Young Writers’ Days

I’m running some writing workshops in Gippsland this year.

Young people only.

Why would I bother teaching kids about writing?

I love what I do. Most days. I think we have an obligation to ourselves, our loved ones and future generations to tell it like it is. Even if we are writing speculative fiction or absurd fantasy we are still drawing on this moment and our collective memories for detail. Exploring the world through fiction is a valid form of self-analysis and a powerful tool for generating empathy. Writers spend a lot of time walking in other people’s shoes and if you are open to the lessons the thoughts and actions of a fictional character can reveal things about your subconscious. We shine a light on the darkness in the world and in our own hearts. We speak about the unspeakable.

There’s a letter from a concerned parent framed and hanging on John Marsden’s wall. It explains that her daughter wouldn’t be attending the presentation by Mister Marsden because authors have ‘lawless minds’. I imagine John kept the letter because it’s true—we work hard at cultivating a natural anarchy in our heads. I imagine John also kept the letter as a stark reminder that there are people in the world too scared to dream, who pursue conformity with such vigour that the creative part of their minds—their child minds—have been caged and starved until they can no longer see dragons in the clouds or laugh at a fart.

My dad’s brother, my uncle Reg, died way before his time. He was younger than I am now when he died. He was a cabinetmaker by trade and an artist by heart. He built the display case at the museum that houses our most famous dead horse—Phar Lap. My dad’s a skilled woodworker and he learned much of his trade from his big brother. As a boy I found Reg’s bohemian lifestyle, his big old house of mysteries in Toronga Road Hawthorn and his flamboyant wife—my dear auntie Yvonne—intoxicating. His heart, head, and hands were invested in everything he did. By the time I came along, he didn’t appear to have a conventional job: he’d disappear into his workshop for days on end, emerging fitfully for olives and red wine covered in a patina of sawdust. The only other things to emerge from the workshop were magnificent pieces of bespoke timber furniture, smooth, shining, flawless.

I worked a decade in ‘normal’ jobs—apprenticed as a gardener (!), trained as a masseur, counsellor, hypnotherapist, drove trucks, waited tables and sold didjeridus in the early days of the World Wide Web. I met a magazine editor when I was twenty. I was hitchhiking in country Victoria and he picked me up, said I should write something for his magazine. The seed was sown, or perhaps the editor was water for a seed I picked up in Reg’s workshop. Whatever. The result was the feeling that perhaps—just perhaps—I could fashion myself some real vocation, some head/heart/hand work. Activity I could lose myself in for days/weeks/months at a time.

Like every form of artistic expression, writing has days and days of rainforest fecundity and months of desert gibber. The dry times can sometimes make it hard to feed the family and they test my commitment to the craft, but the rain has always come. There’s something wanton and triumphant about a desert in flower that a rainforest might never know.

I want to let young people know that they are the authors of their own lives and that they don’t always have to write between the lines and that it takes courage and commitment to pour their hearts onto a page. That story is king and that I can’t teach them how to write any more than I can teach them how to think, but I can most certainly show them what living with a lawless mind looks like.

If you know a young someone with a lawless mind, pass it on

Old Mate

 

 

I’d been ripping through the countryside at 110kph for about six hours when I spotted Old Mate striding, eyes down, along the verge. Like the hundred cars before me, I noticed his steady gate, his hessian bags and the personality evident in his hat and rolled right by. I’d travelled five k’s before the feeling took hold – Old Mate had a story to tell. I hacked a U-turn, rode a kilometre past and parked the bike in a siding. I shed my helmet and jacket and picked my way back along the verge towards him. Road trains rattled the scrawny gums with their air wash. I could hear the drivers hesitate on the accelerator as Old Mate came into view around the sweeping bend ahead. A Land Cruiser tooted a wave.

On the ground at my feet, I spotted a bearded dragon. The lizard was frozen and almost invisible on the leaf litter. I took a photo and crouched a little closer, resting my hand on the grey bark and leaves in front of it. The lizard didn’t move so I inched closer and tickled it under the chin. It climbed on my fingers and I stood cautiously. The lizard hung there and let me take a few more pictures, unblinking and cool. I wondered if it was injured or ‘special needs’, but when I’d marvelled and had my photographic fill, I lowered it to the ground and it shot off into the undergrowth like I’d thrown it.

