Category Archives: Fiction

The Iron Chair

The other day, the wife asked, ‘are you sure you’re not gay?’ It was a fair question.

She was making a comment about how I had chosen to tart up an old chair.

I’ve had the iron chair for thirty years. It was left behind in a flat which had once been an Op Shop called Mother Hubbard’s. It was a pretty rough place, rumoured to be among the oldest wooden buildings in Christchurch but, best of all, right in the heart of town.

The nature of our living conditions was wryly commented on by a journalist who went through once Mother Hubbard’s was threatened with demolition, and then relocated to Redcliffs and restored.

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I loved living there, and I loved the chair. It sat downstairs in the lean-to kitchen which had a fridge but no oven. My bedroom upstairs overlooked the Avon River and I often went to sleep to the sound of ducks punctuated by the groans of the old building adjusting itself through the night.

That’s where I started writing, and where a fumble friend once saw a ghost, giving me a big chunk of my first published story.

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I took the chair with me when I shifted out, painstakingly ‘painting’ over the bold white with two gold pens and making a cushion covered in red velvet.

One night, a flatmate decided to add lots of black pen doodles in an act of drunken inspiration. It was pretty fancy.

The iron chair then spent many years stored in garages or under houses as I took up acting and went on the road. I can’t count the number of times I shifted it from one dark place to another, always wondering, ‘do I really need to hold onto this?’

For the last seven years it has sat under the house I have just sold. Always in the corner of my eye as I renovated and emptied the house.

I wanted to spray paint it a bold colour. Give it a cushion so ridiculous that you couldn’t help but sit on it. I didn’t want it shoved in the corner, a place to dump bags and crap.

Once I had stripped all the old white and gold, I painted it with a neon pink purchased years ago to appease my then-six year old. But the tin ran out before all the iron work was covered. And when I went to get more, the people in the paint shops all raised their eyebrows at the very idea of neon pink. It was impossible to get a replacement in enamel.

So I plumped for plum. And went fake fur for the cushion. Icelandic fox, to be exact, possibly a little influenced by the Icelandic novel I had just read where a 49 year old man does up a broken hotel instead of topping himself.

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Hotel Silence is not as bleak as it sounds. It’s very enjoyable. I loved it to bits. It got me reading novels again.

Despite my fears, the Iron Chair has been a big hit in the new house. It sits by a bookcase, looking too fabulous for words, the perfect place to sit with a book or mess about on guitar.

I’m so glad I held onto it.

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Not About Sharks

I’m finding it hard to stop writing. I handed in my final folio for a 6 week summer fiction paper at Victoria University on Friday and the momentum and pressure has left me in daze.

It is Monday, and there are so many other things to do.

Fixing the broken doors, latches and handles in the new house the family moved into 4 weeks ago. Shifting boxes. Unpacking boxes. Sorting piles of things. Putting pictures on walls. Working out what each of the keys do around the place, and if they’re the only copy. Working out how to cook anew now that the wife has gone vegan. Finishing the painting (inside and out) at the old house, which needs to be on the market ASAP because we can barely afford one mortgage let alone two. Arranging tradesmen to do the things I can’t legally do. Exercising my old aching body, that needs large daily doses of anti-inflammatories and stretching until I get a big chop-chop operation on my Achilles. Cleaning this house for the first time since we shifted in. Two bathrooms. Two toilets. Six sinks. Two floors to vacuum. An overgrown garden to tame and explore.

I could go on.

But I need to write. It is a need. Not just the two new stories I wrote for the course. Both of which will not leave my mind alone. One, a story of writing and love. Sharp, clever and funny. The other a dark wee fantasy fable that has mushroomed into the biggest thing I have ever written, and clearly needs to get bigger again. Or the kids’ story I started bashing out in my journal on Saturday as I watched the kids at their gym class. It holds my mind the most, being at that hot and fertile point where you can just keep writing and writing until the tale is told. Which is what you must do because if you stop the momentum is lost and the ink has dried to a hardness that will not take another coat without becoming a different picture altogether. And there are the two novels that need revision so they can seek publication. Plus the letter I promised to forward back in December. A real letter, on paper, that needs to be reconsidered because it involves care and caution. And there is my diary; the beast I started with great hope having re-ignited the habit last year, managing to knock out 200-250 words each day. This year I have been doing 600-700, until the last few weeks when life’s demands left it sadly neglected.

