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Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Nigel of Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot

November 5, 2012

This is embarrassing but I really can’t remember how and when I first met Nigel. Actually let me rephrase that: I do remember when I met him in person because I’ve only met him once (at a literary event earlier this year), but who stumbled across whose blog first I have no idea. I’m glad we did though, because in Nigel I’ve discovered not only a lovely writer (see my review of his novella Fall on me) but an active supporter of Australian literature through such activities as the online creative arts journal VerityLa and the arts forum, the Childers Group. I also enjoy his reflective blog, Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot. And so I was thrilled when he said yes without apparent demur to my request for a guest post. Thanks Nigel …

Real or imagined, raising children makes a great story

The game now finished and the speeches in full swing, the camera panned left to take in the players who were standing off to one side and looked worn-out and knocked around, a few with mud on their faces, a bit of blood too, but smile they did because they’d won and were elated. After a moment, the camera went back to whoever it was that hadn’t yet finished his speech (why is it that a man with a microphone will always go on too long?). For the first time in my life I was grateful when the TV channel cut to an ad break.

When the NRL grand final coverage resumed – I’d not watched the actual game, and had only stumbled on the closing minutes of the concluding celebrations by lazy accident – the victorious players were wandering around the field, or ‘paddock’ as it’s apparently called, many with their young children in hand. It’s this that struck me: rugby league boofheads wanting to be with their kids in these lingering moments of sports elation.

It looked – it felt – amazingly non-sensical.

I’m not one for children; never have been, never will be. I am, in fact, the least paternal person on Earth. At no point in my life have I ever wanted children. Which is, now I examine my life with precision (the process of writing does that), a bit of a lie. I remember that as a teenager I did have day-dreams of raising children, except in those day-dreams my wife was always absent, to be accurate she was dead, which left me to be a hip young single father, and I was very good at fathering, and my kids adored me and I adored them back. Once I was old enough to understand why my wife was always cactus, my mind – my conscious mind – turned to things closer at hand, and much more real. Which is why, aged forty-four, I’m blissfully childless. When on the rare occasions something good happens to me (though for some reason these events are never televised), I reach for a bottle of nicely chilled verdelho and a slice of blue cheese on a cracker.

Not having children, not wanting children – now that I have a fine appreciation of the opportunities and constraints of my life, I desire children as much as I desire the idea of a car-alarm going off in the middle of the night, and if ever I find myself day-dreaming, which is, I should say, a lot, it’s about having a crumbling hut in some far-flung place that you can only access by barging a rusty old four-wheel-drive across seven creek-crossings – is problematic for someone like me, a writer of all things, that ridiculous trade that’s getting more and more ridiculous as each day goes by. For family is the guts of the contemporary Australian story – it is, to throw into the mix some suitably highfalutin French, its raison d’etre.

I’ve just finished having a private Australian literature festival, reading some blisteringly powerful novels by our nation’s finest (who too don’t get to parade their children in front of TV cameras). Kate Grenville’s Sarah Thornhill, Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones and Gillian Mears’ highly distressing but remarkable Foal’s Bread. All three novels explore family and the impacts on children, but also the desire for children, that procreating is the usual path, the standard, the predictable, how it is just what you do. How the desire to continue your bloodline is simultaneously overwhelming and underwhelming. It is refreshing that both Foal’s Bread, which is largely set between the world wars, and Sarah Thornhill, which has as its backdrop our morally bankrupt colonial times, explore women who aren’t just mothers, whose dreams are bigger and wider and deeper.

*

In my own writing, my own attempts at making words come to life on the page – it always seemed so easy as a boy: you wrote what happened and that was that – I too explore family. My main characters are usually men and women (always a good start!) who have children, who want to be parents, who struggle to cope, who feel the pressure of internal and external expectation, who fail and fall into a heap but pat themselves down and have another crack at it.

Featherstone, Fall on me

Fall on me bookcover (Courtesy: Blemish Books)

My novella Fall on Me (Blemish Books, 2011) is about a single father who has to cope with his precocious seventeen-year-old son who insists on turning his naked body into an art exhibition. Lou and Luke: how through writing their story I’ve gotten to know them well, so well, despite everything how they created a family for themselves, and the addition to that family, Anna Denman, their housemate who became much more. To the point that I still think about them. And it’s always gratifying – and humbling – when readers say they think about them too.

