How Tim Winton got my mojo back, and other stories.

They all hurled sticks for galumphine mutts, their sun-fucked faces shining with adoration.

Tim Winton, Eyrie

The 2017 state election campaign was one of the most gruelling periods of my working life.

It wasn’t all because of the self-imposed workload; equally to blame was the nature of the work.

Without really intending to, I had become what felt like the sole statewide reporter questioning the Roe 8 project, simply because for every story I wrote, more swarmed from the woodwork with questions demanding answers. The more I looked in vain for those answers, the dodgier the whole project looked.

I wrote countless reports on the protests, the machine lock-ons, the clashes with police. I wrote The Idiot’s Guide to Roe 8, and covered the Senate inquiry into the unnecessary slaughter of animals caused by the haste with which the works were being rushed through pre-election. After the release of more than 350 pages of documents when Alannah MacTiernan’s Freedom of Information application was finally approved after the government spent years fighting it, I hunkered down with the documents and finally produced one of the most demanding stories of my working life, Figures fudged in Roe 8 rush job.

Roe 8 was by no means the only environmental issue I covered in the months preceding the election. I covered the Beach not Bitumen campaign against the Esplanade extension through Bush Forever land in Scarborough and Trigg and the No Houses in Wetlands campaign against the bulldozing of Carter’s Lot in Bayswater – including another trawl through Freedom of Information documents showing the approvals for the development had been based on incomplete paperwork.

I covered the establishment of marine parks scientists were calling “paper parks” because of the lack of inclusion of any sanctuary zones for marine life. I covered the race to the bottom that was the evolution of WA’s hunt-to-kill ‘serious threat’ shark policy. I covered the new Biodiversity ‘Conservation’ Act passing into law, complete with a clause allowing an environment minister to approve the extinction of any species should ‘progress’ require it.

Hot on the heels of this charming piece of legislation came the approval of the Yeelirrie uranium mine, ignoring the Environmental Protection Authority’s knockback on grounds the mine would cause the extinction of subterranean fauna species. Things that look like prawns, and aren’t cute, but whose role in purifying our underground aquifers could be significant – things that should be studied further, not destroyed by humans drunk on their own power.

As the election drew near I was going to write an opinion piece drawing all this together, but by then I was just too damn exhausted. (Note, it’s now May that I’m writing this). The only thing that kept me going was the emails that poured in from readers after every story, saying thank you, and pointing me to the next. Still, it was disheartening. I was starting to think it was just too hard to keep caring. Those emails from LinkedIn offering cushy jobs in PR, toeing the company line, were starting to look very attractive.

Especially since more emails were coming in from people asking me to investigate more stories, more stories I would never, even if there were twelve of me, have enough time to get to.

In fact, I just looked at my Evernote and found this. A blurt, jotted then forgotten on February 21.

I am utterly competent, hard, brisk but compassionate and capable. 
I am petrified 
The emails keep coming. 
Fifty-plus a day. 
I worry when i am there, 
more when i am not  
The people continue to reply
I try to leap out of the loop
But i cant stop checking
Clicking
Pecking
At these emails that just keep coming. 

Enter Tim Winton

It was in this frame of mind I picked up Eyrie. I was innocent of its subject matter, having seen it in a bookshop and remembered that I had been planning to read it since its 2014 release. I thought, now is the moment – I was headed to Rotto for the weekend for a wedding and planned serious down time.

Eyrie starts with a jangling hangover and a weird wet patch on the carpet for Tom Keely, divorced by his wife and disgraced in the public eye after an event in his previous professional life as an environmental campaign spokesman left him unemployed. The mining companies would love to have him come to the dark side in their PR departments, but he’s not yet having a bar of it.

Instead, he staggers from blind drunk to blinding daylight, trying to work out how to pay the bills now his old career has locked him out for good. He is “doubly bound, trapped like a bug in a jar – addled, livid, dizzy, butting his head and turning circles”, high up in his ‘eyrie’ – atop a bleak block of flats in Fremantle inhabited by people down on their luck.

The block, in real life, is one nicknamed the ‘suicide flats’, generally regarded as a colossal town planning mistake in Freo.

Into this block of flats, and the mess that is Keely’s life, returns a distant childhood friend, bringing a hefty set of her own problems and a vague but highly uncomfortable sense of responsibility for Keely.

