Spring has arrived in Melbourne, not with tender warmth but with a resentful sort of stickiness. Not for us a few months of tentative sunlight, like an old friend getting back in touch; instead we’ve been flung into an aggressive sort of heat, as if forced to resume an argument we thought we’d already won. The saddest part of this, of course, is it means my Withnail coat has been retired for another six months.
When I bought that coat, I wasn’t sure I’d actually wear it. My tastes in clothes have always tended somewhat to the flamboyant (I blame Tom Baker), but I worried the coat's regency stylings might be a step too far. I also didn’t particularly want to be flouncing around in costume. I love Withnail & I, for reasons I’ll mention below, but I’m not sure cosplay is really my thing. Besides, dressing up as a drunk, unemployed actor is a rather strange wardrobe choice.
I bought the coat after interviewing its designer, Andrea Galer, for a magazine piece on famous film outfits. Galer has been selling handmade versions of the coat through her website for the last fifteen years. She mentioned a friend of hers was looking to sell a secondhand coat and it seemed an offer too good to refuse. Sadly, that coat was too small, but Galer ended up making me a new one to my measurements. It arrived during a brief cool patch last November, a thing of beauty, stitched from Harris Tweed. Over the next few months, I would occasionally take it down from the wardrobe and stroke it, as if it were a treasured pet or some rare apocryphal artefact. Withnail & I is set in 1969, but the coat seems to hail from a much earlier time. Handling it felt like fondling history.
Suffice to say, I was probably the only person in Melbourne delighted by this year’s cold winter. After my initial hesitancy, I ended up living in that coat. It was like walking around in a particularly light and comfortable suit of armour — or a portable duvet. This was a coat you could disappear inside, no matter how visible its distinctive cut might make you. As it turned out, I did quite enjoy flouncing around, whether in the dog park, a shopping arcade or a delightful weekend in the country. I wore it while working in my unheated studio, while attending several underheated film festival sessions, while drinking at riverside pubs. I ate in it, I sometimes napped in it. It has been two weeks since I last wore it and I miss it slightly more than I miss my sister, who recently moved to Germany.
This week sees Withnail & I released for the umpteenth time since its premiere in 1987. I’ve already ordered the new limited edition boxset, which will mark the fifth time I’ve purchased the film in some format or other. I still fondly remember the initial UK DVD release, which had a booklet plastered with inaccurate quotes from the film, most notably: “I feel like someone shat on my head.”
There are very few films, books or albums that I’ve connected with quite as intimately as Withnail, which is odd as I was only vaguely impressed when I first saw it at 17. (A friend’s sister had shown me excerpts when I was about 11, but they only puzzled me.) Over the next week after my first viewing, lines kept repeating on me, to the point that I felt driven to watch the movie again the following weekend. On the small screen, it seemed a terribly profound and melancholic film. I was inspired to picture myself as a tragic poet, striding half-cut around moors and spouting Shakespeare. Years later, I saw the film on the big screen and realised it was actually a comedy.
I think my connection to the film — one that has evolved over the last 20 years — is that it embodies a kind of splendid failure. At different times of my life, I’ve enjoyed its romanticisation of drunkenness or male friendship, but it is the romanticisation of failure that endures. There’s a sense that the world isn’t good enough for Withnail and Marwood, that they are born to live the sort of bohemian lives that the post-war, post-1960s world won’t have time for.
These men are literate, witty, educated and utterly unsuited for the realities of employment. When drug dealer Danny bemoans that Woolworths are selling hippy wigs, we realise that the fringes of society are shrinking. This new world isn’t for artists, poets, novelists or actors. (The line “free to those who can afford it, very expensive to those who can’t” seems to grow more true with each passing year.) As the sixties end, everyone is being thrust back into the centre, where they will be expected to compete and consume and conform. Of course, Withnail is never going to conform. Like his coat, he belongs to a different time and a vanished world. At the film’s end, there he is in the rain, alone, railing against everything and delivering the best Hamlet the world is never going to see.
