Sunday, July 31, 2011


"Here! Mum! Turn off here."
It was hailing. I couldn't see the street signs.
I braked to turn right. I was dawdling anyway but the car kept going sideways, sliding across the hail stones, heading for the kerb and someone's picket fence. It just kept going. I thought, she's gonna go over. There is nothing I can do.

I saw a similar thing in Dunedin one icy morn; cars full of commuters coming off the snowy mountains, heading for work in the city. I stood safely away and watched them slide into bonnets, bumpers, kerbs, windows and street signs. An ungainly brake-free balls-up: ice and gravity and some killer skates that looked suspiciously like vehicles with people inside them.

 It seemed to take an age to slide across the tar today. I was thinking, I've gotta get some tyres with better tread - I've gotta keep her off the kerb or she'll go over - I no longer have any say in this scenario - someone on Radio National is talking about the carbon tax - hold on but not too hard coz it hurts more if you are tensed up - I've gotta get this car out in a slimy paddock some time and learn how to deal with this kind of shit - please don't go over - please don't, car.

We stayed upright and squealed into a stilled, sweaty mess.
My heart was just ... bleating.
Pearlie said, "You alright Mum?" Bless her for the first sentiment she expressed. Too often I underestimate her.
"A glass of wine and a few moments in a quiet room, and I'll be fine, Pearlie," I said, when I'd settled down a bit.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The End of the Affair

It began and ended in a kindly soup of needs and wants. He turned up on my doorstep as a boatbuilder and I made him a pot of tea, thinking he was about to relieve me of my 20 foot hulk of financial carnage. We sat beside the green wall of periwinkles and talked about boats for an hour. Then he asked if I had any sea mullet left.
I must have looked rather devastated.
"Aren't you here to buy my beautiful carval?"
"Erm, I'd like to buy some sea mullet ..."
So the man, who liked wooden carvals and but sea mullet more, left for the City with fillets wrapped in newspaper and the taste of tannin upon his tongue.

When he returned a month later with a bottle of red and a bit of hope in his heart, a Strange Man on a Motorcycle sat revving his iron beast in my driveway. His hopes of romance didn't include any knowledge of me or my life, it seems. The boat was gone. He stashed the wine behind his back,  crabbed back to his car and drove away.

Six months passed. I'd forgotten him ... except for ... something. What is that 'something'? Is it the fusion that feels greater than the sum of two bodyminds? That velvety collision when a cog finds its perfect niche against another? Or is it just plain old biology? That 'something' conspires with the loins and the brain, gatecrashes the middle ground called my heart. I've known that 'something' to be a right bastard and I'm gun shy, these days, of gatecrashers.

'Our way' was to fly just outside of each other's trajectory in a careful dance of the jaded. The earth left the sun and returned again before I saw him. He gave me some books, then. I was leaving town for weeks on his next visit down south. My book was accepted by the publisher. Then I was away fishing. He sent me hedonist texts. It was all ramping up. The butterflies began to swarm in my belly. (Oh, you know that feeling? Of course you do.)

We met again, after my fortnight of planes, trains and automobiles. We sat on the lichen at Pelican Point and watched the dog swim in the winter glass-off. A houseboat floated out in the bay. I knew someone was camped in the redgums behind us, I'd seen their swag and crushed watsonia footways. I wondered if they watched us. Gannets yelled at the dog when he got too close to their nests.

He said, "Can I touch your hair?"

 He was a Leo. Bah! The opposite to me in the circle of stars, a crashing battle of bodily spars. He opened me up as the sun does a bloom; as a lion does a carcass ... and then he stooped just enough to gnaw on my bones.

"I feel like an insect in your web," he said, spreadeagled upon my bed.
"It is witchery and nothing more," I said. "Be calm. I'll fix that cruciate and that cold and you will never know that you feel old."

Days later, I felt his softening as his mind hardened into tomorrow's chores.
He is a lot older than me.
I suspected there was a wife.
"Did you find me insincere?" he worried at me.

