Present-Giving: A Guide

Tim is just back from Bangkok where he lives and writes for most of the year. We miss each other very much.

He says, ‘I haven’t got you a present. Well, I did have a present for you but I don’t now. Let me tell you what it was: I saw these three women a little while ago. They were young and well-built, really big and strong and they were walking together through grass this high.’

We are ordering our coffee. He points to his thigh which is level with some blocks of chocolate tiffin. I really do not need tiffin – even this chunky, glistening homemade tiffin for £3 a handful – but it takes a little effort not to mention it.

‘And they were carrying bags of rice on their heads. Big bags of rice. I took a photo. I had it printed. Sunset. Three women. Grass. Sky.’

He holds his hands above his head to show something like a very large hat.

‘Then they put the bags down against a wall and I went over and I tried to pick one up.’

The cappuccino machine wheezes like a train about to go and he has to raise his voice.

‘And I couldn’t lift even a corner of the bag. Couldn’t lift it.

‘So I thought you could put it on your wall and when you are writing your novel and you get tired of writing your novel and you think why did I start writing this novel? you could look at your lovely picture and think well I could be carrying bags of rice and then you would be happy to go back to your novel.

‘I had it framed with glass and everything and put it in my suitcase. But when I opened my suitcase this morning it was all broken. I tried to fix it but I got jam on it.

He looks sheepish but also delighted.

‘Jam/glass – it was all a bit of a mess so then I thought I’d just tell you.’

‘That’s lovely,’ I say. ‘That’s just as good as a present.’

‘You wouldn’t want to be carrying bags of rice.’

‘No. I wouldn’t be very good at that.’

‘I couldn’t even lift a corner!’

Then the Australian chap gives us our coffees. There is a coffee-milk-coffee pattern on the top of each – they look like a pair of stripey hearts.

Or perhaps onions cut in half.

This is how coffee is poured in Melbourne. We are in Soho, London. Tim is excited about the coffee, which is Australian. Creamy and vanilla-ey, he reckons. He is drinking a lot of coffee because of the jet lag.

When I am tired of writing I will look at the space on my wall and I will think of the three young women. I will think to myself thank you very much.


How I Learned to Love the Theatre

I grew up in a small city called Canberra. Once a year the Royal Australian Ballet would visit. Mum always wore a long dress and a mink stole. I wore whichever was my best dress at the time.

The foyer of the Canberra Theatre would be heavy with men in suits and women in slow-moving dresses. The shushed noise of hundreds of adults was low registered and calm. The excitement took place entirely behind my belly-button, crept down a little into my legs and up to my heart.

I was often prepared to be bored in the Canberra Theatre, which I didn’t mind. It was part of the specialness. Any ballet sequence involving a slowly-waking village morning with chorus members accidentally tipping inoffensive refuse out of windows onto others’ heads (the one below shakes a fist, the other above slams a shutter), girls cradling baskets of flowers smiling shyly at boys, children misbehaving and being kicked by a fat adult with an obvious profession (the blacksmith, the butcher) was intensely boring. Floral. Dull. Did the grown-ups in the audience really think this was interesting? When they laughed at the mischievous little boy in the flat cap I thought it was to encourage the little boy playing the little boy. Not many little boys dance. Polite adults can be very encouraging.

These sequences would progress to a moment in which the chorus would recede tidily for the Handsome Young Man to appear to the delight of even the bad-tempered blacksmith (or schoolmaster). The Handsome Young Man in turn would be struck by the best-dressed, most modest of the flirty girls who turns out to be the leading ballerina (her cheeks are redder, her hair is higher) – and it got even more boring. They would dance in turns and there would be a bit of low-key lifting and eventually the village would join in, in rows, using the chains of flowers which had earlier been basket decoration.

The boredom was relaxing and comfortable.

The good bits came later – when people (or swans) died.

Now that was what you would go to the ballet for. Death.

She’s dying. He doesn’t realise – he carries on dancing and showing her how after all these years he still loves her and he is sorry he had to go to war (or travel or nearly marry his social equal) but, look, he is here now and they must marry. But she is dying. Dying before him. She smiles weakly and droops a little. He misunderstands. Is she not pleased to see him? Is she not revived by his love?

