Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The killers amongst us ... have feathers

Most days my walking route takes me through a small neighbourhood of Mc Mansions in a little settlement named after a school … something Mews. A primary school used to stand in the site where the houses are now. I like this part of the walk because there seems something so safe and controlled about the area; like it’s from that film with Jim Carrey – The Truman Show. I couldn’t live there – way too boring – but, for a walkway, it’s like being in a dull yet comforting department store of houses.

The other reason I like that route is because of the black and white cat I catch up with. He’s what some people call a tuxedo cat – black and white but the white is just a patch on his chest and his paws – like a white shirt poking out of a dinner suit. He wears a yellow collar and has loads of personality. I think he must be one of the luckiest cats in the western world. After all, he lives in the centre of this safe neighbourhood where no dogs have ever been sighted and, across the road from his house, is a park that’s been completely designed using native plants … meaning plenty of native birds come to visit.

Walking past there today my feline pal was nowhere to be seen. I was a little disappointed. Still, I was soon at my favourite meditation gum tree and all thoughts of puss were banished. The sun was beaming for a moment just before it set for the day and its intensity through the leaves of the tree made me feel like I was in one of those 70s sci-fi films – Omega Man or Soylent Green.

I switched off my MP3 player (David Sedaris on Radio National’s Book Show www.abc.net.au/rn/bookshow/stories/2008/2336694.htm) and got to thinking about the characters in a story I am writing. I need to figure out how to move them along and I felt a little stuck today. As I looked at the tree, though, I realised for the first time that there is a nest in it.

It’s a strange nest, it looks more like a giant grenade than an ant’s nest but I’m pretty sure it’s a bird’s nest. I walked round and round the tree trying to get a better view. A little magpie lark was the sole occupant of the tree at the time and he/she seemed to become aware of my loitering. It flew to the nest and hovered near it, then started picking and pecking around it. It was too high up for me to see what was really going on. At first I thought, ‘How sweet, it’s probably feeding its little ones in there’ but then my thoughts turned dark. I’ve always had a thing about birds, about things that flutter really. When Mr U and I were at London Zoo in the butterfly enclosure I completely freaked out when rare creatures started landing on my fire engine dyed red hair of the time. Little kids gathered around, amazed and envious. Only Mr U realised the immense will it was taking for me to not swipe those little fuckers – the butterflies not the kids – and take out something probably worth thousands of pounds, shipped directly from the Congo.

Anyhow, I have tried to fight my wing-flapping paranoia and make friends with birdies in recent years. They are all God’s creatures and very special in their way. Well that’s over with now once and for all. Last week I saw a raven killing a pigeon in the driveway of a house round the corner. It had two accomplices with it, Indian Mynahs I think. I pulled up in Mr U’s ute and honked to break up the violence. The raven flew off but not far, it’s two vampiric little mates sitting on powerlines nearby, just watching. The pigeon was ruffled up and dazed. It looked in a bad way. It made it over a neighbour’s fence but, even as I was standing there, I could see the attackers swooping down behind the posts to continue their evil deed.

So when I saw this magpie lark in the nest I went from delight to unease. Was it friend or foe to whatever dwelled inside? Was it attending to its young or eating someone else’s precious eggs?

Perspective’s a funny thing isn’t it? I’ll never know what was really happening all those many metres in the sky but, as I’ve nurtured a dislike of our ornithological friends, I choose to assume the worse.

Go Mr Tuxedo!

Monday, August 25, 2008


One junkie to the other one in the middle of the street in St. Kilda recently:

"They wouldn't give me an effing bandaid in that effing shop and now I have to wear these effing dogs all day."

She was wearing slippers with dogs' heads on them.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Farts on planes, festivals and facial hair

So Saturday was spent at a Melb Writers Festival workshop with Kate Rowland, the BBC’s Creative Director of New Writing. Is it bad that the most fascinating elements of some of these activities are the kind of people who attend them? Like the guy who somehow managed to ask a question of Kate but also slip in that he is on the ethics committee at one of the universities … I mean, who cares? What did it have to do with story structure? Plus there was the ex-arts editor of one of the major daily newspapers here who shoved her CV down my throat too. Okay, okay, I get it. You're very, very clever and, in fact, could be teaching this class rather than attending it.