One night we wandered into a 'private party' at my favourite bar in town. Why did he he choose the chesterfields at the only fireplace with two beautiful young women lounging upon them? Or speculate on their sex lives? Why did he show me the lusty text messages from his boss's daughter? I felt the investment he'd purchased from that princess's predicament. That moment on the chesterfields, our bodies together felt suddenly lumpen and compromised. Why doesn't he just buy a red sports car, I thought grumpily. Why am I here again? I felt my fat thighs and the lines on my face. I felt my (horse) hair. But the taste of his tongue was still upon me.

We walked through the churches and granite gutters laid by convicts. We passed the three cheers from the birthday house and then drove up the hill to my home by the sea.

I woke up in the morning to a revelation. I don't want to wait for a man to text me with hedonistic sonatas - or wait for him to come down from the City to fuck me - or for his midlife crisis to subside - or for him to pick off yet another Albany Girl.

I am no fucking plaything and I don't like butterflies. What I want is someone to love me. I want a partner, not an intruigue. I want someone to love me.

This was a beautiful moment on the verandah, surrounded by that emerald wall of periwinkles and wandering Jew. A moment of realisation, finally, of what I required from this world. I rang him and said all of these things.

He never invited me into his other life. But a few hours later, bless him, he came down to where I was working and gave me hugs, said goodbye, said he would always think to me when he saw a windmill or lichen on stone or a crappy old wooden boat ...

And that was the end of the affair.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Penguins and Post Offices


The release of the latest ten dollar Penguins is always a beautiful thing. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera, A Spy in the House of Love by Anaiis Nin and more great books sit in their orange and white glory on my shelves. Books are quite expensive in Australia, so wandering into the post office and seeing some well remembered classics lined up for ten bucks is just an absolute joy. Coffee and cake ... or The Chrysalids? An eighth of a tank of fuel ... or A Passage to India?

Last year, or maybe it was the year before, Australia Post sent a memo out to all of their staff saying that three of the books must be removed from the Penguin classics display: Nabokov's Lolita, Foucault's The History of Sexuality and and Anaiis Nin's Little Birds. You can see where this is going. Australia Post is a family store. Now I have been known to walk out of a lecture theatre where an earnest academic was extolling the erotic virtues of creepy Humbert Humbert's relationship with a twelve year old girl ... but Foucault? Has anyone in the room read The History of Sexuality Vol. 1 and actually got their rocks off? It is post structuralist theory and as dry as a dead dingo's donga.

It was an interesting excercise in market censorship of the classics. Lady Chatterly's Lover was allowed to stay. This is ironic, because Penguin were the first to publish the unexpurgated version in the 1960's. Possibly, and I am taking a punt here, Australia Post thought that removing that book from their shelves may attract some unwanted ridicule attention.

Anyway, one day I collected up the three offending books and took them to the counter at my local post office because I was in a mood. "Haven't these books been censored off the Australia Post shelves?" I asked the woman. She is a good character. She once told a robber that, no, she wasn't going to give him any money and was so frightening that he walked out the door hanging his head.
She took the books and examined them. "Yes, that's right. There was a memo out the back somewhere about that. Can you put them back on the shelf for me, love?"

Monday, July 25, 2011

Never Lie When You Can Sleep: Dreaming Up The Waterboys

In a radical reimagining of Western Australian history, Peter Docker presents a land 300 years after colonisation, where the West’s most sought-after resource is not iron ore but water. The Aboriginal people are waging a guerrilla war against the eastern states Water Board, who have been controlling the West and its water for one hundred years in a secondary colonisation. Central to The Waterboys are Conway and his friend and fellow soldier Mularabone and the tale begins with the two young men stealing a Water Board truck to smuggle water. Mularabone’s people live underground in a warren of caves reminiscent of the North West’s Windjana Gorge, where the Aboriginal warrior Jandamarra held his last stand. Their methods of resistance are digital meets herbal; cloaking devices and holograms and then body pastes made from plants and ochre to combat the deadly ultraviolet light.

