I saw my first public wanker since backpacking days last night. As I said to my friend S, with whom I saw men enthusiastically exposing themselves from Portugal to the Czech Republic, I’m so out of practice, I had to look twice. It rather took me by surprise, and the funny thing is, if I had stuck to my regular route, I would have missed the schlong spectacular altogether. As it was, I copped an eyeful, though mercifully more a figurative than literal load.
I’ll tell you what happened.
I was walking down the beachfront to meet Llew at Jah Bar, which is our favourite place in Man Town for a late bite and glass of wine. We’d both worked late, so a spot of tapas and vino won the toss (an unfortunate phrase under the circumstances) against the chicken carcass in the fridge. The beachfront is a fairly well populated, well lit place, but it was quite late, and so I changed my modus operandi, moving over to the street. That was my undoing. I crossed at the zebra crossing and walked past the Manly Pacific Hotel. When I reached the corner, I glanced across at the opposite corner. A window in the small hotel opposite was open, lights blazing, filmy white curtain parted, and there he was. The Wanker. He was a bald man, middle-aged and paunchy. He was butt naked. And his excitement at spying his audience, no matter how unwilling, was palpable and, er, pump-able. A group of teenagers had exited the Manly Pacific behind me, and I heard one of the boys shout out, “Hey, he’s having a toss!”
The Wanker worked harder – you could tell he thought he held the audience in the (cough) palm of his hand.
Still part of me was thinking, ‘Nooo, surely not!’ but a second quick glance upwards removed the last lingering uncertainty as well as all traces of imagination. I didn’t need mine. No, in this situation, imagination was redundant. I gasped – probably just what he was hoping for – and hurried across to his side of the road. Now beneath the window, I could no longer see him or it. I was right near the office door, and I briefly contemplated dobbing him in. But the whole idea was, how to put this, deflating; it was late, he was obviously a lonely man, and I felt a bit sorry for him (being more informed than most about his limited resources). Also, by my calculations, it was all going to be over in a matter of seconds. There didn’t seem much point reporting him to the reception desk – there wasn’t any harm done, except perhaps to those curtains, although I suppose one could argue those teenagers got more than they bargained for on their big night out in Man Town. But then they’re school kids, so they’ve probably seen it all before. High school students are catnip to perverts, we used to get them whipping out their paltry pieces every recess. Got a bit tiresome after a while; you’ve seen one trench coat, you’ve seen ’em all.
Back to the ground floor, I surprised myself by breaking into a run. I shuddered theatrically, gave a little squeal – acted my part in the drama, I suppose, although it’s a pity he wasn’t able to witness my performance as I’d been forced to witness his – and ran around the corner to Jah Bar. Llew was approaching at the opposite end of the avenue, and boy, was he a sight for sore eyes. He was quite keen to walk back and set up theatre seats, but I managed to talk him out of that. We went inside, pulled up a pair of stools at the bar, and lamented not being able to afford to shout the man a little time with a professional. Imagine that! He’s starkers, he’s spent, he’s turned to the hotel porn, when suddenly there comes a knock on the door. ‘Room service? I didn’t order room service,’ he might think, covering his manhood in a towel. And I suppose it would be room service, after a fashion. Cracking idea, anyway. If I were a woman of independent means, I might have just sent him round some working company just for the hell of it. But I’m not, so we didn’t, and that’s the way life goes.
I don’t know what we did to deserve this Sydney winter, but it is superb. It’s just day after day of peerless perfection – I can’t remember anything like it – it’s WINTER and I am sitting here in my swimmers. I filed my two stories, went for a nice long run in the sun to clear my head, then jumped in the Pacific to cool off, and the water temperature is the sole seasonal give-away – brrrr. It’s freezing, but the sand is lovely and warm and even the offshore breeze has lost its cruel bite. It’s awesome, and a winter like this explains why we haven’t mastered heating in this city, and why we go to pieces when the weather is really inclement. Not equipped mentally or physically. This is much more the thing.
