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When we live away from home there is so much that we miss. Family, friends, places. We miss babies being born, people growing older, the seasons changing. But at the same time we gain something special. When we leave home behind, especially in our early twenties like so many of my peers who have also moved away, our home stays in a bubble. Our home town becomes a security blanket that we can turn to, no matter how old we are, when we need reassurance, when we’re lost, when we’re broken. This summer I went to Adelaide and spent six weeks reconnecting with my home. I hadn’t spent much time there over the last few years, and when I was feeling worn out, vulnerable and in need of some familiarity, it was the perfect tonic. In Melbourne I spend so much time keeping up with the pace of the city, in Adelaide I am free to relax. I go to the beach without feeling anxious about my body. I eat beautiful fresh food without overthinking what I’m consuming. I sit at kitchen tables for hours and drink cups of tea with people I love. I miss home every day, but I know for all the homesickness I’m so lucky to have this refuge to return to whenever I need to. This is what struck me as I read Amy Liptrot’s stunning memoir The Outrun: that home is special, and that being away from home makes us realise just how special it is.
Liptrot moved to London to go to university. She left behind the wild and woolly remote islands of Orkney in northern Scotland and threw herself into the big city. She also found the pace unrelenting, she also struggled to keep up, but then she was keeping up too well. The Outrun is the story of Liptrot’s alcoholism and addiction, and how returning home to Orkney helped to heal her. In many ways this book is similar to Helen MacDonald’s acclaimed H is for Hawk – both writers faced a grieving and found sanctuary in the natural environment. MacDonald reconnected with her recently-deceased father by training a goshawk; Liptrot finds peace while taking part in a survey of the endangered corncrake birds of the northern isles.
From the very first paragraph Liptrot does not shy away from difficulty, and somehow writes with delicate poise over such raw material:
Under whirring helicopter blades, a young woman holds her newborn baby as she is pushed in a wheelchair along the runway of the island airport to meet a man in a strait-jacket being pushed in a wheelchair from the other direction. That day, the two twenty-eight-year-olds had been treated at the small hospital nearby. The woman was helped to deliver her first child. The man, shouting and out of control, was restrained and sedated.
The ferocity of the helicopter blades, the dramatic division between loyalties, seem to follow Liptrot throughout her life. Her parents separate after her father’s illness becomes too much for her mother to bare. Liptrot seems eternally restless, whether it be in the wind-whipped fields of the farm, in the manically-paced streets of London, or in the compulsions driving her to drink:
I’ve lived in ten different houses in the last five years. My belongings are in friends’ attics and garages in London – a physical manifestation of my unsettledness and split loyalties. I am scattered and never at home. I think about having a drink like you might fantasise about having an affair. I know I can’t do it but maybe if the conditions were perfect and nobody would find out, we could have a weekend together, my bottles and I.
Throughout The Outrun Liptrot drops in little slices of Orcadian, like little reminders of folklore from her distant home. ‘In Orcadian, ‘flitting’ means ‘moving house’. … In London I was always flitting but was too battered to see it as an opportunity. I wanted to flit quickly so that no one noticed, slipping from one shadow to the next.’ Orkney never leaves Liptrot, no matter how hard she tries to push it away. It grounds her, it never leaves her: like a good home it is fiercely loyal.
When things get hard, when Liptrot has made her way through the bulk of the twelve steps and is surrounded by temptation. When she struggles to find work, having burned too many bridges through her heavy drinking. When she finds herself lonely after isolating so many people who cared for her, who tried to make her stop. When there is nothing else, there is home.
Liptrot hits on so many feelings of those of us who live away. The distance, the pull, the push. The idea that coming home is failing, even when in other ways it’s the ultimate goal. I often day-dream about landing the perfect job that would allow me to go back to Adelaide, and sometimes I think that part of my drive to become a successful writer is the fact that it can be done from anywhere. I dream of moving back to the foothills of Adelaide where I grew up, growing vegetables, reading on a sunny verandah, being close to family and friends but having my own little home. When I go back to visit now I stay with friends, or I stay in the house we moved to when my brother and I were teenagers. This house is my mother’s home, and I love that it is her very own little home, but it’s not the home of my childhood. I know that buildings don’t make a home, that people do. But when I think of home I think of the leafy streets that I rode my bike down as a kid, of the playgrounds where my primary-school-friend Emily and I sat on neighbouring swings and talked for hours, of all the shortcuts through cobbled laneways that I still remember like the back of my hand. As Liptrot says, ‘I wonder if it’s possible to really come back once you’ve lived away for a while, or if it’s called coming ‘home’ when you never belonged.’
I had a great drive to leave and experience more elsewhere but, like many young Orcadians, I’ve returned. Now I’m back I’m seeing my home anew and wondering if I should join the effort to keep the isles alive. When I am in London, Orkney itself seems imaginary. I find it hard to believe that this life is real when I’m down there. And imagination is important here. These islands could be bleak, uncompromising places if it weren’t for enchantments such as the porpoise, rising like the Hether Blether in the offing, always just beyond our reach.
The reason I discovered Liptrot’s memoir was through its being shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for nature writing, and her descriptions of the wild and rough landscape of Orkney battering away at her as she struggles to remain sober, while equally soothing her as she dedicates herself to keeping busy and healthy, are stunningly evocative and beautiful. Liptrot’s ability to weave through descriptions of her surroundings without resorting to cliché is admirable enough, yet her ability to draw comparisons between the landscape, home and her journey towards sobriety without becoming clunky or overly-laboured makes for incredible writing.