Whenever I mention Tim Winton, one of my most beloved authors, inevitably someone tells me they still have a Cloudstreet hangover after being made to study it in school. I never understood this, but I never had to read it for school. I just read it because that’s the kind of nerd kid I was.

Whether or not they have a point, I say to them – get over it! You are missing out. This book is raw, angry and humbling in its brilliance.

It casts a merciless glare on to the murky underbelly of environmental politics and activism in WA, and their uneasy coexistence with the all-powerful mining industry.

It brings Fremantle and Perth into sharp relief, cities painfully under-represented in our national literature. Ours is a culture dangerously lacking in self-reflection and as Winton shines his pitiless light on Keely, he shines it on us all.

Here’s a glimpse of Freo’s cappuccino strip through the eyes of Keely:

It’s hard to look at but harder to look away, like squeezing a zit under a fluorescent bulb.

The writing makes you realise how long Winton has been honing his craft. It’s as though every year and every book that has passed has made him more devastatingly effective

He doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s stripped down to diamond hardness.

Back to work

The emails have piled up over my long weekend. But this time, a different email lies buried among them.

Would I like to interview Tim Winton pre-election on gas fracking?

You’ve got to be kidding me. I am spent. There is a week to go until I can drop this gargantuan election effort. I am behind. I still have more stories to write than I can poke a stick at. I have researched every bloody environmental issue under the sun in the lead up to this election. Except bloody gas fracking. I have only the vaguest idea of what it even is. I thought, bless me, there was one thing I was going to let slide.

Of course, I make time. I do some hasty cramming. He’s my hero.

People say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, because they will disappoint you. But this is not always true. Winton talks like he writes. He is funny and self-deprecating and wise and full of memorable idioms. He tells me it’s normal to get discouraged when you campaign on environmental issues. He riffs on power and politics and defeat in WA with the authority of someone who knows all the dirtiest secrets. I’m entranced.

He talks for 40 minutes. I try not to interrupt in case he remembers his time is valuable.

I summon energy, pull together research and write another pre-election environmental story. The result got more than 10,000 readers – testament to Winton’s star power.

There has now been a change in government. Polling said Roe 8 was a factor in the decisions of about 20 per cent of voters – a significant influencer.

The new government has helped buy back Carter’s Wetland, stopped the Esplanade extension through the dunes, and has said that while the Yeelirrie mine approval still stands, it will not approve further uranium mines. Its true stance on gas fracking remains to be seen.

My trust in governments, like everyone else’s, runs sadly low. But the election coverage was, nonetheless, worth the effort.

Eyrie? Even more so.

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac part 23: Boating for Beginners (Jeanette Winterson, 1985)

Books left: 3. Weeks left: 6 (just keep swimming).

‘I’d rather play Battleships but we haven’t any graph paper, have we?’
They hadn’t, and so they were forced to talk about the Space-Time Continuum, and whether or not you should write books which clearly fixed themselves into time or books which flouted the usual notion of time in order to clear the mind of arbitrary divisions.

boating for beginners

I revere many novelists, but it’s fair to say there are some for whom my feelings run deepest.

They include Peter Carey. Carol Shields. Lucy Maud Montgomery (shush). Isobelle Carmody. John Marsden. Tim Winton. John Wyndham.

And Jeanette Winterson.

My affair with Winterson (and it seems entirely appropriate to describe reading her books as such) began during my English degree with The Passion. This novel was assigned for a unit on postmodern narratives, but don’t hold that against it.

I’ve actually only read a couple more of her works since then, but this was enough to make Winterson one of the authors to make the most lasting impressions on me.

Long after the details of The Passion‘s alluring stories of labyrinthine Venice have faded, I remember how arrestingly its language and characters hit me, the pull of its mystery.

Winterson’s writing is sensual, thematically complex and unexpected. Her power of invention is so dazzling it seems inadequate to term it imagination or originality. Her creativity is not about novelty, charming though her novelties are; it is about what they ultimately serve to reveal, the truths about how people think and what they desire.

At least, that’s how I remember it. Is it any wonder I haven’t picked up one for so long? After uni, I craved meat and potatoes reading for several years, hence my impressive mental crime novel catalogue. And sometimes you just get out of the habit of wanting to be really moved, really unsettled. You just think… I’ve had a long day at work. I need some simple entertainment.

This sort of thinking has resulted in me hoarding several unread Wintersons for more than several years, so I thought it time to see if we still clicked, or whether my love was one best left in the past.

So I open the book and the storm hits.