Llew’s a little cranky with me, which is the only rain on the parade. It all started when one of our friends started seeing a very nice girl, and the very nice girl sent me an email. We’d all been invited to a lovely birthday lunch for this particular friend the Sunday before, hosted by other mutual friends who stuffed us silly and even made their own Yorkshire puddings (you know who you are). So far, so good. Then came the email. Very nice girl (VNG) explained that, speaking of birthdays, New Boyfriend (NB) had no system for remembering everyone else’s. He didn’t have a clue, so she was going to set up something for him, and could I please furnish her with all the birthdays of X, Y and Z, plus anyone else I could think of. VNG would be sooo grateful for my help. How could I say no?! I did pause, to be honest, because, well, I’ve worked hard gathering all those significant dates over the years, and I bother to maintain them year by year, handwriting them into every new desktop calendar, and none of it happened overnight. I thought, eh, that’s a bit rough! That’s cheating! You want to know, you can go ahead and ask! Go hunt and gather like I’ve had to! But then I thought, a split-second later, oh, come on, don’t be ridiculous. Why on earth would I be so small and possessive? She only wants to help NB. What am I going to do, say no? What sort of person would deny a request like this?
So I did what any normal person would do. I responded that of course I could help, and here you go, here’s everyone you asked about and a few more people besides. Enjoy! That should have been that, I felt I’d done the only thing, the right thing, and told myself in no uncertain terms that, really, there’s something severely wrong with me for hesitating even for a moment. Until I spoke to Llew, and realised that whatever’s wrong with me is most certainly wrong with him too. Oh my god. He was fuming.
“You did what?” he screamed.
“What else could I do? She emailed me! She asked me! What was I supposed to say?”
Llews started tearing his hair out.
“Did you give her X’s?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Llew,” I said, “I gave her the lot.”
He was absolutely speechless, really foul about it. Especially when the next birthday came around.
“It’s J’s birthday,” I informed him that morning. Once. Maybe twice. That’s Llew’s cue to call his mate; as far as I am concerned, my work here is done. I think I may have prompted him one more time, later that day, so he had maybe three reminders all up, and I figured he’d call. That’s the program. The next week, J happened to be in town, and we met up with him, a couple of other people, and guess who? That’s right, NB.
“Hey,” I said to J, “Happy birthday for last week.”
“I called you, didn’t I?” said Llew.
J shook his head.
“No,” he said, placing an affectionate arm around NB’s shoulders, “but NB did.”
Llew glowered darkly at me. I looked around for an exit.
“I can’t believe what you did,” he hissed.
I implored him.
“What did you want me to do?”
“We’ve lost our unique selling point,” he fumed.
“Our USP? Are you kidding? I wasn’t aware we had one of those. I didn’t know we needed one of those.”
“You’ve given away our intellectual property. You’ve just handed it over to the competition. I hope you’re proud of yourself.”
I stared at him.
“Oh my god,” I said. “You’re genuinely pissed off about this.”
“I am spewing,” he said, emphasising the word just in case there was any doubt remaining.
“You know,” I pointed out, “you’re the problem here. If you’d called J like you were supposed to, this wouldn’t be such a big deal. It’s much worse that NB called and you didn’t. Say J gets a birthday call from both of you, where’s the harm in that? That’s nice. That’s a good result. Any friend should be glad to think that their call is one of several their friend receives on their birthday. I don’t see the problem with that. The problem is that you let down your end of the bargain. You were given the information, and you chose not to use it. That’s no one’s fault but your own.”
I was pretty glad to have found myself a foothold in this argument, so I may well have crossed my arms and started tapping my foot at this point. Llew wasn’t having a bar of it.
“This is all your fault,” he jabbed an angry finger at me. “You sold us up the river.”
“You know what?” I said. “I blame NB. I know how much he likes VNG, and I know he’s keen to make a good impression, and I was just trying to help. Why’d she have to ask me? Why?”
“Because you had the power,” Llew nodded, his voice grave. “And now we have none.”
Just a petit post from me tonight (speaking of petit – and petty – last night I dreamt Llew and I were in Paris. But no. That would be L, as of Monday. Bitch.) – would you look at the time! Nearly a quarter to eight and I’ve not even thought about dinner. It’s been a day of work-related pains in the rear. Transcribing: UGH. It takes forever, it’s sooo boring, and I am such a picture of mediocrity in the typing pool that it is one long stop, start palaver. Worse, my dictaphone seems to take severe umbrage to my attempts to conduct interviews on a mobile phone. I’ve tried tricking it by sitting as far away as possible, using a microphone, ear-pieces – basically every waxy accessory at my disposal – all to no avail. And yet sometimes it doesn’t mind at all. I can’t figure it out. Why do some interviews so enrage it? And look, it could be an Obsolete Item Complex. Remember how your Walkman got really nasty one day and ate your favourite New Order tape? It knew CDs were coming. And then remember how VCRs started gnawing through your video library and gouged the guts out of Top Gun? Spiteful obsolete items. So I look at my dictaphone and I almost feel sorry for it, because I think it knows its days are numbered. They’re certainly on the clock in this office; I can’t wait to throw this aggressive useless piece of crap in the bin.