I said earlier that The Outrun reminded me of H is for Hawk but actually I think Liptrot’s is a far better book. H is for Hawk at times felt too academic in its analogies and quoting of materials, but my main issue was MacDonald’s voice, which I never quite connected with. Whereas Liptrot remains self-aware throughout – in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings she is made painfully aware of her own privilege, and this carries in her voice. ‘Hearing about life in prisons, in hospitals, in travelling communities, in large families, in Russia and in Stepney Green showed me spheres of experience orbiting far away from media-saturated graduates bitching on Twitter.’ I guess this goes back to coming from small towns, and in Liptrot’s case, the added influence of having come from an isolated place. We often leave to expand our world views, but many cases we only end up narrowing our social circles as a result.
The Outrun was not a book I could tear through, but only because I wanted to savour it. Something about Liptrot’s writing made me slow down, as if I were quietened by her surroundings by osmosis. Years after moving to Melbourne I still struggle against the pace of the city, and I still regularly ask people to speak slower so that I have time to catch their entire sentences. Reading The Outrun I wanted to take my time, to appreciate the language and beauty of Liptrot’s story, and to fully immerse myself in her surroundings. I would pause to daydream of wind-swept cliffs and of rugged coastlines. I could imagine Liptrot walking to the general store, or chopping wood, or writing in her journal. It’s an amazing thing that in writing of trauma, addiction and grief to feel pangs of jealousy – not at the life lived but at the ability to tell it so well. I wanted to be Liptrot’s friend.
While I never am - and never will be - one to say that I enjoy winter, even I have to admit that it wet weather can give us the ability to slow down. I would of course argue that summer does this too – I dream of long, hot days lying under a tree in the park, floating in the ocean, taking things more slowly as the weight of the heat predisposes us to do – but it’s not always an argument I’ll win. For all that I hate about winter, I do love the ability to cook up big pots of soup, warming the house with the heat of the stove and heady fragrances such as onion, bay leaves and garlic. I recently made this Parsnip, Sage and White Bean Soup on a lazy Sunday afternoon and it did just this. The white beans provide a smooth creaminess without adding dairy, and the sage gives a wonderfully warm note with every mouthful. This incredibly easy recipe is finished off with some crispy parsnip chips and sage leaves for contrast, but honestly if you were feeling lazy you could skip this altogether and just dive in with some crusty bread. Soup is also impossible to eat quickly – you have to slow down in order to eat it. You’re forced to relax, to quieten your natural impatience, to take your time.
Over the years I’ve found ways to reconnect with home while living away. Spending time with other friends from Adelaide who live here (a sad but wonderful ever-increasing community), going to the football, refusing to come into the CBD on weekends, going for long bike rides along the creek. I know that one day I’ll go back to Adelaide – I don’t know when, but I know it will happen for a reason, just as it did for Liptrot when she went back to Orkney. Those of us who see home as a place of healing are truly lucky beyond words. Every time I write about my relationship to home I’m reminded of its closeness, its accessibility, its safety. So many on this earth are not as lucky. It’s hard to be away, but it’s also there when I need it, just as Melbourne will be in return. I have spent a lot of my life flitting between houses, cities and countries, and now that I’m settling back into life in Australia I’m thinking a lot about why that’s been the case. When I think of Adelaide now that I’ve been away for so long, I think about possibility. As Liptrot says of Orkney: ‘I didn’t choose to come here to ‘downsize’ or ‘get back to nature’. It wasn’t my plan to return home for recovery, it was more that I came back for a visit and got stuck. This is where I come from, not – like most English people in Orkney – where I chose to come to.’ We don’t always dictate why we live in a certain place, but if we’re lucky we can have a home that continues grounds us no matter what we’re up against. The Outrun is a stunningly beautiful memoir, one of my favourite non-fiction books of the last few years. Read it, sink into it, take it slowly.
I adore reading memoirs, but I think this interview featured on NPR’s Morning Edition – about Suki Kim’s experience of having her non-fiction work being labelled as memoir in a commercial consideration by her publisher – was an important reminder of how women’s writing is still regularly devalued.
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When I was nineteen I spent a couple of days in Belfast. I went on a ‘mural tour’ and saw streets painted to mark territory, to act as memorials, or in celebration. I saw gutters of roads painted in the colours of the Union Jack to mark it as Protestant territory. I saw kindergartens and playgrounds behind barbed wire. I saw boom-gates that would come down at curfew, like railroad crossings forbidding entrance to the other side. It was confronting, it was emotional, but it made me understand the Troubles in ways I never had before. I saw bullet holes on public buildings, but I also saw a surging arts community. I saw derelict shipyards, but I also saw bustling retail areas and new industries bringing jobs into the city. Being in Belfast wasn’t just seeing where the city had come from, it was also about seeing where the city was going.