In my forthcoming novella, I’m Ready Now, to be launched in Canberra on 22 November by Blemish Books, I write about a very different family. The story is a simple one, but it’s told from two points of view: a mother’s and a son’s. Lynne Gleeson is a fifty-year-old ‘corporate wife’ (that’s how she describes herself) whose husband Eddie, a man who inherited his family’s property-development business, has died of a heart-attack. Theirs was a perfectly functional if not loving relationship, one of considerable wealth and privilege – the family home is a daunting historic mansion called Gleeson House in Battery Point, Hobart. Now that Lynne is alone, she has decided to sell this property, and the family’s other houses, including an architect-designed getaway on Magnetic Island, Queensland. Effectively homeless, she leaves Tasmania to spend a fortnight in Sydney, staying with her son Gordon. But Lynne has plans. Big plans.

Nigel Featherstone, I'm ready now

Cover (Courtesy: Blemish Books)

Meanwhile Gordon, a professional freelance photographer, is thirty now, and despite being in a relationship of five years’ standing, is having what is described as a ‘Year of Living Ridiculously’ – it involves spending his weekends out in Sydney’s bars and clubs, taking drugs, and having promiscuous sex. For his thirtieth birthday, which his step-father’s death prevented the family from celebrating, Gordon has secretly arranged ‘The Ultimate’, which threatens to tear everything and everyone apart. It sounds heavy, it sounds grim, but it’s just about family. So it’s the truth. And, yes, I really think I can say that: the truth.

Family: there are plenty of other things to write about. Fighting wars amongst far-flung stars. Cornering yellow-teethed bad-guys. Hacking up zombies. Sex, which as I know better than anyone, doesn’t always have to result in something altogether gruesome nine months later. But still it’s family that I write about, the desire to raise someone in your own likeness, to have your best go at doing a decent job of it, to leave something worthwhile behind. All I’m going to leave behind is a handful of stories in the flickering fluorescent-light basement of the National Library of Australia.

*

Last month my older brother and his fourteen-year-old son dropped in on their way to the snow-fields. We went down to a café in the mainstreet for lunch and caught up on all that was happening in our various worlds. An hour later it was time for them to continue on their way south. The day was cold and blustery, the sort that makes my hands turn blue and my mood turn a similar colour. Dust was being flung around and as my brother and his son got into their brand-new four-wheel-drive I began to cough and splutter wildly.

My nephew, who’s not big on conversation and his favourite thing ever is his skateboard, wound down the window and stared at me fair-square in the face and said, ‘Are you sick?’ He looked genuinely concerned. ‘No,’ I said, ‘there’s a typhoon going on out here and it’s hit the back of my throat.’ His eyes brightened right up and he laughed. As my brother drove the two of them away, I sent my nephew a text message: ‘Have a great time on the slopes.’ He wrote back: ‘Have a good week.’ When was the last time someone had wished me a good week? I couldn’t remember. But I loved those words. They moved me. And they still do.

If I have a motivation to write, it’s to move people.

So, despite everything I know about myself, after forty-four years of determined self-direction, to the point that I’m now, to put a twist on something Quentin Crisp once said, one of the stately homos of Goulburn, I watch the dying moments of a rugby league season and can’t take my eyes off the men – proud, probably even gentle men (when they need to be) – who lead their children around a football field; it’s not the men who fascinate me, but the big hands holding the little hands. And I read great Australian novels about family and generations and personal history amongst the maelstrom that is the bigger political and social context. And I write stories about people who do their utmost to raise the best of kids. And I keep in my mind a simple text-message from my nephew.

But I also recall something the US poet and civil rights activist June Jordan once wrote: ‘In the name of motherhood and fatherhood…we threaten and suffocate and bind and ensnare and bribe and trick children into wholesale emulation of our ways.’ My unborn children should be grateful that they had me as a father. Hopefully the ones that live on the page are much more optimistic about their chances in the world.

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