Aspiring to UHD

The first book was set in China and was competently written and mildly entertaining, but forgettable. Like most books, really. The second was by Le Carre, the modern-day master of the genre. The difference between them was like watching a program in normal definition and then watching another in UHD.

I often think on these things – because I’m a compulsive reader, and because I have a personal as well as general interest in the craft of writing.

If you were to compare the two plots in these novels, then you’d have to say that Le Carre’s was more sophisticated and finely attuned. In general terms, it’s the difference between a description of life and the lived experience of it – because life is full of moments and complexity. It’s made up of infinitude brush strokes, not broad swathes of colour.

That’s all very well, but many a fine story has been spoiled by average or lack-lustre writing. As I said, the first book was competently written – there were no great jarring moments, the words placed in the right order, it told the story effectively. But then there’s a vast difference between being competent and being talented.

There are books I’ve continued to read simply for the quality of the writing. A well-written book draws you on. I might reference someone like James Salter here, whose books – with exceptions – feel less than the sum of their parts, but are always gorgeous to read.

Not surprisingly, there’re very few writers who can compose a memorable storyline and render it with style and insight.

As an aspiring writer, that’s who I want to be, though, predictably, it’s no easy thing.

For mine, I reckon John Le Carre is one of the great contemporary novelists, regardless of genre. His stories are engaging and intelligent and, as I said, he writes in UHD. Once more, that’s exactly what I want from my writing – engaging and intelligent, and with deep insight.

I reckon I can write with style. I can write a sentence as good as most, and a paragraph to follow it up. Certainly, I think my prose is superior to the competent spy thriller I just read, if not yet up to Le Carre’s standard. I’m an astute learner, however. I read a lot, and I pay attention. And I’m sensitive to human nature, able to quickly read people and often to detect what’s unsaid, the meaning between the lines. It’s why I started to write I think, because that insight came naturally to me and led from one thing to another. I was sensitive to the world about me, not just people, but the physical world as well. There’s fascination in that, and wonder, and from it comes the need to understand and observe it. In time you seek to render it in your own words, to give your interpretation of it.

I’m passionate about this, but I think that’s true of many writers. You don’t necessarily choose to do it; it emerges from within you. I want to learn and get better. I have high expectations. I fully expect the day will come when I am close to being the writer I aspire to me. There’s some natural talent in that achievement, but a lot more is the burning intent to be better.

At the extremes

It’s been a rush the last five days, or so. Busy and productive myself, and things happening around me.

On the weekend I sent off book one to an agent for appraisal, etc, and will likely contact another this weekend for the same purpose.

Also on the weekend, I posed a question on Facebook, seeking feedback about an old idea of mine that had returned to the fore. There’s too much to go into here, but basically, it’s an idea that sprung out my experiences when homeless and being hounded by the ATO and various creditors. I needed help of different types, accounting and legal mainly, but didn’t have the resources to engage anyone and there seemed few other options. In the end, I got help from a local community centre but highlighted to me what a huge gap there is for help for the people who need it most. My idea was to create a platform to crowd-source help, drawing upon the collective wisdom and charity of the community.

At one stage I had a partner to develop an App, but he later pulled out for business reasons (he was a software developer). I’ve had an interest in the idea, but it seemed too hard to do. But then, watching the community response to the bushfire crisis, I was inspired to believe there’s a real appetite for support out there. And, by now, I had thought of another way of doing it – a much simpler way.

So I put it out there – wouldn’t it be good? And, what do you think? There was a pretty positive response, so I guess I’m moving onto stage two.

I also went to a bushfire charity event at Bad Shepherd on Saturday night, before ending up drinking cocktails at the Hawker bar.

Then, at work, it’s been full-on again, or still, but generally good. Very productive these days, and encouraged to use my creative side, which is excellent.

On Sunday there was a brief but very fierce supercell storm that hit Melbourne. I listened to the hail on the roof and it sounded like the roof was being hammered.

