On writing, in slivers of time

At different times, life takes on a different character. New pursuits become meaningful, new cares get in the way, one’s time is spent in different ways.

In January this year, I started working full time, and the character of my life from week to week changed dramatically. I have written very little since then outside of work – very few posts for my blog, and very little of my own writing in general. The exception is the six days I spent at sea in late June – then, I wrote every day, mostly during night watch when the others were asleep.

This full-time work life means that nearly everything that’s not official paid work must fit into four types of time.

One is the slim sliver of space that exists between waking and running for the bus in the morning; time that is barely there unless I get up especially early, but on most days is enough for the easy camaraderie of breakfast and, when the days are long enough, for a walk with the dog.

There are the evening hours when, ten hours later, I return from work, tired and usually feeling a little absent; in mid-winter, there is only darkness.

Then there are the two or three hours that comprise public transport to and from work and lunch breaks; again, slim slivers where my mind has no time to shift gears.

And finally there is the rushing, yawning, waking, lazing, busy weekend that sometimes seems to be just a bookend either side of a long week.

This organisation of time into blocks that are largely inflexible is not unusual; it’s reality for nearly everyone in full time work, and I’m lucky because I rarely have to work beyond my 8 hour day. But nonetheless it has been a change – a big change from last year, when I worked mostly from home, had to ‘be somewhere’ two or three days a week, and had the freedom (and pressure) of organising my own time for study. It’s also a big change from years past when I worked on ships – at sea, time is even more regimented but I lived and breathed my job in a completely different way.

I always think about writing, of course, but I often manage not to do it. It’s easier to walk the dog, or clean the house. Most writers seem to face this; the topic of writers procrastinating has been done to death.

But now it is August, and the year is nearly two thirds over. If I cannot write this year, then who is to say I ever will?

And so I must. Minimum one blog post per week? Two? Or a paragraph a day? A page? A few lines? Something published by Christmas?

Maybe these words won’t be about ships and the sea, although there is so much left to write. Maybe they won’t even be about Ensay, yet. These things take a while to write into, and I’m out of practice – so perhaps it’s best to start with the here and now: the character of an office job, and of the other life squeezed in around it.

Land, sea and misogyny

Broome beach and dinghyWhere to begin?

After three weeks away, mostly thinking of the sea, it is hard to know where to begin writing now that I am back on land, in a cold city, back engaging with the political landscape, albeit slowly and without my usual enthusiasm.

I’m far from the warm northern waters that I have been floating on for ten days. While I was away I wrote often of the sea, as I watched its changing moods from the safety of the cockpit on a six day voyage.

When I reached land on the northwest fringe of the continent, the texture of hills far to the south came flooding back into my thoughts, even as I noted the red Kimberley dirt and tried to divine some sense of understanding of this place where red sand meets blue water.

On the day we arrived in Broome and dropped anchor in Roebuck Bay, just after the nine metre spring tides, we tuned into the news in time for the Labor leadership spill. We had left Indonesia six days earlier with a female PM still in charge in Australia, and arrived in Western Australian waters to find the male PM returned.

Now I am reading Anna Goldsworthy’s Quarterly Essay, alongside Kim Mahood’s Craft for a Dry Lake, while The Long Way by solo sailor Bernard Moitessier waits on my desk. Land, sea and misogyny: three threads that are mingling and meeting now that I am home, away from the sea but with the motion of the waves still in my blood as it always will be.

Where to begin?

When inside and outside don’t match

Walking to the bus this morning, it is a perfect summer’s morning.

The air is cool, the sun is bright but low, the heat of the day hidden for now in the bluest sky.

It is beautiful, even with traffic, even knowing the heat will come, even with a day in an office ahead.

But today is not just any day; it is the birthday of someone very special who is no longer here. The first birthday will always be the worst – at least, I hope so.


I remember that this is one facet of grieving – feeling this disconnect between inside and out; memories and feelings that don’t match the outside world.

Nothing has changed, yet everything has.

This sunny busy optimistic suburb is a long way from home, a long way from what we have lost. (It is not just me – I imagine us as a web of people, all across this city, up in the high country, across the continent, who will look at the date today and remember, and in so doing will strengthen the shared memories and past that lie between us all.)

Here, on a birthday, I am too far away, unable to go to the place that would offer both comfort and pain.

