Still the Best Policy

honesty 3Honesty. 

I picked it as Blue Jai’s Word of the Month for September, because here in the Great Southern Land September coincides with the arrival of spring. As I’ve said before, I think that this time of year is great for making resolutions — for me, September is about fresh starts and new beginnings.  And coming hot on the heels of last month’s examination of habits, I thought a decent dose of honesty would not go astray.

Honesty is something I associate with one of the Big Ones: TRUTH.  We all know that truth is up there with love, and beauty, and all the other things that Julian Sands’ character yells out the window in A Room With a View…not that I can recall even half of them now.

And honesty is a direct path to truth.

Except when it’s not…

Sometimes it’s a twisting, turning, back-tracking path, completely lacking signposts yet somehow full of potholes and pitfalls.

honesty 2It can be difficult to be honest, particularly with ourselves. Sometimes it’s easier to believe our own internal rhetoric, even when it’s untrue. Perhaps you’re a person who consistently underestimates the time a task will take to complete and, as a result, frequently fails to meet deadlines. Maybe you’re someone who takes on new things even when you’re at maximum capacity, and know that something else (usually you or those you hold most dear) will suffer as a result. Or, quite possibly, you might be the type who gives in to that invasive voice in your head telling you that if you do five minutes less on the treadmill no one will ever know. (That same voice is equally insistent about eating the second cookie, by the way…)

It’s not always easy to look yourself or someone else in the eye and speak the truth: doing so requires a combination of courage and compassion. But I believe we benefit greatly, both personally and professionally, when we bring honesty to the forefront of our dealings: with friends and family, with clients and colleagues, with everyone we interact with.

So this spring, I invite you to approach yourself, your life and the many and varied people in it with new honesty.

Turn your face the morning sun, and to thine own self be true.

honesty 1

Dirt Music

 

Dirt Music 3

Dancing spotlit in a bodystocking? Not me…I’ll leave that to the likes of Misty Copeland.

So the other night, after a few “light beers” (which may or may not have been entire bottles of wine), a mate of mine asked me whether I had a Favourite Book.

As in, a Favourite Book OF ALL TIME.

And I said…Yes.

Or perhaps I just whispered it.

I definitely held my breath for a split second before I answered, not sure of how my response would be received, or whether it would be treated with the reverence I reserve for Favourite Books.

Because let’s face it — owning up to having a Favourite Book (of All Time, no less) is to to reveal your self, to expose your self as completely and unapologetically as a dancer in a flesh-coloured bodysuit on a spotlit stage.  Which is fine, completely fine, if you’ve spent the requisite years honing your body and your skills to the point that a body-stocking, or a distinct lack of on-stage hiding places, or (God forbid) an audience no longer fazes you, but…clearly, that’s not me.

I write. I read.

I cook. I most definitely eat. And while my kitchen is well-known as a place where dancing is heartily encouraged, I would sooner eat a body-stocking rather than wear one.

Even so, despite my many misgivings (or maybe because I, too, had consumed several glasses of wine), the other night I actually confessed to loving one book above all others.

Now, any literature lover will tell you that the idea of narrowing down the books you couldn’t bear to part with to a Top Ten is an utterly absurd exercise. If you truly love books, whittling down your list to a Top Fifty is a difficult proposition.

But if you have a Favourite Book, you know what it is. If, unlike me, you’re the sort of person who likes to proclaim your Favourite Book far and wide and to encourage every last being in the known universe to read it, you know what it is. If, like me, you’re a little more circumspect about revealing the identity of your Favourite Book, you know what it is. Even if you have trouble admitting to yourself that one particular volume is your Favourite Book, you still know what it is.

And mine is Tim Winton’s Dirt Music.

Dirt Music

So here it is — my Favourite Book. OF ALL TIME.

(Oh dear Lord! Did I just type that for the world to see?!)

Yep, Dirt Music is my Favourite Book of All Time.

And I have decided that I will own up to it, and expose myself to whatever judgements you may make about me as a result of that admission, because it is my Favourite Book.

I could have dodged the issue entirely, perhaps, and said it was impossible to decide between Dirt Music and any number of other books, such as Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina or The Lord of the Rings or The Great Gatsby or Hamlet, to name just a handful of others.  No authors’ names necessary, of course — they’re all tomes that are regularly cited as being Favourite Books. I could even have wrong-footed my friend by pointing him in the direction of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, or Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy or  Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

But I didn’t.