On Monday another storm developed late in the day and torrential rain fell. My train was stopped at Elsternwick on the way home and we had to wait for busses in the rain to take us the rest of the way. That stopped about a kilometre from where I lived. I walked in the rain with a raincoat on and my umbrella held in front of me like a shield. The rain was heavy and the wind made it near horizontal, which meant I could only protect a part of my body. From the waist down, I was sopping wet.

This is how it is now, everything is at the extremes.

Comes and goes

The memories keep coming, slipping by the triggers that otherwise keep me in the moment. They come when my guard is down, when things are done and I’m relaxing into the night – sitting watching the TV, or as I lay in bed reading.

Last night two disparate memories returned, one from when I was a child, and the other when I was a grown man travelling the world.

From the time I was a baby until I was about 12-13 my grandparents on either side would mind me, and later my sister, through school holidays and other random occasions. When I was a baby, my mum would leave me with her mother – Nanny, as I would call her – while she went to work. I have no memory of that, though a strong bond developed between me and Nanny. Years later, mum would often tell the story of how I would cry having to leave nanny when mum collected me every night.

We were always close, right up to the day she prematurely died. I was about 16 then, and though I’d held it together through her illness and even at the news of her death, I bawled at the sight of her lying in her coffin at her funeral. It wasn’t her, I thought. It looked like someone different, someone hollowed out without even memory of life in her features. I made a vow on that day that I would never choose to look upon the dead features of a loved one again. It broke me at the time though, until I was wracked with sobs I couldn’t control. I loved her so much, and she, me – I was her favourite, she would tell me, don’t tell anyone.

I recall now how mum disapproved of my tears, though I don’t understand why. Did she think it innapropriate? There was a man there, the husband of one of mum’s best friends. He was always pleasant, very handsome – a runner who’d competed at Stawell – but he’d always had a veneer of the superficial. On that day, though – and I’ve never forgotten – he came up to comfort me. I don’t remember what he said, but he allowed me my grief, and for that I was grateful. From that day forward, I had a soft spot for him, and great respect for those who seek to comfort others in moments of sadness. I’ve tried to be that man, myself.

That was not the memory, though it’s not unusual that one memory triggers others.

The memory was well before that when Nanny and Gramps lived in Reservoir in a small house built in the rear yard of her sister’s home, Auntie Elsie and Uncle Bill. I used to love going over there. Nanny would make pancakes and chips. Gramps would tell me about the war (he was a sapper and fought in New Guinea and Borneo), and we’d share his Parade magazines. On the wall – very seventies – was a print of a galleon under full sail, blue-tinted and dramatic. And Nanny was always great fun to be around.

What I remembered is banal in a way – but sometimes it’s the banal that is most affecting because it is the most commonplace. Nanny used to listen to a program on the radio called the Gong Show. It was a talent quiz and performers would be rated by how many gongs they got. I remember so well how she would avidly listen to this in the mornings before the day had properly started (and in the night, too?). I recall there seemed few talented performers, and it was depressing all round – and not only because I could sense the small hopes of mediocre wannabes being crushed. The whole thing felt deathly to me in some way – this was the radio of another time it felt, a sepia-ed past that seemed small in my childish mind. And it felt like old people’s radio, for people who’s life was nearly past, and I didn’t want to think that.

That memory came to me last night watching the cricket. An hour or so later, in bed, there came to me the distinct memory of an evening spent in Hanoi. This must have been 2006. I was there for business, and would fly onto Bangkok and Delhi. The night before the Hanoi office had taken me out for dinner to some lively restaurant where the food was great, and on the way back I clung to the back of a moped taking me to my hotel.

This memory is the night after and left to my own devices. I wander into the heart of Hanoi, which is situated around a lake. It was lively again, and bright, and I wandered up streets and down laneways. I was looking for somewhere to eat and couldn’t settle on anything. It feels like I wandered for hours – and it was quite some time – but now I can’t recall where I ended up eating. I remember people about and the mopeds scooting by and scooters and lanterns and great trees and the light reflecting off the lake seen in glimpses. It was balmy and I remember the chatter of the locals as they went about their nightly routines. On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at a store and bought a silk tie – mauve, and something for mum. And that was it, a night in a foreign city, the tall, white guy wandering around and no-one sparing him a second look.

