Melbourne, Berlin, London, Coventry & Beirut

Poetry can take you to many places. On Wednesday night we travelled to all these cities without leaving the discomfort of the Poetry Café’s infamous orange plastic chairs. I was one of four invited readers at South Bank Poetry magazine’s First Wednesday event, along with Norbert Hirschhorn, Peter Raynard and Amy McAllister. The time allotted to each featured poet is generous – twenty minutes in total, split between the two halves of the evening.

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First Wednesday, Poetry Café, 2nd March 2016

I began my first set with one of my few Melbourne poems, remembering the Seaview Ballroom where I saw bands such as The Birthday Party, The Scientists and The Go-Betweens. Unhappy days but life-changing music. Then two poems that came out of the six months I lived in West Berlin (as it was) way back when. A necessary bleakness. Cheers, the first poem I had published in South Bank Poetry, hopefully lifted the mood. I felt myself to be a Londoner when I realised I was saying ‘cheers’ unselfconsciously, in that ‘thanks’ and ‘see you’ kind of way. After a few poems from Triptych Poets, I finished my first half set with a poem about the job I quit just over a year ago. No regrets!

In the second half I performed some fairly new poems, including a few horticulturally themed ones, and enjoyed giving these poems an airing.

I first met Peter Raynard at a South Bank Poetry launch a couple of years ago and remember being impressed by his confident performance, and surprised to learn that he’d only started writing poetry relatively recently. He’s since set up Proletarian Poetry, an online anthology of poetry of working class lives, and his own poetry has gone from strength to strength. He provided the Coventry connection, with several hard-hitting poems set in his home town. There’s a visceral quality to many of Peter’s poems, but also great wit.

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Peter Raynard

Amy McAllister described herself as a ‘cavewoman’ as she doesn’t do Facebook or other social media, though she had a very funny poem about why she’s not on Facebook. Her background is in slam poetry and her poems – mostly, but not exclusively, about boys – are fast-paced, bursting with wordplay, and often take the poem’s central idea to an extreme. She’s also lived in Berlin and her reference in one poem to a kebab-strewn pavement definitely resonated across the years for me. An energetic performer, she’s capable too of those poignant ‘aah’ moments no poetry reading should be without.

Norbert Hirschhorn brought us the smells, sounds, tastes and heartache of Beirut, where he lives some of the time. His are beautiful and generous poems, full of humanity and sensual detail. These are poems I will be seeking out, to read and savour again on the page.

All in all, a cosmopolitan and well travelled night.

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Norbert Hirschhorn

devouring Barracuda

The book: Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

Start time: Thursday 14th May approximately 11 p.m.

Finish time: Sunday 24th May approximately 8:45 a.m.

Number of pages: 513

This is fast for me. I’d wanted to read this for a while but it looked like a chunky novel and not one I could easily carry around with me. I’ve been a Tsiolkas fan ever since I read Loaded many years ago, and I’ve written before that I think he’s one of the most important contemporary Australian writers around.

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry recently – pamphlets, collections, magazines – and had a  real hankering to read fiction, to be immersed in a novel. On that Thursday 14th May, we had a good friend staying over, a fellow writer and expat, who’d read Barracuda in a couple of days the Christmas before last. Her enthusiasm prompted me to dive in, and I read in long chunks, mostly in bed, at the start and end of the day. The writing is vivid and gripping, and what I love about Tsiolkas is that he tackles difficult issues – or his characters do – head on. They have conversations and arguments. They live in the real world, and struggle with what it is to be human, and as the blurb says ‘what it is to be a good person – and what it takes to become one.’

The novel is about dreams for success and what happens when failure strikes. The central character, Daniel Kelly, is on course to become an Olympic swimmer when that dream implodes. The book deals with class – and despite what many people seem to think, Australia is not a classless society; the violence that simmers and occasionally erupts in social interactions, and which is reflected in a coarseness of language; the ambivalent role of sport in Australian society; and the complexities of family and home. There are wonderful passages describing the experience of swimming, and Tsiolkas draws parallels between reading and swimming as Kelly later finds stillness and meaning through books: ‘words were the water and reading was swimming.