So what do I do?

I write. A blog for 5-10 people to read. I used to get 25-60 readers with every new post but those numbers have passed. The world is awash with words seeking eyes. The ‘attention economy’ places great demands on our time.

So why write, fool? Because I must. Why write this? Because the words came out when I sat down. The muscle needs movement and cannot relax or stay still.

 

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Reading Minds

I used to work in a job where people read books. Some read them on their devices, but most brought along actual books. Books they loved.

This wasn’t the distant past. People also chatted, messed around on phones or flicked through magazines. Some preferred to close their eyes and escape the day. But most chose to read books.

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As a writer, I always asked what they were reading, and why. It was a good way to relax them, to take their mind off the 16-gauge needle I was about to slide into their arm. It also helped me understand readers better. Were they reading for distraction or passion, to acquire knowledge and understanding, or to simply affirm their beliefs?

Once, a woman proudly said she only read non-fiction, because she didn’t want to waste her time on things that weren’t true. She was reading a book by a famous TV medium. The irony lingered briefly in her eyes before disappearing into enthusiasm.

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One of the truisms of reading is that women read more fiction than men, and that men read less fiction as they get older. And even though I was always a big reader (and writer) of fiction, this has happened to me, accelerating with the age of demanding devices and constant distraction. Now, I have to make myself read, to regain the lost joy of reading.

I’m reading a novel about astronauts practicing to go to Mars, and another told by Shakespeare’s little brother. They’re cracking reads, full of exciting science and history, insight and humour, beauty and pain, but my phone constantly lures me away with its tantalising chimera of connection.

This morning, I avoided reading a novel by scanning an article about Quorn. It is set to become the first multi-billion dollar alt-food. It is not meat. It is not even a plant. It is an ultra-processed mould, which is not how it is marketed. I like having an alternative to meat, but anything ultra-processed is not food.

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I then read an article about how the human brain has shrunk by 20% in the last 30,000 years, mirroring the process of domestication. Domestic animals don’t need to think, we do it for them, defining their needs. Settling down into civilisation has done the same to us. We don’t need to know how to hunt and gather, so our hungry brains (which take the lion’s share of our blood and energy) have withered.

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And it’s not just food that we have outsourced. We all used to sing, tell stories, entertain and attract potential mates. We now leave that to our betters.

Algorithms can predict what we will like before we have had a chance to form an opinion. They know what will engage and enrage us.

Neanderthals had much bigger brains than modern humans. They needed it to thrive in a pretty tough environment, so they were probably cleverer than us. Which goes against our naturally self-aggrandising assumptions, since we see no Neanderthals walking in the street, or on Twitter.

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But current estimates reckon about 40% of Neanderthal DNA lives on in us, in different little bits, spread throughout the population. You and I have about 2%, but no one knows exactly what it is doing. Hopefully we possess part of their cleverness. Maybe their love of art or dress sense. Early human cave paintings in Iberia have recently been attributed to them, not us. Maybe they gave us storytelling, music; a sense of the divine. It seemed to suddenly appear in humans 50,000 years ago, when we came face-to-face with our big-brained cousins.

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Reading novels increases human empathy. This is a measurable fact. Maybe that is why women read more novels then men. That is my speculation. But I know for a fact that the people I stuck needles into for 7 years read more novels than any other type of media. They gave of their time, body and blood, for people they didn’t know. Because they cared.

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I’ve started reading novels again. Because you are what you eat, and fiction matters. Because we live in a world where a semi-literate clown can be elected to great power while spurning truth and novels.

Fiction, like a good meal, makes me feel better about myself and the world. That is something that rarely happens when I stare at a device.