I’ll tell you why.
Transcribing yesterday’s interview – just 15 minutes’ worth of chat – took me basically until lunchtime. There was so much static, ASIO couldn’t run interference more effectively. I was forced to hold STBOI (that’s soon-to-be-obsolete-item) right up close to my ear, just trying to decipher a key word or phrase that would help me make sense of the rest of it. I had to stop, rewind, and play every few seconds, trying to almost exorcise the ghost of my interview from beneath the aural squall raging above the machine. Excruciating doesn’t cover it. I was screaming and swearing at no one and nothing, shaking STBOI and sending Llew little text updates at enraged intervals, messages like, ‘This recording system is fucked. Makes job hard and unpleasant.’ A little while later, ‘I can’t even hear this guy over the fucking static on this fucking recording.’ The good news is, my virtual ranting in Llew’s own ear meant my dear, dear, dear, so beloved and wonderful husband went hunting solutions while I continued wrangling with STBOI (also known as Shit Technology Bastard Obsolete Item).
I LOVE LLEW.
I mean, I liked him before, have loved him for nearly 13 years, but today, we hit new heights of spousal adoration. He called and said, “Google 1300RECORD.”
I scrambled for a pen.
I complied. And then I signed up. And then I initiated my membership. And then I called Llew to do a test run, making sure to tell him that the conversation was being recorded because, well, that’s the law, and also because he’d just been to IVF to deliver a, um, sample, and I could tell he was on the cusp of saying something very indiscreet. After we hung up, I went back into the 1300RECORD site, and THERE IT WAS. I pressed play, and our conversation came through my computer like music to my ears. I nearly wept. It was biblical. Had there been a single cloud in the sky on this indecently perfect day, it would surely have parted.
This afternoon’s late interview was stress-free, and transcribing was a breeze. A breeze blowing on the pain in my arse that is transcribing, but a breeze nonetheless (if only they had figured out how to record and transcribe…). I just followed the prompts afer pressing 1300RECORD on my phone, and I was away.
So easy. Not cheap, mind you, but I tell you, I’d rather starve for a week – okay, a day, I’d never last a week – than have to sit hunched and broken-willed over that piece of shit dictaphone ever again. You hear that, obsolete item? You’re done here. We. Are. Through.
My editor seems to have forgiven my apostrophe rant; he’s just called in two more stories. This sudden burst of paid activity is such a shock to my system; all of a sudden, 2009 is looking quite lucrative. If he keeps up this rash of commissions, it’ll be a bumper crop (here’s hoping – my jeans are getting really quite risque). Anyway, I am between interviews so I thought I’d attend to first things first with a post. My day started with a rectangular shadow under the front door: the first of Lilian’s books, arrived via Amazon. Marvellous! Appropriately enough, it’s her debut, The River Midnight. Her second novel, The Singing Fire, should be hot on its heels. Lilian posted an excerpt from The River Midnight on her blog a little while ago, and I thought, ‘That’s it, this is ridiculous,’ promptly ordering them both from Amazon before anything could get in my way. Easy, in the event. And it was so exciting opening the door and seeing the package there on my modest threshold, knowing it was one of Lilian’s books. As far as I’ve been able to discover, neither one is readily available in Australia, but the World Wide Web, it doth provide.
As soon as I have dispensed with The Book Thief – which I’ve finally worked up to after my WWII glut a short while back, after which I just couldn’t face it – it’s on to The River Midnight. It’s by the bed in anticipation; I can’t wait. I honestly didn’t expect to make “blogging friends” when I started DoctorDi – I didn’t know what would happen, let alone what a “blogging friend” might mean – but here you all are, so lovely, so supportive, so present in my life, and it’s incredibly pleasing – it makes me positively gleeful – having a novel in my house that one of you actually wrote. People get their thrills in such a lot of different ways, and this ranks highly among mine.
In other thrilling writing news, a second Darkling is on track to be offered representation with Australia’s largest and oldest literary agency; they’ve requested JB’s full MS. Not bad, huh? A year ago, we were a week from meeting, and I can hardly believe all that’s happened since, so much of it positive (if not quite the full fairytale). It’s been an amazing ride so far, and I know you’ll join me in crossing all digits for JB as the Darkling assault continues apace. It’s enough to make one feel like one’s letting the side down, but I dare to hope that one day… well, one day. Let’s leave it at that for now, shall we, and instead cheer those whose day has already arrived.
