Why I blog

I get regular emails from strangers promising to enhance my blog readership and turn it into something I can make money from. They come every 3-4 days, and many are very persistent. Most I never respond too, not because I’m rude, but because I get a million emails a day it takes me a while to get around for them and, let’s face it, responding to unsolicited emails are the last of my priorities.

Occasionally I will respond to the more persistent. For a start I understand how tough it is to reach out to potential clients – it may be an annoyance to the recipients, but if you’re a business it is an vital and mostly uncomfortable necessity. It’s a tough road, and I acknowledge that.

I’ll then go on to explain the reason I write my blog. I’m not so precious as to suggest that having a readership is unimportant, but it certainly comes second to the act of writing. Let me put it this way – I don’t write to be read, I write to get the written word out of me. As this is a personal blog that is a very personal process. The feelings, thoughts, ideas, opinions, attitudes, reflections, observations pile up in me and intermingle, and some of them become notions which ultimately I choose to explore by writing them down.

I think a lot of writers do that – they seek to make sense of these things by expressing them. It’s rare that these posts come to me fully formed. I start in on a position and as I proceed the way ahead of me becomes more clear. A key part of understanding is expression, for me at least.

You can see then that for me blogging is a journey. It’s gratifying if others read and take something from what I write. I’m like anyone else, I’m chuffed when someone appreciates my work. It’s irrelevant to purpose though. If no-one read anything that I wrote I would still continue to write.

I try to explain this. I’m not interested in artificially inflating my following. Much as I could do with the dollars, I believe to commercialise this blog would be to corrupt and influence the philosophy that inspires it. In fact, for me, it feels fraudulent – but that’s because the whole process of writing this blog is personal.

Strange as it is, this is where my ego becomes subsumed. I have to write straight, and that’s my therapy.


Revisiting Brideshead

I’m reading Brideshead Revisited right now, or rather I’m listening to the audiobook version of it narrated by Jeremy Irons. As you would expect, the performance is exceptional. The book itself has left me with mixed feelings.

For the first couple of hours I was fascinated and compelled by both story and the quality of the writing. Like all the best writing it had both depth and authenticity. It seemed a uniquely English story, but of a time that sun has now set upon, and so had a melancholy tone that never fails to draw you in. After the first couple of hours though I began to drift, though I remain engaged.

I’m not sure if this drift relates to the story itself, or if because the initial novelty has worn off. I think likely a combination of both.

There is a great novelty to the story, particularly for an Australian boy. The story is set in an entirely different era, but as a reader you become used to that. What is less normal is the milieu described – the crusty landed gentry with their standards and expectations, not to mention their beliefs. Added to this is the central relationship between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte. They meet in the gilded halls of Oxford (which is a different world), and develop an intimate friendship at odds with anything I have ever known, and probably foreign to old school Australian psyche – it may be different now.

Nevertheless as I listened on the train to and from work, and walking home, I found a part of my mind fixed on that.

Growing up as an Australian mateship was always a big thing, and part of that was a knockabout intimacy. It drew the line though. Everyone says Australia is a masculine society and I can see that, though I also think it is simplistic. I experienced heartfelt friendship. I was bound to my mates, we became as one in thought and action, but there was always a harder edge, even as a boy. Growing up I remember you would show affection by abusing each other. No-one ever got offended, though later I saw that outsiders to this were confused by it.

What was not there was the soft intimacy as portrayed in this book. We didn’t express ourselves in those ways. Had we encountered the same circumstances we would have reacted to it with a tougher attitude, a bluntness edged with humour. We go about it in round-about ways which may not always be healthy, but which takes a lot of steam out of the situation. Ours is a more robust relationship – or at least it was. I wonder if it still is?

And so I was fascinated to observe the relationship between Charles and Sebastian, and in the background Sebastian’s complex family. In totality it’s an entirely different world to modern Australia – and, I suspect, largely foreign to modern Britain also.

I wished I could have been there. I would have loved to have seen this, and been part of it. Had I been I would have been the brash colonial outsider I expect, a bit like Mottram, uncouth by birth.