And I am also too close, for those hills and that skyline and the sound of that river are just there, as they will be forever.

Summer battlefields

It has happened, gradually but surely – fire now so a part of every Australian summer that we head into the hot weather as though into a war zone, prepared for loss, aware that at some level loss is inevitable.

Like war zones, we watch fire on our TV screens and see the photos in the paper. Like in war there are the heartbreaking stories of survival; everyone’s favourite is Sam the koala drinking from a firefighter’s water bottle in 2009.

We watch all this on TV or turn on the radio driving home to listen. But most war zones are far away from our quarter acre blocks in the suburbs or our city apartments.

Not here, not with the fires. Melbourne, so often ensconced in its own little world, was shocked by being blanketed in smoke in 2009. I dropped in and out of the city early that year, passing through a few weeks after the fires; Melbournites were still stunned at this encroachment so close to their big safe city.

And it’s close every year, every bad fire season. Even for those of us living in the city. It’s our relatives, the farmers who grow our food and wool, the tree changers of my parents’ generation, the friends from rural areas that we made at uni or in the workplace – these are the people in the war zones of 45 degree temperatures, 40 knot winds, and fire.

I’ve never been dangerously close to a bushfire. But close enough. A spot fire over the hill, quickly burnt out due to lack of fuel load after a drought. Fires on the ridge beyond a relative’s property, flames burning down a cousin’s driveway. A house lost in the big town up the valley. Cleaning out the gutters, nailing shutters over windows and gratings, testing the fire pump. Watching the weather through the summer, worrying about the animals. Keeping in touch with the relatives to see if everyone’s alright. Trimming the horses’ tails. This is close enough.

I don’t have any of my red photos from the 2003 fires. They were all red or orange or brown; even photos inside the kitchen seem tainted by the red sky outside. So here is one of the mountains instead, years after the fires, but with the scars still present, and one brave little hut in the middle of it all.

Spargo Hut, Mount Hotham. Flickr/Tony Marsh

Spargo Hut, Mount Hotham. Flickr/Tony Marsh

The words behind the image

The morning light distils the cold air into something sweet and fresh. The layers of the hills are a patchwork of muted colours and texture at this time, as the sun, far to the north, illuminates them in turn, and the patterns on their faces emerge gradually into the light.

There is, as always in this land, a mix of nature close alongside that which is made and managed by humans. The textures of pasture and corrugated tin, of fence post and gumtree, of river water and bridge, complement and highlight one another on this land. It is land I know well, though not so well as the kelpie knows it, with her finely tuned senses and her quick feet.

On a winter’s morning in June, with the three young kelpies and the old border collie cross following me everywhere I went, I did not know that it was the dog in this photo that would end up with me. I thought – hoped – that she might, but we were all in limbo then, nothing certain.

Now we are far away, the dog and I, but I think often of that morning. A roll of slide film, brisk mountain air, trying to capture a ghost of the landscape while I still could. At the homestead, away to the left, smoke rose from the chimney.

But it was the last days, and the dogs knew it. On a day like today, the sun and cloud will be playing patterns with the wind on the water of the trough, undisturbed by us.

* * *

Perhaps a good photograph should stand alone, capable of telling a story without the need for words to explain it. But I am a writer first and foremost, from long before the days when I started to think in terms of images in a camera.

So for me part of the attraction of photography is the opportunity it presents for an interplay with words.

In previous years at Unsensored I have sought to explain or enhance my images to some extent with words. Not to explain in terms of where, why, how, but to suggest my own thoughts in relation to the image; to give a hint of what it meant to me.

This year, however, the image I exhibited bore no neat, four line explanation. I tried, covering pages with notes and images as I tried to pull out the words that would say enough, but not too much.

But I couldn’t do it – I could not condense what this photograph meant to me into just a few lines. I still can’t, but now, in the aftermath of the exhibition, with the photo on my wall and the dog outside my window in the sun, a blog gives more space than an image card could, so that I might try and say just a little of what it means.

Image: Olympus OM-1N, Fuji Sensia 200, expired. Click to view large.

What might have been lost

We stood under an overcast sky last night at Sidney Myer Music Bowl, clouds glowing orange with the lights from the city. As the twilight deepened, Bon Iver‘s support act, Sally Seltmann, began her set, and I felt that to be here, in this big and rushing city, was not so bad after all. In the midst of bustle and busyness, of traffic jams and too many shops, the place and the moment was an oasis to remind me of all that was good.