Old Mate regarded me from the shadow of his battered hat. ‘G’day.’
‘I spotted you as I rode past,’ I said. ‘You look like you have a story to tell.’
He jutted his chin and I slid into step beside him. We shook hands and he told me his name was John. John had been walking for thirty-five years – Victoria to Queensland and back again, every year. His wife walked with him for the first couple of years. He’d been a banker back then, but realised the job wasn’t for him. The first time he walked, it was an action to clear his head and give him the chance to think about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He didn’t have any revelations that year, so he just kept walking, Forest Gump style. He’s still walking.

He makes enough money for the food he needs selling and trading the things he finds on the roadside. In the eighties it was spanners, now he finds a little change and collects aluminium cans when he’s approaching a town. Never takes a lift and has never been on the dole. He doesn’t think he’d qualify. Doesn’t have an address. Doesn’t have a plastic card. Was once a banker now doesn’t have a bank account.

Just think about that for a minute, because I had to. Doesn’t. Have. A. Bank. Account. That’s probably against the law somewhere. In a first world country like Australia, it’s like cashing out before the game begins and from at least one angle, a profoundly liberating idea.

You don’t need a mortgage or credit card if your home is a sheet of plastic and a tarp, pitched in the shade of a new coolabah every night. If your existence is supremely minimal in a rich nation, you can live off the the side of the road.

‘People were worse in the eighties, shouting at me as they drove past. Now, some of the truck drivers who are doing this stretch of road two or three times a week stop and have a chat, give me food and drink. They know I won’t take a lift, but they ask anyway.’

For a minute, I wondered if he’d been injured or was ‘special needs’, but when I shook his hand again and he bade me happy riding, I realised he’d found something precious on the side of the road – a simple life that pleases him to the core.

 

Thanks, Dad.

dad and kev lgI have a nice balance between home and work life at the moment and I think I owe most of it to my dad. I know that sounds trite but my dad is a really hard worker. When I was growing up he carried what you might call a protestant work ethic.       He didn’t have the religion but he had the ethos—hardly missed a day of work as a draftsman then advisor with the State Electricity Commission of Victoria. One man and more or less one job for thirty-five years. A feat of endurance that the likes of my generation would consider a kind of self-abuse or prison sentence, but he survived. I can’t say he came out unscathed, but he survived.

At home we had one mum, one dad and three boys. Mum taught exercises in the back shed and later studied Diversional Therapy and worked in adult day care but when I came home from school, she was always there. Dad would arrive some time around dusk and whisk us away in the sky-blue VW kombi for camping holidays in the summer and at long weekends. My most significant memory of my childhood is the months of long service leave that dad took when I was six. We got to hang out together for months on end—day and night—as he drove us up the east coast to a tropical wonderland. My childhood was idyllic in a kind of seventies pre-digital way.

My dad’s job at the SEC eventually got Economically Rationalised. He took The Package. Looking back, I think it happened just in the nick of time. I remember, as a seventeen-year-old, staggering home very early one morning after a blinder and Dad almost running me over on his way to work. His eyes were open as he was driving the ute but he wasn’t there. He hadn’t seen me. He was on autopilot. His work had made such a groove in his life that he was just going through the motions. I dived into the gutter and decided I’d never work that hard. Scary. I’d never loose myself in a job like he’d done.

Dad helped me get my first job out of school: as an apprentice gardener with the local council. He said it was a good job and, if I played my cards right, I’d have it for life. I worked hard but never stopped dreaming of doing something different. I got my trade qualifications then my job got Economically Rationalised. I was offered re-employment under contract with the new amalgamated council but my boss whispered to me one afternoon that I should go back to school. It was that or push a mower for the rest of my days.

My boss gave me the impetus and my dad supported my decision to step outside the protestant work ethic of one man one job one life and I reinvented my work self again and again and again in a long train of self-discovery. Massage, counselling, professional musicianship, landscaping, hypnotherapy and a host of gap-filler jobs in the service industries.

And I fell in love. I had a few rough starts but Dad assured me that when the right person came along, I’d know they were The One. Maybe I just subscribed to his romantic vision of the world but I eventually found her. She came fitted with two gorgeous girls (five and six-years-old) from a previous relationship and we had an instant family experience that we complimented with a child of our own a couple of years later.