In many ways living in Berlin was very similar. It was like being in a living, breathing museum. I guess that’s what attracted me to the city in the first place – being there would be a way to understand so much of the twentieth-century. And it was, but it was also overwhelming. I’d ride over the path that marks where the Berlin Wall used to be every day, free to move from one side to the other of a reunified city, but I’d also see marked differences in buildings and infrastructure and wealth from one side to the other. I’d see beautiful memorials to the Holocaust in very public places, but I’d also see police standing guard outside of Jewish schools. There were parts of German history that people were comfortable talking about, parts that were memorialised, and parts that were commodified for tourism. But there were also gaps in history that were not accessible to an outsider like me. This was partly due to language barriers and partly due to my not being there long enough to spend time with multi-generational families. But I think there’s also an element of needing to leave some things behind. Germany is a country with a difficult past – a lot of this is acknowledged in ways that other many other countries would shy away from, but there are still gaps in history that feel too raw and too personal to keep out in the open.
Nightmare in Berlin tells us of one of these periods that are generally kept quiet. It examines the period at the end of the war, in the lead-up-to and immediately after the German surrender. It takes us to the evacuation sites, it walks us through the rubble, it takes us inside the bomb shelters. It tells of empty pantries, of shattered windows, of addiction and depression and hopelessness. It bridges the gap between the enormous number of books and films about the Holocaust and to the Germany that emerged in its’ aftermath. And in tackling this period of history, Hans Fallada shines a light on a Berlin few of us have ever heard of before.
Nightmare in Berlin tells of Dr Doll, a mayor in a small-town in north-east Germany that has been occupied by the Red Army, as he and his wife return to Berlin hoping to return to their pre-war home. They are quickly confronted by the mess of a city barely standing. It’s a city in ruins, its’ remaining population struggling to get by, and Fallada does not hide the desperation: ‘For these people from a nation that bore its defeat without dignity of any kind, without a trace of greatness, there was nothing left worth hiding.’ Life is lived in the present, with little hope held out for the days to come. There is no ability to plan for the future – after living through years and years of sustained attack, it’s difficult even to store food when they’ve been without:
They didn't care about overfilling their stomachs, or the effect this would have on their already disturbed night's sleep, nor did they think about keeping something back for the next day. They'd said goodbye to all such thoughts during the years of sustained aerial bombing. They had become children again, who live only for today, without a thought for the morrow; but they had nothing of the innocence of children any more. They were uprooted, the pair of them, this herder of cows and this carrier of sacks; the past had slipped away from them, and their future was too uncertain to be worth troubling their minds about it. They drifted along aimlessly on the tide of life – what was the point of living, really?
In fact food becomes a central concern of the Doll’s lives and allows Fallada to demonstrate the black markets in play over so much of the country. There’s a desperation in the civilian population which reaches boiling point when in one scene Mrs Doll – while working alongside a team of women clearing out old army shelters – discovers stock piles of food kept by the SS while the population starved.
… what really made the women’s blood boil as they lugged all this stuff about was the thought that all this abundance had been withheld for years from starving women and children, including many children who had never tasted chocolate in their lives, only to be crammed into the greedy mouths of swaggering SS bully boys, who were directly responsible for much of Germany’s misfortune.
The demon of collective guilt hangs over the shoulders of the country throughout Nightmare in Berlin, but where Fallada excels is in his ability to hit on the apathy that ran through much of the German population in the years immediately after the surrender. In Fallada’s world there are many who continue to fight, there are many who continued to ask questions, but there are also many who are desperate to take the pain away in any way they can, many through morphine addiction. But as time passes, as wounds begin to heal, as the streets begin to clear of debris, there is hope:
He’d dismissed Berlin as a ‘city of the dead’, a ‘sea of ruins’, in which he’d never be able to work: but just look how much work was being done in this city now! Anyone who wasn’t doing their bit should feel ashamed of themselves. They had been living in a state of blind selfishness for the past few months – a parasitic, self-centred existence. All they had done was take, take, never stopping to think how they might give something back.
When Doll had put down his last newspaper that evening, that night, laid down on the couch and turned out the light, he didn’t need to resort to some pathetic Robinson Crusoe fantasy in order to get off to sleep. Instead, all the things he had read were going round and round in his head, and the more he went over in his mind all that had been achieved so far, the more incomprehensible it seemed to him that he had stood idly by, resentful and blank, while all this was happening. These reproaches pursued him into his dreams at dead of night.
Reading about the food shortages and desperation across Europe reminds me to be conscious of the food I both purchase and consume. Eating on a budget can often feel like a sacrifice, but in the scheme of things it is still a position of incredible privilege. As I now cook just for myself, I like to make pots of soup or stews that can last me throughout the week, but can also easily be frozen to avoid waste and become a convenience in the future. This Jamie Oliver recipe for red lentil, sweet potato and coconut soup is incredibly hearty, and perfect for cold winter nights. Because I try to prevent buying ingredients that I won’t use again and again, I topped my soup with a little coconut milk and some roasted peanuts, which gave a crunchy contrast and worked well with the Asian flavours in this soup. In the poorly built rental properties of Victoria, it’s easy to feel the draught sting your bones. But as I read of blown out windows, of crumbling walls and of rampant homelessness, I was grateful for my little apartment and a bowl of soup to wrap my hands around.