We bought tickets to Bon Iver late last year. At that point, a few very difficult months loomed ahead of us due to circumstances outside our control – a period of time that offered no surety as to how it would turn out in the end. The tickets were a promise for the future, an acknowledgement of hope.

So when the delicate but rousing first chords of “Perth” rang out to the audience of 12,000, I looked up to the orange sky, felt the music sweep into my body, and the sense of happiness was complete. To be there was magic; those first chords took it to a whole new level. A few drops of rain fell, a gentle reminder of the city in which we stood, and then the rain left us for the rest of the night: for the next two hours of incredible, inspiring music.

I fell for Bon Iver’s first album For Emma, Forever Ago while I was staying in a hostel on a Canadian ski mountain nearly three years ago. It fitted perfectly, and it never occurred to me that perhaps the environment was right: headman Justin Vernon wrote the album while holed up for the winter in a hut in the Wisconsin mountains, and he says he would have moved to Australia yesterday if he didn’t like the cold so much.

I have listened to the first album and, to a lesser extent, the self-titled second album, on and off ever since. Sometimes I listen with concentration, sometimes with abandon. Always it sweeps me away from the present – sometimes right away from the music, taking my thoughts elsewhere entirely, but more often the music is there beside me, sending me on a journey and coming along with me. These journeys are always into the imagination, and sometimes into the future.

To see the nine-piece band play and to hear Vernon hit the high notes in person was something else altogether. From “Perth” they slid smoothly into “Minnesota, WI” – just as these two tracks meld together on bon iver, bon iver. Vernon’s voice dropped for the second song, an indication of his vocal range that would emerge throughout the show.

The music veered from delicate melodies to thicker vocal sections. Lyrics that are barely understandable on CD suddenly became much more clear. The songs that I had heard over and over again took on new depth of sound and feeling out there under the vaulted ceiling of the clouded Melbourne sky.

It was not just the sound and atmosphere that was brilliant. The footage broadcast on two big screens either side of the stage for those of us on the lawn seating was well shot – close-ups of Vernon’s hands on guitar strings or keyboard, of the horn and saxophone and violin, of the drummer striking cymbals with wire brushes.

The backdrop to the stage hung like torn strips of bark in three V-shapes, leaving black spaces the shape of two mountains. Across this torn backdrop, images and lights played and changed: colours danced, or a blood-red river flowed against gravity; later surf rolled in. It was never distracting but it was always interesting, combining the elements that make a good music video with the live music experience.

It’s a while since I’ve been to a big concert, and there was a focus in the crowd that you don’t always get. You could sense the restless elements starting to fidget during some of the instrumental sections, particularly during the long saxophone solo at the end of “Holocene”.

Largely this was a crowd that was joyful to be there and keen to let the band know this between songs, but falling into silence during the quieter and more gentle songs. I think it’s a brave thing, to slow down and sing softly in front of a crowd that size, but Bon Iver handled it on a number of occasions before bringing back the strong beats and sending the crowd’s energy skywards again.

I’d forgotten the power of a good concert, and of hearing music that you love played live. It’s not just about the enjoyment of the moment; for me it’s also about where the music takes my imagination. It’s about the sense of calm, the cheerfulness, that you carry with you afterwards.

It’s about looking back, the next day or the next week or the next year, and remembering how it felt at the moment of the opening chords, or how it felt in the middle of the song that was the first of theirs you ever heard. There is something special, undefinable and ungraspable about just being there, with however many other people, at that moment in time when music makes the world seem bigger, fuller and happier.

Weather, essays and the first day of autumn

First of March, and the world outside is swirling – the wind, the bursts of rain, the windows rattling in their frames. It’s swirling because I am inside, looking inwards, so that the weather outside seems to revolve. It’s not going anywhere, not travelling past, but is instead centred on this house. It is a curtain over the outside world: shutting it out, shutting me away.

Inside, I’m trying to write an essay. It’s a politics essay on global environmental governance. I started from scratch in a manner that is quite unlike any essay I’ve done before. For this one, the thought processes have been different: it required more research than usual just to get a grasp of what I was dealing with, before I could begin to form an argument. I’ve never studied international politics before this unit, and with the unit itself having finished a little while ago, my grasp on the content seemed to have slipped. But today inside the swirling weather and the cosy house walls it seems to be coming back.

