Three days in Thredbo

I’m  in the dining room of a lodge at Thredbo Alpine Village, watching sunlight fall in fast-moving patches down the face of the opposite slope, by turns illuminating the lines of the chairlift as strings of silver or softening the bush into shadow.

Patches of bush are courted by blank grassy stretches, the long areas cleared for ski runs and now, in late autumn before the snow falls, criss-crossed by mountain bikes, walkers and maintenance vehicles.

Coming to Thredbo was a result of going with the flow. A friend and I intended to go away – somewhere quiet – to write. She planned to work on her thesis and I to work on various  writing projects. But her research into alpine invertebrates requires a bit more field work, so we came here, and while I spend time writing she is out at various spots along the Rams Head Range or the Dead Horse Gap Track, setting pitfall traps and photographing grasshoppers.

The view from the lodge at Thredbo.

The dining room at the lodge with a view of Thredbo’s ski slopes.

I have come here to write, but could not resist going for a hike, too – across the undulating alpine slopes from the top of Thredbo’s only summer-operating chairlift to the summit of Mount Kosciuszko at 2228m elevation.

Kosciuszko is an easy-to-reach summit by the standard of world peaks: the chairlift takes you to an elevation of 1925m so it is a climb of 300m over an easy walk of less than 7km one-way.

At the summit of Mount Kosciuszko.

At the summit of Mount Kosciuszko.

Nonetheless, walking to Kosciuszko’s summit felt momentous in the way of measurable achievements: it might be derided as a mere hill by the standards of mountains on other continents, but it remains Australia’s highest and it has an ancient geological history.

At the summit, it was noisy with the caws of the Little Ravens who gather on the rocky peaks to feed on Bogong moths. To the west, the Australian Alps lay in a smoky purple haze, layer upon layer of ridge fading into the distance.

In walking from Thredbo to Kosciuszko, I followed in the steps of thousands who have walked that way before me. The walk is ‘paved’ by a raised metal walkway, designed to keep walkers off the vegetation and to impede the flow of water as little as possible. I only saw one person stray from the beaten track, into the boulders near the Kosciuszko Lookout.

I left early enough to beat the crowds on the way out, but on my return passed dozens of teenagers, some cheerful, others looking mutely resentful at the prospect of the climb ahead of them.

The beaten track

Across the alpine landscape towards the Main Range and Kosciuszko.

On the return trip I stopped by the small creeks that are the headwaters of the Snowy River. I have spent so much of my life in the foothills of Australian mountains in Victoria, but if I ever previously visited the Snowy, it was when I was very small and I have no recollection of it.

It seemed important to stop by the water and notice it: the beginning of a great river, albeit one that is dammed and diverted and changed beyond all recognition from its ancient past.

On stationery and the ideal workspace

Over at London Review of Books, a fascinating review by Jenny Diski of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (by Nikil Saval) caught my eye for the beautiful paragraphs about stationery. To be more precise, about stationery cupboards in offices.

I enjoyed the poetry of Diski’s description enough to reproduce a few lines here:

The perfect stationery cupboard is one in which you could be perfectly alone with floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with neat stacks of packets, piles and boxes, lined up, tidy, everything patiently waiting for you to take one from the top, or open the lid and grab a handful … Paper in quires and reams, flimsy, economy and letter quality, neatly contained in perfectly folded paper packets. Boxes of carbon paper. (Children, you interleave a crispy dark-blue onion skin between each sheet of paper, you align them bottom edge and long side, tapping the long and short sides sharply together on the surface of your desk, and if you type sharply you can get as many as six or eight copies, each slightly fainter than the one before.) Refills and spares. A cornucopia of everything you would never run out of. Paper glued into pads or notebooks. Lined and unlined. Spiral, perfect bound, reporter. Envelopes with and without windows. Ring binders. Snap binders. Box files. Sticky white circles to reinforce the holes made by paper punches. Paper punches. Green string tags to go through the holes. Labels. So many blank labels. White, coloured, all shapes and sizes. And a mechanical labeller with plastic tape to emboss. More than enough supplies so that if a thing is done wrongly, spoiled or not quite right, mistyped, misspelled, holes punched in the wrong place, pencil broken, you throw it away and get a fresh one from the stationery cupboard that never runs out because it is there always to provide more.