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Love Is

What is love? It is an English word. A very old, Old English word. So how is French the language of love? These are things I have thinking about lately thanks to some of my favourite podcasts and a bit of reality TV.

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The TV show I’ve become addicted to is First Dates, where people with similar interests meet for the first time on a discretely filmed dinner-date. It makes me smile and feel good about life. These people often have very certain ideas about what love is. They just haven’t found it yet.

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So what is love? That is a question that can be answered in any number of ways, in film, story, song or life. But what it wasn’t when love (lufu) was used in Old English was romantic. It was a feeling of wanting, lusting for food or hunting. It wasn’t applied to romance in English until Eleanor of Aquitaine married the English king Henry II in the 1100s, bringing her favoured troubadours over to entertain her court with songs of devotion and unrequited love (themes that define our idea of love to this day).

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But where did Eleanor’s entertainers get this new-fangled idea of love? From her grandfather, William IX of Aquitaine, who loved to pursue women, married or not, and wrote verse about it (his most famous love was Dangereuse… pronounced “Danger-Rosa”!)Dangerosa

Aquitaine, being in the warm south of France, was free of constant fighting so they had time to contemplate love while the cold war-like north (like England) favoured heroic tales of battle and sacrifice.

Romantic literature was around before this, of course, just not in Western Europe. The Ancient Greeks wrote extensively about erotic love, as did the Roman poet Ovid (Shakespeare’s favourite), but it was banned by the time of Caesar c.60BC as people feared it promoted adultery and loose morals. So for 1000 years it was absent from Western culture.

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The south of France was also close to Muslim Andalusia where the great princess and poet, Wallada, held poetry salons in the early 11th century. gran_wallada2ce3She had a long, famously tortured romance with Spanish poet-philosopher Ibn Zaydun. After they met she wrote, “Wait for darkness, then visit me, for I believe that night is the best keeper of secrets”. From rival families, the Muslim Romeo and Juliet exchanged long love letters written in verse, where the gallant suitor humbled himself before his superior lover. Their poems were loved in Aquitaine influencing the idea of ‘courtly love’.

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This is the concept of love we inherited from Eleanor. An instant attraction. The fear of rejection. Longing. Unrequited lust. Devotion.

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These ideas permeate pop songs, rock songs, country music, opera, movies, television, books, blogs, our minds and hearts to this day. It’s certainly what the would-be suitors talk of in First Dates. How they decide if they want to see each other again. But what are they looking for? Big shoulders, nice teeth, blonde hair, a bald head? These are merely initial visual preferences based on what they have liked before. But what drives what they are feeling?

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We are visual creatures with huge visual cortices. When you see someone and go “wow, who’s that?” your brain has a massive hit of oxytocin, the drug of attraction. If you then talk to them you are rewarded with a blast of dopamine, which makes you feel pretty darn good. If you kiss technique is involved, but you are also tasting their MHC (major histocompatibility complex) which indicates if their genetic make-up is the same, or different, to yours. The more different the genes, the better they taste, indicating any ensuing offspring will be stronger with better immunity than if your genes are similar.

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But oxytocin degrades fast and those first hours/days/months of “wow!” do not last. At its max you have 18 months, probably less, to step up to beta endorphins, the natural opiates that take over in long-term relationships where you miss each other when apart and feel better in one another’s company.

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So which of these things is love? The wow of lust or comfort of companionship? The blind-daters, young and old, gay and straight, all seem to be looking for the later while gauging it by the former. They seem beholden to ideas of love born 1,000 years ago that make wonderful entertainment but often lead to poor choices.

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I’m no expert. But watching First Dates (while listening to podcasts about attraction and the history of love) has made me suspect that I have employed medieval ideas of love while holding tight to the original Old English idea of love as lust/desire, loving the thrill and excitement of a successful hunt.