Tsiolkas is a thoroughly engaged – and engaging – writer. Barracuda left me feeling, not homesick exactly, but wishing that I could write about London the way he writes about Melbourne. Is anyone doing that?

off to the charity shop

I bid farewell to an old favourite the other day. A school satchel that has seen better days, and for the last few years, if not longer, has hung, not quite forgotten, on a hook on the back of the door that hides our hot water tank.

satchel
last outing

I bought it decades ago, before satchels became trendy and expensive and available in all sorts of funky colours and patterns. It’s not from my school days, but the start of my working life, before I’d ever been overseas. I don’t remember now exactly where I bought it, somewhere in Melbourne, but I do remember why. I was obsessed with someone a little older than me, unavailable, rarely encountered. He carried a satchel around, like this one, dangling off his shoulder. Not aiming for cool or making a statement; just different, and he probably hardly thought about it. But I thought about him and part of him was this satchel-wearing. So I sought out and bought a plain leather school satchel. I guess it made me feel connected to him in some tiny way. And when I couldn’t shake off my obsession and decided to buy a one-way ticket to London in order to force a change in my life, the satchel came with me.

So it’s a mixed bag, if you’ll pardon the pun. It started in obsession, unhappiness and despair. But I’ve never regretted the decision to come to London, and although it’s not always been  easy, I’m certainly much happier now than I was back then. And so on Thursday afternoon the satchel came on one last outing with me, to a local charity shop. Maybe it will be picked up by another restless soul or maybe it will be ragged. Whatever its fate, it was more than time for me to let it go.

 

Melbourne scrapbook

Here are some snaps and snippets from my recent trip home. Home? To the city where I was born, where I grew up, that I made a conscious choice to leave many years ago. London is home now. Melbourne is family, a few friends, home-but-not-home. What’s that line from a Gang of Four song? ‘At home she feels like a tourist.’ I need a map, I’m given a Myki, sometimes I can’t understand what the shop assistants are saying.

Sliced thumbnail, April 6th 2014
Sliced thumbnail, April 6th 2014

I sliced through my thumbnail whilst shredding lettuce for a salad. Cut thumbs seem to be the poet’s injury of choice – witness Sylvia Plath’s Cut, and more recently Josephine Corcoran’s post. Luckily, it was my left thumb, and the friendly fireman who lives across the road from my brother and sister-in-law bandaged my thumb up expertly.

 

 

 

 

 

Squirrel cake, April 7th 2014
Squirrel cake, April 7th 2014

I helped my brother construct a squirrel-shaped cake for my niece’s ninth birthday. This was a big hit, and also a lot bigger than any real squirrel, so entirely appropriate in the Australian context. When I first arrived in London and saw squirrels darting about in the parks I was surprised at how small they were. I’d expected them to be a similar size to possums. And hedgehogs – well, they must be about the size of an echidna, surely?

Mr Mao teaches me relaxation techniques
Mr Mao teaches me relaxation techniques

 

 

Quality feline time with Mr Mao. Note also the fancy footless tights I acquired from a shop in Port Melbourne.

 

 

 

 

 

modest literary purchases
modest literary purchases

On this trip, I only visited a couple of bookshops. In the Brunswick Street Bookstore I bought issue 3 of Melbourne based story magazine The Canary Press, which I read on the flight back to London. Some great yarns accompanied by gorgeous illustrations. I also bought Liquid Nitrogen by Jennifer Maiden, which I’m very much looking forward to reading. I have a poem by Jennifer Maiden pasted onto the first page of the first journal I wrote in when I came to London. And I picked up the Text Publishing edition of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride since I couldn’t track down a copy in London.
Books for Cooks on Gertrude Street is packed with mouthwatering foodie books, both new and second-hand, so just the place to lay my hands on a very reasonably priced first edition of Donnini’s Pasta Book. My brother had made pasta with Donnini’s Garlic and Oil Sauce – simple and delicious – so I thought this recipe book was a must-have for my chef at home in London.