Nightmare in Berlin is less well-known than Fallada’s landmark novel Alone in Berlin, and indeed this publication by Scribe is the first time The Nightmare has been translated from German to English. As the news becomes filled with nightly reports of terrorist attacks, of coups and of bigoted fear, we may not need to be reminded of war and atrocity. But there’s something to be said for considering what comes afterwards: in the short-sightedness of building towards conflict, we forget how long the damage can last. In the West we have been in denial of the damage that is still rippling through countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, our collective guilt becoming blind-sided by apathy for a part of the world that can feel so far away. But as racism continues to brew like a poisonous spell across Australia, the UK and the USA, and indeed again in many parts of Europe, we need to be reminded of not just the horrific consequences of the direct actions, but also how widespread the repercussions can be indirectly. We seem to have forgotten that it took decades to repair the scars of the last world war, that in many ways they have never left us. This is a timely publication of this new translation, one that should send a warning at a time when we need as many as we can get.
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Sometimes I get a bit overwhelmed with the world. My friend Danni says I ‘feel all the feels’ and it’s true: I find it hard to switch off, I get anxious and I take on other people’s anxieties. I want to see the best in the world but when awful things happen I find it hard to distance myself. Yet amidst all the difficulties in the world, there is always a glimmer of hope. America may elect a horrifically problematic racist as it’s next president, but it may also elect a woman president for the first time in history. The UK voted to leave Europe on a bigoted anti-immigration platform, but then thousands of people took to the streets in the London Stays protests (chanting ‘refugees in, racists out’). This of course is the broader outside world — amongst my friends in every day life horrible things can of course happen too easily. Beloved people pass away, friends struggle with illness, friends miscarry. Real life can be a total bastard and it’s hard to know what to do and what to say when someone you know and care about is going through this stuff. What do you say to someone who doesn’t know how to tell you what’s going on inside their head? Just as in politics and the media you have to have hope that better times will come, that good exists. In your everyday life you have to have hope that your family and friends will be safe, they will be healthy, they will be able to ask for help when they need it. You have to have hope because otherwise you’ll never sleep. Because otherwise you’ll end up down a rabbit hole and you won’t be safe or healthy or know how to tell people you love that you need help. When I first heard about Anna Spargo-Ryan’s debut novel The Paper House I admit I was a little trepidatious because the world is a hard, difficult place — do I really need to read about the difficult things that are happening to my friends on the page as well? Turns out yes I did. It wasn’t always easy reading, and it was highly emotional, but it left me with a renewed hope that good exists. And when the world feels like it’s being overrun by a lack of empathy for others, we need all the hope we can get.
Heather and Dave have bought a house in the country. A house that will become their family home. A place of adventure, of love, of refuge from the outside world. But then they experience a loss so great that Heather sinks into a pit of grief and loses her place in this new world. As Heather and Dave try to fight their way out of their despair, they are supported by their new neighbours who anchor them to this place. Woven through the new is Heather’s inability to escape the old. Spargo-Ryan has used spectacular empathy in creating her protagonist, and it makes the accuracy she shows in chronicling the inheritance of mental illness, as well as the loss innocence of youth that comes from being surrounded by parents in pain, all the more heartfelt and sympathetic:
The air moved in electric currents around my parents. She wore white dresses with lace keyholes, and he wore shirts with the top three buttons undone, and they always stared right into each other. When she cried, he didn’t tell her it was okay, to be quiet, to get a grip. I wish I could take it away. Half of it. A quarter. Any of it. And then he would kiss every part of her face, his big hands in her hair and on her shoulders, until the shaking stopped. Sometimes she smiled afterwards. Sometimes her eyes were dark. He didn’t mind either way; just held her hand the same as he always did.
Spargo-Ryan’s ability to build and build this novel like a brooding crescendo is extraordinary, but she doesn’t alienate her readers with a slow beginning — it all begins with the stunning first sentence: ‘My heart fell out on a spring morning’. As the story weaves further and further towards it’s conclusion the chapters get shorter and shorter, and the emotions become more and more heightened. The clouds seems to build in the sky, growing darker and darker. The last fifty pages of this book contains some of the most devastating writing I’ve ever come across. It hurt to read, it knocked the breath out of my lungs. And yet: I couldn’t let myself walk away from Heather. I wanted to hold her hand and sit with her and tell her everything would be ok. I wanted to squeeze Dave’s arm and make him a cup of tea and thank him for sticking by her. I felt like this couple were my friends, and I saw my friends in this couple. Although I am often emotionally moved by writers, few have ever made me openly sob into a crying snotty mess like this. And yet: I still left The Paper House feeling hopeful. I say this because I don’t want potential readers to be put off by the darkness in this novel. The Paper House is one of my new favourite Australian novels, and stands out as one of the best books of 2016. It is devastating and fearless but it is also just so viscerally and honestly beautiful that it deserves to be read widely.
When I’m feeling anxious or homesick or sad I find great comfort in cooking. It focuses my attention and helps me feel in control. It calms the distractions, the worries, the stress by forcing me to focus on making something one step at a time. I think this is why cooking becomes such a focus of my weekend — it allows me to let go of the week behind me and allows me to feel in control of the one that’s ahead. When I have food in the fridge I feel prepared. My Sundays are often spent making batches of hummus for my work lunches, pots of soup or stews that I can easily reheat when I come home from work, and treats that let me indulge in having something sweet without inflaming my sensitive body. As I was reading The Paper House the weather here in Melbourne was particularly cold and grey and I was feeling a strong pull towards staying inside and keeping warm. On a Saturday night in I baked this banana bread, and not only did the heat of the oven warm my small apartment but the smell of this homestyle cake filled the space with the comforting scents of vanilla and cinnamon.
