Life and Virtue Reality – Jennifer Martin for the Walkley Magazine.

An article I wrote for the Walkley Magazine on my PhD Research – such a privilege to be published in the magazine that I spent so much time studying!

Life and virtue reality

When I analysed 23 Best Feature winners from past Walkley Awards, I found sophisticated writing on complex topics, and a signposting of human virtues.

Cartoon by Fiona Katauskas.

During my doctoral researchinto Australia’s Walkley Award-winning feature articles, I found myself intrigued by a different and deceptively simple question — how do the journalists of these stories make us care? The Walkley features, judged by journalists who recognise work that “shines a light, tells a compelling story or provides in-depth analysis and investigation”, provided a rich archive for my study.

Australians have long adored their features, and as a journalist for 25 years and a teacher of aspiring reporters for nearly a decade, I am no exception. The Walkleys have been giving a prize for feature writing since 1956 — a full 23 years before the American Pulitzer Prizes created their own separate category — providing further evidence of our nation’s long-term love affair with long-form writing.

These Walkley-winning articles coax readers to experience a range of emotions and perspectives and, in the process, to contemplate what it means to be an Australian citizen.

They map human virtues in a narrative form. The virtues of honesty, courage, empathy, resilience and responsibility appear time and time again. And then there is another virtue, “phronesis”, a term I have borrowed from Aristotle, which roughly translates to mean “practical wisdom”.

For me, this term beautifully captures the highest aspiration of journalism — to write stories that make a difference by informing the citizenry. Yes, the journalists did this through a combination of excellent reporting and superior writing, as you’d expect with prize-winning articles. Yet equally important but often overlooked, they achieved this feat by skilfully walking the tightrope between pathos and sentimentality. They were masters of what I describe as a discipline of emotion.

To be clear, my research is not meant to suggest that the Walkley Awards are the sole measure of great feature writing in this country. Awards are, by their very definition, selective. But the Walkleys have the credibility of being judged by journalists, and while they have not been without controversy in their 62-year history — including allegations of union bias and a lack of support from publication owners — they are acknowledged as an important measure of the best work from Australia’s fourth estate.

The Walkleys have been the subject of limited but enlightening study, with the University of Sydney’s Dr Penny O’Donnell examining the Gold Walkleywinners and the University of Melbourne’s Dr Andrea Carson researching the articles in the investigative journalism category.

For my doctoral thesis I engaged in close readings of the 23 Walkley-winning feature articles from 1988 (the year the Walkley Awards combined the news and magazine feature award into the “Best Feature” category) to 2014. With their emphasis on storytelling and a longer word length, feature articles have always provided a more creative framework for journalists than a straight news story. But it is the skill of the journalist in combining the traditional reporting skills of the newsroom with literary devices more commonly used in fiction writing that make these articles such a rewarding experience for readers.

When a journalist infuses their reporting with literary techniques such as scene setting, reported dialogue and the shifting of narrative voice, the result can be immersive. It gives readers the chance to become surrounded by the story, allowing them to consider and perhaps even change their views on a subject or person.

But my research went beyond examining the “what” and the “how” of these articles to also ask “why” they were written, and if they served a purpose in Australian society. This was when it became clear that the journalists, in the process of communicating emotions, were also doing something else: they were talking about virtues.

For example, when journalist Mark Whittaker crafted his 2005 article “Ordinary Heroes” for The Weekend Australian, he allowed readers to imagine what it would be like to have the courage to run into a burning building to save sleeping toddlers. He then went further and encouraged readers to empathise with the heroes, whose courageous acts in December 2003 after a car crashed into Fairlight’s Roundhouse Childcare Centre and ignited, with two-year-olds Sophie Delezio and Molly Wood pinned beneath, left the rescuers with post-traumatic stress.

And in his 1997 Sunday Age article, “Slaying the Monster”, Gary Tippet wove a narrative that evoked sympathy for “the gentlest of axe killers” — Indigenous man Tony Lock — who attacked and killed the man who had sexually abused him throughout his childhood. The power of the long-form feature to illuminate complex social issues through the language of virtues is just as clear in Michael Gawenda’s 1988 piece for TIME Australia, “Echoes of a Darker Age: Australia’s Nazi War Crime Trials”, which explores how Holocaust survivors were facing claims of Nazi war criminals living in Australia.

It is also evident in Richard Guilliatt’s Good Weekend story “The Lost Children vs the Commonwealth”, the winning feature for 2000, about the legal battle for the Stolen Generation to be heard, which conveys virtues of responsibility and justice. And it is there again in 2014, when Paul Toohey’s “That Sinking Feeling” for the Quarterly Essay presents the tragedy of asylum seekers dying at sea by confronting readers with vivid descriptions of grieving parents, contrasted with accounts of an overwhelming bureaucracy.

In each story the topic threatens to overwhelm readers with its complicated history and lack of simple solutions. But in each the journalists combine forensic reporting skills with narrative techniques to “shine a light” and make readers look where many of us would prefer not to see.

It is as if the journalists were providing readers with narrative guides, signposting the virtues we aspire to as a community and, in the process, contributing to a national conversation about how we are and how we can be better.

Within these Walkley-winning stories I found four overarching topics or themes. These included children, Australia’s Aboriginal population, citizenship, and the nation. I also discovered six recurring virtues: honesty, courage, empathy, resilience, responsibility and Aristotle’s virtue of “phronesis”, sometimes translated as “prudence” but in my work taken to mean “practical wisdom”.

