Archive for the ‘The Odyssey of Life’ Category

One Year On

It’s now more than a year since I moved to my lovely place of residence, a sunny little studio in Glebe – the aptly named Cornieworld 2. I should start by pointing out that there was, as implied, a Cornieworld 1. This was my previous apartment in Glebe, which I inhabited for roughly one year, between 2005 and 2006. This place, which was also lovely and sunny, and, it must be said, considerably larger than its sequel, was dubbed Cornieworld by my former partner in crime, “Pockets”, on account of my surname – not actually Rollmops, incidentally.

Cornieworld 2 is really very close to Cornieworld 1 geographically – so much so, that if I stick my head out the back window, I can see the balcony of Cornieworld 1 across the backyards and through the trees. It is not more than eighty metres from where I now lie on my beloved bed, writing this piece of fluff. I remain as deeply attached nostalgically to Cornieworld 1 as I have to many other favourite places of residence, and, indeed, to this one, in anticipation of the fact that I shall have to leave here at some point in the not too distant future.

So, one year on, my place has changed very little, physically. I’ve kept the same arrangement of furnishings, have not changed the decorations, and have kept it clean and orderly by regular vacuuming, dusting, polishing and the like. Consequently, it actually looks identical to how it looked once I’d completed my initial wave of home-making, which is nice, because I like to think I nailed it first up.

Having now experienced all four seasons in my studio, I can safely say that it’s a lovely place to be, come rain hail or shine. It did get a bit stuffy in summer and my failure to buy a larger fan was a regrettable oversight, yet it was rarely, if ever, unbearable and the amount of light and space I felt inside, despite its small size, was always refreshing. I’m also very partial to the blue-green end of the spectrum when it comes to living spaces. Without blues and greens I feel oppressed and desolate, and need these colours to comfort me. Too much red and brown leaves me very sad indeed, both impatient and harassed, and the colour scheme here has always been much to my taste. I can’t claim credit for the pale blue-grey of the walls, yet I do like to think I have balanced this nicely with the various pictures I’ve put up. Now, with the trees and grape vines on the trellis blooming fully again with fresh, spring greens the atmosphere is, more than ever, one of refreshing and beautiful calm.

When I wrote about moving here back in August last year, I titled the piece Sleeping with a Fridge. The reason for this was that, inevitably, in a studio, without a separate kitchen, there is little choice but to share the space with a fridge, and we all know that fridges have a habit of rumbling and grunting in their own sweet way. Having moved in, I was very soon reassured that my fridge would not be keeping me up at night or distracting me, and this has, fortunately, continued to be the case. The only times I notice the little guy is when he stops his quiet churning – an event punctuated by a brief stumbling as the parts cease to move. On such occasions I am assailed by such a sense of peaceful stillness that I am forced, every time, to remark at how I hadn’t realised the fridge was running until it stopped. And so, on that score, I can safely say that the fridge has proven to be a good housemate, and I’d quite happily share with him again.

My studio has one rather odd feature about it. The ceiling slopes down from one end to the other, so that above the door and the compact, yet spacious bathroom, there is a space which begins at roughly two feet in height, and reaches a height of three feet at the point where the ceiling meets with the wall. This space is the depth of the bathroom, about four and a half feet, and thus, above the bathroom and door, there is a sort of miniature loft. When I first moved in here, I wondered if it would be at all possible to make use of this space – perhaps getting a ladder to make it accessible – and for months used to joke about installing a Korean student and subletting for a hundred dollars a week. Well, I never did buy a ladder nor make any use of the space, and, for the sake of my peace and well-being, and, indeed, my sex life and privacy, I’m pleased that ultimately no Koreans were installed.

When I first moved into this place, I was riding high on a wave of personal revolution. Emerging like a phoenix from the ashes of a devastating break-up, I was full of an almost unbearable, restless energy and threw myself at everything I did with a vengeance – be it writing, photography, running, weightlifting and, indeed, dating. In this intense state of being I also found myself assailed by memories of the intense work ethic and level of output I’d had during my last time in Glebe, where I’d not only taken a lot of photographs and written a lot of prose, but spent much of my time agonisingly crafting poetry.

Thus, shortly after returning to this neck of the woods, inspired by the sheer compact brilliance of my studio, and totally in love with life in a new and profound way, I found myself writing a lot of poetry again. I do think some good material came out of this, but the new wave of enthusiasm for writing poetry soon petered out and has now evaporated.

This is unfortunate in that writing poetry is very much a craft and the less I do it, the less well I do it. Back in 2004 when I first began my Creative Writing Masters, I had a very excellent mentor in the form of Robert Gray, who was teaching poetry at UTS. I’d dabbled in the stuff before, but it was mostly pretty trite and unpolished and lacked any real technical sense. After being in the presence of this most erudite and kind man, who seemed not only to know everything it was possible to know about poetry, but also to be gifted with the wisdom of the ages, I was so inspired that my first poetry submission to Meanjin was successful. As soon as I was given such a sense of credibility, I was overwhelmed with a sense of destiny and, after an initial celebration in the form of a long, hard run where I pumped my fists a lot and shouted “I’m a fucking poet!” I kept it up and, for the next four years I diligently worked on my poems.

It seems strange in retrospect, having always considered myself a prose writer and having turned almost entirely to prose in recent years, that for a while there it was the poetry and not the novels or short stories that came out most completely. Much of the best material was written during my time in Cornieworld 1 and my second stint in Cambridge. Yet, when I returned to Australia in 2008, I ran out of steam and stopped working on poetry altogether.

It was nice therefore, albeit briefly, to find joy once again in crafting poems. I do hope this desire comes back, but for now it is the photography that has taken over as my preferred form of expression. Again, however, on this front, I have my return to Glebe to thank for this. As I’ve written elsewhere, I long ago grew tired of Sydney as a photographic subject, but over the last year, I have come to love shooting the place again. Photography too is very much a craft and whilst it might not be the same for everyone, I find that the more I do it, the more my eye is “in form”. Thus, much of my time here has been spent on editing photographs and putting together collections to publish on this very blog. It’s something I’m very pleased about, as I feared that only the stimulus of a foreign country was sufficient to get me out of my shell have take photos. I now never leave home without my camera, except when going running, and thus am well placed to catch those unexpected and ephemeral compositions that life throws up.

And so, the next phase of life approaches. Having been very fortunate in finding love in the last year, I shall be packing up this little haven in the next couple of months. It will be very sad to leave, but it has served me so amazingly well that I wouldn’t want to stress the relationship I have with the place and grow stagnant. For now, however, Cornieworld 2 lives on, and I shall make the most of its glorious last days.


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Turning 40

Well, I just turned forty. More than a week ago in fact, which is probably just enough time for the new reality to sink in. It was easy to be honest, all I had to do was stay alive and sure enough the day came along as so many others have done: roughly 14, 610 to be precise. But seriously, despite some inevitable reflection and re-assessment of my circumstances, I didn’t feel overly anxious or depressed about it. Indeed, I surprised myself by being relatively philosophical about the whole thing.

They say that forty is the new thirty, which is nice considering the old thirty was the new twenty, which makes me feel almost half my age. These days, with the cost of living in Australia being what it is, they say the fifty is the new twenty, and I can only hope this also applies to age, when that more ominous fifth decade begins.

Turning forty is one of life’s many arbitrary milestones. As with so many “significant” numbers – like the millennium or our birth dates – it has no actual importance and is merely a human conceit for the sake of record keeping and measurement. The number itself is meaningless, yet this will not stop people from weighing it down with vast amounts of baggage as it does, inarguably, represent a sort of rough half-way mark. There is a certain weightiness to the idea that as much as half of one’s life might already be over.

A quick scan of the accumulated ‘wisdom’ on the internet offers many different perspectives on turning forty. Some say it is a time when people begin to enjoy the hard work of their twenties and thirties, which is all very well if you actually bothered to work hard in your twenties and thirties. Others say that it is a time when men go off the rails with a mid-life crisis in an attempt to recapture lost youth. Again, that’s all very well if you let your youth go earlier and lived a responsible hard-working life to this point. It’s also said that most people have already come to accept responsibilities by this age: family, children, mortgage – what Zorba the Greek called “The full catastrophe!” – and have thus achieved a certain emotional and psychological stability. Again, “the full catastrophe” is something which has eluded me, along with learning to drive, superannuation and most forms of appreciable work experience. Still, after years of constant philosophising and, more recently, head-shrinking, I do feel more in control of my emotions and psychology, particularly in how I relate to people.

