: as shallow and lacking in seriousness.
You wouldn’t know it now, but back then I was an intense individual, one obsessed by the quest for, err, Beauty and Truth. I was, in other words, a pompous git; amusing at times, but definitely not someone to chat to about your holiday plans or family news.
People who thought about such things were superficial – such was my elevated opinion – and no doubt I made it clear to my friends that I felt this way. Thus they didn’t call me. Why would they?
Like nature, culture abhors a vacuum, and into the breach stepped books.
When I was little, my mum gave me a bookmark whose inscription I took to heart. You might know the poem. It begins, ‘Books are friends/Come, let us read’. What hope did I have?
So, over the years, instead of making friends, I bought books. Second-hand ones, of course, because they have more character. Books became my imaginary friends.
And now I’m lonely. Why? Because just as, years ago, I categorised my real friends and lost them, I’ve gone and put my books in boxes. Somehow I’ve managed to distance myself even from my imaginary mates.
Come, let us read. If only I could!
Where There’s a Will: Escaping (or Embracing) the Facts of Your Birth
I’d been away from home for a week, working. Over breakfast, and out of idle curiosity, I asked my five-year-old son to tell me what he thinks I do for a living. ‘You make books,’ he said, playing with his porridge.
‘Well…’ I began, and stopped myself. His answer was understandable, I supposed, since he knows about the stories I’d published and about the book I’m trying to write. Understandable but awry.
‘Well…’ I started again, before stopping a second time. I sat and sipped my tea. Whether my son knew it or not, he was actually right. In its own way, my employer is the biggest publisher in the land, pumping out two million titles a year. I just hadn’t thought of it that way before.
‘Spot on,’ I said to my son. ‘Your dad makes books.’
What’s the simplest story you can think of? No, not Hemingway’s six-word classic, ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’, which probably isn’t even Hemingway’s. I’m picturing the modest passport, and the spare biographical details those slim volumes contain.
Name, sex, date and place of birth – now therein lies a tale. Think of Homer’s heroes, for instance, and the thrills and spills their lineage bequeaths them, as they try to live up to their names, and to being both Greek and male. (Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, has it really bad.)
Think of almost any pre-modern story, in fact, and note how its characters strive to meet the expectations laid upon them at inception. Expectations encoded in the facts of their birth.
Identity – it’s part of our inheritance as humans. An inheritance that, in recent times, we’ve come to resent and reject. Today, we change our name and gender at will; today, we fudge our age and our origins on a whim. Which is why the modernist (literary) text – yikes! – is invariably about escaping our ancestry by trying to ‘make a name’ for ourselves, however ugly or empty the new one might turn out to be. For, as Eliot puts it in ‘The Wasteland’,
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images . . .
All this (and more) brings me to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, which I happened to read during my recent time away. Its hero, Tom, yearns to be a ‘living, breathing, courageous individual’, not a ‘cringing little nobody from Boston’. He hates the reality of his impoverished existence, and he’ll do almost anything to escape it – he’ll even alter his identity by becoming Dickie Greenleaf, the son of a rich industrialist.
Sadly, I know how he feels. There have been a few people in my life who, I’m ashamed to admit, have known me only by the wrong name. (I mumble, you see.) I’ve never corrected them – then or since – because I prefer to be seen as someone other than myself. Call me a coward or just call me Will, as one of them used to do.
It’s kind of ironic, then, that I now work for the Passport Office, helping to make those shrewd little books that authenticate identity. Like Tom Ripley, I’ve tried hard to escape the facts of my birth, and yet they’re still with me, a kind of passport, perhaps, to another life – possibly even my own.
Just don’t tell my son about my real job or he won’t want to grow up to be like me. Then again, maybe he Will.
Frightening to the Power of X: How I Saved Civilisation (Again)
Sometimes the deadliest things seem the most harmless. Take the whale shark. On the surface, this fat fish resembles a peace-loving kale-nibbling mammal; peer into its blowhole, though, and you’ll catch a gut-churning glimpse of the real thing: a malevolent predator bursting to bite you in two.
Then there are ‘innocent’ messages like the one I whisked away from a desk today. At first glance, this little note speaks of a simple adhesive slip-up and the chance misplacement of a mug. Sad but insignificant. And yet, when fully decoded, it tells of something infinitely more sinister – of a family ravaged by addiction and, egad, of a civilisation whose innards are being eaten out by moral corruption of the vilest kind.
