Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I want to start a club of letter-writers! We will bring back the beautiful art of letter-writing in the age of the txt, when there's not even enough time for vowels, let alone poetical flourishes... We will sit at desks with red wine in front of us and write long, detailed, thoughtful letters to one another. These days the only exciting things that come by post are story acceptances. The rest is administrative drivel, never touched by human hand save in the very last moment when the postie lifts it from the bag and shoves it through the slot. Imagine receiving a letter from an old friend instead of an 'add' on Facebook. That little leap of the heart when you see your name in handwriting on the envelope, when you feel the thickness of the folded letter within.

It saddens me that most people can't write. They really, really can't. I mark psychology essays sometimes, and the standard is staggeringly abysmal. I read people's funding submissions, and they can't even say what they mean in simple clear sentences. It's turgid, ghastly, weasel-word-ridden drivel. I'd like us all to be poets, delighting one another with our wit and invention and sparking ever wilder, bolder leaps of fancy and whimsy and humour and insight. I guess there never was a time when we were all poets, but at least we could spell, and we had lovely handwriting, and we could recite a few lines of Blake or Wordsworth.

I have written one love letter in my life. Apart from the adolescent tragedies which, if they still exist, are sufficient reason for me never to stand for public office. Worse than Pauline Hanson. Far worse. I have written one real love letter in my life, and I did it in Microsoft Word. Printed it out, for Christ's sake, in Times New Roman or Garamond or something, and put it in her letterbox, along with the panties she'd inadvertently left in my bed. What was I thinking? I've lived forty years and in that time I've only really written one love letter and I fucking well did it on a word processor. Which meant of course that I got to keep a copy in My Documents, in the folder named 'love', I suppose. It would have been better to scribble it in shitty red biro on the back of a torn phone bill than do it in Word. A love letter is a physical object, like a feather, a pressed flower. It is not 'information'. You cannot 'keep a copy'. There is no 'copy'. There is the love letter and the love ketter is the love letter is the love letter. I kept a copy, because I thought it was a good love letter, but I missed the point that you have to give it away. Like love itself, you can't have your cake and eat it, give it and hold onto it at the same time. It destroys the very small, almost imperceptible magic that is in the letter. 

One decent love letter in my whole life and I did it on the computer! I wonder if she kept it anyway.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Excerpt from 'Different Kinds of Heaven' (formerly 'Zoe and May')

Mayflower, he called her, for the corolla of blonde hair that haloed her face. But this was not promising, since his pot plants never did well. He tried to guess if they wanted sun or water, and always seemed to jump the wrong way. As for May, he never knew what to cook for her. He found she’d eat bolognaise, so he made her that until one day she said, I don’t like bolognaise, and that was that. So he struck on the idea of fish-fingers—he felt absurdly pleased with the inspiration—and this kept him going for a while.

 Entertainment was a bigger problem. He bought a huge box of Lego for her after the first disastrous weekend, but she was always demanding his participation. He could not understand why something as seemingly easy as playing with Lego people could be so exhausting. Fifteen minutes and he’d be unable to sit upright anymore; he’d slump to the floor beside her, utterly drained. He was in a Lego gulag. His suffering passed May by. Her Lego people cheerfully conquered the mountains of his chest, danced on the pinnacle of his nose. He let it wash over him. It was all okay so long as he didn’t have to raise a muscle. And all this killed half an hour, then she would ask him, what now Dad? and he really couldn’t think of a thing. How on earth did Cathy make the hours pass?

 He took her to the Collingwood Children’s Farm, where for a time he thought he’d failed again, until he understood that this stillness, this sombre concentration, was her expression of rapture. She held the guinea pigs like a sacred responsibility. Then afterwards they walked along the Yarra in a fine wash of sunlight, past the serrated skyline of the old factories, the embankments of yellow sour subs. She picked the fattest ones and happily chomped their squeaky stems from the nub up, a childhood delicacy he remembered well, though the taste disgusted him when he had a nibble for old time’s sake.

 Dad, how does the river know which way to go? she asked him.

 It goes downhill.

 It’s not going downhill. It’s going flat.

 It’s very slightly downhill—this outrageous statement a cause for obvious consternation.

 They walked a while longer in silence, and he could see her mind ticking over, puzzling something out. Then she said: What if I don’t like heaven Dad? I mean, when I die?

 You will. Everyone likes heaven.

 Are there different kinds of heaven for different people? 

I don’t know sweetie. Maybe you get what you want. Maybe your heaven would be a garden with the hugest sour subs.

 She walked silently for a while, studying the river, the people quietly whirring by on their bicycles. Then she said, cheerfully, definitively: My heaven would just be a normal life!

 He knew what she meant: that this was enough, right here, right now, and she could foresee not a single shadow. Her innocence exposed the true love he had for her, a love that was almost an oppression. His own heart was armoured and weary, and protected because he considered himself disposable, not really so important. But loving her made a break in his defences through which pain could get in again, along with the light. Against this weakness there was no possible protection.