Thursday, July 22, 2010


Never mind the Tour de France, those guys don't know the half of it. They should ride a tandem. When I die I should have my sweaty ashes sprinkled at the side of the road at that point, about three quarters of the way up the hill to Mount Biggs, where I wanted to throw up.

As a hill it was no big deal. Cars whizzed up it. On a tandem it was a different story. Grinding up that hill always made me wonder why we rode a tandem at all. It was hard work. The wind was "variable" which was Met-speak for "always in your face". We made children laugh, frightened the fetlocks off horses, and could scatter livestock faster than a pack of rogue dogs.

The approach to Mount Biggs was along bush-lined roads that rolled upwards so gently that we hardly noticed. Paddocks on either side were fiercely green and lumpy, and soggy with standing water. Sheep, which never looked up when trucks and motorbikes snarled past, clacked away in panicky mobs through the mud when we swished by. Fences climbed impossibly steep banks, and baby trees planted in neat rows looked like new hair transplants.

There was a hysterical bitser that rushed out from the house with the twee windmill in the garden, and together we bellowed at him: "Get out of it!" It was well-enough trained and hauled itself up with a screech of brakes, but it was scary to be threatened by forty kilos of roaring muscle and teeth.

We coasted through goat alley; more tethered goats cropping the verge than there were fence posts. Swooped down towards the pig farm with its rich, pungent smells. We passed a council truck parked by the roadside. Two men in the cab were smoking and reading the paper, too late for smoko and too early for lunch. One of them shouted, "Hey, she's not pedalling!" Somebody always did.

Motorists barped horns as they twisted past, too fast and too close. The captain - the one on the front of the tandem - dared not take his hands off the handlebars. A truck full of leaking cattle skimmed by, creating a dangerous vacuum and we slipped back so we could pick our way through the smelly mess left on the road. The stoker - that was me, the one on the back sobbing - saw more of the back of the captain's neck than the scenery. "Look at that!" he might shout as we sailed past a paddock full of calves in blue plastic jackets, gambolling like huge puppies. Or perhaps "A-a-a-h!" at a covered heap of tiny, still, frail bodies, the night's bleak casualties waiting for the knacker's ute.

At the foot of Mount Biggs there was a field of Joseph's sheep - many-coloured and haughty, as though aware of their rarity. The captain, with an evil chuckle, announced a serious gear change downwards. The back of his neck was impervious to the blistering looks I directed at it.

The hill started deceptively, but a quarter of the way up the captain's communications degenerated into grunts, with the occasional bark: "Have you stopped pedalling or what?" Halfway up and the tandem moved so slowly that it yawed from side to side as we pushed down on the pedals. Every few metres I looked up at the mop-headed cabbage trees apparently leaning back as the road tipped crazily upwards. We reached the steepest part. The tandem was hardly moving.
Three quarters up the hill I could hear the children shrieking in the playground at the top. I was still pedalling although my contribution was minimal. But as we rounded the bend we gathered up the remaining shreds of will and sinew and sprinted the last twenty metres. The children rushed to the fence, pointed and laughed.

At the top, as we caught our breath and began to glide along the rim of the hills with rolling green slopes falling away beside the road, and the big, big sky all around us - we knew why we rode a tandem and we shouted out: "We knocked the bastard off - again!"

Monday, July 19, 2010


There is a bottom drawer in every writer's life. It might be a box. Or a suitcase. Or a file, or a pile of envelopes, or a plastic bag under the bed. It can be a folder in the computer labelled "drafts" or "possible pieces". It can even be a corner of the mind, a dusty place where half-finished fragments of discarded stories, poems and articles have been abandoned but not quite forgotten. And sometimes, when all the assignments have been completed, there is nothing in the "to do" basket, and it's still only two o'clock in the afternoon, the temptation is to trawl through the bottom drawer to see if there is anything there with possibilities.

There is a reason that all those fragments are in there. There is a reason for the abandonment. I have just opened my bottom drawer and found that a terrible fate has overtaken the contents while they languished there. Nearly everything has grown old-fashioned: the language, the style, the content, the themes, even the names of characters. There are two half-finished novels and both, after all that effort, are well-crafted but pedestrian narratives for which I couldn't see a future. Well-crafted is not nearly good enough. There must also be life and movement and suspense of one kind or another.