Helen Garner’s 1993 TIME Australia article, “Did Daniel Have to Die?”, about a two-year-old boy’s death at the hands of his mother’s de facto partner, is a salient example of “phronetic journalism”. Garner’s article was part of the huge media coverage that rode on the wave of public outrage at Daniel Valerio’s death, leading to the introduction of the mandatory reporting of child abuse.

Within my small sample of 23 features — some of the best examples of literary journalism — more than half fulfilled the phronetic function of informing and encouraging readers to engage with civic issues. My analysis found the articles touched on these virtues:
– honesty (in all 23 articles)
– responsibility (in all 23)
– resilience (in 20)
– empathy (in 19)
– courage (in 15)
– phronesis (in 14).

So what can we conclude from one small study in one corner of the globe about not quite two dozen articles which won prizes for a highly specialised writing style? Something that has never been a secret to readers of the form, whether it is called “new journalism”, literary journalism, narrative non-fiction, feature writing or “a good yarn”. And it’s that a true story, well told, can change our perspective; it can challenge and confound our established wisdom and guide us towards new ways of seeing.

My study aims to illuminate the level of sophistication our best feature writers bring to the task of allowing readers to experience emotion. What readers do with that experience, whether or not they act on any new insights, is beyond the reach of the writer and my study, but rather belongs to the alchemy of living in community. The aim of my research was never to draw a straight line between the Walkley-winning feature articles and societal change.

But what I can declare with confidence is that these stories, chosen as among the best examples of their craft, do contribute to the great ongoing conversation in our society about what it means to be Australian. And for that alone, the Walkley Awards are worth celebrating as a valuable and ongoing archive of the stories we tell ourselves.


Dr Jennifer Martin is an award-winning journalist, a journalism lecturer at Deakin University and the Edward Wilson Research Fellow for a two-year project on women, leadership and the media.

Fiona Katauskas is a political cartoonist, illustrator and children’s book author. See her work at fionakatauskas.com. Twitter: @fionakatauskas.

Mind the Gap

So I’ve done something I didn’t think I would ever do. Publicly at least. Privately I walk across burning bridges often. I listen to Hartley whisper  ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’ and I shrug off his words and get my passport stamped once more for the sheer Hell of it. I traverse Now and Then with the ease of a trapeze artist, the Old School kind in a fabulous bejewelled leotard. But always on my own time and never sharing.

But in following some message breadcrumbs through a dead facebook thread I stumbled across my first blog, ‘Black Chook’ – named because, when I was a kid and lost something, my Mum would always tell me that is was ‘up the bum of a Black Chook’ – hardly eloquent but then eloquence has rarely silenced a belligerent child.

These ‘half dozen and a half’ posts are written in 2010 – so scroll down to them – and when I read them I’m reminded of a time I loved dearly. For those who didn’t know me then, I was married to the eldest of six children, to a man who had decided nine years earlier that he was going to stay home and build robots in our hobbled together house built on his parent’s bush block. Our youngest daughter had just turned one at the time and our sons were three and four. When I wrote these blog entries my name was still Jen Cook, not Jen Martin, the name I was born with and the name I publicly relinquished for the duration of 19 years, the birth of three children and the life spans of three dogs, five cats, two snakes, three ducks, a clutch of rabbits, a pet rat and an assortment of fish.  For that time I was part and parcel of what was known as ‘The Cook Clan’ or ‘Cook County’. Until I wasn’t. But that, of course, is another story.

I never expected to salvage these words. But I read them and my blood turned to syrup and my heart thudded deep and low and I found myself smiling as I found myself back in a place where I belonged and I was loved and I loved big in return. I’m glad these paragraphs and pictures survived long enough to wash up on this shore. So here they are – for you, from me – a glimpse of who I was, a whisper of old songs that still sing in my blood. I hope you like her but don’t get too attached. I’m not her anymore. But I was once, and somewhere, in some time, I like to think that she still exists.

 

Folk Who Really Exist:

For those who have just joined us, I’ve arrived safely in North Sydney and am about to head out into the weather for dinner…

I added one complimentary umbrella and a lovely black and white knitted cap with a crocheted flower and I headed out into the storm for what I was assured was the short walk to the Lobster Pound Restaurant and I was Quite the Picture. Which lasted five seconds until I was nearly blown sideways by the wind and had to forge my way along the ‘10 minute’ walk to the restaurant. Grey, dark, windy and wet. And it got wetter. And wetter as the rain had learnt to multi-task and sweep in under the umbrella. It was only luck and the extreme politeness of Canadian drivers that I wasn’t drenched by the deep puddles in the road. Seriously these drivers stop all the time for everything and everyone. I don’t know how they ever get anywhere but I’m grateful. So after trudging, head down, I made it. There was the big sign.