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Once, in my 20s and working in television, a well-known TV presenter asked me if I was in love. We were alone in a rose garden, shooting a segment for Valentine’s Day. It was a sharp question. I had been in a relationship for 6 months but that thought had never occurred to me. I realised the answer was no. She then told me that her friends talked about “boing” (that moment of wow), and how it is not really love. It’s taken me decades to understand what that meant, to realise that entertainment may reflect life but it should not lead it.

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Finally I can recognise, and find, true love.

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So, what is love?

It is for you to decide.

Enamorados

 

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Mission Cleopatra

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I’m watching Mission Cleopatra with my 8 year-old daughter. It’s a funny film. Her choice. She plucked it from the plethora available, avoiding the usual Simpsons or the good/awful Grammy performances we’ve been making our way through.

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I recently turned her on to the Asterix books I loved as a child, so I thought it might be fun to see the film. But I must say it seems to lack the magic of the original Goscinny and Uderzo books. Maybe it’s because I’m not French, or because it’s live action (filled with seemingly-hammy French actors) that it seems a bit flat. The fact that the fine comic French actors are over-dubbed with dry American voices close mic-ed in a dull/dead studio certainly doesn’t help. There seems little atmosphere, no charm. The wonderfully barrel-chested Gerard Depardieu/Obelix voiced by an empty US teenage voice just sounds weird.

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But my 8 year-old thinks it’s ‘great’. She loves the original book. Likes things French. Has a francophone mother. Is fascinated by Egypt. Adores the Egyptians in Horrible Histories. Often dances to their Lady Gaga-themed Rah-Rah-Cleopatra song. Is slowly making her way through an Older Fiction ‘autobiography’ of Cleopatra from the library, saying names like Berenice and Ptolomy in her own 8-year old way.

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Last week we started watching a cool BBC documentary called ‘Immortal Egypt’ which has made ancient Egypt a lot clearer to me than it has ever been. I finally understand the difference between Upper and Lower Egypt, and the three different kingdoms, thanks to the captivatingly passionate professor who has to shade her pasty Brit skin from the Egyptian sun with an umbrella employed for its proper purpose.

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Me, I’ve always been much more into the Romans. And, to a lesser degree, the Greeks. Which may be why I have always had more of a taste for the Ptolomys, the Greco/Egyptian dynasty founded by Alexander’s general, Ptolomy, who started the line that ended when Cleopatra went out with a bang with Mark Antony having moved on from lover #1, Mr. Caesar (who every Asterix fan knows is a big-nosed pompous arse).

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But enough history.

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The film is full of gags. While Starkius and Hutchkis racing off in a chariot is wasted on my girl, she gets the Star Wars references about an evil empire. And the Gluteus Maximus gag.

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Yes. It’s fun. Bang crash. Very French. Yes, my girl loves it. Has asked to get the Asterix book out from the library again.

But, again, enough history. I am having bean bags thrown at me. I shall stop tapping away on the tablet.

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Time to play Asterix and Obelix. Gauls fighting Romans. Egyptians on the side.

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By George

I started blogging two years to find a way back to the joy of writing fiction. The pattern of success and rejection that writers face in their empty room had become too much, especially as life was swelling up around me with such persistence that making up stories seemed a futile dance in front of the inevitable.

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I wanted to exercise my writing muscle, clear my mind; find that joy. I found it crafting pieces I was happy enough to share with whoever cared to read them.

This year I applied for an undergrad workshop in creative non-fiction at Victoria University, using some of my blog posts as examples of my writing. They got me in, and I loved it. So much so that I applied for the short fiction workshop. I’m reading great stories; loving talking about writing with writers.

writingAfter three weeks of exercises it has become even more apparent that non-fiction and fiction are not mutually exclusive. Two of my pieces have been drawn straight from life. One has been made up. My classmates are writing a similar mix.

On Sunday I had a crack at our latest exercise, ‘Negotiating With the Dead’; an exercise reflecting on the hypothesis that writing is motivated by a fear of, and fascination with, mortality. We had to write a 1st-person piece of prose where the dead are given voice via audio technology (a phone, a computer, radio or stereo). Given my run of writing about the subject (“love your writing but less about death, please” said one comment) I wanted to make it purely fictional. And fun.