This is what happened as the story progressed. It became cloying. The innate snobbery pressed more firmly. The privilege seemed increasingly pointless. And the characters themselves seemed more futile – thought addled, tortured, but never really doing anything about it. Of course, that’s a big part of the story.

An aspect I haven’t touched upon is the Catholicism. I always find this absorbing. That is a different world, but I find it oddly alluring. I’m agnostic, born catholic if my father is anything to go by, but christened as a protestant. I’m virtually an unbeliever without having committed to it. I’m sceptical about religion in general, not so much the reason for it – I understand that – but the administration of it, which so often appears inept, if not corrupt.

Catholic lore and tradition is fascinating though, even if you don’t believe, even when you know so much of it has been rotten. As a religious outsider it seems like a proper religion, invested in mystery and ceremony, as if that is the religion itself. By comparison Protestantism seems mundane, a Clayton’s religion, an idiots guide to easy spirituality, turn up on Sunday.

True Catholicism seems a much more lived experience – at least it was – if the likes of Waugh and Greene are anything to go by. It is a crucial part of your identity, as those writers would describe, as the Flyte’s in this book embodied. They may be extremes, but where then are the great protestant writers?

I have not yet finished this book, and have but a distant recollection of the TV series. I expect as it draws to the end that I will be drawn into it once more. Regardless of my feelings, they are fascinating themes and, no matter how foreign, the characters are compelling.

The Outsider

It’s been a while since I’ve read a decent book and so I’ve been going back to the tried and true in my bookcase. I read Age of Innocence, and otherwise I’ve been dipping into favourite books, generally collections of short stories from the likes of Bunin, Stegner and Roth. Over the weekend I took another book from those shelves, The Outsider, by Colin Wilson.

I remember when I first read this, boy did it have an impact. I was at that age when you you’re still actively searching for answers to the questions you find surrounding you. I read Camus and Sartre, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and random others before I happened across The Outsider in a local bookstore. At that time I thought it cool to consider myself an existentialist.

It helped I think that I had just had my heart broken for the very first time. I lived in a great apartment in a South Yarra street that I had taken on with the expectation of sharing it with the woman I was with. I was about 24 and pretty well at the peak of my manhood, fit, strong and – for a time – very good looking. None of that really mattered to me with my heart broken, and in fact it was something I only ever realised in retrospect. I had my moments, but did not take advantage of my temporary beauty.

I had read all those other authors years before, when I was 19 and 20, and so when I opened The Outsider I was familiar with many of the authors and personalities described within. I don’t know what made me buy it, probably curiosity. I’ve always had an intellectual curiosity, but at that age it’s on the upswing. You’re ripe for it.

Once I began reading I couldn’t stop. It seemed to speak directly to me. It was a fascinating subject, but at the same time I found myself in the pages of the book: I was an outsider.

I remember I became so roused by what I read that I began a long letter I was going to send to The Age explaining the plight of the outsider. It felt very personal. I felt proud to be one of such number, but at the same time disadvantaged to think it might be so. Even then I didn’t want to be like everyone else, and given the choice would elect to be an outsider. I saw how problematic it was though also.

I was gripped by it for months, and in the following years probably read it another couple of times, but the last time was probably 20 years ago. In the time since I have come to accept myself for who I am. Am I an outsider? By the terms of the book I probably am, but a high functioning outsider. It’s interesting to read my fiction where it comes out more plainly, but entirely unconsciously. I don’t set out to write about the experience of the outsider, yet many of my characters are that, and the circumstances they find themselves in describe it too. I find I make frequent reference to other worlds, or different paths, as if there might have been other possibilities.