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And a really run down looking building with a smaller sign telling me that the restaurant was around the back. It was. And it was closed. I did not accept this. It shut at 8pm the sign said. It was 7:30pm. I knocked. No answer. I walked away but my brain would not let this go as I gazed down the street and realised I didn’t know what was down there, how far it was and it was bloody wet and my boots were beginning to get wet. So I kept going back to the door and peering in. Like something out of a Dickens story. If his subjects of choice were well dressed middle-aged aged women who think they are still in the heart of Melbourne’s never sleeping restaurant district of Brunswick Street. I had mascara on. In the rain. There was a woman talking but she didn’t see me on account of she was clearly fighting with someone. This didn’t stop me flapping my arms harder to catch her attention. On my third return she drove out in a huge ute – they are all huge – and didn’t even glance at me. Why should she? She’s a local who knows better. I’m beneath her gaze. So I called the restaurant. Because there was no helpful black plastic phone. And the soon to be known as The Venerated Leslie said that no, they closed at 8pm. It was now 7:40pm. Yes, but the kitchen was closed. Oh. Ok. I walked away. I came back. I called again. ‘Do you know somewhere else I can eat?’

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I saw her through the glass and she came out and started telling me where was good, what was open. And breaking the news that they were only open Wednesday to Sunday so I’d missed my chance to eat there, ever. Then, behold, more valiant than any Mountie (not that I’ve seen one yet – like the puffin, this breed eludes me), appears Richard The Chivalrous Chef. ‘I tell you what, you come inside and I’ll cook you something but it will have to be “Chef’s Choice”’. He looked at me, a sad but valiantly fashionable and utterly useless creature and said ‘You’re too much of a lady for me to send you into town – it’s a bit rough down there – come in, you can pay me by donation – how’s that? Are you allergic to anything? What kind of food do you like?’

No. I eat anything. Whatever you give me is fine. Do you have wine? The malbec sounds lovely, thank you.

So then I got this:

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That is blackened halibut, a lobster claw because Richard wasn’t sure if I’d get to try it in Nova Scotia and I had to. Mashed potatoe with julienned vegetables and a salad with maple dressing – which is the only way I want to ever eat salad, ever again. It was beautiful. I have never taken a picture of food because I like to think I am better than people who do that – yes, yes, I know, I’m a vile person with a really weird bag of measuring sticks and now you know. And now I’m not. I’m at one with the rest of the human race, again, and I could not be happier. Look at that food! Look at that lobster claw. Oh! And then there was Snow Crab. Did you know there are lots of different types of crab? Well there are. Leslie and Richard told me and Snow Crab is Leslie’s favourite seafood of all the seafoods. And this is a woman who has run a restaurant with Richard in Vancouver for 17 years before moving here with her husband, a local, seven years ago. And Richard’s favourite seafood is the Moreton Bay Bug and I’d just been telling Leslie about it and she never knew this about her husband – oh glorious evening of insight and revelation and gustation. And the Snow Crab was delicious. Flaky and sweet and really – it was better than the lobster. I asked about the music jam night at the newly opened Theatre Pub in town and if it was worth going. Richard said, by this time he’d had a chance to work out that I may dress pretty but tough really doesn’t throw me, that I’d be fine but he wanted me to  know what I’d be in for. ‘You’d be the centre of attention with your accent , they’d all buy you drinks but there’d always be the one idiot yelling out if you knew Crocodile Dundee. Hang on, I’ll call them and see what’s going on.’ So he did and found out no-one had turned up because of the rain.

I learnt from Richard and Leslie these things:

They have two styles of cooking, one for tourists and one for locals. The locals like their steaks well done and it drives Richard mad because he uses really good steak. The tourist menu is superb – the bountiful seafood, then there is ‘Korean style steak’ – okay then! It’s an eclectic mix of what Richard loves to cook from his decades of experience in big city restaurants.

This is, or was, a fishing and mining town – Leslie told stories of how there used to be really big families, 12, 13 kids and how kids as young as nine went down in the mines. This is a tough town that has always worked hard – when coal was booming and the oceans were teeming with fish and when the mines closed and fishing dwindled they kept working hard, just for less return. Like our own Silver City the locals refer to outsiders as ‘from away’ – Leslie is still known and will always be known as ‘from away’. They don’t have kids and Leslie said if they did they’d be taken away because ‘you have to feed them right?’ The restaurant is their life and Richard proudly tells me that, like Crocodile Dundee, he bagged himself the gorgeous blonde tourist and brought her home. We both look at Leslie who smiles and we nod. He did good.

Then Richard refused to take what I wanted to pay, telling me this wasn’t Melbourne. We haggled. We split the difference. I’m ashamed at how little it was. Then he drove me home with a packet of his mother’s choc chip (gluten free) cookies because I did not have room for dessert. Of course he did. So that was my first night in North Sydney.

Did you try the phone?

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Sigh. Meet Constance.

The Inn owners in this part of the world – of my sample two – are, in my vast experience, unjustly proud of and invested in the plastic black phones they have nailed to their doors. ‘Pick up phone to contact Inn Keeper at Any Time’ the teensy business cards taped to them proclaim. So, in Charlottetown I did, only to be assailed with more static than trying to find my beloved 3CR on the AM dial. Warning – every blog is an exercise in vanity but we’re about to take a detour into the big leagues so look away now. It’s 855AM if you’re wondering and when I deign to be in Melbo I do a half hour show, Communication Mixdown on all things media every Thursday at 6pm with the long suffering and ever gentle and infinitely talented John Langer. I love it. I think it makes me a better person and I reckon anyone who listens to community radio is better than anyone who doesn’t (okay so I still have a way to go in the better person stakes but at least I see it – that counts right?). I think Subscribers are Good Citizens Giving Community a Voice. And I’ve been known to shout this or say it in a Very Serious low tone to those who I think need to hear it. Because Neil Gaiman once said saying things quietly is more effective than shouting – I thought Terry Pratchett told him that but when I tried to source the quote I couldn’t find it so look out – this could be fake news.