Finally, I had coffee first thing this morning with my Man Town writer friend L. She’s off to Paris on Monday (yes, I do hate her, most sincerely), so no joint writing days at Chez J for a few weeks, that is unless Darkling C is up from the Gong (speaking of which, the final countdown has begun for the next Darkling writing retreat, timed just after the one year anniversary of our Varuna residency and taking place over a week at beautiful Cottage Point – I am ITCHING with excitement now we’re on the home stretch). I’m sure Paris will pulse with inspiration – let’s face it, it’s what Paris does – and L shall return (kicking and screaming, I expect) sporting not only a très chic new Parisian hairdo, but an expression of fierce determination. That promises to be no end of fun; even when L’s hopping mad, overworked, stressed out of her mind, or declaring herself The Pretty One in an ongoing and riotously amusing sibling rivalry stoush, she’s always laughing. Her younger sister – the unwitting opponent in the aforementioned contest – has beaten L to the bookstore, her first (non-fiction) book due for its North American release in late December. Naturally L is livid. Bursting with pride and violence in just about equal measure. Meanwhile, younger sister’s insights into the Canadian publishing industry are fascinating and flat-out hilarious (it obviously runs in the family), and, after regaling me with more tales from the other side, L put it to me that I would do better to try my luck overseas – she’s thinking particularly of trying to get an agent in the US – instead of sending the MS out here in Australia (which I’m not even doing at the moment because, well, you know why).
Now, I have very mixed feelings about this, and part of it is ignorance. I don’t really know how it all works, here or elsewhere, but as an Australian writer with a MS set in Australia, and as someone who desperately, desperately wants to support and be part of the Australian publishing industry, I’ve just always imagined the best home for Spill is the same as mine. That’s not to suggest I don’t have elaborate fantasies of international acclaim – that would be a gigantic porky pie – only that in my reverie, it all starts right here, at home, where I know a big part of me will always belong. It seems a bit counterintuitive, and worse – ungracious, or even ungrateful – contemplating approaching American agents instead of ones right here in Sydney. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me before. It also feels a bit, um, arrogant, although I couldn’t easily tell you why. L could see how uneasy the conversation was making me, my eyes kept sliding away from hers, everything out on the street was suddenly fascinating, but she persisted in that peculiarly confident North American way until I started wondering if maybe I have been barking up the wrong tree… except ours are gum, and so help me, I love ’em.
I’ve bitched about bad subbing before, but I just have to repeat that it is extraordinarily frustrating finding errors published in the paper that weren’t there when I submitted my work. It’s usually small things, but that’s hardly the point. Details matter. And once it’s published, it looks like my mistake, because it’s my name at the top, and that drives me insane. Absolutely insane. Over the weekend, this happened twice, one mistake apiece in two different papers. The first was a random capitalisation of the letter ‘a’ mid-sentence; it did not appear as A in the original. I checked. The second was worse, a real pet peeve of mine, and that was the removal of an apostrophe that should have been retained. ‘Serge’s burgers’ inexplicably became ‘Serges burgers.’ Well, no, you see, that apostrophe was there for a damn good reason, the reason being that there is a Serge, and they’re his burgers. And, as usual, this sloppy piece of sub-editing makes it look like the mistake is mine.
Oh, how this makes me gnash my teeth. And I can’t do a thing about it; in fact, it’s difficult even pointing it out to my editor, because he gets irritated, and then he’s potentially less likely to give me more work because I am the nagging pedant among his contributors. I get it. I’m annoying. So I try to make light of it, which only ever succeeds in doubly emphasising my irritation because I take it all very seriously indeed. Looking at ‘Serges’ makes me seethe.
It’s not that I don’t ever make mistakes. I do. I have confused ‘steed’ with ‘stead’ and ‘populous’ with ‘populace.’ I am fallible, and sometimes I get things wrong. And that’s exactly what a sub is there to do: detect errors and correct them before an article hits the press. What they’re really not supposed to do is put errors into a piece of work that had it right the first time. I can’t even imagine how that happens, and it happens with depressing regularity. All I’ve got as recourse is a series of deep breathing techniques, but I still know those mistakes are there, and I still really hate them. And breathe in, two, three, four…
I finally located Nana this afternoon after repeatedly missing her in her room today. I eventually called the main Crowley number, and they put me through to the duty nurse’s desk in Nana’s wing. Nana wasn’t terribly impressed by the news she had a call – apparently I’d interrupted her soup.
“What sort of soup?” I wanted to know.