I’m drawn to stories of outsiders too, and particularly characters. I find myself admiring them often – I think of Pechorin, for example. In some way or another they are alienated from the society they are part of, often because they see too clearly to be part of it. They tend to an absurdist view of the world, which is a natural reaction. The world is absurd really when you think hard enough on it, but the choice then is whether to rise above it or succumb to it. Often it seems they do both, and in many of these characters there is the germ of

So anyway I began reading the book again over the weekend and it was immediately familiar. It’s a very learned book, though Wilson himself seems a stuffy character. Reading now I don’t immediately agree with him as I did before, but I can appreciate the thrust of his arguments. Myself, as I am today, I identify in parts. I would be what one calls the intellectual outsider. I see it, but I’m hardly infected by it. I have accepted the gap between myself and most of society, and have come to appreciate it. I’ve never felt the need to belong, just the opposite really – and what redeems me is that I’m not the pessimist that so many outsiders are, and because – and perhaps this is the existentialist strain – I believe in acting directly.

Reading it now it feels a little dated, not because of the content perhaps, but because what was new and revolutionary then has since become a mode of study. By comparison with more recent efforts it reads more like erudite pop psychology, but that’s why it worked when it did. For me, when I read it first, I found it just at the right time. I was ready for it and for a while it expanded my concept of self and gave me some comfort finding there were others who thought as I did.

I’m far beyond that these days. I was finding myself then. Today I realise that’s not a destination, but a pathway. I’m a long way further down that path and have a fair idea of who I am. I’ve lived and experienced both joy and tragedy and been seasoned by the trip. What were once ideas to live by are now just an interesting and vaguely nostalgic perspective. I may or may not finish the book this time around, but I recognise the part it played in becoming the man I am today.

Writing as if it counts

Back at work after the Labour Day long weekend. I was out Friday and Saturday nights and otherwise took it easy at home.

As I do every weekend I did a little work on the book, but unlike any weekend for more than a year I then set it aside.

One of the tasks I set myself over the weekend was to return to a couple of the stories I’d begun writing some time ago. Way back I’d tried to work on them concurrently with the book, but they’re so different that it was a wrench shifting from one mindset to another. It’s strange, I can read multiple books at once without inconvenience, but it’s different when I write. There’s something akin being a method actor. You get into character when writing, especially, as in the case of the book, when it’s told in the first person. That was further exaggerated because the style of writing I chose was more mannered than my natural style. It requires effort to stay in character.

It felt like a kind of milestone to shift back to my stories. I hadn’t looked at them for ages. I wondered how they would read now, and I wondered how after writing the book I would approach them.

The first thing is that writing every weekend for the last 18 months has created a discipline in me that now comes reasonably natural. Starting always is difficult, but there is never any real hesitation in knuckling down to it. Once I’ve started it comes a lot easier. Looking back it feels an unnatural existence devoting so much time to my writing, but I’ve done the hard work now and want to keep up with it. It should be a lot easier from here – particularly as I can see the benefits.

The other thing is that writing so consistently for so long has made me a much more efficient writer. I used to agonise and go round in circles. I’d try one thing, and then another. I kid you not when I report there are stories I started 15 years ago I’m still working on. Sure I’m a perfectionist, but a good part of it is that I hadn’t mastered the craft.

I haven’t mastered it yet, but I now feel as if I’ve got a good eye for where the story should go, and what it needs. I’m a lot more certain and decisive when proceeding. The two stories I worked on yesterday have been in the pipeline for about 10 and 12 years. I looked at them again and knew what they needed. The trick then was to execute.

You might think writing day after day that the art of putting one word after another would become simpler. In a way it has, but I’m not sure the quality is any greater, but that’s because it was always pretty good.

I’m often surprised re-reading old stuff of mine at how good it is. There have been times when I’ve read something and been impressed and wondered where it came from – before realising that I had written it myself it on some long forgotten day. The stories I read yesterday were familiar, and contained in each of them was writing both powerful and descriptive. One thing I noticed was the influences of other writers – in one I could see clearly the shadow of Bunin (not a bad thing). I have a more distinct natural style now, but I believe in being adaptable – different stories have different ways of being told, and often demand different voices. If anything I have eliminated some of the tics and repetitions of days gone by, and less ‘loose’. I’m more direct because I’m more certain of where I’m heading.

