Linda Neil’s second book, All is given, is subtitled “a memoir in songs”. I wondered if this meant her memoir would be structured around specific songs – but that’s probably way too prosaic an idea. Certainly, it’s not what I got! I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I didn’t know of Linda Neil, who is described in the brief author bio as “writer, songwriter and documentary-producer”, but I did enjoy getting to “know” her through this book.
The memoir starts with “Prologue: Songbook”, and immediately I had one of those glimmers of enlightenment because she opens with the end of a house concert. Now, friends of ours hold house concerts. They are such wonderful to-be-treasured occasions, which provide a beautiful way of enjoying music away from big formal concert halls or noisy popular venues. For the performer, however, there are challenges. The concert that Neil opens her memoir on finished at 11pm, and she was hungry, not to mention “spent” after nearly three hours of “singing and telling stories”. Not so, necessarily, the audience. They were energised, inspired, and wanting to talk with her in this lovely intimate venue! So, with food from her host in her hand she sits to chat with one of these people – and discovers that what the woman really wanted to do was share her own stories, which had been stimulated by the concert. Neil, as it turned out, enjoyed hearing her stories – but I learnt a lesson about house-concert etiquette!
Another issue comes up in this opening chapter which attracted my attention. She says that many people think love songs, which she was singing, are autobiographical. However, she writes,
in my experience, they may well be inspired by real people, but the form of a song means that, from this basis of fact, changes need to be made. A bass line is added perhaps. Something high is included. A man becomes a woman. A five-letter name expands to eight …
and so on. The point is, “the facts may not always be true, but the feelings certainly are”. “YES”, I wrote in the margin. And I loved her rider: “and if some events did not happen exactly the way they are described, perhaps they should have”. Haha! Love it. That is what creativity, and living, are about…
Hence, she writes in the last paragraph of this opening chapter:
So think of this collection of stories as a book of songs that contains improvisations and variations on themes of truth. If you listen closely enough you might even be able to hear the fabric of facts and fiction as they are stitched together.
What follows are delightful, non-chronological, stories of travel. This book, in fact, is as much travel memoir as a musical one, and as much about travel to the self as about the places she visits – Shanghai, Paris, Kathmandu, Kolkata, Ulaanbaatar, to name a few – though she writes engagingly about them too.
… a pilgrim of the imagination …
All is given is just a lovely read. Neil presents as a person with such an open heart and curious mind, with such a willingness to give things a go and to test her own preconceptions, that she can’t help but be interesting to read. And when you add to this, her clear, fresh prose, well, you have a book that is a winner on multiple levels. Here, for example, she’s in Paris:
Sometimes a city is the kind of place where, despite being on your own, you are never alone. Where sitting under a statue or leaning over a balustrade of a bridge is an invitation. You have to discern very quickly, though, who might waylay you, who might waste your time and who might be, like you, a pilgrim of the imagination on a voyage through change. But if your antenna is working properly, the chance encounter with a stranger might bring you something you need at that particular moment in time, something that might not come in any other part of the world, but exactly where you sense of wonder and curiosity has led you, across oceans and skies, out of safety into the unknown.
I wanted to share all of this, but particularly that phrase “a pilgrim of the imagination on a voyage through change”.
This is what the book is about. It’s partly, of course, about the places she goes, the people she meets, the seemingly serendipitous discoveries, such as the recording studio in Kathmandu and the YWCA in Kolkata where she meets a group of people volunteering at Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity, but it’s mainly about the things she learns.
She learns, for example, on her first solo trip, which paradoxically is the last one described in the book, not to travel with the Lonely Planet Guide, because “travel was best unplanned”. It’s a lesson I’m starting to learn. I can’t imagine giving up the guides altogether – not being, clearly, a complete “pilgrim of the imagination” – but I’m gradually freeing myself from the shackles of “musts” to the wonders of “let’s explore”. She experiences the “gift of stories – of listening to and receiving them, of being in the right place at the right time”. This is “the magic of travel”. She learns that she can sometimes be “prim”, when she lectures a young girl on modest dressing in India, where she was “once open-minded”, but on the other hand, that she could be “free”, in opening up to people, where once she “might have felt more cautious”. These are the surprises of travel.
She learns, too, in Mongolia that “freedom” is not the simple concept we like to think it is, that for many Mongolians the initial liberation from Russia was “a catastrophe”. Her Mongolian friend reminds her, once again she says, that:
western narratives of history aren’t the only ones, and that … there are many ways to tell the story of our collection past.
A lesson we Australians are very slowly learning now as we come to grips with different versions of our colonial past. She learns, through this and other experiences, “not to romanticise places” where the reality for the locals is very different, but also to “be happy with tiny moments”.
And so the memoir goes. I’ve focused on travel’s lessons because those reflections spoke to me. Another reviewer could very well pick up the musical motifs, her journey through sound, or perhaps explore the organic way she intersperses moments from her youth with those from travel. The point is, whatever your interest, All is given is an engaging, enjoyable read by a writer-musician who sees that being “real and true” is sometimes different from “being perfect or even good”, but who often manages to achieve both.
(Review copy courtesy UQP)