Bolivian hat, Market Lane Coffee, April 14th 2014
Bolivian hat, Market Lane Coffee, April 14th 2014

Coffee is practically a religion in Melbourne. The latest cult is the pour over, and I was initiated into its ritual preparation at the Victoria Market outlet of Market Lane Coffee. It’s a rather gentle and quiet process, but requires precise measurements (weight of coffee grounds, volume of water, optimum temperature) and some classy equipment (ceramic filter cone, stainless steel kettle with a slender spout ‘for precise pouring’, glass jug). It was a pleasure to watch the measuring and timing and the circular pouring; and then to savour the delicate porcelain mugful of 100% Rwandan Nyarusiza bean pour over coffee, on an unhurried Monday lunchtime. And while they sell most of the equipment, and bags of beans, and Market Lane aprons, the Bolivian hats on the whitewashed walls are for display only.

I enjoyed other coffees too. I stole a couple of hours for myself one afternoon, and sat in Barry on High Street, Northcote, with paper and pen and a good latte, and cobbled a few sentences together. And jotted down my exchange with the waitress.

Waitress: “What can I get you?”
Me: “Just a latte please.”
Waitress: “Awesome.”

Yes, I thought, I am a stranger in my home town.

 

a short, vaguely feminist, marginally existentialist reading list

My younger sister asked me this week to help her with a request from a work colleague, who had approached her for suggestions of female writers to read. Her colleague likes Sylvia Plath, apparently, is interested in feminism and existentialism, and is planning to take four months off work to go to France and read and drink wine. I’m happy to label myself a feminist, and I’ve been interested in, and influenced by, existentialism ever since studying philosophy in the first year of my subsequently abandoned BA. So I took up the challenge, though I’m usually reluctant to recommend books to other people, as reading taste is so personal. After wracking my brains and trawling my bookshelves, this is the somewhat eclectic list I’ve come up with.

Virginia Woolf – I love Orlando, the sweep of it and the gender switches. It’s one of the few books I’ve read more than once. Mrs Dalloway also impressed me, with its interior perspective, the time shifts, and the depiction of London shortly after the end of the Great War. And of course A Room of One’s Own should be on every feminist’s, every woman writer’s, reading list.

Colette – not feminist per se but French and a wonderful writer, especially of feisty female characters. An inspiring woman.

Simone de Beauvoir – her early novels She Came to Stay and The Blood of Others are flawed but powerful nonetheless. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is a classic. As is The Second Sex – another must read for budding feminists.

Jean RhysWide Sargasso Sea – a prequel of sorts to Jane Eyre, taking the point of view of Mr Rochester’s first wife. Brilliant. And also Rhys’s early novels. I’ve read Voyage in the Dark and Quartet, and may have read After Leaving Mr McKenzie and/or Good Morning, Midnight, ages ago, but I’m not sure. Great titles though. Again, not overtly feminist, but Rhys writes beautifully about diffident, awkward, vulnerable women. Gorgeous, limpid writing.

Deborah LevySwimming Home. Published last year, I read and loved it before it was on the Booker shortlist (just so’s you know). Short and incredibly powerful. “About” depression, failed or failing relationships, madness. It’s compelling and every detail is spot on. There are strong female characters, and quite a tender portrayal of a teenage girl. And, while its subject matter is dark and difficult, the novel itself isn’t unrelentingly bleak. Every sentence sings.

Françoise SaganBonjour tristesse. I read this when I was in my late teens or early twenties. My New Oxford Companion to Literature in French reminds me that ‘the novel describes adolescent sexuality in a casual yet poignant tone’. She was French, and left-wing, so that gets her onto my list.