I’ve approached forty with the outlook that most people sport around thirty – namely that it’s time to “get serious”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I’ve put off “getting serious” as long as possible, partly because it seemed so utterly undesirable, but mostly because there were other more fun things to do first. I’ve never had much interest in being responsible for other people, and only marginally more interest in being responsible for myself. Indeed, life, until now, with the exception of various bursts of zeal for some sort of stability and career, has been about maximising pleasure and experience. Ironically, however, outside the bouts of travel, study, freedom and self-indulgence, the status quo has mostly been a lot of unpaid hard work and agonising.

Throughout my late thirties, I often wondered what it would be like to turn forty. Indeed, I wondered about it so much that it almost felt as though I were hanging around waiting for it to happen. I put life on hold, lost myself in computer games and travel, indulged in writing and photography as hobbies rather than commercial ventures, worked part time and lazed my way along. I needed a deadline of sorts, or rather, a starting line, beyond which point I must work hard to secure the future I wanted to have. But what was that?

Having dreaded the idea of turning forty for so long, when the approaching reality finally began to loom, I switched tack and started to see things more positively. Quite simply, it was a decision I made, having grown tired of carrying around a gloomy outlook. Where, I ask, does that get you? There’s nothing wrong with a little righteous indignation about the world, but who wants to go through life whining and complaining, especially about one’s personal state of affairs, when a little positive thinking can make life far more pleasurable? “You always take the weather with you,” and whilst I’ll always love the rain, of late I’ve been toting sunshine.

I’ve never really wanted to be rich, but then I’ve never really wanted to be poor. When I turned forty I knew I must begin to say yes to settling down, partly because the old paradigm of freedom wasn’t working so well any more. Despite my love of restless roaming through life, the lack of grounding has taken its toll in constant exposure to the anxiety of uncertainty. Whilst in many ways it is easier to remain aloof in life, it requires a singular energy and confidence to do so. Consequently, while many at this age are rebelling against their early establishment of security, I have gradually been developing a longing for its sense of permanence.

This longing for permanence has finally begun to take shape. I knew something was changing in me when I began to answer the question of children with “well, I don’t want not to have them,” instead of the requisite “screw that.” This change has occurred in the last eighteen months – indeed, as recently as February 2011 I reaffirmed my desire not to have children in the only piece I’ve ever pulled from this blog. It was written in response to the news that the partners of two of my oldest friends were newly pregnant, which caused me to take a good long look at where I stood in the world. I had meant the article to be light-hearted and entertaining, but when I re-read it some months later, it came across as awfully mean-spirited and so I pulled it.

My principal concern then was the loss of freedom:

Would I ever see a film at the cinema again? Could I ever just clear off to India for two months as I did last year? Would I ever sleep again? I plan to cling to my bachelor existence as long as humanly possible. If that means for the rest of my life, then so be it and here’s to me. Let’s face it, someone’s got to do it.


It’s a very reasonable concern given the way in which the lives of my friends with children have been transformed. Yet of course, on another level, it also reflects a rather trivial shallowness. Selfishness I can accept as a motivation, but the conclusion that life is only meaningful or satisfying when free of responsibility is not self-evident.

So, turning forty was, in the end, absolutely necessary and couldn’t have come a moment too soon. Indeed, it was a relief. I have had difficulty throughout life in understanding what age I actually was at the time and knowing what was expected of me at that age. This is largely because I long remained infuriatingly childish and didn’t give a rat’s arse about what was expected of me, and indeed, resented anyone who had the audacity to expect anything from me, but also because I spent fifteen years at university. The world of work and careers and suits and responsibility may have its merits, but it seemed far more interesting to stay in school indefinitely having wonderful romances, challenging conversations and intellectually decadent junkets. For my twenties and thirties, the motto was always “when in doubt, do a degree.” And I can say this much – I fucking loved it.

Spending so much time at university left me at odds with the professional world. My peers were always students – aspiring writers, academics, scientists and historians – and so I was largely insulated from the working world and found it all rather distastefully vulgar. The apparent drudgery of a stressful Monday to Friday job compared to sitting on the banks of the Cam drinking Pimms and talking about the fall of the Roman Empire, was so gut-wrenchingly unappealing that I vowed to do everything I could to avoid it for as long as possible.

Yet of course, this was a vow made with a different energy and a different psychology. Things changed, in part, when my age caught up with me at last. When I was thirty-five, everyone looked at me and thought I was thirty. When I turned thirty-seven, everyone thought I was… thirty-seven. I took a look at myself in the mirror and saw that despite running regularly, doing weights and paying at least some attention to my diet, sufficient to keep my body in shape and my face lean, the wrinkles of worry and anxiety had gradually accumulated around my eyes. My hair was peppered with grey at the temples and my eyebrows had a certain mature bushiness. I took this template of selfhood with me and held it up against the men on the street. My gods, I thought, when I realised who my peers were. They look like the dads in mortgage commercials, and so the fuck do I.

At least I still have my hair, and a wonderfully thick and full-bodied covering to boot. And while I am slowly but surely revealing my deep and abiding vanity here, I might as well go on to say that I have always equated hair with youth. If I ever lose it, I will go straight to Advanced Hair and pay whatever it takes to get it back. Baldness is not an option and I dearly hope to be sporting a Bob Hawke silver bodgie when I reach the dear old age of one hundred and twenty. So, from a purely physical point of view, having reached forty, I look just how I always wanted to look at forty. That’s quite a relief.

Having said all this, I still feel largely out of place in the world. It never ceases to amaze me that people I went to school with have serious jobs, own houses and cars, and heaven forbid, have children as old as ten. How on earth did they manage it all, and why did they want to do so?

A week before my birthday, whilst walking to a restaurant with my father, he displayed his special brand of tiresomely contrived surprise when, in response to his question, I told him I was turning forty.

“Forty! Forty! Mate, you can’t be turning forty.”

“Do the maths.”

“Forty! Jesus, mate, when I was forty I’d already had three sons and two marriages. I was a top journo at the Australian.”

“Well, I’ve got three degrees including a PhD from Cambridge.”

“Stuff that mate, they’re just pieces of paper.”

“Fuck you.”

“Mate, I was just joking.”

But of course he wasn’t, and of course, I didn’t give a rat’s arse either. I’m pleased to have found my own way to forty, and whilst the next decade might prove to be ostensibly more conventional, I can assure you I shall be doing it in my own idiom.

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Recently, my interest in online social networking has waned considerably. For a while now I’ve been questioning the motive behind expressing my feelings, desires and frustrations, or simply providing factual information about where I am and what I’m doing at any given point. I have, of late, been tweeting and updating Facebook much less frequently, and have completely failed to jump on the Instagram / Foursquare bandwagon. This seems slightly ironic considering the fact that after several years of wanting one, I finally acquired a smart-phone two months ago and thus have the capacity to be connected at all times.

There are, of course, many reasons for participating in social networks and people use them in a variety of different ways. Whether it is to maintain contact with friends, to make new friends, to pursue romance and sex, to promote themselves or their business, or simply because they can’t resist telling everyone everything about their life, people the world over are using social networks in ever increasing numbers and are likely to continue to do so.

Recently, sitting at a bar in Melbourne with my girlfriend, V, I realised that, despite being on holiday in another city, and despite doing a variety of different and exciting activities, eating great food, visiting galleries and museums, seeing quality exhibitions, going to a variety of cool bars and cafés – precisely the sort of thing people often tweet or update Facebook about – I had not once tweeted nor updated Facebook. For those of you out there who have never felt the urge to join Twitter or Facebook, this will all seem perfectly natural, yet for those of us who have been on social networks for some time, it’s the life-logging equivalent of a black hole.