Work life and family life. I had one of each but I was skewed towards work. My experiences of growing up were good and I wanted to give my kids the same. Better. I wanted to be there like my dad had been during his long service leave. I even bought the kombi—a green shit heap that cost us a lot of money and gave us a lot of pain. When our little bloke was three-months-old, my wife was ready to go back to work. She’d done her fair share of parenting with the girls and could bring home a better income than I could anyway so it made good sense for us. Childcare didn’t seem like a feasible option for me. Why pay somebody to do something you’re yearning to do yourself? Being a home dad—or, as my brother says, a professional boy farmer—was something that challenged the shit out of me and fed me when I didn’t know I was hungry. I learned how mind-numbing daytime television was, I learned how vulnerable you can feel if you’re not the one bringing the money into the household and I discovered all the things I’d been missing—the little things that are family-sized miracles, like all the steps along the way as the boy started to speak and crawl and walk and become a little man.

I skewed—very nicely, thank you—towards family. My wife was the primary breadwinner but I still had a few little work interests that were a welcome distraction from housework. I was working on a novel (isn’t everybody?), I maintained a website selling Australian Didjeridus to the world and produced a newsletter for the Didjeridu playing community. We’d bought our house in the country for $32,000 dollars and decided to go with the Hyundai instead of the BMW Z3. I guess that’s internal economic rationalisation.

When the little bloke found an afternoon sleeping pattern that suited him, I used the time to write. Usually a couple of hours a day, max. I wrote some articles for Earth Garden magazine and got paid for them ($150 for about six weeks worth of writing and editing!) and the floodgates opened. I found something new that I enjoyed, something that needed a good balance of head and heart to be worthwhile, something that I could do as time permitted—from the comfort of my own home—that fitted with my family life AND brought in the cash. A type of alchemy—money from words. So, as the boy grew older and went to school, instead of going out and finding meaningful full-time work, I took on a few part-time contractual jobs and my good woman supported us while I wrote.

I write novels for money now. It’s not a huge income but it’s supported by work as a speaker—visiting schools and festivals, hopefully inspiring young people and adults to read and write their hearts out. I work from home on average three or four days a week—during school hours—and have to travel quite a bit for the speaking work. Like a schoolteacher, I don’t have to work during the school holidays and I usually spend the time building things or knocking around with the family. I feel connected to work and more than just the ghostly moneymaking member of the family. My wife retired from paid work in 2005 and came home to look after her mum who suffers dementia.

And my dad? He works a contract job now that sees him on the computer at the paper mill three days a week. He fills the rest of his time—between luxurious semi-retired holidays—with line dancing, kayaking on the pondage and handyman work—for Mum and for other people. We’re agreed that it pays to work hard, but not at the expense of a life.

Wood, Water and Words

NightInsectsCollageMy mate Mark is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist, composer and songwriter. He has created about five CD’s worth of material and worked with some of the well-to-do members of the music industry in Australia including compositions for ABC TV and one of the Hunter boys (ex ‘April Sun in Cuba’ Dragon) but you wont find his stuff on the shelves in Sanity. In fact, unless you’ve seen him live at Arthur Boyd’s Bundanon or festivals, it’s unlikely you’d have a reference point for his brilliance. He’s an unpublished musical genius.

Mark is disturbingly Zen about his lack of fame and his life. He’s busy with the chop-wood-carry-water experience of being a musician, father, teacher and partner. And he’s content. Content in a way that a corporate banker might never understand.

I try to model Mark’s Zen in my own life but I’m impatient and prone to fits of rage and frustration. Things never happen fast enough or big enough or never live up to my pyrotechnic vision of what they should be.

I’m an author. My sixth book of young adult fiction (Gravity) came out with Pan in 2006. I prowl the festival circuit, run workshops in schools and give corporate talks like some half-baked pop star. I’ve sat on signing tables with the Carmody/Griffiths/Marsden/Gleitzmans of the world, humbled by the serpentine queues of star-struck kids and parents. I twiddle my pen and know that I’m lucky. That there are writers more skilled and inventive than me who haven’t come this far. I know there are literary geniuses out there, some banging their manuscripts and their heads against the clean glass doors of the publishing industry. We all know some dreadful shit gets published while our manuscripts are overlooked. We’ve all read other people’s stuff and known we could do better. It’s so subjective. It’s the fine art of tickling peoples’ fancy. Your fancy, a publisher’s fancy and hopefully a reader’s fancy. Some published and unpublished writers are content to write as a hobby. They do the thing they love (write) and stay happy, either content to ignore fame, fortune and glory or simply enamoured by the journey with no grand destination.