So the phone. No. It did not work in Charlottetown. Which was a grand lark because no-one locks a door there or anywhere in Nova Scotia that I’ve found so far. With one exception, but I’ll get you there. This has been verified by my lovely Gospel Singers Allison and Gerald who stayed in a big old house in downtown Lundenberg (a town I would later have to  flee because the jewellery and treasures and food were so good I knew I’d be broke if I stayed) and, when they asked for the keys they were told ‘…keys, yes, well, no-one has been in the house for two months but if having a key would make you feel better I’m sure we can find one for you?’ This was a fully furnished, kitted out home. Gerald looked at me and said what we were all thinking: ‘Surely there are bad people in the country, right?’ I nodded with the wisdom of a well-travelled woman: ‘We know this, we watch netflix’.

Here are some of the houses in Lundenburg. Imagine them now. Unlocked and waiting for you. Yes, I named them. Don’t judge me.

 

 

So I waltzed into this three story mansion in my soon to be beloved Charlottetown and after doing the obligatory ‘hello? Anyone here? – I proceeded to explore. I mean what could go wrong? Not like this was every Spooky House Horror Plot ever. I did take comfort that I was not a virgin, it was not Spring Break and at least it wasn’t my boyfriend’s parents lake house but still – clearly, I’m a woman with a taste for danger. Or just an insatiable, entitled busy-body who adores old houses and wanted to make sure I was going to get the Best Room. I was in danger of death by dust in some spots or tripping on broken fireplace tiles or being entangled in really heavy drapery.

The other thing is these magnificent old beauties need constant care. How these timber homes survive this climate – snow must slay them – is clearly only achieved by doing as much work as possible on them when the weather breaks. But this Dame Hillhurst has excellent bones. And the rooms – all the linen, all the crystal – which made me decide I really wanted to stay here. And I’d need help with my Lovely Luggage – which is not so much Lovely as Outrageously Loud. I call my cases,  ‘The Zsa Zsa Gabor’. Think bright sky blue with a screaming stylized Paris skyline. I’ve been told that my luggage is ‘more gay than the Gays’ by a man who is an authority. So proud. But Luggage pride aside I went and knocked on the next mansion, as you do. Picking up another black plastic phone and behold, someone answered. And asked me if I’d tried picking up the black plastic phone at My Mansion. When I said yes, they really could not understand why it didn’t work. This was a mystery. We both pondered this. Finally they realised there was a real person of flesh and blood wanting to give them money and appeared, apologising and, as compensation for the best half hour of exploring I’ve had since I was a kid, I got upgraded to a king room with a brand new modern bathroom with a bath so deep it looked a bit dangerous. From there it all went swimmingly, breakfast was two mansions down and there was a photo of Paul McCartney on the wall because that is where he too enjoyed a lovely fruit parfait and a ham and pear and cheese panini – or perhaps bacon and eggs, done any way Sir Paul would like them. And he’d like them.

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It so is.

 

So that was then and this is four days later…I arrive at A Boat To Sea. Four hours in a storm, alive but to be honest pretty tired and bedraggled and that shaky feeling that you try to ignore after being rather scared for quite some time and having to deal with it because you have to. And I have found the only place in Nova Scotia with a lock. A very fancy multi combination gold lock that I would have found really comforting two days ago but not tonight, not now. Standing here just wanting to Be Inside Out of the Rain. But no mind, there is a black plastic phone. I pick it up. Nothing. Zip. Not even the obligatory static. And I knock. Nothing. And I can hear voices. Voices talking loudly no doubt about things that are dry and not outside and bedraggled. What other subject is there? Surely they are laughing at me now. Then the woman who I would come to know as The Lovely Jane opens the door. And asks me in quick succession ‘Why are you standing out here all alone in the cold and the rain? Why didn’t you pick up the phone? It gets straight through to me!’. I look at her. She looks at me. ‘I did. It’s dead’. Now you know those people who are really graceful under pressure? One day I would like to be one of them. I know I have managed it on occasion and this comforts me. But usually I just come across as cranky or simply dead inside. I did a good job in that moment of Being Dead Inside. Jane then thought she’d help by saying she’d been trying to contact me. ‘How?’ By email. To my travel agent. But Jane had not considered trifles such as time zones. No. She was worried I had thought I’d booked for North Sydney in Australia. People really do this. I’m not surprised – her prices for this waterfront position in Our North Sydney would have Australians weeping with joy. But the best case of mistaken destination was the man who flew all the way from Holland only to land in Nova Scotia in the midst of a blizzard asking which way to the Opera House. Yep. Wrong Sydney, Sport! The thought of him standing there with his togs and his board shorts looking at This Weather pleases me more than it really should.

But back to the soon to be Lovely Jane. ‘Email? It’s Sunday morning in Melbourne’. I tell her, with cold fish eyes that would later sparkle like the sea on a Summer’s day at Jane’s attention. But not today. Then I was ushered in, Jane, Bless Her, took my hand and hung onto it for quite a long time – which reminded me I was a part of the human race and she most probably had fresh towels and linen and was that a fire I could hear crackling? And look at these beguiling lamps. And there –  ‘The Captain’s Room’ – this one right here – is mine. With that huge bed, that lovely shower and ALL the crystal, lamps, dark wooden furniture and busy busy wallpaper I have come to expect – with armchairs, big, stuffed armchairs. All was well.

