I have need of the sky

I’m packing for the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, trying to imagine what warmth might be like, and covering all bases. In between searching for swimmers and scarves, I’m also finalising the script for my monologue performance first thing on Sunday morning.

This fragment of Richard Hovey’s poem was sent to me by Jenni Gates via the Festival website, for inclusion in my performance. I thought I’d share it here, so you can be part of the fun.


…I have need of the sky,
I have business with the grass;
I will up and get me away where the hawk is wheeling
Lone and high,
And the slow clouds go by.
I will get me away to the waters that glass
The clouds as they pass.
I will get me away to the woods…


Thanks Jenni, for an introduction to another poet, and for the reminder of the wide blue.

Thanks too, to all who came along to hear Hilary Mc Phee talk last night. It was a glowing evening. Thanks to those of you who have visited the Pilgrimage of Bookstores post over at the Meanjin blog, and to the “likers” on Facebook and even the twitterers who spread the words. Thanks to my pueblo of subscribers here – you keep me honest.

I was such a skeptical Luddite when all this began, but I am coming around, and some days I’m lit up by the sound of a Tweet whistling in or out.

Who could have guessed?

For now though, I’m imagining the sound of waves and picturing a light reaching out across the ocean to greet the dawn – and maybe even whales.

It’s my first visit to Byron. Another Finisterre, at the other end of the world.

I’ll report in on my return, but for now, buen camino, my village.

Paso a paso.

I will get me away to some sky…



Random Happiness

I just looked back at my last couple of posts and realised that they are very blue. Today, there are many shades of grey outside, but in spite of the palette, life is feeling kind of gold. Maybe peachy. Perhaps even in the pink.
So in an attempt to celebrate the gift of random happiness, here’s a list, in very random order, of some extremely random stuff I love.
Why not?
I love my sunburnt country.
Even when it is pale and wan, like today.
And I don’t mean that in a jingoistic way, although I can sometimes get caught up in those moments.
I love the specifics – wet drips from eucalyptus leaves on a winter morning, the honey scent of first wattle, the cloud of red when my feet fall on dry earth, the rustle of dry grass in early autumn. The twisted trunks and textures of paperbark, the delicate calligraphy of a spider orchid, the squawk of cockatoos when I enter their patch and the hysterical laughter of kookas as they tuck in for the night.
Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, how your changing aspects make me expand. I want to be big enough to belong; better so I can live up to you; worthy in your eyes.
Oi, oi, oi…
Merrell Siren Ventilator boots.
They may have been discontinued, but with detective work and effort, and the kindness of staff at Ray’s Outdoors, I now have two pairs in my wardrobe. Every time I see them I remember how my previous pairs cosseted me across the miles, and I anticipate the adventures I will have with these. They hold the promise of the road.
Feeling useful.
Feeling stretched.
Feeling like I have something to discover and to offer.
Katherine Mansfield said it best. I carry this everywhere.
Oh, God!  The sky is filled with the sun, and the sun is like music.  The sky is full of music.  Music comes streaming down these great beams.  The wind touches the trees, shakes little jits of music.  The shape of every flower is like a sound.  My hands open like five petals. 
Isaiah – or was it Elisha? – was caught up into Heaven in a chariot of fire once.  But when the weather is divine and I am free to work, such a journey is positively nothing.
Into the unknown, the unpredictable, the possible.
Into the unfamiliar, the void, the yonder. Wide, blue or otherwise.
Into self, into retreat, into the next chapter.
Going, going….


Broad beans, blueberries, figs, licorice allsorts…

Beetroot, broccoli, fennel, artichokes, olives, mangoes, dark chocolate, baked potatoes, beetroot, leeks, fennel seeds, lentils, broccoli, chilli, figs, beetroot, broccoli, figs…

And I love cooks. And chickpeas. And cannellini beans. And what cooks do with them. And pasta. And spice. And gardeners who grow all this bounty.

And did I mention cheese?




Pink ones best of all.

And scented.

Oh the scent of a dark maroon Mr Lincoln.

But pink ones are memories of my mother. Pink and full-blown and perhaps even a little torn at the edges of the petals – weathered by wind and rain, possibly. Dotted with dew. Love.


The turn of the key in the door. The smell of toast. Napping. Whole days in pyjamas. Dropping it all. Silence. Cups of tea. More cups of tea. My neighbour’s footsteps on his wooden boards. Almond-scented soap. Being busy. Getting it done. The achievement of a clean hand-basin. Bleach. Layers of remembering. Rosemary along the verandah. Birds bathing in bowls. Baking vegetables. Reading. Singing aloud. Dancing to the songs of the eighties when no-one can see. Clean laundry. Getting dirty. The familiar shower. The piles of books. The evidence, everywhere, of family and friends and lives shared…

I think this must be the first of many such posts. I’m only just warming up.