“All different sorts,” she said, and that really set the tone for the rest of the conversation.
“What have you been up to today?”
“Oh, I’ve got things,” she said. “I’ve got some… some nice things in my room, actually. I have a nice thing on my bed.”
“Yes. It looks very good.”
“I’m sure it does,” I said.
“You’ll have to wait to see it when you come.”
“I’m afraid I will.”
“I’m stepping out to come and see you shortly,” she said briskly. “I was planning to come in a little while. I was just on my way out.”
As Nana said this, I realised there was another, largely subconscious reason I’ve been putting off calling: it feels terrible telling her that actually, no, that’s not possible. It’s the same thing every time and it makes you feel like a mongrel.
“Oh,” I said, “that would be so lovely, Nana, but I don’t think that’s possible. I’m a bit far away.”
“Well, it’s a plane ride.”
“Is it?” Always the same genuine surprise. It’s gutting having this conversation over and over again. “I didn’t think it was so far.”
“I’m all the way down in Manly.”
“Oh,” she said. “But you’re not always there, are you? You don’t live there all the time, do you?”
I paused, trying to figure out what she was talking about before answering. I had nothing.
“You’re not thinking of Kate’s, are you?” I ventured at last.
“No, I know where Kate’s is,” she said tartly. “I was thinking… some place…”
“I wonder what it is you’re thinking of,” I said (sincerely). “We only live here. We’ve lived here for four and a half years now.”
“I was thinking about the other place,” Nana said, her voice drifting. “I was thinking of where you live, actually.”
I decided to try to change topic.
“So how’s the social scene?”
“They’re not very bright,” she said.
“Not sharp enough for you, Nana?”
“No,” she said, “but it’ll get better. They’ll improve. There’s… things, there’s… equipment here, but I don’t really use it. A toaster. This thing says line 2 and conference and office.”
“The phone? You’re used to your own phone, aren’t you, and it doesn’t have any of that confusing stuff on it.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“Have you seen Kate?”
“Last week, yes, this week, no.”
She sounded so definite that for a moment there, I almost believed she knew the difference. But I’ve since spoken to Kate, and she did visit this week. It’s Nana’s default response to tell me Kate hasn’t visited; the heartbreaking thing is I honestly think it’s an instinctive strategy to get me to visit as well. Maybe I’ll come instead, goes the logic (I think), if she says Kate hasn’t been in. Nana just has no idea how far away I am. None. Anyway, I told her about work, and IVF (“What’s that?” she said sharply ), and Llew trying to get a laptop from work so he can at least avoid the office of a weekend (“Yes,” she said. “I agree he should…do the thing he … wants to do.”), and a rush of bits and pieces of news.
“Well,” she said, “I really want to see you.”
“I know, Nana. I’d love to see you, too. I’m just so far away. We’ll have to do better. We’ll have to put our heads together and come up with a plan.”
“I suppose I should be going,” she said vaguely. “I have things to do, too.”
“Yes,” I said. “Like finish your soup. Sorry I interrupted.”
“People are laughing and talking,” she said. “And it says line 2. Conference.”
“Um, well, maybe I’ll catch you in your room next time so you can use your regular phone.”
“I’d best be off,” she said.
“Okay, Nana. I hope your soup’s not gone cold.”
“Oh,” she said. “I finished that while I was doing the other thing.”
“You finished it? That’s my girl.”
“Love to Llewie.”
“I will give Llewie a big kiss from you.”
“And love to you, pet.”
“Lots of love to you, Nana.”
“Okay,” she said. “Bye for now.”
And she rang off.
Boy, she was having a lot of problems with thought and sentence completion today. And the vocabulary has definitely diminished; everything is now designated “thing.” It was a bit scary – her condition seems to have worsened since we last spoke. She was perfectly upbeat, just not making a whole lot of sense. The most crushing, crushing, crushing thing of all is that when I spoke to Kate, she said she got there the other day and a nurse said, “Oh, good, you are here to take her to lunch,” and Kate had to say, no, sorry, she could only come for a visit. Apparently Nana had said over and over – and says over and over – that her granddaughter was or is coming to take her to lunch, and talking to my sister, we deduced she’s probably talking about me, because that’s what we always did together. Lunch. When I was still working at UNSW during my doctorate, which was close to Nana’s, we went to lunch every week. And this seems to be part of The Day that Nana has left. That’s the way I think of Nana’s reality now: it’s like she has one day she relives over and over, a day that is a composite of all sorts of days she’s had in the past. Some husbands don’t make the cut; they don’t appear in her day. But the lunches, my taking her to lunch, that’s in there, and so daily – daily – she expects me to arrive. That’s The Day she has planned. And writing this is making my gut twist and my mouth pinch and my eyes smart, because I can’t BEAR that on that basis, I will disappoint her just about every day of the rest of her life. Okay. I’ve just remembered why it was getting so hard to call. I’m blubbering again.