The writing has improved – and certainly become more flexible– but by no more than 5-10% That’ll do me. The real test is whether I’d be happy in releasing it to the wider world to judge – and I am.

At the end of yesterday I had two pretty ambitious stories fully sketched out and perhaps 80% done. There are another two which need minor tidying up (today’s eye is more demanding), but virtually done. Add that t the book – which needs some professional editing before I proceed further – and it’s adding up nicely.

I have a screenplay in mind, another two novels roughly drafted in my head, and probably another dozen stories I can bring up to snuff. I’m pretty happy with that.


Me and my producer

For about an hour on Saturday I spoke to ‘my’ producer in Europe. It was about 3.25am there and she had just come home from dinner with a bunch of French and American collaborators. She was very tired, but wanted to talk.

We talked quite a lot about the book, but also about other things. She continues to believe I’m some sort of prodigy, once more being laudatory of my mind, which she thinks is special, and adding to it now my writing ability. Though it was fulsome it felt less hyperbolic than before. She came across as a force of nature, intelligent and fierce and full of energy and ambition. She is one of these people who can’t sit still doing nothing when there is so much to be done – the perfect temperament for a movie producer I would think. Though at times it felt a tad over the top I have no doubt that she was genuine in all she said.

She told me stories in passing of some of the projects she’s working on and the famous screenwriters she has doing work for her. She told of her dealings with Hollywood and trying to get through the studio system to speak to the key people. Money talks, it seems. It was fascinating to listen to.

Of my book she said exactly the right things. It was reassuring because she said the things I wanted to hear, and because in saying them it validated her opinion in my eyes. She commented on how dark and ‘noirish’ the book is, which is just the mood I was looking to evoke. She said it was so vivid that she felt as she was reading as if she was walking the streets of Melbourne. That too I hoped to achieve – much of the mood comes from the spirit of the place, and Melbourne in winter is both stylish and atmospheric.

It’s clear she has a fascination for me also – this virtual stranger on the other side of the world who (according to her) possesses a rare insight. I’m less comfortable with this. She wants to know everything about me as if there’s a secret that explains my supposedly unique take on the world. I don’t mind people being fascinated with me, but as a general rule I like to be in control of the situation. And I prefer the fascination to be mutual. In this case it’s something I have to bear. It’s not so hard, and the pay-off potentially could be very positive – though I still can’t believe it.

In the meantime I got off the phone on Saturday feeling validated and motivated. I believed it’s a goer, one way or another, and that I have the goods – whatever they are. I went away and into my head was a screenplay idea from about 7-8 years which suddenly I wanted to work on as my next project.

How this all turns out no-one knows, but it’s a fascinating ride.


The books that made me

I’ve just finished re-reading The Age of Innocence for about the 4th time. I was struggling for something decent to read and went back to the bookcase to see what there I could read again. You go from one title to the next thinking nup, nup, maybe…yes! It’s a vibe thing. It’s a great book, but so too are most of the books that make it to my book case. It comes down to being the right book at the right time, and this was it.

Like many people I had no notion of this book, and little of Edith Wharton, until I saw the Scorcese movie of it. The movie had a profound affect upon me. It was beautifully made and acted, and vivid in its evocation of a particular time and place and very specific milieu. For all of that it was the tragic nature of the story that hooked me, but that’s a very personal thing.

I’m sure there are many who have seen the movie or read the book who, while recognising the poignant nature of the tale, would not see it as being tragic. Newland, after all, was married to a beautiful if dull woman, had a comfortable place in society, and ultimately had a brood of loving children. By conventional mores it’s a very acceptable life – and after all, how many could claim the same?

I could never feel that and in large part that comes down to my nature. I’ve never really been much interested in the conventional, and while the average may be safe it has no appeal to me when the more dangerous authentic is possible. I’ve pretty well lived that ethos too, as my story reveals.

What was tragic is that a man who had unknowingly followed conventional expectations throughout his existence is roused from that dull routine by the arrival of an unexpected and unpredictable woman. She bubbles with life, and with a mystery hinting at other ways of being. In modern parlance he is ‘awoke’.