Boating for Beginners, which I shamelessly chose because it was short, features a romance author called Bunny Mix, a God made of animated ice-cream and Noah, who created that God in a culinary accident.

They are pretending to make a blockbuster film, but they are actually planning to wreak havoc, destroy the world and rewrite history.

Unless, as synchronised swimmer-turned-transsexual potter Marlene says, a group of girls succeed in making “one heroic attempt at foiling that cosmic dessert and the little chocolate button that created him.”

‘I like reading books,’ insisted Marlene, ‘but I’m more concerned with how to get rid of the cellulite on my thighs. I mean, there’s plenty of books around but I’ve only got this one body.
‘Art shows us how to transcend the purely physical,’ said Gloria loftily.
‘Yes, but Art won’t get rid of my cellulite, will it?’
‘Art will show you how to put your cellulite in perspective,’ replied Gloria, wondering for a moment who was feeding her her lines.
‘I don’t want to put it in perspective,’ Marlene tried to be patient. ‘I want to get rid of it.”

Boating for Beginners turns out to be what the author herself described as a “comic book with pictures”, a laugh-out loud alternative to the Biblical flood myth, and a gimlet-eyed look at why people react to the story so powerfully.

I need not have feared it too smart to be fun. This story about people believing any story put to them, and creating their own histories, is wonderfully, confidently absurd.

I have decided to keep my pile of unread Wintersons and be less shy about dipping into it next time. Winterson is by no means a one-trick pony. She sparkles – and surprises – every time and deserves to be read now, not kept for another day.

We’re back on, in other words.

Keep or kill? In my new tradition (I am learning from this project) I am going to pass this on along with my other already-read Winterson titles. But I’m keeping those yet unread and I’m keeping The Passion.

 

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 14: Under a Glass Bell (Anais Nin, 1948)

Books left: 12. Weeks left: 19 (lucky I’m dreadful at maths, otherwise I might be intimidated).

I was not moving any more with my feet. The cave was no longer an endless route opening before me. It was a wooden, fur-lined crib, swinging. When I ceased stepping firmly, counting my steps, when I ceased feeling the walls around me with fingers twisted like roots, seeking nourishment, the labyrinthian walk became enlarged, the silence became airy, the fur disintegrated, and I walked into a white city. 

Stack of Anais Nin titles.

Surely, is fine to have two editions of Delta of Venus.

I confess to a largely irrational hatred of short stories, so it is testament to the worthiness of this project that I am digging this out this book and asking myself why I have carried it about for nigh on 10 years without reading it. As it’s more than 60 years old itself, I can’t really say, “but it’s so hot right now.”

It’s the lure of the Nin, I suppose; I have read her novel A Spy in the House of Love, her erotic fiction in Delta of Venus (which I have a gorgeous edition of, illustrated by Judy Chicago, as well as a paperback – surely, not overkill) as well as her chronicle Henry and June, about Nin’s dangerous liaisons with Henry Miller and his wife June Mansfield.

But no matter what the author’s credentials I always feel as though short stories end, usually abruptly, just when you are becoming interested and moreover, in ways that inevitably feel like sly jokes. I freely admit that the short story is deservedly regarded as an art form and my preference is purely personal, and potentially showing up a control freak, but there it is – I like a story with meat on its bones with a beginning and an end that occurs in a designated place – i.e., the end of the volume. Even short stories related through character, location or theme, such as those featuring in Tim Winton’s The Turning, are not really my cup of tea.

When you read a decent God-fearing novel, it quite properly ends when the pages do – and so when I read this slim volume, I find myself compulsively checking how many pages each story has before I start it, so I’m not caught by surprise. It turns out many of these tales are just a handful of pages.

But in the interests of the project I push on. I find vignettes with the mad beauty and frightfulness of dreams, recorded in a prose so phantasmagorical it is more like poetry – and I read it like poetry, not bothering to slow or stop at things I don’t understand, forgetting everything the moment I have read it, lulled by the illusory babble.

This is not erotic fiction, but it is no less sensuous than Nin’s erotic works.

Keep or cast off? I’ll let this one go. It’s not something I will press upon others – anyone who wants to know about Anais Nin already does, I figure – but that doesn’t mean I’ll let go of either copy of Delta of Venus. You can’t make me. Oh, there’s Smaug again.

Shrine (Black Swan State Theatre Company, Heath Ledger Theatre, September 2013)

The hole they leave is bigger than the space they took. How can that be?