You know what my theory is? (I’m going to give it to you anyway.) My theory is that these middle aged people are often VERY proficient in their original fields of work but are now dabbling in the area that every second person thinks they can excel in – writing books or movie scripts – and they can’t really cope with being back at the starter’s block professionally speaking.

Because of this, and because they are once again being spoken to as students or newbies, they feel practically violently obliged to ensure everyone knows that they are, in fact, incredibly respected in another field. I say “Fantastic! Now stick to that field and let the rest of us try and learn something here from this tutor.”

It goes to the core of the growing phenomenon that so many people, regardless of how worthy or interesting their professional field is, just don’t seem to think it compares to success … making a name for oneself … in the media. I mean, is this the 50-year-old’s version of ‘Australian Idol’?

Suffice to say these classrooms are great gathering points for mankind’s archetypes so, if nothing else is gained, characters for stories could be.

There is always the over-the-top IT genius who has consumed every episode of every obscure British and US television show in the past 20 years and is now ready to shop his 1"13 ep" - he always uses jargon - idea to unsuspecting network staff.

Then there is the girl with the nerve rash. There is ALWAYS one of these.

There is also, often, the incredibly careworn 60-something woman who looks like she’s struggled out from underneath a library desk somewhere to pop on her orthopaedics and make it to this class … where she will say NOT A WORD from 10am to 4pm.

And then there is the me … too much liquid eyeliner, aviator glasses and a penchant for the Kingston bickies that are supposed to be shared but just keep calling their Siren call.

Probably more genuinely intriguing was the crew at the memoir writing class. I’ve never been interested in this genre but went for a sticky beak and it was magic. Elderly Indian brother and sister, a man who clearly used to be a woman (‘he’ told me he ran his own self publishing business and then proceeded to talk about Snap Printing ... um puhlease), the guy who’d grown up in an Italian community in regional Victoria and wanted to capture the spirit of those times for posterity, the philosophy student who wanted to apply mythical archetypes to a family history (okay, I vagued out during her 10 minute description) but you get the picture.

The weekend finale for me was David Sedaris' reading at the Capitol Theatre last night. As well as his most recent book, he read excerpts from his diary. Now that was a treat. It’s amazing how people confide in him about everything from farting on aeroplanes to eating monkey’s brains.

I’m trying to keep my eyes and ears open now to see how day-to-day life can be transformed into witty anecdotes. Sadly, though, since last night I’ve only dealt with the guy that brought my car up from the hotel’s valet parking, the girl who made my coffee on the way home, my ginger cat and my Mum on the phone. Of course Mum did tell me about the most recent visit she had from my brother.

He came to her house to pay her back some money he’d borrowed. He’d been to the doctor for migraine medication which seems kind of redundant when he then proceeded to pour two cans of no name vodka and orange into the bottle that Mum calls “the baby bottle” which he carries everywhere in his back pack. Surely if he eased up on the voddie the headaches might take a backseat. But, hey, I’m no doctor. In the end the poor lamb handed over $50 to Mum, took $10 back ‘cause he had “no money now” and also walked away with a loaf of bread and a nice serve of smoked ham the pensioner had just bought on special from the supermarket.

See that’s just not as funny as farts on a plane.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


God I have really fallen off the perch haven’t I? I haven’t even been near my mythical meditation gum tree for over a week. I just re-read that post. God I’m a wanker sometimes.

There’s a pattern developing here though. As I head towards deadline for the mag … or other jobs … my drive to keep on tapping via the blog seems to suffer. Certainly this week with a bank job (a legal, brochure writing one, not a crime) plus the November issue of the mag I have been weighed down by words. Sad too because I have begun working on a personal project that really had me revved up – and still will – but I have had to drop the bundle for a moment.