This takes me back to my own delicious experience of workplace stationery cupboards – indeed, a whole room of stationery surrounding the photocopier just across the corridor from my mother’s office.

Most of all I remember the in-trays full of coloured paper – stacks of different heights of every solid colour you could think of: shades of yellow melding to gold and orange; red orange then red and pinky red and pink, and on it went.

I liked to take a sheet off each stack and put them all together, but there they lost their magic and became an untidy assortment of too many colours. The sheets were better off left on their solid, perfect stacks on the shelves.

The fascination with stationery doesn’t seem to go away as I grow older – something Diski understands. Her review talks also of the desire to organise the office space – in traditional office workspaces and in the home office too:

It isn’t just a drive for cost efficiency, but some human tic that has us convinced that the way we organise ourselves in relation to our work holds a magic key to an almost effortless success.

The stationery comes into this ‘human tic’, of course – stationery needed for organising and perfect labelling and sorting and tidying and making sure that whatever you needed would always be at hand – even if you only needed it once every six months. The swivel pins that could be found in the stationery room opposite my mum’s office fell into this category: you could use them to attach a round piece of card with a pizza slice cut out to a square piece of card and have the round one rotate to reveal things like ‘gone to lunch’, ‘not in today’, ‘on holidays’, ‘concentrating’. Clearly vital – on rare and singular occasions.

Cafe wordsGrowing up, I had a little wooden desk tidy designed to hold different sized writing papers and pads and envelopes, with a place for a fountain pen and inkwells: my version of the office stationery cupboard and a remnant of organisational impulses from a century ago.

You might imagine that the impulse for stationery and for organising one’s desk in this way would have vanished with the ubiquitous computer and with the fashion for minimalism. Instead of ring binders and notepads and different coloured pens you just have the laptop and the iPad – right?

Yet the desks of those with an impulse for organisation at my last workplace were still home to stationery organisers, with staplers and sticky tape rolls and envelopes and pads of paper. The desks of those without that impulse inevitably became cluttered with bits of paper printed out by people who didn’t know how to use track changes or didn’t like reading on the screen.

The blank pages of a notebook always seem more inviting than an empty word document open on my fingerprinted laptop screen. But desks these days must always have space for a laptop (at minimum, if not a desktop computer) and the cords that come with it: the organised items of stationery have to fit in around these awkward intruders. When you’re in a hurry it’s the computer that’s in use and not anything else, so the stationery is pushed to the back.

My solution is to have a big desk, with no drawers: so you can shift your chair along to go from paper to screen. Computer and cords on one side; notebooks in easy reach on the other – that’s the theory. Perhaps I’ll reclaim the wooden desk tidy from my childhood.

Above is a photo I took when writing in a café a few years ago. I enjoyed writing from a café then and still do on occasion, but Diski’s take on it is perhaps a bit too close for home:

…there is something baffling and forlorn about the sight, as you walk past café after café window, of rows of people tapping on their MacBook Air. There for company in the communal space, but wearing isolating headphones to keep out the chatter, rather than sitting in their own time in quiet, ideally organised, or lonely, noisy, cramped home offices.

In the meantime, my big unorganised desk is neglected and instead I’m sitting at the kitchen table, away from the distractions of stationery: there is just the laptop and some flowers in a vase. It feels positively minimalist!

Place, time and writing

I’m back in Fremantle – not just as a visitor, but back here to live. It’s been five years since I last ‘lived’ in this town, though my time here five years ago was an interlude between travels. By other measures, it’s been over six.

Am I home? I’m not sure, and I’m tired of thinking about it. My sense of place has been disrupted in the last two years: the way I think about all the places that could be home – Ensay, Melbourne and Fremantle – has changed.

Fremantle is familiar; the house is homely; there are people that I care about here. But I am not sure any longer which feelings of ‘home’ matter. Is it having a roof over your head in a building that you call home? Is it the people, the landscape, the community or the work that you do? Is it a confluence of all these?