Combining a few different online recipes I created this recipe which worked a treat. You could use any kind of flour for this, but I make an oat flour by putting rolled oats into the food processor until they became a powder. This method still leaves a few more meal-like crumbs, but I quite like the more whole-grain texture of this rather than sifting it down to a fine powder. It wouldn’t work in every recipe, but in forgiving baking like this it makes for the cheapest gluten-free flour you’ll find and holds the batter together well. After turning one and a half cups of oats into oat flour, I combined it one teaspoon each of cinnamon, baking powder and baking soda, plus a half-teaspoon of cardamon powder (though this is optional or could be replaced with ground ginger). In another bowl I mashed four small overripe bananas, then mixed in one-third of a cup of melted coconut oil (melted butter would also work), one-third of a cup of honey, one-quarter of a cup of milk, two medium eggs and one teaspoon of vanilla. I folded the wet ingredients into the dry, then poured the mix into a greased loaf tin. I sprinkled the batter with sunflower seeds before baking at 175C for one hour. You could also try topping the loaf with nuts or slices of banana, and I’d like to try adding some chopped dates or frozen blueberries another time too. Maybe you could try adding chocolate chips. It’s a very easy and very forgiving recipe, fun for testing out new combinations according to what’s at hand. It's perfect with a cup of tea as it is, or as it starts to dry out heat it a little and serve with yoghurt and maybe some stewed fruit. It's comforting, it's simple, it's therapeudic to make and to eat.
As I post this here in Australia we await on the results of this weekend’s election. Things feel uncertain, precarious and hostile. I spent most of Saturday feeling constantly on edge about what was to come. I did what I could — I surrounded myself with good people, I drank a lot of herbal tea, I got plenty of fresh air — but I couldn’t shake the fear tumbling throughout my body. On Saturday night I went to a friends place and drowned my sorrows with a collection of lovely people and one very cuddly dog as we watched the election coverage. Although there’s still a lot to be decided in this election and a lot to be worried about, in that room I felt surrounded by people who understood what I was feeling. We didn’t have to talk about all the things we were fearful of, we just knew that everyone else in that room felt the same. On Sunday, hungover and feeling exhausted from the hours spent on-edge the day before, I baked another loaf of this banana bread. I did a load of laundry, I made a batch of hummus and I cleaned my apartment. I can’t control the chaos around me, but I can hold on to this little home of mine and make it a warm and safe place, knowing that good people are here in my neighbourhood or close by when I need them.
When we go through hard times, when we’re grieving, when we’re in despair, we have to remind ourselves how lucky we are to have this safety and warmth. That no matter how difficult things seem, we are loved. Anna Spargo-Ryan’s extraordinary debut The Paper House tackles big obstacles, but neither the writer nor the characters ever succumb to self-pity or wallowing. There is always love. There is always hope. And it reminds us that amidst the chaos and fear and pain there is always beauty.
I really loved this piece by Anna North on Lit Hub about whether you are a baker or a cook both in the kitchen and as a writer. In the kitchen I’m definitely a cook - I don’t have the patience for baking, and I get a thrill from throwing things together and then seeing them work out. I don’t find following the rules relaxing. In my professional life I am the organiser, the one with the attention to detail, the one who thinks ahead. But in my spare time as a writer, I often have no idea what’s happening until I get to the end of a section and read it back and wonder where any of those thoughts and where any of that energy came from. It’s one of the things that I like most about writing — it takes me out of myself and my anxieties, just like playing around with new variations of recipes can too.
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Lately I’ve had a slightly tumultuous relationship with the idea of ‘inspiration’. Since I’ve been back in Australia I’ve found it really hard to focus on my writing. It’s only natural when so much has been going on in my life as I resettle here, start new jobs, let wounds heal, reconnect with loved ones. But that hasn’t stopped me from feeling frustrated at not getting much down on the page. I’ve been reading a lot, thinking about a long-form work that I began in Berlin, but not much progress has been made. This of course is selling myself short – so much time has been spent reading, thinking, mulling over ideas, making notes, and talking to friends about what I’m working on. Just because words aren’t getting onto the page doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing work. Because if there’s one thing I’ve realised in the last few years it’s that so much of my writing practice relies on, and is driven by, community.
Two years ago the then-Director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Sam Twyford-Moore, came across this blog and asked me to be on a panel at the festival. From that moment on, that moment of recognition, has changed the way I think about myself, my practice and my work. That invitation gave me the validation I didn’t know I needed, but propelled me to finally say the words out loud and on the page ‘I am a writer’. Self-doubt in all forms of creative practice is rife, but being part of a community of people makes a huge difference. People who read your work, give you feedback, give you encouragement, know how scary it is to submit a pitch or email an editor or accept an invitation to a festival. Until I took part in the Emerging Writers’ Festival I hadn’t had any of these things. I loved to write, I did it from time to time on the side, but never thought anyone would ever take me or my writing seriously. From that first festival I’ve met so many other writers and editors who have become dear friends, and I’ve gone on to speak at other festivals, and meet more writers and editors, but that first invitation remains so critical to everything that I’ve done since.