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I got my gear, briefly said hi to the Nice Couple Staying Upstairs, Valerie and Michael, who were headed down the road for dinner to a place Jane said was superb: the Lobster Pound. And I said I’d be down shortly. Then I got in the shower. Water pressure, hot. Then I unpacked. I love a good unpack. I hang things. Properly. On wooden hangers with clasps for skirts. I organise my Smalls. Then I dressed. I Made an Effort. I like to. Especially in far-away towns with main streets that look more like Stratford-Upon-Avon in South East Gippsland than in England. It makes me laugh at myself and I like to think it’s a nod to the women I come from. My Gran, my Great Aunts, Doss and Lil – I’ve mentioned they were milliners – well they also sewed up a storm and always dressed exquisitely, usually in clothes made by each other. So picture it. Long black shiny boots, gorgeous black pin-striped 40s style firm fitting skirt which is teetering on the edge of tight soon to make the dive (who knew eating more energy than you used meant you stored it in the form of padding?) fitted long skirt with a series of zipped red panelling at the back. Waistcoat. Double breasted. And my Good Winter Coat that is a triumph of tailoring. I know because Ken, who run the wonderful Radio Springs that you must never visit because it is a delicious secret and I don’t want it to get too popular, told me so. And believe me – he wouldn’t say it if he didn’t mean it. He’s a Renaissance Man who used to be the projectionist at the Nova and now runs a B&B in Lyonville which has its own private cinema. Don’t go there. It’s mine. Let’s continue…

The Drive

My first night here did not begin well. I got off the ferry which I’d caught from Prince Edward Island to Caribou, Nova Scotia, and drove out into a rainy, grey day that soon decided to kick it up a few notches for me into a storm which my wipers valiantly gave their all but to no avail. I kept going and there were breaks and I would round a bend and laugh at loud at The Beauty. I talk to myself. All the time. Forget trying to stay on the right-hand side of the road – which I did, because I kept saying, like a mantra ‘stay right, stay right – hang in there, stay right’ (I may have also told myself ‘love you Jen’ because goddamn it someone had to say it if it was all going to end. Or even if it wasn’t – it’s a nice thing to hear) – staying on the road was a feat. And I did it. And there was The View. The trees – all the greens – from that lovely ghostly green to that almost inky black and then they splodged in with the swathes of brown trees with their scraggly black branches. When I first wrote this I remembered gold but I had a pull in my gut that this was wrong. And it was. I did see one scoop of gold in a bush clinging to mountainside on the highway to Halifax but that was all and that hadn’t happened yet. And on the way to Annapolis Royal I would  see golden leaves and apple blossoms and enough green to drown in, but not here, not now.  There is no gold in these thar hills in this corner of the Nova Scotian landscape. This is a place that wants you to know that Winter isn’t coming, it never really left. If there was mist it would lurk. Instead it winks.

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And the sea! I’d forgotten – there was that whole trying to not die on the other side of the world thing – or worse, just stop and be helpless – I was by the ocean! And there she was, miles of her, with boats being thrown about and waves having a Big Day Out and me, smiling so hard my face really did hurt. Still does to be honest – seems windburn is a thing – who knew? Or rosacea. But windburn sound so much more less menopausal. So I’m taking that. Windburn Sweetie – oh, and I have thin ankles. Update: It IS windburn. I know this because my face is now peeling and I look like a middle-aged alligater in a Rather Nice White Shirt and black pants with puffy eyes and great hair. Of course everyone at the IALJS is far too polite to say anything. Which is lovely, but really, I gave up caring about things that just have to take their course a long time ago. And what’s a bit of enforced face-peel when I’ve driven across Canada in a storm like a Boss? But my hair is great. Really. And only because I had the sense to visit Dean my hairdresser (no, I will not hyperlink to him. He is mine) before I left and, as usual, when he asked what I wanted I told him, as I always do, to do what he liked. He knows how to drive, I don’t. Except across Canada. Did I mention that? And drive he does. So forget the face honey – look! Look at that cut and colour. Please? Or my new hat. Look at that. It was made by Kelly who is ‘The Saucy Milliner’ and she’d only opened her story in Lunenburg two days earlier after moving from Toronto and she was just deciding whether or not to close up for the day when I ambled in and bought this:

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My Great Aunt Lil and Doss were milliners so this was never not going to come with me. Because what is easier to travel with than a hat box after all? It’s mine and has felt like mine the moment I put it on so get used to seeing me peering at you from under this brim – pity I didn’t have it at Halifax to hide my sandpaper complexion but I have it now. But it that isn’t your cup of tea then perhaps you’d prefer to fall into the blue of this perfect day on the road to Lunenburg instead. You’re so welcome.

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Leaving and Remembering Arriving.

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The Lovely Jane of A Boat To Sea.