Frightening plus 1.
To make matters worse, this message was left in the open, totally nude, a veritable spark itching to ignite the imaginations of passing public servants, one which would do them – and society – no end of harm.
Frightening to the power of X.
Luckily, I was on hand to whisk it away, and, as usual, I reproduce it here as a warning to the unwise. Now that’s how you take a message!
Shocked and want to know more? Try Mother Knows Best and Off the Couch.
Painting Over the Past: Does History Hinder or Help?
The past. We’re more used to seeing it on the walls of museums and ancient ruins than on the walls of our homes. And yet you’ll find it there too, if you scrape hard enough.
Ancient ruins? Yeah, like those of Pompeii, with all their candid graffiti. ‘I screwed the barmaid,’ scrawls one Roman. ‘O walls,’ writes another, ‘you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.’ And then there’s ‘Nothing ever happens in this shitty little city,’ which, sadly, I had to make up.
Anyway, that’s what this budding novelist has been doing for the past week: scraping old paint off the walls of his house. Stripping away the past, as it were, layer by colourful layer. Brown, blue, purple, orange – it’s as if I’ve been living under a rainbow.
A toxic rainbow, of course, which explains why my family has decamped for the duration, and why for a week my noble visage has been half-hidden by a mask. Weep, ladies, weep! It’s the lead, you see, it’s dleadly.
In ancient Rome, people put this highly malleable metal in water pipes; in the nineteenth century, they put it in wine (to sweeten it); in the twentieth century, they put it in paint. That’s progress for you. Now paint comes free from artificial sweeteners, which makes it harder to swallow but supposedly much safer. Goody.
So there I am, perched on a stepladder, laying bare the history of my house with a hand-scraper, stroke by wearisome stroke, as if I’m turning the pages of a book. And I’m thinking, why does old stuff always seem so dangerous; I mean, that’s what Freud was essentially on about, right? Buried stuff coming back to bite us.
That’s when I get to the woody flesh beneath the sickly skin. Pure, unadulterated timber that once formed part of a wholesome, harmless tree, one that would never drop a branch on your head or try to trip you up with a rearing root. O, I cry (metaphorically), why did we ever exchange nature for culture? Then I put my blade through a rotten board and immediately I know. Like the present, the past is as much enemy as ally.
And, yes, that’s pretty profound.
But wait – there’s more. A lot more, alas, because this post was supposed to save me work by featuring something I wrote in the past, about the past. Something from another blog I once kept. Something called ‘Little Chicago’.
What’s in a hat? Memories, of course.
Over Easter, Queen Jane and I were whisked away by Dennis Potter’s redolent rendering of the Mayor of Casterbridge to Upper Wessex, where we followed the fall of a man undone, like Achilles, by unassuageable anger. Afterwards, we made our own descent: into the heart of our local hamlet, where Jane browsed wares while I sat reading in the sun.
‘There’s a bluebeardy look about ’en,’ Nance Mockridge said, of the aforementioned Mayor. ‘Stuff – he’s well enough!’ replied Christopher Coney. ‘Some folk want their luck buttered.’
Before long I was approached by a nuggety old bloke, who drew me out of Casterbridge (for, having finished the screenplay, I had started the book) and into conversation. Like townsfolk from Hardy’s tale, we parleyed in High Street.
My companion spoke, in thick English, of various things: of his heart’s fatal flaw and his decision to stay the surgeon’s hand; of his native country, Poland, and his arrival in this, his chosen land; and then, remarkably, of my own adopted home, the suburb of Springfield. It, he said, had been a Polish place, like another, in America, only smaller. Little Chicago, they called it.
Finally, he said he liked my hat.
I own two hats. One came to me from a market stall; the other, from my grandfather. As usual, I was wearing the first, for, unlike the second, which is heavy with age, it is young and lightweight.
My companion added to its store of memories. More importantly, though, he wore his own dusky thin-brimmed cap as if it were more ballast than burden. History, he showed, has a steadying hand.
So, you see, it’s not all bad.
I don’t care. The rain having stopped, I’m now going to go and do my bit to poison and preserve humankind. I’m going to go and paint over the past.
Mother Knows Best: How I Saved Civilisation (Again)
It’s a new year but has anything changed? Of course not. The fate of civilisation still hangs in the balance, thanks to the pig-headed ham-fistedness of bureaucats and dogs everywhere.