The contents of the drawer all petered out because they wandered into a dead-end alley, or had no purpose or point, or seemed too boring to complete, or the task was too intimidating. But there is a difference between the contents of the bottom drawer and the writing that is undertaken, struggled through, revised, polished, and delivered to a client or market for which it is designed. The difference is perseverance. The bottom drawer is full of fragments because nobody, including me, cared whether they were finished or not. It was too easy to give up.

I opened the drawer this afternoon because I have just read Fiona Kidman's "Beside the Dark Pool" in which she lists some rules for writers, including the following: "Learn to finish things. When you rush from one project to another thinking the next will be better, you never find out how good the one you're working on really is." Yes!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Once upon a time my cousin and I used to take the dog for midnight walkies and search the sky for UFOs. We hoped to catch sight of the mother ships - the huge, cigar-shaped ones that hover while flying saucers whizzed around them. Cigars and saucers - that was it. No self-respecting UFO seekers expected to see any other shapes. The fact that we never saw any shapes at all didn't dampen our enthusiasm for the possibility that we might.

Since then, and usually in the holiday season, when newspapers haven't much to write about and people have more time to gaze upwards, there are occasional reports of mysterious objects in the sky. Like the time some people in Adelaide declared they had been dive-bombed by what looked like a large, dusty boiled egg. Before the spoilsports ruin it all, before the lights and shapes are proved to be weather balloons, mutton birds, high-flying squid boats, pieces of old satellites, or reflected images of Venus, please let us romantics dream a little longer.

From the ranks of romantics come the inventors, the writers, the painters, the poets, the dreamers, the eccentrics - and the crackpots. Sometimes it isn't easy to make the distinction. For example, people who accept whimsical possibilities might talk to their cabbages and chrysanthemums and insist that as a result, they grow bigger and better vegetables and flowers than people who don't.

We know that space ships and their passengers belong to fantasy-land. Sensible people do not accept them for a moment. Sensible people did not accept germs and aeroplanes and splitting atoms either - it took crackpots and romantics to follow those idiotic ideas through. Romantics are capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast any day. And while there is some doubt, some beguiling possibility, we prefer to let our imaginations run wild.

Adults who welcome the idea of UFOs being space ships were probably once children who saw the man on the moon long before there really was a man on the moon. They confidently wrote to Santa Claus. They played with invisible friends. They seriously, and tremblingly, considered the idea of there being a ghost at the top of the stairs. They were wary of the tiger in the shrubbery. And those children grew up to be the sort of people who would prefer to think of a UFO as a space ship rather than a weather balloon, simply because that is the more enchanting possibility.

Romantics are enthralled by "true" stories of ghosts and would be charmed as well as scared witless if they met something on the stairs that was transparent and rattled its chains. They would rather not know for sure that there are no such things as ghosts, because then they can slip back into that beguiling childhood state where there are no boundaries, and they are limited only by their imagination.

Some people don't grow out of this need to over-paint life, but hold fast to their magical worlds. There was a woman in England some years ago who was convinced that pixies lived on a piece of vacant land that she owned, and she refused to sell it to a property developer. Now there was someone who truly believed that there were fairies at the bottom of her garden. Many practical, down-to-earth people were outraged at this absurdity, pressing for high-rise flats instead. But there are plenty of practical, down-to-earth people in the world, and more than enough high-rise flats, but not nearly enough eccentrics. I'm glad the eccentric won that particular battle.

An imaginative child who hides at the bottom of the garden with a book keeps one eye on the nearby toadstools in case the fairy who lives there chooses that day to materialise. Everybody knows that a fairy standing on a toadstool might - just might - show herself, like Tinkerbell, to a human child if that child believes hard enough. But if the tiny personage doesn't appear, there is still another world within the pages of the book to excite the imagination. And without boundaries it is just as easy to roam through the skies exploring space as it is to enter the world of ghosts or fairies or small green persons from another planet.

Why should we on Earth be so special anyway? It has been argued that it is at least theoretically and statistically possible that there is life on other planets, in other galaxies. Some of those civilisations could be smarter than we are, technologically speaking. The smallest leap of the imagination brings us to the idea that when people here on Earth see mysterious objects whizzing overhead it might be because the occupants are interested in us, disturbed about us, or simply flying over us on their way to somewhere else.

But here's a spooky thought: where are they going?