Now, as I post this, the Emerging Writers’ Festival is on again. Just as I need it, a boost to my motivation to spend time at my laptop getting words down on the page. I’m looking forward to so many things (I’ve listed some suggestions in the notes below), but what I know will be just as fulfilling as the events themselves are the conversations I’ll have at the bar, or with the person sitting next to me, or with someone over Twitter at the Conference – what might seem like incidental moments can open so many wonderful doors.
Emerging Writers’ Festival taught me that I could do this thing – I could write and people would read what I wrote. That people around me were doing it and they weren’t scary, they were just normal people who got drunk and danced at the parties and who were also filled with self-doubt but had good people around them to tell them to keep going. It taught me that people from Adelaide could be writers and it introduced me to people from my hometown who I didn’t even know were writers.
So it now seems a little silly to turn around and talk about a book by an English writer that’s getting huge amounts of attention. I wanted to write about a local release but the truth is there are so much great releases coming out soon that are still embargoed for a few more weeks and I want to give them all the attention they deserve. But I couldn’t write about inspiration and writing and not talk about the book that has got me excited about putting words down on the page again.
Kate Tempest was recently in Australia for the Sydney Writers Festival and garnered a huge amount of attention while she was here. A debut novelist but an award-winning musician and poet, Tempest showed me – even before I’d opened the book – that writers could be ordinary people without PhDs or expensive educations. Writers can do whatever they want with form, with technique, with their voice. Writers just have to love words.
The Bricks That Build the Houses is an outstanding piece of fiction. Tempest’s voice, made pitch-perfect through her spoken word and performance background, leaps off the page with an energy quite unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s an ode to friendship, an ode to South London, and an ode to possibility.
The story begins with three people in a car running away – we find out with time how these people know each other, what they’re running away from and where they’re going, but most importantly we find out where they’ve come from. These three characters all hail from Tempest’s home, South London, ‘the wrong side of the river’, or, ‘a part of town full of professional creatives with dreams of simpler living — radical, secret aspirations for cottages and nuclear families.’
Tempest weaves through the back-stories of each of the characters and their families without ever losing the thriller-like pace of the central narrative. It adds history and context to a broader theme of loss – whether that’s through the increasing gentrification of the neighbourhoods that they call home, or through lost connections, missed opportunities, fleeting talent, or decaying relationships. Tempest also hits on a time in our lives that feels precarious, like something could change and tip us over the edge before we’ve even realised it. She captures this best through Becky, the novel’s protagonist, who is determined to live a creative life, despite the challenges that constantly hold her back:
She can see the next twenty years playing out in the space between the counter and the flat and the casting calls and the auditions she can’t get and the missed opportunities and the pie and mash and the pub and the injuries and her body in the mirror. Updating her profile page, happy in the photographs, smiling in her skintight sequins, diva week on The X Factor, shots for the road and lines and pills and arms around her friends as if it’s fine, it’s fine. But her muscles have a shelf life, and she is jealous of every struggling dancer in a company. Twenty years and she’ll be here, cleaning up the cafe, still trying to prove to Auntie Linda that she can trust her with the seasoning. Twenty years of nothing changing but the rent.
This novel boasts a relentless pace. It’s so rare for me to be kept awake by books but I just couldn’t bare to put The Bricks That Built the Houses down and stayed up furiously turning page after page. Perhaps what’s so brilliant about this pace is that it mirrors the threat to the lives of the characters — Becky in her desperation to become a dancer before time denies her dream, and the ever-present danger of Harry’s life as a drug-dealer — but also to the place they’re in. The speed of development in London is brutal but most significantly is seen in the gentrification of neighbourhoods that made London what it is. Tempest uses this novel as a love-story to her home, and so beautifully captures the place that it leaps off the page:
He goes slowly past the chip shop, the newsagent’s, the off-license, some girls on their bikes shouting at each other, the chicken shop, the barber’s, three men in prayer robes leaning against the bicycle racks outside the Co-op, the jerk shop, the Good News Bakery, the funeral parlour, the block of flats, a man moving a fridge on two skateboards, the garage with the arsehole woman who works at the counter, the carwash, the kebab shop, the houses with their whitewashed walls and gravel drives, the pub, the other pub. The nice Caribbean restaurant. Pete ducks through the iron gate and cuts across the cemetery, overgrown and rich with green. Trees everywhere. He stares up into them; they sway in sunlight, the crumbling stones, the angels and monuments, the crunch of the path under his quick feet. The smell in the air of spring.
Shortly after finishing this book I was lucky enough to see Kate Tempest speak at the Wheeler Centre here in Melbourne (you can listen to the podcast of the interview here). Her energy is infectious, her drive relentless, I found myself feeling quite emotional as I felt her presence radiate from the stage. Now I find myself full of inspiration, the hardest part is to come. Now is the time to build routines and set goals. Now is the time to do the work. Because that’s the power of reading such incredible novels as The Bricks That Built the Houses — it not only transcends you into another world as a reader, if it’s really special it gives you the kick up the bum you need to make your own attempt at great work.