Much has been written about place, and the importance of place and your own space when you’re writing. This space at the desk is not always all mine and is often cluttered. It’s not normally a place where I can focus – I’m usually better off in the little bungalow in the backyard – it’s sparse and there are big windows full of greenery. Today, there is something about the weather and the possible onset of autumn that makes it okay to be studying here. It’s a good feeling!


Last year, summer was defined by the presence of the pontoon at South Beach in South Fremantle. It was there when I arrived back in WA in mid-December (I wrote about that in “On coming home”), but one day in February I went to the beach for a morning swim and it was gone. The water was, once again, unbroken from groyne to rocky groyne.

This year I’m a long way from that beach, and from that type of summer heat: in Perth it stretched on in the mid-30s, unbroken for nearly two months but tempered each day by the sea breeze. Melbourne heat feels much more oppressive, and on a really hot day I feel stranded amongst the solidity of the city: it feels so far from the sea. I could jump on a tram or a train and be looking across the bay within half an hour, but on these beaches I am still a stranger. Nowhere do I feel so far from ‘home’ as on a hot summer’s day in Melbourne.

Today is different. It’s sunny and breezy and not too hot, and outside the window where I write there is a fernery, cool and damp and growing riotously after the spring rain. The light is full of gentle colours, green and cream and the palest hints of blue sky. It is a new year, but in that artificial setting of a day and a date as somehow crucial to our lives, there has been no momentous event or shift in feeling. The past year unfolded with an endless steadiness; it was a year where the time always seemed to be running away, because of what lay ahead. The seismic shifts, the things that happened that changed everything, happened with a surprising inevitability.

They happened on days and dates that followed no pattern, and so the beginning of a new year is just a minor shift in comparison: an excuse to hang the new calendar and to realise, in the days immediately after, that writing 2/1/2011 or 3/1/2011 looks correct but isn’t. There is always a sense of dislocation in that: looking at the date and realising you have transported yourself back one year, yet have remained exactly where you are, caught in the new one, with new numbers to signify your place in time.

In spite of this, when I imagine the days, weeks and months ahead, I am ever so happy to be here, with the year opening up ahead of me like the fresh blank pages of a new diary, waiting to be filled.

Reflection on Unsensored11

Tuesday, 6 December 2011:

It’s the second last day of Unsensored11, and I’m taking the opportunity to hang out at the gallery before the images start coming down tomorrow. Somehow the day that I spent gallery sitting last week flew by and I still want more time to look, and to contemplate the images on display.

There are the four portraits of young women who are part of the punk scene, by Liam White in collaboration with Ada Conroy. The portraits are striking for the fact that they give us nothing of the faces or expressions of the women, but instead give each of them a voice. The voice is captured in the chunk of typewritten text beneath the portraits and inside the frames. There are mistakes in the text in places, thanks to the fallibility of human fingers on typewriter keys. It is appropriate, for surely in telling their story, no-one says it perfectly the first time round. There are always corrections, revisions, maybe some backpedalling.

In using typewritten text, the set of portraits also harks back to the pre-digital past. The whole exhibition does this simply because every image here is captured using film, but no exhibit does this more so than Liam’s. The portraits are analogue-shot, darkroom-printed, typewriter-explained.

There are other images in the exhibition that hark back to the past in different ways. Andrew Cosgriff exhibited “grime”, a black and white photo of Ballarat Railway station. It is an image that could almost have been taken a hundred years ago. A soot-blackened worker leands against the rail, beyond which there is a steam train. There are old-fashioned signals overhead and a thick dark plume of steam clouds the sky. It is only the modern signage – a “Ballarat” sign and another that is a line through a walking stick figure – that really gives the game away. It is, in the end, a photo from the very recent past, harking back to something older.

“At the end of the day” by Timothy D. Johnson also has the past present, subtly. The photograph is of the sun going down into the ocean, but it is shot through the rigging of a tall ship, Leeuwin II. The ship’s capping rail is in focus in the foreground, gleaming a little in the evening light. I’m proud of this one, for it is a ship that I know well and who I have sailed on for years. She is not that old, having been launched 25 years ago, but she is a traditionally-rigged tall ship and so, if you are open to it, she cannot help but make you dream of the past.