Once awoke he can’t go back to sleep. He is obsessed and riven by a passion he can’t contain. When before he was prepared to accept a pale and conventional imitation of love he now feels the real thing – and it’s like comparing a Morris Minor to a Ferrari.

That’s both a soaring truth and a cruel deception – for while he now knows the truth of authentic love, he cannot have it. That’s the tragedy. Having become awoke it becomes a taunt as he is forced to return to the convention of a mediocre marriage, and his true love denied. He and Madame Olenska are the only truly enlightened people in the book, but it is because of that – not despite of – that they are forced apart. They most go their own way separately.

It’s a masterfully written book. It is mannered in ways which reflect the rigid rules of a hidebound society, but it has nuance and sensitivity. In fact much of the poignancy comes from the restraint in description.

When I look over the books that have left their mark on me this is one of them, for reasons I’ve described. There are others too. Les Liaisons Dangereuses (filmed as Dangerous Liaisons) I came to in much the same way as The Age of Innocence. I saw the movie, which transfixed me, and from that found the book. I was pleasantly surprised to find the book a masterpiece. It’s basically all letters going backwards and forwards (much of which was lifted straight from the book and into the script) which charts the descent of Valmont, a notorious rake, who stakes a bet on seducing the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, only to find himself – against expectation and desire – falling deeply in love with her. It is his awoke moment, but not one he can live with. He is doomed, and the tale is ultimately another tragedy. (Interestingly Michelle Pfeiffer played both the roles of Olenska and de Tourvel in the respective movies – one of the reasons she was one of my favourite actresses).

There are a bunch more books, but I’ll end with two. A Balcony in the Forest is by Julien Gracq. It’s set in the early days of WW2, in the phony war before Germany invades France. On the frontier in the Ardennes a young French officer is stationed with his troops manning a bunker. He meets and falls for a girl living nearby by, an innocent and natural sprite of a personality who entrances him. He finds something in himself being with her, and it is beautifully described in the book. Of course it must end. Against all expectation the Wehrmacht choose to attack through the Ardennes, and Grange, the officer finds himself in the thick of battle.

The last is A Hero of Our Time, by Lermontov. I remember where and when I bought this. I was staying with my father in Potts Point in the mid-nineties. It must have been late February and I found the book in small, local bookstore and on impulse bought it. Once I started it I couldn’t put it down, reading till finish on my dad’s couch.

It’s only a slim book and in fact is a series of linked stories featuring the same character, Pechorin. Pechorin is an extraordinary character, capable to the point of brilliance, but jaded and cynical. He is charismatic and his acidic attitude draws people to him, particularly women. He’s a man who sees through the illusions of life. He is awoke from the start, but it brings him no pleasure. Instead he is condemned to be the only man who sees clearly in a world of delusion. He is an outsider, not be design or even really temperament, but because of a clear-sighted intelligence. He feels as a result that life is a play, and ultimately worthless.

Of these characters it is he I relate to best, and then Valmont. I couldn’t stop reading in the day because so much that came from his mouth seemed true to me. The difference was that while he viewed it with a dispassionate bitterness I have felt it an illuminating truth I wanted to embody.

The best of these pieces is the longest, Princess Mary, which has echoes of Dangerous Liaisons. This is where Pechorin comes closest to feeling something true, before turning away from it – it can only be an illusion after all, and disappointment. Valmont cannot live with the truth; for Pechorin the truth is something he knows must one day pale. Better to go it alone, to endure the fate decreed to him, left to play his idle games and to defy his foes and humiliate them.

Boxes of memory

Over the last month I’ve sorted through the multitude of boxes out in the shed sorting stuff out between what I wanted to keep and what I could live without. There’s necessity in that. I’ve collected a lot of stuff over the years, more than I can conveniently transport. That situation wasn’t helped when mum died. Friends and family went through her house like locusts in the months after, but there still remained much that still useful or had sentimental value. Rather than tossing them out – this was left to me – I collected it all myself, not really wanting it, but unwilling to part with it.