Just before I moved into my new place I bought a small cake tin from an op-shop. It doesn’t look anything like the tins my grandparents owned and despite the Russian text on it, it reminds me of my grandparents here and gone every time I see it. It sits proudly on top of my fridge alongside my fruit bowl. Every Sunday that I’ve lived in this apartment I’ve baked something to fill the tin, to help me through the week. Sometimes something sweet but also these chickpea tortilla chips. This last Sunday I was feeling a bit flat. I knew I needed to get out the apartment so I put on my headphones and went for a long, slow walk. As I walked and breathed in the fresh air, I knew I needed to come home and bake something, so I made these muffins using this recipe from My New Roots. They are low on sugar and inflammatory things that have the ability to make my ongoing symptoms flare up and therefore mean that if I’m feeling a little bit dodgy I can eat them without issue. They used up some raspberries I bought marked down at the supermarket as they were just turning. They filled the apartment with warmth from the oven and the scent of orange from the zest used in the batter. On a grey Melbourne day where the sun set just as I took the muffins from the oven at 5pm, it was comforting to know that I had a treat to turn to not only that afternoon, but that I could take to work during the week too. Perhaps most importantly, they meant a full cake tin sitting proudly in the kitchen, there to tell me I know how to look after myself.
Sometimes being a writer is lonely – we’ve all heard the clichés but it’s true. The act requires long hours spent in front of page and screen alone, obsessing over turns of phrase and dialogue and punctuation. But every now and then, when we’re lucky, we’re brought to life. Two years ago at my first Emerging Writers’ Festival I was told I was a writer, I was validated and I became part of a community. Now, as I set to build my work from these small essay-like-things to bigger endeavours, it’s perfect timing to shake things up a bit. Kate Tempest’s work shows all of us that you can be fearless, raw, honest and vulnerable and create stories of incredible beauty and truth in whatever form it takes. It’s something rare and special to all who will read her work, but especially to all of us who aspire to one day hold our work in our hands and say ‘I made this’. Inspiration must be followed by hard work and discipline, but when you’ve got people around you cheering you on, you’re already closer to doing great work than you think.
This year’s Emerging Writers Festival program features writers who I’ve read and love, who I can’t wait to read, and who I know I’ll be reading in the near future. Writers who I’ve featured on here include Alice Robinson, Emily Bitto, Jennifer Down, Lorelei Vashti, Abigail Ulman and the editors Alicia Sometimes and Nicole Hayes. Writers who’s debuts are just about to hit the bookshops with extraordinary promise and who I hope to write about here soon: Anna Spargo-Ryan, Jane Harper, Kate Mildenhall and Rajith Savanadasa. And events that feature groups of new, exciting writers like the perenially excellent Amazing Babes, old favourite Graphic Translation, and feature events Real Fake White Dirt, Songs and Stories of Home, and It’s Not Easy Being Green. Plus events that are important to our little literary community: Self-Care for Writers and the joyous Closing Night Party.
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Coming back to Melbourne I was reminded of things that made me feel at home here: walking along Merri Creek and inhaling the smell of eucalyptus, riding my bike through the inner suburbs towards the city, and joining the swell of people walking towards the MCG for the football. Often new acquaintances or colleagues comment that my being a football fan seems out of character for someone who makes a living working in the arts, who loves to read, who lives a relatively quiet life. But I feel like I’m more myself at the football than I am when I’m talking to artists, managing a queue of people or sitting in a meeting: all the things people see me doing where I try to be confident and in control. The truth is I feel the need to put on a front to hide the nerves I feel when talking to strangers or the worry I feel that everyone is safe and happy in a room that I’m responsible for. When I’m at the football I lose my self-consciousness. I go by myself, sometimes I go with friends, or when I’m really lucky I get to go with my brother. Like going to the cinema or a cafe alone I feel that this is the greatest way to enjoy the experience, being able to eavesdrop on those around you, not having to explain the rules or context to those next to you, but focusing on the game and quieting all the noise in your head. In the crowd all anyone cares about is their enjoyment of the game, nothing else needs to matter.
But it’s more than this: football is my connection to home. I grew up going to games with my Dad, he took me to my first game when I was six weeks old. I’ve watched North Gambier play from the child seat of my parents’ station wagon. I’ve climbed the steps up the concrete seating bank at Glenelg Oval as a child to sit with Dad and Grandpa’s friends. And as an adult, I’ve found my favourite spot to sit at the Punt Road end of the MCG, up in the cheap seats above the right-hand-pocket, looking down on the Richmond cheer-squad. At every game I’ve watched yellow and black uniforms run around an oval with varying degrees of success, and every time they’ve won I’ve sung the same theme song which declares that I come from Tigerland. I’m now thirty-three and read my book in the stands when I get there early and eat a gluten-free pie at half-time and check player stats on my phone, but really I could be the same five-year-old that brought her stuffed tiger toy and ate lollies and drew pictures in the margins of the Football Record. Football reminds me where I’m from. It connects me to my family, it gives me the ability to make small-talk with every cab driver, tradesperson or awkward relative I encounter, and it gives me something to look forward to when the Melbourne weather turns grey and wet and I don’t want to leave the house. Football is an important part of who I am, of where I’m from and why I love living in Melbourne. Football to me is just as much home as the bed I sleep in at night.