 If you are already thinking that Western Australian secessionist ideas are being excavated in The Waterboys, you would be correct ... kind of. For this story also takes the reader back to the moment of British colonisation, when Captain Fremantle steps off the edge of Empire and dares Captains Stirling and Irwin to embrace the Country and start behaving like more respectful guests. In this novel, frontier violence on the Swan River takes place between His Majesty’s frigates.

The Ghost of History chapters tell how Captain Fremantle meets the Nyoongar people the day he fell into the Swan River and his previous life as an agent of imperial expansion dissolved into one of song, dance and understanding the land. The character of Fremantle is one of the most splendid I have encountered in literature in a long time. Who in the world would I most want to have dinner with? Captain Fremantle aka Wobbegong from The Waterboys. (Wobbegong? Yes, you gotta read the book). In this passage he is about to take on the Royal Navy to defend the Countrymen and Nyoongar Boodjar:

The two Djenga sailors in the wooden boat apply themselves to the oars, and the little rowboat pulls away towards the Challenger. Wobbegong sits upright in the little rowboat. That Royal Navy is still stamped all over his posture – I doubt if he could slump, even if he tried. He is still shirtless, but he has donned his Royal Navy captain’s hat. He stands up to buckle his cutlass.
On his ship, I can see that Wobbegong has had the HMS scratched off, and now there are three large concentric circles painted in red before the name Challenger.   p. 327.

Navigating these jumps in timeline, as well as entering the water diviner Conway’s sporadic dreaming, was a bit like reading Trainspotting for me: once I got the hang of the lingo I was away, riding on Docker’s audacious speculation of a whole new history.  The Dreaming 44 chapters reflect some nasty moments of our own present – the organised chase of a prisoner through corn fields that echoes a 1930’s Klan hunt, or the mindset of a man chained up in the back of a paddy wagon, or sitting in the tray of a crowded ute, child on lap and a drunk driver up front. Jack’s pissed. Eyes shining, lips red as sex, cheeks glowing with malice and laughter and alcohol.

Infiltrating the book is another, darker dreaming. Peter Docker cracks open our country’s drinking culture with his grog dreaming theme:

We’re watching telly. Me and the other Water Board troopers. I look around to see us all lounging around in uniform. My mates and me. We’re drinkin beer. I’m drinkin beer. On the piss with me mates. Maybe my brain has forgotten that soon my body will get sick ... I hear myself laughing and I don’t know why. Even here, in my drug-dulled state, wearing the Water Board uniform, there is something else. I know this is a lie. That the heart of the grog dreaming is about lies. p. 77.

Docker triumphs in The Waterboys with his audacious reordering of history. I did worry that the centre of the book would not hold, so wild is the narrative and the dreaming. However Docker reins in the chaos to produce a great novel and, as is the way with good speculative fiction, tells a few home truths about brothers, Countrymen and women and the state of Western Australia. Historical Nyoongar people such as Midgegooroo, Munderan and Yagan are all here, not named but beautifully recognisable through their demeanours and descriptions. After reading The Waterboys, my only disappointment is that Wobbegong will never swim out of the Swan River and ask me out to dinner.

Ultimately, I feel that this book is about brothers, or the light and shadow of a man. Conway and his brother Jack (a nod here to George Johnston’s classic Australian novel), Greer and Sarge, brothers-in-arms Conway and Mularabone, Wobbegong and Holy Water. Peter Docker pulls off this examination of manhood without resorting to simplistic good/evil binaries or men’s group clich├ęs. The stunning front cover illustration reveals that light and dark – if you look closely, you can see the ‘fidgety little bastard’ in the child’s eyes.

The Waterboys
Peter Docker
Fremantle Press
363 pp
$27.95 paperback

This review is also posted at Overland Blog.

More on Being a ScaredyCat

"Sarah!" The only other historian from Albany at the Tasmanian conference came along to see me present my paper and said afterwards: "I've always seen you as such a brave and confidant woman. What happened?"