Besides that there are a million books – possibly a dozen boxes worth. I’ve always had the dream of settling down in my dream home and putting together a library with all my books neatly arranged. That seems unlikely now, and so I went through those boxes as well with the notion that I would part with any book I didn’t think I would read again, or had no sentimental attachment to. I’ve not finished that process, but so far managed to separate about 20% of the books into a pile to dispose of.

These are books I’ve collected over more than 30 years. Some I haven’t read for that long. There’s a lot that have sentimental memories attached to them. As I sorted through the boxes I would add the occasional book to a third pile – those I wanted to re-read now.

For the most part these were books I’d liked greatly at the time, but was curious if I would like them as much now. I’ve read about 3-4 of them in the last 6 weeks, and so far none have had the same impact on me as they did at the time. It seems sad, but I’ve added them to the pile to sell or give away.

I started on another book yesterday I remember vividly from the time. I bought it when I was 17, and the protagonist was the same age. Summer Crossing is the story about a kid from the hard end of town falling for a mysterious and desperately alluring newcomer. It’s a clichéd story, but only inasmuch as classic stories are. I read it and went along for the ride as if it was my own. Understand, I was much like the kid in the story, though from more comfortable background. I yearned and hoped and wondered and felt myself erupt with irresistible desire.

I read the book again after that, years later. Picking it up I found an old business card for a bookmark that must have sat there since 1989. I remembered it. It was the card for a man my single mother briefly went out with. He was like a handsome used-car salesman, tall and with a head of hair turning silver, and an alluring turn of phrase. I didn’t trust him from the start, but all of that is another story.

I must have been looking for work at the time. I remember he set me up for an interview at the place where he worked in East St Kilda. His card reads ‘Retirement Adviser’ – in effect he sold superannuation and related products, and earned a good commission doing so. I had to do a bunch of tests, and as always my results were off the charts. I was brought in and this was explained to me, and I was offered a job there and then. I declined. I couldn’t see myself selling insurance. I didn’t want to do it. Most importantly, I didn’t believe in it. Even then I couldn’t do what I didn’t trust. They were nonplussed. Such considerations never entered their mind. I walked away relieved to be gone, and soon after he was gone too.

One of the boxes I opened contained about 20 years worth of writing. Mostly it’s in notebooks, but there are pages and scraps of paper too. A lot of it is embarrassing to read now, but even so, some ideas throughout, and perhaps some promise of what was to come. There’s more than just fictional stuff in there. There are the occasional observations and thoughts, but most particularly a pretty raw commentary on what I was feeling then. Much of this is on scraps of paper and the back of envelopes I’ve kept as mementoes of that time. Most poignant are the many scraps relating to B, with whom I had such a tumultuous relationship.

Memories come flooding back as I fingered the pieces of paper and read the words I’d penned so earnestly more than 20 years ago. I loved her. Had she been healthier it’s probable that we would have married, and my life would be different. We didn’t though and it scarred me for a long time. Then one day I found out she was dead and I’ve never really been able to get over that. It’s self-indulgent to say, but she’s the tragedy of my life.

I know, she has family who miss her every day and wonder what they could have done differently. I’m just the man who might have been. It might have been for me though, too. Anyway.

Among the stuff I found where desk diaries for 1911 and 1992. Among the notes about meetings and things to do I found that I had taken to briefly recording what happened with her on those days. The voice is so fresh. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen. He hopes still, and sometimes he despairs, and on days he is angry, but it is all current and real and unresolved.

It’s so sad to read now. It comes back to me. I feel regret, then sorrow. I wish it had been different. I wish I had done things differently. I was in love though. I’d do anything to make it different now. Why did she have to die? If I never saw her again and she was happy then that would be enough. But not even that. I wonder, as I must, how much I was a part of that.

Now it’s just history. Boxes of my life. One day it might be worth something when I’m famous and they’re writing books about me. Or to that person including me in their thesis. One day I’ll have to read it all again properly myself. Those were the days of my life.