I’m learning the importance of chopping wood and carrying water in a writer’s life. It may sound like a pissy defeatists aphorism but I can assure you that it is as significant a tool to the writer’s craft as a clear head and fresh ideas. In fact, one leads to the other.

Any published author will tell you that the world doesn’t change colour after you’re published. Sure, seeing your name on the cover of a book is a serious cut, wax and polish for the ego but it probably wont make much difference to the state of your bank balance and certainly wont make you any cooler or sexier. Tomorrow morning, you’ll be up a little earlier with a transitory sparkle in your eye, wood to chop and water to carry.

And that’s a blessing.

I hosted a work experience student for a week last year. She helped me transcribe my current novel from the written page to the computer. She could type faster than me, write with flair and honesty and was fifteen years my junior. She hadn’t finished school and she already knew that she wanted to write. I found myself getting envious of her talent, passion and direction … until the last day. Until I realised that she wasn’t interested in chopping wood and carrying water. She asked me what she had to do to become a writer so I gave her my slant on it.

You have to write, obviously, and the more you do it, the better you become. And you have to read. Der. The more you read, the more you come to understand what you like and dislike about the writing that has found ink before you. That’s your style speaking to you. What you like and dislike about other people’s writing is your innate sense of good writing/story/craft bubbling up from your history. What’s good for you might not be good for the publisher who reads it but may be earth-moving for the publisher in the next office.

That’s the easy part, she said. I love to read and I love to write.

Okay, find a job. Not necessarily one that involves writing because you could end up like a plumber with a leaky tap at home. Good jobs for novelists are not always academic or glossy and professional. For me, a good writer’s job has to provide one of two things: it has to give you the time to be in your own head or feed you with story.

I’m still writing ideas that came to me while pulling blackberries when I was a teenager. Mindless physical work that gave me the space to cogitate. At the end of a day, I’d be knackered, rich (!), buzzing with ideas and I’d leave behind a tract of arable land.

I’m still writing stories inspired by those I heard working with young people in schools. Exhausting and deeply personal work that gave me insight into the lives of others. At the end of the day, I’d be knackered, rich (?!), full to the brim with story and hopefully leaving behind people whose hearts were lighter for the sharing.

My CV’s full of those sorts of jobs. Landscaper, masseur, counselor, waiter, truck driver. Some days I’d have to think about the work more than others and some days I didn’t hear stories, I only heard pain.

Some of the authors I know have come to writing through academia. A lot of kid’s authors were teachers. Some authors I know have worked in the book industry. Their jobs probably opened doors to publication that wouldn’t have been available to a blackberry pulling masseur counselor type of person. But by far the majority of authors I know have done a zillion jobs and toiled away in a dark corner until the book was cooked.

So, you’ve found a job to put food on the table and stop the man from coming to repossess your soul. Now you have to find a place to live that doesn’t cripple you financially and have you working so hard that you can’t think. I like living in the country. The housing is cheap and there has always been work for me. Room to move and room to muse. But the city might be where you’re at …

You find a place then you need to find a place within that place to write. Or somewhere else. You find a place then you need to find the time to write. You find the time and then you have to find the words. You find the words and it’s your turn to wash the bloody dishes. Chop wood, carry water.

You can never really ‘make it’ as an author. Just like you can never really ‘make it’ as a pianist or a doctor or a human being. And in a way that’s the beauty of it. There’s no top wages bracket and no perfect book. Just because you have one book published doesn’t mean there’ll be a second. The fears and self-doubts that were there in the beginning still come up from time to time and your inner critic constantly expands his or her vocabulary.

But I just want to write, she says. So write, says I. Find a way to make it pay or find a pay and make your way. Either way you look at it, you’ll still have to chop wood and carry water.