Why am I remembering these things? Memories come and go. They return randomly. This feels different, somehow. As if I’m allowed to remember, as if it is a reminder wrapped up in the gift of memory: you did this, this is yours, savour it. But then there’s a twist: you were there, but you’ll never get back there again.

The memory of Hanoi triggered another, a snapshot really, years later in Shanghai, and I’m in a bar on the 60th floor or something of one of the dazzling skyscrapers there overlooking the Bund. It’s a great view, and with me are two Shanghai women having a drink with me.

Hazy days and little things

It’s a smoky, hazy morning again today, the horizons closed in and everything appearing as if through gauze. There in the sky was the moon, full and round, slightly tinted but with a glow as if a hole had been punched through the haze. All of it is odd, otherworldly, as if we have landed on a foreign planet.

I’m surprised the poor air hasn’t affected me more adversely. I’m someone prone to a chest infection without obvious cause. I have a permanent supply of antibiotics on hand to manage the cough when it rears up. It hasn’t reared up, though.

I’m thankful at that as well as surprised. There are many others not nearly so lucky, and there’ve even been deaths reported. We might get rain on Thursday, but until then we’re stuck with it.

I had a friend tell me yesterday that he’d been filled with an anger of ‘unknown origin’. I knew the feeling, and my explanation for it is the sense of helplessness in the face of one awful thing after another. It’s a form of frustration, and I don’t think it’s uncommon these days.

I’m out of sorts myself right now, though it’s different to what he describes. I feel deflated. These days it’s not uncommon, though I’ve been better in recent times. It takes so little to set it off. Yesterday it was the smallest incident, a little unpleasantness. Actually, not even that. A disappointment. But then it’s enough to let all the air out of me. Characteristically, I lose interest in things about me. I don’t want to engage.

That was yesterday, and I feel it still today. It will fade, or some counter-balancing thing will happen to bring me back to normal.

There’s no real reason to feel this way. I finished my book on Sunday, and I’m not searching for an agent and publisher to get it published. To be fair, there is an anti-climactic sense when you’ve wrapped it all up. You think, is that it? And – always – you think of all the ways it can be better (even if nothing definite comes to mind).

Then yesterday I caught up with two of my staff from when I had the massage shop. Jeep was visiting from Thailand, where she’d recently returned. With her was Pat. Both were great stalwarts when I had the shop and very decent people. I’m always very happy to see them.

Jeep bought me lunch, as she insists every time. She’s a person of great loyalty and proprietary. She’s in contact with me every month or so seeking help with her CV or a job application or dealing with a government department and, once, to assist in getting money out of someone who owed it to her. She’s very grateful, and so she buys me lunch when she can, and even called me her best friend yesterday – though not in the conventional sense.

For my part, I’m happy to support her – and any of them – in any way I can. It was a tough time, but they were titans. I owe them a lot.

It was lovely seeing them. We had a lot of laughs, and Jeep has made me promise to look her up if I get to Bangkok. I think we’re friends for life.

There is much to grateful for, if only you remember.

Nasty Monday’s

Right now this feels the Mondayest Monday I’ve ever experienced.

It wasn’t so bad last week. I dragged myself to work, but I was at least reasonably well-rested, and I was curious to get back and see what had been happening, and what we had to do. It was a busy week last week – busier than normal for a first week back – but it was productive, too. Come Friday night, I dragged myself out of the office and through the rain to have a beer (or six) feeling well satisfied with my work.

The second week back, though is a different story. Not uncommon this, I think. Second-week blues is a thing, and I have it.

I usually wait until just after nine to get my first coffee, but I couldn’t wait that long today. I was feeling lost at my desk not wanting to be there and so, about 8.35, I went down to get a flat white – and today a double-shot because I needed it.