The movement in this image can only be remembered or imagined: the invisible wind that must have been blowing that evening. In “grime”, movement is present only in the steam; otherwise, it is an image of calm. The railway worker is just watching, resting or waiting, perhaps.

There are however two shots in the exhibition that are full of movement. They rely on this movement, caught and suspended clearly on film.

I am thinking of “Schooling Jackfish”, shot by Marcus Visic – an image of sleek bodies, bubbles of air, and blue – so much blue. The story behind this shot is quite remarkable, and testament to the resilience of film and the challenges that it can pose for those who remain committed to it.

The other that strikes me for its movement is “The Great Escape”, by Dave Carswell. Click through and you will see why – it is a beautifully composed image, the curving arcs of the boys as they backflip balanced by those who watch them, standing casually on the other edge of the pier.

There are several images of the sea or the coast in this year’s exhibition, unlike last year. Perhaps it is something about the warmer weather, about it being springtime when images are chosen, instead of the depths of winter. One of my favourite sets is “Point Lonsdale Pier”, exhibited by Lea Williams, three polaroids that are blue in theme and that focus on the edges of the land: the point where humans make their contact with the sea. This edge or border between land and sea is the site of my own image in the exhibition, too.

There are many more images in the gallery that draw me to them, that make me think of other things, sometimes clearly related and sometimes not. Consistently for me, though, I am drawn to the images of the ocean. Some of the portraits are engrossing, and images of Melbourne are often striking with their angles and light, but for me, the ocean has a pull that is hard to match.

Unsensored11 closes tonight (7 December). The exhibition is held yearly by the Melbourne Silver Mine, a group that is wholly dedicated to analogue photography and film techniques. This is my second year taking part in the exhibition, and I hope to be back next year!

A day on earth in Daylesford

Yesterday I went to an auction – thankfully not a house auction nor a clearance sale, but instead the auction of artist David Bromley’s collection of art and objects. He is leaving Victoria and as a result his enormous collection is being sold – yesterday was part I of the auction, at Shed 4 in Daylesford…

I was blown away – the huge warehouse was full of things. There was some of Bromley’s own artwork, such as the painting against the wall in the photo above (“Cheyenne”), as well as some of his sculptures. There were old vehicles, including the mini panel van and trailer above, covered in Bromley’s own print.

It’s the first auction I’ve been to as an adult, and it was interesting to see some pieces sell for below the expected price range shown in the catalogue, while others, like the shelf on the right of the photo above (described in the catalogue as “A rustic pigeon hold unit of twenty compartments”), sold for far more.

I loved this – “Group of boats”, oil on timber cut out, and watched it sell for over the estimated price, which nonetheless seemed reasonable. For the first time I had a hint of the pleasure one might get out of starting an art collection, of going from place to place seeking those artworks that strike a chord…

The above image shows a collection of Bromley’s sketches, laid out on a table with a lot number, ready to be sold together. Behind these are some of the many Bromley-painted cubes in the warehouse, with a different scene on each face.

The beauty of the warehouse, with the combination of furniture, art and random objects (like the ventilator funnel off a ship, or an old tin bath), lay for me in the anticipation of creativity. There was a quote from Bromley in the catalogue:

Over the years collecting for me has been no different to buying oil paints or art materials – they are all the raw materials for “painting and sculpting” the framework of my life – pieces I collected, curated, selected, sorted and then placed in my world to create a living environment that I cherish and live amongst.

I wonder how it feels to leave it all behind. Perhaps it feels like freedom, or perhaps like loss. Or perhaps it is simply time to move on, to create a new environment for the artist’s creativity, or a new Day on Earth.

I surprised myself by finding something amongst Bromley’s collection of furniture that I both wanted, needed and could perhaps afford. So I registered to bid and participated in a little bidding war with another buyer, my heart thumping away in excitement. I reached my limit and stopped bidding, stepping back from the gamble that an auction inevitably is.

I’ve come home empty handed in terms of material objects, but in spite of this I’m glad that I saw it: an incredible, eclectic and inspiring collection housed in a huge warehouse. I’m glad too that I watched as it was broken up, its myriad pieces distributed amongst those who came to see it and, if they were lucky, who took something home.

Photo credits: Panel van/Cheyenne, Baby grand/tin bath and Sketches/cubes: No Fixed Address. The remainder: mine.