I earn about as much as a schoolteacher from my writing and speaking. I’m not sad about that. Schoolteachers work much harder than I do and they rarely get the opportunity to wear their pyjamas to work. I’ll be published overseas soon and I know when it happens I’ll probably be washing my kids clothes or getting something organised for tea. Some people in the media have compared my work to John Marsden’s and I’m honoured by that but John and I share a more significant passion: we might be the only people in the world who enjoy pulling out blackberries.

Burning Eddy was shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year for older readers and the NSW Premier’s Literary awards in 2004. It’s been raining at home—at last—and all the firewood my wife and I split for the winter is getting wet. When I get home I’ll have to kick the generator in the guts and pump some of the rain up the hill for our showers. Shift wood, pump water. You’ve got to love it. It’s the wellspring of the writer’s life.

 

Smashing Glass at the Gates of Hell

SmashingGlassI was fourteen years old when I realised I had a passion and a natural talent for smashing glass. Long-necked beer bottles, television screens, anything. Light bulbs were a specialty. It was the year The Empire Strikes Back was released and my mates and I found that fluorescent tubes made passable (albeit single use) ‘light’ sabres. Maybe it was the sound of breaking glass that was so attractive. Maybe it was the undeniable permanence of it. It could not be undone. For a fourteen year old, breaking glass was a powerful and remorseless act. Back then, a car windscreen could be turned into a thousand diamonds with a single well-placed blow from my trusty golf club; an old five-iron I’d named Cecil.

I never went to jail. I never did time at a youth detention camp digging holes. My parents knew what we were up to. In fact, it was legal.

All the destruction happened at our local rubbish tip.

My mates and I camped in the wilderness and lit our farts, too. We climbed and fell from pine trees, made ourselves sick with mean port and Stones green ginger wine, caught and ate crayfish, trout and eels but the tip was another world. It was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It was our adventure playground, our mall, BMX track and skate park. You could take whatever you wanted and smash what was left. One time, Lucas found an unopened packet of sherbet cones and ate the lot. They were only a few months out of date and he was really really hungry. Tip tucker. We found bike parts that we cobbled into a whole generation of odd-wheeled Frankenbikes. Our billy-cart (found) became a go-cart when we added a mower engine (found). The engine needed a new set of rings and the thing was on the road for under $6.00. Even the welding rods required to carry out the frame modifications came from the tip. My brother dragged a complete lawn mower from the rubble—with fuel in the fuel tank—and started it first pull. He gave it to some friends and it lasted longer than their relationship. We filled our parent’s sheds and our own bedrooms with broken cassette players, clock radios and more dead calculators and watches than a pawnshop. Broken toys were dismantled, plastic welded and soldered back to life.

Many of the things we dragged home ended up being stripped for parts and eventually made it back to the tip, through a giant arc of useful life that may have spanned years. The billy/go-cart only returned from whence it came a couple of years back. It had lived under Mum and Dad’s place for fifteen years, a relic from another era, but the news of its departure still generated a collective moan of disappointment from those who’d given it life and broken land-speed records on it.

The tip had been smoldering for about three years when we started hanging out there. Burning underground. Layer upon layer of compacted rubbish offered up its combustibles. Every summer the local fire brigade would empty thousands of litres of water into the chimneys that broke through to the surface and the fires just kept burning. They occasionally leapt into the surrounding bush but most of the time they creaked and crackled and belched clouds of toxic smoke from deep beneath the surface. Once, while picking our way through fresh bags of detritus, the earth beneath our gumboots subsided to reveal the Gates of Hell—caverns of glowing embers where years of burning had eaten convoluted tunnels and pits, some of which were three metres deep. We never actually lit a fire at the tip but found no shame in feeding the ones that were already burning. We sacrificed limbless dolls, marveled at how their pink skin blackened then dripped incendiaries that sounded like the laser canons on an X-wing fighter. We fed the beast with aerosol cans and discarded gas bottles. Some things fizzed. Some things popped. Some things rent the soil with sonic booms that lifted rubbish, embers and shrapnel well into next week. We nearly killed the tip lady that way. She drove a rust-pocked Corolla and made the wicked witch of the west look like a Dolly cover model. The air at the tip was reliably fetid and soupy but we could smell her from some distance. She filled her car boot and back seat with things to sell at the Sunday market. Before we knew her very well, Lucas took her advice and left the portable stereo he’d found (working, with batteries and Slim Dusty cassette) beside her car while he finished his ‘shopping’. She waited until our backs were turned and drove off with the boom box.  Many glass objects were busted that day.

