The (Less) Lost Legionnaire: Music, Family and Home
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.
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)
Safer Waters: Evading the Shark of Life
I was fourteen when my mother bought me my first ‘adult’ novel: John Hooker’s The Bush Soldiers. I was into war stories, you see, and the premise of this one was so good it appealed even to my mum.
Imagine this: the year is 1943 and Australia’s been invaded by the Japanese. What happens next? Battles, I hoped, and lots of ’em, like the gory ones in James Jones’ The Thin Red Line, which I read a few years later.
Wrong. Here the fighting is finished before the story starts, and all we’re left with is a rag-tag bunch of would-be resistance fighters who traipse around the desert looking for arms and ammunition they never use.
That was my teenage take on it. Today, as an adult, I think I know better. Now I’d say the book is less about the Pacific war than it is about the age-old struggle between white Australians (in the shape of the soldiers) and the continent’s red centre (the bush). There’s plenty of drama really, but it’s purely psychological.
Bored with the lack of explosive action, though, I never finished the thing. Which is why I’m surprised that, a few weeks ago, I allowed myself to be hooked by the Hooker again. This time by a novel of his called Our Jack, which, I’m pleased to report, I’ve read right to the end.
Jack Lamberton is a clever kid who grows up in the Antipodes during the 1940s and 50s. Like his country, he’s confused and weak, caught, as he is, between the old and the new, the near and the far. His mother is a remote Englishwoman who never really left her homeland, while his father, a hard man who admires Americans, is obsessed with order, discipline and concrete.
It’s an impossible upbringing in many ways and yet Jack finds a way through.
. . . by the time I was twelve, I had learnt that lying and deception were, for me, the ways to survival, and even success . . . Books had made me deceitful and knowledgeable – and we all know that knowledge is power
It’s a strategy that almost works. Despite his dodgy looks, Jack wins over a series of winsome women; one by one, though, they desert him, tiring of his ‘eternal childishness’ and his failure to come to terms with anything.
Our Jack admires another Jack: ‘strong, cheerful, reliable’ Jack Martin, the hero of R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island. Like his fictional namesake, Jack wants to master life’s challenges, and by the end of the novel – well, almost the end – it seems he might’ve done just that, since the book he writes becomes a bestseller.
This time it was I who was in command . . . Like Jack Martin, I had succeeded – I had thrust an oar down the throat of the shark of life.
Which brings me to my point. I, too, have viewed life as an enemy, as a predator I must repel in order to endure and prosper. I, too, have assumed that by re-imagining reality I would one day come to rule it. I, too, have been wrong.
Because, in one last vicious twist, Jack sees the error of his ways. His dying father, he realises, knows his secret: that his book is a deception, an imitation of an old bestseller beloved by his long-dead mother. The shark of life has dodged Jack’s thrust.
And yet it doesn’t have to end this way.
Having seen off the shark in Ballantyne’s book, Jack Martin and his pals leave their lagoon. They know there are more throats in the ocean than they have oars. Instead, they seek safer waters and are thrilled with what they find.
Inside the basin, which we called our Water Garden, the coral formations were much more wonderful, and seaweed plants far more lovely and vividly coloured, than in the lagoon itself.
This is what I hope to do. By seeking safer waters, I aim to evade the shark of life. Enough self-deception, I say. The world is not at my command and never will be. Far better, I think, to see life as a Water Garden to be immersed in and admired.
But how? By reading and writing, of course, only better. Because the best books don’t distort life; on the contrary, they magnify its marvels.
Jack Martin’s mate, Ralph, has but one book, from which he gains ‘much interesting knowledge’. It’s a volume of Captain Cook’s voyages – the very voyages that, in a sense, brought the British to Australia and thus, by extension, The Bush Soldiers to my bookshelf.
I really should read it one day.
Going Native: How to Change Without Changing
So, what’s your aim in life? To win fame and fortune, to be remembered for your wit and wisdom or, like some lucky folk, to have a plant named in your honour?
Alphonse Karr is a ‘fantastic shading bamboo for any garden’. Originally, though, he was much more (or less) than this; he was, in fact, Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr, nineteenth-century French critic and novelist.
Big deal, you say. What has France, the nineteenth century or, for that matter, bamboo ever done for me?
Very little, perhaps, but Alphonse Karr (of the Jean Baptiste variety) is the originator of a very famous, and very useful, phrase. It appeared in his journal, Les Guêpes (The Wasps), sometime in 1849.
‘The more things change,’ Alphonse wrote, ‘the more they remain the same.’
Yeah, that very famous phrase.
I’ve been thinking about human beings, you see. (Clothed ones, I assure you.) Are we capable of change? Real change, I mean, and not just the short-lived superficial kind.
Mostly I’ve thought not, if only because the more I’ve changed – my mind, my manner, my milieu – the more I seem to have, well, stayed the same. (Thanks Alphonse!) Impervious to alteration, that’s me.
And yet for every cynical Karr there’s a doubting Thomas…
Although he never made it as a plant, Thomas Kuhn propagated a very famous, and very useful, idea. It appeared in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, sometime in 1962.
When ‘normal science repeatedly goes astray,’ Tom wrote, ‘then begin the extraordinary investigations that lead . . . at last to a new set of commitments’.
That’s right, folks, it’s the proverbial paradigm shift: the fundamental change in approach or assumptions that takes place every now and then in scientific circles and other realms, including the personal.
Yeah, well, that’s my extrapolation of an interpolation of mine, because Tom himself didn’t apply his ideas to individuals as such. That said, he went close.
He writes, for example, about how those who have changed can convince others to do the same. To him, it’s all about language and communication, which is music, I’ll admit, to my writerly ears.
Fundamental change is portrayed by Tom as a kind of conversion, one aided by the act of translation – a special type of translation.
And here I’d better let him speak for himself.
To translate a theory or worldview into one’s own language is not to make it one’s own. For that one must go native, discover that one is thinking and working in, not simply translating out of, a language that was previously foreign.
That transition is not, however, one that an individual may make or refrain from making by deliberation and choice, however good his reasons for wishing to do so. Instead, at some point in the process of learning to translate, he finds that the transition has occurred, that he has slipped into the new language without a decision having been made.
If Tom is right, we can change ourselves: by immersion and not through abstraction alone.
So, surround yourself with the people you want to emulate. Learn to identify with them and one day you will change. By then, though, it won’t even seem like a stretch: your new self will be more familiar to you than your old.
Change, you’ll say. I haven’t changed a bit.
And that’s the thing about true change, I suppose: it doesn’t feel like change at all.
Perhaps that’s what our man of bamboo, Alphonse Karr, really meant.
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.