I was at the conference for four days before my own presentation and watched the academic rigour of each question time with great apprehension. Thursday loomed closer and closer. "They are very gentle to us babies," another postgrad said to me, of the Elder's treatment but I was still scared out of my brain.

The night before my presentation, I went over the paper and decided that it had about nine things seriously wrong with it. The next morning, I rang my supervisor and got her out of bed, forgetting all about the time difference. "Just drop the Gimble paragraph if you feel you are running out of time," she said. "You'll be fine. Good luck."

Most of the conference sessions took place in small meeting rooms or lecture theatres. Mine was in the absolutely enormous performing arts complex. Huge. Like for an opera or something.

One of my idols whom I'd not met, Lyndal Ryan, sat in the front row. Others started filtering in and took up seats all over the auditorium. I was introduced as 'Jane'.

There was nothing for it but to smile and say to the audience, "Look. I'm just a pup at this, so bear with me." I explained that the sealers and the Tyreelore (Pallawah islander women) fascinated me for a few reasons, not least because I worked with men in small boats in my other life and "they are the same kind of men." That the women were not of my own ancestry or story but indicated an innate woman's wariness of appropriation, of personal and spiritual annihilation.

Everything seemed to work okay, except for the first slide which was a map. I was trying to explain the location of the islands and where they lay on the coast around Albany - to Tasmanians. For some reason, that particular slide was almost invisible on the big screen. I fumbled through that. As I began to read, I realised that I could break out of the text and just talk. It got easier and easier, until Malcom, the chair, gave me the five minute call and then I had finished the paper.

Lots of questions, about men and islands and women. I was challenged on my use of the word 'wives' by a young man doing Black Line studies. He thought it was a demeaning term, considering that the abductions of women were often violent and they were treated as slaves and chattels. I explained that Tyreelore meant Island Wife, that the Pallawah women had called themselves wives. "Robinson only mentioned the word wives once in Friendly Mission," he replied, somewhat defensively. I looked over to Ryan for help and she looked back with a 'you're on your own, darling'.

Interestingly, this challenge to my terminology has since helped solidify my thoughts about the Tyreelore. It was the most useful question or comment in the whole presentation. But at the time, it was a difficult moment. Later, Lyndal Ryan sat next to me and said, "What you are doing is really important. Don't worry about him. Keep doing what you are doing. Read between the lines. We want to see more of you."

At lunch, another Elder with a reputation as history's 'troublemaker' took me aside. "Lyndal and I were talking about your paper," he said. "It is such a rich and exciting story you are working on. We also talked about your doubt. It is a good thing in historiography to entertain doubt. Doubt is crucial to your discipline, to pull a story apart and look at it anew. But do away with your self doubt. You don't need to doubt yourself and your capability to write this history. You are right on track."
What a cool thing to say.

After lunch, I had to chair another presentation for three postgrads who were all in much the same state as I was. When we were done, Luke said, "Let's go and get a drink."
"Oh, yes please." We all heaved a very relieved sigh and went across the road. At a classic Tasmanian brick and tile with a Boags banner and clinking keno machines, the tattooed barmaid poured us all a 'house red' straight from the cask and charged us a dollar fifty each.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fishtraps ScaredyCat

I was hyper aware of you
and I didn't know what to do, so I did nothing.
I just mooned about 
that day
when the water glassed off
and you gave me
some chai tea sachets,
a potted chili grown from seeds 
carried on the whaling ships from South America in the 1830s,
river stone fishtraps
a picture book of birds
some biscuits in plastic wrappers,
your ear.

Burned Hot and Bright: Amy Winehouse

For those who have no knowledge of Amy Winehouse other than the Woman's Day or New Idea images of her falling out of nightclubs and into police cars, her beehive and Cleopatra makeup skewed, her rehab vision screwed ...

... find a copy of Black to Black. Light the fire, pour yourself a glass of good red and listen to the girl. It will be a revelation, I promise you.