When she was there, the tip lady owned every newly dropped bag of rubbish until it had been thoroughly ratted. She would meet drivers at their doors and inquire about their loads. She would take anything of value directly to her own vehicle and the treasures would never touch the soil. She growled at us and told us off if we got too close. She got too close one day. Too close to the Gates of Hell just after an armload of aerosol cans had been deposited. If I’d been a responsible adult-type person, I would have shouted to warn her but I was fourteen and I wanted to see the blood. An aerosol blew like a shotgun and the old hag squawked. More explosions followed and a spent cartridge whizzed by her ear and she scurried to her car and left. Many high-fives were exchanged that day.

We found grizzly things; bloodstained clothing, bathroom rubbish, anonymous and intimate things, a dead dog. Things that warranted a poke with Cecil and a groan of disgust. Things that made me gag. Things that made me consider the lives of others and the grand story we were part of. There were mice and rats that scrapped in punctured kitchen-tidy bags and feral cats and snakes that fed on the mice and wintered under the car bodies. The farmers dumped dead calves and the biggest goanna in Victoria lived in the stringybark forest behind the dam and gorged itself on the mountains of carrion. We chased it up a tree one day and discovered they can hiss like a compressor hose when frightened.

Car bodies were dumped on the edge of the track. School holidays lent time to the dedicated and dangerous efforts of digging under the car bodies until they teetered and—with an almighty heave—sending them tumbling to their final resting place in the valley below. It was comfortable and out of view down at the car bodies. Pull up a bench seat torn from a deceased Holden and thumb through a ten-year-old copy of Penthouse. We variously stole, swapped and traded nudie magazines and developed an economy independent of our parents. It could have turned all Lord of the Flies but it didn’t. We knew and liked each other too much for that. We learned a lot about the world through the microscope of the tip. We learned a lot about ourselves and took risks together, goaded each other into venting our frustrations on inanimate objects. Smashed things without the slightest concern for retribution. Without the slightest sense of remorse.

Things have changed at the tip. It’s a transfer station now. Chainmesh fences topped with barbed wire, containers for the different coloured glass all guarded by a tip Nazi who takes his job a little too seriously. There are signs that say kids aren’t allowed out of the car, it’s only open on the weekends and we have to pay to visit. They’ve turned it into a theme park. The tip Nazi is a nice enough bloke, but who wouldn’t be? He gets paid, has prime scrounging rites and has set aside part of the tip as his personal op-shop, selling stuff he’s salvaged. He has the same sense of rubbish ownership and domination that the tip lady had. And he has the weight of municipal law on his side. I doubt if I could send him packing with an exploding aerosol and it wouldn’t feel right to me now, anyway. Besides, the tip hasn’t been alight for years. That dragon has been slain.

We lost one of our comrades, Stewie, in a car accident when he was eighteen. It felt like such an ugly waste and it chills me to think he may have been hunting for danger when he died. Hunting for it in ways that put others at risk as well. Hadn’t he learned anything at the tip?

It was a twelve-volt sort of danger at the tip. You could hurt yourself if you were stupid but it wasn’t like sticking a knife into a toaster. Wasn’t like drink driving. I think some young people still hunger for that sort of decaffeinated danger but everywhere they go, the low branches have been cut off. They’ve put studs in the pavement so they can’t grind their skateboards down the stairs. Spraying graffiti on a public graffiti wall would be like scratching through your own rubbish for treasures and there are no good places to smack telly screens with golf clubs. There aren’t many places left to be messy. Kids at the skate park look like zoo-cats to me, cutting the same track again and again and I’m heartened by the sight of young blokes in shopping trolleys and wheelie bins making danger in the half-pipes.

I often wonder, if my upbringing had been urban, whether I would have train-surfed or rode the flooded Yarra on a lilo, burned hedges and derelict houses or smashed glass that was owned by someone else in search of little dangers to make my heart race. I wonder if a sanitised electronic world, a new estate, a world with all its edges sanded off would have invited me to become a criminal in search of a little reckless mess. A bit of disorder that reflected the ‘work in progress’ state of my soul.