I started talking to V about this as we sat drinking a most excellent local, cloudy cider in a new joint on Brunswick Street, and her first suggestion was that I didn’t feel the need to share everything because I had someone to share it with already – namely, her good self. This seemed to hit the nail right on the head, and it got me thinking that actually my waning interest in sharing such personal information and experiences was in large part due to being in a relationship. Was this really the sole, or, at least, principal reason? I doubted the former, but had to ask myself the questions: why, after all, did I join social networks in the first place, and what purpose did they serve in the present?

I suppose I got a taste for it from playing World of Warcraft. Despite only playing the game for a couple of months in mid 2006, the random connections with people the world over and my experience of the collective power of in-game Guilds was both eye-opening and intimidating. As a shy person, new to the game, I suffered the dreadful fear of being a noob and being seen to be such by other, more experienced players. Yet, shortly after joining, I realised that actually most people were pleasant enough and perfectly willing to help or give advice. I must have got lucky, I suppose, knowing in retrospect how many trolls inhabit the average game server these days. Either way, I came away from World of Warcraft loving the idea that I could connect with people the world over and have fun with them, even if the exchange was not necessarily meaningful. Being single at the time, living in a foreign city where I had as yet made few local friends, this was an attractive and easy way to have company.

It wasn’t long after this that I joined MySpace, to which I was introduced in late 2006 by work colleagues at the Corn Exchange theatre in Cambridge. My first inclination was to deride MySpace as a shameless vehicle for self-promotion and egotism, but reserving judgement publicly, so as not to risk having to eat my words later, I tried to be more open minded about it and soon found it rather inviting. What ultimately drew me to MySpace was, ironically, the shameless egotism of it. It seemed like a fun idea to have an online profile which somehow reflected the Me that I liked and allowed me to present myself to the world in what I considered a cool, flattering yet also slightly ironic, self-deprecating manner. I also joined because it enabled me to connect with my colleagues and have fun with them at work in a new and interesting way.

In truth, beyond these rather self-serving motives, I couldn’t see very much point to my MySpace page. After all, the people I was primarily connecting with were those I sat next to at work. I did, however, get a buzz from being able to be friends with He-Man, James Bond and Monkey among many others. Back then MySpace didn’t make it at all easy to customise one’s page, post a photograph, or anything for that matter. Indeed doing so involved copying long lines of code into the appropriate field, which required a MySpace code-generating program of some variety. I liked having a few friends on MySpace, and I enjoyed recruiting a couple of old friends in Australia in order to make contact with them easier and more fun, and yet, it didn’t actually make contact much easier. In fact, it was still easier to contact people via e-mail and most of my friends weren’t especially interested in setting up a profile. Fair enough.

Indeed, e-mail still remained the principal means of contacting my friends and family in Australia. I have written elsewhere about my diarising – having kept a diary and not missed a day since the age of 13 – and, as a writer, I always liked to try to entertain people by sending an occasional e-mail to my closer acquaintances, describing recent adventures. It served a dual purpose: putting my life into a narrative context, and, ideally, entertaining my friends and maintaining a dialogue with them.

The last of such group e-mails was sent earlier that same year, in 2006, and the following year I edited them as appropriate and posted them on this very blog. No doubt it would have been easier to start a blog sooner, and I probably should have done so years before, yet I still felt a desire to conduct the conversation in a more private manner, and also to try to keep, in my mind, the sense of unity amongst my friends – most of whom I was now very far away from. A group e-mail would often provoke a lot of responses and it felt like the nearest thing to seeing all these people at a party – something I could not otherwise do.

I can’t deny that the motivation to tell people what I was up to was also largely egotistical – something discussed in more detail below. Perhaps I needed people to recognise that I was living a good life, an adventurous life – no doubt largely on account of my innate sense of failure so far as my two chosen career paths were concerned – namely academia and creative writing. Yet, I’d always been a terribly loud person at parties who liked to entertain – was that due to some form of extroversion, or the explosive, drug and drink inspired bluster of the introvert? Either way, I had long wanted to be the entertainer in groups and tried to play that role, with, it’s fair to say, a degree of success.

I first heard of Facebook when I started dating an American geneticist who had been invited to join by many of her university colleagues in the States. Yet it wasn’t until after we had parted ways, around April of 2007, that my friend Georgina, who was also on MySpace – and World of Warcraft for that matter – told me after a brief trial that she found Facebook to be far superior to MySpace. Not only was it a great deal easier to create and update a profile, it was also far more interconnected than MySpace, with the ability to tag things and thus create hotlinks between profiles. This interconnectedness seemed, at the time, quite revolutionary, and I instantly took to Facebook like a duck to water. Once I was hooked, line and sinker, I fired off e-mails to everyone in my address book, inviting them to join. This recruitment drive was far more successful than my MySpace recruitment efforts, and, within a couple of months, the new arrivals having similarly spread the word, almost everyone I gave a shit about was on Facebook. There were, of course, a rare few who remained for a long time reluctant, and who still shun joining any social networks of any kind, and sure enough, I lost touch with them after that. Oops.

Once I had a large network of friends – and on Facebook, to begin with, I was only friends with actual friends – I found myself using the site constantly as a means of staying in touch. It was, of course, satisfying for many reasons – reconnecting with people, catching up on news, sharing something amusing and generating an entertaining discussion. It was also fortunate that the people in my age-group – mostly mid thirties – were mature enough not to participate in any trolling or bullying and so the interactions were almost universally carried out in a dignified and courteous manner. Though, of course, there was the occasional lewd and inappropriate comment to add some spice to the mix. It was also pleasing to see how many people got together back in Australia as a result of Facebook. I felt rather envious of their ability to hook up in person so easily, and in truth, it likely would not have happened without Facebook or another similarly easy to use social network coming along.

When I finally returned to Australia, I was certainly in a better position to catch up with people and knew how to get in touch with them. And this remains the very best aspect of Facebook: it is the ultimate address book. Whilst some people come and go, switching their profile off for a while, most people remain pretty firmly on Facebook. And even those who do turn off their profiles often seem to pop back on at some point and rejoin us. So, full marks for connectivity, and for ease of contact and access. These days the only e-mails I send are for professional reasons or to my parents, who haven’t quite made the leap into the ageing present, for better or worse.

So there I was in Melbourne wondering why I was no longer very interested in trying to entertain people on Facebook or Twitter, nor feeling any inclination to share my adventures and experiences. Had I finally begun to feel self-conscious about talking about myself in public? If so, why this… Or was it the nature and relevance of the information that was now being called into question?

The conversation with V. progressed through a discussion of various psychological motivations for social updates – most prominent of which being pure, unadulterated ego. There is no doubt that ego plays a very great part in our participation in social networks. We like people to think we are doing well and take full advantage of the fact that we can doctor the public image we present to people through media such as Facebook. We post images of things we like, because we want other people to think our taste is cool; we untag unflattering photographs of ourselves and post attractive ones because we want people to see us at our best. We tell everyone about what a wonderful lunch we had, what a cool restaurant we’re in, what a wonderful sunset we saw, and post a photo of it so people will think we are living an enviable life and either admire us or be jealous of us. We are proud of our likes and dislikes and wear them like badges on social pages. We assert our opinions because we think they are valid and that others ought to take note. Parents post photos of their children, even going so far as to change their profile shot to one of their child – something I personally find rather disturbing, after all, I’m not friends with the child and I’m not sure it’s appropriate – because they are proud and want everyone to tell them how cute their children are. Through all of this, I doubt very much that the desire is purely one of sharing beauty with other people in the hope of brightening up their lives, but rather it is largely about drawing attention to ourselves as the providers of beauty, wit, opinion and cool things generally.

Of course there are different levels of connection within all social networks and different means of communicating. The “wall” on Facebook is where the public discussion takes place, often very frankly about private issues, but mostly about trivial likes and dislikes or pleasant, but otherwise quotidian experiences, such as eating a good lunch or seeing a good movie. Behind the wall one can initiate a far more intimate conversation about things one genuinely wishes to keep private, and people usually reserve the message format for such purposes. No doubt most of us have had the experience of a public exchange on the Facebook wall leading to a private exchange to determine whether everything is okay after having inferred something from a comment. Equally Twitter allows one to conduct private exchanges with followers, yet the limitations of the 144 character format make it more difficult to conduct a profound discussion.