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That morning I read a wonderful story for class by George Saunders about a hapless old man trying to off himself so he doesn’t end up shitting the bed/being a bother due to Alzheimer’s. It was inspiring in its approach, and humour. It also resonated given my father’s suffering from the disease. I was party to many conversations about ‘exit-strategies’ as we waited for his undignified end.

writI decided to write a help-desk story with the voice of the operator as the only prose. As I wrote it I wasn’t sure if it was people trying to reach the dead, or the dead trying to reach the living, but once I had milked all the gags and Kafkaesque frustrations I could think of it became clear that The Helpless Desk is about a help desk for helpless ghosts.

I was very pleased with it. Even more so to have pulled it completely out of the air.

Elated, as I always am after writing, I went to bed and did something I try not to do; I checked out Facebook. An old friend had died. As I read through the tributes it became evident that it was the type of death that has begun to plague my various peer groups. I was so sad. George was a well-liked person, a true character. A lot of people were hurting across the digital ether.

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I thought back to our many conversations in our youth, when we were student-radio DJs, and live music fans; the memorable night we had to flee a massive house fire just as our private conversation was getting life-definingly interesting. WCBN_main_FM_studio,_University_of_Michigan_student_radio_stationAnd, more recently (around the time I started this blog), when in great despair about whether I would qualify to get my Haglund’s Deformity corrected, he PM-ed me regarding my bleak post-assessment status (stuck in a carpark, crying behind sunglasses… eek! Not like me to be like that, or communicate it without self-deprecating humour). It was a long message that talked about other things, conversations we had had in the past, things he had wanted to say at the time but hadn’t had the maturity or courage… it was incredibly revealing and encouraging. I was stunned and thankful; diverted from my self-absorption. Reassured that support can come from the most unexpected quarters.

Poster0015As I sat in bed on Sunday night feeling like I had failed him, I looked for that message. Was it as long and interesting as I recalled? Yes. A good 1,000+ words or more. And it was two years ago. To the day.

The co-incidence made me smile and grieve. More so having conquered an unsettled weekend wondering how I would give voice to the dead.

I wish I could be at George’s funeral tomorrow, more so at his wake. I want to be amongst my peer group from those formative years. I ache. But it is in Christchurch and I just cannot get away from Wellington. Life holds me tight as it bleeds into fiction.

In the year that surrounded the 4-month gap when my parents died 3-4 years ago, 7 people I know took their own lives. That’s a lot of pain to go around. At the time I tried hard not to look for connecting meanings and patterns, especially as they were all male and around my age. It felt like a curse I wanted shot of. How could I resolve this with having just watched both my parents struggle for life?

memory-loss-mauro-celottiI cannot be there to celebrate George’s great wit and intellect; his sensitivity, humour and life. The bouncy way he walked, the measured way he talked. But I can write this. And I can, when I feel up to it, listen to his voice on the radio shows people are sharing from Soundcloud on Facebook.

I wish he was still around. The world is a poorer place without him.

Second Thoughts

Today is a special day. I feel caught at the edge of something; marooned in the calm swell between past and approaching waves.

Why? Because I am exhausted and lost.

I have just come back from taking my daughter to the airport to fly off to visit family. She will have a great time, but as she had been with her mother for a week, the brief minutes together have mixed with my bone-wary exhaustion leaving me adrift in a cold, grey sea.

I know why my body is wary and trembling, giving rise to some loneliness and despair. It’s most probably because I have been working non-stop day and night in jobs which require levels of physical exertion I am probably not yet fit for (something I hate to admit).

It’s 5 and a half months since the operation to fix the Haglund’s Deformity on my heel and though I try to be patient and not think about it, there hasn’t been a moment when I could honesty say that I feel less pain and exhaustion than before the operation. No, I lie. I have many times marvelled at the improved movement and lack of pain, but each time that has happened I have had to remind myself that I’m on painkillers so have no real idea.