I might no longer be drunk, I might no longer be an actor, I might be employed, but I think that’s still where I want to be. On the edges, wherever the edges might be, in the cold rain, clinging to the bars and shouting at the wolves. And if I’m going to be in the rain, then I figure I at least deserve a good coat.
I've been busy finishing first drafts and making school visits this last month, but I've still had time to file a few pieces here and there.
For The New Daily, I indulged my inner music geek and wrote a piece celebrating 20 Years of Britpop. They actually asked me to write about the anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death, but everyone else seemed to have that covered already. I also filed a short piece about Record Store Day Australia. With my film critic hat on, I waxed lyrical about George Clooney. I can't remember why.
For Screen Education, I wrote about gender in sci-fi and Gravity, a film I very much enjoyed last year. It's available to read (for free) here.
Last year, I took part in a festival event called Fight Night, in which myself and more notable authors (Libba Bray and Garth Nix) went up against some emerging authors for a fiction slam down. The theme I was given was Romance. This caused me much anguish. I spent weeks trying to think of something romantic. When I no longer had any time left to think, I quickly reworked a piece I'd written when I was 21. Actually, I rewrote most of it on the tram to the event, but I can't find my scribbled-on copy.
This version is something of a compromise, which I share to make my blog feel less neglected. Let's call it Over Our Bodies. It's a bit over-written and angsty and doom-laden and earnest, but it was written in 1998. Those were the sort of times we were having in 1998. Myself, I find it quite funny. When I read it out, there were laughs, which is all I've ever wanted from my writing.
In short, it's about the end of a romance. Which, to me, is more interesting than the start. Something that irritates me about (some) YA fiction is the assumption that teenage love is forever love. Madness. I'd love to write a book about what happens after the happy ending. Maybe later.
It’s hard to remember how the fights began. He comes to suspect she would rather fight than not. But he too is implicated in crimes of escalation. A gesture, a willing misinterpretation, a row. Some evenings everything is a symptom of something else. Bitter feuds about good and evil arise from tiny disputes over sitcoms. The trivial becomes the essential, moral lines drawn with the fervour of fundamentalists and then crossed at will. Arguments are shapeless and violent, annexing whole continents of disputed territory. The next night, the argument is reversed; the territory reclaimed.
These are the things they fought about:
A missed turn.
Whose fault it was neither could decide which film to rent.
A left turn.
Whose mother was needier.
A fucking hook turn.
Which of them was most judgmental.
Slamming a car door.
Holding a door open.
Whose turn it was to apologise.
Leaving a party.
Staying at a party.
New Year’s Eve.
Whether Morrissey could sing.
When David Bowie turned crap.
The Smiths again.
Which of them was Withnail. And which of them was I.
Which of them was most broken.
Which of them wanted to be most broken.
They fight in public for sport. Tearing themselves apart with glee. In cafés. In pubs. In supermarkets. In cinemas. In car parks. On the first night of a weekend away, in a small country town, outside a fish and chip shop. Turning boxer’s circles in the middle of the street. A crowd applauding from the kerb. Headlights ringing in the next round.
Afterwards, her watching sister says: You were enjoying that.
Now it is merely what they do, a mid-to-late evening ritual. Repeating the same scenes as if they are only rehearsing, trying to get them right. Love is never in question. Love raises the stakes. When love isn’t doubted, everything else is, and both of them are pushing. Pushing to find spaces where one of them ends and the other begins; where pain starts and the pleasure is done.
I like it when you’re angry, she says. There is sweat on her top lip.
It reminds me you’ve got guts.
I hate you.
I love you.
Love is thick, love is sticky. Hot jam in the veins.
I love you, he says. She says. I love you. I can’t stop. I want to stop. I hate it. I can’t.
I love you. These are heavy words, dropped on tight air, pulling them into each other, onto each other, forever. I love you.
The happy times are nothing. A few weeks of cautious peace, old smiles and new leaves, before an abrupt resumption of hostilities. They wear each other down to the foundations and then keep digging. Neither can remember what they’re looking for. Drilling into empty graves that only spit out dust and memories. They are ghosts now.