Not all our expressions on social networks are positive by any means. People very often use Facebook and Twitter to vent, whinge, or lament their circumstances; often in a good-humoured fashion, but also in an angry or unpleasant manner. I certainly have been guilty of this on occasions when the world has seriously pissed me off, or when I’ve felt especially low on account of some personal upset. Such venting will often result in sympathetic responses, but also in ominous silence.

Interestingly, research has shown that because most people post about positive, happy experiences on Facebook, people who regularly use social networking sites often have a more positive outlook on life because they believe that all the important people in their lives are happy and doing well. Equally, however, people prone to status anxiety or those who feel less successful can also experience strong feelings of inadequacy on account of the perception that everyone else is doing better than they are in life. Have you never had that feeling of “Fuck you for having a good time, I’m having a shit one, thanks for rubbing my face in it”? We don’t tend to post such things, but I strongly suspect many of us feel it more often than we are willing to admit.

Generally, however, as is the case with social relationships in all bonded groups in the animal kingdom, particularly amongst primates, the benefits of maintaining social networks far outweighs the negatives. It is why intelligent animals, including ourselves, invest so much energy and make significant sacrifices to maintain social networks. Sustaining a friendship requires a lot of effort – be it baboons grooming each other for extended periods of time, or attending a function we’d otherwise rather not go to.

Our efforts online mirror our real-world social efforts: by liking someone’s post, writing a complimentary comment, or simply “laughing” at a joke, we sustain the sense of unity, trust and like-mindedness just as we would by attending an after-works drinking session or turning up for a BBQ. In reality, most people are capable of maintaining a maximum network of about 150 friends – the so-called Dunbar’s number. This can be broken down to roughly 5 intimates, 15 best friends, 50 good friends, and 150 friends, with, of course, some considerable degree of flexibility according to social skills, gender and personality. It is very difficult for people to maintain more friendships than this, because the effort required is simply too great, and the net benefits diminish as the number grows too large to be economical and sustainable. We may have many more “acquaintances” such as local shop-keepers and colleagues or clients, and there may be an even greater number of people we “recognise”, but Dunbar’s number holds largely true as a relative maximum for most people. Research also indicates that roughly sixty percent of our social time is devoted to our five closest friends, which means the rest is very thinly spread indeed.

So, having said all of this, and having had so many positive experiences on Facebook in particular, why was I now feeling a sense of pointlessness, or even, embarrassment, at the idea of making a harmless, friendly, possibly amusing and entertaining social update? What, I wondered, was my relationship to these connective tools, to these interfaces? Had I shifted away from the spirit of sharing, entertaining and egotistical self-promotion to seeing Facebook as merely an interactive address book? How did I want to use Facebook and for what purpose? Did it matter?

In recent years, I’ve become something of a slacker at reading other people’s updates. I often don’t look at Facebook for days and then get a slightly guilty feeling that I’ve missed something important. And I have missed some seriously big somethings at various points – births, marriages and a whole bunch of special occasions. I long since switched off all the e-mail notifications and I often don’t check the Facebook notifications, so I miss a lot of event invitations in particular. Sometimes I don’t even notice that people have messaged me directly. Then, one day, with the aforementioned feeling of guilt, I’ll plunge into the Facebook log and like a whole lot of stuff, post a comment or two, before clearing off again without waiting to see if anyone replies. It never feels very sincere. It’s not that I’m not interested in what my friends are doing – I am in fact very interested, but I can’t pretend I’m interested in everything they’re doing, just as I hardly expect them to be interested in everything I’m doing. I’m just glad to see my friends happy and prosperous.

What surprises me when I do log in is just how many of my friends seem continually to inhabit Facebook. Some of them appear to be there all day everyday, liking, bantering, commenting, posting… Indeed, more often than not, Facebook resembles a crèche or parents’ club – indicative of my age cohort and demographic – which leaves me feeling conspicuously out of place for not having children. I wonder if this perception has contributed to my gradual retreat from Facebook. I certainly don’t harbour any feelings of negativity or resentment, I just feel a little out of place, and perhaps a tad unnecessary.

So why make a status update? Why tweet? Why tell people what I’m having for lunch and show a picture of it? As I’ve said, I’ve always been a diarist, an historian and a collector, and Facebook makes a great log of one’s life which is immensely satisfying as a repository of experience and communications. I’ve also long been writing creative fiction and non-fiction and taking photographs and I suppose there is an intrinsic inclination in nearly all artists to want to share their work – partly for the sake of recognition, but also certainly because it is pleasing when other people take pleasure in it – for their sake. It is nice to have touched their lives in a positive way and apart from feeling chuffed about my work, compliments always give me a feeling of having done something good and worthwhile.

I suppose it’s a combination of these two principal drives that encourages me to produce material for publication, yet I wonder if I have come to draw some sort of line between art and life. What is the difference between an arty photograph and a photograph of someone’s exotic-looking lunch? Is there a difference when posted on Facebook or anywhere else for that matter?

A part of me thinks that there is a difference, so far as what makes me feel comfortable. In recent times I have become less comfortable with providing purely personal information – where I’m at, what I’m doing, though I have no such qualms about publishing a collection of photographs with some kind of written narrative, or, indeed, posting a piece such as this. I’d like to think that the “art” or discussion is in some way educational, stimulating, provocative etc, just as this piece of writing might be in some way informative and educational. I don’t mean to suggest the photos I take or what I write is some worthy, lofty thing, or that I am in any way  superior to other people, it’s really about where I feel I ought to be putting my energies and what I consider a worthwhile form of expression. I guess I have lost the desire to be so open on a day to  day basis: where I’m drinking, what I’m having for dinner, what I’m listening to, watching or anything else for that matter, just doesn’t seem relevant to other people.

So, I’m left wondering, have I become boringly anti-social, have I drawn some unnecessary distinction between art and everyday life? I’m not sure, though I do feel less inclined to post purely social updates as I can’t shake the feeling that the only true motivation is to solicit attention, which seems somehow unworthy and makes me feel like a desperate fool shouting “look at me!”

So, sitting there at the bar in Melbourne, I was perfectly placed to check in on Foursquare, Instagram the bar, tweet about the cider and write a status update telling everybody just how bloody great a time I was having, except that, in reality, I was having far too nice a time and a good conversation to want to do any of that. My amazingly capable phone sat idly by, ready to help where necessary, but otherwise content to perform its basic functions of telling me the time and receiving calls and messages.

I suspect this stepping away from social networking is a phase. When I was single I continually inhabited the net, because I really wanted to make connections. I turned the Facebook instant messaging service back on, I put profiles on several dating websites and played the game hard, constantly instigating and answering e-mail conversations with prospective partners or bed buddies. Now, in retreat from unnecessary contact and communication – which is time-consuming and often undesirable – I feel somewhat reassured that my motive was not purely egotism, but the desire to find a cure for loneliness. Should I ever find myself single again, which I sincerely hope will not be the case, then I imagine I’d take up Facebook and Twitter again, along with other connective interfaces, with enthusiasm. For now, however, I need to find the motivation to do the bare minimum to sustain my existing friendships – which is challenging enough in itself!

ps. As a final irony, I’m now going to post this on Facebook and Twitter : )

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For someone who, like so many people, is obsessed with and totally dependent on the internet, I have been strangely resistant to it at various points. The first I ever heard of the internet, though I’m not even sure it was called the internet yet, was at my friend Mike’s house in 1992. He and his housemate Laughlin used to log into “Bulletin Boards” on their 386s, much to my annoyance, as the occasional seventeen-hour download prohibited playing linked death-matches of Doom II – a favourite pastime whilst smoking bongs and eating Lebanese takeaway. The only thing that got my interest back then was the mention of the word “porn”, which at the age of nineteen still afforded rare titillation.