From The Outer is a collection of stories from fellow football lovers who likely have similar reactions to their love of the game as my colleagues do to mine: this not-so-secret love feels illicit in some way because for some reason it is seen as unexpected. For some, football is a game for a select few, watched and enjoyed by a particular type. I would argue, and I believe Alicia Sometimes and Nicole Hayes - the editors of this collection - would agree, that those who purport this are not true lovers of the game. When I sit in the stands waiting for my team to run onto the field, I’m surrounded by people of every age, every background, all genders and classes and sizes and shapes. But historically the game has been lauded as one for burly white men, and indeed it is mostly still run by and reported on by these ‘blokes’, despite the crowds looking very different. So I was excited to read stories by all the ‘unexpected voices’ gathered in this book: whether they be ‘female, Indigenous or gay; those with a disability, a foreign accent or even - perhaps most dubious of all - literary leanings’.
Some of these stories feel like journalistic interviews, and some unfortunately feel a little like poorly-penned autobiographies of footballers. In some cases this was because I was already familiar with the stories being told: the first female AFL umpire Chelsea Roffey, the LGBTIQ+ Essendon Bombers supporters group - the Purple Bombers - run by Jason Tuazon-McCheyne, and Leila Gurruwiwi the female panel member of Indigenous football show Marngrook. For those of us on the outer looking for narratives in the game, a lot of these stories are already part of our connection to the sport. But these are stories that need to be told and shared if the game is to grow to better represent the people who watch from the stands.
What really struck me in this collection are the pieces of memoir which capture the heart of the game I love in ways that brought me to tears or filled me with joy. Particular stand-outs included Tony Birch’s mourning of the Fitzroy Lions, Stan Grant’s response to the Adam Goodes’ victory dance, and Sophie Cunningham’s nerves watching tense Geelong games. These pieces share a viscerality: I can see Tony Birch walking past an empty Edinburgh Gardens oval, I can imagine Sophie Cunningham biting her fingernails in the stands, and I am overwhelmed by the hurt and pride that leap off the page when Stan Grant talks about how Goodes’ experience mirrors that of so many Indigenous Australians. My favourite piece in the collection is by Anna Spargo-Ryan, a writer from Adelaide who was also initiated into the game by the South Australian league, and to whom the game also represents family and belonging. Her beautiful memoir of listening to the radio with her grandfather made me weep, it made me smile, and it made me grieve.
Not all the pieces in the book struck a chord with me, but those that did reminded me why I love this game so much, despite the fact that it is problematic in many ways (last year I wrote about loving football as a feminist in which I spell this out more clearly). But as I read each story I thought about all the people I want to buy this book for: my brother who doesn’t always read as regularly as me but who loves the game as much as I do; my female friends with whom I share a bond as fellow football lovers; and all the ‘blokes’ in my life who would read a book about football but wouldn’t necessarily read a book about feminism or transgender politics or migrant stories. This book will resonate with others who like me, for many reasons can feel like they’re on the edge of this community. But the power of this book lies in connecting those in the centre with those on the periphery; one of the most powerful things about football is it’s ability to bring people together, to provide common ground. There are thousands of people with whom the only thing I have in common is our shared love of the Richmond Tigers — this book reminds me how special that is, and how we can use this bond to bring people closer together no matter who they are, where they’re from, or who they support.
As the weather in Melbourne takes a turn and the grey skies feel heavy, it truly begins to feel like football season. Seeking shelter in the stands, sitting in the corner of the pub watching the game on the screen, or perching on the edge of the couch, football breaks up these endless, monotonous rainy days. While food at the football has historically been terrible, watching at the pub or from home opens up the ability to make hearty meals or healthier snacks to keep you from biting your nails down to their cuticles. Nigella Lawson’s new cookbook Simply Nigella again focuses on the idea that the kitchen is the heart of the home. Many of the recipes in this book come with stories about friends and loved ones — recipes made with them in mind, recipes that they love, recipes that Lawson cooks to entice new friends and acquaintances into her home. It’s about comfort and sharing. This Simple Salsa from Simply Nigella (recipe not yet available online) was super easy to make and allows you to add as much or as little chilli as you’d like, without succumbing to the overly salted and preservative-ridden jars from the supermarket. I could imagine making a big bowl of it to serve when friends come over to watch the game on the couch, tailoring the spice to their preference. I also tried making these Chickpea Tortilla Chips from My New Roots to eat the dip with. Although the dough was crumbly and difficult to handle without baking paper, I’m keen to try them again in order to roll the dough as thin as possible and get an even crispier result. Rolling the dough out on the kitchen bench was messy and meant the end product were more like a thin cracker, but they go very well with the salsa or even just with cheddar cheese. A little weekend baking to warm the house before the start of the game - it feels homely just thinking about it.
If we’re lucky we can find home in many places outside the house in which we live. In the company of family and friends, in the comfort of familiar smells, in being surrounded by favourite belongings, or in a kitchen while nostalgic recipes are prepared. These little things bring comfort, nourishment and familiarity, and help to connect us to where we are or what we’ve left behind. While I was in Berlin I often felt anchored by things from home: having a stack of books by my bedside, drinking tea brought over from Melbourne, cooking familiar foods in the kitchen, watching Richmond games at odd hours on my laptop, live-streamed from home. At a time where I felt displaced and aimless, these things made me feel like myself again. Now that I’m here I’m grateful for having friends close by, that my hometown is only an hour’s flight away, and that I can go to the football every weekend. It turns out that home is not just about trying to create comfort — proximity to the people we love and the places we see ourselves in matter just as much.