There are only so many hours I can sit in front of this lap top, especially when the central heating is broken. No big deal. That’s the road and that’s how I’m rolling.

Pedal is to the metal now as the trip to Austin countdown commences. I have been liaising with the media/tourism unit over there for help locking down stories and have been making contact with potential targets directly. All good!

I have just made contact with Marcel the Journeyman today in the hope of interviewing him for The Age. A friend’s husband told me about this chap. He is living and working in Abbotsford for a few months and is part of a rare breed of craftsmen (think this one is cabinet maker of some description) whose roots go back to medieval Germany. You can google the phenomenon but I’ll have more to tell when I’ve interviewed the chap. Suffice to say he wears a special outfit … touch of the leather lederhosen … cannot wait! Actually I believe the look entails a black wide-corduroy suit with enormous bell-bottom pants, large black floppy hat, golden earring, collarless shirt and heavy pocket-watch. Lederhosen is a funnier word though.

This weekend is Melbourne Writers Festival time. I have a 10am to 4pm workshop on Satruday, a three-hour workshop on Sunday, a break in-between and then the Sedaris reading Sunday night with the girlies. Can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to this. Especially as I am staying at the sponsoring hotel on the Sunday so can sneak in a bit of shopping Sunday arvo … while absorbing all the lessons I have learned of course.

Lesson number one for successful writers? Dress sharp, of course. Lederhosen anyone?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Pool or tree, we all need a place of stillness and inspiration

I recently finished reading Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story which features a novelist character who talks about the “pool” we all go to, as humans, for inspiration and language, for our shared stories I suppose. King says he got this term from his College English teacher and mentor, Burton Hatlen

"Burt was the greatest English teacher I ever had,” writes King in the book’s postscript. “It was he who first showed me the way to the pool, which he called ‘the language-pool, the myth-pool, where we all go down to drink.’ That was in 1968. I have trod the path that leads there often in the years since, and I can think of no better place to spend one's days; the water is still sweet, and the fish still swim."

I thought about this today because it is joyously sunny, clean like someone’s been out overnight with the Enjo cloth and really given the sky and surrounds a good scrub. I threw on my runners and headed out for a walk and to do a few flights of stairs at the local running track but a primary school was having school sports day there – little bastards – so I had to take an alternative route.

This brought me to my favourite local spot – a huge ghostly gum tree in a local park, set amidst a ‘natural bush setting’ that has – naturally – been planted and cultivated near a football oval here in suburban land. The spot is divine though. It smells like gum and lemon myrtle and this tree, with a bench placed in a perfect viewing spot, has become my new focus of meditation. Even when I am far from the tree I conjure it up and use it as my focus. It’s got lots of visitors through its branches and the leaves are always moving. It is NEVER still. Today I hugged the tree. So now I am officially a tree hugger.

As I sat in the sun and stared at said tree I began to think about a story I am working on - a fictional, non work-related piece. Ideas started to bubble and I realised that this tree may start to become my pool; the place I go for ideas and inspiration and the place that is sweet and still. I hope my path there becomes well trod.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Peter Temple and my religious achievements

Saint Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists and writers
A lass who I once did a short course with let me know that Peter Temple was interviewed on The Book Show in connection with the Crime and Justice Festival. She was unaware of my blogging misstep so didn't pick up on the significance ... to me ... of this comment in the interview.

Temple: "So you learn to cut stuff very savagely and I was brutalised by these people (newspaper sub editors), there's no question about it. I'm thinking of demanding an apology. Many of my ex-students are demanding apologies from me, too. So...Mrs Underhill, I'm sorry."
God I feel bad now. I mean ... Mr Temple was the winner of the 2007 Duncan Lawrie Dagger award in the UK for his novel The Broken Shore. Mrs Underhill once received Dux of Year 8 for religion. And look where that has gotten her!