I remember in High School writing an essay that was out of chronological order and it peeved Ms Murphy something shocking. These posts may be doing the same thing to you as I toss time around like Mum’s ‘green’ salad (iceberg lettuce, sad tomato and cubes of Kraft cheese). A note to my students: this is probably the blog equivalent of burying the lead except I’m brazen enough to try and pass it off as ‘creative choice’. No, it is just messy and if I’ve got sense and time I’ll neaten it all up nicely for you at a later date. But until then let me take you back to North Sydney, which I visited after my overnight stay in Toronto, after my three days in Charlottetown and got storm-bound:

I woke at 5:30am to the sound of rain on the roof of Jane’s A Boat to Sea. Yes, I just like saying it. You would too if it had been your safe harbour from this magnificent storm that has kept me from puffins and had me sneaking around the house this morning taking photos of ALL the lamps. And I gave up. There are so many.  So many delicious contraptions designed to pool puddles of light extraordinarily ineffectively but utterly beautifully on their limited radius. But I’ve fallen for them all. I love the ritual of turning them on – trying to figure out their arcane workings – this one a beaded pull, this one use the centre knob and click to the right three times – sorcery! And just when I work it out two of the teensiest tiffany lamps masquerade as candle holders – pretenders! But they’re young. Tiffany lamps, carved, brass, glass, china – they are all here. I wonder if Daleks evolved from them – no, that’s pepper shakers, I sorted that dilemma out years ago with my best friend over coffee – but a sub-genus perhaps? And yes, I know I must look mad, creeping about in my silver velvety Peter Alexander pjs with white piping trim, grinning, with my obscenely big iphone. Not fooling anyone with its leather book cover, nope. Rampant consumer of latest gadget because my old phone chose the day before I got on the plane to die. But these beauties must be captured and shared with you. And if you are very very good I may even post a photo of not one but two chandeliers – yes, an upgrade – that I found in one run down old dame of a building in Annapolis Royal after eating the Best Roast Beef Sandwich with it’s own gravy boat. But for now, let there be light:

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Don’t forget what it felt like. Don’t forget how your eyes filled. You sat in your chair and you looked out of the window at the tarmac with what? With disbelief? With relief? With bones aching with the wonder that I deserve this? With aching sadness that I would even think that I didn’t? Here I am. On a plane. To Canada. For a conference. Going somewhere for no other reason that someone thought I had something interesting to say.

I held my champagne and realised here – here I am – sitting smack bang in middle of the plane with the wings on either side of me, their white tips curling up to the sky like commas and me its quote. I’m the quote. I’m the fucking quote. Not the comma holding the bitch together, hoping I make sense. I am my own quote. Here. In the sky. Happy. Mine. Don’t forget.

I have not told you I am sitting in Business Class.With an empty seat next to me. I’m practising saying this without justification. It is killing me. But there it is. Okay, a small justification – or an absolute one. The combination of a very dear friend who is a travel agent, an absolute bargain of a fare and the at-the-time-scary-but-it-all-worked-out position of organising the trip before I got my new job and after I’d left my old one.

IMG_0005A window between forms and expense accounts and grant applications. An assurance from my accountant. If I feel that what people really want are long winded descriptions of luxury then sure, I’ll oblige. Suffice to say the flight attendant said: ‘You’re Terrific! I’ve told the others about you. Anything we give you, you just love – you’re so happy.’ Well yes, I am. Thank you. Pass the tissues.

*Postscript: I found the best reason ever to travel Business Class. Apart from the space, the food on real plates with real cutlery, the never ending supply of champagne and the array of bedding option ‘would you prefer a gel memory foam pillow in case your head gets too hot on the normal pillow?’. Why yes I would, thank you. The best reason is to make your mum cry on Mother’s Day. Yep. I rang Mum from Nova Scotia and she wanted every detail and she got it and then we were talking about the conference and All The Things I Have Done and then she was very quiet and finally said ‘good on you Jen’ and I realised she was weepy and then we both were and then Mum said she’d ‘go and clean the fry-pan, that’ll bring me back down to earth’. So she did. Happy Mother’s Day.

 

Would you like some Gospel with that?

Enter…the Gospel singers. Just when I thought life in New Sydney couldn’t get any more interesting amidst Jane’s porcelain Dachsunds and Siamese cats and Tiffany lamps galore I’m presented with Allison and Gerald.

They arrived yesterday evening after having dinner down the road at the Black Spoon and are tired after their travels and landed soft at  A Boat to Sea, where they stay each time they pass through this way on touring.

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Seaside at North Sydney.

They are the duo Infinitely More and this clip of them singing ‘On Flanders Fields’ will break you if you have a pulse. It is what Gerald suggested to me to watch when I ask if I could listen to their music online. Gerald put the poem to music and tells the story of how him and Allison were making the long drive to a gig when he googled and found that someone had taken their song and used it to create a video tribute to a woman whose husband had died fighting in Afghanistan. He tells me it is one of the things he is most proud of, and humbled by.

Jane tells me there a few guests that she really looks forward to seeing and that this couple are among them. And here they are, Gerald framed by the white painted bevelled door frame (can timber be bevelled or is that just glass?), and Allison standing in Jane’s dining room. I notice that Allison is swaying, almost imperceptively but it is there, following an orbit the rest of us can’t see or perhaps hearing music that the rest of us can’t hear. She reminds me of the percussionist, David Shephard, that I met at a great little restaurant in Charlottetown called Local 343 – he sat next to me at the bar and began drumming out his own tattoo on the bar with his fingers, tapping his feet in time.

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This is the self-portrait done by Jane’s mother and she also painted the dachshund painting – which the porcelain counterpart is gazing up at. Of course he is. Note the Tiffany lamp. This is not the only Tiffany lamp in this house. They breed like rabbits when you close your eyes.