Yes, yes she is, she is… how happy they might be, might be… but… he has left it too long, how long she has waited and now…


She is dead.

He dances wildly. The orchestra thunders in despair. He spins and bounces as high as he can to bring her back to life. He places his strong arms under hers and pulls her thin body, as relaxed as a cat now she is dead, up to his chest. He tries to dance with her, but she is just a cat in a dress and she can only drag around. He caresses her face, her bun. Come back, he says. Don’t leave me. How can I live without you? She is wearing the nicest dress now it is the last Act, because she is ill and possibly also penniless, so her dresses no longer stick out, they are simple and show her body normally. She may even have bare feet. He is distraught. He rests his head on her still chest. Or he looks to the sky and you can see the lean muscles drawn from his ribs to his neck as he gestures angrily at heaven. He will never, never leave her. He will die here with her.

Or he will unsheath his sword and go in search of the fiend who did this to his love, in which case it goes on a bit longer and there will be a fight. The fiend will lose. But so will the Beautiful Man because he has lost his love and his life         is nothing         without her.


I wish the audience did not clap. I wish the dancers would not come out to collect flowers and curtsy for ages. I wish we were allowed to just sit in our seats in the dark and cry quietly until we fell asleep.

Getting Ready for Leaving (4)


How big were the ships? asks my son.

They were quite small. There were hundreds of people squashed into them. It was very crowded and in those days it took nine months to sail from England to Australia. So for nine months the convicts sat in the little ship all squashed together with not much to eat and chains on their legs and – I make an effort to ramp up the drama – they didn’t even have a toilet.

Where did they go to the toilet?

They would just often have to go where they were sitting. People were sick and had diarrhoea and died and it must have been very smelly and horrible. Imagine being squashed in a smelly dark hole on a ship going up and down for all that time. And knowing you will never see England again. Never go home. Going to a country no-one has been to before that you don’t know anything about. Imagine that.

He imagines it.

So were they very hungry?

They were very, very hungry and when they arrived in Australia they made a town – which was called a colony, that’s Sydney, and they tried to make food grow but many of the animals had died on the way over and a lot of the people were sick and so hungry they couldn’t work. So they just got hungrier and hungrier.

What about goats?


Goats are good animals to have.

Yes. Yes they are. Clever boy.  Anyway, remember they had to take all their food for the journey and then food to survive while they waited for food to grow when they got there. They thought it would be just like England and they could make farms just like they were used to in England. But Australia is very different. (I have a think here: How different? In what way different?) The soil is different and (what else?) it is very, very hot there.


(This is good. I am getting somewhere.)

Yes. It was very hard for everyone. It took two years -TWO YEARS- for another ship to come. There was a famine. They were skeletons. Even their clothes rotted off their backs. Every day they looked out from the cliffs hoping to see another ship coming and none came. Imagine that.

He imagines a little longer.

What did they do when another ship came?

I think they were very happy. They were so hungry. They needed more food. All that time there was no way of telling anyone in England that they were hungry and things were very hard. There was no mail. Australia was still a new country. No-one went there.

(I am going in circles.)

Why did it take two years for the other ship to come?

Yes. England was at war then. But the colony didn’t know that. So England didn’t send another ship with prisoners because they were busy. All the ships were busy. War is very expensive – it takes up a lot of time and money and vehicles.

Was that in Afghanistan?

No. That’s the war we are currently fighting. That is also very expensive. No this was… well, England and France are friends now, but they used to fight a lot.

What about?

(I don’t know.)

I don’t really know.

Who won?

I think England won a bit and lost a bit.

(This is ridiculous. Perhaps I suffer from historical alexia.)

I tell you who will know: Jim (Jim is our neighbour.) He is a Professor of History at University. And that is his period.

Period! He laughs and points to his groin. Period! Penis! At last he has got some real entertainment out of this conversation.

Period just means a length of time. A menstrual cycle is a period of time – that’s why it is called a period.

Period! He rolls about in the armchair. Ha! Jim!

I think you’re being silly now.

You said period.

Period’s have got nothing to do with penises.