Margaret AtwoodSurfacing and Cat’s Eye – themes of jealousy, childhood, the cruelty of children. Apparently Atwood doesn’t describe herself as a feminist writer but her books deal with issues around gender, identity, patriarchy, as well as concern for and deep feeling for the environment and natural world. The Handmaid’s Tail is disturbing and dystopian. I enjoyed Alias Grace, based on a real person, Grace Marks, a servant convicted of murder in the mid 1840s. I like the idea of exploring and giving voice to marginalised characters.

Helen GarnerMonkey Grip. Toxic relationships, children, Melbourne in the 70s. I remember this novel having a big impact on me, finding it quite shocking at times. I think partly this was due to it being set in Melbourne, the mix of familiarity and the very different lives to my own portrayed in the novel. I wonder how it would read now. My memory is that female friendship is one of the central themes of the novel, and Garner is very concerned with emotional truth, and the complexity of relationships. I’ve read some of her other (early) novels too, and my lasting impressions are of her integrity and the clarity and beauty of her prose.

Now, of course, I also want to take four months off, go to France, read and drink wine. Only four months would not be long enough. Still, this has reminded me of some great writers to go back to, so many more books that I want to read, and reread.

and then there were two

My visitors have departed. The airbeds have been deflated. The flat suddenly seems remarkably spacious, and strangely quiet. There’s a new mark on the back of the kitchen door, recording the current height of my niece. She’s grown 34 centimetres since the last visit 5 years ago. 34 more centimetres and she’ll have outgrown me. We haven’t yet taken down her handwritten signs adorning other doors in the flat: ‘Knock on this door and wait for someone to answer. Please.’ ‘Do not open this door.’ We open doors without knocking, prop them open, enter rooms without tripping over bedding, sleep better back in our own bed. And feel torn. I feel torn. There’s the life I’ve made here in London, the love I’ve found here; the strong friendships, all the cultural stimuli, and the connection, yes, I feel to this city, the place I chose to move to. And there’s the pull of family ties, that I fought against, struggled with, then after many years slowly learnt to appreciate; my long-suffering, patient family in Melbourne, another city I’m intrinsically connected to, affectionate towards, but when I go ‘home’ there, I’m a visitor.

It’s easier once I know my family have landed safely and are back on solid ground. Just on the other side of the world. And Nick and I adjust back into our curious, not very routine ways, that suit the two of us. I catch up a bit on my journal (a never-ending task, until that final full stop), dip into the latest LRB, read some poetry when I’m on the tube, mull over what fiction to embark on next (Will Self’s Umbrella, probably). And we discuss writing, an endless thread between us. It’s time to refocus. Writing, which I have to be engaged with, somehow, to be true to myself (pardon the psychobabble). Writing, which I could do anywhere in the world, but at the moment, for the foreseeable future, I am writing in London.

London latte

Friday morning. I’m in the city for a course, and I’m early. Summer’s ending. It’s a bright, fresh morning and I’m in fine spirits, for no particular reason other than the weather, and that’s a good feeling. I have a quarter of an hour before I’m due in the world of work, and I’m going to try out the funky café I spotted the previous day, the one that looks like it’s been transplanted from Melbourne. Association. Hard by the Gherkin, it’s light and airy. I’m drawn in by the aroma of coffee and pastries. I order a latte and sit at the end of a long tile-topped table. There are jugs of water with sprigs of mint. Music, but it’s not obtrusive. My latte arrives and I am not disappointed. Strong but not bitter, a good colour, and the right proportion of milk to coffee. And I dive back into the journal I was reading on the tube, RABBIT, ‘a journal for non-fiction poetry’, which I bought on my last trip to Melbourne back in March. RABBIT number three: The Visual Issue. I’m surprised and excited by almost everything in this smart, handsomely produced journal. Ekphrastic poems inspired by paintings and art installations; Oulipian limericks that rhyme visually but not aurally; concrete poems and Dada-istic typographic explosions; references to Sweeney Reed and Fred Williams and Yarra Bend Park. I’m drinking a proper heart-starting latte and reading some mightily impressive poetry, and for fifteen minutes that is my world, I’m in London and Melbourne at the same time. Transported.