Team, DoctorDi has relocated for the day, and this post finds me in the Dixson Library, the grand old wing of the State Library. I’m a fan. It’s very old school in here, just the way a public library ought to be. Modern libraries make me deeply uneasy. But the Dixson is a good old girl, and she’s a dandy place to work while I’m out and about. I filed another story this morning, making it a record week. Let the good times roll! It does mean I’ve not done several pressing things, the entire week having been devoured by interviews, transcribing (which really is the pits), and writing.
The first pressing thing is calling Nana. You have no doubt noticed the absence of Nana posts in recent times, and the explanation is simple if not remotely flattering: I’ve been wholesale neglecting her. I haven’t called in ages. I feel awful, gouging guilt about this, but everyone has their limits, and I found I reached mine a little while ago. I’ve been selfish recently, really selfish, because I have just felt a genuine need to take a step back and regroup. Hot on the heels of packing up Nana’s flat – quite literally the following week after that month of living hell – I saw Dr F, and then along came the laparoscopy. Several days after that day surgery, I received Volunteer Reader’s crushing dossier detailing my MS’s many failings (which, don’t get me wrong, I was and am eternally grateful to receive), and after I had sufficiently recovered from that, and the holes in my abdomen, Chez J entered a very fraught phase. Now we’re through that, wounds licked and scars fading, it was into IVF this morning to start that process – no picnic – and all the while I’ve been trying to fix that damned albatross even though it may very well have a fanatical wish to die. So… you know. It really has been a bit of a juggle, and Nana, now far away and receiving excellent care and the weekly visits of my sister and her kids, has not been on my radar. I’ve allowed her to slip off. And don’t think I haven’t thought of calling. I have. Many, many times. But when I am in these selfish moods, I recoil from the phone like it’s bitten me in the past and made me bleed. I justify it to myself in all sorts of transparently weak ways, and the guilt gnaws at me, but I cover my ears and la-la-la my way into the next day, when it all begins again. Bad person. Selfish person. Bad person. Selfish person. Does this inner voice actually change my behaviour? No. I just hiss shut up, dumb voice to myself, and then run in the other direction. Mentally, at least. I can’t escape myself, can’t evade that nagging voice that pipes up on the hour every hour like a cuckoo clock. Speaking of cuckoo…
So tomorrow (not today, because phones have to be switched off in the Dixson Library, plus it’s Nana’s bedtime), I am calling my nana. She, of course, won’t have any sense of how long it’s been since we’ve spoken, because it’s this end of her memory that’s as reliable as cream in a can. She won’t know I’ve been so bad. In all likelihood, I’ll get away with it, which actually makes me feel even worse. Kate’s been giving me very regular updates, so I am across Nana’s current status, and at the end of the day, she’s as happy as Larry. That whole three-second memory zone turns out to be a very pleasant place to be. But it doesn’t change the fact that I know I haven’t called. I’ve enjoyed my break, I won’t lie. Alzheimer’s is intense. It’s a cinch for Nana, but it’s a grim road for carers, and I have been glad of a breather. But though Nana doesn’t know better one way or the other, it’s time to give her a call.
They’re very cunning, those Virgin Broadband types… when I got home after writing yesterday’s post at the laundry, I called them up, went through the whole bloody menu selection thing, finally got through to technical assistance, and was greeted by a recorded message saying, ‘You may be experiencing difficulties accessing the internet at the present time. We are working to correct this problem.’ See? CUNNING! You might think the fight went out of me after that, but not really. I still gave poor MJ a serve when I called back last night. Especially when she told me to ‘Go find a Windows computer.’ When I explained that this Mac is my business, that all my work is conducted via this computer, she suggested I borrow a Windows computer from a friend. Really. That was the advice. And when I asked if she would call me when the service problem was rectified, the answer was no. According to MJ, I could just keep trying to connect to the internet (a shortcut to violence, trust me), or I could keep calling them back. Wonderful. I’m so glad I’m paying for this call, MJ. And this broadband service, which – if I have this straight – you’re failing to provide.