Oh! My penis! My period! Oh no!

Anyway, but when the boats arrived. After two years and everyone was so hungry – do you know what happened?


The boats were just full of more prisoners. More sick people and not much food. So now they had even more people and less food.

(I wait a bit.) So how about that? Hey?

Stop that silly laughing. It’s not funny.

Stop it.

What do you want for breakfast?

Leaving (3)


M (7) is curious about the whole idea of convicts:

I say: ‘About 200 years ago – if you were a burglar in England you would go to prison but you might never come out.’

This is where I begin. I will try to explain in the simplest possible terms, the difference between our concept of criminality now and what it was in the late 18th Century. Today, I am explaining, we believe that a person commits a criminal act because circumstance are against them. We also believe that we, society, have failed that person.

I follow the work of the Penal Reform Trust. I will always remember the words of a friend of mine who works with offenders. She says: ‘There is not one of whom I do not think: “Well, what would I do? In that situation would I really have done differently?”’ She works with women.

I am trying to explain this to M and I believe it important enough to get it really right. This is his introduction to the horrors of what I like to call the Barbaric Social Experiment that was the establishment of the Penal Colonies.

‘200 years ago the prisons were so full that the English government sent boats full of soldiers and all the prisoners who did not fit in the prisons to Australia, which had only just been discovered, and made a town called Sydney.’

‘Was it a town full of prisons?’

‘No. The town was the prison. They didn’t need prisons because there was only bush and sea around – there was nowhere to escape. So instead of walls there was bush. We only build walls when there’s somewhere we don’t want… when there’s somewhere…’

I lose myself at this point. I make another start. ‘So these convicts were the first white people to live in Australia.’

‘What is white?’

(I am winded. What is white? I’ve no idea. What is white?)

‘White is – ‘ I say

‘White is – ‘ I say again.

I say: ‘In some parts of the world most people have brown skin. Like in Africa (I edit the rest of the world here) and then in other parts of the world people have skin like (I hold up my a hand as an example. Is it pink? It’s not even pink. What is that colour?) this. It’s called white. It’s not really white-white but it’s called white. We’re white.’


‘But we’re the same. We’re all the same.’


M agrees casually. In fact he is disappointed to learn white is what we are.

‘We’re all the same shape or size. There are about 500 people that look about the same as me,’ he says and he looks at me kindly. He is trying to make my answer more interesting than it actually is. ‘Or the same as you. Or 120. Or under.’ He has grown up in London. A difference in skin colour is probably the least interesting distinguishing feature in a person.

For him, random statistics make an answer. My answer was pathetic. A prison and not a prison? White but not white? It’s all a load of pitiable, evasive, adult boringness. What did a convict wear? What did they eat? What powers did they have?

I can spit out The Fatal Shore but beyond that I don’t know a thing. I don’t even know that terribly well. Except that it made me cry. But that might have been the prose.

Leaving (2)

At the top of this blog should be a photo of my Dad in an Akubra. Walking back down a bush track. Walking away from us. Sunlight hanging in dusty shafts around like in his favourite painting. I can’t remember the painting but I reckon my friend Angus could help. I’ll let you know.


The Hungarians have a phrase: “the English Farewell.” This is the quiet exit. Not a ripple. The leaver leaves. That’s it.

The difficulty is no-one gets to say good bye. Neither do empty promises need to be made about staying in touch and not going changing. I hate goodbyes – I am at my most awkward and wordless. Completely exposed. This is not something to be proud of.

Of course, the English farewell avoids the paps, but there is a kind of pomposity about it too. “I know you will want to say good bye – I can’t bear it,  I know it will be unbearable – so I am going to avoid it. I will leave you talking about how I am gone after I am gone.”

What is also avoided is the possibility that the leaver will not be missed.

I am writing about all this – you may have to bear with me for the occasional blog – but please don’t go away. I am writing more on this than I have ever written on anything.

I am going to Australia in a few weeks and that will be to say good bye.

This one is possibly going to be the biggest yet. There are many smaller goodbyes that precede it.  So this farewell will definitely not be Hungarian. It is the opposite. I think it is Australian. I’ll let you know.