Because, deep down, I know that Dirt Music is my Favourite Book.

I’m not saying that it’s best book in the universe — that’s a whole other discussion. And I’m definitely not going to weigh into the whole debate about the Great Australian Novel, either, and whether that accolade goes to Winton’s Cloudstreet or not.  I’m not even saying that you should rush out, buy Dirt Music, and devour it cover to cover — it may not be your thing at all. (I mean, if you want to, of course — go ahead; it might end up being your Favourite Book too).

Nup. I’m not doing any of that.

But what I am saying is pretty simple, really.

For me, Dirt Music, Winton’s tale of Georgie Jutland losing and finding herself in the wilds and waters of Western Australia is special. In the true blue, Bruce McAvaney sense of the word.

I love — no, I utterly adore — Tim Winton’s prose.  I love the tangible physicality of his descriptions of people and place. I love the accuracy with which he captures his characters’ vernacular. I love the overarching presence of the Australian landscape, particularly of the ocean and the coast. I love the way he describes Georgie’s father as Himself, QC — and I love the sheer volume of information and resonance and impact those two words impart.

Dirt Music 2

My super-power: escaping into books…

Reading is such a great privilige, and literacy such an inordinately important gift. And, as Alain de Botton points out, “Of all the addictions, bibliophilia is the noblest and most dangerous.” Where else, but between the pages of books, can we embark on great quests, fight revolutions, ride dragons, or sail further west than west?

I will, I know, continue to read, and always — always — to write. Like Rudyard Kipling, “I am by nature a dealer in words, and words are the most powerful drug known to humanity.”

And it is beyond comforting to know that I can return time and again to the happy places that lie between the dog-eared volumes that line my shelves, to wend my way along hidden paths towards Rivendell, to walk with Elizabeth from Netherfield back to Longbourn, even to hold my breath as Anna waits for the oncoming train…

But I will always come back, time and again, to Dirt Music, if only to discover, like Luther Fox, just one last time:

She’s real…she’s real…

What a Piece of Work is Man

RememberWhat a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2, lines 303-307

Today marks the anniversary of my grandfather’s death.

I have lived more than half my life without him, but there are days when I feel his loss as acutely as I did all those years ago.

My grandfather’s passing is, for me, inextricably linked with Shakespeare, specifically with Hamlet, which I first saw performed the day he died. So much of what the play explores resonates with me, then and now — the grief, the family torn apart, the musings on life and how to live it, or indeed whether to live it at all.

Hamlet’s soliloquies are among Shakespeare’s most famous. More than four centuries after he wrote them they are known the world over, often quoted and occasionally parodied. Keenly observant of the mind’s workings, Shakespeare never allows Hamlet to shy away from confronting his inner demons, and his words provide insights that are surprisingly fresh and relevant today. And yet, when life — or life’s sudden, unexpected end — overlays these monologues with memory, embroiders them with poignant and painful detail, Hamlet’s orations become imbued, for me, with much deeper meaning.

Who was my grandfather, the quintessence of dust I lost more than two decades ago?

He was but a man.

He was of average stature, but with a presence so immense that its absence left a gaping hole. His smile lit up any room, his laughter filled any void.

He was a passionate sailor, a successful businessman, an avid tennis fan, and a hopeful punter.

He valued honesty, loyalty, persistence and discipline.

He believed wholeheartedly in the capacity of a decent cup of tea to solve any problem.

He enjoyed words — reading them, writing them, hearing them. He was a prolific and witty correspondent; his handwriting was simultaneously elegant and bold. He gave me my first dictionary, my first thesaurus. He taught me to appreciate brevity.

Grief TolkeinHe served his country in the Royal Australian Navy as a Petty Officer Writer. He survived the bombing of Darwin, he was present at the Japanese surrender in Toyko Bay. He seldom spoke of the war.

He was handsome, charming and dapper.

He was twice divorced and thrice married. He endured the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, many of them aimed (understandably) by my grandmother and many more, I suspect, directed by himself.

Above all, he was a man of love. His hugs were like being wrapped in a warm blanket on a winter’s day. He was bighearted. He was generous to a fault. He was a blazing sun, full of love and light.

During his life he was not an angel, but I’d like to think that he is one now.