We’re spread around the country now, my old tip-scabbing mates and me. For the most part, we’re law-abiding family men. We still have a few of the treasures we collected. Lovers and marriages have come and gone but there’s something perennial about the bonds we forged smashing glass at the Gates of Hell.

Maggie

MaggieIt’s magical when you live somewhere long enough to develop relationships with the critters that share the country with you. I know that happens in the city—I’ve fed the possums in Fitzroy gardens and marvelled at the fish at Doctors Gully in Darwin but they’re fleeting romances compared to the relationships we have with the animals at home. We have a bird that has adopted us. She’s a magpie and in a fit of creativity we called her Maggie. Sometimes, I don’t realise how magnificent creatures are until I get to spend a few hours over a few days just watching them go about their business. Even the most humble and common magpie is a delight.

She—and I call her she because we have since day dot and my mate Doctor Barry tells me sexing magpies is like telling the guys from the girls at a transvestite’s convention and definitely not a job for an amateur—she just walked in the front door as we were putting the final touches to the floor eight years ago. She was flighty in those days and didn’t hang around for long. Over the years she has relaxed into our company and now takes food from our hands. She nests in a big Gippsland Grey gum on the side of the driveway and has had one or two chicks every spring we’ve been here. She doesn’t swoop us at all. She brings the chicks down to the house when they’re a few days out of the nest and some are friendly and some are not. None of the chicks eat out of our hands.

My bird book tells me that magpies are catholic to the extreme. That puzzles me. I know she can’t pray the rosary because she doesn’t have an opposing thumb like me. She’ll take the bread part of communion but wouldn’t be interested in the wine. When she comes in to share breakfast, she’ll give the most divine choral blessing you can imagine. Magpie song is magnificent pre-dawn and when it’s solo for an audience of one, it’s something else. Hail Mary.

Maggie epitomises the idea of a low maintenance wild pet. She’ll take a bit of bread or biscuit if you offer but she’ll never nag or snatch or eat enough to make herself ill. If you’re not home or don’t feed her, she attacks the local invertebrate population, many of which are pests. She has taken to dive bombing the rosellas in the fruit trees and the vegie garden but won’t eat the fruit herself. The only drawback I’ve found with our friend Maggie is that her kids squawk like a mob of three-year-olds with party hooters. I’d never tell her that though, I value her company too much.

Electric Fence

CowEyeI love electric fences. I love how portable and practical they are. I love how you can turn an acre of bare pasture into a veritable Gulag for bovines in about ten and a half minutes. And how many hours of the ABC have been listened to on shed radios with the reassuring tic-tic-tic of the electric fence in the background? More than all that, I love how cantankerous they can be.

I got my first serious kick from an electric fence when I was seven years old. We’d parked our bikes on the side of the road. The only thing between us and the dam that was seething with tadpoles was a flimsy-looking fence. Three measly strands of plain wire.

Fifteen thousand volts later, after I’d stopped screaming and my joints had begun to retract to their original position, my very knowledgeable companion pointed out the insulator and said that I’d been electrocuted. Instant hero status.

Later, after we had enough space to warrant a unit of our own, we started getting cocky. We matured from testing the fence with a blade of grass between us and the voltage to grabbing it with our hands like dad did, but only while we were wearing gumboots. The gumboots stop you from getting thrown on your back, but you still get a bit of a kick. The wetter you and the ground are, the better conductor you become.

I guess it’s just a logical extension to take your charged finger and zap one of the friends that are standing near by. The lighter you touch, the bigger the zap. If they grab you and make good contact, the next person they touch gets an even bigger shock. I think our longest chain was seven friends and family members one Christmas day. Used every spare pair of gumboots in the road. Aunty Jess declined to be involved on account of her pacemaker. Sensible move.

And I guess it’s just a logical extension for a thrill-seeking group of adolescent boys, full of dares, bravado and testosterone, to want to pee on the thing. Strangely enough, no one got a shock that way. It wasn’t until my brother set up a strobe light in the outside toilet —in a fit of artistic genius at one of our shed parties—that I worked out why. I can tell you for a fact that you’d have to be homicidally close to get a shock. A stream very quickly becomes a train of disconnected droplets under the flashing strobe. The circuit and the myth were broken.