During the following years I came increasingly to hear talk of the “internet”, yet it remained something seemingly obscure and unnecessary. What, really, was the point of it? If I wanted to contact someone, why not just pick up the phone? What information could it provide that I couldn’t get in the university library? I still shudder to think of my reaction to seeing, c. 1997, a web address listed beneath a film title in a cinematic trailer. All I could think was – Why the hell would anyone want to go to the web-page of a film? It all seemed rather pointless.

By the end of 1997, however, my stance on the internet had softened considerably. I don’t know exactly what brought about the change, but one day, sitting with my friend Stephen in the Psychology department at the University of Sydney, I asked him if I could send an e-mail my friend Gus. I had become curious enough and self-aware enough to realise that actually my resistance was a kind of knee-jerk jealousy born of my technologically backward state – I was still writing on my dad’s massive old 128k Hitachi HiSoft word processor, which dated from 1982. It’s fair to say, considering how primitive that word processor was, that I actually lacked a computer.

My excitement at Gus’ receipt of my e-mail seems ludicrous in retrospect, but within months I had set up a hotmail account – the very same one I still have – and my interest in the internet was born. I still resisted getting it at home, but regularly began to use the net on the university computers, almost exclusively for e-mail. This use of e-mail became obsessive when my then girlfriend moved to Cambridge at the end of 1998. By early the following year, we had broken up and I started seeing someone else who, heaven forbid, actually had the internet at home. I still recall the garishly colourful pages of the many Geocities sites she used to visit – back in a time when ICQ was all the rage.

It was only in September 1998, when I myself moved to Cambridge to study, that I finally got an internet connection in my room for the first time. The whole of Cambridge was already wired up with broadband and I was fortunate in having a very fast cable connection to my house. The internet of those days still retained much of the clunkyness of its infancy, with less slick and dynamic web-pages, and it lacked many of its now dominant staples such as Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, yet it had at least evolved into the great communication, ticket-booking, holiday-planning, information gathering tool that it remains today. It wasn’t long before I was utterly dependent on the internet and it became impossible to imagine living without it.

When I returned to Australia in 2003 I was shocked to discover that most people were on dial-up. I struggled for a while with my parents’ connection, but when I moved to a flat in Glebe – just a few doors down the road from where I now live – I eschewed getting the net. This was partly because most plans were both slow and expensive, but really it was because I was doing a Masters in Creative Writing and writing a lot and I was afraid that it would prove a major distraction. It was the right decision, and I don’t doubt that my huge output at that time, both in writing and photography, were in part due to not having my computer time interrupted by constantly checking the web. I had access all day at work and so could get most information I needed during those hours. Still, it was frustrating not having it at home, and I often regretted it.

What frustrated me most was the inability to have any question answered immediately when writing. If, for example, I wanted to set a scene in Kinshasa, as I was doing at the time for the novel I was then writing, I couldn’t simply Google images of the city, nor articles or blogs from which to get further insights. I could do this at work, but it was annoying having to wait to have a query answered and to get information as soon as the question entered my head. Again, however, there were advantages for productivity, as I was able to write for hours without distraction.

When I moved back to England in 2006, it became immediately apparent that living without the internet in a foreign country was simply untenable. Apart from wanting to stay in touch with people, the new novel I was writing seemed continually to throw up queries that wanted quick answers. Since reconnecting shortly after settling down again in Cambridge, I have never looked back and lived without the internet. This has, of course, been the mixed blessing I imagined it might be. The access to news, information and social media is of course, wonderful, but the amount of time consumed by surfing and the scale of distraction it can cause is breathtaking. When Facebook got my attention in early 2007, I was, for a while there, gone for all money.

I have since come to the rather spurious conclusion that I can’t in fact write without the internet, because I constantly like to check facts, details, definitions and the like. I know, however, that this is not quite true, and sometimes I still switch off the router when I need to have a very intense focus and work on something without interruption. It is worth mentioning that in 1997 and 1998 I read, on average, 120 novels a year. Now I average around ten. Shameful.

So all this brings me to the subject of smart phones. From the moment they appeared on the scene, I wanted one. I was terribly jealous of those people I saw sporting them and my friends who rushed out and got them, because of their ability to have their queries answered almost instantly. This capacity to Google anything at any time, reception permitting, was too exciting to dismiss – yet I dismissed it for some time.

I’m still not entirely sure why, though it was a combination of factors. There was my concern, having been a heavy MMO addict for some time, that a smartphone would just be another obsession. I spent enough time on the internet already – did I really need to be surfing whilst on the bus or train? And those journey times were, after all, my last bastion of dedicated reading time. I feared that if I had a fast internet browser in my pocket, I’d never read a book ever again.

Another reason was cost. I inflated this in my head as a barrier to acquisition, despite the fact that it would have only cost me five more dollars a week than what I was paying already on my pay-as-you-go dumb phone. It wasn’t so much the cost that I found prohibitive, but rather the idea of committing to a two-year plan and not being sure about where to start or what to commit to. If I was going to upgrade, after all, then I should want to do it properly, and yet I found the entire world of smart-phones to be dauntingly diverse. Where should I begin?

This leads quite naturally to the next issue I had – the fear of being a noob again. Nobody likes being a noob, let’s face it, although a truly exciting new pastime does allow for once-in-a-lifetime enthusiasm that cannot be sustained or recovered. I hated the thought of having a new phone and not knowing how to use it, almost more than I hated the idea of not having one and feeling materially and technologically backward and isolated.

This peculiar blend of not especially serious objections somehow teamed up to keep from getting a smart-phone for several years after their appearance on the market. Even when they had become utterly commonplace and were far cheaper and better than in their first flush – even then I resisted and opted out. And then, about a month ago, having witnessed for so long the convenience and utility of having access at all times amongst friends, I decided I couldn’t wait a moment longer and started looking.

It was worth the wait. After a few days spent researching the phones on the market, I had narrowed things down to a choice between the HTC Sensation, the iPhone 4S and a couple of Samsung Galaxy variants. During a lunchbreak at work one afternoon I began to ask around the various shops in town to see which networks had the best deals, when I discovered that the Samsung Galaxy S3 had been released that very day. There were a slew of good deals flogging this phone, with bonus data, plenty of credit and no upfront costs for the phone itself. I ran back to work to use the internet – an irony that wasn’t lost on me – and read as many reviews as were available of this new phone. I was astonished to discover just how well received it had been and, without further ado, signed up after work for a two-year contract.

Sure enough, I love my new phone. It is a beautiful piece of machinery, with a smooth, slim design and gorgeous screen. The quad-core 1.5 gig processor is almost laughable overkill – it’s so good it’s broken, and on wifi it absolutely rips. There’s little need to wax lyrical about the convenience and pleasure of having internet access at all times, suffice to say that it has already proven extremely useful. Sure enough, as predicted, I felt like a complete noob for several days, holding the thing very delicately and clumsily getting used to its features and inputs. I must shamefully admit that I have occasionally allowed my noobish enthusiasm to show in the company of others, but feel reassured that I haven’t become completely obsessed with my phone. I feared becoming hooked on using social apps such as Foursquare, that I’d be tweeting all the time and updating Facebook like I’ve not done since 2007, yet since getting it I’ve had little enthusiasm for such things. In fact, my use of the phone has been most satisfying for being informative – I’ve primarily been using it to read the Guardian and Al Jazeera on the way to work – which has, of course, cut into my reading time. And yet, I’m reading, aren’t I? Can I really complain?

And so, finally, the internet is in my pocket. It is a great leap forward, if a significantly delayed one. I cannot now imagine ever being cut off from the internet again, even during a bus-ride. Yes, I do need to know the name of that film I can’t remember – now, not later. Yes, I do need to have Google maps to guide me whenever I get lost. Why put up with a lack of information in a world where we can outsource both our memories and information gathering at a negligible cost?

The kids I teach after school, all aged between fourteen and sixteen, have never lived without the internet. They are often so immersed in it that they seem to have little contextual historical understanding of just how recent a phenomenon it is. A part of me shudders when they say – “But what did you do without the internet?” and it feels like an even bigger question that what did people do without the gramophone, cinema, radio, or television. I’m left wondering – “Holy shit. What on earth did we do?”