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Adam (John Howard) and June (Whitney Richards) in Shrine. Image by Gary Marsh Photography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Swan’s new production of Tim Winton’s Shrine, now on at Heath Ledger Theatre, fits a big story into small spheres.

There are few plays, surely, that give voice to a story so typical of WA – 19-year-old Jack Mansfield (Paul Ashcroft) and his two schoolmates have a car crash on a country road while returning to Perth from a night out at his parents’ beach house. Jack’s friends survive; he is killed.

This narrow lens opens a window into the lives of people who are part of a story so common in WA: otherwise privileged teenagers drinking and killing themselves in powerful cars on treacherous country roads, so often pitiful crosses such as the one draped in an Eagles scarf on this set are commonplace: sad, but unremarkable. As Jack’s father Adam Mansfield (stage and screen stalwart John Howard) says, his son is just a number.

Despite this pinpoint on a unique place on an island’s most isolated city, Shrine hones in on a theme so universal anyone who has ever lost a loved one will recognise it: grief, and the peculiar hierarchy of who owns the right to it; love, and the different versions of a person known to their loved ones.

Winton is no stranger to human misery, and I must admit, I was a bit dismayed by the picture of abject misery Shrine leapt straight in to. The poster promised coarse language, smoking, nudity and drug use, so I could be forgiven for thinking I might have been in for something rather scintillating.

Some much-appreciated laughs break up the dirge, mostly delivered by Jack’s bereaved, alcoholic father (Howard as believable as ever). Whitney Richards does a pleasingly unaffected, guileless job of Jack’s love interest, regional IGA worker June, though my fellow theatregoer Lurgy thought her “bush pig” accent, with its dropped consonants, a little forced.

Though at times the dialogue feels very much like one should read it in a novel rather than hear it on stage, somewhat at odds with the naturalistic representations of the subject, I cannot deny it is, like all Winton’s work, very well-written.

He does himself proud with teenage vernacular – you feel Jacks’ friends’ derisive comments lash June and wince on her behalf. Will and Ben’s cruelty is something all Western Australians have heard before.

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Will (Luke McMahon) and Ben (Will McNeill) in Shrine. Image by Gary Marsh Photography

Jack’s mother Mary Mansfield was played by Sarah McNeill with fierce commitment, and she portrayed a mother falling apart while maintaining a statuesque sort of dignity. Lurgy was unimpressed, saying McNeill was far too melodramatic, and while I concede her delivery was markedly to the rest of the cast’s and this was a bit jarring (Lurgy: “infuriating”), some people are a English naturally, even in real life Perth. The way she touched her son’s body spoke to me of motherhood. Also in her favour was a powerful closing monologue that caused some distressing physical symptoms: goosebumps rose up, throat closed down and weird salty drops slid out the sides of my eyes.

When that call comes, it’s midnight wherever you are.

The set, a beach littered with fragments of vehicle carcass that also served as furniture and other props, is as good as all Black Swan’s seem to be, and used with the most uplifting effect in the middle, when you see Jack’s and June’s only love scene (of sorts). Blue, hazy spotlighting light and pitch darkness pricked by faraway electric lights create an eerie, freezing night on the water; a momentarily re-purposed half-sunken car roof serves as a surfboard; and delicate music plays, all the more noticeable because of the play’s almost complete lack of other sound effects. It saves the play from the moments of horror and ugliness it depicts.

But these moments expose the meaning beating at the heart of the big-story-within-a-small: everyone wants a piece of grief, wants a piece of that person they loved, and their opinions of who that person was can be as different as night and day. Adam Mansfield hears June’s stories of his son teaching her about wines and, bewildered, tells her he never knew his son knew anything of the sort. He and his wife revolve in their separate circles of grief, each disgusted by the other’s behaviour. She cannot visit the crash site – he cannot keep away from it. Jack’s friends put up a crude shrine there, with alcohol bottles and paraphernalia, and Adam cannot stand it and rips it down repeatedly. June is upset by this and pleads with him to leave it.

It’s better than nothing.

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June (Whitney Richards) in Shrine. Image by Gary Marsh Photography

Shrine tells its audience that people are limited, but grief and love are infinite – and there’s plenty to go around.

Shrine runs at Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA until September 15.

The production will then tour to Albany Entertainment Centre September 19 – 20 and then to Canberra Theatre Centre September 26 – 29.