But back to Our Gospel Singers – Allison’s hair is a deep, warm red and her skin is – I want to say milky and I will because it is, dammit and yes, her cheekbones are superb. I am not responsible for life presenting me with a beauty that clichés want to cling to for dear life and proclaim ‘over here guys! This one! I’ve found her, bring your mates, all of them –Yep, you heard right – she sings too – bring a keg, we’re going to need it!’

But I’ll do my best not to sink the woman with them so that you can get a sense of how strongly she holds herself, back straight and head held high – how she holds her place in the world quietly, without apology. Within moments of meeting them both Gerald has told me to go the Black Spoon and order the Cajun Seafood Pasta, that they are about to record their 8th CD, that he has written plays, and that they have around 50 songs that they have to cut down to about a dozen.

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The corner of my room. I told you about the lamps.

He tells me all of this in a voice that I enjoy immediately – it is low and rises and falls with his words and he speaks quietly, which lets me feel he actually does want to hear what I’m saying. I’ve felt this with my muso mates – the best of them like to play in the real sense of the word– which means listening and hearing and inviting other voices to delight in what can be made together. A perfect recipe for good conversation and good music – and a lovely tonic to shore yourself up against a storm front that has us huddled indoors searching for dry wood for the fire.

The three of us talk about writing, a conversation we’ll dive into deep over breakfast the next morning but for new we laugh at the awful, brutal task they are facing where they’ll have to ‘kill their darlings’. I suggest that perhaps they can hold those songs safely, somewhere to be released on another CD but straight away Gerald looks panic stricken and says ‘but I’m writing more and those new songs will replace those old ones’, and I see the poor, hard working, things, washed downstream on the river of his creativity, cold and alone. We give them a moment of silence and consign them to the Great Abyss of Creative Injustice.

Then I remember I’m not on my beloved Brunswick Street and this little seaside town likes to go to bed early after dinner and I do not want to caught out standing in the rain like I was last night, being told the Lobster Pound and Moore restaurant shuts at eight o’clock and arriving at 7:40pm was not going to cut it (another story that I will tell you – it ends so deliciously well and tells you all you need to know about the hearts of people out this way). So I leave.

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North Sydney sea.

I go to the Black Spoon. The waitress laughs when I tell her I don’t need a menu and order the Cajun Seafood Pasta. And it comes to me laden with lobster, scallops, fish and ringed by a perfect circle of mussels. I thought I was full. I really did. Soup for lunch. No bread. But then there is this sorcery. The sauce, true to Gerald’s description, has a ‘kick’ and, with my first glass of white wine since I arrived in Canada (up to now it has been strictly a single malt, malbec kind of place) I fall into heaven, willing myself to forget the waistline (takes seconds) and even finding room for a caramel lava cake pudding – because, to bastardise a book title given to me by that lovely fellow guest, Michael, who I have promised to tell you about – I am right and I am not an idiot. Cheers!

Don’t let me forget to tell you:

About Mary MacGillivray and Cian O’Morain of the Brigh Music and Tea shop in Charlottetown, my first stop in Nova Scotia and how we swapped songs over lemonade tea and how I walked away with a CD that combines Irish Traditional music with didgeridoo – of course it does. For those of you who aren’t steeped in this stuff, it is called Meiteal and is by Seamus Begley and Stephen Cooney – who is an Aussie – oh yeah! And according to the Irish Times this album ‘tore through the rule book’ – how unlike an Australian.

 

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A Boat To Sea.

Don’t let me forget to tell you about Jane, the owner of A Boat to Sea. I need you to know about her cottage perched on the edge of the ocean, and that, until recently, she has always owned four English Setters and four Siamese cats – ‘I don’t have children and they were my babies’. Don’t let me forget to tell you about her late husband David who  was a mathematician who decided to become a vet and who died of throat cancer.

Or how the local Cape Breton farming boys would prefer to sleep in so their cows’ hooves looked like elves feet and, because they stayed in manure soaked barns their legs splayed and how her husband invented a brace that attached the poor things to a tractor that lifted them off the ground and helped them to walk again.

And how her husband had a skin graft from his wrist to graft onto his tongue and it had hairs growing out of it and they laughed about it in the end of his days that Jane said ‘were terrible, but thankfully, short’.

And how she grew up in a place with a close family – parents who were loving and three siblings who she was the eldest of and who she told that she would like them even if they weren’t related. And how she had a childhood where she roamed all day – kicked out of bed in the morning by the bell and home again for supper. How she grew up in a house built by her father that he lived in until the day he died. Or was that her grandfather? He had the old hunting lodge which was where they lived on Deer Lake. And how the neighbourhood changed when the Asian immigrants came and how it was a hard thing to feel like a stranger in your own town. And how she moved from there.

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The view from Jane’s sitting room window.

 

And how she came to Cape Breton and saw a man in his garden and she spotted a Bird of Paradise flower and she’d never seen one before and she asked if she could see it. ‘I just wanted to touch it’. Then he said he’d just go get his ‘calipers’ and she thought that was the most wonderful word, she’d only ever called them ‘clippers’ and he gave her cuttings and she thought this is the kind of community she wants to be a part of.

And how her deed is a ‘water deed’ and how she has reclaimed the sea. She has reclaimed the sea (that really is worth shouting at you) by building garden and terracing her land. When I tell her the next day that I wonder if she is some kind of Goddess whose power it is to hold back the tides she does not disabuse me of the notion (as she prepares my gouda cheese omellete with vegetables and ham – have I mentioned that?) but quietly nods and says ‘some years I lose the battle’.