So much of my youth was spent agonising over not knowing the answers to things, wishing I could watch a video again, longing to learn about the world at large, wanting to hear a song or just know the name of something. The first port of call for general information was my father and mother, then the encyclopaedia. It was frustrating, especially as there was little control over the sources of information, without access to a world-class university library and hours of time at my disposal, and even that could not help with contemporary pop cultural information.

When I was eighteen, we used to talk about how great it would be if there was a place where we could get the answers to all our questions. My then girlfriend told us there were some guys on the radio you could phone called The know-it-alls.

“You just have to ring up and ask,” she said. “They can answer any question.”


“Dunno. They just know a lot of stuff. Maybe they use encyclopaedias.”

If they even existed, and you got through, during their obscure radio timeslot, you might just have had your query answered. Mmmm, well, thank fuck for the internet, which will not be leaving my pocket any time soon.

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I put the shirt back on the rack and gave it a last look of farewell. It was a tad loose around the middle and, being very picky about the cut and fit of a shirt, it hadn’t quite made the grade. Still, it was a Diesel shirt with a nice collar and cuffs and an arrangement of blue and maroon stripes on white which I rather liked. I decided to let it go.

I looked at the other shirt I was still holding. It was a perfectly respectable, blue, white and black striped business shirt – ideal for day to day use when teaching – the sort of boring, unadventurous, yet reassuringly generic shirt that allowed me to remain both anonymous and blandly appealing.

For years I’ve been trying to blend back into the modern world, after a long Indian summer of youth in which I rejected everything mainstream and uniform.

When, now more than a decade ago, it dawned on me just how unindividual self-professed individuals were – who proved, more often than not, to be far more image conscious than the cattle they derided – I came to understand that anonymity was, in everyday life, a blessing.

I put the second shirt back on the rack. After all, it was practically identical to another one I had at home, if slightly less attractive in its colouring and thickness of stripe. It did fit me perfectly, however – so well that my girlfriend, V, who was busily prowling through Vinnies with me, had remarked at its figure-hugging qualities when I emerged from the change rooms. I had gone in there with five shirts, hoping no one would be officious about the three-items only rule. The other three shirts occupied the same end of the spectrum as the two I’d ultimately selected, then rejected, and consequently they were now all reunited on the colour-coded rack.

I lingered a moment, asking myself once more whether I wanted these two shirts. Second hand, the two were a mere thirty dollars, yet without any urgent need, the purchase seemed frivolous unless I was utterly sold on the style and cut.

Vinnies, it is worth mentioning, is a chain of charity stores who recently rebranded themselves from St Vincent De Paul. It is also one of the greatest places to shop in the known universe. There are stores everywhere in Sydney and around Australia and their range of offerings is quite formidable. Some of the larger places do furniture, household goods and kitchenware, though many only have room for clothing, books, CDs, records and the like. What makes Vinnies so attractive is the sheer amount of stuff they sell. Inevitably, anything cool and retro gets picked out pretty swiftly by hipsters, nostalgics and various other subaltern fashionistas, but there is still plenty to choose from and every so often one gets extremely lucky.

Vinnies is especially good for business shirts, trousers and suit jackets. There are quite simply so many thousands of business shirts worn and tossed aside in the world that the average Vinnies store will have upwards of three or four-hundred to choose from. Many are at the extremes of size, and many are so awfully tasteless as to garner no consideration whatsoever. Yet somewhere in that horde there is usually a very fine garment or two waiting to be snapped up. One of my favourite places to shop is the Paddington store on Oxford Street. Owing to the very wealthy and decadent nature of the locals, this outlet regularly has high quality items on its racks. I recently purchased a fine blue and white striped Van Heusen business shirt – now a teaching staple – for a mere twelve dollars. When I got it home I noticed that it had a recent dry-cleaning tag on it. Only in Paddington would someone have a shirt dry-cleaned before donating it to the local charity shop.

Another great thing about shopping at Vinnies is the complete lack of attention from staff. They are certainly helpful when approached, but otherwise they leave you alone. As there is no hope of asking “do you have this in a different size?” or “will you be getting any more of these in?” it makes for a wonderfully free and aloof shopping experience. Another great plus is that Vinnies only sells second-hand goods, which is marvellous for the environment in a world which produces far too much of everything, irrespective of demand. This knowledge, however, is tempered by the sorry fact that people actually wore some of the dreadful things on the racks in the first place.

So, having rejected both shirts, I walked back to the counter where V. was purchasing a woollen jumper.

“I decided not to get the shirts,” I said.

“Oh, why? They seemed fine.”

“Yeah, I dunno. Just not sure I really need them.”

“But they looked very good on you.”

“Did they? Oh, thanks.”

“Yes, you looked good in them. You know, handsome and respectable.”

“Oh. Yes, but – ”

I hovered a moment at the counter. Thirty dollars was hardly a big ask, and it would add flexibility to my relatively limited wardrobe. As a clothing minimalist, I usually maintain no more than about four or five outfits – combinations to which I regularly return for their comfort, style, casualness, formality or climatic-suitability. I suppose at the very least, more shirts would add a little lee-way to the wash cycle.

“Okay, fuck it. I think I’ll get them.”

Sure enough, I walked back to the rack and collected both of the shirts.

Later that day, back at home, I noticed a small stain on the arm of the Diesel shirt I had purchased. My current fad is to soak everything in Napisan for twenty-four hours to remove the inevitable yellowing around the collar and armpits. Napisan works wonders, it must be said, and my shirts have never looked cleaner. I filled up a bucket with hot water, stirred in a capful of Napisan as directed, then preceded to soak the two shirts.

The following day, having put the shirts through the wash, then ironed them and hung them up to dry, getting ready to go to work, I took the Diesel shirt off the hanger and attempted to put it on. That something had gone horribly wrong was immediately apparent, for I could barely get my arms through the sleeves at all. What had, in the shop, been a size too large for me – a little ballooning around the middle, which I thought would be countered by wearing my favourite vest over the top – was now about three sizes too small. I managed to get my arm through one sleeve; pulled it around and forced my other arm through, but the tightness across the shoulders and chest were such that I could not do up the buttons!

I tugged and stretched the fabric as best as possible, yet it was quite firmly stuck in its new size and didn’t seem inclined to expand at all. I flexed, I pulled, I wrestled with this straight-jacket, and finally, after much effort, managed to do up the buttons. I knew already that I could not wear the shirt out, but hoped that if I wore it and flexed and moved about a whole lot, it might, given time, regain some of its former size. After all, it would ultimately be advantageous if the shirt finished up a little tighter than when I had originally tried it on.

I wore a different shirt to work that evening, and when I returned home after work, put the tight shirt back on and wore it round the house. I flexed, I stretched, I pulled, I bent, but to no avail. Not only was it uncomfortable, but it looked bloody ridiculous. And, I’m afraid to say, it still does.

The buttons strain across the chest, the sleeves hug my arms like a leotard, and whenever I move it rides high, popping open at the chest and sending the collar skywards like the headdress of the flying nun. Still, having spent so long deliberating over this purchase, having invested in it in this manner and feeling a certain fatefulness about the decision, I am determined to get the damned thing back to a wearable state. And so, for the last week, I have adopted it as my home shirt, to be worn as often as possible in the hope of loosening things up a little. It’s slow going, though I’m hoping ultimately to make some progress.

Having mentioned the saga of this shirt on Facebook, I’ve had a few tips as to what I might try. One friend, Sarah, suggested I go running in it. On Saturday evening, I did this – looking very silly indeed as I pounded around the streets of Glebe, my chest ready to burst out and my arms swinging robotically in the tight sleeves. On returning home, I took a long, cold shower, despite the winter weather, and stretched and flexed the fabric as much as possible. Having since hung it up to dry and attempted to wear it again, I found my efforts have made little difference in making this shirt wearable in public. Still, I hold out hope, and will continue to wear the shirt around the house. We’ll see who cracks first.

And so, by way of conclusion, I say to you people out there, check the washing instructions before stupidly assuming, as I did, that any shirt can be happily soaked in boiling Napisan. That is all.