Amy Winehouse may be cavorting and jamming with a tribe of self-combusting genius women the ilk of Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin tonight. Imagine it. 

I feel terribly sad about her death. I once watched a video of Janis Joplin stamping her spangled heels on the   stage ... Why oh why oh why ... and the woman next to me, who was at least twenty years my senior, expressed outrage and anger and sadness that such a freakishly talented woman could just be removed from our world by something so banal as drugs. Her words, about Janis dying like that, have stayed at the back of my mind and revisited today.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sunday, July 17, 2011

This Will Make You Stronger, Son

Stormboy and I arrived in Launceston, Tasmania, after a true red-eye from Perth. We hadn't slept at all on Sunday night; well I think he may have slept between three and five before Melbourne - but I know I didn't. At Tullamarine airport I gathered our luggage in a circle around us, set up the laptop on a stainless steel bench, read my paper out loud to my son, accepted his critique and revised my powerpoints. He checked his face book. All around us people were  looking at their screens. I pointed out the orthodox Jews lining up for Los Angeles, the Somalian families heading for Adelaide, the Maori man in his sharp suit and white shoes in the London queue. A whitebread Albany boy is Stormboy and his eyes were widened that night.

We staggered into the backpackers in Launceston and learned that we couldn't check in before two in the afternoon. This was the point where I pulled the overtired parent role - pointing out that my child hadn't slept for days and all we needed was two beds and some doonas. Like. Now. The Arthouse Backpacker staff are super cool and make up their own rules and we got a bed within minutes.

We found the supermarket after a beannied adventure and trudged to the backpackers through howling rain and other rhetoric, carrying bags full of food and shampoo. "This reminds me of Dunedin," Stormboy grumbled. He was close to fainting from lack of sleep. Only the thought of climbing through the abandoned gasworks building kept him awake. "Walking through a strange, cold town, carrying food and having no home because my Mum's got a university agenda. Dunedin.Tasmania. Yay. Go Mum."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Historians Conference

I've been away, as you dear reader, may have guessed. Away from my little shack overlooking the harbour and away from A WineDark Sea. But I return with stories to tell! The photographs from the last few posts were from Launceston, where the historians of the world (okay, Australia and a few random adventurers) gathered for the annual conference.

Apart from the constant guilt about the ratio of written work to scholarship cash, the falling away of my social circle, the feeling that I am talking into air when someone says "So what is your thesis about?" and the long hours spent inside my head's interior cities (the pleasant bit), another job of mine as a PhD candidate is to attend conferences and present my latest research. I'm beginning to understand that the reasons for this is so that everyone else in the same discipline knows what you are up to: overlaps get sorted pretty quickly, connections are made and resources shared - or deliberately not shared. Is this a scary concept to a young blood? Fuck yes.

Two posts down, I commented that I was surrounded by rock stars. In the conference rooms at one morning tea time (the only sessions that Stormboy always made sure he was present for) I saw an old man walking towards me. He was really heading for the chocolate crackles. John Mulvaney. The man who excavated a Tasmanian tiger on the Nullabor during the seventies or eighties. He'd found the earliest trace of dingoes too and come up with the theory that the arrival of dingoes saw out the end of mainland tygers. I wrote some fiction about him once, it is here.

Mulvaney edited a beautiful book of  Captain Barker's journals called Commandant of Solitude, the story of European beginnings in my home town (He complained to me that MUP had remaindered them). He also wrote Prehistory of Australia. I turned around to see Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan getting stuck into coffee and carrot cake. Far out. More of them. I've been reading their stuff for ten years and here they all are.

It was quite a surreal experience. Like the rest of us amateurs, the rock stars were presenting papers on their own latest findings. Ryan's paper was on the success of the Black Line. For anyone who doesn't know about Tasmania's Black Line, it was a systematic attempt to round up the Pallawah people, using a 'net' of soldiers and civilians spanning the island of Tasmania. It was paid for by the British Government and is considered one of Australia's most expensive military exercises before the Japanese invasion of World War 2. It was also seen as a colonial-style economic stimulus package, where cash was injected into a struggling community to buy meat, boots and guns. The official result of the Black Line was the capture of one old man and a boy. But Lyndall Ryan argued the Line's success in that, within twelve months, many of the northern and eastern tribes had disappeared from Tasmania.