I am not ‘out in the world’ at the moment, and I know that doesn’t help. Instead I have six weeks ahead with few commitments; with the freedom to do as I choose, within the confines of finance and geography.

Although this is a luxury, it is also a little terrifying. The main ambition in this time is clear: to write.

It is terrifying because if I cannot write or if I do not write, then there are no excuses. Unpacking doesn’t take six weeks. The house is cold but not that cold. The distractions are few. And most of all, I don’t have to spend eight hours a day at a computer working on things that are not my own projects. Yes, put like that, this time is a luxury.

But as a friend of mine, Eli Glasman, wrote in his most recent blog post, staying home and tapping away at ‘whatever’, ‘whenever’, is not being a writer: it’s simply not having to work. The luxury of time to write is in that sense not a luxury at all, for as a writer, one must therefore use that time to work. It is not time that you can watch pass leisurely: you must occupy it by working hard.

Despite the need to work, there is luxury in having a house to one’s self during the day, in sitting near a high window with a view, in glimpses of the ocean, in being back in the west in time for a dramatic winter.

But, enough window gazing for now: it is time to  work.

Looking west: an evening with Tim Winton

It’s four years since I left WA and in that time I keep hearing about how it’s changed. ‘It’s so expensive.’ ‘The airport is full of miners in fluoro.’ ‘The place has changed.’

But I brush it off – I’ve been back many times in these four years and the port city of Fremantle where I grew up has been much the same in many ways. The differences have been small enough to ignore — after all, I’m there on holiday so it’s easier to stay disconnected.

Sunset from South Beach – Olympus OM-1N, Kodak Gold 100 (exp 1989)

But after hearing Tim Winton speak at a Wheeler Centre event at Melbourne’s Town Hall in late October, all this talk about WA is starting to sink in.

I had mixed feelings going to see Winton speak about his new novel Eyrie. It’s set in Fremantle, one of the two places I call home. I was nervous about this famous novelist – even though he’s from the west – getting stuck into my town in his fiction. There was something odd about seeing Winton speak on the wrong side of the country – as though I might be mistaken for an east coaster, a Melbourne bohemian looking across the desert with a condescending eye towards that distant western city. Continue reading

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.

Emerging Writers’ Festival: Aussie Voices

On Sunday I attended the Aussie Voices panel as part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival Town Hall Conference. The panel proposed the questions, “Does Australia have a literary voice? Who tells the stories of Australia? And are our literary voices representative of the people of Australia?”

I’ve been thinking about it ever since, because some of the questions it raised relate to things that I am grappling with in my own work.

Tamara Barrett has blogged about the session, and she has some good quotes from the panellists that I missed. What I want to engage with here is the question of how white writers – writers of Anglo descent – can contribute to a diverse voice in Australian literature. It’s something that Barrett raised in her blog post, and that crossed my mind during the panel as well.

Continue reading

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!

Review of Rising Water on Crikey

Yesterday my review of Tim Winton’s play, Rising Water, went up on Crikey’s theatre blog, Curtain Call. It’s the first review that I’ve pitched anywhere apart from upstart and I have lots of respect for Crikey, so I was delighted!

The review is here if you’d like to read it.

The play received a bit of flak in a review in The Age last week; in contrast, the review on PerthNow of the WA showing was largely positive. One of my friends suggested that, as a Western Australian myself, it was compulsory that I like Winton’s writing (and the play is very Winton)… I reckon I could mount an essay-length argument against that statement, but perhaps my sandgroper upbringing gives me an emotional attachment to Winton’s WA-located writing. Certainly Dirt Music, Breath and the Lockie Leonard series struck me for their powerful evocation of place.

As a writer, I am drawn to place; so perhaps it is to be expected that as a reader, I am drawn to writing which captures place as powerfully as Winton always does. Of course, the other element present in so much of Winton’s writing is an attachment to the ocean, and this invariably draws me in.

Rising Water is showing at the Playhouse, Melbourne, until September 10. Tickets available here… and yes, I would whole-heartedly recommend it.