I’m thankful that it looks like it may be a quiet day (touch wood!).

I’m actually casting my eyes about for other opportunities, just to keep my eye in. I’m enjoying the work I’m doing here now and have some juicy projects all my own coming up. And, in pure business terms, they currently think I’m the bee’s knees.

The issue is that I’m still underpaid for what I’m doing and, now that I’ve re-established myself, reckon I can get out there with a reasonable chance of getting a better job. My goal by mid-year is to be earning around the six figures, but I think there’s a chance I can leap well beyond that.

Right now I’m sussing things out, here, in the office, and outside it. We have an offsite next week, and apparently, career progression will be part of the agenda. I’m a part of the best performing team in the department, and I’m seen as a safe pair of hands at least, and with some upside. Hopefully, that means I’ll get my opportunity here.

I’m happy to leave. I sort of like the idea of a fresh environment and opportunity. At the same time, I’ve now invested a bit here. I can see the fruits of my labour blossoming – click on the website and my work is visible. On top of that – not that I ever dreamt this would be a consideration – I’m coming up towards long service lead. Fancy that!

I’m having coffee with my direct lead today, and I’ll be reasonably upfront with him. I’m too old to play any games.

I’m happy to continue for the moment, nasty Monday’s aside. I’m keen to get these projects over the line. And in the nearer term, I’m finally looking at a holiday around March, maybe. That’ll be part of the conversation today as well. Nothing too ambitious – Tassie maybe, or maybe Margaret River, or maybe even up the coast the bushfire affected areas.

I remember because these things are true

I’m going through a patch at the moment when fragmentary memories come to mind seemingly without reason. They come as a surprise and, surprised, I dwell on them as if a novelty. Some of these things have not been in my mind since when they occurred. Years later, I get a different perspective on them.

One such memory was of me when I was a teenager and regularly clashing with my father. I don’t think we were ever close. The closest we ever got was when we’d go to the footy together year after year, but that was more companionship and a shared passion than true affection. My father isn’t the warmest character by nature and could be described as an alpha personality.

As a teenager, I sensed his need to dominate, and by nature, I rebelled against it. I say by nature, but I wonder if instead, it was something that developed in the abrasive interactions between us. Though we weren’t close, I admired him. He’d achieved a lot, was a mover and shaker, and was by far the most forceful personality in our ecosystem of family and friends. I respected his achievements, but it was the strength of his will that drew me. My father certainly wasn’t the most liked, but that wasn’t a consideration for me (my mother was the most liked, and so counter-balanced the equation). In my juvenile way, I liked that he was the man every one stopped for.

I might have liked it, but it didn’t mean I wanted to stop for him – or even heed him. I got it in my head that I would respect me more if I stood up for myself as an individual, and so I was an active resister. That was a naïve, idealistic belief – I’ve learned since that powerful people want nothing more than to be obeyed.

I look back, and I can admit I was probably a pain in the arse. I don’t know that I was ever really hostile, or even rude, but I was one of those annoying children who would ask why? And if the answer was unsatisfactory, or – more often – not forthcoming, then I wouldn’t cooperate.

That’s a stage a lot of kids go through. In my case, there was an element of wrong-headedness about it, but I can’t say I regret it much now. It was who I was.

Dad took another view. It infuriated him that I might defy him. I can hardly remember the things we argued about, but I remember how we would yell at each other and how, on occasion, it would lead to physical violence.

My mum always maintained my father treated me terribly. I never took that view. By and large, I believed that if I copped anything, then it was mostly because I provoked it, and fair play. I have the same attitude today. If you poke the bear, then you can’t complain if he gives you a swipe in return.

I suspect I’ve probably forgotten a lot, but I reckon too that mum exaggerated, and her recollection was likely coloured by how their relationship ended. We certainly came to blows, and by that, he struck me. He was the bigger man, my father, and I accepted it went with the territory – these were very different times – but I can understand now how someone in authority, the bigger man, should not act in such a way.