Anyway, they seem to have fixed the problem, I am back online, and my editor has just called in another short piece (500 words… that ain’t nuttin’ but every little bit helps), so let’s just take a big breath and move on. I’ll tell you what I did yesterday after filing my stories. I decided to bite the bullet and throw MS #2 into the Varuna Publisher Fellowships. As I think I’ve explained elsewhere, it’s incomplete. In fact, I’m only about a third of the way through the very first draft. But the information available on the Varuna website is very clear on the point that the MS can be at any stage of development, and they only require the first 20 pages, so… I sent them. The sole reason I have entered is to remind myself that there will indeed come a day when I am no longer rewriting and restructuring and rewriting and restructuring and rewriting and restructuring #1. This second MS is my personal version of the light at the end of the tunnel. It gives me a glimmer of hope every time I look at it, the hope being that one day, one fine day, I’ll be working on this story instead of the other.
It’s not that I don’t like the characters or the story in #1 anymore, don’t get me wrong. It’s really not their fault. It’s just that it’s been such a messy, reeking dog’s vomit trying to get it done, and time passes, then more time, until you think, ‘Oh god, not this again… please make it go away.’ My enthusiasm has waned. But #2, well, it’s like the fresh bloom of new romance, I’m all giddy and silly with it. ‘Hey,’ I think to myself, ‘I like these characters! This is fun!’ – yeah, as you can see it’s very early days. They’ll shortly bare their fangs at me, don’t you worry, they’ll eventually turn into disobedient, vindictive ghouls, you can be sure of that, but right now – right now – everything is peachy between us. And it’s because they’re NOT in #1, nor are they anything to do with it. At this very moment in time, that’s all they have to do to make me swoon. Be different characters in another story. That’s it. They do that one thing for me, and I will do anything for them.
So off they go, out into the world on their very first outing. I feel a little emotional, like I should be standing at a gate somewhere waving them off. I did give the envelope a little ‘good luck’ peck before I slid it into the postbox yesterday, so I guess that counts. ‘Play nice with the other manuscripts!’ I should have called down the slot. ‘Be sure to watch your manners!’
And now it’s done. And it doesn’t matter if I don’t win a fellowship, because I can easily convince myself (I’m quite good at self-delusion – I have to be) it’s only because it’s not finished yet. Not to worry. I knew that. It won’t damage me, whereas if I put #1 in there, as I mentioned a few comment streams back, and it didn’t get anywhere, I’d be in all sorts. It was just too grim a prospect for me to bear. Entering the first 20 pages of #2 was the perfect compromise. And those new characters were perfectly happy to go. But then, that’s why I like them. Beneath their coarse and bruised exteriors, they’re really very sociable. I hope they’ll have a fine time up at Varuna, even if they are eventually sent home for being naughty.
Trouble of the technical variety back at DoctorDi HQ… I am at present sitting in the local laundromat-cum-internet-cafe like a common backpacker because Virgin Broadband chose today to just cease connecting me to the greater world for no apparent reason and with no end in sight. What’s truly incredible about this is that these total breakdowns of communication always coincide with my landing some freelance work. Yes, I am on deadline today, and I have been running between my place and this laundry with a USB key clutched in my tightly clenched fist since earlier today, when my first two articles were due. I’ve just filed the third and final piece, and what I am planning to do now is call someone at Virgin so there’s an audience for the bloodcurdling scream I’ve been wanting to unleash all day.
How does this happen?? It’s monumentally perverse.
I won’t linger, sorry chaps, although there’s plenty of things I’d like to disuss with you all, because I just have to find an explanation for and solution to my abrupt disconnection, a disconnection that only serves to illustrate how utterly dependent I am – and my sole trader business is – on the web. Without it, I can’t email, which means I can’t file, which means I can’t work, which means I can’t get paid. Obviously USB keys and ports have come to my rescue today and in the past, but there’s no denying how vulnerable my fragile income is to PROVIDER ATTACK, so believe me when I say I’m going to give the poor hapless soul who takes my call a piece of my mind. I shall return with a proper post unless hostilities continue.
You may remember a few posts back that we were talking about proposed changes to Australia’s territorial copyright, since the Productivity Commission found in favour of lifting the ban on the parallel importation of books. Those who support the lifting of the ban – primarily major book retailers and their mates – have a very nice, very simple message, and they bleat it at every opportunity: CHEAP BOOKS. It makes extremely good political and popular sense to do this, and at this point you’d have to think they’re ahead of the PR race against writers and publishers, who have meanwhile been called everything from ideologues to fascists to leeches to decadents by an acutely and inexplicably hostile press. Part of the reason the other side is able to leverage this kind of name-calling so effectively is that writers and publishers are by their very nature NOT of one voice. It’s ironic, really, that this is something now being used against the industry, because it’s those healthy differences of opinion and expression that are so important to a country’s literature. But from my point of view, what it means is the message is being lost, because there’s a fragmentation of what the message is and what the message ought to be. That’s a very powerful gap for the other side to exploit, and they are exploiting it fully and with a really disturbing, disappointing appetite, very much as though writers and publishers were the ultimate scourge of society.