Why, no sooner had I returned to my post at the elbow of power (or thereabouts) than I chanced upon the following scrap of paper, left smouldering on a desk by some incautious ignoramus. Fortunately I was on hand to whisk it away, thereby protecting the privacy – not to mention the welfare – of all concerned.
That’s how you take a message!
Letting Yourself Go: How My Voice Went and Came Back
Two years changed my life. The first was 1984, the year I lost my voice. I was twelve at the time, and on the cusp of adolescence. Things were going well. My family had moved to a small country town, where for the first time in my life I had enough freedom to flourish. My father was often away, so as his eldest son I grew in stature. I was popular at school and captain of my cricket team, and I even had a girlfriend of sorts.
Ironically, I also became one of the ‘voices’ of my school that year, being chosen to speak on some kind of recording – I can’t remember what. Boy, I wish I had that tape. Why? Because my fall soon followed, and I didn’t talk again for thirty years. Not freely, that is, not as ‘me’.
It was my own fault, I suppose. Instead of creating an imaginary world, as we usually did, a friend and I set about ‘reshaping’ a real one: a sewage works on the edge of town. Into the open tanks went sprinklers and rocks, on more than one occasion. Thus did we become vandals; thus were we caught and disgraced. Thus was I stripped of my new-found liberty and life, and of the town I loved. Thus did I drag myself back to that devil’s playground and try to drown myself in the muck. Thus did I fall silent, smothered by shit and shame.
Years later, I fictionalised my downfall in a story called ‘Adam and His Other’. It starts like this:
We begin and end with an image. A boy crouched on the edge of a tall concrete tank, staring at a face in the filthy water. His face. Overhead, the sky, faded and flat; close by, skirting the high chain-metal fence, a dusty track fringed by scrub. And silence, too, for nothing moves, not even the figure in the water. Yes, the boy above is no Narcissus; the face he beholds is not a reflection, but solid and real. Look closer. Study the looks on the faces. Are they not identical, like their features? There, around the eyes, shock and dismay; there, in the eyes, sadness and a shadow of hope. Now look down. Yes, the boy has his hands in the muck; yes, his hands are on the shoulders of the other. Effortlessly, the boy holds him under; effortlessly, one boy holds the other boy up.
2014. The second year that changed my life. Or will. Because a few months ago my voice came back, bursting up from below with astonishing clarity and force, like the unitary yowl of a newborn and its labouring host. How did it happen? Not through trying, oddly enough, but by letting go.
Since high school, I’ve been obsessed by two things: writing and singing. Both have been about recovery – I know that now. About recalling my voice and with it ‘me’. Thus I began book after book and took lesson after lesson; always, though, my voice – real or written – came out ugly and weak. The harder I tried, the worse it became, until something inside me gave up and gave. Only then did I let myself go.
Twelve years my recovery took. It started when I allowed myself be led to a quieter place, to live and work amongst people who like to listen. As I let myself speak, I found that my written voice grew louder. I produced articles, posters and displays at work, and I wrote children’s stories for magazines at home. I started to study again and, despite having failed before, I finally wrote my way through. Reflection, research and a receptive readership – all three things encouraged me to speak up. I graduated in April, a straight-A student.
This year, too, I ‘came out’ as a writer; I laid bare my literary persona by starting this blog, and I conceived a small writing business-to-be, my first. Slowly but steadily, I climbed out of the muck.
At the same time, my real voice grew stronger; by letting myself go, I grew into a man as well as a maker. The past eight years have seen me become a husband and father, and respect and responsibility have given me voice. Sure, arguing with my wife and yelling at the kids have loosened the cords, but only singing to and around my children has brought me release. The emotions my offspring invoke – all that agony and ecstasy – have filled me so full that I’ve come rushing to the surface, borne back to life on a sudden upsurge of song. Miraculously, my voice has regained its upper register, and with it me my higher self.
Of the songs that have served me well, ‘The Starting Line’ by Keane is special. I find the first two lines of its soaring chorus particularly ‘uplifting’:
Drag your heart up to the starting line
Forget the ghosts that make you old before your time
So, you see – 2014 has been a big year for me. By putting the ghosts behind me, I’ve made it back to the starting line. Now, of course, I’ve ‘got to get underway’, but that’s another story. What about you? What kind of year have you had? Go on – get in touch. Let yourself go.
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