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Of course there are silver napkin holders with teensy vases to hold daffodils and bluebells on the breakfast table. We weren’t raised by wolves, Darling.

And don’t forget how she deliberately forgets the day her parents died because she doesn’t want to have those sad days marked forever. And how seven years after her husband David died ‘a knock came on the door and and I fell for this man like I have not fallen for anyone for the longest time’. And while she was seven years younger than Her David, which she said worked well because ‘he let me grow up’, this man is 12 years younger than her and she describes him as  being ‘dynamic, he’ll do anything’.

We got this explanation after Michael, a wonderful fellow guest who will get his own section, promise, asked her if she liked reading. She does. But her Sundays, her precious four hours off, when she would ‘love’ to sit down and read a book are now filled with this man’s love. He has swept our North Sydney Sea Goddess off her feet. She has just bought a speedboat. And she is learning to kayak.

She tells me she has two sisters in Western Australia and a brother somewhere far flung on this side of the world whose name I didn’t quite catch and she has holidayed in Tasmania recently and she adored MOMA.

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Yes, Jane’s magnificent sign!

Her mother taught herself to paint after her kids were grown and she shows me a self portrait that hangs in the lounge room. As I’m appreciating the loveliness of it Jane tells me her mother was an absolutely honest woman, almost to a fault and that there is another self-portrait that is ‘brutal in its honesty’ and Jane has that hanging in her own place, just next door and down closer to the water.

And no, I’m not curious enough to rug up and risk life and limb to violate her privacy by peering in windows to catch a glimpse – we’ll save that caper for the as yet unwritten short story or novel. In that scenario I’ll be rude and reckless. Here, in real life, I’m polite and very cosy, thank you very much. I also love the idea that Jane keeps that painting for herself. Sorry, but Jane is truly charming, and her mum has a special something:

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Jane’s mother’s self portrait that hangs in the lounge room of A Boat To Sea.

Beginnings

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

Why write?

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On the road to North Sydney, Cape Breton.

Because I said I would.

I haven’t written about anywhere I’ve been yet. Not leaving Melbourne, not my flight, not LAX airport, not Toronto, or Charlottetown or North Sydney where I am presently staring out at a stormy sea that has deprived me of puffins. But that is a grief that I’m not prepared to talk about yet. Too soon, too soon.

I’m a reticent travel writer. I’m doing this because there simply comes a time when you have to put your words where they belong and where, in my case as a teacher of journalism, I keep telling my students to put them – on the page.

Before I flew to Canada for the International Association of Literary Journalim Studies conference in Halifax (starts Thursday, I’m on a panel – there aren’t enough words to encapsulate that panic so let’s not even go there) I banged on to my classes about travel writing – good travel writing like the beautiful prose of ‘Kingdoms of Stone’ by  Doug Hendrie and bad travel writing that is, well, everywhere.

I made them write the worst travel writing they could in class and the awful thing was that most of them could have been published on any travel blog – they were that good at being bad because it is what we read all the time. So then came the ‘teaching moment’. Avoid clichés, I said. Give your readers something they don’t expect, I said, something that will surprise and delight them, something that will take them where you are.

In a gift store in Charlottetown I saw a journal that had, written in pink cursive script (there’s a clue that badness is afoot) ‘put your heart beats on the page’. I stopped. And felt my stomach clench. I could not think of anything worse. Why share? No. I like telling other people’s stories, stories that they know I am telling and that they want told – or sometimes, it is true, after talking with me (in a professional capacity – I would never, ever do this to what I call a ‘real person in the real world’) they don’t want them told. And that is even better because that means that they have something that they need to be held to account for and, with careful research combined with blunt questions I can usually open them up like a can of worms and Do Some Good.

That is how the journalist in me thinks. I do not want to bleed on the page, thank you very much, I faint at the real sight of blood and the thought of haemmoraging my life, with all of its boring minutae and crippling insecurities and overblown conceits that come with being an incarnated walking flesh monster onto the screen is not my idea of fun. Or yours I’m reckoning.

So this blog will not be that. It is not a confessional. It is about being picked up out of my ordinary life and going somewhere and seeing things that I don’t expect, that surprise and delight me and take me out of my head that I live in far too much and that plonk me down, fair and square, where I am and tell me, very loudly: ‘This! Look at this. Now. Because if you don’t it will be gone.’ And I want to ferret it away safely somewhere. Here.

Also a disclaimer: this blog probably won’t be in order because although I like to kid myself that life follows an orderly pattern despite all my best efforts, mine just doesn’t. I read this beautiful Guardian article on Nick Cave (who I have a love/hate relationship but whose ‘The Ship Song’ and ‘Into My Arms’ soared me along a storm lashed highway in Cape Breton) and he said this which I give you as my ‘get-out-of-linear-narrative-jail-free’ card:

“The idea that we live life in a straight line, like a story, seems to me to be increasingly absurd and, more than anything, a kind of intellectual convenience…I feel that the events in our lives are like a series of bells being struck and the vibrations spread outwards, affecting everything, our present, and our futures, of course, but our past as well. Everything is changing and vibrating and in flux.

So now that I have established myself as an insufferable wanker who will write what she likes by invoking the Untouchable Spectre that is Nick Cave, let’s begin.

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