One of the chief charges brought against writers and artists is that they want to make the debate all about ‘arty farty’ ideas instead of about economic realities. Um, no, that’s not true, and I think allowing this image to take hold is the industry’s biggest misstep; it’s an image that plays on a popular (albeit woefully misguided, as a general rule) perception of creators as indulged dilettantes who are incapable of talking about market forces. This is, of course, bullshit. So today I responded to Imre Salusinszky, who recently completed a three-year term as chairman of the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts and wrote in favour of CHEAP BOOKS in last weekend’s Review section of The Weekend Australian. I’ve been seething about his column (propaganda by any other name) since the weekend, and writing a letter to the editor was part of my desire to pare back my own message, which is basically this: Australian writers are not anti-competition, and government-controlled grants do not a thriving Australian market make.
Here’s the content of the letter I sent to Review:
Leaving aside the patently ridiculous accompanying cartoon* (it may interest the artist to know Australian novelists earn an average of $11,000 a year), I have to point out a worrying sleight of hand in the argument for removing territorial copyright on books that Mr. Salusinszky so strenuously favours. Writers keep being told, throughout this debate, that they/we (I work as a freelance journalist for publications including The Australian but am an aspiring novelist) refuse the economic rationale around removing parallel importation restrictions. It’s just not the case. I and every other writer I’ve spoken to would far rather the Australian marketplace continues to decide which Australian authors it likes to read than the sitting government of the day. Mr. Salusinszky seeks to reassure readers, the tax payer and the writing community that support for Australian writers and publishers already exists ‘through a transparent system of grants. Let a thousand flowers bloom!’ Er, that’s a misquote of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’s speech before his insidious cultural revolution, and we all know how well that turned out.
Do you really want a government body controlling which Australian stories are told? The Australian Council for the Arts, of which Mr. Salusinszky was recently Chair, does valuable work, and grants are an important means by which some books see the light of day. Grants are part of the mix for most cultural forms, including sport. But to say Australian stories will be protected by tax-payer funded grants seems to me to badly miss the point that this necessitates writers becoming grant junkies – you don’t need to write a good book, you just need to write a good grant application – and it means the state is deciding which literary projects are and are not viable. Oh dear.
You want to talk open market, Mr. Salusinszky? Then you need to be honest about the fact that you’re not suggesting a free market for Australian writers and publishers at all. You’re suggesting Australia opens its doors to the world market while its own authors are controlled and sustained primarily by the state. Australian writers should have an opportunity to compete in an Australian market that hasn’t been flooded with the world’s cheap remainders. Much, much bigger markets, who could weather this influx much better, like the UK and the USA, still opt to maintain their territorial copyright. Gee, I wonder why.
Strict competition laws protect the domestic market of every other industry in this country, and the publishing industry should continue to be afforded the same protections. Moreover, Salusinszky talks about the answer to the industry’s prayers being government grants. Not to worry! Let the government decide what is and what isn’t a valuable Australian story! Oh my god – I would much rather take my chances in the Australian market, thank you.
But give Australian writers the mythologised ‘fair go’ we’re always hearing so much about – they ought to be able to compete with each other at a national level. If anyone suggested we allow overseas players to swarm the ranks of Australian sporting sides, all hell would break loose. It’s deemed important, a matter of national interest, that Australian sportspeople represent their country in competition here and abroad; no one questions the value of that. Sure, there are exchanges and secondments at the club level, and plenty of Australian writers also spend valuable time overseas, but you won’t find anyone saying it would be okay if Australian sporting sides were dominated by non-Australians. And you won’t find the government of the day taking it upon itself to choose who plays and who doesn’t – no one would have that in a fit.
* The cartoon showed a glamorous couple riding in a red convertible Porsche, the passenger sipping champagne and the driver saying, “Mind you, if they remove the tariff on luxury imported cars, I can buy that second Porsche I’ve always wanted…” The caption below read: Australian Novelists Discuss the Free Market. I mean, it’s just too ludicrous for words. Exactly how out of touch with a fiction writer’s reality are these people?