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When I was a child, my favourite animals were tortoises. I was completely obsessed with them and went crazy over anything faintly tortoise or turtle related. All my soft toys were tortoises or turtles. Indeed, I had an entire family of stuffed toy tortoises, all of different design, gathered during my years as a toddler. There was the gigantic patchwork Papa Tort, the smaller yet still bulky bright red Mama Tort whom I won in a school raffle (organised by my mother and about which I’ve always been deeply suspicious), the less attractive and rather tatty Uncle Tort, and two younger tortoises, one named ‘Tootaloo’ – according to his label – and then, finally, Baby Tort. Together these formed the core of what my brother and I called the “Favourites” – in other words, soft toys.

My brother, on the other hand, was utterly obsessed with bears. He began with two excellent teddy bears, for which my mother used to knit jumpers, and then moved on to actual bears. Soft toy bears, that is, as we had two dogs and a cat and thus not enough room for a pet bear into the bargain. I’ll never forget his terrible sense of loss when one day our dog Poppy ate the bear my mother had brought him from Bern in Switzerland. It was made with real fur and to this day I shudder to think that perhaps it was made from bear fur, but am sure it must have been some other unfortunate animal who lost his hide. My brother’s discovery of the torn, slobbery remains sent a spear through his heart, and I hope that he has, after thirty odd years, recovered at last.

My tortoise obsession was such that I would almost certainly cry if anyone, in anyway, maligned tortoises. I remember my mother once told me what seems, in retrospect, a rather bad joke, but it went something along the lines of a Tortoise being sent to prison for “sticking his neck out.” On hearing this, and being of an age where it was difficult to divorce metaphor and wordplay from reality, I was utterly devastated and asked for days afterwards if that tortoise would be alright. Despite my mother’s reassurances that in fact she’d made the whole thing up, I never quite believed her and thought she was telling me this to stop me worrying about that poor tortoise in prison.

My tortoise collection never extended to the real thing sadly, so I had to make do with every other available manifestation of tortoises. One such was a number of small ceramic tortoises made for fish tanks. One day, I dropped one of these on the road whilst waiting at the bus stop, just as the bus was pulling into the kerb. I was saved from certain death by my mother, who restrained me as I tried to save the poor little tortoise. Unfortunately, the bus’s aim was good and after a pathetic crunching sound, all that was left was a pile of green-tinted dust.

Another of these ceramic tortoises was given by me to my father to take overseas on assignments. As a foreign correspondent who was often in warzones, or doing something ridiculously heroic like sailing around Cape Horn, we had cause to worry for his wellbeing, and naturally I thought a tortoise good luck charm would help. The great thing is that it did help, and my father managed to come back in one piece every time. So, for that matter, did the tortoise, and my father still keeps him as a travelling good luck charm.

This obsession with tortoises has stood the test of time and I retain my fondness for these curious, long-lived and fantastically ancient creatures. Yet, in my adulthood, I have come to take on a greater variety of animal totems who have, in soft-toy form, proved wonderful travel companions. These include platypuses, bilbies, rabbits and, of course, elephants.

My love of elephants also began during childhood, when I first saw these magnificent beasts at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. For a kid who, like every other kid on the planet, was totally obsessed with dinosaurs, the elephant seemed to be the nearest approximation to the lumbering beasts that filled the pages of my many dinosaur books. Watching the shuddering flanks of the elephants as they, admittedly forlornly, drifted around the then unimpressive compound gave me my first sense of what a dinosaur must have been like. Yet elephants were no mere second-rate sop for a real sauropod – rather, they were, in themselves, magnificent and curious creatures, with possible the most exciting appendage in the animal world. I had not yet seen the star-nosed mole, which, considering the appallingly lurid nature of its snout, is likely for the best. I’ve included one here for shock value.

That first experience of elephants was sadly poignant. I couldn’t help noticing that one of the elephants was swinging its foreleg bag and forth, and when I asked my father why this was, he told me it was because the elephant was used to being chained – the foot-swinging was habitual on account of its frustration. It was enough to break a small child’s heart.

Around the age of seventeen, my mother bought me a brass elephant key-ring. It took about two years before I adopted it, but I haven’t looked back ever since. That elephant key-ring has been everywhere with me in the last twenty years and not only do I dearly love it as my very favourite accessory, but hope to continue using it for the rest of my life.

Over the last few years, I’ve been fortunate in being able to see elephants on a number of occasions. Firstly, when visiting Bali with my brother, during which trip we visited an elephant resort and I took a ride on one of the elephants. Being able to get so close to so many elephants was wonderful, though I did have many reservations about the way they were handled and kept. Not that I witnessed or suspected any mistreatment of the elephants, yet these are cultured, social and highly intelligent animals who live in sophisticated extended family groups, and the idea of them being exploited in this way, however pampered they might be, left me feeling like a bit of a hypocrite for supporting the elephant tourism industry.

I had similar reservations when I visited an “Elephant School” outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Here at least the elephants had more open, natural terrain around them, including a great river in which they were regularly allowed to wallow and wash. Yet, the elephant talent show, in which they performed tricks, played soccer, lifted logs, sat on their haunches, danced and painted, filled me with such an odd mix of pleasure, pathos and pity that I was conflicted for days afterwards. During the show a young Italian woman was overcome with emotion – seemingly the product of outrage and pity at the humiliating nature of the performance – and cried out in protest. Clutching her face in her hands and shaking her head, she hurriedly fled the scene. Her raw emotion lifted the veil of harmless fun and from thereon the spectacle was coloured with macabre thoughts of the sinister nature of archetypal circuses. Still, having said that, having come all this way, I retained sufficient excitement at being in such close proximity to so many elephants to busy myself photographing them for several hours.

It must be said that the situation of elephants the world over  is certainly a sorry one. The regular killing of elephants throughout Africa has not only reduced their numbers significantly, but also destroyed the social harmony of elephant communities. The consequences of this have been, among other things, the animal equivalent of delinquency among young males in particular, who are growing up without the support and structure of a full herd with all its subtleties and complexities. The same could be said of Asian elephants, who are even more on the back-foot than those in Africa. In India, despite much love and respect for elephants, alongside much exploitation of the creatures for work and tourism, those poor beasts remaining in the wild are often forced to compete with humans for habitat and resources, and sadly, humans invariably win these disputes.

Without wishing to say a great deal more on this subject, I believe it is time we came to respect the cultures of certain of our mammal cousins by recognising their right both to territory and to an unmolested existence therein. There has been a movement in recent years to extend an animal variant of human rights to marine mammals, to protect their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We try, where possible, to respect the still extant primitive human cultures on Earth, though we fail dismally on this front. Surely creatures so sophisticated as to be self aware, have basic language with clear vocabulary, sing songs, talk in their sleep, have local accents and dialects, play with dolls, use tools and pass on culture to their offspring should be regarded in a similar light – as cultures that ought to be respected and protected. Not only should such rights be extended to cetaceans, but also to any other creatures who show similar levels of cultural sophistication. This would of course include all elephant and primate species. I’m not exactly suggesting they should have a seat at the United Nations, though, come to think of it, a representative for the Animal Kingdom might not be such a bad thing after all.

And so, on that note, here are a bunch of elephant photographs I’ve taken in recent years.

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I began writing this a couple of weeks ago, nearly finished, then ran out of time and have been altogether too busy to finish it until now.

This evening I will begin a new job providing additional English tuition to high school students in years nine and ten. I’ve spent the last few days doing a lot of reading and thinking in preparation, and I feel as though I am now ready to enter the classroom and give a good lesson. This doesn’t mean, however, to put it colloquially, that I’m not absolutely shitting myself.

Teaching might seem a strange choice of occupation for an introvert, and I often wonder why on earth I would choose to put myself through something so utterly nerve-wracking. In most jobs there is someone on hand to assist or give advice or to take over in the initial stages if there is some uncertainty about a task or procedure. In an office I could turn to my colleague and ask a question. In a call-centre, I can put my customer on hold, or escalate the call to a manager. Behind a counter, I could say “just a minute” and get some assistance. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that in most jobs there is someone on hand to guide one where necessary until one is fully confident of doing the job correctly. Not so, however, with teaching.