It’s still grey outside but random happiness fills the room, and I have not even begun to talk about my family, my friends, those who have read the book, those who subscribe to these posts, those who tell me stories at book events, those who gave me stories to tell. There is not a snapshot big enough to hold all of you, but my heart is trying to do you justice. I am specifically, not randomly, overjoyed when I think of those I love, who inspire me and spur me on, and remind me to do better. To be better. To strive to breathe each day in, and to live it well.

As I’ve been typing, I have received emails from two booksellers. Did I mention that bookstores make me happy? They also make me small, in the face of wonder and so many stories, and they lift me up and out, with all the promise they contain. Those who run them, the independent booksellers, make me glad and grateful. So much so, that I wrote a story about them. If you also love and are gladdened by booksellers, please have a look at the piece, over at the Meanjin website.


And don’t be shy about leaving a comment about your beloved bookstore. They deserve to be celebrated for the happiness they bring. Share the post around. Invite others to add their local store to it. We will only have them if we care for them.

Ain’t that the truth about all of life?

Gracias. Thank you.

A PS. If you have not read it, there is another bookstore post I wrote some time ago over at the Wheeler Centre.


Breathing in and breathing out

This morning I walked along Port Philip Bay in Melbourne in icicle air. The sun was out and the water was glassy. Clouds bobbed on the horizon, and in the foreground pocked rocks were exposed by low tide.

It was a morning after.

Yesterday I attended a memorial service for a shining, sixteen-year-old, fair-haired sprite. It is not for me to try to tell her story here. I didn’t know her – hadn’t seen her since she was a toddler – and it would be presumptuous of me to write about her. But her mum talked afterwards about how her daughter had changed people’s lives, and I realised that her death had changed me in the past week.

Death does that. It forces us to face that lurking truth – the inevitability we ignore in order to skip through our living days. But we are also offered an opportunity to realign our priorities, and to see with eyes that are open.

In recent weeks, I’ve been so grateful for the professional adventures I’m having. I love hearing the stories and reflections people tell after they have read the book. I love meeting readers – we are compañeros, we of the book. I love the thrill of all these discoveries.

But this week of death, as well as near-death and illness, made me realise that it is the “ordinary” things that cut deep: looking into the eyes of an old friend as she talks about her new venture, both of us warming our hands on coffee cups; watching as rotten weatherboards are torn from our house, and being glad of the banging of the hammer, knowing I will once again feel protected within these walls; pruning the ends off winter roses, in expectation of a flush of red and white in summer…


Breathing in and breathing out, trying to stay aware of the ordinary miracle that is life. Sitting here, tapping on a keyboard, planning to put the kettle on when I’m done and make a cup of tea, and stretch my back in the afternoon sunshine.



Breathing in and breathing out,  as I whisper words of Spanish under my breath in preparation for an event at the Cervantes Institute this coming week, where I hope to speak about stranger-kindness and friendship.


Breathing in and breathing out, listening to the scratching of birds’ footsteps on the tin roof, watching shadows move across walls, feeling the pleasure of only one layer of clothing on my skin, and anticipating the baring of my arms in a month or three…


Breathing in and breathing out. Assuming I will be here tomorrow. Next week. Next month.

Aware that it is not a given.

Breathing in and breathing out.

Glad. So glad.

For life.


Thanks too, to you who read these words, particularly if you visit regularly, and even more so if you are a subscriber. They are offerings in the ether, and I am grateful when they land. Thank you for your indulgence, and for walking this camino with me.

It has been a week of turbulence. Of being tossed on waves like a child’s toy.

Emotions are elusive beasts. Who can predict the moment when grief will strike at the heart, or joy will make tears wash down, or love will inflate the chest? The world has a way of surprising us just when we think we know what is coming. It barks “Boo” and we flinch. Or grin. Or smile in wonder.

Sometimes we sob. And sometimes there is comfort.

Like sitting with a friend as she weeps, and wanting to murder the waiter for being offhand with her.

Like the gentleman who touches her shoulder as he hobbles out of the cafe, leaving behind his smell of peppermint and a starched handkerchief, pressed into her hand.

It’s precious. Elusive.

May it find you.


Just over six years ago, Hugh Colman and I began work on an adaptation of John Webster’s thrill-ride The Duchess of Malfi. In December 2006, our production of the script opened at Red Stitch in Melbourne, under the title Hellbent.

Today, I’m going in to chat on radio about a new production, opening at the Opera House in Sydney this Wednesday, directed by John Bell for the Bell Shakespeare Company, under the original title.

Preparing for that interview, I have been re-reading our text and also the original. I am surprised by how much we changed. I had grown accustomed to our version, but have been reminded of the boldness we achieved, in company with Rachel Burke and the original cast. More importantly though, I’ve been reminded of the exquisite, muscular, original and imaginative power of Webster’s language – and of its immediacy and accessibility.