not quite dispelling the blues

A brisk walk around Battersea Park. Looking for signs of spring, and for the rhyme or reason that I’m still wedded to London. I need to gaze at water but The Thames is low, the tide right out. The brightest thing in the park is an out of place wattle tree, shaking its yellow blossoms against the grey-white sky. But yes, there are also magnolia trees putting forth their creamy flowers, clumps of daffodils, a few small patches of bluebells; skittish squirrels; dogs off the lead haring about. The pungent reek of manure. A couple of hellebore nod, poking up out of dark earth. I love these downcast flowers, which I knew as Christmas roses as a child. They grew in our garden in Melbourne in the antipodean winter, nowhere near Christmas.  A bit further on in my therapeutic walk, there’s a good spread of yellowish green euphorbia, which somehow lifts my spirit a notch. Next week, the clocks go forward. We’ll be on British Summer Time. Perhaps by then I’ll have re-acclimatised, once more feel able to call myself a Londoner.

Wattle tree in Battersea Park

melbourne calling

Ten days down and six to go of our short trip to Melbourne. Ignoring the vagaries of the weather, we have packed in quite a lot, in between catching up with family and friends. Highlights so far:

Cafe culture. It would be easy to believe all Melbournians spend at least a third of their time sitting in or outside trendy local cafes, chewing the cud and sipping specialist coffees. Best latte I’ve had so far (and all have been streets ahead of a London latte) was at Penny Farthing, accompanying a plate of Smash – not instant mashed potato, but a mouthwatering mix of avocado and Persian feta on sourdough toast. Bliss.

Collected Works bookshop. To my shame, I’d never visited this bookshop before. The focus is ‘Poetry and Ideas’, and the shelves are packed with an impressive range of poetry volumes, pamphlets and magazines – new, obscure, cannon, avant-garde, antipodean, UK, translations, anthologies, lit crit – complemented by philosophy, politics and quite a bit more. There’s room to browse; the walls are covered in posters and leaflets for readings and events, chronicling Melbourne’s literary past and present; and often a photocopied review, obituary or photo stuck to the shelf above the work of an individual poet. What makes a visit to this shop an even more pleasurable experience is the friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgable bookseller, Kris Hemensley.

Grainger Museum. This is a fascinating museum, showing just a fraction of the composer and pianist Percy Grainger’s extensive collections and archive. Housed in a modernist, semi-circular building designed in close consultation with Grainger himself, the museum displays memorabilia from Grainger’s years as a feted concert pianist, travelling from Australia to Europe, London and the United States; his pioneering work documenting and recording folk music on wax cylinders; his broad and eclectic interests ranging from vegetarianism to decorative arts and textiles across cultures and eras. As well as Grainger’s first practice piano, the museum showcases experimental instruments developed by Grainger and others. He emerges as a complex man, endlessly curious about the world and its people, and modest about his own (actually very substantial) achievements.

Heide Museum of Modern Art. Home of John and Sunday Reed from the 1930s to their deaths in 1981. The current exhibition celebrates 30 years of the gallery’s existence, and features key works from the Heide collection including early Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester and many more. As well as the artwork, it was fascinating to see the original farmhouse where the Reeds lived, entertained and encouraged many budding Australian artists. Sidney Nolan painted his Ned Kelly series in the dining room, and on the floor there is still a small section decorated by Mike Brown in the 1970s. Black and white photos by Albert Tucker on display in the kitchen capture breakfast gatherings and arvo teas en plein air. In the modernist house built in the late 1960s, progressively more abstract works from the ‘6os by the likes of Fred Williams are on display on the ground floor, while the lower floor shows varied and vibrant work from the ’70s generation of artists, exploring the new synthetic paints and exploding the conventional boundaries of art. I particularly loved the junk constructions of the Annandale Imitation Realists, which are playful and iconoclastic. Great, also, to see some of Sweeney Reed’s concrete poetry.
Such a rich cultural history springing out of a few hectares of bushland on the outskirts of Melbourne.