I’ve just remembered who you are, he says one morning, sitting up in her bed. It’s summer, not too long before Christmas. The honeyed scent of jacaranda wafts through the flywire.
I can see you. The girl from school.
She says: I think I remember you too.
He says: I’m sorry, although he can’t remember a fight.
She says: So am I.
But it is too late. Already they are fading from view. By lunchtime, they are ghosts again.
Every day, he wakes up further from her. At night, he lies sleepless in her bed and wonders what keeps him there. What leads any ghost to haunt the same house, across endless nights? Pain, he thinks. Pain and fear. Fear that everything might mean nothing if the hauntings ever stop.
Today I hosted a webchat with three young writers about their experiences writing (and living) online. I was deeply impressed by the thought and depth with which the teens responded to questions. I'd recommend watching the video (tech glitches and all) to anyone mildly interested in how teenagers are adapting to living with technology, their attitude to reading and what they expect from authors in this digital age.
Listeners and readers of my work might have worked out I had a bit of a Smiths obsession when I was younger. I think they remain a crucial rite of passage for most intelligent, sensitive teenagers of good taste. Indeed, I had a weird moment recently when revisiting Perth and I witnessed a group of 15-year-olds strutting down the street, with Boy With The Thorn In His Side blaring out from a shoulder-slung ghetto blaster. While I was glad The Smiths are still relevant to today's teens, this actually put me out a little. Even though I was five when The Smiths formed and, if I'm honest, discovered them off the back of Suede, they felt like my band. How dare these young pups try to claim them for themselves?
This week, I was fortunate enough to interview Johnny Marr (guitarist for The Smiths) for The New Daily. I mentioned my strange reaction to seeing those kids and he said:
"That’s good, man. That probably says more about you than it does about them. To be of a certain age and to still be able to feel put out by some part of culture, your idealism must still be alive somewhere. I think that’s worth fighting for."
I'd like to think he was right. I'm 36 now, but I think those teenage passions are still burning. Might explain the lure of YA fiction, I suppose.
That part didn't make it into the interview (I hate it when interviewers shove themselves too obtrusively into a tale) but you can read the full interview here:
As many of you are no doubt aware, I've been a lifelong Doctor Who fan. Surprising, really, that it's taken me this long to write anything about it. The feature below is a piece I wrote for Australian magazine Screen Education. It's a somewhat personal guide to Who, looking at the show's ability to inspire its young viewers to embark on their own creative feats. It certainly did the trick for me.
The article features interviews with Nicholas Briggs (voice of the Daleks and producer of the Doctor Who audio adventures) and John Richards (writer of sci-fi sitcom Outland and one half of current Who podcast Splendid Chaps).
I recently filmed a short interview, talking about journalism and other writings for magazine Dumbo Feather. The piece is now online as part of New Conversations, a high school writing competition that Dumbo are running. (And which I'll be helping to judge.)
At the link below, there are also interviews with the very glamorous journo Sofija Stefanovic and Dumbo deputy editor Livia Albeck-Ripka.
I'm occasionally asked about the score for the Salmon and Dusk podcasts, so thought I'd put together a quick post for easy reference. The instrumental tracks I used for Season 1 (not the original How to Disappear Completely podcast) were, with a few exceptions, taken from an album called Abandoned Soundtrack by XeMa.
Happily the album is still freely available on the web. You might find it at either of these links:
I’ve signed with Barry Goldblatt at BG Literary, New York. Barry has some amazing clients on his list, including Libba Bray and Holly Black, so I’m delighted he’s found a place for me. We’ve talked about a couple of projects I have lined up (one of them may well be Salmon & Dusk related) and I feel that Barry really understands what I’m trying to do with them. I’d love to elaborate, but I should probably wait until they're actually written.
It’s slightly unusual (I’m told) for an Australian author to find themselves an agent — especially when they already have a wonderful publisher, as I do with Text Publishing— but it’s been a long-held ambition of mine, so I’m very happy Barry has taken me on. I look forward to revealing the fruits of our collaboration in the months ahead.