That the conference was situated in Tassie this year (they take place in a different city each year) meant a lot of the academics were locals, including Reynolds and Ryan. As I've written before, Tasmania's history is bloody and close. Many of the younger academics were focused on Black Line history.

What I found striking was that despite the research, the talk and the ideas flying around the campus during this conference, Tasmania as a state seems content to smother its other history with a kind of Disneyfied colonial aesthetic. Contemporary Tasmania is a palimpsest: pretty paddocks and buildings pasted over a rather nasty past. The academic world whirls with stories and theories of What Happened, while a hotel in Launceston is named after the two leaders of the Black Line - those men regaled with songs, flowers and food as they rode out on their mission.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

I'm Going Out of Chooks

I've had chickens and the associated dramas for twenty years. It all began with inheriting some chickens with a house I moved into. I've undergone every chicken owners' class in the theology/theory/philosophy of chook pens. (Ask a chook person. Go on. If you think I'm being kooky then you are not a chook person and need to know these things. Invite them home, get them on the couch, make them a cup of tea and then ask them. They are not scary people or weird or from a cult.They just get chooks.)

At present I live with a cat and four chickens all inherited from Mum/Bob/Stormboy/Sal. None of them are mine, in fact few fur or fowl I've lived with are critters I've specifically gone out to acquire. They just end up at my place. The rooster from that initiation into chookery was a surly bastard who thought he held some sort of title, seeing as he'd inherited me. My daughter did not feed him wheat fast enough, it seemed. She was feisty even at two and would not succumb to his bullying in the chookpen. But two year old children are close to the ground. I saw him jump straight into the air (I thought; 'I've seen that rooster move somewhere'.) before he slashed her face with his chookpen spur. Fucker. She's still got the scar under her eye and he was tough as a boot in the pot.

I've seen and participated in nights of murder.

'Cause there's nothing strange 
about an axe with bloodstains in the barn. 
There's always a bit bit of killing 
you've got to do around the farm.'
Tom Waites

Dark, dark stuff of chicken theology aside, chickens are also the key to true happiness. Feeding happy chickens is akin to watching goldfish, except that chickens are always happier than goldfish. Momemts of feeding chickens are the existentialist's dream (eggsistentialist, perhaps?). When buying wheat recently, I mentioned my chicken happy theory to the girl at the counter of the stock feeds shop. She said, "Well that is all very well for you! My last customer said the two things that make him very unhappy are - 1. Combing his hair and 2. Going into the chookpen with his socks on.

Anyway, the whole point of tonight's post is to say that I am finally going out of chickens. Recently a pair of dogs culled half the flock and that was a traumatic event. I'm moving to a place out in the bush that is not conducive to scratching about and planning to become a lot more nomadic (not conducive to scratching about - or building chookpens). So the chickens have to go.

Here is some photos I took tonight of the girls with the resident bandicoot. (For those not in the know a bandicoot is a marsupial who carry their young in a pouch, like a kangaroo.)

 Stormboy and I took the torch and four cardboard boxes up to the chookpen after dark. We shut the gate behind us. "Got the masking tape ready?" I asked him.
"No!" He ran back down the stairs.
 Then I plucked the girls, one by one, of their perch and stuffed them into the boxes. Stormboy taped them over. The squawking was tremendous.
I was a bit proud of Stormboy tonight because the last time we did this, he fell to bits over their protesting. "Just grab them!" I'd say. But he couldn't do it and got all upset.
Anyway, tonight, he was great and we packed the girls into boxes. Then Dad turned up in the ute and took them back to his and Sal's house, where they will see out their retirement ...

Hail, the crone chickens going are home.