Most of my memories of our clashes are vague, but I remember one such when I was about 16, and we were living in Sydney. I can’t remember what we argued about, but I know it was a Sunday. One thing led to another, and he struck me with a clenched fist. The next day I went to school with a black eye and claimed I’d been hit by a cricket ball. Pretty classic.

Within a year, it all changed. One day we clashed again, and this time I was the bigger man. I cocked a fist at him, and I remember everything going still. This was back in Melbourne, in the living room of our house in Lower Plenty. He looked at me with steely eyes and said something along the lines that “the day my son raises a fist to me is the day he’s dead to me”.

For the next 3 months, he ghosted me. We lived in the same house, and he wouldn’t even look at me, let alone say anything – I know this is a time that wounded mum.

In the end, she left him, and that was part of the reason why. Not surprisingly, I went with her while my sister stayed with my dad – who now had started talking to me again. Years later, I came to understand that he had severe hang-ups about me, while – then at least – I was just a kid acting, more or less, like a painful kid.

I can date my unwillingness, or inability, to submit back to that time. The question is whether I was born that way or made it.

The other memory is much happier, more innocent, even inconsequential.

It’s years later. I’m out in the world about 23 or 24 and feeling at the peak of my physical powers. I decided to learn how to tap dance.

I used to admire dancers like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. They made it look so much fun, and the movies they made doing it so joyous. I thought, I want a piece of that, and I began lessons in a dance studio in Chapel Street.

In the end, I only attended 3-4 classes, though I learned enough to do some basic tap steps and moves, some of which I still use.

What I remember is that of the class of 7-8, there was only one other male besides the instructor, and he was just about the opposite of me – a slim, slender, retiring type. I was so full of male juice that I could barely comprehend someone like that. I wanted nothing more than to cut a swathe through life, and one had to be bold and fearless to do so. It was another type of naivety.

I felt so commanding. I was strong and fit, and I moved well. I remember, I wore a charcoal grey tank-top to class, a favourite by Saba that showed off my build. I was tall and lean, but my bare shoulders were balls of muscle, and my biceps as big as melons. As we skipped across the floor, I could feel vitality flow through me, like electricity.

As you can probably gather, I was pretty cocky. In my defence, I was also smart and sensitive off-screen, but it was hard to contain the abundance I felt. It didn’t help being in a class full of fit and attractive women. I was in my prime and knew it.

That’s a memory that hadn’t come to mind in all the years since, until Wednesday night. It happened though. I was there.

Sorry about that, Buck

I read this morning of the death of Buck Henry. He was 89 and, to be honest, I had presumed he was long dead given such a long career.

As someone who watched a zillion episodes of Get Smart growing up, his name is very familiar from the credits. He and Mel Brooks were the creative force behind the show. I loved that Get Smart, and I’m still known to repeat lines from it occasionally (would you believe…?), not that anyone ever recognises the references anymore.

Buck Henry also wrote The Graduate and What’s Up, Doc? which are both great movies, as well as Catch-22. I remember The Graduate as one of those movies that, when I was about the same age as Benjamin in the movie, was influential in how I looked at things. The scenario – hooking up with a sexy suburban mum – was of general interest, but counter-balancing that was a couple of scenes – one when Benjamin is in his new scuba gear at the bottom of the pool disconnected from the world, and the other the final scene in the back of the bus when it dawns on them what they’ve done – and what they’ve committed themselves to.

The Graduate is a classic, but it’s more than just a coming of age comedy. To be fair, the movie is very faithful to the book, including much of the dialogue.

What’s Up, Doc? is my very favourite comedy of all time, I reckon. I’ve watched it heaps of times and laughed like a loon every time. It’s just about the perfect screwball comedy.

He was also a good comic actor – a meek-looking, dweeby sort of character in glasses, put upon, sometimes bureaucratic, and occasionally rebelling against the stereotype.

He’s a part of my cultural development and so I remember him.