That’s why we didn’t tamper with the words. Our version re-arranges and re-assigns the text; it tells a different story; it has a shift of focus – but it leaves the glory of Webster’s words intact. There are times when I think he might have bettered the bard.


But consider these lines, as the heroine faces her death, explaining that the rope with which she will be strangled holds no fear of her:

What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut

With diamonds? Or to be smothered

With cassia? Or to be shot to death with pearls?


Or this sharp poke at politicians:

I would sooner swim to the Bermudas on

Two politicians’ rotten bladders, tied

Together with an intelligencer’s heart-string,

Than depend on so changeable a leader’s favour.

Or his mordant humour, in this exchange between the Duchess and her twin brother:

– Diamonds are of most value they say, that have passed through most jeweller’s hands.

– Whores, by that rule, are precious.

And this wisdom:

Though some ministers hold it presumption

To instruct leaders what they ought to do,

It is a noble duty to inform them

What they ought to foresee.

I could go on. And on. Bur for those of you who live in Sydney, I hope you might come along and experience the wonders for yourself. The play is not often staged, due to the sprawling, wayward length of the uncut original. I hope ours makes a strong case for the resonances and value of the writing.

In another funny convergence, it was while revising our adaptation just over two years ago that I came across the detail about pilgrims that began my sin-walk. There were pilgrims in the original Webster script, and I was wondering if we should reinstate them. I began hunting down pilgrim lore, and learned of the sin-carrying custom. Webster’s pilgrims went, and I went on the road! And so the play led to the walk, which led to the book, Sinning Across Spain.

And so this week, many roads lead to the one place. The Opera House.

Our version ends with the words:

Mine is another voyage.

What a voyage Mr Webster has given me!

I thank him, my beautiful script collaborator Hugh Colman, the generous and wise John Bell, and all those who have wrangled and questioned the script through two productions. It has been a miraculous, gifted journey.

For those who don’t know them, the top photo is on the freeway at the entrance to Melbourne, and the bottom is crossing the bridge – that bridge – in Sydney.

More convergences!

A postscript.

Reviews for Duchess of Malfi can be read at these links:

The Radio National interview about Malfi can be found here:


Vale Peter Steele

Last week we lost a great man.

A poet, a wise one, an elder.

Peter Steele was my teacher at Melbourne University. He was patient yet insistent, insightful yet light of touch, and encouraging at every turn, as he led his students toward their own personal experience of literature, while offering up his vast knowledge as guide.

I remember him smiling. Nodding. Demanding, sometimes. I remember how excited I felt to be in the office of a real, actual poet.

When I open one of his volumes I feel full of admiration for his work, but also bigger, as though I am amplified simply for having met him. Maybe we all were, those of us lucky to have had him make a note in one of our margins.

This is his, shared with you respectfully and lovingly – as he shared his life with his students. Sadly, I can’t show you how his eyes twinkled.



Upright again, fritters of mint in my fingers,
I’m given pause in the kitchen patch
by the car’s whine, the loud harrumph of lorries
that round the stand on Two-Tree Hill
and hustle past the boneyard.

I’ve taken leave of the Cliffs of Moher, the unsmiling
campus guard at Georgetown, the fall
of Richelieu’s scarlet enclosed by the London gloom:
I’ve watched my last candle gutter
for dear ones, back in Paris,

sung, as with Francis, the spill of an Umbrian morning,
each breath a gift, each glance a blessing:
have said farewell to Bhutan of the high passes
and the ragged hillmen, to the Basque dancers
praising their limping fellow,

to the square of Blood in Beijing, to the virid islands
that speckle the Pacific acres,
to moseying sheep in Judaean scrub, to leopard
and bison, a zoo for quartering, and
to the airy stone of Chartres,

But here’s the mint still on my hands. A wreath,
so Pliny thought was ‘good for students,
to exhilarate their minds.’  Late in the course,
I’ll settle for a sprig or two –
the savour gracious, the leaves brimmingly green –
as if never to say die.



I will be talking to Michael Cathcart on Monday 9th July at 10am (all over Australia) on Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily. We will be discussing Duchess of Malfi, which opens in Sydney on July 11th…

Leaving The Room

I’m at the desk, hunkered down, feeling less than inspired. It’s cold outside and the trails are not kind.
Slippery, and not conducive to flight.
So I go inside and sit, looking at the screen.
And wait.
Louise, my dear friend and fellow walker, sent me this quote. I thought you might take solace from it, as I do.
You do not need to leave your room………
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Do not even listen,simply wait.
Do not even wait,be quite still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked.
It has no choice.
It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
Franz Kafka.
I hope inspiration breaks through from behind the clouds for you.
Thanks to all who braved the chills to come along to Saturday’s Bayside Literary Festival conversation. That inspired…
Info and pics for that and other events are over at the Facebook page. Click on the little Facebook symbol on the top right to get over there.
Keep warm.
Keep walking.
On, on…