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Do I regret the procedure? No. I won’t allow that thought. Do I hate my jobs? No, they are enjoyable and rewarding on so many levels. Do I yearn for a relationship? No, not yet. I need time to heel on all levels.

With my girl gone to have fun I decided to do something I haven’t done in ages; wander around town, looking in second-hand bookshops. It’s not like I wanted to buy any books (I have so many still in boxes), but I just wanted to be free of my thoughts and look for the author I am presently obsessed with, Penelope Fitzgerald. She’s a wonderful, but unfashionable, writer and her books are never on the shelves. That, of course, could be read as a sign of the strength of her work; people hold on to books they like.

First, I tried Pegasus Books in the Left Bank of Wellington’s Cuba Mall.

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It is where I walked on crutches in January, finding a copy of The Gate of Angels, which I am reading at the moment. It’s a choice wee book and I am reading it as slowly as possible, savouring each word and image. It has the thing I require of every book I read, a great opening line (“How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril?”).

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But she was not on the shelf, so I went to look for Nicholson Baker, who was also absent, however I did spot a copy of John Banville’s, The Sea, something I read when it won the Booker in 2005. I loved it at the time and something about it has stayed with me. I checked the opening line (“They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.”) I wanted it.

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I checked the price, $15, which seemed steep for a second-hand book I had already read. I put it back and kept looking, but returned three times to re-read the opening paragraph. The beauty of the craft was as compelling as Fitzgerald. After turning to glare at the unthinking woman who twice pushed past me while talking to her companion, both times rubbing her backside against mine (if I did it to her, would it not be sexual assault? Never mind, never mind…), I decided that in my fractured state I was being impulsive, so I left the deliciously book-filled shelves and headed for Arty Bees on Manners Street.

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Yet again, no Baker or Fitzgerald. But there was The Sea, in a different (and cheaper) edition. I read the first page again.

I so wanted it. Not just because it sparked my mind, making me want to write, but because I was intent on buying myself something to mark the day; the last day before I became a year older.

As I walked back towards Pegasus Books, reminiscing about how hard it was to cover this distance 3 months ago when I was still on crutches (noting that for all my moments of despair, I was making progress), I spotted a second-hand book shop I had never seen before; The Ferret Bookshop.

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It’s much smaller than the other two but amongst the fiction I found The Sea, in the same edition I read back when I lived overlooking the sea, on a city island north of my present home. While it wasn’t in as good a nick, it was only $10. Score!

As I went to buy it and head home to rest I noticed another book I had read at the same place by the sea, 10 years ago; Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin. Like Banville’s novel, this biography had slipped inside me in unexpected ways; partly because of the subject but also, as I have come to realise, because Tomalin is a great biographer who I adore (Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Mansfield, Austen… not to mention a biography of Dickens’ secret lover, now the film The Invisible Woman).

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Pepys is like no other writer. Yes, he was writing (secretly) close to great people and events, but it is his startling emotional honesty that compels interest and keeps him relevant. A man of his times, he wrote in code fearing discovery, joyfully recording his sexual ‘conquests’ which we now read as sexual assaults.

And through this, he wrote and lived with the greatest of pain, enduring a horrific and dangerous operation to remove crippling bladder stones. I think of this often, especially when my relatively minor pain chips away at my resolve.

Through the Great Fire and plagues, Restoration surgery, and the distractions of the court of Charles II, he was compelled to examine himself in a way which is stunningly modern.

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Um, I’ve changed my mind

At $15 I had to have this book, too.

As I have mentioned many times, I am awash in the competing currents of fiction and creative non-fiction, pulled one way, then the other, unsure where I am heading, certain they are part of the same body.

Some writers write for money, and the physical sustenance it gives. But most, I believe, write because it is like breathing, and they don’t want to drown.

$25 has purchased me the greatest of birthday presents, and I couldn’t be happier.

I am no clearer which way I am heading, if I’m caught in a rip or heading for paradise. But sometimes, being at sea is the only place to be.

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