My first real experience of teaching, not including training new staff on a bar or usurping university tutorials, was back in 2006 when my old friend Chris hired me as co-lecturer for his Cambridge summer school on South African literature. Having recently returned to Cambridge after two and a half years back in Australia, I was in dire need of gainful employment – working in a pub and struggling to find a proper job. Chris was in dire need of a reduction in his workload and the solution of him hiring me dawned on us one afternoon when having a beer in Kings College.

I had not taught South African literature before, but I’d read a lot of J. M. Coetzee and had spent years at Cambridge talking with Chris about his work in sub-Saharan African and post-colonial literature. I’d also studied a lot of literature and literary theory both in my undergraduate degree and Masters in creative writing, so I felt confident I’d be able to interpret and present the material, once I’d read it and familiarised myself with it. Herein, I learned early on one of the great lessons of teaching. So long as you are one step ahead of the students, everything will be fine, for you already know more than they do about the subject. Still, I was terrifically nervous and apprehensive, largely because these students were clever kids from California, and I was afraid that they might just possibly be one step ahead of me.

Ultimately, I did just fine, but I was awfully nervous in the classroom and spent the whole time sweating and fretting, fearful of the pauses in discussion and desperately thinking about where to go next. The first time I took the class by myself, I was so on edge that one of the students asked me “Are you always this nervous?” Despite highlighting my predicament, this comment actually helped me to relax, as I could thus get it off my chest that I have a terribly nervous disposition and tend to feel rattled when expected to perform in front of strangers. Once I get comfortable with them, however, I become very gregarious and switched into a far more extroverted, performative mode. I knew this to be the case with me socially, but at the time I didn’t know it to be so when teaching. I hoped then that things would pan out in this fashion, and was thus very pleased when they finally did. By the time the course was finished, I was far more relaxed and confident in my interactions with the students.

A couple of months after returning to Sydney in 2008, I got a job teaching English as a second language with a private college in the city. The school, where I am still teaching as one of three current jobs (!) uses the Callan Method, which, for better or for worse, is a method based almost entirely on speaking, as opposed to study and technical instruction. In a nutshell, the teachers ask students questions, then prompt them through the answers; the philosophy of the method being that the more students speak and make mistakes, they will not only be better at pronouncing words correctly, but will also lose their fear of speaking and making mistakes. That’s all very well, provided they don’t merely switch off and parrot the teacher, without actually thinking about the content of their answers.

Over the last four years, I’ve seen some students really benefit from this style, and others not at all. It’s difficult to pin down whether or not the method or the students’ application is to blame, but I suspect it’s a combination of both. The Callan Method is certainly dated in its approach and techniques, and the books are in desperate need of modernisation, but the rote nature of the speaking seems to suit many of our largely Japanese and Korean students, who want as much speaking practice as possible and who often prefer a more drill-based teaching style.

So it was that, after a week of training, I was sent into the classroom, unsupervised, to teach my first lesson. It’s difficult to describe the intensity of fear and nervousness that I felt upon entering, but the expression “my bowels turned to water”, probably best sums it up. Fortunately, there were no mishaps on that front, but I lost several kilos that week through anxiety, which suppressed my appetite and, quite literally, gave me diarrhoea. The anxiety was largely due to fear of not being able to answer a question authoritatively and explain things adequately. I was also worried that I would stumble and lack the flow that the experienced teachers had, who were more familiar with the material. When I feel compromised in front of a group of people, and am put on the spot, I tend to flush bright red and sweat a lot, and even the smallest error or uncertainty can bring this on.

It took a long time for me to adjust to teaching in this new job. I was nervous for weeks, indeed, months, largely because the job continually presented new challenges. Trying to explain what an auxiliary verb is to a person with next to no English is a difficult task. Try explaining the idea of a “cause worth dying for” to someone with a very limited vocabulary, and you might see what I mean. There were, quite literally, thousands of such brain-bending moments, and even after I’d mastered the art of explaining a particular concept, grammar rule or idiom, there would always be slow students who never actually got it at all. It took months to get used to exactly what words I could deploy in explaining things, according to their level of vocabulary, and some words are not easy to explain. Take “happen” for example. It seems innocuous enough, but its best synonym is either “to occur,” or the phrasal verb “to take place”, and really, it’s not worth going there at a beginner level. Of course, the best resort is demonstration, as is the case with most words and situations, but this then requires the correct performance, an act of theatre, and a responsive audience with a good faculty for interpreting such a performance.

It took me at least six months, possibly as long as a year, before I lost all fear of entering the classroom. Only then did I feel completely and utterly confident that I could explain, via language, dance, theatre, diagram, graph or sheer fluke, everything I needed to explain. For the last few years I’ve had no qualms whatsoever about teaching any of the material, with the exception of a few real mongrel words like “abstract”, “justice”, “even”, “despite” and the like. Thank the mother of invention for electronic dictionaries.

And so, just last week, I had a successful interview and got another teaching job. This was a great score in that they pay four times more than my other school and the material is far more interesting – poetry, narrative theory etc. I must say, I’m very impressed by the difficulty of the material with which these year nine and year ten students are presented. It’s so long ago since I was in high school, that I find it almost impossible to remember the nature of the curriculum at that age, but I don’t recall it being quite so academic in its language, nor pitched so high.

My nerves don’t come from fear of not being able to handle the material, though that is a small component, but more from a fear of the technicalities of classroom procedure: the timing of the delivery of the material in our textbooks, the use of the projectors and various databases of resources, and the method of teaching itself. Much of my anxiety also derives from the fact that I will be teaching teenagers, whereas I’m used to teaching young adults, mostly in their twenties. I suspect it will take some time to adapt to their level of vocabulary and contextual understanding of the world, history, and literature. Also, I am used to students who have chosen to be there, whereas most of my students will be there because they are struggling with English and their parents have sent them. Having said that, from my class observations so far, the students seem generally to be a good bunch of kids who respond well to kindness and attention.

Ultimately, however, my biggest fear is that I will look nervous and lack confidence in both my delivery and my handling of the students. I know from four years of teaching experience that I will be absolutely fine once I’ve done this a couple of times. I doubt I will suffer for as long as I did when I started teaching The Callan Method, and it is really the first lesson that I fear the most. Indeed, on Saturday night, I became so overwhelmed with fear of the moment when I first enter the classroom that I felt short of breath and got a raging headache from the cold that gripped my body as the blood drained away. I have, for the last few days, been fluctuating between this cold fear and hot flushes. The worst case scenario is to enter the room and either faint or completely seize up and not know what to say or do. It would be a terrible way to begin a new job and my relationship with the students, whom I will have all term, would suffer.

There are, of course, many ways I can try to reassure myself. I have a lot of teaching experience now, I’m an adult, and school children generally expect authority and professionalism from teachers. They will likely be more afraid of me! It’s also true that I have not only prepared extensively for these particular lessons, but I have, in effect, been preparing for them for almost twenty years. I know, and I say this not in a boastful way, that I generally do things well when I really apply myself to the task, so I ought to be confident that I will also nail this job. Yet, the thing about fear and anxiety is that it is not rational, and no amount of reassurance will stop the heart and mind from quivering with fear of failure. Were it any other job or situation where I could ask for assistance, then I might be less fearful, yet the thing with teaching is that one does it alone and is expected to have complete command of the situation.

Either way, whilst I’m sure it will all go well, I suspect I’ll be shedding a few more kilos on the job. I hope I can summon the confidence with which I now stride around the classroom in my other teaching role, where no one would suspect that I was nervous in the slightest. I do very much enjoy teaching, yet it is, perhaps, an odd choice of profession for someone whose worst fear is to stand in front of a group of strangers and perform.

By way of a post-script, I’m pleased to report that not only did I not faint, but my first two classes went off perfectly well, and sure enough, the confidence I have from my previous teaching experience, came flooding back as soon as I’d gotten through the first, slightly awkward five minutes. After my second week, I now have no fear of teaching these classes at all and am both enjoying the job and looking forward to presenting the material in the courses. Woot!

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